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What’s it all about?

Meet Matt. He’s complicated. He’s obstinate. He’s sweary. Come with him and his friends on their journey through the ups and downs of life.

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69. Various methods of escape

In which there is a reunion.

Matt

So I sat on the beach and read. I don’t know what I read, it didn’t really matter. I got from one end to another of several iBooks, hardly taking any of it in, trying to make my peace in my mind with what had happened. It kept coming back to the fact that I couldn’t change any of it; nothing I did, said or thought now would change what I’d done, said or thought in the past. I’d well and truly fucked things up, and the only thing to do was accept that and move past it. Trouble is, it wasn’t that easy, except in the most theoretical of ways. It was as if my life had been trundling along in its groove, and suddenly there was a derailment, and I had no idea how to get it back on track.

So sitting and pseudo-reading was all I did, and at least my body relaxed, if my mind couldn’t. Was it wise to be alone with my thoughts right now? I knew a few people who would have said no, but one of them was preoccupied with being a new father, one of them had been permitted to help and had noticeably stopped giving unwanted opinions as a result, and one of them was my mum.

I hadn’t spoken to Mum since the whole Jules thing blew up in my face. The last time I’d seen her was at the hospital with the rest of the family on the day Charlie was born, but I hadn’t spoken to her properly then. God, that seemed such a long time ago, but it was less than a week. I’d texted her to say I was going away, not having the inner strength for a call or a visit, and I’d given Beth dispensation to fill her in while I was gone. I knew she wouldn’t contact me, but would worry about me, and guilt made me call her after I had been away a few days, costing me an arm and a leg and quite possibly a vital bodily organ such as a spleen, or a gall bladder.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘Matthew! Where are you?’

‘Egypt.’

‘You sound so close.’

‘Nope, thousands of miles away.’

‘How are you dear? Beth told me about your troubles. I’m sorry things went badly for you.’

‘I’ll be OK. I just needed to get away, to try to work it all out. Sorry I didn’t tell you, it all happened a bit quickly.’

‘Not to worry, dear. Are you taking care of yourself? Eating enough, getting enough sleep, all the other things mothers are supposed to worry about?’

‘Yeah, Mum. The food’s great. Sleep, meh, who needs it. Not for want of trying.’

Mum sensibly changed tack, quite possibly realising she had as much information about my health as she was likely to receive.

‘Beth said Andrew’s joining you?’

‘Yeah, he’s coming on Saturday. I’m keeping his sun-lounger warm till then.’

‘Oh well that’s good, at least you won’t be on your own. It’s been a while since you saw him, hasn’t it?’

‘Yeah, years, since he buggered off to save Africa.’

‘Well, I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeing him again. Maybe he’ll look after you.’

I couldn’t do anything more to reassure her than I was; I could hear the worry in her voice.

‘I’ll be OK, Mum. I’ll be back in a week or so, I’ll come and see you. I’ll bring you a plaster pyramid, or a papyrus with your name in hieroglyphs.’

‘That would be lovely, dear.’

Mum always appreciated any gift as if it were priceless, however much or little thought had gone into it – her old house had been packed to the rafters with things Jay and I had made or bought for her when we were younger – but I knew the thing she’d most appreciate would be to see me. Especially if the alternative was some crappy tourist tat. I’d save that for Jay.

‘No one will be able to say I didn’t think of you while I was out here.’

‘You’re a good boy.’

‘Yeah, well, that remains to be seen. I’ll see you when I get back.’

‘We’ll have a good talk. Goodbye, Matthew.’

‘Bye, Mum.’

It was a brief conversation, and I’d told her nothing, but I knew that me being in contact would put her mind at ease. I’m sure they were all worried about me spiralling down into my friendly neighbourhood black pit of despond while I was out here, but that wasn’t where I was headed. I wanted to try and sort myself out, work out what had happened and how to make sure it never happened again. Part of that meant digging deep into my psyche to ascertain just what it was that I wanted out of life.

OMFG what a whiny git I am. Was. Still am, I suppose, as here I am years later still going on about it all. The truth is, Lau, I want you to know it all. I never told you absolutely everything, and some things you just don’t say to your gorgeous wife – things like, you know, being with other women and shit. And you’re so cool about everything, I know you would have just listened and then said something bloody awesome, but shit, look how long it’s taken me to get this far in The Ballad of Matthew Scott. And now I just don’t have the time or the breath to say it all, so I hope one day you find this; I’m going to be a bit creative about leaving clues, so one day, after, you’ll find this and you’ll know everything. Ha, and you won’t be able to argue or ask me any of your bloody annoyingly penetrating questions. So there. See how grown up and mature I am. I love you, by the way. Always will. Holding hands forever.

So where was I? Oh yeah. Beach in Egypt. Fucking awesome, or it should have been. I suppose it was the ideal place to try to sort my life out, and I did do a lot of thinking. Hardly noticed the beach, probably would have been cheaper to turn the lights on and the radiators up in Jay’s conservatory. But I guess there’s something about being ‘away’ that can help when you’re thinking about serious shit.

I contemplated work, and whether I was going to be able to go back, with Jules there. I knew we would both be professional, that wasn’t the problem, but I also knew how stressed it would make her, and, yeah, how stressed it would make me. But I wasn’t in any state to go job hunting, and so I was going to have to go back and see how it was, try to keep Lexi’s inquisitiveness to a minimum, try to make things work at work.

I contemplated my life in the city that now felt like home to me. All the same objections applied to an immediate decision, but maybe it was time to think about moving away, trying some of the exciting jobs I’d thought about when I was younger, leaving Matt the Lad behind and starting over. Again. It was an option that both excited and terrified me in equal measure, and one I didn’t come to any conclusions about.

And then I contemplated the big thing, the one that had caused all this in the first place, the reason I was sitting here on a beach in northern Africa turning myself inside out. The thing that had lurked unexamined inside me for fuck knows how long. The thing that had destroyed Jules and me.

Family. My suddenly discovered need to have a family of my own, not just one that involved me being an uncle or a brother. Mum, Dad, kids. House, garden, car. Small unit of people. Possibly a dog, to make up the numbers.

I’d tried to convince myself, a few times, that it was just a weird moment, that it was an aberration, but I failed to make myself believe it. Once uncovered, the need had settled over me like a blanket, and no amount of denial or self-delusion was going to make it go away. It was what everyone did – not that I only wanted what everyone else had, that’s not what it was all about, but now I knew I wanted it, the unfairness of everyone else having it sliced into me. Even Nico and Lis were expecting a baby – they’d announced both this, and the fact that they were coming back to England in time for the birth, on the same day that Charlie was born. It was all working out for everyone else, but I couldn’t have it, or at least that’s how it felt.

Dec had sent a few texts, with pictures of Charlie, documenting the tiny amount of sleep he and Amy were achieving, but obviously so proud of her and his new status as a parent. I knew with every pang of envy that it was what I wanted, but at this moment it was unachievable.

Just thinking about the ramifications made my head spin – I was nearly thirty-five. The practicalities were that available women were becoming fewer and further between. Available women who didn’t already have children were even fewer and further. I didn’t think I wanted someone else’s children, I didn’t even think I wanted ‘someone else’. This thing had blown my world apart, and I wasn’t going to take second best just because there was some kind of hypothetical clock ticking in the background. And my heart was breaking, I could feel it heavy and dysfunctional in my chest – being with someone else was not something I could even imagine. It was another thing I couldn’t solve, would drive myself mad thinking about too much, so I parked it, along with all the other things, and tried to read my book and wait for Andrew, while the sun shone and the waves crashed and life went on.

I thought that when Andrew got there, things would carry on pretty much as they had been – beach, book, beer – but with someone to share the short walk to the bar. But Andrew had changed. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen him for several years, and until our recently rekindled contact I had thought of him as a devoted churchgoer. Even before that, he was a settled family man, seemingly happy to stay with the insurance company he’d worked for until he retired or keeled over from a heart attack like all good managers should if they worked hard enough. The last time I’d seen him which was about a year before he left for Africa, he’d been a fairly unprepossessing man, hair starting to thin, paunch starting to develop, middle age starting to approach. He wasn’t even thirty, but he’d had that air about him of resigned contentment; Cindy’s makeover was long-forgotten.

I nearly missed him when I went to meet him at the airport, because I didn’t recognise him. The hair was gone, I mean virtually all gone, shaved so close to his head that to all intents and purposes he was completely bald. He’d lost weight. He was wearing stylish clothes, and reflective sunglasses, and my gaze slid over him as he dropped his bags and walked up to me, arms held wide, a big smile on his face. I almost looked behind me to see who this dude was greeting, then he shoved his sunglasses up onto his hairless head and I recognised his eyes.

‘Matthew Scott come here and give me a bloody great man cuddle you bastard.’

I did as I was told, and saw over my shoulder several people turning their heads to look as he practically lifted me off me feet with a big roar.

‘God, Matt, you haven’t changed a bit.’

‘Whereas you, Andrew, have changed most of your bits. Looking good, you dog.’

We grinned at each other and hugged again.

‘Oh mate, it’s great to see you. It’s been too long. Here, give me a bag, the car’s this way. I hired it for the week, so we can go see dead Pharaohs or some such shit.’

‘Really? You’re here for the archaeology?’

‘Well not exclusively, but I thought we could give some of it a try.’

‘You’re the boss. Thought we could try the nightlife, though.’

‘Yeah, sure, if you want. This place is club city, according to the PR.’

‘What, you haven’t sussed them out yet?’

‘No, I’ve been chilling.’

I was getting the feeling that Andrew wasn’t just here to offer me a shoulder to cry on, which was fair enough, and I mentally adjusted my expectations as we walked to the car.

‘Well we need to get you out there, my boy. Back on the pony, or whatever the fuck the term is.’

‘Ha, I don’t think so, mate. I’ll be your wing-man, if you need one, but I really don’t need any complications right now.’

‘Who said anything about complications? No strings, that’s the way to go.’

‘Yeah, been there, trying not to go back there again.’

‘OK, whatever, mate. We can talk about it later, yeah? What car have you hired?’

‘Oh, nothing fancy, they drive like maniacs out here – I didn’t want any scratches.’

‘You haven’t changed at all, have you, still bloody meticulous as hell.’

I was reeling a little from how different Andrew was; I kept stealing glances at him, trying to get used to what he looked like, and to the unfamiliar feeling of being the boring one at the party. I hadn’t felt like that since I was at school. I hoped I would be able to keep Matt the Lad in retirement, but it looked like Andrew the Lad was in full employment and possibly recruiting help. Quite a few female eyes slid his way as we walked; it wasn’t his looks, it was his ‘look’. The way he was dressed, the way he carried himself, the way he looked back. I recognised it, as it had been me until a year or so ago. It said ‘notice me’. It said ‘give me a try, I’ll make it worth your while’. It said ‘hello ladies’. It might as well have said ‘get your coat, love, you’ve pulled’. Sighing internally, and realising that Andrew had his journey as much as I had mine, I unlocked the car and got in.

Andrew spent half of the short trip to the hotel checking his reflection in the mirror, wiping off microscopic specks of dirt, turning his head this way and that. I hoped I wasn’t going to have to tell him he was being a dickhead too early in the week.

We got back to the hotel, where we changed into shorts for the beach, and headed out, picking up drinks along the way. As we settled onto the sun loungers, I got a reassuring glimpse of the Andrew Distock I knew of old.

‘I heard this at work the other day: x squared asks x cubed if it believes in God. X cubed says ‘Well I do believe in higher powers’. Ba ding cha.’

‘Don’t tell me David Dibley still works for Eyeti. He was hawking that one around when I first started there.’

‘Really? Bollocks. Never heard it before. I forgot you know some of the old stagers there.’

‘Is Celia still on reception?’

‘Yeah, good old Ceel. Has covered for many a hangover for me.’

‘Always has a paracetamol.’

‘And a disappointed shake of the head. It’s like she’s your mum or something.’

‘How’s it going at Eyeti?’

‘Great, love it. Got you to thank, though, mate. You’re fondly regarded, even now. They’re all sad you don’t keep in touch.’

‘I do Twitter and Facebook.’

‘Not the same, though. You should come up, we could have a reunion.’

The thought of it made my blood run cold. Not that it wouldn’t have been great to see everyone, but imagining going back to Stafford, where part of my life had ended, where all those people knew all that shit, all those lies, about me – I was never going to do it. The place I was born was now dead to me, and I put Andrew off.

‘Yeah, well, needed to leave it all behind when I moved away.’

‘What exactly happened? You never told me the whole story; I know there was a woman, and you got ill.’

Maybe it was time to talk. It was the main reason I’d dragged Andrew all the way out here, after all. I swallowed hard and gave it a shot.

‘Well, the short version is I got dumped on from a great height by the girl of my dreams when she went back to her psychotwat of an ex-boyfriend, I nearly died of pneumonia, she took all my stuff while I was in hospital, and told all our friends I’d slept with her when I knew I had HIV.’

‘Fuck, Matt, you’ve got HIV?’

I rolled my eyes.

‘No. She told everyone I had. A few weeks after she left, I got ill and ended up on a drip. She didn’t even call to see how I was, she just cleared the flat out and told everyone a load of shitcrankery.’

Talking about it wasn’t helping. It was stirring everything up, making me feel all the anger, the hurt, the shame. I didn’t want to talk about Carrie, I realised. It was a long time ago, and the deeper she stayed buried the better.

‘Shit, mate. Sounds like you’re well rid. Is she still in Stafford?’

‘I have no idea. I don’t want to know anything about her. Can we talk about something else?’

‘Sure. Oh, I ran into someone who knows you. Mercy Carter.’

Oh bloody hell. More blasts from the past to bring it all back.

‘Really? I bet she had a lot of nice things to say about me. Where did you meet her?’

‘Club. Only last week, actually. I mentioned I was coming out here, must have said your name, she gave me a funny look and told me you left her on top of a hill when some woman called you. Must have been some woman, Merce is a babe.’

‘She deserved better than she got from me.’

‘Nah, don’t think like that. You take your chances, don’t you.’

‘I used to think so. It feels like it’s all coming home to roost at the moment.’

‘You and Jules?’

‘Yeah.’

Finally. Well, I say finally, Andrew had only just got here, but I’d been waiting for him to come for days, so I could talk to him about this.

‘What happened, then? Another woman?’

‘No, nothing like that.’

‘Was she playing away?’

‘No. It’s … complicated. Or simple, maybe. My mate had a kid, and I realised I want a family too. Every girl’s dream, right? Captain No Commitment suddenly wants a baby. Except Jules doesn’t. Ever. We didn’t stand a chance after that.’

‘Shit. Harsh. I must say I wouldn’t have seen it coming either, you’ve never seemed particularly family oriented.’

‘It surprised me too. I spent a lot of time convincing myself it was something else – I don’t know, cold feet about moving in together, or overload of baby hormones or some such shit.’

‘What, you moved in with her?’

I’d forgotten that Andrew didn’t know, that no one knew apart from my family.

‘Well technically she moved in with me, but yeah. She’d only been there a week when it all went tits up.’

‘God, Matt. Bit of a turn up for the books for you, isn’t it?’

‘I’ve been trying to clean up my act, be a bit more responsible.’

‘Don’t see the point. You’re only young once.’

‘But I think that’s part of it. I don’t feel young any more. I feel like I’ve been fucking about my entire life, disregarding people’s feelings, and now I’ve worked out what I want, but I’ve still hurt someone I care about.’

Andrew’s expression changed briefly, and some kind of sadness clouded his eyes. Then he hid it and offered to go and fetch more beer.

So that was the subject broached. Andrew hadn’t seemed particularly keen on soul-baring, but he had only just arrived, and maybe we would settle into our old routine of addressing issues through kidding around. My phone pinged with a text just as Andrew returned with the drinks, and I opened up yet another picture of Charlie.

‘Day seven in the Summers-Wright household of no sleep. She certainly can yell.’

Dec had sent it to everyone; he’d probably forgotten that texting me in Egypt would cost me almost as much as it cost him, but I didn’t really begrudge him it, and must have had a daft grin on my face, as Andrew remarked on it.

‘What’s got you all soppy?’

I showed him the picture of Charlie.

‘Jeez, you have got it bad, haven’t you. I remember when Rebecca was that tiny, she was a squealing mound of puke and shitty nappies. Not the most enjoyable time.’

‘Have you managed to see Rebecca since you got back?’

The same cloud I’d seen before creased his forehead.

‘No. Karen won’t talk to me. If I went over there, I don’t think she’d let me see her. It’s killing me, it’s not even like I can talk to her or Skype or anything.’

‘She can’t do that, you’ve got a right to see her.’

‘There’s nothing I can do from home. Until she comes back to the UK, I’m stuck.’

‘Do you think she will?’

‘I don’t bloody know. She’s got me by the bloody short and curlies now we’re divorced. I should have thought it through, but I just felt so fucking guilty I gave her everything she wanted. Anyway, not here to dwell on things that can’t be changed. I was chatting to a couple of girls at the bar, they’re going to a club tonight. Up for it?’

Well I wasn’t, not really, but I made an effort for Andrew, as he was obviously very up for it, and had flown to another continent because I had asked him to. After an hour or so more on the beach, we went back to the hotel for dinner, then downed a few more beers before heading out to the club Andrew had heard about.

It was a revelation, watching him go to work in the sea of dancing women, and I had a disorienting sensation of seeing myself through someone else’s eyes. Andrew did things exactly as I had, honed in on the same type of woman, used the same moves. He left me behind fairly swiftly after arriving, and I sat at the bar and watched his progress. A couple of women came up to me and tried to chat, but I rebuffed them as gently as I could. The whole thing was leaving me cold; I couldn’t believe I’d behaved like this only a year or so ago. Most of the women here were at least ten years younger than Andrew and me, and it felt, well, if not wrong, then slightly creepy. Andrew, with his shaved head, looked somewhat ageless, though, and he had no difficulty finding several dance/drink/smooch partners throughout the night. Eventually he came over, young skinny blonde hanging on his arm.

‘Not joining in Matt?’

‘Just watching tonight.’

‘You’re missing out mate. Me and Jody here are heading off, but Jody’s friend Layla … that’s her in the neon pink bikini top… thinks you’re cute.’

‘Oh. Well, thank your friend, Jody, but if you’re going, I’ll go back too.’

‘No, mate, stay, don’t leave on our account.’

‘I’m a bit tired, bed sounds good.’

‘Don’t I know it.’

Jody giggled.

I stumbled back to the hotel on my own, having left Andrew and Jody behind when they got engrossed in snogging against a wall. I’d had a bit more to drink than I’d intended, but I was happily pissed, not out of my skull, and although it was late, or early, depending on your point of view, I was too drunk to sleep just yet. I pulled my phone out and sent Dec a text, my judgement impaired enough that I didn’t think about waking him, Amy or Charlie up.

‘Hope Charlie’s keepin u on yr toes.’

It didn’t take long for a reply to wing its way expensively back.

‘Thanks 4 that. Just got 2 sleep.’

‘Turn yr fone off then.’

‘Will do now. U OK?’

‘Yeh. Bit pissed. Been 2 club w mate. Weird. Feeling my age.’

‘U should b more careful. Clubbing 4 da youth only. Need 2 talk? Awake now. Again.’

And I did. I suddenly missed home, the ease with which I could connect with people who knew me and cared about me. I called Dec’s name up on the screen and pressed.

‘Hey. This must be costing you a fortune.’

‘Yeah. Too pissed to care.’

‘So you’ve been clubbing, then.’

‘If you can call it that. More like standing at the bar drinking overpriced watered down beer watching my mate work the room, feeling slightly nauseated.’

‘Not much fun then.’

‘Something of an eye-opener, actually. I’ve been a dick in the past, and now I can see Andrew’s being a dick, I’m not sure whether I should tell him.’

‘Would you have listened if someone had told you?’

‘Good point. Not sure I want to spend a week trying not to pick up women, though. Andrew’s pretty full on.’

‘Would it hurt? It’s not like you’re …’

There was a pause while Dec tried to find a diplomatic way to say Jules had dumped me and I was now available.

‘Yeah, I know I’m technically single, but I came out here to get my head straight. I don’t think a shagathon is going to achieve that.’

‘Fair enough. How’s it been going, the getting your head straight?’

‘Well I was kind of hoping Andrew would be helping me out, but it hasn’t worked out like that so far. I’m expecting life, the universe and everything conversations with a bloke who’s only interested in the closest pair of decent tits. Oh maybe I do just need to chill. When the fuck did I turn into Mid-life Crisis Angst Man?’

‘About the time you made an important decision about what you wanted from your mid-life? It’s got to be a lot to get your head around, you’re not going to sort yourself out in a few days, are you. Give yourself a fucking break; you’re there for a holiday with your mate. Enjoy yourself, don’t overthink shit, don’t sit there punishing yourself for shit, but if you don’t want to do what he’s doing, then don’t.’

‘I suppose. Is it selfish to just want things to be how I want them?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thanks.’

‘You asked. I didn’t say I think there’s anything wrong with being selfish, especially now. You’ve had a fucking nightmare of a week. Take some time to do all the guilt, all the regrets, get pissed, cry if you want, get it all out of your system. Then you’ll have a clearer head to help you decide what you want to do next.’

‘Where does all this wise shit of yours come from? You don’t fancy jetting out here for a few days do you?’

‘Nope, too busy getting no sleep, wiping baby puke off my shoulder and emptying the nappy bin.’

‘Sounds awesome. Seriously though, you sound like you’re enjoying yourself just a little bit.’

‘I am, mate. Charlie’s the best thing that ever happened to me, to us. She’s bloody amazing. Oh, bit of news for you. We’ve found a house.’

‘Dec, sorry to break it to you, but there are houses bloody everywhere. They’re not exactly camouflaged. I can see one or two out of my hotel window. ‘

‘Ha ha. We’re going to move.’

‘Bloody great news. Buying or renting?’

‘Renting to start with, but I think the landlord might sell. Three bedrooms, big garden, Ames loves the kitchen. Fuck, I sound like a bloody grown-up.’

‘Again, sorry to break it to you, mate, but you’ve got a job and a missis and a kid. You’re so a grown-up. Whereas I have only one out of three, and will remain ungrown-up for quite some time the way things are going. Email me the details, yeah?’

‘OK, will do. Or Ames will, not quite sure how to do it.’

‘Oh bloody hell, Dec, you’re bloody hopeless.’

In the background I heard a shrill cry.

‘Bollocks. I’ve woken her up. I’m going to be in the shit now. Better go, Matt, don’t forget, pity party then head space.’

‘Cheers, mate, I fucking love you, man.’

‘Yeah, you’re pissed, have another think about that in the morning.’

As we disconnected and I lay on my bed watching the ceiling gently spinning, waiting to start feeling tired, I thought about the conversation I’d just had with Dec, and suddenly wanted to be at home. I was missing all the excitement with Charlie, I was missing just being there with everyone who I knew so well, and who cared about me, and I was here with Andrew, who was different from how he used to be, and I didn’t want to spend my week here getting to know him. I wanted it to be like it was before, which was bloody stupid; I wasn’t like I was before, and it was about time I started looking forward rather than backwards. If I was missing home so much, I should just change my flight and go back. Before I made a decision, I fell asleep.

I woke up slowly, the dull thump of a hangover beating a slow, steady rhythm behind my eyes. It was light, and late, and I’d missed breakfast, although I wasn’t sure I could have faced it anyway. I usually drank lots of water before sleeping if I’d been on the beer, but with my late night chat with Dec, I’d forgotten, and I was paying now.

Squinting against the sun coming through the uncovered windows, I turned onto my back and waited for the churning to stop. I was still in last night’s clothes, my mouth felt furry and my tongue thick, and I needed to freshen up. Much as I didn’t want to get up and have a shower, a shower was what I needed.

I hauled myself off the bed, breathing in wafts of body odour and stale beer, and stumbled hesitantly to the bathroom, running my hands through my hair. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and quickly looked away to avoid the gaze of the scruffy, pale eighty year old man who seemed to be looking back at me.

A shower invigorated me somewhat, and after I had dried off and dressed, I checked my phone, wondering if Andrew was up and about, or if he was trying to disentangle himself from Jody. There were no messages, so I sent him one.

‘U up yet?’

While I waited for a reply, I thought about my half-made decision to go home early. And I saw what a selfish bastard it would make me, to ask Andrew out here for a week then piss off home because I was a bit homesick and things weren’t going as I’d hoped. It was only a week, wasn’t it, and I hadn’t seen Andrew for years. If I was truly serious about getting my act together and treating people with more respect, I could sodding well start now. I took a paracetamol, straightened my shoulders and waited for Andrew to text me back.

While I waited, I went in search of breakfast. I had missed it in the hotel, but found a small café that served reasonable coffee and baklava, which was as good a breakfast as any. Dec texted half way through.

‘How’s the head?’

‘Getting better. How’s the baby puke?’

‘None so far today. Result. Talked 2 yr mate?’

‘Not yet. Do not disturb on his door.’

‘Enjoy the peace then. Charlie says hi.’

‘Send Charlie my heartfelt greetings. Can’t wait 2 c her. Missing out.’

‘Will send u pics.’

‘Gr8. Thx.’

Dec immediately sent several photos of Charlie, with and without her parents. They all looked so happy and right together, and I guiltily felt another stab of envy. I’d thrown away everything I had with Jules for this, but who knew if I would ever have it? Was it worth it? Couldn’t I have just this once made a decision that was about someone else and not all about me? Isn’t that what you did for people you loved?

And as I thought it, I realised it. I loved Jules. I had tried so hard not to, I’d played along with her ‘no such thing as love’ spiel, I’d told her I didn’t love her as a joke, as well as in all seriousness, so many times. I’d told myself I was never going there again, after Carrie, determined no one was going to get past my defences. None of it was true. I was well and truly in love with her, and I’d tossed it away because of something I wanted. Maybe I would have made the same decision if I’d realised earlier, I’d never know now, but Jules had deserved to know that, and it was unlikely I was going to get the opportunity to tell her. Even wanting to tell her was the act of a selfish bastard. Shit. Fuck. This was going to seriously do my head in. Just as I was reaching a peak of silently berating myself, my phone pinged. It was a text from Andrew.

‘Sorry. L8 nite. Where r u?’

I texted the name of the cafe, and waited for him to arrive. While I waited, I opened a writing app on my phone, and started a letter to Jules. When I’d seen the psychologist, he’d suggested it as a way of organising my thoughts. I didn’t have to send it, but he said it was a way of putting things away that I was getting stuck on.

Thinking about Adam made me remember I had an appointment with him next week sometime that I needed to cancel. Being on holiday was as good an excuse as any, and I quickly rang him. Being on holiday was also a good excuse not to hang about on the phone to make another appointment, and I told him I’d call when I got back, although I had no intention of doing so.

Andrew turned up just as I was disconnecting from Adam. He seemed to have lost a bit of his bounce, which I put down to a late night and lots of cocktails.

‘Hey. Alright?’

He shrugged and sat down.

‘Hanger? I had a monster this morning.’

‘No, not really. Didn’t have a good night.’

‘Oh? It looked like it was going well from where I was standing.’

‘Yeah, well, turns out Jody was underage.’

‘Shit. Did you find out before, or …’

‘Yeah, before, thank Christ. Something she said rang bells, and I counted back, and she couldn’t possibly be twenty like she said.’

‘Fuck, Andrew, even twenty makes you almost old enough –’

‘Yeah, yeah, spare me the sermon. In a few years that might be Rebecca with some dirty old man drooling all over her. I hope he does the decent thing like I did. Shit, I’ve come down to earth a bit this morning.’

He put his elbows on the table and leaned his face into his palms, then looked up, running a hand over his shiny head.

‘I got an email from Rebecca last night. Karen let her use her allocation to contact me. Christ, Matt, I miss them so much. What am I fucking about with all this shit for?’

‘I thought it was over with you and Karen.’

‘It is, our marriage is, because it was what she wanted. I destroyed it when I slept with someone else. But … oh I don’t know, I’m so fucked up. When we did the religion thing, it really changed her. She was so fired up, so passionate about it all, and that was exciting, it was a shot in the arm for us, and that’s what I got swept up in, but for her it changed from passion to almost obsession, and it changed her. She changed too much, for me. I still love who she was, before, but maybe not who she became, after. God didn’t do us many favours, really, the bastard. She’s still Rebecca’s mother, and I miss Rebecca so much. I’m on the same continent – why did I come here on holiday? I should have flown on a bit further and started pounding on their door, trying to see them. But Karen wouldn’t want to see me, I’ve gone back to my heathen ways. It’s such a fucking mess.’

‘You could still get a flight out, couldn’t you?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so, but I don’t think I should just turn up unannounced. And if I reply to Rebecca’s email, they might not get it for months.’

‘Do they really not have phones or anything?’

‘Well there is one in the main office, and field workers have basic ones for safety.’

‘Couldn’t you get a message to her?’

‘Not reliably. Maybe I should start making some plans, though. If I email back with a date, say in three or four months time, email the main office and ask them to pass it on, then I can get my shit together and get out there, try and sort some of it out.’

‘Sounds like a plan.’

‘Sorry, Matt, I know you wanted me out here to cheer you up, and I’ve just dumped a major downer on you.’

‘Cheer me up? I wanted you out here so we could talk, you bloody goon. Is that what all this party animal shit has been about?’

‘Maybe a bit. I have been going over the top recently, back home. Changed my image, liked the response it got, didn’t know when to stop. Acting like a bloody thirty-something adolescent.’

‘Been there, mate. Catches up with you in the end, one way or another.’

‘I guess so. It’s just been … after the last year, finding a way to feel good about myself has been addictive. I’ve always been a bit of a geek, a bit of a Melvin, but with the stress of breaking up with Karen, I lost weight, and needed to buy new clothes, and – do you remember at Uni, being made over by Cindy?’

I nodded. ‘Hard to forget.’

I chose not to remind Andrew that I’d slept with his girlfriend moments after being made over by her myself.

‘Well I remembered how that felt, what a boost it gave me, and I had another go, and it bloody well worked. I had half the admin team at Eyeti swooning.’

‘Half? There are only three, aren’t there?’

‘Yeah, well, technically, you’ve got me there. But you know what I mean. It’s heady. Especially when you feel a bit past it, and your wife doesn’t want you anymore.’

‘Or especially when you’ve just recovered from a shitty disease and moved to a new city. I know exactly where you’re coming from. Mate, you haven’t done anything wrong. Fuck, who would I be to judge anyway, I’ve been doing the same shit since I moved away from Stafford. But I’ve had enough now, it’s affecting people I care about, and I’m trying not to be such a bastard.’

We continued comparing ageing bastard notes for a long time. Our experiences were so different, but our behaviour so similar, that we helped each other work a lot of it out. We had both been responding to major setbacks; mine were being ill and being dumped, his were leaving his wife and daughter in a country thousands of miles away. We had both needed to feel a) important and b) in control. We had both gone about it in the same way, and had come to the same conclusion, that using people to feel better about yourself wasn’t really a satisfactory method of dealing with your shit.

Andrew decided that he would try to contact Karen while he was here, just in case there was any chance he could fly on before going back to Stafford.

I decided to finish my letter to Jules; I still didn’t know if I was going to send it to her or not, but a lot of it was an apology, and I wanted to give her that at least.

So eventually I got what I wanted, after a bit of a false start. Andrew was different; his experiences over the past few years had changed him, as I suppose mine had changed me. But in the end I felt as at ease with him as I had through school, Uni and beyond, and we spent the next few days either on the beach or wandering around various nearby tourist spots, chilling, chatting, arsing about when the mood took us.

