The Philpotts Letters – 11

You worry ’bout growing up, I worry ’bout letting go (Tracey Thorn)

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You worry ’bout growing up, I worry ’bout letting go (Tracey Thorn)

Hi Kids

Well it’s been a while from the looks of it. What was I banging on about last time? Being called Daddy? Fuck me, I freaked about the smallest of things back then, didn’t I?

So now you’re teenagers. Holy fuck, two teenagers, a brace of sacks of hormones. I mean – two babies needing changing: challenging. Two schoolkids needing chivvying every morning: a logistical conundrum. Two bright nine-year-olds ganging up on their parents to elicit later bedtimes: needful of concentration. But two thirteen year olds, both shutting themselves in their rooms and playing loud music, barely speaking to us, except to demand more spot cream and look enraged at being addressed by anyone older than them, and needing constant, let’s call it encouragement, not to hang around with the less desirable elements in the park until it’s dark – well it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Where did my awesome, independent but compliant and loving children go?

I must have been a teenager; I didn’t miss out thirteen to nineteen in some bizarre time-travel mix-up. I just don’t remember it being like this. I never thought I’d want to speed up your childhood, it all seems to have gone at a crazy speed, but if I could just fast-forward through this shit, I’d be glad of a few missed years.

Oh I suppose it’s not without its good bits. I mean, you are still the most awesome kids in the universe bar none, but sometimes it would be nice if you smiled a bit, or weren’t just nice to me and your mum when you wanted a lift somewhere.

And I can’t imagine it getting much better, really, for the next few years. Before I know it, and maybe already but I don’t know it yet, there will be girlfriends, and boyfriends. Oh God. Ella, I’m not ready for you to be snogging anyone. And Josh, although the sexist part of me wants to say go for it son, and I recognise the hypocrisy, it’s too bloody soon, alright? If you could both just wait for all that until you’re completely grown up and know what you’re doing and aren’t likely to be experimenting with anything or being all overcome with things in the heat of the hormonal moment or anything … oh who am I kidding? I guess I’m just going to have to reiterate that fatherly talk, aren’t I? I can see the eye-rolling and hear the melodramatic sighing and ‘OMG Dad, like, I know‘ from both of you.

Your mum is so chilled about the whole thing, it’s like she doesn’t notice you both being sullen and uncommunicative, like it doesn’t upset her, but I know it does, because we talk about you. And the conclusion we’ve come to, although it pains me, is that you are no different from any other teenager, and it’s a difficult time, and as we are the grown ups, we just need to provide support, love and guidance, and be good role models. Yeah, right, like that’s going to happen. Oh, that sounds familiar, maybe I never quite stopped being a teenager myself …

I worry, you know. I worry that this is what it will be like for the rest of ever, and my lovely children will never emerge from the chrysalis. It’s irrational, I know that, and everyone with kids goes through it. Can’t help freaking, though, it’s what I do.

I know you’re in there somewhere.

Yours hopefully

Dad xxx

128. If you’re gone

In which a sister takes control.

Cal

‘Aaagh.’

I picked up the cup of coffee from my breakfast tray and hurled it at the wall, watching as it smashed and splattered, feeling better for half a second until it crashed over me what had just happened.

‘Cal?’

Oh great, just what I needed, Mum having a go about the mess and being all disapproving into the bargain.

The door opened, and Mum flicked a glance at the coffee carnage decorating the spare room wall and half of the ironing pile. Her eyebrows raised a little, but she didn’t comment, just looked at me and held her arms open. I allowed myself to be swept into them, as if I was five years old again, and howled it all out. I’d thought I could have no more tears left, but the ones I’d already cried had been for me and Ayesh. These new ones, for me and Chrissie, seemed endless, and I reached new depths of sorrow inside now that Chrissie had put herself beyond my reach.

I clung on to Mum as I cried, and she stroked my hair and told me it would be OK, until I stopped sniffling and stood back from her, wiping my eyes and looking anywhere but at her.

‘Chrissie doesn’t … she wants to … it’s all off.’

I looked up and caught a brief flare of hope in Mum’s eyes, but she dampened it almost before I noticed it.

‘Oh sweetheart. Why?’

‘She didn’t want it to be her fault.’

Mum almost said it was Chrissie’s fault, then she stopped herself and smiled weakly, changing the subject.

‘Dad wanted to remind you about Josh’s final today.’

‘Crap, I forgot.’

The last thing I wanted to do was stand around at a Colts game, making small talk with nosy parents who would be wondering why I hadn’t played yesterday.

‘Joshy will be disappointed if you don’t go.’

‘Yeah, I know. I just feel a bit conspicuous. Maybe if I don’t wear my Raiders kit …’

I looked hopefully at Mum for some guidance, knowing that she was only ever going to leave rugby decisions to Dad.

‘You’ll have to ask your dad about that, sweetheart.’

‘Yeah. Better get ready, I suppose.’

‘Cal … I’m really sorry you’re going through all this.’

It was a big thing, almost an apology, for Mum, so I bit back the sarcastic response that my lack of sleep and raw emotions wanted to make, and just nodded instead, as I made a move towards the drawers where I’d put my clothes. My eyes were drawn to the coffee, which continued to dribble down the wall onto the carpet, and I realised I was going to have to make an attempt to clear it up before I even considered going out anywhere.

‘Sorry about this, Mum.’

I gestured pathetically at the splatters and the pile of clothes I’d freshly dirtied.

‘Point me in the direction of wall cleaner and I’ll bung this lot in the washing machine.’

Mum stood with her hand on her hip looking, of all things, amused.

‘Do you even know how to turn the washing machine on?’

Well she had me there, not that I was about to admit it. Ayesh had always done the laundry. I’d lifted the basket from the bedroom to the kitchen, if it was really full.

‘How hard can it be?’

‘Alright, sweetheart, you give it a go, but let me do this.’

She pointed at the wall.

‘I’d quite like not to have to repaint it once you’ve finished.’

‘You’re a legend, Mum.’

I hated fighting with her. I hated fighting with anyone, but it felt extra wrong with Mum. I wanted to show her I was trying, even if I’d done something huge to seriously piss her off.

‘So I’m told. Let me know if you need help with the laundry.

I snorted my contempt for that, and carried the coffee-stained pile of clothing to the utility room.

Some while later, as I was on my seventh ‘for fuck’s sake’ and about to launch a bottle of Lenor through the utility room window, Mum popped her head round the door.

‘How are you getting on, sweetheart?’

I looked at her trying-not-to-be-smug expression as she realised I hadn’t even managed to put the detergent in the right place yet, let alone figure out which programme to put it on, or how the hell to do that, and admitted defeat.

‘This shouldn’t be that hard. Why is it so hard?’

Mum took the Lenor out of my hand, to avoid having to contact a glazier on a Sunday as much as to help me, and opened a compartment so well hidden it should have contained a nuclear detonator rather than a few millilitres of manky water and some soap scum.

‘How the fuck did you do that? I’ve been trying to find where to put the liquid for bloody hours.’

‘It’s not that hard, sweetheart. Can you manage the wash programme, or do you need help with that too.’

It is sometimes very hard not to tell your mum to fuck off, especially when she so deserves it for being a smart-arse, but I contained my rage at the why-does-it-have-to-be-so-bloody-complicated washing machine and answered as meekly as I could.

‘Help me, please.’

‘Alright, if you insist. Have you at least put the clothes in the drum?’

‘Yeah, I’m not a total numbskull.’

Mum gave me a look that told me just how much of a numbskull she thought I was, which was, actually, total; then she turned a dial and pressed a button, and the machine began filling with water.

‘One day, you are so going to have to show me how to do that.’

‘How about today?’

‘No, I’m busy going to watch Josh play in his final. What about the wall, though?’

‘It’s done.’

‘What? But you haven’t had time …’

‘Cal, it’s done. Honestly, you are hopeless. I’m surprised Ayesha didn’t kick you out years ago.’

I stared at her, as she looked at me mischievously.

‘What? I can’t make a joke?’

‘Poor taste, Mum.’

‘They’re the best sort.’

She patted my arm, and I walked out of the utility room shaking my head at my bewildering mother.

Next up was Dad. He wasn’t going to like being bothered with Raiders trivia on a Sunday, but I really wanted to double check it was OK not to wear my kit, as I didn’t want to be there in an official capacity if I could at all help it.

I was going to be coaching the Colts next season, and I got to as many games as my post-match hangover allowed (not that I ever had one, of course) to get to know how things worked. When I was in my Raiders hoody, people were more likely to recognise me, and I was more like some kind of public property, invited to comment on how good little Tommy was as a full-back, would he be better as a centre, was blitz defence a better tactic against Crusaders, that number eight should have been yellow carded shouldn’t he … I just wanted to be as anonymous as possible while I supported Josh.

Dad was just coming out of the shower as I got to the top of the stairs. He ran a hand through his hair and nodded at me.

‘Alright?’

‘So so, I suppose. Dad, sorry to talk business on your day off, but is it OK to wear civvies to the final?’

Dad frowned, presumably at the work nature of the question.

‘I suppose. You’re not coaching until next season. Want to keep a low profile?’

‘Sort of. Might try a floppy hat and sunglasses.’

‘Yeah, that’ll make sure you don’t stand out. I left Rhys’s number on the kitchen counter.’

Now it was my turn to frown. I’d almost forgotten about talking to the club psychologist, with the morning’s cleaning escapades, but it reminded me that I really had a lot to sort through before I was going to be anywhere near playing rugby again.

‘Cheers. I’ll give him a bell.’

‘Be strong, Cal. Stay positive.’

‘Trying my best.’

Having been given the go ahead to dress incognito, I slipped a pair of joggers on, a hoody and a big beany hat that I pulled down over my eyebrows. Then I picked up the number Dad had left and called Rhys.

Once I’d filled him in on the nature of my headfuckedness and told him about the tight deadline for becoming unheadfucked, Rhys offered to see me in the afternoon. It was more than generous of him; everyone had the day off after a game, and he was eating in to his time with his own family. I gratefully accepted, and set off for the Colts game.

Watching a group of under fourteens play rugby is always an education. Their enthusiasm knows no bounds, and they are just starting to test out newly found strength, which is warring with newly experienced growth spurts and lack of coordination. It’s the time that makes or breaks boys as potential players, as seemingly skilful young players develop a shape or size that does not always match the way they move. But if they are coached the right way, they can be helped to develop to the best of their potential, and I was looking forward to coaching them next season.

I arrived just after kick off, and took my place on the touchline, trying to give off ‘don’t talk to me’ vibes by standing with my hands in my pockets and my shoulders hunched. Josh noticed me, and it was to his credit that he did nothing except smile and turn back to the game. He was a useful little player, and although he was one of the youngest out there, he showed his skill and toughness by shrugging off three tackles to score the first try of the game.

Even if I hadn’t known it was Josh who scored, the loud cheer from the boy’s overenthusiastic father would have alerted me. Matty went to nearly all of Josh’s games, when his health permitted, and this time Lau was with him as well. Lau hardly ever watched rugby, at any level, declaring herself uninterested in any sport that didn’t involve eating cake, so this final must have been important to her. They were standing on the opposite touchline to me, and I made my way round to stand with them, hoping that by being all together, I might avoid being approached.

‘Heh Cal. Did yuh see my boy?’

‘Yeah, Matty. Great try.’

‘He’s soh gona play fuh England.’

I let Matty get away with this kind of speculation because he was my uncle. We both knew it was important for Josh to dream of playing for his country without assuming it was a foregone conclusion, but Matty loved a bit of wild imagining when it came to his kids. Ella was, according to him, going to be a famous author, having written ten best selling crime thrillers by the time she was twenty.

‘One step at a time, Matty. The selectors might be here, though.’

‘Rehly? Where?’

I laughed as Matty looked around him wildly, as if Gareth Jenkins’ dad was suddenly going to get a clipboard out and start scribbling notes on the players.

‘I don’t know, they keep a low profile. Under sixteens nationals isn’t far away, though, if he carries on as he is.’

‘Yuh think soh?’

‘Yeah. Looking forward to coaching him next season, he’s a great little player.’

‘Ah yuhr jus buttering up an old man.’

‘Yeah, you’re right. Trying to get in your will.’

‘Fuck off, no chance of tha, mate. Lau’s getting all my worldlies.’

‘Oh, is there much, Matt?’

‘Yuh know thehr is, Lau. Thehr’s my Chewbacca poster an my life-size Glenn Hoddle. Worth a fohtune.’

‘Oh no, not the same Twobacker poster and Gary Waddle model I put out for the bins last Tuesday?’

‘Oh Lau, yuh didn’t! Tha’s yuhr inheritance blown yuh dozy cow.’

I laughed at their messing about. Matty and Lau were always the same, fake bickering but really crazy about each other.

We all turned our attention back to the game, which Raiders Colts were just winning, but Lau moved so she was standing next to me.

‘How are you, Cal?’

I kept my eyes on the field as I answered, not trusting myself to cope with seeing the sympathy in her eyes that I could hear in her voice.

‘Oh, you know. Not great. Mum had to go and see Ayesh last night, she was in a bad way, and I talked to Chrissie this morning, and she’s finished it too. So, like you said, I’m left with neither.’

‘Oh Cal. I’m so sorry.’

‘Yeah, well, don’t waste too much sympathy on me. I don’t really deserve it.’

‘Don’t say that, flower. Are you sure it’s finished with Chrissie?’

‘Yeah. She felt too guilty about being the reason I broke up with Ayesh, couldn’t handle it.’

‘Maybe it’s just early days.’

‘She sounded pretty sure.’

‘Cal, sometimes … I know I’m butting in where it’s not wanted, but sometimes you just have to say it –’

‘Yeh, Lau, yuh never hold back when yuh’ve got something tuh say.’

‘I’d rather regret something I said, Matt, than something I didn’t say. And I think you’ll agree with this, my love.’

Matty just shrugged and let her get on with it.

‘Cal, when we talked the other night, you made Chrissie sound kind of like ‘The One’. That she was special, and you knew as soon as you saw her again that you wanted to be with her.’

‘Yeah, it kind of was like that.’

‘Does it feel like you’ve been looking for her all your life? Like whoever you were with, you’d have had to finish it to be with Chrissie?’

Lau seemed to be choosing her words deliberately, and as it was just how I felt about her, I nodded, but I wasn’t quite sure of the significance until I saw the smile on Matty’s face.

‘Oh fuck yeh, Cal. If yuh feel like tha, yuh can’t jus let her get away. Do yuh?’

‘Yeah. I suppose … yeah. It’s like everything we nearly had all those years ago, well we had it again, only we were grown up, and we just clicked again.’

‘Well then, little nephew, yuh need to stop bluhdy moping, an get the fuck after her.’

‘But she said she wants to end it.’

‘Yeh, ignore her.’

‘What?’

‘Righ, Lau?’

‘Yeah, Cal. Ignore her. Worked for me.’

‘Oh. Really?’

They both nodded, with ridiculous grins on their faces. They really were the most embarrassingly infatuated couple I had ever known, but I suddenly had a glimpse of what my future could be if I did, indeed, ignore Chrissie and not stop what we’d restarted.

A sudden roar from the handful of spectators signalled a line break for the Colts and we all turned from our talk back to the game, which we had been sadly neglecting, to cheer the try which came shortly afterwards.

My low profile and ‘hang with the rellies’ strategy worked for the most part, and I escaped unscathed at the end of the game, after congratulating Josh and taking a selfie of us both with the cup, which I posted on my Twitter account, in an attempt to appear ‘happy’ and ‘normal’, or some other thing I felt a million smiles away from being.

Matty and Lau asked me back for Sunday lunch, as Mum was still punishing the family for my sins, but I declined, in favour of a microwave meal that I bought from the supermarket on my way home. Mum and Dad had gone for their walk and a pub lunch, and I had the house to myself.

I thought about what Matty and Lau had said, and tried to decide whether I should leave Chrissie alone, or fight for her. I hadn’t come to any conclusions before it was time to meet Rhys in his office at Raiders Stadium.

I hadn’t expected to walk out of his office with my head screwed on the right way, and I didn’t, but I had made some inroads into sorting out what I wanted and how to get my rugby back on track. I realised now it was unlikely I was going to be in the right emotional state to play next weekend, and writing it off mentally helped to still some of the swirling chaos that had been assaulting me since Friday night.

I’d talked about my indecision over the right thing to do about Chrissie, and in true ‘shrink’ style, he’d turned it back on me.

‘What feels like the right thing?’

‘Oh I don’t bloody know. It’s one of the things that’s driving me loopy. How do I separate what I want from what’s right?’

‘What if what you want and what’s right are the same thing?’

It was food for thought, as if I needed any more of that, and I left his office without being any clearer about what I was going to do, but with my mind slightly more ordered than it had been for the last couple of days. Rhys agreed to see me tomorrow and Tuesday, bearing in mind my ultimatum, but so that he could give me an honest assessment rather than because he thought I would be in the right mental shape.

When I got back to Mum and Dad’s, there was a family deputation – Matty, Lau and their two, Dec, Amy and all their lot, plus Gran, had all descended uninvited for tea. Mum had whipped up a cake and some sandwiches, and it seemed that Sunday lunch had merely been delayed by a few hours, rather than cancelled. There was always so much going on with six kids and their assorted parents all battling for attention that I didn’t have time to dwell. The only awkward moment was when Ella asked me if she could borrow Ayesh’s sparkly nail polish, and the room hushed, as I explained as matter-of-factly as I could, that I wasn’t living with Ayesh any more, but maybe Lau could text her and ask.

Ella’s reaction to the news was awful; I couldn’t look at anyone else, any of the other kids who might not know, although I was pretty sure all the adults knew. Ella looked shocked, and immediately wailed:

‘But we were going shopping for my party dress.’

before being sternly told by her mum not to be so selfish, and looking mortified. I couldn’t bear her being upset, and did my best to make her feel OK about it.

‘It’s OK, Ells. Why don’t you ask Ayesh in a few days? She loves shopping with you.’

‘You’ll get your dress, Ella. We’ll ask Ayesha together, shall we?’

That was Mum, jumping in to the rescue as usual. Mum was likely to be more clued up than me as to the likelihood of Ayesh wanting anything to do with any of my thousand cousins.

Ella nodded, the subject was changed, cake was eaten, and eventually everyone left, full of food and fully indulged in Scott family life.

While I was vegging on the sofa later, watching some dire afternoon sport – could have been curling, could have been tiddlywinks for all I was paying any real attention – my phone pinged to announce a text from Iz.

I hadn’t heard from her since yesterday morning’s assault on my character, and I assumed she had thought of more insults to hurl at me. Not having the stomach for more abuse, I didn’t look at my phone immediately, and eventually forgot about the alert, so it wasn’t until I went to bed – early due to having had little sleep for two nights and having training the next day – that I checked my phone and saw her message.

How are you?

It was so unexpected. Iz often blew hot and cold, but she was loyal, and once you were in her bad books, it took a lot to get out of them. This wasn’t exactly ‘sorry’, it wasn’t exactly ‘I don’t nearly hate you’, but it was connecting. I replied straight away.

Headfucked 😦

Do u need anything?

Sisterly txts = gr8 🙂

On it.

And after that, every few waking hours or so, Iz sent me some little reminder that she was thinking of me. She didn’t apologise for any of what she’d said and texted before, that wasn’t her way, but I knew she’d been thinking about it, and had either decided she’d been a bit over the top, or that even if she hadn’t, I could do with a bit of Izzing. It made a big difference.

Iz wasn’t the only one to text me that night. Baggo saw fit to send me one of his characteristically rambling messages.

Cal mate! Haven’t seen u 4 bloody ages, we need to get wrecked ASAP! Don’t say no because ur a bloody athlete and shit. THIS WEEK NO EXCUSES!!! How’s Tues? 8pm The Crown. DON’T SAY NO!!! Got some news. Oh OK u got it out of me. Gota girl. She’s bloody awesome, tits like bloody water balloons. Come n meet her. DON’T SAY NO!!! Haven’t seen u for fucking ages, ur so domesticated and shit. Ditch the housework and come out to get hammered. DON’T SAY NO!!! Yr mate in case u forgot Baggo.

He was right, I hadn’t seen him for ages. I had been domesticated; Baggo didn’t always fit easily into my life, as mid-week drinking and womanising weren’t really acceptable for a either a professional sportsperson or a dedicated boyfriend. The thought of being introduced to Baggo’s latest woman, if indeed she lasted until Tuesday, was not one I relished, as previous encounters with Baggo’s women usually resulted in me trying to avert my eyes from the enthusiastic groping that was going on while I was trying to get to know the new love of my best mate’s life. It was kind of hard to find out about someone’s family, job and life ambitions while you couldn’t actually look in their direction for fear of seeing something illegal in public going on.

Tuesday (DON’T SAY NO!!! day) was not going to be possible to say yes to, from where I was standing on Sunday night; I really didn’t think I would be able to go over the whole Chrissie/Ayesh saga as well as telling him how I was fucking up my rugby career, and seeing him without telling him was as unthinkable. I told Baggo everything, when I actually saw him. We told each other everything. His ‘everything’ was a long list of pubs, clubs, women, their husbands and bad jobs that he either quit or got fired from, and mine was usually a developing rugby career followed by domestic bliss, sometimes the other way round just to be daring and seem a little bit dangerous like he was.

The last time I saw Baggo, we’d gone through the pregnancy scare and not trying not to have a baby. Baggo was great at listening, even if he didn’t really get what my life was like, in the same way that I didn’t really get what his was like, but we got each other. That was why we were still great mates.

So it was with a slightly heavy heart that I texted back:

Sorry mate. Got to say no this time. Lots of shit going on. Will catch up soon AND get wrecked. Need it. Cal.

A few minutes later, another text winged its way from Baggoland.

NO NO NO NO NO. Bad Callywally. Better be some REALLY BAD SHIT going on.

Pretty bad. Will see u soon tho.

Ah no ways, mate. Soz. Need anything?

That was as close as Baggo was ever going to get to prying. He always gave you space if you needed it.

Not right now. Let u know. Thx.

And that was the last of the texts and calls for the night. I turned my phone off, turned the light off, and tried to sleep. Not that successfully as it happened, none of Matty’s techniques having much of an effect on my overactive brain that particular night. The only one I didn’t try was the one that had been so disastrous yesterday.

I kept thinking about calling Chrissie, but I couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t – I didn’t know which one of those it was. It was Chrissie who was my companion throughout the night, the one who I finally fell asleep with just before dawn, and the one I woke up with just after dawn, with only a couple of hours before I had to face training.

Training. That was fun. No one in the squad knew the whole story. Some of them knew a bit of it, because Ayesh was friends with a lot of the players’ wives and girlfriends, and they’d been in text contact with her to some extent over the weekend. A team like Raiders can be a great place to be when you’re in the thick of it, supporting each other, bantering with each other, motivating each other; but it can be a lonely place to be when you’ve put yourself outside it by something you’ve done which has upset things.

I wasn’t the first Raider to leave my girl for someone else, but it didn’t happen often, and we were enough of a family for it to create the same waves it had created at home. There was some leg-pulling, some ribbing, but mostly there was an uneasiness, as people didn’t really know how to cope with me, especially as word had spread I was some kind of nutcase, on probation for my nuttiness, seeing Rhys for individual sessions. Being the coach’s son just made it more awkward.

My afternoon session with Rhys helped to go over all this, why the blokes I played with might be feeling like they were, what I could do to help us all feel less uncomfortable, how it would take time. The more I was told that, the more I was able to accept it, that regardless of my own personal time frame, I was only going to be able to concentrate on playing when I was ready. It was frustrating, but there it was.

The next day was Tuesday, ultimatum day, and I went to see Dad to tell him I wasn’t up to scratch. He nodded and said he’d talk to Rhys, if it was OK. As far as I was concerned, it felt similar to having a physical injury I was having treatment for, so Dad had as much right to talk to Rhys as he would one of the physios.

I just couldn’t get my head together. This wasn’t like me, I never let things get to me, and yeah, maybe it was the biggest baddest thing that had ever happened to me, but I couldn’t remember ever before letting my personal stuff get in the way of doing what I loved, which was running around a field with a ball in my hand. Other players coped with things like bereavements and just got on with it. The only thing I could do was carry on seeing Rhys and see if I could nail it.

I continued to think about Chrissie. I reached for my phone to text her or call her a hundred times a day, but didn’t actually do it. I kept going back to what Matty and Lau said at the Colts final: that I should ignore what Chrissie said and go after her, if she was the everything I thought she was. And then I’d think about how determined she’d sounded when she said we should stop, and how upset she was about feeling it was her fault, and I just didn’t know how I was going to persuade her differently, or make her talk to me. If I couldn’t make her talk to me, I didn’t stand a chance.

It wasn’t until the next weekend, after a whole week of hardly sleeping, hardly eating, and dragging myself through training in some kind of stupor, that it was made clear to me what I had to do.

Saturday morning. Raiders were away, but I was not with them. It hurt. Away games can be awesome, especially the journey home after a win, and after a miserable week training for a game I knew I wouldn’t be involved in, I was not looking forward to following the match on the radio and Twitter. Some of the other players who weren’t involved were meeting up, but I just didn’t have the heart to join them. I had been a downer all week, and knew I wouldn’t improve things for anyone if I crashed the get-together.

Mum was busy doing whatever it was she managed to keep herself busy with for most of every day, and Dad was away with the team. I was lying listlessly on the sofa, trying to motivate myself to get out of my PJs and do something productive.

The front door opened, a bright ‘Anyone around?’ was shouted, and my sister was home.

‘Iz?’

‘Hey.’

‘What are you doing here?’

‘Well that’s nice, isn’t it. Looks like I got here just in time to stop you turning into the man who never gets dressed.’

I stood up to give her a hug.

‘Eurgh, no hugs until you’re wearing trousers. Go on.’

She shooed me away, calling out as I was on my way upstairs.

‘Where’s Mum?’

‘Utility room? Bathroom? Dunno.’

‘I’m here! Oh sweetheart, what a lovely surprise.’

I left Mum and Iz hugging in the hallway while I had a quick shower and got dressed. I don’t know why I was so quick to do what Iz told me; it didn’t usually work, but today I must have been in the mood to be bossed.

‘That’s better. Honestly, Cal, what were you doing lounging around in your PJs at eleven in the morning? Mum, what were you thinking letting him?’

‘Your brother has been taking it easy lately.’

‘Not any more. I’m here to sort your life out, big brother.’

‘Good luck with that.’

‘Yes, sweetheart, I tend to agree.’

‘Nope, no negative thinking. I have a whole two days, well, one and a half, well maybe twenty-four hours before I need to absolutely be going back, and we are going to undo your done nut, no arguments.’

Iz was a force to be reckoned with when she got an idea in her head. It was usually easiest just to play along, so that’s what I did, while Mum sat back with an amused expression on her face.

