Trevor McTavish loved traditions.
Or, more to the point, new traditions built on old ones. After all, wasn’t that what most of them were, a blend of old and new, built layer upon layer over time? They provided a foundation, something people could rely on, even when everything else around them broke down, or changed unexpectedly, or disappeared entirely from their lives—which seemed to happen to him all too often of late.
Traditions ensured continuity, and even with the few hiccups this year had brought, Trevor loved the Christmas tradition he and Cheryl had created for their friends.
As the sullen driver of the prepaid cab steered in silence through the early morning streets of London, Trevor rested his head against the ice-cold window. Gentle vibrations from the hybrid engine massaged his skull. Already the sky had begun transitioning from purest black as the night shift packed up and daylight took over. Fully alert despite the early hour, he looked for homes with their Christmas lights still burning and gardens or roofs decorated with seasonal figures. A part of him instinctively knew he would get along with the person who had gone to all the effort to put them up, most likely done to make other people smile.
Nothing could shake Trevor’s upbeat mood as the cab turned into the familiar road where the Madison family lived. Since he’d packed last night, the sense of anticipation and excitement at the promise of a road trip with best friends had kept him pumped up and grinning like an inflatable snowman.
Six in the morning on that pre-dawn Friday in December, he climbed out of the overheated car and crunched down onto a pavement of overnight frost. After collecting his luggage from the boot, he pulled out a five-pound note from his wallet and tapped a fingernail on the driver’s window. With a smile, he held up the banknote, ready to wish the man a heartfelt season’s greetings. After all, if the poor guy had to drive a cab at this early hour, he obviously needed the money.
Without even bothering to acknowledge Trevor, the driver pulled away.
Left standing alone in the road, Trevor shrugged and put the fiver back. Perhaps the man had somewhere better to be. Not everyone shared his passion for all things festive.
Humming to himself, he manoeuvred his wheelie luggage up the broken-tiled garden path and prodded the front doorbell. Bing-bongs chimed from somewhere inside. Cheryl Madison’s mother opened the door in her furry-hooded olive parka and mismatching navy Wellington boots. Further at odds with the ensemble, her pink floral nightie peeked out from beneath the jacket.
Trevor almost let out a giggle.
Until he saw the expression on her face.
After a furtive glance at the staircase behind her, Mrs M nodded sharply towards the Volvo out front while handing him a small but deceptively heavy cardboard box. Hauling a larger one from the floor, she strode past him and he trailed after her, the wheels of his luggage clunking arrhythmically on the broken pavement. Only as she unlocked the hatchback and placed her carton inside did she reveal the predicament.
“Hannah’s not coming. She broke up with Cheryl last night. Met someone at their Christmas office party on Tuesday night. Supposedly.”
The way she articulated that final word said everything. Trevor dropped onto the tailgate—causing the car to bounce—and placed his container next to hers. Mrs M stood there studying him, arms folded, appearing to wait for his response. Instinctively, he mirrored her body language and sighed. Of all their friends, he understood only too well the devastating effects of being dumped. Right before their long-anticipated Christmas trip, too. Hannah had always possessed a selfish streak, an immunity to the sensibilities of others. She had often manipulated Cheryl but he’d never thought she would stoop so low.
“Shit. Poor Cheryl. How’s she coping?”
“You’ll see in a minute. Putting on a brave front. I tried to sound surprised when she told me, but something’s not been right for months. The important thing, Trevor, is that we’re down by one more guest.”
“Double shit,” he said, staring down at the road between his legs.
“I’ll let you think about that before I bring out any more boxes, and while I go and put the kettle on,” she said, before heading back to the house.
So much for the Yuletide Gay Club.
They had started the group five years ago. Cheryl, his best friend since high school, could take credit for the idea and him for its successful implementation. Sick of hearing in January how many of their gay friends had spent the holiday season either alone or with families who barely tolerated them, they had created their own tradition.
Six couples shared the cost of renting a country cottage in rural Britain. Seven or eight days spent enjoying Christmas their own way, with their own people, in the countryside.
Far from the maddening crowds.
At first nobody had known whether bringing together couples who were occasional friends would work. That first time, the gathering in the six-bedroom farmhouse in Devon had turned out to be nothing short of a miracle. Everyone had gelled quickly and mucked in together, laughed and got drunk together, played games like Cards Against Humanity until sunrise and raved about the break well into the New Year. So good was the experience that Trevor had already had the next event booked up by February. The same thing had happened the following years, with the small group growing closer.
Except this year—the fifth—grim providence had made a personal appearance. Tragically, Mrs M’s seventy-two-year-old Scottish girlfriend, Monica, the only other person allowed in the kitchen at Christmas and the life and soul of the party, had succumbed unexpectedly to a brain aneurism and passed away in late January.
Next up, at the beginning of March, they had received a cryptic email from regulars Johnny and Frank. Both having quit their jobs, they’d decided to take a hiatus from the rat race, managed to rent out their home, and set off on their travels. Finally free, they’d also committed to a technology-free tour of the world and their last handwritten postcard had been sent from somewhere in the Middle East.