We were watching the sunset, having a couple of beers, when Andrew’s phone rang. He looked at the screen and frowned, but answered.

‘Andrew Distock … oh, hey … yeah … really? … yeah, I could be there tomorrow, I’m in Egypt at the moment … on holiday, with Matt … ha ha, no, nothing like that, we’re a couple of pensioners really … yeah, I’ll get on it now, book a flight, I’ll let you know … no, don’t worry, I’ll hire a car or something … I really want to see her too, I’ve missed you both. Are you sure it’s OK? … great. Thanks, Karen. It means a lot … I know … we’ll talk, yeah? … no, I know, I’m not expecting anything, I just want to see Rebecca … OK. Well, hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow then … yeah, will do … bye.’

He disconnected and looked at me, fear and excitement mingling on his face.

‘Did you get that?’

‘Yeah, you’re deserting me.’

I put on a pout.

‘Too bloody right. You’re a miserable git, I’ve had a rubbish time and I’ll be glad to see the back of you.’

He raised an eyebrow and grinned, to show that what he actually meant was ‘I’m sorry I’m running out on you’.

‘Sod off back to your bloody family, then, you inconsiderate bastard.’

I grinned back to show him I was pleased for him – bloke speak for ‘I’m really glad you’ve sorted your life out a bit, and I’m happy for you but will miss your company’.

So the next morning I drove Andrew to the airport and waved him off to start a new page in his life-story. Then I drove back and kicked my heels at the resort, wondering what to do next. I started another book, but it didn’t grab my attention, and I found my mind wandering as I read and re-read the same few pages. I was thinking about the same few things, going over them, and in the end I decided to ditch the book and just write a list, as if I was going shopping for ingredients for a scrumptious ‘Matt’s Perfect Life’ cake.

My list included: Leave the past and all its shit behind, and stop letting it influence me in the here and now.

Make peace with Jules, if at all possible.

Be the best uncle I can be to the awesome children already in my life.

Be a sensible, mature grown up.

Be nice to my awesome family.

Find the perfect woman.

Have perfect children.

Get real about the last three, Matt, no make that four.

Well, it was a bit of a fantasy list. You have to have something to aim for, don’t you?

And then Dec bombarded me with tons of pictures and video of Charlie, and it made me really homesick. So I changed my flight, managed to wangle a refund on my room, and flew home early.

68. Lean on me

In which help is sought, and a sudden plan is made.

Dec

It seemed like I was having some success with distracting Matt, until his phone rang. He picked it up from the counter and looked at the screen. From the mixture of hope and sorrow on his face, I guessed it was Julia.

He talked to her for a short time, sounding calm and detached but looking more and more upset, at one point finding the cut along his cheekbone with his fingers. Then, just as he asked Julia if she was OK, she hung up on him.

‘Hello? Fuck.’

He looked at me miserably.

}She wants to come and get her stuff, clothes, everything. She hasn’t got her keys, having used them as target practice, so I’ve got to let her in. Shit, we only just moved it all in last weekend, I can’t believe it. Fuck it, I’m going to have to cancel the order for that fucking bed. Here, Dec –

He handed me the mountainous sandwich.

}– I’ve lost my appetite. Oh, and double fuck, I’m going to have to clean the fucking place up before she gets there.

‘Why?’

}Because there’s broken stuff all over the place, it’s a fucking mess.

‘Well, she threw it, I don’t see why you have to go rushing back to clear it all up to make it look tidy. Fuck her, let her see the mess she made. What time is she coming?’

}She said before work, so before nine.

‘Well you won’t have time then, you’re coming with me when I fetch Amy and Charlie, to get your car, so you’ll probably get there when she does. Oh, you’re staying here tonight, by the way, did I not mention?’

}I think you neglected to, but I was hoping. Thanks mate. Your couch is much appreciated. For sleeping purposes, soul-baring purposes and avoiding being the fuck at home on my own purposes. Thanks. Really, Dec, thanks.

He looked at me, I saw his face wobble, and he started to cry again. He looked lost and alone. Matt didn’t really do outward displays of emotion, but I reached towards him and hugged him. He clung on, sobbing hard. I ‘ssh’ed him and ‘it’s OK’ed him for a long time, until he ran out of tears and breath, and it all subsided. He stepped back, putting his hands over his face, breathing heavily. Rubbed his eyes. Looked up, embarrassed.

‘Sorry mate, I’m behaving like a fucking lunatic. Took me by surprise. It just creeps up on me. This morning I was living with her, now I’m not. I’m really going to miss her. Shit, what a fucking mess. I don’t want to feel like this, I can’t fucking handle it.’

He looked like he might start crying again, but walked away, into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Leaned forwards, head in his hands. I sat next to him, waiting. After a while he looked up.

}Know what? I think … maybe I should give your head-shrink bloke a try. Do you think he could help me sort my fucking life out?

‘Yeah, I do, but you’ve got to think it too. No point going just because I tell you to.’

}When have I ever done anything just because you sodding well told me to?

‘OK then.’

I took out my phone and dialled a number.

ɸAdam Palmer.

‘Adam, hi, it’s Declan Summers –’

Matt spluttered into the beer he had just lifted to his mouth.

}Fuck, Dec, I didn’t mean now.

‘– sorry it’s a bit late on a Sunday.’

ɸHello Declan. No problem. What can I do for you?

‘Well, I just wondered if you’d be able to fit in a friend of mine for an appointment?’

ɸOf course, if I can, how soon are you thinking?

‘As soon as possible, really.’

ɸOK, let’s have a look … well it might be a bit short notice, but I’ve had a cancellation. Do you think your friend would be able to come tomorrow?

‘I think he would. He’s actually here, can you talk to him?’

ɸThat sounds like a good idea. What’s his name?

‘Matt. Matthew Scott.’

If Adam recognised his name from our sessions, he didn’t show it.

ɸAlright, put him on.

‘Thanks Adam, much appreciated.’

I handed my phone over. Matt looked very uncomfortable, but reluctantly took the phone, holding it by his fingertips, as if it was hot.

}Hello … yeah … Matt, only my mum calls me Matthew … yeah … well I could … yeah, I’m free then … no, I don’t … no, don’t worry, I’ll ask Dec. He’ll probably bloody tie me up and drive me there himself, he’s so bloody keen … no, no, I – I think I need to … yeah … do I have to bring anything or do anything? … OK. Thanks very much. Yeah. See you tomorrow.

He handed me back the phone.

}I’m not getting much opportunity to change my mind at the moment, am I?

‘Not about to risk giving you the chance to. Honestly, Matt, it’ll be fine. You don’t know him, he doesn’t know you, you can tell him anything, everything, he’ll never tell another soul. It’s liberating. It’ll help. In the meantime, I think we need a diversion. Fancy putting a cot together?’

}Er, what?

‘Well, I’ve been meaning to do it for ages, we bought it weeks ago, it’s flat-pack. I guess with Charlie coming home tomorrow it’s about time I did it. Give me a hand? You’ll save me a bollocking from Amy.’

Matt rolled his eyes, and the hint of a smile caught the corner of his mouth. It seemed my diversion had worked – he could be all holier-than-thou about my lack of organisation, then he could help me with the cot, both of which would take his mind off the fact that he had just made an appointment to see a counsellor.

}You are fucking priceless. Your daughter comes home tomorrow morning, and you haven’t even got her anywhere to sleep yet.

‘Give me a break, she wasn’t due for another few days, I thought I had plenty of time.’

}Where exactly are you going to put this cot when you’ve, or rather we’ve, or more likely I’ve, built it? This isn’t quite Buckingham Palace is it.

‘She’ll have to be in our bedroom. We’ve been looking at houses and stuff, but there just hasn’t been time to get anything sorted.’

Matt looked at me and shook his head, enjoying feeling superior.

}Well we can at least give the poor neglected child a place to sleep. You get the screwdriver, I’ll get the beers. No arguments about sugar and shit, it’s a well known fact that beer helps you read flat-pack instructions.

As he predicted, Matt ended up doing most of the work. I was pretty useless at DIY, and had to hunt for the only screwdriver I possessed before I found it at the back of a drawer. Matt read the instructions and put everything together, while I handed him screws and bits of wood – sometimes they were even the right screws and bits of wood. We got through more beer, finished Matt’s monster sandwich and microwaved some popcorn.

Jay called me.

‘Hey.’

łJust checking on Matty. Is he OK?

‘Getting there. We’re building a cot.’

Matt looked at me.

‘OK, he’s building, I’m watching and supplying refreshments.’

łJust wondering if me or Beth need to be around tomorrow?

‘Can’t hurt, keep in touch. Here, talk to him.’

I handed my phone over.

}Hey … been better … yeah, she called, wants to pick her stuff up tomorrow … yeah, it is a bit … yeah, I’m staying here tonight, on Dec’s bloody uncomfortable sofa … yeah, I’ll be around, I’ll call, or you can call if you want – oh, I’ll have my phone off for an hour or so in the afternoon, so don’t go alerting the fucking coastguard if I don’t answer … I know, I know … I don’t know, I’ll have to see what it’s like being there … thanks, I might. Your sofa is marginally more comfortable anyway, with the added bonus of no day old infants screaming their heads off all night … yeah, thanks … OK, love back to her. Speak tomorrow.

He handed the phone back.

}Don’t think I’m going to be telling Jay about seeing Adam.

‘OK. Understood.’

}Thanks. OK, I think this is just about finished. Would you like to screw in the last screw, just so you can say you helped?

‘Hey, I helped. I supplied you with beer, I microwaved popcorn, I handed you stuff. You couldn’t have done it without me.’

}I would have been finished half an hour ago without you giving me dowels instead of bolts.

‘Fuck off.’

}You fuck off. Your next job is clearing all this shit up, where’s your hoover?

‘Oh bollocks to that, it’s too late.’

}Dec, in case you’ve forgotten, you are bringing your tiny baby home tomorrow. Now, Charlie won’t notice if the place looks like a war zone, but Amy certainly will and to avoid the maritals, I suggest a bit of an effort is made. You need to clean the kitchen up too.

I looked around. The floor was covered in sawdust, cardboard packaging, plastic packets and beer bottles. There was a fair amount of popcorn down there too. Clearing up was the last thing I wanted to start doing right now, but I imagined Amy’s face if she walked in to it tomorrow morning. Went and fetched the hoover.

‘I’m not sure I know how to work it. What do all these brushes and things do? Where’s the switch?’

}Dec, what precisely do you do with yourself all day when you’re not hurling a rugby ball around?

I shrugged, grinning sheepishly.

}I think Amy’s going to have her work cut out getting you to be a new man, you’re worse than Jay – ah, I’ve just realised who your domestic role model was in your formative years. Right, I’ll sort the kitchen, you get rid of all this lot and hoover the floor.

It didn’t take too long to sort everything out. When we had finished, I carried the cot into the bedroom and spent some time trying to find the right spot for it. I was sure Amy would move it tomorrow anyway, but I needed to do it myself to start with. Then I got a couple of blankets out of a cupboard, grabbed Amy’s pillows off the bed, took it all into the living room and put it on the sofa.

‘Hope you’re not too uncomfortable.’

}Cheers, mate. I’ll be fine, won’t sleep much anyway.

‘Well I’m fucking wiped. I haven’t slept, apart from the odd doze in a chair, since yesterday morning. Hope you don’t mind, I’m going to bed. Stay up as long as you want, watch TV, eat stuff, drink stuff, steal the silverware, whatever you want. You know where I am if you need me – just wake me up if you need anything, talk, whatever. I won’t mind. Thanks for helping me with the cot and everything.’

}Least I could do. Thanks for … all this, again. Seriously don’t know where I’d be without you. You’re a good mate. The best.

‘Time you went to bed, mate, you’re getting slushy. Doesn’t suit you.’

}Fuck off, then you bloody nutter.

‘That’s better. See you tomorrow.’

Matt

Dec took me back to their flat, patched me up with some beer, and got me to talk about it. After several attempts, I managed to talk to Jules, but she wouldn’t tell me where she was and hung up on me. I cried. I talked. Jules called me back and said she wanted to fetch her stuff from the flat the next day. She was so cold about it, wouldn’t talk to me about anything except what she needed to do. It’s not like she seemed like a different person, I knew she could do this, turn the Ice Queen on and off, but she hadn’t directed it at me for a long time, and it hurt a lot.

As I talked to Dec and my ability to think slowly returned, I understood what I’d done to Jules. In a way, it was exactly what Carrie had done to me. I’d let Jules think I was someone, that we were the same, wanted the same things. And then, without warning, I’d as good as told her I was someone different, that I was choosing a different life over her, a life she couldn’t understand and assumed I would never want. I hadn’t left Jules for an ex, but I could imagine she felt as betrayed by me right now as I had all those years ago when Carrie tore me to pieces.

It suddenly seemed like my time with Jules had been book-ended by me being a bastard. That first day, in my flat, when I just took her, carelessly, thoughtlessly; that was bastard thing number one. Then I tried to change, wanted to make sure it never happened again, and it didn’t, not in that way, but it didn’t stop bastard thing number two, when if I’d exercised a little self-reflection, I might have been able to prevent Jules from being hurt, or at least as hurt as she had been. Two selfish acts, enclosing nearly a year of whatever you want to call it – love? Togetherness? Even now, after all this time with Lau, I don’t quite know how to categorise what we had. At the time, all I could think about was what I’d done to Jules, how much I’d hurt her and how much I was going to miss her.

Jay called me, ostensibly to give me his standard ‘be strong, stay positive’ advice, then Dec gave me a bed for the night, or rather his lumpy sofa; going home wasn’t an option, I just couldn’t face it, but hadn’t known how to ask. Usually I wouldn’t have had any such scruples, fuck knows I’d had to sleep on their couch enough times when I’d been shit-faced in the past, but given that Dec had been up for nearly two days straight with Amy and Charlie, I had just enough about me to realise that I might be at the very least a bit of an inconvenience. Dec insisted, however, and we spent the rest of the evening putting a cot together and drinking beer. Or rather, I did both of those, and Dec sat on the floor handing me the wrong screws and trying not to fall asleep.

Dec

I grabbed my phone and went into the bedroom, just about awake enough to strip off my clothes and fall into bed. I wanted to text Amy before I fell asleep – I had felt an insistent tug at my heart throughout the evening, as if I was connected to them by invisible string, and I just wanted some contact.

Me: =Hey babe ru still awake?

Amy: =Yeh, Charlie’s having supper.

Me: =Can I call u?

Amy: =Pleeeeease xx.

I pressed ‘call’. From the living room, I heard voices and laughter coming from the TV.

‘Hey gorgeous. I missed you.’

)We missed you too. Although we did have quite a long sleep after you’d gone.

‘That’s great, babe, you must be shattered.’

)So must you. How’s Matt?

‘He’s in a bit of a state. He’s going to stay here tonight, doesn’t want to go home. Julia’s collecting her stuff tomorrow. He’ll find that pretty tough I think, he’s got to let her in. Oh – that’s how he got that cut under his eye, she threw the keys at him.

)Really? She did it on purpose?

‘Not sure. But it sounded like she lost it big time. He’s tried calling her, but she won’t talk to him. He’s pretty cut up, so I tried to take his mind off it. We did some flat-pack therapy, he put the cot together for us and I plied him with drink.’

)Oh, I’m so glad you’ve done the cot, I remembered about that this afternoon. How does it look?

‘Pretty good. Better than if I’d done it. It’s right here next to the bed, waiting for its important occupant. How is she?’

)She’s amazing. The most beautiful baby girl ever. Don’t forget the stroller car seat thingy tomorrow, will you?

‘I’ll try not to. It’s by the door. I’ll be there about half eight, OK?’

)Can’t wait to come home, hon. I love you.

‘I love you too. Will you marry me?’

)You know I will.

‘Just checking … I’m falling asleep here, babe, I’d better go. See you tomorrow.’

)Bye hon. Sleep well.

I ended the call, then opened the video file and watched the clip of Amy and Charlie until my eyes closed and I slept.

Dreaming. I am with Mum and Dad, we are flying above the world. I show them everything I’ve done, everywhere I’ve been, everyone I’ve loved since they’ve been gone. I show them Amy and Charlie. They love it all.

… woke up in the dark, the sound of breathing close to my face. Sat up, felt something brush my face.

‘Fuck!’

}Dec, are you OK? You were making your weird noises, but it sounded like you were crying. I couldn’t tell if you were awake or not.

I leaned over and put the light on. Matt was standing uncertainly by the bed. I touched my face; it was wet.

‘What the fuck are you doing there in the dark?’

}Sorry, mate, I didn’t want to put the light on and wake you up. Are you OK?

I sat up, took a deep breath, ran my hands over my face. Rubbed it away.

‘Yeah, I’m OK. I was having a dream. I was showing Charlie to Mum and Dad.’

Matt sat on the edge of the bed and gave me a sympathetic grimace.

}It must be hard, them not being around, especially today.

‘Yeah, I still miss them, and I still get sad when I think about them. I wish they were here, but if they were, I’d have a different life, so what’s the fucking point in wishing, doesn’t change anything.’

}Do you know what, they’d be so proud of you, and of Charlie. Major achievement.

‘Yeah, she is. My finest to date. Sorry I woke you up.’

}Wasn’t asleep. Fuck, you make some weird noises, don’t know how Amy puts up with it.

‘She used to think it was cute. I think she’s a bit less charmed now. Not much I can do about it really.’

}You don’t still have nightmares do you?

‘Fuck no, at least if I do I don’t remember them. No, that all stopped way back, once everything was sorted. Just keep everyone else awake now. Poor Ames, between me and Charlie she’s going to have zero sleep for, like, ever.’

I ran my hands over my face again.

‘I need to get back to sleep, early start. Sorry, Matt. How are you doing?’

}Just doing lots of thinking. Can’t sleep, stuff going round and round – should’ves, wish I’ds, fuck I’m such an idiots. Not productive. Hope your man can sort me out.

‘Just going to the appointment’s a start. Try to get some sleep, mate.’

}Will do.

He closed the door on his way out. I clicked on a photo of Charlie on my phone, and fell asleep gazing at her.

Deep, dreamless sleep.

Matt

I got little sleep, but it was nothing to do with Dec’s incredibly uncomfortable couch. I’d already called Phil and told him I wouldn’t be in to work the next day, but I had to be up and about early so I could let Jules in to my flat to pick up her stuff, as she’d left her keys in my flat together with a chunk of my face. I wasn’t looking forward to it; she’d asked me not to hang around, but the thought of going back afterwards and seeing space where her things had been filled me with dread.

I was a wreck. I got through the night by watching all the crap they put on TV in the dead of night – repeats of comedy shows, twenty four hour news channels, documentaries with little basis in fact and a lot of basis in hysteria – and going over everything that had happened today, and everything that was going to happen tomorrow.

As well as Jules extricating her life from mine, I had, in a moment of weakness, agreed to see Dec’s psychologist. Not only agreed, but actually made an appointment, for the following afternoon. I couldn’t see a way out of it now, without the combined forces of the Scotts descending on my arse, and so I was worrying about that too.

So, all in all, not a great night. I dozed a bit, and at one point I thought I heard crying coming from Dec’s room. I tapped on his door and went into his room, but he was asleep, obviously having one of his mad sleep moments. As I was about to leave, he woke up, and he was OK, I think he’d been dreaming about his parents. Hardly surprising that day of all days; I don’t think they were ever far from his mind, and I know he felt their absence more now he was a father. I headed back to the sofa and the TV, but by the time Dec stirred in the morning, I hadn’t managed any proper sleep.

Julia

Evie’s friend Julian’s brother was called Henry. He picked me up in his van at eight thirty; I’d told Matt I was going to be there before work, but not that I’d taken the morning off, so he should be expecting me. The door to the lobby had been wedged open, so Henry and I climbed the stairs and I rang the doorbell to the apartment, feeling strange and unreal, not looking forward to seeing Matt again, or to sorting through the things I had there. There was no answer. I rang again, longer. Still no answer. Angry, I pulled my phone out of my bag and called Matt’s number. There was no reply. I didn’t know what to do. Henry had given up a morning of his time to help me, and now we couldn’t even get in. I apologised to him, as my phone started to ring. It was Matt.

‘Sorry, I’m just in the car park. I stayed at Dec’s last night. I’m just coming.’

I tried to dampen my anger, but I was too wound up. By the time he rounded the corner at the top of the stairs and apologetically let us in, throwing a curious glance at Henry, I could hardly speak, and didn’t trust myself not to say or do something I would regret. Matt was true to his word, and once he had opened the door, he disappeared back down the stairs. I had barely been able to glance at him, but my quick inspection told me he looked awful – pale, dishevelled, with red-rimmed eyes. I suspected I didn’t look much better.

Entering the apartment, we were greeted by the aftermath of my rampage the day before. I had almost forgotten breaking all the crockery, and smashing the coffee cup against the wall. The reminder shocked me, and looking at Henry’s face, it shocked him too. I decided not to refer to it, but I was shaken at the state of the place. Matt always kept it neat and tidy, and to see it scattered with broken bits of china and glass felt wrong. It seemed like a metaphor.

I pointed out a couple of things that Henry could carry down to the van, and while he did that, I put all my clothes in the two suitcases I had borrowed from Evie. I emptied my side of the wardrobe, my shelves in the cupboards and my space in the drawers, amazed at how much of myself I had scattered around. The last thing I took was my old t-shirt, the one that I kept under the pillow on the bed, although doing so nearly brought me to my knees. When I had folded it up and put it there yesterday morning, I’d had no idea what the rest of the day would bring, no idea that today I would be coming back to pick everything up and leave for the last time. I sat on the edge of the bed, holding the t-shirt to my face, trying to fight back tears that I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to keep it, I knew I was never going to wear it again, but I put it in the suitcase and shut the top, to deal with later. Henry and I finished loading the van, took my things to the storage unit, and that was that. Done. Finished.

Matt

Dec drove me to the hospital to collect my car, and I drove back home, a bit later than I’d intended. Jules was already there, waiting, angry, and she rang me before I got back to find out where I was, which can’t have improved her mood. I wondered about trying to talk to her, but when I arrived she had a bodyguard with her, some bloke who I didn’t know, and a discussion of any sort was never going to happen.

I sat in my car while they loaded a van, telling myself to drive off so I didn’t have to watch, but unable make myself start the car and leave. Every bag and box they put in the back of the van felt like a physical blow. When they’d finished, they drove away, and it had ended; I sat in my car, but couldn’t bring myself to go back inside. I felt indescribably sad, and my flat already looked like shit, with all the broken stuff everywhere, and now it would be empty of Jules. So I just sat, looking up at the window, as if I expected her to look out and wave at me, or beckon me up. In the end, I called Beth. You can see how desperate I was.

‘Hi Matty. How are you?’

She knew about Jules – I’d talked to Jay the previous night.

‘Been better. Need … um … a bit of a hand with something.’

‘What can I help you with, sweetheart?’

That was the thing about Beth. I gave her a lot of shit; if it had been her asking me, after a lifetime of railing against the offers and the fussing, I wouldn’t have been able to resist some kind of sarky comment. But Beth just gave.

‘I can’t go back.’

There was a short pause while she worked out what I meant. That was the other thing about Beth, she had some kind of intuitive instinct that meant it wasn’t always necessary to go into long explanations. Of course, sometimes she made you go the long way round in the name of expressing yourself, but she was usually several steps ahead of you.

‘Oh Matty, I’ve been thinking about you all morning. Do you want to come over? Stay tonight?’

‘Yeah. Thanks, that’d be great later, but my flat’s a fucking mess. I need to get it cleaned up so I can stop thinking about it.’

And there was the problem. I needed to clean it all up, but I couldn’t go back to clean it all up, and I couldn’t ask someone else to clean it all up for me.

‘Well I think I know the answer to that one. You come and look after Iz, she’s been asking when her favourite uncle is going to come and feed her pizza and chocolate ice cream, and I’ll go and get Rose and we’ll clean up your flat for you.’

‘I can’t ask you to do that.’

I was humbled by her generosity.

‘Of course you can’t, but I’ve offered. You can argue with me if you like, Matty, I know you love a good stand-off when we try to help you, but you wouldn’t have rung me if you didn’t want me to do something for you, would you?’

Well she had me there, and I was mightily relieved, and had nothing left in me that would be able to stand up to an argument.

‘OK.’

‘Come over now, sweetheart. I’ll put the kettle on, I’ve just made a cake. We’ll sort you out.’

‘Thanks.’

‘See you in a minute.’

And thus it was that I spent the first morning of my life without Jules playing dollies with Iz, being dressed as a fairy complete with wings and wand, and eating ice cream until I felt sick. As therapy went, Iz was pretty awesome.

Beth returned just before I had to leave for my appointment with Adam Palmer, Dec’s shrink bloke, and I gratefully realised I hadn’t had time to worry about it. I briefly considered calling it off, but with Dec knowing I was supposed to be going, I decided to suck it up, just one time. No one said I had to go back again, did they? And only Dec knew I was going, I was fairly confident he wouldn’t tell anyone, as long as he thought I’d actually go, so I was pretty safe. Just the once, then.

I pulled up outside the terraced Victorian house, thinking how unlike a psychologist’s – what were they? Offices? Clinics? – place of work it seemed. I had imagined some kind of hospital type building, but this seemed like someone’s house; there was no plaque on the door, or anything to separate it from the other houses in the street. I walked up the path and rang the bell.

There was a short wait, which seemed longer as all of me was poised to run, and I kept repeating to myself ‘don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry’, which was ridiculous as a) if I was going to cry, this was surely the place to do it and b) there were no obvious man points on offer, so blarting was a safe activity.

Then the door opened, revealing a normal looking bloke, about my age, casually dressed. He didn’t look particularly scary, not scary enough to be causing my heart to beat as fast as it was. The urge to run away increased, but I managed to stand my ground.

‘Hi. Matt?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I’m Adam. Come on in.’

Adam showed me into what was obviously his house, which had been adapted to incorporate a small waiting room and a consulting room. I sat in an armchair, not a couch to be seen, and looked at him, waiting to be told what to do. The silence stretched a little uncomfortably, and I wondered if I was supposed to start, but he took a little breath in, and began to speak.

‘So what brings you here, then, Matt?’

I bit back a facetious reply like ‘my four wheel drive and a tank of diesel’. I had, after all, asked Dec to set me up with an appointment. I was going to have to watch my sarcasm levels. I aimed for vague honesty with a large dollop of avoidance.

‘I’m not sure, now. It seemed like a good idea last night.’

‘What was going on for you last night?’

‘I was a blubbering wreck all over Dec’s couch.’

As I said it, my ‘don’t cry’ mantra stopped working, my bottom lip trembled and tears started sliding down my face. No, fuck, no. Well reasoned excuses notwithstanding, I didn’t do crying in front of anyone. Well hardly anyone. Not these days. Not that I’d let anyone know about. If you ignore yesterday, when yeah, Declan Summers had copped a load of it. I grabbed a tissue from the discreetly placed box and rubbed at my eyes.

‘Shit. Sorry.’

I breathed hard and tried to stop myself. This was a bloody nightmare. I nearly got up and walked out there and then.

‘It’s OK. Take your time. Just tell me what you want to. There’s some water here if you need it.’

Adam pointed to a jug and glasses on a table, then sat back in his chair, hands in his lap, ankles crossed. I got my tear ducts and my breathing under control, then glanced at Adam, embarrassed.

‘Sorry. You must think I’m a fucking nutter.’

‘Not at all. Take a moment, tell me more when you’re ready.’

I took a few more deep breaths.

‘Am I supposed to tell you about my childhood now?’

I saw him suppress a smile. Not completely without humour then.

‘Would you find it helpful?’

‘Fuck no, if I start there we’ll still be here at bloody midnight. It’s right now I’m having trouble with.’

‘Let’s start with right now, then. Tell me how you’re feeling right now.’

And I did. I just told him everything, vomited words over him, he hardly had to say anything for about twenty minutes. It was as if it was coming out of me without me thinking about it; my head had been full of all the guilt and grief of the the last twenty-four hours, and now it had found a way to empty it out. I was almost able to sit back and listen to myself talk. It wasn’t particularly coherent; I got the order muddled, I went back and added things, I came out with lots of suppositions and justifications for what had happened, and when I finally ground to a halt, I felt as if some of it had left me. Adam asked a few questions, made some reassuring noises, I got through the rest of the appointment without losing it again. Job done.

I felt like I’d survived an interrogation. Then Adam asked if I wanted to make another appointment, and I said yes before even thinking about it. I didn’t want another bloody appointment, this one had been hard enough, but I couldn’t change my mind without looking like a right tosser, so I got my phone out and dutifully programmed it in, planning to call and cancel before the day came. We stood up, shook hands, and I left, having to stop myself running to my car and speeding away.

Instead, once I had walked to my car, I sat in the driver’s seat, gripped the steering wheel and let out a huge breath. I couldn’t believe Dec had done this for years, seeing Adam every week to start with. Going over everything, even though it had felt a bit cathartic, was not something I was going to be repeating on a weekly basis for the foreseeable. Adam had helped me get my head a bit straighter, maybe, but only a bit. He couldn’t change what I’d done to Jules, though, or the fuck up I’d made of my life so far. No amount of talking was going to change the past. And if I felt like unburdening, I could think of cheaper ways than going to a head-shrink Dec didn’t charge by the hour, and now he had a newborn, he was going to be up at the ridiculous hours I usually kept. Nope, I was definitely going to cancel that appointment.

I drove back to Jay’s, still not wanting to face the flat. I didn’t know how far Beth and Rose had got, but there were bound to be some reminders of the breakages. I’d asked Beth to bring some clothes back with her, and was hoping to stay for a couple of nights on their sofa-bed.

When I lived here, after I moved down from Stafford, I had the room that Cal now occupied, and when Iz was first born she slept in Jay and Beth’s room. Their house was bloody enormous, but it only had three bedrooms, a potential fourth upstairs being Beth’s dressing room, and one downstairs being used for Jay’s office. So it was a sofa-bed in the conservatory for me, at least for tonight, while I tried to sort my head out without telling Beth absolutely bloody everything, which was going to be a challenge.

When I got there, Cal was home from school and I escaped and lost myself in the X-box with him for an hour before dinner. While we ate, Beth filled me in on her exploits at my flat with Rose.

They had cleared away all the broken bits without incident, and had cleaned the carpet and walls, for which I was more grateful than I knew how to express. Beth was worried about the gouges in the walls, and the coffee stain had proved stubborn to remove. She talked about it so matter-of-factly, as if she went and cleared up after smash-fest break-ups every day. She even knew someone who would be able to fill the holes and repaint.

‘He’s my friend Trish’s husband, he does odd jobs here and there. Shall I phone him, sweetheart? Or would you rather do it yourself?’

What I wanted was every trace removed before I went back there, so I could pretend it hadn’t happened, and just get on with life in Matt Scott’s bachelor pad. But that would mean staying here for who knew how long.

‘Won’t that take ages to organise?’

‘Not necessarily. I’ll ring Trish and ask, shall I?’

She did so, but Mike wasn’t going to be able to do anything for a few days. I didn’t want to be here for days, I wouldn’t be able to relax, I’d have Beth on at me the whole time and I might be tempted to murder her, which wouldn’t noticeably improve things.

