It didn’t take long to get to my road, and we talked about nothing much – possibly the weather, or the one-way system, nothing memorable. Despite the slur to his speech, I liked the sound of Matt’s voice, his northern, or was it Midlands, accent making the words sound rich and soft. Oh hark at me. I just liked the way he spoke; it wasn’t what I had expected.
I found a parking space outside my house, a minor miracle after five o’clock on a weekday, and told Matt to wait in the car while I took the trolley inside.
‘Sohry, fehl I should beh hehping or sohmthing.’
‘Don’t be daft, it’ll only take a second or two.’
As I opened the front door my phone pinged again in my bag. I took it out and read the five short text messages from Kate.
‘Not THE Matt Scott?’
‘Lau? Spill. Can I tell Rach?’
‘Lau don’t ignore me’
‘I swear if u don’t answer I’m coming down there’
I hit reply and sent a message
‘God give a girl a chance to drive home. Yes that Matt Scott. Needs 2 talk. Best not tell Rach yet eh?’
I sent the text and put the phone back in my bag. It rang almost straight away. I pulled it out, but put it back and turned the ringer off when I saw it was Kate calling. She’d have to wait until I was back home properly for a chat.
She trotted back to the car and opened the door for me, offering her hand, but I’d already lost enough man points with the not helping, and decided to struggle out by pulling up on the car door instead. I saw how she was looking at me, Beth looked at me that way most days, and I gave her a rueful smile at my own stubbornness.
‘Are you OK to walk there? It’s only just round the corner.’
‘Yeh, s’fine. Fehl a bih of a twat now, noh sure wha Ihm gohna say.’
This was true. Now I’d semi-conned her into some kind of pseudo counselling session, I would have to deliver the goods. I had bolstered myself for this when I made my plan, but that was when it was a theory, a working hypothesis. Now I was going to have to give her something real, and I wasn’t relishing it.
I felt her put her hand on my arm as we walked, and wondered if she had any idea how much she made my pulse race. She suddenly stopped in her tracks.
I put a reassuring hand on his arm as we walked, more comfortable in my nurse guise than my giddy teenager guise. Thinking this suddenly made me realise I was still wearing my nurse’s uniform, and I stopped in my tracks.
‘Oh dammit, I need to get changed. Sorry, Matt, I forgot I was still wearing this.’
I indicated my tunic.
‘Noh a problem foh meh, I kinda lihk ih.’
I looked at the way she was filling out the tunic, which was spectacular.
His eyes swept over me appraisingly, making me feel hot and tingly.
‘Yes, but I’m not supposed to wear it out in public. Stay here, there’s a cardy in the car, I can put that over the top.’
I left Matt standing on the pavement while I made the quick dash to and from the car to pick up my big baggy cardigan.
She ran back to the car, opened the boot and pulled out a large woollen thing that covered up the tunic and all the curves that went with it. I made a disappointed face.
Matt made a disappointed mouth as I covered up the top. Thank God for baggy cardies; they made you feel sexless and frumpy, which was what I needed if I was going to be able to ignore the unsettling things that being with Matt was beginning to make me feel.
‘Cheeky! Uniforms aren’t all they’re cracked up to be you know. Most of them are itchy and don’t fit properly.’
‘Yuhrs seems tuh fit OK.’
He looked me up and down again, which despite the cardigan continued to unsettle me.
‘You’ll get me struck off with talk like that. Right, Mean Bean, mochaccinos on the NHS.’
And as a note to self, any more flirty banter on my employer’s time strictly off the agenda.
Oh, promising, she’d started with the flirty banter. Backed off pretty quickly, but it had been there. Very, very promising, Matt.
‘Ih’s a dehl. Wha I pay my taxes foh.’
‘Quite right. Here we are then.’
We can’t have walked more than a minute or two.
‘Bluhdy hell, yuh weren’t joking abouh roun the corner.’
‘It’s my downfall, I can nip out for breakfast in my PJs and slippers, get back before the alarm clock’s finished ringing.’
This was going better than I’d imagined. She was sounding relaxed, letting bits of personal information slip out. We reached Mean Bean, managed to secure the last booth and Laura went to buy the coffee, despite my protestations. She insisted that some bizarre NHS rule meant she could claim two coffees on expenses, but not one. It’s no wonder the country’s health service is in such a state.
