Always, in December by Emily Stone
Josie stood in the doorway of her flat, under the mistletoe that Bia had insisted they hang ‘just in case’ and stared mutely at the box Oliver was clutching. One of her hands was still resting on the door, and for a moment she nearly gave in to the urge to slam it in his lying, cheating and, she realised now, far too symmetrical face.
Oliver cleared his throat. ‘I know you wanted your stuff back so I just thought I would . . .’ Something about the expression on her face caused him to trail off and he looked down at the box of her belongings instead. He fumbled with it as he tried to hold it out to her, awkwardly bumping into the doorframe instead.
‘Right.’ She gave in and took it from him, deliberately manoeuvring so that she avoided touching his hand. She grunted at the sudden weight of it – it was far heavier than it looked. She supposed that made sense – two years’ worth of stuff left at his flat, forgotten about or left there deliberately to make life easier. Stuff she’d presumed, up until a few weeks ago, wouldn’t be leaving there for the foreseeable future, given she’d assumed that she would, sooner or later, be moving in. What had he been thinking, as he packed it all away? He’d pleaded with her not to end things, initially, but now here he was, determinedly marking the end of the relationship.
She pressed her lips together firmly to stop them trembling, and turned her back to Oliver. Right at the top of the box, rolling around on one of her books, as if thrown in as an afterthought, were the flashing reindeer earrings he’d given her three weeks ago, ahead of their work Christmas lunch. The lunch where, instead of coming back with her once the desserts were out of the way, he’d stayed on to drink and flirt with a colleague of theirs. The lunch where, instead of coming home within the hour, he’d gone round to said colleague’s house instead. And slept with her.
She set the box down on the vinyl floor, just outside Bia’s room. She supposed, then, the earrings had been his farewell gift to her, though neither of them had known it at the time. The thought that had flared up time and time again since the morning after, where, still in bed, he’d told her what he’d done, stabbed at her mind again now, even as she tried to repress it. The idea that, if she hadn’t gone home early after the lunch, then maybe they wouldn’t be stood here now. Maybe she’d be curled up next to him on his tiny red sofa watching reruns of Line of Duty and ordering a Thai takeaway and bottle of white wine. Maybe he wouldn’t have given in to temptation, also known as Cara. Or maybe it would have only been delayed, until the next time there was Prosecco and a skin-tight red dress involved.
She took a deep breath through her nose as she stood up, vowing to throw the earrings in the bin the first chance she got. He was still standing there when she turned back around, and she fought hard to keep her face impassive, to force down the angry lump in her throat. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his too-tight jeans and rocked back on his heels, looking over her head and around the flat as if admiring it for the first time. She folded her arms and raised her eyebrows. No way was she making this easier for him.
‘So are you . . . ok?’ He finally met her gaze and seemed to flinch back a bit from whatever he saw there. Good. It meant she’d nailed the drop-dead glare. She raised her eyebrows further. She wouldn’t be surprised if they’d disappeared under her fringe by now, but she didn’t care. She refused to be dragged into any form of small talk, not after what he’d done to her.
‘I mean, after what happened in the office today, I just wanted to make sure . . .’ He trailed off again, apparently losing the ability to speak in full sentences. Josie kept her arms tightly crossed, desperately hoping that the heat she felt pulsing under her cheeks wasn’t showing on her face. Of course he’d bring that up. Of course he’d figured out why Janice had wanted to talk to her. One of the serious drawbacks to sharing an office with your ex, on top of the fact you had to see them every day, was the fact that you couldn’t lie and say everything was going just swimmingly at work.
‘I’m fine,’ she said shortly, though from the way his brown eyes turned soft as his gaze lingered on her face, she knew he didn’t buy it. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, wishing she’d changed out of her black-and-white-striped work dress, which felt too tight now, and too exposing, like she’d got home at two in the afternoon and been sat doing nothing for four hours. Which, to be fair, she had. Though maybe he wouldn’t notice – he’d never paid much attention to what she’d worn when they were together, something she’d found incredibly charming, the fact that he’d genuinely seemed not to care whether she was in a tracksuit or heels. She wondered now if that had all been put on, given the girl he’d slept with.
