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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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110. We can work it out

In which things are resolved.

Matt

Finally, after what seemed like all night but when I checked the time had been less than an hour, I heard the car outside, as it pulled onto the drive. I heard the car door slam, and I assumed a nonchalant pose, as if I’d been watching football since she left, and not sending myself out of my mind wondering where she’d been and what she’d been doing, or applying for jobs in another country.

I didn’t look up as the front door opened and Lau walked in, but she came into the living room waving a loaf of bread at me. Part of me loved that she couldn’t lie to me, and so had made it true, and another part just wanted her to be straight with me.

‘They were giving away free gifts with every loaf. I got a brother-in-law with mine.’

What the fuck? I looked up then, and saw Jay hovering behind her, and I was instantly furious. After all I’d said, all the talking we’d done, she’d just gone and fetched him, against my express wishes.

‘Lau, I thought I told you I didn’t want –’

‘Yeah, I heard what you said. But know what, Matt, this isn’t just about you. It’s mostly about you, and Jay, but it affects us all. I’m not having you so unhappy that you want to stop seeing your family. We need them, and they need us. Jay’s here, he wants to talk to you. I think you should listen to what he has to say.’

I nearly told both of them to piss off, nearly said it in terms that would have made it difficult to mend anything with Jay and would have seriously fucked things up with me and Lau, but I stopped myself, with a huge effort. I glanced at Jay, saw how nervous he seemed, and it crossed my mind how much it might have cost him to come here. Shit, there’s no way I would have gone over there in a million years. Maybe he deserved a chance. I nodded.

‘OK, Lau. Get us a couple of beers?’

Lau shook her head. ‘I’ll put the kettle on. I think beer may have affected some judgements last time.’

I suppose she might have had a point.

‘OK, fair enough.’

I looked at Jay, although I still found it hard to look him in the eye without anger clouding my vision.

‘Come on then, sit the fuck down, stop making the place look untidy.’

Jay walked into the living room as Lau went to make a drink. He sat down, looking self-conscious, and held an envelope out to me.

‘What’s this?’

I took it as if it was explosive.

‘Application form.’

‘What?’

I opened the envelope, and glanced at the contents. There was a piece of paper with the Raiders logo at the top.

‘For that job.’

What the fuck?

‘I talked to the Raiders IT guy, Sean, the guy Ed gave you the number for –’

‘I remember.’

‘Sounds like a great job. You should do it, you’d be good.’

I was taken completely by surprise. It sounded like Jay was almost apologising; he had at least executed a perfect U-turn, which I couldn’t recall ever happening in my life before.

‘Really? What about all my fucking about and embarrassing the shit out of you?’

Jay half smiled. ‘Are you planning to fuck about and embarrass the shit out of me?’

‘No.’

‘Then we’ll be OK, won’t we. I’ll probably, Jesus I don’t know, even be bloody proud of you or something.’

‘Fucking hell, can’t have that. World might bloody end.’

It was as if a plug had been pulled, and all the anger, all the fury, all the – yeah, I’m going to say it, as I’d got close to it over the last couple of days – hatred just drained away. Was I really so shallow that all I needed was a few supportive words from my brother and everything was OK? Well yeah, actually, it turns out I was.

‘It hasn’t been advertised yet. Sean said if you do the application asap, and they like it, you could have an interview by the end of the week. They need someone pretty soon.’

Laura

I felt my shoulders untense. There was still a way to go, but it had started well. I finished making the tea and got a book out to take with me while I sat with the twins.

Matt

I looked at Jay, wondering if there was going to be anything else, if this was the apology, or if we were going to actually address some of the huge shit that had underpinned this major Scott cataclysm.

‘Well, thanks.’

Maybe I was going to have to do a bit of work of my own, in recognition of his gesture in coming over here with Lau. Oh, and I was so going to have to find out what she’d done to get him here.

‘What made you change your mind?’

He looked at me for a moment, then shook his head slightly, as if he couldn’t quite understand it himself.

‘You have got yourself one bloody determined woman there, Matty.’

‘What, you mean Lau made you do it?’

He rolled his eyes at the defensive note in my voice.

‘Not just Laura, and give me a bit of credit for being able to think for myself, but Dec had already convinced me when she shoved her way into my office and gave me a piece of her mind.’

Lau brought two mugs of tea in, looking at me hopefully. I gave her a half smile as the best reassurance I could manage, and then she shut the door and left us to it.

‘So what did Dec do then?’

I was starting to wind myself up again, thinking of all the interfering that had been going on, or maybe to put it another way, all the concerned efforts to perform some damage limitation and get me and Jay talking again. But I wasn’t quite there yet, at the point of being able to recognise just what people did on my behalf sometimes.

‘He just reminded me that not talking about things isn’t always the best way to deal with stuff, and made me think about that time when he stopped talking to us and it all got so out of hand. It brought me to my senses. Matty, I don’t want the same thing to happen with us. You’re ten thousand times more stubborn than Dec.’

Thank you, at last someone had acknowledged my prowess in all things intractable.

‘We don’t talk, do we, not really, and sometimes that’s OK, it’s just how we are, and sometimes it’s not, and shit like this happens.’

I waited, because surely the next thing that should follow was an apology. I didn’t feel like making it easy for him, because he’d hurt me, and I’d been angry and miserable the last couple of days because of him, and I wanted him to say he knew that and –

‘I’m sorry, Matty.’

Bloody hell. And now I wanted gold coins to fall into my lap from the sky … oh well, can’t have everything. I still wasn’t letting him off, not just yet.

‘You called me a flirt and a waster, in front of Lau, and you refused to help me. You might as well have accused me of worse. It felt like being slutshamed.’

I thought having it stated so bluntly might piss him off, but he just nodded.

‘I know. You know I don’t really think you’d fuck about to make me look bad, don’t you?’

‘Well, no, actually. It sounded like you meant it.’

‘Sorry. I was … I don’t know if I can explain it. Do you remember when you got married, we had that talk, I said about feeling guilty about not being a very good brother?’

I nodded.

‘Well since you ended up in hospital back in Stafford, it’s been kind of like my second chance, like I can look out for you now.’

I frowned, not quite sure what he was getting at.

‘Jesus, Matty, I know you’re a grown up, or at least making a stab at it, but sometimes I just want to protect you. I know you don’t want it, I know it pisses you off, but … shit, this is hard to say. Please don’t take it the wrong way. I promised Laura I’d tell you what I was thinking, or some of it.’

‘When did you talk to Lau?’

Paranoia was still on high alert; I was imagining clandestine phone calls or some such shit.

‘In the car on the way over.’

Oh. Stand down paranoia, nothing to see here.

‘I asked her about your MS, what makes it come back, if it could be stress. I think one of the things I was thinking when you started getting all excited about the Raiders job was ‘what if Matty’s MS comes back?’. I know where you work now make allowances, but I wasn’t sure if Raiders would, and I didn’t want you getting stressed and it coming back and all going wrong for you. I just wanted to protect you.’

‘Holy shit, Jay, I don’t need my bloody hand holding like that, you sound worse than Beth.’

‘I know, mate. I’m not saying I was right, I’m just trying to explain. But like I say, that was only one thing that made me act like an arse on Saturday.’

‘The other thing being?’

‘Things.’

He sighed, shoulders slumped.

‘Jesus, this is fucking hard. OK, well, maybe you weren’t so far from the truth when you said I thought it would be embarrassing.’

‘What?’

My temper hadn’t retreated enough not to instantly flare at this.

‘No, hang on, what I mean is, the thought of you, working at Raiders, it just felt so weird. You know how different we are, I should think we’re even more different at work, I just imagined seeing you round the place, and it’s like I was imagining seeing an alien, someone from a different world. Do you get what I mean?’

I thought about it. Yeah, I could see what he meant. Jay had a work persona and a home persona, much as I did. I saw his work side when he gave interviews on TV, and he heard about my work side when I exaggerated some of the things that went on at GreenScreen for comedic effect. I could see how he might have trouble trying to make it all fit together, and now I was calming down a bit, I could see how having a few beers beforehand might have magnified the weirdness and affected both a) how he expressed it and b) how I received it. Fuck what a mess.

‘I suppose so. So are you saying you didn’t mean any of it?’

‘I guess I am. Well, I’m not saying it wouldn’t be weird at first, if you get the job and work at Raiders, but I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have you working there. You seem to know your stuff, that’s the main thing, and I think you should give it a go. I think you could be an asset to Raiders.’

It was magnanimous, and I recognised the generosity behind his words and his actions.

‘Thanks. So, this is the application form, then?’

I held up the sheet of paper, which was creased and smudged.

‘Sorry. I folded it a bit in the car. I can get you another one.’

‘Maybe I should ask them to email me one. You can’t apply for an IT job in handwriting, you wouldn’t even get shortlisted unless you had some kind of crazy font going on.’

‘I’m pretty sure you would, Matty, I had a chat with Sean earlier, told him how good you are, he nearly bit my hand off. They need someone pretty good, pretty quick, and they haven’t got anyone else interested at the moment. If you could do it soon, they might be able to sort it so you could start really quickly.’

‘Really?’

It almost sounded like I was a shoe-in. I felt my hopes go sky high, and tried to tether them to the ground, with only partial success.

Jay nodded, then took a breath.

‘Are we OK now?’

I thought about it.

‘Maybe.’

There was still that underlying old shit that hadn’t gone away, how I’d tapped into those younger days when Jay was mean to me. I didn’t know if I could bring it up now.

‘You don’t sound that sure.’

OK, I was going to say it.

‘I felt like a little boy again.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘What you said, how you said it, it was like when we were kids and you’d pull my hair for being a smart-arse. I hated it back then, and it made me feel like that again, like you were throwing your weight around.’

‘Jesus, Matty. I hardly ever think about when we were kids. I didn’t mean it like that.’

‘Well … maybe I think about it too much. I guess I know, really …’

Oh fuck it, I was never going to have such a golden opportunity to say what I’d never said to Jay.

‘… I guess I know you don’t feel like that now. Jay, I’ve never said this before, told you how much it meant, when you came up to Stafford when I was ill, disrupted your life, all the help you gave me, all the things you did for me. It was … I still find it … astonishing that you would do that. I’m an ungrateful bastard, and I can’t tell you how humble I feel that you did that for me.’

There was more, there were the things Jay had said on my wedding day, the constant presence he’d been, if I thought about it, over the last few years, but I wasn’t going to say it all, I’d said the main thing, and without any fucking about to take the emotion out of it, and, result, I’d made Jay’s eyes fill with the suspicion of a tear or two.

‘Jesus, Matty, it was nothing, you needed me, us. Jesus, you bastard, just landing that on me.’

‘Yeah, well. I just think that on Saturday, it all felt like we were kids again, you hating me for being clever at something you weren’t, or some such shit, punishing me for it, and the last few years, well, it was as if they hadn’t happened. I’m sorry, I think I might have overreacted. I … started, the last few days, to think about getting away, just starting over, I couldn’t deal with it, feeling like that.’

Jay stared at me, frowning and shaking his head slightly.

‘No way. Jesus, Matty. Laura said something, but I thought she was just trying to get me over here. Jesus. OK, if we’re doing honest and feelings and shit, I felt it too, that ‘when we were kids’ feeling on Saturday. It was just … I don’t know if I can even put it into words. Here you were, having a bloody dinner party, with your wife and your kids and your house, and it was like ‘fucking hell, Matty’s really all grown up’, and it felt weird. It felt as if, maybe, you didn’t need me any more, as if things were changing, and I … maybe I just wanted to feel things were the same, like they used to be. If you were the same immature knobhead –’

‘Thanks.’

‘– you were before, then things weren’t really that different, and it felt better to me. I think that got all confused with the job thing. When Laura said you wanted out, I realised I’d gone too far.’

So that’s what had sent Lau scurrying off, the thought of me being serious about quitting the Scottapalooza.

‘What exactly did she do?’

Jay let out a sharp laugh.

‘Ha! I was in the middle having my ear seriously bent by Dec, he’d just turned up all ‘this isn’t happening’, I was just agreeing with him, having had Beth on at me for forty eight hours straight, when your Laura bursts into the office, all flustered and red-faced and just tells me to stop being a dick, that one of us was going to have to give in and it wasn’t going to be you, and you were saying you wanted out of the family. Ha ha, makes it sound like the Mafia.’

‘She called you a dick?’

I was seriously impressed.

‘No, not out loud, but I got the drift.’

Oh. Less impressive, then. But she’d stood up for me, done what I should have done, called Jay a dick in her mind. She was so bloody awesome.

‘I don’t think I stood a chance, she was like a hurricane. Before I knew it, I was in the car and on my way over here.’

‘So you’re really only here to shut Beth up and because you’re scared of Lau?’

I was grinning as I said it, I’d finally stopped being a dick myself, for the time being. Jay grinned back, looking relieved.

‘Yeah, our wives scare the shit out of me, both of them. We are in serious trouble here, Matty, this domination can’t continue.’

‘I know. Maybe we need to come up with a plan of attack.’

‘Ha ha, as if we could ever come up with anything that would work. They’ve got us totally sussed.’

I suspected this was true, much as I hated to admit it.

‘Shit, you could be right. Maybe we need some kind of family therapy?’

I looked at Jay, an eyebrow raised, and he looked back at me, and then we both started laughing, hard. Amongst the chuckling, we both imagined how that would work out.

‘Oh Matty, can you imagine all of us in one room trying to sort ourselves out? The poor shrink would never get a word in, and that’s just when Beth’s having her go. They’d have to get past Nico, and if she was a woman she’d be swooning too much to help us –’

‘And Mum would be all quiet and nodding, probably knitting her a jumper because she looked chilly –’

‘And I’d just sit there looking pissed off, and you’d be unable to say anything that didn’t begin with ‘fuck’ –’

‘And Dec would be leading it all because of his vast experience with the counselling profession, oh and Rose. She wouldn’t have any of it, she’d be all ‘don’t you take that tone of voice with me, love’ –’

We could hardly speak for laughing, not that any of it was particularly funny, but just because we’d talked, made up and it was OK now, and we were relieved and happy.

‘We should book a session anyway, just to see how quickly we got chucked out.’

‘Nah, it’d cost a bloody fortune. We should save our money, spend it on something more fun, holiday or … ooh, a holiday. Shit, Jay, we should all go on holiday at the end of the season, like we did before. That would be family therapy, better than therapy.’

Jay’s eyes lit up at the suggestion.

‘You might have something there, although we’d need somewhere even bigger than last time, there are more of us now. And a lot of us need pretty constant looking after.’

‘Well …’

As I was thinking about it, an idea was forming. It was true that the family had expanded since we had all been away before, with five more children, another wife and another mother, but with three potential grannies, surely plenty of fun and relaxation could be had by all?

‘What are you thinking? You’re looking devious, Matty.’

‘Mum, Rose, April. All loving a cuddle with the grandkids, all loving being left to their own devices to spoil them without censure …’

Jay cottoned on.

‘Oh, you are a genius.’

I bowed, modestly.

‘Right, when I get home I’m getting Beth on it. Then we won’t have to do any work, she’ll just tell us when to turn up with our passports.’

‘Now you’re the genius. And if you make her think it’s her idea all along, she’ll be happy as a pig in shit.’

‘And so everybody’s happy – look at us being all manipulative. Who said we can’t dish it out?’

Laura

They were still talking a long time later. I needed to feed the twins, but had promised to take Jay home. I tapped on the door and went in.

‘Sorry to interrupt –’

Matt looked up, a big smile on his face. His grin burst over me like a warm shower.

Matt

‘Lau, we’ve just had this brilliant idea.’

‘Oh?’

She looked so relieved, like I’d just lifted a huge weight from her, and I felt bad that I was the one who had put the heavy there in the first place.

‘Yeah, family holiday, huge fuck-off cottage or villa somewhere by the sea, soon as the rugby season finishes and Raiders have won the league again. All of us. I haven’t had a holiday for bloody ages, not a proper going away one, what do you think? We’ll bring Rose and the mums, they can look after the kids while we swan about getting tans and staying out late and shit.’

She gave me one of her dazzling smiles, and looked at Jay, who was looking at her and nodding, not only agreeing with the brilliance of the plan, but kind of reassuring Lau that everything was OK now.

‘You’re right, that is a proper good idea. You might want to run the details past Rose and the mums first.’

‘Nah, they’ll love it.’

‘I take it things have gone well here?’

‘Yeah, all sorted. Jay’s brought an application form for the IT job at Raiders, although I might get him to email it to me – this one’s got a bit manky.’

‘Sorry. I was fiddling with it in the car. Sweaty hands.’

‘Talking of the car, Jay, I need to feed the twins, do you want to go back now, or can you wait?’

‘I’ll take him, Lau.’

Laura

And there we were, crisis averted. Everything seemed back to normal, and apart from needing to find out what they had talked about, if I could persuade Matt to tell me, I could get on with worrying about whether I was pregnant or not.

Matt

I drove Jay back, and Dec was still there, waiting for a blow-by-blow description of the fall-out from Mattgate. No descriptions were forthcoming from either Jay or me, we were both buzzing, and not inclined to go all serious for Dec’s or Beth’s benefit, although I could see Beth was dying to get into the nitty gritty. Jay wasn’t going to get much peace after I’d gone, although we did our best to distract her with our family holiday idea.

We watched TV and messed about, and I enjoyed being there, in the place that was the hub of everything. I’d come pretty close to ditching it, and who knows, maybe they’d all get on top of me again, another day, but for now I recognised what I had, and that I needed it, and I loved it, and I loved them. That was quite enough realisation and backtracking for one day.

Laura

I was asleep in bed by the time Matt got back. The car door banging outside the bedroom window woke me up, and I waited for Matt to come upstairs. I heard him moving around downstairs, then his footsteps, the door to the bathroom opening, the sound of teeth being brushed, and finally he slipped into bed next to me.

Matt

The house was quiet when I got back, and I pottered around downstairs for a bit, turning lights off, clearing things away, then went upstairs to Lau. She had her eyes closed as I slipped into bed beside her.

‘Lau?’

I whispered so I didn’t wake her up.

She opened her eyes a fraction.

‘Mm hmm.’

‘Oh good, you’re awake. Sorry it’s late, Dec was still there, we were watching the basketball.’

‘You like basketball now?’

‘No, not really, but we were pissing about, having a laugh. Felt good. Sorry, I would have texted, but I didn’t realise how late it was, then it was too late to text in case I woke you up. Beth was feeding us all kinds of cake and biscuits and shit.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ve been fine, Ella and Josh have been pretty quiet, I’ve been asleep.’

‘Oh, did I wake you up, then?’

‘I heard the car. But I wanted to wake up anyway. I wanted to ask you what happened with Jay. You said he brought an application form?’

‘Yeah. Didn’t you know?’

‘No, he didn’t say what was in the envelope. He must have printed it after me and Dec left the office.’

‘Yeah, I heard you made a bit of an entrance.’

‘It felt like a dramatic gesture was needed. I think Dec was in the process of having it covered though. Do you mind?’

I put my arm round her and pulled her towards me as I tried to decide whether I minded or not.

‘Honestly? You know I hate it when people interfere. So, at the time, irritated as hell. But glad now. It feels so much better to have bloody sorted it all out.’

‘I was worried you were going to move us all to the depths of Norfolk to get away.’

‘Norfolk? Oh, that job. No, Lau, Norfolk is never an option, for so many reasons. But, yeah, I did feel like running away.’

I made a mental note to delete the application for the job in Aberdeen. Who the fuck wanted to work in bloody Aberdeen anyway?

‘You and Jay talked properly, though? You didn’t just sit there making holiday plans?’

‘Ha ha, no, we did talk. We’re both bloody shit at saying stuff. Jay usually gets all tongue tied, while I sit there making smart-arse comments, which winds him up, but he actually apologised. I don’t think I can ever remember him apologising before, not in so many words. It meant a lot. I apologised too, afterwards; I think I might have overreacted. He said … well there seems to have been a lot going through his mind, he was worried about how working for Raiders was going to be compatible with the bastard MS, and I think that made him feel all protective or some such bollocks.’

‘Yeah, he said something similar to me in the car.’

‘But as well as that, he said, this was quite deep really, for Jay, he said he thought it would be weird having me around at work, some kind of ‘never the twain’ paradox. Although he didn’t actually use the words never the twain or paradox, but I knew what he meant. Like, every time he saw me it would feel like seeing something alien, from another world almost. We’re so bloody different, I guess if Jay pitched up at GreenScreen and started making us all do press-ups it would be equally weird. I hadn’t thought about it like that. I don’t think he was really worried about me fucking about, but he felt weird and it made him say something to stop the weirdness. It just pushed my buttons.’

‘Your mum thinks it’s something from when you were both younger.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s how it made me feel. Being five years younger doesn’t mean much now, but when you’re little, it’s immense. When I was ten, he was fifteen, already playing rugby, bulking up. I was a scrawny little scrap of nothing, and to make it worse I was more interested in books and computers than I was in sport. He used to tease me, every opportunity he got, and I used to hate it. He’d call me ‘puny’ and wrestle me, to the point of hurting me, and if I showed him my brainy side, I’d pay for it. He was kind of my hero, and I tried my best with sport, but I’ve always been bloody rubbish at playing anything. I so wanted to be like him, even get him to notice me as something other than a minor irritation, but it never really happened, and it’s kind of always been there between us I guess.’

‘But you’re so close now.’

‘Yeah, since I nearly pegged it. Woke up from that one, Jay was just there, given up his job, found a house with a downstairs en-suite, moved me in with them. I would never have predicted it in a million years, although I think a certain situation with a certain Mr Summers may have had a bearing on some of it, if you want to talk about running away from your difficulties. But when all that happened, and then they moved back down here and still wanted me with them, well I think it was then that I realised what family really is. But maybe all that shit from younger days doesn’t go away, and the other night made me feel the same as I used to, like being brainy didn’t mean anything to Jay, and all that was important to him was himself and his bloody rugby club.’

‘So did you say all this to him?’

‘Yeah, kind of, in man short-hand, lots of grunting. He did say he thinks I’d be an asset to Raiders. That blew my mind quite a bit. Jay never compliments me. I mean, I don’t think he really knows what the job is, or what I do, or how I might go about doing the job, but still. Major event.’

‘I’m so pleased, flower. I hope you said nice things to him too.’

‘Yeah, of course, I said he’s the best assistant coach at Raiders.’

‘Isn’t he the only assistant coach?’

‘Oh yeah. Not much of a compliment then.’

‘You daft sod.’

I squeezed Lau tighter, to feel her in my arms, loving me despite my propensity for the dramatic.

‘Thanks Lau. It’s good to know you’ve got my back when I’m being a stubborn fucker.’

‘I hope you know I can be as, if not more, stubborn than you. Don’t you ever put it to the test.’

‘I’m a bit scared now.’

‘I should hope so. And while we’re on the subject, don’t you ever threaten to quit your family again. We can’t do without them.’

I sighed. ‘I know. I sometimes wish I didn’t need them as much as I do, but there it is. Come here, then, goodnight snog now all the chat’s out of the way.’

As Lau snuggled into me, I brushed her forehead with my lips. She turned her face up to me, and I kissed her mouth, falling into its warmth and wetness as we locked lips and tongues, and for a while we were just Matt and Lau, kissing each other passionately. Then, inevitably, there was a yelp from the monitor, and then another, then a blood-curdling squawk, and it was business as usual from thereonin …

Laura

… and the night carried on as normal, lovely, safe, familiar normal, where no one was fighting with anyone and no one was going to suggest running to somewhere far away to avoid their brother.

Matt

A few days later two things were sorted in one day, within half an hour of each other actually. Read on.

So, I’d emailed my application to Raiders, had it accepted, been put on a ‘shortlist’ and had a date for an interview. I was led to believe, by Jay, that it was a very short list indeed, but I still approached the interview as if there were hundreds of us going for it, and found out as much as I could about the inner technological workings of large rugby clubs in general and Raiders in particular. There was a lot of computery shit to know about – it was thrilling.

The interview itself, with the CEO, the head admin honcho and Sean, the outgoing IT wiz, seemed to go well. I got into a detailed techy conversation with the outgoing wiz, realised the other two were glazing over, and rescued it with a bit of Matt Scott special fucking about, which made them laugh, made them not feel like idiots for not knowing what the fuck we were on about, and was a bit self-deprecating.

I managed to chat to the outgoing wiz afterwards, just to make sure there wasn’t some nefarious reason he was leaving that would make me regret the job on day one, but he was an older bloke who had been with Raiders for donkeys, about twenty years, and was up front about feeling that he could no longer keep up with the IT demands of the job. He still knew his shit, though, and I hoped I’d be able to stay in touch with him, if I got the job, for some inside info.

I’d been in the impressive Raiders Stadium many times with Cal – on the terraces, in the stands, in the bars afterwards and occasionally into the changing rooms or offices to see Jay – but the tour I had of the whole place, top to toe, was mind-blowing. There were bits that no one would have imagined were there, and which all had some sort of tech need, like alarm systems, Wi-Fi links to the big screens in the gym showing player fitness stats, operating systems for the PCs in the offices, player GPS, you name it. Bloody hell, if someone connected with Raiders, be they player, grounds man, steward or supporter, did something, it required a bit of tech to help them do it. The thought of what would happen if it all went wrong at once blew my mind slightly, but this was the sort of challenge I was looking for, being able to fix stuff, being able to suggest better stuff, improving things, tweaking things, thinking on my feet instead of on my arse. I so, so, wanted this job, so, so much. I ached for it.

I finally tore myself away from it all, and went home to await their decision. I kept veering from ‘you must have fucked it all up’ to ‘you’re the only one they interviewed, you know your shit, it’s yours’, and my heart was beating a mile a minute.

They promised a decision by the end of the day, and I checked my phone about fifty times on the way home, keeping it in my hand as I got out of the car and opened the front door.

Lau was waiting for me.

Laura

‘So how did it go?’

I saw the naked want on his face.

Matt

‘Lau, it’s my job, it has to be. If they fucking give it to someone else, I … there’ll be a stiff letter to the Times, that’s what. And I’ll cancel my subscription to Rugby World.’

‘You don’t have a subscription to Rugby World.’

‘See? The very thought has made me mad enough to cancel it in advance of even getting it.’

‘You daft sod. Did you have a good nosey around?’

‘Yeah, looked everywhere, peeked into every cranny, well, every cranny where someone with an IT degree is likely to be looking, which seems to be just about bloody everywhere. Did you know the players wear GPS trackers in their shirts so the coaches can see what they’ve been up to on the pitch? How far they’ve run, to the millimetre, how fast, where they’ve been. It’s bloody mind-blowing.’

‘Actually, I did. Dec told me.’

‘Oh.’

This took the wind out of my sails for a second, but I rallied.

‘Well, sometimes they go wrong, and I can fix them. Or tell them to buy bloody new ones when they’re out of date. Or I can if I get the bloody job.’

I couldn’t keep still. I paced around the kitchen, feeling like I was buzzing. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted it, and the more I wanted it, the more I kept trying to retain some perspective.

Laura

Matt seemed really excited, more animated than I’d seen him for a long time.

‘How did the interview go?’

Matt

‘Piece of piss. More like a chat, really, only a chat between really nerdy computer geeks who were talking in binary.’