While she was ordering, I thought I’d better try to let Beth know I was going to make my own way home. She would doubtless be wondering where I was; she would not have believed in a million years that I would have stayed at the church hall all day. But my phone couldn’t pick up a signal, whichever way I held it, and when Laura came back I was holding it up as high as I could, exasperated that the one time I try to do what they all nag me about, I’m prevented by a blackspot.
As I made my way back to the booth with the mochaccinos I saw Matt was holding his phone up in the air, looking at the screen in annoyance.
‘Noh fucking signal.’
‘It’s a bit flaky in here sometimes.’
‘Shih. Shuhd’ve called someone.’
I looked at my phone which was also displaying a ‘Searching…’ message where the bars should have been.
‘Sorry, mine too. Do you need to go in search of a signal?’
Matt sighed and shook his head.
‘Noh, fuck ih, leh em wohry foh bih. Noh a fucking bahby.’
He looked up and wiped his frown away with a crinkly smile.
I looked up at her and smiled. No point taking my frustration out on her, that wasn’t going to get me even close to where I wanted to be.
‘Bluhdy fahmly. Luhv em. They fucking kill meh.’
Laura tilted her head sympathetically.
‘Just worried I expect.’
And a bunch of nosy, interfering –
‘When were you diagnosed?’
She cut across my familiar internal diatribe and silenced me. Shit. I had almost forgotten I was there on the pretext of talking about the bastard MS, and her direct question had taken me by surprise. I couldn’t speak for a short while, but Laura just sipped her coffee, waiting for me to answer. She seemed so chilled that in the end, I found the words. It wasn’t really such a big deal, was it?
There was a long silence. I realised I had been direct but I usually found that small talk increased people’s nerves and made it harder to find an opening into the things they really wanted to talk about. Matt had said he wanted to talk about things he found it hard to talk to his family about, so I wasn’t here for a natter about last night’s telly. I sipped my coffee while I waited for Matt to answer.
‘Five yehrs or so.’
I was really surprised. There had never been any indication, not that I’d ever spoken to him, but I prided myself on my radar and Matt had got under mine. I’d never even heard a whisper that Matt could have MS.
‘Really? I assumed it was more recent.’
‘Yeh, this tihm. Behn in remission. Thoht I’d goh away with ih. Nehly forgot I had ih. Fucker came bahk, cohpl months ago. Bastahd.’
That was the most I’d talked about it to anyone for a long time. Thinking about it made me angry, and I looked away.
‘That must have been hard.’
I had managed to slip into full nursey counselling techniques now, making statements, reflecting back, but Matt had looked away and seemed to be closing down.
Yeah, it had been hard, and talking about it now was almost as hard. I felt myself closing down, stopping the words.
I tried to think of something I knew about him to keep him talking, and remembered seeing him with Beth this morning.
‘But your family are being supportive?’
I couldn’t prevent a snort. I had the most bloody annoyingly supportive, there-for-you family a man could wish not to have.
‘Fuck yeh. Always bluhdy ringing, texting, popping roun. Cahnt geh a second tuh mysehf tuh duh wha they all think I’m gona duh.’
Fuck, hadn’t meant to say that.
‘What do they think you’re going to do?’
Matt looked down at the foam on top of his coffee and didn’t meet my eyes.
What was the saying? In for a penny, in for a pound? I hoped Laura was up for a pound of sharing. I’d never said what I was about to say to anyone, but I felt like I knew her, like it would be safe to say it. I can’t explain how.
‘Well, yuh knoh. Pills or rope or I dunnoh, carving knihf. Buh prohbly be pihls. An a bohtle or two of Jahk Dahniels. Wha a way tuh goh, shih-faced tuh the end.’
‘So you have thought about it?’
I’d be amazed if he hadn’t considered it at some point. But I thought the way he was talking about it meant he was less likely to do anything serious about it at the moment.
He kept his eyes on the table as he answered.
Fuck, I hoped she wasn’t going to have to alert the Suicide Squad or something. I looked down as I answered. It was too big a thing to risk looking at her as I said it. I didn’t want to see pity, or contempt, or anything that said ‘oh you poor man’.
‘Yeh. Buh turns ouh I’m too bloody sehfish fuh tha even.’
I risked looking up at her, to see what she thought about that one. My traitor eyes swam with tears. Shit. I wasn’t going to fucking well cry.
He looked up at me and I was surprised to see his big grey eyes glistening. Was he about to cry?
‘Yeh. Dihnt want the kids tuh remehber me as a fucking loser.’
‘Oh – you’ve got children?’
That was a new one but I went with it, and it seemed to distract him enough that the threatening tears disappeared.
