I inhaled, loving the scent of his skin, feeling him lying so close to me. The heat coming off his body was unbelievable. I’d not been with many men, but I’d never known anyone ‘furnace’ in quite the way Caleb did. The room was quiet, and he was still, and I listened to his soft, gentle breathing and found my own subconsciously syncing with his after only a few moments of consciousness.
It was such a luxury, I mused as I stretched languorously, to have someone be so relaxed around you that they’ll fall asleep. And boy did he look gorgeous when he slept. I mean, I thought he was pretty drop-dead handsome when he was awake, but the softness that sleep leant to his features just did strange things to my insides, and it made my hands tingle to touch him. I restrained myself in case I woke him, but I did feel a deep, blossoming warmth inside me; I was utterly touched and honoured that he was prepared to let his guard down around me and just fall asleep next to me.
The sounds of an argument drifted through my silent, private admiration of him, ruffling my semi-conscious haze of bliss the next morning. The words were muffled as they floated down the corridor but the tone was evident. Extreme outrage from the younger party, and utter exasperation on the other. It was a weekend, so what anyone could have to argue about this early on a Saturday was a mystery to me.
I stirred and shifted my body, still feeling the ache inside me from the previous night as I let my eye drink in a bit more of Caleb. The covers got accidentally tugged back with my movement, revealing a little more of his gently rising and falling chest. He was lying on his back, one hand above his head, the other on his bare torso, moving evenly as he breathed gently. The soft hollow at his shoulder looked so inviting that I rested my cheek on it and smiled as he surfaced from sleep a few minutes later and found me there. “Hey,” he mumbled drowsily.
“Hey,” I said.
He lowered his arm and hugged me close, pulling me protectively into his body. He frowned as the rising noise from the corridor reached his ears, and then sighed, probably working out what the cause was, though he didn’t care to tell me. “We should go away,” he said suddenly.
“What?” I asked.
“We should go away,” he repeated, shuffling his hips a little, grimacing with small discomfort, presumably as the pain began to dawn on him. “W-we both l-live with people, so l-let’s g-go away somewhere, just us.” He rolled over suddenly, putting a hand on my hip and resting his full weight against my body. “And soon,” he added as a door slammed somewhere in the house.
The idea had taken me by surprise at first, but with him lying so close to me, eyes closed, that cheeky smile playing on his lips, how could I think otherwise? “My parents live in the Cotswolds,” I began.
He started laughing, and said, “The whole idea was to g-go somewhere where we don’t know anyone…”
“Shush, you,” I said, reaching up suddenly, stealing a kiss from his lips and making him chuckle. “You didn’t wait for me to finish…”
“Sorry,” he said, dipping low, rubbing his nose gently against mine as he searched for my lips and kissed me back with a tenderness that took my breath away. Hell, it took away my entire ability to breathe at all for a good minute or so.
When I finally remembered to engage my diaphragm again, I said, “I was going to say that that part of the country is really lovely. We should definitely go, though not to stay with them. Even before my parents retired there, we used to go on holiday to this gorgeous town alongside a river, with a big medieval stone bridge in the middle, and there’s an old path that runs along the river that I think they’ve tarmacked over and made into a cycle path now… What now?” I asked as he started to laugh again.
“Y-you had me at ‘w-we should g-go,’…” he stuttered softly into my hair, leaving a kiss on the top curve of my ear that made me shiver.
“You think there’ll be anywhere still available for N-New Y-Y-Year?” he asked, pushing his body up into a very yogic-looking plank, his bad leg resting on mine, something thrumming and pulsing in his misshapen quad while his arms stayed solid as cast metal pillars. Seriously, think I’ve seen Rodin bronzes with arms like his.
“We can find out,” I smiled back, loving the muscle definition of his upper arms. I ran my hand up his arm to that carved, sculpted dent at the base of each tricep, letting my fingers follow those delicious contours.
Caleb smiled, clearly liking my appreciation of his hard work, but he rolled back over with a grunt, leaving his leg behind, draped, tangled, snagged over mine, which I somehow liked. What I didn’t like was the shot of pain that clearly seared up his leg and made him gasp, clutching his hip and scooping his damaged leg up off mine with his strong, expressive hands, sweeping it away to a safer, less painful position. He huffed an embarrassed laugh, and I reflexively asked him what the matter was, even though it was pretty obvious. His answer, however, surprised me. “I find it hard to k-keep tr-track of my body when I’m around you,” he said in a harsh, throaty whisper, speaking through the pain as it fizzed in his muscles and joints.
