Second only to his career as a medical professional, Stephen considered himself an accomplished epicurean and loved all things involving fine dining and the culinary arts, especially when it came to cooking with less mainstream cookbooks or programmes on the television where he could follow intricate recipes to create lavish meals for his guests. Arriving just after six, being met at the door not only by amazing smells of meat, spices, herbs and other sumptuous elements cooking but also by the man in the ridiculous Rudolph Christmas apron—Marcus Vine, the celebrated chef—and Stephen's Christmas had just gotten a whole lot better. Rauf stood between Stephen and Anton, as they said hello to the kitchen trio—Marcus, a handsome guy called Rudy stood over a chopping board helping with food preparation, and a slighter figure called Trevor, currently laying the table.
"Have my uncles arrived?" asked Rauf as soon as they had been introduced.
"Martin and Gallagher," clarified Anton.
"They most certainly have." Rudy halted his task of chopping chunks of carrot and waved his knife out towards the corridor. "A few hours ago. In the middle bedroom at the top of the stairs, the big one. Yours, by the way, is down here, next to the kitchen. There's a bedroom next door for Rauf. And the next room along is a bathroom."
"Can I go up and say hello, Doctor Stephen?" said Rauf, excitedly, pulling on Stephen's sleeve. Even Rudy and Trevor turned to listen to Rauffy's request. "Please!"
"They might be changing, Rauf. Don't you think we should give them some private time?"
Whenever Rauf asked so quietly, Stephen's heart tugged, and he always caved. Maybe his son had begun to know how to play him, but he knew if he said no, Rauf would accept Stephen's decision without a further word.
"I'll take him," said Anton, grinning, knowing Stephen well enough to realise he was about to agree. "Can you drop our bags off into our rooms? And pull out the Secret Santa presents."
"Put them under the tree in the living room," added Trevor. "And tell your friends to come down for drinks and canapés in the main room when they're ready. Everyone should be joining shortly."
"Did you hear that, Rauf," said Stephen. "Tell Uncle Martin and Uncle Gallagher everybody's about to gather by the big windows in the living room. To have cocktails and canapés."
As soon as Anton took Rauf away, Stephen remained there for a moment, watching the men work, feeling the need to explain.
"Sorry, but he hasn't seen his uncles since the beginning of December. They get along really well. So, do you need a hand in here? I'm considered a dab hand in the kitchen.”
"Not necessary," said Marcus, smiling quickly and back at the pots on the stove. "Too many cooks, and all that. We've got just the right number of helpers, so we don't get in each other's way, and everything's just about covered. So unless you want to go and freshen up, why don't you head into the big room and keep my husband, Tom, company. He's playing bartender tonight."
Stephen stepped into the living room and stood there, admiring the space for a good few minutes, before walking around the room and assessing the decor and decorations. Apart from the grand, beautifully decorated tree to the right of the windows, carefully placed strings of lights and decorations around the walls, together with lamps strategically placed in corners, made the place feel homely and individual. Coming around the massive central fireplace, Stephen noticed a table laid out with an assortment of finger foods and a man behind the small bar checking a bottle up against an overhead light.
The man, broad-shouldered and rugged, turned startled in the direction of the voice.
"Uh, yes," said Tom, confused. "Sorry, should I know you?"
Stephen laughed, then stepped forward and leant in to shake hands across the bar counter.
"Not yet. I'm Stephen. Friends of friends. I've been sent to keep you company while Marcus and his helpers prepare dinner, and while my husband and son go meet our other friends."
"You have your son with you?"
"Adopted. Six-year-old. His name's Rauf. You'll meet him soon enough. We had to bring him with us. He's a little clingy at the moment, so we had no choice."
"I have two daughters. Thirteen and sixteen. Not in the slightest bit clingy."
"Yes. I used to be married. Their mother died when they were young."
"I'm so sorry. That must have been hard. Are they here?"
