86. Family affair

In which the family is met, and a new addition seeks acceptance.

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Laura

After a lazy Sunday morning – I was enjoying the enforced taking-it-easy that Matt’s energy levels were dictating – I drove us, under Matt’s directions, to Jay and Beth’s house, across the other side of the city, not far from Raiders’ enormous stadium. Matt had told me that Jay and Beth had lived in this house for ages, that he had lived with them for a short time when he first moved to the city, recovering from his first brush with MS and an almost fatal bout of pneumonia, and that Dec had also lived here for three years as a teenager. So it really was a family home.

I already knew Beth, and knew Jay Scott and Declan Summers by their faces and reputations, but Matt’s mum was going to be there, as well as someone called Rose, whose relationship to everyone I hadn’t quite sorted out in my head, and another couple called Nico and Lis – Nico Tiago was another rugby player. Their lives seemed bound up with each other, and with all the famous sports people and their wives and children swelling the numbers, I was feeling a little intimidated. But I put on my best friendly face and was determined to enjoy myself and make a good impression.

Matt

After a lazy Sunday morning – my Sunday mornings were always lazy, and I was dragging Lau down with me, but breakfast in bed with Lau for two hours was just too delicious – Lau drove us across the other side of the city to Jay’s house.

As we pulled up outside, Lau put on her best smile, but I saw worry at the corners of her eyes. I hadn’t helped make it any less intimidating with my constant grumbling about them all, and felt guilty.

‘Rehdy?’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Jus ‘mehmber, Beth’s roast potatoes are tuh die foh, an she loves it if yuh tell her in front of Rose. Then yuhr in.’

This was true. Beth and Rose constantly tried to outdo each other in the kitchen.

‘But probably not with Rose.’

‘Yuh’ll beh fine wih Rose, yuhr wih meh. She’ll have us married off befohr yuhv sat down. She’s had lohs of disappointments as far as I’m concerned. Come on, embrace the madness.’

‘I’m embracing.’

We got out of the car and walked up the path, hand in hand, me squeezing Lau’s fingers like she had mine the day before. I rang the bell, and the door opened almost instantly to reveal Iz and Beth. They must have seen us arrive and been waiting. Iz held her arms up to me and I scooped her up as we walked in, making sure I held on tight and paid attention to any signs of the dropsy.

‘Heh, beauhiful. Yuh behn helping Daddy cook the dinner?’

Iz shook her head. ‘Mummy cook.’

‘Oh yeh, wha was I thinkin? Iz, this is Lau.’

Iz regarded the competition with suspicion for a second, then buried her face in my shoulder. Iz was a complete tart, always wanting to be picked up and cuddled, but only if you were of the male persuasion.

‘Oh, a touch of the shys. Iz, Lau’s goh Smarties in her bag.’

I’d told Lau the best way to get Iz to talk to her was chocolate, and we’d stopped off on the way and bought some of the good stuff. As I knew it would, this piqued Iz’s interest. She lifted her head up and gave Lau another look. Lau nodded to confirm the bribe, but sensibly didn’t try for anything else. She was a rival, after all, and needed to prove her worth first.

Laura

It was true. I wasn’t above bribing small children to get them to like me. Iz lifted her head from Matt’s shoulder and looked at me again. I nodded and smiled at her, but didn’t push it. She would get used to me in her own time.

Matt

Beth was hovering, desperate to get in on the action – not the being cuddled by me action, no don’t be daft. The Lau action.

‘Hi Laura, it’s lovely to see you again.’

Beth kissed Lau on the cheek.

‘Come and meet everyone. Sorry, it’s a bit of a madhouse, standard practice for a Sunday I’m afraid.’

She was being all bright and cheery, as if she hadn’t spent the past few days gossiping about me and the suitability of my romantic choices. But I knew.

Well of course Lau wowed them all, being friendly and chatty, finding just the right thing to say to everyone. I sat back and watched as she talked pregnancy with Amy:

Laura

‘How old is Charlie?’

‘Six months. There’s another one on the way, too.’

‘Oh, Matt did say. That’s very close together.’

‘Well I suppose we wouldn’t have necessarily planned it that way, but it’s a happy accident I guess.’

‘That’s great. I bet you’re tired though.’

‘Completely wiped. I didn’t know it was possible to be so thoroughly exhausted all the time. We moved house not long after I had Charlie, too, just to put the icing on the cake.’

‘Sounds pretty full-on.’

‘We don’t seem to do anything by halves.’

Matt

She got flirted at by Nico:

Laura

‘Hello Laura. They all tease me because I sometimes tell womens they are beautiful. Please sit down, you are safe. Huh, you are very beautiful though.’

He spoke with a Spanish-sounding accent, and I sat down, a little overwhelmed.

Matt

Made Iz like her with a combination of chocolate and conspiracy:

Laura

‘What’s this? I’ve found a tube of Smarties in my bag. I wonder if anyone would like one?’

Iz looked at me hopefully.

‘How about you, Iz, have you got a favourite colour Smartie?’

She nodded, still reluctant to speak to me.

‘Tell me, whisper in my ear.’

She stood up and I bent forward, her breath tickling my ear lobe.

‘Purple.’

‘Oh, mine too. Here, I bet we can find a purple one, can’t we?’

She nodded.

Matt

Got Rose on her side, which wasn’t hard as Rose was on the side of anyone who looked like they might be remotely romantically interested in me:

Laura

Rose leaned around Amy.

‘Hello, love, I’m looking forward to having a chat. I’ve heard a lot about you.’

‘Rose, yuh bluhdy well have not. Or if yuh have, ih’s not from meh. I know yuh all gossip abouh meh, my life’s so bluhdy interesting, buh honestly Lau, I haven’t told them anything.’

Rose just smiled to herself and sat back in her seat, as if she was well used to Matt going on, and let it roll over her.

Matt

Revealed some previously undisclosed plotting with my brother, of all people:

Laura

‘Nice to meet you, Laura, my offer still stands, I can get some of the lads to come and remove this lump any time he’s annoying you.’

Jay was very different to Matt, even down to the way they spoke. Matt had a noticeable northern accent, although he’d already corrected me on that and said it wasn’t north, it was West Midlands. It sounded northern to me. But anyway, Matt’s brother didn’t have a trace of anything slightly northern in his accent, although I noticed that the twinkle in his eye was the same as when Matt was teasing me. I was intrigued to see how these two unlikely brothers got along.

Matt

‘Wha?’

I had no idea what Jay was talking about; it sounded like he was just trying one of his usual half-arsed attempts at humour.

‘Well I wasn’t sure if you make a habit of falling asleep in inconvenient places. When Laura called Beth the other week to tell us where you were, I offered some of the lads to come and move you.’

Jay had a bloody annoying smirk on his face, as he realised that I didn’t know about this.

‘Yuh fu – bluhdy well did not. Lau?’

I caught my ‘fuck’ just in time, and looked over at Lau. It did sound like the sort of thing Jay would do, but surely Lau would have told me. She was looking apologetic, though. Bugger.

‘Sorry, it’s true. I forgot.’

Dec, of course, thought this was bloody hilarious.

‘Who exactly were you planning to con into that little scheme, Jay? I know you’ve had us doing some bloody weird things, but moving Matt would have been about the riskiest. I can just see his face now when he wakes up in the arms of the Academy boys. ‘Stay still a minute, mate, we’ve just got to get you in the back of the kit van.’ Ha ha.’

Well, obviously, I started out really pissed off, but Lau was looking at me all worried, and I quickly reviewed my reactions, and as it hadn’t actually happened, and had just been Jay having a really bad idea, I gave in and laughed too.

Mum was looking at me intently, trying to communicate something through sheer willpower; I suddenly realised that she wanted to talk to Lau. Of course, dur, Mum wanted to suss Lau out for herself.

‘Heh, Mum, Lau’s mum knohs yuh.’

‘Really, dear? What’s your mother’s name, Laura?’

‘April Shoeman.’

‘Oh yes! We go to the same gardening club. She’s a very nice lady.’

‘Apparently yuh tol her all abouh meh.’

I was going to have to have words with Mum about what she spread around the gardening club. Anyone could turn out to be the parent of the girl of my dreams, and all sorts of inappropriate information could have been passed on.

‘Well not on purpose, dear, it was just general chatter about our children. I didn’t know she knew you, or I might not have told her everything about you. I didn’t make the connection between your Laura and April’s daughter, although she told me what your job is, dear. I suspect there may have been other things she told me about Laura that she might not otherwise have, too.’

‘Rehly? Wha things?’

Now I was definitely going to have to have a word. Tough stance on parental gossiping or not, I would love to know what Mum knew about Lau.

‘Oh, just general things, I can’t really remember.’

She tried the ‘I’m a bit of a vague old woman’ trick, but I was unconvinced. So was Amy, who laughed.

‘Diplomatic, Carol. How completely amazing that you know each other though.’

‘I’ll certainly have some catching up to do next time I see her. You’ve met her, then, dear?’

‘Yeh, Lau took meh roun yesterday. We had teh an cake, the full works. Posh china, everything. I puh up a bird box.’

‘She trusted you with a hammer, Matt?’

Amy looked mildly incredulous, not surprisingly. The last time I had attempted any DIY, the results had been somewhat catastrophic.

‘She dihnt know abouh the las time.’

Laura

Well now I just had to butt in.

‘Last time?’

Matt looked sheepish, and Amy answered for him.

Matt

Lau looked from one to the other of us, wanting some answers. I looked guiltily at Amy, who was the one to spill the beans.

‘Matt was staying with us a few weeks ago. He thought he’d be helpful and put together a flat-pack coffee table. He … er …’

Amy stopped and looked at me, seeming unsure what she was allowed to say. I shrugged at Lau and took over the tale.

‘Had a fucking spasm, in the mihdle of hammering. Smashed the top of the table.’

Lau did a kind of cartoony gulp.

‘Oh. I’m glad you didn’t tell me that before you went up a stepladder with a drill.’

I was possibly going to be made to talk about this again, perhaps later when there weren’t witnesses.

‘Heh, I was tryin tuh impress yuhr mum. Wha yuh gona duh tuh impress mine?’

Diversionary tactics and attack mode required.

Laura

‘I think I’ll go and have a nice chat with her. A lot less risky.’

I stood up and went to the other sofa, where a space had opened up next to Cal, who was playing a card game with Jay. I had just remembered a conversation I’d had with my mum a few weeks ago about the son of a friend who had MS, and what advice I might have about ways to get him to accept help. I had to stop myself laughing as I recalled what I’d told her: ‘Just get him to call the MS service, give him one of our cards’. I could imagine how well that would have been received.

‘Hello.’

‘Hello, dear. What a coincidence, you being April’s daughter. How’s she getting on? I haven’t seen her since she broke her ankle.’

‘She’s doing pretty well, still hobbling a bit, but on the mend. I’m sure she’ll be back at gardening club soon.’

‘I hope so. She keeps us all in line.’

‘I bet she does. Have you got a big garden?’

‘It’s not huge, dear, but it’s big enough for me … ‘

I was beginning to really like Matt’s mum. She was quiet, but not shy, and seemed to know Matt pretty well. I’d seen her watching everyone, and suspected she didn’t miss much that went on. Matt thought the world of her, and they seemed to get on really well.

Matt

Lau was chatting to Mum as if she’d known her for years. I watched, impressed, until Mum started telling Lau untruths about me.

‘… the boys are very good, and come over and help me out. Declan cuts my grass, Jameson lifts the heavy things and Matthew sits with a beer and tells everyone what they’re doing wrong.’

‘Heh! Fucking scandalous lies. No wonder yuhr mum thoht I was a rugby player, Lau. I beh yuh tell pehpl all sorts of shih, Mum.’

‘And sometimes he makes it all the way through a sentence without swearing.’

‘Although not very often, I bet.’

Uh oh, Mum and Lau already had some kind of mother-girlfriend diss the boyfriend pact going on. I was toast.

‘He was very well behaved with Mum. Only one ‘bloody’ slipped out. I must have put the wind up him.’

‘That is impressive, dear. He must have been trying hard for you.’

Yeah, I had been, I had been trying bloody hard. Glad someone noticed.

And of course there were all the kids – Cal, Iz, Charlie and Bastien, who Lau seemed to love and want to talk about and cuddle (except Cal, who was throwing off some very uncuddly vibes but agreed to play Uno with Lau and Jay), and then there was dinner, and Lau had made such a hit with Iz that they sat next to each other and whispered about ponies and pink glitter.

I had glanced at Lau from time to time, who was joining in as if she’d been coming here for years and loved it. It brought a smile to my face to see it, how relaxed she was, and how well she got on with everyone.

Laura

Coming from a very small family, I had always wanted lots of brothers and sisters. This family didn’t seem to fit any traditional mould, but that made it easier to feel like I could belong, and I loved being in the middle of it all, taking part when I could or observing the happy chatter when there were jokes I didn’t understand or just to have a bit of a breather. I had quickly got over being starstruck by all the famous rugby players, and saw what a close family they all were. A very well muscled close family. Lots of biceps on show. Not that I noticed, obviously, having eyes only for Matt.

We all sat round the huge table to eat, and Matt had his hand on my thigh under the tablecloth. Half way through the main course, he leaned over and whispered in my ear.

‘Yuh OK?’

I nodded, smiling as I felt his lips tickle my earlobe.

‘I fucking love yuh, Lau.’

I smiled and looked at him as he kissed me firmly on the lips. It didn’t go unnoticed, and Dec, Jay and Nico felt the need to comment.

‘Watch out, Cal, snog alert, avert your eyes.’

‘Ugh, Matty, save it for later.’

‘Matty this is good, we never see this before so soon. I think maybe Laura she is special?’

Matt

‘Yeh yeh, never seen anyone kiss anyone befohr? Weh all used tuh geh bluhdy eye-strain averting our eyes from Dec an Amy snogging every second. Tha wahnt even a snog. Jus a reassuring peck. Yuh loh are bluhdy raucous, ih was necessary.’

I was glad they’d seen it, though, and that they knew Lau was different, someone I didn’t mind showing my feelings with, someone I was happy to be happy with. I was also glad it was out there now. It had been disastrous before with Jules; I’d thought I was being so clever, hiding moving in from everyone, but it had done me no favours in the end. So now I was going to show everyone how I was feeling from the start, so they could see it, even if I wasn’t going to talk about it endlessly.

Laura

And so it went on, chatter, teasing, eating, being together. I loved it. They were all great. I managed to talk to Rose across the table. She talked a lot, but was a lovely woman, and I managed to piece together her relationship to everyone. She wasn’t actually related to anyone, but she and Dec seemed to have a kind of ‘mum and son’ thing going on. She had helped him out when he was a teenager, with advice, a listening ear and a place to stay when he’d needed it, when there had been some kind of rift between Dec, and Jay and Beth. She’d filled the space left by the death of his parents, and he filled a space left by having no children of her own, and they both still seemed to need it. She told me she was thinking about retiring from her job in a local opticians, and wanted to work as a volunteer for a children’s charity.

‘I so love being with the little ones, and I’m dead lucky having this lot, so I want to do something for the ones who don’t have everything they deserve.’

‘Oh, that’s lovely. Will you miss work?’

‘Some of it, I suppose, I like meeting different people, but there’s always the bits you don’t enjoy, aren’t there, love. They’ve just changed the computer system where I work and I don’t get it at all, I don’t. I’ve never been that handy with computers, but it’s not just that, I want a change, do something I feel good at. If I can do something like this volunteering thing, it’ll make a nice change.’

Rose chatted away, hardly leaving any pauses, and before I knew it, lunch was over. As the meal came to an end, I felt a tug on my sleeve. Iz was looking up at me.

‘Smarties?’

She said it so quietly, no one else would have heard, and had the cutest pleading expression on her face, but she had just finished a huge bowl of ice cream and I thought I wouldn’t make myself very popular if I made her throw it all up. So I decided to make a deal. I bent down to her.

‘I think I need to help clear the table and wash up, Iz, but afterwards, when we’ve had a sit down and maybe a game of something, we can find some more Smarties. OK?’

She nodded. As Beth stood up and started to move plates together, there was a mass exodus from the table. I started to pick up bowls and put cutlery in a heap.

Matt

And then dinner was over, and everyone was full, and the table needed clearing, so Jay, Dec, Cal and Nico scarpered as Beth stood up and started to move plates together. It happened every time, and I was embarrassed for men everywhere, when this was the role model acted out by three relatively famous blokes who should know better. Maybe I should out them in GQ or something. I was slightly ashamed of them all, but proud of Lau, who started helping without offering or being asked. I was so proud that it’s possible I may have forgotten to offer to help myself.

Laura

‘Oh, you don’t need to do that, Laura.’

‘It’s fine, I’d like to help. Thanks, Beth, that was yummy. I’m so full now, though.’

‘Thank you. It’s a bit of a Sunday ritual. There aren’t always so many of us, but there was a fair amount of nosiness about you, I have to say – oh, thank you sweetheart.’

This was addressed to Amy, who had handed Beth a pile of plates.

‘Why don’t you go and sit down? Laura and I have got it covered.’

Beth raised her eyebrows at me to check, and I nodded. I suspected I was about to get the grilling Matt had warned me about. As we took a pile each of dessert bowls into the kitchen I decided to take the initiative.

‘Matt said you were worried about me being an MS nurse, with him having MS and everything.’

She looked at me appraisingly as we stacked plates into the dishwasher.

‘Well, I have to admit, I was wondering how appropriate it is.’

‘I did give it a lot of thought. And I talked it over with my boss. It’s all above board, legal, all that. But I suspect that’s not what you’re really worried about.’

‘Matty’s really vulnerable. He’s had a hard time over the last few years, with one thing and another, and I suppose I’m worried about why he’s latched on to you, now. And what you might be getting out of it all. It seems to have happened very fast.’

‘It has been fast. Breathtakingly fast. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t thought about it and talked about it. I’ve been very clear with Matt that I can’t be his MS nurse, and I don’t discuss the specifics of it with him in that way. I’m pretty clear in my own mind what’s professional and what’s personal. And to be honest, most of the time, I forget he’s got MS. We love being together, we just get on with it.’

‘He’s complicated, he’s been through a lot.’

‘Tell me about it. He’s told me about being ill before, and about Carrie and Julia,’

Beth raised her eyebrows in surprise at this.

‘But everyone’s got their baggage, we’re still learning about each other. All we know at the moment is we want to be together.’

‘Well, all I can do is wish you good luck, then. Sorry to come on a bit strong, Laura, but we all worry about him. I know he hates it; if he’s told you everything else, he’s doubtless told you about his annoying family who never give him a moment’s peace.’

I shrugged. ‘I understand why you do it. I worry about him too. I try to get him to see it from your side. I told him to reply to texts a bit more often so you know he’s OK.’

‘Oh! I thought he was being a bit more communicative recently. Oh, well done. Let’s hope it lasts. Right, let’s get this lot in the dishwasher then we can go and have a sit down. With any luck the boys will all be asleep and we can have a bit of peace and quiet.’

It seemed my interrogation was over, for now. I breathed out slowly, knowing that Beth was the person I needed to convince, in order for everyone else to accept me. I didn’t know if I’d managed it yet. I thought about it from the family’s point of view; it must seem very sudden, and I could see why they would worry. I would think the same in their shoes.

Matt

With Lau being given the third degree by Beth, I sat next to Mum, just to make sure her pointed looks were only ‘make sure I get to talk to her’ looks, and didn’t have a meaning I hadn’t yet fathomed.

‘Heh Muhm. Hoh yuh doin?’

‘I’m very full, now. I should have declined those extra potatoes.’

‘Beth is bluhdy bohsy wih her potatoes. Dohnt want any lef over.’

‘No. I noticed you let yourself be persuaded to thirds as well as seconds.’

‘Wha can I say? I lohv a spud.’

Mum had had enough of potato talk for now, and changed the subject.

‘Laura seems lovely, dear.’

‘Yeh. She is. I lohv her.’

Mum raised her eyebrows slightly, as if she hadn’t heard this from several different sources.

‘An she lohvs meh.’

I knew I sounded defiant, like I was trying to convince her.

‘I’m sure you know exactly how you feel, Matthew. All I said was ‘she seems lovely’. I’m glad you’re happy.’

‘Oh Muhm, I’m soh happy. We’ll cohm roun an see yuh prohply in the week.’

‘That would be lovely, dear.’

‘Yuh’ll lohv her too. Yuh’ll forget yuh haven’t known her long. She mahks yuh forget.’

I was so desperate for Mum to like her, I was being a bit pushy. No one likes being told who they’re going to like, do they, so I backed off a bit.

‘Anyway, I’ll call yuh. Cal, wana geh beat at BattleStations?’

I spent the next hour fighting for my life against Cal, who had obviously been practising his alien robot warmonger techniques since I was last there, and ran me pretty close. I could have blamed it on the fucking bastard, but to be honest, my gaming hand-eye coordination was the one thing that didn’t seem to have deserted me, so maybe I had to blame my lack of practice on being otherwise occupied for the last week or so. Oh, Dec was playing as well, but as he was woeful and was just there to provide Cal and me with backup, and as cannon fodder for the enemy, it goes without saying that both of us beat him hands down. Hands up, even.

Laura

The living room was man-free, sleeping or otherwise. Amy and Lisa sat together, holding Charlie and Bastien, and Carol and Rose were chatting together. Beth flopped onto one sofa and I sat on the adjoining corner of the other one. Rose looked up.

‘Well done, love. Anything else needs doing in there?’

‘No, it’s all sorted, Rose. We can put our feet up. Unless anyone wants coffee?’

Everyone shook their heads, being crammed full of food and unable to move.

‘So Laura, how’s life in the NHS these days? I’m a bit out of touch.’

‘Oh, I don’t suppose it’s changed that much. A bit less money around, a few less people, more patients, more paperwork. The job is still the same. Do you miss it?’

‘Sometimes. I’ve loved being at home with the children, but Cal’s older now, and Iz will be going to school soon, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.’

‘Me and Dec reckon you should be a party planner.’

Amy looked up from her game of peekaboo with Charlie.

‘You’d be completely brilliant.’

‘Yes, I’ve got a great CV of precisely two parties.’

‘You’d come highly recommended. Laura, Beth planned a surprise party for my twenty-first the year before last. It was completely amazing, we had a marquee on the beach, a sleepover, there was music, food, it was so, so awesome.’

‘I didn’t plan it on my own.’

‘Oh no, Dec helped as well didn’t he. What did he do, now, oh yeah, he made a playlist. I don’t know what you’d have done without him.’

‘He did more than that, sweetheart …’

‘He confessed all. He told me how you even had to bully him into thinking about it more than five minutes before. You’re so organised, you’ve just got that brain for thinking about lots of different things at the same time and not forgetting anything vital.’

‘She’s right, Beth.’

Lisa looked up from Bastien, who was having a feed.

‘You are super-efficient. Maybe it’s years of having to be doubly organised to make up for Jay. How he runs a team of rugby players I’ll never know. Matt seems a bit more organised, Laura. His flat is always so tidy.’

‘I know. I am quite impressed. He’s a great cook, too. Very domesticated. He tells me he learned it all from his mum.’

I smiled over at Matt’s mum, who’s name I still hadn’t managed to catch.

‘Ooh, Carol, there’s a compliment if ever I heard one.’

Carol. I felt better now Lisa had said her name, I was almost avoiding talking to her so I didn’t have to say ‘Mrs Scott’ or ‘um’.

‘Well he could be right, he was always much keener on following me around the house and joining in than Jameson was when they were little. I hope I’m not responsible for everything though.’

‘Don’t worry, Carol, we won’t blame it all on you. Matty has to take responsibility for a lot of his, er, attributes. Laura, can’t you have a word about his swearing? He does tone it down when the children are within earshot, sometimes, but I dread the day Iz comes out with ‘fuck’. I know it will come. I’ve already heard it from Cal.’

‘I’m not sure I have much control. I don’t think he even knows he’s doing it half the time. He did do really well with my mum. Maybe he just needs the right motivation.’

‘It sounds like you could be his motivation. Where are they all, anyway?’

‘Dec and Matt went to play X-box with Cal, Jay and Nico went to look at something important in Jay’s office. I think they’re actually watching rugby on the computer.’

‘Where’s Iz?’

‘She went up with Dec and Matt, but I don’t know if she’s still up there.’

Matt

I briefly checked on Lau, who seemed to be having a fine old time talking to everyone and playing with the babies, as well as dishing out Smarties to Iz, then I went back up for round two with Dec and Cal. Nico and Lis had been on the point of leaving, lightweights, but I carried on playing for a while longer, before I felt the tendrils of tiredness snaking into my head.

Laura

The afternoon meandered on, people coming and going, cups of tea and coffee made, laughter, teasing, talking, a few tears from the babies. Iz had been in to collect more Smarties, but had vanished again, probably in search of male company. I found myself feeling very comfortable. Matt had come downstairs having beaten Cal and Dec at X-box. He was flexing his fingers and looking pleased with himself.

‘I still goh ih.’

He plonked himself next to me and put his arm round my shoulders.

‘Glad to hear it. What exactly have you still got?’

‘Master of the X-box universe.’

‘So, a bit of hand-eye coordination and you can push some buttons really fast?’

It was actually quite impressive for someone whose coordination had been affected as badly as Matt’s, but he didn’t want patronising praise, he wanted to feel normal.

‘Dohn knock ih till yuh’ve tried ih, Lau.’

Nico and Lisa had taken their leave, and Rose and Carol were just about to go too. I stood up to say goodbye. Carol hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, and I hugged her back.

‘It’s lovely to meet you, dear. I look forward to seeing you again.’

‘I hope so. Nice to meet you Rose.’

‘You too, love. Look after him, won’t you.’

‘We look after each other. But yes, of course.’

Dec and Amy were still there, Dec and Matt having been cajoled into another round of X-box. Amy looked tired, and eventually handed Charlie to Beth, then went upstairs in search of her man.

‘Oh, you’re a sleepy girl, aren’t you.’

‘She’s very like Amy, with that dark hair and big blue eyes.’

‘I know, everyone says so. Dec’s hoping for a boy this time, and that it looks a bit more like him. I think his features will come out in Charlie later on. Noses and things take time to develop. I can’t believe Dec’s a father, let alone going to have two soon. I still find myself thinking of him as that lad who rolled up on our doorstep with a major attitude and swore his way into our lives. Mind you, the swearing hasn’t got noticeably better. I think it developed more fully while he was in care, kind of a defence. He doesn’t need it now, but sometimes these things stick, don’t they. I don’t know what Matty’s excuse is.’

‘Pig-headedness?’

‘Ha ha, yes, probably. Telling Matty not to do something is the quickest way to get him to do it. Shame it doesn’t work with the washing up. Laura, I feel a bit bad about what I said earlier. Matty seems really happy, happier than I’ve seen him for a long time, and if he’s talking to you about things, well that’s really good. I hope it carries on for both of you.’

It was a major peace-offering, and I was pleased to see that Beth could admit it when she’d got something wrong. The way Matt talked about her, I’d begun to wonder if she really was just an interfering, overbearing sister-in-law, albeit one he regarded affectionately, but I could see that she truly cared about Matt, and just didn’t want him to get hurt.

‘Thank you. I do too.’

‘Well, I’m sure we’ll see you again soon. Next time Iz needs some Smarties, I know who to call.’

I looked at her guiltily.

‘Sorry, I know bribing with chocolate is fairly evil. I know how much Matt loves her, I just wanted her to like me.’

Beth laughed. ‘Well mission accomplished. Friend for life, I think. Matty thinks I don’t know, but I am aware he uses all sorts of foul methods when he’s babysitting. He doesn’t hide the evidence very well. Any means necessary, I suppose. And it’s OK when you’re an uncle. Or an honorary auntie.’

She smiled at me, and I smiled back, aware of the shift in opinion, the title she had just given me, and what that meant about her view of me. It was good to reconnect with Beth. We hadn’t known each other all that well when we worked together all those years ago, but I remembered her as kind, sensible and fair minded, and I was happy to find she was still all those things.

Matt

When was I ever going to learn to pace myself, so that I stopped before it got to this point? Now I was starting to feel tired, it was going to catch up with me really quickly. It happened every time I came here on a Sunday – I’d be in the middle of something, talking, playing, whatever it was, and before I knew it I was fighting to retain my coordination, to say anything that was even vaguely understandable, and all without letting any of them know.

Oh, you thought when I said I was going to be open about my feelings from now on, or whatever the fuck I said, that I meant everything? No, no, no. Only about Lau. Everything else was going to be a closed book, as per.

So I carried on playing with Cal for a bit, and then, to my relief, Amy came to get Dec, who as usual was oblivious to the time, or the fact that he’d left his girlfriend on her own with their demanding baby for two hours while he played computer games. What? I’d just done the same to Lau? Scandalous lies.

Laura

Matt and Dec came back downstairs, followed by Amy. She picked Charlie up from Beth’s lap and started to put her in her car seat, where she naturally woke up and started bawling.

‘Oh, that’s completely unfair. She’s been asleep all afternoon, now she’s grouchy. Sh sh, lovely girl, we’ll be home soon.’

Matt sat next to me and gave me a sloppy kiss on the cheek.

‘Sorry tuh desert yuh. Monsters tuh kill. Impohtant.’

‘Obviously. A monster invasion would have totally spoilt the afternoon.’

‘Shall weh goh too?’

There was a hint of tiredness around his eyes; it was time to make a move.

Matt

Lau had seemed to sense I was flagging, and we got ready to go, along with Dec, Amy and Charlie.

Laura

‘Oh, are you all going now? It’s going to be really quiet. Cal’s upstairs, Iz is playing in the conservatory, James – where is James? Oh. I bet he’s ‘working’ in his office.’

‘On ih.’

Matt left the room, and through the door I saw him cross the hall and hammer loudly on another door. The door opened slowly, a bleary eyed Jay looking questioningly at his brother.

‘Jesus, Matty, what the hell was that for?’

‘Wehr all goin now. Wake up an wave us ohf.’

‘I wasn’t, er, asleep.’

‘Like fuck. Yuhr hair’s all sticking up. Trying ouh new hair gel in there wehr yuh?’

‘Piss off. You’re going now, you say? Good. Come back in a few years, when we’ve moved.’

‘Ha ha, yuhr such a grouch when yuhv been woken up. See yuh soon.’

Jay rubbed a hand through his hair, in a gesture I’d seen Matt use many times. He wiped his hand over his face and breathed deeply. Then came out of the office.

‘Sorry, Beth, I was working and my eyes just drooped.’

‘Yes, James, I know. Every Sunday. Everyone’s going, say goodbye.’

‘Goodbye everyone.’

He managed a kiss for Amy, Charlie and me, batted Dec on the shoulder and slapped Matt round the back of the head. Beth kissed everyone, and they both stood at the door as we walked down the path to our cars. Charlie was still crying in her car seat, but it was snivels rather than yells, and it sounded like she might go back to sleep on the journey home.

‘So, Matt, maybe a double date is on the cards?’

Dec was grinning impishly.

‘Oh, hon, that’s a great idea.’

‘Yeh, except yuhr babysitter would beh on the date, and not sitting on the baby.’

‘We can ask Rose. How about it Laura?’

I quickly looked at Matt to check. He shrugged, leaving it up to me.

‘Sounds great, but bring Charlie. We can do something early.’

I thought this might suit Matt as well, but meant I didn’t have to say it directly.

‘Oh that would be completely awesome. I’m completely useless at staying up late at the moment anyway. How about Mean Bean? We can just have coffee, or eat if we want.’

‘An then yuh can have a nose in Lau’s house if yuh hint hard enough.’

‘There is that, Matt.’

‘She migh have hoovered the dust from under her sofa if yuh give her enough notice.’

‘Oi.’ I batted his arm. ‘That’s confidential dust.’

‘Sohry. Tuh late. Heh, Lau, yuh should have Amy’s number. Meh an Dec will only forget or fuck up arrangements.’

‘Oh, of course Laura.’

Matt

Dec wanted to chat about a double date, which very nearly finished me, as all I could think about was getting in the car and going home. But I forced myself to get through the conversation, Lau and Amy exchanged mobile numbers, and at very long last, I was sitting in the car and we were driving away.

I waited until we were out of sight of the house, and Dec’s car had pulled away, and then I let myself go, crumpling into the seat. I could feel my vision closing in, blackening at the edges, and I closed my eyes.

‘Fucking hell.’

‘OK?’

‘They wear meh ouh.’

‘You should have said something before.’

Yeah, I know I should. But then they’d go on, there would be a lot of making arrangements, and people telling me what to do.

‘Dohn wan them fuhsing.’

‘You really are the most stubborn man.’

Yeah, I know.

‘Yeh. Noh behn … flr …’

I just didn’t have any more juice left, and I was out.

Laura

Matt tipped his head back against the headrest, eyes closed, and didn’t say another word for the rest of the short journey across the city. When I had parked the car outside Matt’s flat, I stroked his cheek to wake him up. This didn’t produce anything besides a few mumbles. I lightly pinched the back of his hand, which made him open his eyes, although they were slightly unfocussed.

Matt

Lau must have driven home, presumably she found her way back without too much trouble, although knowing Lau it was a circuitous route, with maybe a doubling back or two, or a trip to a part of the city that wasn’t strictly in the realms of ‘on the way’. But I wasn’t conscious enough to notice, and the next thing I knew, I could hear her voice, coming as if from a long way away.