“What do you mean?” I asked, though I realised I probably knew exactly what he meant, given that I found it hard to remember to breathe, and we were supposed to do that automatically without having to tell ourselves to do that.
He smiled, now lying on his back, having released his now submissive leg. “I k-kind of forget how disabled I am with you…”
That caught me off guard because I’d pretty much just come to see him as ‘Caleb’, so I too forgot – most of the time – that he was even disabled to begin with. “Well, if it’s any consolation, you’re pretty good at making me forget how to do basic things, like, you know, breathe…”
His lips twitched into a wonderfully lopsided, heart-lurching grin and he moved one of those expressive hands to my thigh, and worked it over me, sneaking between my legs and up to where I was growing wetter by the second. I remembered what those hands had done to me the previous evening, and I groaned, feeling my hips roll like a large boat on a roughening sea.
He grinned, rolled carefully over, and we picked up where we’d left off the night before.
We didn’t get up until gone eleven o’clock. Jean and Amy, their argument long over, left us alone, and when we made our way downstairs, neither commented on our late rising. In fact, they appeared to be catatonic as I followed Caleb into the kitchen in search of breakfast. He stopped just inside the doorway, believing he’d heard someone, but apparently unsure as to who it was. I took the opportunity of nearly having crashed into his silent back to lace my arms around his torso, planting a kiss on his spine, which made him turn his ear towards me and toss me a smirk over his shoulder.
“Nan? Amy?” he asked, turning back to the silent room.
“Good morning you two,” Jean creaked from the corner, her voice sounding tired and strained, even to my ears. “There’s a fresh pot of tea brewing, but Amy and I didn’t make pancakes this morning.”
“I heard…” Caleb said meaningfully, but he didn’t elaborate. “Thanks for the tea.” He turned to me, raising one arm and inviting me to slip under it from my magnetically-joined position behind him. I playfully slid around his body like a not very accomplished pole dancer, and glued my hip to his. I was behaving like a teenager in love, but I didn’t really care: Luke was home, snow was falling outside, it was nearly Christmas, and I was head over heels in love. “What do y-you fancy for breakfast?” he asked me in his gravelly voice.
His speech was fairly good that morning and with his fluency came an added confidence. I noticed how the hunched shoulders, protectively curled on previous occasions, were now rolled back to reveal their true, and beautiful, shape, and how he stood tall and straight now that the painkillers had kicked in. I wondered if it’d be inappropriate to say that I’d already had what I fancied for breakfast, which was him, but I decided it would be entirely so, and asked innocently instead, “What’s on offer?”
“Nan? What do w-we have?” he asked.
“See for yourself,” she commented, and shuffled out of the room.
He frowned, not looking hurt as I’d expect, but more puzzled by her behaviour. “We definitely need that break,” he muttered darkly, leaning down and speaking in my ear again, somehow it made me weak at the knees.
He tugged the fridge door open and stood back, still holding the handle, and asked me, “So, wh-what is on offer?”
I raked my eyes over the shelves, and called it as I saw it, “Not much,” I said truthfully. “There’s the dregs of some yoghurt, some yellow looking broccoli, and some margarine…”
“Hmm,” he said, feigning a thoughtfulness that the situation didn’t call for. “I’d say that means we need to go out for breakfast. Come on, my treat, and w-we’re not g-g-g-g… excuse me… not g-g-going to the Blue Bell this time.”
I stretched up on my toes and kissed him on the cheek, saying, “Someone’s in a good mood!”
He closed the fridge door and grinned again. “Yup,” was all he had to offer.
We grabbed our coats and headed out into the freezing winter day. The snow had stopped, and overnight a heavy frost had blasted the settled snow to a near-concrete hardness. I reckoned that I could probably set a lump of it in a silver ring it was so solid. That got me onto thinking I should make a bezel-set druzy ring to add to my collection as I’d noticed them growing in popularity on Pinterest, and while I figured out what I’d do with it, I fell silent.
“Y-you still with me?” he asked as we walked towards the bus stop.
