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Excerpt for Crisis at Christmas by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Julie Bozza


Crisis at Christmas



LIBRAtiger

Smashwords Edition



Published by LIBRAtiger 2018 as part of the Rainbow Advent Calendar


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Text, format and cover design: © Julie Bozza 2018


Cover image: © JJ Jordan | unsplash.com


Characters and situations described in this book are fictional and not intended to portray real persons or situations whatsoever; any resemblances to living individuals are entirely coincidental.


libra-tiger.com | juliebozza.com



Author’s Note


Crisis (crisis.org.uk) is a national UK charity supporting homeless people, and is particularly known for providing good food and a variety of useful services over the Christmas period, with the help of volunteers. If you are ready, willing and able to contribute, your time or money could help significantly transform a person’s circumstances.


Caveat: I have donated dosh, but I haven’t volunteered at a Crisis Centre myself, so I apologise for any inaccuracies or infelicities in this story, and really the whole idea is probably well inappropriate. But if my heart’s in the right place, I may be forgiven … ?



Crisis at Christmas


This was his first time volunteering for Crisis at Christmas, but even Oliver knew that it must be bad form to be checking out one of their guests. It didn’t even matter that, after a blank moment, the guest seemed to respond in kind. His dark eyes twinkled as he returned Oliver’s gaze, and he smiled wryly, before ducking his head to hide behind a fall of brown hair. The guest progressed another step or two in the queue for the IT room, and Oliver continued down the corridor in the opposite direction, and that really should have been that.

However, Oliver was currently in charge of the hot beverages and biscuits in the central “hub” area, and it felt inevitable that the guest appear about half an hour later, obviously on a quest. Well, the volunteers were meant to be friendly and obliging, so what else could he do but greet the man with a happy grin? “Hello, I’m Oliver. Can I help you to a cuppa?”

“Sure. Coffee, thanks, as strong as you like.” There was that twinkle again, and a hint of shyness – and just to add to the guest’s attractions, the musical lilt of an Irish accent.

Oliver dealt with the hot water, as the urns could be a danger even to the initiated, then he placed the cup of coffee down further along the bench. “Do you want to help yourself to milk and sugar, or – ?”

“Aye, I’ll do it.” The guest poured in milk, and then hesitated a moment, casting a surreptitious glance towards the next table along.

“And help yourself to biscuits as well, of course,” Oliver smoothly supplied. “Though don’t spoil your appetite! They’re very generous with the Christmas dinner here, and it comes with all the trimmings.”

“Good, is it?” The guest had slipped two biscuits onto his saucer, and now visibly restrained himself from going for a third.

“Yes! Well,” Oliver confessed, “I don’t know myself, but I hear it’s fantastic.” That dark gaze considered him thoughtfully, and Oliver found himself babbling on. “It’s my first time here, but the other volunteers talk about hoping there’ll be food left over, because it’s always well worth waiting for. But of course the guests come first,” Oliver hurried on, indicating the man standing before him, “and of course you must eat your fill! Don’t mind us. I shouldn’t have even said anything. Um … I hope you enjoy your coffee,” he finished rather foolishly.

After a moment, the guest finally grinned at him, and Oliver felt he’d been let off the hook – and maybe it had even been a tease to leave him dangling there so long. “It’s my first time, too,” the guest said.

“Ah.” Oliver was deadly curious, but knew he mustn’t pry – though the volunteers were meant to be friendly, after all, and if the guest was in the mood for a conversation, then surely a bit of low-key socialising could be considered one of the benefits to be found at the Crisis Centre.

With impeccably good (or bad?) timing, one of the other volunteers showed up and announced, “Time for your break, Oliver. I’ll take over here. Twenty minutes, okay?”

“Thank you,” he responded, taking an aimless step away from where the urns cycled into another bout of simmering. Perhaps the steam would excuse any pinkness in his cheeks. But should Oliver now do the proper thing and retreat to the volunteers’ room? Would it be entirely inappropriate for him to stay … ?

The guest decided for him. “You having a cuppa, then?” he asked, with a tilt of his chin towards the beverage facilities.

“I’ll have a tea,” Oliver found himself saying – and when the other volunteer didn’t offer any objections, he quickly made himself a black tea, and took it over to where the guest had settled at an otherwise empty table.

A quiet moment slipped by, as if they were both wondering how to pick up the conversation from where they’d left off. Oliver tried not to stare at the face before him that was made more intriguing than handsome by a strong sharp nose.

Then the guest said, “What’s your hard luck story, then?”

Oliver’s heart almost stopped. Had this all been based on a complete misunderstanding? “Oh, no, I’m not –” Then he realised he was being teased – definitely teased – and he huffed a laugh, responding despite his better intentions to the wicked glint of humour in those dark eyes.

“My name’s Finn,” the man said.

“Oliver.”

Finn nodded as if confirming that he remembered as much. “I’m guessing you have better places to be on Christmas Eve, Oliver.”

