6. Waiting for a girl like you

In which Matty reconnects in different ways with varying outcomes.

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Matt

I didn’t get home until the next morning, Mum and me having shared a bottle of wine with the fish and chips, and both of us having opted for an early night. We’d watched the talent show, I’d taken the piss out of it mercilessly, and then I’d shown Mum some of the photos from Devon. I hadn’t needed to tell her much, she’d seen it.

‘You like her a lot, don’t you, I can see it in your face.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Is she in some kind of trouble?’

‘Did Jay tell you that as well?’

‘No, dear, but you said it was a literal escape. What were you running away from?’

Not much got past Mum, even though she dressed up her scouting for information in vagueness and seeming misunderstandings.

‘Her fucking evil bastard boyfriend.’

‘Language, Matthew.’

‘He deserves it, I’m not going to apologise. He deserves worse than that, he deserves worse than any words that exist to describe him.’

I gave Mum the edited highlights, playing down the threats, playing up the great time we’d had, how much Beth and Jay had helped us out. I’m not sure I got away with all of it; a worried crease appeared between her eyebrows that didn’t go away despite my best bullshitting.

‘So where is she now?’

‘In a safe house. She didn’t have anywhere else to go, and it really wasn’t a good idea for her to stay with me. I can’t see her, or even talk to her until she’s got somewhere to live.’

‘You don’t even know where she is?’

I shook my head.

‘Oh Matthew, that’s terribly sad. I’m sorry for you dear, you must miss her very much.’

‘Yeah I do. I can hardly believe it, I’m not the one who goes around pining after women. But Carrie’s just got to me. Hey ho, though, it won’t be forever, hopefully just a few weeks and I’ll see her again. Oh, and you’ll never guess who came round while I was away …’

I silently thanked Andrew for giving me the perfect diversion from maternal sympathy overload, and launched into an account of my afternoon trying to track him down.

The next morning, the obligatory fried breakfast out of the way (hey, I cooked it, alright? I do an awesome fry-up), cups of tea consumed, Sunday papers partially read, and the full horror of the Scott Suite divulged, I went home.

Nothing immediately alerted me to the carnage I was going to find when I rounded the corner of the stairs, but the missing front door and splintered door frame, cordoned off with strips of ‘police crime scene’ tape, alerted me pretty quickly and heart-stoppingly.

Mrs Harding must have installed a spy camera in the ceiling or something, as she came out and watched as I stood there open-mouthed, gazing through the tape to the wrecked room beyond.

‘Hello Mark.’

‘Matt. Hi Mrs H. Er …’

Words failed me, and I gestured helplessly towards where my door used to be. The actual door was lying in two pieces in the middle of the floor of the living room, surrounded by smashed up bits of TV, computer, phone and pictures. Books were flung about, ripped and broken.

‘I had to call the police, some thug up here was making such a racket, I was terrified.’

She sounded like it was my fault, and looked like she was expecting me to apologise.

‘Did you see who did it?’

‘No, I was cowering in my bedroom ready to jump in the wardrobe if they tried it on my door.’

Yeah, this would have to be the first time you didn’t stick your beak out for a good nose, wouldn’t it. It was an unworthily selfish thought, but I didn’t feel remotely charitable.

‘Well I’m sorry if it disturbed you.’

I tried to put as much sarcasm in my voice as possible, and I can layer on the sarcasm when I need to. I felt bad about it for a second, as it must have been scary for an old lady to listen to a door being broken down only a wall’s thickness away from where you were, but the tone of voice rolled right off her.

‘I should think so too. Don’t know what kind of company you’re keeping, but you need to change your friends if that’s the sort you’re bringing round here.’

I wheeled round to her, angry at the injustice of being told off for having my flat trashed.

‘Hey, none of my friends did this. Someone’s broken in and wrecked the place.’

‘Yes. Well. I told the police your name, they said they were going to try to find you. Been out all night, have you?’

‘At my mum’s.’

Not that it was any of her business if I’d been visiting all the strip joints and pole-dancing clubs in town.

‘Hm.’

Which she obviously thought I had.

‘Hold on – what name did you give the police?’

‘Your name. Mark Short.’

‘It’s Matt, Mrs Harding. Matt Scott. My name has never been Mark, I don’t know why you insist that it is, so it’s hardly surprising the police didn’t manage to find me to tell me about my flat. Now if you’ll excuse me, it looks like I have some clearing up to do.’

She glared at me coldly as I ripped the police tape and stepped into my living room.

‘I don’t think you should be doing that.’

I swung round, the last day of sadness, confusion and now anger bubbling out of my mouth.

‘Just piss off and leave me the fuck alone. If you can’t even get my name right, just don’t even fucking talk to me.’

I stomped through the broken glass and bits of plastic to my bedroom. I don’t know what I had been expecting, maybe a haven from the destruction, but there was more of the same in there.

My duvet had been ripped in half, spilling the filling like snow across the bed and floor, and my bookshelves had been pulled over, scattering the contents everywhere. A glass of water that had been on my bedside table had been smashed over the books, and several of them now sported wrinkled pages.

As I surveyed the devastation, I started to tremble, my lips started to quiver. I was not going to cry because of something that arsehole had done. But being here was overwhelming and I needed to get out.

Patting my pockets to make sure I had my keys and my mobile, I rushed out of the flat, down the stairs and to my car. I was shaking too much to put the key in the ignition. I took several deep breaths, realising as I did so that driving at this moment wasn’t a good idea.

I felt very alone. I had lots of mates here in Stafford, but when I thought about it, they were all footy mates, or work mates, or chess mates – nobody close enough to call on in an emergency like this. Andrew had disappeared into thin air. Carrie was in a secret hideaway, and this wasn’t something I would have dumped on her anyway, given the circumstances. That left Jay or Mum. I needed my Mum.

‘Hey Mum.’

‘Matthew. Is everything alright, dear?’

‘No. Can I stay at yours tonight?’

‘Of course, whatever’s happened?’

‘Someone’s broken into my flat, trashed it.’

She gasped. ‘No! How terrible! Are the police there?’

‘It happened last night. The police have been and gone. I suppose I need to call them, tell them it’s my flat. My neighbour gave them the wrong name.’

‘Oh come back over, Matthew, stay as long as you need to, you know that.’

‘Thanks Mum. It’ll take me a bit longer than usual, I’m too shaky to drive, I’m going to get a taxi.’

‘Oh Matthew, be careful.’

Mum was awesome. She always came across as slightly vague and laissez-faire about things, but her mind was as sharp as a tack, and before I even got there she’d written a list of things I needed to do – police, insurance, carpenter, landlord, and more. All the things that would have occurred to me eventually, but would have needed me to be in a calmer state than I currently was. She sat with me while I made the calls, offering words when mine failed me, patting my shoulder or touching my hand when I choked up, grimacing with me through the stupid questions the insurance company asked me.

Only when I’d finished, when I’d managed to pay a carpenter to fix the door at treble the normal rate because it was a Sunday and the bloody landlord wouldn’t agree to pick up the bill, when the police had finished asking me questions about Martin and why he might have wanted to harm my property, which I hadn’t answered fully because I didn’t want them bothering Carrie on her first day of being safe, when the insurance company had emailed me a claim form, only then did she look at me, concern in her eyes.

‘Are you sure this girl of yours is worth it?’

My shoulders sagged, all the pent up tears came flooding out, and she gathered me up in a hug that only a mum can give, full of unconditional love, empty of judgement. It didn’t last long, and as I sniffed to a halt, pushed away from her and smiled weakly at her, I answered her.

‘Yeah, she bloody well is. Because that could have been her, but it wasn’t, because of me.’

‘Well, alright dear, fair enough. But I’m worried for you. What if he comes back and breaks the new door?’

‘What if he does? It’s still a mess in there, he can’t trash it anymore than it already is.’

‘But after it’s all cleared up, after you go back.’

I was silent for a moment, an idea I’d had forming since the middle of last week taking on an urgency and a focus.

‘I don’t think I’m going back. I mean, yeah, to get any of my stuff that’s salvageable, but he broke the big stuff, and it’ll just be books and clothes and kitchen stuff. The insurance can sort out the mess, that’s what I pay my premiums for, and I’ll give in my notice tomorrow. Oh, er, can I stay here while I look for somewhere else?’

‘You know I’d be delighted to have you to myself for a while. I don’t see you enough these days.’

And if I’d still been an excellent no-strings lay, there’s no way I’d be trying to bum a bed off my mum for a few weeks, but without Carrie I was going to be without need of a bachelor pad, and the relative monastery of Carol Scott’s spare bedroom, aka my old bedroom complete with Airfix model of the Saturn 5 rocket I made when I was eleven, would suit me just fine.

‘Thanks, Mum, you’re awesome. I’ll enjoy it too.’

So Project Capture Carrie 1.2.1 began the next day. I regretfully informed my cheapskate landlord that I wouldn’t be returning to my flat; I called in to work to let them know I needed a couple of days of personal time due to a traumatic break-in; I went back with boxes and bin bags, collected everything that was collectable, itemised and photographed everything that was damaged beyond repair, including some collectables, wrote it all on my insurance claim form, left the mess for the landlord and the insurance company to fight over, and started looking for a new place to live.

It only took a day. I found a two bedroom flat (ever hopeful, but a spare room would be handy anyway) about as far away as you could get in Stafford from either my flat or Carrie’s old flat. It was a nice area, and the kitchen looked out, eventually if you looked far enough, to hills beyond. It was close to a little shopping street, which had a café and a small food store amongst the charity shops; it all felt good.

I agreed to move in at the end of the month, signed the tenancy, and spent the rest of the afternoon buying furniture for it online. The previous flat had been furnished, and somehow the thought of all those unknown people who might have sat on my sofa or slept in my bed always made me uneasy. Having my own stuff was way better, especially if it was new. My bank account was taking a bit of a battering, but I was enjoying it in a strange way. It almost felt like a new episode of life was opening up, one where I took charge of things for a change instead of going with the flow.

I still kept a close look out for Martin, all the time. I hadn’t seen him for more than six months, but I was sure I’d recognise him, as sure as I was that he’d recognise me. I didn’t know if the police had contacted him about my flat, or been able to pin anything on him, but he was unlikely to have warmed to me for giving his name to them. Who knows, maybe it wasn’t him who broke down the door. Yeah, maybe the pope doesn’t wear a funny hat. So I was still on my guard, every day.

Once back at work, I was thrown right into a morass of business. While I’d been away, Eyeti had put some expansion plans into force, and new work was rolling in without, as yet, the staff to cope with it all. I picked up as much slack as I could, and was grateful for the distraction. On my second day back, I answered my phone without checking the screen.

‘Matt Scott.’

‘Well aren’t you the brisk business man. Hello Matty.’

‘Beth?’

‘How are you? Carol’s just this minute told me about all your troubles. Why didn’t you call us, sweetheart?’

My brain did a strange loop-the-loop thing, as I’d been thinking hard about how to solve a work problem, and had successfully pushed every single other thing in my life out of my head while I wrestled with it.

‘Matty?’

‘Yeah, sorry, I was just in the middle of something. You threw me. It’s OK. I mean I’m OK, it’s all sorted now. There’s nothing you could have done. Mum was great, I’m staying with her until I move into my new place.’

‘And when were you going to tell us about your new place?’

‘Oh, when I moved in I expect. Why would you need to know? You never visit me.’

‘Only because you never ask. And you only have one bedroom.’

‘Had. Two now. Fancy a visit?’

‘Well we’d love to. Will you be in before the start of the season?’

Ah, so it was still down to the rugby.

‘When is that?’

‘Well pre-season has already started, but weekends are still fine. Pre-season friendlies start in August, so no weekends then, and the season starts in September.’

‘How do you do it, Beth?’

‘What?’

‘Let your whole life be ruled by a bloody sport? Only seeing people in the summer?’

‘I suppose if you’re with someone who’s worth it, it’s easy.’

And ain’t that the truth.

‘Yeah. So, it’s not sounding like a visit from you is likely before next year, then. Although you could always come up with Cal, leave Jay to fend for himself.’

‘You know, I might do that one day. Be careful what you wish for.’

‘I always am.’

‘But you’re sure you’re alright? Nothing else to report? Have you heard from Carrie?’

‘No, but I’m assuming that the old saying is true about no news being good news. It’ll be at least a couple of weeks yet, I’m sure. I’d kind of like to be in my new place when I next see her, could be a bit of an embarrassing reunion if we have to do it at Mum’s.’

‘Ha ha. I’m sure Carol wouldn’t mind staying in the kitchen while you two go at it on the coffee table.’

‘Beth!’

‘What?’

‘Such unladylike talk from you, of all people.’

‘Well, you’ve made it nearly the entire way through a conversation without swearing, it needed one of us to lower the tone.’

‘True. Piss off then, I’ve got work to do.’

‘Bye Matty.’

‘Bye Beth.’

For a couple of weeks, work hardly stopped. I barely had time to eat or sleep, let alone think, and that helped me more than anything. Although I was living at Mum’s, I didn’t see much of her, as I’d get home late, eat dinner, and then collapse into bed before getting up ridiculously early to do it all over again. There was no respite at weekends, as the work needed doing. The light at the end of the tunnel was that Eyeti had recruited new staff, who would be starting in a week, so help was at hand.

At the end of the third week of work hell, as I fell exhausted on the sofa on the Friday, looking forward to my first Saturday off since I’d got back from Devon, Mum handed me a stack of post.

I’d had my mail redirected from my old flat, and the Post Office seemed to save it all up in one huge bundle to deliver on a Friday. I flicked through it absently, one eye on the TV, most of the post being bills or advertising; however, there was a handwritten envelope that caught my eye. The writing was familiar. I looked at the franking mark, but it was smudged and I couldn’t read it. As I opened the envelope and saw the header at the top of the paper – ‘African Technology Ministry’ with smiling pictures of African children in schoolrooms – I nearly binned it with the other charity advertising, but something made me look down at the bottom of the page for the signature. I had recognised the writing on the envelope, after all. And there it was. Not a signature, a single name. Andrew. It was a letter, from Andrew. I hadn’t had a letter, an actual letter, for years. I sat up straighter, interested now, and began to read.

Dear Matt

I’m so sorry I haven’t been able to contact you to tell you our news before now. I tried to see you a few weeks ago when we were in Stafford, but you must have been away. Please apologise to your neighbour for causing her any disturbance.

Karen, Rebecca and I have moved to Kenya, to work for the ATM. It was a bit of a sudden move. A few months ago, we found Jesus

Oh, Jesus, no.

and I realised that there was a reason I was so interested in computers and technology.

Yeah, because you’re a geek, Andrew.

I found a job with ATM, whose aim is to provide every person in Africa with usable technology that will improve their lives in the name of the Lord. While we are working for ATM, we will not own any personal technology, as this will deprive another African person of something we could have given to them.

Except for some kind of Iron Age typewriter, obviously. Which, who knows, an African person might find more useful than the Angry Birds app.

I’m sorry I was unable to contact you to tell you this, or explain why I have not contacted you before.

I am permitted a certain amount of emails per month to contact friends and family who may otherwise not hear of the wonderful work of the ATM, or the love that Jesus has for them.

Well yippee, we’ll all look forward to hearing from you, in that case.

You can contact me on adistock@afrtechmin.org. I’d love to hear from you, but I might not be able to read your email for some months. Please be patient with me, as you have always been.

Until now you stupid, stupid arse.

Please be mindful that any emails might not be read only by me, as we use them for teaching purposes, and that your particular style of humour may not be appreciated by a seven year old African child.

Your friend

Andrew

‘Fuck me backwards with a stick of rhubarb.’

‘Language, Matthew. And, er, inappropriately rude suggestions. What’s the matter?’

‘Do you remember I told you about Andrew coming to see me while I was away?’

‘Yes dear. Didn’t you go to his wedding a few years ago? Haven’t they got a little girl now? Rebecca isn’t it?’

How did they do this, women, remember every tiny detail of every bloody person in the world’s sodding life, when I can’t even remember my best friends’ daughter’s name?

‘Yes, yes and yes. Well he’s only gone and got religion and flown off to Africa and eschewed technology until everyone in Africa has some of their own. Or the apocalypse lets him off, presumably.’

‘Oh dear. He might be some time without a laptop then, in either case.’

My mum’s sense of humour took me by surprise sometimes. It was just the right thing to say, and it made me laugh, a lot.

‘Know what else? I’m allowed to email him, but I must curb my wit because it might not be appreciated by any seven year old child who might stumble across it in some bizarre teaching accident. But that’s my natural level! A seven year old child would be my ideal audience! Right, I’m cooking up the best seven year old wit email I can muster, and sending it tomorrow.’

‘Really dear?’

Mum had that look in her eyes, the one I usually tried to ignore but inevitably had to pay attention to in the end.

‘What?’

‘Well, whatever you think of Andrew’s new life, he’s been your friend for a long time, and he’s asked you for something specific, or in this case specifically not for something. I expect he’d be happy to hear from you, he’ll be in a strange country, amongst strangers, and letters from friends are always welcome, but if you just write something wicked, firstly you might get him into trouble, and secondly he might think you don’t care about him, or that his new circumstances have upset you in some way.’

‘Well they bloody have. Who gets religion these days? We used to laugh our arses off at the Christian Union lot at Uni.’

‘It’s still his life, Matthew. All I’m suggesting, is be a bit kind, especially while this is new to him.’

‘Bloody hell, Mum. OK, I’ll be sensible. Won’t stop me composing a doozy of an email for later on, when he needs an out and I can get him the sack. Or maybe I could smuggle him an iPad, or –’

My phone rang, interrupting my stream of ideas for rescuing Andrew from the clutches of the African Technology Ministry. I glanced at the screen. Number withheld. Could be a cold caller, but these days, I was never sure.

‘Matt Scott.’

‘Hi Matt. It’s Carrie.’

I gasped. I had been hoping, but not expecting, to hear from her for a while.

‘Hey you. Oh C, it’s so good to hear your voice. Where are you?’

‘I can’t tell you that, I just wanted to say, things are good, great, it’s all going according to plan. I’m going to have a job and somewhere to live pretty soon, and I’ll be in touch.’

‘That’s brilliant, C. How are you?’

‘I’m really good. I’ve met some amazing people. I so want to see you, can you wait just a bit longer?’

‘You know I can. I miss you so much.’

‘Yeah, same here. I can’t say any more, I’ve got to go, but take care of yourself.’

‘You too.’

‘Bye.’

‘Bye.’

I continued to hold the phone to my ear after she had disconnected, hoping maybe she was still there and I’d hear her breathing. Eventually I realised how ridiculous I was being, and disconnected too, and looked at Mum, unable to rein in the big soppy grin splitting my face.

‘Well that just tells me everything I need to know about how you feel about her, dear. The look on your face is priceless.’

‘I’m bloody hopeless, aren’t I?’

‘I’d say so. Do you want some shepherd’s pie? I’ve kept it warm.’

‘Love some.’

I sighed happily as Mum went into the kitchen to fetch my dinner. PCC 1.2.2 seemed to be underway.

Life went on. Work had quietened down with the new intake of staff, and a further round of recruitment was going to ease things more. I could finally count on my weekends and evenings again, and the day quickly came when I got the keys to my new flat. I even had time for a day off to move in, and enjoyed putting things where I wanted them, taking delivery of furniture, putting some of it together but leaving the rest for the weekend.

I bought Mum a huge bunch of flowers to say thanks, and told her she was welcome to use my spare room anytime she had her front door kicked in. She countered that she’d rather use it because her son wanted his mother to stay over, maybe when she’d had one too many glasses of red wine, so we agreed that was an acceptable compromise, as long as I wasn’t entertaining a lady-friend. We also agreed that either of us would hang a sock on the door if we got lucky, which would curtail any embarrassment felt at unexpected early morning semi-clothed meetings, and I told her where to find the supply of condoms in the bathroom. She was a bit of an old dear sometimes, but mostly my mum was alright.

I’d been in my flat for about a week. I’d just got in from work, with laptop, iPad, keys and bag of shopping falling from my hands as I tried to open the door to the flat without putting any of it down, when I heard my phone ringing in my pocket. I dropped it all to fish the phone out, wincing at the sound of smashed eggs and broken glass. It was another number withheld. There had been several of these, each time raising my hopes, only to dash them when some bastard announced that he was sorry to hear about my recent accident, but …

I opened my door on autopilot and started to nudge everything across the floor with my feet as I answered, fully expecting to be commiserated with about my recent imaginary fender bender.

‘Matt Scott.’

‘It’s Carrie.’

My day lit up.

‘Hey C.’

‘I’m out.’

‘Holy fuck. Really? Where are you?’

‘Still can’t say. Can we meet?’

‘Fuck yeah. Name the time and place.’

‘Pizza Place. Thirty minutes?’

‘Pizza Place? Really? OK, whatever you say. Which one, retail park or town centre?’

‘Town centre.’

‘I’ll be there. Woohoo.’

‘I haven’t got long, I just want to explain things to you.’

‘What things?’

‘Not over the phone, Matt. I want to do it in person.’

‘OK. Thirty minutes. I’m there.’

Pushing misgivings aside, I shoved food into the fridge, dumped broken eggs and jam jars in the bin, put my laptop and iPad on the counter, quickly changed my shirt, vainly checked my face in the mirror and ruffled my hair rakishly, grabbed my keys and set off for PCC 1.2.3.

I saw her as soon as I walked in, sitting with her back to the door, but they made me wait in the queue to be seated, which I nearly got arsey about, but didn’t want Carrie’s first sight of me in over a month to be while I was getting shirty with a sixteen year old waiter. Eventually I convinced them I was with someone who was already sitting at a table, and I walked over, trying for maybe a slight hint of insouciance, but unable to stop myself rushing over at the last minute and skidding to a halt in front of her.

The look on her face when she looked up at me was almost worth the last few weeks. It spoke to me without words of feeling the same longing, the same missing you, the same ache that I’d felt. I wanted to pull her into my arms and hold her all night, but I sensed some hesitation, realised I needed to play by rules I may not be fully aware of yet, and sat down opposite her.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey.’

‘You’re even more gorgeous than I remember.’

I put my hands on the table, wanting to take hers in mine, but her hands remained on her lap.

‘So are you.’

‘Really? Shucks.’

‘I missed you.’

‘I missed you too. Can I hold your hand?’

‘Well … I was hoping to get to the food before I did this, but let’s see how far we get before they ask us what we want and we say large deep pan meat feast with two salads and a beer for you and a water for me, yeah?’

I raised an eyebrow. ‘I see you’re taking control of the situation.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s part of what all this is about. You know I said I want to explain things?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I bet you worried all the way over what I’m going to say, didn’t you.’

‘No.’

‘Really?’

‘Alright then, yeah.’

‘You’ve no need to worry, it’s nothing bad.’

‘You haven’t got religion, have you? Because I’ve already had one friend turn to the dark side this month, I couldn’t cope if you did too.’

‘Ha ha. No. Isn’t religion officially the light side, though? Anyway, not important right now. I want to explain what’s going to happen, with us.’

‘Oookaay.’

She was sounding very composed, very sure, and very clear. It was a little bit scary.

‘It doesn’t sound like I have much of a say.’

‘Let me explain first, then you’ll see why it feels like that.’

‘You’re not trying to get me to join the Moonies?’

‘The what?’

‘A cult.’

‘No. Focus, Matt, it’s nothing to do with religion, OK?’

‘Alright. Talk then. Oh, here comes the waiter so we can tell him what you decided we want.’

The words came out sounding a bit more petulant than I had intended.

‘Don’t be like that, just – oh, large deep pan meat feast, two salads, a beer and a water please. Thanks. Hear me out, please? I don’t want to screw up this first time by arguing with you.’

‘I don’t want to argue with you, either. I’ve missed you so much, C, I’ve thought about you every minute of the day, imagined you, how you smell, what your voice is like, how it feels when you touch me.’

‘Matt, stop it. I’ve missed you too, just as much, done all those things. I can’t do all that right now.’

‘Oh. Have we at least got time to eat the pizza I’m going to be picking all the meat off while I’m listening to you tell me how things are going to be?’

Petulant Matt was back, feeling a little hard done by. Carrie didn’t reply, and as I looked at her, I noticed with horror that her eyes were filling with tears.

‘No! C, I’m sorry, I’m a fucking idiot. Tell me. Say anything. I’ll stop being a whiny kid. I was just expecting things to be one way, and you’ve thrown me a curve ball and I’m sulking. Please. Here.’

I handed her a serviette from the dispenser.

‘You seem to make a habit of mopping me up in eating places.’

‘I’m a git, what can I say. Please. Tell me. I’m listening.’

‘Alright then. But just so you know, saying it is harder than hearing it.’

‘Try me.’

I attempted my best relaxed posture, but under the table I couldn’t stop my leg jiggling with anxiety. It didn’t feel like good news, and I suppose I’d been trying to put off the actual moment when she told me she couldn’t have a relationship with me other than ‘friends’ or else her women chums would shave off all her hair and tattoo ‘harlot’ on her forehead.

‘OK.’ She took a deep breath. ‘I’ve talked to a lot of people the last few weeks. Counsellors, psychologists, social workers, volunteers, other women like me, you name it. People I would have never thought in a million years I’d be talking to. It took a lot of sorting out, a long time to get there, but I realised that I’ve had no control over my life for the last four years, since Martin took it away from me. I need to take the control back, and if I just jump into something full on with you, I’ll lose it again. You’re the best, Matt, you’re so caring, you always think about me, but you’d want to do it for me, or help me with money, or something, even live with you, I don’t know, and I need to do it on my own, for a bit, to prove to myself that I can. So my plan is we do this, us, in stages. The end goal is us, together, like we were in Devon. But not yet, not until I know I have some control. So there are steps, and much as they’re going to frustrate the hell out of both of us, I need to prove to myself that I can do it, that I can control it, before we go to the next step. So, the first step, tonight, is going out for a meal, somewhere there are lots of people, no touching, no kissing, no hugging, however much we want to. If that works, and I feel like I have control, then whatever we do next will still be busy and crowded, I don’t know, cinema or something, but we can hold hands. If that isn’t disastrous –’

I put my hand up, in the manner of schoolboy asking to be excused.

‘What?’

‘Can I ask questions? I’ve got a zillion.’

‘Can it wait till I’ve finished? I’ve kind of been psyching myself up to this.’

‘OK.’

But I had tons of questions already, I was impatient, and I hoped I remembered half of them before she got to the end. I was relieved by the thought of us getting back to how we were in Devon, but terrified by imagining all the different ways I could fuck it all up between now and then if I wasn’t really, really careful.

‘OK, so after holding hands, we can do hugging, but not groping, and all still in public. Then kissing. Then we can go somewhere more private if we want to, I don’t know, a club or something, and if all that goes well, then it’s my place or yours and we’re back to where we were.’

She spread her arms wide and smiled, a weight seemingly gone from her shoulders as if she’d just explained the simplest thing in the world to a small child, and managed it well.

‘Can I ask questions now?’

She nodded.

‘What happens if I fuck it all up?’

‘You won’t.’

‘Believe me there is a lot of potential for it. I’ve been waiting for you for weeks. Did I mention the thinking about you all the bloody time? What if I get ahead of myself, ahead of the schedule? Do I just get sent to the naughty step, or is it three strikes and I’m out, or zero tolerance? What? It feels like I’m being put under the microscope here, to see how well I do, what score I get. It’s a lot of pressure.’

‘You do have a choice.’

‘Do I? What, like it or lump it?’

Carrie looked defiantly back at me. I’d nailed it.

‘Seriously? After all this time, you come back, lay down the law as dictated by some man-hating bearded ladies, and say, yeah I’ve missed you like fuck too, Matt, but if you don’t like it, well, adios?’

Our pizza chose that moment to be delivered. It nearly ended up on the floor, disgusting processed meat and greasy cheese covered thing that it was, interrupting my time with Carrie. As the waiter placed our drinks and salad bowls on the table and exhorted us to ‘enjoy our meals, guys’, I suspected he could have cut the silence into slices and distributed them as a taster platter to the other tables.

‘You do remember why I’ve been away, don’t you?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Do you? Really? Because it sounds like you think I’ve been having a lovely time by the pool with my friends, instead of curled up in a ball hating myself most days, trying to work up the courage to talk to the next bloody know-all fuss-pot who thinks she knows about me and my problems, but turns out that, yeah, she actually does know, in the end, and after a while, I stopped crying all the time, and only cried after the sessions, not before them, and eventually they were bloody great, and they’ve saved my bloody life, and if you can’t see that, and see beyond the oh-so-witty things you call them, to the work they do with train wrecks like me, then you’re not the man I thought you were, and we’re done here.’

I sat, chastened, staring at the table. I had been a selfish git, there was no denying it. I’d been in the real world while Carrie confronted some ugly demons in some kind of purgatory, and it hadn’t occurred to me that keeping her safe would involve more than a few arts and crafts sessions and maybe a weekly talk by a lesbian, while everyone fended off the menfolk at the door with pitchforks. I didn’t share this vision with Carrie; instead, I gave myself a mental slap.

‘So, this plan of yours, no touching today, then?’

‘Not today.’

‘But next time, I can hold your hand?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Can I call you, or text you?’

‘Yeah. I’ve changed my number, I’ll give it to you now.’

She held her hand out for my phone.

‘But nothing rude or flirty, not yet.’

She held my gaze, imploring me to understand. I wasn’t sure I did, not right now, but I nodded as she tapped her number in and gave me back my phone, because even if I didn’t get it, I could do it.

‘And no badgering me. If I need peace and quiet, leave me alone.’

‘OK.’

‘You said you had lots of questions.’

‘Don’t seem important now. You’ve got somewhere to live?’

‘Yeah. I’ll take you sometime.’

‘Where is it?’

‘In Stafford.’

‘OK, fair enough. That’s good. What if Martin finds it?’

‘He won’t. Er, didn’t you know he’d been arrested? I thought you must have, it was because of you.’

‘What?’

‘The police came to see me, the second day I was there, Martin told them about me, and they found me somehow. They told me about your flat, asked me about Martin. I told them all about him, but not all about us.’

‘Shit, I specifically didn’t say much to them about you, I didn’t want them barging in with their size elevens all over your safe house.’

‘Aw thanks, that’s sweet, but it did the trick. Got him arrested, and he resisted arrest, so he might have a jail term. Maybe it’ll sort him out.’

‘Or make him more dangerous.’

