Christmas was amazing. A-ma-zing. With extra emphasis on the amazing. It snowed. I mean, not a surprise in December in New York, but it made everything like a fairy tale, like all the films you ever saw. And the hotel – whoa! It wasn’t one of the top hotels, not even close, but it beat the one we’d stayed at in Devon into a cocked hat. It was close to Central Park, there was a spa, everything was laid on.
I so enjoyed watching Carrie experience it all, her wide eyes as she found something new, or it snowed again, or we saw the lights on Fifth Avenue. We went everywhere together, explored it all together: the shops, the parks, the flea markets, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, restaurants, cafés, delis, Tiffany’s, shows, museums, art galleries, yellow cabs. It was a theme park ride through a fantasy world.
On Christmas Eve we exchanged presents at midnight, like in the movies. We’d both been devious and snuck back to get each other things we’d seen together – I got Carrie an Art Deco necklace, sparkling with rhinestones, that I’d seen her eyeing at a flea market. A quick ‘trip to the loo’ while we were at a coffee shop round the corner secured its purchase. She got me a signed, boxed C3PIO that I’d seen in a comic shop. I had no idea she’d even seen me notice it, or when she’d managed to buy it. It more than replaced the one that had been broken into pieces by Martin when he trashed my flat, and it got the thanks it deserved, for several hours into the night. On Christmas Day itself we had dinner in the hotel and went for a walk in Central Park afterwards, coming back a couple of hours later for hot chocolate and … well … sex. We had a lot of that. Not so much that we missed out on seeing other interesting sights, but let’s just say, we didn’t get much sleep.
On our last day, we shopped again, finding presents to take back for friends and family, filling the spare suitcase we’d brought with stuff for us as well as stuff for the people we cared about.
And then we were back in the real world. Carrie had a bit of a dip, things didn’t feel so great for her. Her yoga and massage sessions were due to finish at the end of January, her house was being sold and she and the other women who shared it were set to leave at the end of March. It all felt a bit desperate for her. The organisation had put her in touch with other services that might be able to support her, but I was having trouble convincing her to stick with them, and she cancelled a lot of appointments with new support workers, saying that she didn’t have the energy to start all over again, telling it all again to someone else, reliving it for them.
We did at least start to look for another flat, somewhere we could share together. We spent several weekends doing the rounds of places I’d found on the internet or in the local paper, but although I liked quite a few of them, Carrie declared all them too expensive, and said we didn’t need anywhere as big as the ones I was looking at. I disagreed, knowing that I needed my space, more than a bedroom and a table in the living area, somewhere I could do my work or escape if I needed to, but she wouldn’t budge on it and I reluctantly down-scaled the properties I highlighted.
At last she was happy enough with one place, a tiny one-bedroom flat with a small living area divided from the kitchen area by a counter. It wasn’t far from where she used to live with Martin, and I worried that we might run into him. Carrie laughed at this and said he’d moved away, although she didn’t say how she knew. But the place was cheap enough to satisfy her, and she wouldn’t agree to any other places we looked at.
The flat itself was in need of some work, as it was dreary and dark, but I managed to get Carrie enthusiastic about decorating, and convinced the landlord that he needed to update the bathroom suite and kitchen cupboards before we moved in. The date was set for the end of April, which meant Carrie would have to live with me for a few weeks after her house was sold, but I made it sound more like a holiday, and she agreed.
This gave me an idea, and I asked her how she felt about a proper holiday, with Jay and Beth, once we’d moved in and got the place sorted. I hadn’t seen them for ages, not that this was unusual, and really wanted to give Cal the Jurassic Park toys I’d bought for him from New York. She actually looked happy with the idea. I hadn’t seen her look happy since Christmas, and wondered whether being stuck in Stafford was getting her down as much as anything else.
So I called Beth and arranged a few days at the beginning of June, just before they went on holiday themselves. Beth told us we could stay with them this time, as they’d had a conservatory built, and put a sofa-bed in there, so it doubled up as a guest room; we were no longer in danger of Jay-overload in the Scott Suite.
But that was in the future, and first we had to move in to our new flat, start our new life together, and even before that I had a really busy time at work.