‘Talking in what?’

‘Nerdy computer geek joke, Lau. Just laugh and say ‘that’s very funny, Matt’.’

‘Ha ha, that’s very funny Matt. You look nice in your suit, by the way, liking the rumpled look, wonky tie, untucked shirt. Making me go a bit unnecessary …’

The past week or so had seen a distinct rekindling of interest in the latest chapter in Matt and Lau: Getting Steamy. Lau leaned in and ran a finger down my tie, looking up at me with sexy mischief on her face.

‘Ooh, really? Noted.’

‘When will you know?’

‘They said they’d ring by the end of the day.’

‘Were they interviewing anyone else?’

‘Didn’t see anyone, but that doesn’t mean anything.’

‘Did you see Jay?’

‘Nope. Expect he was keeping out of my way. Caught sight of Dec, his back view disappearing down a corridor. I shouted out ‘Oi, Summers, get a sweat on’ as they were showing me round.’

‘You did not.’

I did, of course, not.

‘No, you’re right, I actually shouted ‘OMG it’s Declan Summers, I’m his greatest fan, oh please let me go and get a selfie’ and then I ran after him and ripped his shirt a bit in excitement.’

‘You did not.’

Again, actually, not.

‘Lau, I don’t know how you do it, you always see right through me.’

‘Hm, maybe it’s something to do with the outrageousness of your lies.’

‘Maybe.’

I smiled at Lau and kissed the end of her nose.

‘Babies been behaving themselves?’

‘They’ve been angels. They’re still asleep, but I don’t expect it’ll last much longer.’

‘Long enough for you to take advantage of my rumpled look? I can be more rumpled if you –’

The phone rang in my hand and stopped my amorous train of thought. I looked at the screen. It was the Raiders number. I stared at Lau, slightly worried my heart might give out, so I put an arm round her to steady myself, and pulled her close, forcing myself to sound calm.

‘Matt Scott.’

‘Hello Matt, it’s Malcolm Howard here.’

Oh bloody hell, the CEO himself. That was good, right? Didn’t they get underlings to deliver the bad news? Or maybe I was so shit he wants to give me a dressing down, maybe about talking gibberish with Sean, or fucking about afterwards. Breathe, Matt. Lau squeezed my hand.

‘Oh, hello.’

I tried to inject some cool into my greeting, as if CEOs of places I really really REALLY wanted to work called me up to tell me the outcome of the most important interview in my life every five minutes or so.

‘How are you?’

Oh fuck off with the pleasantries and just tell me.

‘Yeah, good thanks.’

‘Good, good. Matt, thank you for coming in today. As you know, we’re keen to fill the post quickly.’

‘Yep.’

Just get on with it, then, and fill it with me.

‘And it’s a part time post, with flexible hours.’

‘Yep.’

Well aware of that, thanks, all fully discussed at my interview along with disclosing my bastard MS status, if it’s a no-go just fucking well tell me, please.

‘I have to say, you interviewed very well, you have a very comfortable manner that not all people in the computer trade can boast.’

‘Oh, thanks.’

But seriously, have I got the fucking job or not? I’m about to spontaneously combust here, and then you’ll have Lau to deal with, and you’ll wish you’d just spat it out when you had the chance.

‘We’d like to offer you the job.’

Holy fucking shit. Did he just say that he was offering me the job?

‘Really?’

‘Really.’

There was a hint of a smile in his voice, as if he knew he’d been stringing me along, and now he’d reaped the rewards of his fun. CEOs were bastards with their power games.

‘Whoa, thank you.’

I was on the point of gushing more thanks, but he hadn’t finished yet.

‘I think you’ll be a valuable addition to the Raiders team.’

He chuckled as if he’d made a joke. Oh – ‘team’, like as if I was one of the players. As jokes went, it was pretty feeble. Probably the only one he knew.

‘We’d like you to come in as soon as possible, to work out things like start dates, any training you need to get you up to speed, that kind of thing.

‘Yeah, yeah, of course.’

‘Do you have any idea when you could start?’

‘Well I’ll have to work some notice at GreenScreen, a month, I think.’

Although I was already trying to think of ways it could be sooner, maybe by being strict with GreenScreen about my part time hours and starting with Raiders in my off time.

‘We’ll have a contract drawn up, which you’ll need to sign.’

‘Yeah, great, just let me know, I can call in and sign whatever.’

I’d sign my life away now if you asked me, probably my children and my soul as well.

‘I look forward to working with you, Matt.’

‘Thank you.’

‘We’re very glad to have you with us.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Maybe you could have a look at my son’s laptop when you come in?’

I didn’t think he was serious, but I wasn’t quite sure. Maybe he knew two jokes. That’s how I played it.

‘Ha ha, yeah, great, see you then, then.’

The chuckle told me that, phew, yes he had been joking.

‘Have a good evening, Matt.

‘Yep, bye for now.’

We disconnected, and I looked down at Lau, who was trying to read my face to tell her what had happened. I felt full of beans – whole tins of the little orange fart-makers.

‘They only offered me the effing job.’

I was currently undergoing a renewed concerted effort not to swear out loud. In my head was my own domain, but what came out of my mouth was strictly monitored. Until I lapsed again.

In the meantime, unaware of my gargantuan attempt at verbal decency, Lau squealed, and I took her hands and swung her round crazily, then pulled her to me and folded her up in my arms, as it slowly drained away, all the stress, uncertainty and tension, to be replaced with a warm, fuzzy feeling. It was almost as good as after sex, although to be honest, having sex first is better.

‘You really wanted this, didn’t you.’

‘Like I never wanted anything before. Oh, except you, Lau. And the babies, of course. And a Tottenham season ticket. But all that aside, yeah, I really really wanted it. Holy chuff.’ [Notice the distinct lack of sweariness, readers.] ‘Well that’s going to be an interesting conversation with Phil tomorrow. We’ve just taken on a huge account, several months’ work, and now he’s going to need a new me. Tough shit, Philly boy.’ [Notice the distinct presence of overexcited sweariness, readers.]

Phil had had his money’s worth out of me the last few years, months off with a bastard neurological condition notwithstanding. I wasn’t going to have many regrets at leaving GreenScreen behind.

I leaned down to Lau’s highly desirable mouth and gave it a thorough snogging. As my tongue wandered over hers, my mind must have been wandering elsewhere too, and I suddenly remembered what she had been going to do today. I pulled away, frowning.

‘Shit, Lau, you were going to do the test. Did you get one?’

Laura

I nodded. ‘Yeah, that was awkward, I was at the counter in the supermarket, had just asked for a pregnancy test, when I saw Kate. There was no way I wanted her to know what I was buying, and she came over to say hi …

Matt

Lau launched into a long story about buying the test at the supermarket, but I’m ashamed to say my head was so full of job I wasn’t really listening. I drifted off into a delighted world of self-congratulation while I waited for her to get to the point.

‘… got a bit of a funny look from the girl.’

The story had finished, but I still needed to know the most important thing.

‘Have you done it yet?’

‘No, I wanted you to be here. It was horrible doing it on my own last time.’

And now it was my turn to be supportive and understanding, and hold her if she needed it, and be sensible and practical and, well, positive, if it was positive.

‘OK, then, up to the loo with you.’

Laura

And so, heart beating fast, I made my way upstairs with Matt, and peed on a stick. The couple of minutes it took for the result went so slowly, with Matt and I looking at each other, then looking back at the little window on the stick, then back at each other, then at his watch, and finally, when the time had passed and the window showed ‘Not pregnant’, looking at each other with strange expressions on our faces.

Matt

We looked at each other for a while, not sure what to say. I have to admit to a tiny, but perceptible, not to mention completely inappropriate, twinge of disappointment.

‘Whoa, phew then, Lau.’

She shook her head, but I wasn’t sure if she meant ‘not phew’ or something else.

Laura

I wasn’t sure. About the result, not about the ‘phew’. I was very sure about the ‘phew’.

‘I think I need to do the other one, there can be false results.’

‘But it’s the same piss, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, but it’s still early on. Maybe we should wait a few more days and do another one.’

Matt

‘How long do we have to go on re-doing them? Surely we should just go with this, aren’t they really reliable these days?’

I could almost foresee week after week of pregnancy tests, never quite believing that ‘Not pregnant’ meant ‘Not pregnant’.

‘Yes, but hormones are weird. They can skew things.’

I got what she was saying about hormones, but sometimes you just had to trust the things you were asking to give you an expert opinion, didn’t you?

‘Well, whatever you need, Lau, but I think that’s said it for me. No more babies for the foreseeable.’

I felt my mouth do a funny little sad face. Shit, had not meant to show anything one way or the other. Lau, of course, noticed straight away.

Laura

He made a funny little sad mouth. What? What was that all about? No, there will be no funny little sad mouths, this was a good thing.

‘Wait, are you disappointed?’

Matt

‘No, or, maybe a tiny bit. In my head I was kind of living it slightly – not all the no-sleep, more-nappies, louder-screaming reality of it all, but being a Daddy again, getting to know another one. I loved it last time, apart from being pissed and scared shitless. Don’t worry, Lau, I know it’s so impractical, you could well expire from overwork, but it just feels a little bit like we’ve lost something. You know?’

With everything else that had happened in the last week, I hadn’t really had time to get my head round the potential of another baby, but while we were waiting for the result, I’d seen in my mind’s eye a ‘1-2 weeks pregnant’ notice coming up, and I’d been surprised to find myself OK with it, even looking forward to some of it.

Laura

‘Yeah, I know.’

And I did, I saw where he was coming from, but my overwhelming feeling was relief. It wasn’t like we’d lost something at all.

‘But we haven’t, it’s not something that was ever there. And I so, so do not want to have to do all that again right now.’

Matt

‘But not never, though.’

I wanted more children, some day, when the memory of all the baby shit and screaming had faded to a dull roar.

‘No, not never. One day, we’ll have more. Tons more, thousands more, but not just yet, it’s time for Matt and Lau’s thrill ride to slow down, don’t you think?’

She was so right. We’d been going at a ridiculous speed since we met, and another baby now would have just been absurd.

‘Agreed, for now. New job first, oust Jay as assistant coach by the end of the season, replace him with computer operated robots and the world is mine – mwah hah hah. Then more babies, defo.’

‘You daft sod. I’m still going to do this one in a few days.’

Lau held up the second test from the box.

‘But just to be sure, not because I think it will change.’

‘You sure you’re OK?’

‘Yeah, just obsessing.’

‘Freaking a little bit?’

She hardly ever freaked, and I liked to press home my advantage when it happened.

‘A little bit.’

‘Love it when you freak and I don’t.’

‘I aim to please.’

‘Ha ha. Come on, Lau, much as I love our bathroom, I can think of better rooms to congratulate me on my new job in.’

A piercing shriek came from the babies’ room. Ella was awake.

‘Oh bugger. They always know, bloody little killjoys. Fat chance of any action while they’re on the case.’

109. Because of you

In which there is a digging in of heels, and a plan to escape.

Laura

At least Matt didn’t seem to be bearing a grudge against his mum. I heard footsteps coming up the stairs, and then Carol was in the doorway.

‘Hello, Laura. Oh, have you just got them to sleep? I’ll be quiet.’

Her voice was low, and neither Josh in his cot nor Ella on my shoulder stirred.

‘Don’t worry, they’re pretty robust. Sometimes I think they take after Matt in the sleeping department, they sleep through the loudest noises. Then one of us coughs, and it’s baby Armageddon.’

‘Well, it’s true Matthew’s always liked his sleep.’

‘I think ‘like’ is an understatement. If it was an Olympic sport he’d have fifty-seven gold medals. Would you like a cuddle with Ella? Come and sit on the sofa.’

Carol couldn’t resist, and she sat down next to me as I passed the sleeping Ella over to her. Her arthritic hands found it hard to hold them comfortably, and she always worried about dropping them when she was standing up, but sitting down was easier, and I gave her as much opportunity to hold her grandchildren as I could. She looked down at Ella for a while, then up at me, speaking in the quiet tone she had used since coming into the room.

‘Did you hear any of what I was saying to Matthew?’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, I was listening, I’m afraid.’

‘Oh no, dear, I’m glad. I won’t say anything now, but I’d like to call you tomorrow, while he’s at work, if I may. I’m worried about all this.’

‘Oh Carol, of course. Ring me anytime.’

Matt

The voices from upstairs made me wonder if Lau and Mum were hatching some plot between them, so I quickly cut some slices of cake and made some more tea, put it all on a tray and hurried up the stairs. Their voices were too low for me to hear what they were saying, but by the time I got into the room, they had stopped speaking.

Laura

Any further conversation was curtailed by the sound of Matt’s footsteps coming up the stairs. He came into the room with a tray with more tea and cake on it.

‘Seconds for me and Mum, firsts for Lau. This cake is superb, Lau.’

‘What a surprise. Did Beth ever make a cake that wasn’t?’

‘Ha ha, not that I can remember. It would have made News at Ten, caused the global cake markets to crash. Babies snoozing? Lazy bastards.’

‘Matt!’

Matt

OK, I was trying to watch my language around them, but seriously? All the bloody time? Give me a day off, for fuck’s sake.

‘Oh, sorry, Lau, but that’s not really a bad one, is it?’

‘Every little one adds up, dear.’

Yeah, there was definitely some kind of womanly bonding going on.

‘Yes, Mum. Just can’t get a break round here at the moment. Might have to lock myself in the bathroom and say all the rude words I can think of.’

‘That might take you a while, flower. Do you want to stay for dinner, Carol?’

‘Oh, no dear, thank you for asking though. Rose is going to call round when she’s ready to go. She’ll not be long, she spent the day with Declan and Amy, and when she got home she realised she’d still got Charlie’s giraffe in her bag, so she just rang to see if I wanted a little jaunt.’

‘Oh no, not Gigi! Disaster, good job she noticed before bedtime.’

‘Yes, it is. But she said she wasn’t going to be long.’

‘Yeah, right, like Rose ever just popped round to anyone’s, let alone when Charlie and Tom are there, ripe for a good grannying.’

‘Well, we’ll see. If my tummy rumbles too loudly, I may have to take you up on your offer.’

‘You’re always welcome, Carol.’

We were all being jolly and happy and avoiding the issue, which was fine by me, that was just the way I wanted it to stay, everybody avoiding saying anything about anything.

The doorbell rang, and I went downstairs to let Rose in. Even she was trying to get in on the act, and started in straight away.

‘Hello Matt. What have you been up to with that brother of yours?’

I totally ignored the question, kissed her on the cheek.

‘Hi Rose, Mum’s just coming, she’s all ready for you.’

Laura

‘I’ll call you tomorrow, then, dear.’

‘Thanks, Carol, I’d like to chat about it.’

‘They’ll sort it out, I’m sure, but they might need a few nudges. Bye bye you beautiful girl.’

This last was to Ella, who had opened her eyes and given her granny a huge grin.

Matt

Lau and I had a quiet evening, once the babies were in bed. I was wondering how I was going to keep everyone at arm’s length while I got my head around things, and Lau would have been worrying about me as well as worrying about whether or not she was pregnant and worrying about how she was going to fit everything in that she needed to do tomorrow.

Laura

Matt and I spent the rest of the evening lost in our own thoughts. I suspected Matt was thinking about what his mum had said. He hated being told what to do, but once he’d got past his initial annoyance, he sometimes listened in retrospect. I was worried about him, and also at the back of my mind was the constant ‘what if I’m pregnant’ niggle, which just wouldn’t go away however much I tried to distract myself. What if I was pregnant? I was going to need everyone in the family, or I really would go under.

Matt

My mind wandered over what Mum had said. I didn’t know how she could have got it so completely wrong. Jay and I had rubbed along together OK over the last few years, but before I was ill the first time we hadn’t been close, and it seemed like Jay preferred it that way. I couldn’t begin to imagine him being jealous of me. It was laughable; he had always made it clear that he valued strength and athleticism over intelligence and wit, and nothing seemed to have changed in that respect.

Lau eventually decided to go to bed. I wasn’t tired, and didn’t want to spend hours tossing and turning.

‘Do you mind if I don’t come up just yet?’

‘Course not, flower. You didn’t get up till the crack of lunch anyway. Wake me up when you get in, if I’m not with the babies.’

‘Why?’

‘Just want to make sure I give you a huge cuddle before we go to sleep.’

And believe it or not, all I wanted was a huge cuddle. This morning’s antics had been awesome, but apart from knowing it would freak Lau right out to try anything now, I just wanted her to fold me up and show me how much she loved me and believed in me.

‘Oh Lau, sounds bloody perfect. Might not be that long after all, then.’

‘See you later, my love.’

Laura

The next morning Matt left for work, to my eyes more reluctantly than usual. He didn’t have specific hours, and was still officially part time, usually going in mid-morning, but today he hung around finding things to do that didn’t really need doing. I understood his reluctance, it would be hard to go back somewhere you’d thought you had a chance of escaping, but then feeling like you may never be able to leave. I didn’t know how to help him, and it frustrated me.

Matt

The next morning I took ages getting ready for work. My feet felt like lead; it was as if I’d seen the escape route but had discovered at the last minute it had been blocked off. The thought of going back to GreenScreen, not just today, but every day for the foreseeable, was seeming less and less attractive.

Laura

Not long after Matt left, I had a text from Beth.

‘How’s Matty?’

‘Same. Saw Carol yesterday. No change.’

‘Did she say what she thinks?’

‘Yeh, but M not listening.’

‘Need 2b devious.’

‘Really? Not sure. Wot u thinking?’

‘Use Cal. Science homework. Get him here?’

‘Worth a try, but think he’ll see thru it.’

‘Maybe. Step 1 tho. Will txt him now.’

A bit later the same morning, I had a text from Amy.

‘Wot’s going on w Jay n Matt? Rose said big fall out?’

‘Yeh, J said some stuff, upset M.’

‘Really? Wot he say?’

‘Long story. Fancy coming round?’

‘Gr8. Gimme a minute or 60 to get C & T ready. Cu soon.’

Matt

Once I was there it was business as usual, and I managed to drag my mood off the floor with some banter and some doughnuts, but as I looked ahead to the projects and meetings that were in store over the coming months, I couldn’t help feeling my heart sinking. I’d done it all before, I was bored with it.

Half way through the morning, Beth started with the texting. She always thinks she’s being subtle, but she’s as transparent as glass.

‘Matty, ru around 2nite? Cal cld do with help, science homework.’

‘Yeh, sure, get him 2 FaceTime me.’

‘Might need hands on?’

‘Bring him round then.’

And then radio silence was resumed while Beth rethought her strategy.

My day got worse when Phil asked me to talk to one of the new employees about her work on a project. As in tell her if she didn’t pull her socks up she was history. Fuck I hated that shit, it wasn’t the way I did things, but now that I was more of a manager than a team leader, and didn’t just have my own team to do with as I wished, I was more constrained by what Phil wanted me to do. She had been warned before, and now I had to get all heavy on her arse.

Laura

Amy had just left, after a big catch up where I filled her in on what had happened with Matt and Jay, when I had a call from Carol.

‘Hi Carol.’

‘Hello, dear. Do you have time to talk?’

‘Yes, of course. I might have to desert you at any time for a small crying person, but at the moment they’re happy in their baby seats. We were just having a game of peekaboo.’

‘Oh that’s good. I’m glad you’re getting a bit of peace.’

‘Amy’s just been here with Charlie and Tom. Part of me thinks I’m better off having my two both together. She’s really got her hands full with hers, especially now Charlie’s walking.’

‘Maybe wait until you’ve got two toddlers before thinking you’ve got it easier, dear.’

‘Yes, you could be right.’

‘Now, Laura, I just wanted to talk to you about this silly argument. You were there, weren’t you? What exactly did Jameson say?’

‘Oh, I’m not sure I can remember the exact words. There was this talk about a job at Raiders, Matt asked Jay for a number of someone to talk to about it, Jay wouldn’t give it to him, at first because he didn’t think he should be disturbed on a Sunday, then he ended up saying he didn’t think Matt should go for the job because it would be awkward when Matt messed about and flirted. Matt got upset, told Jay he wouldn’t go for the job, and that was kind of it.’

‘Hm, that’s about what Beth said. Laura, they haven’t argued like this for a long time. When Matthew was ill and Jameson moved up to Stafford, Matthew was overwhelmed. I won’t say they haven’t had a cross word since, because they’re so different, they often have different opinions, but they’ve been much closer than they were before.’

‘I’ve tried reminding Matt about what Jay did for him. He’s not exactly open to thinking about it at the moment.’

‘No. I think all this has stirred up a bit of deep emotion for both of them. Before Matthew was diagnosed with MS, he and Jameson didn’t see each other very much. Jameson never really understood Matthew when they were younger; he was such a physical boy, always out playing football or rugby, and he used to tease Matthew terribly because he always had his head stuck in a book or a knew how to do his sums. Matthew looked up to his brother, and the teasing hurt him, although he tried not to show it. He tried so hard to match Jameson physically, but he just never had the build for it, or the aptitude for sport. I suppose he’s more like me, whereas Jameson is more like his father. When they got older they lived in different worlds – Jameson with his rugby and Matthew with his computers. They got on well enough when they met up, but it didn’t happen that often. I don’t think Jameson realised how much he loved Matthew until he nearly died, and I don’t think Matthew realises how scared Jameson was, how upset he was, how much soul-searching he did while Matthew was in hospital.’

‘So what do you think happened on Saturday?’

‘Well, it’s just a guess, but I don’t think they ever resolved their jealousies. Jameson knows he’s not as clever as Matthew, and it grates with him. Matthew has always tried to be as strong and tough as Jameson, but he falls short. I think when their two worlds are separate, they get on just fine. Being with the family is fine too, there’s a lot of common ground. But Jameson seeing Matthew becoming part of his sport world, the world where he knows a lot, and where Matthew has the potential to show him up and know more about something, that would threaten Jameson’s security. I don’t expect he even thought about it, he just reacted, a sort of automatic fighting response. That’s why Matthew has reacted so badly as well, it’s taken both of them back to when they were younger.’

‘Matt did say he felt like he was ten, when Jay teased him for knowing all the planets or something.’

‘Oh. That almost confirms it then, dear.’

‘Well it would explain it, Carol, but what on earth are we going to do about it?’

‘I don’t know if there’s a quick solution. I think these things take time. Jameson won’t even talk about it, not to me, not to Beth. I don’t expect Matthew’s much better.’

‘Not so as you’d notice. I suppose I’ll just keep plugging away. It’s exhausting, though. And the longer it goes on, the more stubborn both of them are going to get.’

‘Yes, the stubborn streak is another factor, I suppose. Perhaps we should get our heads together properly, you, me and Beth, and see what we can think up.’

‘Maybe we’ll be able to think of something. I’ll talk to Beth later.’

‘Alright dear. How are you coping with it all?’

‘Oh I’m alright. To be honest, Ella and Josh keep me so busy I’m just letting Matt get on with it to some extent.’

And I might be pregnant, so that was taking some of my worrying space away from Matt’s concerns, but I wasn’t going to be saying that to Carol right now.

‘That’s the best way, dear. You will call me if you want to talk about it, won’t you?’

‘Yeah, sure, and I’ll let you know what Beth says.’

The afternoon passed, my mum came over for a quick visit, then I started getting dinner ready, did more feeding, changing and washing, and the time flew by.

Matt

The employee bollocking didn’t go well. There was no gentle way of saying what I had to say, and she cried buckets, and I told her to go home and think about things. I didn’t know if she was going to come back, and a part of me was envious of her. Shit I needed to get out of there, it was seriously doing my bloody nut. I spent the rest of the day sitting in my office, writing up the disciplinary report and Googling jobs, wishing I wasn’t there. I sent a few links to my home email, then I looked up and it was time to go.

I hurried home, and shut the front door behind me, as if it was a portcullis I had just let down to protect us from marauding hordes.

‘Hey Lau. Come here and give me a cuddle, woman.’

Lau walked towards me with an eyebrow raised and did as she was told.

‘That’s better. Just needed someone to obey my every command. Bloody subordinates, don’t know their place half the time.’

‘Ah, poor Matt, have the underlings been rebelling again?’

‘Yeah. It doesn’t pay to be a democratic leader, they just take the piss. I had to bloody discipline someone today. Hated every bloody second.’

‘What, tell someone off?’

Lau knew I didn’t work like that, and she stroked my face sympathetically.

‘Yeah. They’d fucked up a contract, not for the first time. I’m usually more of a ‘let’s learn from our mistakes’ kind of guy, but Phil wanted to be hard-line about it, and so I had to do it. Made her cry.’

‘Oh, Matt. That’s terrible.’

‘Yeah. Still, now I’m home, in the arms of my bloody awesome wife, with, is that a waft of chicken casserole I smell? And freshly wiped baby bum? Hopefully not from the same source.’

‘Yes, it is a chicken casserole, and yes the babies are clean and tidy awaiting a kiss bestowed by their doting father.’

‘Whoa, you’ve been busy. Bet you haven’t made anyone cry, though.’

‘There have been some tears, although I’m not sure I can claim full responsibility for all of them. Mum was round earlier, she helped with the casserole, peeled some veg.’

‘She OK?’

I didn’t really want to get into any discussions Lau might have had with April. I was going to have to be careful what I talked about with anyone, to avoid being told what people thought vicariously.

‘Yeah, fine. Saw Amy earlier as well.’

This included Amy, but Lau seemed disinclined to tell me anything about it, so I assumed they’d had a good gossip about me and left it at that.

Laura

I left out my conversation with Carol, until I could think of how to tell Matt we’d been discussing him. He was bound to know we had been, but it irritated him when he found out about it.

Matt

‘I got a text from Beth this morning, she’s so obvious, some boll – er – rubbish about helping Cal with his science homework. Thinks she’s going to trick me into going round there. I said if Cal needs help he can FaceTime me, or she can bring him here.’

Laura

‘Oh Matt.’

I didn’t say any more, just gave him a sympathetic look and squeezed him tight. This was going to affect the whole family until it was resolved. Cal and Iz would miss Matt a lot, and as I thought about it, I realised that Dec would find it hard to know who to support. It was something else to throw into the mix, but not right now, when Matt was still refusing to communicate about it.

Matt

I didn’t know how much longer she was going to be able to remain supportive but silent, Lau always had an opinion, but I appreciated the effort so far.

‘Yeah, well. OK, babies to kiss, first job on the old man’s to do list.’

So we had a bit of baby time, both of us chatting to them, saying nursery rhymes, Lau singing, watching them wriggle and giggle, seeing them smile. When they were behaving themselves, they were the best therapy.

Laura

I watched as Matt bent down to first Josh and then Ella, loving as always to see them smile and wriggle as he cuddled them. Matt always chatted to both of them about all sorts of things – football, food, family – as if they understood everything he said, and he had their complete attention.

He sat down, Ella on his knee, as I scooped up Josh and sat next to them and we spent some time bouncing babies and talking to them. Both of them were developing distinct personalities. Josh was more laid back, and would usually wait patiently for his more assertive sister to have her needs met. Josh would gaze intensely into my eyes while he fed, focussed entirely on me, whereas Ella would look around, everything distracting her. I found myself wondering how their different characters would develop as they grew up, and whether they would argue like Matt and Jay had. It almost brought tears to my eyes to imagine them not being as close as they were – they reached out to each other constantly, and looked at each other when they were in their separate beds, their daily cycles seemingly linked as well. I needed to say something to Matt.

