Another thing Sheridan has never gotten used to about Ross is his expressionless sex face. He’s almost soundless, too, but that’s par for the course: guys rarely make much noise except when a few beers have featured (uh-UH-I’m gonna co-o-ome!). The exception was the one who’d moaned and bucked like a porn actress when she’d touched his nipples, so she hadn’t gone near them again. Cruel? Anyone who’d seen it would have done the same. Point being, other men had at least adjusted their facial muscles to signal commitment to the task.

Unlike Ross. Who just last night arrived home chipper about the holidays—twelve days off over Christmas and New Year—and poured wine and sidled in on Sheridan when she was reheating soup, till she had to turn off the gas while he attacked her cardigan. Losing his patience and yanking it sent two ladybird buttons onto the tiles. Proceedings halted. “Can I help it if your clothes are from Tesco?” was his response, and she wasn’t sure if it was in jest, given the deadpan delivery.

Increasingly she’s found herself musing on the sex face of every passing man—a disturbing occupation given that it’s the early hours of Christmas Eve, in a queue for a night bus. Except Sheridan isn’t in the queue, she’s hovering behind a pillar of the Dental Hospital because the mood on Sauchiehall Street might be jovial now, but she’s seen what it’s like when the mood is off and it’s six o’clock news stuff (once she’d had to walk by two bare-chested men hunting one another down the middle of the road, dragging and slamming each other onto the tarmac so cars were forced to crawl around them, the nearest policemen having photos taken with a hen party). If she’d known Ross then, he’d have been beside her muttering, “Stellar use of taxes.”

Tonight’s jostling frangible festivity reminds her of the dodgems at a funfair, where no-one can quite trust the rule changes (Doof! Bang! Ha ha!). She watches as a guy standing in the Perspex shelter barely breaks his sentence to bend to one side and throw up. The foamy pool shines as he talks to the slumped girl in the undersized dress, whose sling-backs dangle from her thumb.

Why’s Sheridan involved herself in this? To avoid a ninety minute cab wait, and the post-midnight fare (it’s Ross who can afford their three-bed house and taxis back). Sheridan misses the six quid journeys to the last flat she rented—the one walkable from here, except in rain or heels. What was it about her, she used to wonder, that turned taxi compartments into two halves of a confessional? As soon as a word was uttered by either party, sploosh, floodgates—is there a Glasgow taxi driver’s life story she hasn’t heard?

There was the one who’d formerly been a car salesman in a target-driven hellhole where he was bawled at and humiliated for motivation, and when he complained it didn’t exactly improve his situation (bless him for thinking it would). “But ah don’t regret speakin up for myself, ah just regret how long it took me tae walk. S’night an day, the now, workin for maself, wife’s happier an all, might enrol in the open uni sometime, ah just never stuck in at school, though ma mother—” (Okay! Let’s move this along!).

That much life story doesn’t fit in a short taxi ride, no sir, she got that much life story when they kept her waiting outside her flat, engine idling, chapter after chapter, and she handed them a tip for the privilege. Her penance for going out on weeknights—they’d never have sat there like priest and confessor if the pavements had been weekend-teeming.

Even drunk or tired, on her side of the glass, Sheridan made sure she held on to those drivers’ fragments. She could accept losing a scarf, a tenner here or there, but couldn’t conscience being careless with other humans—with irreplicable encounters. That breed of laxness would show her up as a shoddy custodian. Which she wasn’t.

After all, she’s never mislaid Ross. Hasn’t left him in a bar after an argument. Nope, he set off after breakfast to see his children near Stoke, adhering to a spreadsheet apportioning the 24-26th into slots when the kids are either with their mother, or in a hotel with him (’tis the season to be jolly!). Sheridan went with him the first year of their relationship, and his kids were so passive-aggressive with her she offered not to go the following year. Ross proffered no protest and Sheridan conjured such a good way to spend Christmas that she’s done it both years since: it’s a four-day plan, starting with a girls’ get-together after work on the 23rd, then the late bus home.

When it approaches the shelter she joins the queue then checks with the driver what the fare is. Fully preoccupied with imagining his sex face, she doesn’t hear the answer and has to ask again. His disdain is so similar to Ross’s it saves her the bother of her game.

The bus accelerates and the teen beside Sheridan is using her as a backrest. She doesn’t take it personally (or predatorily—he won’t have registered her as relevant). Does she say anything? No. It’s a packed deck. Does she want to say anything? Make yourself comfortable, what does she care, it’s Christmas. He’s slurring to his friend across the aisle and she makes every effort not to imagine their sex faces.

