I didn’t get home until the next morning, Mum and me having shared a bottle of wine with the fish and chips, and both of us having opted for an early night. We’d watched the talent show, I’d taken the piss out of it mercilessly, and then I’d shown Mum some of the photos from Devon. I hadn’t needed to tell her much, she’d seen it.
‘You like her a lot, don’t you, I can see it in your face.’
‘Is she in some kind of trouble?’
‘Did Jay tell you that as well?’
‘No, dear, but you said it was a literal escape. What were you running away from?’
Not much got past Mum, even though she dressed up her scouting for information in vagueness and seeming misunderstandings.
‘Her fucking evil bastard boyfriend.’
‘He deserves it, I’m not going to apologise. He deserves worse than that, he deserves worse than any words that exist to describe him.’
I gave Mum the edited highlights, playing down the threats, playing up the great time we’d had, how much Beth and Jay had helped us out. I’m not sure I got away with all of it; a worried crease appeared between her eyebrows that didn’t go away despite my best bullshitting.
‘So where is she now?’
‘In a safe house. She didn’t have anywhere else to go, and it really wasn’t a good idea for her to stay with me. I can’t see her, or even talk to her until she’s got somewhere to live.’
‘You don’t even know where she is?’
I shook my head.
‘Oh Matthew, that’s terribly sad. I’m sorry for you dear, you must miss her very much.’
‘Yeah I do. I can hardly believe it, I’m not the one who goes around pining after women. But Carrie’s just got to me. Hey ho, though, it won’t be forever, hopefully just a few weeks and I’ll see her again. Oh, and you’ll never guess who came round while I was away …’
I silently thanked Andrew for giving me the perfect diversion from maternal sympathy overload, and launched into an account of my afternoon trying to track him down.
The next morning, the obligatory fried breakfast out of the way (hey, I cooked it, alright? I do an awesome fry-up), cups of tea consumed, Sunday papers partially read, and the full horror of the Scott Suite divulged, I went home.
Nothing immediately alerted me to the carnage I was going to find when I rounded the corner of the stairs, but the missing front door and splintered door frame, cordoned off with strips of ‘police crime scene’ tape, alerted me pretty quickly and heart-stoppingly.
Mrs Harding must have installed a spy camera in the ceiling or something, as she came out and watched as I stood there open-mouthed, gazing through the tape to the wrecked room beyond.
‘Matt. Hi Mrs H. Er …’
Words failed me, and I gestured helplessly towards where my door used to be. The actual door was lying in two pieces in the middle of the floor of the living room, surrounded by smashed up bits of TV, computer, phone and pictures. Books were flung about, ripped and broken.
‘I had to call the police, some thug up here was making such a racket, I was terrified.’
She sounded like it was my fault, and looked like she was expecting me to apologise.
‘Did you see who did it?’
‘No, I was cowering in my bedroom ready to jump in the wardrobe if they tried it on my door.’
Yeah, this would have to be the first time you didn’t stick your beak out for a good nose, wouldn’t it. It was an unworthily selfish thought, but I didn’t feel remotely charitable.
‘Well I’m sorry if it disturbed you.’
I tried to put as much sarcasm in my voice as possible, and I can layer on the sarcasm when I need to. I felt bad about it for a second, as it must have been scary for an old lady to listen to a door being broken down only a wall’s thickness away from where you were, but the tone of voice rolled right off her.
‘I should think so too. Don’t know what kind of company you’re keeping, but you need to change your friends if that’s the sort you’re bringing round here.’
I wheeled round to her, angry at the injustice of being told off for having my flat trashed.
‘Hey, none of my friends did this. Someone’s broken in and wrecked the place.’
‘Yes. Well. I told the police your name, they said they were going to try to find you. Been out all night, have you?’
‘At my mum’s.’
Not that it was any of her business if I’d been visiting all the strip joints and pole-dancing clubs in town.
Which she obviously thought I had.
‘Hold on – what name did you give the police?’
‘Your name. Mark Short.’
‘It’s Matt, Mrs Harding. Matt Scott. My name has never been Mark, I don’t know why you insist that it is, so it’s hardly surprising the police didn’t manage to find me to tell me about my flat. Now if you’ll excuse me, it looks like I have some clearing up to do.’
She glared at me coldly as I ripped the police tape and stepped into my living room.
‘I don’t think you should be doing that.’
I swung round, the last day of sadness, confusion and now anger bubbling out of my mouth.
‘Just piss off and leave me the fuck alone. If you can’t even get my name right, just don’t even fucking talk to me.’
I stomped through the broken glass and bits of plastic to my bedroom. I don’t know what I had been expecting, maybe a haven from the destruction, but there was more of the same in there.
My duvet had been ripped in half, spilling the filling like snow across the bed and floor, and my bookshelves had been pulled over, scattering the contents everywhere. A glass of water that had been on my bedside table had been smashed over the books, and several of them now sported wrinkled pages.