‘Your mum rang me today.’

Matt

I so didn’t want to talk about this.

‘Oh yeah?’

‘She’s quite upset about this thing with Jay.’

I didn’t want Mum and Lau talking about me when I wasn’t there. I didn’t want them doing it when I was there either. Lau knew that, she knew how I felt about ‘being discussed’.

‘It’s nothing to do with her.’

‘She’s your mum. She’s just worried.’

‘Had a good gossip, did you?’

I couldn’t help it, the sarcastic tone. I was pissed off.

Laura

‘Hey, don’t take it out on me. I was thinking, just now, what if Josh and Ella fall out when they’re older? I’d be destroyed.’

Maybe if Matt could see it from a parent’s point of view, it might give him a different perspective.

Matt

She was trying to make me see it from someone else’s point of view, but I wanted to see it from my own. I wasn’t going to talk to her about it, not now. Maybe not ever.

‘Leave it, Lau. So, Josh, Spurs have got a Monday night game with Sunderland, shall we watch it together?’

Laura

And that was the end of that conversation, although I hoped Matt might at least think about it.

Matt

After dinner I started to watch the football while Lau did an evening feed. As she was starting to get them ready to go to bed, Dec’s ring tone pinged on my phone. I’d been expecting to hear from him all day, but he’d shown remarkable restraint, until now.

‘Seriously? Not speaking to Jay? How old ru again?’

I could just see it all happening, the family network springing into action on Mission Matty. Beth had tried, so it was Dec’s turn next, and then when he had no joy it would be Mum, then they might get Nico to give it a go, and before long they would have all had a turn. Well good luck to them. It wasn’t going to work, because it was different this time; I had Lau.

Laura

He looked at his phone, then tossed it back onto the table with a sigh. It was so like when I first knew him, when he got so exasperated with people checking up on him.

‘Who was that?’

‘Dec. He’s wading in now. They can all just piss off and leave me alone.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Nothing. Just talk.’

‘Oh. Say goodnight to Daddy, Ella.’

Matt kissed her gently and stroked her hair.

‘I’ll be back down for Josh in a minute.’

‘I can bring him up if you like.’

‘No, you watch the football, I won’t be long.’

Matt

While Lau was upstairs, the FaceTime tone went on my iPad. I nearly ignored it, but remembered my text conversation with Beth earlier, and relented, hoping it would be Cal rather than his mum. I pressed the button, and Cal appeared, to my relief and mild surprise. I’d thought it might just be a ruse to get me over there, but it seemed there had been some truth in it.

Laura

While I was upstairs I heard the FaceTime tone go on Matt’s iPad. I thought he might ignore it, but heard:

Matt

‘Hey Cal.’

‘Mum said you’d help me with my science homework?’

‘Sure, mate. What is it?’

‘Physics.’

‘OK, what have you got to do?’

Laura

As Matt continued talking to Cal, I relaxed a little. Matt wasn’t so angry that he wouldn’t talk to anyone, then. He never liked letting Cal down, but the way he’d been the last couple of days, I’d wondered if he would really let his anger encompass all of Jay’s family, not just Jay. If he was talking to Cal, there was some hope. Maybe Beth had been more perceptive than I’d thought.

Matt

Helping Cal diverted me for a while, although it meant I missed the football, but I never really minded with Cal. He could be a grouchy little git sometimes, but once you got him out of his shell, he was really interested in things, and once he understood something, this look came over his face, as if he’d just been give the key to a magic door, and it was awesome. It made me realise why teaching is appealing to some people.

It didn’t take that long to help Cal, although while I was talking to him I had two more texts from Dec, which I ignored until I’d finished Facetiming. Once I’d said goodbye to Cal, I picked up my phone.

‘Seriously, Matt. Get over it.’

‘U know what happens when u go all silent. I’ll be round in a few.’

I just wasn’t having any of it. Dec was bound to be siding with Jay, and I didn’t need the Summers treatment, hadn’t since I’d found Lau. She was my rock, my safe place, my confessional.

‘The whole lot of you can just fuck right off. Don’t need any of you. Stay the fuck out of it.’

Laura

When I came back downstairs, Matt had finished his FaceTime and was texting. He didn’t look up at me, his body language telling me he didn’t want to talk about who or what he was texting. When I went down after putting Josh to bed, he was watching the football again. He looked up and held his arm out, patting the seat beside him. I sat beside him as he put his arm round me, and rested my head on his shoulder as he watched the football.

‘It’s nearly finished, Lau.’ He indicated the football match.

‘Don’t worry, I’ll just sit here and veg for a bit.’

I wasn’t vegging, I was racking my brains for ways of getting Matt to talk, and coming up with nothing. Matt was so obstinate that the longer it went on, the more it was just going to be ‘a thing’ that had no reason behind it, but was just absorbed into Matt’s way of being. That couldn’t happen, it would be devastating to Matt and his whole family. I sat, leaning up against Matt, thinking hard. When the doorbell rang, it made me jump. Matt grunted.

Matt

I knew who it would be. Summers, party of one, eager for a fun all-nighter.

‘Just leave it.’

‘Why?’

I’d told Lau before about our ‘not leaving you alone’ bollocks, but I don’t think she’d completely got it.

‘It’ll be Dec, he’s just texted.’

‘So why are we ignoring it?’

She pushed herself to her feet to go and answer the door, but I caught her hand and pulled her back to the sofa, more roughly than I’d intended in my desperation not to let Dec in. Yeah, thinking about it now, maybe I was scared about what he was going to make me face if he got in, but at the time I was just angry and defiant.

‘No, Lau.’

Laura

I swung round to face him, annoyed at his tone of voice and at being manhandled.

‘Hey. It’s my front door as well as yours. Don’t push me around.’

Matt had the decency to look ashamed.

Matt

I was ashamed of myself. I never got physical with people, least of all Lau. I really was desperate.

‘Sorry, Lau. I just don’t want to see anyone. Please?’

Lau looked at me, and must have seen something in my face that convinced her, as she agreed.

‘Alright, for now. But this can’t go on, Matt. I’m not cutting us off from your entire family so you don’t have to face people.’

The doorbell rang again, and my phone pinged. I ignored it. Then Lau’s phone went too. Oh the bastard was upping the stakes, thinking he could involve Lau in our little game.

Lau got to her feet again and headed to the hallway.

‘Matt, I’m going to answer the door. I won’t let him in, but he knows we’re here, he’ll just keep on until we answer, and he’ll wake the babies up.’

Well that was true. I sighed.

‘You’re right. But don’t let him persuade you.’

‘Hey, you don’t have dibs on stubbornness. Don’t worry.’

I heard Lau open the door. She can’t have opened it more than a centimetre, or Dec would have been in like Flynn and we wouldn’t have got rid of him for weeks.

Laura

I reached the door as the bell rang again, and opened it. Dec moved towards me, but stopped, looking confused, when I blocked his way.

‘Hi Dec. Sorry, Matt doesn’t want to talk to anyone.’

‘Oh. Yeah, heard that one before.’

Dec raised his voice so it would reach Matt in the living room.

‘Tell him I’m a stubborner fucking bastard than he is, I’ll keep going all night until he talks to me. I’ve done it before, more than once.’

‘Please don’t, Dec. I’m here, Matt will talk to me, we’ll be fine. He’ll talk to you another time, I’m sure, just don’t push it.’

Matt

Oh I loved her so much. She was loyal and good and everything I needed.

Laura

Dec frowned, then nodded. When he spoke again, it was at his normal volume.

‘Are you OK, Lau?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I hate this, I can’t take sides.’

‘I know.’

‘Call us if you need us.’

I nodded, throat closing with emotion as I closed the door. I sniffed and tried to wipe my eyes so Matt didn’t see. To cover it up, I went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, but a wave of sadness washed over me and I started crying properly. I felt torn; I wanted to support Matt, but he needed his family, we all needed each other, and if things didn’t improve soon, it was going to tear us apart. Matt’s family were so closely entwined, that if one of them wasn’t there, they could all crumble. If I tried to push things, he was going to see me as against him too. I stood in the middle of the room with my arms folded tightly around me, trying to pull myself together.

Matt

I heard the door close, and then Lau went into the kitchen and put the kettle on. I wanted to say thanks for sticking up for me, so I wandered in to help her.

‘Hey, Lau, did I hear the kettle go –’

Lau was standing with her back to me, arms tightly folded, head bowed, shoulders heaving.

‘Oh fuck, you’re crying.’

I quickly went to her and pulled her into my arms.

‘Ssh, Lau. Oh please don’t, baby.’

This was all such a mess. I couldn’t handle Lau being this upset, and now she was crying harder, sobbing onto my chest.

‘Oh angel, don’t. Ssh.’

I’d used ‘baby’ and ‘angel’, my two best comfort words, and neither of them had made any difference at all. I hugged her as tightly as I could and kissed the top of her head as she wept, until she’d cried it all out and she shuddered to a halt, breathing hotly into my t-shirt.

‘I’m sorry Lau. I didn’t think about what all this is doing to you, and with worrying about the test in a few days as well.’

‘Did you hear what Dec said?’

Yeah, I got it, he wasn’t going to give up.

‘What, about him being a stubborner fucking bastard? Yeah, I get that, old news. I heard what you said too. Thanks.’

‘No, I didn’t mean that. I meant about him not taking sides. It affects all of us, will affect all of us for a long time if you carry on.’

I loosened my hold on her a little so I could look down at her. Throughout the day and into the evening, I had been getting more and more pissed off with my fucking family’s claims on me, what they thought they had a right to say or do. Things weren’t the same as they used to be, but they still thought they bloody owned me. I was just so tired of it, tired of fighting it and tired of fighting about it.

‘I know that. Maybe it’s time …’

I wasn’t quite ready to announce my as-yet-incomplete proposal, and backed away from what I’d been about to blurt out.

‘… I’m just still going over it all, Lau.’

Laura

He’d stopped himself in the middle of a sentence, but I could almost feel the weight behind the words he didn’t say, and a spike of fear shot through me. Once Matt got an idea in his head, it was nigh-on impossible to shake it out. Usually it was something that didn’t really matter, like building a fire pit in the garden, or spending an afternoon at Diggerworld, but there was so much more at stake this time. What was he considering?

‘Maybe it’s time for what?’

Matt

She had stiffened in my arms.

‘Nothing. I’m angry, I’m just thinking about stuff. Options.’

Laura

This was now properly scary. If Matt was starting to make decisions on his own, without consulting me, there was no telling what he’d end up doing, or wanting to do. Once he’d convinced himself about a course of action, it would be really hard to talk him out of it. Matt was much more flexible when he was at the talking stage of making his mind up.

‘Do I have any say in these options?’

Matt

She searched my face for what the fuck I was talking about. It was all just feelings at the moment, I hadn’t had a chance to put words to any of it, but now I had to, because I needed to explain it to Lau.

‘Well, of course, but not about how I feel. And how I feel at the moment is my bloody family is more trouble than they’re worth, and I’d be better off without them.’

Laura

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. He was going to ditch the family in some way, separate himself, and that meant all of us, from them.

‘Matt!’ I pushed myself away from him, looking at him in horror. ‘You can’t mean that.’

Matt

‘I’m still just thinking, Lau.’

I wasn’t going to get into discussing it, it was just how I was feeling.

Laura

Despite his words, there was a lift to his chin that defied me to try to contradict him. I remembered this feeling – I’d faced it in his flat when I’d seen a pile of pills and a bottle of whisky, and things had hung in the balance. In a panic, I tried to find something, anything, that would convince him not to make that final decision. I could almost see the years ahead, locked in a feud with Jay that had such small origins but would be so devastating to us all. Devastating to Matt and me and our children.

‘Please talk to Jay before you decide anything like that. Please try and sort it out with him.’

Matt

‘I can’t even think about him, let alone talk to him at the moment.’

This was nothing to do with Jay, none of his business. He wasn’t the only one who could decide who was or wasn’t a part of his family. People could be out as well as in, and perhaps it was time I just got out and broke away, got rid of their interfering nagging for good. At that moment, the thought was extremely appealing. Just me, Lau and the babies.

Laura

The calm tone that Matt was talking about this in was more scary than if he’d yelled. It chilled me to the core. Matt without his family wasn’t something I’d ever thought I’d have to contemplate; they were part of him, they almost defined him, they were all in his thoughts and controlled his actions one way or another for a lot of his waking hours. And now I might be pregnant – if I had another baby I’d need them all, or I’d go under like I nearly had before. It couldn’t happen. I wasn’t going to let it happen. He needed them, and I needed them. This wasn’t just about him any more. I walked over to the counter and picked up the car keys.

‘I’m going out.’

‘What?’

‘I won’t be long.’

‘Where are you going?’

Matt

Oh what the fuck was she up to now?

‘Back soon. Need bread.’

Laura

Before Matt could react I ran out of the door and got in the car, started the engine and reversed onto the road. I expected him to run after me, maybe try to stop me, but I drove away before he could catch up with me.

Matt

It was an obvious lie. We had tons of bread. That shocked me more than anything – Lau had never lied to me. I started to go after her, to, I don’t know, jump in the car, stop her, find out what she was going to do, but a cry from upstairs reminded me that she’d got me good and proper. I couldn’t leave, because I couldn’t leave Josh and Ella.

I took some deep breaths as I heard the car reverse off the drive and pull away. Then I went upstairs to see what the fuss was about up there, but all was quiet, as if neither of them had made a sound. I sat up there for a while, in the dark, listening to their noises, trying to let everything go, trying not to think about it all.

God I loved these two tiny people; they were all I needed, them and Lau. We were a family, a unit. As long as we were together, we wouldn’t need anything or anyone. Everything was OK. It was.

Once I was sure neither of them were going to start yelling for real, I went back downstairs and sat in front of the TV. There was more football, some European game I wasn’t interested in, but it was something to distract me. I checked my phone, but Lau hadn’t texted or called, and it was eating away at me, not knowing where she was or what she was doing. No one else had contacted me, either, and I was a bit surprised that the Summers kid had given up so easily. It wasn’t like him, and it made me apprehensive.

Laura

All the way there, I went over and over in my mind what I was going to do, my heart pounding, determination to end this fuelling my own anger at the two idiotic brothers.

Matt

Paranoia started to grip me, and I imagined Lau having some kind of family pow-wow where they all decided what was best for me and then tried to browbeat me into their way of doing things. Well they could all just go fuck themselves. Oh but Lau wouldn’t really do that, would she? No, it had seemed like a spur of the moment thing, the way she took off. Where the fuck was she, then?

My self-distraction techniques weren’t working very well; I couldn’t concentrate on the football, and every time a car went past I listened intently to see if it pulled onto the drive. I kept checking my phone, although I would have heard if a call or a text had come through. The babies were quiet, but I started to wonder what I was going to do if they needed feeding, so I checked the fridge, and found enough milk for both of them. Lau wouldn’t even run off spontaneously without making sure we were all looked after. I thought about texting her, but decided against it, then decided for it, then decided against it again as I was half way through a text that sounded angrier than I intended. Come on, Lau, how long does it take to ‘get bread’ or whatever the fuck it is you’re really doing?

I opened my emails, and found the links I’d sent to myself from work. I had a good look at the jobs in the links, and downloaded an application form for one of them. The job was in Aberdeen. I started filling out the form.

Laura

A short journey later and I was outside Beth and Jay’s house, vaguely noticing that Dec’s car was also outside. I ran up the path and rang the doorbell. Beth answered the door.

‘Laura!’

‘Is Jay here?’

‘Yes, he’s talking to Dec –’

‘I need to talk to him.’

‘They’re in his office.’

I pushed past Beth, a bit rudely, crossed the hallway and shoved the door to Jay’s office wide open. Jay was sitting in his leather swivel chair, and Dec was perched on the edge of the desk. They both looked at me in surprise as I barged in. I didn’t wait to be greeted.

‘Jay, you need to sort this out with Matt. I know you’re having some kind of man-off about it, but he’s talking about being better off without his family. You can’t let that happen. I know you’re both ridiculously attached to your pride, but one of you needs to give in, and I don’t think it’s going to be Matt. You said some hurtful things to him, and he’s got himself all worked up about it, so whatever it is you’re not talking about, you need to talk about it, sort it out, apologise, whatever it takes. I don’t care how you do it, but do it. Please.’

I ground to a halt as Jay and Dec stared at me. Dec started to speak, but Jay interrupted him.

‘OK.’

I was winding myself up to start again, and Jay’s short reply took the wind out of my sails.

‘What?’

‘OK, I’ll do whatever it takes, like you asked. Mr Summers here was just pointing out something very similar, and I’ve had my wife and my mother bending my bloody ear for the last two days, so just to get a bit of peace, OK, I agree, I’ve been an arse, I’ll sort it out with Matty.’

‘Really?’

My voice trembled, and I felt a bit wobbly, I was so relieved.

‘You’ve got to talk to him.’

‘I know. Give me a minute, I just want to finish something off in here. Turn the printer on, Dec.’

‘Thanks, Jay.’

‘No need to thank me, Laura. I’m sorry I’ve upset you all, I was pretty stupid. Why don’t you both get a drink? I won’t be long here.’

And so, dismissed, Dec and I went into the kitchen where we were joined by Beth.

‘So …?’

Dec answered, as I was too shaken to speak.

‘He’s going over in a minute, to, er, what was it Lau? Do whatever it takes. To sort it out.’

Beth leaned on the counter, sagging with relief. She looked at me and put an arm round my shoulders as I tried to take it in, that Jay had actually backed down. He hadn’t even seemed that angry, and I wondered what was different about either Jay’s temperament or the approach he had been subjected to, to make him react like this instead of digging his heels in like Matt had.

‘Oh sweetheart, thank goodness. What did you say?’

Beth looked up at Dec and put her hand on his arm.

‘Well, I just pointed out how things nearly went pear shaped with him and me a few years ago, because I stopped talking, and asked him if he wanted the same thing to happen with Matt. I’d only just started, really, and then Lau barged in like some kind of fucking scary mad woman on a mission and told him that Matt was thinking about ditching the family and he needed to sort it, which kind of sealed it, I think.’

Beth turned to me, eyes wide.

‘Oh Laura, Matt was going to do what?’

‘He said he’d be better off without his family, and he told me a while ago he was offered a job in Norwich, I’m just worried he’s going to do something impulsive.’

‘But James is going to sort it out?’

‘Yeah, he said he’s coming in a minute. I really hope he can say something to stop all this.’

‘Did James say anything else?’

‘Not to me, but I didn’t really give him a chance.’

‘Dec?’

‘I’d only just got here myself.’

‘Well he’s going to have to do some serious talking when he gets back, then. I let him get away with grunting too much, he never says what’s on his mind. Not this time, though.’

While Beth thought about how she was going to extract information from Jay, I suddenly remembered what I’d said to Matt when I left home. I’d lied to him. I never lied. Was it still a lie if he knew it was a lie? He’d known it was a lie, right? The sort of lie you tell when you don’t want to say ‘I’m going to see your brother so I can make him talk to you and stop you doing this ridiculous thing’, so instead say ‘We need bread’, when we have at least two loaves in the bread bin and several in the freezer. Well there’s an easy way round it, Laura Scott.

‘Beth, have you got a loaf of bread?’

Beth looked at me in complete confusion.

‘Bread?’

‘Yeah. I told Matt I was going out for bread. I’ve never lied to him.’

‘Oh. Oh Laura, that’s so lovely. Here, sweetheart.’

She gave me a smile, reached behind her and took a loaf out of the cupboard as Jay came in, holding an envelope.

‘Do you know where my car keys are, Beth?’

‘Hanging up on the key hook? Oh no, silly me, they’re never there, are they. In your pocket? By the phone? Still in the car? Office? Jacket? Shall I continue?’

‘If you like, but I can’t get going and sort this out with Matty until I find them, so more help, less sarcasm, thanks.’

‘Come with me, Jay, I can bring you back later.’

‘Maybe you’d better, James, it took you an hour to find your keys yesterday.’

‘Oh alright. Are you sure, Laura?’

‘Yeah. Are you ready now?’

Jay nodded, and we left, Dec staying to play on the X-box with Cal.

Jay seemed nervous in the passenger seat, and twisted the envelope in his hands until it was screwed up and grubby.

‘Thanks, Jay. I’m sorry I just went off like that, but I didn’t know what else to do.’

‘It’s OK, Laura. I think I needed a bit of a rocket. I’m not good at talking. I don’t really talk much to Matty, or haven’t for a while, not about important stuff. I’m a bit worried about what I’m going to say. He’s better with words than me.’

‘Just say what you’re feeling. It doesn’t have to be clever or fancy, just true.’

‘Thanks. That helps. You probably want to bang our heads together.’

‘It had occurred to me. But coming over and giving you a verbal slap was almost as satisfying.’

‘Has it been bad? With Matty, I mean. He can … he hasn’t for a long time, but he can get pretty down, has these black moods. It can be grim.’

‘No, not down exactly, but he’s been angry and won’t talk to me about it. I know there’s a lot of brother stuff between you that I won’t ever get to the bottom of –’

‘Laura, can I ask you something? About his MS?’

As a change of subject, it was about as abrupt as they came, but I went with it.

‘Er, OK.’

‘How likely is it to come back?’

‘Oh. Well, it isn’t something that goes away, really, it’s always there, and a lot of it depends on how well he looks after himself. It’s impossible to say, Jay; flare-ups are unpredictable to a large extent. Why do you ask?’

‘Well, is stress a cause?’

‘It can be.’

Jay sighed.

‘I think one of the reasons I overreacted the other night was I’m worried if he gets this job at Raiders, he’ll be stressed and it’ll make him ill. He’s just got over the last bout, he’s coped with getting married, having the twins, all that, really well, but it’s full-on at Raiders, busy, demanding. I know his job at the moment has taken the MS into account, I’m not sure Raiders would, or could, to the same extent.’

‘He has to make that decision for himself. It’s lovely that you want to protect him, but to be honest, the last few days have been stressful enough to be a trigger in themselves. And staying in a job he’s unhappy in could too. There’s just no knowing. He works well under pressure, and he’s a lot better at being aware of how he’s feeling these days.’

‘You’ve been good for him.’

‘Hm, don’t know about that, but he talks to me about stuff, usually, which I gather he hasn’t always.’

‘Ha ha, Jesus, no, getting Matty to talk about anything seriously has always been a bit of a challenge, although Dec seems to have managed it from time to time. OK, well, I’ll try the talking, and see how it goes.’

‘Good luck. He won’t be happy to see you.’

‘Used to that. I can brazen it out.’

108. Stubborn love

In which things happen in the heat of the moment which could make a bad situation worse.

Matt

I stayed on the sofa for a while, trying to sort it all out in my head. Maybe I was a bit too pissed to think straight, but I wasn’t too pissed to feel straight. Jay had meant it, that he didn’t want me to apply for the job at Raiders, and it made me feel small and, oh I don’t know, insignificant or something. Just when I thought I was catching up with him, with being married, having children, he does this, and it’s like he’s still the big ‘I am’, who calls all the shots. Remembering Lau’s advice, I went downstairs to get my iPad, and started typing.

Jay

What the fuck? I feel like punching your fucking head in, or at least giving it as good a go as I’m capable of. How dare you? How dare you, in front of my wife, tell me you think I’m a flirt and a slacker? Have you not been paying the slightest bit of attention for the last couple of years?

I’m the first to admit I played the field a bit when I first moved down here, and yeah I’ve arsed about a lot, and work has had its fun moments, but you have no idea who I am if you think I’d a) be like that now, b) carry any of that over into a job or c) do anything to make life difficult for you at work. After everything that’s happened with us, I thought you knew me better than that. Yeah we’re different, in so many ways, but I thought we understood each other at some basic level, got each other.

Your speech at my wedding really got to me, and I thought then that our differences really didn’t matter, but now it appears they might be insurmountable. Everything you did for me back then, when I nearly died, I wonder why you did it. If Raiders means so much to you, why the fuck did you give it up to come back to Stafford? It seems to me now that it might have just been some kind of power trip. Look at Jay, how great he is, he gave up his job for his pathetic brother, isn’t he a hero. I’m struggling to see it any other way, really, if what you think of me still, after all this time, is that I’m just a waster who can’t control himself with the grown-ups.

I was hoping that writing all this to you would calm me down, give me a sense of perspective about it all, but

I stopped there. It really wasn’t helping; if anything, it was making me more mad. I wasn’t going to send it to Jay, even though part of me wanted to show him how I was feeling. I knew that I should tell him face to face, but that was only going to get ugly if I did it right now. I wasn’t going to be able to do anything but simmer, until I was calm enough to talk to him directly. Even then, it was really up to him to initiate any talking.

It all churned around in my head, for ages. Eventually, I needed to be in bed with my wife, so I shut up the iPad and went upstairs, no closer to resolving anything.

I glanced at the clock as I climbed into bed; it was nearly three. I tried not to wake Lau, but she shuffled over and put an arm round me, as I turned to her and kissed her forehead. We didn’t speak, but held each other, communicating silently. Lau was still my safe place, my security blanket. As I drifted off to sleep, I felt her hands touching me, checking me, soothing me.

Laura

I drifted off again, and slept until the early morning call from Josh woke me up.

I flopped back into bed an hour or so later, hoping for a little bit more sleep before having to get my persuading head on with Matt. He stirred as I got in next to him, and reached for me. I expected him to pull me towards him and go back to sleep, as usually happened, but his eyes were open, and he was looking at me in his ‘I want to talk, but don’t know where to start’ kind of way.

Matt

Some time later, I have no idea how long, I stirred as Lau got back into bed. She must have been feeding the babies, although, as per, I had been oblivious to the squawking from the monitor. I often roused when she came back to bed, albeit fleetingly, before I was dragged back into the black, but this time I was alert. I still had all the Jay shit filling my mind, and I wanted to talk to her, for her to make it better somehow. Lau always knew how to make things better. She also always knew when I wanted to talk, or rather when I needed to whether I wanted to or not. This time was no exception, but I was worried about keeping her awake with my whingeing.

‘What?’

She stroked my cheek as she spoke.

‘Just love you.’

OK, I was never going to find it easy to just launch into a big declaration, and Lau knew that, so we played along with each other.

‘Love you too.’

‘Have a good time with the babies?’

‘Yeah, we had a party in there, hope we didn’t keep you awake.’

‘You were bloody rowdy. Nearly called the Council for a decibel check. Keep it down next time, no DJ.’

‘Want to tell me?’

Just when I was getting going on some good avoidance, she slammed into me with her insight. I closed my eyes in defeat.

‘You bloody always know.’

‘You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. You just looked like you wanted to talk.’

‘Then you’d just drag it out of me in some other devious manner. I thought you might be wiped.’

‘I’m always wiped, Matt. Come on, tell me.’

I sighed. Yeah, she was always wiped, and I should be a bit more considerate about the time of day I chose to unburden. I closed my eyes, wondering if I could leave it until the morning, but now she had wind of some kind of inner turmoil, she was going to keep on at it until I gave it up.