Things at Eyeti had stepped up again. Work was flooding in, and we didn’t have enough staff to do it all. Over the years, I’d taken on a more senior position there, managing teams of people and dealing directly with important customers, and a lot of the shortfall fell on my shoulders. A couple of colleagues went sick, and it meant for a couple of nightmare weeks, just as Carrie moved out of her house and in with me, I was working eighteen hour days, coming home and doing more work while I shovelled food in my mouth, taking the laptop to bed and working for another couple of hours, then getting up a few hours later and doing it all again.
The place was a state – Carrie wasn’t a great one for housework, and I hated a mess, but I didn’t have the time or the energy to clear up. I wasn’t there for Carrie, I knew it, I kept apologising to her, but she kept telling me it was OK, she was going for coffee with a lot of her friends and they were supporting each other. She actually seemed more upbeat than she had for a while, and when I had a moment to think about it, I wondered if the dread of it all going was worse than the fact of it being gone.
After the mad rush at work had ended, and things subsided to merely hectic, I was exhausted, more tired than I knew it was possible to be. I dragged myself through a normal work day, and slept until the afternoon at weekends, despite Carrie’s attempts to rouse me. I was too tired for sex, and even if I hadn’t been, my libido certainly was; despite her best efforts, not a creature was stirring.
Then, a few weeks after that, I started getting double vision at odd times. I thought it might be my contact lenses, so I got those checked out, but there wasn’t a problem. I was still very tired, so put it down to that, and tried to look after myself a bit better.
A few weeks after that, I dropped a cup of camomile tea in Carrie’s lap when the mug slipped out of my hand as I was giving it to her. Luckily, I didn’t scald her, but we were both a bit shocked. When I dropped a glass of beer in a pan of curry, ruining the curry, the beer, and the glass, I wondered if I needed to get some help with de-stressing, and Carrie gave me some wonderful Reiki massages, which helped untense my shoulders, and untense our sex life, but didn’t noticeably improve my coordination, as I tripped over nothing and wrenched my shoulder against the sofa a few days after dropping the glass in the curry.
I really was exhausted, and looked forward to a few weeks off, when we would be moving, decorating our flat and then going down to Devon.
Moving day came, we gave in the keys to my flat and picked up the keys to our flat, and moved in. I’d had to get rid of a lot of my furniture, as it was too big, but we’d kept my bed and the small round dining table and two chairs. We needed a new sofa, but Carrie didn’t want to get a brand new one. She said one of her friends was selling their old two-seater, and it would do for the living area. We went and had a look, I wrinkled my nose at it a bit, possibly because it had belonged to someone else, with children and a dog, before, but Carrie said she loved it, convinced me we could clean it up, drape it with throws and it would look great with our intended colour scheme. So we got it, and picked it up the day after we moved in.
As we manhandled the sofa up the stairs and into the lounge, my heart nosedived at the sight of our flat – small, dark, horrible wallpaper, small lumpy sofa, view of the street from the window, harsh fluorescent light overhead in the kitchen area. I tried to see what it would look like when we’d finished with it, but really couldn’t just at that moment, and concentrated on looking at Carrie instead, who was looking excited and lovely.
We decorated our arses off, and at the end of a week our combined efforts, along with the new kitchen units and bathroom suite, and new spotlights in the kitchen, made me a lot happier with our new place. It said ‘Carrie and Matt live here’, it said ‘in your face dingy flat, we’ve made you awesome’. All except the Robbie Williams poster, which Carrie produced from nowhere and insisted on hanging above the TV. There wasn’t much I would refuse that girl, but this sorely tested the limits.
‘Seriously? I’ve never even heard you listen to a Robbie Williams song.’
‘It’s not about his singing, I just like him.’
‘Since I was little.’
‘Can’t it go in the loo?’
‘No, it’ll get all damp and wrinkly.’
‘Some would say there are worse things that could happen to Robbie.’
So the bloody thing stayed, but I used it as ammunition every time I wanted my way about something. I’d look consideringly at Robbie’s strutting form and then back at Carrie, and she’d realise what a sacrifice I’d made for her and give me whatever I wanted. Oh, no, that was in my dreams, and in reality it was the other way round. But underneath, I didn’t mind. I loved my girl, and I was with her, and I’d have lived in a mine shaft, or on a dung heap if she’d asked me to.