Oliver opened his mouth, shut it again and nodded, clearly thinking better of whatever he’d been about to say, whatever condescending support he’d been about to offer. ‘Alright,’ he said evenly. He ran a hand through his dark brown hair, which lay flat against his head, almost like it was stuck in place, though the side parting that she knew he combed into place every day was slightly ruffled. ‘But you know you can still talk to me, right, babe? I still—’
Josie held up a hand. ‘Don’t call me babe.’ She sighed. ‘Please, just don’t.’ She didn’t want to hear it. The offer of a shoulder to cry on, telling her that he still cared about her. Because surely if he cared about her that much, he wouldn’t have slept with someone else. And certainly not someone they both worked with, someone she had to face in the office, who walked around the place in completely impractical heels like she owned it.
‘Right,’ he said, and rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, looking away from her and glancing around the dull hallway. One of the lights was flickering weakly down the other end, the effect somehow highlighting the ugly, stained carpet which contrasted sharply with the vinyl inside the flat that Josie made an effort to keep clean and shiny. He took a breath, looked back at her with those brown Bambi eyes, the ones she’d fallen for two and a half years ago, when he’d first swanned into the office, just confident enough for it to be attractive and not annoying. ‘Jose, look, I know I hurt you, and I know you don’t think you’ll ever be able to forgive me, but I hate the idea of you sitting here alone, trying to deal with this. I just think if we could talk, we—’
Josie shook her head. ‘Oliver, I can’t do this right now.’ His hand dropped to his side and he looked so damn pathetic in that moment, shoulders hunched under his black North Face coat, that she almost gave in and rested a hand on his arm. Almost. Until she remembered that he was not the wronged party in this situation. He had no right to keep trying to worm his way back in, to make her feel like she was overreacting. ‘And I’m not alone,’ she said, her voice clipped. ‘I have Bia.’
‘Right.’ He nodded a few times, looking like that bobbing-head dog she’d got in this year’s office secret Santa. She’d had it on her desk since, trying to show she appreciated the gesture, even though the fact that every single bloody person that stopped by bopped it when they left her desk and then she had to watch it slow down its nodding out of the corner of her eye while she tried to type. ‘Alright.’ Oliver cleared his throat. ‘Well I guess I’ll see you at the party on Tuesday then?’ He tried a hesitant smile, showing off the crooked teeth she knew he hated.
‘I guess you will,’ she said, trying not to sigh. The party that they all had to go to, despite the fact that it was on Christmas Eve.
He hovered in the doorway for a moment longer, and she wondered if he was waiting for her to give in and hug him, or invite him in or something. After all, throughout the course of the relationship it had always been her making the compromises, her staying out late because he wanted a night out, or agreeing to go on a hectic city break rather than a retreat to the country. They both knew it, both had their roles to play. But this was different. Oliver glanced up, saw the mistletoe hanging sadly above them, and turned a little pink. Josie grimaced. She was going to kill Bia.
‘Well,’ he muttered, ‘until then, I suppose.’ He shuffled away from the door, but glanced over at her before she could shut it. ‘I’m sorry, you know.’ His eyes, almost exactly the same shade of brown as hers, didn’t blink once. ‘I know it’s crap timing and I really . . .’ He shook his head. ‘I’m just sorry.’
She hesitated for half a second, her lips pressed tightly together, wondering whether she should say something to make him realise that sorry wasn’t good enough, to ask him why, and why now, at a time of year he knew was difficult for her. To ask him if he’d slept with Cara again, if he would move in on her, now that Josie was out of the way. But she couldn’t bring herself to, wasn’t sure she actually wanted to know the answer. So instead she nodded once, then let the door click shut.
She allowed herself a moment to close her eyes and rest her head back against the door. She refused to let the tears come, though, taking slow breaths and screwing up her eyes to banish back the burning. He’s not worth it, she told herself. And she’d been through worse and survived, hadn’t she?
She pushed away from the door and sighed as she hauled the box of her stuff to her room at the far end of the corridor. The bigger room, because Bia had insisted she take it, even though they paid the same amount of rent. She grimaced at the purple tinsel Bia had put up around her doorframe. She had half a mind to tear it down, but wouldn’t because, despite her feelings on the subject, she knew it would upset Bia.
She’d only just dumped the box on her bed when she heard a key in the front door. Speak of the tiny she-devil.
‘Jose? Josie!’ The sound of Bia’s voice was followed by the sound of various objects falling, including the clanging of a set of keys, and Bia swearing, loudly. Josie huffed out a small laugh despite herself as she stuck her head around her bedroom door to see Bia’s multicoloured handbag on the floor, contents strewn everywhere, and one of Bia’s arms stuck inside her coat as she flapped around to try and get it off. Bia caught her eye and held up a bottle of wine in her non-trapped hand. ‘I saved the essentials, and that’s what counts.’ She carefully set the wine down on the step that led up to the kitchen, then manoeuvred her way out of her coat and flung it into her bedroom without looking. ‘Come on, you look like you need a glass.’