As I surveyed the devastation, I started to tremble, my lips started to quiver. I was not going to cry because of something that arsehole had done. But being here was overwhelming and I needed to get out.
Patting my pockets to make sure I had my keys and my mobile, I rushed out of the flat, down the stairs and to my car. I was shaking too much to put the key in the ignition. I took several deep breaths, realising as I did so that driving at this moment wasn’t a good idea.
I felt very alone. I had lots of mates here in Stafford, but when I thought about it, they were all footy mates, or work mates, or chess mates – nobody close enough to call on in an emergency like this. Andrew had disappeared into thin air. Carrie was in a secret hideaway, and this wasn’t something I would have dumped on her anyway, given the circumstances. That left Jay or Mum. I needed my Mum.
‘Matthew. Is everything alright, dear?’
‘No. Can I stay at yours tonight?’
‘Of course, whatever’s happened?’
‘Someone’s broken into my flat, trashed it.’
She gasped. ‘No! How terrible! Are the police there?’
‘It happened last night. The police have been and gone. I suppose I need to call them, tell them it’s my flat. My neighbour gave them the wrong name.’
‘Oh come back over, Matthew, stay as long as you need to, you know that.’
‘Thanks Mum. It’ll take me a bit longer than usual, I’m too shaky to drive, I’m going to get a taxi.’
‘Oh Matthew, be careful.’
Mum was awesome. She always came across as slightly vague and laissez-faire about things, but her mind was as sharp as a tack, and before I even got there she’d written a list of things I needed to do – police, insurance, carpenter, landlord, and more. All the things that would have occurred to me eventually, but would have needed me to be in a calmer state than I currently was. She sat with me while I made the calls, offering words when mine failed me, patting my shoulder or touching my hand when I choked up, grimacing with me through the stupid questions the insurance company asked me.
Only when I’d finished, when I’d managed to pay a carpenter to fix the door at treble the normal rate because it was a Sunday and the bloody landlord wouldn’t agree to pick up the bill, when the police had finished asking me questions about Martin and why he might have wanted to harm my property, which I hadn’t answered fully because I didn’t want them bothering Carrie on her first day of being safe, when the insurance company had emailed me a claim form, only then did she look at me, concern in her eyes.
‘Are you sure this girl of yours is worth it?’
My shoulders sagged, all the pent up tears came flooding out, and she gathered me up in a hug that only a mum can give, full of unconditional love, empty of judgement. It didn’t last long, and as I sniffed to a halt, pushed away from her and smiled weakly at her, I answered her.
‘Yeah, she bloody well is. Because that could have been her, but it wasn’t, because of me.’
‘Well, alright dear, fair enough. But I’m worried for you. What if he comes back and breaks the new door?’
‘What if he does? It’s still a mess in there, he can’t trash it anymore than it already is.’
‘But after it’s all cleared up, after you go back.’
I was silent for a moment, an idea I’d had forming since the middle of last week taking on an urgency and a focus.
‘I don’t think I’m going back. I mean, yeah, to get any of my stuff that’s salvageable, but he broke the big stuff, and it’ll just be books and clothes and kitchen stuff. The insurance can sort out the mess, that’s what I pay my premiums for, and I’ll give in my notice tomorrow. Oh, er, can I stay here while I look for somewhere else?’
‘You know I’d be delighted to have you to myself for a while. I don’t see you enough these days.’
And if I’d still been an excellent no-strings lay, there’s no way I’d be trying to bum a bed off my mum for a few weeks, but without Carrie I was going to be without need of a bachelor pad, and the relative monastery of Carol Scott’s spare bedroom, aka my old bedroom complete with Airfix model of the Saturn 5 rocket I made when I was eleven, would suit me just fine.
‘Thanks, Mum, you’re awesome. I’ll enjoy it too.’
So Project Capture Carrie 1.2.1 began the next day. I regretfully informed my cheapskate landlord that I wouldn’t be returning to my flat; I called in to work to let them know I needed a couple of days of personal time due to a traumatic break-in; I went back with boxes and bin bags, collected everything that was collectable, itemised and photographed everything that was damaged beyond repair, including some collectables, wrote it all on my insurance claim form, left the mess for the landlord and the insurance company to fight over, and started looking for a new place to live.
It only took a day. I found a two bedroom flat (ever hopeful, but a spare room would be handy anyway) about as far away as you could get in Stafford from either my flat or Carrie’s old flat. It was a nice area, and the kitchen looked out, eventually if you looked far enough, to hills beyond. It was close to a little shopping street, which had a café and a small food store amongst the charity shops; it all felt good.
I agreed to move in at the end of the month, signed the tenancy, and spent the rest of the afternoon buying furniture for it online. The previous flat had been furnished, and somehow the thought of all those unknown people who might have sat on my sofa or slept in my bed always made me uneasy. Having my own stuff was way better, especially if it was new. My bank account was taking a bit of a battering, but I was enjoying it in a strange way. It almost felt like a new episode of life was opening up, one where I took charge of things for a change instead of going with the flow.
I still kept a close look out for Martin, all the time. I hadn’t seen him for more than six months, but I was sure I’d recognise him, as sure as I was that he’d recognise me. I didn’t know if the police had contacted him about my flat, or been able to pin anything on him, but he was unlikely to have warmed to me for giving his name to them. Who knows, maybe it wasn’t him who broke down the door. Yeah, maybe the pope doesn’t wear a funny hat. So I was still on my guard, every day.
Once back at work, I was thrown right into a morass of business. While I’d been away, Eyeti had put some expansion plans into force, and new work was rolling in without, as yet, the staff to cope with it all. I picked up as much slack as I could, and was grateful for the distraction. On my second day back, I answered my phone without checking the screen.
‘Well aren’t you the brisk business man. Hello Matty.’
‘How are you? Carol’s just this minute told me about all your troubles. Why didn’t you call us, sweetheart?’
My brain did a strange loop-the-loop thing, as I’d been thinking hard about how to solve a work problem, and had successfully pushed every single other thing in my life out of my head while I wrestled with it.
‘Yeah, sorry, I was just in the middle of something. You threw me. It’s OK. I mean I’m OK, it’s all sorted now. There’s nothing you could have done. Mum was great, I’m staying with her until I move into my new place.’
‘And when were you going to tell us about your new place?’
‘Oh, when I moved in I expect. Why would you need to know? You never visit me.’
‘Only because you never ask. And you only have one bedroom.’
‘Had. Two now. Fancy a visit?’
‘Well we’d love to. Will you be in before the start of the season?’
Ah, so it was still down to the rugby.
‘When is that?’
‘Well pre-season has already started, but weekends are still fine. Pre-season friendlies start in August, so no weekends then, and the season starts in September.’
‘How do you do it, Beth?’
‘Let your whole life be ruled by a bloody sport? Only seeing people in the summer?’
‘I suppose if you’re with someone who’s worth it, it’s easy.’
And ain’t that the truth.
‘Yeah. So, it’s not sounding like a visit from you is likely before next year, then. Although you could always come up with Cal, leave Jay to fend for himself.’
‘You know, I might do that one day. Be careful what you wish for.’
‘I always am.’
‘But you’re sure you’re alright? Nothing else to report? Have you heard from Carrie?’
‘No, but I’m assuming that the old saying is true about no news being good news. It’ll be at least a couple of weeks yet, I’m sure. I’d kind of like to be in my new place when I next see her, could be a bit of an embarrassing reunion if we have to do it at Mum’s.’
‘Ha ha. I’m sure Carol wouldn’t mind staying in the kitchen while you two go at it on the coffee table.’
‘Such unladylike talk from you, of all people.’
‘Well, you’ve made it nearly the entire way through a conversation without swearing, it needed one of us to lower the tone.’
‘True. Piss off then, I’ve got work to do.’
For a couple of weeks, work hardly stopped. I barely had time to eat or sleep, let alone think, and that helped me more than anything. Although I was living at Mum’s, I didn’t see much of her, as I’d get home late, eat dinner, and then collapse into bed before getting up ridiculously early to do it all over again. There was no respite at weekends, as the work needed doing. The light at the end of the tunnel was that Eyeti had recruited new staff, who would be starting in a week, so help was at hand.
At the end of the third week of work hell, as I fell exhausted on the sofa on the Friday, looking forward to my first Saturday off since I’d got back from Devon, Mum handed me a stack of post.
I’d had my mail redirected from my old flat, and the Post Office seemed to save it all up in one huge bundle to deliver on a Friday. I flicked through it absently, one eye on the TV, most of the post being bills or advertising; however, there was a handwritten envelope that caught my eye. The writing was familiar. I looked at the franking mark, but it was smudged and I couldn’t read it. As I opened the envelope and saw the header at the top of the paper – ‘African Technology Ministry’ with smiling pictures of African children in schoolrooms – I nearly binned it with the other charity advertising, but something made me look down at the bottom of the page for the signature. I had recognised the writing on the envelope, after all. And there it was. Not a signature, a single name. Andrew. It was a letter, from Andrew. I hadn’t had a letter, an actual letter, for years. I sat up straighter, interested now, and began to read.
I’m so sorry I haven’t been able to contact you to tell you our news before now. I tried to see you a few weeks ago when we were in Stafford, but you must have been away. Please apologise to your neighbour for causing her any disturbance.
Karen, Rebecca and I have moved to Kenya, to work for the ATM. It was a bit of a sudden move. A few months ago, we found Jesus
Oh, Jesus, no.
and I realised that there was a reason I was so interested in computers and technology.
