Note: Secret Santa, in case someone doesn't know, goes as follows: everyone participating puts their name in a hat. Everyone then picks a name out of the hat, making sure they don't get their own, and do not reveal to anyone who they have. They then buy a present for that person to the value of the agreed budget. Presents are unwrapped as usual at Christmas with the whole group present, and generally everyone reveals who they bought for, though it's optional.
He kisses me on the top of my head. "I did this, once, didn't I?"
I shrug. "What of it?"
"Made me feel like a mother."
"You'd make a good mother."
He grins and hugs me tighter, then kisses the top of my head as he did that time before. Then he does it again, a little to the left, then again and again, all over the top of my head in a joking theatrical fashion. I giggle and shift awkwardly in his arms. I don't know whether to be alarmed, embarrassed or touched. I shove him away.
"God, you're gross," I joke.
"Ouch, so cruel. So cruel, Will."
"Guess you brought me up wrong, mum."
Ollie was good at indoor sports. Badminton, table tennis, darts, indoor climbing walls, dance. Michelle teased him, saying he was a sensitive soul who didn't like the cold. Teasing back he ordered her to get him a scarf then. She had one spare, and gave it to him. Insisted he take it. He never looked at her quite the same after that. Or wore the scarf. I think she took it back.
There was table tennis at our college common room and the boys from our house hung out there a fair bit, along with the house next door. I watched, mostly. I wasn't bad at it, wasn't good, wasn't invited to join most of the time. Ollie always made this stupid overacted concentration face that looked like he was trying to pout in an angry way. He obviously thought it was funny. I found it annoying and mildly repulsive, like body odour, where you know it's kind of a natural thing but you still want to turn your head away. But what I liked best was when he had an evenly matched opponent and genuine competitiveness started to kick in after a couple of rallies. I like how it leaked through his acting face around the edges, how I could always spot it happening.
"What are you looking at?" he asked once, about to serve.
"Your backhand's weak," I said instead. It was true, anyway.
"Aw, thanks, helping the opposition, that's nice of you."
His sarcasm stung a little. Because the competitiveness had kicked in.
"He won't stand a chance otherwise," I placated. Lying, obviously.
"Nice save," said Abe, standing beside me. I turned to smile at him, but he was talking about Fred's return shot.
The one sport I was sure I could have beaten Ollie at was pool. I was good at that. But he didn't like that you had to pay to use the table, so he always stuck with table tennis. He watched my games quite a lot, but he didn't give any particular praise or anything, just cheered each shot, whoever did it. I did most of the good ones, though. He ruffled my hair a lot when I played pool, joking, trying to mess up my cues. When I knew I was going to play pool and he would be there I didn't put any product in it, so it would be softer for him to touch. If anyone had asked I would have said there was no point styling my hair if it was just going to get messed, anyway.
I liked swimming, too. But I wouldn't want to go with anyone I knew or talk to anyone there. I felt stupidly exposed in just my swimming trunks; I didn't want people to see. If everyone was strangers I could pretend to be invisible. When I was in the water I imagined it was black and when I dived down no one could see me, a creature of the deep.
Week six was a good week for sport. Nadine was on the college basketball team and somehow at least half the house plus some other friends of ours all went to watch. I had no idea where the organisation came from, but I think it had a lot to do with Jamie going, 'I have a six pack of beer I'm taking to the match, if anyone wants to join.'
It was cold and I was standing at the side of the main group of supporters, not really in on the conversation. I pulled down the sleeves of my hoodie to try and warm my hands, and then bunged them in my pocket. Then out of nowhere Ollie sprang out and dangled a beer in front of me, urging me to take it. I didn't want to. My fingers were cold enough as it was.
"Come on Will, cheer up."
I pushed the bottle back towards him. "You have it."
"Are you alright?"
"Yeah but are you alright?"
I frowned at him, swallowing sudden nerves for no reason. "Yeah."