I needed to get away. I had some leave due from work; I’d hardly had a holiday for the last two years. If I took a few weeks off, then maybe when I got back to work, things would be better there with Jules. I couldn’t imagine going to work right now, how I would even get through an hour there let alone a day, a week?

Lost in my thoughts, I forgot that Beth was waiting for me to decide whether to ask Mike to fill and repaint.

‘Matty?’

‘What? Oh, sorry. Yeah, tell him go for it. I think I’m going to go away for a while.’

‘Really, sweetheart? Oh, that might be just what you need. Where are you going to go?’

‘Not sure. Only just thought about it. Beach. Books. Quiet. That kind of thing.’

‘Sounds lovely. I don’t suppose you want some stowaways?’

‘No thanks. Just me.’

Although another idea had just popped into existence. As soon as dinner was over, I got my phone out and texted Andrew.

‘How busy r u next cpl wks?’

‘Flat out. Y?’

‘Can u wangle time off? Immediate effect?’

‘Maybe. Again, y?’

‘Need 2 get away. Sun, sea, sitting.’

‘Wot no other S words? Boring. U OK?’

‘Been better. Up 4 it?’

‘In theory. Ring u l8r.’

While I was waiting for Andrew to call me, I checked out last minute holidays, and found something in Egypt that would fit the bill. Thinking about going away took my mind off everything, and I Googled flights and accommodation until I had a comprehensive list of comparisons. I didn’t need Andrew to come with me; I didn’t need anyone to come with me, but company would be better.

I’d kept in touch with Andrew since his email. He knew about Jules, although not the latest episode, of course, and we’d said so many times that we should get together soon. I hadn’t wanted to go up to Stafford; that chapter of my life was closed, and things had been pretty full on down here with Jules, and we just hadn’t arranged anything.

The more I thought about going away, the better an idea it seemed. When Andrew called me back, I had a plethora of travel facts to bombard him with, should he prove receptive to the idea of an impromptu pity party in the name of Scott.

I made my bed up in the conservatory and closeted myself away for the evening, pleading tiredness, although I felt I didn’t really need an excuse today for being unsociable. I closed the curtains to shut out family life, and locked the door to prevent incursions of the blonde variety in the form of Iz.

There was a TV in the conservatory, and I had my phone and iPad for entertainment, but I was impatient for Andrew to get back to me, and I couldn’t settle to anything. My mind kept drifting over the last two days, how everything had changed, what I could have said or done differently, what Jules might be doing now. None of it made me feel any better, most of it made me feel more guilty, and all of it drew me pretty close to the edge of the dark pit I used to frequent. This afternoon’s session with Adam notwithstanding, I was lower than I’d been for a long time.

I lay on my back on the sofa-bed, staring at the ceiling while drivel occurred on the TV. I’d thought I’d changed, I’d thought my potential for fucking up people’s lives had reduced, but I obviously still had it in me. When was I ever going to grow up and be responsible? To think things through? Was I always going to be reacting to things, taking what I could get along the way, or was I ever going to think about things, consider consequences?

The trouble was, I couldn’t imagine it. I hated the thought of being a proper grown up with responsibilities and duties, and yet here was the result of it all. Another spectacularly failed relationship, more upheaval and upset, another person I cared about who was no longer part of my life. Although I railed against the restrictions of adulthood, there was no denying that the thought of it sometimes seemed comforting and safe, and if I wanted a family, I needed to be a grown-up. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head – what I wanted, and all the things that would need to change in order for me to even have a chance of any of it happening.

My phone interrupted my contemplations. They weren’t getting me anywhere anyway, and it was Andrew.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Mr Scott. So are you going to let me in on this sudden interest in travel?’

‘Yeah, I just need to get away, could do with some company, wondered if you were up for it. Egypt looks good this time of year.’

‘So I believe. Why the rush?’

‘Jules and I just imploded.’

‘Oh mate. I’m sorry.’

‘Yeah, well.’

‘When were you thinking?’

‘Well, there are some deals on the net, I could go tomorrow, but you said you were flat out.’

Tomorrow? You’re fucking kidding, right?’

‘Not fucking kidding.’

‘Oh mate, I’d love to, but there’s just no way. I could … maybe … do this weekend, possibly, if I do some fast talking.’

I had anticipated this, and had a plan.

‘How about if I go out first, and you come later? I don’t know how long you’ve got, but I’ve got a lot of leave coming, and I could easily do two weeks, maybe more. Come for a week, at the weekend.’

Andrew was silent for a moment, considering.

‘It sounds doable. I haven’t taken any time since I started here, it’s been pretty full on.’

And so, a while later, there we were booked up. I was going to fly out tomorrow evening, and Andrew would join me on the Saturday, then I would stay on for a couple of days after he left. We organised accommodation and flights on the internet while we spoke, and then I called Phil at home to tell him I needed to take some leave starting tomorrow. He wasn’t keen, as my team were in the middle of a couple of tricky projects, but I told him I was either taking leave or going off sick. Phil must have heard from Jules, as he made some comment about business and pleasure and never the twain, but begrudgingly gave me the time off.

Now I needed to organise packing. I still didn’t want to go back to the flat, so I had two choices. Maybe three. I could a) go shopping tomorrow and buy everything I needed, despite having everything I needed in my flat, b) get everything I needed out there, despite having everything I needed in my flat, c) ask Beth to get everything I needed from my flat. Well, I hated shopping, whether it was at home or abroad, and so that left me with just the one option. I checked the time, hoping they would still be up, and steeled myself.

‘Hello Matty, we were just off to bed. Is there anything you need? The kettle’s just boiled, there’s some of that pie in the fridge …’

‘I’m after a favour.’

‘Oh.’ Beth sat up straighter. ‘What do you need sweetheart?’

‘I’m going away tomorrow. I’ve just booked a couple of weeks in Egypt.’

‘Jesus, Matty. Tomorrow?’

‘Yeah. Time I visited the Sphinx. Thing is, I wondered if I could ask … I need a suitcase and clothes and toiletries and shit.’

As usual, it didn’t take long for Beth to catch up.

‘Oh of course, sweetheart. Have you got a list?’

‘Not yet. Working on it.’

‘Hang on, what?’

Jay, however, always took longer. He didn’t really pay attention anyway, and I suppose I didn’t help by being deliberately obtuse in my communication sometimes.

‘Oh James, use your brain. I’ll go and fetch Matty’s things for him tomorrow. You’ll have to let me know where everything is, Matty. What time’s your flight?’

I seemed to have pressed Beth’s organisational buttons, rather than her inquisitive buttons, as she was more focussed on the doing than the asking. Maybe she was being considerate of my fragile state, or maybe she was happy as long as I was asking for her assistance for a change.

‘Nine in the evening.’

‘Oh, there’s plenty of time then. Are you driving to the airport?’

OK, so there were still things I hadn’t thought of, brain having turned to sludge with recent events or some such shit.

‘Er, I suppose so.’

‘Why don’t you get the train, sweetheart? It’s much more relaxing.’

‘No it’s not, it’s a bloody nightmare, lugging all your bags through London. I’ll drive, I’ll go and sort parking now.’

‘James, you could take him.’

‘No, Beth, it’s fine. I’ll drive.’

‘I can’t anyway, Beth, I’ve got Colts training.’

So Beth had to be content with merely packing me a suitcase, finding my passport and waving me off. As I drove away, I felt my heart lifting a bit, glad to be getting away from everything. It didn’t stop it all whirling round inside me, but I knew now that I was going to get some peace to think, some company to mull things over, and some warm weather to combat the dreary January we were having. I had books on my iPad, and I intended doing absolutely nothing besides sitting on the beach reading until Andrew arrived in a few days’ time. I wouldn’t be able to do any of it guilt-free, because all the time I was wondering what Jules was doing, and whether she was ever going to stop hating me.

I couldn’t bear the thought of her hating me; even when we were just managing rival teams and I was being an annoying prick, I don’t think she hated me. Yeah, she didn’t think much of me, that’s true, and we needled each other from time to time, but she didn’t hate me. Now, I wasn’t sure. I had never been hated, to my knowledge, although the contempt some of my so-called friends from Stafford had shown may have come close, and to think that someone I’d been so close to might be feeling so strongly towards me burned me.

67. Going out of my head

In which the truth hurts.

Matt

The outcome was predictable – both the immediate and eventual fall out. I told Jules, eventually, after a few halting attempts. I couldn’t get the words out, not the ones that were going to make it easier for her to take, and she got pissed off with me, so I just blurted it, ‘I want children’, three words that sliced what we had in two.

Jules got upset, as I expected her to, and then she completely lost it, to a degree that scared me. She started throwing things, while I sat and took it all, the volley of words and more solid missiles. I took the abuse, too shocked to do anything else, thinking that I deserved everything. I expected some of the china to hit me, but she wasn’t aiming at me, she was aiming at the wall, the floor, anywhere where things would smash. I flinched at every crash. I flinched when she called me a lying fucking arsehole, and I flinched when she told me she never wanted to see me again.

When Jules grabbed her bag and headed towards the door, I stood up, finally propelled into something beyond passive acceptance. I didn’t want her to leave, not like this. I thought, once she’d had her say, maybe we could talk, decide what to do next, but if she left, that was it, I knew she wouldn’t come back.

I moved towards Jules, but she hurled the keys that were in her hand towards me, and they hit me in the face. I was more shocked by that than by all of the destruction she had just inflicted. I staggered backwards, and while I was regaining my balance and checking my face for blood, she left, slamming the door behind her; I heard her footsteps running down the stairs, and she was gone.

Dec

Arriving at the maternity unit, I parked more carefully this time, and paid at the machine, to avoid another ticket. I raced down the corridor, so eager to see them again. Burst into the room. Amy was in one of the chairs, feeding Charlie, and Diane was in the other chair. Unexpected visitors were going to be one of the many things I was going to have to get used to.

‘Hey babe.’

)Hey you. Have you been running?

‘Yeah, just from the car, couldn’t wait to see you. Hi Diane.’

;Hello Declan. Thank you so much for the email, that little video clip was just beautiful. I’ve sent it on to my sister, I hope you don’t mind.

‘No, course not.’

I knelt down by the chair and kissed Amy, for longer than was decent in front of her Puritanical mother, especially with Amy’s delightful chest exposed for feeding purposes. Charlie was otherwise engaged with the delightful chest and not at all interested in anything I had to offer, so I contented myself with stroking her hair.

‘How’s it been? All showered and rested? You look a bit better, babe, have you had a sleep?’

)I had a bit of a doze. Charlie’s been awake most of the time. Don’t think I’m going to sleep properly again for twenty years or so.

‘You and me both, in it together though. Except for the breastfeeding, obviously.’

;Amy, I think I’ll go now. I’ve had a lovely time with you and Charlie this afternoon. I’ll give you a call tomorrow, if I may.

)Call anytime, Mum. Come and see us anytime. You don’t have to ask.

;Alright, thank you.

She stood up, kissed Amy, and left.

‘Wow, two visits in one day. Had she been here long?’

)About half an hour.

‘Did I scare her off?’

)I don’t think so, hon. Whatever you said to her earlier, it did the trick. Things feel better somehow. Thanks Dec. I know you don’t really get on with her, but I think she’s warming up to you.

‘It was Charlie that did it, I just pointed her in the right direction.’

)Well, thanks for pointing. She said she talked to Dad, told him she was coming and he wasn’t stopping her.

‘Wow. Big step. Is she OK?’

)I think so.

‘Think he’ll be in touch?’

)Who knows. Have to wait and see. What have you been up to? Did you go home?

‘Yeah, had a shower, got changed, picked you up some chocolate buttons, got Charlie some clothes.’

)Oh, what did you bring? The ones we packed were too big, she’s completely swamped.

I handed her the bag, and she rummaged in it, pulling out a babygro.

)Oh, well done you, I’d completely forgotten about this one – it’s perfect. Nico and Lis brought loads of lovely stuff, I opened it after you’d all gone, but it’s all a bit big too. They put that little pair of shoes in though, do you remember, when they Skyped? They just fit, they’re so cute. I’ll show you later. You said you had dinner at Jay’s?

‘Yeah, Beth thought I might be lonely. She was right, it was weird being at home without you both. So we made Sunday dinner, all together like we used to, had a bit of a laugh. Matt turned up as well, he wanted a talk – he’s having a bit of a hard time.’

)Oh no. How come?

‘Well … I can’t say too much, you know how he gets if he finds out you’ve talked about him. But I guess I can say it’s about Julia. Might be all about to go belly up. Have to wait and see.’

)Poor Matt. He doesn’t do himself any favours.

‘No. Hopefully he’ll let me know later how things are.’

)Oh, well done, Charlie, is that all finished? Let’s have a huge burp from you then, lady.

‘It must be about the only time girls are actively encouraged to belch. Want me to do it? Good excuse for a cuddle, it’s been hours.’

)Okay, then, here’s a muslin for your shoulder.

‘A what?’

)It’s to soak up the sick.

‘There’s going to be sick?’

)Not guaranteed, but likely.

‘How much sick can there be, she’s only tiny.’

)You’d be surprised, hon. Still want to do it?

‘Of course, I want to do it all. Charlie, you and I need some stern words, though. No vomming on my shoulder. End of.’

)Here you go then. Ready for Daddy, gorgeous? Oh, what, Dec, what is it?

I had filled up with tears, as it caught me unawares.

‘I’m her Daddy, aren’t I?’

I hadn’t had a daddy of my own for a long time, but now I was someone’s Daddy, it felt like a broken bit of me just got fixed.

)Yes, you are. Her one and only. Oh Dec, you are completely adorable. Come on, hon, get ready to burp.

I quickly wiped my eyes and held Charlie over my shoulder, jiggling, patting and rubbing as I was instructed. Eventually it had the desired effect, and I moved her down into my arms, where she fell asleep, amazing blue eyes moving beneath tiny eyelids as she dreamed huge dreams. Amy moved her chair close to mine, and cuddled up as close as she could.

)There’s something about a tiny baby in the arms of a muscly man, makes me go weak at the knees.

‘I’d better carry on cuddling then.’

)You better had.

Julia

I got into my car and started to drive, but quickly realised that not only could I not really see where I was going, I was not in any fit state to be driving anywhere. I pulled over and abandoned my car in a side street, then started walking. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going, but suddenly, with a lurch of recognition, found myself outside the gates to the church, the one with the hidden outdoor room in the graveyard. I stumbled across the cemetery and found my way into the hideaway, where John and Roberta Chartham were crumbled into dust beneath the cold slabs. I curled up on the stone bench, ignoring its hardness and grime, and sobbed.

How could it all be so right one minute and so wrong the next? I tried to think back – had there been any signs, any at all, that Matt thought differently to how I believed he did? I couldn’t think of a single one. How could someone not know something so fundamental about themselves? All that talk, all the times we’d laughed about the fuss they were all making, the things we’d said to each other, our little club of two: united against babies and children – it made a fool of me.

Eventually my tears subsided, and I lay still on the bench, hearing the muted noises around me of the traffic on the High Street, a few birds chirping, planes overhead, wind rustling leaves. I was numb, but I needed to act. I must have grabbed my bag when I left my car, and I found my phone in it. There were a number of missed calls and texts from Matt, but I ignored them and dialled Evie.

‘Hi Jules.’

‘… Ev …’

I could hardly speak, and my throat closed up as I said her name. She knew instantly something was wrong.

‘What is it? Where are you?’

‘… Matt … he’s … he …’

‘What’s he done? That bastard, are you there? I’ll come over and –’

‘No! I’m not at home.’

‘Where are you then?’

‘It’s difficult to explain.’

‘Tell me Jules. What’s he done?’

‘N … nothing. Not like you think. Oh God Ev, I’ve been such an idiot.’

‘I’m coming to get you. Where are you?’

She was never going to find the hideaway, but I gave her the location of the church, and she said she was coming straight over. I had a little while to compose myself, so I found a tissue and wiped my face, then tried to run my fingers through my hair. It was cold and I didn’t have a jacket with me, but there wasn’t much I could do about that. I made my way to the gate of the cemetery and a few minutes later, Evie’s car pulled up outside. I got in and put my seatbelt on, then I started crying again, before I could say a word to her. She patted my arm, then drove off.

Matt

I stood where I was for a long time, staring at the door as if she was going to come back and help me clear up or something, as if she’d just dropped a plate. My head was spinning with it all, and a drop of blood trickled down my face from where the keys had hit me.

I slowly surveyed the mess: coffee splattered up the wall, gouges in the plaster, broken glass and crockery everywhere. All of it screaming ‘I hate you’ at me. Jules hadn’t said that, but she hadn’t needed to. I thought about her driving away in the state she was in, and tried to call her, but her phone went to voicemail.

I couldn’t stay there, in my newly trashed flat, in my newly trashed state. I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I was worried about Jules, so I picked up my car keys and went out. I think, to start with, I was looking for her, maybe worrying that I’d find her in a pile of twisted metal, but my brain stopped working after a while, and I drove around aimlessly, not paying attention to road signs or traffic lights. How I managed not to crash the car, I don’t know.

I drove to a supermarket and sat staring at the almost empty car park, everything whirling around in my head. Most of it was formless thoughts, splashes of self-loathing, wrenches of regret. I had no plan, and it was dark, and I started to get cold.

Dec

We passed a large part of the rest of the afternoon looking at Charlie, watching everything she did as if no baby had ever fed, burped, opened or shut her eyes or waved a tiny hand before.

I replied to texts and messages from friends and team mates, took a ton more pictures, sent some from my phone to Beth, Lis and Rose, avoiding Matt. Wondered how he was doing, and if he’d plucked up the courage to talk to Julia.

Beth and Rose texted back, gushing about the pictures, asking when they could come for another visit. After consulting with Amy, we agreed to try to stagger them; Amy had found the morning’s gathering a bit overwhelming, and we thought a couple of people at a time might be more manageable, especially as some of Amy’s friends were coming as well.

Julia

I was still crying when I sat down on Evie’s old, comfortable, smelly leather sofa and she pushed a glass of wine into my hand. I looked up at her, trying to wipe my eyes and pull myself together as she sat down and put an arm round my shoulders.

‘It’s alright, Jules, have a good weep, get it out of your system. Then tell me.’

Eventually I sniffed to a halt, and I blew my nose noisily on a tissue. I hadn’t cried for a long time, and it was making me feel sick.

‘It’s alright, I think I can speak now.’

‘Well take your time, my lovely. What’s the bastard done? It’s only five minutes ago you were telling me how perfect he is.’

‘I know. I think … maybe that’s made it worse. He hasn’t done anything, nothing like you might have expected from him. He told me … when I got home, he was waiting to talk to me, he looked awful, like he was ill or something. I thought his MS was back … oh shit … I shouldn’t have …’

‘Jules, slow down, my lovely, deep breaths. You’re not making any sense. Matt’s got MS?’

‘No one knows. I shouldn’t have said anything. You can’t tell anyone.’

‘Who am I going to tell? OK, I’m not sure he deserves any loyalty but I suppose people’s medical information is their own. Is that what he wanted to tell you?’

‘No. I thought he was going to tell me it had come back. But that wasn’t it. He rambled on for a bit, trying to say it, then just came out with it. He wants children.’

‘What?’

‘A family, the whole thing. His friend’s just had a baby, he went to see them this morning, and came back needing parenthood. I just don’t get it. We’ve talked about it so much, laughed about people and their babies, made jokes about his family and their obsession with children and large get-togethers. How can he change so much in so little time?’

‘Oh Jules. It’s a bit of a no-no for you, isn’t it.’

I nodded.

‘I can’t do it. I won’t do it. He knows that. I think he knew it would be the end, he must have just wanted it more than he wants us.’

As I realised this, I started to cry again.

‘Oh Jules. He’s broken your heart. I know you said you don’t love him, but –’

‘I don’t. He doesn’t love me, it’s not how either of us do things.’

‘But honestly, I don’t think you’d be this upset if you didn’t. You’re so practical, you’ve walked away before when things were turning out differently than you wanted, and hardly batted an eyelid. I think he might have slipped in under your radar.’

‘I don’t believe in love.’

Evie smiled to herself, trying to hide it.

‘Oh my lovely, just because you don’t believe in it doesn’t mean it isn’t going to sneak up on you when you’re not looking. You moved in with him. You changed him. You’re breaking your heart over him. He’s not worth it, but I think you need to be honest with yourself about it.’

I stayed silent. I wasn’t going to argue with Evie, who was a lost cause when it came to romance. Love was something invented by people, to give them a reason to do ridiculous things. I really, really liked Matt. In a way he was a best friend, someone I’d thought I was so compatible with.

‘OK then Jules, I can see we’re not going to have this particular discussion, and I think you need more wine rather than more talk.’

She got up and poured a glass as she was talking.

‘You’re staying here tonight, then we can think about what you need to do, when you’re feeling more up to it.’

‘I haven’t got any of my stuff, no clothes, no toothbrush.’

‘Do you want me to go and fetch something?’

I thought about it. I couldn’t bear to think about Evie going to the apartment and confronting Matt. I shook my head.

‘OK, my clothes might be a bit big, but you can just borrow my stuff until we’ve thought about what to do.’

My phone rang again, Matt’s ringtone. I ignored it, and turned the phone to silent, so I wouldn’t have to know every time he tried to call me.

‘Jules, can I just ask you one thing? It’s a tricky one, you don’t have to answer me, but maybe just think about it. Are you absolutely one hundred per cent sure that you couldn’t do what Matt wants and have a family with him? Hold on –’

Evie had seen the look on my face.

‘– I’m only asking because you need to be sure, so you don’t regret it later. I know you know your own mind, more so than anyone else, but just please, be so, so sure before you do anything final.’

I understood what she was saying, but I was sure, I had always been sure, I would always be sure. To me, a baby would completely ruin my life. I knew it with the same certainty that some women knew a baby would make their life complete. If that was what Matt wanted, we were heading in different directions, and regardless of whether we ended it now or limped along for another few months or years trying to ignore it, we would eventually go our separate ways. This resolved itself in my mind with a clarity that was almost painful as I considered Evie’s words.

‘Ev, I understand what you’re saying, but I’m sure. It’s over. It can’t ever work, and it’s better to end it now. It just hurts because I invested so much in it, I got carried away, I was enjoying myself. I don’t know why I let him get to me.’

And so I started to rebuild my icy fortress around me, shoring up my defences to make sure nobody ever got in again and hurt me the way Matt had. Evie noticed the change in me.

‘Oh Jules, don’t go there, let yourself be sad before you lock it all away.’

‘I don’t need to be sad, I need to be sorted. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow, I’ll have to face him, I need to think about what I’m going to do now. I haven’t got anywhere to live for a start.’

‘Stay here as long as you need, my lovely, but Jules, I really don’t think you should go to work. You need some time to get over this, even a day or two just to recover.’

‘No, I need to get back to normal. Thanks, though, I would appreciate your spare room for a few days.’

‘Consider it done. Wine and chat on tap for as long as you need.’

I smiled at her and took a deep, shuddering breath.

‘How about trashy TV, dinner, a bath and an early night?’

‘Thanks, Ev, it sounds perfect.’

She turned her television on, and I sat blankly in front of banality while my head whirred away. I hardly noticed when she put a plate of food in front of me, and didn’t eat much of it.

Matt

I started the car up and drove, out of the city and onto the motorway, putting my foot down and turning the music up, trying to shake myself out of the trance I seemed to be in, but it didn’t work, and I soon realised I wasn’t safe driving at speed on a busy road, so I turned round and headed back. But not home, I couldn’t face being there, and after a while, I was just driving in circles, unable to find somewhere else to go.

Dec

Visiting time finished at eight in the evening, and I was going to have to go home then too, although I would be coming back first thing to take them both home, something I couldn’t wait for – my family all together in our home.

I wasn’t really looking forward to spending the night in our empty flat, but was starting to feel the effects of my all-nighter, and suspected I’d sleep pretty much straight through. The same could not be said for Amy – Charlie had been so good in the morning, passed from person to person without a murmur, but she’d been a bit fretful this afternoon; who knew if it would continue. We were both going to have to get used to snatching sleep when we could and I guiltily anticipated my last peaceful night for some time.

The afternoon and evening wore on in a haze of Charlie. Beth and Rose and Amy’s friends came, cooed, went. Amy ate and fed. We both dozed a bit. I sat and adored both of them when I was awake.

Matt

I don’t remember where I went, but I kept passing the hospital, and a few hours and half a tank of diesel later, I pulled into the car park to the maternity unit. Dec and Amy would be there with Charlie, and they had something I wanted. I just … oh I don’t know. If I’d had a brain cell left I wouldn’t have gone there, not on that day, when they should just be getting on with being happy, but the part of me that had responded to Charlie that morning was the part of me that dragged me in there, no clear thought about it. As soon as I got there, I realised I shouldn’t have gone, but it was too late, Dec had seen the state I was in, and there I was, intruding on their time.

Dec

I was just beginning to think about getting ready to start to prepare to consider saying goodbye for the night, when the door opened. It was Matt. He looked terrible – pale and haggard. His eyes were red and watery, as if he had been crying. He had a cut and a bruise on his cheek.

‘Shit, Matt. What the fuck’s happened? Come in, sit down.’

}No, I don’t want to intrude. I just … fuck it, I’m sorry, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here.

He turned round and walked out, but I ran after him. Grabbed his arm, turned him round, started to walk back towards the room, where I could take care of him.

‘Matt, come back, sit down. You look fucking awful. Shit, you’re shaking.’

Looking dazed, Matt let me lead him back to the room, where Amy was sitting in one of the chairs, holding Charlie. I sat Matt down in the other chair and perched on the edge of the bed, facing him. As he leaned forwards and put his face in his hands, a few sobs escaped from him. He rubbed his face with his hands and looked up.

}Amy, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come. I’ve just been driving round and round, for hours, ended up here. Sorry.

)Whatever’s happened?

}Well I guess Dec’s told you about our heart to heart this afternoon?

)He didn’t tell me much, just said he thought something was up with you and Julia.

Matt looked at me, more tears in his eyes.

}You are the soul of discretion. Did you say anything to Jay or Beth?

‘Not a lot. Think you should tell them, though. They know something’s wrong and they’re worried.’

Matt shook his head, although it was at himself, not at what I had said.

}Don’t deserve you, mate.

‘Stop that now. I take it things didn’t go well with Julia?’

}You could say that. She’s gone, goes without saying really. Called me all the names under the sun, and I know a fair few. Don’t blame her at all, I’d have done the same in her position. Fuck, what a mess. I’m a mess, a complete fuck up.

Amy was looking confused, concerned, upset. She raised her eyebrows at me, put a hand on Matt’s arm.

}Sorry, Amy, you’re probably wondering what the fuck I’m rambling on about, if Dec hasn’t told you anything. I … Jules and me just … when I …

More tears rolled down his face. He looked completely miserable, and couldn’t find the words to explain what had happened.

‘Matt, visiting hours are nearly over. Why don’t you come home with me, tell me about it properly?’

Matt looked up, grateful. He nodded. Wiped his eyes.

}Thanks, Dec. That’d be great. You sure? Is there a bathroom round here? Need to wash my face. Fill Amy in, mate.

I sent him down the corridor to the bathroom. Amy looked at me wide-eyed.

)I’ve never seen him like that. Is he going to be OK?

‘I hope so. He does have his dark times. Hope this doesn’t set him off.’

)I’m really worried about him. What’s happened?

I knew I didn’t have long before Matt got back from the bathroom, so I was going to have to be quick if I was going to give Amy enough information to stop her worrying.

‘OK, headlines. Matt had some kind of light bulb moment seeing Charlie this morning – realised he wants a family. Him and Julia just moved in together, without telling any of us.

)Really? A bit more than sleepovers then.

‘Apparently they were more serious than we thought. But Julia very definitely does not want children, and he’s just told her he does. Didn’t go well by the looks of it.’

)Matt wants children?

‘So he says.’

)Well.

‘I know.’

)What do you think happened to his face? You don’t think Julia did it?

‘I can’t imagine it, but maybe. I’ll try to get him to tell me later.’

)Oh poor Matt. No wonder he’s in bits.

‘Yeah, it’s tough on him. I’ll take him back to our place, get him to eat something, get him to talk. Might get him to stay the night. Oh babe, don’t look so worried. He’ll sort it out.’

My phone rang. I fished it out of my pocket. Jay.

‘Hey.’

łDec, do you know where Matty is? We can’t reach him, he’s not answering his home phone or his mobile.

‘He’s here, with me and Amy.’

Jay breathed out, relieved.

łJesus, we were really worried. Is he OK?

‘Not really, not at the moment.’

łTell me what’s going on. Beth said you wouldn’t tell her anything when she was there.

‘I’ll get him to ring you. He’s coming back to ours in a bit. I’ll get him to ring, I promise.’

łWhy won’t you say? Is it something bad?

‘It’s something that should come from him, not me. You know that, Jay. He’ll go mad if I tell you his shit, he’ll go off on one and then I won’t be able to get him to talk to me about it. I’ll get him to ring you. I’m with him. He’ll be OK. Trust me.’

I hated this feeling of being in the middle of Jay and Matt. A long time ago I’d promised Jay I’d always talk to him, and I’d stuck to that for me – it had become my way of life. But the same wasn’t true of Matt, who hated people knowing things about him that he hadn’t told them, and this wasn’t mine to tell. It created a tension that pulled me from both sides.

łJesus, I’d forgotten what a stubborn fucking bastard you can be.

‘You know I’d tell you if there was something you needed to know, right?’

łOh I suppose so. I’ll just have to wait then. Make sure he rings.

‘I will.’

łAre you sure you’re OK to do this today?

‘It’s fine, no worries.’

As I disconnected, Matt came back into the room. I handed him my car keys.

‘Go and wait in the car, it’s right by the door. You can pick yours up tomorrow, I don’t think you should be driving. I’ll be there in a minute.’

}OK. Thanks. Amy, sorry again to barge in. Can I just have a quick look at Charlie?

)Here, have a cuddle, looks like you need it.

Amy passed Charlie over to Matt. He held my daughter close and looked into her eyes, while I looked at my girlfriend and silently thanked her for being so amazing with my fuck-up of a best friend.

}Hey, beautiful. It’s your old Uncle Matty here. You have no idea how much trouble you’ve caused me so far in your short life. Keep it up, girl, keep me on my toes.

Charlie stretched out a hand, and Matt put his finger inside the curl of her palm. She clasped his finger; he gasped. Eyes filled again.

}You are one seriously hot babe, Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright.

He kissed her forehead, started to hand her back to Amy.

‘Hold on, the old man needs to say goodnight.’

I took Charlie from Matt.

}I’ll be in the car, then. Bye Amy. Sorry.

)Don’t be daft, Matt. See you soon.

He walked from the room as I looked at Amy.

‘Thanks for being so great, I’m sure that’s the last thing you needed.’

)Dec, don’t be silly. He never asks for help. When he does, we have to be there for him.

‘Thanks, babe, you’re amazing. Hey, Charlie, have a good sleep for Mummy, won’t you. She likes breakfasts in beds, so if you could just sort that as well, you’d make her very happy.’

)You silly sod. Give her here, give me a big kiss, and go home. Don’t leave Matt in the car. Come and get me tomorrow. Don’t forget.

I did as I was told, lingering as long as I could over kisses and cuddles. It wasn’t quite as hard to leave this time, but it was close. I blew kisses from the door, then jogged down the corridor to the main entrance and the car. Matt was in the passenger seat, hunched over, looking sad. I got in, started the car and drove us home.