‘Matt. Wake up. Just for a minute, flower.’

I felt a hand clasp my chin and turn it to the left.

‘You need to get out of the car.’

I opened my eyes, with a huge effort, and her face came into focus. Shit, we were back here, and I was going to have to get up the twenty thousand steps to my flat. Why the fuck had I bought a flat on the bloody second floor? Why the fuck hadn’t I at least got a flat where there was a lift? I should have got a bloody bungalow. You can get nice views from bungalows, nice views of all the stairs there aren’t. But, anyway, I hadn’t, and now I was here with Lau, who was little, instead of with Dec, who was big, and I really needed to just hold myself together so she didn’t have to carry me up the stairs.

Laura

I saw the focus return to his eyes, and could feel the mental effort he made to rouse himself enough to get up the stairs to his flat. It occurred to me that I should have gone to my house, where there weren’t steps. Too late now. I opened the car door for him, and he gripped my arm to help pull himself out of the front seat.

‘Come on, arm round me.’

Matt

‘Noh, Ih’m –’

I didn’t want to hurt her by leaning on her too heavily.

‘Arm round me. If you fall over, I’m not picking you up, I’m calling an ambulance.’

I mumbled ‘bossy cow’ under my breath, but didn’t argue further because a) I needed all the energy I possessed to get up the stairs, b) she was right, as usual, I needed to lean on her and c) she bloody would call an ambulance, too, and that just was not an option.

Laura

He mumbled something that sounded like ‘bossy cow’, but his arm went round my shoulder, and my arm went round his waist. Together, we shuffled towards the lobby. Matt unlocked the door, and we manoeuvred our way through it, then slowly began the stairs. Matt slowed down even more as we reached the top, and by the time we got to his door, it was a struggle to get him to take another step.

Matt

The last coordinated action I managed was unlocking the door to the stairs, and then I sleepwalked up them. It would have taken ages, although I’m a bit vague on the details; when I got this tired, I had trouble lifting my feet up high enough to put them on the next step.

Lau must have dragged me all the way up, then unlocked the door to the flat with my keys. Her voice had been encouraging me all the way, but I couldn’t focus on specific words, only the sound of it. It just about held me up, kept me going.

In a brief moment of lucidity, I realised I was inside and the sofa was literally feet away. I could barely see, there were black spots dancing in front of my eyes, and I was breathing heavily.

Laura

‘Come on, Matt, just a few more steps and you can lie down.’

With a final effort, he dragged his feet with me to the sofa, where he flopped down, eyes closed, and was asleep in seconds. I rearranged his limbs into a position he wouldn’t wake up stiff from, and fetched a blanket to put over him.

Matt

It was like the last mile of a marathon, or what I imagine it would be like had I ever been foolish enough to participate in one. Lau and I stumbled together to the sofa, and I was gone before I even knew whether I’d sat down on it or not.

Laura

I wondered how often Matt had held himself together on a Sunday afternoon until he’d got back from the family meal, and then lost the rest of the day recovering. I sat by his head, stroking the hair away from his forehead, worrying about him. I knew he’d be OK after a sleep, but if he was always pushing himself beyond his limits he could be hampering his recovery, if he was going to recover. Officially it was more of a nursey thing, but I reasoned with myself that anyone could have noticed it, and I would try to address it with him without annoying him. I sat next to him for a while, grabbing a book, looking down at his sleeping face every so often.

Matt

I woke later, wanting to be pulled back down, I could have gone so easily, but I needed to wake up so I could sleep, in that perverse way of it.

I opened my eyes to find Lau sitting close to me, looking down at me, trying to discern how I was. She bent down and kissed me, and I realised she had put a throw over me. It was so sweet, and I so loved having someone here to look out for me.

I hadn’t realised how lonely an existence I’d made for myself, shutting everyone out who dared to care about me. I really was an arse. And now I’d made Lau haul me up the stairs, and I felt bad.

‘Heh, Lau. Sohry.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Fucking knackered.’

‘Sleep a bit longer, then.’

‘Noh.’

I sat up.

‘Wohn sleep tonigh. Yuh dihnt carry meh did yuh?’

Laura

‘Not quite. Matt, do you do this every Sunday? Hold it together till they bring you back, then crash?’

The look on his face told me that he did, but he only shrugged.

‘Why?’

I thought I knew the Matt Scott ‘don’t let them see you need anything’ answer, but wanted him to acknowledge it himself.

‘Jus wana beh normal Matt, Matty, Unca Matty, withouh them looking at meh all the time wondering if I’m gona keel over. They make meh fehl normal.’

‘You are normal. They all love you. If you didn’t stay as long, you could still enjoy it, and have some energy left when you get home. Or don’t go every week, or have a nap while you’re there, something. Surely having a snooze with one of the babies is normal. Even Jay was asleep. You can’t keep doing this.’

‘Mm.’

That was as far as I was going to get. ‘Mm’ meant conversation over, but I knew he often thought about what I said, and although he’d never actually say ‘Lau, I thought about it and you’re right‘, he’d sometimes just change the way he did things without comment.

Matt

As usual, what she said made complete sense, but I was a stubborn fucker, and admitting someone else knew better than me about my shit was never going to be easy, however much I loved them.

Oh, did I mention that I loved Lau? I did? Oh. It was loving her that was going to change me. I didn’t want her hauling me up any more stairs, or along any more streets, or anywhere, ever again. I knew I was going to have to start doing things differently; that didn’t mean I was necessarily going to just admit she was right and change there and then. Stubborn fucker, see?

‘Anyway, cup of tea?’

She even knew when to back off and do something awesome like make a cup of tea.

‘Lifesaver. I love yuh, Lau.’

‘I love you too.’

She stood up to go and put the kettle on, but I grabbed her hand and pulled her back down, onto my knee. She put her arms round my neck, gave me a quick kiss, then got up again.

‘Restorative tea. Then snogging.’

‘Yuhr soh wise. An make a bluhdy guhd cup of teh.’

And so that was the beginning of it all. Oh, I haven’t finished with the minutiae yet, there’s plenty more to tell, but that’s how it began, how I met her, and chased her, and caught her, and nearly lost her, and she came back after me, and we loved each other, and she got me and I got her and it was all fucking amazing.

I know now that the bastard MS comes and goes as it chooses, that it’s not people that bring it or send it on its way, but just then it really felt like Lau had begun chasing it off. I started to feel better, I wasn’t as tired all the time, my coordination improved, my speech improved, and, yes, my dick tingled like billy-ho, there was definite movement in the right direction (i.e. upwards haha), but the whole nine yards had not yet been reached. Yeah, boasting. I’m a bloke.

As I started to feel better, I was able to do more, stay awake longer, go out for picnics, we even went to the beach and swam in the sea. I really enjoyed the outdoors, which was something I hadn’t done much of late, as I couldn’t drive, and couldn’t go for many jaunts on the coat tails of other people because I didn’t know how long they’d want to be out and didn’t want to curtail their fun on my behalf. Having Lau willing to ferry me about here and there was great, and I made the most of it.

I missed hiking, and although I wasn’t up to that just yet, Lau and I decided we would get out and about more, and that was the springboard for even more improvement, almost as if being able to breathe sea air or the mist of the moors was as curative as the Victorians used to think it was.

85. Truly madly deeply

In which two people love each other, and the news begins to spread.

Matt

I didn’t wake up when Lau got up and left for work the next day, which I was disappointed about, as I hadn’t managed to make her a sandwich. Little routines like that mattered a lot, made me feel useful, wanted, and the thought of her eating some processed supermarket crap for her lunch made me a tiny bit sad. But I had to satisfy myself with texting her instead, when I finally woke up.

‘Hey u. Sorry was asleep. Loving u wears me out 🙂 🙂 xxx’

‘I love loving u.’

‘I love u loving me loving u.’

‘U = <3’

And so it went on, embarrassingly sentimental all day, as if we were much younger than we were, but it didn’t feel embarrassing, it felt like affirmation, confirmation, reassurance, and I couldn’t wait to see her later.

In the meantime, I had to fend off texts from Beth, Dec, even Jay.

‘Matty, would love 2 talk. R U around?’

‘Hey mate. Need info after last nite. Ames v curious. Me 2.’

‘Beth driving me mad. Pls talk 2 her abt this woman b4 I kill her. Beth, not the woman.’

I sent the same reply to all of them.

‘Me n Lau love each other :)’

And I left it at that. It was more information than I would normally have offered, and it didn’t stop the texts arriving from Beth, more of the same, but Dec actually called me, which is more than Beth dared to do, and I gave him some credit for that.

‘Hey mate. How’s it going?’

‘Greht, thahks.’

‘Good, good. So. Love life picked up a bit?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Oh come on, you’re not going to make me drag this out of you are you?’

‘Wha yuh wan tuh knoh?’

‘Bloody everything. All I know is her fucking name, and that you met her on that day you didn’t want to go to last week, and you know what she looks like out of her uniform, which to be perfectly honest is maybe too much information, but I guess I can’t be choosy if you’re actually volunteering it for a change.’

‘I lohv her.’

‘Oh, yeah, you did say, like that wasn’t news of the fucking century. You’re a bloody quick worker, aren’t you?’

‘Tahk my chances these days.’

‘And she feels the same?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Oh mate, you do sound like a bloody puppy with a new toy, but I’m fucking made up for you. You know Beth is going all squawky about it, I’m sure.’

‘Yeh, well, Beth cahn think wha the fuck she likes. She always says she jus wans meh tuh beh hahpy. Now I am.’

‘True enough. There’s no problems, then, with the whole nurse patient shit?’

‘Not her patieht, so noh.’

‘Cool. So, when am I going to meet her?’

‘Suhndy.’

‘Whoa, really? I thought you’d lie low for a bit, in an attempt to avoid all the prying.’

‘Yeh, done tha.’

‘What? How come?’

‘Las Suhndy. Lasted all afternohn, only tol Muhm.’

‘What? You told Carol? Fuck, she kept that close to her chest. I cut her grass on Monday, had a bloody good chat, she never even hinted.’

I really loved my mum.

‘Sohm pehpl dohnt fehl the need tuh shahr every fucking thing they find ouh.’

‘Yeah, and some people make such a bloody fuss about sharing even the most important things that it would be easier to extract a tooth, and just makes certain people try even harder to make you tell them shit.’

‘Yeah. Whaever.’

I had no idea what he was talking about, of course.

‘OK, then mate, we’ll see you and Laura on Sunday.’

‘Hoh’s Amy?’

‘Oh, yeah, great. Apart from still vomming every morning, but yeah, coping with Charlie. I guess, if you’re all loved up, you’re not gonna be so available for babysitting?’

‘Mehbe not. Ask meh, thogh. I lohv bein wih Chahlie.’

‘I know mate. She loves it too. Take care, then, see you in a few days. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’

‘Carte blanche thehn.’

‘What?’

‘Chehrs, mate, see yuh soon.’

I disconnected, feeling pleased with myself at having given away as much information as I was willing to and no more. I didn’t care if Dec went straight to Beth with what he had learned, didn’t care if the whole bloody world knew I loved Lau. For once, something fucking amazing had happened to me that I didn’t mind everyone knowing about.

And thus it all carried on, I don’t think I need to go into more detail about the snogging, feeling, holding, licking, caressing aspects of the next couple of days; it’s nauseating enough already. Suffice it to say there was a lot of it, and I felt it all coming back; not just the tingly dick, but I was less tired, my speech got a bit better, I didn’t have to hold on to shit so tightly to avoid spills. It was small, maybe it was just a fleeting improvement, but I clung on to the hope that I was starting to come out of this flare-up. I hardly dared to admit it to myself, so admitting it to anyone else, including Lau, was never going to happen.

So finally it was the weekend. Two whole days with Lau, plus the added bonus of not having to wake up early to wave her off with a freshly prepared sandwich. Two whole days to stare into her unfathomable eyes. Two whole days to – oh fuck, meet her mum and run the gauntlet of Beth’s Sunday lunch. Not such a relaxing weekend, then. But I was determined to spend as much time alone with Lau as I could; she was having a seriously positive effect on my well-being, so it could be considered medicinal.

Laura

It was Saturday morning. We both woke up lazily together, late for me and a bit early for Matt. It was just after nine o’clock, and I needed to call Mum to let her know that she’d need an extra tea cup.

‘Just going to ring my mum. You still up for a bit of Baptist preaching later?’

‘Bring ih on.’

I saw Matt mentally bracing himself, but he put on a big grin and snuggled in close while I dialled. As Mum answered, he slid a hand up to my breast and started teasing me.

‘Hello LauraLou.’

‘Hi, er, Mum, ahem. How are you? Mm.’

‘I’m well, my love, are you alright? You sound like you’ve got a bit of a cold.’

‘No, just woke up with a bit of a – ooh – cough, it’s just sleep, it’ll go.’

I pushed Matt’s hand away, but it strayed back, taking all my concentration to focus on what Mum was saying.

‘I don’t know if you’re planning to pop round this afternoon, but I’ve made some shortbread.’

‘Ohh yeahh. That’s my – uhh – favourite. Yes, yes. I mean, I’ll be there. Er, I’m going to bring Matt, if that’s OK.’

‘Oh, that’ll be lovely. I’ll dig out the good tea cups.’

‘You do that Mum, he won’t set foot in side the do – or if the good china’s not on showw.’

Matt had stopped teasing me with his fingers, and had started using his tongue. I could hardly speak, let alone make sense.

‘See you this afternoon, then, my love.’

‘Bye Mum.’

Matt

On Saturday morning we both woke up lazily together, just after nine o’clock. Lau always called her mum on Saturday mornings, and while she did that I made inroads into my continued investigations of the physiological responses of the female human body to male tactile stimulation. Yeah, I was feeling her up. While she was on the phone to her mum. So sue me.

When she’d finished talking, she looked sternly down at me.

‘You’re a wicked man.’

‘Yeh, buh yuh love it. An yuh love meh.’

I looked up at her from my comfortable position between her breasts, where a good tonguing had been in progress.

‘Sadly both are true. I’m a lost cause. Carry on.’

The morning continued in a similar vein, and we didn’t get out of bed until we both started to get hungry, and decided to wander out to the High Street (well of course we showered and dressed first, do I have to spell everything out?) to fetch bread, cheese and salad from the local deli.

As we left the shop, I heard a familiar voice.

‘Matt?’

I turned, and saw Lexi. I hadn’t seen her since being signed off work, and although she had texted a few times to start with, being the official GreenScreen social networker and gossip spreader, my lack of response had eventually stopped her pursuit of juicy titbits.

‘Heh Lexi.’

I felt awkward. Nobody from work had seen me in my full fucking cripple state, or possibly even knew what a fucking cripple I was. The more I spoke, the more obvious it would become. Then I remembered telling Lau that it didn’t matter who knew about me, and I got some strength from the feel of Lau’s hand in mine.

‘Hoh are yuh?’

Lexi raised an eyebrow at my unintelligible bollocks.

‘I’m good thanks. You’ve dropped off the face of the earth though. How are you?’

‘Sohry. Been ouh of touch. Been prehty bad.’

I saw Lexi looking at my and Lau’s entwined fingers.

‘Thihs is Laura.’

Lexi smiled one of her dismissive smiles at Lau, but didn’t say anything, even ‘hello’, the ill-mannered cow. I saw Lau’s face take on the amused expression she had when someone was being rude to her, previously witnessed when we were being shhed at the cinema.

‘Are you coming back any time soon? Coffee break isn’t the same without the doughnuts.’

‘Ha ha, glahd tuh see yuh miss meh fuh the impohtant things. Noh, prohbly not soon. Ih’ll beh in touch.’

I hoped it was enough of a hint to make her say goodbye; I really didn’t think I could cope with talking about office politics right now.

‘Well, good to see you, Matt. Don’t be a stranger.’

And with another glance at Lau, she turned and walked off.

‘Who was that again?’

‘Lexi. Receptionist at work. Bluhdy blabbermouth, yuh’ll beh all over the office by Monday. Prohbly alrehdy texting everyone.’

‘Do you mind?’

‘Noh, not rehly. Easier than telling everyone myself when I goh back. Duh yuh mind?’

‘Of course not. Everyone at my work knows about you.’

‘True. Migh not beh back fuh while tho.’

I had been signed off for three months, and my sick note was due to be reviewed in a couple of weeks or so, but I knew I wasn’t up to working just yet.

‘You should keep in touch with people from work.’

‘Noh. Fehl … embarrassed.’

‘You’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about.’

‘I’m a fucking cripple.’

‘You shouldn’t call yourself that. And anyway, here you are walking about, hot woman on your arm, just about to go home and make me a weird but tasty sandwich for lunch. I think you’re just skiving off.’

‘Oh yuh sussed meh. There’s noh fooling yuh is there.’

I loved the way Lau always saw the normality in everything we did.

‘Hardly ever. Come on, I’m starving.’

I put my arm round her, leaned down and kissed her, and we walked back together.

On the way back, my phone pinged with a text from Lexi.

‘So who exactly was that, then?’

‘Laura. I did say.’

‘GF?’

‘Yep.’

‘Sayonara Ice Queen.’

Lexi was a right sourpuss, and she had never liked Jules. She had her information now, and I didn’t need to feed her bitchiness, especially as she had never known the real Jules. So I ignored her last text, and didn’t get any more from her.

Laura

So, here we were, outside my mum’s house. I could see her looking out of the window, but had deliberately parked down the road a bit so she couldn’t have a good nosey before we were actually walking to the front door.

‘OK?’

‘As I’ll ever beh.’

‘She doesn’t bite. Well, not much. Slight teeth-marks only.’

‘Cohm on then, befohr I lose my nerve. Never met the mother befohr, wih anyone.’

‘Really?’

‘Noh, Carrie wahnt speaking tuh hers an Jules’s lived abroad. Noh one else was meeting the mother material. Cohm on, I’m rehly nervous.’

‘OK then.’

I opened the car door and waited for Matt to climb out of the car. I was glad Mum couldn’t see, as he was a bit slow, whether because he was reluctant or uncoordinated I couldn’t tell, but I didn’t want her to form any impressions about Matt before he’d even opened his mouth.

Matt

Lau opened the car door for me, and I made a bit of a botch job of coordinating my fucking cripple limbs; I hoped Lau’s mum wasn’t watching, as it wasn’t an ideal first impression, and I didn’t know how much Lau had told her about me and the fucking bastard. As we walked along the pavement, Lau gave my hand a squeeze, and I squeezed hers back pretty hard, feeling like holding her hand was going to keep me from doing anything stupid.

We got to the door as it opened, revealing a smartly dressed woman, who looked about, oh I don’t know, I’m bloody hopeless with ages, but she looked younger than my mum.

Laura

Mum was dressed in her Sunday best, expensive pink lippy and everything. She gave us a gracious smile.

‘Hello my love. And this must be …’

‘Hi Mum. Yes, this is Matt.’

Matt

‘Hello, Mrs Shoeman. Nice day for ih.’

It never hurt to start with a bland statement that couldn’t really be argued with. Although it wasn’t that nice a day, really.

‘Er, yes, I suppose it is. Come in, the kettle’s on.’

Laura

As we went into the living room, I laughed at the table, which was decked out for a tea party, with the fancy flowery china and a cake stand containing several types of cake and what looked suspiciously like cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

‘Blimey Mum, who else are you expecting? I said I was bringing Matt, not the Queen of flipping Sheba.’

‘I’m just making an effort. It’s nice to put yourself out, isn’t it Matt?’

Matt

‘Yeh, ih all looks greht.’

I was so trying to be on my best behaviour. Lau had already warned me about swearing and fucking about of any description being largely frowned on, and I had expected a stern woman who therefore frowned on everything, but Lau’s mum, well, for a start she looked a lot like Lau except older, so that was a plus, and she had the same permanent smile. She didn’t immediately strike me as someone who was particularly Puritanical, but I had only just met her whereas Lau had known her for more than thirty years, and I suppose she was better placed to judge.

‘Well sit down, you two, there’s the sofa, look.’

Laura

‘Oh yeah, I’ve never noticed it there all these years.’

I grabbed Matt’s hand and we sat down, huddled together on the small sofa like refugees from a storm.

‘I’ll just bring the tea in.’

‘Oh, let me do that, Mum.’

I got to my feet and followed her into the kitchen.

Matt

Lau got up to help, and I remembered her telling me that her mum had broken her ankle a while ago. I would have also offered my assistance, but the likelihood of me dropping or spilling something was high enough that it would have put paid to my ‘making a good impression’ mission, so I stayed put. Their voices carried from the kitchen.

Laura

‘No, Laura, there’s no need, I’ve been getting on quite well without my crutches this week. It’s only a tea pot. And look, that Occupational Therapist girl left me a trolley on wheels, so I don’t have to carry it.’

‘Oh, you’ve seen the OT?’

‘Yes, she came on Tuesday. I thought I told you?’

To be completely honest I’d been so wrapped up in Matt I’d hardly listened to anything Mum had told me for the past week. I felt a bit guilty and resolved to be more attentive. Mum pushed the trolley into the living room and put the teapot on the table.

Matt

‘Cool trohley. Could duh wih one of those.’

Although hell would need a few cans of de-icer before I actually allowed one anywhere near my flat.

Laura

‘You’ll have to break your ankle first, young man. I don’t recommend it.’

Mum was being frosty with Matt, but I’d warned him about it, and told him that as long as he didn’t swear or try to ravish me on the living room carpet, she’d thaw after a bit. Matt didn’t seem to mind the drop in temperature, and was being charming.

Matt

‘Lau said you did ih putting a bird box up?’

‘Yes, one of my less sensible ideas. I was trying to put it up too high. It never did go up in the end, fell on top of me as I came crashing down.’

‘Duh yuh wan meh tuh duh ih? I’m handy wih a drill.’

Oh what the fuck was I doing now? I couldn’t be trusted with a bloody drill, not at the moment, I’d avoided offering to help with the tea things for fuck’s sake.

‘Well … that would actually be rather nice. As long as you’re not going to fall off.’

Bollocks, she wasn’t going to politely decline like all good fucking cripples should, either.

‘Noh, Lau can hold the ladder, I’ll beh OK.’

I was very far from sure that this would be the case, but now had to appear confident, or risk looking like a prize twat for offering and then rescinding said offer.

‘Thank you, then, that would be very kind of you.’

Lau looked at me a bit uncertainly, but I just looked boldly at her and she didn’t say anything.

Laura

I looked at Matt, unsure he was steady enough on his feet to go balancing on the stepladder that had already injured Mum, but he seemed unconcerned. I had to trust him to know his limits.

‘The drill is in the shed, here are the keys. Are you alright finding it yourself? The ladder’s in there as well.’

Matt

Oh bugger, she wanted me to do it now. Lau’s mum handed me the shed keys and gestured in the direction of the garden, so, suppressing my misgivings, I let myself out of the back door and made my way to the shed.

Laura

As we watched him walk a little unsteadily up the garden, Mum rounded on me, and I realised why she’d been so keen to get him away up the garden path.

‘What’s wrong with him? Is he drunk?’

‘No Mum. He just talks like that.’

‘He can’t walk properly either. Are you sure he’s not drunk?’

‘He’s not drunk. Don’t be so judgemental. There are plenty of reasons people can’t talk or walk properly. Think about it. And shh, he’ll be back in a minute.’

Mum gave me a dark look but held her tongue. After Bryan the Smackhead it was a fair question. Maybe.

Matt

It didn’t take me long to find the drill, the ladder, a bag of screws and some rawl plugs, then go back inside. I carried it all without dropping any of it, which I felt boded well for both my immediate and long term future.

‘Is ih OK tuh use these?’

I held up the bags.

‘Oh yes, of course. Are you sure you’ll be alright up the ladder?’

Presumably she’d seen me walking up the garden, none too steadily, and probably thought I was pissed.

‘Yeh, fine. Rehdy tuh hold ih, Lau?’

We all trooped out into the garden, and I stood in the middle of the lawn, holding the drill, waiting to be told where to start.

‘Where duh yuh wan ih?’

‘Well I was aiming for over there, above the rose bush.’

‘Are yuh sure? Ih gehs the sun all day, migh beh a bih hot fuh the birds tuh nest.’

‘Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Where would you suggest, then?’

I looked round the garden and pointed to a spot on the wall near some bushes.

‘How ‘bouh there? Gehs some sun, some shade, lohs of cover, yuh can see ih from yuhr kitchen.’

‘Perfect. I’ll leave you to it, then.’

I leaned the ladder against the wall as Lau’s mum went inside, where she could watch with no risk of being crushed by falling cripples. Lau held on tightly to the bottom of the ladder as I climbed up a few rungs, leaned against the wall and started drilling.

Laura

Matt positioned the stepladder near the chosen spot and I held tightly on to it, watching for any wobbles. Not that there would have been a thing I could have done about it if I’d seen one, but I had to at least look. He looked competent with the drill, and it only took a minute or two to put the nesting box up.

Matt

By holding on tightly and concentrating really hard, I managed to put the nesting box up in a few minutes, but I was sweating as I came back down the ladder, and wiped my forehead with the back of my hand, relieved.

‘Haven’t behn up a bluhdy ladder fuh months. Wahnt sure I was gona be able tuh duh it.’

Laura

I was horrified, the thought of what could have happened if Matt had fallen lurching through my brain and making me feel a bit sick.

‘Oh Matt! I thought you were OK about it, why did you offer?’

Matt

‘Sucking up? She prohbly thinks I’m drunk.’

I saw from the look on Lau’s face that her mum had said something while I was in the shed. I tried not to let it bother me; it wouldn’t be the first time, and it was understandable. Not that I welcomed it, but just understood it.

‘Happened befohr. Walk funny, talk funny, pehpl assume.’

‘Yeah, well, I told her off, told her to think of another reason.’

‘Why dihnt yuh jus tell her?’

‘It’s not mine to tell.’

Aw, she really was so thoughtful.

‘Ah, thanks Lau, buh yuh can. Or I will. She should know.’

Laura

I wondered how he was going to go about that. Matt couldn’t say ‘MS’ without sticking a whole heap of swear words in front of it, and I was intrigued to see if he would be able to rein himself in for Mum, or if he would use some other avoidance technique.

‘Well, we’ll see how it goes now. You’ve scored a few points.’

Matt

‘Brownie or man?’

‘Maybe a bit of both.’

‘Woohoo.’

Two types of points with one bit of easy DIY. Result.

Laura

‘Come on, cup of tea’s getting cold.’

I took his hand and led him back into the living room. Mum had been watching out of the kitchen window, but came in to pour the tea. She seemed to be a lot keener on Matt now, than before he risked breaking his neck to put up her bird box. It hadn’t hurt that Matt knew what he was talking about with regards to where it needed to to go.

‘Thank you Matt, that looks perfect. I’ll be able to see them going in and out from there.’

Matt

It seemed I had been forgiven for appearing pissed.

‘No problem. Anything else yuh nehd putting up, leh meh know.’

Oh now what the fuck was I up to? Surely I had just learned that home improvements in my current fucked up state were just bloody terrifying for all concerned. My need to suck up must be screwing with my ability to think straight.

Laura

I covered a smile with my hand. I wasn’t going to be letting him up any more ladders until I was sure he was steadier, and that he was offering out of more than a wish to score boyfriend points.

‘I’ll bear you in mind. How do you take your tea?’

Matt

‘Milk, two sugars plehs.’

‘Not many people take sugar these days.’

‘Ih’s a dying art.’

‘I agree. I tried to cut down, but I still have to have one, it’s not the same without. Have a piece of cake.’

So, bonding over calorific intake. Not bad.

‘Thanks.’

We must have stayed about an hour. Lau’s mum talked about the same sort of things my mum did, and it was no hardship to chat about nothing in particular, trying to make her see I was pleasant, and good for her daughter. I didn’t swear once, or even make a sarcastic comment. It felt well weird.

Laura

And so, ice seemingly broken, we chatted our way through an hour or so. Mum told us all about her neighbours, Matt tried to look interested and nearly managed it, then she asked about his parents, and he told her his dad had died when he was two, which got a lot of sympathy but as Matt didn’t remember his dad, it was a bit wasted. Then he told her his mum lived not far away, and it turned out they knew each other.

‘Oh, you’re Carol Scott’s boy. I thought you were in rugby, Laura said IT.’

She looked at me accusingly, as if I’d deliberately told her an awful lie.

Matt

‘Tha’s my brother, Jay. He’s a cohch wih Raiders. I am in IT.’

It would be nice if, just for once, someone met Jay and they said ‘Oh, you must be Matt Scott’s brother. I hear he’s a brilliant IT consultant. You must love being his brother’. Never gonna happen.

‘Oh yes, she has mentioned you. You’re very clever.’

Oh well, at least Mum had boasted about me. I saw something occur to Lau’s mum.

‘Oh! Haven’t you … that is, she said … I’ve just realised why …’

Laura

Mum looked at me for help, but I didn’t know what she was trying to say. Matt did, and gallantly came to her rescue.

Matt

She looked at Lau to help her say ‘I just realised why you walk and talk like a fucking cripple’, but Lau looked confused, and I decided to step in and sod my pride for once. I really, really did love Lau a lot.

‘She told yuh I’ve got MS.’

See? No fuckings or bastards or anything. Just came straight out with it. First time ever. I loved Lau a lot.

Laura

I was stunned. He’d just come out and said it, no shirking it, no swearing. Mum was oblivious to the huge effort Matt had just made for her, but I wasn’t, and I gave his hand a squeeze.

‘Yes. Oh you poor boy.’

‘Mum …’

She was risking blowing it if she gave Matt much more sympathy; he hated people fussing over him.

Matt

I didn’t have quite enough love not to frown at the sympathy, though. I hated pity, it made me feel all screwed up inside, like I wanted to shrink away from it. So although I frowned, I was still hanging on to trying to impress Lau’s mum by not sending a stinging bit of sarcasm her way.

‘Yeh, well, one of those things.’

Best to move on with a quick change of subject.

‘How duh yuh know my mum?’

‘We’re both in the gardening club.’

‘Oh. Mum loves her garden. Nehds a bih of help tho. My friend cuts her grass, and weh take stuff tuh the tip foh her.’

At least, I went along for the ride. Couldn’t drive there or really carry much out of the car, but I liked to feel I added moral support and encouragement.

‘Yes, she’s lucky to have so much help from her family. It seems quite extensive.’

‘There are bluhdy loads of us.’

Oh bollocks. I’d been trying so bloody hard not to fucking swear. It was so natural for me, though. However, I was annoyed with myself, and quickly put my hand to my mouth to apologise.

‘Sohry. Nehd tuh watch my language.’

‘Don’t worry, dear, there’s worse on the television every night. I hear a good swear is cathartic.’

Laura

I could hardly believe my ears. One of the evils of the world, according to Mum, was the amount of swearing that went on. It was right up there at number two nestled behind, at number one, the amount of sex outside of marriage. If she knew what was going through Matt’s head and coming out of his mouth most of the time, she’d be less forgiving.

Matt

I couldn’t help looking at Lau, who was regarding her mum with disbelief. I had been repeatedly warned about the perils of even letting a ‘bloody’ slip through, and now I had, and I’d been let off. Maybe the bird box had won me more than brownie points.

‘Ha ha, yeh ih can beh I suppose.’

‘Do you go to church, Matt?’

Laura

Oh, the conversation stopper. Well at least she’d waited until we were almost ready to go before introducing that one.

Matt

I’d forgotten about that. Lau had also warned me of the likelihood of this question; I’d got cocky with my success so far, and it had slipped my mind. Fortunately, I had prepared an answer that I hoped didn’t say ‘I’m a complete heathen’ while at the same time not exactly saying ‘count me in’.

‘Well, ih’s not unknown, buh prohbly not as often as I should. Weddings, funerals, all tha.’

‘Do you believe in God?’

Lau squeezed my hand. This one had also been on the cards.

‘Well, sohmtimes ih’s hard, especially when yuh goh sohmthing like MS.’

Holy shitswears, I’d done it again with no fucking bastards. I really was almost a reformed character.

‘Having faith can get you through hard times.’

‘I’m sure ih can. Ih must beh a comfort tuh yuh.’

‘It is. Maybe you could give church a try when it’s not a special occasion?’

‘Yeh, maybe. See how ih goes. Not good on Sunday mohnings at the mohment.’

Laura

And now we needed to beat a hasty retreat before she made it an official invitation to go to church with her soon, and we had to make up reasons why we couldn’t.

‘Mum, we’re going to shoot off now, we’ve got to go to the supermarket, we need to get some things for dinner. I’ll call you next week, come and see you soon.’

‘Alright, LauraLou, well, thank you for dropping by. Lovely to meet you Matt. I’ll be sure to tell your mother what a nice lad you are.’

‘Thanks Mrs Shoeman. She wohnt believe a word of ih, she knows meh tuh well.’

‘Oh, call me April, dear.’

I raised my eyebrows at her as we stood up. First name terms were for long term boyfriends only. Whatever he’d done, he’d done it right.

Matt

I saw Lau raise her eyebrows at her mum – or should I say April – as we stood up. Presumably that was quite a concession. Maybe I’d done a decent job at convincing Lau’s mum I was better than any long-haired ruffian Lau might have brought round before, pissed appearance and general heathenness notwithstanding.