"No. I wanted to bring them but, apart from the fact they didn't want to come, I got outvoted. Probably for the best. The oldest is a treasure, but the younger one is—uh—getting to be a handful. So my parents are looking after them for Christmas and New Year so that Marcus and I get some personal time."
"With you behind the bar, and him stuck cooking in the kitchen?"
Tom chuckled while finishing cleaning a champagne glass, placing the flute along with a row of others. He had a nice laugh, Stephen decided.
"So what'll you have?"
"Do you have bottled beer?"
"I do. Heineken. And I think I'll join you."
"Champagne for me," came a voice behind them. "And look who I found in the kitchen, looking for you and causing havoc getting under Marcus' feet."
Anton strolled up with a broadly grinning Rauf in front, Anton's hands resting on Rauf's shoulders. The youngster, who had also changed into a festive red jumper, stopped in front of Stephen and hiked up his jeans to show his new shoes.
"Doctor Stephen. Look what Uncle Martin and Uncle Gallagher gave me."
Following behind them, Martin came into view. Without conscious volition, Stephen's medical eye gave him a quick assessment. Still a little underweight, he shone with more colour, much less pallor to his skin than a few weeks ago, and more importantly, had a smile on his face.
"Did they now?" said Stephen, raising an eyebrow at Martin.
"An early Christmas present," Martin replied. "For being such a nice, polite young man."
After introductions were made, and drinks handed out—Gallagher opting for champagne, while Martin and Rauf had a tumbler each of mixed fruit juice—they made their way to the sofas. Rauf squeezed himself in between Stephen and Anton.
"When can we build a snowman, Doctor Stephen?"
On the drive north to Scotland, as soon as they had hit the snow-covered fields past Birmingham, Rauf's eyes had been glued wide open, his head swinging from side to side to look out the passenger windows. Unlike other six-year-olds, however, he asked no questions. Next to Stephen, Anton, ever sensitive to Rauf's inquisitiveness, filled in the gaps. Explaining how the weather often got colder the further north they drove, he also told him how, most years, snow rarely fell in the south until after the New Year, if at all. When he added that snow had already fallen where they were heading and asked if Rauf was ready to help build a snowman, the expression on Rauf's face had been priceless.
"It's a bit dark outside now, Rauf. Maybe tomorrow morning. Before breakfast. How does that sound?"
Rauf clearly liked the answer because he grinned broadly and took a sip of his drink.
"And," added Tom, with a wink. "I think you may have some volunteers to help if you want?"
Still unsure of strangers, Rauf looked up at Stephen who smiled and nodded.
"What do you say, Rauf?"
Rauf turned and grinned at Tom.
"Yes, please. Thank you, Mr Tom—"
Just as Rauf finished, a small bundle of curly fur came hurtling into the room, stopping at each pair of legs to sniff. Stephen had an immediate concern, had never seen Rauf around animals, and worried he might be scared. Once again, Anton second-guessed him, because he knelt to the floor and called the dog over. Rauf watched mesmerised as the dog came over and sat down in front of Anton, its tail thumping excitedly on the wooden floor. Anton scratched the dog's head and offered his hand to sniff.
"Sorry, guys," came a breathless voice from behind the couch. "The little rascal invited himself into Jaymes and Nathan's bedroom, finished causing mayhem, then came hurtling past me down the stairs. I'm afraid he gets a little excitable when there's a lot of people around. I'm Kieran, by the way."
"And I'm Kennedy," came another voice from behind him, significantly older than the other man. "And I take no responsibility whatsoever for the mutt. My husband was the one who insisted we bring him."
"His name's Ed. He's a rescue. Kennedy and his mother wanted to put him in a kennel for a couple of days, but I wasn't having that. So we brought him with us. Hope nobody's allergic to dogs. If he gets in your way, let us know, and we'll shut him on our room."
By now, however, Ed had charmed Anton and soon moved past him to Rauf. While the men around them welcomed and introduced themselves, Stephen kept a careful eye on the dog, ready to pull Rauf out of the way if he appeared spooked. Fortunately, although Rauf looked as wary and curious as Ed, and would not touch the dog, he did not seem scared. Eventually, the dog—Ed—moved on to others in the room, and Stephen relaxed, and silently hoped one day he might stop worrying so much about his child.