"You look frikkin' miserable, mate," he said playfully, elbowing me in the side. I couldn't tell if he was joking or not.
"Eh?" I managed.
"Only joking, only joking. Com'ere."
I still couldn't tell if he was joking. He slung an arm around my shoulders and dragged me an inch or two closer to the group. It was weird and nice and embarrassing at the same time. When the match started he yelled so loudly to cheer Nadine on I actually jumped a little the first time he did it. And then he abbreviated her name. Go Nads! Go Nads! He grinned at me and I couldn't help but grin back. He accused me of having a dirty mind. I denied it in good humour and then he looked back to the game and yelled 'GO NADS!' at the top of his voice.
I didn't think I'd laughed that hard in months.
Her cheeks were gloriously red, but perhaps it was just the exercise.
At the end of week seven I picked Ollie out for Secret Santa. All the names were in the hat, and I took a slip of paper out and peeked at it like you were supposed to do to check you hadn't picked yourself. And I saw his name and I folded it up again, said I'd got myself, and put it back in the hat. Abe gave me a weird look. That spoiled my Secret Santa.
I didn't know exactly why I put his name back in. I didn't want the responsibility, somehow. When I saw his name it was like looking at a knot of different threads, feeling and thoughts going round and round unreadable and indistinguishable from each other. I just knew that overall, I didn't want it. I suppose one thread was that the task makes you question how well you know a person. I didn't want to do that. It felt like it would spoil something.
Ollie often cleaned late at night. I think it was partly Abe's influence. Abe had a weird knack for being productive at ridiculous hours of night. Ollie would clean when he saw someone else cleaning, but if he cleaned alone it would be late at night, singing to himself. He was surprisingly respectful of keeping communal areas tidy – his room by contrast was a complete mess. Once I came out of my room close to midnight; having gotten distracted by my laptop I'd forgotten to eat dinner. His hands were all pink from cleaning. Bubbles clung to his forearms.
"'S'up," he said, passing me a token smile.
"'S'up." I felt bad at the idea of taking freshly cleaned plates to make a meal, and sitting down and eating whilst he cleaned. My mind felt tired, wordless of things to say to him. I took a clementine and peeled it and ate just that. I wanted to help him clean, but not in silence. And it would be in silence. I snuck out of the room without so much as a goodnight, walking on tiptoes so as to leave less of footprints. I could skip dinner that night, it was fine. I needed to lose weight anyway.
I remember a Saturday night we went out to town. I didn't know why I decided to go that particular night, but I suppose I couldn't think of a decent reason not to. We went somewhere loud and crowded and I felt both overdressed and underdressed. I cursed my level of soberness and bought three shots. They were green. They burnt my throat and did close to nothing for my brain. I liked the burn though. It helped as a sort of placebo, I guess. I tried to dance and wished I knew what to do with my hands. I wished I had something to fiddle with. Ollie was energetic, singing along although I doubt he could even hear himself over the music. He grabbed others' arms and waists and danced with them. Not me, though. I got a grin or two, but then it was gone elsewhere. I watched his happiness like something moderately interesting happening on TV.
I slipped away and wandered around. It was a big place. I could feel the bass in my chest. Every now and then glass crunched under my trainers. I leant against a wall and tapped my foot to the beat. I pretended I was waiting for someone, and checked my phone so that I would have somewhere to look. A couple of songs passed me by.
I looked up. Ollie again. Some guy I didn't recognise was with him. He was calling after someone else, but I was bored. I went over and tapped him on the shoulder. He spun around. "Oh, hey! Seen Jamie?"
I shook my head. "I don't know where anyone is." I had a general idea, but I didn't really care.
"You vanished! You havin' a good time?"
"You're drunk." I didn't know why I said that.
He leant over – a bit too far, being drunk, and rested a hand on my shoulder. He bent his head close. "How do I look?"
