Well, Merry...er, Happy New Year, because this is awfully late despite me working on it for most of December haha. I'm trying something a bit new for my serious fic this year, having a look at how the Boswells appear through the eyes of the recurring characters and how the Boswell family's larger problems seep into the personal lives of those around them. I was going to do the spouses/partners of all six Boswell children (including Shifty) but I ran out of time, so I've left out Aveline, who I did last year, and Jack, for whom I've got a larger fic in the works slated for next year. I've tried to connect each of the individual Christmas stories to the events of the last episode of the show and to each other via Nellie and Joey, and there are a few hints as to something Shifty did in this headcanon which will be explained in a later fic I have planned.

Anyway, I won't ramble on in the author's notes as I usually do. Merry Belated Christmas and hope you like.

Christmas, 1991

Fifty-two days after Joey and Adrian Boswell left Kelsall Street for good

Connie Bryant
girlfriend of Billy Boswell

It's a horrible conclusion, this conclusion she's come to, but there isn't any other, really. She has to end things with Billy.

Not that Connie wants to, when they have such a good laugh together, when they have such a great time, when every Friday is fish-and-chip night in the cornfield come rain or shine and she's become accustomed to the tradition, not when he's the first boyfriend she's had that's been any decent in the bedroom, but there are other, more pressing things she can't ignore.

Billy wants to get married. Now, Connie has nothing against the old domestic life in theory, but in practice, when she's still only twenty and there's a big world to explore, and there's adventure to be had and she's going to do something great, as soon as something great makes itself known to her, the call of pinnies and kitchen sinks not all that appealing.

Billy has a daughter. This shouldn't be an issue, except for the fact that it is. Francesca is the brattiest little brat who ever opened her bratty little gob, and pretending to like her for a couple of hours at a time is hard enough. She can't imagine being her stepmother. She can't imagine being anyone's stepmother, actually. Stepmothers have wrinkles and hideously-dyed platinum hair and laughs like horses and chain-smoke until their clothes smell of ciggies even after a wash. Or maybe that's just her dad's new wife clouding her judgement, but that's what immediately comes to Connie's mind. She doesn't want to become that. She doesn't want to become anything to Francesca. Both the role and the child who comes with it are appalling to contemplate.

Billy is going nowhere. Having failed at his short-lived pizza delivery job, he's back to selling sandwiches, and Billy's sandwiches, she's sorry to say…they're never going to make him a fortune. You can get better from the delicatessen two streets down from her house, and they charge 5p less and don't usually insert pickle into whatever combination you asked for, just because it exists as a sandwich filling. If she stays with Billy, she'll still need to sign-on. He doesn't make enough to support himself, let alone her. And unlike her Stacey and her Malandra, who are nearer thirty than she is and still happily trotting off to queue up for their giros, Connie plans to be out of the system by twenty-five. She's not going to be signing-on forever. There's a lot you can't do when living only on that paltry sum they spoon out. And though Connie doesn't have a specific goal for her life, as yet, she's got a vague one. Do a lot.

Billy, even though he pretends otherwise, is still hung-up on his ex-wife. He denies it fervently. He slags Julie off endlessly. But those denials and those slaggings-off, and those constant refrains of how much better she is compared to Julie are just a veneer masking the uncontrollable obsession he still obviously harbours for her. And Connie doesn't mind being his transition back into the world of relationships, because it's all good fun, and he's good fun, but what she doesn't want to be is his transitional marriage. She doesn't want to be a permanent void-filler. She doesn't want his desperate attempt to be successful at romantic coupling, just to prove that he can make it with someone, if not with Julie. It may sound conceited but she can do miles better than that.

There's nothing else for it, they're going to have to split up.

The problem is, this conclusion has come at a rubbish time. It's nearly Christmas.

Nobody wants to break a heart at Christmas. That's just cruel, and Connie may be the bane of many people's existences, including her mam, her stepmother, all her teachers from her old school and that DSS woman she hates, Billy's mam especially, but she's not actually cruel. She annoys, she takes pleasure in annoying, but she doesn't hurt. Apart from when she occasionally kicked her Malandra as a child, but nobody counts the sibling fights you got into as a kids as a strike against your character. All in all, she's not a bad person.

And as such, she's not going to do it at Christmas. She just can't. Her mam, fond of Billy as she is, has invited him to have Christmas dinner with them this year, to throw an extra spanner in the works. Billy has talked of nothing else. Of how his Mam has gone off her rocker at the idea, of how he, nonetheless, is braving her disappointment, disapproval and downright fury to 'be with the woman he loves' on Christmas Day. His Joey and his Adrian's impulse marriages have sparked an obsession with romance in Billy's mind that borders on ridiculous. And while Connie likes a spot of daydreaming once in a while, isn't averse to the odd romantic gesture, there is a vast difference between enjoying wild fantasies and actually wanting to do something wild and ridiculous in real life. She'd got goose pimples hearing about how Adrian had run off with Irenee and Joey with Roxy, but to do the same with Billy is unthinkable. Unrealistic.


And Billy's whole self-sacrifice is getting on her nerves. She'd liked spending time with him before, had looked forward to it, until he'd attached himself to her hip like some sort of barnacle or a verruca that gets more embedded in your skin the more you try to pick it out, and started going on non-stop about how he never wants to be apart from her ever again, and how this is because she's so much better than Julie (all the while looking wistful and thinking of Julie and Francesca.) But his devotion, deranged though it may be, coupled with his being there at a family Christmas, cementing himself more firmly in everyone's hearts, are going to make their breakup even more difficult. She's planned it for the seventh of January—long enough after New Year that there's no chance of his Christmas memories being tainted by it. And there's not a hope in Hell she'll tell her family til after the fact. The last thing anyone needs is her Mam's sympathetically knowing looks, saved for anyone who either has or is about to receive bad news, brought out more to show off the fact that she has inside information than as a genuine act of sympathy.

There's one thing for it—Connie's going to have to just forget about it over Christmas. Treat it like a normal Christmas Day—a good day—and a normal dinner with her boyfriend and her family, and leave it at that. Oh, but it's going to be bloody hard, though.

'With Julie,' Billy says, putting his hands behind his head, 'we always 'ad the curtains shut.'

'I don't care how it was with Julie.' Connie's happy daze is somewhat dampened by his comment. Billy is good at it, she can't deny that—far better than one would think, given how he crashes through every other aspect of his life—but the notion that he might've been comparing her to not just an ex-lover, but an ex-wife, the entire time, is fast killing the pleasant memory of a few minutes ago.

'And we always 'ad the blankets over our heads.'

'Well I'm not Julie,' Connie says irritably, 'and I don't do it like that.'

'No, I like it better this way,' Billy reaches up and touches her hair—doesn't stroke it, or ruffle it, or tuck a bit behind her ear, just touches it. As if to feel it. As if to take in its existence.

For a few moments, it's just quiet affection, soft smiles, glances, occasional touches, and she can stop dreading the future and just enjoy the present. This is why she likes Billy so much, she realises. These little instances where his simple, genuine nature really touches her heart. He can be annoying at times, and her DSS clerk was right when she said he'd got a gob on him like a radio—some kind of inane talk show emitting from it non-stop—but he can be fun, he can be great company, and sometimes, at times like this, he can just be sweet.

'Someone might see in, though.'

And just like that, the little moment is gone again.

Connie snorts. 'Who cares if they do? It's a laugh.'

'They might spread adultery rumours.'

You can't help but laugh at Billy sometimes. Lovable, daft little prick. Adultery rumours. Connie shakes her head.

'So? If anyone goes to the bother of climbin' a ladder just to look in me bedroom window and watch us doin' it, they're gonna get done for invasion of privacy anyway.'

'Oh, yeah.' Billy doesn't' seem to be convinced, but he looks as though he's pretending to to curry her favour. Another thought of the task ahead, of the end of their relationship looming, a big red X of doom on her mental calendar, comes back to Connie, and she quickly shoves it down, choosing to focus instead on the day ahead.

'Eh,' she says, rolling away from him and towards her bedside drawer. 'Got a Christmas present for ya.'

She grins, proud of her own joke, and deposits her gift in his lap with a flourish.

Billy's eyebrows go up, then down, then up again. 'What's this supposed to be? It looks like 'alf a pair o' tights to me!'

'It's not tights,' Connie sighs, 'it's a stockin'.'

The eyebrows remain in their befuddled position. 'Eh?'

'You know,' she elbows him playfully in the ribs. 'A stocking. A Christmas stocking. Geddit?'

Billy frowns, puts his hand inside it, his forehead crinkling when he finds nothing within, and then a tantrum breaks loose.

'Aw, that is not funny, Connie! I got you a real present, I did, and it came out of the money I was gonna spend on Francesca's present, and Julie played a trick like that on me with Bismuth once and it was hurtful, Connie, so just don't start, just DON'T BLOODY START!'

'God, Billy,' Connie says, snatching the stocking back, 'it was just a joke. What's up your arse today? You've been goin' on about spending Christmas with me long enough—the least you could do is try to be bleedin' pleased about it now you're here.'

Connie is fed up. He'd come round on Christmas Eve full of Billy-flavoured festive cheer, won her family over, as he does every visit with his simple, daft brand of charm, so similar to her Mam's it's uncanny, they'd spent a great night together, and she'd woken feeling calm, happy in the knowledge that they were going to spend a fantastic, a wonderful, a mega Christmas together. One last hurrah, one final good memory to take away with them when their time together draws to a close.