Josie followed Bia obediently to the open-plan kitchen-slash-living room and perched on their secondhand sofa while Bia clunked around in the kitchen for glasses. The living room was currently cosy and festive – fairy lights across the top of the fake fireplace and around the windows, a bowl of nuts on the coffee table in the middle of the room and a small Christmas tree in the corner, decorated erratically with blue, silver, red and gold baubles and tinsel, so that if you stared at it for too long you felt dizzy. All Bia’s handiwork, except for one decoration on the tree – a small wooden swan – which Bia had given Josie the first year they lived together and forced her to put on the tree every year since then.
How lucky Josie was that Bia had been one of the four people she’d shared a house with when she first moved to London. She’d known no one here, so had to opt for the SpareRoom option, making a decision on which place to rent based on a twenty-minute viewing and awkward chat with the other housemates. It had been Bia’s sparkle then that had sold her on that first place and now, eight years later, they were still living together, albeit in a different flat.
‘So,’ said Bia, setting down a glass of red in front of Josie, before leaning against the counter which separated the living room and kitchen, ‘I passed short-arse coming down the stairs.’ At four foot nine, Bia was hardly in the position to call anyone short, but she’d always been sure that Oliver had a complex over being just a few centimetres shorter than Josie. Maybe she was right, thought Josie, given Cara was perfectly petite and not long and gawky like her.
Josie scowled her displeasure to Bia, who already knew all about the break-up and how he’d told her he’d slept with someone else while she was still in bed, barely awake and not yet dressed.
‘Want to talk about it?’ Bia asked.
Josie shrugged. ‘Nothing more to say. He was just dropping back my stuff.’
Bia snorted. ‘Nice of him.’
Bia took a gulp of wine, closed her eyes and groaned in not entirely faked pleasure. ‘Thank God for that,’ Bia sighed. ‘I swear to God, Jose, if someone offers me one more glass of mulled wine, I’m going to throw some goddamn mulled water in their face.’
Josie raised her eyebrows. ‘What happened to the jolly, festive you?’
‘Oh, she’s still here, but she wants champagne, not stewed alcohol.’ Bia took another grateful gulp of wine and Josie sipped hers too.
‘Malbec.’ Bia grinned. ‘To get me in the mood for my flight tomorrow.’
Josie frowned. ‘What?’
‘Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.’
Josie hesitated, caught in the headlights.
‘Argentina!’ cried Bia, her wine sloshing dangerously close to the surface of the glass as she punched it in the air. ‘Remember? You were the one who told me to go for it. I’m going to go, find the lust of my life, spend Christmas on the beach, then party in Buenos Aires for New Year. I told you this,’ she insisted.
‘Yes, but I didn’t think . . .’ Josie didn’t finish the sentence. She’d told Bia to go for it, yes, assuming, at the time, that she’d be spending Christmas with Oliver like they’d planned, but she hadn’t really thought she’d book it. Bia was constantly announcing grand plans and then never following through – over the summer she gave up on a month-long yoga retreat in Spain because she decided she didn’t really like yoga, then there was the time she signed up for acting courses in London before figuring out she couldn’t afford them, or when she thought it would be brilliant to make some more money selling beauty products from home, until she discovered that actually involved quite a lot of effort.
‘. . . and when I come back, I will miraculously have figured out what I want to do with my life and can quit this terrible PA job.’ Josie nodded, and tried to look like she’d been paying attention to everything Bia had just said. ‘That’s how it works, right? Life-changing holiday, life epiphany?’
‘What? Yeah, that’s how it works, for sure.’
Bia twisted her lips, clearly unimpressed with Josie’s lack of enthusiasm. ‘Unless you think I should be a PA for the rest of my life?’
‘No, don’t be silly,’ Josie said. Though in all honesty, it was relatively hard to keep up with what Bia was doing for work at any point in time – she hadn’t stuck to the same job for more than eight months since Josie had known her, though she didn’t look at it as being flaky, just as figuring out what she wanted to do. Living that way would give Josie near constant heart failure, she was sure, but it worked for Bia.
‘Jose, are you ok?’ Bia frowned down at her.
