71. Hopeless wanderer

In which the worst is faced, and help is sought.

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Julia

And I did move away and live my life. I loved my new job in Norwich, and I loved living in Nons’, or rather my, house, where I had all my memories of growing up alongside all my grown-up things.

William and I got on really well, but he was getting older, and eventually his daughters persuaded him to move back up north so they could stop worrying about him so much.

Matt

So. I’ll ease into it. Plans were afoot for the big moving day; Dec and Amy finally got the green light for moving into their house, and I took a day off to help them, because big burly men seemed inexplicably difficult to come by at a rugby club, or maybe there was some big training thing they all had to go to but Dec was given dispensation because he was moving. I wasn’t really paying attention while they were all discussing it, and I fell asleep in the middle of it. It wasn’t going to happen for a week anyway, and Sunday lunch at Jay and Beth’s always filled my belly and slowed me down. I woke up after a short time, and was not pleased to find the conversation hadn’t moved on.

‘Oh, back with us Matty. We were just saying, if you put some boxes in your car, Dec and Amy could hire a smaller van.’

‘Yeah, whaever.’ I noticed the slur instantly, tiny though it was. I tried to play it cool, see if anyone else was looking at me like they’d noticed too, without making it obvious I was looking. I seemed to have got away with it. It was just because I was tired. I was so knackered all the time with work being more than full-on since Jules left, I only felt half awake at any given moment recently. It would hardly be surprising if a word or two got slurred on its way out. I dismissed it, refused to acknowledge its presence.

‘What time are you going to be there?’

‘When?’

‘Come on Matty, keep up, on moving day.’

‘Oh I dohnt bloody knoh.’

Shit, there it was again. Or rather wasn’t. There was no way I was going to allow this to happen. I tried really hard, concentrated on speaking clearly, limiting the amount of words I was saying.

‘There’s ages yet.’

That was better. Three whole words, clear as a bell. I fixed Beth with my best ‘I’m not getting involved in this, ask me again when it’s nearer the time’ look, and kept pretty quiet for the rest of the afternoon. There were a few more times when my words weren’t as clear as I might have liked, I wasn’t sure if anyone else had noticed, but I saw Amy look at me a couple of times. I was fairly safe with Amy, who was a bit intimidated when I was in a ‘don’t mess with me’ mood.

I got home that afternoon and went straight to bed, sleeping right through until I had to get up to go to work. No. This was not happening. I convinced myself I was OK. I tried really hard not to slur my words, and I made it go away. Result. Whatever it was, I’d beaten it with determination. Probably just tiredness, as I’d thought. Or a virus.

The day of the big move came, with all the attendant fuss and bother on the part of Beth. Rose was having Charlie and Iz, I was meeting the van at Dec and Amy’s flat, and Beth was going straight to the new house once Cal was at school.

Of the three of us, Rose undoubtedly had the hardest task, as Iz and Charlie were each a handful on their own, and trouble was never far away when they were together. If anyone could handle them, though, it was Rose, and she was so pleased to be getting her hands on Charlie for a whole day, all to herself, that she might not even notice if Iz screamed the place down from the moment she got there.

I arrived at Dec and Amy’s flat shortly after the van, and took my turn carrying boxes down the two flights of stairs and filling my four wheel drive up with them. I drove the first load to the house, with Amy in the front seat. She was going to unlock the place, then stay behind to unpack and let Beth in.

‘Big day fuh the Suhmers-Wrights, then.’

Fuck, where had that come from? I’d been trying really hard. Amy glanced at me, frowning slightly.

‘Yeah. Exciting though. This last week, I’ve really noticed how cramped we are.’

‘They say babies tahk up more room than grohn ups.’

Shit, I was going to have to stop bloody talking.

‘Tell me about it. Charlie’s already got more clothes than me and Dec put together.’

I daren’t say anything else, and it created an awkward silence as we approached the road where they were going to live.

‘Oh, Beth’s here already. I’ll just go and let her in.’

Amy hopped out of the car, leaving me to open the boot and lift the boxes out. I managed the first two with no difficulty, but when I carried the third one over the threshold my arms gave way, and it fell from my grip to the floor with a crash.

‘Fuck.’

I bent down to pick it up again, noticing that the label on the box said ‘Fragile’.

‘Alright, Matty?’

Beth’s voice floated from the living room, which was Unpacking Central for the day.

‘Yeah. Not sure abouh the crockery.’

Amy appeared in the hall and I looked at her ruefully.

‘Sorry, Amy, I’m a klutz. I’ll pay fuh anything I’ve broken.’

‘Oh don’t be daft, there’s nothing valuable. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Matt … are you alright?’

‘Yeah, I didn’t drop ih on my foot or anything. Noh harm done.’

I chose to deliberately misunderstand her, but she still put her hand on my arm and looked up at me, worried. Fuck. I really hoped she wasn’t going to say anything to Beth, or that would be my peace shattered for the foreseeable, but how could I ask her not to say anything without making a big deal out of it? And how can you make a big deal out of nothing? It was nothing, after all.

‘I’ll go back fuh the rest, then.’

I turned and hurried to the car before she could say anymore.

Later that day, once all their stuff had been moved from one place to the other, unpacked, vaguely sorted, and the beers were out, I could relax. I hadn’t dropped anything else, but I felt weird, a bit wobbly. I convinced myself I was coming down with something, and just needed to take it easy. Trouble was, there was no taking it easy at the moment, I was working way above my hours, I’d had to talk fast to get today off, and there was no sign of a let up in the next couple of weeks, as they still hadn’t filled Jules’s post.

As I was relaxing among the boxes, I was suddenly aware of glances and various people leaving the room (Amy and Beth) and me being on my own with Dec. He didn’t speak for a few minutes, just continued drinking his beer, surveying the packing crates as if he was doing a logistical analysis. Then he took a deep breath.

‘So, are you going to go to your GP, or are you just going to pretend it’s not happening for another week or so, until you can’t ignore it?’

‘What?’

Well, obviously, option two. It was my MO. Denial followed by dogged defence of said denial.

‘Matt. Do us all a favour, and for once in your fucking life don’t make me drag it out of you. You know exactly what I mean, it’s all over your face. Amy said you dropped a box today –’

‘So? Has noh one ehver dropped a fucking box befohr?’

‘Listen to yourself. Anyone would think you’d had half a dozen beers, not half of one.’

I drained my bottle and held it up, defiantly.

‘Whole one.’

‘I’m not saying it’s anything, shit, what the fuck do I know? All I’m saying is, go and see your GP. You’re working too hard, not sleeping, could be any fucking thing, and I hope, I really bloody hope, that it is. Just go and get it checked, yeah? For your peace of mind and ours.’

And so of course I went on the attack, it was the best form of defence, wasn’t it? Who said that? Some genius.

‘Oh, well, as long as you’re all bloody peaceful, that’s alright. Wouldn’t want Beth to lose any sleep worrying about me, or have to disturb your precious bloody infant with a text. Thanks for the beer, Dec, I’ll see myself out.’

I even managed to say that without a single unintelligible bollock, and then I stood up and walked out of the house to my car, half expecting to hear someone come after me, but it seemed like, this time, they were going to leave me to it. From the past, the infuriatingly prescient words of the great philosopher Declan Summers rang in my ears. ‘One day they’ll leave you alone more and more, you’ll have got your wish.’ It nearly stopped me, nearly turned me round to apologise, tell them how scared I was, ask for their help, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t admit to myself what I was scared of, so I drove off in a fury, fuck them, fuck them all.

And nothing stopped, work just got busier, and I was tired, so tired of it all, of the work, of pretending I was feeling OK, of being Matt the Lad, who didn’t exist any more. All I was doing was getting up, working, coming home, sometimes not even eating before going to bed, then getting up to do it all again, trying not to trip, trying not to stumble, trying to see everything clearly, trying not to fall apart. It was like those times in Stafford when Eyeti was so busy, but I was older now, it was harder, I was missing Jules and I was feeling wretched.

Of course, something was bound to happen. When you’re ignoring things that can’t be ignored, it usually takes some kind of event to bring you to your senses. As was becoming the norm, it was Charlie who did it.

Dec and Amy visited unannounced. They caught me off guard when I was expecting a pizza delivery, and I let them in. I hadn’t heard from anyone all week, not since Dec tried to talk to me on the day they moved.

I didn’t know what to make of it – maybe it was a new tactic to try and smoke me out, or tough love, or some such fucktardery. So when my buzzer sounded and it was Dec’s voice saying ‘Let us up you bastard, we’ve got beer and ice-cream and your pizza, and if you ever want to see it again you’ll open your fucking door. Oh, and Charlie really, really needs a change’, I pressed the door opener button.

‘How the fuck did yuh geh my pizza?’

‘Delivery boy believed us when we said we were you. Maybe it was the hefty tip we offered him – you’re going to have to be more generous next time.’

‘Ih’m not sharing, Ih’m bluhdy stahving.’

My speech was getting worse, people were starting to pick up on it at work, and I saw the look Dec gave me when he heard it, but he didn’t comment.

‘Fair enough, we’ve had our tea anyway. Can Ames use your bathroom to change this one?’

‘Suhr.’

Amy disappeared with Charlie and a large bag of vital baby gear. Dec sat on the sofa and looked at me.

‘Wha?’

‘You know what.’

‘Fuck ohf.’

‘No. You know how this works. We’ve left you alone all week, thinking you might come to your fucking senses on your own, but it seems you need a kick up the arse this time. Just like every other time. You don’t get to be on your own. I know you’re up to your eyeballs at work, you’re fucking knackered, I can see that, but you look, I don’t know, there’s something else, and if I have to fucking well drag you to see your doctor myself I will. I mean it.’

‘Piss ohf. Ih’m a bihg boy now.’

‘Yeah, so grown up you storm out when I try to help you, and go all silent on us.’

‘Piss ohf.’

I was running out of pithy epithets.

‘No. I’m staying right here until you promise me you’ll go and see someone. It might not be what you think it is. Beth says –’

‘Oh fuck Beth. Yuh’ve all behn talking abouh meh, hahvnt yuh?’

‘Yeah, mate, we have. We’re worried. About what’s going on with you, and how hard you’re working when you’re obviously not well, especially after the shitty time you’ve had recently. You’ve lost fucking tons of weight, not that you had a lot to lose. Look at this place.’

Dec gestured at the flat, which I had been unable to clear up for days, but still looked tidier than his kitchen.

‘You never leave it like this, washing up not done, teabags on the drainer. You’re not yourself. Bottom line, I’m staying right here, on your sofa, until you promise.’

‘Wha am I, threh? OK, I prohmis.’

I held my fingers up in the Scout salute, hoping to shut him the fuck up. I had never been a Scout.

‘Nah, don’t believe you.’

‘Wha? Fuck ohf. Piss ohf. Gona eat my pizza, ih’s gehting cold.’

I opened the box and shovelled half a slice into my mouth, even though I had no appetite.

‘Well at least you’re eating, that’s something.’

‘Phmpf hff.’

I had a mouthful of pizza; I hadn’t suddenly developed an even worse speech defect. Dec continued to sit and look at me, and I found it irritating beyond measure, but also strangely reassuring. Here we were, having our old conversation, the old battle. I knew it was going to be OK in the end, it was just a matter of how long I made him wait. I ate more of the pizza while he sat with his arms folded, watching with the hint of an amused smile on his face.

After a while, Amy came out of the bathroom with Charlie in her arms and a full nappy bag dangling from her finger.

‘Have you got anywhere I can put this, Matt?’

‘Bin.’

I gestured over to the kitchen. Amy walked towards me with Charlie, who looked at me in a very beguiling way.

‘Can you just grab her while I take it over?’

I couldn’t resist, could I? I wasn’t completely heartless, just annoyed and self-centred. I held my arms up, and as Amy handed her over, to my horror I felt my grip slip. Charlie started to slide out of my useless fingers, and it all seemed to happen in slow motion as she began to fall backwards, then Amy realised what was happening, dropped the nappy bag and lunged forwards to catch Charlie before she hit the floor. I stared, wide-eyed, at Charlie, who was quickly scooped up into Amy’s arms and held tight.

‘Fuck, Amy, fuck, Ih’m soh sohry, my fingers …’

I looked at the offending digits as if they were going to explain to me what the fuck they thought they were playing at.

‘It’s OK, Matt, no harm done. You’re alright, aren’t you, lovely girl?’

She smiled at Charlie, safely nestled in her arms, but her face spoke of that moment of terror when something dreadful nearly happens to your child.

I carried on looking at Charlie, thinking about what had almost happened, what might happen again if I didn’t do something about my misbehaving nerves and muscles. I took a deep breath and glanced at Dec, who looked almost as scared and relieved as Amy. He hadn’t spoken, but was continuing to watch me with even more dogged determination, and didn’t need to say anything.

‘OK. Ih’ll go an seh the doctor. Yuh dohnt hahv tuh sleep on the sofa ahl night. Dohnt leh meh drop yuhr baby again. Fuck, Ih’m sohry, Ih’m soh sohry.’

They both breathed out a sigh of relief and looked at each other. Charlie was squirming in Amy’s arms, looking at me.

‘Do you still want a cuddle with Unca Matty, lovely girl? Go on then.’

‘Wha? Noh!’

Amy sat down beside me and passed Charlie over.

‘It’s OK, Matt, you can’t drop her from there. I think you need a good cuddle, and Charlie’s completely excellent at it.’

I stared at Amy in amazement as I wrapped my arms tightly round Charlie, and looked at Dec for confirmation. He looked equally happy for me to hold their daughter, only minutes after I’d nearly dropped her on the floor.

‘Fuck, yuh guys. Thahks.’

Dec and Amy stayed for a little while, until I showed obvious signs of being wiped out. I promised again that I’d go to the doctor, and that I’d text tomorrow with the time of my appointment. Not that Dec didn’t trust me, of course, but I didn’t have the best track record in doing what I was told, even following salutary lessons in listening to my mate. He agreed in turn not to report back to Beth, for the time being, and that he would leave that to me, as long as I agreed to tell him what was going on.

I flopped into bed almost as soon as they had gone, but found sleep elusive. I finally spiralled down into unconsciousness while trying to convince myself that I was overtired and had a virus, and everybody was just fussing too bloody much as per.

The next morning, just before I set off for work, I had a text from Dec.

‘Have u rung yet?’

‘Just abt 2. Stop nagging.’

‘Nope, not gonna stop. Ring now.’

It didn’t seem like I had much choice, so I called, told them it wasn’t urgent, because, well, it wasn’t like my leg was hanging off or I’d severed an artery or some such shit, I was just tired or had a virus or something. I got an appointment for a few days time, texted Dec, hoping that would stop the fussing. No such luck. Now I had constant reminders from him, at least twice a day, of the date and time of my appointment. It was as if he had nothing better to do than torment me via text message.

I steered clear of them all for the next few days and over the weekend, being so busy at work that I didn’t have time to think about it. Yeah, maybe I was keeping myself intentionally over-occupied. I have no idea what Dec said to keep Beth at bay, but it must have satisfied her because I didn’t hear from her once.

Then it was time for my appointment. I really couldn’t afford the time off work, but I’d managed to make it first thing, so I could go in to work afterwards and put in nearly a full day. I was so sure it was going to be tiredness or a virus. So sure. OK, terrified it wasn’t going to be that, but putting all my eggs in the tiredness and virus basket and not prepared to look at any other baskets, with or without eggs.

I sat in the waiting room, not able to concentrate on any of the magazines, on any of the games on my phone (which I always played despite all the fascist ‘do not use mobile phones’ notices), on anything except the clock, which ticked on towards my appointment time, then a few minutes after it, then well after it, until thirty minutes after my appointment time, my name was called. I was a wreck.

The doctor apologised for the wait, and I nodded but didn’t say anything. She asked what she could do for me, and I sat and looked at her and didn’t know where to start.

‘You haven’t been to see me for quite a while, have you?’

I shook my head. I never went to the doctor, had had little reason to since I registered when I first moved down to the city. I didn’t even know if this was my regular GP.

‘Is there something specific you’re worried about?’

I bit back a sarcastic retort. No, of course not, I just felt like taking time out of my busy schedule to arse about in her office. Instead of saying this, however, I nodded, trying to brace myself to say the words. I couldn’t force them out of my mouth, though. It could change everything.

The doctor looked at her computer screen. It was angled away from me so I couldn’t see what was on it. Probably just as well; ‘Serious Fuck Up’ was never pleasant reading. If it wasn’t there before, it would be after I left.

‘I see here that you have MS.’

I nodded.

‘Forgive me for playing guessing games, but you seem to be having trouble telling me how I can help you. You’ve had no symptoms for several years?’

I nodded again. I was barely holding on, ready to run as fast as my stuttering legs would take me.

‘Have any of the symptoms returned?’

I nodded, found my voice.

‘Buh Ih’m tihred, rehly busy at work, jus brohk up wih my girfriehd, I thihk ih’s strehs.’

She looked at me and nodded, not discounting my theory, but not confirming it either. She seemed relieved that I’d spoken, but would have been unable to miss the mess my mouth was making of words.

‘Maybe you could tell me some of your symptoms?’

‘Wehl, ha, spehking ihnt greht, Ih’m drohping shih … er …’

‘Any changes to your vision?’

Yeah, shit, everything was blurry. I’d been meaning to get my contact lenses checked out. I nodded. The doctor raised an eyebrow to encourage me to continue.

‘Dohbl sohmtimes.’

‘How about walking? Any trips, stumbles?’

‘Yeh. Buh Ih’m tihred.’

‘Of course. Tiredness can cause all of these things, but –’

I tried to forestall her. I had one last card left.

‘Couhd ih beh a virus?’

She nodded her head, considering.

‘It could be, but to be perfectly honest, Matt, it sounds to me like you’re having a flare-up of MS.’

‘Noh.’

It came out as a pathetic whimper. It took me back to that time up in Stafford, when a different doctor told me the same news. I felt as if I’d left my body for a moment, could feel the universe shift around me as I floated, directionless, amongst the black holes and supernovas. Then I came back, and the doctor was still talking, but I didn’t hear a word. It was all over. I’d had a few years when I’d managed to fool myself into thinking I’d defeated it, but it had been there all the time, waiting for its chance. The fucking bastard.

I took my cues from the doctor. She stood up, held her hand out, it was obviously time to go, to stop clogging up her already over-running surgery.

I stumbled outside, and couldn’t remember where I’d parked the car. I couldn’t see it, and couldn’t think, so I just started to walk, as best I could, heading fuck knows where. After a long while, stumbling half-blindly along the streets, getting caught in a heavy rain shower, I recognised where I was; my feet had led me here, of course they had. Here was where I would be OK, here was where I could stop and get sorted. Here was Declan Summers.

I rang the bell. There was a short wait, barely long enough for me to consider walking away, before Dec’s tall frame was outlined in the frosted glass at the front door. He was still wearing his muddy training gear; he must have just got home.

Dec

I’d just got back after a tough session, and was looking forward to a hot bath, after all morning on the training ground in the pouring rain. Having a bath again, after all our time in the flat with only a shower, was still a bit of a treat, and I had a really long soak planned, with a special bath-time playlist sorted on my MP3 player. I was so keen I’d come straight home without showering at the club.

Amy and Charlie were out, and I was just heading up the stairs when the doorbell rang. I stopped in mid-stride, extremely reluctant to go back and answer the door to what, at this time of day, was likely to be someone trying to sell me something, but as usual unable to ignore the doorbell. I sighed, turned round and went to the door, where a familiar shape was outlined in the frosted glass. I pulled the door open.

‘Matt, hi.’

}Cah I come in?

‘Course, is everything OK?’

He stepped over the threshold without answering and stood, wild-eyed and wary, in the hallway, hands shoved in his pockets, not meeting my eyes. He looked like he’d been out in the rain – his hair was wet, and his clothes were damp. I wondered where he’d been.

Matt

I was sure he could see ‘everything’ wasn’t ‘OK’. It was unlikely, given his badgering for the past few days, that he’d forgotten I was going to see the doctor today, but he seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I stepped over the threshold without answering and stood in the hallway, hands shoved in my pockets, looking at the floor. My clothes were still damp from the downpour, and I felt dishevelled and unsettled.

‘Beer?’

No, Dec, my life is falling apart. Help me.

‘Noh, bih early for me.’

‘Really? Since when?’

‘Since I fucking saih so.’

I couldn’t be doing with banter, not now. Don’t fucking tease, me Dec. Help me.

Dec

I noticed the slur in his speech, which seemed a bit worse since I last saw him, and remembered that today was his appointment with the doctor.

‘OK then. Come and sit down and tell me what’s bothering you.’

He followed me into the lounge and sat perched on the edge of the sofa, clasping and unclasping his fingers, looking preoccupied and uncomfortable. I decided to let him talk in his own time. If the silence went on too long, I’d have to rethink my strategy. He didn’t speak for a long while, taking lots of deep breaths, seeming several times to be on the point of starting, then stopping himself. I was pretty sure I knew what he was here to say, but I wanted him to tell me without me dragging it out of him. He would give me more information if he didn’t think he had lost something by giving it; however, he was obviously finding it hard to say, and I was about to ask him what was up …

Matt

I followed him into the lounge and sat down on the sofa, perching on the edge, not wanting to leave a wet patch from my rain-soaked jeans, still feeling ready to run. I watched myself clasping and unclasping my fingers, as if they didn’t belong to me. Dec didn’t say anything else, just sat and waited. I tried to say it, several times. It was almost as hard as trying to speak in the doctor’s surgery. I had to make myself say it. If I didn’t it was only going to get worse. Worse would be very bad.

‘Ih’s back.’

‘What?’

Oh come on, Dec. You know as well as I do. Don’t make me fucking say it. But he just looked at me, and I was going to have to.

‘Bastard MS. Ih’s fucking come back. Ih’ve jus been tuh my GP like you saih. She saih ih’s a flare up. I’m fucked.’

And as a few stray thoughts started to filter into my head, I felt like I truly was fucked. It was all ending, back to square one, beyond square one. I had no safety net, no other options, apart from falling all the way to the bottom of the pit in the middle of Fucksville, UK.

‘Shit, Matt, no way, I’m really sorry.’

‘Dohnt need your fucking pity.’

Anger was simmering down there, now.

‘I’m not giving you pity, for fuck’s sake. You know me better than that. What else did she say?’

‘Dohnt knoh.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Once she saih ih’s back, I couhnt listen any more. Dihnt hear what she saih. Wha’s fucking poin? S’all over now.’

‘That’s bullshit for a start. What do you think is all over?’

Dec was being particularly stupid today. He must know what I’d been dreading, he’d seen what I was like before, when I lost it all last time, he’d been in the same place at the start.

‘Nohmal life. Back to having my ahrs wiped. No behr, no sex, no fucking say in anything.’

‘Need your arse wiping right now, do you? Happy to oblige.’

How dare he make a joke about it?

‘Fuck off.’

I nearly got up and left, but I had nowhere else to go. I needed him.

‘Matt, I know it must be a huge shock, after all this time, but aren’t you being a bit dramatic?’

Oh, so now I was a drama queen.

‘Wha the fuck do you know abou ih?’

‘Absolutely nothing, I freely admit, but I have read some stuff and surely there are lots of different ways this can go, not just the worst possible way. Last time, you had pneumonia and that was what really fucked you up, wasn’t it?’

I was silent for a while. I covered my face with my hands, leaned forwards and took several deep, heaving breaths, almost sobbing. If Dec had read stuff, he’d done more than I had, for years. I’d read a bit in the beginning, but it scared the shit out of me to find out what could happen, so like everything else to do with this fucking bastard disease, I’d just buried it. Yeah, I knew that things could go several ways, but wasn’t it bound to be the worst way? Wasn’t it?

Dec

Matt was silent for a while. He put his hands over his face, leaned forwards and took several deep, heaving breaths, on the verge of sobs. He spoke through his fingers.

}Ih’s all jus like ih was before. Cahnt talk properly, dropping shit all over the place, tripping over nothing, cahnt see properly.

He looked up at the ceiling, blinking away tears.

Matt

This was so hard, to face this, admit it was true, and tell people. I looked up at the ceiling, trying to stop the tears that were filling my eyes from spilling down my face. If I started crying, it was going to be ugly.

‘Fuck ih, Dec, I dohnt think I can go back there. I cahnt fucking do it.’

‘Then don’t.’

‘Ih’s not like I have a fucking choice.’

Did he think I could just, like, decide what happened next?

Dec

I meant that he didn’t have to go down the route of it being a disaster; that there were other ways of looking at things, but I saw from the look on his face that this was too new, that he could only see the negatives at the moment. To be honest, I would have to do some thinking to come up with positives for him right at this moment, as well.

‘Have you told Beth?’

As I said it, I realised that Matt wouldn’t see that as a positive. The strength and support I got from talking things over with my family felt to Matt like restriction and interference. He looked at me, horrified.

Matt

Beth was the furthest person from my thoughts. I would never get any respite from thinking about it all if I said anything to her.

‘Fuck no! Cahnt cope wih all tha fussing and … oh shit … they’ll try to drag me back there to live wohnt they … shit, wha a cocking cluhsterfuck.’

When it happened before, and they came up to Stafford, and got a house especially for me, yeah, I appreciated it, they saved me, it was awesome. But now, going back there, it was like imagining some kind of twisted torture where you have to relive your worst humiliations over and over again.

Jay and I never talked about when he’d had to wipe my arse. It wasn’t even something we joked about. It was there, it had happened, it had been necessary, I was grateful. End of.

Dec

I thought of a way to make telling Beth a good thing. Now I just had to convince Matt.

‘Beth knows a lot about this kind of stuff, she can help you keep yourself as well as possible. She could help you. Maybe she can go back to the GP with you so at least someone listens to what you’re being told. There must be stuff you can do to make sure things don’t get any worse.’

Matt

I hadn’t thought about Beth actually helping me. Hadn’t been able to think beyond how much she was going to take over. Perhaps if she had a focus for her interference, being like a health coordinator or some such shit, she wouldn’t be so bloody unbearable.

Dec

More silence as Matt considered. Although he was frequently irritated with Beth’s need to solve everyone’s problems, this might just be a way to let both of them help each other.

}Maybe.

It was as much as he was likely to concede, and he would make up his own mind.

}You wohnt tell them, will you?

I sighed; this was Matt’s mantra.

Matt

I knew exactly what he was thinking. I always asked this, ‘don’t tell them I a) got so shit-faced I got on a train to Stafford without any money, or b) needed rescuing when Lauren Miller’s brother was looking for me with a baseball bat, or c) lost my car keys at four in the morning and needed the spare from my flat’. It helped me stay in control of it all. It was hard for him, though, when he was always so open about everything.

‘No, but you should. I don’t like keeping this important shit from them, and neither does Amy.’

I’d thought ‘don’t tell them’ meant everyone.

‘Fuck, dohnt tell Amy.’

‘Maybe I won’t tell her everything, but I don’t keep stuff from her, you know that. You tell me, you run the risk of me telling Amy. Otherwise I end up watching what I say, and it gets bloody close to lying to her. I won’t do that, even for you, mate.’

I’d temporarily forgotten about Dec’s open mouth policy when it came to Amy. They apparently had no secrets, bloody annoying lovey-dovey couple that they were.

Dec

Matt was silent, still not meeting my eyes.

‘Have you been back to see Adam?’

Matt

Well that was a bit out of left field. He hadn’t ever asked me about him, and all I had was a half-truthful excuse.

‘No, behn too busy.’

‘OK.’

The look on his face wound me up, although he was just looking at me and nodding.

‘Fuck off, I hahv.’

I put all the wounded injustice in my voice that I could muster, as I had been insanely busy recently, and even if I had made another appointment to see Adam, I wouldn’t have been able to keep it.

Dec

‘I said OK, you’re the one who’s getting all defensive.’

More silence. Matt had never told me about his appointment with Adam, and I had never asked him, and I wondered if he’d even gone in the first place.

Matt

I chose not to answer, as Dec seemed to be seeing through everything I said.

‘How many times did you go in the end?’

He really didn’t have the right to ask. He’d helped me make the initial appointment, I’d been, I’d talked, the end.

‘Look, jus piss off, Dec, I dihnt come here to geh the fucking third degree abouh my attendance at personal appoihtmehts.’

‘Why did you come here, then?’

That threw me. I was about to get into a debate about Adam, which was a great distraction technique, but Dec had just taken a turning off the path.

‘Wha?’

‘Well, you’re just getting pissed off with everything I say, I don’t think you want to talk. What do you need?’

As he said it, I realised it was true. I didn’t want to talk; talking would solve nothing, change nothing. What I wanted was what Dec always offered. ‘You shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit.’ I couldn’t ask him, though. That wasn’t how it worked, even now, when I was desperate. I looked at him, willing him to get it, what I wanted, what I needed, even though they’d just moved in here, they had a tiny baby, the last thing they needed was –

Dec

Matt finally met my eyes. I’d worked it out. He wanted something but couldn’t ask. I thought about what he’d needed in the past, what had helped him. You shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit. Well that was easy to solve.

‘Do you want to stay here for a few days? While you get used to it? No third degree, no fussing, just here if you need us, so you’re not on your own.’

He held my gaze as his chin quivered and tears filled his eyes. He nodded.

Matt

Thank fuck for understanding friends like Declan Summers. I stared at him in relief as I felt my chin shaking with the effort of not crying, and the salty bastards filled my eyes in any case. I nodded my thanks, unable to speak without breaking down completely.

‘But I will have to tell Amy. I can ask her not to say anything to Beth and Jay for a bit, but I really think you should tell them before they have to ask us why you’re here.’

I nodded again. Telling Beth and Jay would be child’s play after this. I was sure they already knew most of it anyway, it wasn’t like Beth ever missed a single sodding thing.

‘And you’ll have to help me clear the spare room, it’s full of shit we haven’t sorted from moving.’

It would keep me busy, stop me thinking, and it was welcome, more than welcome. I knew I needed to stay somewhere, be away from my flat, for a while, but if I’d gone to Jay and Beth’s, that would have felt like back to square one, being looked after because of the fucking bastard, and all the shit that entailed the first time. Helping Dec clear out their spare room seemed like a very small price to pay for me to retain that tiny bit of control over it all. Not that I was going to sound grateful about it, a moan would be expected, and I hated to disappoint.

‘Ih bluhdy knew Ih’d end up doing tha.’

‘Want to make a start now?’

‘Ih suppohs so –’

There was the sound of a key in the front door, and Amy’s voice as she came into the hall. I hurriedly wiped my eyes and sat up straighter, trying to look vaguely cheerful for them.

Dec’s face was a picture as he anticipated seeing them both. If I hadn’t been such a fuck-up I would have been jealous of the love I saw there for both of them, something I’d failed to find so far in my fucked up existence.

‘Here we are then Charlie, let’s see if Daddy’s home yet. Daddy? You home?’

‘In here, lovely girl, Unca Matty’s here too.’

‘Ooh Charlie, your favourite uncle’s come for some cuddles.’

I could hear Amy getting Charlie out of her stroller, and taking off coats and hats. Dec stood up as Amy came in carrying Charlie, and he folded them both up in hugs with kisses.

‘Hey babe. Hey lovely girl.’

‘Hey hon. God, you’re completely covered in mud. Good morning?’

‘Bloody wet morning. You?’

‘We managed to keep fairly dry, met Mum in a café in town, had a bit of a walk in the park after the downpour. Hi Matt – oh, did you get caught in the rain too?’

She looked at me, taking in my less than salubrious appearance.

‘Matt’s going to stay for a few days.’

‘Oh, OK, er …’

Amy looked unsure, and I didn’t know if it was because she didn’t want me lying around in her spare room indefinitely, or if there was something else, like me having a perfectly good place to live of my own, or being the careless arse who dropped her children. If Amy objected, I was stuffed.

‘We were just going to make some space in the spare room.’

And then Amy looked relieved, and the look had been because she’d wondered where I was going to sleep.

‘Oh, great! Thanks Matt.’

Dec

Amy gave me the slightest frown (‘what’s going on?’) which I replied to with the slightest raising of my eyebrows (‘something big, tell you later’). It didn’t go unnoticed.

Matt

She smiled at me, and gave Dec the slightest querying frown which he replied to with the slightest ‘later’ raising of his eyebrows. Guys, I’m right here.

‘Yeah, before your eyeballs fall ouh wih trying to commuhicate non-verbally – Amy, I hope ih’s OK for me to stay, I knoh you’ve only jus moved in. My fucking bastard MS has come bahk and Ih’m noh really dealing …’

‘Oh Matt …’

She looked so sad and sympathetic, she nearly had the tears starting again. I needed to be offhand.

‘Yeh, well, c’est la fucking vie.’

‘Stay as long as you need. I’m glad we’ve got space for you now, or rather will have once you’ve kindly cleared out the spare room.’

I didn’t know what I’d done to deserve friends and family like this. Amy was completely cool with an unexpected visitor just after they’d moved in to their new house with their new baby.

Dec

I looked at Amy with love and pride. She was completely unfazed by all this.

)Know what, Charlie? I think Unca Matty needs an extra special cuddle right now, here we go – oh, ew, with any luck, he’ll offer to change your stinky nappy too.

Matt

She handed Charlie over, wrinkling her nose and laughing. The stench of baby shit was unavoidable.

‘You know wha, I jus migh. Hello, beauhiful, whoa, yeh, you do stink. Thahks, both of you, you are both fucking awesome.’

I stayed with them for three weeks. I tried going back to work, although not that day because it was all too much. The next day I went in to GreenScreen, but with all the parts of me that were beginning to malfunction, I really wasn’t up to it. Of course I didn’t see that for myself, and it took Amy, when I came back and crashed on their sofa, slept through the evening, past dinner, almost impossible to wake up, to tell me I couldn’t carry on like it. And because she was Amy, and never voiced an opinion, or interfered or nagged like all the rest of them, because she was kind and sweet but had a look on her face I’d never seen before, like she was going to have a real go at arguing with me even though she hated arguing, I had a look at myself, and how hard I was trying to push myself, and I wondered what the point was.

‘Matt … Matt.’

‘Ungh … wha?’

‘It’s nearly ten o’clock. I’m sorry to wake you up, but you’ve missed dinner, and you’ve missed Charlie’s story, and I just think … look, I know this isn’t any of my business, and we said we weren’t going to go on at you, but you completely can’t keep doing this to yourself.’

