9. Ain’t no sunshine

In which things go from bad to worse for Matty.

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Matt

When you’re sleeping in a conservatory, however good the blinds are, there is a lot of light available to come in, and in the middle of summer that light wakes up very early and wants everyone to join the breakfast club. I could pretty much sleep through anything, but Carrie always woke up with the birds: early in summer, later in winter. And she didn’t like being awake on her own.

I woke to the feeling of an arm round my waist and fingers in my hair. I smiled to myself. It had only been one night, a couple of hours really, but I’d missed it, holding her until we woke up.

‘What is it with you and my hair? You can’t leave it alone.’

‘It’s always sticking up all over the place when you wake up. I like smoothing it down.’

‘What time is it?’

‘About five.’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, C, please let me go back to sleep, it’s unnatural to be awake in the middle of the night.’

‘Look around you, Matt, open your ears. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and that doesn’t happen in the middle of the night, however grumpy you are about it.’

Sighing, but not too hard, having a feeling there might be some make-up sex on the cards, I turned over. It was pretty bright in the conservatory, and Carrie’s blue eyes were lit up like sapphires.

‘Whoa. Do you know how breathtaking your eyes are?’

‘Why don’t you tell me?’

She carried on stroking my hair.

‘Your eyes are the colour of a cloudless summer sky.’

She kissed me on the lips, lightly.

‘Your eyes sparkle like the most brilliant diamonds.’

She kissed me again, pressing her mouth harder against mine.

‘I could swim in your eyes, they are like deep pools of pure ocean.’

Another kiss, this time prolonged and with a tongue flicking along my top lip.

‘I am enamoured of the way your eyes change colour when you’re impassioned – when you’re arguing or angry or just about to come.’

The next kiss took me by surprise with its ferocity.

Carrie forced my mouth open with her tongue and thrust it inside my mouth, pressing her body against mine at the same time. I heard and felt her moan into me.

‘If your incredible eyes were a painting, they would be the Mona Lisa, because they are full of emotion, but also full of mystery, and no money could buy their beauty.’

Carrie launched herself at me, pushing me onto my back, straddling me, grinding her hips into mine. I was taken aback at first, and could feel my swollen elbow protesting a little at the rough treatment, but quickly got over myself and relaxed into the moment.

I stretched my hands out, tucking them under Carrie’s short top, and tugged it upwards, reaching for her breasts. She arched her back, moving teasingly away from my fingers, but pulled her shirt over her head at the same time and I lay there and stared at her, pinned by her thighs. She slowly bent forwards again, strands of hair tickling my chest and face, and I reached for her breasts again, pushing them together and rubbing my thumbs over her nipples, feeling them pucker and grow hard under my touch.

Iz

Now, you may be wondering why there is no PG rating on this bit, and I admit I nearly gave it one fnah fnah, but my big bro was on hand to make sure that, this time, it wasn’t needed. You’ll see.

Matt

Carrie bent lower and placed her lips on mine, crushing into me, her tongue on a search for buried treasure. She rubbed her crotch against mine, so hard that I could feel her wetness soaking into my boxers. I could feel every movement of her slowly undulating dance along the length of my erection, as she fizzed and bubbled into my core. I reached up to her knickers and hooked my thumbs into the waistband, starting to edge them down …

‘Uncle Matty why are you fighting with Carrie.’

Shit.’ I pushed Carrie to the side and pulled the duvet back on top of us. ‘How long have you been standing there, Cal?’

‘I don’t know. Have you stopped fighting?’

I looked at Carrie, my sincerest apology in my eyes. She seemed more amused than anything, but these days I was never sure how she was going to react to anything.

‘Yeah, you interrupted us. We were having a really good fight until you came along. You should knock before you go into someone’s bedroom.’

‘But this isn’t your bedroom, it’s the concertree.’

Despite my annoyance, I smiled at his mispronunciation.

‘While we’re here, it’s our bedroom, and you should knock.’

And I was going to make sure Beth showed me how to lock the bloody door from the inside before tonight. Cal came further into the room and stood by the bed.

‘Mummy and Daddy don’t say I should knock.’

‘Don’t they? Do they lock their door?’

‘Yes, but I try the handle and they let me in. Dec doesn’t say I should knock.’

‘Is Dec ever awake when you go in his room?’

‘No, he’s always asleep.’

And I rest my case, your honour. Lock, pronto, before small children are blinded by sights they shouldn’t be seeing for at least another decade.

‘Uncle Matty, can you get my breakfast?’

‘Cal, it’s really early in the morning. Maybe you should just go back to bed.’

‘But I want some Weeties.’

‘Well go and jiggle Daddy’s door handle then.’

‘But he says go back to bed.’

‘Yeah, like I just did. Go on. I’ll get you some Weeties later, when we’ve all had a bit more sleep.’

‘But I want to play with someone.’

I bit back the ‘so do I’ that Cal could only interpret as an invitation without a lot of explanation, and tried being parental.

‘Sorry, Cal it’s too early. You’ll have plenty of people to play with at school, won’t you?’

‘It’s Romans today.’

‘What?’

‘We’re learning about Romans. We’ve got to take a sword and wear clothes like Romans.’

I was beginning to despair of ever escaping from Cal’s never-ending chatter, and was only vaguely aware of Carrie pulling on her shirt under the duvet.

‘That’s great, Cal, tell me all about it when you get home, but –’

‘Come on Cal. I’ll get your Weeties, then you can go back to bed until Mummy and Daddy get up.’

And she let Cal lead her out of the room and into the house, where she was gone for a few minutes before returning, a smug smile on her face. She closed the door and did something with the handle.

‘That should sort it.’

‘What?’

‘I locked the door. He won’t be doing that again in a hurry. Bloody hellfire, Matt, he nearly scared me to death.’

‘Me too. I hope he didn’t see too muhch.’

‘If he’d been a few minutes later, he’d have seen everything.’

‘Oh really? What, like this?’

I pulled her onto the bed and pulled her shirt over her head.

‘I think he already saw that. I meant this.’

She reached under the duvet, feeling her way to my boxers, pushed the duvet aside and pulled my boxers down.

‘Hm, glad to see you’re still interested.’

‘Always, always interested, C.’

‘Care to prove it?’

‘Yep.’

And I believe I did, over the course of the next little while, prove it rather well, particularly if Carrie’s muted yet enthusiastic utterances were a measure of my success.

The next few days were a strange mixture of light and shade. I think I was trying too hard to recapture the week we’d spent in Devon before, and although we had tender moments, we also annoyed each other and bickered. I was worried about Carrie. Something seemed to have changed in her, some kind of inner drive had left her, something I couldn’t put my finger on. She tried her best, joined in, chatted, had fun, but there was a forcedness about it that I sensed.

One afternoon, when Cal had appropriated Carrie to play outside with him, I was helping Beth make a salad for tea. In the middle of chopping some celery, she put her knife down and looked at me with her direct gaze. I braced myself for some interference.

‘How are you Matty?’

Not quite what I’d expected. Maybe she was taking the scenic route.

‘I’m fine. Great.’

‘So what’s this limp about then?’

‘What limp?’

‘You’re kind of dragging your right foot when you walk.’

