Back in my flat, my heart was still pounding. I had come extremely close to having sex with Matt again. I had wanted it, a lot. Rationally, I shouldn’t have, and it was rare for my heart to rule my head. I was a little bit scared; not being in control always scared me, but I was excited too. I seemed to lurch between the two sides of me, the considered, rule-making, control freak and the impassioned risk-taker. The control freak usually won, but the risk-taker used stronger arguments. I would have all weekend to think about it, away from Matt, who seemed to be clouding my judgement.
I sent a quick text to Evie.
‘Hi Ev, I survived unbedded.’
There was no point in telling her just how close I’d come.
‘Kudos. I hear he’s a hard man to resist. Good evening?’
‘Very good. Off to Norfolk tomorrow, catch up next week?’
‘Hope all goes well. xx’
I set my alarm for a ridiculously early hour of the morning and got into bed. Just before I turned the light out, my phone pinged with a text from Matt.
Once back in my flat, I tried to settle, but couldn’t, my mind racing, going over the evening. I wasn’t going to see Julia now until next week, and I needed to think about something else. This wasn’t going to become an obsession; I’d been there before, and it had got me nothing but desolation.
I looked at things objectively. Jules had agreed with me that we were just seeing how things were going, whether we got along or not. She was as likely to call things off as I was, and I would if I started feeling any pressure.
I wasn’t too keen on the way she imposed rules on the whole thing, but I was happy enough to go with it at the moment, while we were testing the waters. Feeling a bit better about convincing myself it was just casual, I texted her.
‘I no u wont reply but night night 🙂 M x’
‘How do you know I won’t reply?’
‘U never do.’
‘Oh, you must be right then.’
‘You’ve just used up your quota of replies. No more now for 24 hours.’
‘Wot? There’s a quota? Fuck off! U can’t tell me that now. Come on, start again, I’ll b less wasteful.’
It was this kind of sudden introduction of a new rule that I knew I would find hard to get my head round. I pushed for all I was worth.
‘Please? 2nd chance?’
There was no reply. I wondered how much shit she would take from me.
‘Can’t go 24 hours without hearing fm u.’
Still no reply. It was always possible she might have turned her phone off. I never could, I needed to be in constant contact in case something interesting popped up on Periscope, or I got a text from someone in desperate need of the answer to a pub quiz question, but some people were able to do such an incomprehensible thing as turn theirs off.
I don’t know why I kept going, I was obviously losing this.
‘UR a hard woman.’
One more go.
‘OK u win. Cu in 24 hrs. M x’
I reached over and turned off the lamp. I lay in the dark, thoughts drifting over the evening – Matt, William, Nons. For the third night in a row, I cried myself to sleep.
The alarm woke me at five the next morning. I quickly got ready and took my bag out to the car. It was still dark as I set off, and the roads were nearly empty, but the skies got lighter as the traffic grew heavier. I listened to the radio to help me concentrate, stopped a couple of times for coffee to keep me awake, and arrived at Nons’ pebble-dashed semi-detached house just after twelve.
I got on with my life the next day, which being a Saturday mostly involved doing laundry and listening to the football scores come in on the radio as I cleaned the bathroom.
I know, it sounds rather domesticated for Matt the Lad, but he wasn’t really me. The real me was tidy, house-proud and possibly a bit dull, and I needed my weekends to sort out my flat. A few months ago, Saturday nights were full on, but I had recently stopped going out so much, and this Saturday I was going to be watching something on Netflix, with a few beers for company. Tomorrow, I was going to Jay and Beth’s for Sunday lunch, which always involved a whole afternoon with various family members, and there wouldn’t be time for chores.
While I worked, I texted Jules, knowing she wasn’t going to reply until later that night, if she replied at all and hadn’t changed her mind in some sudden rehashing of the small print. I sent her all sorts of nonsense – travel alerts that I heard on the radio, silly messages about current events, questions I knew she wasn’t going to answer, just keeping connected. Jules seemed so good at keeping the different parts of her life separate, I just wanted to make sure I at least penetrated the fringes of her weekend away from the city.
I took a deep breath before taking my key out and walking up the path. I had to stop myself calling out to her as I opened the door, and the thought that I would never again say ‘Only me’ and hear her call back ‘No such thing as only you, Jules’ nearly stopped my breath.
I looked around. It was as if Nons had popped out to the shop – her coats were on the hooks, her reminders were on the fridge, her glasses were on the table. I couldn’t take it in. She wasn’t coming back. I was going to miss her so much.
As I had expected, my parents had not been able to wait for me to arrive before dashing off to London to catch the art, and had left a brief note with a list of things I should be doing and people I should be contacting while I was there. They didn’t know if they would be back before tomorrow lunchtime, but ‘maybe you could stay on, just for a few hours, darling?‘. I knew from past experience that if I did, I would likely be waiting until well past the time when it was sensible to be driving all the way back, they would eventually phone to say they’d been unavoidably delayed by something important (like a show or a new restaurant) and I would drive home angry, tired and dangerous.