‘Do wha?’

Amy gave me an assessing look, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get away with my usual slightly aggressive bullshit.

‘What do you remember after you got back from work?’

A telling silence.

‘Yeah, that’s because you’ve been practically unconscious since you got in. I tried to wake you up for dinner, Charlie was screaming the place down earlier, but you hardly opened your eyes. Do you do this every night?’

Another silence while I tried hard not to tell Amy to fuck off.

‘Matt, you can’t go on like this. You need to look after yourself. Dec’s just microwaving your dinner, because you’ve got to eat.’

‘Noh, I’m –’

‘I don’t care if you’re hungry or not. You’re going to eat it, and you’re going to eat your dinner every day, and you need to think about how you’re going to stay awake to eat it, and that might mean not going to work for a while, because work isn’t worth it, if that’s all you’re doing, if you never eat, if you’re either at work or you’re dead to the world. You can’t keep doing it to yourself.’

I was ill, I was just beginning to accept it. If I wasn’t going to crash and burn, I needed to stop. There was no point being here at Dec and Amy’s, trying to get my head round it all, if I was too tired to do anything but sleep. Amy was right, and although I didn’t like it, I eventually saw it and did something about it.

So I called Beth the next day and asked her to come to the see the doctor with me, and I told her on the way why we were going, and I was impressed that she hadn’t asked, that she just did as I requested, and when I told her, she just nodded, didn’t say ‘Oh Matty’ or go all bloody soppy. I told her I was hoping she would do my listening for me, and she did, and she was bloody brilliant. She knew the questions to ask, the things not to say to me, and at the end of the appointment at least one of us was clued up as to what the fuck to do next. It wasn’t me.

While I’m at it, I would like it to be noted for the official Matthew Robert Scott record, that Beth Scott is one fucking incredible woman, my life would be poorer without her in it, and I fucking love her. It is not something I am likely to be repeating to her face, so if someone would make sure she knows, that would be bloody ace.

I was signed off work, for long enough that I wasn’t going to have to worry about what was happening there; by the time I got back, it would have been someone else’s responsibility for a while.

So I sat around on my arse in Dec and Amy’s house, trying to be helpful, cooking the odd dinner, mending odd bits of stuff, doing odd bits of DIY that Dec was never going to get round to in a month of B&Q Sundays, smashing up the odd glass-topped coffee table by way of having a spasm with a hammer, dropping unimportant shit every now and then but not babies as I was always very careful not to hold Charlie anywhere she could fall from a great height, talking the odd bit of unintelligible bollocks, tripping over the odd non-existent obstacle.

The fucking bastard MS enveloped me, sapping my energy, making it difficult to predict how I was going to feel from day to day, but being there with Dec and Amy helped, I couldn’t have done it without them. They were just normal, they didn’t treat me like a fucking cripple, they let me do shit like cooking and cleaning, they talked to me like a normal person, they let me cuddle their baby and be Unca Matty again. I’ve never been one for showing my gratitude, and I don’t think they ever really knew how much of my sanity they saved by just letting me be there, not alone, part of their little family for a few weeks.

Eventually, of course, I had to go home. The bastard MS was taking its time fucking off, but Dec had been right, it had been the pneumonia that had done for me last time, and it was bad this time, bad enough with all the things I couldn’t do and had to sodding well ask for help with, like carrying more than one shopping bag – the amount of times I popped out to the local shop for milk, got sidetracked with other shit, and then couldn’t carry it all home. Well, OK, only twice actually, after that I stopped doing it and stuck to my mental list, but it was embarrassing enough those two times to have to have Dec come and get me like some bloody OAP. So it was bad enough, but because I’d managed to avoid nearly dying of pneumonia, it wasn’t as bad as last time.

And there was the nearly killing someone. I had got in my car and was driving to Jay’s for dinner. Someone started to cross the zebra crossing on the High Street, and just as I approached and was slowing down, my leg spasmed, my foot hit the accelerator and the car jerked forward uncontrollably. The man jumped back, a terrified look on his face, as my car kangarooed past him, and I could see him shaking his fist at me in the rear view mirror, but was too humiliated to stop and check he was OK. I shouldn’t have been driving with the state of my vision anyway, but this finished it for me. I turned round and went home and sat, shaking, in my flat before calling Jay to come and get me, and deciding that was it for driving for the time-being.

Once I left the sanctuary of the Summerses and went home, though, Beth’s instincts, let’s be generous and call them her nurturing instincts, kicked in, and she didn’t give me much peace. It was as if, while I was at Dec and Amy’s she knew I was OK, but once I was on my own she didn’t trust me to look after myself. If she wasn’t texting or calling, she was popping round, having a good snoop, making sure the food in my fridge wasn’t past its sell-by date, making sure I didn’t need one of those grabber sticks to reach the top of the bookcase, making sure I was still breathing.

She had a point, I suppose. I was really low; there was still all the shit with Jules I hadn’t dealt with properly, and the state I was in physically left me mentally broken. I spent a lot of time on my own, ruminating, and I suppose I could have stayed with Dec for longer, but I’ve always needed to do things myself, and they needed to have time to themselves as well without bumping into some fucking cripple at every turn.

Beth asked me directly if I was thinking of doing ‘anything silly’, and didn’t find it amusing when I replied ‘what, like drive a clown car in oversized lime green shoes’.

The truth was, I had considered it, the ‘something silly’. It didn’t feel silly, it felt like a completely rational thing to think about. If this was going to be my life, I wasn’t sure I wanted it. I didn’t want to be obliged to put up with all this shit, all this misery, all this everyone feeling they had a right to know what I was up to every fucking second of every fucking day, all this feeling like I deserved it for the bastard I’d been in the past. There would certainly be a fair few people who would not shed a tear if I shuffled off, and it was hard being me, a lot of the time.

I didn’t like myself very much, didn’t like how my life seemed to have turned out, didn’t like the ever-lengthening list of people I had pissed off or fucked up one way or another. But when it came to it, the practicalities, the realities of doing something irreversible, I wouldn’t, couldn’t do it. I loved everyone too much, knew too well what it would do to any or all of them if I took matters into my own hands. It would have taken a braver, more callous or more unbalanced soul than I to do that. Didn’t stop me thinking about it, though, and wondering …

So, things didn’t noticeably improve for a while. I slept a lot, I stumbled through my life, I put up with texts and calls from everyone all day, ignoring as many as I could, replying facetiously to some. I was signed off work again, for longer. I wondered if I would ever return, or if that was the end at GreenScreen, whether they would want me back, or I would even feel I could face everyone again.

Dec

I woke from a jumbled, instantly forgettable dream to the familiar sound of retching – no, that wasn’t right, I hadn’t heard that sound since … I jumped out of bed and ran to the bathroom, where Amy was bent over the toilet.

‘Ames? Are you feeling OK?’

She looked up at me, an unreadable expression on her face.

)I think you might need to get used to this again.

‘What? You’re not – how can that happen so soon?’

)I’m so sorry hon, I didn’t think it could either. I haven’t done a test yet, but I’m pretty sure.

A brief pause for more retching. I knelt next to her and lifted her hair away from her face, rubbing her back and kissing her shoulders, the familiar moves, a growing sense of excitement.

‘You’re just fucking amazing. I love you so much. This is awesome.’

She looked at me, exhausted, dark circles under her eyes. She was beautiful.

)Really, hon?

‘Why not? Like two for the price of one, instant enormous family, works for me.’

She stood up, washed her face and ran the toothbrush over her teeth. For once, I couldn’t interpret the expression on her face.

‘Are you OK about it?’

)Oh Dec, yes, I’m really happy, I’m glad you are too. It’s just a bit of a shock, it’s taken me completely by surprise, and I’m so tired, the thought of doing it all again, now we’ve got Charlie, it’s a bit overwhelming. Hold me?

I pulled her into my arms, where she had a bit of a weep.

‘We can do it, babe, you and me together. We’ll be awesome.’

I kissed the top of her head, stroked her hair and held her close. After a while she stopped sniffing and looked up at me.

)Shouldn’t you be calling Jay and waking them all up about now? It’s gone three thirty.

‘Ha ha, do you want me to?’

)I don’t think it would be appreciated. It feels different this time, doesn’t it? Less thrilling, maybe.

‘I’m just as thrilled, babe. Maybe a bit more aware of how bloody grumpy Jay gets when you ring him in the middle of the night. It’s just that we’ve done it before, know what to expect, it’s not all new. I might text Matt, just to keep him on his toes.’

)He probably needs his sleep more than Jay at the moment.

‘He’ll live. Come on, let’s go back to bed, I can text him from there.’

Matt

Not long after I went back to my flat following my stay at Dec and Amy’s, there was a text in the middle of the night. Fuck knows how it managed to wake me up, but there it was. Summers has always been an inconsiderate bastard with his breaking news.

This is yr early morning yr going 2b an uncle call.

Oh, I really did not need some kind of possibly pissed pissing about. I needed to be asleep, surely he knew that?

Wot? Already am. Didn’t need a fucking 4am reminder, thx.

Should have said ‘again’.

This took me a while to work out, dragging my consciousness out of the depths of ‘un’ as I just had. Then I got it. Oh holy shitbabies, they were having another one. Charlie was how old? A few months? Jesus. Talk about rubbing it in. But I couldn’t be bitter and jealous, I could only really feel happy for them, and maybe wonder how they were going to manage two such young kids. Oh the irony, future me.

Wot? Really? Fuck me. Fast workers. Awesome. Xx

Dec

Nico: =say hi to Bastien Tiago -pic-

Dec: =Hi Bastien. Charlie says come round 2 play. Amy says ‘Aww cute’. He is awesome :)) Lis OK?

Nico: =Lis is wonderful, you come today?

Dec: =Yeah! This afternoon.

Matt

So that was some good news from Summers in the middle of all the shittiness, and for a short time it diverted attention away from me, for which I was grateful. And not long after that, Nico and Lis had baby Bastien, and all was joy and happiness once again, and I smiled and cuddled him and said how cute he was, weren’t his little fingers and toes just so tiny, and they were, and he was lovely, but it just wasn’t sodding well fair that every other bugger in the world had kids, even people who didn’t want them, and I couldn’t. Even if I’d had someone to have kids with, it is doubtful I would have been capable of fathering one at that time. So I sucked it up, professed my (genuine) happiness to the new parents, and sat on my misery.

Beth took her role as Matty’s Health Coordinator very seriously, and despite having another mini-Dec to think about, was always trying to get me to sign up with the city’s bastard MS service, or go to this or that local event, or tell me about this book or that You Tube video she knew about. I usually told her to butt out, refused to take any details of anything that was going on, blanked it all.

I didn’t want to be part of a whole group of other fucking cripples; I’d done that when I first moved down. Part of me was a bit scared of who I might bump into, more people I’d pissed off or fucked up; another part of me was scared of who might not be around anymore and what that might predict for my future, but most of me was scared of admitting that I had this big fucking thing, that other people had it who might be worse than me, and I might end up like them.

So Beth kept trying, she never gave up despite my apparent lack of interest, my seeming apathy and my actual rudeness when she gave me information. And one day, she was going on so much about some How to Have The Bastard MS day or some such bollocks, I’d really had enough, I couldn’t take any more nagging.

‘How about if I drive you there? You wouldn’t have to worry about the buses then.’

‘I dohnt wohry abou fucking buses.’

‘You know what I mean, Matty. You’re always saying how much you hate the buses. How about I pick you up, about ten?’

‘Ih’s a bih early fuh meh.’

‘Get a good night’s sleep then, go to bed extra early. Is ten o’clock really that early, just once?’

I stayed silent, not wanting to commit myself.

‘How about it, Matty?’

Beth was sensing hesitation on my part, and was moving in for the kill.

‘Ih’ll beh a bunch of do-gooders sat in a cihrcle on plahstic chairs sharing wih the group.’

‘I’m sure it won’t. These Living with MS days are supposed to be very good. But if you like, you can just pop your head round the door for a quick look, and if there are any scary people sitting on any terrifying plastic chairs, you can leave, I’ll take you home, and we’ll never mention the subject again.’

I ignored Beth’s amateur attempt at sarcasm.

‘Rehly? If I goh, I can look roun the dohr and go home?’

‘If you don’t like what you see.’

‘An yuh’ll shut the fuck uhp abou ih?’

‘If you’ve checked it out properly and you don’t like the look of it.’

Beth was starting to realise what an out she’d given me in her eagerness to persuade me. I was a clever bastard, wasn’t I?

‘OK. Dehl.’

And that’s how I ended up at the church hall that day. I nearly chickened out, nearly didn’t let Beth get me in the car, nearly didn’t get out of the car when we got there, nearly didn’t open the door to the hall, but the thought of being able to hold Beth to the never mentioning it again was too good to miss, and after all, I was only going to put my head round the door and then go home.

So I got in the car, Beth drove me to the church hall, I got out of the car, I took a step inside the door, and –


70. Shake it out

In which there is an interlude while hard truths are avoided.

Julia

Of course, it wasn’t as easy as just collecting my things; there was still work. But Matt took a few weeks off, making it easier for me to cope with, and when I knew he was coming back I took some time off and went up to Norfolk, to sort out the house, finally able to bear to get rid of some of Nons’ things to make room for mine.

Matt

If pushed, I would say that my week in Egypt had helped me clear my head and get a bit of perspective. Maybe it had helped me distance myself from the disastrous way things had ended with Jules. I was still devastated, guilty, sad beyond words at how everything had happened, and I still didn’t know how I was going to face her at work, but I managed to go back to my flat. It was hard, but Beth’s friend’s husband had done a great job on the walls, had managed to match the paint, had even filled in and painted over the hole left where Jules had ripped her ‘Starry Starry Night’ picture off the wall, and Beth and Rose had done a great job on the cleaning. Apart from a faint smell of paint, and empty cupboards where my plates used to be, you would never have known Jules had lost it there, because of me, only a couple of weeks ago.

I still had over a week left of leave from work, and I spent a lot of time visiting Dec, Amy and Charlie. Their house move was on hold for a few weeks while the landlord had some repairs done; they didn’t seem too worried, as Charlie was only tiny, but their flat was totally full of stuff – clothes, jumbo packs of nappies, a stroller, the cot – and they would be so much better off with more space.

While I was away from work, I texted a few people to try to find out how Jules was, while attempting to remain discreet. As far as I was aware, no one knew Jules had moved in with me. I hadn’t told them, and I highly doubted Jules would have either, but they were bound to know something was up. The office had got used to us being together, although they’d stopped gossiping about it, as we gave them nothing to gossip about. We’d always been professional, and Jules’ rules had meant we never let home and work overlap.

I found out from Lexi that Jules was at work but acting ‘a bit weird, well more weird than usual, no offence’, and she asked me directly what was going on ‘with you two lovebirds’. I wanted to respect Jules’ privacy, but didn’t know if I could just pretend everything was the same, even to spare her feelings. As soon as I got back, it was going to be obvious that it wasn’t the same, anyway, so I just sent her a vague holding text, ‘Tell you when I see you’, which suggested there was something to tell, without saying mind your own business, which would have just inflamed her curiosity.

A couple of days before I was due return to work, I had another text from Lexi telling me that Jules was taking three weeks off ‘so it’s safe to come back’. It seemed that people had been coming to their own conclusions anyway. I suppose it did all seem pretty obvious, and GreenScreen was a hotbed of gossip, speculation and rumour mongering. It would have been surprising if they hadn’t worked out a version of events.

Going back to work was tiring. Being there, with constant reminders of Jules, even though she was absent herself, was tough. Everyone was openly curious about what had happened, although I tried to give them as little information as possible. There was no way I was telling anyone about my ‘I need a family’ revelation, or any details about what had gone on when Jules found out. But Lexi, in particular, was persistent. She never let it drop, and in an unguarded moment I let it slip that Jules had moved in a week before moving out again.

It was all I divulged, and I was mortified that I had, but once it was out, it was out, and it was around the office in about five minutes. I was even more careful after that, and no further information escaped. But it was wearing me out. I had a lot of work to catch up on after my holiday, and with Jules away, I had to pick up some of her team’s projects too. I found myself sleeping a lot when I was at home.

When I’d been back a couple of weeks, Phil asked to see me. I sat in his office and watched as he fiddled with papers and seemed to be doing anything rather than coming to the point.

‘OK, er, thanks for popping in Matt. Er …’

There was more fiddling, and it was making me nervous.

‘Is there a problem?’

‘No, no, not as such, it’s … I don’t know how … have you been in contact with Julia?’

I wondered if he was going to ask me to call her, to talk about a project that seemed to be going off the rails without her here. I really didn’t want to, she had asked me not to contact her, she wouldn’t want to talk to me about anything, and I could think of half a dozen other people who would be better candidates for an ear-bashing from Jules about slacking.

‘No. I haven’t spoken to her for a few weeks. She doesn’t want to talk to me.’

I thought I might be able to pre-empt his request.

‘Ah. Right. Then this might be a bit of a … er … surprise to you. Julia is leaving us. She’s coming back the week after next, for a week, and then she’s moving on.’

‘Holy fuck.’

In all the different ways this played out in my mind, it had never entered my head that she would leave. Jules was so good at not letting anything affect her when she was here, I’d just imagined having an awkward couple of weeks, maybe months, while we both got our heads round it, and then back to business as usual. But if she was leaving, then I was never going to see her again.

‘Where’s she going?’

‘She’s got another job, in Norwich, I believe.’

So not the other end of the world, but far enough away that we would never run into each other, and convenient for the house she inherited from her aunt. I found myself truly wishing her well, but crushed at the realisation of how soon she would be gone, completely gone from me.

I nodded at Phil, unable to speak.

‘I know this is an insensitive question right now, Matt, but will you be able to stand in temporarily on some of her team’s projects? There’s no way we can recruit to her position at such short notice, and Kyle will need some help with the Anderson project, maybe a couple of others.’

‘Yeah, no problem.’

I said the words, nodded, but wasn’t taking any of it in. My head was full of Jules. She was going to be gone. After all we’d shared I’d pushed her far enough that she wanted to go away, and I wasn’t going to be part of her world any more. She didn’t let many people in; I was one of the few who knew what she was really like, how warm and funny and giving she could be. And I’d blown it, chosen something that didn’t even exist, might never even exist, over what we’d had, over loving her.

‘Matt?’

I came back to myself, to see Phil looking at me with some concern.

‘Yeah, sorry. On it.’

I stuck a copy of a smile on my face, stood up and walked out. It was near lunchtime, and I kept going, through the office, down the stairs, out the door and along the street. I didn’t realise where I was heading until I ended up turning in through the gate of the cemetery, and my feet carried me the rest of the way, to the hidden anteroom in St Saviours churchyard.

It looked like someone had had a tidy up – there was no litter, no bottles, no dead leaves. I sat on the stone bench, feeling desperately lonely and deserted, all the worse for knowing I had brought it all on myself. If I had been more honest with myself, let alone Jules, from the start, things could have been so different.

I’d got used to pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and when the truth was inconvenient, I had ignored it. I didn’t want to love someone, not after Carrie. If I’d admitted my feelings earlier, maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe it wouldn’t. But it would have stopped this seemingly endless sense of regret, this constant dwelling on what could have been, and, now Jules was moving away, feeling this sadness, this hole, this empty part of me.

I sat for a long time, longer than I should have taken for lunch. It was tempting to stay there, where it was quiet and undemanding, and I could pretend it was just an ordinary lunch hour, and any minute Jules was going to come in and not eat a chicken sandwich.

I knew I wasn’t dealing well with all of it; I thought about talking to someone – Dec, Beth – but I still pretty much kept my issues to myself unless they were dragged out of me, and calling someone to talk would have seemed like a major thing. So in the end I took a lot of deep breaths, I squared my shoulders, I pushed aside all thoughts that weren’t directly associated with GreenScreen, and I went back.

I got through the rest of the day, virtually on auto-pilot, I went home and I slept. It had really taken it out of me. I fell asleep on the sofa, woke up briefly in the dark, and felt my way to bed, where I stripped to my boxers before falling straight to sleep again. I was still exhausted the next morning, but dragged myself to work, and focussed on the job, or, as it now turned out, jobs in hand.

As the rest of the week passed, I was aware of plans being made for Jules’ leaving. The arrangements didn’t involve a ‘do’ of any sort, as it was thought she wouldn’t want that. I wanted to tell them that although she would have said she didn’t want it, she would have secretly been so chuffed to have been asked, that they thought enough of her to organise something, but it was no longer any of my business, and everyone avoided asking me about it. I signed the card, put a tenner in the collection, and that was my contribution, as if I was just another colleague.

Then it was the weekend, and respite from it all, but if I stayed at home I was just going to spend my time dreading the next week, when Jules was back but there wouldn’t be enough time to make things right, or even make things less wrong, before she was gone for good. So I spent a lot of time with the family.

I went to see Mum, dug her garden, chatted about her neighbours and the scandalous price of decent tea bags and ate her frankly bloody marvellous fruit cake. I took Cal to watch Raiders, and we hung around afterwards like real supporters, as Cal liked to do, as if he couldn’t see the players whenever he wanted to. I played on the X-box with him afterwards, and then contrived to drink enough beers with Jay that I couldn’t drive home, and so needed to make use of the sofa-bed in the conservatory. Then Sunday dawned, I woke up late, late enough that there was no point going home before lunch, so I stayed and read the Sunday papers and played with Iz, until Dec and Amy showed up with Charlie, and it was time to play the game of avoiding peeling potatoes by any means necessary.

Outwardly I was OK – cheerful, arsing about, sarky comments by the shedload – but it was only covering up the turmoil I was feeling inside. I thought I’d got away with it, but Dec, who was turning into Mr Perceptive, cornered me as I was clearing away some of Iz’s dolls, ready for round two with an imaginary tea party that Iz was laying out in the conservatory. Dec sat on the couch as I knelt on the floor.

‘Want to tell me what’s up?’

‘What? Fuck off, nothing’s up.’

He looked at me and sighed.

‘OK, then, have it your way, but I’m turning my phone off tonight, so I won’t be answering any bloody three am ‘just arsing about but really, help me’ texts.’

I stopped what I was doing and looked at him.

‘You never turn your phone off.’

‘I do as of tonight, Amy’s orders. Charlie’s been woken up too many times by random texts and calls. We’ve decided to be out of radio contact from ten till seven, every night. Give ourselves a chance of some sleep.’

‘What if someone needs to get hold of you?’

By which, of course, I meant me.

‘We’ve got a landline for emergencies. Do you think you might need an emergency phone call?’

He knew I would never outright ring and ask to talk, and he also knew I needed to talk, and his expression was challenging.

‘You bastard.’

‘If you like. Or you could just spill, save us all some to-ing and fro-ing. Seriously, Matt, I know that look on your face. Has something else happened with Julia?’

How did he do it? Dec was not the most in tune person, he drifted through life missing hints and clues and downright obvious statements left, right and centre, but when it came to me he seemed to be inside my head. It was bloody infuriating. I gave in, put the last of Iz’s dolls in the toy box and sat back on my haunches.

‘She’s leaving, got another job, in Norwich.’

‘Shit. Harsh.’

‘Yeah. I haven’t seen her since the day after we split – first I was on holiday, and she’s been off work since I came back. She’s back next week, for one week, then she’s gone. Just fucking gone.’

Dec gave me a sympathetic grimace.

‘Have you spoken to her?’

‘No, not since I let her into the flat that day. She texted me and told me not to contact her. Shit, I thought I’d get a chance to, I don’t know, say sorry properly or something.’

‘You still might.’

‘Not at work. She does this thing at GreenScreen, kind of Ice Queen, total professional, nothing else. I’d be surprised if she even speaks to me, let alone allows me to have a cosy chat in the tea break. I just wish … oh fuck it, wishing for things is so fucking pointless.’

I got up and plonked myself on the couch next to Dec, running my hands through my hair.

‘What do you wish?’

He sounded so like Adam, I almost laughed, but I decided to answer.

‘For shit I can’t change, because I wish that things happened differently, that things happened in a different order, that I realised things sooner than I did.’

‘What things?’

‘There really is no point going over it all, it’s sending me fucking loopy.’

I wasn’t going to get into it, this wasn’t the time or indeed the place, with too many other people within earshot.

‘So are you thinking about it all the time, all this stuff you wish was different?’

‘Yeah. I’m not sleeping, not properly, and I’m so knackered. It all just whirls around.’

‘Have you thought of any other ways of saying it all to her? I mean, it won’t change anything, but if you could at least get some of it out, it might stop the whirling.’

I wondered if this was another of Dec’s shrink techniques. He might not make a bad counsellor, once his running around like a lunatic bashing grown men days were over.

‘I started writing her a letter, while I was away, but she’s told me not to contact her, and I want to respect that.’

‘Yeah, admirable, but if it’s just once, and if you’re not going to see her ever again, isn’t it worth chancing it? It can’t make anything worse, and she has the choice whether she reads it or not. I bet she would, it’s not like a text, that you can just delete without reading when you see who it’s from, it’s a letter, a real thing, I bet she wouldn’t be able to resist reading it, then she’s chosen to, and you haven’t made her.’

His logic kind of made sense, or maybe I just wanted it to.

‘Unca Matty, I need you to come.’

Iz announced her readiness for the next stage of perfect uncling. I sighed, smiled at her and stood up. Dec slapped my behind and stood up too.

‘You know the number if you need an emergency call.’

‘Yeah, unlikely. Thanks for listening to an old bloke rambling on.’

I followed Iz into the conservatory, which had ceased being my bedroom and was now tea-party central for several teddies, Cal’s old Transformer toys, and me.

Eventually, Sunday lunch, afternoon tea, and helping with bath-time and bed-time were all over with, and I couldn’t put off going back to my flat any longer without getting the third degree from Beth as well.

When I got back, I pulled my phone out and looked at the letter I’d begun to Jules when I was in Egypt. I revised it, and then wrote it out by hand, before slipping it into my work bag, so I could decide what to do with it later in the week. Just the process of writing it helped. I bloody hate it when Summers is right, it’s very annoying, but I did sleep better.

And so began the last week. On the Monday, Jules was already there when I arrived, as had happened every day of our working lives. I worked part time, and used it to get as much sleep as I could, whereas Jules was an early riser and liked being in first, before anyone else.

When I came through the door, I could feel everyone looking at me, waiting to see what I was going to say or do when I saw her in her office. I didn’t say or do anything except walk over to where my team sat, dish out the coffees I usually brought with me and start the day with my usual banter.

I don’t think anyone knew how hard it was for me to do that; I was dying inside, and the smile on my face felt like it was made of glass, ready to shatter. Jules and I didn’t even look at each other that day, but there were things I needed to talk to her about later in the week, some of the projects I was going to be dealing with, and I had to grasp the nettle or mettle or whatever the fuck it was you grasped. She was cold, distant, looked me in the eye and answered my questions. In my turn, I stuck to business, but I was trying to say sorry with my eyes, although I made sure there were always other people around when I talked to her, so she didn’t feel under pressure. We got through it, somehow. Everyone watched us, all the time, waiting for something juicy to happen, but I am pleased to report that we both handled ourselves with dignity.

Julia

By the time I got back to work, I had given my notice, and there was only one week when Matt and I were both there together. It was difficult, all eyes were on us, and if I hadn’t already been leaving, it would have pushed me to go. But it’s fair to say we both bore it with dignity. We had to talk, but spoke only about work, although I could see in Matt’s eyes that he wanted to say more. I didn’t give him the opportunity to be alone with me, and had told him by text some time ago that I didn’t want him to contact me, a request he had honoured.

Matt

On the last day, I gave the letter to Lexi, and asked her to give it to Jules when she left. There was a cake and a present planned for after lunch, and I managed to make an appointment with a client so I didn’t have to be there, as I didn’t think I would be able to handle seeing her go. I’d never know if she read my letter or not, and that was hard, but I was slowly making my peace with it.

Julia

When my last day came, I was touched to find a gift and card had been organised, and Margie had made a cake. Matt was absent from the presentation, but had signed the card – You’ll be fucking awesome in all you do. Mattand I found my eyes drawn to the short sentence and signature more often than they should have been.

With a sigh of relief, I walked down the stairs at the end of my last day, finishing a little earlier than I normally would, but desperate to leave and put it all behind me. As I walked past the reception desk, Lexi stopped me.

‘Julia, there’s a letter for you.’

‘Oh. Can you give it to Phil? He’s going to deal with all my correspondence.’

She shook her head.

‘It’s personal.’

She held it out and with a lurch to my heart I recognised Matt’s handwriting. I took it, unsure what to do with it.

‘Good luck, Julia.’

‘Thank you.’

I walked out to my car, carrying gift, card and remains of the cake, and holding the letter like it was a grenade. Putting all the other items in the boot, I sat in the driver’s seat, holding the envelope, trying to decide whether to read it or not. Despite my intention to put up my emotional barricades, I didn’t know how I was going to react to whatever it was that Matt wanted to say in a letter. In the end, my curiosity got the better of me.

Dear Julia

I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, I wouldn’t blame you if you tossed it unopened into the nearest litter bin, or set fire to it.

I know you asked me not to contact you, but I just couldn’t let you leave without trying to say I’m sorry. That probably doesn’t mean very much, I know I hurt you really badly. The last few weeks have been among the worst of my life, thinking about what I did to you, both how it all started and how it all ended.

I want to thank you for what you have meant to me over the past months. I have spent a lot of time examining my motives, my actions and my feelings. I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear about it, but I’ve finally realised I’ve been kidding myself about a lot of things. I’m sorry I didn’t realise what I wanted before it was too late and we got hurt. I’m also sorry I told you so often that I didn’t love you. It’s not true. I love you. I have for a long time. I know you don’t believe in love, but I do; I was hiding it from myself. I seem to be pretty bloody good at that. I don’t know if you can ever forgive me for how it ended with us. I’m not asking you to, and I know I won’t ever know if you have. Or haven’t. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself.

I keep dreaming about you. I’m holding you. Then I wake up, and I’m not holding you and it’s bad and I’ve nearly called you, not that you’d answer, and I’ve so wanted to say let’s forget it, what I said back then, please come home. But even if I said it and you agreed and you came back, it would be wrong and in time that difference between us would tear us apart again. I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’m sorry the timing was so fucking appalling. I’m sorry I’m not who you thought I was.

I want to wish you happiness, I want to wish you peace and I want to wish you the fucking amazing life you deserve.

I won’t contact you again, I’ll leave you alone and try to get on.

Goodbye Jules, I miss you.

Matt x

It took me a long time to compose myself after reading that. A small part of me read his words and wanted to run and find him and kiss him and hold him and feel his arms round me and tell him that I loved him too, and it was alright, we could find a way. But it was never going to happen. Too much of me would have to change and admit to things I was never going to admit to. So I folded up the letter and put it back in the envelope and stuffed it in the glove box, where I hoped I could forget about it and move away and live my life.

Matt

And then she was gone.

And I admit, I went home after work that day, and I curled on up my bed and cried. I hadn’t cried, not since that nightmare day when I’d fucked it all up and Jules had thrown things at me and I’d blarted all over Summers several times.

But this was a mourning. It was over, ended, finished, and although I recognised I’d been waiting until it was done to pick up and carry on, it was still done and I was still devastated.

I spent the weekend being miserable, feeling hollowed and dulled, and ignoring all texts and calls from Dec, Beth, Mum and even Jay, until the bastard Summers came round and wouldn’t stop buzzing my door.

It’s bloody annoying having such a loud door buzzer, one that you can’t turn off. Just as you’re getting up a good head of steam on some serious self-pity, there it goes, and again, and again. So eventually I let him in, just to stop him calling Social Services on my arse.

And, yeah, of course it helped to have someone there listening while I poured it all out, of course it did, but I didn’t want to need it, alright? I didn’t want to fucking need it.

Dec

‘Fuck it.’

)Oh hon, at least that will be the last time you’ll ever trip over the stroller.

‘Yeah, can’t say I’m going to miss that little joy. Is there anything else I need to do before the van arrives? Have we got time for a coffee?’

)Do you know what, I think we’ve actually done everything on the list. Completely unbelievable. Coffee sounds great, then I’ll go and drop Charlie off with Rose.

‘Make sure you get her to sign something promising to give her back.’

)Ha ha, yes, good idea. Not sure I’m going to be able to leave her there, actually.

‘You’ll be fine, Ames, it’s only for a few hours, you’re going back for feeds.’

)Yeah, you make it sound easy, but I remember you putting up a bit of a fight the first time you had to leave her.

‘True. You can do it, though, think of the alternative – me unpacking all the boxes and organising the cupboards myself. You’d never find anything again, especially the things I’d break and have to hide somewhere.’

)There is that, I suppose. Alright, you’ve almost convinced me. But if I don’t come back, you might need to send in the big guns and get Matt to haul me out.

‘Yeah, a large dollop of sarcasm will do the trick pretty quickly. Although he’s just as likely to get sidetracked by Charlie.’

)Do you think Matt’s OK to help today?

‘Yeah … why? Don’t you?’

)Well he’s just seemed a bit tired lately – he dozed off after lunch last Sunday, didn’t he? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do that. And he was slurring his words as well – I thought he’d had a bit to drink, but thinking back I don’t think he’d had anything.

‘Shit. I didn’t notice. Have you said anything to Beth?’

)No, I wouldn’t dare. He’d completely go nuts if I did, wouldn’t he?

‘Yeah, probably. Maybe I’ll have a word with him. Might just be tired, like you say, he has been working pretty much round the clock recently.’

)Oh, is that the van? No coffee then, hon. See you later. Give Daddy a kiss, Charlie.

Matt

The next bit is hard, too, so there will now follow a bit of fucking about while I procrastinate once more to avoid telling it.

The kids. Let me tell you about the kids. They’re all grown up now, Cal’s even got a couple of his own – how the bloody hell did that happen? But anyway, they’re all bloody awesome kids. I won’t tell you about Josh and Ella, because that’s for later, but Cal, Iz, Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa. Jay and Beth’s kids, and Dec and Amy’s kids. My nephews and nieces and whatever the fuck else they are. I was Unca Matty to them all, then just Matty.