‘This just feels really weird. I did a letter and everything, told Jay what I thought, how he made me feel, sorted it out in my head a bit, but I’m still so angry with him. I just don’t … all these years, all the bickering and fighting we’ve done, we’ve never pissed each other off so much that it’s mattered. It matters now.’

It really felt like there was some kind of immovable barrier between us, that something had shifted, changed irrevocably, and I felt like part of me had been stolen, or vandalised.

‘You’ve really never annoyed each other so much before?’

‘Not since we were a lot younger. If he really thinks I’d get a job at Raiders and then fuck about so much I’d make it awkward for him, he just has no idea who I really am.’

‘Why do you think that?’

Lau was great at this, at asking rather than advising.

‘I always thought, underneath the banter and the grunting, we … oh I’m just gona say it, sod the man points … we loved each other. He gave up his fucking job when I was ill the first time. I kind of hated that, having to rely on him so much, to owe him so much, but at the same time I felt – I don’t know, special or something. Now, this is the opposite. He’s taken something away from me that I really wanted, and it’s made me feel like, when we were younger and he used to make fun of me for building model rockets and fiddling about with circuit boards.’

‘But he hasn’t taken anything away from you. You can still go for the job.’

She didn’t get it. Now I’d said I wouldn’t, there was no way I could go back on it. This wasn’t just about being a stubborn fucker, although that was part of it; it was about being true to my word.

‘No I can’t Lau, I’ve said I won’t now. Jay’s made it quite clear he doesn’t want me to.’

‘Matt, you really should talk to Jay. Don’t stubborn yourself out of this. Why don’t we go round for lunch later?’

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was she really suggesting we just pop round later for our Sunday roast and play happy families? I pulled back from her, searching her face as if what she intended would be written there for me to see.

‘No fucking way! I’m not just going round there like nothing’s happened. If he wants to sort it out, explain himself, he can fucking well come here, or call me.’

Lau sighed, as if I’d frustrated some plan of hers. I probably had; she’d had all night to cook up some scheme, would have been texting Beth while I was downstairs too. Well they weren’t going to plot me out of this. This was serious, it wasn’t just a boys’ scrap. Jay had hurt me, shown me he didn’t really care about me, and I was beginning to feel something hard and permanent form inside me, almost as if I started to let Jay go, so he could drift off out of my life and take his judgemental shit with him.

Laura

I sighed. I really hadn’t believed it was going to be that easy, but my task seemed harder now I knew how determined Matt was to make a real issue of it.

‘OK, just a thought. You’re not really going to just let the job go, though, are you?’

Matt

I set my jaw.

‘I said I wouldn’t go for it. I haven’t got a choice now.’

‘Oh Matt.’

I knew Lau found my obstinacy exasperating, but she wasn’t going to win this one. If she pushed it, she ran the risk of me feeling she was taking the wrong side; I needed her to support me, not nag me. I felt her leave it, for now, as she moved closer to me.

‘Come here. I think you need the strong arms of a good woman.’

‘Yeah. But you’ll have to do.’

‘You’re so funny.’

‘I know. Come on, then.’

Lau snuggled into me as we put our arms round each other. She felt so good, so soft and warm, comforting and sexy, and I couldn’t resist lightly running my hand down her side. She was probably already on her way to sleep as I stopped at the hem of her t-shirt, pushing it up and running a finger underneath, but I couldn’t help myself. I started to stroke her from waist to hip, smooth strokes slipping round her back and over her magnificent arse before travelling back up, under her shirt and over her belly, then cupping her breast.

Iz

Oh nice one, Matty, thanks a bunch, sneaking that one in, lulling me into a false sense of security, like oh nothing to see here just a cuddle oops wrongo better slap an 18 certificate on it. I should know by know, and so should you, that Matty and Lau hardly ever do ‘just a cuddle’. You always have to be on your guard.

Matt

Her nipples hardened – so was she awake? I felt myself grow hard in anticipation, and I pinched her nipple. She moaned softly, sighing and moving against me, and I could no longer hold back. I found her mouth with mine, and Lau kissed me back, insistently, searching between my lips with her tongue as my hands wandered over her breasts, squeezing and teasing. I dropped my other hand to the top of her pants and pushed beneath them, dipping a finger into her folds and finding the water wonderfully warm, inviting and indeed wet. I began to circle her with my finger as Lau continued to kiss me hard.

‘Mm, yeah, Lau, whoa. Are you liking that?’

‘Uh huh.’

It really seemed like it was going to happen. I tried, I really did, to tell myself it was late, Lau was shattered, I was an emotional wreck, it really wasn’t a good time, but my libido had taken over, and my dick was on a one way mission. To be fair, Lau seemed as up for it as I did, and she was exploring my erection fervently and pressing up against me in a manner designed to set me on fire.

Laura

I was almost speechless, surprised by want. I hadn’t given much thought to sex for quite a while; now my whole body was buzzing with the need for it. I rolled onto my back and spread my legs, in the manner of a tart. But a married tart, obviously.

Matt

Suddenly, she rolled onto her back and spread her legs in the most inviting of ways. I stared at her. All of her. Fuck, she was beautiful.

‘Holy shitstorm, Lau, seriously?’

She nodded.

‘Whoa.’

I needed no further invitation, and made short work of pulling her pants off and pushing her t-shirt up so I could see her awesome breasts, nipples swollen. I set off again with my fingers and tongue, licking my way up from her belly to her nipples, taking them into my mouth, and then suddenly tasting the sweet flavour of – oh, ew, breast milk.

So it was back to fingers, where I continued to make Lau moan and squirm against me by squeezing and flicking her, above and below She was close to coming, as was I; it seemed so long since either of us had let go like this. I slipped a finger into her and started to push. Lau groaned, loving it, but seemed to be trying to get away from me. I was nearly too far gone to stop and listen to her, but I looked up at her face, just as she said it.

Laura

I felt an energy gathering deep inside me as Matt slipped a finger into me and started to push. I groaned, it was hitting all the right spots, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted him in me, I wanted us joined, together. I was going to have to tell him what I wanted.

‘Fuck me.’

He looked up at me, incredulous. I never talked dirty, but I was doing it now, because I didn’t want to just ‘make love’. I wanted something real and hot, and Matt was pussy-footing around, so to speak, and I loved that he was being caring, but I knew what I wanted, I wanted a thorough fucking. Blimey.

Matt

‘What?’

‘Fuck me, Matt. Please.’

Oh this was so fucking hot. Lau never swore, the odd ‘sod’ aside, and it filled my whole body with overwhelming need for her.

‘Whoa, Lau, yeah, whatever you say.’

With a huge smile on my face, and promising with my eyes that we would explore this little episode at a later, less urgent, date, I pulled my boxers off and positioned myself between her thighs, pausing for a moment to appreciate the view I hadn’t had for weeks and bloody weeks.

Then I set about fulfilling her request, in no uncertain terms. I pushed into her, gently but firmly, and as I started to thrust, we both shouted out.

All I could think about was how she felt against me, that sweet friction, those electrifying shivers, the tingling and sparking. As my thrusts got faster and deeper, Lau wrapped her legs round my back, pulling me into her, clutching my back and shoulders with her hands, raking her nails across my spine, and I lost myself in her, burying myself as deep as I could, surging forwards, pulling out, plunging in again. We were both shouting louder and louder, racing to a climax, and Lau beat me by a whisker. As I heard her cry ‘oh God, oh God, oh God’ and felt her muscles tightening and pulsing around me, I pushed deep into her, filling her completely, and then shouted her name as the fizzing burst up through me and out of me and poured into her and it was good, so fucking good, so, so fucking good.

‘Oh shit.’

What?

Lau pushed me off her and sat up, looking at me in horror. I sat up too, confused, slightly miffed at having things come to a halt so abruptly, but worrying I’d hurt her somehow.

‘Lau?’

‘What have we done?’

‘What, apart from had a bloody amazing Sunday morning romp?’

‘We weren’t using contraception.’

Oh. Oh shit.

It hadn’t even crossed my mind. We had never used condoms, as Lau had a coil fitted, yeah that was effective, and once she was pregnant, well there wasn’t much point really. But now …

Oh shit.

‘Fuck. Oh Lau, I’m sorry. Shit, what are we going to do?’

‘I can’t have another one, Matt. Not right now.’

There was a panicked note to her voice, and she was looking at me with fear in her eyes. She was seriously on the edge, and I needed to be masterful and reassuring. I tried my hardest to pull my thoughts into some kind of comforting burble.

‘Don’t panic, Lau, we don’t know if that’s happened. Isn’t it, like, really hard to conceive anyway? And when you’re breastfeeding isn’t it even harder?’

‘It’s supposed to be hard to conceive when you’ve got a coil fitted, and when you’re having a flare-up of MS. It didn’t stop us before.’

‘But – you haven’t had, you know, the necessary, have you?’

The details of the inner workings of the female reproductive system eluded me somewhat, but I tried my hardest and paid attention every time Lau patiently explained it all. Turns out I still had a lot to learn.

‘No, but that doesn’t happen until after ovulation, so if I’ve ovulated in the last couple of weeks – oh Matt.’

She looked at me, agonised. I swallowed, hardly daring to think what it might mean. We were barely surviving with two, another screaming poo monster was unimaginable.

Laura

I looked at him hopelessly. Rationally, I knew it was extremely unlikely that I could have conceived while I was still breastfeeding so often, and so soon after giving birth, but it wasn’t impossible, and fear was making me imagine the worst. Matt swallowed hard. Look on the bright side, though, it might have taken his mind off Jay for a few minutes. Yes, positives, that’s what I needed.

Matt

‘Oh baby, what can we do? Can you take a test?’

See, this was the time to call her baby, when there was a crisis, but she wasn’t ready to murder me for being an insensitive arse.

‘Not right this minute. I’ll have to wait at least a week, and even then it might be a false negative. Oh, how could I have been so stupid?’

‘We.’

‘What?’

She needed to know it was joint responsibility for all things conception related. Fifty-fifty all the way.

‘How could we have been so stupid. In it together, Lau. Is it … would you … what if you are? What then?’

I needed to know, so I could support her whatever she decided. I had no strong general view either way, but when it was my own … well I wasn’t sure I was ambivalent.

Lau just shook her head. I knew her feelings, had tested it out with her before, when we knew it was twins.

‘Well we’ll just have to get on with it, won’t we.’

‘So you wouldn’t think about, er, taking measures?’

Laura

‘No!’

I was appalled at the thought.

‘I couldn’t ever do that.’

Matt was trying to school his features into a neutral expression, but I caught a brief flicker of relief.

Matt

I will admit to feeling a flicker of relief, but hoped nothing showed on my face. And even though she was a nurse, and knew this shit, I just wanted her to have considered all the options, at least all the ones I knew of.

‘It’s just, there’s the morning after pill or whatever …’

Laura

‘It’s the same thing, so is having an emergency coil fitted. Same result. No way.’

This was something else from my strict Baptist upbringing – no truck with terminations of any sort, not for me.

Matt

So she had thought about it, knew her own mind. That gave us something to work with.

‘OK, then whatever, like you say, we’ll just have to get on with it, then. Yea or nay. And just hope for nay.’

Although … but I couldn’t think about it. I just wanted her in my arms.

‘Come here, Lau.’

I wrapped her up and lay her down and held her close. I was going to try to take her mind off it; there was no point worrying until we knew, so I was happy to put it out of sight somewhere. I was good at that.

‘I have to say, before the freak-out, that was bloody awesome. Lau, you said ‘fuck me’. Practically demanded it.’

I wanted to focus on the sex. It certainly stopped me worrying about everything else that had gone on for me that night. Lau didn’t seem to want to talk about it though, and just nodded, sighing raggedly.

I fully intended being supportive and loving, determined to hold her close as long as she needed it, but I’d been awake most of the night, had got into a big fight with my brother, had had an intense if brief session of amazing sex, and now had a potential pregnancy to worry about. I was out of juice, and before I could even stroke Lau’s hair, I was asleep.

Laura

I smiled weakly into his chest, although my passion was forgotten as my mind whirled and considered the different ways my life could go in the next few days – hard work with twins or almost impossibly hard work with three, or who knows, four, the way things had gone so far.

There was no more sleeping for me, my mind was too active, I was too worried. All thoughts of Matt’s row with Jay were forgotten for now; I didn’t know how I was going to get through the next few days before I could take a useful pregnancy test. I tried to reassure myself that whatever the outcome, I would cope, that it wasn’t like there was a decision to be made, only information to find out, and that whatever that information was, it would help with organising and planning the future. But each time I allowed myself to see a future with more babies in it, I was overwhelmed by panic.

Matt had, irritatingly, dropped off back to sleep, while I lay fretting and worrying. I reminded myself that he’d been up most of the night with his own worries, and forgave him his tiredness. As the light started to creep through the curtains, I got up and went to look at Ella and Josh. They were both still asleep, arms flung above their heads, perfect mouths slightly open, breathing regularly. I sat on the sofa and watched them, trying to convince myself that another one like this would be wonderful. And it would, in a way. I’d always wanted a large family, but things had gone from nought to sixty in a very short space of time for Matt and me, and I’d just started to feel like we were beginning to find our feet, settle down, stop the whirl of events. Now it was threatening to spiral out of control again. I pulled the throw from the back of the sofa, hugged it round me and tried to halt my churning thoughts.

I woke some time later, my neck stiff from the position it was in. I stared around me, disoriented, until I remembered I was in the twins’ room. Something had woken me up; I looked over at Ella and Josh, but they were still sleeping peacefully. Then the noise sounded again. It was my phone, signalling a text. With a sigh, I stood up and went into the bedroom to pick it up from the bedside table. Matt was still fast asleep; nothing as innocuous as a text tone was likely to get through to him. The text was from Beth.

‘Hope u had better night than me. Think I worked some of it out, but J won’t admit. Being a grumpy git. Coming 4 lunch?’

‘Prob not, M not keen. Sorry.’

I didn’t think I could tell her about the latest Laura and Matt drama. Maybe it was better if Matt and I stayed put today.

‘:( Think we need 2 get them 2getha soon.’

‘Agree. Not 2day tho.’

‘OK. Keep in touch. Xx’

‘OK. xx’

I left Matt to it and went back to the twins’ room, where Ella was stirring, starting to snuffle, on the point of crying. I picked her up and sat down with her, lifting my night shirt so she could feed. Josh woke as well, and looked at me, wriggling his arms and legs.

‘Can you wait, little man? Just let me sort Ella out.’

Josh was usually very patient, but today he was hungry. He let out a yell, and carried on screaming as I fed Ella. I tried to block it out, to tell myself that I was going to feed him in a minute, not to feel as guilty as I did, as if I was neglecting him, but I was more than a little frazzled by the time Ella had finished and I could pick him up, and so was he.

It was a measure of how deeply Matt was asleep that he wasn’t woken by the monitor, which was on his bedside table, right by his head. I envied his ability to sleep through anything.

By the time I had finished feeding Josh, Ella needed a nappy change, and then Josh did, and when I had a chance to look at the time, it was gone nine o’clock. I would have loved to have gone back to bed, but there was washing to do, and I’d forgotten about the clearing up from last night. I hadn’t even cleared the table, let alone put the plates and dishes in the dishwasher, so I left Josh and Ella in bed and went downstairs to make a start.

Seeing the remains of the meal reminded me of the way it had all ended, and I started to think about how Beth and I could possibly manage to persuade two of the most stubborn men in the history of family feuding to talk to each other. To say it wasn’t going to be easy was a massive understatement. I was going to have to talk Beth properly, see if she could shed any light on what she thought was going on.

As the morning wore on, I tidied, did laundry, fed the twins again, changed nappies again, had breakfast.

Matt

When I woke up, Lau was already downstairs. I could hear clattering from the kitchen, and her voice as she chatted to the babies. I stumbled downstairs, yawning, running my fingers through my hair.

‘What’s the time, Lau?’

As I spoke I looked at the kitchen clock. It was eleven thirty.

‘Holy shit. Why didn’t you wake me up?’

I looked around me – the place was spotless. Lau had cleared up all the dishes from last night’s disaster, wiped everything down, put a load of laundry on the airer, and fed and changed the babies, who were gurgling to themselves, or more likely each other in some kind of evil baby plotting language, in their baby chairs. She had let me sleep through all of it. I had married some kind of superwoman.

Laura

‘You didn’t get much sleep last night. You were dead to the world.’

‘You’ve done all the clearing up.’

I nodded and shrugged, modestly.

‘You’re bloody awesome.’

Another nod and shrug.

‘We’re so getting takeaway for dinner.’

More nodding and shrugging.

Matt

Laughing, I folded her up in a big hug and kissed her forehead as she looked up at me.

‘Did I dream it, or did we have some awesome lovin’ earlier? With a fair amount of dirty talk from you, Mrs Potty-Mouth.’

‘Er, no, you didn’t dream it.’

The slight hesitation told me that she wasn’t thinking as much about the act as about the possible results thereof.

‘Are you still freaking?’

Laura

I nodded, although my ponderings on Matt and Jay had overtaken my worries for the time being. It seemed like as soon as I stopped worrying about the one thing, the other would come to the front of my mind, and I hadn’t been able to forget any of it by keeping myself busy with the clearing up.

Matt

‘Well, what I think is this. There’s no way we’re going to do anything about it either way, right?’

She nodded again.

‘So, what will be will be and we’ll find out in a week or so, and deal then, and try not to think about it till we know for sure. How does that sound?’

‘It sounds more easily said than done, but I’ve been thinking the same, really, and I’ll try my best.’

She squeezed me tightly, and I could feel the tension in her that told me she wasn’t as cool as she sounded.

‘Oh Lau, I’m sorry, I was a thoughtless selfish bastard not to realise before I got carried away.’

‘Come on, Matt, it took both of us. Joint responsibility for all children, current or future.’

Well I suppose I had said exactly the same to her earlier.

‘You’re so bloody awesome. Even when you’re freaking you’re the voice of reason.’

‘Good job one of us is, otherwise we’d be scraping each other off the ceiling every five minutes.’

‘Don’t you ever lose it?’

‘You’ve seen me lose it. Gibbering wreck on your kitchen floor after pregnancy test, freak city at the scan, nearly didn’t get out of the car at the registry office –’

‘What?’

That was news to me. Rather disconcerting news, as it happens.

‘Oh. Didn’t I tell you that?’

‘No! You nearly left me at the altar?’

Now all sorts of scenarios were running through my mind. How could I have not known she nearly jilted me? Bloody Nico was going to have to answer some seriously searching questions.

‘No, of course not. We didn’t have an altar for a start, but Mum had to give me a verbal slap to get my bum off Nico’s back seat. Just nerves, and a bit of a freak. Then, best day of my life. Well, until the twins, obviously.’

I wasn’t prepared to let it go that easily, although I was reassured.

‘I can’t believe you nearly left me at the altar.’

Laura

Matt knew I wasn’t serious, and it took some of the focus away from our two huge events for just a while.

‘You daft sod. It was momentary. I made it, didn’t I? Braved the scary men in kilts and everything. I could have turned round and snuck back down the stairs once I’d seen that, no one would have known.’

Matt

But I knew Lau had loved the kilts, so she really was only teasing.

‘The kilts were fucking awesome. I should get mine out, give it an airing.’

‘How you persuaded Jay to wear his I’ll never know.’

It was as if a shadow crossed my mind as she said his name. I let go of Lau and turned away from her to open the fridge, looking for something for breakfast. I wasn’t going to talk about Jay, I could hardly bear to hear his name.

Laura

A shadow crossed Matt’s face as I mentioned his brother, and he turned away to open the fridge in search of breakfast. I decided my strategy was going to be indirect: subtly remind Matt of all the things Jay had done for him because he loved him, and hope to stop Matt dwelling on the one thing Jay had done to call that love into question. It didn’t require Matt to answer me, or discuss it in any way, and if I was careful he might not even notice I was doing it. Of course if he did notice, he was going to call me on it and I’d have to stop, but it was as good a scheme as any for now.

The morning became the afternoon, babies needed feeding and changing once more, then we got them and ourselves dressed and went out for a short walk, making the most of the autumn sunshine, both of us ignoring the huge gulf that seemed to have opened up between this side of the city and the other side, where Jay and Beth lived.

Matt

The park wasn’t far away, and we took a flask of coffee, sitting on a bench with a baby each on our knees, wrapped up in their thick all in one quilted coats, as we watched the world go by walking its dogs and playing with its Frisbees.

Laura

Having a double buggy meant there weren’t that many places we could go if we were planning to go indoors, like a café or something, so we took a flask and sat in the park, which was a short stroll away, with a well-wrapped baby each on our knees, watching the dog walkers, and children running about.

‘That’ll be us in a few years’ time.’

I was looking at a family playing football. Matt was looking in the opposite direction.

Matt

Or maybe I was being deliberately obtuse.

‘What, picking up dog shit with a jaunty purple pooper scooper?’

Sometimes Lau was OK with me fucking about and misunderstanding on purpose, sometimes she was a grown up.

Laura

‘No, Matt, having a lovely family afternoon, after a civilised breakfast and a morning of reading the papers while the children play happily together, and lunch with maybe a few other family members. Our family game of football will take up the whole park, though, and be about fifty times more competitive. There will be several broken limbs, and tears before tea time, let alone bed time.’

This was apparently the wrong thing to say, although I had been trying to make a joke out of the whole ‘rambling family’ thing, rather than to make any particular point, as the shadows crossed Matt’s face again.

Matt

Oh, so she was using this as an opportunity to be all high and mighty about how I was feeling. I felt a surge of anger.

‘You think all this is about being competitive?’

She sighed and looked at me sadly. I didn’t want to see it, so I looked away.

Laura

I hadn’t even been thinking about him and Jay, but it was obviously in his thoughts.

‘No, I didn’t mean that. I only meant that the whole lot of you see everything as a competition, isn’t it a boy thing? You, Dec, Nico, Jay, Cal even. There’s always some sort of macho jostling going on about something.’

Matt

Yeah, there was, and I was as fed up of it as anyone. This latest thing was just the last in a long line of Jay muscling his own way out of everything.

‘So I should just let everyone walk all over me?’

I felt Lau look at me, but I avoided her gaze. I wanted to have a row, if I’m honest, a good old fashioned screaming match, flinging insults and emotion at each other with gay abandon; but I knew Lau was the wrong person to be having it with, however conveniently placed she was.

Laura

I looked at him. He didn’t meet my eyes; he was being ridiculous, spoiling for a fight, and he knew it. I refused to let it escalate, and kept my tone light.

‘If you want an argument, flower, you can have one, but I’m not sure I’m the best person to take all this out on.’

This met with silence, as Matt stared across the park, jaw clenched. Josh and Ella babbled happily to each other, oblivious to the rather less successful communication their parents were having.

Matt

Lau’s tone of voice was light, and I knew she didn’t seriously want an argument, even though she said it like she was offering it to me, like I could have a row, or a custard cream; my choice.

I had no answer for her, feeling my anger bubbling under as I clenched my jaw and stared across the park. If I kept quiet a bit longer, maybe she’d say something patronising or annoying, and I could really let rip. I wanted an excuse to really let rip. It was as if I didn’t know Lau at all.

Laura

I tried again, with the same light-heartedness.

‘OK, shall we do it then? Which one of us should start yelling first? Maybe if we get really loud we can scare the dogs away and have the whole park to ourselves.’

Matt

This was all said in the same light-hearted tone of voice that took any potential heat out of her words and left me without a blue touch paper for my rocket.

‘Yeah, OK Lau, you made your point, I’m being a dick, trying for a fight. I don’t want to fight with you, you haven’t done anything. Could do with a bloody good punch up with someone though. What about you, Josh, up for it? Show your old man what you’re made of?’

I held Josh’s tiny fists up and pummelled the air with them, then kissed him on the forehead.

‘Hey, leave my son out of it. He’s a pacifist.’

‘No son of mine’s a wooss.’

‘Pacifists aren’t woosses.’

‘And they’d fight to the death for their right not to fight.’

She’d done it, made me make a joke of sorts, defused it, for now.

‘You’re so funny.’

I put my arm round this wonderful woman, who knew me so well and worked so hard to keep me sane, and I pulled her close.

Laura

For whatever reason, Matt stopped behaving like a sulky kid, and put his arm round me. We sat and looked at Ella and Josh watching the world go round for a bit, then got cold and went home.

Matt

It was just starting to get dark when the doorbell went. Lau was upstairs changing nappies and I answered it. Mum was standing there, on our doorstep, on a Sunday.

‘Mum! What the … er, come in. How did you get here?’

There were no buses to speak of at this time of the weekend, so it’s not like she would have been on her way somewhere else. I began to have more than an inkling as to why she had turned up here, unannounced for the first time ever.

‘I got a lift with Rose, she’s gone to see Declan and Amy.’

‘Cup of tea?’

I spoke over my shoulder as I went into the kitchen. Mum never declined tea.

‘That would be lovely, dear. I brought some cake – Beth made it, but there weren’t enough of us to finish it this afternoon. It’s coffee and walnut.’

‘Whoa, I love Beth’s coffee cake.’

‘She thought you might appreciate it.’

Laura

I listened from upstairs, intrigued. Carol didn’t drive any more, her arthritis being too bad nowadays, and the reduced weekend bus service meant she couldn’t usually get out here on a Sunday. She had visited us a lot, but never unannounced. I was sure this was to do with Jay, Matt would think it too, and I decided to keep out of the way, for now, so they could talk.

Matt

As I passed the bottom of the stairs, I yelled up to Lau.

‘Alright up there, Lau? Mum’s here. There’s coffee cake.’

‘Be down in a bit. Hi Carol.’

Laura

The door to the living room stayed open, and I held Josh against me and jiggled him as I listened to them talking. To start with it was the usual conversation – Carol’s garden, her friends and neighbours, TV programmes – and then the focus shifted slightly to the family, what Iz and Cal had been up to, then imperceptibly, and very skilfully, Carol gradually brought the topic of conversation round to our dinner party on Saturday.

Matt

Mum obviously had her agenda, and I knew, and she knew I knew, but we did the little dance around it, because she was nervous about it. We covered the topics of the garden (hers and mine), her friends and neighbours, recent documentaries about owls and Lithuania – and then she asked about the babies, and then shifted the conversation onto the family in general, what Iz and Cal had been up to, and, oh quel surprise, the dinner party on Saturday.

After I’d skirted around it all for as long as I could muster, she finally pinned me down.

‘Beth said you had them over for dinner yesterday.’

I scowled at her. Not that it would do me much good, Mum was impervious to anything I threw her way.

Laura

I could almost feel the weighty silence; I could definitely see, in my mind’s eye, Matt’s scowl, but knew he didn’t keep much from his mum, and let her get away with more what he would call interfering than anyone else. I was glad I’d waited upstairs.

Matt

‘Yeah, I bet she told you all about it.’

‘She told me you and Jameson had a bit of a falling out. I told her I’d seen a few of those in my time.’

‘Yeah, well, you haven’t seen anything like this. He’s bloody done it this time.’

‘What exactly has he done?’

As if she hadn’t heard it all already, been dissecting it over the roast beef this afternoon.

‘I’m sure you’ve had their bloody version, with Saint Jay coming off as the wounded victim.’