We got back in Lau’s car, and I sagged with the release from the effort of behaving myself.

‘Fucking hehl, Lau.’

I leaned my head against the head-rest and closed my eyes.

‘You are one pretty impressive bloke. Do you know what you just did?’

‘Nehly fell off a lahder an swohr at yuhr mum?’

‘Ha ha, yeah, but she let you off the swearing, and she said you can call her April, for God’s sake. I don’t think she’d even let Moses call her April after one meeting.’

‘I beh Moses wouhnt have gohn up a lahder after five minutes, though.’

‘No, you’re right, you’re obviously better than Moses, I should have seen it before.’

‘Bluhdy righ. Leh’s goh.’

‘We should go to the supermarket now I’ve said we are. I hate lying to her.’

‘Yuh are so cute, LauraLou.’

‘Hey, I told you, only Mum gets to call me that.’

‘April an meh. We’re lihk tha.’

I crossed my fingers on top of each other to symbolise togetherness. Lau rolled her eyes and started the car.

True to her word, we pulled up in the supermarket car park.

‘We’re hehr now, weh don’t have tuh go in do weh?’

‘We do need something for dinner.’

‘I’ve goh lohds of stuff, I hahd a delivery this week.’

‘Yeah, but …’

I was fascinated by Lau’s struggle not to lie, even in a small way, even in a way that really didn’t matter, because April must have seen it as an excuse too, it was just a politeness, easier than saying ‘you’re getting a bit pushy now, Mum, we’re off’.

‘Oh goh on thehn, goh an get something fuh dinner. Fresh coriahnder.’

‘Aren’t you coming?’

‘Noh. Haht supermarkets. Hence online shohping.’

‘You can’t tell me you never go into a supermarket.’

‘Emergency ohnly.’

‘What sort of emergency?’

‘Someohn on fire, nehrest source of wahter?’

‘You are serious. Why do you hate them so much?’

‘Haht being herded – walk this way, look hehr fihrst, all tha shih.’

‘How is online shopping any different though? Your eyes are being herded aren’t they? Probably more psychology going on via your computer.’

Well of course that had occurred to me.

‘Yeh buh fewer crying kihds an less noihse.’

‘Oh, fair enough. I suppose this time on a Saturday there are going to be a lot of kids and noise. Maybe it’s not really worth it for a bit of fresh coriander we don’t really need.’

She started the engine, and I won round one of corrupting Lau.

I never really won any other rounds of corrupting Lau, because she was pretty incorruptible. By the time I met her, she was very clear about her standards and principles, what she was prepared to be flexible on and what she wouldn’t budge on.

Lying was one, she tried her hardest not to lie, ever, whereas I was the biggest fibber known to man – just ask me how I am sometime, you’ll hear a whole heap of shit. Don’t believe a word. But Lau, if she said she was going to do something, she bloody well did it.

She was pretty straight about what she said, too, and if you asked her if your bum looked big in those jeans, you’d better be prepared for the hard truth.

She was so what I needed. It’s not that people didn’t tell me the truth, they did, but I’d been fending them all off for so long that they’d got used to taking the long way round, and it all descended into thrusts and parries when I sensed some interfering about to happen and went about circumventing it. Lau didn’t have all that history, and just told me straight if I was being an arse, or if I needed to stop moping, or if I looked tired, or any of the things that would have wound me up if anyone else had done it. Loving her helped. Loving her has always helped, it has saved me.

So, anyway, that was Lau’s mum out of the way. Maybe I’d have to go back again next week – I hoped I wasn’t expected to go every Saturday, there was football to watch, and rugby when I was feeling better. Lau and I could always do virtual hand-holding, surely, it was what it was designed for. Anyhow, it had gone better than I’d imagined, April wasn’t the ogre I’d pictured, and it wouldn’t be painful to go back again.

Laura

So that was that over, and Matt had seemingly passed some kind of test. He wouldn’t have to come with me every week, but maybe needed to show his face every so often, be polite and not swear, and we’d all be happy. Now just his family to go, and those milestones would be out of the way.

Matt

Next on the list was Sunday lunch with the Scotts and assorted non-Scott family members. Beth had texted me the full guest list, and it seemed everyone who could consider themselves one of the family was going to be there to have a good stare at Lau.

84. You are all I see

In which past loves, past lives and present likes are compared, and there is a declaration.

Matt

I woke up when Lau got up the next morning. My sleep pattern seemed to have changed; I was still getting tired in the evenings, but managing to wake up earlier – having Lau to wake up to was pretty decent motivation, I guess.

I wanted to make her breakfast and another sandwich, so I got up while she was in the shower and made her pancakes for breakfast and a BLT for her lunch, now I knew it was her favourite. Or rather, it was her favourite so far; she had yet to taste the delights of the full selection from Matt Scott’s Sandwich Kitchen, and a few weird and wonderful concoctions were going to head her way in the next few days.

I nearly went back to bed after Lau had gone to work, but for once I actually didn’t feel like sleeping, and I luxuriated in having a whole morning to get on with things – only boring stuff like laundry and cleaning the bathroom, but things that I often came to at the end of the day with a sigh as they took away the last of my energy.

Beth texted while I was rewarding my efforts with a coffee and a chocolate biscuit.

‘Hi Matty. Up to anything 2day?’

‘Usual.’

It seemed I had been forgiven any misdemeanours from yesterday, but that didn’t mean I was going to be forthcoming with information.

‘Leak repaired?’

‘Yes, all better. Would u like dinner 2nite? Chicken in white wine sauce.’

‘Tempting, but have plans.’

And there’s no way you’re finding out what they are, Beth Scott.

‘Intriguing.’

I chose not to reply to the last one. If she wanted a nose she was going to have to call me, and I still wasn’t going to tell her. Instead, I texted Lau, reminding myself that she might be too busy to respond, and so it was just a ‘holding hands’ text.

‘Hey. Miss u. Sandwich in yr bag. Xx’

This time I got a reply.

‘Thank u 🙂 love yr sarnies BLT yum. Coming over after work xx’

I loved that she didn’t ask any more, just told me what she was going to be doing, knowing that I was OK with it, more than OK.

So now I had the afternoon to potter around getting dinner, which I had decided was going to be simple but effective, one of my pasta specials, with minimal yet tasty ingredients. And I was going to go all out on the pudding. Lau loved chocolate, and I could do a mouth-watering chocolate mousse with raspberries and cream, and, my pièce de résistance, crumbled up bits of Cadbury’s Flake at the bottom, and whole Flakes stuck in the top.

When Lau got home, she was the one who looked tired. I was surprised to find I’d made it through the whole day without sleeping, and I still had energy left. Lau said she’d had a hard day, so I gave her a head and shoulder massage, which she declared ‘heavenly’, and then we put the TV on, for the first time since we’d started to watch Brucie last week, and Lau fell asleep with her head in my lap.

I didn’t watch the TV, just stared down at Lau sleeping, learning the shape of her face, the outlines, creases and dimples, the shades of her hair. She woke up after half an hour or so, stretched and looked up at me looking down at her, smiling a floodlight wattage smile.

‘Sorry, flower, I didn’t mean to go to sleep, but I was so relaxed. I love waking up in your lap.’

‘Yuh hahd a hard day, yuh deserve a snuhz. Consihder my lap yuhr pilloh.’

I stroked her hair, and she sat up, still leaning against me.

‘I was having a weird dream, though.’

‘Wehrd how?’

‘Oh, you know, once you’re awake you half forget it, but you were in it.’

‘Yay.’

‘But Nick, old boyfriend, was there too, and the two of you were doing some kind of ‘DIY SOS’ challenge to see who could build a wall fastest or something.’

I didn’t like the sound of that, being challenged in Lau’s dreams by some old flame.

‘I hohp I won.’

‘Ha ha, I woke up before the end. Your wall was very impressive, though. Much better than Nick’s.’

So, maybe this was the time to find out. She’d kind of brought the subject up, so I took the opportunity.

‘Wahs Nick a buihlder?’

‘No, why do you say that?’

‘Cos he wahs buihlding a wall.’

‘Yeah, but so were you. It was only a dream, flower.’

‘What wahs he lihk?’

‘Who, Nick?’

No, some bloke we weren’t even talking about.

‘Yeh.’

‘He’s the one my mum called a ruffian.’

Oh, that sounded OK, if the mum disapproved. Mind you, she’d probably disapprove of me, admittedly for different reasons.

‘He wahs a bahd boy?’

‘No, he was pretty harmless, but he had long hair, and Mum didn’t really get it. She thinks men should be neat and tidy, otherwise they must be criminals or scroungers, or both.’

Well from the mother point of view, I was possibly onto a bit more of a winner than Nick, being both neat and tidy, and having short, mostly kempt hair. I was going to have to make sure it wasn’t sticking up when I visited.

‘Whehr did yuh meht?’

‘In a club.’

‘How lohng wehr yuh wih him?’

‘What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?’

‘Noh, jus interested in yuhr previous. Yuh knoh a lot of mine.’

Lau sat up, put her head on one side and bit her lip, considering.

‘OK. There’s not that much to tell, my previous have been a bit nondescript, kind of making up the numbers really. And there haven’t been that many, not proper ones. Nick was the last one, we went out for about six months, until I got fed up with him always being at gigs or band rehearsals, rather than with me, and then realised I was more irritated when he was around than when he wasn’t. Mum was delighted too.’

This was sounding promising, no big loves she was still hung up on, unless she was holding back. I was ready to hear more.

‘Who ehlse?’

‘Well, before Nick, there was Ferdi. We met when I was doing a Spanish class at night school.’

‘Wha the fuck kihnd of nahm’s Ferdi?’

‘A Spanish kind of name.’

‘Wha? He wahnt the bluhdy teacher was he?’

Yeah, like I could talk about shagging the teacher of the evening class.

‘No, he came along one evening to show us his toreador regalia.’

Oh fuck. A bloody bullfighter.

‘Wha? He fough buhls?’

‘No, he just had the proper kit. I think his grandad used to or something.’

‘Did yuh wahve yuhr red flahg at him?’

‘No. I gave him a lift home, and he asked for my number.’

Lau had an amused expression on her face, sensing that I myself was getting a little bullish, but she seemed happy to carry on giving me information.

‘Why did yuh brehk up?’

I was more interested in this bit, as it gave me a measure of what turned Lau on and off. And it allowed me to gloat about the blokes she’d ditched. Unless they’d ditched her. But who would ever ditch Lau?

‘He was a pig. Thought women should cook and clean for him, and expected me to do his washing up every time I went round. He really wasn’t worth it.’

Oh, well, that was also alright, I had no such chauvinistic opinions.

We discussed a couple of other of Lau’s conquests (Tim was a teacher who fell foul of Lau when he kept borrowing her car without asking, and Bryan turned out to be a smack-head and thus more trouble than he was worth – I sensed a longer story, but one to be rummaged around in later, when I wasn’t in need of a quick ego boost), and I realised she had a set of standards which blokes had to measure up to. I needed to know if I measured up.

‘So wha are yuhr criteria?’

‘A bit of planning for the future once in a while, not necessarily liking or even wanting children, but at least noticing they exist, choosing me over football once or twice every six months or so.’

I was pretty sure I met all of those not particularly stringent yardsticks, but she needed a bit of a tease.

‘Yuh are so strict. Yuh did know these were blokes yuh were going ouh wih? Noh sure yuh’ll keep me aroun much longer.’

I kissed her on the forehead, to let her know I wasn’t serious.

‘You’re a keeper.’

She snuggled up against me and leaned her head on my shoulder.

‘What about you? You’ve mentioned a couple of girlfriends, but not told me much.’

‘Well Cahrie wahs a long tihm ago. Buh I guehs she fucked meh up pretty wehl back then.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘I tohl yuh she lef meh fuh her ex, tohl everyone I hahd HIV?’

Lau nodded, frowning, then shook her head in disapproval.

‘Did I tell yuh she wehnt back tuh the flat, after she’d lef, while I was nehly dyin in hospital, an clehned ih ouh?’

‘No!’

‘Yeh. Took all my stuhf, work laptop, phohn, iPahd, fuhniture. Lef the shitty sofa an the Rohbie Wihliams poster.’

‘That’s evil.’

‘Yeh.’

‘I mean, to leave a Robbie Williams poster on a wall anywhere, is just unacceptable.’

‘Ha ha.’

‘Oh, but Matt, that all sounds awful.’

‘Yeh. Got pneumohia jus after I foun ouh I hahd the bahstrd MS. Hours from the grim rehper, appahrently.’

‘God, I don’t like to think of you nearly dying, it’s scary. Is that when your brother went to look after you?’

‘Yeh. Soh, tha’s how Cahrie fucked meh up. She wen bahk tuh the bahstrd I rescuhd her from, made up shih abou meh tuh justify ih, an stole my stuhf. Hard tuh trust anyone after tha, plus I had the bahstrd MS soh evhrything was fucked up lihk ih is now, so when I got my mohjoh bahk, I jus wen a bih mahd, prohv tuh mysehf Ihd stihl got wha ih tahks.’

‘You must have loved her a lot, for it to hurt you that much.’

‘Yeh.’

It still hurt, talking about it, which was one of the many reasons I never talked about it, but being here with Lau, my arm round her shoulders, her head leaning on my chest, it felt OK, contained, safe, and I continued.

‘Yuh know when pehpl say ‘she was my wohld’?’

Lau nodded.

‘Well tha was Cahrie. I would hahv done anything, practically anything, fuh her, buh turns ouh she dihnt fehl the sahm. I was thehr fuh her throgh a lot of shih, buh as soon as I nehded her, she was gohn. Ripped meh tuh pieces. If I hahnt had Jay an Beth, I dohnt knoh wha I wouhd hahv dohn. Buh I worked her ouh. She nehded tuh beh rescued – first her ex rescued her from her muhm, thehn I rescued her frohm her ex, then when I got bahstrd MS, she needed rescuing from tha, soh went back tuh her ex. She dihnt do helping, jus bein helpless.’

‘So she was the reason you were Matt Scott Superstud?’

‘Ha. Yeh, she was my excuhs. Sohm kind of, I duhno, revehnge or poin tuh prohv or sohm such shih. Buh ih jus mahd meh an arsehohl, dihnt it?’

‘Well, yeah, maybe. I know, when I saw you around, heard about you, I wasn’t that impressed. But everyone has their reasons, don’t they, and you’ve changed, you’re so different from the git I used to tut about, I can hardly believe you’re the same person. It’s almost like you’ve got the same face and the same name, but everything inside is so far from who you were. You’re just … lovely.’

‘Oh Lau …’

If ever I’d wanted approbation for how I’d tried to turn things around, what I’d just heard had given it to me, and I welled up with emotion.

‘Thahks.’

I sniffed a bit, and wiped my eyes, while Lau pretended not to notice and carried on talking.

‘And anyway, you haven’t been around the club and party scene for ages, have you, not that I have, really, I’m getting a bit past all that, but I haven’t heard your name in scandalised headlines, not for a couple of years or so. And you were with Julia for a long time. You need to stop thinking about who you were and remember who you are. From what I’ve heard, Julia Marran wouldn’t have tolerated any of your old kind of nonsense.’

I was curious about what she knew.

‘Wha hahv yuh hehrd abou Jules?’

‘Oh not much. One of my friends knew someone who used to work with her. Said she was, er, a bit unapproachable, didn’t stand for much messing about.’

That was obviously the polite version. Jules wasn’t known across half the city like I had been, but enough people knew her as the Ice Queen that she still had an impressive reputation.

‘Yeh, tha was Jules at work. She wahnt lihk tha rehly. She was a bih fucked up hersehf, nehded tuh beh in controhl of evhrything, couhnt leh goh at wohk. She was soh funny, thogh, an cahring. Said she wouhd look after meh if the bahstrd MS cahm bahk. Never got the chahnce, prohbly a good thing.’

‘Breaking up with her must have been hard.’

Lau was so cool talking about Carrie and Jules, but I just got a little glimmer of … something … that told me she might be having a bit of trouble assimilating what my feelings for Jules were now.

‘Yeh. Althogh she brohk up wih meh, rehly. Lihterally, wih all the shih she smashed. I knoh ih wouhnt hahv worked, buh I stihl fehl bad, lihk I chohs meh over her.’

‘But from what you told me, you both wanted completely different things, incompatible things. If you’d stayed together, one of you wasn’t going to get what they wanted.’

‘I knoh. Buh … oh thehr’s always gona beh a buh, ihnt thehr. Tha’s why – oh, I dihnt tehl yuh. Ih’m gona see my shrink.’

Lau sat up a bit straighter and looked me in the eye.

‘Wow, Matt. So today, you’ve made appointments with Anna, your GP and your psychologist. Talk about sorting your life out.’

‘Well not yet, only mahd the appoihtmehts, buh ih’s a start, yeh?’

‘I hope you’re proud of yourself.’

‘Yeh, a bih.’

A lot, actually. Starting to sort myself out, face some of the fucked up shit inside me, whether it was my nervous system, my sexual function or my psyche, felt like a big step.

‘I should think so too. I heard Anna talking to you earlier. Is she coming to see you?’

‘I thoght yuh wehrnt allohed tuh talk abou ih?’

‘Not to them, but you can tell me anything.’

‘Ih’m confused.’

‘Oh flower, just as long as you remember that I won’t ask them anything, and I’ll only ask you things your girlfriend would ask you, and you can tell me whatever you want. Oh, hey, I just said I was your girlfriend.’

She looked up at me impishly.

‘Yuh fucking are my girfriehd. Cohm hehr an prohv ih.’

We proved it for a while, with lips and tongues and tender touches, and then something occurred to me. I was still trying to get my head round what Lau was and wasn’t allowed to talk to me about.

‘Heh, Lau, can I stihl ask yuh stuhf?’

‘About what?’

‘Bahstrd MS stuhf.’

‘Well, yeah, but I might just refer you to An.’

‘Buh yuh migh not.’

‘But I might not.’

‘OK thehn. Do yuh thihk this time ih came bahk cos of Jules?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I knoh yuh dohnt knoh, buh can ih beh strehs?’

‘Yeah, it can be. But not always. Was there anything else happening back then?’

‘Shihloads. Dec had Chahlie, then when Jules lef, wohk was insane, rehly busy. I keep wonderin if ih was meh. Fehls lihk a punishmeht sohmtimes, fuh fucking Jules over.’

‘Oh Matt, it’s never a punishment. It can be a result of stressful events, but life is stressful, and it’s impossible to pin it on one thing, but it’s never just because you deserve it.’

‘Fehls lihk ih tho.’

‘Do you remember I said I felt guilty when my dad died?’

I nodded and stroked her cheek, because that sad look had come into her eyes again.

‘I nearly gave up nursing, afterwards. I love being a nurse, I don’t know what I would have done instead, but I didn’t think I deserved it, because I couldn’t save him.’

‘Buh tha wouhd hahv behn …’

‘Yeah, stupid and a waste, and life doesn’t give you what you deserve, it just gives you stuff to deal with. Who knows, maybe Julia did something that she feels she’s getting punished for, maybe it’s all just a big cycle of guilt that carries on because things just happen and we need to find a reason for them, and then blame things that can’t be blamed. Why not stop the cycle of guilt? Refuse to take the blame for your MS. Life is to blame.’

‘So fuck lihf?’

‘No, because life is wonderful, despite being cruel. Embrace life and all its wonder.’

It sounded like a speech she might have given many times before.

‘I bet yuh say tha tuh all yuhr fucking cripples.’

She gave me a sharp look.

‘Yeah, I do say it a lot. You’re not a cripple, Matt, and neither are any of the other people I say it to. Just because I say it a lot doesn’t make it any less meaningful. I really believe it. If you stopped thinking of yourself as crippled and started finding all the great things about yourself, which exist whether you’ve got MS or not, you might be a lot happier. But it’s not up to me to tell you that.’

‘Behter wait fuh Anna tuh list my qualities then.’

‘That’s not what I meant. You have to find out for yourself, believe for yourself, that you’re worth it. I know you are, and maybe that will help you find the good things. You think you deserve MS because of something or some things you’ve done. I say you deserve life because of who you are.’

She sounded impassioned, almost like she was preaching it, and I knew that believing this must be what drove her to do what she did as a job. If Beth had said it, I would have sulked and withdrawn, but it was Lau, it was who Lau was, and I loved it. I couldn’t sulk with her – not yet, at any rate, I’m sure Lau will be able to recount plenty of times I have sulked over the years – but just then, her words sounded like the finest sermon anyone had ever given, and I worshipped at the altar of Lau.

‘Hohly fuck, Lau.’

My eyes were wide as I looked at her. She shrugged.

‘Sorry to go off on one.’

‘Noh, yuhr righ.’

She looked surprised.

‘I am? That doesn’t sound like something you say very often.’

She nudged me with her elbow. Oh how well she knew me, already.

‘Ha ha. Yuh behn talking tuh Beth?’

‘No, but I have been talking to you quite a lot …’

At that moment, her stomach gave out a huge gurgle, and she clapped her hand to it in apology.

‘Bluhdy hell, I hahvnt done any dinner. Yuh must beh stahving.’

I jumped up and started the pasta, which was done and eaten in no time, before showing her the chocolate mousse, which was in individual glasses.

‘Oh. My. God. This looks like the most awesome desert I have ever seen. I’m scared to try it, in case it doesn’t taste as good as it looks. I didn’t know it was possible to cram so much chocolate in one pudding.’

I spooned a bit out, a spoonful that held raspberry, mousse, cream and Flake, and held it out to her. Lau wrapped her lips round the spoon and sucked the mousse from it, closing her eyes, tasting, swallowing, licking her lips. She looked so sexy, I could have eaten her up right then, sod the dessert. She didn’t speak, just made an ‘mmm’ sound, before opening her eyes, grabbing her spoon and making short work of the rest.

‘Aren’t you eating yours?’

‘Saving ih fuh other puhposes.’

She frowned as she wondered what I meant, making that wonderful little crease in her forehead that appeared when she was thinking.

‘Like?’

‘Wehl, yuh sehm tuh hahv enjoyed ih.’

‘I’ll say.’

She nodded enthusiastically.

‘Mehbe if ih was, oh I dohnt knoh, smeared on meh sohmwhere, couhd beh even mohr tasty?’

Her eyes widened, and a mischievous grin broke over her face.

‘But that could get very messy.’

‘Tha’s wha shohers an washing machines are fuh.’

Lau laughed.

‘And best of all, I get two desserts. Oh, you are so on. Where?’

‘Behd. Only plahce. Eat, slehp. Sohted.’

I stood up, took the mousse in one hand and Lau in the other, and pulled her into the bedroom, where we set about making a sticky mess of my bed. In the ensuing lickfest, more tingles were unearthed, and I started to wonder if things were looking up in the fucked up central nervous system department. I pushed the wondering away, as getting my hopes up never seemed to do me any good; I tried to take Lau’s advice and just enjoy what I had, what we had.

The bedclothes needed changing, and we both needed a shower, but that didn’t take long, and I started to get tired, but it was nearly nine o’clock and I’d been awake all day. Maybe I’d suffer tomorrow, but if I did it would be worth it. I already had an idea for tomorrow evening, had checked something on the internet, but was now too tired to talk about it, so it was going to have to wait until tomorrow, so I could see how I felt when I woke up, and make plans if I felt OK.

As I lay in bed, holding Lau, it seemed like we had done this every day for all of our lives. When we first started this crazy thing, it had been in equal parts thrilling and terrifying; now it was just thrilling, and I was no longer scared, either of not having my feelings reciprocated, or of the depth of those feelings. The time we had spent together since last week, the time we had spent talking, loving, finding out about each other, had made me feel safe with Lau, secure with her. Whatever happened, we would be holding hands through it, and it would be alright.

Laura

He told me how his MS symptoms started up again a couple of months after he and Julia split up. He was convinced there was a link; I was non-committal. I told him about how I nearly gave up nursing when my dad died. We exchanged favourites: TV (him – documentaries about weird things, me – Strictly and Downton), food (him – Lebanese, me – dessert), music (him – eclectic mix of folk, prog rock, old and new, indie, chart, me – pop), clothes (him – classic, rumpled smart casual, me – cheap and cheerful).

We had pretty different tastes, but it meant more things for both of us to try, not a drawing of the battle lines. We learnt about how to touch each other and talked about what we liked and didn’t like, things we’d done, had never done, would like to do, would never consider.

Matt had a few more tingles down below, which I thought was a really good sign but didn’t tell him. I had loads of tingles down below, and could easily have exploded, but I stuck to my guns, and felt that by decreasing the intensity of it all, the pressure was off Matt.

By Wednesday, a week after we first met, although we didn’t know everything about each other, we knew each other well, and it felt good, it felt less scary, it felt like, yeah, we’ve done the right thing, we jumped in not really knowing, but it’s working.

Matt

The next morning, I woke up with Lau again, made her breakfast, made her a sandwich. She smiled up at me as I handed it over.

‘I love that you do this for me. What is it today?’

‘Surprise. Noh peeking till lunch.’

I’d outdone myself this time, no boring chicken or BLT, this was a Lebanese spicy wrap, one of my favourites. She’d love it or hate it, but if I told her she’d decide now whether she liked it or not.

‘Spoilsport. Thanks, flower. See you later?’

‘Yeh, come over after work, I’m taking yuh ouh.’

‘Oh?’

I felt good, really good, this morning. I would take it easy, although I was looking after Iz over lunch. Maybe have a sleep after she’d gone, and I was hopeful I’d be good to go.

‘Yeh. Cinema. My favourite film’s on at the ArtsPlex.’

‘What, Amel – oh, no, that was your favourite film I would have heard of. Oh what was it, weird name. Micky something?’

‘MicMacs.’

I grinned. It had been out at the cinema years ago, and I had it on DVD, but introducing Lau to my favourite film, my favourite director, as it was meant to be seen, on the big screen, was going to be an unexpected pleasure.

‘OK, then, let’s do it. Your treat?’

‘Course. Cahnt subject yuh tuh French weirdness an make yuh pay too.’

Laura

‘Quite right. See you later. Kiss me.’

He folded me up in his arms and kissed me long and deep, and I was sorely tempted to call in sick and stay with him all day, as I had been each morning, but it would look pretty bad if anyone spotted me at the cinema after pretending to be ill, and anyway it would mean other people having to pick up the slack while I skived off. I squared my shoulders, stroked his cheek and left.

Matt

Well never let it be said I don’t respond to bossy women. I did as I was told and kissed her, wishing as I had every morning that she didn’t have to go and we could spend the day together. But she did have to go, and I watched her from the window as she approached her car, waved up at me, then drove away.

I took it slowly for the rest of the morning. I caught up with emails, replying to people I should have been in touch with a long time ago, Andrew being one of them. I’d heard from him shortly after I got back from Egypt, just a quick text to say he’d managed to see Rebecca, that things were less antagonistic between him and Karen, and that he was coming back to the UK in a couple of days.

He’d emailed a few weeks later, telling me that although he and Karen weren’t going to get back together, they had been able to talk about what might be best for Rebecca, and were still negotiating how they might both be able to spend time with her. I could only imagine how difficult and delicate that process might be, but hadn’t had the mental space to be able to sympathise before. Andrew didn’t know about my flare-up, and was probably wondering why I hadn’t been in touch.

Hi Andrew

Sorry I’ve been off the radar for a bit. Haven’t been well, flare-up of the old bastard MS.

Meant to say, a long time ago, thanks for jetting all the way out to Egypt, was great to see you, and it really helped me sort some of my shit out.

Glad to hear things have defrosted a bit with you and Karen. Hope you get to see Rebecca again soon.

Stay in touch, mate, would be great to hear from you. Say hi to Eyeti bods.

Matt.

I sent similar emails (without the shit about Andrew’s family, dur) to other people I should have contacted a while ago, sent some fucking-about emails to some work colleagues just to let them know I was still alive and starting to be kicking again. Then Beth dropped Iz off, and we went to the play park and ate ice cream, and Beth fetched her, all without mishap, Beth seeming to have learned, for the time being, from the condom incident.

I had the sleep I had promised myself, but was woken from it by my phone announcing Declan Summers’ own personal ringtone.

‘Hey, Matt, any chance you could babysit tonight?’

Not ‘Hi Matt how are you doing’, or some such shit, not that I would have responded appropriately, which was probably why he’d stopped asking me. Yeah, yeah.

‘Oh, not tonigh, mate, sorry. Going out wih …’

Oh shit, I’d completely forgotten none of them knew about Lau.

‘Er … going out.’

It sounded lame, even to me, and even the most incurious of people would have been honour-bound to ask.

‘Oh, OK, no worries, I can ask Rose. Who was that you said you’re going out with?’

Dec was not the most incurious, and although he was asking in a seemingly innocent manner, he wasn’t going to let it go. I hardly ever went out with anyone at the moment, be it mates down the pub or women of my dreams, especially in the evenings, even more especially when it was obviously a big fat deal. Bugger.

‘I dihnt … no one. A friend.’

I was all flustered. I knew Dec could read me if he wanted to, not like in a psychic way, as there is no such thing, but he was so used to me keeping shit from him and having to extract it painful bit by painful bit, that he was good at interpreting signals I didn’t necessarily know I was giving off.

‘OK, I’ll mind my own then, message received.’

And that was the best way to get me to talk, the bastard, by being all considerate and shit, and then backing off.

‘Laura.’

I didn’t think I could do it any longer, hide her from him. Dec knew practically everything there was to know about me, had helped me through a lot of it, and although I loved keeping shit from Beth, it didn’t feel right with Dec. And I wanted to tell him about her.

‘What?’

‘I’m going out wih Laura.’

Not just tonight, but as a Facebook status, were I of a mind to update mine.

‘Oh.’

I knew he understood, heard the surprise, which was due as much to me not having mentioned anything before as to it being new information. He probably thought I’d been seeing her for a while and not seen fit to tell him.

‘Not sure I know her.’

And now he was definitely fishing.

‘Noh. She was on tha thing Beth made me go on. One of the nuhses. Bluhdy hot in unifohm. Fucking outrageously hot out of ih.’

Well now I was spilling, I might as well tell him the essentials.

‘I see … so it’s going pretty well, pretty quickly then?’

‘Been seeing her for a bih.’

Yeah, almost a whole week.

‘Actually, I think … I migh …’

Oh holy shitbombs, what the fuck was I about to say? As I nearly said the words, I realised how true they were, how deep it ran, how much I already …

‘Might what?’

‘Dunno, Dec … fuck … she’s fucking amazing …’

I wanted him to know all about her, but I didn’t know where to begin.

‘Think I migh beh …’

Oh dear God, if I wasn’t careful, I was going to say …

‘In lohv …’

Holy shit. I’d said it. And now I knew, with a pounding heart, that it was completely, one hundred per cent, totally, utterly, wholly, absolutely, entirely true. Holy shit.

‘Holy shit.’

Dec echoed my sentiments. I heard the shock in his voice. I just didn’t go around making statements like that. He probably thought I was ill. Alright, I was ill, but having some kind of change of personality.

‘Watch out, Matt Scott’s unleashed his feelings on an unsuspecting world. Have a great time tonight, mate, see you soon, for a bloody good catch up.’

Yeah, I was going to have to catch up with Summers soon, but as we disconnected, I realised first I was going to have to catch up with myself, and then I was going to have to catch up with Lau. I couldn’t say something like that to Dec, and not say the same thing to Lau. But it felt way, way too soon, it could wreck things. But hadn’t I told her I was trying to say what I felt when I felt it? But then, I hadn’t planned on being in love within a week. But what did I think all this had been about then? But, but, but. All that ‘she’s the one’ shit, all that ‘it’s her’ bollocks, all that ‘meant for each other’ crap. It really was all shit, bollocks and crap if being in love wasn’t what it was all about.

So now, I had to tell Lau. I was in love with her. I’d told Dec. I didn’t think he’d be able to keep that to himself, and I hadn’t asked him to, which was kind of permission in Dec’s world, and if I called him back and asked him not to say anything, that just made a big deal of it, and maybe, just maybe he wouldn’t say anything because he was my mate, oh but if he happened to talk to Beth, then it would squirm out into the conversation somehow. My only hope was that he wouldn’t get round to talking to Beth for a long time, at least until I’d said something to Lau.

I spent the rest of the afternoon fretting about how I was going to tell Lau, while I got a light tea ready so we could go to the cinema soon after she got home from work. Just a chicken salad, which I put in the fridge to cool, but it took me ages, as I kept playing different scenarios over in my head and losing concentration on food preparation.

I didn’t want to say anything when Lau first got home; she needed time to unwind, and we were on a fairly tight time schedule for getting to the ArtsPlex. Maybe I should cancel the ArtsPlex? But then it would make it seem like a huge deal, and I suppose it was a huge deal, but I wanted it to seem less huge. I couldn’t do it in the car, as I didn’t want to cause an accident, or, worse, a heavy silence at traffic lights. Maybe in the cinema, before it started. But then it might spoil the whole film …

I was gradually talking myself out of saying anything at all, as every situation had a reason not to do it, although admittedly a fairly tenuous one. As it approached the time when Lau was due home, I decided I would feel my way and tell her ‘when it felt right’, which could well equate to not doing it at all if I didn’t watch myself. It was the best I could come up with.