‘Yeah,’ said Josie, taking a big gulp of wine as a distraction. ‘Just, you know, Oliver.’ Bia nodded sympathetically. In truth, Josie hadn’t quite realised she’d be spending Christmas alone until just now. She hadn’t given it a huge amount of thought, trying to put off thinking about the day as she always did, but if she had, she’d have assumed Bia would be around for most of it at least, given Bia’s parents lived in London too. Now, she was facing the quite grim prospect of spending over a week alone in this flat. She glanced automatically to the coffee table in front of her, to the three envelopes there that she’d been preoccupied with before Oliver had interrupted. The first, unopened, was a formal letter from her company. The second, a Christmas card from her grandmother, reminding her, again, that she was welcome to stay with them for Christmas. And the third, the same letter she wrote every year without fail, to her parents.
Bia followed Josie’s gaze, but didn’t ask, and for that Josie was grateful. She couldn’t face telling Bia about her job yet, and Bia already knew why Josie couldn’t bring herself to spend Christmas with her grandparents. But she didn’t know about the last letter. Josie hadn’t ever told anyone about that – it was something private, something she did just for herself.
‘You could come with me, you know,’ Bia said softly. ‘The offer’s still there, I’d love to have you with me.’ Josie looked up, and hated the understanding she saw on Bia’s face. It made her head hurt, trying to stop herself from giving in to the urge to cry all over again. Today had been a rough day, that was all.
Josie hesitated, then sighed. ‘I can’t. I’m sorry.’ Because the thought of booking a ticket to fly tomorrow was too much, given how drastically her life had already changed in a matter of weeks. She’d seen first-hand how impulsive decisions could lead to devastating consequences, and while that sort of spontaneity seemed to work for Bia, it wasn’t something she’d ever been able to do. Just the thought of it sent a writhing ball of anxiety through her stomach.
‘Well, what about Laura then?’ Bia asked, referring to Josie’s self-proclaimed work wife. ‘You know, for Christmas?’
‘She’s off to Scotland with her hunky Scottish fiancé.’
Bia shook her head. ‘Typical. Ok, well, look, I’ve got another bottle of this hiding in my handbag . . .’
‘Of course you do.’
‘So let’s drink our way through this and the next one, order a takeaway and maybe put on Love Actually, or, as it’s your pick, like Pride and Prejudice or something.’
Josie wrinkled her nose. ‘Not really in a romantic film kind of mood.’
‘Lord of the Rings?’
Josie laughed. She looked from Bia, her heart-shaped face currently framed with curly bright red hair, hair which she’d dyed to go with the festive period but was liable to change at a moment’s notice, to the over-decorated Christmas tree, and felt her chest tighten painfully at the thought of a Bia-free flat as of tomorrow. The burning behind her eyes was back. God, she needed to get a grip on herself. She glanced down at the envelopes on the table again, thought of everything they signified, and knew she had to get out of the house.
‘Hold that thought. I’ve just got to post this letter, then I’ll be back.’
‘Now?’ Bia exclaimed incredulously.
‘I’ll be back,’ Josie repeated, pushing to her feet and setting the half-empty glass of wine down on the kitchen counter beside Bia before she grabbed the three letters. She dropped two of them on her bed beside the box of her things while she grabbed her phone, bike lock and bank card – just in case – from her room.
When she strode back along the corridor towards the front door, Bia was standing at the top of the step in the living room, watching her over the rim of her wine glass. ‘If this is you bolting because you smell smoke and I don’t or something, then I’m definitely going to come back to haunt you after I burn alive.’
Josie rolled her eyes as she slipped on her coat, put on her trainers and tucked the last letter inside her pocket. ‘Lovely, graphic image there.’
‘Alright, but hur-ry,’ Bia said, drawing out the syllables on the last word. ‘If you’re not back soon, I’m finishing the rest of your wine. I’ll drink it out of your glass, no shame.’ Josie waved a hand over her shoulder at Bia as she let herself out of the flat.
As soon as she was the other side of the door, she allowed her face to crumple and screwed up her eyes. Of the last twenty years, there had never been one where she’d looked forward to Christmas Day. She’d long since forgotten what it had been like to be a child, desperate and excited for Santa to come, listening out for the creak of a parent’s footstep. And though she liked the break from work every year and enjoyed the extra time to spend with friends, who were inevitably in better moods and looking for excuses for fun as the day grew nearer, she dreaded the countdown to Christmas itself, to the reminders it brought. The last few years, she’d got through it in London by keeping busy and distracted, which had been made easy by good friends, especially Bia and Laura, a demanding job, and, more recently, Oliver. And now, at least two of those things had been taken away from her. Josie slid a hand into her coat pocket and ran two fingers over the smooth envelope. Christmas, it seemed, was looking very bleak indeed this year.