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What’s it all about?

It started with a dream, and I wanted to see how it ended.  So I wrote it.  It took me blimmin ages. I love these people, who only exist in my head and now in cyberspace. You’ll meet them in new posts, every few days. Be gentle with them.

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53. I don’t want love

In which it all gets a bit much, and consequently a request is made and chivalrously denied.

Julia

I ate alone that evening, as my mother and father had made reservations at a restaurant in the next town. I could have gone with them, but decided eating out was beyond me just then. I called round to see William and we arranged to meet, with our photos of Nons, the following afternoon, after the appointment at the solicitors. William was coming to the first part of that too, as he had been named in the will and had some papers to sign. Once I had finished my dinner, I felt restless, not wanting to sit alone in the quiet house, but not wanting the inanity of television or music. I pulled my phone out and dialled Matt’s number.

‘Hey! Bored of Norfolk already?’

It felt so good to hear his voice.

‘I really need some cheering up.’

‘On it! I’ve been looking up fascinating facts on Google today. Did you know that a snail can sleep for three years?’

‘What? It can not. Nothing sleeps for three years.’

‘Are you disputing the wisdom of Google?’

‘Well, naturally I wouldn’t want to call into question anything that has been published on the internet, it’s such a reliable source of information, but three years sounds excessive, how long do snails even live?’

‘Google was silent on the lifespan of snails. But bloody hell, what a life, carry your house round on your back, but as that’s fucking exhausting, you get to sleep for years at a time. I think I want to come back as a snail next time around.’

‘Really? A snail?’

‘I can think of worse lives than sleeping for three years. If I put my mind to it, I reckon I could manage eighteen solid months of sleep right now. I bloody love sleeping.’

‘Alright, then. So snails sleep for three years. What else does Google have to fascinate me factually with?’

‘Snails not doing it for you?’

‘Not so much.’

‘OK then, here’s one for you considering your long journey today. The average driver emits more than 900 pints of wind inside their car during their lifetime.’

‘Ew, no fart facts. Next.’

‘Fuck me, you’re a hard woman to impress. That impressed the shit out of me – oh, ha ha. Almost a pun. Anyway. No fart facts. Right, this is my last gasp attempt, and I know you will feel an affinity with the little chap for reasons that will become clear. Did you know that Donald Duck comics are banned in Finland?’

‘I can’t say I did, or that I ever thought I would have an affinity with any cartoon character. Why, exactly?’

‘Well, think about him. What does he wear?’

I had to think hard to remember.

‘Er … hat?’

‘Correct.’

‘Little jacket thing?’

‘Correct.’

‘Er … ooh, bow tie.’

‘You are fucking amazing, and correct.’

‘Er … shoes?’

‘Nope.’

‘Trousers?’

‘Nope.’

‘No trousers? Shorts.’

‘Nope.’

‘What? Donald Duck had no … oh! He didn’t, did he! But surely that’s not why Finland banned him. Aren’t Scandinavians renound for their lax rules about images of people who very specifically aren’t wearing pants?’

‘Again you are right, but again Google didn’t see fit to elaborate. I hope you’re thinking yourself lucky you have never been to Finland.’

‘How do you know I haven’t?’

‘Have you?’

‘No.’

‘I rest my case. You would have been banged up as a no-fuking-pants wearer quicker than you could say ‘smorgasbord’. You’d still be rotting in some remarkably clean prison, probably sharing a cell with Donald and his white feathery arse.’

‘Thank God for Google.’

‘I know. Who the fuck would have thought that fascinating facts would be responsible for keeping you out of jail?’

‘Thanks, Matt.’

‘Oh, any time you need to avoid prison, I’m your go-to Google man.’

‘No, I mean thanks for this, for cheering me up.’

‘Oh. Well, it seems to be my role in life to arse about, might as well put it to use. At the risk of fucking up my good work, are you OK?’

I paused. I didn’t want to lose the lighter mood I’d found with Matt.

‘Better now. I’m here on my own, Mum and Dad have gone out. I was getting a bit freaked out.’

‘Oh, Julia, you shouldn’t be there on your own.’

‘No, it’s OK now. I lived here for fourteen years, I came back here every holiday from Uni, it’s my home. I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m fine. You’ve cheered me up, honestly.’

‘FaceTime me.’

‘What?’

‘You’ve got an iPhone. FaceTime me. I want to see you.’

‘I’ve never used FaceTime before.’

‘What? You’re a fucking IT consultant. I despair. OK, you need to put my home email in your contacts.’

He told me what it was.

‘And now ask Siri to FaceTime me. You’d better not fucking well tell me you’ve never used Siri.’

‘Well not since I first got the phone, it seemed like a bit of a gimmick. But OK, OK, I know how to do it.’

‘Go on then.’

I felt a bit foolish talking to a disembodied voice on my phone, but when seconds later Matt’s face appeared on the screen, I forgot my self-consciousness.

‘Hey you.’

His eyes and mouth crinkled into the familiar smile.

‘Hello.’

‘Have you seriously never done this before?’

‘No. I’ve done video conferencing at work, but not this. I suppose you’re an expert?’

‘Well I have got a nine year old nephew who likes arsing about on his dad’s phone, I’m always getting calls from him. Usually at inconvenient moments like when I’m on the loo.’

‘You don’t have to answer him.’

‘No, but it’s fucking hilarious when I do. Sometimes I show him my poo.’

‘Oh dear Lord. Which one of you is nine years old?’

‘Ha ha, sometimes I forget. Do you want me to show you anything?’

‘Nothing in the bathroom, thanks. Just you is fine.’

‘This is nice, Julia.’

‘Yes.’

We looked at each other for a while.

‘I like seeing you, I can tell if you’re OK.’

‘And am I?’

‘Not really, but you’re putting on a brave face.’

He’d pretty much called it accurately, so I just shrugged.

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to dampen the mood.’

‘No, it’s OK, it’s actually good to see you.’

‘So, how about a bit of a tour? You look like you’re sitting on a sofa – show me the living room.’

‘Really? Why?’

‘It helps me to imagine where you are. You’ve seen my place, you know where I am. I’m on the couch, by the way. It remembers you well.’

I felt my cheeks colour as I recalled why I should remember Matt’s plum coloured couch.

‘Are you blushing?’

‘No.’

‘You so are. You’re so cute when you blush. Come on, flick the camera angle, show me where you are.’

As much to divert the camera from my red cheeks as to do as I was asked, I changed the view and showed Matt what I could see from where I was sitting: the two comfy armchairs either side of the sofa, the wooden coffee table, the living flame gas fire, the large mirror above it, all the familiar trappings of the place I considered my home.

‘How about a walking tour? Take me to the kitchen, show me what you’ve done with those bloody meatballs.’

‘I feel silly.’

‘What are you talking about, woman? It’s just like taking a photo or a video, except it’s instant. Come on, hurry up.’

I took the phone into the kitchen, then up the stairs into my old room,

‘Those trousers aren’t yours are they?’

‘No, they’re my dad’s. They’re staying in here.’

‘So where are you staying?’

‘Nons’ room.’

‘Fuck! Really? Isn’t that, like, really weird?’

‘It might be. I haven’t slept here yet. When I came last time I couldn’t do it, I stayed with William.’

‘Show me.’

I took the phone into Nons’ room and showed him the bed with flowery duvet and pink padded headboard, the pine wardrobe and matching chest of drawers and the chair which had been Nons’ pride and joy, a bargain from a car boot sale that was actually an antique worth loads more than the ten pounds she paid for it, but not as much as the two hundred pounds she paid to have it reupholstered. I’d draped my black funeral dress over the chair, pending hanging it up. I turned the view back to me.

‘Well it doesn’t seem like a particularly scary bedroom. Bed looks comfy. Wardrobe looks spacious.’

‘It’s got all her clothes in it. I felt really strange earlier when I tried to put my things away in a drawer. I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to sleep in here or downstairs.’

‘Oh. Would it help if I was available all night on FaceTime? You wouldn’t be alone then. All night, any night, until you get home. Just ask Siri.’

‘I think … it might. Thanks. I might not call.’

‘I know. But just the thought I might get to see you in your old tshit and random pants will be enough to keep me going.’

Matt winked at me and grinned.

‘You have a pants fetish.’

‘Guilty.’

‘I assume it extends to all underwear.’

‘Also guilty.’

‘You won’t be seeing any of my underwear on FaceTime.’

‘I was hoping for a sneaky peek.’

‘I will have the duvet up to my chin should I require your services.’

‘Bollocks. Oh well, I’ll take what I can get.’

I heard a car pulling onto the drive and saw the headlights shining through the net curtains.

‘I think my parents are back. I should go.’

‘OK. Thanks for showing me round.’

‘Thanks for the arsing about.’

‘Anytime.’

‘I’m glad we’ve got this … this whatever it is we’re doing.’

‘Yeah, me too.’

I heard my parents come in through the front door.

‘Don’t wait up for me though.’

‘As if. Here, this is for you.’

He kissed his fingertips and blew towards me.

‘Thank you.’

‘What, don’t I get one back?’

‘No. I’m not as sentimental as you.’

‘Will you go out with me?’

‘I’ll have to ask my mum.’

‘If she says no, will you meet me behind the bike sheds anyway?’

‘No, I’ll get told off.’

‘Oh go on, I’ll share my CurlyWurly.’

‘So I’ve heard. Alright then. Got to go now, it’s past my bed time.’

I smiled, waved and disconnected, feeling much better. For all his ‘arsing about’, Matt was showing himself to be surprisingly sensitive. Feeling bolstered, I went downstairs.

‘Who were you talking to, darling?’

‘Just a friend.’

‘Not this boy that William was telling us about?’

I rolled my eyes, both at the question and that William had been gossiping about me.

‘How old do you think I am, Mum? I was talking to a friend. He is male, but he is not a boy.’

‘Sorry, darling. When are we going to meet him?’

I rolled my eyes again.

‘You’re not. You’ve never met anyone else – you’re never here. He’s just a friend.’

Although I knew this was far from the truth, however much I was trying to convince myself.

‘Oh, well, I suppose so. Oh JuJu, I know we haven’t been here very much for you. I think, now Nons has gone, we need to pay you a bit more attention.’

I bit back several retorts to that, and said nothing.

The evening, what was left of it, continued in the same vein, with both of my parents raising my hopes that they had started to care about me only to dash them with a thoughtless comment. I went to bed early, determined to sleep well, and not take up Matt’s offer of contacting him.

I was tired from driving and from the effort of not losing my temper with my self-involved parents, and went to sleep quickly. However, I woke up in the dark, not knowing where I was, and thought there was a large shadow looming by the side of the bed. I sat up with a start, and realised it was my black dress which I had forgotten to hang up, and which was still draped over the chair. But now my heart was pounding and my breathing was rapid, and sleep seemed a million years away. I felt very alone, despite my parents being asleep in the room next door, and after a few moments of hesitation, I reached for my phone. I thought about Facetiming Matt, but I didn’t want to wake my parents, so I texted.

‘Hello.’

Matt’s reply was gratifyingly instantaneous.

‘Hi. Want to FaceTime?’

‘No, it’s too noisy. Thanks for being awake.’

‘U OK?’

‘I freaked myself out – seeing shadows.’

‘Real or imagined?’

‘A bit of both, it was a black dress on a chair. My brain interpreted it as sinister.’

‘U hv 2 watch those little black numbers. They like 2 tease. OK now?’

‘Yes, I just gave myself a fright. I was disoriented. I think I’ll be alright, I’ll try to go back to sleep.’

‘OK, u no where I am xx’

‘Thank you.’

I turned the screen off, turned over and shut my eyes. After a while, I slept again, not waking until I heard movement from the room next door, and smelt toast. I lay there as long as I could, delaying the moment when I would have to go and make small talk with my mother and father, but there was a lot to do today, and putting it off wasn’t going to make it any easier. Sighing, I got up and began the day.

o0o

I went round to see William after breakfast, and we spent the morning in his garden, looking at his vegetables and herbaceous borders, and chatting. Before long, it was time to go to the solicitors. I went with William, and my parents went under their own steam. There wasn’t going to be any dramatic ‘reading of the will’ like I had seen in films and TV dramas. It wasn’t as glamorous as that; copies of the will had been sent to the four of us as beneficiaries, and there were some signatures needed.

It all took place in a small, cramped office at the back of the solicitors’ town offices. The five of us – my parents, William, me and Toby, who was the solicitor but seemed to be about eleven years old – sat knee to knee around a table and put our names to the various documents.

Nons had left her house to me; I was humbled. She hadn’t had much, and she had left what little money she had to William. She had left my parents a few pictures, that she thought might be valuable, but very likely weren’t. They didn’t need money, and had always been snooty about Nons’ tastes in art, believing as they did that their taste was the only one that counted. They weren’t at all bothered about not being left a lot; they knew as well as I did how little there was to leave, and probably knew how little they were entitled to anything anyway.

I was overwhelmed to have the house. I didn’t own my own flat, and the thought of having to decide what to do with Nons’ home was something I couldn’t cope with right then. There was no rush to decide, as the paperwork wouldn’t be completed for some time. We left the solicitors’ offices. William and I went home and my parents went to the Chapel of Rest.

William had cleared his dining room table, leaving a large space for putting out photographs. He had a huge box, and I had several older albums, plus my computer. I set a slide-show running on my laptop, of pictures I had taken and also scanned in, and Nons’ face smiled at us as we looked at the pictures. I started music playing, a playlist of some of Nons’ old favourites; we laughed and cried remembering things we’d done with Nons, listening to each other’s stories about events we both had and hadn’t known about, and then tried to lay the pictures out chronologically. A fair few photos of me ended up on the table, usually me pouting at the camera with Nons trying to cajole me into a smile by pulling a funny face. There was a picture of Nons at a wedding, and with a jolt I recognised the groom as William.

‘I didn’t know she’d gone to your wedding.’

‘Well I couldn’t not invite her, could I pet.’

‘Wasn’t it a bit awkward?’

‘No, it was never awkward with Vonnie. Pat didn’t know how I’d felt about her, they both got on really well.’

‘Do you think Nons ever knew?’

William was quiet for a moment.

‘I don’t know, maybe not back then, but there were a few times, when we’d been supping the ale a bit, when I maybe wasn’t as discreet as I should have been, like. I can’t believe she left me her money.’

‘It isn’t much. She would have wanted you to have it. William, is there anything of hers you’d like, from the house?’

William’s eyes had filled with tears, and he shook his head.

‘I can’t think about it, lass. Maybe in a while, after we’ve laid her to rest.’

‘I feel the same, it’s a lot to think about isn’t it? We’ll get there.’

I left William’s house in the early evening. My parents had come back from the Chapel of Rest, but hadn’t come round to join in our nostalgia. I wandered back into the house and we resumed our family script of misunderstandings, politely veiled criticism and failure to see the other person’s point of view. In the end I took my laptop out and checked my emails, deciding that lack of communication was better than the frustration of miscommunication.

Matt had texted a few times during the day, but as he had been at work I had stuck to my rules and not replied. Evie and a few other friends had texted and left messages, and I decided to go upstairs to answer them. After a few calls, I got another text from Matt.

‘Need more fascinating facts?’

‘More fascinating than snails, farts and Donald Duck?’

‘Equally as fascinating. Do u want disgusting or intriguing?’

‘Let’s start with intriguing.’

‘It’s impossible to touch yr nose with yr elbow.’

‘That’s not intriguing.’

‘Bet u just tried tho, didn’t u.’

‘I might have.’

‘Gotcha. Disgusting now. The avg person eats 8 spiders in their sleep in their life.’

‘Oh my God! That’s particularly horrible. I can’t go to sleep ever again. I don’t like fascinating facts.’

‘OK, let’s ditch the facts. Wanna talk properly?’

‘Yes please.’

My phone rang a few moments later.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you. Got one last fact for you. Did you know lobster’s bladders are in their skulls?’

‘Hmm. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘piss-head’.

‘Ha ha, brilliant. I hadn’t thought of that. How’s today been?’

‘Pretty full on. Solicitors, photos, parents. I’m exhausted. And now I can’t sleep for thinking about eating spiders.’

‘Sorry. It was too good to resist. I wish I could hold you.’

I breathed deeply. I wished it too, but I was scared of how much I wished it. Next Wednesday, when I would be able to see him again, felt like a long way away. I had a lot to get through before then, and wishing wouldn’t make things any easier.

‘Julia?’

‘I’m here, sorry, drifted off for a minute.’

‘Was it something I said?’

‘Yes and no.’

‘OK, spill, then.’

‘I’m just struggling a bit with how quickly things are going with us.’

‘You think things are going quickly?’

‘Well, maybe not in your terms. But I’m not used to feeling the way I’m feeling as soon as I have.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Like … oh I don’t know, I don’t want to say anything, I haven’t thought about it properly yet. I just know if something happens, if I feel upset or think of something crazy, you’re the first person I think of to tell. That’s just mad. I’ve only known you five minutes.’

‘Oh Jules. Fuck it, sorry, fuck, I’ve been trying really hard, that’s the first ‘Jules’ I’ve let slip. Shit. Sorry.’

‘See, that’s mad too, because I should be annoyed, but I’m not, it feels right. I feel like I’ve known you for a long time. I should be being more careful, but I don’t feel like being careful. I feel like driving back to the city right now and …’

I stopped, uncertain how much I wanted to divulge.

‘And what?’

‘I can’t talk about this, Matt. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have started it. Can we go back to arsing about with fascinating facts?’

‘Well, alright, I was kind of liking where that was heading, but if you haven’t had enough of snails and naked duck’s arses I’m sure there’s more where they came from …’

He reeled off more ridiculous nonsense he’d found on the internet, but it seemed I’d completely ruined the easy chat and made things a bit awkward. The jollity ground to a halt after a while.

‘Julia, would you like me to come up at the weekend?’

‘What? No!’

‘OK, just a thought, you don’t have to make it sound like I asked if you want me to poke your fucking eyes out or something.’

‘Sorry. I’ve made things difficult. I know you’re trying to help me. I’m not very good at being helped.’

‘Sorry backatcha. I think that was a bit of a selfish offer. I really want to see you, more than see you. It would feel weird for you if I was there, I know that, but I couldn’t fucking help myself. Julia – shit, I can’t believe I’m about to say this – would it be better if I stopped texting and calling you, just until you’re back?’

‘No!’

‘I don’t want to, but I just wondered if you’d find it easier to get your head round everything if I gave you some space.’

I sat for a moment, thinking. My head and my heart were having their own private battle.

‘I thought we agreed to say Chartham if we wanted to stop? Maybe a couple of days ago, before I came up here, I was considering it. But now … I don’t think I’m going to make it through the next few days without you. That probably puts way too much pressure on you.’

‘Sorry, Julia, I’m bloody useless at deep and meaningfuls. I do arsing about better than most, but I’m fucking awful at serious. But I’ll give it a shot. OK, here goes, ready? Uncharacteristically magnanimous gesture coming up. Actually, can we Facetime? I want to see you while we’re talking about this.’

‘OK.’

A few seconds later I was staring into Matt’s big grey eyes. He smiled his crinkly smile.

‘Hello. You look hot tonight. Just thought I’d say.’

‘Thanks.’

‘You could always reply ‘why thank you Matt, and I’d quite like to rip your clothes off too’ if you wanted to.’

I smiled and shook my head.

‘I could, but I fear your head would swell so much it wouldn’t all fit on the screen.’

‘So you’re not denying the possibility that you might quite like to rip my clothes off then?’

‘I am neither confirming nor denying anything. I thought you were going to go all deep and meaningful on me?’

‘Oh yeah, just building up to it while having a bloody good gawk at your bra. I can totally see it through your t-shirt.’

I looked down, horrified.

‘You can not! This was what I wore to the solicitors and round at William’s all afternoon.’

Matt laughed.

‘You are so easy to wind up, you’re so proper. So what if a solicitor had the chance to perv on your undies? Not that he did, because I can’t see a bloody thing, more’s the pity.’

‘Alright, deep and meaningful now, or I’m disconnecting.’

‘Oh fucking hell, you’re so bloody bossy. OK, OK, what I was going to suggest is that I won’t just randomly and incessantly text you. You can contact me whenever you like, and for whatever reason, whether you want to arse about or bawl your fucking eyes out, I’ll be here, or wherever I am, I’ll be there for you. Fuck, I’ve never had so many rules about phoning someone before. It’s fine, though. But just so you know, even though I’m not texting you or phoning or Facetiming, I will be thinking about you all the fucking time. Thinking about what I’m going to tell you next time we speak – I’ve got so much fucking office goss I’m saving up, I found out what Mike Davies keeps in his locked drawer! But anyway, that’s for another time. So you don’t have to worry about me popping up on your phone at inopportune moments, you have complete charge over when we speak, in what media, and what about. If you want to be on your own, that’s your choice. What do you think?’

‘I want to know what Mike keeps in his drawers.’

‘Ooh, that’s a diversionary reply worthy of me! Come on, Julia. Is it a goer?’

‘It sounds just about right. I know I’m a control freak, how did you know?’

‘Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve worked with the bloody Ice Queen all this time, it’s her stock in trade. You don’t get that good at work without some of it being part of you. So that’s what we’ll do then.’

He stopped talking and looked at me, a long look that I returned, drinking in his gaze. Eventually I nodded. He gave me a sad smile.

‘I can’t say I’m not going to bloody well miss this. But I’m just thinking of next week, when I can see you again.’

‘You can still think about me.’

‘I do anyway.’

‘I’ll think about you.’

‘Good.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Pleasure.’

‘Is one of us going to go, then?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Me, then?’

‘Gonna have to be, I seriously can’t make myself press the fucking button.’

‘Night then.’

‘Don’t go.’

‘We can’t just sit staring at each other.’

‘Why the fuck not? The view’s great from here.’

‘I’m tired.’

‘I can watch you sleep.’

‘Very sweet, but a bit stalkery?’

‘Maybe you’re right. I want to watch you sleep one day though. I bet you snore.’

‘I do not!’

‘Everyone says that. I’ll find out. I bet you dribble too.’

‘I don’t dribble.’

‘The only way to prove it is to spend the night with me.’

‘Goodnight, Matt.’

‘Goodnight, Jules.’

I pressed the button on the phone, and his face disappeared from the screen. I remained looking at the home page of my phone for a while, shaking my head at the uncharacteristic whimsy I was feeling all of a sudden. I got ready for bed, and resisted an urge to call Matt back to discuss my night attire. I got into bed, turned the light out and slept almost immediately.

o0o

The next few days passed with arrangements for Nons’ funeral, organising the reception, and several long walks along north Norfolk beaches while I thought and cried and wrote Nons’ eulogy in my head. The wind was bracing, as ever, and the shoreline was bleak, but it helped to sort through a lot of the things that had lain unresolved in my mind. I texted Matt a couple of times, and Facetimed him once while I was walking along the beach near Blakeney Point, as I thought he would like to see it. He was suitably impressed, and got enthusiastic about going on a hike when I got back. He kept his promise not to contact me, and although I missed him more than I thought I would, his absence helped me to focus on what I was doing there. Before I knew it, the day of the funeral had dawned and it was all going to be over.

Matt

So Jules went away for a week, to bury her aunt. And I missed her. I could not believe how much I missed her, even though we spoke on the phone and texted, and even, bloody hell, FaceTimed. I had fallen for Jules good and proper, and even though I wasn’t ready to examine just how much or in what way, I was prepared to admit that I wanted to see a lot more of her and spend time getting to know her.

Julia

I ghosted through the day in a dream. Part of me was screaming and raging with anger and hurt that Nons had been taken away from me, but I locked this away and concentrated on the things I needed to get done, like saying the eulogy, greeting people afterwards, paying the caterers and mopping up my mother who had suddenly become a quivering heap in the corner requiring lots of patience and tissues.

By the time it was all over and everyone had gone, it was late afternoon. My parents, my mother now recovered, had departed for the airport, and I gave William a lift home.

‘I’ll be back in a few weeks, to start sorting the house out. I think I need to leave it a bit before I start tackling it.’

‘I understand, pet. I’ll give you a hand to sort through it all if you like. Let me know when you’re coming.’

‘Thanks, William. Will you be alright?’

‘I will be, lass. I will be.’

I packed up quickly and set off, wanting to leave this week behind me. I had hoped the journey would get me home in time to get a good night’s sleep before work tomorrow, but a major accident had closed one of the motorways and the resulting delays and diversions meant I didn’t get back to the city until well after midnight.

I felt frazzled and overtired, and without thinking about it, I found myself pulling onto the street where Matt’s apartment was. I stopped the car and got my phone out, not really sure what I was intending to do. It was far too late to call, and going to see him would be madness. But he had said I could call him anytime while I was away, and I wasn’t technically back home yet. And I really wanted to talk to him. I pressed his name. And then hung up. I started the car as my phone rang. I stopped the car and answered it.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you. Are you home?’

‘Not quite.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Outside.’

‘Outside where? Are you OK?’

I didn’t say anything, feeling suddenly foolish.

‘Julia, where are you?’

‘Nowhere, it’s alright, I’m going home now.’

‘Wait – shit – outside – are you outside here?’

I nodded, close to tears, forgetting he couldn’t see me.

‘Julia?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you outside here now?’

‘Yes.’

‘Stay there, I’m coming down.’

He disconnected. The car’s engine was running and I nearly drove away, but just as I was about to put my foot on the clutch and take the handbrake off, Matt came running out of the front door. He was wearing a t-shirt and boxer shorts, and was barefoot; he’d been in bed.

Matt ran over to the car and pulled the door open, crouching down close to me.

‘Julia, what the fuck?’

I looked up at him, trying not to cry. Seeing him made me realise just how much I needed to be with him. I shook my head.

‘I’m sorry I woke you up. I’m just being stupid.’

‘Come up.’

‘No, I should go.’

‘Julia, I’m freezing my fucking balls off out here. Come on, we can talk about it inside, yeah?’

He stood up and held his hand out. When I didn’t take it, he took mine and pulled. I got out of the car, and as soon as I was standing up, he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into him. I collapsed against him, giving in to the tears I had managed to hold back all day.

‘Hey, shh. It’s OK. It’s OK, Jules. Shh now.’

He held me while I cried, but after a time I felt him unwrap himself from me a little bit, and start to walk to the door, an arm still round me, holding me close to him. I thought about resisting, but being in Matt’s arms was where I wanted to be and I couldn’t fight it. I let him lead me in through the door and up the stairs to his flat, where he sat me down on the sofa, then kissed me on top of my head before heading towards the kitchen area to put the kettle on. I sat and sniffled to myself, trying to wipe my eyes on the back of my hands.

‘Here, it’s camomile.’

Matt handed me a mug of tea and then a box of tissues. Then he sat down beside me and put his arm around me again.

‘Have you only just got back?’

I nodded.

‘Shit, Julia, you must be wiped.’

Another nod.

‘Why didn’t you go straight home?’

‘I just needed … you.’

A sound somewhere between a moan and a laugh escaped from Matt.

‘Well I can’t say it’s not reciprocated, but shit, you don’t half choose your moments. You’re not in any fit state for anything I may have to offer you tonight, apart from my bed –’

I looked up at him, startled, scared and hopeful.

‘– I’ll sleep here on the sofa. I’ve got an old tshit you can use, and no fuking pants is fine by me.’

I nodded again, too exhausted to think, let alone argue. Matt stayed next to me, holding me against him, while I drank my tea. Then he took the cup from my hands and put it on the table.

‘Come on, it’s this way. Are you OK to get undressed? There’s a shirt in here you can use –’

He opened a drawer

‘– we can worry about everything else in the morning.’

‘Matt …’

‘Yep.’

‘Kiss me.’

He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply.

‘Holy fuck, Julia, you make it bloody difficult for a bloke to behave decently. Not tonight. I’m not going there again with you like this. If I start kissing you now, I won’t be able to stop.’

‘I won’t want you to stop.’

‘Don’t, Jules, please, I need to say no. I’m sorry, you have no idea how sorry, but not tonight. Soon though, bloody soon. Goodnight, gorgeous.’

He blew me a kiss and walked out, shutting the door behind him.

I sat on the edge of the bed for a while, not really sure what I was feeling. I was so, so tired, but I had so, so wanted to kiss Matt, and to feel him hold me again, whatever that might have brought. I was just about with-it enough to recognise what Matt had done and what it might mean to me later.

The duvet had been pushed back, and I felt the sheet underneath, which was still warm from Matt’s body. I pulled my clothes off and picked the top t-shirt from the drawer Matt had left open, pulling it on over my head. I kept my pants on. Then I slid under the duvet, holding the warmth from it around me, and switched the lamp off, falling into sleep almost immediately.

Matt

When Jules came back, she was in a bit of a state and she came to my flat late at night and said she wanted to kiss me, the inference being that she wanted to sleep with me, but fuck I was noble, and said no and slept on the sofa while she crashed in my bed. I hope you’re impressed, because I bloody well was.

Julia

As I woke up, it slowly registered that it was light. I couldn’t hear any of the familiar sounds I had got used to in Norfolk, and I couldn’t hear the traffic outside my flat. I opened my eyes. I was in a strange room. I closed my eyes and gathered my thoughts. I was in Matt’s bed. I groaned to myself, thinking about how ridiculous I must have looked yesterday.

I had no idea of the time – I had left my phone in the car along with my bags – but it felt late enough that I should be getting up. I didn’t want to be late for work on my first morning back. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and dragged my fingers through my hair; as I was about to stumble to the door, it opened and Matt came in with a cup of tea.

‘Hey you. Toast or cereal for breakfast? Or something fancier?’

‘What time is it?’

‘Just gone ten.’

What?

‘You needed to sleep.’

‘I’m late for work. Shit, Matt, it’s my first day back.’

I started to gather my clothes together, wondering how I was going to explain this to Lexi, and then get home, shower and change into something decent. I felt Matt’s hands on my shoulders.

‘Hey, stop panicking. I’ve phoned in for you.’

‘What? What the fuck did you tell them?’

‘Well, of course, I told them you’d stayed the night here and were so exhausted from the adventure that you were having a bit of a skive –

What?’

‘Stop shrieking, I rang Phil, told him you were taking an extra day because yesterday was a bit too much, and it’s all sorted. Don’t worry, I didn’t talk to Lexi, Phil will be discreet, he doesn’t know you’re here.’

I sat on the edge of the bed and put my head in my hands.

‘You can’t just do things like that on my behalf. You should have woken me up.’

‘Well I didn’t, not much we can do about it now. Tell me you didn’t need the sleep.’

I stayed silent.

‘Hmm. Well I’ve got to shoot off myself in a minute, can’t have both of us shirking, you’re welcome to stay here, all day if you want to, but if you go, pull the door shut behind you, make sure it clicks.’

I stayed sitting on the bed as he left the room, and I watched him through the open bedroom door as he left the flat, turning to wave as he did so. I sat for a long time, thinking about what I was doing there.

Matt was right, I had needed the sleep; but I should never have come here in the first place. Yesterday had been a weird, horrible day, and I had made some bad errors of judgement, not least of which had been asking Matt to kiss me. I was now awake enough to be well aware of what it had cost him to say no, but confronting that with him later was something I chose not to think about.

I pulled on the clothes I had worn the day before, folding the t-shirt I had slept in, and putting it on the pillow. I located my car keys and left, pulling the door shut behind me, trying not to think about the last time I did that or the circumstances in which I had left Matt’s flat then.

Arriving at my flat, I hauled my bags up the stairs and then started unpacking them, putting things out to wash or into the laundry basket for later. I thought about calling Phil to explain why I hadn’t rung in myself, but couldn’t think of a way to justify it that wouldn’t make things worse. I texted Evie to see if she was around for a chat later, and she replied that she would call me when she got home from work. I got some of the papers that I’d brought home from Norfolk – bank details and other things I needed to sort out – but I couldn’t bring myself to look at them.

I curled up on the sofa and cried, wishing I could get a grip on my emotions and stop bursting into tears at inconvenient moments. I missed Nons. I wanted Matt, but I didn’t want to want him. I felt impatient with myself, and could only imagine how frustrated he must be feeling with me. Slowly, my tears dried up and I fell into a doze.

I woke some time later to the sound of the door intercom. It startled me into instant wakefulness, and jolted me onto my feet. I pressed the button.

‘Hello.’

‘Julia, it’s Matt.’

I looked at the clock. It was one fifteen; he must have come over in his lunch hour.

‘Come up.’

I pushed the button again, and heard the buzz as he opened the door. I waited for his knock, which came, tentatively, a few moments later. I opened the door.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you.’

A crinkly smile, but some uncertainty behind it.

‘I’m sorry about last night.’

‘No need. I just wanted to see how you are. Can I come in?’

I stood aside and let Matt walk into the flat, where he stood, unsure, by the door.

‘Sit down. Have you come in your lunch hour?’

‘Yeah, they all think I’m off wining and dining the elusive Roberta.’

He walked over to the sofa and sat down. I sat at the other end, a seat between us.

‘I’m sorry, I haven’t got anything to eat. I emptied my fridge before I left last week.’

‘I didn’t come here for a three course meal, Julia. You were, well, how can I put it tactfully? I can’t. OK. You were a fucking mess last night. I wanted to check you’re not still a fucking mess today.’