I checked my phone, which had been pinging for most of the journey. Matt had sent dozens of texts, mostly inconsequential chatter, some updates on travel news on the route he assumed I would be taking but actually hadn’t, and some that made me laugh. There was no denying that he was entertaining, even if I did feel a little bombarded.
I wasn’t used to being so aware of someone, of having them in my thoughts all the time. I was used to thinking about work problems, world affairs, books I was reading. I was still doing all this, but with constant interruptions for:
‘Hi J (is abbrv OK 4 txt? Hope so) did u no today = International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members? I miss u. Does that count?’
‘Why the Whistling Panhandler anyway? WTF?’
‘Be careful A14 lorry shed load of birdseed. Flocks of pigeons seen heading from all over Britain.’
I caught up with all of the texts, then put my phone on silent and went next door to see William. He looked small and frail, and had lost weight since the last time I saw him. We hugged and cried for a long time, both of us knowing exactly how the other was feeling. It felt good to finally be with someone who just understood, without me having to explain anything or analyse my emotions. Nons had been everything to both of us and the world was a dimmer place without her.
William made us a cup of tea and we sat in the kitchen, looking out of his window and into Nons’ kitchen. He told me how he’d gone to look for her after worrying all day about her. They usually smiled and waved at each other first thing in the morning, but he hadn’t seen her that day, and at first thought nothing of it; Nons sometimes went out early to go to the market or catch an early bus to Norwich. But as the day wore on and there was still no sign of her, he got more concerned and called round. There was no answer, so he started looking in the windows, eventually spotting her lying on the floor near the front door. Tears were running down his face as he told me this.
‘I just keep thinking, pet, if I’d only gone round when I first started to worry, maybe I could have done something, helped her …’
I tried to reassure him, tell him that there was nothing he could have done, but he was inconsolable.
We sat together for a couple of hours talking, crying, reminiscing, catching up. It was good to talk about Nons to someone who knew her so well; I’d spent all week keeping it to myself, and having William there to tell it all to, and to hear what he had to say, was therapeutic. Eventually, we got on to the subject of the funeral. I had given William’s phone number to the man from Bentley’s, and they had contacted him about Nons.
‘She’s in their Chapel of Rest. I didn’t know if you wanted to go and see her?’
I hadn’t even thought about it.
‘Have you been?’
‘No, pet, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. It’d be good to say goodbye, like, but she’s not going to hear me, is she? She won’t look like her, she won’t be her. Oh, I don’t know.’
Now I had the same dilemma. I had heard different stories from people I knew who had gone to see the bodies of loved ones. Some said it helped, they could say things they’d needed to, get some closure, and some said it was a horrible experience that traumatised them.
‘I feel a bit the same, William. I don’t know. We don’t have to decide yet, do we?’
‘No, lass, not yet. We can talk about it when the chap gets here.’
The man from Bentley’s was due to visit in the afternoon. He came as arranged, and we talked through some details. I was astounded at how many decisions there were to be made, and was grateful for our Halloween night when we had actually talked about it. We did our best to give Nons what we thought she would want, and the funeral director wrote it down so I could show my mother, or at least leave her a copy, when she got back. By the time he had gone, it was early evening, and starting to get dark.
I looked across at Nons’ house, unlit. I wasn’t superstitious and didn’t believe in the paranormal, but the thought of sleeping there alone was daunting. William caught my glance.
‘You can stay in my spare room if you like, lass.’
I shot him a look of gratitude.
‘Thank you, I’d really like that, if you’re sure. I don’t think I could be there on my own. Mum and Dad have taken my room, I’d have to sleep in Nons’ room …’
‘Stay here then, I could do with the company.’
And so I did. William put the television on and we watched the usual banal Saturday evening entertainment, but it didn’t require thinking about, and reduced the need for conversation. I checked my phone again.
Matt had sent several more texts, but I was determined to stick to my twenty four hour no-reply embargo. I found myself smiling at his inanity, despite myself. In some ways, he made me feel like a teenager, waiting for the next bit of attention, the next glance, the next note. William noticed how often I looked at my phone.
‘Waiting for a call, are you?’
‘No, I’m sorry, it’s very rude of me. Just checking my texts. I’ve had quite a few.’
I didn’t feel I could explain the full details of Matt and me to William, not when I wasn’t entirely sure what it all meant myself.
‘… kind of. It’s all quite new.’
‘Not had a lad for a while, Vonnie said.’
Nons’ real name was Yvonne. I’d mispronounced it when I was little, and it had stuck; William also had a pet name for her.