Laura

Matt sounded like a wounded victim himself, but Carol didn’t rise to it.

Matt

‘Jameson wouldn’t tell me anything, and Beth is very worried about you.’

I just bet she was. I’d expected texts and calls all day, but my phone had been quiet, at least as far as Beth’s tones were concerned. Maybe Lau had been fielding them for me. Actually, where was Lau? She must have finished what she was doing by now.

‘Did she tell you what he said?’

‘A little. Something to do with a job?’

She was doing the vague old lady bit with me, to try to get me to expand on the details. OK then, let’s go for it.

‘He just … he said he didn’t want … fuck it, Mum, Ed told me about this brilliant job going, at Raiders, just what I’ve been looking for. I don’t know if Jay knew about it, but he certainly hadn’t said anything. Then after Ed had gone, Jay was all ‘I don’t want you at Raiders you’ll be too busy arsing about and embarrassing me’, like he really meant it, and he said he didn’t want me to go for the job. Fuck him, all my life I’ve wanted to bloody be like him, but I’ve never got anywhere near, and the one chance I get, to show him I can be successful somewhere near his fucking pedestal, doing something I’m really good at, and he stops it, just stops it dead. I’ve bloody had it with him.’

There was stuff in there that I’d said without thinking, that I’d never said to anyone, never even thought to myself. It had come out in a big splurge, and Mum was just sitting, nodding at me, looking sad.

Laura

Matt’s voice had been steadily rising with indignation as he talked. Carol, whose voice I had never heard raised, remained calm as she replied.

Matt

‘You know, dear, what’s quite ironic is that Jameson has always wanted to be like you.’

‘What?’

Oh yeah, good one, Mum. Try again when you’ve regained your sanity.

‘He’s rather envious of how clever you are, and how easily you get on with people.’

I looked at her, open-mouthed. ‘He said that?’

Mum laughed. ‘No, dear, can you imagine that? I just see it in him. I wonder if he’s worried that if you got a job at Raiders, you’d be compared with him and he feels threatened.’

I nearly laughed. ‘Oh that’s just bollocks. Sorry, Mum, but the thought of Jay worrying about how he looks compared to me is hilarious. It’s a bloody rugby club, for fuck’s sake, full of burly men, of which I am not one. He’s still one of the burliest. It’s his world.’

‘Which could be why he would feel threatened by you disturbing it. You know these rugby players, they have their own way of behaving with each other, there’s a lot of teasing. Jameson needs to maintain his authority, and if he thinks he might lose some respect, it would worry him.’

It sounded like she thought he had a point, like she was on his side.

‘So you think I’m going to arse about as well?’

Laura

Matt was in a frame of mind I recognised, where he was determined to twist everything someone said in order to remain the one who had been wronged. I usually got him out of it by playing along in a ridiculously exaggerated way, but Carol took a different tack.

Matt

‘Oh Matthew, when did I say that? Of course I don’t. I know you work hard, and I know you’d do your very best. I doubt your brother’s even thought about it in that way, or thought about it at all. You and he are just the same, you react without thinking. What I mean is that, without even considering why, Jameson felt threatened and that may be why he said what he did last night. I’m not saying he was right, to feel or say any of it, but that’s what I think is going on.’

‘And you know all this because you’ve, what, had a fucking vision from on high or something?’

It was all very well for Mum to go all ‘I know you’ and just spout off her opinion, but she didn’t know, not for sure. At best it was a guess; it was unlikely Jay had told her anything other than ‘Matty went off on one’.

Laura

I heard Carol sigh. Fortunately she was very easy going, knew Matt very well, and wasn’t put off by his rudeness.

Matt

‘Matthew, I’ve known you and your brother for a long, long time. Give me some credit for being able to work some things out for myself without needing either of you to actually tell me. Heaven knows I’ve had enough practice at that over the years.’

I looked down at my hands, unwilling to concede that Mum did, in fact, know me better than anyone else, and was likely to have got it right.

‘The question is, dear, what are you going to do about it?’

Laura

I winced to myself as I anticipated Matt’s reaction, correctly as it turned out.

Matt

Oh no, I wasn’t having that. It wasn’t up to me to do anything, I wasn’t the one who had decided to call the shots over someone’s life, refusing to help their brother, accusing them of all sorts of things, being all control freak.

‘Me? I’m not going to fucking do anything. He’s the one who bloody told me to stay in a job I’m bored with for the rest of my life so I don’t bloody make things awkward for him. If he’s feeling bad about it, he can come and tell me, but otherwise I guess I’ll just keep out of his fucking way.’

‘Matthew –’

‘No, Mum. He’s bloody well crossed a line. I thought he cared about me, had some respect for me, but I was wrong.’

‘Matthew, your brother loves you very much.’

I snorted. It was just lip service. I had seen last night that Jay didn’t care about me at all, not really.

‘Funny way of showing it.’

‘Do you not think he’s shown it in some rather big ways in the past?’

It was one thing, just one thing, a lot of years ago, and it felt irrelevant now, with the way things stood, and I just wished everyone would stop fucking well throwing it in my face all the time.

‘Yeah, well, not sure that means a lot at the moment.’

Mum looked down and sighed.

‘I’m disappointed to hear you say that, dear. I know he’d do it again in a heartbeat if you needed him to.’

Laura

There was a long silence. That was what I had wanted to remind Matt about, not that he ever forgot, but I hadn’t even begun to approach it. If anyone could say it to Matt without blowing it, it was Carol. I held my breath.

Matt

I highly doubted it. I doubted Jay would be willing to do anything for me again if his response to a simple request was anything to go by. I really didn’t want to upset Mum, but this was between me and Jay. The more she went on, the more she was going to get caught up in it.

‘Yeah, well, I don’t think I’ll be asking for his help again, so he’s safe from having to bother.’

Laura

It was Carol’s turn to be quiet. She’d tried her best, and if Matt was going to listen to anyone, it would be his mum, but it hadn’t worked. I heard the clink of crockery, as Matt tidied the plates and cups away and took them into the kitchen. Carol’s voice floated after him.

Matt

‘Is Laura upstairs with the babies?’

‘Yeah. Go up and say hi, if you like.’

I put the plates and cups in the dishwasher, and leaned on the sink for a bit, trying to stop the feelings bubbling over. It wasn’t Mum’s fault, she would have been failing in her maternal duties to have just left me to it without trying something. This was her only chance, though. I wasn’t going to let any of them bulldoze me into retreating. The more I thought about it, the more I just wanted the whole bloody lot of them to stay the fuck away from me while I sorted my head out. Beth going on, Mum being quietly sad, Dec giving it welly, they could all just sod the fuck off. I had Lau, and she was brilliant, and she was all I needed.

107. Big brother

In which a dinner party leads to acrimony.

Laura

The next few weeks got progressively better. Still tired, that wasn’t going to change for the foreseeable future, but once I had been to the GP and had a blood test, which showed I was anaemic and low in folic acid, and was having some kind of post viral dip, it all seemed so obvious. I was embarrassed that, as a nurse, I hadn’t put it all together, but once I started taking the supplements prescribed by the doctor, I felt better, less fuzzy, and could think a bit straighter about everything.

The Scott clan rallied round, and overwhelmed us with help. Matt didn’t seem to mind, although I checked with him a lot when I knew people were coming round, so he had a chance to get out of the way, or at least arm himself with some biting sarcasm in the face of overwhelming kind acts.

Mum was delighted to be asked to help out, admitting that she had held back for fear of being seen as interfering, and not many days passed when she didn’t call in, often bringing a meal or a present for the twins.

I saw much more of Beth, too, and we finally bridged that slight awkwardness that had existed and became friends, rather than me seeing her as an adversary. I’d unconsciously thought of her as the one I had to please to be allowed to stay with Matt, and it wasn’t until I admitted this, firstly to myself, then to Matt, and finally to Beth, that we were able to laugh about it and move on.

Amy and I managed to go out a few times together, Matt and Dec having cooked up a plan whereby once every couple of weeks or so, Matt would go to work early and finish early on a day when Dec finished training at lunchtime. Between them they would then look after the children all afternoon so Amy and I could go shopping or out for coffee with friends.

I talked to Amy a lot, and she had experienced a lot of the same things as me after both of her babies. She also knew what it meant to feel like an outsider to the mighty Scott family, and having a kindred spirit helped me enormously. She told me she’d felt overwhelmed by them all when she first met Dec. She’d been young, and her immediate family had consisted only of her and her parents, so the sprawling, noisy bedlam that existed when she and Dec visited was a lot to cope with at first, with the added complication of Rose, who was even more protective of Dec than Beth was.

It was great having Amy so close and, even though she was quite a bit younger than me, she gave me advice and suggestions as a seasoned pro in the baby world, me being the novice. She had some insights in the Scott world too.

‘They were always talking, wanting me to join in, and Dec would disappear with Cal to play football and leave me to it. If I went a bit quiet they’d ask what was wrong, when there wasn’t anything, I just wasn’t used to being in the thick of it all. I sometimes went and hid in the bathroom, but then of course, if I stayed up there too long, I got quizzed about if I was alright. I started sending Dec ‘help’ texts from the loo, but he never looked at his phone, so we’d get home and he’d go ‘oh, babe, sorry, just got your text’. He did start being more aware though, and I got used to it in the end. You will too, Lau. They love you.’

Matt

A few weeks after I nearly broke Lau, we felt together enough to invite Ed and Claire round for dinner. We’d got to know them pretty well when Ed helped us out with buying our house, and finally felt organised enough to have people round properly. We asked Beth and Jay as well, Beth insisting on bringing dessert, but having been limited to just that.

Beth and Lau had been getting on really well, better than ever, and I wondered if she finally realised that Beth wasn’t judging her, well no more than she judged any of us. Unfortunately this sometimes meant the two of them ganged up on me, and a dual onslaught of Nurse Beth and Nurse Lau sometimes required serious fucking about to get out of whatever it was they were trying to get me to do. Or stop doing.

April had helped Lau with the main course, and I’d fiddled around doing a fancy starter. It was all set, apart from the veggies, which were due to go on when everyone arrived. Lau and I worked out a rota system for Ella and Josh; we would take it in turns when they needed us, unless it was for a feed, in which case Lau was on her own, but we could both do a bit of everything else (hosting, drinking, babying, eating, drinking, cooking, serving, drinking – oh, did I mention I’d been let off the beer embargo?), and waited for the doorbell to ring with a sense of anticipation.

Laura

We’d tidied up, dressed up, got the twins settled and the dinner in the oven, just in time for everyone to arrive. The doorbell went, and Matt and I went to answer it together, feeling excited.

Matt

‘This is it, Lau, our first grown-up dinner party. Tonight we enter the adult world.’

‘Never. Seventeen till I die.’

‘That’s the spirit.’

I opened the door, to find all four of them together.

‘Whoa, it’s a deputation. How can I help you?’

‘Yeah, hilarious Matty, let us in it’s bloody freezing out here.’

‘Sorry, we were just about to have dinner.’

‘Get out of the bloody way and open this.’

Jay handed over a bottle of wine.

‘Oh, well, as you asked so nicely and handed over the magic key, please come in.’

I stepped aside, greeting everyone, surprised and pleased to see Jay hug Lau and ask how she was with genuine concern.

Laura

‘Hey Laura. How’s it going?’

Jay gave me a huge hug, then held me away from him, searching my face in an uncharacteristic display of concern.

‘I’m good, thanks, feeling great now.’

That is, great compared to how I had been, if you ignored the ten-ton bags under my eyes and the back-ache from lifting two growing babies all day and the ever-present nagging feeling that I’d forgotten something … but Jay wouldn’t know how to deal with that much information, so I smiled my thanks at his enquiry.

Jay nodded. ‘Be strong, Laura, stay positive.’

He smiled and walked past me to the living room. As Matt took coats and bags, showed Ed and Claire in and organised drinks, Beth touched me on the arm and asked me quietly

‘How are you feeling, Laura?’

‘I’m good, thanks. Much better, since I’ve been taking the iron and folic acid. I didn’t realise how bad I was feeling until I started to feel better.’

‘That’s great. I hope tonight hasn’t worn you both out.’

‘No, not at all, Mum helped with dinner, and we’ve sorted it all together. Matt’s great, he pitches in. And your dessert looks proper yummy, can’t wait. I’ll just pop it in the fridge.’

I walked into the kitchen as Beth joined everyone else in the living room, where I could hear Matt regaling them with a story. I stayed in the kitchen for a few moments, listening to the voices and laughter. This was what this house was for – people talking and laughing and coming together as friends and family. I enjoyed the feeling of ‘rightness’ for a few seconds, then went to join them all.

Matt

I took coats and bags, organised drinks, and the evening was underway. It went fairly effortlessly. Lau and I both had to pop upstairs to the babies from time to time, but no major disasters occurred, the food went down well, and some time later, main course demolished, we were chatting before dessert.

Ed asked me about my job.

‘Jay says you really enjoy this IT consultancy lark.’

I gave Jay a look. I’d been moaning to the room in general only last week about how it wasn’t so enjoyable any more He’d been there, with his eyes open and everything.

‘Really? Don’t know what Jay would know about it, he understands fuck all about computers.’

‘Thanks, Matty, I’m sure I’ll find something you’re crap at if you give me, oh, less than five seconds.’

Laura

It was the usual brotherly niggling. Ordinarily, I let it wash over me, but it wasn’t just family here tonight, and I made a mental note not to let it go so far that Ed and Claire felt uncomfortable.

Matt

‘So how long have you been at – GreenScreen, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah. Er … must be coming up five years.’

It felt longer, to be honest, like forever, possibly.

‘What exactly does an IT consultant do?’

‘Ha ha, good question. If you ask Lau she’ll say lounge around at home all morning, go into work late, long lunch, arse about on social media until tea-break, natter with colleagues about the footy while watching the latest YouTube offerings on the newest tablet, go to the pub, come home. Not too far from the truth. Oh, and hours of tedious meetings.’

I grinned at Lau.

‘And you didn’t mention downloading porn, flower.’

‘Oh yeah. Staple of any IT worker’s job description. How could I forget?’

‘Sounds cushy.’

‘Yeah, well, if you like having meetings it’s probably your bag.’

I didn’t want to start whingeing about work, if I built up a head of steam I could ramble on a bit, and it would kill the mood.

‘Not yours, then?’

‘Used to be, used to love it, my team’s great, but a lot of the fun’s gone out of it.’

‘Yeah, could that be since you’ve settled down and are less distracted by the blonde secretaries, Matty?’

Oh fuck off Jay, that was bloody years ago, and what would you know anyway? I felt like he was belittling me, and mentioning the blonde secretaries in front of Lau wasn’t on. Not that she seemed to care, and it’s not like she didn’t know all about them anyway, but that wasn’t the point.

Laura

I saw irritation flare up in Matt’s face, and he glanced at me, annoyed about the reference to the secretaries. It’s not like I didn’t know about them; we knew everything about each other’s past love lives. He was just annoyed that Jay chose to join in at that particular time with that particular comment. I saw him push the irritation down and, rather than replying with a put-down, he answered Ed’s question sensibly.

Matt

‘Thanks for that, Jay. No, it’s because I’d really like to do more hands-on IT stuff, designing systems, sorting problems, researching new kit, proper techy stuff, but I end up in interminable bloody meetings talking about quality control, health and safety, and mission statements.’

‘So when Jay said you enjoyed it, he was, what, mistaken?’

Ed looked confused, and I wanted to set the record straight.

‘Wouldn’t be the first time Jay didn’t listen to a bloody word I said.’

Laura

Ah, so there it was, Jay’s put down. Hadn’t taken long. Oh dear, it was going to be one of those evenings, when Beth and I had to stop Matt and Jay from sniping at each other. It was tiresome when they did it when we were ‘just family’, but proper embarrassing when there were people with us who were less familiar with them and their ways.

Matt

‘What I’m getting at is, has Jay mentioned there’s a position at Raiders? From what you say, it might suit you.’

If I’d been a dog, my ears would have pricked up and I would have let out a little yip of excitement.

‘Really? What sort of position?’

Laura

Matt’s eyes went wide, and he sat up straighter, glancing at Jay with a flash of annoyance.

Matt

‘Well, IT stuff, I can’t remember the exact job title, but overseeing all of Raiders’ computer needs – in charge of the website, trouble shooting anything that comes up, you know, ticketing, word processing, GPS, player stats, er, upgrading, network links, software, hardware, all sorts. I suppose there might be the odd meeting, and you’d have a small team, but it would mostly be hands on stuff. Pretty varied – some of it fairly standard stuff, some cutting edge.’

It sounded like the job description would read ‘Matt Scott’s Ideal Job’. Now if I’d been a dog, I would have been in full on ‘barking endlessly until the neighbours call the RSPCA’ mode.

‘Whoa. And Jay hasn’t told me about this because …?’

I looked at Jay with an eyebrow raised. He didn’t look too concerned that he might have been responsible for not telling me about this incredible opportunity, and put on an innocent ‘what?’ sort of face as he pretended to fold his serviette.

‘Come on Matty, I don’t pay attention to every job that comes up at bloody Raiders. Did you want me to tell you about the next laundry assistant they recruit? Didn’t realise you were that desperate for a new challenge.’

He shrugged, totally not getting the point. It wasn’t just any job I was interested in, you dick, Jay; maybe an IT job might have been worth a mention, just in passing, out of interest or some such shit.

I turned back to Ed.

‘Has it been advertised yet?’

‘Just about to go out, I think, but give this guy, Sean, a call, maybe you could go and have a chat, look round?’

Ed wrote a number down and slid it across to me. I couldn’t help staring at it, as if the piece of paper were a magic wish. The words ‘meant to be’ were floating round my head again, and I was trying not to get carried away, but I was seriously excited.

‘Thanks. And I’ll remember not to rely on my brother in future for information about interesting job opportunities at the place he works.’

‘Yeah, more beer, please, Matty.’

Laura

I didn’t know quite what it was, but there had been an undercurrent between Matt and Jay all evening, maybe a bit more needle than usual, and I tried really hard to steer the talk to more neutral topics.

Thankfully, the conversation turned to other things, but I could see Matt was preoccupied by the news about the job by the way he jiggled in his seat.

The baby monitor went off with a sharp cry from Ella just as I went to fetch the dessert. I heard Matt head up the stairs and quickly went up after him before taking in the lemon mousse that Beth had brought. He had just picked Ella up and was holding her close against him when I went into the room.

‘You look really excited about that job.’

He looked at me, eyes shining.

Matt

I looked at her with wide eyes, hoping she would help me to stay calm about it.

‘Yeah, it’s kind of what I’ve wanted for a while. I didn’t think there would be anything round here, though. I’m trying not to get my hopes up, I’ve not done real hands on stuff for ages, unless you count resetting Jay’s passwords every week. I’d bloody love it – oh, sorry, baby girl. Ignore your old dad’s bad language.’

‘You’re going to ring that number, though?’

I loved that Lau was keen for me to do this, that she supported me trying something different, even though the sensible and grown up thing to do would be stay where I was, with security and familiarity.

‘Too right, first thing Monday.’

‘Ask Jay for his mobile, or home number, you could call tomorrow.’

I wasn’t sure.

‘Hmm, maybe. Might be a bit pushy.’

‘Or look really keen.’

Oh she was a genius.

‘You’re right. I’ll get a number off him later.’

‘I’d better go and dish up some dessert.’

‘Save me some, I think I’m going to be a while changing nappies from the smell of this one. I hope your brother’s not in the same state, missy.’

Laura

I took the dessert in, and while Beth was basking in the glow of compliments, she said,

‘Matty on baby duty?’

‘We’re sharing it. He’s up to his armpits in nappy changing at the moment. They usually both need it at the same time. I think they’ve got some kind of secret signal.’

‘Ha ha, twin thing. Matty’s pretty good with nappies, I think it’s the perfectionist in him.’

‘You could be right, although he has been known to throw them away because he’s undone them and done them back up again so many times they won’t stick any more It takes him ages, but they’re the most symmetrical nappies in the city.’

‘Do Ella and Josh do a lot of things together?’

Claire asked as I poured her another glass of wine.

‘Most things. They usually wake up together, or one wakes up and the other one is there a few seconds later. They want feeding together, although we can only do that when we’re both here, they’ve got too big; they go to sleep together, often looking at each other.’

‘Oh, that’s so cute. I wonder if it’s comforting to have each other so close.’

‘I guess that’s part of it, but they also wind each other up. If I’m on my own and they’re fretful, I can only soothe one at a time, or at most stick one in the rocker and wiggle it with my foot while I’m holding the most squawky one.’

‘Oh Laura, it sounds exhausting.’

I glanced at Beth.

‘It has its moments. But it’s great as well. Instant family, no hanging about.’

‘That seems to be the way you and Matty have approached life together, sweetheart. You’ve had quite a year, haven’t you.’

‘You’ve only been together a year?’

I nodded. ‘Just over. Seems like forever, though.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, a year with Matty would seem like a bloody lifetime to most people.’

Jay had been hitting the beer pretty hard, and his sole contributions to the conversation for a while had been little digs at Matt. To be fair, Matt had had a few beers too, and wasn’t exactly giving Jay an easy time. Brothers! Men! Men who are brothers!

‘Ed and I have talked about having another one, we don’t want Chloe to be lonely.’

‘How old is she?’

‘Nearly four. I said never again when we had her, it was quite traumatic, and to be honest Chlo feels like enough, but I worry about her being an only child.’

‘It hasn’t done Laura any harm, has it, sweetheart?’

‘No, I suppose not, but I always wished for a sister. And when Dad died it was just up to me to make sure Mum was OK.’

‘Well I’ve got two sisters, and I’ve lost count of the times I wished it was just me.’

Beth laughed as she said this, and looked at Jay.

‘And the times James wished it as well – not a great fan of my younger sister, are you?’

‘Oh she’s alright.’

Beth raised an eyebrow.

‘OK, she irritates the hell out of me, never shuts up, but since she hooked up with that Steve bloke, she takes it out on him, gives me a bit of peace when they visit.’

‘I guess you just have to go with your gut instinct. Chloe seems happy, Claire, she’s got lots of friends. She’s very self-sufficient, and you spend lots of time with her.’

‘Yes, I suppose so. We’ll just have to go on soul-searching I guess. Having a sibling isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. My brother used to tease me mercilessly, I hated it.’

Matt

It took me a while to clean up both of the screaming poo monsters, and then clean myself up as well. I have no idea where all the baby shit comes from, it seems disproportionate to the amount of nutrition they ingest. I reckon they have some kind of secret manufacturing plant somewhere and it gets couriered in when there’s no one around.

By the time I’d got back downstairs, dessert had taken a battering, and the conversation seemed to have moved on to childhood experiences. As I sat back down, Claire was telling everyone about how her older brother used to tease her mercilessly when she was younger. Well there was something I could relate to.

‘Ha ha, you sound like the Scott family history. Never be a younger brother if you can help it. Not that any of you lot are ever likely to know how miserable an existence that is – oh, Ed, you’re not a lowly youngest are you?’

‘No, middle, but that has its pitfalls.’

Jay glowered at me, but I had stopped being intimidated by his feeble attempts to big-brother me about two decades ago.

‘Don’t know what you mean, Matty, you were always the one who taunted me non-stop, knowing the bloody answers on quiz shows, showing off with your maths.’

‘Yeah, and you were the one who used to twist my fingers almost to breaking when I showed off, when Mum wasn’t watching, or sat on me and pulled my hair, or –’

We’d had this argument so many times, the old fights resurfacing to remind us where we felt we were in some arbitrary pecking order. To outsiders it seemed mild and bantery, but we knew the truth of it.

Laura

Claire looked from one to the other, trying to work out how serious they were. To be honest, it felt a bit more serious than it usually was, and Beth was about to step in.

‘Hm, I think I’m beginning to see how being an only child might be an advantage to Chlo …’

‘Don’t listen to them, Claire, they love each other really. It’s all just macho bluff so they don’t have to say it.’

Matt

Even Beth bought it, that we were only kidding.

‘Bollocks, Beth, I can say it. Here –’

I put on a stupid voice.

‘I wuv woo WayWay. See?’

Beth shook her head.

‘Yes, very mature, Matty. I can see your relationship with James has evolved into a fully developed thing of beauty and respect.’

‘Yeah, and if you wuv me so much you’ll let me have the last bit of lemon mousse – oh here it is, going into my bowl, and now on my spoon and into my mouth –’

No, I wasn’t having that, I’d been waiting all evening for some of Beth’s lemon mousse. I tried to wrestle the bowl away from Jay, but was reminded in no uncertain terms who was stronger, and had to let go before we knocked the wine over. Times like this always reminded me of being younger, when Jay would use his strength to get his own way. I shrugged as Jay wolfed the last bit of mousse down noisily, as if I didn’t care, and I didn’t really, not about the mousse, but it rankled as if I was ten again that Jay had muscled his way into getting what he wanted. The tussle continued, though, with words instead of actions.

‘Bloody hell, Matty, I’m not sure we should both be working at Raiders, you’d get me the sack on your first day.’

‘You just don’t want me to see your ‘assistant coach’ side, where you have to be all sensible and grown up.’

‘Well the same could apply to you, and me seeing your sensible work side.’

‘Ha ha, funny that, my work side involves even more fucking about than my home side. Bad luck.’

Laura

Claire was looking uncomfortable, and Matt and Jay had ramped it up beyond acceptable levels. I’d had enough.

‘Now, now, boys. Enough bickering. Matt, I assume it’s all quiet on the screaming baby front?’

A soft look crept briefly over Matt’s face. Yes, I’d done it. Got Matt talking about the babies and going all gooey. Laura Scott, you are a flipping genius.

Matt

Lau was giving me a look to let me know that the brotherly love-in had to stop in front of the guests. I stopped, and thought about the babies upstairs, their eyes closed, breathing and snuffling to themselves.

‘Yeah, they’re both snoozing away now, resting up for the bloody three thirty alarm call.’

I tried my best to sound mardy, but wasn’t even slightly convincing.

‘You love it, Matty.’

‘Know what, Beth, I bloody do. I mean, yeah, it’s exhausting, there’s always something to be doing, and I’ve never lived in such disorganised chaos in my life, teenage forays into Jay’s bedroom notwithstanding, but when they fall asleep in your arms, looking up at you, you just can’t beat it. I’ve loved it with Cal and Iz, but when it’s your own …’

I shrugged, everyone here was a parent, they all knew what I meant. It melted Beth, though, who still couldn’t get used to me being a sentimental old dad.

‘Oh, that’s so lovely, sweetheart.’

‘Yeah, well, it’s thanks to the love of a fucking amazing woman. Couldn’t have done it without Lau.’

Bloody hell, not sure where that came from, I mean, yeah, of course I loved Lau, but I didn’t very often blurt it out quite that slushily. Must have had a bit too much beer. The free use of ‘fuck’ didn’t go unnoticed by Beth, either.

Laura

As I stared at him, surprised by the public announcement, Matt looked a bit embarrassed at his sudden emotional statement, and Beth took the opportunity to have a dig of her own.

Matt

‘But I see you still haven’t got your mouth under control, Matty. Children start developing language skills really early, and –’

‘Piss off, Beth. I’m better than I was, aren’t I Lau?’