‘I’m not a fucking mess.’

Matt looked at me, studying my face.

‘No, maybe not, but you’re not right. You’ve gone all distant and Ice Queeny.’

‘I’m sorry. I feel silly and embarrassed. I don’t know why I came to yours last night, I wasn’t thinking straight.’

‘I thought you came because you needed me?’

I snorted.

‘Is that what I said?’

‘Yeah. You also asked me to kiss you. I’m sorry I had to say no.’

I closed my eyes and inhaled.

‘I’m not. I’m very grateful. You would have had every right to … do what I asked you to. You continue to astound me.’

‘Hey, that’s always good to know. A good astounding is my speciality. Not that it’s always called that, you understand. Jules, you have no idea how fucking hard it was to say no. I’ve missed you so much more than I thought I would this last week. When you turned up last night, even though I was half asleep and it was bloody freezing outside and I cut my fucking foot on a stone, it was so bloody great just to see you again. Just holding you sent all sorts of messages to all sorts of places, and I had to talk pretty bloody fast to them to get them to simmer down. It just wasn’t right last night. After last time, I wasn’t going to do that again, feel the way I did, have you leave the way you did.’

‘You cut your foot?’

He laughed, tutted and shook his head.

‘Yeah, focus on that why don’t you. Fuck, Julia, you’re better than me at avoiding the issue, and that’s saying something. I’m telling you I missed you and didn’t want to do something stupid in the heat of the moment last night that we’d both regret because you were a fucking mess and I was an uncontrollable shag monster.’

‘Alright, I get it. You were more of a gentleman than I thought you capable of. You have been on several occasions. But soon you’re going to have to stop saying no, because eventually I won’t be a fucking mess and you won’t have an excuse.’

‘Believe me, Julia, as soon as you stop being a fucking mess, I will be right here on your doorstep with a bottle of wine and a condom and you won’t even have to ask me to kiss you.’

‘Just the one condom?’

‘I would like to think that in these modern times, you have a supply. Mine will just be a spare in case we run out.’

I looked into Matt’s eyes. He looked relieved. I felt a bit better.

‘I’m not sure I’m there yet.’

‘I know. I’m keeping a close eye on the situation. Until then, you don’t have to worry, I’ll be saying no.’

‘Thank you. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this.’

‘A mate of mine says it’s not about deserving, it’s about how you react to things. I’m just reacting to you, the same as you’re reacting to me. It feels pretty fucking good so far. Hey, know what, I think I can risk a hug without turning into that uncontrollable shag monster. No snogging though.’

Matt opened his arms wide, and I fell into them, burying myself in his chest and holding him tightly against me. As his arms went round me, it felt like the place I most belonged in the world.

‘I’m scared.’

He pulled away and looked at me again.

‘Of what?’

‘Of this, I don’t know what it is, what it’s going to be.’

Matt sighed.

‘You know what, you don’t have the monopoly on freaking out. Didn’t we say at the start we were going to see where it goes? Let’s just do that. That doesn’t scare me, what fucking terrifies me is analysing it to death and killing it before it has the chance to be anything. Jules, I’m not looking for anything in particular, I don’t know if you are. I’m not trying to make us into a couple or anything, fuck, probably exactly the opposite. I’m a commitmentophobe, hadn’t you heard? I know it’s bloody terrifying for you not to know exactly what the rules are, but it’s just as bloody terrifying for me to feel like there are a bunch of rules I’m trapped by. I just feel like there aren’t any here.’

I carried on looking at him, trying to work out if what he said made me more, or less, terrified.

‘I think you need to try to let yourself go a bit. I know there’s this weird vibe with us knowing each other at work, but maybe we can try to forget about that when we’re not at GreenScreen. Try to just relax enough that we can be ourselves, maybe even challenge each other a bit. Then we might get a bit more of an idea of where we’re going, if indeed we have to be headed anywhere.’

‘Do you think I’m uptight?’

‘I think you think too much about shit that’s not important.’

‘So yes, then.’

‘I didn’t say that, and it’s not what I meant. Julia, you’ve had a major life event, with your aunt. You’re still getting your head round it. Let yourself do that and at the same time get your head around us too. We don’t have to be together every second. We both have our own lives. I think we need to be together, by which I mean sleep together, by which I actually mean fucking hot sex, just so we’re clear, very soon so we can get it out of the way – shit that wasn’t very romantic was it – I meant –’

‘I know what you meant. You’re right. It’s been this … thing … hasn’t it. An undercurrent. Until it happens, it’s going to affect everything else between us. I know what you were saying about it needing to be right, but … can we plan it?’

I looked up at him, conscious that my need to control things was affecting this too. He pushed a strand of hair away from my face.

‘It wouldn’t be appropriate if we didn’t, really, after everything else that’s been so well organised. I’m not doing anything tonight, but maybe, after everything I just said, it’s too soon …’

‘Evie’s calling me later, but I haven’t got any plans after that.’

Matt looked at me, assessingly.

‘You know what, there’s only so many times I can resist you, Julia. Tonight then. Come to mine? I’ll cook you something, planned seduction.’

‘Are you supposed to tell me if you’re planning to seduce me?’

‘Probably not. I’m Matt Scott, though, ‘evil seducer’ is on my doorbell. It’s a bit of a given.’

‘I thought that was ‘uncontrollable shag monster’?’

‘That’s just at weekends. Come here, soon-to-be-seduced Julia Marran. I want you in my arms right now.’

As he pulled me towards him again, I leaned into him and put my arms round his back, pressing myself up against him. I could feel his heart pounding in his chest. After a time, he kissed the top of my head, sighed, disentangled himself and pulled away.

‘I should get back. I can only have so many long lunches before Phil starts taking it out of my holiday.’

‘How exactly did you get such flexible hours?’

I saw a flicker of alarm cross his face for a split second, then it was gone.

‘Well … I was ill a few years ago – when I first moved down here I was living with my brother, they were looking after me – but I wanted to work again. But I got really tired, so I needed to work part time with the flexibility to come and go and up or down my hours as necessary. I had a pretty good reference from my job in Stafford, and Phil reckoned I was worth the risk.’

‘But you’re not ill now.’

‘I guess I just never renegotiated. It suits my lazy bastard ethos.’

I sensed a guardedness in Matt’s expression. He wasn’t telling me everything, but I didn’t have any rights to his personal information.

‘I work my share, I know I come in late, but I stay late if I need to, I don’t miss deadlines, I get my job done. I work more hours than I’m contracted for if anyone’s counting.’

He sounded defensive, as if he’d had to justify it to himself many times.

‘I know, I wasn’t questioning your work at all. You carry on being a lazy bastard, it suits you.’

‘OK, thanks, I will. Starting today. Long lunch hour followed by leaving early to get ready for my hot date. It is going to be fucking hot, Jules, I can’t wait.’

‘I’m looking forward to it too.’

‘Still scared?’

‘Petrified.’

‘Great! See you later – sevenish?’

He stood up and pulled me to my feet.

‘Here’s a little something to keep you interested.’

He leaned down and kissed me hard and long, tongue searching deep into my mouth, lips locked onto mine, hands in my hair holding my face to his, and then he pulled away.

‘Fuck, need to stop that, otherwise there will be no seduction tonight, just a quick hop to your bedroom right now. No, don’t even say that would be fine, you temptress, I can see it on your face. Well I’ve got no one to blame but myself for sending me back to work with the boner from hell. Fuck. I’m going now before I do something else I’ll regret. See you later.’

He backed towards the door, leaving me breathless and open mouthed in the middle of the room, then turned and walked out with a wave, pulling the door shut behind him.

I couldn’t settle after Matt left. I drifted around, unpacking, sorting my laundry, tidying up, but my mind wasn’t really on it. I was restless, thinking about my assignation later. The more I thought about it the more it felt like the right thing to do; get the sex out of the way and I might be able to think more clearly. Thinking logically about it didn’t stop my heart racing in anticipation, though, and I was in need of distraction.

I thought about going in to work for a couple of hours but that wasn’t going to distract me from Matt. In the end I went to the supermarket and filled my trolley with food I didn’t really want because I was wandering around in an unthinking haze. As I loaded the bags at the till I shook my head at what I’d bought, wondering when I was ever going to eat a tin of sausage and beans or a jar of pickled onions.

Back at my flat I filled my fridge and cupboards with my unwise purchases. The food was making me hungry and I realised with a start that I hadn’t eaten anything all day – in fact not since I stopped at a service station on the way home yesterday. I slotted some bread into the toaster and cut off a lump of cheese. It would have to do until dinner with Matt later, as I was euphemistically calling it, in the hope that he was a reasonable cook and we actually made it to the dinner table to eat.

Not long after I got back from the shop, Evie rang. We spent a while talking about Nons’ funeral and then about Evie’s job, where she was having ‘unreasonable boss’ trouble; then she asked about Matt.

‘So how’s it going with the stud muffin?’

‘The what?’

‘Has he managed to keep it in his boxers?’

‘Evie! I’ve been away, I haven’t seen him.’

‘I’ve heard some stories, Jules. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’

‘What stories?’

‘Kath – you know, from the dentist? She heard that he’s got some kind of STD, maybe more than one. Her friend Petra had to go to the GUM clinic. And he’s not the type to hang around once he’s got what he wants.’

If I hadn’t heard the Petra story from Matt I might have been swayed, but I was offended on Matt’s behalf.

‘You don’t know him Evie, nor does Kath. He’s not like everyone thinks. A lot of its an act. And that STD story is just a story.’

‘OK my lovely, whatever you say. You’re obviously smitten.’

‘I am not.’

‘Right.’

She filled that one word with as much sarcasm as she could muster.

‘When are you seeing him next?’

‘…tonight.’

‘For?’

‘Dinner’

‘Where?’

‘His place.’

‘Yeah and the rest Jules. You’ve gone all monosyllabic, you think you can kid me. Anything else on the menu? Or rather, anyone?

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Course you don’t. Wouldn’t have crossed your mind that womaniser Matt Scott might want to get in your knickers – it’s not like it hasn’t already happened once. I’m not judging you Jules, I think it’s great, go for it if it’s what you want. Just be careful. Not just about STDs, but don’t let him break your heart.’

I laughed.

‘Evie you’re hilarious. I don’t do heartbreak. We’re just seeing what happens, enjoying ourselves.’

I could almost convince myself.

‘Alright then my lovely. Have a good time tonight, I’ll wait to hear all about it later.’

When I’d finished talking to Evie I had about half an hour to get ready before I needed to leave. I spent far too long choosing clothes and selecting underwear, tying myself up in knots about the messages I would be sending. Eventually I reminded myself I had agreed to go to Matt’s so we could sleep together, which was a pretty clear message, and so I wore something I felt comfortable and sexy in. I was finally as ready as I’d ever be.

52. Throw it in the bag

In which plans are made to meet in a shop.

Matt

I pulled her towards me and wrapped my arms around her, pressing her up against me. She felt so good, held snugly in my arms. I kissed her gently, soft brushes along her lips. She started to kiss back, hesitantly at first, and then she suddenly pushed into my mouth, probing with her tongue, sucking and pulling me into her. I moaned and I pushed my hands into her hair as I held her face against mine, and our tongues explored each other. I felt her run her hands down my back, her fingers fizzing and tingling their way down my spine, and I moaned again. This was going to get out of hand if I didn’t stop. Right now.

I pulled back slightly, but she moved forwards, trying to pull me back to her. I moved my head away and put a finger on her lips, with a regretful smile and a shake of my head. How was this the second time I’d been the sensible one, the second time I hadn’t been the one who got carried away? My reputation would be taking a serious battering, if only people knew.

‘Julia, you’ll be the death of me. You are fucking awesome, I could do that all day and then some. But this isn’t the time or the place. When you come back from Norfolk, maybe we should make some plans to be alone, when you’re feeling OK about it.’

I stroked her hair and then moved my fingers under her chin, lifting it slightly so I could breathe a kiss onto her lips. She looked delightfully dishevelled.

Julia

He smoothed my hair and lifted my chin to receive the briefest of kisses on the lips. I felt ruffled and out of breath, and would have really liked to continue what we had started, but saw the sense in what Matt was saying. I was sure I must be confusing him with what I was saying as opposed to how I was behaving.

‘I’m sorry, Matt, I’m giving you some very mixed signals. I guess I am a bit all over the place at the moment. Yes, next week we should have some time alone maybe. Tell you what, why don’t you text me about it?’

I tried an impish grin.

‘No way, not wasting one of my valuable opportunities on bloody schedule arrangements. And, by the way, we need to have words about this bloody texting malarkey. I’m really getting a raw deal here. You reply to four texts a day? And you decide when? Give me a break, woman!’

‘I don’t really like texting.’

‘Why? It’s just another way of talking. I thought we’d been having fun.’

‘Well, I suppose I have enjoyed it …’

Matt

‘Thought so. OK, I can see if you’re not a great texter it might be a bit irksome having some arse on at you all the time – text me, text me, all needy and shit. Am I like that?’

I looked down at her, genuinely wanting an answer, it not ever having noticeably annoyed anyone before.

‘Well … I don’t know if it’s you or me. I don’t like feeling like I have to reply; to me texts are just quick shorthand for if you’re checking a time to meet or giving someone some information. I don’t like being bombarded. I did really like all your nonsense at the weekend, but it was weird being so … connected … to you when I was miles away. I suppose I’m just not used to it, not like that. I text my friends, but it’s just about meeting up, simple stuff. If I want a deeper conversation I’ll ring them.’

‘OK, so the four reply thing, that was so you had some control over it?’

‘Maybe a bit. OK, honestly, yes.’

‘Hmm. OK, so maybe we need some middle ground. I need to stop with the incessant fucking about, you need to give me a bit more?’

I thought about how that might be achieved.

‘How about … well for a start, I need more than four a day, there’s all sorts of shit I find myself wanting to tell you, it’s not enough.’

I thought about what would be just about acceptable to me, and tried to imagine what Julia would agree to.

Julia

I wondered what he was going to suggest, and steeled myself to stand firm.

‘What if I limit myself to two texts an hour, and obviously only when we’re not at work. Fuck, that’s going to be hard, I spend all day on my phone arsing about with people. But anyway, that’s what I’ll do. Does that feel better?’

It did. Matt had managed to find a way that suited both of us, and I was gratified that he seemed to have taken my feelings on the matter into consideration, rather than just trying to push for what he wanted. I nodded again.

Matt

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if it was any better, but it was more than I was getting at the moment. She nodded again.

‘And you don’t have to feel you have to reply if you don’t want to, but I’d like it if you did, and I’d really like it if you did when I say goodnight. Helps me get to sleep, which is medicinal, and therefore additional to the deal for health reasons.’

I kissed the top of her head again.

‘And if you feel like you want me to text back extra to that, you have to say, otherwise it’ll be up to an hour later. Shit, Julia, I’m not even sure I can remember all that, let alone stick to it, but it sounds complicated enough to be one of your rules. What do you say?’

‘OK, have I got this right? Two texts an hour with no expectation of a reply unless I want to, or it’s to say goodnight?’

‘Yeah, in a nutshell.’

‘It’s a deal. You can always ring me if you want to talk to me.’

‘I know. It’s not the same. But thank you.’

Well that, I think, was a victory for me. I tried not to think too hard about it. I would just try to get away with what I could get away with.

Julia

He kissed the top of my head again. I was getting to like it when he did that, and I felt myself warming to him even more.

‘Matt …’

‘Yeah.’

‘I really like you. How did that happen?’

Matt

I felt a little frisson. A girl just said she liked me. Get a grip, Matt.

‘Haven’t got a fucking clue. I’m still the same fucking arsehole you yelled at and tried to knock senseless last week.’

‘I think that’s it, though. You’re not the same. Or rather, maybe you haven’t changed, but you’re different to how I thought you were.’

‘Maybe I have changed, Julia. I was exactly like you thought I was, but last week, in my flat, it shook me up. You shook me up. I want to be different for you.’

I thought about what being different meant, how I was going to express it.

‘Just so you know, and this isn’t to put pressure on you, so I hope it doesn’t, but it’s just you for me at the moment. No one else. No fucking about with any other women.’

Julia

I looked up at him, seeing in his eyes how much that meant for him to say.

‘That’s big for you, isn’t it.’

‘Pretty big. Pretty important.’

Matt

And it was. I hadn’t promised that, even considered it, for a long time.

‘Thank you, then.’

It was all getting a bit heavy. I needed to lighten the mood.

‘You know, Julia, I don’t usually do big serious pronouncements in my lunch hour. Right now I feel the need to arse about. Can you do this?’

I flipped into a handstand, something Cal and I practised in the park, and walked across the enclosure on my hands, then flipped back onto my feet, turning to grin childishly at her, ridiculously smug I hadn’t managed to fall on my arse. Cal would never believe me – I always fell on my arse. Made him laugh.

‘Well? Your turn.’

‘I don’t think so, I’m wearing a skirt.’

Oh she so didn’t get how I thought, not yet.

‘So? It’s only John and Roberta here to see.’

‘And you.’

‘I’m sorry to remind you, but I’ve already seen all you have to offer, I won’t be scandalised. And I’d get to see your knickers.’

I really would love to see her knickers, even upside down. Maybe now she would get a bit of an insight into the dark workings of my mind.

‘And what do I get out of it?’

‘A sense of achievement. Or maybe you can’t do it.’

I knew she was competitive, and so made the challenge obvious.

Julia

I heard the challenge, as he wanted me to, but chose not to rise to it.

‘I haven’t done a handstand since I was ten.’

‘About time you did another one then.’

I looked at the palms of my hands. My scratches were healing nicely, but I decided to play them as a card anyway, and held them up towards Matt.

‘Bollocks. Forgot about that. OK, you’re let off for today, but this isn’t over. Before too long you will be showing me your gymnastic capabilities, if I have to tip you upside down myself.’

‘You wouldn’t dare.’

‘Really? You’re daring me? Fuck me, you like living dangerously. Dare accepted. When your hands are better, watch out. No warning.’

He suddenly looked at his watch.

‘Oh fuck. We should get back, we’ve been gone ages.’

He held his hand out and as I took it to help me up, he grabbed the bottom of my skirt and pulled it up past my waist, making me squeal, then released it.

Matt

I got the glimpse of her knickers I’d wanted, although I’d had to behave like a nine year old boy to do it. Hm, maybe spending a bit too much time with Cal.

‘Bikinis. Nice. I’ve been meaning to ask, if you’d only wear a thong if there was no other choice, does that mean crotchless is a better option?’

‘What is it with you and knickers? I don’t really give them much thought. I buy ones I like, whatever colour, shape or size they are, and if they’re comfortable I’ll wear them and if they’re not I won’t. Thongs are bloody uncomfortable, I’ve never worn crotchless but I would imagine they’re bloody draughty. And a bit pointless.’

‘You’re so practical. You take all the mystery out of knickers. It’s a whole art form in itself, I could spend a whole day just thinking about French versus G-string.’

This was very nearly the case. I did have a thing for knickers. Oh, nothing extreme like stealing them from washing lines or some such shit, just liked them.

‘You’re weird. And more than a little perverted.’

‘So true.’

‘I’ll go back first, then. You’d better wait a bit.’

‘Fair enough. If I take enough doughnuts back with me, they might not notice how long I’ve been gone. Same time tomorrow?’

I thought I might be able to slip it in, and she’d agree before she’d realised. Not to be.

‘No.’

‘But you’re going away.’

‘And I’m seeing you tomorrow evening before I go.’

I opened my mouth to argue, but she cut me off.

‘No, you’re not going to persuade me.’

‘Not even like this …’

Julia

He pulled me towards him and clamped his mouth onto mine, wrapping his arms round my shoulders and pressing himself up against me. His tongue and lips were dancing over, under and around mine, and he set my body on fire. I sank into him and responded in kind, pulling his face down to mine by winding my fingers in his hair. I could feel every part of him that was pressed into me as if it was branding itself onto my skin. I moaned and arched my back against him, hearing him gasp.

Matt

I gasped at the onslaught of desire that surged through me. God I wanted this woman, wanted her in so many ways, but I was going to have to stop, again, fuck it fuck it fuck it.

I gently started to push her away, withdrawing from her until we were standing just inches apart, panting, cheeks slightly flushed, tiny lightning bolts passing between us where we were nearly touching, looking at each other with heat in our gaze that mirrored our emotions.

‘Fucking hell, Julia. Maybe we’d better not meet here tomorrow after all, I wouldn’t like to be responsible for the consequences. Shit. I’ve … you’ve … I think you’d definitely better go back first, it’s going to take me a while to, er, be less noticeable.’

I gestured downwards and grinned wryly.

‘Better think about icebergs and Anne Widdecombe for a bit, I think. Fuck.’

Julia

I reached up and touched his cheek, wanting to kiss his lips, but not daring to in case we started again.

‘See you back at the office, then.’

He nodded, smiling, still breathless, as I turned and left.

Matt

And that’s how it began. I could tell you everything from my point of view, but you’ve already got Jules’ version, if Lau’s shared it with any of you, and I love the way she’s told it, and it’s really not that different from my version, so I’m going a different way.

I’m going to tell you the other stuff, what was going on for me while we were going on for us. Some of it might cross over; there were some big things that happened, Charlie being the biggest, while Jules and I were together. But some of it, it might seem like I’ve missed bits out, but I haven’t really, I’ve just told you about other things instead. If I go over everything everyone else has said, I’ll run out of words, and you’ll all get bored and piss off. So from hereon in, there will be less of me and more of Jules, which many of you may count as a blessing, you impudent gits.

Julia

On the way back, I brushed my hair and tried to calm myself. As I walked into the the building, I felt self-conscious, as if everyone would know I had spent my lunch hour snogging Matt Scott, but Lexi barely looked up as I passed reception, and nobody else seemed to notice I had been away, let alone come back.

Matt returned with the promised doughnuts, and was thereby forgiven for being late back from his date with Roberta. I’d forgotten about his cover story, but it seemed to have worked as nobody questioned where he had been, or seemed to connect our absences.

The rest of the day was just a normal work day; I was so engrossed in what I was doing that I didn’t even notice Matt leave. I suddenly looked up and noticed that Phil and I were the only ones still there. I decided to go home, as I was expecting Evie in a couple of hours and needed to pick up some wine on the way back. I called goodnight to Phil and left.

o0o

Before Evie arrived, I needed to call my mother to see what she had done and what I still needed to do. I hadn’t held out much hope that she would have done much, but she surprised me by having been to the registrar and registered the death.

‘Oh darling, it was so sad, seeing her life reduced to all those forms.’

‘That’s not all her life is reduced to. There are plenty of ways to remember her.’

‘I know darling, but those places are so depressing.’

‘William and I are going to get together with some photos and have a good old bout of nostalgia, instead of going to the Chapel of Rest. Why don’t you join us?’

‘You’re not going to the Chapel of Rest? But why on earth not?’

‘I want to remember her my way, not how some mortician thinks she should look.’

‘But JuJu, everyone goes to the Chapel of Rest.’

‘I’m not. And neither is William.’

She harrumphed as if what William did was neither here nor there, but continued to press me about my attendance.

‘What will people think, darling?’

‘I don’t actually give a monkey’s, Mum. It’s about what I think, and what I want to do.’

‘Don’t you think Nons would have wanted –’

‘Don’t you dare! Nons would have wanted me to do what made me feel better, not what everyone else would have wanted. I’m not discussing this, Mum.’

‘Alright, darling, well I suppose we’ll just have to explain as best we can.’

I clenched my jaw and bit back a sarcastic response. My mother didn’t deal very well with conflict, and she finished the phone call soon afterwards. I changed, ate and waited for Evie to arrive.

It was wonderful to see Evie. I was so comfortable with her, I could completely relax in her company. She gave me a huge hug, which took a little of my hurt about Nons away for a moment, and then sat and listened while I told her about it all over again, with the added extras from the weekend.

Evie knew my parents of old, and sympathised with me about how they made me feel, but without seeming to condemn them. She had that knack of knowing how to give support without appearing to judge people who, it may be considered, she had no right to criticise. It took us a bottle of wine to talk about Nons, and then she changed tack.

‘So, you and the office Romeo. How’s that going?’

‘Matt?’

‘Matt. Romeo. Charlie bloody Sheen. Whatever. A bit of spilling is in order, my lovely.’

‘Well, it’s going fine, thanks.’

‘Jules, that is not spilling, that is so far from spilling it is turning the bottle upside down with the top glued on.’

‘Sorry. It’s going well. Really well.’

Evie sighed.

‘I can see I’m going to have to drag this out of you syllable by syllable. Have you shagged him again?’

‘No!’

‘Don’t sound so shocked. I said ‘again’ because you’ve already done it once, it’s surely not beyond the realms of possibility. Snogs?’

‘A few.’

‘Gropes?’

‘Depends what you mean …’

‘I mean your hands touching his bulgy parts, or his hands touching your bulgy parts.’

‘Then no.’

‘Why, what did you mean?’

I thought about this lunchtime, my body arched so hard against his I could feel all of him along all of me. I felt my face heat up.

‘Er, close bodily contact.’

‘Ooh, how close? What could you feel? Did he have a hard-on?’

‘Pretty close. Yes, he did.’

‘Bloody hell, Jules. Where were you?’

‘In a graveyard.’

‘What? Seriously?’

‘Well, to be precise, a hidden kind of outside room in the hedge around the graveyard. It’s not like anyone could see us or anything.’

‘Oh well, that’s hardly outdoors at all then, no danger of being done for indecent exposure.’

‘We weren’t indecent!’

‘Well let’s see, shall we. Tongues?’

‘Yes.’

‘And we’ve already established a raging hard-on. Undies on show?’

‘Er, at one point, briefly.’

‘Jules! I’m shocked at you. And, I have to say, rather delighted on your behalf. It’s been too long since you let yourself go with a bloke. Perhaps I’m a little surprised it’s with this particular bloke but I trust your judgement, and if you think he’s OK, I’ll go with that. When do I get to meet him?’

‘Not for a very long time. I’m still working it all out. It’s pretty terrifying, and complicated with work and everything.’

Evie rolled her eyes at me, but she knew what I was like, how long it took me to get used to changes in my life.

‘Alright, my lovely, but you can’t blame me for trying. All I can say is, he’d better not hurt you, or he’s going to feel the toe end of my boot all the way up his colon.’

‘Do you know what, Evie, that’s the weird thing. I know what he’s like, or rather what he’s been like, one woman after another, broken hearts in his wake, but I don’t think he’ll hurt me. He’s trying so hard. If anything, he’s the one slowing it down, making sure we don’t rush into anything.’

‘Well, apart from the one time you already rushed into something.’

‘Yes, apart from that.’

‘You’re being careful, aren’t you? You must be feeling a bit fragile at the moment, with what happened to Nons.’

‘I have to be careful. I can’t let it get out of control, I need to think about work, nobody there can know.’

‘Would it be so terrible if they did?’

‘Yes. Everything would change, fall apart. I need it to be the same, at the moment.’

‘Alright my lovely, you seem to know what you’re talking about. You know I’m here, don’t you, if you need to whinge, moan, cheer, tell me all the sordid details, anything.’

‘I know, Ev. You’re the best.’

We finished another bottle of wine between us, talking, laughing, confiding, just being best friends. When Evie got up to go, I realised my head was spinning, and I stumbled a little bit going to the door.

‘Careful, my lovely, no accidents before bedtime.’

‘No, I think I might drink some water. Don’t really want a hangover tomorrow, although it might be a bit late for that. Thanks for coming, Ev, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘Anytime I can save your life by drinking large amounts of good wine, just let me know. Bye, Jules, take care of yourself.’

‘You too. I’ll call you next week, when I’m back.’

‘OK, my lovely, hope it all goes OK.’

I closed the door behind her, and sat down on the sofa. I checked my phone, which I’d had on silent while Evie was there. Matt had, inevitably, sent several texts.

‘Jus wonderin if is dress code 4 2moz shoppin? Wldnt want 2 appear 2 intimate in case of discovery. Unless I hear, I am goin smart cas, but happy to upgrade to black tie, or downgrade 2 scruff.’

‘Lack of response assures me I am on right lines. Wot yr feelins on waistcoats?’

Exactly an hour after his first text, there was a third one.

‘OK, so no feelins on waistcoats, might have 2 risk it. Am advised farm place does gd coffee. Jus 4 yr info n consideration. We cld sit separate tables, opp end of café, not lk @ each other?’

‘Come on, Julia, do ne of these merit a reply? Wasn’t serious abt coffee, well maybe a bit.’

Matt had stuck to his two texts an hour admirably, but the tone had become increasingly exasperated.

‘Jus remembered yr friend is there, u prob hv fone off. Soz. Ignore last slightly snarky txt xx’

‘Did u go 2 bed yet? Any chance of noing wot u wearin? Yes I am a perv.’

Despite me telling Matt I felt bombarded by his texts, I was reassured to find so many waiting for me. I felt a rush of something akin to tenderness, but quickly told myself it was the bottle of wine influencing me. I started to reply, although my fingers felt strangely uncoordinated.

‘Waistcoats? I don’t think so. Not unles with a morning suite. Smart casual is fine for shopping dont you think? No hoodies thourgh, I have standards. No to cofffee, even with full camouflage and/or invisibilility cloak. I am nott in bed. Clothing situation is li kely to change between now an then. Currently jens and old bagggy sweatshirt.’

‘Whoa thx 4 longest reply eva. OK, no hoody. No coffee. Clothing – phwoar. NE chance u txt me when u in bed?’

‘OK I’m feling benenevolent txt meee as mch as youou wann ill be in beed soon dot go away.’

‘On the edge of my seat. Not going ne where 2 xcited! :)’

I pottered around getting ready for bed, pondering the fluctuations in my mood that my various situations were causing. Underneath everything was a flowing sadness that was the knowledge that Nons was dead. But Matt was giving me flashes of release, both through not being part of that whole state and through his almost constantly upbeat chatter, whether face to face, on the phone or by text.

I seemed to flit between sorrow and laughter; I wasn’t sure if this was good or normal, but it felt better than just being miserable. I cleaned my teeth, changed into my sleeping shirt and got into bed in a wine-driven haze. I picked up my phone and texted Matt.

‘I’m in bed!!!!!! Im all yurs until I fall aslseep, which migt not be lonng. Ive turned ringer of so donot expect to anoy me into wakgin up if I don’t replyor ansewr take a long sielnce as a goodnght.’

‘Whoa! *rubs hands with glee* Don’t fall asleep yet! Pls! So, you’re in bed, I take it old t-shirt and random pants?’

‘Tshit yes. Pants no.’

‘Errr, not random pants, or … NO FUCKING PANTS?’

‘No fuking pants.’

‘Holy fuck. Y not?’

‘Dont were pants in my own beed.’

‘Holy holy fuck.’

‘Yuo seem very perturbrbed by this infornamtion.’

‘Too many mental images, may explode soon. Tell me something boring.’

‘Criket.’

‘Boring to me.’

‘You like crikcet?’

‘I’m a bloke.’

‘Not al meen like criket.’

‘Maybe, but all blokes do.’

‘Oh still ned somthnig boring?’

‘Yep.’

‘Clening the toilet.’

‘That did the trick. 4 future ref, cleaning or tidying of any description will defuse potential explosions caused by mental images of you without pants. Oh fuck, now need to imagine cleaning the whole bathroom.’

‘Are yuo in beed?’

‘Almost. Trying 2 work up energy 2 haul arse off couch.’

‘What do yuo wearin beed/’

‘Why Julia, u hv neva shown such intrest in me n my bed. Like it. 2B honest, deps on how warm it is. Winter – tshirt n pj bots. Summer – boxers or sometimes … fuck all! Don’t u xplode now.’

‘How aaaaabout toginht?’

‘2nite = tshirt n boxers. Mix n match. Y u wanna no?’

‘I just want to imanige you Im no intedonding to exploo ode just feels nice bbbbbbb’

‘4giv me asking, ru pissed? Yr spelling etc is terrible.’

‘A bit. tired toooo Sory. >> ‘

‘Don’t b. Like it. U seem softer. Must remember 2 ply u with drink.’

‘Mm sonds god think im ggggggggggoin to slep godnit ow0jcoleiiiiiiiiiiiii   iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii iiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’

‘Goodnight you sozzled knickerless babe xx’

o0o

I didn’t have the headache I deserved the next morning, largely due to having forced myself to drink nearly a pint of water before I went to bed, but I felt bad enough to curse my alarm when it went off and take a few extra minutes rousing myself before pulling myself up into the day.

I forewent breakfast in deference to a stomach that felt slightly delicate, and stood under the shower until I started to feel a little of the blurriness receding. By the time I got to work, I had my hangover under control, although I wasn’t the first in by some way, and Lexi greeted me from the reception desk with

‘Morning Julia. You alright? You look a bit pale.’

I tried a nod and then a smile, but she was probably so unused to me doing that, that she looked more concerned than reassured as I started up the stairs. Realising I didn’t have things as under control as I thought I did, at least outwardly, I tried to get a mental grip on myself.

I found it hard to concentrate all morning. I had loads to do to make sure things were up to date before my time off: I had to hand over work to Kyle on my team, and write lists of clients that needed contacting with updates. I seemed to spend my entire life writing lists of things for people to do at the moment.

