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Louise walked beneath the Christmas lights on Regent Street. She could barely move for the crowds, but with no destination in mind, she didn't care. It was a ritual she performed every festive season to help keep a memory alive. She looked in the windows of shops and boutiques, all bright and optimistic with Christmas cheer, but she was met with a reflection devoid of it, the absence of Peter beside her as gut-wrenching as ever.
She sighed into the scarf pulled tight around her neck, then left Regent Street behind. As she passed Piccadilly Circus towards and continued towards Leicester Square, songs from the Christmas market grew louder in her ears.
Mumbling the lyrics of Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody into her scarf, she reached the market and perused the stalls. Following another tradition, she bought a handmade wooden tree decoration, this time of a reindeer pulling a sleigh, and a cinnamon hot chocolate to warm her hands. She finished her lap of the market, barely looking where she was going as the ornaments, cards, candles, and clothes adorning the stalls occupied her attention.
As she turned the final corner, she clattered into someone, emptying her hot chocolate down both their fronts.
'Whoa, watch out.'
'I'm so sorry, I wasn't looking where I was—' She faltered as she looked up, not having expected the person in front of her to be so tall. 'Oh,' she said again, noting his salt and pepper beard and cerulean eyes.
He looked down at his splattered jacket. 'Cinnamon, by the smell of it. Let me buy you another one.'
'Honestly, there's no need.'
'I insist. You could consider it an apology.'
The mirth with which he said it brought a smile to her face. 'Alright. It's just back this way.'
'Which one was it?' he asked when they were at the stall.
'Cinnamon hot chocolate.'
'Two of those please, mate,' he said to the vendor.
'Try not to wear it this time,' he teased, handing Louise a cup. 'If I haven't disturbed your night enough, do you want to drink them together?'
She considered for a moment. 'Sure, why not.'
'I'm Simon, by the way.'
She shook his gloved hand. 'Louise. Thank you so much for this, you didn't have to.'
'What's Christmas for if not good will, even to people who throw drinks over you.'
'It's not something I normally do, I promise.'
'So what brings you to a Christmas market by yourself?' Simon asked as they sat on a wall outside the market.
'It's kind of a tradition. My husband and I used to walk around London to see the decorations. We'd always stop here to buy an ornament for our tree and—' She caught herself rambling. 'Sorry, that was a long-winded answer to your question.'
'Better than a short one. You said you "used to"...'
'He passed away.'
'Oh. I'm sorry to hear that.'
'It was a long time ago. How about you? I didn't see you here with anyone.'
'I'm a bit of a tourist at the moment. I only moved to London a couple of months ago, so I haven't seen the lights before. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.'
'Are you impressed?'
'Mostly. Except for the women who don't look where they're going.'
Louise laughed. 'How long are you going to keep busting me for that?'
'For as long as it amuses me.'
'I suppose I deserve it. What brought you to London?'
'Work. I'm a detective in the police. I transferred here from Birmingham.'
'Wow. Sounds dangerous.'
'It's not as glamorous as TV shows would have you believe. More paperwork than car chases. How about you?'
'I'm a drug dealer.'
'Interesting. You don't look like most drug dealers.'
'That's why I've never been caught.'
'Good strategy. Seeing as it's Christmas, I'll let you go this time.' He looked at his watch. 'I hate to cut this short, but I'm meeting a colleague for a drink in ten minutes. Can I see you again? I could use someone to show me the rest of the lights.'
'Sorry, I didn't think. The thing you and your husband used to do together.'
'It's not that, don't worry. I just wasn't expecting you to ask. I'd be happy to show you around. Pass me your phone and I'll put in my number.'
'Great,' Simon said as she handed it back. 'I'll be in touch.' He took a final swig of hot chocolate. 'It was great to run into you—literally. Take care.'
'You too. Bye.'
Louise watched him go until she lost him in the crowd. Did I just arrange a date? she thought. Nah, like he said, he wants someone to show him around. She finished her drink and wrapped her scarf around her mouth. 'Why are you overthinking this? He probably won't even call,' she murmured as she got to her feet.
She spent the rest of her walk around London absorbed in memories. She thought of the handful of dates she'd been on since Peter's death, and how none of them had felt right. None of the guys had been bad, they just weren't him.
As always, she ended her walk in Trafalgar Square to see the Christmas tree gifted to the British people each year by Norway, a thank you for Britain's support during World War II. Louise noted that it looked lusher than the previous year, when some has derided the tree as threadbare. Given her chance encounter with Simon, she thought it could be taken as a sign, if she was the type to take signs. The more verdant branches were pure coincidence, but it made for an interesting thought nonetheless.
'What do the boys want for Christmas?' Louise asked. 'I'm running out of time to get them something.'
Her sister sighed. 'They both want something called a Nintendo Switch. It's a games console, apparently. I hadn't even heard of it until a couple of weeks ago. Why do kids have such expensive tastes?'
'We were no different. Remember the year when we kept bugging mum and dad for that doll house?'
'Yeah. I think they only agreed in the end to keep us quiet.'
'Kids, eh. I could get the boys a game for it if you end up buying them one.'
'We probably will, but I'll let you know. Anyway, enough about kids, you mentioned you met a guy at the Christmas market?'
'Clattered into him to be precise. Spilled hot chocolate down our fronts.'
Kirsty couldn't help an excitable grin. 'What was he like?'
'I don't know really, I only spoke to him for a few minutes. Easy-going. Sense of humour. He still been in contact, so it might not matter.'
'It's only been a day. He probably doesn't want to come across as too keen.'
'I'm thirty-six. I'm past caring about the arbitrary rules of male-female interaction.'
'Deep. At least it sounds like you want him to get in touch.'
She sighed. 'Maybe, but you know how I've been with men since Peter.'
'I know. And I know you still miss him, but not moving on won't bring him back. He'd want you to be happy.'
'That doesn't stop it feeling like a betrayal.'
'You can't think like that, Lou. Did you ever discuss it with him?'
Louise smiled at the memory. 'He always made light of it—you know how he loved gallows humour. "Obviously he won't be as good as me, but if the worst happens, I want you to find a decent bloke who'll make you happy".'
'So what's stopping you?'
'I never believed I'd have to.'
Louise teared up, and Kirsty walked around the kitchen counter to give her a hug. 'Time for another cuppa. Helps every time.'
'So,' Kirsty said, trying to lighten the mood, 'was he good-looking?'
'I guess so. He had a beard, though.'
'Ooh, rugged. I never wanted Dan to grow a beard, but when he did I ended up liking it. I can't imagine him clean-shaven now.'
As the kettle boiled, Louise's phone pinged.
'Get it, then,' Kirsty urged.
Louise sighed and pulled it from her pocket. 'You're impossible.'
Kirsty read the expression on her sister's face. 'It's him, isn't it? What does it say?'
'Hi Louise. Hope you're doing well. Are you free on Friday to show me the lights? Simon.'
'See, he doesn't even play "arbitrary" games.'
'Do you really think I should go?'
'Absolutely. Worst case scenario, you don't like him and you've lost nothing. But you'll never know if you don't try.'
'Alright. How's this for a reply: Hi Simon. I'm well, hope you are too. I finish work at 5.30, so I'm free any time after.'
'Here goes... sent.'
Louise arrived at the coffee shop in Covent Garden where they had agreed to meet. Simon waved to her as she entered, drink already bought.
'I'm so sorry I'm late,' she said. 'I had a bit of drama with one of my kids.'
'They're not actually mine. I'm a teacher.'
'Ah, what age group?'
'Year three, so eight to nine-year-olds.'
'Must make for an interesting job.'
'Don't get me started.' Louise took off her coat, revealing splatters of yellow paint on her jumper.
'Is that the drama you were talking about?'
'Yep. I know how to make a good impression, don't I?'
'It's alright. I wouldn't have recognised you without a mess down your front.'
Louise laughed. 'At least you know I'm consistent. I'll grab a drink then fill you in.'
She returned with a latte and took a seat opposite him.
'I thought teachers finished work in the afternoon,' Simon said. 'Or did you have to do a drug deal before meeting me?'
'A drug deal would have been less stressful. Normally I do, but it's Christmas play season, so some nights I stay behind to help the kids rehearse. One of the girls was painting a star for her costume, and a paint pot combined with an eight-year-old's flailing arm equals bad news for my jumper.'
'You must get a lot of that teaching kids.'
'I get my fair share, but it's worth it. I almost love them like they're my own.'
'Even the naughty ones?'
'Well, maybe not all the time. But it's my job to set them straight.'
'Sounds similar to what I do.'
'Except I send people to the naughty corner, not prison.'
'True, although I think I'd rather deal with hardened criminals than a class of boisterous eight-year-olds.'
'Speaking of hardened criminals, what does being a detective involve? I've always wondered what goes on in a police station.'
'An average day would be a couple of car chases, a Mexican standoff, and me using my incredible combat skills to save the day.'
'You sound like a real action hero.'
'I like to think so. I work in homicide, so I spend most of my time at crime scenes, gathering information, and interviewing suspects. There's a lot of not-so-exciting admin work involved, too.'
'You must have seen some crazy things.'
'Stuff that would keep most people awake at night.'
'Does it affect you?'
'It did at first, but you become desensitized. It becomes purely about the job, you take your emotions out of it.'
'Makes sense. I don't think I'd have the stomach for it.'
'Ditto for teaching kids. So, where are you taking me on this tour?'
'You'll have to wait and see.' Louise finished her latte. 'Are you ready to go?'
'Lead the way.'
They put on their coats, Louise covering up the blotches of yellow paint, and headed towards the Apple Market.
'How are you adjusting to London?' she asked.
'Getting used to it. It's not too different than Birmingham in terms of my job, but I'm still discovering everything there is to offer. Are you a native?'
'Yeah, been here all my life. I grew up only a few miles from where I live now.'
'Ever thought about moving?'
'It crossed my mind after Peter passed away, but I couldn't. My sister and her family are here, and I love my job. Everything important to me is in London.'
They arrived at the Apple Market, outside of which stood a thirty foot Christmas tree, lit up in red and white lights.
'Here's the first stop on our tour,' Louise said.
'They don't hold back with the lights, do they?'
'It's so pretty, though. The tree in Trafalgar Square is the most famous, but this one's my favourite.'
They waked around the Apple Market, browsing shop windows and taking in the rest of the lights. Louise's tour then took them back through Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, ending in Trafalgar Square.
'Here we are,' she said, gesturing to the Norwegian tree, 'the pièce de résistance. There's more to see across London, but this is always my last stop.'
'You've been the perfect tour guide, five stars from me. Do you fancy a bite to eat?'
'Sure, why not. Is this a date, by the way? I only ask because I've basically forgotten what one is.'
Simon laughed. 'You and me both. Call it what you want. As long as we're having a good time, who cares?'
'Good point. I bet that sounded like such a dumb question.'
'I've heard worse,' he teased. 'I'll be honest, though, tonight was more about getting to know you than looking at trees and lights.'
Louise couldn't help a smile, and would have blushed if her face wasn't already pink with the cold. 'I kind of hoped that was the case.'
'What's your topping,' he asked as they approached a pizza stand.
'And just like that, you've ruined the whole night.'
'Don't tell me you're a pineapple hater.'
'It should be a crime. Fruit doesn't belong on pizza.'
'You mean like tomato?'
Simon turned to catch Louise's cheeky smile. 'Touché.'
He bought a slice of Hawaiian and a slice of meat feast, then they sat on a bench with a view of the tree.
'Do you have family in London, or are they all back in Birmingham?' Louise asked.
'I don't have any at all. My parents died when I was young, and I don't have any siblings.' He smiled. 'Not that I'm trying to dampen the mood.'
'I'm so sorry. I hope you don't mind me saying, but I'm surprised a guy like you doesn't have a family of his own.'
'I used to.' He reached under his coat and pulled out a wedding ring on a chain. 'Molly. We met at university. She passed away three years ago.'
Louise instinctively placed a hand on his shoulder. 'You should have said something when I was banging on about family earlier. Do you mind if I ask how?'
He tucked the ring back under his coat. 'Cervical cancer. It was a bolt out of the blue, and over so quickly. It's why I moved here in the end. Being surrounded by the life we'd built together became too much. I needed a fresh start.'
'That's understandable,' Louise said.
'Now who's making a bad impression? Pouring my heart out on a first date—or whatever we're calling it.'
Louise smiled. 'I've done my fair share of pouring, believe me. Especially around Christmas time. It's when I found out about Peter.'
'You never said how he died.'
'He was killed in Afghanistan.'
'Corps of Royal Engineers. He was killed by an IED.' Louise stared at the ground, tearing up as she relived the morning the CNO showed up at her door. She wiped her eyes. 'I should go. Thank you for the pizza, I really enjoyed tonight.'