A couple of weeks after we’d moved in, Carrie came home after I’d got back from work. I was getting frustrated with the small amount of space available in which to work in the kitchen, had tried to chop an onion with a chopping board overhanging the edge of the counter, the whole lot had gone flying, and I’d cut my finger on the knife as I stupidly tried to catch it. Carrie saw the blood-stained kitchen roll and hurried over.
‘What have you done?’
‘Oh, is that what all the blood is? You’re very clumsy lately.’
‘This wasn’t clumsy, this was too much chopping board, too little space.’
‘Did you chop your finger, then?’
‘No, not exactly.’
‘Tried to catch the knife.’
‘So … it didn’t fall on the floor and I’d have to pick it up and wash it.’
‘Yeah, I can see it’s saved you loads of time. Come here. Have you washed it?’
‘No, it’s still on the floor.’
‘Have you washed your finger, not the knife.’
‘Oh. No. Trying to stop the blood.’
‘Wash it first, then first aid it. Where are the plasters?’
‘Where did we put them?’
‘I can’t remember. I’ll look in the bathroom. You wash that.’
She walked off to the bathroom while I ran the cold tap, and shouted back to me, or rather talked a bit louder than normal, because it really wasn’t very far away and I could have heard her if she’d whispered.
‘You’ll never guess who I just bumped into.’
I heard sounds of rummaging, as she looked for the first aid box in the bathroom cupboard.
‘Tottenham player of renown in days of yore.’
‘Oh. Why would you say that?’
The rummaging intensified.
‘You said I’d never guess, so I had to at least give it a go. Challenge accepted. Bishop Desmond Tutu.’
‘No. How long are you going to go on for?’
The rummaging stopped, and I imagined her standing there, frowning slightly, looking around her as she spoke.
‘How many more guesses have I got?’
‘Not many, I’m getting bored.’
‘Last one then. Er …’
His name froze my thoughts, my words, and my body. She came out of the bathroom with the first aid box in her hand and walked over to me, seemingly oblivious to my paralysis.
‘I’ll look for some big ones shall I?’
‘In the plaster box.’
‘No, where did you see him?’
‘Outside the Co-op. I turned round and almost ran into him.’
‘Shit, C, are you OK?’
She sounded unconcerned, whereas I had enough concern for both of us, and most of it was causing a logjam in my brain, making it hard to say words.
‘But wha … did … does … have … fucking hell.’
That was better, swearing always relieved the pressure a bit.
‘I thought you said he moved away.’
‘He did, but he came back. He got his old job back, apparently, cleaned himself up, got some help, ditched the steroids. He seemed … different.’
‘You didn’t talk to him did you?’
‘Well … yeah. Not for long.’
‘What, like he’s a normal person or something? He’s a maniac. He nearly held you prisoner. He made your life a fucking misery.’
‘Have you stopped bleeding yet?’
I looked down at my finger as if I’d only just remembered about it.
‘Nearly. Why did you talk to him? He could have done anything.’
Carrie motioned me to hold out my finger, while she wrapped a large plaster round the cut.
‘There. That was a close call, but I think you’ll live. I told you, he seemed different. He asked how I was, he was fine, he’s started doing his car racing again.’
What? She’d chatted to Martin about his fucking car racing? His obsession with car racing used to drive her nuts, especially as he used to make her go and sit in all weathers watching beaten up bangers growling round and round a dirt track. And now she just casually mentioned it as if it was a good thing, like she cared about it.
‘Did you tell him about us?’
‘Yeah. Of course. He says hi.’
‘I bet he did. You didn’t tell him where we live, did you?’
‘No, of course not, but I was coming out of the Co-op with a bag of shopping, it was obvious I live around here somewhere.’
‘Shit C, I can’t believe you’re being so bloody calm about this. You know what he’s capable of. If he wants you he’ll come and get you, and there’s not much either of us can do to stop him.’
‘Stop being so dramatic. He’s different. He doesn’t seem so psyched up. He said he’s seeing someone.’
‘What, a girlfriend?’
Well that would make things easier.
‘No, a counsellor.’
Oh. Well he was a fucking psychotwat, so it seemed like the least he could do.
‘He’s getting help, he said he’s trying to change things.’
‘It sounds like you had quite a chat.’
‘Yeah, well, I suppose we caught up a bit.’
Something in her voice, her expression, made me ask.
‘You’re not going to see him again, are you?’