Matt went out for lunch, but came back about half an hour later complaining about being stood up, to a chorus of sympathy from the women in the office, who tried to get him to tell them who he’d been stood up by. He told them nothing, as there was nothing to tell, but seemed to be enjoying the attention nonetheless.

Eventually I had done enough to be happy to leave for a week, and I left a bit early. I checked my phone when I got into my car and was unsurprised to see that Matt had texted before the door had closed behind me.

‘Skiver! Wot time rendezvous @ farm place?’

‘I’m not skiving, I finished all my work. Soon? 6pm?’

‘OK cu then’

I drove home, changed, had a quick cup of tea and then set out again for the farm place by the river. I didn’t see Matt’s four by four in the car park, but went inside anyway, grabbed a trolley and started wandering around.

After I had been in the shop about five minutes, I saw Matt come in through the door, and stood watching him try to find me. He couldn’t spot me, half-hidden as I was behind a display of marmalade, and he started to look exasperated. I got my phone out and sent a text.

‘Are you stuck down a well again?’

I watched as he pulled his phone out of his pocket, looked at the screen, smiled to himself, and then looked worried. Then he started typing.

‘No not this time. Where ru? Can’t see u.’

‘Think Paddington.’

‘Wot?’

‘It’s a clue.’

‘RU still pissed?’

‘No.’

‘Then WTF?’

‘Paddington Bear.’

‘Oh. UR in Darkest Peru?’

‘No.’

‘Good, cos long way 2 go 4 cornflakes. Near the dufflecoats?’

‘No.’

‘Oh – marmalade. I cu. V gd! :)’

He put his phone away, smiling, and walked towards me. As he reached me, he bent down to kiss me, but I ducked away. He rolled his eyes, but didn’t push it, and nudged me out of the way so he could take hold of the trolley.

‘Liking the treasure hunt.’

‘Do you like the treasure too?’

‘Fuck yeah, you’re my little pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Loving your playful side.’

‘Do you think you’ll like my bossy shopping side?’

‘Let’s find out. Dominate me, woman.’

I didn’t really know what I wanted, beyond the staples of bread, milk and eggs, so we wandered a bit aimlessly up and down aisles, and stopped in front of the deli counter, where I started to ask for various cheeses, meat and other things Matt badgered me into trying. As we were waiting for the man behind the counter to weigh out all my things, there was a voice from behind us.

‘Fuck me, is Matt finally getting something decent to put in the sandwiches next time we’re over?’

I span round, heart racing, expecting it to be someone from work, but it was a tall man with dark blond hair who seemed familiar, but I was sure I’d never met before. He was with a slender woman with long dark hair.

A succession of expressions chased each other across Matt’s face, starting with startled, changing to pleased, then, with a look at me, unsure, and then settling into defiant.

‘Fuck off Dec, I always make bloody fabulous sandwiches. Garnish and everything. Not that you eat it.’

‘What’s the fucking point of garnish?’

‘It denotes style and taste and is an indication of the standing of the sandwich maker in the sandwich making world.’

‘What, the standing that says that you’re a bit of a tosser who likes wasting green shit that no one eats?’

‘I’ll have you know –’

‘Hi, I’m Declan.’

The tall man addressed me, just as I was about to turn away and try to pretend I wasn’t with Matt. This was obviously a friend of his, and I was suddenly panicked at the thought of being drawn into a bit of his world I was unfamiliar with. There was an awkward pause.

‘Sorry, this is Julia. Julia – Dec and Amy.’

‘Hi Julia, nice to meet you. You’re brave, shopping with Matt.’

The woman, Amy, smiled and gestured at the trolley.

‘Am I?’

‘I don’t think he’s actually been in a shop for years.’

The tall man – Dec – shook his head as if in disbelief.

‘He gets everything delivered.’

‘Yeah, thanks for revealing all my secrets, mate. Anyway, good to see you, I’m sure you’ll need to be off wherever it is you’re going, somewhere important I expect, need to dash?’

Matt frowned at them both, indicating he wanted them to go. It seemed that Dec was cut from the same cloth as Matt, though, and he looked as if he was about to enjoy not going, and stay to be annoying instead. Amy pulled on Dec’s arm, and rolled her eyes at me, shaking her head slightly.

‘Come on you, we need to get something to take with us. Leave Matt alone, you can play at the weekend. Nice to meet you Julia, bye Matt.’

As they walked away, Amy cuffed Dec on the arm and I could hear their voices as they went.

‘Ow, what was that for?’

‘Stirring.’

‘I wasn’t fucking stirring.’

‘You were trying …’

Matt looked at me apologetically.

‘Sorry. I saw the look on your face. I tried to get rid of them as soon as I could.’

‘Who are they?’

‘Friends. Well, family. Both. It’s complicated.’

‘I haven’t met him before have I? He looks familiar.’

‘Ha ha, I don’t know, but you might recognise him from the telly. He plays for Raiders.’

‘He does what? Oh, is that football, or rugby or something? I don’t follow sport.’

‘Rugby. He gets his face on the local news when he scores a try or some such heroic shit. You’ve probably seen him on West at Six. He’s kind of my best mate, you’ll see a lot of him if you see a lot of me.’

No, it wasn’t from the TV; I always turned over or off when the sport came on. I had a sudden flash of an image of a larger than life picture of Dec’s face, complete with slightly bent broken nose, on an advertising hoarding that I passed every day on my way to work. I couldn’t remember what the advert was for, but it appeared that Matt’s friend was a public figure.

To save me from having to think about that one, my order was filled at the deli counter, and I turned away to put the things in the trolley. I thought of something I could ask Matt to go and find, and managed to concentrate on just the shopping from then on. Matt managed to persuade me to buy all sorts of things I didn’t really need but he made sound like fun. I tried to join in with his light-heartedness, but us being seen together by his friend had upset my equilibrium and I felt unsettled. We didn’t see anyone else either of us knew, much to my relief, but my senses were on high alert, and I wasn’t relaxed.

Matt wheeled the trolley out to my car and put the bags in the boot.

‘That should keep you going for a bit. When are you back again?’

‘Tuesday night, I should be able to get away by late afternoon. I’ll have to go back up again soon, though, there’s so much to sort out.’

‘Can’t anyone else in your family help out?’

I thought about my parents, who would probably be jetting off before the last sandwich had been eaten at the wake, and my sisters, who weren’t even coming.

‘Unlikely. Anyway, I want to do it. Nons was – she pretty much raised me, really, I know how she would have wanted things.’

‘It’s a lot for you to do on your own.’

‘Yes, well, you can’t always choose can you? William will help me.’

‘William?’

‘Nons’ friend, and next-door-neighbour. I told you about him.’

‘Oh yeah, well, at least you won’t be completely on your own. Julia, I know this is completely selfish, but I’m really going to miss you. I missed you last weekend, but you’re going to be gone nearly a bloody week this time.’

I sighed. The last thing I needed was to be made to feel bad about going away.

‘You’ll survive. I might not be in touch much, either.’

Matt looked down and nodded.

‘Fair enough. But you will call me if you need a bit of arsing about, won’t you? I can do that at a moment’s notice.’

He grinned his crinkly grin.

‘Yes, if I require any ridiculous nonsense, you’re on speed dial.’

‘Come for a drink with me?’

‘No, I want to go home.’

‘So this is it, then?’

‘Until next week, yes.’

‘Can I at least hug you?’

I looked around the car park, and felt exposed.

‘No.’

‘Peck on the cheek?’

‘No.’

‘Handshake?’

I could feel his exasperation, but needed to stand firm.

‘Just about acceptable.’

He held his hand out, and I took it, feeling a little foolish. He held on with both hands, and before I could stop him, raised my fingers to his lips and gently kissed my fingertips. He laughed at the annoyance on my face before dropping my hand.

‘Oh no, the fucking world’s about to end now, that bloody pigeon saw me kiss your fingers.’

He grinned.

‘I may not be able to resist texting you, or even calling. You are exempt from replying or responding in any way until you get back. You are also entitled to tell me to fuck off if I get annoying – or rather, more annoying than usual. Just say the word – it’s Chatham, by the way.’

‘No, it’s Chartham.’

‘Damn, thought I could slip that one by you.’

Matt shrugged and grinned at me, knowing I’d caught him trying to wriggle out of something on a technicality. I looked into his eyes – I was going to miss him more than I was prepared to admit to myself, let alone to him.

‘Please feel free to carry on annoying me. It’s comforting to know that some things never change.’

‘Ha ha. Good to know I have my uses. If you want a good laugh, though, you should look at your texts from last night.’

‘Why?’

‘Can you remember any of it?’

‘Er … weren’t you rambling on about my pants?’

‘Yeah, lucky guess, you were soooo fucking pissed.’

‘I was not. Well, I wasn’t that bad.’ I amended.

‘Just have a look. You are hilarious when you’re shit-faced.’

I stuck my tongue out at him.

‘I should go. I’ve got a lot to do.’

‘OK. Take care then. Have a good trip.’

We carried on standing there, looking at each other.

‘You’ll have to move, or I’ll run you over.’

‘You’ll have to get in your car, or you won’t be able to run me over.’

‘You hang up.’

‘Ha ha, no you hang up.’

‘You first.’

‘No you.’

‘OK, bored now.’

I opened the door and got into my car. Matt stood in front of it for a while, then moved aside. With a strangely choking sensation, feeling as if I was going to be away from everything I knew for months, I pulled away, and glanced back to see Matt looking forlornly after me in my rear view mirror.

o0o

The next morning I left early to try to avoid as much of the rush hour traffic around various cities as I could. The journey passed fairly uneventfully and I arrived around lunch time. There was a car parked on the drive that I assumed either belonged to or was being hired by my parents, and as I was taking my bags out of the boot, the front door opened to reveal my mother and father, looking for all the world like they were welcoming me back from a long trip away. I walked up the path, and into their arms, which were surprisingly sympathetic and comforting, and we all cried.

‘How was your journey, JuJu?’

My father always retreated to the comfort of travel details when faced with a potentially emotional reunion.

‘Not bad. Lots of traffic around, but no major hold ups.’

‘Which way did you come?’

We went into the house discussing motorways, A roads and B roads.

The house felt even more strange than it had a few days ago. My parents had managed to spread their possessions into all of the rooms, there were clothes, bags, shoes, books and CDs everywhere I looked. Nons’ stuff was still there, but it had been temporarily veiled with their things.

I took my bags of food into the kitchen and started to put everything away. The contents of the fridge were a strange mix of Nons’ Tupperware containers of pilchards and peas from tins she had opened and not used up, and the jars of olives, sun-dried tomatoes and tapenade that made up my parents’ staple diet when they weren’t dining out. I added my own weird assortment to the mix, Matt having induced me to buy quails’ eggs, several strong cheeses, some fruits I had never heard of and couldn’t remember the names of and some spiced meatballs, as well as the basic essentials and things I actually knew and liked.

I took Nons’ food out and emptied it into the bin; it had already been there over a week, and was looking a little the worse for wear. I tried not to think about what I was doing and what it meant.

As I was washing out the plastic containers, my phone bleeped. It wasn’t the first time today – I had had several texts from friends who had just started to hear about Nons, probably from Evie, and were sending their condolences and best wishes. I hadn’t heard from Matt, and although part of me appreciated his sensitivity, another part wanted him to be in touch. I was amazed at how much I was coming to rely on his closeness in such a short time, although it scared me at the same time as it excited me. With a little thrill of anticipation, I saw that this text was from Matt.

‘Had some of those spicy meatballs. Fucking hell, watch out 4 wasabi. Mouth on fire.’

‘Thanks for the warning. Might steer clear tonight’

And then, on an impulse:

‘I miss you.’

There was a longer than usual pause before his reply.

‘Miss u 2. Imagining old tshit and no fuking pants (see last nite’s txts 4 details).’

‘Will have pants tonight. Not my bed.’

‘Ah, but not in my imagination.’

‘Might call you later.’

‘gr8 :)’

I stood in the kitchen looking at my phone, wondering just how I’d managed to become so dependent on Matt Scott. A few weeks ago I would hardly have exchanged eye contact with him, let alone texted him about my underwear. He was having a profound effect on me, both positive – he diverted my attention from all the sadness, grief and arrangements surrounding Nons’ death – and negative – I was finding it hard to concentrate, and my painstakingly built work life was in danger of collapsing. I shook my head and tried to clear Matt out of it, or at least send him to the back of my thoughts for a while.

My mother came into the kitchen, carrying some used coffee cups.

‘Shall I put the kettle on, JuJu? Your father and I are going to have another one.’

She snapped me out of my reverie.

‘That sounds great. Thanks Mum.’

I went into the lounge, where we sat and drank coffee and talked about what had been done and what still needed doing. My parents surprised me by having taken care of quite a lot of the arrangements. My mother hadn’t interfered with the plans William and I had discussed for the funeral, and had booked a reception at the local hotel; she had invited people she knew, and people I had suggested; she had asked William who else would need to know; and she had put a notice in the local paper. There was also an appointment at the solicitors for arranging probate, which we were all going to attend tomorrow. I was really impressed, and I told them so.

‘Well, we’re here, darling, what else were we going to do? It’s not like there’s a lot else to occupy us. Shall I show you the pictures of our safari? We haven’t seen you since we got back from South Africa, have we …’

And so the good will I had been feeling towards them evaporated as soon as it had arrived, as I was thrown into a blow by blow account of their most recent trip. I lasted about half an hour before pleading eye strain from my journey, and took my bags upstairs to Nons’ room.

I nearly couldn’t unpack in there. I changed the bed, not knowing if this had been done but doubting it, and considered sleeping downstairs on the sofa, or even asking William if I could stay in his spare room again, but backed away from explaining that to my parents. Telling myself it was just a room, I started to put things away, but the sight of Nons’ clothes in the drawers was too much. Up until now, it had seemed slightly unreal, as if Nons was somewhere else and we were just using her house. Seeing her clothes just brought it all home, and I suddenly realised, properly, that I was never, ever, going to see her again.

I sat down heavily on the bed, sobs shaking me. I was vaguely aware of footsteps coming up the stairs, the door opening, and someone talking to me. An arm went round my shoulder as I turned my body into my mother’s embrace and wept. Nons was really gone, never coming back. It hurt me over and over again, as I clung to my mother, who was all I had now. Nons had been my mum all these years, and now I was left with this woman who I barely knew. I brought my tears under control and sat up, pushing my mother away. Looking up into her face, I saw there were tears in her eyes too, but whether for my heartache, or sorrow about her sister, or even grief over her curtailed tour of Florence, I had no idea.

‘Sorry, Mum, it just caught up with me. I’m alright now.’

‘Oh darling, it keeps catching up with me, too. I’ve been trying to distract myself with plans and arrangements, but it keeps popping up at odd times. We’ve got to be strong, we’ve got a lot to do in the next few days. Daddy and I are going to the Chapel of Rest later. You should come with us.’

‘No, Mum, I already told you, I’m not doing that. William and I are going to look at some photos and talk about Nons. You can come too if you like.’

‘Well think about it darling, we’ll let you know when we’re going.’

Exasperated and exhausted, I decided not to argue. We were both going to do what we wanted to regardless, so there seemed little point upsetting each other. I wiped my eyes and carried on unpacking my things as my mother left the room without another word.

51. Kiss me

In which there is another meeting in a churchyard and more rules are imposed.

Julia

Back in my flat, my heart was still pounding. I had come extremely close to having sex with Matt again. I had wanted it, a lot. Rationally, I shouldn’t have, and it was rare for my heart to rule my head. I was a little bit scared; not being in control always scared me, but I was excited too. I seemed to lurch between the two sides of me, the considered, rule-making, control freak and the impassioned risk-taker. The control freak usually won, but the risk-taker used stronger arguments. I would have all weekend to think about it, away from Matt, who seemed to be clouding my judgement.

I sent a quick text to Evie.

‘Hi Ev, I survived unbedded.’

There was no point in telling her just how close I’d come.

‘Kudos. I hear he’s a hard man to resist. Good evening?’

‘Very good. Off to Norfolk tomorrow, catch up next week?’

‘Hope all goes well. xx’

I set my alarm for a ridiculously early hour of the morning and got into bed. Just before I turned the light out, my phone pinged with a text from Matt.

Matt

Once back in my flat, I tried to settle, but couldn’t, my mind racing, going over the evening. I wasn’t going to see Julia now until next week, and I needed to think about something else. This wasn’t going to become an obsession; I’d been there before, and it had got me nothing but desolation.

I looked at things objectively. Jules had agreed with me that we were just seeing how things were going, whether we got along or not. She was as likely to call things off as I was, and I would if I started feeling any pressure.

I wasn’t too keen on the way she imposed rules on the whole thing, but I was happy enough to go with it at the moment, while we were testing the waters. Feeling a bit better about convincing myself it was just casual, I texted her.

‘I no u wont reply but night night 🙂 M x’

‘How do you know I won’t reply?’

‘U never do.’

‘Oh, you must be right then.’

‘Usually am.’

‘Big head.’

‘Jus sayin.’

‘You’ve just used up your quota of replies. No more now for 24 hours.’

‘Wot? There’s a quota? Fuck off! U can’t tell me that now. Come on, start again, I’ll b less wasteful.’

It was this kind of sudden introduction of a new rule that I knew I would find hard to get my head round. I pushed for all I was worth.

‘Please? 2nd chance?’

There was no reply. I wondered how much shit she would take from me.

‘Can’t go 24 hours without hearing fm u.’

Still no reply. It was always possible she might have turned her phone off. I never could, I needed to be in constant contact in case something interesting popped up on Periscope, or I got a text from someone in desperate need of the answer to a pub quiz question, but some people were able to do such an incomprehensible thing as turn theirs off.

‘Julia?’

I don’t know why I kept going, I was obviously losing this.

‘UR a hard woman.’

One more go.

‘OK u win. Cu in 24 hrs. M x’

Julia

I reached over and turned off the lamp. I lay in the dark, thoughts drifting over the evening – Matt, William, Nons. For the third night in a row, I cried myself to sleep.

The alarm woke me at five the next morning. I quickly got ready and took my bag out to the car. It was still dark as I set off, and the roads were nearly empty, but the skies got lighter as the traffic grew heavier. I listened to the radio to help me concentrate, stopped a couple of times for coffee to keep me awake, and arrived at Nons’ pebble-dashed semi-detached house just after twelve.

Matt

I got on with my life the next day, which being a Saturday mostly involved doing laundry and listening to the football scores come in on the radio as I cleaned the bathroom.

I know, it sounds rather domesticated for Matt the Lad, but he wasn’t really me. The real me was tidy, house-proud and possibly a bit dull, and I needed my weekends to sort out my flat. A few months ago, Saturday nights were full on, but I had recently stopped going out so much, and this Saturday I was going to be watching something on Netflix, with a few beers for company. Tomorrow, I was going to Jay and Beth’s for Sunday lunch, which always involved a whole afternoon with various family members, and there wouldn’t be time for chores.

While I worked, I texted Jules, knowing she wasn’t going to reply until later that night, if she replied at all and hadn’t changed her mind in some sudden rehashing of the small print. I sent her all sorts of nonsense – travel alerts that I heard on the radio, silly messages about current events, questions I knew she wasn’t going to answer, just keeping connected. Jules seemed so good at keeping the different parts of her life separate, I just wanted to make sure I at least penetrated the fringes of her weekend away from the city.

Julia

I took a deep breath before taking my key out and walking up the path. I had to stop myself calling out to her as I opened the door, and the thought that I would never again say ‘Only me’ and hear her call back ‘No such thing as only you, Jules’ nearly stopped my breath.

I looked around. It was as if Nons had popped out to the shop – her coats were on the hooks, her reminders were on the fridge, her glasses were on the table. I couldn’t take it in. She wasn’t coming back. I was going to miss her so much.

As I had expected, my parents had not been able to wait for me to arrive before dashing off to London to catch the art, and had left a brief note with a list of things I should be doing and people I should be contacting while I was there. They didn’t know if they would be back before tomorrow lunchtime, but ‘maybe you could stay on, just for a few hours, darling?‘. I knew from past experience that if I did, I would likely be waiting until well past the time when it was sensible to be driving all the way back, they would eventually phone to say they’d been unavoidably delayed by something important (like a show or a new restaurant) and I would drive home angry, tired and dangerous.

I checked my phone, which had been pinging for most of the journey. Matt had sent dozens of texts, mostly inconsequential chatter, some updates on travel news on the route he assumed I would be taking but actually hadn’t, and some that made me laugh. There was no denying that he was entertaining, even if I did feel a little bombarded.

I wasn’t used to being so aware of someone, of having them in my thoughts all the time. I was used to thinking about work problems, world affairs, books I was reading. I was still doing all this, but with constant interruptions for:

‘Hi J (is abbrv OK 4 txt? Hope so) did u no today = International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members? I miss u. Does that count?’

or

‘Why the Whistling Panhandler anyway? WTF?’

and

‘Be careful A14 lorry shed load of birdseed. Flocks of pigeons seen heading from all over Britain.’

I caught up with all of the texts, then put my phone on silent and went next door to see William. He looked small and frail, and had lost weight since the last time I saw him. We hugged and cried for a long time, both of us knowing exactly how the other was feeling. It felt good to finally be with someone who just understood, without me having to explain anything or analyse my emotions. Nons had been everything to both of us and the world was a dimmer place without her.

William made us a cup of tea and we sat in the kitchen, looking out of his window and into Nons’ kitchen. He told me how he’d gone to look for her after worrying all day about her. They usually smiled and waved at each other first thing in the morning, but he hadn’t seen her that day, and at first thought nothing of it; Nons sometimes went out early to go to the market or catch an early bus to Norwich. But as the day wore on and there was still no sign of her, he got more concerned and called round. There was no answer, so he started looking in the windows, eventually spotting her lying on the floor near the front door. Tears were running down his face as he told me this.

‘I just keep thinking, pet, if I’d only gone round when I first started to worry, maybe I could have done something, helped her …’

I tried to reassure him, tell him that there was nothing he could have done, but he was inconsolable.

We sat together for a couple of hours talking, crying, reminiscing, catching up. It was good to talk about Nons to someone who knew her so well; I’d spent all week keeping it to myself, and having William there to tell it all to, and to hear what he had to say, was therapeutic. Eventually, we got on to the subject of the funeral. I had given William’s phone number to the man from Bentley’s, and they had contacted him about Nons.

‘She’s in their Chapel of Rest. I didn’t know if you wanted to go and see her?’

I hadn’t even thought about it.

‘Have you been?’

‘No, pet, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. It’d be good to say goodbye, like, but she’s not going to hear me, is she? She won’t look like her, she won’t be her. Oh, I don’t know.’

Now I had the same dilemma. I had heard different stories from people I knew who had gone to see the bodies of loved ones. Some said it helped, they could say things they’d needed to, get some closure, and some said it was a horrible experience that traumatised them.

‘I feel a bit the same, William. I don’t know. We don’t have to decide yet, do we?’

‘No, lass, not yet. We can talk about it when the chap gets here.’

The man from Bentley’s was due to visit in the afternoon. He came as arranged, and we talked through some details. I was astounded at how many decisions there were to be made, and was grateful for our Halloween night when we had actually talked about it. We did our best to give Nons what we thought she would want, and the funeral director wrote it down so I could show my mother, or at least leave her a copy, when she got back. By the time he had gone, it was early evening, and starting to get dark.

I looked across at Nons’ house, unlit. I wasn’t superstitious and didn’t believe in the paranormal, but the thought of sleeping there alone was daunting. William caught my glance.

‘You can stay in my spare room if you like, lass.’

I shot him a look of gratitude.

‘Thank you, I’d really like that, if you’re sure. I don’t think I could be there on my own. Mum and Dad have taken my room, I’d have to sleep in Nons’ room …’

‘Stay here then, I could do with the company.’

And so I did. William put the television on and we watched the usual banal Saturday evening entertainment, but it didn’t require thinking about, and reduced the need for conversation. I checked my phone again.

Matt had sent several more texts, but I was determined to stick to my twenty four hour no-reply embargo. I found myself smiling at his inanity, despite myself. In some ways, he made me feel like a teenager, waiting for the next bit of attention, the next glance, the next note. William noticed how often I looked at my phone.

‘Waiting for a call, are you?’

‘No, I’m sorry, it’s very rude of me. Just checking my texts. I’ve had quite a few.’

‘Someone special?’

‘Er …’

I didn’t feel I could explain the full details of Matt and me to William, not when I wasn’t entirely sure what it all meant myself.

‘… kind of. It’s all quite new.’

‘Not had a lad for a while, Vonnie said.’

Nons’ real name was Yvonne. I’d mispronounced it when I was little, and it had stuck; William also had a pet name for her.

‘No, been busy at work, no time.’

‘Well it’s about time someone noticed what a lovely lass you are and made you an offer you couldn’t refuse.’

I knew Nons and William spent a lot of time tutting and shaking their heads over me for many reasons: I wasn’t married, I worked too hard, I ate too little, I wasn’t married, I tried to do too much by myself, I wasn’t married. Oh, and did I mention I wasn’t married? It always made me laugh that Nons, who had never married, and William, who had pined after Nons, married, divorced and then pined after Nons again, thought that me being married would solve all of my perceived problems.

‘I don’t think he’s going to be making me any offers, William, not if he knows what’s good for him. And I don’t think he’s the offering kind. We could be perfect for each other.’

William shook his head and muttered under his breath, something about leaving it too late, but I just smiled at him and he dropped the subject.

William went to bed early, and I turned in too, although I spent some time reading, and then decided to put Matt out of his misery.

‘Hello. This is not one of your replies, just a confirming text. Your quota is four. As a free item of information, J is not acceptable. Full names only. Thank you for your stream of consciousness, it has been enlightening.’

‘Julia! :))))) How ru? How was journey? Did u avoid birdseed? If I ask lots in 1 txt, can u reply all @ once = 1 reply? Don’t want 2 waste.’

‘Well OK, you can have up to 3 questions in each text. But if you don’t like the way I answer, that’s tough. So: I’m OK. Journey OK. Avoided birdseed.

‘Ooh, u almost used abbrvs. 3 incomplete sentences! Don’t reply 2 this, jus an observation.’

‘Yes, but I get to choose when I reply not you. Bad luck, 2 down, 2 to go.’

‘Bollox. UR tough. OK. Neeeeeed 2 no wot u wearing. In detail. Pretty pls xx’

‘An old t-shirt. Pants.’

‘Hey I said detail. Is that ALL ur wearing?? Holy fuck. RU in bed? Colours? Style? (Thong or granny pants) Laciness quotient of said articles. Shortness (amt of arse visible). Tightness (visible nips?). Anything else I need 2 no?’

‘That’s more than 3 questions, and this is your fourth reply. Goodnight.’

‘Noooo. U can’t! UR killing me.’

‘We r so gona b writing a txt agreement. Wot if I need important reply, e.g. if I’m stuck down a well and only u no the nbr of the well rescue service, but quota reached?’

‘Wot if I need 2 no footy scores when I’m in the well?’

‘Wot if I need 2 no nbr of pizza delivery in well vicinity?’

‘Hey, Julia, I jus fell down a well. Wot r the chances? Pls txt me nbr of nearest well rescue svc and also details of yr pants – thongs or granny. Thx. M x’

‘@ yr convenience obvs, but water lvl rising. To comfort me, pls also txt whether Spurs bt Everton. Thx. Mx’

‘B4 water reaches mouth pls txt nbr of pizza delivery. Need pepperoni. Thx Mx’

‘Goodbye cruel world blubble blup blip blup blubble …’

I smiled to myself and turned my phone off. There was no doubt Matt was very diverting. He had managed to distract me from the sounds I could hear coming from the room next door, which were William crying himself to sleep. Distraction over, I thought of Nons and did the same.

Matt

I suppose I could have called her, but I really got a sense that Jules wanted to leave me behind while she sorted her aunt out, and texting was all she was going to allow me. I didn’t want to seem like I couldn’t deal with her being away from me; we’d only just got to know each other, and I knew what it would look like to me if someone had smothered me with contact as much as I felt like smothering Jules.

Yeah, I was fooling myself about how I felt about her. I fooled myself about it for a long time. I’d been fucked up since Carrie, and was showing no signs of stopping any time soon.

Julia

I woke early the next morning, when I heard William stirring and going downstairs. I tried to drift back to sleep; I was tired after travelling, and wasn’t relishing the return journey, but being in an unfamiliar room, and also aware of several things I needed to do before I started back, stopped me from relaxing back into sleep. I got up, pulled on some pyjama bottoms and headed downstairs. William was in the kitchen.

‘Morning pet. Sleep alright?’

‘Oh, you know. It’s been hard the last few days.’

‘I know, lass. I know. I was about to do a Sunday fry up. How about it?’

I didn’t usually go for fried food, but today it appealed. There was something comforting about being here and someone cooking me bacon and eggs.

‘I’d really like that. Thanks William. Let me help though.’

So we did it together. I chopped and grilled some tomatoes and mushrooms while he filled two frying pans with eggs, bacon and bread.

‘I usually have a bit of black pudding, but I didn’t think you’d like it, being a southern softy.’

William’s north-eastern roots were apparent in his accent and his penchant for food made out of entrails. He’d often teased me and Nons about being southerners, but he had never seemed at all interested in returning to his Northumbrian homeland.

‘Er, no black pudding for me, thanks. But don’t let me stop you.’

‘No, lass, wouldn’t want to put you off. I’ll save it for later, when I don’t have to worry about your delicate constitution, like.’

We ate our breakfast in companionable silence, listening to the news on the radio. I went through a mental list of things I needed to do before I left; I was beginning to realise I was going to have to take more time off later in the week to sort things out. It was highly unlikely my parents had actually done anything, and the list of arrangements outside of the funeral grew longer all the time. Someone was going to have to register the death, someone was going to have to go to the solicitor to deal with the will, someone was going to have to sort out the finances. It was going to be down to me, and I felt overwhelmed with it all. It was hard enough coming to terms with Nons being gone; the sheer amount of bureaucracy and organisation involved in her dying was enough to send someone who wasn’t grieving over the edge. For me, I just about managed to push it down far enough that I could function on the surface.

I had a shower and got dressed, then wrote a list of things I wanted to check out with my mother and left it for her. I also, in a triumph of hope over experience, wrote a separate list of things I wanted her to do, while promising I would be back later in the week. I would have to wait until tomorrow to check out with Phil how much leave I could take, but I was sure I could get at least two days at the end of the week to tack on to the weekend.

I turned my phone on, and braced myself for the onslaught of texts. There were quite a few, Matt seeming not to have noticeably drowned down a well overnight. Impulsively, I dialled his number.

Matt

So the next day, I got up late. I texted Jules a few times in the morning. Texting was like breathing to me, it was how I convinced myself I was alive. I texted everyone, all the time; it wasn’t just Jules.

I picked Mum up and went to Jay and Beth’s early, knowing I was going to get commandeered into helping with something, whether it was peeling vegetables or playing with Cal or Iz. I usually tried to engineer it so that I ‘helped’ by playing X-box with Cal, but Dec and Amy were already there, and Dec had beaten me to it.

My next ploy was to investigate the garden with Mum, who loved a good nosy at what was going on in other people’s back yards, but I was allowed no peace, and Beth called me in to help peel potatoes. There was a full house today, with Dec, Amy, Mum and Rose, as well as the four in situ Scotts, so a fair few spuds needing a good bashing. Just as I was rolling my sleeves up, my phone rang. I looked apologetically at Beth, then looked at the screen, surprised to see Jules’ name.

‘Sorry, Beth, I need to get this.’

Beth rolled her eyes and moved on to the next victim. I answered and went into the conservatory, where I could still hear everything going on, but at least had a little privacy. Iz was playing in there, but I doubted she was going to tell anyone what I’d been talking about.

‘Julia?’

‘Hello.’

‘Is everything alright?’

I was so surprised to hear from her, I wondered if something had happened.

‘Yes, fine. I just thought I’d double check you managed to get out of the well. Water levels receded miraculously in the nick of time, I assume.’

Oh, she was referring to my nonsense from last night when I was trying to get her to override her four text rule, and I’d pretended I was stuck underground, about to drown. Maybe you had to be there, but I was really pleased that she was responding to it now.

‘Ha ha, yeah, well, you know how it is, this bloody collie dog comes along, drops a rope down, pulls me out, all that shit. Had a pizza strapped to its back. Even woofed me the footy scores.’

‘I’m so glad. I would have felt a little bit guilty if you’d drowned, but rules are rules.’

‘Don’t I bloody know it. You’ve got a heart of fucking stone.’

From the kitchen, I heard Beth shout ‘Language, Matty.’ Did she have radar instead of ears or something?

‘What? Oh, sorry, Beth, I didn’t see her there. Sorry, blondie. Sorry, Julia, just getting told to mind my language. I’m at my brother’s for Sunday lunch. You’ve just saved me from having to peel half a ton of bloody potatoes.’

‘Oh, sorry to intrude. I should leave you to it. I’ll be setting off in an hour or two, there’s a lot to do.’

Jules’ manner had changed, I didn’t know what I’d said, but she was more distant.