Yeah, because you’re a geek, Andrew.
I found a job with ATM, whose aim is to provide every person in Africa with usable technology that will improve their lives in the name of the Lord. While we are working for ATM, we will not own any personal technology, as this will deprive another African person of something we could have given to them.
Except for some kind of Iron Age typewriter, obviously. Which, who knows, an African person might find more useful than the Angry Birds app.
I’m sorry I was unable to contact you to tell you this, or explain why I have not contacted you before.
I am permitted a certain amount of emails per month to contact friends and family who may otherwise not hear of the wonderful work of the ATM, or the love that Jesus has for them.
Well yippee, we’ll all look forward to hearing from you, in that case.
You can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you, but I might not be able to read your email for some months. Please be patient with me, as you have always been.
Until now you stupid, stupid arse.
Please be mindful that any emails might not be read only by me, as we use them for teaching purposes, and that your particular style of humour may not be appreciated by a seven year old African child.
‘Fuck me backwards with a stick of rhubarb.’
‘Language, Matthew. And, er, inappropriately rude suggestions. What’s the matter?’
‘Do you remember I told you about Andrew coming to see me while I was away?’
‘Yes dear. Didn’t you go to his wedding a few years ago? Haven’t they got a little girl now? Rebecca isn’t it?’
How did they do this, women, remember every tiny detail of every bloody person in the world’s sodding life, when I can’t even remember my best friends’ daughter’s name?
‘Yes, yes and yes. Well he’s only gone and got religion and flown off to Africa and eschewed technology until everyone in Africa has some of their own. Or the apocalypse lets him off, presumably.’
‘Oh dear. He might be some time without a laptop then, in either case.’
My mum’s sense of humour took me by surprise sometimes. It was just the right thing to say, and it made me laugh, a lot.
‘Know what else? I’m allowed to email him, but I must curb my wit because it might not be appreciated by any seven year old child who might stumble across it in some bizarre teaching accident. But that’s my natural level! A seven year old child would be my ideal audience! Right, I’m cooking up the best seven year old wit email I can muster, and sending it tomorrow.’
Mum had that look in her eyes, the one I usually tried to ignore but inevitably had to pay attention to in the end.
‘Well, whatever you think of Andrew’s new life, he’s been your friend for a long time, and he’s asked you for something specific, or in this case specifically not for something. I expect he’d be happy to hear from you, he’ll be in a strange country, amongst strangers, and letters from friends are always welcome, but if you just write something wicked, firstly you might get him into trouble, and secondly he might think you don’t care about him, or that his new circumstances have upset you in some way.’
‘Well they bloody have. Who gets religion these days? We used to laugh our arses off at the Christian Union lot at Uni.’
‘It’s still his life, Matthew. All I’m suggesting, is be a bit kind, especially while this is new to him.’
‘Bloody hell, Mum. OK, I’ll be sensible. Won’t stop me composing a doozy of an email for later on, when he needs an out and I can get him the sack. Or maybe I could smuggle him an iPad, or –’
My phone rang, interrupting my stream of ideas for rescuing Andrew from the clutches of the African Technology Ministry. I glanced at the screen. Number withheld. Could be a cold caller, but these days, I was never sure.
‘Hi Matt. It’s Carrie.’
I gasped. I had been hoping, but not expecting, to hear from her for a while.
‘Hey you. Oh C, it’s so good to hear your voice. Where are you?’
‘I can’t tell you that, I just wanted to say, things are good, great, it’s all going according to plan. I’m going to have a job and somewhere to live pretty soon, and I’ll be in touch.’
‘That’s brilliant, C. How are you?’
‘I’m really good. I’ve met some amazing people. I so want to see you, can you wait just a bit longer?’
‘You know I can. I miss you so much.’
‘Yeah, same here. I can’t say any more, I’ve got to go, but take care of yourself.’
I continued to hold the phone to my ear after she had disconnected, hoping maybe she was still there and I’d hear her breathing. Eventually I realised how ridiculous I was being, and disconnected too, and looked at Mum, unable to rein in the big soppy grin splitting my face.
‘Well that just tells me everything I need to know about how you feel about her, dear. The look on your face is priceless.’
‘I’m bloody hopeless, aren’t I?’
‘I’d say so. Do you want some shepherd’s pie? I’ve kept it warm.’
I sighed happily as Mum went into the kitchen to fetch my dinner. PCC 1.2.2 seemed to be underway.
Life went on. Work had quietened down with the new intake of staff, and a further round of recruitment was going to ease things more. I could finally count on my weekends and evenings again, and the day quickly came when I got the keys to my new flat. I even had time for a day off to move in, and enjoyed putting things where I wanted them, taking delivery of furniture, putting some of it together but leaving the rest for the weekend.
I bought Mum a huge bunch of flowers to say thanks, and told her she was welcome to use my spare room anytime she had her front door kicked in. She countered that she’d rather use it because her son wanted his mother to stay over, maybe when she’d had one too many glasses of red wine, so we agreed that was an acceptable compromise, as long as I wasn’t entertaining a lady-friend. We also agreed that either of us would hang a sock on the door if we got lucky, which would curtail any embarrassment felt at unexpected early morning semi-clothed meetings, and I told her where to find the supply of condoms in the bathroom. She was a bit of an old dear sometimes, but mostly my mum was alright.
I’d been in my flat for about a week. I’d just got in from work, with laptop, iPad, keys and bag of shopping falling from my hands as I tried to open the door to the flat without putting any of it down, when I heard my phone ringing in my pocket. I dropped it all to fish the phone out, wincing at the sound of smashed eggs and broken glass. It was another number withheld. There had been several of these, each time raising my hopes, only to dash them when some bastard announced that he was sorry to hear about my recent accident, but …
I opened my door on autopilot and started to nudge everything across the floor with my feet as I answered, fully expecting to be commiserated with about my recent imaginary fender bender.
My day lit up.
‘Holy fuck. Really? Where are you?’
‘Still can’t say. Can we meet?’
‘Fuck yeah. Name the time and place.’
‘Pizza Place. Thirty minutes?’
‘Pizza Place? Really? OK, whatever you say. Which one, retail park or town centre?’
‘I’ll be there. Woohoo.’
‘I haven’t got long, I just want to explain things to you.’
‘Not over the phone, Matt. I want to do it in person.’
‘OK. Thirty minutes. I’m there.’
Pushing misgivings aside, I shoved food into the fridge, dumped broken eggs and jam jars in the bin, put my laptop and iPad on the counter, quickly changed my shirt, vainly checked my face in the mirror and ruffled my hair rakishly, grabbed my keys and set off for PCC 1.2.3.
I saw her as soon as I walked in, sitting with her back to the door, but they made me wait in the queue to be seated, which I nearly got arsey about, but didn’t want Carrie’s first sight of me in over a month to be while I was getting shirty with a sixteen year old waiter. Eventually I convinced them I was with someone who was already sitting at a table, and I walked over, trying for maybe a slight hint of insouciance, but unable to stop myself rushing over at the last minute and skidding to a halt in front of her.
The look on her face when she looked up at me was almost worth the last few weeks. It spoke to me without words of feeling the same longing, the same missing you, the same ache that I’d felt. I wanted to pull her into my arms and hold her all night, but I sensed some hesitation, realised I needed to play by rules I may not be fully aware of yet, and sat down opposite her.
‘You’re even more gorgeous than I remember.’
I put my hands on the table, wanting to take hers in mine, but her hands remained on her lap.
‘So are you.’
‘I missed you.’
‘I missed you too. Can I hold your hand?’
‘Well … I was hoping to get to the food before I did this, but let’s see how far we get before they ask us what we want and we say large deep pan meat feast with two salads and a beer for you and a water for me, yeah?’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘I see you’re taking control of the situation.’
‘Yeah, well, that’s part of what all this is about. You know I said I want to explain things?’
‘I bet you worried all the way over what I’m going to say, didn’t you.’
‘Alright then, yeah.’
‘You’ve no need to worry, it’s nothing bad.’
‘You haven’t got religion, have you? Because I’ve already had one friend turn to the dark side this month, I couldn’t cope if you did too.’
‘Ha ha. No. Isn’t religion officially the light side, though? Anyway, not important right now. I want to explain what’s going to happen, with us.’
She was sounding very composed, very sure, and very clear. It was a little bit scary.
‘It doesn’t sound like I have much of a say.’
‘Let me explain first, then you’ll see why it feels like that.’
‘You’re not trying to get me to join the Moonies?’
‘No. Focus, Matt, it’s nothing to do with religion, OK?’
‘Alright. Talk then. Oh, here comes the waiter so we can tell him what you decided we want.’
The words came out sounding a bit more petulant than I had intended.
‘Don’t be like that, just – oh, large deep pan meat feast, two salads, a beer and a water please. Thanks. Hear me out, please? I don’t want to screw up this first time by arguing with you.’
‘I don’t want to argue with you, either. I’ve missed you so much, C, I’ve thought about you every minute of the day, imagined you, how you smell, what your voice is like, how it feels when you touch me.’
‘Matt, stop it. I’ve missed you too, just as much, done all those things. I can’t do all that right now.’
‘Oh. Have we at least got time to eat the pizza I’m going to be picking all the meat off while I’m listening to you tell me how things are going to be?’
Petulant Matt was back, feeling a little hard done by. Carrie didn’t reply, and as I looked at her, I noticed with horror that her eyes were filling with tears.