And now Billy is ruining it.

The blankets rustle as Billy turns away huffily.

'I left my Mam alone at Christmas for this.'

Well, go back to your Mam, Connie is tempted to say. Push off and take your mardy arse with you.

But she holds back—a difficult feat for her, given Connie tends to speak her mind no matter where she is—but it has to be done. There'll be enough bad feeling in a couple of weeks as it is. Save it for then, she tells herself. Save it for then.

'Billy!' she says, reaching over and poking the mole on his back. 'Eh, Billy. I did getcher a real present, you know.'

His curly head emerges from under the pillow. 'What?'

Connie grins—she can't help herself—and produces the I am a Tiger cap she bought. He's been going on ever since she met him about how some dastardly yobs had nicked his favourite hat from the back of his van one day, and to have stumbled across one exactly like it is a sheer stroke of luck. Connie's not a presents person; no matter how much thought she puts into it, she can never decide what to get people and usually ends up getting the same box of chocolates for everyone, so to have found something tailored to her partner is an achievement for her.

Billy's face breaks into a smile and she knows for certain she's chosen the right gift. Well, at least that's one thing going right this Christmas.

'Aw, 'ey! Fantastic! Mega!' He's stolen that expression from her. He's also smiling again, something for which Connie is grateful. For all his childish outbursts and sulks, Billy is fairly easily pleased.

'Thanks,' he says, grinning, and then they're kissing again, in a way which Connie knows will inevitably lead to them missing breakfast—not that Connie cares. Her mam has always been very tolerant of her Malandra's bedroom antics and dozens of male companions over the years, and thus far she's adopted the same policy where Connie's escapades with Billy are concerned. She offers him breakfast when he stays over, asks how he is when she comes home and finds them canoodling on the sofa, teases Connie about what they get up to after he leaves and they laugh and joke at his surprisingly spindly legs together. It's infinitely preferable to Billy's house, where Nellie hovers over them, daring them to defy her and touch each other, and make snide comments about her gangly limbs. Connie is almost pleased Nellie is spending Christmas alone, just for that.

Connie's Mam likes Billy. She'll no doubt be disappointed when he's no longer around, ask what's happened to him. Connie firmly pushes the thought aside as Billy's lips part from hers and meet them again.

Let's just enjoy Christmas, eh? She tells herself. Our first and last Christmas together.

'Wahey! Get in there, son!' is Stacey's bawdy, obnoxious refrain when she walks into the parlour and sees them sharing (fairly chaste, where Billy and Connie are concerned) kiss.

Connie pulls back to glare. 'Shut yer fat gob.'

'That any way to talk to family on Christmas Day?' Stacey sits down between them deliberately to annoy Connie and puts her feet up.

'My arse you care about Christmas Day! You're only hangin' round til the pubs open.'

'See that clock up there, ickle Connie? When the big hand gets there,' she points, 'I'll be off. Who knows, I might be lucky, bring home a nice sailor for Christmas dinner.'

'I bet he'd taste great with gravy and stuffing,' Connie says dryly. Stacey boffs her on the head, glances at her watch, then the clock, and gets up to go and infuriate someone else.

'Your Stacey reminds me of our Jack,' Billy says thoughtfully. 'Not the sailors. That's more like Julie's Mam. But the way she talks to you. He's spendin' Christmas with Leonora. She's pregnant, you know.'

'Yeah, I know,' Connie rolls her eyes. 'You've only told me an 'undred times.'

'I was pregnant once.'

Connie spits out the mouthful of mince pie she's bitten off.

'Like 'ell you were!'

'Well, not me. Julie. With Francesca.'

Connie stares at him for a few moments, her lip trembling with a snicker she can only briefly hold onto. He is a laugh, is Billy, in the most lovable, idiotic way. He doesn't even realise half the time just how ridiculous the things he's said are. His total seriousness, and his inability to see why others are roaring their heads off at him or rolling their eyes and correcting him, is adorable, and Connie remembers again with a sickening jolt that she'll miss him. She really will. No, for pity's sake, she's not going to think about that now! If she starts to pity him, starts to remember in the context of missing him just what she likes about him, she's liable to change her mind.

'Me Mam's gonna be lonely this Christmas,' Billy has moved on from the pregnancy topic now, his train of thought following its usual zig zag back and forth through old thoughts. 'With me here, our Joey with Roxy, our Jack with Leonora…'

'Our Adrian with Irenee and our Aveline with Oswald, our Grumpy with Dopey with Bashful…' Connie finishes, biting her lip in frustration. She knows the whole shopping-list of Boswell family Christmas plans by heart now, having heard it every ten minutes for the past fortnight or so. And she remembers again why this has to happen, why it'll be their last Christmas. Next year, boyfriends' Mams' heartbreaks over married sons' Christmas plans will hold no significance to her. There will be no comments from boyfriends' mams about her wayward legs. There will be no boyfriends' Mams at all, no Nellie Boswells, no Billy Boswells, just relief and freedom. But even as she thinks this, she spots Billy's face light up into a smile as her Mam wraps a homemade scarf round his neck, and a lump comes to her throat.

Martina McKenna
on-off girlfriend of Shifty Boswell

It's Shifty's fault the Christmas dinner is ruined. The little bit of turkey breast she'd got for herself from the deli is burnt, after being left too long in the oven when it was only meant to 'heat up,' the vegetables overcooked to the point where they disintegrate with one touch of a fork, because they'd been left to boil over, the potatoes…well, the less said about them, the better. And Martina is fuming—though she's not sure which she's fuming about more: that the dinner was left to burn because she'd been busy scolding Shifty for the exorbitant presents he'd stolen to give to her instead of watching it, the fact he stole a small fortune's worth of jewellery to give to her in the first place, or the simple knowledge that this is her life know. Her raison d'etre has become to go around cleaning up Shifty's messes, atoning for the wrongs he commits, waiting in glum anticipation for him to come home at some ungodly hour treading more misfortune through the carpet of her existence. Now he's living with her, now he's been turfed out by the Boswells for some unpardonable crime, the particulars of which he refuses to divulge to her, she's got to deal with him all the time, and her patience with him is wearing thinner and stretching further. It's not made of rubber—there will come a point, she's sure, when it'll snap.

It's like living with her brother all over again. Shifty burns through her money faster than she can earn it, and his charming words, which she had once believed were honest and genuine, always seem to be masking something—a transgression, a betrayal, an unreasonable demand. And yet Martina is moved by something. It feels like pity, or perhaps something she can't quite name, something internalised, which propels her to give in to people of a similar nature, but she calls it 'love,' because it's the closest thing she's ever come to that emotion. And whatever it is, this thing she's decided must be 'love,' makes her turn a blind eye to all his indiscretions again and again, take him back, accept his apology, even though the I'll never do it again part of it is clearly untrue. Shifty can't help himself but to do it again.

That doesn't mean she doesn't get angry, though. She may be forgiving, but she still feels the weight of the disappointment in him each time. And she's angry now. She certainly doesn't want to be implicated in the theft of what appear to be rather precious stones, and the fact that the Christmas dinner is ruined is the insult to injury that broke the camel's back, because one expression alone won't do her extreme annoyance at the situation justice.

'Oh dear,' Shifty has come into the kitchen, is simpering over her shoulder in a way which makes Martina's teeth grind. He stares at the wreckage of her dinner as though her disappointment has hit him personally, something she has discovered he likes to do in times of trouble, in the hope of absolving himself of whatever problem he has caused. 'That's a bit of a shame, that is. '

Martina bristles. A part of her is holding itself back from ripping into him again, screaming and hitting and eventually throwing him into the street to starve and freeze, another part on the verge of bursting into tears of frustration. A bit of a shame. That's all he can say. She had had everything perfectly timed, had been up early cooking, had had ten minutes left before everything was ready and he'd had to drop his little bombshell there and then, had had to drag her away from the kitchen not to surprise her with something lovely, but to present her with a shock so nasty all thought of the meal she'd been preparing had flown out the window in the wake of the tidalwave of fury which had swamped her. She doesn't have much to look forward to at Christmas- no real family to spend it with, no presents, no point in getting decorations when nobody will see them. All she looks forward to is a nice meal and a bit of peace, and she has been denied both in one fell swoop.

'If I were you, Shifty, ' she says, her voice very even considering her mind is leaping at her mouth like an untrained dog at the door, 'I'd go into the other room and out of my sight before I shove your head in that oven and roast you for me Christmas dinner! '

'Now I sense you're a little bit angry...'

Martina grinds her teeth so hard she feels a shivery pain as a grain of something she hopes isn't a bit of crown comes loose. 'Yes,' she replies, 'I'm in a little bit of a murderous rage, as it happens.'

'I'll make it up to you, ' he whines, clutching at her arm, 'I will, I will!'

'How? Gonna magically unburn my dinner, are yer? Gonna unsteal that jewellery? '

'I said I was sorry didn't I? Holy Mother, what d'you want me to do? Take it back? Turn meself in to the police on Christmas Day? Get shoved in the clink on this most holy of days to wither and suffer while everyone else enjoys their time with their families and loved ones?'