‘Don’t go on my account, they’ll only find me something else to do. Is it all going OK up there?’

‘Yes, OK, thanks.’

Julia

Now I knew Matt wasn’t alone I felt less comfortable talking to him. I liked that other people didn’t know about us, and if his family heard him talking to me on the phone, they would be bound to ask questions, and that sense of privateness would be lost.

‘When will you be back?’

‘It depends on the traffic, probably this evening sometime.’

Matt

‘Call me?’

I was surprised at how much I needed to know that she was home safely. Still kidding myself.

‘I’ll see how I am, I’ll be tired.’

‘Text then, just so I know you got back OK.’

Julia

I sighed. I hated it when people needed to know my every move, I felt like I couldn’t just change my plans without causing a huge scene.

‘I’m not promising. Don’t fuss, Matt. I’m perfectly capable of driving for a few hours without the world ending.’

There was a brief silence.

Matt

And I was going to have to de-Beth. I was fussing over her as if I wasn’t the one who kicked up a stink when it happened to me. I reined it in.

‘OK. Have a good trip. See you tomorrow.’

Beth couldn’t resist asking, when I finished talking to Jules. She knew I never gave her any details about anyone, but it didn’t stop her.

‘Girlfriend?’

‘Fu – er – get lost Beth. Just someone from work.’

It was true enough for me to say it convincingly.

‘Does she need an invite for next Sunday?’

‘No thanks.’

‘We like to meet your friends, sweetheart.’

‘Back off, Beth.’

Jay chose that moment to bring in a beer, which was welcome, and join the conversation, which was not.

‘What’s this? New woman, Matty?’

I sighed and rolled my eyes.

‘No. Just someone from work.’

‘Since when did you bloody work on a Sunday?’

‘I didn’t say I was working, I just said I was talking to someone from work.’

It was fast becoming a big deal, which I really didn’t want it to be. I should have just ignored my phone when it rang. I would next time. I stood up and walked into the living room.

‘It’s been a while since we met anyone ‘from your work’. Maybe you should stop dumping them all.’

‘Maybe you should all stop planning my wedding as soon as I bring anyone over, you might get to meet them more than once before you scare them off.’

‘I don’t think they’re the ones we scared off, Matty.’

Yeah, I definitely shouldn’t have answered my phone.

Julia

We disconnected, leaving me a vague sense of dissatisfaction. I was fast coming to the conclusion that I liked Matt a lot, I liked being with him and I liked talking to him, but I liked being on my own too, and doing my own thing, and finding the right balance, especially at the moment when my head was full of things I needed to do, as well as what I was feeling, was proving difficult. I was aware I had been abrupt with Matt, but I couldn’t address that at the moment. Overnight, I had come to a decision about viewing Nons’ body.

‘William, you know we were talking yesterday about going to the Chapel of Rest?’

‘Yes, pet.’

‘Well, I’ve decided I don’t want to. I want to remember her how she was, and I don’t want to take the risk of my last memory being something awful and fake. I think I’m going to spend some time looking at photos of her and thinking about her. I’ll be back in a few days, I’ll do it then.’

‘Oh lass, that sounds grand. I think I might do the same. I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing her, but people were saying I should, you know, and I thought … and, well, maybe you’d like to do it on your own, but if you’d like some company when you do that, I’d be happy to join you.’

‘I’d really love that. I’ll let you know when I’m coming back. It’ll be next week sometime.’

Matt

I weathered the storm, more than capable of holding my own against Jay, and managed to get him in trouble with Beth for saying ‘fuck’ at the dinner table. This successfully deflected attention away from me and my private life, and I further deflected it by asking Dec if he won his game with Cal, knowing that he wouldn’t have because he was the singular most useless exponent of video games the world has ever seen, and it opened a whole new avenue of teasing for us all to explore. I was pretty good at this.

Julia

I went back to Nons’ house, just to have a look round and see what was going to need doing. I was going to have to clear out cupboards and wardrobes at some point, but I couldn’t even bear the thought of it right now. I needed to find out how long my parents were staying and think about the food in the fridge and freezer. It was one of the items on my list for my mother, but I would have to bring some food up with me when I came back just in case.

I went and stood in my old room, which was currently blanketed in my parents’ clothes and travelling paraphernalia. On an impulse I took down the framed print of Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night that had hung on my wall since I was fifteen. I loved the picture, had seen the original in an exhibition all those years ago, and had to have a copy. I had looked at it so many times, losing myself in the contrasts, the swirls, the fuzzy brightness, the deep darkness. I popped it into my travel bag and went back downstairs.

There was a tap on the front door. When I opened it, William was standing there with a plastic-wrapped package.

‘I made you some sarnies. You can have them now, or take them with you. I know what you’re like for eating, didn’t want you to go all that time without something inside you. There’s cheese and pickle and ham salad.’

I was so touched, tears sprang to my eyes. I took the sandwiches and kissed William on the cheek.

‘Thanks, William. That’s really lovely of you. I’ll be going in about half an hour, but can I do you a cup of tea before I go?’

William shook his head.

‘I can’t … can’t go in. Sorry, pet. It’s just too much, all her things and her not there.’

Before I could say anything, he’d turned round and walked back to his own house, wiping his eyes.

I texted my mother to let her know what I’d got done and where I’d left my lists. I didn’t expect a reply; she would probably call me at some inconvenient hour, either while I was still driving or when I had gone to bed. Then there was nothing more to be done but whisper a goodbye to Nons and leave.

Being there had resulted in both helping me start to come to terms with it, but also feeling even more sad. It was sinking in that I was never going to see her again, and I felt small and alone. I drove away before I could dwell more, and lost myself in the journey home.

I stopped a couple of times on the way back and checked my phone, but there were no messages or texts. At the back of my mind I wondered if I had offended Matt, but he didn’t seem like the type to get easily offended, and I told myself he would be enjoying himself with his family.

Matt

I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon, talking with the grown ups, playing with the children, all pretty standard fare for a Sunday afternoon, but it was part of me now, this large family, and I liked being there with them, the people who knew me, loved me, who I didn’t have to pretend with, who would, in fact, call me on it pretty hard if I pretended about anything.

Beth meddled, Jay grumbled, Dec bantered, Amy chatted, Rose tried to organise and Mum took it all in and then offered a one-line pithy insight. Cal was rapidly turning into a bit of an early developer adolescent, with occasional sulks and bad moods, but on the whole he was great to be with, and Iz was a little heartbreaker with her blonde curls and her need to be picked up and cuddled by every man in the room. Forget the grannies, Iz knew which side her bread was buttered, and it was the side with big strong arms and facial hair.

Julia

As I neared the city, I started to relax. Closer to home, I always felt more in control, I knew where I was and what I was doing there. It was almost eight o’clock by the time I got home. I checked my phone; my mother had texted me when they arrived back in Norfolk.

‘Sorry to miss you, we could have told you about the Mondrian it was magnificent.’

Nothing about any of the arrangements I’d made or the lists of things she’d asked me to do that I’d ticked off, or the things I’d asked her to do. It was as if Nons hadn’t existed. She probably wanted me to call her, but I decided to leave it until tomorrow. Matt was still hovering at the back of my mind, so I texted him.

Matt

So I had my family fix, and I went home, and was in the middle of watching a film when I heard the text tone ping on my phone. It was Jules, letting me know she was home. I hadn’t expected her to, after fussing over her earlier, but I replied, thanking her, and got in a few of my quota of texts, having worked out a strategy to gain maximum information for minimum expending of valuable questions.

Julia

‘I’m home now. See you tomorrow.’

‘Thx. Sorry 4 fussing. No wot its like, hate it. Have a glass of Shiraz n relax. Or Otter 😉 ‘

‘Wine sounds good. Do you fancy your quota of replies a bit early?’

‘Fuck yeah! I’ve got a strategy worked out. Starting now?’

‘I’ll be kind and say the next one is number one.’

There was a delay, while I assumed the cogs were working in Matt’s head.

‘OK – 3 questions, yeah? Gona ask 1 personal, 1 work, 1 random. 1: tell me abt yr knickers FFS! Thong or granny. Bustin a gut here. 2: how u no abt Margie’s boobs? 3: Y the Whistling Panhandler? Wot kind of stupid-ass name is that?’

I didn’t answer immediately. I had things to do, like unpacking my bag and putting washing on, and I didn’t want Matt to think he could have my undivided attention whenever he wanted it. Eventually I was ready to answer him.

‘That is almost 4 questions, 3 being a 2 parter. You are lucky I’m feeling generous. 1: Neither. 2: Not my information to tell. 3: I have no idea. Try again.’

‘Fuck. Thought I’d got it sussed. Ur good. OK, being careful now. 1: So what sort of knickers do u wear? Note lack of multiple choice – ha! 2: What does Mike Davis keep in that bloody locked drawer? 3: Caravans – good cheap source of holiday accommodation or scum of the fucking earth?’

Matt had texted back straight away, which kept the pressure on me and made me stall again. If he had been less eager, he may have got a quicker response, but instead I went into the bathroom, took my toiletries out of my weekend bag and arranged them back on their shelf. Then I responded.

‘1: Various, depending on situation. 2: It is rumoured to be a very small mail order bride, but nobody knows for sure. 3: Ask me on a day when I haven’t been stuck behind about 2000 all afternoon. Next.’

‘OK, that’s a bit more like it. Pls note this is last one 4 now, I want to save one 4 l8r. 1: Re: knickers. In wot situation wld u wear thong? 2: Fancy lunch w John & Roberta 2moro? 3: Do u like walking? Radio silence will now be maintained. TTFN :)’

Another instant reply, but at least he was sticking to the rules. I didn’t make him wait quite as long, as a reward.

‘1: If no other choice. 2: No thanks. 3: Well I have to walk to get from one place to another, I’m not sure I have strong feelings about it one way or the other. I suspect that’s not what you mean. I have a pair of hiking boots and a backpack. I await your last effort with bated breath.’

And that was it for the time being. I unpacked my bag and put a few things in the washing machine, then made myself some pasta for dinner. I quickly called Evie and arranged that she would come over tomorrow evening. I finished up a bottle of wine that had been opened before I went to Norfolk, and turned the TV on, hoping for something bland but not soporific to keep my brain ticking over before I went to bed. I settled on a nature documentary, and immersed myself in butterflies and moths for an hour before my long journey caught up with me and I felt my eyes start to droop, sending me to bed. I was almost asleep when I heard my phone bleep from the lounge. I’d forgotten to bring it into the bedroom. Cursing, I got up to fetch it – I liked to have it by the bed for the alarm in the morning. The screen was glowing when I reached it, a text from Matt. I’d forgotten his last reply was still pending.

Matt

I saved one last text for when I was going to bed, as she so far hadn’t said goodnight to me, which seemed remiss of her, but here was her opportunity.

‘Goodnight. M x’

She replied much more quickly to this than to any of my other texts. Maybe the simple approach was the one that worked with her.

Julia

It was simple but effective. More effective than his relentless questioning about my pants, and it got an immediate reply.

‘Goodnight. Thank you. Julia’

Matt

The next day at work was a re-run of the previous week. We ignored each other as we would have done on any other work day, and then I hit on the perfect way remind Jules I wanted to have lunch with her. I announced to the office in general that I was going to lunch with Roberta, and I left for the hidden headstones without even looking at her. I picked up two lots of sandwiches, crisps and drinks on the way, and waited on the stone bench. I was prepared for her not to come, but had a feeling she would, and was delighted when I saw her peering cautiously round the side of the entrance.

Julia

The next day at work went much the same as Friday. Matt and I managed to treat each other as we would have done any other day, the work went smoothly, any remaining gossip about last Wednesday’s events seemed to have drained away.

I asked Phil for a few days off, explaining that funeral arrangements were my responsibility. With the funeral set for Tuesday, and needing to be in Norfolk prior to that to make sure things got done, we agreed I could have a week off from Wednesday. He was very fair about it.

At lunchtime, Matt announced to the room in general that he was going to lunch with Roberta, and did not look at me. There were a few raised eyebrows and murmured questions, as several people wondered out loud who Roberta was. I hid a smile, and then, on an impulse, left about fifteen minutes later as well.

I walked quickly up the street, into the cemetery and found the hidden alcove. Matt was waiting, legs crossed, arms folded, with two sandwiches, two packets of crisps and two cans of drink next to him on the bench. As well as a very smug look on his face.

‘You can’t have known I would come.’

Matt

‘You can’t resist me.’

I hadn’t known she would come, but it made it look good that I’d predicted her arrival, and if she hadn’t come she would never have known I’d got it wrong.

‘I wanted to talk to you.’

‘I refer you to my previous comment. Have a sandwich. I’ve got crisps too – Salt and Vinegar or Cheese and Onion?’

‘No thank you.’

‘Your loss.’

I deliberately didn’t try to persuade her to eat. I could always eat her share later. I started eating a chicken sandwich, while Jules remained standing in front of me.

‘Sit down, for fuck’s sake, you’re making the place look untidy.’

I moved some of the food aside to make room, and she sat down. I put my sandwich down and shuffled along the bench until I was pressed up against her hip. God I’d missed her. How had that happened? I put my arm round her, bent my face down and kissed her on the cheek. She leaned her head on my shoulder and sighed, as if she was trying to breathe out something bad.

‘That’s a heavy sound. You OK?’

She nodded against me, then shook her head, whatever that meant. I twisted round so I could see her eyes.

‘Julia?’

‘I’ve just got so much going on, I feel like my head’s going to explode.’

‘Tell me?’

Julia

If I was honest, that was what I’d come here for. I didn’t know how good Matt was at serious, I hadn’t seen it very often. But I suddenly just needed to offload. I told him about needing to take time off, and about how much responsibility I suddenly felt I had with all the arrangements that needed to be made. It all felt so far away, and I told him how little my parents were likely to help.

Matt let me talk, his arm holding me close, his thumb stroking my shoulder gently as I spoke. He kissed the top of my head a couple of times. I told him about William, and what Nons had meant to him, and I told him what she had meant to me. I didn’t cry, and it helped to get it all out of me.

Matt

I wasn’t usually that great at serious, but all I needed to do was listen and be strong and comforting. As she talked, I held her close. She told me all about her aunt, how close they’d been, how much she had to do to organise the funeral, how crap her parents were. I kissed the top of her head a couple of times, hoping it would seem sympathetic. I didn’t even worry about whether she was going to blart all over me again, maybe because I was becoming sensitive and emotionally available, but more likely because Jules just didn’t seem like she was about to cry.

Jules told me about her aunt’s neighbour, who had apparently had a thing for her aunt for ever but never told her, and she said it all without a single tear. I could feel the tenseness in her body, though, and I wondered if I was being selfish, carrying on with what we were doing. Now, there was a first, well the first for a long time: Matt Scott considering someone else ahead of himself.

‘Is all this –’

I gestured vaguely around, attempting to encompass both us and the situation we found ourselves in.

‘– too much at the moment?’

She looked up at me, thinking. I loved that she always thought before she said something, really considered her answer.

Julia

I looked up at him, considering. At times it was overwhelming, but spending time with Matt and having mad text conversations had helped prevent me spiralling into grief.

‘No, I think it’s kept me going in a way. You’re not part of it all. Maybe it feels a bit crazy sometimes. But good crazy.’

‘If it gets too much, please say. I know I can be an annoying fucker. I don’t always know when to rein it in. I don’t want to make things worse for you.’

Matt

Hey, and as well as Matt Scott not being selfish, he was being self-aware. Who knew.

‘I will. Please don’t stop being an annoying fucker, I think you’re keeping me sane.’

I laughed at that and kissed the top of her head again.

‘Can I see you tonight?’

I was really liking this closeness, and wanted more of it. It was different from anything I’d had in the last few years, and although I should have been arsing my way out of it, telling myself she was being too clingy, that I was just in it for the kicks, well, she wasn’t being clingy. If anything, I was being the clingy one, and it just turned everything on its head.

‘No, I’m spending the evening with a friend.’

‘Tomorrow?’

‘I’ve got to do a shop so there’s food in the house up there, and then I need to pack. Then I’m going on Wednesday morning. I might not see you for a while.’

But I hadn’t seen her for ages, and I really wanted to spend some time with her, and soon. I tried desperately to find a way before she left.

‘I’ll come shopping with you. I can push the trolley, or go and fetch the baked beans, ask the work experience girl where the condoms are just to see how many different shades of red she goes. It also works with the work experience boy and tampons.’

But she had an answer for that.

‘You can’t come with me, someone might see us. How would we explain that one away?’

‘Why would we have to explain anything? So someone spots us, who gives a fuck?’

I wanted to be with her, but it seemed like every time I tried, I came up against a new rule that needed negotiating. Or maybe they were old rules that I just didn’t know about yet. I really liked Jules, but this was something that could make or break us.

‘I give a fuck. Doing shopping together is a bit obvious. It suggests a level of intimacy. How can we be work us if people know there’s an … outside of work us?’

I reminded myself that I knew Jules needed to keep her work persona separate from her real persona, and that she was under a lot of stress at the moment. I breathed out heavily, and thought of a compromise.

‘OK. I see your point. How about we go somewhere a bit off the beaten track? That farm place by the river? It’s only busy at weekends, weekday evenings are pretty quiet, and you can get nice stuff there, take that up with you instead of supermarket crap. Go on, Julia. Please say yes, otherwise I won’t see you for ages.’

It was my best begging voice – pleading without wheedling. As an added incentive, I took her hand and kissed her fingertips, liking the softness of them brushing my lips.

Julia

He took my hand and kissed my fingertips. It gave me goosebumps, and weakened my resistance.

‘Oh alright. But if we see anyone from work, even in the distance, I’m leaving you there with the trolley and going to the supermarket on my own. And we go in separate cars.’

Matt

I laughed. Her rules were bloody ridiculous. If I laughed at them instead of getting annoyed with them, maybe they would be easier to cope with.

‘Holy crap, it’s like a bloody SAS mission. OK. Deal. Separate cars, I get left holding the evidence if hostiles are spotted. The code word is ‘abort abort abort’. Should I wear dark glasses and full body camouflage, or is that a bit over the top?’

‘Take the piss all you want. I don’t want anything to interfere with how I do things at work. I thought you felt the same.’

‘Yeah, I did.’

But I was fast realising that my Matt the Lad persona had nothing on Jules’ Ice Queen, who was almost a full-blown acting role in her own right.

‘Have you changed your mind?’

‘Not exactly, but I’m wondering how long we can keep it up, how long we’ll want to keep it up.’

‘We have to keep it up. It’s not negotiable.’

‘But how long are we going to be sneaking around for? I mean, it’s exciting and everything now, fuck yeah, but longer term I think I’m going to want to hold your hand, talk to you properly, do this …’

This was why I’d wanted to meet her here. I leaned down and kissed her, softly pushing my tongue into her mouth, and around and over her tongue. Her mouth was warm and welcoming, and I felt desire creep along my spine and nestle in my groin. I didn’t persist, though, and pulled away, waiting to see if she wanted more.

Julia

He leaned down and kissed me, his soft lips making mine tingle and his tongue pushing wet flickers of sparking energy into my mouth. He pulled away and I was bereft for a moment.

‘Mm. I really fucking well want to do that, a lot, and not just here where dead people are the only audience we have to worry about.’

‘Don’t, Matt. It’s far too soon. I need to get used to what this is before anything changes. I like being with you. I really like it. Please don’t put pressure on me.’

He was silent for a while.

Matt

I was pretty sure she was talking about being together at work, and not kissing me now.

‘OK. Sorry. I just wanted you to know what I’m thinking. We’ll keep things the same, but we should carry on talking, checking it out. Come here. Avert your ghostly eyes John and Roberta, I’m about to pash this young lady.’

50. I want you to want me

In which Julia and Matt get to know each other better.

Julia

And then he went, but not before making me give him my mobile number and watching me programme his number into mine. I was mentally breathless with it all, maybe I was a little bit mad, I was certainly behaving somewhat out of character. It remained to be seen how we managed to keep it up at work.

Matt’s revelation yesterday that he and I were in some kind of competition instigated by Phil had shaken me, but this evening’s events changed the rules and things may take a while to settle down for me. I shook my head, to try to shake it all out. I had things to do. I had been about to call William, and now I had to be Jules and put all thoughts of Matt Scott to one side.

William had loved Nons forever. He lived next door to her, and although eventually he’d married someone else and had a family, because he’d given up hope, he and Nons had always stayed close. When he got divorced and his children left home, he stayed, determined that if he couldn’t have Nons, he could at least look after her.

I don’t think Nons had known any of this; William was adamant that he couldn’t tell her. I’d found out when I’d gone round to borrow some kitchen implement or other, and had seen the photos he had spread out on his kitchen table. They were all of her, various ages. He’d just been sitting, looking at them. He’d shrugged, picked them all up and put them in a box, and then told me. And made me promise not to tell her.

I don’t know if Nons ever knew, or guessed, but she did think of William as her best friend. They were in and out of each other’s houses all the time, he did her gardening, she sewed up the holes in his trouser pockets. They watered each other’s plants when they went on holiday. They even went on holiday together sometimes, and got a different neighbour to water both their plants. William was going to be heartbroken, and I pressed his name on my phone with trepidation.

‘Hello.’

‘William, it’s Jules.’

‘Oh, lass …’

‘Are you alright?’

‘No, pet, not really, it’s not sunk in yet. I keep looking over at her kitchen window, expecting to see her washing up, giving me a wave with her Marigolds.’

As he talked, I could hear a deep sadness in his voice. It matched how I was feeling, and although it was painful to talk about Nons and acknowledge we were never going to see her again, it helped to be remembering her with someone who had loved her as much as I did. We talked for a while, I told him I was coming up at the weekend, and we said goodbye.

Next on the list were my parents. I almost put this one to the bottom of the list, as the least desirable of the tasks, but it needed doing. My mother was much the same as the previous day, full of the inconvenience of it all, asking what I had managed to organise for the weekend, because obviously they needed to make plans that didn’t involve seeing me for longer than they had to, or that necessitated them making any cumbersome arrangements. I told her I would be there on Saturday by noon, and stay until Sunday afternoon. She wanted me to be there for longer, but I resisted her whining and stood firm.

Finally, I could get to Evie. My best friend, the person who knew me better than anyone. We’d been at school together, we’d shared lunch boxes, lipstick, boyfriends, cars, flats, clothes, ups and downs.

Evie had spent a few years abroad after she left university, but we’d kept in touch, and when she came back to England she got a job in this city, much to my joy. We saw each other every week or two, and were in touch by phone or text most days. I had a lot to tell her – I would end up telling her everything; she always knew when something had happened, and could get me to open up.

‘Jules, hi, ‘sup?’

‘Oh, you know.’

‘Informative. Everything alright?’

‘No, not really. Nons died.’

‘Oh Jules, no. When?’

‘Day before yesterday.’

‘You must be devastated.’

‘Pretty much.’

I told her the story, and she was sympathetic and understanding and listened as I cried and talked, and she was just what I needed – somewhere I could face it all, feel it all, be absolutely real about it all, before I put it all away again so my life could go on.

‘I’ll come round tomorrow, Jules, bring a bottle, we can have a good sesh, remember her properly.’

‘I can’t tomorrow, Ev.’

I stopped myself saying what I was doing, wondering how she was going to react to the mad whatever it was that Matt and I had agreed to.

‘Oh OK, that’s cool, what are you up to?’

‘Meeting someone for a drink.’

‘By someone, would you mean a person of the male persuasion?’

‘I would mean that.’

‘Come on, then, you’ve got to give me more to go on, you know I want details, descriptions, height, weight, star signs, marks out of ten, the works.’

I thought about stringing her along, but decided to rip the plaster off and get it over with.

‘Matt Scott.’

There was a stunned silence.

‘Do you mean the Matt Scott from work who makes your life a living hell and has shagged practically everything with a pulse between here and Inverness?’

‘That’s the one. Although I wouldn’t say he makes my life a living hell exactly.’

‘Oh, my mistake, he’s not the one you phone me up about all the time – ‘you’ll never believe what he’s done now’ – you say it at least once a week, he sounds like a complete scumbag. Why are you going out with him?’

‘Well, it’s complicated, I had a bit of a meltdown at work yesterday, stormed out, he came after me. We talked. He’s different than I thought.’

‘Different how?’

‘More interesting, less of a wanker, more worth getting to know.’

‘Jules, my lovely, are you sure you know what you’re doing? You’ve hated him since you started there. Why the sudden – oh! You’ve shagged him, haven’t you.’

I don’t know how, but she always seemed to know. My silence spoke volumes.

‘Oh my God, Jules. What on earth possessed you?’

‘I don’t know. I was in a bit of a state, upset about Nons, upset about the stuff at work, he was nice to me, he made me feel better. He said something that annoyed me, and after I’d stopped trying to punch his lights out for being an arsehole, he just held me and it felt good, and then it just got … steamy.’

‘So he took advantage of you while you were in a fragile state?’

‘God, Evie, are you channelling the Victorian era or something? No! I was capable at all times of making my own decisions. He’s – he was – he’s just been to see me, actually. He didn’t come to work today, he felt so bad about it all.’

‘What, he came there? To your flat?’

Evie knew the implications of that, if not the full Ice Queen story.

‘Yes.’

‘Well I hope you gave him a hard time.’

‘Maybe a bit. Then we kind of decided to, I don’t know, see how things go. So I’m having a drink with him tomorrow.’

‘Just a drink?’

‘Yes.’

‘Won’t he try it on again?’

‘It’s possible I suppose –’

I had a sudden sense of how disappointed I would be if he did try it on after everything he’d said.

‘– but I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.’

‘I know you are, Jules, but you’re upset at the moment. You might not be thinking completely straight. Don’t let him smarm his way into your bed just because he knows what buttons to press to make you lose your marbles.’

‘I’ll be careful.’

‘I’m only nagging because I care.’

There weren’t many people whose nagging I would accept with good grace.

‘I know Ev. Thanks. Love you.’

‘Love you too, Jules. Call tomorrow and tell me all about it?’

‘Might do, might just text.’

‘Shall we get the gang together, have a big cheer-up for you?’

‘Not right now, Ev. I don’t really want to see anyone, and I’ve got loads to do.’

‘OK, whatever’s cool. See you soon, my lovely.’

I disconnected from Evie and sat back on the sofa, breathing out a sigh. That was it, for this evening, of talking, analysing, chewing over and confessing.

I needed a glass of wine and some dinner, so I wandered over to the fridge and tipped a bit of salad into a bowl, topped it with some mozzarella, and filled a glass from the bottle I’d opened yesterday.

While I ate and drank, I started to assimilate my day, putting the different bits in the right boxes. Little stabs of something like panic kept assaulting me as I remembered Matt’s visit, and it started to become clearer exactly how much I had allowed things to change – not just at work, where the potential for disaster was high, but in my private life, where I had permitted someone access to a part of me I usually hid.

I jumped, startled, as my phone beeped announcing a text. It was from Matt. I sighed. I might have also given up my solitude.

‘Hi :)’

Well at least he wasn’t a rambling texter, although the use of emoticons irritated me. I allowed him a reply, though.

‘Hello. Was there something you wanted?’

‘Hell yeah 😉 but 4 now jus checkin u ok n still wan 2 meet 2moro’

I wasn’t particularly fond of text speak, either – with predictive text it was often quicker to type the full word, and the abbreviations seemed juvenile. Was he really checking about tomorrow? Was he feeling insecure, or having second thoughts himself? This was one of the many reasons I disliked communicating by text; there were too many unknowns in a truncated conversation.

‘Yes, I always keep my appointments.’

‘OK gr8 🙂 cu 2moz @ work. Xcited!! ;)’

Oh dear, a whole raft of winks, smileys, exclamation marks and abbreviations. I got the feeling Matt was going to be the one who always had the last word in a text conversation, and so I didn’t reply.

I got my laptop out and Googled funeral homes in the small north Norfolk town where Nons had lived. There were a couple in the area and I emailed the links to my mother so I could check them out with her later. Much as she would want to avoid the bother of making any arrangements herself, she would not allow any decisions to be arrived at without her, in case they reflected adversely on her reputation for style and artistry. Plans for the funeral were going to have to be delicately negotiated to avoid a lavish affair that didn’t reflect Auntie Nons’ simple tastes. I texted my mother and asked where Nons was at the moment.

‘I don’t know. William dealt with it all while we were on our way.’

‘Didn’t you ask him?’

‘Too busy darling. Have you called anyone?’

She listed several distant relatives she wanted me to contact, and there went the rest of my evening, in a haze of sadness and condolences.

By the time I got to bed I had finished the bottle of wine and made inroads into another as a way of dulling it all. As I lay my head on my pillow, my phone bleeped. I picked it up from beside the bed. Another text from Matt.

‘Night x’

‘How observant’

‘Sarky cow. I meant goodnight 🙂 xx’

I didn’t reply. I didn’t want Matt to get used to chatting to me via texts whenever he felt like it. I needed to impose some boundaries. I flicked the screen off, put it back beside the bed and turned the light off. I was just drifting off to sleep when the phone bleeped again. Another text from Matt.

‘Feeling ignored :(‘

Good, that was the plan. I put the ringer on silent, turned over and cried myself to sleep for the second night in a row, as memories of Nons crowded into my mind.

It seemed like only minutes later that the alarm went. I hadn’t dreamed or woken all night. Suppressing a slight, unexpected thrill of excitement at the day and evening ahead, I made my way through my morning wake-up routine, and turned up at work early enough to be the first in again.

This time, the peace and quiet lasted for nearly twenty minutes and I had time to make myself coffee before anyone else arrived. I was immersed in emails and meeting minutes for a lot of the morning, and it wasn’t until I was in a meeting with my team that Matt arrived.

Matt

I texted Jules a couple of times later that night, trying to keep the vibe going, and got the distinct impression she was trying to keep me at arms length. It was the same at work the next day. No one would have known things had changed between us, even I almost doubted it, although the annoying barrage of questions from Lexi the pathologically inquisitive receptionist, about where I’d been for the last day and a half, helped to remind me.

Julia

As usual, the office seemed to grind to a halt to observe his grand entrance. His own team stopped what they were doing to high-five him and take delivery of the coffee he always brought with him. I noticed how the eyes of the members of my team slid enviously towards them, and for the first time wondered if my strategy of ruling with an iron rod was really the best way. Then I instantly dismissed it. I got results. People weren’t necessarily happy, but they worked hard. I was fair with people, they knew where they stood, and I gave credit where it was due. I wasn’t about to start changing just because of a few glances. I called everyone to order and we re-focussed.

Matt

I rather regretted making up a bad headache as my excuse for not going in the day before. Lexi kept trying to chat to me about my fictitious migraine, because ‘my mum gets them’. In the way that your health becomes public property once you divulge an issue, it seemed I was now an expert on triggers and pain relief; God alone knows how many fucking cripple friends and relations would crawl from the woodwork if I told them about the fucking bastard.

Julia

The day went much as every other day had at GreenScreen. Matt and I didn’t have much to do with each other, we hardly looked at each other let alone spoke, and we got through our work in much the usual way. It wasn’t until people had started to leave for the day that either of us gave any indication that things might have changed, and it was so subtle I doubted it would have been noticed.

I was still sitting at my computer when Matt walked past, on his way home, satchel slung over his shoulder. He turned briefly in to face me through the door and winked. It was such a small gesture, and there was nobody around to see him, but it sent a huge jolt of heat through me and I felt my cheeks burn. If anyone had noticed anything, it would have been my reaction and not his action that would have tipped them off. I determined to try to school my responses otherwise things were going to get awkward. I knew him well enough to know that, changed goal-posts or not, if I asked him not to do it, he would take it as a challenge and carry right on winking.

Home again, I braved another phone call with my mother. She wanted to talk about the links I had sent her to the two funeral homes, one of which was the Co-op; I already knew which one would, or rather wouldn’t, meet with her approval.

‘I’d like her to have a tasteful funeral, darling.’

‘I’m sure the Co-op do tasteful.’

‘Oh no, JuJu, it’s just so vulgar. Bentley’s sounds much more appropriate.’

‘Alright, then, but what about hymns or songs, flowers or not, order of service, humanitarian or Christian, cremation or burial?’

I already knew the answers to most of these, at least what Nons had wanted. We’d had a marvellously ghoulish Halloween evening a few years ago, watching Night of the Living Dead and then discussing how we would want to go out – bang or whimper, not gentle into that good night, who we’d come back and haunt, all of that.

It wasn’t that I wanted my mother’s opinion, I just wanted to make her aware of all the things that still needed deciding, beyond how long it was decent to remain at the wake before jetting off to Iceland to resume one’s travels.

‘Oh JuJu, honestly, I’m sure you can take care of all that. Call Bentley’s now, you can get some quotes at the very least.’

‘I think I’ll call William and ask him. He’d want to be involved.’

‘Oh. Well alright, darling, if you think you can’t do it on your own, I suppose William might be able to do something.’

Although she seemed to be having difficulty imagining just how her sister’s best friend in the world could possibly have any contribution to make to her funeral arrangements.

‘I’ll do it now. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mum.’

‘Tomorrow? Oh yes, you’re coming up. What time will you be here?’

‘If I leave early enough I could make it before lunchtime.’

‘Oh well, if we’re still here then we’ll see you.’

I wasn’t holding my breath that I was going to catch a glimpse of either of my parents before I had to begin the long drive home on Sunday afternoon.

Now for William.

‘Hello, pet. Lovely to hear from you.’

He sounded so sad, it was almost tangible.

‘How are you bearing up?’

‘Oh, you know, it keeps hitting me.’

‘I know, me too. I forget while I’m doing something, and then I’ll stop and suddenly her voice is in my head and it’s like it’s just happened all over again.’

‘Stay strong, lass.’

‘I’ll try. William, I wondered if you would help me with the funeral? Mum said you knew where they took her after?’

‘Yes, pet, she went in an ambulance, I think they’re doing a post mortem so she’ll still be at the hospital. I suppose after that it’s either the Co-op or Bentley’s.’

‘Well I don’t think Mum’s going to go for the Co-op. You know what she’s like. Not much point arguing. I’ll choose my battles for this one, I think. William, you knew her so well. Will you help me? I’m coming up tomorrow. Can I come and see you, talk about it all, make some arrangements?’

‘Of course, pet. I’d be honoured.’

‘Thanks William. I’ll see you then.’

Then I phoned Bentley’s, who had an answer machine but called back very quickly, confirming my mother’s assertion that ‘these places are open twenty four hours these days’. To my surprise, they agreed to meet me and William on Saturday afternoon so we could make some plans, and they agreed to contact the hospital to make the necessary arrangements with them.

With a shuddery sigh I relaxed a little bit, glad I had at least started to make inroads into the whole process of saying goodbye to Nons. I was finding it hard to take it all in, to feel it as real. I needed to be there, where she’d lived, so I could come to terms with her dying.

I still had a couple of hours before I was meeting Matt. I grabbed a piece of toast and a glass of wine, then ran a bubble bath where I soaked until my fingers went wrinkly. I dried off and wandered around in a bathrobe for a while, trying to decide what to wear. It was only the Whistling Panhandler, I ate or drank there at least once a week. And I kept trying to tell myself it was only Matt Scott, I didn’t want to make a special effort. He saw me every day at work anyway. But something kept pulling my eyes to my favourite turquoise dress, the one with no sleeves and an embroidered bodice. It was a bit BoHo, which made it different from anything I wore at work, and more importantly I felt good wearing it. I tried a few other combinations on, but it was the turquoise dress that stuck. A pair of comfortable shoes later and I was dressed to go out. I grabbed my bag and made the short trip down the road to the wine bar.

It was busy, as it usually was on a Friday evening. There was no sign of Matt. I checked my watch – I was a little early, so I found a table in the corner and waited. He didn’t keep me waiting long, and I watched him for a few moments as he came in, eyes anxiously scanning the room until they found mine, then his face seemed to light up, and he sauntered over, pulling me to my feet and kissing me on the cheek.

‘You’re here! I wondered if you’d chicken out on me. You’re not a great one for texting are you?’

‘I said I’d be here.’

‘I know, I know, I should have had more faith.’

He sat down in the other seat at the table, filling the space with his smile and his chatter.

‘Fuck me, you can play it cool, can’t you. I had my doubts all today that we even had that conversation yesterday. You’re bloody good.’

‘Thank you.’

‘It was a fucking hoot though, wasn’t it? Us knowing, and them all so not knowing. Haven’t had so much bloody fun for ages. I thought I was going to blow a gasket when Joe Billington asked where I got to the day before yesterday. I’m pretty sure there was some hot goss about us, Lexi was trying to wheedle stuff out of me all day – ‘so Matt, what shall I put on your sick form? Just a day, or a day and a half? What shall I put?’ – she was really disappointed when I said I had a migraine, and then I acted surprised when they said you hadn’t come back, and I said I hadn’t seen you. I think I pulled it off too, I’m almost as bloody good as you. So, Julia, how the fuck are you?’

‘Not quite as pleased with myself as you it would seem.’

‘Oh, alright, we’re going to start with the point scoring are we? Well fine, but I can do that at work any time, I was hoping to see something of the Julia from last night, the one who was going to take a few risks. Nice dress by the way.’

He ran his eyes over my body and I felt myself blush. I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. Matt had begun a verbal assault, pummelling me with information, that I didn’t have a ready response to. I was finding it hard to detach from my work head-space and reach that place I had been in yesterday when this had seemed like a good idea.

‘You know what, I think maybe I should go.’

I stood up. Matt stood up too, looking startled, and put his hand out towards me.

‘No! Shit, have I fucked up already? That must be a record, even for me.’

‘It’s not you. I’m just not sure this is a good idea any more’

‘Oh come on Julia, at least give it a go. Fuck, I’ve been giving it the verbals haven’t I. I always do that when I’m nervous. Please, sit down. I’ll shut the fuck up and listen for a bit. We don’t have to say anything if you don’t want.’

He gestured to my seat and as I sat down again, he looked relieved.

‘You do talk a lot.’

‘Sorry, I know, I thought you might have noticed that about me before now. It’s worse when I’m with a beautiful woman who intimidates the hell out of me.’

This was the smarming that Evie had warned me against. I rolled my eyes.

‘Do you want a drink? I recommend the Shiraz.’

‘Drink – fuck yeah. Not a great one for wine though, what’s their beer like?’

‘I’ve never tried it.’

‘Well … let me propose a little challenge then. I’ll have some of your nobby posh Shiraz stuff, if you try a pint of Otter. Great honest ale. Have a Beautiful Daze, it’ll knock your fucking socks off.’

I considered for a moment. It seemed like a good way to start our whatever this was, and certainly some alcohol would relax me a bit.

‘Alright then! Nice one, Jules. Oh fuck it, sorry. Julia. You so look like a fucking Jules, it just comes out. Can you forgive me the odd one slipping through?’

‘Not really. But I’ll let you off that one, if you buy the drinks.’

Some time later, Matt was on his second glass of Shiraz and I had made it just over half way down my first pint of beer. It didn’t knock my socks off, although I didn’t dislike it. It was fizzy and filled me up; I really didn’t know how people drank pints and pints of it all at once. I was also conscious of needing to be up early to drive to Norfolk tomorrow.

Matt and I had managed to recapture some of the easy conversation we’d found at The Long Legged Frog, and had compared notes on Channel 4 documentaries, the Mann Booker prize and a recent exhibition at the local arts centre, when Matt’s phone pinged with a noticeable text tone. He took his phone out, having ignored other tones, and looked at the screen, then laughed.

‘Sorry, that was rude. It was my sister-in-law. She sent me a picture of my niece with chocolate ice cream all round her face. Here, look.’

I looked as politely as I could without encouraging further views of family photographs. I had never been interested in other people’s children, and had yet to find a way to say ‘no thanks’ to offers of photo viewings without offending the doting mother, father or, in this case, uncle. I smiled and nodded but didn’t say anything.

‘Have you got any?’

‘Any what?’

‘Nieces, nephews, third cousins twelve times removed.’

With a sinking feeling, I realised we were going to do the family history stuff now. Oh well, good while it lasted.

‘I’ve got a couple of nieces and nephews but they live abroad.’

‘Oh, that must be tough, missing them growing up. I’d hate it if I couldn’t see Cal and Iz.’

‘They’re pretty much grown up now. My sisters are both a lot older than me. I don’t see my family much.’

He looked surprised.

‘They’re not local then?’

‘No.’

‘I’m really lucky, my family are all down here. We all moved down a few years ago, bit of a job lot. Don’t know what I’d do without them. Not that I’d ever tell them that, bunch of smug, interfering do-gooders.’

Matt

My family took a bit of explaining, and I was interested in hers and thought showing her the picture of Iz might lead to some mutual boasting about nieces and nephews, but instead of sharing, she went quiet, and I suddenly remembered the dead aunt who had been at the heart of everything that happened in my flat. Shit, Matt, can’t you stop being a self-centred bastard for one evening?

Julia

He obviously didn’t mean his comment about his family, so I smiled but didn’t say anything. Matt looked at me.

‘Have I said something wrong?’

‘No.’

‘You’ve gone quiet.’

‘Not on purpose.’

Something dawned on his face.

‘Oh fuck, I’m such an arse, you said about your auntie, that’s who you were so upset about. Fuck it, Julia, why didn’t you stop me, here I was banging on about my bloody family, and you’re still … shit, you haven’t mentioned it at all. I don’t think anyone at work knows, even.’

‘Phil knows. I keep my personal life at home.’

‘But are you OK? Haven’t you got to go to the funeral and everything?’

First I had to organise the funeral, then I could go to it.

‘Yes, but things are still being sorted. I’ll be OK. Just one of those things.’

‘Fuck. I’m sorry. Were you close to her?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m sorry. Is there anything … fuck, that’s such an inane question, isn’t it? We all ask ‘is there anything I can do’, when the only thing you’d want someone to be able to do is bring them back. Sorry, it must be a shitty time for you at the moment.’

‘I’ve had better weeks.’

He reached over and took my hand. I would have pulled away, but he had a strong grip, and he had turned it palm upwards to look at the plasters still covering the scratches.

Matt

I backtracked and apologised, asked her a bit about it, tried to remind myself what a shit time she must have had over the last week, and held her hand, realising as I did so that her scratches were covered only by plasters.

‘You took the bandage off.’

‘Yes, it got wet in the shower. It’s only superficial, plasters are fine. I might go without tomorrow, see how I manage.’

‘Well I’m glad there’s no lasting damage. Just be careful next time you’re trying to claw your way out of a hidden room in a hedge in a graveyard.’

‘It’s not an experience I’m likely to be repeating anytime soon.’

‘Oh? I was hoping for some clandestine Fanta slurping one lunchtime.’

‘I don’t do lunch.’

‘What, never?’

‘It’s nice and quiet when everyone’s out.’

‘But you eat, though, right?’

I realised I sounded like someone’s mum. I guess if you spend enough time with Beth, the interfering rubs off eventually.

‘Sometimes.’

‘Did you have lunch today?’

I seemed to have tuned in to the Nag Channel, and Beth was to blame. Jules rolled her eyes, much as I would have done, much as I deserved.

Julia

I wasn’t about to get into my eating habits, I got nagged enough by Evie, and she was allowed.

‘Mind your own business. Anyway –’

I remembered something I could use as a diversion.

‘– you owe me a secret.’

‘What?’

‘You said if I told you why I was upset on Wednesday, you’d tell me something about you that nobody else knows.’

I thought I caught a glimpse of something – was it consternation? – in Matt’s eyes. He took a deep breath.

Matt

‘Oh fuck, I did, didn’t I.’

I’d been going to tell her about the bastard MS, for some unfathomable reason. What was I going to do now?

‘Well alright then, I did promise. Fuck it. OK … well if you must know, I’ve actually got …’

And I rescued it at the last minute, with something that was equally true and equally a secret

‘… a fucking massive crush on you.’

Julia

‘You’re such a liar, that’s not what you were going to say.’

‘It’s true. It’s not only true, but nobody else at work knows, which I believe were the terms of my promise.’

He sat back and folded his arms, nodding in self-congratulation.

‘You haven’t got a crush on me.’

‘I have. I said last night, I’ve been trying to pluck up courage to ask you out for bloody ages.’

‘That’s not a crush, that’s just your inability to believe there’s a woman in the office who hasn’t succumbed to your charms. Or rather hadn’t, I suppose.’

‘See? If it was just that I wouldn’t still be interested, would I? You’re remarkable, Julia. I’ve had a thing for you ever since I started at GreenScreen.’

‘Really?’

I loaded the word with as much scepticism as I could muster.

‘So why all the business grads and temps, then?’

He had the decency to look abashed.

‘Well, no sense waiting around when there’s no hope, is there? I had a reputation to maintain. I don’t suppose it improved my chances with you, though, did it?’

‘Not markedly, no.’

‘Well, like I said, if it means anything, I’ve done a lot of thinking, not only since Wednesday, but before. Things were getting out of hand, I wasn’t … haven’t been … oh fuck it, I know I’ve been an utter knobhead. I just want the chance to show you I’m not what you think I am. Fuck knows I don’t deserve it.’

He gave me a very direct look, his big grey eyes almost pleading. He looked vulnerable, a look I’d never seen on Matt Scott’s face before.

‘It’s OK, Matt. We already agreed last night to see what happens here. Maybe part of that is putting some things to one side, almost a clean slate type of thing. Alright then, I’ll believe that perhaps it’s possible you have a crush on me, although you seem a little old for one. I’ll admit that I’m intrigued by you and by what this is. But I’m also a bit disconcerted, I’m outside my comfort zone. I think maybe we need some kind of a safety word, so either of us can say it, and we stop in our tracks, no moving forward until whatever it is, is resolved.’

Matt’s expression cleared, and he gave me a big smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes and mouth.

‘A safety word – I like it. Has to be something unusual, so we don’t go all ‘whoa’ every time one of us says ‘biscuit’ or something. Something memorable though. A place, maybe?’

I thought of a word that could mean something to both of us.

‘Chartham.’

Matt

‘Huh?’

It was supposed to be something that meant something to both of us, but I was totally puzzled.

‘John and Roberta Chartham. 1776 and 1790.’

Then I recognised the names and the dates. The headstones.

‘Holy fuck … the hideaway! You fucking genius, woman.’

I grinned broadly.

‘What a memory. I’ve stared at those names billions of times, couldn’t have told you what they were if my bloody life depended on it. I suppose I’d better remember them now. Good old Mr and Mrs Chartham. I bet they never thought they’d be responsible for putting a halt to anything we might be venturing hundreds of years after their demise.’

‘So it’s agreed then, any time either of us feel like we need to take a time out or a step back or just stop the whole thing, that word means we stop. Whatever it is. Straight away. No questions.’

She obviously needed me to agree. I felt like I was signing some sort of contract.

‘Shit, Julia, you like your rules don’t you. I don’t think I’ve ever started anything with a woman where we both know so bloody comprehensively where we stand. Fair enough, but I should warn you I’m planning on taking some risks with you, so you might need to have our dear departed friends’ name on the tip of your tongue for the foreseeable future.’

I wasn’t a great one for rules, and Jules needed to know that I was likely to push the boundaries quite a lot. She smiled at me, though, and I smiled back, as we sealed the deal. The Charthams were going to ensure I never again wondered whether something I’d done with Jules was one- or two- sided. One whiff of their name and I’d stop, whatever it was, a snog, arsing about, buying shoes, talking, sleeping, breathing, whatever. Perfect.

Julia

The thought filled me with a thrill of anticipation and dread in equal measure. I didn’t know quite what I was getting myself into with Matt. He was different from anyone I’d ever known, any man I’d ever been out with, any man I’d ever put my trust in. Maybe I was mad with grief and after a while I’d see sense and pull back, and maybe that wouldn’t be fair on Matt. But for now it felt like whatever it was and however long it lasted, it was going to be worth it. I smiled at him, and was rewarded with another crinkly eyed offering.

‘Matt, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to be up early tomorrow, I’m driving to Norfolk. I should really go home and get some sleep.’

His mouth made a moue of disappointment, but he didn’t try to dissuade me.

Matt

I was disappointed to end our evening so early, but it would have been unfair of me to try to persuade her to stay.

‘That’s a bloody long way to drive. I hope you’re keen on flat landscapes and freezing cold North winds.’

‘It’s where I grew up. I’m used to the landscape and the climate.’

‘Oh, are you visiting family – oh shit, sorry Julia, is this about your aunt?’

I really was going to have to remember about her aunt. From what she’d told me, she had been a pretty important part of her life. But Jules seemed able to compartmentalise things, and because she wasn’t openly sorrowful, I kept forgetting.

Julia

I nodded. ‘Yes, I’ve got to go and sort the funeral out.’

‘Not much fun.’

‘No. But I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it.’

‘It sounds like you were very fond of her.’

‘That’s an understatement. Anyway, I should go.’

‘OK, I’ll walk you back.’

‘There’s no need.’

‘I know. I’d like to though. Don’t worry, I won’t be asking to come in for a ‘coffee’ or some such feeble ploy.’

‘Alright then.’

We stood up and left the wine bar, Matt placing his hand on my back as we did so and then draping his arm casually across my shoulders as we walked down the street. I could have shrugged him off or asked him not to at any time, but I liked how it felt, and our agreement over the ‘safety word’ helped me to feel less under pressure.

Matt

And there we were, outside the steps to her front door, looking at each other awkwardly. I’d had my arm across her shoulders during the short walk, expecting her to shrug me off all the way, but she didn’t.

She was a surprising woman, and I liked how different she was from anyone I’d ever known. As we neared Jules’ front door, she reached into her bag and I removed my arm, as clinging on while she rummaged for her keys felt a bit needy.

Jules straightened up and faced me, looking into my eyes, both of us uncertain how we should say goodbye. I really wanted to kiss her, but I didn’t want to ruin things, didn’t want to hear Jules say the safety word only minutes after we’d agreed to it.

Julia

We stared at each other for a silent moment, and then moved towards each other, lips meeting as if it had been inevitable all evening. Electricity seemed to fizz across our mouths, igniting our lips and tongues with sparks and static. I felt his hands on each side of my face as he held me in place while his tongue searched deep in my mouth. Then he wrapped his arms round me and pulled me close to him and we plunged still deeper, locking tongues and devouring each other, heedless of the fact that we were on the street. I put my arms round his neck and pressed myself against him, feeling his hard body along the length of mine – and then, with a gasp, it was gone. I opened my eyes and Matt was still standing in front of me, but a step back, a strange almost haunted look on his face.

Matt

There was no doubt this time that both of us were completely in our right minds, and both of us were completely into what we were doing, but it couldn’t go any further, although it was so hot, it was so, so fucking hot.

With a Herculean effort which I felt was deserving of some kind of headline in tomorrow’s broadsheets – maybe ‘Infamous Philanderer in Self-Denial Shock’ – I took a step back. Jules opened her eyes and looked queryingly up at me.

‘Sorry, Julia. Fuck. Fuck it, I wish I could … that was fucking outstanding, but we shouldn’t … I don’t think … maybe we should just go a bit more slowly. It would be so easy to say let’s to up to your place, and we could spend the night together, and I so fucking want to, and I think you want to, and it would be fucking awesome, I have absolutely no doubt. But after everything I’ve said to you, and everything I’ve thought about and promised myself the last couple of days, I want it to be right. Fuck, I can’t believe I’m saying this.’

Jules was panting slightly, her cheeks flushed, and she looked like she might take issue with me for a minute, but eventually she nodded.

Julia

I was still panting, the tingles from the kiss travelling all over my body. Part of me wanted to pull him to me again, tell him not to be so stupid, to grab his hand and run up to my flat. But another, more reasoning part, saw the effort it took him to stop, and recognised what it might mean to say goodnight here.

‘OK.’

I managed after a pause.

‘You’re right. Who’d have thought Matt Scott would be the sensible one in this scenario?’

Matt

‘I know. Fuck. Good thing we’re not telling people about anything, I’d be laughed out of the evil bastard club. They’d take my badge away and revoke my privileges.’

I reached down and brushed a stray strand of hair away from her face, then cupped her cheek with my palm. She rested her face on my hand, and it felt like it fitted there, then she reached up and stroked my face, tenderly. I was going to have to be really careful not to fall for this woman.

Julia

I rested my face on his hand and, feeling an unexpected tenderness towards him, reached up and stroked his face.

‘Thanks for a lovely evening Matt.’

‘Can we do it again? Next week sometime?’

‘I’d like that.’

‘Can I text you this weekend?’

‘If you like. I don’t always reply.’

‘Yeah, tell me about it. OK, a one-way stream of consciousness then. You’ll have to invoke the Charthams if it pisses you off too much.’

‘John or Roberta?’

‘I’ll leave that to you. Hope it all goes OK up there.’

‘Thank you.’

We stood looking slightly awkwardly at each other while we tried to decide how to leave things. Eventually, Matt stepped towards me.

‘Fuck it, I’m going to give you a hug. I can do this.’

He put his arms round my shoulders and squeezed me tightly. I did the same around his waist. I felt him kiss the top of my head.

‘What is it with you and my head?’

Matt

Well it was about the only part of her I could reach when we were standing like this, her being a short-arse, but I didn’t think that would go down very well.

‘It’s bloody irresistible.’

‘You’re easily tempted.’

‘Thought you’d have heard that about me by now. OK, I’m going now before I lose it and ravish you right here against a lamp post.’

It wasn’t far from the truth. I was going to need a long cold shower when I got home. I let her go, ran a finger down her cheek, turned and walked away. I turned back as I reached the end of the road, and was gratified to see she was still watching me. I blew her a kiss and headed home.

49. Do you believe in shame?

In which regrets are experienced and articulated, leading to surprising consequences.

Matt

How the fuck had I let that happen? Did I have no willpower at all? Of all things, Carrie’s voice floated back to me from the past, ‘You blokes all say that, that you won’t be able to stop, but you just have to … stop, don’t you. Because carrying on isn’t really an option, is it?’

Jules looked like she was asleep; at any rate, she was curled up with her eyes closed. I pushed myself off the sofa and covered her with a throw, picked up her clothes and folded them, placing them in a pile near her head, then quickly dressed myself.

I was appalled at what I’d just done. Even in the full throes of Matt the Lad, I would never have screwed with someone who was having such an obviously hard time as Jules. I mean, OK, it’s not like I handed out a mental health questionnaire: You are about to get lucky with Matt. Please tick one of the following: a) I am in full possession of my faculties and happy with this state of affairs. b) I’ve had a few Jägerbombs, actually, but I know what I’m doing and am happy with the outcome. c) I am an off-my-kecks emotional wreck, probably shouldn’t really. But generally, especially in the whole keeping away from crying women scheme of things, I made sure everyone was OK with it all. Now, though, now, here was Jules, naked on my sofa, the evidence of my thoughtless dick-driven urges. So much for getting your act together, Matt. So much for being a better man. So much for sorting yourself out. What was the point of the last few weeks of abstinence and soul-searching if the moment some woman, who five minutes ago was seriously trying to do you an injury, looks for some kind of contact, you go all one hundred per cent full on. I could have stopped, couldn’t I? I should have stopped, shouldn’t I? I didn’t stop, did I?

I felt shame sweep over me, and I sat down hard in an armchair, leaned forward and pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes. When was I going to stop making a total fuck-up of my life? I was a mess. I was messing with other people. I seriously needed some help. I seriously was not going to ask for any help. Total, complete and utter fuck-up.

Julia

Was it seconds later? Minutes? Hours? I came to myself, lying on my side, a chenille throw covering me. I was naked underneath it. Matt was sitting on the edge of an armchair, fully clothed, head in his hands. He looked up, possibly sensing movement from me, and held a supplicating hand out towards me.

‘Julia, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I fucking did that. Or rather I can believe I fucking did that, it’s what I do after all, I just can’t believe I did it to you, in that state. You’re right, I’m a fucking arsehole. I’m so sorry.’

He turned his head away, and put his hands back over his face.

Matt

She didn’t say anything, just closed her eyes briefly, then opened them and looked at me again. I couldn’t take her gaze, so I turned my head away, and put my hands back over my face. Then, far later than it should have, it occurred to me that she would just want to get the fuck out of there, rather than stare at the bastard who had just thoughtlessly fucked her, and she needed to get dressed. So I forced my thoughts away from their damning introspection and stood up.

Julia

Thoughts started to flood into my mind. I set about organising them into priority order. I was desperate to regain some kind of control over this mad day, but things had spun so far out of my reach, I wasn’t sure which bit of me I was trying to push things back into. I wasn’t at work or at home, and I had no anchor, no fixed point to pin everything onto.

Alright, prioritise, I was good at that. Top priority: get out of here. Action plan: get dressed. Equipment needed: clothes. I looked around me and found a neatly folded pile of garments by my head, so I reached for them. Objective achieved. Next problem: I was naked. Action plan: tricky, but I could try to get dressed underneath the throw. Equipment needed: aforementioned clothing, already acquired.

Matt suddenly got up and spoke.

‘Sorry, Julia. You get dressed, I’ll be in the bathroom.’

He walked over to the window and pulled a blind across it, then went into another room, closing the door behind him.

I lay where I was, in the darkened room, for a few moments, wondering if my scattered thoughts were going to gather themselves. They didn’t show any sign of doing so, so I stuck to the action plan. Clothes on.

I almost faltered at the first hurdle when I picked up my pants to find they were merely a torn strip of fabric. Reality almost shoved its way through with a flash of memory, before I screwed them up and stuffed them under a cushion. Didn’t need pants. There, that was easily avoided. Everything else seemed to be in working order, so I stood up and quickly pulled trousers, bra and shirt on, slipped my shoes on my feet and put my bag on my shoulder.

I didn’t feel the need for a goodbye, only a quick exit, so I let myself out and drifted in a daze back along the streets, past the churchyard, to the car park at GreenScreen, where I sat in my car breathing deeply for as long as I dared. Eventually, impelled by the possibility of someone I knew going to their car and seeing me, I started the engine and drove off. I found myself outside my flat some time later, having apparently driven home without incident.

Matt

I closed the blinds and went and locked myself in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet and listening to the small sounds of her dressing and leaving. It didn’t take her long, and she didn’t slam the door behind her, but the click, as the latch caught, reverberated through me nonetheless.

I stayed where I was for a long time, condemning myself, hating myself, berating myself. Then I got up and went back into the living room, opened the blinds and started tidying, not really thinking about what I was doing, straightening cushions, putting the throw over the back of the sofa. When I picked up one of the cushions, I found a scrap of black fabric – all that was left of Jules’ pants. I had torn them off her body in my frenzy, and it made me feel sick, that I’d done that to her. Oh it wasn’t the first time I’d ripped someone’s knickers off, not by a long way, but this was very different. It spoke to me of someone who had no self-control, who would stop at nothing to feed his need, and who respected no one’s feelings. It shocked me deeply.

Julia

I had never been so happy to see a front door. I lurched out of the car and fumbled, trembling, with the key to the street door. I shoved it open and ran up the stairs, to more fumbling with my front door key. When I finally got it open, I fell into my flat, tumbling head first onto the sofa, where I lay and felt another burst of sobbing racking my body.

Now I was home, I could face what I truly felt. I was safe here, I was me, not pretending or acting. The full implications of what had just happened could be analysed another time, but I had to face the fact that I had just had sex with Matt Scott. Stupid, meaningless, thoughtless sex. Unprotected sex. Rough, noisy, hot sex. With Matt Scott. A work colleague. An egotistical arsehole who would use it to torture me at every turn from now on. I nearly cried again, but was beginning, now I was home, to be able to gather a semblance of order to it all. I needed to think about what this meant, how I was going to deal with it, but first I needed a drink.

I had been thirsty for hours, and had cried too much. Dehydration was making me feel sick and woozy. I fetched myself a large glass of water and drank it all in one go. I fetched another, and sipped it more slowly, feeling the fuzziness in my head start to dissipate.

It kept hitting me. I had sex with Matt Scott. Stupid – yes. Meaningless – yes. Hot – where did that come from? I needed to think about it rationally, about how I was going to be able to function at work tomorrow. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be going in tomorrow. I had wasted enough time this afternoon, and there were projects that needed handling. No, the only question was not whether but how I was going to do this. I wrapped myself in The Ice Queen and started building tomorrow out of her snowy mantle.

Matt

My phone rang several times, but I ignored it until I could think straight enough to realise that it was probably work wondering where I was. I called them back and said I wasn’t feeling well and had gone home sick. Then I made myself a strong cup of coffee and sat down to give myself a severe talking to.

I went through it all – how I’d been in Stafford before Carrie; how I’d been with Carrie; how I’d been when I was ill; how I’d been since I’d got better and started to explore life in this city; how I’d been, or thought I’d been, for the last few weeks. I tried to make sense of it all. The best I could come up with was that, Carrie aside, I really didn’t do commitment. I was happier with one night or at the most a few nights, which wasn’t fair on the women I’d been with, who didn’t necessarily know that. I was a total bastard.

Julia

Some time later, I had worked it all through in my mind, how I was going to act, what I was going to say, how I was going to respond to taunts, teasing, questions. I felt a lot better. It was going to be alright. I could do this. Nothing had really changed, just a mistake, an accident caused by being under pressure. Handled in the right way, nothing would be any different.

My self-congratulation was interrupted by my phone ringing in my bag. I looked at the clock. Seven o’clock. My mother. God, she was going to tell me about Nons. I’d completely forgotten. Crushed, I answered.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘JuJu darling. Oh, darling isn’t it just terrible?’

‘I got your text.’

‘Oh did you? You didn’t reply, I wondered whether it had gone astray.’

‘I was at work, you know I can’t reply when I’m at work.’

This was a half-truth designed to circumvent any expectation of being able to be in contact with my mother while I was working. It wasn’t a GreenScreen rule that you couldn’t use a personal mobile; it was my rule. Shades of grey.

‘Oh nonsense, it was important, they would have understood.’

‘Mum, what happened?’

‘When?’

‘To Nons.’

‘Oh, yes. Sorry, darling, it’s all been frightful, your father and I have had to fly over to sort everything out, we’ve had to cut our trip to Florence short and we might have to cancel our reservations in Reykjavik –’

‘Mum.’

I was beyond irritated. This was typical of my mother; my parents’ travel arrangements always took precedence over any other life event. It seemed they were even more important than the death of her only sister. Why had I thought the ‘just terrible’ thing was Nons, when obviously it was having to cut short a trip to Florence. I don’t know what else I expected – my mother and father had been travelling nearly all of my life, and when they weren’t globe-trotting, they stayed with my sisters in Europe.

‘Yes darling.’

‘Tell me what happened to Nons.’

‘Oh, alright JuJu.’

She sounded surprised that I was asking, irritated that I had interrupted her report on her itinerary.

‘They think she had a heart attack.’

‘What?’

‘A heart attack, darling. William found her yesterday, he’d apparently been worried when he hadn’t seen her all day. He looked through the kitchen window and saw her on the floor, and called the emergency services. They had to break the door down. Made a terrible mess everywhere, your father and I have had to stay here while we’re waiting for an emergency carpenter.’

I was only getting snippets of the information I wanted, the rest was irrelevant. Biting back a terse remark, I started to ask the questions I needed answers to.

‘Was she still … alive … when they found her?’

‘Oh no, she’d been dead for hours. They said it would have been instant, or at least very quick, painless.’

But they always said that, didn’t they, what was the point in saying to relatives ‘oh no, it would have been slow and hurt a lot’?

‘Was she alone?’

I couldn’t bear the thought of Nons dying alone, I wished I’d been there to hold her hand and whisper that I loved her.

‘Yes, darling, who else do you think would have been there?’

Well it would have been nice if her sister, for example, had been able to visit before she died rather than after. But saying that was going to lead to a conversation in which I learned nothing except my mother’s opinion of me, so I held my tongue.

‘But she hadn’t been ill, had she?’

‘I don’t think so, JuJu, but I hadn’t been in touch for a little while. Did she say anything to you?’

‘No, nothing. I was going to go up this weekend, I haven’t – hadn’t seen her for ages.’

I felt so guilty, I’d been putting off visiting for so long, so many things I wanted to do instead – parties, shopping, weekends with friends. I’d spoken on the phone every week, as normal, and had sensed nothing out of place. But I might have noticed something if I’d seen her. The guilt welled up and mingled with the pain of losing her. I was almost grateful for all the weeping I’d done earlier that day; I was able to push it away. My mother did not cope well with emotions.

‘Oh well you still can, there’s lots needs doing. If you came up, your father and I could maybe fit in a couple of days in London, there’s a Mondrian exhibition at the Tate …’

This showed how important both Nons and I were in my parents’ lives. I was a place-filler, someone who could handle an inconvenient death for them while they looked at coloured squares. I was so used to it, I hardly felt the anger any more.

‘When’s the funeral?’

‘Oh darling, we haven’t had a chance to think about that, we’ve been too busy cancelling bookings and rearranging things. Perhaps it’s something you can help with when you come up?’

‘But I won’t be there until the weekend, I won’t be able to sort anything out on a Saturday, it will all be shut.’

‘Nonsense, these places are open twenty four hours these days. Or they should be.’

My mother’s answer to everything. If it wasn’t how she wanted it, well it should be, and she was just going to sit back until someone made it happen for her.

‘Oh, JuJu, I’ve got to go, your father’s having trouble with the online booking service. Give me a tinkle tomorrow, tell me what you want to do. Maybe you could phone some people, darling?’

She disconnected, and I felt the dull ache of the old rage fluttering up from the past. I let it flit around for a bit, but in the end it settled back down where it belonged. My mother was never going to change, she was always going to be concerned only with her own enjoyment, and she was never going to think of me as anything other than an inconvenience or a trophy, depending on whether I was disappointing her, or she was boasting about me.

My parents had me after my two older sisters had grown up and gone to university. I was not planned; I knew this at a very early age. I stopped them travelling the world, as they had intended to do after Sophie and Debra left home, until Auntie Nons, my mother’s unmarried sister, offered to look after me for a year when I was four, while they got it out of their systems. Except they never got it out of their systems, and Auntie Nons carried on looking after me, year after year, until I left to go to university myself. My parents were well into their seventies now, but showed no signs of ending their continuing search for that elusive unturned stone in some far off land.

Nons had fed and clothed me, cleaned my grazed knees, wiped my tears, waved me off to my first day of school, mopped me up after my first broken heart, persuaded me not to get a skull tattoo on my left buttock, taught me to drive, taught me to drink, and loved me as much as if I’d been her own child. Probably more.

Nons listened to me as I, at first, told her how my parents were going to come back and we were all going to live together in a huge house, and then as I downscaled my dreams to spending holidays with them by the sea and finally stopped mentioning them at all, as their gifts and postcards became less and less frequent. She never judged them, I never heard her say a bad word about my parents, even when I screamed at her and called her all the names under the sun for not being my mother.

My sisters hardly knew me; I had arrived when they were off discovering their own newly parent-free world, and a baby sister had not had nearly the same appeal as grown-up university life. Once I lived with Nons, I got the odd birthday card when they remembered, but hardly saw them and didn’t know them as people, just as names and faded photographs. They both lived abroad now, Debra in France and Sophie in Switzerland, and my parents used their houses as bases from which to plan their almost continuous World Tour.

I sat, numb, contemplating life without Nons. I should call William, he would be devastated, but I couldn’t face it right now. I couldn’t face talking to anyone, not even Evie, who would know just what to say to make everything alright. If I talked to anyone I was going to cry again, and I didn’t have the strength for that. I just about had the energy to make myself a sandwich and eat it, washing it down with a large glass of Pinot Grigiot, before I stumbled into bed, where, head full of Nons and how much I missed her, I cried myself to sleep.

Matt

I nearly fell back into the dark pit, but maybe some of the ‘not leaving you alone’ bollocks had permeated into my psyche, because the thought of Dec prising all of this out of me in some kind of all night intervention marathon made me realise I was just going to have to sort it myself. I was going to have to go back to square one in the ‘sorting my shit out’ plan, and start again. It was going to be hard to change. Harder, even, because I couldn’t let them at work know that Matt the Lad had altered his MO. I didn’t even know what I’d altered it to. I was still going to go out, get wrecked. Maybe I had to appear more wrecked than I was in order to stay in control of things. Shit, I couldn’t even stay in control of things when I was stone cold sober, as I had just proven. I had no hope. But I had to try. I had to believe there was no such thing as not being able to stop. I was going to make it true. I was going to change. This conclusion took me all of the rest of the day to come to, and I spent a sleepless night with everything still going round my head.

Julia

Oblivion felt good. I clung on to it as something tried to pull me out, something insistent and piercing. I wrapped myself up in the darkness, but the pull continued and eventually I surfaced, gasping, hearing the buzzing of the alarm clock and remembering it all.

Before I could dwell too much, I forced myself to go over my strategy for work today, pulling on my cold and distant persona as shield and armour to get me through, pushing unwanted thoughts about both Nons and Matt Scott as far to the back of my mind as they would go. I didn’t want distractions today, I had a lot to do.

I got out of bed and forced myself through my morning routine, propelling myself ever closer to the moment I was going to have to leave my sanctuary and face it all.

I breathed deeply all the way to work in my car, forcing myself to relax. Once I had seen him and got the first contact over with, I would feel calmer, I knew I would. That first contact wouldn’t be immediate, though.

Matt Scott worked part time, and usually rolled up half way through the morning, with bags of doughnuts and cups of coffee for his team. Part one of my strategy was to arrive early at the office, so I could leave early and reduce the amount of potential time in the vicinity of Matt Scott to a minimum.

I pulled up in the car park, the first car in the GreenScreen spaces. I unlocked the door and flicked all the lights on, illuminating the reception desk at the bottom and the stairwell as I walked up. Unlocking and walking through the door at the top of the stairs, I breathed in the tranquility. It wouldn’t last long; as soon as the first person arrived and started boiling the kettle, it would cease to be my space, but that was why I loved getting in first. For the first five, ten, occasionally twenty minutes of the day, it felt like mine, and that oasis helped me through. Today my oasis only lasted until I walked to my office, as I heard the door open behind me and voices filled up the silence.

‘Yeah, just walked out, he ran after her, neither of them came back – oh.’

The gossip stopped as soon as I was spotted taking my coat off, but there was no greeting, just a drive-by staring, which I shot back at them with interest, as they hurried past, bursting into giggles as they disappeared into the kitchen, from where I could hear their voices but not their words.

I turned on my computer and reached for the file I needed for this morning’s planning meeting. Yesterday’s hi-jacking of the Cullen report by Matt Scott’s team meant we would have to rethink our priorities, and I wanted to be clear about where I saw us heading before we were asked to take on anything else.

After organising my paperwork, I ventured into the kitchen for coffee. There was a small group of people in there, a couple from my team, one or two from Matt’s and some admin staff. The chatter stopped as I entered and people looked down into their coffee cups. Lexi, the receptionist, was the first to speak.

‘Alright, Julia?’

‘Yes, thank you.’

‘What have you done to your hand?’

‘I scratched it.’

I didn’t volunteer any further information, and Lexi didn’t quite have the nerve to push for more.

‘Oh. There were some messages for you yesterday afternoon. I put them in your tray.’

‘Yes, I saw them, thank you.’

‘Botley’s were trying all afternoon, I didn’t know where you were, I said you’d ring them first thing, although I didn’t really know if you were coming in or not –’

‘Thank you, Lexi, I’ll ring them.’

I knew they thought I was a supercilious cow, I encouraged that opinion to maintain some distance, but it was hard, on that morning, to have them all looking at me and wishing I wasn’t there, so they could get on with speculating. So I finished making my coffee and left, hearing ‘sniffy bitch’ and the resulting laughter as I walked back to my office.

The morning wore on. The meetings and project work I was doing filled my head and pushed everything else aside, which was a relief, although I found myself looking up every time the door opened, expecting it to be Matt, dreading it but wishing he would hurry up and get here so it would be over with, everyone would know, I could start to get on with it.

But Matt didn’t appear. It wasn’t that unusual for him to pitch up just before lunchtime, spend half an hour laughing and joking with everyone and then take them all off for a team lunch somewhere. But today, he didn’t appear at all. I tried to listen out for snippets of conversation that might give me a clue as to when he was expected, but in the end my anxiety got the better of me, and I went to see Phil.

Matt

The next morning, work loomed, and I just couldn’t face Jules that day. I hadn’t come up with anything I could say to her and I didn’t think I’d be able to look her in the eye. She’d made it clear what her opinion of me was, even before the disaster that was yesterday, and now it was going to be even lower. There were no words of apology I would be able to offer that would mean anything, but I certainly wasn’t going to be able to attempt any words of any description in front of the assembled gossip-mongers at GreenScreen. So I called in sick again and spent another miserable day trying to decide what to do about Julia.

Julia

‘Julia. Come in.’

‘I need to hand some things over to Matt, is he going to be in today?’

‘I believe he’s rung in sick. Can’t you do it with Joe?’

My heart sank. I would have to delay the ‘getting it over with’ part of my strategy.

‘I suppose I could. It just seemed more efficient to go straight to Matt so I know he’s got all the information he needs.’

Phil chuckled to himself.

‘You and your efficiency, Julia. I’m glad to see you came in today. Is everything alright? You left in a bit of a hurry yesterday.’

‘I’m fine, thank you.’

‘There were quite a few clients trying to get hold of you.’

‘I’ve contacted most of them. I’ll stay later today to make up my hours.’

Now I knew Matt wasn’t going to be in, I was happy to be there as long as it took to catch up with what I’d missed out on yesterday.

‘Don’t worry about it, Julia. You know, er, you can talk to me about anything, if there’s anything worrying you, don’t you?’

‘There’s nothing, thank you. Although, it’s possible I may need a day off in the next couple of weeks for a family funeral.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, someone close?’

Yes, as close as it was possible to be without her being your own mother.

‘My aunt.’

‘Oh.’

To Phil, an aunt wasn’t really tragic news and he dismissed it as something that would take me away from the office for a day, but shouldn’t impact any further on my work. I was grateful that I wasn’t going to have to endure sympathy and entreaties to take some personal time. What I needed was impersonal time.

‘Yes, of course, just let Lexi know when you’ll be off. Now, I’ve had some thoughts about how you might re-jig your team’s workload …’

Matt

It was partly the thought of what she might have heard about me on the rumour mill that made me realise I was going to have to go and see her. We’d had unprotected sex – shit, I never had unprotected sex, I was always so careful, again with the what the fuck had I been thinking – and she needed to know it was OK, at least from the nasty diseases point of view.

I didn’t know where Jules lived, so I called Phil and begged him to give me her address, saying I needed to apologise about the Cullen fiasco. He agreed in the end, after I reminded him it was mostly his fault anyway and I was saving his arse too.

Julia

The rest of the day was filled with phone calls, meetings and computer work as I tried to catch up with the things I’d missed yesterday afternoon. By the time I looked at the clock, wondering if it was time to go home yet, I was virtually the only one left. Phil came past my door, coat over his arm.

‘You off soon, Julia?’

‘Yes, just finishing up.’

‘You alright locking up?’

‘Fine.’

And so I had my oasis back. With everyone gone, my shoulders untensed, I breathed more deeply and I relaxed. I enjoyed it for as long as I could, and then the thought of the phone calls I was going to have to make when I got home started intruding on the peace. Sighing, I put my coat on, picked up my bag and left.

Back home, having eaten, and started a new bottle of wine, I reviewed the day. It could have been worse. I had managed to make up for the time I lost yesterday afternoon, and although I was still dreading Matt’s return and the embarrassment I was going to face when everyone knew, I had weathered the storm of gossip this morning, and it had diminished to an apathetic drizzle by the afternoon.

I had spoken to Phil about my disappointment at having the Cullen report taken away from my team, he had listened to my point of view and agreed to do things differently another time. I was now home, enjoying a good glass of red, and feeling more relaxed. It was time to start calling some people. William was top of my list.

Matt

I parked in the next street and walked to Julia’s flat. I found her name on the bell outside, but there was no answer when I pressed it. I looked up at the building, but had no idea which windows would be hers, so couldn’t tell if she was in or not. I pressed the bell again, for longer.

‘Yes.’

I’d lucked out; she’d answered.

‘Julia, it’s Matt.’

Julia

Oh shit. How on earth did he know where I lived? I didn’t give my address out to anyone at work. What did he want? He wasn’t coming up.

‘Go away.’

I put the handset down and returned to my seat on the sofa, heart pounding and thoughts whirling. Then I got up and looked out of the front window, through the voile curtains, and saw him stand back from the door and look up at the building.

Matt

I nearly gave up, but as I looked around, an old lady started to walk up the steps towards me. I approached her, my best ‘I’m not a serial killer’ smile on my face.

‘Hi, do you live here?’

She was a worryingly trusting old lady, because she smiled back and answered.

‘Yes I do.’

‘I don’t suppose you could let me in could you? I’ve just buzzed Julia in flat five and I think there’s something wrong with her buzzer. I could hardly hear her, and the door won’t open.’

‘Oh dear, well, yes I suppose I could. These buzzers are a bit contrary sometimes. She’s a nice girl, your Julia.’

Thanking the cosmic supplier of contrary buzzers, I compounded the half truth that was backing up my story.

‘Yeah, she is, lucky me.’

I flashed her another ‘I’m harmless’ smile, and she opened the door for me.

Julia

To my horror, I saw Mrs Custance from 2B walk up the pavement towards him, keys in hand. I saw Matt talk to her, while she nodded and smiled and fell for his sweet talk, and let him in. Shit, shit, shit.

Matt

I let the old lady go ahead of me, partly because I’m polite like that, and partly because I didn’t want her to realise I wasn’t sure where Julia’s flat was. I found flat five on the second floor, and knocked on the door, speaking without waiting for her to open the door. She probably wasn’t going to anyway, so I might as well start straight away.

Julia

Well he wasn’t coming in. He could just stay out there and do or say whatever he had come to do or say, he could – a knock on the door startled me.

‘Julia, please, I need to talk to you.’

Well he could need all he wanted, I was not even going to answer him, let alone open the door.

Matt

There was no answer, no sound from behind the door that indicated she was at home. If she hadn’t answered her buzzer a few moments ago, I wouldn’t have believed she was actually there.

Julia

A long pause, during which I went to the peep hole to see if he had gone. The sight of his face, close up and distorted by the fish-eye lens, made me jump, and my hand came up involuntarily to ward him off, hitting the door. He must have heard.

Matt

I stood close to the door, as close as I could without putting my ear to it and listening, so that I could hear any small sounds of movement. There was a sudden bang on the door from the inside. She was right there, probably looking through the peephole to see if I’d gone or not. I took my chance.

‘Julia? Please let me in, I just want to say something, I’m not going to stay, I just need to do this.’

Julia

‘I’m not interested in what you need. Go away.’

So much for not even answering him.

Matt

She’d answered me. Result. I ploughed on with my plan.

‘It’s not just what I need, you need it too. You need to hear this. I can say it through the door if you want, but I’m not sure you want all your neighbours hearing about my STDs right n –’

She’d opened the door and pulled me inside before I’d finished the sentence. She slammed the door shut and glared at me, dark eyes flashing angry fire. I tried to look contrite; the STD thing was pretty shabby of me, but also true.

Julia

I’d expected a smirk on his face, triumphant that his scheme had worked, but he actually looked contrite. On closer inspection, he also looked pale and haggard.

‘Sorry, Julia, that was a bloody cheap trick. Like I said, I won’t keep you long, and I actually do want to tell you about my STDs. Or lack of them.’

As he was standing there, I was having flashbacks to yesterday afternoon in his flat – the kissing and the nakedness and the heat. My face was burning. I couldn’t speak.

Matt

She looked tired and pale. I hoped she hadn’t had as shit a time as I had over the last day or so. As I stood there, looking at her, her face started to redden and she looked really uncomfortable.

‘Are you OK?’

She nodded, curtly, and her pallor slowly returned, although she continued to look uncomfortable. OK then, let’s get on with this.

Julia

If by OK, he meant unable for the moment to think about anything other than his hands on me, my mouth on his, then yes, I was absolutely fine. Then he spoke again and broke the spell.

‘Well, anyway, we had unprotected sex yesterday.’

I snorted derisively. Matt took a breath and started in on a long explanation.

‘Yeah, well, I guess you were there. Sorry, I’ve been thinking about it all fucking day, I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t come to work, I couldn’t face you, I feel so bad about it, anyway, I just want to put your mind at rest. I know there are some wild stories floating around about me, some of them are true, some of them are, shall we say, exaggerated. I’ve heard the one about all the different things you can catch if you let Matt Scott’s dick within a mile of you. That’s one of the exaggerations. Actually, it’s more than that, it’s a tale put out there by a delightful lady by the name of Petra who was a little disappointed that I didn’t propose marriage after a night of passion, and decided to try to spoil my chances of any further nights of passion with any further delightful ladies by spreading malicious rumours. Worked for a while, too. But anyway, sorry, neither here nor there. It’s not true, not any of it. I’ve been thoroughly and regularly tested for any nasty diseases, infections, crawling things or viruses and my nether regions have been pronounced fit for use by all and sundry.’

Matt

I hoped I’d hit the right note of openness, reassurance and responsibility. It soon appeared I had failed, on all three counts.

‘Oh well that’s alright then.’

I could do sarcasm, but Julia’s tone of voice told me I was a novice when it came to caustic.

Julia

I’d found my voice, my full-blown, sarcastic, now-I’ve-really-had-it-with-you voice. This man had to be the most self-involved, egotistical, arrogant representative of his gender I had ever encountered. Flashbacks of naked, entwined bodies notwithstanding.

‘What?’

‘That’s all it is to you, isn’t it? Phew, I didn’t give her the clap, aren’t I a gent. Oh, I suppose you’re wondering if you might have impregnated me too? Well breathe easy, Matt, I’m on the pill. Another lucky escape, eh.’

Matt

‘No, that’s not what –’

Well it kind of was, but there’s no way I would have asked, and she’d cut me off again.

‘As long as your dick’s alright to be used by ‘all and sundry’, we can sleep in our beds, knowing Matt Scott’s still out there sticking it to some ‘delightful lady’ he has no intention of ever seeing again.’

I was really getting it with both barrels, and it was completely deserved. If only she knew how much of a champion she was being for all the other women I’d treated like shit. But I was still trying to explain.

‘Julia, please –’

‘Do you know what my biggest worry is about having had sex with you? Not what filthy diseases I may have been at risk of picking up, but whether I was actually out of my fucking mind. Yes there are plenty of wild stories about you, your mother must be so proud, but they don’t tell me about the health of your genitals. They tell me what a complete arsehole you are, what a taker you are, how little you give back, and I can’t believe I was stupid enough – no, worse than stupid, I must have been completely certifiable – to have allowed it to happen. Well you can go now, there’s not much I can do about it, it’s happened, you can tell your little gang, you can all have a good laugh, Hot Scott melted the Ice Queen, then maybe we can all get on with our lives and forget it ever happened.’

‘No!’

All the other stuff, it was pretty much what I thought. In her eyes I was a low-life, and fair enough; in my own eyes I was a low-life. But she thought I’d done it so I could score points at work, she honestly thought I’d go in and brag about it, and I had to put her right on that.

Julia

He actually looked appalled, and had gone a few shades paler.

‘I would never –’

‘But you already did, we already did. It’s too late.’

‘No, I mean, I haven’t told, I would never tell, anyone. I told you yesterday, I’m not the one who’s done any of the telling –’

‘So it’s not going to be all over the office tomorrow, how I shagged Julia Marran? Don’t make me laugh.’

Matt

Oh shit, she really thought I would. I had to convince her. Whatever else she thought of me, the sleeping around, partying hard bollocks, she had to know I wouldn’t bring it to work. I was never the one who spilt the beans, it was always someone else. I just chose to neither confirm nor deny things. Arsehole that I, assuredly, was.

‘No! Julia, please believe me. I feel fucking terrible that I let it happen in the first place, you were really vulnerable, really upset, I should have had more fucking self-control. The last thing I want to do is make it worse by telling anyone about it. I know I come across as a bit of an annoying bell-end sometimes, but is that really what you think of me?’

The look on her face, full of scorn and distaste, confirmed it. I looked down and muttered to myself.

‘Shit, nice one Matt.’

Julia

Then he lifted his head, and he actually looked miserable. In spite of myself, I felt a bit sorry for him. If this conversation had happened at work, there was no way I would have allowed him any sympathy at all, but we were in my home, where I was Jules, who had feelings and couldn’t hide behind ice walls all the time. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Matt

Then I looked up, miserably, wondering if there was any way I could salvage anything from this, or if I should just cut my losses and let her get on with her evening.

‘So you’re not going to tell anyone?’

Oh, this suddenly sounded more promising. Had I somehow managed to convince her, then? I shook my head.

‘No.’

‘So, if I hear even a hint from someone else about what happened yesterday –’

‘Then you must have told them. I promise you, Julia. I’ve spent all day at home, just thinking about it, thinking about the sort of person I am, I don’t like it, I don’t like being two different people just to get a job done, I don’t like what it’s done to me –’

‘What do you mean, two different people?’

‘This act I put on at work, fun Matt, man-of-the-people Matt, Matt the Lad. What did you call me? Hot Scott. Yeah, heard that one too. Oh, I won’t say some of it’s not me, or that I haven’t enjoyed a lot of it, but it’s over the top, an act, it’s how I get people to do what I want them to, gel as a team, relax at work so it doesn’t seem like work.’

‘But … that’s what I do.’

It burst out of her in a petulant wail, as if I’d taken her sweets.

‘Yeah I know, Julia Marran, Ice Queen, super bitch, don’t cross her, do exactly what she says or she’ll spear you with some frosty sarcasm. I know you’re not really like that. We’re kind of the same, you and me. Except completely and absolutely opposite to each other. I bet if we compared notes we’d have fucking tons in common – oh, know what, we do, don’t we. Books, films, art, we talked about it all in The Long Legged Frog.’

Julia

That seemed so long ago, but he was right, we had talked about a lot of different things, and I had been struck by how similar our tastes and opinions were. And yesterday at his flat, I had been expecting an extension of – what had he called it? – Matt the Lad, but had seen a glimpse of someone with style and flair, and who may be a little more grown up than I’d given him credit for.

‘I guess we did.’

Matt

She seemed, somewhat miraculously, to be warming up to me a little. I decided to make the most of it.

‘I had a really nice time that evening, getting to know you a bit, being myself a bit.’

I wanted to try to push home my advantage, salvage what I could of this mess. Even if I could just get her to stop hating me, see me as someone different, just for a while …

‘Mm.’ She nodded.

‘But I guess now I’ve fucked it all up and confirmed what a ‘taker’ I am. I’m so sorry, Julia. I don’t know if it means anything, but I really like you. Yesterday, I know what it must have seemed like, a bit out of the blue, but I’ve actually … well I suppose it doesn’t matter now.’

What was the point in telling her I’d had a thing for her? She’d made it pretty clear what she thought about me.

Julia

I wanted him to go on. He was starting to intrigue me. Yes, it was Matt Scott standing in my flat, a place nobody from work ever came to disrupt the equilibrium, but I was starting to see a different side to him, a side that interested me, a side that wasn’t self-involved, egotistical or arrogant.

‘Let’s say it matters. You’ve actually what?’

He looked at me, a slight frown above his eyes, wondering where I was going with that. I could see him thinking about whether it was worth it to finish his sentence, and deciding it might be. He took a deep breath, as if to steel himself against something.

Matt

What was she up to? Was this some kind of game where she gets a confession out of me and then slaps me down even harder? Oh well, she had earned it I suppose. I took a deep breath, to prepare myself for what might be coming.

‘OK then. I’ve actually been trying to pluck up the courage to ask you out. Since before the Long Legged Frog, but definitely after.’

Julia

‘What? But, but … me?’

I spluttered. I was so far removed from the women Matt was known for asking out, the dizzy blonde brigade, that I couldn’t quite take it in.

Matt

It was so cute, her seeming to think she wasn’t my type or something, I almost laughed. Like I had a type. Two lumpy bits in front? My type, simple as.

‘You’re fucking hot, Julia Marran. And you’re interesting. And, as I said, we’re the same in a way, I wanted to explore that a bit. Get to know you without all the ‘big act’ crap getting in the way for both of us. But you’re bloody scary, and I wasn’t sure what you’d say. Well, actually I was perfectly sure what you’d say, and I didn’t really want to hear it.’

I was being more bloody open and honest than I’d been in a long time, with anyone. It was true, she interested me, she attracted me, she intrigued me. And now she knew, and she could do with it what she would. It was almost as if I trusted her with an important part of me, and knew she would respect it. It felt right to be open with her, which should have felt wrong and had me panicking, but instead had me sharing. Bloody hell.

Julia

This was not possible. Nobody knew both sides of me, there wasn’t anyone who crossed over between the two worlds I inhabited. And now it was out of the bag, and I wondered how long it would be before it ruined everything.

‘Julia, I … yesterday was a mistake. Things got out of hand in a way I’m ashamed of –’

‘Weren’t there two of us in the room?’

Matt

Well of course there were, I knew that, but I also knew which one of us had cried several times, and then turned murderously violent, and then clung to me in some kind of daze.

‘Only one of us was thinking straight. I shouldn’t have –’

Julia

‘I was thinking straight. I know I was upset, I’d just thrown a huge wobbler, lots of stuff had gone on beforehand, but I knew exactly what I was doing. I’m not sure I could explain any of it, but if I’d wanted to I could have stopped it.’

I was letting him off the hook. Part of me had enjoyed seeing him miserable and beating himself up about it, but a larger part thought enough misery had already been caused, and he’d been pretty honest with me about a lot of things.

Matt

What was this? Was she letting me off the hook? I couldn’t quite believe it. She should be screaming at me about what a bastard I was, but she was saying she’d been in her right mind and had been up for it. Holy shit.

‘So … you wanted it too?’

‘At that moment, yes. I didn’t think about it, hadn’t planned it or ever even considered it, except in an ‘over my dead body’ kind of way. I liked the way you made me feel and I needed more. At that moment.’

‘Wow, Julia.’

The word that I’d been pushing out of my mind, the one that accused me, that put me in serious forever shit, the one I couldn’t even contemplate, I started to feel I could let it go. I’d been trying not to imagine police sirens and swabs and headlines and lots of other terrifying scenarios, but they had all been there, potentially, if I really had forced myself on her. But if I hadn’t, if she’d been willing … oh fuck, I’d still done a terrible thing, but maybe not quite as terrible as I hadn’t been completely able to admit to myself.

‘I don’t know what that means for now. You … you’re starting to fascinate me. You’re not what I thought you were. But there’s a lot of other stuff. I’m like I am at work for a reason. The same way you are, I guess. None of that can change, whatever we’ve found out about each other just now – if you tell anyone I’ll call you a liar.’

‘Wow, Julia.’

And not only had she been willing then, but it sounded like she was saying she might not be averse to getting to know me a bit better now.

‘Yes, you said.’

‘So are you saying … we could … what?’

I saw her thinking about it. I was hanging on her every word. It wasn’t going to be ‘let’s be fuck buddies’ or ‘marry me’ or anything easily definable in-between I was staying open to things; this evening had already thrown more pleasant surprises my way than I had been prepared for.

Julia

I considered it. I wasn’t going to make any promises. But the thought of getting to know Matt, the real Matt, was becoming more intriguing by the minute.

‘I’m saying we could get to know each other, who we really are away from work, and see if we like each other. That’s it. At work, things are exactly as they always were.’

Matt

And that was about as perfect for me as it was likely to get. No strings, nothing to make excuses about.

‘Wow, Julia.’

‘Stop saying that, you sound like an illiterate idiot. I’ll start regretting all this in a minute.’

‘No you won’t, because the thought of the hot sex will keep you going. It was fucking hot, wasn’t it?’

I just couldn’t resist mentioning it now, now I knew she wasn’t totally repulsed by the memory, now I knew it had been a two way thing. Her cheeks turned red again.

Julia

An unbidden recollection of Matt’s naked body pounding into mine turned my cheeks scarlet.

‘You blush! Oh you’re so cute. The Ice Queen blusheth.’

I glared at him from behind my crimson cheeks.

Matt

‘Oh don’t be like that. You want to get to know the real me? Well the real me is a bit of a tease. The real you had better bloody well get used to it. How about we seal our new deal? What’s that pub like down the end of your road? The Whispering Kettle or something? Fancy a pint?’

I realised I was pushing my luck, but the rush of relief I’d felt at the sudden turnaround had made me bold.

‘Matt, I think we’ve done enough to be going on with for one night, don’t you? Let’s start another night. I’ve got a lot to do this evening, and a lot to think about now.’

I hadn’t really expected anything more, but it was a bit disappointing nonetheless.

‘OK, fair enough. How about a snog before I go then?’

I flashed her a cheeky grin, knowing it was way beyond likely.

Julia

He was grinning cheekily, eyes and mouth crinkling. He would have, if I’d agreed, but he wasn’t expecting me to agree.

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Hug?’

It appealed.

Matt

I saw her hesitate and instantly closed the distance between us, wrapping my arms around her. She pulled me closer. It was just like yesterday, before it all went wrong. She melted into me and I loved how she felt in my arms, like she belonged there. I pushed that thought away. No one belonged there, I was my own person, I didn’t do belonging. But it felt nice, I liked it. There you are, I could admit that without freaking out, and after a short time I kissed the top of her head.

Julia

It was just like yesterday, I felt safe and held and it was so comforting. So much like yesterday that after a short time I felt him kiss the top of my head. But I had to stop it before it happened all over again. I moved my arms and pushed him gently away, looking up into his actually quite spectacular grey eyes.

‘Go home. I’ll see you tomorrow. At work. Me Ice Queen, you Lord of the Lads.’

Matt

‘Ha ha. Alright then, I’ll go. But can I see you tomorrow, after work?’

I’ve always been of the ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ persuasion.

‘Yes.’

And this time I got.

‘Text me during the day. Have you got my number?’

‘I don’t use my mobile at work.’

‘What, never?’

I spent half my working life messaging and using social media, some of it work, some of it not. I wouldn’t know what to do without my mobile in my hand.

‘Not on purpose.’

‘Then it’s going to have to be The Rustling Saucepan or whatever the fuck it’s called. I bet you’re a regular.’

I’d walked past it on my way from my car to her flat. It was as good a place as any.

‘They do a good Cabernet Sauvignon. And it’s The Whistling Panhandler. And it’s a wine bar.’

‘I knew it. Regular. OK, there. Eight? Seven?’

‘Eight thirty.’

‘Date. Yes, I’ve got a date with bloody Julia Marran, re-fucking-sult.’

Julia

The triumphant look on his face almost made me change my mind, as I had a sudden anxiety that this was all still some kind of game for him. Well, maybe it was, maybe it was for both of us – certainly a little voice I was trying to ignore was wondering if this was just a way of distracting myself from Nons. We’d have to see if either of us ended up on the winning side.

Matt

I nearly blew it then, Matt the Lad resurfacing just as she was starting to trust me. Then I saw her ignore it, and breathed a bit easier. I made sure we exchanged mobile numbers, even if she wasn’t going to use hers at work, then I left, mentally breathless, feeling tons better, still resolved to follow my not being a bastard plan, as well as my ‘never again get so completely carried away that I’m not sure if I’ve forced myself on someone’ plan, but nonetheless excited about developments with Jules.

48. She’s lost control

In which things escalate rather quickly.

Matt

I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to Jules for weeks. She was even less approachable than usual, and our teams were focussed on entirely different projects.

Then Phil stuck his managerial oar in and asked my team to take over one of her team’s accounts. Julia’s team were getting behind, and my team had just finished a project, so had a bit of time to give, and Phil decided to mix things up. This was unheard of – taking another team’s account was tantamount to throwing down a leather gauntlet and suggesting pistols at dawn. Jules was going to have a shit fit. I tried to dissuade Phil, but he kept quoting stats and deadlines at me, and in the end he just pulled rank, and I had no choice.

Julia

I never used my personal mobile phone when I was at work; I didn’t want any part of my private life interfering with my well constructed work cocoon. But that day I had forgotten to switch it off, as I sometimes did if I’d been charging it, and heard it announce a text in my bag. Tutting to myself, I reached for the phone to turn it to silent, and caught sight of the text on the screen. I saw the name ‘Nons’ and despite my rules, had to look. It was a typically bald informational statement from my mother.

‘Hello JuJu darling. Sorry to inform you Nons died yesterday. Just about to board. Will ring you tonight at 7pm.’

No ‘love Mum’, no ‘hope you’re OK’, but I would have been astounded if there had been. I stared at the message in disbelief. Nons. My aunt. She’d brought me up while my parents gallivanted round the world. She was my home, my rock. No. Appalled at myself, I felt tears well up in my eyes and slide down my cheeks. My lips trembled. No.

Matt

I procrastinated like mad, and didn’t talk to Jules about the account for a while, trying several different ways to introduce the subject, and then I walked past her office, looked in and saw her crying. Shit. Jules, Julia Marran, the fucking Ice Queen, was bloody crying. Phil must have gone off-piste, as he tended to sometimes, and told her. I did not do women crying, due to the previously mentioned fuckwittedness that came out of my mouth on such occasions. But this felt like partly my fault, so I took a deep breath.

‘Everything alright?’

Julia

Matt Scott’s voice filtered through my distress. Shit, he was the last person I wanted to see me like this.

‘Jules?’

I looked up to see him closing the door behind him, reaching for some tissues out of a box on my desk, handing them to me, crouching next to my chair with concern on his face.

‘It’s Julia.’

Matt

Shit, I’d forgotten about that, it had just slipped out. I looked down for a second.

‘Sorry. Julia. You just look like a Jules to me. What the fuck’s the matter?’

She avoided my eyes, sniffing back the tears, blinking hard and shaking her head.

Julia

I tried to pull myself together, sniffing back the tears, thinking of other things. I didn’t trust myself to speak for a while, so I just shook my head and remained silent. I needed to think – I wanted to call my mother, but I couldn’t do that at work, I had my own rules about using my personal mobile at work, and besides, I didn’t want to be overheard. Before I could even start to decide what to do, Matt spoke again.

Matt

‘Is it Phil? Has he said something about the Cullen report?’

She looked at me then, frowning.

‘No, what about the Cullen report?’

Oh bollocks. She wasn’t upset about that. Well not yet, anyway.

‘Oh, er, shit, well nothing then. Fuck. Had to open my big mouth.’

Julia’s demeanour changed, as if she’d completely forgotten she’d been upset just moments before. She wasn’t going to let it go.

Julia

His faux pas was actually helping me focus back on work and stop my tears. I was going to have to do something about my mother’s text soon, contact her, but right now I was at work, and Matt Scott was in my office having seen me crying. And he’d said something about a project my team was working on.

‘What about the Cullen report?’

I pushed my chair away from him, and he stood up, putting his hands out in front of him in a conciliatory gesture.

Matt

Maybe I should have just told her then, but I was a bigger coward than I realised, and I didn’t want a big confrontation, so I just tried to bullshit my way out of it.

‘Look, forget I said anything, sorry Jule – er – Julia, you looked upset and I just thought … just forget it. Shit.’

I turned round and walked out of the office, closing the door behind me.

Julia

I couldn’t leave it like that; if I did, I was going to have to deal with the news I’d just received, so I wiped my face and went in search of Phil, the manager of all the teams, who informed me that Matt’s team was going to be taking responsibility for the Cullen report, despite the weeks of work my team had already put into it. He wouldn’t listen to my arguments and told me to hand over all the research and data we had immediately.

I was furious. I rarely showed my emotions in the office (hence The Ice Queen), but today everybody knew I was seriously pissed off. I slammed my door shut and started gathering the information together with loud bangs and the odd shouted insult. It helped enormously in enabling me to direct my emotions at the files I was throwing into a box rather than at the more troubling other things that were filling my head.

Matt

Well, of course, she went to Phil and got the whole story, and she had the predicted shit fit, shut herself in her office and started chucking things around, swearing loudly. Phil, the bastard, I really don’t know what he was up to, he must have had some kind of death wish on my behalf, but he insisted I went and got all the files from her. Everyone could hear her doing violence to things, and I thought it was particularly unfair to be made to interrupt, but there we had it. I was a minion when all was said and done.

I tapped softly on the door, in the partial hope that she wouldn’t hear. She didn’t answer, but I knew I wasn’t really going to get away with that one, so I tapped louder. Still no answer, so I just opened the door. I tried to look as apologetic as I could, but I was under no illusions that I was in for an earful.

Julia

‘Piss off. You’ve done enough for today.’

He had the decency to hang his head and look embarrassed.

‘Sorry, Julia. Really, I’m sorry, I thought you must know, shit, what a fucking balls-up. Phil wanted me to come and get the stuff, but it can wait.’

‘No, take it, it’s all right here.’

I took the box of papers and thrust it into his arms, pushing him back out of the door as I did so, then I turned round, grabbed my bag and my coat and walked out of the office, not sure where I was going or whether I would be back before the end of the day. As I stamped down the stairs, trying hard not to cry before I got well away from the building, I heard a voice shouting my name.

Matt

She just looked so upset, more upset than I thought could be accounted for by Phil’s shenanigans, and much as I hated crying women, I felt a bit responsible, so I dumped the box on a desk and followed her.

‘Julia, wait.’

If I concentrated really hard, I would remember not to call her Jules.

She didn’t wait. She hurried down the stairs and disappeared through the outer door, so I ran after her, catching up with her just before she crossed the road. I grabbed her arm and pulled her round to face me, more roughly than I meant to because I wanted to make sure she didn’t get away. She angrily pulled her arm out of my grip.

‘What the fuck do you want?’

She was nearly spitting she was so annoyed.

‘Just to see if you’re OK. I feel terrible.’

‘Well I’m not OK. And I’m glad you feel terrible. Just leave me alone.’

Well, she’d done it now. She’d invoked the ‘leave me alone I’m feeling shit’ code, and I was powerless to do anything else. I smiled, probably very irritatingly.

Julia

Something seemed to click behind his eyes and a tiny smile flickered at the corner of his mouth, then disappeared.

‘No.’

‘What?’

‘No, I won’t leave you alone. When you feel as shit as this, you shouldn’t be on your own.’

It sounded almost as if he was reciting the words, and I was astounded to see a grin spread across his face.

‘Come on.’

‘What?’

‘Come with me, I want to show you a secret.’

He grabbed my hand and started to pull me down the street. I was by now completely flummoxed. All thoughts of how I should be behaving and with whom had vanished completely, and having someone telling me what to do was, for the moment, very welcome. I could regain some control in a while, once I had first regained some composure.

Matt

I didn’t think she’d come with me, but she put up less of a fight than I’d imagined she would. At first I thought she was dragging her feet on purpose, and then I realised she was wearing heels, and couldn’t keep up with the pace I’d set. So I slowed down, and she became more compliant, following me quietly.

‘Sorry. We’re nearly there.’

‘Where?’

‘Wait and see.’

I so wanted to see the look on her face when we got there, she was going to be so surprised, it was going to take her mind off whatever it was that had upset her, it was also going to take her mind off the Cullen report, and so I kept a tight hold on her hand and led her through the gates of the churchyard.

Julia

The smug look on his face nearly had me marching back up the street, but Matt had a firm grip on my hand, and in a few more steps he led me through the gates of the churchyard and started picking his way between the gravestones. My heels were struggling with the long grass, so I stopped to take them off.

‘Watch out for the dog shit.’

I sighed.

‘No, you watch out for the dog shit. This is your bloody mystery tour. Any canine faeces I find on the bottom of my feet, I will wipe off on your shirt.’

‘Fair enough. Shit, you’re a hard woman.’

‘Ice Queen, remember.’

‘Yeah. Fuck. Anyway, here we are.’

Matt

When she took her shoes off to, presumably, prevent her from sinking into the grass surrounding the gravestones, I thought it was safe to let go of her hand, and she followed me, grumbling about getting dog shit on her feet, until we had crossed the grass and were standing in front of a tall box hedge which boundaried one edge of the cemetery. She stood and looked at it, unimpressed.

‘It’s a hedge.’

‘No kidding, not much gets past you does it, bugger I thought you’d be more impressed with a bit of greenery…’

As I was speaking, I backed away from her, and then found what I was looking for. This was my pièce de resistance; when Cal had shown me a few months ago I had been stunned, and I’d been dying to try it out on someone else. I stopped talking and took a step to my right, entering the hidden outside anteroom that held a couple of gravestones and a stone bench. She wouldn’t have a clue what had just happened; it would have looked like I’d disappeared.

Julia

As Matt was speaking, he was walking backwards away from me, and as he stopped talking he took a step to his right and – disappeared. Just vanished from sight, as if he’d stepped into the hedge. I stood with my mouth open.

‘Matt?’

Nothing, just the sound of the traffic from the street and leaves rustling in the breeze. I walked along the hedge trying to find the spot where he had disappeared, but it seemed to be continuous. It wasn’t until I was on my way back that I saw it, a cunningly hidden alcove grown into the hedge that was only visible from certain angles. I still might have missed it if I hadn’t seen the toe of Matt’s trainer peeping out at the very bottom edge. I would have loved to have paid him back with a similar joke, but I really wasn’t in the mood, and as I stopped being quite so flustered by the events of the afternoon so far, I was beginning to return to my work persona. The best I could do was spoil his surprise, so I walked into the alcove as nonchalantly as I could manage.

Matt

I’m not quite sure how Cal found out about this hidden room in the graveyard, although if Cal knew about it, then every other person in the city did. Certainly, judging from the amount of discarded shit – empty cans, fag ends, chip wrappers – littering the floor, plenty of people used it, but I had come here quite a few times with Cal, and we’d always been the only ones. We’d sit here and eat crisps and read comics, then go to the park and kick a ball about – see, I wasn’t always a bastard arsehole excellent no-strings lay; sometimes I was cool Uncle Matty. It brought a sense of perspective to life.

But anyway, now I’d shown the trick to Jules, and I really wanted to see what she was doing, but I had to stay where I was. I contented myself with standing at the entrance so I could see her face when she finally found it – I knew she’d work it out, she was smart, but for now, I wanted to enjoy … oh. She walked in as if she’d known it was there all the time, looking as underwhelmed as it was possible to look.

Julia

‘So where’s this big secret then?’

It was worth it for the crestfallen look on his face; it only lasted a second, but I knew I’d taken the wind out of his sails. He still flashed a quick grin and spread his arms wide, introducing me to a small enclosure about three metres square. There was a stone bench along one edge and two neat gravestones along the opposite edge announcing themselves memorials to John and Roberta Chartham who departed this earth 1776 and 1790 respectively. Matt sat on the bench and patted the seat next to him, so I sat, bending down to slip my shoes back on.

Matt

It pretty much took the wind out of my sails, but she was here now, all mine for a short time, I hoped. I flashed her a quick grin and spread my arms in welcome, then sat on the bench and patted the seat next to me. Still surprisingly compliant, she sat down.

‘Welcome to my lunchtime hideaway. I know you all think I go to The Anchor to get shit-faced, but in reality I come here and ponder the nature of the universe in general and the nature of Margie Feller’s boobs in particular – i.e. silicon or real – with a chicken mayo on brown, a packet of Walkers’ salt and vinegar, and a can of Fanta. Any visible shit-facedness upon my return is purely an act designed to distract.’

She raised a sceptical eyebrow.

‘And the beery breath?’

‘Oh come on, that was one fucking time, Phil gave me a bollocking, and anyway I was entertaining a sodding prospective client. What was I supposed to do, drink mineral water?’

Her eyebrow stayed raised.

‘Really? Fucking mineral water? Beside the point. So what do you think?’

I gestured around the hidden alcove.

‘It’s my secret. Nobody else knows about it.’

I tapped the side of my nose and winked, playing it up for all I was worth.

‘How did you find out about it?’

‘My nephew showed me.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Nine.’

‘Particularly good at keeping secrets is he?’

‘A bit shit actually – wait, are you trying to say I might not be the only one he’s told? Bloody hell, the little scamp, all this time I thought the empty bottles and fag ends must be his, I nearly told his mum, are you saying they could have been just … anybody’s?’

I held the back of my hand dramatically to my forehead.

‘I feel betrayed.’

I was starting to enjoy myself, almost forgetting that Julia had been upset, twice, and was here because I’d dragged her here.

Julia

Without thinking, I told him something I shouldn’t have.

‘Real.’

‘What?’

‘A secret for a secret. Margie Feller’s boobs. Completely real.’

Matt

Well I hadn’t expected that – either the telling of the fact, or the fact itself. I’d been trying to find out about Margie’s awesome boobs for some time, and people either didn’t know or were sworn to secrecy. I’d not had a chance to investigate for myself, as Margie was married and not interested in extra-marital boob feeling sessions, but in my own mind I had plumped, if you’ll forgive the expression, for fake, because they couldn’t possibly be real. Now I knew. Awesome.

‘Fuuucking hell.’ Oh, but … ‘How do you know? Have you, you know, like, felt them?’

My fascination for the subject temporarily distracted me, and Julia saw something in my expression that brought her back to herself somewhat. She closed down the part of her that had started to share stuff with me, and I couldn’t blame her.

Julia

His expression of totally prurient lecherousness reminded me who I was talking to. I wasn’t just having a chat with a normal person, I was discussing the private matters of a colleague with another colleague whose morals were, to put it bluntly, suspect. I needed to backtrack.

‘No, only one secret traded at a time. And that one’s not for sale. I shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.’

He sensed the shift.

‘Aw Jules – fuck, sorry, sorry, Julia, it’s just you look so much like a Jules to me – you’ve gone all Ice Queen on me. I thought we were getting somewhere.’

‘Where precisely did you think we were getting?’

‘Well somewhere we could have a laugh, forget you think I’m an uncontrollable shag monster, forget I think you have a ten foot pole lodged in your arse, take your mind off your woes, call a truce?’

I was confused.

‘A truce?’

‘Yeah, you know, cease hostilities, wave a white flag, stop hating each other for, oh I don’t know, perhaps we could make it to half a bloody hour?’

‘Do you hate me?’

For some reason it seemed important that he didn’t.

Matt

Oh bloody hell, I hadn’t really meant that, it was a, I don’t know, metaphor or something.

‘Fuck. No, I didn’t mean that, I said ‘hating each other’ didn’t I. I suppose I meant fighting with each other. Haven’t we been doing that since we both started at GreenScreen: rival teams, rival contracts, all designed to up the stakes and get the most out of both of us?’

She stared at me, and I realised with horror that she hadn’t known. Phil was open with me about pitting our teams against each other to increase competitiveness and up productivity; it had never occurred to me that Julia wasn’t in on it. Oh shit and now she looked like she was going to bloody well cry again. All this had been to stop her crying in the first place, and I’d just made her do it again. Nice one, Matt.

Julia

I stared at him. How naïve had I been? It had never occurred to me, and I felt absolutely stupid. Unbelievably, I felt tears prickle at the corners of my eyes for the second time that day. I’d been sucked into one huge game, a game that Matt was playing and winning, because he knew all the rules, while I wasn’t even aware I was a competitor.

‘Oh shit, Julia, fuck, I’m sorry, fuck, no, don’t do that, here –’

He handed me a rather used looking tissue from his pocket

Matt

‘–sorry, it’s not that fresh. Fuck, I’m such a dickwad. I thought everyone knew how it was? No, no, no, please don’t, I don’t do women crying, oh fuck, come here.’

I put my arm round her shoulder as she buried her face in her hands and started sobbing. This didn’t noticeably diminish the crying, so I put my other arm round the front of her and held her while she cried. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard, holding Julia Marran while she cried her eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

Julia

I felt his arm go round my shoulder as I buried my face in my hands and started sobbing. The news about Nons had just caught up with me, and the fresh revelations from Matt had tipped me over the edge. I wasn’t an emotionally expressive person, and crying made me feel sick, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt Matt’s other arm go round the front of me and he made some attempt to hold me while I wept. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard being held by Matt Scott while I cried my eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

After a while I snivelled myself to a standstill, and stayed hunched over, my face in my hands, feeling awkward and bilious. Matt released his hold, then tried to get me to look up by pushing my chin up and pulling on my hands. I shook my head.

‘Come on Jules, we both know you’re going to look a complete nightmare, all blotchy and dribbly and gloopy and shit, I won’t be shocked. You’ll make your back ache if you sit hunched over like that.’

He pulled on my hands again, and this time I let go, but kept my eyes shut as he gently pulled me so I was sitting back against the seat. I took several deep, shuddering breaths.

‘There you go, that’s better. Hmm, not as bad as I was expecting. Bloody expensive waterproof mascara? You’re worth it!’

I heard him chuckle to himself at his little joke. I opened my eyes and gave him the full Ice Queen special.

‘Hey, you’re back with us, your majesty.’

Matt was turned towards me on the seat, apparently not affected by the icy blast coming from my eyes.

‘Want to tell me? I mean, if all that was just about Phil’s little office politics games and my fucking cack-handed foot-in-mouth explanation, then my heartfelt apologies and by all means keep the tissue –’

‘You really are a self-centred prick aren’t you.’

‘–but if there was something else, I know I’m a self-centred prick, but for the next little while I’m your self-centred prick and I can listen in a way that only self-centred pricks can.’

I took a deep breath.

‘It’s personal.’

‘OK.’

‘I don’t mix work and personal.’

‘OK.’

‘What?’

‘Well, I couldn’t help but notice, we’re not at work, and you’ve just been blarting your fucking eyes out all over my shirt sleeve.’

He held up his arm which was damp around the elbow.

‘So, I’m thinking maybe this isn’t work, which makes it kinda personal, which means, spill.’

‘I’m not about to tell you my personal business.’

‘I disagree. I think you are about to, and I will tell you why.’

This was the very type of annoying light banter that usually frustrated the hell out of me at work, as it wasted so much time. However, I had to admit I was currently finding it diverting. I huffed a breath out and crossed my arms over my chest as I waited for the inevitable nonsense.

‘OK. Firstly, I am the soul of discretion. Ah ah, before you give me that ‘fuck off Matt Scott you are the most indiscreet fuckweasel anyone knows’ look, let me just advise you that I have never, ever kissed and told. There has been lots of kissing and lots of telling, and although I will admit to a lot, but not all, of the kissing, I have never done any of the telling. Think back. Where did any of those wild stories originate? The ladies in question or their cohorts? Yes. Me? No. Exactly. I rest my case. Your secret, sordid or otherwise, is safe with me. I’d rather it was a bit sordid, though, to be honest, just to make it worth my while.’

I turned my head away and studied the hedge, hoping his chattering would carry on long enough for my eyes to calm down so I could leave.

‘Secondly, I am a seriously stubborn fucking bastard. I’ve won competitions in it. I never give up. I’m pretty good at getting people to talk to me, even when they have no intention of it. Persistence is my middle name. Had a better ring to it than Robert, so I changed it.’

I turned my head back to look at him.

‘Your middle name is Robert?’

‘Was. Is now Persistence. Suits me, don’t you think?’

I tutted, rolled my eyes and turned back to my perusal of the hedge.

‘Thirdly, and this is the killer, the deal-breaker. If you talk to me I’ll tell you something about me that no-one else at GreenScreen knows – oh apart from Phil, and he knows everything about everyone anyway. If I divulge your secret to any living soul, you have my permission to spread the goss to the waiting ears of Lexi on reception, who will have informed the entire staff team before you’ve even got up the stairs, and the news will greet you, complete with Lexi’s imaginative embellishments, as you walk in the door.’

Intriguing as this was, I had no interest in acquiring personal information about Matt. Much as he seemed to enjoy the machinations of office affairs, I tried to keep myself out of them as much as possible. I was getting a bit tired of his assumption that I had some deep dark secret though.

‘It’s nothing, alright? I just got some bad news. I don’t usually have my phone on, but I picked up a text by mistake and now I wish I hadn’t.’

Matt seemed nonplussed for a second; maybe he thought he was going to have more of a battle with me, maybe he was so caught up in his game that he forgot I had a part to play too. More likely: he was astounded at the thought of not having one’s phone switched on and in one’s hand at all times. He recovered quickly, leaning back on the seat with a smug grin.

‘There you go, that wasn’t so hard was it. And the bad news was ..?’

‘None of your damn business.’

‘Oh Jules, don’t stop now, we were just getting started –’

‘Leave it, Matt, I’m not going to tell you. And stop calling me Jules. Only my friends call me that, and –’

And Nons. Not my immediate family. My family, my mother, father and two sisters, called me JuJu, which I hated. Everyone I loved called me Jules. I didn’t want this self-important – what had he called himself? – uncontrollable shag monster calling me Jules when Nons was never again going to call my name up the stairs in the morning to the smell of frying bacon, or say ‘Hello Jules how’s my favourite niece’ when she rang, or look disappointed and say ‘oh well Jules, there’s still time for you’ when I’d told another potential husband (in her eyes) to take a hike.

It was all too much. I didn’t want to be here with this man who was being far too understanding, far too nice. I wanted him to be the annoying cocky dickhead he usually was so I could rage at him and storm off, and be on my own, which was after all what I had asked for in the first place. I wanted Nons. I wanted her here so much. She was the only one who could possibly help me, and she was the only one who wouldn’t be able to. I almost felt my heart break. Without warning, the tears came again. Large sobs almost stopped me breathing. I couldn’t do this here, with Matt Scott.

I got up and stumbled towards the exit from the arbour. Except I didn’t, because I couldn’t find the way. Blinded by tears and disoriented by distress, I bumped into the side of the hedge twice, scratched my hands trying to scrabble my way out, and then gave up with a howl, slumping to the floor, curling up and giving in to it, no longer caring who was there to witness it. Nons was gone. I’d never felt so alone. Nothing else mattered.

Matt

Jules just fell on the floor and started sobbing, curled in a ball, racked with these horrible noises that sounded like an alien was trying to break out of her throat.

And she just kept saying ‘non’. I couldn’t work it out. It was like she was French or something. Maybe she was, she had a bit of an exotic look about her sometimes, and ‘Marran’, wasn’t that French for chestnut or some such bollocks?

But anyway, whether you do women crying or not, you don’t let someone just lie there on the floor in serious distress without trying to help them in some way. I didn’t have a lot of options, but I sat next to her and stroked her hair and tried to think of comforting things to say that were a bit more meaningful than ‘shh’ and ‘there there’, but didn’t really come up with much.

After what felt a very long time, but when women are crying it always feels like bloody ages to me, she stopped.

Julia

However upset you are, it is impossible to cry forever, although it is possible to cry for a very long time. Long enough to almost forget where you are and who you’re with, until you come back to yourself a little bit and feel a hand stroking your hair away from your face, and hear their voice saying nonsense designed to make you feel better. Then you realise where you are, what’s just happened and, finally, who it is who is stroking your hair.

I sat up and tried to organise myself. My face was puffy and tear-stained. I had a headache and felt sick. I was really thirsty. I tried to run my hands through my hair, but it was tangled and there were bits of leaf and twig stuck in it. I rummaged in my bag for a comb and a mirror. I did anything and everything to avoid looking at Matt, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me, watching quietly.

‘I think you need some antiseptic.’

Now he’d spoken, it wasn’t as easy to ignore him. I didn’t have to look at him though.

‘What?’

I continued to paw through my bag, no longer sure what I was looking for.

‘Your hands.’

He took my right hand and turned it palm upwards. I gasped at the bloody mess of scratches.

‘How did I …’

‘You scratched them on the hedge. What the fuck were you trying to do? The exit is over there.’

He pointed to the opposite side of the enclosure. I felt too stupid to even answer him.

‘Come on, Julia, come home with me.’

‘What?’

More stupidity. This man certainly had the ability to make me feel several IQ points below par.

‘I live a couple of streets away. I can clean you up, you need to put some plasters on it or something.’

‘No … I can –’

‘No, you can’t, whatever you were going to argue with me about. You can’t drive like that, you can’t do anything or go anywhere until you’re patched up. I told you I’m a stubborn fucking bastard. I will win this. Give in now and save yourself some time and effort.’

So I did give in. It was all too much, being here in this hidden place, after everything that had happened so far today. My hands hurt, my head hurt, my brain hurt, and I just did what I was told. It would be over soon, then I could go home and be on my own and everything would all be alright after that, but until then I would just do what I was told.

Matt

As I saw it, her choices were go back to work and face tons of questions about how she’d scratched her hands and why she looked like shit, or come back to mine where I could patch her up and lend her my bathroom so she could get the leaves out of her hair, and she could do what she wanted from there. She hardly argued when I suggested it. She stood up and followed me, silently, all the way to my flat.

Julia

I followed Matt out of the strange secret place, across the graveyard, down the street, along a few more streets, and then into an apartment building. I walked behind him up the stairs and he let me through his front door. We didn’t exchange a single word the whole time. Then I looked up at where I was and –

‘Wow!’

The view from his window was spectacular. The glass almost filled one wall, and it overlooked the river. Beyond were rolling hills, with the city in-between His apartment was stunning too – there was an open plan living and kitchen area, with a couple of doors to, presumably, bedroom and bathroom It was a modern and surprisingly minimally and tidily decorated space. I would have imagined empty beer bottles, pizza boxes and a few back issues of Nuts magazine spread around, but the place was spotless. Even a framed Star Wars poster seemed in keeping, and blended with everything else.

Matt

My flat was my pride and joy. I got it cut price via some unfortunate soul foreclosing on their mortgage and me being in the right place at the right time – poor them, lucky me. I fucking loved it. It was big and light and modern, and had the most impressive view over the river, across the city to the moors. It changed constantly, with the weather, the light and the time of day, and I never got bored of looking out of the window. The kitchen and lounge were in one large room separated by a counter, and I had put a small dining table next to the window. I had a huge squishy sofa, a couple of armchairs and a large TV with a couple of games consoles.

Julia hadn’t spoken since we left the graveyard, but when she saw the view she said, ‘Wow’ and looked around her in surprise. She was the first person who’d ever been up here who wasn’t family, or for whom the flat hadn’t been especially prepared for a lad’s night. No woman who wasn’t a member of my family had ever been here; I always went to ‘her place’. This was my sanctuary, somewhere I didn’t have to pretend, the odd night of watching football with the guys in a sea of beer bottles and takeaway containers notwithstanding.

Julia

‘Great view, eh?’

I nodded, trying to align the image I had of Matt Scott with the light, airy, tasteful apartment. It wasn’t computing. I continued to look out of the window, peripherally aware of Matt going through one of the doors and rummaging sounds emerging. His voice floated back to me.

‘Have a seat, just trying to find my first aid kit.’

I turned and looked into the room, and headed towards a plum coloured sofa. I sank into the generous cushions as the rummaging sounds continued.

‘Fuck it, I know I put it in here – oh. Bloody hell, Dec, can’t you ever put things back where you fucking well found them?’

This last was uttered sotto voce. The rummaging continued briefly and then stopped. Matt emerged, with a green and white box tucked under his arm. God, he even had a proper first aid kit. It was like he was changing into someone I no longer recognised.

‘Trust a mate with your fucking stuff, it could end up anywhere. Had to patch up my nephew the other day, game of footy got out of hand, kit got put back in the wrong place.’

Matt

I got Julia to sit on the sofa while I found the first aid box, then sat next to her.

‘Hold out your hands.’

Julia

I turned them palm up and rested them on my knees, and Matt proceeded to tip antiseptic onto a cotton wool pad. The smell made my eyes smart.

Matt

‘I think I’m supposed to tell you this is going to sting, but you will already know that. Pretend you’re on some live reality TV show and please, do not swear.’

I started to clean her scratches with antiseptic. She hardly spoke, and I was a bit worried about how she was just letting me tell her what to do; it didn’t seem like her at all.

Julia

I watched dispassionately as the cotton wool headed towards my right palm. I remained dispassionate until the moment the cotton wool actually touched my right palm.

‘Ah!’

With a sharp intake of breath, I pulled my hand away, knocking the cotton wool out of Matt’s hand. The sting brought more tears to my eyes. Matt bent down to retrieve the cotton wool from the floor, then took my hand in his, holding it firmly.

‘I said it was going to fucking sting. Get a grip, woman.’

He glanced up at my face, and saw a couple of tears dribble their way down my cheeks.

‘Oh Jules, sorry.’

He reached up and brushed the droplets away with the tip of his forefinger.

‘Be a brave little soldier, for me, OK?’

‘Patronising bastard.’

My voice sounded raw and broken; apart from a ‘wow’ and an ‘ah’ I hadn’t spoken since all the crying in the graveyard.

‘That’s better, that’s my Ice Queen.’

I glared at him, daring him to say one more condescending word. He laughed, and bent his head over my palm.

‘Alright then, let’s do it your way. This is going to fucking hurt, right? Swear all the fuck you want, but keep still.’

He was right, it did fucking hurt, both hands, but I stayed still as ordered while he wiped and wadded and bandaged and plastered. My right hand only needed a couple of plasters, but the scratches on my left hand were long and awkwardly positioned, and he bandaged it up. He did a really professional looking job, and I was impressed despite myself.

Matt

I wiped her scratches and provided bandages and plasters; Beth would have been proud.

‘It pays to have a nurse in the family, lots of First Aid lessons.’

Julia

He gestured at an array of photographs on top of a bookshelf. Several people smiled down at me, but I had no idea which one was the nurse responsible for my neat bandages.

‘Right, that’s you done. Can I get you a drink?’

I was really thirsty, but just wanted to be gone. I’d had enough of this shitty day, with its nasty surprises and its surreal weirdness and its king-sized dollop of Matt Scott. I shook my head and started to rummage in my bag for my car keys.

‘No, I’d better go. Thanks for this.’

I held up my hands. Matt opened his mouth to speak, as though he was going to try to persuade me to stay, but held back and nodded instead. He was probably as exhausted as I was with the whole situation and wanted me gone as much as I wanted to go. I stood up, picked up my bag and coat, wincing at the pull on my scratches, and walked to the door. He held it open for me, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder as I passed in front of him.

Matt

Just as she was stepping through the doorway, I remembered how she’d kept saying ‘non’ when she was sobbing on the ground, and without thinking, it just came out.

‘I didn’t know you were French.’

‘What?’

‘Aren’t you French?’

It must have been delayed fuckwittedness from the earlier weeping.

‘No. What do you mean?’

The look on her face told me instantly that I was indeed making a complete arse of myself. It should have stopped me, but some outside force seemed to have taken over my mouth, and I found myself continuing.

Julia

This a propos of nothing remark left me completely flummoxed. It didn’t seem to be a joke, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

‘In the graveyard, you were all curled up on the floor, bit of a soggy puddle, and you kept saying ‘non’. Thought you must be French. Sorry, forget it.’

‘Nons.’

Dammit, hadn’t meant to say it out loud, just saying her name summoned the sobs again. I needed to get out of there.

Matt

She said it again, and now I was confused.

‘Yeah, that’s it – Jules, you really don’t look OK, will you please come and sit down and have a drink or something?’

Julia

Something snapped. I felt it go, in my brain, as the last ‘Jules’ broke the dam.

Matt

And then, if I thought she’d gone ape-shit before, back in the office, well that was nothing. This was something else, suddenly she was a berserker, like a red mist descended or something. She turned to face me, her eyes going dark with anger, her fists balled up. The force of her glare made me take a step backwards.

‘It’s JULIA you FUCKING ARSEHOLE. You think you can waltz around doing or saying what the FUCK you want because you’ve got a FUCKING cheeky grin and you know where to shove your dick. I’ve asked you to call me JULIA, you TOSSER, is it really that FUCKING hard to remember? And no I’m not fucking FRENCH. Nons is a name, a fucking NAME, it’s a name … Nons is her … was her … unh …’

She took a step towards me, and then another one, and she started trying to hit me, her fists still balled up, scrumpling the bandages. She was a lot shorter than me, and slight, so none of it really hurt me, but she was a hay-maker, and I needed to try to contain her, and I was a bit worried she was going to try to scratch my eyes out, so I used my height to gather her up, pin her arms to her side and just hold her there until she calmed down.

Julia

And then coherence, if you could call it that, slipped away and although I vaguely remember lurching towards Matt, fists raised, and maybe he held my wrists, possibly to prevent me scratching his eyes out, and then there might have been some strong arms around me, pinning my arms to my sides while I may have yelled and screamed and thrashed, I don’t really remember any of it until suddenly there I was, wrapped up in Matt Scott’s arms, face against his chest, breathing in little shudders as he stroked my hair.

Matt

It took a long time, and she yelled and screamed and thrashed and cried, but I just held her, wrapping her up, as she slowly, slowly calmed down, and I felt it all gradually leave her, and we were standing there, her face against my chest, as she breathed in little shudders and I stroked her hair and I accidentally kissed the top of her head, didn’t mean to, just did it. I felt her stir against me.

Julia

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head?’

Jesus, my voice sounded even worse than before. My throat was ragged and sore. I had a raging thirst.

Matt

Her voice sounded ragged and broken. And a bit pissed off.

‘Yeah. Sorry. Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

‘Please don’t.’

‘Oh. OK. Sure. Anything else you want me not to do?’

It was best to be clear about these things. Standing there with her in my arms, in the aftermath of a storm of emotion, there were all sorts of things I might do that she wouldn’t want me to. Really didn’t want to have her trying to bash me again. In any case, she didn’t answer, so I assumed I was alright to carry on stroking her hair, at the very least. We were kind of rocking, folded up in each other, almost lulling each other to sleep. It felt unreal. And very nice.

Julia

I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. It felt good to be held, as if someone could take it all away. But the one doing the holding – that was another matter. I really wasn’t sure how I felt about that. He carried on stroking my hair.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

He was almost lulling me to sleep, gently rocking me on my feet as we stood there, me folded up in him.

‘I’m sorry I called you Jules.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Not sure I deserved to have the crap beaten out of me though.’

‘Mm.’

I was sure he had deserved it. He’d certainly had something coming to him, couldn’t focus on the whats or the whys just now. I carried on almost sleeping, being held up by a pair of strong arms.

Matt

I’d got the apology out of the way, but now I wanted to find out what it was all about.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Who’s Nons?’

She answered in a kind of dazed voice, head still buried in my chest.

Julia

I was so sleepy, I could just say it now and it didn’t matter.

‘My aunt. She died.’

Matt

‘Ohh. Fuck, Julia, I’m sorry.’

It all made sense now. Why would I have ever thought she was upset about some nonsense at work? She never got upset about work stuff. But somebody dying, that was huge. I felt terrible about it, about how inconsiderate I must have been, so I dropped a consoling kiss onto the top of her head.

Julia

I felt a familiar sensation. It roused me enough to ask about it.

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head again?’

‘I believe I did.’

‘After I asked you not to?’

‘Sorry. It seemed like the thing to do.’

More soft swaying, almost like we were dancing, but slower and more gentle. I felt soothed.

Matt

I just wanted to make her feel better, I swear, but you can probably see where this is going. And then I became aware of my hard-on, which had popped up at the most bloody inconvenient time. I needed to alert her to my arousal status without scaring her off completely.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘This is bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Maybe a bit too bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm … what?’

‘I don’t just want to kiss the top of your head.’

‘What?’

She lifted her head away from my chest and looked up at me, then looked down.

‘Fuck, Julia, I think we need to stop this before I kiss something I’ll regret.’

And I really meant it, I really did want to stop, because she was in a state, and I didn’t want to be that kind of arsehole, not with her, not while she was like this, all upset and emotional.

But then she reached up and put her hand round my neck, pulling my face down to hers. Fuck it, I even managed to resist for a second or two, and then Matt the Lad kicked in, like some kind of reflex, and my mouth met hers, and I couldn’t stop.

Julia

To his credit, he resisted for a brief moment, and then his lips were on mine, and his hands were in my hair, and my hands were under his shirt, and his tongue was slipping over and around mine, and somehow he was standing in front of me without his shirt and I was running my hands down his chest and then he was slipping my bra off my shoulders …

Matt

… our hands were everywhere, ripping off clothes, exploring urgently. Our tongues and lips pressed and tangled and tasted …

Julia

… and then nipples were sucked and our hands were lower, much lower, and more clothes were coming off and then there was nothing between us but air, and then, and then there was no air between us …

Matt

… and before I could think about it, we were naked, our bodies pressed against each other, and I lifted her up and laid her on the sofa, and she pulled me towards her and our bodies joined and I thrust and pounded and it was hard and fast and explosive and …

Julia

… and we were kissing and licking and sucking and fucking, hard and fast and noisily and urgently and then, and then …

Matt

Oh fuck.