‘No! C, I’m sorry, I’m a fucking idiot. Tell me. Say anything. I’ll stop being a whiny kid. I was just expecting things to be one way, and you’ve thrown me a curve ball and I’m sulking. Please. Here.’
I handed her a serviette from the dispenser.
‘You seem to make a habit of mopping me up in eating places.’
‘I’m a git, what can I say. Please. Tell me. I’m listening.’
‘Alright then. But just so you know, saying it is harder than hearing it.’
I attempted my best relaxed posture, but under the table I couldn’t stop my leg jiggling with anxiety. It didn’t feel like good news, and I suppose I’d been trying to put off the actual moment when she told me she couldn’t have a relationship with me other than ‘friends’ or else her women chums would shave off all her hair and tattoo ‘harlot’ on her forehead.
‘OK.’ She took a deep breath. ‘I’ve talked to a lot of people the last few weeks. Counsellors, psychologists, social workers, volunteers, other women like me, you name it. People I would have never thought in a million years I’d be talking to. It took a lot of sorting out, a long time to get there, but I realised that I’ve had no control over my life for the last four years, since Martin took it away from me. I need to take the control back, and if I just jump into something full on with you, I’ll lose it again. You’re the best, Matt, you’re so caring, you always think about me, but you’d want to do it for me, or help me with money, or something, even live with you, I don’t know, and I need to do it on my own, for a bit, to prove to myself that I can. So my plan is we do this, us, in stages. The end goal is us, together, like we were in Devon. But not yet, not until I know I have some control. So there are steps, and much as they’re going to frustrate the hell out of both of us, I need to prove to myself that I can do it, that I can control it, before we go to the next step. So, the first step, tonight, is going out for a meal, somewhere there are lots of people, no touching, no kissing, no hugging, however much we want to. If that works, and I feel like I have control, then whatever we do next will still be busy and crowded, I don’t know, cinema or something, but we can hold hands. If that isn’t disastrous –’
I put my hand up, in the manner of schoolboy asking to be excused.
‘Can I ask questions? I’ve got a zillion.’
‘Can it wait till I’ve finished? I’ve kind of been psyching myself up to this.’
But I had tons of questions already, I was impatient, and I hoped I remembered half of them before she got to the end. I was relieved by the thought of us getting back to how we were in Devon, but terrified by imagining all the different ways I could fuck it all up between now and then if I wasn’t really, really careful.
‘OK, so after holding hands, we can do hugging, but not groping, and all still in public. Then kissing. Then we can go somewhere more private if we want to, I don’t know, a club or something, and if all that goes well, then it’s my place or yours and we’re back to where we were.’
She spread her arms wide and smiled, a weight seemingly gone from her shoulders as if she’d just explained the simplest thing in the world to a small child, and managed it well.
‘Can I ask questions now?’
‘What happens if I fuck it all up?’
‘Believe me there is a lot of potential for it. I’ve been waiting for you for weeks. Did I mention the thinking about you all the bloody time? What if I get ahead of myself, ahead of the schedule? Do I just get sent to the naughty step, or is it three strikes and I’m out, or zero tolerance? What? It feels like I’m being put under the microscope here, to see how well I do, what score I get. It’s a lot of pressure.’
‘You do have a choice.’
‘Do I? What, like it or lump it?’
Carrie looked defiantly back at me. I’d nailed it.
‘Seriously? After all this time, you come back, lay down the law as dictated by some man-hating bearded ladies, and say, yeah I’ve missed you like fuck too, Matt, but if you don’t like it, well, adios?’
Our pizza chose that moment to be delivered. It nearly ended up on the floor, disgusting processed meat and greasy cheese covered thing that it was, interrupting my time with Carrie. As the waiter placed our drinks and salad bowls on the table and exhorted us to ‘enjoy our meals, guys’, I suspected he could have cut the silence into slices and distributed them as a taster platter to the other tables.
‘You do remember why I’ve been away, don’t you?’
‘Do you? Really? Because it sounds like you think I’ve been having a lovely time by the pool with my friends, instead of curled up in a ball hating myself most days, trying to work up the courage to talk to the next bloody know-all fuss-pot who thinks she knows about me and my problems, but turns out that, yeah, she actually does know, in the end, and after a while, I stopped crying all the time, and only cried after the sessions, not before them, and eventually they were bloody great, and they’ve saved my bloody life, and if you can’t see that, and see beyond the oh-so-witty things you call them, to the work they do with train wrecks like me, then you’re not the man I thought you were, and we’re done here.’
I sat, chastened, staring at the table. I had been a selfish git, there was no denying it. I’d been in the real world while Carrie confronted some ugly demons in some kind of purgatory, and it hadn’t occurred to me that keeping her safe would involve more than a few arts and crafts sessions and maybe a weekly talk by a lesbian, while everyone fended off the menfolk at the door with pitchforks. I didn’t share this vision with Carrie; instead, I gave myself a mental slap.