Ha, that was better, that was funny in a darkly ironic way.
‘Noh. Fuck noh! Oh, whole other lohng saga righ thehr when yuhv goh a week or two. Noh, my niece, nephew and – oh fuck ih my fahmly’s so complicated. Anyway. Other pehpl’s kids.’
Explaining things like this always took at least twice as long because of my bloody family and their convoluted links.
Laura wrinkled her nose as she pondered it all. She looked adorable.
He looked at me, seeming to be willing me to understand. I tried to sum it up.
‘OK, got it, I think. You may have had some suicidal thoughts but you haven’t acted on them because you’re worried about what other people’s children will think of you when you’re dead.’
More reflecting and reframing. Sometimes it helped to be blunt; I usually judged it right.
Whoa, she knew how to summarise. Adorable or not, it felt like being hit with a blunt instrument.
I looked at the table again. This was taking a turn I hadn’t expected, and we were getting into territory I had never explored with myself, let alone someone I had only just met. If you know me at all, you know if I even approach the truth about anything, I start fucking about so it doesn’t get too serious and real. This felt very serious and real, and we’d only just started talking. Lau, you are so good. Then, and still. What would I have ever done without you to make me see what I’m hiding from?
Matt bowed his head. I suspected he hadn’t fully admitted it to himself before, preferring to couch it in euphemisms and even jokes. After confronting him in such a direct way, he needed some reassurance.
I reached over and put my hand over his, to be startled by an electric jolt that travelled from my fingertips to my very core. It took me right out of my safe professional counselling zone and straight into teenager with the popular boy zone.
Laura reached over and took my hand, presumably to comfort me, but it felt, instead, like she’d wired me into the mains. Touching her hand hurled a bolt of human lightning right through me. I almost felt my hair stand on end. I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t have felt it, and I looked up from the table and into her eyes, where I saw, I just knew, that she had felt the same thing. It wasn’t just a mild flirty attraction, she was, certainly at that moment, affected as deeply by me as I was by her. It shook me out of my dark reveries. I held onto her hand, tightly, as I saw her force herself back to our conversation.
Matt looked up into my eyes; I don’t know what he saw there but his eyes widened slightly as I struggled to get a grip on myself. I forced my thoughts back to what he’d just said, and away from our clasped hands. Had he just felt that too? I heard a catch in his breath, and we looked at each other, startled, for a few seconds, before I remembered myself.
‘Matt. The last thing you are is selfish. It sounds like your family are keeping you going one way and another. Don’t ever think its selfish to love them. They need that from you.’
‘Not rehly. Thehrs plenty – ‘
My phone rang, interrupting the moment, and I had to let go of Laura’s hand to answer it.
‘Signal mus beh bahk. Shuhd geh this’.
It was Dec. They would have been taking it in turns to call while the rest got in touch with Scotland Yard to put out the sniffer dogs – and indeed a whole host of missed calls and texts popped up as I answered.
‘Where the fuck are you?’
‘That’s not exactly answering my question.’
No, dear Declan, that was the intention.
‘Oh. Would it have hurt you to call Beth? She’s been going bat-shit.’
‘Sohry noh signal.’
‘Oh. Are you going round there later?’
‘Noh, going hohm after.’
‘Oh. Do you need a lift? I can come and get you.’
I had no idea how I was going to get home. Maybe a taxi, or chance the buses. No way I was going to rely on any of the family.
‘You’re sure you don’t need anything, talk, … anything?’
‘Noh, jus nehd sohm fucking space.’
‘You know you don’t have to be on your own –’
It was the assumption that I was on my own that riled me up this time. They all thought they knew me, who I’d be likely to be with, who my friends were. I blasted back at him.
‘Noh, Dec, dohn start wih tha fucking shih yuh noh I’ll talk tuh yuh if I need tuh.’
‘Alright, mate, take it easy, you know how this works, we care about you, alright?’
‘Don’t be a stubborn fucking bastard all your life.’
I had no intention of doing what he told me, but the less I said, the less he would go on.
‘I’m going to call Beth and tell her you’re OK.’
‘Whahever, yuh’ll all talk abouh meh anyway.’
It sounded whiny and childish, but I was mostly in a whiny childish place these days.
‘Yeah, mate, like we’ve got nothing better to talk about than your feeble antics. Here, have a word with Charlie, she’s been wanting to chat to you all day.’