Julia

Oh Jesus.

47. Someone like you

In which there is an explanation, a recovery, and a missed opportunity.

Dec

It felt so good to be out of my wet clothes and in the shower. I let the hot water run over me for a while, then got out and wrapped a towel round my waist, enjoying the sensation as I dried off and felt clean and warm.

Amy was waiting in bed, sitting up, pyjamas on. I stood in the doorway and looked at her. I wasn’t relishing the explaining I was going to have to begin in a minute, and just wanted to keep looking at her while she didn’t know everything, while she wasn’t angry or upset or disappointed.

)Hey you, feel better?

‘Much. Love a shower. Not a cold, rainy one though, not nearly so enjoyable.’

)Come and tell me all about it.

She pulled my half of the duvet aside and patted the sheet. I finished drying myself, pulled on a pair of boxers and got in next to her, unable to delay any longer. I put my arm round her and looked at her, hesitating.

)What’s the matter, hon?

‘This is hard. I’ve been so stupid. I don’t want to fuck things up between us again, but I don’t want to hide anything from you.’

)Well, if it helps, I already know you gave Becca Davis a lift which ended in her being half naked in your car, although not which half or how it … er … happened. Although the lovely Becca texted me earlier to describe in some detail what she would like me to think you and her got up to.

‘Oh, babe … I’m such a fucking idiot. Almost as soon as she got in the car I realised what I’d done, but she wouldn’t get out and it just kept getting worse and worse. I didn’t, I didn’t do any of it.’

)I know, hon.

‘What?’

)I know. Didn’t you hear me at the restaurant? I said I trust you. I don’t trust Becca Davis further than I could throw her, but I trust you. Remember you said I had to decide if I believe her? Well, she’s a lying cow, so why would I?

‘Ames … I don’t know what to say. You’re fucking amazing.’

)I still want to know all the gory details. Maybe without all the beating yourself up about what an idiot you’ve been. Let’s just take that for granted, yeah?

‘Ha ha, OK babe, fair enough. Well …’

I told her absolutely everything, and she took it all really well, until I told her about getting aroused when Becca touched me. She swallowed hard at that point, tried to continue smiling up at me, but had to look away and blink a lot.

‘You know it doesn’t mean anything, right? Right, babe?’

)Actually, doesn’t it mean a bit of you wanted her?

‘Only the fucking testosterone-driven uncontrollable too-bloody-male-to-think-straight part. She was waving her tits in my face, I’d have had to be, I don’t know, not a man, to be able to have any say in the whole process. All the other parts of me were thinking about you, how gorgeous you are, how much I love you – Amy, I honestly with all my heart swear that no thinking, feeling part of me wanted any part of Becca fucking Davis. My dick has a mind of its own sometimes, you know that, but I don’t have to do what it says, and I definitely didn’t want to do anything about it with Becca fucking Davis. Honestly, babe. Please don’t focus on this. I wasn’t sure whether to tell you, I knew you’d be upset, but I just didn’t want to hide any of it.

)Did you ever consider it? For just a second?

‘Shit, no, Amy. No! Fuck no. She’s got nothing I want, even with it on a plate and staring me in the face. I only want you. I wish I knew what to say so you could believe me.

)Sorry. It’s just … that was one of the things she said in her text, and you just said you didn’t do any of it, and now … well, you did.

‘But she’s just twisting it. Shit, Amy, fuck, she’s a vicious cow. I didn’t lay one finger on her, oh, apart from to take her hand off my leg, and to push her away when she tried to snog me – OK, so maybe I laid a couple of fingers on her.’

Amy continued to look down and I cursed Becca fucking Davis and her mad bitch scheming.

‘Ames, we didn’t snog. She tried, I shoved her away – oh, that was another thing in her text, wasn’t it?’

Amy nodded.

‘Shit. Bloody fucking cow. Ames, I didn’t want to touch her, I didn’t even want to look at her. I feel so stupid for letting her get me there in the first place so she could carry on doing this to you. Please, Amy, please believe me, you’re all I was thinking of, you’re all I ever want.’

I was close to tears now, it felt like I’d never to be able to convince her. Amy was quiet for a while, looking down, her hair covering her face so I couldn’t see her expression

) … OK, I just needed to know. I’ll just have to do a bit more trusting won’t I?

She took a deep breath, looked up, smiled and squared her shoulders.

)So what happened next?

I wrapped my arms around her, so relieved, knowing the effort she’d made to believe me. I pulled her closer to me, kissed her hair.

‘Where had I got up to? Oh yeah, my bloody uncontrollable dick. OK, so, after she tried to shove her tongue down my throat, which was pretty gross by the way, I basically told her she was sad and pathetic, needed to grow up and stop playing schoolgirl games, and to put her shirt on and fuck off out of our lives, and then I got out of the car and started walking. I bet that’s when she sent you the text, she did yell after me that she was going to, she tried everything to get me to stay with her.’

)I’m glad you didn’t.

‘Yeah, me too. I really, really did not enjoy getting soaked right through to my boxers, the rain was trickling down my back into some very uncomfortable places, and I feel like my feet are never going to recover, my shoes have rubbed everywhere. But it was still better than spending any more time with that mad fucking bitch.’

)So how far did you get before Matt found you?

‘Fuck, I don’t know. It felt like miles, but it was dark and raining and I was miserable and thinking about you with your parents, having them being all ‘I told you that boy was no good’, it felt like the longest walk of my life. Shit, I’m going to have to go and get the car, it’s not locked or anything, fuck knows what state she’s left it in. Shit, my fucking car.’

)Dec, do you think you can possibly wait until the morning to go and get the car? It’s late and I think what we’re talking about here is more important.

I swallowed my concern for my car. It meant a lot to me; I had bought it with money left to me by my parents, and it was in some ways irreplaceable. But not compared to Amy.

‘Yeah, it can wait.’

)So Matt found you where?

‘Oh babe, I don’t have a fucking clue where I was. She’d sent me all over the place. I only know I was walking back into the city. I’d got to some houses, just where the street lights started. Probably just as well, he might have run me over if I’d still been in the lane, my suit’s dark, so is my shirt, I didn’t think about whether cars would be able to see me. Matt’s was the only one I saw in all that time. Shit, Amy, I’m so glad you rang him. I would have had another hour or so in the rain without him. How did you work it out, where I was?’

)Well, when you rang to say you were, how did you put it, in a situation, I was really worried, especially when we got cut off and then I couldn’t get hold of you. I didn’t know your charge had run out, I thought, well, this is really silly I guess, but I remembered when you were beaten up and your phone was smashed. I completely couldn’t get it out of my head. I tried Jay and Beth, but they didn’t answer, so I tried Matt, and he really was so calm and knew just what to do. He knew Jay was home, so he went round, he called me from there, he’d called Bonksy, got a bit of a garbled story, but we worked out between us what must have happened. I told him whereabouts Becca used to live and he just went off to find you. The miracle is he hadn’t had anything to drink.

‘Yeah, that is actually a bit of a miracle for Matt at that time on a Saturday night.’

)Apparently he was just heading out to a club when I rang him.

‘Oh, so he hadn’t even started drinking yet.’

)Maybe. I didn’t ask. The other miracle is that he managed to find his way around in the dark, and actually found you. He’d never been out that way before. He must have a sat nav for a brain. He phoned me as soon as he spotted you. I was so relieved.

‘I bet your mum and dad were just loving all this.’

)Yeah, you can imagine – ‘Amy, do you not think you should order your main course now’. I was like, yeah Mum, once I’ve found out whether Dec is lying in a pool of blood somewhere or not, then I’ll completely have the sea bass with a side salad. God, they just didn’t get it at all. I’m not their most popular daughter right now, I should think.

‘You’re all they’ve got, they should be thankful you’re so fucking amazing. I should be thankful you’re so fucking amazing. Ames, I can’t believe how well you’ve taken all this. Walking down that road in the rain, all I could think was ‘That’s it, I’ve blown it, after everything we’ve talked about’, and call myself a fucking idiot over and over.

)But that’s kind of it, hon, isn’t it? We’ve done all that talking, and Beth and Jay have been completely amazing, and we’re stronger now. It’s not about me trusting you. I do. It’s not about you trusting me, either. It’s about us trusting in us. We know what we’ve got and we know how to keep it. We’re strong together – we beat Becca Davis! We’re awesome.

I looked at her with pride, admiration and so much love. She said we were strong, but she was stronger than me by a mile.

‘I love you so much, Ames. Will you marry me?’

)Always, hon. You’re going to have to stop asking one day.

‘Never, babe.’

o0o

}Fucking hell, Summers, it’s the middle of the bloody night. Even I was asleep. Alone, sadly, not that you asked, even though it was your shenanigans that ruined my night.

‘Sorry, Matt. I’m just worried about my car. I couldn’t lock it because she was still in it, and I don’t know where it is because I was fucking lost. I really don’t want anything to happen to it. Ames wanted me to wait until tomorrow, but I’ve just been lying awake worrying about it.’

A sigh.

}I’ll be there shortly. Make sure you have a bloody enormous strong coffee ready for me when I arrive.

‘Thanks, I really appreciate it.’

}Yeah, yeah.

o0o

}How far up here was it?

‘I don’t know. It felt like I was driving for miles, there wasn’t anywhere to turn round – oh, there it is … oh fuck.’

}Dec, I don’t think you’re going to be able to drive it home. Shit, what the fuck’s she done?

We pulled up behind my car, which was still in the gateway, all the doors open, all the lights on, all the stuffing ripped out of the seats, deep scratches along the paintwork and all four tyres flat. I sat, numb, and looked at it in Matt’s headlights.

}Come on, let’s inspect the damage.

‘I’m not sure I want to look any closer.’

}We need to see what she’s done, take some pictures, then we need to make it secure so nobody else who fancies a steering wheel or spark plug can help themselves.

‘I can’t take any pictures, I left my phone at home drying out.’

}I’ve got mine. And I’ve got a digital camera in the glove box for just such emergencies.

‘Well aren’t you prepared.’

}Yeah, you’re welcome. Come on, let’s get it over with.

I reluctantly got out of Matt’s car and approached mine. It looked worse the closer I got. As well as the damage to the car, all the contents of the inside of the car and the boot were scattered on the ground outside. There were CDs, tissues, my Raiders kit and suit, magazines, a picnic rug and road maps. They had all been broken, ripped, stamped on and otherwise destroyed. Everything, inside and out, was soaked with rainwater. The words ‘FUCK YOU’ were scratched into the roof.

}Fucking hell, Dec, you really pissed her off, didn’t you.

‘Looks like it. Fuck.’

I stood and stared, not sure quite what to do. Matt took his phone out and took several photos of the inside and outside of the car by the light of his headlights. Then he took some more with the digital camera.

}Well, that’s a record of it, I suggest picking all this shit up and putting it in the car – oh. Er … is this your club suit? Can you get another one?

‘Don’t know, they had a special tailor in to make them all up. I’m supposed to wear it after home games. Don’t expect they’ll want me to wear it like that. Shit, two suits ruined in one evening.’

Matt and I started picking things up and piling them in the boot. Then I turned the lights off – they weren’t very bright, as if the battery was nearly dead – and shut and locked the doors.

‘I guess I’ll have to call a garage tomorrow to get it towed. Do you think I’ll be able to get it repaired on the insurance?’

}Depends on your policy, they usually try to wriggle out of paying up for anything. I doubt you’ll get any admissions out of the lady in question, either, so it could take ages to sort out. You might have to suck it up and sort it yourself. Sorry, Dec, I know your car means a lot to you.

‘Yeah, well, it’s just a heap of metal and plastic, really, isn’t it?’

}Oh, mate, I know you don’t really mean that, you fucking nancy, but nice try. Summers is awarded five man points for putting on a brave face. You’ll get it fixed up, mate, it’ll be good as new. Which considering the fucking appalling way you’ve looked after it can only be a good thing. At least your swanky-arse sponsorship deal will help pay for it. Come on, let’s go back, there’s an outside chance I could actually manage an hour’s sleep tonight before your next drama unfolds.

o0o

Dec: =Msg fm last night’s reject. UR fucking wanker. Have 2 say I agree. No more favours.

Bonksy: =Wot u mean? Was problem? Thought all sorted with Scotty’s brother.

Dec: =*sigh*

Bonksy: =Wot?

o0o

‘Hey Beth.’

_Hi Dec. How do you fancy a fortnight in the South of France?

‘What?’

_James has just been offered this villa practically on the beach for a fortnight in June. It’s enormous, big enough for all of us. We’re going to take Cal out of school, Matty’s coming, Carol’s coming, Nico and Lis too, I thought we could ask Rose, and if you and Amy would like to come it would be a complete family holiday …

‘Whoa, sounds fucking awesome. We might have to cancel our month on the private yacht, or reschedule the visit of the Prince of Monaco, but as long as Ames is OK with it … fuck yeah!’

_You didn’t have anything else planned, did you?

‘Ha ha, Beth, very funny, you know I don’t do plans.’

_No, but Amy is a bit more organised. She hasn’t booked something you’ve forgotten about?

‘Shit, I’d better check, that would be the kind of sneaky thing she’d go and do. I’ll text her now.’

o0o

Dec: =Can we go south of France, 2 weeks in June with Beth n Jay n every1? Please canwecanwecanwe? xx

Amy: =What? Really? Sounds completely amazing!

Dec: =Really! We’re not booked 2 do anything?

Amy: =Not unless u booked it – oh, what am I thinking? 😉 xx

o0o

‘Hey Ames, sorry got held up at Carol’s, she needs some stuff taking to the tip. Just had a thought. It’s your birthday on Saturday isn’t it, shall we go out somewhere, have a meal or something?’

)A meal? Yeah, OK, that’d be … nice, I guess.

‘Great, I’ll book somewhere. Only the best for you, babe. See you soon. Love you.’

_Great performance, sweetheart. Do you think she suspects?

‘No, she sounded really pissed off and disappointed at my usual thoughtlessness and lack of foresight. I hope she doesn’t get too upset, I’ll have to spill.’

_Dec, you can’t! You’ve got to stay strong. It’s only a couple of days. Have you got that playlist finished yet?

‘Yeah, well I have now Matt helped me set it up. I’ve been sneaking out of bed after she’s gone to sleep to finish it off, all her favourites, things she used to go clubbing to, stuff from when she was a kid. I’ve been so devious getting it all out of her.’

_Well done, sweetheart.

‘Well, not really, it wasn’t that hard. You’ve done all the hard work. The hardest bit for me has been all the lying.

_They’re only tiny fibs, sweetheart. For a good cause.

‘I know, I know. It’s not easy though. Thanks so much, Beth, you’ve been fucking magnificent. You should go into business as a party planner or something.’

o0o

)Thanks hon, I’ve had the best day and night and morning ever. I’ll say a proper thank you later.

‘Well it was really all Beth, and Rose and Carol did the food. I can’t claim credit for anything except the playlist.’

)Actually, I think the playlist was my favourite bit. And besides, I don’t think Beth would appreciate how completely grateful I’m going to be. She might be a bit surprised if I tried to thank her the same way.

‘Oh? Oh! Well in that case, I accept your heartfelt gratitude and await my reward. Mm, come here for a quick preview?

o0o

Amy: =Just got results *drum roll* got a DISTINCTION!!!!! WOOOOOHOOOO!!!

Dec: =UR fucking AWESOME! Love u so much xxxxxxxx :)))))

Julia

Is there such a thing as the perfect mate? Not the love of your life, not your soul-mate, not any of those sentimental romantic lies ultimately designed to sell wedding venues and valentines cards. No, the perfect mate. Someone who so perfectly complements you physically, sexually, socially, attitudinally, intellectually that it’s just ridiculous not to, well, mate with them. In both the sexual and the ‘partners in (but not necessarily for) life’ sense.

Well of course there is no such thing, but I thought I’d got close with Matt Scott. Apart from his over-affectionate, over-interested, over-populated family, he was, eventually, perfect for me. I was perfect for him. We were perfect together, theoretically speaking. Obviously, nobody’s actually perfect, and I was well aware of Matt’s flaws, as aware as he was of mine. And yet, it should have been the perfect match…

We both started working for GreenScreen at about the same time, and although he seemed serious enough about his work, his immature stalking of all the superficial, blonde, gel-nailed business school graduates meant I wanted little to do with him in the first year of our employment.

Eventually he ran out of playmates, as word of his standard modus operandi filtered down to the bottom feeders and dried up the ready supply. So he set his sights on bigger challenges and, according to office gossip, started dating women who might actually be able to hold a conversation with him about something more than the latest issue of OK magazine – word had it he had cleaned up his act a little, and although still a Lothario who would bed you, then drop you at the merest sniff of commitment, he would at least pay for dinner before trying to stick his hand down your bra.

Matt

It was kind of a no-no to interfere in another team’s projects, but when the boss asks you to do something, you don’t really have a choice. So when Phil asked me to have a look at the weakpoint analysis on the Duffenheim project that Jules’ team was handling, I had a go. I took the print-out, wandered over to her office and leaned on the door frame, watching her for a bit.

Jules was hot. She was … I can only describe her as petite, really, although when she was fired up you forgot how small she was. She had short dark hair that curled round her ears, and brown eyes that went almost black when she was angry. Which she was, with me, at first, quite a lot of the time.

So anyway, I stood watching her for a bit, wondering how long it would take her to realise I was standing there, arms crossed, my best get-your-coat-you’ve pulled smile on my face. Eventually she looked up, and I jumped in before she could send me packing.

‘You need me.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Oh, you won’t have to beg for it, Jules. Unless that’s what floats your boat.’

I was going to enjoy myself, because I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to her very often, and I wanted to see if she blushed. I had a whole arsenal (although as a Tottenham supporter it pains me to admit that) of flirty banter at my disposal.

Julia

‘It’s Julia. What are you talking about?’

He was quickly becoming irritating. I wasn’t about to respond to his innuendo, and I had work to do. His smirk widened, however, and he straightened up, running a hand through his thick, short, sandy hair, leaving a lot of it standing out at crazy angles.

Matt

Oh this was great, I already had a way to wind her up, and it was completely unintentional. In my mind, she was always Jules, it had just come out. I widened my smile, straightened up, and ran a hand through my hair.

‘See, the thing is, Jules …’

I paused, leaving a gap for her to correct me again, but she stayed silent and I inwardly applauded her self control.

‘…aha, I see I only get one warning, nice. Makes things interesting. OK, the thing is, Phil thinks you need me to help you with your Dufflebag project –’

Yeah, it was pretty childish, getting the name of the project amusingly wrong. Didn’t I mention I was immature?

Julia

‘Duffenheim. No.’

He laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling not unattractively. He had big grey eyes. I’m not sure why I noticed.

‘He said you’d say no. I, er, don’t think it’s a request actually. I’ve fixed your problem with the weakpoint analysis. Here.’

He handed me a sheet of paper with graphs printed on it. I put it on my desk without looking at it.

Matt

She spoke without looking at me, eyes fixed on her computer screen.

‘Tell Phil we’re working on a solution. Thanks for the offer, though.’

‘Come on Jul – ia.’

Calling her Jules had had an unexpected effect, so I tried it again, mixing it up a bit to keep her on her toes. But this time she didn’t answer, just started tapping the keyboard. She was good; this required the full Matt Scott treatment.

‘Just look at the bloody graphs, woman. Just one tiny little look, what’s it going to hurt? Then you can say thank you very much Matt you really are so brainy what can I possibly do to repay you and I can say oh I don’t know maybe dinner at eight my treat and a club afterwards and you can pretend you don’t really want to but you can let me persuade you because I really am so brainy and actually quite charming and handsome too in a kind of skinny but rugged way and –’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, alright.’

Julia

Just to stop him talking, I reached over to the piece of paper he’d given me and had a look at the graphs. It didn’t take me long to see they were brilliant, and Matt had managed to save my team hours of work. I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of letting him know that, though, because he shouldn’t have done it in the first place, so I studied the page as if I had seen several glaring errors.

Matt

What? She was going to come out with me? Just like that? She was – oh. She meant she was going to look at the print-out. She picked it up and looked at it, and if I hadn’t been looking at her really intently, I would have missed the split second when her eyes widened a fraction and she was impressed. But I did see it, and then I saw her rearrange her features so she appeared unaffected by what was clearly going to save her team hours of work, and I nearly laughed out loud. Instead, I channelled my amusement into more sport for me.

‘So this is where you say thank you very much Matt, you really are so brainy, et cetera, dinner, club, your place –’

She looked up and tried to throw ice daggers from her eyes, but I let them all bounce off me. It took more than a look to intimidate me, and I melted them with my solar smile. I wasn’t going to thaw the Ice Queen all in one go, but I might sneak in a bit of a defrosting if she let her guard down.

‘Meet you at The Long Legged Frog at eight. I’ve booked the table.’

I hadn’t done any such thing, but it was going to annoy the shit out of her to think I’d been confident enough to do so, and that I’d planned this whole thing. I turned and walked away, hands in my pockets, without another word.

Julia

Matt turned and walked away, hands in his pockets, leaving me annoyed and discomfited. He was arrogant enough that he might have booked a table in anticipation of winning some imaginary contest, but I suspected it was a bluff.

Matt

And that should have left me with a dilemma, because tables at the Long Legged Frog weren’t easy to come by, but I decided that, as she was really unlikely to turn up anyway, I’d just go down there, wait around for half an hour outside just in case, then bugger off home. If she did turn up, I’d confess, and maybe she’d let me take her somewhere else, or maybe she wouldn’t. But when I got there, I thought I’d check, and they bloody well had a table for two, so I sat and waited.

Julia

I can’t explain why I went to The Long Legged Frog that evening. Maybe part of me wanted to see if he really had booked a table. I certainly hadn’t planned on going inside, just peering through the window with my hood up, seeing if I could spot Matt, then I was going to walk away. But I couldn’t see properly through the windows, which were covered in some kind of streamers for a birthday party, and although I thought I could see someone near the back of the restaurant who looked like him, I wasn’t sure.

Matt

I waited for my self-allotted half an hour, picked something from the menu that I was going to ask them to do up as a takeaway, and was just about to order it, when I saw a hooded figure looking through the window. Not Death or anything so sinister – I’d always imagined Death as a tall bloke in a cape, carrying a pointy farming implement, but this was just a short-arse woman wearing a coat with a hood.

There was a birthday party going on at the table in the window, and it wasn’t easy to see, but I thought it was her. I had no idea if she’d seen me, and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, so I got up and went to the door, where there was Julia Marran, looking as indecisive as I had ever seen her, one foot on the threshold.

‘Well what the fuck are you waiting for? You’re already half an hour late, I was about to order takeaway.’

She had a weird kind of frightened rabbit look in her eyes, and I wondered if I’d just scared her away, so I made sure I was smiling as I said it, and gestured her inside before she could change her mind.

Julia

I looked up into Matt’s wide grey eyes, which were crinkling at the corners to take the bite out of his words. I took in his casual but well-chosen clothes, his deliberately rumpled appearance; there might be worse ways to spend an evening, especially if he was paying. Tables at the Long Legged Frog weren’t readily available, because the food was excellent; Matt’s confidence levels were obviously way higher than I had given him credit for if he really had booked before our earlier conversation.

Matt

As I led her to the table, part of me was wide-eyed with surprise. Holy fuck! Julia Marran had come on a date with me. She’d actually turned up. I mean, yeah, albeit looking like it wasn’t the place she most wanted to be in the world, but still. I wondered briefly whether I was going to get into her pants, and then brushed the thought away as unworthy.

Julia Marran wasn’t the kind of woman who you dallied with in any way, shape or form. You didn’t shag Julia Marran once, and then leave in the middle of the night while she was still asleep.

If I was lucky, Julia Marran would stay for the main course and I’d get home without my ego taking too much of a bruising. It was new territory for me, and although part of me resisted the novelty, another part of me was excited at the departure from the old familiar ways.

Let me be very clear – at this point, I was still an excellent no-strings lay. It was just that Jules was way classier than any of the women I usually took up with, and away from work there was something … vulnerable about her that grabbed me by my lapels and said ‘be gentle’.

Julia

The evening went much better than I would have anticipated. Matt was surprisingly good company; he had a quick wit and a keen intellect, which he usually hid under lots of laddish banter about beer and football; he had a degree in systems technology (a better one than mine although only just); was well-read and appreciated good literature even if he didn’t enjoy the same books as me; he liked the same arts films that I did, and generally surprised me with his ability to talk in an informed way about lots of different subjects. He even made me laugh a few times. He didn’t offer much personal information, but then neither did I, and our conversation was doing fine without needing to bother about family histories.

Matt swore a lot, his speech was peppered with variations on a theme of ‘fuck’, ‘shit’ and ‘bollocks’, not that it worried me, as I wasn’t averse to the odd curse when appropriate, but it was noticeable. To start with I thought he was trying to impress me or irritate me but I realised after a while that, just as I blocked it out, so he didn’t really notice he was doing it.

Matt

So, we talked. We actually bloody well talked. Books, films, art, we had a lot in common. We had similar degrees, although mine was a bit better than hers – score – and the evening flew by. I had expected her to be distant and unapproachable, but Julia was different away from work. I wasn’t sure if she realised how far her act had slipped; I saw a bit of the real her, and I liked it.

When we’d finished our meal, done the coffee, and the waiters were starting to hover as time ticked on, I paid the bill as I’d promised and we left. I couldn’t resist another go, though; it had worked so well before.

‘So where are we going now?’

I knew she had no intention of going anywhere else, but my spiel back in the office had been dinner, club, your place.

‘I’m going home.’

‘Oh great, your place then. Skip the club. Fuckably good plan. Where do you live?’

I was pushing for all I was worth. Maybe I stood a chance, maybe I didn’t. Don’t ask, don’t get.

Julia

I couldn’t work out if he was joking, serious or pushing his luck, and decided some clarification was in order.

‘Just so we’re clear, Matt, I’m going home, to my home, on my own, without you. Thank you for dinner, and thank you for the weakpoint analysis. I think we’re even now.’

Matt

And it was Return of the Ice Queen. I mimed stabbing myself in the heart as if with an icicle, and staggered back against a wall for added effect.

‘But Jules, we were getting on so well.’

We had been getting on well, and part of me was disappointed to be dismissed so summarily. I pushed my bottom lip out in a sulk.

‘It’s Julia. I will admit I’ve had a better evening than I was expecting.’

‘Ouch.’

‘You’re really quite pleasant company. It’s a shame you’ve let your reputation hide your intelligence.’

‘Double ouch. You really tell it how you see it don’t you. I can see it’s going to be a bit of a bloody challenge getting into your knickers.’

I realised my mistake as soon as I said it. I hadn’t even thought about the flirty banter while we were inside, but the second I mentioned her knickers, the shutters went up and I lost her. She rolled her eyes, and walked off. I felt the need to rescue something; the need for this not to be finished just yet. I hurried after her and pulled her gently by the arm.

Julia

I started to walk in the direction of my car, a little disappointed that he had been unable to refrain from making at least one sexual remark. I felt his hand on my arm.

‘Hey. No goodbye?’

His hand turned me slightly towards him, and without warning he leaned forwards and kissed me on the mouth. His hand came up to cup my cheek as he tilted my face up towards him. I thought about pushing him away, but to be honest I had heard tales of Matt Scott’s kisses and I wanted to find out how true they were. Albeit without letting his tongue anywhere near mine.

Matt

I turned her slightly towards me, quickly leaned forwards and kissed her, tilting her face up to mine with my hand. And she let me. Well, after a fashion she let me. She didn’t wrap her arms round me, or touch me in any way, but she just stood there while I bombarded her with my best tongue and lip action. Or the best I could manage with someone who wouldn’t open her mouth.

I ran my tongue along the edges of her lips and probed her locked down teeth looking for a way in. I sucked her bottom lip gently into my mouth and nibbled on it, running my tongue over it and then trying again to force my way into her mouth. I got frustrated and mashed both lips against hers, then gave her the smallest of pecks all the way around her mouth, then tried again with my tongue. It was like she had lockjaw or something, and I suddenly found it really, really funny, standing there trying my best, while Julia just stood there letting me, having no intention of actually giving anything back.

Julia

Matt’s lips were soft and warm, and his tongue was insistent and surprisingly inventive. He made a very good attempt, and I was tempted to give in and experience the full version of a Matt Scott kiss, but I felt him hum or cough or something, and suddenly realised he was laughing, with his mouth still pressed to mine. I pulled my head back and looked into his smiling eyes as he continued to laugh.

‘Something’s amusing you?’

Matt

‘You know your nickname’s The Ice Queen, right?’

I was sure she must do, despite each new batch of juniors thinking they’d made it up. I might have helped them along a bit.

‘That’s supposed to be a secret. The juniors all think I’ll stab them with an ice pick if I find out that’s what they call me.’

‘Well I was just thinking, you’re so hard to give a good Frenching to, I think your new nickname should be The No-Dice Queen. Shit, Julia, anyone’d think my tongue carried the plague the way your barricades are rammed home.’

‘For all I know it does, from what I hear you’re not that particular where you put it. Thanks for the meal, Matt, see you at work tomorrow.’

Julia

I walked off again, surprising myself by feeling a little disappointed that he didn’t come after me again. I heard a quiet ‘Bye Jules’ as my footsteps took me to my car.

Matt

Wow, that stung. I knew what tales were out there about me, and I knew Julia would have heard most of them, in passing if not directly, but to be confronted with that brief but damning assessment of me, and hearing the distaste with which she said it, brought me up sharp and stopped my games instantly.

Julia walked off along the street, as I stood there, chastened. I managed a subdued, ‘Bye Jules’ as she went.

Julia

Back in the sanctuary of my flat, I sank down onto the sofa with a glass of wine and reflected on the evening. When I’d woken up that morning, I would have laughed in the face of anyone who told me that by the end of the day I would have survived a meal and a kiss with Matt Scott.

Although I had my impulsive side, most of the things I did were considered, and I was very careful to maintain strict control over how I revealed myself at work. My Ice Queen persona had been painstakingly developed by me to keep colleagues at a distance and remain efficient within my team. Workplace complications tended to have an impact on getting the job done and I did not welcome diversionary intimacies of any sort. I had a full and satisfying social life which was completely separate from work; I was a different person when I was spending time with my friends, who would have recognised The Ice Queen as little as anyone from GreenScreen would have recognised Jules. I smiled wryly to myself as I thought about Matt trying to get away with calling me that. It was one of the ways I was able to retain my distance at work. Only people who got close to me called me Jules, and he wasn’t going to be one of those. I was going to have to be careful not to make too much of an issue of it, though, as he was the sort of guy who would carry on to get a reaction.

Anyway, I was hardly going to come across him again after tonight; his brief involvement in the Duffenheim project was over, he’d had his fun and failed in his quest. He would have moved on to the next more willing victim by tomorrow. Or even tonight. I was surprised to find that thought gave me a bit of a pang of … what? Regret? Ridiculous. I finished my wine, washed up the glass and went to bed.

Matt

And I suppose that’s when I started seriously evaluating my life, with all the wine, women and song (possibly reworked into beer, birds and bad karaoke if you want to be honest and slightly insulting) needing a long hard look. I’d started to slow down, put the brakes on a bit, already, but Jules throwing back some of the things she’d doubtless heard about me, and the way she said it, made me realise what some people, people whose opinions I valued, might actually believe about me. I let a lot of the bollocks stand, because it suited me, and a lot of other bollocks just became hard-wired into the myth. But I never had anything nasty or infectious. After Carrie convinced the population of Stafford that I had, I made doubly sure I was always protected, and I got myself thoroughly and regularly checked. I’d heard the stories of the nasties you could get if you let Matt Scott near you, but I knew where they’d originated from, thank you Petra, and I did my best to squash them. Obviously my best squashing hadn’t been enough.

Ironically, what people thought about the state of my sexual health and morals wasn’t a million miles from the heap of shite that Carrie led everyone to believe about me up in Stafford. The difference this time was that it was largely my own doing.

So now it was all coming home to roost. I was getting tired of being fun-boy Matt, and sometimes I was lonely, despite the surprising closeness I still maintained with my family. I wouldn’t say I was looking for someone, or if I was, I was not in any way prepared to admit it to myself. But I began to see that this state of affairs couldn’t last, had maybe had its time, and I changed. Oh, I was still Matt the Lad, the chat was still there, I still partied, snogged, groped, but that final bit, that back to your place, fumble with the underwear, ooh yeah, cheers love, that went – or at least saw a drastic cut in occurrences.

And I would look at Jules sometimes, and kick myself, because she was an echo of what might have been. I could have chased her, I could have convinced her, I could have won her over, if things had been different. But she thought I was the worse kind of sleazeball, and she wasn’t far wrong, and that was the end of that.

Julia

Much as I expected, if I thought about it at all, I didn’t see a lot of Matt at work after that. I presented his graphs to my team, we acknowledged the man-hours they had saved us, and I didn’t really think about him. It wasn’t until Nons died several weeks later that I even spoke to him again.