‘Yeah, let’s not go there. But anyway, you don’t need to worry about me where I am, it’s secure. And I’ve got a restraining order against Martin. Maybe you should think about it, too.’

‘What?’

‘Seriously, Matt. He trashed your flat. I’m so sorry about that. I’d hate … you should think about it.’

I noticed it, the shift, from her feeling guilty about it, to the onus on me to protect myself. It was impressive, and I felt proud of her.

‘I’ve moved, he won’t find me.’

‘Up to you. Where to?’

‘In Stafford. I’ll take you sometime.’

‘Very funny. Fair do’s, I suppose, if we’re going to be on an equal footing.’

‘Can you tell me about your job?’

Carrie’s eyes lit up, and lifted my heart. This was something she could tell me, something she was excited about.

‘Yeah, as well as the yoga classes at the school, which start in a month or so, and a couple of other things I had from before, I’m going to be doing classes at two of the safe houses, and massage and aromatherapy at the drop-in centre off the High Street twice a week. WO is paying me, not loads, but it will all help.’

‘Go C. That’s so great. But won’t – oh I’m going to shut up. It’s occurring to me that this isn’t some shambles of a giddy women’s club, it’s more like a secret society run with military precision, by ex-members of MI5 or something.’

‘Ha ha, not quite, but they do know their shit. Are you going to have any of this pizza or not?’

‘Not.’

‘Really? Not a meat lover?’

‘Not a compressed leftover brains and rat droppings lover, and not a Pizza Place lover, so’s you’d notice. But that’s OK. I can sit and gaze at you while you eat it. You’re beautiful with mozzarella strings on your chin.’

I wanted to reach over and rub them off with my thumb, then run my thumb along her bottom lip, while she gently licked it with the tip of her tongue …

‘Go and get a salad then.’

‘Again with the rat droppings.’

‘Sorry, I didn’t realise you were such a snobby eater.’

‘Only the best goes into this finely tuned set of tubes.’

I patted my abdomen.

‘Well, how about you choose where we go next time, then? It doesn’t have to be a meal, it can be anything.’

What I really wanted to do was get her to my place, cook her the lightest filet mignon with a couple of crispy potato fries and a mustard sauce, feed it to her while kissing the juices from her mouth, and then lead her to the bedroom for the second course. But that seemed to be step three thousand and ninety four, and felt like a lifetime away.

‘There’s a French film on at the Arts Cinema.’

‘Yeah?’

‘There? Tomorrow?’

‘Can’t tomorrow, not in the evening, anyway, I’ve got a class. Friday?’

‘Plan. Meet you there 6.30.’

‘Will I need to learn French before then?’

‘Mais non, ma petite fleur, le film a des sous-titres.’

‘Do I need to learn it now? You seem to have turned into Eric Cantona.’

‘Ha ha, I’d prefer David Ginola. It will have subtitles. And you’ll be too busy holding my hand to watch it anyway.’

‘You could be right. God Matt, it’s so hard not to touch you.’

I could have said ‘why don’t you then’, but I was starting to get it, why she needed to do this, what it meant to her, and I just wagged an admonishing finger at her while stealing a bit of rat-shit pepperoni off her pizza.

And so we chatted, about this and that, she told me a tiny bit of what it had been like for her since I last saw her, but mostly we kept it light, and it felt like we could almost grasp hold of a bit of how it had been with us, and how it would be again. She was still Carrie, she was still beautiful, she was still the woman I desired above all others. But she had changed, was still changing, and both of us needed to get used to that, while we were getting used to seeing each other again. I won’t say all of this occurred to me while I was sitting there talking nonsense with her, as mostly what occurred to me was ‘holy fuck you’re gorgeous’ and ‘I want you so much’ and other variations on a theme. But enough of it filtered through that by the time we’d eaten as much as we were going to – which in my case was limited to a couple of stolen pieces of pepperoni because she thought it was cute when I did it – and she said she was going to have to go, I didn’t pin her to her seat to stop her from leaving me again. Although I felt like doing it. Instead, I took a deep breath.

‘I’m sorry if I was a dick earlier.’

‘It’s OK. I guess … I didn’t look at it from your point of view. I’ve been thinking about me, how I’m going to do things, all this time, I’ve had to. I suppose I can see that you haven’t been through that process with me, and it was a bit of a surprise.’

‘I just felt like, I can see it’s important for you to have control, but it felt, feels, like I don’t have any, and I don’t like it, and that’s a big lesson for me, but at first it didn’t seem fair, I’ve wanted something so different for the first time I saw you again. But I understand, you’re not saying never, you’re just saying ‘slowly’, I get it. You’re right, I was going to ask you to move in, I’ve got a flat with two bedrooms, but to be honest my mum’s bagged the spare for when she’s shit-faced on cheap plonk after we’ve ripped Britain’s Got Very Little Talent to shreds, so you can’t come now, anyway.’

‘Ha ha. I’ll have to meet your mum sometime, she sounds great. Bet my mum could drink her under the table, though.’

I’d forgotten the vague hints Carrie had given me that her mum had a drink problem, and winced at my insensitivity.

‘Well, meeting the mother, that’s a long way down the line, not been there yet, with anyone.’

‘Really? You always talk about her like you get on with her really well.’

‘Yeah, I do, but it says something, doesn’t it, taking a girl to meet your mum?’

‘What does it say? This is my mum?’

‘Yeah, don’t pretend you girls don’t all have your secret signals you use to confuse us poor blokes. Meeting the mother is like, ‘buy the hat, Mum’. No roses on Valentines Day is ‘pack your bags’, can I buy you a drink is ‘toast or cereal or me for breakfast’ –’

‘I can see you’ve made a full and detailed study of women. Maybe you need to try some of it out on a real one.’

‘Love to. Hoping to.’

Carrie looked at me, a half-smile on her face.

‘I’ve had a great time tonight, seeing you again is awesome.’

‘Me too. Like I said, sorry for earlier. I’m with you, I’m going to do this with you.’

Her half-smile became a whole one and my heart skipped.

‘Thank you. I’ve had a thought, what you said about not having control, well that’s not right, is it? I’m not going to change the rules, but you get to choose the places. All of them. No more Pizza Place.’

It actually made a hell of a difference.

‘Whoa, C, that’s awesome. Thank you. I want to hug you.’

‘You can’t.’

‘I know.’

‘Stop it then.’

‘Sorry. I’ll put myself on the naughty step when I get home, give myself a stern lecture on the benefits of self-control, discipline, will-power and resolve, and hope it prevents a repeat performance.’

‘You’ve still got the gift of the gab, haven’t you.’

‘Not quite sure why I would lose my super-power.’

‘Come on, it’s time for me to go.’

‘You’re breaking my heart. Coffee?’

‘No thanks. Anyway, isn’t it made from rat droppings here?’

‘I expect so.’

Carrie stood up, and I stood too, feeling awkward, not knowing if I should leave with her, or stay while she went. In the end I stayed, watching her walk away from me, turning to wave at the door and disappear into the night.

I was awash with a churning mass of emotions. I’d seen her again after all this time, and that was better than great. After a shaky start, the chemistry between us had still been there, and that was even better than better than great. But this new thing, these rules, made my heart heavy and that was much worse than great. I let the waiter bring me a cup of rat-shit coffee, and I stared into its murky depths, lost in thoughts.

My phone pinged, and I picked it up. A text from Carrie. Already. This was good.

‘Gr8 2 c u looking 4ward 2 film wots it called?’

‘Micmacs. Loved being w u 2nite. Missed u.’

‘Missed u 2. c u soon tho xxx.’

‘Thinking abt u xxx’

‘u 2 🙂 nite nite xxx’

‘xxx’

As I sat there reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the texts, slightly nauseated by the smell of the coffee, it crossed my mind how things might be, how I could make my peace with this whole ‘take it slower than a snail on Valium’ deal.

It wasn’t that Carrie was changing the goalposts for us, saying we couldn’t be what I wanted us to be. Despite what I’d said to her, I hadn’t really got that, hadn’t been able to look beyond my upset at not getting what I’d been expecting. No, Carrie wanted it as much as I did, the closeness we’d had, but she was putting other things first so that when we had it, it was right for her, for both of us. The goalposts were still in the same place, we’d just moved further away from them and needed a few fancy moves to get us within striking distance again. Now I had a footballing analogy, I felt much better, bloke that I was. I left my coffee, paid the bill and went home.

5. Too soon to know

In which things go very well for Matty and Carrie, and then go slightly awry.

Matt

‘How do you mean?’

‘Would you still be my friend?’

‘Well, yeah, of course, but only if I was allowed to constantly tell you what a mistake you’d made, and bad-mouth him at every opportunity.’

‘Well that doesn’t quite seem like the sort of friend I’d need.’

‘Oh? You’d want someone who says to your face that he’s the guy for you, while all the time thinking what an evil bastard he is, and then gets chased off, so isn’t even around to pick up the pieces next time, which could be when he’s done something even worse?’

‘So you don’t think I should go back to him, is that what you’re saying?’

Oh, and here I was, where I didn’t want to be, giving an opinion about something when I could only really have my own agenda at heart.

‘I guess I am saying that. It’s my personal opinion, though, and I can’t pretend I’m completely unbiased. I’ve loved being here with you, getting to know you. You’re so great, you deserve more than some small-minded controlling bully who gets off on keeping you completely to himself. I should stop now, before I say something I’ll regret.’

‘Well, at least you’re honest. Matt, I’ve been thinking all week. I don’t know if I’ve got a choice other than to go back.’

‘No choice?’

‘I haven’t got anywhere else, I can’t afford anywhere else. He pays the rent, he pays the bills, he even pays my mum’s debts when she’s drunk away the monthly payments.’

‘Shit, Carrie. Why haven’t you told me any of this?’

‘Because I feel enough of a loser already. I rely on a bloke who’s this far away from beating the crap out of me for real, and I can’t escape. I’ve got nothing, my life is just a complete and utter disaster.’

And then she started to cry, and I could do nothing but pull her into my arms, and hold her while she sobbed, thoughts speeding through my head, none of them coherent enough to be of any help to either of us, but feeling the need to keep her safe, to look after her, forever.

Carrie’s sobs petered out after a while, but she still clung on to me, and I still held her and stroked her hair, and told her it would be alright.

‘Sorry. I was trying so hard not to do this.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s not fair. Blokes don’t do sobbing, do they?’

‘Well, I suppose it’s not our favourite pastime, but sometimes it’s a catalyst for a conversation that needs to happen. We’re not too good at doing that, either, in general.’

‘One day you’re going to answer a direct question with a yes or a no.’

‘And the next day the world will end.’

She looked up, her own world of trouble scribbled in her eyes.

‘OK, then, maybe we should talk, properly, instead of all the superficials we’ve been doing the last few days. Sit down.’

‘I quite like standing here like this.’

‘Yeah. But it’s distracting. I need you to keep your hands where I can see them.’

‘Ha ha, you sound like you’re about to frisk me.’

‘In your dreams.’

Reluctantly, I let her go, and sat on the sofa. She sat too, far enough away that there was no risk of touching each other without serious intent. I was apprehensive, having done very few deep and meaningfuls with anyone, let alone a woman I really, really wanted to spend a large part of my foreseeable with. I waited for her to begin.

‘I like you a lot.’

‘Likewise.’

‘This week, spending time with you, meeting your family, I feel like I’ve got to know you better than I ever knew Martin.’

She just talked about him the past tense. That was good, right?

‘I’ve enjoyed it too.’

‘But I’ve been with him for a long time.’

Hmm, present perfect tense there. Bit less obvious. Bugger. Also, focus less on the grammar and more on what she’s saying, Matt.

‘How long?’

‘Four years.’

‘That is a long time.’ About three years and six months longer than anyone I’d ever been involved with.

‘It’s not easy to just say something’s turned bad when it used to be good.’

‘Sure, I can understand that, but, to run the risk of your wrath, maybe if we looked at some of the stuff Beth gave you –’

‘There’s no need.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I already did it, back home, on the internet, looked it all up, domestic violence, domestic abuse, and those words just didn’t fit. All the descriptions fitted, but the words – they were just too harsh. They made me feel like I was falsely accusing him, even in my mind. Maybe, oh I don’t know, maybe I was looking for ways round it, ways it wasn’t true. But yeah, if I have to say it out loud, he’s abused me. Not with his fists, but in lots of other ways.’

‘Carrie …’

I reached towards her, tried to take her hand, but she withdrew from my touch. Tears ran down her face again, but I knew she didn’t want me to hold her this time.

‘But I still feel for him, I still worry about him, I’m still grateful to him for everything he’s done for me, even if, now I think about it, it’s all been to try to get more control over me. Shit, if I go back to him, that just proves it, doesn’t it? Shit, Matt. I just said it, didn’t I? He pays the rent, he pays the bills, he even bails my mum out of debt. I was just about to go back to him for that.’

Something had dawned on her face, a realisation. I held my breath, not daring to believe yet that it might last, that she really meant it, that she wouldn’t change her mind.

‘Even – bloody hellfire, you remember that job? When I met you in that café after my interview and you ate that foul smelling wrap?’

‘I remember everything except the foul smell.’

‘His mate got me the interview. You don’t think … me not getting the job was something to do with … and now I think about it, nearly every job I’ve been for, it’s because Martin has come home and said ‘my mate says his company need a secretary’ or receptionist, or whatever, what if he’s talked me down to these wasters, and that’s why I didn’t get the jobs? So he can look like he’s helping, but actually there’s no chance I’ll ever get a job, get some independence.’

She was starting to look panicky, as if nearly everything that had ever gone wrong in her life could somehow be pinned on Martin. Who knows, maybe it could, the job thing sounded plausible, but she needed some perspective, and paranoia wasn’t going to help anyone.

‘Well, it’s possible I suppose, but it’s a bit pointless hypothesising. I think we need to focus on what we do now, how we sort you out. Do you think … it sounds a bit like you might have made a decision.’

She held my gaze. ‘I think I’ve just realised what’s been going on. I might have loved him, properly, once, but that’s not there anymore, there’s just all this crap. I’m not going back.’

I did a little dance. In my head. This wasn’t the time or place for real little dances, it wouldn’t help matters, but deep in my mind, a tiny little jig of delight was being performed.

‘OK. Well, good for you, excellent decision if I may be so bold as to – oh fuck that, come here.’

I shuffled along the sofa as quickly as my still jigging brain would take me and pulled her towards me, holding her tight. Then, suddenly, letting her go as I realised we still had a lot to sort out.

‘That is, well done and all that, but before I get carried away, oh ha ha, literally Carried away, I still think we should –’

Before I could get any further, she pulled me towards her and kissed me –

Iz

PG! PG! PG!

Matt

– and I was so taken by surprise that I let her, is what I told myself, also telling myself that what happened afterwards was due to extenuating circumstances, like her pulling my t-shirt off and pressing her hand against my crotch, and wrapping her tongue round mine like she intended to tie them together, or her slowly taking off her tight vest top, stretching up so her breasts were straining against her bra, then taking my hand and putting it on her chest, or her taking off her bra and pushing one of her nipples into my mouth, so I had no choice at all but to suck it, and lick it until it hardened and peaked under my tongue, or any of the other things that she did, that made me do other things, none of them my fault, you understand, until we ended up in my room, naked, writhing, me in her, her around me, calling out in passion, and then doing it again, twice, before I eventually woke up to the sound of the phone, the feel of an arm round my waist and confusion in my brain, where I believe a very small celebratory jig may still have been taking place.

I addressed the first thing – the phone. Where the bloody hell was it? It wasn’t my mobile, it must be – oh wait, there was a phone by the bed, wasn’t there. Yes. That was it. It was ringing. OK, second problem, the arm round my waist. Fuck, it felt good, didn’t really want to remove it. But it didn’t seem like the phone was going to stop until I answered it. So I unpeeled the arm and moved closer.

‘Ma’ Sco’.’

‘Hello Mr Scott. It’s reception here.’

‘Wha?’

‘Reception. We’ve been trying to deliver your breakfast for the last half an hour, we wondered if you had left the room already.’

‘Paren’ly not.’

‘No. Quite. Would you be good enough to open the door for the waiter?’

‘Sure.’

‘My thanks.’

I hung the receiver back in the cradle.

‘Supercilious arsehole.’

‘Who?’

‘Bloke in recept – whoa, you are a sight for sore eyes. Good morning you gorgeous naked woman.’

I pulled Carrie into my arms and kissed her, deeply, relishing the feel of her soft skin against mine. She kissed me back just as deeply, then pulled her head back.

‘What was that?’

‘What?’

‘That noise. Tapping – oh! Breakfast!’

‘You’re my breakfast. Come here.’

‘No, I need my bacon. I’ll just go and answer the door.’

‘Spoilsport.’

I watched as Carrie pulled on my bathrobe, admiring the little wiggles she did with her arse, in fact admiring everything about her naked form. As I watched her leave the room, I realised that we hadn’t really solved anything for her last night, other than not going back to Martin, and had in fact just made things a whole lot more complicated. I resolved to devote most of today to helping Carrie sort out accommodation, job and money.

Then she walked back in with a tray of breakfast, robe falling open to reveal her in all her splendour, and my resolution counted for nothing for another hour or so.

We spent most of our remaining time in Devon exploring the delights of the five different rooms in the Scott Suite. There were two bedrooms, two bathrooms, both with pulsing power showers and Carrie’s with a huge jacuzzi bath, as well as the large living room.

Beth was hard to ignore, and had tried several – no, make that many, many – times to contact me by text and voicemail, all of which I’d been too busy to answer. She had lost patience by Friday morning and started calling constantly, hanging up and trying again when she got the voicemail. I gave in eventually.

‘Matty! Oh thank God. Where are you?’

‘At the hotel.’

‘Where have you been?’

‘At the hotel.’

‘I meant since Tuesday night.’

‘At the hotel.’

‘What? Really? Are you alright? Oh … oh Matty, tell me you and Carrie haven’t done anything silly.’

‘Well … that depends on your definition of silly, really. Shall I describe what we’ve been doing? I can give you details, in varying levels of graphic, if you like. Let’s see, where shall I start?’

‘No, no, I get the picture. Oh Matty. Are you sure? I thought she was thinking about going back to him.’

‘Yeah, well, she thought. Decided not. We were both quite happy about it.’

‘OK, well, that sounds a bit better, I suppose. But why didn’t you just text me or something? I’ve been trying to get hold of you, I thought something must have happened.’

‘Something did. Lots of somethings. Or rather the same something, lots of times.’

‘Something bad.’

‘Oh. Sorry, Beth. Had other things on my mind.’

Beth snorted. ‘Amongst other places. So what have you sorted out for Carrie?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Is she going to live with you? Have you got her a job? Have you thought about what kind of help is she going to get to live her life in the town where her abusive boyfriend –’

‘Ex’

‘– ex-boyfriend lives?’

‘Er …’

‘Yeah, I thought as much. Matty, I love you dearly, but sometimes thinking with your men’s bits isn’t the best way to solve a problem. Actually, it’s hardly ever the best way.’

‘Kind of depends on the problem.’

‘That’s why I said hardly ever and not never. Come over tonight, we can have a think, even if it’s just so you both know what you need to consider. Maybe someone to talk to who doesn’t have a lust-addled brain is what you need. Come about seven? Cal will be in bed, Dec will be out with his friends before clubbing and illegally drinking, not that I know that of course, it’ll just be me and James.’

I sighed, and turned towards Carrie, who was lying next to me, naked, stroking my thigh. It was driving me wild, and I really needed to stop Beth talking so I could do something about it.

‘Beth wants us to go for dinner tonight, so we can plan our triumphant return to the metropolis that is Stafford.’

‘Do we have to?’

‘Dinner or return to the metropolis?’

‘Either.’

‘I think we do. Sorry. I hate to say it, but I think it might help, if we can just curb her enthusiasm a bit.’

‘But it’s our last night here.’

‘Hey, I didn’t say we have to stay all night. Couple of hours, three tops, then we can come back, and I can do more of this …’

I stroked her hair and pulled her towards me for a kiss. She moaned under my mouth and kissed back, gently biting my bottom lip and running her hands up and down my back, setting my spine on fire.

‘Oh, and you can do more of that anytime.’

‘Matty? Can you hear me?’

Shit, I’d completely forgotten I’d been talking to Beth. I picked the phone up.

‘Sorry. Yep, we’ll be there, seven was it? Yep, see you then. Bye.’

Before she had a chance to squawk, I disconnected, threw the phone on the floor and went back to what I’d been doing.

Some time later, taking a break for lunch, which we were feeding each other like giggling adolescents, Carrie looked up at me.

‘You know, you really are very good in the bed department.’

‘Why thank you, C, you’re not so shabby yourself.’

At some point over the last breathtaking forty eight hours, I’d started calling Carrie ‘C’. I liked it, and she didn’t seem to mind.

‘No, I mean, where did you learn all that? Don’t tell me I’m not your first, I’d feel so … used.’

She put the back of her hand against her forehead and sank dramatically against the back of the sofa.

‘Ha ha, well, I’m sorry to suddenly be not the man you thought I was, but you’re not my first. I was a bit of a late starter, but I made up for lost time.’

‘How old?’

‘First time? Eighteen. Nearly nineteen, actually. You?’

‘Fifteen. So if you made up for lost time, does that mean there have been a lot?’

‘Er … does it really matter?’

‘Well that kind of answers my question, but no, I’m just interested. You seem to know your way around pretty well, I don’t think we’ve reached the end of your repertoire yet. You’ve either been out with a prostitute or had lots of women.’

‘Or read lots of books.’

‘What? You did not learn all that from a book.’

‘Not just one, no.’

‘You’re bloody kidding me.’

‘OK, maybe I am kidding a bit. To be honest, yeah, I suppose if I was going to count, there have been a lot. I don’t really do commitment, so I don’t let it go very far, so no one gets hurt, which means I’ve moved on every couple of weeks. I meant it about the books, though, to start with. I read loads, watched DVDs, worked out what to do, then when I got my chance I put it into practice, and it seemed to work. As time went on, I added bits I found out for myself, like this …’

I touched her breast and tweaked her nipple, rubbing my thumb across it afterwards to make it harden more,

‘… that’s all my own work.’

I looked into her face, and was surprised to see a frown.

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’

‘What did I say? Sorry, I should have told you there have been a few, but none of them have ever mattered … oh, I haven’t got anything. I get tested for everything every few months, just to make sure.’

‘Mm. No, it’s not that.’

‘C?’

‘What?’

‘What have I done? What did I say?’

She looked up again and the cloud had gone from her eyes, or maybe it had just been papered over with something else.

‘Nothing. Sorry. Just feeling a bit in awe of your vast experience. I’ve only ever been with two blokes.’

‘Really? But you’re so hot. Hang on, I thought you said you were fifteen?’

‘The first time, yeah, but it was at a party, on a pile of coats, and it was such an awful experience, and I thought I was pregnant afterwards although I wasn’t, and I didn’t want to try it again for a long time. Five years, in fact, when I met Martin.’

‘So your sexual experience to date has been spotty teenager, bully boy, and …’

‘And now you. Yes, before you ask, you win hands down.’

I shot both fists into the air in celebration.

‘He shoots, he scores. Oh, and I have to say, even though I might have to search a bit longer to make all the comparisons, I’ve never met anyone like you. You feel incredible, you’re so amazing, you might even be the – is that a drop of garlic dip on your chin? Allow me.’

I leaned over and licked the droplet off slowly, finding her lips with my tongue shortly afterwards. I hoped she hadn’t realised what I’d been about to say, how I’d nearly blown it by calling her the love of my life. She’d just broken up with Martin, and even having sex was not a very good idea just now. Having me declare stupid crap like that wasn’t going to help at all. So I licked her all over, with the help of more garlic dip, and took my mind off my almost-gaffe.

After lunch, the hotel kicked us out for a couple of hours, as we had hung the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door, and they felt a need to change the bedding and replenish the miniscule bottles of shampoo. It took another call from reception when we ignored the knocking on the door. I wondered if Jay’s ‘free whenever you want it’ offer would be rescinded in the wake of the hefty bills we had doubtless run up.

So we drove out to the beach and lay in the sun for a bit. We were surrounded by people, there was no way we could get up to anything untoward, but just being there, lying next to Carrie, close enough to touch her, allowed to touch her, unlike earlier in the week when it had just been perving from behind my sunglasses, was erotic enough.

Then Carrie hit on the idea of sun cream, and we spent quite a lot longer than was necessary rubbing factor thirty on each other’s backs. And fronts. And arms. And legs. And as near to bums as we dared. And when our allotted time was up, we went back and got sand and Ambre Solaire all over the newly hoovered carpet.

We just about made it to Jay’s on time, only because we didn’t want to spend any longer there than we needed to. I did at least recognise that if we were going back tomorrow, we needed to think about what we were going to do if we ran into Martin, and how we were going to keep Carrie safe, and that Beth would be a good person to help.

It had been the most phenomenal week, but now a bit of reality had to be let in, and it seemed like Carrie was feeling it too, as she was very quiet on the short drive. I turned the engine off as we pulled up outside the house, and turned to look at her.

‘Alright?’

‘Yeah. I can’t believe it’s nearly all over.’

‘Don’t think like that. In percentage terms, assuming we don’t actually leave until tomorrow evening, we’ve still got more than fourteen per cent of the week left. That’s plenty.’

‘Doesn’t sound like very much.’

‘How about in hours? Let’s not leave until at least seven tomorrow, then we’ve got twenty four hours left.’

‘But we won’t be able to stay in the hotel until then.’

‘No, probably not, but we can stay around here, do something really special. Twenty four whole hours, C.’

‘You’re right, that sounds better than fourteen per cent. Hey, you do know your numbers, don’t you.’

‘A levels in Maths, Pure Maths and Bloody Mind-Bogglingly Complicated Maths at your service, ma’am.’

‘Get out of here. Come on then, before I change my mind and drag you back to the hotel by your hair.’

‘Oh balls, let’s just do that instead.’

‘No, my mind is made up.’

‘Really?’

‘Yep. I’d much rather go and be preached at by your sister-in-law than shagging your brains out in our sumptuous hotel room. Goes without saying.’

‘You tease – oh sod it, here comes Cal, the game’s up. Out you get.’

I got out, scooped Cal up and walked up the path with him in my arms, not really listening while he chattered about SpongeBob Squarepants or some such shit, being more focussed on the sight of Carrie’s arse in her tight jeans as she walked in front of me. I was a hopeless case.

Beth was waiting just inside the front door, dispensing kisses as we arrived. Jay handed me a bottle of beer as I put Cal down, and gave Carrie a glass of water.

‘We’ve got plenty of other drinks, Carrie, but you do seem to like the tasteless stuff.’

‘It’s good for getting rid of impurities.’

‘Surely you don’t have any of those?’

‘No, Matt. That’s because I drink a lot of water.’

We went and sat in the living room while Jay and Beth dealt with Cal’s bedtime. Dec poked his head round the door.

‘You here again?’

‘It would seem so.’

‘Alright?’

‘Yup.’

And he was gone, the whole house reverberating with the slam of the front door as he went.

‘Fuckaduck, was that … four whole words?’

‘About that. You must be a good influence on him.’

‘Not sure I could cope with much more. Might have to start having a conversation with him next time I’m here.’

‘It would be a short one, I’m sure.’

‘Yeah. Something like ‘sup’ ‘not much’ ‘sick’ ‘laters’. I might have to practice.’

‘I can think of better things for you to practice.’

I arched an eyebrow. ‘Oh really?’

‘Mm. Not here though. Have a think over dinner.’

‘Oh I will. Are you sure there’s nothing I can practise here?’

‘Well …’

‘You’ve thought of something?’

She leaned over and kissed my cheek, then turned my face towards hers. I didn’t need any further hints, and by the time Jay and Beth came back downstairs, our faces were almost welded together. We hadn’t forgotten where we were entirely, but we were putting on a bit of a show.

‘Jesus, Matty. Give it a rest for five minutes? You’ve been at it for three whole days, according to Beth. Take a break.’

I looked up, disentangled myself from Carrie, ran my hands through my hair and looked guiltily at Beth, who was glaring at us. Carrie laughed, adjusted her clothing and smoothed her hair.

‘Sorry. He’s a bit irresistible.’

‘Yeah, about as irresistible as a three week old pizza, and about as appetising. Thanks for putting me off my tea, Matty.’

‘OK, Jay, we’ve stopped. Didn’t hear you come downstairs. I might have been deafened when the adolescent slammed the front door.’

‘What if Cal had been with us?’

‘Oh Beth, what if he had? We were only kissing.’

‘He’s not used to seeing … displays … like that.’

‘Well, we’ve both said sorry. It won’t happen again, not much else we can do.’

I sat back and refused to be told off like a naughty child any more.

‘When’s tea, then?’

‘Won’t be long. Fancy giving me a hand, Matty? I need a hollandaise sauce for the fish.’

‘Oh. Er … OK. Right there.’ I looked at Carrie. ‘Jay doesn’t bite, but if you need me, yell ‘help’.’

‘Cheers Matty.’

‘Are you saying you can make a holland sauce?’

‘Hollandaise. Yeah. I can cook a bit. Won’t be long. I expect Beth wants to give me the benefit of some pearls of wisdom in the privacy of the kitchen, probably about corrupting the young or some such shit.’

‘Matty, no swearing in the house.’

‘Yeah, I can just about take that from Beth, mate, but you’ve got no chance. Fuck off.’

And I went into the kitchen, grinning to myself, always loving it when Jay tried to get all parental on my arse and I managed to show him who was really the daddy.

Beth was at the kitchen table, surrounded by implements and recipe books.

‘I’ve found a recipe, and I think I’ve got all the ingredients, but I’ve been a bit disorganised.’

‘That doesn’t sound like you, Beth, you’ve usually got everything completely under control weeks in advance.’

‘Well you threw me off, coming down here at short notice, then being out of touch for days – oh sweetheart, are you sure you know what you’re doing?’

‘I’ve made hollandaise sauce before. Don’t even need a recipe book, thanks.’

‘I didn’t mean that. I meant with Carrie.’

‘I knew what you meant. And no, I don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing. Does anyone, ever? All I know is I’ve never felt like this before, about anyone, and she’s amazing, I love her –’

I clapped my hand over my mouth as I said it, wishing I could call the words back. Beth’s eyes were wide, then her face softened.

‘Oh Matty. I always said that when you fell, you’d fall hard and fast.’

‘Shit, Beth, I didn’t mean to say it. You can’t say anything, she can’t know, not yet.’

