Just in time for Christmas! Unbeta'd, so please forgive errors.
Taming the Grinch
'Stop being such a Grinch,' you say with all your usual frankness. 'You're killing the spirit.'
'The spirit of what?' I grouchily reply, sidestepping a wayward child waving a Tonka truck above his head, screaming at his mother, I WANT THIS ONE! I'M GUNN TELL SANTA THIS ONE! 'Disobedient and disrespectful children shouting out their consumerism driven desires before they've started kindergarten? I'm sure the spirit was adequately squashed before I stepped foot in this store.'
You turn around and narrow your eyes, your index finger pointing menacingly in my face. 'Don't you dare, William Darcy. It's Christmas!'
As if this is supposed to make a difference – to cheer me up and miraculously turn me into a Christmas person.
'It's not Christmas,' I say, shoving my hands in my trouser pockets and probably doing a fair impression of the sulking and demanding child with the Tonka truck. 'Christmas isn't until next week. I'm rationing my good will to man and saving it for the actual occasion.'
You respond with a hmph! and keep walking down the aisles overflowing with Christmas junk. I know that's not the end of it. I know you won't let me get away with it that easily. You're obsessed with Christmas, everything about it, and in spite of my grumpy tendencies I have to admit that I kind of like it. I like that you're still able to get excited about a holiday which most people grow out of, and that you try to rekindle that excitement in the most hopeless of cases: me. It's why I asked for your help today. I know you don't mind the crowds – the harried parents, the screaming kids, the stressed store workers. You even seem to like the challenge the overcrowded car park presents. It's like a sport to you for some bizarre reason.
But I'd kind of hoped that I'd say, 'Hey, I need some help setting up the Christmas tree.' And you'd reply with, 'Sure, we'll use the paltry decorations you have in the cupboard, they're more than adequate.' And I'd get to sit back and watch you turn my lounge room into a semi-respectable pass at Christmas cheer for Georgiana's homecoming.
But apparently that was too much to hope for, not only because you rarely speak like that unless you're teasing someone but because you took one look at the plastic, misshapen tree and threadbare tinsel and then you were ordering me into your car. And now we're shopping for a new tree, new decorations and new lights. On the drive in, you were asking me what colours I wanted on the tree. I looked at you blankly. You started on about traditional colours, bright colours, multi-colours, single colour – on and on it went to a soundtrack of Bing Crosby. I still had no idea how to respond. Part of my mind was back in the lounge room. You'd bent over to inspect an old box labelled, 'William and Georgiana – school decorations'. I wish I'd hidden that box so you didn't see the embarrassing collection of decorations I'd made in primary school. Wooden pegs masquerading as reindeer, complete with pipe cleaners for antlers, are best left in the past and if you hadn't just shown a glimpse of cleavage, I probably would've had control enough of my senses to confiscate that box.
'You're just going to make me pick everything, aren't you?' you say on a long suffering sigh.
Yes, Elizabeth Bennet. I'm going to leave it all to you, because even though Christmas and all its trappings are second nature to you, they're absolutely foreign to me. And do not pretend like this is a huge imposition on you. I know what that glint in your eye means. You're looking forward to this, I can see you practically buzzing with happiness. And you're humming. You never hum, you never sing; not even when you've had too many wines and Jane has Sing Star out for the kids.
I stifle a groan. All of this was fine; knowing all these things was fine, really – until you went and changed the rules on me. We were good friends. Great friends. Best friends, even, going back to when Charlie and Jane were new and unsure, in the training wheels stage of their relationship. It was either sit awkwardly by or get along and make it bearable. Years later and we're godparents to their brood. Everything major in either of our lives seems to somehow involve each other and I was fine with that.
Until little Robert Bingley asked, oh-so innocently, 'Hey Uncle Will? When you and Aunty 'Lizbeth gonna get married an' have kids?'
We laughed it off. 'Married! Kids!' we cried, tears of laughter running down your cheeks.