‘Right, firstly, you need to start thinking about somewhere else to live.’

‘What?’

‘Think about it. You’re trying to move on, aren’t you?’

‘Er …’

I wouldn’t have put it that way, but I suppose so.

‘Well how are you going to do that living with your parents, sleeping in your old room?’

‘Er …’

I obviously had all the snappy answers.

‘Exactly. So we can agree that first thing on Monday, you’re getting the Herald and looking for somewhere else to live, right? Well come on, why aren’t you writing it down?’

‘I need to write it down?’

‘Yeah. It’s not going to be the only thing you’re going to have to do.’

‘Oookaay …’

Mum handed me a pen and some paper, and I wondered if she’d had anything to do with Iz coming home. She had softened her stance towards my split with Ayesh over the week; even though I knew she’d been in touch with Ayesh a few times and had been to lunch with her once, she seemed a lot less angry with me about everything, and we could talk about things like me having left my raincoat at the flat without it becoming a major drama. She was, currently, noticeably taking a back-seat to Iz, who was a whirlwind of organisation and instructions.

‘OK, so write it down. Number one: Look for somewhere else to live.’

I looked at Mum, who I thought should be protesting this just a little bit. Didn’t all mums want their sons to live with them forever? And didn’t this particular mum resent her bossy daughter barging in and taking over the role of ordering this particular son about? But Mum just raised her eyebrow and let Iz carry on. I wrote on the paper, feeling petulant and not quite in control.

‘Good. Right, next thing on the list. Stop moping.’

‘Yeah, good one Iz. I do that how exactly?’

‘By stopping moping. By, instead of moping, just, not. Write it down.’

‘I’ll write it down by all means, but could you just explain to me how the fuck I manage to do it. You do know my girlfriend kicked me out just over a week ago, don’t you?’

‘Yeah, Cal, we all know, yawn.’

Yawn?

‘Time to move on. Come on, on the list.’

Shaking my head, I wrote it down.

‘OK, so you’ve got somewhere to live, you’re feeling less mopey, now you need to get out a bit. Number three: night on the piss.’

‘Iz!’

‘What, Mum?’

‘Language.’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, you let Cal get away with any bloody thing that comes out of his mouth but I can’t even say piss? Well guess what, I’ve lived with Cal and Dad, and been in close proximity to Matty and Dec all my life, and it was always going to happen. Get the fuck over it.’

I was loving the sight of my mother silenced by my sister, or more accurately by my sister’s foul mouth. I loved it for about three seconds before the focus once again turned to me and my list, and I quickly wrote ‘Night on the piss’ at number three, before I could be shouted at again. I was almost starting to enjoy myself.

‘Next thing you need is a bloody good shag.’

‘Honestly, Isobel Flora –’

‘Mum, just leave this to me. If you can’t take the brutal truth, maybe you should just wait in the kitchen. Cal – bloody good shag. On the list.’

‘No.’

‘Yep.’

‘No, Iz. That’s not going to happen.’

‘Because?’

‘Because the last time it happened was with the last person I ever want it to happen with.’

I saw Iz screw up her face as she tried to unpick what I meant. I hadn’t even realised myself what I meant until I’d said it. I couldn’t see me sleeping with anyone, ever, who wasn’t Chrissie, that’s what I meant. Iz took a while, but got there. Years of arguing with me had helped her to be able to filter out the garbledness from what I said and extract the meaning. Her face took on a sentimental expression.

‘Aww you old softy. I think what you meant to say is the last person you shagged is the only person you ever want to shag.’

‘Iz, really. Do you have to be so coarse?’

‘Yeah, Mum, I think I do. People have been pussy-footing around trying not to upset each other, and plain-speaking is needed. Cal, am I right about the shagging?’

‘I suppose so.’

Iz clapped her hands and squealed like a little girl.

‘I thought so. Matty said you were, like, soulmates, and he didn’t know why you weren’t throwing yourself under her car to be with her.’

‘You’ve talked to Matty?’

‘I’ve talked to everyone. God Cal, you can be incredibly self-obsessed sometimes. You know what it’s like, we all talk about everyone.’

‘Mum, does this include you?’

Of course it did, Mum talked about us all whenever she got the chance. She had the decency to look a tiny bit ashamed, but only for a second and then she defended herself.

‘Sweetheart, I only ever have people’s best interests at heart. I just want what’s best for you, and talking it through with everyone helps me to see what that is.’

‘Oh, so please do let me in on the secret. What the fuck is ‘best for me’?’

‘Well, hard as it is for me to accept, I think what’s best for you is Chrissie. You’re certainly not happy without her.’

This conversation was turning truly weird. Mum and Iz who both, a week ago, had given me such a hard time for leaving Ayesh and wanting to be with Chrissie, were now actively encouraging me to be with the woman who they had previously claimed had ruined both their lives by depriving them of a wedding. I was speechless.

I put the paper and the pen down on the coffee table and looked at both of them.

‘OK, then, you’re both so bloody clever, Chrissie won’t answer my calls.’

‘Dur.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Jesus Cal, I know I’m the one who’s at Uni and everything, but I thought you had a bit of a brain cell left in that rugby-bashed skull of yours. You know where she lives, right?’

‘Yeah …’

‘So go and see her.’

And so that’s how I ended up in Mum’s car, being driven at a scary speed round the bypass on the way to Chrissie’s flat. Iz wouldn’t let me drive, or take my car, as she apparently wanted to be in charge of the whole big adventure.

‘Jesus, Iz, slow down, you’re going to fucking kill us.’

‘Don’t be such a baby. Speed is of the essence.’

‘Why, exactly?’

‘Love doesn’t wait.’

‘It’s waited ten years or so. A few more minutes might not hurt, especially if it means getting there alive.’

Iz flipped me the finger, and I stopped telling her off; the risk of making her take any more hands off the controls was just too frightening. There was now time for a few of the things Iz had said in her speed-intervention to filter in.

‘When you said you’ve talked to everyone, who did you mean?’

‘Well … everyone. I thought that was pretty clear.’

‘Did you talk to Ayesh?’

There was a short silence while Iz bit her lip, wondering what she should tell me, which actually told me the answer.

‘It’s OK, Iz. I don’t mind, I don’t want people to stop talking to her.’

‘Oh. Well yeah, then. I’ve called her quite a lot, and texted.’

‘How is she?’

Over the past week, I had been torn between leaving Ayesh alone and contacting her. I had no right to be worried about her, but I was worried, and Mum wasn’t giving me much information. I wanted to know she was OK, or at least as OK as she could be, but without her begging me to come back like she had the last time I’d spoken to her. Yeah, I was taking the easy way out by just letting my indecision do my deciding.

‘Oh, you know.’

‘No, I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.’

‘OK, then, she’s a fucking mess. She hasn’t been to work all week, she spends all day crying in that huge flat of yours where all your stuff isn’t, she doesn’t get dressed half the time, and she beats herself up all day and night about what she did to make you leave.’

The picture she painted was worse, much worse, than I’d imagined, which although bad was more along the lines of Ayesh nobly soldiering on, feeling a bit sad, but filling the gaps left by my smelly trainers with newly purchased Jimmy Choos.

‘Fuck.’

‘Yeah, well, you asked.’

‘I don’t know if I should call her.’

Iz, scarily, turned to look at me. It was scary not only because she looked like she thought I had lost my mind and she was sharing the car with a lunatic, but also because she was no longer even keeping up the pretence of watching the traffic on the road ahead.

‘Are you off your fucking trolley? Oh yeah, that’s right, you are. Do not call her, Cal. Leave her alone. You’ve done enough.’

‘She wanted me to go round last week, after I took my stuff.’

‘Yeah, I know, and I thought it showed admirable moral fibre of you to send Mum instead. Don’t be messing with her now, she’s fragile.’

‘Jesus. I wish there was something I could do.’

‘There is nothing. Don’t go popping up, being all nice to her, giving her hugs and shit, I know what you’re like. She’ll think she’s still got a chance. She doesn’t still have a chance, does she?’

It was mostly a statement, but a little bit of a hopeful question.

‘No.’

‘Well I’m glad you’re clear about that, at least. She’s got plenty of friends and ex-boyfriends’ sisters and mums who she can use as a support group.’

‘That’s just weird.’

‘Don’t think about it, then. Seriously, Cal, I’m here for you, to help you do this, and I’m there for Ayesh as well, but they’re completely separate things. It’s not like I want to be a go-between, or anything, OK? If it makes you feel weird, don’t ask me about her.’

It did make me feel weird, not only thinking about Ayesh talking to Iz and Mum, and for all I knew, everyone else in my family, but thinking about them advising her to move on and forget me. It’s not like I wanted her to become a nun and live out the rest of her life being sad about what I’d done to her, but it brought home to me that our paths had now split, that nothing I did from now on would be linked to anything that she did. Lost in my thoughts, I hadn’t realised Iz was speaking, and now she was pissed off that she’d had to repeat herself.

‘For fuck’s sake, Cal, is it left or right here? Come on, I’ve had to slow down now.’

‘Go right. Not that slowing down is necessarily a bad thing. Did you ever pay any attention to your driving instructor?’

‘Only enough to get through the test. My driving role model is Dad.’

‘That explains a lot. Turn left here.’

As we made our way down the road to Chrissie’s flat, I realised we weren’t going to be able to stop outside, because there was a big lorry parked right in front of the building.

‘Oh great, there’s nowhere to park. Look, the pillock’s put cones out down half the road. Get out here, Cal, I’ll dump the car somewhere and find you.’

‘Er, no thanks. I don’t think you’re going to help much, Iz. I’ll get the bus home or something.’

‘Well hopefully, you won’t need to go home, Captain Dipshit, you’ll be ensconced in passion for the night. That is what you’re intending, isn’t it?’

I hadn’t actually thought about what I was going to do when I got here; Iz had come home and taken over, and I’d just let her and gone along with it all. And now here I was. I didn’t know what I was going to do or say. Iz had stopped the car in the middle of the road, though, and there were a few cars behind her that were impatient for her to get moving again, if the revving engines and tooting horns were anything to go by.

‘Whatever. See you later, Iz. Thanks for the lift, but go home now.’

I got out and stood on the pavement, looking up at the flats as Iz drove off. Now I was here, outside, on my own, I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, what had driven me here (apart from my crazy, interfering sister, obviously). Maybe I wouldn’t know what I wanted to say or do until I saw Chrissie.

I moved hesitantly towards the front door, and that’s when I saw her. She was following two men out; they were carrying a sofa, and she – she was carrying a big cardboard box with ‘KITCHEN’ written on it in black marker pen. Oh my God – she was moving out. She looked up, saw me, and froze, as did I.

‘Cal …’

‘Chrissie … what … where are you going?’

‘Back.’

‘Back where?’

‘Up north.’

‘Why? Why are you leaving?’

‘I can’t be here, not any more I thought I could, but I can’t be where you are and not be with you. And I can’t be with you.’

‘You can’t just go. What about us?’

‘I can’t do us, Cal. It hurts too many people.’

‘But not doing us, that hurts me. And you. You know you feel the same as I do.’

‘Yeah, I do. But I’ve been where your girlfriend was, and it’s nasty, it’s shitty, and I don’t want to be the one who’s done that to her.’

‘But if you go – that won’t change anything for her. I won’t go back to her.’

Chrissie shrugged and shifted the box in her arms. It felt like I wasn’t going to be able to change her mind, whatever I did or said, and I felt her slipping away from me.

‘I can’t do this right now, Cal, I’m in the middle of moving out.’

Chrissie nodded her head in the direction of the men carrying the sofa, who were about to load it into the lorry that was semi-blocking the road. I hadn’t even noticed it was a removal lorry.

‘Me and Ayesh, we would have split sooner or later. It’s probably better that it’s sooner.’

‘Don’t ever say it’s better.’

I knew Chrissie had been through a bad break up, but I hadn’t truly appreciated until now how much it had screwed her up.

‘Chrissie, please. I can’t believe you’re just going to leave, leave us behind. It’s like when you went before. You’re breaking me.’

The tears began to form in my eyes, and I could hardly keep them in check. My voice was wobbling all over the place, and my face was contorted with the effort of not crying. If I thought I’d gone fruit-loops over the last week, that was nothing compared to how broken I was going to be if Chrissie left me again.

Chrissie put her box down as the removal men walked back into the building for the next load. She looked up at me, her face showing signs of the same struggle that I was feeling in her frown and trembling lips.

‘Please, Cal. Please just let me go.’

‘I can’t. I seriously can’t let you walk out on me again.’

I was getting desperate. The truck looked like it was nearly full, and that meant she was close to driving away.

‘Cal …’

‘No Chrissie. If I have to unload every single thing on that lorry and keep on doing it all night, I will, but I’m not letting you go.’

‘And I’ll help him. Hey Chrissie, how’s things.’

And my can’t-keep-her-nose-out-or-do-as-she’s-told-just-once-in-her-life sister chose that moment to ignore everything I’d told her, and butt in. Chrissie stared at her, looking startled and confused. Iz, however, looked like she was enjoying herself very much.

‘Well you haven’t changed much, but I guess I might have done since I was nine.’

‘Iz, piss off.’

‘Iz? God. What are you doing here?’

‘Same as Cal. Well, maybe not exactly the same, but same end goal. Bloody hell, are you moving out? We were just in time. Have you finished yet, Cal? Only Mum wants her car back.’

‘I told you to go, there’s no need to stay.’

‘Well, that depends. I need to check you’re not fucking everything up before I go, otherwise I will have wasted a weekend of clubbing and partying by coming home to sort you out.’

Chrissie and I stared at each other, not speaking. Iz rolled her eyes and sighed loudly.

‘I take it from the fact that a mattress is just about to be loaded onto the lorry and that you two aren’t snogging each other senseless, that you haven’t actually sealed the deal?’

‘Iz, back off.’

‘No. Chrissie, you do know that my brother is going to live a sexless existence if you leave, deprived of a shag from another woman as long as he lives?’

‘What?’

‘Yep, from his own mouth. ‘The last woman I shagged will be the only woman I will ever shag’. Or words to that effect, maybe he was a bit less blunt, but I sense we’re on a bit of a tight schedule here, and the fewer misunderstandings the better. He meant he only ever wants to be with you. Ever.’

Chrissie was looking, open-mouthed, from me to Iz and back again. I shook my head at my sister, but she was unstoppable.

‘Tell me I’m wrong, then, Cal. Tell me if Chrissie walks out of your life, you can imagine yourself picking up and starting again with someone else?’

Just because it was Iz telling me what to do, I tried really hard to do the opposite, but I couldn’t. Couldn’t imagine it, and couldn’t say it either.

‘No.’

‘No. Quite. Chrissie, it has been suggested by certain parties that you might feel the same way. True or false?’

‘That’s not –’

‘Ah ah, true or false. One word answer.’

Chrissie was stunned into answering. Ella is the lawyer of the family, but Iz could have done it too if she’d had a mind to, she could tie you in mental knots about your choice of breakfast cereal.

‘True. But –’

‘So what the pigging fuck are you doing leaving? Do you know how much shit I’m going to have to put up with from this lump if he’s miserable for the rest of his life? It was bad enough when you left last time, he was such a grouch, he went to bed for three days, and then we couldn’t get a civil word out of him for a good year after that. We’ve just about got him back to sociable. Don’t tell me you’re going to fuck all that up for us?’

‘Iz, I really think –’

‘Really, Cal? Have you been actually thinking with that tiny brain of yours, or have you just been using it to mope? Look at that lorry. It is filled with the possessions of this woman. If the lorry drives away, full of that stuff, that’s it. Last chance over. Why the fuck you weren’t over here before now I don’t know, but if you blow this, you’re off my Christmas list for good.’

And like the bulldozer she was, Iz was getting through. It suddenly became clear how close I was to losing Chrissie. This really was my last chance. I would never, ever see her again if I let her go now. That was not going to happen. Iz saw something in my face that satisfied her, and she nodded.

‘Ah, I see you’ve got it at last. One down, one to go.’

Iz turned to Chrissie.

‘Any chance you could put him out of his misery soonish? It’s bloody cold out here.’

‘It’s not as simple as –’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake. OK. Words of one syllable. He loves you. You love him. Don’t waste it. Hey, they actually were all one syllable, how cool is that?’

Chrissie looked newly torn by indecision. That was way better than her being certain that leaving was the only thing she could do. I decided to press my advantage and, spurred on by Iz’s over-confident berating of both of us, as well as her words of one syllable ringing in my ears, I moved towards Chrissie, held her face in my hands, and kissed her.

I felt her resist, as if she was going to pull away, but it lasted a split second, and then she melted into me and kissed me back, until we were kissing like the world was ending. My hands moved into her hair, and hers moved round my neck, and still we kissed, bodies folded together, mouths openly tasting each other, worlds away, wrapped up in each other. I felt everything click into place, like the last piece of a jigsaw.

‘Well I don’t know why you just didn’t do that before. Er, Chrissie. Chrissie. Chrissie!’

Chrissie pulled away from me, and I watched the otherworldliness drain away from her eyes too, like I felt it melt away from me, as she focussed on Iz.

‘Er, these guys have just finished loading up your lorry. Do you have anything to tell them?’

Chrissie looked at me, and I looked back, holding my breath. I knew now that I would literally throw myself under her car to be with her, as Matty had suggested, but if she left, the process would be a lot more complicated and that course of action would probably involve major surgery and a change of career for me.

‘But I’ve given up my tenancy.’

‘Come and live with me.’

‘Where?’

‘Mum and Dad’s’

‘You are not serious.’

‘For, like, the shortest time ever. We’ll find somewhere on Monday, soon as the estate agents open, first place we look at, even if it’s shit. It’s already on my list of things to do.’

I glanced at Iz, who was smirking at my reference to her control freakery of earlier in the day.

‘But all my stuff …’

‘Dad’s just cleared out the garage, it should all fit.’

‘But my job …’

‘Get a new one.’

Chrissie laughed and her shoulders slumped in mock defeat. I couldn’t quite believe it, not yet, because she hadn’t said the words, but she hadn’t said no, and maybe –

‘OK. You win. Or rather your sister does. God, Iz, when did you get so grown up and bossy?’

Iz just smiled, smugly, and for once chose not to reply.

‘So, my stuff. You really think your garage will have room? And your Mum and Dad won’t mind me staying?’

Iz pulled her phone out.

‘On it.’

‘Iz, maybe I should be the one to call them …’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. Mum needs to be skilfully handled, not hit with a sledgehammer.’

Iz walked down the road a little way, so we couldn’t hear how skilfully she was hitting Mum with a sledgehammer. Chrissie turned to the removal guys, who had sat down on the wall outside the building and were looking at us impatiently.

‘Any chance we could negotiate a change of plan?’

It turned out they were more than happy to drive a few miles up the road, unload the lorry into Dad’s garage, and be home in time for dinner, for the same fee as driving up north and not being back until tomorrow afternoon, and so we were just waiting on Iz’s negotiating expertise with Mum to bear fruit. Iz had walked nearer, and we could hear snatches of her end of the conversation.

‘… until Monday … room bonking you won’t have to … sake, they’re in love … your idea in the … happy … lorry’s loaded … while it’s still light … won’t regret it … love you Mum.’

She turned to us with a triumphant smile, possibly the only person in the history of the world to persuade my mother to do something she didn’t want to do.

‘Sorted. Right, I’m going to take Mum’s car back so she can go to Trish’s. Dad won’t be back till tonight, I reckon you’ll have hours to yourselves, even with unloading everything. I’m sure you’ll think of something to do.’

‘Where will you be?’

‘Oh, I’m going back to Uni, now. If I catch the three fifteen, I can be there in time for Sasha’s party.’

‘You just got here.’

‘Yeah, but my mission is complete. I’m outta here.’

Some time later, curled up in bed with Chrissie – the only woman, it turns out, I ever wanted to shag for the rest of my life – we’d had time to draw breath. Just about. I stroked her cheek and looked deep into her eyes, and she gazed back at me, with the same astonished look on her face that I must have had on mine.

‘Your sister really is something else.’

‘Yeah, she really is.’

‘She’s almost as annoying as she was when she was nine.’

‘I know. I kind of like it, though. Gets results.’

‘Yeah. Do you think she’d talk to your dad about why he can’t get his car in the garage any more?’

‘Nah, I reckon we’re on our own with that one. That’s Iz, swoops in like a one-woman SWAT team, then pisses off and leaves the fall out to be dealt with by the minions.’

‘Is that what we are, minions in our own story?’

‘You’d better believe it. Iz wouldn’t have it any other way.’

‘Cal?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I love you.’

‘I love you, Chrissie.’

And so, well, I won’t say that was the end of my headfuckedness, because to be truthful I didn’t really get sorted for a while, even though my concentration came back, and I managed to get back in the Raiders team for the last couple of games of the season, but it was the beginning of the end of it.

127. Dark days

In which help is sought, and judgements are made.

I texted Ayesh to tell her what time I was going to be at the flat, to give her time to leave in case she was still there. I didn’t get a reply, and had to assume it would be OK. I had no idea what the right thing to do was in this situation; it was still technically a flat we shared, I still had a key, both of our names were on the tenancy, but it didn’t feel like somewhere I could just turn up at and let myself in any more

I met Dec outside. He had brought bin bags and a couple of suitcases, which I hadn’t even thought about bringing, and he met me with a sympathetic grimace. He also met me with Matty, who he seemed to have filled in on some of the story.

‘Hey Cal. Hope you don’t mind, Matt’s along for the ride.’

‘Yeah, mate, didn’t trust Summers tuh lift anything heavy down the steps.’

‘And I thought Matt might just about be able to work the kettle to make us a drink while we’re busy doing the heavy lifting.’

I gave them a weak smile at their banter. I really wasn’t in the mood for arsing about. Dec’s face grew serious.

‘Matt says there’s someone else.’

‘Yeah, not out here, Dec. Can we just get inside?’

They followed me up the stairs, and waited as I put the key in the door. It felt really weird, as if I was visiting rather than coming back to the place I’d called home yesterday. My head started to spin, and I had to sit down as soon as I got in.

I looked around, and nothing there made any sense. My trainers were under the coffee table, next to Ayesh’s bunny slippers. My hoody was draped over the sofa. My X-box controller was in the middle of the floor. It was as if I’d never left, but it felt like I left a lifetime ago.

I couldn’t move, couldn’t even begin to decide what to take with me. Ayesh said if I didn’t take my stuff, she’d put it in the skip. What was mine? What was hers? What was ours?

‘Where are weh gona start, then?’

‘God, I don’t know.’

‘Mate, are you sure it’s definite? You weren’t just over-reacting?’

‘No, Dec. She told me to get the fuck out, right after I told her I’d slept with someone else. It seemed pretty reasonable to me.’

‘Maybe she’ll reconsider.’

‘I don’t think so. And even if she does, it’s over.’

‘Lau said she migh beh pregnant?’

I leaned forwards and ran my hands over my face. I really didn’t want to get into all this, but people seemed to want to know about it all, to go over everything, and maybe I deserved the torture.

‘Yeah, she might be. We’d sort of been semi-trying.’

‘Holy shit, Cal.’

‘Yeah. I’m hoping she’ll let me know pretty soon, because it’s fucking with my head not to know.’

‘What will you do if she is?’

‘I don’t know. I won’t know until I know, if that makes any sense. All of this, I’ve just been reacting to what’s going on. Every time I thought I knew what I’d do, but when it happened, I did something different. Look, can we just get on with this, I can’t do talking about it right now.’

‘No worries mate, but you seemed a bit uncertain where you wanted to start. Matt, go and make us some coffee.’

‘Yes oh lord and master and may one enquire of what your last slave perished? Was ih being commanded tuh jump off a cliff perchance?’

‘Piss off. I only asked because you make it better than me or Cal.’

‘Oh. Fair enuhf.’

Dec took the suitcases into the bedroom, then came back and pulled me onto my feet.

‘Clothes first, mate. That’s easy. Take all yours and leave all Ayesh’s. Unless there’s a little black lacy number that’s just for you, then shove it under your sweats and I won’t tell.’

‘Piss off.’

Dec’s teasing was having the desired effect, which was presumably making me think about something not full of misery, and for a while I just concentrated on emptying my wardrobe and drawers. I tried not to think about why I was doing it; just filling the suitcases. Matty made coffee for us all, and helped himself to stuff from the kitchen to make sandwiches. He could never resist messing about with other people’s ingredients.

Once the clothes were packed, though, I had to think about what else I was going to take. Nothing that we’d bought together, like the TV, the furniture, the laptop, some pictures. Things that were just mine, like my iPad, my X-box, my framed Glastonbury poster from the year we went, which was kind of a joint thing, but Ayesh gave it to me for my birthday, so it was mine wasn’t it?

‘Books?’

Matty was looking at the bookshelves.

‘They’re mostly Ayesh’s. Maybe a few comic books.’

‘Yuhr a Philistine Calum Scott.’

‘Bite me.’

‘DVDs?’

‘Nothing I’m bothered about keeping. Oh, maybe I should take them though, so she doesn’t have to chuck them.’

Dec and Matty looked at each other and shook their heads. Dec was the one to say what they were thinking.

‘Seriously, mate, you don’t need to worry about that. Let Ayesh worry about what you leave behind.’

‘No, I can’t. This should be as painless as possible for her.’

Another look was exchanged, and this time Matty had the floor.

‘Cal, when Ayesh gets home and all yuhr stuff is gone, ih’s gona hurt. Even if ih’s jus yuhr clothes. Yuh had a life here, two people, an now ih’s jus one person. A few DVDs isn’t gona make any difference.’

I just looked at him, as it sank in, deeper this time, just what I was doing, and just what I was taking away from Ayesh. As I tried to comprehend it, Ayesh’s text tone sounded on my phone.

To give myself time to think, I took my phone into the bedroom and looked at the message.

You lucked out. Test negative.

Oh my God, I could hardly breathe. In fact, my breath was almost stopped in my chest, and I could hear myself gasping. Dec and Matty both came in to see what the weird noise I was making was all about.

‘Cal? Fuck, mate, what’s up?’

‘I’ll geh some water.’

I was hardly aware of them fussing and trying to get me to drink, because all I could think was ‘thank fuck thank fuck’. There wasn’t a baby. There wasn’t an unborn person whose life I was going to be shitting on before it had begun. Thank fuck.

It took a while before I could think clearly, by which time Dec and Matty were so worried about me and my lack of responsiveness that they’d called Mum. And of course, rather than just talking to them on the phone like a normal person, she’d decided to drive over and take my pulse. Before she got there, I was back from my little jaunt into ‘thank fuck’ land, but she was already on her way.

‘Hey mate. Who was your text from, then?’

‘Nice ohn, Dec.’

