7. Girl on fire

In which Matty and Carrie get reacquainted and we find out how they get on.

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Matt

The next few weeks were sweet torture. Carrie and I saw each other several times a week, continuing our programme of graduated access to each other, me feeling a little like a teenager trying to get to first base.

By the end of the second week we had been to restaurants, the cinema, a play, a wine bar, a lido (where, yes, I’d hoped Carrie would wear the bikini from Devon, but she’d covered up with shorts and a vest top. Still had great legs though), tenpin bowling, Stafford Castle. We held hands everywhere, conveying zingy electric messages through the touch of our fingers, the rub of a thumb over a knuckle, skin on skin at the palms of our hands.

As I got into my car after saying goodbye at the castle (which didn’t feel right, leaving her to make her own way home, but there we had it), I heard her call my name. I got out of the car, and she was standing there, next to me, slightly breathless as if she’d been running.

‘Can we do the next bit? I can’t just say goodbye anymore.’

And she launched herself at me and into my arms, and the next half an hour was lost with her there, gripping me, face against my chest while I held her and smelt her hair and stroked her back and wanted more, so much more. The feel of her held tightly against me was going to have to last until the next time I saw her, so I stopped wanting what I couldn’t have and concentrated on feeling what I could.

Almost a week later, I picked her up from a car park in the town centre and we drove to a pub where a band I liked was playing. It fulfilled all the criteria of being a public place – noisy, lots of people – but the atmosphere was intimate, and people tended to mind their own business in a pub more than they did in some of the other places we’d been to. We got there early enough to claim a table in the corner and order some food, and we held hands and looked at each other as we chatted about nothing much. All the serious conversation was going on in the unsaid of our eyes.

Much as the waiting was driving me crazy, I had to admit that getting to know each other like this had been incredibly intense. We’d spent so much time talking, and exploring different things to do, which we would never have done if we’d spent the same amount of time involved in the sorts of activities I wanted to be involved in.

As Carrie told me more about her time in the refuge, I realised how damaged she’d been by her time with Martin, how much she covered it up with brashness, and how much she still relied on help from the WO to continue sorting herself out. It no longer seemed like an effort to do things her way, although there were times when my will-power was sorely tested, like this evening, when she looked so beautiful and was looking at me with those bright blue eyes, wondering what I was thinking.

‘I want to kiss you.’

‘What?’

‘That’s what I was thinking, C. You were wondering.’

‘Bloody hellfire, Matt, how do you know that?’

‘Could see it on your face, you’re an open book to me.’

‘Go on then.’

‘What?’

‘Kiss me.’

‘What?’

‘Thought you could read me like a book. You seem a little bit unclear about it right now.’

‘But … C, I’m not saying no, but here? I might not be able to stop if I start.’

‘You will. You’re not a machine on auto. You blokes all say that, that you won’t be able to stop, but you just have to … stop, don’t you. Because carrying on isn’t really an option here, is it?’

‘Er …’

I was a bit unsure what question I was supposed to be answering, all of my concentration having been scattered by the thought that I was going to kiss her, kiss my girl, at last.

‘So, anytime you’re ready.’

‘C …’

I leaned towards her and stroked her cheek, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and looked down into her eyes, which were sparkling mischievously up at me.

‘So that’s a yes, I take it.’

‘No, it’s a fuck yes. Stop talking now, you’re going to need your mouth for other things.’

I leaned down and showed her all the different gentle ways I could kiss her on the lips. I brushed lightly over her mouth with mine, barely touching her, and felt her shiver, as I also felt the hairs on my arm stand on end. I gently pressed my lips against hers – once at each corner and then in the middle. I nibbled, I licked, I sucked, I did it all with our mouths chastely closed, with one hand on her shoulder and one hand cupping her cheek. I could hear her little moans and sighs, so quiet that I was the only one close enough to hear them, which told me she wasn’t immune to my techniques, and so, emboldened, I pushed against her lips with my tongue and gave a little moan myself as they opened to let me in. I stayed gentle, exploring her tongue, teeth and lips, pushing her back with my tongue when she tried to be more forceful. I was going to prove, to us both, that I could control myself. Just as Carrie wrapped her arms around my neck to pull me deeper into her, I broke away and grinned at her.

‘You’re right. I can stop.’

‘You bastard.’

‘So it’s been said.’

‘You are the master. The Snogmaster. The Snogfather. That was one of, no, the most amazing kiss I’ve ever had.’

‘Thank you. I have to say, I quite enjoyed it myself. Oh look, here come the band. Pay attention now. The bass player used to be in Inspiral Carpets.’

‘Who?’

‘Oh C, you have a lot yet to learn from the Snogfather.’

I sat, a little smugly, holding Carrie’s hand, through the first set, enjoying the music, the atmosphere and the company of the beautiful woman sitting next to me. I got us drinks just before the band had a break, and at the start of the second set, I felt a tug on my hand. I leaned down so Carrie could yell loud enough in my ear that I could hear her over the music.

‘Do you want to go outside?’

I looked at her, not sure I’d understood.

‘Outside?’

Carrie nodded.

‘What for?’

‘Need another lesson.’

‘What?’

I was being particularly obtuse; maybe the loud music had scrambled my brain cells.

‘Want to kiss you again.’

‘Oh.’

I stood up so fast the table rocked and slopped beer and water across the table top. Ignoring this, I held my hand out to Carrie, grinning like a fool, and she took it. I pulled Carrie through the packed bar to the door, and looked for somewhere discreet, neither of us caring that we had just lost our table.

There was a beer garden, with a love-seat, and it was dark; everyone was inside watching the band. We made for the seat, but didn’t get as far as sitting down; Carrie pulled my arm when we were half way across the garden, and as I turned round, she wrapped her arms round my neck, and pulled my face down to hers, and we were gone, blown away, lost in each other, as our mouths rediscovered each other, lips whispered and kissed, tongues tasted, teeth nibbled.

I held her close, so close she felt like a part of me, and I felt myself swell as I wanted to be closer, as close as it was possible to be, and her body told me she wanted it too, but it wasn’t right, not here, even if no one was looking and no one interrupted us, this couldn’t be a frantic, thoughtless thing, not after all the care and detail we’d put into getting here slowly. So we kissed and kissed, and stroked, touched, caressed, feeling the longing, but letting it linger there between us, unassuaged.

Carrie shivered, and I pulled away from her, holding her a little apart from me.

‘Are you cold?’

‘A bit.’

‘Didn’t you bring a coat?’

‘No, I thought we were going to be inside all night. So did you.’

She was right, I hadn’t brought any extra clothing, knowing it was going to be hot and sweaty in the crowded pub on a late summer’s evening.

‘Do you want to go back in?’

‘No. I want to go home with you.’

My head was still spinning from the kissing, and I had to double check.

‘To my place? But …’

‘Yeah. To your place. To do this, at last.’

‘But …’

‘Yeah, you keep saying but, but I don’t hear a good reason why not.’

‘How about we only just passed the kissing and feeling each other up milestones, both in the same evening, and isn’t anything else somewhat ahead of schedule?’

‘Yeah, well, here’s what I think. This was about control, making sure I had it, and now I think we both get it, what it was all about, and the next step, it shouldn’t be about being controlled, it should be about being wild and happy, and it’s what I want, right now, and it feels right, so for this part of it all, please can we go to your place and please will you … can we be together?’

‘Yes.’

‘What?’

‘Yes.’

‘Bloody hellfire, is the world going to end tomorrow then?’

Now it was my turn to be confused.

‘What?’

‘You answered a direct question with a yes.’

‘I was saving time, but if you want me to prattle on –’

‘No, I want you to get your arse in your car and drive me to your place and shag me senseless, Matt. Got it?’

‘Got it.’

‘OK then. I’ve just got to send a text, so no one calls the police if I’m not back.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously.’

The pub wasn’t far outside of Stafford, but it was across the other side of town from where I lived. I drove like a maniac trying to get back as quickly as possible, coordination and clear thinking further hampered by Carrie’s hand on my thigh for the entire journey. As we pulled up in my street, Carrie looked around at where we were.

‘Is this near that street where the Polish shop and that new juice bar are?’

‘Yeah, as well as several charity shops of distinction.’

Carrie started laughing.

‘What?’

I searched my last utterance, but could find nothing even unintentionally amusing.

‘I live this close.’

She held her thumb and forefinger together.

‘No fucking way.’

‘I go to the shop, all the time, for milk and stuff. We’re always running out.’

‘Me too. Why have I never seen you in there?’

‘You’re probably at work. I usually go in the morning, before my first class.’

‘How far away – oh, sorry, you don’t have to say.’

‘No, no, it’s fine. This is Jeffries Street, isn’t it?’

I nodded.

‘Which is your flat?’

I pointed it out.

‘I knew it would be one of the big posh houses. I’m in the next street. You can probably see the house from yours, let’s go and find out.’

‘Wait – are you saying all this time, we’ve been meeting up here, there and everywhere, you could have just come round and saved me a fortune in diesel?’

‘Well of course I could, but I didn’t know that then, and the rendezvous have been part of the fun, haven’t they?’

Carrie hopped out of the car and waited impatiently for me on the pavement. She ran up the road as soon as I’d locked the car and waited for me by the front door as I walked more slowly up the street, enjoying the sight of her jiggling on the spot in her haste to get inside.

‘Eager to get in my pants, Miss Mitcham?’

‘You bet, Mr Scott, as are you, despite all your playing it cool. But first I want to see if I can see my room from your flat. Come on, open the door. Ground floor? First floor?’

‘Top floor, loft conversion.’

‘Ohh, I know which one is yours then. There’s only one loft conversion on your side of the street. Race you up the stairs.’

Inconsiderate of any other tenants who might have had an early night, we thundered up the stairs, giggling, stopping frequently to kiss, tease, then chase each other again. By the time we reached my door, we were both out of breath, rosy-cheeked and pumped full of adrenaline, endorphins and pheromones – a chemical explosion waiting to happen.

Carrie stood with her back against my front door and looked up at me, chest heaving pleasingly, her gaze burning me. I rested a hand either side of her and bent down to taste her mouth again. She ducked under my arm and grabbed my keys from my pocket before I had time to realise what she was doing, and shook them at me. I grabbed her round the waist and pushed her back against the door, pushing my hands up beneath her shirt and moaning at the feel of her skin, which was so soft and warm. I felt her arms go round my neck as I bent my mouth to her lips, then nuzzled and nibbled my way round to her earlobes, down the side of her neck and downwards to the collar of her shirt, where glimpses of cleavage had been driving me wild all night. Carrie kissed my ear as I found my way inside her shirt with my tongue, and the electrifying tingle that shot to my already hard dick gave me a jolt of pure ecstasy.

‘Let’s go inside first, do this properly.’

Her soft whisper, millimeters away from my ear, sent another jolt down below, and it was all I could do to stay on my feet. Carrie shook the keys again and gave them to me so I could unlock the door.

Once inside, lamps lit, she wanted to explore the place, look out of the window, find her house, but it was dark, and she was never going to be able to see it. And we had other things to be doing.

‘C … are you trying to put me off?’

‘No.’

‘Well come here then. You can have the tour tomorrow, or later. I want you, so much.’

l held my hand out to her. She stood by the window, biting her bottom lip, irresolute.

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t know. I was just thinking, how funny, what if they can see me, then I thought I’m going to have to tell someone, explain all this –’

‘What? You have to report back on us?’

‘No, I don’t have to, but it’s all part of my therapy, the help I’m getting. Maybe I’ve let myself get caught up in things a bit tonight.’

I tried to swallow my disappointment, be there for her. It was difficult with a hard-on the size of the Blackpool Tower, but I tried.

‘OK, then, let’s just have a drink, watch some TV, go to bed. You can have the spare room if you like. I don’t, ever, want to make you do something you don’t want to do. I love you too much for that.’

Shit, bollocks, holy mother of all that was now completely fucked up. Carrie’s eyes went wide at the same time as I pushed my hand over my mouth in a futile attempt to stuff the words back inside.

‘What did you say?’

‘Can we just pretend I didn’t?’

‘How is that going to help?’

‘It will help me feel like less of an idiot.’

‘I can think of a better way to do that.’

And she walked over to me, pulled my face down to hers and kissed me with a passion that even overtook that of the last hour or two, and that was saying something.

‘Feeling less of an idiot?’

‘Er, yeah, but a little more confused. I thought it would be a bad thing to say it, that it would complicate things for you. I think maybe we’ve done enough off-roading around the rules for tonight, my head might explode.’

‘It’s never a bad thing to tell someone you love them, what girl doesn’t want to hear that from a handsome man? You are awesome, Matt. Thank you for understanding me. Did you mean it about your spare room?’

‘Regretfully, I did. Although I would understand if you now want to make the long journey home.’ I gestured out of the window. ‘There might be a gap in the fence you could crawl through or something, to reduce your journey time.’

‘No, I want to stay here. I might tear my tights on the fence. And I want you to cook me breakfast. You keep telling me what a great cook you are, and you’re so going to prove it tomorrow.’

‘I have never said I’m a great cook. I’ve said I enjoy cooking, and talked about meals I may have enjoyed preparing in the past –’

‘So you’re getting your excuses in early, are you?’

‘Oh you evil cow, is that a challenge, then? Stupendous breakfast tomorrow morning chez Scott or I’m a big fat liar?’

‘If you like.’

‘Just wait then, prepare to be stupefied.’

‘It’d had better be good now.’

‘You have no idea.’

Carrie walked over to the sofa and plonked herself down on it, her face showing approval at the softness of the cushions. She patted the seat next to her and I walked over and sat down, unsure now what to do with my arms. I risked putting one round her shoulder, reasoning that she would tell me if she didn’t want it there, in which case I would move it. She sighed and nestled into me, which made it worth the risk, as it presented the top of her head to me and enabled me to drop a kiss on her hair and pull her closer, so she put her arm round my middle and rested her head on my chest.

‘Sorry Matt. I feel like the worst kind of cock-tease.’

‘Well if that’s what you were doing, then you are. But you didn’t do it on purpose, so it’s OK. My cock will understand, in a while, although it may not speak to me for a few days, until I apologise and buy it flowers.’

‘Ha ha, I love the way you never just say ‘that’s OK’, or ‘don’t worry about it’, you always come out with some long string of nonsense that says the same thing but takes about an hour more.’

‘I like that you love something about me.’

‘I’m not saying it back, not yet, not just because you said it.’

‘OK. Sounds … reasonable.’

‘When I say it, and let’s be clear, I will one day, it will be because I want to and I truly feel it.’

I could almost see tiny sparks coming from her eyes, and wasn’t quite sure where all the fire was coming from. I’d been stupid to let her know how I felt, and had no expectations that she would say it back.

‘OK. I’m just a little bit scared of you right now. I wasn’t trying to make you say it back, I was hoping we could just ignore it a little bit, like it’s not such a big deal.’

‘Martin used to make me say it to him.’

‘What? How?’

We hadn’t talked much about Martin, about her life with him. It was one of those things where I wanted to know, but knowing made my blood boil with a need for vengeance, and Carrie seemed uncomfortable talking about it, so we didn’t, really.

‘Sometimes he’d just go on and on, until I said it. All day and night, waking me up in the early hours. Sometimes I tried not to because maybe by the end I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t want to lie, but he’d just keep asking, saying it to me over and over, until he was yelling it in my face. Sometimes he’d tell me I couldn’t possibly love him because otherwise I wouldn’t have, I don’t know, looked at that bloke on the telly like that, or taken the last bit of milk, or something equally stupid, and it would start again, with him telling me I didn’t love him, until I just said I did to stop it. God Matt, I really don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want him here in this room with us.’

I pulled her close and kissed her hair, and realised completely why telling me she loved me, if she ever did, had to be something that she did in her own time, in her own way and under her control. And I resolved never to let those three little words out of my mouth again, until she’d told me first.

We sat not speaking for a while after that. I reached for the remote control on the iPod dock, turned some music on, and the soft tones of my ‘After Dark’ playlist filled the silence. I looked down at Carrie after a few minutes, and her eyes were closed. I stroked her hair back from her face and said her name, but she didn’t stir, and I sat there, happy, while she slept, her arm round me and her head on my chest.

I woke up with my head lolling back against the sofa, my arms empty, the room silent. It was after three in the morning. Had Carrie gone home? I got up, ran my hands through my hair to try to dispel the post-sleep disorientation that usually fogged my brain, and went to the door of the spare room, which was closed. I opened it as quietly as I could and peeked in, feeling a wash of relief as I saw the top of a blonde head on the pillow. I resisted the strong urge to go over and kiss her awake, and took myself off to my own room. I took my clothes off, put on my sleeping shirt and shorts, and lay down, but sleep evaded me. All of the parts of my body that had earlier been flooded with hormones, awaiting some jiggy action, seemed not to have got the message that there would be no jiggying tonight, hence their services were not required. I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling and tried not to think about the woman sleeping next door, and how much I’d wanted to curl up beside her, pull her towards me and – but I was trying not to think about it. Sometime near dawn, I must have fallen asleep.

It was light when I opened my eyes. Very light. The sun was shining through my pale blue curtains, insisting that it was late, and I should be out there enjoying its golden beams, not wasting the morning snoozing. I hated the sun telling me what to do, the interfering bastard, so I tried to close my eyes again, but my attention was taken by a hand on my stomach. A hand that didn’t belong to me. I reviewed the latest information from my sense of touch, which told me that as well as a hand on my stomach, there was a fair amount of someone else’s body touching a fair amount of mine, pretty close behind me, as well as the arm belonging to the hand, draped over my waist.

I smiled, fatuously, and stretched, happily, and put my hand over the one on my stomach, before turning over to find Carrie, looking at me with her bright blue eyes, a crooked smile on her mouth.

‘Hey gorgeous.’

‘Hey. So, if I don’t get my stupendous breakfast in ten minutes, you’re a big fat liar.’

‘Bollocks, I forgot. Why have I only got ten minutes?’

‘Because it’s ten to twelve, and twelve is when morning officially ends.’

‘Can I get an extension? I’d really, really rather explore what you’re doing here in my bed.’

‘There’ll be time for exploring later.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. I need some breakfast. I’ve been up since eight o’clock, which is pretty late for me. I’ve done my stretches and meditation, I’ve tried to read some of your hard sums books, I’ve watched some drivel on the telly, and I’ve finally watched you snore for half an hour –’

‘I do not snore.’

‘– and now I’m hungry and bored, and I need some breakfast in the next nine minutes, or I’m running up and down this street calling you a big fat liar.’

‘Right then.’

I jumped out of bed, possibly more quickly than I ever had before. I put the kettle on in the kitchen, I found eggs, butter and ham in the fridge, and put bread in the toaster. I poured boiling water into a pan and proceeded to kick the arse out of breakfast in six and a half minutes, clad only in my boxer shorts.

Carrie sat at the small table, watching me, but I refused to let her distract me. In a brief respite from stirring and watching, I poured a glass of orange juice, held the carton up to her, but she shook her head, so I held up a bottle of water, which got a nod and took them over to the table with cutlery.

I assembled two plates of stupendous breakfast in just over six and a half minutes, and delivered them to the table as the clock on the DVD turned from 11.59 to 12.00. Carrie looked at me with a gratifyingly impressed, and I would like to think amazed, look on her face. I noticed she was wearing one of my t-shirts, and a pair of my boxers, and she looked a hell of a lot sexier in them than I did.

I sat down opposite Carrie, waiting for her to start eating. She picked up her knife and fork.

‘What is this?’

‘Eggs Benedict.’

‘Won’t Benedict want them back?’

‘He’s willing to sacrifice them for your amazement. Eat up before it gets cold.’

I still hadn’t picked up my knife and fork; I wanted to see what her face said when she tasted it; I was nothing if not a needy cook. Carrie cut a bite of egg, ham and toast smothered in sauce and put it in her mouth. I watched in fascination as her eyes grew round and she looked at me, speaking with her mouth full.

‘Bloohy hehfigh Mah.’ She swallowed. ‘This is out of this world. You’re not a chef, are you?’

‘Nope, IT nerd. But thanks.’

And with that, I picked up my knife and fork and tucked in too. To be brutally honest, it wasn’t my best work, but with the limited time and pressure to perform, I thought I hadn’t done a bad job. Carrie didn’t speak until she’d finished, then pushed her plate away from her and leaned back in her chair.

‘That was totally stupendous. I thought you were just going to pour me a bowl of posh muesli or something, but … wow.’

‘So I’m safe from you running up and down the street calling me a big fat liar, then?’

‘Well, alright, although I was looking forward to that a lot. I’m too full now, though. That’ll have to do me for lunch as well. I don’t usually have much for breakfast, maybe an apple, but I think you might have converted me. Breakfast is my new official favourite meal of the day.’

I finished my eggs too, and picked our plates up, storing everything in the dishwasher and starting to fill the bowl for the pans.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Washing up.’

‘What now?’

‘Well, I hate washing up.’

‘Hm, and this is supposed to make sense in some weird way, is it?’

‘Well, yeah. Most stuff goes in the dishwasher, but anything that needs doing I do right away so I can’t see it looking at me from across the room when I’m watching TV. It’s one of the disadvantages of having a kitchen/lounge/diner.’

‘You’re weird. I hate washing up too, so I just leave it for days until I have no choice.’

‘Really? Days? How can you stand it?’

‘Don’t think about it. Easy. Why are we talking about washing up?’

‘You started it.’

‘I asked why you were doing it. I thought we might have better things to do.’

I looked round at her. She was playing with the hem of her – my – t-shirt and looking back at me through her eyelashes.

‘But last night you said –’

‘I know what I said. But you were so cool about it, and I’ve been thinking, properly thinking all morning, while you were snoring your head off –’

‘I don’t snore.’

‘– and I just want to be with you properly, like I wanted it last night, really, but freaked out a bit. I’m sorry I’m changing my mind every five minutes, it must be really annoying.’

‘As long as you eventually change it to coming to bed with me, right now, I completely forgive you.’

‘What, in your Marigolds?’

‘If that’s your thing.’

‘Not my thing.’

‘Then consider them gone.’

I pulled the rubber gloves off and tossed them over my shoulder, then pulled her up from her chair and tugged her with me to my bedroom.

To say that good sex was had by all would be an understatement. To say that great sex was had by all – ditto. Even to insinuate that only mind-blowingly hot sex and multiple orgasms were achieved several times by all participants would be a gross misrepresentation of the far more universe-shattering truth behind it all, but it would be fair to say that all participants were more than happy with the end results, which were all participants lying, unable to move, panting, big smiles on their faces, looking at each other in wonder and amazement, in the middle of the bed, with bedclothes and undergarments scattered around them.

*

And so it began, PCC 1.2.4. We’d got there, back to where we were in Devon, no more sex rules, no more worrying about how to touch, whether to kiss, wanting this, not allowed that. It was all there, all available, and it was truly worth waiting for.

There were other things that Carrie was still working on with the support of the WO, that she would continue to need their support with for some time. She stayed in the house at the back of mine for the time being; it was something she needed to do, and I had learned that delayed gratification could be better than instant gratification where Carrie and our relationship were concerned.

Carrie’s jobs helped her feel independent, and so did being able to afford where she lived. If she moved in with me, she couldn’t afford half the rent on the flat, although I told her that I was happy paying it all, and it stopped her from making that step, being scared of entering another relationship where she was reliant on someone else for a roof over her head. I could see her point and understand her fears. It wasn’t like she lived miles away, and she stayed over all the time anyway, so it was almost as if she lived there.

I took her to meet my mum, finally, after lots of nagging from both of them. They seemed to like each other, but I didn’t get them both together very often as Carrie seemed reluctant after the first visit. I finally asked Carrie about her own mum, as it was someone she never talked about, although I knew she lived in Stafford somewhere.

‘She’s gone, now.’

‘Gone … you mean, dead?’

‘For all I know, but that’s not what I meant. I meant, when I went into the shelter, one of the things was trying to sort out what the pressure points were in my life. My mum’s a drunk, but she’s never stuck with any treatment, any programme, she’ll do it for a few months, then something clicks and she’s back on the booze. She’d rather buy rotgut vodka than pay her electricity bill, so she was always asking for money, and I did my best, but I didn’t have much, and it frustrated the hell out of me that she wouldn’t stick with the help she got. Then when I met Martin he kind of took over, used to deal with her phone calls, sometimes he’d tell her where to go, sometimes he’d go and pay her bills, I don’t know why he did it, maybe so I’d have to stay with him. But it was a weight off my mind, and I didn’t think about it too much. But anyway, when I started looking at pressure points, my mum was one of them. Without Martin, I didn’t have the money to help her out when she asked for it, and while I was in the shelter I couldn’t check up on her, and she’s a mean bitch and I kind of hate her, even though she’s my mum, so one of the things they helped me do was refer her to a drugs and alcohol team once and for all, tell them I was not in a position to offer her any support for the foreseeable future, and leave it to them and her to deal with.’

‘Holy shit, C.’

‘Does it sound harsh?’

I couldn’t imagine ever leaving my mum to fend for herself, whatever she’d done, but I also couldn’t imagine her doing anything that would make me want to.

‘Yeah, a bit.’

‘Maybe you’ve never had to think about it with your mum, but a part of me was relieved that I wouldn’t have to do it anymore, all the effort for so little reward. She never hugged me, never once told me she loved me, that I can remember, my whole life. Once my Dad sodded off to wherever, she turned to me to meet her needs, but she wouldn’t have noticed me otherwise.’

‘C, I never realised. It sounds grim.’

‘It was grim. I’ve done it now, I’m free of her, I can’t think about it any other way. I’m not going to look her up, or think about her if I can help it. She had her chances, I’ve given her too many, and she blew them all.’

It took me a while to assimilate that, how coldly she’d been able to cut her mother out of her life. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for her, but I still couldn’t see myself doing it.

But both of us were constantly reassessing each other in the light of things we found out about each other, and we changed and grew in each other’s eyes. Our life, separate but together, became normal for us and before I knew it, nearly a year had passed. Bloody hell, I’d been in a relationship for over a year, and still wasn’t showing any signs of expiring by overdosing on commitment.

We’d made some good friends, some of them women Carrie had known from the shelter and their partners, some of them friends of mine who hadn’t been too happy to introduce excellent no-strings lay Matt to their wives and girlfriends, but seemed more at ease with obviously besotted Matt and his lovely girlfriend Carrie. We carved a life for ourselves, in this town, and for the first time since I realised I was going to have to stay to keep an eye on Mum, I was truly happy I had.

*

I was in the kitchen, making tea, waiting for Carrie to come round after one of her evening classes, when I heard the key in the door. Although Carrie didn’t live there, she had her own key, and knew she was always, always welcome. I turned to greet her, the words dying on my lips as I saw her expression, her pale face, eyes big and haunted. I was by her side before she could close the door.

‘What? What’s happened?’

‘They’ve pulled the funding for Women’s Org Stafford.’

‘Who have?’

‘Oh I don’t know, the government, someone. They’re closing the house and the drop-in centre, the safe-houses are going. I’m going to lose my jobs.’

‘Holy shit, that’s beyond terrible.’

I pulled her to me and held her. I felt her trembling, and I wrapped her up in my arms to try and make her feel safe.

‘What am I going to do without them, Matt?’

‘You’ll be OK. You’re so strong now, you’re more help to them than they are to you.’

‘Where am I going to work?’

‘There’ll be other places that need yoga and massage. Don’t worry about it tonight, we’ll have a look tomorrow, have a think, see what we can come up with.’

It was the way I did things – strategise, plan, plan B, plan C. Carrie was different, more chaotic. When people gave her solutions, she tore them apart and said why it would never work; she needed answers before she started; she catastrophised; she panicked.

Carrie disentangled herself from me and walked over to the sofa. I went to the hob to stir a saucepan that was in danger of bubbling over.

‘I can’t wait until tomorrow. I barely held it together at the school tonight, I can’t do another class with this over my head.’

‘Call in sick tomorrow then, if you can’t cope with the classes. I’ll take the day off too, we’ll sort it out.’

‘I can’t do that, it’ll be obvious.’

‘What, that a huge blow like this has affected your ability to do your job, which you might not have much longer? Yeah, that’ll be obvious, but also completely understandable.’

‘I can’t.’

Once she said no, there was no persuading her, so I didn’t bother arguing and changed tack.

‘Is there someone you can call? Talk about it, what your options are?’

‘There are no options. There is no money, that’s it. Gone.’

And here we were, where we often ended up, going round in circles. I tried to think of someone else she could call, someone not connected with the organisation, who might have a chance of talking her down, but couldn’t come up with anyone she would be open with. Then I thought of …

‘Beth. Call Beth.’

I could hardly believe I was suggesting it, I was opening us both up for a world of interfering sister-in-lawing, but Beth had said a long time ago she had a friend for every occasion, or some such shit, and although we hadn’t been down to see them since that week in Devon, I knew she would come through in some way, if she could.

‘No, I’m not calling your brother’s busybody wife, who I haven’t seen for over a year, to tell her I’ve just lost everything.’

‘Beth’s not a busybody.’

Oh she so was a busybody, but admitting that wasn’t helping my cause.

‘She’d love to help you if she can. She’s great at listening.’

‘Yeah, when she’s not talking. Don’t you remember how much she went on when we were there?’

‘Er, I remember her helping you get in touch with WO and by default getting you the help you needed.’

And yeah, I remembered her going on, but that also wasn’t helping my cause.

‘And look where it’s got me. I might as well not have bothered, I’m worse off than before, at least I didn’t know how things could be before.’

‘But C, I know I might be at risk of blowing my own trumpet here, but WO surely isn’t the only important thing in your life? What about me? You’ve got me, you’ll always have me. So they close the house – live here. Don’t pay rent until you can afford it. I’ll ask at work, a couple of people there would be interested in a yoga class, I can –’

‘Don’t you dare try to take over. That’s just what he did.’

She was looking at me as if she’d just found a slug on her lettuce.

‘What?’

‘I won’t live with someone who thinks they can keep hold of me by paying for everything.’

‘What the fuck? You know that’s not what I said. C, sometime you’re just going to have to accept an offer of help from me as what it is, no ulterior motive, just because, fuck it, I’m going to say it, because I love you.’

It had been a year, and I was still waiting to hear her say it, but this felt like time to remind her that I could do things, did do things for her, not just for me. Maybe a small part of me wanted to remind her that she’d once said she would say it to me one day.

‘I know you want to be independent, and you are, you’ve shown everyone you can be, and I’m so proud of you for getting there. But independent doesn’t mean doing absolutely every sodding thing on your own. Everyone needs other people sometimes. Like …’

I searched my memory for something from my life I could compare to this. Not much sprang to mind until I remembered my old flat.

‘… when my door got kicked down in my old place. If I was completely independent, not needing anyone, I would have slept in the corridor, wouldn’t I, or spent a miserable month in the Travelodge, but I went to my mum’s, because I knew it would make me feel better and she’d want to help. I needed her. It’s OK to need people, it’s perfectly OK, everyone needs people sometimes, it makes us feel good too.’

Carrie was quiet, then, curled up on the sofa, TV remote in her hand, flicking through the channels, lost in her own world while I finished making tea. She didn’t speak until we’d nearly finished eating.

‘Don’t you think Beth would be a bit sniffy if I just called her out of the blue and asked for help?’

‘I can’t imagine Beth ever being sniffy. Give her a go.’

She nodded, but didn’t say anything else until I was clearing away the plates.

‘If I moved in with you …’

She had really been doing some thinking while she was flicking through cartoons and infomercials.

‘Yeah?’

‘Would it have to be here?

‘Well, no, I suppose not. Don’t you like it here?’

‘Yeah, I do, but it’s yours. I’d feel better if it was ours. Maybe something a bit cheaper, so I could at least pay as much as I can afford.’

‘OK. Plan.’

‘I don’t know when the house is going, it might not be for a while yet. I’d like to stay there as long as possible.’

‘Of course, it gives us longer to look for somewhere.’

‘Matt …’

‘Mm?’

‘I’m sorry I said, you know, about wanting to keep me here by paying for things. I was in a state. It wasn’t very nice of me.’

‘It’s OK. I understand, you bloody irritating lady.’

‘Dinner was awesome.’

‘Thank you. And for dessert …’

This was my big surprise, I’d been anticipating it all day, but the last hour had, I’d thought, scotched it for now.

‘Oh, no, I couldn’t eat anything else. I might just have a bath and go to bed.’

‘Did I say it was food? Just wait two seconds to have your bath.’

I went to the fridge, took out a plate with a silver coloured cover over it, and deposited it on the table in front of her.

‘I thought it wasn’t food.’

I exaggerated an exasperated sigh and stood with a hand on my hip.

‘Lift the lid.’

She did as she was told, which was a minor miracle, and looked puzzled at the envelope lying on the plate. She picked it up, opened it and her mouth fell open as she saw the plane tickets and hotel reservation.

‘New York? Really? When did you do this?’

Then her face fell.

‘I can’t afford it.’

‘You don’t have to – no, don’t get your knickers in a twist again. Listen. This is a thank you from a client, a big rich client who thinks I did a good enough job for him that I deserve to take my beautiful girlfriend to New York for Christmas –’

‘Christmas?’

‘Yeah, didn’t you see the dates? Seven days, from the twenty first of December.’

‘Oh Matt!’

Her eyes were shining and for a little while all of the bad was chased from her mind.

‘Really, someone gave you this?’

‘Yep, and spending money too.’

That was a little white lie, but I knew she would insist on going halves if I didn’t say it. It didn’t seem particularly evil of me, and it was making her smile, so it must have been a good thing to do.

Every day for the next week, I silently thanked Mr Sato for his generosity; without Christmas to look forward to, I don’t know how Carrie would have got through the next couple of months, as the WO slowly dismantled around her, tearing her carefully built life apart.

I tried to show her that I could be as big a part of her life, could keep her as safe, if in different ways, but I was treading a fine line, I felt, between caring and smothering, and didn’t want to be accused again of being like Martin. It made me realise that there was still some distance between us, some space, a gap, a need, that I couldn’t yet fill. She still held back, still didn’t say she loved me. I accepted it, held her, loved her and helped her plan for our future without WO.

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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