December thirtieth, the day before New Year's Eve, and Joel was beginning to understand how choosing to move to a new house so late in the year had been a terrible idea. He had moved in November, from the fairly small town of Bonnyrigg over to Glasgow, and it had seemed sensible at the time - but now, a month later, his house was still a mess of half-emptied boxes and mismatched furniture, not very befitting of Christmas or New Year.
He hadn't exactly had the chance to make friends, either. With his new job, the house, and Christmas, he simply hadn't had the time for anything else. His neighbours were lovely though, so that was something - and Michelle was always eager to help.
Which was why Joel currently stood in the door of an unfamiliar pub, thick jacket wrapped around broad shoulders, eyes searching for Michelle's familiar face.
Ah, there she was. She sat with a redheaded man of in his mid-forties, and a slightly older man with dark skin and shortish, wavy hair. Their eyes met and Michelle waved, eyes brightening - ushering him over with a bright grin.
Joel couldn't help but grin back as he approached. He settled down beside Michelle, their booth seat somewhat hidden from the rest of the quiet pub. No doubt it would get plenty busier later.
"Guys," Michelle introduced with a grin, "this is Joel, my new neighbour. Joel, meet Shaun and Andrew, a few friends of mine."
He saw her plan, crystal clear - introduce him to some friends, help him feel included. Perhaps she thought he was lonely - which wasn't entirely untrue. Since his divorce two years ago, he hadn't been much in the mood for socialising. Tamara had been twelve years his junior, already married once before, and a disaster waiting to happen. Suffice to say, everyone had seen their divorce coming - everyone except for Tamara, it seemed. At least they had no children to fight over and parted peacefully when she moved to England to be with her new boyfriend. She moved on fast.
Shaking his head to dispel the thoughts, Joel smiled, offering each man a handshake before settling back into the plush booth seat.
"I'll order drinks," the tallest man - Shaun - offered. "What does everyone want?"
Michelle ordered a white wine, while Andrew claimed a red. Shaun, apparently not usually one for alcohol, simply ordered a cider. Joel himself didn't drink much either, especially not in the company of strangers - but it was the holidays, so why not?
After Joel asked for a beer, Shaun wandered off to the bar.
"So," Michelle turned to him with a smile, eyes sparkling behind thick-rimmed glasses, "how's Glasgow so far?"
Joel laughed, but had to admit, "I haven't seen much of it yet. My new job's been hell and I picked the wrong time of year to move."
Her expression was sympathetic, kind. Andrew's was likewise understanding, but he had a glimmer to his eyes that said anyone could have told you that.
"But I like it," Joel continued, "and I can't wait to properly settle in so I can explore the city more."
Michelle nodded, as if he had passed some test he didn't know he was taking. "I'm glad - and the three of us will be delighted to help you find your way around. Andrew here," she gestured to him with flourish, "is quite the socialite."
"I know every bar, restaurant and cafe in Glasgow," he confirmed with a nod.
Joel, despite not being hugely outgoing, had to admit that sounded good. If there was one thing almost everyone in the world agreed on, it was good food. His ex-wife had always loved fancy restaurants, and he supposed it had rubbed off on him. Perhaps it was about time he found new people to go out with.
"Drinks!" Shaun announced, and a beer suddenly appeared in Joel's peripheral. Andrew scooted aside to let Shaun back into the booth, and after a moment their chatter returned.
Sure, Joel was right when he said he hadn't explored Glasgow much, and it was certainly different from his hometown - even as simple as enjoying a drink seemed more exciting in the city. He listened to Andrew's idle chatter, some elaborate story about his brother, and for the first time since moving to Glasgow, he felt a part of something. Even more so than he ever had back home.
By the time his first beer was finished, the bar was beginning to pick up. The once empty tables filled with people coming home from their late shift, women on nights out, an enormous group of ten teenagers stuffing themselves into a booth made for six. Soon the once empty bar was filled to the brim with music and chatter, dozens of voices rising into one.
At some point, Shaun disappeared to get more drinks, and before long the empty glasses were piling up. Shaun paced himself at least, but Michelle had acquired more than a few wine glasses at her side of the table. Her cheeks were rosy, glasses beginning to slip down her nose - but Joel was mostly impressed that such a tiny woman could handle so much alcohol.
