CHRISTMAS EVE | The night before Christmas at the local pub becomes a sliding doors moment in Megan Graham’s short story.
by Megan Graham
It starts like this. 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve and I am standing in the car park of the Seashell pub. Last night’s snow has turned to thick grey slush, and the cold is creeping through the toes of my new suede boots.
My phone lights up in my hand, the latest message in a series of Whatsapps that turn the screen bright.
I still feel rough from last night! going to give it a miss x
I’m at Sam’s this year babe, maybe see you out on New Year though?
Sorry, I’m cooking for the family tomorrow – can’t risk the hangover.
The Seashell isn’t the nicest pub in town, it’s just the easiest for everyone to get to. We’ve never thought to go anywhere else. The Seashell on Christmas Eve is just what we do; everyone from my old school year who hasn’t moved away or got married or had kids. Everyone who is ‘home’ for Christmas, and sleeping in their teenage bedroom. It doesn’t matter how many years have passed since you moved away; on Christmas Eve you go to the Seashell for a drink, and someone will be there.
I push the door open, and the low hum of chatter fills my ears. The Seashell is a big square box of a place, with sticky tables and a huge screen at one end of the room to watch the footy. There’s a carvery on the go no matter what time of day it is, and the whole place always smells faintly of gravy. My friend Sarah once met a Tinder date at the Seashell. She slipped on a roast potato and twisted her ankle. Had to go to A & E, and they never saw each other again. But the place is comforting in its familiarity, like an old jumper (or a leftover roastie), so I queue at the bar and order a bottle of red before looking around to see who came out tonight.
As I’m waiting at the bar, I find myself tapping out a message to Laura on my phone. I delete it, type something else instead. Delete that too.
The pub is a sea of familiar faces, but I can’t spot anyone I actually know know. There’s a table of girls who were two years below me in school, and a group of lads I recognise from my brother’s engagement party. My sister’s ex is standing by the quiz machines. I catch his eye and smile, and he lifts his drink in return.
‘Happy Christmas, stranger!’
Dave Jessops sits at the big corner table, with an almost empty pint and a bag of Ready Salted ripped open in front of him. He’s changed since I last saw him. Back when we used to hook up in college, Dave looked like a less famous member of the Arctic Monkeys. Now he’s cut his hair, and is wearing a navy shirt that brings out his eyes. The only sign of his former career in alternative rock is a neat line of stubble across his jaw.
I give him a hug hello, and plonk my wine and its attendant glasses down on the table.
‘You got stood up as well then?’ I ask.
His eyes crinkle at the corner when he smiles.
‘Me? No, I enjoy drinking alone at Christmas.’
I laugh. ‘Help me with this instead.’
I pour myself a glass of wine and he clinks his pint against it.
‘Welcome to the Seashell, community support for late twenty-somethings whose friends have better lives than they do!’
It’s easy to talk to Dave, and he makes me laugh. Together, we have the awkward intimacy of two people who have seen each other naked, but never really been alone with all our clothes on. We reminisce about college and catch up on everything we’ve done since, but we talk about other things too; what we want out of life; what we’re afraid of. Our phones, face up on the table, continue to flash with cancelled plans and promises to catch up in the new year.
“These other lives, not even a breath away. So impossibly easy to fall into.”
‘You know Spud, don’t you? He’s proposing tomorrow.’ I do know Spud, although only as a seventeen-year-old who once urinated on my cousin’s TV for a dare. The idea of him being somebody’s husband is vaguely obscene.
Dave shows me a photo of the ring on his phone.
‘What do you reckon, are Christmas proposals just a cop-out for when you can’t think of a good present?’
I nod. ‘Definitely. The classy thing is to do it on New Year’s Eve, then you don’t need to worry about not having any plans.’
He laughs. ‘What about you then? Last I heard you were living with that lass? In Manchester?’
‘Laura? Yeah, that didn’t work out.’
My mind flashes back to the last couple of months before we called it a day; the drunken arguments on the night bus, slammed doors, crying on my own in the bathroom at 4 a.m. What was it she had said?
The problem with you is you don’t know when you’re happy. You’ll always be waiting for something better to come along.
I relay all this to Dave and he winces.
‘Sounds rough. I’m on your side if it helps though. What if something better does come along?’
I down my wine and pour out the rest of the bottle. Dave is still talking.
‘It’s like… so many of my mates have settled down, they’re getting engaged, buying flats, the whole shebang. And I’m just looking at them thinking, how can you be so sure?’
How can you be so sure?
Laura had asked me that. How can you be so sure you won’t leave and then regret it?
I’m not sure. But I’m not sure I can stay, either.
‘Do you believe in all that?’ I ask. ‘Fate, destiny, whatever? Or do you think it’s just down to luck?’
