'You married then, fella?'
The question shook me from my thoughts, as it so often did. I was relieved to be wearing gloves. This spared me from looking at the pale patch of skin that once sported a wedding band. The memory of Lily was a scar that would never heal.
'No,' I grunted to the taxi driver. 'You know what? I'll just hop out here. What do I owe you?'
'In the spirit of Christmas, shall we call it twenty?'
I squinted at the meter, it displayed a price of sixteen pounds. Shaking my head, I plucked a twenty from my wallet and handed it over. I was in no mood to argue, and what was another four pounds at this time of year anyway? I was haemorrhaging money every time I left the house. I had joked with Arabella that I may as well use fifty pound notes instead of kindling to light the stove.
Thoughts of Arabella brought a wry smile to my lips. It was to be our first Christmas alone, and I was determined that it would be one to remember. I had fought tooth and nail to ensure that we could spend it as a couple.
That was no hardship for Arabella. Her parents had long established a tradition of renting a property in the south of France during the festive season. The one thing they desired less than the chill of the British winter was the company of their adult children on their holiday.
My family had been more of a challenge. Mum and Dad had been dropping hints about spending the day with them as far back as September. They appeared to struggle with the death of Lily more than I did. Natasha had also been leaving me a string of messages, making it clear that I was invited to stay with her and Jack in Devon.
Had it not been for Arabella, I may have taken her up on that. I shared a close bond with my sister, and her husband was fun company too. I knew full well that they were looking into starting a family, and that our dynamic would change soon. No more staying up all night over several bottles of wine, setting the world to rights by discussing everything and nothing. Before long, they would be up all night dealing with a crying baby, bickering over whose turn it was to change a nappy.
Maybe New Year, I thought to myself. Christmas was all about Arabella and I.
It was Arabella who had dragged me into town on Christmas Eve. Not physically. As far as she was concerned, I was having a quiet day to myself.
Arabella maintained a child-like love of the festive season in her adult life. She would excitedly point at Christmas lights, insist on having her photograph taken with disgruntled retail employees dressed as elves, and pay ludicrously inflated prices for hand crafted items from market stalls. Arabella firmly believed in the magic of Christmas, and she wanted everybody around her to share that enthusiasm. She was not always successful. In fact, her attempts were rebuffed more often accepted. She was not to be deterred, however.
In Arabella's world, Christmas was the season of goodwill to all men, women, and children. I had a sneaking suspicion that I would be the one exception to this rule if I revealed I was yet to purchase her a gift. I knew that she had been shopping for me for months. Every time I visited her flat, a new drawer, cabinet, or entire room was off-limits. Whenever I asked her what she wanted, she would just smile and respond with, 'surprise me.'
That smile both melted my heart and chilled my blood. I was under no illusions. Despite empty protestations about how it's the thought that counts, and that anything would be wonderful if it came from you, I knew that I was being tested. I knew that if I chose unwisely, I would lose more than a couple of hundred pounds of wasted money. For Arabella, Christmas gifts were not judged on how expensive they were. They were an insight into how well I really knew and understood her.
Pulling my scarf tighter around my neck and taking a deep breath, I dropped my head. It was time to enter the breach. I had three hours before the shops of High Wycombe closed their doors for the last time. I knew what I had to do, and I was determined to do it well.
It was hard to know what emotion was most prominent in my weary heart and mind; exhaustion, frustration, or sheer panic. Doors were bolting all over the town centre and I was no closer to finding anything suitable. I had looked at earrings, watches, winter coats, boots, brooches... nothing felt right. Whenever I closed my eyes, I simply could not picture Arabella wearing any of them.
Massaging my temples, I perched on a bench and tried to gather my thoughts. Where was still open? Other than twenty-four hour supermarkets, I was drawing a blank. Maybe I could present Arabella with a selection of gluten-free snacks for Christmas. That would prove that I understood her needs, right?