‘You’re right, sweetheart, it would just be another complication. I’m not usually one for hiding things, but I think this is something she doesn’t need to be worrying about, she’s got a tough few weeks coming up.’

‘Yeah.’

‘So you’re not going to reassure me that you know exactly what you’re doing and it’s all under control?’

‘Ha! Hardly.’

‘You’d better make me some hollandaise sauce instead, then.’

Over dinner, Beth mentioned another conversation she’d had with her social worker friend.

‘She said there’s a shelter in Stafford, maybe somewhere you can stay for a few weeks while you sort yourself out.’

I expected Carrie to react badly to this, but looked at her to see her nodding. I was panicked by the sound of a shelter, and what it might mean for Carrie and me.

‘Wait, Beth, do you mean a battered wives’ home?’

‘Oh Matty, they’re not called that anymore, they’re women’s refuges. For all sorts of women in all sorts of situations and all sorts of relationships.’

‘But Carrie doesn’t need that now. You’ve got me, haven’t you?’

I thought she might look at me gratefully, maybe smile and nod, but she looked pained, and spoke directly to Beth.

‘Do you know any details?’

‘What? No, C, you can stay with me. I mean, before, yeah my flat was too small for both of us, but now –’

‘Really, Matt? Wasn’t the reason we came down here so that Martin didn’t come round and find us together? What’s changed?’

‘But … you can’t just …’

‘Sweetheart, you keep saying you want Carrie to be safe. Maybe she needs help from other people as well, people who know what they’re doing in this type of situation, people who aren’t going to get both of you hurt by not thinking clearly. Carrie, my friend has the contact details of the local Women’s Org group, who can help you out with everything. They’ve got people on the phones twenty four hours a day. Feel free to call from here if you want to.’

Beth handed over a card, which Carrie placed on the table in front of her and stared at.

‘You should both know that if Carrie goes this route, and if she gets a place in the shelter, they won’t let men in. You won’t be able to see each other while she’s there. And they’ll probably advise that you don’t have any relationships while you’re getting sorted, Carrie. They can’t enforce it, of course, but it seems sensible.’

‘Holy shit, Beth. C, I can look after you, I’ll move, I’ll get a place with two bedrooms, I’ll –’

‘I’m sorry, Matt, I think – I kind of knew about this. Maybe it’s best, maybe it’ll give us time to catch our breath. This week has been a whirlwind, incredible, but you can’t get a new flat in a day, it’ll take weeks, and it’s too risky. Maybe, if they can’t help me right away, I won’t have any choice, but I think it’s best to do it properly, with people who know what they’re doing.’

‘But what about us?’

I half noticed Beth getting up, taking some plates with her, and cuffing Jay on the arm to make him do the same. All I could think was that I was losing Carrie before I’d found her, she was going to go somewhere they thought all men were abusers, and she’d end up hating me. I badly wanted to dissuade her, even though I knew there wasn’t really an alternative. She was right. If Martin found out where I lived, it would be bad for us both.

‘You said earlier that you don’t do commitment.’

‘What? When did I say that?’

‘When you were telling me about the millions of women you’ve had and why you’ve had them.’

‘Oh. But I meant then. I didn’t mean you.’

‘I’m being sensible. I’m thinking clearly, it’s taken a few days to get here, but I’m thinking about me. I don’t want you to commit yourself to me, not if you can’t stick to it. I don’t want to be a tie for you, and I don’t want to be hurt again so soon after all this. I need to be sure.’

‘I’ll never hurt you.’

‘Heard that one before.’

‘I’m nothing like him.’

‘No. But you have the potential to hurt me, whether you want to or not. Matt, you said a few days ago that you’d always be here for me.’

‘Yeah.’

‘So, are you changing your mind?’

‘No.’

‘Well, I’m not going anywhere either, not as far as we’re concerned. I need to sort myself out, I need to get somewhere to live, a way of supporting myself. I think these people,’ she picked up the card with the phone number on it, ‘might be able to help me do that. Then we can give us a go, a proper go, and we might even stand a chance.’

I nodded, unable to look at her, knowing she would be able to see the misery, the doubt I was feeling.

‘I’ve loved this week. You’re great. You’ve made me feel special, like I matter, like I’m worth bothering with, like I’m attractive. I haven’t felt like that for a long time. This week has helped me, you have no idea how much. But it’s been a bit unreal, hasn’t it. It’s time to go home and face it all now. This isn’t the end for us, it’s the beginning.’

‘It feels like the end.’

‘It’s the end of the week, and didn’t you say there’s still fourteen per cent left?’

‘Less than that, now, about thirteen.’

‘Well then, with your A level Bloody Mind-Bogglingly Complicated Maths, we can either spend that last thirteen per cent being miserable about what might or might not happen, or we can spend a hundred per cent of the rest of the week – and I like my number better, to be honest – being happy with each other and giving each other something to remember each other by.’

‘What, like a farewell gift?’

‘No, like a here’s what you’ll be missing, hurry back gift.’

‘Oh. That does sound better. I like your number better too. Hadn’t thought of that one, a hundred per cent of the rest of the week.’

‘OK then. Stop your whining. I’ve got a phone call to make, anywhere I can go to have some privacy?’

‘You can probably use Jay’s office. Jay?’

He appeared through the door so quickly, I suspected he’d been propelled by an eavesdropping Beth.

‘Yeah?’

‘Can Carrie use your office to make a phone call?’

‘Yeah sure, this way.’

He led her out into the hallway. Beth came in with a bowl of trifle.

‘Dessert, if you’re staying.’

‘Hm, tempting, but might not, all things considered.’

‘Is she ringing them?’

‘Yep.’

‘It’ll be OK, Matty.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because she’ll get the help she needs from these people. Isn’t that the priority here?’

‘I suppose.’

‘You knew what you were getting into, I did tell you –’

‘Please spare me the sodding I told you so, Beth.’

‘Sorry, sweetheart.’

‘But thanks for everything you’ve done. And thank your friend, too.’

‘Any time. I know lots of people, I’ve got friends for most occasions.’

‘I’m beginning to see the truth of that.’

‘What time do you think you’ll set off tomorrow?’

‘Don’t know, I think we have to check out at twelve. We talked about staying a bit longer, but it depends what they say to Carrie now.’

‘Enjoy it then. Make some memories.’

‘Yeah, got quite a few of those, some of them aren’t even of the bedroom.’

‘It’s not the be all and end all, Matty.’

‘Ha ha, you’re so middle-aged, Beth.’

She narrowed her eyes, and I knew I’d stung her, but I was unrepentant. She’d helped a lot, but because of her help I was going to lose Carrie, maybe for a few weeks, but maybe for longer, and maybe for good, and I wanted to hurt her just a little bit in return.

Jay wandered in with a beer. He offered one to me, but I was driving back, and didn’t want to risk being stopped.

‘Ooh, trifle. Haven’t you started it yet?’

‘Matty thinks they won’t be staying.’

‘No reason I can’t have some though, is there? Sometimes I love not playing, I can have desserts all week long if I like. Can’t you pack them off with some in a plastic box or something? I’m sure they’ll find something, or someone, to eat it off later.’

‘James, honestly.’

‘What? It’s not like we can’t all see they’re love’s young dream. Jesus, even I can see it, must be beaming out the TV or something.’

‘Did Carrie get through to anyone?’

‘Oh, I don’t know mate, I just showed her into the office, didn’t stick around to listen. She’s still in there though, so unless she’s leaving a really long message on the answerphone, she must have done.’

Carrie came out a while later, after Beth and I had sat and watched Jay slurp his way through two bowls of trifle. I smiled at her, and she tried a smile back, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.

‘Did you talk to someone? What did they say?’

‘I’m going to see them – er, they said tomorrow afternoon. We’ll have to leave earlier than we said. Sorry.’

‘No problem. We’ve still got a hundred per cent of the rest of the week.’

‘Yeah. Can we go?’

‘Sure. Thanks Beth, great feast again.’

‘Yeah, thanks Beth, you’ve been awesome.’

‘You’re welcome, sweetheart. Do you want to take some trifle back with you?’

Jay snorted, but looked as if he might have had a swift kick under the table from Beth.

‘Oh, no thanks, I don’t usually do dessert, and I’ve eaten far too much this week. Thanks though.’

Carrie stood behind me and put her hand on my shoulder.

‘OK then. Got everything?’

‘Everything I came with, which was you. Not leaving without that.’

‘Right, homewards. Or Scott Suitewards, for our last night of drawing glasses and moustaches and the odd really huge knob on all the pictures.’

‘What? Matty, you haven’t. If I get a bill, I swear –’

‘Relax, Jay. We’ve only drawn on the ones in the bathrooms. And the knobs are tiny – same as yours – so no one will ever see.’

‘He’s teasing, James. Honestly, how long have you been brothers? Sometimes it’s like you don’t know each other at all. So will you call in before you go?’

‘No, probably not, if we need to leg it back for Carrie’s appointment. Thanks for everything.’

I stood up and gave her a big hug, then shook Jay’s hand while Carrie hugged her too.

And then we were back at the hotel for our last night. But something had gone out of it all, there was a pall hanging over us, and although neither of us said anything, neither of us started anything, and before long I found myself feeling sleepy.

‘I might go to bed.’

‘Need some company?’

‘Always. I’m pretty beat though.’

‘That’s fine.’

I undressed got into bed and turned out the lights, hearing the door open a few minutes later. I listened to the rustling sounds of Carrie taking her clothes off, felt the mattress bounce slightly as she got in beside me, and felt her body press against me, her breasts, her hips, her thighs, moulding themselves to me, and her soft hands stroking my chest. I felt like crying; I nearly did. This could be the last time I felt this, this week could be all the time I was allotted with Carrie, by whoever did cosmic time allotting, and it wasn’t fair.

‘Hey, are you going to spend a hundred per cent of the rest of the week being miserable?’

‘Can’t help it. I feel like I’m losing you.’

‘No Matt. I don’t know what you think is going to happen, but you’re not losing me. The woman on the phone thought it was really positive that I’ve got someone like you looking out for me. She said there are some rules around involvement with men while they’re helping me, but they don’t discourage relationships altogether. If they give me a room in the refuge, it’ll only be for a few weeks or so, they’ll help me find somewhere else, they’ll be helping me to sort out what I want, so I’m strong enough to deal with it. I’ll be even better than now.’

‘Impossible. You’re already perfect.’

‘Don’t say that, Matt, you don’t know how far from the truth you are. Will you wait for me? Until I’m sorted?’

‘Yeah. Forever.’

‘Don’t promise things like that. Just promise until I’m sorted.’

‘Okay then. But will you promise …’

‘What?’

‘Not to go all feminist and man-hating, or go for couples counselling with Martin, or some such shit.’

Carrie laughed. ‘You don’t half get some daft ideas. OK, firstly I won’t be going anywhere with Martin, especially to couples counselling. And this organisation thing doesn’t seem to be particularly man-hating, it only hates the bad ones. You’re one of the good ones, you’re in.’

‘C?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Hold me.’

I turned over so we were facing each other, and as our arms went round each other, and we pulled each other closer, we kissed as if the world was ending, and we loved as if the world was ending, and in a way it was, this little week-long world we’d created down here in the south west of England, and we were never going to get it back. But she’d almost convinced me that there would be other worlds we could create, and as we moved against each other and into each other and felt the heat and the passion of each other, and as she did that just so, and I did this just like that, and we pulled each other to the edge and tumbled over it in raptures together, I started to believe it might not be the end of our world after all.

And so began Project Capture Carrie, third iteration, or 1.2 if you will. 1.0 had failed spectacularly and nearly got me beaten up by a meathead. 1.1 lasted a wonderful week in the west. 1.2 was going to be a longer process, requiring infinitely more patience on my part, a lot of will power, cold showers galore and a pillow to swear loudly into at regular intervals.

Carrie had been whisked away from her interview with the Women’s Org people into a safe house. I didn’t know where it was, what they’d said to her, what she’d told them. I didn’t know anything at all. She’d called me, shortly after I’d dropped her at the Women’ Org offices, to tell me she was giving up her mobile phone and wouldn’t be contacting me, or anyone, while she was there. She asked me not to speak, couldn’t give me any details. It was so quick. Just half an hour before, we’d been sitting nervously in my car, looking up at the windows trying to guess which one she’d be looking out of. I was still there, in the car, when she’d called, but I hadn’t seen her, even though she might have been standing looking at me.

It felt strange, to be suddenly without her. It felt like longer than a week that we’d been together, and I know we’d talked about what might happen, but it was suddenly real, too suddenly too real, and she felt ripped away from me.

I sat in my car for a long time, hoping to see her come out of the front door, but unless they’d disguised her as a middle-aged Indian woman or a teenage skateboarder, they must have taken her out of another door. My unnecessarily vivid imagination saw her under a blanket, being hustled into a windowless van. Or was that just serial killers?

Anyway, the reality was that she was gone for the time being, for the foreseeable, and at that moment there wasn’t much foreseeable for me without her.

I’d eventually driven away from the building, before a bunch of man-hating feminists decided to come and slash my tyres for stalking, and went home. I was a bit nervous about this as well, not knowing if I was going to have a front door or not when I got there. As I rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, I was relieved and a little surprised to find that not only was the door still there, but it didn’t even have a dent. Maybe he hadn’t worked out where I lived then.

As I was trying to find my keys in my pocket, Mrs Harding popped her head out. Good old Mrs Harding. She said she was deaf, but she could hear a potential for a good nosy through two doors and Cash in the Attic on full volume.

‘Oh, you’re back, Mark.’

And she always called me Mark. She knew it was one of the gospels, me being such a good boy and all.

‘Matt. Yep, I’m back.’

‘Did your friend find you?’

My blood seemed to freeze, as did my smile, and I tried not to look as scared as I felt.

‘Er, no, which friend is that, then?’

‘The chap who was here, he came a couple of times, banged on your door rather loudly, well he must have done for me to hear him. Then he banged on my door to see if I knew where you were. Said he needed to find you. He said it was urgent.’

‘Did you talk to him?’

‘Yes, nice chap. I told him I saw you go out with that young girl last Saturday, and you hadn’t been back since.’

Oh shit.

‘Did he, er, say his name at all?’

‘Oh, do you know, he did, but can I remember? It was one of those ordinary mannish sort of names, a bit like yours, Mark.’

‘Matt.’

‘No, it wasn’t Matt. Let me think now. Oh, I’ve got it. Andrew.’

What? Really? Oh, but she must have got his name wrong.

‘Andrew? Are you sure? What did he look like?’

I didn’t want to put the name Martin in her head, in case it made her mis-remember, but I doubted even Mrs Harding’s physical descriptions of Andrew versus Martin could be confused with each other.

‘Oh, he was just a man really, a bit like you, tall, hair going a bit thin, glasses. Had a woman with him, and a baby.’

Oh, well why the fuck didn’t you fucking well say that in the fucking first place, instead of scaring the living shit out of me before I’ve even got my key in the sodding door, you bloody useless old bat. Is what I screamed at her in my mind, but I rather shakily plastered on my best smile, thanked her and said I would give him a ring to stop him calling round and bothering her. And in my relief I wasn’t even annoyed that she’d said Andrew was like me with his thinning hair. Bloody cheek, my hair was all still firmly attached to my head.

When I got in, after pouring myself a steadying finger of scotch, I double-checked my phone for texts and emails, but there was nothing from Andrew, which was curious. He knew it was the best way to get hold of me. The message light was flashing on my landline answerphone, which was also unusual as only cold callers ever rang it and I only needed it for the Wi-Fi.

I tapped the ‘play’ button, and the electronic woman inside the phone told me I had seven new messages. Two were from a different electronic woman inside the phone excitedly telling me I’d won a holiday and if I just called this number I’d be in the tourist destination of my dreams within the week. Two were just static, and three were, indeed from Andrew, telling me he was in Stafford for a few days, he had some news, could he call round. The last one was time-stamped Thursday, so I’d missed him.

I’d kept in touch with Andrew since Uni. He’d moved to Aberystwyth when he got a post-grad job as a computer programmer with an insurance company, and had stayed there ever since, now head of the department, having met Karen, married her and recently had a little girl called … er … I want to say Rebecca. Let’s say Rebecca. Yeah, I’m a great mate.

Truth is, Andrew had been a great mate to me. All the crap with Cindy notwithstanding, we’d stayed friends at Uni, had used each other to talk to, take our frustrations out on, help through tough assignments, and afterwards we still called each other, fairly frequently, for chats, usually about Spurs, Star Wars and computer code, not much had changed, but occasionally one or other of us would need to get something off our chest, and we were comfortable enough for that to happen without too much macho nonsense.

It had kind of tailed off, two, maybe three, years previously when he met Karen. Obviously (I mean obviously now it had happened to me) when you meet the woman of your dreams, your mates take second place, and she should really be the one you talk to most, and who is your new best mate, at least that’s how I viewed it now, with my whole week’s worth of experience. But at the time I felt both the reduced frequency of his calls and the unavailability every time I suggested getting together as a bit of a slight. I’d been to his wedding, and judged Karen harshly on appearances. I’m sure she was a beautiful woman, with some lovely character traits, but she struck me as a bit … sorry ladies, prepare to throw things … plain, and compared to the vivacious Cindy, I couldn’t see what had attracted him to her. Still, it wasn’t my life, and so as was becoming customary at weddings for me, I snogged a bridesmaid, felt her up and didn’t call her. Well, it wasn’t like I was going to be going back, was it?

Andrew and I had continued emailing and texting whilst managing to never quite get round to visiting since he got married. It felt like enough.

So, a bit perplexed as to why Andrew hadn’t called my mobile or emailed me, I checked the number left on the answer machine, and dialled it. It was a hotel in Stafford, and the receptionist confirmed that Mr Distock had checked out yesterday morning. I wondered why he hadn’t stayed with his parents, but from what I remembered they’d moved to a smaller house when Andrew left home, and maybe didn’t have room for his family. He would have gone back to Aberystwyth after his visit.

I dialled his home number, three times, and got the long unobtainable tone each time. I dialled his mobile number, and got a message saying ‘this number does not exist’. I checked it several times, and assured the electronic woman on the end of the line that it did sodding well exist, look it’s here in my contacts, but she didn’t seem to be listening to me. It was really weird, like he’d vanished off the face of the earth on Thursday. Still, if he really wanted to talk to me, if he’d moved and changed his mobile, he’d be in touch before too long.

I sent him an email, and for good measure copied it to his work email address, only for the one to his personal account to bounce back with another ‘does not exist’ message, and the one to work to come back with an automated ‘Andrew Distock no longer works for Largesse Insurance’. I was now out of options, and he was just going to have to contact me when he could.

Chasing around trying to find Andrew took me a while, another finger of scotch and a couple of beers, following which I was feeling decidedly more mellow.

I thumbed through some of my photos from the week. Carrie in a bikini. Carrie talking to a penguin. Carrie red-faced and happy at the top of a hill. Carrie wearing nothing at all, smiling up at me.

God I missed her. It had only been – not even three hours yet. I couldn’t help wondering what she was doing, who she was talking to, how things were going for her. I couldn’t help wanting her.

I thought about another glass of scotch, but it always made me maudlin, and I was depressed enough already. Mum. That’s what I needed.

‘Hello dear.’

‘Hi Mum. Sorry, I’ve been away, meant to ring you.’

‘Yes, I’ve talked to Jameson. He told me you were down there.’

There was a silence, during which I felt all sorts of guilt-laden conversations take place, subconsciously.

‘Did he? What else did he tell you?’

‘Oh, do you mean about your young lady?’

I should have expected it, I suppose. If Jay hadn’t told her in some twisted fraternal revenge for cheeking him when I was twelve or something, Beth would have done because she was genetically incapable of keeping her nose out of anything, and thought everyone should be as happy to share bloody everything about their lives as she apparently was.

‘Well, yeah, kind of, I suppose. Trust Jay to blab.’

‘He didn’t blab, dear, it just came up in conversation. I asked if he’d heard from you, because I hadn’t for a while, not even a text, and I was just a wee bit worried when I couldn’t get you at home, although obviously you’re a big boy now –’

‘And what did he say?’

‘Oh I don’t remember his exact words, just that you’d been a little preoccupied with a friend you’d brought down to Devon to escape for a few days. Such a lovely word for a holiday, isn’t it, dear, ‘escape’. And so true of that part of the world.’

‘Yeah, it was a bit more literal, Mum. And you could have texted me, if you were really worried, or rung my mobile.’

But I knew she wouldn’t have done. Mobiles were for the receiving of texts from sons and daughters-in-law, and not for replying or calling oneself, of any description. To be fair to her, her arthritic fingers were a bit gnarly, and she couldn’t really do the small keys.

‘Are you in later? I could come round. Got some pictures to show you.’

Although I was going to have to severely edit out a lot of the ones taken in the last couple of days, as they showed rather a lot more of Carrie, and indeed me, than anyone would have been comfortable with.

‘Oh Matthew, that would be lovely. There’s that new talent programme on that you love to make fun of, you could bring some fish and chips over, maybe.’

‘Sounds great, Mum. See you later.’

And that was how I happened to be out when Martin finally worked out how to get my address from Carrie’s computer, and came crashing through my front door to find me.

4. Come away with me

In which Matty and Carrie escape a problem only to run into a whole new set of complications.

Matt

I pulled up outside Dave’s Café, a delightfully unmodern greasy spoon with no parking outside. As it had taken me eighteen minutes to get there, I didn’t worry too much about parking on the double yellow lines, ditched the car and ran into the café.

Carrie was nowhere to be seen. Shit, I’d taken too long and she’d lost her nerve and gone back to him. I was such a pillock, why hadn’t I just given myself five more minutes? She’d still be here and – the door to the toilets opened and Carrie looked out warily. The relief that crossed her face when she saw me was probably mirrored on my own, and I crossed the floor to her quickly. When I reached her, I had to stop myself sweeping her into my arms; I hadn’t realised just how much I’d missed her, how unbelievably good it was to see her again, but she’d called me as a friend, she was in trouble, and she didn’t need me complicating matters just now. I stopped in front her, a completely inappropriate soppy grin on my face.

‘I thought you’d gone.’

‘Sorry. I thought I saw Martin through the window. I was hiding out. Thank you for coming.’

I hadn’t really got any further than meeting her in the café, in my mind, events having happened in a bit of rush, and now it occurred to me that I didn’t have a plan. I’d told her to pack some things, but didn’t know if she’d want to stay with me or not. Maybe the most important thing was to get out of the neighbourhood where she lived, thus diminishing the chances of running into muscle boy Martin.

‘Shall we go back to my place, decide what to do?’

Carrie nodded, seeming happy for me to make decisions for her at this point.

‘Come on then.’

I led the way to my car, pulling my phone out and sending a quick text to Mercy.

‘So sorry, Merce. Let me have the bill for the taxi. Mx’

I could try to rectify at least some of the disaster. Before I’d got home, I had her reply.

‘Have own friends 2 rescue me. Fuck u.’

So much for rectifying anything. Another one to chalk up to experience. Carrie had been silent for the journey until then, but must have seen the look on my face.

‘Problems?’

‘Er, not any more. Nothing for you to worry about. Here we are then. It’s a bit small, but it’s home.’

I picked up Carrie’s small bag and led her up the stairs to the small flat where I lived. I saw her expression when she realised there was only one bedroom, and I knew that staying with me wasn’t going to be an option for her.

‘Right, first things first, kettle on, cup of tea. Milk and sugar?’

‘Have you got anything herbal?’

‘Here.’

I handed her a tin full of fruit and herbal teas and she picked one out.

‘You’re very tidy.’

‘Am I? Blame my mum. She drilled it into me when I was little. Did a good job, can’t bear mess.’

‘I don’t really know what I’m doing here.’

Carrie was still standing just inside the door, which to be fair wasn’t that far from the rest of the flat, but she looked ill at ease, and I was suddenly worried that one wrong word would chase her away.

‘Come and sit down. Tell me about it?’

I beckoned her over to the sofa, which was a two-seater, nice and cosy for two people who knew each other well, but uncomfortable for two people who didn’t, one of who fancied the pants off the other, the other of who was aware of that but had just been through some sort of traumatic event.

I sat on the floor, just so there were no mixed messages or crossed wires, or mistaken nudges with a thigh. Carrie crossed the room slowly and sat down gingerly, perching on the edge of the seat, looking for all the world as if she wanted to run away. I got up again, made the tea, took the mugs over, and resumed my place on the floor.

‘Just talk to me, Carrie.’

‘I don’t know what to say. It all feels so stupid now.’

‘Well, why don’t you tell me about it, and we can decide after that if it’s stupid or not, and if it is, I can take you home, and if it isn’t, then we can think about what to do.’

The look of sheer panic that gripped her face when I mentioned taking her home told me it wasn’t stupid.

I decided to let her tell me about it in her own time, to try not to rush things. I was completely out of my comfort zone, never having met anyone before who had left someone they were scared of and asked me for help, and as well as giving Carrie time, I felt like I needed time to absorb it too. She kept her eyes fixed on the floor for a while, then looked up at me and held my gaze.

‘He’s just so jealous, it happens every term, every time there’s a new class, he comes afterwards to check everyone out, then scares off anyone he thinks is a threat. This time, with you, he just wouldn’t let it go, even when you left, even when he came every week afterwards just to make sure, he just kept going on and on. He was convinced I was still seeing you, that something was going on behind his back, and today, he just … he was worse than I’ve ever seen him. I think he’s got some real problems. He thought he’d seen you out of the window, and he went downstairs to fight you or something, but when you weren’t there he convinced himself you’d seen him coming, and run away. You weren’t there were you?’

‘No! I didn’t even know where you lived until you called me. And I was on top of Potter Hill, nowhere near you. He sounds seriously deranged.’

‘He came back up to the flat, with a right cob on, then started throwing his weight around.’

‘He hurt you?’

‘No, not really, just telling me what I was and wasn’t allowed to do. I tried to leave, to walk out, just get a bit of distance, and he grabbed the door out of my hand and slammed it shut. It wrenched my arm a bit. He told me I wasn’t allowed to leave the flat unless it’s with him.’

‘What? You didn’t stand for that, surely.’

‘Well no, obviously, but he was really laying down the law, all kind of ‘you’re my woman and what I say goes’, worse than he’s been before. He didn’t hurt me, but he did say I should do as I was told or it wouldn’t be pretty.’

‘Fucking bastard.’

‘Yeah, well, he meant it. It was the look on his face when he said it, it really scared me. I just imagined being locked up there in the flat forever, not able to go out on my own. He’s capable of doing it – you’ve seen how he uses his muscle. I think he’s on steroids or something, they’re messing with his head.’

‘Holy shit.’

‘Yeah. Anyway, he went out again, to the gym, it’s always to the gym, and I was so relieved to have some peace from all the intensity, but then he said I’d better be there when he came back, if I knew what was good for me.’

Oh yeah, I’d been on the end of that ‘if you know what’s good for you’ speech too.

‘And that’s when I called you. It just seemed to have got out of hand. He’ll be back by now, he’ll know I’ve gone.’

‘Have you? Gone, I mean.’

‘I don’t think I can go back.’

I inwardly fist-pumped, but kept my expression neutral.

‘Does he know where I live?’

‘I suppose it’s a possibility. All the details from my classes, addresses and stuff, are on my computer. He could find out if he wanted to.’

Shit, so we weren’t safe here, either. Was I building this up out of proportion? It didn’t feel like it. Martin had threatened me, and now he’d threatened Carrie, and he seemed like the sort of bloke who thought with his abs and pecs rather than his brain. If he found out where I lived, I didn’t fancy either of our chances if he got here and found us together, however innocently.

‘It would be bad if he turns up here and finds you here too, especially if he’s been making up fantasies about us.’

‘Well I suppose it wasn’t all fantasy on his part.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well I know you were attracted to me.’ Oh, that, OK. ‘It … wasn’t all one way.’

‘Holy shit, Carrie. Did you tell him that?’

‘No, of course not, I’m not stupid. But neither is he. Maybe I talked about you too much, maybe I shouldn’t have told him about you calling yourself Cute Arse that time after my interview. Oh bloody hellfire, this is such a mess.’

‘Do you love him?’

Carrie was silent for a minute, looking down at her hands and fiddling with a ring.

‘I did, in the beginning. I don’t know, now. Can you love someone you’re scared of?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘But you’re right, I shouldn’t stay here, he’ll go mental if he does come round and I’m here. I should go.’

‘Where will you go?’

The fact that she had called me, rather than a close girl friend, told me that she didn’t have anyone else. She hung her head.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Have you got any family nearby?’

Carrie laughed bitterly. ‘Just my mum, but unless I’m delivering money to buy the next bottle of booze, she’s not interested.’

‘So you couldn’t stay with her, then?’

‘Couldn’t, wouldn’t.’

‘Friends?’

Again, she wouldn’t meet my eyes as she answered.

‘He’s chased them all away, called them interfering do-gooders, scared them off with his bullying. Eventually they all got fed up trying to convince me he’s no good for me, and there’s no one left I can call on now. Except you.’

She looked up, a plea in her eyes, and my heart melted. No way was I going to turf her out, but no way were we just going to stay here, waiting for Martin to come along and kick the door down. Desperate times, desperate measures.

‘Have you ever been to Devon?’

‘What?’

‘Have you?’

‘Not since I was little, on holiday.’

‘Well maybe it’s time for a jaunt.’

‘What?’

‘My brother lives down there, I’m not sure they’ve got room for us, but I’m overdue a visit, and Beth, his wife, would be great at helping you sort all this out. We can get a B and B, separate rooms, just so you can have a break, without having to worry about bumping into Martin, or him coming round here, sort yourself out a bit. What do you say?’

She looked at me again, hopefully, as if I was offering her the winning ticket in the Lottery.

‘It would be good to escape for a bit.’

‘Sorted then.’

‘But I haven’t got much stuff with me, I didn’t have time. I’ve only got a change of underwear and a toothbrush.’

I waved that away as inconsequential.

‘You can either borrow stuff off Beth, or we can buy you stuff. We’ll sort it when we get there. Seriously? You’re up for it?’

‘Yeah. Why not.’

‘Great. I’ll just call them.’

‘Can I use your loo?’

‘Sure – that door.’

I got my phone out and pressed Jay’s name.

‘Jay Scott.’

‘Hey, it’s me.’

‘Matty! What have we done to deserve such an honour?’

‘Er, I need a favour.’

‘Oh, not just calling to find out how we all are, then?’

