We Only Kiss at Christmas
I play a game at Christmas involving Mariah Carey and my auntie. Not in person—I don’t move in the social circles of the rich and famous. When I’m not yawning through law lectures, I take temp jobs waiting tables. And my auntie? These days, she’s soaking up Barbados rum and sunshine, but we still text each other every time we hear All I Want for Christmas and include a photo of our location.
I don’t make the rules of this game we’ve played since she left London. I just stop in my tracks on Regent Street and send her a photo of the department store pumping out those high-pitched, fluting top notes. Then I type my thirty-seventh message of the season, which is impressive, given it’s not quite December.
Seb: mariah again pls god make it stop
I can already imagine her reply.
Auntie: Sebastian Street, DO NOT take that name in vain.
She won’t mean Mariah’s. My auntie sleeps with a Bible on her bedside table and collects guardian angels. Not real ones; she’s in her seventies, not delusional. She spends her old-age pension on angels from the shopping channel, but she’s worked hard for decades. She deserves a few wings and halos.
I also send her a selfie, trying to fit a good view of the street into the frame with me. It isn’t easy in these crowds, not when I’m what my flatmate describes as a six-foot bundle of rage stuffed into a five-foot-seven body, but I angle my phone to capture this not-quite-Christmas scene of shoppers and black-cab traffic. She’ll love to see it, I hope.
My finger hovers over the Send button.
It’s been years since she was in the same city as me, and she’s not even my real auntie, just a children’s home cook and care worker who fed my love for cake and told the best bedtime stories.
Maybe she’s tired of this game—my last Mariah Carey selfie still has grey ticks, not blue ones, which gives me a sense of humour failure right here in central London on the last day of November. That isn’t only down to Auntie’s silence. It’s also down to getting a summons from the temp agency that usually sends me to wait tables when I’m not in the lectures that bore me rigid lately.
I guess my days on their books are numbered.
After last night, I only have myself to blame if they sack me.
No, the devil on my shoulder whispers as I fight my way down a West End shopping street still full of families and little kids despite it being dark already. Don’t you dare take the blame, my devil insists. What happened last night was that twat of a photographer Lito Dixon’s fault, and you know it.
Who’s to blame doesn’t matter—whether it’s Lito’s fault or mine, I’m still ninety-nine percent sure I’m about to lose my income.
I feel it in my bones as Mariah’s voice follows me down the street while shoppers fail to grasp the first rule of city living. They stop and start, going slow instead of marching to London’s fast-paced rhythm. Even worse, they cluster together. Whole families block the way with no warning to ohh and ahh over festive windows.
The urge to shout, “Coming through,” or even, “Get the fuck out of my way,” to prod them into moving is overwhelming, but I’m pretty sure that if I have a guardian angel on my other shoulder like Auntie always promised, he’d be the twin of my flatmate. Do angels speak with accents? Mine would have Pat’s same soft Cornish rasp and would probably whisper, “But look at their kids, babe. They love getting to see Christmas.”
He’d be right—from tiny infants to preteens, these kids are spellbound, all soaking up being in this dark city while lights twinkle and snow falls in pretty flurries. Their wonder-filled eyes dredge up a memory of a much younger me under the same spell right here outside London’s flagship toy shop, Hamleys, with my auntie’s hand around mine.
That curbs the urge to yell over the rumble of passing double-deckers. For once, I make a more restrained request.
I shouldn’t be surprised that no one moves or listens—I grew up in this mad and magical city that must look warm and festive to these wide-eyed kids. In reality, it’s stone-cold beneath this sparkling surface, especially for people who can’t speak up, which means I engage the second rule of city living and get assertive in a hurry.
“Mind your backs,” I bark, but not to make these crowds part for me. “You need to move so the kids can see,” I tell grown adults who gawp at me while sheltered by Hamleys’ bright red awnings. “Let the little ones get out of the snow,” I bark louder, and they do it. They also shift enough that I can make it to my destination with time to spare, but I don’t cross the street to the temp agency quite yet, even though arriving early might make a good impression. I delay by pulling out my phone again instead.
Still no blue ticks under my latest Mariah message.
I send a new one, this time to my flatmate, and I don’t mention any singer.
Seb: fucking people patrick they’re everywhere make it stop
He responds right away, calling me instead of texting.