He's turning the guilt on, and she bristles at it, because guilt never works on her down the Social Security, never works on her when those pesky Boswells and Evanses and all the other bloody families with their fortunes of pooled claims and giros tell their pathetic sob-stories and tall tales are doing it all the time. And it certainly doesn't work on her now, being used as a weapon against her by bloody Shifty, who has single-handedly ruined her Christmas and reduced her from her getting-by-holding-back-negative-emotions state to being on the verge of collapse again. It'd taken her months to build herself back up, following their last separation. He's destroyed all her hard work on herself in a matter of weeks, with this being the final brick pulled out to fell the tower. She has no sympathy for him, and no matter how hard he tries- and oh, how he does try- he's not going to make her feel sorry enough for him to condone his horrendous behaviour. Not this time.

'Why can't you go back to the Boswells?' she snaps.

'Doooon't make me go into all that again!' he wheedles in return, as he always does when she asks this question, though Martina can't recall him ever having gone into all that even once. 'They chucked me out, all right? They're falling apart, that family, I'm telling ye.'

'You're probably the reason,' she says acidly.

'No, you don't know, Martina, you don't know. Ever since Joey and Adrian...well, it's Auntie Nellie I feel sorry for. She'll be all alone this Christmas, you know. Not one of them there.'

'Well you go and join her, by all means!'

'I told ye, didn't I? I can't! I'm barred!'

'So what was the point in elaborating the latest episode in the Boswell family's soap opera of problems?'

'I was explaining why it WASN'T MY FAULT THEY FELL APART!' Shifty is roaring now, a sign he's either losing an argument or can't quite work out how to properly defend himself. It sets off a ringing in one of Martina's ears. He is literally doing her head in, piece by piece.

'I DON'T CARE!' she hollers back, ignoring the fact that her temples have now begun to throb in pain at the effort. 'I don't care about the Boswells, I care about you ruinin' my Christmas, and dare I say it, life.'

Shifty seems raring to let loose again, his face red and his mouth pursed in a way which will allow for maximum effect when the angry words burst out of it, but at this last comment, he falters, his face falling.

'You don't mean that.'

She puffs out her chest, ready to expel her own outburst, but it dies inside her mouth.

'I don't know what I mean,' she sighs, suddenly exhausted. 'I just don't want this.'

She doesn't know what she means by this, either, so she just makes a vague gesture with her hands, waving them over the mess on her kitchen table, in the direction of her living room, where evidence of Shifty's worst theft to date (since she's known him; she can't forget there was a Porsche that went missing on his account once, and that she knows about; she's sure there are more that take place behind her back) is sprawled across her coffee table. She doesn't want to be feeling dreadful. She doesn't want her relationship with Shifty to be as ruined as her dinner, as her Christmas. She doesn't want Shifty to be how he is, she wants the Shifty she thought she was getting in the beginning, the Shifty he advertised himself as, the Shifty who only occasionally shines through the sludge and filth covering the criminal in front of her. She wants that Shifty so much, the sweet, lovable one, that she's prepared to forgive the criminal that makes up seventy five percent of him.

She moves forward, allowing her head to slump to his shoulder.

'I just don't want any of this.'

'I'll tell ye what,' he says, putting his hand in her hair, and it's almost nice, it's almost as if the real Shifty, as she thinks of him, who, if she's logical, is actually the not-so-real Shifty, is with her again. 'I'll take you somewhere nice for Christmas dinner.'

She raises her head to stare at him. 'Where? There isn't anywhere.'

'We'll find somewhere.'

'On Christmas Day? You're joking. Just forget it, all right, love?'

'No, I mean it, Martina. Let me do this for you— after all, I can't help feeling a little responsible for the high dudgeon you've got yourself into today.'

Martina snorts in spite of herself. A little responsible. Just a teeny bit. Just a teeny, one hundred per cent sized bit.

'What do you say?' Shifty moves back to give her his pleading look, green eyes twice their usual size, crooked smile even more crooked, his mouth turned up to one side so much it seems liable to disappear into his ear— he's really turning up the charm factor, using a liberal dollop of his own brand of lovable ruffianishness to get a result. It works too well on her; she finds herself relenting, shrugging her shoulders.

'All right, then, Shifty. Answer me this: presuming you can find a place on Christmas Day that isn't entirely booked up, how are you going to afford it? Draw a stick figure on the tablecloth and hope someone buys it and all yer problems are solved?'

'No, but...' he shrugs himself, guiltily this time, and Martina groans.

'Before you even say it, I am not spending my Christmas afternoon washin' dishes.'

'I wouldn't ask you to, I wouldn't ask ye! I have got money, as it happens.'

'But how have you got money? And if you've got money, why are there five stolen necklaces on my coffee table tryin' to pass off as me Christmas present?' She feels fury rise in her throat like bile, pushes it back down. She doesn't want any more fighting. Not on Christmas. Then again, why does she even care about Christmas? It's never much better than any other day anyway. The fury simmers, and she prepares herself for letting it out, only to find she hasn't enough energy; it evaporates away again.

'Why do you need to know? Why does it matter?'

'It matters,' she says firmly. 'It's my job fer it to matter.'

'You're not on duty now!'

'You're part of me work. Doesn't matter whether I'm on duty or not.'

'You always let Joey have whatever money he wanted, one way or another. Why did he get special treatment and I get chastised and flagellated, hmm? Why?'

'He didn't. He was just better at lying than you.' Martina's tired of that line of conversation, is tired of every row these days coming back to this. Shifty talks about Joey in a way that doesn't seem right; one part jealousy, two parts an admiration that almost borders on romantic, with a shake of resentment she suspects has to do with him throwing Shifty out not long ago. The DHSS lady can't quite help herself from feeling a dash of resentment herself for this last one. She loves Shifty, but in small doses. He's a nightmare to live with, and she's having to put up with it because the selfish Boswells won't take on their share of responsibility putting a roof over his head. And she's sick of Shifty constantly comparing everything he has and does in his life with Joey, as if somehow his step-cousin's marginally more moral existence is to blame for his own sorry state of affairs.

Martina puts a hand on Shifty's arm, decides to play ball simply to prevent having this discussion all over again.

'Where are you taking me, then?'

'Oh, so you want to go, now?'

'Don't start, Shifty, I've had enough. I just wanna salvage what's left of this day, if it's at all possible.'

'Don't worry, my sweet love,' he replies, 'if there's one thing you can count on with old Shifty, it's that he's very good at salvaging.'

Martina doesn't like the implications of that sentence, knowing what 'old Shifty' is good at, but she exhales heavily, nods and lets him lead her out of the kitchen.

'Be honest, Shifty. Just once in your life, tell the truth. How are you affording this?'

Where they've ended up looks costly, and Martina doesn't like it. Not that she doesn't like the quality of the food, the atmosphere, per se, which, if she'd got here by honest means, would have been simply lovely, but there is no way, not even a chance, that they could possibly be eating here without her partner having committed something unthinkable and illegal.

'Got a biro? I want to draw on the tablecloth.'

Her eyebrows shoot up and he raises his hands in surrender, laughing nervously.

'Joking, I am! It's all taken care of, promise.'

'It's not funny, Shifty. How-are-you-affording-THIS?'

'A mate of mine works here, he owes me a favour, what's your problem, woman?'

'My problem, man, if that is actually what you are,' she says, just because she's pissed off enough to nitpick everything he says. 'Is—'

'Hit below the belt, Martina, why don't you?'

She ignores him. 'Is that after what I received for Christmas, or rather, what I shouldn't have received for Christmas, I cannot trust you to make these arrangements within the boundaries of the law.'

'You sound just like Joey, you do!'

'He had a point, then.'

'Oh yes, of course, take his side, even though you don't know what he did to Auntie Nellie, we all know what you think of Joey, all know you lust after him...'

Martina feels her headache returning. She can't take much more of this, of his ridiculous tirades about Joey over something she knows nothing about. 'For God's sake, go home!'

'I don't have an 'ome!'

'Well, whose fault is that?'

'Joey Boswell's!'

'Good for him! Though I have to say, all the worse for me, now you've taken over mine.'

'Excuse me,' says a very cross waiter whom neither of them have noticed approaching in the heat of their argument. 'Would you mind keeping your voices down?'

'Sorry,' Martina mutters.

Shifty makes a rude gesture, but mercifully shuts up as well.

Martina stabs at her sprouts, no longer hungry and quite tempted to imagine they are certain bits of Shifty's anatomy and then mutilate them. Shifty cleans his plate and begins to take pieces of bread from the basket in the middle to mop up the rest of the gravy. Watching Shifty eat is disgusting. His stomach knows no bounds. Just looking at him puts her right off her dinner, and she pushes her plate aside, only for Shifty to scrape the remains of its contents onto his own.

'Got enough to eat there?' she says venomously.

'Don't start again.'

She'd be very much inclined to, only she can't be bothered. There's no point. There's not really a point in anything, really. Not where he's concerned.

She shuts her eyes, counts, opens them again.

'Shifty, look,' she reaches across the table to take his hand, to make peace, to end the day at least in a vaguely positive mood despite the disaster that calls himself a man sitting across from her, but her efforts are thwarted before she can finish her sentence.

'Shifty...' she says slowly, casting her eyes over the table and solidifying her hunch. 'Where are the spoons?'

'The spoons?' There. The uncomfortable shuffle in his seat, the darting eyes, the instant sheen of sweat that comes over his palms, unfortunately while one of her hands is still in his.

'Yes,' she says slowly, adding a hint of danger to her tone, 'the spoons. And the knife and fork for that empty place. And your knife and fork.'

