My Christmas spirit began to sag as Wizzard’s 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday' piped up, blaring through the speakers and causing my jaw to tighten. It wasn’t quite lunchtime yet but I must have heard that bloody song half a dozen times already that day, tugging at my thoroughly worn out Christmas spirit.
It was 1st December, the time when most people were starting to feel those first festive stirrings but I’d been surrounded by glittery baubles, shimmery tinsel and singing Santas since September. But that was the downfall of working at The Housing Warehouse. For eight months of the year, I worked in the Bedroom Department (which was ironic, considering the horrendous luck I’d had in that department over the years. My love life was not something to be proud of), but from September to December I was transferred to the Christmas Department to dress as an elf and emit constant cheer.
It wasn’t that I disliked my job. I enjoyed working there, working alongside my colleagues and interacting with the customers and I loved Christmas, but all those weeks in The Housing Warehouse’s Winter Wonderland were taking their toll and it felt like I was drowning in tinsel.
'He’s put a great big smile on somebody’s face!' Fellow Winter Wonderland employee Kat was not suffering from my Grinch-like grumpiness as she sang along. She was sporting a pair of felt antlers with bells that jingled with each step as she passed.
'You’re in a good mood.' I was glad that at least somebody was full of cheer.
Kat jingled to a halt and turned to face me with a wide grin on her berry-red lips. 'You’d be in a good mood too if you’d just met the man of your dreams.'
'Ooh, tell me more.' I scurried down from the ladder where I’d been restocking pink glittery stars.
'Well.' Kat took a deep breath and paused for maximum effect. 'He’s tall with blond hair and amazing blue eyes. I’m sure he was undressing me with them, the naughty boy.' She giggled, setting off another round of jingles.
'So? What happened? What did he say to you?'
Kat’s smile faltered and she scrunched up her nose, folding her arms across her chest. 'Nothing. Marie marched over and told me to get back on the tills before he had the chance to sweep me off my feet.'
'Never mind.' I reached out to give Kat’s arm a squeeze. 'Maybe he’ll buy something and you’ll get the chance to chat at the counter.'
'Yes! You’re right. See you later.' Kat gave a little wave before jingling on her way.
I climbed back up the ladder, somewhat cheered by Kat’s enthusiasm, and resumed looping the decorations onto the stand. I found myself humming along to the music as I finished with the glittery pink stars and moved onto the glittery purple stars.
Gripping hold of the ladder’s frame, I turned around, face contorted in preparation for the mouthful I was about to bestow upon the rude customer below. But my reprimand was frozen in my throat when I was met by the mischievous blue eyes and cheeky grin of an old friend.
'Will!' Jumping down the ladder, I threw myself into his arms, which were a lot stronger than they'd been the last time we’d hugged. Will was broader now, with the beginnings of laughter lines around his eyes, but he was still as handsome as ever.
'I was hoping to find you here.' Will squeezed the life out of me as he twirled us in a full circle.
I laughed. 'You mean you hoped I hadn’t got a life and moved on from the job I’d had at eighteen?'
Will and I had met at The Housing Warehouse as teenagers, working in the Christmas Department part-time while at college. Will had moved on to university while I accepted a full-time position in the Bedroom Department but he had still worked there every Christmas during the holidays. Once upon a time we'd sort-of fancied each other but there had always been obstacles in the way, mostly my boyfriend-at-the-time and Will’s fiancée-and-now-wife. But we’d remained friends until Will graduated and moved away to start a new married life with Kelly. It had been ten years since we’d last seen each other and, embarrassingly, I was still stuck in the same place.
'I didn’t mean it like that.' Will released me from his grip and gave me a nudge. 'It was just easier to find you this way. It’s so good to see you again.' He grinned at me before pulling me into another hug. Closing my eyes, I found myself transported back to the last time we’d hugged, shortly after Will had married Kelly and my heart had crumbled into a million pieces.
'Nice hat, by the way.'
I pulled away, batting Will on the arm. 'Get lost. You used to wear one exactly the same.'
Will grimaced, remembering his days as a Housing Warehouse Christmas elf. 'I know. But I didn’t look as cute as you do.'
I rolled my eyes as I batted Will on the arm again. 'We both know this outfit is far from cute.' I pulled at the thigh of my stretchy green leggings and let the material ping back into place, which made Will laugh.
'Is it time for your break yet? I could take you out for lunch.'
I glanced at my watch. It was a little early but only by fifteen minutes or so. 'Let me have a word with my supervisor.'
Luckily, I managed to catch Marie in a rare reasonable mood and she let me go early. There was a café that was cheap yet full of greasy character on the main road, which we used to frequent eons ago and although it had changed hands many times over the years, I still felt the same warmth and familiarity as we stepped inside.
'So how have you been?' Will asked as we sat by the window, sandwiches and cups of coffee in front of us.
