A Heather Bay Short Story
“Okay,” Theo said as he walked into the kitchen holding a large box tied with pink ribbon. “It took me a while, but I found the perfect housewarming present for you.”
“Oh?” I asked, trying to keep my amusement in check. Will had warned me what was coming, since apparently both Lane and Oliver, and Noah and Spencer had been recipients of Theo’s unusual gifts.
“Yes! I’m just sorry it took so long, you moved here like two months ago and it feels rude that I’m only giving you something now.” He sighed forlornly then grinned, like he’d suddenly recharged. “Still at least it’s here now. Is Will in? I wanted to give it to you together.”
“He’ll be back in a minute,” I said. “I let him know you were coming.”
I’d been doing some casual redecorating of our bedroom while Will had been out turning hay. We’d been lucky with the summer weather so far, and were hoping it would hold for another week or two so we could get the hay made. But this was England, and Will had grumbled repeatedly that the weather had no respect for farmers with too much to do.
He really needed a day off, and I was itching to drag him out for a few hours, if only so he’d relax. He’d begrudgingly agreed to let me take him on holiday at the end of August, but only because Dylan, Higgs, Lane, and Will’s mum, had all cornered him individually and badgered him into it.
Some people might have considered it cheating or duplicitous of me to rope Will’s friends and family into my schemes. I viewed it as using all the resources available to me.
I wouldn’t have done it if Will had truly objected, because I respected him too much to go behind his back like that, but now he’d agreed to it he was starting to get excited. I’d noticed there was a countdown on his phone, and several times he’d casually mentioned something he’d like to do or see while we were out there.
I didn’t think Will would be good at a full-on beach holiday, not to start with, since he was so used to being busy, so I’d booked us a beautiful hotel on Santorini which offered various excursions and day trips around the island alongside the opportunity for us to swim in our private pool, eat plenty of delicious food, and fuck all our stress away. It was going to be incredible, and I couldn’t wait. Especially because I’d get to see Will wandering around shirtless half the time.
Apparently farming in the summer did not involve Poldark style scenes where Will scythed hay shirtless while glistening with sweat.
“Perfect,” Theo said, as he slid the large box onto the kitchen table. “Are you okay if I wait?”
“Sure. Do you want a drink? Maybe some cake?”
Theo grinned excitedly. “I will never say no to cake.”
I made us both some coffee and cut two large slices of lemon cake, and we sat chatting at the table while we waited for Will. He appeared about ten minutes later, and I noticed his tanned face was starting to turn red. I made a mental note to force more sunscreen on him before he went out again. Sunburn was not sexy.
“Theo brought us a present,” I said, gesturing to the box. Will raised an eyebrow and grinned.
“Oh aye? What is it?”
“I haven’t opened it. I was waiting for you.” If it was some variation of what I’d been warned about, there was no way I was missing Will’s reaction.
“You’re much more patient than me,” Theo said. “I’m terrible with presents, I want to open them as soon as I get them. Laurie always has to hide my birthday and Christmas presents in his wardrobe, because it has a lock. I’ve told him I’d never go looking for them, but I don’t think he believes me.”
Will chuckled and set about making himself a cup of tea. “It sounds like something’s missing in that story.”
“No… okay, fine, I did it one time because I was desperate and Laurie kept hinting and I saw the postman deliver this huge box. But I didn’t actually open it because I felt guilty. Laurie just found me sitting on the floor in front of it.” He sighed. “It was fabulous though, and I felt so spoilt. I’m so lucky to have Laurie, he really is my bestie.”
I looked at Will who shrugged. I still couldn’t believe that Theo and Laurie were “just friends” because you only had to spend two minutes with them to see they acted more like a long-term couple than roommates.
And Theo might have denied it when Henry asked, but I was taking that denial with a heavy pinch of salt.
“See,” Will said. “I knew he had a reason.”
“Don’t tell him he’s right, he’ll be so insufferable.” Theo slid the box towards us as Will walked over to the table, tea in hand. “Come on, you have to open it now. I’m sure you’re very busy and I have to get back to work. I’ve got to finish getting Mrs. Harris ready for her family to visit her tomorrow.”
Will put his tea on the table and reached for the box, pulling on a tail of the ribbon until the large bow unfurled. I couldn’t stop smiling as I watched him. This would be a true test of Will’s poker face. And mine, but I was less worried about me.
He lifted the lid and removed a large amount of tissue paper. Then he reached into the box, his face fixed in a firm expression, and pulled out a stuffed squirrel dressed as a farmer, riding a large, red, vintage-style tractor.
I had never seen anything quite like it in my entire life, and I didn’t know whether to be horrified or amused.
Will on the other hand, burst out laughing. “Oh my God, Theo. What is this?”
“It’s a squirrel! A farming squirrel to be precise.” He beamed and I silently wondered what possessed Theo to think that taxidermy was a gift everyone would appreciate. “It took me forever to find. Do you like it?”
“It’s… it’s definitely something,” Will said, turning it over in his hands, a merry twinkle in his eye. “Thank you. It’s… weird, but actually kind of cute.”
I bit my lip and smiled. Weird and cute was almost the literal definition of Theo.
“See! That’s what I was going for,” Theo said. “It’s got a little flat cap too!”
“I love that someone made a flat cap for a squirrel,” I said. “That’s dedication.”
“I think I’m more impressed with the weirdness of someone’s imagination,” Will muttered before handing it over to me.