'Er...' Shifty runs a hand through his hair and begins scratching his head vigorously.

'And my knife.' Her fingers curl around her fork, the only piece of cutlery which remains on their table at all.

'Well, I didn't see them, did I?'

One of Martina's eyebrows starts to rise of its own accord. Her hand tightens around his until Shifty makes an ow noise she ignores.


'What, I didn't...' she squeezes tighter. 'You can't torture me! I don't know anything about the silver, anything?!'

Got him.

'How did you know they were silver?'

She sees the realisation dawning on him that he's put his foot in it.

'Just a guess.'

Martina shakes her head. 'You knew before we came here, didn't yer?'

'Why would you think that, eh? Why?'

She's fed up with his pathetic attempts to play ignorant. 'Why is my handbag on that chair?'

'I don't check where you put your handbag, do I?'

'It was by my feet. I remember puttin' it there.'

Shifty lunges for it at the same time she does, but despite his quick, thieving reflexes, Martina gets it first. She scowls at him as she lifts it into her lap, already knowing, yet dreading finding out for certain, why it's so heavy.

'Tell me I'm imagining this.'

Shifty shrinks into his seat.

She feels inside and her worst suspicions are confirmed.

'Oh, God,' Martina groans, dumping a hefty handful of silverware onto the table. 'I can't take you anywhere, can I?!'

'Oh, what was I supposed to do?! They were just lying there; it was begging to happen!'

'They were lying there because the usual protocol is to eat with them then give them back! Because most people are trustworthy enough to not snatch everything in sight!'

'Well you tell me how I'm supposed to get back the money I spent on this, eh? You tell me!'

'If you couldn't afford it, why did we bloody come?!'

'If I have to ask you again,' the waiter is back, breathing down Martina's neck, 'you'll have to leave.'

'Bring us the bill,' Martina says crossly, 'I've 'ad enough anyway.'

Shifty opens his mouth but she raises his finger and cuts him off. 'Of you and all.'

'Well if you're so obsessed with doin' everything honestly,' Shifty says, 'if you're so determined to make sure everyone's good nobody's naughty, Miss Perfect, then you can pay for it! I'm off!'

That's all she needs. This dinner probably costs more than her entire weekly shop.

'Well, don't bother comin' home tonight!' she shouts after Shifty. 'I won't let you in!'

'Shouldn'ta given me a key, then!' is his parting remark, before the door slams after him.

Everyone's staring at her. Martina no longer cares.

'Modam,' the waiter says irritably, giving her a filthy look as he presents her with the bill.

Joyous. It costs even more than she'd expected. She blurts the number out loud in shock.

'Modam, please.'

Martina's face falls into her hands. 'I can't afford this.'

Which is how she finds herself washing dishes in the restaurant kitchen on Christmas Day. Merry Bloody Christmas.

She doesn't know what's gone wrong for those blasted Boswells, but for once in her life, Martina finds herself wishing things would work out for them. At least then they could take Shifty back, and she might finally be able to get some peace.

Roxy Hartwell
wife of Joey Boswell

It isn't fair.

This was supposed to be her Christmas, her time, her moment. After all these years, her and Joey at last. Not the ongoing saga of Oedipus Rex and Jocasta Boswell, not the phone calls at five minute intervals, not constant jaunts out to meet family members, leaving her alone with the ruins of a date that could have been special. They're married now. He's her husband; she should be his first priority now. His family with her, not the one he grew up with, that still expect him, as an adult, to be as attached to the umbilical cord as when he was a baby. They should be celebrating this, the first ever Christmas they've actually been able to spend the whole day together, in each other's arms. She should be revelling in the fact that her true love is devoted to her, is finally with her after all these years—in the open, unhindered, officially.

But it's not like that. Never has a Christmas Day been more disappointing, and she's had some disappointments over the years she's known Joey.

Her husband of no more than seven or eight weeks is sulking in her armchair, passing her pathetic attempts at a smile if she looks pointedly enough in his direction, but otherwise remaining bogged down in his self-imposed gloom. Joey won't even be considerate enough to allow them a few weeks of newlywed bliss. He won't even give her enough attention for that. Of course, no sooner had he pulled his head out of his arse (and about time, too) realised if he wanted to be with her it entailed actually being with her and married her, than Nellie Boswell had stolen the spotlight once again. She'd expressed hurt (no thought for Roxy and the hurt she's suffered over the years, always second best to Joey's family, always second choice, always abandoned at the last second because someone needs Joey), Joey had got angry (and about time too; Roxy would have slapped that cow a long time ago) and they'd had the fight to end all fights, and even though Joey had stormed back to her, determined to catch up on all lost time they could have had together, it hadn't taken long before the cracks had begun to show. Before the all-encompassing, overpowering entity that is Mam had seeped back into their lives. Before Joey's guilt (why is it, why is it, that he feels guilt over his Mam but never over her?) kicked in, and he began to regret saying things he should have said in the first place, pace around going on and on about how 'terrible' he felt, run to the phone and pick it up a hundred times, only refraining from phoning up Kelsall Street because Roxy would run over and put the receiver down again and try and talk sense into him.

And then, of course, there was that day. You ask anyone, Roxy thinks, and they'll tell you that the first time you have a row with your spouse—and this one Joey brought on himself, as it had been over him sulking and constantly picking up the phone and whinging about his Mam—you apologise, make it up to them, more often than not with sex or flowers and chocolates, and get over it. You don't run off to your mother's house, bringing flowers you should have bought for your wife, and sob at her. If Roxy had hated Nellie Boswell before, she despises her now. The woman had Joey for thirty-four years—thirty four! Longer than most people keep their children in the nest, and she had four others to coddle too; it wasn't as if she was alone—and yet that clearly wasn't enough for her. She has to have him now, when he's married, when his attention should be focussed solely on Roxy. She has to be the one to get Joey's sincerity and apologies and kindness, while Roxy gets an I'm back, a yeah when asked whether he visited his mother (she has a right to know, doesn't she? He doesn't have to spit the answer like that) and a sullen attitude for the rest of the evening. And then, a day later— one day! One! —the constant phone calls and visits had started right up again. There had been some crisis with Shifty; a theft from what she can gather, not that Joey ever tells her anything about anything; that had meant he'd had to take up the solemn duty of head of the family to banish Shifty from the Boswell kingdom. Why someone else couldn't do it is beyond her. Perhaps Grandad was involved somewhere, as well, needed something. She doesn't know. Probably all of them added a mini-crisis to the melting-pot of crises they then poured on Joey's head. That's what usually happens. She's left behind, while Joey gads off playing paterfamilias, counsellor, family saviour, substitute dad.

She's put her foot down about Christmas, though. She doesn't care if he's only newly repaired his relationship with his mother and it's not yet on sturdy ground, she doesn't care if Nellie Boswell is spending Christmas alone because all her children are with their partners— which is how it should be— she wouldn't care if Number Thirty, Kelsall Street exploded and everyone died in the blast, Joey is not going over there today. It's Christmas Day, he's her husband, he should be here. And what's more, he's going to be. All day. She's sacrificed a lot for him: her precious time, most of her son's toddlerhood and early childhood, her marriage to Stan, a fair bit of money travelling back and forth to visit him when she'd lived in Birmingham, now it's his turn to make a sacrifice for her. He owes her at least one full day, and she's cashing it in now.

'Joey,' she says, slamming her hands into her lap and glaring at him. Joey's paper descends enough for her to see his eyes. They glisten with something sad. It's pathetic. They're supposed to be happy. That's what's supposed to happen. Even in the first few months of marriage with Stan, when they knew she was going to give birth to a drunken stranger's child, when he'd realised she wanted security more than him, because the only person she's ever really wanted was Joey, there was still happiness. It's normal to be happy when you're first married.

'Yes, Rox?'

'Are you gonna sit there readin' the paper all day?'

'No, I thought I'd just finish it. That's usually what I do in the mornings, you see.'

'I could do without the sarcasm, Joey. For the past few weeks, it's been sarcasm or one word answers! You could at least pretend to cheer up! It's Christmas Day! I've turned down a visit to me mam's this year, I've even kept the kid here instead of sending him to his grandmother's — so we could be with you! As a family!'

Joey is incredulous. 'I've never heard you use the word 'fam-i-ly' in that context before.'

'I mean a nuclear family, not some ridiculous-sized, demanding, extended family. I mean us! You and me!'

'Yeah.' He manages a smile. It almost looks real. 'You're right, sweetheart.' He lets the paper drop over the arm of the chair, finally gets up out of it (it only took him all morning) and comes over to her. Paying her some attention at last. Well, better late than never. 'You and Oscar are me family as well.'

She doesn't like the caveat of as well, tacked pointedly on the end, just like the entire Boswell tribe seems to be tacked onto the end of everything that happens in their relationship, but this is a step forward. Roxy holds up her face to be kissed.

'I might just make a few quick calls before I shower, wish some of me family a Merry Christmas.'

Roxy moans. 'Jo-ey...'

'Fair go, Roxy, it's Christmas! I've got to at least...'

'Couldn't you have told her when you last saw your family?'

'What, in November?' He's exaggerating as usual. It couldn't have been longer ago than a week, but Joey seems to think that any time now, no matter how short, that passes between family visits is 'ages.' He's doing it to frustrate her, she's sure.

'You phone at least four of 'em just about every day. You could have told 'em every day leading up til now!'

'Mam's on her own this year. She'd appreciate the gesture.'