‘Oh yuh bastahd … Heh, beauhiful how’s yuh day behn? Tell Unca Matty all abouh ih even tho yuh cahnt talk yet.’
There was an indistinct burble and a giggle, then Dec came back on the line.
‘She’s laughing at you, you ridiculous old git.’
‘Yeh I heard her. Dead cuhte.’
‘Has that put a smile back on your wrinkled old face?’
‘Yeh I’m smihling yuh bastahd. Piss ohf now. Busy.’
‘OK. See you soon, mate.’
I put my phone down and looked apologetically at Lau.
‘Sohry. If I dohn report my exac movements they call the FBI, an SWAT teams play havoc wih yuhr social lihf.’
She didn’t seem too worried about me taking personal calls on her NHS time.
‘No problem. Family?’
I realised I was being a bit nosy, but wanted to keep him talking.
‘Yeh. Well noh. Well soht of. Sohry.’
Oh shit, I was going to have to go through the ins and outs of it all wasn’t I.
‘Dec. Bes mate, bruhther, auhnty, stuhborn fucking interfering bastahd all in one. Goh a lihtl girl. Lohv her tuh bihs – hehr, look.’
I picked my phone up, found a picture of Charlie and turned the screen to face her. I’d got so used to Jules looking bored at family pictures that I was surprised and delighted when I saw Lau’s expression soften.
He picked his phone up and scrolled through his photos then turned the screen to face me. A dark haired baby with enormous blue eyes chuckled out at me. I felt a familiar pang and pushed it back down where it came from, as I always did when confronted with other people’s beautiful children.
‘Oh Matt, she’s gorgeous. How old?’
‘Six months. ‘
‘And she’s your niece?’
‘Well soht of. Dec’s kind of – bollocks I’m sure yuh dohn wan tuh know my bluhdy fahmly history.’
‘Try me. I’m a bit of a nosy cow.’
It was all too true that I loved finding out about people, I’d chat to anyone, anywhere. But it was also true that I felt the intensity of both the things we had been talking about, and that weird electric jolt; getting Matt to talk about something safe and familiar would make things feel easier.
Well it beat talking about the fucking bastard, so …
‘Oh fuck ih, why noh? Buh if I see yuh yawn, tha’s ih, dohble espresso on meh an straigh home wih yuh.’
Thing is, I just didn’t think I was boring her, even though I was boring myself a bit; Laura looked keen to hear about it.
‘Ha ha, it’s a deal. Come on, then, let’s have it.’
I had a quick think about what I was going to say, and it occurred to me that although Jay and Dec were my family, they were celebrities here in this city, and the whole story wasn’t common knowledge. Dec may well be open house in the family as far as talking about his shit was concerned, but he made sure he kept his private life to himself when it came to the general public.
‘Migh noh beh much tuh tehl rehly. My bruhther … thehr was this kid … bollocks, noh sure wha I cahn say. This is confidential, righ? Lihk a priest or sohmthing?’
‘Er, well, not exactly like a priest, there are certain things I’m not allowed to keep to myself – abuse, that kind of thing.’
I felt a stab of panic – no no no, how did I give her that impression?
‘Fuck! Noh! Shih, I jus mehnt a loh of ih’s noh my stohry, yuh cahnt tehl pehpl.’
‘Oh, OK, no problem then. My lips are sealed, as long as I’m not breaking the law. But I’ll let you know if there’s anything I need to pass on to the FBI.’
I winked at him, and he relaxed a bit. I was enjoying getting to know Matt Scott; it felt like something had started when we touched hands, and I wanted to keep him there with me as long as possible. Oh God, Laura Shoeman, did you just flipping wink at Matt Scott? Good grief.
She winked, oh it was so sexy, and I reduced panic stations to acceptable levels. I tried for a short version of it all, most of it what people knew about, nothing that I could see that Dec or Jay would be unhappy about.
‘Righ then. Whehr tuh start. OK – goh ih. Yehrs ago, prohbly abouh eigh or sohmthing, my bruhther gahv a room tuh this kid on a ruhgby scholarship. Jus a room foh few wehks. Threh yehrs laher he’s stihl thehr, part of the furniture, evryohn’s happy. Then sohm big shih goes down wih them, abouh the tihm I geh told Ihv goh … this.’
I gestured down at myself, to indicate the fucking bastard.