‘Obviously, would love to chat for hours, know how much you love a good gossip, but a bit short on time. I don’t suppose you’ve got room to put me and a friend up for a few days?’

‘Ah, no mate, sorry, not unless you’re happy on the sofa. Now Dec’s here we’ve got no spare room.’

Bugger, I’d forgotten about their lodger, the teenage rugby protégé. I would have been happy on the sofa with Carrie in the spare room, but it looked like it was going to be a B and B.

‘OK, no problem. We’re coming down today, you don’t know any good B and Bs do you?’

‘Does it have to be B and B? I could get you discount on a room in the big hotel near Raiders Stadium.’

‘Two rooms.’

‘Really? I thought when you said ‘friend’, you meant “friend”, as in –’

‘Yeah, very funny. Friends, as in separate rooms. That’d be great, though, the discount. Can you book for us? A week, from tonight?’

‘Sure. Impulse holiday is it?’

‘Kind of. I’ll explain when we get there. Are you in tonight?’

‘Mate, we’ve got a three year old. We’re always in.’

Three year old Cal, my nephew, was a great kid and I really didn’t see as much of him as a doting uncle should. Mum was always going down there to visit, coming back with pictures and stories about what he’d got up to. Maybe visiting Jay and Beth would help redress the balance a little.

‘Good, we’ll see you later then.’

‘Name?’

‘What?’

‘Your friend’s name? I’ll get in trouble if I haven’t asked, you know what Beth’s like.’

‘Oh. Carrie.’

‘Woman, then.’

‘Well spotted.’

‘Potential?’

‘Piss off, Jay. See you later.’

I disconnected, to the sound of Jay laughing, as Carrie came out of the loo.

‘All sorted. My brother hasn’t got room, I forgot they’ve taken in some teenage stray, but he can get us discount at a hotel nearby, Raiders privileges.’

‘What privileges?’

‘Raiders. They’re a rugby team. My brother is a coach.’

‘Oh. I didn’t realise. That’s great. Thank you.’

‘Are you ready, then?’

‘Yes, as I’ll ever be. This is weird.’

‘Yeah. But let’s just go with it. If it’s too weird, we can always come back, but maybe being away from here will be good. I said a week – can you get time off work?’

‘I don’t work in the summer holidays. That’s another thing Martin has over me – I can only pay my way when I’m working. How about you, though?’

‘It’ll be fine, I’m due some leave. I’m pretty up to date with things. I can always do stuff when I’m down there, if I take my iPad.’

And so we left, me locking up as securely as I could, worrying a little bit about old Mrs Harding next door, and what might happen if she came out for a nose while Martin was trying to find me, but there wasn’t much I could do about it without calling to see her and further delaying us with long explanations and repetitions for her deafness. I didn’t pack much beyond a few pairs of boxers and some toiletries. Carrie was going to need to go shopping, no reason I shouldn’t too, my pathological dislike of city centres notwithstanding.

Carrie was quiet for the first part of the journey. I thought it best to let her talk when she wanted to, but not to press her too much. She was going to be subjected to enough of an interrogation when she met Beth, and I thought I’d better prepare her.

‘My sister-in-law, Beth, she’s pretty bossy, but I think she’ll be able to help us figure out what to do.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, when my mum got arthritis, she was great, sorted out stuff for her, got things moving.’

‘I haven’t got arthritis.’

‘No, of course not, but it’s a different type of … trauma … I suppose, isn’t it.’

‘I suppose. Have they been married long?’

‘About four years. They’ve got a little boy, oh, and a big boy now as well.’

I launched into a detailed account of Cal and Dec, how great Cal was, with his blond ringlets, serious grey eyes and how he couldn’t say Uncle when he was younger, so I was Unca Matty. And how, about a year ago now, Jay and Beth had taken in a young lad who was newly signed by Raiders, who had no parents and needed temporary accommodation, and how he’d stayed, and looked like staying for the foreseeable.

I’d only met Dec a couple times; he was a typical teenager, in that people over the age of twenty were old age pensioners to him and not worthy of his notice. The first time I met him, shortly after he’d arrived, he’d been sullen, rude and done his best to annoy me. It had worked. But apparently Beth had worked her magic on him, and when I visited again later in the year, although I didn’t see much of him, he seemed to have less of a bad attitude.

Carrie seemed to relax as I burbled on, more comfortable with chatter than with serious talk. I looked over about an hour into the journey, and she was asleep. Or at least had her eyes closed and her head was leaning against the headrest.

As I drove I reflected on what a mad situation I had got myself into. Running away to Devon wasn’t going to solve anything in the long run. We were going to have to go back to Stafford in a few days, Martin would still be there, still need dealing with, Carrie would still need somewhere to live. All I had done was postpone it all in a fit of protective ardour. And possibly with less virtuous motives behind it too.

It hadn’t escaped me that spending time with Carrie would help us to get to know each other. She had as good as admitted that she was attracted to me, and some exclusive time together might help things along a little. I hoped I could strike the right balance between friend and something more without freaking her out and scaring her off. I would just have to ensure that my baser urges remained well hidden, and I that made no moves on her without being expressly invited. Looking at the beautiful woman sleeping beside me, a slight frown dimpling her forehead, that wasn’t going to be easy.

I pulled the car up outside Jay’s big house at the end of the cul-de-sac at about six o’clock. The front door opened and I saw Beth framed in the doorway, as an excited Cal ran down the path towards me. I got out of the car and scooped him up as he squealed, wriggling as I held him over my head, making him squeal even louder. He’d grown quite a bit since the last time I saw him and I couldn’t hold him like that for long, so tucked him onto my hip.

‘Unca Matty sausage for tea.’

‘That’s great mate. Let’s take you to Mummy for a minute, I need to get something out of the car.’

Beth took Cal from me, while giving me a quizzical raise of her eyebrows and looking pointedly at Carrie, who was still in the car. Ignoring Beth, I went round to the passenger door and opened it.

‘OK?’

‘Bit nervous. I don’t know these people.’

‘Not yet. Won’t take long. Beth’s a nosy cow, Jay’s a lazy sod, Cal’s three and a half and Dec’s a teenager. But I doubt you’ll see much of him anyway.’

‘I don’t know what I’m doing here.’

‘We’re escaping. Together. Think of it as like … an adventure. We’ll explore Devon, go to the seaside, eat ice-cream, get charged exorbitant amounts to see touristy shit. The price we pay is having to spend a bit of time with my family. At least we’re not staying with them. We can leave whenever you like, go to the hotel Jay’s arranged. Five minutes, if that’s all you can stand. At least come and say hello? It’ll save me a long phone call from the chronically curious Beth Scott.’

‘Really? Five minutes?’

‘Give it a shot. Stage one of the adventure?’

She gave me a weak smile and nodded. I held out my hand and helped her out of the car. When I looked up, Jay was standing at the front door with Beth and Cal, looking for all the world like the family unit they were.

I thought, as I walked up the path with Carrie, how different Jay’s life was from mine, how different his goals, his priorities were. It was almost as if we were from different families. But I also recognised how much easier I was with those differences now, how much less it irritated me that he was bigger and stronger, spent a lot of his life in the spotlight, that he was a family man. I’d chosen my own way, and it wasn’t the same as his, and that was OK.

‘This is Carrie. Carrie, you’ll probably have worked out by now that this is Beth, Jay and Cal.’

‘Otherwise known as nosy cow, lazy sod and three and a half?’

There was a short, stunned silence as Carrie’s forthrightness sunk in, then Beth laughed.

‘I see Matty’s given you the lowdown on our personality traits. Come on in, Carrie. Tea’s almost ready.’

She turned and went in, heading towards the kitchen. Jay waved us through into the lounge and pointed at the sofa.

‘I can’t believe you told your friend I’m a lazy sod.’

‘Can’t you? Really? Search your soul, Jay, the truth will out.’

‘Daddy, what lacy sold?’

‘Now look what you’ve done, I’ll be in the doghouse for that. Nothing, Cal, just grown up words.’

‘Lacy sold lacy sold’

‘Yep, lacy sold, your Daddy’s a big old lacy sold. Drink, you two?’

‘Beer please.’

‘Goes without saying, Matty. Carrie – wine, something stronger, something softer, what can I get you?’

‘Water would be great.’

‘Oh, OK. Not sure we’ve got any, have to check with Beth.’

He gave Carrie a wink and went off to sort the drinks.

I leaned over to Carrie, who was hugging the end of the sofa nearest to the door as if she thought someone was going to try to chain her to it and she’d need to make a swift exit.

‘See, they’re not so bad. And thanks for telling them what I called them. Big help.’

‘It seemed to break the ice.’

‘It certainly did that. You’ll probably have a few chunks in your water, if Jay can locate the tap. He’s not great at navigating the kitchen.’

Cal, who had been standing by me, leaning on my knee, looking solemnly at Carrie without speaking, climbed on the sofa and deposited himself in my lap.

‘Hey mate. How’s life?’

‘What you mean?’

‘Er … is everything good in the world of Cal?’

‘What you mean?’

‘I think what your Unca Matty is trying to say is, have you done anything good today?’

‘Hey, you speak kid. Impressive.’

Cal nodded, seeming to be thinking.

‘I do a poo. In the big boys’ toilet.’

‘Whoa, Cal. Clever you. Is there no end to your talents?’

‘What you mean?’

‘Oh boy, I’m going to have to take whatever class you took in kid, aren’t I?

‘Yeah. Stop using fancy words, he won’t understand them. That’s the class.’

‘Oh. Thank you for passing on your wisdom so succinctly.’

‘You like it, don’t you, words and stuff.’

‘I suppose I do. Is it annoying?’

‘Not to me, I quite like it, but a three year old might find it a bit much.’

Jay came in with our drinks, we had tea at the table – sausages, as predicted by Cal – then Beth put Cal to bed. Dec, the teenage lodger, poked his head round the door, saw me, nodded and said ‘Alright’, although I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement, then disappeared back from whence he came.

I noted that Carrie had lasted longer than five minutes, and still hadn’t asked to leave. She was looking more comfortable, although none of us had yet broached the reason for our unexpected visit. Chat over tea had been general catching up; family stuff (how Cal was getting on at pre-school), rugby stuff (how Jay was getting on at not playing and being a coach instead), my job (how I was getting on at not doing a spectacular job in a part of the world more exotic than Stafford), carefully keeping away from asking Carrie anything about herself. Beth came downstairs after a while, sighed and plonked herself down on one of the enormous sofas.

‘So, what’s all this about, then?’

‘What? Can’t a bloke just visit his brother and favourite sister-in-law when he feels like it?’

‘You know you’re welcome anytime Matty. You also know what I mean. Come on, give.’

I looked at Carrie, who had gone pale and was looking down at her hands and fiddling with a ring.

‘Do you want me to say?’

She nodded, still looking down at her hands.

‘OK, but you’ll have to chip in if I get anything wrong.’

Another small nod.

‘Carrie’s boyfriend has been threatening her, she was scared, she left. I picked her up and brought her to mine, but we were worried he’d find us, so we’ve come down here to think about what to do. Is that it in a nutshell, Carrie?’

Another nod.

‘Oh Carrie. Has he done anything? Hurt you?’

‘No. Not really. Maybe small things, pinches, pulling my hair.’

This was news to me, but I kept my expression bland and stopped myself from rushing out to the car, driving back to Stafford and beating the shit out of him.

‘That’s not small, sweetheart. It’s the repertoire of a bully. Small jabs, little hurts, to let you know who’s in charge. What else has he done?’

‘I, er, he …’

Carrie looked at me imploringly. I took over.

‘I don’t know the whole story, but he seems to have reduced her life to just him, alienated her friends, controlling who goes to her bloody yoga classes even; he gave me the gangster treatment to stop me going. He’s paranoid about Carrie seeing other people, and he’d just announced that she wasn’t allowed to leave their flat without him. That’s when you rang me, wasn’t it?’

Carrie nodded, but didn’t say anything.

‘Oh sweetheart. It sounds like you got out just in time, it must have been very stressful.’

‘Wait, Matty, you’ve been doing yoga?’

‘Yeah, focus Jay. Not important right now.’

‘No, I grant you that, OK, but we’ll explore it later, for definite.’

‘Matty, you’ve obviously met this man. What’s he like?’

I glanced at Carrie. I didn’t hold a very high opinion of Martin, but he was her boyfriend, had been until earlier today, she’d loved him, I thought carefully about how I was going to give a balanced view of the bastard.

‘Big, strong bloke. Serious muscle. Carrie thinks he’s taking steroids. Nice line in intimidation.’

I left out the bit about him being the scum of the earth, the worst type of cowardly fucking bastard for what he’d done to her. It wouldn’t have been helpful.

‘He’s been good to me.’

Carrie’s voice was small and uncertain.

‘He’s helped me out, with money, with my mum. He’s always been there.’

‘Of course, Carrie.’

Beth’s voice was soothing.

‘If he hadn’t been good to you, you wouldn’t have stayed, would you? These things creep up on you, he changes bit by bit, you accept things you wouldn’t normally stand for because he’s been good to you. No one’s saying there haven’t been good times. Is it over between you, or do you want to go back to him?’

Carrie looked up, eyes wide and startled, and then a hint of indecision.

‘I … don’t know.’

‘What? You are joking, Carrie, there’s no way you can go back to him, he’s an arse-wipe, not fit to clean your fucking shoes.’

‘Matty. Stop it. Carrie has to consider it, what she wants, what the consequences are. She has to make her own decision. You two aren’t … together are you?’

‘What? No!’

My denial must have been more vehement than it needed to be as it elicited a raised eyebrow from both Beth and Jay.

‘I’m her friend. Just friends. Martin had this twisted idea there was something going on, but we hadn’t seen each other since I left the yoga class.’

I ignored Jay’s snigger.

‘He was seriously delusional.’

‘Well, maybe it needs to stay that way, Matty. Carrie, you need a clear head, time to think, consider your options. I think Matty did the right thing bringing you down here, it’s ideal, away from everything, everyone, space, time. If you need to talk, we’re here.’

Carrie nodded. ‘Thank you. Actually, Matt, I’m really tired. Can we go soon?’

‘Yeah, course. Jay, did you manage to book us a couple of rooms at the hotel?’

A smug grin crossed Jay’s face.

‘Yeah. Best rooms in the place.’

‘What have you done?’

‘Nothing! You’re so suspicious, little bro. Just followed your instructions.’

I gave him a scowl, to let him know how annoyed I’d be if he’d done anything stupid, like the bridal suite.

‘OK, thanks then.’

I stood up and turned to Carrie.

‘Shall we?’

It wasn’t a long journey; the hotel was really close to Jay’s house. Carrie turned to me as I got in and shut the driver’s door.

‘You’re right, she is a nosy cow.’

‘Did warn you.’

‘I like her, though, she says what she thinks. Your brother doesn’t say much, does he.’

‘Not noticeably.’

‘I expect you make up for it in the chat department.’

‘A distinct possibility.’

‘And your little nephew, with all that curly blonde hair, and his eyes are just like yours.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, big and grey. He’s a cutie.’

I tried to work out what she was saying, and decided things were already complicated enough without me finding backhanded compliments in simple statements. Beth had clearly warned me that getting involved with Carrie wouldn’t be a good idea at the moment, and I regretfully concurred.

‘He’s certainly a little heart-breaker. He’s been married twice and looking for wife number three.’

‘What?’

‘Nursery school. Hotbed of lunchtime weddings. And divorces by the sounds of it. You can’t say kids don’t get an early grounding in the intricacies of the adult world.’

‘Ha ha, no I guess not. Can we go to the beach tomorrow?’

‘Great idea. Although, I think I’m going to need to go shopping first, I didn’t bring much with me.’

‘Hm, me too. OK, shops, beach. Plan.’

I settled comfortably into the car seat, looking forward to spending time with Carrie, having her to myself for a whole week, with no pressure, getting to know her, her getting to know me.

‘Plan indeed. Oh, look, that’s it there, with the big blue sign shining into space.’

‘Swanky. Are you sure it’s not going to be really expensive? I haven’t got much money.’

‘Jay said discount. I’m hoping my tight-arse brother will know that should mean barely costing anything at all.’

We parked, grabbed our stuff from the boot and walked into reception, trying not to goggle at the opulence.

‘Hello, can I help you?’

‘Yeah, we’ve got two rooms booked in the name of Scott.’

‘Ah, yes sir. You’re in the Scott Suite. Here is your key, Sebastian will take your bags.’

‘Oh, that’s OK, our bags aren’t very heavy. Save Sebastian for someone with serious luggage.’

The lurking Sebastian looked seriously grumpy at missing out on a tip for carrying my boxers and Carrie’s toothbrush up in the lift.

‘Did you say the … er … Scott Suite? I asked my brother to book two rooms.’

‘Yes, sir, there are two bedrooms in the suite. We are always honoured to have members of Mr Scott’s family staying with us. Mr Scott wished me to tell you that the room is complimentary.’

‘What … free? Or just going to be really really nice about us?’

The woman behind the reception desk kept a stony face.

‘There will be no charge, sir.’

‘Whoa. Way to go Jay. Cheers then.’

‘Will sir and madam be requiring breakfast in the suite tomorrow?’

‘Is that free too?’

I was aware I was pushing the boundaries of polite behaviour when it came to such a posh hotel. It really didn’t ‘do’ to be so open about not wanting to pay for stuff.

‘All meals, beverages, snacks and services are included, sir.’

‘Seriously? Holy shit. In that case, yes, breakfast, full English, thank you very much.’

‘Enjoy your stay, sir, madam.’

‘Oh, you have no idea how much.’

I walked off to the lift, a big smile on my face. Jay’s idea of a discount was incredible.

‘You look pleased with yourself.’

‘Did you hear that? Free room and board. Anything from the mini-bar. Meals included. Here! Here is serious dosh.’

‘Did Jay pay for it, do you think?’

Bugger, hadn’t thought of that. Didn’t want to be beholden to the older brother because he thought I couldn’t pay my way. I’d have to check with him tomorrow.

‘No idea. Top floor please.’

We got out on the top floor, walking past the outstretched hand of the lift boy with innocent smiles on our faces. I wasn’t intending to get stung for tips just because we were staying for free. We walked to the room, opened the door, and –

‘Holy shit. You bastard, Jay.’

The walls of the main living area were plastered with framed, poster sized signed photos of Jay from all eras of his rugby career. Some from his Royals days, via his time with TomCats, some in an England shirt, then Raiders, and one in his coaching regalia. A quick look in the bedrooms uncovered more of the same in both.

‘I’m not going to get any sleep in here.’

‘Your brother’s quite famous, isn’t he.’

‘Yeah, whatever.’

‘This one, here, did he play for England, then?’

‘Might have.’

‘He was quite cute in his time, wasn’t he.’

‘Some may say so.’

‘Aw, are you jealous?’

‘No, got over it a long time ago. Just don’t particularly want his ugly mug gurning down at me all day and night. No wonder it was free, I doubt you’d get anyone to pay to stay in here.’

‘So you didn’t know he had a suite named after him in the local nobby hotel?’

‘He must have neglected to mention it.’

‘Modesty, I admire that in a man.’

‘Yeah, that’s why he didn’t tell me, too modest.’

My phone pinged with a text. Jay. What a surprise.

‘How do u like the room?’

‘It’ll b gr8 once housekeeping have removed all the offensive pictures some1 left behind.’

‘LOL enjoy yr stay. Think of me.’

‘Bit hard 2 think about any1 else.’

‘Job done, then.’

Well, just for that, Jay could pay, if indeed he had, and I was going to charge his credit card to the hilt with mini-bar, room service, laundry – if it was a performable service, I was going to get it performed. I looked around at the pictures. They were screwed to the wall, so I couldn’t even turn them round. Sighing, I turned to Carrie.

‘You choose which room you want, I’m happy in either. No, scratch that, I’m unhappy in either. Take the master, nice big bed, bit of comfort, yeah?’

‘Are you sure? It does look comfy.’

I don’t think Carrie realised how much I would sacrifice to see her happy and comfortable. Having the smaller of two pretty enormous beds was nothing.

‘I’m sure. Are you tired now? I know it’s still early, but if you want to go to bed that’s fine, you’ve had one hell of a day. If not, let’s fire up the TV and see what delights we can get on pay-per-view.’

‘I’m not ready for bed, not yet. What’s on telly?’

‘Well let’s see, shall we?’

And so we spent a very pleasant evening watching some crappy action film where the hero was in a race against time with a bunch of terrorists who had planted a bomb in a children’s playground. It was a ridiculous plot, and we laughed at the story and the dialogue, which were both trite. I ordered some snacks from room service, and we munched on ‘tortiles a jus’ (chips and dip) and ‘palomitas chocolat’ (chocolate coated popcorn) which would have been ten times cheaper if we’d got them from the local supermarket.

Eventually, I felt tired. I looked across at Carrie, and her eyes were drooping. The film hadn’t finished, but it was obvious the hero was going to save the day and get the girl in the end. If he didn’t, it was the worst action movie ever, and it was already pretty bad.

‘Hey, go to bed before I have to carry you in there and undress you.’

‘Careful, or I might just have to fall asleep now.’

Shit, no, didn’t mean to start flirty banter this close to bedtime.

‘You look tired. Go to bed.’

Carrie looked disappointed for a second, then nodded and stood up, yawning and stretching.

‘I am. Matt, thanks for this. It’s been a well weird day, I haven’t got my head round everything yet. Thanks for doing this for me.’

‘You should know that I’d do a lot to make sure you’re safe and happy.’

‘Can you do one more thing?’

‘If it’s within my power.’

‘Can I have a hug?’

Bollocks. A hug was well within my power, but a no-strings hug? When it was closer than I’d ever been to her? Oh well, in for a penny. Think random unsexy thoughts. Anne Widecombe. There you go.

‘Of course.’

I stood up and folded her up in my arms, feeling every curve of her body fit into every plane of mine. She nestled her head against my chest and sighed, and I was very aware of my body responding to the closeness. Bloody Anne Widecombe, why could the woman never do her job? Without intending to, I began stroking her hair. It was soft and fine and I loved the way it felt under my fingers.

I had my eyes closed, but felt Carrie look up at me. I opened my eyes to look down at her, and saw something in her face that definitely said more than friends. I saw desire, and want and need, and it couldn’t happen, not tonight, not while she was still sorting everything out. Why did being sensible and considerate feel so shitty? Regretfully, so regretfully, I gently pushed away from her, stroking her cheek as I did so and shaking my head.

‘Carrie, you’ll be the death of me.’

‘Don’t you want to?’

‘I think you know I do. I think you also know what a bad idea it would be, just now, with everything how it is. I think friends is how we should keep it, for the moment. I’ll still be here, when it’s all done. I’ll always be here for you. And if, after everything’s sorted, you still want to give us a go, then I’m so in. But not just a one night thing, not just a ‘thank you’, you deserve better than that.’

She looked down for a second, then back up at me, defiantly.

‘Trust me to find a knight in shining armour with a bloody conscience.’

‘Damn right. Off to bed with you milady. Your jousting tournament begins at nine of the morrow and there is a hectic afternoon of tapestry and banquet planning to be conquered.’

‘You really do like your fancy words, don’t you.’

‘Prefer numbers, actually.’

‘God, I hate to think what you do to numbers then.’

‘Tell you tomorrow. I’m off to bed, even if you’re happy to stand here all night insulting me and my beloved numbers.’

‘Matt … thank you. For thinking of me, putting me first. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it, you hardly know me.’

I was backing away from her towards the door to my room as she spoke, as I really really needed to stop talking to her, looking at her, wanting to touch her, so much more than touch her.

‘That’s something I intend to correct over the next week. Night.’

‘Night.’

And with that, I disappeared, gratefully and ruefully, behind the shield of the bedroom door.

I didn’t sleep much. I didn’t even get into bed for ages, putting on the small TV and watching re-runs of twenty year old sitcoms, hoping to feel myself tire, but there was too much on my mind. I was going to find it hard to be Carrie’s friend only, especially if she continued to offer me more, but that was what I needed to be.

Was I being stupidly noble? I didn’t think so. If I took advantage of her vulnerability now, she’d hate me later. If I wanted something more, something – I could barely believe I was thinking this – long term, I needed to seriously curb my libido now, so that when she finally could see the wood for the trees, I was a broad oak for her to shelter under not a bonsai that … oh I tried all the metaphors, some of them even worse than that one.

I lay on the bed, thinking, trying to sort it all out. Finally it occurred to me that if I was having this much trouble thinking about it, Carrie would be having much more, having left her evil boyfriend and escaped to the south west of England with her one-time yoga student, staying in an unfamiliar part of the country, in an unfamiliarly fancy hotel. She needed to decide lots of things, and I needed to help her do it objectively, without my dick getting in the way of both of us.

Right, that decided, I finally felt my eyes start to close, and I stripped down to my boxers and crawled into the annoyingly incredibly comfortable bed.

I slept the sleep of the righteous, which I felt I very nearly merited given my self-denial of the night before, until I vaguely heard movement beyond my door, then a tap.

‘Matt?’

‘Mm.’

‘Breakfast is here.’

‘Wha’s time?’

‘Nearly eight.’

‘Shit, s’middle o’ fucking night. Sunday fo’ fucksake.’

‘Sorry about that, but if you want breakfast warm you’re going to have to get up and have it now.’

Had to stop myself telling her to fuck off. I never, ever got up before ten, at the earliest, on a Sunday. Sundays were sacrosanct, sacred, devoted to St Elijah, patron saint of sleep. But this Sunday, today, I was going to be with Carrie, and I needed to get a civil tongue in my head and start thinking about how I was going to spend the day with her.

That roused me, the thought of spending the whole day with Carrie.

‘Is it under those silver cover things, keeping it warm?’

‘It is.’

‘Great. I’ll just have a shower, then I’ll be there.’

I jumped out of bed, almost energetically, and into the en-suite shower, quick wash down, towel dry, dressed in yesterday’s clothes, and I was there. Carrie was still in her bathrobe, looking sleep-rumpled and sexy, sitting at the table by the window, with the view across the city to the hills and moors beyond. She’d placed the covered platters on the table and was sitting with her chin on her hand, tapping the table, pretending to look bored.

‘About time. I’m starving.’

‘I’m so changing breakfast time to later, tomorrow.’

‘Why? It wastes half the day if you just lie in bed.’

‘I love my sleep.’

‘I love my life, I’d rather be awake to enjoy it.’

She had a point, I suppose. Maybe just for this week I could be flexible.

We shopped and beached that day. I hardly cared that I was doing two of my least favourite activities in the whole wide world, i.e. wandering aimlessly round shops going ‘what do you think’ ‘lovely’ ‘I don’t like it’ ‘well why did you ask’, and lying on a beach doing nothing except attracting melanomas.

I hardly cared, though, because the first meant I saw Carrie in a variety of different more or less revealing clothes, and had some say in her choice of underwear, and the second meant I got to see her in the new bikini she’d just bought. Or rather, I’d just bought, as she had little money and I had a paroxysm of gallantry, totally unselfishly motivated by the thought of lying next to her on the beach wearing nothing except two scraps of fabric. Yeah, the ‘being flexible’ was going well. The ‘helping objectively without my dick coming between us’? Not so much. Must try harder. And stop the double entendres, they’re not helping.

So the first couple of days, we just mooched around, seeing bits of Devon, eating cream teas, oohing at the scenery, aahing at the sunsets. I didn’t mention Martin, Carrie didn’t mention Martin, but I saw him flit across her face sometimes, maybe when she saw a couple with their arms round each other, or other seemingly random moments, I don’t know, maybe there was something on a menu that he really liked, or maybe she saw the brand of muscle vests he wore or some such shit.

We didn’t go and see Jay and Beth until the Tuesday. Beth was best taken in small doses, fairly far apart, or the urge to strangle her could become overpowering. I sometimes didn’t know how Jay did it, but knowing my brother, most of it washed over him. They were undoubtedly made for each other.

But anyway, Tuesday. Carrie and I had done the beach, twice. We’d done the moors, me finding out delightedly that Carrie did hiking, and thus buying us both walking boots in a miraculous BOGOF offer in the local Millets. We’d had more cream teas than you could wave a jam spoon at, and we’d been to Paignton Zoo, where we’d been fleeced at the entrance, and continued to be fleeced by the inside prices, where loads of miserable looking animals were out of their element, bored and cold. At least, that was my take on it. Carrie thought everything was ‘adorable’, especially the penguins, who at least didn’t look cold, but were conversely potentially at risk of heat stroke. And of course, I thought that made her adorable, so everything was alright. And we’d stayed in to dinner in the expensive posh hotel twice, once in the restaurant and once with room service, so we could eat in our bathrobes and spill pasta sauce down our fronts without worrying.

We’d talked about nothing, and everything, or rather everything except the elephant in the room, and got to know each other much better. Carrie was smart, with a dry sense of humour and a sassy outlook on life. This, combined with her general hotness, just made me like her even more. It was no longer just a physical attraction; you may have noticed I was more than a little infatuated before. I think it would be fair to say that, although I had always in the past kept well away from any verb beginning with L applying to any woman I was involved with, I could think of at least three that applied to Carrie. And the first two were ‘Like’ and ‘Lust’. And the third ended in ‘ove’.

So here we were, walking up the path to Jay’s front door, which opened to eject a hurrying Dec just as we were about to ring the bell.

‘Hey. Alright?’

It was definitely a question this time, but one that didn’t require an answer.

‘Yeah, man.’

Who did I think I was? In my head it sounded cool, but out of my mouth, it sounded the lamest of old man lame. I barely caught the smirk as he raced off down the path, but it was there, and it stung a bit.

‘Bloody young whippersnapper.’

‘Yeah, cos that’s a way cooler thing to say.’

I looked appraisingly at Carrie, who seemed to have read it all pretty accurately. Well at least my plan of her getting to know me seemed to be working, even if she was getting to know the bits I’d really rather keep to myself.

The door was still open, swinging in the aftermath of Hurricane Declan, and we walked through, calling out as we did so.

‘Oh, hi you two. Lovely to see you again, this is a treat, Matty, twice in one week. You will come again before you leave, won’t you? Come and sit down, tell me what you’ve been doing with yourselves.’

We sat on one of the sofas and talked to Beth about the last couple of days, laughing as we showed her some of the pictures I’d taken on my phone. She made suggestions for more places to see before we left, and then put her serious nursey face on. I’d seen it before, when she talked to Mum, or talked to me about Mum. I wanted to warn Carrie, but without saying something or gripping her hand, it was impossible.