Don't joke about that, even in your own head, I internally reprimanded myself. You're staring down the barrel of that being necessary.
Running fingers through my hair, I made to leave when another man sidled into the bench beside me. I resisted the urge to tut. The town centre was packed, but there were plenty of vacant benches. Why did he have to choose this one? Was I not entitled to one moment of peace and solitude?
'You okay mate?' the man asked. He had a curious glint in his eye and the ghost of a smile playing at his lips. I suddenly felt as though I was the punchline to some kind of private joke between this stranger and an unseen fellow prankster. Struggling to formulate a response, I defaulted to waving my arms and returning to my thoughts.
'Saw you wandering around back there. In and out of a lot of shops, weren't ya? I reckon you're in a spot of bother. Left the shopping for the missus until the last minute, have we? Schoolboy error, that.'
'Thanks for the relationship advice. It would have been more helpful two weeks ago,' I snapped in response.
'No worries! It just so happens that I might be able to help you out, though. Got access to some merchandise. Better than the generic bollocks you'll find in any of them shops, I don't mind telling ya.'
'Thanks, but no thanks. I'm not quite ready to resort to buying goods from the back of a van,' I grunted. The man just grinned at me.
'I'd have a good mind to be insulted by that, if it weren't Christmas! As it is, and I happen to understand that you're in something of a pickle, I'm gonna let it slide. In fact, I'll do you one better. Why don't you come with me? I don't have a van – sorry to disappoint. My dear old mum and I do have a shop, though. It's a bit off the beaten track, like. We don't keep the same hours as this lot. We like to do business by appointment only. I reckon we'll find something nice for the special lady in your life. Or the special fella, if that's what you're into. I ain't one to judge.'
I stood to leave, but found myself pausing for a moment. The man continued to sit, gazing up at my face and grinning. I was desperate, and he knew it. Every fibre of my being told me to walk away, but I made a snap decision. Maybe – just maybe – he would be able to help. I pulled my phone from my jacket pocket and snapped a photograph.
'Now I know that I'm handsome and all, but what did you wanna go and do a thing like that for?' the man asked.
'I am going to come with you. I have, however, sent a text message of your photo to an associate of mine. I have told him that if I am not back in touch within ten minutes, he is to report this phone as stolen. He will also cancel and block my credit card, which is all I have with me. I do not carry cash. So, if this was all an elaborate attempt at arranging a mugging, this is your chance to back out.'
The man threw back his head and laughed.
'You're lucky I like you. Come with me. We'll get you something pretty for under the tree. Might take more than ten minutes, though. Keep that phone on. I promise to keep my hands where you can see them.'
'Here you go. It ain't much, but it's home,' the man claimed, arriving at a shuttered window. He was at least half-right. The supposed shop wasn't much to look at from the outside. 'You just open the door to the side there. Mum knows that you're coming. She'll have picked out a selection for you to choose from.'
I shot the man another sideways glance. This was my last chance to back out. I had obviously been bluffing about that text message earlier, and he no doubt knew it. I was potentially entering the den of a pack of thieves – or much worse.
'Now, I'm aware that I said we don't operate conventional hours, but what do you say we get this over with? I'm not as young as I used to be, and these old bones start to creak when I stand in the cold like a lemon.'
Gritting my teeth, I stepped through the door as instructed. To my relief – and, if I was to be entirely honest, surprise – I did find myself standing in a shop front. The room was cluttered, akin to a pawn shop, but there were no overt signs of danger.
As I looked around, I drank in the erratic nature of the contents of the shop. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to the stock. Clothing, books, antiquities – Arabella would have loved it here. She was considerably more into rummaging through such stuff than me. I hated to say it, but maybe the stranger had a valid point. I was inspecting an antique dressing table that would have suited Arabella's bedroom when a voice disturbed me.
'Come on over here, young man. I understand you're shopping for somebody special. This is where you'll find the good stuff.'
I looked up to be greeted by the sight of a silver-haired elderly woman. She gestured toward an enclosure of jewellery.
'That's right, over you come,'she insisted, rummaging below the counter. 'My boy told me you were coming. I picked out something just for you.'
The woman handed me a small box, which clearly housed a ring. For one horrible moment, I suspected that she was hoisting a wedding ring upon me. I was about to protest vociferously when she cut across me once again.
'Open the box, my darling. Take a good look at what's inside and tell me it's not perfect.'
I reluctantly did as instructed. When I clapped eyes upon the contents of the box, I gasped and almost dropped the ring. It was a thing of beauty, a tasteful band wrapped around a shining emerald – Arabella's birthstone.
'It's... I can't even describe. It is perfect,' I stammered. The man that had brought me to the shop snickered from his position at the door frame. The elderly woman merely smiled.
'Got a bit of a problem though. We don't take card here. More of a cash-only operation, know what I mean?'
'What? That's no problem. I have money," I replied, my earlier lie forgotten in my excitement. "How much? Name your price.'
'Not much of a negotiator, are ya,' the man laughed again.
'Shush now,' the elderly woman chided. Turning to me, she said, 'Let's say... eighty pounds.'
I nearly choked.
'What on... how can this possibly only be worth eighty pounds? It looks like it contains a pure emerald. Is it a forgery?'
'It's no forgery. It's a family heirloom. Alas, times are hard and we need a quick sale. What's more, it's Christmas. Taking advantage of a desperate man hardly seems appropriate for the spirit of the season. I am prepared to accept eighty pounds, cash, and one additional condition.'
'And what would that be?' I asked, my heart beginning to sink. I knew there would be a catch.
'You simply must return after Christmas and tell me how you get along,' the elderly woman replied, a strange smile upon her mouth. 'I always like to hear about what happens next when my precious items find a new home.'
Stepping back into the brisk night air, I felt like I was walking on air. I had plucked victory from the jaws of disaster. The idea of spending the day with Arabella had always appealed, but the concept of exchanging gifts had filled me with anxiety. Now, anything seemed possible.
My phone trilled in my pocket. Ordinarily I would have ignored the call. Let it ring out, and if I wanted to speak to the person in question, I would call them back. That was my usual style. Feeling like a new man, I opted to break from tradition. Pulling my phone from my pocket, the name and face of my oldest friend greeted me.
'Hello, Luke,' I said with a smile.
'The Queen's Head. Now,' he replied, voice thick with alcohol. Before I had an opportunity to respond, the line was dead. Sighing wearily, but considerably happier with the idea of socialising than I had been a few hours earlier, I made my way towards the pub.
I enjoyed the brisk walk, but for the presence of a stray black cat. The animal appeared determined to follow me, matching me stride for stride. It was disconcerting, as I was unused to see pets roam the town centre.
I pushed the doors to the pub open, glad for the warmth that the building provided. Battling my way through inebriated revellers, I eventually found Luke. To be more precise, I heard Luke. My friend was never one to whisper when bellowing was an opportunity.
'...and then I said, well if you're her husband, who the bloody hell am I?' he cried, greeted with gales of laughter from his drinking partners. I did not recognise any of them, but that did not mean much. Luke was the kind of guy that could start a night solo and have six new best friends by the end of it.
I had long since accepted that there was no such thing as a quiet night with him, and I was expecting no such thing tonight. Splitting from his latest girlfriend so close to Christmas had made Luke increasingly determined to drink and be merry during the festive season. I was not too worried about him. Luke was never single for long. He found a new woman to share his bed almost as often as he did drinking partners.
'There he is!' Luke cried, spotting me from across the room. Barrelling across the floor, sending drinks flying as he did so, Luke scooped me up into a bear hug.
'Missed me, I take it?' I asked.
'Course I bloody missed you. You don't call, you don't write…'
'I called you three days ago to tell you I had tickets to the Wycombe game on Boxing Day,' I replied dryly.
'Yeah, well, apart from that I mean,' Luke slurred.
