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Auld Lang Syne

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The grounds of the university look even more austere and hallowed when they're covered with a light winter frost, David thinks, as he makes his way across campus for the papers, heading to the nearest newsagent. Somewhere a bell is tolling, ringing out over all the still-sleeping students, causing a thousand bells to ring in a thousand dreams, mystifying the dreamers. It's too early for anyone who doesn't have to be up to be awake, and it gives David the opportunity to listen to the crunch of his feet on the frozen grass, leaving footprints in his wake.

He's aware that Rob is probably fast asleep somewhere near-by, but David berates himself immediately for thinking such a silly thing, for the less-than-idle curiosity about where Rob might be now, whose bed he might be taking up.

And really it's just typical, that Rob is the one in the bed with the (probably pretty) girl and David is the one thinking about Rob being in bed with the girl. It's so typical and trite and normal, that David hates himself a little bit more.

But it's New Year soon, and everyone is supposed to hate themselves at new year, making resolution lists about the things they've done too much of or not enough. David sees the late December to early January period as a time of collective personal disgust anyway, fat girls everywhere counting up calories from Christmas and boys with glasses vouching that next year there'll be less glasses and more sex.

David is hoping on that one too, even though he has his contacts in.

The first newsagent is shut, which David thinks is probably a sign of the Apocolypse, and the second one has run out of copies of The Guardian, so he makes the decision to walk a little further into town. After all, he could do with the exercise; he's had his own fair share of mince pies this year.

Regrettably, he chances upon Sainsburys before he meets anywhere else, and the frost has started to nip at the ends of his fingers so he decides to feed the capitalist monster anyway. The blast of warm air and the artificial smell of bread assault him as he crosses the threshold, thankful for the change in temperature and the fact that there are actually other people alive this early to be out and about and opening shops for him.

David is at the (impersonal) news stand when he hears a familiar voice and a spark of Pavlovian excitement zings annoyingly through his brain.

"Can you point me towards the bread please, mate?"

Rob sounds unusually cheerful for this time of the morning, and David watches from behind the shelter of the dailies as the half-asleep teenager in the bright orange uniform points Rob in the direction of the bread. He's got that slightly hideous leather jacket on and his hair looks like it might benefit from a good wash, but when he lopes off good-naturedly, David can't help feeling disappointed he hasn't been spotted.

Of course now the question is - suddenly decide to buy bread, or linger by the tills?

Or, of course, just stop being stupid and go home.

Having known all along what he was really going to do, David ponders on Sunblest or Warburtons as he heads towards the back of the store. If his fingers are clenching and unclenching it's because of the cold, not because he feels like a stalker. But as soon as the word is in his head, it's like it won't disappear, pulsing there like an embarrassing carbuncle threatening to burst. He takes the seasonal opportunity to hate himself.

"David!"

Rob is smiling at him in a way that suggests he is genuinely pleased to see him, and David feels a wash of something akin to pleasure.

"Good Lord!" David says, unable to control a grin. "Is this armageddon - you out before twelve thirty?"

Rob seems to find this as funny as David hoped he would, and they stand there in the bread aisle, smiling at each other. "Oh ha bloody ha," Rob replies, and swings his loaf half-heartedly somewhere in the region of David's thigh. "You can talk - Sainsburys for your papers?"

"Yeah, you're right; I wondered what those four horsemen were doing at the door on my way in."

Even though they've got to the stage where writing with anyone else would somehow now feel like a betrayal to David, it's still all quite new, too. They're still learning each other, still discovering how many ways they fit into each other, like jigsaw puzzle pieces. David likes that; is even oddly fond of the occasional embarrassing silences.

"You walking back, then?" Rob asks, nodding towards the general direction of the exit.

"Yeah, sure."

David turns to go before realising Rob isn't beside him. "Um, bread?" Rob asks, nodding at the shelf and looking mildly confused.

"Of course," David says, grabbing the nearest loaf that doesn't look like it's going to rob him of a week's food allowance. "Silly me, forgetting the bread."

Silly me, hanging around in the bread aisle because I knew you'd be there, more like, David thinks.

They talk about the weather as they go through the tills, both bemoaning last week's snow and how everything winds down so much for Christmas break. They're back out on the street, filling in one another's blanks when they pass a cosy little tea room just starting up for the morning. The windows are already steamed, from the tea urns firing in the corner and Rob nudges his elbow against David's arm.

"Fancy a slice of toast?" He asks.

Even though he is now the proud owner of some unnecessary bread, David says yes. Of course, he says yes. As if he'd say anything else.

"Looks like something out of a Morse," David says, taking in the surroundings of the cafe, the quaint little Lyons plates on the walls and the frilled cushions on the seats. "Feel like I should be comforting a grieving relative who later turns out to be the murderer."

"If you were Morse, you'd be doing her," Rob says, dragging an ash tray over and lighting up, adding his own to the steam already hanging in a haze on the air.

"You can't sexualise Morse, Rob."

"He's a filthy old man, David; he's forever trying to get his leg over when he should be dusting for prints, or something."

David hears himself laugh, watches Rob's fingers as they curl around his cigarette, flick some ash and then move back up to his lips. "So, what're you doing over break?"

Rob shrugs, blows smoke directly up so that it doesn't hit David in the face and then knocks another piece of ash away. "Probably just stay with my dad and his family for a while, go and see some friends."

David imagines his own Christmas, the routine that is mostly unchanged since he and his brother were small; stocking at the end of the bed, main present downstairs, hours spent pouring over the festive edition of the Radio Times and his father falling asleep during the Queen's speech. He can't remember a time when his aunties didn't turn up for the evening, peck him on the cheek and make him list his presents from A to Z like a roll call.

Rob's Christmas seems so different from that.

"Yeah, yeah, me too," David says.

"What about New Year? You doing anything special?"

David eternally hates this question, has done ever since it first became expected of him to be lying face down somewhere in his own sick surrounded by women and friends as the clock strikes midnight to usher in some man-made concept of a new page on the calender.

"Not sure what everyone else is up to yet," he says, trying to sound as non-committal as possible. So many parties, so many women - so little time.

Rob nods. "Well, I'll probably just be sat in, watching the Hogmanay on BBC Two. I hate New Year."

David feels - not for the first time - like leaning over the table and hugging Rob. Not that he ever would, of course, but there's nothing quite like that moment of finding a kindred spirit in something you thought you were alone in - something you thought made you the most frigid human being on the planet.

This time he grins. "Yeah, me too - New Years is just rubbish, isn't it?"

And then they talk about over-priced beer and strangers slurring Auld Lang Syne at you whilst the waitress brings the toast and they eat.

They are back on campus, Rob about to head over to Robinson and David about to go to the main library, when Rob glances down at his feet, scuffing the edge of a tattered trainer against the frost covered ground. "I'll give you a ring, if you like, on New Years - welcome in the unspeakable together, or something."

David feels his heart lift in his throat. This was well worth the cost of that loaf.

"Yeah, sounds good."

Rob takes a minute to jot down David's home number on his hand, then lifts it up as he nods. "Right, I'll speak to you over break, then."

"Yeah," David says. "Sounds good. Merry Christmas and a crappy New Year, and all that."

Rob grins. David lights up light a Christmas tree. "Ha, yeah."

As he watches Rob go, swinging his Sainsburys bag and whistling into the chill morning air, breath creating a cloud of fog as he goes, David thinks maybe it might be a mildly happy New Year after all.