Cal – I never knew Cal that well when he was really little. I only got to know him when I lived with them in Stafford, when he used to spend hours playing in my room, and when I was awake, I’d chat with him about his games, and he’d sometimes chat back, and sometimes tell me to shut the fuck up because he was concentrating (not literally, he didn’t start to swear in earnest until he was a teenager. You can imagine how delighted Beth was, and how much grief I used to get). He was always fairly serious about life when he was that age, six or so. He’d want to know the ins and outs of everything, asked me questions nobody else would ask about why I didn’t get out of bed, why my words came out funny, why I looked like a skellington. Beth used to try to shush him when he got too probing, but I’d always answer him, and sometimes it was a good way of telling them shit without actually saying it directly to them.

It was the best thing about being ill, getting to know Cal. I’d been pretty crap at being with kids before, never really knew quite where to pitch things, used too many words or sounded patronising, but when you can hardly talk, you just say the simple stuff, and it turns out that works. Kids don’t need to be talked down to, they can understand some pretty hard concepts, I just needed to stop wrapping it up in all the unnecessary bollocks, and there we were. Me and Cal, getting each other. Who’d have thought. Didn’t hurt that at heart I will always be six years old too.

When Cal got a bit older, he could be a mardy git, a teenager before his time, so we had something in common there too. We did have some fun, between the sulks, on the X-box, playing football, arsing about together, while I tried to make him laugh. Sometimes he’d tell me stuff; he was having a hard time at school, being bullied or some such shit, and having been a geeky nerd at school, I could relate to a lot of it. I was also a safer bet than his mum and dad, because I wasn’t going to immediately march down to the school and demand something was done about it. When he started playing rugby, though, he found his self-confidence, and stopped being so miserable, scared the bullies off, became Captain Sunshine. He really is one of the cheeriest bastards I know, takes after Dec, who I suppose is like a brother to him. Hardly anything seems to get him down – well, there was that bollocks with Ayesha and Chrissie, but that was a long time ago and he got over it pretty quickly.

One of my proudest moments, he must have been about ten or so, was when Cal asked me to take him to watch Raiders. I’d never been, I’d never seen Raiders play, never seen Jay or Dec play, and I thought I never would. It was a bit of a thing of mine, I liked saying ‘oh, I’ve never been’ when people said it must have been great watching Jay Scott play and then seeing their disbelieving faces. Rugby isn’t everything, despite some people’s opinions to the contrary. But when Cal asked me to go with him, and yeah, I know it was mainly because he didn’t want to sit with the juniors, but I was so, so unbelievably chuffed that I said yes, and thus started my own love affair with Raiders. It is weird watching members of your own family run around a pitch getting severely clattered. It makes you very protective, and brings out the supporter in you. ‘Bash the bastard’ became my war cry, and I suppose Cal joined in, and it was our thing. Just at the games, as Beth would have gone ape-shit on my arse if she’d known.

But that was just about topped by Cal asking me to be godfather to Conor, his first child. I’m not a great one for religion, and I don’t suppose Cal’s ever thought about it in his life, so me standing up there and promising all sorts of religious shit didn’t really mean much from that point of view, but what it did mean was that for as long as I had breath in my body, which, yeah, might not be that long now, but anyway, I was going to be looking out for Cal’s first born, being Unca Matty to him, arsing about, loving him. I guess I’m Great Unca Matty to Conor, and now Lily, which makes me sound bloody ancient. I hope I can be great. I’m doing my best.

Iz – well, Iz was a heartbreaker from the day she was born. Jay and Beth had wanted another baby for years, but it just looked like it wasn’t going to happen, and they didn’t want to do anything radical. They were settling for just having Cal, and were happy with that, when Iz popped up out of the blue. I’ve done some calculating, and I believe conception must have occurred when they were in Stafford looking after me, so I would like to claim some credit. Mm, maybe I don’t really want to examine that too closely. But anyway, she arrived with a fanfare when we were all living here, in the city, and she knocked our socks off then and ever since.

With her blonde ringlets, much better suited to a girl than a boy, and Cal hated his with such a vengeance that as soon as he was old enough he had his hair cut so short you couldn’t tell, but Iz … now she’s older, she has her hair really long, and you can see people looking at her wherever she goes. It helps that she has always been fairy princess gorgeous (ha ha, I know you hate that Iz, but if you want to be a tomboy, the ringlets have to go), big grey eyes framed by an elfin face, and the confidence that eluded Cal when he was younger.

Iz always knew exactly what she wanted, and didn’t shy away from asking for, nay demanding, it, often using her big eyes as a battering ram. She had the boys in her pocket while she was still at junior school, and once she got older, she had her pick of the best. Unfortunately she never seemed to choose the best. She had a weak spot for the underdog, and always went for the losers, the ones who didn’t know how to treat her, and because she was a caring girl, she always stayed with them longer than was good for her because she couldn’t bear to break their hearts. In the end, though, she’s found herself a great bloke, and although I hate him because he keeps her away from us (not as a prisoner, but by dint of them living in Manchester), I think the world of him because he makes her happy.

Iz says she doesn’t want kids, and I know she believes it now, and maybe she won’t change her mind, but she’d be an awesome mum.

Charlie – Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright (although Dec and Amy ditched the hyphen Wright when they got married) was always going to blaze a trail through the world. She punched her way into my life when she was only hours old, and she never stopped grabbing what she wanted with both hands. She was indulged when she was little, being surrounded by family who loved her, and brought up by parents who were so laid back they were almost horizontal. She also had to compete with Iz, and the screaming matches when they were younger could have shattered crystal. Charlie always, but always got her own way. I could certainly never say no to her, even when I said no to the same things when asked by my own children.

Charlie still hasn’t worked out what she wants from life, she flits from job to job, course to course, man to man, loving it all then hating it all, nothing in-between She leads the tribe of Summerses by the nose, calling them all to family meetings, telling them what to buy her for Christmas, deciding where they’re all going on holiday and who she’s going to get to pay for her to go. She is a force of nature, and long may she continue.

Tom – with a sister like Charlie, Tom had no real choice but to be chilled. He’s only a year younger, but he’s always taken a back seat and let everything happen around him. He takes after his dad in that respect. Apart from the rugby. Tom could have been a good rugby player, and he did do some training with Raiders juniors, but he didn’t have the drive to stick with it, it wasn’t what he loved, and to Amy’s great relief, he gave it up. To my joy, what he did have the drive to stick with was computers.

Nowadays most kids are pretty into computers, but on a superficial level, knowing how to do shit, running rings round the parental controls, all that. But Tom wanted to know the ins and outs, the nitty gritty, and we’ve spent many an afternoon with our heads bent over a bit of computer code, or dismantling the innards of a broken laptop, talking our own special language. Tom’s the reason why I’m pretty sure you’ll get to read all this, Lau, because I’m sending you a message, and I know you’ll go straight to him, and he’ll know what to do. Without Tom, I would feel bad, or rather worse than I do, about leaving Dec with our business. Tom is more than equipped to take over from me. He’s got the nous, the brains and he’s been carrying me more than a bit for the last few months anyway. Thanks, Tom, you’re fucking amazing.

Gracie – Dec and Amy thought she was the last of the gang. She’s lived up to her name, breaking the rule of the inappropriate virtuous nomenclature; even when she was little she could disarm you with her poise. She did ballet, and still enjoys dancing, although she never considered it as anything more than a hobby.

Through everything that’s happened to me over the years, Gracie is the one who has been able to make me feel special with a short text, or a picture of R2D2 when she was little, or just popping in for a cuppa and a cookie. When she comes round with her bag from the bakery, even when I’m at my most stubborn and not eating for anyone, I’ll share a mouthful of oatmeal and raisin cookie with her, because I can’t bear to see her big blue eyes look so sad when I don’t. She is sailing through Uni, and will succeed in her gentle, determined way at everything she does.

Rosa – Rosa, Rosa, Rosa. My Red. The last of the gang, the unexpected one. She doesn’t look like any of them – Charlie and Gracie have dark wavy hair and big blue eyes like Amy, and Tom looks like Dec with his straight light brown hair and his permanent smile. But Rosa surprised everyone with her Titian hair and green eyes; no one knows where it came from, although Dec doesn’t know anything about his birth family, so it could be from anywhere.

She is mercurial, one minute softly spoken and shy, and the next a firecracker. She changes her opinions daily, but can argue either side of a debate with ease. She has some humdingers with Ella, who likes to think she can win most arguments but gets taken down a peg or two by Rosa from time to time.

Rosa loves maths, and we’ve had some great nerd-offs, chucking equations and theorems at each other until I have to feign tiredness to avoid defeat, but she’s also got this creative side, and the jewellery she makes is exquisite.

Rosa was named for Rose, who was like a granny to all of Dec and Amy’s children. I have never seen Rose prouder than the day Dec and Amy announced what the new baby was going to be called if it was a girl, and although Rose loved all of Dec’s children as if they really were her own grandchildren, I think she had a hidden soft spot for her namesake.

All of the Summers kids are awesome. I often forget they’re not really my family – I mean, they are really my family, what I mean is they’re not my blood. I guess sometimes water is as thick as blood.

Bastien is Nico and Lis’s boy, and as much one of the cousins as any of them. He’s quiet, unlike either his mother or his father, and often sits and watches the madness going on with his big brown eyes. He’s pretty laconic, but has a little bit of fiery Latin temper if you push him too far, which it amuses us all to try at regular intervals. I think he would make a fine son-in-law for someone. I will leave it at that.

When all the kids are together, it is impossible to do anything but sit and watch as they show us what the next generation is going to be like, what they already are like.

Between them, they have already set the world on fire in their chosen fields, and there’s plenty more to come. I am so bloody proud of the lot of them, I love them all, and I know they love me, and if I could spare them the pain of what’s coming, I would.

But I’m supposed to be arsing about, not getting all wistful and shit. How else can I put off the hard bit, what happened in-between Jules and Lau? Because it’s nearly time for you, Lau, and that’s the bit I’m looking forward to telling because it’s happy, it’s sexy and it’s awesome. But for now, just a bit more arsing about, if you don’t mind, because I don’t want to say it just yet, how it came back.

Maybe a quick comparison – Carrie, Jules and Lau. Could you bear it Lau? You come out best, in all categories, you know you do. Let me show you:

Eyes: Carrie’s were bright blue, you always felt like you were skating on top of them, they gave nothing away. Jules’s eyes were brown and equally unfathomable until you got to know her, then you could see them twinkle when she was teasing, you could see them darken when she was annoyed, and you could tell when she was hurting. Lau’s eyes are always changing, from blue to green to grey, depending on the light, the temperature, how she’s feeling, what she’s doing. You could just watch Lau’s eyes all day, and they would tell you all about her, what she was thinking, what she was up to, without needing to talk to her. I could have written poetry about Lau’s eyes. Why did I never write poetry to your bloody gorgeous eyes, Lau? Probably because it would have gone something like ‘Lau your eyes of blue and green/Are the best I’ve ever seen’ and you would have laughed, and you deserve better.

Driving skills: Just to throw you off. I bet you thought I was going to go for ‘body’ or ‘tits’ or some such laddish shit, didn’t you. Nope. Carrie’s driving skills were non-existent, having never taken her test or even sat behind the wheel of a car. She couldn’t even ride a bike. Jules could drive, and she was bloody good as you would expect of anything Jules did, but she took it very seriously, holding on tight to the steering wheel until her knuckles went white, not allowing anyone (i.e. me) to talk to her unless she’d asked which turning to take, not really liking the CD player or radio on, but putting up with it so I could hear the footy scores, and not jump out of the car through boredom. Lau, well, I suppose she’s not a perfect driver (sorry, Lau, but you are female, it has to be said, ouch no, stop bloody bashing me woman), but we’ve always had a laugh and a sing whenever she’s driven us anywhere. Lau kind of feels her way in traffic, rather than ever absolutely knowing where she’s going. She takes lots of wrong turns, sometimes because she’s too busy singing along to the radio to pay attention, but uses them as opportunities to visit parts of the world she’s never been to before. Every new journey is a mystery tour – not regular journeys, I don’t mean she gets lost on the way to the shop, or to Jay’s or some such shit, but when she’s going somewhere new. Never used a sat nav. Proud of her for that.

Caring: Carrie didn’t give a shit. Jules gave a shit, found it hard to say, but offered to look after me if needed, which must have taken a lot of courage and was awesome. Lau gives so much more than a shit. She has given and given to me over the years, for bloody little reward, and she never stops. Every night, before we go to sleep, she holds me tight and touches me everywhere – oh, that sounds more pervy than I meant, she’s letting me know she’s there for me, she’s trying to find out how I am without asking me because she knows it bloody winds me up to be asked all the time. She knows, has known from the start, how to say things I won’t let other people get away with, how to get me to talk, how to get me to let her help me. My wife is fucking awesome.

Dress sense: Yeah, what do I know about it? But going to comment anyway, so fuck you. Carrie was a fan of the tight vest tops and jogging bottoms. It was fucking hot at the time, but on reflection a bit tarty and a bit chavvy. Jules always dressed very classically, muted colours mostly except for one or two surprising exceptions that said more about her character than the rest of her black and grey and taupe wardrobe. Lau has a whole mish-mash of colours and styles. She never wears anything dull, and is always buying cheap crap, not because she’s saving money, particularly, but because she knows she’ll be hating it in a few months, so it doesn’t need to last, or wash well. She’s got some awesome dresses that show off her delightful assets very well, but she’s not a great one for cleavage or tight tops, unfortunately. You should see her in stockings though, and nothing else. You’re never going to get the chance, if you know what’s good for you, that’s just for me, but whoa, Lau. I’m sure you know just what the very thought of that is doing to me.

Arguing: Well all three of them could argue for bloody Team GB, but to compare … Carrie didn’t like being argued with, got all defensive, didn’t like being disagreed with, got all moody and huffy, as if you’d dealt her a personal insult. Now, most will be aware that I like a good barney as much as the next man, but I stopped arguing with Carrie, let her think she was right even when she was ridiculously wrong, just to keep the peace. Not an ideal situation, I can see now, but so much of that situation was very far from ideal. Jules? Jules always but always knew her facts before even entering into such a commitment as an argument, so spats with her were more like debates, throwing information at each other until it became apparent who was correct. She was a bloody challenge to fight with, but it never really got heated, because you were either right or wrong. Look, Matt, here’s the research explaining just why you shouldn’t add salt to the water when you’re boiling an egg. Infuriating, if only because I hate to be proved wrong. Lau. Lau, I don’t know if you have ever properly researched anything in your life, other than Googling ‘Cutest Kitten Videos’ or some such tweeness, so you don’t use facts in an argument, which gives me wiggle room, and you don’t go all sulky and uncommunicative when I say you’re wrong, you laugh at me and use your bloody logic. Oh, not normal logic, which is similar if not the same as facts, really, but Lau Logic. I like to think I can debate my way out of most situations, put forward some telling points, add a bit of wordsmithery and leave the opponent begging for mercy. But you have this way of letting me have my fun, leading me on down the path of believing I’ve won, and then just going ‘that’s all well and good, but the way I see it …’ and of course, the way you see it is the sensible way, the way everyone should see it, you’ve called me on my bullshit again, and I am helpless in the face of it, and I have been Laued once more.

See, Lau? You win bloody hands down at everything. You are fucking awesome.

OK, then, I suppose I can’t put it off any longer.

Jules was gone, and the next chapter in my life was hard, and I nearly found it too tough, too difficult. But I’ll tell you anyway.

69. Various methods of escape

In which there is a reunion.

Matt

So I sat on the beach and read. I don’t know what I read, it didn’t really matter. I got from one end to another of several iBooks, hardly taking any of it in, trying to make my peace in my mind with what had happened. It kept coming back to the fact that I couldn’t change any of it; nothing I did, said or thought now would change what I’d done, said or thought in the past. I’d well and truly fucked things up, and the only thing to do was accept that and move past it. Trouble is, it wasn’t that easy, except in the most theoretical of ways. It was as if my life had been trundling along in its groove, and suddenly there was a derailment, and I had no idea how to get it back on track.

So sitting and pseudo-reading was all I did, and at least my body relaxed, if my mind couldn’t. Was it wise to be alone with my thoughts right now? I knew a few people who would have said no, but one of them was preoccupied with being a new father, one of them had been permitted to help and had noticeably stopped giving unwanted opinions as a result, and one of them was my mum.

I hadn’t spoken to Mum since the whole Jules thing blew up in my face. The last time I’d seen her was at the hospital with the rest of the family on the day Charlie was born, but I hadn’t spoken to her properly then. God, that seemed such a long time ago, but it was less than a week. I’d texted her to say I was going away, not having the inner strength for a call or a visit, and I’d given Beth dispensation to fill her in while I was gone. I knew she wouldn’t contact me, but would worry about me, and guilt made me call her after I had been away a few days, costing me an arm and a leg and quite possibly a vital bodily organ such as a spleen, or a gall bladder.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘Matthew! Where are you?’

‘Egypt.’

‘You sound so close.’

‘Nope, thousands of miles away.’

‘How are you dear? Beth told me about your troubles. I’m sorry things went badly for you.’

‘I’ll be OK. I just needed to get away, to try to work it all out. Sorry I didn’t tell you, it all happened a bit quickly.’

‘Not to worry, dear. Are you taking care of yourself? Eating enough, getting enough sleep, all the other things mothers are supposed to worry about?’

‘Yeah, Mum. The food’s great. Sleep, meh, who needs it. Not for want of trying.’

Mum sensibly changed tack, quite possibly realising she had as much information about my health as she was likely to receive.

‘Beth said Andrew’s joining you?’

‘Yeah, he’s coming on Saturday. I’m keeping his sun-lounger warm till then.’

‘Oh well that’s good, at least you won’t be on your own. It’s been a while since you saw him, hasn’t it?’

‘Yeah, years, since he buggered off to save Africa.’

‘Well, I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeing him again. Maybe he’ll look after you.’

I couldn’t do anything more to reassure her than I was; I could hear the worry in her voice.

‘I’ll be OK, Mum. I’ll be back in a week or so, I’ll come and see you. I’ll bring you a plaster pyramid, or a papyrus with your name in hieroglyphs.’

‘That would be lovely, dear.’

Mum always appreciated any gift as if it were priceless, however much or little thought had gone into it – her old house had been packed to the rafters with things Jay and I had made or bought for her when we were younger – but I knew the thing she’d most appreciate would be to see me. Especially if the alternative was some crappy tourist tat. I’d save that for Jay.

‘No one will be able to say I didn’t think of you while I was out here.’

‘You’re a good boy.’

‘Yeah, well, that remains to be seen. I’ll see you when I get back.’

‘We’ll have a good talk. Goodbye, Matthew.’

‘Bye, Mum.’

It was a brief conversation, and I’d told her nothing, but I knew that me being in contact would put her mind at ease. I’m sure they were all worried about me spiralling down into my friendly neighbourhood black pit of despond while I was out here, but that wasn’t where I was headed. I wanted to try and sort myself out, work out what had happened and how to make sure it never happened again. Part of that meant digging deep into my psyche to ascertain just what it was that I wanted out of life.

OMFG what a whiny git I am. Was. Still am, I suppose, as here I am years later still going on about it all. The truth is, Lau, I want you to know it all. I never told you absolutely everything, and some things you just don’t say to your gorgeous wife – things like, you know, being with other women and shit. And you’re so cool about everything, I know you would have just listened and then said something bloody awesome, but shit, look how long it’s taken me to get this far in The Ballad of Matthew Scott. And now I just don’t have the time or the breath to say it all, so I hope one day you find this; I’m going to be a bit creative about leaving clues, so one day, after, you’ll find this and you’ll know everything. Ha, and you won’t be able to argue or ask me any of your bloody annoyingly penetrating questions. So there. See how grown up and mature I am. I love you, by the way. Always will. Holding hands forever.

So where was I? Oh yeah. Beach in Egypt. Fucking awesome, or it should have been. I suppose it was the ideal place to try to sort my life out, and I did do a lot of thinking. Hardly noticed the beach, probably would have been cheaper to turn the lights on and the radiators up in Jay’s conservatory. But I guess there’s something about being ‘away’ that can help when you’re thinking about serious shit.

I contemplated work, and whether I was going to be able to go back, with Jules there. I knew we would both be professional, that wasn’t the problem, but I also knew how stressed it would make her, and, yeah, how stressed it would make me. But I wasn’t in any state to go job hunting, and so I was going to have to go back and see how it was, try to keep Lexi’s inquisitiveness to a minimum, try to make things work at work.

I contemplated my life in the city that now felt like home to me. All the same objections applied to an immediate decision, but maybe it was time to think about moving away, trying some of the exciting jobs I’d thought about when I was younger, leaving Matt the Lad behind and starting over. Again. It was an option that both excited and terrified me in equal measure, and one I didn’t come to any conclusions about.

And then I contemplated the big thing, the one that had caused all this in the first place, the reason I was sitting here on a beach in northern Africa turning myself inside out. The thing that had lurked unexamined inside me for fuck knows how long. The thing that had destroyed Jules and me.

Family. My suddenly discovered need to have a family of my own, not just one that involved me being an uncle or a brother. Mum, Dad, kids. House, garden, car. Small unit of people. Possibly a dog, to make up the numbers.

I’d tried to convince myself, a few times, that it was just a weird moment, that it was an aberration, but I failed to make myself believe it. Once uncovered, the need had settled over me like a blanket, and no amount of denial or self-delusion was going to make it go away. It was what everyone did – not that I only wanted what everyone else had, that’s not what it was all about, but now I knew I wanted it, the unfairness of everyone else having it sliced into me. Even Nico and Lis were expecting a baby – they’d announced both this, and the fact that they were coming back to England in time for the birth, on the same day that Charlie was born. It was all working out for everyone else, but I couldn’t have it, or at least that’s how it felt.

Dec had sent a few texts, with pictures of Charlie, documenting the tiny amount of sleep he and Amy were achieving, but obviously so proud of her and his new status as a parent. I knew with every pang of envy that it was what I wanted, but at this moment it was unachievable.

Just thinking about the ramifications made my head spin – I was nearly thirty-five. The practicalities were that available women were becoming fewer and further between. Available women who didn’t already have children were even fewer and further. I didn’t think I wanted someone else’s children, I didn’t even think I wanted ‘someone else’. This thing had blown my world apart, and I wasn’t going to take second best just because there was some kind of hypothetical clock ticking in the background. And my heart was breaking, I could feel it heavy and dysfunctional in my chest – being with someone else was not something I could even imagine. It was another thing I couldn’t solve, would drive myself mad thinking about too much, so I parked it, along with all the other things, and tried to read my book and wait for Andrew, while the sun shone and the waves crashed and life went on.

I thought that when Andrew got there, things would carry on pretty much as they had been – beach, book, beer – but with someone to share the short walk to the bar. But Andrew had changed. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen him for several years, and until our recently rekindled contact I had thought of him as a devoted churchgoer. Even before that, he was a settled family man, seemingly happy to stay with the insurance company he’d worked for until he retired or keeled over from a heart attack like all good managers should if they worked hard enough. The last time I’d seen him which was about a year before he left for Africa, he’d been a fairly unprepossessing man, hair starting to thin, paunch starting to develop, middle age starting to approach. He wasn’t even thirty, but he’d had that air about him of resigned contentment; Cindy’s makeover was long-forgotten.

I nearly missed him when I went to meet him at the airport, because I didn’t recognise him. The hair was gone, I mean virtually all gone, shaved so close to his head that to all intents and purposes he was completely bald. He’d lost weight. He was wearing stylish clothes, and reflective sunglasses, and my gaze slid over him as he dropped his bags and walked up to me, arms held wide, a big smile on his face. I almost looked behind me to see who this dude was greeting, then he shoved his sunglasses up onto his hairless head and I recognised his eyes.

‘Matthew Scott come here and give me a bloody great man cuddle you bastard.’

I did as I was told, and saw over my shoulder several people turning their heads to look as he practically lifted me off me feet with a big roar.

‘God, Matt, you haven’t changed a bit.’

‘Whereas you, Andrew, have changed most of your bits. Looking good, you dog.’

We grinned at each other and hugged again.

‘Oh mate, it’s great to see you. It’s been too long. Here, give me a bag, the car’s this way. I hired it for the week, so we can go see dead Pharaohs or some such shit.’

‘Really? You’re here for the archaeology?’

‘Well not exclusively, but I thought we could give some of it a try.’

‘You’re the boss. Thought we could try the nightlife, though.’

‘Yeah, sure, if you want. This place is club city, according to the PR.’

‘What, you haven’t sussed them out yet?’

‘No, I’ve been chilling.’

I was getting the feeling that Andrew wasn’t just here to offer me a shoulder to cry on, which was fair enough, and I mentally adjusted my expectations as we walked to the car.

‘Well we need to get you out there, my boy. Back on the pony, or whatever the fuck the term is.’

‘Ha, I don’t think so, mate. I’ll be your wing-man, if you need one, but I really don’t need any complications right now.’

‘Who said anything about complications? No strings, that’s the way to go.’

‘Yeah, been there, trying not to go back there again.’

‘OK, whatever, mate. We can talk about it later, yeah? What car have you hired?’

‘Oh, nothing fancy, they drive like maniacs out here – I didn’t want any scratches.’

‘You haven’t changed at all, have you, still bloody meticulous as hell.’

I was reeling a little from how different Andrew was; I kept stealing glances at him, trying to get used to what he looked like, and to the unfamiliar feeling of being the boring one at the party. I hadn’t felt like that since I was at school. I hoped I would be able to keep Matt the Lad in retirement, but it looked like Andrew the Lad was in full employment and possibly recruiting help. Quite a few female eyes slid his way as we walked; it wasn’t his looks, it was his ‘look’. The way he was dressed, the way he carried himself, the way he looked back. I recognised it, as it had been me until a year or so ago. It said ‘notice me’. It said ‘give me a try, I’ll make it worth your while’. It said ‘hello ladies’. It might as well have said ‘get your coat, love, you’ve pulled’. Sighing internally, and realising that Andrew had his journey as much as I had mine, I unlocked the car and got in.

Andrew spent half of the short trip to the hotel checking his reflection in the mirror, wiping off microscopic specks of dirt, turning his head this way and that. I hoped I wasn’t going to have to tell him he was being a dickhead too early in the week.

We got back to the hotel, where we changed into shorts for the beach, and headed out, picking up drinks along the way. As we settled onto the sun loungers, I got a reassuring glimpse of the Andrew Distock I knew of old.

‘I heard this at work the other day: x squared asks x cubed if it believes in God. X cubed says ‘Well I do believe in higher powers’. Ba ding cha.’

‘Don’t tell me David Dibley still works for Eyeti. He was hawking that one around when I first started there.’

‘Really? Bollocks. Never heard it before. I forgot you know some of the old stagers there.’

‘Is Celia still on reception?’

‘Yeah, good old Ceel. Has covered for many a hangover for me.’

‘Always has a paracetamol.’

‘And a disappointed shake of the head. It’s like she’s your mum or something.’

‘How’s it going at Eyeti?’

‘Great, love it. Got you to thank, though, mate. You’re fondly regarded, even now. They’re all sad you don’t keep in touch.’

‘I do Twitter and Facebook.’

‘Not the same, though. You should come up, we could have a reunion.’

The thought of it made my blood run cold. Not that it wouldn’t have been great to see everyone, but imagining going back to Stafford, where part of my life had ended, where all those people knew all that shit, all those lies, about me – I was never going to do it. The place I was born was now dead to me, and I put Andrew off.

‘Yeah, well, needed to leave it all behind when I moved away.’

‘What exactly happened? You never told me the whole story; I know there was a woman, and you got ill.’

Maybe it was time to talk. It was the main reason I’d dragged Andrew all the way out here, after all. I swallowed hard and gave it a shot.

‘Well, the short version is I got dumped on from a great height by the girl of my dreams when she went back to her psychotwat of an ex-boyfriend, I nearly died of pneumonia, she took all my stuff while I was in hospital, and told all our friends I’d slept with her when I knew I had HIV.’

‘Fuck, Matt, you’ve got HIV?’

I rolled my eyes.

‘No. She told everyone I had. A few weeks after she left, I got ill and ended up on a drip. She didn’t even call to see how I was, she just cleared the flat out and told everyone a load of shitcrankery.’

Talking about it wasn’t helping. It was stirring everything up, making me feel all the anger, the hurt, the shame. I didn’t want to talk about Carrie, I realised. It was a long time ago, and the deeper she stayed buried the better.

‘Shit, mate. Sounds like you’re well rid. Is she still in Stafford?’

‘I have no idea. I don’t want to know anything about her. Can we talk about something else?’

‘Sure. Oh, I ran into someone who knows you. Mercy Carter.’

Oh bloody hell. More blasts from the past to bring it all back.

‘Really? I bet she had a lot of nice things to say about me. Where did you meet her?’

‘Club. Only last week, actually. I mentioned I was coming out here, must have said your name, she gave me a funny look and told me you left her on top of a hill when some woman called you. Must have been some woman, Merce is a babe.’

‘She deserved better than she got from me.’

‘Nah, don’t think like that. You take your chances, don’t you.’

‘I used to think so. It feels like it’s all coming home to roost at the moment.’

‘You and Jules?’

‘Yeah.’

Finally. Well, I say finally, Andrew had only just got here, but I’d been waiting for him to come for days, so I could talk to him about this.

‘What happened, then? Another woman?’

‘No, nothing like that.’

‘Was she playing away?’

‘No. It’s … complicated. Or simple, maybe. My mate had a kid, and I realised I want a family too. Every girl’s dream, right? Captain No Commitment suddenly wants a baby. Except Jules doesn’t. Ever. We didn’t stand a chance after that.’

‘Shit. Harsh. I must say I wouldn’t have seen it coming either, you’ve never seemed particularly family oriented.’

‘It surprised me too. I spent a lot of time convincing myself it was something else – I don’t know, cold feet about moving in together, or overload of baby hormones or some such shit.’

‘What, you moved in with her?’

I’d forgotten that Andrew didn’t know, that no one knew apart from my family.

‘Well technically she moved in with me, but yeah. She’d only been there a week when it all went tits up.’

‘God, Matt. Bit of a turn up for the books for you, isn’t it?’

‘I’ve been trying to clean up my act, be a bit more responsible.’

‘Don’t see the point. You’re only young once.’

‘But I think that’s part of it. I don’t feel young any more. I feel like I’ve been fucking about my entire life, disregarding people’s feelings, and now I’ve worked out what I want, but I’ve still hurt someone I care about.’

Andrew’s expression changed briefly, and some kind of sadness clouded his eyes. Then he hid it and offered to go and fetch more beer.

So that was the subject broached. Andrew hadn’t seemed particularly keen on soul-baring, but he had only just arrived, and maybe we would settle into our old routine of addressing issues through kidding around. My phone pinged with a text just as Andrew returned with the drinks, and I opened up yet another picture of Charlie.

‘Day seven in the Summers-Wright household of no sleep. She certainly can yell.’

Dec had sent it to everyone; he’d probably forgotten that texting me in Egypt would cost me almost as much as it cost him, but I didn’t really begrudge him it, and must have had a daft grin on my face, as Andrew remarked on it.

‘What’s got you all soppy?’

I showed him the picture of Charlie.

‘Jeez, you have got it bad, haven’t you. I remember when Rebecca was that tiny, she was a squealing mound of puke and shitty nappies. Not the most enjoyable time.’

‘Have you managed to see Rebecca since you got back?’

The same cloud I’d seen before creased his forehead.

‘No. Karen won’t talk to me. If I went over there, I don’t think she’d let me see her. It’s killing me, it’s not even like I can talk to her or Skype or anything.’

‘She can’t do that, you’ve got a right to see her.’

‘There’s nothing I can do from home. Until she comes back to the UK, I’m stuck.’

‘Do you think she will?’

‘I don’t bloody know. She’s got me by the bloody short and curlies now we’re divorced. I should have thought it through, but I just felt so fucking guilty I gave her everything she wanted. Anyway, not here to dwell on things that can’t be changed. I was chatting to a couple of girls at the bar, they’re going to a club tonight. Up for it?’

Well I wasn’t, not really, but I made an effort for Andrew, as he was obviously very up for it, and had flown to another continent because I had asked him to. After an hour or so more on the beach, we went back to the hotel for dinner, then downed a few more beers before heading out to the club Andrew had heard about.

It was a revelation, watching him go to work in the sea of dancing women, and I had a disorienting sensation of seeing myself through someone else’s eyes. Andrew did things exactly as I had, honed in on the same type of woman, used the same moves. He left me behind fairly swiftly after arriving, and I sat at the bar and watched his progress. A couple of women came up to me and tried to chat, but I rebuffed them as gently as I could. The whole thing was leaving me cold; I couldn’t believe I’d behaved like this only a year or so ago. Most of the women here were at least ten years younger than Andrew and me, and it felt, well, if not wrong, then slightly creepy. Andrew, with his shaved head, looked somewhat ageless, though, and he had no difficulty finding several dance/drink/smooch partners throughout the night. Eventually he came over, young skinny blonde hanging on his arm.

‘Not joining in Matt?’

‘Just watching tonight.’

‘You’re missing out mate. Me and Jody here are heading off, but Jody’s friend Layla … that’s her in the neon pink bikini top… thinks you’re cute.’

‘Oh. Well, thank your friend, Jody, but if you’re going, I’ll go back too.’

‘No, mate, stay, don’t leave on our account.’

‘I’m a bit tired, bed sounds good.’

‘Don’t I know it.’

Jody giggled.

I stumbled back to the hotel on my own, having left Andrew and Jody behind when they got engrossed in snogging against a wall. I’d had a bit more to drink than I’d intended, but I was happily pissed, not out of my skull, and although it was late, or early, depending on your point of view, I was too drunk to sleep just yet. I pulled my phone out and sent Dec a text, my judgement impaired enough that I didn’t think about waking him, Amy or Charlie up.

‘Hope Charlie’s keepin u on yr toes.’

It didn’t take long for a reply to wing its way expensively back.

‘Thanks 4 that. Just got 2 sleep.’

‘Turn yr fone off then.’

‘Will do now. U OK?’

‘Yeh. Bit pissed. Been 2 club w mate. Weird. Feeling my age.’

‘U should b more careful. Clubbing 4 da youth only. Need 2 talk? Awake now. Again.’

And I did. I suddenly missed home, the ease with which I could connect with people who knew me and cared about me. I called Dec’s name up on the screen and pressed.

‘Hey. This must be costing you a fortune.’

‘Yeah. Too pissed to care.’