I looked down at my arm where it was linked through his and yanked my body into his, instead of pulling him off balance. “Course I am, silly,” I giggled. “I’m just thinking, that’s all.”
“What’s on your mind?” he asked, concentrating on walking without sliding in the snow. I noticed how he gripped my arm rather more tightly than on the rare occasions in the past when he’d held onto me, and I wondered if the weather conditions made him nervous. He didn’t let on much if it did; just kept his rolling limp going with relative ease.
I snorted, embarrassed for some reason to share my embryonic project. “The snow gave me an idea for a new ring I’m thinking of making, that’s all,” I mumbled.
“It did?” he asked. “What’s it like?”
I described the raw, glittery bling of a druzy crystal, and how a pale one would evoke sunlight on snow, and how if I set it in sterling silver it’d be all icy and wintry, and had just got round to describing making the bezel for one when I caught his expression and stopped. My words caught in my throat as I saw the soft crinkle at the corner of his mouth, and I couldn’t read the rest of his face. Was he sad? Had I gone into too much visual description for him? Was it painful?
“Don’t stop,” he said, his voice barely more than a croak.
“It… I… Did I say something… wrong?” I faltered.
We were nearly at the bus stop, but he slowed his walk a little, and said, “No, no, not at all. I… I just don’t have much of a visual memory any more, and I forgot how l-little I can recall.”
“Visual memory? You mean you don’t remember what things look like?”
He nodded. “Yeah…” he paused thoughtfully… “L-like, I know this is a heart shape –” he traced the shape perfectly in the air between us, “– but I don’t know what that shape looks like any more. When you’re describing an oval bezel with a l-l-l-lavender stone…” I heard a sharp breath that could almost have been a sob, “I don’t know what that colour l-looks l-like anymore…”
“I’m sorry,” I said, moving my hand down the sleeve of his woollen jacket to his hand so that my fingers curled protectively around his.
“Don’t ever be sorry for something I can’t do,” he said, almost laughing.
“Do you remember any colours?” I asked, wondering how much technicolour had faded to black and white in four years.
“Green,” he said. “I r-remember green, from Amy’s eyes.”
I smiled, and I think he heard it. “They are kind of spectacular,” I admitted.
“Y-Yours are green too…” he said, wriggling his hand free of mine and bringing it to my face. His thumb brushed my lip, locating it like a radar ping, and his own lips were suddenly on mine, crushing against me. He pulled back, leaving me breathless and clinging onto him for a change. He added, “I’m still gl-gl-glad y-you talk about your j-j-jewellery with me though…”
“You know,” I said playfully as we set off again, “I have plans for your Christmas present… I’m going to make it tomorrow…”
“You are?” he said, seeming surprised. “What is it?”
“Like I’m going to tell you!” I laughed.
He shrugged. “Worth a shot,” he said with a boyish chuckle.
We ate at a place I’d never been to, though I’d passed it before. It was a cute artisan café right in the centre of town, nestled amongst a few other eateries and clubs, and as we stepped from the bus, I saw the sign of Silver Valkyrie, a fairly high-end nightclub. The sight of it made me groan, and Caleb asked what was wrong. “I’d forgotten for five minutes that Emily is having her engagement party at the club over the road.”
“When is it?” he asked.
“Christmas Eve,” I grumbled resentfully. “The night where I want to curl up in my bed, hang my stocking by the fire, and go to bed early and wait for Father Christmas… But instead, I’ll be in a room with pounding music, drinking cocktails whose price alone is enough to bring on a catastrophic, multi-organ failure, with a group of people that I don’t really know – most of them are Emily and Roger’s friends, not mine… I think she was going to get me to drag Luke along too.”
He hugged me as we walked, gently tugging me sideways against his hip so that there wasn’t an inch of space between us for a second, before carrying on towards the little café which served Sicilian food. I noticed him breathing deeply, and wondered if he was hurting, but then the scent hit my nostrils and my stomach rumbled so loudly I heard it even above the bus as it pulled away.
Caleb was laughing. “I don’t even need to be told where this place is,” he smiled darkly.
“I know,” I agreed. “It smells incredible.”
And it really did. Like in an old Tuscan hill town at eight in the morning, with every bakers shop drawing out its batches of loaves and cakes for the day, the aroma hung like a summer heat haze over barley fields. The food tasted even better than it smelled.
