SATSUMA - It's been a while since anyone's seen Ballsy looking this relaxed. Mixed fortunes as education secretary maybe, but he makes a great Santa. "Ho ho ho. And what are you hoping for this Christmas?" he unwisely asks a union rep. "Job security, you clumsy windbag," she growls, looking pretty non-festive despite the tinselly antlers. "Ho ho ho" says Ballsy, more uncertainly. "I'll pass on your concerns to my little elves. And in due course, obviously, consult the electorate. Have a satsuma for now."
IMPRESSIONIST - To the function room of the Absence Firkin for our Christmas lunch. It's a reunion, too - our old colleagues Max and Caz are there. Now he's working for a PFI literacy provider, Max has turned into something of a dandy. Three-piece suit, pocket watch, Moleskine notebook and fountain pen set, monocle. Talk about over-punctuated. He's talking earnestly to an anxious Owen, who's clutching his lucky Sonic Screwdriver and blinking a lot. I tell Sandra I think Max is putting a job proposition to him. Sandra corrects me, sounding haughty. "Or possibly a *preposition* my dear old thing. I before E except I can't see, pip pip..." She's a bit drunk and wearing Max's monocle.
FAITH OFF - Caz's new job at the Dawkins Institute for the Suppression of Faith has apparently made her allergic to Christmas. She won't even have a paper hat on in case she accidentally validates centuries of superstition. We urgently need to get her pissed. After a few Evolutionary Tequila Smartbombs she leans forward, and slightly sideways, and warns us that her people are planning an evangelical push next year against RE. "Look, sorry. It means we'll be on opposite sides. We're following the lead of the environmental lobby. Calling for a 10 per cent reduction in schools' Delusion Footprint." I tell her not to worry, the think tank's going to be wound up early in the new year anyway.
TIMELESS - And right there, in the middle of all this festive gaiety, it hits us. Sandra and I look at each other and confront the Big Thing. We've been in denial for ages, but to be honest our exit strategy was actually confirmed in some detail months ago when Scary Paula said she was WINDING UP THE THINK TANK. Shortly before she herself left under a cloud of misdemeanour. Half-hearted attempts to join forces with the Shadow Futures Delivery Taskforce or form a freelance outfit aside, we've planned NOTHING. We need to think...
SILENT NIGHT - The whole room suddenly goes quiet. There by the door stands Scary Paula, a terrified slip of tinsel pinned to her lapel. "Merry Christmas!" she calls out, then spots Caz. "And God bless us, every one!" Inchworm.