Her phone beeps. A friend asking, Home safe? Though when she checks, it’s Ross saying, Can’t sleep. Wanna help?

Been thinking about you, she replies, because it amuses her, adding, I’m on the bus, can’t.

Keep your voice low, no-one cares

I care

Quick photo between your legs?

Sheridan aims her phone at the floor between her feet, takes a picture and sends it. No reply. Did he laugh?

Her very own Sir Lancelot, sexting requests from a Premier Inn in Stoke. His car boot filled with boxes, which were smothered in shiny paper by Sheridan—most of her Sunday (a small price). She and Ross swapped gifts before he set off, unleashing the other face of his she can’t get used to (which has to stem from his ‘only child’ experience—no-one to tease him out of it). Imagine: schoolgirl finding a boy band at the breakfast table. Sheridan puts less and less effort into choosing presents, hoping for a normal face on opening. It never works, no matter how bad the gift: nasal grooming kit, wine thermometer, joke-shop apron with boobs (she hoped a vaguely kinky item might trigger the dead-kipper face rather than the musical-theatre lead). She resorted to brown paper this year, to set a subdued tone, but Ross called it ‘vintage’ and squealed as he tore at it.

A far cry from her years with Nate, who hadn’t cared a whit. After they’d realised they were only exchanging parcels in case the other would be offended, they were able to stop. So when she’s shopping for Ross, she doesn’t have to feel guilty about putting more effort into buying something for Nate. She’ll simply turn up tomorrow after a two-hour drive. That’s her present to him. And he’ll open the door and have a meal waiting. His present to her.

She’s sitting too near a millennial’s phone conversation to tune it out.

“She took their menus away and they hadn’t ordered yet!”

I know, I nearly said to her, ‘Are you on drugs or something?’”

“I just said to him, ‘That’s disgusting language and you need to leave.’”

“He asked if the rug matched the curtains.”

Rug—doesn’t matter. Hello?”

“I’ve zero funds to get them anything.”

Long pause.

“Punch yourself in the arm right now or you’ll end up more depressed.”

Longer pause.

“Fuck off! Where? At karaoke? What’s he like?”

Oh how Sheridan lives for the pauses. And oh how she wants to grab the handset: I’m giddy you’ve met someone. And if he can sing? Fantastic. And if he grunts during sex with a smile on his face? Woo, lottery win! But unless he’s a real, solid good ‘un, RUN. All I can tell you, in my most serious voice, is that the easiest time to end a relationship is at the start.

It’s no newsflash that Sheridan thinks about ending things with Ross, for instance, so they don’t become that couple they see on holiday flights, who offer each other sweeties from a bag the whole way. The first soon after sitting down, then another before the one they need to save their ears during take-off. Insidious contributors to each others’ spongy, spilling girths. Most often it’s her offering him, Mummy and wee boy. Eugh. That they could have a sex life, heaven forbid. Sheridan refuses to think about their fumblings.

She’s decided she’s like the kid who’s new to riding a trike, only able to steer in the direction she’s looking, thus veering into the object she’s trying to avoid. She keeps steering towards the guy she’s already with because he’s in front of her—and wonders if this is due to oxytocin, sloth or an undiagnosed mental disorder. Maybe it’s fear keeping her there. Sensing the stride of time. Hearing herself saying, ‘WhatsApp,’ ‘Snapchat’ and ‘woke’ gives her the same feeling she has when people say ‘interweb’—a nagging sense it’s annoying and that everyone else has moved on. Sheridan’s watching herself becoming irrelevant just when she’d got the hang of being young.

At a red traffic signal, two cars sit below the bus window. She’s hypnotised by their indicators, flashing in irregular rhythms like cheap Christmas lights. She counts—their blinks come into sync every fifth flash. Like her relationship. How can the same partner be just the right fit some days, and wrong on all the others?

If this was a black cab not a bus she could put her musings to the driver. She remembers a cabbie telling her that his previous passengers had been a couple ending their marriage right there, analysing the pros and cons of staying together and gradually bringing the driver into the discussion, ultimately asking him what they should do. Sheridan supposed it was as good as asking anyone. No one’s ever had the magic answer for her.

He was the same cabbie who told her about an old lady he’d picked up from the supermarket with her shopping bags. After a while the woman changed seats to a fold-down one beside the partition, and asked the driver if he’d heard of a bucket list, and proceeded to itemise the sexual experiences she’d never tried and, in all seriousness, inquired if he’d help her fulfil them. “Told the old rocket I was married,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe what I get asked in this job.”