Matty was rolling his eyes, as if Dec asking about the text was going to send me back where I’d been. Who knows, it could have I suppose. But it didn’t.

‘Ayesh. She’s not pregnant.’

‘Oh mate that’s great! Er … isn’t it?’

There was obviously something on my face that made him doubt it, and to be honest I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t feeling as overjoyed as I’d imagined I would. Maybe it was something to do with the things I’d been expecting to feel before all this madness had started. A few weeks ago a negative result would have been a bit disappointing, not cause for celebration. Now, it felt wrong to say it was great, although obviously neither Ayesh nor I would have wanted anything else right now. It was just another sign of how screwed this whole thing was. I replied with just one word.

Thanks.

Then Mum arrived, and fussing commenced. She’d brought her blood pressure tester, her stethoscope, a thermometer and a few other bits of nurse paraphernalia which she had no right to use when she hadn’t been an official nurse since before I was born.

I let her do it all, just to prove I was OK, and then we had to go into what had caused all the worry in the first place, and she looked both sad and happy at the same time when she found out she wasn’t going to be a granny. Probably because she was sad about not being a granny, but happy that she wasn’t going to be a granny to someone whose parents were at war with each other. Was I at war with Ayesh? I hoped not, I would like things to be civilised, even friendly, but I knew I had no right to even want that, let alone ask it, and if Ayesh wanted a war … well I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

After Mum had pronounced me fit to travel, I had a final look around to see if there was anything else I didn’t want to go in a skip, then Dec, Matty and Mum took my stuff down to the cars.

I stayed in the flat for a while, just looking at all the empty spaces where my things had been, and thinking about how it would feel to Ayesh when she came home. Matty was right, and thinking about it, he’d had it happen to him a couple of times, being the one who came back to half a home. It was going to hurt her. I could only think of one thing I could do, and it wasn’t going to make anything better. I left a note, with no expectation that it would end up anywhere other than in the bin without even being read.

Ayesh

This is shit. I hate what I’ve done to you and I’m sorry. I know I’ve hurt you very badly, and I wish I hadn’t.

I will always be here if you need a friend, but I can understand that you may never want to see me again.

With sadness

Cal

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I didn’t want to ask her to forgive me, because what I’d done was unforgivable. I didn’t want to say I loved her, because that would be unfair, and I didn’t want to say anything that would suggest I wanted to come back.

So I had a final look around, propped the note up on the table, and left with my family and my possessions, while a large bit of my heart stayed behind.

While I was on my way down the stairs, I thought of someone else who should know the no-baby news, and I texted Lau. She told me to take care, and althought this might have been better advice to have got before I started this, I doubt I would have listened, so maybe I should start now.

The rest of the day was taken up with moving my stuff back into my old room at Mum and Dad’s. Dad was at the game, Mum was out somewhere else, and I needed to keep myself busy.

My old room seemed a lot smaller than it used to, and I ended up putting a lot of my things in Iz’s room. She’d moan when she came back for the holidays, but maybe I would have moved somewhere else by then.

I kept avoiding thinking about the next thing I needed to do. Contact Chrissie. We’d agreed to have a rest for a few days, and to be completely honest I didn’t have the strength to think about what leaving Ayesh meant to me and Chrissie right now. I couldn’t just jump from leaving one woman to a full-on thing with another one, I needed some time to get my head round how I was really feeling. Part of me wanted to just contact Chrissie and say ‘I’ve left, let’s do this’, but most of me just needed not to be in the middle of some new emotional storm.

While I was trying not to think about any of this by sorting my socks into pairs, something I don’t think I’d ever done before in my life, Iz’s bright and breezy tone rang out on my phone. I debated with myself whether I was going to answer, but Iz could be as persistent as Mum, and I would get no peace until I picked up. Without a doubt someone would have told her what had been going on, whether it was Mum, Charlie, Lau or Ayesh herself, so I hoped I wasn’t going to have to go through the whole thing yet again. Only one way to find out.

‘Hey Iz.’

‘What the fuck do you think you’re playing at?’

Yep, it definitely sounded like she knew.

‘Mum just told me you’ve been fucking someone else. You twat. You ubertwat.’

I highly doubted those were the exact words Mum had used.

‘Hold on, Iz, just –’

‘How could you do that to Ayesh?’

‘I didn’t mean –’

‘I was going to be your bridesmaid.’

What? Hang on Iz – that’s what you’re focussing on? Not being a bridesmaid at a wedding that wasn’t even fucking happening?’

‘Well it’s never going to happen now, is it?’

‘Iz, I think I’m going to hang up and talk to you when you can be a bit more reasonable.’

‘You’ll be waiting a while, then. God, I’m so fucking angry with you Cal. How could you do it? Ayesh is gorgeous, she fucking loves you. Who was it? Some rugger bugger tart?’

‘Oh, thanks for that. No. It was someone I knew a long time ago.’

‘Who?’

‘It doesn’t seem like it makes much difference to you, Iz, you don’t have a very high opinion of me whatever I say.’

‘Do you deserve my high opinion?’

‘Probably not. It’s Chrissie.’

Iz was quiet for a blessed few seconds, then she launched in again.

‘You are fucking kidding me, right? That girl who ditched you about a thousand years ago and sent you loopy for a bit? Who never called or anything after she left?’

Well when she put it like that, I suppose I couldn’t deny it.

‘Yeah.’

‘Why the fuck, Cal, would you want to ditch Ayesh for her?’

‘OK, Iz, I’m going now. Talk to you another time, when you can be a bit more grown up about it.’

‘Grown up? Don’t make me laugh, you’re about the least –’

I disconnected before she could finish her insult. This was just another thing I’d messed up. Iz worshipped Ayesh; they spent long evenings doing each other’s hair and nails, singing to crap music and comparing celebrity gossip. If Iz had thought she was going to be a bridesmaid, Ayesh must have thought we were going to get married, and they must have had girls together sessions talking about it. Oh why the fuck was everything so fucking, arsing complicated.

Iz wasn’t finished with me yet, though, and a whole volley of text messages winged their way to me from her. I eventually stopped looking at them, but not before I read:

U really are a stupid arse.

What a selfish git. I nearly hate u.‘ (I took heart from the ‘nearly’.)

U need to crawl back 2 her and beg her 2 forgive u but I wouldn’t.

UR such a tosser. U don’t deserve 2 b happy ever again.

It was hurtful. I was in the mood for hurtful, up to a point; I couldn’t disagree with anything she said, it was about what I’d been saying to myself all day and most of last night, but there was only so much I could cope with at any one time and I muted my phone.

Iz and I got on well these days. Once the difficult early teenage years were over, for both of us, we realised that we quite liked each other, and I took on the proper role of cool older brother who could pick her up from parties without going off on one about how drunk or stoned she was, or who she’d been snogging when I arrived. She in her turn was funny, smart and good company for both Ayesh and me.

I hadn’t been on the wrong end of my sister’s temper for a long time, and this was just another unsettling thing in a long line of unsettling things that had happened in the past twenty-four hours. I didn’t reply to Iz, because I didn’t want to get into another slanging match, but I realised I was going to have to do something to repair things between us. Just not now, though. I had too much I needed to sort out, and Iz was going to have to wait.

Once I’d finished organising the finer details of my sock drawer, I was at a loose end. Being at a loose end was bad, because that would mean thinking, or making more decisions, and I already felt I’d made enough of those for a lifetime, let alone a day.

A few of my mates from Raiders had texted when they heard I wasn’t in the squad for ‘personal reasons’, and I really should answer them, but I couldn’t face that either. It reminded me that the game was being televised, and I switched it on, but that lasted about two minutes, as I realised I couldn’t watch a match I should have been playing in, would have been starting in if I hadn’t been, what had Dad called it, ‘lacking concentration’ or whatever for the last two weeks.

I turned the TV off and thought about my deadline. Have my head sorted by Tuesday, or forget about next weekend’s game as well. I had no idea how I was going to achieve that. Maybe I just had to admit that I wasn’t functioning properly, and try something like counselling. There was a sports psychologist at Raiders, who did general stuff with the squad about things like motivation and getting inside the head of the opposition, and he also offered individual sessions, but I’d never felt the need to see him personally. Perhaps I should find his number and give it a go before I screwed my career up along with the rest of my life. I could wait until Dad got home and ask him for his contact. That would put it off for a bit longer.

Now that I wasn’t watching the rugby or organising my sock drawer, the afternoon stretched ahead terrifyingly. I wasn’t sure where Mum had gone, but Dad wasn’t going to be back until later in the evening, after all the media stuff and the meet and greets at the stadium had finished. I could have done with some company, but telling someone else about all this was beyond me. I thought about going for a drink with Baggo, and just not telling him, but I wasn’t going to be scintillating company, and that would be a bit unfair.

For the lack of anything better to do, I did housework. I never did housework if I could avoid it – Ayesh had to practically tie the vacuum to my hands to make me hoover the flat, and she’d given up asking me to wipe the shower screen down after me. So it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to Mum when she came back from what had obviously been a shopping trip, by the looks of all the bags, and found me up to my elbows in Marigolds and a bucket of frothy water, scrubbing behind the cooker.

‘Cal, what on earth are you doing?’

‘Hi Mum. I think it’s caused displacement activity.’

‘Oh sweetheart. You’ve been here on your own, I didn’t think.’

‘It’s OK. Look, your kitchen is gleaming.’

‘My kitchen is always gleaming, thank you very much, but I will admit I haven’t been behind the cooker for a while. How are you?’

‘OK, as long as I don’t think. Let me put the cooker back and I’ll make you a coffee.’

‘I can do it sweetheart.’

‘I know, but I need to keep busy.’

‘I might get used to this. Cleaning and coffee.’

‘Yeah, it won’t last.’

‘Shame.’

Mum took her coat off and went upstairs with her bags of shopping, leaving me to finish up in the kitchen and start the coffee machine. While I was waiting for it to fill a cup, Ayesh’s ringtone drifted out of my pocket. She was calling me. My heart sped up as I anticipated what she was going to yell at me this time, and I walked through to the conservatory, where I hoped Mum wouldn’t be able to hear.

‘Hey Ayesh.’

‘Oh Cal, it’s horrible. I just got home, and you’ve been. I didn’t know … I didn’t know how it would be. I just wanted you to … it’s all gone. Everything that was us. You took … your Glastonbury poster and there’s … just … empty wall …’

She was saying this in-between big sobs, and each one stuck a knife of shame into me.

‘I’m sorry, I thought it was what you wanted.’

‘It was, I mean, I was angry, and I meant it, but I didn’t know it would be like this, coming back and it’s not us any more It’s just me.’

I thought about what Matty had said, about how hard Ayesh might find it coming back to half a home. I didn’t know what to say, and just listened to Ayesh cry, breaking her heart like she was breaking mine.

‘Ayesh, have you got anyone with you?’

‘No, I’ve just got back from Rhi’s.’

‘You need to call her.’

‘She’s going out.’

‘You need to call someone. I don’t think you should be on your own.’

God knows I’d had a hard enough time of it this afternoon – I felt like I was talking from experience.

‘Can you come … over?’

I didn’t know whether the hesitation was another choked sob, or if she’d started to say ‘come home’ and changed her mind.

‘What? Oh Ayesh, that … I don’t think that would be a good idea.’

‘You said, in your note, you said if I ever needed a friend.’

I tried to think. I had said that, and I’d meant it, but I was already fucked in the head. I didn’t think going over and comforting Ayesh about her bastard cheating boyfriend, who happened to be me, was going to significantly reduce the head-fucking, or be particularly helpful for Ayesh.

‘Yeah, I did, and I meant it, but I think the last thing you need is me.’

‘I do need you, Cal. I didn’t mean it, I don’t want you to go, come back, please, we can work it out.’

Oh holy shit. This was awful. Ayesh was tearing at my heart. I could do it, I could go back, stop all this, say I’d had a mad moment, made a terrible mistake, ask her to forgive me – I could see how it would go, it might even make things better between us. Chrissie and I were already taking a break, I could just call her, or text, and say she was right, I had to stay with Ayesh … but as soon as I thought about Chrissie, I knew I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t because I’d cheated on Ayesh, it was because of who I’d done it with, and what she meant to me. I hadn’t worked it all out yet, but in all of this fucked up crazy twenty-four hours, that was the one thing that I could hold on to. I had left Ayesh because I wanted to be with Chrissie. Whether I ended up with Chrissie or not, I couldn’t stay with Ayesh. I took a deep breath and tried to say it kindly.

‘Ayesh, I hate hearing you like this. I’m so sorry, I can’t come back. You were right to kick me out, I’ve done a terrible thing. I’m not who you need tonight. If you could bear it, I think Mum would come over.’

The sound of sobbing intensified in my ear. I had to stay so strong not to break down myself, do what she wanted, rush round there and hold her until she stopped crying. How could I be doing this to Ayesh? She didn’t show any signs of stopping, and I was beginning to worry about her. I walked into the kitchen, where Mum had finished making her coffee and was flipping through a magazine. She looked up when I came in and I held the phone away from me for a moment.

‘Mum, Ayesh is having a hard time. She wants me to go round, but I don’t think I should. Is there any way …’

Mum was standing up, collecting her bag and finding her keys before I’d even finished speaking.

‘Of course, sweetheart.’

‘Ayesh, Mum’s on her way.’

I couldn’t tell if she’d heard me, the sounds of crying didn’t lessen or increase, and I wondered if she had put the phone down somewhere and just not thought to disconnect. I took my key to the flat off my keyring and handed it to Mum.

‘Here, you might need to get in. You can leave it there, I shouldn’t have it any more.’

‘Oh Cal … but are you going to be OK here on your own?’

‘Yeah, I’ll call someone if I need to. Ayesh needs you more. Don’t be too down on my arse.’

‘No, we’ll be just down enough. I told Iz about what’s happened.’

‘Yeah, so I gathered. Nice little dose of her opinion that was.’

Mum looked torn between apologising, and saying serves you right, but didn’t speak, just kissed me on the cheek and left.

So I was back to where I’d been, on my own, too many thoughts to fight off, except now I was more worried about Ayesh. My phone was still playing me the sounds of her distress; I didn’t really want to listen to it until Mum got there, which would be about ten minutes, but I couldn’t just turn her off, it felt too harsh.

‘Ayesh … Ayesh … AYESH.’

‘Oh God, Cal, I thought I’d hung up.’

‘No. Mum’s on her way.’

‘OK.’

‘Will you be alright till she gets there? She’ll be there soon.’

‘No, Cal. I don’t think I’m going to be alright for a long time.’

‘Ayesh, I … I’m sorry.’

‘Save it, Cal.’

And then she hung up.

For lack of anything else to take my mind off it all, I put the TV on and watched the sports results come in. Raiders had lost to Chieftains by a point, knocking them off top place in the league. Arsenal had lost 2-1 away at Newcastle, taking them down to seventh in the league. It wasn’t a good day for Calum Scott’s teams, whichever one of them you were on.

After zoning out for an hour or so in front of Conference Leagues and National League Twos, I switched the channel over, and over, and over, trying to find something that interested me enough to stick with, at least until Dad got back, but everything was either too complicated, too cheerful or too romantic and I couldn’t face any of it for very long.

Just as I was on the point of burying myself in a few glasses of Dad’s Scotch, my phone sounded with Dec’s kookaburra textone. I never knew what a kookaburra sounded like until Dec made me put it on as his special sound, now it was the only bird song I could reliably recognise.

How u doing?

I didn’t know how to answer that in few enough words for a text, so I searched for a word that described what was uppermost in my mind, and texted back.

Shit.

On my way, bringing beer.

Half an hour and a couple of beers later, and Dec had got the whole sorry tale out of me. He’d learned bits and pieces from Matty, Dad and Amy, but I filled in the gaps and told him my side, and he was up to speed. Somehow, telling it all to Dec, who was as chilled as ever and seemed unshockable, was the easiest I had found it so far.

‘So what’s next, then? How long are you staying here?’

‘I don’t know. I’ve only just got here. I’m not sure how long I can live with Mum again. Or Dad. And Iz will be back for the holidays soon; I’m not her favourite person at the moment, either.’

I told him about the pasting she’d given me earlier.

‘She’ll get over it mate. You’ve just changed something for her that she thought was a definite. You’re kind of her role model.’

‘Ha, not at the moment I’m not.’

‘Maybe, but sometimes it’s a good thing when your role models fuck up. You have to think for yourself rather than doing what they do.’

‘I have fucked up, haven’t I.’

‘Well, some people might say so. Don’t be too hard on yourself, though. From what you say, you and Ayesh might have escaped something worse – a split with a wedding and a baby behind you.’

‘Don’t remind me. Jesus, I just feel so bad about it. What the fuck was I thinking, letting it get so far? I’m not sure I ever really thought I was ready to be a dad.’

‘Mate, no one’s ever ready to be a dad. It always kind of sneaks up on you.’

‘Like it did with you four times?’

‘Yep. Totally unprepared every single time.’

‘But you love it though.’

‘Yeah, course I do. My kids, and Ames, are the best things I ever did.’

‘But this, this is the worst thing I ever did.’

‘Ah mate, you’ve got to stop this. You did a good thing, an honourable thing, because you told her the truth and you left, you didn’t string her along once you knew, and you didn’t go back to her to make yourself feel better. And now you can try things with Chrissie, try and make something good out of that.’

‘I don’t deserve anything good.’

‘That’s bollocks, Cal; it’s not about what you deserve. It’s life throwing crap at you, and what it’s about is what you do with it, how you react. This was an impossible situation, once Chrissie came back. Someone was going to get hurt, either way. You can only do what’s right for you and try to limit the damage.’

‘Lau said virtually the same thing.’

‘I bet she did. I taught her everything she knows.’

‘You did not.’

‘No, you’re right, otherwise she’d be much less shit at box kicks.’

You’re shit at box kicks.’

‘Not as shit as Lau.’

‘You arse.’

Dec, with his laid back brand of wisdom, based on quite a lot of therapy when he was younger, was helping. So was the beer, although that just made Dec think he was funny.

‘Dec, I wondered about … you know … getting some help with my head.’

‘In what way?’

‘I’m a bloody mess. Dad’s given me an ultimatum – I get back up to speed by Tuesday, or I can forget playing. I’ve got to be able to give it one hundred per cent. Do you think Rhys could help?’

‘I’m sure he could, mate, but I’m not sure that three days is enough time. You might have to forget the deadline and just take as long as it takes to sort yourself out.’

‘But I might lose my place in the team.’

‘You need to think about what’s important. Is it playing, but at less than full whack, which might mean you lose your place anyway, or getting yourself sorted, when you can come back knowing you’re right there? It’s the same as any thigh strain or shoulder. If you keep on playing while it’s not mended, it won’t ever heal properly, and eventually you’ll suffer for it.’

‘I don’t know what to tell Dad.’

‘Hey, mate, it’s not Tuesday yet, is it? Give yourself a break, try not to worry about it till then. A lot can happen in forty-eight hours.’

‘Seventy-two.’

‘Oh, is it? Fair enough.’

Talking was definitely helping, despite Dec’s poor grip on mathematics, and I decided I would get Rhys’s number from Dad when he came back.

Mum got back before Dad, though, just as Dec was leaving. She’d had a tough time with Ayesh, and wasn’t that keen on discussing it, which I was relieved about in a way. Mum still hadn’t told me what she thought about the whole train-wreck, and I was just waiting for her to lay into me, but for now we dodged around each other while I tried not to talk about it at all.

Dad came home in a grump because of the defeat, and he and Mum sat in front of the crappest Saturday TV eating leftover lasagne. I sulked on the sofa with them for a while, then to everyone’s relief I went to bed.

It wasn’t long after I’d turned the light out that I heard a tap on the door.

‘Cal, are you still awake?’

I could have pretended I wasn’t, but Mum wasn’t being quiet enough to let me have that luxury. She knew that if I was asleep, she would have woken me up. Sighing, I turned the lamp back on.

‘Yeah. Come in.’

As I sat up, Mum came in and perched herself on the edge of the bed. I braced myself for a Beth Scott lecture.

‘Cal, you know Ayesha is really upset.’

‘Yeah, I kind of got that when she called.’

‘She’s sorry she threw you out, she feels terrible.’

‘I know.’

‘Maybe, sweetheart, it’s not too late, and you could go back?’

‘Jesus, Mum, are you fed up with me already?’

My attempt at humour didn’t get me very far. Probably because it wasn’t very funny.

‘Don’t be silly. You can stay here as long as you need to. I just don’t understand how you can leave, after all these years, for someone who to all intents and purposes you only met two weeks ago.’

‘But that’s kind of it. All these years. It’s all become a bit, not boring, Ayesh could never be boring, but … predictable. I love her, Mum, so much, and what I’ve done to her, it breaks me up. But whether things work with Chrissie or not, I think Ayesh and me have run our course.’

‘But you were trying for a baby.’

‘No, not trying. Just not trying not to. Seeing what happened. It’s a bit of a shit way to do it, if I’m honest. And I think what we were really doing, or maybe just what I was doing, was trying to spice things up a bit. When we thought she was pregnant after my birthday –’

‘What? What happened?’

‘Nothing. There was nothing, she was feeling sick, but it was because she was dehydrated, but we thought for a bit she might be, and it was kind of exciting and scary, but that’s what thrilled me, I think. The novelty, not being a dad. Being a dad scares the shit out of me. It’s not something I’m ready for, not really.’

‘Ayesha’s ready. She’s very upset that you would have walked out on her even if she was having a baby.’

‘Yeah, well she’s not, so I haven’t done that, have I.’

‘Would you really have done, Cal?’

This was the big thing for Mum, that I would have left the pregnant mother of my child.

‘Jesus, I don’t know, but probably. Yeah. Well I did, didn’t I, before I knew for sure? If it wasn’t going to work with me and Ayesh, it wasn’t going to work with me and Ayesh and a baby. I would have been there for her, just not as her boyfriend.’

‘Or husband.’

And this was the other big thing – that she thought Ayesh and me would get married, and she already thought of Ayesh as her daughter-in-law.

‘Mum, I’m sorry to deprive you of an imaginary big wedding and a non-existent grandchild, but if that’s what you and Ayesh and Iz have been cooking up between you on your girls nights in, then maybe you should have let me in on it too.’

‘That’s not fair.’

‘Isn’t it? Iz’s main complaint was that I was stopping her being our bridesmaid. I never even asked Ayesh to marry me – we never even talked about it.’

‘But you were going to, weren’t you?’

‘How the fuck do you know that? I mentioned it once to Dec, as a possibility. Jesus, did Ayesh know? I had the ring all ready and everything, but I didn’t do it.’

‘We all knew. We were waiting at Christmas, but it never happened, and we thought maybe you were delaying it until Ayesha’s parents came over, but then they cancelled, and –’

‘See Mum, this is where trying to control every fucking thing that goes on in this family gets you. If you all just bloody well stopped talking about every tiny little thing that happens, people would be a lot less upset and get a lot less hurt.’

‘Don’t you dare try to blame all this on me.’

‘Not all, Mum, but surely you can see that by letting Ayesh think I was going to ask her to marry me, all this has just hurt her more.’

I was getting up a head of steam on being angry now. It felt like too many people had interfered too much, made too many plans that relied on me feeling one way, when I actually felt another. Even though I didn’t know I felt it.

Mum was silent. She had her own anger simmering away, and it was obvious she wasn’t on my side, if there were sides to be taken. Of all the crap I’d taken over the last couple of days, this was one of the hardest things. I could cope with Ayesh hating me; I deserved it, despite what Dec spouted about life and deserving it. I could cope with Iz hating me; we’d hated each other on and off for a lot of our lives, and I was pretty sure we’d get over it. But my mum – she’d always defended me against everyone, stood up for me, whether I’d liked it or not at the time, against teachers pushing me too hard at school, against other mums who accused me of getting a place in the Colts because of who my dad was, against Katie Rivers’ parents. It felt wrong that she wasn’t defending me now. I needed her.

‘Look, Mum, it’s obvious we disagree about this. I know I’ve fucked up, but I’ve done what I think is right. We’re going to have to work it out, but not now. I’m wiped.’

Mum didn’t say anything, just nodded and left the room.

I thought that was the end of it, for now, turned the lamp out and curled up under the duvet, but a short while later there was another tap on the door.

‘You awake, Cal?’

Dad this time. Just as well my ability to sleep had disappeared along with my conscience and my sanity.

‘Yeah. Come in.’

I sat up and put the lamp on again.

‘I’m going to start charging admission.’

‘Hm. Less than a quid, I hope.’

‘Much less. Forty seven pence to come and have a pop at the dickhead who’s ruined everything for his entire family.’

Dad took up Mum’s perch on the edge of the bed.

‘Is that what your mum said, that you’ve ruined everything for everyone?’

‘Good as. Apparently I was supposed to be getting married, so Iz could be a bridesmaid and Mum could be a granny, but instead I’m a lowlife scummy cheater and now everything’s gone to shit and there’s not even going to be a wedding.’

‘But weren’t you going to marry her?’

Oh not this again. I didn’t have the brainpower to go over it with Dad as well.

‘No Dad. I thought about it but I changed my mind, all on my own without a huge family consultation. Turns out things were never going to work with us. End of.’

‘You know your mum’s really upset.’

‘Yeah, I get that. I didn’t do this to upset her. Does she really think I should stay with Ayesh just so she can plan the reception?’

‘That’s not fair, mate. There’s more to it than that. Ayesha lived here for quite a while, and you’ve been together for a long time. She’s part of the family, and surely you can understand why there might have been some expectations. We’re all having a bit of difficulty working out where we all fit with her now. Do we still invite her to Sunday lunch, or do we stop talking to her altogether? Is it OK to ask if she’s alright? Is it OK to talk to you about her? It’s just, we didn’t see this coming, mate, and now it’s like we don’t know what to do.’

‘Well join the club. I didn’t see it coming either, not until a couple of weeks ago, less than that. I don’t know what to tell you. I’d say yeah, look after her, talk to me about her if you need to, make sure she’s OK if she wants you to. Don’t ask her to Sunday lunch if I’m going to be there. Jesus, Dad, I can’t do all this, it’s too hard. I’m seriously doing my nut. I think … I might have to see Rhys. Have you got his number?’

‘Yeah. I was going to suggest it anyway. I’ve given him a bit of a heads up that you might call him.’

‘What did you tell him?’

‘Nothing really, just you’ve got some stuff going on.’

‘I might not be sorted by Tuesday.’

‘Don’t sweat it, Cal. Get yourself sorted, however long it takes.’

‘That’s what Dec said.’

‘Yeah, well, he’d know about getting yourself sorted if anyone would. Your mum wanted me to talk some sense into you, whatever that means, but I think seeing Rhys is the most sensible thing you can do. He said you can call tomorrow if you want to.’

‘What are you going to tell Mum?’

