The big New Year’s bash was all set for Home Farm. Aaron wondered why he hadn’t gotten his invite…but until he did, he was content to sit in the typically empty pub and sup until midnight.
He tried not to think of his plans for the last New Year’s, but Robert strutting around town in his spiffy new coat, wearing that confused pout that always meant trouble was on the way, hadn’t made it easy.
It was Mam last year, thinking about her - that was worse than thinking of Robert. He’d spent the last night of 2014 with her, drinking and watching cheesy old telly. They’d had a good time. Best time he’d had in ages.
And this year…this year she was flippin’ giggling on the phone with…with him.
It hurt him more than anything - anything - he’d ever faced. And he knew it was just going to get worse, keep hurting more.
He downed his pint, about to fix himself another when the guest arrived, carrying a large box.
“Paul!” Diane cheered, probably the most genuinely happy Aaron had seen her in ages.
Paul gave his best loving nephew smile.
“I have a present for my favorite Auntie Di.”
“I’m your only Auntie Di,” she cracked.
“Yes, you are,” he said, sentimentally. “I want you to have this.”
Aaron watched Diane open the box and pull out a garish red wig.
“From my Thelma Louise days.” he said. “I always thought I had the worst hairpieces in town…until I saw yours,” he joked, even getting a chuckle out of Aaron. “I want you to hang it on the wall and…use it for a laugh when you need one.”
Diane hugged him, hiding her face so no one would see her tears.
“I’m gonna go make Douglas try this on,” she boasted, composing herself. “Give ya your tea when I get back.”
Paul always seemed a little fake to Aaron, but a lot of what he’d hated most about Paul - how “on” he was, how he had to be the super gay of the village - Aaron now knew was more in his head than anything the other man had ever deserved blame for.
Still, they weren’t pals, they’d never be, so Aaron knew Paul was surprised when he walked up to him.
“He speaks,” Paul half-joked, Aaron knowing he was probably waiting for the insult.
“I - forget it,” Aaron said, about to walk away, wondering why he’d wanted to do this in the first place.
“Aaron, wait,” Paul said, apologetically. “If there’s something you need to tell me -”
“Fine,” he said.
Just do it.
“Any chance you can buy Diane’s half o’the pub?”
Paul looked confused before he put it together - Aaron could just about see all the gears going in place.
“Ah. No need to fear - Auntie Di isn’t selling to Robert. She…pinkie promised, I suppose.”
Aaron shook his head.
“It’s not about him,” he said, “It’s ‘bout…”
He couldn’t even say Gordon’s name out loud. He knew what was going to happen and he knew he couldn’t stop that man getting in the pub, but he had to try.
“I-I can’t…” Aaron finished, hating himself for how helpless he sounded, how weak he felt.
He was waiting for the bitchy dig, the one he probably would’ve done in Paul’s shoes, but he must have looked pathetic enough to avoid it.
“I’m sorry. If she asked, I’d hate to turn her down, but the truth is, pubs are a dying breed. I’ve sunk everything I have - and most of what I don’t have - into my bar in Portugal, and I’m lucky to be able to afford a boxset of Tru Calling…on discount.”
“I’m sorry,” Paul said again, mercifully leaving for the back before Aaron was completely humiliated.
“Happy flamin’ New Year…” Aaron muttered to himself, fingernails in his palms.
Aaron was surprised at the turnout as 2015 wound down. Maybe people wanted to send out a hard year in a place they knew and loved - even if they didn’t bother to show up 90% of the rest of the year.
He looked at Paul, standing on stage, wearing an ugly floral-printed shirt and flared, lime green trousers.
He didn’t get the joke - not that that was new for him with the village - so Rodney, already pole-vaulting past half-cut, spit the words into his ear.
“Val got him that as a gag gift. He told her he’d never, ever wear it.”
Aaron nodded. He wondered if you only got a good relationship with your mam when she wasn’t around anymore.
“You know - he and Jonny have an open marriage,” Rodney winked, “if you’re interested.”
“Ta,” Aaron managed, crinkling up his nose in disgust.
“Well, I don’t KNOW if they do - I just assume they do. They all do, don’t they? Don’t you?”
Aaron smiled…all sharp teeth.