Is this the reason to hang on to Ross? So she isn’t soliciting cabbies in her 70s? And getting knocked back.

Ross isn’t a bad guy. Maybe he’s just too Alpha for her, she and her friends had theorised this evening, as they slugged Mojitos and condensed a couple of dozen men they’d known into shorthand: when you first start seeing the Alpha male, he never calls and rarely texts, except at random times that suit him but, when you do see him, he pays for cabs, buys dinner, and sits confidently close, so you start thinking he likes you, until you wave him off and five days later you still haven’t heard a peep. His driving is gallus verging on reckless, with license points to match, and his idea of keeping on top of his income tax is ‘chase me for it.’ The chemistry’s off the scale—though if you think the sex is going to be about your needs, think again. You feel sort of manipulated doing everything he tells you to, naked, but can’t help yourself. You morph into a woman who fakes it, because it doesn’t matter to him whether you come, as long as you make the right noises. Managing your body hair starts taking up only slightly less time than sleeping. The relationship never looks like it’s going anywhere because he doesn’t contact you for days, sometimes weeks. You wonder who he’s with when he’s not with you. And after you talk yourself down off the ledge from feelings of confusion and rejection, and decide it’s time to move on, there he is—wanting to see you again.

You go skipping back. He will assert that what you’re miffed about is that he’s not communicating with you like a woman would (reliably, about feelings, and with emotion)—that what you want is a man who’s actually a woman. Maybe he has a point. But to spend the night and then go silent—isn’t that just rude? No, he’ll say, if you can’t handle the risk of silence, don’t take your clothes off. If you can’t enjoy it for what it is, you’re better off not doing it.

Is he messing with you? Or being refreshingly honest? You’ve turned six dates into a relationship. And he’s turned six hook-ups into a nice experience he’d like to repeat when he’s next in the mood. There are degrees of maleness, you recognise and, weary from it, you ignore his texts till they stop.

You find yourself a Beta man who, from the outset, makes taking the lead your task, and over-analyses every joint decision (and every film you watch). He hates stress and, unfortunately, finds even the most basic things stressful—a job with any responsibility attached, being asked to book travel tickets, or meet a room full of your friends. He takes his time in lovemaking: kissing, sucking, and stroking, even when your bikini line reaches your knees. And he’ll spend twenty minutes making the precise repetitive motion required for you to orgasm. You know he’s not with anyone when he’s not with you, and if he has kids there’s often an acidic ex dictating the terms of access (and therefore, his time to spend with you). He cooks rather than buys you dinner, which is fine, he’s usually a better cook than you. And he’d manage money carefully if he had any, but doesn’t, so when he does take you out (birthdays, pretty much) you order something cheap, like pasta, which you could’ve had at home.

And that guilt, and the dearth of holidays, and inability to plan any kind of financial future, has you longing for an Alpha man with spare cash, even for a weekend—until something Beta Male does makes you remember: the solvent guy can do many things for your comfort but he’ll never, for example, walk by the remnants of graffiti on a rusted, dented door and notice it, much less point it out, much less understand its beauty. And Sheridan has only ever fallen in love with that kind of man—the kind who sees it, stops and calls her back to look.

On the lower deck, the only others left are two couples in their late fifties, dressed to show they like looking attractive for each other. A soft leather jacket, a satin wedge heel. Evidence of the embedded recession—those kinds of couples never used to take a night bus.

She remembers their first date: getting ready to meet the guy with the pale freckles who she hoped liked her too. There were no free tables so they hauled a couple of squat stools to a space near the unlit fireplace, and sitting down it felt like they were in a play staged in a community centre with no props budget. Sheridan mimed the gesture of resting her glass on an invisible table and Ross raised a non-committal smile that left her wondering if he’d got the joke.

“We can see each other’s legs,” he observed.

As they drank and talked, single moths fluttered from the fireplace, and flew straight to Sheridan. Which made her appear to be the Dr. Doolittle of Lepidoptera and they laughed about it. She couldn’t admit that she’d been placing clothes-moth traps in her flat before she came out, peeling the protective layer off sticky cards impregnated with female pheromones, and had absently brushed her top, perhaps, or not rinsed her hands enough. Either way, she’d acquired traces, triggering a winged exodus from the chimney.

Those moths, it occurs to Sheridan, coming at her like she was their cure, had more of a sex face on them than Ross ever has. As does Nate, emerging from his house to greet her each year. Anytime she and Nate are near each other it’s like liquid rushing up a capillary tube. Nothing else is needed but each other, for their Christmases, except meals when they feel like eating. No pubs, no box-sets.