‘So you’ve been clubbing, then.’

‘If you can call it that. More like standing at the bar drinking overpriced watered down beer watching my mate work the room, feeling slightly nauseated.’

‘Not much fun then.’

‘Something of an eye-opener, actually. I’ve been a dick in the past, and now I can see Andrew’s being a dick, I’m not sure whether I should tell him.’

‘Would you have listened if someone had told you?’

‘Good point. Not sure I want to spend a week trying not to pick up women, though. Andrew’s pretty full on.’

‘Would it hurt? It’s not like you’re …’

There was a pause while Dec tried to find a diplomatic way to say Jules had dumped me and I was now available.

‘Yeah, I know I’m technically single, but I came out here to get my head straight. I don’t think a shagathon is going to achieve that.’

‘Fair enough. How’s it been going, the getting your head straight?’

‘Well I was kind of hoping Andrew would be helping me out, but it hasn’t worked out like that so far. I’m expecting life, the universe and everything conversations with a bloke who’s only interested in the closest pair of decent tits. Oh maybe I do just need to chill. When the fuck did I turn into Mid-life Crisis Angst Man?’

‘About the time you made an important decision about what you wanted from your mid-life? It’s got to be a lot to get your head around, you’re not going to sort yourself out in a few days, are you. Give yourself a fucking break; you’re there for a holiday with your mate. Enjoy yourself, don’t overthink shit, don’t sit there punishing yourself for shit, but if you don’t want to do what he’s doing, then don’t.’

‘I suppose. Is it selfish to just want things to be how I want them?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thanks.’

‘You asked. I didn’t say I think there’s anything wrong with being selfish, especially now. You’ve had a fucking nightmare of a week. Take some time to do all the guilt, all the regrets, get pissed, cry if you want, get it all out of your system. Then you’ll have a clearer head to help you decide what you want to do next.’

‘Where does all this wise shit of yours come from? You don’t fancy jetting out here for a few days do you?’

‘Nope, too busy getting no sleep, wiping baby puke off my shoulder and emptying the nappy bin.’

‘Sounds awesome. Seriously though, you sound like you’re enjoying yourself just a little bit.’

‘I am, mate. Charlie’s the best thing that ever happened to me, to us. She’s bloody amazing. Oh, bit of news for you. We’ve found a house.’

‘Dec, sorry to break it to you, but there are houses bloody everywhere. They’re not exactly camouflaged. I can see one or two out of my hotel window. ‘

‘Ha ha. We’re going to move.’

‘Bloody great news. Buying or renting?’

‘Renting to start with, but I think the landlord might sell. Three bedrooms, big garden, Ames loves the kitchen. Fuck, I sound like a bloody grown-up.’

‘Again, sorry to break it to you, mate, but you’ve got a job and a missis and a kid. You’re so a grown-up. Whereas I have only one out of three, and will remain ungrown-up for quite some time the way things are going. Email me the details, yeah?’

‘OK, will do. Or Ames will, not quite sure how to do it.’

‘Oh bloody hell, Dec, you’re bloody hopeless.’

In the background I heard a shrill cry.

‘Bollocks. I’ve woken her up. I’m going to be in the shit now. Better go, Matt, don’t forget, pity party then head space.’

‘Cheers, mate, I fucking love you, man.’

‘Yeah, you’re pissed, have another think about that in the morning.’

As we disconnected and I lay on my bed watching the ceiling gently spinning, waiting to start feeling tired, I thought about the conversation I’d just had with Dec, and suddenly wanted to be at home. I was missing all the excitement with Charlie, I was missing just being there with everyone who I knew so well, and who cared about me, and I was here with Andrew, who was different from how he used to be, and I didn’t want to spend my week here getting to know him. I wanted it to be like it was before, which was bloody stupid; I wasn’t like I was before, and it was about time I started looking forward rather than backwards. If I was missing home so much, I should just change my flight and go back. Before I made a decision, I fell asleep.

I woke up slowly, the dull thump of a hangover beating a slow, steady rhythm behind my eyes. It was light, and late, and I’d missed breakfast, although I wasn’t sure I could have faced it anyway. I usually drank lots of water before sleeping if I’d been on the beer, but with my late night chat with Dec, I’d forgotten, and I was paying now.

Squinting against the sun coming through the uncovered windows, I turned onto my back and waited for the churning to stop. I was still in last night’s clothes, my mouth felt furry and my tongue thick, and I needed to freshen up. Much as I didn’t want to get up and have a shower, a shower was what I needed.

I hauled myself off the bed, breathing in wafts of body odour and stale beer, and stumbled hesitantly to the bathroom, running my hands through my hair. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and quickly looked away to avoid the gaze of the scruffy, pale eighty year old man who seemed to be looking back at me.

A shower invigorated me somewhat, and after I had dried off and dressed, I checked my phone, wondering if Andrew was up and about, or if he was trying to disentangle himself from Jody. There were no messages, so I sent him one.

‘U up yet?’

While I waited for a reply, I thought about my half-made decision to go home early. And I saw what a selfish bastard it would make me, to ask Andrew out here for a week then piss off home because I was a bit homesick and things weren’t going as I’d hoped. It was only a week, wasn’t it, and I hadn’t seen Andrew for years. If I was truly serious about getting my act together and treating people with more respect, I could sodding well start now. I took a paracetamol, straightened my shoulders and waited for Andrew to text me back.

While I waited, I went in search of breakfast. I had missed it in the hotel, but found a small café that served reasonable coffee and baklava, which was as good a breakfast as any. Dec texted half way through.

‘How’s the head?’

‘Getting better. How’s the baby puke?’

‘None so far today. Result. Talked 2 yr mate?’

‘Not yet. Do not disturb on his door.’

‘Enjoy the peace then. Charlie says hi.’

‘Send Charlie my heartfelt greetings. Can’t wait 2 c her. Missing out.’

‘Will send u pics.’

‘Gr8. Thx.’

Dec immediately sent several photos of Charlie, with and without her parents. They all looked so happy and right together, and I guiltily felt another stab of envy. I’d thrown away everything I had with Jules for this, but who knew if I would ever have it? Was it worth it? Couldn’t I have just this once made a decision that was about someone else and not all about me? Isn’t that what you did for people you loved?

And as I thought it, I realised it. I loved Jules. I had tried so hard not to, I’d played along with her ‘no such thing as love’ spiel, I’d told her I didn’t love her as a joke, as well as in all seriousness, so many times. I’d told myself I was never going there again, after Carrie, determined no one was going to get past my defences. None of it was true. I was well and truly in love with her, and I’d tossed it away because of something I wanted. Maybe I would have made the same decision if I’d realised earlier, I’d never know now, but Jules had deserved to know that, and it was unlikely I was going to get the opportunity to tell her. Even wanting to tell her was the act of a selfish bastard. Shit. Fuck. This was going to seriously do my head in. Just as I was reaching a peak of silently berating myself, my phone pinged. It was a text from Andrew.

‘Sorry. L8 nite. Where r u?’

I texted the name of the cafe, and waited for him to arrive. While I waited, I opened a writing app on my phone, and started a letter to Jules. When I’d seen the psychologist, he’d suggested it as a way of organising my thoughts. I didn’t have to send it, but he said it was a way of putting things away that I was getting stuck on.

Thinking about Adam made me remember I had an appointment with him next week sometime that I needed to cancel. Being on holiday was as good an excuse as any, and I quickly rang him. Being on holiday was also a good excuse not to hang about on the phone to make another appointment, and I told him I’d call when I got back, although I had no intention of doing so.

Andrew turned up just as I was disconnecting from Adam. He seemed to have lost a bit of his bounce, which I put down to a late night and lots of cocktails.

‘Hey. Alright?’

He shrugged and sat down.

‘Hanger? I had a monster this morning.’

‘No, not really. Didn’t have a good night.’

‘Oh? It looked like it was going well from where I was standing.’

‘Yeah, well, turns out Jody was underage.’

‘Shit. Did you find out before, or …’

‘Yeah, before, thank Christ. Something she said rang bells, and I counted back, and she couldn’t possibly be twenty like she said.’

‘Fuck, Andrew, even twenty makes you almost old enough –’

‘Yeah, yeah, spare me the sermon. In a few years that might be Rebecca with some dirty old man drooling all over her. I hope he does the decent thing like I did. Shit, I’ve come down to earth a bit this morning.’

He put his elbows on the table and leaned his face into his palms, then looked up, running a hand over his shiny head.

‘I got an email from Rebecca last night. Karen let her use her allocation to contact me. Christ, Matt, I miss them so much. What am I fucking about with all this shit for?’

‘I thought it was over with you and Karen.’

‘It is, our marriage is, because it was what she wanted. I destroyed it when I slept with someone else. But … oh I don’t know, I’m so fucked up. When we did the religion thing, it really changed her. She was so fired up, so passionate about it all, and that was exciting, it was a shot in the arm for us, and that’s what I got swept up in, but for her it changed from passion to almost obsession, and it changed her. She changed too much, for me. I still love who she was, before, but maybe not who she became, after. God didn’t do us many favours, really, the bastard. She’s still Rebecca’s mother, and I miss Rebecca so much. I’m on the same continent – why did I come here on holiday? I should have flown on a bit further and started pounding on their door, trying to see them. But Karen wouldn’t want to see me, I’ve gone back to my heathen ways. It’s such a fucking mess.’

‘You could still get a flight out, couldn’t you?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so, but I don’t think I should just turn up unannounced. And if I reply to Rebecca’s email, they might not get it for months.’

‘Do they really not have phones or anything?’

‘Well there is one in the main office, and field workers have basic ones for safety.’

‘Couldn’t you get a message to her?’

‘Not reliably. Maybe I should start making some plans, though. If I email back with a date, say in three or four months time, email the main office and ask them to pass it on, then I can get my shit together and get out there, try and sort some of it out.’

‘Sounds like a plan.’

‘Sorry, Matt, I know you wanted me out here to cheer you up, and I’ve just dumped a major downer on you.’

‘Cheer me up? I wanted you out here so we could talk, you bloody goon. Is that what all this party animal shit has been about?’

‘Maybe a bit. I have been going over the top recently, back home. Changed my image, liked the response it got, didn’t know when to stop. Acting like a bloody thirty-something adolescent.’

‘Been there, mate. Catches up with you in the end, one way or another.’

‘I guess so. It’s just been … after the last year, finding a way to feel good about myself has been addictive. I’ve always been a bit of a geek, a bit of a Melvin, but with the stress of breaking up with Karen, I lost weight, and needed to buy new clothes, and – do you remember at Uni, being made over by Cindy?’

I nodded. ‘Hard to forget.’

I chose not to remind Andrew that I’d slept with his girlfriend moments after being made over by her myself.

‘Well I remembered how that felt, what a boost it gave me, and I had another go, and it bloody well worked. I had half the admin team at Eyeti swooning.’

‘Half? There are only three, aren’t there?’

‘Yeah, well, technically, you’ve got me there. But you know what I mean. It’s heady. Especially when you feel a bit past it, and your wife doesn’t want you anymore.’

‘Or especially when you’ve just recovered from a shitty disease and moved to a new city. I know exactly where you’re coming from. Mate, you haven’t done anything wrong. Fuck, who would I be to judge anyway, I’ve been doing the same shit since I moved away from Stafford. But I’ve had enough now, it’s affecting people I care about, and I’m trying not to be such a bastard.’

We continued comparing ageing bastard notes for a long time. Our experiences were so different, but our behaviour so similar, that we helped each other work a lot of it out. We had both been responding to major setbacks; mine were being ill and being dumped, his were leaving his wife and daughter in a country thousands of miles away. We had both needed to feel a) important and b) in control. We had both gone about it in the same way, and had come to the same conclusion, that using people to feel better about yourself wasn’t really a satisfactory method of dealing with your shit.

Andrew decided that he would try to contact Karen while he was here, just in case there was any chance he could fly on before going back to Stafford.

I decided to finish my letter to Jules; I still didn’t know if I was going to send it to her or not, but a lot of it was an apology, and I wanted to give her that at least.

So eventually I got what I wanted, after a bit of a false start. Andrew was different; his experiences over the past few years had changed him, as I suppose mine had changed me. But in the end I felt as at ease with him as I had through school, Uni and beyond, and we spent the next few days either on the beach or wandering around various nearby tourist spots, chilling, chatting, arsing about when the mood took us.

We were watching the sunset, having a couple of beers, when Andrew’s phone rang. He looked at the screen and frowned, but answered.

‘Andrew Distock … oh, hey … yeah … really? … yeah, I could be there tomorrow, I’m in Egypt at the moment … on holiday, with Matt … ha ha, no, nothing like that, we’re a couple of pensioners really … yeah, I’ll get on it now, book a flight, I’ll let you know … no, don’t worry, I’ll hire a car or something … I really want to see her too, I’ve missed you both. Are you sure it’s OK? … great. Thanks, Karen. It means a lot … I know … we’ll talk, yeah? … no, I know, I’m not expecting anything, I just want to see Rebecca … OK. Well, hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow then … yeah, will do … bye.’

He disconnected and looked at me, fear and excitement mingling on his face.

‘Did you get that?’

‘Yeah, you’re deserting me.’

I put on a pout.

‘Too bloody right. You’re a miserable git, I’ve had a rubbish time and I’ll be glad to see the back of you.’

He raised an eyebrow and grinned, to show that what he actually meant was ‘I’m sorry I’m running out on you’.

‘Sod off back to your bloody family, then, you inconsiderate bastard.’

I grinned back to show him I was pleased for him – bloke speak for ‘I’m really glad you’ve sorted your life out a bit, and I’m happy for you but will miss your company’.

So the next morning I drove Andrew to the airport and waved him off to start a new page in his life-story. Then I drove back and kicked my heels at the resort, wondering what to do next. I started another book, but it didn’t grab my attention, and I found my mind wandering as I read and re-read the same few pages. I was thinking about the same few things, going over them, and in the end I decided to ditch the book and just write a list, as if I was going shopping for ingredients for a scrumptious ‘Matt’s Perfect Life’ cake.

My list included: Leave the past and all its shit behind, and stop letting it influence me in the here and now.

Make peace with Jules, if at all possible.

Be the best uncle I can be to the awesome children already in my life.

Be a sensible, mature grown up.

Be nice to my awesome family.

Find the perfect woman.

Have perfect children.

Get real about the last three, Matt, no make that four.

Well, it was a bit of a fantasy list. You have to have something to aim for, don’t you?

And then Dec bombarded me with tons of pictures and video of Charlie, and it made me really homesick. So I changed my flight, managed to wangle a refund on my room, and flew home early.

68. Lean on me

In which help is sought, and a sudden plan is made.

Dec

It seemed like I was having some success with distracting Matt, until his phone rang. He picked it up from the counter and looked at the screen. From the mixture of hope and sorrow on his face, I guessed it was Julia.

He talked to her for a short time, sounding calm and detached but looking more and more upset, at one point finding the cut along his cheekbone with his fingers. Then, just as he asked Julia if she was OK, she hung up on him.

‘Hello? Fuck.’

He looked at me miserably.

}She wants to come and get her stuff, clothes, everything. She hasn’t got her keys, having used them as target practice, so I’ve got to let her in. Shit, we only just moved it all in last weekend, I can’t believe it. Fuck it, I’m going to have to cancel the order for that fucking bed. Here, Dec –

He handed me the mountainous sandwich.

}– I’ve lost my appetite. Oh, and double fuck, I’m going to have to clean the fucking place up before she gets there.

‘Why?’

}Because there’s broken stuff all over the place, it’s a fucking mess.

‘Well, she threw it, I don’t see why you have to go rushing back to clear it all up to make it look tidy. Fuck her, let her see the mess she made. What time is she coming?’

}She said before work, so before nine.

‘Well you won’t have time then, you’re coming with me when I fetch Amy and Charlie, to get your car, so you’ll probably get there when she does. Oh, you’re staying here tonight, by the way, did I not mention?’

}I think you neglected to, but I was hoping. Thanks mate. Your couch is much appreciated. For sleeping purposes, soul-baring purposes and avoiding being the fuck at home on my own purposes. Thanks. Really, Dec, thanks.

He looked at me, I saw his face wobble, and he started to cry again. He looked lost and alone. Matt didn’t really do outward displays of emotion, but I reached towards him and hugged him. He clung on, sobbing hard. I ‘ssh’ed him and ‘it’s OK’ed him for a long time, until he ran out of tears and breath, and it all subsided. He stepped back, putting his hands over his face, breathing heavily. Rubbed his eyes. Looked up, embarrassed.

‘Sorry mate, I’m behaving like a fucking lunatic. Took me by surprise. It just creeps up on me. This morning I was living with her, now I’m not. I’m really going to miss her. Shit, what a fucking mess. I don’t want to feel like this, I can’t fucking handle it.’

He looked like he might start crying again, but walked away, into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Leaned forwards, head in his hands. I sat next to him, waiting. After a while he looked up.

}Know what? I think … maybe I should give your head-shrink bloke a try. Do you think he could help me sort my fucking life out?

‘Yeah, I do, but you’ve got to think it too. No point going just because I tell you to.’

}When have I ever done anything just because you sodding well told me to?

‘OK then.’

I took out my phone and dialled a number.

ɸAdam Palmer.

‘Adam, hi, it’s Declan Summers –’

Matt spluttered into the beer he had just lifted to his mouth.

}Fuck, Dec, I didn’t mean now.

‘– sorry it’s a bit late on a Sunday.’

ɸHello Declan. No problem. What can I do for you?

‘Well, I just wondered if you’d be able to fit in a friend of mine for an appointment?’

ɸOf course, if I can, how soon are you thinking?

‘As soon as possible, really.’

ɸOK, let’s have a look … well it might be a bit short notice, but I’ve had a cancellation. Do you think your friend would be able to come tomorrow?

‘I think he would. He’s actually here, can you talk to him?’

ɸThat sounds like a good idea. What’s his name?

‘Matt. Matthew Scott.’

If Adam recognised his name from our sessions, he didn’t show it.

ɸAlright, put him on.

‘Thanks Adam, much appreciated.’

I handed my phone over. Matt looked very uncomfortable, but reluctantly took the phone, holding it by his fingertips, as if it was hot.

}Hello … yeah … Matt, only my mum calls me Matthew … yeah … well I could … yeah, I’m free then … no, I don’t … no, don’t worry, I’ll ask Dec. He’ll probably bloody tie me up and drive me there himself, he’s so bloody keen … no, no, I – I think I need to … yeah … do I have to bring anything or do anything? … OK. Thanks very much. Yeah. See you tomorrow.

He handed me back the phone.

}I’m not getting much opportunity to change my mind at the moment, am I?

‘Not about to risk giving you the chance to. Honestly, Matt, it’ll be fine. You don’t know him, he doesn’t know you, you can tell him anything, everything, he’ll never tell another soul. It’s liberating. It’ll help. In the meantime, I think we need a diversion. Fancy putting a cot together?’

}Er, what?

‘Well, I’ve been meaning to do it for ages, we bought it weeks ago, it’s flat-pack. I guess with Charlie coming home tomorrow it’s about time I did it. Give me a hand? You’ll save me a bollocking from Amy.’

Matt rolled his eyes, and the hint of a smile caught the corner of his mouth. It seemed my diversion had worked – he could be all holier-than-thou about my lack of organisation, then he could help me with the cot, both of which would take his mind off the fact that he had just made an appointment to see a counsellor.

}You are fucking priceless. Your daughter comes home tomorrow morning, and you haven’t even got her anywhere to sleep yet.

‘Give me a break, she wasn’t due for another few days, I thought I had plenty of time.’

}Where exactly are you going to put this cot when you’ve, or rather we’ve, or more likely I’ve, built it? This isn’t quite Buckingham Palace is it.

‘She’ll have to be in our bedroom. We’ve been looking at houses and stuff, but there just hasn’t been time to get anything sorted.’

Matt looked at me and shook his head, enjoying feeling superior.

}Well we can at least give the poor neglected child a place to sleep. You get the screwdriver, I’ll get the beers. No arguments about sugar and shit, it’s a well known fact that beer helps you read flat-pack instructions.

As he predicted, Matt ended up doing most of the work. I was pretty useless at DIY, and had to hunt for the only screwdriver I possessed before I found it at the back of a drawer. Matt read the instructions and put everything together, while I handed him screws and bits of wood – sometimes they were even the right screws and bits of wood. We got through more beer, finished Matt’s monster sandwich and microwaved some popcorn.

Jay called me.

‘Hey.’

łJust checking on Matty. Is he OK?

‘Getting there. We’re building a cot.’

Matt looked at me.

‘OK, he’s building, I’m watching and supplying refreshments.’

łJust wondering if me or Beth need to be around tomorrow?

‘Can’t hurt, keep in touch. Here, talk to him.’

I handed my phone over.

}Hey … been better … yeah, she called, wants to pick her stuff up tomorrow … yeah, it is a bit … yeah, I’m staying here tonight, on Dec’s bloody uncomfortable sofa … yeah, I’ll be around, I’ll call, or you can call if you want – oh, I’ll have my phone off for an hour or so in the afternoon, so don’t go alerting the fucking coastguard if I don’t answer … I know, I know … I don’t know, I’ll have to see what it’s like being there … thanks, I might. Your sofa is marginally more comfortable anyway, with the added bonus of no day old infants screaming their heads off all night … yeah, thanks … OK, love back to her. Speak tomorrow.

He handed the phone back.

}Don’t think I’m going to be telling Jay about seeing Adam.

‘OK. Understood.’

}Thanks. OK, I think this is just about finished. Would you like to screw in the last screw, just so you can say you helped?

‘Hey, I helped. I supplied you with beer, I microwaved popcorn, I handed you stuff. You couldn’t have done it without me.’

}I would have been finished half an hour ago without you giving me dowels instead of bolts.

‘Fuck off.’

}You fuck off. Your next job is clearing all this shit up, where’s your hoover?

‘Oh bollocks to that, it’s too late.’

}Dec, in case you’ve forgotten, you are bringing your tiny baby home tomorrow. Now, Charlie won’t notice if the place looks like a war zone, but Amy certainly will and to avoid the maritals, I suggest a bit of an effort is made. You need to clean the kitchen up too.

I looked around. The floor was covered in sawdust, cardboard packaging, plastic packets and beer bottles. There was a fair amount of popcorn down there too. Clearing up was the last thing I wanted to start doing right now, but I imagined Amy’s face if she walked in to it tomorrow morning. Went and fetched the hoover.

‘I’m not sure I know how to work it. What do all these brushes and things do? Where’s the switch?’

}Dec, what precisely do you do with yourself all day when you’re not hurling a rugby ball around?

I shrugged, grinning sheepishly.

}I think Amy’s going to have her work cut out getting you to be a new man, you’re worse than Jay – ah, I’ve just realised who your domestic role model was in your formative years. Right, I’ll sort the kitchen, you get rid of all this lot and hoover the floor.

It didn’t take too long to sort everything out. When we had finished, I carried the cot into the bedroom and spent some time trying to find the right spot for it. I was sure Amy would move it tomorrow anyway, but I needed to do it myself to start with. Then I got a couple of blankets out of a cupboard, grabbed Amy’s pillows off the bed, took it all into the living room and put it on the sofa.

‘Hope you’re not too uncomfortable.’

}Cheers, mate. I’ll be fine, won’t sleep much anyway.

‘Well I’m fucking wiped. I haven’t slept, apart from the odd doze in a chair, since yesterday morning. Hope you don’t mind, I’m going to bed. Stay up as long as you want, watch TV, eat stuff, drink stuff, steal the silverware, whatever you want. You know where I am if you need me – just wake me up if you need anything, talk, whatever. I won’t mind. Thanks for helping me with the cot and everything.’

}Least I could do. Thanks for … all this, again. Seriously don’t know where I’d be without you. You’re a good mate. The best.

‘Time you went to bed, mate, you’re getting slushy. Doesn’t suit you.’

}Fuck off, then you bloody nutter.

‘That’s better. See you tomorrow.’

Matt

Dec took me back to their flat, patched me up with some beer, and got me to talk about it. After several attempts, I managed to talk to Jules, but she wouldn’t tell me where she was and hung up on me. I cried. I talked. Jules called me back and said she wanted to fetch her stuff from the flat the next day. She was so cold about it, wouldn’t talk to me about anything except what she needed to do. It’s not like she seemed like a different person, I knew she could do this, turn the Ice Queen on and off, but she hadn’t directed it at me for a long time, and it hurt a lot.

As I talked to Dec and my ability to think slowly returned, I understood what I’d done to Jules. In a way, it was exactly what Carrie had done to me. I’d let Jules think I was someone, that we were the same, wanted the same things. And then, without warning, I’d as good as told her I was someone different, that I was choosing a different life over her, a life she couldn’t understand and assumed I would never want. I hadn’t left Jules for an ex, but I could imagine she felt as betrayed by me right now as I had all those years ago when Carrie tore me to pieces.

It suddenly seemed like my time with Jules had been book-ended by me being a bastard. That first day, in my flat, when I just took her, carelessly, thoughtlessly; that was bastard thing number one. Then I tried to change, wanted to make sure it never happened again, and it didn’t, not in that way, but it didn’t stop bastard thing number two, when if I’d exercised a little self-reflection, I might have been able to prevent Jules from being hurt, or at least as hurt as she had been. Two selfish acts, enclosing nearly a year of whatever you want to call it – love? Togetherness? Even now, after all this time with Lau, I don’t quite know how to categorise what we had. At the time, all I could think about was what I’d done to Jules, how much I’d hurt her and how much I was going to miss her.

Jay called me, ostensibly to give me his standard ‘be strong, stay positive’ advice, then Dec gave me a bed for the night, or rather his lumpy sofa; going home wasn’t an option, I just couldn’t face it, but hadn’t known how to ask. Usually I wouldn’t have had any such scruples, fuck knows I’d had to sleep on their couch enough times when I’d been shit-faced in the past, but given that Dec had been up for nearly two days straight with Amy and Charlie, I had just enough about me to realise that I might be at the very least a bit of an inconvenience. Dec insisted, however, and we spent the rest of the evening putting a cot together and drinking beer. Or rather, I did both of those, and Dec sat on the floor handing me the wrong screws and trying not to fall asleep.

Dec

I grabbed my phone and went into the bedroom, just about awake enough to strip off my clothes and fall into bed. I wanted to text Amy before I fell asleep – I had felt an insistent tug at my heart throughout the evening, as if I was connected to them by invisible string, and I just wanted some contact.

Me: =Hey babe ru still awake?

Amy: =Yeh, Charlie’s having supper.

Me: =Can I call u?

Amy: =Pleeeeease xx.

I pressed ‘call’. From the living room, I heard voices and laughter coming from the TV.

‘Hey gorgeous. I missed you.’

)We missed you too. Although we did have quite a long sleep after you’d gone.

‘That’s great, babe, you must be shattered.’

)So must you. How’s Matt?

‘He’s in a bit of a state. He’s going to stay here tonight, doesn’t want to go home. Julia’s collecting her stuff tomorrow. He’ll find that pretty tough I think, he’s got to let her in. Oh – that’s how he got that cut under his eye, she threw the keys at him.

)Really? She did it on purpose?

‘Not sure. But it sounded like she lost it big time. He’s tried calling her, but she won’t talk to him. He’s pretty cut up, so I tried to take his mind off it. We did some flat-pack therapy, he put the cot together for us and I plied him with drink.’

)Oh, I’m so glad you’ve done the cot, I remembered about that this afternoon. How does it look?

‘Pretty good. Better than if I’d done it. It’s right here next to the bed, waiting for its important occupant. How is she?’

)She’s amazing. The most beautiful baby girl ever. Don’t forget the stroller car seat thingy tomorrow, will you?

‘I’ll try not to. It’s by the door. I’ll be there about half eight, OK?’

)Can’t wait to come home, hon. I love you.

‘I love you too. Will you marry me?’

)You know I will.

‘Just checking … I’m falling asleep here, babe, I’d better go. See you tomorrow.’

)Bye hon. Sleep well.

I ended the call, then opened the video file and watched the clip of Amy and Charlie until my eyes closed and I slept.

Dreaming. I am with Mum and Dad, we are flying above the world. I show them everything I’ve done, everywhere I’ve been, everyone I’ve loved since they’ve been gone. I show them Amy and Charlie. They love it all.

… woke up in the dark, the sound of breathing close to my face. Sat up, felt something brush my face.

‘Fuck!’

}Dec, are you OK? You were making your weird noises, but it sounded like you were crying. I couldn’t tell if you were awake or not.

I leaned over and put the light on. Matt was standing uncertainly by the bed. I touched my face; it was wet.

‘What the fuck are you doing there in the dark?’

}Sorry, mate, I didn’t want to put the light on and wake you up. Are you OK?

I sat up, took a deep breath, ran my hands over my face. Rubbed it away.

‘Yeah, I’m OK. I was having a dream. I was showing Charlie to Mum and Dad.’

Matt sat on the edge of the bed and gave me a sympathetic grimace.

}It must be hard, them not being around, especially today.

‘Yeah, I still miss them, and I still get sad when I think about them. I wish they were here, but if they were, I’d have a different life, so what’s the fucking point in wishing, doesn’t change anything.’

}Do you know what, they’d be so proud of you, and of Charlie. Major achievement.

‘Yeah, she is. My finest to date. Sorry I woke you up.’

}Wasn’t asleep. Fuck, you make some weird noises, don’t know how Amy puts up with it.

‘She used to think it was cute. I think she’s a bit less charmed now. Not much I can do about it really.’

}You don’t still have nightmares do you?

‘Fuck no, at least if I do I don’t remember them. No, that all stopped way back, once everything was sorted. Just keep everyone else awake now. Poor Ames, between me and Charlie she’s going to have zero sleep for, like, ever.’

I ran my hands over my face again.

‘I need to get back to sleep, early start. Sorry, Matt. How are you doing?’

}Just doing lots of thinking. Can’t sleep, stuff going round and round – should’ves, wish I’ds, fuck I’m such an idiots. Not productive. Hope your man can sort me out.

‘Just going to the appointment’s a start. Try to get some sleep, mate.’

}Will do.

He closed the door on his way out. I clicked on a photo of Charlie on my phone, and fell asleep gazing at her.

Deep, dreamless sleep.

Matt

I got little sleep, but it was nothing to do with Dec’s incredibly uncomfortable couch. I’d already called Phil and told him I wouldn’t be in to work the next day, but I had to be up and about early so I could let Jules in to my flat to pick up her stuff, as she’d left her keys in my flat together with a chunk of my face. I wasn’t looking forward to it; she’d asked me not to hang around, but the thought of going back afterwards and seeing space where her things had been filled me with dread.

I was a wreck. I got through the night by watching all the crap they put on TV in the dead of night – repeats of comedy shows, twenty four hour news channels, documentaries with little basis in fact and a lot of basis in hysteria – and going over everything that had happened today, and everything that was going to happen tomorrow.

As well as Jules extricating her life from mine, I had, in a moment of weakness, agreed to see Dec’s psychologist. Not only agreed, but actually made an appointment, for the following afternoon. I couldn’t see a way out of it now, without the combined forces of the Scotts descending on my arse, and so I was worrying about that too.

So, all in all, not a great night. I dozed a bit, and at one point I thought I heard crying coming from Dec’s room. I tapped on his door and went into his room, but he was asleep, obviously having one of his mad sleep moments. As I was about to leave, he woke up, and he was OK, I think he’d been dreaming about his parents. Hardly surprising that day of all days; I don’t think they were ever far from his mind, and I know he felt their absence more now he was a father. I headed back to the sofa and the TV, but by the time Dec stirred in the morning, I hadn’t managed any proper sleep.

Julia

Evie’s friend Julian’s brother was called Henry. He picked me up in his van at eight thirty; I’d told Matt I was going to be there before work, but not that I’d taken the morning off, so he should be expecting me. The door to the lobby had been wedged open, so Henry and I climbed the stairs and I rang the doorbell to the apartment, feeling strange and unreal, not looking forward to seeing Matt again, or to sorting through the things I had there. There was no answer. I rang again, longer. Still no answer. Angry, I pulled my phone out of my bag and called Matt’s number. There was no reply. I didn’t know what to do. Henry had given up a morning of his time to help me, and now we couldn’t even get in. I apologised to him, as my phone started to ring. It was Matt.

‘Sorry, I’m just in the car park. I stayed at Dec’s last night. I’m just coming.’

I tried to dampen my anger, but I was too wound up. By the time he rounded the corner at the top of the stairs and apologetically let us in, throwing a curious glance at Henry, I could hardly speak, and didn’t trust myself not to say or do something I would regret. Matt was true to his word, and once he had opened the door, he disappeared back down the stairs. I had barely been able to glance at him, but my quick inspection told me he looked awful – pale, dishevelled, with red-rimmed eyes. I suspected I didn’t look much better.

Entering the apartment, we were greeted by the aftermath of my rampage the day before. I had almost forgotten breaking all the crockery, and smashing the coffee cup against the wall. The reminder shocked me, and looking at Henry’s face, it shocked him too. I decided not to refer to it, but I was shaken at the state of the place. Matt always kept it neat and tidy, and to see it scattered with broken bits of china and glass felt wrong. It seemed like a metaphor.

I pointed out a couple of things that Henry could carry down to the van, and while he did that, I put all my clothes in the two suitcases I had borrowed from Evie. I emptied my side of the wardrobe, my shelves in the cupboards and my space in the drawers, amazed at how much of myself I had scattered around. The last thing I took was my old t-shirt, the one that I kept under the pillow on the bed, although doing so nearly brought me to my knees. When I had folded it up and put it there yesterday morning, I’d had no idea what the rest of the day would bring, no idea that today I would be coming back to pick everything up and leave for the last time. I sat on the edge of the bed, holding the t-shirt to my face, trying to fight back tears that I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to keep it, I knew I was never going to wear it again, but I put it in the suitcase and shut the top, to deal with later. Henry and I finished loading the van, took my things to the storage unit, and that was that. Done. Finished.

Matt

Dec drove me to the hospital to collect my car, and I drove back home, a bit later than I’d intended. Jules was already there, waiting, angry, and she rang me before I got back to find out where I was, which can’t have improved her mood. I wondered about trying to talk to her, but when I arrived she had a bodyguard with her, some bloke who I didn’t know, and a discussion of any sort was never going to happen.

I sat in my car while they loaded a van, telling myself to drive off so I didn’t have to watch, but unable make myself start the car and leave. Every bag and box they put in the back of the van felt like a physical blow. When they’d finished, they drove away, and it had ended; I sat in my car, but couldn’t bring myself to go back inside. I felt indescribably sad, and my flat already looked like shit, with all the broken stuff everywhere, and now it would be empty of Jules. So I just sat, looking up at the window, as if I expected her to look out and wave at me, or beckon me up. In the end, I called Beth. You can see how desperate I was.

‘Hi Matty. How are you?’

She knew about Jules – I’d talked to Jay the previous night.

‘Been better. Need … um … a bit of a hand with something.’

‘What can I help you with, sweetheart?’

That was the thing about Beth. I gave her a lot of shit; if it had been her asking me, after a lifetime of railing against the offers and the fussing, I wouldn’t have been able to resist some kind of sarky comment. But Beth just gave.

‘I can’t go back.’

There was a short pause while she worked out what I meant. That was the other thing about Beth, she had some kind of intuitive instinct that meant it wasn’t always necessary to go into long explanations. Of course, sometimes she made you go the long way round in the name of expressing yourself, but she was usually several steps ahead of you.

‘Oh Matty, I’ve been thinking about you all morning. Do you want to come over? Stay tonight?’

‘Yeah. Thanks, that’d be great later, but my flat’s a fucking mess. I need to get it cleaned up so I can stop thinking about it.’

And there was the problem. I needed to clean it all up, but I couldn’t go back to clean it all up, and I couldn’t ask someone else to clean it all up for me.

‘Well I think I know the answer to that one. You come and look after Iz, she’s been asking when her favourite uncle is going to come and feed her pizza and chocolate ice cream, and I’ll go and get Rose and we’ll clean up your flat for you.’

‘I can’t ask you to do that.’

I was humbled by her generosity.

‘Of course you can’t, but I’ve offered. You can argue with me if you like, Matty, I know you love a good stand-off when we try to help you, but you wouldn’t have rung me if you didn’t want me to do something for you, would you?’

Well she had me there, and I was mightily relieved, and had nothing left in me that would be able to stand up to an argument.

‘OK.’

‘Come over now, sweetheart. I’ll put the kettle on, I’ve just made a cake. We’ll sort you out.’

‘Thanks.’

‘See you in a minute.’

And thus it was that I spent the first morning of my life without Jules playing dollies with Iz, being dressed as a fairy complete with wings and wand, and eating ice cream until I felt sick. As therapy went, Iz was pretty awesome.

Beth returned just before I had to leave for my appointment with Adam Palmer, Dec’s shrink bloke, and I gratefully realised I hadn’t had time to worry about it. I briefly considered calling it off, but with Dec knowing I was supposed to be going, I decided to suck it up, just one time. No one said I had to go back again, did they? And only Dec knew I was going, I was fairly confident he wouldn’t tell anyone, as long as he thought I’d actually go, so I was pretty safe. Just the once, then.

I pulled up outside the terraced Victorian house, thinking how unlike a psychologist’s – what were they? Offices? Clinics? – place of work it seemed. I had imagined some kind of hospital type building, but this seemed like someone’s house; there was no plaque on the door, or anything to separate it from the other houses in the street. I walked up the path and rang the bell.

There was a short wait, which seemed longer as all of me was poised to run, and I kept repeating to myself ‘don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry’, which was ridiculous as a) if I was going to cry, this was surely the place to do it and b) there were no obvious man points on offer, so blarting was a safe activity.

Then the door opened, revealing a normal looking bloke, about my age, casually dressed. He didn’t look particularly scary, not scary enough to be causing my heart to beat as fast as it was. The urge to run away increased, but I managed to stand my ground.

‘Hi. Matt?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I’m Adam. Come on in.’

Adam showed me into what was obviously his house, which had been adapted to incorporate a small waiting room and a consulting room. I sat in an armchair, not a couch to be seen, and looked at him, waiting to be told what to do. The silence stretched a little uncomfortably, and I wondered if I was supposed to start, but he took a little breath in, and began to speak.

‘So what brings you here, then, Matt?’

I bit back a facetious reply like ‘my four wheel drive and a tank of diesel’. I had, after all, asked Dec to set me up with an appointment. I was going to have to watch my sarcasm levels. I aimed for vague honesty with a large dollop of avoidance.

‘I’m not sure, now. It seemed like a good idea last night.’

‘What was going on for you last night?’

‘I was a blubbering wreck all over Dec’s couch.’

As I said it, my ‘don’t cry’ mantra stopped working, my bottom lip trembled and tears started sliding down my face. No, fuck, no. Well reasoned excuses notwithstanding, I didn’t do crying in front of anyone. Well hardly anyone. Not these days. Not that I’d let anyone know about. If you ignore yesterday, when yeah, Declan Summers had copped a load of it. I grabbed a tissue from the discreetly placed box and rubbed at my eyes.

‘Shit. Sorry.’

I breathed hard and tried to stop myself. This was a bloody nightmare. I nearly got up and walked out there and then.

‘It’s OK. Take your time. Just tell me what you want to. There’s some water here if you need it.’

Adam pointed to a jug and glasses on a table, then sat back in his chair, hands in his lap, ankles crossed. I got my tear ducts and my breathing under control, then glanced at Adam, embarrassed.

‘Sorry. You must think I’m a fucking nutter.’

‘Not at all. Take a moment, tell me more when you’re ready.’

I took a few more deep breaths.

‘Am I supposed to tell you about my childhood now?’

I saw him suppress a smile. Not completely without humour then.

‘Would you find it helpful?’

‘Fuck no, if I start there we’ll still be here at bloody midnight. It’s right now I’m having trouble with.’

‘Let’s start with right now, then. Tell me how you’re feeling right now.’

And I did. I just told him everything, vomited words over him, he hardly had to say anything for about twenty minutes. It was as if it was coming out of me without me thinking about it; my head had been full of all the guilt and grief of the the last twenty-four hours, and now it had found a way to empty it out. I was almost able to sit back and listen to myself talk. It wasn’t particularly coherent; I got the order muddled, I went back and added things, I came out with lots of suppositions and justifications for what had happened, and when I finally ground to a halt, I felt as if some of it had left me. Adam asked a few questions, made some reassuring noises, I got through the rest of the appointment without losing it again. Job done.

I felt like I’d survived an interrogation. Then Adam asked if I wanted to make another appointment, and I said yes before even thinking about it. I didn’t want another bloody appointment, this one had been hard enough, but I couldn’t change my mind without looking like a right tosser, so I got my phone out and dutifully programmed it in, planning to call and cancel before the day came. We stood up, shook hands, and I left, having to stop myself running to my car and speeding away.

Instead, once I had walked to my car, I sat in the driver’s seat, gripped the steering wheel and let out a huge breath. I couldn’t believe Dec had done this for years, seeing Adam every week to start with. Going over everything, even though it had felt a bit cathartic, was not something I was going to be repeating on a weekly basis for the foreseeable. Adam had helped me get my head a bit straighter, maybe, but only a bit. He couldn’t change what I’d done to Jules, though, or the fuck up I’d made of my life so far. No amount of talking was going to change the past. And if I felt like unburdening, I could think of cheaper ways than going to a head-shrink Dec didn’t charge by the hour, and now he had a newborn, he was going to be up at the ridiculous hours I usually kept. Nope, I was definitely going to cancel that appointment.

I drove back to Jay’s, still not wanting to face the flat. I didn’t know how far Beth and Rose had got, but there were bound to be some reminders of the breakages. I’d asked Beth to bring some clothes back with her, and was hoping to stay for a couple of nights on their sofa-bed.

When I lived here, after I moved down from Stafford, I had the room that Cal now occupied, and when Iz was first born she slept in Jay and Beth’s room. Their house was bloody enormous, but it only had three bedrooms, a potential fourth upstairs being Beth’s dressing room, and one downstairs being used for Jay’s office. So it was a sofa-bed in the conservatory for me, at least for tonight, while I tried to sort my head out without telling Beth absolutely bloody everything, which was going to be a challenge.

When I got there, Cal was home from school and I escaped and lost myself in the X-box with him for an hour before dinner. While we ate, Beth filled me in on her exploits at my flat with Rose.

They had cleared away all the broken bits without incident, and had cleaned the carpet and walls, for which I was more grateful than I knew how to express. Beth was worried about the gouges in the walls, and the coffee stain had proved stubborn to remove. She talked about it so matter-of-factly, as if she went and cleared up after smash-fest break-ups every day. She even knew someone who would be able to fill the holes and repaint.

‘He’s my friend Trish’s husband, he does odd jobs here and there. Shall I phone him, sweetheart? Or would you rather do it yourself?’

What I wanted was every trace removed before I went back there, so I could pretend it hadn’t happened, and just get on with life in Matt Scott’s bachelor pad. But that would mean staying here for who knew how long.

‘Won’t that take ages to organise?’

‘Not necessarily. I’ll ring Trish and ask, shall I?’

She did so, but Mike wasn’t going to be able to do anything for a few days. I didn’t want to be here for days, I wouldn’t be able to relax, I’d have Beth on at me the whole time and I might be tempted to murder her, which wouldn’t noticeably improve things.

I needed to get away. I had some leave due from work; I’d hardly had a holiday for the last two years. If I took a few weeks off, then maybe when I got back to work, things would be better there with Jules. I couldn’t imagine going to work right now, how I would even get through an hour there let alone a day, a week?

Lost in my thoughts, I forgot that Beth was waiting for me to decide whether to ask Mike to fill and repaint.

‘Matty?’

‘What? Oh, sorry. Yeah, tell him go for it. I think I’m going to go away for a while.’

‘Really, sweetheart? Oh, that might be just what you need. Where are you going to go?’

‘Not sure. Only just thought about it. Beach. Books. Quiet. That kind of thing.’

‘Sounds lovely. I don’t suppose you want some stowaways?’

‘No thanks. Just me.’

Although another idea had just popped into existence. As soon as dinner was over, I got my phone out and texted Andrew.

‘How busy r u next cpl wks?’

‘Flat out. Y?’

‘Can u wangle time off? Immediate effect?’

‘Maybe. Again, y?’

‘Need 2 get away. Sun, sea, sitting.’

‘Wot no other S words? Boring. U OK?’

‘Been better. Up 4 it?’

‘In theory. Ring u l8r.’

While I was waiting for Andrew to call me, I checked out last minute holidays, and found something in Egypt that would fit the bill. Thinking about going away took my mind off everything, and I Googled flights and accommodation until I had a comprehensive list of comparisons. I didn’t need Andrew to come with me; I didn’t need anyone to come with me, but company would be better.

I’d kept in touch with Andrew since his email. He knew about Jules, although not the latest episode, of course, and we’d said so many times that we should get together soon. I hadn’t wanted to go up to Stafford; that chapter of my life was closed, and things had been pretty full on down here with Jules, and we just hadn’t arranged anything.

The more I thought about going away, the better an idea it seemed. When Andrew called me back, I had a plethora of travel facts to bombard him with, should he prove receptive to the idea of an impromptu pity party in the name of Scott.

I made my bed up in the conservatory and closeted myself away for the evening, pleading tiredness, although I felt I didn’t really need an excuse today for being unsociable. I closed the curtains to shut out family life, and locked the door to prevent incursions of the blonde variety in the form of Iz.

There was a TV in the conservatory, and I had my phone and iPad for entertainment, but I was impatient for Andrew to get back to me, and I couldn’t settle to anything. My mind kept drifting over the last two days, how everything had changed, what I could have said or done differently, what Jules might be doing now. None of it made me feel any better, most of it made me feel more guilty, and all of it drew me pretty close to the edge of the dark pit I used to frequent. This afternoon’s session with Adam notwithstanding, I was lower than I’d been for a long time.

I lay on my back on the sofa-bed, staring at the ceiling while drivel occurred on the TV. I’d thought I’d changed, I’d thought my potential for fucking up people’s lives had reduced, but I obviously still had it in me. When was I ever going to grow up and be responsible? To think things through? Was I always going to be reacting to things, taking what I could get along the way, or was I ever going to think about things, consider consequences?

The trouble was, I couldn’t imagine it. I hated the thought of being a proper grown up with responsibilities and duties, and yet here was the result of it all. Another spectacularly failed relationship, more upheaval and upset, another person I cared about who was no longer part of my life. Although I railed against the restrictions of adulthood, there was no denying that the thought of it sometimes seemed comforting and safe, and if I wanted a family, I needed to be a grown-up. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head – what I wanted, and all the things that would need to change in order for me to even have a chance of any of it happening.

My phone interrupted my contemplations. They weren’t getting me anywhere anyway, and it was Andrew.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Mr Scott. So are you going to let me in on this sudden interest in travel?’

‘Yeah, I just need to get away, could do with some company, wondered if you were up for it. Egypt looks good this time of year.’

‘So I believe. Why the rush?’

‘Jules and I just imploded.’

‘Oh mate. I’m sorry.’

‘Yeah, well.’

‘When were you thinking?’

‘Well, there are some deals on the net, I could go tomorrow, but you said you were flat out.’

Tomorrow? You’re fucking kidding, right?’

‘Not fucking kidding.’

‘Oh mate, I’d love to, but there’s just no way. I could … maybe … do this weekend, possibly, if I do some fast talking.’

I had anticipated this, and had a plan.

‘How about if I go out first, and you come later? I don’t know how long you’ve got, but I’ve got a lot of leave coming, and I could easily do two weeks, maybe more. Come for a week, at the weekend.’

Andrew was silent for a moment, considering.

‘It sounds doable. I haven’t taken any time since I started here, it’s been pretty full on.’

And so, a while later, there we were booked up. I was going to fly out tomorrow evening, and Andrew would join me on the Saturday, then I would stay on for a couple of days after he left. We organised accommodation and flights on the internet while we spoke, and then I called Phil at home to tell him I needed to take some leave starting tomorrow. He wasn’t keen, as my team were in the middle of a couple of tricky projects, but I told him I was either taking leave or going off sick. Phil must have heard from Jules, as he made some comment about business and pleasure and never the twain, but begrudgingly gave me the time off.

Now I needed to organise packing. I still didn’t want to go back to the flat, so I had two choices. Maybe three. I could a) go shopping tomorrow and buy everything I needed, despite having everything I needed in my flat, b) get everything I needed out there, despite having everything I needed in my flat, c) ask Beth to get everything I needed from my flat. Well, I hated shopping, whether it was at home or abroad, and so that left me with just the one option. I checked the time, hoping they would still be up, and steeled myself.

‘Hello Matty, we were just off to bed. Is there anything you need? The kettle’s just boiled, there’s some of that pie in the fridge …’

‘I’m after a favour.’

‘Oh.’ Beth sat up straighter. ‘What do you need sweetheart?’

‘I’m going away tomorrow. I’ve just booked a couple of weeks in Egypt.’

‘Jesus, Matty. Tomorrow?’

‘Yeah. Time I visited the Sphinx. Thing is, I wondered if I could ask … I need a suitcase and clothes and toiletries and shit.’

As usual, it didn’t take long for Beth to catch up.

‘Oh of course, sweetheart. Have you got a list?’

‘Not yet. Working on it.’

‘Hang on, what?’

Jay, however, always took longer. He didn’t really pay attention anyway, and I suppose I didn’t help by being deliberately obtuse in my communication sometimes.

‘Oh James, use your brain. I’ll go and fetch Matty’s things for him tomorrow. You’ll have to let me know where everything is, Matty. What time’s your flight?’

I seemed to have pressed Beth’s organisational buttons, rather than her inquisitive buttons, as she was more focussed on the doing than the asking. Maybe she was being considerate of my fragile state, or maybe she was happy as long as I was asking for her assistance for a change.

‘Nine in the evening.’

‘Oh, there’s plenty of time then. Are you driving to the airport?’

OK, so there were still things I hadn’t thought of, brain having turned to sludge with recent events or some such shit.

‘Er, I suppose so.’

‘Why don’t you get the train, sweetheart? It’s much more relaxing.’

‘No it’s not, it’s a bloody nightmare, lugging all your bags through London. I’ll drive, I’ll go and sort parking now.’

‘James, you could take him.’

‘No, Beth, it’s fine. I’ll drive.’

‘I can’t anyway, Beth, I’ve got Colts training.’

So Beth had to be content with merely packing me a suitcase, finding my passport and waving me off. As I drove away, I felt my heart lifting a bit, glad to be getting away from everything. It didn’t stop it all whirling round inside me, but I knew now that I was going to get some peace to think, some company to mull things over, and some warm weather to combat the dreary January we were having. I had books on my iPad, and I intended doing absolutely nothing besides sitting on the beach reading until Andrew arrived in a few days’ time. I wouldn’t be able to do any of it guilt-free, because all the time I was wondering what Jules was doing, and whether she was ever going to stop hating me.

I couldn’t bear the thought of her hating me; even when we were just managing rival teams and I was being an annoying prick, I don’t think she hated me. Yeah, she didn’t think much of me, that’s true, and we needled each other from time to time, but she didn’t hate me. Now, I wasn’t sure. I had never been hated, to my knowledge, although the contempt some of my so-called friends from Stafford had shown may have come close, and to think that someone I’d been so close to might be feeling so strongly towards me burned me.

67. Going out of my head

In which the truth hurts.

Matt

The outcome was predictable – both the immediate and eventual fall out. I told Jules, eventually, after a few halting attempts. I couldn’t get the words out, not the ones that were going to make it easier for her to take, and she got pissed off with me, so I just blurted it, ‘I want children’, three words that sliced what we had in two.

Jules got upset, as I expected her to, and then she completely lost it, to a degree that scared me. She started throwing things, while I sat and took it all, the volley of words and more solid missiles. I took the abuse, too shocked to do anything else, thinking that I deserved everything. I expected some of the china to hit me, but she wasn’t aiming at me, she was aiming at the wall, the floor, anywhere where things would smash. I flinched at every crash. I flinched when she called me a lying fucking arsehole, and I flinched when she told me she never wanted to see me again.

When Jules grabbed her bag and headed towards the door, I stood up, finally propelled into something beyond passive acceptance. I didn’t want her to leave, not like this. I thought, once she’d had her say, maybe we could talk, decide what to do next, but if she left, that was it, I knew she wouldn’t come back.

I moved towards Jules, but she hurled the keys that were in her hand towards me, and they hit me in the face. I was more shocked by that than by all of the destruction she had just inflicted. I staggered backwards, and while I was regaining my balance and checking my face for blood, she left, slamming the door behind her; I heard her footsteps running down the stairs, and she was gone.

Dec

Arriving at the maternity unit, I parked more carefully this time, and paid at the machine, to avoid another ticket. I raced down the corridor, so eager to see them again. Burst into the room. Amy was in one of the chairs, feeding Charlie, and Diane was in the other chair. Unexpected visitors were going to be one of the many things I was going to have to get used to.

‘Hey babe.’

)Hey you. Have you been running?

‘Yeah, just from the car, couldn’t wait to see you. Hi Diane.’

;Hello Declan. Thank you so much for the email, that little video clip was just beautiful. I’ve sent it on to my sister, I hope you don’t mind.

‘No, course not.’

I knelt down by the chair and kissed Amy, for longer than was decent in front of her Puritanical mother, especially with Amy’s delightful chest exposed for feeding purposes. Charlie was otherwise engaged with the delightful chest and not at all interested in anything I had to offer, so I contented myself with stroking her hair.

‘How’s it been? All showered and rested? You look a bit better, babe, have you had a sleep?’

)I had a bit of a doze. Charlie’s been awake most of the time. Don’t think I’m going to sleep properly again for twenty years or so.

‘You and me both, in it together though. Except for the breastfeeding, obviously.’

;Amy, I think I’ll go now. I’ve had a lovely time with you and Charlie this afternoon. I’ll give you a call tomorrow, if I may.

)Call anytime, Mum. Come and see us anytime. You don’t have to ask.

;Alright, thank you.

She stood up, kissed Amy, and left.

‘Wow, two visits in one day. Had she been here long?’

)About half an hour.

‘Did I scare her off?’

)I don’t think so, hon. Whatever you said to her earlier, it did the trick. Things feel better somehow. Thanks Dec. I know you don’t really get on with her, but I think she’s warming up to you.

‘It was Charlie that did it, I just pointed her in the right direction.’

)Well, thanks for pointing. She said she talked to Dad, told him she was coming and he wasn’t stopping her.

‘Wow. Big step. Is she OK?’

)I think so.

‘Think he’ll be in touch?’

)Who knows. Have to wait and see. What have you been up to? Did you go home?

‘Yeah, had a shower, got changed, picked you up some chocolate buttons, got Charlie some clothes.’

)Oh, what did you bring? The ones we packed were too big, she’s completely swamped.

I handed her the bag, and she rummaged in it, pulling out a babygro.

)Oh, well done you, I’d completely forgotten about this one – it’s perfect. Nico and Lis brought loads of lovely stuff, I opened it after you’d all gone, but it’s all a bit big too. They put that little pair of shoes in though, do you remember, when they Skyped? They just fit, they’re so cute. I’ll show you later. You said you had dinner at Jay’s?

‘Yeah, Beth thought I might be lonely. She was right, it was weird being at home without you both. So we made Sunday dinner, all together like we used to, had a bit of a laugh. Matt turned up as well, he wanted a talk – he’s having a bit of a hard time.’

)Oh no. How come?

‘Well … I can’t say too much, you know how he gets if he finds out you’ve talked about him. But I guess I can say it’s about Julia. Might be all about to go belly up. Have to wait and see.’

)Poor Matt. He doesn’t do himself any favours.

‘No. Hopefully he’ll let me know later how things are.’

)Oh, well done, Charlie, is that all finished? Let’s have a huge burp from you then, lady.

‘It must be about the only time girls are actively encouraged to belch. Want me to do it? Good excuse for a cuddle, it’s been hours.’

)Okay, then, here’s a muslin for your shoulder.

‘A what?’

)It’s to soak up the sick.

‘There’s going to be sick?’

)Not guaranteed, but likely.

‘How much sick can there be, she’s only tiny.’

)You’d be surprised, hon. Still want to do it?

‘Of course, I want to do it all. Charlie, you and I need some stern words, though. No vomming on my shoulder. End of.’

)Here you go then. Ready for Daddy, gorgeous? Oh, what, Dec, what is it?

I had filled up with tears, as it caught me unawares.

‘I’m her Daddy, aren’t I?’

I hadn’t had a daddy of my own for a long time, but now I was someone’s Daddy, it felt like a broken bit of me just got fixed.

)Yes, you are. Her one and only. Oh Dec, you are completely adorable. Come on, hon, get ready to burp.

I quickly wiped my eyes and held Charlie over my shoulder, jiggling, patting and rubbing as I was instructed. Eventually it had the desired effect, and I moved her down into my arms, where she fell asleep, amazing blue eyes moving beneath tiny eyelids as she dreamed huge dreams. Amy moved her chair close to mine, and cuddled up as close as she could.

)There’s something about a tiny baby in the arms of a muscly man, makes me go weak at the knees.

‘I’d better carry on cuddling then.’

)You better had.

Julia

I got into my car and started to drive, but quickly realised that not only could I not really see where I was going, I was not in any fit state to be driving anywhere. I pulled over and abandoned my car in a side street, then started walking. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going, but suddenly, with a lurch of recognition, found myself outside the gates to the church, the one with the hidden outdoor room in the graveyard. I stumbled across the cemetery and found my way into the hideaway, where John and Roberta Chartham were crumbled into dust beneath the cold slabs. I curled up on the stone bench, ignoring its hardness and grime, and sobbed.

How could it all be so right one minute and so wrong the next? I tried to think back – had there been any signs, any at all, that Matt thought differently to how I believed he did? I couldn’t think of a single one. How could someone not know something so fundamental about themselves? All that talk, all the times we’d laughed about the fuss they were all making, the things we’d said to each other, our little club of two: united against babies and children – it made a fool of me.

Eventually my tears subsided, and I lay still on the bench, hearing the muted noises around me of the traffic on the High Street, a few birds chirping, planes overhead, wind rustling leaves. I was numb, but I needed to act. I must have grabbed my bag when I left my car, and I found my phone in it. There were a number of missed calls and texts from Matt, but I ignored them and dialled Evie.

‘Hi Jules.’

‘… Ev …’

I could hardly speak, and my throat closed up as I said her name. She knew instantly something was wrong.

‘What is it? Where are you?’

‘… Matt … he’s … he …’

‘What’s he done? That bastard, are you there? I’ll come over and –’

‘No! I’m not at home.’

‘Where are you then?’

‘It’s difficult to explain.’

‘Tell me Jules. What’s he done?’

‘N … nothing. Not like you think. Oh God Ev, I’ve been such an idiot.’

‘I’m coming to get you. Where are you?’

She was never going to find the hideaway, but I gave her the location of the church, and she said she was coming straight over. I had a little while to compose myself, so I found a tissue and wiped my face, then tried to run my fingers through my hair. It was cold and I didn’t have a jacket with me, but there wasn’t much I could do about that. I made my way to the gate of the cemetery and a few minutes later, Evie’s car pulled up outside. I got in and put my seatbelt on, then I started crying again, before I could say a word to her. She patted my arm, then drove off.

Matt

I stood where I was for a long time, staring at the door as if she was going to come back and help me clear up or something, as if she’d just dropped a plate. My head was spinning with it all, and a drop of blood trickled down my face from where the keys had hit me.

I slowly surveyed the mess: coffee splattered up the wall, gouges in the plaster, broken glass and crockery everywhere. All of it screaming ‘I hate you’ at me. Jules hadn’t said that, but she hadn’t needed to. I thought about her driving away in the state she was in, and tried to call her, but her phone went to voicemail.

I couldn’t stay there, in my newly trashed flat, in my newly trashed state. I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I was worried about Jules, so I picked up my car keys and went out. I think, to start with, I was looking for her, maybe worrying that I’d find her in a pile of twisted metal, but my brain stopped working after a while, and I drove around aimlessly, not paying attention to road signs or traffic lights. How I managed not to crash the car, I don’t know.

I drove to a supermarket and sat staring at the almost empty car park, everything whirling around in my head. Most of it was formless thoughts, splashes of self-loathing, wrenches of regret. I had no plan, and it was dark, and I started to get cold.

Dec

We passed a large part of the rest of the afternoon looking at Charlie, watching everything she did as if no baby had ever fed, burped, opened or shut her eyes or waved a tiny hand before.

I replied to texts and messages from friends and team mates, took a ton more pictures, sent some from my phone to Beth, Lis and Rose, avoiding Matt. Wondered how he was doing, and if he’d plucked up the courage to talk to Julia.

Beth and Rose texted back, gushing about the pictures, asking when they could come for another visit. After consulting with Amy, we agreed to try to stagger them; Amy had found the morning’s gathering a bit overwhelming, and we thought a couple of people at a time might be more manageable, especially as some of Amy’s friends were coming as well.

Julia

I was still crying when I sat down on Evie’s old, comfortable, smelly leather sofa and she pushed a glass of wine into my hand. I looked up at her, trying to wipe my eyes and pull myself together as she sat down and put an arm round my shoulders.

‘It’s alright, Jules, have a good weep, get it out of your system. Then tell me.’

Eventually I sniffed to a halt, and I blew my nose noisily on a tissue. I hadn’t cried for a long time, and it was making me feel sick.

‘It’s alright, I think I can speak now.’

‘Well take your time, my lovely. What’s the bastard done? It’s only five minutes ago you were telling me how perfect he is.’

‘I know. I think … maybe that’s made it worse. He hasn’t done anything, nothing like you might have expected from him. He told me … when I got home, he was waiting to talk to me, he looked awful, like he was ill or something. I thought his MS was back … oh shit … I shouldn’t have …’

‘Jules, slow down, my lovely, deep breaths. You’re not making any sense. Matt’s got MS?’

‘No one knows. I shouldn’t have said anything. You can’t tell anyone.’

‘Who am I going to tell? OK, I’m not sure he deserves any loyalty but I suppose people’s medical information is their own. Is that what he wanted to tell you?’

‘No. I thought he was going to tell me it had come back. But that wasn’t it. He rambled on for a bit, trying to say it, then just came out with it. He wants children.’

‘What?’

‘A family, the whole thing. His friend’s just had a baby, he went to see them this morning, and came back needing parenthood. I just don’t get it. We’ve talked about it so much, laughed about people and their babies, made jokes about his family and their obsession with children and large get-togethers. How can he change so much in so little time?’

‘Oh Jules. It’s a bit of a no-no for you, isn’t it.’

I nodded.

‘I can’t do it. I won’t do it. He knows that. I think he knew it would be the end, he must have just wanted it more than he wants us.’

As I realised this, I started to cry again.

‘Oh Jules. He’s broken your heart. I know you said you don’t love him, but –’

‘I don’t. He doesn’t love me, it’s not how either of us do things.’

‘But honestly, I don’t think you’d be this upset if you didn’t. You’re so practical, you’ve walked away before when things were turning out differently than you wanted, and hardly batted an eyelid. I think he might have slipped in under your radar.’

‘I don’t believe in love.’

Evie smiled to herself, trying to hide it.

‘Oh my lovely, just because you don’t believe in it doesn’t mean it isn’t going to sneak up on you when you’re not looking. You moved in with him. You changed him. You’re breaking your heart over him. He’s not worth it, but I think you need to be honest with yourself about it.’

I stayed silent. I wasn’t going to argue with Evie, who was a lost cause when it came to romance. Love was something invented by people, to give them a reason to do ridiculous things. I really, really liked Matt. In a way he was a best friend, someone I’d thought I was so compatible with.

‘OK then Jules, I can see we’re not going to have this particular discussion, and I think you need more wine rather than more talk.’

She got up and poured a glass as she was talking.

‘You’re staying here tonight, then we can think about what you need to do, when you’re feeling more up to it.’

‘I haven’t got any of my stuff, no clothes, no toothbrush.’

‘Do you want me to go and fetch something?’

I thought about it. I couldn’t bear to think about Evie going to the apartment and confronting Matt. I shook my head.

‘OK, my clothes might be a bit big, but you can just borrow my stuff until we’ve thought about what to do.’

My phone rang again, Matt’s ringtone. I ignored it, and turned the phone to silent, so I wouldn’t have to know every time he tried to call me.

‘Jules, can I just ask you one thing? It’s a tricky one, you don’t have to answer me, but maybe just think about it. Are you absolutely one hundred per cent sure that you couldn’t do what Matt wants and have a family with him? Hold on –’

Evie had seen the look on my face.

‘– I’m only asking because you need to be sure, so you don’t regret it later. I know you know your own mind, more so than anyone else, but just please, be so, so sure before you do anything final.’

I understood what she was saying, but I was sure, I had always been sure, I would always be sure. To me, a baby would completely ruin my life. I knew it with the same certainty that some women knew a baby would make their life complete. If that was what Matt wanted, we were heading in different directions, and regardless of whether we ended it now or limped along for another few months or years trying to ignore it, we would eventually go our separate ways. This resolved itself in my mind with a clarity that was almost painful as I considered Evie’s words.

‘Ev, I understand what you’re saying, but I’m sure. It’s over. It can’t ever work, and it’s better to end it now. It just hurts because I invested so much in it, I got carried away, I was enjoying myself. I don’t know why I let him get to me.’

And so I started to rebuild my icy fortress around me, shoring up my defences to make sure nobody ever got in again and hurt me the way Matt had. Evie noticed the change in me.

‘Oh Jules, don’t go there, let yourself be sad before you lock it all away.’

‘I don’t need to be sad, I need to be sorted. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow, I’ll have to face him, I need to think about what I’m going to do now. I haven’t got anywhere to live for a start.’

‘Stay here as long as you need, my lovely, but Jules, I really don’t think you should go to work. You need some time to get over this, even a day or two just to recover.’

‘No, I need to get back to normal. Thanks, though, I would appreciate your spare room for a few days.’

‘Consider it done. Wine and chat on tap for as long as you need.’

I smiled at her and took a deep, shuddering breath.

‘How about trashy TV, dinner, a bath and an early night?’

‘Thanks, Ev, it sounds perfect.’

She turned her television on, and I sat blankly in front of banality while my head whirred away. I hardly noticed when she put a plate of food in front of me, and didn’t eat much of it.

Matt

I started the car up and drove, out of the city and onto the motorway, putting my foot down and turning the music up, trying to shake myself out of the trance I seemed to be in, but it didn’t work, and I soon realised I wasn’t safe driving at speed on a busy road, so I turned round and headed back. But not home, I couldn’t face being there, and after a while, I was just driving in circles, unable to find somewhere else to go.

Dec

Visiting time finished at eight in the evening, and I was going to have to go home then too, although I would be coming back first thing to take them both home, something I couldn’t wait for – my family all together in our home.

I wasn’t really looking forward to spending the night in our empty flat, but was starting to feel the effects of my all-nighter, and suspected I’d sleep pretty much straight through. The same could not be said for Amy – Charlie had been so good in the morning, passed from person to person without a murmur, but she’d been a bit fretful this afternoon; who knew if it would continue. We were both going to have to get used to snatching sleep when we could and I guiltily anticipated my last peaceful night for some time.

The afternoon and evening wore on in a haze of Charlie. Beth and Rose and Amy’s friends came, cooed, went. Amy ate and fed. We both dozed a bit. I sat and adored both of them when I was awake.

Matt

I don’t remember where I went, but I kept passing the hospital, and a few hours and half a tank of diesel later, I pulled into the car park to the maternity unit. Dec and Amy would be there with Charlie, and they had something I wanted. I just … oh I don’t know. If I’d had a brain cell left I wouldn’t have gone there, not on that day, when they should just be getting on with being happy, but the part of me that had responded to Charlie that morning was the part of me that dragged me in there, no clear thought about it. As soon as I got there, I realised I shouldn’t have gone, but it was too late, Dec had seen the state I was in, and there I was, intruding on their time.

Dec

I was just beginning to think about getting ready to start to prepare to consider saying goodbye for the night, when the door opened. It was Matt. He looked terrible – pale and haggard. His eyes were red and watery, as if he had been crying. He had a cut and a bruise on his cheek.

‘Shit, Matt. What the fuck’s happened? Come in, sit down.’

}No, I don’t want to intrude. I just … fuck it, I’m sorry, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here.

