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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘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?
‘Try again. Still working on my brain surgery NVQ.’
‘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.’
‘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.
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.
‘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.
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.’
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.
There was nothing for a few seconds, and I nearly disconnected, then a faint sniff.
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.
‘Where are you?’
‘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.’
‘Go now. Quickly.’
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.
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘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.