The Next Christmas
Ian’s ex-flatmates arrive while he’s out. I can’t help thinking their timing isn’t coincidental. Seb confirms it the moment I open the door, Patrick mouthing a silent, “Sorry,” from behind him.
Seb’s much less apologetic. If anything, he’s as icy as London feels this close to Christmas. “Right,” he snaps. “I need a word.”
“A word?” I offer him one that comes to mind each time I see him. “How about terrier. You know, like the dogs. A little Jack Russell, maybe?” I make a few more suggestions, my tongue firmly in my cheek because, terrier or not, Ian loves him. “Yappy’s another good one. Or maybe, snappy?”
Patrick’s a man of few words, but he offers Seb one of his own. “He means you’re tenacious, babe.”
I can’t help laughing as I back up to let them inside. “Relentless, too.”
Seb doesn’t find me funny. “I didn’t come here to expand my vocab.” He huffs his way out of his jacket, which Patrick hangs for him. “I meant that I wanted a private word with you while Ian isn’t here.” He freezes. “He isn’t here, is he? He’s still out on a shoot?”
Those questions come with a crack in his voice. With a crack in his ice too. I catch a glimpse of the same wide eyes that feature on the lock screen of Ian’s phone when Seb turns to Patrick. For reassurance, I realise, which Patrick offers. “Go on and tell Guy what’s been on your mind lately. What’s been getting in the way of you enjoying your time with Ian. Because it is getting in the way, isn’t it?”
Seb nods slowly at first. Then he nods faster.
Patrick nods too. “Get it off your chest so you can let it go once and for all. You’ll feel so much better.”
Their dynamic is fascinating.
Ian’s told me so many stories of how these two very different personalities slot together, but hearing Seb ask, “You really think so, Pat?” with his voice wobbling, brings it to life.
“Yeah,” Patrick promises. “I do.” He meets my gaze over Seb’s head, doing something else that Ian’s also mentioned. Not by issuing the kind of challenge I might expect from someone who could bench-press me without breaking a sweat. No, Patrick challenges me by setting a high bar for kindness. His gaze doesn’t waver as he makes Seb a promise. “Once Guy knows you’re worried, he’ll definitely want to listen.”
“Worried?” That does get my attention. “About Ian?”
Seb’s gaze skitters between us before it settles on the same framed photo that Ian touches each time he leaves our flat or comes home.
I don’t know what Seb sees in that poolside image but it must be important because the switch in his stance reminds me of a terrier all over again, so much braver than the bigger dogs he runs with. “Yes. I am worried.” He straightens, giving himself an extra half inch of height. It only makes him seem slighter and somehow more fragile, despite what he says next. “That’s why I came while Ian isn’t here because someone’s got to stand up for him.”
Stand up for Ian?
That lands like a punch.
“There’s really no need.” There isn’t. I’m on Ian’s side, not against him. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to spend the rest of my life letting him know that. Showing him too. And I’d do far more than that if Ian forging his own path didn’t matter so much to him. I’d make his life so easy, and love every single spoiling-him-rotten moment, if he let me.
Seb’s body language suggests he isn’t convinced. He crosses his arms, his face pinching, and I’d be tempted to claw my hands like the monster he must think I am if it wasn’t for the way Patrick watches, solemn and silent. He models how to take Seb’s concerns at face value, so I do too, nodding as Patrick rumbles, “Can you tell Guy why you’re worried?”
The same wide eyes as on Ian’s lock screen meet mine, only I don’t see the frozen sprite he captured surrounded by Christmas snow flurries. It’s a good friend who looks at me. One who’s truly worried. That sucks the wind out of my sails. I’m speechless when Seb confesses.
“I’m worried because I told Ian to go ahead and bang another bastard. I was joking about the bastard part. Now I’m scared shitless that I was wrong.”
Patrick asks another question before I can splutter a denial. “Can you show Guy why that’s started to worry you lately?”
Seb nods then points a finger, only he doesn’t jab it at me. I see it shake before he taps the edge of that poolside photo. And forget him being snappy, that tremor grabs my attention.
“This is the very first thing Ian sees every time he comes back to what should feel like his home.”
Should feel like his home?
Seb’s gone before I can say that. He heads for the dining room, pointing at a wall of photos documenting so many good times in this flat over the years. Photos that, now I think about it, Seb also stared at the last time we shared a meal in here. His finger doesn’t shake as he jabs it at those mementoes as if they’re evidence in a court case. He also sounds much firmer. “These can’t help him feel at home either.”
Seb’s next stop is the living room. We follow him there to find him gesturing at the movie posters Duncan gave me each Christmas. “And these. There’s so many. There can’t be any room left for Ian here, can there?”
Room for Ian?
I’ve been to their flat where bikes and barbells compete with laundry for space. Patrick must guess I’m about to make that comparison. He speaks again before I can do it.
“Seb doesn’t mean in terms of size. This place is massive for central London.” Patrick makes some space of his own as he continues, lifting an arm that Seb wedges himself under. “It’s what this flat is still full of that worries you, Seb, isn’t it?”
Seb’s chest inflates as if he needs to take a deep breath before explaining. It deflates just as quickly when Ian speaks from the doorway.
Ian's home early enough to have overheard us. Him asking, “You mean Duncan, don’t you?” confirms that. “You’re really worried the flat is full of reminders of him?" He smiles. "You don't need to be, you muppet. Not even a little.”
He unwinds his scarf—my scarf—and crosses the room to kiss me hello. The touch of his lips is brief like his smile. His lips are December cool but they still warm me in a way I’d forgotten a casual hello or goodbye could do when it’s from someone special. It makes me want another kiss from him, which he must notice.