He turned round and walked out, but I ran after him. Grabbed his arm, turned him round, started to walk back towards the room, where I could take care of him.

‘Matt, come back, sit down. You look fucking awful. Shit, you’re shaking.’

Looking dazed, Matt let me lead him back to the room, where Amy was sitting in one of the chairs, holding Charlie. I sat Matt down in the other chair and perched on the edge of the bed, facing him. As he leaned forwards and put his face in his hands, a few sobs escaped from him. He rubbed his face with his hands and looked up.

}Amy, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come. I’ve just been driving round and round, for hours, ended up here. Sorry.

)Whatever’s happened?

}Well I guess Dec’s told you about our heart to heart this afternoon?

)He didn’t tell me much, just said he thought something was up with you and Julia.

Matt looked at me, more tears in his eyes.

}You are the soul of discretion. Did you say anything to Jay or Beth?

‘Not a lot. Think you should tell them, though. They know something’s wrong and they’re worried.’

Matt shook his head, although it was at himself, not at what I had said.

}Don’t deserve you, mate.

‘Stop that now. I take it things didn’t go well with Julia?’

}You could say that. She’s gone, goes without saying really. Called me all the names under the sun, and I know a fair few. Don’t blame her at all, I’d have done the same in her position. Fuck, what a mess. I’m a mess, a complete fuck up.

Amy was looking confused, concerned, upset. She raised her eyebrows at me, put a hand on Matt’s arm.

}Sorry, Amy, you’re probably wondering what the fuck I’m rambling on about, if Dec hasn’t told you anything. I … Jules and me just … when I …

More tears rolled down his face. He looked completely miserable, and couldn’t find the words to explain what had happened.

‘Matt, visiting hours are nearly over. Why don’t you come home with me, tell me about it properly?’

Matt looked up, grateful. He nodded. Wiped his eyes.

}Thanks, Dec. That’d be great. You sure? Is there a bathroom round here? Need to wash my face. Fill Amy in, mate.

I sent him down the corridor to the bathroom. Amy looked at me wide-eyed.

)I’ve never seen him like that. Is he going to be OK?

‘I hope so. He does have his dark times. Hope this doesn’t set him off.’

)I’m really worried about him. What’s happened?

I knew I didn’t have long before Matt got back from the bathroom, so I was going to have to be quick if I was going to give Amy enough information to stop her worrying.

‘OK, headlines. Matt had some kind of light bulb moment seeing Charlie this morning – realised he wants a family. Him and Julia just moved in together, without telling any of us.

)Really? A bit more than sleepovers then.

‘Apparently they were more serious than we thought. But Julia very definitely does not want children, and he’s just told her he does. Didn’t go well by the looks of it.’

)Matt wants children?

‘So he says.’

)Well.

‘I know.’

)What do you think happened to his face? You don’t think Julia did it?

‘I can’t imagine it, but maybe. I’ll try to get him to tell me later.’

)Oh poor Matt. No wonder he’s in bits.

‘Yeah, it’s tough on him. I’ll take him back to our place, get him to eat something, get him to talk. Might get him to stay the night. Oh babe, don’t look so worried. He’ll sort it out.’

My phone rang. I fished it out of my pocket. Jay.

‘Hey.’

łDec, do you know where Matty is? We can’t reach him, he’s not answering his home phone or his mobile.

‘He’s here, with me and Amy.’

Jay breathed out, relieved.

łJesus, we were really worried. Is he OK?

‘Not really, not at the moment.’

łTell me what’s going on. Beth said you wouldn’t tell her anything when she was there.

‘I’ll get him to ring you. He’s coming back to ours in a bit. I’ll get him to ring, I promise.’

łWhy won’t you say? Is it something bad?

‘It’s something that should come from him, not me. You know that, Jay. He’ll go mad if I tell you his shit, he’ll go off on one and then I won’t be able to get him to talk to me about it. I’ll get him to ring you. I’m with him. He’ll be OK. Trust me.’

I hated this feeling of being in the middle of Jay and Matt. A long time ago I’d promised Jay I’d always talk to him, and I’d stuck to that for me – it had become my way of life. But the same wasn’t true of Matt, who hated people knowing things about him that he hadn’t told them, and this wasn’t mine to tell. It created a tension that pulled me from both sides.

łJesus, I’d forgotten what a stubborn fucking bastard you can be.

‘You know I’d tell you if there was something you needed to know, right?’

łOh I suppose so. I’ll just have to wait then. Make sure he rings.

‘I will.’

łAre you sure you’re OK to do this today?

‘It’s fine, no worries.’

As I disconnected, Matt came back into the room. I handed him my car keys.

‘Go and wait in the car, it’s right by the door. You can pick yours up tomorrow, I don’t think you should be driving. I’ll be there in a minute.’

}OK. Thanks. Amy, sorry again to barge in. Can I just have a quick look at Charlie?

)Here, have a cuddle, looks like you need it.

Amy passed Charlie over to Matt. He held my daughter close and looked into her eyes, while I looked at my girlfriend and silently thanked her for being so amazing with my fuck-up of a best friend.

}Hey, beautiful. It’s your old Uncle Matty here. You have no idea how much trouble you’ve caused me so far in your short life. Keep it up, girl, keep me on my toes.

Charlie stretched out a hand, and Matt put his finger inside the curl of her palm. She clasped his finger; he gasped. Eyes filled again.

}You are one seriously hot babe, Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright.

He kissed her forehead, started to hand her back to Amy.

‘Hold on, the old man needs to say goodnight.’

I took Charlie from Matt.

}I’ll be in the car, then. Bye Amy. Sorry.

)Don’t be daft, Matt. See you soon.

He walked from the room as I looked at Amy.

‘Thanks for being so great, I’m sure that’s the last thing you needed.’

)Dec, don’t be silly. He never asks for help. When he does, we have to be there for him.

‘Thanks, babe, you’re amazing. Hey, Charlie, have a good sleep for Mummy, won’t you. She likes breakfasts in beds, so if you could just sort that as well, you’d make her very happy.’

)You silly sod. Give her here, give me a big kiss, and go home. Don’t leave Matt in the car. Come and get me tomorrow. Don’t forget.

I did as I was told, lingering as long as I could over kisses and cuddles. It wasn’t quite as hard to leave this time, but it was close. I blew kisses from the door, then jogged down the corridor to the main entrance and the car. Matt was in the passenger seat, hunched over, looking sad. I got in, started the car and drove us home.

It still felt weird being at home without them. Like everything was on hold, waiting.

I installed Matt on the sofa, opened him a beer and made myself a strong coffee. I hadn’t had any proper sleep since yesterday morning, and I was starting to flag, although luckily there was no training tomorrow, just match reviews, and the individual ones would be first, for players involved in the game. I could go in later for the team review and get up to speed with Saturday’s game, then spend the rest of the day with Amy and Charlie.

Matt sat staring at the floor, holding the bottle of beer but not drinking it. I needed to get him talking, before he clammed up.

‘Do you want to talk about it, or do you want me to leave you alone?’

He looked up.

}Fuck me, Dec, your technique’s changed. I didn’t used to get a choice.

‘I didn’t mean I was going to sod off and leave you to it, you don’t get off that lightly. I meant, I suppose, take your time. Maybe I should have said, do you want to talk about it now or in a bit? That’s your choice.’

}What’s the point in waiting? It’s not going to get any better, is it. I’d rather just ignore it all and go to bed for a few months, but I don’t suppose that would be permitted by all and sundry. Saint bloody Declan fucking Summers would be there nagging me every time I closed my fucking eyes.

‘You said it. You know this shit doesn’t work, Matt. You’re not scaring me off, or pissing me off, or offending me, none of that will work, so just give up and tell me about it.’

}Sorry. Old habits. Shit, I’m such a fucking idiot, how did I get myself in this mess? I should have known it would end up completely fucked up. I should just stay away from people, everything I touch turns to shit.

‘Blah blah everyone’s too good to me, blah blah I don’t deserve it, blah blah why doesn’t everyone do me a favour and leave me to it blah blah blah.’

Matt looked at me, eyes narrowed. This was a well-trodden path between us, and he needed to know that he could count on the familiarity of it all, but I didn’t have the time or the energy to do it the long way. I was going to be asleep before too long, even though Matt could usually go all night.

‘Just saving you some time, you were winding yourself up to it. OK, we both know the routine, you feel sorry for yourself, you talk a load of bollocks, I tell you it’s a load of bollocks, I persuade you you’re actually a good bloke and we all love you. Can we just agree that’s how it was going to go, and skip to the end, where you actually tell me all about it? I’m too tired to fuck about.’

Matt continued to look at me, a slightly stunned look on his face.

}Fair enough. Bloody hell, Dec, what is this, speed counselling?

‘I’m not your counsellor, I’m your mate. You’re having a shit time and I’m trying to help you. Drink your beer, it’ll help you relax and talk to me.’

He took several gulps, possibly shocked into doing what he was told without arguing about it for one of the first times in his life.

}So when you said do you want to talk about it now or in a bit, you really meant now or … now?

‘I guess I did. Sorry I wasn’t more specific.’

}Where do you want me to start?

‘That’s up to you, it’s your shit.’

}Oh, I have some choice left then.

I was trying to make him fight me. If Matt got quiet and maudlin, I’d never get anything out of him. If I kept his attention by mixing things up a bit, and kept him talking, eventually he’d say whatever it was he needed to say.

‘As long as you talk. Tell me what happened with Julia?’

I thought I’d miscalculated for a minute, jumped in too soon. His face closed up, and he was silent for a while. Then he took a deep breath and started talking.

Matt

So I told him the sorry tale, what I could recall with any clarity. Dec listened without speaking, nodding, sipping his water, as I recounted how I’d waited, talked myself in and out of facing Jules, what had happened when she got home and I blurted it all out, how she trashed the place like I’d trashed her life, and how I’d driven around in some kind of fugue state until I’d rocked up to the Summers-Wright birthing suite to spoil their evening. As I talked I felt detached from it all, as if I had to maintain some distance from the content of the words I was saying to avoid the emotion they held, but the enormity of it all eventually forced its way through.

‘I feel like I’m going mad. I keep thinking about it, my head feels like it’s twice its normal size with all the weird shit that’s inside. I’ve really fucked up, haven’t I?

‘Matt, you told her the truth. Really fucking up would have been to carry on pretending, not saying anything. It took a lot of guts to tell her.’

}But she’s right, I’ve lied to her, ruined a year of her life –

‘Whoa, hold, on, what was ruined about it? You’ve both enjoyed being together, it doesn’t sound to me like she was on some search for the guy of her dreams to settle down with. She’s bound to say something like that, she’s hurt and she wants to hurt you back. You could just look at it like, we had a good time, it didn’t work out, it’s time to move on. Maybe the timing wasn’t perfect. And you haven’t really lied to her, you said yourself you’ve only just worked it out. You told her practically straight away.’

}But what’s to stop me from doing it again with someone else? I’ve been a right bastard over the years, haven’t I? Shit, I’ve just done to her what I’ve been terrified of some woman doing to me all this time. I have no clue what’s going on in my head. That shit with Carrie must have fucked with me even more than I thought.

Dec

It was the second time today that Matt had mentioned Carrie, his ex-girlfriend from Stafford who had left him when he got MS, lied to his friends about it and stolen all his possessions. He never talked about her. Ever. It felt like she was spilling into his life; I didn’t know her, had never talked to Matt about her, and didn’t know how to begin helping him with this. But I knew someone who did.

‘You know what, when the past starts interfering with the present, it might be time to get some proper help.’

Matt was silent for a moment, frowning.

}What, you mean Adam type proper help?

‘That’s what I mean. Someone who can help you sort through it all, work out why you keep doing stuff, how to stop yourself. I can’t do it, Jay can’t do it, we can only be here to pick you up afterwards. And we will, as often as you need it. But it won’t stop until you really sort it out.’

Matt shook his head.

}Don’t think I could, all that telling some stranger my deep dark secrets. It’s alright for you, you’re OK now, I can hardly remember what a fucking nutter you were back when I used to call you a fucking nutter and almost mean it.

‘I still see Adam.’

Matt looked up in surprise.

}Really? But you’re so … sorted.

I nodded.

‘Every few months. I need it. Some stuff doesn’t go away, and especially after that time on the beach, I need to make sure I keep myself OK. It really isn’t like you think. You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to, but you end up wanting to. And it’s not all raking up the past. A lot of it, especially now, for me, is about the present and the future.

}I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s for me. I can’t really do all the getting emotional stuff. Crying and shit. I mean, yeah, says the arse who’s been a gibbering wreck all evening, but that’s with you, you’re my mate and my family, you’ve pretty much been there, seen it all, done it all, you know me, you get it. But not someone I don’t know.

‘It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s just talking. Yeah, things can get emotional, but it all stays in the room. Instead of wandering around feeling out of control, worrying you’re going to lose it any second, you find ways to deal with it.’

}I don’t know, Dec. I don’t think so.

‘Up to you. Just a thought. Do you want a sandwich? I’m starving.’

}Wow, way to change the subject, mate. Actually, a sandwich sounds bloody marvellous. I have no clue what the time is, I haven’t eaten since Jay’s.

‘Talking of which, Jay has been trying to call you. I said you’d ring him, let him know what’s going on. They’re really worried about you.’

}Oh shit, I’d better call him before he goes all big brother on me. I turned my phone off.

I went into the kitchen to make some sandwiches, as well as to give Matt a bit of space. I could hear him talking to Jay, explaining briefly what had happened. He left a lot out, but probably said enough to stop Jay and Beth worrying all night. Then I heard him make another call.

Julia

A while later, Evie ran me a bath, handed me a spare towel and pointed out the guest toiletries, then closed the door behind her as she left me to it. Soaking in the hot bubbles, I found myself wondering what Matt was doing, then felt my rising hurt and anger as I imagined a Scott family gathering, Matt holding the new baby, tears of happiness in his eyes. I realised I was being melodramatic, and quickly reined in my thoughts, trying to relax instead. It was nearly impossible; everything I thought about brought me back to Matt, what we’d had, what we suddenly no longer had, things he’d said, things we’d done together, things we’d laughed about, places we’d been to. It all played over in my head and gave me no peace, mocking me. I lay in the bath for as long as I could, trying to collect my thoughts, but eventually I needed to act. I got out, dried myself and dressed, and rejoined Evie in the lounge.

‘Good soak?’

‘Yes thank you. Very cleansing.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Purposeful. I need to do something, I’m just not sure what.’

‘Don’t do anything hasty.’

‘No.’

To try to focus my mind, I took my phone out of my bag, to look up flats for rent on the internet. The screen was silently announcing another call from Matt. I pressed the button. Maybe I could just talk to him and tell him to stop.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey Jules, it’s me.’

Hearing his voice nearly undid all the careful shoring of defences I’d been constructing over the last few hours. I needed to be strong.

‘I don’t want to talk to you.’

‘Yeah, I know, no please wait, just … I just wanted to check you’re OK.’

‘You’ve just turned my life upside down, you don’t really think I’d be OK, do you?’

‘No, I don’t … I was worried about you driving off like that.’

‘You no longer have the right to worry about me.’

‘No, fuck, I know I don’t … where are you?’

‘Or the right to know where I am.’

‘OK, no, fair enough … I’m so sorry, Jules, I –’

‘Just fuck off, Matt.’

I disconnected as he started to apologise, unable to face hearing either an apology or an explanation. If I listened to his voice for too much longer I would remember how it felt when he whispered in my ear, and then I would remember how it felt when he kissed my neck, and then I would remember how it was to be in his arms, to be in his bed, to be in his life, and then I would remember that it was all gone. So I disconnected before that happened and made myself think about what I had to do next.

Dec

He started crying. I went back into the living room, put the sandwiches and another beer on the table.

‘Is she OK?’

Matt nodded, sniffed, wiped his eyes.

}Well, OK as in didn’t crash her car. She told me to fuck off. She wouldn’t tell me where she was, hung up on me. Don’t know what else I expected. Fuck, it’s hard, when you know someone so well, and one day you’re with them and the next you’ve fucked it all up and you’re not. I can’t get my head round it. I can’t just bloody stop caring about her.

‘Give yourself time to sort it all out in your head. It’s been a shit day for you. You need time to get it all straight. It doesn’t hurt to think about stuff, just as long as you keep some perspective and don’t blame yourself for everything. Eat your sandwich, it took me bloody ages to make that.’

}Yeah, I can see how pulling some ham out of a plastic packet and bunging it between two slices of bread would stretch your culinary skills. Haven’t you got any mustard, or pickle, or anything?

I gestured to the kitchen; I had known that a slice of ham in some bread would stimulate Matt’s need to create a sandwich masterpiece.

‘Be my guest. You know I’m useless at all that. I can do ham and bread. Might chuck in a bit of buttery spread if you’re lucky. That’s your lot.’

Matt wandered into the kitchen, taking the sandwiches with him. I heard him opening cupboards, getting things out of the fridge. My phone pinged in my pocket, and I fished it out smiling to myself as I saw it was a text from Amy, with a picture of Charlie looking straight at the camera.

Amy: =Hi Daddy n Unca Matty. I can’t wait 2 come home. I hope the sofa doesn’t smell of Unca Matty’s socks. Love Charlie xx

Me: =Hi Charlie, I’m impressed with yr txt skills. Can’t promise abt the sofa, u know Unca Matty. Look fwd 2 showing u yr home 2moro. I ❤ u n Mummy so much, lovely girl. Daddy xx

I took the phone into the kitchen to show Matt the text. He seemed to have taken every jar and bottle we possessed out of the cupboards and fridge, and was piling their contents precariously between two slices of bread.

‘Holy shit, Matt, are you making a sandwich or a bloody work of art?’

}I think I might have got carried away. You’ve got some good stuff in your cupboards, shame most of it hasn’t seen the light of day for several centuries. All this stuff is months out of date. And it’s all been opened and hardly used.

He gestured to several bottles and jars.

‘Not my province, Amy organises the shopping and the cooking. Yell at her.’

}I think you might be getting a little bit more involved in the domestic arrangements from now on, mate.

‘You could be right. Hey, we’ve had a text.’

I showed Matt the picture.

}Ha ha, bloody cheeky brat, how does Charlie know about my socks?

‘Mate, everyone knows about your socks. Day old babies, creatures a hundred miles under the sea, aliens from planets twenty million light years away. They all know about your socks. They show up on intergalactic hazard warnings.’

}Do you want to eat this sandwich, or would you like it shoved up your arse?

Julia

‘Evie, do you know anyone with a van?’

‘Er … I think Julian’s brother might have a van. What are you thinking?’

‘I want to go and get my things tomorrow, move it all out of there and into the storage unit.’

‘Oh Jules, that’s a big thing, take some time.’

‘No. I want to get it over with, have it all done, finished. Can you call him?’

So Evie called Julian’s brother, who had a van and who was willing to help me move all my things out of Matt’s flat and into storage. He could do it tomorrow morning. I called Phil and told him I needed to take some personal time tomorrow, but should be in by lunchtime. He made some comment about ‘trouble in paradise’ that made me wonder if Matt had already contacted him, but I didn’t want to discuss it, so left it. As I disconnected from Phil, I remembered that I no longer had the keys to the apartment, as I had thrown them at Matt. I was going to have to call him. I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath and called.

‘Jules?’

He sounded hopeful and wary.

‘I want to come and get my things tomorrow morning.’

There was a long silence.

‘Oh, OK.’

‘I’ve arranged for a van to be there before work tomorrow.’

‘Yeah, that’s fine.’

He sounded like he was trying to be distant and indifferent, but it wasn’t really working, as his voice was trembling.

‘I can’t get in, I haven’t got my keys.’

‘No, I remember …’

There was another pause.

‘… I’m not working tomorrow, I can let you in.’

‘I’d rather you weren’t there while I am.’

There was a sigh.

‘No, that’s fine, I won’t hang around.’

‘I’ll leave a cheque for the rent I owe.’

Another sigh, while he tried to decide whether to argue about it or not.

‘OK, if that’s what you want. Jules, are you OK?’

I disconnected. I didn’t want to talk to him about how I was feeling, I didn’t want him to care about me. He had just ripped my life apart and I wanted to hate him. Wanted to, but couldn’t. I finished a glass of wine with Evie, then went to bed where I stared at the darkness all night until it was time to get up.

66. The end of this chapter

In which truths are explored, revealed, accepted and expressed.

Julia

I was half-expecting Matt to be late back from the hospital; Scott family gatherings often consumed people and it was hard to escape. But to my surprise, he was back just after ten, and we headed off to the retail park. He was quiet, and it seemed his weird mood hadn’t been made any better by his visit. He didn’t give me many details about the new baby, for which I was grateful, but said he had held her, and that Nico and Lisa, who I had met via Skype, had turned up unexpectedly and it had all got a bit crowded and noisy, so he had left.

As we wandered around furniture shops, I sensed Matt’s mind wasn’t really on the task at first, but then he seemed to pull himself together and started paying attention, and then, predictably, messing about.

‘So, how big are we going then?’

‘Well the size of yours is alright.’

‘Yeah, mine’s bloody huge.’

‘It could just do with a bit more support.’

‘So – bloody huge, but not hard enough. A disappointing review all in all.’

‘Behave yourself.’

‘Sorry Jules, just trying to inject some light-heartedness into proceedings. Should we try them out do you think? Would they mind if we jumped up and down?’

‘I think they’d prefer us to just lie down.’

‘Well I don’t know if I can be responsible for my actions if I’ve got you lying next to me in a public place.’

‘I’m sure you’ll find a way to restrain yourself. What about this one? It’s oak, I like the headboard and footboard, and the mattress is in the sale.’

‘Has it got a telly that rises up like a submarine from the bottom end?’

‘I don’t believe it has. I don’t think you’re taking this very seriously.’

‘Sorry. You’re right. Let’s lie down then. Don’t blame me if we don’t get up again.’

Matt’s phone pinged with a text, and he got his phone out. He looked at the screen for a few moments, then showed it to me. It was a video of a tired looking Amy holding a very small baby, waving at the camera. Matt looked entranced and was waiting for my reaction. I didn’t know what to say, and just shrugged.

‘All babies look the same to me. I’m sure she’s adorable.’

He put his phone away, and we carried on.

Dec

Charlie was passed around a few more times, handling it all with great patience, but after a while, a nurse came in, raising her eyebrows at the amount of people in the room.

*OK, I think it’s time for everyone to go home, now. Amy and Charlie need some rest and quiet.

>We are just arriving!

łYou should have been here on time, then, Nico. Only yourself to blame.

When everyone started to stand up, I sat in the chair vacated by Nico and Iz.

*You too, Dad.

Suddenly realising this was directed at me, I looked up, startled.

‘What?’

*Mum and baby time now, just for a few hours, let her recuperate a bit.

‘But – I – no! Ames?’

)Actually, Dec, it might be a good idea to go home, get a shower, you could bring me back some chocolate buttons later?

‘But I can get you chocolate buttons from the shop. And I don’t need a bloody shower.’

łJesus, he’s worse than Cal used to be ‘oh but’.

Beth put her hand on my shoulder.

_Dec, sweetheart, I think what Amy’s trying to say, without hurting your feelings, is, maybe she could do with some time on her own where she doesn’t have to worry about how tired you are, whether you’ve had your lunch and how much you might be starting to smell.

Amy looked at Beth gratefully, but I felt like I’d been punched. I had envisaged spending the whole day with my girls.

)Sorry, hon, just a bit of down time, yeah? I need a shower myself, some sleep if I can. Charlie could do with another feed and a nap, she’s had a busy morning. Come back this afternoon, we’re not going anywhere. Can’t walk far with these stitches anyway.

I just sat and looked at them, on the verge of tears. I heard Jay and Beth quietly leave the room, Cal and Iz in their wake. Carol and Rose left too, Rose giving me a pat on the way. Nico squeezed my arm and Lis kissed me on the cheek. I hardly noticed them all go, and carried on looking at Amy. Looking at her properly, instead of through my love filter. She always looked beautiful to me, but she also looked tired, pale, wiped out. I pulled myself together.

‘I’m going to miss you. Fuck, Amy, I can’t believe how much I’m going to miss you both.’

)Take a photo, some video on your phone. You can send it to Mum, and you can look at us till later.

It was better than nothing, so I took my phone out, took pictures of Charlie, pictures of Amy, pictures of Charlie and Amy, video of Amy holding Charlie and waving, video of close-ups of Charlie looking at the camera. I hoped it was enough to last until I came back. I leaned over and held them. Kissed Amy, gave Charlie a gentle kiss on the forehead. Her skin was so soft, it felt like it might melt.

‘Can I just hold her before I go?’

)Oh Dec, of course.

I picked Charlie up and held her close, looking into her eyes.

‘I’ll be back, lovely girl, don’t forget me.’

)Dec, you’re going home for a few hours, not trekking to the Himalayas.

‘It feels like I’m going to be away forever though – a few hours is half her life! You wait till you have to leave her.’

)I’ll see you later, hon. Love you so much.

‘Love you too, babe. Will you marry me?’

)Yes, Dec, as I’ve said the last twenty, fifty, hundred times you’ve asked me, I will marry you.

‘Just checking.’

)Get out of here, before they send security.

I gave Charlie back, stroking her soft cheek and kissing her perfect forehead again.

‘Bye then.’

I backed towards the door, opened it and stepped out. Looked back through the window, almost unable to turn round and walk down the corridor. Blew my family a kiss – with a start followed by a huge grin I realised this was actually my family. Bits of me entwined with bits of Amy to make Charlie. We were tied together forever. It was the first time I’d ever known someone who was part of me, and it felt great. But now I had to leave them, and it felt crappy. I took a deep breath, then turned and ran down the corridor and out the main door before I could change my mind and chain myself to the bed.

Beth was waiting for me by the main entrance. I skidded to a halt, nearly running by her.

‘Sorry, Beth, didn’t see you.’

_Just checking you’re OK, sweetheart. It’s hard the first time, isn’t it?

‘So hard! I feel like I’ve left part of me back there.’

_Well I guess you have, in a way. Dec, it’s totally up to you, but how about coming over for lunch? Nothing special, just if you’d rather not be on your own. We can all do it together, like we used to. Extra helper now, with Iz.

As usual, Beth had seen what I needed before I’d even realised it myself. I was being torn away from my family, so she was offering me some alternative family time. I saw with new eyes what it meant to be called part of a family I hadn’t been born into, and felt doubly loved.

‘Beth, I’d love that. Your roast potatoes would really help. I’ll go home first, though, have the shower that everyone seems to think I need, pick up some stuff to bring in later.’

_Chocolate buttons?

‘Yeah, that kind of vital stuff. You would not believe how important chocolate buttons have been over the last few months. I seriously thought we might cause a global shortage.’

Beth laughed and touched my cheek.

_See you later, then, sweetheart.

She headed over to the car where Jay was waiting, engine going. I waved at them all, then tried to remember where I’d left my car. Eventually found it, parked at a bit of a crazy angle, a parking ticket on the windscreen.

‘Fuck.’

Got in, drove home.

Opening the front door to the flat felt slightly surreal. The last time I had been home, only two of us lived here. Now there were three of us, and everything had changed forever. Nothing had prepared me for how completely different I would feel, less than twenty four hours after leaving here the last time.

I sat on the sofa, pulled my phone out and watched the video of Amy and Charlie over and over. I hunted on my laptop for Diane’s email address, then I sent the photos and video to her, and also texted them to Rose, Beth, Lis and Matt for good measure. I found several packets of chocolate buttons, which I put by the front door to remind me to take them when I left. I went into our bedroom and found some baby clothes. We’d taken some in Amy’s bag when we left, but I just wanted to choose something myself; it made me feel a bit useful. I put the clothes next to the chocolate buttons. I had a shower, changed my clothes, cleaned my teeth, made myself presentable. I didn’t want to stay there any longer on my own, so I picked up the things I’d put aside and headed off to Jay and Beth’s.

It was an old fashioned Scott Sunday lunch, like we used to have when I lived there. We were all in the kitchen, Beth was directing operations, Cal was trying to be grumpy and uncooperative but couldn’t help being diverted by constant teasing from Jay and me. Iz wandered around finding bits of vegetable that had fallen on the floor and handing them to anyone who would take them. Despite the chaos, Beth eventually declared that we were just waiting for everything to finish cooking, and we could all go and sit down for five minutes.

_Unless someone would like to set the table?

łDec’s job.

Jay hurried out in the direction of the living room, closely followed by Cal.

‘Looks like it’s you and me, then, Iz. Help put the knives and forks out, sweetie? Look, here are the forks, can you carry them to the table? Put one on the side of the mat, like this. I’ll do the knives. Do you think we’ll have any pudding?’

/ice cream!

‘Well, there’s always a chance. Shall we put spoons out as well, then, in case there’s ice cream?’

/yes. Mummy have ice cream. Stawby an choccit.

‘Definitely spoons then.’

I turned round to get the spoons, and caught Beth watching us from the doorway. She had a strange smile on her face, and the hint of a tear in her eyes.

‘What?’

_You’re going to be great, that’s all. No, not going to be. Already are.

She turned round and went back into the kitchen.

Matt

We drove to the retail park and wandered around furniture shops, but I couldn’t concentrate on beds, and Jules got annoyed with me for fucking about too much. She was just telling me off for not taking it seriously, which I fully deserved, when I got a text from Dec. He had sent a video clip of Charlie and Amy, and my heart flipped when I saw it, as it brought all those feelings of want right back to the front of my mind. I showed Jules the video, not really knowing what I wanted her to say or do.

I knew she wasn’t into babies – we’d spent enough of the last nine months telling each other how not into babies we both were – so why I was so disappointed when she said, ‘All babies look the same to me. I’m sure she’s adorable.’, I don’t know. I felt like I’d been slapped, though. Charlie had had a profound effect on me, and I wasn’t used to Jules not feeling the same way as me about things.

We decided on a bed, or rather Jules decided and I agreed, having run out of the little enthusiasm I’d had by the time we’d got to the third shop.

Part of my mind was screaming something at me, something I didn’t want to hear, so I shoved it as far away as I could and pretended I wasn’t listening to the voice telling me that if I really wanted a family, if what I’d just become aware of really was what I wanted, I was going to have to face Jules with it. I could feel it bubbling inside me, and when we’d finally ordered the bed, and then Jules had gone off to lunch with her friend Evie, I was on my own, and I had to let it out and do something about it.

What I would usually have done is texted Dec on some pretext and arsed about until he worked out that I needed to talk about something. God forbid I ever actually came out and asked for help. But Dec was inconveniently engaged with the daughter who had caused all this, and I was going to have to rely on the back-up system that was Jay and Beth. I at least had enough insight to recognise that I needed to talk to someone, I just wasn’t relishing it being Beth.

So I got in the car and drove over to my brother’s house, feeling like my head was going to explode. I felt like my whole world had been stood on its end, like everything I thought I knew about myself had been tossed into the air and scattered. I felt anchorless. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted a family, which rather inescapably meant that I wanted children. And Jules didn’t.

I walked up the path to their front door, bracing myself as I rang the bell. Jay pretended to be surprised to see me, but Sunday lunch was always open house, and I often went along uninvited.

‘Matty! What’s this? We weren’t expecting company, I’d better get Beth to put some clothes on.’

‘Ha ha, the day Beth isn’t ready for visitors on a Sunday is the day the world ends. I just fancied a roast dinner. I knew you’d be good for it, you’re so predictable. And Beth always makes too much, I’m saving you wasting it, really.’

‘Good job we’re not having sushi this week then.’

‘That’s the thing about predictability; sushi tends not to be on the menu –’

As I walked into the living room, I saw Dec. I wasn’t sure what he was doing there, I thought he’d still be at the hospital, but I’d never been more relieved to see him.

Julia

Eventually, after I’d got cross with Matt for messing about in the bed shop, we had decided on a bed and a mattress. I got as sensible a decision from Matt as I could, and the whole process was a bit tiring. By the time we got back, I was in two minds as to whether to cancel Evie, but I hadn’t seen her for ages, and I wanted to tell her about moving in with Matt. I knew she wouldn’t tell anyone else, and I was interested in her reaction. She had met Matt a few times, and seemed to quite like him, but I knew she was still reserving judgement based on some of the things she’d heard about him.

Dec

Matt saw me, and a look of surprise and relief flickered across his face. The weird thing he’d had going on that morning was back, if it had ever gone away.

}Dec! Have you deserted them already?

‘No, I got kicked out. Some bad-ass nurse said Amy needed ‘mum and baby time’, whatever that means.’

}Probably means Amy paid them off to get rid of you so she can have Charlie all to herself. They’re bloody devious these women, saying it’s what always happens, they make it up as they go along half the time.

‘I’m beginning to think so. I thought you were doing stuff with Julia today?’

A wild-eyed, wary expression on his face. This was what was causing the weirdness – it was something to do with Julia. Matt was unlikely to talk to me about it while Jay and Beth were around, but he needed to get it out of his system. What he’d been thinking coming here, I didn’t know – he hadn’t known I would be here, and Beth would have noticed his agitation and been too curious for Matt to get away with not saying anything

Matt

I didn’t know how to begin, not here, not with Jay and Beth around. I don’t know why I’d thought I could talk about this with them, there’s no way I could have even started. I hoped I might be able to talk to Dec on my own, but didn’t hold out much hope, not today. Until I got the chance, I was going to have to try to act normally.

‘Just this morning. Free man this afternoon.’

Jay headed off into the kitchen, and I had my chance to at least ask Dec if he had time to talk, if indeed he had a few spare minutes before returning to the bosom of his family.

Dec

Something really wasn’t right. Matt seemed wired, as if he was trying too hard, losing control; I hadn’t seen him like this for a long time. Even Jay had picked up on it, and he raised an eyebrow at me before heading into the kitchen.

‘Well you’ve arrived just in time to avoid all the work, you jammy bastard.’

Matt

‘Good timing is a particular attribute of mine.’

But I didn’t seem to be using it to my advantage right now.

‘Fancy going for a beer after lunch?’

Oh thank fuck, he’d noticed something was up. I don’t know how he did it, but he always knew.

‘Yeah.’

Oh, but he’d be heading off again soon, surely?

‘Unless – when are you going back?’

‘No specific time. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for you to get it off your chest.’

‘Fuck, Dec, you know me too well. Thanks, mate, appreciate it.’

Dec

Matt was quiet through dinner, producing meaningful glances between Jay and Beth.

