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Christmas Eve by Nell Leyshon

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The train window is steamed up and the large, sprawling man in the next seat is pressed against me. I can’t get my arms free to take my coat off and I have a heavy bag on my lap. There is no room on the rack above; there is no room on the train. People stand all along the aisle and I overhear a conversation between strangers, comparing their office Christmas lunches.

The bag on my lap is full of carefully wrapped presents. I am going home for Christmas but this is not how it was meant to be.

He should be with me.

The car waits at the station and I put my bag in the boot and then get in the back seat. I sit behind them and Mum turns round and smiles.

“You okay?” I nod and she turns back round and we drive off. I look at the back of their heads; my mother’s tight greying curls and my father’s thinning crown. I know that I am 24 years old, but as I sit there, belted-in and compliant, time collapses and I am yet again a child.

I stand in the street outside our house: semi-detached, red brick and the same dark green paint as the neighbours’, where a new car stands in the drive. Dad points it out. “It’s Dan’s,” he says. “He’s back home till he gets himself sorted.”

We go inside and sit at the table in our familiar places. Mum pours small glasses of wine and we raise them and drink.

“Well?” Mum says. “What happened?”

I shrug. “He said he had doubts.”

Dad shakes his head. “You were too good for him,” he says. Mum reaches across and holds my hand. “Anyway, it’s lovely to have you home,” she says. “I said to Eileen next door, it’s like it used to be, both of us having you back for Christmas.”

Later I go up to my room and put my bag down, close the door behind me. The single duvet cover has dolphins on it and the walls are covered in posters.

I take out the presents and put them on the desk, ready for the next day. His present is back in my flat, wrapped up. When I get back after Christmas I shall have to unwrap it myself then take it back to the shop.

I get into bed and my bedclothes are tight around me and it is as though my adult self is wrapped within my child self; it should be the other way round, and all my child selves should be folded inside me.

I try not to think of him.

I turn onto my side and look at the wall of the chimney breast, the fireplace where I would leave the mince pie and carrot. Each Christmas morning a bite would be gone from each and on the floor, a trail of soot.

And then while staring at the wall, I think of Dan next door: ginger, thin, white-skin-stretched-over-bones Dan. Each Christmas morning we’d meet outside and compare notes on our presents, and wonder if Santa would ever confuse our chimneys and bring us the wrong presents.

And then before I know what I am doing, I rise from the bed and walk to the chimney wall and bang on it, the same pattern of old: three hard bangs.

Nothing.

I get back into the bed and pick up my phone, feel its weight in my hand. It is the connection to my adult world and I am here in my childhood bed. I turn it on even though I have no need; I want the light to bathe my night-skin.

The room is warm and my bed feels hot as though there is a flame beneath the mattress. I miss him.

I need to sleep and drop the phone to the floor. And then I hear it. Bang bang bang. Three times.

I rush to the wall. What is the second code, the meet-me-outside code? Ah, yes. That’s it. I hit the wall five times. And I hear it repeated. The same.

I start to laugh. I’m not really going to do this, am I? But I am, I am. I pull on my coat and creep out of my room, down the stairs. I put the door on the latch, let myself out, and step out under the moon into the street.

I am a child-adult in my pyjamas and the air is cold and hurts as I breathe it deep into my lungs. My feet feel the cold paving stones and I have to keep moving.

I look up and see the shape loom at the window, see the fabric pull aside. He puts up a hand, a do-nothing signal, and I stay there and wait until his door opens.

Dan – ginger, thin, white-skin-stretched-over-bones Dan – emerges from his front door, only his past selves are firmly hidden within his present self and his ginger hair is now the colour of fallen leaves.

He walks towards me and laughs as he sees how short I am compared to him. There are no under-the-skin bones in sight.

“You have no shoes on,” he says.

“I know.”

He takes my hands and pulls me so that I stand on his two feet. “Your dad used to dance with me like this,” he says. He does a few steps with me holding on.

And then we stop.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

I can say nothing so I nod.

We stand like this in the street outside the two houses. I am unable to speak or move. For even though I know we are both 24 years old, in this moment we are so much more than that: we are also our past child selves. But it is even more than that, for here, in the moonlit street, my feet upon his, I know that we are also our future selves.

The Colour Of Milk by Nell Leyshon (£10, Fig Tree) is out now

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