'I'll walk you to the tube.'
'No, it's alright. Enjoy the lights.'
Accepting she wanted to be alone, Simon thanked her for the tour and said goodbye. He watched her until she was out of sight, then finished his pizza and headed home.
'You left him on the bench?' Kirsty asked.
'I didn't know what else to do. The conversation got heavy, Peter came up and... I panicked.'
'Oh, Lou. Have you spoken to him since?'
'I will, don't worry. Anyway, I'd better go. I'll see you next week for decorating.'
'See you next week.'
Louise hung up the phone and sighed, now having to do what she'd been putting off. She brought up her message thread with Simon and stared at the screen, struggling to think of what to say. After typing and deleting a message more times than she could count, she sent her latest effort before she could change her mind.
Hi Simon. Sorry about last night. I really enjoyed it, even though it might not have seemed that way. If it didn't put you off, I'd like to take you for a drink to thank you for the pizza. L.
She cringed in immediate regret, every word suddenly seeming psychotic. She threw her phone to the opposite side of the sofa then stood up and stretched. No point fretting about it now, she thought as she went to the kitchen to make tea. As she was putting the milk back in the fridge, her stomach flipped as she heard a text alert. Finding her reaction slightly peculiar, she returned to the living room to read the message.
Not put off. I enjoyed it too, how about next weekend?
Louise couldn't help but smile. All that worrying for nothing.
After exchanging messages over the week, they met up the following Sunday afternoon. Louise made a point of arriving early this time, while Simon arrived at two o'clock on the dot.
'No paint this time, you'll be glad to know,' Louise said.
'Shame, I thought it gave you character.'
'Don't worry, I can always spill coffee down myself. What can I get you?'
'Cappuccino would be great.'
She went to the counter as Simon took off his coat, returning with two coffees and two chocolate muffins.
'What did I do to deserve this?' he said.
'Just my way of saying sorry for cutting things short last week. I can get a bit emotional when Peter comes up.'
'I understand. The wounds open up for me sometimes, too.' He took a sip of his coffee. 'How did the play go?'
'Without a hitch, thankfully. The kids did a great job, and they were all so cute in their costumes.'
'Sounds like you drilled them well.'
'It's not too hard. Most of the time they're well behaved, especially when they're in a good mood because it's the last week of term.'
'You're so lucky, I'm working till Christmas Eve.'
'Do things get busier for you around Christmas? I've never thought about how time of year affects murders.'
'I haven't noticed any difference for homicide, but some research suggests higher temperatures increase crime.'
'Why do you think that is?'
'It could be a few things. People get more agitated when it's hot, and they go out more, so there's increased opportunity.'
'Interesting. It's a good job Christmas is cold. Speaking of which, what are you planning to do?'
'Not a lot, to be honest. Have a lie in, then cook myself a meal and watch a couple of films.'
'Oh...' Louise couldn't prevent a frown. 'You're spending Christmas alone?'
'Don't look so worried,' he said with a smile. 'It won't be the first time, and I'm going back to Birmingham on Boxing Day to watch the football.'
'Oh, my brother in law's a huge Tottenham fan. Who do you support?'
'I don't think I've heard of them.'
'I'm not surprised, they're not one of the "big" teams. We used to be back in the Victorian era, but that was a bit before my time.'
'It's that old?'
'One of the oldest clubs in the country.' He took another drink. 'How about you, how are you spending Christmas?'
'Relax in the morning then go to my sister's in the afternoon. Her husband's parents will be there too, so it'll be packed.'
'It can be, but our family has always been big on Christmas. I helped my sister decorate her tree yesterday.'
'It's been years since I had a tree.'
'How come? Are you a bit of a Scrooge?'
'No, nothing like that. Molly used to do all that stuff.'
Louise grimaced. 'Sorry, I should've thought...'
'No need to apologize, it's more to do with laziness on my part. I should get one.'
'Hmm, are you free for the rest of the afternoon?'
'What if we got you a few decorations, then I could help you put them up?'
'You want to help me put up Christmas decorations?'
'Why not, it could be fun.'
'Alright. I'm warning you, though, I have absolutely no taste.'
'I can help you with that.'
'Seems like it's my lucky day.'
After finishing their coffees, Louise led them to a homeware shop a few streets away. 'They have a decent selection here, depending on how much you want to spend. First thing you need to do is figure out a colour scheme.'