Chuckling softly, I allowed my friend to slump into a seat and headed to the bar. I knew full well that plying Luke with more alcohol was far from sensible. I had reached a point where the sensible thing no longer appealed, though. Fumbling in my pocket, I handled the ring. In doing so, I felt revitalised once more.
'Two pints, please,' I said to the barman. 'Ah, you know what?' I added, 'throw in a couple of shots too. It's Christmas.'
Hours passed before Luke and I stumbled out of the pub. As we did so, I was perturbed to notice the same black cat that had followed me. The cat perched outside the pub, never tearing its eyes from me.
'Shoo. Go on, get out of here,' I said attempting to divert the animal's attention.
'Alright, I'm going, I'm going. See you on Boxing Day?' Luke slurred.
'Not you!' I laughed, shaking my head. 'You're in no condition to go anywhere. Come on, you can stay at my place. No taxi will take you in your current state. Just make yourself scarce in the morning, Arabella is coming over at ten.'
Throwing our arms around each other, as much for mutual support to walk as an exercise in fraternal bonding, Luke and I staggered toward my flat.
'So, what did you get Arabella for Christmas then?' Luke asked me.
'I found a ring,' I replied.
Luke paused and looked at me.
'A ring ring? As in, you know…'
'No, no, no. Nothing like that,' I hastily stammered. 'I mean, maybe one day. But I haven't even told her about what happened with Lily yet. She knows I was married, but not... well, you know.'
'I know,' Luke replied solemnly. 'I know lots of things. You know, I'm actually very clever.'
'Yeah, well, show me you know the way home,' I replied. Looking at each other, Luke and I burst into laughter.
'Show me the way to go home,' we caterwauled in imperfect harmony. 'I'm tired and I want to go to bed. I had a little drink about an hour ago and it's gone right to my head…'
The sound of scratching roused me from a deep sleep. Head thick with sleep – and alcohol – I gradually opened my eyes. Peering into the gloom, I discovered the source of the noise. The scratching was coming from the spare room.
Padding into the room, I mumbled Luke's name. No response. Fumbling for the light switch, I gasped when it flickered into life. The source of the scratching was a cat, clawing at the window from the balcony.
No, not a cat. The cat. The one from town, and the pub.
I was set to open the door when I was knocked from my feet by a blow from behind. Stunned, I turned to find Luke behind me, face contorted into one of pure fury. I had never seen such a look before. His eyes appeared to radiate hatred, and he raised his right hand. Clearly, he had struck me with his fist.
'Think you can tell me what to do, do you? Do you really think that's fair? Did you really think I would accept that? Do you think about me at all, or just him?' he screamed in my face. The next thing I knew, he had issued an open-handed slap to my face.
'Luke, what the hell has gotten into you?' I asked, stumbling to the ground.
'Nobody says no to me. Not you, not nobody! You ain't special! You're nothing!' he screamed, spittle flying from his lips. He drew back his hand to slap me again, and a bright light caught my eye.
'You thieving prick!' I exclaimed, noticing Arabella's ring on his little finger. Somehow, this theft enraged me even more that the acts of physical violence my supposed friend had inflicted upon me. I grabbed Luke's wrist and forced it back, taking a sense of satisfaction from his scream of pain.
Unfortunately, he slipped from my grasp. Snarling, he snatched up a chair from the dining table and swung it at me.
'Stupid! You think you can choose what happens? You think you're in charge? I'm in charge! Me! I decide when this is done, not you!'
Ducking and dodging the chair, I rolled underneath Luke's flailing arms. I slipped behind him and wrapped my forearm around his neck. As he gasped for air, I wrestled him to the ground. Pinning his wrist to the ground, I plucked the ring from his finger, marvelling at how easily it slipped off. That would clearly need to be resized in order to fit Arabella.
As the ring was removed, Luke seemed to change in an instant. He shook his head, as though waking from a dream. Frowning, he looked up into my eyes.
'Mate, what happened? Last thing I remember, I was –'
'Luke, out of respect for our friendship and the years we've shared, I am going to turn around now,' I calmly told him as I stood and brushed myself off. 'If you are still in my flat when I turn around again, I will not be held responsible for my actions.'
While my back was turned, I heard the door close. Luke, it seemed, had left the building. Glancing at the clock, I saw the time – a quarter past one.
'Merry Christmas,' I muttered to myself, checking the ring for any signs of damage. The black cat, still perched on my balcony, hissed in response.
My spirits soared when I answered the door. Arabella was a festive vision, and as she threw her arms around me, I felt fantastic. I still had no idea what had gone on with Luke last night. Maybe I would find out in a few days, when we had both cooled off a little. For now, I was more concerned with providing Arabella with the perfect Christmas.
My joy quickly turned to concern when I saw her hand, however.
'Jesus Arabella, what happened? You're bleeding!'
'Oh, it's nothing,' she dismissed. 'There was a cat outside your flat. I went to stroke him, but he bit me. Poor thing must be feral. He's probably not used to affection from humans.'
'I can barely understand why,' I grumbled, rummaging through the kitchen drawers for a bandage. 'He is clearly a charmer.'
'Well he's still only the second grumpiest person in this vicinity,' Arabella teased, standing on tip toes to peck me on the cheek. 'Hold on, you look like you've been in the wars yourself. What happened to you?'
My face was sporting a couple of bruises after my altercation with Luke last night. I had noticed them this morning but hoped Arabella would be too wrapped up in the Christmas spirit to do so.
'I had a few drinks with Luke last night. You know how it is,' I replied. Technically, that wasn't a lie – I was just omitting certain elements of the truth. Arabella had seen Luke in his intoxicated pomp. She knew he could get rowdy but had no reason to suspect he would become violent. That had never happened before.
'Silly boys,' she said, shaking her head and laughing softly. 'Oh well. Let's just get on with the most important part of Christmas, shall we?'
'Fair enough. I'll put my coat on and we can get to church,' I replied.
'Don't toy with me, man. You can go off people, you know. Now, hand over the presents,' Arabella smiled.
I did as she asked, chuckling to myself. I gestured to Arabella to take a seat and did the same. I handed her the ring box, which I had wrapped a couple of hours beforehand.
'I think the old saying is that I saw this and thought of you.'
I watched with glee as Arabella unwrapped the gift, and my heart soared when I saw her face light up.
'Oh my goodness! This is beautiful! Wherever did you find it?'
'Trade secret I'm afraid,' I replied. 'Don't just look at it – try it on! We'll probably need to get it resized I'm afraid.'
The moment Arabella slipped the ring onto her finger, her face fell.
'Is it really that big?' I asked. 'Honestly, don't worry. We'll sort it straight away.'
'I can't do this any longer. We can't do this. It's wrong. This needs to end,' she said.
'What? Arabella, are you for real? I mean, I get that you're disappointed but…'
Arabella's eyes widened, as though she were afraid of me.
'Take two steps back, please. I mean it. You knew this was never going to last forever. It was just a bit of fun that got out of hand.'
'I can't believe you're saying this to me!' I cried, tears beginning to fill my eyes.
'Please, can we not just talk about this?'
'No. No more talking. No more anything. We can't see each other again. Not like this.'
As though from nowhere, Arabella's eyes widened further.
'Stay away from me. You stay away! You're hurting me!'
'Arabella. I'm not touching you! What the hell is happening?' I pleaded.
Arabella strolled for the fireplace, grabbing the poker I used to stoke the stove. Before I knew it, she had thrashed me across the head, drawing blood. As I cried out and dropped to the floor, she raced to the door, frantically attempting to force it open. Her shaking hands could not operate the chain.
'I mean it, Luke," she said. "I am going straight to the police. You've gone too far.'
Luke? Why was she calling me Luke?
'I feel terrible for doing this. You should too. He's your best friend and my husband! How can we do this …. this to him? Have you no shame? Well, I do! I'm leaving!'
Finally, everything clicked into place.
'Lily?' I said softly. 'Lily, it's OK. I forgive you.'
Arabella's stance softened, just for a second. I took the opportunity to approach. She began rattling at the door once again.
'Stay away, Luke! I won't let you hurt me again!'
I grabbed Arabella firmly and drew her into my embrace. Stroking her hair, I ignored the sensation of her small fists hammering against my chest.
'It's OK Lily,' I soothed. 'It's OK. I understand. It's OK. I forgive you.'
As Arabella's body began to grow limp, I sized my opportunity. I grabbed her hand and removed the ring. Almost immediately, her body language changed.
'Huh?' she said, squinting at me. 'I was on the sofa a minute ago – how did I end up over here?'
Before I could reply, I heard the black cat hiss from outside. Turning to face the window, I saw the beast turn tail and leap from the balcony.
I explained everything to Arabella. Everything that, until now, had not made sense to me.
Lily died in a car crash four years ago. Apparently, a black cat crossed the road and she swerved to avoid it. How's that for bad luck. She steered her car straight into a tree and died on impact.
The night that she did, I learned that she had been having an affair. The police found CCTV footage of her car at the local Travel Lodge and testing on the body confirmed that she had had a sexual encounter that evening.
The police had a theory, based on the appearance of her body. They found some injuries that were seemingly inflicted before the car accident. Mainly bumps and bruises around the face and arms. The speculation was that she met her mystery man at the hotel and tried to break off the affair. He had not taken it well. He had beaten her, and in her haste to escape, the accident had occurred.
Until now, I had no idea who the other man was. The police ran DNA samples through their database in case Lily had been attacked by a stranger, but there were no matches to known offenders. Now, it was clear. Her lover was Luke. My best friend and my wife. Sounds like a cliché, does it not?
I could only assume that the ring was cursed. I know – just saying that made me feel ridiculous. What else could it be, though? Whoever wore it appeared destined to live out the events of that night. Luke was reliving his own role in what happened. Had I not intervened when I did, Arabella would have continued to play the role of Lily.
She would have driven off on Christmas morning, the cat would have crossed her path, and she would have died. I would have lost the woman I loved to the same set of sick, twisted circumstances for a second time.
Obviously, I tried to return the ring and get some answers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no sign of life at the supposed shop that I bought it from. No answer at the door and the shutters remained firmly down. I staked out the building for a few days, waiting to see if somebody would come or go, but nobody ever did.
Perhaps that was for the best. I had no idea how I would react if I saw the salesman and his mother again. Would I berate them for endangering Arabella's life, and putting me though that? Or would I thank them for finally providing me with answers about what happened to my wife, and granting me closure? Did I really want to know, or was ignorance bliss? I had to rethink and question my entire relationship with Luke. How had I been fooled so easily, for so long?
I decided that what had transpired was for the best. Finally, I was truly ready to move on. I just wasn't sure if this was due to divine intervention from Christmas angels, or an altogether darker force that was disappointed by the outcome.
I could hardly sell the ring, knowing what little I did about it. There was too much risk that somebody else would be impacted in the same way. So, it stayed in my flat. When I found Arabella staring at it wistfully one January morning, I started to panic.
'Please tell me you're not even thinking…' I began. She cut me off, waving her hands.
'No, no, of course not. It's just ... look, you're gonna think I'm ridiculously shallow, but I'll just say it anyway. It's so pretty! It's a shame, that's all. I would have treasured it. This would always have been the first piece of precious jewellery that you bought me.'
She was right, of course. She was always right. Perhaps that's what inspired the next words that came out of my mouth.
'You know what? You never got a Christmas present from me. What do you say we pick out a new ring for you? Maybe something with a diamond this time?'
The smile on her face told me everything I needed to know. It was a smile that said, 'yes.'