It still felt weird being at home without them. Like everything was on hold, waiting.

I installed Matt on the sofa, opened him a beer and made myself a strong coffee. I hadn’t had any proper sleep since yesterday morning, and I was starting to flag, although luckily there was no training tomorrow, just match reviews, and the individual ones would be first, for players involved in the game. I could go in later for the team review and get up to speed with Saturday’s game, then spend the rest of the day with Amy and Charlie.

Matt sat staring at the floor, holding the bottle of beer but not drinking it. I needed to get him talking, before he clammed up.

‘Do you want to talk about it, or do you want me to leave you alone?’

He looked up.

}Fuck me, Dec, your technique’s changed. I didn’t used to get a choice.

‘I didn’t mean I was going to sod off and leave you to it, you don’t get off that lightly. I meant, I suppose, take your time. Maybe I should have said, do you want to talk about it now or in a bit? That’s your choice.’

}What’s the point in waiting? It’s not going to get any better, is it. I’d rather just ignore it all and go to bed for a few months, but I don’t suppose that would be permitted by all and sundry. Saint bloody Declan fucking Summers would be there nagging me every time I closed my fucking eyes.

‘You said it. You know this shit doesn’t work, Matt. You’re not scaring me off, or pissing me off, or offending me, none of that will work, so just give up and tell me about it.’

}Sorry. Old habits. Shit, I’m such a fucking idiot, how did I get myself in this mess? I should have known it would end up completely fucked up. I should just stay away from people, everything I touch turns to shit.

‘Blah blah everyone’s too good to me, blah blah I don’t deserve it, blah blah why doesn’t everyone do me a favour and leave me to it blah blah blah.’

Matt looked at me, eyes narrowed. This was a well-trodden path between us, and he needed to know that he could count on the familiarity of it all, but I didn’t have the time or the energy to do it the long way. I was going to be asleep before too long, even though Matt could usually go all night.

‘Just saving you some time, you were winding yourself up to it. OK, we both know the routine, you feel sorry for yourself, you talk a load of bollocks, I tell you it’s a load of bollocks, I persuade you you’re actually a good bloke and we all love you. Can we just agree that’s how it was going to go, and skip to the end, where you actually tell me all about it? I’m too tired to fuck about.’

Matt continued to look at me, a slightly stunned look on his face.

}Fair enough. Bloody hell, Dec, what is this, speed counselling?

‘I’m not your counsellor, I’m your mate. You’re having a shit time and I’m trying to help you. Drink your beer, it’ll help you relax and talk to me.’

He took several gulps, possibly shocked into doing what he was told without arguing about it for one of the first times in his life.

}So when you said do you want to talk about it now or in a bit, you really meant now or … now?

‘I guess I did. Sorry I wasn’t more specific.’

}Where do you want me to start?

‘That’s up to you, it’s your shit.’

}Oh, I have some choice left then.

I was trying to make him fight me. If Matt got quiet and maudlin, I’d never get anything out of him. If I kept his attention by mixing things up a bit, and kept him talking, eventually he’d say whatever it was he needed to say.

‘As long as you talk. Tell me what happened with Julia?’

I thought I’d miscalculated for a minute, jumped in too soon. His face closed up, and he was silent for a while. Then he took a deep breath and started talking.

Matt

So I told him the sorry tale, what I could recall with any clarity. Dec listened without speaking, nodding, sipping his water, as I recounted how I’d waited, talked myself in and out of facing Jules, what had happened when she got home and I blurted it all out, how she trashed the place like I’d trashed her life, and how I’d driven around in some kind of fugue state until I’d rocked up to the Summers-Wright birthing suite to spoil their evening. As I talked I felt detached from it all, as if I had to maintain some distance from the content of the words I was saying to avoid the emotion they held, but the enormity of it all eventually forced its way through.

‘I feel like I’m going mad. I keep thinking about it, my head feels like it’s twice its normal size with all the weird shit that’s inside. I’ve really fucked up, haven’t I?

‘Matt, you told her the truth. Really fucking up would have been to carry on pretending, not saying anything. It took a lot of guts to tell her.’

}But she’s right, I’ve lied to her, ruined a year of her life –

‘Whoa, hold, on, what was ruined about it? You’ve both enjoyed being together, it doesn’t sound to me like she was on some search for the guy of her dreams to settle down with. She’s bound to say something like that, she’s hurt and she wants to hurt you back. You could just look at it like, we had a good time, it didn’t work out, it’s time to move on. Maybe the timing wasn’t perfect. And you haven’t really lied to her, you said yourself you’ve only just worked it out. You told her practically straight away.’

}But what’s to stop me from doing it again with someone else? I’ve been a right bastard over the years, haven’t I? Shit, I’ve just done to her what I’ve been terrified of some woman doing to me all this time. I have no clue what’s going on in my head. That shit with Carrie must have fucked with me even more than I thought.

Dec

It was the second time today that Matt had mentioned Carrie, his ex-girlfriend from Stafford who had left him when he got MS, lied to his friends about it and stolen all his possessions. He never talked about her. Ever. It felt like she was spilling into his life; I didn’t know her, had never talked to Matt about her, and didn’t know how to begin helping him with this. But I knew someone who did.

‘You know what, when the past starts interfering with the present, it might be time to get some proper help.’

Matt was silent for a moment, frowning.

}What, you mean Adam type proper help?

‘That’s what I mean. Someone who can help you sort through it all, work out why you keep doing stuff, how to stop yourself. I can’t do it, Jay can’t do it, we can only be here to pick you up afterwards. And we will, as often as you need it. But it won’t stop until you really sort it out.’

Matt shook his head.

}Don’t think I could, all that telling some stranger my deep dark secrets. It’s alright for you, you’re OK now, I can hardly remember what a fucking nutter you were back when I used to call you a fucking nutter and almost mean it.

‘I still see Adam.’

Matt looked up in surprise.

}Really? But you’re so … sorted.

I nodded.

‘Every few months. I need it. Some stuff doesn’t go away, and especially after that time on the beach, I need to make sure I keep myself OK. It really isn’t like you think. You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to, but you end up wanting to. And it’s not all raking up the past. A lot of it, especially now, for me, is about the present and the future.

}I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s for me. I can’t really do all the getting emotional stuff. Crying and shit. I mean, yeah, says the arse who’s been a gibbering wreck all evening, but that’s with you, you’re my mate and my family, you’ve pretty much been there, seen it all, done it all, you know me, you get it. But not someone I don’t know.

‘It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s just talking. Yeah, things can get emotional, but it all stays in the room. Instead of wandering around feeling out of control, worrying you’re going to lose it any second, you find ways to deal with it.’

}I don’t know, Dec. I don’t think so.

‘Up to you. Just a thought. Do you want a sandwich? I’m starving.’

}Wow, way to change the subject, mate. Actually, a sandwich sounds bloody marvellous. I have no clue what the time is, I haven’t eaten since Jay’s.

‘Talking of which, Jay has been trying to call you. I said you’d ring him, let him know what’s going on. They’re really worried about you.’

}Oh shit, I’d better call him before he goes all big brother on me. I turned my phone off.

I went into the kitchen to make some sandwiches, as well as to give Matt a bit of space. I could hear him talking to Jay, explaining briefly what had happened. He left a lot out, but probably said enough to stop Jay and Beth worrying all night. Then I heard him make another call.

Julia

A while later, Evie ran me a bath, handed me a spare towel and pointed out the guest toiletries, then closed the door behind her as she left me to it. Soaking in the hot bubbles, I found myself wondering what Matt was doing, then felt my rising hurt and anger as I imagined a Scott family gathering, Matt holding the new baby, tears of happiness in his eyes. I realised I was being melodramatic, and quickly reined in my thoughts, trying to relax instead. It was nearly impossible; everything I thought about brought me back to Matt, what we’d had, what we suddenly no longer had, things he’d said, things we’d done together, things we’d laughed about, places we’d been to. It all played over in my head and gave me no peace, mocking me. I lay in the bath for as long as I could, trying to collect my thoughts, but eventually I needed to act. I got out, dried myself and dressed, and rejoined Evie in the lounge.

‘Good soak?’

‘Yes thank you. Very cleansing.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Purposeful. I need to do something, I’m just not sure what.’

‘Don’t do anything hasty.’

‘No.’

To try to focus my mind, I took my phone out of my bag, to look up flats for rent on the internet. The screen was silently announcing another call from Matt. I pressed the button. Maybe I could just talk to him and tell him to stop.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey Jules, it’s me.’

Hearing his voice nearly undid all the careful shoring of defences I’d been constructing over the last few hours. I needed to be strong.

‘I don’t want to talk to you.’

‘Yeah, I know, no please wait, just … I just wanted to check you’re OK.’

‘You’ve just turned my life upside down, you don’t really think I’d be OK, do you?’

‘No, I don’t … I was worried about you driving off like that.’

‘You no longer have the right to worry about me.’

‘No, fuck, I know I don’t … where are you?’

‘Or the right to know where I am.’

‘OK, no, fair enough … I’m so sorry, Jules, I –’

‘Just fuck off, Matt.’

I disconnected as he started to apologise, unable to face hearing either an apology or an explanation. If I listened to his voice for too much longer I would remember how it felt when he whispered in my ear, and then I would remember how it felt when he kissed my neck, and then I would remember how it was to be in his arms, to be in his bed, to be in his life, and then I would remember that it was all gone. So I disconnected before that happened and made myself think about what I had to do next.

Dec

He started crying. I went back into the living room, put the sandwiches and another beer on the table.

‘Is she OK?’

Matt nodded, sniffed, wiped his eyes.

}Well, OK as in didn’t crash her car. She told me to fuck off. She wouldn’t tell me where she was, hung up on me. Don’t know what else I expected. Fuck, it’s hard, when you know someone so well, and one day you’re with them and the next you’ve fucked it all up and you’re not. I can’t get my head round it. I can’t just bloody stop caring about her.

‘Give yourself time to sort it all out in your head. It’s been a shit day for you. You need time to get it all straight. It doesn’t hurt to think about stuff, just as long as you keep some perspective and don’t blame yourself for everything. Eat your sandwich, it took me bloody ages to make that.’

}Yeah, I can see how pulling some ham out of a plastic packet and bunging it between two slices of bread would stretch your culinary skills. Haven’t you got any mustard, or pickle, or anything?

I gestured to the kitchen; I had known that a slice of ham in some bread would stimulate Matt’s need to create a sandwich masterpiece.

‘Be my guest. You know I’m useless at all that. I can do ham and bread. Might chuck in a bit of buttery spread if you’re lucky. That’s your lot.’

Matt wandered into the kitchen, taking the sandwiches with him. I heard him opening cupboards, getting things out of the fridge. My phone pinged in my pocket, and I fished it out smiling to myself as I saw it was a text from Amy, with a picture of Charlie looking straight at the camera.

Amy: =Hi Daddy n Unca Matty. I can’t wait 2 come home. I hope the sofa doesn’t smell of Unca Matty’s socks. Love Charlie xx

Me: =Hi Charlie, I’m impressed with yr txt skills. Can’t promise abt the sofa, u know Unca Matty. Look fwd 2 showing u yr home 2moro. I ❤ u n Mummy so much, lovely girl. Daddy xx

I took the phone into the kitchen to show Matt the text. He seemed to have taken every jar and bottle we possessed out of the cupboards and fridge, and was piling their contents precariously between two slices of bread.

‘Holy shit, Matt, are you making a sandwich or a bloody work of art?’

}I think I might have got carried away. You’ve got some good stuff in your cupboards, shame most of it hasn’t seen the light of day for several centuries. All this stuff is months out of date. And it’s all been opened and hardly used.

He gestured to several bottles and jars.

‘Not my province, Amy organises the shopping and the cooking. Yell at her.’

}I think you might be getting a little bit more involved in the domestic arrangements from now on, mate.

‘You could be right. Hey, we’ve had a text.’

I showed Matt the picture.

}Ha ha, bloody cheeky brat, how does Charlie know about my socks?

‘Mate, everyone knows about your socks. Day old babies, creatures a hundred miles under the sea, aliens from planets twenty million light years away. They all know about your socks. They show up on intergalactic hazard warnings.’

}Do you want to eat this sandwich, or would you like it shoved up your arse?

Julia

‘Evie, do you know anyone with a van?’

‘Er … I think Julian’s brother might have a van. What are you thinking?’

‘I want to go and get my things tomorrow, move it all out of there and into the storage unit.’

‘Oh Jules, that’s a big thing, take some time.’

‘No. I want to get it over with, have it all done, finished. Can you call him?’

So Evie called Julian’s brother, who had a van and who was willing to help me move all my things out of Matt’s flat and into storage. He could do it tomorrow morning. I called Phil and told him I needed to take some personal time tomorrow, but should be in by lunchtime. He made some comment about ‘trouble in paradise’ that made me wonder if Matt had already contacted him, but I didn’t want to discuss it, so left it. As I disconnected from Phil, I remembered that I no longer had the keys to the apartment, as I had thrown them at Matt. I was going to have to call him. I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath and called.

‘Jules?’

He sounded hopeful and wary.

‘I want to come and get my things tomorrow morning.’

There was a long silence.

‘Oh, OK.’

‘I’ve arranged for a van to be there before work tomorrow.’

‘Yeah, that’s fine.’

He sounded like he was trying to be distant and indifferent, but it wasn’t really working, as his voice was trembling.

‘I can’t get in, I haven’t got my keys.’

‘No, I remember …’

There was another pause.

‘… I’m not working tomorrow, I can let you in.’

‘I’d rather you weren’t there while I am.’

There was a sigh.

‘No, that’s fine, I won’t hang around.’

‘I’ll leave a cheque for the rent I owe.’

Another sigh, while he tried to decide whether to argue about it or not.

‘OK, if that’s what you want. Jules, are you OK?’

I disconnected. I didn’t want to talk to him about how I was feeling, I didn’t want him to care about me. He had just ripped my life apart and I wanted to hate him. Wanted to, but couldn’t. I finished a glass of wine with Evie, then went to bed where I stared at the darkness all night until it was time to get up.

66. The end of this chapter

In which truths are explored, revealed, accepted and expressed.

Julia

I was half-expecting Matt to be late back from the hospital; Scott family gatherings often consumed people and it was hard to escape. But to my surprise, he was back just after ten, and we headed off to the retail park. He was quiet, and it seemed his weird mood hadn’t been made any better by his visit. He didn’t give me many details about the new baby, for which I was grateful, but said he had held her, and that Nico and Lisa, who I had met via Skype, had turned up unexpectedly and it had all got a bit crowded and noisy, so he had left.

As we wandered around furniture shops, I sensed Matt’s mind wasn’t really on the task at first, but then he seemed to pull himself together and started paying attention, and then, predictably, messing about.

‘So, how big are we going then?’

‘Well the size of yours is alright.’

‘Yeah, mine’s bloody huge.’

‘It could just do with a bit more support.’

‘So – bloody huge, but not hard enough. A disappointing review all in all.’

‘Behave yourself.’

‘Sorry Jules, just trying to inject some light-heartedness into proceedings. Should we try them out do you think? Would they mind if we jumped up and down?’

‘I think they’d prefer us to just lie down.’

‘Well I don’t know if I can be responsible for my actions if I’ve got you lying next to me in a public place.’

‘I’m sure you’ll find a way to restrain yourself. What about this one? It’s oak, I like the headboard and footboard, and the mattress is in the sale.’

‘Has it got a telly that rises up like a submarine from the bottom end?’

‘I don’t believe it has. I don’t think you’re taking this very seriously.’

‘Sorry. You’re right. Let’s lie down then. Don’t blame me if we don’t get up again.’

Matt’s phone pinged with a text, and he got his phone out. He looked at the screen for a few moments, then showed it to me. It was a video of a tired looking Amy holding a very small baby, waving at the camera. Matt looked entranced and was waiting for my reaction. I didn’t know what to say, and just shrugged.

‘All babies look the same to me. I’m sure she’s adorable.’

He put his phone away, and we carried on.

Dec

Charlie was passed around a few more times, handling it all with great patience, but after a while, a nurse came in, raising her eyebrows at the amount of people in the room.

*OK, I think it’s time for everyone to go home, now. Amy and Charlie need some rest and quiet.

>We are just arriving!

łYou should have been here on time, then, Nico. Only yourself to blame.

When everyone started to stand up, I sat in the chair vacated by Nico and Iz.

*You too, Dad.

Suddenly realising this was directed at me, I looked up, startled.

‘What?’

*Mum and baby time now, just for a few hours, let her recuperate a bit.

‘But – I – no! Ames?’

)Actually, Dec, it might be a good idea to go home, get a shower, you could bring me back some chocolate buttons later?

‘But I can get you chocolate buttons from the shop. And I don’t need a bloody shower.’

łJesus, he’s worse than Cal used to be ‘oh but’.

Beth put her hand on my shoulder.

_Dec, sweetheart, I think what Amy’s trying to say, without hurting your feelings, is, maybe she could do with some time on her own where she doesn’t have to worry about how tired you are, whether you’ve had your lunch and how much you might be starting to smell.

Amy looked at Beth gratefully, but I felt like I’d been punched. I had envisaged spending the whole day with my girls.

)Sorry, hon, just a bit of down time, yeah? I need a shower myself, some sleep if I can. Charlie could do with another feed and a nap, she’s had a busy morning. Come back this afternoon, we’re not going anywhere. Can’t walk far with these stitches anyway.

I just sat and looked at them, on the verge of tears. I heard Jay and Beth quietly leave the room, Cal and Iz in their wake. Carol and Rose left too, Rose giving me a pat on the way. Nico squeezed my arm and Lis kissed me on the cheek. I hardly noticed them all go, and carried on looking at Amy. Looking at her properly, instead of through my love filter. She always looked beautiful to me, but she also looked tired, pale, wiped out. I pulled myself together.

‘I’m going to miss you. Fuck, Amy, I can’t believe how much I’m going to miss you both.’

)Take a photo, some video on your phone. You can send it to Mum, and you can look at us till later.

It was better than nothing, so I took my phone out, took pictures of Charlie, pictures of Amy, pictures of Charlie and Amy, video of Amy holding Charlie and waving, video of close-ups of Charlie looking at the camera. I hoped it was enough to last until I came back. I leaned over and held them. Kissed Amy, gave Charlie a gentle kiss on the forehead. Her skin was so soft, it felt like it might melt.

‘Can I just hold her before I go?’

)Oh Dec, of course.

I picked Charlie up and held her close, looking into her eyes.

‘I’ll be back, lovely girl, don’t forget me.’

)Dec, you’re going home for a few hours, not trekking to the Himalayas.

‘It feels like I’m going to be away forever though – a few hours is half her life! You wait till you have to leave her.’

)I’ll see you later, hon. Love you so much.

‘Love you too, babe. Will you marry me?’

)Yes, Dec, as I’ve said the last twenty, fifty, hundred times you’ve asked me, I will marry you.

‘Just checking.’

)Get out of here, before they send security.

I gave Charlie back, stroking her soft cheek and kissing her perfect forehead again.

‘Bye then.’

I backed towards the door, opened it and stepped out. Looked back through the window, almost unable to turn round and walk down the corridor. Blew my family a kiss – with a start followed by a huge grin I realised this was actually my family. Bits of me entwined with bits of Amy to make Charlie. We were tied together forever. It was the first time I’d ever known someone who was part of me, and it felt great. But now I had to leave them, and it felt crappy. I took a deep breath, then turned and ran down the corridor and out the main door before I could change my mind and chain myself to the bed.

Beth was waiting for me by the main entrance. I skidded to a halt, nearly running by her.

‘Sorry, Beth, didn’t see you.’

_Just checking you’re OK, sweetheart. It’s hard the first time, isn’t it?

‘So hard! I feel like I’ve left part of me back there.’

_Well I guess you have, in a way. Dec, it’s totally up to you, but how about coming over for lunch? Nothing special, just if you’d rather not be on your own. We can all do it together, like we used to. Extra helper now, with Iz.

As usual, Beth had seen what I needed before I’d even realised it myself. I was being torn away from my family, so she was offering me some alternative family time. I saw with new eyes what it meant to be called part of a family I hadn’t been born into, and felt doubly loved.

‘Beth, I’d love that. Your roast potatoes would really help. I’ll go home first, though, have the shower that everyone seems to think I need, pick up some stuff to bring in later.’

_Chocolate buttons?

‘Yeah, that kind of vital stuff. You would not believe how important chocolate buttons have been over the last few months. I seriously thought we might cause a global shortage.’

Beth laughed and touched my cheek.

_See you later, then, sweetheart.

She headed over to the car where Jay was waiting, engine going. I waved at them all, then tried to remember where I’d left my car. Eventually found it, parked at a bit of a crazy angle, a parking ticket on the windscreen.

‘Fuck.’

Got in, drove home.

Opening the front door to the flat felt slightly surreal. The last time I had been home, only two of us lived here. Now there were three of us, and everything had changed forever. Nothing had prepared me for how completely different I would feel, less than twenty four hours after leaving here the last time.

I sat on the sofa, pulled my phone out and watched the video of Amy and Charlie over and over. I hunted on my laptop for Diane’s email address, then I sent the photos and video to her, and also texted them to Rose, Beth, Lis and Matt for good measure. I found several packets of chocolate buttons, which I put by the front door to remind me to take them when I left. I went into our bedroom and found some baby clothes. We’d taken some in Amy’s bag when we left, but I just wanted to choose something myself; it made me feel a bit useful. I put the clothes next to the chocolate buttons. I had a shower, changed my clothes, cleaned my teeth, made myself presentable. I didn’t want to stay there any longer on my own, so I picked up the things I’d put aside and headed off to Jay and Beth’s.

It was an old fashioned Scott Sunday lunch, like we used to have when I lived there. We were all in the kitchen, Beth was directing operations, Cal was trying to be grumpy and uncooperative but couldn’t help being diverted by constant teasing from Jay and me. Iz wandered around finding bits of vegetable that had fallen on the floor and handing them to anyone who would take them. Despite the chaos, Beth eventually declared that we were just waiting for everything to finish cooking, and we could all go and sit down for five minutes.

_Unless someone would like to set the table?

łDec’s job.

Jay hurried out in the direction of the living room, closely followed by Cal.

‘Looks like it’s you and me, then, Iz. Help put the knives and forks out, sweetie? Look, here are the forks, can you carry them to the table? Put one on the side of the mat, like this. I’ll do the knives. Do you think we’ll have any pudding?’

/ice cream!

‘Well, there’s always a chance. Shall we put spoons out as well, then, in case there’s ice cream?’

/yes. Mummy have ice cream. Stawby an choccit.

‘Definitely spoons then.’

I turned round to get the spoons, and caught Beth watching us from the doorway. She had a strange smile on her face, and the hint of a tear in her eyes.

‘What?’

_You’re going to be great, that’s all. No, not going to be. Already are.

She turned round and went back into the kitchen.

Matt

We drove to the retail park and wandered around furniture shops, but I couldn’t concentrate on beds, and Jules got annoyed with me for fucking about too much. She was just telling me off for not taking it seriously, which I fully deserved, when I got a text from Dec. He had sent a video clip of Charlie and Amy, and my heart flipped when I saw it, as it brought all those feelings of want right back to the front of my mind. I showed Jules the video, not really knowing what I wanted her to say or do.

I knew she wasn’t into babies – we’d spent enough of the last nine months telling each other how not into babies we both were – so why I was so disappointed when she said, ‘All babies look the same to me. I’m sure she’s adorable.’, I don’t know. I felt like I’d been slapped, though. Charlie had had a profound effect on me, and I wasn’t used to Jules not feeling the same way as me about things.

We decided on a bed, or rather Jules decided and I agreed, having run out of the little enthusiasm I’d had by the time we’d got to the third shop.

Part of my mind was screaming something at me, something I didn’t want to hear, so I shoved it as far away as I could and pretended I wasn’t listening to the voice telling me that if I really wanted a family, if what I’d just become aware of really was what I wanted, I was going to have to face Jules with it. I could feel it bubbling inside me, and when we’d finally ordered the bed, and then Jules had gone off to lunch with her friend Evie, I was on my own, and I had to let it out and do something about it.

What I would usually have done is texted Dec on some pretext and arsed about until he worked out that I needed to talk about something. God forbid I ever actually came out and asked for help. But Dec was inconveniently engaged with the daughter who had caused all this, and I was going to have to rely on the back-up system that was Jay and Beth. I at least had enough insight to recognise that I needed to talk to someone, I just wasn’t relishing it being Beth.

So I got in the car and drove over to my brother’s house, feeling like my head was going to explode. I felt like my whole world had been stood on its end, like everything I thought I knew about myself had been tossed into the air and scattered. I felt anchorless. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted a family, which rather inescapably meant that I wanted children. And Jules didn’t.

I walked up the path to their front door, bracing myself as I rang the bell. Jay pretended to be surprised to see me, but Sunday lunch was always open house, and I often went along uninvited.

‘Matty! What’s this? We weren’t expecting company, I’d better get Beth to put some clothes on.’

‘Ha ha, the day Beth isn’t ready for visitors on a Sunday is the day the world ends. I just fancied a roast dinner. I knew you’d be good for it, you’re so predictable. And Beth always makes too much, I’m saving you wasting it, really.’

‘Good job we’re not having sushi this week then.’

‘That’s the thing about predictability; sushi tends not to be on the menu –’

As I walked into the living room, I saw Dec. I wasn’t sure what he was doing there, I thought he’d still be at the hospital, but I’d never been more relieved to see him.

Julia

Eventually, after I’d got cross with Matt for messing about in the bed shop, we had decided on a bed and a mattress. I got as sensible a decision from Matt as I could, and the whole process was a bit tiring. By the time we got back, I was in two minds as to whether to cancel Evie, but I hadn’t seen her for ages, and I wanted to tell her about moving in with Matt. I knew she wouldn’t tell anyone else, and I was interested in her reaction. She had met Matt a few times, and seemed to quite like him, but I knew she was still reserving judgement based on some of the things she’d heard about him.

Dec

Matt saw me, and a look of surprise and relief flickered across his face. The weird thing he’d had going on that morning was back, if it had ever gone away.

}Dec! Have you deserted them already?

‘No, I got kicked out. Some bad-ass nurse said Amy needed ‘mum and baby time’, whatever that means.’

}Probably means Amy paid them off to get rid of you so she can have Charlie all to herself. They’re bloody devious these women, saying it’s what always happens, they make it up as they go along half the time.

‘I’m beginning to think so. I thought you were doing stuff with Julia today?’

A wild-eyed, wary expression on his face. This was what was causing the weirdness – it was something to do with Julia. Matt was unlikely to talk to me about it while Jay and Beth were around, but he needed to get it out of his system. What he’d been thinking coming here, I didn’t know – he hadn’t known I would be here, and Beth would have noticed his agitation and been too curious for Matt to get away with not saying anything

Matt

I didn’t know how to begin, not here, not with Jay and Beth around. I don’t know why I’d thought I could talk about this with them, there’s no way I could have even started. I hoped I might be able to talk to Dec on my own, but didn’t hold out much hope, not today. Until I got the chance, I was going to have to try to act normally.

‘Just this morning. Free man this afternoon.’

Jay headed off into the kitchen, and I had my chance to at least ask Dec if he had time to talk, if indeed he had a few spare minutes before returning to the bosom of his family.

Dec

Something really wasn’t right. Matt seemed wired, as if he was trying too hard, losing control; I hadn’t seen him like this for a long time. Even Jay had picked up on it, and he raised an eyebrow at me before heading into the kitchen.

‘Well you’ve arrived just in time to avoid all the work, you jammy bastard.’

Matt

‘Good timing is a particular attribute of mine.’

But I didn’t seem to be using it to my advantage right now.

‘Fancy going for a beer after lunch?’

Oh thank fuck, he’d noticed something was up. I don’t know how he did it, but he always knew.

‘Yeah.’

Oh, but he’d be heading off again soon, surely?

‘Unless – when are you going back?’

‘No specific time. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for you to get it off your chest.’

‘Fuck, Dec, you know me too well. Thanks, mate, appreciate it.’

Dec

Matt was quiet through dinner, producing meaningful glances between Jay and Beth.

_Dec, when are you going back to see Amy?

‘A bit later, Matt and I are going for a beer first.’

Relief in their expressions. They knew Matt talked to me without quite as much fuss as if they were trying to crowbar information out of him.

łSounds good, mate. Actually, Beth, how about a trip out? We could go up on the moors, have a bit of a stroll, wrap everyone up.

\oh Dad …

łNo arguing, Cal, it’ll do us good.

Matt

I didn’t say much at dinner, and I could see Jay and Beth looking at each other, in-between the cooing over Charlie. In the end, Dec put Jay out of his misery and told him we were going for a drink. Jay decided a family outing was necessary, which left the house available for soul-baring. I had a fucking awesome family, which I didn’t appreciate often or deeply enough.

Once everyone else had gone, Dec got me a beer and himself a glass of water. I couldn’t let it pass, even though I knew his ‘I’m a professional athlete’ answer.

‘You’re a serious lightweight, Dec. Call yourself a rugby player? You give your sport a bad name.’

‘Ha ha, I have to be careful, it’s all sugar. Might allow myself one later. Maybe even two. Big day.’

‘She is amazing, I got your text.’

Thinking about Jules’ reaction when I showed her the video clip reminded me what I needed to think about, and I felt my face fall.

‘OK, Matt. Let’s do this. Spill.’

I ran my hands through my hair, took a deep breath and looked at Dec wretchedly. I didn’t want to say it, I didn’t want to talk about it, because then I’d have to do something about it, and I kind of knew what that was, but I didn’t want to address it. I looked away. If I wasn’t looking at him it might be easier to say.

‘I’m fucking freaking out.’

‘What, about Charlie?’

What? Maybe he got the wrong idea because I went all silent after I mentioned the video.

‘Fuck, no, mate. No, your text was just … shit, I suppose I should start at the beginning.’

‘It’s a very good place to start.’

Oh he wasn’t seriously quoting The Sound of Music?

‘Yeah, thanks for going all Julie Andrews on me when I’m baring my soul?’

‘Sorry.’

‘Anyway … well, Jules moved in with me last week, and we’ve been –’

Dec

‘Whoa, whoa, hold on, you can’t just slip that in like it’s nothing. Holy shit, Matt. I didn’t know things were that serious with you two.’

No one had known. It was typical of Matt to do something huge like move in with his girlfriend and then act like everyone must have known all along; he did it to try and avoid the inevitable family inquisition that would follow, but never seemed to realise that it just made people more curious about him and what he got up to.

Matt

I’d almost forgotten it was such a big deal. With everything else that had gone on in my head today, I’d managed to lose sight of the fact that Jules and I had this big secret we were keeping from the rest of my family. So now I had to go through all that first. And it wasn’t like it was just the moving in, none of them really knew how much we saw of each other, as I always gave them the brush off when they asked.

‘Yeah, well, that’s just it, I … we … didn’t want this big announcement, family gathering, meal, Beth going all ‘oh it’s so lovely’, Rose icing the wedding cake, Mum being all quietly hopeful, you and Amy rubbing your hands with glee going ‘you’re just like us now’. It’s not like that. I bloody love you all, but sometimes, fucking hell, it’s like you can’t have anything to yourself, it all has to be shared around.’

‘Are we really that bad?’

‘Sometimes. I need my space. Need people to back off.’

‘I know that.’