As the year progressed, the casualties had continued to fall like autumn leaves until the usual company of twelve had dropped to five.
Then in April, Trevor’s husband of two years, Karl, had not only announced his newly discovered heterosexuality, or bisexuality, or sexual fluidity—he had yet to settle on a label—but admitted that he had fallen in love with a woman. Four years together, and Trevor’s spouse had woken one morning and realised he had been wrestling for the wrong tag team.
Which left four of them. Initially, they had considered cancelling the event. But without consulting any of them, Hannah had tactlessly filled one space with a new girl from her office, twenty-year-old Jessica, who, in turn, decided that bringing along a male colleague would be perfectly acceptable.
Could things get any worse?
Apparently, they could. After Trevor had signed the online divorce papers, there had followed a doorstep altercation with Karl about which artwork, pillows, bed linen, dishes and cutlery he was entitled to take in the divorce. Not thinking straight, Trevor had succumbed to all his demands. In addition, for their Christmas excursion, Karl had seen no reason why he should be ostracised, why he should not still be invited with his new partner. Maybe because of dwindling numbers, or more likely the result of a temporary lapse in sanity, Trevor had capitulated.
Cheryl had refused to speak to him for three weeks after he’d told her.
By the beginning of December, the promise of a seasonal sanctuary, which used to be the epitome of a cosy, warm and cuddly Christmas Hallmark movie, had morphed into the awkward, dysfunctional cast of characters befitting a Woody Allen feature.
“The question remains,” came the voice of Mrs M. Lost in his thoughts, he jumped when she perched down beside him. “Is it too late to cancel?”
Trevor huffed out a steamy breath and searched for seasonal inspiration along the row of terraced houses. All year he had been looking forwards to their getaway. But this wasn’t only about him.
“Technically, it isn’t. But we won’t get a refund, so we’ll lose the full amount, deposit and all. I’ll also need to ring around and let everyone know pretty swiftly before people set off tomorrow. And I’ll try, but I’m not sure I can contact the owner. Apparently, she has her own family gathering abroad.”
Two nights ago, he had received an email from Mrs Mortimer-King telling him that she would not be in Scotland to meet them, but would arrange for someone to hand the keys over and settle them in. Even though he’d never met her, he liked dealing with her, enjoyed her clear instructions, efficiency and her friendly communications.
“I had a long talk with Cheryl last night,” said Mrs M. “She still wants to go. Doesn’t want to spend Christmas at home sitting around moping.”
“Understandable. How about you?”
Mrs M provided another smile before gazing wistfully to the heavens.
“No matter where I am, I’m going to miss having Mon by my side. She always made this time of the year special. Might as well be busy in Scotland as stuck here with too much time on my hands. Cheryl can help me in the kitchen. How about Karl?”
“Karl? What about him? He’s going to be there.”
“That’s my point. How do you feel about that?”
“It’s fine. I’ll deal.”
Total nonsense, of course. Privately, Trevor prayed his ex-husband would do the decent thing and not show up, or perhaps the new significant other would be better at talking him down from the ledge of his principles. Most of all, he dreaded the idea of seeing Karl fawning over a new partner. Over the years Trevor had grown to love the man, had looked to their life together. Karl suppressed his emotions well and had never been afraid to put on a front and fight for what he believed to be right. Trevor had never been a fighter. He had felt emotionally volatile during their doorstep argument. After Karl had gotten everything he came for, he’d promptly turned on his heel and headed back to the comfort of his newfound relationship. That evening, Trevor had curled up on his side of the double bed he had managed to keep, feeling so painfully alone and pathetic. All night he had lain awake, wondering why Karl had never fought for him the same way.
“In different ways, we’ve both lost someone this year, Trevor. But you know we’ll be there for you, Cheryl and me, don’t you?” said Mrs M, as though hearing his thoughts.
“And I really appreciate that, Mrs M. But if they do show up, promise me you won’t let the break turn into an us-and-them fiasco. You know what Karl’s like when he becomes militant.”
“Wouldn’t dream of doing so. But I’m also not standing quietly and letting him order anyone around. Like he usually does.” She pushed a lock of grey hair from her face before turning to him. “He’s still going to the SLAGO meetings. Turned up at the Christmas fundraiser. Did he tell you?”
Karl had said nothing, but Trevor was unsurprised. His ex might have woken up one day and realised he wasn’t gay anymore, but he still loved a cause, a fight to champion. Hence his unfailing loyalty to the Surrey and London Association of Gay Organisations. After the break-up, Cheryl had mused somewhat unkindly whether Karl had ever really been gay, whether he had decided to call himself queer because he needed to wear a badge of honour, to fight on the side of something subversive and radical, become a member of the Great British LGBTQ Cause Club. Trevor knew different, because their relationship had not been a sham even if Karl had shunned affection outside the bedroom. Trevor accepted those things because they meant having someone to care for, to love and share a life with. And more than anything, even after everything that had transpired, Trevor still respected Karl as a person.