What was this now? I did not drag my foot, I walked perfectly fine.

‘I am not.’

‘Have you tripped over more than usual recently?’

Wait, what was this? I mean, yeah, I’d fallen over when I arrived, but my elbow was fine now, just a bit of a bruise, nothing to go all Nurse Beth over.

‘Yeah, actually, a bit, but I’ve been tired. I had an insanely busy time at work a few weeks ago, doing silly hours seven days a week, and I just got exhausted. I’ve been a bit off colour since, but it’s getting better.’

‘Is it?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Any double vision or anything?’

‘Yeah, but I’ve been tired.’

‘Dropped anything? Difficulty speaking?’

‘Beth, what in the name of fuckery are you getting at?’

She was freaking me out by knowing things I hadn’t told anyone, even Carrie about, like my vision, and the speaking, which was really only the very occasional, extremely slight slur of the odd word. Because I was tired.

‘I think you should see your GP about it.’

Now I was scared. Beth obviously had an hypothesis, she’d worked in some full on places when she was a nurse.

‘Why? What do you think I’ve got?’

‘I just think you should get yourself checked out. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself properly. If you have exhausted yourself, or got run down, maybe you should find out how to stop it happening again. How have you been sleeping?’

Ha, well there was something she didn’t have on me.

‘Like the dead. Better than usual, more than usual. Carrie has to use all sorts of interesting methods to wake me up.’

Beth nodded to herself.

‘Will you go to your GP? For me?’

I rolled my eyes. ‘OK, if ih will shut you up, fine.’

‘Promise, Matty?’

‘I promise faithfully.’ I raised three fingers in the Scout sign. ‘Dib dib dib.’

‘Thank you.’

And that was the end of it, for the time being. Beth didn’t mention it again, and I certainly didn’t, but when I paid attention to the way I was walking, it did seem different. I was a bit uncoordinated too. The double vision came and went. I pushed it to the back of my mind for the rest of our time in Devon, and when we got home I forgot about making an appointment.

*

It was about a week later. We’d been home since Thursday, had enjoyed a long weekend, visited Mum and caught her up with Jay’s family gossip, and I’d been back at work a couple of days, when I got a text from Beth.

‘Any news from GP?’

Oh the appointment I was going to make. I’d forgotten all about it. On purpose.

‘No, haven’t been yet.’

‘When is appt?’

‘Not made one.’

If she was determined to nag, I was going to make her work hard for it.

‘U promised.’

Yes I had. Oh well, Matt, just do it and she’ll stop.

‘Doing it now.’

I called the surgery.

‘Tues 5.30 OK? Back off now xx’

‘Call me Tues then.’

‘Yes, mum.’

*

I got back in my car at the GP surgery, feeling like my legs were no longer attached to my body. I looked at the information leaflet in my hand like it was going to bite me, which in a way it already had. ‘Multiple Sclerosis’ it said. What the fuck? Oh, my GP didn’t say I had it, she just said she would refer me to a neurologist to get it checked out, but as soon as I told her about the tiredness, the vision, the talking, the dropping things and the tripping, something clicked behind her eyes, and her expression became serious. She said other stuff, but I didn’t hear her, couldn’t listen, as all I could think to myself was ‘fuck no, fuck no, fuck no, that’s a really serious thing, it’s really fucking huge, I’m just tired, tell Beth I’m just tired, don’t tell her I’ve got this fucking huge thing in me, in my head, because I’m just tired, that’s all.’

I don’t know how I got home, parked the car, made it up the stairs, put the key in the lock. There must be some kind of super-autopilot in the brain for situations when life deals its major showers of shit. I opened the door and stood there, swaying. Carrie was sitting on the sofa.

‘Hey babe.’

‘What did you call me?’

‘Er … babe.’

‘You never called me that before.’

She used to call him babe. I didn’t want her to think I was like him at all, ever.

‘Sorry. Won’t happen again if it gets that kind of response. What’s the matter with you? Have you been drinking?’

This struck me as amusing, because I’d been so far from drinking, but now it seemed like a very good idea indeed, so I laughed, but had to stop because it came out almost like a sob.

‘No. I’ve been to the doctor’s. But I could use a beer or two.’

‘Matt, come and sit down, you look a bit weird, and a bit wobbly. Why did you go to the doctor’s.’

Best tell the truth.

‘Because Beth made me.’

Yep, that was the truth.

‘What? When?’

‘I promised her.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I’m feeling tihred and shit. Dropping stuff. Can’t see sometimes.’

‘But isn’t that because you are tired? It isn’t long since you had all that work on, you weren’t getting much sleep, it’s not surprising it’s taken you a while to get back to normal.’

‘That’s what I told the doctor, but she gave me this.’

I handed Carrie the leaflet. It was bent and creased from me screwing it up, ready to throw it away, but changing my mind at the last minute. Carrie read the title, and I saw fear in her eyes for a split second, and then all expression was wiped from her face.

‘Multiple Sclerosis? I don’t really know what that is. Is it some kind of cancer?’

‘No, C. I don’t really know what the fuck it is either, but it’s something to do with nerves, and if I’ve fucking got it, I’m going to end up in a fucking wheelchair.’

‘Oh Matt. Come and sit down.’

I didn’t want to go and sit down. I wanted her to come to me, for once. I wanted this to be on my terms, for once. I needed some control, for once. I was tired of always being the one who gave in, who always gave up control, who never got my way. Right now, I needed it, needed to be the needy one.

‘Can’t you come here? I’m freaking out, C.’

She stood up and walked over, took my cheeks in her hands and looked into my eyes.

‘It’ll be OK, Matt.’

That was it, the full extent of the comfort she was able to offer. It was only because I grabbed her and put my arms round her and started shaking, trying so, so hard not to cry, that she held me. I didn’t know where she’d gone, my Carrie, my C, the girl I’d do anything for, who I’d thought would do anything for me; she was so far away that she wouldn’t even hug me when I told her I had this fucking huge thing in my head, and it hurt me, it hurt me more than anything. It felt like my C had gone somewhere, without me.

Inevitably, Beth interrupted our moment. I recognised her ringtone, chuntering away in my pocket. I wanted to ignore it, but Carrie chose to use it to break our embrace.

‘You should answer that, you know you’ll get no peace until you talk to her.’

She reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone, pressing the screen and answering for me.

‘Hi Beth. He’s just here.’

She handed me the phone and went back to the sofa.

I put the phone to my ear and walked to the bedroom, closing the door behind me. I sunk to the bed.

‘Hey.’

‘Hi Matty, just wondering what the GP said.’

‘You know what she fucking said, don’t you.’

‘Would you like to tell me?’

‘Wha’s the point?’

‘Matty, please tell me what your doctor said.’

‘She said blah blah here’s a leaflet, blah blah neurologist, blah blah fucking blah. That’s about as much as I could take in with the headline news on the fucking leaflet screaming at me.’

‘What headline news?’

‘Why do you want me to say it? You already know.’

‘I wonder if maybe you’re having trouble admitting it to yourself.’

‘Piss off Beth, I don’t need your pop psychology right now.’

‘What do you need, then, sweetheart?’