'Oh, your mam again.'

'She's pretty cut up, you know. We're still not all right, not really, after what I said, and...and well, with me here and the others...'

'The others are probably celebrating today with their spouses and their kids, like they're supposed to be doing!'

'I'm here, aren't I?'

'Your body's here, Joey, but I know where your mind is. Where it's always been. Tucked away in your Mam's family pot along with all your lot's money and you and your brothers' umbilical cords with whistles attached to the ends to call you all home with. Has she got all of your balls in there as well?'

Joey puts a hand to his forehead. 'Don't start gettin' dirty.'

'You used to like it when I talked dirty to you.'

'Not when it's insultin' me, I don't.'

'You think I'm not insulted that you don't even want to spend one day a year with me?'

'Look, the whole family's been shook up this year, especially after Shifty—'

'Oh, Shifty, now— why don't you just marry him?'

'Roxy, that's low.' Joey shakes his head, as if he has a right to shake his head when he's the one in the wrong, not her. Is it so wrong to want the man you love to spend a little time with you once in a while? When you're married? She thinks not.

'Well, you seem attached to everyone except the one person you are married to,' she says, her hands on her hips.

'Roxy,' he says again, his tone firm, but she knows that's how he talks to his siblings, and that infuriates her, so she crosses her arms and pouts, 'you know I love you. I married you, I bloody well nearly lost me Mam forever because of the things I said in your defence— it was so lucky, Roxy, really, that she forgave me, and I know she's still feelin' hurt over it—'

'Oh, was this supposed to be about how you loved me, Joey? From where I'm sitting, it's mam, mam, mam.'

'Will you let me finish, for God's sake, Roxy?'

'Mammy? Joey?'

The small voice has Joey stopping at once, a smile coming over his face more genuine than any she's seen from him in weeks. Joey has dropped to his knees in an instant, arms outstretched and then her son is in them, clutching to him as though he hasn't seen him in months.

'Aw, there you are! I was wonderin' how long you'd sleep in. Any longer and I'd have had to come in and wake you—don't want you snorin' right through Christmas Day, do we?'

Oscar laughs, and then Joey is sitting with his arm round the kid, making exaggerated noises of excitement as Oscar unveils each and every present from his stocking, chattering him about how they can build this together and set that up later and acting far happier than he ever does around her. The only times Joey is ever cheerful, she notices, is when Oscar's around, and though she loves her son, she can't help bristling with resentment at the thought. That's another person Joey loves more than her, and is it too much to ask that your husband loves you above all else? She only ever wanted him to be devoted to her, to love her in the way men are supposed to do, be totally self-sacrificing, risk everything for the woman that means the world to them, and yet she constantly has to ask him, nag him, to take the risks he should be taking of his own free will. He says he loves her, he always comes back to her, but it always feels like she has to force the love, force the romance and relationship they're supposed to have. And now Joey is obsessed with playing father (no surprise, given he likes to think he raised his siblings; it's probably second nature to him to want to be looking after some child), is taking his duties as stepdad far more seriously than his duties as husband.

Roxy looks over at their little present-unwrapping scene, at the broad grins on both their faces, at the enthusiasm of both of them, two small boys together, as they tear at packaging and release toys from boxes. Joey chose most of the presents. Roxy never used to spoil Oscar, had always taught him how to do without, or to do only with what you needed, something she'd always had to live with growing up, so why should her son not follow in her footsteps? Life is hard, she has learned. You never get what you want. He needs to know that.

As for her own present-unwrapping session with Joey, she'd received a curt thank you for the gift she'd given him (a framed photograph of the two of them, to set his priorities straight), got the cardigan she'd asked for anyway, no surprises, no thought, so unlike Joey except that he's in a mood with her for ridiculous reasons, and that had been that.

Roxy watches the two of them, so happy with each other, so uncaring about her, thinks about Joey, so devoted to her son, so devoted to his Mam, always leaving her til last, and it's as if something is stabbing at her chest.

It's not what she wanted at all. It's not how she planned it even one bit. Joey and Oscar carry on giggling and chuckling and playing until she calls them in for lunch, where Joey picks at the nut roast she's done specially, announces he's going down the pub (meaning he wants to go to Kelsall Street, which she puts a stop to), announces he's going to take Oscar for a walk (meaning he wants to take Oscar to see a certain Nellie Boswell who will never be his grandmother, which she puts a stop to), and then sulks and refuses pudding. It may be paranoid of her, to refuse to let him leave the house at all, but even if he's not going to Kelsall Street (which she can't believe), he promised he would spend Christmas Day here with her and that's what he's going to do, even if she has to bolt the doors to make it so. It's about time he started actually playing his role as husband to the full. And it's about time he stopped being a child about it. He doesn't seem to realise she's hurting, that acting as though it wounds him when she doesn't take an interest in, or allow him to see, his family is wounding her. She's the one who's normal. They're all the ones who aren't right, with their strange, unhealthy obsession with each other, that stupid Boswell family whose blood isn't just thicker than water, it's thicker than a ten-foot avalanche of snow, burying the cabin of her love for Joey.

At one stage in the afternoon, when she feels she can't take it anymore, Roxy does what she's been doing for weeks now—goes into her bedroom, pulls out the drawer in her bedside table and picks up the little card she's stowed inside it.

She hasn't told Joey about it. Nor about the man who gave it to her, and she doesn't intend to, although when he behaves like this she's almost tempted to, just to see if he'd actually bother to be possessive or not.

She'd met him a week after they were married—curiously enough, on the very same day Joey had stormed off to go grovelling to his Mam. She'd interpret this as a sign, only Roxy doesn't believe much in signs. Roxy doesn't believe much in anything, as it happens, except for getting what you want how you can, when you can, if you can, and trying to keep hold of it for as long as you can. That's all it's really possible to achieve in a crappy life, living in a crappy town full of crappy people.

Alberto Castrillon, his name was, and he'd been everything a storybook affair was supposed to be: beautiful, Metiterranean good looks, enough money to spoil her with gifts and weekends away, the sort of hero everyone hopes would come for them but no-one gets except in trashy novels. The sort of person every dissatisfied housewife in an unhappy marriage wishes would whisk her away. And he had wanted to, what was more. Unlike Joey, who was too cowardly when they first met to do anything more than blither on until she herself had asked him for a drink, unlike Stan, with his unromantic oi, d'you wanna get hitched up, then? unlike horrible, selfish Joey, who, now he's got her, doesn't seem to want her at all. Now he's no longer chasing her, or pining desperately after her, he seems to have lost interest, except for in her son, whom he seems to want to steal from her, and in sex now and again, usually when he's in a good mood (and a good mood usually occurring after he's visited his family. She wonders what Freud would say about that.) But this man, well, she hadn't had to chase him. He'd come to her of his own accord, no beating around the bush with small talk, but he'd got straight to the point and expressed interest, made her feel she was actually desired, not wanted with reservations and then put on a waiting list below a dozen relatives.

He'd given her his number, printed on a fancy, embossed business card, and, in spite of herself, she'd been impressed. Here was someone who had made something of themselves, hadn't let confounded relations or anything else hold them back, was in a position, both financially and emotionally, to lavish the attention on her she so desperately wants. She's tempted to phone him in the New Year. If nothing else, to spite Joey, to hit him in one of the places it hurts (his family and his dangly bits; she's thinking the latter this time, given any injuries to his family-bone are too easily healed. To give his ego and his masculinity a bit of a bruising might do him a world of good, might actually allow the message that he can't go on neglecting her like this to sink in.) To make sure he realises that real men don't treat their women like that, that if he wants to keep her, he'd better get his act together or she's got another option, and she'll use it. It's a brilliant plan, and it'll hurt him. It'll damage him, and hard, and then perhaps the lesson will sink in properly. But it's a drastic measure, and she's hesitated on numerous occasions about taking the first steps to get it underway. Joey has been appallingly neglectful, but she's held onto the hope that he might wise up in time, start behaving as he should, and she's given him numerous chances. One more, she thinks, sighing as she remembers the ruins of a Christmas she wanted to claim for herself. And then she will do it, and Joey will be sorry.

'Oscar had a good Christmas,' Joey says as he climbs into bed that night. It the only civil thing he's really said to her all day.

'Seems he's the only one.'

Joey turns to look at her. 'What's wrong with you now?'

'Oh, what's wrong with me, Joey? What's wrong with me? Ask yourself that, Joey, after you spent the whole day all over Oscar and whinging about your family and ignorin' me.'

'I didn't ignore you!'

'You did a good impression of it, then. All day, Joey, I spent, trying to make this a day for the two of us. All day! And what did you do?'

'Now, let's see, I woke up early to get your present out and have it ready for you when you got up, I spent the day here and didn't so much as phone any member of my fam-i-ly, I helped you prepare lunch last night, I ate lunch with you this afternoon, I entertained Oscar...'

'You expended all your energy entertainin' Oscar to get back at me, no doubt.'

Joey turns right around, giving her a shocked face she doesn't think he has any right to have. He knew what he was doing; she's sure of it.

'I did no such thing, Roxy! You were the one who said the three of us were a family now—I would have thought embracing your son wholeheartedly would've been somethin' you'd see as a good thing. Means I'm bein' part of this family.'

'While you were busy wholeheartedly embracing him, Joey—which, by the way, you seemed to enjoy far too much to be doing for the sake of me and my family, because let's face it, Joey, he's another one who ranks above me on the list of people you love—'

Joey's jaw drops, but she's not finished.