The squirrel’s glass eyes stared up at me with disturbing precision. I suddenly understood why Oliver had described their own stuffed frog as a cursed thing of nightmares that would steal your soul if you looked at it for too long.
It was heavier than I’d expected, and bigger too. I had no idea where we were going to put it. But despite the fact that it was cursed and soulless, it was almost cute… in a hideous sort of way.
And it was the first time I’d ever been given a housewarming present that had had so much thought put into it.
“Are you okay?” Theo asked, and I jumped, realising I’d been staring into Farmer Squirrel’s soulless eyes a little too long. “Is it okay?”
“Yeah… I just…” I slid the squirrel onto the table and stared at it. “This is going to sound really silly, or make me sound like a whiny rich boy again, but I think this is one of the first times a friend has ever given me a gift they put so much thought into.” I picked up my coffee and took a sip, getting my thoughts in order.
“Like when I moved into my London flat I threw a party, but most people didn’t bring anything. A few brought wine, Daisy sent me some flowers and actually she recently sent us a lovely painting from the gallery her new beau owns, but Daisy’s different because she’s practically my sister. Anyway…” I put my hand out and ran a finger over the cool metal of the tractor. “Thanks, Theo. I really appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome.” He stood up from the table and walked around it, throwing his arms around me, and hugging me tightly. “You’re one of us now, and we all love you very much. In fact, if Will is mean to you I’m going to vote we keep you and get rid of Will.”
“That’s fucking charming,” Will said. “And after I sided with you about the chess set.”
“Hmm that’s true,” Theo said, his arms still around my neck. “I guess you’re just never allowed to break up and then I can keep both of you.”
“Good thing I wasn’t planning on it then,” Will said.
“I know, Jamie’s too wonderful to break up with.” Theo kissed the side of my head and I smiled. He really was very sweet, but sometimes, if you looked closely and quickly, you could see a flash of something sad lingering in his expression.
I didn’t know why, and I hadn’t plucked up the courage to ask. But I wanted to.
“I’m glad you agree,” I said. “I’ll remind Will of this when he accuses me of being annoying or something else equally mean.”
“I’ve never said anything like that.” Will shot me a look that just screamed “don’t you start” but it was fun teasing him so I planned to ignore him.
“You did! Just yesterday.”
“You flicked paint at me,” Will said indignantly.
“You were already dirty,” I said with a shrug.
“I’m siding with Jamie on this one,” Theo said, finally letting go of me. “What are you painting?”
“I’m finally redoing our bedroom. Will agreed to let me give it a facelift so I’m doing it a very tasteful green and cream. I’ve never painted a room before, it’s quite fun.” Lane had offered to give me the name of a good decorator, but since I was still enjoying learning new skills—as long as they didn’t involve cleaning a toilet—I’d decided to give it a go myself.
YouTube had been very helpful, and so far the novelty hadn’t worn off. I was glad I was doing it in the summer though, because I could have the windows open and everything dried quickly. Otherwise, I imagined it would be very tedious.
“That sounds gorgeous,” Theo said. “You’ll have to show me when it’s finished.”
We chatted for a little longer before Theo had to leave, giving us both another hug and a kiss before strolling out to his little car and heading back into town.
“So…” Will said as he looked at the squirrel that was still sat on the table. “Do you really like it?”
“Honestly? I sort of do. I mean, it’s ugly and cursed beyond all belief, but I also love the fact that Theo put so much effort into finding it for us. I don’t think he’d have done that if he thought I wasn’t going to stick around, and that means a lot.”
“Yeah, I get that.” Will put his arm around me. “Feels like a good sign that we’ve been inducted into the cursed taxidermy club.”
“Exactly. It’s like a weird blessing Theo gives you when he thinks your relationship is going to last,” I said. “It’s not going in our bedroom though. I agree with Oliver that it’ll try and steal my soul while I sleep.”
Will laughed. “We’ll find somewhere for it. Maybe on the old dresser in the living room.”
“Perfect,” I said. “Still visible but I don’t have to look at it when we’re watching TV.” I turned towards him and leant in for a kiss. He smelt like sweat and summer and sunshine, a combination I’d never realised could be attractive until this year. “What are you doing this afternoon?”
“I was going to turn the last of the hay fields, why?”
“Fancy ditching for a couple of hours and going to the beach? We could go down to Riddle Cove again. Take some sandwiches, paddle in the sea… you might even get lucky if we’re alone.”
Will thought for a second. “Okay, but tomorrow you have to start learning how to drive the tractor. I promise you’re not going to run me or Higgs over with it.”
“You say that, but I’m not convinced,” I said. “But fine, if that’s the price of getting you to take an afternoon off then I’ll learn. It can’t be that hard, I mean Farmer Squirrel is doing it. And I’m smarter than a squirrel.”
Will laughed and kissed me again. “Farmer Squirrel?”
“It’s got to have a name, and Farmer Squirrel feels nicely gender neutral. Unless you want to undress the dead squirrel to see if it’s a boy or girl squirrel, and that feels very rude and invasive.”
“Agreed. Farmer Squirrel it is.”
“Good,” I said. “Now come on, let’s make some lunch and get out of here.”
An hour later Will and I were sat on a cluster of rocks down at Riddle Cove, basking in the summer sunshine as we ate and talked and stole kisses as often as we could as the waves broke softly on the shore.