“Lucky I respect me elders…most of ‘em.”
Rodney got the hint, throwing his hands up before moving to another table.
Aaron’s attention went to new arrivals Ashley, Laurel, and…
“Emily!” Paul half-squealed, giving her a big hug.
Rhona, current Paddy wife to Emily’s past Paddy wife, stepped forward, trying to move past the awkwardness to shake her hand.
“Ah - Paddy’ll be sorry to have missed you.”
“Is he alright?” Emily trilled, genuinely concerned.
“He’s fine. It’s just car troubles. Been having those a lot lately. You know how that goes,” Rhona laughed.
“Yes, I do,” Emily nodded, keeping her head down. “I know better than anyone.”
The look on her face when Rhona left made Aaron nauseous, because he knew then that she had the same doubts about “car troubles” that he did.
He was surprised when Emily walked up to him…surprised she even remembered him.
“I can see how much pain you’re in,” she said, like if she knew how he felt. Like anyone could.
“If this is God-botherin’…” he snarled.
“It’s not,” she insisted, surprising strength in her voice. “My Butch may be gone, but I like to think I’ll always be a Dingle at heart.”
“Not sure Lisa’d agree,” he said, knowing she’d always hate Emily for running off with baby Sarah for a year.
“True,” Emily replied, clearly still hurt by the loss of her friend, but having reconciled it long ago. Aaron wished it was so easy for him. “But you see, my Butch…he had such a big heart. And he always kept his pain to himself because…because he didn’t want anyone to know how easily a big heart can break.”
Aaron couldn’t say anything to that. He was frozen, all trauma and raw nerves.
“If you can’t talk to me, talk to someone, please, Aaron. And…And tell Lisa I’m thinking of her.”
“Yeah,” he managed to pick out of the jumble of his thoughts. If he said any more he knew he’d break into a million pieces.
He watched her sit with Ashley and Laurel, torn between thinking she was a nosy cow and wondering how she’d seen what no one else had. Or maybe they’d seen it too - they just didn’t give a toss.
He was about to head upstairs when Adam suddenly grabbed him, kissing him hard on the lips.
“Happy New Year, babes!” he said, eyes shining with mirth…and lots of booze.
For years Aaron wanted nothing more than for Adam to kiss him that way - whether he meant it or not. Even now, something in him needed Adam - and those sexy lips, but mostly the man they were attached to - more than he wanted to think about.
“C’mon, idiot,” Victoria said, rolling her eyes. “Won’t be so happy when ya got our Johnny shrikin’ in your ear.”
“Now ya got two babies to change,” Aaron teased.
“Don’t remind me,” she groused. “And Aaron…Happy New Year.”
He knew how much it meant for her to say that to him, after how he’d treated her this year.
“Same to you,” he said, forcing a smile on his face.
After they left, it was time for the show to start.
“I’m not going to sing or dance,” Paul said after the lights dimmed, Diane and Eric in pride of place at the front of the pub. “Aren’t you so lucky? I’m going to do what I’m sure most of you are happy to do yourselves - say goodbye.”
Aaron swallowed, wishing he could run out without anyone seeing. He knew they would now - at the worst time. They only noticed him then.
“Katie - Katie was my friend.”
Aaron looked down at the floor, thinking of the day he’d looked down and seen her corpse. He wished he could say he still had nightmares about it, but that level of decency in him had been torn out. Survival instincts, or just being dead inside.
“I didn’t know Ruby, but Kerry assures me she was ‘ace,’ and a woman with such good taste in lip gloss can’t be wrong.”
Kerry laughed a little too loud and slapped the table, before dissolving into sobs over her departed friend.
Aaron remembered her sweet smile and how patient she was. He knew he’d killed her too, but there was no way to take it back. Nothing to do but…manage to drag himself into another day.
“And Edna - a woman I was convinced was Yorkshire’s own Mary Whitehouse…”
Finn laughed and clapped, shaking his head at the joke, then shrinking away when he realized no one else had gotten it.
“Thank you, Finn. If my father’s dreams of my open marriage ever come true, you’re top of the list now.”
Rodney turned 50 shades of red, a few shades behind Finn himself.