Lau nodded loyally, despite evidence to the contrary.

‘I hardly ever swear when I’m with them. It’s not like there’s some kind of bloody ‘Fuckotinell’ patch that can reduce my craving for a good curse.’

This seemed to amuse Ed, who wasn’t as used to my attempts at humorous flights of fancy as Beth and Jay.

‘Ha ha, there should be Matt. ‘Fuckotinell’, we should market it.’

I grabbed the opportunity to get some male arsing about bonding underway. Ed was pretty straight-laced on the surface, but half a bottle of wine seemed to have loosened him up, and I was always up for a bit of wordy badinage.

‘You’re right, Ed. And maybe there are other products yet to be designed for people’s previously untreatable addictions. Like … ‘Nagquitin’ for women who can’t stop telling blokes what to do. And ‘Textorette’ for people whose eyes are surgically attached to their phone screens –’

‘What, people like you, Matty?’

Jay could never cut it with the big boys when it came to chat. Feeble attempt, brother mine.

‘No, Jay, I have my phone addiction well under control. I could do with something for my constant need to control my laughter at my brother’s witty interjections, like a ‘Sonotfunny’ patch.’

‘Maybe you need a ‘Stopbeingasmartarse’ one, although it would have to be so big –’

Laura

I glanced at Claire, who was looking backwards and forwards as Matt and Jay bickered. A small frown had developed on her face. The family was used to their almost constant one-upmanship, but to outsiders it could look real and both Matt and Jay sometimes forgot when to rein it in.

‘It’s OK, Claire, they’re always like this. It’s an alpha male thing. Next time, I’ll just invite you and Beth, and leave Matt upstairs with the rest of the children.’

Matt

Lau squeezed my leg while Jay was trying to compete in the banter stakes, and I looked at her to see a frown and a slight shake of her head. She thought I was going too far with the winding Jay up shit.

I looked at Claire, and she did seem a bit concerned. I often forgot that to non-family, our fights might seem a bit more full-on than they actually were. I opened my mouth to argue with Lau, then thought about it, my brain kicking in before my mouth for once. I nodded to let her know I’d heard her, and changed the subject.

The evening continued, pleasant and relaxed. It was great to see real, proper people again, even though we spent at least half the night talking about children. Lau looked really happy; she was a people person, and had missed the regular human contact her job gave her. I loved seeing her chatting, eyes lit up and cheeks slightly pink. The babies woke up a couple of times, but were easily placated, and then Ed and Claire needed to get back for their babysitter. Jay and Beth had Mum looking after their two, and she was sleeping over, so they settled down for a bit of a lock in.

I couldn’t remember being so comfortable with Beth before; maybe it was the general atmosphere, but she had hardly nagged me about anything all night, and we were all having a laugh as Jay and I hit the beers and Lau and Beth downed copious amounts of sparkling apple. Yum. So glad I was born without either a uterus, or an irrational need to volunteer to be a designated driver.

When Beth started making ‘it’s time to go’ noises, I asked Jay if he had a mobile number for the guy about the job. Jay looked down at his fingers and shook his head.

‘I don’t know, Matty, not sure I should be giving out personal numbers.’

‘OK, fair enough, although it’s not like I’m stalking him or some such shit. Well can you call him for me, then? Tomorrow? Tell him I’m gona call first thing Monday?’

‘It’s a bloody Sunday, Matty. People deserve their day off from work.’

He still wasn’t meeting my eyes, and it sounded like excuses. When he got Ed to call me about the house, he hadn’t been worried about it being out of hours. He wasn’t being straight, and it irritated me.

‘I’m not asking you to make him don a bloody suit and go into the office, for fuck’s sake, just a quick phone call to let him know I’m keen.’

‘I’m not sure it’ll look good. I have to be really careful, especially with Dec, you know I’ve been accused of picking him over other players because he’s family, how will it look if I try and get my brother a job too?’

This sounded weaker than weak. I had no idea what was going on in Jay’s head, but he wasn’t looking at me, it was pissing me off, and I got the message that he wasn’t going to be doing me any brotherly favours.

Laura

Jay busied himself with putting all the dessert spoons in the same bowl, while Matt looked at him, annoyed. Beth and I glanced at each other, sensing something not quite right.

Matt

‘So you’re not going to help me?’

‘You only have to wait until Monday, then you can ring him yourself.’

Jay finally looked up, glanced at Beth and then at me, and what was in his eyes was defiance, as if he’d been caught doing something he knew he shouldn’t, like, oh I don’t know, refusing to give me a hand.

‘So, you’re saying you’re not going to help me?’

‘I guess I am. I’m not sure it’s such a good idea you working at Raiders.’

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was a great idea, the best one anyone had had for a long time, and he was trying to pour cold water on it for some weird reason. He was coming over all ‘I know what’s best, not you’ and it was hurtful.

Laura

Matt was astounded and hurt, and I could see why – I didn’t understand Jay’s attitude either.

Matt

‘Why the fuck not?’

I was speaking louder as I tried to keep a lid on my temper, which was being seriously tested.

‘Matt, keep your voice down, you’ll wake them up.’

I flashed Lau an irritated look, but spoke more quietly, if not less forcefully.

‘Jay, are you saying you don’t want me to go for it?’

‘I’m sure James isn’t saying that, sweetheart –’

Laura

Beth was trying her best, realising as I did that this had gone a bit too far, but neither of us really knowing what was behind it, or how to stop it. I’d seen countless play-fights between Matt and Jay, but there was something more to this one, something that made me want to separate them quickly and cool things down.

Matt

Beth, of course, jumped in, trying to smooth things over, but Jay cut her off. Now he was all eye contact, now he was all assertiveness and ‘this is how it’s going to be’.

‘Actually, that is what I’m saying. I can’t think of anything more awkward than having you arsing around the place, annoying everyone and flirting with the office girls.’

I stared at him, my mouth open in surprise and shock, that not only did Jay think that’s how I would behave in a professional situation, but that he would say it out loud. Did he even know me at all? Had he even checked in with me since I was twenty-five? I could feel myself burning, my cheeks going red and my fists clenching.

Laura

Matt, Beth and I looked open-mouthed at Jay. Jay had never commented negatively on Matt’s old lifestyle, at least not while I had known him, even as a joke. Now he’d done it twice in one evening, and this last was just downright insulting. I could feel Matt boiling next to me, and knew that some line somewhere had just been crossed.

Matt

‘You really think that little of me? Thanks a fucking million, Jay. I might have been a bit of a flirt back in the old days, and maybe I do arse about from time to time, if it gets the job done, but I’m a bloody professional, I do my work and I do it bloody well. OK, fine, I won’t go for it, I’ll leave you alone in your little bubble, just stay in my dead end job going to meeting after meeting, being nice to fucking wankers on the phone, doing the same thing day after day until I’m too old to care and they have to surgically remove my arse from my chair. Fuck you.’

I needed to get out of the room, couldn’t stand being there with him acting all ‘I’m better than you’ for one more second. I felt like a small boy again, having my arm twisted for saying something clever. I pushed my chair back and ran up the stairs. I’d been almost shouting, and so I ran into the babies’ room, to check I hadn’t woken them. To my horror I felt my eyes well up and my lips tremble.

Laura

I had no words. There was plenty I wanted to say to Jay, but it wasn’t mine to say, and Beth was looking at me imploringly.

‘Come on Beth, we’d better go.’

Jay stood up.

‘James …’

‘Have you got the keys?’

Beth looked at me with an apologetic expression and sighed.

‘Yes, right here. Thanks for a lovely evening, Laura. See you soon, sweetheart.’

Beth stood up too, and they both went out into the hall.

‘Er, yeah.’

I was completely lost for words. Matt and Jay had often argued before, but it had never been serious, and neither of them had ever got upset about it. I needed to go and see how Matt was, and couldn’t wait for Beth and Jay to leave. Jay hovered by the door, not meeting my eyes, and Beth hugged me, whispering,

‘I’ll sort it out, call you soon.’

I closed the door behind them and went quickly up the stairs to find Matt.

Matt

I sank down onto the sofa; I could hear them downstairs, Beth and Jay going, Beth talking briefly to Lau, Lau not saying much, then the front door opened and shut and they were gone.

I heard Lau’s footsteps coming up the stairs, and tried to pull myself together, but I was a wreck. It felt like anything Jay and I had built since we’d grown up had been destroyed; it felt as if he’d reached into me, gripped my insides and pulverised them. He really thought I was still the dick who partied hard and fucked about, and that I’d take all that to work, to his work, and jeopardise things for both of us. Shit. I put my head in my hands, breathing hard, still on the verge of sobbing.

I felt Lau sit next to me, and her arm went round my shoulders and suddenly, Lau was where I needed to be. I turned to her and pulled her against me, crushing her against my chest. I started crying properly, knowing that if there was one safe place to blart it was with Lau. She held me and touched me and sshed me, and after a while I shuddered to a halt, still breathing hot breaths and snot into her hair.

‘I can’t believe he thinks I’m like that.’

‘You’re not like that.’

‘I know, but he thinks I bloody am. He thinks I’m just a tosser, a waste of space, no proper job, not like his big important telling a bunch of blokes how to chuck a ball to each other job.’

‘I can’t believe what he said to you. I’m sure it’s not what he really thinks.’

It felt good to hear Lau being outraged too, but I was worried she was going to try to smooth things over.

‘Then why would he say it? I feel like he’s just punched me. I’d rather he’d punched me. I don’t bloody get it, Lau. I always thought, with Jay, he might not understand what I do, but he at least respects me. Now I know what he really thinks. Shit, what am I gona do? It’s like I’m ten again and he’s telling me what a loser I am for knowing all the planets in the fucking solar system.’

It had felt like it all evening, to be honest, with our usual needling having some kind of undefined extra edge.

‘Oh, flower. The people you love always hurt you the most, because they know the best way to do it. I’m sure he didn’t mean it like it sounded.’

I didn’t like Lau sticking up for him, trying to think of excuses for him. He’d just turned me inside out.

Laura

‘Talk to him tomorrow, ask him about it. He had quite a few beers, I expect it just came out wrong.’

I wasn’t sure if any of this was true, but Matt breaking his heart on my shoulder was almost more than I could bear, and I wanted to try and make him feel better.

Matt

That so wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t care if I never talked to Jay again, if that was all he thought of me.

‘I just feel like I don’t even know him. If he’s thought that, all this time, he’s just been pretending to care about me, all that shit, looking after me, it’s all just bollocks if he really thinks I’d go to some bloody swanky job, the job I’ve been hoping for, for bloody ages, and fuck it up by arsing about and embarrassing him. He just can’t bear to share his fucking precious Raiders with me, that’s what it is. He’s been bloody top dog all his life, with his rugby this and trophies that and assistant coach the other, and if I get just a sniff of breathing the same fucking hallowed air, he’s gona do all he can to fucking stop me.’

It was what I’d been thinking as I sat there waiting for Jay to leave, and as I said it to Lau, it felt real, it felt like that was what it had all been about. Jay didn’t want to share Raiders with me. He didn’t want me to look good somewhere he was one of the big guns, because it would diminish his status.

Laura

I pushed Matt away from me slightly, because this had gone far enough, and I needed to stop it before Matt talked himself into something he would regret.

‘Matt, look at me.’

I waited until he lifted his head and looked into my eyes.

‘You’re blowing this out of proportion. You’re making up reasons that you don’t know are true. Before long, they’ll be true for you whatever the real truth is. Stop it now, my love. I know you’re upset, you have every right to be, what Jay said was hurtful. Don’t let yourself hate him.’

Matt lowered his eyes, then breathed deeply, squared his shoulders and looked at me again.

Matt

I don’t know how she always found the words, but Lau could always get to the heart of things in a sentence or two. She’d told me she was on my side, but also told me to get some perspective, without a cross word or a bit of waffle. I looked down, took some deep breaths and tried it her way, for now. Then I sat up straighter and looked at her again.

‘Oh you always know exactly what to bloody say. OK. I won’t hate him, just yet, although sometimes it feels like I’ve spent all my bloody life trying not to hate him. What the fuck am I supposed to do, though? Just act as if nothing’s happened?’

‘No, I think you need to talk to him, but when you’ve both calmed down and you can do it without losing control.’

‘Yeah, well that could take a while. Lau, I know me and Jay are always having a go at each other, it’s never meant anything, but this is different. I’m not just gona shrug and go ‘oh OK, Jay was being a wanker, it’s what he does, forget it’. It’s like this was the job I’ve been waiting for, and he’s taken it away. And he never backs down.’

I was starting to wind myself up again, and again Lau knew what to do about it.

‘It’s pointless going into what you are and aren’t going to say, imagined conversations will only confuse you. You know what you should do? Remember the letters you wrote – to Philpotts, and didn’t you do one to Julia? Why don’t you write it all to Jay, get it all down on paper, sort it out in your head. You can have your say, without any comeback. Then you can throw it away or do whatever you want with it.’

I looked at her for a long time, shaking my head slightly at the wise woman sitting next to me.

‘Lau, whatever I did to deserve you, it was more than sharing my acorns. You’re a bloody genius. Perfect.’

I bent down and kissed her, and there was a snuffle from Ella’s cot. We both turned towards the sound, to see her eyes open, looking at us. I’d woken her up with my outpourings, but she wasn’t crying, just looking. It was about time for a feed, and both of them were going to be awake and yelling before long. Josh’s eyes were still shut, but his arms and legs were moving, signalling his intent to wake up any minute. I needed to stop being a baby myself and be a dad while we sorted them. I stood up, wiped my eyes and picked Ella up, taking her over to Lau, and then picked up Josh so I could entertain him while his sister had her supper.

‘I hope Ella’s not going to resent being younger than Josh when she gets older.’

‘I don’t think fifteen minutes or so is going to make much difference in the long run. Do you resent Jay?’

Damn she was good.

‘Ooh, I hate it when you do that reflecting back sh – er – stuff. Isn’t that part of being the youngest? Isn’t that what you’re born for, lifelong living in the shadow of greatness?’

It felt about right, it felt like my life story.

‘Wouldn’t know. Doesn’t sound like any parenting manual I’ve read, though.’

‘No, but it’s in a lot of the sci-fi novels I’ve read, so it must be true. It’s almost as reliable as the internet. Know what? Right at this moment, I don’t give a, er, large poo about Jay and his opinions. These are my awesome kids, you are my awesome wife, we’re here together. All we need is a bit of a song from Lullaby Lau and we’re the perfect family. How about it?’

Lau pretended reluctance.

‘Hm, not sure I do requests.’

‘Oh go on, Lau, I love it when you sing to them. So do they, I heard them talking.’

‘Really? Speak fluent burble now, do you?’

‘Yeah, always have, you thought I was talking nonsense when I was on the beers, but no, it’s an official language.’

‘You daft sod.’

‘Lau, just so you know, ‘sod’ is actually a swear word. I wouldn’t want you corrupting the babies by mistake, so I just wanted to point that out.’

‘Thank you Matt, I don’t know what I’d do without your vigilance in all things language related.’

‘Get singing, then. And nothing bawdy, you and your bad words.’

And so the babies interrupted my ruminations for a bit, and while Lau was singing them lullabies and nursery rhymes and, unfortunately, some tunes from the Boyzone back catalogue, I focussed on them and almost forgot that my brother had called me an irresponsible, promiscuous layabout and refused to help me get something I really wanted.

I stayed with Lau until the babies were asleep again, then she stood up, stretching, on her way to bed. It all flooded back into me, and there was no way I was going to be able to sleep.

‘I’m gona stay here for a bit, I think, start my letter. Don’t think I’ll get much sleep if I come to bed now.’

She stroked my cheek.

‘OK, don’t stay up all night, though. And don’t fall asleep in here, you’ll hurt your neck.’

‘Yes miss, er mum, er Nurse Laura, er bossy cow.’

‘How are you feeling, apart from deserving of a slap?’

I loved it when she was caring and feisty at the same time.

‘Still bloody fuming, to be honest. I’ll be OK. I’ve got you, got no choice. Night, Lau.’

‘Night.’

Laura

I went downstairs to fetch my phone. When I picked it up, I saw I had two texts from Beth. I had a quick wash and brushed my teeth, then sat up in bed and opened the texts. The first one must have been sent from the car, before they even set off.

‘Sorry abt J. Will talk 2 him.’

‘Is Matty OK? Not sure what the prob is, J being stubborn. Big surprise :(‘

I replied, not wanting to tell on Matt, but wanting to help fix it if I could.

‘M upset. They need 2 talk.’

‘Lunch 2moro?’

I wasn’t sure this was a good idea, or if I would be able to persuade Matt to go. It was going to take some careful handling.

‘Let’s say yes, but might hv 2 cancel. Who’s coming?’

‘Just Carol. D&A out w Rose, Nico & Lis busy. Yr mum?’

‘No, church thing. Less people might b easier.’

‘True. Hope cu 2 moro then. Fingers Xed.’

‘Thanks flower xx’

‘Sleep well xx’

I put the phone on the bedside table, and turned onto my side, the light from the hall spilling into the room. I didn’t sleep for a long time, going over the evening in my head, trying to work out what had happened.

Most of it had been lovely, I hadn’t sensed any misgivings from Jay when Ed had first mentioned the job, but something had pushed a button, and either Jay’s real feelings had come out, which seemed unlikely, or something else was on his mind. Either way, he was going to have to do some talking if he wanted to make it up with Matt. Matt was really hurt, and wasn’t about to accept an insincere apology. It was going to be hard enough to get them in the same room, and I would need to do some fast talking myself if I was going to persuade Matt to go to Jay and Beth’s for Sunday lunch tomorrow. While I was pondering just how I was going to manage this, I fell asleep.

106. Pillow talk

In which things start to feel better, and are helped along by an exploration.

Matt

I chatted with Beth for a while, making arrangements for Friday, talking about things she could do to help, listening to her suggestions for ways I could help, which I tried hard not to think of as interfering, because, really, I needed to know this shit, I needed to stop being the petulant teenager I’d been for the last, oh twenty years, grow up and act like an adult. Well that was never going to completely happen, but I was trying to make a start.

When I finished talking to Beth, I made Lau’s hot chocolate and took it upstairs. I was expecting to find her in bed, already asleep despite the early hour, but she’d got waylaid, and was leaning on the door frame of the babies’ room, just watching them, smiling. It made my heart soar, to see the loving expression on her face, after the way she’d been earlier, and I slid an arm round her waist as I handed her the mug.

‘I thought you were going to bed.’

‘I just wanted to look at them before I turned the baby monitor on. I can’t stop watching them, sometimes.’

‘They’re better than telly, aren’t they.’

Lau nodded and leaned her head back against my shoulder, as I nuzzled her neck.

‘What did Beth say?’

I knew she really meant ‘does Beth think I’m a fucking loony’, but I chose to answer in concrete terms only.

‘Fine to go there on Friday, she’s gona ask Dec and Amy too. You can show off your new haircut.’

‘Oh, I’m really not sure about that. I might text Amy and change my mind.’

I’d anticipated this, and there was no way she was backing out, see previously mentioned stubborn bastard rule number one.

‘Ah ah, Lau, you promised me. I’m taking the day off now. No cold feet. We’ll be fine, the eight of us.’

‘Eight?’ Lau turned her head to look at me, puzzled.

‘Yeah, as soon as you get your appointment, I’m calling my mum, your mum and Rose and getting the full treatment.’

Lau turned her head away and sighed. ‘I wish I could do that.’

‘You can, I don’t know why you don’t do it more often.’

Well that wasn’t quite true, it was because of me and my stubborn fucker tendencies, but I meant from now on.

‘Rose is always up the road, she’d be more than happy to pop in when she’s finished telling Amy she’s doing the hoovering all wrong. And I know for a fact your mum would love to come round more often.’

Laura

‘How do you know? Have you been talking to her too?’

I heard a defensive note slip into my voice. Matt chuckled into my hair.

Matt

It amused me, briefly, to see myself reflected in Lau, the over-sensitive suspicion of the unwillingly needy. I hoped it wouldn’t last long, as one miserable git was already more than this family could take. I chuckled into her hair, as I imagined me consulting with the still intimidating April about Lau.

‘No, Lau. She’s your bloody mum. It stands to reason.’

I may not know a lot about mothering, but I did know you could never ask your mum over enough.

‘Oh. Well, OK, maybe I should ask Mum more often, but it’s not so easy with your family.’

This confused me a bit.

‘They’re all our family aren’t they?’

‘They’ve always been lovely, but I still feel a bit outside it all. You’re so close, all of you, there’s so much shared stuff you’ve had, ups and downs, I’ve only been here five minutes.’

I was astounded to hear her say this.

‘More than a year, Lau. We’ve been together more than a year. We’re married with kids. You’re so part of the family. Why are we talking about this in the doorway? Come to bed.’

I kissed her neck and gently tugged her with me to the bedroom, where I sat her down on the bed.

‘Just going to clean my teeth, I’ll put the monitor on when I come back.’

Laura

I watched him leave the room, then changed into my sleeping shirt and slid under the duvet, sitting up and sipping my chocolate. It was true that, although I loved all of Matt’s family, I still felt like I was on probation, particularly with Beth, as if they could be waiting for me to mess up so they could cry ‘See? We knew she was going to let him down in the end.’

It wasn’t based on anything even remotely logical, just the fact that Beth was older than me, very protective of Matt, and had questioned my motives when we first got together. Beth held the family. She organised people, mopped them up, got them talking, gave them advice, listened, helped. She was the hub everyone revolved around, and I often felt like I was right out on the end of a spoke on the wheel.

I pondered my recent failings, and wondered if I might have been more willing to ask for help if I hadn’t worried about how it might look to Beth. She was so … capable. She always knew just what to do and say in any situation, and children were her speciality. My recent difficulties would look to her like I was at best very badly organised, and at worst a terrible mother.

Matt

As I cleaned my teeth, I thought about how Lau could possibly not feel a part of the family. I’d heard what she’d said about all our family shared shit, and I suppose we had been through a lot together, but everyone loved Lau; from the start they’d treated her like one of us, apart from maybe right at the beginning when everyone was thinking ‘what the fuck’s Matty up to going out with a nurse’ but that blew over really fast, and I’d had no idea Lau didn’t feel part of us.

After a brief trip into the babies’ room to switch on the monitor and quickly kiss them, I went into the bedroom and made short work of undressing, before lying down next to Lau and pulling her close, kissing her forehead.

‘Right, where were we? Something about you not feeling part of the family. Spill, Laura Louise Scott. The clue is in the name, by the way.’

I wrapped her up and held her close, relishing the sudden surge of closeness. Too often recently we’d just collapsed into bed, asleep before the duvet settled around us. I had no idea if Lau still did her feeling me all over routine, I had been spark out immediately in recent times, but I missed it, I missed knowing if she did it. However, we were awake now, and I stroked her soft hair as she put her arm round my waist.

Laura

As we held each other, I felt a surge of tenderness towards Matt I hadn’t felt for a while. We’d got into the habit of collapsing into bed, energy gone, often while the other one was attending to Ella and Josh, and we hadn’t had time to be Lau and Matt.

‘But it’s true, isn’t it? I know they’re all lovely, but they like me because I’m with you, not because I’m me.’

Matt

And maybe that was the root of it, the over-protectiveness towards me in the beginning that made Lau feel, I don’t know, judged, or some such shit. Perhaps it’s hard to shake off that feeling.

‘Bollocks, you daft bat. Maybe that’s how it started, how else can it start before everyone knows you? They watch and see how you are with me and how I am with you, then they see how happy you make me and they all go ‘OK, Lau’s one of us, she’s in’. I saw it happen, didn’t you feel it?’

I felt Lau shake her head against me.

‘No. I know Beth was a bit suspicious of me at the start.’

I sighed. You had to love Beth for looking out for her family, but she went seriously over the top.

‘Yeah, I had the chat too. ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Matty? It’s all very sudden, she’s a nurse, are you sure you don’t just want someone to look after you?’ She can’t bloody help herself, but she doesn’t mean anything. Since that time when I had pneumonia, she’s just butted in when she feels like it. Fair enough, if she hadn’t back then I probably wouldn’t be around now. But she’s OK with you, more than OK. What I get now is ‘you should listen to Laura, she talks a lot of sense’. Lau, you are so part of the family, bad luck, but there it is. No escaping. Maybe at the start everyone might have thought ‘if you hurt him you’re toast’, but nobody even thinks that now, like it’s even a possibility.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Oh come on, Lau. You know when I felt it change?’

She thought about it.

‘When we got married?’

I shook my head, determined to tell her how it had been, how it had changed, and how it was now.

‘No, before that, really early on. You’ve got this way, you clever cow, of making me do things, think about things, that they’ve all been trying to get me to do for years – pace myself, look after myself, rest, all that shit. You remember I used to come home on Sunday afternoons and crash? Then we changed things, I’d have a sleep with Iz or Charlie or something, or we’d leave earlier, and I had more energy. Beth asked me about it, and I told her you’d suggested it. I think you’d told her something as well, about when you made me answer texts more. You’re so bloody bossy. Anyway, that was it. Once she knew I listened to you, and I changed shit for you, you were in. We’re a package now. It’s not like ‘oh here’s Matty, and we’ll put up with Lau too’, it’s like ‘oh great, Matty and Lau, we love them both’, or ‘oh great, it’s Lau, sod Matty he’s off somewhere being a selfish bastard’. Seriously, Lau. You’re not separate, you’re a part of us. You know when we specifically didn’t say ‘for better or worse’?’

We’d both skirted round that a bit in our wedding vows; Lau nodded, knowing what I meant.

‘Well, being part of the family is a bit of both. I think you’re bloody patient with them all. They’re a bunch of nosy, interfering do-gooders who don’t know when not to ask something bloody rude, but you talk to them all, Mum thinks the world of you, Jay thinks the sun shines out of your bloody arse –’

Lau looked up at me in surprise.

Laura

‘Really?’

Jay didn’t really talk to me much, but I didn’t take it personally, as he didn’t really seem to do talking much at all. He bantered with everyone, making jokes and being pretend-irritated when he was asked to do something. I’d seen him being interviewed on TV about Raiders, and was always surprised at how articulate he was. Dec said he had a work side and a home side, much as Matt seemed to.

Matt

I smiled. Jay was a singularly uncommunicative bastard, except when he was talking about rugby, and I wasn’t surprised Lau didn’t know how highly he regarded her.

‘Yeah, really. Know what he said the other day? ‘She’s alright, your Laura.’ Whoa, Lau, in real person’s language that’s ‘I think your wife is one of the finest specimens of wifeliness the world has ever seen. I really like her a lot and if she wasn’t already part of this family I’d invite her in as a special guest’. He practically said it.’

It was also true that Jay had a penchant for inviting random people into the family (oh alright, just Dec, Rose, Amy, Nico, Lis and their various children, so not completely random, but a fair few), and I knew beyond doubt that he considered Lau as much part of the Scotts as any of us.

‘Well, thanks for the translation, flower. Next time Jay grunts I’ll know where to come.’

‘Ha ha. Am I any closer to convincing you?’

‘Maybe a bit.