_Dec, when are you going back to see Amy?

‘A bit later, Matt and I are going for a beer first.’

Relief in their expressions. They knew Matt talked to me without quite as much fuss as if they were trying to crowbar information out of him.

łSounds good, mate. Actually, Beth, how about a trip out? We could go up on the moors, have a bit of a stroll, wrap everyone up.

\oh Dad …

łNo arguing, Cal, it’ll do us good.

Matt

I didn’t say much at dinner, and I could see Jay and Beth looking at each other, in-between the cooing over Charlie. In the end, Dec put Jay out of his misery and told him we were going for a drink. Jay decided a family outing was necessary, which left the house available for soul-baring. I had a fucking awesome family, which I didn’t appreciate often or deeply enough.

Once everyone else had gone, Dec got me a beer and himself a glass of water. I couldn’t let it pass, even though I knew his ‘I’m a professional athlete’ answer.

‘You’re a serious lightweight, Dec. Call yourself a rugby player? You give your sport a bad name.’

‘Ha ha, I have to be careful, it’s all sugar. Might allow myself one later. Maybe even two. Big day.’

‘She is amazing, I got your text.’

Thinking about Jules’ reaction when I showed her the video clip reminded me what I needed to think about, and I felt my face fall.

‘OK, Matt. Let’s do this. Spill.’

I ran my hands through my hair, took a deep breath and looked at Dec wretchedly. I didn’t want to say it, I didn’t want to talk about it, because then I’d have to do something about it, and I kind of knew what that was, but I didn’t want to address it. I looked away. If I wasn’t looking at him it might be easier to say.

‘I’m fucking freaking out.’

‘What, about Charlie?’

What? Maybe he got the wrong idea because I went all silent after I mentioned the video.

‘Fuck, no, mate. No, your text was just … shit, I suppose I should start at the beginning.’

‘It’s a very good place to start.’

Oh he wasn’t seriously quoting The Sound of Music?

‘Yeah, thanks for going all Julie Andrews on me when I’m baring my soul?’

‘Sorry.’

‘Anyway … well, Jules moved in with me last week, and we’ve been –’

Dec

‘Whoa, whoa, hold on, you can’t just slip that in like it’s nothing. Holy shit, Matt. I didn’t know things were that serious with you two.’

No one had known. It was typical of Matt to do something huge like move in with his girlfriend and then act like everyone must have known all along; he did it to try and avoid the inevitable family inquisition that would follow, but never seemed to realise that it just made people more curious about him and what he got up to.

Matt

I’d almost forgotten it was such a big deal. With everything else that had gone on in my head today, I’d managed to lose sight of the fact that Jules and I had this big secret we were keeping from the rest of my family. So now I had to go through all that first. And it wasn’t like it was just the moving in, none of them really knew how much we saw of each other, as I always gave them the brush off when they asked.

‘Yeah, well, that’s just it, I … we … didn’t want this big announcement, family gathering, meal, Beth going all ‘oh it’s so lovely’, Rose icing the wedding cake, Mum being all quietly hopeful, you and Amy rubbing your hands with glee going ‘you’re just like us now’. It’s not like that. I bloody love you all, but sometimes, fucking hell, it’s like you can’t have anything to yourself, it all has to be shared around.’

‘Are we really that bad?’

‘Sometimes. I need my space. Need people to back off.’

‘I know that.’

I’d always had a sneaking respect for Dec’s ability to throw himself into everything that was going on with this bloody family. He’d talk to anyone about anything, I don’t think I ever heard him say ‘none of your business’ or refuse to answer an impertinent question.

‘I don’t know how you do it, everyone knowing everything that’s going on with you. Do you keep anything to yourself?’

‘Not much, I guess, but Matt, I’m coming from a very different place to you. I kept too much to myself for too long, and it nearly destroyed me. It’s all out there now, so if I’m too pigheaded or dumb to see trouble coming, there’s all you lot to tell me. You’ve always had your family, and I’ve slowly added to it, pretty much without asking you. I can really see how it gets too much.’

That wasn’t it. I had never begrudged Dec and his added extras being part of my family. It had always seemed right, like he just belonged with us.

Dec

It sometimes bothered me that, much as I loved this crazy, random family, there were members of it who hadn’t had any choice in the crazy randomness, and might at times have wished that some of the more random bits of it weren’t there.

}Don’t get me wrong, mate, I wouldn’t change it, not any of it, fuck, where would I be without you all? Stuck in some care home, dribbling, most likely. I must sound like an ungrateful bastard. When I was ill, and Jay gave up his job to come and look after me, that was humbling. You realise what you’ve got. That’s part of what I’m freaking out about.

So that was reassuring – Matt wasn’t specifically freaking about the crazy random family having another new addition – but I needed to find out what was at the root of it all.

‘So … Julia moved in, and ..?’

}Well, OK, so we kind of did it all low key, Jules has been staying over more and more, I suppose it’s kind of happened gradually, there wasn’t really a huge ‘let’s do it’ moment, we just realised half her stuff was already there, it had happened and so she gave up her place. She’s not a big one for families, doesn’t always want to join in with everything we do. We agreed no announcements, we thought we might be able to pop it in the conversation sometime –

Matt

Even as I was saying it I realised what a forlorn hope that had been.

‘Er, you do know Beth, the one with the sixth sense, married to your brother, never misses a thing?’

‘Yeah, well, a bit of hope over experience, I suppose. So that’s what we agreed, and I’ve been pretty happy with that, part of me thinking ‘ha ha, I know something you don’t know’, feeling a bit smug. Then you go and have your bloody beautiful baby, and for me, it’s pretty intense. I was blown away, Dec, so much more than with Cal or Iz, even though they’re brilliant too. I don’t know why, but Charlie’s just got to me. I wanted Jules to come with me this morning, be part of it, but she was just like ‘no, it’s your family, I don’t really do babies’, and I was like ‘but it’s Dec’s baby, it’s a huge thing, please come’, but she wouldn’t.’

Dec

So maybe it was more about how Julia was reacting to the crazy randomness. It was certainly true that since Matt had started seeing Julia, he had been around less, had come to less of the meals and get-togethers. Maybe it was because Julia wasn’t keen, not because Matt had got tired of us. We hadn’t got to know her that well, because she often didn’t come with Matt when he visited, and we’d all said it could be because we were a raucous bunch and not everyone’s cup of tea.

‘Well, fair enough, I guess. We are pretty full on when we’re all together. It can be a bit intimidating.’

Matt

And yeah, that was part of it, it was full on when everyone was together, and if you weren’t that type of person, then you felt like you didn’t belong. Jules had told me she didn’t feel like she fitted in, but I didn’t think it bothered her that much; I hadn’t realised until now just how much it bothered me.

‘She’s not intimidated, she’s just … it’s one of the things … I liked her in the first place because she always does what she wants. If she doesn’t want to do something, she doesn’t make excuses, she just says so. You always know where you are with her. It’s not like she’s mean with it or anything, there’s just no bullshit. With all of us, she doesn’t feel part of it, doesn’t really want to, I guess. She’s got her own friends, her family live abroad, we don’t do everything together, don’t expect to. It’s been refreshing, she lets me get on with my stuff and she does hers, it makes doing stuff together more exciting somehow. This has been the first time I’ve really wanted her to do something with me and she’s said no. I told her it was important to me, and she still wouldn’t.’

‘Sounds like she’s being true to herself.’

And I knew that. I knew Jules was never going to change her mind, not for me, not for anyone. It was me who had changed, or at least who had deluded myself about who I was and what I wanted, and expecting her to understand, let alone compromise, was unreasonable.

‘Yeah. I know. But I’m wondering if I’ve made a bloody huge mistake. I’ve been so concerned with having my space and keeping my distance and feeling pleased with myself about you lot not knowing everything … when I was with you this morning, I realised I’d forgotten that as well as being a pain in the arse sometimes, our family is pretty bloody great too, and I want her to share it.’

‘You can’t make her, if it’s not what she wants.’

I knew that, too. I knew Jules never did anything she didn’t want to, especially if you tried to persuade her, but part of me just wanted to grab her, shake her and say ‘Look, this is what we could have’. But it wasn’t going to happen.

‘No, I know, but I think … I think I always thought things might gradually change, especially now we’re living together, and she’d get sucked in. Now, I don’t know if she will, and I’m worried I might start to get sucked out.’

This was all just kind of occurring to me as I was speaking. I hadn’t ever sat down and thought about it, but as I was saying it, I realised how true it was, how much I’d distanced myself from them for Jules, how much staying with her would mean more distance. It was something else to get my head round.

Dec

Matt usually wanted me to ask something specific, the thing that had been on his mind, so he could tell me without seeming to have made the first move. I wasn’t sure what that was yet, but he seemed uncertain, as if he felt he had to choose between Julia and his family. Maybe he did, although it would never be because we had forced the choice on him. If he was thinking about some kind of ‘one or the other’ situation, he probably wanted to be sure of how he felt.

‘Do you love her?’

A long pause. Matt looked everywhere but at me. Finally down at his fingers. This wasn’t the question he wanted me to ask; it had taken him by surprise, and he didn’t know how to answer me.

Matt

It was like Dec to get to the heart of things. I could ramble on, distract myself with a load of waffle and forget what I was trying to sort out, but Dec often cut through my bullshit with a short question. It was probably all his years of counselling. And the truth was, at that moment in time, that I didn’t know if I loved Jules. I hadn’t worked it all out then, everything was too much, and until this morning I hadn’t thought I needed to know if I loved her or not. Now it seemed important.

‘I don’t know. I like her a lot. I love being with her. Fuck if I know, I can’t work out what I feel anymore. I’m so scared of loving someone and it going to shit like it did with Carrie …’

I stopped speaking as all of that welled up in me and threatened to stop me in my tracks. I never talked about Carrie, to anyone, because talking about her made it hurt again, as if it had just happened. Telling Jules about her all those months ago had been hard, and it wasn’t an experience I was about to repeat. Carrie wasn’t the issue here, or at least not directly. I took some ragged breaths.

Dec

He stopped speaking. It was a blunt admission for Matt, and it probably brought up some old hurt. Although it didn’t seem like this was the thing that Matt wanted to talk about it, I decided to explore it a bit more. He wasn’t sure if he loved her, but they’d just moved in together …

‘So you haven’t said it to her?’

Matt

Oh get real, Dec. Everyone says it, all the time, without meaning it. Of course, he didn’t know about Jules’ anti-love thing, or that I said it to her as a joke.

‘Fuck yeah, always saying it, doesn’t everyone? ‘Love you’, text it, whatever. Being sarcastic half the time. Can’t not say it in bed, not the done thing, seems ungrateful somehow.’

As I was saying it, I was imagining what an knob I must look to Dec, and I couldn’t help but think what a git I’d been to Jules, albeit unintentionally.

Dec

‘Shit, Matt. Has she said it?’

Another pause. Matt looked like he couldn’t decide what to tell me. There was more to this than I was ever going to get to the bottom of.

Matt

I knew she hadn’t, would never say it, but I had to be honest about what would have happened if she had.

‘No. I would have run screaming to the hills.’

‘Fucking hell, Matt, you are one emotional fun-ride. Have you ever thought about investing in a therapist?’

‘No need, when I’ve got you. You can pass on the wisdom of your countless lengthy sessions with the lovely Adam.’

Nope, talking to Dec was as much psychoanalysis as I was ever going to get.

‘It is all a bit twisted, isn’t it. And it was all going so well until this morning. You had to fuck it all up by having your bloody bundle of joy.’

I didn’t mean it to sound as whiny as it did, and I saw a brief flicker of hurt cross Dec’s face.

Dec

That did take me by surprise. I’d thought we were somehow talking about Julia and Matt moving in together, and Matt maybe regretting it, but now it seemed like it was about Charlie. I felt a flare of protectiveness towards my not-yet-day-old daughter, who had done nothing to anyone and yet was being blamed somehow for Matt’s emotional fuck-ups.

‘My apologies, shall I send her back?’

Matt

I needed to explain what I meant, so he could see it was my shit I was whining about, not his daughter.

‘Too late. Another can of worms opened. Jules doesn’t want kids. Very adamant. Not the ‘I’ll say I don’t till I’ve trapped some poor bastard then I’ll change my mind’ not wanting, but seriously doesn’t do babies, or kids actually, at all.’

Dec looked puzzled.

‘Really? She’s great with Cal and Iz.’

‘I know, she makes an effort when she’s with them, throws herself into anything she does, that’s another thing I love about her. There’s lots of things I love about her. Anyway, I’ve always thought I was ambivalent about the whole kid thing, not really bothered about it one way or the other, if it happens one day in the far, far, way far future, so be it, but not grown up enough yet to even think about it, let alone come down on one side of the fence or the other.

Dec

I had always assumed that about Matt, too. I couldn’t remember ever specifically talking with him about wanting children, or not wanting them, but Matt’s whole life for the last few years had been about avoiding commitment and responsibility. It had seemed obvious.

}But this morning, seeing you and Amy and Charlie, and holding her, and what you’ve got, your little family, all the love, all the potential, everything you’re going to have and do together … I so fucking want it. I really, really want all that. Fucking hell, it’s knocked me for six, complete revelation. Dec, I don’t know what to do. Jules is never going to change her mind, I’m never going to have any of it with her. I showed her the video you sent, I was being all proud and uncley, and she had a look, and said ‘all babies look the same to me’. She wouldn’t even pretend for a second.

I was struggling to keep up with this new development. It seemed as far from the person Matt was as it was possible to be, but somehow, it felt right. I thought about how much time he had for Cal and Iz, how interested he’d been in Amy’s pregnancy when Julia wasn’t around, the look on his face this morning when he held Charlie, and it all made sense. Maybe Matt hadn’t realised himself, maybe he’d avoided the truth, but now he was going to have to face it, and what it meant for him and Julia, and I was going to have to help him do it.

Matt

This was what I was here for, so I could tell Dec how it was and ask him what to do.

‘Matt, you can’t have it both ways. You’re with her because she’s independent and knows what she wants and doesn’t bullshit. Now you’re feeling differently about some stuff, you can’t be annoyed with her because she speaks her mind. You need to talk to her, tell her what you’re feeling.’

But I didn’t want him to say that. I didn’t want him to say I had to talk to her, tell her what I was feeling. I already knew that, and I wanted him to say something different.

‘I just bloody knew you were going to say that. What the fuck do I say? “Sorry, Jules, I’ve made a terrible mistake, I know you’ve just given up your flat and moved in with me but you’re probably going to want to piss off again now, I’ve decided I want a baby”?’

I suppose that’s what I was going to have to say, in the end, albeit a little more sensitively.

‘You’re sure it’s what you want, not just some emotional reaction? Babies do funny things, make tough men go all soppy, all that shit.’

Yeah, I’d tried to convince myself of that as well, but no. This was something that came from deep within me.

‘I think … if I’m totally, brutally honest with myself, which, yeah, I know, I’m not very often, it’s always been something I wanted. But it wasn’t available, and it scared the shit out of me to think about, there’s all the commitment bollocks that goes with it, so I just arsed about to cover it up, and ended up convincing myself it didn’t matter to me one way or the other.’

Ah, the commitment bollocks. I said this wasn’t about Carrie, but it was, really, wasn’t it. Maybe if I’d been less … or more … oh shit, I really couldn’t think about it.

Dec

So he was being honest with himself, which was unusual for Matt. Now he needed to face up to the consequences.

‘Do you want her to move out?’

Matt

The thought of it made me go cold. Jules had only been living with me a week, but it was my life now, and thinking of doing any of it without her was untenable.

‘Fuck no. I like her being there. She makes me laugh, she’s good for me, she’s very caring, we talked about what would happen if I get ill again, she’s not fazed by any of that. We like doing the same things, we give each other space, we kind of get each other. She’s fucking hot too, and we’re bloody good together. But this just feels like a huge thing. Too fucking huge. I don’t know if it can work.’

‘OK, I know it’s not what you want me to say, but you need to talk to her. If it’s too huge, it’s better that you both know now, rather than get months or years down the line and end up hating each other and bitter because she didn’t know that was how you felt. Or, even worse, if she got pregnant. It happened to us, and it was what we both wanted. If that happens, and you want it and she doesn’t, that could be really messy, you’re both going to end up getting really hurt. Tell her, Matt. If she’s a straight talker, she’ll appreciate it in you too.’

I’d hoped that he would find another way, something that would mean I didn’t have to tell her. But there was no other way, I’d known that all along really.

Dec

Matt was just about the furthest thing from a straight talker it was possible to be. He loved talking, using words to win arguments, to baffle people, to show off, and he often took the long way round instead of getting to the point. It felt like he was going to need to try a different route if he stood a chance of making anything work with Julia.

}Oh just stop making so much sense. I’m regretting telling you now.

‘No you’re not, it’s why you wanted to talk to me. You know what you’ve got to do, you just wanted someone to confirm it.’

Matt

‘Adam speak?’

It sounded like the sort of thing a shrink might say. It was also the truth.

‘Dec speak. Maybe a hint of Adam. Seriously, mate, talking to me is all very well; who knows, it might help you sort things out in your head, but nothing will change unless you talk to Julia.’

‘OK, I’m getting the point. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I really thought I was going to able to avoid deep and meaningfuls with Jules. Never thought I’d be the cause of one.’

I couldn’t remember having many myself, and most of them had been over in a matter of minutes. That was unlikely to be the case this time.

‘Do it soon.’

‘Yeah. I know. Shit, we just bought this fucking expensive bed. That’s what we were doing this morning. I should have put it off, I had all these nagging thoughts, just ignored them.’

‘Matt, talking to her doesn’t have to mean it’s over, maybe you can work something out.’

Yeah Dec, like what?

‘Did you ever have a deep and meaningful that ended well?’

‘Well, a few with Amy, yeah. Massive one with Jay years ago. I’ve actually found that things tend to end better if you talk about them rather keeping quiet. But that’s just me.’

‘Well … maybe there’s some hope for me then. I guess I’ll just have to give it a go.’

Maybe Jules wouldn’t react like I thought she would, like I’d betrayed her. Maybe she’d think of a way this could work. Maybe. I sighed, put my face in my hands, took a deep breath. I knew I had to do it soon, before I lost my courage.

‘I suppose I shouldn’t delay it.’

Another deep breath, while I waited in the hope that Dec would come up with a reason why I didn’t have to do it straight away, but he didn’t, the bastard.

‘OK then, best go off and do the deed. Fuck, Dec, sorry, didn’t mean to piss on your day.’

‘No worries, not feeling pissed on at all. Let me know how it goes, yeah?’

‘Yeah. Wish me luck.’

Although I was going to need more than the mythical gods of fate to help me now.

‘Luck, mate’

I stood up and walked out, got in my car and drove away.

Dec

I felt bad for Matt, and wished him well. I would give him a call later and see how it went, but for now I had a new family to think about. I got my phone out so I could talk to Amy.

)Hey, when are you coming back?

‘When am I allowed?’

)Oh, Dec, it’s not like that. Come back now, please, hon. We miss you. Where are you?

‘At Jay’s. I had dinner here, then had a chat with Matt. They’ve all gone out.’

)Sounds like you could do with some female company. I know just the girl. She’s petite, blue eyes, dark hair, no teeth, hell of a pair of lungs on her –

‘Sounds perfect, I’ll be right there. I like a woman with no teeth. Even better if she’s wearing a nappy.’

)Then it’s your lucky day.

‘Ha ha, see you soon babe.’

I hung up and texted Jay to let him know I was locking up.

Jay: =How’s Matty?

Me: =So-so b on standby.

Jay: =What’s happened?

Me: =I’ll let him tell u.

Jay: =Very informative, thanks.

Matt

I went over and over it in my mind while I drove back home, thinking so hard that I wasn’t concentrating on driving, and ran a red light. I thought of several different ways to say it, all of which ended badly, and by the time I reached the flat I was so nervous my legs shook all the way up the stairs.

When I got in, though, Jules wasn’t there. She must still be with Evie. All of my pent up nervous energy needed somewhere to go, to do something, but there was nothing to do but wait. I thought about texting, but didn’t know what to say, so I waited, tying myself up in more mental knots.

I rehearsed all the ways I could think of to start it all off, what I would say to begin. It wasn’t going to be pretty, however I did it, but at least if I started out right, I could hope Jules might listen to the rest of it. Then I started to talk myself out of saying anything. Maybe I was just having a late crisis about moving in together. It was huge for me, well for both of us, and we’d done it pretty quickly; perhaps it was a delayed backlash, subconsciously looking for a way out.

I’d sorted it all out in my head, that it was just cold feet, and then I thought of Dec’s face when I told him I hadn’t said anything, and how feeble my excuses would sound. And that’s all they were; excuses.

Julia

Evie and I spent the afternoon talking, laughing and catching up. I told her about Matt, and she hugged me and congratulated me, and I could see from the look in her eyes that although she was pleased I was happy, she was holding back some concern.

‘So you’ve finally done it then, Jules. I never thought I’d see you living with someone.’

‘I know, but it’s been surprisingly easy. There wasn’t this big build up when I was worrying about if he was going to ask me, it was suddenly just out there, and I did lose it a bit on the day we decided, but then I just realised it was right, and it had happened anyway. We’ve been getting on very well, no arguments, we both like things the same way, really.’

‘Hmm. You’re just perfect for each other.’

‘Don’t be like that. I think we are. I never thought I’d hear myself say that, I used to think he was a complete tool, but I really think he’s changed. I mean, yes, he’s completely sex mad, but only with me, and that’s fine. Better than fine.’

‘Jules, you’re so loved up. He could poke bloody needles in your eyes and you’d say it was because you like the same things.’

‘I’m not loved up. You know I don’t do love, and he doesn’t either. That’s what’s so great, we both know where we stand, there’s not this big romantic thing that’s not real. It’s all completely real. It just makes sense.’

‘OK, my lovely whatever you say. Good for you. It sounds like it’s what you want.’

‘It is, we both want the same things, or don’t want them to be more accurate. He’s got this huge family, lots of children and babies, but he doesn’t want to do all that, so he’s perfect for me.’

Evie nodded, but didn’t say anything.

‘So, anyway, I’ve bent your ear enough. Tell me about your boss.’

By the time Evie had finished pouring her heart out about her job, it was late afternoon and I was really tired. I loved spending time with my best friend, but I’d been woken up early after little sleep, then we’d shopped for the bed, and Evie’s off-loading had finished up the little energy reserves I had. Resisting her asking me to stay for tea, I drove home. Matt’s car was in his parking space, and I wondered if he was as tired as me. Maybe we could curl up in bed together for a sleep, or have an early night.

Matt

When I heard Jules’ key in the door, I knew it wasn’t cold feet. I knew I had to tell her, and I had to do it now. I felt the blood drain from my face, leaving me feeling sick and lightheaded.

Julia

I knew something was wrong the minute I walked in the door. Matt was sitting on the sofa with his head in his hands, and for a brief second I was reminded of that first day, when I woke up on his sofa after we’d had sex. Then I shook the thought from my head, but other concerns were lining up to make their own suggestions. He looked up and gave me a thin smile as I closed the door behind me, but he looked washed out, tired and emotional.

‘Hey you.’

‘Hello. Are you alright? You don’t look very well.’

‘Can we talk?’

‘I’m really tired, Matt, can it wait?’

I knew that waiting never helped a situation, but I really didn’t feel I could hold my own in a serious conversation just at the moment. I didn’t know what was going on with Matt, if he was having a delayed reaction to me moving in, or something else, maybe he was experiencing symptoms of MS again, but whatever it was, it looked bigger than I felt able to cope with right at that moment.

‘I don’t think it can, Jules. It’s important. There’s something I need to say.’

I sighed and sat down, my visions of a cosy nap together disappearing, and my stomach contracting with apprehension.

‘Alright then.’

Matt looked at the floor and fiddled with his fingers.

‘Holy fuck, this is hard.’

As I waited, my heart started to beat faster, and my head started to buzz with the anticipation of what he was going to say.

‘OK. I know we’ve talked about stuff and … we’ve got similar … we kind of think the same about a lot of shit and maybe I’ve … oh bollocks I had it all straight in my head. Let me start again. This morning, Dec’s baby, it’s kind of … no, I need to just …’

I couldn’t make any sense of it, and my patience ran out.

‘Matt, please can you just say whatever it is you want to say? I haven’t got the energy to sort through all this.’

‘Sorry. Sorry, Jules. OK. OK. Here’s the thing. I hope I haven’t misled you … I really have only just … shit, this is so hard.’

‘Matt, please, you’re worrying me. Please just say whatever it is.’

‘I want children.’

My heart nearly stopped. My blood nearly froze. It was the one thing, the one thing that was insurmountable, non-negotiable. Anything else – serious illness, a gambling addiction, a need to paint the flat black and recite poetry all day – anything else, I could have coped with it, dealt with it, discussed it and come to terms with. Children were not part of that deal, wanting children was a deal-breaker, and Matt knew that. I hoped I’d misheard him, or misunderstood him.

‘What?’

‘I’m sorry. I was trying to say it better than that, I didn’t mean to just blurt it.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m so sorry, Jules, I didn’t know. I honestly didn’t know, until this morning, it started when Dec rang, I just felt weird, kind of jealous, and then I went to see them, and Charlie, she’s so … small and … I didn’t know but … as soon as I saw her, saw them with her, it just kind of clicked, I realised that’s what I want.’

My heart still stuttered, my blood still chilled. He was still talking, and it wasn’t getting any better. Oh God oh God oh God, he really meant it. He wanted children, out of the blue, when yesterday he did not.

‘How can you not have known?’

‘I don’t know. I’m pretty good at avoiding stuff. But I swear, all those conversations we’ve had, I meant it, I thought I fucking meant it. I haven’t lied to you, it wasn’t until today that I knew.’

‘So … what are you expecting from me? Are you expecting me to have your children?’

‘No … I know how you feel about it. I just wanted to be honest with you about how I’m feeling.’

I could feel myself losing my grip on my temper, on all my emotions, as everything I thought was in my power began to slip away from me. I could feel my life spinning out of my control, falling out of my hands. My heart started again with a lurch, in fact now I could feel my heartbeat getting faster, and my cheeks flush as my voice rose.

‘Well it’s a pity you didn’t feel the need to be honest before I uprooted my whole life and moved in here with you, isn’t it. I’ve made a commitment to you, the biggest commitment I’ve ever made to anyone, and it’s all based on fucking lies and pretence.’

‘Jules …’

‘I’ve just wasted the best part of a year of my life on you, thinking you were someone you’re not.’

‘Jules, please believe me, I’ve only just worked it all out. I wasn’t deceiving you. If you’d have asked me yesterday, do I want kids, I’d have said no, or at least said fuck knows. I know I have no right to say this, but … is there any way we can work this out? I don’t want to lose you.’

The effrontery of it galvanised me. He had just told me the one thing that was going to split us up, and now he wanted to know how to make it better.

‘How exactly do you think we’re going to work it out, Matt? You want kids, I don’t. One of us is going to be very fucking disappointed. Well it’s not going to be me.’

I felt my anger rising up in me like a flood. I stood up, unable to contain myself, needing to do something significant. There was a coffee cup by the sofa; I picked it up and hurled it at the wall, where it smashed satisfyingly, splattering brown droplets across the Farrow and Ball Shaded White paintwork, and dribbling down towards the floor. Smashing things felt good, and I looked for more things to break.

In the meantime, I hurled more words at Matt. I can’t even remember exactly what I said, but they were vile, horrible words because I felt vile and horrible, because the way he’d betrayed me was vile and horrible. At that moment, I hated him; he had been perfect for me and he had just taken that away.

Matt sat looking at me as I screamed at him, his sad expression making me more and more angry. I found the plates, and threw them on the floor and at the wall as I hurled vitriolic insults him. I found the wine glasses we’d chosen together and smashed them one by one on the kitchen worktop as I screamed my pain at him.

I wanted to hurt him; I nearly threw things at him, but I stopped myself and threw them so near him that he flinched as they shattered near his head. He was a lying fucking arsehole, and I told him so, and finally I told him I never wanted to see him again. Then, before I really did him an injury, I left.

Just before I did, I took the keys to the flat out of my bag and turned round. Matt had got to his feet and was heading towards me. I didn’t want him to touch me, or be anywhere near me, so I launched the keys at him as hard as I could. They hit him in the face, and he stumbled backwards as I turned and went through the door, slamming it behind me and running down the stairs as fast as I could, blinded by the tears I could at last allow myself to release.

65. Isn’t she lovely

In which a new arrival brings a shock revelation.

Dec

I woke up in the chair, neck stiff, the usual post-sleep disorientation swirling round my head. There was a snuffle from beside the bed. I came to with sudden realisation. Looked over. There she was. Small. Perfect. Eyes open, looking up. My beautiful baby.

‘Hey, lovely girl.’

I picked her up in her blanket. She hardly seemed to weigh anything in my arms. I carried her over to the window, where I could see the moon shining brightly among the night clouds, and I looked down at her tiny face, her perfect mouth, her big blue eyes, just like her mum’s. If she wanted the stars, I’d fetch them for her. A miniature hand escaped from the blanket and stretched out. I put my finger in her palm, and she closed her fist around it, squeezing my heart at the same time.

‘Clever girl!’

I kissed her tiny forehead. She made more snuffling noises and continued to look into my eyes. I could hardly blink, I didn’t want to miss a second of her. My amazing daughter, moonlight on her cheeks.

‘Look, the moon’s shining for you. There’s a man in the moon, can you see his face? He’s happy to see you. I’m so happy to see you too, lovely girl.’

She let go of my finger, shut her eyes, opened her mouth to reveal a tiny tongue and lots of gums. Started to yell her indignation at the top of her voice.

‘Shh, sweetie, you’ll wake Mummy … oh, too late.’

Amy had stirred in the bed, turned over and opened her eyes.

)Oh, she’s real. I thought I might have dreamed her.

‘Hey, babe. I did ask her to keep it down, but she’s feeling a bit grumpy.’

)Let’s have a go at feeding her then, seemed to work last time.

I walked over to the bed and passed her to Amy. The yelling stopped, as she snuffled about, sensing imminent food, and Amy lifted her top up, showing her where to go. Feeding commenced. Amy looked up at me, eyes shining. I sat on the edge of the bed, stroking Amy’s hair, watching the pair of them. My family – it took my breath away.

)What time is it?

‘Fuck knows, I hardly know what day it is. Let’s have a look.’

I checked my phone.

‘Gone five.’

)That’s pretty reasonable. I think I must have got about an hour.

‘You must be shattered, babe. That was a long haul.’

Amy had started having contractions the previous morning. I’d been on my way to the club, due to play in the game that afternoon, but had been withdrawn from the squad when Amy called. Following doctors orders and advice from Beth, Rose and Carol, we hadn’t rushed straight to the hospital, but waited the appropriate time and done as we were told. By the time Amy decided she wasn’t going to wait any more, she was bending double every three minutes and yelling in pain.

I’d driven to the hospital in a state of panic, Amy shouting and grabbing my arm all the way. We seemed to be the only ones panicking, everyone treated us as if we were making a huge fuss about nothing as I helped Amy into the room and we proceeded to wait for the rest of the day and most of the night for our daughter to put in an appearance. There was a fair amount of screaming on Amy’s part, and a lot of swearing directed at me, which I gathered was normal.

I played my part by holding Amy’s hand, wiping her forehead, bringing her ice and cold drinks and taking all the ‘fucking bastard’s on the chin. I was pretty terrified the whole time, Amy seemed to be in such a lot of pain and distress, no amount of reading books and going to classes had prepared me for how helpless I would feel. I stayed with her throughout, and holding Amy’s hand while our daughter was born was the most intense moment of my life.

There was lots of cleaning up and a few stitches, then Amy fed her, and we were taken back to the room, where we sat and held her and gazed at her. Earlier in the day, I’d phoned everyone to let them know things were on the move, but by the time she arrived, it was the early hours, and Amy banned me from calling anyone.

)I’ve told everyone we won’t let them know till a reasonable hour, they won’t be allowed to come in until later on anyway. There’s no point everyone getting sleepless nights. And we might want a bit of time alone with the baby afterwards.

Those were wise words. Much as I wanted everyone to meet this wonderful new person that Amy and I had made, I wanted her all to myself for as long as possible.

)Yeah, I’m pretty wiped. Better get used to it, though. I’m really thirsty, hon, is there any water?

The jug was empty, so I took it down the corridor and filled it up from the slow water cooler. When I got back, they were both asleep; I sat in the chair and stared at them, completely filled with love, amazement and wonder. Looked at the time again. Five twenty. Now very tempted to call someone. Got my phone out and turned it on, but really couldn’t do it with Amy asleep. So I sat and stared at them both some more.

They woke up together, both pairs of blue eyes opening at the same time, beauty in stereo.

‘Wow. Look at you two. My blue eyed girls.’

Amy looked down at her, still cradled in her arms.

)I can’t believe she’s here. Just look at her.

‘Budge over.’

Amy shuffled carefully over to one side of the single bed, and I climbed on next to her, pulling her close under my arm. My phone pinged.

)I thought you turned that off.

I looked at Amy guiltily.

‘I nearly called them while you were asleep.’

)You didn’t, though, did you?

‘No, babe, I resisted. Can we do it now? It’s gone six. It’s almost getting light.’

)It’s still early for a Sunday.

‘I bet Rose and Beth are already up, waiting.’

)You’re right.

She sighed.

)I’ve just so loved it being just us three. Oh, but I completely want to show her to everyone. Dec, I didn’t realise I’d love her so much.

‘Me neither. I can’t stop looking at her.’

)Go on, then, tell them.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket. Text.

Beth: =Any news???

I dialled her number. She answered on the first ring, had probably been waiting impatiently for my picture to flash up on the screen.

_Well?

‘Two eighteen a.m., seven pounds three ounces, Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright. All fingers and toes present and correct. Mother and baby doing well. Father an emotional puddle.’

She squealed very loudly. I heard Jay’s voice complaining in the background.

_Oh Dec! Congratulations, sweetheart. How’s Amy?

‘She’s great. Tired, sore, proud, happy, gorgeous, amazing.’

_Can we come and see you?

‘You’d bloody better. I don’t think you can come till nine, though.’

_Oh well, that gives me a chance to try and prise James and Cal out of bed … wait, Dec, did you say Charlotte?