‘So, Carrie, how is everything? Have you heard from your boyfriend?’

I knew she’d had texts and voicemails, wasn’t sure if she’d replied, or spoken to him directly. I might be about to find out.

‘He’s bombarded me a bit with texts and calls. I didn’t know whether to answer or not, I don’t want him to know where I am, he’ll just come down here and start causing trouble. I called him last night, just to tell him to stop calling.’

‘Uh huh.’ Beth kept her tone of voice neutral, but I wondered if she wanted to yell ‘you stupid girl’ like I did.

‘How did that go?’

‘Oh, he just got upset. All the texts, voicemails, he was saying sorry, he knew he’d gone over the top, he wouldn’t do it again, please come back. He said the same on the phone, but he … actually cried. He’s … I’ve never heard him cry before. He asked if I’d gone for good.’

‘What did you tell him, sweetheart?’

I tried not to stare too fiercely at her, but she glanced in my direction, and shrank away from me, so I probably didn’t succeed.

‘I said I was still thinking. I am still thinking. It’s been great being down here, I’ve had a lot of space and time, Matt’s been great.’

‘You didn’t fucking tell him that did you?’

‘No, silly, I didn’t mention you, I didn’t say where I was. He thinks I’m still in Stafford somewhere, from what he said.’

‘Carrie, it sounds like you’ve done some thinking. I don’t know if you’ve come to any conclusions, but I’ve talked to a friend of mine who’s a social worker, and she gave me some information on domestic violence –’

‘What? No, he hasn’t been violent, never.’

‘Just hear me out, sweetheart. You told me on Saturday that he pinched you and pulled your hair, and Matty said he told you that you weren’t to go out unless it was with him.’

Carrie didn’t answer, but nodded, staring mutinously at Beth.

‘Would it be fair to say he says things to you that don’t make you feel very good about yourself? That he blames you when things go wrong for him? And that being around him scares you sometimes?’

Another nod, the gaze dropped to her knees.

‘Have you ever left him before?’

‘Once, about eighteen months ago.’

‘Why?’

I saw Carrie’s jaw clench, realised a serious nerve had been touched, and although I was in awe of Beth’s way of getting to the heart of the matter within half an hour of us arriving, I hated seeing Carrie upset.

‘Beth, can’t we just leave this for now?’

‘How long for, Matty? Until she goes back to him again? Carrie, I know this is hard, and in the end it’s up to you, of course. I’ve brought you some information.’

Beth stood up and pulled some bits of paper from a drawer, walked over and handed them to Carrie, who took them as if they were an unexploded grenade.

‘Have a look at it, it might help a bit more with deciding what to do. Basically, it says that there are all sorts of abuse, or violence if that’s what you want to call it, and the seemingly little things all add up. The abuser wants control, and will do anything to get it, especially promising to change. He might even mean it at the time, but he’ll definitely say it if it gets you back there, where he can control you again. I’m willing to bet he said he’d change when you left last time.’

‘Martin’s not an abuser.’

Carrie spat the word out like it was poison. Her face closed down, and I don’t think she was listening to anything Beth said after that.

‘OK, well, have a read of that lot and see if you still agree afterwards. I’m happy, perfectly happy, for you to tell me I’m wrong, that he doesn’t tick all or even any of the boxes, but please promise me you’ll look at it.’

Carrie nodded and stuffed the pamphlets and information leaflets in her bag, then leaned back against the sofa, arms folded and legs crossed. It was the end of the matter for her, for now, possibly forever. I wasn’t sure if Beth had pushed things too far; only time would tell.

Seeming unruffled, Beth changed tack.

‘Are you two going to stay for dinner?’

‘Oh, er …’ I looked at Carrie, who shrugged. ‘Maybe, if you promise not to get all heavy on our arses again.’

‘Alright, Matty, no more heavy. Promise. I’ve made a lasagne, with sticky toffee pudding for dessert.’

‘Well I’m sold. Carrie, Beth is a really good cook. Even if her well-intentioned advice is a bit heavy-handed sometimes, her culinary touch is as light as a feather.’

I looked over at Carrie as she tutted and rolled her eyes at me.

‘You really have the gift of the gab, Scotty, don’t you.’

‘Oh, no no, you can’t call me Scotty, that’s what all the rugger buggers call Jay. Can’t have our two worlds colliding, the universe would implode.’

‘Total gab. Alright, thanks Beth, dinner sounds great.’

So we stayed, and chatted, and played with Cal, and Jay came home demanding feeding and beer, and family life went on around us as Beth got dinner ready, then chatted to us while she folded laundry, and Jay turned the TV on to watch a sports channel.

I checked Carrie silently a few times, but she seemed outwardly alright. I hoped I could talk to her later, maybe look at some of the information with her if she’d let me.

Dinner was, as usual with Beth’s cooking, delicious. Dec put in an appearance, shovelling the lasagne in his face faster than I would have thought humanly possible, not speaking as he was using his mouth for more important things. Beth asked him a few questions, but had obviously learned that they had to require yes or no answers, as he only nodded or shook his head to reply. He got up from the table before the sticky toffee pudding, as soon as his last mouthful had been dispatched, before he’d even swallowed it.

‘Er, Mr Summers.’

Jay’s voice had a paternal scolding tone to it I’d never heard before.

‘Mm?’

It was the only answer possible with a half-chewed mouthful of lasagne.

‘Plate please. Beth doesn’t spend all day cooking for you so you can make her clear up after you too.’

The mouthful was swallowed.

‘Sorry, Beth.’

Dec picked his plate, glass and cutlery up and took it into the kitchen. There was the sound of a dishwasher being loaded, then the other door to the kitchen opening and closing, footsteps going upstairs, then some music from above. I looked at Jay.

‘Impressive.’

‘What?’

‘Discipline. Never thought you had it in you.’

‘Piss off, Matty.’

‘James, honestly.’

Beth indicated Cal with her eyes.

‘Sorry.’

‘Ha ha, I see you’re not the only one dishing out the rules. Seriously, though, nice work with the adolescent. When I first met him I thought he was a rude, sullen, ignorant git.’

‘Matty.’

‘What?’

I reviewed the words I’d used.

‘Oh, sorry, ignorant, er, sorry Beth, can’t think of any words that aren’t rude to describe him. But he seems to have really come along. He’s progressed to uncommunicative and unsociable. Nice work.’

‘He has changed a lot. Not sure it’s down to me. More to do with Beth.’

‘He’s had a tough start to life, Matty. You know both his parents died? He just needed some stability, a few house rules.’

‘So how long is he here for, then? It must be more than a year already.’

Beth and Jay looked at each other.

‘There’s no timescale, really, he can be here as long as he wants, or needs to be.’

‘Holy, er, cow. Are you adopting him or something?’

‘No, Matty, nothing like that. He just fits with us, don’t you think?’

‘Er, OK, if you say so.’

‘Well we all like him, don’t we Cal?’

‘What Mummy?’

Cal looked up from his bowl of pudding, where he had been making trails with the sticky toffee sauce.

‘Say ‘pardon’, not ‘what’, sweetheart. We all like Dec, don’t we?’

‘Yes, Mummy.’

‘Tell Unca Matty what happens most nights before you go to bed.’

‘I clean my teeth and do a wee.’

‘Yes, sweetheart, but what does Dec do?’

‘Dec reads me a story.’

‘Seriously, Cal? He can speak more than two words at one time? Whoa.’

‘Stop it, Matty. Don’t belittle things you don’t understand. Dec and Cal get on really well together, they teach each other a lot, and have a lot of fun together too. You know what teenagers are like, unfamiliar people send them into themselves.’

‘OK, point taken.’

Although I thought to myself that if Dec went much more into himself he’d disappear up his own teenage arse, but as had just been pointed out to me, what the fuck did I know about it?

Dinner eaten, dishwasher stacked by Carrie and me (because, you know, Beth didn’t spend all day cooking so we could make her clear up after us too), and coffee on the go, we sat down in the living room again. Carrie started doing exaggerated yawns while we were drinking the coffee, and I got the hint after the third one.

‘Maybe it’s time we were off. We’ve got a lot of pay-per-view movies to catch up with on your credit card, Jay. Thanks for that, by the way. Almost makes up for having you grinning down at me from every angle except the fucking ceiling.’

‘Matty.’

‘What? Cal’s not even in here.’

‘That’s not the point. The rule is, no swearing in the house.’

‘Yeah, that seems to be working well for everyone.’

I rolled my eyes at Beth’s ridiculous rules. Jay said ‘fuck’ all the time and hardly seemed to notice when Beth berated him, and in all likelihood Cal would be swearing before he got to infant school, so she might as well give up now. To prove my point, Jay wasn’t even listening, being too busy laughing at his little prank with the Scott Suite.

‘Ha ha, sorry, mate, just couldn’t resist. It’s not exactly on my credit card, it’s just, when they named the suite after me, they said I could have it for free anytime I liked. I’ve never used it before. Seemed too good to pass up.’

‘Maybe you should have offered it to Mum. She’d love saying goodnight to all your photos, I bet she does every night anyway.’

‘Nah, Mum prefers staying in Dec’s stinking pit where she can see my real handsome face first thing in the morning.’

‘I bet she leaves her glasses off until you’ve been up a couple of hours though, otherwise it’d be a bit of a shock to the system.’

‘You’re hilarious.’

‘Oh, nowhere near as hilarious as you. The Scott Suite. Does Mum even know?’

‘Er, no. I was too embarrassed to tell her. I suppose it’s too much to ask you to keep it to yourself?’

‘Oh way way too much. I’ve taken pictures of the whole caboodle, it’ll make my year to show her when I get back.’

‘How is Carol, Matty? I spoke to her last week, and she sounded a bit down.’

I actually hadn’t seen Mum for a while, having been busy at work, and preoccupied with how I was going to break up with Merce. It all seemed a long time ago. I’d texted her a few times, but Mum never texted back, and would never leave a message to say she wasn’t OK. I felt guilty all of a sudden. When I got back to Stafford, I would need to make amends.

‘Oh, er, to be honest I haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks. Maybe that’s upset her.’

‘A couple of weeks, Matty? That’s not like you.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ve been busy with stuff. I don’t always get over there as much as I’d like.’

‘Stuff like … yoga classes?’

‘Yeah, whatever. Time to go, yeah, Carrie?’

With Jay’s laugh ringing in my ears, I stood up and walked out, making sure I trod on his foot as I walked past, in the best tradition of brothers. Beth shook her head at us and opened the front door to let us out.

‘Thanks for dinner, Beth, remarkable as always.’

‘Come again, won’t you, before you go back. Carrie – I’m sorry if I upset you earlier. Please, just have a look at the leaflets?’

Carrie nodded, but didn’t say anything. I kissed Beth on the cheek, and we drove back to the hotel.

‘Are you really tired, or was all that yawning just code for ‘get me out of here, if Jay belches one more time I’m going to throw up’?’

‘I’m a bit tired, but if you want to watch a film, I’ll stay up with you. I can always doze off in front of Alan Rickman. Steven Seagal might be a bit harder.’

‘I wondered if you wanted to have a look at that stuff Beth gave you.’

Carrie gave me a pained look.

‘Not tonight.’

‘Any night?’

‘I don’t know. Don’t go on. You keep saying it’s my choice, then putting me under pressure.’

This was a little unfair, seeing as this was the first time I’d brought the subject up all week, but I let it go, recognising that she was feeling fragile.

‘Not intentionally. I just want to make sure you’re happy.’

‘Mm. Matt, if I went back to Martin, what would you do?’

My heart felt like it had dropped onto the floor.

3. The things we do for love

In which we meet Carrie, and Matty shows us the lengths he will go to in order to impress her.

Matt

I loved my job at a new, small, independent firm specialising in IT consultancy and systems analysis. They had started modestly, but had big ambitions starting in Stafford, then branching out via the rest of the Midlands towards world domination. I loved the people, I worked hard and quickly made it up the ranks, and I stayed longer than I intended because I was enjoying it.

My plans to leave meant I could still live a commitment-free life, as I wasn’t going to be staying, so why get involved too deeply with anything, or anyone? I stayed with Mum when I first came back, but soon got my own small flat and lived the single guy’s life. I spent longer than was healthy playing PlayStation and Xbox games; I went to clubs and met women, I slept with them, I saw a few of them more than once, but never more than half a dozen times. Some of the women I came across were girls I’d known at school, and I rather immodestly enjoyed watching them work out who I was, remember what I’d been like back then, and do a double-take.

I had a lot of friends, some from work, some from the walking group I went to when I needed a good hike, some from the local chess club, drinking buddies, football buddies, people I’d met at parties, people from all walks of life. Finally, Matt Scott actually had a life. Every few months I’d look at the job pages and think about leaving, and then decide to give it a bit longer; I was enjoying myself too much to want to change just then, but suddenly I looked up and nigh on four years had gone by.

Then one day I was at Mum’s, for Sunday lunch, which I did every few weeks, now I had my own place. I was in her living room flicking through the uninspiring channel selection on her pretty ancient TV, when I heard a shout and a crash from the kitchen. I ran through, to find her in the middle of a lake of gravy with the remains of a gravy boat smashed into it and a saucepan on its side.

‘Mum! Are you OK?’

She looked shocked – pale and a bit trembly – and I pulled out a chair for her to sit on while I fetched a mop and bucket to clear up. She still hadn’t answered me when I started mopping.

‘Mum?’

‘Yes dear.’

‘What happened?’

I was getting a bit freaked out by her just sitting there looking at me, and was trying to get her to talk to me.

‘Oh, I was just pouring the gravy into the gravy boat, and … I don’t know what happened, my wrist just gave way.’

‘Has it happened before?’

‘Not with gravy. But it is hard lifting saucepans these days. It’s just the arthritis.’

‘Just the what?’

She had said absolutely nothing to me about it before.

‘Arthritis, dear. Makes things a bit painful sometimes.’

My mum was one of the most stoic people I knew. She wasn’t Scottish, but she’d lived in Scotland most of her life before moving down to Stafford when she married my father, who was Scottish, and I was sure she had assimilated some of the dourness. If she said things were a bit painful sometimes, I could only guess at how much things were really hurting a lot of the time. I didn’t know much about arthritis, but I intended to find out.

‘Fucking hell, Mum. Have you seen a doctor?’

‘Language, Matthew. Yes of course I have.’

‘And?’

‘And what?’

I put the mop back in the bucket and looked at her, forcing her to look up at me.

‘And what did the sodding doctor say?’

‘That I’ve got rheumatoid arthritis and I have to put up with it. They gave me some tablets and some splint things, but I don’t really think I need to wear them.’

‘Shit. Why didn’t you say something? At least ask me to do the bloody gravy or something.’

‘Well you’re not always here, dear, I can’t call you every time I need to pour something out of a saucepan, can I?’

‘You know you can, you can call me anytime, whenever you need anything.’

She gave me a wistful smile.

‘You’re a good boy, but you know I can’t, you’ve got your own life. I’m fine, really dear, don’t worry about me.’

I snorted in frustration.

‘Oh OK, then, I won’t worry at all. You just tell me you’ve got some bloody arthritis thing, and you’ve trashed your kitchen floor because you dropped a shitload of boiling hot gravy all over it, and it could have been all over you, that’s not going to make me worry in the slightest. Fucking hell Mum, were you ever going to tell me?’

‘Matthew, really. Stop swearing.’

‘Yeah, Mum, that’s what we need to be focussing on here is my fucking language. Aren’t there people who can help, give you, oh I don’t know, saucepan tippers or some such shit? Or maybe, use the splint things when you’re lifting saucepans. Or don’t use saucepans. Maybe have something easier to cook, frozen pizza or microwave lasagne or something.’

‘Honestly, you make it sound like I’m ready for my grave.’

‘Well you might be if you carry on dropping hot liquid all over yourself.’

‘Don’t be so melodramatic.’

And so we carried on arguing, back and forth, Mum not willing to concede that she might need any help at all, me getting more and more frustrated by her obstinacy. People who know me well will doubtless be having a small chuckle to themselves at the irony. Some of the astute among you may be able to discern a genetic trait. Us Scotts are a stubborn lot, it’s bred into us and we all learn it from each other and reinforce it as time goes on. Nature and nurture, side by side.

At any rate, that put paid to any thoughts of me moving away. Mum needed someone nearby to keep an eye on her, to offer covert suggestions of ways life could be easier, to cook her the odd meal when she’d let me, with lots of microwaveable leftovers to freeze, to run the hoover round because I’d ‘had mud on my shoes’, to dig the garden because it really was too much for her and she was at least prepared to admit that.

I talked to Jay about her, but there wasn’t much he could do from afar. He was miles away in the south west, he was just about to get married to Beth, and he played rugby. It always came down to that. He had little free time during the season, and was tied to a two year contract, so, as much as he at least said ‘if there’s anything I can do’, it was down to me to make sure Mum was OK. He also said I shouldn’t put my life on hold to look after her, and that it wasn’t what she would want, if she knew, but I disregarded that as not his business; he had different priorities to me, and a different relationship with Mum.

I reassessed my future, which had been pretty much an open book and a one way ticket to the rest of the world up till then, but had now narrowed to Stafford, or one of the other Midlands towns where Eyeti, the company I worked for, was planning to expand to. I mourned it, to myself, what could have been, but it wasn’t ever really a choice. I straightened my shoulders, lifted my chin, stopped looking at the spectacular jobs on offer in Europe, the States and the Middle East, and decided that my adventure was going to be to see how far I could go with Eyeti. I might make it as far as Solihull, if I was lucky.

Reassessing my future, and realising I was going to be staying put for the foreseeable, meant reassessing other things, like relationships, friendships, what I did and who I did it with. I didn’t consciously decide this, but found I was spending my time differently, putting down roots, making plans further than just a few months ahead. I started thinking about the women I went out with as potential partners, although I was still an excellent no-strings lay, but there was sometimes a strange sense of regret when I called it off, a vague haunting remnant of what might have been. And Stafford isn’t huge – I won’t say I’d shagged every woman in town, as that would be a downright lie, and with a population of over a hundred thousand people, a physical impossibility, but I was running into the same faces in clubs, at parties, in pubs, and I needed to freshen things up a bit.

So I went on a few holidays, wild times, kind of 18-30 type of thing. Drank myself shit-faced and shagged myself sore for two weeks at a time, then came back and fended off all the texts and emails from women I’d been stupid enough to give my real details to in a drunken stupor. More than one tried to convince me I’d asked her to marry me, and one tried to convince me she was pregnant.

That terrified me, and it took a lot of driving to and from Canterbury, where she lived, before she finally confessed she’d made it up. Breathing a long, deep sigh of relief, I swore off fuckfest holidays and took myself down to Devon to spend a week with Jay and his new wife Beth, in the hope that the change of scene would reset me.

Beth was a force of nature. She was a nurse, and bossy with it. She demanded all the details of Mum’s arthritis, promised to put her in touch with a specialist she knew in the Midlands, phoned Social Services to arrange a visit, really sorted stuff out. I felt a bit ashamed that I hadn’t got my arse into gear and done some of the same things, but I didn’t have Beth’s contacts, her knowledge, or her direct way of confronting a problem. Beth also didn’t know Mum very well, and could pretend she didn’t know how proud Mum was, or how stubborn, and used this to ride roughshod over any protests.

Beth was good for Jay. She organised him, bullied him, told him what to do, and he just rolled over and did it with no protest. They’d met, unsurprisingly, in the local hospital, when Jay had been part of the Raiders’ Christmas visit to the children’s ward. Beth had taken the initiative and asked for his number, and Jay probably didn’t know what had hit him after that.

I remembered his previous girlfriend, Lisa, who was a lot younger than him, a few years younger than me even. She’d had the same up front manner, but Jay didn’t stand for it coming from someone so young, and it didn’t work out. Beth definitely took charge of Jay, which seemed to be what he wanted and needed. I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted or needed, but it seemed nobody got a choice where Beth was concerned. She was good to talk to, when she wasn’t bossing me about, and I chatted to her quite a lot while I was there about how things were going for me.

‘James told me you’d thought of going abroad.’

‘Yeah, but I’m staying put for now.’

‘Does your mum know?’

‘That I was looking for jobs in another country? No. It was only a thought.’

‘James says you’re pretty good at what you do.’

‘Does he? How would he know?’

‘He’s proud of you. Could you see yourself moving away?’

‘Not at the moment.’

‘You don’t think you’ll regret it later?’

‘Who ever knows what they’ll feel later? I have to do what’s right now.’

‘Are you happy?’

‘Yeah. I’ve got good friends, do lots of things I enjoy and I like my job. Can’t say fairer than that.’

‘As long as you don’t say never, and resent things that you could have changed.’

See what I mean? She was pretty relentless, and never backed off from saying what she felt.

I’d been to their wedding a year or so earlier, and it was a huge affair, with lots of personalities from the rugby world in attendance. I wasn’t Jay’s best man, not even close, hadn’t even considered that he might ask me, so wasn’t disappointed when he didn’t. But the whole event made me think, just for a minute, about whether I was happy being an excellent no-strings lay, or whether I wanted something else, something with more strings attached, something like Jay had with Beth. Then I shook myself out of it, snogged a bridesmaid, felt her up, didn’t call her, and carried on with life as I knew it.

I’d been back in Stafford for four or five years when I met Carrie. I was getting tired of the same old round of pubs, clubs, football matches and work, the same faces, the same conversations, so I decided to mix things up a bit and try something new that didn’t involve copious amounts of alcohol and scary texts from women I barely remembered.

I scoured the local paper for evening classes available at the local school, and decided to go for taster sessions in Yoga, Glass Painting and Italian for Beginners. I also signed up for some weekend National Trust volunteering in a fit of green ardour. I didn’t make it past the first five minutes of the first class, which happened to be yoga.

Carrie was teaching the class, and I was smitten as soon as I clapped eyes on her. She was medium height, had blonde shoulder length hair, bright blue eyes and a really toned body, with a tight top that left little to the imagination. I’d never thought yoga was my thing, but as soon as I saw Carrie, I realised it was what my life had been crying out for all this time.

Cal

Let me tell you about the important people in my life:

Dec. Declan Summers. Charlie Collier. I never knew him as Charlie, but plenty of people did, apparently, back in the day. He’s the reason everything’s screwy, but in a good way. Right, I’m going to try to explain it.

Dec is not related to any of us, well except his own kids, obviously. I don’t remember a time before he was around, part of the family, but I guess you don’t remember things not being, you just remember things being, don’t you? He came to live with us when he was sixteen and I was two. He’s like my brother, he might as well be my brother, it’s just he’s not officially my brother. He’s kind of like my dad’s brother too, and like Matty’s brother, and I suppose that’s ironic, because he hasn’t got any real brothers, as far as we know. In fact, he hasn’t got any real family, if you count ‘real’ as ‘blood relatives’ (not that he’s ever let anyone even talk about trying to find his birth family) but this huge family of all of us, related and not, has kind of grown up around him, pulled in by him, glued together by him. Oh, and Dec is married to Amy, and they’ve got four children: Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa, who are my kind of cousins. And I suppose I can’t talk about Dec without mentioning Rose, who also wasn’t related to any of us, but was like Dec’s mum, so was kind of like my gran, kind of like everyone’s gran, oh, see, it’s all getting bloody confusing. Let’s move swiftly on to something easier.

Matty. Matt Scott. Matty was my uncle, my dad’s brother. It’s still hard to say ‘was’ about Matty, because I don’t think I’ll ever be used to him being gone. Matty and the truly remarkable Lau, had two children, Josh and Ella, who are my bona fide cousins.

Nico Tiago. Nico was my childhood hero, he is one of my dad’s best friends and he helped save Dec, back in the day. Nico is from Argentina, and he’s married to Lis, who actually used to go out with Dad in Mediaeval times, and their son is Bastien. Nico and Lis’s son, not Dad and Lis. Dad and Lis don’t have a son. Stop making things complicated, it’s already bad enough. So they’re not ‘real’ family either, but Bastien and Ella – well just wait and see. We all call Bastien Basty, when we’re being nice, and Bastyard when we want to see him go red and get that little crease over his nose where he’s frowning and about to swear in Spanish.

I’ve got two grannies, but I don’t see Nana Jane that much because she lives in the States. Granny Carol is Dad’s mum. April is Lau’s mum and Diane is Amy’s mum, and they’ve been pretty good sort of kind of almost grannies to us all too. No grandads left, which is sad. Oh, unless you count my dad, who is obviously Conor and Lily’s grandad. This family isn’t big on keeping dads, so I should be grateful I’ve still got mine.

I think that’s it for family, unless there’s someone I’ve missed, there always seem to be tons of us everywhere. I suppose I’ve got a couple of aunties, Mum’s sisters, but we don’t see them that much, mainly because they both annoy my dad a lot.

I’ve been pretty lucky that I can count my family among my friends, especially now I’m older, but I have had some awesome mates along the way, and although they don’t really need explaining like my family, I’ll mention them now anyway, so you get used to their names before they crop up.

Baggo. Jake Bagwell. Baggo has been my best mate since the first day of school. We’ve helped each other into and out of so many scrapes, not all of them when we were kids, either. Baggo’s still enjoying the single life, and although we thought he’d got there once, he may just not be cut out for settling down.

Ayesha Chaudhry. I thought I was going to marry Ayesh, but it turns out I was just going to cause her pain instead. She is an incredible woman, and I am proud to call her and her chap, Sam, my friends.

That’s it for now. It’s a bit like the beginning of those Shakespeare plays we used to have to read at school in English – the list of the main characters with a bit about them, but trying not to give away spoilers. Not that anyone reading this won’t already know the end, if there’s going to be an end. It’s not like it’s some kind of murder mystery, it’s just writing things down from my point of view.

 

Matt

I was shit at yoga. Couldn’t figure out my Downward Dog from my Cobra, kept falling over, my legs and arms seemingly unable to obey a single command from my brain, but it made her look at me and smile, so I did it more. At the end of the class I sauntered over, planning to try out my excellent no-strings lay techniques on her, but before I could talk to her, some musclebound git in a gym vest, cut-off cargoes and the latest Nikes, burst through the door, hugged her and stuck his tongue down her throat. She pushed him away, laughing, then noticed me.

‘Oh hi, er, Matt isn’t it? Did you enjoy the class?’

‘Yeah, very much so.’

Although now I was beginning to regret staying behind, as muscle boy was lingering, scowling, undoubtedly recognising my intentions, and it was going to seriously hamper my methods to have him lurking while I made my moves.

‘Great. Well, we’re here from next Thursday at seven, so see you then?’

I recognised a dismissal when I heard one, but was determined to make my mark, so chose to ignore it.

‘Well maybe I’ll try to stay upright next week.’

‘Ha ha, good plan. You’ll get there, lots of people struggle the first few weeks.’

Muscle boy chose to interrupt.

‘Are you nearly done, Carrie? Our table’s booked for half nine.’

‘Yeah, sure. Sorry, Matt, I need to lock up here. It’s our anniversary.’

‘Oh, OK, cool, have a good one.’

Bugger. Not only was he a muscle boy, she’d been with him for long enough to have an anniversary. I graciously conceded defeat for now, but was determined to resume the battle next Thursday. It gave me a whole week to plan my strategy. I nodded at muscle boy, who stared stonily back at me and left them to lock up.

It was a long, long, time since I’d felt like this, like my whole life revolved around one person, one person who sneaked into my thoughts even when I believed I was thinking about other things. The last time was Cindy. Now Carrie was there, at the back of my mind when she wasn’t at the front of it. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, I even practised yoga moves at home so she might be impressed at the next class. I bloody hated yoga, there’s no way I would have considered going back under any other circumstances. I was lost.

Several more weeks of yoga didn’t see me making much progress in either poise and flexibility, or Project Carrie, although I was heartened by the absence of muscle boy. I tried hanging around after class, but lots of other people had questions for her, and I didn’t like being too obvious; it would have put a real spanner in the works to be told to sod off before I’d got anywhere. I was going to bide my time and wait for the right moment. I was sure it would come. It wasn’t like she didn’t look at me sometimes, and if I wasn’t mistaken, her gaze sometimes held mine a split second longer than was strictly necessary. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but it wasn’t a complete write-off either.

Then, in one of those moments of pure karma, which I naturally don’t believe in, but having been to five whole yoga classes I now at least knew how to spell, the moment was there to be seized.

I was taking an early lunch, on my way to meet an Eyeti client. I’d just sat at a table in my favourite Lebanese café in town, one of Stafford’s few interesting places to eat, and was ordering a spicy falafel wrap, when I saw her. I had to look twice, as I’d never seen Carrie out of her yoga gear, or with her hair up, but it was definitely her, dressed in a businessy shirt and with her hair kind of twisted up and held in a clip. But I didn’t really pay much attention to her appearance, as the first thing I noticed about her was that she was crying.

Now, I really don’t do women crying. Can’t handle it at all, get tongue tied, say pathetically fuckwitted things, tend to leave well alone. But she was breaking her heart, and everyone else in the café was ignoring her, and maybe I should have as well, but I just couldn’t. I walked over and sat down opposite her.

‘Carrie?’

She looked up, a horrified expression appearing on her face when she realised someone she knew had sat at her table. She rummaged in her bag for a tissue and hurriedly wiped her eyes. It didn’t noticeably diminish the red blotchiness, but did remove some of the smeared mascara.

‘What’s wrong?’

She tried a smile, plastered it over the top of the misery.

‘Oh, hi. Nothing, just had a shit morning.’

‘Anything I can do?’

She shook her head, her face crumpling and more tears falling from her eyes. I reached out and touched her hand, which was full of damp tissue. She pulled away and held both of her hands over her face, hiding from me. I waited. Eventually, she stopped sniffling, and moved her hands away from her face to rummage for more tissues. She didn’t look up, but spoke into her bag.

‘I’m OK, honestly. I was supposed to be meeting someone, but I got a text and oh bloody hellfire I thought I’d put a clean one in here.’

The lack of un-snot ridden tissues seemed to be a defining moment in the morning’s woes for her, as she started crying again in earnest. I thought hard about whether to stay there, only to add to it all when I eventually uttered my anticipated fuckwitted comment, but it felt worse to just get up and go back to my table. Besides, the waiter had brought over my falafel wrap, assuming I was now dining with the weeping woman.