‘So, this plan of yours, no touching today, then?’
‘But next time, I can hold your hand?’
‘Can I call you, or text you?’
‘Yeah. I’ve changed my number, I’ll give it to you now.’
She held her hand out for my phone.
‘But nothing rude or flirty, not yet.’
She held my gaze, imploring me to understand. I wasn’t sure I did, not right now, but I nodded as she tapped her number in and gave me back my phone, because even if I didn’t get it, I could do it.
‘And no badgering me. If I need peace and quiet, leave me alone.’
‘You said you had lots of questions.’
‘Don’t seem important now. You’ve got somewhere to live?’
‘Yeah. I’ll take you sometime.’
‘Where is it?’
‘OK, fair enough. That’s good. What if Martin finds it?’
‘He won’t. Er, didn’t you know he’d been arrested? I thought you must have, it was because of you.’
‘The police came to see me, the second day I was there, Martin told them about me, and they found me somehow. They told me about your flat, asked me about Martin. I told them all about him, but not all about us.’
‘Shit, I specifically didn’t say much to them about you, I didn’t want them barging in with their size elevens all over your safe house.’
‘Aw thanks, that’s sweet, but it did the trick. Got him arrested, and he resisted arrest, so he might have a jail term. Maybe it’ll sort him out.’
‘Or make him more dangerous.’
‘Yeah, let’s not go there. But anyway, you don’t need to worry about me where I am, it’s secure. And I’ve got a restraining order against Martin. Maybe you should think about it, too.’
‘Seriously, Matt. He trashed your flat. I’m so sorry about that. I’d hate … you should think about it.’
I noticed it, the shift, from her feeling guilty about it, to the onus on me to protect myself. It was impressive, and I felt proud of her.
‘I’ve moved, he won’t find me.’
‘Up to you. Where to?’
‘In Stafford. I’ll take you sometime.’
‘Very funny. Fair do’s, I suppose, if we’re going to be on an equal footing.’
‘Can you tell me about your job?’
Carrie’s eyes lit up, and lifted my heart. This was something she could tell me, something she was excited about.
‘Yeah, as well as the yoga classes at the school, which start in a month or so, and a couple of other things I had from before, I’m going to be doing classes at two of the safe houses, and massage and aromatherapy at the drop-in centre off the High Street twice a week. WO is paying me, not loads, but it will all help.’
‘Go C. That’s so great. But won’t – oh I’m going to shut up. It’s occurring to me that this isn’t some shambles of a giddy women’s club, it’s more like a secret society run with military precision, by ex-members of MI5 or something.’
‘Ha ha, not quite, but they do know their shit. Are you going to have any of this pizza or not?’
‘Really? Not a meat lover?’
‘Not a compressed leftover brains and rat droppings lover, and not a Pizza Place lover, so’s you’d notice. But that’s OK. I can sit and gaze at you while you eat it. You’re beautiful with mozzarella strings on your chin.’
I wanted to reach over and rub them off with my thumb, then run my thumb along her bottom lip, while she gently licked it with the tip of her tongue …
‘Go and get a salad then.’
‘Again with the rat droppings.’
‘Sorry, I didn’t realise you were such a snobby eater.’
‘Only the best goes into this finely tuned set of tubes.’
I patted my abdomen.
‘Well, how about you choose where we go next time, then? It doesn’t have to be a meal, it can be anything.’
What I really wanted to do was get her to my place, cook her the lightest filet mignon with a couple of crispy potato fries and a mustard sauce, feed it to her while kissing the juices from her mouth, and then lead her to the bedroom for the second course. But that seemed to be step three thousand and ninety four, and felt like a lifetime away.
‘There’s a French film on at the Arts Cinema.’
‘Can’t tomorrow, not in the evening, anyway, I’ve got a class. Friday?’
‘Plan. Meet you there 6.30.’
‘Will I need to learn French before then?’
‘Mais non, ma petite fleur, le film a des sous-titres.’
‘Do I need to learn it now? You seem to have turned into Eric Cantona.’
‘Ha ha, I’d prefer David Ginola. It will have subtitles. And you’ll be too busy holding my hand to watch it anyway.’
‘You could be right. God Matt, it’s so hard not to touch you.’
I could have said ‘why don’t you then’, but I was starting to get it, why she needed to do this, what it meant to her, and I just wagged an admonishing finger at her while stealing a bit of rat-shit pepperoni off her pizza.
And so we chatted, about this and that, she told me a tiny bit of what it had been like for her since I last saw her, but mostly we kept it light, and it felt like we could almost grasp hold of a bit of how it had been with us, and how it would be again. She was still Carrie, she was still beautiful, she was still the woman I desired above all others. But she had changed, was still changing, and both of us needed to get used to that, while we were getting used to seeing each other again. I won’t say all of this occurred to me while I was sitting there talking nonsense with her, as mostly what occurred to me was ‘holy fuck you’re gorgeous’ and ‘I want you so much’ and other variations on a theme. But enough of it filtered through that by the time we’d eaten as much as we were going to – which in my case was limited to a couple of stolen pieces of pepperoni because she thought it was cute when I did it – and she said she was going to have to go, I didn’t pin her to her seat to stop her from leaving me again. Although I felt like doing it. Instead, I took a deep breath.