I’d always had a sneaking respect for Dec’s ability to throw himself into everything that was going on with this bloody family. He’d talk to anyone about anything, I don’t think I ever heard him say ‘none of your business’ or refuse to answer an impertinent question.

‘I don’t know how you do it, everyone knowing everything that’s going on with you. Do you keep anything to yourself?’

‘Not much, I guess, but Matt, I’m coming from a very different place to you. I kept too much to myself for too long, and it nearly destroyed me. It’s all out there now, so if I’m too pigheaded or dumb to see trouble coming, there’s all you lot to tell me. You’ve always had your family, and I’ve slowly added to it, pretty much without asking you. I can really see how it gets too much.’

That wasn’t it. I had never begrudged Dec and his added extras being part of my family. It had always seemed right, like he just belonged with us.

Dec

It sometimes bothered me that, much as I loved this crazy, random family, there were members of it who hadn’t had any choice in the crazy randomness, and might at times have wished that some of the more random bits of it weren’t there.

}Don’t get me wrong, mate, I wouldn’t change it, not any of it, fuck, where would I be without you all? Stuck in some care home, dribbling, most likely. I must sound like an ungrateful bastard. When I was ill, and Jay gave up his job to come and look after me, that was humbling. You realise what you’ve got. That’s part of what I’m freaking out about.

So that was reassuring – Matt wasn’t specifically freaking about the crazy random family having another new addition – but I needed to find out what was at the root of it all.

‘So … Julia moved in, and ..?’

}Well, OK, so we kind of did it all low key, Jules has been staying over more and more, I suppose it’s kind of happened gradually, there wasn’t really a huge ‘let’s do it’ moment, we just realised half her stuff was already there, it had happened and so she gave up her place. She’s not a big one for families, doesn’t always want to join in with everything we do. We agreed no announcements, we thought we might be able to pop it in the conversation sometime –

Matt

Even as I was saying it I realised what a forlorn hope that had been.

‘Er, you do know Beth, the one with the sixth sense, married to your brother, never misses a thing?’

‘Yeah, well, a bit of hope over experience, I suppose. So that’s what we agreed, and I’ve been pretty happy with that, part of me thinking ‘ha ha, I know something you don’t know’, feeling a bit smug. Then you go and have your bloody beautiful baby, and for me, it’s pretty intense. I was blown away, Dec, so much more than with Cal or Iz, even though they’re brilliant too. I don’t know why, but Charlie’s just got to me. I wanted Jules to come with me this morning, be part of it, but she was just like ‘no, it’s your family, I don’t really do babies’, and I was like ‘but it’s Dec’s baby, it’s a huge thing, please come’, but she wouldn’t.’

Dec

So maybe it was more about how Julia was reacting to the crazy randomness. It was certainly true that since Matt had started seeing Julia, he had been around less, had come to less of the meals and get-togethers. Maybe it was because Julia wasn’t keen, not because Matt had got tired of us. We hadn’t got to know her that well, because she often didn’t come with Matt when he visited, and we’d all said it could be because we were a raucous bunch and not everyone’s cup of tea.

‘Well, fair enough, I guess. We are pretty full on when we’re all together. It can be a bit intimidating.’

Matt

And yeah, that was part of it, it was full on when everyone was together, and if you weren’t that type of person, then you felt like you didn’t belong. Jules had told me she didn’t feel like she fitted in, but I didn’t think it bothered her that much; I hadn’t realised until now just how much it bothered me.

‘She’s not intimidated, she’s just … it’s one of the things … I liked her in the first place because she always does what she wants. If she doesn’t want to do something, she doesn’t make excuses, she just says so. You always know where you are with her. It’s not like she’s mean with it or anything, there’s just no bullshit. With all of us, she doesn’t feel part of it, doesn’t really want to, I guess. She’s got her own friends, her family live abroad, we don’t do everything together, don’t expect to. It’s been refreshing, she lets me get on with my stuff and she does hers, it makes doing stuff together more exciting somehow. This has been the first time I’ve really wanted her to do something with me and she’s said no. I told her it was important to me, and she still wouldn’t.’

‘Sounds like she’s being true to herself.’

And I knew that. I knew Jules was never going to change her mind, not for me, not for anyone. It was me who had changed, or at least who had deluded myself about who I was and what I wanted, and expecting her to understand, let alone compromise, was unreasonable.

‘Yeah. I know. But I’m wondering if I’ve made a bloody huge mistake. I’ve been so concerned with having my space and keeping my distance and feeling pleased with myself about you lot not knowing everything … when I was with you this morning, I realised I’d forgotten that as well as being a pain in the arse sometimes, our family is pretty bloody great too, and I want her to share it.’

‘You can’t make her, if it’s not what she wants.’

I knew that, too. I knew Jules never did anything she didn’t want to, especially if you tried to persuade her, but part of me just wanted to grab her, shake her and say ‘Look, this is what we could have’. But it wasn’t going to happen.

‘No, I know, but I think … I think I always thought things might gradually change, especially now we’re living together, and she’d get sucked in. Now, I don’t know if she will, and I’m worried I might start to get sucked out.’

This was all just kind of occurring to me as I was speaking. I hadn’t ever sat down and thought about it, but as I was saying it, I realised how true it was, how much I’d distanced myself from them for Jules, how much staying with her would mean more distance. It was something else to get my head round.

Dec

Matt usually wanted me to ask something specific, the thing that had been on his mind, so he could tell me without seeming to have made the first move. I wasn’t sure what that was yet, but he seemed uncertain, as if he felt he had to choose between Julia and his family. Maybe he did, although it would never be because we had forced the choice on him. If he was thinking about some kind of ‘one or the other’ situation, he probably wanted to be sure of how he felt.

‘Do you love her?’

A long pause. Matt looked everywhere but at me. Finally down at his fingers. This wasn’t the question he wanted me to ask; it had taken him by surprise, and he didn’t know how to answer me.

Matt

It was like Dec to get to the heart of things. I could ramble on, distract myself with a load of waffle and forget what I was trying to sort out, but Dec often cut through my bullshit with a short question. It was probably all his years of counselling. And the truth was, at that moment in time, that I didn’t know if I loved Jules. I hadn’t worked it all out then, everything was too much, and until this morning I hadn’t thought I needed to know if I loved her or not. Now it seemed important.

‘I don’t know. I like her a lot. I love being with her. Fuck if I know, I can’t work out what I feel anymore. I’m so scared of loving someone and it going to shit like it did with Carrie …’

I stopped speaking as all of that welled up in me and threatened to stop me in my tracks. I never talked about Carrie, to anyone, because talking about her made it hurt again, as if it had just happened. Telling Jules about her all those months ago had been hard, and it wasn’t an experience I was about to repeat. Carrie wasn’t the issue here, or at least not directly. I took some ragged breaths.

Dec

He stopped speaking. It was a blunt admission for Matt, and it probably brought up some old hurt. Although it didn’t seem like this was the thing that Matt wanted to talk about it, I decided to explore it a bit more. He wasn’t sure if he loved her, but they’d just moved in together …

‘So you haven’t said it to her?’

Matt

Oh get real, Dec. Everyone says it, all the time, without meaning it. Of course, he didn’t know about Jules’ anti-love thing, or that I said it to her as a joke.

‘Fuck yeah, always saying it, doesn’t everyone? ‘Love you’, text it, whatever. Being sarcastic half the time. Can’t not say it in bed, not the done thing, seems ungrateful somehow.’

As I was saying it, I was imagining what an knob I must look to Dec, and I couldn’t help but think what a git I’d been to Jules, albeit unintentionally.

Dec

‘Shit, Matt. Has she said it?’

Another pause. Matt looked like he couldn’t decide what to tell me. There was more to this than I was ever going to get to the bottom of.

Matt

I knew she hadn’t, would never say it, but I had to be honest about what would have happened if she had.

‘No. I would have run screaming to the hills.’

‘Fucking hell, Matt, you are one emotional fun-ride. Have you ever thought about investing in a therapist?’

‘No need, when I’ve got you. You can pass on the wisdom of your countless lengthy sessions with the lovely Adam.’

Nope, talking to Dec was as much psychoanalysis as I was ever going to get.

‘It is all a bit twisted, isn’t it. And it was all going so well until this morning. You had to fuck it all up by having your bloody bundle of joy.’

I didn’t mean it to sound as whiny as it did, and I saw a brief flicker of hurt cross Dec’s face.

Dec

That did take me by surprise. I’d thought we were somehow talking about Julia and Matt moving in together, and Matt maybe regretting it, but now it seemed like it was about Charlie. I felt a flare of protectiveness towards my not-yet-day-old daughter, who had done nothing to anyone and yet was being blamed somehow for Matt’s emotional fuck-ups.

‘My apologies, shall I send her back?’

Matt

I needed to explain what I meant, so he could see it was my shit I was whining about, not his daughter.

‘Too late. Another can of worms opened. Jules doesn’t want kids. Very adamant. Not the ‘I’ll say I don’t till I’ve trapped some poor bastard then I’ll change my mind’ not wanting, but seriously doesn’t do babies, or kids actually, at all.’

Dec looked puzzled.

‘Really? She’s great with Cal and Iz.’

‘I know, she makes an effort when she’s with them, throws herself into anything she does, that’s another thing I love about her. There’s lots of things I love about her. Anyway, I’ve always thought I was ambivalent about the whole kid thing, not really bothered about it one way or the other, if it happens one day in the far, far, way far future, so be it, but not grown up enough yet to even think about it, let alone come down on one side of the fence or the other.

Dec

I had always assumed that about Matt, too. I couldn’t remember ever specifically talking with him about wanting children, or not wanting them, but Matt’s whole life for the last few years had been about avoiding commitment and responsibility. It had seemed obvious.

}But this morning, seeing you and Amy and Charlie, and holding her, and what you’ve got, your little family, all the love, all the potential, everything you’re going to have and do together … I so fucking want it. I really, really want all that. Fucking hell, it’s knocked me for six, complete revelation. Dec, I don’t know what to do. Jules is never going to change her mind, I’m never going to have any of it with her. I showed her the video you sent, I was being all proud and uncley, and she had a look, and said ‘all babies look the same to me’. She wouldn’t even pretend for a second.

I was struggling to keep up with this new development. It seemed as far from the person Matt was as it was possible to be, but somehow, it felt right. I thought about how much time he had for Cal and Iz, how interested he’d been in Amy’s pregnancy when Julia wasn’t around, the look on his face this morning when he held Charlie, and it all made sense. Maybe Matt hadn’t realised himself, maybe he’d avoided the truth, but now he was going to have to face it, and what it meant for him and Julia, and I was going to have to help him do it.

Matt

This was what I was here for, so I could tell Dec how it was and ask him what to do.

‘Matt, you can’t have it both ways. You’re with her because she’s independent and knows what she wants and doesn’t bullshit. Now you’re feeling differently about some stuff, you can’t be annoyed with her because she speaks her mind. You need to talk to her, tell her what you’re feeling.’

But I didn’t want him to say that. I didn’t want him to say I had to talk to her, tell her what I was feeling. I already knew that, and I wanted him to say something different.

‘I just bloody knew you were going to say that. What the fuck do I say? “Sorry, Jules, I’ve made a terrible mistake, I know you’ve just given up your flat and moved in with me but you’re probably going to want to piss off again now, I’ve decided I want a baby”?’

I suppose that’s what I was going to have to say, in the end, albeit a little more sensitively.

‘You’re sure it’s what you want, not just some emotional reaction? Babies do funny things, make tough men go all soppy, all that shit.’

Yeah, I’d tried to convince myself of that as well, but no. This was something that came from deep within me.

‘I think … if I’m totally, brutally honest with myself, which, yeah, I know, I’m not very often, it’s always been something I wanted. But it wasn’t available, and it scared the shit out of me to think about, there’s all the commitment bollocks that goes with it, so I just arsed about to cover it up, and ended up convincing myself it didn’t matter to me one way or the other.’

Ah, the commitment bollocks. I said this wasn’t about Carrie, but it was, really, wasn’t it. Maybe if I’d been less … or more … oh shit, I really couldn’t think about it.

Dec

So he was being honest with himself, which was unusual for Matt. Now he needed to face up to the consequences.

‘Do you want her to move out?’

Matt

The thought of it made me go cold. Jules had only been living with me a week, but it was my life now, and thinking of doing any of it without her was untenable.

‘Fuck no. I like her being there. She makes me laugh, she’s good for me, she’s very caring, we talked about what would happen if I get ill again, she’s not fazed by any of that. We like doing the same things, we give each other space, we kind of get each other. She’s fucking hot too, and we’re bloody good together. But this just feels like a huge thing. Too fucking huge. I don’t know if it can work.’

‘OK, I know it’s not what you want me to say, but you need to talk to her. If it’s too huge, it’s better that you both know now, rather than get months or years down the line and end up hating each other and bitter because she didn’t know that was how you felt. Or, even worse, if she got pregnant. It happened to us, and it was what we both wanted. If that happens, and you want it and she doesn’t, that could be really messy, you’re both going to end up getting really hurt. Tell her, Matt. If she’s a straight talker, she’ll appreciate it in you too.’

I’d hoped that he would find another way, something that would mean I didn’t have to tell her. But there was no other way, I’d known that all along really.

Dec

Matt was just about the furthest thing from a straight talker it was possible to be. He loved talking, using words to win arguments, to baffle people, to show off, and he often took the long way round instead of getting to the point. It felt like he was going to need to try a different route if he stood a chance of making anything work with Julia.

}Oh just stop making so much sense. I’m regretting telling you now.

‘No you’re not, it’s why you wanted to talk to me. You know what you’ve got to do, you just wanted someone to confirm it.’

Matt

‘Adam speak?’

It sounded like the sort of thing a shrink might say. It was also the truth.

‘Dec speak. Maybe a hint of Adam. Seriously, mate, talking to me is all very well; who knows, it might help you sort things out in your head, but nothing will change unless you talk to Julia.’

‘OK, I’m getting the point. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I really thought I was going to able to avoid deep and meaningfuls with Jules. Never thought I’d be the cause of one.’

I couldn’t remember having many myself, and most of them had been over in a matter of minutes. That was unlikely to be the case this time.

‘Do it soon.’

‘Yeah. I know. Shit, we just bought this fucking expensive bed. That’s what we were doing this morning. I should have put it off, I had all these nagging thoughts, just ignored them.’

‘Matt, talking to her doesn’t have to mean it’s over, maybe you can work something out.’

Yeah Dec, like what?

‘Did you ever have a deep and meaningful that ended well?’

‘Well, a few with Amy, yeah. Massive one with Jay years ago. I’ve actually found that things tend to end better if you talk about them rather keeping quiet. But that’s just me.’

‘Well … maybe there’s some hope for me then. I guess I’ll just have to give it a go.’

Maybe Jules wouldn’t react like I thought she would, like I’d betrayed her. Maybe she’d think of a way this could work. Maybe. I sighed, put my face in my hands, took a deep breath. I knew I had to do it soon, before I lost my courage.

‘I suppose I shouldn’t delay it.’

Another deep breath, while I waited in the hope that Dec would come up with a reason why I didn’t have to do it straight away, but he didn’t, the bastard.

‘OK then, best go off and do the deed. Fuck, Dec, sorry, didn’t mean to piss on your day.’

‘No worries, not feeling pissed on at all. Let me know how it goes, yeah?’

‘Yeah. Wish me luck.’

Although I was going to need more than the mythical gods of fate to help me now.

‘Luck, mate’

I stood up and walked out, got in my car and drove away.

Dec

I felt bad for Matt, and wished him well. I would give him a call later and see how it went, but for now I had a new family to think about. I got my phone out so I could talk to Amy.

)Hey, when are you coming back?

‘When am I allowed?’

)Oh, Dec, it’s not like that. Come back now, please, hon. We miss you. Where are you?

‘At Jay’s. I had dinner here, then had a chat with Matt. They’ve all gone out.’

)Sounds like you could do with some female company. I know just the girl. She’s petite, blue eyes, dark hair, no teeth, hell of a pair of lungs on her –

‘Sounds perfect, I’ll be right there. I like a woman with no teeth. Even better if she’s wearing a nappy.’

)Then it’s your lucky day.

‘Ha ha, see you soon babe.’

I hung up and texted Jay to let him know I was locking up.

Jay: =How’s Matty?

Me: =So-so b on standby.

Jay: =What’s happened?

Me: =I’ll let him tell u.

Jay: =Very informative, thanks.

Matt

I went over and over it in my mind while I drove back home, thinking so hard that I wasn’t concentrating on driving, and ran a red light. I thought of several different ways to say it, all of which ended badly, and by the time I reached the flat I was so nervous my legs shook all the way up the stairs.

When I got in, though, Jules wasn’t there. She must still be with Evie. All of my pent up nervous energy needed somewhere to go, to do something, but there was nothing to do but wait. I thought about texting, but didn’t know what to say, so I waited, tying myself up in more mental knots.

I rehearsed all the ways I could think of to start it all off, what I would say to begin. It wasn’t going to be pretty, however I did it, but at least if I started out right, I could hope Jules might listen to the rest of it. Then I started to talk myself out of saying anything. Maybe I was just having a late crisis about moving in together. It was huge for me, well for both of us, and we’d done it pretty quickly; perhaps it was a delayed backlash, subconsciously looking for a way out.

I’d sorted it all out in my head, that it was just cold feet, and then I thought of Dec’s face when I told him I hadn’t said anything, and how feeble my excuses would sound. And that’s all they were; excuses.

Julia

Evie and I spent the afternoon talking, laughing and catching up. I told her about Matt, and she hugged me and congratulated me, and I could see from the look in her eyes that although she was pleased I was happy, she was holding back some concern.

‘So you’ve finally done it then, Jules. I never thought I’d see you living with someone.’

‘I know, but it’s been surprisingly easy. There wasn’t this big build up when I was worrying about if he was going to ask me, it was suddenly just out there, and I did lose it a bit on the day we decided, but then I just realised it was right, and it had happened anyway. We’ve been getting on very well, no arguments, we both like things the same way, really.’

‘Hmm. You’re just perfect for each other.’

‘Don’t be like that. I think we are. I never thought I’d hear myself say that, I used to think he was a complete tool, but I really think he’s changed. I mean, yes, he’s completely sex mad, but only with me, and that’s fine. Better than fine.’

‘Jules, you’re so loved up. He could poke bloody needles in your eyes and you’d say it was because you like the same things.’

‘I’m not loved up. You know I don’t do love, and he doesn’t either. That’s what’s so great, we both know where we stand, there’s not this big romantic thing that’s not real. It’s all completely real. It just makes sense.’

‘OK, my lovely whatever you say. Good for you. It sounds like it’s what you want.’

‘It is, we both want the same things, or don’t want them to be more accurate. He’s got this huge family, lots of children and babies, but he doesn’t want to do all that, so he’s perfect for me.’

Evie nodded, but didn’t say anything.

‘So, anyway, I’ve bent your ear enough. Tell me about your boss.’

By the time Evie had finished pouring her heart out about her job, it was late afternoon and I was really tired. I loved spending time with my best friend, but I’d been woken up early after little sleep, then we’d shopped for the bed, and Evie’s off-loading had finished up the little energy reserves I had. Resisting her asking me to stay for tea, I drove home. Matt’s car was in his parking space, and I wondered if he was as tired as me. Maybe we could curl up in bed together for a sleep, or have an early night.

Matt

When I heard Jules’ key in the door, I knew it wasn’t cold feet. I knew I had to tell her, and I had to do it now. I felt the blood drain from my face, leaving me feeling sick and lightheaded.

Julia

I knew something was wrong the minute I walked in the door. Matt was sitting on the sofa with his head in his hands, and for a brief second I was reminded of that first day, when I woke up on his sofa after we’d had sex. Then I shook the thought from my head, but other concerns were lining up to make their own suggestions. He looked up and gave me a thin smile as I closed the door behind me, but he looked washed out, tired and emotional.

‘Hey you.’

‘Hello. Are you alright? You don’t look very well.’

‘Can we talk?’

‘I’m really tired, Matt, can it wait?’

I knew that waiting never helped a situation, but I really didn’t feel I could hold my own in a serious conversation just at the moment. I didn’t know what was going on with Matt, if he was having a delayed reaction to me moving in, or something else, maybe he was experiencing symptoms of MS again, but whatever it was, it looked bigger than I felt able to cope with right at that moment.

‘I don’t think it can, Jules. It’s important. There’s something I need to say.’

I sighed and sat down, my visions of a cosy nap together disappearing, and my stomach contracting with apprehension.

‘Alright then.’

Matt looked at the floor and fiddled with his fingers.

‘Holy fuck, this is hard.’

As I waited, my heart started to beat faster, and my head started to buzz with the anticipation of what he was going to say.

‘OK. I know we’ve talked about stuff and … we’ve got similar … we kind of think the same about a lot of shit and maybe I’ve … oh bollocks I had it all straight in my head. Let me start again. This morning, Dec’s baby, it’s kind of … no, I need to just …’

I couldn’t make any sense of it, and my patience ran out.

‘Matt, please can you just say whatever it is you want to say? I haven’t got the energy to sort through all this.’

‘Sorry. Sorry, Jules. OK. OK. Here’s the thing. I hope I haven’t misled you … I really have only just … shit, this is so hard.’

‘Matt, please, you’re worrying me. Please just say whatever it is.’

‘I want children.’

My heart nearly stopped. My blood nearly froze. It was the one thing, the one thing that was insurmountable, non-negotiable. Anything else – serious illness, a gambling addiction, a need to paint the flat black and recite poetry all day – anything else, I could have coped with it, dealt with it, discussed it and come to terms with. Children were not part of that deal, wanting children was a deal-breaker, and Matt knew that. I hoped I’d misheard him, or misunderstood him.

‘What?’

‘I’m sorry. I was trying to say it better than that, I didn’t mean to just blurt it.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m so sorry, Jules, I didn’t know. I honestly didn’t know, until this morning, it started when Dec rang, I just felt weird, kind of jealous, and then I went to see them, and Charlie, she’s so … small and … I didn’t know but … as soon as I saw her, saw them with her, it just kind of clicked, I realised that’s what I want.’

My heart still stuttered, my blood still chilled. He was still talking, and it wasn’t getting any better. Oh God oh God oh God, he really meant it. He wanted children, out of the blue, when yesterday he did not.

‘How can you not have known?’

‘I don’t know. I’m pretty good at avoiding stuff. But I swear, all those conversations we’ve had, I meant it, I thought I fucking meant it. I haven’t lied to you, it wasn’t until today that I knew.’

‘So … what are you expecting from me? Are you expecting me to have your children?’

‘No … I know how you feel about it. I just wanted to be honest with you about how I’m feeling.’

I could feel myself losing my grip on my temper, on all my emotions, as everything I thought was in my power began to slip away from me. I could feel my life spinning out of my control, falling out of my hands. My heart started again with a lurch, in fact now I could feel my heartbeat getting faster, and my cheeks flush as my voice rose.

‘Well it’s a pity you didn’t feel the need to be honest before I uprooted my whole life and moved in here with you, isn’t it. I’ve made a commitment to you, the biggest commitment I’ve ever made to anyone, and it’s all based on fucking lies and pretence.’

‘Jules …’

‘I’ve just wasted the best part of a year of my life on you, thinking you were someone you’re not.’

‘Jules, please believe me, I’ve only just worked it all out. I wasn’t deceiving you. If you’d have asked me yesterday, do I want kids, I’d have said no, or at least said fuck knows. I know I have no right to say this, but … is there any way we can work this out? I don’t want to lose you.’

The effrontery of it galvanised me. He had just told me the one thing that was going to split us up, and now he wanted to know how to make it better.

‘How exactly do you think we’re going to work it out, Matt? You want kids, I don’t. One of us is going to be very fucking disappointed. Well it’s not going to be me.’

I felt my anger rising up in me like a flood. I stood up, unable to contain myself, needing to do something significant. There was a coffee cup by the sofa; I picked it up and hurled it at the wall, where it smashed satisfyingly, splattering brown droplets across the Farrow and Ball Shaded White paintwork, and dribbling down towards the floor. Smashing things felt good, and I looked for more things to break.

In the meantime, I hurled more words at Matt. I can’t even remember exactly what I said, but they were vile, horrible words because I felt vile and horrible, because the way he’d betrayed me was vile and horrible. At that moment, I hated him; he had been perfect for me and he had just taken that away.

Matt sat looking at me as I screamed at him, his sad expression making me more and more angry. I found the plates, and threw them on the floor and at the wall as I hurled vitriolic insults him. I found the wine glasses we’d chosen together and smashed them one by one on the kitchen worktop as I screamed my pain at him.

I wanted to hurt him; I nearly threw things at him, but I stopped myself and threw them so near him that he flinched as they shattered near his head. He was a lying fucking arsehole, and I told him so, and finally I told him I never wanted to see him again. Then, before I really did him an injury, I left.

Just before I did, I took the keys to the flat out of my bag and turned round. Matt had got to his feet and was heading towards me. I didn’t want him to touch me, or be anywhere near me, so I launched the keys at him as hard as I could. They hit him in the face, and he stumbled backwards as I turned and went through the door, slamming it behind me and running down the stairs as fast as I could, blinded by the tears I could at last allow myself to release.

65. Isn’t she lovely

In which a new arrival brings a shock revelation.

Dec

I woke up in the chair, neck stiff, the usual post-sleep disorientation swirling round my head. There was a snuffle from beside the bed. I came to with sudden realisation. Looked over. There she was. Small. Perfect. Eyes open, looking up. My beautiful baby.

‘Hey, lovely girl.’

I picked her up in her blanket. She hardly seemed to weigh anything in my arms. I carried her over to the window, where I could see the moon shining brightly among the night clouds, and I looked down at her tiny face, her perfect mouth, her big blue eyes, just like her mum’s. If she wanted the stars, I’d fetch them for her. A miniature hand escaped from the blanket and stretched out. I put my finger in her palm, and she closed her fist around it, squeezing my heart at the same time.

‘Clever girl!’

I kissed her tiny forehead. She made more snuffling noises and continued to look into my eyes. I could hardly blink, I didn’t want to miss a second of her. My amazing daughter, moonlight on her cheeks.

‘Look, the moon’s shining for you. There’s a man in the moon, can you see his face? He’s happy to see you. I’m so happy to see you too, lovely girl.’

She let go of my finger, shut her eyes, opened her mouth to reveal a tiny tongue and lots of gums. Started to yell her indignation at the top of her voice.

‘Shh, sweetie, you’ll wake Mummy … oh, too late.’

Amy had stirred in the bed, turned over and opened her eyes.

)Oh, she’s real. I thought I might have dreamed her.

‘Hey, babe. I did ask her to keep it down, but she’s feeling a bit grumpy.’

)Let’s have a go at feeding her then, seemed to work last time.

I walked over to the bed and passed her to Amy. The yelling stopped, as she snuffled about, sensing imminent food, and Amy lifted her top up, showing her where to go. Feeding commenced. Amy looked up at me, eyes shining. I sat on the edge of the bed, stroking Amy’s hair, watching the pair of them. My family – it took my breath away.

)What time is it?

‘Fuck knows, I hardly know what day it is. Let’s have a look.’

I checked my phone.

‘Gone five.’

)That’s pretty reasonable. I think I must have got about an hour.

‘You must be shattered, babe. That was a long haul.’

Amy had started having contractions the previous morning. I’d been on my way to the club, due to play in the game that afternoon, but had been withdrawn from the squad when Amy called. Following doctors orders and advice from Beth, Rose and Carol, we hadn’t rushed straight to the hospital, but waited the appropriate time and done as we were told. By the time Amy decided she wasn’t going to wait any more, she was bending double every three minutes and yelling in pain.

I’d driven to the hospital in a state of panic, Amy shouting and grabbing my arm all the way. We seemed to be the only ones panicking, everyone treated us as if we were making a huge fuss about nothing as I helped Amy into the room and we proceeded to wait for the rest of the day and most of the night for our daughter to put in an appearance. There was a fair amount of screaming on Amy’s part, and a lot of swearing directed at me, which I gathered was normal.

I played my part by holding Amy’s hand, wiping her forehead, bringing her ice and cold drinks and taking all the ‘fucking bastard’s on the chin. I was pretty terrified the whole time, Amy seemed to be in such a lot of pain and distress, no amount of reading books and going to classes had prepared me for how helpless I would feel. I stayed with her throughout, and holding Amy’s hand while our daughter was born was the most intense moment of my life.

There was lots of cleaning up and a few stitches, then Amy fed her, and we were taken back to the room, where we sat and held her and gazed at her. Earlier in the day, I’d phoned everyone to let them know things were on the move, but by the time she arrived, it was the early hours, and Amy banned me from calling anyone.

)I’ve told everyone we won’t let them know till a reasonable hour, they won’t be allowed to come in until later on anyway. There’s no point everyone getting sleepless nights. And we might want a bit of time alone with the baby afterwards.

Those were wise words. Much as I wanted everyone to meet this wonderful new person that Amy and I had made, I wanted her all to myself for as long as possible.

)Yeah, I’m pretty wiped. Better get used to it, though. I’m really thirsty, hon, is there any water?

The jug was empty, so I took it down the corridor and filled it up from the slow water cooler. When I got back, they were both asleep; I sat in the chair and stared at them, completely filled with love, amazement and wonder. Looked at the time again. Five twenty. Now very tempted to call someone. Got my phone out and turned it on, but really couldn’t do it with Amy asleep. So I sat and stared at them both some more.

They woke up together, both pairs of blue eyes opening at the same time, beauty in stereo.

‘Wow. Look at you two. My blue eyed girls.’

Amy looked down at her, still cradled in her arms.

)I can’t believe she’s here. Just look at her.

‘Budge over.’

Amy shuffled carefully over to one side of the single bed, and I climbed on next to her, pulling her close under my arm. My phone pinged.

)I thought you turned that off.

I looked at Amy guiltily.

‘I nearly called them while you were asleep.’

)You didn’t, though, did you?

‘No, babe, I resisted. Can we do it now? It’s gone six. It’s almost getting light.’

)It’s still early for a Sunday.

‘I bet Rose and Beth are already up, waiting.’

)You’re right.

She sighed.

)I’ve just so loved it being just us three. Oh, but I completely want to show her to everyone. Dec, I didn’t realise I’d love her so much.

‘Me neither. I can’t stop looking at her.’

)Go on, then, tell them.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket. Text.

Beth: =Any news???

I dialled her number. She answered on the first ring, had probably been waiting impatiently for my picture to flash up on the screen.

_Well?

‘Two eighteen a.m., seven pounds three ounces, Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright. All fingers and toes present and correct. Mother and baby doing well. Father an emotional puddle.’

She squealed very loudly. I heard Jay’s voice complaining in the background.

_Oh Dec! Congratulations, sweetheart. How’s Amy?

‘She’s great. Tired, sore, proud, happy, gorgeous, amazing.’

_Can we come and see you?

‘You’d bloody better. I don’t think you can come till nine, though.’

_Oh well, that gives me a chance to try and prise James and Cal out of bed … wait, Dec, did you say Charlotte?

‘Yeah, after Amy’s great-grandma …’

I waited to see if she would work it out.

_Are you going to shorten it?

She’d got it, with no clues or hints, and hardly any time to think about it.

‘Yeah –’

_Charlie! Ohhh, Dec, that’s … just so, so lovely. And isn’t Lucy …

‘Yeah. Mum.’