'I was left to sit watching, with no part in your life whatsoever.'

'You could've joined in, Roxy! There was no stoppin' you!'

'Mm, like there was no stopping you actin' your usual civil self this mornin', only that didn't happen, did it, Joey?'

'There isn't a list of people above you, Roxy! I love yer.'

'In theory.'

'And what's that supposed to mean?'

'In practice, that love goes to anyone else in the vicinity.'

His shoulders slump. 'I'm sorry if you felt left out, Rox. That was never my intention. Not at all.'

'It's not left out, I'm feeling, Joey. It's obsolete.'

'I'll make it up to yer. Promise.'

'By buying flowers for your sainted mother, prob'ly,' she mutters, barely audibly.


'Nothing.' Roxy snaps the lamp off with more ferocity than the task is worth. her fingernail snags and rips in the process. That just sums up her day, doesn't it? Torn off at the quick despite everything it could've been. It sums up her whole marriage, come to think of it.

Joey turns over, with a murmur which sounds like I don't know what I can do that's good enough, Roxy, and she's left in the darkness to stew.

And stew she does for a while. It's not fair. This was a terrible Christmas. Joey didn't even try. His mother only has to 'be hurt' by the slightest thing and it has him in a right old state, and nothing else matters. Least of all her.

'Why, Joey?' she asks at length. 'Why do you care so much about them? Your family, I mean. It's not normal.'

Joey shifts back over, moves closer, fiddles with her fringe. Well, that's the first physical contact they've actually had today. Too little too late. She's pissed off.

'Look, I know you and your parents weren't like that, but...'

'We were— when I was little. When it was appropriate to be that way. Not now I'm in me thirties, it isn't, though.'

'Wouldn't you be upset if summat happened to your mam?'

'It'd be sad, Joey, but I wouldn't tear me 'air out and wear sackcloth like you prob'ly would. I'm not a little girl anymore. She's not the beginning and end of my world, she's just a woman who fed me once when I couldn't feed meself and now occasionally comes round. I grew out of her.'

Joey is silent, turning away from her and staring in the direction of the window. 'I don't envy that, Roxy. I don't envy that.'

And then he says it, the words which ring the bell, seal his doom and her decision, which hurt and offend her more than he'll ever know.

'I wouldn't like to be you.'

She's phoning the bloke. She wasn't going to, but now she is. Just for that, she is. He can't say things like that to her. Why is he doing this to her? She doesn't know, but she doesn't like it.

She fingers the little card with Alberto's number on it again, and then stuffs it under her pillow, ready to use as soon as he's left the room tomorrow morning.

Irenee Boswell (nee Mathieson)
wife of Adrian Boswell

'Don't look! I'm bringing your present in!'

Adrian's curly head appears around the door. Irenee immediately looks up and smirks as her husband tries to conceal her present behind his back—an impossible feat, given he's got her a new bicycle.

'Ta! I needed one. The wheels are gettin' a bit stiff on mine.'

'Oh, Irenee! It was supposed to be a surprise!'

She widens her smile, poking her tongue through her teeth. 'I've only got slippers for you, you know.'

Adrian is deflating faster by the second. 'Don't you want the excitement of not knowing what you're opening on Christmas Day?'

She shrugs. 'Nah. I'll like it or not like it just the same no matter when I find out about it.' She hesitates, taking in the look of extreme disappointment clouding his features, and adds a postscript in an attempt to cheer him. 'I like it, by the way.'

He manages a smile, but it's a weak one. 'Well good. Although I fail to understand why you have to take the magic out of it.'

'Christmas isn't magic, Adrian. It's just a day.'

'Don't the concepts of faith and tradition and…and hope…mean anything to you? I suppose you'll be telling me you're working over Christmas next.'

'You should be grateful I do, so's you don't have to.' Irenee is a little cross at this remark. Since they got married, Irenee has been going out to work, bringing in pennies, something she never thought, when she imagined having a husband as a little girl, she would have to do. The man provides for the woman, that's the way it's always been, that's the way she wanted it to be. But Adrian isn't much of a provider— he's a writer, he's a painter, he wants to devote his time to creating great works in the hope that one day he will sell them, and so Irenee has taken a job to tide them over until he makes his creative breakthrough. It's not the worst thing she could be doing, selling items from catalogues door to door, and there's travel involved, which she's not averse to, as it means she gets to see a bit more of the surrounding cities, but she'd rather be at home looking lovely and waiting for her man to come home than having to exert herself so he can sit around waving a pen about, thinking he's Mr. Shakespeare. Still, Adrian believes in his own writing, is determined to make a living off it, is continually motivated by his one publication, three years ago, and in the interests of their relationship, Irenee is letting him have it, is making that sacrifice for him. Is letting him chase his dreams and his butterflies, at least for a little while, at least while they're still young, at least while her mam and Auntie May are jointly paying their first six months' rent for them to get them started, and she can afford to let him chase those dreams and live off her own earnings. The least he could do is not complain about it.

'I know,' Adrian says, putting the bike down and coming over to her, pulling her against him. 'I'm sorry. It's just…I hoped our first Christmas as a married couple could be special—a joyous occasion when man and woman can celebrate their love and their coming together as a new family—'

'You know the rule. No poetic talk in my kitchen.'

He ignores her or doesn't hear, too caught up in his own spiel.

'And especially as it'll be my first without…' a lump visibly catches in his throat, a small tear appears, 'without Mam and any of my brothers…it'll be different. It'll be strange. And I wanted…spending it with you to be, well, wonderful. To make up for it.'

Ah, yes. There's that. Irenee had forgotten for a moment. Adrian's falling-out with his Mam has been a grim shadow over their marriage from day one. That had been a lovely wedding night, that had, with Adrian returning to Irenee's Mam's house in tears, Nellie Boswell having not received the news of their nuptials in anything even vaguely resembling good humour, Joey turning uncharacteristically nasty and Nellie, in retaliation, turning on Adrian and sending him away. He'd cried for most of the night, expressing how unfair it was that Joey's words, so harsh, so unlike him, but undoubtedly influenced by his own marriage to Roxy (Joey, she takes it from what Adrian has said, loses some of his humanity the second Roxy appears on the scene) had barred Adrian from the house, how Adrian, although he agreed in principle that grown men should be allowed to marry as they please, had thought Joey's words altogether too harsh, had been intending to do some damage control, but had been treated as though the words had come from his own mouth, tarred with the same brush, thrown out with the same disgrace. And instead of consummating their marriage, Irenee had spent the entire night comforting him, wondering to herself just how that could have happened, why getting married, which all mothers are supposed to want for their kids, which her Mam had been ecstatic about when she'd been told, could have caused a rift like that. She's never really understood Adrian's family; she understands them even less now. Her mam had gone on for weeks reminiscing about her newlywed days, seemingly more in love with Adrian, or the idea of their marriage, than even Irenee herself, and then encouraged them to spend Christmas Day together with a wink and a nudge Irenee hadn't been entirely comfortable with. Families are supposed to be excited about weddings. Adrian's damn nearly ruined the joy of his.

They've got on with their marriage, with their little lives, well enough, despite this. Adrian really does try his best to make things nice for her. He constantly writes her love poems (which, though she's not a fan of them, she finds are a nice gesture), he tries to surprise her with dinner even though he can't cook, he's gone and pinched a huge Christmas tree from somewhere and smothered it in paper chains and baubles in the hope of making the festive season special. And things are okay, which may sound mediocre, but to her, okay is the best possible state you can attain. It's a realistic, normal state. They share smiles and laughs, they go for walks, their encounters in the bedroom are more than satisfactory, and Adrian's a nice lad. It's all she's wanted in a marriage, and though she'd turned his proposals down multiple times before finally wearing the ring, she'd known fairly early on she'd marry him, and that things would be okay. She just hadn't wanted to encourage his soppiness, and had wanted to encourage a normal, proper proposal, instead of simply plopping a ring box into her lap and hoping she'd get the gist.

But despite their general happiness and okayness, Irenee knows this feud with Adrian's Mam is going to put a dampener on their celebrations. Adrian may try to put it aside, to put his all into the excitement of the season, but he can't hide the fact that he's upset.

'I'm not working on Christmas, Adrian,' she says, in the hope that this will cheer him up, because there's really nothing that can be said with regards to the Nellie situation, and she is relieved to see him smile. 'And it will be good, us together, okay?' She reaches her head up, kissing him on the cheek.

'I'm glad,' he murmurs, the gratitude in his voice overwhelming it. 'I was worried for a moment my Christmas was hangin' by a thread.'

'You and your threads,' she teases. 'I'm surprised you don't go into weavin' next.'

'Oh, don't start making fun,' Adrian begins, but then she taps his nose with her index finger, grins, kisses him, his strop is averted and they spend a rather pleasant Christmas Eve upstairs instead.

When Irenee awakes on Christmas morning, the covers warm around her, the morning air cold on her exposed shoulder, she finds Adrian standing by the window in his dressing gown, a glazed look on his face as he stares out of it.

She wraps the duvet around herself, slips out of bed and pads over to him.

'What you doing?'

Adrian turns around, and for a moment she gets a full-on glimpse of his anguish before he breaks a smile and the strange flicker in his eyes fades to the back of his countenance.

'Just…looking out at the morning. Getting a glimpse of our garden on Christmas Day.'

