She’d always been the life and soul of the party, so what could make her want to run and hide?
Sarah could barely hear herself think over the pitchy rendition of All I Want For Christmas Is You being belted on the karaoke machine, but somehow managed to make out the barman shouting “Have fun, Rudolph” as he passed her a couple of bottles of wine.
Turning to head back to her table to join her friends, the cottony tail of her reindeer onesie shook.
When she reached her table, she was greeted by laughter from her group of old school friends.
“You are absolutely shameless,” Nina said, through her hands.
“No, she’s just more committed to the dress code than the rest of us,” Priti smiled, pouring out four glasses for her friends.
Mandy took one from her and waved at Sarah’s furry ensemble.
“How exactly does dressing up in a full-on reindeer onesie qualify as an ‘ugly Christmas jumper’?”
Sarah smiled coyly and attempted to take a sip of her wine, finding that the bright red plastic nose attached to her antler headband was getting in her way. Another round of cackling laughter erupted from her friends.
“Well at least we know one thing hasn’t changed since school. Sarah Price is still a show-off,” Priti teased, and the girls all raised their glasses to toast their agreement to the fact.
Ever since they were schoolgirls, Sarah had always been the one to put smiles back on their faces when they were down.
She was the one who always had a silly skit, a rude joke or something fun and frivolous to cheer them up.
It was where this annual pre-Christmas karaoke night had stemmed from.
Like stepping into a time machine, it offered a chance to forget about the responsibilities that came with adult life and revert to being carefree, giggly teenagers again for a single night.
Sarah looked over at her old friend Nina and noted the sad slope of her shoulders, despite the forced happy face she was putting on.
Having lost her dad recently, Nina was clearly struggling to cope with the seasonal cheer around her that somehow only served to highlight her own sadness.
“So,” Sarah said, pulling the book of karaoke songs towards them. “Who’s singing first, then?”
Mandy caught Sarah’s drift and looped her arm through Nina’s, pulling her to her feet.
“Get ready to sleigh some George Michael!” she declared, dragging a reluctant Nina over to the DJ booth.
Sarah and Priti did their bit as supportive fans and began crooning Last Christmas, earning a shy smile from Nina.
As the song finished, they both jumped to their feet to shower their friend in rapturous applause.
Nina blushed brightly as she rushed down from the stage.
It was the first genuine smile Sarah had seen from her all night spreading across her face. But before Nina could make it to the table, she was cut off by one of the pub’s regulars.
“Nina love, that was excellent. So sorry to hear about your dear old dad…” the woman began, patting Nina’s arm consolingly.
She was only trying to be nice, but Sarah watched Nina’s excited blush evaporate, and that sad hollow look begin to creep back.
“That’s it! I’m up,” Sarah announced and stood up, shuffling round the table and cutting a path between Nina and the woman. She gave Nina’s hand a squeeze as she passed, mouthing “Run!”
Nina squeezed back and took the chance to scurry back to their table. Sarah marched to the DJ booth and asked for song number ninety-five – a festive karaoke favourite.
“On your own?” the DJ asked, looking around for anyone with her.
Sarah simply nodded, and walked up to take the mic off a man enthusiastically garbling the final bars of Fairytale Of New York.
Sarah steeled herself as she watched Nina turn in her seat to watch.
“I really can’t staaaayy…” Sarah sang sweetly, turning her left side to face the audience. Then, jumping around to face them with her right side, she switched to a deep gravelly tone to sing the reply, “But baby, it’s cold outside…”
Fully throwing herself into her “duet” performance, Sarah soon had the room singing along and roaring with laughter.
As the song reached its crescendo, she threw her arms around herself and mimed a passionate kiss.
By the time Sarah was taking her final bow, Nina was wiping away tears of laughter.
Feeling hugely satisfied with both her performance and cheering her friend up, Sarah took another deep bow. But as she lifted her head, she froze in horror on seeing who had just arrived at their table and was now hugging Nina.
Sarah all but darted off the stage and made a beeline for the bathroom. Slamming the door behind her, she reached into the pocket of her onesie to furiously text Priti three words. Come quick! LOOS!
It took several minutes of furious pacing and fanning her under-arms before Priti joined her.
“What?” she said with alarm, scanning Sarah from head to toe.
“Nathan,” Sarah croaked. “He’s here!”
“Oooohh…” Priti’s eyes widened in recognition. “Nina’s older brother who you were obsessed with at school…”
“I was not obsessed!” Sarah shrieked.
