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.
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.
‘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.’
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.
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.
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:
‘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.’
She got flirted at by Nico:
‘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.
Made Iz like her with a combination of chocolate and conspiracy:
‘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.
‘Oh, mine too. Here, I bet we can find a purple one, can’t we?’
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:
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.
Revealed some previously undisclosed plotting with my brother, of all people:
‘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.
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?’
‘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.’
Well now I just had to butt in.
Matt looked sheepish, and Amy answered for him.
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.
‘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, 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.
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.
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.
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?’
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.’
‘She went up with Dec and Matt, but I don’t know if she’s still up there.’
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.
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.’
‘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.
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.
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.
Lau had seemed to sense I was flagging, and we got ready to go, along with Dec, Amy and Charlie.
‘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.’
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.’
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.’
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.’
‘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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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?’
‘Sleep a bit longer, then.’
I sat up.
‘Wohn sleep tonigh. Yuh dihnt carry meh did yuh?’
‘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.
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.’
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.
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.