Caleb ordered a spicy omelette with prosciutto, and I had what they called the ‘Englishman in Rome’, which was essentially an Italian take on the full English. I’d noticed how when we’d eaten at his house before, and Jean had cooked, she’d told him what was where on the plate by using the numbers on a clock face, like ‘your lamb is at twelve o’clock, potatoes at three, broccoli at six…’, but he didn’t have that now, and I stopped myself a couple of times from asking whether he wanted me to tell him. He’d have to ask. I was new at this, so new I was barely out of the packaging, but I told myself firmly that he’d have to ask me if he wanted me to do anything differently.
As the Italian waiter set the plates down with a quick “Prego,” I watched as Caleb first found the edge of the plate with the back of his hand, then rapidly and delicately ran the very tip of his middle finger around the edge of the omelette to determine its size and orientation. After wiping the grease off on a napkin, he took a fork and, in the way that I’d seen before, deftly chopped a section off the omelette, using the knife both to gauge how much he’d lopped off, and whether it was safely on the fork.
“You’re staring at me, aren’t y-you?” he asked through a mouthful of spicy egg. His glasses were still on, and his eyebrows danced high above them for a second, flashing playfully.
I groaned. “I know it’s weird for you when I watch how you do stuff, but you know it’s even weirder for me when you call me out on it…”
He laughed softly and said, “C-come on, r-remember when I said I get a k-kick out of it?” I mumbled something indistinct and sullen from behind my own mouthful of delicious food, and he laughed softly before adding, “I just don’t want y-you to treat me differently, I guess…”
“I don’t,” I protested gently, “Do I? I don’t try to… I’ve just never seen anyone eat who can’t see, that’s all.”
“That’s not true,” he countered.
“You’ve seen me eat before…”
I confessed my earlier thoughts on Jean’s strategy for telling him what was where, and he laughed again. “She still does that… it was something I n-needed when I first lost my sight – Jesus, did I make a mess then – but I’ve g-got the hang of it now. It’s a bit… I don’t know, N-Neanderthaly to use my hands l-like that, but it means I don’t have to be told…”
“I’m sorry I made a big deal out of it without meaning too,” I muttered.
“Hey,” he said softly, putting down his fork and stretching out his hand over the table. Adding with a wry smile as I hesitated, “It’s clean. No food on it…”
I had to laugh as I slid my hand into his. “You’re the best,” I grinned. “Thank you.”
The last week before Christmas was crazy busy in the jewellery store, with me doing the work of a thousand elves, just so that those last-minute shoppers could get the bespoke items they wanted. I wasn’t complaining, because Julie let me work on commission that week, and boy did we sell a lot. And with Lachlann doing his smarmy thing out the front, I couldn’t make the pieces fast enough. My own jewellery line saw a peak as well, so my evenings were spent frantically soldering and setting, and the wonderful man at the post office was getting mighty sick of seeing my face in lunch break as I posted the little parcels off to their new homes. I did manage to make Caleb’s present and I couldn’t wait to give it to him, whenever we managed to meet up again…
At least I managed to book New Year’s at this tiny cottage in the Cotswolds for us. By some miracle there’d been a last-minute cancellation, and we were able to have the place at a slightly lower price. I texted him and said merely, "Do you trust me for New Years?"
His reply didn't exactly fill me with confidence, but still a "Yeah?" was better than a resounding 'no', I guess.
All this industry meant I didn’t get to see him all week, and as I tottered out in my skyscraper heels to Emily’s party on Christmas Eve, I deeply resented my commitment to my oldest friend. All I wanted was to curl up with Caleb on the sofa and chill out, or even just curl up on my own sofa and share an evening with Luke, who I felt like I’d hardly seen since he’d come home. He’d been out a lot catching up with friends in London anyway, but evenings at home were spent with me in the kitchen furiously soldering, and him mostly in the sitting room. At least the nightmares had stopped and we were both sleeping like the dead each night.
"Bloody hell," Luke swore as we stepped out of the taxi and saw that the swanky club was full to bursting.
Actually, it looked like it had burst, and its contents were spilling down the street, with girls standing awkwardly as a herd of fauns, in dresses far too short for the amount of fresh-fallen snow and freezing fog in the air.