“Later, if you’re good,” he murmurs. “Or if you’re bad,” he promises quietly, and my heart swells the same way it does every time I’m reminded that love can strike twice like lightning.
Ian confirms that too by facing Seb and Patrick. “These posters don't mean I feel excluded or that this place doesn't feel like home to me.” His focus switches to me. “Did you tell them that you offered to sell up so we could start over somewhere neutral?”
I shake my head.
“How about your offer to redecorate this place from top to bottom? To turn it into a blank canvas for me?”
Seb interrupts. “I’m not saying that Guy shouldn’t keep reminders…” He scrubs at the back of his neck, caught between a rock and a hard place, empathy perhaps warring with the desire to stand up for someone he cares for. Because that’s where this agitation must come from, but Seb hasn’t seen what I have since Ian moved in with me.
Ian goes ahead and shows him.
He starts with the posters that had tickled Duncan’s sense of humour. They'd tickled Ian’s too, once he spotted a connection that he now points out to his friends. “I know these movies are old. I haven’t seen any of them, but once I saw the same link between them that Duncan must have, they cracked me up. Can you see what we both noticed?”
His ex-flatmates study the posters Duncan gave me, and it takes a moment but Patrick snorts before stifling his laugh.
I sigh, and Ian’s hand finds mine, squeezing as he helps out Seb.
“It’s the noses,” Ian tells him. “That’s Barbra Streisand. My mum loves her. And that’s Meryl Streep. And this…” Ian crosses the room to his favourite poster, tapping the glass. “This is Gérard Depardieu.” He points at the movie title. “He played the lead in an old version of Cyrano de—”
Seb finishes for him. "Bergerac!"
We must all hear the shift in his tone because I didn’t realise Patrick was tense until he relaxes. It's another fascinating insight—Seb reverting back to his usual terrier mode really does it for him.
Seb heads out to the hallway next, his voice echoing, and I don’t need to see which photo he’s returned to. “That’s where this pool is, right? In Bergerac.” He comes back. “Duncan bought a house there for you. But why—”
Ian gets out his phone. “Because look what comes up if you Google who is Bergerac famous for?” He shows them a picture I’m all too well aware of.
“Wow,” Seb says. “That looks just like—”
I’m surprised by Patrick’s hand landing on my shoulder as if offering consolation, his expression back to worried, only this time it’s aimed at me instead of his flatmate.
I realise why and reassure him. “Duncan wasn’t laughing at my nose. He loved it. God knows why, but apparently some people can’t resist my profile.” Ian’s a member of a select club that’s only ever had two members.
I watch Ian wink, his eyes merry in another reminder of someone he couldn’t differ from more, and yet who also made me happy. Ian sobers next as he switches his focus to Seb. “There’s no way I’d want Guy to get rid of these or put them away. Not when…” He meets my gaze again, his focus so pointed it finds my heart and jabs it. “Not when I know they were all he had left when he was alone here.”
Maybe it should feel awkward to have an audience for the way Ian comes back to cup my jaw, especially when Patrick’s still right beside me. Seb joins him so he also hears what Ian murmurs. “I imagine all of the Christmas mornings you shared here, and can picture the look on your face when you unwrapped each poster. Can see you rolling your eyes, and I can almost hear this man, who I never met, laughing. He gave you so much shit, Guy.”
“Daily.” I clear my throat. “Every chance that he got.”
“For years. And you loved it. So, thinking that I’d want to get rid of them?” Ian asks, his voice low and gritty, each word sounding punctuated. “That’s never going to happen.” He lifts an arm that Seb slides under, and directs his next question at him. “Do you get it now?”
Seb looks as if he wants to nod. His gaze darts in the direction of the dining room first, which Patrick interprets.
“Show him, babe. Get it all off your chest, yeah? Ian won’t mind. Guy either. Because he isn’t a bastard, is he?”
This time, Seb leads us back to a wall of photos featuring someone who would have loved his prickly edges. Who would have made space at his table for him, and played matchmaker because, Lord knows, Ian's tried, and yet these two are still oblivious.
Love is right there in Patrick's starry eyes when Seb says, “These photos weren’t here when you moved in, Ian. Then all of a sudden, they were. So many photos of Guy and Duncan, and I worried how that must make you feel.”
“Happy,” Ian tells him. “Because yes, Guy had them all on his phone, but I’m the one who printed them and put them up so he gets to enjoy them.” He repeats what he told me when I came home to find him and Robin armed with picture hooks and hammers. “Meals together make the best memories so why hide them?” He issues another challenge to Seb. “Look closer.”
Seb does, moving from photo to photo before stopping. “Oh. That’s us.”
It is, a shot of all of us at a Moroccan restaurant sharing food and laughter.
Patrick says, “We’re over here too, babe.” He’s found another photo taken on a beach where we ate Cornish pasties, my nose pink with sunburn.
Ian isn’t a loud man like that wanker, Lito. He doesn’t demand attention either, like the only real bastard we both know, but, by God, when he speaks, I listen.
Seb must do too. He nods as Ian tells him, “There’s plenty of room here. For me. For Duncan. For Guy, and for everyone we love, which is good.”
Ian meets my eyes and I see my future. I hear it too when he makes a promise.
“Because we’re just getting started.”
I thought about these friends sharing Cornish pasties on a beach when I wrote my addition to the the Heart2Heart charity anthology. If you pick it up, I hope you love my story: Keeping Him in Cornwall.
Seb and Patrick will be back with their very own co-dependent Christmas story next year. Watch out for snippets in my Facebook group and Newsletter.
Con Riley © 2022
This bonus scene is exclusive to mailing list subscribers and may not be reproduced or added to library databases such as Goodreads.