‘Lau, I wonder if a lot of this is my fault? I’ve been kind of discouraging people from offering to help, maybe not always by saying ‘don’t offer’, but by the odd scowl or grumpy git attitude. If they’d all done everything they wanted to, you’d have had tons of family assistance, you wouldn’t have got so bloody knackered and it would have been different. We should have asked when we all got poorly the other week. I’m so sorry.’

Instead of agreeing or disagreeing, Lau reached out and pulled me to her.

Laura

I pulled him towards me, a little bit of me doing a fist pump and yelling ‘woohoo’, because Matt had got it, and I hadn’t had to do any nagging or anything. Oh, well, if you think about it, maybe I’d had to have a near collapse and go off on one in a major way, but apart from that, it was all his own work. In which case, I could be generous.

‘Neither of us have been great at asking. Maybe we need to remember what we’ve got. Not everyone’s got such a huge army of willing volunteers eager to be covered in poo and baby sick.’

Matt

She sounded so much more positive, I was willing to agree to anything, and even mean it.

‘OK. I will if you will.’

‘You know what else, though? Everyone calls me Lau, except Beth and Jay. Well, and your mum, but she calls everyone by their full name. It just feels with Beth and Jay like it’s more formal.’

I hadn’t even noticed that one. I thought about it, about the names we all got called, and what was behind it.

‘Really? Oh, Beth’s got this weird thing with names. Everything’s shortened – Cal, Iz, Dec – unless it’s already short – you know, like ‘James’. Almost like she likes to be the one to choose the nickname. Jay just does what she does, saves time in the long run, I’m sure.’

‘She told you that?’

‘No, I worked it out. She likes being in control.’

‘You spend far too long thinking about why Beth does things. I thought you hated pop psychology.’

‘I do, it’s annoying when people spout stuff with no basis in fact, like it’s evidence based science.’

‘Yeah, isn’t it, flower.’

Lau had one eyebrow raised as if she was trying to make some kind of point.

‘Anyway, what I’m saying is: it’s nothing personal, it’s just bloody Beth being bloody Beth, the same as she’s bloody Beth with all of us. It means you’re defo one of the gang. Do you want me say something to her, if it’s bothering you?’

‘No! God no, don’t make a big thing out of it, not if you don’t think it’s on purpose. It was just something else that made me feel I didn’t quite fit in.’

‘Lau, you fit better than any of us. You could almost have been born in our family you’re so right. If we ever split up, they’d choose to keep you and ditch me. Do you believe me?’

She nodded and tilted her head up, with mouth pursed for a kiss. Well I couldn’t not, could I, so I leaned down and gave her a light peck on the lips. Then I felt the familiar stirrings, and I went back in for another, firmer kiss. I pulled back, looking into her eyes, trying to assess the mood. I was cautiously optimistic that Lau might be up for … something.

‘Know what, Lau, while the babies are quiet, I want to get to know this gorgeous body of yours again. There’ve been a few changes since last we met in earnest.’

As I kept my eyes on her face, I saw a hint of panic, followed by deep fatigue. OK, I wasn’t going to push too hard, then, but I really wanted Lau to know how beautiful she was to me, how much I wanted her, how much I didn’t give a shit about what she thought had happened to her still awesome body.

‘Don’t worry, no chance of a good Scottying, just want to feel you again, get everything used to you again. I’ve missed Lusty Lau.’

Laura

I wanted him so much, at that moment, but there was no way I was in a fit state to be wanted back.

Matt

Lau swallowed, then nodded slightly, so I began. I stroked her hair, then ran my hands down her neck, past her throat and down to her breasts. I cupped them both, weighing them, feeling the difference. Just before she had the babies, Lau’s breasts were enormous, and there was still a fair amount of lusciousness there. They weren’t quite so distended though; this was likely to change the closer it came to feeding time. I felt Lau’s nipples hardening under my touch, and smiled smugly to myself.

‘I still got it.’

Yeah, Matt, but this wasn’t about you, you git. Say something about Lau for fuck’s sake.

‘You feel fucking amazing. Can’t wait to get going on these when we’re both a bit less bloody exhausted.’

Laura

Alright, so bigger boobs, obviously good, no surprise, but the rest of me was a shambles. I’d never taken such poor care of myself in my life, and was embarrassed to let him see it.

Matt ran his hand down my side and stopped at my belly, the part I was dreading him touching the most, as it was still flabby and huge.

‘Whoa, Lau, loving this. So soft and … homely.’

‘Homely? Doesn’t that mean ugly?’

Matt

Oh you arse, Matt.

‘Shit, no, I didn’t mean that, I meant, it’s where Ella and Josh lived all that time, like it’s their old home. It’s gorgeous. Loving your new curves, you bloody temptress. Let’s see what else is going on down here.’

Laura

That was a surprise. He wasn’t being all ‘urgh fatty’, he was being nice about it. And unless he was really good at pretending, which he thought he was but wasn’t really, he was enjoying himself.

Matt

Phew, think I saved that one. I changed position, burrowing under the duvet so I could have a good feel further down. I kissed her stomach, then licked it gently, my hands moving over Lau’s soft belly until I felt some of the tension leave her. Then I continued downwards until I touched the soft hairs at the top of her legs.

Laura

Oh God, I so wasn’t ready for this.

‘I haven’t …’

‘I know.’

Matt

I am aware that women have this thing about being hairless, or at least hair minimal, and maybe there’s a time and a place, but it was so not one of my requirements.

‘You never have to, not for me. This is bloody sexy, Lau. You don’t catch me shaving all my pubes, do you?’

As I may have previously mentioned, I am not a porn star, and my shaggy nether regions will remain shaggy until the end of time; no razor or wax strips will be tolerated in those sensitive areas.

‘No, but it’s a bit of a mess down there.’

‘Don’t be daft, woman. It’s hot under here, though, can I pull the duvet back so I can see?’

Laura

What? He actually wanted to see? With a sigh, I folded the covers back to reveal Matt’s head travelling down towards the top of my legs. His fingers continued their exploration in my folds, but I closed my eyes, terrified of what I might see on his face when he felt how much I was stretched out of shape.

Matt

I continued my exploration of Lau’s glorious folds with my fingers. She was bloody sexy, and I had to keep reminding myself that this was just a scouting mission for me, and a confidence booster for Lau. I noticed Lau close her eyes, as if she was terrified she might see me looking repulsed or some such shit. My fingers wandered slowly all over Lau, stroking, caressing, and searching. As I reached the edge of her, I felt Lau tense up again, and breathe in sharply. I stopped immediately and looked up at her questioningly.

‘What? Did that hurt?’

She shook her head.

‘What then?’

‘Scared of what you’ll find. It’s all got a bit … bigger, I expect.’

I laughed. ‘I’d be bloody worried if it hadn’t, Lau. You pushed two babies out of here a few weeks ago. That’s the point of this, I just want to feel it, feel you, and you know what, it’s all good so far. I know you’re worried about what you look like, but you needn’t be. You’re bloody gorgeous. So fucking amazing. But if you want me to stop, not go any further, just say.’

Laura

It was taking some getting my head around. This was Matt, and much as I loved him, and knew he loved me, I knew what he used to expect from his women. A certain shape, a certain look, a certain … level of hairlessness, at least that’s what he’d always chosen. Then he’d gone and married me, the wrong shape, the wrong look, more than a hint of hair in the wrong places – oh but Laura Scott, listen to yourself. He chose you. Blimey, you really have let yourself go in the brains department, haven’t you, you dozy cow. Matt is here, with you, having a good feel and a good look, and he’s loving it. I thought about whether I wanted him to stop, but it didn’t take me long. I shook my head.

‘No, it’s OK.’

Matt

‘Yay. OK, going in, hope you’re ready.’

I gently pushed my fingers inside her. From the outside she didn’t look much different, and I have to say, although it did feel different inside, it wasn’t huge different, it was just … not the same as before. It was still awesome, and I was so going to love finding it all out with Lau another time. I carried on looking into Lau’s eyes, to make sure she was OK with it all. I pushed in a bit further, and Lau seemed to relax slightly, then couldn’t resist asking my expert opinion.

Laura

Matt was looking into my eyes now, trying to gauge how I was feeling. He pushed in a little further, all the time checking. It felt … not much different to how it had always felt, to me, which was pretty fantastic.

Matt had always been gentle and artful and tender and skilled. I needed to know how it felt to him.

‘So what do you think?’

‘Awesome. I’m so gona love working with this new you, Lau. It’s gona be like getting to know a whole new woman.’

‘But aren’t I all, like wide and slushy?’

‘Ha ha, you crack me up. It’s just different. Can you squeeze?’

I tried clenching my inner muscles around his fingers.

Matt

At that moment there was a noise from the baby monitor, a snuffly whimper. Josh had woken up. It was swiftly followed by another yelp; Ella was awake too. I looked at Lau regretfully, but the interruption was timely, as parts of me were waking up that should just stay snoozing for now.

‘We’ll have to continue this at a later date. I know I haven’t given birth to the world’s best children, but you could try feeling my bits up next time. I’m sure you’d be very interested in the results.’

‘I’m sure I would. Matt …’

‘Yep.’

‘Thanks.’

Laura

It didn’t really say it, that one word, how much what Matt had just done meant to my confidence and self-esteem. Maybe the sexless last couple of months had been more significant than I’d realised. It felt great to know that that big part of who we were before the twins looked like it was going to carry on in the same vein after the twins.

Matt

‘Daft bat. My absolute pleasure. Right, now I’m going to go and see what all this fuss is about, and you’re going to lie there and go to sleep. I’m going to turn the monitor off so you can’t hear us talking about you.’

‘I’ll come.’

‘You’ll bloody well stay there. I can do whatever it is, feeding, changing, cuddling, telling them about the great Tottenham double year of 1961 – I bet that’s what it is, I haven’t talked to them about Spurs’ prospects of beating Crystal Palace at the weekend. They’re worried.’

‘You daft sod.’

‘I know. Better go before they wake the street.’

Once they both started yelling, they encouraged each other, like some kind of baby cheerleading squad, and it could be hard to interrupt the noisy fun. I sat up, gave Lau a quick kiss, then flicked the monitor off as I hurried to see what my demanding children wanted this time.

I’d developed a technique whereby I could get both of them in my arms at once all by myself. I was thinking about patenting it; I would make a bloody fortune. Once they were both being cuddled, they quietened down, and I chatted to both of them about nothing much – the weather, Spurs, their awesome mum, Spurs, how much it would be appreciated if they would just doze off for the rest of the night, Spurs, and then they got bored and went back to sleep. I hoped I wasn’t putting them off Spurs.

Once I’d deposited them back in their cots, I went back to bed, where Lau looked asleep. But you could never be completely sure, sometimes she just tried to look that way so I didn’t feel bad about waking her up. I felt her stir as I got in next to her, and I pulled her to me, loving the way we fitted together.

Laura

I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed us being physically close to each other, how far apart we’d drifted in a haze of tiredness and preoccupation.

Matt

I kissed her forehead and reported in.

‘Just changing and cuddles. Next time it’ll be grub. The monitor’s on, wake me up, Lau.’

‘OK.’

‘Right, sleep now, I reckon we’ll get twenty five minutes if we’re lucky and if we close our eyes right away.’

I kissed her again, extremely reluctant to let her go.

‘Although, with you here in my arms, there’s other things I could be doing …’

I gave her an evil grin, knowing the answer would be no, even before she shook her head. Sex was back on the cards, but not tonight.

‘Selfish bloody cow. Oh alright, we’ll go to sleep then, you win, as usual.’

I wrapped her up in my arms, and for the first time in weeks we slept like that, folded in each other.

Laura

The first whimper from the monitor woke me instantly. I lay on my side, facing Matt, who was lying on his front, face towards me, mouth slightly open; his usual sleeping position.

The whimper turned to a cry, and another joined it. I disentangled myself from the arm that Matt had thrown over me, and slipped out of bed.

I needed to be with Ella and Josh, despite what I’d promised Matt. Listening to him efficiently feeding them, soothing them, quieting them, felt like watching someone else do my job, and I needed to be their mum right now.

I padded into their room and they both reduced the volume of their cries. I picked up Ella, as Josh was usually alright waiting, as long as he knew I was there.

I sat on the sofa with my beautiful daughter, watching her suckling, gazing into her eyes in the half-light from the hall, thinking about the day and evening I’d just spent with them, and Matt.

I realised how desperate I’d been, how alone I’d felt, and wondered how it had crept up on me like that. I needed to make sure it didn’t happen again, I needed to be here for my children, not feeling exhausted and sapped. Yes, a trip to the GP was probably overdue.

Ella finished feeding, and as I winded her and Josh started yelling in earnest, sensing it was his turn, I picked him up and started again. If I hadn’t fed them now, there wouldn’t have been enough milk to last Matt over tomorrow anyway.

Josh and I stared at each other, and I hummed him a verse of a song my mum used to sing. It was one of those intense moments, when I was just completely connected to him.

Matt

I woke with a start, one of those heart stopping moments when you’re sure you’ve heard something like a window breaking downstairs or some such shit. I just knew I’d heard something out of place. It was dark, and I felt for Lau, but she wasn’t there. Then I heard it again, the sound which had pulled me out of my sleep. Singing. From the monitor, and from down the hall. Lau was singing. I lay on my back, my heart still beating quickly with the initial panic, but smiling widely. She was singing to the babies.

I got out of bed and wandered over to their room, standing in the doorway for a while, watching her and Josh staring at each other. I was entranced, captivated by both of them. Ella was looking over at them as well, from her cot, smiling and wriggling. I slowly made my way into the room; it was a measure of how intimate the connection was that Lau didn’t notice me until I stood right in front of her, hands on my hips, pretending to be pissed off. She looked up, guiltily.

‘I thought you were going to wake me up.’

Lau shrugged, unconcerned.

‘I needed to do this. It’s fine, it’s been lovely, actually.’

I smiled at them both.

‘I know. Lau, you were singing.’

‘Me and Josh were having a moment.’

‘Yeah, I could see. Ella was joining in, look.’

I bent over my daughter and picked her up.

‘Now we can all join in. Carry on, songstress.’

I leaned over and kissed Lau, and she looked back down at Josh and started the lullaby again.

I would love to report that from that day on I was a changed man, and I never again allowed my selfish bastard tendencies to push Lau to her limits. But you know me better than that by now, and although I started off with good intentions, and kept it up, too, once Lau started feeling better, I did backslide from time to time.

It turned out Lau had some nutritional deficiencies that had added to the general malaise and feeling crap, but even so, I was determined that I wasn’t going to be responsible for any more wobbles in our dream life. I was going to be more accepting of the help our family wanted to give us, I was going to be easier to get along with, I was going to love them all without reserve and let them love me as they saw fit. Yeah, life has a habit of getting in the way of your plans for it.

105. I want to break free

In which parenthood is hard, and concessions are made.

Laura

I knew Matt was worried about getting pneumonia again, and that he was preoccupied and self-centred while his cold was in full swing. I didn’t like it, but I understood it. I hoped that once he was feeling better, he would be around a bit more. I had almost forgotten his confession that he wasn’t that happy at work, and so when I got a text from him about half an hour after I’d expected him home, I wasn’t inclined to feel sympathetic.

‘Gone 4 drink with Joe. Won’t b long. Xx’

I almost cried. I was annoyed and disappointed, and thought texting me rather than calling was the coward’s way out. I called him straight away.

Matt

I’m ashamed to say I played innocent.

‘Hey Lau. Everything alright?’

Laura

‘Why aren’t you coming home?’

Even to myself I sounded like a whiny, clinging wife.

Matt

She sounded distraught, and I felt a pang of guilt, but I’d already convinced myself I was entitled to a swift pint with a mate every now and then, just, you know, to keep my sanity.

‘It’s only a drink. Joe’s had me bending his ear all afternoon about stuff, he deserves to do it with some liquid refreshment.’

I tried to sound jokey and put a wink in my voice, to lighten things a bit. Didn’t work.

Laura

What stuff had Matt needed to bend people’s ears about? Had he been moaning about me and how much less fun his life was now he was saddled with a wife and two kids? About how we hardly touched each other, let alone had sex? About … oh a hundred things that Matt could be complaining about occurred to me. But he wasn’t the only one who was unhappy, and he should be here, being unhappy with me.

‘What about me? I’ve been waiting to see you all day.’

Matt

It came out as almost a wail, and my heart sank. I let out a martyred sigh. It wasn’t like I was planning on staying out all night.

‘I won’t be long, Lau, just one drink.’

Laura

‘Fine.’

I hung up on him, feeling like a petulant teenager, a few hot tears spilling out of my eyes. Right on cue, Josh and Ella, who had been happily thinking baby thoughts in their baby seats, started whimpering.

‘No, guys, really, please, just don’t. Can’t you just wait for your dad? He said he’ll be home soon.’

The whimpers turned to yells of distress. I picked Ella up and smelt the undeniable odour of needing to be changed. Josh would be in the same state, and they were due a feed as well, which meant the yelling wasn’t going to diminish until I’d changed them both and fed them both, and I was going to have to do it by myself, for what felt like the ninetieth time that day, because Matt was out enjoying himself with his mate.

Pushing down a howl of my own, I fetched the changing mat and changed Ella, fighting against her kicks and screams, ending up with poo up my arms and all over my t-shirt. I had to clean myself up before I tackled Josh, who was equally unwilling to comply, and I ended up in a similar state.

Feeling more like wanting to run away than sit down and feed them, I dragged myself upstairs, putting Ella in her cot and sitting on the sofa in their room to feed Josh. I was going to have to do it one at a time, especially now they were getting bigger, as I couldn’t do all the manoeuvring myself to get both of them feeding at the same time. Ella continued to scream while I tried to get Josh to suckle, but he was upset by Ella’s crying, and was only feeding fitfully. It was a vicious cycle.

‘Please, Josh, please do it for Mummy. Ssh now, please, little man. Ella, ssh now.’

All the time I was trying to soothe them, tears were running down my face, which wasn’t having a calming effect on any of us. I felt abandoned, unimportant, worthless.

Matt

As everyone knows, when a woman says ‘fine’ in just that tone of voice, it is the furthest thing from being fine that you could possibly imagine. So I knew I had really pissed her off, and I was going to have to deal with it when I got home. I stayed with Joe for a while, but wasn’t really enjoying it, having Lau at the back of my mind the whole time, and went home after we’d finished our drinks.

I opened the front door with some trepidation, realising from the direction of the screaming that Lau was upstairs with Josh and Ella.

Laura

I don’t know how long I sat there, trying to encourage Josh to feed, eventually putting him in his cot to continue screaming, and trying with Ella, with a similar lack of success, but finally I heard the front door go, and Matt’s footsteps came up the stairs. He looked round the bedroom door.

Matt

‘Hey.’

Lau didn’t reply, just looked at me, stonily, jiggling Ella against her breast. Josh was in his cot, face screwed up in anger, shouting his frustration, and Ella looked unhappy, and like she hadn’t fed and wasn’t likely to in the near future. I had never seen Lau like this, so cold and angry, and it scared me.

‘What’s been going on here?’

I kept my tone light, leaning into Josh’s cot and picking him up. His crying quietened as I cuddled him, and I smiled at him.

Laura

I was irritated to notice that Josh’s cries quietened a bit as Matt cuddled him.

‘I can’t get them to feed. I’ve tried both of them, they’re just too upset hearing the other one crying. I can’t do this on my own, Matt.’

A complaining note found its way into my voice. Probably because I was complaining.

Matt

Lau sounded at the end of her rope. I knew it was tough, and I felt the pang of guilt again. I should have been here to help her, I knew that, but surely, surely I could just have a swift pint with a mate, just once, surely?

‘Sorry. I just needed to talk to Joe. Hey, little man, that’s better. Do you want to go and see your mum? Let’s get the pillow for you, mate.’

Josh had stopped squawking and was smiling up at me. It must have been infuriating. I knew how hard it was to cope with them both alone; Lau looked frazzled, as if they’d been crying for ages, and me swanning in and having instant scream pacifying powers must have been very annoying.

‘Want me to have a go with Ella?’

Lau just shrugged, as I put the feeding pillow on her lap and put Josh down on top of it, as if she didn’t care one way or another. This really needed addressing; this wasn’t my Lau, my Lau was never indifferent to our children. But first things first.

I picked Ella up and put her over my shoulder, patting her back and making soothing noises while Josh started to feed. Ella stopped yelling, and I moved her down to cradle her in my arms, where she started making happier noises, looking up at me. Finally, she grew still and I put her on the pillow on Lau’s lap, where she started to feed too.

‘Sorted.’

I didn’t mean to sound smug. I knew it was pot luck, or maybe just a new face, who really knew why the fuck babies did what they did sometimes.

Laura

Pleased as I was that they had stopped crying, it made me feel even more useless that it was Matt who had done it. I didn’t reply, just looked down at the pair of them, feeling defeated by them.

Matt

I thought maybe if I tried to apologise, and explain why I’d been late home, it might make things better.

‘Lau, I’m sorry, I can see you’re annoyed with me. I just needed to go out –’

‘Let’s not do this now, Matt, you’ve just got them quiet, I don’t want to start them off again. I’m exhausted.’

She did, indeed, look and sound dead tired, with overtones of very pissed off. She could hardly meet my eyes, and when she did, her stare was cold and angry.

‘OK. Have you had a bit of a day of it?’

‘No more than usual.’

I sat down next to her, leaned over and kissed her cheek, trying for a bit of normality, trying not to make a big deal out of her mood, hoping she’d just tell me what was wrong, apart from having been left on her own for a maximum of an hour longer than usual while I had a chat with a mate. It didn’t really seem that great a crime.

Laura

I didn’t respond, aware that I was behaving immaturely but unable to stop myself. We sat in silence for a time, as the babies guzzled and I stared at the floor.

Matt

Lau didn’t look at me, just sat, stiffly, holding the babies. I sat there for a while, watching as Josh and Ella fed and Lau just sat; it felt like we were a million miles apart. We hadn’t had a real row since Paris, but this felt different to then. Then, Lau told me what she was thinking, let me have it straight, told me I was being a twat. Now, she was being silent, expecting me to know what she was thinking, and I was clueless.

I sighed and sat back in my seat.

‘Beth said this might happen.’

Oh why the fuck did I say that, of all things? I think I wanted her to know I knew she was feeling a bit crap, and it was normal, and if Beth thought it was normal, then it was super ultra normal with knobs on, but it came out wrong, and I knew that if anyone had said the same to me in different circumstances, I would have gone mental.

Cue Lau going mental.

Laura

‘You’ve been talking about me with Beth?’

I was instantly seething. He wouldn’t talk to me about all his stuff, but he’d go off for a chat with his mate, and now he was discussing me with Beth, who he always called an interfering cow and hated her knowing anything about anything.

Matt

‘Yeah, well, no, not really, she called earlier to ask about dinner on Friday, asked how you were, I said you seemed a bit down, that’s all. She just said –’

Laura

‘You go absolutely nuts if we talk about you. I never, ever, tell any of them anything about you.’

The injustice of it infuriated me.

Matt

Well, she had called me on it, it was about what I deserved, I suppose. I was silent for a moment, looking down at my hands.

‘I would have gone nuts, a year ago, when I was ill, before I had you to help me realise what an arse I was being. I thought I was better now at talking. I never asked you not to say stuff.’

While this was strictly true, it was also the case that I didn’t actively encourage Lau to discuss my business with other people. Some might even say such discussions were actively discouraged. In hindsight, correcting Lau was not the way to make things better.

Laura

I let out an exasperated snort. He didn’t have to ask, it was all part of him being Matt, the great ‘don’t help me’. If he didn’t want to be helped, none of us got to ask, not without risking a sarcastic put down at the very least.

‘That’s not the point. I’ve spent all day talking to two babies about poo and nappies, and you’ve decided to do all your talking with your mate and your sister-in-law.’

Matt

Fair point.

‘Lau –’

Laura

‘Well why don’t you just leave us to it, if we’re so boring. I’m sure there’s someone more interesting on the end of your phone, or on Twitter or Facebook, or maybe four doors down. You can have a good gossip about me, it’ll stop you having to actually see me.’

Inside, I was dismayed at myself for the way I behaving, I was being unreasonable and very unfair, but I couldn’t stop the stream of self-pitying words flowing out of me. I didn’t do this, I didn’t do the whining wife, the pity party, the bitter words. Matt stared at me.

Matt

This was all coming out in a rush. She wouldn’t look at me, just sat there, looking down at Ella and Josh, hitting the nails on the head with every word. I felt terrible. I did spend a lot of time on my phone and my iPad, maybe too much time up the road arsing about with Dec. It wasn’t to avoid Lau. It wasn’t. Maybe I was escaping something, but it wasn’t Lau. I couldn’t work it out right now, all I could do was stare at Lau, trying desperately to find the right words to say to turn this round. I’d never seen Lau like this, angry and irrational, and it was bordering on freaking me out. I didn’t know what to do. I had to say something, and quickly.

‘Lau, baby, it’s not –’

Oh bollocks. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I realised my mistake, and she rounded on me instantly.

Laura

Well that just pushed the wrong button.

‘Oh, so I’m a baby now too, am I? I’ve gone down so far in your estimation I’m only worthy of being fed and changed and patronised –’

Matt was looking at me, stricken. Ella and Josh started to wriggle, my tone and posture alerting them that all was not well.

Matt

I looked at her, unhappily, feeling powerless to do anything that wouldn’t make things worse. All sorts of things crossed my mind, but as I imagined saying them, I also imagined Lau’s pissed off retorts and it was more than I could bear, Lau being hard and angry at my feeble attempts to put things right. She was tense and harsh, and Ella and Josh started to wriggle in her arms and I made a stab at … something. I was desperate.

‘Lau, stop it now, you know that’s not what I meant. Please, can we talk about this properly?’

‘There’s not much point. I won’t understand a word you say, and I’ll be dribbling too much to hear it anyway.’

She glared at me, nearly stopping my heart with the scorn in her eyes. She had never been like this, never refused to talk about things. Ella started to snivel, Josh stiffened and looked like he was going to join her any second. They gave me an in.

‘Lau, you’re upsetting them.’

I saw it cross her mind and almost make it to her lips, to say ‘so what’; the snarl was ready on her face, and it nearly broke me to see it.

Laura

I almost said ‘so what’, but the words crossed my brain and died on my tongue. It shocked me, to my core, and to tears, that I’d been about to say I didn’t care if I was upsetting my babies.

Matt

Then, as if the words died on her tongue, my Lau came back. I think she realised what she’d been about to say, and it shocked her, so much that she started crying, loudly, drippily and inconsolably. Tears ran hotly down her face and started to drip onto the babies, who she was still holding, although they’d finished feeding.

Laura

Once I’d started crying, I couldn’t stop, my hands were full of baby, and I couldn’t even wipe the hot salty liquid away as it poured down my face and dripped onto Ella and Josh.

Matt

I finally gave myself a kick up the arse and realised that I needed to do something; at least something more useful than watching her cry.

‘Oh Lau … here …’

I stood up and took first Ella, and then Josh, jiggling them until they burped, then placed them gently in their cots, then I sat back down, grabbed a baby wipe and mopped up Lau’s tears, folding her up in my arms and pulling her to me as she really got going on the sobbing, breaking her heart against me and breaking my heart into the bargain.