I stared at him. And for a long moment I genuinely didn't know what to say. For some reason I couldn't understand the question. It just didn't make sense. "Uh…fine," my voice turned out the standard response.
"In an I'm-being-nice-'cause-I'm-your-friend way or an actually-you-look-alright way?"
"Cool. Cool." He leant back, slung an arm around the guy next to him and jabbed a finger in the general direction of the guy's chest. "Ed. This is Will, housemate." I shook his hand. Then Ed tugged his arm and they danced away. I waved and went back to nodding my head to the beat.
We got back in separate taxis. I was in the kitchen when he stormed in – angry. Complaining that some guy had just taken his drink off him and then tried to touch him up. Loudly. All of the guys – and girls – in the kitchen felt awkward. We exchanged glances. I wondered if he meant Ed. I'd never seen him angry. It scared me a little. People found an excuse to go outside for a smoke. Non-smokers joined. Just me, Ollie and Jamie ended up left in the kitchen. Ollie put the kettle on with a huff. I didn't know what to say. I wanted to put a hand on his shoulder and comfort him, but thought that might be inappropriate, given his complaint. I fiddled with the ends of my sleeves. Just put a hand on his shoulder. I couldn't do it. I started stacking dirty plates.
"Are you alright buddy?" Jamie asked quietly, clapping a hand on Ollie's shoulder. He sighed and nodded and turned to give Jamie a hug. I finished stacking the plates in hand and headed for the door. Ollie would be alright, Jamie could take care of him. I should get some sleep. Ollie's voice stopped me at the door.
"Hey, Will, do you want a biscuit?"
He was too good to people. Too good to everyone. Someone would end up taking him for granted.
I turned around and looked at the biscuits in his hand. They were from my cupboard.
He laughed, and ruffled my hair. Thieving git.
The cupboards, you could lock them if you bought a lock. I could have locked my cupboard to stop him nicking my food. But I felt that would be like shutting him out, a partial rejection of his good nature, too. What can I say? People won't be sifted.
His laugh fills my whole bedroom like surround-sound.
"Maybe you're just a rebellious child." He pinches my cheeks and I slap his hands away. He smells of something that's not Lynx. I don't know why so many guys I know go for that brand. Ollie smells soft, of simple soap and washing machine. I hear voices outside the door. We both stand.
"Is that Jamie and his football friend?" he whispers dramatically.
"I think so – oi!" Ollie barges in front of me to look through the peep hole in my door. I can't really hear what they're saying.
"They're at the top of the stairs, they're chatting they're – oh hello."
"What? If they're – Don't look, that's like…voyeuristic."
He turns and raises an eyebrow at me. "Voyeuristic? This is our house! How can we be voyeurs on our own lives?"
I clear my throat. "Ollie."
"Okay, okay. God, calm down Will," he teases. He sits back down on the end of the bed, and looks between me and the door with a grin. He knows I'm curious now. Feeling really awkward I sit down on the bed beside him. My eyes search the room for an object to talk about.
"Don't you want to know what they were doing?" Ollie prompts.
"You're a terrible liar." He smiles. "Do you want them to get together?"
"Why are you asking me?"
"I'll make a bet with you, whether or not they'll get together," he teases.
"Well for all I know they already have!" I say, gesturing at the door.
"You'd better look then."
I throw another Malteaser at him. "No."
I pause. "Maybe I'm just not a pervert."
"Oh, you hurt me. That's painful, that is, Will, ouch." He clasps a hand over his heart overdramatically. I shift further back onto the bed and draw my legs up to my chest.
"Do you want them to get together?"
"Why are you asking me?" he echoes with a grin.
I shrug, and force myself to look at him. "Suppose I bet that they don't get together." We both know why he's here in my room. Avoiding Jamie's crush on him and the drama it's bound to bring eventually. If Jamie doesn't get with this guy then he'll still be after Ollie.
Ollie loops an arm around my shoulders with a sigh, looking all around the room before finally settling his gaze on me. "I can manage."