Once Kieran and Kennedy had settled with a glass of champagne each, conversations bubbled around Stephen. Ed settled himself at Kieran's feet but kept looking up at Rauf. Rauf, too, seemed to notice, because he kept his eye trained on the dog, observing warily.
Tom's phone ringing took them all by surprise. At almost the same time, two new men joined the company. Stephen assumed them to be Jaymes and Nathan, the men Kieran had mentioned.
"Sorry, everyone," said Tom. "We promised we wouldn't bring our phones out tonight, but I wanted to say a quick hello to my daughters."
"Checking up on them?" asked Kennedy with a smirk. "Take the call, Tom. I'll get Jaymes and Nathan a drink."
"Oh yes, I forgot you've got kids of your own, Kennedy. Yes, a bit of checking up, too. Oh, and in case any of you need it," said Tom, thumbing to accept the call. "The WiFi password's on the chalkboard behind the bar. Hope you don't mind if I put this call on speaker."
Everyone fell quiet to give Tom the chance to chat. In doing so, Stephen and everyone else in the room could hear every word of the conversation.
"Hello, Katie. How are things there?"
"It's all good, Dad. Gran's doing her signature roast beef and roast potatoes for dinner. Not as good as Marcus', but I wouldn't dare tell her that. And I'm helping grandpa mix the Yorkshire pudding batter."
"And where's your sister?"
"In the front room, of course, watching that stupid dancing competition. No help at all."
"No, I'm not, I'm right here." Stephen noted the annoyance in the slightly younger, higher-pitched sounding voice. "Katie's hogging the phone, as usual, Daddy."
"Where's Marcus?" came the first voice.
"In the kitchen cooking up a storm. So everyone else has been banned from entering."
"Nothing new, then. Charlie's been watching television all day."
"I have not! Daddy, I think Katie's suffering from dementia or amnesia. I went to the mall with her and gran this morning to help with the Christmas food shop."
"And you were such a saint. She disappeared off for an hour, Dad. Supposedly to do Christmas present shopping. Then returned with a manicure."
"Play nicely, you two. Otherwise, I'll send Marcus back to keep an eye on you."
"Oh yes, because that has always been such a threat." This time, the voice of the other daughter, Charlie, came down the line. "I've already got gran hovering over me every five minutes. She asked me to peel carrots and potatoes. Can you believe? I only just got my nails done and she wants me to peel vegetables. Gran is a born torturer. How did you ever survive living with her?"
"Charlie, do not annoy your grandmother. You know you'll live to regret the day."
"Okay, and I'll help with the vegetables, but I am not washing up. Just telling you now, in case you get a call from she-who-must-not-be-named. These nails cost over twenty pounds. And I'm not ruining them before the New Year's party."
"What New Year's party?
"It's okay, Dad." The time the calm voice of the other daughter came down the line. "We're all going, including Gran and Grandad. It's at Mr and Mrs Porter's house."
"Fine. Just don't stay out too late."
"Duh, it's New Year's Eve. We have to stay out until at least after midnight. To see in the New Year."
"Okay then, but make sure you get an Uber or a taxi home."
"For goodness' sake, Dad. The Porters live three doors down. Do you even live here?"
Although pretending not to listen in, everyone in the room found difficulty in trying to stifle their laughter. Eventually, Tom signed off sending his love, wishing them both a great evening and promising to call in the morning. Somewhat dramatically, he accentuated the ending of the call by adding a deep sigh.
"Kieran. Kennedy. Welcome to a taste of what's to come."
"And let me guess," said Kennedy. "You're the bad cop, and Marcus plays good cop?"
"How did you guess?"
Kennedy peered over at Tom. "We may need to swap notes."
Everyone laughed aloud and raised a toast to raising kids. Just as Stephen lowered his arm holding the bottle of beer, he felt someone tug at his sleeve.