Laura

The day went. Rachel was back, and it was frosty but not unbearable. We talked when we needed to, but not otherwise; nobody mentioned Matt when she was around, or even when she wasn’t. Now he was an official registered patient, it was like he didn’t exist, which was how it should be.

I went on my visits, I ate Matt’s sandwich (some kind of Lebanese wrap with falafels and spicy dip – Laura’s sandwich review: weird but yum), I wrote my notes and I came home. Or rather went back to Matt’s flat, which was starting to feel like home.

Matt had made a quick tea for when I got there – I was getting used to not having to cook at all, and was liking it – which we ate before we left for the cinema. Matt seemed a little quiet and preoccupied, but I knew he’d looked after Iz for a couple of hours in the afternoon, and thought he might be tired. It hadn’t taken me long to find out that he didn’t like me to ask if he was alright, especially if he wasn’t, and I was learning that he would tell me if he wasn’t feeling up to doing something. Trusting him to tell me was getting easier, but sometimes I couldn’t help myself. Today I let it go, and hoped he would say if his energy levels got too low.

The car journey to the cinema was companionably quiet. We went in, Matt paid for the tickets, and we took our seats in the dark, holding hands through the trailers, but not talking. I was starting to get a little concerned about Matt – he was distant and uncommunicative, and I resolved to confront him about it once we left the cinema, as no good ever came of leaving things unsaid. However, just as the film was about to start, I heard Matt take a deep breath as he leaned over and murmured in my ear.

Matt

It was on my mind, and I knew I was preoccupied and quiet while we ate, while we travelled, and while we sat in the cinema waiting for the film to start. I saw Lau look at me, worried, wondering what was going on, so I took her hand and squeezed, took a deep breath, psyched myself up … and bottled it. About five times.

It wasn’t that I was scared to say it, not of the words or the feeling itself, although that was enough to have me freaking out where I sat. My main fear was not knowing how Lau was going to react. Many different outcomes vied for prominence in the possibility show running through my mind, and not many of them were good. I didn’t think I could bear it if I fucked this up with Lau before it had begun, but if I said nothing and either Dec or Beth let the figurative cat out of the metaphorical bag, then I stood an equal chance of fucking it up.

I sat there, about to tell her, all the way through the adverts and the trailers, but it wasn’t until the rating certificate came up, just as the film was about to start, I realised I wasn’t going to be able to sit through the whole film feeling like this. Come on, Matt, get a grip. It’s just words. I took a deep breath and leaned over to speak into her ear.

‘Lau … I’m … in lohv wih yuh.’

She sat perfectly still for possibly one second, but in that second, all the worst case scenarios burst into being in my mind. I wondered if she’d even heard me properly through my unintelligible bollocks, or if I’d spoken loudly enough – was I going to have to say it again? I didn’t know if I could; I wondered if she was going to dump her popcorn in my lap and storm out; I wondered if she was going to stop holding my hand and go tense; I tried to work out from her profile exactly what she was thinking.

Shit, I shouldn’t have said anything, why did I have to say it just now, when the fucking film was starting? What a fucking idiot, she thinks I’m a complete tosser now, and I’ve just ruined the bloody film, and we’re going to have to bloody sit here in awkward silence until it finishes, and then –

Laura

I turned to look at him, wondering if I’d heard him right, heart just about bursting through my chest. I could see his face flickering with the lights from the screen, his eyes were shining, but his expression was a mixture of fear, hope and bafflement, as if he wasn’t quite sure why he’d suddenly said it, and was terrified of what my response might be. Oh! He’d been psyching himself up to say it. That would explain the strained silences and slightly ‘off’ feeling from a non-sharer like Matt. I, on the other hand, shared with gusto what was on my mind, and had been trying not to say ‘I love you’ for days. Prepare to share, buster.

‘Oh my God. I love you too.’

As soon as I spoke, his expression changed. The fear and bafflement disappeared, and a huge grin spread across his mouth.

Matt

Just one second later. Holy fuck. How could I have doubted it? She was Lau, we were made for each other. And she loved me too. Holy, holy, holy fucking shit. A huge grin surged across my mouth. Lau smiled back at me, her eyes shining in the light from the screen, and we moved towards each other and kissed each other passionately.

We didn’t see any of the film; we just snogged as if we were fifteen, groping each other, staring at each other, more snogging, more groping.

There were more than a few ‘shh’es from people around us, but we were on our own on the back row, and we didn’t care. We bloody, fucking loved each other and it was bloody, fucking awesome.

We hadn’t said a word to each other since our separate declarations, and we walked out, both in a daze, just looking at each other, still not speaking. It was as if the rest of the world didn’t exist, there was just me looking at Lau looking at me, our arms tightly round each other, giving each other a squeeze every so often. Somehow we managed to get to a café without getting run over or bumping into anything, and we ordered coffee and sat down, holding hands across the table. Lau broke our silence.

‘Wow, Matt. So why did you choose that moment to tell me?’

‘Ih’v behn meaning tuh since yuh goh back from work. Couldn’t pluck up the courage. Couldn’t sit throgh the whohl film knowin an not tellin yuh.’

‘Is that why you’ve been so quiet? I thought you were tired.’

I nodded. ‘Dec rang meh earlier, wanted me tuh babysit tonigh.’

Lau tutted. I think she thought everyone took advantage of me as far as child care went.

‘I told him abouh yuh, said we were going ouh, told him I love yuh. Jus came ouh. Once I told him, I needed tuh tell yuh.’

I shrugged, still unable to stop smiling, the corners of my mouth pulling upwards of their own accord.

Laura

He shrugged, the silly grin still stuck to his face. It definitely all made sense now. Matt wasn’t good at facing his own feelings, and found it hard to express himself honestly at times. He had also been scared I might not feel the same, but under pressure to be honest with me. He’d been ruminating on it all since before I got home from work. I filed this useful information about Matt away for later, as I was sure I was going to need a lot of help in the future with decoding Matt’s unspoken communication.

‘Well, yay Dec, I suppose. I’ve been trying not to tell you for a few days.’

Matt

‘Wha? Why?’

Now I did feel foolish. I’d been battling with myself for a couple of hours, and Lau had been doing the same for days. Pair of losers, both of us.

‘Didn’t want to freak you out. It’s been a bit full-on, big proclamations seem even more full on, but I’ve nearly said it a few times.’

I wondered, briefly, what I would have done if she had said it first. It could have completely thrown me, or it could have made me go ‘yeah, course, me too’.

Maybe it was best this way; we’d never know.

‘Oh Lau, wha are we like? Going soh fast, then trying to goh soh slow, ih’s mental. I was soh scared yuh weren’t gona say ih back tho.’

‘How could you not know I would?’

‘Jus insecure. Fucked up too many tihms.’

Thinking about it, I’d never said it and had it said back to me – Carrie never got round to saying it, and it was never an option with Jules. Maybe Mercy would have if I’d given her the chance. It seems like enough to have stopped me ever saying it again.

‘Not this time. This time you’ve got it just right. I love you, Matt Scott.’

Lau’s smile widened on her face as she relished saying it, and she punctuated the statement with a little satisfied nod.

‘An I love yuh, Laura Louise Shoeman.’

We leaned across the table and kissed until our coffees came.

Laura

As we drove home, Matt’s phone rang. He had different tones for different people, and I recognised Beth’s tone, as I’d heard it a fair bit while I’d been spending time with Matt.

Matt

‘Hey Beth.’

‘Hi Matty. Sorry to interrupt your evening out.’

Oh, so she knew I was out, did she?

‘Er, yeh, how did yuh – oh yuh behn talking tuh Dec, fucking jungle drums.’

I should have expected it, really. I was glad, now, that I’d told Lau when I did.

‘I’m at Dec’s, babysitting.’

‘Oh, I thoht he was gona ask Rose.’

‘Rose couldn’t do it.’

‘Oh.’

I thought I’d managed to steer the conversation well away from me, but oh no, Beth was on the hunt.

‘Dec said you were out with someone, um, special?’

What exactly had he told her? Not every bloody thing I’d said, I hoped.

‘Yeh, I’ve behn on a date, not tha it’s any of yuhr bluhdy business.’

‘Dec said her name was Laura.’

Oh for fuck’s sake, it sounded like Dec had spilt the whole lot. That’s what you get for not specifically stating ‘don’t say anything’ and getting him to sign a contract to that effect.

‘Yeh.’

‘Laura as in from the Living with MS day, Laura who took you home?’

‘Yeh.’

‘But she’s part of the MS service.’

Oh, well spotted, Beth. She’d said it as if I was doing something outrageously inappropriate, and needed to be told, and of course, it got my back up.

‘I knoh she is.’

‘She’s an MS nurse.’

Again with the stating the bloody obvious, as if I hadn’t got it the first time.

‘Yeh, Beth, the bluhdy uniform kind of gives ih away.’

‘But surely that’s not – there are rules about that sort of thing, sweetheart.’

I wasn’t having it, any of it, she always thought she bloody knew best, as if no one else could sort shit out without her bloody well sticking her beak in.

‘Noh, ih’s not a problem, ih’s cool, she’s sorted ih, stop stressing.’

I looked over at Lau, who must have known she was being discussed, but she just looked amused, rather than as irritated as I felt.

‘But she could lose her job, Matty. You really haven’t thought –’

Right then, all buttons fully pushed, she was having it with both barrels, and I didn’t care about any mixed metaphors.

‘OK, jus fucking well back off, Beth, not yuhr problem.’

Maybe it was my tone of voice, maybe she realised she had gone beyond my tolerance limit, but she actually changed the subject. Instantly.

‘Alright, whatever you say. So have you had a nice time, then?’

Despite my annoyance, I took the new topic as the olive branch it seemed to be and backed off myself.

‘Yeh, had a greht time. Saw a film. Had coffee. On our way home.’

‘Matty, I’m sorry. I’m just worried about you, jumping into – no, sorry, I’m not going to start again. I just worry, that’s all.’

Well I guess it was a sort of apology. Beth was never going to change, maybe I should just take it for what it was.

‘Oh, OK, I know, I know yuh all fucking wohry, yuh can jus stop tho, I’m doin OK.’

‘So you’re getting on well with Laura, then?’

Ha, yeah, you could say that.

‘Yeh she’s bluhdy greht, I fucking love her.’

I wondered if Dec actually had told Beth absolutely everything I’d told him. Beth could have taken my last declaration as a serious statement or as fucking about. I didn’t give her the chance to ask which it was. I looked over at Lau and put my hand on her thigh, so she got that I was being serious.

‘Beth, can I bring her tuh lunch on Sunday?’

Now Beth knew, and Dec and Mum knew, I just wanted her to meet everyone, be part of it all.

‘You’re assuming I’m doing Sunday lunch now, are you?’

‘Oh come on, there’s always lunch round yuhrs on Sunday.’

‘It would be nice if people didn’t just take it for granted that I’m happy to feed the five thousand every weekend.’

Beth was well and truly getting her own back now. There was no way she minded, she bloody loved having everyone there, feeling like the family matriarch or some such shit.

‘I’m not taking yuh fuh granted.’

‘I think you are.’

I sighed, decided to play the game.

‘OK, are yuh doing yuhr big fuck off everyone’s invited lunch on Sunday?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Am I invited?’

‘Yes.’

‘OK then, can I bring a guest, of the female variety?’

‘You may.’

‘Thank yuh. Shih, Beth, who rattled yuhr cage?’

‘I think you’ll find that was you, Matty. It’s usually you.’

‘Ha ha, fair enough.’

‘While I’ve got you on the phone, though, sweetheart, I wondered if you’d be able to babysit tomorrow or Friday?’

Nope. Couldn’t do babysitting. Had Lau to, er, do. If Lau was up for it. I was sure she would be, Lau had always seemed up for a good doing, even before we loved each other.

‘Oh, er, not sure, pretty busy in the evenings fuh the rest of the week.’

‘Oh. Never mind, then, I’ll ask someone else.’

Beth sounded very slightly put out. I hardly ever said no to babysitting, especially when there was a free meal and a bed for the night in it. Not this time, though.

‘Yeh, sohry, maybe Rose?’

‘Maybe. I’d better phone her now, she’ll be in bed soon. See you, Matty.’

‘OK, see yuh soon. Bye.’

I disconnected, put my head against the seat, then turned and looked over at Lau.

‘Bluhdy Beth, drives meh up the bluhdy wall.’

I tried my best Beth impersonation.

‘”Yuh duh know she’s a nurse in the MS service.” Shih, no fucking way, I thought yuh were wearing yuhr uniform jus tuh make meh horny. Bluhdy Dec, can’t keep his mouth shut, they drive meh mad, talking abouh meh.’

‘It’s just because they care.’

‘I know ih is, I dohn mind them caring, buh, shih, yuh know how ih feels when yuh trip over, or bang yuhr head, an everyone rushes over an looks worried an asks if yuhr alrigh an shih, an yuh feel stupid an jus wana crawl away an beh on yuhr own?’

Lau nodded. I loved how she got me.

‘Well tha’s how I fehl all the bluhdy time. They never know when tuh back off.’

‘Well I think you told her pretty clearly.’

‘Yuh have tuh beh clear wih Beth, she dohnt take any notice otherwise. Lau, she said yuh could lose yuhr job.’

Lau smiled and shook her head.

‘I won’t lose my job. I’ve talked to Patrick about it, it’s fine, it’s all above board, legal, OK.’

‘Tha’s wha I said. Oh fuck. Yuh’ll prohbly geh the third degree on Sunday. Not tuh late to change yuhr mind.’

I belatedly wondered if subjecting Lau to the full force of Scott curiosity, before we’d worked out a lot of what we were, was a bit mean.

‘No way, I want to meet your family. I can hold my own, don’t worry.’

‘Thanks, Lau. Love yuh. Fuck, I love saying tha.’

It was true. I was going to be saying it a lot from now on.

We got home, there was more looking into each other’s eyes, there was more snogging, there was more everything. Or rather, everything I was capable of. It would have been the icing on the cake to be able to report that my genitals behaved themselves for once, and allowed me to show Lau just what she meant to me, but it was not to be, and fatigue overtook me before I could even apologise about it.

83. Pencil full of lead

In which practicalities are faced, appointments are made, and shopping is scrutinised.

Laura

I’d set the alarm on my phone to chime quietly, so I woke up slowly, not at first recognising the room, but gradually, with a smile, remembering I was in Matt’s bedroom. I turned over gently, to see Matt still asleep, facing me, on his side, mouth slightly open. I got out of bed as quietly as I could and went into the bathroom to shower. Matt’s shower was impressive, with several different pulse settings, and I luxuriated in the hot water.

Matt

Maybe it was the vast amount of catch-up sleep I’d managed to get the previous day, but I actually woke up at about seven thirty the next morning. I could hear the shower going, and for a split second I thought I must have left it running last night, and then I remembered what had actually happened last night, and that I’d fallen asleep with Lau in my arms, so it must be her in the shower. And that, quite probably, meant that she was naked, and I so had to see that.

I sat up, swung my legs out of bed, tested their ability to not crumple under me, which seemed pleasingly robust today, took my clothes off and went in search of naked Lau.

I stood in the doorway of the bathroom, not caring about the steam leaking out into the living room, and watched her for a few minutes. My shower was pretty good; it had a pulsing head, really strong stream, and I had a range of deluxe shower foams arranged along a glass shelf. Lau was making full use of it all, and had her eyes shut to stop the shampoo from getting in her eyes.

Oh, I could see her because it was a wet room, hence no shower cubicle. All the better to see you with my dear. I made my way over to her and stood behind her, having a brief debate with myself about what I planned to do next. I knew she freaked at the slightest unexpected touch, but she was irresistible, and I didn’t argue it for long. It went something like ‘I want to touch her’ ‘you’ll scare her’ ‘yeah but that’ll be funny’. Argument won.

Laura

I was just rinsing my hair, eyes closed against the shampoo and water, when a hand snaked around my waist. I screamed and span round. Matt stood there, hands in the air. He had absolutely no clothes on. None at all.

‘Sohry Lau. Couldn’t bear the thought of yuh in here on yuhr own. Dihnt mean tuh make yuh jump. Bluhdy hilarious tho.’

I spat water and soap bubbles out of my mouth, then sagged against the wall of the shower, as I tried to surreptitiously glance at the fully revealed glory of Matt Scott. And oh boy was it glorious. I mean he. Was he glorious.

Matt

Lau sagged against the wall of the shower. Then she noticed I was as naked as her, and yeah, she couldn’t resist a downwards glance at my tackle, or a little grin to herself at what she saw.

‘You scared me to death. Have you not got by now that I startle easily?’

‘Sohry.’

I really wasn’t sorry at all, and neither of us were thinking about me making her jump any more, but it’s the thought that counts, at least that’s what my mum always says. She probably didn’t mean it to apply to this specific situation; maybe I’ll ask her one day.

Laura

He didn’t really look very sorry, but he was completely naked, and so was I. It was the first time I’d seen him with no clothes on, and he didn’t disappoint; his body was slender but not skinny, his legs well muscled, and all other bits and pieces looked pretty damn good to me. In fact, I had to have a stern word with myself about my ‘only what we can both do’ promise to stop myself doing something completely shameless. Although he’d made me squeal and swallow shampoo, it seemed like a bit of a waste to be cross with him, and I hated waste, so I peeled myself off the wall and pulled him into the stream, where the water fell down on us as we kissed good morning.

His body felt so good wet; he was lean and hard, and his bum was particularly squeezable as I pulled him towards me. His hands found my breasts, and he pinched my nipples as I ran my hands up and down his back. As he moved his mouth down to my breasts – something he seemed to really like doing, and no, I’m not complaining – I arched my back and pressed them against his lips, moving my hands down without thinking, below his waist and then lower, stroking my way down to his balls.

Matt

I felt her hands move downwards, below my waist, along my cock, and was just about to regretfully remind her of the ‘both together’ clause, when she cupped my balls and a flood of fizzing surged under her fingers, then my dick twitched and I gasped as I froze.

‘Lau, yuh made ih twitch! An ih goh a bih bigger!’

We both looked down, to where it was indeed a little bit larger, and standing out from my body a bit.

‘Just ignore it.’

Ignore my first attempt at a hard-on for months?

‘Wha? Cahnt ignore my dick.’

‘Don’t focus on it, let what happens happen, we’ll just carry on. It’s not important.’

‘Ih fucking well is impohtant. Tha’s more movement than I’ve had foh months.’

I knew what she was trying to say, but it was too much of a significant event for me to just pretend it wasn’t happening.

‘And if you try to force it, you’ll chase it away. Just do what you were doing before, and I’ll do what I was doing before, and we’ll see. You can’t rush it, you’ll make it worse.’

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, nodded, and bent down to Lau’s breasts again, but all I could feel, all I could think about was Lau’s hands on me, cupping my balls, stroking my dick, as the sensation dribbled away. She took her hand away after a while, gently pushed me away from her chest, and kissed me, tenderly.

‘I’ve got to get ready for work. Sorry flower.’

‘S’okay. S’all gone now anyway.’

‘Seriously, Matt, if it comes back it will be a bit at a time, not all at once. Be patient.’

I nodded, disappointed; I really wasn’t very good at being sensible and patient, and although I knew she was right, everything she said was right, I just wanted it all back, right now, none of this farting around with a bit here and a bit there. I wanted a great big hard-on so I could … well, Lau had better watch out once I had a great big hard-on, that’s all I was saying. Lau turned the water off, and I pulled her to me for a hug.

‘I love seeing yuh naked. Yuhr fucking awesome.’

Laura

‘So are you. Nice, very nice, bum. Turn round a minute.’

He turned round, and I leaned down and kissed each bum cheek. I was getting to be very very fond of his bum, with it’s two perfect round buttocks which were just the right size for grabbing as I pulled him towards me.

Matt

I was getting that she liked my arse, and it was flattering, me being a skinny git who didn’t really have much at all in the way of muscular attributes. I turned round, and Lau leaned down and kissed each bum cheek. I loved that she always seemed to do exactly what she wanted to with me, and it was often something that took me by surprise.

‘Lau, yuhr a bih wanton ahrnt yuh?’

‘Just a little something for me to take to work with me.’

She wrapped herself in a towel and wound another one round her head, and I started to dry myself too.

I’d been thinking about some of the things Lau had said, in the time we’d been apart yesterday. I knew she couldn’t be my personal nurse, and I was getting that I maybe needed some proper answers to some of the questions I’d asked her. Beth would have been astounded at my next question; it was something she’d been trying to get me to do for months. But Beth wasn’t The One, so she’d missed a trick. I tried to make it sound casual, and not like I was breaking the habit of a lifetime.

‘Soh, if I was goin tuh, say, call some kind of service fuh some hehp, or some such shih, wha would I duh?’

If Lau realised how much of a break from tradition this was for me, she didn’t show it.

Laura

I tried not to show my delight and relief; Matt would benefit so much from some input from the team I worked for.

‘Have you still got the card I gave you last week at the church hall?’

Matt

To be honest, I couldn’t remember her giving me a card, but if she had, it would still be in my trousers from Wednesday. Oh bollocks, laundry.

‘Er … think I migh have washed ih.’

‘OK, well in case you did I’ll write the number down before I go. You need to call and – hm, you’ll have to give your name. It might be best if you ask for Anna. If Rachel answers, she might not be very nice. She should be professional, but there’s not always any telling with her. So ask for Anna – I’ll write that down too – and tell her you want to refer yourself, she’ll take details and there you’ll be, fully signed up for the city’s finest MS service.’

‘Yuhr sure I cahnt have yuh?’

She’d been pretty clear, but there seemed no harm in double checking, just in case there had been some major change in the rules she’d neglected to inform me about.

‘Yeah, I’m sure. I’m not going to be able to talk to them about you at all, even if they want to use my sex expertise.’

‘Shih, Lau, ih’s all a bit of a minefield, ihnt ih. Anyway, haven’t definitely decided tuh call, ih’s jus in case.’

No, I didn’t want to pin myself down to definitely calling, because there would be all sorts of questions if I didn’t, so best to just make it like I might do, I might not, depends.

Laura

‘OK.’

I kissed him on the cheek – the one on his face this time – and left him to dry himself in the bathroom, as I went in search of a plug for my hairdryer.

While I was drying my hair and dressing for work, I thought about what might actually happen if Matt called the service. It would cause a fair amount of comment, and although I would try to stay out of it as much as possible, all the conjecture and questions would be uncomfortable.

Then I remembered with a start and a groan that I’d forgotten to call Patrick as I’d planned to, to tell him what had gone on with Rachel on Friday. I picked my phone up from the bedside table and put it in my bag. I’d have to call from my car; it would be too awkward to have that conversation about Matt in Matt’s home.

Matt

I wrapped a towel round my waist and wandered in to watch her. I was still watching when she’d finished drying her hair.

‘What?’

‘Yuhr fucking gorgeous, Ih’m lovin yuh in yuhr uniform. Reminds meh of the first time I saw yuh.’

‘The first time you saw me, I was giving a very useful talk on sex, which you apparently enjoyed very much, and shouldn’t have been noticing my uniform.’

‘Ha ha. I only came to talk tuh yuh because I fancied yuh. Hardly listened tuh a word of yuhr talk, too busy watching yuhr tits jiggling in yuhr tunic.’

This was mostly true. I hadn’t really been concentrating on the content of Lau’s talk, more on the content of the woman giving the talk. Call me shallow, you won’t be the first.

‘They were not jiggling.’

‘They bluhdy were. Every time yuh pressed yuhr button tuh change the slide, jiggle jiggle. Drove meh wild. An all the other blokes there, I ‘spect.’

‘Really. Well I’ll have to remember to wear more supportive underwear next time then. Can I grab some toast?’

‘Yeh, course.’

Then I remembered my manners.

‘Duh yuh wan meh tuh make scrambled eggs? Or bacon?’

‘No, you go back to bed, it’s early for you. I’ll bring you something in – cup of tea?’

‘Hey, I geh breakfast in bed. Life of Riley. Thanks, Lau.’

Oh this was so cool. I hadn’t had breakfast made for me since – oh, yesterday, when Dec made me a cup of tea and some toast, but it wasn’t quite the same, especially as it had gone cold by the time I woke up. I lay down on the duvet, and just closed my eyes while I listened to Lau rummaging in my cupboards, clinking spoons against mugs and humming to herself. It felt so homely, so natural. I shut my eyes for a minute …

Laura

When I got back to the bedroom, Matt was asleep on his side, on top of the duvet. I folded the rest of the duvet over the top of him, kissed him gently on the cheek, left the tea and toast on the bedside table and ate mine in the living room before quickly scribbling the MS service number and Anna’s name on a piece of paper, then quietly leaving, pulling the door gently shut behind me.

In my car, I got my phone out and pressed Patrick’s name. He might already be at work, could be on his way, or may not have left yet. I should have called him before now, to avoid him being confronted with a situation when he arrived.

‘Hello Laura. Everything alright?’

‘Hi Patrick. Er, not sure. I meant to call you over the weekend, but things were a bit hectic. I’m not sure if Rachel’s called you …’

‘No. Is Rachel alright?’

‘Well, do you remember in supervision I was talking about a hypothetical situation?’

‘Yes.’

Patrick sounded concerned, and was probably wondering what I was about to tell him.

‘Well, the hypothetical person I was asking about is actually real, I know, big surprise. He’s someone Rachel knows from the past who upset her quite badly, and she found out on Friday that I’ve been seeing him, and I think, well I won’t really know until I get in this morning, but I don’t think she’s speaking to me. It’s upset things, she’ll want people to take sides, it will make things awkward for us all. I’m sorry. I just wanted you to know.’

I heard Patrick take a deep breath.

‘OK, Laura, well, it does sound a bit complicated. You girls have had your fallings out before though, haven’t you, you always seem to work it out.’

‘Yeah, but this feels a bit more serious. And, just to make things more complicated, Matt might be going to call the service to register with us. Obviously I can’t be his named worker, and Rachel wouldn’t be the ideal candidate, so that’s going to be tricky too.’

‘Hmm. Alright. Well, thanks for letting me know, Laura. I’m just about to set off for the office. I think we need to have a talk when I get in, just so we can be clear about the rules, the law and the guidelines, so we all know where we stand.’

‘Thanks Patrick. Sorry.’

‘OK, Laura, see you in a little while.’

We disconnected and I started the car.

Pulling up in the car park outside the office, I saw Kate, Anna and Patrick were already in, but Rachel’s car wasn’t there yet. A bit relieved, I walked up to the door and into the office. Kate and Anna looked up, Anna smiling, Kate raising her eyebrows.

‘Morning.’

‘Hello Lau. Thanks for the on-call on Saturday. Lifesaver.’

‘No problem. How did the dinner with the girlfriend go?’

‘Oh, I was just telling Kate, she’s a lovely girl, but took a bit of getting used to. Piercings, tattoos, pink and green hair, a bit intimidating, but we ended up talking about knitting, of all things.’

‘Good weekend, Lau?’

‘Yes thanks.’

I tried to leave it at that, but Kate was having none of it.

‘What, no gory details? You haven’t had gory details to spill for ages, out with it.’

‘I think maybe this isn’t the time or place.’

‘Rach isn’t coming in today, if that’s what you’re worried about.’

I actually felt my shoulders lift as if a weight had been taken off them.

‘Oh really?’

‘No, she’s called in sick. Well it is a kind of sick I suppose.’

‘Did you talk to her much over the weekend?’

‘Yeah, a fair bit. Went through the whole range of mad as hell, sad as hell, resigned as hell, then back to mad, she’s just in a bit of a state. I think she’s possibly coming round to the idea, but couldn’t face it this morning. I’ll go and see her after work. A few glasses of wine might help.’

‘I’m sorry, Kate, you’ve been landed with her. Is there anything I can do?’

‘Apart from dumping Matt Scott back in the bloody swamp he emerged from? No, Lau. I think your reduced contact policy is the best one really, let her cool off.’

‘Do you think she will cool off?’

‘Who knows, it’s Rach, she’s never been predictable. Does Matt even remember her? Have you even talked about her?’

‘We’ve talked about her, I don’t think he remembers her.’

‘Nice. You’re sure he’s the one for you, Lau?’

‘Yes. He’s changed.’

‘Yeah, he bloody well has. He’s got MS now. Bloody tosser.’

‘Steady on, Kate, you’re talking about Lau’s boyfriend.’

‘It’s OK, Anna. Kate’s entitled to her opinion.’

So much for not getting embroiled, I’d been here three minutes, and I was already in the middle of an uncomfortable conversation, and Rachel wasn’t even here.

‘Is Patrick in his office?’

‘Yes, he was here before us.’

‘I’ll take him a cup of tea. Anyone else want one?’

I wasted a bit of time fiddling with the kettle and teabags, and then couldn’t put it off any longer. I picked up Patrick’s mug and tapped on his door.

‘Come in – oh hello Laura. Is that for me? Thank you. Have a seat.’

I sat down, holding my own mug with both hands, nervously tapping my thumb on the handle.

‘I’m sorry Patrick. It’s already causing difficulties.’

‘Alright, Laura, I think we need to establish a few things, before we get into what’s causing difficulties. Firstly, this man – what’s his name? I can’t keep referring to him as ‘this man’.’

‘Matt.’

‘Oh – oh!’

I saw light dawn on Patrick’s face, as he realised exactly who we were talking about. He didn’t get that involved in our gossip sessions, but had been around long enough that he had been unable to escape a few Rachellings in his time.

‘Ah, I’m beginning to see things a bit more clearly. Alright, it doesn’t really change things that much though. When you first met Matt, you knew he had MS, but he wasn’t officially registered with the service, and wasn’t seeing any of you – I mean therapeutically.’

He gestured out towards the office, encompassing me, Kate, Anna and Rachel.

‘Well, I guess so. I’ve known who he was for ages, seen him around, but I’d never spoken to him before last Wednesday, and I didn’t know he had MS until then either, and no, he’s not registered with us or seeing any of us professionally yet, although he may call to refer himself. We talked about it this morning.’

‘So you haven’t begun a relationship with someone you knew was a patient. So, officially, according to law, you haven’t done anything wrong. It’s almost the same as if you were in a relationship with someone who subsequently developed MS. There’s only the one service in the city, he doesn’t have any choice if he wants help, so all we need to do is make sure that we give him, should he require it, as professional a service as we would give anyone else. You can’t be his named worker, and it sounds like Rachel wouldn’t be a good idea either, so Anna or Kate will have to fight for the honours. You can’t be involved in any clinical meetings or discussions about him, or look at his notes, or talk to him as a member of the service. Obviously any conversations you have with him in your private time are your own, but they can’t be official advice.’

‘I understand that. I’ve told him all that.’

‘Good. It sounds like you’ve got a good understanding of it. The other side of it, the possible upset that it may have caused between you and Rachel, will just have to be resolved between you and Rachel, as if it was any other person without MS who you were in dispute about. I hope it doesn’t affect the smooth running of the service, I expect you both to be mature and professional enough to sort out your differences. If anything else crops up, we’ll just have to deal with it at the time.’

‘Thanks, Patrick.’

I was incredibly grateful. I hadn’t given it much time or thought over the weekend, but had been worrying all the way over in the car about the implications for me and my job. I hoped that things now might be a bit smoother, if I kept a low profile and kept out of Rachel’s way.

The rest of the morning was filled with visits and preparations for a support group meeting in the afternoon, and Matt wasn’t mentioned again.

Matt

… and then Lau was naked, running towards me across a field, and I was just staring at her, and my eyes felt like they could swallow her whole, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up, Lau had gone, and my breakfast was cold next to me. I looked at my watch; it was nearly ten o’clock.

I resisted the urge to turn over and go back to sleep; I was sleeping my life away at the moment, and I needed to take control of it. Thinking that made me think of what I needed to do to take that control, who I might need to talk to, and I remembered Lau saying she was going to write down a number for me. I picked up the cold tea and toast and took it into the kitchen while looking to see if she’d left me a note. There it was, on the table:

Hey Beach Boy

Here is a number you might find useful – 555222. If you decide to call, ask for Anna Lovell.

Thanks for dinner last night and the shower this morning. You are multi-talented, and I’m hoping to find more skills to explore in the days to come.

Holding your hand until I see you later. I’ll come by after work, hope that’s OK.

See you soon

Lau xx

I read and re-read it, smiling to myself about being multi-talented. I hadn’t even felt singly-talented for a long time, and it was a boost to my confidence.

I still hadn’t decided about phoning the bastard MS service, and to postpone making a decision, I did some online shopping. I never went to the supermarket, even when I wasn’t a fucking cripple, and once my energy and mobility deserted me, I realised what a sensible lifestyle choice that was. I could sit in front of my computer, at my leisure, drinking a cup of coffee, adding things as they occurred to me, not getting side-tracked by lots of shit I didn’t need, not getting irritated by the length of the queues or other people’s screaming kids, not being frustrated by the absence of the one thing I really wanted to get, not getting half way home and remembering three more things I’d meant to put on the list. The only down side I could think of was sometimes having ‘out of stock’ items replaced, but the way I saw it, that just gave an added frisson of the unexpected to the whole procedure, Russian roulette with yogurt, so to speak. I didn’t know why everyone didn’t do it, especially as someone else lugged the whole lot of it up two flights of stairs for me. I even got a delivery slot for that afternoon, which meant I would have fully stocked cupboards for the rest of the week.

