It is not often that Bradley James permits himself to be anything other than manly (with the merest hint of well-groomed metrosexual), but after his third glass of mulled wine he decides he is allowed a little sniffle. It is Christmas Eve, after all, a time for friends and family, a time for tradition, a time for chasing your sister around the house with the unmentionables from the turkey and stealing chocolates from next to the fireplace without your mum seeing and drawing amusing things on your dad's face as he snoozes after one too many sherries. But he is doing none of these things right now, because he is stuck in his godforsaken bachelor pad in godforsaken London, the hugest, busiest, loneliest city in the world. By himself. And if that doesn't give him license to stick on some Bing Crosby and work his way through a box of Quality Street and several Kleenex, he doesn't know what does.
The plan had been, of course, to catch the train down to Devon that morning. He had dutifully fought his way to Waterloo at some ungodly hour of the morning, skidding past harried commuters on the icy pavements, grateful once he reached the Tube without having broken a limb, or any of the badly wrapped Christmas presents he was carrying. Four frozen hours later (how could an indoor station possibly be the coldest place in London? And yet it WAS), he had to admit defeat. The snow, it seemed, had resulted in all trains going anywhere further than Woking grinding to a halt. "Sorry mate," the harrassed-looking South West Trains employee had said, shaking his head wearily, "no chance. You won't get there this side of Christmas." Bradley had made the treacherous journey home, and started out in the car, only to be turned back after endless news reports of accidents, breakdowns and gridlock on the M3, as well as his mother's shrieks through his handsfree admonishing him for even attempting the drive and ordering him in no uncertain terms to get back to his flat and stay there until the trains were running, even if that wasn't until New Year.
And so he finds himself alone on Christmas Eve at 6pm, mildly sozzled on Marks and Spencers mulled wine and feeling vaguely sick after too many Toffee Pennies. "Alone again... naturally," he sighs, staring moodily into the middle distance. "Oh God. Prat." he admonishes himself, catching his reflection in the large bay window overlooking the city. "If you are going to spend Christmas alone, James, it will not be spent quoting Love Actually and posing like a bloody... poser." he tails off, lamely. He is not good at being alone. What he really needs, he decides, is someone here to bounce off, someone to form half of his comedy double act. He can be funny, he knows, but he needs somebody else to be a sort of... verbal sparring partner, someone to trade blows with, someone he can poke fun at. He recalls his cringingly embarrassing appearance on Something For The Weekend, where he was fine when he was sat on the sofa telling hilarious anecdotes about the first time he met Colin, but as soon as he was alone in the kitchen having to perform he went to pieces. He shakes his head and reaches for the remote to turn up the sound. It does not do to start mentally listing the most shameful moments of his life. And it certainly does not do to start thinking about Colin.
He runs through all his London-based friends in his head to see if any of them might possibly put up with him tomorrow. The trouble with being an actor, Bradley thinks, is that nobody is ever in the same place for any length of time. Half his friends are in hot countries, either filming or recovering from filming. The rest left to spend Christmas with their families long ago as the publicity machine had slowly ground to a halt. Katie has been in Ireland for weeks now - she sent him an odd, but massive, Christmas card, too big to fit through his letterbox, that wished him a "very very very merry merry Christmas and a great 2010 - here's hoping you get EVERYTHING that you're wishing for (including an electric razor and your very own Irish beauty)" in her looping handwriting, signed with kisses and a big winky face. He had frowned at it in bafflement for a good ten minutes, wondering if this was her strange way of hitting on him, and feeling very glad that he had already posted his card to her and didn't have to respond. Angel, too, had flown to Edinburgh earlier that week to spend Christmas with an old friend from university ("An old MALE friend?" Bradley had asked quizzically, nudging Angel in the ribs and raising one eyebrow exaggeratedly) and wouldn't be back until the New Year. And Colin was spending Christmas in Armagh, leaving Bradley nothing but a card that simply said "Merry Christmas, Love Colin" and what looked like a scribbled-out PS at the bottom. Bradley has spent some time holding it up to the light to try and decode it, but as yet he hasn't had any luck.
His eyes flick over to the large framed collage of photos hanging above his fireplace, around which he has stuck his motley collection of Christmas cards - besides Katie's, which is so huge he has propped it up on the piano (it's not like he ever plays the bloody thing – he just thought a bachelor pad ought to have a piano, somehow, and Colin had convinced him it was more useful than a pool table – "for getting girls. Or, um, whatever."). The photos are mostly his own, taken on set – Angel pulling silly faces whilst waiting for a take, or Katie not noticing he was taking her picture but still looking so stunning it takes his breath away, or Anthony and Richard cracking up whilst running lines. Colin's card, though – small, tasteful, traditional – is stuck right next to one of Bradley's favourite photos, and it's not one he took himself. In fact most people don't seem to be sure why he's got it up there, and nor is Bradley, really. But everybody seems to notice it. Angel made a sweet little o with her mouth, and then covered up her surprise by saying something about how pretty Vicky, one of the make-up assistants, looked in it. Richard raised one eyebrow in the way only Richard can. Katie flashed him a grin and told him it was "incredibly narcissistic to have a picture of yourself up there, Bradley, unless…" with not-so-subtle sideways glance, and Bradley thought how silly she was, it's not even a very good picture of him, it's not even in focus and his hair looks all weird. And Colin – Colin said nothing, but looked at it for quite a while, which made Bradley incredibly uncomfortable so he covered it up with bluster about Colin's ridiculous cheekbones. Colin still said nothing.