"I'm properly adopted now, aren't I?"
"Yes, we told you. You're officially ours now, Anton and I. We're your legal guardians."
"So when can I start calling you Daddy?
In his profession, Stephen had learned to control his emotions, seeing them so often and openly displayed on his patients’ faces or those of relatives. Very little touched him these days. When he looked up into the smiling eyes of Anton, he felt tears sting his eyes.
"Do you want to?"
"But what are you going to call Anton?"
“Kennedy’s boys call him Daddy, and Kieran Papa? How does that sound for us?” asked Anton.
"Papa Anton?" asked Rauf, appearing to try to the words on for size. "Yes, I like that. Daddy and Papa Anton."
Stephen bent down and pecked a kiss on Rauf's head, before raising his face to Anton and kissing him on the lips. As he brought his mouth away, he saw Anton had also teared up a little.
When Stephen looked around, he noticed Martin grinning over at him and nodding. Although out of earshot, he seemed to get the gist of their conversation with Rauf. As Stephen returned the smile, something clicked in his brain. By now, he should have heard back from the oncologist about Martin's health status. Seeing his friend looking healthier, he hoped Martin wouldn't have to go through another round of the chemo, especially after the way the treatment had affected him. While sitting there, he fired off a quick text message to his colleague, just as Trevor came into the room, and summoned everyone into the kitchen for dinner.
As he walked into the kitchen, Stephen marvelled at the transformation that had taken place. Bottles of red and white wines sat neatly on one countertop, while various bowls covered in foil sat on another. The table had been decorated with intermittent clusters of pine cones, fresh clumps of fir and sprigs of holly, each with a fat, cream coloured candle lit in the centre—simple, yet perfectly fitting the occasion. Trevor stood at one end of the table, while Marcus and Rudy busied themselves arranging food onto platters on the kitchen counter.
"Welcome everyone to our Christmas tradition in Scotland," announced Trevor after everyone had entered, letting Rudy and Marcus continue without being disturbed. "As you can see, there are named place settings, so please take your seats. Nathan and Kieran have kindly offered to help me serve wine and other drinks in a moment. Water is already on the table, so help yourselves to that." Trevor waited until every sat down before continuing on. "Now I know some of you don't know everyone here, but I promise that by the end of this visit—or more likely by the end of this meal—you'll all be good friends. Funny really, and I might be wrong here, but I've always believed when we make special friends, their friends easily become our own, because we all value the same things. We're also fortunate to have Marcus Vine cooking for us." Without prompting a small cheer and a round of applause went up around the table. "Now I just want to make something clear here. This was not the reason for inviting him—he openly volunteered to cook—but for the rest of us, this is an added bonus."
"My pleasure, gentlemen," said Marcus, turning from the task at hand. "And just so we get this out in the open now, you'll all be doing the washing up later. Now serve these poor buggers some wine, for goodness' sake."
As the laughter died down, the three younger men stood and began filling people's wine glasses around the table. Only Martin, and, of course, Rauf opted for water. Rauf sat between Martin and Anton and chatted happily with Martin, the two of them like old friends. Stephen relaxed even more and raised his glass across the table to Anton.
Before long, with everyone seated, Marcus came to the table, removed his apron, and called for quiet.
"To start with, I've prepared a small bowl of winter soup, my take on something called Cullen Skink. I know it sounds like a Gaelic insult, but it's originally from Cullen—hence the name—a town in the North East of Scotland. In my version, I've used lightly smoked haddock with added shellfish, and I've thickened the soup with potato and cream. Even Tom's difficult-to-please daughters will happily enjoy a bowl. It's a great meal for a cold night. They're not big portions tonight, because there's a lot more food to come. So please tuck in and enjoy."
Stephen savoured every mouthful and could have happily eaten another serving. Even in restaurants, he had a habit of trying to guess ingredients, but a couple he could not even fathom. At some point, he needed to have a chat with Marcus. After collecting up the empty bowls, when Marcus and Rudy started to arrange the main course on the table, Stephen could see why they had started frugally.