‘No, been busy at work, no time.’
‘Well it’s about time someone noticed what a lovely lass you are and made you an offer you couldn’t refuse.’
I knew Nons and William spent a lot of time tutting and shaking their heads over me for many reasons: I wasn’t married, I worked too hard, I ate too little, I wasn’t married, I tried to do too much by myself, I wasn’t married. Oh, and did I mention I wasn’t married? It always made me laugh that Nons, who had never married, and William, who had pined after Nons, married, divorced and then pined after Nons again, thought that me being married would solve all of my perceived problems.
‘I don’t think he’s going to be making me any offers, William, not if he knows what’s good for him. And I don’t think he’s the offering kind. We could be perfect for each other.’
William shook his head and muttered under his breath, something about leaving it too late, but I just smiled at him and he dropped the subject.
William went to bed early, and I turned in too, although I spent some time reading, and then decided to put Matt out of his misery.
‘Hello. This is not one of your replies, just a confirming text. Your quota is four. As a free item of information, J is not acceptable. Full names only. Thank you for your stream of consciousness, it has been enlightening.’
‘Julia! :))))) How ru? How was journey? Did u avoid birdseed? If I ask lots in 1 txt, can u reply all @ once = 1 reply? Don’t want 2 waste.’
‘Well OK, you can have up to 3 questions in each text. But if you don’t like the way I answer, that’s tough. So: I’m OK. Journey OK. Avoided birdseed.
‘Ooh, u almost used abbrvs. 3 incomplete sentences! Don’t reply 2 this, jus an observation.’
‘Yes, but I get to choose when I reply not you. Bad luck, 2 down, 2 to go.’
‘Bollox. UR tough. OK. Neeeeeed 2 no wot u wearing. In detail. Pretty pls xx’
‘An old t-shirt. Pants.’
‘Hey I said detail. Is that ALL ur wearing?? Holy fuck. RU in bed? Colours? Style? (Thong or granny pants) Laciness quotient of said articles. Shortness (amt of arse visible). Tightness (visible nips?). Anything else I need 2 no?’
‘That’s more than 3 questions, and this is your fourth reply. Goodnight.’
‘Noooo. U can’t! UR killing me.’
‘We r so gona b writing a txt agreement. Wot if I need important reply, e.g. if I’m stuck down a well and only u no the nbr of the well rescue service, but quota reached?’
‘Wot if I need 2 no footy scores when I’m in the well?’
‘Wot if I need 2 no nbr of pizza delivery in well vicinity?’
‘Hey, Julia, I jus fell down a well. Wot r the chances? Pls txt me nbr of nearest well rescue svc and also details of yr pants – thongs or granny. Thx. M x’
‘@ yr convenience obvs, but water lvl rising. To comfort me, pls also txt whether Spurs bt Everton. Thx. Mx’
‘B4 water reaches mouth pls txt nbr of pizza delivery. Need pepperoni. Thx Mx’
‘Goodbye cruel world blubble blup blip blup blubble …’
I smiled to myself and turned my phone off. There was no doubt Matt was very diverting. He had managed to distract me from the sounds I could hear coming from the room next door, which were William crying himself to sleep. Distraction over, I thought of Nons and did the same.
I suppose I could have called her, but I really got a sense that Jules wanted to leave me behind while she sorted her aunt out, and texting was all she was going to allow me. I didn’t want to seem like I couldn’t deal with her being away from me; we’d only just got to know each other, and I knew what it would look like to me if someone had smothered me with contact as much as I felt like smothering Jules.
Yeah, I was fooling myself about how I felt about her. I fooled myself about it for a long time. I’d been fucked up since Carrie, and was showing no signs of stopping any time soon.
I woke early the next morning, when I heard William stirring and going downstairs. I tried to drift back to sleep; I was tired after travelling, and wasn’t relishing the return journey, but being in an unfamiliar room, and also aware of several things I needed to do before I started back, stopped me from relaxing back into sleep. I got up, pulled on some pyjama bottoms and headed downstairs. William was in the kitchen.
‘Morning pet. Sleep alright?’
‘Oh, you know. It’s been hard the last few days.’
‘I know, lass. I know. I was about to do a Sunday fry up. How about it?’
I didn’t usually go for fried food, but today it appealed. There was something comforting about being here and someone cooking me bacon and eggs.
‘I’d really like that. Thanks William. Let me help though.’
So we did it together. I chopped and grilled some tomatoes and mushrooms while he filled two frying pans with eggs, bacon and bread.
‘I usually have a bit of black pudding, but I didn’t think you’d like it, being a southern softy.’
William’s north-eastern roots were apparent in his accent and his penchant for food made out of entrails. He’d often teased me and Nons about being southerners, but he had never seemed at all interested in returning to his Northumbrian homeland.