Carrie laughed. I didn’t know what it meant – that I was ridiculous to even think it, that I was ridiculous to think she wouldn’t, that I was just ridiculous. It was as if all that fear, all that looking out for his shape to come looming out of alleyways, all that checking up and down the street before opening the door, that meant nothing to Carrie now.
‘No, not unless we run into each other in front of the Co-op again. You know it’s over, it’s been over for a long time.’
‘What if I run into him in front of the Co-op? He might not be so happy to chat with me.’
Not after I’d kicked him in the bollocks and broken both his arms, anyway.
‘Well you’ll have to deal with that if it happens, won’t you. I don’t think you need to worry too much, I don’t think he lives close by.’
‘I can’t believe it.’
‘Don’t worry about it, Matt, it was a one-off.’
‘We’ve only just moved in and already it’s an undesirable neighbourhood.’
‘Stop it. You’re making too much of this. If anyone should be freaking out, it should be me.’
I stopped my retort in its tracks, the one that said ‘you weren’t the one who had his door kicked off its hinges and his life broken into pieces’, because maybe she wasn’t, not physically, but emotionally, yeah he’d done all that to her, and the scars were still healing, and if she really, really was OK with seeing him, then maybe I needed to be OK with it too. Perhaps it was part of the process.
I opened my arms and pulled her in for a hug.
‘You’re not getting blood on my top, are you?’
I had no idea.
‘Are you even looking to check?’
Carrie pulled away and held my finger up for inspection.
‘Look, it’s leaking through the plaster. I’m going to have to soak this now.’
And she stomped off into the bedroom to change her shirt, leaving me to carrying on clearing up bits of half-chopped onion from the floor, and get on with cooking dinner.
Somewhere in the busyness that was moving out and moving in and decorating and everything else, I turned thirty. Bloody thirty. I should have had a fuck-off monster of a party to mourn the passing of my twenties, to leave me with the hangover to end all hangovers, and ensure I never forgot that I had, indeed, turned bloody thirty. But it was kind of ignored, we were up to our eyes in paint and packing crates, Carrie didn’t seem that bothered, we sort of agreed to do something later, in the summer, when we could have a barbecue in the park or something, and the day passed without much comment.
I got an insulting card from Jay, who had at least remembered, and seemed to have chosen the card himself judging from the insensitivity of it (a huge 30 on the front and some not so witty allusion to being old and wrinkly inside); it is possible I was being oversensitive. I called round to Mum’s and she’d made a cake with candles (although not thirty candles), and painted me a picture of Potter Hill, one of my favourite places. I appreciated the thought as well as the effort that had gone into it – Mum’s arthritis made it difficult for her to paint or draw these days, and although her skill hadn’t deteriorated, it took her a lot longer to finish something – but I knew Carrie wouldn’t want it up in the flat.
Mum knew me pretty well, and was usually spot on with presents, and if my walls were my own, I would have displayed it, but the poster of Robbie Williams and three mass-produced canvasses of large red flowers were all Carrie would consider putting on the wall. I knew this, because I’d tried with various items reflecting my own personal taste – a Star Wars promo poster, a framed Matisse print, a series of cartoons by a local artist – but all of it was deemed ‘not fitting in’ with whatever ambience our cluttered shoe box of a flat gave out. Robbie and flowers it was, then, and my stuff remained in Mum’s loft for … later.
So, I was thirty, and it was as if the whole world had just shrugged and continued on its way. I told Carrie not to do anything special, secretly hoping she’d push the boat out a little bit, but she gave me a card and a kiss, and then some hot sex, and that was my lot. What a whiny git I am, but hey. You’re only thirty once, right? Thank fuck, it’s bad enough once, but still.
A week or so after Carrie ran into Martin, we drove down to Devon. We’d both settled into life in the flat. I was slowly getting used to us living so on top of each other, and Carrie seemed more relaxed in general. She’d picked up a little more work, courtesy of some cards in the local newsagent, and some word of mouth business from people who had belonged to WO and although she was worrying about the impending summer holidays, which meant that her evening classes would finish for three months, the school had at least asked her back for the next school year in September. She was determined to pay half of everything, but I was as determined to find ways that meant she had money to spend on herself when she wanted to.