“No. Yes. No!” How was he meant to answer that tactfully? Well, with the truth, of course, he admonished himself. “You’re right. Usually I’d be doing the family thing for Christmas, but my parents went gallivanting off to the Bahamas for a week, so my sister and her husband decided to take their kids to Disneyland Paris – and I could have gone with either of them, but who wants to feel like the gooseberry, right? Or the spare wheel, or whatever you call it. So I –” Oliver suddenly ground to a halt. “Oh my god, that must sound absolutely awful. Talk about lifestyles of the rich and infamous! I’m so sorry –”

Finn was grinning with honest humour. “No need to apologise! I’d be off to the Bahamas myself without a second thought, if I could.”

“That’s good of you to say.”

“It’s good of you to be here, when you could have just put your feet up for the day.”

Oliver shook his head. “No, no, it’s nothing really.” He felt properly humble for the first time in … far too long, obviously. “What about you?” he asked Finn, in gentle tones that he hoped invited rather than insisted. “What brought you here?” It seemed clear that Finn hadn’t been homeless in the long term. He was rather too skinny and pale, and his hair hadn’t been cut properly for months. However, his clothes looked like they belonged to him, and they were very grubby but not actually disintegrating, and Finn’s bearing indicated he hadn’t had all the stuffing knocked out of him yet.

Oliver didn’t push any further, but after a few moments of thoughtful silence, Finn slowly said, “One of those spirals of bad luck, you know?”

“A vicious circle?” Oliver suggested.

“Right. Lost my job due to the recession. Happened to a lot of us. But there’s not much work around, and it gets harder to pick it up the longer you go without. My mum passed –”

“Oh god, I’m so sorry –”

Finn nodded his thanks, but continued, “A while ago now – and before she knew what an unscrupulous bastard my stepdad was, thank God for that small mercy. So then I was sofa-surfing for a while, but my friends either married or moved away or both, and acquaintances get pretty thin on the ground once you start sleeping rough. Favours dry up. I don’t mean to throw a pity party here, but …”

“I understand,” Oliver said reassuringly, though he wondered if he did, really. It was chilling, the notion that life might take a turn for the worse, and then another turn and another, and never quite get back on track. The idea that friends and favours might evaporate as you reached for them, until suddenly one day you find you’re alone and out of resources. Oliver was sure (well, ninety-nine point nine percent sure) he’d always have a comfortable place to land, no matter what disasters befell him – but how many people in the world were privileged enough to say the same? Oliver was one of the lucky ones, absolutely.

Finn cleared his throat and sat upright again, after having let his shoulders slump a little. “O’ course, I’m my own worst enemy at times. Stubborn. Proud. Cussedly independent.”

Wryness added a delicious twist to Finn’s smile again, and Oliver’s grin grew irresistibly in response. He thought of teasing the man a little about these woeful character flaws, as it seemed the two of them shared an ironic sense of humour, but Oliver resisted – and was rewarded for his restraint with candour.

“I’ve never been good at asking for help,” Finn admitted, “but I can see that’s become a luxury I can’t afford.”

Oliver said with simple sincerity, “I’m glad you came here today.”

“Ah! Fooled myself into that one, didn’t I?” Finn’s eyes glinted with laughter. “Couldn’t knock back the offer of a Christmas dinner, could I? That would just be rude. And if I happen to make use of the other things going on here, in between meals …”

“Who could blame you indeed?” Oliver laughed out loud, and wondered wistfully if he’d ever be blessed to hear Finn’s laugh. “So what do you have planned for this afternoon?”

Finn twisted in his seat to look up at the clock. “In about ten minutes, a haircut. Sorely needed.”

Oliver didn’t bother hiding the pang he felt. “Not too short, I hope. Unless it’s a pain to look after, under the circumstances. I mean, don’t mind me, but –”

“Like it long, do you?”

“I do,” he confirmed, with a wink for the innuendo. “The hair, I mean,” he added. “It suits you.”

Finn nodded, and said roughly, “Never used to wear it long. But it helps keep me warmer, so there’s that.” Then he seemed to be struggling to find his next words. He gazed down at the table top, and after a long moment picked up his coffee and drank it off. Then he looked across at Oliver very directly, with a slight tremor indicating that this took courage. “Thank you,” Finn said. “For all o’ this. It’s been a long while since anyone – Well. Thank you.”

“It’s been my pleasure,” Oliver said quietly yet firmly.

And then, with a nod of acknowledgement, Finn stood from his seat and left. Oliver let out a happy sigh, and got back to work.


#


It got a bit awkward afterwards, which Oliver figured was probably due to a combination of the odd circumstances and the speed with which they’d progressed from mildly flirtatious to seriously interested. Finn had tentatively stepped into the hub, and looked around the room to find Oliver gathering up a tray full of used cups and saucers. Oliver broke into a huge smile to see him with his hair still quite long but now very neatly styled.

“Hey,” Oliver said, as the man approached. “That looks great!”

“D’you think … ?” Finn asked with what seemed genuine uncertainty.

“Yes, absolutely. Whoever did that knows what they’re doing. Damn it,” Oliver grumbled, “now I feel like I need a trim myself.”

Finn cast a droll look at him, seeming to regather some of his earlier composure. “You’ll do as you are,” he remarked, with a quirk to his mouth. “You scrub up all right.”