‘I need –’ I didn’t know what I needed. Things I wasn’t getting. I needed my girl to be here with me, feeling this with me, not sitting on the fucking sofa watching the fucking TV, for a start, ‘– I need you to leave me the fuck alone and stop fucking telling me what to do, is what I need.’

‘Alright Matty. I’m sorry you’re so upset. You know I’m here if you need anything, anything at all. Please call me, anytime.’

I disconnected without saying goodbye, rolled over onto the bed and lay staring at the curtains. I lay there for a long time, watching the room grow dark, listening to the small signs of life going on in the living room. My mind had switched itself off; I couldn’t think, I couldn’t feel. I was numb from the top of my head down. So I just lay and watched the darkness come.

Eventually I felt Carrie come in, undress and get into bed. I was still lying on top of the duvet, but I felt her arm go round my waist, and then she hitched herself closer until she was moulded to me, her front to my back, and then I couldn’t take it any more and I turned over with a sob and reached for her and clung to her like a drowning man clinging to a life-raft. I could feel it leaking air, knew it wasn’t going to keep me afloat for long, but it was going to keep me going for tonight, and so I held on.

When I woke up the next day, it was to my phone ringing. Carrie was gone, it was day, it felt late. I grabbed the phone, checking the time as I checked the caller. It was ten o’clock, and it was work calling to find out why I had missed my nine thirty. I told them I’d overslept as I’d been ill the night before, and wasn’t going to make it in, then asked them to cancel my appointments for the rest of the week. I still felt numb, but I needed to make a plan, I couldn’t deal with being in this state of knowing but not knowing. I didn’t want to go there, didn’t even want to say the name of the bloody thing, but somehow I needed to put my life back together. I really couldn’t remember much that the doctor had told me, and I didn’t know how to rectify that. Maybe Beth … I remembered bits of last night’s conversation with Beth. I had been pretty rude to her and I doubted she’d be that willing to help me. As if summoned, my phone pinged with a text. It was Beth. Thank fuck for interfering sisters-in-law who don’t take your strops either literally or personally.

‘Hi Matty. How r u this morning?’

‘Shit. Thanks for asking tho.’

So she was still speaking to me. This is where I needed to apologise. Come on Matt, it’s only a text, it’s not admissible in court.

‘Sorry abt last nite.’

‘No problem. Any time u need someone to curse at ;)’

‘Can I call u now?’

‘To curse?’

‘To talk.’

‘Of course.’

‘Hey.’

‘Oh Matty.’

‘Yeah, don’t Beth. You asked what I needed. I need businesslike. I need sensible.’

‘OK, sweetheart. Businesslike and sensible it is. What else do you need.’

‘I can’t remember what the doctor said yesterday, apart from I might have …’

I really couldn’t make myself say the words. Something froze them in my throat, nearly choking me.

‘That it might be something serious, and she gave meh a leaflet.’

‘Matty, did she say Multiple Sclerosis?’

‘Mm.’

‘OK. Can you remember anything else she said?’

‘Only that she needed me to see a neurologist to get it checked out, but I can’t remember if she said how that happens, or how long, or what they do there. I need to know, Beth, it’s sending me crazy, knowing but not knowing. How can I find out?’

‘Did you say you had a leaflet?’

‘Yeah, I don’t know where I’ve put it.’

‘Well the easiest way is to go back to your GP, then, get another one, and at the same time ask her to repeat what she said.’

‘I won’t be able to get an appointment for a few days, they’re always booked to the hilt. I need to know soon, before I go mad.’

‘OK, well see how soon you can get in, and in the mean time, I can tell you in general terms what happens, but it might not apply up there, so you can’t take it as gospel. I used to work on a Neurology ward, but some of this might be a bit out of date. Usually your GP will refer to a neurologist, you won’t have to do it yourself. You’ll be sent an appointment, in a few weeks time, and you’ll have a consultation. They’ll check your symptoms, but that doesn’t diagnose you. You sometimes have an MRI, and that can be conclusive, or it might not. Sometimes you have to have another relapse before they can diagnose you, sometimes with another MRI.’

‘Beth, are you telling me it might be months before I know for sure? I’m going have this hanging over me for months?’

‘I’m sorry sweetheart, but it might be. It could be longer. Brains are difficult things to get a true picture of. But it could be sooner. Have you told Carrie?’

‘Yeah.’

‘How did she take it?’

Like I’d told her I had an ingrowing toenail, which I should pretty much stop whining about.

‘Oh, pretty well. She’s gone off …’ who the fuck knows where ‘… to work this morning, I won’t see her till later.’

‘At least you’ve got each other, Matty. You’ve supported her so much in the past, I bet she’ll be pleased to be able to repay you a bit.’

‘Yeah. So. Thanks for that, Beth. I’ll make another appointment with the doc, and wait to see if I get to see a neurologist any time soon.’

‘Take someone with you to the GP, so they can listen if you get upset again. Take Carrie. One of you can write things down, and you can take a list of questions.’

‘I think I shouhd be taking you.’

‘Oh, that’s a brilliant idea, Matty, couldn’t you have your phone on and do that FaceTime thing you do with Cal?’

‘Genius, why didn’t I think of that?’

‘Because you’re not me, who always thinks of everything.’

‘Thanks for always thinking of everything Beth.’

‘You’re welcome, sweetheart. Call me any time, day or night. Bye, Matty.’

She disconnected and I realised I felt better. Still shit, but slightly more positive about the shit, thinking there were things I could be doing. I called the surgery, made a fuss and got an appointment for the next day. I texted Beth to make sure she would be around with Jay’s iPhone for a FaceTime. I had a shower, I got dressed. I cleared up the flat.

I was always amazed at how much mess Carrie could cause in the few hours I was at work. There were plates and cups scattered around, books open on their fronts with the pages bent, a half eaten packet of biscuits spilling crumbs on the floor, the remote control for the TV in danger of slipping down the side of the sofa, the sofa throws skewed and crumpled, two pairs of trainers in the middle of the floor. I tidied it all up, put the dishwasher on and opened the lid of the bin to put some half-eaten toast inside.

The bin was full, and on top was the leaflet shouting ‘Multiple Sclerosis’ at me. I hadn’t put it there. Carrie, who never tidied up, never threw stuff away, had deliberately put important information about my health in the bin with the banana skins and teabags. I picked the leaflet out and unfurled it on the counter, trying to smooth out the creases so it wouldn’t dry stuck together and I would stand a chance of being able to read between the tea stains later.

I texted her.

‘Where r u?’

‘With friends.’

‘Come home? Need 2 talk.’

‘Rnt u @ work?’

‘Took day off. Can u come?’

‘Can’t right now. Soon as I can. Everything OK?’

‘No.’

‘OK, be there asap.’

I sat and waited. I waited for two hours. What was going on? It was like Carrie was a different person, like over the last few weeks she’d undergone some kind of personality transformation. I couldn’t believe she could stay out for two hours after I’d asked her to come home and said I wasn’t OK, when the previous night I’d announced I might have a life-changing disease.

Eventually I heard the door open and Carrie peered in as if she was expecting a large animal to jump out at her. Her eyes rested on me, sitting on the sofa, and she didn’t seem much more pleased to see me than she would have a snarling tiger.