"You're going to have to treat half the people in that line for hypothermia," I commented glibly as we neared the entrance.
"Why the hell did she have to pick here for her party?" Luke mumbled. He hated clubbing, always had - judging mercilessly for my behaviour in my early twenties, though he never failed to come and scrape me up off whatever pavement I’d landed on. "I'm too old for this..."
Even though my heels were the snowcats of the fancy shoe world, with thick, chunky heels, I hung onto Luke's arm as we crossed the road. "You're the most prepared of all the girls in that line, with those great clogs on," he teased me gently, knocking me off balance with a playful twitch of his elbow before catching me and dragging me upright again.
“Oi, stop that,” I complained. “Or they’ll think I’m already drunk and they won’t let me in…”
“Oh, that would be a shame, because I’d have to take you home…” he said, sarcasm weighing heavily in his words.
Standing shivering in line, I texted Emily, knowing she'd never be able to hear me if I called her, and said we were out in the queue. I doubted she’d even check her phone, but at least I’d have tried. Three quarters an hour later, just I thought Luke was going to throw in the towel and storm off, we finally reached the head of the line and stepped into the club, bass thumping, buzzing, vibrating off my ribs.
I'd almost forgotten the swamping, chest filling, all-encompassing sensation of walking into a club. The heat, the crush, the smell, the rush of adrenaline and excitement. Brought everything back I’d left behind. And there at the centre of it all, was Emily.
She looked as glamorous as she had in our party days, resplendent in some kind of disco-ball-made-fabric. Seriously, it was a textile disco ball. And somehow she looked fabulous. Not necessarily elegant, not plain sexy, but god-damned fabulous. I, in my short(ish), plum purple, V-neck number did not feel quite so resplendently fabulous. I felt my age, which I couldn't decide was a good thing or a bad thing.
"Alyssa!" she shrieked, though I could only tell that's what she said because I could read her lips, and her hands flailed, which is always a sign of volume with Emily. She tottered over in her towering heels, which channelled an equal amount of ‘disco-era’ vibes as her dress did, and flung herself at me. "Fucking hell! Why are you so late?" she demanded, pulling back. She had the definite slur in her voice that I recognised as meaning she was properly on her way to being what one might refer to as ‘trashed’.
As she lurched closer to me to sweep me up in one of her friendly hugs, I could see that we were no longer in our early twenties. There were some definite pre-crows-feet lines around her eyes which her expertly-plastered foundation hadn't quite hidden. "Been stuck in that purgatorial queue," I grumbled, half turning to see where Luke was. His retreating back was the silhouette of a man with one thing on his mind. I jerked my head in the direction of the bar and said, "And I've earned a stiff drink too."
"Say you're with Emily's engagement party - first drink is on me," she smiled. "And then come back here and tell me how things are going with your man..." She giggled, and as she tucked her hair back behind her ear, I was nearly blinded by the shards of light flung out from the enormous rock on her finger. The woman is a human disco ball, I said to myself as I followed my brother to the bar.
I found myself wishing, six mojitos later, that Caleb hadn't been busy that night. Banjo and Smiley had taken him out with some of the others from his old unit who I hadn't yet met, but since he'd said he wouldn't be staying out late, I wished he'd been able to join me. By ten or so drinks in, I felt like my younger self. Or at least, my brain thought it was my younger self. My body had other ideas. Luke had ducked out by eleven o'clock, just one hour after we'd got to the club, making me promise I’d call a cab home from the club. But by half twelve, I was filthy-drunk, lonely, and convinced I could dance like J-Lo. Or Beyoncé. Or both.
For the record, I can't. No one can. They are unique and beautiful entities, and should not be imitated. Ever. Especially by pale red heads like me. And definitely not ones with a blood alcohol level as far over the legal limit as mine was.
Emily and I may even have twerked as it got closer to one in the morning.
I don't remember texting Caleb, but when I ducked into the loos and pulled my phone out, nearly dropping it in the sink because iPhones have that mystery quality of becoming more like a bar of soap the more alcohol you’ve consumed, before picking it up again, I saw that I had five missed calls and an answer phone message. I was too blurry to call my own answer phone successfully on the first time, but at least I didn't call '999' by accident as I tried again. Fuck, I thought I'd left this version of me well in the past. This was embarrassing.
"L-L-Lyss, it's me, I hope everything's alright...” [long pause] “Can you let me know? Your texts k-k-kind of made me w-w-worry..."
What texts? Then, as I opened my messages, I remembered sending him a string of really pathetic texts sometime around half twelve, about it being really lonely. "Oh dear," I said, or rather slurred, aloud.
I tried to text him, but after five spectacular autocorrect fails in a row, decided I was definitely better off calling him. I figured it’s easier to pretend to be sober in person than it is to fudge your way through fifty drunk typos.
The bass pounded far too heavily, even in the bathrooms, for me to be able to hear my own voice, let alone the beautiful stuttering of my boyfriend, so I said my good nights to Emily, who begged me blearily to stay til she left, and I staggered sideways from the club onto the street with that awful feeling in my gut that I'd been here before. I had been here before though, but not for a while: drunk, blurry round the edges, slightly sick, and definitely not capable of making it home safely. Fuck. I was way too old to be behaving like this.
I saw a missed call notification on my screen, but didn’t really clock the name. What did catch my attention was the as I listened to the first four blank rings, and I prayed I hadn’t woken him.
"Lyss?" Caleb's voice was soft and gentle as a feather pillow.
"Caleb," I said, trying as hard as any wayward teenager to sound sober. "I'm sorry I worried you earlier..."
"I'm g-glad you c-called me finally," he said. Was that a sigh of relief? I could almost picture him pushing his hair back out of his eyes. "Where are you?"
"I'm still with Emily. No, well, I've just left, but yeah... I'm outside the club. Too noisy inside. Luke went home hours ago..."
"How are you g-getting home?"
"Erm..." I honestly hadn't given it much thought. "Taxi?" I said lamely, looking around at the complete dearth of vehicles, let alone taxis.
"Y-you booked one?" he asked. His voice sounded distant to me, and I couldn't tell if it was my level of inebriation or the phone that made him sound like that. But I sensed that even if he were calling me from Mars, he'd still sound as practical and sensible.
"No," I said innocently. "I hadn't really got that far..."
"C-can you g-get the c-club to c-call you one?" he asked.
"I'm outside," I protested lamely. "I don't want to go back in..."
"Can you c-call L-Luke..."
"He'll be in bed. I don't want to wake him," I whined, taking a step along the pavement to try and warm myself up and failing spectacularly as my heel hit a patch of ice and I squeaked suddenly.
"I'm good!" I chirped. "I'm good. I'm fine."
"You sound drunk," he said flatly, though I could hear the smile in his voice.
"Little bit," I admitted.
"L-little bit, eh?" he chuckled. I heard a rustling movement and then he added, "L-Listen, stay there, and k-keep warm, ok?"
"Gonna be hard to keep warm without you here to make me all hot," I heard myself say and instantly knew I should regret that.
He laughed a big, deep, booming laugh and said, "Definitely stay put."
"But how will I get home?" I slurred.
"I'm c-coming for you, silly," he smiled. "J-just stay at the Silver Valkyrie, ok?"
"Yes sir," I said, actually saluting. Fuck I was drunk. He hung up just as the world began to spin. And I mean really spin. My stomach turned to acid, and I suddenly felt super fragile. Caleb couldn't get here quick enough to rescue me. I put my phone back in my bag and forgot about it.
Twenty minutes later, a dark cab drew up and a tall, familiar figure stepped carefully from the back. He had his phone drawn out and was dialling a number when I recognised him. I was shivering violently, having refused to try and get back inside because if I did, I knew Emily would get me another drink and I'd probably pass out or vomit, so I'd stood shivering in a nearby doorway on my own, desperately avoiding eye contact with the bouncer on the door of the Silver Valkyrie.
"Caleb!" I called before the call could connect.
His handsome face turned sharply, responding to my voice. "Lyss? Y-you ok?"
I’d sobered up a bit, but I still lurched awkwardly as I made my way over to him, my progress also hampered by the slushy snow and the coldness of my legs. "Caleb," was all I could manage to say.
I reached him and flung my arms around him, only vaguely aware that I made him stagger sideways and have to stab his cane into the ground to support us both. "Christ," he whispered, presumably smelling the alcohol on me, but I hoped it was a protective reaction to how cold I was. "C-come on, you," he said, smiling softly and guiding me back to the taxi. I was so drunk that my sightless boyfriend did a better job of getting my own body into the car than I did on my own.