‘Er, no black pudding for me, thanks. But don’t let me stop you.’
‘No, lass, wouldn’t want to put you off. I’ll save it for later, when I don’t have to worry about your delicate constitution, like.’
We ate our breakfast in companionable silence, listening to the news on the radio. I went through a mental list of things I needed to do before I left; I was beginning to realise I was going to have to take more time off later in the week to sort things out. It was highly unlikely my parents had actually done anything, and the list of arrangements outside of the funeral grew longer all the time. Someone was going to have to register the death, someone was going to have to go to the solicitor to deal with the will, someone was going to have to sort out the finances. It was going to be down to me, and I felt overwhelmed with it all. It was hard enough coming to terms with Nons being gone; the sheer amount of bureaucracy and organisation involved in her dying was enough to send someone who wasn’t grieving over the edge. For me, I just about managed to push it down far enough that I could function on the surface.
I had a shower and got dressed, then wrote a list of things I wanted to check out with my mother and left it for her. I also, in a triumph of hope over experience, wrote a separate list of things I wanted her to do, while promising I would be back later in the week. I would have to wait until tomorrow to check out with Phil how much leave I could take, but I was sure I could get at least two days at the end of the week to tack on to the weekend.
I turned my phone on, and braced myself for the onslaught of texts. There were quite a few, Matt seeming not to have noticeably drowned down a well overnight. Impulsively, I dialled his number.
So the next day, I got up late. I texted Jules a few times in the morning. Texting was like breathing to me, it was how I convinced myself I was alive. I texted everyone, all the time; it wasn’t just Jules.
I picked Mum up and went to Jay and Beth’s early, knowing I was going to get commandeered into helping with something, whether it was peeling vegetables or playing with Cal or Iz. I usually tried to engineer it so that I ‘helped’ by playing X-box with Cal, but Dec and Amy were already there, and Dec had beaten me to it.
My next ploy was to investigate the garden with Mum, who loved a good nosy at what was going on in other people’s back yards, but I was allowed no peace, and Beth called me in to help peel potatoes. There was a full house today, with Dec, Amy, Mum and Rose, as well as the four in situ Scotts, so a fair few spuds needing a good bashing. Just as I was rolling my sleeves up, my phone rang. I looked apologetically at Beth, then looked at the screen, surprised to see Jules’ name.
‘Sorry, Beth, I need to get this.’
Beth rolled her eyes and moved on to the next victim. I answered and went into the conservatory, where I could still hear everything going on, but at least had a little privacy. Iz was playing in there, but I doubted she was going to tell anyone what I’d been talking about.
‘Is everything alright?’
I was so surprised to hear from her, I wondered if something had happened.
‘Yes, fine. I just thought I’d double check you managed to get out of the well. Water levels receded miraculously in the nick of time, I assume.’
Oh, she was referring to my nonsense from last night when I was trying to get her to override her four text rule, and I’d pretended I was stuck underground, about to drown. Maybe you had to be there, but I was really pleased that she was responding to it now.
‘Ha ha, yeah, well, you know how it is, this bloody collie dog comes along, drops a rope down, pulls me out, all that shit. Had a pizza strapped to its back. Even woofed me the footy scores.’
‘I’m so glad. I would have felt a little bit guilty if you’d drowned, but rules are rules.’
‘Don’t I bloody know it. You’ve got a heart of fucking stone.’
From the kitchen, I heard Beth shout ‘Language, Matty.’ Did she have radar instead of ears or something?
‘What? Oh, sorry, Beth, I didn’t see her there. Sorry, blondie. Sorry, Julia, just getting told to mind my language. I’m at my brother’s for Sunday lunch. You’ve just saved me from having to peel half a ton of bloody potatoes.’
‘Oh, sorry to intrude. I should leave you to it. I’ll be setting off in an hour or two, there’s a lot to do.’
Jules’ manner had changed, I didn’t know what I’d said, but she was more distant.
‘Don’t go on my account, they’ll only find me something else to do. Is it all going OK up there?’
‘Yes, OK, thanks.’
Now I knew Matt wasn’t alone I felt less comfortable talking to him. I liked that other people didn’t know about us, and if his family heard him talking to me on the phone, they would be bound to ask questions, and that sense of privateness would be lost.
‘When will you be back?’
‘It depends on the traffic, probably this evening sometime.’
I was surprised at how much I needed to know that she was home safely. Still kidding myself.
‘I’ll see how I am, I’ll be tired.’
‘Text then, just so I know you got back OK.’
I sighed. I hated it when people needed to know my every move, I felt like I couldn’t just change my plans without causing a huge scene.
‘I’m not promising. Don’t fuss, Matt. I’m perfectly capable of driving for a few hours without the world ending.’
There was a brief silence.
And I was going to have to de-Beth. I was fussing over her as if I wasn’t the one who kicked up a stink when it happened to me. I reined it in.
‘OK. Have a good trip. See you tomorrow.’
Beth couldn’t resist asking, when I finished talking to Jules. She knew I never gave her any details about anyone, but it didn’t stop her.
‘Fu – er – get lost Beth. Just someone from work.’
It was true enough for me to say it convincingly.
‘Does she need an invite for next Sunday?’
‘We like to meet your friends, sweetheart.’
‘Back off, Beth.’
Jay chose that moment to bring in a beer, which was welcome, and join the conversation, which was not.
‘What’s this? New woman, Matty?’
I sighed and rolled my eyes.
‘No. Just someone from work.’
‘Since when did you bloody work on a Sunday?’
‘I didn’t say I was working, I just said I was talking to someone from work.’
It was fast becoming a big deal, which I really didn’t want it to be. I should have just ignored my phone when it rang. I would next time. I stood up and walked into the living room.
‘It’s been a while since we met anyone ‘from your work’. Maybe you should stop dumping them all.’
‘Maybe you should all stop planning my wedding as soon as I bring anyone over, you might get to meet them more than once before you scare them off.’
‘I don’t think they’re the ones we scared off, Matty.’
Yeah, I definitely shouldn’t have answered my phone.
We disconnected, leaving me a vague sense of dissatisfaction. I was fast coming to the conclusion that I liked Matt a lot, I liked being with him and I liked talking to him, but I liked being on my own too, and doing my own thing, and finding the right balance, especially at the moment when my head was full of things I needed to do, as well as what I was feeling, was proving difficult. I was aware I had been abrupt with Matt, but I couldn’t address that at the moment. Overnight, I had come to a decision about viewing Nons’ body.
‘William, you know we were talking yesterday about going to the Chapel of Rest?’
‘Well, I’ve decided I don’t want to. I want to remember her how she was, and I don’t want to take the risk of my last memory being something awful and fake. I think I’m going to spend some time looking at photos of her and thinking about her. I’ll be back in a few days, I’ll do it then.’
‘Oh lass, that sounds grand. I think I might do the same. I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing her, but people were saying I should, you know, and I thought … and, well, maybe you’d like to do it on your own, but if you’d like some company when you do that, I’d be happy to join you.’
‘I’d really love that. I’ll let you know when I’m coming back. It’ll be next week sometime.’
I weathered the storm, more than capable of holding my own against Jay, and managed to get him in trouble with Beth for saying ‘fuck’ at the dinner table. This successfully deflected attention away from me and my private life, and I further deflected it by asking Dec if he won his game with Cal, knowing that he wouldn’t have because he was the singular most useless exponent of video games the world has ever seen, and it opened a whole new avenue of teasing for us all to explore. I was pretty good at this.
I went back to Nons’ house, just to have a look round and see what was going to need doing. I was going to have to clear out cupboards and wardrobes at some point, but I couldn’t even bear the thought of it right now. I needed to find out how long my parents were staying and think about the food in the fridge and freezer. It was one of the items on my list for my mother, but I would have to bring some food up with me when I came back just in case.
I went and stood in my old room, which was currently blanketed in my parents’ clothes and travelling paraphernalia. On an impulse I took down the framed print of Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night that had hung on my wall since I was fifteen. I loved the picture, had seen the original in an exhibition all those years ago, and had to have a copy. I had looked at it so many times, losing myself in the contrasts, the swirls, the fuzzy brightness, the deep darkness. I popped it into my travel bag and went back downstairs.
There was a tap on the front door. When I opened it, William was standing there with a plastic-wrapped package.
‘I made you some sarnies. You can have them now, or take them with you. I know what you’re like for eating, didn’t want you to go all that time without something inside you. There’s cheese and pickle and ham salad.’
I was so touched, tears sprang to my eyes. I took the sandwiches and kissed William on the cheek.
‘Thanks, William. That’s really lovely of you. I’ll be going in about half an hour, but can I do you a cup of tea before I go?’
William shook his head.
‘I can’t … can’t go in. Sorry, pet. It’s just too much, all her things and her not there.’
Before I could say anything, he’d turned round and walked back to his own house, wiping his eyes.
I texted my mother to let her know what I’d got done and where I’d left my lists. I didn’t expect a reply; she would probably call me at some inconvenient hour, either while I was still driving or when I had gone to bed. Then there was nothing more to be done but whisper a goodbye to Nons and leave.
Being there had resulted in both helping me start to come to terms with it, but also feeling even more sad. It was sinking in that I was never going to see her again, and I felt small and alone. I drove away before I could dwell more, and lost myself in the journey home.
