This is a coda to A Pint of Beer, a Bag of Chips, and Thou, looking in on Liam and Neil a year later, and won’t make a lot of sense if you haven’t read the original story.
I love Christmas, always have. It’s a grand time of year to be a busker. Not that I’m busking full time these days, mind. I’ve actually got a proper job—no fainting in the cheap seats, please. Well, when I say a proper job, I mean I’m part of a band, but the gigs are regular. Eighties tribute acts are very popular with a certain crowd, and seeing as a certain person is part of that certain crowd… Well. He’s happy; I’m happy. Although he does keep warning me not to find some other old codger to run off with. Particularly if any dark alleys might be involved.
I tell him there’s only one man I’d let take me down a dark alley although if I’m honest, these days I mostly let him take me in his flat in Stockwell. It’s a great little place with a comfy sofa, two doors down from a takeaway, and not an auntie to be found anywhere.
Anyhow, most of the time, with the band, I’m on keyboards, so when I’m not gigging I like to dust off my saxophone, head to the Tube and play whatever takes my fancy. Right now, it was Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, and I was at my old pitch at the bottom of the long escalator at King’s Cross underground. I could see the tension easing out of the faces of commuters and last-minute Christmas shoppers alike as they rode slowly downwards, laden with briefcases or bags or both.
Then I saw that certain person I was telling you about, and my heart leapt an octave or three. His silver hair was shining like the star on the top of a Christmas tree and the scarf my Auntie Des knitted him was wrapped around his neck like shite-coloured tinsel. I segued into I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, and Neil stepped off the end of the escalator with a broad grin on that good-looking face of his just as I finished with a flourish.
He raised an eyebrow as he walked up to me. “Even I wasn’t born when this one was popular. Next thing you know you’ll be playing Brahms and Liszt.”
“I’m saving that for Christmas Day when Auntie Mags gets out the green ginger wine.”
Neil made a face. “Vile stuff, that.”
“You’re telling me,” I said, crouching down to put my saxophone back in its case. I had to crick my neck to look up at him but trust me, the view was worth it. Especially from that angle, with his trench coat falling open just so. “If you mix it with three parts whiskey, mind, it passes for drinkable.”
“Ye gods. And here was me thinking this would be a Christmas to remember. I wouldn’t remember my own name after a glass of that. Right, well, come on then. There’s a couple of pints with our names on them down the Queen’s Head, and they aren’t going to drink themselves. Like the hair, by the way. Suits you.”
“Yeah?” I reached up, realised I was about to pat the mohawk like an old dear with a shampoo-and-set, and put my hand down again quick. “Thanks. It’s cranberry. Thought it’d be seasonal.” I shut my case with a snap and stood up. “Speaking of which, I ought to warn you. Mum’s gone a bit mad with the mistletoe, and she tends to lose her inhibitions after a sherry or three.”
“Don’t I know it.” Neil shuddered, but he had a smile on his face. He gets on fine with my mum, the more so because he knows to ration his visits.
“So if she asks you into the kitchen to help baste anything—”
“Got it. Forewarned is forearmed. I’ll just make sure I stick close to you at all times.” He winked at me. “I think I can handle that.”
“I think I can handle you handling that,” I said, my voice all low and husky.
It’s busking down the Underground that does it. Gives you a dry throat. Honest.
Neil’s sky-blue eyes darkened to twilight. Here we were in London’s second busiest underground station, with hundreds of people streaming past us every minute, and somehow it was like we were in our own little bubble of Christmas cheer. I almost looked up to see if mistletoe had appeared above us.
Neil swallowed. “Tell you what, do you want to skip the beers and get an early night?”
“Tired, are you?” I asked with a raised eyebrow of my own.
God, that smile was warm enough to roast a turkey on, never mind the chestnuts. “Oh, no. I just thought maybe we should get a head start on the handling.”
“You’re a man after my own heart.” Which, by the way, was beating a little faster now.
“And that’s not all I’m after, so come on, get a shift on.” He grinned, those gorgeous eyes of his crinkling up at the corners. “Some of us aren’t getting any younger.”
“Hope not,” I said, reaching up to ruffle his soft, silver hair as we headed on down to the Northern Line. “I wouldn’t want people to think I was a cradle-snatcher.”
Neil laughed. “I should bloody well hope not and all. That’s my job, and don’t you forget it.”