‘What I always tell her. She can’t solve the world’s problems single handed, and some things are best left to solve themselves.’

‘Do you think this can be solved?’

‘One way or another, mate, life goes on.’

‘I hate upsetting Mum.’

‘Cal, a long time ago we told you that we can be cross with you and still love you.’

I was transported back to that Christmas when it seemed so important to know the truth of that.

‘I remember.’

‘Hold on to it, mate. Try to get some sleep.’

‘Thanks Dad.’

‘No sweat. For what it’s worth, if you’re sure you’ve done the right thing, and it will mean less heartache in the long run, your mum will see it in the end too.’

Bloody hell, I must really have got Dad worried. He never did this heart-to-heart stuff. Suddenly self-conscious, he stood up and ham-fistedly tried to pat me on the shoulder. Then he walked out, leaving me to my muddled thoughts.

Turning over, I pulled the duvet over my head and gave in to the sadness that had been trying to leak out of me all day. It’s hard to cry quietly, and it’s painful, but I really didn’t want Mum or Dad to hear me, so I kept the noise to as much of a minimum as I could, flooding the pillow with the tears that I couldn’t help flowing out of me. It was about the end of me and Ayesh, the end of the good times, the end of our shared life, and it was about knowing I’d hurt not only her, but a lot of people I cared about.

Eventually I cried myself out, and I fell asleep, but I woke up with a start to my phone chuntering away with the Star Wars theme tune. It was Matty. God, could no one leave me to have five minutes to myself to just try and sort all this out? No, what was I thinking. This was the crazy Scott family, with more interested parties than a Wetherspoons at Christmas.

I checked the time before I answered. One thirty. The man had no sense of decency.

‘I was asleep.’

‘Noh yuh weren’t, yuh jus thought yuh were.’

‘Huh?’

‘Yuh were dreaming yuh were asleep. Dreams aren’t real, Cal.’

As usual, Matty’s twisted logic tied me in knots, and I was too befuddled to either try to make sense of it, or banter back.

‘Whatever. I’m sure you have a good reason for calling me in the middle of the fucking night.’

‘Not the middle, the night is yet yohng. I just wanted tuh remind yuh I’m available fuh uncley advice, an that Lau is not the only one who can sort yuh life out.’

Oh, I’d told Lau I thought she’d helped me more than Matty could have, and now he was in search of man points.

‘Poor Matty feeling left out?’

‘Yuh bet, yuh bastard. Yuh told her she was better than meh, I’m never gona hear the last of ih.’

‘Maybe if you woke the fuck up when your nephew in need calls you, you’d be top of the thanks-for-the-assist charts, but your lazy-arse ways have been your downfall.’

‘Yuh didn’t have tuh drive tuh our house tuh call. Signal’s not tha bad out this way.’

‘I was being considerate. Hammering on your door at stupid o’clock could have given you a heart attack, old man.’

‘Nothing wrong wih my ticker, yuh bloody upstart.’

‘No, because you never bloody wake up. You must have the most undisturbable heart known to man.’

‘Yeh, tha’s meh, top of the strongest heart league.’

‘Glad to have cheered you up. Can I go back to sleep now?’

‘Yeh, once yuh tell meh yuhr not lying there calling yuhrself a worthless piece of shit all night.’

Oh he was sly. Couching a ‘how are you really doing’ in the middle of all the arsing about, so I wouldn’t see it coming and avoid it. He surprised me into answering honestly.

‘Maybe not the whole night. I’m hoping to get back to sleep for some of it.’

‘Don’t mate. Yuhr not worthless, or a piece of shit. If yuh have tuh lie awake, do ih telling yuhrself yuhr a good bloke. Think of all the good times yuh had wih Ayesh, and –’

‘But I’ve just wiped them out –’

‘Daytime’s when yuh can beat yuhrself up, when people are around. Don’t do ih at night, on yuhr own, when there’s noh one tuh contradict yuh. Someone gave meh some good advice once fuh dealing with shit yuh can’t escape in the night. Two bits of advice, yuh can choose which one. One is, yuh just think of all the negative crap an imagine putting ih in a box, then put ih away tuh deal wih tomorrow. Then concentrate on good crap. Two is, write ih down. Write a letter or a story, something tuh stop ih goin in circles.’

‘Do either of them work?’

‘Yeah. Both work. An yuh can always call yuhr old Uncle Matty, wake up Lau an get a shitload of useful life lessons from her as well.’

‘Well I might have to give them both a try, now I’m lying here awake. Why exactly are you up right now anyway?’

‘Couldn’t sleep, mate. Oh, number threh. If you can’t sleep for thinking of something yuh should do, jus do ih. Night, Cal.’

‘Night Matty.’

As we disconnected, I thought about what Matty had said. I wouldn’t have stayed asleep very long anyway, and it made sense to try out some of his advice. I wasn’t about to get out of bed and start writing letters, but I tried putting all the negative crap in an imaginary box until tomorrow, and thinking instead about some good things.

My thoughts turned to Chrissie, as the one good thing that had come out of this whole sad pile. I hadn’t let myself think about her since I’d gone home to Ayesh from Lau, not in any meaningful way, but as I remembered how things had been in the stolen moments we’d had over the last couple of weeks, I realised how much I’d missed her. We hadn’t given each other a date to contact each other, we’d only said next week, after I’d supposedly sorted my head out, and Chrissie had said ‘Don’t leave it too long’. Was it officially next week now, being Sunday morning? Depends on your perspective I suppose. It was bloody early, or late, also depending on your perspective, but Matty’s words came back to me – if you can’t sleep for something you should do, just do it.

Before I could think about it any more, I texted her.

Hey. Sorry it’s late. Thinking about you. I left Ayesh.

There was no reply. If she had any sense, she’d have her phone on Do Not Disturb or silent, and maybe she wouldn’t see it until tomorrow. Maybe she’d seen it, and just didn’t want to reply. But I’d done it now. She knew, and it was up to her what that meant and what she did about it.

Feeling a little more purposeful, I pulled the duvet back over my head and dozed through the early hours of the morning.

Mum was always up first, and Sunday mornings were no exception. Dad always slept in the day after a Saturday game, and Mum would get him breakfast in bed before she either started preparations for a Sunday lunch extravaganza, or caught up with family phone calls to Nana Jane in America and my aunts Lou and Rachel. Today, to my surprise, I rated breakfast in bed too, despite not having played yesterday, and having felt like I wasn’t her favourite son of all time.

‘Thanks Mum, this is great.’

‘Don’t get crumbs on the sheets. How did you sleep?’

‘So so. Matty called me in the middle of the night.’

‘Did he? What for?’

‘Oh, just to arse about.’

‘Really? Why was he awake?’

‘He felt the need to share his ‘dealing with disaster’ tutorial.’

‘Did it help?’

‘A bit. I texted Chrissie.’

Mum’s pinched expression told her she wasn’t yet ready to discuss Chrissie, or what I might have told her.

‘Well enjoy your breakfast. Your dad and I thought we might go for a walk on the moors later, would you like to come?’

‘Aren’t you doing lunch?’

‘No, nobody much is around, so I thought I’d have a rest this week.’

‘Because of me?’

Mum sighed and shrugged.

‘Maybe a little, sweetheart. Just while things are settling down.’

‘I’d have thought a family get together would be just what you’d want.’

‘Yes, Cal, but who exactly is family at the moment?’

‘Shit, Mum. If I’m going to cause those sorts of questions, maybe I’d be better off just staying somewhere else so you can all get on with saying what an evil bastard I am and how you wish I’d just kept things as they were.’

‘Don’t be like that, I didn’t mean –’

‘Mum, you were great to Ayesh when you let her live here. If you can still be friends with her now, that’s great too, I’m not asking you to cut her out of your life. But I’m your son, she’s not your daughter, however much you wanted her to be, it’s not going to happen now. I’m a fucking mess here, I really don’t know how I’m going to get through the next few days, and I could really use your support.’

Mum looked at me for a few moments, and I could see a struggle going on between what she wanted to say and what she thought she should say. In the end, she opted for not saying much at all, which wasn’t like Mum.

‘Sweetheart, I love you dearly, but this is hard for me, and you need to give me time.’

‘Fine, Mum. I’ve got nothing but time at the moment.’

She turned and left the room, and I put the tray of breakfast on the floor, having lost my appetite. Just as I was thinking about getting up and going for a run to clear my head, my phone sounded with my generic ‘probably an insurance company’ ringtone. I glanced down, expecting it to be Unknown Caller, but with a jolt, I saw Chrissie Calling lighting up my screen. I nearly dropped the damn thing in my efforts to answer as quickly as possible.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey. I got your message. Did you really send it at two fifty seven?’

‘Yeah. Was having trouble sleeping.’

‘Oh Cal. Have you really left?’

‘Yeah. Night before last.’

‘Why didn’t you text then?’

‘Dunno. Or, I do, it’s been bloody hard, Chrissie. I’ve not been in a good place.’

‘You don’t sound like you’re in a great place now.’

‘No, but you’re making it better.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘What, for making it better?’

‘No, for causing it.’

‘You didn’t, not really. I think Ayesh and I were done, months ago. You might have helped me realise it.’

‘Wow. That’s very … gracious of you.’

‘Ha ha, not on purpose. It’s how I see it. How Lau helped me see it.’

‘Oh, you talked to her after Friday?’

‘Yeah, I did that in the middle of the night too. I think I ought to get a job doing shifts, I’d be ace working the graveyard.’

‘I haven’t slept that well since then, either.’

‘No?’

‘I really missed you, Cal, but I was thinking about how wrong it was, what we were doing.’

‘But surely it’s not still wrong?’

‘Maybe not. I don’t like thinking that you did that to her because of me.’

‘But I told you –’

‘What did you tell her?’

I tried to remember exactly what I’d said. It seemed important to Chrissie that she wasn’t the one to blame, but I wasn’t sure I could promise her that.

‘That I’d met someone else, and she went off on one, told me to get out, so I did.’

‘So she thinks it’s because of me.’

‘Does it matter what she thinks, what anyone else thinks?’

‘It matters to me.’

‘Don’t I count?’

‘Do you know how terrible I feel?’

‘Probably not as terrible as I feel.’

‘Maybe this is just … perhaps we should just forget it, Cal.’

‘What? No! You can’t say that, after all this –’

‘But isn’t that your point? You’re telling me you would have left anyway, so it shouldn’t matter if we’re together or not.’

She was tying me up in knots, now. My head was pretty mashed from two nights of little sleep and my days spent trying to resolve impossible dilemmas, and I just couldn’t see it. All I could see was that Chrissie had been troubled by me being with Ayesh, and now I wasn’t with Ayesh, she was still troubled, but there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it.

‘Chrissie, it matters if we’re together or not, it’s nothing to do with whether I’m with Ayesh. We should be together.’

‘I don’t think I can, Cal.’

‘What? No, please don’t say that. You’re what I’ve been holding on to, the good thing to come out of all this, what’s been waiting at the other end.’

‘I think we need to –’

‘No, don’t say it.’

‘We need to stop. I can’t do it.’

‘No, Chrissie, please.’

‘I’m sorry, Cal.’

‘Chrissie … Chrissie …’

But she’d disconnected. I tried dialling her number, but it went straight to voicemail. Just like before, when she’d decided it was best for us to stop, and I couldn’t talk to her.

126. She don’t have to know

In which the consequences of inconstancy are experienced.

Laura

The chirruping of crickets eventually broke through my sleep and roused me. It was dark in the room, and my sleep fuddled brain couldn’t at first work out what it was. Then the blue light coming from the screen on Matt’s phone made me realise it was a ringtone. Knowing that Matt was unlikely to wake up, I reached over him and picked up his phone. Cal was calling, and it was half past two.

I had a very brief struggle with myself about whether I should answer it, but it would stop ringing before I managed to wake Matt up, so I pressed ‘answer’.

Cal

It took forever to answer, and I thought it really was just too late for anyone to wake up. Then the ringing tone stopped and there was a click and a rustle, and I expected to hear an earful of bollocking from Matty, but it wasn’t his voice.

‘Hey Cal. Matt’s asleep.’

I’d woken Lau up, not Matty. I should have known; Matty never woke up when he didn’t want to. He slept the hardest of anyone I’d ever known. I was silent while I tried to figure out if I wanted to do this with Lau. I’d picked Matty because, back in the day, before Lau, before Julia even, he’d done more than his fair share of other people’s girlfriends, and I thought he might have some advice that would help me.

Laura

I didn’t hear anything at first, just some vague breathing sounds. I wondered if he’d called by mistake.

‘Cal?’

‘Yeah. Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you up.’

His voice sounded strange, deeper and ragged.

‘Oh really? Because when you ring someone at half past two in the morning, that’s usually exactly what happens. Unless you ring Matt of course, in which case you wake his wife up.’

‘Sorry.’

I let the silence hang there, part of me feeling grumpy about being woken up, another part of me grumpy about not being the one who Cal had actually wanted to talk to, and the rest of me realising that Cal needed to say what he needed to say when he was ready to say it.

Cal

Lau didn’t say anything, as she waited for me to tell her why I was ringing Matty, although it would be pretty obvious after our earlier conversation.

‘Fuck it, Lau. I thought Matty might still be up. I could do with a chat.’

‘Do you want me to wake him up?’

‘Ha ha, no, I don’t think I could cope with listening to you bloody snogging him awake. You’re … you’re not … I don’t suppose I could come in, could I?’

‘What? Where are you?’

I sighed. ‘Outside. In my car.’

Laura

‘Oh Cal. I’ll be right down.’

I got out of bed and pulled my dressing gown on, pausing to try to ‘snog Matt awake’, unsuccessfully as it turned out, given that I had to hurry downstairs to let Cal in.

Cal was waiting on the doorstep, hands in the pockets of his hoody, shoulders hunched, avoiding my eyes. He looked pale, and his eyes were suspiciously red and watery, as if he’d been crying. I beckoned him into the kitchen, and put the kettle on.

Cal

I couldn’t look Lau in the eyes, but followed her into the kitchen where she put the kettle on. I would have liked something stronger than tea.

‘Don’t suppose you’ve got any beer?’

‘We’ve always got beer, Cal, but one of the middle-of-the-night visiting rules is tea only. And you’re driving.’

I nodded, but didn’t say anything, just sat down at the kitchen table and put my face in my hands. Lau put a mug of tea next to me, and I tried to pull myself together enough to say something that made sense, but it all flooded into me and swirled around, and I started crying. Properly crying, like I hadn’t done in front of anyone since I was a lot younger.

Laura

‘Oh Cal.’

I got up and stood next to him, my arm over his shoulders, murmuring ‘shh’ and ‘it’s OK’ and other nonsense reassurances. I couldn’t recall ever seeing Cal upset; he was usually so cheerful and chilled, taking everything in his stride, taking the drama out of things and making the most of what life threw at him. It unsettled me to see him like this. Eventually his shoulders stopped heaving, and I pulled a chair next to him and sat down, gently prising a hand away from his face. I wasn’t going to be able to talk to him if he wouldn’t look at me.

Cal

Lau always liked to be able to look in your eyes when she was talking to you, but I wasn’t sure she’d want to see what was written in mine right then.

Laura

Once his hands were moved, I turned his face towards me, shocked by the depth of pain I saw there.

‘Tell me, flower.’

Cal

It was hard to begin. Lau had implied that I could tell her anything, but Ayesh was part of the family, everyone loved her, and it was going to be upsetting. I tried to say the words a few times, but they disappeared back into my mouth. Then I decided to check she’d meant what she said.

‘Did you mean what you said about not disapproving?’

Lau nodded. ‘I just want to help you. You look really sad.’

I squeezed my eyes shut, then wiped them and looked at her. I was more than sad, I was lost.

‘I’ve got myself in a fucking situation, I don’t know what the fuck to do.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘Well, oh fuck, I really don’t know where to start. Me and Ayesh – a few months ago we thought she was pregnant. Turns out she wasn’t, but it made us think, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad, although we were shit-scared at the time. So we stopped using – you know.’

Laura

‘It’s called contraception, Cal, you can say the word, I’m a nurse, I won’t be outraged.’

I took his hand and shook it gently to let him know I was teasing.

Cal

Mum and Lau, nurses to the end, never got embarrassed saying shit that other people were rightly mortified to say.

‘OK, we stopped using contraception –

I emphasised the word and grimaced to let her know it wasn’t something I felt comfortable talking about with her.

‘– and thought we’d see how it went. Then about two weeks ago, it was after a game, I was in the bar doing the meet and greets, there was this girl, and it was Chrissie. I didn’t know it was her when she –’

‘Chrissie?’

‘Yeah, she was my … I went out with her for ages when I was at school, when I was young, she was, like, my first.’

I hadn’t been that communicative about how things were with me and Chrissie back then; I was a bit of a grouchy up myself teenager, and maybe I shouldn’t have expected Lau to remember someone she just thought was my mate from ten years ago.

Laura

I vaguely remembered the name, but not much else. Cal hadn’t been particularly forthcoming about the girls in his life when he was younger, had lots of girls who were friends, they came and went. Maybe Chrissie had been more than a friend.

‘Your first love?’

Cal

‘My first everything.’

‘Oh. When you were how old? No, never mind, I don’t want to know. Sorry, flower, carry on.’

‘So, it was her. I hadn’t seen her for fucking years. She broke my heart, when she moved away with her parents, then we were going to keep in touch, see each other in the holidays and shit, but she never really … and then she … it just messed me up.’

Laura

It suddenly came back to me, bits and pieces – Cal’s friend, they’d even babysat for us a couple of times hadn’t they? Oh, so definitely more than friends. I tried to match the fuzzy image of Cal’s friend with the blonde woman in the coffee shop – yep, they could well be the same person. Oh Cal.

‘Oh I remember now. That was the summer you were really, really grumpy. We all went to Spain, and you wouldn’t come out of your bedroom. I think we called you the Got a Cob On Kid or something.’

Cal

‘Yeah. Broken heart, Lau. Have some bloody sympathy. Anyway, there I am, minding my own business, in the bar at Raiders, and she just walks over, touches me on the shoulder and says, all like in my ear and breathy, ‘what’s a girl have to do to get a Fanta round here?’, and I looked up, because I recognised her voice even if I didn’t know it was her, if you know what I mean, and at first I didn’t know who she was, because, obviously she’s older, and looks different, but then I had a good look, and it was her, even though she’s blonder than she was, and she’s filled out a bit in various, er, places, and it was amazing. I just spent the rest of the evening talking to her, catching up, in some ways it was like all those years apart had never existed and we were still teenagers, talking about all kinds of shit, kind of knowing what the other one was thinking, laughing. Fuck, it felt like so long since I’d had a proper laugh. Anyway, this is going to sound so like a bad romcom, but one thing led to another, and I went back to her place, and we slept together.’

I stopped, looking into Lau’s eyes, trying to see if she hated me yet.

Laura

He stopped, looking into my eyes, trying to gauge my reaction.

‘Oh Cal.’

I took his hand again.

‘So what now? I have to say, you looked pretty serious about her in the coffee shop today.’

Cal

‘Fuck, it’s such a mess.’

‘So Ayesha doesn’t know about her?’

I shook my head and looked down at the table.

‘She can’t know. But I don’t know what … we’ve got to stop … fuck it Lau, we were trying to have a baby. Since Chrissie came back I haven’t … I’ve had to stop … I’ve been making all the excuses under the sun, but what if Ayesh is already pregnant?’

‘Oh Cal.’

‘So you keep saying. Could this be much more fucked up?’

‘Do you want to leave Ayesha for Chrissie?’

‘No! I mean … I can’t get my head round it. I love Ayesh. But when I’m with Chrissie, it’s more than that, it’s something deep, I feel like I’ve joined something back together that came apart. It feels right. I can’t hurt Ayesh, I love her, but … Chrissie, she rocks my world. I want to be with her. But if Ayesh is pregnant …’

‘What if she is?’

‘Well I’ll have to stay with her. I can’t do that to her, can I? We’d just been kind of waiting to see if anything happened, but now I really need to find out, but I can’t push it, because she’ll know something’s up, but if I keep on making excuses not to … you know … then she’ll know something’s up anyway, and I just don’t know how much longer I can go on with it all. I see Chrissie when I can, but I feel torn every time I see her. I feel a complete arsehole for what I’m doing to Ayesh, but I feel excited and happy that I’m with Chrissie.’

‘You’re running a bit of a risk meeting her in the city centre. Anyone could see you.’

‘Yeah, I know, but she texted and asked if we could talk, and she was on her break, so …’

‘Cal, it will be worse, so much worse, if Ayesha finds out from someone else.’

I looked down at the table and nodded, my shoulders hunched in dejection. I knew it would be worse, but in some ways it would be easier as well, because I wouldn’t be the one who would have to tell her. And maybe that was the game I’d been playing, to some extent: get seen with Chrissie and someone else will do my dirty work. Bastard cheating git.

‘I know. But if I tell her, I’ll have to do something about it, won’t I, like, choose or something.’

‘Do you know what you want?’

‘A good kick up the arse?’

‘Ha ha, no, that’s what you need, not what you want. I meant do you know who you want? If all the baby stuff was out of the picture, who would you choose?’

But that was just it, I wasn’t sure it was as simple as choosing. Chrissie – it was all still there, but I hadn’t worked out if it was from the past or if it was something that was real now. Ayesh – I’d loved her for a long time, but was it as deep and right as what I felt with Chrissie? This was where I was at, where I’d been for days, everything going in circles in my head, sending me mad.

‘I just don’t fucking know, Lau. I’ve been with Ayesh for bloody years, I’ve loved her for years, I nearly asked her to marry me at Christmas.’

‘Nearly?’

‘Yeah, never did it in the end. Too bloody terrified. Maybe I was trying to tell myself something. Maybe it’s all just a bit … predictable. But with Chrissie, I dunno, I’m scared it’s just teenage stuff, unfinished business, the excitement of it all after maybe settling down with Ayesh a bit. What if I fuck it all up with Ayesh and then it doesn’t work out with Chrissie?’

Laura

We’d all been expecting an announcement at Christmas, but when there was no proposal, we thought of different reasons it hadn’t happened, assumed Dec had got it wrong, and carried on waiting for what we had thought was inevitable.

‘Cal, you can’t think like that. If you’re spending time with someone else, things are already not working with Ayesha. You can’t hedge your bets like that, it’s not fair on anyone, you included. You need to decide whether you want to make it work with Ayesha or Chrissie. Come down on one side or the other, stick with whatever feels right.’

‘But what about … what if there’s a baby?’

‘I think … well it’s really, really not my place to say this, Cal, and this is only my opinion, and for God’s sake surely you’re only twelve, how can I be having this conversation with you, but baby or not, if it’s not going to work with Ayesha, it’s not going to work. I have no doubt that if there’s a baby, you’ll do the right thing by her, which might not mean staying with her, although it might, but it will mean supporting her however she wants or needs you to, and taking a fair amount of flak from a fair few people. And Chrissie wouldn’t find it easy if you chose her but there’s a baby; you might lose her too. I can’t decide this for you, you know that, but you need to decide, and pretty soon from the sounds of it, exactly who and what you want.’

Cal

She was right. She was stone cold no doubt about it right. The baby or not baby was a bit of a smokescreen, really, because if it wasn’t right with Ayesh it would never be right, and a baby wouldn’t stop it being wrong, it would just make things harder later. And if I hadn’t met Chrissie again, I’d never have realised. Oh God oh God oh God. I knew. I knew what I wanted, I knew and it was heartbreaking. Fresh tears started to trickle down my face, as I nodded at Lau.

‘It’s the telling her part that’s going to be the hardest. Fucking hell, Lau, how am I going to tell her?’

Laura

I thought back over the times I’d broken up with a bloke – the times I’d been cheated on, and lied to, or on one occasion done the cheating and lying. What had worked, and what hadn’t?

‘Be straight with her. Don’t lie to her to make it easy on you. Let her be angry. Don’t make excuses. Don’t get angry yourself. Don’t hug her. Tell her you’re there for her, and expect her to throw something at you. Then walk away and let her get on with her life how she wants to, whether you’re part of it or not.’

Cal looked up at me, his tear-stained cheeks nearly breaking my heart. If I could have done any of it for him, I would have. He was such a kind young man, so caring; he would never have chosen to hurt people he loved, and he didn’t deserve this heartache.

Cal

I looked up at Lau, at her worried face. I so wished I could ask her to come with me and help me do this, but I was the only one who could do this horrible, horrible thing to my lovely, blameless girlfriend. I felt like the most evil bastard the world had ever known.

‘I don’t know if I can do it.’

‘If you’re sure, then it’s the right thing to do, and knowing that will make it easier.’

Thank fuck for family like Lau. She always knew just what to say. I nodded, and breathed deeply.

‘Shit, Lau, you bloody know your stuff, don’t you.’

‘Just speaking from experience.’

‘What, dumped? Or dumper?’

Laura

‘Bit of both I suppose. Long time ago. But nothing like this, flower. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to hurt, a lot, if you decide to leave Ayesha. But whatever happens, you’ll look back in a year, and you won’t recognise yourself. Things will work out, one way or another.’

Cal shook his head slightly. He was in too deep, and it probably felt to him like he would never clamber out. He took another ragged breath.

Cal

I couldn’t imagine being in a place where things had worked out, all I could see was pain and hurt and having to explain over and over again what the fuck I thought I was doing. I took another ragged breath.

‘I should go, you’re gonna be wiped tomorrow.’

‘Don’t worry about it, Cal. Does Ayesha know you’re here?’

‘No, she was asleep when I left. She’s used to me getting up and pottering around. Oh holy fuck, I’m going to have to talk to her when I get back. There’s no fucking way I can just get back into bed like nothing’s happened.’

I looked at Lau, as if she was going to tell me I didn’t have to do it right away. She didn’t, of course.

‘Whatever you’ve decided, one way or the other or still working it out, she deserves to know, before other people know. If she has any say at all, she should have a chance to tell you how she feels.’

I hung my head and nodded.

‘I’m an arsehole, can’t believe what a complete fucking arsehole I am. I should be locked up and kept away from people, I don’t deserve good things.’

‘Cal, look at me.’

I didn’t lift my head until Lau took my chin and made me turn my head towards her. I slowly lifted my eyes to hers.

‘You are a good … God, I nearly said boy. You are a good man. Life sometimes gets in the way of where we thought we were heading, and shakes us up a bit. It hurts. If you do what’s right for you, but try to look after people on the way, you’ll be OK. You deserve good things. Take them when life offers them.’

I filled up with tears again, and nodded, brushing my eyes as I stood up.

‘Thanks, Lau, you’ve been great. I rang Matty because, well, I know he’s had a lot of experience with multiple women, but to be honest I think you’ve helped me more.’

‘I’m always here, flower. Both of us are always here.’

‘Thanks, Lau.’