“Edna - Mrs. Birch - I still keep seeing her sitting in one of the hard chairs - she never complained, she always left the best for everyone else - judging us all. I used to laugh at her hats and her perpetual outrage, but she was always there for us when we needed her.”
More than a few people in the audience nodded. Sandy petted Tootsie’s head as she wagged her tail in solidarity.
“And she had such gorgeous hair. No wonder she kept it hidden. She kept most of herself hidden from us…so maybe she wasn’t so different from everyone else after all.”
Aaron bit at his lip, sorry for everything he’d said to her, but mostly sorry for the loss of someone who somehow understood him, somehow always cared.
“And now…the end is near…I know you’re all so damn sick of that song.”
Eric’s eyes welled up as he chuckled.
“Mother. Mother, mother, mother. She loved this place, you know? ‘The Woolie.’ It was her lifeblood. And do you know why? Because she always got free drinks.”
Diane shouted “That’s not true!” between her shrieks of laughter.
“I see so many gorgeous men out there tonight…and that’s what Mother would like best. The rest of you can fall in a hole. One thing I know she’d say - ‘give yourself a shave before you give us a kiss. It’s like dry-humpin’ a cactus.’”
Aaron smiled in spite of himself, stroking his beard.
“I wanted to sing…or dance…or dust off my tired drag act. I wanted to tell you why I loved her and hated her so much. Then after lots of sleepless nights andplenty of sangria, I realized why I couldn’t find the words. It’s because Mother…Val…already lived them. No one could ever speak for her.”
“They know she’d lamp ‘em one,” David added.
“Exactly. So I say, just enjoy yourself tonight. Make a bloody fool of yourself and deny everything the next day. That was Mother. And as much as I wanted to strangle her…it’s what I miss the most about her.”
Eric smiled through his tears as Diane buried her head in Doug’s shoulder.
“Now that I’ve depressed everyone, I have one final special guest.”
Pearl, in a gorgeous evening gown Aaron had never seen her wear before, strolled onstage, terrified behind a glittering smile.
“Edna loved this song…I think it brought back memories she didn’t want to share. I hope they were happy ones. I like to think she’s in Heaven’s Blackpool Tower, with a dashing man, dancing right now. Happy New Year, Edna.”
Aaron shrugged off his mam’s attempt to touch his shoulder as Pearl began to warble.
One minute to midnight…
He watched Doug and Diane start the first dance.
One minute to go…
Tracy took Eric’s hand for a dance, looking up at the ceiling as if lightning would strike her.
One minute to say goodbye…
Aaron thought of Jackson and their New Year’s Eve together - how scared they’d both been and how hard they’d tried to hide it.
…before we say hello…
Nikhil stretched out his hand to an unsure Leyla.
Let’s start the New Year right…
David was dragged onto the floor by a half-drunk Carly
12 o’clock tonight…
Emily watched Ashley and Laurel dancing, Laurel’s head on his shoulder. She smiled, briefly, at Aaron.
When they dim the light, let’s begin…
Aaron smirked as one of Paul’s fit servers asked Finn for a dance.
Kissing the Old Year out…
Carly planted a big smack on David’s fuzzy cheek, thumping him on the shoulder when he told her her breath was gross.
Kissing the New Year in…
Nikhil and Leyla stared into each other’s eyes, startled when David kissed his smooth cheek, muttering, “Tag, you’re it!” as he pulled Nikhil into a dance, Carly doing the same with a bemused, annoyed Leyla.
Let’s watch the Old Year die…
Kerry and Dan made a quiet exit, Kerry blowing a kiss to Ruby’s photo before leaving
With a fond goodbye…
Aaron watched a lonely Chas stare at Katie’s photo…from her wedding day.
and our hopes as high as a kite…
Jai downed another glass of champagne as he watched Nikhil with Leyla, then saw Megan and Sam walk through the front door asking if they were too late.
How can our love go wrong…
Aaron waited for Robert then. If Robert swept in, swept him up in his arms, he’d give in. He’d hate himself, but he’d give in.
It was for the best.
if we start the New Year right.
“Happy New Year, luv,” Chas said, hugging him before he pulled away.
“Yeah,” Aaron said, flatly, before finishing his beer to head upstairs.
He sat on his bed, in a room that seemed emptier and more full of shadows every night.
“Happy New Year.”