‘Hey babe.’

Again with the babe.

‘Please don’t call me tha.’

‘OK, chill. Is everything alright?’

‘No, C, I don’t think it is. Come and sit, down? Please?’

‘OK.’

She spent a fair amount of time faffing about putting her bag down, taking her jacket off, fiddling with her hair, before she finally came over and sat down next to me. I noticed she sat as far away from me as our tiny sofa would allow. I remembered not so long ago, when its tinyness had meant we were always crammed up against each other, and that was always a good thing.

‘Where have you been?’

‘With friends.’

I didn’t want this to be one of those conversations that ended in Carrie screaming ‘don’t you trust me’ at me, as seemed to have happened a few too many times recently, so I let that one go, as she obviously wasn’t going to elaborate.

‘Why did you take so long to get here?’

‘I was helping someone out, I couldn’t leave in the middle of it.’

‘I needed you.’

‘The world doesn’t always revolve around you Matt.’

I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that, in fact, this particular world never revolved around me, but I chose not to mention it at this point.

‘Anyway, I’m here now.’

‘Why did you throw my leaflet away?’

‘Tell me you didn’t make me come home to ask me that.

‘I didn’t make you come home, I asked you. I said I needed to talk to you, I said I wasn’t OK. And yeh, it’s one of the things I want to talk to you about.’

‘What else, then?’

‘You haven’t answered the first one yet.’

‘What, about the leaflet? It was on the floor, all screwed up, I thought it was rubbish.’

It felt like a lie; she hadn’t been that bothered about all the other things she’d left on the floor that she could have thrown away. It was the first time I had ever been aware of her lying to me.

‘It’s an important leaflet about the …’ the words were hard to say, but I fought against my compulsion to prevaricate, ‘… condition I might have, with information I’m going to find helpful as I try to work out what the fuck to do about it.’

‘Why are you talking to me like I’m a child? I know what a leaflet is.’

I could see I wasn’t getting anywhere. Sitting here looking at her as she bullshitted her way through whatever it was that was going on for her was breaking me. I didn’t have the strength to pull it out of her at that moment; I needed to get to the heart of things for me.

‘C, the next few weeks and months are going to be pretty difficult for me. I can’t do it on my own.’

And there it was again, that flash of fear, covered immediately by the poker face, the one that was giving nothing away.

‘I know Matt. I’ll be here for you. I am here for you. Whatever you need.’

‘I just need you.’

‘I know. I just said, I’ll be here. We’ve got all our friends too –’

‘I don’t want any of them to know, not yet, it’s not definite, until I’ve had tests and things.’

‘Oh, well there you go then, it’ll be alright, won’t it. You’ll be fine, Matt.’

I sighed. It was just how she’d been last night, in some sort of denial.

‘C, I won’t beh fine. I’m already not fine. I need to see another doctor, but I know there’s something wrong.’

I couldn’t believe I was having to talk her into this. I would be happier flying along with her on her fantastic journey, but it couldn’t happen. And maybe I’d had my moments of having my head in the sand, and perhaps I should allow her a few too, but I couldn’t, I needed her with me.

‘Until you know for definite, you should stay positive. Don’t think yourself into something bad.’

I admitted defeat to myself. Maybe what Carrie needed was time. She was obviously more freaked out than I was, she didn’t deal well with bad news, needed me to help her see the plans A, B and C, and when I was all at sea, she had no anchor. So perhaps once I got my head round things a little, I could help us plan our way through it.

‘Yeah, you’re right. Think positive. Always a good plan.’

She beamed. ‘See? Feeling better already, I bet. Have you done any lunch? I’m starving.’

*

I struggled my way to the weekend. At times, I almost forgot I might have a ‘deteriorating neurological condition’, as the leaflet I’d managed to read a paragraph of before I could read no more put it. At other times it was all I could think about, paralysing me as I imagined my possible future as a wheelchair-bound dribbling shell of a man, old before my time and object of pity, as the leaflet probably hadn’t put it, but I couldn’t look at it to find out.

I didn’t see much of Carrie, who was busy with classes most evenings, and spent her days being out ‘helping friends’ in some mysterious way that she was never happy to discuss but I assumed might involve a lot of sitting round complaining about what bastards men were. I never questioned Carrie too closely about where she was, never asked if I could go with her, never wanted to be that man who controlled her movements, so a lot of the time I had no idea where she was or what she was doing, and had made my peace with the freedom it gave Carrie, but it also meant that Carrie was becoming a closed book to me.

So I didn’t have a chance to talk to her much about anything, let alone something huge like this, and I kept it to myself, telling myself it was until I knew for sure, then we’d have a night in, do a lot of talking, sort something out. I got an appointment with a neurologist, only a week away, which I was surprised at.

I attended the appointment and was referred for an MRI. It was explained that while the MRI might confirm the presence of the dreaded disease, it also might not, and it could then be a while before a definitive diagnosis could be made. In the meantime, my traitorous body continued its underhanded mission by tripping me over, making me drop things, slurring my words and blurring my vision.

Finally, I’d had my MRI, and the GP had contacted me to say the results were in. She wouldn’t tell me over the phone, not a yes or no, not a hint. I had to drive all the way over there. I asked Carrie to come, and she said she would, but when it was time to leave, she wasn’t there, and I had to go without her.

*

So that was it. I had multiple sclerosis. MS. No shadow of a doubt. I sat and felt myself disappearing from the small room where my doctor had just removed all hope I was ever going to have a normal life again. I felt the edges of me blur, as my being expanded and floated off, coming apart.

‘Matt. Matt. Here, have some water.’

I came back together in a rush, and felt dizzy and sick. I took the glass, but my hand was shaking so much I couldn’t drink, and I put it down before I dropped it.

‘Is there anyone with you, in the waiting room?’

‘No. My girlfriend was … she couhn’t come.’

‘You didn’t drive here, did you?’

I nodded.

‘Is there someone who can come and get you? Maybe your girlfriend, if you explained?’

‘She doesn’t drive.’

It was part of Carrie. She didn’t drive, because Martin hadn’t let her learn, so he could keep her there, yadiyadiya, but the doctor didn’t need to know that.

‘Friends? Family?’

None of them, even Mum, knew what was going on with me; I didn’t want to involve them in the uncertainty, felt it would be better to say once I knew.

‘I don’t think you should drive, Matt. Have you got enough money for a taxi?’

I wondered, for a brief moment, what she would do if I said no. Would she rummage in her purse for a twenty? Would she call for an ambulance? Would she lend me one of those little mobility scooters?

‘Yeah. I’ll do that.’

‘You’re not going to be on your own at home are you?’

‘Only until she gets back.’

Although who knew when that was going to be these days.

‘Take care of yourself Matt. I’m sorry it’s not better news. Come and see me again in a couple of months, so we can give you a check up.’

Half way home in the taxi, I changed my mind. I didn’t need to be at home in my flat, on my own, trying not to be miserable, wondering what time my girlfriend was going to be home. I needed my mum. I had tried to shield her from this, but she was going to know sooner or later, and now I was certain, there was little point putting it off. And I so needed her, I so, so needed her.