Lau hardly ever cried, not for herself. Oh, she was always blarting over soppy films or brave dogs on Facebook or some such shit, but I had only seen her really cry a couple of times, and nothing like this, this deep, out of control pain. Even when I walked in on her after her pregnancy test, she calmed down once I held her, but this felt like a lot of pent up shit that needed to come out, she was truly miserable and I felt terrible that I hadn’t realised just how bad it had got for her.

As I held her and stroked her hair and went ‘shh’ and did all the useless things that fuckwits like me do when they’re trying to stop people pouring their hearts out on their favourite work shirt, I was berating myself for not noticing, not taking better care of her, for letting her get like this. All of my righteous indignation at not being allowed some time to myself was forgotten. I had been a selfish bastard, and this was the result.

After a while, it seemed like it wasn’t doing her any good being up here, and if the babies got restless again, it wasn’t going to be great for any of us, so I murmured, ‘Come on’, pulled her onto her feet and out of the room, walked her down the stairs with my arm round her, and into the living room, where I gently put her on the sofa, then sat down next to her.

‘Lau, how long have you been feeling like this?’

‘Like what?’

Seriously, Lau? You’re going to play that game with me? I practically invented denial. I’m the king of denial. I totally own denial. I was so going to call her on it.

‘Oh come on, now, you’re feeling crap. I know we’re both tired, fuck knows I do bloody exhausted better than most, but you look so unhappy.’

Maybe it was time for some honesty.

‘I’m sorry, Lau, I did say something to Beth. I didn’t know what to do, you usually tell me how you’re feeling, and you’re usually so happy, singing or something. I don’t think I’ve heard you sing for bloody weeks, I’m worried about you. I should have said something before. Please tell me.’

‘There’s not much you can do.’

And as long as she believed that, it would be true. I decided I would do whatever it took; I could be strong Matt, I could be caring Matt, I could be listening Matt. It was about time I was all of those things on a much more regular basis anyway, and it was going to start here, with me getting Lau to talk to me.

‘Just tell me.’

I took her hand and touched her cheek and tilted her face to mine.

‘Please, Lau.’

She took a breath, and I held mine as I waited. Then she started to talk, and I felt relief flood through me. I didn’t care what she said, just as long as we were talking. We were always going to be OK as long as we talked. Ha, I can think of a few times I could have taken my own advice since then, but for now it worked.

‘I should be happy, how can I not be? This is everything I ever wanted.’

‘There’s no should, is there? You’re feeling how you’re feeling. I just want to help, if I can.’

I stroked her hair away from her face, her eyes nearly breaking me in two with the anguish in them.

Laura

If anything, Matt was making me feel worse. After the mean words I’d just shouted at him, he should have stormed out and slammed the door and left me to it. Maybe that’s what I wanted him to do, so I could wallow in self-pity a bit more. But here he was, loving me. It was so unfair.

‘I can’t do this. I’m so tired, I can hardly think. Every day’s the same, I trudge through it, I look up and half the day’s gone wiping bottoms and the other half’s gone putting stuff in their mouths so I can carry on wiping bottoms later. There’s just not time to do anything, I haven’t made it all the way through a TV programme since before they were born, let alone picked up a book or a newspaper. This place is a tip. I hate it, and I know you hate it, but I can’t do anything about it.’

Matt

None of this surprised me. We were both exhausted, neither of us having fully appreciated before the twins how life would change after the twins. But I still wasn’t getting why she was so upset, even taking into account my thoughtless self-involvement of recent times.

Laura

‘I’m a mess, I’m fat, ugly, my hair’s gone to pot, and yeah like that matters when you’ve got two babies who need you every moment of the day, but I can’t help it, I feel useless, I feel like I’m hardly alive.’

Matt

And there it was. I had to take a second to absorb it, it was so shocking to me that my awesome Lau thought of herself in those terms, that she thought any of those things were true about her.

‘Oh my God, Lau. No! You’re so fucking gorgeous, don’t ever think of yourself like that. And useless? Where did that come from? There’s no way I could do what you do all day. I’m sorry, I’ve not been very good at doing my share.’

Laura

‘Not true.’

Although maybe it was a bit true. Why couldn’t I just tell him? I never usually pulled my punches, but here I was trying to make him feel better, when he was admitting at least some liability.

Matt

Oh Lau, it was so true. Even in the midst of all this, she was trying to make me feel better. Not nearly good enough, Matt. Some insight and contrition were in order.

‘I feel really bad about going to sleep when I got home when I had that cold. It just knocked me for six.’

Laura

‘We were all feeling lousy, but I had to keep everyone going.’

That’s better, Laura Scott. Let him know how it’s been.

Matt

I’d kind of known that and felt vaguely guilty at the time, but as usual had been too worried about how I was feeling and my own needs to do anything for Lau. I needed to put it right, and soon, and properly. For fuck’s sake, I was a husband and a father and it was what I’d craved, for longer than I cared to admit. I had responsibilities and commitments beyond me. I needed to make sure my family were OK, and that meant making sure this woman, not only the love of my life, but my wife, partner and mother of my children, didn’t go under trying to do everything herself.

‘I know. Sorry. We need to work out what to do, you can’t go on like this. Maybe I can reduce my hours, help out more.’

‘We can’t afford it.’

It was true that my increased, yet still part time, hours were just enough to keep us afloat with Lau not working, but this felt bigger than money.

‘We can’t afford for you to get ill.’

‘I’m not ill.’

Nice try, Lau. If you hadn’t given me so much nursey shit in my time you might have been able to get away with it, but instead, it gave me an idea.

‘Maybe not yet, not quite. Think about it, Lau. If someone came to Nurse Laura and said ‘I’m tired all the time, I feel worthless, I feel ugly, I burst into tears a lot’ what would you say?’

Lau didn’t meet my eyes, and spoke to her knees.

‘Apart from, ‘oh, just had twins, have you?’, you mean?’

Well of course she wasn’t going to make it easy; she’d learned from the master. I rolled my eyes at her.

‘Yes, you bloody irritating woman, apart from that.’

And then she looked like she was actually considering it, and I did a mental fist pump. Score Matt. I’d tapped into her inner nurse, and she couldn’t resist thinking about it in that way.

Laura

I tried to think about it. It was the sort of thing my nurse brain thought about all the time at work, but I hadn’t had to think like that for a while, and it was a bit rusty.

‘Well, I suppose I’d tell them to go and see their GP, they sound a bit run down.’

Matt

Result. I didn’t even need to tell her what to do, she’d said it for herself.

‘Hm. So, first thing tomorrow, you’re making an appointment and I’m taking the day off so you can go unencumbered by the screaming shitsters, and then maybe go shopping with Amy or Beth or someone afterwards.’

Laura

I hadn’t realised how much I needed a day off. And the realisation that I needed a day off from my own precious children horrified me, and I started to cry again.

Matt

It all just made sense. I’d thought earlier, when I arranged to go for a drink with Joe, that I just needed some time off. How much more did Lau need it?

Oh shit, but now she was crying again, what the fuck had I said? I pulled her close, kissing her hair.

‘Hey, Lau, ssh, it’s gona be OK, ssh.’

I really had no clue if this was the case, but saying ‘what the fuck are you crying about now‘ wasn’t going to win me any sensitive husband awards.

‘I should be here.’

And then I realised. She was crying because she wanted time off from it all, but felt bad for wanting it, as if she had to be with Ella and Josh unceasingly until the end of time.

‘What, every second of every day? I think you’ll find that’s what’s caused this in the first place. You need a break. I’m sorry I didn’t see it before, I was a bit self-obsessed. There’s a surprise, Matt just thinking about himself. I’m sorry, Lau, today was the worst day to go off with Joe after work.’

Lau sniffed against my chest, and I could feel her trying to pull herself together so she could make me feel better.

Laura

‘No. I’m sorry, I was unreasonable.’

I didn’t feel like I’d been totally unreasonable, but luckily Matt thought so too.

Matt

God I loved her, and I didn’t deserve her.

I thought about the truth or otherwise of whether she had been unreasonable, it having been just what I’d told myself when she’d phoned me in the pub, but now I was a bit more aware of how things were, how me being out enjoying myself even for an hour must have looked to her, affected her, while she was in this state. I took responsibility like a man.

‘Not really, bearing in mind how you’re feeling.’

I took a deep breath and tried to explain.

‘I’d been chatting to him all afternoon about feeling like I wanted to do something different, and he was being really helpful, just listening and telling me what he thought, and when we finished work, I wanted to say thanks. I knew you weren’t yourself, and I didn’t want to unload onto you. And … if I’m honest, perhaps I wanted a bit of a break too, not to just finish work and come home and start with the nappies and the feeds. Fuck, I’m a selfish git. Maybe as well, thinking about it, we haven’t been doing much talking recently, except ‘have you got the breast pump’ or ‘we’re down to our last nappy’. I miss your practical nursey advice, Lau.’

Laura

This certainly was a bit of a role reversal: Matt being open and honest with me and saying it how it was; me trying not to admit I was struggling.

‘You don’t need nursey advice any more’

Matt

While it was true that I didn’t currently have much need of bastard MS chats, I would always need practical Nurse Laura. Even now I felt like I was completely fucking up my attempt to go it alone.

‘Maybe not as much, but I still miss it. You know what, this is gona sound weird, but I kind of miss being ill sometimes. It’s, like, that’s what we had in the beginning, and now it’s not there, it’s like the person who introduced us at the party, who we both kind of knew but didn’t like very much, has moved away. Not that I miss being ill in any other way.’

OK, bit of a weird analogy, but I was thinking on my feet.

‘I think … I miss it too. I don’t feel as useful.’

‘But you never used to bloody tell me anything, you’ve always made me talk to Anna.’

‘I know, but I could keep an eye on you, I felt like I was an expert in you. Now, I don’t feel like an expert in anything.’

It showed me how far her confidence had been knocked that she was telling me she felt useless. Lau was always so capable, competent and confident, kind of like Beth only not irritating, and a complete sex bomb to boot.

‘Know what, Lau, you’ll always be an expert in me. You know me better than anyone – think of all those times you know what I’m thinking. Your Mastermind specialist subject is Matthew Robert Scott and All His Bloody Annoying Foibles. You’d win outright, they’d give you the bloody glass trophy just for putting up with me all this time.’

She looked up at me and gave me a weak smile, which was better than I deserved really. Then I bent down and kissed her lightly. I wanted to make her feel desirable, to know what she meant to me.

‘We need to seriously get some bed time going before too long, you are too fucking hot to be languishing in no-sex land. A good Scottying is so on the cards.’

I saw the look on her face, knew she was dreading me seeing her naked, self-conscious about the differences childbirth would have wrought, tired and emotional, and sex was the last thing she wanted right then. I might have misjudged it, or mistimed mentioning it, but things would only get worse the longer we left it and I wasn’t going to risk leaving it to spare her embarrassment.

Laura

I’d been dreading this. I felt a million miles from anything approaching sexy, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to live up to Matt’s expectations.

‘It might be a bit different.’

Matt

She looked shy and reluctant, which wasn’t Lau. Lau knew she had curves, knew she was awesome, knew what they did to me and enjoyed doing it to me with them. Nothing had changed for me, I still wanted her like crazy.

‘Woo hoo. Vive la difference. Lau, you’re gorgeous and I’ve been neglecting you. I think it’s too easy for both of us to say we’re wiped and not make an effort. Maybe it needs a bit more planning, but it’s gona happen before too long, I promise.’

She thought I’d misunderstood her somehow.

‘I mean, I’m different, I look different, it’ll feel different.’

‘I know that’s what you meant, but know what, I love you, I bloody fancy your socks off, and we are gona do it. Keep me talking about it, it could be right here, right now, on the sodding couch amongst all the crumbs and newspapers.’

Laura

I had never felt less desirable, and the look on my face told him so.

Matt

The look on her face told me I was close to pushing her too far, to somewhere she was uncomfortable going. I reined it in a bit.

‘Sorry, Lau, not trying to be pushy. I’m just trying to make you see you’re bloody gorgeous.’

‘I don’t feel it.’

‘Then I think that shopping trip is well overdue, and should include some kind of girl’s treat, like, oh I don’t bloody know, hair cut or nail bar or some such bollocks. We should use that breast pump more, fill the fridge so you can go out and leave me with them. Use Mum, and your mum. We could go out together, I don’t know why we haven’t, it’s not like we have to be within earshot every moment.’

Throughout my little brainstorming session, Lau was looking more and more distressed.

Laura

His words panicked me. I hadn’t had a single minute without Josh and Ella since they were born, and the idea terrified me.

‘I … Matt, I honestly don’t know if I can leave them. I know they’re exhausting, but …’

Matt

‘I think you need to, Lau. Tomorrow, after you’ve made your appointment, you should call Amy, or someone, and arrange your day. I’ll look after Charlie and Tom as well if I have to – see how shagged I am when you get home for a change. Or I could just ask Mum to help, she’d love it.’

I needed to talk about it as if it was going to happen. Now I thought about it, getting Mum and April involved would make things much easier too, and if I made it clear that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own, Lau might be more ready to ask them when she needed it. A quick glance at Lau told me she was warming to the idea. She looked up and touched my cheek, and I nearly jumped up and cheered. She was back. Or if not back, on her way.

Laura

Now he was talking about it, as if it was going to happen, I felt a surge of excitement. I’d hardly been out, except to go to the supermarket or round to see Amy, since I’d come home with the twins eleven weeks ago. I looked up at Matt and touched his cheek.

‘Thanks, Matt.’

Matt

‘No need to thank me. I’ve been a selfish bastard as per. I forgot that sodding off to work every day is pretty much a cushy holiday for me, and you’ve got it tough. Doesn’t help when I swan off to the pub after work like a caveman. I’ve been getting my breaks when I needed them, I think we need to make sure we both look after ourselves. Starting tonight with an early night, big cuddle, sleep, I’ll get up with the babies. We’ve got some milk in the fridge, haven’t we? OK, Lau, promise me, when they wake up, you’ll boot me up the arse to get me awake?’

I saw her think about arguing. I knew I was a bloody nightmare to wake up, but she just nodded.

Laura

I thought about arguing. It was almost more tiring trying to wake Matt up when he was deeply asleep than it was getting up and seeing to Josh and Ella, but I appreciated the effort and the thought behind it.

‘OK.’

Matt

‘And then, you’re going to call the surgery first thing –’

I was getting into this bossy vibe, I could almost see why Beth enjoyed it so much.

‘I’m not sure I need to.’

Oh no, you don’t get away with it now, Lau, not now you’ve agreed. First law of dealing with stubborn bastards, as I’ve learned to my cost, is once they’ve given in, that’s it. No going back.

‘You bloody do, Lau. I’ll be here breathing down your neck until you do it, and if you get an appointment tomorrow, you’re going to call Amy – actually, why don’t you call her now, see what she’s doing? No harm in making plans, you can always change them.’

‘Oh, I don’t know, they’ll be in the middle of dinner or something.’

Ha ha, don’t try excuses, I know them all and have an answer for everything.

‘Text, then. She can answer later. Here, get some use out of your bloody expensive new phone.’

I’d bought her an iPhone to replace the beaten up old Nokia I’d trodden on the night the twins were born, but she’d hardly used it. Before the babies she used to Twitter and Facebook almost as much as I did, but the phone usually stayed neglected under a newspaper or on the sofa in the babies’ room these days. I picked it up and handed it to her.

‘Go on.’

‘You’re such a bully.’

‘Yeah, makes a change for me to be the bossy cow in this relationship. I quite like it, prepare yourself to be bossed a bit more from now on. Come on, text please.’

Laura

I picked the phone up and tapped a few keys, feeling a bit lighter, as if Matt had taken away some of the heavy darkness I’d been feeling recently.

‘Are u busy 2moro?’

There was a quick reply.

‘No plans. Fancy coffee?’

‘Yeh. Fancy it in town? Shopping? Hair?’

‘Ooh, like yr thinking. With babies or not?’

‘Not. M says he will look after all 4!!’

‘He must b mad. Let’s do it b4 he changes his mind :)’

‘Deps a bit on something else, will let u no 2 moro morning 🙂 x’

‘Gr8 🙂 xx’

Matt

There was a quick exchange of texts, which ended with Lau smiling, and it was job done. I had no idea whether GreenScreen were going to be OK with me having an impromptu day off, but they weren’t going to have a choice. I began to allow myself to feel relieved. I had no idea what was going on for Lau – maybe she had just found it all too much, maybe it was hormones, maybe there was something more serious, but I’d seen a glimmer of my Lau, and I realised both how long she’d been away, and how much I’d missed her.

Lau put the phone back on the coffee table and looked at me, a bit sheepishly.

‘Sorted?’

‘Yeah. I’ll ring her tomorrow, after I’ve got an appointment. Are you sure you don’t mind? Four of them at once, Matt.’

It was beginning to daunt me a little, too, particularly as one of the four was the wilful, and now toddling, Charlie, but I had a back up plan.

‘Hence the probable recruiting of Mum, and Rose as well, maybe your mum too. If I get it right, I could spend all day watching DVDs while they rush about grannying. Actually, Lau, I don’t know why you don’t ask them to help out a bit more. I know Mum would love it. I mean, she might not be able to lift them in and out of the cots, but she could help with the washing, meals, someone to chat to.’

Now that I realised how low Lau had got, I wanted to invite the world and his dog in to take care of her. Lau avoided my gaze as she tried to explain.

‘I just feel like … if I ask for help, I’ve failed, I should be able to do it all, it’s

not hard, is it? Making sure two tiny babies have enough food and stay clean all day. How can I need help with that? I can’t ask.’

I thought about her struggling on, day after day, feeling like shit and like she couldn’t say anything. That was as much my fault as anyone’s.

‘I think you’re doing yourself down, Lau. Most people find it hard enough with one. Two at once is major. Know what, you sound like me, thinking it’s bloody failing or some such shit. You know they’d all be happy to help.’

And there was the problem, in a nutshell. When Josh and Ella were first born, there had been no shortage of assistance, but me being the arse I am, I’d put everyone off in a fit of independence, sent everyone packing when we got ill under the guise of not wanting to infect anyone, and now Lau felt she couldn’t upset me by reversing the status quo.

‘I’m just not sure I can actually ask.’

And to make it worse, she now felt terrible about even needing help. I was going to have to swallow a few kilos of humble pie, washed down with several bucketsful of pride.

‘How about if I ask for you?’

Lau looked horrified.

‘No! Then I sound a thousand times worse, poor Lau, she needs a hand but she has to get Matt to do her dirty work.’

She sounded so desperate for me not to do it that I nearly let her off, but she needed this, needed more than I could give her on my own.

‘Don’t be daft, I wouldn’t say it like ‘come and help Lau she’s on her last legs’, I’d maybe suggest that if they fancied, oh I don’t know, popping round, bringing lunch with them, emptying the dishwasher while they’re here, that we wouldn’t turn them away, and they wouldn’t get an earful from me about it. Lau, I really haven’t done us any favours here. I bet they’d be round loads more if they weren’t all scared I’d go off on one for offering to help. They know what I’m like. And we put everyone off coming round when we got that cold. None of it’s helped. Please let me ask – I’ll be asking for us, not just for you.’

As I was speaking, I was resolving to be less of a mardy bugger about people wanting to come round and pitch in. I suppose I knew, deep down, it wasn’t because they thought we couldn’t do it, and that they recognised that twins were hard work, and wanted to help. But the way my fucked up head worked was to see the unimplied slight in every offer of assistance, the suggestion that I was somehow less than one hundred per cent perfect. So now I was going to have to rethink my whole way of being, if Lau was going to get the help she needed.

Lau sighed, seemingly torn between wanting me to talk to someone and feeling stupid. Eventually she gave in.

Laura

I sighed. The thought of more help was very appealing, but I didn’t want to seem like I couldn’t cope. Although, obviously, I couldn’t, or at least wasn’t doing that great a job of it. And for Matt to see it too seemed quite a big thing, so I changed my mind.

‘Alright, as long as you don’t make out I’m a gibbering wreck.’

Matt

She looked defeated. I didn’t want her to think she’d been beaten, I wanted her to see that I was with her, not fighting her. She was wiped, she’d had the shit day to end all shit days, and I just wanted to do something for her to make it better.

‘I’ll blame it all on me. It’s mostly my fault anyway. Why don’t you go to bed? I’ll give Beth a call. We were talking about dinner on Friday –’

Laura

Oh, I’d completely forgotten. Matt had got all excited about having people over for dinner, just Jay and Beth, Dec and Amy, and I’d agreed as long as I didn’t have to actually do anything. Matt had been tinkering with starters and sauces for a couple of days. I really, really didn’t think I could do a dinner party.

Matt

‘– but how about we go there instead? Go early, have great food, let her cuddle the babies and change the nappies, no washing up?’

Laura

Oh, music to my ears.

‘It does sound appealing, apart from having to get Ella and Josh ready, in the car, and then home again. It might be worth it for a night out though.’

Matt

I saw a spark of interest in her eyes that delighted me.

‘OK, it’s a goer. Right, up to bed with you. I’ll bring some hot chocolate when I come up, I won’t be long.’

Bed was what we both needed. Oh I know what you’re thinking, but no, I meant bed to sleep, a concept that had become distressingly commonplace in the Scott household of late.

‘It’s only half past eight.’

‘Well, if you’re not tired, we can always chat up there, or cuddle, or maybe find something more interesting to do in bed.’

I waggled my eyebrows suggestively, then grinned to let her know I was only joking. Only half joking. Hey, just because it wasn’t commonplace didn’t mean I had to completely rule it out.

‘Go on, I won’t be long.’

Lau looked at me for a long time.

‘Thank you. You’re amazing.’

How the fuck she could think that, when my bloody stubborn streak was what had caused most of this in the first place, I’ll never know, but I was humbled.

‘Go to bed Lau. You’re the fucking amazing one. Go and get some fucking amazing sleep and wake up tomorrow feeling fucking amazing.’

I leaned down and kissed her, then wrapped my arms round her, pulling her close.

Laura

I stayed in his arms, feeling cocooned for a while, before I stood up and made my way up the stairs. I heard his voice as he started to talk to Beth,

some of his words floating up to me.

Matt

‘Hi Matty.’

‘Hey’

‘I was just thinking about you. Is everything alright, sweetheart?’

Beth always asked if everything was alright, as if she lived in hope of one day being rewarded by me saying ‘actually no I have an issue and you’re the very person I need to talk to about it’.

Maybe one day. Not today.

‘Yeah, just ringing about Friday.’

Today I was going to approach things circuitously as usual.

‘Oh, OK.’

I heard a hint of suspicion in her voice. She was on to me, even if she wasn’t yet in full possession of all the facts. I gritted my teeth and ploughed on for Lau.

‘Yeah, we wondered if we could do it at yours instead, come early, leave at a reasonable hour, make Jay do the washing up …’

‘Of course, Matty.’

Beth never ever made me feel like anything I asked of her was an imposition or anything less than a pleasure to provide. I don’t know why I found it so bloody hard to ask. Maybe it was the next bit.

‘I did wonder if it might be a bit much for Laura.’

Her bloody intuition. Drove. Me. Mad. I let her have her moment of glory, though.

‘Oh, well it was like you said.’

‘Well you said she seemed a bit down. Have the babies been getting on top of her a bit?’

‘Yeah’

‘I wish she’d said something, I’m more than happy to help out, you know that, don’t you Matty?’

Knowing it and accepting it were two attitudes of opposite polarities, but I

reminded myself again that this was for Lau.

‘Well, maybe we could do with a bit of a hand.’

There was a stunned silence on Beth’s end as she processed the rarely heard cheep of the Matt Scott bird’s alarm call. She rallied quickly though.

‘Anything, sweetheart. Is it just Laura? I mean, you’re not feeling under the weather or anything are you?’

She hadn’t asked for ages, even in a round about way, if the bastard MS had come back, so I magnanimously let her off that one and answered her properly.

‘No, work’s a bit crap, was getting a bit up myself about it, leaving Lau to fend for herself.’

‘Oh Matty, you’re both doing so brilliantly, it’s such hard work, it’s no one’s fault. You must tell me what I can do.’

‘Well, if you’re offering, you could pop in one lunchtime, bring one of your bloody tasty salad things, empty the dishwasher …’

And with that I hoped that I’d managed to make it enough about me that Lau wouldn’t be annoyed with me for making her out to be not coping, while ensuring that she got the help she needed to pull herself out of the bad place she was in.

Laura

As I reached the bathroom, Matt’s voice became indistinct, but I was reassured that I wasn’t being reported as a basket case. I quickly washed my face and brushed my teeth, then stopped in to gaze at Ella and Josh, who were both asleep, breathing regularly and peacefully. I loved them so much, but the last couple of weeks with them had been undeniably difficult.

I stood and looked at them for a long time, part of me still finding it hard to believe they were mine. I tried to remember what life was like before them. It was hard to imagine I’d ever lived so free of responsibility, but so empty of this overwhelming love for them.

The Philpotts Letters – 4

I need some sleep, you can’t go on like this (Eels)

I need some sleep, you can’t go on like this (Eels)

Dear Philpottses – or really, I should stop calling you that now, as you’re here, and womb names are no longer appropriate according to your wise and gorgeous mother. But maybe this one last time.

Please explain to me how the fuck two such tiny people, I mean really, the two of you together would fit in my rucksack, can make such a bleeding racket? I seriously have not had an uninterrupted night for bloody months. Do you know how hard it is to wake me up? Bloody, bloody hard. Bloody hard. Ask your mum, she usually has to resort to devious methods involving french kissing and nipple tweaking. But you guys, Jesus H Christ, one yell from you and I’m awake and on the way to the door of your room before I’ve had a chance to open my eyes. I mean, I love you guys, I really, really love you, but for pity’s sake, could you just tone it down a bit? I think you might send me crazy.

See, me and your mum, you’re all we ever wanted. Now, we’re the family we longed for together for, oh, well we never really got around to longing for it together, it was kind of thrust on us suddenly, but we both really really wanted it, and now we’ve got it, we love it, we do, but I’m worried about her, your mum, she’s lost her spark, and we hardly have the energy to even talk to each other any more, and you’re taking up all our time, and it’s great, it is, but I can just see her being dragged down by it.

Maybe I should talk to someone, Beth perhaps. Oh ha ha, I can just see me going ‘Hey Beth, so being a dad’s a bit hard and Lau’s looking peaky, give us a hand, yeah?’. She’d never let me hear the last of it. Or maybe she would, maybe she’d just roll her sleeves up and sort us out. Nope, neeeever gonna happen, it’s not what I do.

But hey, awesome babies, if you could just see your way to sleeping more than two hours at a stretch, and maybe not both filling your nappies at the same time, or waiting patiently for a feed while your mum’s sorting the other one out, that would be pretty cool of you. And what’s with this screaming your bloody heads off, then go silent, and it’s like you’ve finished, but oh no, what you’re really doing is taking the biggest deep breath you can muster so that just as we’re going ‘oh great, they’ve stopped’, you crank it up a notch and scream as if your life depended on it … oh wait, is that one of you crying? Oh, no, my bad, it’s bloody both of you. Round twenty four of the night, then.

Dad x