Arranged the length of the table, the men laid plates of roast crispy pork loin rolled with apple stuffing, served with thick cider cream sauce. Piles of Hasselback potatoes sat like hedgehogs on a white platter, golden and crispy on the outside. Other vegetables included steaming white asparagus, minted leek and fresh pea mix, and chunks of roasted root vegetables including carrots, parsnips and swede.
After everyone had been served, barely anyone spoke around the table. Stephen smiled to himself. He knew the reaction well when diners quietly enjoyed the eating experience. After a sizeable pause at the end of the meal, dessert came in the form of steaming hot sticky toffee pudding with brandy cream, served with rhubarb or raspberry ice cream—or in Rauf's case, a little of both.
Over fresh coffee, platters of cheese and biscuits, and chocolate mints, Rudy quietened everyone, first to thank Marcus for his creation, but also to endorse Trevor's welcome.
"So we have another tradition at the lodge," said Rudy, standing at one end of the table. "As each of us receives our Secret Santa present, we say a few words this time of year about what we're grateful for, either during the year or for life in general. I suppose it's our version of a cross between Thanksgiving and Christmas."
"In which case," said Marcus, "to show us how it's done, I think we should begin with the hosts, Rudy and Trevor. This is, after all, their very own tradition. And if not for them, none of us would be here right now. Can someone pass down presents either ends of the table for Rudy and Trevor?"
After dessert, Stephen had helped Tom and Kieran bring all the Secret Santa presents from beneath the tree and pile them into the middle of the table. Rauf's eyes had been like saucers seeing the gifts in colourful wrapping paper piled high.
"Rudy, do you mind if I go first," said Trevor, sitting at the far end of the table and waving his flat-packed gift. Stephen had no idea what the present could be but guessed Rudy's to be a scented candle, the box precisely the right shape. "I'm dying to find out what this is."
"Go ahead," said Rudy.
Trevor carefully unwrapped the gold wrapping to reveal what appeared to be a calendar. Mystified, he showed the cover to those gathered, which displayed an empty changing room on the front with the word Crumbington across the top.
"Might be a good idea to have a look inside," said the man called Jaymes.
When Trevor did precisely that, his eyes opened wide, and he gasped aloud. This time when he turned the page around to show them, a strapping man, artfully naked, hung from a thick gym rope.
"And I bet you can't guess June's model?"
"Jaymes!" came his partner, Nathan's, voice
"No!" said Trevor, aghast, having done what Jaymes said. "Is that really—? Is that really you, Nathan?"
Of course, after that, everyone wanted to ogle the calendar, so Trevor had no choice but to pass the album around. Looking over Gallagher's shoulder, Stephen had to admit, the photographer had done an astonishing job, every model beautifully captured, and the one of Nathan absolutely stunning.
"So, while you're all perving at the men in the calendar," said Trevor. "I'd like to give thanks for being back here again. Rudy knows I'm a big fan of traditions—they provide stability even during difficult times. So I'm really pleased to see new faces as well as familiar ones. And, as I am sure Rudy will announce later on, you are all welcome to come back next year—"
"Actually," interrupted Rudy, leaving his seat and going down the table to stand next to Trevor. "I had some interesting news on this trip down. My father is planning on retiring next year, which means selling his freehold properties, including the lodge."
Trevor appeared crestfallen, and Rudy put his arm around his shoulders.
"You never said anything," he said, quietly, but Rudy simply kissed him on the cheek and continued.
"And it appears my father already has a buyer."
From the other end of the table, Kennedy Grey stood up.
"Yes, I've put a bid in already to buy the lodge. Which, if all goes well, means you are all invited back next year. I'm about to step down from my role as CEO, so need a project to keep me busy. This is the perfect solution. Kieran even works with a friend of ours who spends most of his time renovating older buildings. So I'm going to drag him in to help. I am not one for sentimentality, but there is a singular magic to this building, and I would hate to see just anybody getting their hands on her."