As I pulled up outside her house, the house where I’d grown up and which she had kept pretty much the same since Jay and I were little, uPVC double glazing and the odd coat of paint aside, I knew I’d done the right thing. On the way, in the back of the taxi, I’d texted Carrie.

‘Sorry u couldn’t make it. Turns out I have got it.’

I left it at that. She hadn’t even called or texted to say she wasn’t coming to the GP with me, and for the first time I wondered how I was going to break up with her. Not if, not should I, but how. The thought shocked me to my core. I recoiled from it. Carrie was my girl, the love of my life, my heart, my soul. I didn’t think I could physically do it, say the words, write the note, send the text. Whatever had gone wrong between the two of us, I just had to fix it. But at least here, in the place I called home when all else failed, I would find acceptance and love and a safe place to show my feelings, if it came to that.

‘Matthew! Come in, dear. Would you like some tea? The kettle’s on.’

The kettle was always on here, it must have been hardwired to the front doorbell or something. I think, if the world was ending in five seconds, Mum would still greet anyone with a cheery, ‘Hello dear, come in, the kettle’s on, let’s go and wait in the kitchen.’

‘Hi Mum.’

‘It’s lovely to see you, dear, you haven’t been round for a while.’

It wasn’t a criticism. Mum never complained if I didn’t go and see her, although I tried to call in on my way home from work at least once a week. It was a question. I hadn’t been to see her recently because Mum always knew when something was up, and I always ended up telling her what it was, and I hadn’t wanted to tell her about this, not until I was sure. So I’d texted and had short phone calls, but that had been it for the past few weeks.

‘No, sorry, had a lot on.’

We made it to the kitchen where, indeed, the kettle was on, the lid of the teapot was off, and it looked like a ‘nice cup of tea’ was on the go.

‘You look a bit peaky, dear.’

‘Do I? Yeah, well, not at my best jus at the moment.’

She waited. She had learned, over the years, when she had to ask, and when it was best to wait and let me do things in my own time. It was bloody irritating to have someone know you so well, but I bloody loved her for it too.

I’d tried different ways of telling her, on the way here, but all of them involved using the words, or the initials, same initials as me in a triumph of irony; I was still having trouble spitting it out. So I just handed over the leaflet, the new one the doctor had just given me. Mum looked at it, and the green words that told her, and a deep sadness filled her face.

‘Oh Matthew.’

She was the only one, the only person in this world, I would let get away with sympathy. Those two words were all it took to bring me to my knees. I literally fell forwards with the effort of not breaking down. She was beside me, her arms round me, pulling me towards her, folding me up, taking me to that safe place, my own safe-house, where for a few minutes it was alright, nothing mattered, because my mum was going to make it better.

I didn’t cry. I was feeling too emotional, and I knew if I started, I had too much bottled up, and I might not stop. So I held on to my mum and stuffed it all back down, taking strength from her. I took some ragged deep breaths, and looked up at her.

‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t be so daft, Matthew. Go and sit down, I’ll bring the tea through.’

I stood up, and had to help Mum up, who didn’t spend much time on the floor these days. I offered to carry the tea in, but she showed me a new trolley with wheels that she’d got.

‘Beth told me about them, and I went to that little disability shop in town, and ordered one. It’s been such a help.’

Beth had been busy organising the Stafford branch of the Scott family, it seemed. I wondered if she’d said anything to Mum about me; it seemed possible. She was always telling me when Mum seemed a bit off colour.

‘Did Beth tell you about me?’

Mum looked at me, surprised.

‘No dear. Did she know?’

‘She was the one who made me go to the doctor’s, weeks ago, after we were down there.’

‘No, she hasn’t mentioned it.’

Well bloody hell, Beth could keep shit to herself without being asked. Miracles happened.

‘Go and sit down, dear, I want to show you how this works.’

I sat on the sofa, and watched as Mum came in with a teapot, two cups and a packet of biscuits on her trolley. I gave her a round of applause.

‘That looks really useful. I might be borrowing ih soon.’

The sadness crossed Mum’s face again.

‘Oh Matthew, tell me what it means, I don’t know much about all this multiple sclerosis. It’s a bit of a mouthful isn’t it?’

‘You can just say the initials. It’s what all the cool kids are doing.’

‘How long have you known? You said Beth talked to you about it when you were in Devon?’

‘She noticed I was walking funny, asked me some questions, bullied me into getting it checked out. The doctor, I think she knew straight away, but I’ve had to arse about with a different doctor and an MRI scan.’

‘So when did you actually know?’

‘I’ve just come from the doctor’s.’

‘What, just now?’

I nodded.

‘Well shouldn’t you be at home, with Carrie?’

I looked down. Yeah, I should be at home with Carrie.

‘She’s out. I thought I’d come here for a bit of tea and sympathy.’

A frown dented her forehead briefly.

‘Oh. Well of course, dear, where else would you go?’

‘To be honest, I’m not coping very well with it all, I could use …’ someone to tell me what to do, my life’s turned to shit, I feel like I’m falling into a deep dark hole, ‘… a big cup of tea and lots of chocolate biscuits.’

Mum, as ever, was just great. She didn’t push it, she didn’t badger me for details, she asked a few questions, made a few suggestions, and before I knew it, I had a plan, at least for today; a mental list of things I needed to sort. I hadn’t told her, even hinted, at the fuck-up of a relationship that was waiting for me when I got home, but we talked about work, about life in general, and she got me to face things, little by little. Oh, I was still in shock, I still would have torn my right arm off if someone had offered me my old life back in exchange for it, but things, immediate things, seemed a bit more manageable.

On the way back to fetch my car from the surgery, in another taxi, I called work and arranged to see my manager in the morning. I called the number on the back of the leaflet and made an appointment to see someone called Maggie. I called Carrie’s mobile and the flat, but her mobile went to voicemail and there was no reply at the flat.

Pulling up in the street outside, I could see a light on in our living room. Carrie must be home. I locked the car and hurried up the stairs. Despite my brief flirtation with ending things, the thought of seeing her gave me a little thrill of anticipation, as it always did. My footsteps slowed as I reached the front door, and I wondered what kind of mood she was going to be in. It seemed hard to predict these days. I put my key in the lock and opened the door, and I heard the TV go off as I walked in.

Carrie was sitting on the sofa, watching me come in. I put my keys on the tiny dining table and sat on one of the chairs.

‘Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick.’

‘At my mum’s. You couhd have called.’

‘So could you.’

‘I needed someone to talk to. It’s been a bit of a fucking nightmare of a day.’

What with the having it officially confirmed that I have a life-destroying neurological condition just this afternoon.

‘I came back when I got your text.’

‘I didn’t know that. I tried to ring just now, there was no answer on your mobile, or here.’

‘I didn’t want to answer the phone, in case you rang and I was talking to someone else.’

The Mobius logic of that tied my brain into knots, and I couldn’t sort it out. And she still wasn’t saying it, ‘how are you, what do you need, how can I be here for you’.

‘So I went to the doctor’s on my own.’

‘How did it go?’

‘You said you got my text.’

‘Yeah.’

‘That’s how it went.’