As we neared the city where Jay lived, I found myself feeling surprisingly happy about seeing them all again. Jay and I spoke to each other every so often, Beth more frequently and even Cal now Facetimed me occasionally, having worked out faster than his technophobe father what all the buttons on the iPhone were actually for, so we kept in touch, and Beth and Cal had come to stay for a weekend a few months previously, but I suppose when it comes to it, nothing beats physically being with someone to reconnect.
We pulled up outside the large house at the end of the cul-de-sac and I opened the car door.
‘How long are we staying again?’
‘I didn’t really say, they’re open to anything. A few days. Up to a week if we want to, I’ve taken next week off.’
‘Not that long.’
‘OK, we’ll see how ih goes.’
I understood her reluctance, she’d felt it when we were here last time, but she’d relaxed and enjoyed it. I opened her door and helped her out, then got our bags out of the boot.
‘We’ve got a bit more with us than last time. I think you had a toothbrush and a thong, and I had a pair of boxers.’
Reminding her about last time seemed to pull her face into a frown, and no response was forthcoming. I walked down the path, carrying both bags, Carrie some way behind me. The door opened as I approached, and Cal shot out, running towards me.
As I watched him, my feet tripped over themselves, and I started to fall, twisting as I did so to avoid falling on Cal. I landed on my elbow, and the jolt went right up my arm and through my shoulder.
‘Aaah. Shit. Shit.’
I heard a giggle.
‘You felled over Uncle Matty.’
Trust a five year old to state the bleeding obvious. He’d tell me I dropped the bags next.
‘And you did a swear.’
Or that I’d sworn.
‘Cal, get out of the way. Matty, are you alright?’
I looked up. Three faces peered down at me: Beth, Cal and Carrie. Beth bent down and touched my forehead, took my pulse, looking with concern into my face.
‘Urm … yeah. Bashed my arm up a bit. Bashed my manly pride up a bit more, though.’
‘Did you hit your head at all?’
‘Can you sit up? Let me have a look at that arm.’
I sat up, and Carrie crouched down beside me. I gave her the best ‘I’m alright’ smile I could muster.
I nodded at Carrie, unsure if I actually was.
Beth felt my elbow, which looked red and had started to swell, and she made me move my arm in different directions and wiggle my fingers. All seemed present and correct. And painful.
‘Maybe you should go to A and E.’
‘What? Do you think I’ve broken it?’
It hurt like buggery, but it didn’t feel broken.
‘No, I don’t think so, but maybe you should get it checked out.’
‘No, I’m not spending my first eight hours here stuck on a plastic chair in the emergency department, only to be sent home with an aspirin and told not to waste their time. Have you got a bag of frozen peas?’
‘Then that’ll do me. Help me up, C?’
I held my hand out to her and she pulled me up. I gathered one of the bags, and then looked at her as she made no move to pick up the other bag.
‘You’re going to have to take the other one.’
She picked it up without a word and followed us into the house.
When we got inside, Beth fussed about with ice packs and a sling and got me some ibuprofen.
‘It’ll help with the swelling.’
I saw Carrie frown. She didn’t approve of unnatural pain medication, but I was more than happy to down the pills if it meant me being more comfortable, and if Carrie wanted to give me some kind of natural … healing remedy … later, then I would take my medicine like a good boy. Everybody’s happy.
In the aftermath of Matt the Klutz, we sat on the sofas and drank tea, telling Beth about New York, showing pictures on the iPad, the sling holding the ice packs on my throbbing elbow.
‘It all sounds wonderful. I’d love to go to the Met.’
‘It was awesome, we didn’t have time to see ih all though. Maybe we’ll go back one day.’
I looked at Carrie, who was looking back at me and nodding. She seemed to have cheered up a bit, and I hoped it was just anticipation anxiety that had caused her apparent moodiness earlier.
‘Oh, we brought you something back, Beth.’
‘Did you? How lovely.’
‘You too Cal.’
‘What, Uncle Matty?’
‘We brought you a present from New York. C, could you go and get them? I don’t think I’m going to be bending this arm for a bit.’
And I was going to enjoy milking it for today, at least.
Beth waited until she had left the room before beginning her quick-fire interrogation.
‘How are things going? You said the women’s organisation folded?’
‘Yeah. She took it hard, but she’s getting there.’
‘Is she still getting help?’
‘After a fashion. Some other agency took over, but she’s not keen really – oh great, thanks C. Here, Beth, this is something for you, Happy Christmas, sorry it’s late, and here, Cal is yours. Don’t eat it all at once.’