Bradley hates it when he says nothing.
Bradley is so lost in his own thoughts (and a mild case of mulled wine induced brain-fog) that he hardly notices himself dialing Colin's number. It almost comes as a surprise when he hears that familiar Irish lilt saying "'Lo?".
"Colin! Mate! Shit, sorry. Are you on the plane?"
Colin snorts softly. "No, Bradley. I'm not on the plane."
"Right, right. So! How's Ireland!"
"It's – ah. Yeah."
"I'm in Devon!" Bradley does not know why he says this. It is ridiculous. He is ridiculous. "It's brilliant! My sister's here with her kids, and Gran's drunk on sherry." Oh, Christ. Now he will have to continue with this lie, and worse, elaborate on it when they all meet up again and exchange Christmas stories. What an idiot you are, James, he thinks, and he is halfway through planning a made-up anecdote about his sister and a cracker that refuses to pull when he realises Colin is speaking.
"…good time, then?"
"Oh, yeah, yeah. Wizard!" Wizard? Who says "wizard"?
"Ha ha, very funny." Colin says, flatly. "Ireland's great too. Neil's here. And mam's made an amazing nut roast for me."
"Bloody hippy." Bradley replies, automatically, trying to decide if he can safely recycle some photos from last year without anyone noticing. "I bet you've got recycled crackers, too."
"And I bet yours are flashy and explode in a shower of fireworks when you pull them."
Bradley looks at the faux crackers hanging on his tree, which is about the closest he will get this year. "Something like that."
"Good, good." Colin sounds very small and far away.
"Anyway. I'll let you get back to the celebrations, mate."
"Oh, yeah. Sure. Cheers."
Bradley realizes his chest is hurting and idly wonders why. "Have a great time, Col."
"You too, Bradley. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Colin."
Bradley is about to hang up when he hears a voice at the other end.
Bradley is determined not to analyse why the sound of his name in Colin's Irish brogue makes his stomach leap to somewhere near his sternum. "Yeah, Col?"
"What's your mam cooking?"
Bradley can't help but grin as he settles into his armchair and prepares to dig around his memory for every Christmas anecdote he has stored.
It's four hours later when Bradley eventually hangs up. Besides dissecting several episodes of Doctor Who, he and Colin have swapped so many Christmas stories Bradley feels quite festive, despite the fact that it is -3° outside and nobody will be filling up his stocking tonight. He has created himself the perfect family Christmas, full of family and laughter, one to rival Colin's own which sounds as if it is getting noisier and noisier by the minute. And spending four hours trying to make Colin laugh – picturing the way his eyes crinkle up and his whole body creases when he finds something funny – is one of the most delightful ways Bradley has ever spent Christmas Eve. The most delightful, Bradley thinks, and he doesn't know if it's too much mulled wine or the fact that he's freezing or the fact that he's on his own at Christmas, but he suddenly finds himself aching with missing – not his mum, his dad, or his sister, but Colin. Goofy, reserved, funny, generous, lovely Colin. His Colin.
Bradley groans and buries his face in a cushion. He might be able to pretend Colin is his Colin when they're filming in Pierrefont, or when they're driving round Wales on a wild goosechase, or when they're holed up in one of their hotel rooms watching badly dubbed Disney movies and making up their own increasingly filthy and surreal translations, but he is not his Colin when they are separated by a large body of water at Christmas. Right now, Bradley is on his own.
He reaches for his second bottle of mulled wine.
When Bradley wakes up the next morning he forgets, briefly, that it is Christmas and he is by himself. He feels like he has had about half an hour's sleep, his head is pounding, his mouth is dry and he can remember very little about anything after about 2am where he's pretty certain he sent Katie a text saying something about liking her very much as a friend but not as anything more. "Oh God," he moans, dropping his head into his hands. He wonders how angry she'll be, and reaches for his phone.
His mum has sent him half a dozen text messages updating him on what they're eating, and how his nephew has already smashed three baubles, two treelight bulbs and, presumably, a partridge in a pear tree. He has the odd message from friends wishing him a good one, and a voicemail from Katie who sounds drunk already, saying "I wasn't talking about ME, you big eejit; just hurry up and do something about it already" – baffling, that girl, truly baffling – but nothing, he realises with a lurch, from Colin.
He swallows down his disappointment and forces himself out of bed, wrapping his dressing gown around him and pads to the kitchen to make himself a cuppa. He turns the radio on and stands, staring moodily out of the window to the strains of Mud's Lonely This Christmas.