I was finding it hard to contain my growing rage. She seemed so indifferent to it all, to this fucking huge, life-altering thing that was happening inside me. I would have taken sympathy, even pity, I was that desperate for something that told me she cared.

‘So what happens now?’

‘What happens? My nerves gradually shrivel up and I end up needing someone to wipe my arse and shovel food in me. Or maybe nothing. Haven’t worked it all out yet.’

I thought she flinched, when I said I’d need someone to wipe my arse. I had no idea if it was true, I’d barely been able to face the potential implications myself. I was lashing out with the worst case I could imagine, in the hope of making her react.

‘I meant what do we do?’

I don’t know, Carrie, you tell me. I can’t work this out on my own, you have to give me something to work with.

‘What do you think we should do?’

She didn’t answer, just shook her head, and looked at the clock.

‘I’ve got to go, my class starts in half an hour.’

‘Please dohnt go.’

I need you, I need you, I need you.

‘I’ve got to, I can’t cancel this late.’

‘Say you’re ill. No one wants a class where teacher’s got the runs. Say that.’

‘I can’t, I’d be letting all those people down.’

You’d be letting me down. Don’t I come first, just this once?

‘Please?’

‘I can’t. I’ll be back later, we’ll talk then.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. I’m sorry I’ve been a bit …’ she waved her hand around vaguely, ‘… about all this, it’s been a lot to take in. Talk later, really talk, yeah?’

She walked over to me, ruffled my hair and kissed me on the cheek, and I watched as she walked out and shut the door behind her.

I clung on to her last few words, allowing them to wipe out the disinterest she’d shown since I got home. It would have been a lot for her handle. If we could just talk, really talk, like she’d promised, we could work it out, find where things had gone wrong, put them right, get back to how things were, being together, there for each other. Even as I convinced myself, part of me held back, not believing. Part of me was still wondering how or when, not if, I was going to break up with her.

I texted Beth as I made myself some dinner, not really feeling like a conversation with her.

‘MRI results say yes :(‘

‘Oh Matty. Do u want 2 talk?’

‘No thx.’

‘R u OK?’

‘Not really. Saw mum b4. Sorted a few things.’

‘R u with Carrie?’

‘No, home alone making pasta. She’ll b back l8r.’

‘U no where I am.’

‘Thx.’

I ate my pasta, although I had no appetite and it felt like ashes in my mouth. Carrie came home, and we talked, really talked, more than I could remember us talking for a long time. We went to bed and she held me, and I told her how scared I was, how uncertain the future was, how much I hoped nothing much would change, but how terrified I was that everything would change. She held me in her arms, and smoothed my hair, and rubbed my back, and told me she’d been scared too, of the same things, and how she wasn’t good at bad news, but she wanted to help me, she was going to be there, always. And I relaxed. I felt safe, finally, knowing that we could do this together, me and Carrie, whatever happened we’d be together.

The next day when I woke up, she was gone. But that was OK, because she was often gone, she was busy, she had work, she had friends, she had people she helped. She’d left a note on her pillow:

Hey!

Out, but back later. Keep smiling!

C xx

It was more than she’d done before, and the note bolstered me through my day. I put it in my pocket, and smiled every time I touched it, as I got my keys or felt for change.

I saw my manager mid-morning, giving him brief details, gritting my teeth to say the words. Firstly, I asked him to keep my condition confidential from everyone at work, while I got my head round it. Then we agreed that I would reduce my hours, temporarily, so that there was no chance that over-tiredness would make things worse. To start with, I would halve my hours, doing fewer, shorter days, and we would review it in a month. I wasn’t sure I was keen on halving my pay, but I had saved a lot by Carrie not allowing me to spend it; it was a big enough cushion for contingencies.

And I suddenly saw how I could make things better between Carrie and me. I could do what she’d asked me to, all those weeks ago. I could live on less. It should have occurred to me before, that rather than getting another job, I could just work less in the one I had.

It solved so much, I came home with a lighter heart and cooked Carrie’s favourite meal, ready for when she came home. I couldn’t believe the difference it had made, firstly knowing the stress of work was diminished, and secondly knowing I had a way to fix things with Carrie. Despite the black cloud of the future, I felt like I was bathed in sunshine the whole afternoon.

Carrie came home earlier than I expected, and looked surprised at the evidence of cooking.

‘Hey C. I’ve made your favourite.’

‘Spag bol with a twist?’

‘Spag bol wih a twist.’

‘What’s today’s twist?’

‘You know I never tell. You’ve got to guess.’

‘When’s it ready?’

‘Whenever you are, bol’s all done, just need to put the spag on.’

‘OK, quick shower, and I’ll be there.’

I put the pasta in the boiling water and set the table, jigging a bit to the music that was playing on the iPod.

‘You seem happy.’

I turned to Carrie, who was leaning on the door frame watching me, damp hair curling on her shoulders.

‘I’ve been in to work.’

‘Ah, surrounded by computers again, your natural habitat.’

‘Ha ha, no I didn’t do any work, I went to see my boss.’

I loaded two plates and set them down on the table. Carrie walked over and sat down.

‘What about?’

‘About me being ill.’

‘You’re not ill.’

I looked back at her, astounded.

‘Did you not hear anything I said yesterday?’

She rolled her eyes.

‘Yeah, of course, I get it, you’ve got this thing, but it’s not making you ill right now, is it? You’ve just cooked dinner, you’re chatting away to me. I don’t mean it’s not serious, but all I meant is, take the good days, don’t wish them away saying you’re ill.’

‘Hmm.’

I kind of got what she was saying, but it got in the way of what I was trying to tell her.

‘Anyway, do you remember when we were at Jay and Beth’s, and we had that argument about me earning less and being a traffic warden or some such shit?’

‘Yeah. You’re not going to be a traffic warden are you?’

‘No. But I am going to reduce my hours. As of next week, I’m going part time, half-time actually. You’re right, I don’t really need all the money I earn, it’ll do me good to find out how I manage on a budget. You might even earn more than me in the next few weeks.’

Carrie had stopped eating and put her fork down.

‘But how will we pay for everything?’

‘Wha?’

‘We both need to be earning money, there’s rent, there’s bills, what if we can’t cover it?’

‘But I thought this was what you wanted?’

I was really confused. I’d thought this was going to make her happy, but the look on her face was the opposite of happy. She looked like the world was ending.

‘C, we’ll be fine, I’m not giving up work completely, I’m just trying this out to see if it makes things better for me. I thought it might make things better for us, too. We’ll have more time to be together. I can come and help you in the day.’

I reached out and clasped her hand, linking fingers, trying very hard to ignore the look of panic that crossed her face before she covered it up.

‘We’ve been on different planets the last few weeks, I thought this might make us a bit closer.’

‘Yeah, maybe.’

She didn’t sound convinced, but did at least try a bright smile and go back to eating her dinner.

‘I can’t work it out.’

‘What?’

‘The twist.’

‘Oh. It’s a flavour.’

‘I thought it tasted a bit weird.’

‘Weird good, or weird take this shit away from me and feed it to my mortal enemy?’

‘Just weird.’

She shrugged.

‘Are you giving up? Already?’