"Hear, hear," said Rudy, starting a round of applause. "Thank you, Kennedy Grey."
"And now it's your turn, Rudy," said Trevor, once the noise had died down and not letting Rudy go back to his seat.
Rudy ripped the paper from his gift to reveal a small box. However, inside the box, was an even smaller container. When Rudy eventually opened the last one, inside sat two shiny rings, side by side.
"What's this?" asked Rudy, his cheeks reddened.
Trevor immediately went down on one knee, his head barely visible above the tabletop.
"Will you, Rudolph Andrew Mortimer, consider marrying me?"
Rudy stared at the box, and then at Trevor, and then back at the contents before the message finally sank in.
"Of course, Trev. Yes! Yes, I'll marry you," said Rudy, pulling Trevor up from the floor and into his arms. Around the table, a cheer went up followed by a round of applause.
"Sorry it's taken so long," said Trevor, hugging Rudy tightly. "But I wanted to make sure you wouldn't get bored of me."
"Oh, Trev. Why would I—? Never in a million years."
After Rudy and Trevor, they went around the table, each couple, in turn, opening their gifts and saying a few words of thanks.
Kieran got a thick woollen hat which he promised to wear when helping Rauf to build a snowman; Kennedy received a large frame containing the front cover of Business Weekly and a photograph of him and Kieran at an official function with the heading 'Businessman of the Year.'
Marcus received a table game called Food and Drink, a type of trivial pursuits game which focussed primarily on food and drinks from around the world. Tom, for some reason, received a pair of red speedo trunks. Stephen had no idea why, but the gift seemed to amuse both him and Marcus.
Just as Jaymes opened his present, to reveal a porcelain apple-shaped pen holder and a set of whiteboard marker pens, and Nathan opened his to reveal a beautiful silver-framed photograph in monochrome, a family group shot, Stephen's phone buzzed in his pocket. When he looked down, he saw the caller and instantly stood from his chair.
"Sorry, everyone. Duty calls, and this wouldn't happen if it wasn't urgent. Please excuse me. I'm sure this will only take a few minutes."
Stephen stepped away from the table and walked into the empty living room, which felt strange now without the guests sitting around. As soon as the name had appeared on the display, Stephen knew the reason for the call. Martin's oncologist, and Stephen's good friend, someone he respected. Although he had heard hundreds of reports back in the past on any number of illnesses and had listened dispassionately, assessing the factual information, this time, he took a deep breath before answering.
"Merry Christmas, Param. Go ahead."
Throughout the call, he said nothing, letting the information flow and watching his own unsmiling reflection nodding in the large windows. As the call ended, he squeezed his eyes shut and put his phone back into his pocket.
Coming back into the kitchen, seeing the merriment all around, Stephen called out from the doorway to the living space.
Martin, who had been listening attentively to Anton, with Rauffy on his lap, looked around to locate the direction of the voice. When he noticed Stephen, he smiled.
"Can I have a private word with you a moment? In the living room. Gallagher, perhaps you should come join us, too. Anton, can you keep an eye on Rauf? "
Immediately, Martin's face became calm, resigned, relieved almost, as he handed the young boy over to Anton. Gallagher appeared to freeze, the blood draining from his cheeks. Anton seemed to understand, nodded to Stephen and pulled Rauffy onto his lap. Some others around the table appeared mildly curious, but Nathan had secured many of the guests' attention showing the photograph he had received to those around him, tears in his eyes.
Without waiting for the two men to join him, Stephen turned and went to the living area. Sitting on one end of a sofa, he waited for them both to participate. Martin sat, but Gallagher vouched to stand.
"That call I just took was Doctor Goswami, your oncologist," Stephen explained. "Calling with your test results."
Once again, Martin smiled and nodded slightly. One of Gallagher's hands cupped across his mouth, his eyes closing. He appeared to be holding his breath.