"I'm sorry," I kept whispering. "This isn't like me...I'm not like this any more..."
He held my hand a we sat in the car and it pulled away. The driver asked us where we were going, and Caleb turned to me and asked if I still knew my own address. When I surprised everyone by reciting it perfectly, the driver nodded and we headed out of town.
"I'm sorry," I repeated over and over.
Caleb's hand left mine and for an awful moment I thought he was going to pull away in disgust, but he laid the flat of his palm on my thigh and squeezed his fingers gently into the soft nylon of my tights. "It's ok," he chuckled softly. "If y-you can't g-get drunk on Christmas Eve at your best friend's engagement party, then wh-when c-c-can you...?"
"Yeah," I said, my vision blurring and my stomach heaving as we cornered a sharp bend too quickly for my liking, "But I'm so embarrassed. I'm too old for this..."
"You're twenty seven," he said kindly. "You're hardly checking out your pension..."
I laughed, rapidly regretted it, groaned and then looked over at him again. I wanted to kiss him, I wanted his hands all over me, I wanted him to take me high, but something in the back of my brain warned me that this was definitely the alcohol making me like this. Not that I didn't want him – I thought he was the most beautiful creature on the planet – but now was not the time to be fawning all over him like a youth in love.
We drew up at my house and I saw that the porch light was still on, and that Luke's light was also blazing away. Had he waited up for me? I staggered a bit as I got out of the taxi, my head pounding and my stomach complaining. I felt my way round the car, praying I wouldn't rick an ankle and go flying into the snow. Caleb asked the driver to wait, and climbed out with more elegance than me.
I latched onto his arm and he smiled softly at me. "You tell me where we're g-going, and I'll l-lead, ok?"
"Sure," I said weakly.
We made it through the gate and up the path without much incident, but I knew I was hanging off his arm more than he maybe would have liked. I knocked on the door because I discovered I didn't have any keys, and shortly I heard the sounds of the latch rattling. The door swung open to reveal my big brother – technically older than me by only a matter of minutes but it always felt like years to me – standing in the hallway. "Fuck, Lyss," he swore. "I've been calling you for the past hour..." And then he saw Caleb standing there like a supporting buttress to my spectacular architectural failure. He took in the cane(s) and looked from me to Caleb's face and added, "Caleb?"
"Yup," he said, leaning his walking cane against his hip to free his right hand so that he could shake Luke's. His other hand was busy holding onto me in a way that I knew wasn’t for his benefit.
"Were you at Emily's party too then?" he asked looking a little confused, stepping back and ushering us both inside. "Come in," he added when I stepped forwards and Caleb, having missed the visual cue, did not.
"That's ok," Caleb said. "No, I w-wasn’t there. I c-called L-Lyss to make sure she was ok. I thought I'd better bring her home...” He jerked his head back towards the road and added “Taxi's w-waiting for me..."
"I understand, and thank you," Luke smiled, turning his eyes to me. "Been a while since we've had to take care of you like this, Lyss, isn't it?" Luke said. "Why she didn't call me, I don't know. I'm sorry you were put out."
"Not at all," Caleb smiled, and I think we both bought it, whether or not he was telling the truth.
I could tell Luke was grateful to Caleb for looking after me, and that he wasn't really cross with me.
"Thank you," I mumbled, mortified, wondering how drunk I really was still. I just felt awful now.
Luke and Caleb both laughed big, fond laughs, and I knew they'd be ok with each other next time they met. And next time they met, I promised myself, I would not be legless as a newborn deer. I would be myself again.
Caleb held out an arm, inviting me to step in and hug him, which I did, unsteadily, and I breathed in the beautiful smell of his shirt as his arms closed around me. "Call me soon, ok?" he asked, leaving a soft kiss on the side of my head. "But get r-rid of that hangover first ok?"
"Mmmm," I groaned.
Luke stepped towards me and steadied me as I teetered out of Caleb's embrace. "Don't worry," he said, more to Luke than at to me, "I'll give her a good old fry up tomorrow morning..."
"Oh please don't talk about food..." I complained.
"Mmm," Caleb said, playfully riffing off Luke's joke, "Yeah, a big, gr-greasy fry up for breakfast tomorrow sounds perfect..."