‘Is it chocolate?’
Cal delved eagerly into the bag and pulled out the dinosaur set. His eyes grew round as he took in the toys.
‘But I can’t eat these.’
‘Best not to even try mate. They’re for playing with.’
‘But you said –’
‘Your Uncle Matty says some stupid things, sometimes, Cal. He thinks he’s funny.’
I looked at Carrie, a bit hurt.
‘Hey, I am funny. Maybe that one missed the mark a bit. Maybe Beth likes her scarf enough to eat?’
Beth had put the scarf on immediately. She was a scarfy person, and this one had stood out in the shop as right up her street. She was smiling, so I seemed to have got it right.
‘The bag says Tiffany’s.’
‘It’s gorgeous. Thank you. I mean, it would be gorgeous anyway, but it’s gorgeous.’
‘Jay will look gorgeous in his present too.’
‘What did you get him?’
‘Wait an see.’
We continued with the pictures, moving on to the before and after of our flat. Beth’s face was a picture as she tried to find positive things to say about the before shots, calling it ‘cosy’ and ‘intimate’ for all she was worth, but her expression brightened throughout the decorating process, the pictures of me and Carrie with paint splodges on our faces and in our hair, to us proudly standing in front of the newly painted walls and be-throwed sofa, the fresh kitchen and the small but, yeah, definitely cosy and intimate bathroom.
‘Oh, you two have done such a good job. I hope your landlord appreciates it, and doesn’t charge you more rent.’
‘Well, that was the deal for the kitchen and bathroom units. We decorate, he supplies, rent stays the same.’
‘Hang on a minute, Matty. Above the TV – is that Robbie Williams?’
I believe I may have blushed with shame.
‘Miss Mitcham, would you care to field this one?’
‘Yeah, Beth, it’s Matt’s. He pestered me day and night, until I gave in. He plays Take That all day long, it drives me mad, but he won’t listen to me. That’s why I wanted to come down here, to get some peace. Please don’t make me go back.’
‘Ha ha. I always suspected Matty had some guilty pleasures, but nothing this twisted.’
‘When you two have quite finished, my tea cup is empty and I believe I am incapable of pouring a kettle, with my right arm being in a sling and all.’
‘Well then one of us must dash to the kitchen to see to your every whim, oh Master. Do you want another one, Carrie?’
‘I’ll have some more water. I’ll bring the cups through.’
I could hear them chatting in the kitchen, and had no doubt that Beth would have launched into her questions about Women’s Org. Carrie didn’t run screaming back into the lounge, though, so whatever it was they were talking about, it was going OK.
I heard the front door open, and slam shut, and a few moments later Dec came into the lounge. Rather than nodding and leaving, as he had always done before, he sat on the sofa.
‘Hi Matt. What happened to you?’
I reeled for a second; there were almost more words in those two sentences than he had ever spoken to me in total before.
‘Fell over just now and bashed my arm.’
‘Bummer. How did you manage that?’
Thinking about it, I couldn’t quite remember how I had fallen.
‘Dunno. Must have tripped.’
‘Looks painful. Good to see you again.’
‘You too. How are things?’
I had no idea what things I meant, but I was confident he’d be able to come up with some if he felt like it, given his newly discovered gift for communicating. Lo and behold, he did indeed find some things.
‘Great, thanks. I love the off-season, I can sleep in, eat shit, get pissed, and no one minds. At least not till I go back for pre-season and get a bollocking.’
‘Dec, you sweared in the house.’
It only just seemed to have occurred to him. Beth’s rules obviously well-heeded then.
‘Hey, Cal, what have you got there, mate? Dinosaurs? Whoa, where did these come from?’
He plopped down onto the floor, where Cal was playing with the toys.
‘Uncle Matty went to Jurassic Park in America.’
‘Ha ha, not quite, that would have been great. I went to New York.’
Dec looked up. ‘Awesome. Cal, did you tell Uncle Matty about the new Dinosaurland that’s opening soon?’
‘No. Uncle Matty, there’s a going to be a Dinosaurland and Dec’s going to take me for my birthday and we’re going to buy a stegosaurus.’
‘Hey, Cal, that sounds great. I migh have to gatecrash your party.’
‘No, I don’t want a party, I’m going to Dinosaurland.’