‘Carrie, sorry if I seem a tad impertinent –’ see? Instant fuckwittery. Who says shit like ‘a tad impertinent’ except me? ‘– but you don’t actually seem to be OK. You seem to be quite upset. Tell me to piss off if you like, but if you need some company, or a share of my falafel wrap, which I have to say smells bloody gorgeous, I’ll be here, at your table for the next fifteen minutes or so. Oh, and you can use my serviette as a tissue if you want.’

She didn’t tell me to piss off, but didn’t communicate in any other way, either, for a few minutes. Then she looked up, briefly into my eyes, then down to the serviette, which she took and rubbed at her eyes again.

I carried on eating my wrap – I was hungry, and despite my offer, wasn’t about to wait for her to decide whether she was in or out of its spicy goodness – and after a few minutes, I heard her take a deep breath, saw her straighten her shoulders, then heard her mutter, kind of under her breath, but loud enough that she must have known I would hear.

‘Bloody mothers and fucking boyfriends, more trouble than they’re bloody worth.’

I looked up from my lunch and saw her regarding me with a steely blue stare, as if daring me to disagree.

‘I’m with you. Never had a bloody mother-fucking boyfriend who wasn’t more trouble than he was worth.’

Her eyes narrowed. As I was saying it, trying to be all smart-arsey, I realised how it sounded, but decided to pretend I was being deliberately ambiguous.

‘Are you gay?’

So she was pretty direct; not a bad thing. At least we were likely to know where we stood.

‘No.’

‘But you said –’

‘I said I’ve never had a boyfriend who wasn’t more trouble than he was worth. It’s true, but only because I’ve never had a boyfriend. And am extremely unlikely to ever have one, just so we’re clear.’

She rolled her eyes, but the tiny hint of a smile that lifted the corners of her mouth made the crap joke and the embarrassing explanation seem worth it.

‘Oh. Yeah, I was just a bit surprised, to be honest, because I thought you’d been – oh never mind.’

‘You thought I’d been what?’

‘I said never mind. It’s not like you’d be the first bloke to think he was in with a chance because he tried to look cute falling on his arse in my yoga class.’

‘You think I’ve got a cute arse?’

This flustered her for a moment, but she rallied.

‘You’ve certainly got a cute mouth. Matt, isn’t it?’

Oh nicely done, Carrie. Take the wind out of my sails by pretending you’re not sure of my name, even though I haven’t been able to get yours out of my mind for the last few weeks.

‘Yeah. But you can call me Cute Arse. Probably do, in the privacy of your own home, for all I know. I expect you give us all nicknames – mine is obviously as previously stated, I bet the largeish red haired lady is Sweaty Betty, the chap who stands at the back is Bow-legged Bob, the airhead who jumps around in her electric blue Reeboks is Joined the Wrong Class –’

‘You’re a bit judgemental aren’t you.’

Her words were harsh, but there was still that hint of a smile on her mouth, which curved upwards in a very pleasing shape. I could easily imagine kissing that mouth. Had done, quite a few times, already.

‘No judging going on, just my memory system. Once I know everyone’s real names, their nicknames fade away. Like, Sandra – middle-aged mumsy type – she was Softly Spoken, because it was really hard to hear what she was saying, then when I finally caught her name, she was Softly Spoken Sandra, because of the sibilance, now she’s just Sandra. But I was talking about your nicknames. Don’t tell me you don’t do it, I’ve got friends who are teachers, and you all do it.’

‘Well alright, you got me. It’s hard to resist, and sometimes it’s funny telling Martin about people and calling them Busty Babs or whatever –’

‘There’s a Busty Babs? I can’t imagine how I didn’t notice her. Point her out on Thursday, please.’

‘Ha ha, she was from last year, she hasn’t turned up this term.’

‘And Martin is?’

Although I guessed he was muscle boy, and the ‘fucking boyfriend’ who had caused all the recent grief and mascara streaks.

‘You met him. My boyfriend. My so-called boyfriend.’

I liked the sound of Martin as a so-called boyfriend. It had potential.

‘Anything important he has, like his second cousin’s birthday or racing his stupid cars, I have to be there, rain or shine, no excuses. I had this job interview, he was supposed to meet me for lunch, it went really, really badly, like the godmother of all bad interviews, and all I wanted was to tell him about it so he could tell me it’s OK, I’ll get the next one, the job was shit, they didn’t deserve me anyway, but no. Something came up at the bloody gym. I don’t know, giving away a free muscle with every two kilometres on the treadmill or something. But anyway he just blows me off. By text. Didn’t even have the balls to phone, in case I got upset. Well guess what, Martin, I’m upset, but oh, that’s OK, because you don’t have to deal with it. Dickhead.’

‘It’s OK, you’ll get the next one, that one was shit, didn’t deserve you anyway.’

I wondered if she’d notice my subtle altering of her words, to encompass fucking boyfriends as well as jobs.

‘What?’

‘It seemed like you wanted someone to say it, so I said it.’

‘Oh. Well, thanks, but it’s not like it means as much coming from you, no offence, but you don’t know what the job was, or how good I would have been at it.’

There was a slight emphasis on the word ‘job’ that told me she’d noticed what I’d done, but had chosen to ignore it.

‘I’m sure you’d have been brilliant at … er …’

‘I bet you can’t even guess what it was.’

Bugger. Was I about to get myself into a real mess? Shoot too low and it’s like she doesn’t deserve anything decent, but shoot too high and – actually, what was wrong with shooting too high?

‘Brain surgeon?’

‘Try again. Still working on my brain surgery NVQ.’

‘Rocket scientist?’

‘NASA haven’t approved my CRB check yet. I think they might have spotted me running a red light from space or something.’

‘Headmistress of the world’s best yoga school?’

Sometimes, you can be really hung up on a girl, and imagine what she’s like, and fantasise about her, and then when you finally meet her, talk to her, even if she’s the hottest woman you’ve ever met, she can be dull as ditchwater, and it’s over before it’s begun. That so didn’t happen with Carrie. The more I talked to her, the more I liked her. Really liked, not just fancied. She was funny, bright, pretty, open, the whole package. Muscle boy Martin notwithstanding, I wanted her.

‘Now you’re just sucking up to teacher. Please don’t bring me an apple on Thursday. Receptionist.’

‘Receptionist?’

‘Yeah. So not even something worth getting upset over.’

‘Receptionist for who, or what?’

‘That new hotel on the ring road.’

‘Oh. Well, now I really can say that job was shit, they didn’t deserve you anyway. I know someone who worked there for a couple of weeks, not a receptionist, but in the office. They pay crap, expect long hours and unpaid overtime, and don’t give staff discount to their spa. And the manager is a wanker. So I’ve heard.’

‘Yeah, well, the manager is the one who told me my CV is a mess, I’m under-qualified and who looked me up and down like I was something nasty on the bottom of his shoe and told me I wasn’t smart enough.’

‘Like I said, wanker. There’ll be other jobs, Carrie.’

A look of desperation came over her face.

‘Well I bloody well hope so because I’ve been looking for a long time, and I need the money. I just can’t catch a break. The school is talking about changing the evening classes next year, focussing more on GCSEs and less on leisure stuff like yoga. If I lose my classes, I’ll really … I don’t know what I’ll do. Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be going on. Thanks, you’ve been great, listening to me moan. You must have somewhere to be.’

I looked at my watch. Even if I left right away I was going to be late for my appointment.

‘Do you mind if I send a quick text?’

She shook her head, and started to get her things together as I frantically sent a message to the company secretary asking her to call and make up an excuse to the client, and to say that I would be there as soon as possible.

‘I should get going anyway. Thanks for talking to me, you have actually cheered me up a bit.’

‘Aren’t you going to have any lunch?’

She shook her head. ‘I need to get back. Thanks, though. I’ll see you Thursday.’

And she stood up and was gone. I hadn’t even managed to get her phone number, and now I was even more hung up on her.

Thursday night couldn’t come soon enough. I ended up in the car park at the school half an hour before the class began, just because I couldn’t stand waiting around at home. Then I had to sit in my car, because I didn’t want to seem so loser-keen that I turned up any earlier than two minutes before it was due to start. Late would have been better, but would have meant less time in the presence of Carrie. Hopelessly lost. Or hopeless loser.

Carrie showed no sign that anything had passed between us in the preceding week. I’d thought that at least I would have got a smile, a nod, a small acknowledgement that I’d seen her in a less than happy frame of mind, and had, by her own admission, ‘cheered her up a bit’. But even my best pratfalls didn’t gain me much eye contact, and she was Ms Professional Yoga Instructor to all of us.

After the class, I spent as long as I could clearing my mat away, tying my laces, putting my hoody on, checking I had my wallet, in an attempt to be the last to leave, so I could at least ask if she was alright. It almost worked, as Bow-legged Bob (whose real name was Dave, but despite my claims, would always be Bow-legged Bob to me) finished talking to Carrie and left. As he was opening the door, however, he was almost knocked over by the hulking shape of muscle boy Martin, who filled the door frame and glowered at me while Bob aka Dave was trying to get past. Carrie looked up and saw him.

‘Oh, hey. I’m nearly done here, wait in the car for me?’

‘No, that’s OK. I’ll carry your stuff out if you like.’

Carrie looked at him tenderly, and I felt like punching him. Not that he would have felt it; he seemed to have muscles absolutely everywhere.

‘Aw, thanks babe.’

Ugh, and she called him babe. I despised pet names of any sort. And she hadn’t even noticed I was there. It was time to speak.

‘Thanks for tonight, Carrie, I think I might have finally got the hang of the Triangle.’

She smiled, not coldly but not warmly and just said, ‘See you next week.’

Which was much worse than before. It was a brush-off. I looked at Martin, and saw the challenge in his eyes.

‘Just try it,’ they said, ‘just fucking try it, mate.’

And I faltered a bit, because he was a lot bigger than me, and Carrie had shown slightly less than no interest, and I decided to leave it for this week.

Bwaak bwaak bwaak, yeah, I heard it too, the chicken noises in my head. Didn’t make any difference.

‘Yeah, next week.’

I walked out, trying to put as much casual into my step as I could muster as I headed out of the building. Two could play at that game. Trouble was, it suddenly felt like I was the only one playing the game, and it wasn’t much fun playing on your own. Maybe it was time to have a serious chat with myself, go clubbing, be the excellent no-strings lay, get her out of my system, get myself –

With a shove that knocked all the air out of me, I was slammed none too gently against the wall, my arm bent behind me pinning me in place and a mouth placed close to my ear. I tried to struggle out of it, but I couldn’t move. It didn’t hurt, but I was in no doubt that it could hurt, with just a little bit more pressure.

‘Fuck off and leave Carrie alone. Don’t come back to her class, if you know what’s good for you, Mr Cute Arse.’

I didn’t say anything, largely on account of having no air in my lungs. I tried another struggle, but was still held firmly; the muscles holding me knew exactly what they were doing. I had a sense of surreality, like I was in a bad movie. Certainly the words were from a rather poor script.

‘Did you hear me?’

It would have been hard not to without having a major hearing impairment, as he was speaking directly into my left ear. I nodded. It wasn’t an agreement to do as he said, just an acknowledgement that I’d heard, although he may have had a different take on it. Size and strength difference notwithstanding, I didn’t want Martin to win this one, even if it was on a technicality.

As suddenly as I’d been pinned, I was released, and when I turned round, Martin was walking towards Carrie, who had just come out of the school entrance, carrying all the stuff Martin had said he would carry for her. He put his arm round her and walked away, without looking back.

What is it with blokes like Martin that make them pull shit like that? Just before our little encounter, I’d been thinking about ways to put it all behind me, get her out of my system. It may have entailed leaving the class, I hadn’t got that far in my planning. If he had come up to me afterwards, tapped me on the shoulder, said ‘Excuse me mate, I can see you’re into Carrie, but she’s my girlfriend and I love her, so please just leave it’, I might have been persuaded, even if I wasn’t already on the verge of leaving it in my mind. But now, having been told what to do by a bully-boy meathead with a bicep where his brain should have been; now that he had filled me with adrenaline and testosterone, there was no way, no fucking way on this earth, I was going to be cowed. And he’d called me Mr Cute Arse, so unless he had a thing for my glutes, Carrie had told him about our conversation, and he hadn’t liked it, which made me think that maybe he wasn’t sure of her, and maybe there was a chance, just a chance. And maybe he’d got all overpowering and ‘if you know what’s good for you’ with her, and that thought made me feel protective. See? Blokes. Giant walking knobs, every one of us. Yeah, see you next week, Carrie.

So, it was Thursday, and there I was at the school again, a bit anxious about running into Martin, but confident that with a roomful of yoga classmates, nothing bad could really happen. Surely, after seven weeks of stretching and bending, we’d be more than a match for him en masse. Wouldn’t we? I wasn’t intending to stick around afterwards for a repeat performance, but my nerves were jangling a little nonetheless.

When Carrie walked in and saw me, her eyes widened, and something akin to fear flitted across her face, just for a split second. Then she carefully schooled her expression to class mode, and started the warm up. She gave me no eye contact throughout the entire class, took us through our paces, and finished bang on time. I don’t know what I had expected, but maybe a message of some sort in her eyes, a smile, a scowl, something.

As I had no intention of being around when muscle boy appeared after class, I hurriedly put my shoes on once Carrie had finished the warm down, plopped my mat on the pile, picked up my car keys and walked towards the door.

‘Matt?’

I turned round. It was Softly Spoken Sandra, annoyingly speaking loudly enough for me to hear and have to stop and answer her. Sod it, I wanted to be gone. I pasted a neutral expression on my face.

‘Yep.’

‘You’re a computer bod, aren’t you?’

Oh fuck, someone who wanted some free IT advice. Just turn it off and on again, pretty much always works.

‘You could say that.’

‘Do you know much about tablets – iPads and things?’

‘Yeah, a bit. Depends what you’re after.’

Hopefully nothing complicated that was going to take ages to explain in words of one syllable.

‘It’s my son’s twenty first birthday, and I’d like to get him something like that, but I just wondered if you had an opinion about the best sort to get.’

‘Well … I’ve got an iPad. All my own computer stuff is Apple, although I’ve done stuff with Android machines like Samsung at work. Does he have a preference?’

‘No, well, I don’t know. I haven’t asked him, it’s a surprise.’

‘Oh. Then my advice would be to try to find out, maybe from a mate or something. People are sometimes attached to a particular make, like me and Apple stuff. What make of phone has he got?’

‘I’ve no idea.’

‘Well that might give you a clue. Tell you what, find out, and we can have a chat next week.’

And I can get the fuck out of here before I get my head kicked in. As we were talking, I’d been trying to head towards the door, but Sandra had remained standing in the middle of the room, as if I wasn’t about to have five levels of shit beaten out of me by a git in a muscle vest.

‘Oh, I might not be here next week, I’m going to my daughter’s, she’s just had a baby …’

Oh fuck no, not the family history, I didn’t have time for this. Needed to be rude.

‘Well whenever you’re next here, then.’

‘But it’s his birthday a week on Saturday.’

Not my problem lady, why don’t you Google Which Tablet? I sighed, got my wallet out and pulled out a business card.

‘Look, here’s my mobile number, text me.’

The look of panic on Sandra’s face told me she didn’t do texting.

‘Or ring me, when you know. I’ll do my best.’

A look of relief flashed across her face.

‘Thank you so much, Matt. I told my husband I’d ask you. That’s really helpful of –’

‘No problem. Sorry, gotta dash.’

I started to jog out of the door, Sandra and I being the last in the room apart from Carrie.

‘Matt?’

No, just leave me the fuck alone, don’t get my teeth kicked in with inanities about Apple versus Samsung, I really don’t love my iPad that much.

With a grimace rather than a smile I turned back, but it wasn’t Sandra who had spoken; she walked past me and out of the door. It was Carrie.

My grimace rearranged itself into something more pleasant, and I raised my eyebrows.

‘I was surprised to see you here.’

I didn’t answer, not really much I could say. I didn’t know if Martin’s display of strength last week had been all his own idea, or whether she had had a say in it. So I shrugged and let her say whatever it was she wanted to say. If it was ‘get lost’, then so be it. But if not, then …

‘Martin can be a dickhead.’

So what was that? An apology?

‘Yeah, well, he and I seem to communicate differently to each other.’

‘You don’t want to piss him off.’

‘No, I don’t want to. But he’s not going to intimidate me, and that might unintentionally piss him off.’

Ha ha, who was I kidding? He intimidated the shit out of me. It sounded all tough and manly, though, and I was beginning to get a bit of a vibe from Carrie. Not necessarily an ‘I want you’ vibe, but something weird, like she wanted me to know something, but wasn’t sure how to go about it, as she wasn’t about to tell me.

‘Seriously Matt. He’s hurt people.’

No shit. With muscles and an attitude like his, it would be surprising if he hadn’t. I had a flash of insight; it was a little late arriving.

‘He hasn’t hurt you has he?’

Carrie dropped her gaze to the floor and shook her head.

‘No, he’d never hurt me.’

‘What, never as long as you do what he says?’

She looked up, a flash of anger in her eyes.

‘He’d never hurt me. I’m sorry he was mean to you last week, maybe his way wasn’t the right way, but maybe you should listen to what he said. Maybe this class isn’t right for you.’

‘Seriously? You can afford to kick people out of your class because your boyfriend takes a dislike to them?’

‘For me. Would you do it for me?’

There was a note of desperation in her voice.

‘What, not come back?’

She nodded, not looking at me. I was getting a sense of being a bit out of my depth, and it scared me.

‘He’s not picking me up this week, but he’ll ask if you were here, and when he finds out you were, he’ll be back next week to make sure you get the message again. I don’t want you to get hurt.’

My man-pride bristled at the implication that I was going to be the one getting hurt, foolish skinny runt that I was.

‘I’m more than capable of holding my own.’

Ha, yes, if we were playing Scrabble I could beat him hands down.

‘You’re not, Matt. Look, you seem like a decent bloke. I’ve asked you nicely, don’t make me go official, make … claims about you. If that’s what it takes, I’ll do it.’

What?

I was astounded, unsure if she was serious or just trying her hardest to convince me.

‘Please, can we just do this as, I don’t know, friends? Please?’

She sounded frantic. In the face of all her pleading, I could do nothing more than back down. It really felt like Carrie was in some kind of unhealthy relationship with Martin, and yeah, I felt protective, but there didn’t seem to be much I could do about it, except she’d just pulled the ‘friends’ card. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

‘OK, then, as a friend of yours, I’ll do this, I’ll stop coming to your class,’

Carrie closed her eyes briefly and nodded.

‘But I want something in return.’

She looked at me warily, waiting.

‘I want to give you my mobile number. Hide it in your phone under pizza delivery or something if you’re worried about him finding it, but I want you to promise that if you ever, ever need a friend, someone to talk to, to help you out of some kind of trouble, if you need anything at all, you’ll call me.’

Carrie looked back at me for a long time, her blue eyes troubled, her brow creased in a frown. She was undecided. Then she decided. What was most telling was that she didn’t laugh and say ‘trouble? What are you talking about?’ or ‘oh, I’ve got loads of friends’ or ‘don’t be daft, that won’t be necessary, he’s a sweetie’ or ‘on your bike mate, you’re pushing your luck’. She just nodded and handed me her phone so I could programme my number into it.

Thursdays after that lacked a certain something, that something being Carrie Mitcham. I changed my course to Italian for Beginners, which was run by middle-aged Roberto, but having missed more than half a term, not having the hots for the instructor, and never having spoken a word of Italian, I found it hard to devote the same passion to it as I had to yoga.

Still, it gave me a focus of sorts, and the time I spent on a couple of conservation weekends weren’t wasted either, as I met Mercy. We bonded over a cup of weak tea during a break from the hacking and digging, and I liked her enough to ask her out. There didn’t seem much point pining over Carrie, who had made herself perfectly clear, and I might as well have some fun.

You always expect people named after virtues to be pretty straight, don’t you? Grace, Charity, Temperance (although I haven’t yet met a Temperance), whatever. The names suggest something worthy from their owners. Mercy was loud, raucous even, had a wicked sense of humour, jet black curly hair and an enormous bosom. Sold to the lecherous skinny guy in the muddy green wellies. We started seeing each other, casually, for the odd coffee, then dinner, a film, a play; we liked enough of the same things for it to be easy and comfortable between us, and enough of different things to have something to banter about.

After a few months, though, I started to notice that she would slow down and gaze into the windows of jewellers when we walked past, and her conversation became littered with references to friends’ weddings, past, present and future.

With a heavy heart, I searched my soul to see if Mercy was ‘the one’, and before my search had got very far, I had to admit that, no, she was a mate, she was great in bed, we were compatible in many ways, not all of which were due to her enormous bosom, but I didn’t love her, and I was going to have to do something about it before … well, just before. Maybe my way of going about things wasn’t thoughtful or considerate, but that was who I was then. I was terrified of being trapped in some kind of unwanted commitment, and I fell back on my default position: all will become clear.

We were out, Merce and I, a picnic on a hill, sun was shining, I was going to call it off. I really wasn’t looking forward to it; this was the longest relationship I’d had since – well ever, in fact, and although I’d let women down gently many times before, it had been after a few weeks, not nearly six months, not after they’d started getting daft ideas about happy ever afters. This wasn’t going to be gentle. Merce was very open with her emotions, and I anticipated either yelling or weeping. Of the two, I would rather have had yelling, but I wasn’t going to have much say in it.

We had just spread out the food and opened the wine (my thinking being that if she had a glass or two, it might soften things a bit for both of us), when my phone rang. It was just a number, no name, so no one from my contacts list, most likely a cold caller. I nearly left it, but last minute procrastination made me give Merce an apologetic grimace, as if it was a call I’d been expecting, and had to answer.

‘Matt Scott.’

There was nothing for a few seconds, and I nearly disconnected, then a faint sniff.

‘Matt?’

‘Yep.’

‘It’s Carrie.’

My turn to be silent, just for a second, while I caught my breath. I stood up, turned my back on Merce and walked far enough away that I would hopefully be out of earshot.

‘Carrie? Is everything OK?’

More sniffing. ‘You said, I promised, if I ever needed a friend, if I was ever in trouble …’

‘What do you need?’

I barely remembered Merce was sitting twenty metres away. My heart was pounding, adrenaline coursing. If he’d hurt her I’d … do my best to kill him. At least bruise his sorry arse in some way.

‘I’m scared.’

‘Where are you?’

‘At home.’

‘Is he there?’

‘No, but he’ll be back soon. He said if I wasn’t here when he gets back …’

I could imagine the kind of threats he’d made.

‘You need to get out of there now. Meet me – shit, I don’t know where you live.’

She told me, and I knew the area fairly well.

‘OK, grab some things, don’t take too long, meet me in Dave’s Café. Do you know it?’

‘Yes, but –’

‘I’ll be there in ten minutes, fifteen max.’

And that was going to involve some fancy driving and the hope that the police didn’t have their speed radars going along the bypass.

‘Don’t move, just sit at the back, or stand by the toilets if there aren’t any seats. Don’t sit in the window. I’ll be right there.’

‘OK.’

‘Go now. Quickly.’

‘Thank you.’

I disconnected and turned round. Shit, I’d completely forgotten about Merce. I couldn’t leave her on the top of a hill, I couldn’t take her with me, and I didn’t have time to pack everything up, drop her home and get to Carrie in my ridiculously tight fifteen minute time slot. The last thing I wanted was for Carrie to think I wasn’t coming. I ran my hands through my hair.

‘Merce –’

‘I heard. Have you got to go?’

‘Friend in need kind of thing. Trouble is –’

‘Yeah, I’m a bit of an inconvenience.’

I heard all the undertones and indeed overtones in her voice. I’d told her a bit about Carrie. If she’d heard any of my conversation, she would know who I’d been talking to.

‘No, never, Merce, it’s just I told her I’d be there in fifteen minutes, but if I take you home first, I’ll be late. Sorry, I just didn’t think.’

‘I’ll be OK here.’

‘What?’

‘I can get a taxi back.’

‘What? No you can’t.’

‘I’d say I’d wait for you to come back, but that might not be for a while, might it. And weren’t you going to dump me anyway?’

‘What?’

‘Come on Matt, you hardly spoke on the way here, I’ve been a bit needy, it’s not like it hasn’t happened to me before. Maybe it’s better this way. Just go, rescue your friend, I’ll be fine.’

‘Merce, I –’

‘Go on. Thanks, Matt, it’s been a great few months. Sorry you were a bastard in the end.’

Oh shit. I hope she didn’t know about –

‘I know you’ve slept with someone else.’

Oh shit. I hope it’s only –

‘Or rather sometwo else.’

Oh shit. I fully deserved the Bastard Crown she had just metaphorically awarded me.

‘Piss off, then.’

I didn’t have any answer for her, or any time to talk about it, and the clock was ticking, so I turned and ran back to my car, further proving what a bastard I really was. It occurred to me as I was half way to the café that I should have at least offered to pay for the taxi. Even confirmed bastards would think I was a bastard.

2. Do you remember the first time?

In which Matty does some things for the first time, and does other things for the last time.

Matt

I pushed her away and stumbled backwards.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

I so wished I had my glasses; the whole world felt out of focus, things were happening that I didn’t quite understand, and it was all making me feel a bit sick and dizzy, but she’d put them somewhere, and I couldn’t see to look for them. Cindy moved towards me again, until I put up my hands in a kind of fending off gesture.

‘Andrew’s my mate.’

She laughed again, compounding the confusion I was trying to fight my way through.

‘It’s OK, Matt. Drew and me have a … um … open relationship. We both see other people if we want to.’

‘What?’

First I’d heard of it, but then Andrew didn’t really confide in me much any more.

‘Yeah. It’d be OK.’

Her voice was low and breathy, and she was so damn close, and now she was touching my arm, running her fingers slowly down from my shoulder, and I thought I was going to explode. I was so conflicted. This was what I’d been thinking about for weeks, Cindy touching me, kissing me, me touching her, it had filled my alone time, given me some nicely sordid little fantasies for the shower, but it being real was different. I couldn’t quite get my head round it.

She was closer now. I’d backed up against the wall, and she was right in front of me, almost touching, so almost that it felt like there were little arcs of static between us. She reached up again and cupped my cheek.

‘You’re so cute. It’s really OK to have a bit of fun, Matt. Drew would be totally OK, I know it.’

Now she was closer, I could see her face, and look into her eyes, and I was lost. I was gone. Whatever ear-splitting alarm bells were going off in my head, this was Cindy, this was my daydream come true, offering ‘a bit of fun’, and saying her boyfriend, my best mate, would be OK with it. I stopped struggling with my conscience, and my hormones took over.

Iz

OK, so here’s the first taste of Matty love. Go Matty and all that, but this is what you have to look forward to.

Matt

Now, I may have lacked experience in the women department, but what I lacked in practical application I had more than made up for in theoretical learning. I had read books – no, not just porn, but real books, about what made women tick, what turned them on, where to touch, what to do, how to be. I’d watched DVDs – again, not just porn, but ‘how to’ stuff. I was pretty much a theory into practice kind of guy, and I had a head full of knowledge that was just aching to be tried on a real live woman. Here was real live Cindy, apparently desperate for it to be tried on her, putting all my well-researched theories into practice.

‘I’ve never –’

How could I have never? I was eighteen. Eighteen and a half if you want to split hairs. Practically middle-aged in the virginity stakes. But there it was, and I needed to get my excuses in first.

‘I know. Drew said. It was so cute, the two of you coming here all innocent.’

Oh great – did Andrew just blurt all my secrets?

‘It’ll be OK, Matt, you’ll be fine. I know you want to, I’ve seen you looking at me.’

Yeah, well, cat out of the bag, then, nothing to lose. Unable to stop another groan or moan or grunt escaping from my throat, I tentatively lifted my hand up to touch her hair, then the other hand, then cupped her face in my palms, with my fingers in her hair, and bent down to her mouth, which opened beneath my lips, and all the softness and slipperiness and tongueiness I had ever imagined opened with it.

And then things happened really quickly. I’d always, in my imagination, taken things really slowly the first time, so I could savour the moment and relish the experience. But I hadn’t factored in several years of teenage neediness, nearly two months of pining forlornly after Cindy, or the fact that she had her tongue down my throat, her hands up my shirt and her luscious body pressed hard against me. All of these elements made for an explosive cocktail, and before I knew it she’d pulled my shirt over my head, had divested herself of most of her clothes too, and was standing in front of me in her bra and pants. Then I definitely wasn’t able to go slow.

Every single one of my buttons had been well and truly pushed, and stopping now would cause cataclysmic, seismic chain reactions that would be felt in the depths of rural China. I pulled her towards me with my hands on her buttocks and kissed her deeply, grinding my crotch into hers. She kissed back, but started to pull me towards the bed. I willingly followed her lead, and lay down next to her, where we rolled around for a while, kissing and rubbing against each other until I wasn’t sure I could take it much longer.

This was so much more than my distant memories of pashing Lily Knight, this was real, this was grown up, this was sex, or at least it was going to be in the very near future. I felt Cindy reach for my belt, unbuckle it, and slide the zip down on my jeans, then her hand wriggled below the waistband of my boxers and I felt her fingers on my cock. I nearly let rip against her right then, but just managed to control myself.

‘You can touch me, Matt, I won’t break.’

She turned away from me and arched her back, and I could see her nipples peaking through the lacy fabric of her bra. They were irresistible, and with widened eyes I bent my head down to them. As I touched and tasted her breasts through her bra with my tongue and fingers, she wiggled my jeans and underpants down my thighs. When she had taken off the remainder of my clothes, she reached behind her and unclasped her bra, and I had my first ever view of a real live pair of breasts. I was awestruck.

‘Holy fuck.’

‘Hopefully.’

I couldn’t help myself; I leaned down to her, cupped them both, kissed them both, sucked them both, unable to stop feasting on them.

I’ve always been a bit of a breast man – actually who isn’t? Some of us say it’s legs or arses or necks or even elbows, but really, when it comes down to the nasty, it’s those two soft orbs of womanliness that are the difference between us, those glorious spheres that quiver and tremble with every movement, that have nipples that harden under your touch, your breath, or even your gaze.

Nipples are so much more subtle than dicks; if you can see a woman’s nipples through her shirt, it might not be because she’s aroused, she could just be cold. Or she may just be excited about what she’s talking about. You can never assume, you have to delve, and I’ve always loved a good delve.

Breasts don’t have to be big, although big is beautiful. They can be small but perfectly formed; they can be the ideal medium-sized handful; they can be purely perky or delightfully droopy; they can be high fliers or low slung; they can be almost anything and they’ll attract my attention.