Pat never calls me Sebastian. I have no idea when he stopped calling me that—or Seb, like our last flatmate used to—or why I never told him that I’m no one’s baby. All I know, as crowds jostle me into moving again, is that London isn’t half as cold when he names me with four letters.
It melts me just enough that this slips out. “I’m about to get fired, Pat.”
He doesn’t ask why. He only rumbles, “About to?” as something clanks in the background and music pumps, but I tune it out, caught on what he asks me. “So you haven’t been fired yet? You know what assuming bad shit will happen to you is called?”
I do. We’ve had versions of this conversation several times already, the last one in bed yesterday morning. Not because we sleep together. Pat’s my flatmate, remember? He’s also my bestie, and a good enough friend to suggest that sharing breakfast in bed would be warmer than both of us freezing our tits off in our frosty kitchen.
He was right about that. He’s also right about this. “It’s called catastrophizing. And what do we do with that kind of self-defeating bollocks?”
I find a spot out of the foot traffic, listening as he counts quietly while something clanks again in the background. Weights, I decide as he continues. He must be training one of his fitness family—the group he’s gathered as a sample for his sport and exercise science dissertation. He’s getting each one of them fitter even though the jury’s still out on whether he’ll make it to graduation. Pat’s grades are shocking, which isn’t fair when he’s so good at coaching.
Pat finishes his count and his voice gets louder. It’s still hard to hear over traffic and shoppers’ chatter plus blasts of music, but I have no trouble registering his message. “We punt that self-defeating bollocks straight into the sun.”
There’s more background clanking coupled with him counting, but I don’t point out that he’s skipped the number three in his countdown. Nor do I picture Lito fucking Dixon, who’s the reason for this catastrophizing. I picture a football instead—the same one that Pat taught me to kick so high I almost smashed a tower-block window.
“Into the sun, babe,” he repeats. “So stop expecting the worst.”
He says something else, but more music drowns it. This time it’s from closer, and you-know-whose voice spills through another department store door, one that also spills more shoppers carrying gift-wrapped presents. They flood out, jostling me again, and it isn’t often that I wish I was built like Pat, but what I lack in height I make up for in volume. I bark again, much louder, “Do you mind? I’m standing right here,” and a pool of space clears around me.
“Babe.” That’s not quite an admonishment in my ear. Pat’s voice is too gentle, too angelic for this city. I huff at his quiet reminder to chill out, to be kind, to stop acting as if the world is out to get me. Only it is out to get me, and I hate what’s surely coming so much that I actually snap at the sole flatmate I’ve ever managed to hang onto.
We’ve been together for two years. In the same flat, I mean. It’s a personal record. A miracle that Auntie might have prayed for. One I shouldn’t mess up, and yet...
“The agency is going to fire me, Pat. And then how will we cover the rent? We won’t,” I insist, my voice rising. “I’ll have to get a shitty room in a shitty student house share, and your dad will set you up in that swish one-bed he offered to rent for you. Or you’ll go home, full stop.”
“Nope, nope, and nope.” I don’t know how Pat can sound this certain. “I’m only going home early for Christmas, not forever. And as for paying the rent, we’ve still got other options.” He’s all rough West Country patience that’s easier to hear once a door closes with a click. He must have shut himself into the room that passes for an office at the gym. “But we won’t need other options because the agency won’t fire you. You’re a banging waiter. And a shit-hot bartender. You never spill a drop, do you?”
After last night, I can’t answer that without lying. I also wince as he lists skills I won’t include on my CV, not when getting to be a prosecutor means fighting for a place in legal chambers, not pouring Prosecco while wearing an apron.
Pat fights too, only for me, which I’m still not used to.
“The agency is lucky to have you,” he promises, gravelly with conviction. It’s followed by a different kind of background rumble—something in the office must be toppling over. Protein powder tubs, I bet. “Shit,” he says. “Stay right there.”
I do, breaking one of those city-living rules by going still instead of hurrying. Time ticks closer to my date with doom as Pat sets right an office I can visualise as clearly as the images on those tubs of protein powder. They all show an Adonis from the neck down, and Pat could have been the model, but that’s only him on the outside.
