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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
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.’
‘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.’
‘He has a right to a good kick up the arse and that’s more effort than I’d spend on him.’
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?’
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
‘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.’
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.
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 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.
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.’
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
It was quite some time later that we stopped and pulled apart and looked at each other. I really, really liked kissing Matt.
‘Whoa, Lau, yuh are something else. Where yuh learn tuh kiss like tha?’
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.’
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?’
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.
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?’
‘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?’
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?’
‘Your parents seriously called you ‘Mrs’?’
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?’
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.
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 –’
‘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.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘I need to tell you something that happened today.’
He looked at me, a small frown forming.
Oh now what? Was there a problem with her work? Was she in trouble?
‘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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.