I have given a lot of thought to breasts over the years. Lau’s are perfect – not so big that they’re the only thing you notice when you meet her, although yeah, I noticed. Not so small that she has to wear padded push-up bras to get a cleavage; what you see is what you get – well that’s pretty much Lau all over. But more of Lau later. Patience, dear readers.

Anyway, so I’m a breast man. Could be something to do with all that time with my mum – ew, let’s not explore that little nugget too deeply – and Cindy was pushing me closer and closer to the edge with hers. I could easily have come just by looking at her, but I wanted to do it properly.

‘Shit, condom.’

‘I’m on the pill.’

‘But we should still …’

‘Why? I’m clean and you’ve never done it before, so why do we need it?’

I ignored all the reasoned arguments about only ninety nine percent guarantees, and not knowing her that well so could I trust her, and I didn’t need any further persuasion, especially as I had no condoms, and didn’t fancy sprinting down to the vending machine in the Student Union while Cindy went off the whole idea back in my room.

‘You’re forgetting something.’

Cindy ran her thumb under the top of her pants, if you could call the tiny scrap of nothing much pants.

‘Can’t do anything with these on. Take them off.’

I was open to suggestions or, as it turns out, direct orders, at that point, and did as I was told, pulling the lacy thong down her thighs, over her feet and dropping it on the floor. I would have liked to have explored it a bit longer, having a bit of a thing for knickers, but events were urgently coming to a head.

‘Come on, Matt, what are you waiting for?’

I groaned as Cindy spread her legs, and the promised land awaited and I just knelt and stared at her naked body in awe. I felt a moment of panic, as I wondered if I really knew what to do, but it seemed like my brain was happy on autopilot as I knelt between her thighs, positioned myself and plunged forwards into her. I had never felt anything like it, in all my wildest wanking fantasies. To feel myself inside her, filling her, pulling out, thrusting back in, the friction, the movement, the sensation. I wanted it to last, but it wasn’t going to last, it was going to be over soon, I could feel it building and bubbling, filling my balls and setting my cock on fire, and Cindy seemed to be building and bubbling too, writhing beneath me, moaning, and here it came, here I came. It rushed through me, searing my body with hot electricity, pouring out of me in streams of throbbing … joy. I shouted, and Cindy shouted, and I collapsed on her, panting, unable to move or feel or speak, until she pushed me off her and I rolled onto my side, a grin on my face.

I was spent. I was in heaven, or somewhere very like it. Surely not my smelly room in halls, it must be some kind of divine antechamber. There was an angel lying next to me at any rate. I looked into Cindy’s eyes, smiled, and pulled her close, kissing her hair, stroking her soft skin.

‘Wow.’

‘Good?’

‘Wow.’

She laughed and rolled away from me.

‘Good then. Bin bags.’

‘What?’

‘We’ve got to get to the charity shop before they close.’

‘What? No. I can’t move.’

‘Come on, get up, no time. They shut at one on a Wednesday. Here.’

She threw my jeans and t-shirt at me so they landed on my chest. I really didn’t want to get up. I wanted to hold her close and talk about what had just happened, how amazing it was, how much I loved her. Nothing in my books and DVDs said it would all be over within minutes of all the shouting.

‘Can’t we just … stay here for a bit? I dunno, hold each other and talk or something?’

‘Ha ha, no Matt. That was great, but cuddling is just for me and Drew.’

‘Oh.’

It was as if someone had plunged me into an ice bath. The glow I’d been feeling disappeared instantly, replaced by a sinking feeling.

‘What was all that about then?’

‘We were just having fun, weren’t we?’

Yeah, if your idea of fun is having your heart ripped out and stomped on fairly comprehensively. But obviously if you’ve been stupid enough to believe something different when it isn’t true, you’re not about to admit it.

‘Yeah, I suppose.’

‘Well then. Bin bags, for this lot. Come on.’

And for some reason, I did what she said. I put my clothes in bin bags, I meekly followed her to Oxfam and gave them away, and I bought what she told me to from the same shop. I did it all in a daze, unable to put coherent thoughts together, unable to speak much. I even let her lead me into an opticians, where a lucky cancellation meant a trial pair of contact lenses and an order for a new pair of glasses. Walking back without my glasses on, I felt naked, which further compounded the strangeness.

When I got back to my room, Cindy having gone to the Union bar in search of Andrew, I dumped the shopping bags on the floor and flopped onto my bed. Cindy seemed to have lost interest in the ‘big reveal’, and I still hadn’t looked at myself in the mirror. I was – well, heartbroken may be overstating it a little, I don’t think my heart was broken. For the few minutes we were – what were we doing? Fucking? Yeah, sounds right. For the few minutes we were fucking, Cindy was the love of my life. I’d wanted her since Andrew got her. I’d overlooked several annoying character flaws in favour of several distractingly attractive physical traits, but since she metaphorically poured cold water on me straight after the sex, I’d been in a stupor of regret and self-condemnation. I’d just slept with my best friend’s girlfriend. I’d just ignored all the carefully constructed fantasies of how I wanted my first time to be, of how respectful and careful and giving I was going to be, to have a frantic fuck with someone I shouldn’t have. Instead of lying here glowing, revelling in the fact that I had at last HAD SEX, I was lying here cold and miserable inside.

It felt like Cindy had used me. Whether she and Andrew really did have an open relationship or not, I had no idea, but she had wanted me at that moment, and she’d had me, and that was that.

I could have lain there all afternoon feeling sorry for myself, wondering whether to say something to Andrew, and what exactly that something would be, and I did spend some time doing that. But then I made a decision. I’d lost my virginity, not in the way I’d planned, and not with someone I would have chosen, not really.

My crush on Cindy was well and truly over, as any woman who would sleep with their boyfriend’s best mate wasn’t for me, even though the twisted logic of that and what it said about me had to be shoved far to the back of my mind. But I’d had sex. I’d done it. It had been incredible, and if only for that I could be thankful to Cindy. She’d cut my hair and changed my clothes, and I decided to have a good look at what she’d done.

I hauled myself off my bed and walked over to the mirror. I looked back at myself. Skinny, lanky, dorky, stupid Star Wars t-shirt. Cool haircut, though. And my eyesight was so poor that it had been a while since I’d studied myself without glasses – but contact lenses undoubtedly changed my ‘look’. Maybe the clothes would make a bit of a difference after all. Feeling ridiculous, I looked in the bags from the charity shop for a different shirt and trousers, and changed into them. Considered the results in the mirror, although as I turned this way and that, I felt like a preening princess. But even so, I had to admit to looking and feeling different. The bloke staring back at me was still a skinny lanky dork, but he had a bit of something about him. Maybe it was the hair, maybe it was the clothes, maybe it was the lack of specs. I quite liked it, and smiled stupidly at myself.

There was a knock at the door. I opened it to find Andrew, and immediately felt embarrassed at my newly makeovered state; he didn’t look too happy to see it either.

‘She did it, didn’t she.’

He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me backwards into the room.

‘What?’

‘Cind. She cut your hair. Bought you clothes. Did she fuck you too?’

‘What?’

‘I’m not stupid, Matt. Where are your glasses? What’s all this?’

He pulled at the collar on my shirt.

‘Er …’

‘Did you?’

‘What?’

‘Fuck her?’

This was so far removed from any conversation I’d ever had with Andrew that all sensible words fled my brain, but he must have seen something in my face.

‘Jesus Christ, you did, didn’t you. What did she tell you? That we had an open relationship?’

‘Er …’

‘Jesus Christ. You fucking knob. She’s my – Christ, Matt, she’s the best thing that ever, ever happened to me and you’ve just fucking – ugh you knob.’

And with that he punched me. It came out of nowhere, and I suppose really it wasn’t that hard of a punch, him being a nerdy dork with no muscles, just like me, but it connected with my cheek and knocked me backwards so that I fell on my arse on the floor, and he jumped on top of me and we started wrestling as I tried to get up and he tried to stop me. He grabbed the collar of my shirt and pulled my head up, then let go and the back of my head bounced on the floor.

‘Ow.’

‘Sorry.’

‘What?’

We stopped wrestling and looked at each other. Andrew had tears running down his face, and a strange mixture of emotions raced across him: sorrow, anger, shame, and finally laughter. He started to shake with it, seeming to come close to the edge of tears again. I lay pinned beneath him, trying to get my breath back, trying to work out what was going on.

Eventually Andrew stood up and held a hand out to me. I took it warily, and pulled myself to my feet, wondering what was coming next.

‘Shit, Matt, you bastard. You fucking bastard.’

I hung my head, barely able to look at him.

‘Sorry. She said you –’

‘I know exactly what she said. She said it all to me, that first night. She’s got a boyfriend, back home, some footballer bloke. Apparently they have an open relationship too, and she’s done the haircut and clothes thing with him as well. When she told me she’d made you over, I just started thinking, what if that’s what she does, how she does blokes? I think she collects virgins.’

‘What?’

That seemed to be my catchphrase at the moment; I had spent most of today in a haze of not understanding and getting things completely wrong.

‘This footballer bloke, she told me she was his first too, then me, now you. And I think – shit I hate to say this – I think she might have done the open relationship thing with someone else.’

‘What, here? On campus?’

Andrew nodded. I sat down on the bed, and he sat next to me.

‘Christ, what a mess, Matt.’

‘So you guys don’t have an open relationship?’

Andrew snorted.

‘Well she obviously does, she just neglected to inform me. I thought we were pretty exclusive, apart from her back home boyfriend, who apparently ‘didn’t need to know about us’. Shit, I’m just as bad, aren’t I.’

‘Sorry. I just believed her. Still, I shouldn’t have done it.’

‘She’s hard to resist.’

‘Yeah.’

‘You’re a fucking bastard bumhole for doing my girl.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I should dump her.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I might not, though.’

‘OK.’

‘I don’t want you to fuck her again.’

‘OK.’

And there we had it. Andrew spent the rest of his three years at University being tormented by Cindy. I lost count of the times he knocked on my door, needing to talk, needing reassurance that he was doing the right thing, or wanting permission to dump her, or just wanting to tell me he loved her but that he’d found out about yet another ‘makeover’.

He eventually dumped her for good just before Finals, which screwed both of them up so much they both failed – some would say justice was done.

Whereas I’d lost my virginity, but found something else, a new haircut, new clothes, a new face. I’d also found attractiveness, confidence, of a sort. And Cindy had been right – walking into the canteen that night had been a revelation.

Shallow as it made me, I couldn’t help being pleasantly surprised at the amount of girls who came and sat at my table, chattering to each other at first, but swinging covert glances my way, and holding eye contact. The new bruise deposited on my cheekbone by Andrew was also a bit of a talking point, and elicited sympathy and a few tender touches too. I was asked if I was ‘new’, and when I told them I’d been here since the beginning of term, and always sat in this spot for dinner, I smiled to myself at the ‘no, that other bloke sits here, kind of skinny, with … oh!’. I went back to my room that night a new man. I wondered if Andrew felt the same way.

And thus began the belated chapter in the life of Matt Scott: Ladies Man. The rest of that term, I chatted girls up, tentatively at first, worrying all the time they were going to laugh in my face, but gaining confidence as even if they didn’t fall at my feet, they at least talked back. I went on dates, I had lots more sex. University campuses seem to be the place for it; lots of girls and boys away from the constraints of home life for the first time, eager to test out their new found freedom. It worked for me. I took more interest in my appearance, not to the point of obsession, but there were to be no more haircuts from my mum, and I bought my own clothes now.

By the time I went home for Christmas, I was juggling two potential girlfriends and a couple of one night stands who wanted it to be more. It was a little overwhelming, and I relished the three week break back in Stafford, where I could get on with some course work in peace. I turned my mobile phone off and decided to take a breather from the whirl of girls.

When I got home, I was surprised to find Jay installed in the living room. We grunted a greeting, mine a more subdued grunt than usual, as he was an interloper these days, someone who treated the place like it was home, but was hardly ever there. A bit like me, now I was at Uni, I suppose.

‘How come you’re back?’

Jay was never around for the festive season, there was always a game on Boxing Day, or thereabouts, or there was training or travelling or some such shit.

‘Done my hamstring. Out for a few weeks.’

‘Oh. Bummer.’

‘Yeah.’

Not playing rugby was just about the worst thing that could happen to Jay. He was naturally taciturn, but not playing rugby made him sullen and self-pitying and a general pain in the arse to be around. I sighed inwardly at the thought of trying to be jolly for him for the next – how long?

‘So you’re back for, what, a week or two?’

‘Not sure. Might have to go back in a few days, start rehab.’

‘What, before Christmas?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Mum’ll be disappointed.’

Jay shrugged, Mum’s disappointment being neither here nor there for him when compared to the thrill of doing lots of exercises so he could play again.

‘Your brother thinks he might be able to do some physio with the Old Rotarians down the road.’

Mum had come in, unheard by me, and I turned round and gave her a welcoming hug.

‘Hi Mum. Oh, well, that’ll be great if Jay can stay here a bit longer.’

I looked at him pointedly, but he was staring impassively at the TV.

‘Yes dear. It’s lovely to see you, Matthew, have you brought much washing?’

I grinned and fetched my bags.

‘Is that a new haircut, dear?’

‘Yeah. Andrew’s girlfriend did it.’

This stirred Jay.

‘What, Dipstick’s got a girl?’

Andrew’s surname was Distock, with predictable consequences.

‘Must have missed the headlines on the news. Class minger is she?’

‘Jameson, stop it now. Andrew’s a nice looking boy. So is Matthew. What have you done with your glasses, dear?’

‘I got contacts.’

‘You look very different. You can see your eyes. You haven’t got a girlfriend have you?’

She looked at me hopefully. I laughed and shook my head at her.

‘Not yet. Too young to get tied down.’

I wasn’t about to get into the tangled web of girlfriends, potential girlfriends and one nighters that had littered the last few breathtaking weeks.

‘Yeah, and the class minger’s taken.’

‘Fuck off, Jay.’

And I wasn’t about to take Jay’s shit anymore. He was sitting there like he owned the place, like the whole world revolved around him and his precious hamstring, and he needed a – well, maybe a slap would just get me in more trouble than it was worth, but give me a few years in a gym and I could do it. At least a slap. Anyway, I’d gone away to Uni a boy, but I felt like I’d come back a bit of a man, and I wanted him to know.

‘Matthew, language.’

‘Sorry, Mum, but –’

‘Jameson’s come back to … recuperate from more than an injury. Just be nice to him.’

‘What?’

‘Just be nice.’

She looked at me, asking me with her eyes. I caved, and looked at Jay, who was still staring at the TV. Fascinating programme about sharks, apparently. I looked back at Mum, who mouthed ‘later’ at me and took my bag into the kitchen to start my laundry.

I have to say, in my defence, I usually did my own laundry, but Mum liked to do it, is what I told myself, and I’d had a hard term and I was knackered from the long forty minute bus and train journey home and deserved a bit of pampering.

I sat down on the sofa, slipped my shoes off – Timberland boots I’d found in a charity shop the week before – and lounged along the length of it, prepared to give sharks a go in the name of being nice to Jay. After a while I felt his eyes on me and looked up at him.

‘What?’

‘You. What’s with the new look?’

I shrugged. ‘Just fancied a change.’

‘Working for you is it?’

‘S’pose.’

This was Jay and me communicating at the highest level. There were hardly any grunts at all. Sophisticated linguistic effort on both sides.

‘What’s she like, then?’

‘Who?’

‘Dipstick’s woman.’

‘Don’t know why you’d care, you think she’s the bloody class minger.’

‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to be a git.’

What? Had Jay just apologised? I hadn’t heard the trumpets announcing the end of the world, so I had trouble believing it.

‘I was just interested. Feels weird you guys being all grown up. So what’s she like then?’

This felt strange, talking normally with Jay, but I bit the bullet.

‘Pretty, I guess. Bit of a bitch, though.’

‘Oh?’

‘Fucks around.’

‘And Dipstick puts up with it?’

‘He’s besotted.’

‘Idiot.’

‘Yeah, well.’

We went back to watching sharks. Apparently, they don’t have any bones, and some of them can live up to a hundred and fifty years. Who knew.

Jay wasn’t finished yet though.

‘Seriously, Matty, what’s with the hair, and the contacts?’

‘Like I said, time for a change.’

‘And Dipstick’s bitch girlfriend was the one to change you?’

He’d hit a bit closer to the truth than I liked, and I made my reply deliberately offhand.

‘Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

Jay gave me a sharp look.

‘She didn’t fuck around … with you?’

I shrugged, trying to make it as small a deal as possible.

‘Amongst others.’

Jay’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline.

‘Holy shit, Matty. You broke your duck.’

‘Fuck off. How do you know when I broke my duck? How do you know I had a duck to break?’

‘It’s written all over your Jack Wills jeans and your lack of nerd-specs. You got laid, little bro.’

‘So? Who hasn’t?’

I was really trying to hold my own with Jay. This was about the most adult conversation I’d ever had with him, not that there was a lot of previous experience to compare with, and I was determined it wasn’t going to dissolve into petulant insults and sneering, at least on my part.

‘Ha ha, nice try at nonchalance.’

Nonchalance? Since when did Jay know words like nonchalance?

You hadn’t, at least not to my knowledge, not before you went away to Uni. You didn’t seriously boff your mate’s girlfriend? Not your first time?’

Jay was looking at me with a mixture of disbelief and awe and … something else I couldn’t identify.

‘It wasn’t like that.’

I squirmed with embarrassment. I’d tried to erase the whole Cindy incident from my mind, had hardly seen her or Andrew since, had been comfortable with not exploring it in any way.

‘What was it then? Mistaken identity? They were on a break? They have one of these modern ‘we can see other people’ things going on? And by the way, good on Dipstick if he’s managed to wangle that one.’

‘Yeah, you’d think.’

‘What? Really? They see other people?’

‘Not they. Her.’

‘Oh. Oh Matty …’

I would almost describe the look that came over Jay’s face as sympathetic.

‘She told you they do other people, and you did her, and then you found out Dipstick wasn’t quite as open-minded as she was.’

‘Yeah, very perceptive.’

When the hell had Jay got perceptive?

‘He punched me, actually. And his name’s Andrew, not Dipstick.’

‘He punched you? Like, actually made contact? Did it hurt? Jesus. I’ve been away too long.’

‘Yeah, it hurt. But I deserved it.’

‘Yeah, I’ll say you did. But he didn’t dump her?’

‘No, like I said, besotted.’

‘Sounds like he deserves what he got as well then.’

‘Whatever. Can we talk about something else? Or find out more about sharks?’

‘Your call.’

We turned back to the TV, but it wasn’t long before Jay’s newly awakened curiosity surfaced again.

‘So was it just the once, or have there been more?’

‘What is it with the zillion questions?’

‘Just showing an interest. You’re my little bro, I worry about you.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since you went out into the big wide world away from mummy’s apron-strings and started fucking around with your best mate’s woman.’

‘Piss off. I’m not about to go into details to satisfy your prurient prying.’

‘Fine, have it your way. Just thought you might like to talk about it with someone other than Mum. But I’m sure she’ll be up for advice on premature ejaculation, or what to do when the condom splits, or how to leave in the morning when you’ve got no intention of seeing her again.’

I was silent for a moment, battling with myself. It would be good to have someone to talk to about it all, but Jay? I’d never talked to Jay about doing the washing up, let alone about doing a relationship. I wasn’t sure he was sincere, and prior experiences told me I was as likely to get the piss taken out of me as I was to find out anything useful. Still, he did seem to be showing signs of being vaguely human, against all the odds, and I made a snap decision to give him a chance. We could always go back to grunting like Neanderthals for the remainder of the holidays if being homo sapiens didn’t work out.

‘Well how do you, then?’

‘What, leave in the morning?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Best not to.’

‘What? Not leave?’

‘Best not to wait until morning. Once you’ve stayed the night, they think it’s, like, a “relationship”, so if you’re not up for a “relationship” – ‘

Jay was busy air-quoting for my benefit.

‘– or for extricating yourself from one, make sure you bugger off as soon as possible afterwards, and never cuddle them or say you’ll call them unless you want weeks of needy emails or texts.’

‘But I always cuddle. Kind of says thanks.’

‘Ha ha, really? You’re so cute. But it’s making a rod for your own back, mate. Unless she’s The One. Or one of the ones.’

‘And how do you know if she is?’

‘Jesus, Matty, how the fuck would I know? You don’t need to know either, not when you’re still barely out of nappies. There’s plenty of time for you to find The One yet.’

‘But I thought you and …’ oh what was her name, Mum had told me, ‘… Sophia were …’

I tailed off as an incredibly miserable expression crossed over Jay’s face.

‘What?’

‘Don’t go there, mate, that’s all. You’re best off playing the field, not committing to anyone, that way you won’t be crushed when it all goes tits up. Just try not to fuck with someone else’s girl along the way.’

Jay really looked on the verge of tears, and I couldn’t handle it, had never seen him cry, even when we were kids. I backed off the deep and meaningful, and tried some lighthearted banter.

‘Yeah, well, me and commitment not exactly an item. Cuddling afterwards is the fullest extent, and maybe not that any more, if I take your advice.’

Jay gave me a weak smile and turned back to the TV, where the sharks had given way to World War Two, and we sank back into our more comfortable reticent state.

Later on, I was sitting up with Mum after Jay had gone to bed, and she told me the whole story. I had only half realised there even was a whole story; Jay’s life outside of rugby usually held little drama, it was on the pitch where the highs and lows seemed to happen. But nevertheless, there were off-field events apart from the hamstring that had caused my brother to come home for some recuperation.

The short version is that Jay’s girlfriend, Sophia, had been having some of her own open relationship action with Jay’s team mate and friend, and he’d been among the last on the team to know. They’d been together for about a year, and had moved in together a couple of months ago. It had affected Jay to the point of him considering leaving his team, Royals, and looking for another club, but he was under contract until the end of the season, and it was likely he was going to have to stay there for another few months at least.

I felt terrible. I’d done exactly the same to Andrew as Jay’s mate had done to him, and then asked Jay advice about it. I was probably lucky to have got away without another punch, which would have done a lot more damage than Andrew’s, and for Jay to be civilised about it was remarkable in the circumstances. Mum sensed my discomfort, but I couldn’t tell her the details of my newly non-virginal status without serious embarrassment, and much as I talked to her about a lot of things, this was one of those subjects I couldn’t broach.

‘Are you alright, dear?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You’ve gone very quiet.’

‘Just thinking.’

‘Anything you want to talk about?’

‘No, not really. Just think I might have made things worse for Jay.’

‘How’s that, dear? You’ve not been fighting again, have you? Honestly, Matthew, you’ve only been home five minutes, I did say be nice to him.’

‘No Mum, nothing like that. I didn’t know about him and Sophia, and I just … told him about some stuff that I wouldn’t have done if I had known.’

‘Oh.’

I saw that she wanted to ask me, but that she knew I wasn’t really up for talking about it.

‘Just … be a bit sensitive, Matthew. I know your brother doesn’t really talk about things, but this has hit him hard.’

‘Yeah. I’ll try.’

My way of trying was to be my annoying little brother self. I didn’t think Jay would want to talk to me about his woman troubles, and the best I could do was not let him wallow by antagonising him as much as I could. I made a point of talking about computer code at dinner time, of watching re-runs of University Challenge and blatantly celebrating when I got the answers right, of reading books with titles like Moonwalking with Einstein, and Introduction to Algorithms, but none of it had the desired effect of making him annoyed with me. He didn’t even really seem to notice, and it was as if he’d finally given up being irritated by my brains, much as I’d given up being overawed by his brawn.

We rubbed along together for the Christmas holidays. Jay had found somewhere to get his physio, and had decided to stay for and beyond Christmas itself. I’d finished my assignments, and decided one morning to look at my phone, which I’d had on silent and in a trouser pocket since I got home, to avoid the girls who had been plaguing me before the end of term. (This was obviously before I became chairman of the board of phone addicts anonymous, as turning my phone off for even half an hour these days has me sweating.) As I turned the phone on, I saw all the texts and voicemails, and my heart quailed a little bit.

‘Holy shit.’

‘Finally caught up with you have they?’

Jay had just come in after a training session, and was leaning on the door frame in his gym gear.

‘Who’s caught up with me?’

‘Whoever it was you were just ‘holy shitting’ about.’

‘Oh. Yeah. You could say that.’

I glanced down at the phone’s screen again. Admittedly I hadn’t turned it on for more than two weeks, but surely this volume of phone usage was excessive? I wasn’t that big of a catch; I’d hoped that if I just went out of radio contact, they’d get bored and make my decisions for me.

‘Wanna tell me?’

I looked at Jay, who pushed himself away from the door and sat down in the armchair across from me.

‘I know I’m more the strong and silent type, but if I can help at all …’

Jay and I hadn’t had a recurrence of our touchy feely moment since Mum told me about Sophia; I’d wanted to stay clear of it all in case I brought up stuff that made either of us uncomfortable. Maybe … just maybe … it was time to stop acting like a ten year old, and talk to my brother like we were both grown ups. I sighed.

‘I just turned my phone on, it’s been off all holidays. I’ve had a few more messages than I was anticipating.’

‘Messages from?’

‘A few girls.’

‘Ah. Maybe not my specialist subject just at the moment.’

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to remind you –’

‘Jesus, Matty, it’s not like I’ve forgotten. Come on then, shoot. More than one girl? Go Matty!’

‘Yeah, well, I was kind of hoping it would be down to one or less by the time I got back, but they all seem to be hanging in there. Sarah’s texted twelve times – I miss you. Where are you? Did you get my text? Happy Christmas kiss kiss kiss. Text me. Etcetera. Ruby’s left five voicemails, I dread to think what they say. Charlotte has texted and left voicemails, and Pia has sent me lots of happy and sad faces and kisses.’

‘Bloody hell, Matty. Four women on the go. I bow to you.’

‘I can’t do it, though, they’re doing my head in. Pia and Ruby were just one night, I never intended – I feel like such a bastard. Sarah and Charlotte are both hot, but they don’t know about each other, and I’m going seriously loopy trying to juggle it all.’

Jay had an amused look on his face.

‘A bit like buses, then.’

‘What?’

‘None for years then four come along at once.’

‘Oh. Ha ha. Funny. Not. What am I going to do? I was hoping if I ignored them it would all have resolved itself when I got back. Now I’m just going to be straight back into the middle of it all.’

‘OK. First rule of women. Never expect them to do your dirty work. You’re going to have to decide who you want, if you want any of them, and tell the others thanks but no thanks. Jesus, I can’t believe I’m actually giving you girl advice.’

‘Neither can I. Isn’t there an easier way?’

‘You could always leave Uni and stack shelves.’

‘Shit. But how am I going to choose?’

‘Well there’s no law to say you can’t have more than one girl on the go at one time, but believe me, it quickly becomes messy and complicated, even when everyone’s happy with it.’

‘Really? Have you done it?’

‘Not since I was at school. Remember Shona McKenna?’

I nodded.

‘And Rosie Phillips?’

I nodded again. ‘Oh. Both at the same time? Did they know?’

‘Well, yeah, kind of, but Shona was in a different year to me, and she and Rosie didn’t come across each other very often. But at the end of term it was the school dance, and I took Rosie, but asked Shona as well. Ever seen two girls trying to scratch each other’s eyes out? Hot as fuck, but seriously scary, especially as once they’d finished with each other they both joined forces and came after me. Believe me, Matty, you’re better off sticking with the one woman at a time, and ones who don’t have added complications like already having boyfriends.’

‘It does sound less stressful.’

‘Trust me. You need to call the one-nighters and let them down gently, and call whichever of the long-termers will cause you more lost sleep if you don’t have her than if you do, and pick her. And let the other one down gently. And Jesus, Matty, stop cuddling them afterwards. It seriously gives them the wrong idea.’

And after that, something changed between Jay and me. Something matured; things were different. I wouldn’t say we became pals, or even greatly altered the way we communicated with each other. We didn’t even see any more of each other than we had before, but Jay would occasionally call me and ask how I was doing, and I’d text him or email him if I’d seen his photo on the back page of a paper. Something like – Me: I c u muscled yr way onto the Guardian sports pages. Thumb wrestling or something? Jay: Don’t b jealous, u’ll nerd yr way onto the cover of Geek Weekly one day. He even sent me a pair of trainers he’d got free from a sponsor. Cindy would have been proud.

I finally worked out the girl thing, as much as anyone was ever going to, and had a few short-lived flings but nothing long term. I was more interested in my degree, to be honest, than I was in having a girlfriend, but I was very interested in sex, and was happy to see a woman for a few weeks while we stayed casual and exciting, but got used to ending it, quickly, when she showed signs of wanting more commitment. I used all the moves I’d learned from books and DVDs, and added a few of my own, and always made it a point to ensure we both had a good time.

I finished my degree, graduated with first class Honours, and was amazed and choked when Jay came with Mum to my graduation. The ceremony was in June, and he was spending some time in Stafford before joining his new club, Raiders, who were based down south. His presence caused a bit of a stir, which I would have resented a few years ago, but had grown comfortable and self-confident enough with to enjoy the reflected attention.

I had landed a one-year contract with an IT company in Holland, and Jay took Mum and me out to a posh restaurant to celebrate and say ‘bon voyage’. I left the next day, knowing Mum would miss me and worry about me, but needing to start living my own life.

I carried on my commitment-free life in Holland, stockpiling casual relationships while avoiding being tied down in any but the most erotic way. My book, DVD and now practical knowledge had stood me in good stead, and most women were impressed at how well I knew my way around their bodies. I got a reputation for being an excellent no-strings lay, and it suited me that way. Nobody was under any illusions and nobody got hurt.

I also got a reputation for being an excellent Information Systems technician, and once my contract was up, it was easy to find another job with the reference I was given from the Dutch company. I could conceivably have gone anywhere in the world, but I fancied a bit of familiarity and home comforts, and when I was offered the job in Stafford, I took it, fully intending to stay for a maximum of a year before jetting off somewhere exotic.

  Funny how things turn out …

1. Beginnings

In which we meet everyone, but especially Matty, and decide whether or not we like him.

Iz

How do I let myself get talked into these things, eh? Just because I’ve done languages at Uni and happen to be an interpreter, and, you know, like words and stuff, people think – assume – I’m OK with just spending every waking minute putting everyone’s rambling life stories into some kind of order. Well, alright, I admit I have loved it. So I’m not really moaning, because it’s been awesome making everyone’s tales fit with everyone else’s. It’s just the assumption that I take issue with, and the constant ‘Iz, have you finished putting the book together?’ and ‘I don’t suppose there’s room for one of my poems?’ and ‘When can we all read it?’. Because without all the hassle and interruptions, I would have finished a looooot sooner, I can tell you.