Lau put her arms round me and squeezed tightly as a few more sobs burst out of me.

‘Let us know how it goes.’

I nodded against her shoulder, then straightened up and went home to Ayesh.

Laura

‘Mmph yuh been up?’

Matt’s eyes opened slightly as I got carefully back into bed.

‘Yeah. Been talking to Cal. He’s just gone.’

Matt’s eyes opened fully.

‘Wha? He was here? Why didn’t yuh wake me up?’

I rolled my eyes. ‘I tried, but even my best tongue action didn’t get me anywhere, and he was on the doorstep. Anyway, he said I’m better than you at helping him out with his multiple women problems, despite you being much more experienced in that respect.’

‘Nice one Cal. Are we ever gona beh allowed to forget that I used to be a tart?’

‘Probably not. But at least you’re my tart now.’

‘He never said you’re better than meh?’

‘He did indeed say that.’

‘Bastard. Last time I let him beat me at BattleStations. So wha’s goin on?’

‘He’s met someone else.’

‘Yeah, we worked that out.’

‘But there’s a possibility Ayesha is pregnant.’

‘Oh fuck.’

‘Yeah. So we chatted and he’s gone home. Hopefully to talk to her.’

‘Is he gona leave her?’

‘I don’t know. I think so.’

‘Fuck. Poor Cal. Poor Ayesh. At least he had you tuh help him. You’re pretty bloody amazing at advice, Lau.’

‘I know.’

‘An so modest.’

‘Yep, that’s me. Amazing and modest.’

‘Bloody tongue action needs some work, tho. How did yuh not wake me up?’

‘Hmm, well, I’m not sure, I did this …’

I kissed his lips and pushed my tongue gently into his mouth.

‘And then tried this …’

I nibbled his bottom lip, smiling as Matt’s breathing quickened and his hands moved to my hair, ‘Oh, it seems to be working a bit better now. Perhaps it’s all mended and I can stop.’

‘Don’t yuh bloody dare. Then what?’

‘Then …’

Cal

I did not rush back. I took the long way and I drove slower than I’ve ever driven before, in the name of getting my head round it, coward that I was. I sat in the car, tidying the glove box in the dark, for a good while before I got out, locked and double checked the lock on the car and slowly made my way up the stairs and into the flat. I thought about making myself a drink, but if I woke Ayesh up and she got up … well my thinking was that if I managed to get back into bed without waking her, then it would be morning before I had to talk to her. I even thought about sleeping in the spare room, ‘because I don’t want to disturb her’, look at me, such a caring boyfriend, but even I saw the excuse in that one, and I crept as quietly as I could into our room and got into bed.

I hadn’t been quiet enough, and Ayesh moved next to me and turned over.

‘Where have you been?’

‘What?’

‘You weren’t here, and I got up but you weren’t anywhere.’

‘Oh. Yeah.’

‘Where did you go?’

My heart was pounding. I needed to start spilling some of this soon, before my bottle left me and I was back in the same mess I’d been in earlier. I really was done with lying, but that only left telling the truth, and that was proving hard to begin doing.

‘I’ve been talking to Lau.’

‘What, on the phone?’

‘No, I went over there.’

‘Oh. Is she OK?’

‘Yeah. I’m not, though.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Ayesh, I need to tell you something. I don’t want you to hate me, but I think you will.’

There was a long silence. It was dark in the room, and I couldn’t see her eyes, but I could hear Ayesh’s breathing speed up, as she anticipated what I might be about to tell her.

‘OK.’

Come on Cal, that was step one, she knows something’s up, you’ve just got to do the next bit now. What did Lau say? Be straight with her. Don’t lie to her to make it easy on you.

‘I’ve been seeing someone else.’

I heard Ayesh’s gasp as I said it. I felt the shock of it, because it rang through me as it shot through her. It was as if someone else had spoken the words and they had hit both of us as hard, at the same time, because as I said it, I realised exactly what I had done, for the first time. As soon as I stopped lying to Ayesh, I stopped lying to myself.

Ayesh turned away, and I wanted to pull her to me, to say sorry, but Lau had said ‘don’t hug her’, and she was only turning the light on. I didn’t want the light on, because then I would see her eyes, and the look on her face, which I had put there, which, now I could see it, spoke to me of disbelief, disappointment, sorrow and, finally, of rage.

‘Who?’

‘What?’

‘Who is she?’

‘Does it matter?’

‘Yes it bloody matters. Who is she?’

Ayesh’s voice was icy cold with fury, like I’d never heard her before. I held on to Lau’s advice as the only thing that was making any impact on my thoughts, which were flying round my head like a flock of startled birds. Tell her straight.

‘Chrissie.’

It took her a few seconds to think about it, but Ayesh knew me pretty well, me and my past.

‘What … you mean … from school?’

I nodded.

‘How the fuck did you even meet up with her again? Did you go looking for her?’

‘No, nothing like that, it was by chance.’

Well, almost. I hadn’t planned it, anyway. Maybe Chrissie had, but I didn’t think so, not to end like this at any rate.

We were both sitting up now, and Ayesh was pulling her dressing gown round her shoulders, as if sitting in bed with me made her feel vulnerable.

‘And you’re seeing her? What exactly does that mean?’

‘I’ve been spending time with her, for a couple of weeks.’

Come on, Cal, you really need to hit her with the big one. Full disclosure. She has a right to know, and you deserve to have to tell her.

‘And I’ve slept with her once.’

The slap hit my face before I even saw it coming. The jolt whipped my head to the side, and the sting spread across my cheek like a lightning strike. Before I’d recovered from the fact that Ayesh, my gentle Ayesh, had hit me, she raised her voice and pointed to the door.

‘Get out.’

‘But I want to explain –’

‘Get the fuck out, Cal. You bastard. You fucking bastard.’

‘Ayesh, please, I know –’

‘Get. The. FUCK. OOOUUUT.’

Let her be angry. I had to trust that Lau knew what she was talking about, because I really didn’t want Ayesh to be this angry, I wanted to tell her it wasn’t about her, that I was the one who’d fucked up, I wanted her to calm down and hear my side … yeah, Lau was right. All I could do was get the fuck out and let her be angry.

‘OK.’

I got out of bed and quickly pulled my clothes on. I didn’t know where I was going to go, but Ayesh needed me not to be here. I needed me not to be here, this was more intense and horrible than I had imagined.

Ayesh had started to cry, big gulping sobs that made it sound like her heart was breaking in two, and it made me want to go to her and hold her and shush her and tell her it would be OK, but I had lost that right, the right to comfort my girlfriend who I loved, because it was me who had made her make those noises.

There was one last piece of advice I needed to follow. Tell her …

‘Ayesh, you know how to get hold of me if you need to, I don’t know, talk or something.’

… you’re there for her. And expect her …

The glass of water from her bedside table flew towards me and shattered on the wall with a crash and a splash as I dodged it

… to throw things.

I walked out, shaking, disoriented, head full of the most disastrous few minutes of my life. Had I really expected it to be any different? Had I thought that if I could explain my side of it, Ayesh would understand and be OK about it? Perhaps I had. I had proved to myself over and over again for the past two weeks that I was great at deluding myself.

I found myself at my car, less than fifteen minutes after I got out of it. The engine was still making the tick tick tick noises as it cooled. I took my keys out of my pocket and opened the door, then started the car, not really knowing where I was planning on going, but knowing I needed to be away from here.

I drove blindly at first, not paying attention to which way I was going, but then I realised where I was heading, and I let the familiar route do the driving for me. Before long I ended up where I needed to be. Home.

It wasn’t much past four o’clock, and no one would be up. I let myself in as quietly as I could, and crept up the stairs, opening the door to my old room. There was still a bed in there, but it was a guest room now, not my room. I didn’t want to put a light on, it would feel too bright and might wake Mum and Dad up, but there was stuff on the bed that I needed to move before I could lie down, and I dropped a box on the floor with a thump that reverberated around the silent house.

I stayed still for a moment or two, listening, then heard the inevitable sounds of movement from Mum and Dad’s room, and their door opening.

‘Who’s there?’

In the event of a break-in, it would be Mum who was shot through the heart trying to tackle intruders while Dad pulled the duvet over his head and grumbled about the noise.

‘Me. Cal. Go back to bed, Mum.’

If only she’d leave me alone till tomorrow morning, I could work out what I was going to say to her. Yeah, fat chance.

‘Cal? What are you doing here?’

The door opened and the light went on.

‘Why were you here in the dark?’

‘I was trying not to wake anyone up.’

‘Hm. That worked well.’

‘I dropped something.’

‘What are you doing here, sweetheart?’

‘I need somewhere to stay.’

‘Why? What’s happened?’

‘I’ve left Ayesh.’

‘Oh Cal!’

Mum sat down on the bed as if her legs had gone from under her, and I joined her, as I felt the same. Saying the words made it true. I’d left Ayesh. How had I done that?

‘What happened, sweetheart?’

‘I can’t talk about it tonight, Mum, I just want to go to bed. Can we do this tomorrow?’

‘Where is she?’

‘Back at the flat.’

‘Is she alright?’

‘I doubt it.’

‘Should someone be with her?’

‘I don’t know, Mum, but she won’t want to hear from anyone who’s anything to do with me right now.’

‘Oh Cal, what have you done?’

‘Tomorrow, Mum. My head’s too fucked at the moment. Please.’

I wasn’t going to sleep, but I needed the dark and the quiet so some of the madness that was spinning around me would stop.

‘Alright, but you are going to tell me what’s going on tomorrow.’

That was Mum’s ‘no arguing’ voice. It still worked, and I nodded, before starting to take my shirt off. Mum got the hint and got up, shutting the door behind her.

I stripped to my boxers and got into bed, but couldn’t even close my eyes. I stared up into the dark, feeling so ashamed of myself and trying to figure out my next action. Tomorrow was Saturday, there was a Raiders home game, and I was on the bench, but if I didn’t get my act together pretty soon, I wouldn’t be in a fit state to play. I could hardly string two thoughts together, let alone concentrate for eighty minutes of high intensity rugby. I would have to talk to Dad first thing and hope he was sympathetic.

As my situation whirled round me, I couldn’t even think about Chrissie and what I was going to say to her. I was struggling with what had just broken in two between Ayesh and me, and with what I had just done: walked out on seven years of happiness and love, given up a shared life and a shared home, and hurt, really hurt, the woman who had chosen to be with me rather than with her family.

While I was in the midst of my self-absorbed introspection, my phone rang. It was Ayesh’s ring tone, our favourite song, the one we always danced to when we were clubbing. With a lurch to my gut, I realised I was never going to dance with her again. I pressed the screen on my phone.

‘Hey.’

‘You know what you’ve done, don’t you?’

I was well aware of the many things I’d done, but didn’t know which particular one Ayesh meant. A general agreement was all I could come up with.

‘Yeah. I’m sorry, Ayesh.’

‘I don’t want an apology. I’d like to say I don’t want anything from you, not any more, but if I’m pregnant, you are going to be a father to this baby.’

Saying that, calling it this baby made me feel sick – I might have left my child before it was even born. It could be a real child, there could be a real person I was hurting before it was even in the world. All my clarity and resolve crumbled and left me with nothing solid to hold onto, except Ayesh. She needed … something.

‘Yeah, whatever you need. You know that.’

‘I’m doing a test tomorrow – oh my God that’s why you’ve been all ‘not tonight I’m tired’ isn’t it. You disgust me. You can come and pick up your stuff tomorrow. Today. If it’s still here when I get back from Rhi’s, it’s going in the skip.’

Ayesh had a routine on match day that either involved watching chick flicks with Mum or shopping and drinking coffee with her friend Rhianna. I guessed the chick flicks were off the table for the foreseeable future.

‘But I’m playing –’

‘Do you know how little of a shit I give about whatever the fuck you’re supposed to be doing? If it’s still here when I get back, it’s gone.’

She disconnected, leaving me with a gaping wound where my heart should have been. I had brought this whole mess on myself and on Ayesh, and it was right that I was feeling every bit of misery I was feeling, but it wasn’t right that Ayesh was hurting as much as she was. I’d done the right thing. I thought I’d done the right thing. Then. Now I wasn’t sure.

I rolled onto my side and cried, for me, for Ayesh and for us.

After a while, it started to get light outside, and I dragged myself out of bed and downstairs. I was going to need a lot of caffeine to help me through today, and I wanted to get a head start on it. I switched on Mum’s swanky new coffee maker and put some bread in the toaster, although I wasn’t hungry and the smell of it browning made me feel a bit sick.

I thought I might have some time on my own to think, but Mum must have heard me get up, and she was soon downstairs and sitting across the table from me, waiting for me to tell her what had happened.

‘Just let me drink my coffee, Mum.’

‘I want you to tell me what you’ve done.’

‘I told you, I’ve left.’

‘You didn’t say why.’

I fell back on my new catch phrase.

‘It’s complicated.’

‘I’m pretty clever, I pick things up really fast. Try me.’

I closed my eyes and tried to gather the strength to start this, the first of many times I was going to have to explain myself. It had all seemed so clear when I’d decided last night after talking to Lau, but everything had imploded crazily since then, and I was no longer sure of my reasons. How it felt was different to how I had thought it would feel when I was being vaguely logical. I stumbled to the start of an explanation.

‘I’ve … I can’t … it’s … I slept with someone else.’

What?’

‘I slept with someone else.’

‘You idiot. Is it serious?’

Mum was not being noticeably on my side. I hadn’t expected an easy time from her, but it seems I hadn’t been that good at judging anyone’s reactions so far, and now I was under attack before I’d even woken up properly. Hell, I hadn’t even been to sleep yet. I took a long swig of coffee before I answered.

‘Serious enough.’

‘What were you thinking? Ayesha loves you, she’s mad about you, I thought you were mad about her.’

‘So did I. I was. I am, I mean … fuck it, I don’t know, I’m such a headfuck right now, Mum.’

‘Then you need to finish it and go back to Ayesha. If you finish it, she’ll forgive you.’

‘No.’

I shook my head, and suddenly, that was one thing I was sure of. I had blown it with Ayesh, because I’d told her what I’d done, knowing it would be the end of us. I wasn’t going back, I couldn’t go back, I didn’t want to go back. It hurt, and I loved her, but I had left, and there was no going back.

‘But sweetheart, you have to try –’

‘Leave it, Mum. It’s over. It’s possible Ayesh is pregnant, and I’ve still left.’

Mum gaped at me, as if I had turned into a two-headed monster in front of her. Maybe that’s how she saw me right then, but I needed her to see how definite I was that I wasn’t going to change my mind, otherwise she’d think she could change it for me. I saw a lot of things flicker across her face. There was the brief flare of joy at the possibility of being a grandmother, which was quickly replaced with sorrow at the circumstances surrounding it, and then overridden with anger at a course of action she didn’t understand.

‘No … Cal, that’s, that’s just wrong. You can’t leave someone who’s having your baby.’

‘It’s not definite, might not be, probably isn’t. It’s a possibility, that’s all. It wouldn’t make any difference, though. Things have changed with us.’

‘Because you’ve had a … a … fling. You can’t just throw away everything you’ve got with Ayesha, your home, your life.’

‘It’s not a fling. It’s … Mum, it’s Chrissie.’

Mum looked confused for just a second.

‘Chri – oh! But when … how long … you never said a word.’

‘She’s only been back a few weeks. I just think I’ve got to be with her.’

If Chrissie would even consider being with me after this mess came out. She didn’t want to hurt Ayesh either, but now she was part of the big pile of crap that I’d dumped over all our lives.

‘Cal, you need to think very carefully about leaving Ayesha for someone you’ve only known for a few weeks.’

‘I’ve known her for years, Mum. She’s just the same. We’re just the same. I’m not going to argue with you about this, it’s my life, and I know how I feel. Me and Ayesh are over. She wants me to get my stuff today.’

‘Will you be moving in with her then?’

‘Oh I don’t fucking well know. She doesn’t even know I’ve left. She wanted us to break it off so Ayesh didn’t get hurt.’

‘Well there you –’

‘No Mum. Just stop. If you don’t want me to stay here while I sort myself out, I understand, I’ll go somewhere else.

‘Oh Cal, of course you can stay.’

‘Thanks. But you need to give me some space.’

‘And you have to realise that we all care about Ayesha too. We’ve known her for a long time, and we love her.’

‘I know. I’m sorry it’s going to be hard. You can still talk to her, you’d be good at talking to her, but maybe leave it a bit, yeah?’

‘Yes, maybe.’

‘Is Dad up yet?’

‘No, but he won’t be long.’

‘I’m supposed to be playing this afternoon.’

‘Do you think you can?’

‘I haven’t slept, and my head’s all over the place.’

‘Probably not then. Your dad’s not going to be very pleased.’

‘Just another one for the list then.’

Mum and I sat in silence for a while. I knew there was a lot Mum would want to say; maybe she was respecting my wishes and giving me space, or maybe she was just so mad at me she couldn’t speak to me.

Before long, we heard the unmistakable sounds of Dad shuffling downstairs, clearing his throat and sighing as he got over the daily disappointment of having to haul his arse out of bed yet again.

Mum pinned me with one of her meaningful looks. It was almost as powerful as her ‘no arguing’ voice.

‘You need to talk to him right now.’

‘Does he know?’

‘No, he’d gone back to sleep before I went back to bed last night.’

She stood up and took her coffee into the living room, leaving the way clear for an uninterrupted chat with Dad. Or should it be Scotty? Shit, this was way beyond the realms of the usual family/work dilemma.

‘Cal! You’re here early.’

‘Er, yeah. I was here all night.’

‘What? Oh, was that you in the spare room last night? It sounded like one of your sister’s strays until we remembered she’s back at Uni.’

Iz often took pity on people she met on nights out who were too pissed to find their way home. It never seemed to occur to her that it wasn’t that safe, installing random strangers in the guest room for Mum to trip over when she went to get the ironing pile. I suppose I was lucky she wasn’t home, and I hadn’t cuddled up to one of them by mistake in the dark.

‘Yeah, it was me. Sorry I woke you up. Er, Dad, I need to talk to you about something, but I’m not sure if … whether you should be Dad or Scotty.’

Dad frowned. He didn’t like it when family intruded on work, although he didn’t seem that bothered when it was the other way round.

‘OK. Just talk to me then. We’ll work it out as we go along.’

‘Right. Well, the thing is …’

God, was it going to be this hard every time I said it? Like I was just standing in front of the people I loved and saying ‘Look, here I am, the biggest bag of shit you’ll ever see, here are the crappy things I’ve done, feel free to take a pop’? Yeah, I expect so, because that was how it was.

‘… the thing is, I’ve left Ayesh.’

‘Oh. Jesus, Cal. Does your mum know?’

Well, dur Dad. Mum always knows everything, even though this time I’d had to tell her, rather than her guessing. But I was all out of sarcasm, it just felt too confrontational.

‘Yeah, she knows. But it only happened last night, I haven’t had any sleep and I’m a wreck, I’m not sure I can play today.’

‘Oh.’

I could almost see him switching from Dad-mode to Coach-mode.

‘I’m sorry, maybe I should be talking to Mac about this.’

‘No, Cal, it’s fine, anyone else would be talking to me, wouldn’t they. Let’s just imagine you’ve called me on the day of the match because you’re having a personal situation.’

‘Oookaay …’

‘So you say you haven’t had any sleep.’

‘No.’

‘And your concentration is affected.’

‘Yeah.’

‘And would you say your concentration has been affected for the last couple of weeks, maybe?’

Now I wasn’t sure what was going on. Dad was certainly in coach-mode, and being brisk and professional, but I hadn’t expected this. Had I really been off since I first saw Chrissie? Was that why I’d been dropped to the bench?

‘Er, yeah, possibly.’

‘OK, then, I’ll take you off the bench today, but you have until Tuesday to sort your head out and start concentrating, or you won’t be considered for the squad, until you’ve shown a bit more application than you’ve been giving recently. Got it?’

‘Got it, coach.’

Dad’s eyes softened and he tilted his head.

‘Seriously, Cal? You left Ayesha?’

And that’s when I broke down, again, full on sob-fest at the kitchen table that ended with Mum and Dad holding on to me as I poured snot and tears of shame on them.

Once it was over, or rather over for now, as it wasn’t to be the only time I broke down, Dad disappeared and left me with Mum. She seemed to have stopped being angry, for now at any rate, and was caught up with organising me. Mum never forgot a single thing people told her, and somewhere last night or this morning I’d told her that I had to collect my stuff from the flat. She was busy trying to sort it out for me.

‘I know Matty and Dec are around this morning, but they’ll both be going to the game this afternoon.’

Yeah, the game I was no longer involved in. Didn’t really want to be reminded about that.

‘It’s OK, I’ll go this morning, I can go on my own.’

‘Have you got much?’

‘I don’t really know. I can’t think. Most of the stuff is ours, not mine. My clothes, I suppose. My X-box, my weights. I’ll leave everything else, I haven’t got anywhere to put it, and I shouldn’t be taking stuff anyway. It wouldn’t be right.’

‘I think someone should go with you. Would you like me to come?’

‘No, Mum, I’ll be fine.’

‘Call Dec. Or Matty. They’ll go with you.’

‘Jesus Christ, Mum, I said I’ll be fucking fine.’

‘Alright, Cal, there’s no need for that.’

‘Sorry, sorry. I’m having trouble controlling myself. Maybe I’ll call Dec.’

Mum nodded, but didn’t say anything else, just got up and made me yet another cup of coffee. The caffeine wasn’t doing much for my mood, as I was feeling jazzed and on edge, but if I didn’t keep drinking it I was going to pass out on the sofa before I got to go round to the flat.

I got my phone out and called Dec.

‘Calster! Looking forward to picking the splinters out of your behind later?’

‘Er, I’m not on the bench today.’

‘Oh. Are you starting then?’

‘No. I pulled out of the squad.’

‘Oh. Everything OK mate? Did you pick up a knock in training?’

‘No. Dec, I want to ask you a favour.’

‘Name it, mate.’

‘OK, first I need to explain something, but it’s hard, and I don’t want to do a lot of talking and answering questions, so can you just listen, and say if you can do it and I’ll do the talking later?’

‘Errr, OK.’

‘Right, well, me and Ayesh have split up –’

‘Fuck! Sorry, didn’t mean to say anything. Fuck, though.’

‘Yeah, well. Anyway, I’ve got to go and get my stuff today and I wondered if you’d go with me? I probably shouldn’t be there on my own.’

‘Yeah, no worries, Cal. Shit. Is Ayesh going to be there?’

‘Fuck no, but I’m a bit of a mess and I might need some moral support.’

‘No worries. Shall I meet you there?’

‘Great. An hour?’

‘Yep.’

‘Thanks, Dec.’

‘Cal, I know you said not to ask anything, but fuck me, that’s pretty huge.’

‘Yeah, I can’t do this.’

‘OK. See you later.’

125. I’m not the only one

In which an old flame is encountered, and lies and secrecy begin.

Laura

‘Hey Lau, is Josh there? I just wanted to wish him luck for his game.’

‘He’s getting ready. I’ll go and chivvy. Have a word with Matt for a bit.’

I handed the iPad over to Matt, who put it on its stand. I could hear the conversation as I went up the stairs.

‘Heh Iz.’

‘Hi Matty. I can’t believe I’m missing Josh’s first game for the under fourteens.’

‘Noh, meh neither.’

‘What, you’re not going?’

‘Not up tuh ih. Legs arsing abouh.’

‘But haven’t you got a like wheelchair?’

‘I’ve goh an ahtual whelchair, buh I’hm not gona goh an see Josh play wrapped up lihk an old man.’

‘Oh. So you’re going to miss your son’s only ever first game for the under fourteens because you’re too proud. What does Josh think?’

‘Hahvnt told him yet.’

I missed the next part of the conversation, as I opened the door to Josh’s bedroom and was confronted with a blizzard of clothes that seemed to settle around me.

‘Josh, what on earth are you doing? We’ve got to go soon. Iz is on Facetime, she wants to wish you luck.’

‘I can’t find my shorts.’

‘I’m not surprised, I doubt you’ll be able to find anything else. Have you emptied every single drawer onto the floor?’

‘Mum, I need my bloody shorts.’

‘Joshua James Scott, there is no need for language like that. Your shorts are in the airing cupboard. Go and find Dad, he’s talking to Iz.’

Josh stomped out and I heard him go down the stairs. He must have inherited his stomping ability from me, as he was great at it. I looked at the clothes scattered around the room and sighed; I’d tidy it up while Josh was out. I spotted his rugby shirt buried under a coat and a jumper, and fished it out, then walked down the hall to the airing cupboard where I picked out the shorts. I could hear voices from downstairs, and laughter. I hoped Iz had managed to talk Matt into coming with us, but wasn’t holding my breath.

This was a new chapter in Matt’s MS. He’d had a wheelchair before, when he was so ill the first time, before I knew him, but he’d got rid of it when his symptoms all but disappeared for several years. In the last month, his walking had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t walk more than a few steps on his own, and after a lot of badgering on my part, he had agreed to buy a wheelchair. He had yet to use it – it had sat accusingly under the stairs, gathering coats and shopping bags, and he stayed in rather than going out and having to use it.

I really understood how he felt; when he could get about, after a fashion, by just leaning on my arm, he could feel that people might not notice. If he was in a wheelchair, it made him conspicuous, and people would make sympathetic noises and ask what was wrong, and every time he had to explain it would feel like a tiny knife in his heart. I’d hoped the thought of missing Josh’s important rugby game would override his pride, but had been unable to persuade him.

I walked down the stairs and into the kitchen, where Josh and Matt were sitting at the table talking to Iz. I handed Josh his shirt and shorts.

‘Ooh, Joshy, is that your new kit?’

He nodded at Iz’s face in the iPad.

‘Yeah. It’s new this year, it’s got stripes down the side, it’s really cool.’

‘Let’s have a look, then, hold it up.’

Josh unfolded the shirt and held it up against himself.

‘Whoa, that’s totally awesome. You’ll have to take some pictures, Matty, or a vid or something. I need to see all Joshy’s tries.’

‘Yeh, all tehn.’

‘Daad, I’m not going to score ten tries.’

‘Wha kind of defehtist attituhd is tha? I wan at lehst tehn tries, an yuh should kick the conversions too.’

‘Gareth Jenkins does the kicking.’

‘See, thehr yuh goh again.’

‘Just do your best, flower. Dad will be proud of you whatever you do.’

‘You know tha, dohnt yuh Hippo. Nihn tries will beh fine.’

‘Anyway, guys, I’ve got to go, lunch date.’

‘Really, Iz? Does Harry know?’

Iz rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, Lau. It’s a study date. We’ve got a test and some of the guys are getting together to like swot.’

‘That’s alright then. I’ll stop being a boring old fart now and leave you to your date.’

‘OK. Good luck, then, Joshy, wish I was there.’

‘When are you coming back?’

‘Don’t know if I’ll make it this term, but defo for Christmas.’

‘But that’s ages.’

‘It’ll fly by. Facetime me whenever you want. If I don’t answer I’m snogging someone. Bye Matty, enjoy the game, bye Lau.’

We all said goodbye and waved, and the connection was broken.

I looked at Matt, who looked back defiantly, daring me to say anything. Josh hadn’t known his dad wasn’t planning on being there, so rather than spoil things, I raised an eyebrow and blew him a kiss.

‘Right Josh, go and pack your kit. Your boots are in the cupboard, socks – oh they’ll be somewhere on your bedroom floor. Put everything else in your bag before you look for them, otherwise you’ll lose it all again.’

‘Yes Mum.’

He turned and ran out of the room before I could boss him about any more. I turned to Matt.

‘I’m glad you’re coming.’

‘Yeh. Well. Iz is even mohr of a bossy cow than yuh sometimes.’

‘Surely not.’

‘Tahks after Beth. Never shuhs the fuck up. Geh the bluhdy machine in the car then, befohr I change my mihnd. Thehrs a bluhdy tartan blahnket sohmwehr, jus tuh finish the look.’

‘No there isn’t. I could find you a My Little Pony one, if you really want wrapping up.’

‘Pihs ohf.’

I walked over to where Matt was sitting, stood behind him and wrapped my arms round him.

‘I love you.’

‘I should thihk soh too.’

He bent his head and kissed my arm.

‘Come on, yuh nehd tuh geh Josh moving or he’ll beh distracted by something on the floor.’

‘What’s on the floor is his entire wardrobe. He was looking for his shorts. Now he’s looking for his socks. Hmm, maybe I’d better go and help him.’

*

‘Goh Josh, goh on, goh goh goh YEAAAH! WHOOO! Whatta try. Did yuh see tha Lau?’

Matt was on his feet, arms in the air, huge smile crinkling his eyes and mouth.

‘I saw it. Is that like a goal?’

‘Yuhr bluhdy useless, Lau. Yeh, lihk a goal, only not becohs a goal’s in footbahl. Oh shih, gona hahv tuh sit down again.’

Matt had gone pale, and sat down hard in his wheelchair, but it didn’t wipe the grin off his face.

*

‘Glad Matty went 2 watch. He wld hv missed Joshy’s first try.’

‘Yeh, me 2. Did u get pics? M sent a while a ago.’

‘Yeh, gr8! So proud of Joshy.’

‘Us 2. Thx 4 talking M round.’

‘He needed kick up the Rs. Glad 2 deliver. Gota go, clubbing beckons. Iz xx’

‘Who yuh texting?’

‘Iz. Catching up about the game.’

‘Did she geh the pics?’

‘Yeah, she’s a proud cousin.’

‘Thahks, Lau.’

‘What for?’

‘Not sayin I tol yuh soh or some such shih.’

‘Daft sod. I’m glad you were there to see it.’

Cal

There was no baby news from Cal and Ayesh, so we just went on as normal. We did the necessary things, but didn’t get stressed at the lack of results, because it was still early days and we were still getting used to the idea of even trying. No one knew we were trying, because we weren’t ‘trying’, we were just not not trying, so no one asked us about it; it was like a secret, which was exciting but also meant the pressure was off.

Laura

‘Oh but Mum, everyone’s going, and they’re all sleeping over. I’ll be the only one being picked up by, like, my parents. Charlie’s staying.’

‘Charlie’s older than you.’

‘Tom’s staying.’

I sighed with exasperation – Ella planned her confrontations, she always had an answer which was several steps ahead of my response, she knew what I would say and what she needed to reply in order to back me into a corner. It was impressive and infuriating.

‘Ella, who’re Chahlie an Tom’s mum an dad?’

I sat back and let Matt take over the argument. He was much better at it than me – he thought quicker, and his answers were less predictable.

‘Amy and Dec, but –’

‘An who’re yuhr mum and dad?’

‘Well dur, Mum and you, but –’

‘So what Chahlie an Tom are allowed tuh do, not really the point, would yuh agree?’

Ella was silent, not knowing whether agreeing or disagreeing was the best option, or whether it was time to wail ‘it’s not fair‘; Matt did this so much better than I did.

‘Hm. Soh, there ahr gona beh boys at this party?’

‘Dad, it’s a party. Tom’s going, like I said. Some other boys in his class. And girls too.’

‘An Maisie’s parents ahr gona be whehr?’

‘They’re like totally cool, they’re going out.’

‘An so yuhr asking us if yuh can be in a house full of rampaging teenagers, one of who is Charlie Summers, withouh adult supervision, overnigh?’

‘Yeah, but Dad –’

‘Why isn’t yuhr brother going?’

‘Oh he’s not interested, he’s so boring, all he like thinks about is rugby.’

‘Hm. An soh when I asked him earlier, did he a) say he wasn’t interested or b) say he didn’t want to be in a house full of rampaging teenagers withouh adult supervision becohs the very thought terrifies him?’

‘Actually, Dad, he said c) not my thing. I heard you ask him.’

‘Which is the same as b).’

‘Or the same as a).’

‘Ooh, yuhr good, buh yuhr not gona win this, Squeaks, I was school debating champ.’

‘Yeah, when you were young. You’re old now, and crippled.’

‘Ella!’

‘Ih’s OK, Lau, Ihv got this.’

Matt sounded calm, but Ella’s comment had stung him, as it was designed to.

‘Ella, first rule of debating, an listen carefully as yuhv got yuhr first debate in, wha, thirty minutes. When the other tehm resorts tuh insults, yuh know they’ve lost, an yuh know they know ih. Second rule of debating, know when yuhr having a debate an when yuhr not. This isn’t a debate, this is meh an yuhr mum saying yuh can goh tuh the party, buh we’re coming tuh fetch yuh at – when did weh say, Lau?’

‘Eleven.’

‘We’re coming tuh fetch yuh at eleven, an tha’s the end of ih.’

The silence from the back of the car bored holes into the back of our heads. We were on our way to Ella’s first debating team meet. She had just been picked, the youngest one in the team, and we were so proud of her. It was typical of Ella to bring up a contentious issue just as she was about to do something important; she almost seemed to thrive on having added stress.

Matt’s phone pinged.

‘Beth says gohd luhck.’

Ella decided to launch another attack.

‘If I had my own phone, she could text me herself.’

‘Ha ha, Squeaks, yuh rehly wana start this just as we’re parking, yuhr hilarious. Yuhv lost two phones since the summer, yuhr getting a smartphone fuh yuhr birthday, an soh noh more phones until July.’

‘It’s so unfair.’

Apparently it was now time to wail.

‘I know. The whole world hates yuh, starting with meh an yuhr mum, an yuh can’t do anything right, an yuh never get anything yuh rehly rehly want, an yuhr gona run away tuh China an tha’ll jus show us all. Glad weh sorted tha. Got yuhr folder?’

‘Yes.’

Ella could not have sounded more grumpy. Matt let it wash over him.

‘Right then, leh’s geh going an watch a new generation of Scotts ignite the debating wohld.’

*

Matt got to his feet to applaud Ella, pulling me up too so I could support him as he stood. His mobility had improved enough that he could walk from the car to the hall by leaning on me, but he did still need someone to lean on. His applause lasted longer than was strictly necessary, but he managed not to cheer or whoop, as promised.

Ella’s rebuttal to the main topic, that ‘Parents should not purchase war toys for their children’, had been well thought out and well argued, and she had shown no sign of nerves. A long time ago I’d given presentations on topics I knew a lot about, but this kind of speed argument was new to me, and I would have been terrified. Matt and I sat down, and he turned to me.

‘Tha was bluhdy outstahding.’

‘She was really good, but I can’t believe she thinks guns for boys are a good idea.’

‘Ha ha, Lau, ih’s a debate. She doesn’t hahv tuh believe wha she’s arguing, ih’s about how convincing she is an how she uses wha she knows.’

‘Oh. It’s very confusing, almost as bad as rugby. Do you think either of my children are ever going to take up activities I actually understand?’

*

‘Soh, Ella, yuhr mum thinks yuhr a bloodthirsty warmonger. Discuss.’

‘Oh Muum, we had to say that, that’s what debating is all about, trying to convince the judges you’ve got a better argument.’

‘Yes, so your father explained. I’m not really going to stand much of a chance at home, am I, especially when you both gang up on me.’

‘Not a hohp, Lau.’

‘Except … I’m the mum, and what I say goes, whether I understand the arguments or not.’

‘Damn, she’s got us, Squeaks. She found the loophole. Wehr toast.’

*

‘Come hehr.’

I snuggled up to Matt, who put his arms round me and held me tight. I felt a tension in him.

‘Everything OK, flower?’

He sighed. ‘Our babies are growing up. Scahred.’

‘Of what?’

‘Of not being able tuh control them, keep them safe. Being too old an crihpled.’

I knew Ella’s comment had hurt him; I pulled him tighter.

‘The older they get, the less able we’ll be to control them. And the more they’ll use anything they can to get a reaction. Ella’s smart mouth is going to get her in trouble one day soon. Takes after her dad. You might have to get used to fending off hurtful remarks from your own daughter.’

‘I don’t say hurtful things.’

‘No, but you and Dec have both bandied the word ‘cripple’ about, and I don’t think she really meant to hurt you, just score points. You do a fair amount of that, too.’

‘I s’pohs. Was a bih of a knife through the heart, tho.’

‘I know. It’s like when she told me I was too old to wear my purple dress.’

‘Wha, the short one that shows off yuhr tits?’

‘Er, it’s a bit low cut, maybe.’

‘Yeh. Never too old fuh tha one, Lau.’

‘Well, it still hurts when Ella says it. And she knows it, so she says it more.’

‘Yeh. Oh fuck ih, Lau, I wish I was a prohper dad.’

‘What on earth do you mean? You are a proper dad, you’re a great dad.’

‘I cahnt duh ih all. Wha other dads duh. They cahnt rely on meh, tuh take them places, fetch them if they nehd ih, tuh, I dunno, goh in the loft an fetch the Christmas decs, tuh goh on bike rides …’

He tailed off, a long list of the things he couldn’t always do clogging up his thoughts.

‘Whose dad can do everything? You’re great, and I mean awesomely great, at the things you can do. You’ve taught Ella about debating – she uses words like, oh, like they’re tools or something, ties me up in knots. You watch Josh playing rugby, he tries extra hard when you’re there, he’s so proud. You earn money for all of us so we can live here and eat and go on holiday. You do all that, and so much more, even though you sometimes send me in the loft for the tinsel. Come on, my love, stop this nonsense. Ella and Josh wouldn’t swap you for any other dad.’

‘Except maybe Dec, then Ella could goh tuh her party.’

‘Can you imagine Dec being Ella’s dad? He wouldn’t last five minutes. She’d have his credit card, survive on a diet of Doritos and Coke, and still charge him for babysitting, which she’d subcontract to Tom for less and make a huge profit. You know exactly how to handle her, when to encourage her to think for herself and when to impose limits. She’s just like you, you know that, don’t you?’

Matt considered for a moment.

‘Never thoht abou ih like tha. Who’s Josh like, then? He’s not bluhdy bossy like yuh.’

‘No, but he’s more single-minded than Ella. He focusses on one thing at a time, but Ella is all over the place, flitting from one interesting thing to the next, fingers in all the pies. Josh has to finish one thing, and think about it, and decide if he likes it, before he moves on to the next thing. Once he’s made his mind up, you can’t change it. Ella has about fifteen different opinions at once, I can’t keep up with them.’

Matt was looking at me wide-eyed.

‘Shih, Lau, how duh yuh know them soh well? Yuhr righ, buh I never stopped an thoht abou ih. Should pay mohr attention.’

‘Well I guess it doesn’t always pay to overanalyse things, and it isn’t as black and white as that, they’re their own people too – Ella has my, well let’s call it desire to organise people –’

‘She’s a bohsy cow.’

‘– and Josh would rather go it alone than ask for help, which I could say comes from you. But, Matt, never say you’re not a proper dad. They love you, none of us could do without you.’

Cal

It was after a Raiders home game. I was in the bar afterwards, as the players always were, meeting the supporters, chatting, being sociable. I was checking my watch to see if it was time to get off yet, when a voice in my ear took me back nearly ten years and froze me to my seat.

‘What’s a girl have to do to get a Fanta round here?’

I didn’t recognise the voice straight away, but something about it rocketed straight to my soul and started an explosion in my heart. I looked round to see who had spoken, but some deep down, long ago part of me knew before my eyes met hers who it would be. Chrissie.

I sat dumbly for what felt like hours, just looking at her. Then she smiled that rock star smile, and I smiled back, and she threw her arms round my neck and kissed my ear.

I could not believe my eyes. She looked just the same, but completely different. Obviously. The last time I saw her we were fifteen, now we were getting on for twenty five. Her hair was different (although mine was the same buzz cut it would always be), her face had got more … adult, as I suppose mine had, and her body was incredible. So sue me for noticing.

‘Chrissie. I can’t believe it. What the fuck are you doing here?’

‘I’ve just moved back. I’ve noticed you’ve become some kind of tosspot local celebrity, so I thought I’d come and see what all the fuss was about. You’re quite good, aren’t you.’

I shrugged semi-modestly. I’d scored two tries that afternoon, and was feeling pretty pleased with myself, if I’m honest.

‘You’ve moved back? With your family?’

‘No, on my own. God, it’s so good to see you.’

‘Yeah.’

All of the broken-hearted fifteen-year-old misery raised its head at that point. It was good to see her too, but it wasn’t like we’d parted on good terms. She’d torn me apart, and she must have known. I felt my smile fade.

‘Cal, I know it was a long time ago, but I’m sorry about how things ended with us.’

‘Yeah, me too.’

‘If it helps, I was really cut up.’

‘No, it doesn’t, not really. So was I.’

‘I had to see a therapist.’

Oh. That trumped my Cob-on Kid holiday somewhat.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Look, I don’t know if this is the right place to do this, but I’d love to catch up with you, what you’ve been up to in the last ten years or so, apart from becoming a rugby superstar. Can I buy you a drink?’

‘I hear Fanta is the in drink with girls these days.’

Chrissie laughed, and it was a sound that I remembered so well, a sound that set off memories and feelings I thought I’d got rid of when she left. Her laugh, God what I wouldn’t do to make her laugh back then. It always made me feel happy.

‘OK then.’

And she turned to the bartender and ordered two Fantas. With straws.

We sat on the bar stools and sipped our orange drinks, as I stole glances at Chrissie. Chrissie, who was beautiful and just the same but oh so different. Chrissie, who seemed to have reached inside me and woken something up that not only had I not realised was sleeping, but that I would have sworn I’d thrown out with the rubbish years ago.

We laughed, a lot, something I seemed to have forgotten how to do. Not that Ayesh and I didn’t laugh, but well, it wasn’t like this. Chrissie and I chatted for ages, just about daft things, some of it what we used to do back then, some of it about our lives now. I told her about Ayesh, and she remembered her from school. She said she’d broken up with someone she nearly got engaged to, and the way she described it was so similar to what happened to me when I didn’t propose at Christmas that I felt more connections. Then we wandered off onto the subject of Arsenal, who we both still loved and I could do the big star thing about, because I’d actually met Theo Walcott, even though I could hardly talk to him for being starstruck, but Chrissie went one better because in her job, which was a buyer for some big corporate thing, she’d been invited to a VIP box at the Emirates, and afterwards she’d met the whole team, so ner.

When I noticed that she was wearing the ring I gave her for her birthday a long time ago, it was inevitable, or it felt so, that we would go back to her new place, just for a look, and a drink of something stronger than Fanta, and once we were there, and alone, it was hard to deny the feelings that were fizzing between us, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t think about Ayesh once while I was there, because it all just seemed to fall into place. We hugged first, and then the rest just … happened – the same familiar movements, smells and sounds bringing the same responses from both of us, as if we were doing a dance we’d learned a long time ago. People say ‘one thing led to another’, don’t they, and it’s such a cliché, but it really happens, it happened to us, that doing the one thing triggered the next thing, and the next and the next.

So I didn’t think about Ayesh when I hugged Chrissie, and I didn’t think about Ayesh when I kissed Chrissie, and I didn’t think about Ayesh when I slept with Chrissie. I didn’t think about Ayesh until I had to go home to her, and it all rushed up to me, what I’d done, what I’d become, because with Chrissie, it was inevitable, and it was incredible. As if we’d never left each other, but not as if we were fifteen. No, not like that at all.

I slipped home in the early hours of Sunday morning, knowing Ayesh would be asleep. She was used to me coming home late after a game, because I’d often be out with the lads, celebrating if we’d won or commiserating if we’d lost. She didn’t come to many games, and more often than not she’d go and see Mum when I was playing, so they could jointly take each other’s mind off the fact that I was doing something that could potentially result in serious injury.

I couldn’t get into the same bed as her knowing what I’d just done, so I crawled into the spare bed and lay awake all night thinking about what a skanky bastard I was and cursing my cowardliness.

I didn’t sleep at all, and got up as soon as it started to get light to sit in the kitchen with a cup of tea. I hadn’t resolved anything in the night, but a few things had occurred to me. Ayesh and I were trying to have a baby. She might already be pregnant, and if she was, what did that mean for our future? Before today, I would have said that as soon as we found out, I would ask her to marry me, and that would be the rest of our lives. Now, I felt like I’d found a part of me that had been lost a long time ago. Chrissie made me feel like the real me. But I’d only just met her again, after all these years, and I loved Ayesh. God I was a mess. This whole thing was a mess. My life had gone from ordinary to spectacularly complicated in one short sentence breathed into my ear by someone I hadn’t seen for over a decade.

Before Ayesh got up, I went out for a run, taking my phone with me. I’d had it on silent in the night, but Chrissie had texted.

God Cal I’m so sorry I feel like an utter homewrecker.

I shouldn’t have answered, I know I shouldn’t, but Chrissie wasn’t the one in the wrong, she wasn’t the one in the relationship, and she didn’t deserve the blame.

Don’t beat yourself up. Took 2.

Thx, but feel bad.

And again, I should have left it, but again I didn’t.

Was gr8 2 cu, just went 2 far.

It was gr8. Seeing u I mean. Forgot what it was like.

It was like it always was.

Which I hoped she could take any way she chose, and hopefully might think I thought it was a bit juvenile, and not like it was something I’d been hankering after.

I missed you. All this time.

Oh shit. So now I really had to stop it, before she wanted to meet up again. I had to just cut her off.

Me too.

No Cal, you big fat loser, what the fuck are you doing? You need to just say it straight. Think of Ayesh.

Want to meet up?

Come on, this is your chance. Just say no and be done with it.

Yeah.

Oh fuck.

What did I say, a while back? I’d do anything in my power not to make that girl sad. That’s what I said. What a lying fucking scumbag. The only possible outcome of any of this was making Ayesh sad, but I couldn’t stop myself. I literally could not stop. I’m sure Matty would have had something to say about that if I’d said those words to him, because he always went off on one about misuse of the word ‘literally’, but where Chrissie was concerned, I did not seem to have control either of my mind or my actions.

Maybe, to justify it, I told myself I was just getting Chrissie out of my system, seeing her again to purge all the heartache from long ago, that as soon as I felt it had run its course I’d stop seeing her and go back to how I was. I’m sure I spouted all sorts of fucking lies to myself, to justify it.

I saw Chrissie again, and then again, and again. She was like a drug; the more I had the more I wanted. She was like she was before, only more – more beautiful, more funny, more sexy, more grown up, and it, what we had together was more as well – more intense, more overwhelming, more adult.

We didn’t sleep together again; but everything else we did – talking, laughing, listening to music, driving around in my car visiting some of our old haunts – it was as much of a betrayal. Oh and we kissed. A fair bit.

I hardly saw Ayesh, I couldn’t risk sleeping with her, and I needed to know whether or not she was pregnant. She usually took a test once a month, but not always, and it was around the time she would, but I couldn’t mention it to her without her thinking I was more bothered than I should have been. I’d always been laid back about it, because there was no rush, right? No pressure, babe. But now the pressure was on, and it was on me, because it meant something, but something terrible, if Ayesh was having our baby.

And just to make it worse, Lau found out. I mean, it could have been truly worse and Ayesh, or even Mum could have been the one to spot me, but Lau was bad enough.

Laura

‘Yeah, we’ll completely have to start Pilates again, now that Josie’s back from maternity leave. I’ve really noticed a difference since I stopped going.’

Amy and I were in a coffee shop in the city centre, our usual Wednesday morning haunt since we’d stopped going to our classes. It wasn’t strengthening our core, but we decided it was good for our souls and that was nearly as worthy.

‘As long as we can still come here for a chat afterwards.’

‘Yeah, course Lau. No pain, no gain. No painful stretching, no calorific drinks. Unless the trainer’s on maternity leave, then it completely doesn’t count.’

Amy grinned impishly at me.

‘Too right. Or we could do something more worthwhile with our time. I’ve been thinking about doing some voluntary work, maybe get a part time job or something.’

‘Really?’

I sighed. ‘No, not really. I can’t tie myself to anything in case Matt needs me. But sometimes I miss being useful to other people.’

‘Yeah, it would be nice to be someone else other than ‘Mum’ I suppose. But I don’t think I could even summon up the energy to apply for a job, let alone actually do one.’

‘You’ve got four full-time jobs, flower. You deserve a medal just for not murdering them all in their beds.’

‘Ha ha. Did you hear about Charlie’s latest?’

Cal

I’d been sneaking around for about two weeks, snatching time in the evening here, a lunch there, trying not to be gone from Ayesh so long that she wondered where I was spending all my time, but not to be at home for long enough that a night of passion was on the cards. I’ve never been a liar, don’t have the stomach for it, and every lie I told Ayesh made me feel physically sick, but I was still telling myself I was just working through it with Chrissie, and once I was done, it would stop and Ayesh really didn’t need to be hurt by knowing. Dickhead.

The usual pattern was that I’d say goodbye to Chrissie and not make plans to see her again, part of me hoping that would be the last time, telling myself I couldn’t do it again, that I wouldn’t answer her texts, and I definitely wouldn’t be sending her any messages. Then before even twenty-four hours had passed, one or other of us would text to say ‘thanks for today‘ and we’d arrange to meet another time. Soon.

So when Chrissie texted just as I was finishing training for the day and asked if we could meet in the city centre, right now, it was a bit unusual, but I was available, Ayesh was at work, and an afternoon fix of Chrissie sounded great.

Meeting in a coffee shop could be considered a bit risky for someone cheating on their girlfriend, but in my fucked up head I wasn’t cheating, I was purging, and the thought didn’t cross my mind. All that crossed my mind was seeing Chrissie again.

The coffee shop was busy, and Chrissie was waiting for me when I got there. She looked so beautiful that my heart swelled and I walked over to her and kissed her, so passionately it took both of us by surprise.

Laura

As Amy launched into an account of her oldest daughter’s most recent escapade, I caught sight of a familiar figure walking in through the door. It was Cal, and I was just about to raise my hand and wave, when he stopped by a table where a young blonde woman was sitting. He bent down and kissed the woman, pretty passionately, on the mouth before sitting down opposite her.

‘Lau?’

‘What?’

‘Is there something exciting happening behind me? You’ve been staring over my shoulder. Your mouth’s open.’

I closed my mouth and dragged my attention back to Amy.

‘Sorry, flower. I just saw Cal.’

‘Oh, where?’

Amy turned round.

‘I can’t see him.’

‘He’s got his back to us; he’s with that blonde woman. Stop staring. He just snogged her.’

‘What? No. He must just know her, it must have been a hello kiss.’

‘Yeah, a ‘hello tonsils, may I introduce you to my tongue’ kiss. It was a snog. He hasn’t broken up with Ayesha, has he?’

Amy frowned. ‘No. We were only there at the weekend, it all seemed good, although you never really know do you. Who is she then?’

Amy risked another quick look behind her.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Does he know we’re here?’

‘I don’t think so, it’s a bit dark all the way back here, and I didn’t catch his eye.’

‘You don’t think he’s … I can hardly say it … messing about? It doesn’t seem like Cal. I thought he was completely crazy about Ayesha. I’m sure he told Dec he was going to propose at Christmas, but then nothing happened and I forgot. What are we going to do? I’ve got to go in a minute, I’ve got the dentist.’

‘What do you mean what are we going to do?’

‘Well we can’t just walk past them.’

‘Why on earth not, Amy? He’s meeting her in a public place, whatever he’s doing, it must be public.’

‘But what if he sees us?’

‘We’ll just say hi. It’s up to him what he says or does after that. It’s none of our business really.’

Cal

I held Chrissie’s gaze as I sat down opposite her.

‘Well hello to you too.’

‘Yeah, must have missed you or something.’

‘Mm. Cal, thanks for coming. I need to talk to you.’

That didn’t sound good. Things that sounded good never started with ‘I need to talk to you’. I reached for Chrissie’s hand, needing something to steady myself. Her fingers were soft and cool, and I couldn’t help stroking her knuckles with my thumb.

‘OK.’

‘I don’t think we should be doing this … whatever it is we’re doing. I feel dreadful about your girlfriend. I think this should be the last time we see each other.’

I was horrified. Chrissie was doing the thing I should have had the balls to do nearly two weeks ago, after I slept with her – no, before I slept with her – and here she was being the one thinking about Ayesh. I was the worst kind of arsehole, wasn’t I. But still I wasn’t going to let her go. At the moment, it seemed like I never knew how I was going to feel, or what I was going to say until it came out of my mouth.

‘Chrissie, no. I can’t stop seeing you. I want to carry on.’

‘Are you going to leave Ayesha?’

‘It’s complicated.’

Oh what a bloody cliché. Chrissie didn’t know about the potential baby, and I wasn’t about to tell her, because that would make her run away at supersonic speed. Still, she raised an eyebrow at the tired old excuse I’d just trotted out.

‘Cal, I can’t be this person. I feel … so amazing when I’m with you, but when you’re not with me, I think about you being with her, and I feel angry because you’re not with me, but then I feel guilty because I shouldn’t feel like this about someone else’s boyfriend.’

‘How do you feel?’

‘Oh come on Cal, we’ve both said it, it’s like the last ten years never happened, like I never moved away, like we’ve picked up where we left off. Do you want me to say it? OK then. I love you.’

Shit. Shit. Double and triple shit. She wasn’t supposed to say she loved me, now I was going to have to think seriously about what my feelings for her were, and how they were different to what I felt for Ayesh. Shit shit shit with an added bit of oh holy fuck for good measure.

Laura

Despite saying it was none of my business, I’d always been a nosy cow, and I risked another look at Cal and the mystery woman. They were now holding hands across the table, and looked to be having an intense conversation.

‘They’re holding hands.’

‘Oh no. Do you think we should say something? Not now, but later, let him know we saw him?’

‘No, we should go, so you don’t miss your dentist appointment. We’ll just walk by and he’ll know we’ve seen, and if he wants to say anything that’s up to him, but otherwise we should butt out. I just can’t help looking though. I wonder who she is.’

I shook my head, trying to maintain an open mind. Cal was an adult, and entitled to his privacy. Yeah right, Laura Scott, you so wanted to know the juicy details.

‘Are you ready?’

Amy and I picked up our bags and made our way to the door, passing by the table where Cal was sitting, still clasping the hand of the blonde woman. He looked up as we walked past his table.

Cal

I was just about to attempt some kind of an answer, when I felt the people walking past our table staring at me. Thinking it might be a Raiders fan after a selfie or an autograph, I looked up to give them the ‘can’t you see I’m busy, I deserve a private life’ brush off, straight into the eyes of Laura Scott and Amy Summers. Oh holy fucking shit no. I let go of Chrissie’s hand as if it had burnt me.

‘Oh, hey Lau. Hey Amy. Er …’

I glanced at Chrissie, who was looking up at Amy and Lau as well. She probably remembered both of them from before, but neither of them seemed to know who Chrissie was, and she didn’t say a word to them. Her expression was neutral as she waited for me make the next move, but it was Lau who spoke first.

Laura

His glance flickered to the woman sitting opposite him, who was looking up at us as well. She looked slightly familiar, but I couldn’t place her.

‘Hi Cal. You caught us. We were just having hot chocolate with caramel syrup. Don’t tell Matt, he still thinks we go to Pilates on a Wednesday.’

Cal

‘Oh, ha ha, no, your secret’s safe with me.’

Lau looked at Chrissie, and I knew she hadn’t missed the irony of my stupid comment. As if Lau and Amy sneaking a drink in Starbucks was in any way the same as me being with someone who wasn’t Ayesh.

Laura

I looked pointedly at his companion – if we were going to be talking about secrets, he had a pretty big one sat across the table from him.

‘Likewise.’

Cal

Then they walked out, leaving me with burning red cheeks and a head full of ‘oh shit’.

‘Was that Lau and Amy?’

I nodded, still struck dumb with panic.

‘They didn’t recognise me, I guess. Probably just as well.’

I found my voice.

‘Shit, Chrissie. This is terrible.’

‘No, Cal, maybe it’s for the best. Maybe we should just finish it now, stop all this before it goes too far, you can tell them it’s nothing and mean it, and get on with your life.’

I hung my head. She was right, in that ending it was what we should do. But she wasn’t right about anything else.

‘I can’t, Chrissie. I can’t finish it. It’s already too late for me to just get on with my life, now you’re here.’

‘What does that mean?’

I sighed. ‘I’m not sure I know. Fuck it, I know this is really unfair on you. It’s unfair on Ayesh, but I’m trying to get my head around a lot of shit. Maybe we should … not stop seeing each other, but give each other a rest, for a few days, is that fair? No, it’s not, of course it’s not, but can I ask that? I’ll sort my head out and text you, next week?’

Chrissie looked unsure, but nodded.

‘Don’t leave it too long.’

‘I won’t.’

I stood up to go, Chrissie staying in her seat, but looking up at me with her green eyes. I ran a finger down her cheek and held her gaze, hoping she could see something in my face apart from what a two-timing cheating bastard I was, then I left.

I drove home on autopilot, unable to get the encounter with Lau and Amy out of my head. What if they told Ayesh? What if they told Mum? Mum was more scary, because she would truly kill me. Ayesh was already part of the family, it would be like I’d cheated on Mum as well.

As soon as I got home, I got my phone out and made a call.

‘Lau, it’s not what you think.’

Which was true, as long as what she thought was that it was just a perfectly innocent skinny latte with an old friend.

Laura

I considered pretending I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I’d been thinking about him all the way home, and I’d always thought being up front was better than playing games.

‘Well, what I think is you’ve spent time in a coffee shop with a woman who you kissed pretty thoroughly and then spent some time holding hands and having a deep conversation with.’

‘Oh. Fuck.’

‘Yeah. Cal, it really isn’t any of my business, I was surprised to see you … like that, I suppose. I thought you and Ayesha were happy.’

Cal

I sighed. ‘Yeah. It’s bloody complicated.’

Why were the only words I could use to describe this pitiful situation ones that were trotted out in the worst chick flicks?

Laura

‘It usually is, flower. Do you want to talk about it?’

Another sigh. ‘Not really. Trying to get my head round some shit.’

‘Up to you, you know where I am.’

‘I know. You won’t tell Ayesh? I know it’s not fair to ask.’

‘OK, here’s the deal, it’s the same deal I have with any of you,’

Here, I was including Iz, Charlie, and Gracie, all of who had used Matt and me for parent-free confessionals, about topics ranging from boys to bras to bullying.

‘I won’t tell her anything unless she asks me a direct question, or unless someone is going to get hurt by me not telling her. Sometimes it’s a fine line, I will use my judgement, and I’m not prepared to argue with anyone about that.’

Cal

Lau and Matty were unofficial agony aunt and uncle to most of the family, usually Dec’s kids, with a bit of Iz thrown in for good behaviour. They never promised not to tell secrets, but to my knowledge they never had, and Lau had strict rules about what she was prepared to keep to herself, which may have stopped a few confession sessions, but not many, because Lau’s advice was always top drawer.

‘OK. Fair enough. I nearly talked to Matty last week, but I didn’t know where to start, and I don’t always like to bother him.’

I’d picked up the phone several times to call or Facetime Matty, but he got tired too much these days, and the times I wanted to talk were usually the middle of the night.

Laura

‘What? Matt would be horrified to hear you say that. You’re never a bother, Cal. You know Matt’s got all the time in the world for you. Give him a call. Or pop and see him, us, whenever. Anytime. Kettle’s always on; disapproval’s always off.’

‘Thanks, Lau. Might take you up on it.’

‘Take care, Cal.’

Cal

Lau always made people feel better. I disconnected and sat stewing over what the fuck I was going to do. Not coming to any conclusions, and it being close to the time Ayesh would be home, I went out. There weren’t many places I could go where my preoccupation wouldn’t be noticeable and commented on, so I took the car and sat in a dark corner of the empty car park at Raiders Stadium, until it was late.

Laura

‘Soh he didn’t tell you what’s going on?’

‘No, he just said it was complicated. Poor Cal. I hate to think of him having problems with Ayesh, they’re so good together.’

‘Yeah, but they’ve been together foh a long time, starting when they were both still pretty young. Sometimes you just change too much when you get older.’

‘Unless you’re Dec and Amy.’

‘Yeah, except then. Maybe tha’s why he hasn’t gone tuh Dec, tho.’

‘Do you think he’ll talk to us?’

‘I don’t know, Lau, depends wha ih is. Hope so, ih’s shit trying to keep stuff tuh yourself.’

‘You should know.’

‘Yeh.’

Cal

Ayesh was in bed when I got home. She’d left me a note hoping I was OK, and saying she’d left some chilli in the microwave if I was hungry. I hadn’t even checked my phone while I was out, but she had texted several times, the last two sounding worried. God I was a nasty piece of fucking shit, sitting on my own thinking only about myself, when Ayesh was worried about me.

I got undressed and slid into bed, next to Ayesh, who stirred when I got in.

‘Are you OK, huns?’

‘Yeah babe. Sorry, my phone ran out of charge while I was at Baggo’s. I didn’t realise till I got home just now.’

And so the lies continued. Every time, it broke a piece of me off and crushed it.

Ayesh pulled me into her and draped her arm over me, then fell asleep again, while I lay there staring into the darkness, hating myself for what I was doing to this wonderful woman.

After several hours of beating myself up, I couldn’t take it any more I was close to losing it, so I got up and into my car, and drove across the city, tears filling my eyes as I drove. When I got there, I lost my nerve. It was late, really late, the house was in darkness, and no one would be awake. It was too much, having come all this way only to realise I was going to have to go home again, and I couldn’t stop the sobs that welled up in me, the end result of several hours of giving myself grief and being unable to think of a way out of this, or at least a way that had a satisfactory outcome for everyone (i.e. me, I suppose, if I’m honest). Then I remembered ‘Anytime. Kettle’s always on; disapproval’s always off’ and I pressed the name on my phone.

124. Thorn in my pride

In which a party is planned, pride is overcome and a proposal is considered.

Laura

‘Lau, have you got the ‘on the day’ list?’

‘Good morning, Cal, how are you? Me? Lovely of you to ask. Yeah, I’m good thanks.’

My sarcasm was met with a panicked silence as Cal tried to think of a polite way to hurry me up. I gave in.

‘The ‘on the day’ list? Didn’t I give that to you, as it’s your responsibility?’

‘No way. Fuck, I’ve bloody lost it. You can’t remember what was on it, can you?’

‘No.’

‘Fuck.’

Another panicked silence as Cal tried to think of a way to ask me for the help he needed, but had assured me wouldn’t be necessary. I gave in again.

‘But I have got a copy, for just such situations.’

‘Oh, Lau, you’re a bloody superstar. I don’t suppose you can read it out? Or email it?’

‘No, I can’t email it, it’s handwritten, and I haven’t got time to type it up.’

I quickly read out the things on the list, and hoped Cal was writing them down carefully enough so he could, firstly, read them, and secondly, understand his shorthand.

‘You need to get cracking, though, Cal, I haven’t got time to do any of it for you. If you miss anything out, you are solely responsible for the failure of your mother’s surprise fiftieth birthday party.’

‘Er … is it supposed to be a surprise?’

Now it was my turn to panic. The whole point of it all was that it was a surprise. Cal had promised on his life that he wouldn’t let the cat out of the bag.

‘Yes … why? Oh Cal, what have you done?’

‘Ha ha, gotcha Lau. I can keep a secret.’

‘That’s not what I heard, and if your mum hasn’t sussed out what’s going on with her psychic abilities I’ll be amazed, but just stick to the list and you’ll be fine.’

‘What time are you and Matty getting there?’

‘We’re coming with your mum and dad and Dec and Amy. She’ll think we’re going to the restaurant, we’ll try and keep her talking while Dec drives over there, and hope she doesn’t notice too soon. Matt’s going to call or text you when we park, so keep your phone on and in your hand. It’s all on the list, step by step. If you’re worried you’re going to miss something, ask Iz; she’s got it covered.’

‘I won’t need to ask Iz.’

Matt and I had a bet that he would ask Iz to help him – I said half an hour after arriving, Matt said twenty minutes.

‘OK, flower. Any last minute questions?’

‘No, I don’t think so. I can always ring you.’

‘Course you can. Get cracking on that list now, Cal.’

‘Sure thing. Cheers, Lau, see ya later.’

‘Bye, flower.’

Matt looked up from his morning newspaper with a grin.

‘Does he hahv a clue wha he’s doin?’

‘He’s proper hopeless. He’s lost the list I gave him of everything he needs to do today, in what order. He’s already missed picking up the flowers. He’s just going to have to sort it though, he offered to do it, and I haven’t got time now.’

The arrangements for Beth’s party had been incredibly convoluted, and would have benefited from Beth’s organisational skills, if it hadn’t been a surprise for her. Amy had masterminded it all, sorting the venue (the ballroom in an old hotel), the theme (Dirty Dancing, Beth’s favourite film) and the guest list (extensive), and we’d got together as a family to plan as much as we could without Beth knowing what was going on.

It had been difficult; Beth always knew when something was up, and she’d asked some probing questions, but it remained to be seen whether she’d guessed or not. We’d tried to throw her off the scent by pretending to organise dinner with her and Jay, Dec and Amy, and Matt and me at her favourite restaurant and thrown in all sorts of fake ‘surprises’ that we let slip. But she was clever, and could sniff out a secret with ease, especially if Cal was the one trying to keep it. We couldn’t do it without him, though, as we were part of the decoy. At least now Cal had moved out of home, he would have less opportunity to cough up the info.

I’d primed Iz in what needed doing, and given her another copy of the list, as I’d known Cal would lose his, and didn’t have any confidence in him keeping hold of the second one either. Iz had a much more sensible head on her shoulders, and was going to keep a subtle eye on her older brother.

‘Anything I can duh?’

‘What, apart from going to fetch Lis and Nico from the station in, oh, half an hour?’

‘Oh yeh. Forgot.’

I rolled my eyes.

‘You’re as hopeless as Cal. One job, that’s all you’ve got.’

‘Maybe I’m craving mohr responsibility.’

‘OK then, how about ironing Ella’s party dress?’

‘Noh, hate ironing.’

‘Icing the cake?’

‘Don’t thihk soh.’

‘What about reading the paper, drinking tea and offering unhelpful suggestions when they’re least wanted?’

‘I like ih. Tha’s wha I’ll do.’

‘Good. Glad you’re taking your responsibilities seriously. Half an hour, Matt.’

‘Yeh, I’m ready now, jus finishing the paper.’

‘Josh wanted you to test him on his spelling before you go.’

‘I’ve goh time. Where is he, anyway?’

‘I don’t know. Can you read the paper and find him at the same time?’

‘Yeh, course. JOSH!’

I frowned at the shout, which brought a cheeky smile to Matt’s face. From upstairs:

‘What?’

‘Spelling plehs.’

‘I’m doing something.’

‘Unless ih’s spelling, get down hehr wih your book, mate.’

‘Oh Daad.’

Matt went back to his newspaper, knowing he wouldn’t have to tell Josh another time. Ella would have been a different matter, and would have involved several trips up the stairs and some tough negotiations as well, but for now she didn’t need to be prised away from her room.

Josh’s grumpy footsteps were soon heard stomping down the stairs, but he had his spelling book with him, and sat next to Matt on the sofa. Matt continued with the paper for a while, watching out of the corner of his eye to see if he had managed to annoy Josh enough yet. A huffed breath told him he had made a start.

‘Dad, I’ve got my spelling book.’

‘Mm hm. Jus finishing this interesting article abouh the Amazon Rain Forest. Did yuh know ih’s over five an a half million kilometres big?’

‘No, Dad, but –’

‘Spehl kilometre.’

Josh looked up, surprised.

‘It’s not in my book.’

‘Noh, but yuh need tuh be able tuh spehl ih. Kilometre?’

Josh rolled his eyes.

‘K-I-L-O-M-E-T- er -E-R.’

‘Nearly. Have another goh.’

‘Oh, I did the R and E the wrong way.’

‘Try ih again, then.’

‘K-I-L-O-M-E-T-R-E.’

‘Awesome. Where’s your book?’

As I made the icing for Beth’s cake, I listened to Matt and Josh’s voices. Matt was so good at helping with homework. He knew a lot, but never showed off or made the children feel stupid, and I thought he would have been a good teacher. Or rather, he was a good teacher, to our children.

Ella wandered down in search of a snack, and Matt spotted her.

‘Squeaks, any spelling you need tuh practise?’

‘No, Dad, I know it all.’

‘Rehly? You know labyrinth?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Go on then.’

‘I know it.’

Ella was always harder to persuade than Josh, as she probably did know it, but didn’t want to risk getting it wrong, so wasn’t likely to perform publicly. She worked much harder than Josh at making sure she got her homework finished.

‘Humour me.’

‘H-U-M-O-U-‘

‘Yeh, hilarious, Squeaks. Maybe labyrinth was too hard …’

Sometimes Ella would respond to this challenge. Not today.

‘They’re all hard, that’s why it’s a test. If they were all easy, we wouldn’t need to learn them.’

‘Fair enough. How about one not on the list? Next level? Functional.’

If it wasn’t part of the test, Ella was more than happy to show off what she knew.

‘Easy. F-U-N-C-T-I-O-N-A-L.’

‘Awesome. Wha’s it mean?’

‘I don’t know, Dad, you only asked me to spell it.’

Ella and Matt enjoyed their verbal battles. I couldn’t see into the living room, but I imagined Josh sitting next to Matt feeling relieved that the pressure was off him for a while, then getting bored pretty soon, and starting to fidget, thus drawing Matt’s attention back to him. Josh liked being active, and words weren’t really his strong point. He was due at rugby training soon; Matt was going to drop him off on the way to the station, and pick him up later. Ella had agreed to help me with the cake, but it was likely she’d change her mind if something more interesting to do occurred to her. Something like Nico Tiago and his family.

After a while, homework done and children teased, Matt set off with Josh, and Ella and I started the cake. It was enormous. Rose had made it, and I had somehow agreed to ice it, even though Rose would have made a much better job of it. She had lost confidence over the last year or so, and I couldn’t persuade her that her icing skills were still far superior to mine.

‘Go on, love, I can’t even do a straight line these days, it all goes to wiggles.’

So Ella and I mixed icing sugar and food colouring, and did our best to decorate the cake with bought decorations, sparklers and candles. Cal was going to pick it up before we went to pick up Jay and Beth, and I hoped he’d manage to get it to the party unscathed. Just as we were adding the finishing touches, I heard the front door open, and Nico’s familiar laugh floated through into the kitchen.

I glanced at Ella, who had gone all shy. She had a bit of a crush on Nico, not helped by his enthusiastic declaration of her beauty every time he saw her. The fact that Nico told every woman he saw that she was beautiful didn’t make any difference, and her cheeks were starting to pink up.

‘Lau?’

‘In the kitchen.’

Matt came in, followed by Nico, Lis and Bastien, who at eleven was a year older than Ella and another reason for her blushes. We hadn’t seen them for a while, as they’d been busy with the rugby season in Argentina, but now the Argentinian rugby team were in the UK for the autumn internationals, and Nico had brought his family over.

‘Laura, hello, you are beautiful still. But who is this grown up lady who help you? Is not Ella, I am sure, last time I see Ella she is little girl, but she is all woman now.’

Ella’s colour deepened.

‘Oh leave the poor girl alone, Nico. Hi Lau, hey Ella, it’s great to see you.’

Lis strode over and gave us both hugs while Bastien and Ella looked shyly at each other. They hadn’t seen each other for about a year, and although they’d spent a lot of time in each other’s company before Nico and Lis moved back to Buenos Aires, it usually took a while for them to be comfortable with each other again.

‘Wow, Lau, have you just done this cake?’

‘Well, Ella and I have just iced it. All the decorations were bought, and Rose made the cake. But the buttercream icing, all our own work.’

‘Oh it’s fab. You’re very clever.’

‘Rose wouldn’t do it; she would have made it look professional.’

‘Oh, is she still a bit …’

‘Yeah, a bit. Dec and Amy were talking about her moving in with them.’

‘Really? Where the hell were they thinking of putting her?’

‘Another extension was mentioned.’

‘Ha, they have no garden soon. Or they must move to a castle.’

‘Yeah, I think moving might be on the cards eventually. I don’t know what I’d do without them just down the road, though.’

‘Talking of which, do yuh guys want tuh dump your bags upstairs? We’ve put yuh in Ella’s room, we’re putting Basty and Ella in wih Josh so they get noh sleep and weh have tuh yell at them all nigh. Then I think Amy’s doing sohm lunch, an I’ve got tuh go an get Josh.’

‘Josh he does well in youth team?’

‘Yeh, he’s great. He scored a try last week, he was soh excited.’

‘So were you, flower, you didn’t stop talking about it all afternoon.’

‘Heh, if yuh can’t be proud of your kids – I dihnt stop talking about Ella’s essay prize either.’

‘Ella, you win prize? You are beautiful and clever. You must take after your mother.’

‘Why don’t you show Nico your essay, my love?’

‘Oh, I like this, yes please.’

Ella trotted off to find her essay, which had won a school prize for creative writing at the end of the summer term. She loved writing stories, and was always scribbling something, whether it was making her own tiny newspapers or penning long, convoluted stories involving lots of princesses and butterflies.

‘So Matty, how are you?’

‘Good, thanks, Nico. Or rather, not too bad. Never quite geh tuh good at the moment, but I’m aiming fuh average.’

‘You are better than when we last see you.’

‘Well tha’s not hard, I was in hospital on a drip. I’m hoping Sahnta brings meh something better than phlegm this year.’

‘We all hope this for you.’

‘Thanks. Anyway, moving swiftly on, I think Dec and Amy are keen fuh yuh tuh call roun, there’s food an everything. I know Chahlie’s behn waiting all morning. She wouldn’t goh tuh ballet in case she missed yuh.’

‘Ha, then we should go, baby. I don’t like to keep such a small fiery woman waiting.’

‘Yeah, Nico, it wouldn’t be like you to keep anyone waiting, would it. We’ll just put our bags upstairs. Basty, you take yours into Josh’s room, yeah? Oh, thanks, Matt. Are you sure you can – sorry, sorry.’

Lis rolled her eyes as Matt tutted.

‘I know, stop fussing, sorry, been away a while, almost forgot the don’t-help-Matt rules.’

‘Cheers, Lis, buh I’m not helpless jus yet.’

Matt and Nico disappeared upstairs, with Bastien and Ella following.

‘How are things, Lau?’

I shrugged. ‘Better than they were, Matt’s back at work, but you can see he’s lost some mobility and he’s still having trouble speaking.’

‘How’s he coping? He used to get really down.’

‘Yeah, he still does. He hates it, but we get through it together. The children are a godsend, he pushes himself for them, tries not to let it get to him, and eventually he comes out of it.’

‘He’s lucky he’s got you.’

‘We’re lucky we’ve got each other.’

‘Yeah, that too.’

‘How’s Basty getting on at school?’

‘Oh, great. His Spanish is really coming along, he doesn’t need the lessons any more, he’s got so many friends, they all chatter away, I don’t understand half of it, so I expect it’s mostly swearing and boobs. Oh, and guess what, he’s in the rugby team. With Cal, Josh and Tom we only need a few more and we’ll have a whole team between us, yeah?’

‘Yeah, and then maybe I’ll have to learn the rules.’

‘Nah, no point. Just look at the bums and thighs, that’s all you need to know.’

‘Bit awkward when it’s your son and his mates.’

‘True. Isn’t there something about putting the ball over a white line?’

‘Beats me. Lots of running around thumping each other is all I’ve ever been able to work out.’

‘I would say it’s a boy thing, but Beth always seems to know what’s going on.’

‘Beth always knows what’s going on about everything. I’ll be amazed if she hasn’t sussed out tonight, especially if she’s grilled Cal at all.’

‘Ha ha, true, Cal was always rubbish at keeping secrets. I don’t think she will have tried to find out though, she wouldn’t want to spoil it for everyone even if she suspects.’

From upstairs we heard furniture being moved about, and then Matt and Nico came back downstairs.

‘… wha yuh can duh with GPS. Haven’t you goh the new TrakaTwo system?’

‘We have Traka.’

‘Well Traka’s behn around fuh a while, but this is an upgrahd. Raiders goh ih end of las season, up an running by August foh pre-season.’

‘I must talk to Jaime, ask if I can come and see. You will help explain? I know Jaime he not so good at technical things.’

‘If ih was up tuh Jay wehd still all be using pencil and paper, buh thankfully ih’s not and Raiders are top of the league. Are yuh goin tuh the game this afternoon?’

Nico looked at Lis and raised his eyebrows.

‘I don’t decide yet. What you think baby? Matty he tell me about this GPS which do amazing things.’

Lis raised her eyebrows back at him.

‘I thought we were going to catch up with everyone before the party, yeah?’

‘We have time after the game, and at the party also. Declan, he will be going to Raiders, and Matty and Tom and Josh, yes?’

Matt nodded.

‘So all the men are deserting us. I suppose Cal’s playing, is he?’

‘No, he’s got an injury, he’s not in the squad at the moment, that’s why I’ve been able to get him to help out, although I’ve had to remind him about so many things, and pick up after him, I would have been better off doing it myself.’

‘What is it about Scott men? They’re all useless at being organised.’

‘Heh! Bluhdy cheek.’

‘Sorry, Matt, present company excepted. But Jay, Dec and Cal are all hopeless.’

‘Yeh, even tho Dec ihnt a true Scott, he has all the hallmarks of a lazy disorganised bastard. Maybe weh were swapped at birth.’

‘Ten years apart?’

‘Thahks fuh tha, Lau.’

‘What was going on upstairs? Were you moving stuff?’

‘Yeh. Ella decided tha if weh moved the bunks tuh the other wall, she’d have more room tuh sleep on the floor, so me an Nico shifted ih.’

‘Are you sure this is OK, guys? It’s a bit of a tight squeeze for you. We were perfectly happy to get a hotel.’

‘Oh don’t be daft, Lis, it’s lovely having you here. Ella and Josh have been so excited about Basty staying, they’ve got all sorts planned for him. Although I don’t think sleeping is one of them.’

‘Let’s get going to Dec and Amy’s then, yeah? I’m dying to see their new kitchen.’

The day went quickly. First, lunch with the Summers family, a chaotic muddle of overexcited children, chatter and laughter. Then Matt went to the Raiders game with Nico, taking Charlie, Bastien, Tom, Josh and Ella – who didn’t usually bother with rugby, but wasn’t about to be left out of anything where both Nico and Bastien were going to be. That left me with Lis, Amy, Rose, Gracie and Rosa, and we pottered about doing last minute things for Beth’s party. Beth didn’t know Nico and Lis were here, so we couldn’t include her.

When the rugby lot arrived home, jubilant after a win, it was time to get ready. Nico and Lis were bringing our children to the party, and Cal was picking up Dec and Amy’s, and I hoped that between them they wouldn’t be too late.

Dec parked his people carrier outside Jay and Beth’s house, and walked up the path.

‘Place yuhr bets, how long are weh gona beh sat out here?’

‘Oh, Beth’s usually completely ready on time.’

‘Yeh, Amy, buh she’s had tuh organise Jay, an now Dec’s in thehr, could beh bluhdy ages.’

‘Are you suggesting my husband might in some way hold things up by, oh I don’t know, getting sidetracked and losing track of time?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Ha ha, you’re completely right. I should have gone in instead. Shall I go and hurry them up?’

‘Let’s give them a minute. Matt, did you bring the presents?’

‘Yeh, Lau, I remembered tuh do the one important job I had today.’

‘Oh, I thought that was making a playlist. You made enough fuss about wanting to do it.’

‘Alrigh, two important jobs. Oh, bluhdy hell, here they are. Glad weh dihnt bet, I’d be well ouh of pocket.’

The car door opened and Beth and Jay got into the rear seat, behind Matt and me.

‘Hello everyone. This is so lovely.’

‘Hi Beth. Happy Birthday.’

‘Yeh, how’s ih fehl tuh be old?’

‘Wouldn’t know, Matty, ask me when I am. I’m only fifty.’

‘Fair poihn. Hahd a good day?’

‘Yes, it’s been lovely. James even brought me breakfast in bed.’

‘Whoa, Jay, you know where the fucking toaster is? Bloody hell, who’d have thought.’