I took my time selecting my shopping and getting myself together. Beth texted while I was using my laptop; she texted every morning, give or take, and following Lau’s advice I’d been answering her instead of ignoring her. Her texts had become less insistent and more chatty, and much as I hated to admit it, it seemed there was an element of concern and worry behind it, rather than a need to boss people about. Or rather than solely a need to boss people about.

‘Hi Matty. Hope yr having a gd morning. We had flood in utility room waiting 4 plumber. Massive clean up going on and no water for tea :(‘

‘Oh no. Can I help?’

‘No thx, sweetheart. All under control. J was mopping b4 work tho ha ha.’

‘If u need cuppa tho, Avondale awaits.’

‘Ooh, actually, thx. Choc milk 4 Iz?’

‘Always got choc milk 4 blondie.’

‘Be there once plumber arrives :)’

I rarely invited Beth over, although she invited herself on many occasions and for many reasons. I was feeling benevolent, but realised I was going to have to stop grinning from ear to ear and be at least a bit grumpy, or she would guess something was up and I would get no peace. At least Iz would be a buffer, and the fact they were invited should stave off most of the nosy questions.

Beth arrived about twelve, and I provided lunch as well as tea. While we ate our sandwiches, the shopping arrived, and Beth couldn’t resist commenting.

‘That’s a lot of groceries, Matty.’

Shit, I’d forgotten that I’d ordered tons as I’d planned on cooking lots of fancy meals for Lau.

‘Yeh, I wahs ruhning low on ehverything. Fahncied sohm dihferent stuff too.’

Oh bloody hell, she was even having a rummage in the bags.

‘Heh, kehp yuhr nose ouh.’

‘Why do you need three different sorts of oil? Gosh, isn’t this truffle oil really expensive?’

‘Wehl, dihferent dishes nehd dihferent flavohrs, buh mihnd yuhr own. Yuh’ll fihnd the condohms if yuh dig any dehper.’

That stopped her. It was probably the thought of Iz asking ‘what’s comdoms Mummy’ rather than actually coming across any, but it was an effective deterrent, and I moved the bags into the kitchen for later disembowelling and redistribution. I’d inadvertently moved the subject onto somewhere else I didn’t really want to go, though.

Beth was looking at me with sympathy. Bugger, what had I said now?

‘You didn’t really buy condoms, did you Matty?’

Oh shit no. It was like talking about sex with your sister.

‘Noh, Beth, I wahs tryin tuh stop yuh prihcing up ahl my shopping.’

I gave her my best ‘back off or you’ll regret it’ stare, but she was unstoppable.

‘Has anything … come back … down there?’

She kept her eyes fixed on my face, but her meaning encompassed anything from the waist down. She only knew about my lack of action because it had happened last time, and because I was in the same house, and Jay had to wash me for a while, and, well, I suppose you can’t stop a man telling his wife shit.

When the fucking bastard returned this time, Beth had asked about it, as if it was an acceptable topic of conversation, and I had told her in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t going to discuss it with her, but she kept on and I ended up getting emotional and yelling, ‘Fuh fuck’s sahk, no, my dick migh as wehl hahv fucking wehl drohped off fuh all I can tehl ih’s thehr. Satisfihd? I nehver wan tuh tahk abouh this again.’ and with Iz and Cal in the next room, I guess she must have been satisfied, because she hadn’t asked after that. Until now. I wondered if she even remembered me yelling before, because I was getting near the point when I was going to be yelling again, Iz in close proximity or not, if she didn’t back off.

However, we were saved by the bell. Beth’s phone rang, it was the plumber needing a decision that required Beth’s immediate physical presence, and she beat a hasty retreat, promising, or was it threatening, to call me tomorrow.

I sank down on the sofa and considered why Beth pushed so many of my buttons. Maybe I should have been grateful that she was prepared to talk to me about things no one else would. It’s not like the world is full of places you can go for advice about sexual dysfunction because of a fucking bastard disease – your mates down the pub would look embarrassed and change the subject to the footy; your work colleagues would look at you like you’d grown two heads and you’d be reported for sexual harassment; your brother – well, your brother didn’t do deep and meaningfuls, left that to his interfering wife, and your kind of brother or mate or whatever, well he would have had a go, but was currently in the midst of fathering a brood of mini-mes, and would have been clueless. So if I’d wanted to talk to anyone, Beth would have been my best bet.

Maybe it was because she never gave up, maybe I felt it was like a competition – the more she pushed, the more I dug my heels in, and so when I finally told her something, it felt like I’d lost and she’d won, rather than just a sharing of information, or communication between two family members. So maybe it was more to do with me than with her; she certainly didn’t do it out of anything other than concern and caring, and no one else seemed to have the same issues with her that I did.

Does this sound like I’m beginning to cut her some slack, understand her, be more sharing? Ha, fuck off. No way. But thinking about it did make me realise that I needed to talk to someone. Lau wouldn’t do it, not in a detached nursey way, and I wondered if that was what I needed; someone who understood, but wasn’t emotionally involved. If only there was some kind of, oh I don’t know, specialist service for people with fucking bastard diseases, where you could go for a chat with someone who knew their shit – oh, hang on, what’s this note in Lau’s handwriting, with a number and a name …

Before I could talk myself out of it, I had dialled the number.

Laura

Close to lunchtime the phone rang. Kate was nearest to the phone, so she picked it up.

‘MS Service, Kate Fuller’

Matt

I nearly bottled it, nearly hung up, but I took a deep breath and ploughed on regardless.

‘Cahn I spehk tuh, er, Anna Lovell, plehs?’

My heart was pounding. I wondered if Lau was anywhere nearby.

Laura

‘Er …’

Kate shot a quick look at Anna.

‘… can I say who’s calling?’

Matt

‘Maht Scoht.’

‘Oh.’

She sounded surprised. Well, I guess they all knew about me, though I wasn’t sure how many people worked with Lau, or who exactly she had told.

‘Can I say what it’s about?’

‘Wan tuh refehr mysehf.’

Is that what you did? Referred yourself? No idea.

‘Well I can do that.’

Oh, no, Lau said this Anna woman.

‘Er, behn told tuh ask fuh Anna.’

The voice on the other end sounded a bit pissed off.

‘OK, fine, I’ll see if she’s free.’

The phone went to ‘on hold’ bleeps for a short time, and I nearly bottled it again, but now they knew who I was, and hanging up would be embarrassing, especially for Lau.

Laura

Kate put the phone on hold.

‘An, some wanker called Matt Scott wants to refer himself. Apparently I’m not good enough and only you will do.’

I kept my eyes glued to my computer screen, trying not to listen, but it was impossible not to.

‘Alright, Kate, I’ll take it. Is there a referral form there?’

Anna passed by my chair on the way to the phone and rested her hand briefly on my shoulder.

Matt

Just as I had convinced myself that a few moments of embarrassment for Lau would be better than torturing myself by going through my life history with a stranger, another voice came on the line.

‘This is Anna, I understand you want to refer yourself.’

And we were off. I had to give details, but not as many as I was fearing, just basics like date of birth, GP, full name. We agreed an appointment, she would come here to meet me, we didn’t mention Lau, and it was all over, I was officially a fucking cripple with my name on a computer and everything. It might make it worthwhile if there was a badge and a certificate too.

Laura

Neither Kate nor I did any work while Anna was talking to Matt, but neither did we look at each other. She asked all the questions we always asked, but was giving no clue about the replies she was getting, being as non-committal and professional as any of us would have been with anyone else. I was dying to know what he was saying, but I wouldn’t ever know unless he told me. When Anna had finished, and made an appointment to see him, Kate immediately jumped in.

‘So? What did he say?’

Anna looked at me, aware of what she may or may not be allowed to reveal.

‘An can’t discuss Matt with me in the room.’

‘What? But you must know it all already, Lau. That’s bloody ridiculous.’

‘Kate, Lau can’t be party to any professional discussions about Matt without his express permission.’

‘I wasn’t asking for a professional discussion, just a bloody good gossip.’

‘It’s alright, I’ll go and get the sandwiches. Talk all you want while I’m gone.’

I was relieved to be away from the office. It would hopefully get better as we all got used to it, but I could see me doing the sandwich run regularly for the foreseeable future, and volunteering for lots of visits and other tasks that would take me out and about. My phone pinged as I was getting into the car.

Matt

We disconnected, and I felt both elated and terrified. Lau would be pleased, I was sure. Beth would be ecstatic, but I wasn’t necessarily going to tell her, maybe just slip it in the conversation sometime – ‘oh yeah, my MS nurse said …’, maybe with a few more fuckings and bastards, and see how she reacted.

I texted Lau, to see if she had been there, and to see if the news had flown around the office. OK, maybe I was enjoying a tiny bit of celebrity status.

‘I did it. Were you there? Am I causing a stir?’

‘Yes I was there. Yes u r centre of attention. Good sleep?’

‘Awesome. Dreamed of u naked. Yum ;)’

‘What u up 2 2day?’

‘Online shopping, then wait 4 delivery, I lead an exciting life.’

‘Can I come over after work?’

‘Do u need 2 ask? Fuck yeah!’

‘Gr8. Just off to get sarnies. Talk l8r. Lau xx’

‘Check yr bag. Put sarnies in 4 u.’

‘When?’

‘Made them last night, put in this morning.’

‘Oh u! Got to get everyone else’s tho. Or did u make them for us all? =)’

‘Oh bollox. No, just u. Hope u like it anyway.’

‘Thanks my beach boy xx’

Laura

I got out of the car and checked the bag in the boot. I found an oblong parcel, wrapped in tin foil, with an ice pack attached to it with an elastic band, tucked at the bottom below yesterday’s clothes. There was a note tucked under the elastic band:

Hey Lau, hope you like chicken salad. Happy munching. M x

I smiled fondly to myself, reading the note several times, liking Matt’s curly writing, then got back in the driver’s seat and went to the supermarket.

Matt

So now I’d done it, I was on a roll. I phoned my GP and made an appointment to see her later in the week, and while I was at it, I called Adam. I know, right?

‘Adam Palmer.’

‘Heh. I dohnt knoh if yuh remehmber meh, buh –’

‘Hi Matt, yes of course.’

‘Wha?’

Was he bloody psychic or something?

‘Sorry, your name came up on caller ID.’

Oh. Dur, Matt.

‘What can I do for you?’

‘Cahn I mahk an appoihtmeht tuh see yuh?’

I wasn’t going to go into details, but he’d be able to hear from my unintelligible bollocks that I wasn’t the same as I’d been last time I’d seen him.

‘Of course. When were you thinking?’

He didn’t mention it, though, just gave me a list of dates, as if people he’d had one session with months ago rang him up all the time, speaking like they’d been on the Jägerbombs, and asking to see him again. Maybe they did, for all I know, but it helped me to not feel conspicuously mad.

So that was three things I’d done today that I felt self-righteous about, and I thought I deserved a beer. I didn’t usually drink in the middle of the day, in fact I didn’t drink much alcohol at all at that time, because it just increased my fatigue, and I was already sleeping more than I’d ever slept before, but a beer, cold and hoppy, sliding down my throat, after all that talking to people on the phone had made me hoarse – aah, that hit the spot.

Laura

Returning with sandwiches for Anna, Kate and Patrick, it seemed a change was in the air. Kate appeared less confrontational, and although we didn’t specifically mention Matt or Rachel or any of the issues that had got between us in the morning, she didn’t jump on every opportunity to have a go at me. She went out for a breath of fresh air after eating her sandwich, and Anna turned to me.

‘How’re you doing, Lau? All this must be a bit hard for you, love.’

‘I suppose it is, kind of, but I have to say, An, I’m having such a great time with Matt, it seems worth it.’

‘Well that’s great. Has he really changed? I’ve heard some wild things about him.’

‘I think he has. I don’t think it’s just the MS calming him down, he seems really – what’s the word – repentant about some of the things he’s done, not that they were really, like, evil or anything, but I guess he has been pretty inconsiderate and thoughtless. I think he was trying to change, even before he had his relapse, from what he says. Oh An, I really care about him, it’s happened so fast.’

‘I can see that, love. There’s no point telling you to be careful, you’re way beyond that, you’re as bad as Harry with Poppy, he’s smitten too.’

‘Poppy? Oh, the girlfriend. Knitting, eh?’

‘Yes, she apparently does bombs or something.’

‘Bombs?’

‘Oh I can’t remember what it’s called, where people cover things with wool and knitted things overnight – buses and lamp posts and things.’

‘Oh, yarn-bombing. They had some in the city centre the other week – I wonder if that was her?’

‘Well, it seems a bit daft, but more harmless than some of the things she could get up to I suppose. She does flash mobs as well.’

‘Ooh get you, An, with your ‘down wiv der kids’ lingo and knowing about yarn-bombing and flash mobs and stuff.’

‘Well, it’s kids keep you young, I suppose.’

‘Yeah. She didn’t persuade you to get a tattoo or a piercing, though?’

‘Ha ha, no, but I think I might have talked her into knitting Harry a jumper for Christmas. Yarn bomb him, rather than a tree, seems more useful.’

My phone pinged with a text. I glanced at the phone, which was lying face up on the desk next to me.

‘Just made appt w my GP. How many brownie pts do I get?’

I smiled to myself. I suspected Matt didn’t usually respond well to being advised what to do, and was feeling a bit self-satisfied with his fairly quick response to my prodding. Anna noticed my smile.

‘Matt?’

I nodded. ‘He made me a sandwich and put it in my bag, with an ice pack attached to it and a note.’

‘Oh that’s sweet.’

‘I know. I would never have thought Matt Scott would be sweet. It’s almost like he’s a different person to the git I used to get annoyed with at parties and in clubs. He’s a good, no, a great cook, he’s tidier than me, he’s thoughtful, sensitive and kind of vulnerable. He’s just so different than I thought he was.’

‘You haven’t known him long, though, have you. And he’s ill at the moment. OK, mum moment, I can’t help myself. You will be careful, won’t you.’

I nodded, but it didn’t mean anything. I was so far beyond careful, my heart was so fully given to Matt, if he chose to, he could stop my pulse. Anna rolled her eyes at me and shook her head.

‘OK, back to work. Do you want to share a lift to the support group? I think Gloria’s making her fruit cake.’

‘No, I’ll take my car, I’m going straight off afterwards.’

‘Matt-ward bound?’

I shrugged and smiled.

My phone pinged on the way to the support group, and when I arrived I checked the screen.

‘So none? 549?’

‘What?’

‘Brownie points. U didn’t reply.’

‘I was busy. Can’t always reply straight away. Be patient! 2. Minus 1 for impatience :)’

‘Soz, didn’t think. Thinking like a foul mouthed layabout not a Baptist working girl xx’

‘:) Going 2b busy, phone on silent. Don’t expect replies. Cu l8r. Lau xx’

Matt

I had got complacent about being off work, and used to having people I could reach for chat and contact when I wanted it. None of my family had what you would call conventional jobs – Beth: Housewife and mother. Full time and more, but always available on the end of the phone. Jay: Rugby coach. Full time, lots of weird hours, but often lazing around at home in the afternoons. Mum: Retired. Nothing better to do than make cakes and drink tea, obvs. Dec: Rugby player. Lots of running around and early morning training sessions, but, like Jay, a lot of lazing around at home in the afternoons. It was called ‘recovery’ or some such shit. Amy: Housewife and mother. Charlie was more than a full-time job, and she had another one on the way, but again, always there for tea and gossip if necessary. Nico and Lis: Always there for a square meal, a laugh, a chat. My work colleagues, who I wasn’t in touch with as much as I used to be, were always texting, tweeting, Instagramming, Facebooking, Snapchatting, WhatsApping; we worked in IT, it would have been a disciplinary offence not to.

So it was weird to know someone who couldn’t do that, whose job involved doing things where the phone had to be turned off. I mean, yeah, at the start Jules had been all ‘I don’t do texting’, but I soon won her over, and although she never texted from work, we were pretty much in contact the whole time whenever we were apart. I wanted that with Lau, I missed her, but was going to have to get used to the fact that she did a grown up job where ringtones and text pings weren’t acceptable. I was even more reliant on our ‘holding hands’ pact.

When Lau came home (I was already thinking of my home as her home, and I was constantly reminding myself that we’d been together less than a week) that evening, I greeted her as if I hadn’t seen her for months. It nearly felt like it.

‘Ooh, hello, miss me did you?’ she managed between breathtaking kisses.

‘Yuh hahv noh idea.’

‘I think you might have just given me one. How tired are you?’

I liked her thinking.

‘Not tihred at ahl. Wana wear meh ouh?’

‘Maybe. What’s for tea?’

‘Sohted. Cohtage pie in the ohven.’

I was nothing if not a forward planner when it came to getting Lau into bed, or whatever venue she chose for the execution of her idea.

‘Oh I like that. So we could, potentially, do a lot more of, say, this –’

She reached behind me and pulled me to her using my arse as leverage, and gave me a cheeky kiss, licking my nose on the way out.

‘– maybe somewhere more comfortable …’

‘Wha, lihk the behdrohm?’

‘Genius! How long till dinner?’

‘Ih’ll turn ih down a bih, kehp ih warm, couhd beh hours.’

And so a delicious time was had, discovering more about each other, how we kissed, how we touched, what made her sigh, what blew my mind. In-between, we were talking, getting to know each other. It was weird that it wasn’t weird, being so close physically to someone you hardly knew. It was just as if I’d always known her, and the things I found out about her didn’t feel new, just kind of confirmation of how it had always been.

If you’d asked me six months ago what I thought about the idea of soulmates, I’d have spouted off some condescending shit about how there isn’t some kind of grand plan for the universe, that destiny and fate are just bullshit, but now, with Lau, I couldn’t deny that I felt that we were designed for each other, that we fitted, that we were ‘meant to be’. Even though she really liked Boyzone.

‘Seriohsly, Lau? Ronan Kehting?’

‘He is a genius, writing songs for those other boys to sing, all those harmonies, don’t you think?’

‘Noh. Gihv meh a prohper songwriter, who writes prohper muhsic and cahn play an instruhment.’

‘Like?’

‘Anyohn who ihnt five prehty boys sat on stools. Muse. Sparklehorse. Bears Den.’

‘You’re a music snob. Oh, just like you’re a food snob.’

‘Wha? I am not.’

‘Yep, you are. You look down on boy bands because they’re popular, not because they don’t write their own stuff, because some of them do. And Ronan Keating plays the piano, I’ll have you know. And you look down on fast food, like burgers and pizza, because lots of people like them, not because it’s not tasty.’

‘Oh Lau, Lau, Lau. Places lihk Pizza Plahce serve shih tuh the mahses. Ih’s tohtal crap, I haht ih cos ih’s evil, not cos ih’s popular.’

‘Hm. Well, alright, then, maybe fast food and music not the same, but you are still a snob.’

‘Not abouh everything.’

‘No?’

‘Lihk my girhls in unifohm.’

‘True. You are a bit of a chav in that respect. Hey, Matt Scott the chav, who’d have thought?’

And so it went on, between kisses and touches, the teasing, the exploring, the getting-to-know-youing. We had time for dinner, even though the cottage pie had dried out a little by the time we got to it, and we cleared up together afterwards as if we’d always done that, loading the dishwasher, wiping the table, as if we were dancing it.

Ha ha, that just shows how soppy I was feeling, that clearing away the dinner things felt like a dance, and a sexy one at that. But soon after, it was back to bed, for more getting-to-know-youing, where I found out that Lau had always lived here, in this city, had done her nurse training here, had learned to drive here, had hardly ever left the county, let alone the country, and had only been abroad on holiday a handful of times, and that was counting a couple of hen weekends in Marbella and Ibiza that she couldn’t really remember.

Most of what we talked about that night was the little things – the bands, the films, the TV, the books, the minutiae. There was bigger shit to get off our chests; I’d told her about Jules and Carrie, briefly, but they were large contributors to what made me tick, and I wanted her to know about them, even felt like I could tell her about Carrie, all about her, like I’d never told anyone.

And I knew nothing about Lau’s past. I wanted to know about her men, to see how I measured up – oh, of course, it terrified me. Comparing myself to Martin had been a constant thing when I was with Carrie, and Jules had had a whole string of posh rich blokes who had wanted to marry her, and who were still her friends, and now I was a fucking cripple, so I wasn’t sure I was going to come out with that many man points in any battle of the exes, but in the same way that Jules and Carrie were a big part of who I was, so I wanted to know Lau’s defining moments, who had loved her and who had hurt her. Hopefully I wouldn’t be familiar with any of them, so I wouldn’t be tempted to go and beat the shit out of them for a) touching her and b) being stupid enough to let her go.

But exes and all that bollocks felt like it was for another day, and tonight was for more touching, more kissing, more holding. I had to check with her that it was OK; I was having the time of my life, malfunctioning man-parts notwithstanding, and I still couldn’t quite believe that she felt the same for me as I did for her.

‘Lau, ahr yuh suhr?’

‘Sure about what?’

‘Abouh this. I’m soh intuh yuh, jus cahnt quite beliehv ih’s truh.’

‘Do you think I just randomly go to bed with men I’m not completely and utterly into?’

Well, I suppose she had a point, maybe it was a bit like calling her a floozy.

‘Noh, buh –’

‘No. Exactly. I don’t understand it either, but yeah, I’m totally into you.’

‘Soh Ih’m not sohm random mahn?’

‘You’re so far from random. You feel very … specific. Is that the opposite of random?’

‘Yeh, spohs soh. Yuh dohnt jus fehl sohry fuh meh then?’

She tutted and rolled her eyes. I knew how needy I was being, but couldn’t help it.

‘Do you think I just randomly go to bed with men I feel sorry for then?’

‘Spohs not.’

‘Give me some credit, Matt. OK, maybe someone’s needing an ego boost. Here’s what I’m thinking, just so you’re sure, just so you know, and you can ask as many times as you like, the answer will be the same. You know, I feel like you’ve changed my life. You are so, so gorgeous, I’ve never known eyes like yours, you’re funny, gentle, kind, and have the cutest bum I’ve ever seen. Maybe your taste in music needs some work, but otherwise, ten out of ten, big tick, see me after class for some extra homework.’

I laughed at the last bit, feeling a bit guilty that I’d needed to hear her say what preceded it.

‘Wha kind of hohmwork? Science? I lihk science.’

‘I suppose you could consider it science. Biology, definitely. Biology’s a bit of a specialism of mine.’

‘Yuhr a nuhrse.’

‘Yeah, but not that kind of biology. More like … certain areas of anatomy, for example. Physiological reactions, maybe. Here, let me demonstrate.’

And with that, she dived into my boxers and, with a flourish, produced another hefty tingle.

‘Whoa, Lau! Holy fuck, if yuh kehp doin tha, Ih’ll beh back tuh nohmal in noh tihm.’

I followed her hands with mine, trying to coax the tingle into something more, but it remained elusive.

We carried on chasing tingles, mine and hers, for some time. I had a few more, and I know Lau had several too. Ultimately, though, sleep claimed me, and Lau got another early night. Or did to my knowledge. For all I know, she got up again as soon as I hit the black, and belly danced around the living room until midnight. Although I hope she would have woken me up to see that.

82. From where you are

In which holding hands across a city occurs.

Laura

Pulling up later outside Mum’s house, I took a deep breath and a moment to quickly take stock of what had happened to me since I last saw her. Last Saturday, it had been the usual round of not very exciting news, how’s your job, anything you need me to do, what have you got planned for next week, are you coming to church tomorrow, no probably not, both of us just touching base with each other and making sure we were both OK.

My whole world had changed in the last few days, and although I wasn’t going to hide anything from her, I certainly wasn’t going to tell her everything.

I let my breath out and got out of the car, waving to Mum who, as always, was looking out of her window as I walked to her front door.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘Hello my love. You look nice today.’

‘Oh, do I? Thanks.’

‘I’ve put the kettle on. Tea?’

‘Thanks. I brought a cake.’

‘Lovely. What’s the occasion?’

‘No occasion, just fancied it.’

I sat in the living room, looking around me at the familiar things, feeling comfortable and at home. Mum had lived here since she married Dad, and although they’d redecorated plenty of times over the years, the same photos, ornaments and mementoes of my childhood had always been put back over the top of it. I was an only child, and each piece of pottery or Christmas decoration seemed to have been preserved as a treasured relic. Mum came in with two mugs of tea, two plates and a knife for the cake.

‘So, what have you been up to this week, LauraLou?’

I immediately thought of Matt calling me that, and smiled to myself.

‘Oh, you know, work stuff. I had to work on my day off, Anna was poorly.’

‘So you’ve been busy then?’

‘You could say that. Had a bit going on, been seeing someone.’

‘Seeing someone as in … boyfriend?’

‘Oh Mum! Just seeing him, getting to know him.’

‘Well what’s he like?’

‘Lovely, of course.’

‘Of course. Does he have a name?’

‘There aren’t many people who don’t.’

She tutted and shook her head.

‘It’s like getting blood from a stone. Alright, my love, what’s his name? And while I’m at it, what does he do, where does he live, who are his parents and what are his intentions towards you?’

I grinned at her. I wasn’t being deliberately evasive, but a part of me wanted to protect what I had with Matt, and telling people felt like I was losing some control of it.

‘His name’s Matt. He does something in IT, don’t really understand what it is exactly. He lives in Avondale. I have no idea who his parents are or what his intentions are. But he likes birds, so you’ll have something to talk about.’

‘Of the feathered variety I hope. So I’m going to meet him then?’

‘I expect so, if things go well.’

‘Well I’m very pleased, Laura. It’s been a while since you had a young man. I hope he’s a bit better than that long-haired ruffian you brought round last time.’

My last boyfriend had, indeed had long hair, but he had always been polite and even thoughtful towards my mum, who sometimes couldn’t see further than her prejudices.

‘Nick wasn’t a ruffian. He dug your flower bed over for you.’

‘Well I didn’t take to him.’

‘I suppose I didn’t either, that’s why we parted company.’

‘So when do I get to meet him?’

‘When you’re a bit less eager, and a bit less likely to be throwing names like ‘ruffian’ about. Slice of cake?’

And the subject was dropped, although not indefinitely. I chatted with Mum for an hour or so, caught up on all the gossip about her friends and neighbours, surreptitiously checked her house for signs of self-neglect, and managed to wheedle out of her the date for her fracture clinic appointment.

I shared Mum’s self-assessment that she would be given the all clear when she went to have her ankle checked; her mobility was much better, and she was much less reliant on the crutches she’d been given. She would probably be downgraded to a stick, and have the Beckham boot removed.

Matt

Eventually I slept, for a couple of hours, waking up when my alarm went off, which didn’t always happen. Sometimes Dec would be buzzing the door for ages, and I’d sleep on through it, so he had a key in case it went on too long, and which he only used if I was expecting him. He and Amy were the only ones who knew how much and how heavily I was sleeping; it would have been impossible to keep it from them when I stayed with them, but I had managed to get them to promise not to say anything to Beth or Mum. It’s not like they could have done anything, and it helped me to feel more in control of things, having at least one thing that Beth didn’t ask about.

But anyway, today I woke up when my alarm went off, which was half an hour before Dec was due to pick me up, and it enabled me to be coherent when Dec finally arrived, late as usual and with a mountain of litter on his passenger seat that I had to dislodge before I could sit in his car.

‘Yuh rehly ahr a mehsy bahstrd ahrnt yuh?’

I never stopped bugging him about the state of his car. It was supposed to be his pride and joy, bought with money left to him by his parents. You’d never think so, the terrible care he took of it.

When Dec first got the car, I believe he used to hand wash it every week, hoover it out, the lot. Nowadays it was lucky to see the inside of a car wash once a year, and there was so much accumulated shit in it that I was surprised they could ever actually get a baby seat in it. And it wouldn’t be long before they’d need two baby seats.

‘Fuck off. Just because you’re Mr OCD with your polished steering wheel and specialist glass cleaner.’

Well, alright, he had a point, and the fact that I still cleaned my car even though I hadn’t driven it for months may make me sound a tad obsessive, but I liked driving something that didn’t smell like the inside of a cheese factory, and you never knew when the ability not to mow down pedestrians was going to return; you needed to be prepared. Plus, I never let pass the opportunity to remind Dec that my previously perfect car was no longer perfect because of him.

‘Yeh, well, if my passehger seht wahnt soh stained, I woulhnt nehd tuh compehsaht by dohbl clehning everything else.’

This was a legacy from a rescue mission a couple of years ago, in which I’d had to collect a dripping wet Summers from the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night and deposit him in the middle of the city. Bare-breasted madwomen were involved. Long story, ask Dec about Becca Davis and see how big a twitch you can elicit. My Italian leather passenger seat had never recovered.

‘Yeah, yeah. Anyway, we’re thinking of getting a new one.’

This was news. Big news.

‘Wha? A new cahr?’

‘Yeah. With another baby coming this is just too small.’

‘Hush yuhr mouth. Wha will Betsy thihk?’

I was being facetious, but Dec changing his car was huge, and said a lot about how he had been able to come to terms with the deaths of his parents.

‘I know, it’s pretty major. But I think of it like this. Betsy isn’t them, is she?’

Oh, for the uninitiated, Betsy is what Dec called his car.

‘They left me money, and I spent it on something that means a lot, but if I sell her, then that’s like recycling the money and using it on something else, like passing it on.’

So, with that kind of twisted justification, it appeared that Dec hadn’t sorted out quite as much in his head as had seemed the case on first inspection. He was feeling guilty about selling his car, even though he needed a new one so he could transport his growing family. Nothing good ever came of naming a car. Plus, I always felt a bit glad, in a schadenfreude way, when I realised Dec wasn’t quite as sorted as he appeared.

‘Fahr enough. Wha yuh gona geh?’

‘Dunno. Something like yours might do the trick. Big boot space, that’s what we need.’

We talked cars all the way to Dec’s house, which was a novelty, as Dec had previously shown no interest at all in the subject, but now he was all ‘mpg’ and ‘cubic metres’ and ‘manual versus automatic’, and I enjoyed giving him the benefit of my not so vast experience, which seemed vast compared to his.

When we arrived, Charlie was having her tea, and sharing it with Amy in the form of loud protesting screams and puréed vegetable hand prints splattered across her t-shirt. They both looked a bit frazzled.

‘Heh Amy. Wan meh tuh tahk over?’

‘Oh Matt, would you? That would be completely brilliant. I’ve got loads to do. Are you sure?’

I was always sure. Not being the one who had to do it all the time, I loved being able to take my time over Charlie’s meals, making up games to entice her to eat, both of us getting in an utter state. I’d brought spare clothes for just this eventuality.

Now I’ve had my own babies, I realise how bloody annoying it is when someone comes in and a) enjoys doing the thing you’ve just been finding really stressful and b) your baby starts giggling and behaving instead of wriggling and screaming. But back then, I had no idea, and I just liked being Unca Matty, who Charlie stopped screaming for, so I could feel a bit smug.

Charlie’s dinner over, it smelt like it was time for a nappy change, which I was happy to do, but I wasn’t happy to lift her out of her high chair. Ever since nearly dropping her, I wouldn’t risk lifting her too high in the air, not until I was sure my arms weren’t going to give way. I was dropping things left right and centre at the moment, and I didn’t want one of those things to be my best friend’s baby.

‘Amy?’

She appeared at the door of the kitchen.

‘Yeah?’

‘Wehr all dohn hehr, buh she’s filled her nahpy.’

‘Oh Charlie. Thanks Matt, I’ll grab her from here.’

‘I cahn duh ih, if yuh put the mat on the flohr?’

‘Oh you star. Come in the living room, we can all chat then, I’m just doing some ironing.’

Amy picked Charlie up and I grabbed the changing mat and the baby bag. It made me feel useful and responsible, looking after her, changing her nappy, feeding her. Not much did that these days, and I would always love her for it, and love Dec and Amy for letting me.

Charlie’s nappy changed to everyone’s satisfaction, I needed to change my own clothes, which were covered in puréed pea and carrot. After I’d put on a fresh t-shirt, I sent a quick text to Lau. I’d been thinking about her all the time I was feeding and changing Charlie, and now I needed to feel more connected.

Laura

Just before four o’clock, I said goodbye so Mum could head off for round two of tea and cake with Margaret. On the drive back, I heard my phone ping with a text, but had to wait until I pulled up outside my house to read it.

It was from Kate:

‘May have averted world war 3 @ work on Mon. R not happy, but has vented & agreed not to scratch yr eyes out. How’s yr w/end w loverboy?’

‘Thx Kate. Sorry 2 ruin yr w/end. Mine’s had it’s ups n downs. CU Mon. Lau x’

a little later I had one from Matt:

‘Hey Lau. Can feel u holding my hand. Like it. Giving it a squeeze. Charlie says hi, she’s looking forward 2 meeting u. Told her all abt u. M xx’

‘Charlie sounds v advanced 4 6mths. Enjoy chatting w her. Tell her to watch out 4 bad Uncle Matt.’

‘Yr no fun. Me n C misbehavin 2getha!’

