I looked up and smiled brightly from the pad I was trying to write on. I was not ok. Each time the coach steered around a new bend I felt a fresh wave of nausea roll over me.
My booking sheet told me this was ‘Simon and his 4 sons.’ Sitting across the back row of the coach were 4 boys between 20 and 29, with Dad on the end. He seemed like a nice man, sturdy, didn’t smile much but he’d spawned four sons so I figured he was probably a softy on the inside.
All eyes were currently on me – most likely because I was turning greener by the second.
“So how would you like to pay then?”
I looked up and tried not to vomit. I had turned myself around in the seat in front to face them, something I was now deeply regretting.
He looked at me kindly..
“Sophie – I think you need to go to the front of the coach...”
I mutely nodded thank you and made me way down the aisle, trying exceptionally hard not to sit on any of my customers laps as we hurtled around another hairpin bend. I’d been up since 4am, I was green, sweating, wearing a Christmas pudding beanie hat and trying not to vomit on people as I tried to sell them a lift pass.
It was the 24th December 2016, and this was a truly fantastic start to my job, and an even better start to Christmas.
Christmas is a funny one isn’t? I’ve had some good ones over the years - and some pretty awful ones too. My childhood was idyllic with myself and my cousins even getting an annual surprise visit from Santa on Christmas Eve (a tipsy Uncle Jim in a Santa suit). Through my twenties I waitressed, which often involved working through Christmas, and when I was 23 I worked all through as a receptionist in a depressingly deserted hotel. I promised I would never do that again unless I had too, and I now see not having to work over Christmas as a complete and utter luxury.
Last year was different from all of them; my Grandad went into hospital on the 23rd December and died a week later. I wasn’t especially close to him, but the sadness it brought on my family was only amplified by the noisy pressure of ‘Christmas Cheer’ - and it gave me a fresh reminder of how hard Christmas can really be for some of us.
I saw Simon and his 4 sons a couple more times throughout their holiday, once because we were eating in the same restaurant, and then again when there was a rather embarrassing blip with the lift passes, resulting in everyone getting stuck in lift queues and being sworn at by their impatient french fellow skiers.
Then something happened. A week later, on the journey back to the airport, one of the 4 sons appeared at my shoulder asking if he could sit at the front of the coach.
He was feeling sick and needed a clear view and a vomit bag. I shuffled along, gave him a plastic bag and let him sit down beside me. His name was Sam and we got chatting.
He was in his second year of uni and wanted to know how I’d ended up doing this job. I told him I’d just graduated and didn’t fancy growing up yet so thought I’d run away to the mountains - even if I was nearly 30.
‘What did you study?’
‘oh wow…I..yeh..thats really good!’
There was a pause, it wasn't an answer i'd expected from a 20 year old.
‘I…yeh I had a rough year this year. I actually saw a counsellor and she really helped me..It was great.’
That’s great, yeh it can be really good!.’
‘Yeh……my mum died this year and I didn’t know what to do.’
‘Im so sorry to hear tha- the bag!!! The bag!!!.’
He vomited. Luckily in the bag, but I was suddenly shaken out of my grumpy customer resentment. His family had come away skiing because this would be their first Christmas without their mother. My heart broke a little and suddenly ‘Surly Simon’ (as I’d mentally nick-named him) didn’t seem so surly anymore.
Its an obvious thing but we forget it all the time. We never really know what people are going through even if on the surface it looks like they’re just swanning about on a fancy skiing holiday and being all uppity with the rep.
A few days later I received my first feedback form from my Christmas customers.
‘Sophie, although completely lovely – was also completely incompetent.’
Maybe it was a little harsh but lets face it, he had a point. However there was no way I could be mad at him. I couldn't even begin to imagine how painful this Christmas must have been for his family. I only hoped the ‘vomitting rep’ had given them something to laugh about when they got home.
If the last thing you’re feeling is festive, then please know that you are not alone. Being all merry whilst drinking your eyeballs out covered in glitter is often the last thing many of us feel like doing during the most tiring month of the year. Aside from the death of a loved one, Christmas can be such an emotionally triggering time for pretty much all of us. In highlighting what we have, it also highlights what, or who, we've lost, and the pressure to curate a perfect Facebook-friendly Christmas despite all of this can be overwhelming.
Very few people ever have that 'perfect' Christmas, yet the explosion of social media posts of reunions in cuddly groups, pictures of families in matching pyjamas, more #blessed posts than anyone really wants to see - and of course those dreamy ski holidays - can often lead us to think otherwise.
Real-life doesn't stop because its Christmas and I know several close friends who will be feeling losses, a whole bunch of people who will be working, who have financial worries, health concerns, families that are feuding and those who just couldn't make it home. And for me, sleeping in my childhood bed at 30, even if it is Christmas, often triggers all sorts of feelings of failure - of which I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in either.
I have a fab family that ticks all the cliché boxes on the outside, but I can guarantee there will be at least two (probably 3) blazing arguments on Christmas day and I'll be constantly dodging comments on how I’m going on far too many holidays for someone so 'unaccomplished'. But whatever. There will be nothing perfect about it, but this year I haven’t been fired, I don’t have a terminal illness, I haven’t lost anyone close to me and I’m not currently half way up a mountain, in charge of a coach, trying not to vomit on innocent holiday makers - so I feel pretty lucky.
In the end, Christmas is about remembering what connects us, rather than what separates us. If you do suddenly feel the creeping wash of inadequacy or shame coming over you, please remember you're not alone; everyone is struggling, everyone is missing someone and everyone is a little scared. No-ones Christmas is ever a perfect as it looks, and absolutely *everyones* familyis just a little bit weird.