I stopped a couple of times on the way back and checked my phone, but there were no messages or texts. At the back of my mind I wondered if I had offended Matt, but he didn’t seem like the type to get easily offended, and I told myself he would be enjoying himself with his family.
I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon, talking with the grown ups, playing with the children, all pretty standard fare for a Sunday afternoon, but it was part of me now, this large family, and I liked being there with them, the people who knew me, loved me, who I didn’t have to pretend with, who would, in fact, call me on it pretty hard if I pretended about anything.
Beth meddled, Jay grumbled, Dec bantered, Amy chatted, Rose tried to organise and Mum took it all in and then offered a one-line pithy insight. Cal was rapidly turning into a bit of an early developer adolescent, with occasional sulks and bad moods, but on the whole he was great to be with, and Iz was a little heartbreaker with her blonde curls and her need to be picked up and cuddled by every man in the room. Forget the grannies, Iz knew which side her bread was buttered, and it was the side with big strong arms and facial hair.
As I neared the city, I started to relax. Closer to home, I always felt more in control, I knew where I was and what I was doing there. It was almost eight o’clock by the time I got home. I checked my phone; my mother had texted me when they arrived back in Norfolk.
‘Sorry to miss you, we could have told you about the Mondrian it was magnificent.’
Nothing about any of the arrangements I’d made or the lists of things she’d asked me to do that I’d ticked off, or the things I’d asked her to do. It was as if Nons hadn’t existed. She probably wanted me to call her, but I decided to leave it until tomorrow. Matt was still hovering at the back of my mind, so I texted him.
So I had my family fix, and I went home, and was in the middle of watching a film when I heard the text tone ping on my phone. It was Jules, letting me know she was home. I hadn’t expected her to, after fussing over her earlier, but I replied, thanking her, and got in a few of my quota of texts, having worked out a strategy to gain maximum information for minimum expending of valuable questions.
‘I’m home now. See you tomorrow.’
‘Thx. Sorry 4 fussing. No wot its like, hate it. Have a glass of Shiraz n relax. Or Otter 😉 ‘
‘Wine sounds good. Do you fancy your quota of replies a bit early?’
‘Fuck yeah! I’ve got a strategy worked out. Starting now?’
‘I’ll be kind and say the next one is number one.’
There was a delay, while I assumed the cogs were working in Matt’s head.
‘OK – 3 questions, yeah? Gona ask 1 personal, 1 work, 1 random. 1: tell me abt yr knickers FFS! Thong or granny. Bustin a gut here. 2: how u no abt Margie’s boobs? 3: Y the Whistling Panhandler? Wot kind of stupid-ass name is that?’
I didn’t answer immediately. I had things to do, like unpacking my bag and putting washing on, and I didn’t want Matt to think he could have my undivided attention whenever he wanted it. Eventually I was ready to answer him.
‘That is almost 4 questions, 3 being a 2 parter. You are lucky I’m feeling generous. 1: Neither. 2: Not my information to tell. 3: I have no idea. Try again.’
‘Fuck. Thought I’d got it sussed. Ur good. OK, being careful now. 1: So what sort of knickers do u wear? Note lack of multiple choice – ha! 2: What does Mike Davis keep in that bloody locked drawer? 3: Caravans – good cheap source of holiday accommodation or scum of the fucking earth?’
Matt had texted back straight away, which kept the pressure on me and made me stall again. If he had been less eager, he may have got a quicker response, but instead I went into the bathroom, took my toiletries out of my weekend bag and arranged them back on their shelf. Then I responded.
‘1: Various, depending on situation. 2: It is rumoured to be a very small mail order bride, but nobody knows for sure. 3: Ask me on a day when I haven’t been stuck behind about 2000 all afternoon. Next.’
‘OK, that’s a bit more like it. Pls note this is last one 4 now, I want to save one 4 l8r. 1: Re: knickers. In wot situation wld u wear thong? 2: Fancy lunch w John & Roberta 2moro? 3: Do u like walking? Radio silence will now be maintained. TTFN :)’
Another instant reply, but at least he was sticking to the rules. I didn’t make him wait quite as long, as a reward.
‘1: If no other choice. 2: No thanks. 3: Well I have to walk to get from one place to another, I’m not sure I have strong feelings about it one way or the other. I suspect that’s not what you mean. I have a pair of hiking boots and a backpack. I await your last effort with bated breath.’
And that was it for the time being. I unpacked my bag and put a few things in the washing machine, then made myself some pasta for dinner. I quickly called Evie and arranged that she would come over tomorrow evening. I finished up a bottle of wine that had been opened before I went to Norfolk, and turned the TV on, hoping for something bland but not soporific to keep my brain ticking over before I went to bed. I settled on a nature documentary, and immersed myself in butterflies and moths for an hour before my long journey caught up with me and I felt my eyes start to droop, sending me to bed. I was almost asleep when I heard my phone bleep from the lounge. I’d forgotten to bring it into the bedroom. Cursing, I got up to fetch it – I liked to have it by the bed for the alarm in the morning. The screen was glowing when I reached it, a text from Matt. I’d forgotten his last reply was still pending.
