‘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?’
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.’
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:
‘I’m doing something.’
‘Unless ih’s spelling, get down hehr wih your book, mate.’
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 –’
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.’
‘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?’
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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?’
‘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?’
‘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.
Matt sighed. ‘Wehr here. Yuhr mum’s jus about tuh come in.’
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?’
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.
‘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.’
‘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.’
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.
‘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.’
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.’
‘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.’
‘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.
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.’
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.
‘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.
‘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.