'Oh, you know.' I gave a shrug, not wanting to reveal the dull truth. I’d skipped from one unremarkable relationship to another over the last decade while remaining in the same job and the same flat.
'That good, eh?' Will pulled a sympathetic face and I suddenly wished I had lots of exciting tales to amuse him with. I had none.
'Unfortunately, yes. How about you? How’s Kelly?' I looked past Will, as though Kelly would suddenly pop out from behind him.
'No idea.' Will took a sip of his coffee before elaborating. 'We’re divorced.'
'Oh.' I always imagined I’d feel joyous at such news but I didn’t feel anything remotely positive. 'I’m sorry. How long?'
'What happened?' Will and Kelly had always seemed so solid, so happy together. The sight of them had conjured up a sick feeling of jealousy that I’d had to swallow while pretending I was just as happy with my boyfriend. I tried my hardest to recreate their relationship with Elliot but I never felt it. Elliot wasn’t Will, which was the only thing I'd wanted.
'We wanted different things,' Will explained.
'She wanted kids and you didn’t?' I asked but Will shook his head.
'She wanted to sleep with other people and I didn’t want her to.' Despite the situation, I caught Will’s eye and we both started to giggle.
'I’m sorry. It isn’t funny.'
'Don’t worry about it,' Will said, still smiling. 'It’s taken me a while but I’m ok about it all now.' He picked up his coffee and took another sip. 'How about you and Elliot? Still together?'
I almost choked on my own coffee. 'God, no. We split up years ago.' The day after Will left to be exact. There hadn’t seemed much point in pretending anymore.
'Good. He was never good enough for you.'
I picked a piece of limp lettuce from my sandwich and let it fall onto my plate. 'You could have told me so at the time.'
'I didn’t think it was my place to say. I didn’t want you to think I was jealous.'
'Don’t be daft,' I scoffed. 'Why would you be jealous?' I puffed out a little laugh but all the humour had been sucked from the room all of a sudden and I felt myself flush. It was absurd to think that Will had been as jealous of me and Elliot as I had been of him and Kelly.
'I should be getting back to the shop.' Although I still had fifteen minutes of my lunch break remaining, I couldn’t face another bite of my sandwich and it was probably for the best if we said goodbye now before I embarrassed myself. Who knew what would happen – or what I would reveal – if I stayed. Perhaps the fact that I had been in love with Will since I was eighteen while pretending we were nothing more than mates? Or perhaps that I’d had to fight myself not to beg Will to call off his wedding or that I’d compared every man I met to Will ever since? It was no wonder my relationships never lasted.
Or maybe I would confess that all of those old feelings had resurfaced as soon as I'd turned around and clapped eyes on him again, feelings so fresh it was as though we had never been apart for a day, let alone a decade.
It was safer to return to work.
'I’ll walk back with you,' Will offered and I nodded in agreement, knowing it could be another ten years before we saw each other again. Or maybe this would be the last time I ever saw Will. I swallowed hard at that thought and blinked back the tears.
Zipping up my coat, we stepped out of the warm café and out into the biting cold. We didn’t speak during the walk back to The Housing Warehouse but Will put a hand on the small of my back as we crossed the main road and it remained there until we reached the doors to the Christmas Department.
'Here we are.' I filled my voice with the false cheer I'd adopted since the genuine stuff had started wane back in October. 'It was nice seeing you again. Have a nice Christmas.'
Will dropped his hand from my back and I dashed inside, biting my lip as tears threatened to humiliate me. I was a grown woman, I scolded myself. Many years had trudged past since I’d been a teenager mooning after a boy so why was I acting like one again?
'Wait.' Will, having followed me into the shop, grasped my arm to stop me in my tracks. 'I was jealous of you and Elliot. Very much so.' He dropped his gaze to the polished floor and I did the same.
'So why did you marry Kelly?' Even now, the thought of him saying those vows made my stomach twist itself into a knot.
'Because I didn’t think you wanted me. You were so wrapped up in Elliot and I couldn’t compete. You were so happy with him.'
'Happy?' I spluttered. 'I wasn’t happy. I was miserable. Do you know how much it hurt to watch you marry someone else?'
Will stooped to meet my eye and took my hands in his. 'I’m sorry. I had no idea. I never thought…' He gave a sigh as he rested his forehead against mine. I closed my eyes so that he couldn’t see the hurt glaring out of them. 'I never thought you felt the same way as I did.'
'I did,' I whispered. And I still do, I added silently.
'We’ve been idiots, haven’t we?' Will asked and I nodded, my eyes still clamped shut. 'But look.' Opening my eyes, I followed Will’s gaze to the bunch of mistletoe above us, dangling by a strip of red velvet.
'Does it count if it’s plastic?' I teased. Will responded by kissing me, right there in the shop, and I knew then that I'd been injected with enough Christmas spirit to last me all the way through December. And possibly a lifetime after that.