“Oh, because normal, not-obsessed people write Mrs Sarah Rigby all over their French books, don’t they? Four years in a row?” Priti said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“What’s he doing here?” Sarah hissed.
“He’s back from Dubai for Christmas,” Priti explained.
Sarah shook her head furiously. Nathan Rigby, her first crush, for whom she had held a small, nostalgic candle all these years, was here. In this pub. Where she had just embarrassed herself in front of a whooping crowd dressed as a reindeer!
She’d managed to avoid Nathan all these years he’d come home for Christmas.
The memories of the disastrous attempts at flirting with him at teenage house parties, trying to catch his eye at school and all the other doomed adolescent tactics she had tried made her stomach clench and her palms sweat in mortification.
“I’ll have to sneak out the back.” She thought out loud. “Can you get my coat and bag?”
Priti crossed her arms.
“Sarah, you’ve pined after this guy for years.
“You now have the perfect opportunity – and you’re telling me you’re going to run away with your literal tail between your legs?”
“I’m dressed like Rudolph the Reindeer!” Sarah wailed.
At that, Priti reached up and yanked off her own Christmas jumper and tossed it at Sarah. The glittery number depicting an elf doing the tango with Mrs Claus was certainly a far better option.
“The things we do in the name of friendship…” she grumbled, unbuttoning her jeans.
After they’d topped up Sarah’s make-up and given her hair a quick makeover, they emerged from the Ladies.
While the jeans fitted well enough, swapping her fuzzy brown slippers for Priti’s slightly too-big boots was causing her to wobble rather like Bambi on ice.
An anxious knot formed in Sarah’s stomach as she rounded the bar, and released as she arrived and found no sign of Nathan.
“Where did he go?” Priti hissed in her ear from behind. “I’m not sweating all evening in this ridiculous onesie for nothing!”
Attempting to adopt as unbothered a tone as possible, Sarah asked, “Was that Nathan here a minute ago?”
If the girls noticed their change of outfits, they said nothing.
“Yeah, he was just dropping me back my car keys,” Nina said. “He’s back in town for the holidays – maybe for good, he said, now his divorce is finalised. Didn’t I tell you?”
Priti elbowed her in the ribs, making sure she didn’t miss that newly single information either. Sarah merely hummed in response as that knot of anxiety turned into a bitter stone of disappointment. Another chance missed because of her cowardice.
She could stand in front of a room of strangers and sing her heart out, but when it came to putting herself out there in the world of love, she was a mess.
Determined to distract herself from her souring feelings, she made her excuses and stepped out into the chill December air to gather her thoughts.
Leaning back against the pub’s frigid stone wall, a feeling of profound foolishness at the fuss she’d made washed over her and she smacked her head gently against the stone, cursing her stupidity.
“Careful, it might hit back,” an amused voice called out.
Sarah’s head snapped round and there was Nathan, sitting on one of the weathered pub picnic benches.
“Well… umm…” she stumbled for a witty retort and settled on, “I think I could get the better of it.”
“I’m sure you could,” he said with a chuckle, extending a hand to the other side of the table.
“So, you’re back…” she said as she sat down, feeling acutely aware of him only a few feet away from her.
“I am indeed,” he said, looking out thoughtfully at the dark sky. “Could only put it off for so long, the whole moving back home thing.” The words but I left it too late hung in the air, unspoken.
“Well I’m glad,” she said, speaking without thinking. At that, Nathan looked back at her with mild surprise. “Oh I mean, for Nina…” she scrambled. “It’s good for her to have you here, especially after your Dad…” She trailed off.
“It is strange though, being back in our home town after so many years away,” he told her.
“Yeah, so many things stay exactly the same…”
“And others are completely different,” he replied.
“Well, I hope you find at least some of those changes are for the better,” she said, rubbing her hands together against the frigid cold.
“I think they could well be,” he said, with a smile so direct it put butterflies in her stomach. With that he zipped up his coat a little higher, and got up to go.
“So I’ll probably see you at the next Christmas party then?” he said. “Nina said there are plenty to come”
She nodded as she blew into her hands again. As he turned to leave, he reached for something in his pocket before pulling off his gloves and pressing them into her hands.
“You can give those back next time, then,” he said.
“Do me a favour, though,” he murmured as he leaned in. “Come as a reindeer again next time – I thought it was really cute.”
Her face turned a shade of red that would have made even Rudolph envious, and with a chuckle he walked off into the night. She could only stare after him as he vanished into the dark.
She looked down at the gloves he had left for her, and there – nestled in amongst their fleecy folds – was a single sprig of mistletoe. Its white berries were winking at her with promises of more changes to come.