Joel Part 2 Solo Christmas Short Stories


Part 2
by Hannah Westman

When Joel rolled out of bed the next morning, surrounded by unopened moving boxes, he was met with a banging headache and a queasiness that had him groaning into the palm of his hand. He hadn’t drunk this much in years.

By lunch it had subsided, although the fluorescent lights of his bathroom still sent a spark of pain across his temples.

By four o’clock, he was almost back to functional. He was grateful for the day off, even if his new boss hadn’t been so pleased. He had the feeling that Michelle, despite being a reasonably sensible and work focused person, was a bad influence on him.

Even more so when she texted him the name of an unfamiliar restaurant-bar, telling him to be there for nine. They had a Hogmanay special on food and drinks, and almost her entire friend group was invited. Friends included him, and he wasn’t embarrassed to admit that it made him smile.

So, at nine o’clock on the dot he appeared, and a pretty waitress led him to a table near the back. The restaurant itself was impressive – casual Italian style, with a bar at one end and a collection of cosy booths at the other. He saw Michelle immediately, and then Andrew’s shock of bright hair, then Shaun’s smiling face.

There were two he didn’t recognise too. An older man with messy dark and grey curls; and beside him, a woman in a denim jacket.

“Hey, there you are! We thought you were going to be a no show.”

“After how much we had to drink last night, all of us could have been a no show.”

With a bashful smile and a shrug, Joel settled into the booth beside Shaun. “You drank more than any of us,” he quipped.

The woman in denim had already started on the drinks, her dark cheeks rosy. “I would have loved to be there – I’ve never seen Michelle drunk before. I’m Cynthia, by the way.” She stuck out a hand, perfectly manicured, and Joel hesitantly shook it.

“Ephraim,” the other man introduced, “you’re new around here, right?”

They shook hands too, and Joel found himself smiling. “I am,” he confirmed, “haven’t really had the chance to see much yet. Or meet many people.”

“Oh, so we don’t count?” Andrew huffed, but his eyes were bright, “fine. I guess I won’t be buying you a meal then.” Yet he was grinning, already arm stretched handing across a menu. 

The food was simple but hearty – some traditional Italian, some with a more British take. Eventually, Joel settled on seafood risotto; and he ignored the way Michelle pulled a face at his taste in food.

“Not a fan of seafood?”

“It isn’t that,” she admitted with a laugh, ruffling her dark hair, “But I’m still suffering from last night. The sight of seafood is… ugh.

Joel muffled his laughter behind the menu, but the corners of his eyes crinkled with a smile. Meanwhile, Andrew and Ephraim didn’t even try to conceal their laughter. 

Michelle simply rolled her eyes and called for a waiter.

They ordered food – which arrived piping hot and delicious in no time at all – and drinks, which Shaun held back on but everyone else was glad to participate in. They drank in moderation this time, especially when Michelle paled at the sight of Joel’s seafood.

Joel himself smiled at the delicious smell of shellfish and rich, buttery sauce. The first mouthful was divine, hot enough to scald his tongue but filled with flavour. He could have eaten two plates – three even – but he wanted room for dessert too. 

Even Michelle loosened up as they ate, her creamy pasta was apparently the perfect hangover cure. She leaned over to stab a piece of his fish while Cynthia laughed, but he didn’t mind. “You can have some if you want,” he offered.

“Don’t, or they’ll be nothing left for you,” Shaun warned. He rolled his eyes, but a smile curled at his lips, “Michelle’s known for pinching food.”

“I am not,” Michelle grumbled, but her glare held no force. In fact, she broke into a grin a moment later and helped herself to the bread in the centre of the table.

Shaun was right, because she had eaten more of the shared side dishes than anyone else. Joel kept that to himself.

Soon after their food was finished, and although Joel had planned on dessert, he was simply too full. Cynthia and Ephraim shared a panna cotta, and Andrew wistfully stared at the dessert menu without ordering.

Afterwards, they shared another round of drinks. Joel, being sensible, stuck to beer – and thankfully both Michelle and Andrew had enough common sense to do the same. They chatted well into the night, and gradually the restaurant became quieter while the bar area became busier.

He wasn’t sure when they moved from their booth to a table by the bar, but soon enough he was idly watching the enormous TV screen. It played a rerun of some sports match he had zero interest in. Tamara would have been appalled by something so seemingly dull – but she wasn’t here, nor was she able to tell him what to do. In fact, her attempts to do so were just one reason they broke up.

The TV screen flickered, and the football game disappeared. In its place was the smiling face of an older gentleman and a countdown. New Year Live.

“That time already?” Michelle laughed, craning her neck up to see better, “feels like we just got here.” Joel had to agree, although they had been there for several hours.

“Well,” Andrew replied, nudging to the side so he could also see, “say goodbye to twenty-nineteen I guess. What’s everyone’s New Year’s resolution?”

“I don’t know about mine,” Ephraim hummed, “but yours should be to drink less.” His own grin was woozy though, the impact ruined as he brought a glass of wine to his lips. 

“Mine is to focus on myself more,” Michelle mentioned with a nod, “I put too much time and effort into work and end up draining myself. Everyone needs a break, you know?” She nodded again, firm and decisive in her decision. Good for her.

They went around the table, each telling the others about their resolution, although Cynthia admitted that her resolution of “stop being so impulsive” was likely to only last a week. It earned a round of laughter from the table, yet another round of drinks, and a comment from Ephraim that even a week was lucky.

Eventually, everyone’s attention turned to Joel, not so patiently waiting for his answer. He wasn’t much for resolutions – why wait for New Year to start a new habit? – but with five pairs of eyes fixed on him, he felt the need to at least say something. “Well,” he began, the tickle of alcohol in the back of his mind urging him on, “I’d like to go out more. Visit new places, meet interesting people. There wasn’t much opportunity before.”

Michelle laughed, eyes bright, and clapped a small hand to his shoulder. “I’d say that’s a good idea! Wouldn’t it be great if you got to experience those things with us?”

He smiled, suddenly bashful, and ran a hand through close-cropped hair. “Yeah,” he admitted, “it would be.”

Joel could have said more, but at that moment he was shushed by a grinning Andrew, who was leaning across the booth to see the screen. 

A moment later it became obvious why. The countdown had begun. The bar fell silent, as if each patron was holding their breath – and then the chant started.

Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six…

Michelle grinned at him across the bar, and her eyes were clear despite the collection of empty glasses by her corner of the table. They counted down together, the six of them until the timer hit zero.

“Happy New Year!” 

The chorus erupted; ear-splittingly loud as the entire bar lit up. Joel half expected confetti to pour from the ceiling as all around him, people embraced.

Beside him, Andrew tugged him into a bear hug, and the air flew from his lungs. “Happy New Year. Glad we had you here.”

“Thanks,” he muttered, but his voice was lost to the crowd, “me too.”

And he was. The week had started out like any other, and Joel had accepted the fact that he was going to spend New Year alone. How wrong he had been, but for once he was happy to be wrong. 

Eventually, the bar emptied, and soon enough they were also kicked out too. The cold hit Joel and he shivered; cheeks tinged pink from the wind.

Cynthia and Ephraim split, waving goodbyes as they headed off toward their street. “Bye!” Cynthia called with a beaming grin, “it was great to meet you, Joel! We should all do this again sometime.”

Shaun also left, and although they were exhausted, he claimed the walk might do him good. “I like the fresh air,” was his excuse.

Unfortunately, Joel and Michelle, living only a few doors apart, were too far away from Glasgow Central to walk. “We can share a taxi,” Joel offered.

“No way,” Shaun shook his head, “you did that yesterday, and it’s expensive. Come back to mine. I have two spare rooms waiting for you.”

Joel parted his lips – may be to turn down the offer, perhaps to find another way home – but Shaun took him by the arm. He hooked an arm through Michelle’s too, taking them both by surprise. “It’s just one night. I’ll make you breakfast and everything.”

Well, how could Joel say no to that? With a huff of laughter, he agreed, and allowed Shaun to tow him down the dark street.

It was nice to have friends looking out for him. He enjoyed knowing he was finding himself in this new city, that he wasn’t alone. And with friends as welcoming as these, what else did he need?

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