Chapter Two

In the Bleak Midwinter

Westfield in Stratford was a relatively new shopping complex situated at the end of the Jubilee Line in East London. It meant Aedan had to travel past his home stop at Canning Town, but it was only two stations further. He was fuelled by a gingerbread soya latte with extra marshmallows, the sugar and caffeine doing wonders for his enthusiasm and, once he hopped off the tube, his walking speed.

“You can do this,” he muttered to himself. “You can do it. Just focus.”

He glanced at his watch. Seven o’clock. That meant he had three hours still to try and improve on the gifts he’d managed to get so far, particularly for Matt.

He’d not failed completely on Oxford Street. He’d got Matt some fun socks, aftershave, a couple of DVDs and sweets in ridiculous Christmas flavours that came from America. They weren’t as personal as the original present Aedan had ordered, but they were something for Matt to open in the morning at least.

Aedan walked through the front doors of the shopping centre and breathed in the warm air. One of the usual Christmas songs was pumping out over the sound system and the floor was packed with people darting between stores.

From experience, Aedan knew he could traverse one side of the building to the other in five minutes. There were three levels of shops, making it much easier to get between everything, unlike Oxford Street. He shook his head. He should have just come here first.

Never mind, he had no time to waste. First, he decided to go to John Lewis at the opposite end of the shopping centre. That was the same department store he’d been in on Oxford Street, and he hoped they’d maybe have more stock of the blue ice crystals he so desperately wanted for the tree.

On the way, he could see if there was anything better that caught his eye to add to his presents.

He’d not done all that badly. He didn’t have that many people to buy for after all; it was mostly just Matt’s mum and sister and the few members of his extended family. Aedan hardly had anything to do with his own family these days; he got the impression they much preferred it that way. He wouldn’t even see most of them over the holiday period, so that saved him time, money and aggravation at least.

Matt’s family were different though. They had welcomed him into their fold with open arms and he cared very much about them.

He and Matt were driving down to Matt’s mum’s house first thing the next morning. Her home was just about big enough to sleep them all comfortably tomorrow night, but Matt had insisted that they wake up in their flat for the first Christmas since they’d moved in.

They were still pouring their hearts and paycheques into making the space their own. As a new build, it didn’t have structural issues or anything, but both of them had all kinds of ideas about fitted wardrobes and kitchen cabinets and light fittings. Matt enjoyed upcycling old bits of furniture and Aedan loved painting walls and matching up art and knick-knacks to colour schemes on the walls.

So that was why Matt had insisted they take a little bit of time to themselves to swap Christmas presents in the home they had worked so hard to create over the past few months. However, Aedan secretly suspected he just wanted to give Aedan and him some time alone more than anything else.

That was fine by Aedan. December had been an utter blur, and the idea of taking the early part of the morning for just the two of them sounded heavenly. That was, if Aedan could get everything he needed before the shops closed tonight.

He and Matt had actually sorted Dawn, Matt’s mum, out with her present weeks ago. They’d bought her and her new partner, Keith, tickets to see Les Misérables at the West End. But all they had to open tomorrow was a printout of the tickets.

Dawn deserved more than that. Aedan would have normally handmade her a card with plenty of glitter to put the tickets in. But between his job and all the work on the flat, he’d not managed to get the time. Maybe he should get her an extra present now, just from him? A pretty pair of earrings or a nice top she could wear for New Year’s?

Tilly too, Matt’s sister. They’d got her a selection of skincare products from Charlotte Tilbury that Aedan knew she would love, but he still wanted to buy her something fun as well.

Keith was a nice guy, but Aedan had known Dawn and Tilly for years, ever since they had welcomed Aedan into the family as Matt’s boyfriend. They had been kinder and more supportive than Aedan’s family had even been. Even their dog, Buster, loved Aedan more than he suspected his own parents did.

Aedan had at least got Buster some fun, festive treats and a new coat to keep him warm on his walks. That was the only present that could be considered complete.

As he wandered through Accessorize Aedan made up his mind that Dawn and Tilly both needed something else, maybe a gift they wouldn’t be likely to buy themselves. Nothing extravagant, just something to add a little ‘glitter on the garland’ as his Aunt Eileen always said.

Used to say.

Fuck.

He hated when it crept up on him like that, out of nowhere. He pushed out of the jewellery store to the edge of the crowded walkway to grip onto the railing. He looked down to the lower floors and tried to catch his breath.

The tears came anyway, but he hoped no one would notice as he hastily brushed them away with the back of his hand.

He didn’t have much in the way of relations he was close to. He got on well with his sister and her husband, but they didn’t have a lot in common. The rest of his extremely large family either tolerated him or weren’t shy about showing how much they were disgusted by him for being gay.

Eileen was different; just as bright and effervescent as he was. Never giving a shit what anybody thought, marching to her own beat, following her own star.

Or at least, she had been.

Cancer was such an evil fucking bitch. How could it take someone so free-spirited and gregarious, then reduce them to a weak and sickly creature so fast?

Maybe it was better if you had more warning. Which hurt more? Taking months or even years to prepare yourself for the inevitable, or to have your last days snatched away within a matter of weeks? It could have been worse, Aedan supposed as people brushed past him, jostling his shopping bags. It could have been a car crash or something.