‘Yeah, after Amy’s great-grandma …’

I waited to see if she would work it out.

_Are you going to shorten it?

She’d got it, with no clues or hints, and hardly any time to think about it.

‘Yeah –’

_Charlie! Ohhh, Dec, that’s … just so, so lovely. And isn’t Lucy …

‘Yeah. Mum.’

_Oh Dec. That’s just perfect. Oh sweetheart. She’d be so proud of you. Here, talk to James.

There was a crackle, then Jay.

łThanks for the early morning blub warning, mate. Beth’s in floods here.

‘Sorry.’

łIt’s all good, happy tears, apparently they don’t count. Might shed one or two myself if you don’t watch out. Congratulations, mate. I expect we’re coming to see you later. Amy OK?

‘She’s fucking awesome.’

łYou OK?

‘Also fucking awesome.’

Jay laughed.

łWe’ll see the fucking awesome three of you later, then.

We hung up. I turned to Amy.

‘Did you hear all that?’

)Most of it. Beth was quick off the mark.

‘She doesn’t miss much. Right, Rose next.’

I got her name up and pressed call. Another one answered on the first ring.

:Declan, love. Any news?

‘Yes, she’s here. Charlotte Lucy. Seven pounds three ounces. Born two eighteen this morning.’

Rose’s tears came even quicker than Beth’s.

:Oh love … sorry, love, I’m just a bit … I’ve been awake all night thinking about you.

Rose sniffed for a bit.

:How’s Amy?

‘She’s great. Are you going to come and see us? You can come any time after nine.’

More sniffs.

:Try and stop me, love. How are you?

‘I am on top of the world.’

:Oh love … I’m so happy for you …

‘Rose, I’m going to go, and let you pull yourself together. See you soon. Drive safely.’

:Bye love.

‘Bloody hell, Ames, I’m not sure I can cope with all this crying, it’s getting to me.’

)Try Matt next, then, you’re not likely to get any crying off him.

‘Don’t bank on it. Me and him used to be a right pair of cry-babies. Had a special club and everything. I will try him, though, just for the fun of waking him up.’

I dialled the number. The phone rang several times; just as I thought it would go to voicemail, it was answered.

Julia

I woke with a start to the sound of Matt’s phone. It was Dec’s ringtone. The morning light was just about starting to show through the curtains, but it was early. Matt didn’t stir. I nudged him.

Matt

Something nudged me awake. I tried to ignore it.

‘Matt.’

Oh it was Jules. She should know I don’t wake up this early. However bloody early it was. Too fucking early.

‘Ngh.’ I thought that conveyed my thoughts concisely.

‘Your phone’s ringing. It’s Dec.’

‘Mm wha?’

She was saying words, but they weren’t really sinking in. It was too fucking early.

‘Answer your phone – oh for fuck’s sake.’

I felt her reach over me and thought about fondling a breast, but it was too fucking early.

Dec

¤Hello.

‘Oh, I … was expecting Matt Scott … is that … Julia?’

¤Yes. Matt’s just here.

I opened my eyes wide at Amy, mouthed ‘she answered his phone!‘ at her.

Matt

I was suddenly pushed really hard. It jolted me fully awake, and I opened my eyes.

‘What?’

‘It’s Dec. He wants to talk to you. It sounds important.’

‘What?’

Awake but brain not yet fully functional, it being too fucking early and all.

‘Possibly there is some news about a baby?’

‘Oh. Right.’

I took the phone from Jules and held it to my ear.

‘This had fucking well better be Declan Summers telling me he’s become a father.’

‘It fucking well is.’

I could hear the grin in his voice. I felt a strange mixture of excitement and … was that envy? No. I was just pissed off that I’d been woken up.

‘I’ll let you off the bloody ridiculously early call then. I’m glad to see the ‘fuck’ police haven’t got to you yet, either. Your days are numbered, though. When can we visit?’

‘After nine.’

A quick glance at the time showed me it was still too fucking early.

‘Bollocks, that’s hours away. Fuck off, then, I’ve got more sleeping to do.’

Dec

The line went dead.

‘No crying. Too busy moaning about losing his sleep.’

)What a surprise. Didn’t he even want any details?

‘Not that he’d admit to. Plenty of time for that, he’ll be along later. Maybe with Julia – looks like she stayed the night. Or maybe he did, I don’t know where he was.’

)Wow. Who’d have thought, Matt doing sleepovers. It’s taken him long enough.

‘He’s not going to rush into anything.’

)Well there’s not rushing and there’s going so slowly you get overtaken by snails.

‘True. Ames, are you going to ring your mum?’

She sighed.

)Not yet, it’s too early.

‘Really? She’s just become a granny, she might want to know sooner rather than later.’

)Later, hon.

‘OK.’

Matt

I disconnected and turned over to go back to sleep. You do know I don’t do mornings, right? Alright, maybe I should have been more outwardly enthusiastic, but as I think I may have mentioned, it was too fucking early, and also, although I didn’t want to examine it too closely, Dec becoming a father was making me feel weird.

Jules wasn’t about to let me get away with that, though. For some reason she wanted to chat about the new arrival.

‘Well?’

‘What?’

Playing dumb never worked but it at least delayed things a bit sometimes.

‘You’re an uncle, or some weird kind of non-existent relation. Have you got a niece or a nephew? Or a Decew?’

‘Fuck knows, I didn’t ask.’

I tried to sound as pissed off as possible in the vain hope that she’d just leave me alone and let me go back to sleep.

‘Matt! You have to ask, if he didn’t say. You’re supposed to be all excited about weights and times and names. And you’re supposed to remember what they tell you. Call him back.’

She picked a fine time to come over all ‘this is what you do when your mates have babies’ on me.

‘Bollocks to that, it’s – what is it – Jules, it’s only just gone six on a bloody Sunday morning. Who’s bloody awake now?’

‘People who have just had babies.’

People with children full stop, more like. Suckers. I was thinking about sinking back down into a contented childless sleep, when Jules reached over me again, and this time I was on the ball enough to try a quick grope, which was ignored as she picked up my phone and scrolled down the contacts list.

‘I’m dialling for you. Here.’

She handed me the phone, and I sighed, defeated, and held it to my ear.

It was as if he’d been expecting me to call, I could almost hear the smug smile in his voice as he answered.

‘Forget something?’

I wasn’t having that. It was bad enough being woken up before enlightened people were stirring, but now I was copping it from all sides too.

‘Fuck off, I’m getting enough grief this end. Apparently it’s the done thing to inquire about the sex of the baby, certain vital statistics, maybe a name if such a thing is considered important, and not just roll over and go back to sleep like any civilised person at this time on a Sunday morning.’

‘Ha ha, thank Julia for remembering your manners.’

I ignored that. ‘Well go on then, I’m on tenterhooks now, the edge of my seat, or rather pillow.’

‘OK, then, as you asked so nicely, my beautiful daughter – that’s a clue to the sex of the baby, by the way – is called Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright. She is a very respectable seven pounds three ounces, she was born at two eighteen this morning, she has her mother’s eyes –’

‘And probably her father’s ability to cry at the drop of a hat.’

I was silent for a moment, as it sunk in. It had really happened. Dec and Amy were parents. They had a baby, a family.

‘Fuck me, Dec … you’ve got a daughter. That is fucking huge. Congratulations, mate.’

As I said the last word, I felt a rush of emotion. The whole situation felt enormous, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it all. I heard my voice break.

‘Thanks, Matt. See you later.’

‘Yeah.’

I disconnected, glad that I wasn’t going to have to speak to him any more right now.

Dec

‘Think he might just about almost have cried a tiny bit that time.’

)Round one to you, then, hon. I expect you’ll pay for it later. He didn’t work it out, then?

‘Probably a bit early in the morning. It might not even occur to him at all. He’ll be bloody annoyed if Beth tells him before he realises, though.’

Charlie stirred in Amy’s arms, waved her arms in the air, opened her mouth for another yell.

‘Are you hungry again, lovely girl?’

)Good girl, let’s have some breakfast before the hordes arrive.

‘What about breakfast for you Ames? I’m bloody starving.’

)Oh, hon, I could murder a cup of tea and some toast. Aren’t they going to bring it in though?

‘I’ll go and see what I can find.’

Breakfast for the Summers-Wright family sorted, burping completed, a phone call to Carol, a nappy changing lesson from a midwife, and a check on Amy and Charlie from the doctor done, there was nothing to do but hold my daughter and wait for everyone to arrive. I wrestled her away from Amy with a bit of a struggle, persuading her to ring her mum while I held my lovely girl close and took her for a tour of the room.

‘Hey Charlie, look out the window, that’s the world out there. It’s pretty amazing. We’re going to see a lot of it together. There’s trees – but don’t go falling out of any, and cats – but keep away from their claws, and litter bins – ew, though, a bit stinky, but look, there’s blue sky too, and clouds, which means there’ll be rain, but there’s sunshine as well. And wait until you see snow – oh Charlie, you are so going to love snow.’

I carried on talking nonsense while Amy made a call to her mum. I raised my eyebrows when she’d finished. Amy shrugged, looked sad.

‘What did she say?’

)Congratulations.

‘What else?’

)Not much.

‘Is she coming?’

)Doubt it. Don’t think Dad will let her.

‘Oh babe, I’m sorry.’

Amy’s parents had not softened towards us, although Amy had been in touch with her mum from time to time. Amy’s dad refused to speak to either of us and her mum had to choose her moments for contact, as this apparently caused huge arguments. Amy was hurt, I was angry, but there wasn’t much we could do about it.

Matt

I stayed lying on my side, taking a moment to collect myself and stop my bloody eyes from leaking salty bastards. Why was I so emotional? It was a bloody baby, for fuck’s sake. I pulled myself together and turned to face Jules, who was waiting for an update.

Julia

Matt carried on lying on his side, facing away from me. I thought I felt him wipe his eyes, but when he turned over onto his back, there was no sign.

‘So?’

‘Girl. Bloody hyphenated surname. Weighs seven somethings and a few something or others. Decided to arrive at some unearthly hour that should only exist if you’re out getting shit-faced.’

‘Are you going to go and see them?’

‘Yeah, later, can’t go in till nine. Come with me?’

‘No, I don’t think so. It’s your family. I don’t really do babies.’

Part of me was still worried that they would find out about Matt and me living together, and another part really didn’t want to have to go and gush about a tiny person whose only skill so far in life had been surviving being born.

Matt

‘Oh go on, you’re practically family. They’d love to see you.’

‘No, you go. If you go early enough, we can still go and look at beds when you get back.’

Bollocks. I’d completely erased the shopping for a bed plan from my mind.

‘Oh yeah, I forgot about the fucking bed. I’d better try to get there for nine, then, so we’ve got time before you go to Evie’s. Sure you won’t come? I’d really like you to, Jules.’

I didn’t usually try to coax Jules into doing something when she’d already said no, but I just wanted her with me. I wanted her to be part of this thing that was a huge thing for my family, I wanted her to be part of my family as well. I backed away from that, as it seemed like something to explore on a less weird day. Jules was not to be convinced, at any rate.

Julia

Something in his voice made me worry that if I went, he would end up telling them about us. I wondered if he was feeling upstaged. I decided not to risk giving him the opportunity – I didn’t think he’d do it without me there.

‘No. I’ll see them soon enough. Go back to sleep for a bit.’

Matt

I would have loved to have gone back to sleep, but I was no longer in the least bit tired.

‘No, I’m too awake now. Bloody hell. Fancy breakfast in bed? Fry-up?’

‘Now you’re talking. I haven’t had a fried breakfast for ages.’

‘OK, I’ll see what I can rustle up.’

Julia

Matt hauled himself out of bed, pulled a pair of boxers and a t-shirt on, and padded off to make some breakfast. After we’d finished, and I’d cleared the plates and pans into the dishwasher and got back into bed, I was half expecting Matt to make some moves on me. Sunday mornings were usually spent having sex, if we had time and no other plans. But this morning he seemed preoccupied.

‘Are you alright?’

He nodded.

‘You’re not quite here.’

He looked at me.

‘Sorry, Jules, I think I’m just still amazed that little Declan Summers, who is only, what, nine years old or something, is a dad. He’s wanted this, his own family, for so bloody long, and now he’s got it. I’m bloody happy for him. I wish I knew what I bloody wanted sometimes.’

‘I thought you did.’

‘Well I know what I don’t want. I know what scares me shitless and I’ll do anything to avoid, I know all that, but the other side, what do I actually want? I haven’t got a fucking clue. I just bumble along really, reacting. Oh, here’s a job. Yeah, looks good, I’ll have that. What’s that? A party? Sure, I’m not doing anything tonight. A beautiful woman in my arms? Fuck yeah. Plan for the future, you say? Fuck that.’

‘I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself. You’ve got this place, you’ve got us, neither of those just happened by accident.’

Matt

She was right. In the grand scheme of life, I had sorted out accommodation and a relationship, no mean feat. It was just that right now, I had no plans, I had no sense of where I was going, and it suddenly felt important that I did. I had no idea what to do about it.

‘I suppose so. Sorry, just feeling a bit weird. I’m going to get up, get over there, get it over with.’

I leaned over and kissed her, then got out of bed and got dressed. I sat in the living room for a while, flicking through the channels on the TV and settling on the repeat of Match of the Day, as it was still too fucking early to go to the maternity unit.

Dec

Charlie snuffled and looked up at me, Amy’s eyes staring at me from her perfect face. Every time, it nearly stopped my heart.

‘Oh, lovely girl.’

A sound at the door. I looked up. Matt, peering in through the window. I beckoned him in with my head.

Matt

I left earlier than I needed to, which meant I got there early too. In fact, as I peered through the glass in the door, I realised I had got there before anyone else, which surprised me.

Dec was standing by the window, holding a bundle of blankets with a small face and tiny hand peeking out. It brought an unexpected lump to my throat, and I looked away, at Amy, who looked dishevelled but radiant.

‘Shit, am I first? Can’t believe I beat Beth and Rose! Amy, you look great. Hours of agony and a sleepless night before pushing a person out of your nether regions obviously suits you.’

I went over and dispensed a kiss.

‘No Julia?’

I tried to make light of it, although it had upset me more than I realised that she wouldn’t come with me when I asked her. It also occurred to me that Jules had answered my phone, and it would have been apparent that she’d at the very least stayed the night. I was going to have to be careful not to let anything slip about our cohabitation status, or I’d be well and truly in the shit. Hopefully the small bundle in Dec’s arms would distract everyone enough for me.

‘She might come later, this is apparently family time. Let’s have a look, then.’

‘Want a hold?’

‘Fuck yeah.’

Dec

I passed Charlie over. It felt weird to give her to someone who wasn’t Amy, but Matt held her like an expert.

Matt

Dec moved the tiny bundle into my arms, and suddenly I knew. She was beautiful, she was so new, she was the next chapter in Dec’s life. He was her dad, she was his daughter, they had a bond that no one else could have with either of them. I wanted that. This was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted a family.

Oh fuck.

I held her and looked into her face. I know babies all look Winstonesque, but Dec’s daughter had Amy’s eyes. I’d never seen it before, but here it was. Yeah, think about that, Matt. Don’t go anywhere near that other shit you were … what the actual fuck had I just … no, no, don’t. Just don’t. Eyes. Like Amy’s.

‘Hi gorgeous. Amy, she is truly beautiful. Well done.’

I tried to focus on the baby girl in my arms, to avoid thinking about what had just detonated through my brain, in a pretty life-changing apocalyptic way.

‘Thanks Matt, we’re pretty pleased with the results.’

‘Hello, Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright.’

I even remembered her whole name – I hope you’re impressed.

‘You’re rather lovely, even if your name is a bit of a mouthful. If I was thirty years younger, you’d need to watch out.’

‘Charlie, this is Matt. He’ll teach you your first swear words. Probably before you’re two.’

I looked up at Dec, confused, but happy to be diverted from my own cataclysmic thought processes.

‘I thought you said she was Charlotte … oh, you’ve shortened it.’

And then it occurred to me. Dec’s other name. It was a nod, a memorial, to his parents, who had called him Charlie when they adopted him. It was brilliant.

‘Oh … oh! Charlie! Ha ha. That’s bloody genius! Hi Charlie, your mum and dad are clever aren’t they? Is Lucy some sort of code word too?’

‘My mum.’

‘Oh, mate, of course. That’s … actually that’s bloody lovely.’

It was, it really was so bloody lovely, and I was already emotional, and now the bloody tears were running down my face and threatening to drop onto Charlie.

‘Oh shit, look at me. Here, Amy, before I drip all over her. Fuck, sorry, beautiful.’

I handed Charlie to Amy and wiped my eyes on the back of my hand, looking around for something more absorbent.

‘Pass me one of those tissues, Dec, I’m not going to be blarting like a girl when Jay gets here.’

‘Er, might be a bit late for that …’

He gestured to the door, where Beth’s face had appeared at the glass. Bollocks. They had to turn up now, didn’t they.

‘Shit.’

Dec

Matt turned to look out of the window and wiped his face on his sleeve. I was a bit puzzled at Matt’s reaction – he rarely showed his emotions in public, and even though he was with family, it was uncharacteristic, particularly considering the sometimes barely disguised apathy both he and Julia showed when everyone was talking about the baby.

The door opened and Iz sidled in, looking self-conscious. When she saw me she ran over and held her arms up, so I whisked her up and gave her a cuddle. She was closely followed into the room by a grumpy looking Cal, a smiling Beth and a dishevelled Jay.

_Where is she then – oh! Amy, she’s gorgeous! Let’s have a proper look.

Beth sat on the edge of the bed, gave Amy a kiss and stroked Charlie’s cheek.

)Cuddle?

_I thought you’d never ask!

Amy handed her to Beth.

_Oh, Charlie, you look just like your mum.

Beth jiggled her and made various cooing noises. She and Amy were in a motherly world of their own and started comparing timings, weights and other details I hadn’t even known existed and which would have made me wince if I had.

Matt

I turned to look out of the window and wiped my face on the sleeve of my t-shirt. While all the squealing and cuddling was going on, I got a grip on myself, took a few deep breaths, then turned round and joined in the conversation, trying not to think, at all, about anything, other than what people were saying, stealing the odd glance at Charlie, watching, I was surprised to find, enviously as Dec and Amy showed her off to everyone.

Dec

Iz clung on to my neck and stared at Charlie. Cal stood by the wall, not really looking at anything.

‘Hey Cal, did we get you out of bed early?’

He shrugged.

‘Did you go to the game yesterday?’

\yeah.

‘Did we win?’

\yeah, 28-14. Bonus point.

‘Brilliant. Hope you missed me.’

\Sam Wallis was pretty good, he scored a try.

Sam Wallis was my last minute replacement, a seriously promising academy player who was pushing hard for a starting place. I hoped I would be able to wrestle my spot in the team back from him.

‘Good game?’

\yeah. I went with Matty.

‘Yeah? Think you’re winning him over?’

}Spurs will always be closest to my heart, but Raiders run a close second at times, even though I’ll never get the hang of bloody offside or, what’s that other one I always ask you about, Cal?

\off his feet.

}Yeah, off his feet, what’s that all about? And Sam Wallis, phew, what a number twelve. Player of the future, in my books. Sack the incumbent.

łOK, not in front of the coach. You’re here early, Matty.

}Well I was woken up in the middle of the night, weren’t you? Something about a baby. Couldn’t get back to sleep, so I decided to check it out. Turns out there is one! Pretty decent effort, too.

łJulia not with you?

‘No, she might come later.’

I wasn’t quite sure what I was sensing from Matt, but something was up. Something in his expression each time he’d mentioned Julia. He had been seeing her for quite a while – maybe eight or nine months – but they weren’t exactly joined at the hip, and they led fairly separate lives as far as I could tell. Julia seemed to avoid the Scott family engulfing that could easily swamp a person if they weren’t careful; she got on well with everyone, when we saw her, but she chose when she was involved, and seemed to keep herself at a distance, rather than being swallowed whole by us all. Maybe that’s why Matt had stuck with her; we didn’t all know his business, he had a life with someone that didn’t include us all the time. Everyone needed something different from a family, and Matt certainly valued his space, but it felt like he hadn’t been around as much in the last few months. I didn’t have time to think about it right now, but maybe a late night chat was on the cards.

_James, you’ve got to have a cuddle with Charlie, she’s beautiful.

Jay rolled his eyes comically and moved to the bed, where he took Charlie from Beth and held her in his arms. He had a tender expression, and Charlie looked straight at him.

łHey little one. Wow, you are beautiful. You must take after your mum. Dec, how does this amazing creature have any of your genes?

‘Maybe she’s got my brains.’

łShe’d better make the most of her looks, then, she’ll be thick as shit.

_James! Honestly.

łOh lighten up, Beth. Cal, do you want to have a look at Charlie?

Cal shrugged.

\i can see her from here.

łCome on, mate. She’s the newest member of the family. Come and say hi.

)Do you want a hold, Cal?

Cal looked at Amy, shrugged, looked like he wanted to say yes but thought it might appear too uncool.

)Sit in the chair, then, your dad will show you how.

Cal pushed himself away from the wall with an impressive show of not caring, and sat down.

łOK mate, hold your arm like this, that’s it. You’ve got to make sure to support her head, her neck’s really floppy, that’s right. Here we are … you’ve done it! Hey, Cal, I think she likes you.

Cal looked down at Charlie, looking pleased with himself, but a little unsure what to do next. Iz looked at me.

/Cal got baby.

‘Yeah, sweetie, she’s called Charlie. She’s my and Amy’s baby. Do you like her?

Iz gave this some consideration, and nodded seriously.

/Charlie a boy.

_Well, Charlie at nursery is a boy, isn’t he sweetheart, but this Charlie is a girl. It’s short for Charlotte.

łWell done on the name, by the way, guys. Keeping it a secret too, very good. Big surprise.

\why is it such a big surprise? Loads of people are called Charlie, there’s a girl in my class, and a boy.

Everyone looked at me. I felt the weight of explaining things to Cal that I hadn’t felt for a long time. Tried to find the words without needing to say too much.

‘Well, a long time ago, I used to be called Charlie, but I changed my name. It’s kind of a reminder. We didn’t tell anyone what we’d planned, so that’s why it’s a surprise.’

\oh. You weren’t called Charlotte, though?

This made everyone laugh; Matt in particular found it very amusing.

}Oh, the twist in the tale. Are you sure you only changed your name, Dec? Amy, I think I might need proof.

)I think our daughter is your proof, Matt.

}OK, fair point.

The door opened suddenly, and Rose burst in. Carol was behind her.

:Oh, love, the traffic out there is a nightmare. On a Sunday morning too – oh! Oh, there she is.

She looked at Charlie and then at me.

:She’s just perfect, Declan, love. Oh, sorry, everyone, babies just get me going.

She was fishing in her pocket for a tissue as she spoke, so I held the box out to her. She took one, wiped her eyes, then stood and stared hungrily at Charlie.

‘Cal, can Rose have a hold now? I wouldn’t want her to burst anything waiting.’

Cal nodded. Rose bent down and picked her up gently. She bent her head down to her and burbled some nonsense, totally engrossed. I don’t think Rose would have noticed if an earthquake had hit at that precise moment. Cal got out of the chair so Rose could sit down, and Carol took the other chair, looking on.

I saw a movement at the door, caught sight of a face at the window, then it was gone. I looked over at Amy. She hadn’t noticed and was smiling at Charlie, eyes full of love and happiness. I nearly left it alone. Couldn’t. I put Iz down, went to the door and looked down the corridor. Someone was walking away quickly. I followed.

‘Diane.’

I ran to catch up with her. She stopped, turned to face me.

‘Why didn’t you come in?’

;There are too many people in there already.

‘Amy would love to see you.’

;I think it would be … awkward.

‘Who gives a shit? She’s just had a baby. The most beautiful baby girl –’

I saw that hungry look steal over her face, the same one Rose had earlier.

‘–and she wants to show her to her mum. I don’t think she’ll think it’s awkward, I think she’ll be very pleased to see you, and very proud.’

;I think … I might have left it too late. Amy’s father has been so difficult about this whole thing. I should maybe have done more. It’s been very hard.

‘It’s not too late, but it’s been hard on Amy too. Most people have their mums around at a time like this. She’s missed you. We’ve got an amazing family, they’re all here now, they wouldn’t be anywhere else. They’ve been there for her through everything. But they’re not her mum. I’d give anything to have my mum here today. I think Amy feels the same about you.’

I saw the indecision on her face. Decided to push it.

‘Come on, Diane. Come and meet Charlie. She’s so beautiful, she’s just like Amy. You don’t have to stay long, just say hello. You’ve come all the way down here, you must want to see her, hold her.’

She looked at me with a mixture of hope and fear on her face. Made a decision.

;I can’t stay long, Jack doesn’t know where I am.

‘Fuck Jack. Come on, come and meet your granddaughter.’

I held out a hand. Surprising me, she took it, and squeezed it very tightly as we walked back up the corridor to the room. I went in first.

Rose was still holding Charlie, looking like she was never going to let go; Jay and Matt were teasing Cal about something that had happened at school; Iz was sitting on Carol’s lap, chattering away; Beth was sat on the bed, head close to Amy’s watching Rose and Charlie.

‘Ames …’

Amy looked up, and I indicated behind me with my head and a raise of my eyebrows, then stood aside to let Diane walk in. Amy gasped and put her hand over her mouth, so I could only see her eyes, but they were wide and shining.

)Mum …

‘You all know Amy’s mum, don’t you.’

There was more than a hint of frostiness in the air. The last time everyone had seen her had been the family meal, when her husband had called Amy and me a disgrace.

‘She’s come to meet Charlie. Rose, you’re going to have to let go for a few minutes. You can have more cuddles later.’

I took Charlie from Rose and held her close to Diane.

‘Here she is, your amazing granddaughter. Charlie, meet your – actually, Diane, what do you want to be called? Grandma? Granny? Nan?’

Diane couldn’t stop staring at Charlie.

;Oh, er I hadn’t really thought …

)How about Granna, Mum?

Diane looked up and at Amy. Something passed between them; something somewhere had just been mended. Tears filled Diane’s eyes.

;Oh yes, Amy. Granna. Oh, my love, she’s beautiful. I’m sorry, so sorry I haven’t … I couldn’t …

)Don’t, Mum. It doesn’t matter. You came. Have a cuddle. She’s pretty good at cuddles. Dec?

‘Ready, Diane?’

I passed her over, then perched on the arm of Rose’s chair, watching as my beautiful daughter melted her Granna’s heart. I saw Rose’s expression soften, and everyone seemed to relax. It was still quiet, but no longer icy.

/unca Matty, I need a wee-wee.

Iz’s announcement shattered the tension.

}Thanks for that Iz. Why did you choose me to divulge this information to?

/Need a wee-wee.

}OK, blondie, I hear you. Anyone else care to field this one?

_Alright, sweetheart, let’s find the loo.

Beth and Iz left to wander down the corridor in search of facilities.

\dad, can I play on my DS now?

Cal had waited for Beth to leave the room, and now Jay was fair game as the soft touch.

łSure, mate, just turn the sound down.

Cal got out the console and sat cross legged on the floor by the window.

łDec, are there any more chairs anywhere? I feel like a spare part leaning up against the wall.

‘Maybe ask one of the nurses?’

łCome on Matty, make yourself useful, come and move some furniture.

Diane was still standing by the bed holding Charlie, still totally beguiled.

:She’s adorable, isn’t she, love?

;She is very, very lovely. Amy, she looks just like you when you were born. Exactly the same.

Rose, never one to leave things be, decided to put her oar in just a little bit.

:You should be very proud of your daughter, she’s a credit to you. Both her and Declan. They’re going to be very good parents.

;I am proud of her. I am, Amy.

)Thanks, Mum.

Diane looked like she was trying to drink in Charlie’s face. Carol started to get out of her chair.

#Why don’t you sit down, dear? It’s much easier to cuddle sitting down.

Diane seemed to rouse herself. She looked at Carol, then at Amy, regretfully.

;No, that’s alright, thank you. I’m so sorry, Amy, I’ve got to go. Your father doesn’t know I’m here. I … think … I need to talk to him.

She handed Charlie back to Amy.

;I’m so sorry.

)Come back soon, Mum.

;When are you going home?

)Some time tomorrow morning. Call me, I’ve got my mobile here.

Diane bent down and kissed Amy, and had another long look at Charlie.

‘Why don’t I take a picture? I can email it to you.’

Diane looked at me like I had just offered to fly to the moon for her.

;Oh Declan, that would be wonderful.

She walked over to me and, for the first time ever, kissed me on the cheek.

;Thank you so much.

‘Thank you too.’

She straightened her shoulders, arming herself for what would likely be a difficult return home, and left the room, looking back through the window for a last glance at Amy and Charlie. Amy looked at me and smiled.

‘Granna?’

)Oh, that was what we used to call my great grandma. Family name.

‘Sounds perfect, babe.

My phone rang. I fetched it from the bedside cabinet, glanced at the screen. Lis. Fuck, I had forgotten to call them.

‘Lis! I’m so sorry, I forgot to ring, I was waiting till it wasn’t so early there, then everyone turned up and it got crazy.’

~Hi Dec, don’t worry, Beth gave us a cheeky tinkle earlier. Hope you don’t mind! Congratulations, Daddy! How is she? How’s Amy?

‘They’re both absolutely gorgeous. I’ll text you a picture.’

~Oh there’s no need, Dec, we’re –

>We are here!

The door opened and to my utter astonishment Nico and Lis walked in. I stood with my mouth hanging open. Amy had a similar expression on her face. Rose and Carol looked very pleased with themselves, so they obviously knew. Cal stood up and put his game away.

‘Holy fuck! What the … when did … it’s so great to see you!’

Nico walked over and gave me a huge hug, while Lis did the same to Amy and Charlie.

>We are in England for business. We must see you and your baby. Ha, we keep secret as surprise. You have surprise?

‘Fucking gobsmacked.’

>So now I see your baby.

~Oh Nico, come and look, she’s perfect.

Lis had managed to take her from Amy. Charlie was dealing very well with the changes in handlers. Nico looked at Charlie with a tender expression.

>Hey beautiful lady. You are like your mother. Amy, she has your eyes. Ha, I hope she has nothing of Declan. You do well. You both do very well.

He kissed Amy.

>We bring baby things.

He handed a large bag to Amy, as Jay and Matt banged through the door carrying a chair each, which they put down on the other side of the bed.

łOn time as ever, Nico, we’ve been here for ages.

>I like to make dramatic entrance.

łOh that’s it, is it? You’re not the only ones who can do surprises, Dec.

‘Apparently not.’

}Watch out, Dec, it might be time to lock up your daughter if Nico’s on the loose.

‘He’s already tried it on. She wasn’t having any of it though.’

Beth and Iz came back in, Iz holding a cardboard cup. She held it up to me.

/dec, got slushie.

‘Great stuff, Iz, what colour?’

/blue one.

‘The best sort. Why don’t you sit with Granny to drink it?’

Iz looked round the room to see if there was a better offer. She fixed her eyes on the prize.

/sit wif Eeco.

He bowed.

>I am honoured, beautiful Isobel. Thank you, Jaime, to bring my chair.

Jay rolled his eyes as Nico sat down and Iz ran over to jump onto his lap.

łDec’s not the only one who’s going to need to lock up his daughter.

Beth and Lis had squealed and hugged and were now gathered round the bed with Amy, Rose and Carol, talking about who knows what in some cryptic baby language. I was beginning to realise that however many books I’d read and classes I’d been to, I was never going to be part of the club.

My attention was distracted by Nico looking at Jay questioningly.

>Jaime, I can say?

łI guess so, Nico, if you want to. It’s going to be announced tomorrow anyway.

>Declan, Lis and me are coming back to the city. I sign for Raiders again.

Again I stared open mouthed, as Cal let out a whoop.

\yes!

>Ha, Cal you are pleased, thank you for this. I hope you still have ‘TIAGO’ on your shirt.

łHis shirt’s getting a bit small, we were just about to get him another one. I thought we might get ‘SCOTT’ on the back this time – I guess that’s not likely now. Should have written it into your bloody contract.

Beth, who seemed to be able to listen to several conversations at once, had also squealed at Nico’s announcement.

_Lis, you kept that quiet! James, honestly, not even a hint?

~You know what it’s like, Beth, nothing’s ever settled till the last minute. Nico literally sorted it yesterday after the game. Er, actually, there’s something else we’ve been keeping a bit of a secret till everything was sorted … it’s one of the main reasons we’ve come back to England, really.

Lis looked over at Nico and smiled.

_You’re not … ?

~I am! Fourteen weeks. Oh, Amy, sorry, this is butting in on your celebration. Typical Lis and Nico, come in, take over. We’ll save it for later, yeah?

)That’s so great, Lis, not butting in at all. The more babies the better.

łJesus, Nico, you never said a word. Wasn’t that a bit risky, what if we’d said no?

>Ha, I know Raiders not resist my amazing tries. And I have plan B – if Raiders say no, maybe I am nanny for Declan and Amy?

}That I would like to see, Nico in his Mary Poppins uniform, sleeping on the sofa in Dec’s tiny flat. Listen, guys, sorry to break up the party, I’ve got to shoot off, me and Jules are doing stuff this morning. Plus my brain’s a bit crammed with all the news. This bloody family does my nut sometimes. Love you all but time to go.

Matt hugged and kissed Amy, kissed Charlie and stroked her cheek, raised a hand in farewell to everyone else, then stood in front of me, grinning.

}Look after them, mate, you have a bloody awesome little family there. See you soon.

He held out his hand, and as I went to clasp it, he raised his thumb to his nose and wiggled his fingers at me, before leaving. I hadn’t got to the bottom of the weird vibe I was feeling from Matt, but I didn’t have time to think about it. He seemed happy enough when he left, and I was sure whatever it was would keep, most likely until the early hours of some night when I really needed my sleep.

Matt

Rose and Mum arrived, Amy’s mum put in a brief appearance, and then Nico turned up with Lis, and it all got a bit chaotic. It was too noisy, and I was glad, in the end, that Jules hadn’t come. She would have hated it.

Remembering I needed to get back to Jules so we could buy a bed, I made my excuses and drove home. I was in no way able to assimilate the revelation I’d had when I held Charlie. I couldn’t admit it to myself, not yet, but it was there, just under the surface, waiting to be explored and acted on, and it made me irritable and manic.