_Oh Dec. That’s just perfect. Oh sweetheart. She’d be so proud of you. Here, talk to James.

There was a crackle, then Jay.

łThanks for the early morning blub warning, mate. Beth’s in floods here.

‘Sorry.’

łIt’s all good, happy tears, apparently they don’t count. Might shed one or two myself if you don’t watch out. Congratulations, mate. I expect we’re coming to see you later. Amy OK?

‘She’s fucking awesome.’

łYou OK?

‘Also fucking awesome.’

Jay laughed.

łWe’ll see the fucking awesome three of you later, then.

We hung up. I turned to Amy.

‘Did you hear all that?’

)Most of it. Beth was quick off the mark.

‘She doesn’t miss much. Right, Rose next.’

I got her name up and pressed call. Another one answered on the first ring.

:Declan, love. Any news?

‘Yes, she’s here. Charlotte Lucy. Seven pounds three ounces. Born two eighteen this morning.’

Rose’s tears came even quicker than Beth’s.

:Oh love … sorry, love, I’m just a bit … I’ve been awake all night thinking about you.

Rose sniffed for a bit.

:How’s Amy?

‘She’s great. Are you going to come and see us? You can come any time after nine.’

More sniffs.

:Try and stop me, love. How are you?

‘I am on top of the world.’

:Oh love … I’m so happy for you …

‘Rose, I’m going to go, and let you pull yourself together. See you soon. Drive safely.’

:Bye love.

‘Bloody hell, Ames, I’m not sure I can cope with all this crying, it’s getting to me.’

)Try Matt next, then, you’re not likely to get any crying off him.

‘Don’t bank on it. Me and him used to be a right pair of cry-babies. Had a special club and everything. I will try him, though, just for the fun of waking him up.’

I dialled the number. The phone rang several times; just as I thought it would go to voicemail, it was answered.

Julia

I woke with a start to the sound of Matt’s phone. It was Dec’s ringtone. The morning light was just about starting to show through the curtains, but it was early. Matt didn’t stir. I nudged him.

Matt

Something nudged me awake. I tried to ignore it.

‘Matt.’

Oh it was Jules. She should know I don’t wake up this early. However bloody early it was. Too fucking early.

‘Ngh.’ I thought that conveyed my thoughts concisely.

‘Your phone’s ringing. It’s Dec.’

‘Mm wha?’

She was saying words, but they weren’t really sinking in. It was too fucking early.

‘Answer your phone – oh for fuck’s sake.’

I felt her reach over me and thought about fondling a breast, but it was too fucking early.

Dec

¤Hello.

‘Oh, I … was expecting Matt Scott … is that … Julia?’

¤Yes. Matt’s just here.

I opened my eyes wide at Amy, mouthed ‘she answered his phone!‘ at her.

Matt

I was suddenly pushed really hard. It jolted me fully awake, and I opened my eyes.

‘What?’

‘It’s Dec. He wants to talk to you. It sounds important.’

‘What?’

Awake but brain not yet fully functional, it being too fucking early and all.

‘Possibly there is some news about a baby?’

‘Oh. Right.’

I took the phone from Jules and held it to my ear.

‘This had fucking well better be Declan Summers telling me he’s become a father.’

‘It fucking well is.’

I could hear the grin in his voice. I felt a strange mixture of excitement and … was that envy? No. I was just pissed off that I’d been woken up.

‘I’ll let you off the bloody ridiculously early call then. I’m glad to see the ‘fuck’ police haven’t got to you yet, either. Your days are numbered, though. When can we visit?’

‘After nine.’

A quick glance at the time showed me it was still too fucking early.

‘Bollocks, that’s hours away. Fuck off, then, I’ve got more sleeping to do.’

Dec

The line went dead.

‘No crying. Too busy moaning about losing his sleep.’

)What a surprise. Didn’t he even want any details?

‘Not that he’d admit to. Plenty of time for that, he’ll be along later. Maybe with Julia – looks like she stayed the night. Or maybe he did, I don’t know where he was.’

)Wow. Who’d have thought, Matt doing sleepovers. It’s taken him long enough.

‘He’s not going to rush into anything.’

)Well there’s not rushing and there’s going so slowly you get overtaken by snails.

‘True. Ames, are you going to ring your mum?’

She sighed.

)Not yet, it’s too early.

‘Really? She’s just become a granny, she might want to know sooner rather than later.’

)Later, hon.

‘OK.’

Matt

I disconnected and turned over to go back to sleep. You do know I don’t do mornings, right? Alright, maybe I should have been more outwardly enthusiastic, but as I think I may have mentioned, it was too fucking early, and also, although I didn’t want to examine it too closely, Dec becoming a father was making me feel weird.

Jules wasn’t about to let me get away with that, though. For some reason she wanted to chat about the new arrival.

‘Well?’

‘What?’

Playing dumb never worked but it at least delayed things a bit sometimes.

‘You’re an uncle, or some weird kind of non-existent relation. Have you got a niece or a nephew? Or a Decew?’

‘Fuck knows, I didn’t ask.’

I tried to sound as pissed off as possible in the vain hope that she’d just leave me alone and let me go back to sleep.

‘Matt! You have to ask, if he didn’t say. You’re supposed to be all excited about weights and times and names. And you’re supposed to remember what they tell you. Call him back.’

She picked a fine time to come over all ‘this is what you do when your mates have babies’ on me.

‘Bollocks to that, it’s – what is it – Jules, it’s only just gone six on a bloody Sunday morning. Who’s bloody awake now?’

‘People who have just had babies.’

People with children full stop, more like. Suckers. I was thinking about sinking back down into a contented childless sleep, when Jules reached over me again, and this time I was on the ball enough to try a quick grope, which was ignored as she picked up my phone and scrolled down the contacts list.

‘I’m dialling for you. Here.’

She handed me the phone, and I sighed, defeated, and held it to my ear.

It was as if he’d been expecting me to call, I could almost hear the smug smile in his voice as he answered.

‘Forget something?’

I wasn’t having that. It was bad enough being woken up before enlightened people were stirring, but now I was copping it from all sides too.

‘Fuck off, I’m getting enough grief this end. Apparently it’s the done thing to inquire about the sex of the baby, certain vital statistics, maybe a name if such a thing is considered important, and not just roll over and go back to sleep like any civilised person at this time on a Sunday morning.’

‘Ha ha, thank Julia for remembering your manners.’

I ignored that. ‘Well go on then, I’m on tenterhooks now, the edge of my seat, or rather pillow.’

‘OK, then, as you asked so nicely, my beautiful daughter – that’s a clue to the sex of the baby, by the way – is called Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright. She is a very respectable seven pounds three ounces, she was born at two eighteen this morning, she has her mother’s eyes –’

‘And probably her father’s ability to cry at the drop of a hat.’

I was silent for a moment, as it sunk in. It had really happened. Dec and Amy were parents. They had a baby, a family.

‘Fuck me, Dec … you’ve got a daughter. That is fucking huge. Congratulations, mate.’

As I said the last word, I felt a rush of emotion. The whole situation felt enormous, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it all. I heard my voice break.

‘Thanks, Matt. See you later.’

‘Yeah.’

I disconnected, glad that I wasn’t going to have to speak to him any more right now.

Dec

‘Think he might just about almost have cried a tiny bit that time.’

)Round one to you, then, hon. I expect you’ll pay for it later. He didn’t work it out, then?

‘Probably a bit early in the morning. It might not even occur to him at all. He’ll be bloody annoyed if Beth tells him before he realises, though.’

Charlie stirred in Amy’s arms, waved her arms in the air, opened her mouth for another yell.

‘Are you hungry again, lovely girl?’

)Good girl, let’s have some breakfast before the hordes arrive.

‘What about breakfast for you Ames? I’m bloody starving.’

)Oh, hon, I could murder a cup of tea and some toast. Aren’t they going to bring it in though?

‘I’ll go and see what I can find.’

Breakfast for the Summers-Wright family sorted, burping completed, a phone call to Carol, a nappy changing lesson from a midwife, and a check on Amy and Charlie from the doctor done, there was nothing to do but hold my daughter and wait for everyone to arrive. I wrestled her away from Amy with a bit of a struggle, persuading her to ring her mum while I held my lovely girl close and took her for a tour of the room.

‘Hey Charlie, look out the window, that’s the world out there. It’s pretty amazing. We’re going to see a lot of it together. There’s trees – but don’t go falling out of any, and cats – but keep away from their claws, and litter bins – ew, though, a bit stinky, but look, there’s blue sky too, and clouds, which means there’ll be rain, but there’s sunshine as well. And wait until you see snow – oh Charlie, you are so going to love snow.’

I carried on talking nonsense while Amy made a call to her mum. I raised my eyebrows when she’d finished. Amy shrugged, looked sad.

‘What did she say?’

)Congratulations.

‘What else?’

)Not much.

‘Is she coming?’

)Doubt it. Don’t think Dad will let her.

‘Oh babe, I’m sorry.’

Amy’s parents had not softened towards us, although Amy had been in touch with her mum from time to time. Amy’s dad refused to speak to either of us and her mum had to choose her moments for contact, as this apparently caused huge arguments. Amy was hurt, I was angry, but there wasn’t much we could do about it.

Matt

I stayed lying on my side, taking a moment to collect myself and stop my bloody eyes from leaking salty bastards. Why was I so emotional? It was a bloody baby, for fuck’s sake. I pulled myself together and turned to face Jules, who was waiting for an update.

Julia

Matt carried on lying on his side, facing away from me. I thought I felt him wipe his eyes, but when he turned over onto his back, there was no sign.

‘So?’

‘Girl. Bloody hyphenated surname. Weighs seven somethings and a few something or others. Decided to arrive at some unearthly hour that should only exist if you’re out getting shit-faced.’

‘Are you going to go and see them?’

‘Yeah, later, can’t go in till nine. Come with me?’

‘No, I don’t think so. It’s your family. I don’t really do babies.’

Part of me was still worried that they would find out about Matt and me living together, and another part really didn’t want to have to go and gush about a tiny person whose only skill so far in life had been surviving being born.

Matt

‘Oh go on, you’re practically family. They’d love to see you.’

‘No, you go. If you go early enough, we can still go and look at beds when you get back.’

Bollocks. I’d completely erased the shopping for a bed plan from my mind.

‘Oh yeah, I forgot about the fucking bed. I’d better try to get there for nine, then, so we’ve got time before you go to Evie’s. Sure you won’t come? I’d really like you to, Jules.’

I didn’t usually try to coax Jules into doing something when she’d already said no, but I just wanted her with me. I wanted her to be part of this thing that was a huge thing for my family, I wanted her to be part of my family as well. I backed away from that, as it seemed like something to explore on a less weird day. Jules was not to be convinced, at any rate.

Julia

Something in his voice made me worry that if I went, he would end up telling them about us. I wondered if he was feeling upstaged. I decided not to risk giving him the opportunity – I didn’t think he’d do it without me there.

‘No. I’ll see them soon enough. Go back to sleep for a bit.’

Matt

I would have loved to have gone back to sleep, but I was no longer in the least bit tired.

‘No, I’m too awake now. Bloody hell. Fancy breakfast in bed? Fry-up?’

‘Now you’re talking. I haven’t had a fried breakfast for ages.’

‘OK, I’ll see what I can rustle up.’

Julia

Matt hauled himself out of bed, pulled a pair of boxers and a t-shirt on, and padded off to make some breakfast. After we’d finished, and I’d cleared the plates and pans into the dishwasher and got back into bed, I was half expecting Matt to make some moves on me. Sunday mornings were usually spent having sex, if we had time and no other plans. But this morning he seemed preoccupied.

‘Are you alright?’

He nodded.

‘You’re not quite here.’

He looked at me.

‘Sorry, Jules, I think I’m just still amazed that little Declan Summers, who is only, what, nine years old or something, is a dad. He’s wanted this, his own family, for so bloody long, and now he’s got it. I’m bloody happy for him. I wish I knew what I bloody wanted sometimes.’

‘I thought you did.’

‘Well I know what I don’t want. I know what scares me shitless and I’ll do anything to avoid, I know all that, but the other side, what do I actually want? I haven’t got a fucking clue. I just bumble along really, reacting. Oh, here’s a job. Yeah, looks good, I’ll have that. What’s that? A party? Sure, I’m not doing anything tonight. A beautiful woman in my arms? Fuck yeah. Plan for the future, you say? Fuck that.’

‘I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself. You’ve got this place, you’ve got us, neither of those just happened by accident.’

Matt

She was right. In the grand scheme of life, I had sorted out accommodation and a relationship, no mean feat. It was just that right now, I had no plans, I had no sense of where I was going, and it suddenly felt important that I did. I had no idea what to do about it.

‘I suppose so. Sorry, just feeling a bit weird. I’m going to get up, get over there, get it over with.’

I leaned over and kissed her, then got out of bed and got dressed. I sat in the living room for a while, flicking through the channels on the TV and settling on the repeat of Match of the Day, as it was still too fucking early to go to the maternity unit.

Dec

Charlie snuffled and looked up at me, Amy’s eyes staring at me from her perfect face. Every time, it nearly stopped my heart.

‘Oh, lovely girl.’

A sound at the door. I looked up. Matt, peering in through the window. I beckoned him in with my head.

Matt

I left earlier than I needed to, which meant I got there early too. In fact, as I peered through the glass in the door, I realised I had got there before anyone else, which surprised me.

Dec was standing by the window, holding a bundle of blankets with a small face and tiny hand peeking out. It brought an unexpected lump to my throat, and I looked away, at Amy, who looked dishevelled but radiant.

‘Shit, am I first? Can’t believe I beat Beth and Rose! Amy, you look great. Hours of agony and a sleepless night before pushing a person out of your nether regions obviously suits you.’

I went over and dispensed a kiss.

‘No Julia?’

I tried to make light of it, although it had upset me more than I realised that she wouldn’t come with me when I asked her. It also occurred to me that Jules had answered my phone, and it would have been apparent that she’d at the very least stayed the night. I was going to have to be careful not to let anything slip about our cohabitation status, or I’d be well and truly in the shit. Hopefully the small bundle in Dec’s arms would distract everyone enough for me.

‘She might come later, this is apparently family time. Let’s have a look, then.’

‘Want a hold?’

‘Fuck yeah.’

Dec

I passed Charlie over. It felt weird to give her to someone who wasn’t Amy, but Matt held her like an expert.

Matt

Dec moved the tiny bundle into my arms, and suddenly I knew. She was beautiful, she was so new, she was the next chapter in Dec’s life. He was her dad, she was his daughter, they had a bond that no one else could have with either of them. I wanted that. This was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted a family.

Oh fuck.

I held her and looked into her face. I know babies all look Winstonesque, but Dec’s daughter had Amy’s eyes. I’d never seen it before, but here it was. Yeah, think about that, Matt. Don’t go anywhere near that other shit you were … what the actual fuck had I just … no, no, don’t. Just don’t. Eyes. Like Amy’s.

‘Hi gorgeous. Amy, she is truly beautiful. Well done.’

I tried to focus on the baby girl in my arms, to avoid thinking about what had just detonated through my brain, in a pretty life-changing apocalyptic way.

‘Thanks Matt, we’re pretty pleased with the results.’

‘Hello, Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright.’

I even remembered her whole name – I hope you’re impressed.

‘You’re rather lovely, even if your name is a bit of a mouthful. If I was thirty years younger, you’d need to watch out.’

‘Charlie, this is Matt. He’ll teach you your first swear words. Probably before you’re two.’

I looked up at Dec, confused, but happy to be diverted from my own cataclysmic thought processes.

‘I thought you said she was Charlotte … oh, you’ve shortened it.’

And then it occurred to me. Dec’s other name. It was a nod, a memorial, to his parents, who had called him Charlie when they adopted him. It was brilliant.

‘Oh … oh! Charlie! Ha ha. That’s bloody genius! Hi Charlie, your mum and dad are clever aren’t they? Is Lucy some sort of code word too?’

‘My mum.’

‘Oh, mate, of course. That’s … actually that’s bloody lovely.’

It was, it really was so bloody lovely, and I was already emotional, and now the bloody tears were running down my face and threatening to drop onto Charlie.

‘Oh shit, look at me. Here, Amy, before I drip all over her. Fuck, sorry, beautiful.’

I handed Charlie to Amy and wiped my eyes on the back of my hand, looking around for something more absorbent.

‘Pass me one of those tissues, Dec, I’m not going to be blarting like a girl when Jay gets here.’

‘Er, might be a bit late for that …’

He gestured to the door, where Beth’s face had appeared at the glass. Bollocks. They had to turn up now, didn’t they.

‘Shit.’

Dec

Matt turned to look out of the window and wiped his face on his sleeve. I was a bit puzzled at Matt’s reaction – he rarely showed his emotions in public, and even though he was with family, it was uncharacteristic, particularly considering the sometimes barely disguised apathy both he and Julia showed when everyone was talking about the baby.

The door opened and Iz sidled in, looking self-conscious. When she saw me she ran over and held her arms up, so I whisked her up and gave her a cuddle. She was closely followed into the room by a grumpy looking Cal, a smiling Beth and a dishevelled Jay.

_Where is she then – oh! Amy, she’s gorgeous! Let’s have a proper look.

Beth sat on the edge of the bed, gave Amy a kiss and stroked Charlie’s cheek.

)Cuddle?

_I thought you’d never ask!

Amy handed her to Beth.

_Oh, Charlie, you look just like your mum.

Beth jiggled her and made various cooing noises. She and Amy were in a motherly world of their own and started comparing timings, weights and other details I hadn’t even known existed and which would have made me wince if I had.

Matt

I turned to look out of the window and wiped my face on the sleeve of my t-shirt. While all the squealing and cuddling was going on, I got a grip on myself, took a few deep breaths, then turned round and joined in the conversation, trying not to think, at all, about anything, other than what people were saying, stealing the odd glance at Charlie, watching, I was surprised to find, enviously as Dec and Amy showed her off to everyone.

Dec

Iz clung on to my neck and stared at Charlie. Cal stood by the wall, not really looking at anything.

‘Hey Cal, did we get you out of bed early?’

He shrugged.

‘Did you go to the game yesterday?’

\yeah.

‘Did we win?’

\yeah, 28-14. Bonus point.

‘Brilliant. Hope you missed me.’

\Sam Wallis was pretty good, he scored a try.

Sam Wallis was my last minute replacement, a seriously promising academy player who was pushing hard for a starting place. I hoped I would be able to wrestle my spot in the team back from him.

‘Good game?’

\yeah. I went with Matty.

‘Yeah? Think you’re winning him over?’

}Spurs will always be closest to my heart, but Raiders run a close second at times, even though I’ll never get the hang of bloody offside or, what’s that other one I always ask you about, Cal?

\off his feet.

}Yeah, off his feet, what’s that all about? And Sam Wallis, phew, what a number twelve. Player of the future, in my books. Sack the incumbent.

łOK, not in front of the coach. You’re here early, Matty.

}Well I was woken up in the middle of the night, weren’t you? Something about a baby. Couldn’t get back to sleep, so I decided to check it out. Turns out there is one! Pretty decent effort, too.

łJulia not with you?

‘No, she might come later.’

I wasn’t quite sure what I was sensing from Matt, but something was up. Something in his expression each time he’d mentioned Julia. He had been seeing her for quite a while – maybe eight or nine months – but they weren’t exactly joined at the hip, and they led fairly separate lives as far as I could tell. Julia seemed to avoid the Scott family engulfing that could easily swamp a person if they weren’t careful; she got on well with everyone, when we saw her, but she chose when she was involved, and seemed to keep herself at a distance, rather than being swallowed whole by us all. Maybe that’s why Matt had stuck with her; we didn’t all know his business, he had a life with someone that didn’t include us all the time. Everyone needed something different from a family, and Matt certainly valued his space, but it felt like he hadn’t been around as much in the last few months. I didn’t have time to think about it right now, but maybe a late night chat was on the cards.

_James, you’ve got to have a cuddle with Charlie, she’s beautiful.

Jay rolled his eyes comically and moved to the bed, where he took Charlie from Beth and held her in his arms. He had a tender expression, and Charlie looked straight at him.

łHey little one. Wow, you are beautiful. You must take after your mum. Dec, how does this amazing creature have any of your genes?

‘Maybe she’s got my brains.’

łShe’d better make the most of her looks, then, she’ll be thick as shit.

_James! Honestly.

łOh lighten up, Beth. Cal, do you want to have a look at Charlie?

Cal shrugged.

\i can see her from here.

łCome on, mate. She’s the newest member of the family. Come and say hi.

)Do you want a hold, Cal?

Cal looked at Amy, shrugged, looked like he wanted to say yes but thought it might appear too uncool.

)Sit in the chair, then, your dad will show you how.

Cal pushed himself away from the wall with an impressive show of not caring, and sat down.

łOK mate, hold your arm like this, that’s it. You’ve got to make sure to support her head, her neck’s really floppy, that’s right. Here we are … you’ve done it! Hey, Cal, I think she likes you.

Cal looked down at Charlie, looking pleased with himself, but a little unsure what to do next. Iz looked at me.

/Cal got baby.

‘Yeah, sweetie, she’s called Charlie. She’s my and Amy’s baby. Do you like her?

Iz gave this some consideration, and nodded seriously.

/Charlie a boy.

_Well, Charlie at nursery is a boy, isn’t he sweetheart, but this Charlie is a girl. It’s short for Charlotte.

łWell done on the name, by the way, guys. Keeping it a secret too, very good. Big surprise.

\why is it such a big surprise? Loads of people are called Charlie, there’s a girl in my class, and a boy.

Everyone looked at me. I felt the weight of explaining things to Cal that I hadn’t felt for a long time. Tried to find the words without needing to say too much.

‘Well, a long time ago, I used to be called Charlie, but I changed my name. It’s kind of a reminder. We didn’t tell anyone what we’d planned, so that’s why it’s a surprise.’

\oh. You weren’t called Charlotte, though?

This made everyone laugh; Matt in particular found it very amusing.

}Oh, the twist in the tale. Are you sure you only changed your name, Dec? Amy, I think I might need proof.

)I think our daughter is your proof, Matt.

}OK, fair point.

The door opened suddenly, and Rose burst in. Carol was behind her.

:Oh, love, the traffic out there is a nightmare. On a Sunday morning too – oh! Oh, there she is.

She looked at Charlie and then at me.

:She’s just perfect, Declan, love. Oh, sorry, everyone, babies just get me going.

She was fishing in her pocket for a tissue as she spoke, so I held the box out to her. She took one, wiped her eyes, then stood and stared hungrily at Charlie.

‘Cal, can Rose have a hold now? I wouldn’t want her to burst anything waiting.’

Cal nodded. Rose bent down and picked her up gently. She bent her head down to her and burbled some nonsense, totally engrossed. I don’t think Rose would have noticed if an earthquake had hit at that precise moment. Cal got out of the chair so Rose could sit down, and Carol took the other chair, looking on.

I saw a movement at the door, caught sight of a face at the window, then it was gone. I looked over at Amy. She hadn’t noticed and was smiling at Charlie, eyes full of love and happiness. I nearly left it alone. Couldn’t. I put Iz down, went to the door and looked down the corridor. Someone was walking away quickly. I followed.

‘Diane.’

I ran to catch up with her. She stopped, turned to face me.

‘Why didn’t you come in?’

;There are too many people in there already.

‘Amy would love to see you.’

;I think it would be … awkward.

‘Who gives a shit? She’s just had a baby. The most beautiful baby girl –’

I saw that hungry look steal over her face, the same one Rose had earlier.

‘–and she wants to show her to her mum. I don’t think she’ll think it’s awkward, I think she’ll be very pleased to see you, and very proud.’

;I think … I might have left it too late. Amy’s father has been so difficult about this whole thing. I should maybe have done more. It’s been very hard.

‘It’s not too late, but it’s been hard on Amy too. Most people have their mums around at a time like this. She’s missed you. We’ve got an amazing family, they’re all here now, they wouldn’t be anywhere else. They’ve been there for her through everything. But they’re not her mum. I’d give anything to have my mum here today. I think Amy feels the same about you.’

I saw the indecision on her face. Decided to push it.

‘Come on, Diane. Come and meet Charlie. She’s so beautiful, she’s just like Amy. You don’t have to stay long, just say hello. You’ve come all the way down here, you must want to see her, hold her.’

She looked at me with a mixture of hope and fear on her face. Made a decision.

;I can’t stay long, Jack doesn’t know where I am.

‘Fuck Jack. Come on, come and meet your granddaughter.’

I held out a hand. Surprising me, she took it, and squeezed it very tightly as we walked back up the corridor to the room. I went in first.

Rose was still holding Charlie, looking like she was never going to let go; Jay and Matt were teasing Cal about something that had happened at school; Iz was sitting on Carol’s lap, chattering away; Beth was sat on the bed, head close to Amy’s watching Rose and Charlie.

‘Ames …’

Amy looked up, and I indicated behind me with my head and a raise of my eyebrows, then stood aside to let Diane walk in. Amy gasped and put her hand over her mouth, so I could only see her eyes, but they were wide and shining.

)Mum …

‘You all know Amy’s mum, don’t you.’

There was more than a hint of frostiness in the air. The last time everyone had seen her had been the family meal, when her husband had called Amy and me a disgrace.

‘She’s come to meet Charlie. Rose, you’re going to have to let go for a few minutes. You can have more cuddles later.’

I took Charlie from Rose and held her close to Diane.

‘Here she is, your amazing granddaughter. Charlie, meet your – actually, Diane, what do you want to be called? Grandma? Granny? Nan?’

Diane couldn’t stop staring at Charlie.

;Oh, er I hadn’t really thought …

)How about Granna, Mum?

Diane looked up and at Amy. Something passed between them; something somewhere had just been mended. Tears filled Diane’s eyes.

;Oh yes, Amy. Granna. Oh, my love, she’s beautiful. I’m sorry, so sorry I haven’t … I couldn’t …

)Don’t, Mum. It doesn’t matter. You came. Have a cuddle. She’s pretty good at cuddles. Dec?

‘Ready, Diane?’

I passed her over, then perched on the arm of Rose’s chair, watching as my beautiful daughter melted her Granna’s heart. I saw Rose’s expression soften, and everyone seemed to relax. It was still quiet, but no longer icy.

/unca Matty, I need a wee-wee.

Iz’s announcement shattered the tension.

}Thanks for that Iz. Why did you choose me to divulge this information to?

/Need a wee-wee.

}OK, blondie, I hear you. Anyone else care to field this one?

_Alright, sweetheart, let’s find the loo.

Beth and Iz left to wander down the corridor in search of facilities.

\dad, can I play on my DS now?

Cal had waited for Beth to leave the room, and now Jay was fair game as the soft touch.

łSure, mate, just turn the sound down.

Cal got out the console and sat cross legged on the floor by the window.

łDec, are there any more chairs anywhere? I feel like a spare part leaning up against the wall.

‘Maybe ask one of the nurses?’

łCome on Matty, make yourself useful, come and move some furniture.

Diane was still standing by the bed holding Charlie, still totally beguiled.

:She’s adorable, isn’t she, love?

;She is very, very lovely. Amy, she looks just like you when you were born. Exactly the same.

Rose, never one to leave things be, decided to put her oar in just a little bit.

:You should be very proud of your daughter, she’s a credit to you. Both her and Declan. They’re going to be very good parents.

;I am proud of her. I am, Amy.

)Thanks, Mum.

Diane looked like she was trying to drink in Charlie’s face. Carol started to get out of her chair.

#Why don’t you sit down, dear? It’s much easier to cuddle sitting down.

Diane seemed to rouse herself. She looked at Carol, then at Amy, regretfully.

;No, that’s alright, thank you. I’m so sorry, Amy, I’ve got to go. Your father doesn’t know I’m here. I … think … I need to talk to him.

She handed Charlie back to Amy.

;I’m so sorry.

)Come back soon, Mum.

;When are you going home?

)Some time tomorrow morning. Call me, I’ve got my mobile here.

Diane bent down and kissed Amy, and had another long look at Charlie.

‘Why don’t I take a picture? I can email it to you.’

Diane looked at me like I had just offered to fly to the moon for her.

;Oh Declan, that would be wonderful.

She walked over to me and, for the first time ever, kissed me on the cheek.

;Thank you so much.

‘Thank you too.’

She straightened her shoulders, arming herself for what would likely be a difficult return home, and left the room, looking back through the window for a last glance at Amy and Charlie. Amy looked at me and smiled.

‘Granna?’

)Oh, that was what we used to call my great grandma. Family name.

‘Sounds perfect, babe.

My phone rang. I fetched it from the bedside cabinet, glanced at the screen. Lis. Fuck, I had forgotten to call them.

‘Lis! I’m so sorry, I forgot to ring, I was waiting till it wasn’t so early there, then everyone turned up and it got crazy.’

~Hi Dec, don’t worry, Beth gave us a cheeky tinkle earlier. Hope you don’t mind! Congratulations, Daddy! How is she? How’s Amy?

‘They’re both absolutely gorgeous. I’ll text you a picture.’

~Oh there’s no need, Dec, we’re –

>We are here!

The door opened and to my utter astonishment Nico and Lis walked in. I stood with my mouth hanging open. Amy had a similar expression on her face. Rose and Carol looked very pleased with themselves, so they obviously knew. Cal stood up and put his game away.

‘Holy fuck! What the … when did … it’s so great to see you!’

Nico walked over and gave me a huge hug, while Lis did the same to Amy and Charlie.

>We are in England for business. We must see you and your baby. Ha, we keep secret as surprise. You have surprise?

‘Fucking gobsmacked.’

>So now I see your baby.

~Oh Nico, come and look, she’s perfect.

Lis had managed to take her from Amy. Charlie was dealing very well with the changes in handlers. Nico looked at Charlie with a tender expression.

>Hey beautiful lady. You are like your mother. Amy, she has your eyes. Ha, I hope she has nothing of Declan. You do well. You both do very well.

He kissed Amy.

>We bring baby things.

He handed a large bag to Amy, as Jay and Matt banged through the door carrying a chair each, which they put down on the other side of the bed.

łOn time as ever, Nico, we’ve been here for ages.

>I like to make dramatic entrance.

łOh that’s it, is it? You’re not the only ones who can do surprises, Dec.

‘Apparently not.’

}Watch out, Dec, it might be time to lock up your daughter if Nico’s on the loose.

‘He’s already tried it on. She wasn’t having any of it though.’

Beth and Iz came back in, Iz holding a cardboard cup. She held it up to me.

/dec, got slushie.

‘Great stuff, Iz, what colour?’

/blue one.

‘The best sort. Why don’t you sit with Granny to drink it?’

Iz looked round the room to see if there was a better offer. She fixed her eyes on the prize.

/sit wif Eeco.

He bowed.

>I am honoured, beautiful Isobel. Thank you, Jaime, to bring my chair.

Jay rolled his eyes as Nico sat down and Iz ran over to jump onto his lap.

łDec’s not the only one who’s going to need to lock up his daughter.

Beth and Lis had squealed and hugged and were now gathered round the bed with Amy, Rose and Carol, talking about who knows what in some cryptic baby language. I was beginning to realise that however many books I’d read and classes I’d been to, I was never going to be part of the club.

My attention was distracted by Nico looking at Jay questioningly.

>Jaime, I can say?

łI guess so, Nico, if you want to. It’s going to be announced tomorrow anyway.

>Declan, Lis and me are coming back to the city. I sign for Raiders again.

Again I stared open mouthed, as Cal let out a whoop.

\yes!

>Ha, Cal you are pleased, thank you for this. I hope you still have ‘TIAGO’ on your shirt.

łHis shirt’s getting a bit small, we were just about to get him another one. I thought we might get ‘SCOTT’ on the back this time – I guess that’s not likely now. Should have written it into your bloody contract.

Beth, who seemed to be able to listen to several conversations at once, had also squealed at Nico’s announcement.

_Lis, you kept that quiet! James, honestly, not even a hint?

~You know what it’s like, Beth, nothing’s ever settled till the last minute. Nico literally sorted it yesterday after the game. Er, actually, there’s something else we’ve been keeping a bit of a secret till everything was sorted … it’s one of the main reasons we’ve come back to England, really.

Lis looked over at Nico and smiled.

_You’re not … ?

~I am! Fourteen weeks. Oh, Amy, sorry, this is butting in on your celebration. Typical Lis and Nico, come in, take over. We’ll save it for later, yeah?

)That’s so great, Lis, not butting in at all. The more babies the better.

łJesus, Nico, you never said a word. Wasn’t that a bit risky, what if we’d said no?

>Ha, I know Raiders not resist my amazing tries. And I have plan B – if Raiders say no, maybe I am nanny for Declan and Amy?

}That I would like to see, Nico in his Mary Poppins uniform, sleeping on the sofa in Dec’s tiny flat. Listen, guys, sorry to break up the party, I’ve got to shoot off, me and Jules are doing stuff this morning. Plus my brain’s a bit crammed with all the news. This bloody family does my nut sometimes. Love you all but time to go.

Matt hugged and kissed Amy, kissed Charlie and stroked her cheek, raised a hand in farewell to everyone else, then stood in front of me, grinning.

}Look after them, mate, you have a bloody awesome little family there. See you soon.

He held out his hand, and as I went to clasp it, he raised his thumb to his nose and wiggled his fingers at me, before leaving. I hadn’t got to the bottom of the weird vibe I was feeling from Matt, but I didn’t have time to think about it. He seemed happy enough when he left, and I was sure whatever it was would keep, most likely until the early hours of some night when I really needed my sleep.

Matt

Rose and Mum arrived, Amy’s mum put in a brief appearance, and then Nico turned up with Lis, and it all got a bit chaotic. It was too noisy, and I was glad, in the end, that Jules hadn’t come. She would have hated it.

Remembering I needed to get back to Jules so we could buy a bed, I made my excuses and drove home. I was in no way able to assimilate the revelation I’d had when I held Charlie. I couldn’t admit it to myself, not yet, but it was there, just under the surface, waiting to be explored and acted on, and it made me irritable and manic.

64. You’ve got to hide your love away

In which people say they love each other without using words.

Matt

I crashed into bed only when I could no longer keep my eyes open. I thought I’d lie awake ruminating, but I must have tired myself out with it all, because I was suddenly aware of my phone trilling at me. It wouldn’t usually have woken me up, not much did, but the sound was the FaceTime alert, and it must have permeated my slumber as significant. I grabbed the phone off the bedside table and saw Jules’ name. Even in my mid-sleep fog, I knew it was important.

‘Hey you.’

As her face appeared on my pillow and I tried to work out what she wanted to say, I aimed for casual, trying to make it seem as if the rest of my life didn’t depend on the next few minutes.

‘Hello.’

‘You OK?’

‘Yes.’

And it seemed as if I was going to have to drag it out of her.

‘Is there a reason you’ve called me at …’

I checked the time

‘… What The Fuck o’clock?’

‘Yes.’

Jules could be beyond frustrating sometimes, and now she was answering my questions with less than the bare minimum of information, and I couldn’t help feeling irritated.

‘Oh good, because I really wouldn’t want to just be lying here asking random questions. As long as there’s a fucking reason, that’s bloody fine.’

‘I already am.’

This floored me. What the fuck was that supposed to mean? My brain was wrapped in sleep and the previous day’s circular thinking, and I couldn’t work it out.

‘Already are what?’

‘Living with you.’

‘Oh.’

I couldn’t tell if this was a good thing or a bad thing, and was still wary about putting another foot wrong.

‘Meaning …’

‘Meaning, I’ve been here all day, thinking, and I eventually realised that even apart from all my stuff being at your place, this isn’t my home any more. I feel more at home over there, with you. I already am living with you, just maybe neither of us realised it. Until today.’

Oh thank you all that is holy and good, she’s OK with it. Somehow, it’s been pulled back from the jaws of disaster, and I can breathe.

‘So you’re not going to dump me for having the temerity to suggest a slightly longer term relationship?’

Just checking. Always good to check and double check you’re not going to be dumped.

‘No.’

I felt myself untense, which unleashed a diatribe borne of relief.

‘Thank fuck for that. Oh Jules, I thought I’d fucking blown it. Shit, I’ve been thinking about you all day, wondering if I should call or text. I shouldn’t have just blurted it, it just kind of occurred to me, and next thing I knew I was saying it, and I should have been as fucking freaked as you, but like you said, it had already happened, and that’s not quite as fucking terrifying as planning it, in some weird way, so as soon as I saw your face I realised I’d fucked up, but I couldn’t unsay it, and then –’

‘Matt, stop.’

I stopped.

‘You’re burbling.’

‘Sorry, I’m just so fucking relieved.’

‘I get that.’

‘Are you OK, though? You’re not like ‘oh well all my stuff’s there I suppose I’m going to have to’, even though you don’t really want to, are you?’

‘Do you even know me at all? Does that sound like the sort of thing I’d say?’

‘Ha ha, no, I suppose not, I’m just having my own little insecure moment – well, I’ve been having them all day, I suppose. I knew you needed to go off and have a think, but not knowing what you were thinking was bloody awful. I kept going ‘she’ll be OK’ and then ‘no, she’ll dump you’ and then ‘you should call’ and then ‘don’t be a twat, that’s the last thing she wants’.’

‘Well now you know what I want. I want to live with you.’

‘Holy fuck, Jules, this is huge. Both of us, making some bloody enormous commitment. Fuucking hell.’

I widened my eyes at her as it sunk in. I’d never asked anyone to move in before. With Carrie, it was half an assumption on my part, and half a reluctant ‘oh well if I must, my house is being sold and I haven’t got a choice’ on her part, and so this really was the biggest thing I’d ever done – we’d ever done. Jules had never shared a home with anyone, at least not a romantic partner. It really was commitment city for us.

‘But we’re not, really, are we. It’s still like it was in the beginning, in a way, we’re still finding out how it works, seeing how it goes. I think I’m going to give the flat up, though.’

Ha ha, Jules, yeah, let’s just keep this little fantasy going a bit longer. No, of course, it’s no big deal, you move in here and give your flat up and change both of our lives, and it’s just business as usual really. And I went along with it, because that’s how I wanted it to be as well.

‘Whoa, blow my fucking mind why don’t you.’

‘Yes, well, it makes sense, but we’re going to have to sit down and do it all properly, splitting bills and everything.’

I put on a mock serious expression. This was just Jules being Jules, making sure she knew how things were going to be.

‘Yes, of course, how wise and sensible, it’s a good job we’re not hopeless romantics.’

‘It’s a bit late at night to talk about the specifics, maybe we can do it tomorrow, after work, when we get home.’

‘I like the sound of that – ‘when we get home’. You’re not putting up any bloody girly fairy lights or furry cushions or shit, though.’

Jules wasn’t the only one who could call the shots about how it was going to be. I saw her suppress a smile.

‘Maybe that could be a point of negotiation.’

‘Nope, not negotiable. If I’d thought you were the fairy light and cushion type of woman, I’d never have asked.’

This was partially true. I knew Jules’ tastes, they were similar to mine, and it was another reason I’d been able to speak without thinking yesterday morning.

‘Maybe I’ve hidden my penchant for twinkling illuminations and plush furnishings from you all this time.’

‘You’d better bloody not have, you’re in for a big disappointment if you think my – our – place is having a womanly makeover.’

I paused to grin.

‘Jules, come home. Now?’

We both smiled at those words.

‘No, it’s way too late. I don’t expect you want to sleep.’

‘Fuck no, I want to celebrate.’

I was completely awake, now, and I wanted my girl here at home, in our bed, party for two.

‘Well that’s all very well for you, with your cushy part time job where you can roll up any time of the morning, or indeed afternoon, but I need to be in early, and I need my sleep.’

‘Please?’

‘This might be the last night I get to spend in my comfy bed.’

‘There’s not much of the night left. Wait, are you saying my bed’s not comfy?’

Although it was true that I slept better in Jules’ bed, even though we were hardly ever there. Not that I was going to admit it.

‘Not as comfy as mine.’

‘Bloody cheek. My bed’s the best.’

‘Well we’ll just have to agree to differ.’

‘Maybe … we won’t. How about, as a kind of ‘welcome Jules’ present, we buy a new bed? A bloody huge one with a telly that slides out of the end, and built in speakers, and a massaging mattress and –’

I was even willing to go shopping with her. I was a hopeless case.

‘Actually, a new bed that we’ve both chosen does sound like a good idea. I think we might have to compromise on some of the added extras.’

‘You’re not even here yet and you’re making me compromise. Might have to reassess … nah, you’re still fucking worth it. OK, here’s another compromise, just so you know I can. Come home, Jules, and sleep. I promise. I’ve got a hard-on the size of the Empire State Building, but I’ll ignore it for you, and let you snore away.’

It was the most magnanimous of gestures, as far as I was concerned. I might have to forego the party for two, but there would be plenty of other opportunities, and if it got her over here tonight, it would be worth it. I just wanted to hold her.

‘I do not snore.’

‘You bloody do snore. Mrs Bartlett from upstairs was down earlier complaining about it.’

‘If Mrs Bartlett from upstairs was complaining about noises from the bedroom, I doubt it was just me she would have been hearing.’

‘Well, there is that.’

‘So I can really just go to sleep?’

‘Yeah. Promise. Thinking about Anne Widdecombe as we speak.’

‘Alright then.’

‘Woohoo.’

I may have fist-pumped in the manner of a small boy.

‘See you in a bit.’

I opened the door to the bedroom, then got back into bed, so that when Jules arrived I could watch her coming through the front door, coming home, for the first time.

Julia

I disconnected, grabbed my car keys and my bag and drove across the city to Matt’s – or rather our – apartment. It was very early in the morning, and it all felt a bit unreal. As I pulled up outside and stopped the car, I took several deep breaths, and then made my way inside. Matt was waiting in bed, the bedroom door open and soft light spilling out into the living room; the rest of the flat was in darkness. I shut the door and called out.

‘Hi honey I’m home.’

‘What bloody time of night do you call this? Your dinner’s in the dog.’

I reached the bedroom and leaned on the door frame looking at Matt as he lay in bed, hands behind his head.

‘We haven’t got a dog.’

‘Oh yeah. Jules, we should get a dog.’

‘No dogs.’

‘But I’ve already given him a name. Frederick Ponsonby Smythe the Third.’

‘No dogs.’

‘Poor Frederick will be heartbroken. He’s a cockapoo.’

‘No dogs. Also, while we’re at it, no cats, birds, rodents or anything else that needs feeding or shits indiscriminately. Except you, of course. You can stay.’

‘You’re hilarious.’

He pulled the duvet back and patted the sheet.

‘Come on then, first night in your new place, big moment. Excited?’

‘I’m managing to control myself.’

Although I admit my heart was beating a little faster than usual. I walked over to the bed and felt under the pillow for my t-shirt, then laughed softly to myself.

‘It’s all making sense. I keep my old tshit here, I’ve brought half my books over, I even found myself wondering where to put one of my pictures the other day. How did we not realise?’

‘Which picture? It had better not be a bloody kitten.’

I pulled off my clothes and put my sleeping shirt on, while Matt watched appreciatively, then I got in to bed. He put his arm round me and I tucked myself in close to him.

‘Starry Starry Night. Van Gogh.’

‘I bloody love that painting. He painted it from his room in the loony bin.’

‘I know. I know practically everything there is to know about it. I’ve had the print for years.’

‘Where were you going to put it?’

‘On the wall.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, good move, otherwise we’d be stepping on it and shit.’

‘In here? Above the chest of drawers.’

He looked over at the spot and considered.

‘Yeah. I think it’d look great. Bring it over, we’ll do it.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. See, I’m not territorial or anything, this is totally our place, together. You weren’t thinking of moving anything or changing anything else in any way whatsoever though, were you?’

‘Weell, I thought we might have to paint the walls purple. It’s kind of a deal-breaker.’

‘Right then. Out you go, you’re no longer welcome. It’ll just be me and Frederick from now on.’

He pulled me into his arms and folded me up. I felt his erection nudging me.

‘Anne didn’t work her magic this time then?’

Matt

‘Ha ha, well, she did at the time, and then you showed up and shook your tits at me, and all Anne’s hard work went down the drain. It’s not a problem. You go to sleep. Look, putting the light out.’

And my intentions were honourable, but you know how it is, you’ve got a gorgeous woman lying next to you, old tshit and no fuking pants, and you’re too excited to sleep. And even though you’ve promised, and she’s tired, well, she’s fucking hot, and you’re trying to ignore your hard-on, but you just can’t help wondering if she’s as tired as she says she is. So I gave her a goodnight kiss, and I suppose it was a bit more than a peck on the cheek, seeing as it was a snog on the lips, and there was tongue action.

Julia

‘That’s not noticeably helping me get to sleep.’

‘Sorry. I’ll behave.’

I lay in his arms and waited. I didn’t have to wait long.

Matt

And I tried, I really did. I tried for at least a minute.

‘Jules …’

‘Yes.’

‘How sleepy are you?’

‘Pretty sleepy.’

She did sound tired. And it had been a full on day for both of us. And she had to get up earlier than I did. I should just stop, be a gent, behave myself like I’d promised.

‘Oh. OK.’

But it was so fucking hard, when I was … so fucking hard.

Julia

I waited some more.

‘Jules …’

‘Mm.’

‘You’re not asleep yet, then?’

‘Apparently not.’

‘Are you nearly?’

‘Well I might be, if I didn’t keep getting asked if I was asleep yet.’

I smiled to myself, knowing I was going to give in eventually. I waited a little bit longer.

Matt

No, she was right, I was being annoying, and I was also breaking my promise, which just wasn’t right on our first night of cohabitation. But she was so gorgeous, and I wanted her so much.

‘Jules …’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’

She pushed me onto my back and straddled me, and I got my way. I’m pretty sure she didn’t mind, really, if what happened after that was any kind of measure …

Julia

‘Welcome home, Jules.’

‘Can I get some sleep now?’

‘By all means.’

‘Thanks.’

‘My pleasure.’

‘I think Mrs Bartlett might be glad of some sleep too.’

‘I aim to please.’

‘Goodnight Matt.’

‘Goodnight Jules. Goodnight Mrs Bartlett.’

Matt

And there we were, a week later, all moved in and living together. To say things had happened quickly was a bit of an understatement; I certainly got to see Jules in decisive mode. She had given notice on her flat and negotiated a quick release from her tenancy by the end of the next day, and organised removals and storage for all her stuff. We took the day off to move her in on the Friday, naturally being banned by Jules from telling anyone at work what we were doing, so I had to fend Lexi off from curiosity killed the receptionist overload (‘So are you going away for the weekend together?’ ‘Yeah, kind of.’ ‘Kind of? How’s that?’ ‘Kind of a mystery tour.’ ‘What?’ ‘Tell you later.’). We didn’t tell anyone, actually, be they work, family, friends, anyone. I wanted to see how long it would take Beth’s spidey-sense to work it out, and liked having something of mine that wasn’t constantly being examined and picked apart by the rest of the family. It felt good having Jules all to myself, at least for a while, and I know she was more than happy with things that way.

Ever practical, the first thing Jules wanted to do was divvy up the bills, so while she was working things out I took a hammer to the bedroom wall and put up a hook for her Van Gogh print. It looked great there. It said ‘this is Jules’ bedroom too’, and I liked it a lot.

Julia

The next few days were a mad whirl of arrangements and organisation. I contacted my landlord to give notice on my flat, and he had a new tenant lined up twenty-four hours later. He agreed to waive my month’s rent if I could move out by the weekend, so Matt and I had to decide which items of my furniture we wanted to have at his place, and which ones I was going to, firstly, store and then eventually move up to Norfolk. I still hadn’t decided what to do with Nons’ house; renting it out was a possibility, but until I decided, I could keep my things there.

Matt and I took the day off on the Friday, hired a van, and spent the day shifting furniture and boxes from my flat to the storage place and his flat. We had decided not to tell anyone about me moving in, not to make a big deal about it. Matt warned me that if Beth found out – ‘or rather when she finds out, she always finds shit out’ – she would want to throw a party or at the very least have a big meal together ‘to welcome me to the family’, and we didn’t want that. We hoped we could just take it slowly and get used to it in our own time; Dec and Amy’s baby was due in a week or so, and that would deflect the focus from us – we hoped we might then be able to drop it into a conversation so no one noticed.

We sorted out practicalities like rent and food – Matt owned his apartment, so we agreed I would pay half his mortgage as rent, and we decided to stick to our current shopping arrangements. This meant that Matt would continue to shop online, and I would go out to choose my own food when I felt like it. We could always change things later. I brought my Starry Starry Night picture over as part of my van load, and Matt put up a picture hook for it. We lay in bed and looked at it on that Friday night.

‘Perfect.’

‘You’re pretty handy with a hammer.’

‘I know. I have many hidden talents.’

‘You know what would look even better in here?’

Matt looked at me suspiciously.

‘No, what?’

‘A bright pink furry duvet. And some multi-coloured fairy lights kind of draped around the –’

Matt cut me off with a hefty kiss, which had the dual impact of shutting me up and leaving me breathless.

‘Or, maybe, I’ve seen these lovely cushions in a catalogue, they’d look –’

Another kiss stopped me from continuing, this time coupled with his hand travelling under my shirt and pinching my nipple fairly hard.

‘Are you liking my ideas then? How about, Margie was telling me about this wallpaper you can get that’s got tiny kittens all over it, it sounds so –’

He flipped me onto my back and pinned my wrists above my head with both hands, nudged my legs apart with his knee and laid his whole weight on top of me. It nearly suffocated me, but he didn’t stay like that for long.

Lifting his torso from mine, Matt bent his head down and sealed my mouth with his, biting and sucking at my lips and tongue fiercely. He started to thrust against me, not inside me yet, but rubbing hard along me, setting me on fire. He lifted his mouth from mine and raised an eyebrow when I didn’t speak, then briefly supported himself on one arm as he reached down to position himself to enter me. That achieved, he clamped his mouth over mine again and began to pound into me. I wrapped my legs around his back, wanting more, wanting him to thrust harder and faster, our tongues tangling with each other’s, my hands still pinned above my head, him in me and me around him, both grunting with exertion and groaning with pleasure, as we raced each other to our mutual detonation. I felt him stiffen, and clenched him tightly.

‘Oh fuck, Jules, fuck yeah, fuck, fuck, ahhh, oh fuuuck, unhh.’

I felt him shudder into me once, twice and then a final time, and then I felt my own fireworks start as he continued to move in me, using his fingers on my clitoris to pull all the tingling throbbing from all over my body to that one place in my centre, and then ignite it in a swirl of sensation and light that flooded through me and took me with it on a wave of delirium.

I lay for some time, unable to think, hardly able to catch my breath, arms flung wide, Matt lying half on top of me, panting, both of us slippery with sweat. Eventually, I could move and I wriggled out from under Matt, who rolled over and pulled me to him, kissing me tenderly.

‘Well, fuck me, I hope that’s taught you not to go all girly on me.’

‘Oh, was I offending your masculinity? Is that why you were so, so manly and domineering?’

‘There’s only so much girl shit I can take before my testosterone takes over. Let that be a warning to you.’

‘Or a lesson in how to get it rough if I want it.’

‘Fuck yeah, that too. But if you want it rough, you seriously only have to ask.’

‘Sometimes it’s more fun not to have to.’

‘Julia Marran, you are one deviously wicked woman.’

He wrapped me up in his arms and we drifted off to sleep together.

Matt

We settled into life together almost immediately. I had expected Jules to have a little wobble, maybe try to exert her independence in some way, but nothing really changed apart from waking up together every morning and going to bed together every night, and that was awesome, more than awesome.

Sleeping with Jules had always been great, but being in this new phase of us brought an intensity to the bedroom that I hadn’t anticipated. We still pretty much did our own thing at other times, going in, staying out, doing stuff together and apart, and at the end of the first week we knew it felt great, like things were really working, why hadn’t we done it before?

Julia

And things were great that first week. I really enjoyed living within walking distance of work, and surprised myself by feeling totally at ease calling Matt’s place home. We were easy with each other, too, not noticeably changing our routine – Matt went out to watch football in the pub, I read my book when Matt was there and when he wasn’t, we both cooked meals, and we went out to dinner once. I was feeling settled and happy.

Matt

It was a Saturday, Jules had been living with me for a week and a day, and she had gone shopping before I’d got up. There was a Raiders home game that day, and I was taking Cal, as I had started to do regularly since he first asked me a few months ago. I was sitting watching a football preview programme on TV when my phone rang with Dec’s ringtone.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Hey. Amy’s in labour.’

I felt a little thrill of anticipation. Despite all the scoffing Jules and I had done about the whole baby thing, it was still my best mate who was about to become a dad. It was a big moment.

‘Holy shit. Are you on your way to hospital then?’

‘No, I don’t think they’ll want us there yet. I’m not going to be playing today, though, Don’s let me pull out of the squad.’

‘Bugger. Oh well, I’m sure there’s someone as good if not better waiting in the wings.’

‘Yeah, whatever.’

He sounded a bit worried – once you lost your place in the team, it could be hard to get it back, but babies tended not to care much about that when they decided to make their arrivals. Just ask Lau how convenient her labour was.

‘Don’t worry, mate, I hear Raiders are looking for ball boys. I’m sure you’ll find something to do.’

‘Piss off. Are you taking Cal?’

‘Yeah, heading off to pick him up in a bit. Hope it all goes well your end – let me know, yeah?’

‘Yeah, although if it’s a middle of the night job, we won’t be telling anyone until morning. Boss’s orders.’

By which I assumed he meant Amy and not Beth, although you couldn’t always tell.

‘OK mate, well good luck, keep me posted.’

Julia

The next Saturday, I called Evie in the morning and arranged to go and see her for lunch the next day. Matt and I were going to go bed shopping in the morning, but that left the afternoon free. He often went to Jay and Beth’s for Sunday lunch, whether he was invited or not, and I decided not to go with him mainly because baby speculation was reaching fever pitch but also because I didn’t want to run the risk of them all finding out about our new living arrangements.

Matt was taking Cal to watch the rugby that afternoon, and he never got up very early on a Saturday if he didn’t have to, so I took myself off into town to do some shopping. Matt hated shopping, made all his purchases on line, whether it was food, clothes, birthday presents or anything else, and there was no chance he was going to come with me, especially as he was going to be devoting a chunk of his Sunday morning to looking at beds.

I took my time in town, had lunch, and got back just before Matt had to set off to collect Cal. As I walked in the door, he was finishing a phone call.

Matt

As I spoke, the door opened and Jules came in, carrying several shopping bags. She kissed me on the forehead and dumped the bags on one end of the sofa before flopping down next to me.

‘What babe?’

Attention back on my phone, I heard Amy’s voice in the background, possibly an exclamation of pain.

‘OK, right there. Sorry, Matt. Needed. Catch you later.’

‘Yeah, love to Amy, see you soon mate. Bye.’

I looked at Jules as she raised an eyebrow at me in query.

‘Amy’s gone into labour.’

Julia

‘Oh. That’s early, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, I think it is a bit. Dec’s had to pull out of the game today, Cal’ll be disappointed.’

‘Oh well, at least it will all be over with soon, everyone will know if it’s a boy or a girl, what the mysterious name is going to be, and all the constant conjecturing can stop.’

‘Yeah.’

I looked hard at Matt, he seemed a bit off, but nothing I could put my finger on.

‘Are you alright?’

He seemed to rouse himself, gave me a big grin and stood up.

‘Yeah. I guess it’s just a pretty big day for the Scott family, even if the main protagonists aren’t Scotts. I think you might be disappointed if you think they’re all going to shut the fuck up now, though. Beth still talks constantly about Cal and Iz, isn’t that what mothers do?’

‘I wouldn’t know. My mother doesn’t talk constantly about me, I’m quite sure.’

I hadn’t even heard from my mother for over two months, and that was only a short text informing me that ‘Dubai far too hot. Off to Moscow.’

Matt looked at me sympathetically.

‘Well my mum’s stopped bragging about me and Jay now she’s got grandchildren. Maybe it’s an age thing.’

‘Maybe.’

‘I’d better get going. Good shop? I see you needed many more items of clothing. Any pants?’

‘I did buy some underwear. Stop rifling, I’ll show you later.’

‘Promise?’

‘Promise. You won’t be disappointed.’

‘Crotchless?’

‘Not if you paid me. Wait and see.’

He pouted, but gave me a hug and kiss and left to fetch Cal.

Matt

I really did feel a bit weird about it, as if something momentous was happening. Well, I suppose it was, but it wasn’t happening to me, and I didn’t really care greatly for babies in general, much as I was excited for Dec and Amy in particular. In fact, I was a bit resentful that I was likely to see less of them, as always happened with new parents and exhaustion and shit. Piles of shit, actually. So I wasn’t quite sure what I was feeling, and it didn’t fit with what I should be feeling, what I thought I’d feel, so I basically just ignored it. Jules seemed to notice and asked if I was alright, but I grinned at her and told her everything was fine. Then I went to watch Raiders with Cal, and didn’t think any more about my bloody incomprehensible feelings.

When I dropped Cal back at Jay’s, Beth was predictably in full-blown anticipatory overdose. She asked three times if I’d heard from Dec, although she knew full well he’d call her first, or at the latest second, after Rose. And he had contacted her a while ago anyway, to say Amy had gone into the maternity unit, and things were going well, but not to expect anything for a while. It was almost as if Beth hadn’t had children of her own, and wanted it all to happen immediately.

‘Beth, calm down.’

We were standing in the kitchen, where I’d made her a camomile tea in an attempt to stop her having a stroke, which I thought might put a bit of a dampener on the day. Telling her twice before to calm down hadn’t had a noticeable effect, but I was enjoying being the one who was telling her what to do for a change. I hardly ever saw Beth flustered.

‘I am calm.’

‘You are so far from calm. You know they’ll be fine, right?’

‘I know, sweetheart. It’s just hard not knowing what’s going on. I did offer to go with them, but they said no.’

‘Ha ha, I’m not surprised, if this is what you’re like. Amy needs organised professionals, not family members going all hyper.’

‘I’ve worked on maternity wards.’

‘Yeah, a million years ago. It’s nothing personal.’

‘Oh I know that, really. I just can’t wait to meet him. Or her. I know they know if it’s a boy or a girl, I don’t know why they wouldn’t say.’

‘Beth, believe me when I tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that keeping a secret from you is so bloody hard, it’s worth seeing the look on your face just to keep going, in the face of all your probing.’

‘I don’t probe.’

‘You bloody do, you can’t help yourself. I’m just saying, sometimes we all like keeping things to ourselves that you don’t know about.’

Shit, if Beth had been on her game, she would have sniffed out Jules and I living together in a heartbeat after that. But it went right over her head in a haze of baby, and I decided to escape before I gave too much away. A quick game on the X-box with Cal, and I was off home to Jules. The thought of Jules waiting at home, our home, still made me smile.

Julia

I spent the afternoon trying on my new clothes and reading a book. I was really engrossed in the novel, and didn’t realise the time until I looked up and it was starting to get dark. I put some lights on, and was just starting to wonder where Matt was, and whether I needed to start some dinner, when I heard his key in the lock, and he walked in. He looked tired, but gave me a big crinkly smile, sat down next to me on the sofa and hugged me.

‘Hello. Good game?’

‘Yeah, really good. I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. You have loads of men, and they chuck the ball to each other and chase each other, and then one of them gets caught, and they all pile on top of him. I think they might be trying to squash him. And one of the ones in the pile gets the ball and runs really fast until one of the others catches him and then they all pile on top of him too. It’s great fun. There’s fighting and everything, but it’s all part of the game, so nobody really minds.’

‘Hmm, sounds delightful. Have you eaten?’

‘Yeah, had a pasty and chips with Cal at the stadium. Have you?’

‘How on earth do you stay so skinny? No, not yet, I was just thinking about it. Might just have a sandwich if you’re not having anything.’

‘I’ll do you something.’

‘Oh, no, there’s no need –’

‘Let me, Jules, I’d like to, I’ve deserted you all afternoon.’

‘Alright then, but I don’t feel deserted. I’ve had a nice quiet time, me and the apartment getting to know each other. We’ve had some thoughts about beds.’

‘Oh you’ve both been plotting, have you? Tell me while you eat. Pasta?’

‘Perfect.’

He got up and walked over to the kitchen, getting out a pan and filling it with water.

‘Sorry I’m a bit late back, I stayed at Jay’s for a bit. Still no news from babyland, but I think Amy’s gone into hospital now.’

‘Excitement in overdrive?’

‘Yeah, kind of. For Beth and Jay it’s almost like being grandparents. Weird. I escaped, me and Cal played on the X-box. I let him win.’

‘Oh, you lost to Cal?’

‘No, I let him win.’

‘Oh. One day you really must explain the difference.’

‘Jules, you wouldn’t know one end of a controller from the other. Cal would beat the pants off you. And that’s my job.’

‘Ha ha. Shall I open a bottle of wine?’

‘If you want some. I’m going to have a beer or several. I’ve been very good all afternoon, avoided temptation because I was in charge of a minor and then I was driving. Now I’m letting my hair down – by all means join me with your namby-pamby wine.’

Although Matt’s bantering tone was light, I was sensing something slightly strange from him, the same slight weirdness I felt this morning. There was no point pushing it with him, he would withdraw and get defensive if I asked him what was wrong. He’d tell me soon enough if he didn’t sort it out, or at least I hoped he would. He busied himself making my dinner, and I put my head back in my book. It wasn’t long before the pasta was cooked and Matt brought it over with a glass of wine.

‘What, no table service?’

‘Didn’t seem much point just for you. Besides, I can sit beside you and do this.’

He bent down and kissed my neck, then nibbled my earlobe. It sent tingles of desire racing down to my core, but I concentrated on eating.

‘Mm, this is really good.’

‘I have to agree. Very tasty indeed.’

He licked my neck and gently kissed the curve of my jaw. He planted a few more tender kisses along my jaw until he reached the corner of my lips.

‘Hey, you should have made enough for two if you wanted some.’

‘I love it when you pretend you’re not interested.’

‘I am interested – in my dinner. You just made it for me, I’m eating it. And drinking my wine.’

I took a mouthful.

‘I’ve been thinking about you all afternoon, wondering about your new undies.’

‘Have you really? Not at all diverted by large men trying to squash each other then? I’m wearing them now.’

‘Really? Whoa.’

Matt pulled my top slightly to the side so he could see the lacy edge of my bra.

‘All looks bloody good so far. Peep-hole?’

‘No. What is it with you and holes in underwear? The whole point of underwear is to contain things, not to let them out.’

‘Ah, that’s my Jules, practical to the last.’