A glance at the old clock above the bar confirmed that it was after nine. Not late by any standards - but if Michelle's laughter and his own unsteady vision was anything to go by, they were nearing their limit.
"Maybe I should head home," Joel offered quietly, "it's been great, but I still have to work tomorrow-"
"Call in sick!" Michelle blurted, laughter spilling from her lips, "it's New Year's Eve tomorrow, you shouldn't have to work."
Joel parted his lips to say something like no way, or you're mad - but then Andrew reached across the table to slap a firm hand against his shoulder. "She's right, what's one day? Then you don't have to go home so early - and you can spend New Year with your new friends!"
He couldn't resist the smile, or the woozy laughter that slipped from his throat. He was flattered, really, especially considering he had known him for maybe three hours tops. Rolling his eyes, he replied, "I can't. It's a new job-"
“Come on. Please?” Michelle was practically begging, eyes wide with a broad smile.
Joel could have resisted, but a part of him didn’t want to. It was New Year, and he wanted to enjoy himself. So with a nod and a quick grin, he agreed. “Fine, just this once.” He waved a hand, almost sloshing his drink across the table.
Michelle was laughing, cheeks red - and Joel had to wonder if his own face was suffering the same fate. Wobbling to her feet, she clapped Joel on the shoulder with another burst of laughter and disappeared. “Now we know you’re staying, I’m off to get another round!”
"I didn't know Michelle could drink so much." Joel gestured to her, standing on her toes and calling to the bartender over the din of chatter.
"Me neither," Shaun admitted with a laugh. He had loosened up since their first drink, which felt like a hundred years ago. His flush was hidden by his dark skin, almost the same dark caramel as Joel's own.
"Come on, stop acting like Michelle doesn't know how to have fun. She does. You too Joel - I'm glad you came out with us today."
Joel felt himself beaming, pride flooding through him and cutting into the alcohol haze. "Thanks," he replied, "I'm glad I came here." He meant it too - he missed having a social life, missed what he hadn't experienced since he divorced. There was no one to blame but himself of course - not even Tamara, even if she had been the one to grind his social life to a halt. She had been the one to keep their many mutual friends, but he hadn't tried to keep in contact either.
Andrew's snort of laughter brought Joel back to reality, laughing at something only he had heard. Joel had the feeling Andrew wasn't really drunk at all, and simply putting on an act for himself and Michelle. Solidarity. The thought made him smile.
Soon Michelle arrived, stumbling even though she was in flat shoes. Joel's eyes widened as he caught sight of shots, as well as beer for the lot of them.
"Bit much," Shaun murmured, but he had long ago given up on moderation.
Andrew immediately went for one of the shots - and Joel decided hey, why not? He lifted a shot of his own and downed it in one, wincing as the taste clung to his lips. He was really beginning to feel it now, the haziness growing, his ability to see straight shrinking.
The second shot disappeared down Joel's throat, and before long he was nursing his beer while Michelle's laugh rang in his ears. He couldn't focus on the conversation, his mind wandering every few seconds, but he understood that Michelle found it hilarious. He found a smirk of his own curling at his lips, laughter bubbling up for no reason.
It had been a long time since he had been this drunk. Really long.
Eventually, the bar began to quieten, people filtering out and the chatter diminishing. After another hour - and another beer too - there were only a handful of people tucked into booths and tables, murmuring quietly. Joel guessed quite a few were going to be tending to headaches tomorrow morning.
Michelle downed the last of her beer, cheeks rosy, and fumbled for her phone. The screen glow was so bright even Joel looked away, eyes stinging. "Shit," Michelle muttered, "it's one in the morning."
"This place will be closing soon," Shaun replied. How was he still sober? Right, because he had the self-restraint not to down everything Andrew and Michelle put in front of him.
"I don't want to go," Andrew moaned - like a child, really, but it made Joel snort in laughter, "and there are no trains."
"We'll get a taxi," Joel offered, "shouldn't cost much."
Their grumbles and protests filled the booth, but Michelle clambered to her feet without much protest. Joel looped an arm through hers, but his own stumbling indicated he would be less than helpful if she slipped. Still, he enjoyed the way she leaned against him, her hair tickling his face.
Somehow the four of them found a taxi, and the driver offered them an easy laugh and smart remark about their state. They clambered inside, struggling with seat belts and complaining about the lack of space.
Tomorrow, Joel was going to have one hell of a hangover. But tonight, he didn't care.