‘Then geh pneumonia. Sohm huge shih hits sohm fucking enormous fan down hehr, big bust up wih kid. Jay lehvs ih all behin an comes tuh Stafford tuh look after meh. I’ve nehly pegged ih in the mehntime. Kid – well ih’s a bih complicated, but lohng an shoht – kid an Jay mahk up, they all realise he wahs part of the fahmly all along, big Chrismus reunion. I wahs thehr, jus ouh of hospital, still trying noh to peg ih. Dec decides if he’s part of the fahmly tha mehns meh too, an starts interfering as if he’s bluhdy Beth or someone. Hahnt goh ohf my case since, fucking bastahd.’
‘Tha’s ih rehly. Dec’s fahmly buh I dohn know wha tuh cahl him. Noh a bruhther, mohr than a friehnd, he’s hehped meh ouh of sohm deep shih. I’ve hehped him ouh of sohm deep shih tuh. Nehd each other.’
Dec would laugh his socks off if he heard me telling it like that, like it was no big deal, like I didn’t mind him helping me, like I didn’t hate needing him, like I didn’t go out of my way to make it difficult. But he didn’t hear, would never hear, me saying how much he meant to me, not in so many words, so that was OK.
I saw Lau breathe in, as she thought about what I’d said. She looked like she knew exactly who I was talking about, and was considering what to say next.
I took a deep breath. It was impossible not to recognise the people in Matt’s story. I didn’t pay much attention to sport on the whole, but you couldn’t live in this rugby-mad city and not be aware of Raiders and some of its principal characters. Jay Scott and Declan Summers were names most people knew, and, yes, it would have been four or five years ago when all that trouble hit the headlines and Declan Summers came through A&E while I was doing a bank shift, unconscious, his face beaten to a pulp. Matt was looking at me, waiting for some kind of response.
‘Well, it doesn’t sound that complicated really. As long as it works, for all of you, that’s the important thing.’
That wasn’t the response he needed.
Yeah, but that wasn’t that reassuring. I needed to know she wasn’t going to go blabbing about how the newest fucking bastard MS recruit was part of the whole Scott-Summers saga. I didn’t want to end up as centre spread in the Mail on Sunday’s ‘Rugby Hero’s Crippled Brother Misery Ooh and While We’re At It His Fuck-up of a Family‘ feature, and I was pretty sure Jay wouldn’t want it either.
‘Yeh, buh yuh know who I’m tahking abouh? Yuh wohn say anything?’
‘Matt, I’m not sure who you think I’m going to tell or what you think I’m going to tell them, but no, it’s your business and your family’s business. Thank you for telling me, though.’
My phone pinged, and I looked at the screen to see a text from Rose. It was one of many I’d ignored since I’d been in the cafe with Laura. The jungle drums must have been working overtime for Rose to get involved, and she must have been really wound up by Beth to have texted, as it took Rose about an hour to find the full stop on the keypad. I predicted that next on the list would be Mum, and I’d have the set.
I wanted to explain to Lau how bloody annoying they all were, never leaving me the fuck alone, always assuming something dire had happened if they couldn’t get hold of me for three minutes.
‘Tha’s Rose now. She’s Dec’s – oh bollocks, see, this is wehr – Rose kind of came wih Dec, she’s noh related to him either buh she thinks she’s his muhm. So dohs he. Dec, he’s noh rehly goh anyohn, he shuhd beh all alohn in the world, buh he jus pulls pehpl to him. He’ll never beh alohn.’
That was more than I should have said, but Lau was bloody good at just sitting there listening, and she made me want to talk. I quickly started a sarky reply back to Rose, but tried to maintain eye contact with Lau so as not to appear too rude. Just rude enough, I suppose.
He started replying to the text as I spoke, flicking his eyes up to mine to show me he was listening.
‘Do you feel alone?’
Matt’s fingers stopped in mid-text as I finished asking the question. His head remained down, looking at his phone, and I couldn’t see his face, but I saw him tremble slightly and then two tears fell onto the table. I reached out and took his hand again, steeling myself against the surge of heat. It was there, but I was prepared for it and I could ignore it and be distant and professional.
Matt pulled his hand away roughly, reached into his pocket and pulled out a tissue, then wiped his eyes. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and looked me in the eye, anger on his face.
I stopped in mid-text as she asked the question. Fuck, she’d managed to get to the very heart of me with four words, and it flooded over me. Before, I’d been on my own out of choice, going it alone, Matt the Lad, playing around, no ties required thanks very much. Now, although it was my fault Jules was gone, it wasn’t my choice and yeah, although I had started to get over her, had come to terms with some of it, and I tried really hard not to beat myself up about it – well I still missed her, or the Jules shaped hole where she had been, the togetherness, the closeness, and I did feel alone. I pushed people away because I was scared to depend on them, and being away from work and all the camaraderie I shared with my team just compounded things.