At least he got to say goodbye.

At least Eileen got to see Aedan happy, happy with Matt especially. See them follow their dreams and move to London. She never got to visit the flat they bought, but she left him an inheritance specifically to help with their deposit.

He’d told himself that this would be fine. That she was there in spirit this Christmas, still sprinkling her glitter everywhere. But maybe that was another reason he had put off holiday preparations for so long. He didn’t want it to really go ahead without her.

He took a shuddery breath. He had to, though. There was no bringing her back, but he still had people he cared for. They needed to see how much he appreciated them, and he wasn’t going to do that with mediocre gifts.

With one last huff, he carefully rubbed his face, trying not to smudge the eyeliner, and carried on down to the other end of the shopping centre. He would honour Eileen and get Matt’s family members a little something extra each, give them that sparkle to make them smile.

At least money wasn’t the concern it used to be. Aedan’s job as an I.T. consultant for one of the financial companies in the city centre meant his wage was decent. So while before he would have had that to worry about as well, now he could afford to be a little frivolous.

The spring came back in his step. He assured himself he was almost done, at least with the presents. He just needed to think of something special for Matt to top off the generic gifts he had already got, then find some pretty trinkets for Dawn and Tilly.

Aedan smiled to himself as he entered John Lewis. “Just hang in there a little longer,” he murmured to himself. He rolled his tired shoulders and wandered deeper into the department store.

The Christmas section was a large display right in the middle of the store. They wanted to entice as many people in as possible with the sparkles, like magpies. It always worked on Aedan, he appreciated with a chuckle.

But his mirth didn’t last. After several solid minutes of searching, he finally found the label for where the highly coveted blue hanging crystals should have been. Except they were entirely sold out.

Aedan swore, loudly enough for the old dear the other side of the display to jump. “Sorry,” said Aedan, but she was already bustling off, shaking her head.

He sighed. Perhaps there were some other similar decorations left? He poked through the rack, hunting for anything else that looked icy and glittery. But it seemed all that was left was in red with holly and berries.

Aedan shook his head. He should just forget about it. They probably wouldn’t even get time to decorate the tree tonight anyway. Matt was working a late shift and wouldn’t be home until ten or eleven o’clock. Aedan would be lucky at this rate to be home by then, let alone get his presents wrapped up. He’d wasted almost an hour in Westfield already; he needed to up his game.

Best to forget about buying new decorations now. He had to sort Matt’s final gift, get a few extra little presents for his family, then Aedan could grab whatever paper was left from the card shop, a load of sticky tape, then hit the Marks and Spencer food hall on the way out.

His plan was to get several packets of their delicious, fancy party food selection. Mini brie and cranberry tartlets, honey roasted sausage bites, crispy breaded mushrooms, maybe a wheel of camembert to put in the oven and vegetable crudités to dunk in it, not to mention some tasty fresh bread and crisps in the ridiculous flavours they put out just for Christmas. Aedan’s mouth watered at just the thought of it.

He pushed his way back towards the shopping mall concourse. He’d had a brainwave that he could get Matt a nice, mid-range watch, seeing as his old one still had Batman on it. Aedan actually loved that stupid watch, but it would be good for Matt to have a grown up one for events or going out.

Aedan checked his own watch. Eight o’clock. Perfect. He still had two hours until the shops closed, and Matt wasn’t likely to be back until around eleven.

Except, as he walked past Cath Kidston on his way to the jewellery store, the shutters rattled down beside him.

He stopped. Why the hell where they closing? All the shops were open until ten o’clock in the run up to Christmas. In fact, some places stayed open until eleven. Aedan snapped his head around…just in time to see Mamas & Papas babywear also closing down their grills.

“What the fuck?” he whispered.

No, no, no, this couldn’t be happening! He pushed through the crown towards Earnest Jones. Although, it did suddenly seem like there were a lot less people around.

“Excuse me,” he said, breathlessly as he reached the jewellery shop. The shutters weren’t down at least, but there was only one guy amidst all the watches, necklaces and rings, and he was holding a cabinet key as he looked up at Aedan’s greeting. “Are you still open?”

The sales assistant looked over at Aedan sympathetically. “I’m afraid not.”

“But,” Aedan spluttered. “Everywhere’s supposed to be open until ten?”

The guy shook his head. “Not on Christmas Eve,” he said. “You’ll be lucky to find anywhere open past eight tonight.”

The tears sprung into Aedan’s eyes, but he did his best to blink them back. “Okay,” he managed to stammer. “Uh, thank you.”

He turned and stumbled back onto the walkway, his many bags bashing against his knees. In horror, he watched as all the shops in his eyeline dragged their shutters down a few feet, encouraging those still inside to leave, or slammed them all the way to the floor so no one else could get in.

He was fucked. He was totally fucked.

None of his presents were complete, especially not Matt’s, which was pitifully inadequate. They didn’t have any food in or festive wrapping paper. Their local newsagents would probably be open until late like usual so he could maybe grab something. But what did that matter when he was missing everything else to make the next few days special?

He’d wasted all that time on the stupid decorations and buying coffee when he should have been racing around trying to achieve everything he’d failed to over the past month.

Christmas was ruined. And it was all his fault. 

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