Carrie never gave up with the spag bol twist game, even if it came to ransacking the cupboards for the strange things I snuck into it. I spent ages preparing spag bol with a twist night, it was one of my favourite nights, but it didn’t feel reciprocated right now.

‘I don’t know what it is.’

‘Star anise.’

Suddenly, I couldn’t be bothered either, what was the point of a stupid cooking guessing game when we were trying to sort our lives out? When I was trying really hard to find a reason not to think about breaking up with her?

‘Never heard of it.’

‘Ih’s a spice. Shaped like a star.’

‘Oh. Cool. Maybe not again, though?’

‘Noted.’

It kind of put a dampener on the rest of the evening, and we both sat in front of the TV, lost in our own thoughts.

*

The next few weeks, then months went on in a similar vein, with Carrie blowing hot and cold, me trying to get my head round being seriously ill while not feeling much different, both of us treading on eggshells, which was making both of us irritable. We had more arguments than we had ever had before, mostly about paying the bills. It seemed that having less, ‘fitting into our means’, hadn’t been the answer after all, although not spending so much time at work was really helping me, despite finding it hard to come home when I’d done my allotted hours.

I made and cancelled several appointments with Maggie from some support service, never quite summoning the bottle to go and talk to a stranger about it all.

I still saw Mum, she was still a rock. I’d like to say we looked after each other, but at that time she was the one holding me up, offering suggestions and insightful comments. She’d had arthritis for so long, it was a part of her for me, and I was so self-absorbed I wouldn’t have noticed if one of her arms was missing.

About this time, Mum told me Jay and Beth had been having some trouble with Dec, he had moved out and they were worried about him. I didn’t have much time to think about it, if I’m honest, being wrapped up as I was in my own worries. Besides, how old was he now? He must be approaching twenty, surely it wasn’t that strange for someone his age to want a place of his own, somewhere he could be himself with his mates. I assumed Beth was feeling abandoned, assumed she’d get over it, didn’t give it much more thought, and went back to thinking about myself.

I had come back from Mum’s one evening at the beginning of October. I’d had dinner there, as Carrie said she was going to be out for the evening, so didn’t expect her to be there when I got back.

I’d got more and more used to spending my evenings on my own, asleep by the time Carrie got home. But I didn’t expect, when I opened the door to the flat, the certain knowledge, the shiver down my spine, that told me she’d gone. She wasn’t just out, she wasn’t there any more.

I don’t believe in psychic phenomena (even your imaginary psychic granny, Lau), or premonitions, anything like that, total bunkum, but it sliced through me even as I was trying to dismiss it as an open window or some such shit. I felt the blood drain from my face, and as I reached the table and saw the note, my legs buckled under me and I sank into a chair.

Hey Matt

I’m sorry to do this to you like this, but I’m leaving. It’s nothing you’ve done, it’s me. I’m going to live with Martin. He’s changed and he still loves me and I still love him.

Please don’t look for me, you won’t find me.

I wish you all the best, and hope you are better soon.

C

I stared at the note, read it and re-read it, hoping to find the bit where it became clear it was a joke. If it was a joke, it was in really poor taste, and not something we were going to be laughing about any time soon.

I grabbed my phone and dialled her mobile number, but it wouldn’t connect, so I tried again several times, the automated message telling me that the number I had called was currently unavailable getting more and more irksome. Then I saw it, her phone on the table. She’d taken everything else, but left that; the phone hadn’t even rung and a quick check showed that it no longer connected to a network. She had truly left me unable to contact her.

It began to force its way through that it was real. She’d really gone back to that fucking madman, the one who had caused all this in the first place, the one who had fucked our lives up so we never really stood a chance.

My girl was gone. She’d been leaving for months, and I’d chosen to ignore it, but now it made perfect sense. The mysterious friends she’d been helping out – they were him. How could she? After all this time, after all that therapy, after all that … us. How could she do the one thing that would break my heart into more pieces than I could count?

I felt as if I’d been smashed to pulp. My world narrowed to the note on the table, to the tears pricking at the corner of my eyes, and then I stopped holding any of it back. I’d stopped myself from crying for months, so that it wouldn’t be true, how sad I was about everything, so I could be happy for her and tell everyone else, yeah, I’m doing fine, bit under the weather. But now, now there was no point stopping myself.

I put my face in my hands and let it all out, my anguish, my pain, there was no one to see, no one to hear, and I could give vent to how I truly felt, which was as if Carrie Mitcham had cut the living heart out of me with a rusty fish knife and fed it, laughing, to a mangy dog.

I had never experienced such misery; it was palpable, as if I could reach out and touch it. It hovered blackly above me and pressed down on me, as I sobbed and gasped my way into it, embracing it as my new friend.

Eventually, I must have made my way into the bedroom, because I woke up, in the dark, shivering and miserable, the pillow damp, and a throat that felt as if I’d swallowed crushed glass. My friend the black misery was still with me, he wasn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable, but a few coherent thoughts were able to sneak past his defences.

Carrie had said don’t try to find her, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try. If I could talk to her, maybe I could make her see sense – oh I said coherent thoughts, didn’t I? Actually it was more like clutching at the thinnest of straws with the thickest of winter mittens. But anyway, I checked the time. It was the middle of the night, too late to be calling anyone, but first thing in the morning I was going to get on to all our friends, all the people we hadn’t seen in ages as going out was too expensive, and we couldn’t go over for dinner as there wasn’t room to have them back here, all that, but surely they were still our friends? They’d understand, wouldn’t they? And if they had heard from her, they would tell me, so I had to at least try.

I undressed and got into bed, trying not to think about Carrie’s side of the wardrobe, but in the end I couldn’t think about anything else, and I turned the lamp on and got up, flinging the door wide open. It was another knife to my empty chest cavity. Nothing there. All her shoes, clothes, everything. Same with her drawers, and while I was at it and full of the fun of stabbing my soul to the death, I checked out the bathroom for her toiletries and the living room, behind the sofa, for her yoga class stuff. All gone. All telling me she wasn’t coming back. None of it giving me any answers. I wandered miserably back to bed and spent the rest of the night alternately crying and staring into the blackness, holding my pillow as if it was her until it got light outside.

My throat was still sore the next morning, my head pounded, my body ached and my eyes were puffy. I had a raging thirst, and drank a pint of water in one go, before calling all our friends. Every single one went to voicemail. I couldn’t believe it, or understand it. Even Simon, who was surgically attached to his phone and always answered it, even in the middle of a conversation with someone else. So I texted, but that yielded no replies, either. I checked my phone to see if there was something wrong with it. There wasn’t, not that I could find.

As the morning wore on and I waited for text messages that never came, I started to feel decidedly ropey. I thought about my sore throat and headache, which I had put down to my bout of self-pity, but now wondered if I was getting a cold. I dosed myself up with paracetamol and cups of lemon and ginger tea and wrapped myself in one of the throws from the sofa, feeling shivery, and going hot and cold.

Suddenly I woke up and looked at the clock, and I’d been asleep for three hours. I stumbled to bed and wrapped myself in the duvet, promising myself I would do something more productive when I’d stopped feeling like shit. It wasn’t a work day, but if I was still like this tomorrow, there was no way I could go in. I drifted in and out of sleep all day and all night, waking at odd times, needing to drink, needing to pee, then falling back into bed to shiver and go hot and cold.

