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Checking Him Out For the Holidays (CHO Novella)

Chapter One

    Damn, I love Sunday mornings in winter. Daylight that isn't quite bright enough to pull you from sleep, the air outside of the bedcovers frigid and fresh, nothing to get up for, just a nice, lazy day ahead. Glorious.
    Or it was, until the phone started ringing.
    I waited. One ring. Two rings. Still waiting, ear tuned to see if Noah or Matty picked it up. Three rings. Four. I shifted a leg across the mattress, my toes connecting with the back of Adam's calf. A grunt.
    "Phone," I said.
    "Huh," Adam replied, sleepy and unmoving.
    I held my breath, anticipating action. None was forthcoming. "You gonna get it?" I asked.
    A groan in the negative.
    I swore under my breath and threw the duvet back, making sure to uncover him too. He grunted again and made a grab for it as I cursed and muttered my way into my bathrobe and all the way down the stairs. I wasn't being cruel. I'd been on a tight deadline and worked half the night, every night, for the past week, while he sat around and watched TV. Whatever, I was up now. No point complaining. Ever.
    The phone had stopped by then, but I wanted to know who was responsible for bringing an end to a perfectly splendid lie-in that would likely have culminated in a nice spot of Sunday rough 'n' tumble with my significantly-still-in-bastard-bed other. I picked up the phone, checked the display for the last caller, all set to give them hell, deflated in an instant.
    Mum.
    "Why's she calling at this ungodly hour?" I asked the dog, because apparently she was the only other life form unfortunate enough to be cognisant at—I had no idea what the time was. I bent sideways so I could see the kitchen clock. OK, so not that early. How had I slept in till a quarter to twelve? Whether I was burning the two a.m. oil or not, it really wasn't like me, and not like Adam either. Nor did it answer the question of why my mother had called.
    See, since she fully discovered the wonders of the 'World Wide Web'—she always gave it its full accolade—she didn't phone. She Skyped. And Facebooked. And Tweeted. Eldest son lives in the States for ten years and she 'doesn't understand all that new-fangled technical nonsense', but youngest daughter goes to Dubai with her husband for twelve months and all of a sudden she's CyberMum.
    I put the phone back on its base and started toward the stairs, my intention to return to bed, shove Adam back onto his side and demand compensation for having been the one to deal with the disturbance.
    "Don't you dare!" I yelled after Suky as she went tearing past. She paused at the top of the stairs to glance back at me, mouth open panting, tail wagging. The dog was laughing at me. She turned and scampered away on a path for the bedroom. I sighed and continued my ascent, or tried to. But with each step my curiosity—and concern—grew. Something must be wrong. I stopped, pondered a moment over whether to go and put socks on. Figuring a conversation with my mother, regardless of topic, would last less than a minute, I returned downstairs to the phone. It started ringing again just as I picked it up and I nearly dropped it in surprise. I hit the answer button.
    "Hey, Mum."
    "Ah, Solomon. Hello."
    "Hi."
    "Everything all right, darling? You sound out of breath?"
    "Do I?" I didn't feel out of breath. I hadn't yet had much opportunity to do anything that would cause me to be out of breath, more's the pity.
    "Oh, you aren't coming down with flu as well, are you?"
    "Why? Who's got flu? Dad?" After thirty plus years on the rigs, my father had retired the previous spring and he'd been sick ever since. And I'm not even talking 'man flu' here, because my dad isn't a wimpy faker. The day after his retirement do he'd come down with shingles, so the planned celebratory trip to New York was postponed until summer, at which point he developed acute appendicitis and was taken to hospital, where he picked up an MRSA infection and was kept in for four weeks. Eventually he returned home only to end up with shingles again, followed by a gum abscess, followed by a urinary tract infection. In between the shingles and the appendicitis he fractured his thumb while refitting the kitchen, and near sliced his foot off when he dropped a piece of glass reglazing the greenhouse. Last time we spoke I felt it necessary to point out that when people had said retirement would kill him, they'd meant it figuratively.
    "Solomon?"
    "Hmm?" I'd tuned out and not heard a word she'd said. My belly rumbled and I eyed the fruit bowl, soon thereafter remembering that the phone was cordless. We'd only bought it a couple of weeks ago, when Matty, our student lodger, snapped the curly cord on the old one, and when I say old, I really do mean old. Bakelite. All right, maybe not quite that old, but it still had pulse dial. I wandered through to the kitchen and grabbed an apple.
    "Is Adam feeling any better?" my mother repeated.
    Ah. Now we were talking man flu. I took a bite out of the apple. "Yeah. He's fine," I crunched. Or at least I thought he was. Actually, I didn't know if he was or not and I felt pretty mean, though in my defence I'd only just woken up so I couldn't be blamed for temporarily forgetting he was sick.
    "He sounded dreadful when I spoke to him yesterday."
    "Did you?"
    "Don't you mean he?"
    "Huh? Oh! No, I meant he didn't tell me you'd called." Guess he really was ill then. My bad.
    "No matter. I can tell you myself now. Claire and John have to stay in Dubai, so your dad and I discussed it, and thought, seeing as you have the dog and Noah, and it would be terribly unfair to leave the poor boy home alone, it's far more sensible for us to come to you."
    "Right." I had nothing else to say to that. Noah—Adam's younger brother—was twenty years old and more than big enough to look after himself, so we could have gone to them, though I wasn't sure that was preferable. I took another bite of the apple, hoping it would grant me time to think up a plausible reason for why my parents couldn't come and spend the festive season with us—other than that I didn't do the festive season. Boring. Overly sentimental. Too much shopping.
    I said, through my mouthful of apple—which wasn't that nice, incidentally—and I was stalling, "What date were you thinking of coming?"
    "A week tomorrow. We're at a party on the Friday and Saturday."
    Parties? My parents were living it up more than I was, which was a third item to add to my list of 'things I don't like about this', along with playing reserve to my sister. I guarantee if Claire had been in the country, we'd have all been traipsing up north to her place by default. But top of the list by a long stretch was the fact that my mother wasn't asking if she and Dad could come; she was telling me they were going to. We'd spent a year renovating the farmhouse so we could take in more students like Matty, and it now had seven bedrooms—of which only three were in use—as well as two bathrooms. The central heating was working. The dog was sociable, Noah was not, but nothing new there… In short, there was not a single reason why they couldn't come and stay. Apart from me not wanting them to, which was mean-spirited. Perhaps.
    "You have a kitchen, don't you?" my mother asked.
    "Of course we've got a kitchen! What kind of question is that?"
    "All right, Solomon. There's no need—"
    She stopped and I knew she was backtracking, because the question was precisely as I'd interpreted it. For as much as my mum adored Adam and now accepted that I was gay, she still viewed our living situation as if we were grown-up roomies sharing some kind of grand bachelor pad. She'd never come for a visit, so she had no way of knowing that the farmhouse was cosy and homely—a lot more homely than if Adam and I had lived there alone, I envisaged. Matty was the one responsible for all the clutter. God only knew what she'd think of him.
    "I was merely checking to see if I should prepare food in advance," she justified.
    "You can cook here," I said.
    "I'll pack the Flash and jay cloths. Should I bring potatoes?"
    I gave up on the apple, dropping it half-eaten into the trash, and rubbed at the newly formed tender spot on my forehead. "We've got potatoes. It's Norfolk, Mother, not Ireland in The Blight."
    She ignored me and went on: "So not potatoes…" She was crossing it off a shopping list, I just knew it. "And I'll leave you to get a turkey…"
    Wasn't going to be hard to procure one around here, though we usually had beef. I drew breath, about to say that, but she butted in before I got that far.
    "Your dad likes a bit of turkey, and I'm sure the boys would prefer a traditional Christmas dinner."
    "Fine, whatever." Regardless of how closely together the two holidays fell, we had always done something of a mix 'n' match with meals and traditions; we ate fried foods, lit candles and enjoyed family time for Hanukkah. We also attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve, though neither of my parents was religious outside of being born into a faith, so it was all about family tradition rather than worship.
    "…and I'll bring baking essentials…"
    Yeah, OK. I'd give her that one. We didn't possess flour and yeast and such, and to be truthful I loved my mum's raisin challah. With that thought came just the slightest tingle of long unfelt…something.
    "Anything else?" my mother finished up, leaving me quite sure I'd missed the majority of what she'd just said.
    "Nope. Don't think so."
    "Marvellous. I'll give you a call during the week, darling, just to confirm times and whatnot. Oh, and can you email Claire? She said she hadn't heard from you in a while."
    My sister the liar. We spoke three days ago. "Will do," I said.
    "Love to Adam and the boys. And to you of course. Bye."
    "Same to you and Dad. Bye."
    I hung up and let go of the sigh. Imposed celebrating. Oh joy.
    Move over, Ebenezer Scrooge, pre-visitations. You ain't seen nothing yet.

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