Carrie’s advice about simplifying what I said when talking to Cal came floating back from the past.
‘Yeah, sorry, that’s what I meant. I meant I’d like to come too.’
‘No, it’s just for me and Dec.’
Dec shrugged apologetically.
‘What can I say? I’m prime six-year old birthday material.’
Carrie and Beth came back in with more drinks.
‘Oh Dec, you’re back. Did you get milk?’
Dec looked up from the dinosaurs.
‘No, was I supposed to?’
‘Oh honestly, I asked you when you went out this morning, you used it nearly all up on your huge bowl of cereal. Can you pop out and get some, sweetheart? I’ve just used the last in Matty’s tea.’
He jumped up from the floor in the way that only teenagers can, and left the room, the slam of the front door resounding afterwards in a familiar way.
‘Doesn’t leave the house any more quietly than he used to, then.’
‘No. Doesn’t listen any more closely than he used to either.’
I heard a car start in the drive, and looked out of the window to see a Mini Cooper reverse out and onto the road.
‘Bloody hell, is that his car?’
I chose not to spill the beans on Dec’s earlier far worse profanities, as it would sound suspiciously like churlishness.
‘Sorry. But is it?’
‘Yes. He got some money from a trust fund when he was eighteen, left by his parents, and he spent most of it on his car. He loves it, washes it every weekend, keeps it clean. It’s his pride and joy.’
‘He seems different than when we were here last.’
‘He’s a lovely boy, on the whole. He’s grown up a lot.’
‘How old is he?’
‘Think he’ll stay here?’
‘There aren’t any other plans at the moment. We have talked about if he wants to move out, how we could help him, but it’s all working at the moment, we’re quite happy, he’s quite happy, he’s much more responsible. He’s looking after the place when we go to Portugal next week.’
‘Not one for wild parties then?’
‘He’s been to a few in his time, but we’ve said not here, and we trust him when he says he won’t.’
‘I don’t think so.’
A very maternal look came over Beth’s face, one that told me I shouldn’t go on with my implied criticism of their golden boy, so I took the hint and dropped it.
Jay came in a while later and pretended to hate his ‘I heart NY’ t-shirt, but wore it all night, belying his protests. We ate dinner, chatting about nothing much, then watched one of Cal’s DVDs for a bit before he went to bed, Dec going up with him to read him a story before lights out.
‘He’s pretty good with Cal.’
‘They’re the best of friends.’
‘You’ve done a good job.’
‘Hey, I had something to do with it.’
‘Yeah Jay, no one’s suggesting you didn’t. Both of you have been awesome.’
‘That’s better. Sometimes it feels like people only notice what Beth does around here.’
‘Isn’t that because Beth’s the only one who does anything?’
‘Piss off, Matty.’
That night, lying on the sofa bed in the conservatory, blinds closed, lights out, it felt a bit like we were in our own tent. We could hear noises from the garden, the breeze in the trees, an owl. I held Carrie close and murmured in her ear.
‘Are you OK? You’ve been quiet since we got here.’
‘Yeah. It’s just made me think, that’s all. It seems like such a long time ago we were last here.’
‘Well it’s a year and a half or so.’
‘Yeah, but so much has happened. It feels really different, doesn’t it? I mean, last time we were in the hotel, we could do what we wanted, this time it’s just a bit more … in your face maybe.’
‘Did Beth say something? When you were in the kitchen?’
‘No. Well, yeah, she did, but she only asked how I was doing without WO, wondered if she wanted me to put her in touch with her social worker friend. But if we’re staying here, it’s not going to be as relaxing, is it? I’ll never know when she’s going to ask me something personal. We won’t be able to be as … free as we were last time, either.’
‘I can talk to her, tell her to back off.’
‘Would she listen?’
‘Then what’s the point?’
‘Well, we don’t have to beh here every minute, either. There are beaches to explore and hills to climb and restaurants to eat in. I’m sure Beth’s got a daily menu planned to the last carrot, but I’d quite like to put a spanner in her works and go off-piste a bit. Without them. Suit ourselves.’
Carrie seemed to perk up a little bit.
‘But we can’t go anywhere too fancy, can we.’
‘Why not? We’re on holiday. I’ve got holiday money, I’m more than happy to spend it on treating you than on jumbo boxes of fudge for the office on the way home.’