"Look I'm not going to beat around the bush or go into details, Martin. You are in complete remission. The full set of lab tests came back and they found no further traces of the cancer. She's emailed me the full set of test results so we can go through those with you when you get back home, but essentially you are now cancer-free. Of course, you'll still need to go for three-monthly check-ups—"
"Oh, my God," came a whispered sob, not from Martin, but Gallagher. Abruptly, he leant forward and pulled Martin's head into his stomach, cradling him there. When Martin finally pulled his head away and turned to Stephen, his grin looked like the old Martin, happy and genuine.
"No more chemo?" said Martin.
"No more chemo," echoed Stephen.
"In which case," said Martin, rising and taking Gallagher's hand. "I'm thinking about having a glass of champers. But I'll need to check with my doctor to see if he approves."
"He approves," said Stephen, smiling back.
Back in the kitchen, oblivious to what had just transpired, everyone appeared to be getting more and more tipsy with Jaymes making a noisy fuss. When he looked up and saw them entering, he focused his attention on Martin and Gallagher. Stephen returned to the table and whispered what had happened in Anton's ear. Anton breathed out a sigh of relief, as Stephen returned to his seat.
"Come on, Gallagher," Jaymes was saying, with mock irritation. "We're sitting here waiting for you two to open your presents."
"Yes, please come and save us," said Trevor, rolling his eyes. "Jaymes' speech about being grateful this past year for strawberry favoured lube is hardly inspiring and certainly not very festive."
"Okay, okay," said Martin, laughing and taking his seat. "Let's open ours together, Gal, and can someone please pour me a large glass of champagne."
"That's more like it," said Jaymes, clapping his hands together and reaching for the bottle, while he watched a little too carefully as the two men opened their presents.
Stephen realised Jaymes and Nathan had probably chosen presents for Martin and Gallagher, and when they both pulled out and held up gaudy Christmas sweaters; one with a Christmas pudding face on the front, the other with a red-nosed reindeer, the whole table erupted into laughter.
"Speech!" shouted Jaymes.
Stephen had forgotten Martin and Gallagher already knew Jaymes and Nathan. He could see why Gallagher got on so well with Jaymes, the less inhibited of the two. After the all-clear news, Stephen wondered if Martin would opt up to speak, but instead, Gallagher rose from his seat.
"Thank you, whichever of you bought these—um—delightful woollen jumpers. You must know us both so well. We promise to wear them all day tomorrow," began Gallagher, then became quiet and pensive. "And as for giving thanks. Well, both Martin and I have much to be thankful for this year. It hasn't been the easiest of years, but we've been blessed to have such wonderful friends to see us through the worst times. As for next year? After the New Year has passed—and by the way, he doesn't know about this yet—I'm taking my husband on a long-overdue vacation starting in New York, and then on a cruise around the Bahamas."
Martin's gaze centred in on Gallagher, his hand reaching for his partner. What seemed like a generous gesture to those gathered, meant so much more to those in the know. Martin had often talked to Stephen about the two of them taking a trip to the Caribbean.
"If this past year has taught me anything," continued Gallagher. "It's that we should never take anything or anyone for granted, that we should seize the opportunity to do what we want, whenever we feasibly can. So please raise your glasses—you too, Martin—and join us both in a toast to good health, good friends, and happiness. Oh, and shooting stars. "
"To good health, good friends, and happiness," came the rousing response. "And shooting stars."
"So who's left?" said Jaymes, slurring a little. Ruddy cheeked, he'd most certainly had his fair share to drink, his voice rising above everyone else's. "There are still three presents in the middle of the table."
"Rauffy," said Martin. "How about you?"
"But I already have my new shoes."
"They're from your uncles," said Anton. "This one's your Secret Santa present."
"Why are Santa's presents a secret?" asked Rauf in all innocence.
"That's a very pertinent question, Rauf," said Jaymes. "And they're a secret, little man, because if we knew what we were getting, they wouldn't be a surprise, would they? So let's pass down presents for Rauf, Stephen and Anton."