‘Miss u xx’

‘Miss u 2 xx’

I was getting the feeling that Matt liked using his technology as well as working with it, and I might be in for some long text conversations, but that was OK, it helped me feel connected to him. It felt like a long wait until I would see him again.

I filled the time with housework – washing, cleaning, changing the bed – and watching Saturday evening TV, then started a film I’d recorded last weekend but hadn’t watched because I’d worked on Wednesday and then my life had changed since.

Matt

The last couple of texts came while I was back downstairs, and exacted some comment from Dec.

‘I hope you’re going to spend at least some time looking after our daughter rather than running your social life from your bloody phone all night.’

It was a standing joke, with more than a grain of truth, that I spent most of my life on my phone in one way or another. Admittedly, since I had been off work, the texts and tweets had diminished somewhat; I felt awkward engaging in the same banter with work colleagues now I was ‘on the sick’ that I had when I was in the thick of it. Still, as I well knew, once you get a reputation, it’s hard to live it down. And I didn’t want to draw Dec’s attention to who I might be texting.

‘Noh, Ih’m jus gona leh Chahlie screhm while I meet the hehvy demahnds of Snapchat.’

‘Same as usual then.’

‘Oh stop it, hon. We’re very grateful, Matt. Dec, we’re going to have to get ready in a minute.’

Dec looked at the clock. They were due to go out at six, meeting some friends for drinks before going for a meal to celebrate Amy’s birthday, which was on Monday.

‘Yeah, I suppose. I’m not going to have to do much, am I, though? Just change my shirt, I thought.’

‘Oh, aren’t you going to spruce up a bit?’

‘It’s only the Twisted Toad then that Moroccan place, it’s not that bloody posh.’

‘Yeah, hon, but Jude was talking about going to a club after.’

‘Really? Bollocks. Not sure I’m up to clubbing, babe.’

‘Oh Dec. We haven’t been clubbing for ages.’

‘Maybe we’re a bit past it.’

I felt the need to jump in at that point.

‘Yeh, twenty-threh an twenty-fohr, yuhr bohth bluhdy ancient. Jus goh fuh ih, Dec. It’s ohnly Amy’s twehnty-third birthday once, dohnt waste ih.’

Amy looked gratefully at me, while Dec looked more grumpily in my direction.

‘An doh ih gracefully, maht. Smihle.’

Dec got a lot of his mock grumpiness from Jay, who had a similar attitude to having to do anything that put him out, but unlike Jay, Dec could be called on it and cajoled into enjoying himself a bit.

‘Oh alright. I’ll change my shirt and put my new chinos on. How’s that?’

He knew it didn’t cut the mustard, as he was grinning at Amy, waiting for her to respond. He got his reward.

‘No! You need a shower, hon, wash your hair, good scrub up.’

‘But we can’t both desert Matt, that would be rude, babe.’

‘Dohnt wohry about meh an Charlie. Weh’ll beh doin cool stuhf. Wehr’s tha feely book?’

Dec shot me a dark look, but fetched the book, and a plastic box of other toys Charlie liked, then picked his daughter up and sat her on my knee.

‘You be good for Unca Matty. Mummy and me will just be upstairs.’

‘Yeh, beauhiful, an then thehr gona lehv yuh ahl alohn wih meh whihl they goh ouh an hahv a greht tihm. Shahl weh tehl them tuh stop fuhsing an goh an geh rehdy?’

Charlie was looking at me, listening to what I was saying, focussing on the eye contact I was giving her. She giggled and reached out a chubby little hand to touch my chin as I spoke to her, and I looked at the pair of them.

‘Seh? Yuhr daughter says buhger ohf an get rehdy.’

‘She said no such thing. Beth would have my guts for a tennis racquet if her first word was bugger.’

‘Yeh, well, behter watch yuhr stehp then.’

While Dec and Amy were getting ready, Charlie and I were playing lots of baby games. She was getting really interesting nowadays, not just a screaming shit-monster, albeit a very cute screaming shit-monster. She loved it when you talked to her and listened while she babbled, and would reward you with lots of smiles and eye contact.

Charlie loved her feely book, too, and we spent a long time chatting about the various merits of ‘crinkly’ versus ‘fluffy’. ‘Crinkly’ seemed to be extremely amusing, causing high pitched shrieks, whereas ‘fluffy’ was endlessly fascinating and needed lots of patting and stroking, until we remembered that there was ‘crinkly’ and turned back to have another squeal at the crinkliness. God I loved that girl.

Dec was, predictably, ready way before Amy, who, in the way of women, felt the need to completely overhaul her entire appearance for a group of friends who had seen her in all states of play. I had no idea why they did it; I much preferred a face that wasn’t painted to within an inch of its life, but most of them seemed to need the full works plastered on to feel anything approaching ready to go out.

‘Wanna beer, Matt?’

‘Noh, behter not. Nehd tuh beh able tuh wake up if Chahlie cries.’

‘Oh, fair enough. Fuck, what a sacrifice, thanks mate.’

‘Ha ha. Wohth ih. She wohnt, thogh, she usuahly slehps righ throgh, dohnt she?’

‘Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be fine. You’ve got our numbers if not, feel perfectly free to call after, oh, let’s say eleven, when attempts will be made to persuade me to go to a fucking club.’

‘Jus goh, Dec. Yuh’ll lohv ih when yuhr thehr, yuh gruhmpy old git. Ih’s fuh Amy, mehmber?’

‘Yeah yeah. I suppose. Might be a late night, though, sure it’s OK?’

‘Yeh, ih’ll beh fine.’

The only thing I was worried about was if I needed to lift Charlie but her cot had a fold down side and there was a padded mat on the floor, and I was going to make sure we were both upstairs before Dec and Amy left. I hated feeling anxious and unsure around Charlie, but if I did anything to harm her, I would never forgive myself.

Finally, the obligatory half an hour late, Amy declared herself ready, looked divine, and Dec took Charlie up to her room, where she and I got started on some serious wind down towards bed time action.

‘Bye bye, lovely girl.’

‘Thanks, Matt, you’re completely brilliant. Bye bye Charlie, be good for Unca Matty.’

They both stood in the doorway, looking at their daughter; it was touching, how hard they found it to leave her. Another pang of what I couldn’t imagine myself having tugged me somewhere deep inside.

‘See yuh. Dohnt make a loh of noihs when yuh cohm hohm pissed.’

Blowing kisses, they left and Charlie and I listened to their footsteps going down the stairs. I distracted her from the sound of the door closing and the car starting by blowing huge raspberries in her direction, but she still seemed to realise her mummy and daddy had gone, as her face clouded and I wondered if she was going to cry.

Grabbing the nearest thing to hand, which was Gigi the Giraffe, I performed a pantomime, complete with songs and ‘oh no he didn’t’s, which thankfully diverted her attention. I had put Charlie to bed loads of times, she was used to having me around, and after a short while, she settled down to watch me make an idiot of myself.

I sent some more texts to Lau, photos of me and Charlie and Gigi, letting her know what we were doing, letting her know I was thinking about her, holding her hand, missing her. Charlie and I did a lot of chatting, both of us talking our own version of unintelligible bollocks, then we played the ‘let’s tidy up your bedroom’ game, and had a laugh putting all her toys in various boxes, pressing all the buttons on all the toys, making all the lights flash, cuddling all the teddies, until it was all put away. Then it was story time, and after a while it was quiet, the curtains were shut, I was talking in a low voice, and even my eyes were starting to droop.

Charlie had had a long day, having been at Jay and Beth’s for the afternoon, being dressed up by Iz, and she looked ready for bed, so I stood up and placed her in her cot, but didn’t fold the side up, just sat by the cot, still talking in a low voice.

‘Heh, beauhiful, yuhr gona beh a good girl an goh tuh slehp fuh Unca Matty, yeh? Hehr’s Gigi, gihv her a cuhdl.’

Eventually, Charlie’s eyes closed, and I sat and watched her sleeping for a bit, before pulling up the cot-side and creeping out of the room, switching the baby monitor on as I went.

I went downstairs to make myself a drink, but carried it straight back up; I was knackered, and although it wasn’t yet eight thirty, I needed to go to bed. I texted Lau goodnight, and on a whim, as I really wanted to see her face before I sunk into the depths of sleep, I asked if I could Skype her.

Laura

Matt texted throughout the evening, sending me pictures of him and Charlie, as well as a running commentary on what they were up to. He seemed to be enjoying himself, and sent me a goodnight text at about eight thirty.

‘Feel 100 yrs old, but going 2 bed. Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright, u’ll b the death of me. Might make her put me 2 bed, she can stay up an watch MOTD.’

‘MOTD?’

‘Match of the Day. Don’t wanna miss Spurs, but seriously drooping.’

‘Record it.’

‘Genius. Do u have Skype? Or FaceTime (Apple only).’

‘Have Skype, no Apple tho.’

‘Fancy a quick Skype b4 bed? Need 2 sort out yr lack of Apple =O’

‘OK, will take me a while to fire up laptop.’

‘What’s yr Skype name?’

We exchanged details and I set it all up on the laptop, then waited for him. The ping came after a short while, and I pressed the button. The screen filled with his face, on his side, lying down in bed. I filled from bottom to top with wanting to be with him.

‘Hey Lau. I can only see the bottom of yuhr chin. Ih’s a sexy chin, buh I’d rather see yuhr face.’

I tilted the screen so it showed a rather unflatteringly lit shot of me.

‘Not sure I like this, I look like a washed out egg head with several chins.’

‘Yuh look bluhdy gorgeous.’

‘Aw thanks, flower. It’s good to see you. It sounds like you’ve had a good time with Charlie.’

‘Yeh, she kehps meh busy. We had a good tidy – Dec’s the pits at getting stuff ouh and never putting ih away. Amy’s given up. Made a game of ih, done in noh time.’

‘Did she go to bed alright?’

‘Yeh, she was tihred too. I think they spent the day wih Jay an Beth, Iz is a ball of energy, loves Chahlie, buh treats her like one of her dolls, dressing up an shih.’

‘Are you OK?’

‘Yeh, jus tihred. Yuh bluhdy exhaust meh, Lau. I love ih, buh maybe keep the early morning buzzer blasts tuh a minimum?’

‘Only if you behave yourself.’

I was glad we were acknowledging last night, even if it was indirectly. It felt important not to just pretend it hadn’t happened.

‘OK, fair enough. Fallin aslehp here, Lau. Gona have tuh say nigh nigh.’

His eyes were drooping as he spoke.

‘Night night, beach boy. Call me tomorrow if you want to see me.’

‘Always wana see yuh. Nigh.’

He blew a kiss towards me, then the screen went blank. I sat for a while looking at the black screen, feeling soppy and wistful, then roused myself and went to empty the washing machine.

Matt

It was so great to see her on the screen of my phone. It felt like a lifetime had passed, and already I hated those times when I got on with something and she slipped my mind for a few minutes. We didn’t make any specific arrangements to meet the next day, but I knew we would. I knew we were going to be meeting every day for the foreseeable, and with that thought, I slept.

Laura

I heard my phone ping while I was hanging things on the airer and rushed into the living room, hoping it was another text from Matt, but it was from Kate.

‘No problem. Hope u OK. Kate’s advice line open 2 all-comers. X’

Her text reminded me that Anna was on call, and I decided to check she didn’t need relieving while her son’s girlfriend was there.

‘Hi Anna, how’s on-call going? Need 2 divert 2 me? At a loose end, happy to.’

‘Oh you’re an angel. It’s been a bit busy here, and had a couple of calls. Can I divert until later? You can send it back at eleven. Thanks! Xx’

I finished hanging up my laundry, and then sat back in front of the TV, not getting too engrossed in anything in case I had any calls. There were a couple, but nothing too urgent, and I just gave some general advice and pointed them in the direction of their GP. It helped to fill the time, and before too long I was yawning and trying to stay awake until eleven when I could hand back to Anna.

As I watched the TV, the opening credits for Match of the Day came on, and I found myself watching for possibly the first time ever, just to see if Spurs had won or not. I didn’t even like football, so it was purely as a way of connecting to Matt. Shaking my head at myself, I kept one eye on the score while diverting the helpline back to Anna, and sending a text to her about who she’d missed while I’d taken over. Spurs won, beating Aston Villa with a last minute penalty. I found myself inexplicably delighted. Laura Shoeman, you really have got it bad, you poor besotted girl.

Unable to keep my eyes open any longer I dragged myself upstairs, undressed and got into bed.

I woke the next morning, expecting to feel an arm round my waist, then feeling disoriented when I realised I was alone. That really freaked me out. I was used to being disoriented when sleeping in other people’s houses, and the first night with Matt had shown that I could be just as freaked out if things had changed in my own bedroom, but now I missed Matt so much I was freaking out if he wasn’t there. It was time to acknowledge that I was one hundred per cent in love with him. I felt the realisation bloom in me, making me smile and frown, and filling me with equal measures of panic and excitement. I couldn’t tell him; it was too soon, and he didn’t deal well with pressure and commitment, despite all the things we’d said to each other. I would have to be careful it didn’t just come out of my mouth and mess things up.

I didn’t think he would be up yet so, despite really wanting to text or ring him, I got up and got on with things: I went to the supermarket and stocked up, I read the Sunday paper, even looking at the sports page to see if they said anything about Spurs, and I spent a bit of time tidying up my small courtyard garden.

Matt

I was asleep for bloody ages. I didn’t stir when Dec and Amy came home, apparently in the small hours. I don’t think Charlie woke up while I was asleep – I’d left my door open and had the baby monitor in with me as well, and although I slept heavily, I was usually alert to cries.

Whatever, when I finally woke up, it was nearly noon. There was a cold cup of tea and plate of toast on the bedside table, and I could hear voices from downstairs. My stomach was growling with hunger, but I wanted to text Lau before I did anything.

‘Morning Lau. Sleep well? I just got up, how laaaaazeeee is that?’

She replied gratifyingly quickly.

‘Very laaazeee. I have been shopping, informed myself of the day’s news n now gardening. Feeling virtuous ;)’

‘U haven’t got a garden.’

‘Hey! It’s tiny, but it’s gardeny. I have bird feeders 2.’

‘Glad 2 hear it. Imagining u bending over n digging. Phwoar :)’

‘I’m wearing shorts ;)’

‘Whoa. Nearly got a tingle just thinking about it. Gotta go soon, txt u l8r. Holding hands :)’

I tottered downstairs, yawning and rubbing my eyes and trying to wipe dried dribble off my cheek. One of the disadvantages of sleeping like the living dead was that you tended to wake up with all kinds of dried bodily fluids stuck to you. I wasn’t always a pleasant sight in the morning.

‘Evening.’

Of course, it would have been unlike Dec to let me get away with waking up so late, fucking cripple or no fucking cripple.

‘Piss ohf. Good tihm las nigh?’

‘Yeah, actually. We went to Sahara after dinner, had a blast. Bit of a hanger, but I’ll live.’

I felt a tiny twinge of envy, although it didn’t last long. It had been a long time since I’d set foot in a club, but part of the reason for that had been that I’d been trying to change my ways, another part was that I had been with Jules, who didn’t do clubbing, and another part was I really was getting too old for it. My envy was only fleeting, and it was because Dec had done something I couldn’t do at the moment, for whatever reason.

‘Guhd job Amy’s not drihnking thehn.’

‘Yeah, there are advantages to the three am puking sessions, I suppose. We hadn’t even got to bed before this morning’s one. Didn’t you hear? Ames is pretty fucking spectacular when she’s vomming.’

‘Noh, dihnt hehr a thing.’

‘That was a bloody long lie-in then.’

I had slept for about fifteen hours, but Dec didn’t need to necessarily know that.

‘Yeh, hahd a busy wehk. Nehd my strength fuh Beth.’

‘You’re in her good books, now you’ve been on that MS day thing, especially as you stayed. Maybe she’ll just chat about football today?’

‘Ha ha, oh I fucking wihsh. Noh, now she thinks she’s succehded, she’ll just kehp on.’

‘Seriously, though, mate, it must have been good for you to stay.’

Dec hardly ever made me talk about the bastard MS, and he wasn’t really making me now, and if it hadn’t been that I’d stayed for Lau, and only Lau, I would have answered him truthfully. But no, wasn’t going there just yet.

‘I cahn mahk my ohn decisions, thahks. An Pehter Jones was doin a tahk at the ehnd.’

‘What, Peter Jones who played for Raiders?’

‘Yeh.’

Nice diversion, Matt, smoothly handled. I congratulated myself.

‘What was he talking about?’

‘Hahving the bastard MS.’

‘What? Fuck. I had no idea. He was still playing when I first got here, it was his last season.’

We chatted a bit about Peter, which moved the focus away from me nicely, and then Amy and Charlie appeared, Amy looking understandably tired and Charlie looking cute in a flowery dress with matching headband. The headband was not destined to remain on her head for the duration of the walk from the house to the car, but the thought was there.

Sunday lunch went as Sunday lunch usually did. I didn’t always go, as sometimes I was just so wiped I couldn’t face it, but I enjoyed being part of it, especially when everyone was there (everyone being Jay, Beth, Iz and Cal; Dec, Amy and Charlie; Mum; Rose; Nico, Lis and now Bastien, and me), and now the rugby season was approaching, there would be fewer total attendance Sunday lunches, as half the family would be involved in travel back from away games, Sunday games and just general rugby busyness. So this was one of the last ones with guaranteed Scotts, Summerses and Tiagos before the season began. Sometimes during the season it was only Beth, Mum, the kids and me (so, you know, only five), but Beth would still make mounds of roast potatoes which would be hoovered up by the sporting menfolk on their return.

For now, though, dinner and the ensuing afternoon was predictably chaotic, with everyone using most of the available downstairs space to spread out, talk, play, eat and circulate.

I hadn’t seen Mum for a couple of weeks, and although I texted or phoned her most days, I’d been so preoccupied recently that I hadn’t been in touch since our brief chat on Thursday. She had looked relieved to see me, and then quickly covered it up with a smile, and a quick kiss and a hug. I felt her watching me while we ate, and knew she was waiting for an opportunity to talk to me without other people overhearing. I gave in to her silent scrutiny and found her an opening.

‘Heh Muhm, Beth said she’s mahking a vegetahble pahtch fuh Cal an Iz. Wana check ih ouh?’

Mum looked assessingly at me and I pulled a face at her. She knew what I was doing.

‘Yes, she told me. Let’s go and see, dear. I think it’s only been marked out at the moment though.’

‘Ih’m suhr yuh’ll wana hahv a quick chehk, geh the lohdown.’

‘Yes, that would be nice. I haven’t been in the garden for a couple of days.’

The Enigma Machine had nothing on us. We walked through the conservatory and over to the bit of garden that had been pegged out with short stakes and string, and it looked like Jay was in for a day of digging before too long.

‘Wha yuh thihk, thehn? Guhd position?’

‘Yes, Beth asked me about where to put it. I think here gets enough sun, but not in the middle of the day, so it should be ideal. How have you been, dear? I haven’t heard from you for a while.’

Mum would have heard about some of my exploits, the main one being needing to be hauled up the street and ending up asleep in someone else’s bed. I really should have talked to her properly afterwards, but my thoughts had been elsewhere and I hadn’t thought to say anything during our brief conversation on Thursday.

‘Sohry, Muhm. Hahd a busy wehk. Shouhd hahv rung or texted. I spohs yuh hehrd abou meh on Wednesday?’

‘Beth mentioned something, and there was a little bit of a kerfuffle when no one could get hold of you on Wednesday afternoon.’

‘Yeh, thoght soh. Jus overdid ih. Not slehping wehl, got up early, long day. Not payin attenhtion tuh the signs sayin ‘yuhr fucking tihred Matt, goh hohm, this way tuh yuhr behd’. Spehnt las few days catchin uhp.’

I hated keeping stuff from Mum, and I knew that if I asked her to, she wouldn’t say anything, and I was very tempted to tell Mum about Lau, it was hard not to, but I stopped myself.

‘Sohry I dihnt tell yuh, I knoh yuh wohry.’

‘Oh don’t be silly, Matthew. You don’t have to call me every five minutes to report on your whereabouts.’

Yeah I did, just to stop that look appearing at the corners of her eyes. It was far more effective than all of Beth’s constant contact.

‘Are you … alright? There haven’t been any changes with you?’

I couldn’t stop myself grinning, tried to rein it in, she noticed, I saw her noticing, saw her stop herself asking. OK then, let’s do this.

‘Yuh cahnt say anything. Prohmis.’

‘Of course. Cross my heart. You know I love a secret, dear.’

‘Not Beth, noh one.’

She especially liked keeping secrets from Beth. It was hard, as Beth used some kind of virtual sniffer dog to find hidden information, but it wouldn’t be for long and we could do it, I was sure. Mum’s eyes lit up at the thought of knowing something Beth didn’t.

‘You have my word, and now my undivided attention.’

‘OK.’

I took a breath while I tried to find the words to explain Lau.

‘I met sohmone. Sohmone amazing.’

Mum tried valiantly to keep some of the things she was feeling from showing on her face, but I saw concern mingled with the pleased smile, and a brief frown which was chased away by raised eyebrows.

‘A girl, dear?’

I nodded.

‘You sound happy about it.’

There was some hesitation in her voice, but I was going to ignore any negativity. I was happy, I was over the moon, and I knew they would all worry about how I would cope, what it would do to me, if I was ready, whether I was setting myself up to be hurt again, but right now, I was happier than I could ever remember being, and if that wasn’t good for me, I didn’t know what was.

‘Yeh, Ih’m hahpy. Yuh’ll lihk her Muhm, rehly. She’s not lihk Jules, or any of the ohthers.’

Mum had tried her best with Jules, but it’s hard to get on with someone who is determined not to let you in. Mum had not really had a chance to get to know any of the others she’d met, as they’d been shipped off pretty soon after, but she had made it known, subtly, that she didn’t think they were ‘my type’, whatever the fuck that was.

‘I’m sure I will, dear, I’d like to meet someone who’s put that smile back on your face. It’s been missing for quite a while.’

‘Heh, I smihl.’

I spent half my life smiling when I felt like I was dying inside.

‘Yes dear, I know. You do it very well. You know you won’t be able to keep this from Beth for long? She can sense a secret from a great distance, and when a relationship is involved, she’s even more perceptive.’

‘I knoh. Jus nehd a few days tuh mysehf.’

‘Alright then, dear. It’s between us, I won’t say anything.’

‘Thahks Muhm.’

‘What’s her name?’

‘Laura. Lau.’

Just saying her name widened my grin and brought a warm, fuzzy feeling to my insides.

‘You’ve gone all soppy, Matthew. I’ll have to get the details from you another time – it looks like we’ve got company.’

Mum had noticed Beth and Iz making for us across the lawn; Beth had worked out that Mum and I were talking about something other than the vegetable patch, and wanted in. She was using Iz as an excuse, but we stopped our conversation and changed the subject well before she was within earshot. She’d know soon enough, then Mum could look all smug and be all like ‘oh, didn’t you know?’ and Beth would be fuming. Little revenges, that’s what matters.

OK, I know it seems like I’m spending forever on this bit, telling you the ins and outs of a duck’s arse about how Lau and I got together, telling you shit you might already know, but be warned, I’m going to be here for a while. I’m in no hurry to leave here, where it all began, where I was happy, where Lau was new.

Oh shit, that sounds like it all went pear-shaped, no no no. It’s just that it’s so great, reliving it all, I want to stay for a while; wallow in it all; have a bath in Lau’s freshness and vitality; remember how exciting it was. So be prepared. Matt and Lau: The Early Days is destined to go on for some time.

Aaaanyway, the afternoon ticked on, and as usually happened I started to flag well before anyone thought about going home, and as I was a stubborn fucker who didn’t like a fuss (what? You’d noticed? How shrewd of you), I just willed myself to stay awake and on my feet, or at least upright on a sofa, until Dec and Amy eventually thought they should go home and take me with them.

I texted Lau to say come round, but not until after I’d had a rest (which in Matt’s special code was crashing unconscious in bed for at least a couple of hours), and she was going to wait for my text.

Fortunately, I’d had a long sleep the previous night, and this was one of the Sundays I managed to make it up the stairs unassisted. Dec had learned the hard way (i.e. by me going off on one, at length, in the back seat of his car) not to ask me if I needed help, but that didn’t stop him waiting to see how I managed to walk from the car to the entrance door, and if I looked dodgy on my feet, he’d just come and lend a shoulder. The bastard. I tried my hardest never to look dodgy on my feet, but it was way out of my control, and often, after I got back from Jay and Beth’s, I’d already used up most of my energy reserves.

Today, however, I just made it up the stairs and through the front door without assistance, but was dragging my feet so badly across the living room to the bedroom that I thought I might trip. I arrived at the bed with a second or two to spare to slip my shoes off, and then I was out of it.

I woke up about six, got myself sorted, then texted Lau to say come over. I’d told her I was going to cook her dinner, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me this time. I had a whole freezer full of sauces I’d made a while ago, and it was an easy task to prepare some chicken, vegetables and rice to go with it all.

Laura

Matt texted the all clear just after half past six. I’d already packed a bag with sleeping clothes, toiletries and my work clothes for the next day, making the massive assumption that I was going to be staying the night without even thinking twice about it.

I hopped in the car and was there by seven, pressing MRS and being buzzed in without a greeting. Matt’s front door was open, and delicious smells were wafting out of it. I walked in quietly and put my bag down gently inside the door. Matt had his back to me, and was standing at the hob, stirring. I crept up behind him, just about to scare him by pinching his bum.

Matt

I let Lau in when she buzzed, left the front door ajar, and went back to stirring the dinner at the hob. I had my back to the door, but my splashback tiles were shiny black, and by watching the reflection when I heard her come in, I saw her put her bag down and try to sneak up on me.

Oh she wasn’t serious; even if I hadn’t seen her, she did not have the silent capabilities necessary for sneaking. I could hear the rustling of her clothes, and her breathing, even over the bubbling of the sauce in the pan. She was just reaching out towards my bum, when I spoke.

‘Hey Lau.’

She squealed and jumped back, holding a hand against her chest.

‘How did you know I was there?’

‘Wha, apart from yuh making a noise lihk a herd of elephants?’

‘Cheek! I was using my Ray Mears bush skills, you can’t possibly have heard me.’

‘OK, Lau, if yuh say soh. Buh ever heard of reflehtive suhfaces?’

I pointed to the tiles, and she looked embarrassed, which made me feel a little guilty, but not so much that I was going to stop teasing her.

‘Oh.’

‘Surely Mearsy teaches yuh tuh knoh yuhr environment?’

‘OK, lesson learned. Never sneak up on Matt.’

‘Yuh behter believe ih. Oh Lau …’

I propped the spoon on the side of the pan, turned and folded her up in my arms.

‘I mihsed yuh.’

It felt so good to be holding her again, it had been too long – more than twenty-four hours, in fact.

‘Mm, missed you too. Did you have a good time with your brother?’

‘Yeh, buh was thinking abouh yuh all the tihm. Nehly told them abouh yuh.’

It had been harder than I’d thought, not saying anything to anyone but Mum, and Lau’s name hadn’t been far from the tip of my tongue the whole afternoon.

‘Why didn’t you?’

‘Dohnt like them knowing everything about meh.’

‘Why not?’

I sighed. I suppose Lau needed to know the kind of fucked up thought processes that made me tick.

‘Need tuh keep something fuh meh jus fuh now. When I was ill las time, I – they – Jay gave up his job an moved tuh Stafford, goh a house wih enough room fuh meh, I moved in from hospital. They were greht, buh when yuh cahnt even squehz one ouh wihouh a fahmly mehting abouh cohlour an fucking consistency, yuh nehd yuhr privacy.’

Lau nodded as if she understood.

‘Fair enough. I told Mum about you.’

‘Did yuh? Wha she say?’

‘Hoped you weren’t a ruffian.’

I was many things a mother might find objectionable, but I didn’t think ‘ruffian’ fitted the bill.

‘Wha yuh tell her?’

‘That you’re a foul mouthed layabout with an excellent oral sex technique, but not a ruffian.’

Ooh, I liked it, that she could tease me back a bit. And of course I liked it that she thought I had an excellent oral sex technique.

‘Ha ha. Thanks. Wouldn’t wan tuh beh yuhr bih of rough. The rest is true. When duh I get tuh meet her?’

‘Really?’

I nodded, surprised at my eagerness to meet Lau’s mum. I wasn’t a great one for meeting the parents, couldn’t actually remember ever having done it before, but I wanted to know everything about Lau, and she seemed to spend a lot of time with her mum, so it was a no-brainer.

‘She wanted to know the same thing. I see her most Saturdays. Next weekend?’

I had the briefest little freak to myself. Holy shit, I was going to meet Lau’s bloody mum next weekend. Meeting the mum – that’s like huge, major shit, it’s like dust off the glad-rags, it’s like discuss the china pattern, it’s like tuxedo or morning suit … then I got over myself. It’s like meeting someone’s mum, Matt. Like you were just thinking, before you freaked.

‘OK. An yuhr coming tuh Jay an Beth’s on Sunday. My muhm’ll beh thehr too.’

It was going to happen, and it gave me a deadline. I’d have to tell them all before next weekend; it would stop me putting it off.

Laura

I looked up at him. He had a determined look on his face, rather than one that said ‘I really want to do this’, but I could see he was making an effort.

‘Wow.’

Matt

Lau looked like she knew what a big thing that would be for me.

‘I know. I fehl a bih like I’m on a speeding train, an ih’s thrilling an everything, buh I’m shih-scared. Buh ih’s OK cos I’ve goh yuh. We can beh shih-scared together.’

‘We can.’

Lau agreed amicably, not seeming shit-scared in the slightest.

‘This smells lush, what is it?’

She pointed to the pan, which I needed to get back to, to stop it burning.

‘Thai grehn curry.’

‘Have you made it since you got home?’

She looked so impressed, I wished I’d made it from scratch, but I came clean.

‘Yeh, dohnt take long, made a batch of sauce an froze ih las wehk.’

‘I am in awe of your domestic skills.’

Oh well, if she was still impressed, then it was a double result.

‘I’ve brought pudding though, I’ve been busy in the kitchen too.’

She fetched a plastic box full of chocolate chip cookies. I was glad she had some cooking skills – maybe she was a baker rather than a chef, in which case we would complement each other nicely.

‘I haven’t taste tested them yet, so we might need a back up.’

‘Goh ice cream. They smell lush too.’

I grinned at Lau as I repeated her very Devon adjective.

‘Sorted then. How long till it’s ready?’

‘Not long. Rice is nehly done, quihk salad, ih’s there. Go an sit down. Or stay here an grope my bum, either way.’

I knew which one I preferred, and it seemed Lau did too, as she stood close behind me, so close I could feel her breath on my neck, sending goosebumps up into my scalp.

‘Mm, second option is good for me.’

‘Meh too. Jus dohnt geh in the way of meh stirring.’

‘No, I’ll be behind you. Just here. Concentrate on what you’re doing.’

I tried my best to concentrate, but it was bloody hard with Lau feeling my arse up. She was giggling as she did it, too, which made her jiggle against me, and again I cursed the fucking bastard for not allowing me to respond. Although, if I had, we wouldn’t have had any dinner for quite a while.

The meal eaten, with just enough beer and gin and tonic drunk to make us happily content, Lau declared me a fine cook and all round ace gent. Oh alright, what she actually said was, ‘Blimey, you make a good curry.’ And so I had to point out that it wasn’t a curry like you’d get from the Taj Mahal on the High Street, but a Thai Green Curry, like they make in Thailand, and she called me pedantic, but said it was still flipping tasty, and I teased her about not being able to swear except when I scared her by whispering, or by going off on one in the middle of the night, and she said she had been scared, and then it all got a bit serious for a bit while we thought about how I’d been, only two nights ago, but then I thought about how I was now, how different I felt, how different she made me feel, and I just grinned at her, and she grinned back, and we knew, I think both of us knew, that it was going to be OK, I wasn’t going back there, as long as we were always holding hands.

But, of course, the fucking bastard couldn’t just let me be happy and have a normal evening. I got really tired, in spite of my earlier sleep, and by about half past eight I was just wiped. I didn’t want to stay up until I crashed, but I wanted to spend some time with Lau, holding her to me, like I’d been thinking of doing all day. I looked ruefully at the clock.

‘Sohry, Lau, I’m gona have tuh goh tuh bed. Yuh can stay up, come in later. Goh DVDs, books, computer –’

‘Can’t I come to bed with you?’

Oh yes, angel mine, always.

‘Thoht ih’d beh bih early fuh yuh?’

‘I’ve brought a book, I’m perfectly happy reading in bed, unless the light will disturb you.’

‘Noh, I can sleep through anything. Yuh sure? Ih’d love tuh have yuh wih meh.’

She gave me a big smile.

‘Perfect. I’ll just clean my teeth. It’s like a proper sleepover. Minus the squealing girls and smuggled cider.’

I thought of the sleepovers I’d had, which consisted of: me, Andrew and Jonathan Woodgrove; the Star Wars trilogy; a family bag of tortilla chips; a large bottle of Tesco cola.

‘Yuhr sleepovers sound much more exciting than mine.’

‘No squealing girls?’

‘Noh, jus smelly boys talking abouh squealing girls. An thinking abouh them. Ohnly increhsed the smelliness.’

‘Ew. I’m so glad I’m a girl.’