Carrie wriggled a little bit so there was more distance between us.
‘Are we still doing this, then, C? I’ve got money, I earn a good wage, but you won’t let me spend it. We don’t go out, we don’t go on holiday, we don’t buy nice stuff for the flat, we have to make do so you can afford it. It’s nonsense.’
‘It’s not nonsense. How can you say it’s nonsense? You know how important it is to me.’
‘Yeah, I do, believe me, I understand all your reasons. But do you understand that I would like to buy nice things for you, buy you presents, take you places, see you smile instead of seeing you worry. Sometimes I feel like I might as well get a job as a traffic warden for all the good being a manager at Eyeti does me. It’d be less stressful.’
‘Why don’t you then?’
‘Why do you stay there if it causes you so much stress? Those two weeks when you worked so hard, was it really worth it?’
‘Yeah, in the end it was, although it was shit at the time, and I know it was shit for you too. I stay there because I enjoy it. And it pays well. And they know I do a good job. It’s not just one thing.’
‘I’m just saying, if you think you’ve got too much money, maybe you need to do a job with less stress, maybe earn the same as me, so we can fit into our means a bit.’
‘Fit into our means? What’s that when it’s at home?’ I was about to call bullshit on her – it sounded like an excuse, although excusing what, I couldn’t work out.
‘We’ve got a smaller flat in a less fancy area, you’ve apparently got more money than you know what to do with, so why don’t you think smaller?’
I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Was she really so far up in cloud cuckoo land that she thought we’d survive if we were both earning the same as her?
‘You’re having a laugh. You don’t really want me to give up my job, do you? And do what? I’m not qualified to do anything else. And I don’t want to do anything else, previous comments about traffic wardens notwithstanding.’
‘I just don’t feel equal to you, that’s all. You’re always there to pick up the pieces with your credit card, we don’t have the same worries, the same fears as each other.’
‘Do you think things would be better if we both worried about how we were going to pay this month’s rent, or stressed about whether we should get value marge or posh buttery spread?’
‘I’m not saying it would be better, I’m saying it would be more equal. And now you’ve mentioned it, it doesn’t feel right when you do the shopping and you get all this fancy stuff, and when I do it just get the essentials, and then you go to the farm shop and get extra.’
I was bewildered at the size of this sudden gulf that seemed to have opened between us.
‘So, can I just be clear. You want me to get a job that pays much much less, so I can experience what it’s like to not have enough money to pay the rent. If I can’t manage that, you want me to never buy you anything, never pay for anything, never bail you out if you need it. And on top of all that, you want me to live on flour, milk and eggs and very little else, even though I do all the cooking, I love cooking, I know what makes a good ingredient and it isn’t ‘value’ crap.’
‘You make it sound unreasonable.’
I groaned with frustration.
‘C, it bloody well is unreasonable. You can’t ask that of me, ih’s not fair. I don’t know how to say this without rubbing your nose in it, but I earn more money than you, a lot more. I know how important your financial independence is to you, I never want to take that away from you. But I really don’t see how me making do with less is going to help us, I really don’t.’
‘So you won’t even consider any of it?’
I sighed. I wasn’t sure there was any of it I could seriously consider without laughing.
‘Well, there’s no way I’m giving up my job, let’s get that out of the way. I like buying you things, things that make you smile, but if you’re saying it makes you unhappy, maybe I can do it less often. And maybe I can cut back on the fancy food, and promise not to top up when you do the shopping. This is a seriously bizarre conversation to be having in my brother’s conservatory in the middle of the night. That’s the best I can offer.’
‘Good. Let’s go to sleep.’
I turned on my side, away from Carrie, hurt and confused. I felt like I had made a huge compromise already when we took the flat, and lots more small compromises had added up – the sofa, the paint, not going out for meals so often – make that ever. None of it was important compared to being with Carrie, but it chipped away little by little at my happiness.
It was the first time since PCC 1.2.4 completed that I hadn’t hugged her and kissed her goodnight. I didn’t sleep for a long time, wondering if she was going to put her arm round me, or say something else. All of it was spinning round my mind. I didn’t know what was wrong with her, it felt like there was something, but maybe it was me, maybe I really was being insensitive and controlling. I slept fitfully all night, then, as is often the way, crashed into a deep slumber shortly before dawn.