Every winter, from early December, she studies weather websites and Ross will say, “Don’t worry, I won’t drive south if it’s too bad.” But it’s not his journey she’s fretting over. “If I’m a day late, I’m a day late,” he’ll add. (Worst. Possible. Scenario.)

She’d abandon her car and walk to Nate’s if that’s what the weather dictated. The roads would have to be closed to stop her from setting off (and last year she’d kept going through a whiteout, slowing right down and singing with the hymns on the radio) because if anything happened she had an excuse all prepared. It was tissue thin but that was the nature of excuses. A few miles from Nate’s was a spa hotel, and she’d tell Ross she’d wanted to treat herself but was embarrassed to admit she was spending her mum’s Christmas cash on that, seeing how she was generally skint.

She wants to say it was fate which had brought her and Nate back together; that they’d run into each other. Or that he’d called her and said he had to see her, that he couldn’t go on sans her. Nothing so Hollywood. She’d messaged him three Christmas mornings ago, after a long lonely Christmas Eve, to ask if it’d be okay to speak. He replied that it would. After an hour on the phone they’d fallen into silence, as though they were sharing the same thought, and he’d said, “It can’t be me who suggests it. You’re living with someone. I think it has to be your idea.”

“Shall I get in the car?” she’d asked.

A personal best: bag packed, showered and dressed in thirty minutes. She’d remembered wine, too, and the mini-cheesecakes she’d been saving for her Christmas meal. She’d run back into the house for her phone charger: the only thing that could raise suspicion was Ross not being able to reach her. And, with the roads almost to herself, she hadn’t known what she was doing – was she leaving Ross? Was she reuniting with Nate? Would she be telling people in the new year, “I moved out, yeah, I’m back with Nate, sudden, yeah, soulmates, I guess.”

She’d collapsed onto him when he met her at the car door, leg muscles giving with relief. And for the next day-and-a-half every moment felt doubled in length, but collectively moved at three times their usual speed so, after an eon and a wink, she was putting her bag back in the car. They didn’t decide anything. They hadn’t talked about it.

Sheridan had chopped an apple into quarters for her car journey. When she opened the kitchen paper halfway home and took a bite, she found the garlic from the previous night’s dinner prep had seeped into the slices. January was similar: her routine with Ross tainted by the pungency of her time with Nate. But it settled into something manageable by Valentine’s Day.

There’s a feeling Sheridan covets, that pounces on her sometimes as she’s falling asleep, or slinks itself round her throat when the lights dim in the cinema, and when the film makes her cry, that feeling keeps her crying—makes her wish she was alone so she could dissolve into chest-wracking wails. But daylight comes and she forgets to act on it, so when it visits the next time she feels worse. What Sheridan wants to feel is absolutely fine the way she is. To feel that her existence is a welcome and sufficient contribution to the world, and her timing is impeccable, like when streetlights flick on as she’s walking along, the only one on a dusky pavement—like she can have that effect on her surroundings.

When her contact lenses feel dry Sheridan has thoughts she can use to stimulate tears and that’s one of them: the life she should be living instead of this one. But if she and Ross are having a good week, why spoil it, so there are other thoughts on hand for moisture—the three-year-old left to survive on the streets by parents who thought he was the devil; the strangers who assist strangers after a bomb explosion; the scenario where, in forty years, Sheridan might have seen off most of the people she currently knows, yet all of them are healthy now, which means they’re stockpiling into a bottleneck of deaths, one then another then another, and won’t that be more than she can cope with?

Thinking of Nate keeps her going. A safety valve. If she knows she can see him the following Christmas, have three whole days, she can get through. With Nate in her armoury, she’s stopped feeling like she’s trapped on a traffic island at rush hour.

Even when she’s not with Nate, she’s with him, but not so that anyone would guess. He’s a sea grass billowing in the shallows and she’s a seahorse, inches high, with her tendril tail curled tightly around. The observer registers nothing of the tickle and stroke, the tug and side-by-side tie.

If Ross spends his Christmas days with people whom he loves, who give meaning to his existence, why can’t Sheridan?

She harbours the fantasy that Ross will set off to see his kids sometime and fail to return—vanish—and how much easier that will make the act of splitting up. Technically, he’d have left her. If he jogs back to a cafe to retrieve an umbrella, or goes to Halfords while she’s in Tesco, or goes for a golf lesson on holiday, she imagines him not making it back. Evaporated. Gone.