But it got me thinking what it'd be like to be with you. I got rid of the thought pretty quickly, mind you. After leaving the chaos of the Bingley household I went to Gabrielle's and she was rather energetic in making me forget all about you. But the next time I saw you the thought reared its head once again, and then the memory of it lingered until it'd become an intrigue. Then, against all prudence, it became an obsession. I started to imagine you not only in my bed but in my kitchen in Nigella Lawson mode, cooking up a storm and bustling about loudly, opening and closing drawers and cupboards, completely in charge of my house. You were on the patio, sharing a morning coffee with me. Your toothbrush was in my bathroom, a drawer reserved for you in my wardrobe. You were my girlfriend at work functions and not just my plus-one because I didn't happen to have a date.
I wasn't pussy-whipped. I wasn't friend-zoned. There had never been any interest from either of us so I definitely was not friend-zoned with you holding my balls in your handbag. But the thought of you holding my balls …
I frown and clear my throat uncomfortably. You look at me with a raised eyebrow but just shake your head and give me that smile which is more like a quick up-turn of one side of your mouth than an actual smile.
And you started to look different. I'm sure I wasn't imagining it – although, maybe I realised you're more than just Lizzy.
I feel like I constantly need to defend myself for having fallen for you. Your hair isn't frizzy anymore but wild and curly and I can't help but imagine what it'd look like after I've buried my hands in it while holding your lips against mine; against your bare back, hanging loosely; afterwards; in the morning, spread over the pillow; wet, in the shower.
And you wore that dress to the pub the other night before you went on a date. You only ever wear that dress when you're trying to impress; the last time was that work dinner with some of your major (and ridiculously high maintenance) clients. So the fact you wore that dress means you actually like this guy. Who you met at the supermarket while he was trying to pick which laundry detergent to buy. Apparently he was really struggling with his choice, having never done laundry. Hell, I'd struggle to pick detergent too if it meant a woman like you stopped to help me. (It's irrelevant I'm in the same boat and have never shopped for detergent. How hard could it be, really?) And what kind of name is Richard Fitzwilliam anyway? He sounds like a right bloody ponce. Looked like one too with that stupid smirk on his face when he showed up, the wanker. He looked like he was the cat that got the cream. I hate that you actually enjoyed yourself. You haven't been on a date all year and then as soon as I realise what you really mean to me, you go on a date.
'What are you thinking?' you ask me suddenly and I'm forced to pull my head together. 'You look like you're having teeth pulled.'
'Not far from it,' I groan, half meaning it. 'I still don't know why we couldn't use what was in the house already.'
'Because it's all past its use by date.' A simple answer. 'When was the last time you even used that sad old tree?'
I answer quickly. 'The year my parents died.' You look stricken. We've spoken about my parents countless times before; drunk, sober and everything in between. You get it. You're the only person who seems to feel it like I do too and when the next anniversary came around after having met you, I couldn't help but confide in you. All the hurt, frustration, anger came pouring out even though I didn't want to burden you. You're good at doing that, drawing me out with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. There are no secrets with you, and I'm glad to have a friend like you. No one else would've taken me to the beach and bought me an ice cream, letting me voice my disjointed and incoherent thoughts for what felt like hours on end, and then turn to me and say, 'Feel better, or is there more you've been repressing?'
If only you'd say that again. It'd be the perfect opening for me.
But I don't want you to feel any kind of compassion or misery about the Christmas tree. 'Georgia put it up but it felt wrong, so we put it in the back of the cupboard and forgot about it.'
'Why put the tree up this year then?' you ask softly, all your annoyance at my Grinch-like tendencies cast aside. You never make light of my family. Everything else is fair game but you know I can't handle being teased on that score. On the flip side, I know that's the only way to approach your family – particularly your mother.
Shrugging, I pick up a Santa hat and touch the plush fake fur trimming. Of course you've brought us to the store with the good decorations – no Big W or K-Mart for you. I place the hat on your head and you're doing it again. Your eyes. I probably could've forgotten all about the morning coffees and cooking and your hair and your incredible legs if it weren't for your eyes. You don't believe in hiding your emotions and right now you're looking at me like you can see through me, like you're a human Puss in Boots with big, wide, captivating eyes that just melt a person without warning.
'It's her first year away from home,' I eventually supply, now unable to look at you.
'And you want Georgia to come back to home, not a house, and Christmas is a time for family.'
Only you seem to know that even though it's been years I still struggle a little every day, and I miss having my little sister near me. You adjust the Santa hat so that it's on an angle and not falling over your ears. I smile, and you grin back. 'William, you've just made your first Christmas purchase. I rather like it.'
I don't have the heart to tell you it makes your thin face look even thinner, that it comically dwarfs you. Then again, you wouldn't actually care.
'So, the tree!' you say, clapping your hands together and rubbing them briskly, all business. 'I point blank refuse to allow you to buy a glitter or coloured tree, and it must be at least six feet tall.'
'A glitter tree?' I dimly repeat.
You nod gravely. 'Another spirit killer. And since we're not in the Northern Hemisphere, there shall be no fake snow or white on the branches. You're not a hairdresser looking to decorate a salon, so black trees are out as well. I'll never speak to you again if you buy a pink or purple tree.' You shudder and I laugh, a huge smile splitting over my face.
'You want a fake pine tree then?'
You smile brightly. 'What gave it away? The fact there are no other choices?' Thoughts of the ozone layer and climate change, renewable resources, enter my mind and I ask why we aren't getting a real tree. You respond in that tone of voice you used when explaining to Robert why Uncle Will and Aunty Lizzy aren't married and aren't having kids. 'We live in the tropics – we don't have White Christmas here. A ten foot tall real tree would die within days.'
'Well, what about a palm tree?'
'Retract that comment from the record now.'
'In this environmentally conscious age, you'll ignore all good reason and –'
'No! No, no, no! I will not be party to a palm tree dressing up as a Christmas tree. It's just not right!'
'Oh calm down, I was only joking.' You know I was slightly serious. I laugh and you wink at me, obviously pleased with yourself. 'Which tree do you want?'
'It's your tree.'
'And you're decorating it.'
'We're decorating your tree.'
'Fine,' I sigh. I point at the biggest tree. 'That one will do.'
You stand there, mouth agape. I peer at the tree more closely but still can't find what's glaringly wrong with it. 'That tree costs six hundred dollars.'
'I should hope it lasts for a few years then.' I pick up the appropriately marked box and wave you forward, telling you to pick whatever decorations you want. Money is something of an issue between us. Over the years you've come to realise it's only money, that it doesn't really matter, but sometimes there's that old annoyance with you.
'Ok, I think we need to set down the rules here,' you say, licking your lips and making my fingertips itch. I really want to touch those lips. But you're all about the business side of this, completely oblivious to my predicament. 'What's the budget?'
'There isn't one. Just get what you like.'
I expect you to fight me and say that a thousand dollars on Christmas decorations is ridiculous. And it is, but I'm not of a mind to really care how much this costs and honestly, that's small change to me. You shake your head but can't help but grin at me. 'Ooh, Scrooge has a heart! Let's do this quickly before you change your mind.'
But it doesn't happen quickly. You chat happily with other shoppers, asking what their Christmas traditions are and how they decorate their tree. You take your time carefully selecting a colour scheme and I'm torn between loving all this time with you, alone, and impatience because really, I don't care if you pick the hand crafted frosted glass baubles that cost eighty dollars each. They're beautiful, you say, but expensive. You've been eyeing off four in particular probably trying to pick just one. I reach across and pick all of them up, gently depositing them into the trolley. You smile and link your arm through mine. I try not to enjoy it too much.
We're comfortable like this. We've always been physically comfortable around each other. You're an affectionate person – you hug people in greeting, kiss cheeks in farewell. I didn't like it at first; it felt put on and overly familiar. But like with so many things you brought me around. 'There,' I remember you once saying when you'd hugged me. 'Was that so hard? Did it hurt? Did World War Three break out because I invaded your personal space?'
You've a wicked sense of humour. I test it out when we hit the home decorations aisles and you're picking through boughs of holly and strings of thick tinsel to hang up. Apparently we can't have a real pine tree but we can have a pretend White Christmas.
I throw a sprig of mistletoe into the trolley and you scrunch up your nose.
'Don't be ridiculous,' you scoff. 'You don't believe in Christmas so why start with the worst cliché of all?'
And I love that you aren't all girly and giddy.
'Maybe my luck needs changing,' I shrug, smiling. My heart rate kicks up. I decide I'm going to flirt with you. It's dangerous and exciting and terrifying all at once.
You roll your eyes. 'So Gabrielle is no longer willingly bestowing her voluptuous virtues upon you?' I answer in the negative and you seem surprised. 'When did this happen? I thought you really liked her.'
You're stalling my attempt at flirtation. 'It wasn't going anywhere. I figured it was best to end it early and … besides,' I throw out cautiously, 'there's someone else.'
For a moment you actually look disappointed. 'Do you even know how to be single? Honestly William. It's a wonder I bother to learn their names now.'
Part of me is stung and not over the names dig; that's hollow. It's more that I don't like it when you disapprove of something I say or do – I'm not into false modesty but I know you hold me in high esteem. You don't expect anything more of me than you do of yourself so when something of my doing rankles you, it rankles me. 'So long as I remember yours I can't get in too much trouble.'
'Don't compare me to your floozies, Darcy, or you really will be in trouble.'
'I wouldn't dream of it,' I say in mock condescension, trying to lighten the mood. There's no need to defend the floozies comment because we both know there's nothing to defend: I'm not the lothario type and you're on a shameless fishing expedition.
'So who's the mistletoe for?'
'Me,' I say instead.
'And? Typically there is another participant in such an activity. Hopefully they're willing.'
'Or just there,' you tease.
'Although I can be self-indulgent, I've been told.'
You roll your eyes at me. 'Are you going to tell me more about this new one?'
'Not yet,' I shrug, pushing the trolley towards the check out and telling you not to think about putting in outdoor Christmas lights. My inner Grinch has some limits and you smirk in victory at having finally drawn it out of me. 'I'm waiting to see how it plays out.'
You look at me somewhat surprised – I've never withheld information from you before, particularly when you've openly requested it. But I've changed the topic now and put it back on you. I'd sooner swallow shards of glass but I ask about this Fitzwilliam guy. You smile as you talk about him, telling me you're going on another date tonight, and I nearly crush one of the precious glass baubles in my hand. I start to panic and my imagination runs wild. You're engaged and asking me what cakes you should serve at your wedding, because you know I have a serious sweet tooth and appreciation for good cake. You're in your gown and asking me for a dance before your husband whisks you away on honeymoon, because aside from your father I'm the most important man in your life. You're pregnant and asking me to be godfather, because you couldn't imagine anyone else fulfilling the role.
I'm hyperventilating and delusional.
I can't keep quiet anymore. I have to tell you. Before you go out with that twat tonight. You're driving back to my place and I'm trying to come up with different ways to let you know. So far I've nothing and I may just have to resort to lunging at you and kissing you.
'Hey, Earth to Will. Do you read me?'
You're clicking your fingers in front of my face and I blink stupidly, looking at you blankly. I'm in love with you. Let me out of the friend zone, I can't take it anymore.
'What?' I ask dumbly.
'I swear you haven't listened to a single thing I've said so far.'
'Have so,' I reply childishly.
'Sure. Which is why you've agreed to come look at Christmas lights with me tomorrow night, and why you're not complaining about my choice of music.'
I pause before groaning in annoyance. 'Bing Crosby? Again? Haven't we listened to this album on repeat already?' I let out another sigh before agreeing to take the Bingley kids to look at the lights tomorrow night. Further evidence of your effect on me: they aren't actually my nieces and nephew but I treat them as such, all because of you. You're their most involved aunty by far and you roped me in without my even realising it. Now I can't imagine not attending your family events and hanging out with Olivia, Robbie and Emma.
You smile, clearly enjoying your second victory of the day and using the steering wheel as a drum kit. Conveniently, Little Drummer Boy is playing and you laugh at my pained expression. You lower your voice and croon along with Bing. It's a rare treat to hear you sing, even if you are only mimicking and clearly not using your actual voice. You keep humming as you set up the tree, wearing the Santa hat and dancing around the lounge room – you must be exceptionally happy today if you've kept up the humming business. I tell myself it has nothing to do with your date tonight.
I try to stealthily take a photo of you but you're on to me straight away. 'It's for Georgia,' I come up with. I quickly send a message to my sister: 'Christmas surprise waiting for you.' The picture I send is of you smiling, baubles dangling from your fingers as you hang them up. You're not posing or looking at the camera, you're just being you in your crazy Christmas bubble of happiness, looking nothing short of gorgeous.