Each time I remember the day you went away
And how I would listen to the things you had to say
I just break down as I look around
And the only things I see
Are loneliness and emptiness
And an unlit Christmas tree…
He is merrily wallowing in the moroseness of it all and feeling thoroughly sorry for himself when suddenly a half-formed memory flushes over him, starting somewhere at the base of his spine and growing hot and prickly up to his neck. His limbs suddenly feel very heavy and it's like moving through treacle as he picks up his phone again and clicks to Sent Messages.
Sent: 25/12/2009 3.41am
watching repeats of xmas top of the pops. mud are so depressing.
Sent: 25/12/2009 3.43am
""try to imagine a christmas all alone... that's where i'll be since u left me"
Sent: 25/12/2009 3.47am
Sent: 25/12/2009 3.50am
sry i think im just wishing i was at home fucking snow fucking south west trains. my flat is huge.
Sent: 25/12/2009 3.52am
oh yeah. i lied, am not in devon. sry.
Sent: 25/12/2009 3.57am
lol you're prbably asleep. merry christmas, col.
Sent: 25/12/2009 4.06am
p.s.. it'll be lonely this christmas without u to hold...
Oh God. Oh God oh God oh God. He feels like someone has tipped cold water all over him and he thinks this moment right here, at 7am on Christmas morning, might be one of the very worst of his whole life, because he has been texting Colin Morgan, his colleague, his partner in crime, his best fucking friend, the lyrics to the most disgustingly soppily romantic Christmas song ever.
He will have to throw himself off a bridge. Or get run over by a bus. Or change his name and have surgery to make himself completely unrecognizable. He can't decide what's worse – the thought that Colin hasn't read the messages yet and will wake up to them any fucking minute, or the thought that he has read them and hasn't replied. Or is sitting around the breakfast table with his family chortling over them. Or has gone to meet Katie in the pub and is reading them out to her over a pint of fucking Guinness or whatever it is those idiotic Irish drink first thing in the morning (and no he does NOT care right at this minute that Katie and Colin are from two entirely different places because right now he wouldn't care if the whole bloody island sank into the sea and took those messages with it). Or is publishing them on the internet or selling his story to the Sun or oh God, phoning Bradley's mother…
His spiral of shame and horror is rudely interrupted by his doorbell.
He briefly considers not answering it – because, really, who rings the doorbell at 7am on Christmas morning? – but then decides that whoever it is, it's got to be better than standing here in nothing but his dressing gown thinking of ways to make himself disappear. He pauses briefly by the hall mirror to artfully mess up his hair – well, one never knows who it could be – and clicks the door open to find…
"Col- what- fuck- Colin?"
The sharp white face broken up by two bright blue eyes and a shock of dark hair looks up at him, nervously.
Bradley stares back, dumbstruck. "You're in Ireland." he begins, baffled.
"Er… no." Colin says. "I'm not."
Bradley realises how tired Colin looks, and has to dig his nails into his palms to stop himself from reaching for Colin's face and smudging away the dark circles under his eyes with the pads of his thumbs.
"Why are you… not?"
"Plane got cancelled. I spent all day yesterday and last night at Heathrow airport waiting for a flight. But… there's none flying in this weather."
Bradley realises for the first time it is snowing, and he is shivering.
"But you said you were in Ireland…!"
"Yeah, well, you said you were in Devon." Colin says, defensively.
"Ah, yeah. Um. I did. Oh God. I don't know why I did. I guess I didn't want you to know I was… you sounded like you were having so much fun… all the… shouting…" he tails off, lamely.
"Irate passengers." Colin says. "Most of them drunk."
"That would explain all the singing." Bradley says, realisation slowly flooding over him.
Colin offers a small, sheepish smile. "So. Um. Happy Christmas."
Something inside Bradley's stomach, somewhere right in the centre, starts to melt.
"Fuck. I'm glad you're here." It comes out in a rush, before he can stop to think about what he's saying.
"Because you're lonely… this Christmas… lonely and cold?" Colin says, raising an eyebrow with the vaguest hint of a smirk playing on his lips.
"Fuck off, Morgan." Bradley says, but even as he does he knows that it's going to be okay. It's Christmas and it's snowing and Colin is looking at him like he's the best present ever and Christmas dinner all rolled into one.
Colin's beautiful, bright eyes meet his. "I'm glad I'm here, too."
They stand, beaming at each other for a few seconds.
"Er, I would really quite like to come in though. It's fucking freezing out here, Bradley."
Bradley laughs and pulls Colin inside and shuts the door behind him and it is the most natural thing in the world just to pull Colin that little bit further and lean in and capture that sweet, smiling mouth with his own.
And it is fantastic. All of a sudden so many things fall into place – Katie's mysterious Christmas card and voicemail message, the scribbled out P.S. in Colin's card, what it is that Bradley loves so much about that picture, why Colin's the only person he can spend all day with and still want to text him when he goes to bed because he's forgotten to say something, and why all of a sudden it feels like all the best Christmas ever. Colin is his Colin, has always been his Colin; so much more than his colleague, so much more than his partner in crime, so much more than his best friend.
And from the way Colin is moving into his kiss, Bradley thinks the feeling might well be mutual.
I remember looking at you then, and I remember thinking
That Christmas must have been made for us
Cause darling, this is the time of year
That you really, you really need love
When it means so very, very much…