I saved one last text for when I was going to bed, as she so far hadn’t said goodnight to me, which seemed remiss of her, but here was her opportunity.
‘Goodnight. M x’
She replied much more quickly to this than to any of my other texts. Maybe the simple approach was the one that worked with her.
It was simple but effective. More effective than his relentless questioning about my pants, and it got an immediate reply.
‘Goodnight. Thank you. Julia’
The next day at work was a re-run of the previous week. We ignored each other as we would have done on any other work day, and then I hit on the perfect way remind Jules I wanted to have lunch with her. I announced to the office in general that I was going to lunch with Roberta, and I left for the hidden headstones without even looking at her. I picked up two lots of sandwiches, crisps and drinks on the way, and waited on the stone bench. I was prepared for her not to come, but had a feeling she would, and was delighted when I saw her peering cautiously round the side of the entrance.
The next day at work went much the same as Friday. Matt and I managed to treat each other as we would have done any other day, the work went smoothly, any remaining gossip about last Wednesday’s events seemed to have drained away.
I asked Phil for a few days off, explaining that funeral arrangements were my responsibility. With the funeral set for Tuesday, and needing to be in Norfolk prior to that to make sure things got done, we agreed I could have a week off from Wednesday. He was very fair about it.
At lunchtime, Matt announced to the room in general that he was going to lunch with Roberta, and did not look at me. There were a few raised eyebrows and murmured questions, as several people wondered out loud who Roberta was. I hid a smile, and then, on an impulse, left about fifteen minutes later as well.
I walked quickly up the street, into the cemetery and found the hidden alcove. Matt was waiting, legs crossed, arms folded, with two sandwiches, two packets of crisps and two cans of drink next to him on the bench. As well as a very smug look on his face.
‘You can’t have known I would come.’
‘You can’t resist me.’
I hadn’t known she would come, but it made it look good that I’d predicted her arrival, and if she hadn’t come she would never have known I’d got it wrong.
‘I wanted to talk to you.’
‘I refer you to my previous comment. Have a sandwich. I’ve got crisps too – Salt and Vinegar or Cheese and Onion?’
‘No thank you.’
I deliberately didn’t try to persuade her to eat. I could always eat her share later. I started eating a chicken sandwich, while Jules remained standing in front of me.
‘Sit down, for fuck’s sake, you’re making the place look untidy.’
I moved some of the food aside to make room, and she sat down. I put my sandwich down and shuffled along the bench until I was pressed up against her hip. God I’d missed her. How had that happened? I put my arm round her, bent my face down and kissed her on the cheek. She leaned her head on my shoulder and sighed, as if she was trying to breathe out something bad.
‘That’s a heavy sound. You OK?’
She nodded against me, then shook her head, whatever that meant. I twisted round so I could see her eyes.
‘I’ve just got so much going on, I feel like my head’s going to explode.’
If I was honest, that was what I’d come here for. I didn’t know how good Matt was at serious, I hadn’t seen it very often. But I suddenly just needed to offload. I told him about needing to take time off, and about how much responsibility I suddenly felt I had with all the arrangements that needed to be made. It all felt so far away, and I told him how little my parents were likely to help.
Matt let me talk, his arm holding me close, his thumb stroking my shoulder gently as I spoke. He kissed the top of my head a couple of times. I told him about William, and what Nons had meant to him, and I told him what she had meant to me. I didn’t cry, and it helped to get it all out of me.
I wasn’t usually that great at serious, but all I needed to do was listen and be strong and comforting. As she talked, I held her close. She told me all about her aunt, how close they’d been, how much she had to do to organise the funeral, how crap her parents were. I kissed the top of her head a couple of times, hoping it would seem sympathetic. I didn’t even worry about whether she was going to blart all over me again, maybe because I was becoming sensitive and emotionally available, but more likely because Jules just didn’t seem like she was about to cry.
Jules told me about her aunt’s neighbour, who had apparently had a thing for her aunt for ever but never told her, and she said it all without a single tear. I could feel the tenseness in her body, though, and I wondered if I was being selfish, carrying on with what we were doing. Now, there was a first, well the first for a long time: Matt Scott considering someone else ahead of himself.
‘Is all this –’
I gestured vaguely around, attempting to encompass both us and the situation we found ourselves in.
‘– too much at the moment?’
She looked up at me, thinking. I loved that she always thought before she said something, really considered her answer.