'That's not actually a bad shot,' you accede. Another rarity – you acknowledging a decent photo of yourself. I count two unicorn moments today: your singing and the photo. It makes me feel better for my defeats at your Christmas wiliness. You turn back to the tree and I try to hang in the background, making myself useful by not getting in your way.
'I don't think so, Will,' you say, laughing at me and waggling a finger dramatically. 'Don't think you're getting out of this. Get over here and help me, and tell me about this new bird you're interested in.'
Do I tell you? Or do I flirt with you in the hopes that you'll realise and I won't actually have to come out and say it? I walk towards you and take a proffered decoration. I warily meet your eye and it's obvious, you don't know at all.
'I'd rather not,' I say, frowning as the bauble weighs heavily on the tree and sinks the branch lower. I try to adjust it and you laugh, taking over and positioning it properly.
'Is she someone I know?' you pry.
There's no sense in lying to you. 'Yes.'
'Why won't you tell me about her? Won't I approve?'
'I'm not sure if you would,' I mumble, and I can feel the heat in my cheeks. Feeling this, and knowing that I'm not a blusher, my heart hits the turbo button and I swallow, quickly looking at you to judge your reaction. What I see makes my stomach drop. Your eyes are popping out, your mouth hanging open in shock.
You know. You've figured it out. I keep looking back at you and you're still staring at me, flabbergasted.
'How could you?' you ask eventually. 'How could you?' If this were happening to anyone else, I'd find your high pitched shriek comical.
'There's no need to overreact,' I start but you cut me off.
'After all these years, not once did you even look twice. No wonder you didn't want to tell me, you know I'd want to bash some sense into that head of yours! Go back to the beginning. How did it start? What happened to change it all?'
You're gathering steam and rambling, saying whatever comes to your mind without running it through your sensibility filter. You've a strange look on your face, one that's totally unexpected. I'd figured you'd be shocked, but this mouth gaping and flailing hands goes beyond that. It makes my hope sink and stomach knot to place and understand your reaction: you're upset and scandalised.
'Well I didn't intend for it –' I start and stop, looking at you for some kind of reprieve but you're not giving me anything and I'm starting to get upset myself now. You're being ridiculous and completely over the top. And really … what's so wrong with how I feel?
'Who ever could intend for fall for her?' you say, shaking your head. 'I know I'm probably putting foot in mouth here but come on Will! Caroline Bingley? Really? You broke up with Gabrielle for Caroline?'
It takes a few stunned moments to realise what you've just said, and when I do, I can't help but let out a loud and uncharacteristic bark of laughter. After the slingshot you just put my emotions through, I don't check my words either. I'm back at being delirious.
'You think … oh that's hilarious! You think I want Caroline? That's the worst joke I've ever heard and from you, that's just – that's, that's –'
'That's what?' you ask uncertainly, and you're joining in my laughter.
'Fucking unbelievable,' I eventually supply and I'm looking at you wildly, desperately. 'Laughable. Don't you know me at all?'
'You scared me!' you say and move toward me with a streamer of tinsel, flicking out one end so it whips my mid-section. I jump away but not before grabbing the tinsel. I pull you toward me and you're looking so relieved it makes me pause and wonder if you haven't actually figured it out and this is just a ruse … but your next words put it beyond doubt that no, you're still clueless. 'So who is she? If it's not Caroline, the only other person I can think who I'd disapprove of would be Borough's daughter. What's her name? I should remember it, I can see her face clear as day …' You scrunch your face in concentration and it's adorable. Everything you do lately is adorable; I'm so pathetic.
'Anna,' I offer my boss' daughter's name. I know you don't like her, understandably. I don't care for her much either but that's another story. I'm more focused on you standing so close to me and the smell of your perfume – so familiar but its effect on me entirely new – it's making my head spin. I'm holding my breath. 'And no, it's not her either.'
You frown, clearly stumped. I frown, clearly disappointed. You haven't thought about us. This is going to get very awkward, very quickly. Any vestiges of laughter I had from moments ago vanish. I watch as my arm reaches out, seemingly on auto pilot, my hand wrapping the tinsel around your neck like a scarf. I use it as an excuse to move closer again.
I rarely call you that. I'm the only person allowed to call you. You stop and stare at me, trying to figure out why I've called you that.
And then … your eyes widen and now you really do know.