‘Meh too. See yuh in bed.’

I cleaned my teeth first, then gave the bathroom over to Lau. I lay waiting for her, determined to stay awake until she’d got undressed and got into bed, at the very least. Hopefully longer. She came back in and started to undress.

‘Glad I dihnt miss this by bein aslehp.’

‘You’re very easily pleased, aren’t you.’

‘Are yuh kidding? Ih’s lihk having my own personal strip tehse. Yuhr soh fucking sexy.’

‘OK, well here goes, I’m putting my old sleeping shirt on …’

And in order to do that she had to take off her shirt and her bra.

‘… and a fresh pair of pants.’

Which necessitated the removal of the current pants. I watched it all, breathlessly.

‘Da da da …’

She sung the opening bars of The Stripper and wiggled about a bit as she changed. She was taking the mickey, but she was so unbelievably sexy, and I wanted her more than I’d ever wanted anyone. Bloody, fucking, bollocking, arsing bastard MS.

‘Cohm here, yuh bluhdy siren.’

‘Siren? That’s a new one. Not been called a siren before.’

I couldn’t understand why. She had been singing her song, calling my ship to wreck on her rocks, for days.

‘Jus shut the fuck up an geh over hehr.’

She walked slowly over to the bed, made a big deal of very slowly and deliberately turning the duvet down and plumping the pillows before getting in, making me wait. I grabbed her as soon as her backside hit the mattress, which made her squeal, and pulled her to me.

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

‘I thought you needed your sleep.’

‘How am I supposed tuh slehp wih yuh dancing naked roun my bluhdy bedroom?’

‘I wasn’t dancing, I was just getting changed. I think you should close your eyes and count sheep.’

She put as much ‘prim’ in her voice as she could muster.

‘Fuck tha. Need tuh duh some serious groping fihrst.’

‘Well don’t blame me if you’re knackered tomorrow.’

Oh, I wasn’t going to be doing any blaming, if I got my way now. I might be recovering, but I’d be doing it blissfully. We moved into each other’s arms and spent a glorious time kissing, touching, feeling, being with each other.

Eventually, I felt my wakefulness slipping away, and I couldn’t fight it any longer, even to stay up with Lau. I fell asleep, leaning against her, holding her, feeling her with me as I plummeted into the dark.

Laura

I could feel Matt’s energy leaving him, as his body sagged more heavily against mine, and before long he was asleep, leaning against me, arm over me, legs tangled with mine. I couldn’t move, but didn’t need to, finding my own entertainment watching him sleep and stroking his thick unruly hair away from his face. After a while I dozed too, waking up briefly as Matt turned over onto his back, releasing me. I turned the lamp off and lay back down, trying to remind myself not to freak out when I woke up in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar sensations in the morning.

81. Hold my hand

In which two people find that the morning after the night before is a happy place.

Matt

I was lying on my front, as I usually was when I woke up, and after a few of the obligatory seconds of disorientation, I realised I wasn’t alone; there was a beautiful woman asleep beside me, her body turned away from me, her form vaguely outlined by the duvet and highlighted by the morning sun filtering in through the curtains.

I smiled to myself, stretched, needed to touch the beautiful woman, so I slipped my arm under the duvet and around her waist. As I did so, her whole body flinched, and she let out a little squeal. I remembered her being similarly startled that first night; it was possible she woke up even worse than I did.

Laura

I woke with a start as someone put their arm round my waist. I let out a scream and pulled away, only to have the arm tighten around me and pull me backwards towards them. I was in a strange room, light filtering through the curtains. As my head unravelled itself from sleep, a voice whispered in my ear, making me jump again.

Matt

‘Morning Lau. Yuhr bluhdy jumpy in bed, aren’t yuh?’

I felt her relax against me, then she turned over and I forgot about teasing her as she directed her blue/green/grey gaze at me. I reminded myself, as if I needed to, how lucky I was that Lau was who she was, and that she wanted to be here with me.

‘Yeah. Sorry. It always takes me a while to wake up, even at home. I didn’t know where I was. Or who you were.’

‘Still the same bluhdy fucked up cripple I was last nigh.’

It was important that I didn’t just pretend it hadn’t all happened. What Lau had done, said, for me last night was incredible. I needed to acknowledge it.

‘Let’s not start that again.’

She pulled me close.

‘I nehd tuh. I nehd tuh say this, ask this. Then noh more, prohmis.’

She sighed. Then nodded.

‘Lau, yuh know abouh this, bastahd MS, more than anyone I know. I’m pretty bad at the moment, buh I know ih could geh better, or worse, much worse. I can’t duh tha tuh yuh.’

Laura

‘Too bad. It’s done. I’m here now. We haven’t said forever, we haven’t even made plans for today. Let’s enjoy what we’ve got, what we are now. I’m not going anywhere, Matt, whether you want me to or not. Look, I’m going to be a bit nursey now, and then I’ll be back to me. Relationships are tricky for people with MS, but usually because of how things change when one person gets it; it changes the balance of things, the dynamics have to be sorted out, reorganised. When one person already has it and meets someone – well I’m guessing it’s already there, part of the whatever it is that has attracted them to each other. OK, Nurse Laura over and out. It might get tricky for us when you start to get better. But either way, you’re stuck with me. Holding hands, whatever. Besides, who better to have with you than a self-declared MS sexpert? You’d better get used to it, buster.’

Matt was silent for a while, holding my gaze. I gazed back, lost in the winter sea colour of his grey eyes.

Matt

It was a lot to take in. When Jules had told me she was going to take care of me if I got ill again, it blew my mind. This did the same, possibly more, because however much reading Jules had done about it, she couldn’t possibly have really known what she was letting herself in for. Lau knew, with certainty, all the permutations, all the possibilities. She also knew, now, from personal experience, what I was like. And she was still here, she was still going to do it. God. I had no words to respond. No, she was right, neither of us had said we were going to be together forever, but it felt like it. It felt like it didn’t need saying, especially after last night and all the drama.

So I picked up on something she’d just said, used it to distract myself, before I started getting all bloody emotional again.

‘Plans fuh today, then?’

Lau grinned, looking like she thought she’d won an argument. Maybe she had.

‘Well, I thought maybe you could make me some of your yummy scrambled egg, and then we could stay here for a long lazy morning, and then I’ve got to go and see my mum. I usually go and see her on Saturday afternoons. You can come if you like, see how much she loves how sweary you are.’

Oh God, no, not yet, not today. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck, and needed more sleep before I went over to Dec and Amy’s later.

‘Not suhr I’m up fuh meeting the mother jus yet. Will duh soon tho. I like a challenge.’

‘It will be epic. What about the rest, though? Breakfast in bed? Other stuff in bed?’

‘Yeh, ih’s a plan. Lau … thanks. Yuhr fucking A.’

‘A? What does that mean.’

‘Oh, er, Austrahlian abbrehviation fuh, er, awesome.’

‘You don’t sound too sure. You wouldn’t be making it up would you?’

‘Noh, I never bullshih.’

‘Hmm, we’ll see.’

I smiled as I felt as far from my despair of the previous night as it was possible to feel. Things were opening up in front of me, I could almost feel my life beginning to change, and it was all because of Lau.

Laura

‘How about you stop telling porkies and get going on my breakfast.’

He grinned, quickly kissed me on the lips and got out of bed. I watched him walk out of the bedroom, checking how steady he was on his feet; it seemed to have improved from last night, and his back view, with his small, tight buttocks wrapped in his sleeping shorts, made me hug myself with pleasure.

The clatter of pans and the smell of cooking and toast stopped me from going back to sleep, and a short while later I was rewarded with a tray complete with a plate of scrambled eggs, some buttered toast cut into triangles and a cafetière of coffee. I sat up, and Matt placed the tray across my legs.

‘Wow. This is the best breakfast I’ve had since …’

‘Yesterday?’
‘No, better than yesterday, it’s in bed. Always a winner. And proper coffee trumps teabags any day. Not that I’m complaining about yesterday, that was mighty fine too. Where’s yours?’

‘Jus coming, couldn’t fit ih all on the tray.’

He left the room and returned with his own tray, handing it to me while he got back into bed.

‘Very civilised. Oh my God, and delicious. What on earth do you put in your scrambled eggs?’

‘Family secret. I’ll take it to my grave.’

‘Oh. That’s disappointing.’

‘Ih’s paprika.’

‘Blimey, you gave that up quickly. You’d be useless under torture.’

‘I would if yuh were torturing meh. Yuhd only have to say yuh were disappointed, I’d spill the country’s secrets.’

‘That’s information worth knowing. Oh my God, this coffee’s incredible too. Is there anything you’re not amazing at?’

‘Well not tha I’m gona admit. You’ll have tuh find out foh yuhself.’

As we finished our breakfast, Matt’s phone started ringing. While he reached for it, I looked for mine, which wasn’t there, wasn’t anywhere, as I hadn’t brought it with me last night.

I didn’t know what the time was, so as Matt started talking I went in search of a clock. Eventually I found one on the DVD player. It said ten o’clock. Surely it was wrong. DVD clocks were notoriously always wrong, re-setting themselves, not being reset after power cuts – or maybe that was just me. Admittedly, Matt seemed like the sort of bloke who would have a permanently correct clock on his DVD player, but it couldn’t be ten. If it was ten, I was late calling my mum, and she’d be worried. I heard Matt finish his call in the bedroom and went back in.

‘Is it really ten o’clock?’

‘Yeh. Time fuh our other stuff in bed.’

He pulled the duvet aside and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. I hopped in and sat up next to him, as it occurred to me that most of the time we had spent together so far had been in bed, but not doing the activities you might have expected.

‘Can I ring my mum first? I usually call her before ten on a Saturday, but I’ve left my phone at home.’

‘Sure.’

He handed over his phone. I had to think for a minute about what her number was, it was so long since I’d actually dialled it. For good measure, I saved it onto Matt’s phone, as ‘Lau’s Mum’, noting with satisfaction that it nestled nicely underneath ‘Lau’ in his address book.

‘I thoht yuh were calling her, not putting yuhr entire bluhdy family on my phone.’
‘You never know when you might need to ring her, to explain why I haven’t called her, maybe because I was in bed with you for example.’

‘Oh, OK, shall I duh tha now? Give ih here.’

He snatched the phone from me and pressed call. I tried to get the phone back from him, but he held it away from me and I could hear it ringing. After the customary three rings, I heard her answer, and redoubled my efforts to get the phone back. I could hear her saying ‘Hello? Hello?’ and then ‘LauraLou, is that you?’

‘LauraLou? Ha ha!’

He finally handed the phone over, laughing.

‘Hi Mum, sorry, had a bit of a problem with the line, sorry I’m late calling, I stayed with a friend last night, and I left my phone at home.’

‘Oh, is that why I didn’t recognise the number? I was getting worried when you didn’t ring. I haven’t heard from you for a few days. Are you coming this afternoon?’

‘Yeah, I’ll be there. Anything you want me to bring?’

‘No, my love, I’ve been pretty good, I got to the shop yesterday, got a few things I needed. I’ve got another appointment at the fracture clinic, in a couple of weeks, I think they’ll give me the all clear.’

‘Oh that’s great. Let me know the date, I’ll come with you.’

‘No, no, Laura, I’ll go on my own. Don’t take a day off just for me.’

‘Well we’ll talk about it nearer the time, shall we?’

‘Alright my love. When did you say you’d be over? Only Margaret was asking if I wanted to go over for a cuppa later. We said about four.’

‘I’ll be there before then. See you later.’

‘Bye my love.’

I disconnected and handed the phone back to Matt.

‘Thanks. And thanks for freaking my elderly disabled mum out.’

He looked stricken.

‘Sorry, Lau, I didn’t think.’

‘I’m teasing. She’s only just sixty, and she’s only got a broken ankle. She fell off a stepladder a couple of months ago trying to put up a bird box in her garden.’

‘Oh, she likes birds? I can see a way in alrehdy. Big on birds, meh.’

‘Yeah, so I’ve heard.’

‘Especially ones wih interesting brehsts. Like, er, robins an suchlike.’

I raised an eyebrow.

‘Yeh, ‘specially like interesting brehsts.’

He looked pointedly at my chest, then laughingly back up at my face.

‘Actually, I duh goh birding sometimes. If yuh look ouh the window when I draw the curtains, there’s a bird feeder. I’ve got binoculars an shih, books on the shelf, yuh can check. Buh definitely like a good brehst.’

Matt

I made breakfast, went back to bed, Lau called her mum on my phone, then programmed her mum’s number in, and I would usually have got all arsey about that and felt trapped or violated or some such shit, but instead I felt pleased that Lau was starting to link her life to mine, even in small ways. And, of course, having Lau here, in my bed, was too good an opportunity to waste, now I was properly awake, and so I angled my body towards her, stroked her cheek and then ran my hand down her body, until I cupped her breast.

‘This one fehls like a rehly good one. Worth exploring.’

To my delight, her nipples were growing hard under her sleeping shirt. I hoped she was up for more of what we’d done last night, on her sofa.

Laura

My body was responding to his touch, nothing I could do about that, but I already had a strategy.

‘Be my guest.’

Matt

She lay on her back and stretched her arms over her head, enticingly.

‘Rehly? Whoa, Lau.’

I held her breast in my hand for a moment, then ran my thumb lightly over the fabric of her shirt, feeling her nipple peak even more, but I wanted to touch her skin to skin; so I slid my hand under her t-shirt, then pulled it all the way up so I could see her too, and lowered my head to take her in my mouth and suck, running my tongue over the nubbly mouthful. Lau arched her back and moaned. I licked my way across to her other breast, felt my way around it with my mouth, kissing, sucking, nibbling, teasing. Between us, we pulled her t-shirt completely off, and I marvelled again at her awesome body, so full, so inviting.

Lau was arching her back, giving me the best view, and I slid my hand downwards, down her side, across her waist, onto her belly, down further – then she put her hand on mine and stopped me. I pulled back and looked up into her face, wondering what I’d done. She was smiling, but shook her head.

‘Wha? Why not? Dohnt yuh like ih?’

I frowned.

Laura

‘Matt, I love it, no one’s ever made me feel like you do. But we’re doing this together. Last night, when you did what you did for me, was sensational. No one’s ever made me feel like that. But until I can do the same for you, or we can do something together, we’re only doing what we can both do.’

I’d come up with this last night, while I was lying next to Matt. I had had an awesome time, and Matt taking care of me the way he had was unbelievable, but it felt important that we started this off fairly, and this was the best way I could think of.

Matt

‘Buh I love ih, I loved yesterday, making yuh come, ih was soh fucking sexy.’

I didn’t get it; why didn’t she want it? I knew she’d enjoyed it – she’d virtually just said it was the best she’d ever had.

‘I know, me too, but it makes things lopsided, starts things off on an uneven footing. I’m not backing down on this, Matt. Equal, the same, or not at all.’

Oh my fucking God. When was this woman going to stop getting more bloody awesome? I stared at her, unable to comprehend how, what, why she would do that for me. It made total sense, although it was with some regret that I actually saw the sense it made and decided not to battle with her about it. She took the hand she’d stopped just below her belly button, and placed it back on her breast.

‘So, up here, fine, I can do that for you too, we can have a good play, get to know each other’s likes and dislikes, but no pressure on either of us. Just tingly and nice and oh my God, yes, that too.’

So she wasn’t saying nothing at all, was she, she was just saying no downbelows until my fucked-up downbelows stopped being fucked up, then both sets of downbelows were fair game. It was encouraging, even, like she was saying it would come back given time.

In the interim, I had pinched her nipple and started to suck the other one, but looked up to speak.

‘I cahnt believe how incredible yuh are, Lau. I soh, soh dohnt deserve yuh.’

‘Yeah, well, not many do. Anyway, buster, flip over, there’s some nipple action of my own I’d like to try.’

Laura

He sat up, but didn’t lie on his back as instructed.

‘Hold on, Lau. Tha’s twice yuh called meh buster. Is tha my new endearment? Yuh said yuh were gona think of one, buh I thoght ih was beahch boy.’

I thought about it. I tended to throw pet names about willy-nilly, but Matt seemed to want to know what I was going to call him.

‘Well … it could be ‘buster’, if you like it, but it’s more of a ‘don’t mess with me’ kind of name, isn’t it? If you don’t like ‘beach boy’, and you really don’t go for ‘flower’, well, could be baby – ‘

‘Noh, Nico calls Lis tha all the time, grates.’

‘– or darling –’

‘Fuck noh, not behn married fifty threh yehrs.’

‘– dude?’

‘Hmm, has a ring, buh weh dohn live in California, soh noh.’

‘Sweetheart?’
‘Noh, noh, noh, Beth calls everyone tha, if she thinks yuhr fahmly.’

I was running out of options.

‘Babe?’
‘Dec calls Amy babe all the bluhdy time. You wehr gona give meh a manly name tha made yuh grow bollocks.’

‘OK, er, mate?’

‘Ha ha, bluhdy hell, Lau, yuh sound lihk a builder.’

‘Well, beach boy, I think your family seem to have first dibs on all the best names. We might have to invent a new one.’

Matt

I suddenly wondered why I was pissing around. She’d already said it, the name I wanted to hear her call me.

‘Noh, tha’s it. Yuh jus said ih.’

‘Did I?’

‘Beach boy. I like ih behter than all the rehst. Lihked ih wehn yuh said ih the other day.’

‘Really? I thought it wasn’t manly enough.’

‘Noh, buh ih’s diffrehnt from anything ehlse. Yuh made ih up. Ih’s jus ours. An ih mahks meh sound lihk a surfer dude, tha’s cool.’

‘If that explains it to you, then let’s go with that. I’ll try not to overuse it, and I expect the odd ‘flower’ might slip through every now and then. OK, beach boy, let’s get this show on the road. On your back, please.’

I’ve never got tired of hearing it, her special name. She doesn’t use it that often, I get called ‘flower’ more often than I care to admit, and she uses her mum’s ‘my love’ quite a lot too, but ‘beach boy’ is just for me.

Laura

With a delighted smile, Matt lay on his back, put his hands behind his head and waited as I knelt beside him, bent my head down and started to kiss his chest, trailing my lips up his sternum and then to one side, flicking my tongue over his nipples then taking one into my mouth, sucking it hard while at the same time running my fingers over the other one and flicking it with my finger.

I felt his hands in my hair, stroking, massaging, touching my ears, running his finger down my jawline and back up my neck and down my shoulder and arm, as I teased his nipples into hardened little buds on his chest, and heard him moan softly. Then he suddenly gasped and grabbed my hair so tightly it hurt.

Matt

She did it, she made me moan, and then suddenly, it all headed south, and a shot of heat hit my dick, and I gasped, my legs lifting off the bed with a jerk.

Lau stopped and looked up, looking worried. I’d gripped her hair pretty tightly, and I loosened my hold. We locked eyes as I explained.

‘Tingly dick, tingly dick!’

Lau dropped her head forwards, relieved.

‘I thought I’d hurt you.’

‘Noh, yuh tingled meh. Still tingly. Mind if I have a fehl?’

It had already lasted longer than the tingle I’d felt last night, and I wondered if I could encourage it to stay, or even to grow into something else.

Laura

‘Feel free. I’ll just carry on shall I?’

I lowered my mouth to his nipple again, flattening my tongue on it and licking in broad strokes from one to the other, as I felt Matt’s hand travel to his boxers. I put my hand over the top of his, and felt him rub himself slowly, then stop. I pushed my fingers underneath his and laid my hand on the soft shape of his penis underneath the fabric of his boxers. I slowly stroked him, to and fro, a few times, then looked up at him. He shrugged.

Matt

The tingles died away as I felt Lau push her fingers under mine and touch my dick through the fabric of my shorts. She stroked a couple of times, but nothing happened, and I shrugged as she looked up at me. It seemed the rule about the downbelows was flexible.

‘Tingles hahv gone. Thanks, tho Lau. Yuhr so fucking hot, yuhr so gona mahk meh better. Cohm hehr.’

I gestured her back up to the pillow, so I could hold her, and we lay close together, as Lau stretched her face up, lips pursed, wanting a kiss. Well I was always going to be happy to oblige the dick-tingler with requests like that. After a good while of kissing, though, something kept occurring to me, and I had to ask.

‘Lau, can I ask yuh something?’

‘Not if it’s something hard, like algebra.’

‘Algebra’s easy, buh OK, noh equations befohr lunch. Something nuhrsy.’

‘Oh, OK. Go on then.’

‘If I’ve goh a tingly dick, does tha mean things are getting better?’

I couldn’t keep the hope out of my voice. The fucking bastard had been with me for too fucking bastard long, and I just wanted a sign that it might be fucking off some time soon. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t ever going to, but I so wanted it to. I knew I was ‘lucky’ in some respects, if you can even begin to call it that, but I mean in comparison to someone who’s got, oh I don’t know, terminal cancer or something, where it’s pretty much a downhill path. At least for me there was a chance, having got better before, that I might get some of the way back up there again. I just wanted a bit of hope.

Laura

I looked up at him, and saw the hope in his face.

‘Oh God, Matt, that’s a huge question. I can’t answer it. It might do, it might not do. OK, nursey response to a nursey question. You should get yourself signed up with the MS service, get yourself a worker who can help you answer your questions, or go to your GP. Or both.’

‘Wha duh yuh think ih is?’

‘I really, really can’t say. I’m sorry, flower. I can’t tell you something that gives you hope or dashes your hopes, and then be wrong. It’s not fair.’

Matt

I was disappointed. I wanted Lau to make things better, to say I was on the mend, and she was giving me what sounded like bullshit.

‘I’m only asking yuhr opinion. If yuh wanted hehp wih yuhr computer I’d give yuh my opinion.’

‘Maybe, but my computer hasn’t been staring at a pile of pills and a bottle of whisky half the night. OK, I won’t give an opinion. All I’ll say is let’s hope so. And go and get yourself checked out. And ring the MS service first thing on Monday and get signed up. Seriously, Matt, I think I’d rather have had algebra.’

It had dropped the mood a little bit. I should have been impressed that Lau wasn’t willing to give me false hope, but it felt like she had inside knowledge she wasn’t willing to share. I know, unfair of me. Still a git, eh?

Laura

Matt’s expression had clouded a little. I knew from experience how much hope people took from small events like tingles and twitches and good days, and how much the bad days when nothing worked properly knocked them back. I had learned to be non-committal until something was confirmed either way, and that needed a doctor as well as someone neutral to help with the fall-out.

It was hard to be that way with Matt; he wasn’t a patient, and I had a lot invested in his recovery or otherwise too. I had a vision of all the fine lines I was going to be walking if this thing with us was going to work out.

Matt

‘If I call the service, can I have yuh as my nuhrs?’

That might be a way round it. Cosy nursing sessions under the duvet would work very well.

Laura

‘No. Remember I talked about this with my boss? I can’t treat you. I can’t be involved with you professionally. I wouldn’t be able to attend any meetings or discussions about you. It would be Anna or Kate. Although Kate’s an OT.’

As Rachel would also be a non-starter. The cloud deepened in Matt’s expression.

Matt

Fuck it, I’d forgotten about all that. I began to see that if I wanted answers, I was going to have to go looking for them, and that what I’d just asked of Lau wasn’t on, wasn’t even approaching fair on her. Didn’t make me like it, though.

‘I hate talking to pehpl I dohnt know abouh this. Bad enough having tuh goh back tuh Adam.’

‘I know, flower, but you’ll get to know them really quickly, and you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them. Everyone says it about all of us, we’re all absolutely brilliant.’

‘An soh modest.’

I sighed as I made the concession.

‘OK Lau, I see yuhr point. I’d give yuh computer advice, buh if yuh nehded a major overhaul of yuhr computer system at work, I’d give yuh GreenScreen’s number. Fair enough.’

‘And if you ever need bandaging, or de-fibrillating, don’t hesitate to ask.’

‘An if I can hehp wih a good de-fragging jus leh meh know.’

Matt Scott, IT innuendo a speciality.

‘I know what de-fragging is.’

‘I bet yuh duh.’

The kidding about was making me feel better, so much better about everything.

‘Lau, this fehls soh good, being here wih yuh, after las nigh, yuh make meh soh hahpy. Thanks foh coming over and bullying meh.’

I folded her up in my arms, needing to feel her as close to me as possible, and we lay together for a while, just holding each other. It was like we’d got back on our mad journey, having made a stop at a crappy service station, but now having refuelled we were back on the bus for the mystery tour. Or some such metaphorical shit.

Laura

We lay snuggled together for a while, just holding each other. I realised I’d been holding on to some of the tension from the previous night, waiting to see if Matt still felt any of the anguish he’d shown, but it seemed like it might be OK to relax, and just start enjoying this again.

‘Matt …’

‘Yeh, LauraLou.’

‘OK, only my mum calls me that. It’s not even a tease option.’

Matt looked delighted, and I suspected I was going to regret telling him not to tease me.

Matt

Oh brilliant! I loved being told not to do things, it gave me loads of tease options. She seemed to know she’d made an elementary error, and tried to look stern, but she couldn’t manage it.

Laura

‘Anyway, you know a couple of days ago, we said just holding hands for now, nothing more, just see how it goes.’

‘Yeh.’
‘And I remember you saying you want to say how you feel when you feel it, or something, and I know this might freak both of us out, and I did just say we haven’t said forever, but this feels like a bit more than holding hands and seeing where it’s going.’

There was silence from Matt’s end. I daren’t look at him, scared of what I might see flitting across his face. Eventually there was an intake of breath.

Matt

I was silent. Yeah, it did feel like more, I’d been thinking that since I met her, but then I’d had my meltdown and it had scared me, and I’d wondered if I ought to back off a bit, decrease the intensity. Hearing Lau say she wanted more made it all feel real again; I’d never, really, thought long term with a woman.

Mercy was never a keeper, and I’d cheated on her as soon as she gave off ‘settling down’ vibes, great bloke that I was. With Carrie, it was pretty much ‘well things are OK, let’s keep it how it is’; with Jules we were still ‘seeing how things went’ when I fucked it all up. But now, with Lau, I was suddenly starting to think huge words like ‘forever’, and, yeah, of course, I was freaked out.

‘I know. Yuhr righ, ih fucking frehks meh righ ouh, buh ih’s OK. I dohn even knoh wha I’m doin tomorrow, I’m such a fucking mess at the moment, buh I knoh I’m gona beh doin ih wih yuh. Cahnt imagine not hohding yuhr hand, rehly or in my mind. An yuh said las nigh yuh’d beh hohding my hand fuhever.’

It was true. Freaking or not, I needed to be with Lau. I couldn’t imagine, now, ever letting go of her hand.

Lau looked at me, stretched up and pulled my head down for a kiss. I wanted to stay there, doing that, all morning and beyond, but she pulled away, looking regretful.

Laura

I risked a look up at him. He was smiling, eyes sparkling, crinkling at the corners, along with his mouth. I stretched up and kissed him. He put his hands to my face and held my mouth against his, but I pulled away.

‘Sorry, I’ve got to get going, I’ve got to go to Mum’s this afternoon.’

‘Stay a bih. Goh from hehr.’

‘I can’t. I haven’t got any clothes with me. I think I’d have a hard time explaining why I turned up to hers in my manky sleeping shirt in the middle of the afternoon. I need a shower and stuff. I can come back later.’

‘When?’
‘She’s going out at four, so after then I guess.’

Matt

Oh fuck it, Dec was coming to fetch me at four; it had seemed like a great idea at the time, I could help out with Charlie while they got ready. Now it meant I wasn’t going to see Lau until tomorrow afternoon. I looked at Lau, frowning.

‘I’m going tuh Dec’s, they asked meh tuh look after Chahlie. I’m gona stay the nigh. Fuck. Wanted tuh beh wih yuh.’

‘Do you spend all your life looking after other people’s children?’
I laughed. It was true that I was a convenient babysitter, but never a reluctant one. If I didn’t look after Cal, Iz and Charlie so much, I’d be visiting them anyway, so I might as well make myself useful.

‘Sometimes. I love ih tho. Getting in practice foh one day. An they all love their Unca Matty, he’s a bih bad. Sweeties an stayin up laht, an over eighteen X-box. Not fuh Iz or Chahlie wih the X-box.’

I tried my best to corrupt them all, in various ways. No point being an uncle if you can’t misbehave.

I had a wicked uncle once – wicked in the disreputable, bit of a bad role model sense, rather than, well, you know, mwahahah evil. He was who I based my uncling on. He was my dad’s older brother, and I guess he was my best shot at a father figure, although I didn’t see him very often.

Uncle Jock. His name wasn’t really Jock, it was Robert – my middle name was for him – but he was Scottish, and us English do things like that to foreigners, to put them in their place. He used to visit a couple of times a year, with his wife, Auntie Pam (she wasn’t Scottish, so no xenophobic nickname for her, just her own English name, which was punishment enough in itself). I don’t remember much about Auntie Pam, but I do remember Uncle Jock, who was a large man with a bushy red beard – oh, this could be where some of my ‘memories’ of my dad come from. I know they looked fairly similar from photos.

Anyway, getting side-tracked in the middle of getting side-tracked. So, Uncle Jock always brought us a mountain of chocolate, some of which he would let Mum see and confiscate for later distribution, and some of which he would give us when she wasn’t looking, so we could hide it in our rooms and eat it all in one go and feel sick.

Uncle Jock would spend his time with us punching Jay on the arm and congratulating him on being big and strong, but also firing hard questions at me and congratulating me on being brainy. When he was visiting, it was the only time Jay and I ever played together. Jock would make us all go out in the garden to kick a football about and he’d use his own size to bully Jay off the ball, and pass to me so I could score. Jay didn’t really like playing football, but I think he was a bit intimidated, and couldn’t refuse, at least when he was younger.

Uncle Jock would also cajole Mum into letting me stay up late to watch usually forbidden TV.

‘Let the boy experience some life, Carol, you can’t keep him wrapped up forever.’

And I’d sit, delighted, eyes wide as comedies with swear words and, if I was really lucky, the occasional topless lady, corrupted me.

And when Mum was otherwise engaged, often cooking with Auntie Pam, he’d slip me a tenner and tell me to buy something useless. He had lots of ideas for useless purchases, all things Mum frowned on – comics, X-ray specs (not real ones, they would have cost more than a tenner and wouldn’t have been available in the joke shop section of Woolworths), football stickers, Mars bars; there was a long list.

He was pretty clear on his opinions of green vegetables as well, and I always got let off eating cabbage when Uncle Jock was at the dinner table.

‘For God’s sake, Carol, the boy eats well enough, don’t be forcing him to eat shit he doesn’t like.’

Oh, and he swore. Uncle Jock was ace.

So, all in all, my role model for fatherhood came from a man who used to visit a couple of times a year until I was about ten. It wasn’t until I was a real dad that it all became clear, the difference between being a dad and being an uncle.

Then Uncle Jock stopped coming, and in the way of a child I didn’t really think about it, until years later when I asked Mum, and she looked sad and said he had dementia and had to go into a care home because Auntie Pam couldn’t look after him any more. He died when I was at Uni, and because I was in the middle of exams, I couldn’t go to his funeral. I wish he’d known what a big influence he had on my life.

But anyway, back to Lau, who has just learned that Unca Matty is a bit bad.

‘Why am I not surprised. You’re going to be a terrible father.’

No I wasn’t, I knew exactly how I was going to be.

‘Ih’ll beh a cool dad. Mohr like a mate, never tell them off, noh bedtime, noh eatin broccoli.’

I was still imagining operating the Uncle Jock model of parenting. Lau looked dubious, but let me hang on to my fantasy. I bet you’re laughing your head off now, Lau.

‘Good luck with that. Anyway, I need to get going. I’ll see you tomorrow, then?’

I frowned again; it seemed like a long time to wait, and I hoped I would last until the aftermath of Sunday lunch, which usually wiped me out.

‘I hope soh. Ih’s roast dinner at Jay an Beth’s. I dohnt geh up till laht, or I geh tuh tired, and Ih’ll be at Dec’s so we’ll goh from there. Can I call yuh?’

‘Course you can. I’ll be holding your hand until then.’

Laura

I swung my legs out of bed, and gathered up my jeans, pulling them on as Matt got up and stood behind me, putting his arms round me and kissing my neck. I stood up and leaned into him, resting my head back against his shoulder, then turned into his arms, folding mine round his neck and planting a large wet kiss on his mouth.

Before he could delay me with more kissing, touching and other villainous activities, I stepped back and out of the bedroom, trying to find my car keys. I had no idea where I’d left them last night, and tried to remember where I’d gone first. The table. There they were, still on top of the tablecloth. I picked them up, noticing as I did so that the pills and whisky from the night before had been cleared away, and then I made my way to the door. Matt leaned on the door frame of the bedroom and watched me go, a sad smile on his face. I blew him a kiss.

‘See yuh Lau. I’ll call yuh, or text or something. Prohbly both. Say hi tuh yuhr mum from meh.’

‘I will. I’ll tell her exactly what we’ve been up to this morning, she’ll be very interested, and have all sorts of advice.’

‘Rehly?’

‘No! Remember the strict Baptist? That was Mum. Her advice would involve quite a lot of burning in hell. I might mention you in passing, not make a big deal, get her used to the idea. Anyway, enjoy corrupting Charlie tonight, don’t keep her up too late.’

