Gary’s eyes welled up and his bottom lip began to tremble. He stared at the present in his hands, held atop a heap of crumpled wrapping paper.
Nobody else had noticed it yet. The room was still a cacophony of surprised yelps, polite laughter and mock-complaints, as Gary’s colleagues all opened their Secret Santa presents together.
But one by one, their voices became silenced in horror. The chatter of warm, jokey banter had been replaced by nervous murmurs and shocked gasps as each member of the office gradually caught sight of what Gary was holding.
His hands were shaking now. Tears were cascading down his reddened face. He held up the white t-shirt he’d just unwrapped, unfolding the chest enough for everyone to see exactly what was printed on it, in block capitals:
Gary looked up at his colleagues through sodden eyes, seeing nothing but a wall of confused and horrified faces. He scanned the crowd but everyone had the same look of utter shock. Not a single person grinning knowingly or shifting guiltily. Each person as appalled at the next.
Gary’s manager, Pat, opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out - his mouth just opened and closed like a fish, the sheer awkwardness of it all sucking the words from his throat. He began to stammer some vowels, but it was too late. Gary leapt from his seat and ran out of the office in tears.
Everyone just stood in silence. They were stunned.
As well they might be. After all, who would do such an awful thing? Everyone knew how sensitive Gary was about his weight. Sure, he’d never said as much, but you could tell. The way he’d started bringing only salads in for lunch each day. The baggy clothes he’d wear on Casual Fridays. His pained face whenever someone brought a birthday cake into work. He wasn’t exactly obese - at least not morbidly so - but he had let himself go after the divorce and it had clearly been bothering him.
This wasn’t a bad place to work, either. The people were, by and large, nice people. Decent folk, rarely with a bad word to say about anyone else. Everyone got along famously, always going along to each other’s parties, always having a laugh outside of work. Sure, Gary was one of the quieter, less sociable members of the office, but he was by no means disliked. This just didn’t make sense.
A couple of people followed Gary outside, attempting in some way to console the poor guy. Meanwhile, inside the office, the anger and the recriminations began. Who the hell thought that was at all funny? Who could be so mean-spirited, so spiteful and hate-filled? Pat started to address the office as a whole, demanding to know the culprit, but he was quickly drowned out. People shouting at each other, accusing each other. A couple of people were in tears at the stunt, while others prowled back and forth: hoping to identify the merest glimmer of guilt from the eyes of those around them. A few people thought they had a good idea of the suspect, but their speculations served only to draw furious responses from the accused. The atmosphere was soon poisonous.
In the end Pat had to send everyone home for the day. Things just got too heated - a couple of the lads from Sales almost came to blows and had to be restrained. Nobody owned up to buying Gary the horrible t-shirt, and everyone left distrustful and suspicious of each other.
Gary had a week or so off work. It didn’t seem right to expect him back too soon, knowing that some properly evil arsehole was working alongside him, right under his nose. This was how Pat saw it, anyway. He told Gary to take as much time as he needed.
When Gary did return to work, the vibe in the office was nerve-shredding. A couple of people took him to one side to express their anger and horror at what had happened. Promising him they’d find out who did it. Assuring him that nobody thought he was a... well, you know. Most other people just found it too awkward to talk to the bloke. Seeing a grown man cry like a child can sometimes do that to you.
In the long term it seemed the rest of the office were worse affected than Gary. Relationships were ruined over all the accusations and suspicions. A few people got formal warnings for their behaviour on that day - hardly a surprise with all the shouting and swearing that went on. Yet nobody ever found out who bought the t-shirt. No confessions, no evidence, nothing. Nobody had a clue.
Except for one person.
Because three weeks before, when Rose in Accounts had gone around the office with the bag of names? When she had come over to Gary’s desk and asked him to close his eyes and pick a name from the bag?
He’d managed to pick his own name.
He was meant to put it back and pick a different one if that happened. But he didn’t. He stayed silent. He folded up the small piece of paper and put it in his pocket, smiling at Rose as she moved on to the next desk.
Now, as he sat at his desk, surrounded by a palpable atmosphere of awkwardness and embarassment?
He was absolutely pissing himself inside.