‘Yes I do thanks, Dec, although I didn’t do toast, I did a soft boiled egg with soldiers, with freshly brewed coffee and warm brioche with a selection of conserves.’

‘Fuuck. All by yourself, without burning the kitchen down?’

‘I can cook, thanks.’

‘Noh yuh bluhdy can’t. Oh, I beh Iz helped.’

Jay was silent.

‘Yeh. Nail on the hehd. I beh she did ih all.’

‘Oh alright, she did point me in the right direction for some of it, but it was all my idea. I know what you like, don’t I Beth?’

‘Yes, James, it was lovely. I think you might have cut the soldiers yourself.’

‘Ha ha, were they a bit wonky?’

‘Maybe just a bit, sweetheart, but boiled egg and soldiers is my favourite breakfast, even if the army is a bit lopsided. Oh, shouldn’t we have turned down there?’

‘No, going a different way.’

‘Oh. Anyway, after breakfast, Iz took me shopping and bought me the most gorgeous pair of shoes –’

‘She bought them?’

‘Well not exactly, Amy, she chose them, I paid for them.’

‘What are they like?’

‘Have a look, Laura.’

Beth hooked her foot over the seat back between the head rests.

‘Blimey, Beth, how on earth can you do that?’

‘At my age, do you mean?’

‘No, I mean at all. I’ve never been that bendy.’

‘I disagreh, Lau. Always bendy enough fuh meh.’

‘Yeah, too much info, Matty.’

‘Great shoes, though, Beth. Iz has got a great eye.’

Amy had turned round to try and get a glimpse, but it was too dark.

‘Oh, I’ll just have to wait till we get there. What did you do this afternoon?’

‘Well, first I went to see Carol, and we had some lunch, then I went home and did the laundry.’

‘What? On your birthday?’

‘Well it needed doing, and everyone was out. Cal came round before he went to the game, brought a bunch of flowers that didn’t even look as if they were from the garage, and a card that Ayesha had made –’

‘She does completely amazing cards. I told her she should start a business.’

‘I think she does sell them, just a few at work and things. Maybe I should set her up at the craft fair, I’ve got a few contacts. She does jewellery as well, earrings and things, have you seen them?’

‘She gave me some earrings for my birthday, I loved them.’

‘Dec, where are you taking us? This is a really long way round.’

‘No it’s not. Bonksy told me this short cut, it leads to a little car park, we won’t have to pay.’

‘Really? We’re not going to have to walk miles are we? These shoes are a bit high. I’d rather pay and be closer, sweetheart.’

‘It’ll be fine, Beth, stop stressing.’

‘Beth, did I tell yuh I saw Pehter Jones the other day?’

‘Oh really, Matty? How is he?’

‘Dihnt look greht, in a wheelchair. He was wih his wife, in the supermahket. He’s a grandad now.’

‘Oh really? That’s so lovely. You should give him a call, James.’

‘Yeah, I’ve been meaning to. Remind me, will you? I think there’s some kind of Raiders old boys thing happening next year, I should make sure he’s invited.’

‘Who qualifies as an old boy?’

‘Well I do, Dec, you’re still a bit young but maybe they’ll let you be a waiter or something.’

‘Oh, is it just eating? There’s no game or anything?’

‘I’m not sure most of us would survive more than thirty seconds on a rugby pitch these days. Maybe you and Nico would stand a chance, but the likes of me, Peter, Dom, Andy and co would need serious body armour.’

‘Do you still miss playing, Dec?’

‘Yeah, all the fucking time. I know I’m a sensible businessman now –’

‘Sensibhl? Mohr like leaves the hard work tuh the IT expert and gallivants off roun the country talking tuh old rugby chums.’

Dec and Matt had started a rugby-focussed IT business in the summer after Dec finished playing. Dec had the contacts and Matt had the expertise, and both of them were good with people, and so far it was working well. Matt had pulled back a bit from his job at Raiders, although he still did a couple of days a week; working from home, with Dec just up the road, was ideal. Even when he wasn’t so well, he could sit in front of his computer and email people, and Dec could do the phoning when Matt found it hard to speak. It was working at the moment, and business was steadily increasing.

‘As I was saying, Lau, yeah, I miss it all the time. I thought about offering my services to one of the local lower league sides –’

‘You didn’t, hon!’

‘Just thought about it, Ames.’

‘Oh. I thought I’d got away with worrying every weekend in case you came home with a broken leg or a head missing or something.’

‘Sorry, babe. I won’t do anything without talking to you.’

‘What is it with you rugby playing blokes? You’re gluttons for punishment if you ask me.’

‘Yeh, Lau, yuhr lucky yuhv got a shy retiring geek, noh chance of mangled limbs or missing body parts.’

‘I don’t deny I’m lucky to have you, flower, but I would never describe you as shy or retiring.’

The banter carried on, as we frantically tried to divert Beth’s attention from the journey, which was taking us away from rather than into the city centre. Eventually she noticed.

‘That was a sign for Pembury. This isn’t a short cut, Dec.’

‘Yeah, think I might have taken a wrong turning. Bloody Bonksy. I’ll just pull in here and see if I can find out where we are.’

He pulled the car to a halt in a car park, which was full of cars. If Beth recognised any of them as belonging to family and friends, she didn’t say.

‘I’m a bit lost. Beth, will you come with me? You’re good with directions. I’m going to ask in here. Sorry.’

‘Oh Dec. You’re hopeless.’

By now, I was sure Beth knew there was something going on, particularly as Matt hadn’t whipped out his phone to check Google maps and have a go at Dec about his sense of direction. As Dec and Beth got out of the car, Matt called Cal.

‘The eagle has lahded.’

I could clearly hear Cal’s confused reply.

‘What?’

Matt sighed. ‘Wehr here. Yuhr mum’s jus about tuh come in.’

‘Oh shit.’

He hung up and we got out of the car, following Beth and Dec at a distance. They seemed to be having a disagreement near the door, and their words became clearer as we approached.

‘… not going to go into a strange building in the middle of nowhere and tell them I don’t know where I am. Why won’t you come in with me?’

‘I am coming in with you, I just said ‘you go first’, that’s all.’

‘There could be anyone in there.’

‘Doesn’t sound like it, it’s quiet.’

‘Maybe there’s no one here.’

‘Lights are on.’

‘I’m still not – oh, what are you all doing?’

‘Thoht wehd come an help.’

‘Alright, Beth, we’ll go in together, yeah?’

‘Fine.’

Dec held his arm out to Beth and pulled the door open. It was a huge hall, and everyone was standing round the walls, facing the door. It had been exquisitely decorated, and Cal had followed his instructions to the letter, maybe with some help from Iz and Ayesha. Beth stopped in the doorway as she saw Cal, and then everyone shouted ‘SURPRISE!’ and the evening started.

o0o

‘Well maybe Iz could take them, then.’

‘Noh way in hehl is Iz drihvin my children tuh school. She only passed her test las wehk.’

I snorted with frustration.

‘Well I don’t know what else to suggest. The car won’t be ready for a few days, Amy has a car full on the school run, Jay will be at work and Beth’s away at her conference, and you won’t let me ask anyone else. Maybe we could get the bus. There’s probably a timetable on the internet.’

‘Yuh cahnt goh on the bus wih crutches.’

‘Well what are we going to do then, keep them at home on their first day of big school?’

‘Fuck. Ihm such a fucking dick.’

I thought it would come down to this, blaming himself; it was why he wasn’t amenable to any solutions I offered.

Following a sudden exacerbation of MS symptoms, Matt had crashed the car when his leg had spasmed. He had been pulling onto the driveway, and had hit the garage door, destroying it and crumpling the front of the car. I had been in the passenger seat, and my side of the car had hit the garage with enough force to bash my ankle, which had been stretched forwards in the act of sympathetic braking. Matt was shaken and scared, and was now feeling stupid, frustrated and disabled. His insurance company was unlikely to renew his policy, or at least were going to up the premiums unaffordably, and he was facing having to give up driving. It was huge, and he wasn’t dealing with it well. I sighed inwardly.

‘No you’re not. It was an accident. We’ll think of something. How about we get a taxi?’

‘Tha’ll cost a bluhdy fortune.’

‘It’ll only be for a couple of days. Beth’ll be back on Thursday, she’ll be more than happy to take them until I can drive. I’m not planning on using these any longer than I have to.’

I gestured to the crutches propped by the side of my chair.

‘I so dohnt wana tell Beth.’

‘I know, Matt. I’m sure you wish we didn’t have to tell anyone, but they all mean well, and I’ll hold the fussing at bay for you.’

‘I know. Dohnt know wha I’hd duh wihout yuh, Lau.’

And that was the next part of it, he thought he was useless on his own, and it was only me who was holding him together. I recognised it as a kind of checking; checking I was still there for him, telling me he was grateful. I had never really been able to convince him that he did as much for me as I did for him, that we were in it together, whatever ‘it’ was, that our whole marriage didn’t revolve around his MS, that there were so many positives to life with Matt that made it easy to cope with the rough times. So my sigh was only inward, a kind of strengthening myself for the battle to convince him he was worth the struggle.

‘Well I expect that without me, you’d be a gibbering wreck on the floor, surrounded by empty takeaway containers, and fending off the rats with your shoe.’

‘Prohbly. Or migh not bother fending them off, jus leh them fucking eat meh.’

Now he knew he was being ridiculous, but was getting maudlin and wallowing in it.

‘Am I going to have to get Dec over to – oh what is it you two always say to each other – be there whether you like it or not, or whatever.’

‘Not leave meh alohn when I’m fehling this shih.’

‘That’s it.’

‘Not alohn, got yuh.’

‘I know. You know you’ve always got me. Just reminding you that I’ve got reinforcements if I need them, and I’m not afraid to use them. Just because you like going it alone sometimes doesn’t mean I have to.’

‘Cow.’

He looked incredibly grumpy, but shot me a look from under his still long, still beautiful eyelashes and I knew I’d talked him round for now. He took a deep breath, then sighed it out. Matt was one of the most stubborn people I knew, and we had our fights over the daftest of things, but sometimes he knew when he was hanging on for the sake of it. This was one of those times.

‘Taxi then?’

‘OK. I’ll call now. Then maybe you should text Beth, ask her to help out on Friday?’

‘Shih. Cahnt yuh duh ih?’

‘Just text, Matt. You don’t have to talk to her.’

‘Buh she’ll ring as soon as I tex.’

‘You don’t have to answer. Although if you just talked to her, you’d save yourself a lot of aggro. She’s been really good, Jay or Dec must have told her about the car, and she hasn’t called or checked on you at all.’

‘I s’pohs. Thihk she’s scared of meh since Chrismus.’

Last Christmas, Matt had been doing pretty well, some residual mobility problems and slightly slurred speech aside. He had been helping Beth clear up in the kitchen after Christmas dinner, and had dropped a glass. I wasn’t in the room, and Beth’s version was different to Matt’s. Beth said she just asked if he was alright, meaning to check he hadn’t cut himself; Matt said she immediately went over the top with sympathy. However it really happened, something pushed Matt’s buttons, maybe it was something that Beth said, maybe it was fear that dropping the glass was the start of the return of symptoms, and he started yelling at Beth. All his pent up frustrations from years back, years of wanting people to leave him alone when he was fed-up and miserable, years of hating needing help, years of feeling like he was constantly being watched for signs of illness, all of this came out in a verbal attack on his sister-in-law.

I listened, horrified, from the living room as he told her to ‘fucking back the fuck off’, that he wanted her to ‘stop being a fucking interfering bitch and stay the fuck out of my life’, then he told her it was ‘only a fucking glass, they break all the fucking time, look’, and smashed another one on the floor.

Before he could say or do anything else, Jay and I had rushed into the kitchen in time to see Matt leave by the other door and go out into the cold, leaving the front door wide open. I knew that Matt would need time to calm down, and that if I followed immediately he would still be angry. I would leave it a while and then try to find him.

Beth, in the meantime, was distraught. She was well used to Matt swearing, and to him finding sympathy hard to accept, but wasn’t used to angry outbursts aimed directly at her; the worst she usually had to put up with from Matt was sarcasm.

Jay and I tried our hardest to comfort her, but she was shocked and upset, and didn’t calm down for ages. I hadn’t ever seen Beth fazed by anything, and nothing Jay or I said seemed to make any difference. She’d spent a lot of years trying to do what she thought was best for Matt, even in the face of his unwillingness to accept much in the way of help, and he’d finally gone too far in his rejection of her caring.

I went to look for him after a while, taking his coat, which he’d left behind, and was relieved when I saw him in the car – he hadn’t gone far, then, just out to the road. Matt was sitting in the driver’s seat, forehead leaning on the steering wheel. I got in next to him and put the coat over his shoulders, not saying anything.

Matt’s breathing was ragged and he sounded like he’d been crying. I sat with my arm round his shoulders, getting colder, waiting. There were lots of deep breaths, lots of almost mumbles as if he was going to say something and changed his mind. I just waited, arm round him. Eventually, I realised he wasn’t going to be able to start a conversation, so I gave it a shot. Gave him an out.

‘Shall I go and get Ella and Josh? Go home?’

A big intake of breath, a slight lift of the head, as if scenting the opportunity to escape.

‘Noh. I should goh an apologise, shouldn’t I.’

I squeezed his shoulders.

‘Only if you mean it.’

‘Yeah. Never spoke like tha tuh Beth in my life. Never spoke like tha tuh anyone, really. She doesn’t deserve ih. I know why she does ih. Jus made meh so mad, I went over the top.’

‘She is pretty upset.’

‘OK then.’

And he got out of the car and walked up the path and back into the house with me, where there was a big hug and a heartfelt apology and a forgiving. But things hadn’t been quite the same between Beth and Matt since, there was something there, something that got in the way, that stopped the easy exchange of texts, phone calls, pop-in visits. Beth held back, which she had never done before despite all of Matt’s show of reluctance, and I realised that Matt missed it, the contact, what he always called fussing. But some things take time to heal, and now with our transport problems and the fast approaching first day of big school, I sensed an opportunity for more mending.

‘Yeah, I think you could be right, but if you talk to her and ask her to help us out, maybe she’ll stop being quite so scared.’

‘Dunno, I quite lihk Beth being scared of meh.’

‘No you don’t, it freaks you out.’

There was a short silence.

‘Yeah, yuhr righ. Bluhdy cow, always bluhdy righ, always know wha bluhdy frehks meh. Alrigh then, have ih yuhr way.’

He got his phone out and pressed the screen.

‘Heh Beth … yeh, bouh the same, how’s the party planners’ convention? … ha ha, I know, buh tuh meh tha’s a party planners’ convention. I’m imagining clowns an tables full of seventy fihv differen types of party popper an jugglers on unicycles or some such shih … rehly? I thihk my way’s better. Maybe weh should join forces an plan nex yehr’s one, it’d beh much mohr fun … ha ha, yeh … well, actually, wanted a favour … yeh, well, I dohnt know if yuh heard, buh I crashed the fucking car the other day, knackered the car and broke Lau a bih as well … yeh, thoht they migh hahv … yeh, she’ll beh OK, hobbling a bih, she was trying tuh brake, duhnt rehly work from the passenger seat … ha ha, yeh, buh anyway, car’s in the shop for a bih, Lau’s in the shop for a bih, Ella an Josh start school tomorrow, and wehr a bih stuck … noh noh, wehr gona do taxis fuh tomorrow an Thursday, buh wondered if yuhd beh able tuh take them Friday? Hope tuh hahv the car back by Monday, an maybe Lau’ll beh back on her feet … oh, tha’d beh greht … noh, she’s got crutches at the moment. Wana word? … OK, thahks Beth, lihfsaver.’

Matt breathed out and passed his phone over to me.

‘Hi Beth. Thanks so much for helping us out, we’ve been going round in circles, we were even thinking about asking Iz.’

‘Oh no! I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I’m just glad I don’t have to sit next to her on the ring road any more I’m surprised Matty asked me, though.’

‘Yeah, well, about time too.’

‘I’m glad. It’s felt a bit weird for a while, I don’t like it when things aren’t right. Anyway, what have you done to your ankle?’

‘Oh, I was trying to brake, and it got a bit of a jolt when the car hit the garage. Must have been at a funny angle, they said it was a bad sprain, I’ll be OK in a few days. I’m just using the crutches when I’m out.’

‘Is the garage alright?’

‘We’ve had to get a new door, it definitely came off worst out of all of us.’

‘Is Matty going to carry on driving?’

‘Don’t know. No decisions as yet.’

I wasn’t sure how much of Beth’s side of the conversation Matt could hear or was listening to, and didn’t want to undo the bridge-building that had just occurred by annoying Matt. Beth picked up on it, much as she wanted to grill me.

‘OK, Laura, well I’ll see you on Thursday when I get back, maybe I can pop round for a coffee? I just said to Matty, I’ll be back in time to fetch Josh and Ella from school, so I could call in then?’

‘That’d be great. See you then, enjoy the rest of your party planners’ convention.’

‘Ha ha, it’s an Event Organisers Conference, and there are just a lot of powerpoints, not a clown or a juggler in sight. I think Matty’s ideas would be a lot more entertaining. I’ve learnt a lot, though. See you Thursday, sweetheart, take care of yourself.’

We disconnected and I handed the phone back to Matt.

‘Well done, you.’

‘Shouldn’t beh soh bluhdy hard, should ih? I’ve known Beth more than half my lihf, shouldn’t leh things build up.’

‘Well, no, but you’ve done something about it now, you’ve asked her to help us, and she appreciated it. She’s coming over on Thursday for a coffee, if you’re around.’

‘We’ll prohbly both be around for the foreseeable, noh car, noh can walky fuh either of us, both fucking cripples together. Fuck, haven’t said tha fuh a while. Sohry, Lau. Jus teasing, yuh don’t have tuh put yuh nursey face on.’

o0o

‘Whoa. Happy New Year, Lau. Happy New me.’

Matt let go of me and lay on his back, panting, a huge smile on his face.

‘I was starting tuh think I wasn’t gona geh ih back. You’re my lucky charm.’

I was pretty breathless myself, Matt’s excitement and enthusiasm at his newly discovered erection having given us a frantic first of January wake-up call.

‘I certainly feel lucky. Welcome back, flower. That was proper amazing.’

You’re proper amazing, Lau. Scottying back on the bedroom agenda. Woohoo. An I got rat-arsed last nigh. Shouldn’t have been able tuh get ih up at all. Whoa. This year, gona beh good. I jus feel ih.’

‘It’ll be what we make it, so yeah, here’s to this year.’

‘When are the kids coming back?’

‘Amy said before lunch. I said I’d have them all over here so her and Dec can go and see Rose.’

‘So …’

‘Yes, there is time for another go before they get here. You’re insatiable.’

‘Have tuh get ih when I can, no knowing when ih’s gona fuck off again. Come here you gorgeous woman.’

He pulled me into his arms and kissed me passionately. I loved it when Matt got his sexual mojo back, he seemed more … Matt. He’d come to terms with it coming and going, or as much as he ever would, but still had a huge appetite for sex when his libido allowed, and to see him so happy gave me a boost, too.

As Matt’s mouth found mine and our hands explored the well-known places and reignited the familiar tingles and fizzes, I felt myself relax, and tension I hadn’t realised I was feeling started to seep away. As we moved with each other and led each other to another startling climax, I felt Matt shudder against me and realised he was coming and crying at the same time. I pulled him tightly against me and held him, neither of us needing words; this was familiar ground, this was Matt being thankful for what he’d got back and terrified that next time it would never return, this was Matt feeling guilty for having MS and the way it affected our family, this was Matt hating the part of his life that made him feel less of a man. I didn’t need to say anything, I’d said it all before, and so I just held him and our bodies spoke for us.

Cal

It was November. I’d just turned twenty-four, and Ayesh and I were out having dinner to celebrate. She’d been a bit off colour for a few days, and we’d nearly cancelled, but she thought she was feeling better so we went ahead.

Half way through the evening, just as Ayesh’s plate of seafood was put in front of her, she turned pale and had to make a dash for the loo, from where I and, unfortunately, the rest of the customers, could hear her being noisily sick. She came out, wiping her mouth and looking embarrassed. I stood up and took her hand as she came back to the table.

‘Come on, babe, we should go, you’re not well.’

‘I think I’m feeling better now.’

‘Better enough for the seafood platter?’

She glanced at the plate and the look in her eyes told me we needed to go home, right now.

We were quiet on the journey home, Ayesh not responding to any of my attempts to talk, and it felt like more than just her feeling under the weather. I wasn’t surprised when she pulled me close to her as soon as we got in the door and clung on.

‘I think I might be pregnant.’

‘Shit. Really?’

I said it without thinking, and hated myself for the look it put on her face. We hadn’t ever talked about children, not about having any of our own. I knew Ayesh wanted kids one day, but one day seemed like years away, I still felt too young, too irresponsible to even think about it for me.

‘Sorry, Ayesh, I didn’t mean it like that. Have you done a test?’

‘No, but I think I’m late, and I’ve been feeling sick in the mornings for more than a week. Cal, what are we going to do?’

‘Hey, babe, don’t worry. It’s a good thing, isn’t it?’

‘I don’t know, is it?’

‘Well it’s happened to me and you, so yeah. It’s a good thing.’

I was trying to be as positive about it as I could, although inside I was thinking ‘shit shit shit I’m not ready to be a dad’. But letting Ayesh see that wasn’t going to help her, and I’d do anything in my power not to make that girl sad.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Hey, daft girl, this isn’t something to be sorry about. And we don’t know for sure. Tomorrow, get a test, we’ll do it together, or rather you do it and I’ll watch. Unless you don’t want me to watch you pee, in which case I’ll come in afterwards and hold the pee-covered stick and try not to go ‘ew gross, this is covered in pee’ too much.’

‘Do we have to wait until tomorrow?’

‘Er, we do unless you’ve got a pregnancy test in your sock drawer.’

‘But the supermarket is open twenty-four hours …’

I was sensing that this meant a lot to her, to know as soon as possible, so I drove across the city to the supermarket and put a pregnancy test in my basket, hiding it under a jumbo bag of Doritos and a big bar of chocolate and praying that I didn’t see anyone I knew. Which I didn’t.

Ayesh was waiting by the door when I got back, looking as if she hadn’t sat down the whole time I was gone. She took the test into the bathroom, and a minute or so later we were watching the little screen anxiously, minutes seeming to stretch for hours, before the two little words ‘Not pregnant’ popped up. Fuck, the relief. Well, for me. I’m not sure Ayesh felt the same way, because she wanted to do the other test in the box straight away.

‘Why?’

‘Sometimes they’re wrong.’

‘So how many more do we do?’

‘Just this one.’

She peed again, and the same two words popped up, and for me it was sorted. Not pregnant. But Ayesh was still feeling poorly, and she went to the doctor, where she had another test which also said ‘Not pregnant’, and she believed this one, especially as the doctor said she was just dehydrated and drinking too much caffeine. This proved to be the case after a couple of weeks drinking more water and less coffee and diet coke, and the morning sickness went away, and she felt tons better.

But it had been that fork in the road, the thing that made us stop and think about where we were heading, if we were heading anywhere. In some ways, we were still the same couple we were when we were seventeen, although our lives had moved on. We hadn’t ever talked seriously about the future, although I knew Mum expected some kind of big announcement in the not too distant. Now we had to talk about it, because it had almost happened. We had almost become parents. And I had been freaked out at first, but as the days went on, I started to think maybe it wouldn’t have been such a disaster, and maybe it was time I started acting like a grown up, and Ayesh was a bit sad about what might have been, even though there wasn’t ever anything to have been, and she started to think that maybe it wouldn’t have been such a disaster as well, and so we made a decision, not a major one, but we stopped trying to stop a baby, and waited to see what would happen. These things took time, unless you were Matty and Lau, and we’d both be able to get used to the idea.

I started to think that maybe I should do something like ask Ayesh to marry me, because if you were going to have a child, you should do it all properly, really, shouldn’t you, and Ayesh and I had been together forever, and maybe it was time I was responsible and faced up to what I felt about her. And I nearly did it, I nearly asked her at Christmas, I’d bought the ring and everything. I even mentioned it casually to Dec, or tried to make it seem casual, but what I was really doing was checking out his reaction, and trying to give myself no excuse for backing out of it, but at the last minute, something just stopped me, and I didn’t ask her. I put the ring in the pocket of one of my suits, and left it there for another time.

I can’t explain what I was waiting for. I loved Ayesh, I loved her with all my heart, but it wasn’t the right time.

A few months later, I found out why it didn’t feel like the right time, and it nearly broke me, and it nearly broke Ayesh.

The Philpotts Letters – 10

Well you can call me papa and I’ll call you baby, don’t forget your momma’s my baby too (Donovan)

Well you can call me papa and I’ll call you baby, don’t forget your momma’s my baby too (Donovan)

Dear Hippo and Squeaks

So, maybe you noticed that I used your nicknames? Kind of like, you know, special names, family names that me and your mum call you because we love you? Just saying.

So, you know what, I’m freaking, because that’s what I do, although not as much as I used to, to be fair, or maybe I freak so much about small things that it’s only the bigger things that get through. Nope, I really think I don’t freak as much as I used to. Hey, that’s progress, isn’t it? Your mum’s sortedness must be rubbing off on me.

Now, this might not seem like a big thing, but when I realised, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. You don’t call me Daddy anymore. Neither of you. Always Dad. When did you stop? I can’t remember. I wish I could remember the last time you called me Daddy, so I could cherish it.

Your mum thinks I’m being ridiculous – oh, not that she said that exactly, more along the lines of ‘most children call their parents Mum and Dad by the time they’re eight or nine’, in her sensible let’s-try-some-freak-limitation way, but I could hear her thinking how ridiculous I was being.

How about if I bribe you? Chocolate every time you say Daddy? That’s not wrong is it? Really? Bloody hell you’re tough.

I’m sure it’s because of your friends. If you hadn’t gone to school, where I reckon all the little bastard gits have some kind of Mafia thing going on where you get pummelled if you call your parents Mummy or Daddy, you’d have been fine. It would have seemed like we could have held on to you being little for longer.

Because that’s what it’s about, really. You’re seven. Seven! Nearly eight. Jesus, that’s, like, middle-aged in kid terms. It still seems like yesterday you were toddling around with nappies round your knees, and I knew more than you and could beat you at hide and seek. Nowadays, hide and seek is, like, so not cool, Dad, and I have to be on my guard at all times to avoid being bested in an argument about eating broccoli or cartoon watching.

I guess losing ‘Daddy’ is just a sign of things to come. At least you still let me cuddle you and tuck you in at night, and bathtime is still OK. I have no idea how long that will last, but I fully intend to hang on to it all as long as possible.

Don’t stop cuddling me, kids. I can just about cope with being Dad, but more rejection would be too much.

Your needy parent

Daddy xxx