The boys enjoyed torturing me for another few minutes, before I made an executive decision and made my farewells and bolted as quickly as it was possible for me to bolt for the bathroom upstairs.
As I curled into bed, the world spinning, my ears ringing from the music, my stomach rolling from the near alcohol poisoning I had inflicted on myself, I realised what a total fool I had made of myself that evening. Caleb had been a total gentleman and an utter sweetheart, but I prayed in silent tears that he would not change his mind about me over this momentary relapse into my former behaviour. I'd really meant it when I'd that wasn't me anymore. I'd always hated being a party girl, and was growing to resent Emily for bringing it out in me again, until I realised I was old enough not to be swayed into doing things that I knew I shouldn't. I only had myself to blame if Caleb decided he didn't like me, and that made me really miserable.
Sending a very brief, "Thank you, and I'm sorry you had to come and rescue me tonight, amazing though it was to see you x" to Caleb, I let sleep take me away as it swept up and dragged me down like a wave at sea. The last thing I remembered was the feeling of my tears soaking into the soft cotton of the pillow, with the sound of Luke and Caleb's combined laughter ringing behind the thrumming in my ears.
I really hope I get the chance to give my Christmas present to him, I thought as I drifted off feeling like I was on and cruise ship as the room spun around me.
I was out for a good six hours of oblivious sleep before anything intruded on my consciousness. "Morning Lyss," I heard a soft voice murmur in my ear. "How's our resident teenager feeling this morning..."
"Mmmuuuuurrrrrghh," I groaned, receiving a quiet wicker of laughter in response.
"There's a glass of water and a peppermint tea by your bed," he said, surprising me by stroking my hair tenderly before adding, "And in case I forget to say so, I tentatively approve of your boyfriend. Though as your brother I completely reserve the right to retract that at any time and order a hit on him..."
"Uh-huh," I mumbled vaguely, not really understanding him.
"Just sleep," Luke chuckled, "Oh, and Happy Christmas."
"Mmmmwhat?" I asked, attempting to roll over.
"Happy Christmas, dimbo," he laughed. "If you weren't such a raging alcoholic, you'd have remembered that."
"I remembered your present," I said, trying not to speak too loudly.
"Give it to me later," he said. "I'm going for a run."
"Show off," I muttered, drawing the covers up around my eyes and shutting out all light. Dark good, light bad.
The lack of light reminded me of Caleb, and my stomach sank as I remembered Caleb's romantic rescue from the night before. As Luke left me to enjoy my hangover alone, I checked my phone and forced my eyes to focus on a reply from Caleb to my message from the previous night: "No worries, I love you. Just take care and enjoy Christmas. I'll see you soon. C xxx"
He still loves me. Well that's something, I thought with relief. "My spectacular hangover and I will be enjoying a quiet family Christmas. Enjoy your day, and I'll hopefully see you really soon. Xxx"
Within minutes, my phone went again, and I forced my eyeballs to focus. "Take care. Can't wait to give you your present... Xxx"
"You're up early," I replied, seeing that the clock barely said 8am. "And you got me a present?! I feel like last night was your good deed for the festive season..."
"Amy has been up since six. And last night was a festive bonus," he replied. "Now go back to sleep for a bit."
"Yes sir," I said, adding a smiley face afterwards.
"Good girl," he replied, adding a smiley face of his own at the end, and about a million kisses.
Thank goodness I haven't blown it with my stupid antics, I sighed silently, setting the phone back on my bedside table and drifting back off to sleep.
When I woke, I heard the sound of the door slamming, and heavy footsteps on the staircase. Luke was back from his run then. I fully expected him to pass my door, but when I heard the handle rattle and saw his huge form barrel into the room, I jumped. "Ok" he bellowed. "That's enough!" And he emptied a huge handful of snow all over my face. "Merry Christmas!"
"Bloody fucking hell!" I yelped as the semi-frozen slop spilled over my face and melted snow poured down my pyjama top. I sat up and flailed in a kind of primeval panic, and then I felt my stomach roll violently, and the inevitable happened.
Just like in the old days, I began to feel better after that, and Luke was surprisingly nice to me, clearly feeling bad for making me sick.
And all in all, it turned out not to be too bad a Christmas, despite the self-sabotage I’d attempted…
To be continued...