‘I’m sorry if I was a dick earlier.’
‘It’s OK. I guess … I didn’t look at it from your point of view. I’ve been thinking about me, how I’m going to do things, all this time, I’ve had to. I suppose I can see that you haven’t been through that process with me, and it was a bit of a surprise.’
‘I just felt like, I can see it’s important for you to have control, but it felt, feels, like I don’t have any, and I don’t like it, and that’s a big lesson for me, but at first it didn’t seem fair, I’ve wanted something so different for the first time I saw you again. But I understand, you’re not saying never, you’re just saying ‘slowly’, I get it. You’re right, I was going to ask you to move in, I’ve got a flat with two bedrooms, but to be honest my mum’s bagged the spare for when she’s shit-faced on cheap plonk after we’ve ripped Britain’s Got Very Little Talent to shreds, so you can’t come now, anyway.’
‘Ha ha. I’ll have to meet your mum sometime, she sounds great. Bet my mum could drink her under the table, though.’
I’d forgotten the vague hints Carrie had given me that her mum had a drink problem, and winced at my insensitivity.
‘Well, meeting the mother, that’s a long way down the line, not been there yet, with anyone.’
‘Really? You always talk about her like you get on with her really well.’
‘Yeah, I do, but it says something, doesn’t it, taking a girl to meet your mum?’
‘What does it say? This is my mum?’
‘Yeah, don’t pretend you girls don’t all have your secret signals you use to confuse us poor blokes. Meeting the mother is like, ‘buy the hat, Mum’. No roses on Valentines Day is ‘pack your bags’, can I buy you a drink is ‘toast or cereal or me for breakfast’ –’
‘I can see you’ve made a full and detailed study of women. Maybe you need to try some of it out on a real one.’
‘Love to. Hoping to.’
Carrie looked at me, a half-smile on her face.
‘I’ve had a great time tonight, seeing you again is awesome.’
‘Me too. Like I said, sorry for earlier. I’m with you, I’m going to do this with you.’
Her half-smile became a whole one and my heart skipped.
‘Thank you. I’ve had a thought, what you said about not having control, well that’s not right, is it? I’m not going to change the rules, but you get to choose the places. All of them. No more Pizza Place.’
It actually made a hell of a difference.
‘Whoa, C, that’s awesome. Thank you. I want to hug you.’
‘Stop it then.’
‘Sorry. I’ll put myself on the naughty step when I get home, give myself a stern lecture on the benefits of self-control, discipline, will-power and resolve, and hope it prevents a repeat performance.’
‘You’ve still got the gift of the gab, haven’t you.’
‘Not quite sure why I would lose my super-power.’
‘Come on, it’s time for me to go.’
‘You’re breaking my heart. Coffee?’
‘No thanks. Anyway, isn’t it made from rat droppings here?’
‘I expect so.’
Carrie stood up, and I stood too, feeling awkward, not knowing if I should leave with her, or stay while she went. In the end I stayed, watching her walk away from me, turning to wave at the door and disappear into the night.
I was awash with a churning mass of emotions. I’d seen her again after all this time, and that was better than great. After a shaky start, the chemistry between us had still been there, and that was even better than better than great. But this new thing, these rules, made my heart heavy and that was much worse than great. I let the waiter bring me a cup of rat-shit coffee, and I stared into its murky depths, lost in thoughts.
My phone pinged, and I picked it up. A text from Carrie. Already. This was good.
‘Gr8 2 c u looking 4ward 2 film wots it called?’
‘Micmacs. Loved being w u 2nite. Missed u.’
‘Missed u 2. c u soon tho xxx.’
‘Thinking abt u xxx’
‘u 2 🙂 nite nite xxx’
As I sat there reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the texts, slightly nauseated by the smell of the coffee, it crossed my mind how things might be, how I could make my peace with this whole ‘take it slower than a snail on Valium’ deal.
It wasn’t that Carrie was changing the goalposts for us, saying we couldn’t be what I wanted us to be. Despite what I’d said to her, I hadn’t really got that, hadn’t been able to look beyond my upset at not getting what I’d been expecting. No, Carrie wanted it as much as I did, the closeness we’d had, but she was putting other things first so that when we had it, it was right for her, for both of us. The goalposts were still in the same place, we’d just moved further away from them and needed a few fancy moves to get us within striking distance again. Now I had a footballing analogy, I felt much better, bloke that I was. I left my coffee, paid the bill and went home.