He bent down and kissed my breast where it disappeared into the lace of the bra. I felt a flicker of his tongue as he slid it behind the fabric. I ate another couple of mouthfuls, knowing that I wouldn’t get to finish my meal. Soon Matt would be driving me wild and my resistance would be over.

‘Matching knickers?’

Sighing, I put the plate down on the floor.

‘Yes.’

‘Yum. Bikinis?’

‘No.’

He put a hand on my thigh and slid it up a little way, to the hem of my skirt.

‘Shorts?’

‘No.’

‘French?’

‘No.’

With each answer, his hand crept further up my thigh, pulling the hem of the skirt with it. His fingers brushed the inside of my leg, until I was sure he would be able to feel my wetness.

‘Pantaloons?’

I laughed. ‘No.’

His hand crept higher and then stopped, just about at the point where he thought he would be able to feel the edge of my pants.

‘No fuking pants?’

He looked a bit confused.

‘No. Keep going.’

He pushed his hand up further, until finally his fingers encountered what they were searching for and he started to explore the fabric.

‘Oh my … Jules … thong?’

I nodded.

‘Holy shitmenot. Were there no other pants available in the whole of the city? I thought thongs were for when there was no other pants option.’

‘I thought you might like them. They’re particularly uncomfortable, so maybe the quicker you have a look and get them off me, the better.’

‘You got them for me?’

I nodded again. He grinned.

‘I don’t deserve you.’

‘No, you don’t. You bugger off all afternoon leaving me to read my book in peace, and then you cook me dinner when you come home even though you’ve had yours, you bastard, and then you rip my clothes off and –’

‘I haven’t ripped your clothes off.’

‘Are you waiting for permission?’

Our last night together was pretty incredible. We were totally immersed in each other, responding to each other without needing to talk, seeming to know when to slow down, when to speed up, when to kiss tenderly, when to fuck hard, who should be on top, when to use fingers, when to use tongues, when to stop, when to start again. It was the early hours before we finally went to sleep, utterly exhausted and completely satisfied, Matt curled up against my back, holding me tightly against him.

Matt

When I got back, I made a quick bite of pasta for Jules, and then we got lost in exploring her new underwear, and all the fun that brought to the bedroom. For a full description of all the frolics, see her account. She tells it well. It was our last time, the last fucking amazing time we were together, before …

63. Sitting, waiting, wishing

In which Matt goes off at a tangent and then returns to ask a game-changing question.

Matt

And things were great for a few months. We didn’t change anything, we didn’t acknowledge that anything might have changed, we got on with being together and enjoying life. We had great times, some of it doing ordinary stuff like films and hikes together, some of it going away together, some of it staying in together, a lot of it involving being in bed together. And while we’re there together, me and Jules, in that happy place, before I fucked it all up, I think I’m going to make a few changes of my own here.

I promised a Matt Scott fun ride, a mixed up splurge of a life-story, I believe I called it. And so far I’ve done things in sequence, with the odd ramble off the beaten track when I’ve got distracted. I’d like to deviate from the sequence of events, and if I’m honest, it’s because the next bit is hard, the next few bits are hard, and I don’t want to face them, not just yet. So bear with me while I procrastinate. I’ll try and make it fun, I’ll try and fill it with pithy insights. I’ll try.

I want to tell you about Tottenham Hotspur. I have had a few loves in my life, but Spurs have been with me through thick and thin. I had never been to Tottenham (the London Borough) before I went to Tottenham (the London Football Club), so I can’t claim they are my home side or anything. But Andrew was born in Tottenham – oh, holy shitballs, I just remembered, more of Andrew later. It’s juicy. It’ll be worth the wait – but back to me.

I met Andrew in my first week of secondary school, and we bonded, in a juvenile male way, over science class, to start with. We recognised the inherent geek in each other, and decided that it was easier to face the bullying together. I hadn’t developed any clear loyalties for any sports teams, having no aptitude for or interest in sport per se, but had fostered a need to break out of Jay’s shadow in some small way, a miniature rebellion if you will. Jay’s contempt for football that wasn’t rugby football made me want to like it; I just hadn’t got round to doing anything about it.

Andrew had a Spurs bag, and so when he asked me what football team I supported, I said Spurs, just so it would be something else we’d have in common. There were a few awkward moments when he asked me who my favourite player was, and mentioned some recent results about which I had no idea, but I bluffed my way through, did my homework on them, and turned almost overnight into Tottenham Hotspur’s biggest fan. Not pretending, but really. Partly it was so that Andrew and I would have this thing, this commonality, and partly it was to piss Jay right off.

Ever since, I have loved Spurs with all my heart. My days are brighter when they win, and darker when they lose, and although I don’t get to see them at White Hart Lane very often, I will move heaven and earth to get to see them when they’re on TV. I told Lau once that I loved her more than Spurs. It is just about true, but it is a close thing. I don’t think I’m even joking.

Nowadays, of course, I have made my peace with rugby, have been to games with Cal, Tom and Josh, and been to watch Cal and Josh play for Raiders, and I’ve been so proud of them. But in that small part of my heart reserved for Spurs, I know that I would have burst if it had been White Hart Lane they had been running out at instead of Raiders Stadium. Jay will never understand, and we often have the same conversation. It goes something like this:

‘I see your team won/lost/drew again.’

‘The mighty Spurs roll on/bunch of tossers/meh, boring game.’

‘Why do you support them again?’

‘Because they’re the best team.’

‘Doesn’t their bloody woeful record tell you otherwise?’

‘Just because a team never wins anything doesn’t mean they’re not the best.’

‘How does that work, exactly?’

I shake my head at the ignoramus who thinks that results and trophies mean everything, just because he’s won just about everything there is to win in rugby terms. He’ll never get it.

So, Andrew then. I promised you juicy, and juicy you will get. Not long after I’d started seeing Jules, while she was up in Norfolk for her aunt’s funeral, actually, I got an email from Andrew. I’d had the odd few over the years, mostly extolling the virtues of Christianity in general and the African Technology Ministry in particular. He would respond to things I’d said in my emails – at least the things that weren’t disrespectful and sarcastic – but as it was usually months since I’d written to him, I’d forgotten what I’d told him. I’d never gone into great detail about my life; he felt so far away in distance and in the time it took to correspond, that I was reluctant to pour my heart out, especially as my emails could be splattered all over some African classroom as a lesson in how not to … I don’t know, do grammar or use abbreviations or live your fucking life or some such shit.

Anyway, I hadn’t heard from Andrew for a while, longer than usual, and then I got this email, from a different email address, not one attached to the ministry thing. Here’s what it said.

Hi Matt

Sorry I’ve been out of touch, I’ve been off the grid for a while, trying to sort my life out. Things went a bit pear-shaped for me a few months ago, and I’ve been in a bit of a state.

The short story is Karen and I are getting divorced. It’s all a complete nightmare, and I’ve come back to England to recover. I’ve left ATM, left Karen and Rebecca over there, and come back to stay with my parents.

I would really like to get in touch, but I no longer have your phone number or address. If you’d be happy to, maybe you could email me back and we could have a chat? I’d like to catch up with what’s been going on with you over the last few years, as I expect you’ve got a lot to tell me too.

Andrew

He’d PSed a mobile number and an address where I could contact him, and as Jules was away and I was at a loose end, I rang him almost straight away.

‘Hi Andrew, it’s Matt.’

‘Matt! Oh my God, that was quick.’

The blasphemy wasn’t lost on me, but I didn’t comment on it.

‘Yeah, well, it’s been a while since I heard your dulcet tones, I thought I’d better call before you disappear off the face of the civilised world again.’

‘How are you?’

‘Great. Really great. You know I live in Devon now, right?’

‘Yeah. What was all that about? Isn’t that where your brother lives?’

‘Yeah, same city. Same house for a while. Long story. Short version is: I was ill a few years back, moved down here so they could help me out.’

And that was the edited, summarised, précised, cut down version of the pared to the bone story of it all. It appeared Andrew still knew me pretty well, though.

‘And one day you’re going to tell me the long version, but I doubt I’ll drag it out of you right now. Ill how?’

Nope, not going into all that.

‘It was a long time ago. I’m better now.’

‘Ha ha, nothing ever bloody changes, does it, Matt.’

I noticed the bloody, too, but didn’t comment on that, either.

‘You’re as hard to get intel out of as ever. Well, fair enough I suppose, I haven’t really earned my confidante stripes recently, I’ll have to extract it out of you sometime using the beer and whisky chaser method.’

OK, now he was going on about getting me pissed, and I needed to ask.

‘So what exactly has been going on with you, Andrew?’

‘Apart from being the biggest dickhead known to man?’

‘Maybe we could start there. You mentioned, er, divorce?’

It turned out Andrew had strayed from the fold in spectacular fashion, by having a torrid affair with one of the directors of the mission thing. They had both lost their jobs, and Andrew’s marriage had imploded.

‘But I don’t get it, Andrew. Isn’t doing the nasty out of wedlock kind of a big no-no for you religious types?’

‘Yeah, well, I’m not sure that’s how you’d categorise me these days.’

‘Really? How should I categorise you?’

He laughed bitterly. ‘Backsliding heathen sinner.’

‘That sounds like someone else’s category. Have you renounced it all? I could never really see you singing ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam’. And when I remember how much we used to take the piss out of the God Squad at Uni – fucking hell, Andrew, you were the God Squad.’

I was so hoping he’d given it all up, so I knew where I stood, and whether I could have a normal conversation with him, or still needed to rein in some of my more impetuous phraseology. I was really enjoying talking to him after all this time, and had a feeling he was more like the Andrew of old than the weird Andrew I’d been corresponding with like a pen-pal over the last few years.

‘I think that was part of the problem, really. If I’m honest, I realised fairly soon after moving out there that it was all a huge mistake. I mean all of it – going to Africa, the bloody ministry, all the God stuff; I got swept up in it. Karen and I went to this church one time in Aberystwyth, and it was all exciting, and they were so welcoming, and before I knew it I was in it all up to my hairline. I didn’t really stop to work it all out.’

‘That doesn’t sound like you.’

‘No, well, Karen was really enthusiastic, I guess we just got carried away. When the ATM thing came up, it seemed so exciting, but then when we got over there, I had time to think, and eventually I realised I’d made a huge mistake. I tried to talk to Karen about it, but she’s still really into it all, they all kept praying for me, just driving me further away. Shit, Matt, I feel so guilty about Rebecca. I feel like I’ve just abandoned her over there.’

‘Are you going to be able to go and see her?’

‘I hope so. I haven’t got any money. I’m trying to find a job, but I’ve been out of things for so long.’

‘What sort of thing are you looking for?’

‘I’ll do anything. I’d prefer something in computers, but I can’t really afford to be choosy.’

‘Where are you based?’

‘I’m at my parents’ at the moment. They’re still in Stafford.’

‘Well, maybe it’s a long shot, but remember I used to work for Eyeti in Stafford? Do you want me to see if they’ve got anything going? Last I heard they were expanding like wildfire, hiring left right and centre.’

‘Would you? Really? Oh mate, that would be bloody amazing.’

And that’s how I got my mate Andrew a job at the company I used to work for. A little bit of synchronicity, or a reward for coming to his senses. We stayed in touch, after that, and a part of my life that felt like it had been knocked off course clicked back into its intended orbit.

What else can I tell you about, while I’m on this sabbatical from the narrative? Oh yeah. Somewhere along the way, between then and now, I worked out what happened with Carrie. Obviously she is not here to confirm or deny this theory, but in the moments when I allowed myself to ponder the whole fucked up business rather than drowning in sorrow and regret, I got it, what happened.

Remember her mum, who she ditched for being inconveniently alcoholic when she was trying to sort her life out? Remember the flashes of fear when I was trying to tell her how I might end up with the help of the bastard MS? Remember how she was all over my arse for wanting to look after her, and then got all over my arse about not being able to afford shit when I reduced my hours? Most of all, remember how she told everyone we knew I got HIV from fucking around and didn’t tell her? Well good, I’m glad you’ve been paying attention.

How I figure it is this. She had some major issues. Yeah, big surprise Matt, well worked out, bet it took you all of ten seconds to come to that conclusion. But those issues weren’t about being controlled, as it would have been reasonable to assume, although, yeah, that was a theme. No, our lovely Carrie just didn’t want to look after people. She left her mum to the caring Martin and then to the clutches of statutory services; she tried her hardest to convince me there was nothing wrong with me when I was first struggling with my diagnosis; she ran off with her abusive ex-boyfriend when it all hit the fan with me; she told everyone it was my fault, so no one could suggest that maybe I deserved better than what she’d handed out, on the contrary would applaud her strength for acting as she did.

It all made sense. She hadn’t been as hung up on being controlled as she’d made out, and looking back, she had in a way had me almost as tied up as Martin had her. I hadn’t been able to move for worrying I was going to upset her by seeming like I was trying to own her in some way; she had us move into what was basically a shit-hole that we painted; she reduced our circle of friends by refusing to go out with them; she wouldn’t let me do anything nice for her without jumping through so many hoops it was hardly worth doing in the end.

She probably manipulated me from the beginning – maybe Martin wasn’t as bad as she made out, maybe he hadn’t done everything she said, maybe she knew what it would take to get me to fall for her (not much), and maybe it was just her way of escaping a situation she didn’t want to be in. Even at the start, she had threatened to make claims about me when she wanted me to leave her yoga class, so she knew how to do whatever it took to get her own way. Maybe it was the only way she knew how to be, maybe none of it was premeditated, maybe she believed it and it became her truth. Maybe.

Working it out didn’t make me feel any better about her and what she did to me, but it helped a little bit to have a reason for it. It still churned inside me, messing with every relationship I had, or didn’t have, for years. It went away for a while with Jules, but in the end it messed with that too, in a way. It wasn’t until Lau that I got rid of it; it finally seemed less important.

Lau, well, whoever I’d been with when I met Lau, I would have finished it to be with her. She knows that, she knows we were meant to be. She calls me a daft sod for saying it, and she knows I don’t believe in fate, or destiny, or all that bollocks, but with her … but I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s plenty of time for Lau. I’m going to be telling you a lot about Lau.

While we’re here, in this little hiatus between getting it right with Jules and getting it so fucking wrong, I’ll tell you about William. I met William when I went up to Norfolk with Jules, just the one time.

I was expecting to spend a lot of time with Jules that weekend, helping her to sort out her aunt’s house, providing moral support and maybe dispensing wise and objective advice about what to keep and what to throw away.

What happened was I got pissed with her next door neighbour, who needed more support than Jules in the grand scheme of things, and was a Newcastle United supporter into the bargain, so doubly needy.

It so happened that Toon were entertaining Spurs that weekend, and William had Sky Sports, so it would have been rude to turn down the offer to watch the game, and then the one after that, which neither of us had a vested interest in but, well, it’s what you do isn’t it.

By the time Jules came back, having loaded her car with bags of stuff for the tip, and filled William’s hallway with more bags of stuff that he was going to take to charity shops, we were both three sheets to the wind and barely coherent, let alone able to offer any sensible advice.

‘Oh, heeey Julesy baaby. Do you need any help there?’

‘No thank you, Matt, I think you’ve helped enough for today.’

‘But, noooo, I haven’t done anything yet, have I, I’ve gotta do something, I’ve come all this way to do something for my girl, that’s you Julesy, you’re my girl, you are, and I haven’t done anything yet.’

‘No, I did notice that, but to be frank, if you start helping now you’re going to cause more work. Just watch your football.’

‘Aw thanks Julesy, you’re fucking ace you are.’

‘I hope you haven’t been leading William astray.’

‘Nah, he supports Newcastle, he’s already as astray as he can get. Sorry, Willybilly.’

‘It’s alright, lad. You’re tipsy and you support Spurs, you don’t stand a chance.’

Jules rolled her eyes, sat down in an armchair and got her laptop out.

Later, curled up with her in the small bed she used to sleep in when she lived there, I tried to beerily apologise for abandoning her.

‘Honestly, Matt, it’s fine. I wouldn’t say when I asked if you wanted to come up here that I thought it would be so you could spend the afternoon drinking and shouting at the television, but I think it’s been good for William. He’s lonely without Nons.’

‘So are you, Julesy.’

‘Yeah, but I’ve got you. We should come up more often, maybe you could take him to Norwich.’

‘Norwich? Errr, what for?’

‘They’ve got a football team, haven’t they? I could go shopping.’

‘Ha ha, Jules, nobody goes to watch Norwich out of choice. C’mere, Julesy baby, you’re looking fucking gorgeous right now.’

‘Matt, that is the last time you call me Julesy, or Julesy baby, without serious consequences.’

‘Hokey dokey Juuuules. C’mere though.’

But we never did go back. I would have kept in touch with William, I really liked him, but, well, things went tits up with Jules and you tend not to keep in touch with the neighbours of your ex-girlfriend’s deceased aunt, do you? I just mentioned William, because he was important to Jules, and I liked him, and seeing her care about him made me feel a) better about her saying she’d take care of me and b) guilty that I’d thought she was a bit uncaring. I guess, as with everything else Jules did, she kept a lot inside her.

So what else can I regale you with? I so want to tell you about Lau, but it’s not time yet, and I want to tell you about my family, Lau, Josh and Ella, but again, all in good time dear readers. I know, how about playing a little True or False? I did it a bit with Jules, when I was trying to dispel some of the bullshit she would have heard about me, but it is quite funny, now I’m a respectable family man, to look back at the things I was supposed to have got up to. If I’d done even half of it, I would have keeled over with exhaustion, or my dick would have dropped off, but maybe this will divert you a little. Okay, here goes.

True or False: Matt Scott has slept with more than five hundred women, and never called any of them.

False. For fuck’s sake, I wouldn’t have had time to go to work, let alone energy to breathe. Do the maths, folks. My sexual career started when I was almost nineteen. Since I was thirty-four, I’ve only slept with Jules and Lau. That makes five hundred women in fifteen years. Which is approximately 0.63 different women per week. Every week! I know I’ve been a bastard, but I wasn’t SuperBastard, with pick-up powers beyond human understanding. And I was ill for quite a long time too, and I was with Carrie for eighteen months. So no, not five hundred. I haven’t ever totted it up, and am not going to, but fewer. Far, far fewer. No, even fewer than you’re thinking. Half the time, I’d pull and then change my mind before I got to the taxi, and I’d give her a snog and a grope, drop her off outside her house and call it a night. And it was rare for me to call any of them. Yeah, never said I wasn’t a bastard, just not SuperBastard. Next.

True or False: Don’t leave your girlfriend alone with Matt Scott, he’ll be in and out of her knickers before you’ve had the piss you’ve been dying for for hours.

Weell, there may be some truth to this. A couple of times, I have availed myself of facilities – a storeroom at a club here, a spare bedroom at a party there – to explore the clear signals I was getting from said other bloke’s girlfriend. It was always mutual, it’s not like I had some kind of ability, or even wish, to persuade women against their will, but I knew they were someone else’s girl, and it didn’t matter at the time. And I guess when you’re trying to explain yourself to your outraged boyfriend, you’re going to put most of the blame firmly on Matt Scott, who a) has the reputation and b) has conveniently buggered off with someone else. So, all things considered, true. Not that I’m proud of it, I’m not proud of any of this shit, this is purely a true or false game for your edification.

True or False: Matt Scott never uses a condom and has spread gonorrhoea, chlamydia and unwanted pregnancies far and wide.

Utter bullshit. I always, always, without fail used a condom, sometimes when begged not to, and got myself regularly and routinely tested. No one ever came to me claiming they were pregnant, and if they had I would have dealt with it sensitively. Not, as some stories claim, brandishing cash for an abortion, but firstly establishing the facts and then taking responsibility if it was mine, and working something out. That was how I liked to think of it theoretically, anyway, and thankfully it was never put to the test.

True or False: Matt Scott never sleeps with the same woman twice.

Obviously false, if you’ve been paying attention, but I suppose Jules and Lau don’t count, because that was after the time when all the rumours were spreading. OK, then, at that time, you could say that might have been true, because if I recognised someone I’d been with before, I’d avoid them. But I didn’t always, because often when I pulled I was off my tits, and even if I’d recognised them, I might not have remembered how far I got. And there were some ‘sure things’ as well, women who I knew I could count on if all else failed. I was a charming bloke. And, believe it or not, there were women who turned me down. I know that’s not what the legend says. The legend says that Matt Scott walked into a room, spotted the woman he wanted to take home, end of story. Oh, if only. I mean, yeah, often I’d get to a club or a party and know fairly early on who my target was, but it would take a whole evening of buying drinks, flirting, dancing, getting closer, fending off any other blokes who were interested as well, before I found out if she’d fallen for it or not. About fifty-fifty, I’d say. So that magical five hundred number is dwindling by the second, isn’t it.

True or False: There is absolutely nothing Matt Scott hasn’t done in bed, or out of it for that matter, and you’d better watch out if you say no.

False. I had my limits, although they are not open for discussion. And as for the last bit, well that used to seriously piss me off. I never forced anyone to do anything they didn’t want to, I never even asked anyone to do something I didn’t think they were totally up for, and sometimes I was asked to do seriously weird shit that I politely turned down. I mean, come on, I never even had a threesome, although I heard about several I was supposed to have had. Must have been some other lucky sod. Sorry Lau, didn’t mean it, not really.

True or False: Matt Scott can go all night and you’d better be able to keep up.

Oh for fuck’s sake. All this makes me sound like some be-Viagraed porn star. I mean, yeah, I’ve got a high sex drive, have had since I discovered it all those years ago at Uni, but all night? Maybe, yeah, I was sometimes, OK often, ready to go again pretty soon, but remember, by the time I got down here to the city, I was in my thirties. I was slowing down. And I certainly wouldn’t have lasted all night. It was one of the many reasons I left soon after it was all over. And as for porn star – have you seen those guys? There’s no way I’m divesting myself of that amount of body hair; the thought brings tears to my eyes. Plus, I’m a skinny bastard. Do not possess even the hint of an ab. Whatever it was that made my reputation, it wasn’t my physique. So, all night? Load of bollocks.

Anyhow, all this ruminating on my previous unstoppable shag monster life is making me a bit miserable, and I don’t really want you thinking about all that, Lau, not now, so here endeth the True or False. I hope I’ve given you a reasonable picture of how things were and how things weren’t.

OK then, I suppose that’s enough avoiding the issue. I’ll get on with it, with telling you how I screwed up one more person.

Where were we then? Oh, you left me and Jules in bed, for which I thank you. And things were great, for a few months. I suppose we got into a rhythm, a way of being, that felt right. We were both comfortable with it, we spent more time together, but we still had our own friends, our own interests, I did family stuff without her, and sometimes with her if it wasn’t too full on. I fended off bloody nosy questions from Beth and Rose, mostly along the lines of ‘how are things going with Julia’, and were fishing for more details, more get-togethers, always more more more, but Jules made it quite clear she didn’t feel part of the ever expanding Scott family, and didn’t want to feel part of it. Her own family was mostly absent, I never met her parents or her sisters, and they didn’t all seem to keep in touch much.

Jules really wasn’t one who did things she didn’t want to. She never made a big thing about it, she just said yes or no if I asked her along to something, and yes was great, she was an ally against all the baby-mongering that was going on around Dec and Amy at that time, and no was fine too, I didn’t have to worry about whether she was bored or irritated.

The kids thing was a weird one. I had no intentions of ‘settling down’ any time soon, and the big fuss that was being made about Dec and Amy’s baby struck us both as extremely over the top. Don’t get me wrong, I was dead chuffed for them, they seemed really happy, but it did get a bit tedious every time I went round to Jay’s, even if they weren’t there, with all the updates on the minutiae of scans, tests, wondering about names, speculating about dates, comparing, contrasting. Yeah, I know, when I had my own I did exactly the same, and I loved it, fucking loved it all, and I feel bad now about taking the piss with Jules, especially as it kind of compounded what happened later.

Although Jules was so adamant that she didn’t want kids, didn’t even like them, she was so great with Cal and Iz; she’d get on the floor and play with Iz’s dolls, she’d talk to Cal like a grown-up about all sorts of things, no one would have ever known. But I guess that was the thing about Jules. She was good at playing a part, being a particular person in a given situation. I’m pretty sure that when she was with me, she was herself, but I saw all these other bits of her – when she was at work, when she was with my family, when she was with her friends. She once told me I was the only person who had ever crossed over her work world and her personal world, and I suppose I should take that as the compliment it was.

So, things went well for a few months, there we were, enjoying life, taking things as they happened, deliberately not making plans of any sort about anything, even a holiday, or forcing anything, and then I changed it all. Not on purpose, it was out there before I’d even thought about it, but we were lying in bed having breakfast one weekend, when I suddenly realised she hadn’t been home for two weeks, and I gasped.

Julia

‘What?’

‘I just realised something.’

‘It’s difficult to eat croissants in bed without getting crumbs on the sheets?’

‘No. I already knew that. Thought I might lick any strays off your arse later.’

‘You’re very confident I’ll be face down.’

‘Yeah I am. You know it’s your favourite way.’

‘Alright, granted. What have you realised?’

‘You haven’t been home for nearly two weeks.’

I thought about it, counting back. Then looked up at him to try and work out if it disturbed him or not. His crinkly grin suggested not.

‘I hadn’t noticed. You’re right though. Maybe I should go back tonight, give you some space?’

Matt

‘Or …’

I didn’t even think about it, just felt it, just said it.

‘Maybe … we should just make it permanent. Move in with me, Jules.’

She carried on looking at me, for a long time – trying, I think, to work out if I was serious or if this was another ‘I love you’ ‘no you don’t’ ‘no I don’t’ moment. I saw the moment she realised I meant it, and I saw the panic, and I immediately regretted doing anything so stupid. Did I not know Jules at all? She needed to know all the facts, to have had all the discussions, to have raised the subject herself in the first place, before she made a decision about such a monumental change to our status. She was frozen.

Julia

I studied his face to work out if he was joking, or meant it, or had said it impulsively and was now regretting it. When no arsing about was forthcoming and he continued to hold my gaze, I realised he was serious. Then I panicked, froze, unable to speak or even think. He realised almost immediately.

‘Fuck it, I’ve freaked you out haven’t I. Shit. OK, just to put things in perspective, you notice I’m not down on one knee, I’m not proposing like all the other Tom, Dick and bloody Alexanders you’ve dumped. I still don’t love you, if that helps. It just seems right.’

I didn’t speak, just sat, leaning against the headboard, staring at my half eaten croissant, trying to get my thoughts together.

Matt

I was frantically trying to think of other things that might add to the damage limitation, and was even prepared to take it back, to take that look off her face as she stared at her breakfast without speaking.

‘Shit. OK, let’s forget I said anything. Let’s just finish breakfast and go for our hike, as if bloody Matt Scott didn’t just bloody well say the most bloody idiotically stupid thing he could possibly have thought of saying.’

‘But you’ve said it now, I can’t just forget it.’

‘Jules, I’m an arse, I’m always saying bloody idiotic things, you manage to forget those quickly enough.’

‘I know. I think I’m going to go home.’

She started to get out of bed, and I caught her arm, trying to stop her. I knew Jules had finished at least three relationships in the past because they got too serious, too near to a proposal, and now it was me who was panicking, because once she’d decided, there was no changing her mind. If she decided to finish it with me, I was history.

‘No! Don’t go. Shit, I cant believe I’ve fucked this up.’

She just shrugged out of my grip and started to put her clothes on.

‘Please, Jules.’

‘I’m just going to go home, get my head straight, have some time to myself.’

I sat behind her and tried to wrap her up in my arms, but she disentangled herself and finished dressing, then turned round to face me. I saw I had no hope of persuading her not to go; my only hope was not to put anymore pressure on her.

‘OK. Space it is then. You know where I am, if you want to talk, or yell, or have fucking hot sex.’

I tried a smile, which was not reciprocated.

‘I know. Sorry, Matt.’

Julia

He knew me well enough by now to realise it was pointless to try to dissuade me from doing something I had decided and announced I was going to do. We were also similar enough in our need for our own space that he wouldn’t push me to contact him. I drove home in a bit of a daze, trying not to think about what he had asked me, about how it might change things regardless of whether I said yes or no or ignored it, and about whether I’d got to that stage in yet another relationship where I needed to end it.

Once I got home, I made myself a coffee, belatedly realising I didn’t have any milk. In fact, I didn’t have anything in the fridge at all, and there was hardly any food in the cupboards. Looking around me, although the flat still had the basic objects that made it mine – furniture, pictures, décor – a lot of my things were missing, the things I used every day and needed nearby.

There were hardly any clothes in my wardrobe; there was only basic shower gel in the bathroom; most of my cooking utensils were missing; there was a stack of mail that had accumulated behind the door that needed sorting through; my bookshelf was half empty. It didn’t feel like I belonged here any more. I shied away from the thought. This was my place, my sanctuary, the space I closeted myself in, away from the rest of the world. How had this happened?

Matt

Jules left, and I spent the rest of the morning asking myself why. Why had I even said anything? It’s not like I spent my life waiting for someone I could move into my flat. I liked my flat, I liked my space, I liked things the way they were. We could have carried on, and then she would have noticed herself after a while, and it would have been her idea, and I wouldn’t be sitting here wondering if I was ever going to hear from her again.

I thought about calling her, telling her I’d made a mistake, taking it back, I didn’t mean it, temporary aberration or something, but the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t honestly say it, and yet the more I convinced myself I’d completely ballsed it up. It was a miserable day.

We’d planned to go for a hike, and I nearly went on my own, but I didn’t want to be out of mobile range, so I paced around like a caged animal, wanting to call her and either apologise or find out what she was thinking, but neither of those options were going to go well for me, so I moved on from ‘why’ to the equally pointless ‘if only’s.

If only I’d stopped and thought before I’d said anything.

If only, once I’d said something, I hadn’t said ‘move in’.

If only I’d been able to think of a single thing to say that would have made it better, not such a big deal.

If only I didn’t think it was such a big deal, now I’d said it, that I really really wanted it, and even if she was still speaking to me, but said no, I’d be really sad.

Bloody ‘if only’s. They don’t get you anywhere but worse off, because they just swirl round and round your brain, getting you to imagine all the things you could have said and done differently, when the only thing you can’t do is change what has happened.

Julia

I put some music on and ran a bath, hoping that relaxing and thinking might help me to make sense of what was going on in my whirling brain. It was one of the things that helped when I was stressing about something; being on my own, I could sort through things in a logical order and try to put things in perspective. If I was living with Matt, I’d never be on my own … if I was living with Matt … and so my day went, all of it spinning round in my head as I weighed up and prioritised and wondered and tried to predict the future. I thought about our relationship and what I wanted from it; I thought about my independence and how important it was to me; I thought about where I saw me being in a few years; I thought about sickness and health and till death do us part; I thought a lot about Matt.

Matt

Eventually I thought myself into a stupor. The amount of times I reached for my phone, pressed Jules’ name to call or text, and then couldn’t think of a single thing to say that wouldn’t make it worse. The amount of times I picked up my car keys to drive over there. The amount of times I called myself a stupid, impetuous, thoughtless arse.

Julia

Eventually, I wore myself out with it all. I was hungry, so I ordered takeaway and went to fetch a bottle of wine from the Whistling Panhandler, and after I had finished my meal, and most of the bottle of wine, I found myself drifting off to sleep on the sofa.

I woke with a start, realising it was really late. It was dark, there was no traffic noise from outside, indicating that it was the early hours. I suddenly knew the answer to it all. It was obvious. I found my phone and asked Siri to FaceTime Matt.