Next to him, Anton opened his present to find a Doctors Without Borders tee shirt and card confirming a donation to the charity. Stephen shrugged at him. Although he wholeheartedly approved of the gift, he had no hand in choosing the item. Rauf opened his present to find a notebook-sized pack inside, which contained a mini tablet computer.
"Um, guys," said Stephen, while Rauf excitedly checked out the back of the box. "I think this goes way beyond the price limit we set. It's very generous, but really—"
"Oh, for goodness' sake, Stephen," said Gallagher, grinning playfully. "Let an uncle spoil his nephew once in a while, won't you? And don't worry, parental controls have already been set."
Stephen shook his head. How could he possibly be annoyed with either of his friends? Instead, he sighed and began to unwrap the bulky package, which felt like a volume of an encyclopaedia. As anticipated, he pulled out a large book and turned to the front cover.
"Marcus Vine's Complete British Cookery. Third Edition."
"Signed by the author himself," said Marcus, from the end of the table. "I heard you fancy yourself as a bit of a chef, Stephen. And my telephone number's on the inside cover, in case you need to check any ingredients or cooking techniques with me. So how about a few words?"
"Let me do this, Stephen," said Anton, placing a hand on Stephen's shoulder and rising from his seat. "We'd like to thank Rudy and Trevor for inviting us here. To be honest, we were a little hesitant because of many things happening right now. But Trevor was right. We've only just met some of you this afternoon for the first time, but you already feel like friends, if not family. Stephen and I already have so much to be thankful for, but I know he agrees with me when I say that the best thing this year is having Rauf enter our lives. To me, it feels like our own little angel has descended from heaven to be with us. And I feel thankful for every day I wake to see his smiling face. Merry Christmas, everyone."
As the evening wore on, as laughter and conversation continued around the sofas in the living room, Stephen looked down and noticed Rauf yawning once or twice, his eyes blinking, heavy with sleep. Anton saw too, because he looked across at Stephen, smiled and winked.
"Why don't we take you to your room for a rest, Rauf. Get you to lie down for a little while. You must be very tired. We'll just be down the corridor if you need us."
Rauf became alert then, his eyes sad and pleading.
"But can I still sleep in your room tonight, Daddy?"
Stephen's heart always broke when he heard the little lost voice when Rauf asked so politely for permission to do something, as though asking for the wrong thing might get him into trouble.
"Of course you can, little man. Our bed is huge, and there's tons of space between us. But we're going to stay up a little bit longer with the grown-ups. We'll come and get you when it's time for us to sleep if you're still awake. Is that okay?"
And there it was. The bright white smile to melt a thousand hearts. Without another word, Rauf jumped up from the sofa, gave a huge yawn, before holding his hand out to Stephen.
As the night gradually wore on, with Christmas songs playing from a speaker, everyone relaxed and enjoyed each other's company. When Anton disappeared to use the restroom, he returned five minutes later and stood in front of his partner.
"Stephen," he said, his face beaming. "You need to come and see this."
Anton led the way along to corridor to the small bedroom set aside for Rauf. Stephen noticed the door slightly ajar, as Anton stepped up quietly, put a finger over his own lips, and then moved aside to allow Stephen to look inside. In the small room, Rauf lay curled up on his side on the bed, fast asleep. Behind his knees, also asleep, Ed had curled into a ball. They fit together perfectly like yin and yang.
"Problem solved, love," said Anton, leaning into Stephen. "Looks like we're going to have to visit the animal rescue centre in the New Year. Find our son the perfect New Year's gift."
Stephen put his arm around Anton and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
"Glad you came now?" asked Stephen.
"Best Christmas ever."
>>>> THE END <<<<
>>>> MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY <<<<
Thank you so much for reading.
These final pair of characters bring my Christmas offering to a close. Would still love to hear your thoughts or feelings on the story.
In the meantime, have a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the New Year, and most importantly:
"May You Never Be Too Old to Search the Skies on Christmas Eve"