A story inspired by the song
Two days before Christmas, so of course it was raining. The streets of London were full to bursting and you couldn't so much walk as shuffle.
Michelle's feet hurt. She couldn't remember the last time they didn't hurt, she thought to herself wearily as she trudged along Baker Street towards the tube station. As she sidestepped the crowd of Japanese tourists milling around on the pavement, she stepped into a puddle in the gutter.
Shit! She didn't know if she'd thought it, or actually spoken. Nobody turned, so she couldn't have said it aloud, she decided, as the wetness seeped into her stocking. This was just what she needed on top of the day she'd had.
Travis had called her into his office only half an hour ago, and explained shamefaced why she wouldn't be getting the promotion they had promised - again. She'd pretended to listen, but after it became clear that what it really meant was that she would be walking the shop floors for another unspecified period she had simply switched off. Time to comb through the jobs in the Standard again.
There were no seats on the tube, of course. She hung onto the strap, and tried to close out the steamy smell of wet, stressed human as the Jubilee Line took her towards what she laughingly called 'home'
This wasn't how it was supposed to be, she thought. She'd left university (Good lord was it only three years ago?) with a good degree, and a place on a management training scheme with a large retail chain. It was the kind of job that graduates queued up for, in fact.
Except that six months after she had started, the scheme had been scrapped - cutbacks and economic necessities, they'd explained. Of course, she was still earmarked for management, but the fast-track was gone, she'd have to work her way up like everyone else - the only advantage she had was that she'd start as supervisor. And supervisor she had stayed, moving slowly up the chain from smaller departments to larger, more prestigious ones, but never quite making the transition into 'management'. All day, every day, walking round and round the shop watching for fiddles, fixing problems for staff and customers, taking all the shit from every side. "The next opening is yours Michelle," Travis had said, "you know that." Then today he told her, "We're not replacing Angela, just reallocating her work, so the job isn't there."
As the tube pulled into Finchley Road she elbowed her way to the door.
Half a mile and she was putting the key into the front door of the poky bedsit that was all she could afford. Sinking into a chair, she kicked off her shoes and stripped the wet stockings away from her feet. The answering machine was blinking and she hit the button and listened to her mother's voice as she poured brandy into the glass that she hadn't bothered to wash the night before.
"Hi love, I hope you're okay, and not working too hard. I'm just calling because Brian is coming up to the city tomorrow. He said he'd give you a lift home for Christmas if you wanted. It would save you the train fare, and me the worry of you travelling alone - you know I don't like you on trains that late at night."
Michelle wasn't sure whether to be amused or annoyed. Mum was never going to admit that she was grown up and capable, she was sure. But, on the other hand, it would be much more pleasant going back to Wiltshire in her brother's nice comfortable Volvo than fighting it out with Christmas Eve crowds on the Great Western line.
She picked up the phone and dialled quickly. "Yes Mum, I'm fine. I'd love a lift if it's not too much trouble - I'll leave the key with Sanjit at the newsagent, and Brian can wait for me here, and make himself at home okay? Yeah, see you tomorrow night. Love you."
She wasn't sure she even wanted to go home. Every time she visited she had to see friends whose lives had moved on so much further than hers. Marriage, kids, jobs -- even the ones that had never got out of the small town they were all born in still seemed to be running ahead of her. But the thought of spending Christmas here, alone, in this dingy room was ... inconceivable.
She listened to the noises from the flat next door as she poured herself another large drink. The first one had barely touched the sides, she thought; she really ought to be careful how much she drank.
She peeled off her work clothes and considered just slipping straight into bed, but laughter drifted through the walls, bringing tears to her eyes. How could a person be so lonely with so many people around them? she wondered. She dragged on a pair of jeans and a shirt, turned on the TV, finished her second drink, then poured another.
"I can't stand this, not tonight." The thought drifted into her mind, and once it was there, she couldn't shift it. Walking to the window, she pulled the curtain back and gazed out. Yes, there was a light on over at Drew's place.
She shoved her feet into a pair of sneakers, pocketed her key, and grabbed the brandy. Even as she shut the door behind her, she knew it was a bad move, but it was better than being alone.
He opened the door almost before she knocked.
"'lo Shell," he said, his voice slurred, "Decided to come over for a bit of rough
"Just let me in Drew, there's a love," she sighed, holding up the bottle for him to see.
"What if I'm not alone?"
"You're alone. You'd already be in bed if one of your tarts was here."
Drew had helped her move in, when she'd first arrived here, and for a year, they'd had a thing going. When he was sober he was fun, and witty and intelligent, but his sober periods became fewer and far between as disillusion gripped him, and when he was drunk, he looked for, and found, validation in women. After the third or fourth time, Michelle had stopped forgiving him, and the relationship had fallen apart.
But he was someone, someone that she had at least a tenuous link to. She had no-one at work - she was too 'posh' for the girls on the shop floor, too plebeian for management-so, when the loneliness got too much to bear, she'd find herself at Drew's place, if he was alone.
"Come on in, and grab a seat. Shove some stuff on the floor if you can't find anywhere to sit. You want coffee?"
"Just a glass," she said, waving the bottle again.
"Jeez, Shell, you're drinking nearly as much as me! What prompted today's visit?" He put the glass beside her. That was the other thing, she thought, despite everything, he knew her well enough to know something was wrong, and he was usually ready to listen.
So, she told him about the meeting with Travis, and when she started crying, inevitably, he came over and put his arms round her, hugging her tight. She'd cried herself empty into the warm wool of his sweater, and when she was all cried out, he got a tissue and dried her eyes.
When he kissed her, she tried to push him away, just for form's sake, mumbling "No.."
His hand slid up inside her shirt, and cupped her breast.
"Come on babe, you know this is why you came over," he murmured, his hands caressing, but his whisper harsh "A little human contact, a little affection, a little so-called love."
She couldn't deny it, not without lying to herself.
And so, they went to bed. As always, he surprised her with his tenderness, his cynicism and bitterness discarded with his clothes.
After, he held her close, cradled in his arms he told her his plans for the new year. An opportunity to go deer-farming in Scotland, or maybe a pub in the Lake District. She'd heard it all before - pipe dreams that he kept alive to stop himself sinking completely into depression, but they helped him, so she let it wash over her. She smiled and agreed with him, and entered into his enthusiasm.
Eventually, she went to get up, to go home, but he surprised her.
He put a hand on her arm, and said "Stay Shell, please. Stay the night. I want to talk to you."
Why not? she thought, and cuddled back against the warmth of his body.
"Are you going home for Christmas?" he asked.
She nodded. "My brother is picking me up."
He looked into her face, and said, very seriously, "Stay there. Don't come back. The city is destroying you, and I hate watching it happen."
"I'm not joking. Every time you come here, you are a bit drunker, a bit sadder, a bit more desperate." He laughed, "it takes me less time to get you into bed every time, did you know that?"
"Your irresistible charm?" she giggled.
"Your failing self-respect. You might not believe this, but I love you, in my own way. This isn't the life for you. Hell, it isn't the life for anyone. Stay tonight, then tomorrow, go over to your place, call in sick, pack everything of yours up, and when your brother arrives, go."
"You'd miss me." She was still trying to treat it lightly.
"Yes, I would. But you might save me. If you get out, maybe it'll give me the push I need."
"What about my job?"
"Quit. You want to anyway. With your experience and training, you'll find another."
Slowly she began to actually consider it. Her parents would let her stay, she knew. They weren't happy with her being in London anyway. It was ... a possibility.
"Please, Michelle. Do it for me."
"I'll think about it."
"I'll trust you."
He kissed her deeply, with friendship, with something that was very much like love. "This is goodbye," he said, as he turned out the light, and began to make love to her again.
In the morning, when she woke, he was gone. There was a note on the pillow. Remember, I'm trusting you.
As she opened the door to go back to her own flat, the sun, against all odds, was bright and warm, and its harsh light showed every up grimy mark and oil slick.
She straightened. She was leaving. She was going home.