I don’t know how to describe him. All I can do is picture what a protein powder company logo would cut off on those tubs if they did feature Pat’s torso. Unlike all his muscles, Pat’s face is the opposite of etched. It’s as soft and comfortable as the oversized armchair that we share more often than our sofa. I also strain to listen when Pat speaks again.
Another double-decker bus passes. Its rumble drowns what he says, despite me clutching my phone tighter. “What did you say?” I bellow, because that’s London’s third rule, even when snow softens all its sharp edges—if you can’t move fast or be assertive, you better be ready to shout your fucking head off.
Pat huffs again. “Chill, babe. I only said that I can always make up the rent if you do need time to look for a new side hustle.”
“How?” I face the window, cursing that I look elf-like instead of professional. I shake snow from my hair and turn away, only the next view is worse. The temp agency looms across the street, waiting for me.
“How will I make up the rent?” Pat laughs like the answer is obvious. “By taking on some more shifts.”
“At the gym?” I drop my voice. “You can’t.”
“Yes, I can. They’ve already offered me the daily Mums, Bums, and Tums classes for the week until I go home. You know, the ones with loads of babies?”
I have no idea why he’s so happy about what sounds like hell in scrunch shorts and leaking Pampers. Like my law lecturers insist, I stick to the facts, and only the facts. “No. You really can’t do any more shifts, Pat.”
I don’t want to say it. I really don’t. Not here, surrounded by strangers hopped up on too-early Christmas spirit. If we were at home, both of us squeezed onto our favourite seat, we’d be close enough that he’d see I wasn’t being a grinch on purpose. Then I’d spill the truth in a heartbeat. But we aren’t, so I settle for saying, “Because classes with babies won’t happen at night, will they?”
I’m not certain if that’s factual. What do I know about babies apart from the fact that not everybody wants one? But here’s the thing about what my lecturers insist on compared to what I see all the time on Suits whenever we binge Netflix while snuggled under a fuzzy throw together—winning legal arguments doesn’t always hinge on being factual. It comes down to sounding convincing, so that’s what I aim for.
“You’ve got catch-up sessions at uni, remember?” The ones I had to get assertive about before they’d provide for him. “For your repeat exam. You can’t attend those sessions, revise, and work at the same time.”
Here’s the deceptive thing about my flatmate. For someone with a soft face and even softer accent, he’s no pushover. He won’t let me off the hook until I answer, so I blow out a sigh that clouds the evening air and I get honest.
“If you miss any of them, you’ll fail your biomechanics exam.” Again. “For a third time, which is the limit. You can’t graduate without it.” That’s all true. I still hate it for him almost as much as I hate what else will happen—Pat won’t only go home to Cornwall for Christmas. He’ll stay there forever. “Sorry, sorry. It’s not your fault.”
“Nothing to be sorry for, babe. I’m manifesting a better result for me this time.”
Here’s the problem with me—I don’t believe in manifesting, in expecting the best from people or the universe. I believe in what’s black and white, in what’s right or wrong. Like this injustice. “You shouldn’t even have to retake it. They should make allowances because the playing field isn’t level, is it? The faculty love you when you win all those varsity medals for them. When you go to Nationals and come back with weightlifting trophies. But then they let you drown in exam season.” That’s what happens each time—Pat gets swamped by sums he can’t solve even with a calculator. “It gives me the fucking rage that they know it but still let it happen.”
All that does is prompt a chuckle, although that’s not the right word for what sounds kinda sad, and I can’t stand to hear it. Not from someone I—
Not from Pat.
And here’s that rage again. Fuck the faculty, fuck Lito too, and fuck the rent going up just as our last flatmate left us. Not that I blame Ian. He’s not responsible for greedy market forces, but splitting our rent between two instead of three is why I’m getting jostled in one of London’s most expensive postcodes, hoping against hope I’ll still have a job after this meeting so Pat can focus on what’s important, which is staying in London.
I also shiver at snow finding its way under my collar, but Pat’s next laugh is as warm as that fuzzy throw at home. One that you better believe I’ll fight to keep snuggling under with him. That means I stride across the street, all guns blazing, only to almost get mown down by a Just Eat moped when Pat speaks again.
I stop dead like I’m new in town, not born and bred here, then I hurry to a door that opens onto a hallway where a staircase leads to the temp agency.