'Oh.' You start to back away, grasping my wrist in your thin fingers and dragging it away from you. You don't want me touching you.
I try to make light of it but you're making it hard. You're so serious it's out of place against the cheery background of Christmas decorations and carols, and in stark contrast to your previously bubbly mood.
'But … why? When? I don't …' You stare, completely still, your face incredulous. And then you explode, your face fierce and red. 'What the FUCK?'
At least you don't ask if I'm joking, I wouldn't have been able to cope with that. I try to explain but it's hard to find the right words when I want to show you how I feel; it would be so much more effective. But it's you, and you never rest until you know the full scope of anything. And now I've told you but you're still silent, staring at me with wide eyes and flushed cheeks. You blink, your forehead crumpling as you look at your feet.
'Won't you say something?' I ask, reaching out for your hand but you snatch it away like I've burnt you.
'I have to go,' you say, briskly whipping the tinsel away from your neck.
I should've known you wouldn't have taken it well, that I should've broken it to you gently. 'No – come on, don't do that. We need to talk.'
'We don't need to do anything. I need to go because I have a datetonight and he'll be picking me up soon.' You stop and fix me with a level glare. 'You've the worst timing, William.'
I try again, and I'm not ashamed of the desperation in my voice. I've ambushed you with this and you're rightly angry about that but I don't understand why you're shutting down. It's not like you to stay quiet – you tackle everything head on, figuring everything out as you go. I didn't dare hope for a glowing reception of my feelings but I expected morethan you running away from me. 'Of course we need to talk.'
'I have a date tonight, William. A date. It's a foreign concept for me and until two minutes ago I was really looking forward to it. So please excuse me while I try to pull my head together and convince myself that the world didn't just stop spinning on its axis.'
'You're overreacting.' You are. You're being uncharacteristically ridiculous.
'My best friend telling me that he's fallen for me is kind of a huge deal.'
'Of course it is. But it's not the end of the world surely. I can't be that repulsive to you.' I know better than to press you now. You don't respond well to someone pushing you and you're fighting back.
You mumble a hurried goodbye, asking me to say hi to Georgia for you. Then you're gone, the door slamming definitively behind you.
I give in to melodrama and flop down onto the couch, staring at your half-finished Christmas tree. I don't know how long I stay there for, but it's dark when I finally get up.
It's six o'clock the following evening when my phone rings. It's Robbie.
'Aunty Lizzy says you aren't coming with us an'more,' he says in a sulky voice that only four year olds can manage.
You've uninvited me from Christmas lights.
'Something came up, sorry mate.' I'm on speakerphone, so that probably means you're in the background. 'Maybe next time. Give Olivia and Emma a hug from me … and your Aunt Lizzy.'
I hear you urge Robbie to say goodbye.
I'm more gutted than I can properly say.
There are only a few more days before Christmas. I've been putting off calling you in the hopes you'll contact me – you've made it perfectly clear you don't want to speak to me. It's confirmed when I'm put through to voice mail after one ring.
'I was only calling to let you know that I won't be there at Christmas. I don't want to upset you anymore than I already have.' Brevity is surely best for the both of us. I'm not going to make this more painful, and it's harder to make the call than I'm willing to admit. 'Merry Christmas, Lizzy.'
The Sunday afternoon before Christmas I show up at the Bingley house with a car load of presents for the kids. Georgia is home now and she helped me pick out gifts. She's as much into Christmas as you are and was giddy with joy wrapping them extravagantly. Every year since Olivia was born you've been helping me buy their gifts and wrapping them instead of letting me hand them over in their usual packaging. Georgia also finished decorating your tree. As good as the finished product is I'm sure you would've done it differently. For one thing, you hate angels as tree toppers.
I walk into the living room with the seven foot heavily laden Christmas tree, already overflowing with gifts, and notice you straight away. You're sitting with Jane at the table, wine glasses in front of you. I'm almost positive you're telling her everything, which is confirmed by the look of your respective faces when you see me. Charles offers me a beer but I decline, much to his surprise. He's so used to all of us being around each other that he's momentarily confused. I see him look to Jane, who's looking at me with empathy, and then to you. He may not know the whole story but he's already guessed that something isn't right between us. Of course it isn't if you're refusing to raise your eyes from your glass.
