It was December twenty-sixth, Boxing Day, and although the celebratory day was over, the festive season had only just begun. Soft, fluffy snow blanketed the ground outside, frost clinging to doors, windows and cars. Christmas lights twinkled, nestled amongst trees and snow-covered plant pots, and the fantastic Christmas decorations that adorned the Glasgow streets were likely to stay up at least until New Year.
Yet inside Ephraim Sheel's modest house, it was a simple affair. Blue fairy lights twinkled gently from the windowsills, and the same lights were strung around a short but well decorated Christmas tree. It had been a tradition once, when he still had a wife and lived in a much larger house, to decorate it in silver and blue. Now, years on, some traditions had changed. Some had even disappeared altogether. The Christmas tree, however, had stayed the same throughout.
Ephraim currently sat in his favourite chair, an expensive desk chair that offered back support even for someone as tall as him. A half-finished mug of tea sat by his side, almost forgotten as he let his mind wander. He had spent Christmas alone, as he had for the fifth year in a row now, but he had honestly enjoyed every moment of it. Unfortunately, now that the big day was over, Ephraim had allowed himself to slip back into the recess of his own mind. And that had him thinking about what he was missing out on. Did he hate being alone? Not at all. But he did miss being surrounded by family.
Down in the street below, a woman wrestled two excited children into their car seats. His neighbour, Michelle was her name, always treated her nieces to a day out on Boxing Day - and even if every year they grew closer to teenhood, they never outgrew their love of Auntie Michelle. Ephraim smiled fondly and returned to his tea, but the dull discomfort remained.
By the time he reached the bottom of his mug, Ephraim had returned to his work. As a freelance journalist, even something like Christmas didn't allow him time off. He became lost in the article, fingers typing rapidly and eyes never once glancing down to check the keyboard. An hour passed, and then two, and before long the sun filtering through his window waned.
Fingers cramping, Ephraim pushed back from the desk and stretched. He felt his back crack dully - and then his shoulders too. He wasn't old by any stretch, but approaching middle-aged had him hurting all over when the weather got cold. With a sigh, Ephraim went to make more tea.
He passed a photograph on his way to the kitchen. It was the same photograph he passed a dozen times a day, framed in mahogany and surrounded by - currently unlit - cranberry scented candles. Ephraim stopped - as he always did - to smile at the couple in the photograph. One was him, at thirty-eight, dressed in a smart black suit and blue tie. The other was a woman with striking blonde hair and deep-set hazel eyes. The photograph had been taken by his best man the day of he married his late wife, Liza.
Ephraim kissed the photograph, then made his way to the kitchen.
The kettle whistled as it heated, steam rising. Ephraim put two sugars into the cup, and then waited for the water to boil. As he did so, Ephraim's gaze wandered to the Christmas cards lining the far wall, held up with blue-tac and tape. There were cards from everyone - his cousins, aunts and uncles, neighbours and friends. One card always stood out among the rest, and it caused a swell of guilt in his stomach.
His parents sent him a card every year, one for Christmas in December and one for his birthday in May. Yet he hadn't seen or spoken to them in almost six years. They sent it out of duty more than anything else, he thought. Relationships had been strained for years, ever since he told them he didn't want kids. They blamed him for failing to give them grandkids, blamed Liza for turning their son against them. Then Liza died, the dam broke, and Ephraim cut himself off.
The kettle screeched as hot steam billowed from the spout, causing Ephraim to startle. Dragged away from his reverie, it took a moment for the cloud of confusion to settle. Then he let out a strained laugh, rolled his eyes at himself, and made tea.
He could worry and wallow in guilt any time, but it was December and he wanted to enjoy himself. Even if that meant doing what he did every week, only surrounded by festive cheer. So, taking his cinnamon tea upstairs, he banished those thoughts from his mind.
Or at least he tried to, but by the time he had settled back at his desk and opened a new document, his mind had drifted back. What were his parents doing right now? Did his sister still look the same, or was she going grey like him? Was he wrong for ignoring their attempts to reach out, or was he right for defending his right to live the way he wanted? After all, they had been the ones who had overreacted, the ones to verbally attack his wife for their choice not to have children. When she had died, his mother's biggest concern was that even if he changed his mind, the chance for kids was lost.
That really had been the last straw.
Ephraim groaned, dropping his head onto the desk with a thud. Dark eyes fluttered closed as he grimaced, and once again he tried to force the thoughts to disappear. After a while he succeeded enough to carry on with his work, eyes skimming page after page of articles, until the already grey afternoon turned completely dark.
A freckled hand reached for the mug - only for Ephraim to realise the tea was stone cold. He frowned, eyes glancing to the clock - only to realise with a jolt that it was after eight. He hadn't even eaten yet, but with his mood so sour he was grateful to have gotten lost in writing for a few hours. He abandoned the cold tea in favour of something more substantial, a proper meal, and shut down his laptop.
The rest of the night was peaceful, uneventful, but his doubts - as they did every year at Christmas - still lurked in the back of his mind.