She's fairly good at telling when Adrian's lying. The garden is her territory, apart from when Adrian wants to sit in it and feel inspired. He's thinking about his family again. Sighing, unsure what she can do about it, but feebly wanting to cheer him, she puts a hand on his shoulder.

Adrian smiles, leans in and kisses her.

'If even the most accomplished of poets tried to write an ode to your beauty,' he whispers, his mouth a bit too close to her face, so she gets a faceful of morning breath, 'a thousand pages of miniscule type would not even begin to do you justice.'

Irenee makes a face. 'God! I hope not. I don't wanna have to read all that. I'm not a big reader, you know. Woman's Weekly's about as intellectual as I get.'

'Doesn't the thought of it move you at all?'

She doesn't lie about it. There's no point in pretending you're something you're not, and Adrian knows full well she's not that kind of girl. He's always trying to get her to share in his interests, but, as Irenee is determined to point out, he didn't marry a woman made of clay, whom he could mould into whatever he wanted. He married one already fully baked, already sure of herself, and if he loves her, it's for who she is.

'Not really, no.'

His face falls again. 'It was supposed to be a compliment, you know.'

'Oh, I know,' she takes Adrian's face between her hands, kisses him. 'I know it was. You don't have to get all upset just because I don't go into raptures every time you say something nice. I do still appreciate it.'

She's not overly affectionate, she knows. Nor is she poetic, romantic, or any of those words ending in 'ic' that denote a fondness for intangible beauty. She doesn't look at a forest and see leafy canopies and dapples sunlight on a mossy, leafy ground, she sees wood and insects that crawl up your trouser leg. She doesn't believe in love at first sight, in there being such thing as 'the One,' in all that soppy greetings-card my life would be nothing without you type stuff.

But she does love Adrian. She doesn't believe in romance, but she believes in love. In real love. And she has that for him, all right. The sort of thing that makes you want to live in the same house as a person, blunder about being domestic and sort out finances and come home to them and grumble about your day, and raise kids together.

Speaking of raising kids, she's pregnant. Four tests had proven it; she'd have bought one more but they're ridiculously expensive. She hasn't told Adrian yet. She's not sure it's the right time. It's Christmas Day, yes, but the whole Christmas season is another thing Irenee finds overrated; too much glitz and unwarranted excitement in the leadup to one day that really just contains a gluttonous amount of food, a few bits of tat wrapped up in an attempt to show the people around you how much you care, or at least how much you're willing to spend on them, and if you're unlucky, a bit of a hangover. It would be momentous for Adrian, she knows, to find out on Christmas Day, given that, unlike for her, it means a lot to him. And for a moment she contemplates breaking the news, watching his face light up properly for the first time since their wedding day. But no, it would be tainted. The joy that this moment should bring would be always at least partially stained by the fact that Adrian's child wouldn't have a paternal grandmother around, because of this ridiculous feud. She can't right now.

Then again, when can she ever? She has to at some point. Irenee pauses, considers for a minute. He's got to know, and she wants him to be happy, wants this to carry the weight it should. She may not be big on the soppy, emotional stuff, but this is something that is justifiably exciting, in her mind, something that warrants tears of joy, unlike picturesque sunsets and grassy fields. It's something worth making a fuss over. And she wants him to have that, for them both to share in that.

'Come on,' she says, making up her mind. 'Get your coat.'

A frown appears on Adrian's face. 'Why? I thought we were stayin' in today.'

'We've got something to do. It won't wait.' It may be a stupid idea, and Adrian might hate her for it. She doesn't even know what's come over her. She doesn't care much for Adrian's family—especially not after Joey ruined Adrian's relationship with his Mam and Nellie let it happen—but she does care about Adrian's happiness, which, now they're married, is an extension of her own. She cares about their happiness. And it'll be ruined forevermore, unless this can be sorted out somehow.

'What? It's Christmas Day, and I thought—'

'Yeah, it is. And it's never gonna be a proper Christmas Day unless we do this.' She crosses to the wardrobe, retrieves his coat and flings it into his arms. 'So come on. Get dressed. As I've said, we've got somethin' important to do.'

'I don't think this is a good idea, Irenee.'

'Of course it is.'

'Can't we just...go home? The tea I made'll be getting cold.'

'The tea you made'll be cold whether we go home now, or later. It's shot. C'mon, Adrian, it's a good idea!' She gets out of the car before he has a chance to protest or turn the vehicle around, and steps onto the pavement outside Number Thirty, Kelsall Street, shivering. It's strange, this. The first time she came to this street, she'd brought Auntie May, expecting nothing but to sit around drinking tea and chewing on stale biscuits while two old people caught up on old times, and had been swept off her feet by an attractive young man with a sports car instead. She's not sure what she expects from this visit, let alone what might happen to defy those expectations.

Adrian comes and stands beside her, cowering.

'Stand up straight,' she teases, pushing at his back. 'Good little soldier.'

'When this is over,' Adrian says, 'and if I survive, and when you're dead for instigating this, I'll write that into a poem.'

'Insta-what? Course you'll survive.'

'I think I might have a heart attack, Irenee,' he says, and to his credit, he's gone rather pale, though that's not a heart attack, that isn't, it's just plain old nerves. 'My countenance is hangin' by a thread!'

'C'mon. Sooner we get this over with, sooner you can relax.'

'Hangin' by a thread!'

Irenee shakes her head and knocks when it becomes clear Adrian isn't going to. She's still not sure exactly why she's doing this, except for the fact that there's a chance it'll make Adrian happy, and if Adrian's happy, if she can wake up to Cheerful, Creative Adrian and not Neurotic Adrian, it'll have been a good thing.

No-one answers. Irenee knocks again.

'Don't!' Adrian wheedles, grabbing her wrist. 'She doesn't want to see me. That's fairly obvious. She won't answer the door.'

'Maybe she's out.'

'Where would she go?'

Irenee twists her mouth. 'She may have her own things to do, you know. It is Christmas Day.'

'A Christmas Day she's spending alone. No, she's in there. She just doesn't want to see me.'

'Where's your key?'

Adrian's face mutates into something resembling a sad clown. 'Irenee, we're not breaking and enterin' into my childhood home!'

'It's not breakin' and enterin',' Irenee says with a roll of her eyes. 'You've got a key.'

She snatches the aforementioned key off him, because Adrian, being predictably Adrian, had instinctively held it up as soon as it was mentioned, no doubt so he could wave it about dramatically as he made a speech on why he wasn't going to use it. Well, too late. She's got it. She inserts it into the lock and turns.

'Irenee, nooooo!'

'Don't be so over-the-top,' she chides, stepping into the house. It smells a bit musty, but she remembers that from when he smuggled her over here while the rest of the family were on holiday. It's warm, the electric fire going, but it's quite clear that nobody's at home.

'Told you. She's out.'

'Well...where would she go?' Adrian is dumbfounded. 'I mean...where would she go?'

'And I thought you were meant to be a poet.'

'Let's go, quickly,' he grabs her arm, 'before she comes back.'

'Adrian, no!' Irenee shakes him off, plants her feet firmly, squarely apart. 'We're stayin' 'ere until she gets back.'

'Why are you determined to torture me this way?'

'People make up, Adrian. It's normal. You and me make up when we 'ave a tiff. That's what happens in real life. In spite of your poetry, we're not meant to live like Tolkeinesque characters who spend their entire lives feudin' over treasure so old nobody even cares anymore.'

'That's not what happens...since when have you read any Tolkein? I thought Woman's Weekly was intellectual reading for you.'

'I saw the cartoon. Come on, let's put the kettle on.'

'I-renee, Mam will kill me!'

'So will I in a minute, if you don't stop whinging.' It must be difficult, living inside Adrian's head. Everything is a major drama. Most people just get on, which is what she is determined to do, and make him do. She locates the kettle and begins to fill it up, ignoring the fact that Adrian is hyperventilating behind her.

'You're doin' my head in, you are.'

'You're doing my life in, Irenee! Why did this idea get into your head? What even possessed you to—'

His spiel is interrupted by the front door creaking, footsteps sounding, a sudden gasp. Adrian immediately turns into a statue.

'Who's there?'

Adrian remains in his petrified state, and Irenee, realising nothing will ever happen unless he's woken from his trance, moves across and gives him an elbow.

'Go on,' she whispers, jerking her head in the direction of the parlour. 'Say something.'

'Er...' his mouth and the words don't seem to be in time with each other, but he's going in there now, so at least something seems to be working. 'Mam. I...'

'Oh, Adrian!' There's a thump, as though something has been dropped. Irenee is mildly curious, but she stays where she is. It's Adrian's place to sort this out. She makes herself a cuppa and pretends not to be listening in.

'Mam. I...where were you?'

'Oh,' Nellie Boswell sounds evasive, 'just at Mass, I always go, and then...someone drove me home...'

Irenee thinks she hears Adrian mutter oh, him, and wonders what they're talking about, but again, not her problem. She goes back to her tea.

'What-what are you doing here?'

'I, erm...ahem,' Irenee can picture him reaching to fiddle with his tie, as he does when he's uncomfortable, then realising he isn't wearing one and fiddling with the collar of his shirt instead. 'I, er... just came round to say, that, erm...that I'm, erm...'

There's a very awkward silence, during which Irenee counts three clocks ticking, all of them following their own rhythm, none of them matching up. If this were her house she'd go round and set them all to the same time.