I leave, my tail between my legs, mourning not only my feelings towards you but the fact that I've lost my best mate. I round the corner and you're looking at me with such a distraught look I struggle to keep a straight face.
I'm at home for no more than half an hour before your Christmas tree gets the better of me. I can't tear it down because it'll upset Georgia, so I decide to go out. Georgia's off visiting high school friends so she won't miss me. I don't know where I'm going but I know I can't be anywhere that reminds me of you. I open the front door with keys in hand and there you are, hand raised as if about to knock. You can't stand my 'overly pretentious' doorbell and refuse to use it.
'Hi,' I say as a whoosh of breath leaves my body. A pause, before I barrel on, 'I didn't mean to intrude before. I just wanted to drop off the kids' presents before Christmas since we won't be there now, and I didn't know you were going to be there too. I don't –'
You interrupt me, thankfully. I could've gone on for a while otherwise. 'I know, it's fine. I didn't plan on being there myself, I just found myself heading there … and, yeah …' But then you trail off and I don't know what to say or do, I don't know why you're here or what it means.
'I shouldn't have cut you out like that, the other night. The kids really missed you. It was wrong of me, I'm sorry.' You don't tell me this, you tell your feet. But the fact that you've said it means a lot. It was such misery sitting at home that night instead of taking them to their favourite house with the Santa in boardshorts out front, handing out candy canes and lollies. The girls especially love the snow machine and Robbie and I have an ice cream from the Mr Whippy van.
I don't know what to say. I'm conscious of the fact that if I move towards you, you're likely to cut and run again. If I say anything, it'll probably come out wrong and I don't want that because I really, desperately, want to know what you're doing here. So I settle with the hugely inadequate, 'It's ok.' You look at me intently, not saying anything, but this silence is stretching on too long and I don't know what you're looking for from me. Any rehearsed speech I'd made up in my mind in the last week is quickly discarded – it wouldn't do, and you're not a grand speech kind of person. It'd be too awkward and until very recently, nothing about us has been awkward. We know each other better than we know ourselves.
'You've changed everything, you realise?' You start suddenly, eyes bright. 'Everything.'
Isn't that the truth. 'I know, and you were right. I had the worst possible timing.' I'm dying to know how your date went. I'm preparing myself to hear that the date went brilliantly and you're now seeing each other. I think you know that's where my thoughts are tending because you stop me by holding up a finger.
'Don't,' you say, and it's only when I look at you – properly – that I realise you're on the verge of tears. You turn away. I follow you onto the front patio and wait. 'What do you want from me?'
It's a fair question. I didn't say too much the other day. On reflection I didn't actually tell you how I feel about you – simply saying 'there's someone else' as to why I broke off a relationship doesn't encompass the full extent of my feelings for you. My near-muted declaration doesn't even scratch the surface.
'I want all of you. I don't want to be your friend anymore, it's not enough.' I take a deep breath and say it, because it needs to be said or I may just regret it if I never tell you. 'I'm in love with you.'
It hangs in the air and you seem to deflate in front of me. You frown, your forehead contracts and you rub at the point above your right eyebrow. I've given you a headache. I listen to you inhale shakily and curse myself. This is obviously hard on you, and from that I gather you don't return my feelings. I won't hold it against you. I won't make it any worse for you. I'll be a man and get on with life, and see you whenever there's an event for Charles or the kids.
'Just please don't cry.'
I don't realise I've said this aloud until you start to laugh, and then you do start to cry, wiping away your tears with a shaking hand. You look at me and something about me sets you off again.
'Only you …'
I smile at that because you say it often enough, and coming from you it's something like a term of endearment instead of a reprimand. You smile back at me and just knowing that my spoken declaration, as opposed to my disastrous first declaration, hasn't repelled you brings me comfort.
'But you love me,' I reply in the usual course, not at all thinking how that statement now bears a different meaning. I kick myself and you stop laughing. You look at me with such earnest that I can't take it anymore. There's no point in slowly pulling back the band-aid; just rip it off. 'Clearly not in that manner. Don't worry, I didn't mean it like that – I'm under no false impression here that you want to be with me.' I shrug and try to smile at you. It probably looks how it feels: a pained grimace. 'Old habits, you know.'