When I finally woke up properly it was to hear the phone ringing in the lounge, my mobile phone, where I’d left it. I got up too quickly, convinced it was going to be Carrie, not noticing it wasn’t her ringtone, and I crashed headlong into the wardrobe as I stumbled, my feet not taking me where I needed them to. I sat on the floor, stunned, trying to gather my thoughts, whimpering as the phone stopped ringing. The silence at least calmed me down a bit, and I got up slowly, head still spinning, and fumbled my way to the living room, supporting myself on the walls as I went.

I picked up my phone from the sofa, where I’d left it after texting everyone yesterday. The screen showed three texts, which for a moment I thought might be from the friends I’d sent messages to the previous morning, but all turned out to be from work, as was the recent missed call. Fuck – I should have been at work today. I called back and falteringly explained I was feeling lousy, backed up by a gravelly voice, and said that I would be back when I felt better. It was only a cold, I would be better in a few days, I was sure.

But I wasn’t. I got worse. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t do anything, I could hardly feed myself, and in the end, hating myself, I called Mum and asked her to come and look after me for the day. She came over willingly, even though it was a long trip on the bus since she stopped driving. I waited up for her so I could let her in.

‘Matthew, you look terrible.’

‘Better than I fehl, then.’

‘Oh, dear, go to bed, I’ll make some soup.’

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘Did I say you were? Soup will do you good and you need get some nutrition in you. I’ll just put this in the fridge?’

I noticed she’d brought a bag of shopping, which was just as well, as soup made from the ingredients I had available would have been made from water and powdered mustard or some such shit.

I pointed her in the direction of the kitchen, and went back to bed, where screwed up tissues littered the bed and the floor. Some time later, I felt a cool cloth on my forehead, and opened my eyes to see Mum sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at me with concern.

‘Well that’s the soup on, I’m just letting it cook a bit, then we’re good to go. Where’s Carrie?’

‘Oh …’

God, no one knew, did they? She’d left me and gone back to him, and then I’d got this shitty whatever it was that was mashing my brain, filling me with snot and phlegm and confusion, and I hadn’t been able to think further than ‘bleurgh’ for days.

‘Is this anything to do with it?’

She held up the note, the one that had been on the table since I found it, that I would have cleared away if I’d thought about it, before anyone came round and actually saw the thing that had torn me into a thousand bits with a thousand razor sharp teeth. I stared at it. Seeing it again, the thing that had caused all this pain I was feeling, made my guts clench and my stomach heave.

I sat up, pushed Mum out of the way and stumbled to the toilet, where I puked up the not very full contents of my stomach. As I knelt, head leaning on the bowl, panting, sobbing, I heard Mum come in, and felt her hand rub my back.

‘You poor boy. Come on, up with you. Go and sit in the lounge. I need to change your bed.’

‘Wha? No you don’t.’

‘Matthew, you need clean sheets. It smells in there, and clean sheets always feel better. Wipe your mouth, now, clean your teeth and go and wrap yourself up on your sofa. I won’t be long.’

I did as I was told, lacking the energy to argue, and sat half-dozing on the sofa, smelling the soup cooking, which was making me feel undeniable stirrings of hunger. How long was it since I ate anything? What day was it?

I could hear Mum rummaging around, trying to find clean bed linen, and couldn’t summon the strength to call out and tell her where it was. There weren’t many places to look, anyway.

After a while she came back in, looking a little flushed from the fight with the duvet, and sat next to me.

‘When did she go?’

I had lost track of time, and had no way of measuring how long it had been.

‘When I came home from yours. I found it waiting for me.’

‘Oh Matthew. I have to say, I find it a particularly cruel thing for her to do.’

‘Yeah, well.’

Couldn’t go there, couldn’t do that, assassinate her character, not yet, I still loved her. If she walked back in now and said she’d got it wrong, she was back, was I cooking tea? I’d do it.

‘Had you been having problems for long?’

I snorted, which made me cough.

‘Since weh met, apparently.’

‘That’s not what I meant, dear. You were so happy, weren’t you, before, well, I’d say before her organisation closed down.’

Yeah, maybe that had been the death knell. I couldn’t think clearly enough to analyse it all now. Maybe if she’d never bumped into him that time outside the Co-op … but maybe it would have happened sooner or later anyway, maybe he’d been watching out for her, maybe she’d looked out for him. Maybe she’d already met him again then, and it was another lie. I couldn’t go through it all, my head hurt.

‘She’s gone, Mum. That’s all.’

‘I know. I know. I’m sorry, and I’m sorry that you’re trying to deal with it all while you’re feeling like this.’

‘S’just a cohd.’

‘It’s a bad one, though, look at you. I think I’ll stay here tonight and make sure you eat and drink enough. Have you been keeping up your fluids?’

No.

‘Yeah.’

‘Well we’ll see, won’t we, dear. Oh Matthew, we’ll get you well. You’ll be back on your feet in a few days and telling me to stop fussing over you.’

‘Yeah.’

‘And maybe you’ll swear just a bit, so I know you’re still alive.’

‘Yeah, I fu –’ I was racked by a fit of coughing that took the words out of my mouth.

‘Why don’t you leave the swearing for a while, then, dear, it’s obviously too much for you just at the moment.’

I smiled weakly at her smug face and flopped back against the sofa.

Mum stayed that night, sitting on the sofa with a blanket over her knees, from what I could gather, but she had to go home the next night to get some sleep. I gave her the spare key so she could get in again without me having to get up, and she came for two more days, feeding me soup, filling my fridge and clearing away my tissues.

My cold dried up, I got my appetite and my strength back, and my head got clearer. This wasn’t a good thing, as the car crash that was me and Carrie was now there for the examining, and feeling lousy was replaced with feeling more miserable than I’d ever felt in my life.

I went back to work, but couldn’t concentrate. Thoughts of Carrie permeated my every waking moment. Where was she now? What was she doing with him? If I went to the school on a Thursday, would she be there? I might have tried it if I’d been up to doing anything except go to work and come home. I still barely had the energy to do that, and on top of everything my coordination had got worse, leading to more tripping, more dropping shit, more blurred vision and more slurred words.

A week or so after going back to work, I woke up on my day off with a pounding head and the same fuzzy feeling that had enveloped me when I had my cold. I headed to the bathroom cabinet for a thermometer and some paracetamol, wanting to head another cold off at the pass. I was dizzy and sweaty, the thermometer told me I had a temperature, and before long I was lying in bed shivering, not knowing what time of day or night it was. There seemed to be no cold, but a cough racked my body, and once I started I couldn’t stop.

I made one foray to the kitchen to fill a jug of water and grab an apple, before I was engulfed by sweats, delusions, hallucinations and nightmares. I can vaguely remember tottering into the bathroom, eyes screwed up against the sun streaming through the window, in search of something. I don’t think it was anything sensible, I think I was looking for a sword to fight a dragon or some such bollocks. That’s the last I remember, the end of life as I knew it, when everything changed and swirled and coalesced and evaporated.

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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