Dave thinks hard for a moment, tapping his fingers on the rim of his empty glass.
‘Fucked if I know, to be honest. Can I get you another drink?’
I nod, and tell him I’m going to nip to the ladies while he’s at the bar.
I sit on the loo, and think how I have had more fun tonight than in the last six months put together. I’m the best kind of drunk, fuzzy and light. Tonight feels golden, as if things can only happen the way they’re supposed to. I flush and wash my hands, and notice that the wine has stained my lips. I scrub them with my finger, and put on another layer of red lipstick to try to cover it up.
When I get back to the table Dave nods towards my boots.
‘Will you be alright getting home in those?’
If I say no, he’ll offer to walk me back. He’ll put his arm around me as we pick our way along frosty lamplit streets. The snow will dust my hair like icing sugar, and when he kisses me his lips will be hot against my cold skin.
‘Come back to mine,’ he’ll whisper. ‘Please.’
We’ll only have been seeing each other a few months when I move into his flat, but it won’t matter. We’ll spend our weekends looking round affordable two-up-two-downs on the high street. Instead of ‘Properties to Rent’ on Zoopla we’ll click ‘Properties to Buy’, because everything is so much more affordable when there’s two of you.
By next Christmas Eve, I’ll be pregnant. It won’t be exactly planned, but it won’t be unplanned either. I’ll wrap my bump in a Christmas jumper with a snowman on it and make a dramatic show of saying no to prosecco and brie. I’ll think about how next year, the little one will be here, and I can dress her in one of those Christmas pudding outfits. In the evening she’ll fall asleep curled up on his chest, and I’ll take a photo for Instagram and caption it, ‘Daddy’s girl <3 <3 <3’
My foot brushes against the trainers I brought with me, in a Sainsbury’s carrier bag under the Seashell’s sticky table.
‘Come back to mine,’ he’ll whisper. We’ll get a taxi home in the rain and have sex on the couch, trying to be quiet so we don’t wake up his housemates. We’ll keep seeing each other because it’s something to do, and we’ll move in together because paying two sets of rent feels like a waste of money. One day, when we’ve been together for two years exactly, I’ll realise we’ve run out of things to talk about.
‘Do you fancy going to that drinks thing then tomorrow?’
He’ll look up from his phone and shrug.
‘Can do, yeah.’
‘We don’t have to if you don’t want to’
I’ll open Instagram and my thumb will pause over a photo of Laura and her new girlfriend. They’re on holiday in Mexico, all tanned and smiley in matching bikinis. I’ll post a comment, quickly delete it. I’ll look across the room to where Dave is picking at his toenails and dropping the offcuts onto the living room floor. Do we look happy like that from the outside?
‘I sorted the TV by the way, it was the remote.’
‘I thought it might have been.’
‘Well it was, so.’
He’ll stretch out on the sofa, pushing one of the cushions onto the floor with his foot. I’ll look at it, and he’ll see me looking. Neither of us will say anything.
These other lives, not even a breath away. So impossibly easy to fall into.
I grab a scabby Nike from my carrier bag and wave it maniacally, spilling my wine in the process.
‘I brought back up!’
He raises an eyebrow.
We stay in the pub for another hour, although it only feels like ten minutes before the bell goes for last orders. The Seashell is almost empty now, and staff are weaving in and out of the tables collecting glasses and empty crisp packets. Outside, snow is falling in fat, blossomy flakes.
If I lean forward now, I could kiss him. We’ll be clumsy after all the wine, but that will make us laugh. We’ll end up pressed against the wall of the pub like teenagers, with his coat wrapped around me, and when he grins I’ll feel it against my lips. Groups of actual teenagers leaving the pub will whoop and cheer at us until we stop, embarrassed of our excitement. The frost crunches under my feet. It’s almost midnight on Christmas Eve and I am red-wine drunk and standing underneath a sprig of mistletoe with a man who makes me laugh. He whispers something, but I can’t hear what he says.
It ends like this. I walk home alone in my sensible trainers. We message a bit; on Christmas Day he sends me a photo of himself in a Christmas jumper, and I send one back of the dog asleep in front of the tree. A few days later he asks if I got back to Manchester okay, and sends me a Spotify link to a band I might like. I reply with a gif that makes him laugh. On New Year’s Eve he sends a sweet message hoping I have somebody good to kiss at midnight, but not too good. I read it in the kitchen as I’m chopping limes and half-listening to a story about somebody’s boyfriend’s terrible Christmas hangover. I smile, but don’t text back.
Megan Graham | @megangraham91
Megan lives and works in Edinburgh. She writes fiction about family and relationships and can usually be found tweeting at @megangraham91. Megan’s work has been longlisted for the Myriad Editions First Chapter competition and published on Dear Damsels.