But you aren't relieved. I've let you off the hook and you're … panicked. You're upset. 'That's not what I meant,' you say and you're blushing and I'm nervously wondering what this means and all the while I'm struck by the thought that we must look like a pair of high schoolers stuttering through an awkward Wanna go out with me?
You take a deep breath and look me in the eye. 'I went on that date.'
'Oh.' Suddenly I don't want to know how it went.
'He drinks shiraz.'
We've done this before. Deconstructed each other's dates, given our opinions on whether this or that person is a keeper or crazy. Inevitably and eventually, they always end up having some unforgiveable tick or quirk that relegates them to the 'crazy' bin.
I shrug. 'It's not a capital offence but I question his taste. I'll bet he drowned his main in pepper too.'
You nod. 'He did. He ordered pork belly.'
I'm incredulous. 'You'll have to watch his cholesterol if he likes to order a congealed lump of fat for dinner.'
You laugh, your smile wide. 'He passed on dessert.'
'You're having me on.'
'He doesn't like sports.'
'What would you do all summer? You'd be bored out of your mind.'
'He's a Trekkie and he can't stand Pulp Fiction.'
'Is he even a man?'
'You'd think he smiles too much.'
The look on my face says it all. 'You'd be dating your brother-in-law. You could go on double dates.'
'That's what I thought. And as much as I do love Charles, I don't want to date my brother-in-law,' you say softly and I take a step closer to you. You mirror my movements, and I'm trying to calm my nerves. 'He called me when I was at Jane's. He asked me around for dinner tonight.' I gulp. Asking a woman around for dinner on a Sunday night only means one thing: it's an illusion of intimacy and closeness to make it easier to seduce someone. Let them into your home, make them comfortable, show them you can cook … I've warned you about this move in the past and you're now looking at me knowingly.
'I told him it wasn't going to work out.'
Thank fuck you didn't fall for it.
'You see, there's someone else,' you say, reaching for me. 'I kept comparing Richard to him.'
My heart is galloping and I'm squeezing your hand, now encased in mine. 'What's this guy like?'
'He drinks cab sav and merlot. He's mad about sports, conveniently the same ones as me. He shares his dessert with me, no matter how annoyed he is that I order the same main dish every time. He's an absolute Grinch when he wants to be but he's quite possibly the most generous person I know. He's – he's my best mate and I've really missed him, and I can't believe I didn't know what was in front of me all this time. I can't stand the thought of not being with him, if he'll have me.'
I don't need to ask you if you're sure. You never would have come here and said any of this if you weren't certain this is what you want. Perhaps I could've been a little less eager in grabbing you, and a bit gentler in holding you against me, but I've wanted to do this for what feels like an age. You're a good head shorter than me and when I bend down to kiss you, you reach up on tip-toes, your arms already around my shoulders, kissing me back just as desperately. Things escalate quickly and that mewling sound you're making, the half-sigh and half-cry as you press yourself against me, quickly becomes my new favourite sound.
I'm sure it's not as smooth as the night Sir Ponce-a-lot Fitzwilliam had planned for you, but I don't think you mind terribly when I can only offer you spaghetti on toast for dinner.
'Thank Christ you didn't offer baked beans. I would've had to reconsider,' you grin at me, your hair tangled and sprawled across my pillow.
It's Christmas morning and we've just woken up. It amazes me how quickly we've adapted to our new relationship, as if we've always fallen asleep and awoken beside each other, as if we weren't nothing more than friends for years and years.
We arrive at the Bingleys for Christmas almost an hour late. Your parents' car is in the driveway, predictably taking up more than enough space for two cars. Georgia is grumbling because she's starving and hasn't seen the kids since Emma's christening, but you and I don't care.
'Oh finally! The children have been running riot!' says Charles, opening the doors and ushering us inside.
'Not my fault,' Georgia mumbles, making a beeline for Jane and the kids. 'These two couldn't keep their hands off each other.'
I roll my eyes at her and you avert your gaze, blushing and looking so tempting I could skip this day and take you straight back to bed. Instead I settle for grabbing your hand and pressing a kiss to your temple when I think no one's watching. We laugh when a child's voice cuts across the din and Robbie comes running at us, his face alight with excitement.
'Uncle Will! You gunn' marry Aunty 'Lizbeth now?!'
Merry Christmas! Be safe and enjoy.