“Glad to hear it.” Oliver carried the tray of crockery over to the table by the kitchen, indicating that Finn should follow him – which thank heavens he did. “Can I make you another coffee?”

“No, sorry,” Finn replied. “No time. I have an advice session booked. Don’t want to be late.”

“No, of course not. I think they’re the busiest of all of us today. They probably always are, come to think of it.”

Finn nodded. His expression was troubled, and once more he ducked his head to hide behind a fall of (very attractive) hair.

When the silence started to feel a bit overwhelming, Oliver finally said, “I’m sorry if I’ve crossed the line here. In fact, I’m sure I have, and that was wrong. I shouldn’t have made you feel uncomfortable.”

“No, you haven’t. Done either o’ those things, I mean. Or, if you crossed the line, then I met you halfway.”

“All right,” Oliver said – and he managed to smile a little as Finn lifted his head to look at him directly again.

“I was just thinking I’m lousy at goodbyes,” said Finn. “I should have left it before with ‘Thank you’. God granted me a moment of grace this morning, and I shouldn’t have come back –”

“You had to show me the hair! And it does look great.”

Finn nodded an acknowledgement. “Well, I’ll just say thank you again, Oliver – thank you for everything, and Merry Christmas.” And he held out his right hand to shake.

Oliver shook the man’s hand with all the good will in the world – but he wasn’t about to let this be goodbye. Or not for want of trying, anyway. “I’m volunteering again tomorrow,” he started.

“On Christmas Day itself?” Finn said faintly, regaining the use of his hand. “Good man.”

“Yes, but the only plans I have for Boxing Day are doing my laundry.”

Finn made a noncommittal sound, as if wondering what on earth that had to do with anything.

“I was wondering if you’d care to meet me at the laundromat,” Oliver continued. “The one on Blackfriars Road, about ten in the morning? Bring whatever you have that needs washing. My treat!”

A slow blink as if Finn was processing this.

“I can bring some spare stuff with me, if that’s useful.” He stopped himself from going into further details, but Oliver had already figured that Finn might need clothes to change into while the rest was in the wash, and surely the gift of a spare jumper or two would never go astray.

Finn was just watching him at this point, and seemed nowhere near an answer.

“So,” Oliver concluded, deciding he had better spell things out after all, because no doubt Finn felt that he was the more vulnerable one of the pair. “It can be a date … or not. We can grab some lunch after … or not. We can see where it goes from there, or we can call it quits. Whatever you’re comfortable with on the day.”

The silence stretched – until at last a vague nod become more decisive, and then Finn said, “Yes. Thank you. Yes.”

“Excellent.” Oliver was suddenly overtaken by a happy grin, feeling delightfully confident that this was all going to work out, one way or another, for the best. He offered his hand to shake again, and said, “I’m really glad I met you today.”

“So am I,” Finn replied.

For a gloriously heady moment, Oliver was tempted to try for more – for a hug at least, though he figured a kiss was completely out of the question. That would be crossing the line and then some, and he knew this would all become a complete disaster if Finn didn’t consider him trustworthy.

Oliver took his hand back, but didn’t dim his grin by a single watt. “I’ll see you on Boxing Day, Finn.”

“See you then, Oliver.” Finn was about to walk away, but then he turned back for a moment. “What’s the opposite of a vicious circle?” he asked.

“A virtuous circle, I think?”

Finn nodded. “Maybe I’ve started on one of those today,” he said.

“I hope you have. I’d like to hear how that works out.”

“Then it’s a date,” Finn concluded – and the confident sparkle had returned to his warm dark eyes.


# # #



About Julie Bozza


Ordinary people are extraordinary. We can all aspire to decency, generosity, respect, honesty – and the power of love (all kinds of love!) can help us grow into our best selves.

I write stories about ‘ordinary’ people finding their answers in themselves and each other. I write about friends and lovers, and the families we create for ourselves. I explore the depth and the meaning, the fun and the possibilities, in ‘everyday’ experiences and relationships. I believe that embodying these things is how we can live our lives more fully.

Creative works help us each find our own clarity and our own joy. Readers bring their hearts and souls to reading, just as authors bring their hearts and souls to writing – and together we make a whole.


If you want to know more, please do come find me at juliebozza.com and libra-tiger.com.



Other titles by Julie Bozza


The Butterfly Hunter Trilogy:

Butterfly Hunter

Of Dreams and Ceremonies

Like Leaves to a Tree

The Thousand Smiles of Nicholas Goring


Albert J. Sterne:

The Definitive Albert J. Sterne

Albert J. Sterne: Future Bright, Past Imperfect


Novels and Novellas:

The Apothecary’s Garden

The Fine Point of His Soul

Homosapien … a fantasy about pro wrestling

Mitch Rebecki Gets a Life

A Night with the Knight of the Burning Pestle

A Threefold Cord

The ‘True Love’ Solution

The Valley of the Shadow of Death


Stories and Anthologies:

Call to Arms

A Certain Persuasion

An English Heaven

No Holds Bard

A Pride of Poppies



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