Before she moved in with him, that fantasy was reversed. She wanted something to happen to her, to get the attention of the man who hadn’t made up his mind yet. The man she felt might dump her at any time. And if he had, how terrible he’d have felt a week later when a piece of masonry fell on her and her family wept on the news.

What if Ross does find out? What if? It’s always been Sheridan’s view that people who truly fear being caught do not embark on affairs. Cheating is the act of someone hoping to be discovered, a Freudian means to an end. And now that she’s in a liaison? Her view’s been affirmed. If Ross twigs, the decision will be made for her. Though it’s her suspicion he wouldn’t tell her to leave. He’d rationalise it as an errant episode redeemable once common sense prevailed. Easier to keep the one you’ve got.

Nate accepts her being in a relationship because he lives in the moment, though he’d vomit if he heard her apply that maxim to him. Normal rules don’t feature: needing to live together, possession by association. If she turns up he’s happy. If she doesn’t turn up Nate carries on with whatever’s occupying him. There’s a phrase for that. Non-attachment? And she agrees with it, but can’t pull it off.

What do couples get together for, if child-rearing isn’t in the picture? Company, someone to share feelings of ‘love’ with, regular sex. The rest is labels slapped on and chains secured. The ego needs to know it’s marriageable. The ego needs someone to cower or pander when it tantrums or sulks. She’s as susceptible as anyone—she just wishes these things were named for what they were.

Nate’s way is simpler. But harder, too, because she never really has him. Sheridan knows you can’t have another human being, that we tell ourselves we can because the truth is too difficult to live with. To acknowledge lack of ownership sends us insane with insecurity.

When they were a couple, Nate wasn’t going anywhere but he couldn’t promise her that he wouldn’t—and she couldn’t settle into that day-at-a-time love. And if she was premenstrual, forget it. She’d make demands he wouldn’t yield to, for which he wouldn’t apologise, and she’d squawk like a drama-dependent brat. It embarrassed her, that Nate knew she was needy.

Ross lets her cling on. They put their bikes on the car to explore national cycle routes. They take foodie holidays and link arms at flip-flop pace. He pours two more glasses of wine than necessary and she matches him. They go to gigs. Which helps her make more sense of her break-up with Nate. In the crowd there are two types: the ones who can dance like nobody’s watching and the rest, who’re watching them doing it. It’s rare to become one if you start as the other.

She’d be in bed asleep by now if a taxi had taken her home. Maybe next year she should splurge on one.

The last step in Sheridan’s Christmas routine, after she’s back from Nate’s, showered and cosy, is to look up ticket websites and book a gig for Ross’s birthday. And this year, it has to be at the Barrowland. She’d signed an online petition to save the neighbouring Barrowland Park from developers and wants to experience the artwork before maybe it’s gone—the inlaid ‘album pathway’, a rainbow-striped list of bands that have played the legendary venue.

There’ll be an extra part to Ross’s present this year. She’ll ask him to leave the car in Trongate so they can walk to the old ballroom, and she’ll lead him off to the right. And he’ll question, firmly, what they’re doing in a city park in darkness, but when he sees the bespoke pathway he’ll switch to his effusive present-opening response and she’ll tolerate it. They’ll read the names they’re stepping on, out loud. And he’ll have seen the Beastie Boys back in the day, and she’ll have been at The Stone Roses and he’ll have seen Jane’s Addiction and she’ll have seen The Sugar Cubes, and please God they’ll find at least one gig they both went to, one band they’d had in common before they met, perhaps Portishead, perhaps The Waterboys. She’ll pretend if she has to. And she’ll let Ross do most of the noticing, the reminiscing. And he’ll thank her for suggesting this detour and will stop at the end of the pathway, to bring her in close.

Inside, he’ll use his jacket to shelter her from the tumblers of beer and piss flying over the crowd and they will be okay, for one more year.

Kate Tough is the author of Head for the Edge, Keep Walking (Cargo) and its second edition, Keep Walking Rhona Beech, which is out with Little, Brown in 2019. Her short fiction is forthcoming in The Broadkill Review and her poetry pamphlet, tilt-shift, was Runner Up in the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award, 2017 and highlighted in the Times Literary Supplement’s notable pamphlets, 2017. Kate’s slavery remembrance piece, ‘People Made Glasgow’, was selected as a Best Scottish Poem 2016. She’s received three Creative Scotland funding awards, for fiction and poetry, and held literature residencies at Cove Park, Vermont Studio Center and Outlandia. She’s a children’s literacy volunteer (including a stint at in Park Slope), and gained a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow.