78. Found out about you

In which a relationship encounters conflict and hostility.

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Matt

Over dinner we talked a bit, although looking back it was mostly me talking about me, needing to let her know things about me, how and why I’d been Matt the Lad, seeing Adam and why I hadn’t gone back. I wanted to talk to her all night, but I didn’t think I’d last that long, and she said she had to go back home. I was really disappointed that she wasn’t staying, I’d looked forward to another night like last night, with lots of holding and touching and getting to know each other.

‘It’s Friday tomorrow. We can do it then.’

‘Yeh, a date. We should go ouh first, like all the young dudes. Or sit an watch rubbish on the telly, like all the old dudes.’

I knew which I was more likely to be capable of, but I was happy to show willing.

‘How about a compromise and staying in to watch a DVD with some beers and G and Ts, like all the thirty-something dudes?’

I laughed, relieved that I wasn’t going to have to a) think of an excuse not to go out or stay out late or b) try to stay conscious while going out or staying out late.

‘I like ih. Behr, good. DVD, good. Lau, good. Wha’s not tuh like? Hahvnt yuh got Nehflix tho?’

‘No, I haven’t quite got into the techy TV stuff. Why have you?’

‘Yeh, cohrse, tech is my johb.’

‘Oh yeah. Well you’ll have to settle for my very untechy lifestyle for now, buster. Happy with that?’

‘Yeh.’

It was all fitting in with my plan, too, which was developing more form as the evening progressed, and the electric connection between us got stronger.

When we’d finished eating, Lau helped me clear up, and I could feel my energy draining away. I held on extra tight to the wine glasses, feeling like I was about to drop something or trip over or some such shit.

Laura

We finished up the curry, and I helped Matt clear the plates and load the dishwasher. To me, he looked a bit tired, and was seeming less coordinated than he had been earlier.

‘How about going to bed?’

My offer was purely noble, wondering if he could do with a lie-down, and I wasn’t thinking of him fondling my bum in any way. He raised an eyebrow.

Matt

I looked at Lau and raised an eyebrow, wondering exactly what she was proposing. Anything more than, well, nothing, just was not, sadly, going to happen tonight.

‘Well you did mention it earlier, you said you wanted to cuddle up and talk.’

Oh my God, this woman was just the knees of the fucking bees. She seemed to know what I was thinking.

‘Yeh. Sounds like the kind of greht idea I migh have had.’

I wanted her to be absolutely clear, though, about what I was and wasn’t able to offer.

‘Lau, yuh know I can’t … we can’t … fuck ih, yuh did the talk on sex, yuh know wha I mean.’

Laura

I’d heard what he’d said the previous night, and I knew he was anxious about what my expectations were. There was no way I was going to try to rush him into anything that he wasn’t ready for. I was scarcely ready myself, although I wouldn’t have said no to anything that had been offered. The fact was, Matt was having difficulty with his sexual functioning, and I knew, probably better than most, how low-key my responses needed to be.

‘Matt, we’re taking this slowly. Cuddle up and talk means cuddle up and talk. There’s no pressure to do anything else, ever. It’s enough for me. Talking means more to me, actually; I really want to get to know you. We’re so doing things a weird way round. Shall we?’

Matt

She stood up and held her hand out to me, and I took it and stood with her, thanking the gods of perfect women as I did so.

‘Thanks Lau. Yuhr fucking awesome.’

We undressed and got into bed, with minimum fuss, two people who had only known each other for just over twenty four hours but who were already comfortable enough with each other that they could just hop into bed for a chat and a cuddle. Lau was just wearing her underwear, and I was just wearing my boxers and t-shirt, and it was so fucking sexy but so fucking … friendly.

Laura

I turned onto my side and Matt turned to face me. We kissed first, softly and gently, causing little fizzing sparks to travel from my lips down to my fingertips and well beyond. It was delicious, knowing that it wasn’t going to go any further; it was almost better, just allowing myself to be filled up with fizzing desire. Almost. Then we lay and looked at each other, not really knowing where to start.

‘OK, so getting to know each other. Favourite colour?’

‘Navy an white.’

‘That’s two.’

‘Tottenham colours.’

‘Football?’

‘Yeh. Yuhrs?’

‘Don’t do football really.’

‘Noh, colour.’

‘Oh. Purple.’

‘Hearts?’

‘No, just the colour.’

‘Noh, Heart of Midlothian, footy tehm, play in purple.’

‘Oh. Maybe we can accept that I don’t really know or care much about football. Sorry, it seems to mean a lot to you, but that’s just how it is.’

‘Cahnt blame a blohk fuh trying. One day I’ll hahv a decent chat wih a woman abouh footy.’

‘Dream on.’

‘Ha ha, yeh. Childhood crush?’

‘George Smallwood. You?’

‘Lily Knight. Snog him?’

‘No, he was way older than me, never knew I existed, I was, like, ten and he was, I don’t know, eighteen or something. He lived a few doors up from me. You and Lily?’

‘Yeh, we pashed a bih. Roun the back of the portakabin at break. Then she wen off wih Harry Thomas one lunch and tha was tha.’

‘Oh, she broke your heart.’

‘Noh, snogged Lucy Carpenter two minutes later.’

‘I see your early sexual exploits may have set a pattern. Favourite film?’

‘Tha yuh’d have heard of? Amelie.’

Well that was a bit of an assumption.

‘What do you mean, that I’ve have heard of? I’m pretty cultured, me.’

‘OK then, MicMacs.’

Hm, correct assumption as it turned out.

‘Oh, OK, Amelie it is then. Good film. Mine’s The Sixth Sense. Saw it three times at the cinema, and have it on DVD.’

‘Stihl surprised at the ending?’

‘No, but you watch it differently. It’s kind of a ghostly love story. I thought Amelie had a bit of a twist, myself, I kept expecting her to get knocked off her bike at the end.’

‘Noh, never gona happen. Fihrst kiss?

‘Damian Wetherly.’

‘Ooh, quick ahnswer. Mehmorable thehn.’

‘For it’s sloppy grossness, yes. Surely you remember your first kiss?’

‘Lily’

‘What, you kissed your first crush? Lucky you.’

Matt shrugged modestly.

‘Did you lose your virginity to her too?’

‘Ha ha, noh Lau, weh wehr only ten. Buh Damiahn …’

‘God no. Steven Rasmussen. First boyfriend. Sixteen. My parents’ bed, while they were at a wedding.’

Matt was quiet for a moment, and it almost felt like he was finding the thought of me having sex with someone else difficult to process.

‘How about you?’

‘Bes maht’s girfriehd.’

‘No!’

Although I could well believe it, having heard some of the stories about Matt.

‘What, when you were at school or something?’

‘Noh, Uni.’

It took a second or two to work it out.

‘What, you didn’t have sex until you were – what – eighteen?’

Matt nodded.

‘Nehly nihnteen.’

‘Blimey. I’m surprised.’

‘Hihden depths, Lau.’

Well that was becoming apparent. There was a lot more to find out about this man, and I was looking forward to doing a bit of digging. Matt had his next question ready, however.

‘Favourite position?’

‘For yoga?’

I did, of course, know exactly what he meant.

‘Sex.’

I knew that.

‘I’m not sure. It depends on lots of things.’

‘Cohm on Lau, everyone’s goh a favourite. Good Baptist girl like yuh, I beh ih’s missionary.’

‘Cowgirl.’

‘Holy fuck. Whoo. Yuh duh like tuh beh in charge.’

‘You’d better believe it. Yours?’

‘Wish I could show yuh.’

He looked so sad, I immediately needed to make him feel better.

‘Oh Matt, there’s all the time in the world. Actually, I’m going to change mine. At the moment, my favourite sexual position is face to face, having a chat. You’re giving me everything I need right now.’

‘Lau …’

Matt’s eyes had filled with tears.

‘It’s really important to you, isn’t it, flower.’

He nodded, unable to speak.

‘You’ll get there, just don’t put pressure on yourself. Enjoy the other bits as well.’

He nodded again.

‘Ih’s jus such a big part of meh, wha I’ve been the last few yehrs. Now ih’s gone, ih’s … I can’t explain.’

Enough people had told me what it was like, that I had the words.

‘It’s like you’ve lost an arm, or the ability to walk. It affects every part of your life, all the time, sometimes you can’t think about anything else except not being able to have sex.’

He looked at me with something approaching awe.

‘Yuh understand!’

‘Not really. I know the words, what people have told me, what I’ve read. I can’t possibly really understand, it hasn’t happened to me.’

Matt

We started off slow, with colours, interests, all that shit, and worked up to more intimate comparisons.

Favourite colours: Matt – navy and white – Spurs, keep up.

Lau – purple (not football related).

Football: Matt – yes, very much so.

Lau – not so much.

Films: Matt – arty French nonsense.

Lau – sentimental tosh not that I was judging her taste in films in any way.

Childhood crushes: Matt – Lily.

Lau – some git called George.

First kisses: Matt – Lily.

Lau – Damian the Dick (not her nickname, it was applied by me).

Virginity lost: Matt – Cindy.

Lau – Steven something German and too much information it made me feel weird.

Favourite Positions: Matt – didn’t get to answer.

Lau – cowgirl! Fuck, she was a goer. As soon I was back in working order, we were going to have some bloody fun!

And then I got a bit maudlin about not being able to show her my favourite position, and she changed her mind, and said her favourite was face to face, having a chat, and it made me cry because it was so bloody thoughtful, the cow.

And then she blew my mind by telling me exactly how it felt, this fucking bastard MS and what it had done to my sex drive – as if I’d lost an arm or the ability to walk, and that sometimes it was all I could think about, not being able to do it – and I knew, if I hadn’t before, that she was always going to get me. Not just because I had the bastard MS and she knew a lot about the bastard MS, but because on some deep level, although we were so different in the things we liked and didn’t like, we were the same where it mattered, in understanding how we worked, what made us tick.

‘Will ih … will I geh ih back?’

I had to ask. I’d stopped myself from talking to Lau like she was a nurse, an expert in the thing I had, but this was so big for me that I couldn’t help myself. I needed to know.

Laura

It was what everyone asked, whether it was their sexual function or their ability to walk in a straight line, and it was what I could never answer. The truth was that it would probably come and go, and then it would take longer to come back after it had gone, and then one day it might not come back at all. But I wasn’t going to be saying that right at this moment.

‘No one can promise that. With most people, yes, it comes back. There’s a big psychological element too. Wanting it too much can play as big a part as the physical side of it. And that is the end of Laura Shoeman’s sexual counselling session. That will be one hundred pounds, please, I take personal cheques and cash. Further appointments should be booked through my personal assistant.’

I needed to stop being Nurse Laura. I was here with this gorgeous man, who I kept forgetting had the very disease I spent my working life dealing with, and I wanted to get to know him. I knew there was so much more to him than MS, and I wanted to stop him fixating on it, and tell me about his life.

Matt

She had managed to tell me to step away from the medical questions and make me laugh, at the same time.

‘Ha ha. Lau, yuhr greht, even if yuhr prices ahr a bih stehp. I wan yuh tuh know abouh meh.’

Laura

‘OK, get spilling then.’

I said this with a smile, but inside I was a little worried – was he going to tell me everything? We could be here some time.

Matt

‘Well, OK, buh first, I wan tuh tell yuh abouh yuh. I wan yuh tuh know tha when I first saw yuh, yesterday, the second I saw yuh, I was like, whoa. Ih was profound. I jus knew it was yuh. I wahnt gona stay, Beth talked meh into goin, buh I only agreed tuh put my head roun the door, then I was gona goh, buh I saw yuh an couldn’t stay away. I made ih up abouh wanting tuh talk.’

Lau pretended to be astounded.

‘Then when we were at Meahn Beahn, yuh touched my hand an, whoa, like electric shock. Ih’s like I’ve been looking foh yuh all my life. Whatever I’d behn doing, whoever I’d behn with, I’d have had to stop it to beh wih yuh.’

I was still finding it hard to believe, but it was true. If I’d been with Carrie, or Jules, or if I’d been on my way to the other side of the world, it would all have stopped so I could be here with Lau.

Laura

He looked like he could hardly believe what he was saying, but I believed it, because I felt it. It hadn’t been as instant for me, but it felt like it was now as deep. I felt like I could reach out and touch it, this thing that was binding us together.

‘You know what, that’s what it’s like for me too. Not exactly when I first saw you, all I was thinking was ‘blimey, isn’t that Matt Scott?’, but then I couldn’t stop looking at you, and yeah, I felt the same in Mean Bean, it was like a jolt when we touched. I’m still getting it. I can’t quite take it in, but I love it.’

Matt

Every time she said it, said that she’d felt the same things, I got a bit closer to believing that it was going to happen, was happening right now, but there was still shit she needed to know. It was all very well me thinking that nothing would stop me being with her, that she could tell me anything and it wouldn’t make any difference, but she didn’t necessarily have the same point of view.

‘OK, tha’s greht, I’m glad we fehl the same. I wan tuh tell yuh abouh Jules. I keep almost saying stuff, then goin ‘yuh can’t say tha, Lau wouldn’t understand’ but I think maybe yuh would. We were together foh abouh nine months. I ruined her lihf. She’s the reason I’m like I am now, I mehn trying tuh beh honest an shih.’

Laura

I had been dying to know about Julia, but now he was talking about her, I felt a bit shy about it. Their relationship, or its ending, had obviously affected Matt a lot, and part of me felt ridiculously threatened by what they must have had. I put on what I hoped was an interested and not at all a jealous cow expression.

‘What was she like?’

Matt

‘Bih like meh.’

I’d answered before I really thought about it, but it was partly true.

‘Really?’

Lau frowned, as if she knew different, and again I wondered how much she knew from other people.

Laura

Not from what I’d heard, but I didn’t know her.

‘Only tha she hid herself too. I hide behind Matt the Lad, she hid behind being The Ice Queen. She was warm an funny, but scared and insecure. Weh ended up being too dihferent, we wanted dihferent things, or rather jus the one dihferent thing, buh because I was tuh busy hiding, I hid wha I wanted from myself. I wan a fahmly, rehly wan ih, member I said yesterday?’

I nodded, feeling again the thrill of being invited to join Matt in the journey that led to children. Was that what he’d said? It felt like it. But we’d only known each other a day. God, this was completely insane.

‘She dihnt want children. At all. Ever. Noh compromise. I told her I did a week after weh moved in together.’

‘Oh Matt.’

I could only imagine how devastating that had been for both of them. I knew how much I wanted children, and if the opposite had happened to me, if someone I was committed to had told me it was never going to happen, it would have been the end.

Matt

She looked so sad, it was as if she felt it, how much it had hurt both of us.

‘I dihnt know. Ih was when Chahlie was born, I saw them all together, goh this surge of … lohs of things – jehlousy, recognition, felt ahl protehtive, I jus wanted ih, wha they had. I knew that day ih was gona end wih me an Jules, ih would either go on fuh a while, both pretending ih was OK, then ripping us apart, or ih could rip us apart there an then. Tha’s wha happened. She smashed the place up, picked up her stuff, I never saw her again, apart from one of the mos fucking awful wehks at work Ih’v ever had. The worst thing was, she had this thing, she said she dihnt believe in love, said ih was made up by pehpl. So I’d tell her I dihnt love her, like ih was gona make her fehl better. Buh I did, I so did, I even pretended tha. I told her in the end, wrote a letter, buh way tuh late. So tha’s why now, if I feel ih, I say ih. I try tuh be honest abouh wha I want, wha I’m feeling, first tuh myself and then tuh other pehpl. I’m getting there, buh still a bluhdy mardy git sometimes. Cahnt always dehl wih pehpl caring.’

Laura

‘Do you still love her?’

I needed to know, not that I thought it would make any difference to me, but you need to know these things rather than wondering. Matt’s story was so sad, he obviously still felt very guilty about what had happened, and I wanted to know how he felt now. He’d said, incredibly, unbelievably, that when he saw me – me – only yesterday, he would have finished it anyway. That took a lot of getting my head round, and I just wanted to know how things stood with him and Julia.

Matt

Well that was a bloody awkward question. I knew Lau had seen Jules’ photo, and would have seen me flicking past her pictures on my phone. I could have just said no, but I wanted to start as I intended to go on, and that meant being as honest as I could. I took a deep breath and sighed it out.

‘I think part of meh will always love her. Part of meh still loves Carrie, or how she was tuh staht wih. Buh foh meh ih’s abouh putting ih away, moving on.’

Laura

It was a truly honest reply. He wasn’t trying to soften anything for me; he was just telling me his truth. I reached up and stroked his hair. He put his hand over mine, then pulled it to his mouth and gently kissed my knuckles, looking into my eyes as he did so.

Matt

She seemed OK with this big splurge of information, and I wanted her to know I was grateful.

‘Soh, wha tha means is I tell yuh wha I’m feeling when I feel ih. Try noh tuh hide or be scared of ih. Migh not always manage ih. Migh beh a bih intense foh yuh.’

I really wanted to start this that way, facing up to everything as it happened, not letting my need to keep things to myself, or to do things on my own, or for bloody man points, stop me from being open about shit. I really wanted it. I was at least going to try.

‘Honesty is the best way. I’m pretty up front, usually. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but everyone knows where they are.’

‘OK, then, leh’s start now. Ih’m amazed an fucking terrified. I feel like I’ve found something I dihnt know I was looking foh, buh always needed. I dihnt think I believed in love at first sigh.’

Oh shit, what the fuck was I saying? I said I was being open, not bloody blurting out ridiculousness. Extreme backtracking was in order.

‘Not sayin I love yuh, migh be a bih soon, buh dohnt know how tuh describe wha I’m fehlin.’

I wondered if I’d got away with it. Lau didn’t seem fazed, she was just looking at me the same way she had been all evening, her direct gaze seeming to find a connecting link with my soul. However, this was the closest I had come for a long time to telling someone I loved them. It would, in a way, have been easy to say, as I was feeling such strong emotions for Lau, but saying it now would have been foolhardy, and I wasn’t sure, not yet.

Laura

My heart was pounding. Despite his backtracking, Matt had practically said he loved me. It was mad, crazy, absolutely the most bonkers thing, but so thrilling and so fast. How can you feel like that for someone you’ve just met, who you barely know? But it was true, mad as it was; I felt exactly the same. Sensible Nurse Laura decided to talk for me, though.

‘There’s no rush to say anything we can’t take back later. Let’s just see how it goes. The ‘L’ word is huge. The other ‘L’ word is a bit less scary.’

Matt

I waited for her to tell me which other ‘L’ word she had chosen. I could think of a few I could try – lick, lap, lips …

‘Like.’

‘Oh. Yeh. And lust. Lohs of lust foh yuh, Lau. I like lusting after Lau a loh. Yuhr turn: Matt makes me …’

I tried to reduce the intensity a bit, to back us both away from what I had nearly declared so rashly, and I waggled my eyebrows, indicating she should finish the sentence.

‘Oh. OK … Matt makes me mad with … er … magnetism …’

‘Magnetism? Tha’s best yuh can come up wih?’

‘I thought it was a fair shot for being put totally on the spot.’

‘How abouh manly masculinity?’

‘If you like.’

‘Manly Matt likes Lusty Lau a loh.’

‘And Lusty Lau … er … must have Manly Matt.’

‘Yuhr rubbish at this.’

‘Oi! My name is much easier to rhyme with.’

‘Not rhyming, alliterating.’

‘OK, clever clogs. You just had some lucky words.’

‘Leh’s call ih a draw. Lau …’

I looked into her eyes. She looked back. I loved messing about with her, batting words to and fro, but it wasn’t all I wanted to do. There was a plan to be following.

‘I rehly wana kiss yuh.’

‘OK. What’s stopping you?’

‘Not much. Buh not often behn in bed wih a woman, an snogged an tha’s ih.’

‘We managed OK yesterday, didn’t we?’

‘Yeh, buh yuh wanted more, an I frehked.’

This, us, being together but not being able to be properly together, was going to get weird – or should that be weirder – if we didn’t talk about it.

‘I didn’t notice you freaking, I noticed you asking me to stop and me stopping. Isn’t that what everyone does? Matt, I’ll say it as often as you need me to, we’re taking it slowly here. Maybe some things are going way way fast, but that’s fine because other things can go way way slow. Slow is fine, slow is good, slow is damn good, we can get to know each other, talk about things, work stuff out before we worry about sex. We’re doing everything else the wrong way round, why not that too?’

God, she was awesome. She was just so calm and down to earth about it all, like it was completely normal for her to spend two nights in a row in bed with a fucking cripple with fucked-up downbelows, kissing and feeling each other up and nothing more, no more fucking anything for the foreseeable.

Laura

He carried on looking into my eyes. If he didn’t kiss me soon, I was going to take matters into my own hands.

‘Lau, yuhr fucking amazing.’

I shrugged modestly, relishing the compliment.

Matt

‘Knoh wha, though, I’m bluhdy knackered.’

I laughed.

‘Cahnt believe I’m saying tha, wha’s time? Shih, not even eigh yet. Quick snog then sleep foh me, yuh gona stay?’

‘I can’t stay the night, I haven’t brought anything with me.’

‘Stay foh bih? Jus cuddle.’

I was still pushing, trying to get her to stay. I wondered whether, if she fell asleep, she’d end up staying the night anyway. I didn’t care if she slept in her undies – was extremely unambivalent to the idea actually – and I could rustle up a spare toothbrush if necessary.

From the living room, Beth’s text tone sounded. I sighed. I’d managed to forget, for a couple of hours, that I was the personal property of Beth Scott due to being short-sighted enough to have awarded her health coordinator status. I was bloody irritated that she’d reminded me.

‘Wha now? They’ve made ih since this afternoon withouh checking up on meh.’

‘Just answer them, Matt.’

I sighed again, closed my eyes, almost too tired to bother, then opened them, gave Lau a quick kiss on the lips and tottered into the living room to retrieve my phone.

Laura

I watched him walk unsteadily to the living room, retrieve his phone, and come back to bed.

‘You’re really tired, aren’t you.’

He looked at me ruefully and nodded.

‘Even if I was fuhly functional, wouldn’t hahv the energy tonigh. Iz does foh meh, an had a long day yesterday. Wih lohs of excitement.’

He winked at me, then bent his head to his phone to read his text.

Matt

‘Oh, ha ha, apparently Iz told Beth she was going tuh live wih me so she can hahv pizza and ice crehm foh lunch every day.’

Excellent. My afternoon’s work was yielding fruit. That would teach Beth. Oh, no, that’s right, it wouldn’t, but that didn’t stop me gloating about my small and extremely time-limited victory.

‘So she’s not checking up on you, then, just checking in.’

Oh alright, you win, Lau. You always did.

‘OK, yuhr righ, I did hear wha yuh said yesterday, Ih’v been texting back more today. Maybe ih’s worked.’

‘Bossy Nurse Laura strikes again.’

She raised a brow at me, impishly

‘Yeh. Cohm here before yuhr head gehs too big tuh snog.’

Laura

We moved towards each other and our lips met with the increasingly familiar jolt of electricity. We held each other tightly and moved slowly and lingeringly in each other’s mouths, hands roaming over each other’s bodies. I felt Matt’s hands slide down my back and settle on my bum, where he stroked me over the top of my knickers. I followed suit and moved my hands along his side, unable to resist slipping my hand under the waistband of his boxers, where it came to rest on his bum cheek. It was very firm and was crying out for a squeeze, so I squeezed.

Matt

‘Holy fuck, Lau, yuhr killing me.’

‘Sorry, shall I stop?’

‘Fuck noh. Loving ih. Yuhv goh greht hands.’

We held each other, touching, kissing, looking deep into each other’s eyes, until I was unable to stop the blackness of sleep claiming me. It drifted in from the corners of my vision and took me away while I was stroking Lau’s soft hair and feeling her lips tasting mine.

I hope you’ve noticed. I hope you’ve been paying attention to what I have been doing and what I haven’t been doing. There has been a lot of groping and feeling up that Matt and Lau have been doing, and I expect you assume that all parts have been fair game, but if you think about it, no, not all parts. I have been saving myself. We have been going faster than a speeding bullet the last couple of days, but I kind of knew that there were some places I needed to save until later to explore.

Part of it was my plan, and part of it was it just felt right. No cupping was had, by either of us, just stroking of arses, deep kisses. We could have knocked ourselves out, gone everywhere, but it was as if we were balancing the insane speed we were going at emotionally with going slow slow slow in the physical reconnaissance mission. Without Lau telling me, or me having to ask, I knew it was too soon to be touching the bits enclosed in her sensible black bra and pants. Maybe the simple nature of her underwear was sending a message in itself. I didn’t know when she’d be ready, but I knew I’d know. I had never been so in tune with anyone in my life.

Laura

We snuggled together for a while longer, touching, kissing a bit – and oh, his kisses were just as thrilling and tantalising and delicious as they had been the first time – until I felt Matt’s movements slow and stop, his body relax. I spent a long time looking at his face – his eyes were shut, his mouth slightly open, and I heard his breathing deepen. I waited a while, until he’d had the chance to fall properly asleep, then disentangled myself gently and climbed out of bed, grabbing my dress and uniform as I crept out of the room, pulling the door shut behind me. I dressed quickly, then, on a whim, found a bit of paper and wrote a note.

I left it on my pillow, then I let myself quietly out of the flat and drove home, smiling to myself the whole way.

I went to bed early myself. I’d had a tiring twenty four hours or so, and some solid sleep felt like a really good idea. Matt had other ideas, though.

Matt

I woke up and I was alone. It felt wrong, more wrong than sleeping alone had ever felt before. It was the dead of night, and Lau was gone and I missed her. Then I saw the note she’d left, sitting on her pillow, where her head had rested, facing me, just a few hours ago.

Hope you slept well, you look so cute when you’re asleep.

Thanks for a lovely evening,

looking forward to tomorrow’s 30-something DVD night.

My place?

Text me.

Lusty Lau xx

Something that had been blinking at the edge of my consciousness came into view as I read the note. I had no idea how old Lau was. I hadn’t even thought about it. She’d written ’30-something DVD night’, so I assumed she was in her thirties, and yeah I guess I knew she wasn’t like eighteen or some such shit. She certainly wasn’t older than me, but she had a kind of, oh I don’t know, can I call it an ‘ageless quality’ and not sound like a complete arse? Probably not. I guess I mean it didn’t matter. She could have been eighteen or twenty eight or thirty eight or forty eight or more maybe (OK I’m being generous to myself, perhaps), and she would still have been Lau, still the one I’d been looking for. It wasn’t important, but it was … relevant. To the whole having a family thing. I hoped it would become clearer without me having any awkward conversations, and I dismissed it from my mind for now.

So anyway, I was missing Lau, like crazy. I reached for my phone. She’d said text her, although she probably didn’t mean text her in the middle of the night, but you couldn’t be too careful, wouldn’t want to piss her off by mistake.

Laura

A ping from my phone woke me up in the middle of the night. I reached for it blearily, in my disoriented state thinking it was the alarm. The time said three twenty. There was a text.

‘Yr not here 😦 miss u. Thx 4 note.’

Matt

There was a bit of a pause, and I nearly drifted back to sleep. Then she answered.

‘U shld b asleep. Need ur strength 4 2moro = film nite.’

‘U said txt u.’

‘Didn’t mean immediately.’

‘Oh. Shld b more specific w yr bossiness ;)’

‘Will remember 🙂 Go 2 sleep now. Specific enough?’

‘Yeh. Night Lau x’

‘Night x’

‘Sleep tight.’

‘Thx. U2.’

‘Don’t let bedbugs etc.’

‘Go 2 sleep.’

‘Can’t. Miss u.’

‘Me 2 but need sleep. Night. Still holding hands, if it helps.’

‘Yeh. Helps 🙂 xx’

And so I floated back to sleep, holding her hand in my thoughts.

I dreamed that night. I hardly ever dream, or if I do I don’t remember them, but that night I dreamed I was riding a horse along a beach, looking for something. Just as I found it, I woke up. I felt more awake and alert than I had for a long time, and I checked the time. I was amazed to find that it was only just gone quarter past seven.

Lau. My next thought was Lau. She would be getting ready for her day. I grabbed my phone and started texting, thinking that she wouldn’t have much opportunity once she got to work.

Laura

And so another day dawned, at seven seventeen, with the insistent alarm tone of my phone pulling me out of a dream in which I was following a horse along a beach. There was more to it than that, but it skittered away as dreams do and I’d forgotten it before I’d swung my legs out of bed. As I pulled my dressing gown on, my phone pinged. Text from Matt.

‘Hey Lau, u up?’

‘Yes. Just.’

‘We didn’t have dessert.’

‘Oh yeah. Never mind. Bring 2nite?’

‘Cool. Wot time?’

‘I’ll b home after five. NE time after then :)’

‘Wot DVD?’

‘Bring one? One each. If we last that long. DVD nite can b 2 nites. Or 3.’

‘gr8. Cu l8r. M xx’

‘cu xx’

And so, happily set up for the day, I showered, dressed, had breakfast and left for work. Anna was back, her cold on the mend, and when I got in Kate was filling her in on developments with her patients while she’d been off.

‘Hi Lau, thanks for doing the LMS day, I owe you one.’

‘No problem, An, it was a good day.’

With a sudden shiver, I realised that if Anna hadn’t been off sick, I wouldn’t have met Matt. I wouldn’t be in the middle of this thrilling swirl of excitement and emotion. The things that hinge on the common cold virus.

‘Hey, yeah, An, you’ll never guess who came along as a newbie.’

Still not wanting to discuss it, I scowled at Kate, who deliberately didn’t look at me.

‘No, who?’

‘Matt Scott.’

‘What, Rach’s Matt?’

‘Well, Rach’s and half the bloody women in the city’s Matt, yeah.’

‘He’s been diagnosed?’

Kate turned to me, questioning eyebrows raised.

‘Don’t look at me, I just had a quick chat with him afterwards.’

This earned an exasperated snort from Kate.

‘How’s Rach taken it?’

‘Pretty bloody philosophically, actually. She said yesterday he wasn’t a superhero and it was time to move on.’

‘Wow. Might be the best thing that’s ever happened to her, well since ‘that night’.’

Matt

So that was my evening sorted, and the plan was taking shape nicely. Now for the rest of the day. I was feeling great, and getting up early would enable me to organise things so I wasn’t dashing about. I lay in bed for a while, enjoying feeling clear-headed. I sent Lau another text and then I fell asleep, and woke up near lunchtime, feeling muzzy.

Laura

I busied myself boiling the kettle and putting teabags in mugs, trying not to get involved in the conversation. I heard my phone ping in my bag. Another text from Matt.

‘Holding hands xx’

‘:) xx’

Kate noticed me texting.

‘Your mum up and about early, is she?’

It was a sad reflection of my recent lack of romantic success that the person who was most likely to be texting me this early in the morning was my mother, but I smiled ambiguously and let her think what she wanted to.

‘Have a chilled evening yesterday?’

‘Yeah, great, had a takeaway, wine, went to bed early.’

It was all true; leaving stuff out like where and who with, and not mentioning the odd head massage and going to bed with a handsome man again wasn’t like really lying.

‘Sounds like just what you needed, Lau, you weren’t really here yesterday afternoon.’

‘Yeah, I think it was. Oh, hi Rach. Tea?’

The morning went on, all of us either on visits or catching up with writing notes on the computer. Lunchtime came and went with the usual sandwich run, and then we had a referral meeting to set up our schedule for the next week. There was always a steady flow of new referrals to the service, and we each had responsibility for a fairly large caseload.

Matt

I picked up my phone and saw several texts from various people.

Lau: ‘:) xx’

Dec: ‘Alright, m8? Hope u still on 4 Charlie sitting/sleepover Sat :)’

Beth: ‘How r u 2day?’

‘Hi Matty. There’s an all-ability walking group in Telton. Interested?’

‘Emailed u article abt MS and diet.’

‘Don’t forget Amy’s birthday.’

Mum had called but not left a message, as she never did, and Beth must have recruited Jay into the ‘let’s all bug Matty, I’m obviously not annoying him enough on my own’ campaign, as there was a voicemail from him.

‘Hi Matty, er, just, er, wondered if you could, er – oh alright, Beth, just let me do it. Give Beth a call, or something, mate, she’s giving me a ton of bloody grief, you’ll save my ears. Wha –’

I tried not to be exasperated. They all knew I slept hard and never heard my phone if I was really gone. Lau’s words kept coming back to me, and I pinged off a few texts:

‘Hey. Yep, looking 4ward 2 keeping Charlie up l8 on Sat ;)’

‘Beth. I am alive. Was there something u needed? No 2 cripples walking gp, thx tho. Diet? Donuts n beer do it 4 me. CU Sun.’

‘Hey Jay. Tell Beth hv already got Amy’s present. Hope u hv 2.’

Then I called Mum back. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have allowed herself to be drafted into Beth’s circle of bothering, as she was usually pretty good unless it was a real emergency, so there was something specific she wanted to talk to me about.

‘Heh Muhm.’

‘Matthew, dear. I tried to call you earlier.’

‘Yeh, I knoh. Ahr yuh OK?’

‘Yes, dear, but I was wondering if you could help me out with something?’

Mum, bless her heart, always tried her hardest to think of ways to make me feel useful. She knew I was pretty fucked in the limbs department, and my usual handyman abilities were out the window at the moment, so it was often something like a cryptic crossword clue, or she was writing a letter to someone and wanted another word for ‘nice’. She didn’t think I knew what she was doing, or maybe she did and we just played the game of not letting on that I knew she knew I knew, because it was out of kindness, and it worked, in a weird kind of way. It’s always good to be needed, even if it’s only for the answer to seven across.

‘Wha yuh nehd?’

‘Well I was talking to someone at the gardening club the other day, and we were discussing sauces.’

This time it was cooking. Well, I was pretty into cooking, so fair enough.

‘Uh huh.’

‘Well, we were having a slight disagreement about the ingredients of béarnaise sauce. I said that béarnaise had shallots and tarragon, but someone else said that was hollandaise. I was sure you’d know.’

‘Top of the clahs, Muhm. The sauhce is the sahm, buh diffrehnt grehdy yuhms.’

‘Different what, dear?’

I laughed. ‘Iz’s new wohd. Ingrehdiehts. I lihk hers behter.’

‘Ha ha, me too. So what’s in hollandaise? I just want to make sure I get it right next week.’

‘Lehmon juhs an cahenne. Goh geh ’em.’

‘I will. Thank you, dear. How are you?’

Mum was allowed to ask because a) she always talked about something else first and b) she was my mum. I didn’t always tell her the truth, because you don’t always tell your mum everything, but today I was taking advice from a particularly lovely expert in my specific fucking bastard neurological disorder, and I told her the truth. Oh, not about the lovely expert, I wasn’t spilling everything just yet, come on, do you know me at all?

‘Bih wihped. Hahd busy cohple of days. Ohnly jus wohk up.’

‘Oh, you had that day at the church hall, didn’t you. Beth said you stayed for the whole thing.’

Bloody Beth, see, this was why I was so reluctant to do things, go anywhere, talk about anything, because it got endlessly discussed with everyone whether you wanted it or not. I felt like I was public property, and it really pissed me off, and then I stopped talking to anyone about anything. Like with Mum, now. I expect she’d been part of the whole ‘where’s Matty, let’s all panic until we know he’s tucked up in his own bed’ malarkey, even though she hadn’t texted or called herself, but I wasn’t going there right now, and I just closed off.

‘Did she?’

Mum sensed my withdrawal, as she changed the subject.

‘So are you going to Sunday lunch?’

‘Yeh. Staying at Dec an Amy’s Satuhday nigh, lohking after Chahlie while thehr ouh fuh Amy’s birthday. Goin wih them Suhnday mohning.’

I wondered about taking Lau along with me, but I wanted her to myself for a bit longer before I subjected her to the madness of a full-on Scott interrogation. Maybe another time.

Mum, sensing that I’d been annoyed by Beth talking about me to all and sundry, wrapped things up before I could take any further umbrage.

‘Alright, well I’ll see you on Sunday, then. Rose is bringing me.’

‘OK, Muhm, seh yuh thehn.’

I pottered about, getting myself some lunch, changing my bed, doing laundry, all things that should have been so mundane, but all things that sapped my strength, and I had to do slowly and efficiently to conserve my energy. Half way through the afternoon, I sent Lau a text.

Can’t wait 2 cu l8r. Amelie n cheesecake. Mm. Xx.

There wasn’t an immediate reply, and I got on with something else, then I heard the ping and picked up my phone.

Laura

Half way through the afternoon, it was my turn to make the tea. I heard my phone ping on my desk, but didn’t think much of it until I heard Rachel’s voice.

‘Lau … you’ve got a text from Matt?

‘What?’

She was holding my phone up, with the screen clearly showing his name. I never blushed, but I felt my face begin to heat up.

‘Why’s Matt texting you? Is it Matt Matt, as in newly diagnosed with MS and while we’re at it serial woman dumper Matt?’

She looked at the screen. Anna and Kate looked on wide-eyed.

‘Oh my God! You’re seeing him later? What the fuck Lau? He’s texted you kisses.’

I couldn’t make my mouth say any words. I stood there, kettle in my hand, trying to find a single thing to say that would explain it without lying my head off. I could have lied my head off, I might even have made it sound convincing, but eventually Rachel was going to know. And I never lied, but I felt like I had spent the last couple of days at work half-lying. Maybe it was better for all of us that she knew now, when it was new, and I hadn’t been deceiving everyone for ages. My face went hot – it wasn’t embarrassment, it was shame, my half-truths and deceit catching up with me. Trying to ignore my reddened cheeks, I had a stab at it.

‘I’m sorry, Rach, maybe I should have said something, but it’s early days –’

‘Lau!’

This was Kate.

‘You’re not serious, you’re seeing Matt bloody Scott? Oh that is just wrong on so many levels.’

Rachel had turned as red as me, and I saw her expression darken.

‘Well I think I’ll just reply, shall I?’

She started to tap on my phone. I dropped the kettle back onto the table in my haste to get the phone back from Rachel, but she gave it a final triumphant tap and threw it on my desk before picking up her bag and marching out of the office. Kate and Anna continued to look at me, open mouthed.

‘What? It’s not like it’s illegal.’

I lifted my chin defiantly.

‘Bloody hell, Lau, no wonder you didn’t want us all asking about him. What are you thinking? Apart from all the grief he’s given Rach, who is your friend in case you need reminding, he’s a wanker of the first order and, just to top it all, he’s got bloody MS. Could you be seeing a more inappropriate person?’

I held her gaze, determined not to be ashamed. What Matt and I were starting to have wasn’t shameful, I’d checked it out with Patrick, it was just that things were awkward while Rachel was getting used to it.

Then I had a bit of a reality check. I’d known how upset Rachel was going to be, and I’d gone ahead anyway, not really caring. Now things were going to be really tricky here, I had lost a good friend, and, yes, Kate was right, it was a pretty inappropriate relationship. As I was thinking all this, my phone rang. I walked over to where Rachel had thrown it. The screen announced that Matt was calling. I answered, then walked outside.

Matt

I was more than a bit surprised by Lau’s response.

‘Get lost you cocking ballache.’

What? Something had gone badly wrong. Either I had done something to upset her, although what the fuck it could have been I had no clue, or someone had told her something about me, or maybe someone had taken her phone, maybe she’d been mugged, or – I needed to stop catastrophising and call her. I frantically hit call and waited for what seemed like a million rings before it was answered.

‘Hello.’

So she hadn’t lost her phone. It must have been directed at me, then. She didn’t sound that pleased to hear from me. Fuck, what had I done?

‘Lau? Wha’s wrong?’

Laura

Wow, it was as if he was psychic. How could he have possibly known what had just happened? He couldn’t. What did he mean, then?

‘Er …’

Matt

She sounded hesitant and a bit confused.

‘Why did yuh call me a cocking ballache?’

Laura

‘Oh.’

Oh great. Rach had really landed me in it.

‘I didn’t. That was Rachel. Sorry, a whole lot of something smelly just hit the fan here. She saw your text, wasn’t happy, sent you a reply.’

Matt

Oh, the friend. Well that explained things a bit, but sounded bad from Lau’s point of view.

‘Oh fuck. Are yuh OK?’

Laura

Matt seemed to be taking it well. At least he didn’t think it was me who’d sent him an insulting message.

‘Been better. It was bound to happen eventually. I’d have liked a bit more time to prepare, but whatever. Better out than in, as they say.’

I tried to put a smile in my voice, but felt close to tears and took a deep shuddering breath.

Matt

She sounded like she was putting on a brave face and I so wished I could see her, hold her, make it alright.

‘Are yuh nearly finished foh the day?’

‘Hour or so more.’

Oh bloody hell, I needed to get going, if I was going to get all the buses I needed to cross the city to Lau’s house. I tried to sound as reassuring as I knew how to, before I disconnected and set off.

‘Hang in there. Hohding hands till I see yuh.’

‘Thanks. Need it. Better go.’

‘Bye Lau.’

I sent her some virtual strength through our still mentally clasped hands, not that it was likely to make any difference, but was the best I could manage.

77. Kissy kissy

In which two people miss each other all day.

Laura

Matt Scott had certainly put a spell on me that acted in close proximity. The further away from him I got, the more I started to doubt what I had felt, what he had said, how we had seemed so … right together. It was only the thought of us holding hands across the city that stopped me from completely disbelieving it had happened. Somehow being with Matt was stopping me thinking and considering. I didn’t mind that, it was exciting to just act rather than questioning everything, but being apart meant I had time to think.

Matt

A quick check of the clock told me I had at least a couple of hours before Iz arrived. I cleared away the breakfast things and sat down on the sofa with my iPad, intending to find some games for Iz to play.

Laura

I got to work a lot later than I was used to. Rachel and Kate were already there, catching up with notes on the computer. They looked up as I walked in.

‘Nice of you to grace us with your presence.’ Kate grinned.

‘Well I worked on my day off. Bit of time owing seemed fair enough. Anyone want a cuppa?’

‘Yes please, I need a break from writing up Mrs Richards.’

Rachel handed me her cup, and Kate followed suit.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Oh, just had to give someone a lift.’

I tried to make ‘someone’ sound like ‘my mum’. I must have managed it, as there were no further questions.

While I was boiling the kettle, Kate was looking at me pointedly.

‘What?’

‘Any more news on your last minute counselling session?’

I’d almost forgotten about it, it seemed a million years ago. But now I was going to have to be careful what I said; I didn’t want to deceive either of them, they were my friends as well as my colleagues, but this whatever it was with Matt was just too new and unknown to announce and dissect, and there were Rachel’s feelings to consider too.

‘No, nothing to report.’

‘Going to write it up?’

Kate was really pushing, because, I realised, she wanted me to tell Rachel.

‘No, it was just coffee and a chat. Nothing official.’

Kate frowned at me, not understanding why I didn’t want to say anything. She didn’t know Matt and I were, well Matt and I, and I was at a loss as to what to say. Luckily, Patrick came out of his office, saw me and asked if we could meet earlier, as in now, as he had an appointment he’d had to rearrange. Relieved, I agreed, but realised it had only put off the inevitable.

Patrick and I discussed the usual list of cases and talked about the Living with MS days, how successful they’d been, how we could change things to make them better, and then he asked if there was anything else I wanted to discuss.

‘Actually, I have got a bit of a hypothetical situation.’

Patrick sat back in his chair.

‘Right. Let’s have it then.’

‘OK, well this is completely hypothetical. Don’t read anything into it, it’s just a question.’

‘Alright.’

A look of amusement crossed his face, and I realised I might just as well have said, ‘I’ve got this friend …’

‘Well, say someone works for a health service, and they meet someone who has a condition but isn’t formally known to the service but has used a couple of the resources, like an information day, and maybe a helpline, and the two people have, er, a relationship. Is that allowed?’

Patrick looked at me, frowning slightly.

‘Hypothetically, is the person with the condition likely to become a patient of the person who works for the health service?’

‘Unlikely, but, I suppose, possible.’

‘Hmm. I think that as long as things are informal, then there isn’t a problem. Anyone can come to the ‘information days’ or use a helpline, they don’t have to give their name, they don’t have to be a patient, we … er … the health service don’t have to know who they are. It becomes more tricky if someone is officially a patient of a service. Not impossible, just tricky. You – er – the person working for the health service wouldn’t be allowed to directly treat that person, for example. Or have access to their medical records.’

‘OK. That’s helpful. Thank you.’

‘Laura, I know this is hypothetical, but we’re not talking about a certain tall young man who may or may not have been waiting until Kate and I had left yesterday to go back into the church hall where he could talk to you on your own, are we?’

I should have known he’d work it out; Patrick didn’t miss much, and it’s not like my hypothetical health service employee was subtly camouflaged. I still wasn’t able to admit it out loud, though, it was still too new.

‘I don’t know what you mean, I was just asking out of interest.’

Patrick sighed.

‘Alright, Laura. You will be careful, hypothetically, won’t you.’

I chose not to answer, gathered some papers up, put them in a folder, smiled at Patrick and walked back into the main office.

I felt vindicated by the conversation. All of us had talked about whether we’d ever go out with a patient, and we’d all said no, it was a big taboo, even if he was the hottest, richest guy on earth, even if he was Ben Affleck (my personal favourite, and I’d said no, but secretly I so would have), Ryan Gosling (Kate’s heartthrob), Harry Styles (Rach’s guilty pleasure) or Liam Neeson (Anna’s golden oldie). But I knew where I stood, how I felt, and I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t.

Back in the main office, Kate was still on a mission to make me tell Rachel. I suppose I should have been grateful she wasn’t just blurting it out herself, but avoiding the comments and looks was becoming more difficult and it felt uncomfortable. When Rachel finally left the room, Kate rounded on me.

‘What’s your problem, Lau? Why don’t you want to tell Rach?’

‘It’s not her business. It’s not anyone’s. He’s not on our list, he was a drop-in, it’s not up to me to go telling anyone. I don’t think it would be helpful.’

‘It would help cheer Rach up.’

‘That’s mean. You wouldn’t like it if it was you some bunch of health professionals were gossiping about over their PG Tips, using your problems to have a good laugh.’

‘That’s beside the point. If anyone’s used to being gossiped about it’s bloody Matt Scott.’

‘He has a right to privacy.’

Kate snorted.

‘He has a right to a good kick up the arse and that’s more effort than I’d spend on him.’

‘Who’s this?’

Rachel had come back unnoticed by either of us. We were both silent, Kate scowling at me while I busied myself turning my computer on.

‘Kate? Who deserves a kick up the arse?’

‘Who do you think?’

‘Kate …’

I could tell by the way she avoided my eyes and lifted her chin that she was going to say something, but I didn’t know how to stop it.

‘Who are we usually talking about when kicks up the arse are mentioned?’

Rachel was quiet for a moment, looking from Kate to me and back again, then said in a small voice,

‘Matt. Why, what’s happened?’

‘Lau had coffee with him yesterday.’

Rachel looked at me with a stricken expression that told me everything I needed to know about how she would deal with the rest of the story so far.

‘What? Lau?’

I sighed. I couldn’t tell it all, not yet. I was going to have to lie.

‘It was strictly professional. Thanks Kate. He was at the LMS day yesterday. He wanted to talk afterwards, he had some issues he wanted to chat about.’

‘He was at the LMS day? Wait, Lau, has he …’

Rachel’s face showed a succession of emotions, starting with puzzlement as she started to work it out, comprehension as she realised, a brief glimpse of pity, and then, finally, triumph. It was hard to see it, how pleased she was.

‘… has he got MS?’

I nodded. Rachel’s eyes shone.

‘Well isn’t that just ironic. How very fitting. I hope he enjoyed your sex talk about how hard it can be to get it up.’

‘Rach, come on, have some compassion.’

‘Compassion? After what he did to me and countless other women across this city? He’s got everything he deserves. Did he say anything about the Ice Queen?’

‘No. We weren’t talking for long. He got tired … and needed to go home.’

With approximately fifteen hours between the getting tired and the needing to go home, obviously.

‘How bad is he?’

Her gleeful need for information made me feel slightly sick.

‘Rach, that’s unworthy of you. He’s got MS. It’s bad enough.’

Kate decided to weigh in.

‘Oh stop being such a goody-goody Lau. Anyone would think you cared about him. We goss about people all the bloody time, it doesn’t go outside the team. It won’t this time, will it Rach?’

Rachel looked at Kate and shook her head, but I wasn’t sure. Rachel told anyone who would listen about how Matt Scott had ruined her life, and it was likely that she would tell the same people now she felt he’d had his comeuppance. I felt I needed to warn her of the consequences, even though my main goal was to protect Matt.

‘It had better not, Rach, because if the whole city is talking about how Matt Scott has MS, and he finds out it’s because it came from us, we will all be in serious trouble. It’s breaching confidentiality.’

‘Lau, he’s not even a patient.’

‘It’s personal information he hasn’t given us permission to use. Rach, you can’t tell anyone. I know you want to, I know how much you want to tell everyone, but you can’t. You just can’t.’

Rachel lowered her eyes and nodded. Maybe, just maybe, if she didn’t get too drunk and forget herself, she would be able to keep it to herself.

There was an uncomfortable silence in the office for the rest of the morning, which I escaped from as soon as I could in the name of, firstly going on a couple of visits, and then the lunchtime sandwich run.

Matt

Before I knew it, the buzzer was sounding, and I was waking up groggily, iPad on the floor, still wearing yesterday’s clothes. I hadn’t realised I was still tired; I still didn’t pace myself very well, choosing to believe I could outsmart the fucking bastard by deciding not to allow myself to feel exhausted. Never worked, but it didn’t stop me trying.

Anyway, Iz was now here, and I was all rumpled and half-awake, and I just had to hope that Beth was so eager to get to her lunch appointment that she didn’t notice. The buzzer sounded again, twice, and I hurried over to answer it.

‘Yeh.’

‘Hi Matty. I wondered if you were in.’

‘On the loo. Cohm uhp.’

I pressed the door entry button and waited, trying to smooth my hair down and wipe some of the sleep from my eyes.

There was a knock on the door, and I opened it, sweeping Iz into my arms and making a big fuss of her so that Beth didn’t get a chance to comment on anything she may have noticed. I was well able to fend her off, but the less practice she got, the less I had to endure it.

‘Heh beauhiful. Ooh, who hahv yuh got hehr?’

I nodded at the doll Iz was clutching as I took her over to the sofa; I never held any of the kids for long, ever since I’d nearly dropped Charlie.

‘Barbie.’

‘Oh rehly.’

I looked at Beth, who had always taken a particularly anti-Barbie stance before Iz started pestering her for one.

‘Yes, well, some you win, some you lose, Matty. Carol bought it for her birthday, I think it was their little secret.’

I laughed out loud at Mum outwitting Beth in cahoots with Iz. It had been Iz’s birthday a couple of weeks ago, and I’d had strict instructions about the type of birthday present that would be acceptable. I had duly bought an educational game, and given it to Iz at her party, but had also snuck in a big box of tooth-rotting sweeties and a DVD of some sexist cartoon that Iz loved where Mummy did the housework and Daddy worked all day and the kids had adventures.

If Beth didn’t go on so much, people would be much better behaved around her children. ‘People’ meaning me; everyone else pretty much did as they were told.

‘Scohr Muhm.’

‘Hmm. Anyway, if you’re sure you’ll be OK until two …’

‘Yeh. Suhr. Goh tuh yuhr thing an hahv a guhd whaever ih is.’

‘I’m meeting –’

‘Yeh, whaever ih is. Goh. Meh an Iz hahv goh playpahks tuh explohr.’

‘Unca Matty, can Barbie come to the playpark?’

‘Yeh, blohndie. Say bye tuh Muhmmy.’

‘Bye Mummy.’

Iz dismissed Beth as crisply as only a four year old can, and Beth disappeared, looking slightly hurt. I had managed to avoid any searching questions, and now I was going to have a good time with Iz.

I could still feel Lau holding my hand, and I hoped it wasn’t stopping her getting any work done, but it was getting me through my day. I loved spending time with Iz, but she was demanding, always asking questions, wanting to have races, never happy to sit and look at stuff. That was great, it was what being a kid was all about, and she was never going to be one of those obese children you see on the news when it’s Fat Kid Week or some such shit. But she bloody exhausted me a lot of the time, and I had to either keep up and suffer later, or be inventive with things that kept her occupied while giving me a bit of a rest.

Today’s cunning plan, which mostly worked, was to let Iz run around in the play park, showing me how good she was at swinging the swing by herself, making a friend or two who she could dash madly about squealing with while I took a breather on a bench, at the same time fending off curious glances from the mums of the new friends, who wondered if I was her dad or some child stealer but couldn’t decide how to ask. Then, having expended some of her newly four year old energy, it was down to Pizza Place for a bit of a sit, some colouring courtesy of The Place’s freebies for children, and a good slice of the cheesy tomatoey rat-shitty gloop they called pizza.

My opinion of Pizza Place hadn’t changed, but I did acknowledge its usefulness as a haven for frazzled child-carers. Iz never ate much of the evil stuff and I never ate any of it, but we always ordered a pizza of our choice each, because Iz was never allowed a whole one to herself and usually had to share what Cal wanted. I didn’t tell her off when she didn’t eat hers, because she didn’t tell me off when I didn’t eat mine, and I boxed it all up ‘for later’, took it home, and binned it once she had gone. It was a small price to pay; I wanted to be cool Unca Matty, and I succeeded a lot of the time.

Pizza having not been noticeably eaten, but slices of the rat-shit special put in takeaway boxes and carried up the road, it was time for copious amounts of chocolate ice-cream. I know, I know, she was only really having ice-cream for lunch, bad Unca Matty, but I knew she’d have a balanced meal for dinner via Beth, who calculated nutritional benefits to the microgram of Riboflavin, whatever the fuck that was, and my main aim was to be cool, rather than to instil any kind of discipline or indeed healthy eating habits.

Iz knew exactly where I kept the ice-cream, and she headed to the freezer while I got the bowls and the scoop out.

‘Unca Matty, can I spook it?’

‘Yeh, Iz, hehr’s the spook.’

I never corrected Iz when she got words wrong, as a) who was I to be correcting words just at the moment and b) it was dead cute. So we spooked several spookfuls of chocolate ice-cream into two bowls, squirted strawberry sauce and toffee sauce on top (strawberry is one of your five a day, isn’t it?), and sprinkled pink sparkles over the lot. It made a delightfully sticky mess, and we both ensured a lot of it got on our hands and round our mouths. I took a selfie of us and sent it to Beth, then as an afterthought, asked Beth for Lau’s number ‘so I could say thanks’. I should have asked for her number this morning, but it hadn’t occurred to me.

Beth’s reply came back almost immediately.

‘Honestly, Matty, I don’t know who’s the biggest child. Here’s Laura’s number. R u going 2 contact the MS service?’

No, I had no intention of contacting any bastard MS service, whether Lau worked there or not. I ignored Beth’s text, which is why texts are so great, and sent the picture to Lau.

Laura

I drifted round the local supermarket with my basket, looking for a pudding to take to Matt’s later. Chocolate was always my dessert of choice, but I’d found that men often didn’t particularly like it. I wanted to get something he’d really like, but hardly knowing him was hindering my decision making. Eventually I plumped for a lemon cheesecake, partly as it was a catch-all dessert and partly because I was running out of time and needed to choose something and happened to be standing in front of lemon cheesecakes.

When I got back with the sandwiches, the atmosphere seemed to have cleared a little. We sat and chatted while we ate, about the usual things, TV programmes we’d watched, our mothers and their bossiness, plans for the weekend, nothing at all about sharing a bed with completely unsuitable and inappropriate handsome men, and it felt easier.

‘I’m sorry, Lau.’ Rachel said, out of the blue.

‘What for?’

‘What I said. We were talking while you were out,’

I looked at Kate who was nodding at Rachel.

‘You’re right, I can’t tell anyone. I don’t even think I want to. It was a bit of a shock, that’s all, but I think it’s made me realise he’s only human. God, I’ve been moping after him all this time like he’s some superhero or something. I think I need to move on.’

‘Oh Rach, that’s OK, and if it’s made you feel like you can move on, well that’s a good thing.’

I didn’t want to think about whether she would have moved on far enough to cope with the news that Matt had spent the night with me, or a discussion of what exactly it was that was developing between us in the ‘holding hands’ department. Maybe if we had enough time before she found out, she would deal with it well. And maybe pigs would fly.

‘So are you going to see him again?’

My heart gave a lurch as Kate asked the question, then I realised she meant professionally.

‘Oh, no, we didn’t arrange anything. I guess he’s got the helpline number, he’ll probably ring that.’

‘So he could get me if I’m on call?’

Rachel seemed unsure whether this delighted or panicked her.

‘It’s possible, I suppose. He doesn’t seem like the helpline type, though, it was just a spur of the moment thing after the LMS day. I wouldn’t worry, flower. And if by some million to one chance he does, and it’s your day, you can just pretend the line’s gone dead and transfer the call to me.’

How noble was that? Telling Rach that if something that was never going to happen should happen, I’d deal with it for her, when firstly it was never going to happen, and secondly dealing with it would be one of the least onerous favours I was ever unlikely to do for her.

‘Really? Thanks, Lau, you’re a good friend.’

Which of course made me feel terrible. But not terrible enough to tell all and deal with it there and then.

Peace made between the three of us, it was time for our planning meeting. We had decided to re-jig the format of the Living with MS days, introduce some new topics, and change things around a bit. We’d all had vague ideas from time to time of how things could be better, but now we had the afternoon to make some real plans and freshen things up. I made my contributions, but found my attention wandering, my focus dragged away from guest speakers and venues by a pair of grey eyes and the thought of someone holding my hand from afar.

It didn’t help when I got a text. I pulled my phone out of my bag and looked at the screen, but didn’t recognise the number. I had a closer look when we stopped for a cup of tea. It was from Matt; I couldn’t remember giving him my number – he must have got it from Beth. He’d sent me a selfie of him and Iz, both with ice cream round their mouths.

‘Who’s da messiest? Close call. Liking holding hands with u. M x’

I quickly dashed off a reply.

‘Def u. Liking it 2. CU l8r. Lau x’

I saved his number to my phone. It wasn’t long before another text came, and I got a tiny thrill as my phone announced ‘Matt’.

‘Curry OK 4 l8r? x’

‘gr8 🙂 x’

Kate handed me my tea, and I quickly put my phone in my bag, wondering if having photos and texts from Matt on display was really such a good idea while nobody knew.

Matt

The texting topped me up. I was starting to feel, now Lau had been gone a few hours, like maybe I’d imagined it all, like maybe I’d made more of it than there had been. But the texts, with the kisses, restored my confidence that I hadn’t imagined it, and I started to look forward to the evening. I had plans for Lau, plans that involved showing her that even though I had fucked-up downbelows, we could still be close, we could still connect … yeah, alright, maybe I thought I might be in with a chance of getting in her knickers. One way or another. Maybe not tonight, maybe even I recognised that it could look presumptuous at best, but that didn’t stop the planning from whirring away as I got on with things at home.

I needed to get cracking on dinner after Iz had gone, but I was starting to feel tired, and it might have to wait until I’d had a sleep. I was frustrated at how worn out I was at the moment; I seemed to be snoozing my life away, it was such a waste, but I knew that when I ignored the fatigue, everything just went to shit and I ended up, well, regaining consciousness in strange bedrooms.

Beth came to fetch Iz at two o’clock, and although I really didn’t want to, I offered her a cup of tea, which she naturally accepted, feeling the need to sit down and give me the benefit of her advice.

‘So, Matty, you wore yourself out yesterday.’

‘Noh.’

She raised an eyebrow at me and my monosyllabic reply.

‘So you didn’t collapse and have to be dragged to a stranger’s house?’

‘I dihnt say tha. I said ‘noh’ when yuh said I wohr mysehf ouh.’

I enjoyed the look of puzzlement on her face and then delivered the punchline.

‘Ih was yuhr fault.’

The increased puzzlement was also enjoyable.

‘Yuh made meh goh tuh tha bluhdy day, geh up early, concehtrate fuh hours on hard chairs. Yuhr fault, yuh wohr me ouh.’

Light dawned, and she tutted and rolled her eyes.

‘Nobody made you stay, Matty. I believe the deal was that you only had to put your head round the door. I don’t remember forcing you at gunpoint.’

‘Noh buh yuh wehr shoving meh pretty hahd. Dihnt wan tuh mahk a scene.’

‘Well that would be a first. You’ve never been above embarrassing me before when it means you get your own way.’

She’d obviously given it some thought, which was a bit of a bugger. Usually with Beth I had the benefit of thinking more quickly than she did, but she’d had all night to consider it, and I was tired now. I needed a diversion. Ignoring her last comment, I used my niece.

‘Heh, Iz, goh an fetch the box from the frihdge.’

Iz ran over, collected the pizza and presented it to Beth.

‘Unca Matty says we can have it for dinner, Mummy.’

Beth narrowed her eyes at me and looked at Iz, and then at the box as if it was an unexploded bomb. She was such a hypocrite, I knew she took Iz and Cal to Pizza Place regularly.

‘Well it’s very kind of Unca Matty, but we’ve already got our dinner sorted, sweetheart.’

‘Yeh, Iz, ih’s prohbly brohcoli nuggets an rice.’

I couldn’t resist it; I didn’t usually interfere in Beth’s child rearing, but I needed some time with Lau, free of interference, before Beth got wind of it, and the longer I spent with Beth, the more likely she was to guess something was up. No one could ever keep anything from Beth; it was as if she was a mind-reader or something. My distract-and-disperse strategy was working for now, as Iz looked horrified at the thought of broccoli, her least favourite dinner component, and she went into full-on whine mode, explaining it all to Beth as I had explained it to her.

‘But Mummy, it’s two pizzas, Meat Feast for Daddy and Vegtle Superman for you. Unca Matty telled me its greedy yums are –’

‘Greedy yums, sweetheart?’

‘Unca Matty said.’

‘Yeh, Beth, grehdy yuhms. Things tha goh intuh a recipe an mahk it tahst yuhmy, an mahke yuh grehdy.’

‘Oh. Ingredients, sweetheart. And did you mean Vegetable Supreme?’

Beth always, but always corrected pronunciation, grammar, all that shit. Always Iz’s, never mine, although my words often came out more wrongerer than any four year old’s. I loved the idea of Vegtle Superman pizza, and I preferred greedy yums, it explained it much better.

‘And Unca Matty telled me there are special ones in pizza from Pizza Place.’

I mouthed ‘rat-shit’ to Beth over the top of Iz’s head and laughed at the disgust on her face. She decided it was time to go, before I gave Iz any more fodder with which to argue. Result.

‘Well, maybe Uncle Matty should have the pizza to himself, as he thinks it’s so tasty, Iz.’

‘Oh but Mummy –’

‘No, sweetheart, leave it here.’

Iz put on a sulky face, and I congratulated myself on ruining Beth’s afternoon. Beth and Iz had some breath-taking stand-offs; it was hard to work out who was the most determined to get their own way and some of the battles went on for days. This one looked set to last until at least tea-time, possibly beyond, and had successfully diverted Beth from any more nosiness about events that may have occurred yesterday.

I waved goodbye to them from the door, then shut it after them and stumbled to my bedroom, removing clothing as I did so. Wearing just my t-shirt and boxers, I crashed into bed, and was asleep before I could pull the duvet over me.

Laura

The meeting wore on, I tried to pay attention, and even contributed a little, but the nearer it got to time to go home, the more I was thinking about the evening ahead.

‘Lau?’

‘What?’

‘Honestly, you’ve been away with the bloody fairies all afternoon. Are you OK?’

‘Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired. I worked my day off yesterday.’

‘Why don’t you go home? Put your feet up, have a glass of something, by which I mean something stronger than Ribena, and relax? We can do the rest here.’

I looked gratefully at Kate. I hardly ever left early, in fact all of us put in more hours than we were paid for, it was fine, it was part of loving your job. But just this once, I decided to take it when it was offered.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Sure, Lau, off you go. Have some peace and quiet, chill.’

I smiled at her, feeling a fraud, as peace and quiet and chilling were the last things I was going to be doing. I still left, with a wave, nearly running to my car in my eagerness to get going.

I drove home faster than was strictly legal or sensible, ran up the path and into the house, where I grabbed something vaguely nice to wear out of the wardrobe, pulled a pair of shoes from underneath the bed and dashed downstairs to find a bottle of wine in the cupboard. Feeling less than fully prepared, but too excited to slow down, I rushed across the city to Avondale to meet my fate. Or have nice curry and maybe a bit of a snog with someone I hardly knew. Whichever it turned out to be.

A short while later, I was standing in front of the array of door bells, wondering which one was Matt’s. None of them seemed to have his name on, or indeed anybody’s actual name. There was a whole bunch of initials, a few names that seemed like nicknames (Pinky, Gaff, Butch) and some were just numbers. I couldn’t remember what number was on the door of Matt’s flat. I was flummoxed for a minute, then went through them in my head, one by one, trying to eliminate some of them.

I left the numbered ones in reserve, disregarded the nicknames as impossible to interpret, then looked at the initials. I was down to a choice of two – MGS or MRS – but couldn’t decide between them. I chose MGS, thinking that no one would be cruel enough to give their son initials that made him a married woman. There was no reply.

Phew, at least if it was the wrong flat I hadn’t made a total fool of myself. I tried MRS. There was no reply to that one either. Oh. Damn. I looked at all the numbered buttons and decided to start with the higher numbers, as Matt was a couple of floors up. Just as I was about to press forty-one, a voice came out of the speaker.

Matt

A few seconds later, my door buzzer went. I cursed, loudly. Fuck off, I really needed to sleep before Lau got here. However, it could be Beth coming back to collect something of Iz’s she’d left behind, and if I didn’t answer she’d get the Army round to break the door down. Sighing, I tottered to the intercom.

‘Hello?’

‘Matt?’

Holy shit, it was Lau. I quickly glanced at my watch; I’d been asleep for more than three hours. How the fuck had that happened?

‘Oh, Lau, sohry. Come up.’

I buzzed the door open, then opened my front door and leaned on the door frame to wait for her, trying to collect my thoughts. I should have put some clothes on and unruffled myself, but I didn’t have the energy. I was so looking forward to seeing Lau again, and my heartbeat rose as I heard her footsteps coming up the stairs.

Laura

He didn’t exactly sound thrilled, which took the edge off my excitement a little, but I pushed the door when it buzzed and climbed the stairs to the second floor. His door was open and he was waiting, leaning on the door frame, wearing only a t-shirt and boxer shorts, hair sticking out all over the place, grinning blearily. He looked as good as I’d spent all day trying to half-convince myself he didn’t; in fact, being clothed so sparingly only enhanced it.

Matt

‘Heh Lau.’

Lau looked at my scruffy attire.

‘Hello. I’m glad I didn’t go to a lot of trouble dressing up.’

I ran a hand through my hair and looked down at my clothes.

‘Sohry. I’ve behn asleep. Iz wore meh ouh. Dihnt mean tuh sleep soh long.’

‘Oh.’

She looked apologetic, and then undecided.

‘Are you sure it’s alright to be here? I can come tomorrow if –’

‘Dohnt yuh fucking dare.’

I pulled her inside and closed the door before she could back out on sympathy grounds.

‘Behn waiting fuh this all day. Worth ih too. Whoa, hotter than I ‘member.’

I held her at arms length and looked at her, drinking in how gorgeous she was, and how bloody hot she looked. I just had to kiss her, so I leaned towards her, and we locked lips, tangled tongues, delved deep into each others’ mouths, and I loved the soft wetness of her, the gentleness, the passion, with which she gave me a bloody good tonguing. She was a great kisser, there was no hint of garlic this time, and I felt a hand run down my back and touch my bum while I was burying my hands in her hair.

Laura

It was quite some time later that we stopped and pulled apart and looked at each other. I really, really liked kissing Matt.

Matt

‘Whoa, Lau, yuh are something else. Where yuh learn tuh kiss like tha?’

‘Sunday School.’

I laughed. ‘Seriously? Should’ve paid mohr attention tuh Baptist girls.’

‘We know how to snog. Practised on each other a lot.’

The image that danced into my head weakened my knees.

‘Holy fuck. Think I need tuh sit down.’

I grinned and took her hand, pulling her to the sofa. She draped a dress over the back, and handed me a carrier bag, which she had somehow managed to hold on to while she was kissing and groping me. I looked inside to see a bottle of wine and a cheesecake, then put it on the coffee table.

‘Thanks Lau. Sohry, haven’t started dinner yet.’

I’d meant to, I really wanted to cook her something spectacular, but the thought of it made me groan to myself.

‘Why don’t we just order out, if you’re tired?’

How did she know? Oh, apart from the fact I was dressed for bed and looked like I’d just woken up.

‘Buh I wanted tuh cook foh yuh.’

Laura

Oh, he was so sweet.

‘Another time? I just want to be with you. We can just have cheesecake and wine if you like.’

‘Ha ha, noh, nehd my protein. There’s a greht Indian jus down the road, do good takeaway. Wana choose?’

Matt

I gave her a menu, still unsure if it was acceptable.

‘Sure ih’s OK?’

Jules used to hate it when I suggested takeaway rather than ‘proper’ cooking … oh stop comparing, Matt. It should be abundantly clear that this woman is neither Jules, nor Jules-like.

‘Sounds great.’

And I rest my case. We chose and I ordered. It occurred to me that it might be a bit early for dinner, but it was done now. I was hungry, as I’d only had ice-cream for lunch, and most of that had ended up on my face, but I didn’t know how hungry Lau was. Still, we didn’t have to eat it all right away, did we.

‘How will they know which flat it is?’

‘They know meh.’

‘Oh. So are you MGS or MRS?’

‘Wha?’

‘Your doorbell. None of them actually have names on them, except Pinky, Gaff and Butch. It took me ages to work out which one was you, and then it could have been either.’

I’d completely forgotten about the doorbells. It was a bit of received wisdom that you didn’t put your own name on your bell, it was just asking for trouble.

‘Oh. Yeh, no one puts their name on. Yuh geh random pehpl pressing and asking for Matt, yuh dohn know who ih is. Yuh only tell pehpl yuh know which button tuh press. Sohry, forgot yuh dihnt know. Pinky’s real name’s Jeff, by the way. If someone asks fuh Pinky, he knows he duhnt know them. Why dihnt yuh jus call me tho?’

Laura

Well, yes, Laura. That would have made more sense than pressing any old doorbell. Is someone not thinking straight, hmm?

‘So which one are you?’

‘MRS.’

‘Your parents seriously called you ‘Mrs’?’

Matt

I nodded, ruefully. There wasn’t anything I hadn’t already heard, and I’d stopped being bothered by it.

‘Ih’v embraced ih now. Announce my shahm tuh the world throgh my doorbehl.’

‘So R is your middle initial?’

‘Migh beh.’

Why are people always so shy about their middle names? I was no different. It seemed like some kind of secret that shouldn’t just be handed out to the first person who asked.

Laura

He looked at me coyly, as if it was a slightly embarrassing personal defect, so I took the lead.

‘My middle name’s Mildred.’

‘Ih fucking well is noh. No one’s middle name’s Mildrehd.’

‘I’m sorry you see fit to knock the name given me by my dear parents, I’m sure I shan’t be nearly so cruel when you reveal that yours is Ronald. Or Ranulf, or Ralph, Ramon, Rafael –’

Matt

‘Robert, for fuck’s sake.’

I tried hard to be a bit mardy, but she grinned pure sunshine at me and I lost the will to scowl.

‘There, that wasn’t so hard, was it. Laura Louise Shoeman, pleased to meet you.’

Her whole name. It sounded like something you might call an angel. Yeah, I really thought that, and then immediately laughed out loud.

‘Fuck yuhr good at getting meh tuh say stuff, Laura Louise Shoeman.’

She looked at me smugly; she knew exactly how good she was. She has always known, and has always been as good, and she’s the best at getting me to talk, say things I didn’t mean to spill, just for her. I wish I didn’t bloody love her so much.

‘Never say I don’t take my work home with me. Talking of which, I am going to get out of this uniform –’

I tried a spectacular pout, much good it did me.

‘– and into something marginally more comfortable. Have you got anywhere I can change?’

‘Bedroom. Tha one.’

I stood up when she did, and followed her.

‘Er, I was going to get changed?’

‘Yeh, meh too. Do ih together? I wohnt peek, promise.’

No, peeking of any sort was definitely not on the cards.

Lau rolled her eyes as she came to a halt by the bed. Then she started to undo the poppers on her tunic, looking me straight in the eye as I looked back, torn between her face and the slowly revealed sumptuousness beneath her uniform.

‘Yeah, I can see you’re not peeking at all.’

Oh, she’d spotted that, had she? Well I was about to get out of it on a technicality.

‘Noh, not peeking. Having a bluhdy good gawp. Yuhr soh fucking sexy, Lau. Can’t keep my eyes off yuh. Sohry, duh yuh feel uncomfortable?’

‘Actually, no. I don’t embarrass easily, and we did spend the night together last night, even if it was pretty innocently.’

Too right. And she had just about admitted she was brazen. Things were getting better and better. The plan was going according to itself, even though I hadn’t quite figured it out yet. Maybe it was one of those self-fulfilling plans.

‘Nothing innocent abouh las nigh, Lau. If everything was working properly, yuh’d have behn well an truly Scottied.’

‘Oh really? Would I have had any say in the matter?’

‘Yeh, course. Yuh wanted it too tho.’

I was pretty sure that was true, judging from her reaction this morning when I’d had to stop her.

Laura

He was right. If it had been available, I would have had sex with Matt. But I knew what MS could do to the libido, and knew as well how careful I had to be not to make a big deal of it. And it wasn’t a big deal. I had enough going on with the rest of this craziness right now.

‘Well I’m sure any girl would find it hard to turn down a good Scottying.’

As I said this I slipped the tunic off my shoulders and pulled my trousers down, so I stood in just my bra and pants. Nothing fancy or lacy, just good honest black cotton. Matt appeared spellbound, and I thanked my empty evening a couple of nights ago for making sure I was trimmed and plucked in all the right places.

Matt

As she said this she slipped the tunic off her shoulders and pulled her trousers down, so she stood in just her black cotton bra and pants. I was awestruck; I had never seen anyone look so beautiful and appealing in something that I would have considered, before this moment, serviceable.

Lau’s skin was smooth and creamy, and although all the good stuff was well covered by the underwear, the swell of her breast disappearing into her bra cup and the shape of her hips beneath her knickers were tantalising. There were still no stirrings from my fucked-up loins, though, and I couldn’t understand it.

‘Holy fuck. How is this not giving me the hard-on from hehven?’

‘I thought you were going to get dressed too.’

I sat down on the edge of the bed. Putting clothes on was the very opposite of what I wanted to do right now.

‘Do I hahv tuh?’

‘Of course not, it’s your place, you can do what you like. Are the takeaway delivery boys used to you opening the door to them in your undies?’

I tutted; if only I hadn’t been so eager to order a curry, we could have got into bed and carried on where we left off this morning.

‘Shih, forgot abouh the takeaway. Was goin tuh suggest we jus cuddle up an talk.’

Lau started to pull her dress on, covering herself up, and I felt a real sense of regret. She laughed at me, eyes dancing as she teased me, seeming to know what her floor-show was doing to me.

‘There’s plenty of time, isn’t there? I’m starving, let’s wait for the takeaway. Put some trousers on, man.’

‘Ooh, Lau, I like ih when yuhr bossy.’

‘Just as well, I’m really good at it, and I keep in practice.’

I had a feeling I was letting myself in for a lot of bossing. Who knows, maybe it would be OK coming from Lau. I got up and pulled some jeans out of the wardrobe, then put them on. I smiled at Lau and spread my arms, inviting her comments.

Laura

‘That’s better. Good boy.’

I turned and flounced out of the bedroom, heading for the sofa. He was right behind me, and we sat close together, holding hands, not speaking for a while, just being next to each other, looking with rather bewildered expressions into each other’s eyes.

‘Matt …’

‘Yeh.’

‘I need to tell you something that happened today.’

He looked at me, a small frown forming.

Matt

Oh now what? Was there a problem with her work? Was she in trouble?

‘OK.’

‘Do you remember I told you about Rachel, my friend, who, er …’

Yeah, I remembered the friend. Or at least, I remembered her telling me about the friend.

‘Who I fucked aroun with an broke her heart? Yeh. Kind of story of my lihf. Yuh work wih her yuh said?’

‘Yeah. Anyway, when you and me had coffee yesterday, I had to tell people where I was going and who with, kind of health and safety thing, and, well, now Rachel knows about your MS. I tried to avoid her finding out, but we work so closely, it’s difficult. I don’t think she’ll tell anyone, but she doesn’t always know when to keep quiet, especially if she’s had a drink. I just wanted you to know, I don’t know what you’ve told people. I’m sorry.’

Oh fuck, hardly anyone knew about the fucking bastard. People at work just knew I was off long term sick; I know most of them thought it was stress related, coming as soon as it did after breaking up with Jules. I did a quick evaluation of what it would mean if word got out that I was a fucking cripple. I thought about the potential Sunday paper feature I had imagined yesterday; I looked down at the floor, then at our hands, linked together, then up into Lau’s face. I was safe with Lau, I could do anything, say anything, be anything, and it would be OK. It was maybe time to stop being so precious about who knew the truth about me, it’s not like I’d done anything wrong, I had a fucking disease. Jay was more than capable of holding his own in the media world, this was my information, not his. Did it really matter if people knew?

‘Know wha, Lau, ih dohnt matter who knows. Yuh only have tuh look at meh or talk tuh meh tuh know something’s up. If everyone knows wha ih is, then there’s no … when I had ih first time, I was wih someone who couldn’t cope. Carrie. She lef me foh her ex, an told people I’d fucked aroun an had HIV. Think I’d rather pehpl know the truth.’

It wasn’t until I said it that I knew it was true. People probably thought all sorts of things about me at the moment, assuming they were thinking about me at all. It really would be better if what they thought was the truth.

‘Oh my God, who would do that? That’s … unforgivable.’

Yeah, it was, I wasn’t forgiving Carrie, just using her as an example.

‘Yeh, well, long tihm ago now. Thanks fuh telling meh, Lau, buh dohn worry. There’s worse things been said abouh meh.’

‘I talked to my boss today, too, about us. Well, not about us specifically, I was being all hypothetical, but I think he spotted you going back into the hall yesterday, and he kind of guessed.’

It was kind of weird talking to Lau about me being a fucking cripple with the fucking bastard MS. It so didn’t seem to matter between us – we’d hardly mentioned it – but there was life beyond us where it did matter. I wondered if there was going to be a problem and tried to prepare myself to do whatever, say whatever I needed to, to make it right. Was I going to have to be noble and self-sacrificing? I bloody hoped not, I really wasn’t very good at it.

I frowned, and stroked Lau’s cheek.

‘Are yuh worried abouh yuhr job?’

‘I was, a bit, not enough to make any difference. Patrick said that he didn’t see a problem with how things are at the moment, you not being a patient of mine or anything. But we might have to think again if things change, I mean if you need to use our service at all.’

‘Shih, I never thought. Yuh could geh in trouble?’

But only in theory, if I used their service. Unlikely.

‘No, I don’t think so, I think I know where the line is now I’ve talked to Patrick. I think my main worry is Rachel. Once she knows about you and me, things will get really difficult.’

‘Oh Lau, sohry tuh make things hard for yuh.’

Matt Scott, the git that just kept on gitting. I put my arm round her and pulled her to me. She leaned against me and sighed.

Laura

He let go of my hand and put his arm round my shoulders, pulling me to him. I nestled into the space made by his arm, and felt safe and protected.

‘I don’t mind. This – whatever it is – I think it might be worth it.’

Matt

‘Oh Lau.’

Whoa, this woman was unbelievable. I’d spent a lot of today wondering if I’d misread her signals, if I’d been so keen that I’d misinterpreted how she was feeling, but she’d just said we were worth it, along with any hassle that might ensue. I’d just rocked up, said she was the one for me, and against all logical odds she was going with it.

I bent my head down and tilted her head up with my finger, kissing her mouth softly. Lau put her hand up to cup my cheek and turned towards me, pressing herself against me. We kept things soft and gentle and tender, just exploring each other with tiny tongue-flicks, nibbles and pecks against each other. It was a bloody marvellous way to get to know someone, and the little sparks of static that fizzed between us were thrilling.

Laura

I cupped his cheek with my hand and melted into the kiss, turning towards him and pressing myself against him. It stayed soft and gentle and tender, tiny flicks of his tongue against mine, it was almost more sensuous than the full-on snog we’d had earlier.

Matt

I suddenly thought of another way I could get to know a different part of her body. Oh stop it, not one of those parts, I thought I made it clear my unstoppable shag monster days were over? Honestly. It’s not that bit of the plan yet. No, I could do head massages, actually massages of most body parts, but heads a speciality. I hadn’t even been officially taught, although I’d had some pointers from Carrie, who did Reiki and Shiatsu. I hadn’t practised for some time, not since Jules and not since my nerves stopped sending reliable messages to my muscles, but I wanted to try to take some of Lau’s heavy day away from her.

‘Yuhv had a hard day – fancy a head massage?’

‘You can do head massages?’

I nodded. ‘Fingers migh not work, ih’s been a while, buh weh can try. Come on, hop on.’

I grabbed a cushion, patted my lap, and Lau wriggled round until she was lying on the sofa with her head on the cushion on my knees. Ignoring the fact that her head was very close to my manly extremities, that honestly wasn’t the reason for offering, no, honestly, I began. After a while of stroking, touching, massaging, Lau was sighing with pleasure, and I felt useful, valued, worth more than I’d felt in a long time.

Laura

I felt his hands in my hair, firstly softly stroking, then touching more firmly, using his fingertips to rub and stroke all over my head. His fingers moved confidently through my hair, pressing into my skull here and there, causing shivers and tingles to radiate outwards from the spots where his fingertips were touching me. I felt waves of tension leave me, and my whole body went limp. It was soothing, relaxing, making me sigh with pleasure.

The door buzzer shattered the mood, and Matt removed his hands from my head with a stroke to my cheek. I felt briefly like someone had poured cold water on me, although the sense of heat and wellbeing remained.

‘Fuck. OK Lau, tha’s yuhr lot fuh now. Tea’s up.’

He pushed me up and went to the door intercom, buzzing the door open and paying the delivery boy, then went to the kitchen to get plates and cutlery. I sat on the sofa, hardly able to move, in a state of complete bliss.

‘Where on earth did you learn to do that?’

‘Wha? Pay foh takeaway? My muhm brung me up proper.’

‘No, dafty, head massage. That was totally amazing.’

‘Glad yuh liked ih. Made ih up rehly. I’m good at massages.’

Seriously? Nobody who is that good just makes it up. But maybe now wasn’t the time to argue about it. If he was good at massages, I was going to be very relaxed a lot of the time.

‘Hooray.’

We smiled at each other.

‘Let’s eat this befohr ih gehs cold.’

Matt carried the plates over to the table, then went back for naan bread and cutlery. I sat down on a chair.

‘I love that you eat at the table. I usually slob out on the sofa. This is civilised.’

‘My sofa cost a bluhdy fortune. Not abouh tuh risk masala sauce stains. Much chehper tuh geh a new tablecloth.’

I was silent for a moment, looking at him, considering what I’d known about Matt, what I’d heard and what I’d supposed from the mixture of the two.

‘Wha?’

‘You’re not what I expected.’

‘Wha’d yuh expec?’

‘Well, maybe more … less … er … maybe more beer and football, less cooking and housework and flipping amazing massages.’

‘Heh, I do behr an football. Two of my threh favourite things tuh duh.’

I didn’t need to ask what the third was.

‘It wasn’t a criticism.’

‘I know. Lau, pehpl think they know meh. A loh of wha they know is shih, some of wha they know was meh buh not now, and some is the truth. Not many pehpl know the real meh, I’ve behn pretty guhd at hiding.’

‘Why have you wanted to hide?’

Matt looked away, out of the window, either considering the question, or deciding whether to answer it. I hoped he wasn’t going to want to hide too much from me. I was good at getting people to talk, but it was tiring having to extract information all the time.

‘Ih’s complicated. I’ve behn pretty fucked up. Since I was ill first tihm, then Carrie, then moved hehr, then work, ih’s all mixed up togehther. Needed tuh beh a certain way at work, like I was Matt plus, larger than lihf, women, flirting, drinking. Got the johb done.’

The picture he was painting sounded like the Matt I’d thought I knew, but it didn’t match up with the computer job he’d told me about this morning, and I wasn’t sure how it all fitted in.

‘I thought you worked in IT.’

‘Yeh, we’re not all nerds. Anyway, needed pehpl tuh see meh a certain way, soh couldn’t leh them see the other bits of meh. Soh no one knows I can cook, no one knows I can uhs a hoover, the lads come hehr foh behr an pizza, ih’s a mess till well after they’re gone. I tol yuh yesterday, I’m a bluhdy fuck up. Saw a counsellor a while bahk. Dihnt get anywhere.’

‘You could always give it another go.’

‘Noh, not foh meh. How’s the curry?’

I accepted the change of subject as the diversion it was, and agreed that the curry was tasty, if a bit salty, and could do with washing down with copious amounts of alcohol, although not too copious for me. I was starting to get a feeling for when I could push Matt to talk more, and when it really was ‘subject closed’. We filled our wine glasses and clinked them together.

‘Dohnt usually drink wine.’

‘Me neither, I’m a G and T girl.’

‘Always behr foh meh. Heh, I’ve got G and T if yuh wan?’

‘Maybe another time, I’ve got work tomorrow and I’m going to have to drive home.’

‘Oh, yuh not staying?’

He looked really disappointed.

‘No, it’s a school night. It’s still early, though, we’ve got plenty of time.’

‘Yeh, I know, I jus had such a greht time las nigh, behn a long tihm since I did jus a slehpover. Wanted tuh duh ih again.’

And so did I, so much, but I was having to try really hard to be sensible. I couldn’t be late to work again, and if I stayed here, with Matt, I was going to find it hard to leave the bed, let alone the flat, or travel across the city, away from him.

76. Never gonna give you up

In which bumps in the road are hit.

Laura

My alarm started peeping at seven seventeen precisely. I had worked out over time that seven fifteen was too early, causing catastrophic falling back to sleep events; seven twenty was too late, incurring rushing around madly and potential lateness, but seven seventeen was just right, allowing an orderly and organised morning routine designed to deliver me relaxed and refreshed to my place of work.

This morning, though, the peeping wasn’t coming from the bedside table where I kept my mobile phone, it was coming from the floor somewhere. I turned towards the noise and came face to face with a sandy haired man lying on his front, head turned towards me, mouth open, dribbling onto the pillow. I swallowed a scream, and then the previous night came back to me in a rush.

I ignored the peeping alarm, laid my head back on the pillow and stared at Matt’s sleeping face. He had really long eyelashes, long enough to be wasted on a man, but they looked so delicious, resting there on his cheeks, I almost forgave him for them. I had an overwhelming urge to touch his hair, which was dishevelled and sticking out at several different angles. I reached over and started to smooth it flat, trying to do it gently so as not to wake him, and then changed my mind and tried to wake him up by tugging his hair; I so wanted to look into those grey eyes this close up and see if they were as compelling as I remembered.

Eventually my insistent tugging, and the annoying bleeping from my alarm, had the desired effect.

Matt

I came to, the next morning, to the feeling of someone stroking my hair. My first thought – hey, I wake up really slowly, remember – was ‘Carrie?‘. She had always liked smoothing my wayward locks. Then my brain quickly caught up with the last few years, and my brief confusion-panic-realisation-relief-remembering-delight chain of thoughts ended when I stretched, put my hand over Lau’s fingers and opened my eyes, to see her close, so close, looking into mine. I still had my contact lenses in from last night, and I could see everything in high definition, if not high comfort.

Laura

Matt stirred, his body stretched, his hand came up to cover mine on his hair, and at last he opened his eyes. It was worth the wait. I felt like I could drown in them, they were the colour of the sea on a winter’s day. I felt a smile spreading over my face, and saw a twin movement of his mouth.

Matt

Lau smiled her stupendous smile, and I smiled back.

‘Heh Lau. Yuhr not a drehm.’

‘Nope.’

‘Had a greht nigh.’

The truth was that I felt rested, more rested than I had any right to feel after the day, evening and night I’d had, in a strange bed with a new woman.

‘Me too.’

‘Lehs stay hehr all day, geh tuh know each other.’

I knew this was likely to be a non-starter, but I was trying everything, right now, as Lau had seemed so open to suggestions yesterday. She was, indeed, looking tempted, but then sighed regretfully.

Laura

Oh he was a tempter.

‘I can’t, I’ve got to go to work. Haven’t you?’

I knew Matt had worked with Julia Marran, some consultancy thing, but had no idea if he still worked there, actually didn’t know anything else about him at all apart from gossip and speculation from a couple of years ago, but as a frown flickered on his brow I realised I could have been a bit more sensitive.

Matt

I hadn’t been to work for quite a while, due to the fucking bastard. I thought Lau would have realised.

‘Off sick. Bastard MS cripple, mehmber?’

I crossed my eyes and stuck my tongue out of the side of my mouth to remind her.

‘Sorry. I didn’t think. I forgot.’

Oh, she wasn’t being insensitive, was she thinking of me like I was a normal person?

‘Yuh forgot? Fucking brilliant. Skive off wih meh?’

‘I can’t. MS nurse, remember?’

‘Yuh can nurse meh. Ih’m a greht patient.’

Any of my family hearing me say this would have spent the rest of the day laughing. Luckily they were nowhere nearby to hear the blatant lie, but Lau seemed to have sussed me out without their help.

Laura

‘Yeah, I can imagine how good you are at being looked after. Sorry, flower, I’ve got a busy day. You can stay here if you want, though, I won’t kick you out before I go.’

I couldn’t quite believe I was offering someone I’d only just met the chance to steal all my worldly goods, hack into my online shopping accounts, and look through my underwear drawer while I was at work, but I just trusted Matt. It was, as he’d said last night, like we’d always known each other. Plus, I knew where I could get hold of his family if any of my cheap plastic jewellery went missing, or I suddenly ran up a thousand pound debt on Choc4U.com.

Matt

Whoa, that was quite an offer to someone you’d only just met, all night in bed with them or not.

‘Rehly? Aren’t yuh worried I’ll perv in yuhr knicker drawer?’

‘I have no doubt you’ll perv on my knickers. I think you’ll find they’re all in order.’

‘Crotchlehs?’

I was trying to get my knicker fix in early.

‘Oh I wouldn’t want to spoil a good rifling, wait and see.’

Since I’d woken up I’d been vaguely aware of an insistent bleeping, and now it had filtered into my consciousness to the extent that it was annoying me.

‘Wha’s tha bluhdy noihs?’

‘Oh, sorry, my alarm. I think it’s in my trousers.’

As she leaned across me to retrieve her phone, I gave her arse a whack. Just felt like it. It wobbled beautifully.

Laura

‘Ow. What was that for?’

‘Tha was foh hahving a bluhdy gorgeous ahrs. Come hehr.’

I pulled the phone out of my trouser pocket and turned off the alarm, then wiggled back across Matt and into his arms. We looked at each other for a long time; I stroked his sandy hair and drank in his winter-sea eyes and realised I wasn’t falling for him. I had fallen already. Hard.

‘You’re my beach boy.’

‘Wha?’

‘Nothing. Just … your hair and your eyes. They remind me of the sea. Beach boy.’

Matt

It sounded great. I loved having a name she’d made up just for me. I kissed her, deeply, for the first time that day, to say ‘thank you’. Lau kissed me back with a fervour that said ‘you’re welcome’ and a few other things that weren’t quite so well-mannered. We were where we’d been last night, wrapped up in each other, amazed at each other, into each other. It was a lot to take in, and I couldn’t help feeling a few tiny trepidations.

‘Lau …’

‘Mm?’

‘This is fucking mentahl.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Weh dohnt knoh each other.’

‘Mm.’

‘Buh I wahn tuh beh like this foh bluhdy ever.’

Lau nodded into my chest and spoke as I stroked her hair.

Laura

He was right, we’d hardly talked yesterday, but somehow I fitted with this man. As if we belonged with each other. I didn’t want it to end, either.

‘I wondered if last night was a bit, kind of, a paranormal event; if we’d wake up this morning and it would all be back how it was; if we’d feel like strangers. But it doesn’t feel like that. I feel like I’ve always known you. God Matt, what have you done to me? I should be completely freaking out, but I’m absolutely calm. And God, so the opposite of calm at the same time.’

‘I am.’

‘You are what?’

Matt

‘Fucking frehking ouh.’

As she’d been talking, saying how right it felt and how calm she felt, I realised that I wasn’t, maybe, in quite the same place as she was. The quickness, the weirdness, the suddenness, of it all after wanting it so much, so soon after seeing her yesterday, was doing my head in.

‘Jus a bit. Ih’s wha I duh. Buh yuh, Lau, I look at yuh, an I fehl safe, lihk, wha the fuck Matt, why yuh frehking yuh yampy loony? Ih’s Lau, yuhr OK, yuhr wih her. Buh cahnt hehp frehking a bih.’

Laura

‘What’s freaking you?’

I stroked his cheek, knowing what he meant, but a bit worried it was too much for him and he was going to back off. I wanted to ask what ‘yampy’ meant, but I didn’t what him to feel self-conscious if I’d just misheard his speech.

Matt

She stroked my cheek as she encouraged me to tell her. I’d tell her everything, anything she asked, all my secrets. She had the key to me.

‘Soh intense. Soh quick. Where’d ih come from? Is ih gona goh again? Never, ever felt lihk this.’

I brushed a strand of hair away from her eye and tucked it behind her ear as I said it. I wanted her to know how new this was for me. I’d loved Carrie and I’d loved Jules, but nothing had ever been as deep as what I felt for this woman whose last name I didn’t even know. I wasn’t calling it love, not yet; I wasn’t calling it anything, but I wanted it to last and last.

Laura

His touch made me shiver, and I heard the catch in his breath that told me he was as affected as I was.

‘Me neither. We just need to go with it, like you said last night. Holding hands, right now, in this moment. If it disappears, well that’ll be sad, but let’s not worry about that now, because we’ve got this, us. God, I can’t quite believe there’s us.’

We moved towards each other at the same time, lips touching, then parting, tongues reaching, exploring …

Matt

… and then I pulled her face to mine and she was on top of me …

Laura

… and we were kissing and touching and he was me and I was him, and our mouths were one and it felt like we were on fire, we were so hot, burning, melting into each other …

Matt

… it felt like we were one person, and we were fiery and electric and oh, it was overwhelming, she wanted me, really wanted me, I couldn’t do it, nothing was working down there, and I freaked again.

‘Lau …’

I tried to push her away, but she was in me and on me, so I spoke into her mouth.

‘Mm.’

I felt it vibrate through my jaw.

‘Lau, stop.’

Laura

His voice got through, and I stopped, the suddenness of it feeling like a loss. I looked at him, slid off his chest and lay down on my side, facing him.

Matt

‘Sohry Lau. Soh sohry. Cahnt duh this.’

‘Can’t do what?’

OK, so I’d told her last night, hadn’t I? Maybe she was half asleep and had forgotten. Maybe she just got carried away.

Laura

This was it, then, he’d decided he couldn’t go through with whatever it was we’d started. It had freaked him out too much, or maybe he wasn’t as into me this morning as he was last night, and it was over now.

Matt

‘Too much, not rehdy foh ih, can weh goh back tuh hohding hands? Everything’s a bih fucked up down thehr.’

I gestured down towards the borrowed pyjama bottoms. She looked relieved, then guilty.

Laura

Oh. Oh God, I’d done it again. So much for being the MS sex expert; that was twice I’d forgotten myself and made things difficult for Matt. I really needed to be more sensitive. But it wasn’t easy, he made me feel so … damn … hot.

‘Oh, Matt, of course. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry flower. Here.’

I clasped his hand, and was pleased to see his creased brow replaced with a crinkly smile. I gave myself a mental smack on the forehead for forgetting the middle-of-the-night confession session about the state of Matt’s libido, and resolved to be better at remembering important things that hot guys told me about the state of their hotness.

Matt

She clasped my hand and everything felt OK again, but I still felt bad that I’d had to stop her. I’d never stopped a woman in full flow before in my life.

‘Yuhr gona have tuh think of a better word than flohwer, Lau. Not good fuh my man points.’

‘Well we can’t have you losing man points, you might not win the man trophy at the end of the season –’

And she knew about man points. Was there nothing about her that wasn’t ideal?

‘– but what’s wrong with beach boy? Surely it’s enough of a mixture of maleness and lazing around to be ideal for you?’

‘Ha ha chehky cow. I lihk ih tho. OK. Leh’s duh ih.’

Lau gave me a quick kiss on the lips, and then sat up.

‘Right, I really am going to have to get up and get ready for work. If I get a moment I’ll try to think of something better than beach boy. Maybe something manlier?’

‘Mohr manly.’

I couldn’t help myself. I was – am – a real pedant when it came to the English language.

‘What?’

‘Ih’s behter grahmar.’

‘Oh. Grammar is not my strong point, so I’ll take your word for it. Alright then, something more manly, not too manly though, I don’t want to end up with testicles every time I say it.’

I loved the way she just said shit, like ‘testicles’ that most women would blush and be all coy about. There seemed to be no messing about with Lau, plain speaking was her forte, if not plain grammar.

‘Bluhdy hell, Lau, rehly dohn wana beh thihking bouh yuh wih bohlocks.’

‘Point taken. A suitable name, then, if I get a chance. Right, I’ve really got to get going, have a shower, go to work, earn an honest day’s wage, all that.’

‘Noh, dohnt leave meh, I miss hohding yuhr hand.’

Yeah, I was really needy, bordering on whining.

‘Get up with me then.’

‘Wha’s time?’

‘Nearly seven thirty.’

What hour of the sodding morning was that to be waking me up?

‘Fucking hell, Lau, duh all nurses geh up at the crack of dawn?’

‘Most nurses will have been up working for hours on the early shift. I’m really lucky my job is nine to five. What time do you have to get up when you’re not off sick?’

I looked at her, embarrassed. Even when I was well, I wasn’t in early. Ten was pretty standard.

‘I’m usuahly late in.’

‘How late?’

‘Has behn lunchtime.’

‘What? How can you get away with that?’

‘Part tihm. Hours tuh suit.’

It’s not like I was skiving. I did more hours than I was paid for, in the long run, it just suited me to make myself look like a bit of a layabout.

‘Lucky you. What do you do?’

‘IT consuhtant.’

‘Oh. Lazy sod farting around on the internet all day downloading porn then?’

Even Lau, who was pretty perfect, failed in this stereotypical view of what people who worked in IT did. Everyone always thought computers were an easy option over a ‘real’ job. In truth, I did spend a lot of my time doing things that people might consider ‘not work’ – social media, surfing the net, playing with apps and gadgets – but it was my job to know how it all worked, so I could get things right for the clients. I would explain it all one day, but for now I let it slide. The ‘getting to know you’ bit of all this was likely to be the thing that would inject some realism into the whole thing. I sighed inwardly and went along with it.

Laura

I said it with a smile on my face. It was the same kind of stereotype as the naughty nurse in the skimpy uniform Matt had seemed so keen on yesterday.

‘Heh, yuh read my job description.’

‘Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but for some of us the concept of ‘work’ involves getting out of bed before noon and putting in some hard hours before it’s time to knock off for the day.’

‘Noh way. Duh they still send pehpl up chimneys too?’

‘Sometimes, if their job happens to be, oh I don’t know, chimney sweep or something.’

‘Ouhrageous.’

‘Right. I’m getting up. I need a shower, see if I can’t get all your bogeys out of my hair.’

‘Lau …’

‘Yes, Matt.’

‘Nothin, jus like sayin ih.’

I batted his arm with a smile, feeling ridiculously soppy. As gorgeous as Matt was, I was also enjoying talking to him, teasing him a bit, getting to know him more.

‘You daft sod.’

I hauled myself out of bed with a physical and mental effort; it was hard to leave him there and get on with ordinary things like showering and dressing. I briefly wondered how I was going to get through a whole day at work while Matt was in my head.

Matt still had hold of my hand, and he hung on to it as I walked round the bed, kissing my fingers just before he had to let go, looking into my eyes the whole time. It was intense, and the butterflies that had started to fizz in my stomach last night woke up and fluttered again.

Under the cascading water of the shower, it felt like the first time I’d been alone for a long time. Apart from Matt, away from the semi-madness that his closeness had brought since yesterday evening, I started questioning everything.

As I rubbed the shampoo into my hair, I considered just what exactly the hell I thought I was doing. So many people were going to have so much to say, none of which was likely to be urging me on to whatever conclusion was going to come of all this. I couldn’t even think about what Rachel was going to do when she found out; she had spent so long being angry and sad about her night with Matt that it affected her ability to think clearly about other men, and she hadn’t been out with anyone seriously since. She was going to hate me.

And there was my job. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, but it was the spirit and not the letter of the rules that people worried about, and I was close to pushing several boundaries, a toe up against a few lines without actually crossing them.

And then there was the what-the-hell-is-all-this-about-anyway? I’d just spent the night with a notorious womaniser, managed to convince myself I was falling for him, and that it was OK, because he was vulnerable. Seriously Laura?

But if I was completely honest with myself, I didn’t really care about any of it. Feelings like this just didn’t come round every day, every week, every year. It might change everything for me, for good or for bad, but I wanted to see where it went, how long it could go on being as weird and wonderful as it had been already. Was it worth risking my friends, my job and my self-esteem for? Only time would tell.

Matt

While she was in the shower, I realised I was feeling pretty perky, as well as starving, having hardly eaten the previous day. I often went all day without eating, sometimes just to spite Beth, but I knew I wasn’t going to last much longer without some sustenance. I decided I felt well enough to get dressed and pop out to Mean Bean for some breakfast.

Maybe you’re surprised I wasn’t straight in the shower with Lau? Long game, remember? Fucked-up down-belows, remember? Already going at a crazy speed, remember? Besides, with my early night last night, I’d missed dinner, and I was really hungry.

I got out of bed and quickly pulled on my clothes and shoes, then shouted to Lau through the bathroom door to let her know where I was going. The shower was running, but I thought she replied, although she might have been singing. I wasn’t going to be gone long in any case.

Laura

I stayed in the shower longer than I would normally have done, getting my thoughts together, enjoying the invigorating spray and the cleansing water. I pulled on a bathrobe and wrapped my hair in a towel, and went back into the bedroom, expecting to see Matt still in bed, fast asleep.

He wasn’t there. His clothes weren’t there. I called downstairs, and trotted down to see if he was in the kitchen or living room. Nothing. There wasn’t anywhere else he could be. He’d gone.

My insides took a nosedive as I realised what had happened: I’d been evaluating things while I was in the shower; he must have been doing the same, and come to different conclusions, conclusions that told him this was madness and he was better off out of it. Oh my God! That’s what he does, isn’t it? He spends the night then scarpers. I was lucky he’d lasted the whole night, from what I’d heard.

I sat down hard on the sofa, deflated and miserable, tears springing to my eyes. So much for holding hands for the foreseeable future, it had lasted less than twelve hours. You silly, gullible moo, Laura Shoeman. He probably just wanted a bed for the night with the chance of a snog and a grope, maybe see if he could get it up for something more. Well done, walked into that one. When will you ever learn?

Oh well, that’ll be something to laugh about with Rach, then, join the club, at least he didn’t get his end away, big chuckles all round. And I can keep my job, hurrah. But it didn’t stop the heavy sensation in my chest, the one that made me feel like a part of me had been ripped away and made tears roll down my face as I sat there miserably.

‘Lau?’

The front door had opened and his voice floated like a choir down the stairs. He’d come back!

‘Where are yuh?’

I sniffed back the tears and frantically tried to wipe my face.

‘Down here.’

I heard his uneven footsteps coming down the stairs, and rubbed at my eyes and nose with the corner of the towel. I wasn’t yet ready to believe that he was really back, and that my dark thoughts of the last few minutes may have had more basis in paranoia than fact.

Matt

At the bottom of the stairs, I poked my head round the living room door and held up the bag to show off my hunter-gatherer prowess. French pastries and diluted roasted beans my speciality.

‘How are yuh not the size of a house? Meahn Beahn is soh close –’

Then I looked at Lau’s face. She was sitting in a pink dressing gown with a towel on top of her head, and her eyes were red and watery. It was possible she had got shampoo in her eyes, but the expression on her face had me rushing over to her immediately.

‘Heh, wha’s matter? Lau? Yuh crying?’

I flung the bag onto the other end of the sofa and held her face in my hands, wiping her eyes with my thumbs. I forgot all about my ‘I don’t do women crying’ rule. It seemed like for this woman, I would do everything and anything in or out of my power to stop those tears.

‘I thought you’d gone.’

Oh no, she thought Matt the Lad had buggered off after a night of, well, not exactly passion but a night in her bed. Fuck it.

‘Ohh, noh noh noh, yuh bluhdy daft wohman. Dohnt yuh geh ih? Ih’m not goin anywhere. I mean, I dohnt mean like I live hehr now, dohnt wohry, I mean hohding hands, all day, even wehn yuhr at work an Ih’m somewhere else, or yuhr ouh wih yuhr friends an Ih’m at the footy, or we’re in a dihfrent room. Still hohding hands. Sihly bluhdy cow, lihk I’m goin anywhere. Arse lihk yuhrs? Need tuh stick close tuh tha. Oh, Lau, come hehr.’

She was looking at me with such an expression of relief, as well as of embarrassment, and a tear or two still escaped down her cheek.

Laura

He pulled me close, knocking the towel off my head, and kissed my tears away. I put my arms round his waist and laid my head against his chest. I could feel his heartbeat, and had to stop myself measuring his pulse. Nursing was part of me.

Matt

I realised this was my chance to make her feel safe. I did my best with touching, stroking and gently kissing.

‘So you just went out to get breakfast, then?’

‘Yeh, bluhdy hell, I hope a trip up the road for a lahte an a pastry ihnt ahlways such a fucking drahma.’

‘Sorry. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster, all of this.’

Both of us had been through a complete emotional theme park over the last twenty-four hours. It was hardly surprising there had been tears from both of us.

‘I knoh. Dihnt yuh hear me shout, tho? I said where I was goin.’

Laura

I had heard nothing over the noise of the shower, and now I felt really daft for immediately assuming the worst case scenario was fact.

‘No. I thought you’d still be in bed. When I couldn’t find you … oh I’m a stupid woman. I expect it’s hormones or something.’

Matt

‘Heh, yuh can’t say tha. Sihsterhood police’ll cohm an geh yuh, or some such shih.’

I had to stop arsing about. Lau was upset and I needed her to know that I wasn’t who she thought I was. I had been him, that scrote who would take what he wanted and fuck off without a second thought, but I wasn’t him now.

‘Lau, yuh need tuh know I’d never duh tha, jus walk ouh. I know … I know ih’s happened before an yuh prohbly know pehpl Ih’v done ih tuh, buh I’m diffrehnt now. Yuh dohn have tuh trust meh, buh I hope yuh will one day.’

I held her away from me so I could look into her eyes, which were still a bit red and puffy, but so beautiful.

‘You know what, it’s really weird, with everything I know about you from before, with Rach and everything as well, I shouldn’t trust you at all. But I do. I can just feel it. I think I might be starting to get a bit serious about you, Matt. Isn’t that the sort of thing that sends you running for cover?’

Ha, yeah, don’t let Matt Scott know you’re serious about him, he’ll bugger off in a second if you even think it. I looked at her with a grimace.

‘A year or soh ago, yeh. Yuhd beh toast. Buh I learned some hard lessons the las year, an I faced up tuh wha I want. Still scares the shih ouh of meh, buh Ih’m glad tuh report I can hear ‘serious’ withouh running. Yuhr lucky, could have gone either way. There hahnt been anyone to say ih since … well, foh a long time. Yuh passed the test. Or rather, I did.’

I was going to have to explain about Jules, and about everything I’d decided both before and after Jules, before too long. But not now, not just yet.

Laura

I thought about what I knew about Matt’s break-up with Julia Marran. Not very much, and most of what I knew was Rachel’s delighted and probably exaggerated repetition of the rumour mill. I hadn’t known Julia, but as seemed to be the case with everyone in this city, knew someone who knew someone who knew her from work, who said she was a frosty bitch. I wanted to ask Matt about it, but it wasn’t the time or the place, and he might not want to tell me anyway.

I pulled him close, to reassure myself he still wanted to put his arms round me, which he did, then I pulled myself together, and then let him go.

‘Sorry, Matt, I’ve really got to get ready for work. Help yourself to breakfast, there’s bread, cereal, eggs, bacon, whatever you want, have a rummage.’

‘I goh cohfee an croissants from Meahn Beahn – oh shih, ih’s leaked.’

He looked round at the paper bag he’d thrown on the end of the sofa. A dark stain was spreading along the seat. Matt sprang up, impressively quickly for someone whose co-ordination was erratic, and grabbed the bag, which immediately disintegrated, dropping two takeaway coffees and two croissants onto the sofa in a spectacular tsunami of coffee and crumbs. I jumped out of the way to avoid being swept up in the tidal wave.

‘Shih. Fuck. Sorry Lau. Where’s yuhr cleaning stuff? Fuck ih. Sorry.’

I dashed to the kitchen and came back with an armful of cleaning products, stain removers and cloths. I hadn’t had the sofa long, and coffee was difficult to get out. Matt held his hands out for the bottles.

‘It’s OK, I’ll do it.’

‘Yuhr late fuh work, Lau. I’ll do ih. Give ih here.’

Cleaning up wasn’t something I expected Matt Scott would be very good at, but I was late, and I could always have another go later if he didn’t get it all out. Maybe he could get rid of the worst of it. I handed everything over and went upstairs to get dressed and fix my hair and face.

Matt

She probably didn’t reckon I’d be up to much as far as domesticity went, because that fitted my invented character, but she had a few things to learn about the real Matt Scott, and one of them was that I knew my shit when it came to cleaning.

I got cracking on the coffee stain while Lau went upstairs to get ready for work, and by the time she got back downstairs, I had completely sorted it and was sitting, one leg crossed over another, nonchalantly flicking through a magazine. Lau looked gratifyingly, or insultingly depending on your take on it, impressed.

Laura

To my amazement, when I came down, Matt had completely removed all traces of coffee and pastry from the sofa. There was a dark patch where it had been, but it was drying and looked like you might not be able to tell what had happened once the damp bit had dried. Matt was sitting, one leg crossed over another, nonchalantly flicking through a magazine.

‘Wow, you’ve done a good job.’

‘Oh, did yuh doubt ih? Bet yuh thought I never touched upholstery cleaner in my lihf.’

‘Well … I’m starting to see there’s more to you than meets the reputation. Thanks, Matt.’

Matt

‘Only fair, I spilt.’

I looked at her, in her nurse’s uniform.

‘Whoa, sexy Nurse Lau’s bahk. Are yuh sure yuh can’t skive off?’

I gave her my best lustful gaze, just in case there was a chance it changed her mind. She regretfully shook her head.

Laura

The look he was raking me with had me mentally scanning my schedule for loopholes, but I couldn’t find any.

‘I’ve got tons to do today. I’ve got supervision this morning, then visits, and we’ve got a planning meeting this afternoon. I can’t get out of any of it. Are you going to stay here? I’d …’

I could hardly believe how brazen and reckless I was about to be.

‘… it’d be really nice if you were here when I got home.’

Matt

Again, the trust she was willing to place in me after knowing me for only a few hours, was humbling. But to be honest, I would have trusted her with my life, too.

‘I’d love ih too, Lau, buh I need tuh goh home, looking after Iz later.’

I’d remembered my play date while I was on my way back from Mean Bean, when Beth had texted to confirm the time she was dropping Iz off.

‘Wha the buses like from here?’

Laura

‘To where?’

This was crazy, I didn’t even know where he lived.

‘Other side of the river.’

‘Hm, they’re not great from here. You have to go into the city centre and then change. Know what –’

I made an impulsive decision, mentally rejigging things. Not a loophole so much as a tiny dropped stitch, but it was something.

‘– I could drop you home. I’ve earned a bit of time, it was my day off yesterday. I can phone and say I’ll be a bit late. As long as I’m there in time for supervision, it should be OK.’

It was really unlike me, and I was sure it would raise eyebrows, but I didn’t care. It would give me more time with Matt, and I’d find out where he lived.

Matt

Aha, so she was already willing to break the rules for me a bit. This was looking promising.

‘Tha’d beh awesome. Yuh sure?’

Lau made a quick call, and then we drove across the city to my flat. I had my hand on her thigh the whole way, and she didn’t tell me to remove it. She had the radio on, and she sang along to all the songs, in-between chatting inconsequentially about the weather and the traffic. I was spellbound. She was such a happy person, she is always, even now after twenty odd years of dealing with me, such a happy person. She lit up my day then, and she lights up my life now.

Laura

Matt spent the journey to the other side of the river with his hand on my thigh. It was highly distracting. We chatted inconsequentially about nothing, the radio was on and I hummed along to some of the songs much to Matt’s amusement.

‘Yuh always seem soh … happy. ‘Cept when yuh bluhbing ’bout me going ouh foh breakfast.’

‘I guess I am pretty positive, what’s the point being miserable if you don’t have to be?’

‘No fucking poin. I like ih.’

‘Where exactly do you live?’

‘Near St Saviours church. Duh yuh know Avondale?’

‘Wow, you live in Avondale? Isn’t that, like, really posh?’

‘Not rehly. My flat’s prehty small.’

‘One of my friends nearly bought a flat there; she said you can see the moors.’

‘The view is pretty guhd. Come up an see?’

I really wanted to; I was very curious about where Matt lived. I couldn’t imagine it, especially now I knew he lived in Avondale. I checked the time; I had a little while before I really had to be at work.

‘OK, I’d love to.’

‘I’ll cook yuh breakfast.’

‘Oh, don’t worry, I’ll grab something on my way in.’

‘Ih’d like tuh. I spihlt yuhr brehkfast. An Ih’m a good cook .’

‘Is there no end to your talents?’

‘Not tellin all my secrehts at once.’

‘Wise man. Oh, do I turn off here?’

I pulled up in the car park, and Matt led me up the stairs to his flat. Walking behind him, I was able to see the effort he had to put into climbing the stairs, and the slight overstepping he had to make to avoid catching his feet on the steps.

Then I stopped being MS nurse Laura, because Matt had opened the door for me, and let me into his actually flipping huge flat, which was light, airy and tasteful and had the most jaw-droppingly spectacular panorama out of his window. The river wound its way past in the foreground, and behind it was the rest of the city, with fields and hills beyond, and above them the peaks and tors of the moors.

Matt

Lau drove me home, and I managed to persuade her to come up to the flat so she could ooh at the view and I could cook her breakfast, and I could be with her for a short while longer. I wasn’t looking forward to saying goodbye, even for the day. In such a short time, I’d got so used to her being there, with me, that I just wanted to be with her all the time, forever. I had never thought ‘forever’ before, but instead of chilling me to the bone it warmed me to the core. I was a different, less cautious, more open person who came back to my flat than the one who had left it the morning before.

As I started to get a quick breakfast together, Lau clocked the view.

‘Holy … I nearly swore. That is some view.’

I laughed.

‘Yuh dohn swear much duh yuh? ‘Cept when yuh think I’m an intruder.’

‘I think it’s justified then. No, my mum brought me up as a strict Baptist. It’s one of the things that stuck.’

I looked up, amused. I hadn’t considered that she might be religious. I hadn’t had much to do with organised, or even disorganised, religion, but if that was Lau, it was fine by me.

‘How stric?’

‘Well my upbringing was pretty strict, but I think I survived. Mum doesn’t know everything I get up to, but it’s easier not to swear, because you can’t control that so well.’

Oh, well, that’s alright, it’s the mother not Lau who’s religious. Wouldn’t have been a problem, but …

‘Fuck, she’s not gona like meh much then.’

Laura

‘You could be right.’

I didn’t even bat an eyelid at the thought of my mum meeting Matt; it was just something that was going to happen.

‘Your flat is fantastic. I can’t believe no one’s ever mentioned what a cool place Matt Scott lives in.’

Matt

‘Not many pehpl geh up here. Yuhr only the second non-fahmly woman to make ih up the golden staircase.’

I tried a shrug and a self-deprecating expression.

‘Really? You haven’t invited, er, anyone else?’

‘Only the lads, not the girls. Matt’s Law. Or wahs.’

I frowned at the reminder of how things used to be, then changed the subject to breakfast.

Laura

A shadow passed over his face, and I decided not to push for more information. It made me aware, though, that there was a lot I didn’t know about him, and a lot I really ought to know. Plenty of time for that. For now, I was distracted by the smell of cooking.

‘Scrambled egg an toast? Cup of teh?’

‘Sounds perfect. I’ll just stand here and be amazed by your window.’

Matt

‘Ahr yuh vegetahrian?’

‘Er, no. Why?’

‘Lehtil cahserole wih extra gahlic las nigh.’

‘Oh. No. It was all I had in the freezer, emergency only. Why, though?’

‘Wait an seh.’

I was secretly very pleased Lau ate meat – it dented my chefly versatility to be limited to vegetables only, and I wanted to show off my cooking skills. I quickly chopped some bacon to add to the eggs, along with some spinach and tomatoes.

As I made the eggs, boiled the kettle and toasted the bread, I noticed Lau looking, not at the view, but at the photographs on top of my bookcase. She was paying particular attention to one of Jules. Why the fuck did I still have it up there? I wondered if Lau knew about Jules, if any of her friends knew about the whole thing. Then she turned her attention back to the window and I concentrated on breakfast.

Laura

It had certainly been my intention to stare at the panoramic view, but my eye was caught by an array of photographs on a shelf. I wandered over and had a nose. I recognised Beth and Jay Scott, and their children from Matt’s phone the night before. Declan Summers and his family were also present, a few group photos of the same people and more who I didn’t recognise. A small picture of a petite woman with short dark hair and a serious expression, the same woman whose picture Matt had skipped over last night. Could be Julia Marran, I’d never met her. I was dying to know, but didn’t know how to ask – although I wondered if I would eventually need to broach the subject, because if he still had pictures of her on his phone and in his flat, that didn’t look to me like he was over her.

Before he caught me staring at the photo, I looked away. The only laddish element in the entire flat was a vintage-looking Star Wars poster, but even that was in a frame that matched the rest of the décor. There were several other bits of art that told me Matt knew what he was about when he bought it, and I wondered what he had thought of my framed naughty postcards in the bathroom, and the abstract canvas in the lounge that Anna had painted and I’d bought out of a sense of loyalty. While I pondered the artistic differences between Matt and me, I looked out of the window and drank in the scenery. IT consultants obviously got paid a bit more than nurses, if this flat and its location were anything to go by.

Matt brought over a tray containing two plates of scrambled egg and two mugs of tea, to the small table by the window. He gave me a knife and fork and I tucked in. He had added bacon, spinach and tomato to the egg, and some sort of spice, and I couldn’t believe how tasty it was.

‘Wow, you really are multi-talented. This is delicious.’

‘Glad yuh like ih. Goh tuh work on an egg, ihn’t tha the old saying?’

‘Yeah, good way to ruin your trousers.’

‘Ha ha. Isn’t the protein good foh yuh?’

‘No idea.’

‘Yuhr a nurse.’

‘I don’t know everything about everything though, that’s not in my job description.’

‘Bluhdy NHS goin downhill these days.’

‘Sad but true.’

I loved the easy teasing that was going on between us, all the while holding each other’s gaze and saying things that words couldn’t. Things like ‘cor’ and ‘wow’, or maybe a little more sweary in Matt’s case.

Matt

I needed to stop with the chat and find out when I was going to see her again. If it wasn’t soon, I didn’t know what I was going to do.

‘Lau, will yuh come roun tonigh after work? I’ll cook yuh dinner. We can talk. Think I need to tell yuh stuff.’

I needed to tell her about Jules, about a lot of other shit, and I needed to do it before things went any further. This last twenty-four hours, this incredible feeling, well it was awesome and extraordinary, but before it got out of hand, I needed to tell her a lot of shit, so that when she knew everything, if she was disappointed or offended, she could tell me to piss off. Yeah, I wasn’t big on self-esteem just then.

‘I’d love to come round. Are we doing all the secrets then? Are you ready for all mine? Baptist girls are a bit racy.’

‘Fuck yeh, love a saucy secret. I saw yuh looking at her photo.’

‘Oh. Sorry. Just curious. You don’t have to tell me anything.’

Lau didn’t ask who I meant, which told me a lot.

‘I knoh. Buh tha’s part of wha I learned. Dohnt help to hide shih. If yuh know abou meh, then yuh know, an there wohnt be anything to hurt yuh later. I need to say ih.’

As I said it, I realised I was trying to make things better, to show to myself I’d learned a lesson from Jules, that I needed to face my feelings and my desires and wants and above all my past and make sure, so fucking sure, that I did my utmost to never deceive either myself or Lau like I had done with Jules.

Laura

It sounded good to me. I was all for being up front and open about past, present and future, although my experience so far with Matt suggested that he didn’t necessarily hold the same view at all times. Still, he sounded willing, so I was happy to go with that, and if he found it harder than he’d anticipated, I had a few tricks I could use to encourage him.

‘OK. I’ll bring pudding.’

‘Sounds awesohm.’

I’d finished my breakfast, and sat back, drinking my tea and looking at Matt. He suddenly seemed very dear to me. I should have been worrying about what he was going to tell me later, but it couldn’t be worse than the things I’d heard, and I felt protective rather than concerned.

‘Wha?’

‘Nothing. Just looking. You have the most amazing eyes.’

Matt

‘All the better tuh see yuh with.’

I reached over and took the hand that wasn’t holding a mug of tea. I just wanted to hold her hand all day, never let her go. I felt like such a daft bugger, but I couldn’t help it. I was gone. I’d never been like this with anyone; Carrie and I had started off really full on, but then she’d kept me at arm’s length, and Jules had never been one for sentimentality of any description. Suddenly, with this woman, I could do and say all those soppy greetings card things that I’d never realised I wanted.

‘Lau, I dunno, how did yuh geh tuh meh so quick? Yuhr in here.’

I put my hand over my heart.

‘Ih feels like yuh always will be.’

Every time I said something like that, the old cynical part of me was laughing at myself, and I was half expecting Lau to laugh at me too for how ridiculous I sounded, but she didn’t think I was ridiculous. She was feeling it too, and that made the old cynical part of me back off and go a bit quiet. How had that happened?

Laura

I didn’t want to go, but the longer I stayed here, the more I was going to be tempted to phone work and invent some freak accident that prevented me going in, without actually injuring me in any way. Reluctantly, I stood up, and so did Matt, opening his arms as he did so.

‘Come hehr.’

I stepped over to him, and he wrapped his arms round me, pulling me close against him as my arms circled him too. He sighed into my hair and I felt his hands travel downwards towards my bum. Regretfully I pushed away from him, stroking his cheek as I did so.

Matt

She stepped over to me, and I wrapped my arms round her, wanting to hold her to get that last little bit of contact. I sighed into her hair and couldn’t resist allowing my hands wander down towards her arse. I felt Lau push away from me and stroke my cheek. She looked mock stern.

‘Ah ah, I’ve got to get to work sometime this morning. I can’t go all rumpled. Plenty of time later, if you want to.’

I grinned ruefully.

‘OK. Sohry. Will yuh be wearing yuh uniform when yuh come later?’

She rolled her eyes, and I realised I was going to have to rein in the uniform fetish a bit.

‘Well if I come straight from work, I suppose so, but I don’t really like wearing it outside of work, it doesn’t feel right. How’s this, you can have a little perv on me in my uniform, but I’ll stop by home on the way and get something more comfy and change into it as soon as you’ve had an eyeful?’

‘Fair enough. I’ll beh thinking about yuh all day now.’

Yeah, like I wouldn’t have been anyway, but sweet Lordy, she was so up for it.

‘Well, me too. Holding hands all day, remember?’

‘Yeh. All day. Bluhdy long virtual arms.’

But it did sound great, holding hands all day, even across the city.

I bent down and skimmed her lips lightly with mine, amazed once again at the surge of electricity that I felt. I thought I might have a chance of keeping her with me a little while longer, but she had more willpower than I did, and she bent down and picked up her bag, heading for the door. I followed her and opened the door for her.

Laura

His kiss nearly dissolved my willpower, but I bent down and picked up my bag, rummaged for my keys and headed for the door. Matt followed me across the room and opened the door for me.

‘Bye Lau. See yuh later.’

‘Bye Matt. Have fun with Iz.’

Matt

I’d been so caught up in Lau that Iz’s arrival for a bit of Unca Matty time, while Beth met some friends for lunch, or was it had a lunch meeting about some charity thing she was organising, or … oh whatever the fuck it was, it had been far from my mind.

‘What have you got planned?’

I had given a cursory thought to our itinerary, in that it would be the same as always.

‘Trip tuh the park. She loves a swing. Then Pizza Plahce foh lunch. Then back here foh ice cream. Then hand her back to her mum full of junk food an sugar. Ha ha.’

‘That’s mean. It will come back to haunt you in the end.’

‘Prohbly. Iz loves her Unca Matty tho.’

‘See you later.’

‘See yuh Lau. Lau …’

I put out my hand and touched her arm.

‘Yeah?’

‘Nohthing. Jus dohn wan yuh tuh goh.’

She laughed and patted my hand.

Laura

‘Daft sod. Holding hands all day. See you soon.’

Although I knew exactly how he felt, as I was feeling it too. I made myself remember supervision with Patrick, and with an iron grip on my self-control I waved, turned and made my way down the stairs into the car park.

When I reached my car I looked up at the array of windows, trying to work out which one was Matt’s. The sun was shining on the glass, and I couldn’t see if he was looking out of any of them or not, but I waved up anyway just in case, then got in my car and drove back across the city to work.

Matt

I watched as she walked down the stairs, then went to the window to see her get in her car, with a wave up at me. I waved back and watched, feeling ridiculously bereft, as she drove away.

75. Let’s spend the night together

In which spending the night together means different things to different people.

Laura

Things were starting to go a little quickly for me – I wasn’t sure of myself, and I wasn’t sure of Matt. I never moved this fast, I never kissed a bloke on the first date, and we hadn’t even had a first date yet. And I hadn’t had either a bloke or a first date for quite some time.

My body was tingling all over, and I thought I knew where it wanted to end up, but after everything Matt had said, and all the doubts and uncertainties I’d had, things needed to slow down so I could regain some control over my feelings.

‘Matt –’

Matt

‘I know. Tuh much. Sohry. Old habits. Dohnt wohry, hohding hands is fine. Come ohn.’

I turned her round to face me, took her hand and led her back to the sofa. I noticed her breathe out a long breath as we sat down.

‘Heh, yuh dohn have tuh wohry. Not turning back intuh uncontrollable shahg monster anytime soon.’

‘Uncontrollable what?’

I laughed, remembering what Jules used to think of me. Oh I was so, so far from that person now.

‘Sohry. Someone called meh tha once. Kind of stuhk.’

I didn’t want to get into Jules and all that had gone on there just yet, so I changed the subject.

‘Heh, yuh goh a woolly doll on yuhr bog roll. Rehtro.’

‘She’s a crocheted toilet tissue concealment. She’s an ironic post-modern statement.’

‘Wha’s she stahting? Bog roll uhp my skirt?’

‘Philistine.’

My phone pinged with another text from Beth.

‘Shih, see wha I mehn?’

I took the phone out of my pocket and looked at the screen.

‘Please, Matty. Just let me know you got home safely. Worried.’

Oh for fuck’s sake. I suppose the only way to stop her was to just get it over with. She was never going to stop, otherwise.

‘Actually, Lau, duh yuh mind if I ring someone? I wohn beh long.’

‘No, of course not.’

I pressed call and spoke to Beth. She did sound a bit frantic, but I managed to reassure her I was OK without giving away my exact geographical location, I chatted to her a bit about my day without giving her any details and I had a quick natter with Iz who was much less demanding than her mother, and only wanted to tell me about chocolate.

I disconnected and laid the phone on the arm of the sofa, then looked at Lau, who was looking back at me with an ‘I told you so’ kind of expression. On anyone else it would have wound me up and got me defensive, but it seemed I could forgive Lau almost anything.

‘Wha?’

‘Doesn’t that feel better than all the aggro of getting wound up every time you get a text?’

I stuck my tongue out at her.

‘Were you talking to your niece?’

I smiled, thinking about her.

‘Yeh. Iz. She’s fohr. Blohnd bombshell. Wanna see?’

I reached for my phone as Lau nodded, more than willing to show off. I was a very proud uncle.

Laura

He reached for his phone as I nodded enthusiastically. Matt obviously really loved his family, and I wanted to get to know them, even if it was only via a screen for now.

He showed me Iz, who was gorgeous with golden ringlets cascading down her back, and Cal who was a slightly grouchy looking boy of about ten, with short blond hair that looked like it could be like his sister’s if it was a bit longer, and eyes like his uncle’s. He was going to break some hearts before he was much older.

Matt showed me family shots – Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz at a party, looking happy and smiley, lots of people sitting round tables laughing. He pointed out his mum, Rose, Nico and Lisa. He skipped over pictures of a small dark haired woman without explanation, and I wondered if she was Julia. He showed me pictures of Dec, Amy and Charlie, an ecstatically happy looking family. I recognised Dec as Declan Summers, Raiders rugby player, and his dark haired wife Amy was beautiful. I had already seen a picture of Charlie, but Matt had loads more on his phone.

Matt

I ended up showing Lau everyone, although I skipped over the pictures of Jules. Seeing her there, still on my phone, made me realise it was time I deleted the pictures of her. I never looked at them, I had only kept them because if I deleted them, then it was definitely done, over. And it definitely was done, over; it was about time I stopped hiding from it.

Lau oohed and aahed over Iz and Charlie, and asked questions about everyone else she saw, seeming interested in them all. It wouldn’t be long before she met everyone anyway, I was sure, so this was just a sneak preview. She asked if I was Charlie’s godfather, and I wondered if she was still trying to work out the relationship between me and Dec’s family.

‘Fuck noh, thehr not married. Engaged fuh lihk fifty centuries tho. He asks her tuh marry him, ahl the tihm, at least once a wehk. She always says yeh. They never duh ih.’

‘Oh, that’s so romantic.’

Yeah, I heard that a lot, and applauded Declan Summers’ unthinking ability to get in the good books of females everywhere just by being soppy.

‘Ih’s noh romantic, ih’s bluhdy annoying. Makes the res of us look bad. An think of poor Chahlie, unmarried parents, ihs a disgrace. An thehr having anohther one, thehr irresponsihbl.’

I grinned to show her I wasn’t serious.

‘Really? Amy’s pregnant?’

I nodded, pleased to note that Lau had been paying attention to my flit through the Scott family gallery.

‘Charlie is gorgeous.’

‘I know. She sorted my lihf ouh wehn she wahs a day old – hours old, actually.’

With a start, I realised what I might be about to tell Lau, how much of myself I might be about to share.

‘How come?’

‘Made meh realise something. Noh sure I shouhd –’

I stopped as I wondered how much of my hopes for a family of my own I should actually reveal. What if she didn’t want kids? That would put a stop to this whole thing right now. But wasn’t that the point? Wasn’t that the lesson I’d learnt from Jules?

‘Oh fuck ih, wha’s poin noh saying? Tha’s wha fucked everything up las tihm. If yuh know, then we both know. If yuh dohn like ih, we can wave goodbye, noh hard fehlings.’

Laura

I sat silently, expecting the blow to fall. Big revelations were usually to be avoided, on account of the revelation usually being something you really, really didn’t want to hear, but speculating was pointless, so I waited.

Matt

‘She made me realise I wahn a fahmly. Rehly, rehly wan one. Changed my life. Dohnt wana scare yuh off, buh tha’s where Ih’m headed if the bastahd’ll leh meh. Join meh or not.’

I shrugged. There really wasn’t any point in not saying it. I’d had a quick scout for pictures of children and babies, and there didn’t seem to be any in Lau’s home. Likewise, a lack of wedding ring and pictures of doting husbands, fiancés or boyfriends. It seemed like the only thing, and admittedly it could be a pretty big thing, that might get in the way of my hopes and dreams was if Lau was heading somewhere else – maybe she didn’t want kids, maybe she couldn’t have them, maybe lots of other things. But if she was headed where I was, if she wanted a family, and if she was the one for me, then we could –

Laura

He shrugged, unaware of how much he had just thrilled me.

‘Wow.’

Matt

Oh bloody hell. Did ‘wow’ mean ‘great, me too’, or just ‘holy fuck, how much more crap can this mad-arse dump in my lap’?

Laura

My heart had leapt out of my chest. I could not believe my ears. For the last several years, I had been fighting the growing conviction that my life was not going to be complete without a child. Fighting it because, with the lack of a prospective partner, and the further I got into my thirties, the more likely it was that it wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to be one of those single women in their late forties who drained the NHS’s resources by having IVF. If it didn’t happen naturally for me with a loving partner, preferably husband (it’s all about the upbringing), it wasn’t going to happen. But I really wanted it to happen, I would mourn it not happening. And now Matt Scott, who had just agreed to hold my hand for the foreseeable future, Matt Scott, playboy of the Western world (or at least this part of the West of England), had just told me he really, really wanted a family and asked me to join him on the ride. Hence ‘Wow’.

Matt

‘I know. Scared yuh off?’

‘Made my day.’

She had a big smile on her face. I was erring on the side of ‘great, me too’. Could this woman just get any more perfect? Rein it in, Matt, this could still all go horribly wrong, you know how easily you fuck things up.

‘Rehly?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Yuh wan kids?’

I just had to double, double check, so there were no misunderstandings.

Laura

I wanted to shout ‘like you wouldn’t believe’, but confession or not, that kind of behaviour usually ended badly for a girl. So I played it cool.

‘Yeah.’

Matt

‘Greah! Wanna goh tuh bed wih meh?’

Yeah, I knew exactly what it sounded like, coming straight after that conversation. I meant it to. There was no way on this earth I would be capable of fathering a child tonight, but that didn’t stop me putting the idea in her head for later. I can play a long game when I want to. Of course, the bastard MS was ensuring my game was very, very long at the moment.

‘What?’

I saw her swallow.

‘I’m fucking wiped. Nehd some sleep. Dohn think I can mahk ih home, even if yuh carry meh. Yuhr bed’s comfy, behn thehr already.’

Do you like my plan? I thought it was inspired, playing as it did both a) the fucking cripple card and b) the sleep with me platonically card, which to be honest I had never played before, so it was a bit like playing my joker.

Laura

‘Oh. Sleep.’

I gulped, panting slightly.

Matt

Lau’s eyes had gone wide, and she was breathing fast. I had a bit of an inward chuckle at her expense.

‘Wha, yuh thoht I meant sex?’

‘Of course I did, that’s what you wanted me to think.’

I chuckled again, outwardly this time. She was an easy mark, but she wasn’t daft. I liked that.

‘Struh, yuhr soh fucking easy tuh tease. Sohry, Lau, couhnt resist. Buh I mean ih abouh bed. Noh funny business, jus hold hahnds all nigh. Wha yuh think? Tuh soon?’

Oh the thought of spending all night in bed with Lau, holding hands, was so way beyond what I had imagined for tonight, that I nearly stopped breathing as I waited to see if she’d agree to it.

‘Do you snore?’

Fair question, I suppose. It’s not like I knew any of her annoying night time habits either.

‘Noh tha I know of. Dealbrehker?’

‘Yeah, no snoring. Or farting. Unless it’s me. I have had a lentil casserole tonight after all.’

She seemed to have a lot of rules about her bed; I was used to rules, having spent so long with Jules, and felt I could pretty much agree to anything, although things that happened in my sleep like snoring and farting were a little beyond my control and seemed somewhat unfair. I decided to counter with my own anti-social occurrence objections when she mentioned the lentils.

‘Oh fuck, forgot abouh tha. Migh hahv tuh withdraw my offer.’

‘It’s up to you, you have been warned.’

Lentil fallout notwithstanding, I hadn’t come prepared to stay the night, obviously. When I left the house that morning, I had thought I was going to spend precisely three seconds with my head round the door of a church hall before making Beth drive me home again. Night attire and toiletries had not seemed like necessary accoutrements.

‘I haven’t goh any jahmies.’

‘Well that’s a definite deal-breaker. No snoring, farting or naked bums in my bed unless any of the above are mine.’

‘Shih, yuhr bluhdy strict wih yuhr rules. Rehly, noh naked buhms? Mine’s rehly good, yuh should try ih.’

Well if she was amenable to having my bum in her bed, I might as well try for it being naked. It could save a lot of time in the long run.

Laura

I could hardly believe I was discussing the merits of Matt Scott’s naked bum prior to negotiating what he was going to wear while he stayed the night with me in my bed. Sleep or not, I decided to be practical. I needed to be practical about something, for heaven’s sake.

‘I’ve got a spare pair of men’s PJs for, er, such emergencies. There is also a spare toothbrush in the cupboard over the sink. They have never, I’m sorry to say, seen active duty.’

Matt’s face took on a delighted look of respect.

‘Lau, yuh trollop! Yuh were expecting tuh geh laid.’

‘Expecting? No. Hoping? Yes. Ever happened? No.’

‘Fuck, Lau, I cahnt believe ih. Yuhr fucking gorgeous. Wha, never?’

What was he on about? Oh! He thought I meant I was a virgin. No, Matt Scott, get real. I’m thirty-four.

‘Well, not never in my whole life, no, sorry to disappoint, I don’t come to you chastely untarnished, but since I’ve lived here, my bedroom hasn’t seen any unplanned bouncy mattress-spring action, no.’

‘How long?’

‘Have I lived here? Two years.’

‘Fuck, Lau, two years wihouh a … fuck?’

‘I didn’t say that, I said unplanned and in my bedroom. I am not choosing to divulge any more of my sexual history at this time.’

Matt opened his mouth to ask a question, but I didn’t want to get into the fairly nondescript, fairly short list of the previous participants in Laura’s Love-life right then.

‘Ah ah. No more at this time.’

‘Whoa, yuh noh how tuh keep a boy interested dohnt yuh? Know wha, tho, Lau, I rehly am knackered. Yuh duhnt have tuh, if yuhr noh tired yet, buh can I goh an sleep in yuhr bed? I’ll kehp my boxers on, an even my sohks. Hahv behn tohld my feht ahr a bih, er, fragraht.’

I didn’t believe for a minute that he just wanted to sleep. After that spine-tingling kiss? He was Matt Scott. OK, he had MS, and yeah I knew a fair bit about MS and sex, but I also knew him, or thought I did. However, I was prepared to play along, because I had never felt like this before, like being reckless and wild, and letting him in to my bed for whatever reason.

Matt

By now, I was in danger of falling asleep before her eyes; I was holding on by the skin of my teeth, and I really needed to go to bed, now it had been established that this was OK. I had to remind myself that I’d only met Lau earlier that morning, had only exchanged proper words a few hours ago. This was fast work, even for Matt the Lad. He would be dead impressed by my audacity.

‘Of course, flower.’

‘Flohwer? Wha?’

I don’t think I’d ever been called a flower before. Of course now, I’ve been called ‘flower’ at least eleven billion times, but then it was the first time, and it took me by surprise.

‘It’s my term of endearment. Only people I like get a ‘flower’. Ordinary mortals might get a ‘lovey’ if they’re lucky. Unless they annoy me, in which case they get a ‘git’ under my breath. You’ve had a few of those in your time, I can tell you. Recently, too.’

‘Oh, buh now I’m a flohwer. I shall float tuh bed happily on a sea of bluhdy pehtals. Any chance of a drink of wahter?’

‘I’ll bring it up. You know where the bathroom is, I’ll put some PJs on your pillow.’

Laura

Matt grinned his thanks, then went upstairs and I followed with a glass of water, which I put by the bed. As I rummaged in the top of my wardrobe looking for the spare pyjamas, it struck me what a bizarre evening we’d had, and were about to continue.

I wasn’t sure what had started here tonight, but something definitely had; it was exciting and unlike anything I had ever known. I kissed the pyjamas on the bottoms as I lay them on Matt’s pillow, smiling foolishly to myself, feeling ridiculous and giddy.

Matt

I went gratefully up the stairs to clean my teeth with the spare toothbrush. We swapped rooms, and I pulled on the pyjama bottoms Lau had placed on the pillow. Then, with a sigh, I climbed in to bed and forced myself to stay awake until Lau came back in.

I was good at forcing myself to stay awake, but if I went too far, like this afternoon, when I hadn’t even felt the onrushing tide of fatigue as I’d been so focussed on Lau, I just crashed. I didn’t want to crash straight away, I wanted to enjoy being in bed with Lau, just for a little while. I put my arms behind my head and waited for her to come in to the room.

Laura

We swapped rooms, I brushed the garlic out of my teeth and washed my face, having decided a shower was too time consuming, and then went into the bedroom. It felt so unbelievably natural seeing Matt lying in my bed, bare-chested, arms behind his head as if he owned the place, that I had to make myself notice it. Matt Scott was lying here half naked in my bed. I was about to undress in front of him and get in next to him. I didn’t know what the rest of the night might hold. He was looking at me appraisingly, eyebrows raised.

‘What?’

Matt

I wondered if she would have changed into her sleeping clothes in the bathroom, but to my delight she was still wearing her uniform. I raised my eyebrows at her, wondering how much I could get away with. I was pushing for all I was worth, trying to see how far Lau would come with me on my journey to the perfect life.

She looked back at me challengingly. Ooh she had the sparkiest of flashing eyes when she was feeling feisty.

‘Jus wondering if yuh’d sleep in yuhr uniform foh meh?’

I knew it wasn’t a goer, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get. I’d done quite a bit of asking tonight, resulting in quite a bit of getting.

‘Get lost, I’d never get any sleep, it’d be too tight, too hot, too not a nightie.’

‘Oh well, cahnt blame a bloke foh trying. Nex bes thing, see yuh geh ouh of ih?’

Laura

As well as we’d been getting on, I wasn’t about to strip naked for his pleasure. Not just yet at any rate. But I did take my trousers off, revealing a pair of plain cotton pants, and undo the poppers on the tunic slowly, which gratifyingly seemed to make his eyes bulge a bit.

Matt

She didn’t seem self-conscious in her underwear at all, and I gazed appreciatively at her. OK, so she was the first woman I’d seen naked since Jules, but that wasn’t the point. No, it so wasn’t the point. And look, she wasn’t even naked.

‘Fuucking hell, yuhr so hoht.’

That was as far as it went in the taking things off in front of me department, though, and she pulled a baggy sleeping shirt with a picture of a penguin on it over the top and took her bra off in some complicated through the sleeves move that ensured I didn’t see any more actual bare flesh. So still not naked. Oh well, plenty of time for all that, and as previously stated, it was all completely fucked in that area for me. It was such a strange mixture of going fast and going slowly, that it was nearly making my head spin.

I had no thoughts of sleeping while all this was going on; I couldn’t have kept my eyes closed with superglue.

‘Whoa, I’m in heaven. Yuhr naked under thehr aren’t yuh?’

Laura

‘Yes, Matt, under these clothes, I’m completely naked.’

‘Glad tuh hehr ih.’

I pulled back the duvet and got in next to him. My heart was beating hard and fast. I reached for Matt’s hand and gave it a squeeze, and we lay on our backs, holding hands, looking up at the ceiling. I reached over and turned the lamp out, and we lay in the dark, hands linked together. Surely now he was going to make his move.

Matt

Lau pulled back the duvet and got in next to me. She lay on her back, and I felt her squeeze my hand, then she reached over and turned the light out. My body seemed to sag, as if it was only the light that had been keeping me together. I knew I didn’t have very long before I would be asleep.

‘Lau, thihs is weird. Nice, buh weird.’

‘I know. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything quite like this before. I know it’s not exactly bungee jumping, but it feels very thrilling.’

She was right, it was thrilling, but it was so different from anything I’d ever done before, I couldn’t classify it.

‘Ih’s weird taking ih soh slow. By now I shouhd have behn in an ouh of yuhr knickers, cheeky wave at the door if yuhr lucky. Fehls like slow motion.’

‘Well I guess it is, for you. It makes me feel very young. Like about nine or something. When there are still things you haven’t done, ordinary things, but terrifying things, like driving a car or wearing a bra.’

‘Ihv nehver wohn a bra.’

‘It’s overrated, flower.’

‘I knoh wha yuh mean tho. Thihk anyone else ever did this?’

‘No. We must be the only ones to ever think of lying in bed in the dark holding hands.’

‘Yeh. Sexual traihlblazers, us. Lau …’

Laura

OK, this was it, he was going to make his move now, although it was a bit unexpected that he sounded like he was going to ask me first.

‘Yes, Matt.’

‘Now I’m a flohwer, is ih OK tuh call yuh Lau?’

Oh. He wanted to chat.

‘Yes, Matt, it’s OK. You have been calling me Lau most of the night, despite me telling you not to, why stop now?’

‘Oh, I wahnt gona stop, jus checking ih’s OK. Lau …’

‘Yes, Matt.’

‘Cahn I hahv a cuddle?’

A cuddle? OK, this was surely it, a precursor to making his move. I didn’t answer, but turned onto my side, reached out for him and pulled him close, wondering if he could feel my heart beating. His arms folded round me tightly and my head rested against his chest. I was expecting, or rather eagerly anticipating, a bit of wandering hands, some kissing, some removing of sleeping garments; however, Matt just carried on holding me tight, so I held him back, and decided to just enjoy being in his arms.

Actually, being in anyone’s arms. I’d split up with my last boyfriend well over a year ago, and I’d missed this closeness. So anyone’s arms – good. Matt’s arms – extra specially good.

Matt

Now I was here, in bed, with her, I wanted her to hold me. I needed her to hold me. I was starting to freak out, bowled over by the enormity of it all. I didn’t know if Lau would be up for a cuddle; she didn’t know I was a sexual fuck-up, she still thought I was Matt the Lad, who could have shagged you and been off down the road while you were still saying ‘yes, yes, yes’, and I wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d demurred. She didn’t answer, and for a minute I thought she was going to say no, but then she turned to face me and just pulled me into her arms.

Oh. My. God. I was in her arms. She was holding me. I felt so … safe. I had never felt so completely held, contained, secure in all my life. I wrapped my arms round her and pulled her as close as I could, her head resting on my chest.

It was overwhelming. I was exhausted and emotional, and I had never felt anything like this before, and it just welled up in me. I knew I was going to cry, but I didn’t care. It was Lau, and Lau would keep me safe, and that thought both daunted and excited me, and made me relaxed enough to just let go of everything that was locked up in me.

Laura

Matt didn’t seem in any rush to get started, and I wondered if we would fall asleep like this, then wake up with various bits having gone numb.

I was shaken out of my reverie by a shuddering sob. What? Was Matt crying? Yes, he was, and clinging on to me as if I was a lifebelt in an empty ocean, racking his body with every tear-laden breath.

Matt

I started to sob into her hair, as tears ran down my face, and shudders shook my body. I clung to her, knowing she was my lifeline, the one who would always save me, and then I felt her stroke my back and whisper to me that it was OK. She kissed my shoulder softly, and pressed herself against me, pulling me into her and taking it all away, making it feel better. I was in a cloud of Lau, and I gradually cried it all out, and felt sleep rushing to claim me. I tried to stay awake, to carry on feeling this incredible safeness, but the blackness came, and I couldn’t fight it off any longer.

Laura

When he had finished, when the shudders diminished and the noises quieted, I felt him go to sleep. As his hold relaxed, his body fell away from me, and I couldn’t keep him against me any more, so I let him go and felt him sleeping beside me until I drifted away too.

Matt

Under current circumstances, that would have been me unconscious for at least eight hours straight, no waking up until well into the next morning, possibly afternoon. But due to the fact that a) it was only about eight o’clock when I went to bed, b) it was a really weird situation, and possibly c) I’d had a few hours kip/coma earlier, I woke in the middle of the night.

It was dark, with a bit of orange light from the street lights outside filtering in around the edges of the curtains. I didn’t know where I was; all I could recall for those first few confusing post-sleep moments was that something momentous had happened yesterday. I turned over on to my back and my hand brushed against someone … and it all flooded back.

I smiled a huge smile to myself in the dark, then remembered that the last thing I’d done was make an idiot of myself by blarting all over Lau. I wondered if she was awake; I didn’t have a clue what the time was, and without rummaging around for my phone, it was anybody’s guess. For all I knew, it could be five minutes since I dropped off. It didn’t feel like it, though, it felt like I’d had a good few solid hours. I decided to see if there was anyone else awake.

‘Lau?’

It was barely a whisper. There was no reply, and I couldn’t see her to tell if she was facing me or not. I turned my head towards her and tried again, very slightly louder. I didn’t want to wake her up, but – oh alright, I did want to wake her up. I wanted more of her, to talk to her, to hold her again.

Laura

It was late. Or early. That weird time of night when it could be either, depending on what you were doing before or after. I woke up suddenly. I’d heard a noise. My senses tingled as I waited for it to sound again.

‘Lau?’

It was barely a whisper, but the man’s voice was right next to my ear, and I jumped out of bed as if it had become electrified, half way to a hefty pair of platform shoes from the wardrobe, before I remembered who it was who would have whispered. My no-swear policy took a bit of a hit.

Shit! Who the fuck is there?’

I heard a rustle from the bed as my assailant sat up.

Matt

Oh. It seemed like she was awake, then, and a great deal more sweary than she had been last night. I sat up.

‘Lau?’

Still no reply, just some heavy breathing.

Laura

My heart was beating so hard I couldn’t speak immediately.

‘Wha yuh doin?’

‘You scared the – sorry – shit out of me.’

Matt

I nearly laughed at her apology, so cute and unnecessary, but kept my composure.

‘How exacly?’

‘You whispered my name.’

‘Rehly, rehly quietly, in case yuh wehr asleep.’

‘Well I’m not asleep now, I’m wide awake and out of bed and there’s so much adrenaline pumping through my body I’m not going to get back to sleep for another couple of hours. Thanks for that.’

She really did sound freaked out, and it was obviously my fault, so there was only one thing I could say. I’d had a lot of practice earlier on, and I’d got quite good at it.

‘Sohry.’

‘What did you want?’

‘When?’

‘When you whispered my name.’

‘Oh. Jus tuh say sohry.’

‘What for?’

She was still standing by the wardrobe, I could just make out her form in the dark.

‘Come bahk tuh bed? I cahnt say ih prohply wehn I cahnt touch yuh.’

I needed to touch her, not just to apologise, but I just … needed it. How quickly I had developed this addiction, this need to be in contact with her. I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage to be apart from her ever again.

Laura

I took some deep breaths and felt my way back to the bed, clambered in and lay on my back. My heart rate was slowing down, but I still felt like I had run a marathon. I felt Matt reach for my hand, and I filled his with mine, holding tightly, rubbing my thumb along his thumb.

Matt

We lay there, rubbing our thumbs together, reconnecting.

‘Sohry.’

‘What for?’

‘Wehl, now I’m sohry foh scaring the living shih ouh of yuh by whispering at half a bluhdy decibel, buh before I wahs sohry foh crying in yuh hair. Hope thehr’s not tuh much snot.’

‘No, just enough, I expect. I’ll look tomorrow. Snot removal can be your first job of the morning.’

‘Dohnt yuh wan tuh knoh why I wahs crying?’

I didn’t want to tell her, but was sure that, being a nurse like Beth, she would want to go over it all. If I offered, it would just save all that time.

‘Well, yeah, of course. It seemed like a big deal. But in your own time, and never, if you don’t want to. Sometimes people can’t explain why they’re crying, it just happens.’

Well that was bloody brilliant. She was nothing like Beth, didn’t need endless explanations and discussions.

‘I can explain. I wahn tuh.’

Ha, see? If she was nothing like Beth, then I could behave completely differently to the way I behaved around Beth.

‘OK then, I feel like I’ve always known yuh, yuh mahk meh fehl safe. Tha scares meh. Tha’s ih.’

What had occurred to me, in some kind of flash of insight, outsight, something, was that I felt safe crying with Lau in the same way that Dec had felt safe blarting all over us on the beach last summer. I’d found, somehow, the one person who could hold me like that, and if I ever needed to let go like Dec had, Lau would make it OK, she’d catch me.

I was already imagining a future in which Lau would always be there. I should have been terror-stricken at the implications of that; the me from pre-church hall yesterday would have been. How can one person change another person so much in such a short time? Or was this new me always there, underneath, waiting to be unlocked? Fuck if I know.

Laura

I made him feel safe, which terrified him so much it made him cry. Oh boy, Laura Shoeman, you’ve got your work cut out with this one. As I thought it, I realised I was more than happy to consider having my work cut out for a long time to come.

‘You’re one huge bundle of delightful contradictions aren’t you, Matt Scott. I’m looking forward to finding a few more.’

Matt

‘I never cried wih a wohman before. Cep foh Muhm. Wehn I wahs seven.’

Well OK, this wasn’t strictly true, I could have come up with a couple more occasions if I’d tried, but this felt immense. I wanted her to know how important it was, how much she already meant to me.

‘I will feel honoured just as soon as I know precisely how much snot you’ve left in my hair.’

‘Jus saying.’

‘Thanks, Matt. I’m glad I was your first.’

Oh that would have been great. Yeah, first big cry, but if she’d been my first, if I could have started with Lau and never had to fuck everything else up …

‘Mm. Wish yuh had behn. Lau …’

‘Yes, Matt.’

‘Can weh spoon?’

Laura

This man, who I’d made all sorts of assumptions about, was turning into something, someone, I was going to be falling pretty hard for in the fairly near future. He was turning his reputation on its head, revealing himself to be sensitive, deep and troubled. A little voice at the back of my mind kept saying ‘He’s got MS, that’s not going to be a barrel of laughs’, but it was speaking quietly and I was ignoring it. To be honest, I’d hardly remembered the MS since Matt woke up, and certainly kissing him had put all thoughts of it out of my head. It just didn’t seem to be important.

I didn’t answer Matt directly, but turned away from him onto my side, pulling his hand round my waist. He fitted his body into the curves of my back. I half expected to feel the nudge of excited mens bits, but it wasn’t there.

Matt

The thought of holding her so close was very appealing. Again, she didn’t answer, but turned away from me onto her side, pulling my hand round her waist as she did so, telling me it was fine without needing to use words.

I moved up against her, feeling my body fitting against hers as if we were pieces of a jigsaw. I wondered if she was expecting to feel some evidence of arousal, and thought it was about time I let her know how things were with me. She’d done the talk on sex, or potential for lack of it, with the bastard MS; it’s not like it would be a surprise.

Laura

Almost as if he read my mind:

‘Bet yuh thoht yuhd beh feeling a bih more of meh.’

‘I hadn’t really given it much thought. Is there much more?’

I had, of course. I’d expected it, wanted it, would have welcomed it.

Matt

‘Yeh, Ih’m bluhdy huge, thahks.’

There are some things that blokes just have to boast about whether they’re true or not.

‘Oh, of course. Silly me.’

It was all very well being flippant, trying to avoid it by having a laugh, but this was difficult to say, and I needed to just get it over with. Then if she thought I was more trouble than I was worth, she at least had all the available facts.

‘I hahnt got hard fuh months.’

Laura

‘No?’

Trying to keep my voice neutral, I silently berated myself for not thinking about this. What had I spent the first hour doing in the church hall yesterday? Talking about how MS affects the sex drive, how it blocks the normal nerve pathways and makes sexual responses unpredictable, and can lead to diminished sexual function. Honestly, Laura Shoeman, where has your head been? You need to be a bit more switched on.

However, I needed to respond to Matt without going into MS sex expert mode. I was going to find it hard to be natural about this; I’d done too much research.

Matt

Her voice was neutral, and I wished I could see her face so I had more clues as to what she was thinking.

‘Thoht yuh migh turn meh. Yuhr soh sexy.’

Laura

The thought of Matt Scott finding me sexy was something I wouldn’t have anticipated before today. I wasn’t what I would have thought was his usual ‘type’, being several years older and several curves more voluptuous than the thin, blonde twenty-somethings-if-that I’d often seen him with. But he said it like he meant it, and I believed him.

‘Don’t force it, flower.’

Matt

Her choice of phrase made me giggle.

‘Dirty talk like tha migh jus do ih.’

Laura

‘Every little helps.’

I now needed to reassure him, at the same time as drastically downgrading my own expectations.

‘It’s not a problem for me, Matt. Holding hands is fine.’

Matt

‘Rehly?’

With every single thing she said, she just got more sublime.

‘Yuh dohnt need a little Scotty lohvin?’

‘Holding hands is fine. Things are going fast enough as it is.’

Well that was true. And I’d just nearly scared her to death; maybe I needed to check how she was feeling, instead of trying to get her to reassure me.

‘How’s the adrenaline?’

‘Acceptable levels. No more whispering though, please.’

‘OK. Lau?’

‘Yes, Matt.’

‘Can I fehl yuhr bum?’

I was lying so close to her, I wanted to feel some of those curves for myself. Her arse had looked bloody magnificent when she was getting undressed earlier, and it needed checking out.

Laura

Oh God yes. A bit of groping was just what I needed.

‘You already did once today.’

‘I knoh, buh I wahs asleep. Dihnt geh the benefit.’

‘Just a quick feel then.’

Matt

Delighted, I unpeeled my arm from around her waist and ran my hand up her leg to her buttock, the first arse I’d touched for six months, where I had a bloody good feel. She was soft and pliable and it all boded very, very well for the future.

Oh, this is just sounding like I was perving on her because it had been six months since I last saw any action, but it so wasn’t like that. It wasn’t. I mean, yeah, touching Lau’s soft skin was awesome, and probably more awesome because of the recent lack of feminine skin to skin contact, but make no mistake, it was mostly awesome because it was Lau.

Laura

It felt wonderful, and I knew I was going to have to steel myself not to respond.

‘Mm. Nice ahrs.’

His arm came back round my waist and pulled me against him, and we slept.

Matt

I let her bum go, and put my arm back round her waist, pulling her against me. I didn’t even cop a feel higher up – does that sound like someone who’s perving on someone else? No, I should think not. As I held Lau to me, the feeling of comfort and safety enfolded me again, and soothed me to sleep.

74. Anything could happen

In which there are misunderstandings, misconceptions and misgivings.

Matt

I don’t remember much after we stood up to leave. A wave of fatigue caught me and started to drown me, turning my brain to fog and my limbs to jelly. I was just thinking to myself that I’d left it too late, and I was going to have to call Dec after all, when it all went peculiar, there was a rushing noise, I heard a phone pinging and I woke up with a start in a strange bedroom. I was lying on my side, and when I could focus and feel all my limbs, I saw there was a note on the pillow next to me:

Hi Matt

You’re in my bedroom, don’t worry, you got a bit tired and I brought you home to have a sleep. I’ve checked your vital signs, you’re OK.

I’m downstairs, just give me a yell and I’ll be right up.

Laura

Well of all the bloody nerve. I know, I wasn’t exactly in a position to be dictating what should happen when I was practically unconscious, but it pissed me right off. The phone pinged again, and I picked it up before I realised it wasn’t mine. I glanced at the screen as I put it back down, and caught sight of my name. Not only my name, but ‘Matty’. Only two people called me Matty, OK maybe three but one of those was Argentinian so he didn’t count.

I read the text; it was from Beth, wondering how I was. OK, now I was properly mad. Not only had Laura somehow dragged me down the street to be seen by fuck knows who in fuck knows what state, but she’d obviously been in touch with Beth. How had she known Beth’s number? Had she been through my phone too?

I started to stand up, realised I was still pretty fucked in the legs department and fell back onto the bed with a bit of a crash. I sat there trying to get my concentration, my energy and my balance back enough that I could stand up, walk out and go the fuck home.

For now, all thoughts of finding the girl of my dreams were gone, engulfed in the general rage caused by finding myself at the mercy of the fucking bastard once again.

How long had I been there? I picked up Lau’s phone again and glanced at the time. Fuck, I’d been asleep, unconscious, whatever the fuck I’d been, for nearly three hours. I really needed to go. Just as soon as I could –

The door to the bedroom opened, and Lau came in. I immediately went on the attack, as I tend to do when I feel vulnerable, and waved her phone at her to show her the offending text.

Laura

I ran up the stairs, to find Matt looking angrily at his phone – no, wait, my phone.

Matt

‘Why the fuck is Beth texing yuh tuh ahsk how I am?’

I soon found out I wasn’t the only one who felt they had been wronged.

Laura

Well I wasn’t having that, on so many levels; it wasn’t exactly the smiley gratitude I’d been imagining, and Matt Scott was going to have a bit of a word from Laura Shoeman.

‘Hang on just a minute. Firstly, why are you looking at my texts? Secondly, I nearly broke my back getting you here, you could at least sound a bit grateful. Thirdly, you’ve dribbled all over my pillow, I’m going to have to wash it now. Fourthly –’

Matt

I needed to stop her before her list got any longer, and she lost sight of the main point, which was obviously the thing I was cross about.

‘Yuh had noh righ tuh tell her. Who the fuck duh yuh think yuh ahr?’

‘Someone needed to know where you were, and I didn’t know anyone else I could get hold of. I got her number from a friend and put her mind at rest. If it was my family I’d have wanted her to do the same.’

Yeah, well, it wasn’t her family, and she had no right contacting any of them. The repercussions were going to rumble on for bloody weeks, they were never going to let me out of their sight again.

‘Not yuhr business. Dihnt yuh hehr meh tell yuh how much they fuhs?’

‘No, I heard you tell me how much they care about you.’

She sounded really pissed off.

Laura

I was getting very irritated with his go-it-alone attitude. It wasn’t uncommon, and at work I could deal with it, but I was at home, and I felt a bit of righteous indignation coming on at the ungrateful git sitting up on my bed, waving my phone at me as if I’d committed a terrible crime with it. Oh Laura Shoeman, you let yourself be fooled by his pretty face and his flirty smiles, you wally. See? He’s just Matt Scott underneath.

‘I see you’re feeling better. If you’ve finished sleeping on my bed and slobbering all over my pillows, you can go.’

Matt

It brought me to my senses with a crash. She was justifiably irritated that I was coming over all wounded party or some such shit, when she’d put herself out for me. I’d just fucked it up, with The One, the one I’d found. So now I had no choice, I’d been a dick, as usual, let my pride do my talking, and I should just go.

‘Alrigh then.’

I stood up, still a bit wobbly on my legs, but no way was I asking for help or leaning on anything. I crossed the room to the hallway, surprised to find the front door right outside the bedroom door, but I let myself out and walked down the path.

Laura

He stood up, swayed a bit unsteadily but not as if he was likely to fall over and I’d have to help him, and made his way to the door. He looked out into the hallway, found the front door and let himself out. Not a word, not a single word of thanks or apology or anything to acknowledge that I might just have put myself out a little bit for him in the last couple of hours.

I stared at the front door for a while as if it might speak for him, but thankfully it didn’t, so I turned to the bed and started taking the pillow case off, muttering to myself about the ingratitude of arrogant men who thought they were God’s gift and even felt your bum in their sleep, but that wasn’t important, what was important was – the doorbell went.

Matt

As I walked, so angry with myself, with the fucking bastard, with her, with the whole sodding universe, I realised I was still going to have to get home. I felt recovered enough to try some form of public transport, and felt for my wallet to find the card of a taxi firm – shit my bloody fucking bastard wallet. I still didn’t have it. Lau had said it might be in her car. Oh sod it. Now I was torn between just calling Dec, and crawling back to Lau.

Only it wasn’t really a choice, because if I didn’t go crawling back to Lau, I wouldn’t know if my wallet was in her car, and I would have to spend the rest of the evening cancelling my credit cards, possibly needlessly. Bollocks.

I turned round and trudged back up the path. I’d try to make it as quick and painless as possible. Any thoughts of any kind of connection with Lau were fast receding with the tide of fuck-ups I had instigated, and I just wanted to get home, lick my metaphorical wounds and try to forget the whole thing.

I rang the bell. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flicker of movement at the window. So she knew it was me, and I suppose it would serve me right if she didn’t answer the door. I needed my wallet, though, and I was prepared to ring a few more times until she did answer. I knew a thing or two about persistence in the face of – oh, the door was opening.

Laura

A quick peek out of the bedroom window showed me Mr Matt Scott, head down, hands shoved in his pockets. Ha, come crawling back to me, have you? I jerked the door open. Now he would apologise, and be grateful and smiley. This was better.

Matt

I didn’t look her in the eye, just wanted to be gone, done with it, what had I been thinking, I didn’t deserve her, didn’t deserve anyone.

‘Still hahvnt got my wallet. Yuh wehr goin tuh check yuhr car.’

Laura

So not crawling back apologising, but needing to ask for his wallet and wishing he didn’t. Git. Git, git, git.

Almost closing the door in his face I stomped downstairs to get my car keys then stomped back up again, hoping he was noticing the industrial amount of stomping I was doing for his benefit.

Matt

The stomping came back up the stairs, she flung the door open and continued stomping straight past me down the path to her car. I followed at a less furious pace and waited anxiously behind her. She rummaged behind the passenger seat and, to my enormous relief, emerged clutching my wallet. She thrust it at me and resumed stomping, past me and towards her front door.

‘Thahks. Listen, I –’

Laura

He started to say something but I was beyond hearing him, and I did a little additional stomping back in through the front door, which I closed firmly behind me.

Matt

But she was gone, back up the path, slamming the door before I could begin what I was going to say. The closed door had a look of finality about it and at last I came to my senses, reviewed my behaviour, and realised exactly how rude and ungrateful I’d been. I know, I know, I don’t have that sort of revelation very often, certainly not as often as I should. But now I was confronted with my rudeness in the face of kindness actually costing me something big. Lau wasn’t my family, who had shown over and over again that they would pretty much put up with anything from me. Lau was someone who didn’t know me, had no reason to indulge my petty behaviour, and above all was someone who I really really wanted to spend a lot more time with. And I’d just completely ruined it in a fit of the sulks. And now, shit, I was starting to feel wobbly again.

I went over to Lau’s car and leaned on it while I considered what to do. I really didn’t want to knock on her door again, she was already seriously pissed off with me, but I was beginning to feel bad about how I’d treated her and, miracle of miracles, wanted to apologise.

In my recent post-Jules self-analysis, I’d belatedly reached the conclusion that life’s golden opportunities didn’t come along that often, and I needed to act on my feelings when I felt them, rather than hiding from them and trying to convince myself I was someone else. Yeah, I know, bloody hilarious really, but deciding something isn’t always the same as doing it, is it?

Anyway, that’s what was occurring to me as I leaned on Lau’s car and tried to pluck up the courage and the strength to go back and say sorry, for the second time that day. If I didn’t, I’d only have myself to blame when I let her slip away, but if I went back, and things worked out, only myself to congratulate. I tried not to think about the in-between, if I did it and she didn’t answer the door or told me to piss off. I was trying to think positive, alright? Didn’t happen often, back then, and still wouldn’t now without Lau’s smile. So, having convinced myself that the potential gains outweighed the definite losses, I quickly fished a mint out of my pocket, as it’s never too late to create a good impression, and set off back up the path.

Laura

Back in my bedroom, I was suddenly overcome with tearfulness. I couldn’t quite understand why – it wasn’t like he’d disappointed me; I’d known what he was like. Well alright, I suppose I fancied him, quite a lot actually, but that had been overridden by realising that underneath all the good looks and cheeky grins was just a waste of space.

Wiping my eyes and pulling my thoughts together, I concluded that Matt Scott tended to have that effect on women and I wouldn’t be the first person he had left in tears after sleeping in their bed, although I might be among the first to have not experienced the complete entertainment package.

I took some deep breaths, changed the pillow case, punched the pillow a few times for good measure, gathered some more things out of the laundry basket, and headed downstairs to put it all in the washing machine.

As I placed my foot on the bottom step, my doorbell rang again. I dumped the laundry and, sighing, walked up the stairs. When I looked through the spyhole and saw Matt on the doorstep again, I was taken aback at how pleased I was. What was I thinking? The man was a grade A pillock, he’d hurt my friends, dammit he’d just made me cry, why was I happy to see him? I almost didn’t open the door, but he must have realised I was standing there as I heard his voice from outside.

Matt

I waited quite a while, rapidly losing my nerve, trying to give myself courage, almost convincing myself she wasn’t going to answer. I suddenly had the weirdest feeling that she was on the other side of the door. I don’t do feelings or intuition or any of that shit, but I just felt it. I had to say something.

‘Laura? Plehs leh meh in. Ih’m sohry. I wahn tuh apologise.’

I don’t know if she knew what it took to get the words out. I was never that good at admitting when I was wrong, and hardly ever backed down, but this was a special case, she was an exception. Already there were things I was prepared to do for Lau that I wouldn’t do for any other person.

Laura

Well that was something I suppose. Not a lot, but something. Enough, maybe. I opened the door. He looked up at me, sheepish, hands still tucked in his pockets, shoulders hunched. I folded my arms.

Matt

With a skip to my heart I heard the door open. Lau stood in the doorway looking gorgeous but uncompromising; arms beautifully folded, severe yet seductive expression, no trace of her fabulous sunny smile. Fuck, I was gone. Just seeing her again, after all of two minutes, made my heart beat faster and the heat was melting me from the inside out. But from the look on her face, she wasn’t going to make it easy for me, and fair enough I suppose; I was the one who needed to do the hard work. I decided to play the fucking cripple card. If I couldn’t use it in times of need what bloody use was it?

‘Can I cohm in, sit dohn? Ihm stihl a bih wohbly.’

Well it was true, wasn’t it? And apologies were always much more convincing when you didn’t collapse in the middle of them.

Lau sighed, standing aside to let me wobble past her.

Laura

I sighed, not feeling particularly sympathetic but unable to put my nursey impulses aside to leave him wobbling outside on the doorstep.

‘OK, but the living room is downstairs. Can you manage the stairs?’

Matt

I might have started getting arsey again at the implication that I was not completely mobile if I wasn’t a) so not completely mobile that I was nearly falling over and b) absolutely smitten.

‘Yeh, think soh. Yuh cahn carry meh if not.’

I tried the grin that had worked for me earlier in the day; it didn’t have a noticeable warming effect on my frosty reception, but she did turn and lead me down the stairs.

Laura

He’d plastered the lopsided grin back on his face as if that was going to make up for his rudeness. Maybe he was used to that being the case. It did make my own knees go a bit wobbly, but I chose to try and ignore that. I turned and led him down the stairs, pausing at the bottom to pick up the laundry and dump it on top of the telephone table. When I turned round he had a pair of my knickers dangling from his forefinger. Oh for Pete’s sake.

Matt

Now I was back in Lau’s house, and feeling mentally if not physically more alert, I was determined to make the most of the opportunity. I was going to turn on the charm, try to make her forget my performance as a mardy unreasonable old git, be Matt the – no, not Matt the Lad, but Matt the Glad. Glad to have another half a chance, willing to be honest and open, busting a gut to make her like me, to re-ignite some of the heat I’d felt – we’d felt – when she had touched my hand back at the coffee shop, to make her look at me like she had then, with bewilderment and interest.

I followed Lau down the stairs, holding on tightly to the banister to keep me on my feet. I badly needed to sit down, but I held on to my uprightness with sheer willpower.

Lau paused to pick up a pile of laundry from the bottom step – it looked like she’d dumped it there, probably when I rang the doorbell – but something fell out of the pile. I bent to retrieve it for her, and was delighted to find it was a pair of knickers. Black, bikinis, lacy trim if you’re interested; I was. I hung them from my finger and waited for her to turn round.

‘Drohped these.’

She grabbed them, still no blush, interesting, stuffing them on top of the pile that she had now put on a small table, and gestured to the sofa. I gratefully crossed the room and sank down into the cushions while Lau stood and looked at me, arms folded, waiting. For me to apologise, I assumed, as she was all but tapping her foot in impatience. She looked like she just wanted me to go so she could get on with her evening but, sorry Lau, I was never going to let that happen. I was there, I was going to take this second chance with both malfunctioning hands, and I was never going to let you go again.

‘Lau, I’m –’

‘Laura. My friends call me Lau.’

Oh for fuck’s sake. I couldn’t believe I was going to balls it up on a technicality, the same one that had narked Jules off in the beginning as well. She was just being pissy for the sake of it. But, OK, come on Matt, learn a lesson for once, do it her way. I couldn’t help being a teeny bit exasperated though.

‘Oh bohlocks noh thihs again. OK. Laura. I cahnt member gehting back from the cohfee place. Wha happened?’

Laura

I decided not to sugar coat it. He deserved to know how much he’d put me out.

‘You nearly knocked me over falling on me as we were leaving. You leaned on me all the way back, I had to practically carry you up the path and into the house, you groped my bottom, and I had to manhandle you onto the bed. Then you slept like the dead for a couple of hours, then you woke up, then you were very rude to me, then you left.’

He actually looked ashamed, his forehead creasing in a frown and his big eyes looking up at me, pained.

Matt

And so that told me. Maybe people should tell me more often in words of one syllable exactly what a pain in the arse I’ve been and what they’ve done for me; I might be a bit more appreciative. Ha ha. But with Lau, this time, it worked and fired up my remorse nodes. It wasn’t lip service, not just faking sorriness while I tried it on with Lau, it was real. I felt bad, really bad, about the effort she’d made to help me. I knew how difficult I was to manoeuvre when I was tired, she was quite a lot shorter than me, and I had virtually needed dragging.

Dec had had to haul me up the stairs to my flat a couple of times recently, and it had left him panting, and he was a burly rugby player. I was full of chagrin that Lau had had to do the same, because she was not in any way burly. And I’d sworn at her and been an arse. And been at her arse. Lots of sorries were now overdue.

‘Sohry. Ih’m a wanker sohmtihms. Lohs of tihms. Sohry. I woke up, dihnt know wehr I wahs, saw yuhr note, felt bad fuh nehding hehp, hehrd yuhr phohn, thoht ih wahs mine, saw tex from Beth. Wahs annoyed. Wahs a prick. Sohry. I groped yuh?’

She nodded. I really was sorry, it was totally unacceptable under any circumstances, but I couldn’t help feeling pleased with myself for having had the wherewithal to try it while I was asleep. Go Matt.

‘Sohry.’

Lau had been looking a bit less pissed off until then, but I guess the grin I couldn’t keep off my face spoilt all that.

She was silent for a moment, and I couldn’t read her expression.

Laura

The smirk slightly spoilt the effect of that particular apology.

I was unsure how to respond. He was saying all the right words and making me feel all the right things, but I was quickly coming to the conclusion that I wasn’t really completely in my right mind where Matt Scott was concerned. Was this how all his conquests felt? I wasn’t confident I was going to make the right choices in what I said or did next. Still, I didn’t have a handy confidante whose opinion I could ask, and short of phoning Kate, Anna, or Rachel within earshot, I was going to have to go it alone and trust my instincts.

Trouble was, one lot of instincts were saying ‘play it down, he’s a bastard, he just wants to get in your pants’ and the other lot of instincts were saying ‘go for it girl, he’s hot, and he might want to get in your pants’. No instincts I could muster could foresee Matt Scott not wanting to get in my pants, or that he was just there to apologise because he felt bad for being rude to me, and I realised with a start that this might be because it was what I wanted.

I remembered the shock when I took his hand in Mean Bean, and his widened eyes when he looked into mine. I tried to remember he was a man with MS who had asked for my help; I also tried to remember he was Matt Scott with a capital Git, but I was having a hard time doing so. Right now, he was this man, here, with me, having expressed heartfelt regret, and looking at me with his sad grey eyes. And I still hadn’t replied to his apology.

‘Yeah. Well. You were rude.’

Matt

Did I detect a slight, very slight, thawing? I pressed my advantage with more grovelling.

‘I know. Sohry. An … thahks fuh hehping meh. Yuh dihnt have tuh.’

‘No, I could have left you in a crumpled heap on the pavement I suppose. That would have made a good headline: Nurse leaves patient on the street to go and have her tea.’

Another quick flare of irritation, that I tried to suppress but didn’t completely manage. I didn’t want her to be my nurse, I wanted her to be my … everything.

‘I’m not yuhr patient.’

‘I know. It was a hypothetical headline.’

Hmm, well, OK, things definitely seemed to be defrosting a bit, let’s ignore the nurse bit, get things back on track.

‘Lau –’

I caught her look, and belatedly added the rest

‘–ra, yuh knoh I said thihs afternoon I wahnt ahsking yuh ouh?’

She nodded, suspiciously, quite rightly wondering where I was heading off to now.

‘Wha wouhd yuh have said if I wahs?’

I wanted to come clean, to let her know to some degree what I’d really been thinking all day. I was going to have to work up to it, though.

‘Hypothetically?’

I nodded. Hypothetical was good, lets everyone off the hook, or paves the way, depending on how it goes.

‘Then or now?’

Ooh, and she was considering me asking her out now. That really was promising.

‘Bohth.’

‘Well, hypothetically, if you had been asking me out earlier today, I would have had to, in a fit of solidarity with my friend and colleague Rachel Telford, who you won’t remember but whose heart you broke after a one night stand some time ago, well I would have had to refuse I’m afraid. And now, well, same rules apply.’

Oh fuck it. I had not considered that she might have known anyone I’d been Matt the Lad with. If I’d fucked around with one of her mates, I was done for. No wonder she was so pissed off with me, I was lucky she’d agreed to have coffee with me at all. When was my past ever going to let me go? How long was I going to have to keep paying for how I’d been?

She was right, I didn’t remember her friend, not by name anyway. There had been a few Rachels; there had also been a few, more than a few, whose names I hadn’t caught, or had forgotten, or had been too shit-faced to have a hope in hell of remembering. I had been a right bastard, I got it, I’d stopped, but that didn’t mean it didn’t keep catching up with me, catching me out, making me pay. Was it now going to cost me this woman, this one woman? At that moment, I was completely dejected and miserable at the thought of it, about to jack it all in, this ridiculous venture with some poor woman I’d taken a fancy to.

Laura

Yay me, I had socked it to him and stood up for Rachel all in one go. I was super-fem girl-power woman. I was – making Matt look even more sad. He looked up at me from the sofa; I don’t think I could ever have imagined the great Matt Scott looking so dejected and miserable.

Matt

‘Yuhr righ. Ih’v behn an utter bahstrd over the yehrs. Lohs of excuses, nohn of them guhd enough. Biting meh on the ahrs now, ih seems.’

I couldn’t just leave it, though. This was my one opportunity, and I was going to say it, tell her how I felt. If I didn’t, I wasn’t going to get another chance. One last go, then I’d leave her alone.

‘I rehly like yuh, Lau. OK, I’m gona beh honest. I know weh only met tuhday, buh I tahk my chances wehn I see them. I dohn know if I cahn explain this, I felt like, when I saw yuh today, the first tihm, ih was lihk I recognised yuh. I was lihk holy fuck, tha’s her. Even tho we never met. Tha’s why I talked tuh yuh at lunch, and cahm back to ask yuh out. I noticed yuh checking meh ouh too. An I thoht, in the cohfee shop, thehr wahs a mohment, when yuh held my hand …’

Lau was quiet for a long time, and I saw lots of things flitting across her face, none of them easily identifiable, but none of them saying ‘piss off you tosser’, not yet, anyway. I was hopeful, but needed to know what she was thinking.

Laura

Oh my God, he’d felt it too. Now I was all confused and mixed up. Sod Rachel and her long obsession. Matt Scott was making the moves on me. Me! And I wanted him to, I so wanted him to make the moves on me. Oh damn, Matt Scott had MS and I could be seriously compromising my professional standards. But it wasn’t as if he was a patient, I’d only been for a coffee with him. Laura Shoeman, what on earth are you thinking?

‘Lau – Laura? Ahr yuh OK? Yuh kehp looking ah meh fuhny. Yuhr not talking.’

‘Sorry. I’m feeling a bit peculiar. I think I need to sit down.’

Matt

She sat at the other end of the sofa and looked at me. I was a bit worried about her, she looked spaced. Just then my phone pinged with Beth’s tone. Fuck off and leave me alone, the whole sodding lot of you. I ignored it as Lau started to speak.

Laura

I tried to gather my scrambled thoughts, made a go of it, decided to share, taking a huge leap of faith or something equally stupid. Pulse racing, I looked him in the eyes, those big grey eyes, and just said what was in my heart.

‘Matt, OK, I’m not sure where this is going to lead, but, yes, I have to admit I have been feeling – things – for you all day.

Matt

I bloody knew it. She’d been feeling things. Yes! Result. Oh, but concentrate, Matt, she’s still talking. Pay attention.

‘I also have to admit that I know you, not to talk to, but I’ve seen you around at parties and clubs, I know people who have been, um, out with you I suppose you could call it. You’ve got a bit of a reputation.’

Oh shit. Not only has one of her friends been Scotted, but she’s seen me around, quite a lot by the sound of it. I’m just that arrogant bastard to her, aren’t I.

‘I am also, frankly, not sure how I stand professionally.’

Bloody hell, I never even thought. There are probably rules for nurses and patients. But I’m not her bloody patient, I told her that already.

‘I don’t even know what you’re asking me, my head’s spinning a bit. So, the bottom line for me is, everyone thinks you’re a bit of a git, but I like you, or at least find you physically attractive, maybe you feel the same. I’d like to know what that means to you, so I can either forget it and move on, or try and work it out some more.’

She looked a bit breathless, and that’s how I felt, like for the whole of her little speech I’d been holding my breath, waiting for the ending. And the ending was sublime. She wanted more. Had I done it, convinced her? She was looking back at me, as if she was finding it hard to believe what she’d just said.

Laura

I couldn’t quite believe I’d said it. It was almost like I’d been reflecting and reframing my own thoughts into something vaguely coherent. I didn’t feel at all coherent and if I’d tried to stand at that moment, I would have keeled right over, as thinking the thoughts and saying the words had taken all my coordination.

Matt

‘Whoa, Lau. Dohnt hold bahk will yuh! OK, fuck yeh tuh physically attractive – in tha unifohm, ahr yuh fucking kidding meh?’

At this juncture I should just confirm that I do love a girl in uniform. Nurses’ uniforms these days are pretty tame compared to the old days, like in Carry on Matron, which is obviously historically factual. These days they’re kind of boringly practical, more tunic and trousers than little short dresses, but there’s still something that just gets me all steamed up. Lau was still wearing hers, and she looked awesome. She looked down at herself as if she’d forgotten what she was wearing and wrinkled her nose; I guess if it’s something you wear every day you get used to it. I would never get used to it.

Lau’s kept her uniform all these years, just for me. It still fits her, very well. But it’s never on her for long. But back to the story. Where was I? Oh yeah; Lau had just said she fancied the bloody pants off me and wanted to know what I was going to do about it. Alright, not in so many words, but go back and have a look; there’s a lot of subtext. Anyway, I still had to answer her

Laura

I looked down. I hadn’t even changed yet, was still wearing my tunic from today. It probably smelled pretty bad by now.

Matt

‘I dohnt rehly duh big fuck-ohf analysis of fehlings. Rather geh on wih fehling an doing. Buh I’d lihk tuh geh tuh know yuh better. See if I’m rehly feeling wha I think I am. Mehbe sit closer than ten feet apart tuh duh ih?’

I patted the sofa cushion next to me; I really wanted Lau as close as I could get her, and to my delight she shuffled along the sofa until we were not quite touching, but were near enough that I could feel her body heat, near enough for me to hold her hand. Well, it would have been rude not to, her being so close, so I reached out and took her hand in mine, and there it was again, that jolt of electricity.

Laura

He patted the sofa cushion next to him. With a still-pounding heart I moved close enough that I could feel the heat from his body. He took my hand, and the fireworks went off again. He held my fingers on his lap, gently stroking my knuckles with his thumb, looking into my eyes as if he was going to find out all my secrets and then tell me his. I felt like I was in a dream, finding it hard to keep up with the speed at which things were happening.

Matt

I’d read about it, usually in bad romance novels – not that I’ve read a lot of those you understand, but sometimes a novel unexpectedly turns into a bad romance when you were expecting zombies or futuristic dystopias – but dismissed it as artistic license. But this, this was absolutely real. Just our fingers rubbing against each other made pulses of heat flood through my body. If my sexual organs and been firing on all cylinders, I would have been totally and irreversibly aroused, but nothing had happened down there for, well, months now, and much as I would have loved Lau to have miraculously reversed that whole part of the bastard MS, it didn’t happen. Still, just holding her hand was pretty incredible, and so much more than I’d expected.

I pulled Lau’s hand gently onto my lap, and looked deep into her eyes. This was incredible; I hadn’t in my wildest dreams imagined that Lau would feel anything close to what I had been feeling, but she certainly seemed to be on her way. She looked blissed out; she looked like I felt. My heart was pounding fast and hard, but before I got completely carried away, I needed to make a stab at explaining what was going on with me. I was a fuck up; she deserved to know.

‘Lau, I think I nehd tuh say sohmthing.’

‘OK.’

‘I dohnt know whehr the fuck this is goin. Ih’m bluhdy terrified. I had a rehly bad brehk-up a few months ago. Made meh realise a loh of shih abouh mysehf. Ih’v behn a monumental ahrshole to lohs of women. Called ih fun. It wahs foh meh, not foh ehvryohn. Ih’m not lihk tha now, haven’t behn foh long time. Buh Ih’v not behn wih anyone since befohr the bastahd MS came bahk. Wehn I first hahd ih, my girfriehd lef meh, prehty much fucked meh up. Lau, I cahnt prohmis anything. Nothing mohr than this –’

I held up our linked hands.

‘– now, thihs moment. Thehr ahr things I wahnt, things I nehd, buh all thihs is, foh now, is us hohding hands. Fuck. I only came bahk tuh apologise, now look wha yuh made meh duh.’

I smiled at her. She had broken me, in a good way. She had made me talk, admit to some of my fears, make myself vulnerable, in such a short time. I felt small, as if she could hold me in her hands, to protect or crush. I had never felt so open to anyone in my whole life, as if I could tell her anything. I wanted to, I wanted to tell her everything about me, and it was terrifying and liberating at the same time.

Laura

He looked at me and grinned, his crinkly smile melting my heart into a little puddle. I had heard a lot of things about Matt Scott. I had heard he was a thoughtless pig, a self-centred dick, a single-minded sex-machine, an unstoppable force of nature who took what he wanted and discarded the rest.

I hadn’t heard he was eloquent and vulnerable and scared, and if I had I wouldn’t have believed it. I didn’t feel I had any words to match his. If he was sincere, and a tiny part of me still wondered if it was all just a line to get in my pants, but if he was sincere, he was perfect and I was happy to just be there holding hands, now, in this moment. So I turned to him and went to kiss him on the cheek.

Matt

I had other plans for any kissing that was going to occur, and turned my head so my mouth met hers.

Laura

Oh God, his mouth. Oh God. I’d heard stories about Matt Scott’s kisses. They did not do him justice. As our lips met, a fizz of static seemed to burst between us, flinging my eyes wide. I opened my mouth in surprise, as his soft tongue flicked along the bottom of my top lip and then pushed gently forwards to meet my own tongue. He held my cheek in his hand and gently angled my face up to his, sealing my lips with his and then flicking at my bottom lip as his tongue continued its exploration around my mouth. The fizzing electricity carried on its way round my body, settling somewhere in the centre of me, and Matt’s nibbles and licks sent fresh top-up jolts with every peck and suck. I opened my mouth wider to let more of him in and more of me out. I pushed my tongue against his and sucked him into my mouth. His hand moved up into my hair, and he pulled my head towards his as he thrust his tongue deep into my mouth and sucked hard on my lips, and the heat rose and rose in me until it almost filled me up.

Matt

Fuuuck she was good. Her mouth was so inviting, so soft and warm and nibbly and licky and wet, that I barely noticed the garlic. If I thought our hands had static racing round my body, our lips and tongues positively exploded, as we burst against each other. I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen when my dick was in working order once more – oh yes, have no doubt, now we’d kissed there was no turning back. I knew, if I hadn’t known before, that I never wanted to kiss another woman as long as I lived. No, Lau was going to have no choice, although she didn’t look like she wanted one at that moment. We were lost in each other, happily marooned on an island of oral sensuality.

I had my hands in her hair, she had her arms round my neck, and our mouths were suctioned together, and it was all awesome, so awesome. Lau moaned, and it broke the spell, brought us back to ourselves. We sat back, looking into each other’s eyes, breathless and flushed. I reeled a little bit to remember that less than half an hour before, she had been throwing me out of her bedroom for being rude and dribbling on her pillow.

‘Yuhr a bluhdy guhd kisser.’

‘Mm. You too. God.’

Lau wiped her mouth.

‘How do you taste so good?’

‘Breath mint befohr I knocked.’

She cuffed my arm.

‘You cheat! I’ve just had a lentil casserole with extra garlic.’

‘I knoh. I think yuh lef mos of ih on yuhr tongue.’

I was teasing, I hadn’t really noticed, didn’t really care anyway. She batted my arm again.

‘God, Matt. God. Kissing Matt Scott. I’m … I’m a bit in awe.’

Oh, now that sounded wrong, like she thought I was some kind of celebrity or something. I didn’t want her thinking I was anything like that arrogant piss-artist.

‘Noh Lau. Dohnt beh in awe, plehs. I dohn deserve ih. Tha ohl meh yuh knew, he wahs a fucking bastahd, mehbe inspired awe, fuck I dohn noh, but he’s gohn. Ih’m jus meh now. Noh sure wha tha mehns. Shih, I dohn do all thihs deep an meaningful bollocks. Stop making meh talk – ooh yuhr guhd, aren’t yuh! Ih’s wha yuh duh, yuh did ih at the cohfee shop, made meh talk, made me – fuck, wohman, yuh mahd meh bluhdy cry yuh cow! Did yuh mean tuh?’

She held my gaze. I was expecting her to deny it, to say sorry maybe.

‘Yes.’

What? But, but that’s just mean, isn’t it? I thought nurses were supposed to be all caring and shit. I must have shown what I was thinking, because her expression changed from defiant to sympathetic. That was better.

‘But not to upset you. I wanted to get you to face what you were feeling. You’re not very good at that, are you?’

And so she knew me, had seen into the heart of me. Matt Scott equals not very good at facing what he’s feeling. She was bloody good.

‘Gehting better. Buh noh, not guhd. Still a bluhdy cow.’

I gave her the benefit of a fake sulk, until my phone pinged with another text from Beth. I rolled my eyes, exasperated.

‘Lehv meh the fuck alone.’

‘Why don’t you just answer them?’

‘Wha?’

‘Surely if you replied when they texted they might just think you’re responsible enough for them to leave you alone for five minutes? When you keep up the silent treatment, it makes them more worried about what might have happened to you. They won’t be imagining you sitting on the sofa holding my hand, they’ll be imagining you with pills and ropes and carving knives, and they’ll try harder to get in touch until they know you’re OK.’

This was bordering on what one might call interfering, and much as I might have made strides in the last few minutes in the sharing my feelings department, any hint of fussing or nursiness à la Beth was not that welcome. I scowled and I think she got the point.

Laura

Matt gave me a dark look, and I realised I was getting close to crossing a line with him. I remembered how he’d reacted when he woke up to Beth’s text on my phone, Beth’s warnings that Matt wasn’t happy with people fussing over him, and indeed Matt’s constant grumbling about the amount of contact he got from his family. I backed off, for now, before I ruined things.

‘Alright, I’ll stop being a nurse now, but it’s who I am, and it bleeds through everything I do, so get used to it.’

Matt

I didn’t say anything, but as she’d backed off and hadn’t pushed it, I got my phone out and looked at the screen.

‘Matty, ru OK? RU home?’

‘I’m fine, stop it now.’

It never seemed to make any difference, telling them I was fine, they never believed me. Probably because half the time I was lying my fucking head off, and wouldn’t tell them if I was tied to train tracks with the five fifteen from Plymouth approaching at ninety miles an hour.

Laura

‘Family?’

‘Yeh. I know, I’m a nighmare. I dohnt duh asking fuh hehp, I make them beg tuh hehp meh, as if I’m doin them sohm huge fucking favour. I’m a fuck-up, Lau. Run now, while thehrs still tihm.’

Matt

Although if she looked like she might, I was going to stop her.

‘Oh, you know what, I think I won’t. See this?’

She held up our hands, which were still linked together.

‘I think I’m going to be holding this hand for quite some time.’

It was music to my ears.

‘Rehly?’

Lau nodded. I was a bit overcome, and in these situations, some arsing about is always necessary. Holding hands long term sounded great, but held some practical complications.

‘Nehd a pee.’

‘Oh.’

She looked like she was reconsidering.

‘Alright, I might let go for a few minutes then.’

‘Yuhr easily tahked ouh of big statements, aren’t yuh. Yuh could’ve said ‘noh, Matt, I’ll even come wih yuh tuh the loo an hold yuhr hand while yuh pee’ buh yuh jus dropped ih lihk tha. Noh staying power. So whehr is ih then?’

‘What?’

‘Loo. Shih, fucking bad memory too.’

I was feeling good enough, relaxed enough about how things were going, to tease her.

Laura

‘Oh. It’s upstairs. Door opposite the bedroom. You need to hold the handle down when you flush.’

As Matt made his way up the stairs, I noticed my pile of laundry, still on the telephone table. I took it into the kitchen, threw it in the washing machine and set it running. Then I stood up and leaned heavily on the sink, catching my breath.

Matt

I stood up and went upstairs, slowly, hoping she didn’t notice how difficult I was finding it to walk. I sat on the toilet seat for a while, gathering my strength, then stood to pee and managed not to splash, which was all anyone can ask, really. Lau’s bathroom was pretty standard apart from the crocheted lady covering the spare toilet roll, which made me smile, and some ‘risqué’ seaside postcards in a frame which made me chuckle with delight about what their cheeky rudeness said about her.

I was feeling really tired; tired enough that I should be at home in bed, before a repeat of my earlier performance. I decided to do it a different way, to take another chance, as chance-taking had been a productive strategy so far today. Taking a few deep breaths, I left the bathroom and made it down the stairs as best I could.

Laura

I heard Matt come back down the stairs and resisted an urge to turn round and watch him to see how he managed the steps, part of me still in nurse mode despite myself.

Matt

I walked up behind her and slipped an arm round her waist and she jumped at my touch. I laughed softly, as I felt her relax into me. I bent forwards and spoke quietly into her ear; this had often had the effect in the past of a rapid improvement in pulling power, and I wasn’t above using some of Matt the Lad’s techniques, even if most of his shit was dubious.

‘Heh Lau, is ih OK to duh this as well as hohd hands?’

Laura

He murmured in my ear, making me tingle all the way down my neck and then onwards to join the fizzing that had started and not really stopped when we were kissing. I nodded, and he slid his other arm round me. His body pressed into mine, his front moulding to my back, and I felt him bend his head down to my neck and brush his lips along my skin, just below my earlobe. I breathed in sharply and clasped my hands over the top of his.

Matt

I felt the side of her face move against mine as she nodded. Her cheek was soft and smooth. I slid my other arm round her, leaning against her and brushed my lips along her neck, just below her earlobe, which made her gasp and put her hands over the top of mine. She stiffened slightly, and for a moment I thought she was going to push me away; I realised it was too much for her right now. Shit, it was nearly too much for me. It was all going crazily fast, and I recognised that we needed to slow down before it all got too overwhelming and she called a halt. Also, I was nearly out on my feet and I needed to put my plan into action.

73. A dream of you and me

In which a meeting has an unexpected outcome.

Laura

It didn’t take long to get to my road, and we talked about nothing much – possibly the weather, or the one-way system, nothing memorable. Despite the slur to his speech, I liked the sound of Matt’s voice, his northern, or was it Midlands, accent making the words sound rich and soft. Oh hark at me. I just liked the way he spoke; it wasn’t what I had expected.

I found a parking space outside my house, a minor miracle after five o’clock on a weekday, and told Matt to wait in the car while I took the trolley inside.

‘Sohry, fehl I should beh hehping or sohmthing.’

‘Don’t be daft, it’ll only take a second or two.’

As I opened the front door my phone pinged again in my bag. I took it out and read the five short text messages from Kate.

‘Not THE Matt Scott?’

‘Lau? Spill. Can I tell Rach?’

‘Lau don’t ignore me’

‘I swear if u don’t answer I’m coming down there’

‘Last chance’

I hit reply and sent a message

‘God give a girl a chance to drive home. Yes that Matt Scott. Needs 2 talk. Best not tell Rach yet eh?’

I sent the text and put the phone back in my bag. It rang almost straight away. I pulled it out, but put it back and turned the ringer off when I saw it was Kate calling. She’d have to wait until I was back home properly for a chat.

Matt

She trotted back to the car and opened the door for me, offering her hand, but I’d already lost enough man points with the not helping, and decided to struggle out by pulling up on the car door instead. I saw how she was looking at me, Beth looked at me that way most days, and I gave her a rueful smile at my own stubbornness.

‘Are you OK to walk there? It’s only just round the corner.’

‘Yeh, s’fine. Fehl a bih of a twat now, noh sure wha Ihm gohna say.’

This was true. Now I’d semi-conned her into some kind of pseudo counselling session, I would have to deliver the goods. I had bolstered myself for this when I made my plan, but that was when it was a theory, a working hypothesis. Now I was going to have to give her something real, and I wasn’t relishing it.

I felt her put her hand on my arm as we walked, and wondered if she had any idea how much she made my pulse race. She suddenly stopped in her tracks.

Laura

I put a reassuring hand on his arm as we walked, more comfortable in my nurse guise than my giddy teenager guise. Thinking this suddenly made me realise I was still wearing my nurse’s uniform, and I stopped in my tracks.

‘Oh dammit, I need to get changed. Sorry, Matt, I forgot I was still wearing this.’

I indicated my tunic.

Matt

‘Noh a problem foh meh, I kinda lihk ih.’

I looked at the way she was filling out the tunic, which was spectacular.

Laura

His eyes swept over me appraisingly, making me feel hot and tingly.

‘Yes, but I’m not supposed to wear it out in public. Stay here, there’s a cardy in the car, I can put that over the top.’

I left Matt standing on the pavement while I made the quick dash to and from the car to pick up my big baggy cardigan.

Matt

She ran back to the car, opened the boot and pulled out a large woollen thing that covered up the tunic and all the curves that went with it. I made a disappointed face.

‘Shame.’

Laura

Matt made a disappointed mouth as I covered up the top. Thank God for baggy cardies; they made you feel sexless and frumpy, which was what I needed if I was going to be able to ignore the unsettling things that being with Matt was beginning to make me feel.

‘Cheeky! Uniforms aren’t all they’re cracked up to be you know. Most of them are itchy and don’t fit properly.’

‘Yuhrs seems tuh fit OK.’

He looked me up and down again, which despite the cardigan continued to unsettle me.

‘You’ll get me struck off with talk like that. Right, Mean Bean, mochaccinos on the NHS.’

And as a note to self, any more flirty banter on my employer’s time strictly off the agenda.

Matt

Oh, promising, she’d started with the flirty banter. Backed off pretty quickly, but it had been there. Very, very promising, Matt.

‘Ih’s a dehl. Wha I pay my taxes foh.’

‘Quite right. Here we are then.’

We can’t have walked more than a minute or two.

‘Bluhdy hell, yuh weren’t joking abouh roun the corner.’

‘It’s my downfall, I can nip out for breakfast in my PJs and slippers, get back before the alarm clock’s finished ringing.’

This was going better than I’d imagined. She was sounding relaxed, letting bits of personal information slip out. We reached Mean Bean, managed to secure the last booth and Laura went to buy the coffee, despite my protestations. She insisted that some bizarre NHS rule meant she could claim two coffees on expenses, but not one. It’s no wonder the country’s health service is in such a state.

While she was ordering, I thought I’d better try to let Beth know I was going to make my own way home. She would doubtless be wondering where I was; she would not have believed in a million years that I would have stayed at the church hall all day. But my phone couldn’t pick up a signal, whichever way I held it, and when Laura came back I was holding it up as high as I could, exasperated that the one time I try to do what they all nag me about, I’m prevented by a blackspot.

Laura

As I made my way back to the booth with the mochaccinos I saw Matt was holding his phone up in the air, looking at the screen in annoyance.

‘Problems?’

‘Noh fucking signal.’

‘It’s a bit flaky in here sometimes.’

‘Shih. Shuhd’ve called someone.’

‘Oh.’

I looked at my phone which was also displaying a ‘Searching…’ message where the bars should have been.

‘Sorry, mine too. Do you need to go in search of a signal?’

Matt sighed and shook his head.

‘Noh, fuck ih, leh em wohry foh bih. Noh a fucking bahby.’

He looked up and wiped his frown away with a crinkly smile.

Matt

I looked up at her and smiled. No point taking my frustration out on her, that wasn’t going to get me even close to where I wanted to be.

‘Bluhdy fahmly. Luhv em. They fucking kill meh.’

Laura tilted her head sympathetically.

‘Just worried I expect.’

‘Yeh.’

And a bunch of nosy, interfering –

‘When were you diagnosed?’

She cut across my familiar internal diatribe and silenced me. Shit. I had almost forgotten I was there on the pretext of talking about the bastard MS, and her direct question had taken me by surprise. I couldn’t speak for a short while, but Laura just sipped her coffee, waiting for me to answer. She seemed so chilled that in the end, I found the words. It wasn’t really such a big deal, was it?

Laura

There was a long silence. I realised I had been direct but I usually found that small talk increased people’s nerves and made it harder to find an opening into the things they really wanted to talk about. Matt had said he wanted to talk about things he found it hard to talk to his family about, so I wasn’t here for a natter about last night’s telly. I sipped my coffee while I waited for Matt to answer.

‘Five yehrs or so.’

I was really surprised. There had never been any indication, not that I’d ever spoken to him, but I prided myself on my radar and Matt had got under mine. I’d never even heard a whisper that Matt could have MS.

‘Really? I assumed it was more recent.’

Matt

‘Yeh, this tihm. Behn in remission. Thoht I’d goh away with ih. Nehly forgot I had ih. Fucker came bahk, cohpl months ago. Bastahd.’

That was the most I’d talked about it to anyone for a long time. Thinking about it made me angry, and I looked away.

Laura

‘That must have been hard.’

I had managed to slip into full nursey counselling techniques now, making statements, reflecting back, but Matt had looked away and seemed to be closing down.

Matt

‘Yeh.’

Yeah, it had been hard, and talking about it now was almost as hard. I felt myself closing down, stopping the words.

Laura

I tried to think of something I knew about him to keep him talking, and remembered seeing him with Beth this morning.

‘But your family are being supportive?’

Matt

I couldn’t prevent a snort. I had the most bloody annoyingly supportive, there-for-you family a man could wish not to have.

‘Fuck yeh. Always bluhdy ringing, texting, popping roun. Cahnt geh a second tuh mysehf tuh duh wha they all think I’m gona duh.’

Fuck, hadn’t meant to say that.

Laura

‘What do they think you’re going to do?’

Matt looked down at the foam on top of his coffee and didn’t meet my eyes.

Matt

What was the saying? In for a penny, in for a pound? I hoped Laura was up for a pound of sharing. I’d never said what I was about to say to anyone, but I felt like I knew her, like it would be safe to say it. I can’t explain how.

‘Well, yuh knoh. Pills or rope or I dunnoh, carving knihf. Buh prohbly be pihls. An a bohtle or two of Jahk Dahniels. Wha a way tuh goh, shih-faced tuh the end.’

Laura

‘So you have thought about it?’

I’d be amazed if he hadn’t considered it at some point. But I thought the way he was talking about it meant he was less likely to do anything serious about it at the moment.

He kept his eyes on the table as he answered.

Matt

Fuck, I hoped she wasn’t going to have to alert the Suicide Squad or something. I looked down as I answered. It was too big a thing to risk looking at her as I said it. I didn’t want to see pity, or contempt, or anything that said ‘oh you poor man’.

‘Yeh. Buh turns ouh I’m too bloody sehfish fuh tha even.’

I risked looking up at her, to see what she thought about that one. My traitor eyes swam with tears. Shit. I wasn’t going to fucking well cry.

Laura

He looked up at me and I was surprised to see his big grey eyes glistening. Was he about to cry?

‘Selfish?’

‘Yeh. Dihnt want the kids tuh remehber me as a fucking loser.’

‘Oh – you’ve got children?’

That was a new one but I went with it, and it seemed to distract him enough that the threatening tears disappeared.

Matt

Ha, that was better, that was funny in a darkly ironic way.

‘Noh. Fuck noh! Oh, whole other lohng saga righ thehr when yuhv goh a week or two. Noh, my niece, nephew and – oh fuck ih my fahmly’s so complicated. Anyway. Other pehpl’s kids.’

Explaining things like this always took at least twice as long because of my bloody family and their convoluted links.

Laura wrinkled her nose as she pondered it all. She looked adorable.

Laura

He looked at me, seeming to be willing me to understand. I tried to sum it up.

‘OK, got it, I think. You may have had some suicidal thoughts but you haven’t acted on them because you’re worried about what other people’s children will think of you when you’re dead.’

More reflecting and reframing. Sometimes it helped to be blunt; I usually judged it right.

Matt

Whoa, she knew how to summarise. Adorable or not, it felt like being hit with a blunt instrument.

‘Holy fuck.’

I looked at the table again. This was taking a turn I hadn’t expected, and we were getting into territory I had never explored with myself, let alone someone I had only just met. If you know me at all, you know if I even approach the truth about anything, I start fucking about so it doesn’t get too serious and real. This felt very serious and real, and we’d only just started talking. Lau, you are so good. Then, and still. What would I have ever done without you to make me see what I’m hiding from?

Laura

Matt bowed his head. I suspected he hadn’t fully admitted it to himself before, preferring to couch it in euphemisms and even jokes. After confronting him in such a direct way, he needed some reassurance.

I reached over and put my hand over his, to be startled by an electric jolt that travelled from my fingertips to my very core. It took me right out of my safe professional counselling zone and straight into teenager with the popular boy zone.

Matt

Laura reached over and took my hand, presumably to comfort me, but it felt, instead, like she’d wired me into the mains. Touching her hand hurled a bolt of human lightning right through me. I almost felt my hair stand on end. I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t have felt it, and I looked up from the table and into her eyes, where I saw, I just knew, that she had felt the same thing. It wasn’t just a mild flirty attraction, she was, certainly at that moment, affected as deeply by me as I was by her. It shook me out of my dark reveries. I held onto her hand, tightly, as I saw her force herself back to our conversation.

Laura

Matt looked up into my eyes; I don’t know what he saw there but his eyes widened slightly as I struggled to get a grip on myself. I forced my thoughts back to what he’d just said, and away from our clasped hands. Had he just felt that too? I heard a catch in his breath, and we looked at each other, startled, for a few seconds, before I remembered myself.

‘Matt. The last thing you are is selfish. It sounds like your family are keeping you going one way and another. Don’t ever think its selfish to love them. They need that from you.’

Matt

‘Not rehly. Thehrs plenty – ‘

My phone rang, interrupting the moment, and I had to let go of Laura’s hand to answer it.

‘Signal mus beh bahk. Shuhd geh this’.

It was Dec. They would have been taking it in turns to call while the rest got in touch with Scotland Yard to put out the sniffer dogs – and indeed a whole host of missed calls and texts popped up as I answered.

‘Heh.’

‘Where the fuck are you?’

‘I’m fine.’

‘That’s not exactly answering my question.’

No, dear Declan, that was the intention.

‘Having cohfee.’

‘Oh. Would it have hurt you to call Beth? She’s been going bat-shit.’

‘Sohry noh signal.’

‘Oh. Are you going round there later?’

‘Noh, going hohm after.’

‘Oh. Do you need a lift? I can come and get you.’

I had no idea how I was going to get home. Maybe a taxi, or chance the buses. No way I was going to rely on any of the family.

‘Noh thahks.’

‘You’re sure you don’t need anything, talk, … anything?’

‘Noh, jus nehd sohm fucking space.’

‘You know you don’t have to be on your own –’

It was the assumption that I was on my own that riled me up this time. They all thought they knew me, who I’d be likely to be with, who my friends were. I blasted back at him.

‘Noh, Dec, dohn start wih tha fucking shih yuh noh I’ll talk tuh yuh if I need tuh.’

‘Alright, mate, take it easy, you know how this works, we care about you, alright?’

‘OK.’

‘Don’t be a stubborn fucking bastard all your life.’

‘OK.’

I had no intention of doing what he told me, but the less I said, the less he would go on.

‘I’m going to call Beth and tell her you’re OK.’

‘Whahever, yuh’ll all talk abouh meh anyway.’

It sounded whiny and childish, but I was mostly in a whiny childish place these days.

‘Yeah, mate, like we’ve got nothing better to talk about than your feeble antics. Here, have a word with Charlie, she’s been wanting to chat to you all day.’

‘Oh yuh bastahd … Heh, beauhiful how’s yuh day behn? Tell Unca Matty all abouh ih even tho yuh cahnt talk yet.’

There was an indistinct burble and a giggle, then Dec came back on the line.

‘She’s laughing at you, you ridiculous old git.’

‘Yeh I heard her. Dead cuhte.’

‘Has that put a smile back on your wrinkled old face?’

‘Yeh I’m smihling yuh bastahd. Piss ohf now. Busy.’

‘OK. See you soon, mate.’

‘See yuh.’

I put my phone down and looked apologetically at Lau.

‘Sohry. If I dohn report my exac movements they call the FBI, an SWAT teams play havoc wih yuhr social lihf.’

She didn’t seem too worried about me taking personal calls on her NHS time.

Laura

‘No problem. Family?’

I realised I was being a bit nosy, but wanted to keep him talking.

Matt

‘Yeh. Well noh. Well soht of. Sohry.’

Oh shit, I was going to have to go through the ins and outs of it all wasn’t I.

‘Dec. Bes mate, bruhther, auhnty, stuhborn fucking interfering bastahd all in one. Goh a lihtl girl. Lohv her tuh bihs – hehr, look.’

I picked my phone up, found a picture of Charlie and turned the screen to face her. I’d got so used to Jules looking bored at family pictures that I was surprised and delighted when I saw Lau’s expression soften.

Laura

He picked his phone up and scrolled through his photos then turned the screen to face me. A dark haired baby with enormous blue eyes chuckled out at me. I felt a familiar pang and pushed it back down where it came from, as I always did when confronted with other people’s beautiful children.

‘Oh Matt, she’s gorgeous. How old?’

‘Six months. ‘

‘And she’s your niece?’

‘Well soht of. Dec’s kind of – bollocks I’m sure yuh dohn wan tuh know my bluhdy fahmly history.’

‘Try me. I’m a bit of a nosy cow.’

It was all too true that I loved finding out about people, I’d chat to anyone, anywhere. But it was also true that I felt the intensity of both the things we had been talking about, and that weird electric jolt; getting Matt to talk about something safe and familiar would make things feel easier.

Matt

Well it beat talking about the fucking bastard, so …

‘Oh fuck ih, why noh? Buh if I see yuh yawn, tha’s ih, dohble espresso on meh an straigh home wih yuh.’

Thing is, I just didn’t think I was boring her, even though I was boring myself a bit; Laura looked keen to hear about it.

‘Ha ha, it’s a deal. Come on, then, let’s have it.’

I had a quick think about what I was going to say, and it occurred to me that although Jay and Dec were my family, they were celebrities here in this city, and the whole story wasn’t common knowledge. Dec may well be open house in the family as far as talking about his shit was concerned, but he made sure he kept his private life to himself when it came to the general public.

‘Migh noh beh much tuh tehl rehly. My bruhther … thehr was this kid … bollocks, noh sure wha I cahn say. This is confidential, righ? Lihk a priest or sohmthing?’

‘Er, well, not exactly like a priest, there are certain things I’m not allowed to keep to myself – abuse, that kind of thing.’

I felt a stab of panic – no no no, how did I give her that impression?

‘Fuck! Noh! Shih, I jus mehnt a loh of ih’s noh my stohry, yuh cahnt tehl pehpl.’

Laura

‘Oh, OK, no problem then. My lips are sealed, as long as I’m not breaking the law. But I’ll let you know if there’s anything I need to pass on to the FBI.’

I winked at him, and he relaxed a bit. I was enjoying getting to know Matt Scott; it felt like something had started when we touched hands, and I wanted to keep him there with me as long as possible. Oh God, Laura Shoeman, did you just flipping wink at Matt Scott? Good grief.

Matt

She winked, oh it was so sexy, and I reduced panic stations to acceptable levels. I tried for a short version of it all, most of it what people knew about, nothing that I could see that Dec or Jay would be unhappy about.

‘Righ then. Whehr tuh start. OK – goh ih. Yehrs ago, prohbly abouh eigh or sohmthing, my bruhther gahv a room tuh this kid on a ruhgby scholarship. Jus a room foh few wehks. Threh yehrs laher he’s stihl thehr, part of the furniture, evryohn’s happy. Then sohm big shih goes down wih them, abouh the tihm I geh told Ihv goh … this.’

I gestured down at myself, to indicate the fucking bastard.

‘Then geh pneumonia. Sohm huge shih hits sohm fucking enormous fan down hehr, big bust up wih kid. Jay lehvs ih all behin an comes tuh Stafford tuh look after meh. I’ve nehly pegged ih in the mehntime. Kid – well ih’s a bih complicated, but lohng an shoht – kid an Jay mahk up, they all realise he wahs part of the fahmly all along, big Chrismus reunion. I wahs thehr, jus ouh of hospital, still trying noh to peg ih. Dec decides if he’s part of the fahmly tha mehns meh too, an starts interfering as if he’s bluhdy Beth or someone. Hahnt goh ohf my case since, fucking bastahd.’

I shrugged.

‘Tha’s ih rehly. Dec’s fahmly buh I dohn know wha tuh cahl him. Noh a bruhther, mohr than a friehnd, he’s hehped meh ouh of sohm deep shih. I’ve hehped him ouh of sohm deep shih tuh. Nehd each other.’

Dec would laugh his socks off if he heard me telling it like that, like it was no big deal, like I didn’t mind him helping me, like I didn’t hate needing him, like I didn’t go out of my way to make it difficult. But he didn’t hear, would never hear, me saying how much he meant to me, not in so many words, so that was OK.

I saw Lau breathe in, as she thought about what I’d said. She looked like she knew exactly who I was talking about, and was considering what to say next.

Laura

I took a deep breath. It was impossible not to recognise the people in Matt’s story. I didn’t pay much attention to sport on the whole, but you couldn’t live in this rugby-mad city and not be aware of Raiders and some of its principal characters. Jay Scott and Declan Summers were names most people knew, and, yes, it would have been four or five years ago when all that trouble hit the headlines and Declan Summers came through A&E while I was doing a bank shift, unconscious, his face beaten to a pulp. Matt was looking at me, waiting for some kind of response.

‘Well, it doesn’t sound that complicated really. As long as it works, for all of you, that’s the important thing.’

That wasn’t the response he needed.

Matt

Yeah, but that wasn’t that reassuring. I needed to know she wasn’t going to go blabbing about how the newest fucking bastard MS recruit was part of the whole Scott-Summers saga. I didn’t want to end up as centre spread in the Mail on Sunday’s ‘Rugby Hero’s Crippled Brother Misery Ooh and While We’re At It His Fuck-up of a Family‘ feature, and I was pretty sure Jay wouldn’t want it either.

‘Yeh, buh yuh know who I’m tahking abouh? Yuh wohn say anything?’

‘Matt, I’m not sure who you think I’m going to tell or what you think I’m going to tell them, but no, it’s your business and your family’s business. Thank you for telling me, though.’

My phone pinged, and I looked at the screen to see a text from Rose. It was one of many I’d ignored since I’d been in the cafe with Laura. The jungle drums must have been working overtime for Rose to get involved, and she must have been really wound up by Beth to have texted, as it took Rose about an hour to find the full stop on the keypad. I predicted that next on the list would be Mum, and I’d have the set.

I wanted to explain to Lau how bloody annoying they all were, never leaving me the fuck alone, always assuming something dire had happened if they couldn’t get hold of me for three minutes.

‘Tha’s Rose now. She’s Dec’s – oh bollocks, see, this is wehr – Rose kind of came wih Dec, she’s noh related to him either buh she thinks she’s his muhm. So dohs he. Dec, he’s noh rehly goh anyohn, he shuhd beh all alohn in the world, buh he jus pulls pehpl to him. He’ll never beh alohn.’

That was more than I should have said, but Lau was bloody good at just sitting there listening, and she made me want to talk. I quickly started a sarky reply back to Rose, but tried to maintain eye contact with Lau so as not to appear too rude. Just rude enough, I suppose.

Laura

He started replying to the text as I spoke, flicking his eyes up to mine to show me he was listening.

‘Do you feel alone?’

Matt’s fingers stopped in mid-text as I finished asking the question. His head remained down, looking at his phone, and I couldn’t see his face, but I saw him tremble slightly and then two tears fell onto the table. I reached out and took his hand again, steeling myself against the surge of heat. It was there, but I was prepared for it and I could ignore it and be distant and professional.

Matt pulled his hand away roughly, reached into his pocket and pulled out a tissue, then wiped his eyes. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and looked me in the eye, anger on his face.

Matt

I stopped in mid-text as she asked the question. Fuck, she’d managed to get to the very heart of me with four words, and it flooded over me. Before, I’d been on my own out of choice, going it alone, Matt the Lad, playing around, no ties required thanks very much. Now, although it was my fault Jules was gone, it wasn’t my choice and yeah, although I had started to get over her, had come to terms with some of it, and I tried really hard not to beat myself up about it – well I still missed her, or the Jules shaped hole where she had been, the togetherness, the closeness, and I did feel alone. I pushed people away because I was scared to depend on them, and being away from work and all the camaraderie I shared with my team just compounded things.

My eyes misted over, shit shit shit, and I couldn’t see the screen on the phone. Before I could stop them, two tears plopped onto the table, the bastards. I felt Laura take my hand again, but although the electricity was still there, it still took me aback, it made me angry; angry that she’d called me on feeling lonely, when I wasn’t prepared to admit that, not to myself, and certainly not to her. Shit, I’d only just met her, who did she think she was? She was as bad as all the rest of them.

I pulled my hand away from hers, found a tissue and scrubbed my face dry. Then I looked her in the eyes, in those angel’s eyes, those eyes that I wanted to be mine, and I nearly let her off, but it was still there, the anger, covering up the loneliness, and the shame about the loneliness, and I couldn’t just let it go, couldn’t just let her get away with making me cry in front of her. I took a deep breath, then vented.

‘Fuck yuh, clever medical pehpl. Thihk yuh know evrything. Yuh know fuck all abouh meh.’

I expected an equally angry reaction, maybe for her to pick up her bag and leave. I fixed my eyes on my phone, trying to finish my text to Rose, so I could appear unconcerned when she walked out.

Laura

If Matt had been speaking in code, which he was in a way, he would have been saying ‘Yes I feel alone, but I feel bad about feeling alone when my family love me so much, and I really wish you hadn’t pointed this out to me and made me cry, thank you very much.’ Maybe there would have been a bit more swearing. But he wasn’t ready for me to be telling him how he was feeling, so I stayed quiet for a while, sipping my drink, as he finished his text. He hadn’t got up and walked out, so something was keeping him there.

‘Another coffee?’

He looked up from his phone, surprised, expecting me to have taken offence at his words.

Matt

The mildness of her tone of voice took me by surprise, and I looked up, not knowing what to say. I wasn’t used to people just accepting it when I went off on one. That was the whole point of going off on one, that it was a bit unacceptable; how else was I supposed to get people to stop bloody going on?

‘Oh, er …’

‘It’s just, I’m going to have my dinner here, they do a great salad selection, I can get you something while I order if you like.’

It was as if I hadn’t just sworn at her, almost as if she was going to give me space to think about what I was going to do next, and I felt my anger cooling. If she went up to order more coffee, I could finish my text and get myself together a bit, and maybe we could start again. And maybe I could try a kind of apology too.

Laura

It was mainly a diversion; Matt obviously felt uncomfortable expressing his emotions in public. He could get himself together while I went up to the counter, and decide if he was staying or going.

Matt

‘OK then, another ohn of these. Buh leh meh pay. Ohnly fair. NHS buys me cohfee, I buy NHS cohfee. Mehbe jus yuh, noh the whole NHS. Cahnt run tuh threh million cohfees.’

I started to feel in my pocket for my wallet, but it wasn’t there. I felt in the other pocket, not there either.

‘Fuck! I’ve lohs my wallet.’

I looked all around the table and underneath it, felt in my pockets again, but it wasn’t anywhere on or near my person. The thought of having to cancel all my cards on top of the seriously long day I’d had was making me panic.

‘Shih! Fuck!’

Laura

‘OK, don’t freak, maybe it fell out in my car. Do you want to go back and have a look?’

The panic receded a little from his face in the light of a possible explanation, but he stood up immediately and nodded.

Matt

Oh, please let it be in her car. I clung to it as the most likely explanation. If I was lucky, she might offer to take me home too. I was getting more tired by the minute, and didn’t fancy trying to get a taxi, or the worse alternative, calling Dec. I stood up and nodded.

‘Sohry, wahs goin tuh buy yuh dihner. Sohry I wahs rude jus now.’

It sounded like I was apologising because she could help me out, rather than because I was sorry, but I was so worried about my wallet, I didn’t really care. She waved it all away anyway, like she was used to people telling her to fuck off. Maybe she was; if she was as blunt with all her patients as she was with me, I expect it happened all the time.

Laura

I waved his apologies away. I was so used to people telling me to fuck off when I hit the nail on the head, it hardly registered any more I didn’t really like swearing, something to do with my upbringing, but I didn’t take it personally and Matt seemed to use that particular form of release more than most people.

I collected my bag from under the table and waved to Bridget behind the counter as we left. Mean Bean stayed open until nine, so I could go back for my tea later, once I’d helped Matt find his wallet. As we left the coffee shop, though, Matt stumbled against me, nearly knocking me over. I righted myself, then put my hand out to steady him as he lurched again.

‘Matt? Do you need to go back inside?’

He pulled himself upright and ran his hands over his pale face, taking deep breaths.

‘Fuck. Noh, jus need tuh geh hohm. I geh tired. Busy day. Fuck.’

As we set off along the pavement, Matt started to crumple again, and I hastily grabbed his arm and placed it over my shoulder. His pace became slower and slower, and his weight over my shoulder increased until I was almost carrying him by the time we got to my house. I decided I would do both of us an injury if I tried to get him in my car, and he didn’t look like he was in a fit state to tell me where he lived.

Thinking on my feet, the only real option was to try to get him into my house. Struggling under his weight more with every step, aware of curious glances from people walking past but beating them back with a furious scowl, I made it to the front door. I propped Matt against me while I hooked my keys out of my bag, then tried to persuade him over the threshold. He was barely awake.

‘Come on Matt, you need to lift your feet up over this step.’

‘Mmn … hosh … bo …’

I tapped his right leg, which lifted up and over the front step and into the hall way. One more leg to go. He mumbled some more nonsense as I bent down to try and position his left leg. I suddenly felt a hand on my bum and stood up quickly, feeling it fall away.

‘Hm nihs ahrs.’

A quick look at his face showed his eyes closed. Great, he was feeling me up in his sleep – obviously a skilled practitioner. Bending down a bit more carefully I tapped and tugged on his left leg until he moved that into the house as well, then I placed his arm across my shoulder again.

My house was an upside-down house; my bedroom was on the ground floor, and you had to go downstairs to the kitchen and living room. The novelty wore off very quickly. But it meant I wasn’t going to be able to get Matt into the lounge unless I tossed him down the stairs. He was going to have to go on my bed.

‘Come on, lovey, just a few more steps and we can both have a rest.’

I pulled on the arm slung across my shoulder, tugged on his waist and kicked at his shoes and ankles until he started to move his legs. It was painfully slow progress, but we made it eventually, and I sat him down on the edge of the bed. Using some unorthodox handling manoeuvres I shoved Matt into a roughly horizontal position and made sure he had a pillow under his head, then sank to the floor, panting and cursing my woeful fitness levels.

As I got my breath back, Matt’s phone rang and it occurred to me that, as it looked like he might be here for a while, I should really let someone know where he was. I thought about answering his phone, but apart from not wanting to rummage in his pockets, I had no way of knowing if the person calling him was someone he would want me to inform of his whereabouts. I didn’t really want to announce to some random insurance salesman that I had Matt Scott asleep on my bed, or indeed to some ex-girlfriend, or current girlfriend. The idea of Matt having a current girlfriend unnerved me a bit, and I was beginning to wish I’d made some different choices when Matt started to slow down.

Vital signs! Nurse Laura suddenly remembered to do some physical checks to make sure Matt was actually alright and not in need of medical assistance. I checked his pulse and breathing; they both seemed fine, and I remembered the sphygmomanometer, which is a show-offy name for a blood pressure measurer, on the counter in the kitchen waiting to be taken to the office. I would be able to check his blood pressure too.

I fetched the bag, wound the band round Matt’s arm, and began pumping it up. As the pressure increased, Matt roused a bit and tried to brush the sensation away.

‘Fuck ohf.’

‘Nearly done.’

I couldn’t help a bit of bright and breezy nursey reassurance, it was ingrained in me.

Once the blood pressure was done, with no apparent problems, Matt didn’t stir, and I went back to pondering how to contact someone about him.

I wondered if Beth Scott would be my best bet. It was unlikely their home number would be listed, with her husband being a coach at Raiders, but I thought I knew which school her son went to and was pretty sure he was in the same class as my friend’s nephew, Jake. It was a bit of a long shot, but I tried Marian, and asked her to call her sister and see if she could get a number for me.

While I waited, I went downstairs and made myself a cup of tea, feeling very weird about the man asleep on my bed upstairs, and even weirder about how twitchy and flustered it was making me. I couldn’t decide whether to go and wait with him or not; I finished my tea while I thought about it, then decided that he might not know where he was when he woke up, so I should really be there to explain.

I grabbed a magazine and made myself comfortable in the armchair in the corner of the room; it wasn’t anything to do with being able to watch him while he slept, it was purely practical. He had lovely long eyelashes that curled onto his cheeks. Totally coincidental.

While I was in the middle of an article about the latest Hollywood break-ups, the silence was shattered by a loud ping from my phone. A glance at the screen announced a text from Kate – oh dammit, I’d forgotten to text to say I was back safely. I quickly checked that Matt hadn’t woken – he hadn’t even twitched – and glanced at the time. It was six fifty, and I’d told her I’d be in touch by half six. Kate would be really worried.

‘RU OK?’

‘Yeh soz forgot 2 txt. Home now’

‘Wot no details?’

‘Ring u l8r xx’

I hoped that would satisfy her for the time being; there was going to be an awkward phone call with a lot of explaining and a lot of apologising later on.

A short while later Marian called back with a long story about how she’d managed to track down Beth Scott’s phone number. After I’d listened to her tale and thanked her many times, I dialled the number.

‘Hello?’

‘Hi, is that Beth?’

‘Yes.’

‘Hi Beth, you might not remember me, my name’s Laura Shoeman –’

‘Laura! We worked together on Belton Ward a long time ago didn’t we?’

I was amazed at her memory.

‘Yes –’

‘Didn’t I see you at the Living with MS session this morning?’

‘Yes.’

‘How lovely to hear from you. How are you?’

‘I’m good thanks. I’m actually ringing about your brother-in-law.’

‘Matty?’

A note of concern came into her voice.

‘Is he alright?’

‘Yes, he’s fine, nothing to worry about, I just thought someone should know where he is. He’s with me at home at the moment, we were having a chat in a café after the MS day today, and he got really tired, went down like a sack of potatoes, and I live just round the corner, and well, he’s asleep right now –’

‘Oh! I’ll be right there, where are you?’

The last thing I wanted, I was surprised to find, was someone to come and take him away. I wanted to be here when he woke up, so he could be all grateful and … what? Laura Shoeman, what on earth is going on?

‘No, no, I don’t think there’s any need for that, I’ve checked him over, his stats are all OK, he’s just tired himself out. Once he wakes up he’ll be fine. It’s just he was telling me about his family and how much you all worry, and I thought if you were trying to get hold of him …’

‘Oh Laura thank you. I’m sure he won’t thank you when he wakes up, he doesn’t like people fussing over him, but that’s so lovely of you. Are you sure he’s OK? You don’t want us to come and get him?’

‘No, no, I think it’s all under control.’

I felt very far from under control myself, but I meant the situation. Yes, the situation. That was completely under control. Completely.

‘Well please ring if you need us.’

‘I will. Thanks.’

‘Thank you Laura.’

Matt continued sleeping and I went back to my magazine, tearing my eyes away from him, until my phone rang again a short time later.

‘Hello?’

‘Hi Laura. It’s Jay Scott here, Matt’s brother.’

‘Oh! Hello.’

Well this was a turn up for the books. It’s not every day a local sporting hero calls you up on your personal mobile number. I kept my cool rather well, I thought.

‘I heard you’ve got my big lump of a brother lying around cluttering up the place, and wondered if you needed a few strong lads to come and shift him for you?’

Well, much as the image of Jay Scott and his team trooping into my bedroom was the stuff of fantasies, the thought of the sort of language I might be subjected to from Matt should he wake up during the process decided me against it.

‘Oh, no, Jay, thanks, I think he’s better sleeping it off. It wouldn’t be a good idea to move him while he’s still asleep, he might wake up and try to fight it. And once he does wake up he’ll be fine on his own, I’m sure.’

‘Are you positive? Matty’s done this before, worn himself out, and he can be asleep for bloody hours.’

‘It’s not a problem. He’s no trouble.’

I felt like I was discussing a dog I was looking after. I had to admit, just to myself, to a tingle of … something … that made me a bit thrilled to be the one looking after Matt Scott, who certainly was no dog.

‘OK, then, but seriously, if you change your mind, I can send the boys round.’

‘Good to know, thanks.’

None of my text bleeps or conversations seemed to have disturbed Matt, so I stayed where I was, just totally coincidentally watching his face. For any signs of movement or waking or medical distress, obviously.

After a while, though, there were things I had to do. I had finished my magazine, and had no form of entertainment in my bedroom other than watching Matt sleep. Attractive as that prospect was, I was going to have to ring Kate soon, or she would drive over and start banging on my door. I didn’t want to leave Matt to wake up on his own, but also didn’t want him to wake up and hear me discussing him with Kate, who wasn’t his biggest fan.

I decided to leave Matt a brief note explaining where he was and where I was, and let him sort himself out if he came to while I was out of the room. With any luck, he’d still be asleep when I’d finished with Kate.

I walked downstairs, picked up the phone from the handset at the bottom of the steps and dialled Kate.

‘Lau, about bloody time, I’ve not had any tea yet, I’ve been waiting for you to bloody ring me and tell me everything.’

‘Sorry Kate, I’ve only just sat down myself.’ I lied.

‘So are you telling me the Matt Scott has got MS?’

‘It appears so.’

‘Bloody hell! There are some, not a million miles away from the MS Service, who may be heard to say ‘serves him damn well right’, although they wouldn’t be me as that is a thought unworthy of a health professional.’

I decided to be prim and a bit patronising.

‘Yes it is unworthy, Kate. I wouldn’t wish MS on my worst enemy. Nobody deserves it.’

‘Oh stop being so bloody sanctimonious Lau. You know what I mean. I don’t know the bloke personally, but he’s made poor Rach’s life a bloody misery for nearly two years. And countless other poor women who –’

‘Who probably knew his reputation, knew what they were getting themselves into and thought they could change him. It takes two, Kate.’

She sputtered down the phone at me, as stunned by my defence of the Evil Git Matt Scott as I was.

‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this! You’ve sat through as many of Rach’s drunken sob sessions as I have.’

‘I know, and all I’m saying is it was a long time ago, it was one night, get over it. Although I might be a bit nicer to her face about it.’

Kate was silent for a moment. I wondered how annoyed she was with me. We had a ‘girls stick together’ vibe in the team, and I was breaking out of the mould. Why exactly are you breaking out of the mould, Laura Shoeman? Didn’t these girls pick you up after all your friends deserted you in the wake of Bryan the Smackhead, and don’t they deserve a little more loyalty and a little less … whatever it was I was doing?

‘Know what, Lau, you’re right. I mean, he is a bastard and everything, but it was a long time ago. Maybe she should get over it. Or get some help if she can’t. Set up a Matt Scott’s Castoffs support group or something.’

Phew, so she thought it was a good idea too. Maybe I was being fair and just, instead of inexplicably defending the man who had caused Rach so much heartache.

‘Ha ha, good idea. I hear there’d be lots of potential recruits.’

I was relieved that Kate had seen my side. The four of us worked closely and got on really well together, and the occasional fall-out we’d had in the past made things tricky for a while until we’d worked things out.

‘So, you’ve still got some gossing to do, lady. Tell me all. How did you come across him? Did he ring the helpline or something?’

‘No – didn’t you see him at the LMS day?’

‘No! Was he there? Bloody hell, Lau, I never saw him before, you should have pointed at him and said in a loud voice ‘that’s the scumbag who broke our Rachel’s heart’. All the regulars would have duffed him up in a second. Gloria would have hit him with her handbag, he’d have never got up again.’

Kate hadn’t joined the MS team until after Rachel’s one-night-stand disaster, so she had never seen Matt in action. However, the amount of informal counselling sessions we had all given Rach since meant she was an honorary member of the ‘We Hate Matt Scott’ club, and I knew I was going to have to play along, even though it felt strange, and I wanted to defend him.

‘Ha ha, that would have been worth it. He came in late, sat right at the back near the door.’

‘Oh – was he talking to you at lunchtime?’

‘Yes. He liked ‘the sex bit’ apparently.’

Kate tutted. ‘Dickhead.’

‘I know.’

‘Bloody good looking dickhead though.’

‘I know.’

‘I thought to myself, aye aye, Lau’s in there, I thought, especially when I saw him waiting for you after. But I didn’t know he was a bloody dickhead then. Bad luck, Lau.’

‘Mm.’

Was ‘mm’ non-committal enough?

‘So anyway, how did you end up in bloody Mean Bean with him? That’s like, two seconds from your house isn’t it? You’re sure he wasn’t trying it on?’

‘Oh, well, he came back after everyone had gone, asked if we could go for a coffee. He wanted to talk.’

‘I bet he did. Did he mean a coffee or … a coffee?’

I could imagine Kate waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

‘He meant a coffee and a chat about MS, as advertised on the helpline leaflet.’

Prim Laura had re-entered the building.

‘Alright Miss Prissy Pants, you can’t blame me for wondering, it’s not like he hasn’t got a bloody reputation or anything.’

‘Anyway, he’s got a lot on his plate, he opened up a bit, cried a bit –’

‘You made him cry! Oh Rach’s gonna love this.’

‘Kate, you can’t, that’s really unfair on him.’

‘Oh bollocks Lau, you almost sound like you feel sorry for him.’

‘It’s my job to feel sorry for him.’

‘It’s your job to act like you feel sorry for him. Your private opinions outside of NHS time are for your personal use. OK, OK, I’ll hold fire on calling Rach for a bit. So. He had a plateful, he opened, he cried. Then?’

‘Then …’

I wasn’t about to tell Kate that Matt was asleep upstairs. That would lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.

‘… then he got tired and we left. Bit boring in the end.’

It was so close to the truth, it really wasn’t a lie. I never lied. I had just told Kate the truth; I’d missed a few bits out, that was all.

‘Yeah, anti-climax or what. So, is he signed up? Do we need to vet the attendance list at the next clinic or have bouncers at the support groups when Rach is on? Bloody hell, it’s a good job she didn’t cover for An today, there would have been bloodshed.’

‘No, he’s not signed up to anything, he’s still coming to terms with it all I think. He doesn’t seem like much of a joiner-inner.’

‘I could have bloody told you that. Wanker.’

‘OK, Kate, tone it down a bit. This is a man with MS we’re talking about, he may well use our services in the future. You should have a bit more respect.’

Kate had pushed too many buttons – buttons she couldn’t have possibly known she was pushing, buttons I was a bit surprised to find were there to be pushed – and she’d then sworn just a bit too much as well. In retaliation, I’d used my full hoity-toity one-pay-grade-above-her authority and then regretted it.

‘I’m sorry Kate, that was uncalled for. It’s been a long day, when all I’d planned to do was paint my toenails. Sorry flower, ignore me. Just need a bath and a glass of something extremely alcoholic. Go and get your tea, I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘OK Lau, no probs. Sure you’re OK?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Go and have a bloody long soak and pour yourself something industrial strength.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, maybe I’ll try some of that purple stuff Nick left behind. Night, Kate.’

‘Night, Lau.’

Sending Kate off to have her tea reminded me I hadn’t eaten anything yet either, and it wasn’t looking like I was going to make it back to Mean Bean before they closed. I rummaged in the freezer for something quick and microwaveable. All I could find was a lentil casserole, which didn’t fill me with joyful anticipation but would at least fill me with proteiny goodness; probably a fair amount of gas too unless I was lucky.

I shoved the container in the microwave and ate it while it was too hot, burning my tongue. While I ate and sucked cooling air into my mouth, I texted Anna to find out how she was feeling. She replied that she felt a bit better, and might try to make it in tomorrow or the next day.

As I was disposing of the casserole container and rinsing the fork (oh the joys of microwave meals), I heard a noise from overhead. I froze for a moment, instantly imagining axe-wielding intruders – one of the disadvantages of an upside down house was being on constant high alert due to the front door being so far away – then I remembered Matt. While I was eating, I’d been thinking about something I wanted to add to my LMS presentation, and I’d forgotten who was lying on my bed for a moment. He must have woken up.

72. At last

In which eyes meet across a crowded room.

Laura

The last person I expected or needed in my bed after a long, hard day telling people with multiple sclerosis how to go about ‘Living with Multiple Sclerosis’ was Matthew Robert Scott.

I knew him by reputation, had been ignored (along with most of the other women my age, hair colour and, indeed, build) by him at parties in favour of the current barely-out-of-her-teens, blondie-blonde, stick-thin hotty, had heard about his love ’em and leave ’em antics across the city, including a tale from one of my younger patients, and knew about his recent fall from grace a week after moving in with the Ice Queen, Julia Marran.

What I didn’t know, before Anna called and changed my life, was that Matthew Robert Scott had multiple sclerosis.

It was a rainy day in spring when I woke up with a jolt as my phone rang. I grabbed it from the bedside table and looked at the screen. Anna. Damn. She was going to ask me to cover for her; there went my lazy day off. I put on my best sympathetic friend voice.

‘Hi flower, still no better?’

A hacking cough bounced off my eardrum.

‘Doh, I cad hardly breathe.’

‘Oh poor you. You stay in bed, I’ll do the LMS day. Do you want me to ring Patrick?’

‘Oh would yuh?’ Sniff. ‘Yuh’re ad aygel.’ Hack, cough.

And so, instead of a relaxing day spent painting my toenails, doing my laundry, catching up with the film I’d recorded at the weekend and making, and quite possibly eating most of, a large batch of chocolate chip cookies, all I had to look forward to was a busy day in a church hall, loading and unloading the car, setting up computers, projectors and flip-charts, putting out chairs and, oh, the bit I actually enjoyed: talking to people.

I didn’t really mind; we were a team and helped each other out all the time. Anna had covered for me at short notice a few weeks ago when my mum fell off her stepladder, we had all rallied round for each other many times.

There were five of us in the MS service – Patrick was the doctor, two nurses (Anna and me), Rachel was a Physio, and Kate was an Occupational Therapist. We did a lot of support group work, as well as visiting people at home who were in more or less advanced stages of the disease, and seeing people at outpatient appointments.

This ‘Living with Multiple Sclerosis’ day was something we’d developed a couple of years ago, and was popular with the local groups. We’d done it so often now that it was well rehearsed, and we could get to the nitty gritty for people without being sidetracked by nervousness, or derailed by problems with technology. If the computer packed up, we did it from memory.

Knowing the session so well meant I could drift and watch the people in the hall while Patrick was doing his introductions. I liked seeing who was there, whether there were any familiar faces, people I’d met at home or in the clinics; it gave me a feel for how the day was going to go.

On that day, the chairs were about two thirds full; not a bad crowd, good mix of older and younger, newbies and old hands, people with MS and people who cared for people with MS. As my eyes wandered over the people sitting there listening to Patrick introduce us all, I caught sight of some movement at the door. A tall, sandy-haired man came in, slowly and hesitantly, followed by a woman who seemed to be herding him into the room. As I paid closer attention, I recognised them both and was puzzled at what they were doing here, together.

Matt

There she was. In my memory, it’s as if a beam of sunlight shone through one of the windows and illuminated her, but that’s ridiculous and it didn’t happen; it was bloody raining, the sunbeams are only in my mind. I stood in the doorway, looking at her, with Beth right behind me trying to block my exit. I don’t suppose it lasted more than a few seconds, but I felt my world shift on its axis. It was her. I didn’t know what that meant, except it was deep, profound. I’d found her. I didn’t even know I’d been looking, but it was as if I recognised her, this woman I’d been trying to find my entire life, and my whole being went ‘oh there she is’.

I felt Beth prodding me from behind.

‘Go on, then Matty, go in, have a look.’

I found myself stepping into the hall, where the thing had begun already, then taking another step, then another. Beth was right up my arse trying her hardest to push me further in, and in the end, it pissed me right off, and I turned round and whispered to her.

‘Stohp fucking shoving, Beth.’

‘Well are you going in or not?’

‘Ih’s alrehdy stahted.’

‘That doesn’t matter, you’re here now. Sit at the back here look.’

I couldn’t tell her I was going to stay, that nothing but nothing on this earth was going to make me leave now I’d found her; I had a front to maintain.

‘Ih’m not stahying.’

‘Just sit down for a minute. Wait for the rain to stop. Come on, we’re disturbing everyone.’

Beth shooed me in front of her and I turned round and glared at her, but went towards the chairs, picking one close to the door at the back of the room. Beth sat next to me and put her hand on my arm, as if she was my bloody minder or something, but I ignored Beth so I could look at her, the one I’d found.

Laura

The woman was Beth Scott. She had been a nurse a long time ago, before she had her children, and we’d worked together briefly on the Neurology ward at the hospital. The man was Matt Scott – of course! Scott. They must be related, somehow.

There seemed to be a heated, though whispered, argument going on between them, which caused a few heads near them to turn. It was quickly over and resulted in both of them sitting down on chairs on the back row, as close to the door as it was possible to be. Beth had her hand on Matt’s arm, almost as if she was holding him there. Matt had his arms folded, his legs crossed and a thunderous look on his face.

I wondered what they were doing here. Maybe they knew someone who had MS – surely it wasn’t one of them who had it? I hadn’t seen either of their names on any of our lists, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. As I was wondering, Patrick introduced me and it was my turn to speak to the group, so I stopped thinking about them.

Matt

The bloke who seemed to be in charge was introducing everyone, but I’d missed her name with coming in late and arguing with Beth, and I was too far away to read her name badge with my fucking cripple eyes. After a couple of minutes of saying who everyone was, and telling everyone what time lunch was, where the toilets were, and what to do if there was a fire, he looked over at her, the one I’d found, and told us that Laura was going to talk to us about a topic many of us found difficult: Sex.

She got up, Laura, as I rolled her name around in my head, and she pointed her remote control at the projector, beginning her presentation.

Bearing in mind my recent past, I should have been listening to the talk to find out why I was having no luck in the trouser department, and what I could do about it, but I hardly heard a word she said. I just looked at her. I couldn’t work it out, why I felt like I’d come home, like she was the missing part of my jigsaw, like she was the clockwork that made me tick, oh God, how had it happened? I so didn’t believe in all that soulmate shit, in love at first sight, in karma, kismet, none of that, but here I was, heart beating faster than it had beat for a long time, looking at the woman who I knew I was going to be with for the rest of my life.

I know, it sounds completely mad loony crazy, it does to me now, when I think about it, how it was then. And she hadn’t even looked at me – oh, I think she might have glanced my way when I first came in, but most people had looked at me, however briefly, because I was late and made so much fuss trying to argue quietly with Beth – but she had given no sign that she realised she’d been found by me.

So I sat and stared at Laura, totally justifiably as she was giving a talk. I drank her in, her shoulder length not quite blonde hair, her ever-present smile, her eyes, which frustrated me because I couldn’t quite make out their colour, her curves which pushed gently at the nurse’s tunic she wore and undulated as she pointed the remote every couple of minutes. She was Laura. She was perfect.

I barely heard Beth whisper to me that she was going to go, and to let her know if I needed picking up later. It should have been my opportunity to leave without being hassled about it, but I wasn’t going anywhere.

The perfect woman, Laura, finished her talk, and another nurse did a quiz, but I didn’t pay any attention to it. It wasn’t so easy to stare, now, but I looked over at Laura as often as I could. I was sure she was going to look up, see me gazing at her, walk over and … what? Our eyes would meet, followed quickly by our hands, our lips and tongues – oh for fuck’s sake, it was all going Mills and Boon in my head. Get a grip, Matt.

And then it was lunch time. Another opportunity to slip away – Beth wouldn’t have expected me to last even this long without her there policing my every move, and staying for the whole morning would hopefully win me a few days grace from being plagued about shit. But I didn’t take it.

I wanted to go and talk to Laura, but there was a steady stream of people who were asking her questions while she ate her sandwiches, and I didn’t fancy getting in a queue. Finally, she was on her own and I seized my opportunity. I’d edged gradually closer, moving to seats further forwards, feeling like a teenager as I awaited my moment. As the last person finished talking to her and walked away, I stood up and sauntered over as casually as I could manage. I hoped she couldn’t tell how fast my heart was beating, or how tongue-tied I felt. Ha, it would be hard to distinguish tongue-tiedness from the usual unintelligible bollocks, so I was probably safe.

Close up, I was amazed there weren’t sparks coming off me, she was so gorgeous. Her hair, which had looked almost blonde from the back of the hall, was a kind of honey colour which reflected the light in a myriad shades of gold and bronze; her eyes were – well, I’ve never been able to pin a colour on Lau’s eyes. She calls them grey-blue, but to me they’ve always mysteriously reflected her moods and her surroundings. On that day, they changed from blue to green to grey and back to blue as I talked to her. I was entranced; she was a fair bit shorter than me, not surprising as I am quite tall, and I estimated the top of her head would be nicely in kissing distance when I held her tight. She wasn’t skinny (Lau, you were and are perfect, despite your obsession with your shape and size), but she wasn’t fat, and the swell of her body inside her uniform did all sorts of things to my imagination. And this was all before I even said a word to her.

Naturally I tried all my best Matt the Lad moves; it was the only way I knew how to be, really, and I was so far out of my comfort zone in this place, that I needed something familiar to fall back on.

Laura

When I next had a chance to look up, Beth had gone, leaving a sullen looking Matt on his own on the back row. I forgot about him until he approached me in the lunch break.

Matt

‘Heh.’

Yeah, a slow start, but I didn’t want to scare her off by declaring my undying right away.

‘Hello, I’m Laura.’

‘Matt. Jus wahted tuh say thahks.’

She had a very direct gaze, and it jolted me so close up. I wondered if she’d seen the twitch I felt my body make – oh, but she would be used to fucking cripples twitching all over the place, us all having a neurological disease and all. I couldn’t believe she was just being, well, normal, while I was having to hold on to the inside of my pockets to prevent myself from throwing my arms around her.

Laura

His accent sounded a bit northern, and had the familiar slur of someone whose facial muscles weren’t firing on all cylinders. Oh. My. God. Matt Scott was the one with MS! It did a weird thing to my brain, I’m sure there’s a name for it, where you have one way of thinking going on (Matt Scott is not a man deserving of my time or sympathy) versus something that makes that way of thinking impossible (people with MS are deserving of both my time and my sympathy, and in fact it is my job to give them both). I felt things start to shift in my head, and paid more attention to the man in front of me.

Close up, I was surprised to find myself noticing that he was startlingly handsome – I’d seen him across a fair few rooms in my time, but couldn’t remember him ever being in touching distance. I felt a bit of a thrill go through me – kind of a ‘phwoar’ moment, mixed with a bit of starstruck. Get a grip Laura Shoeman, it’s Matt Scott. He’s a git, you know that.

For those of you who are wondering, yes, even though it was a few years ago now, I was a bit old for the clubs and parties where I’d had the dubious pleasure of watching Matt Scott work the room. Thanks for reminding me. Rachel, however, is younger than me, and after one of my romances limped to a halt like all the others, she had taken me under her wing in an attempt to – how did she put it – ‘get you back out there, Lau’. I’d gone along with it for a while, trying to ‘get back out there’, as the alternative seemed to be online dating which terrified me, but the whole club and party scene was exhausting and, finally, boring.

But here was Matt Scott Party Animal, standing in front of me, and I could, actually, see what all the fuss was about. Oh, he’d said something. Was it ‘thanks’?

‘Oh, you’re welcome. All of it so far, or any bit in particular?’

He had a very direct gaze, and it was solemnly focussed on me as he spoke.

Matt

‘Maihly the sex bih.’

I wondered if she’d blush; I loved a good blush. But she didn’t even blink.

Laura

If he’d been trying to embarrass me, he was barking up the wrong tree, as the reason I did ‘the sex bit’ was because I was incredibly hard to embarrass. I didn’t blush, squirm or have any other outward signs of inner turmoil, and indeed was pretty comfortable talking to most people about most things. Tutting inwardly, and reminding myself sternly to ignore those rather lovely eyes, because here was a man with MS, I remained professional.

‘Oh, thanks, it is a bit of a specialism of mine.’

He raised an eyebrow.

Matt

She was talking my language.

‘Rehly?’

‘Really. Certificates and everything. I haven’t seen you here before. Do you belong to the support group?’

Oh, she wanted to talk about the fucking bastard, not about me. A bit of swearing was in order, then, and a bit more Matt the Lad.

Laura

A look of irritation skated across his face; I hadn’t played along with his game and now I was talking shop.

‘Fuck noh. Had tuh beh frogmarched hehr tuhday. Noh offehce. Ih’s betteh than I thoht. ‘Speciahly the sex bih.’

He tried a wink. It fell on stony ground – I had the upper hand in that I knew of Matt Scott and how he operated around women, and he had no idea we’d ever drifted in and out of the same circles. I was starting to get my head round the conflict in my brain regarding Matt Scott having MS and beginning to think straight again.

Matt

I even winked, I was so desperate. Nothing doing; she just looked at me and nodded.

Laura

‘Is sex a particular worry for you?’ I asked, innocently.

Jackpot. He actually blushed. It might not make up for what he did to Rach, but seeing him even slightly uncomfortable was a small victory

Matt

I actually felt myself go red, how had she turned this around on me? I quickly recovered my composure. I wasn’t going to be embarrassed into shuffling away with my head down.

‘Noh. Not a wohry. Mohr an ihterest.’

I tried a flirty smile, but these days I could never be sure what weird shapes my mouth was going to make, and from the irritated glance that flitted across her face, I might not have been completely successful.

Laura

He managed another lascivious leer, which was impressive given the probable current state of his facial nerves.

‘Are you in a relationship at the moment?’

I had intended to embarrass him some more, in the guise of a simple question, but immediately regretted it as I remembered the break up with the Ice Queen as told to me gleefully by Rach, one of Matt’s one night stands. I felt a twinge of guilt, though, as a shadow rolled over his face.

Matt

Fuck, she got to the point, didn’t she. Last thing I wanted to do was talk to her about Jules.

‘Noh. Wahs tho. Mehsy. Receht. Sohry, not yuhr wohry. Anyway, jus wahted tuh say thahks.’

I started to turn away, not quite admitting defeat, but maybe admitting that she wasn’t in the same place as I was right now, and I was going to have to put in some hard work – harder than Matt the Lad was capable of – when she said my name.

Laura

He turned away, but something made me call out to him, to keep him there a bit longer. His eyes were … just stunning, and I wanted to look at them some more, to see if that sadness in them disappeared.

‘Matt …’

‘Yeh?’

‘Do you have people you can talk you?’

He seemed to find this amusing, as a lopsided grin appeared.

Matt

Oh, if only I didn’t. I grimaced at her.

‘Yeh, plehty of chat, thahks. My fahmly – greht at chat. Nehver fucking lehv yuh alohn wen yuh wahn it.’

‘Well, sometimes wanting to be left alone and needing to be left alone are two different things.’

I couldn’t help laughing, it was what Dec said all the time when he was bugging the living shit out of me.

‘Yeh, tehl meh abouh ih.’

She held out a business card with the NHS logo and a phone number on it.

‘Just in case you need someone who’s not family. Are you staying for the afternoon?’

‘Wha’s on? Mohr sex?’

I couldn’t resist it, I really wanted to see that blush, but it still wasn’t forthcoming, and she rolled her eyes impatiently, as if making jokes about sex was the most immature thing someone could do. Maybe she had a point. OK, Matt the Lad not noticeably working, maybe I should award him early retirement and try a different approach. Giving up not an option.

Laura

I rolled my eyes. Incredibly attractive or not, he had a reputation as sex mad, and he was doing nothing to show he didn’t deserve it. Wow, did I just call Matt Scott incredibly attractive? Laura Shoeman, it’s been too long since you had a man, you’ve seen a pair of pretty eyes, and now you’re letting your hormones run away with you. I pulled myself together and answered him.

‘No, you’ve had your thrills for today. I think we’ve got a care agency after lunch …’

This met with a scowl.

Matt

Oh great, just what I need, find out who I can pay to wipe my arse in the future.

Laura

‘… and then Peter – he’s great, he’s an ex-rugby player – he’s going to talk to us about his experiences with MS.’

The scowl was replaced with a more interested look.

Matt

Oh, that sounded more promising.

‘Pehter who?’

‘Peter Jones. He used to play for Raiders.’

‘Noh way. I knoh him, or my bruhther dohs. I dihnt knoh he had …’

The fucking bastard MS. I still couldn’t say it, after all these years. Especially after all these years.

Laura

Matt left the sentence hanging in a way that told me more about how he was dealing with his MS than words could have. He couldn’t even say it.

‘Really? Does your brother play rugby?’

Matt

You are kidding me. I loved it when people didn’t know Jay.

‘Used tuh. Cohches now. Jay Scott.’

Laura

‘Ohh.’

Several pennies dropped at once.

‘You’re Beth’s brother-in-law?’

I should have made the connections before.

Matt

Oh, well that didn’t last long. Most people knew who Jay was, seems she was no different, although at least she didn’t say ‘you’re Jay’s brother’. Can’t have everything I suppose.

‘Yeh. Yuh knoh her?’

‘Worked with her a long time ago. I saw you come in with her this morning. Is she the one who frogmarched you here?’

I nodded. ‘Yeh. She’s bluhdy bossy.’

‘Most of us nurses are, we have to keep the doctors in line.’

Laura was at least now sounding friendly and chatty, but as she spoke, I saw the guy who had introduced the morning approaching, and it seemed like our conversation was over.

Laura

I said this to tease Patrick, who was approaching to gather the troops for the afternoon session.

‘It’s been great to chat, Matt. I hope you can stay this afternoon, and maybe we’ll see you at something else?’

I found myself desperate to give him another event he could attend. A small part of me, that I was trying hard to ignore, really wanted to make sure I’d see him again. I handed him a flyer advertising MS Society Local Socials. He glanced at it briefly, smiled his thanks and stuffed it in his pocket with the contact card, where I suspected it would stay, then walked back to his seat, leaving me trying to sort through a whole load of weird feelings.

Matt

She handed me a flyer which had the title ‘MS Society Local Socials’. I barely glanced at it, smiled and stuffed it in my pocket, where I intended it to stay until I found somewhere to dispose of it unobtrusively. Laura or no Laura, I wasn’t going to be attending any further fucking bastard all-mates-together gatherings.

I sat back down as the afternoon session began, part of me laughing at myself. I was only there for Laura, I wasn’t interested in hearing about care agencies and I wasn’t really that interested in listening to one of Jay’s old team mates tell me what a fucking cripple he was these days either, although I had met him a couple of times and he seemed like a decent bloke.

Now I had spoken to Laura, a little speck of realism had begun to creep in to my overactive imagination. What I felt about her hadn’t diminished in the slightest – that imaginary sunbeam was still shining on her – but I was willing to concede that she might possibly not feel the same. All that meant was that I was going to have to work harder to convince her.

I’d had a quick look at her left hand while we were talking, and there was no wedding ring. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a bloke lurking about somewhere, but that was a small obstacle to overcome. This was The One. I was meant to be with her, that was all there was to it.

As I sat and failed to listen to the woman from the care agency tell us all the different ways her staff could help us wipe our arses, I devised the beginnings of a plan, one that didn’t involve Matt the Lad, and might involve me talking about my fucking bastard MS seriously for once, possibly without saying ‘bastard’ or even ‘fucking’. It was in a good cause, and I was prepared to make the sacrifice.

Laura

I found myself feeling glad he hadn’t left at lunchtime, and then tried to put him from my mind as the afternoon went on, although as it turned out, it wasn’t as easy as that. I’d heard the talks from the care agency and Peter many times before, and although the questions at the end were always interesting and different, it was easy for my mind to wander during the presentations themselves.

I kept finding myself stealing glances in Matt’s direction. He really was a very attractive man in, I would guess, his mid-thirties. He was tall and lean, not particularly muscular but wiry, with short, thick, sandy hair that stuck out a bit wildly when he pushed his hand through it, which he did often. His face was dominated by his big grey eyes, which kind of crinkled round the edges, as if he laughed a lot. But there was something about him that didn’t quite match the story his eyes were trying to tell me. I kept thinking about the sadness I thought I had sensed from him.

Matt had a reputation as a bed hopper, but that had been a while ago, and I hadn’t heard any outraged stories about him or even come across him anywhere for what must have been well over a year. Regardless of Rachel’s glee at his recent break-up, it would have been hard on him, and a recent diagnosis would have made things more difficult. I wondered whether it had happened before or after he was diagnosed.

I shook my head and tried to get him out of my mind, but my eyes kept sliding to the back of the room where Matt was sitting, and eventually he noticed.

Matt

As I was plotting, I was looking vaguely in the direction of the arse-wiping agency woman, but became aware of Laura’s eyes on me. Hiding a delighted smile, I tried to watch her without looking directly at her, and I could see her head turning towards mine every so often. After a while of this game, I turned and looked at her, making sure I caught her eye. Laura immediately looked away, but I didn’t, so the next time she looked, I was looking straight at her.

Laura

I looked away, guilty that I’d been caught, and resolved to sit up straight and concentrate on Peter, but before too long my eyes glided that way again. Matt was looking directly back at me, seemingly trying not to smirk.

Matt

She looked really embarrassed, like I’d caught her doing something wicked, and looked away again, this time focussing so hard on Peter Jones’s presentation that she could have bored holes in the screen with her stare. She still hadn’t blushed, but I’d caught her checking me out, and it thrilled me. My plans received a boost of confidence.

Laura

I immediately turned my head back to the projector screen where, with a huge amount of willpower, I managed to remain locked in concentration until the end of the presentation, trying not to give away how flustered I was.

What was wrong with me? Perving on a punter was strictly unprofessional, although to be fair if you managed to do it without being spotted who was going to know. I had been spotted, though. Now I needed to stop being Ridiculous Laura and start being Sensible Professional Laura. With a massive mental effort I put my best nursey smile on, as the day finished, and started to help Patrick and Kate pack up.

Matt

So here was my plan:

a) Act casual.

b) Don’t stare.

c) Don’t go all gung-ho.

d) Ditch laddish banter.

e) Go and talk to Peter Jones afterwards. Possible brownie points for being interested, continuation of a) above.

f) Leave at the end…

g) … but wait outside and either …

h1) talk to her when she comes out or preferably

h2) wait until everyone else has gone and go back in to talk to her.

i) Ask if we could go for a coffee to talk about shit.

j) Go for a coffee and talk about shit.

It felt almost foolproof, especially given the looks she’d been throwing my way earlier. I’d got pretty good at reading signals during my Matt the Lad days; I could at least tell at a hundred paces if someone was interested or not. Laura was definitely giving off ‘interested’ vibes, whether she knew it or not, and it bolstered my confidence.

I put phase one of the plan into action immediately, and concentrated only on what Peter was saying, or rather looked as if I was concentrating. I still wasn’t that keen on hearing my potential fate from someone who was further along the line of crippledom than me, and so I just put on an interested expression and didn’t look in Laura’s direction for the rest of the afternoon.

I was pretty good at faking interest as it was one of my favourite ways to wind Beth up. I’d look at her all the time she was explaining about the latest exercises or diet, and then she’d go ‘so what do you think, Matty?’ and I’d blink and say ‘what? Sorry I was thinking about football/Star Wars/online shopping’, and it infuriated her. Obviously I wasn’t trying to infuriate Laura, but the technique had its merits.

As soon as Peter had finished, I stood up and went over to him, introducing myself as Jay’s brother, even though I would usually avoid this at all costs. He rather gratifyingly remembered me and asked how my IT work was going, and we chatted a bit about our families and jobs, and nothing about the bastard MS, which was a relief.

We finished our conversation, shook hands and walked out together, and the next phase of the plan was underway.

Laura

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Matt and Peter shaking hands, and then saw them leave together. I’d managed to get through the rest of the afternoon without breaking the RCN code of conduct, for which I was extremely thankful, but now Matt had gone, and I felt a little pang. Oh how ridiculous. It was Matt Scott, gittiest git in the whole of Gitdom. Yeah, maybe he had been flirting a bit, but that’s what he does. He probably can’t help himself. He broke Rach’s heart. Laura Shoeman, pull yourself together. You need a nice relaxing evening with Ben Affleck and a few G and Ts, and you’ll feel better. Obviously a Ben Affleck film, not the actual Ben Affleck.

Matt

I waited by the gate until I saw the doctor and the other nurse go to their cars. Result – Laura was still inside. I went back and found her trying to pack away the projector and laptop and making a bit of a hash of the cables.

I tried to saunter over to her, but the fucked up nerves in my legs weren’t making a very good job of it, and I saw her notice me hobbling. I ignored it as best I could and was gratified to see her gaze quickly move from my legs to my face, where it rested with a smile.

Laura

Patrick and Kate had somewhere else to be, so I was the last to leave, and I had the box of information leaflets to sort out as well as the laptop and projector to untangle and put away. I was struggling with the various cables when I heard the door go and looked up, expecting it to be Kate or Patrick coming back for something they’d left behind. With a skip to my heart, I saw Matt Scott walking across the room. As my view was now not blocked by rows of chairs, I was able to see his unsteady gait, but I was concentrating more on the cocky smile on his face, which crinkled his eyes and mouth into very pleasing shapes. I felt my pulse speed up a bit. Good heavens, what on earth was wrong with me?

‘Hello again. Matt, isn’t it?’

Yes, I was trying to be clever and nonchalant. Shame on me.

Matt

Oh this was priceless, she was trying to play games, like she didn’t remember my name. Great, though, I was always going to win that one.

‘Yeh, Laura, ih’s Matt.’

I stressed her name to let her know I was on to her, but smiled to let her also know games were fine by me.

Laura

He stressed my name just enough to let me know he was on to me. If I did blushing, I would have gone pink.

‘Is everything alright?

Matt

The most delightful little concerned frown appeared between her eyebrows, along with raised eyebrows.

‘Yeh, jus wondered if yuh fancied coffee somwehr?’

So this was when I played my first hand. The invitation.

Laura

‘Oh, er …’

Now what did I do? He wasn’t officially a patient, but maybe I was crossing some line somewhere; I was all flustered, and not just about remaining professional.

Matt

She was flustered. Still not blushing – what did a bloke have to do get a pink cheek out of this woman? – but definitely off guard.

‘Yuh saih if I nehd tuh tahk wihouh fahmly?’

Second hand played, make it sound like a strictly business proposition, nurse to patient kind of thing.

Laura nodded.

‘Wehl ahtually tha’d be greht. Cahnt tehl them ehvrything, shih I cahnt say. Migh hehp.’

I saw her realise what I wanted her to think I meant.

Laura

Light dawned. Laura Shoeman, you are such a twit. When were you ever the kind of woman Matt Scott asked out for coffee?

‘Oh, so you mean like a professional chat type of thing.’

So a bit disappointing, but much firmer ground here, that was bound to be alright.

Matt

She was relieved. A coffee with a stranger was probably breaking about a thousand codes of conduct or some such shit.

‘Yeh. Wha, yuh think I wahs ahsking yuh ouh?’

Yeah, Laura, silly you, fancy thinking Matt Scott would have been asking out the most awesome woman he’s ever met in an attempt to show her he’s her soulmate, her kismet, all the shit he doesn’t believe in. Imagine the temerity.

She laughed, a bit forced – was that a tiny flicker of disappointment? Let’s say it was, it spurred me on.

Laura

I forced a light laugh, and tried not to acknowledge the disturbing twinge of disappointment.

‘No, of course not. Alright then, I suppose we did finish a bit early today, we could call it part of the session, but I need to get these things out to the car first.’

I gestured to the laptop, projector and box of leaflets.

Matt

‘Leh me put thehs away.’

I took the cables out of her hands and started wrapping them up. It never hurt to look capable and orderly, especially when your central nervous system was shot to shit; I sent a little prayer to the gods of shot-to-shit nervous systems that just this once my fingers would behave themselves.

‘Trus meh, Ih’m an IT professional. Cahnt carry shih tho, prohbly drop ih.’

I considered this fair warning, in case she wanted me to help her lug the projector and laptop to her car, and also showing the gods of shot-to-shit nervous systems that I wasn’t taking them for granted. Fortunately, nurses these days are more careful of their backs than they used to be.

Laura

‘That’s OK, we’ve got a trolley. No carrying allowed. Thank you, though.’

I smiled at him and was rewarded with a crinkly eyed grin in return. My insides went a little bit squiffy. God, why did I feel like a damn teenager who was daring to talk to the popular boy?

Matt

Laura smiled at me, and a part of my insides turned molten. She had the most stunning smile, and I felt my mouth respond in kind. My heart was racing and my cheeks felt flushed, as if I was trying to chat up the popular girl.

I finished coiling up the cables and pushed them into the bags with the laptop and projector. Score one to gods of dysfunctional body parts. Laura looked impressed. Some people are easily pleased, but if cables do it for the girl of my dreams, then thank fuck for cables.

Laura

I was impressed at his neatness.

‘Wow, how do you do that? I can never make it all fit.’

Matt

‘Degreh in IT. Special class in cables.’

For the uninitiated, there are no classes in cables in IT school. Laura seemed unsure.

Laura

I wasn’t sure if he was joking, knowing next to nothing about what may or may not be taught on an IT degree course.

‘Really?’

Matt

‘Ha ha, fuck noh, Lau, yuhr easy tuh wind up.’

I’d called her Lau, partly as it was easier for me to say, but partly because it felt right, like I was already her friend. Now I’d done it, I couldn’t conceive of ever calling her anything else. It felt right in my mouth, and it felt right in my heart. She didn’t correct me, so I assumed it was OK.

Laura

I found myself liking the way he shortened my name, the same as my friends did. It made me feel comfortable with him, with his teasing. I suddenly suspected that was part of his ability to charm women, to know what made us feel relaxed, and told myself to get a grip and be careful. Just because he had MS didn’t mean he wasn’t a predatory pig.

It was a timely reminder, and I shook myself out of the infatuated fan-girl thing I seemed to have going on. Giving myself a stiff mental talking to, I wheeled the trolley out of the hall, and locked up after us.

This was a professional thing. I was an MS nurse, and this man had MS and had asked for my help, and I was going to help him. There. That was that sorted.

‘Where were you thinking of going? There isn’t much around here really.’

Matt

I had, naturally, given some thought to the venue in which to ‘have coffee’, while I was supposed to be listening to people telling me about wiping arses. As we walked out of the hall and Laura locked up, I put my idea to her.

‘Duh yuh knoh Mean Bean? Bes mochaccino in town.’

And it had those intimate little booth-type tables that were ideal for spilling your soul to the perfect woman.

I saw a few different things pass across her face. She was keen, but a bit of reserve held her back. Her eyes were telling me she was interested, but maybe there was a bit of the uniform – that fucking hot uniform – that was stopping her being herself, that was making her keep her distance.

Laura

Mean Bean was not close to the church hall, but it was just round the corner from where I lived. They did really good coffee, and had some of the booth type tables where we could potentially have a more private conversation. I could drop the car off first, although that would mean Matt knew where I lived – not number one on the safe working practices guidelines. Oh what the hell. I’d text Kate first to let her know, and if she didn’t hear from me by six thirty she could send the divers to retrieve my body from the canal.

‘Yeah I do, I love it there. Actually it would do me a favour, I could drop this lot at home first and we could walk, it’s not far. I’ve just got to send a quick text, let people know where I’m going to be. Do you want to get in the front?’

I opened the car and put the trolley in the boot as Matt got into the front seat.

Matt

We reached her car, and she unlocked it, allowing me to cram myself into the tiny passenger seat as she loaded up, wishing I was less of a fucking cripple and more able to help her out as she loaded the boot. Still, I was going to find out where she lived, which was near Mean Bean. Double result.

Laura

I got my phone out and sent a text to Kate.

‘Meeting punter in Mean Bean in a few. Txt u 6.30 when home. L x’

I got in the driver’s seat as my phone pinged. I glanced at the screen. A text from Kate.

‘Which punter? Just in case K x’

I hesitated. Matt wasn’t an official patient, and Kate was aware of his brief but lasting effect on Rachel. I wasn’t sure I should be informing the world in this way of Matt’s MS status, but safety first. It was drummed into us.

‘Matt Scott. Be discreet x’

As I drove away, the phone pinged again, but I didn’t get a chance to look at it. It pinged several times on the way, but obviously I couldn’t look while I was driving, and I didn’t have to think that hard to guess who it was or what they’d be frantically asking.

Matt

She sent a text before getting in the car, and got a reply before she started the engine. I wondered who and what she’d told about where we were going. Not many people who knew me knew about the bastard MS, and I hoped that some kind of confidentiality was attached to … oh for fuck’s sake, Matt, what does it matter? You’re obviously a fucking cripple, does it matter if people know why? There’s no shame. That was the first time I’d thought that, ever in my life. That there was no shame in having the bastard MS. Fuck.