'That I'm...' Adrian tries again. 'That I'm sorry.'

More silence. More clock ticking.

'I mean, really sorry.'

Yet another bout of silence, and Irenee finds herself wishing that if someone isn't going to say something, someone's stomach would rumble or something, just to break up the tension a bit.

'Oh, Adrian,' Nellie Boswell says softly, and Irenee sneaks a look in time to see her snatch him in a hug. 'Oh, Jimmy, my little Jimmy...'

Irenee can't help a little smirk, as Adrian complies with a yes, it's your Jimmy, even though she knows how much he hates the moniker. Secretly, she's always liked Jimmy better than Adrian. She's got a good mind to give the name to their kid, should it be a boy. Shame to waste such a good, solid title, just because Adrian didn't want it.

'I'm sorry, Mam,' Adrian's voice has lost the tremble now, and about time, too. Things are looking up. 'I couldn't let...well, I couldn't let a Christmas go by without telling you...well, what Joey said, Mam was wrong. Wrong. And I never agreed with it, even though I might have...well, I never...'

'Oh, Adrian,' Nellie says again, 'I thought you didn't want to come back! I hoped...I prayed every day, that you might have...that...'

'Joey was out of line,' Adrian says again, firmly. 'And I mean that. I'd never think anything like that. I love the care you've always shown us, and...'

'Oh, Joey came grovelling about that weeks ago,' Nellie sounds almost cheerful now, though there's still an unmistakable twinge of hurt buried beneath the layers of relief and happiness, 'I was hoping you'd come back after he did, but when you didn't...well, I thought perhaps you were still...'

'I haven't spoken to Joey since that day,' Adrian says, and Irenee wonders absently whether that'll be the next project that'll need doing to smooth the path to domestic bliss. 'I had no idea...I thought you wouldn't want me to...'

'Aw, Adrian!' Irenee says in spite of herself, mostly because she's fed up with all their emotional half-sentences, 'why didn't you go over weeks ago?! Could've saved us all that mopin'!'

'Oh, is that Irenee?'

Oops. She hadn't really wanted to attract Nellie's attention, not having had much to do with her, but then her mother in-law has entered the kitchen and smothered her in a hug (and a cloud of rather vile old-lady perfume). Nellie Boswell is more forgiving than she thought (she'd assumed she had been blamed for Nellie and Adrian's bust-up), or at least, nearly two months without her child has softened her to the idea of his marriage.

'You both came!'

'Well, Mam, we, er,' Adrian puts on his trying-to-sound-modest-while-claiming-an-achievement face, accompanied with its usual little laugh, 'we thought you might like some company this Christmas. Oh...' his face falls, 'didn't think to get you a present, but...'

'Adrian, when you're a parent,' Nellie says, clutching him to her again, 'the sight of your children returned to you is the best present anyone could wish for.'

'I'll remember that for next year,' Irenee jokes, but she sees Nellie turn to her in what may be alarm and may be annoyance, and Adrian shake his head, and hastily makes amends. 'Kidding.'

'You will stay for coffee, won't you, Adrian?'

'Well, we were actually wondering...' Adrian looks to her for permission for whatever he's about to say, and Irenee has a guess to what that is, 'if you might like to join us for Christmas dinner? Irenee's made something, er...wonderful...' he blushes in her direction, undoubtedly recalling (and trying to stir the recollection within her, though she's not sure that's wise in front of his mother) the way they'd spent yesterday morning, their attention only half on the cooking, and becoming less and less focussed as they became distracted by each other. It had turned out all right, albeit after much messing-around and a few wrong turns when they got too diverted.

'She's a vision in the kitchen as well. Michelangelo himself couldn't have sculpted her and done her any justice.'

Irenee turns her face away so Nellie can't see her blush. It's one thing Adrian saying these things at home, and quite another for him to be saying them in front of others. Then again, from what she can gather, he always used to read his poems out loud round the dinner table, in the bank queue, and to the clerks at the DSS, so he's probably just used to gushing in rhyme about every detail of his life to whoever will listen.

'You're er, very welcome,' she says, her face still turned from Nellie, 'if you like.' Not exactly what she planned, but if it keeps Adrian happy, and if it means she might get a bit more colloquial conversation with her dinner and less odes and sonnets, it might work out in her favour.

'Oh,' Nellie says, her face drooping. 'It's very lovely of you two, but...'

'I knew it!' Adrian had only just fallen into a chair, but he now leaps from it, pacing the kitchen like some kind of demented soldier. 'I'm too late, aren't I? You can't forgive me. Not fully. I've waited too long, and now my relationship with my mother is irreparable, and my family is 'angin' by a thread! Hangin'—'

'Oh, that's enough threads, Adrian!' Irenee snaps. She's counted twelve today already, and it can't be much after eleven. 'Let the woman finish, won't you?'

'Well, it's just,' Nellie wrings her hands, 'with all of you off with your special persons...'

'People,' Adrian corrects automatically. Irenee kicks him in the shin.

'I...made plans of my own.'

She may not know Nellie Boswell very well at all, and certainly not well enough to be an authority on her, but Nellie Boswell, from what she has seen, us usually either shouting or acting philosophical. She's never like this...coy, apologetic— something doesn't add up, and she thinks it's not to do with Adrian's return.

Adrian, however, seems to understand, calms down immediately.

'Oh, oh,' he says, his voice softening. Irenee studies them both curiously, but it's clear neither are going to elaborate. They're smiling at each other with all thefondness born of a shared secret. 'Him. I...see.'

Nellie shoots a glance in Irenee's direction and Adrian swallows and nods.

'Yes. Well.'

'You will stay for coffee, though, won't you?'

'Oh, of course!' Adrian says hurriedly, and then pauses, grins and opens his arms.

'Merry Christmas, Mam,' he says, as she wraps her own around him and his face ends up smushed into the shoulder of her jumper. 'Merry Christmas.'

Irenee's not overly sentimental but there's something touching about that. She moves her hand down to her stomach, and though it's far too early for it to quicken, she imagines the baby doing its best to hug her. Merry Christmas.

'Was that it, then?' Irenee asks as they depart the house just after twelve. 'Nearly two months of sobbin' and emotional distress, and it's over and things are back to normal in ten minutes?'

'It wasn't ten minutes!' Adrian has mince pie crumbs on the corner of his mouth. Irenee debates telling him, then decides not to. Let him find out for himself, and let her have a private snicker until he does.

'No, it was two, more like.' She stops him, pats his arm. 'Are you happy now?'

He is, she can tell he is; it radiates off him.

'I already was happy, you know.'

'But properly happy.'

'Well...' he seems to be weighing up how he can compare levels of happiness, but he soon gives up, too giddy to overanalyse things the way he usually does. 'Yeah.'

'Good.' She plants a kiss on his cheek. 'Eh, what was all that stuff about your Mam in there? What's she bein' so secretive about?'

'She wasn't being secretive, she just...had plans.' There's a special stress on the words had plans that confirm Irenee's suspicision.

'Oh, has she got a feller, then?'

'Not technically...' Adrian fiddles with his nonexistent tie again, 'sort of, I suppose, yeah.'

'How can she sort of not technically have one and have one, you suppose? Either she does or she doesn't.'

'Let's not go into that now, Irenee,' he says. 'I'm feelin' good. It's Christmas Day, I'm speaking to me Mam again...'

'Credit where credit is due,' she reminds him, hands on her hips. Adrian rewards her with a kiss for her efforts.

'You're wonderful, you are.'

'Not bad yourself.'

'It's Christmas,' Adrian begins again, taking a deep, contented breath and slapping his hands against his sides, 'the family are all right, I'm married to a miraculous woman, God's in His Heaven and all's right with the world.'

'Is that the end of the poem now?'

'It's not a poem, Irenee,' he gives her his I can't believe you're so uncultured look, not that she ever cares when he does, 'it was just...an expression.'

'Not one I've ever heard.'

'No, I mean, an expression of appreciation. A deep appreciation I'm feeling right now for life!'

'Well, then,' Irenee links her arm through his as they approach his car, 'we could go home and celebrate? 'ave that cold tea?'

Adrian smiles, and it's beautiful. That's a proper Adrian smile, that is. The sort that comes out when he's having some sort of spiritual experience amongst nature, or when she's pulling him into bed with her, and he's brimming with self-confidence.

'You could unwrap the surprise bicycle I've got for you.'

'And you can unwrap the surprise slippers I've got you,' she grins, pressing close to him.

'It's a glorious Christmas, isn't it? Look at the sky. It's almost a pure, heavenly white. As if the angels are celebrating with us.'

'It's overcast, that's what it is. Are we going home or what?'

'Wonderful,' he says, a smile in his voice as he turns to pull her against him.

'Okay,' she replies, kissing him.

And it is. It's okay.

And that's wonderful.

I don't know why I imagine Adrian as infinitely happier than anyone else, but I just do. Adrian is the only one of the Boswells, in my headcanon, who is consistently happy throughout his life post-show. Even though I didn't think he and Irenee were particularly suited, for some reason, they still have a happy marriage in my head.

I'm not sure how some of this turned out, particularly the Roxy bit (I've been trying, in this universe, to give everyone a point of view and voice, but I loathe Roxy and I'm not sure if I actually managed to be sympathetic to her when writing. Even Shifty, when I've been writing him for future fics, is easier to feel for than Roxy. )

Anyway, merry belated Christmas and a Happy 2016.