I looked up at him, considering. At times it was overwhelming, but spending time with Matt and having mad text conversations had helped prevent me spiralling into grief.
‘No, I think it’s kept me going in a way. You’re not part of it all. Maybe it feels a bit crazy sometimes. But good crazy.’
‘If it gets too much, please say. I know I can be an annoying fucker. I don’t always know when to rein it in. I don’t want to make things worse for you.’
Hey, and as well as Matt Scott not being selfish, he was being self-aware. Who knew.
‘I will. Please don’t stop being an annoying fucker, I think you’re keeping me sane.’
I laughed at that and kissed the top of her head again.
‘Can I see you tonight?’
I was really liking this closeness, and wanted more of it. It was different from anything I’d had in the last few years, and although I should have been arsing my way out of it, telling myself she was being too clingy, that I was just in it for the kicks, well, she wasn’t being clingy. If anything, I was being the clingy one, and it just turned everything on its head.
‘No, I’m spending the evening with a friend.’
‘I’ve got to do a shop so there’s food in the house up there, and then I need to pack. Then I’m going on Wednesday morning. I might not see you for a while.’
But I hadn’t seen her for ages, and I really wanted to spend some time with her, and soon. I tried desperately to find a way before she left.
‘I’ll come shopping with you. I can push the trolley, or go and fetch the baked beans, ask the work experience girl where the condoms are just to see how many different shades of red she goes. It also works with the work experience boy and tampons.’
But she had an answer for that.
‘You can’t come with me, someone might see us. How would we explain that one away?’
‘Why would we have to explain anything? So someone spots us, who gives a fuck?’
I wanted to be with her, but it seemed like every time I tried, I came up against a new rule that needed negotiating. Or maybe they were old rules that I just didn’t know about yet. I really liked Jules, but this was something that could make or break us.
‘I give a fuck. Doing shopping together is a bit obvious. It suggests a level of intimacy. How can we be work us if people know there’s an … outside of work us?’
I reminded myself that I knew Jules needed to keep her work persona separate from her real persona, and that she was under a lot of stress at the moment. I breathed out heavily, and thought of a compromise.
‘OK. I see your point. How about we go somewhere a bit off the beaten track? That farm place by the river? It’s only busy at weekends, weekday evenings are pretty quiet, and you can get nice stuff there, take that up with you instead of supermarket crap. Go on, Julia. Please say yes, otherwise I won’t see you for ages.’
It was my best begging voice – pleading without wheedling. As an added incentive, I took her hand and kissed her fingertips, liking the softness of them brushing my lips.
He took my hand and kissed my fingertips. It gave me goosebumps, and weakened my resistance.
‘Oh alright. But if we see anyone from work, even in the distance, I’m leaving you there with the trolley and going to the supermarket on my own. And we go in separate cars.’
I laughed. Her rules were bloody ridiculous. If I laughed at them instead of getting annoyed with them, maybe they would be easier to cope with.
‘Holy crap, it’s like a bloody SAS mission. OK. Deal. Separate cars, I get left holding the evidence if hostiles are spotted. The code word is ‘abort abort abort’. Should I wear dark glasses and full body camouflage, or is that a bit over the top?’
‘Take the piss all you want. I don’t want anything to interfere with how I do things at work. I thought you felt the same.’
‘Yeah, I did.’
But I was fast realising that my Matt the Lad persona had nothing on Jules’ Ice Queen, who was almost a full-blown acting role in her own right.
‘Have you changed your mind?’
‘Not exactly, but I’m wondering how long we can keep it up, how long we’ll want to keep it up.’
‘We have to keep it up. It’s not negotiable.’
‘But how long are we going to be sneaking around for? I mean, it’s exciting and everything now, fuck yeah, but longer term I think I’m going to want to hold your hand, talk to you properly, do this …’
This was why I’d wanted to meet her here. I leaned down and kissed her, softly pushing my tongue into her mouth, and around and over her tongue. Her mouth was warm and welcoming, and I felt desire creep along my spine and nestle in my groin. I didn’t persist, though, and pulled away, waiting to see if she wanted more.
He leaned down and kissed me, his soft lips making mine tingle and his tongue pushing wet flickers of sparking energy into my mouth. He pulled away and I was bereft for a moment.
‘Mm. I really fucking well want to do that, a lot, and not just here where dead people are the only audience we have to worry about.’
‘Don’t, Matt. It’s far too soon. I need to get used to what this is before anything changes. I like being with you. I really like it. Please don’t put pressure on me.’
He was silent for a while.
I was pretty sure she was talking about being together at work, and not kissing me now.
‘OK. Sorry. I just wanted you to know what I’m thinking. We’ll keep things the same, but we should carry on talking, checking it out. Come here. Avert your ghostly eyes John and Roberta, I’m about to pash this young lady.’