4. Come away with me

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

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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 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.

Author: 00dreams00

Human of several decades experience. Full time employment, part-time enjoyment. Searching for the fountain of youth in the sure knowledge that it will be full of beer cans and dog piss. Plan B is the fountain of age, which will be found next to a comfy chair with the TV remote in easy reach.

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