However, here it is, done. I thought it was five people’s stories, and it is that, but really what it is, what it has become, is Matty’s story, with a big slice of Lau, a large helping of Dec, a dollop of Cal and a spoonful of Julia. It’s like a family album, like a huge panoramic photo of our family through the ages, or rather through the ages of Matthew Robert Scott age 0 – 57 and a little bit beyond.

I hope I’ve done a good enough job, I’m pretty pleased with it, the whole thing has helped me know different sides of people I thought I knew pretty well, and I hope you will feel the same. I haven’t changed anything without permission, and haven’t left anything out, although obviously there are millions of things that have happened to us all that aren’t in there. I’ve had some great reminiscences about things that happened, and some great argy-bargies about things that I said happened and others said didn’t, or the other way round. That’s the thing about remembering, it’s so subjective.

Oh, and while I’m on the theme of subjectivity, weeelll, there may be one or two or nineteen or twenty bits where the heat is on, if you get my drift. I might warn you about them, I might just let you hurtle headlong into them. Watch out for my ‘parental guidance’ alerts, but also, just be on your toes. Rumpy pumpy could crop up anywhere, without warning. Just saying. TBH it’s not that great (let’s be generous and call it) erotica. Julia is rather clinical – this went here, he did that, I screamed that – Matty just copied her really, and Lau should have remembered the phrase ‘too much information’ once in a while. But anyway, now you know.

Anyway, Scott family, and anyone else who reads it (Tom, if you really feel the need to blog it, knock yourself out), enjoy it for what it is: the stories of some mighty fine people and one mighty fine person in particular.

Iz xx

Cal

This is for Matty.

It’s not about you, Matty, you raging egomaniac, but reading your story made me realise how much knowing a different side of things can mean to the people you love.

So it’s for Matty, because I miss him, but it’s about all of you, family and friends. This is my side of things.

How do I do it? Just straight, factual, one thing after another, like Lau? Or jumping around here and there like Matty? Or starting straight then adding clips and cuttings like Dec? I suppose I should just get going and see how it pans out.

One thing I do know: There. Will. Be. No. Porn. Jesus, I don’t think I’ve ever blushed so much in my life as when I was reading Matty’s and Lau’s stories, even if you say you censored yours before it got to me, Lau. Neither my kids nor my mum will be reading details of … private stuff, because it’s just not going in, alright?

I can at least start at the beginning. Can’t I? Maybe not. Things can get pretty confusing round here, even if you start out in a straight line trying to explain them. Perhaps that’s where I should start, with who we all are and what we all are to each other. Let’s give it a go.

Me. I’m Cal. Calum James Scott, son of Beth and Jay, brother of Iz. I’m married to Chrissie and we’ve got two children, Conor and Lily. I’ve been a rugby player in my time, but retired a few years ago, and now I’m a Physiotherapist.

That’s easy so far, isn’t it? A nice ordinary family, simply explained. Then it starts to get interesting …

Dec

I thought this would be easy to write, because I’d done most of it way back then, when I was more than a little bit mad, when writing it all down helped me. But it’s made me think about it all again, about what I lost and what I found, or rather who I found, and I can’t go back over it, not right from the start to now, it’s too hard, opens up too many hurting places.

God, Matt would laugh at me – I can almost hear him calling me a ‘miserable doomwank’. So, OK, because it’s important that people you love know about things, I’m going to do this, but only up to a point. Only up until it’s good, until it’s shining, kind of the top of the mountain. All downhill from there, as they say, and I’m not really up for that journey, downhill I mean. And there are some things I’m not going to tell you, because I spent a lot of time in a therapist’s room sorting them in my head, and to go there again will seriously fuck me up.

So, off we go to the top of the shiny mountain.

Julia

Dear Matt

I wrote this, and it’s about you. I thought you had a right to see it.

Julia

Laura

From: lustylau@hotnet.com

Hello Everyone

I’ve just had a lovely surprise. Well, I think it’s lovely. Maybe I’m not quite sure yet. But Matt left all of us something. He addressed it to me, but it’s obvious it’s for all of you too.

He hid a story on the computer, something he’d been writing in secret for over a year. It’s his story, and parts of it are your parts of his story, and I know he wanted you to read it, because he says things in it he would never say to you out loud, only in his heart.

You don’t have to read it, Matt would have understood. But if you would like to, here it is. Don’t print it off, for goodness sake. It’s really long.

Just a word of warning – some of Matt’s descriptions are rather intimate. He gets up close and personal, about our relationship and about previous relationships. It’s probably not something to read to small children. I wondered about cutting bits out, to make it less embarrassing (I mean to me, Matt wouldn’t have given a hoot), but I’ve decided to leave it as it is.

I’ve only just finished reading it, and I think I’m going to do something similar. It feels good to think that something of you lives on after you’ve finished. It feels good to think that Matt has kept this much of him alive for us.

As I said, take your time, read it slowly, or never if it’s too much.

I’m planning on getting some kind of memory file together, maybe on the computer or real paper in a real box somewhere for the things that I don’t know how to computerise (help Tom!), so if you’ve got anything, please let me have it.

Anyway, here it is.

Laura xx

Matt

My name is Matt, and I am a swearaholic. Actually, although most people call me Matt, I have been known to answer to Matty and Matthew, with the occasional ‘arrogant bastard’ thrown in for good measure. And a couple of people call me Dad, or Daaad if I’ve done something particularly squeamishly embarrassing, which I try to manage at least once a week, because it makes them say ‘Daaad’ and I bloody love it. But, yeah, swearaholic. Even invented ‘Fuckotinell’ to help counter it, but it never really did the trick – in all likelihood because, despite some people’s assertion that I have some kind of compulsion to say, oh I don’t know, fuck or bollocks a bit too often, I would retort that it’s not actually a compulsion, not a neurological medical condition as such; I already have one of those. No, I can trace the origins of the increase in the ‘fuck’ rate to a certain Christmas, when a certain teenager name of Declan Summers took it into his head to shove his way past my painstakingly erected defences, without even so much as a by-your-leave, to become my best mate-brother-aunty-ohidon’tknowwhatthefuckheis.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A lot had happened in my thirty years on this planet before the year that I nearly died. I’ve been around a bit, got a bit of a reputation in some quarters, so you might think you know me; I doubt you do. In any case, here’s my story, here’s how I got where I am, the whole roller-coaster, hands in the air and scream, wind in your hair, log flume water in your pants, hundred mile an hour fun ride that has been Matt Scott. Ready? I hope so.

Ha ha. Fun ride? With me? That’s a laugh. I wish. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to convince people I’m different than I am, that I’m not always sure what ‘me’ is. Without wishing to sound maudlin, I’m here at what is potentially the end of it all for me, and without Lau, without that huge, inexplicable, indescribable, fucking amazing love I have for her, and that somehow, unbelievably, she has for me, well I wouldn’t even have made it this far. But again, ahead of myself. Oh bollocks, maybe you should just resign yourself to this being an all-over-the-place, out of sequence, mixed up splurge of a life story, because really, being the story of Matthew Robert Scott, it couldn’t be any other way.

I will at least start at the beginning. I’m told it’s a very good place to start. Or as near to the beginning as I remember. I was born – no, of course I don’t remember being born, but my mother and my birth certificate tell me – in Stafford, which is in the Midlands, England, UK, Europe, Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Universe, should you wish to send me a letter from the Aldebaran system.

I am Matthew Robert Scott, my parents having lacked the foresight to consider what the initials MRS would do to a teenage boy. I am the youngest of two boys, my brother Jay being five years older than me.

You will have heard of Jay; most people have. Full name Jameson Lucas Scott. You will notice that he got the big long Scottish sounding rufty tufty name, shortened with a cool nickname, and I’m name after some wanker in the Bible. Probably the weediest of the disciples or some such shit. Practically a self-fulfilling prophecy, as nearly all the women I’ve ever met, especially in this city, when I’ve mistakenly let slip that my brother is Jay Scott, have said, ‘Wow, I really fancied him when he played for Raiders. You’re nothing like him, are you’. It’s one of the reasons I hate him. Not really hate him. Oh but, yeah, really really hate him. He’s my brother, doesn’t that come with the territory? Mostly I hate him for being five years older than me, for how far ahead of me that makes him, how much bigger and stronger than me he’s always been, how much more confident and worldly wise he seemed growing up. I also hate him for rescuing me when I nearly died. I also love him for rescuing me when I nearly died. My relationship with Jay is really fucking screwed. But then again, probably no more screwed than any other family.

Sooo, anyway. Back to the epistle. My father died when I was two; I barely remember him – just a vague impression of largeness, a booming laugh and scratchy whiskers. And maybe even that is a false memory borne of poring over photos and talking to my mum about him. I always used to say that because I was so young when he died, and it was a long time ago, well, I don’t remember him, thus it doesn’t really matter. But it does matter, he was always there-but-not-there, throughout my whole childhood. Jay was seven so he remembers more, but he never talks about him. We were never able to bond over fond memories of our father, because the way Jay chose to remember him was to try and be just like him. Their build is the same, they have the same features – when I see Jay now and compare him to the photos I’ve seen of my father, he’s got the same eyes, the same chin, the same bulky rugby player’s shoulders, chest and thighs. Jay even calls me Matty because that’s what my father used to call me. I, on the other hand, look much more like my mum, with the skinny build, the light brown hair and greyish eyes, although I’m a lot taller than her. I wouldn’t have had a hope of following in my father’s footsteps, even if that had been my chosen path, because I was far too scrawny. I’d like to think my way was more healthy than Jay’s – talking to Mum, looking at photos, asking questions – but to be honest, I claim the prize as the bigger fuck up in the long run, so who’s to say?

So I guess that’s how it all started, my story, with the absence of a father figure, the presence of a mother figure and a brother figure, a leaning towards books and knowing shit, and a leaning away from anything that required a muscle of any description.

By the time I was ten or so, Jay was already playing rugby for the county, had already attracted schoolboy contracts from various local clubs, had been scouted by England youth teams, was the popular boy at school, had more girlfriends than he seemed to know what to do with, and really disliked having a little brother. Especially a little brother who spent a lot of time with his head in a book or fiddling with the innards of a CD player; especially a little brother who needed protecting from the bullies at school, on the orders of our mum; especially a little brother who knew answers to questions on Mastermind. And most especially a little brother who enjoyed spending time with our mum, being ten and still liking that closeness, when a fifteen year old, who might still have wanted the closeness with his mum but would never admit it in a million years, could only look on and sneer when we spent Saturday mornings making cakes or pulling up weeds or sorting out socks from the washing basket. I’m still a good sock sorter-outer, it appeals to the neat freak in me, and is about all I can contribute to the running of the house these days.

God, I’ve spent so long over the years analysing Jay and me. Some of it with paid professionals, some of it on my own in the dark. I often wonder if Jay has spent anywhere near as many minutes thinking about us, but it’s unlikely, as he’s not really a thinker. Shit happens and he reacts, he doesn’t really plan – he’s got Beth for that. But anyway, what it boils down to is this: if someone were to say ‘tell me about your childhood’, and I’ve spent enough time with shrinks over the past few years to know that they never actually say that, but if they did, then the edited highlights would be: a) my dad died when I was really little and my mum and I leaned on each other more than maybe we would have done otherwise. b) my brother made my life difficult, whether on purpose or not. c) despite this, I looked up to my brother and wanted to be like him. d) I never was like my brother in any way, and we never really connected when we were young.

That’s pretty much it. I could tell you about the miserable dark evenings standing on the touchline of some muddy rugby pitch in the middle of sodding nowhere with Mum, waiting for Jay to come on as a sub, or replacement, or whatever the don’t-give-a-toss they call them. I could tell you about all the times Jay wasn’t there when I was getting the school maths prize or being a shepherd in the Nativity play or playing in the recorder concert. I could tell you about my brief brush with popularity with girls when I was nearly eleven, which came to nothing when Jay found out and told all his mates I was gay. I could tell you about all the times I was knocked over and sat on, usually with a hair pull or a finger bent backwards, because I’d said something clever that made him feel stupid. I could tell you about every teacher in every school in every class I ever sat in asking if I was Jay’s little brother. I could tell you about all the times … oh but what’s the point? It was then. Maybe I sound bitter. I guess I was. I wanted Jay to notice me, to think I was worth something. I needed, craved, some male approval, a someone to replace my father, but he was so busy being popular and strong and older, I was beneath his notice. And I suppose, if I’m being fair, it’s not a role many teenage boys would willingly step into. Then, when he was eighteen, he was gone. He left school, signed professional terms with a rugby club, and left home.

Jay and I didn’t see each other much after that. I spoke to him if I happened to pick up the phone when he called to talk to Mum, and if he came back to stay in the off season, we’d be there together and we’d grunt at each other, but he wasn’t really interested in anything I was doing, and I had never been able to keep up with his physicality, so we really had nothing in common. It was almost a relief, a liberation, to be just me and Mum. I got on with things my way, I did my homework, passed most of my exams with straight As, joined the computer club, the chess club and the debating society with no one to call me a ‘poncey wanker’ for playing to my strengths.

Yeah, I was a nerd, a geek, I was gangly and gawky, I wore glasses, I had acne, my hair was thick and unruly and cut by my mum and I didn’t really care about the latest trainers or designer jeans. Luckily my mates were equally nerdy, and we’d talk for hours about the latest version of computer code, or the finer points of Star Wars back history, or, OK, as we got older, occasionally the finer points of Pamela Anderson.

I made my mum proud, as did Jay, and when it was time to think about my further education, I chose a University near to home, so I could come back regularly. Said it was to do laundry, but really it was where I felt comfortable.

My course was Information Systems & Computer Science, and my best mate Andrew was there too. He was as nerdy as me, and I’d thought we’d be able to carry on as we had at school with our prattling about science fiction, our off-the-cuff equation battles, our joint love of all things Tottenham Hotspur, and our occasional drunken ‘what’s the answer to life the universe and everything if it’s not forty two’ sessions.

But I hadn’t counted on Andrew dropping the nerdiness and landing himself a seriously hot babe in Freshers’ Week. It was as if he underwent some kind of overnight larval transformation. On the Tuesday he was Andrew – skinny, gawky, hair in his eyes, slight squint. Then on the Wednesday, we went to the Freshers’ Ball, downed copious amounts of cheap cider, he must have been pissed enough to ask a girl to dance and she must have been pissed enough to say yes, all while I was pissed enough to be sat in the stalls with my head spinning trying not to vomit. I lost track of him, but the next day I knocked on his door at noon, hangover pounding behind my eyes, and I had to look twice when he opened it to check I had the right room. He looked completely different.

‘Whoa. Holy shit, Andrew. Did you get lucky with Edward Scissorhands?’

‘Ha ha. Er …’

Andrew looked behind him and moved his body to stop me going any further into the room.

‘Are you coming to the Chess Club thing?’

He ran a hand through his newly chopped, and actually, now I thought about it, pretty trendy hair.

‘Shit, Matt, sorry, I completely forgot. Er …’

Again with the look behind him. I heard a giggle, and tried to look over his shoulder.

‘Sorry, mate, maybe another time, I, er …’

Andrew pulled the door to behind him and stepped out into the corridor of the halls where we both had rooms.

‘I, look, sorry, I, er, hooked up with Cindy last night and, well she’s still here. Sorry to blow you off, but …’

He shrugged, unable to disguise the huge smug bastard grin of the newly de-flowered.

‘No shit, Andrew. You dog.’

I punched him on the shoulder, feeling more than a little envious – Cindy was a girl we had both identified early on in Freshers’ Week as someone we ‘would’, although of course we ‘would’ just about anyone, given the desperate nerd-virgins we were.

‘Did she cut your hair?’

‘Yeah. Her sister’s a hairdresser, apparently she taught her. She said it brings out the sparkle in my eyes.’

He ruffled the haircut again trying and failing to look embarrassed, but managing to look extremely pleased with himself.

‘Yeah, looks great mate. Loving those sparkly eyes. Later then.’

And so things changed for me and Andrew. He was still my mate, they included me in lots of things, but Cindy wasn’t into Star Wars or computer code, or even Spurs (she was a girl, it was just about forgivable), and three’s a crowd, and they bloody snogged all the bloody time. Oh, and I had the hots for Cindy. Big time. Like there wasn’t a whole university full of girls I could have obsessed over, I had to pick the one who was doing it with my bloody best friend to be hopelessly in love with.

So spending time with them was bitter sweet. I really didn’t have any other friends, being a bit of a loser back then at the socialising thing, but seeing her with him was torture. And not seeing her was torture. So I hung around like either a lost puppy or a bad smell depending on your take on things.

I tried to join societies, clubs, go to things on my own in the hope of making some friends, and there were people on the course I talked to and hung out with a bit, but Andrew was my best mate, I used to tell him everything, in a blokey kind of way, and although I tried to give them time on their own, I felt like I needed him and didn’t want to just disappear. I told myself I was ‘being there’ in case things went wrong with Cindy, someone he could talk to for advice if it was necessary. Yeah, right, I know.

Cindy had friends she hung out with when she wasn’t sucking Andrew’s tonsils, and she’d sometimes have a go at setting me up with one or other of them, but somehow it never came off – they’d cancel or be really vague about when they were available and, oh, actually look, there’s this other boy … and anyway, I was hung up on Cindy, who was small and blonde and vivacious and curvy, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Maybe it was the whole ‘want her because you can’t have her’ thing – she was a safe bet because she was my best mate’s girlfriend and therefore off-limits. But thinking about it rationally didn’t make it any easier.

Occasionally Cindy and I would hang out together, if Andrew had a tutorial, or was doing laundry or something, and none of her girl-gang was around. On one of these occasions, we were in Andrew’s room waiting for him to get back from a meeting with his tutor. I was looking at my emails and she was flicking through a glossy magazine. I was also checking her cleavage out of the corner of my eye when I thought I could get away with it. Her top was low cut; there was a bit of lacy bra showing at the edge of the neckline, and it was driving me wild. She suddenly looked up. I quickly looked down at my computer.

‘Hey, Matt, this is what you need.’

‘Huh?’

I looked up, trying to seem as if I’d been engrossed in some piece of startlingly well-written cyber literature. She turned the magazine to face me and showed me a neon-pink headline which positively yelled, ‘Man Makeovers – Ten Top Tips to Get Your Geek Gorgeous!

‘You need a makeover.’

‘What? No I don’t.’

‘Why not? I could do it. I could cut your hair, like I did Drew’s.’

Oh, I neglected to mention, Andrew’s name was now Drew, to Cindy and indeed everyone except me. Could he be any more lame? And yeah, I was a green-eyed monster. Couldn’t help it. He was shagging the girl I wanted.

‘I don’t want my hair cut.’

Although the thought of her standing close to me, running her fingers across my scalp, maybe pressing into me a bit, did nearly make my eyes go crossed and raised my pulse rate several notches. I was glad I had the laptop to disguise my hard-on, which had been threatening since I noticed the lacy bra, but had now developed fully.

‘Oh but why not?’

I do believe she even pouted a bit. It might have been the pout that did it, especially as she stuck out her chest at the same time.

‘It says here that a man’s haircut and clothes are what attract seventy per cent of women at initial glance.’

‘Oh really. Empirical study is it? Or just Cosmo bollocks?’

‘Don’t be so snooty. Why don’t you give it a try? I’m at a loose end this morning, we could go to your room, I could cut your hair, we could have a look at your clothes, make you a new man.’

‘I’m happy with being an … um … old man.’

‘Yeah, that’s your problem. You look ten years older than you are. All it would take is a little trim …’

She got up and sat next to me, looking at my hair, then reaching out and pulling at a strand, between forefinger and middle finger, measuring. I wondered if she had any idea of the effect she had on me. My breathing sped up, and I tried to calm myself so she wouldn’t notice.

‘Come on.’

She stood up and took my hand, pulling me to my feet. I quickly shut the laptop and clamped it to my groin as she tugged me along the corridor to my room. I wasn’t quite sure when I had agreed to this, but it was apparently somewhere between the pout and me looking ten years older than I was. I stood in the middle of my room, laptop jammed against the bulge in my jeans.

‘What are you standing there for? I can’t cut your hair standing up, you’re too tall. Sit down.’

She gestured to the bed. There wasn’t anywhere else. I sat down, laptop still stuck to me like glue.

‘Put your bloody computer down, Matt. I know you love it like you want to marry it, but you’ll get hair in it, and won’t that mess with the, er, microchip thingy or something. I’ll get a towel, look, so you don’t get the bits all over your clothes.’

She fetched the towel, which I held around me like a cape while I slid the laptop off my crotch.

‘Who usually does your hair?’

‘My mum.’

‘Oh. Well that explains a lot. Mums don’t always know best, do they.’

I was silent, not prepared to criticise my mum at this point.

‘Your hair’s lovely and thick, isn’t it. Nice colour, too. Oh, you’re going to have to take your glasses off, they’ll get in the way.’

‘I can’t see without them.’

‘Well dur, otherwise you wouldn’t need them. As long as I can see, you don’t need to worry. Give them here, I’ll put them on the – oh you’ve got amazing eyes, I never noticed before. You should defo try contacts.’

So first my hair’s a nice colour and now I’ve got amazing eyes. And this is my best friend’s girlfriend. If things got any more awkward I might possibly self-combust. And then she started touching my hair, pulling at it, and then snipping with the scissors she’d grabbed from the bedside in Andrew’s room, and things definitely got a whole lot more awkward. I’d never been in this close proximity to a girl – well, not since my brush with popularity when I was nearly eleven and snogged Lily Knight and Lucy Carpenter both in one lunchtime behind a portakabin.

Lily was my first kiss. She was in my class, and we were in our last year at junior school – the year when hormones started surging, and boys noticed that girls were girls rather than just not boys. I definitely noticed Lily was a girl. She had big blue eyes and wore her hair in a high ponytail, and she was really really good at spelling. She always came first in the spelling tests. I always came second, and it was my aim to beat her at least once before we went to secondary school, so there may have been an ulterior motive to my romantic interest; possibly I was trying to nobble the opposition. Oh come on, I said nobble. I was ten.

It was the lunchtime before the spelling test. I’d asked Mum to test me all week, and I knew I could get all of the words right, even ‘miscellaneous’, which I could never pronounce, didn’t have a clue what it meant, but could finally spell. If I could just distract Lily enough, I might have a chance. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but it started well enough, with me sharing my crisps with her at lunchtime. We got talking about stuff – ten year old stuff, nothing particularly earth shattering, she had a cat called Biggles, and I liked the name, and I told her about the Biggles books, but she already knew about them because her brother had some and that was why the cat was called Biggles – and she suddenly grabbed my hand and told me she wanted to show me something behind the portakabin. Poor naïve me had no idea that this was code for having a bit of a pash, so I went with her willingly, expecting maybe a secret passage or something, and was extremely surprised when she pounced on me as soon as we got there, crushing her mouth against mine in a facsimile of a movie kiss. Maybe it was a secret passage of sorts.

So I was surprised, but not so much that I didn’t enjoy it; I enjoyed it a lot, in fact, and we spent the rest of the lunchtime kissing. Fairly chastely, but still, to ten year old me, it was a highlight of my life so far. Sadly I still came second in the spelling test, but the upside was that lunchtimes after that became much more entertaining, with several more pashing sessions to follow.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if Lily was my girlfriend, she ditched me. I had gone to our usual spot behind the portakabin only to find her locking lips with Harry Thomas, the class clown, who must have joked his way into her favour, the bastard. I walked away despondent, but was accosted on the way back to the playground by Lucy Carpenter, who was one of Lily’s friends. She’d obviously heard about Lily and my lunchtime trysts, and wasn’t shy in expressing herself.

‘Lily says you’re a good kisser.’

What does a boy say to that? Yeah I am sounds rather big-headed. Am I? sounds a bit disingenuous and needy. So I shrugged, and let her take my hand and lead me to a different part of behind the portakabin, where I showed her just what a good kisser I was.

And then Jay found out, from Lily’s brother, and he decided to out me to the world, even though I wasn’t even in, and that was the end of my junior school kissing career, as I spent the remainder of my lunchtimes there fending off juvenile homophobic bullying. Cheers Jay. Did I mention I hate him?

But anyway, back to Cindy. Things were getting awkward, especially in my jeans, and I needed to alleviate the tension. I tried to focus on something boring. Maths. Equations, standard deviation, Pythagoras’ theorem. None of it boring, not to me, but it almost worked as a distraction. Locks of my hair were falling past my shoulders and onto the towel, as well as drifting onto the bed and the floor. Cindy was kneeling behind me, her knees either side of my hips. I was hyper-aware of her breasts brushing my shoulders, and indeed all the places where her body was touching mine, and Pythagoras was taking a bit of a battering.

As Cindy chattered, I didn’t say a word, I was trying so hard to concentrate my way out of saying or doing something to offend her. Finally, after what felt like hours of exquisite torment, she leaned back, then shuffled off the bed, to stand in front of me and look. She gave me a satisfied smile.

‘There, that’s tons better. Shows off those eyes. You’re a bit of a babe, Matt. Now all we need is to sort out your wardrobe …’

She walked over to the cupboard where my clothes were hanging. She was a blur.

‘Wait.’

The blur turned round, and looked like it might have raised its eyebrows.

‘Where did you put my glasses? I can’t see a thing, and I haven’t seen what you’ve done yet.’

‘Oh no, you don’t get your glasses back until the big reveal. Honestly, have you never watched any of those celebrity makeover programmes?’

I honestly never had, so I shook my head. Cindy tutted and turned back to the wardrobe, where she started taking clothes off hangers.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Sorting your clothes. Two piles. This one is ‘no hope, down to Oxfam with you’, and this one is ‘oh well it’ll have to do’. I’m hoping for a third pile of ‘wowzers’, but it’s not looking promising.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with my clothes.’

‘Not for an old age pensioner. Does your mum buy your clothes too?’

I shrugged, trying not to feel embarrassed, because that was exactly what usually happened. It hadn’t ever felt embarrassing before.

‘Isn’t your brother, like, some kind of sports hero? Doesn’t he get you free cool stuff?’

‘No.’

I wasn’t prepared to bring Jay into this. I’d never told anyone here that Jay Scott, Royals and England rugby player, was my brother, because I hated all the people who wanted to know me so they could get to Jay. Andrew must have told her.

‘Oh, you should defo get him to. Maybe ask for me as well. I went out with a footballer last year, he only played for Port Vale, but he got me a really cool pair of Nikes.’

Well at least now I knew where I stood with Cindy: a complimentary pass back to the sporting freebie world. I didn’t reply, as she continued heaping my clothes into two piles. From my fuzzy vantage point on the bed, the ‘off to Oxfam’ pile was considerably bigger than the ‘have to do’ pile, and I was likely to be wearing the same t-shirt and cargo shorts until the end of term.

‘Am I actually going to have any clothes left to wear when you’ve finished?’

‘Well, there is quite a large charity shop pile, but I did this with Drew, it was so cool, we took three bags of stuff to the charity shop, and then replaced it with loads of other stuff from the same shop, so it was dead recycly and all that. There’s this really good place just off the High Street, they do lots of vintage and labels and stuff. You’re pretty skinny, so there’ll be loads of stuff for you to try.’

‘No, I don’t do shopping.’

‘What? How do you get clothes, then?’

What, apart from my mum?

‘Internet.’

Another tut, and probably a roll of the eyes.

‘Well you’re going shopping with me today. We’ll bag this stuff up and then get you some cooler stuff.’

I was starting to feel irritated. Cindy had decided I wasn’t good enough as I was, and was just barging through my whole life, changing everything. I half expected her to announce she was changing my course from Information Systems & Computer Science to Fashion & Media, as well.

‘Look, thanks Cindy, I appreciate the haircut and everything, but I really don’t want to get rid of my clothes, or buy new ones, or even old smelly ones from a charity shop, and –’

‘Oh come on Matt, it’ll be fun. You’re already half way there. Just imagine what everyone will say when you walk into the canteen this evening and you look totally hot.’

‘Well that’s not hard to imagine, as I won’t.’

Self-confidence not high on my list of personality traits back then, but I wasn’t usually as openly self-deprecating. There was a brief silence, as Cindy turned to look at me, then walked over and sat down next to me.

‘You totally already do, Matt.’

She took my hand, and all the aching desire I’d managed to push away while she was irritating me returned with a vengeance. I felt my cheeks burn and my jeans got tight again. Bugger.

‘Cindy, I –’

‘Underneath that hair, those dorky glasses and those Matalan Online clothes, you’re a total hotty. I never realised before.’

She squeezed my hand and leaned up to kiss me on the cheek. My burning red cheek that was giving away everything. Shit shit shit. And then she lifted her hand up to the back of my neck and put her fingers in my hair and as a bolt of pure want shot to my dick, I couldn’t stop a sound coming out of my mouth. It was a moan or a groan or a grunt or some such bollocks, but I couldn’t stop it, and once it was there, it was there.

Cindy looked pointedly down at my crotch where the traitorous hard-on was throbbing for all to see. She laughed. I loved her laugh, it kind of tinkled and set the hairs on the back of my neck on end, but I didn’t want that tinkly laugh directed at my hard-on, so I pulled away from her and stood up, turning my back on her, unable to think what to say or do, trying not to die of shame.

‘Oh Matt, don’t worry, it happens all the time, Drew’s always bulging out all over.’

‘Yeah but he’s your boyfriend.’

‘So?’

I thought that was patently obvious. You shouldn’t be getting a hard-on when sitting next to your best mate’s girlfriend. Didn’t girls know anything?

‘So maybe you should just go.’

She laughed again.

‘Why? To spare your blushes? Don’t be silly Matt. I’m not embarrassed.’

I wheeled round to face her, my anger and shame somewhat offset by not being able to focus on her face, and the slightly off-balance wobble that made me stumble.

‘Well I fucking well am. You should go, Cindy. Thanks for the haircut. See you sometime.’

‘But that would be such a waste.’

She stayed sitting on the bed, and I couldn’t clearly see her face without going up to her and peering, so I didn’t have a clue what she was thinking.

‘What?’

‘A waste of a good stiffy.’

What?

What was going on now? I was about to find out, as Cindy stood up, walked over to me and put her arms round my neck, stood on tiptoe and pulled my face down to hers.  And that’s when things got a whole lot more interesting …