I close the door behind me, shutting out the sound of traffic, standing alone in a space as narrow as our hallway at home, only it isn’t cluttered with Pat’s weight bench or his bike that always trips me. There aren’t airers here holding our shared laundry, or the cardboard box full of Christmas decorations it isn’t time yet to put up.
This hallway only holds me. I’m one staircase away from a meeting that might decide our future together, and my voice strangles. “What did you just say? I missed it.”
“Only that maybe it’s time to rethink what we agreed to last December.” It’s so much quieter in this hallway that I can hear Pat’s swallow and his quieter, “You remember what we agreed together?”
Me? I remember every word of our agreement. I can’t say it aloud though, not when Pat hasn’t mentioned it even once since.
Just like that, I’m not at the foot of a staircase, certain that bad news waits at its head. Catastrophizing that no-job-no-money outcome will have to wait because right now I’m too busy reliving what happened when Pat pinned a sprig of mistletoe over our living room door last December, and I...
I climbed him like a tree and kissed him.
Heat climbs my throat like I should climb this staircase right now, yet I can’t move. Not when Pat might as well be right here with me. I clutch my phone the same way I’d clutched him almost twelve months ago, clinging, fucking clinging, until he took my weight and hoisted me up higher.
Did he kiss me back though?
I still can’t process if he did or didn’t. Now I repeat his question, hedging for time, because yes, one of London’s rules is hurry-hurry-hurry, but I can’t rush this conversation. “D-do I remember what we agreed?”
“Yeah,” he rumbles while someone in the agency above me sings along with what could be text number thirty-eight or nine to my auntie. Something swoops in my chest like Mariah’s high notes at what he reminds me. “Do you remember what we decided last Christmas? Both of us. Together.”
“You mean...” I also still can’t process how we went from me throwing myself at him to us agreeing to a new house rule designed to preserve what I value most in this whole city. In this city? When it comes to friendship, I value Pat’s more than anything on this whole planet.
My best friend raises a completely different subject. “Yeah, when we agreed not to get another flatmate for the third bedroom.”
“Oh.” I close my eyes. “That. Yes. Yes, I remember.”
He says, “Maybe we should rethink it,” and my eyes shoot open. “Because even if you are fired, I’m sure you’d get more work, no problem, but someone else paying rent would solve all of our problems, wouldn’t it? Did...” He pauses, and I don’t know how his voice gets even lower. “Did you think I meant we should rethink something else we agreed on?”
My phone beeps a five-minute warning that’s also a reprieve from a conversation I can’t have here. “Sorry, Pat. I’ve got to go. It’s time.” I mean for my meeting, but it’s also way past time we did have a conversation now that Christmas is right around the corner—only a little over a week away if I count down to when Pat goes home. “We’ll talk later,” I promise.
“At dinner with Ian and Guy if you aren’t working?” Pat suggests. “I’m about to shower.” I blink away a slick and soapy mental visual as he adds, “Then I’ll leave to meet them at the restaurant.” He must have opened the office door again.
Music pumps, racing like my heart at him saying, “Come if you can, but even if you are working tonight, think about having a third person chipping in with the bills. It would take off a hell of a lot of pressure, and I spoke to Ian earlier. He knows someone who needs a place to stay right away. Something to do with his ex.”
“Lito?” That tosser is the whole reason I’m here instead of earning money. “Ugh.”
“Yeah,” Pat agrees. “Ugh. But Ian says we could meet this potential flatmate tomorrow if you wanted. That wouldn’t hurt, would it? At least have a think about it?”
Think about it?
Once he rings off, I think about nothing else, frozen by indecision at the foot of this staircase until my phone pings another reminder to get moving. I finally climb the steps up to the agency office only certain of one thing—I’ll have to fight like hell to keep my job. Because the other option can’t happen.
Have a third person in the flat over the holiday season?
No way. Not when I’ve waited all year for the other rule Pat and I agreed on.
We only kiss at Christmas, a once-a-year neutral zone of physical contact that neither of us will let wreck our friendship.
Let a stranger get in the way when this could be our last Christmas together?
Never gonna happen.
I bet you can guess exactly what happens!
I can't wait for you to read the rest of Seb and Patrick's snow-dusted story from November 15th. My proofreaders say it's a romantic and emotional Christmas hug of a story. I hope it is for you too.
Preorder here: We Only Kiss at Christmas
Con Riley © 2023