‘I’ll miss yuh.’

‘I’ll miss you too. Like you wouldn’t believe.’

‘Cohm here.’

‘No. I’m going. You’re a bad man, I’d never get away.’

‘Fuck ih, yuh saw through my plan.’

‘I’m going now, before you tempt me any more.’

‘Yuh keep saying tha, yuhr not gone yet.’

I was finding it incredibly hard to open the door and actually leave. It was only when Matt started to move towards me that I realised I had to go now or not at all, and I opened the door, waved, and shut it behind me, hurrying down the stairs and out into the car park.

This time when I looked up, I saw Matt standing at one of the windows. He raised a hand to me and I waved back, before getting in my car and driving away.

Matt

It took me a while to drift off to sleep once I’d gone to bed; my body felt rested, even after the travails of last night, and I kept thinking about Lau – her smile, her voice, her body, the way she pulled her mouth to one side when she was thinking, the way she just knew what to say, the way our bodies fitted together, the way she was Lau.

I was going to find it hard not to mention her to Dec, but I didn’t want to go public just yet. There would be questions and ‘oh Matt, don’t you think …’ and ‘isn’t it a bit …’ and ‘but what about …’ and I didn’t want to have to examine all of it right now. I wanted to enjoy it, this little haven, this little oasis, of something good in the middle of all the crapola that had gone on since Jules left.

I was going to tell all of them, and soon; I’d learned my lesson from moving in with Jules that it never helped matters to deliberately keep big shit from them all. But just a few days, that’s what I promised myself, to hug it to me and savour it, before everyone started questioning whether it was the right thing for me, like I had no say, like it wasn’t, er, actually my life, thanks.

80. So sorry

In which things are torn asunder, and a rescue mission takes place.

Matt

I saw how it was now, could just imagine how Matt the Lad would have sucked up the attention from a woman with ‘a thing’ for him, used her and dropped her. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how long it might have repercussions, but it was undeniable that Lau was now being affected by it. It couldn’t happen. I wasn’t going to let my selfish former life to fuck up Lau’s current life. I wasn’t going to allow it. I was going to have to stop, stop all of it, right now, stop thinking about myself, before I did her any more damage. You shouldn’t risk friendships for skanky blokes you’d only just met.

What had I just been thinking? How could I have been congratulating myself about being there for Lau, when all the time I’d fucked this up for her? I couldn’t do it any more, how much more shit was there to come out and mess with the people I cared about? I’d be better off out of it all, away from anyone I could hurt with my past, present or future. I didn’t quite know what that meant, I was still reeling with it, as if the realisation had drenched me with a bucket of ice water.

Lau turned to look at me.

‘Matt?’
I shook my head.

‘I can’t jus stop bein a bastahd can I. Ih carries on, all the shih. Pehpl still think I’m like tha, yuh must still think I’m like tha. Wha I did tuh her, an plenty of others, still fucking pehpl up, even tho I’m not like tha any more Serves meh righ. Prohbly deserve everything Ih’v goh now.’

Laura

‘No!’

I was instantly on my feet, then kneeling by him on the floor, needing to face him, show him it wasn’t true.

‘Nobody deserves to get ill. Nobody deserves to be unhappy, whatever they’ve done. And especially if they’ve tried to change. Matt, you’ve been around a few years, you know the reputation you’ve got, I expect you know what people say about you. Only you know what’s true and what’s not, and only you can show people that you’re different. You’ve showed me. You’ve showed me a caring, sensitive man who is facing up to a hell of a lot of stuff, and has been trying to do it on his own. You can’t change what you’ve done or been in the past, but you can know in your heart how you are now.’

Matt

I couldn’t meet her eyes. She didn’t know me, not really. She’d only seen my charming side, the side that was trying to get in her knickers. Shit, it was as if I hadn’t changed at all. It was a punch to the guts to realise what a selfish bastard I was being, deciding this was the woman for me, with no thought for whether it was what she wanted. She certainly didn’t need it, a lifetime of my past and my future ruining things for her.

I’d surfed along on a wave of dreams, only thinking of how much better my life would be with her, not how much worse hers would be with me. I’d spent the last two days justifying it to her and to myself, saying how much I’d changed. I had hardly found out a thing about her, except her favourite colour, her favourite chocolates and her favourite film, all the other talking had been me, taking.

‘I dunno Lau. Maybe I dohnt deserve yuh, this, us. Yuhr pretty fucking top notch. Yuh should have someone who ihnt a complete tosser an a fucking cripple intuh the bargain.’

She reached out, held my chin and turned my face towards her. I slowly lifted my eyes to hers, but could hardly bear to look into them.

Laura

I could sense a distance between us that hadn’t been there before.

‘You know what, I do actually deserve someone flipping top notch.’

Matt

I felt my lips twitch into an almost-smile at her paraphrase of my swear. God she was great. I so wished she wasn’t, this would be so much easier.

Laura

‘That person is you. I’ve only known you – what – two days. I hardly know you, but I completely know you. I’m sure there’ll be hiccups, but you tick every single one of my boxes. Please, Matt, please don’t talk about yourself like that.’

Matt

I shook my head again, and lowered my eyes. There was no other way to think about myself. I had to be real, to stop deluding myself that I had anything to offer her. I slowly sat up and leaned forwards, my hands covering my face.

‘I hahvnt changed as much as I thoht. I’m still doin ih. I’m doin it tuh yuh. Not one nigh stands, buh bein selfish, rushin in, takin. You dohnt need meh fucking up yuhr friends, yuhr job, yuhr life. Shih, Lau, I can’t believe I dihnt see ih.’

I stood up. I had to do it now, before it was too hard. It was already nearly too hard.

‘I’m gona go. I can’t do this tuh yuh.’

Laura

‘No! What do you mean? You haven’t done anything. I want this.’

Oh God, he’d stood up. He was going. What? What just happened? As he started to walk out of the room, I got up off the floor and followed him, holding onto his arm to stop him leaving.

Matt

I shrugged her off and walked up the stairs, feeling numb. In fact, I could hardly feel my feet as I made them take me away.

Laura

He carried on, out of the room, up the stairs, me behind him all the way trying to make him talk to me, trying to stop him, terrified he would get to the front door and go.

Matt

Lau was frantic, trying to make me talk to her, but her superpower had deserted her, and I shut my ears to her so I wouldn’t be persuaded. I needed to think of what I had to do, for her, not what I wanted to believe, for me, and Lau was saying all the things that would make leaving too hard to do.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I stopped and turned to face her. I couldn’t just walk out, say nothing. I had never felt so miserable.

Laura

There was so much sorrow on his face, it nearly made my knees buckle.

Matt

‘Lau, I just can’t do ih. I can’t fuck up yuhr life like I fucked up so many pehpl’s. I was jus sailin along in a little Matt world, enjoying yuh, not thinking abouh wha ih meant. Call yuhr friend. Tell her – oh fuck ih, I dohnt know, tell her I dumped yuh too, or make ih up, say wha yuh like. Dohn ruin ih wih her fuh meh. Dohn fuck yuh job up fuh meh. Ih’m not woth ih. Sohry Lau.’

I shut my eyes against the expression on her face, which was of anguish. She’d see, pretty soon, that she had no reason to be upset, that she was better off.

Laura

‘No, Matt, don’t go, please –’

He turned and opened the front door and walked out. I didn’t know what to do, couldn’t think. I called after him.

‘If you go, that’s what screws my life up. I can deal with the rest, I can’t deal with it without you. If you go, you’ve just done to me exactly what you did to Rachel.’

Matt

That nearly stopped me in my tracks. I hadn’t seen it like that, what a close parallel there was. But it didn’t change things. She’d get over it. There wasn’t really anything to get over, was there. I carried on walking until I was out of sight of her house.

Laura

I saw him break his stride as I shouted out, but he didn’t stop and he didn’t look back, just walked up the road.

My legs went from under me before I could think about whether to follow him, and I fell to my knees by the door, the tears beginning to flow down my face, as I started to sob. Hardly able to breathe, I buried my face in my hands and wept, the realisation that Matt had gone – just walked out of my life as quickly as he’d walked into it – hitting me hard.

I sat by the open front door, crying, for a long time, then my knees began to hurt, and I stood, closed the door and dragged myself to the bedroom where I lay on the bed, shuddering sobs shaking me every so often, tears continuing to course down my face, soaking the pillow.

I barely understood it. We had promised to hold hands – had we said forever? I wasn’t sure I could remember clearly, but it felt like it. I was still reeling from the stupendous orgasm. Then that text from Rachel changed everything, made him think he’d somehow ruined things for me. I wanted to make him see he’d done the opposite, but I didn’t know how. I doubted he would answer if I called him. He would still be on his way home. But the phone seemed like my best bet. I tried to dry my eyes, and went downstairs in search of my own phone.

I called up Matt’s name on the screen and pressed call. As I expected, it went to voicemail:

‘Yeh ih’s Matt. I’m suhr I’m stihl alihv, buh prohbly jus wana bih of peace an quieh. Lehv a mehsage an I’ll cahl yuh.’

I tried leaving a message, but wasn’t really sure what I was saying, and it felt incoherent and hysterical.

‘Matt, please listen to me. I don’t know why you think you’ve messed up my life. You’ve done the opposite. The last couple of days have been just the best. You’re the best. Tonight, this evening, with you was incredible. Please don’t do this, please don’t take it away from me. I want to hold your hand, I’m doing it now, across the city. Please call me, please. Please talk about this. Please.’

I ran out of words and hung up on his voicemail. I realised I sounded like a desperate dumped woman, but that was how I felt, and for good measure I sent several texts. I had never done this, begged a man to take me back, in my life, but I had no pride where Matt was concerned. He had walked off with a large chunk of my heart, and I couldn’t bear the thought of being without him.

‘Matt, please call me. Please don’t do this. You are incredible.’

‘I’m still holding your hand.’

‘Please come back, I miss you.’

‘Bruce has just realised he’s dead people. I know how he feels.’

The last one was admittedly melodramatic, but I was getting increasingly desperate. None of it brought any reply. I hadn’t expected it to, but I’d needed to try.

Matt

Once I was far enough away, and there was no sign of her coming after me, I sagged to the ground, leaning up against a wall. I heard my phone ringing, with Lau’s tone, but ignored it, and then it pinged with a text, from Lau, so I turned my phone off.

I felt like I had ripped my own insides out. Noble self-sacrifice or not, that was possibly the fucking hardest thing I had ever had to do, and it was coming close to destroying me. Over the last couple of days I’d built this little fantasy up in my head, of how it would be me and Lau, together forever, holding hands into the sunset, all that shit that I never went for. I had let myself be swept along with it, I had swept Lau along with it, and it had become my world, in that short space of time. Now, without it, I was alone again and it hurt, caused me physical pain somewhere in my gut.

I don’t know how long I sat there, staring at nothing, attracting strange looks from people walking past. Eventually my bum went numb, matching my heart, and I realised I was going to have to get home somehow. Calling any of my bloody interfering family was not going to happen, and the thought of another two hour bus journey was equally unthinkable. So I called a taxi firm and waited for what felt like hours before spending twenty quid getting across the city and back to my flat.

Laura

Feeling empty, I cleared up my plate of dinner from earlier and put Matt’s beer bottle in the recycling bin. I didn’t want to do anything else, so I turned off the TV and went upstairs to bed, taking my phone with me. As I lay down, another bout of crying swept over me, and I sobbed until I wore myself out with it, and drifted off into a broken sleep.

I went over it all, between the dozes: what I could have done differently, how I could have handled it better, what I could have learnt from where things had gone wrong before, but I couldn’t come up with anything from my past experiences that helped. To be honest, I had never felt like this before. I hadn’t had loads of boyfriends, just a handful of reasonably nice blokes who had been alright, but weren’t The One, especially Bryan the Smackhead, oh and Ferdi the Chauvinist Pig. No one who had made me feel like I did about Matt, like I would fight to my dying breath to be with him. This all tumbled around in my head between snatches of sleep and bouts of crying.

Matt

I hardly noticed time passing as I sat on my own in the flat, while the light slowly faded around me; all I could think of was what a complete mess I’d made of my whole life. I had no one to blame but myself, although I tried everyone on for size before I came to that conclusion.

First on the rap sheet was my dad. He’d bloody died before I knew him, and that must have fucked me up in all kinds of hidden ways. Then Mum, well, she always let me get away with murder, never told me I was being inappropriate, or that she was disappointed in me, although I knew she wasn’t a great fan of Matt the Lad. Beth, well, if Beth had just once kept her nose out and let me get on with things, I might not have felt the need to go it alone so much. And Jay, he was at the root of a lot of it, with his macho silences, his never talking about shit, his being older, better, more successful than me. Lastly, Dec. He’d been as fucked up as me when we met, but he’d sorted his shit out and rubbed my nose in his sortedness every opportunity he got.

And then I got real, and stopped blaming them all. My dad could take no blame. Mum always let me know, not necessarily in so many words, but with a look here and a sigh there, when she thought I’d gone too far. Beth was kind and good at heart, and she irritated me more because she was usually right than because she was inherently annoying. Jay couldn’t help being older than me, and he never said or acted like he thought he was better than me. And he had given up his job to come and look after me when I needed him. Dec was just about the best mate anyone could have, and was so far from rubbing my nose in anything. He always made time for me, even though he had his family and his rugby. Shit, I was a selfish tosser.

I sat and stared into the dark, and thought hard about just what I was going to do, then I lined up my options on the counter.

I was seriously fucked up, I knew that. Not just with the bastard MS, but psychologically. My life felt out of my control, I was falling, spinning, from a great height. Lau had stabilised me for a while, but I didn’t have her any more, and the spiralling just got worse. Maybe if I gave Adam another go. He had seemed like a good bloke, and had talked some sense. So, he was an option.

There was my family. There was always my family. I spent a lot of time moaning about them, but really, they were fucking awesome, and they would do anything for me. I loved them all, loved being a part of the huge sprawly mass of people that Jay and Beth had gathered to them. They were part of me and I was part of them, and I’d do as much for them as they would for me. And the kids – God I loved those kids. So, the next option was embrace the family, stop being an arse about it, let them love me.

And finally. It was hard to think about, because it would be the end, and it would be terrifying. But maybe the world was better off without me, and maybe I was better off without the world. I already knew how I would do it, I had told Lau. Painkillers and whisky, enough to finish it with a deep sleep. I knew how much would do it, just let me drift off, I had found out. I knew they were all terrified I would do it one day, somehow, some way. And maybe, just maybe … so that was a third option.

I lined them up on the counter: Adam’s business card. Family photos. All the painkillers I possessed, my bastard MS meds and a large bottle of Jack Daniels. Then I sat and looked at them, thinking, considering, wondering.

I had been staring into the darkness for – what? Hours? I don’t know. It was still dark, quiet, I still didn’t have any answers, only options. I was half asleep, possibly totally asleep, in some kind of trance, and I couldn’t sense the time passing. I had laid my head on my arms, sitting at the table, and I could easily have been asleep. I was drifting, in the dark, waiting for some kind of revelation. Waiting for the spinning to stop and the arrow to point the way.

Laura

It must have been about three in the morning when I suddenly opened my eyes into the dark and knew I had to go over there. To Matt’s flat. Now. It felt urgent, it felt right. Matt – Matt was The One. What was I doing lying here in bed without him? Whyever had I let him just walk out of here? I needed to be with him, sorting this out, right now. God, I was angry too. How dare he walk out on me, just go, not even listen to me? He was going to get a piece of my mind. No one did that to me, just trampled all over my feelings.

Full of purpose, I jumped out of bed, pulling my discarded jeans on and a sweatshirt over the top of my sleeping shirt, grabbed my keys, ran to my car and drove across the city to Avondale.

As I pulled up in the car park, I did stop and briefly wonder what on earth I was doing here, at this hour, or even at all. The certainty I’d felt twenty minutes ago had faded a little, and I was less sure. But I was here now. I got out and made my way over to the rank of doorbells outside the entrance. I leaned on MRS. There was no reply.

Matt

The night silence was shattered by the sound of my buzzer. Who the fuck was that? It had happened before, and it was kids, fucking about. I ignored it, but it went on and on, for seconds, then minutes, then it got into a rhythm and I just shut it out for a bit. It was bound to be annoying Mrs Bartlett upstairs enough that she’d come down and tell me off tomorrow. If I was still here tomorrow …

Laura

I stood back to see if any lights went on, on the second floor, but it remained in darkness. I leaned on the bell again, for longer. And then again, and again. I must have pressed the bell over and over again for ten minutes. Finally, when I was almost certain he was either not at home, or was wearing ear plugs, I got the result I wanted.

Matt

Eventually, I got pissed off with it, after a lot longer than it would normally have taken to piss me off. I got up and pressed the button.

‘Fuck off, whoever the fuck yuh are.

‘It’s Laura.’

Shit. No. I couldn’t see her, she would make me change my mind. I was doing this for her. She wouldn’t understand, and she needed to stay out of it.

‘Lau – I can’t – goh away. Plehs.’

‘No. I’m going to ring your bell all night until you let me in. I might start ringing your neighbours’ bells as well.’

Oh bollocks, not at this time of night, she could give someone a heart attack.

‘Fuck ih. Wha do yuh wan?’

‘I want to see you.’

‘Why?’
‘Because I miss you.’

No, I wasn’t having that. I didn’t want her here confusing me, making me go back on it, making me want her. I needed to send her away, tell her how it was.

‘Go away, Lau. Yuhr better off withouh meh.’

‘I’m not. I’m much, much worse off. You don’t get to say what I need, that’s up to me.’

‘I’m a stubborn fucking bastahd, you wohnt win this.’

Laura

‘It’s not a competition. And if you think you’re more stubborn than me, you’re in for a surprise. OK, I think Pinky, or is it Jeff, is going to be the first one I press …’

I was desperate enough to do it, too. I had a whole row of buzzers to press – someone would let me in, if only to shut me up, although I might get a bit of abuse from annoyed residents.

Matt

Oh for fuck’s sake. Pinky, or Jeff, or Mr Critchley as I knew him, was eighty seven and would struggle out of bed to answer his buzzer, even if Lau had moved on to someone else. And she’d call him Jeff, and he’d let her in, and who knew what havoc she’d wreak trying to get into my flat if I didn’t let her in. Once she was inside, she’d start banging on doors.

Well alright, I could let her in, I didn’t have to talk to her, did I? Surely I could do strong and silent. For the sake of Mr Critchley, then. I pressed the buzzer, opened my front door and sat back down, elbows on the table, head in my hands.

Laura

I heard the door click, and quickly pushed it open, amazed that I’d done it, I’d got in, and I headed up the stairs. At the top, Matt’s door was slightly ajar, but he wasn’t standing there waiting for me. I pushed it open, the light from the hallway the only thing illuminating the room, and saw him sitting at his small dining table, head in his hands.

Matt

I didn’t look up when she walked in, I didn’t look up when she put a lamp on, and I didn’t look up when she sat across the table from me. When she stroked my fingers, I took them away from my face and looked into her eyes, because I wanted her to believe me, to see it in my eyes that I wasn’t going to back down, because I was right. I hadn’t expected to see that much sadness in her eyes, though, and it nearly changed my mind. My strong and silent crumbled.

‘I dohnt wana talk abouh this, Lau. Yuh should jus go. We’ve only known each other a couple of days, it wohnt beh tha bad after a while, we’ll forgeh.’

This was a complete lie. I was never going to get over this, over letting Lau go. I would never forget her.

Laura

If his eyes hadn’t been saying the complete opposite, I might have been convinced. But I realised this was the reason I’d needed to be here. His eyes would tell me what I needed to know.

‘You told me you’d found something you didn’t know you’d lost, but had always needed. How can you walk away from that?’

Matt

I had told her that, it was still true, I would always need her, but I couldn’t have her, it would be wrong to do it.

‘I nehd tuh. I can’t hurt another person, I’ve spent the last fuck knows how lohng being a fucking bastahd, I cahnt duh it any mohr.’

Laura

‘So are you never going to have another relationship again?’

He looked at me and shrugged. He hadn’t thought about it. He was making a gesture without thinking about the implications. Alright, that gave me something to work with.

Matt

Who knows? I might not even be here tomorrow, then what would it matter?

Laura

‘Matt, we’ve found each other. It’s been intense and fast, and I’m on the one hand completely overwhelmed and on the other completely terrified and oh my God what are all those pills doing on your counter?’

I had just noticed them, a huge bottle of paracetamol, packets of ibuprofen, some solpadeine and a few boxes of prescription drugs. They were stacked next to a large bottle of Jack Daniels. Matt closed his eyes and tilted his head back.

Matt

She had just noticed them, and I heard a note of panic enter her voice. She looked at me, terrified. I closed my eyes, so I couldn’t see her fear.

‘Matt? Oh my God.’

I hadn’t definitely decided. It was an option.

Laura

I was frantically trying to remember my talking someone down from suicide training, not that we’d had any specific training in that, but it had come up numerous times in various courses we’d done. There was something about remaining calm; there wasn’t a lot about if it was someone you were personally involved with, someone who was about to make the most ridiculously stupid decision of his life.

‘Lau, I –’

‘Tell me you’re not seriously going to.’

He hung his head, shaking it, but I wasn’t sure if he was denying it, or was just finding it all too much.

Matt

I hung my head, shaking it, not knowing until that moment that I wasn’t going to. I almost felt the rush as my future popped back into existence.

Laura

‘Matt?’
He looked up, the pain in his eyes almost touchable.

Matt

I looked up, knowing that options one and two were, in some ways harder, now that I had discounted option three.

‘I suppohs not. If I’d meant tuh, Ih’d have done ih by now. Buh ih’s hard tuh live wih who I am, wha I am, wha I’ve done tuh pehpl. An ih’s hard tuh live wih fucking bastahd MS makin a mockery of everything I wan tuh beh.’

Laura

Everything I said from now on was top of my head, seat of my pants, no time to think, emergency response stuff.

‘Matt, seriously, I know you’ve been a bit of a player. There are people who aren’t that happy with how you’ve treated them. But it’s not like you’re a serial killer or something. Give yourself a break. You’ve had some fun, you’ve been trying to exorcise some demons, and from what you’ve told me, a lot of those demons have been duffed up and sent back to where they came from. You’ve changed. It can take time for these things to sort themselves out. You can’t tell me everyone you’ve dated, slept with, or snogged, had a dreadful time and is living a terrible life? Most of them will have had a good time, maybe even used you to have it.’

Matt

She was trying to let me off, and it was tempting.

‘Buh yuhr friend –’

‘Rachel needs to get a life and stop dwelling. We’ll work it out or we won’t, but that’s up to us, not you. You need to stop feeling responsible for how other people act and feel.’

‘I dohnt.’

‘Come on Matt. You feel guilty because of how much your family care about you. You feel guilty because of how much I care about you. You feel guilty because of what happened with you and Julia – do I need to go on?’
And there she was again, with the getting me, understanding me. How had she managed that in two days? I looked at her, shook my head.

‘Noh. I knoh I’m a fuck up.’

Laura

I sighed with exasperation, that wasn’t what I meant, and I needed to change tack, away from what he thought he’d done to me, and others, to get him to focus on something else. This wasn’t going to be easy to say, but I thought of something that might do the trick.

‘OK. I’m going to tell you something. It might help. It might make me cry. If it does, it’s not your fault, OK? It’s just because I’m sad. A few years ago, my dad died. He just keeled over, right in front of me. I couldn’t do anything, he was dead in minutes. We found out afterwards that he had an aneurysm, he’d probably had it for years, it was always going to happen. But it didn’t stop me blaming myself. I’m a nurse, I should have spotted something, should have been able to do more. That’s ridiculous, right? How can you control something it isn’t possible to have control over?’

I looked at Matt, who was nodding. He reached for my hand, to comfort me, and I nearly cheered because it meant he wasn’t thinking about just himself any more. Instead, I felt my eyes fill with tears. I tried to speak around the closing of my throat.

Matt

Of course, it wasn’t her fault at all, but now she was looking even more sad and I couldn’t bear it. I reached for her hand, as her eyes filled with tears. When she spoke, I heard her throat close up with emotion, but she carried on.

Laura

‘So anyway, all this time later I’ve realised the truth of that, but it took a lot of help, from friends, family, and, yes, a counsellor, to get me to acknowledge it here …’

I placed my hand over my heart.

‘… as well as here.’

I touched my head.

Tears were running down my face; I still missed my dad every day. Matt reached up and wiped a few of them away.

‘I’m sorry Lau.’

‘Thanks. But I don’t need you to be sorry, I need you to get the point. You can’t solve things with pills and whisky, whether you just get blind drunk or end up in A and E having your stomach pumped, or wind up dead. That doesn’t solve things this end, at best it takes the pain away for you, at worst it causes a whole lot of other pain for other people. And that is your fault. It’s the most selfish thing anyone can do.’

‘I knoh. Ih’m still hehr aren’t I? Look over there. Ih’s not jus pills.’

I looked beyond the terrifying pile of painkillers. There were photos of Cal, Iz and Charlie, and what looked like a business card. I looked back at Matt, willing him to explain, hoping the relief I felt when he said he wasn’t going to do it was real, that he meant it.


Matt

‘I nehded to remind mysehf wha the options are. One – end ih all. Always an option, righ? Two – fahmly. Bloody annoying option, but they’re fucking good at caring abouh meh. An I … love them, an I wana see them grow up. Threh – Adam.’

‘Adam?’
‘Psychologist. Saw him a few tihms after Jules. Made a bih tuh much bluhdy sense, stopped goin.’

OK, so for ‘a few times’ read ‘once’. I still wasn’t through with lying to myself just yet. Lau didn’t say anything, just squeezed my hand and held my gaze.

‘Yeh, I know, prohbly tihm tuh give him another try.’

Laura

I nodded, almost dizzy with gratitude that he seemed to have dismissed the pills and booze option. I decided to push my luck.

‘Option four.’

‘Dihnt geh tha far.’

‘Option four – Lau. It even rhymes, so you can remember it.’

Matt

But that was just it, she couldn’t be an option, because all of the options were instead of her, so that I stopped thinking of her as an option. I opened my mouth to reply, but she spoke first.

‘I’m always going to be an option. I’m always going to be holding your hand now, forever, you’re never going to get rid of me. Even if you never see me again, I’ll always be there, holding your hand, across the city, across the country, across the world. Wherever you are, I’ll be there too.’

‘Buh wha abouh in the loo?’

I just couldn’t help myself.

Laura

‘Even there. Although I might try not to think about it too much.’

He looked up and gave me the ghost of a smile. I gave him a full smile back. I wasn’t sure if it was crisis averted yet, but smiles and attempts at humour were a start.

Matt

I offered her a kind of smile. Yeah, what she’d just said made a difference. If she was going to hold my hand whatever the fuck I did, of course it made a bloody difference. She smiled back.

‘Fucking hell, Lau, yuhr as bad as bluhdy Dec. He told meh once we were connected by fahmly, as if there was a webcam in my head when I wiped my ahrs. Wha is ih wih yuh caring pehpl an bogs?’

She would have no idea what I was talking about, but I knew. I knew that somehow, in the same way that Dec would always have my back, Lau would always keep me safe, whether I wanted her to or not. And, oh, I wanted her to, I just still wasn’t sure it was the right thing to want.

Laura

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but he’d obviously made some connection between what I’d said and what someone else had said to him in the past. And now I needed to push it further, because I was done with being Nurse Laura, I needed to be Lusty Lau, who cared so much about this man in front of me that if I didn’t get him back I was going to make personal use of the pills and whisky that were lurking on the counter so menacingly.

‘Matt, I need you. We need each other. We belong with each other. I feel it between us.’

He looked up and as his eyes met mine, there was a jolt. I saw it hit him too.

Matt

I looked up and as her eyes met mine, there was that electric shock. She felt it too, it was like that time in Mean Bean when she touched my hand.

Laura

‘Tell me you don’t feel it fizzing between us, right now?’

He shook his head, but this time I knew it wasn’t to deny it.

Matt

I shook my head, in disbelief.

‘Yeh, I do. Lau, I never felt anything like I fehl when I’m wih yuh. Buh I’m trying tuh beh selfless fuh once in my fucking life.’

This was the heart of things, right now. I was done with being selfish, I wanted to show the world I could think about someone other than myself and my woes, or my jollies, for once.

‘What’s the point in being selfless about this? It’s not like anyone’s going to benefit. I’ve been breaking my heart since you left this evening, and you don’t look like you’ve been that happy either. Let’s end the sadness. We were made for each other, weren’t we?’

She was a fast talker; she was giving me hope. Hope that I could have what I wanted, and as well as being alright, it wasn’t wrong. Slowly, I nodded, then felt tears fill my eyes, fuck them the salty bastards. I brushed them away in exasperation.

Laura

He continued to look into my eyes, and I could see the hope there, hope that he could have what he wanted and it would be alright. Slowly, he nodded. I saw his eyes fill with tears, which he brushed away with an exasperated flick of his hand.

‘Well if we’re made for each other, it’s a bit of a waste not to be together. I hate waste, it really upsets me.’

‘Fuck, Lau, rehly dohn wana upset yuh any more tonigh.’

‘Well stop this bloody nonsense, then.’

‘Yuh swore! Only bluhdy, buh still.’

‘Desperate times …’

I saw him take a deep breath. He was stubborn, and as a stubborn person myself, I recognised him steeling himself to change his mind and accept a different way. And also as a stubborn person myself, I rejoiced a little at getting my own way, particularly as the end result was Matt looking at me a little sheepishly, trying out a smile on the face that had so recently looked like its world could easily come to an end.

Matt

It felt like it might be time to stop the bloody nonsense. I took a deep breath, sure that Lau had no idea how stubborn I usually was and how much willpower it took to change my mind, see things differently.

‘OK.’
‘OK what?’

‘OK bluhdy cohm here an kiss meh before I change my bluhdy mind.’

We were both on our feet before I’d finished saying it, and I held her tightly against me, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, so I kissed her instead, then I tasted salt, and I pushed Lau away so I could look at her, and she was the one crying, streams of tears from the corners of her eyes.

Laura

I was in his arms and he was kissing me and holding me and his mouth was on mine and his arms round me felt so good, so right, it was like coming home, and it wasn’t until he stopped and pushed me away, and wiped my face with his fingers that I realised I was crying.

Matt

I wiped her eyes, the guilt welling up in me again.

‘Oh Lau, dohnt. Dohnt do tha. Not cos of meh.’

She rolled her eyes.

‘I’m happy, you bloody stupid man. Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again. Don’t you ever push me away and lock me out. I’m in here now.’

She placed her hand over my heart.

‘If you cut me out, you’re cutting out a piece of yourself.’

It was more than I deserved. I was going to try to deserve it, to deserve Lau, who wasn’t going to let me throw it all away, and who wanted me, and had changed my mind.

‘OK. I’ll try. Not guhd at all this. Wana try wih yuh tho, Lau, yuhr fucking wohth ih. Yuh never bluhdy give up, duh yuh?’

‘Not often. You’re fairly determined yourself, I have to say.’

Yeah, Lau, understatement much? She’d learn.

‘I’m pretty fucking stubborn. Prohbly beh some fireworks along the way.’

‘I’m OK with fireworks. Easier to deal with than silence and staring.’
‘Mm.’

Oh fuck, all of a sudden I couldn’t focus, could hardly stand upright. I hadn’t even noticed the tiredness creeping up on me, having been preoccupied with recent dramas. I found myself leaning on Lau; without her I would have fallen over. Ha, if that wasn’t a metaphor for my whole life since then, I don’t know what is.

Laura

Matt seemed to suddenly crumple. His face had gone ashen, and he sagged against me, like he had yesterday outside Mean Bean.

‘Matt?’
‘Tihred.’

His voice was barely audible. He really was going to have to learn to pace himself, but until then, Nurse Laura would heed a blue light call.

‘OK, into bed.’

I put Matt’s arm round my shoulder and my arm round his waist, much as I had the other day when I’d hauled him down the street, and supported him into the bedroom.

Matt

‘Shruf … dohb … buhl …’

I was trying to apologise, but I knew it was all coming out garbled, and any second now I was going to be asleep.

Laura

He was trying to speak, but none of his words were making any sense, so I ignored him while I sat him on the edge of the bed and swung his legs onto the mattress, then laid him back on the pillow, before covering him with the duvet.

Matt

I made myself last until Lau sat me on the edge of the bed, so she didn’t have to try and lift me. I wasn’t a heavyweight, but I was too much for her to lift on her own. Of course, now I know that if I’d fallen over, she would have left me on the floor and fetched a blanket and a pillow, but that was before I knew about the sensible practicalities of NHS manual handling training. So, as soon as the objective was achieved, i.e. my arse on the mattress, it was lights out for me, and I knew no more until I stirred, some hours later.

Laura

I had no idea if I was invited, but as I was still in my sleeping shirt, I pulled off my sweatshirt and jeans and climbed in next to him. I lay awake for some time, listening to the tone and regularity of his breathing, my heart rate gradually slowing down to an acceptable speed. I’d done it, persuaded him, changed his mind, got him back. Matt was sleeping next to me, and I didn’t intend to ever let him get so far away from me again. I smiled for a long time before I eventually drifted off to sleep.