My eyes misted over, shit shit shit, and I couldn’t see the screen on the phone. Before I could stop them, two tears plopped onto the table, the bastards. I felt Laura take my hand again, but although the electricity was still there, it still took me aback, it made me angry; angry that she’d called me on feeling lonely, when I wasn’t prepared to admit that, not to myself, and certainly not to her. Shit, I’d only just met her, who did she think she was? She was as bad as all the rest of them.
I pulled my hand away from hers, found a tissue and scrubbed my face dry. Then I looked her in the eyes, in those angel’s eyes, those eyes that I wanted to be mine, and I nearly let her off, but it was still there, the anger, covering up the loneliness, and the shame about the loneliness, and I couldn’t just let it go, couldn’t just let her get away with making me cry in front of her. I took a deep breath, then vented.
‘Fuck yuh, clever medical pehpl. Thihk yuh know evrything. Yuh know fuck all abouh meh.’
I expected an equally angry reaction, maybe for her to pick up her bag and leave. I fixed my eyes on my phone, trying to finish my text to Rose, so I could appear unconcerned when she walked out.
If Matt had been speaking in code, which he was in a way, he would have been saying ‘Yes I feel alone, but I feel bad about feeling alone when my family love me so much, and I really wish you hadn’t pointed this out to me and made me cry, thank you very much.’ Maybe there would have been a bit more swearing. But he wasn’t ready for me to be telling him how he was feeling, so I stayed quiet for a while, sipping my drink, as he finished his text. He hadn’t got up and walked out, so something was keeping him there.
He looked up from his phone, surprised, expecting me to have taken offence at his words.
The mildness of her tone of voice took me by surprise, and I looked up, not knowing what to say. I wasn’t used to people just accepting it when I went off on one. That was the whole point of going off on one, that it was a bit unacceptable; how else was I supposed to get people to stop bloody going on?
‘Oh, er …’
‘It’s just, I’m going to have my dinner here, they do a great salad selection, I can get you something while I order if you like.’
It was as if I hadn’t just sworn at her, almost as if she was going to give me space to think about what I was going to do next, and I felt my anger cooling. If she went up to order more coffee, I could finish my text and get myself together a bit, and maybe we could start again. And maybe I could try a kind of apology too.
It was mainly a diversion; Matt obviously felt uncomfortable expressing his emotions in public. He could get himself together while I went up to the counter, and decide if he was staying or going.
‘OK then, another ohn of these. Buh leh meh pay. Ohnly fair. NHS buys me cohfee, I buy NHS cohfee. Mehbe jus yuh, noh the whole NHS. Cahnt run tuh threh million cohfees.’
I started to feel in my pocket for my wallet, but it wasn’t there. I felt in the other pocket, not there either.
‘Fuck! I’ve lohs my wallet.’
I looked all around the table and underneath it, felt in my pockets again, but it wasn’t anywhere on or near my person. The thought of having to cancel all my cards on top of the seriously long day I’d had was making me panic.
‘OK, don’t freak, maybe it fell out in my car. Do you want to go back and have a look?’
The panic receded a little from his face in the light of a possible explanation, but he stood up immediately and nodded.
Oh, please let it be in her car. I clung to it as the most likely explanation. If I was lucky, she might offer to take me home too. I was getting more tired by the minute, and didn’t fancy trying to get a taxi, or the worse alternative, calling Dec. I stood up and nodded.
‘Sohry, wahs goin tuh buy yuh dihner. Sohry I wahs rude jus now.’
It sounded like I was apologising because she could help me out, rather than because I was sorry, but I was so worried about my wallet, I didn’t really care. She waved it all away anyway, like she was used to people telling her to fuck off. Maybe she was; if she was as blunt with all her patients as she was with me, I expect it happened all the time.
I waved his apologies away. I was so used to people telling me to fuck off when I hit the nail on the head, it hardly registered any more I didn’t really like swearing, something to do with my upbringing, but I didn’t take it personally and Matt seemed to use that particular form of release more than most people.
I collected my bag from under the table and waved to Bridget behind the counter as we left. Mean Bean stayed open until nine, so I could go back for my tea later, once I’d helped Matt find his wallet. As we left the coffee shop, though, Matt stumbled against me, nearly knocking me over. I righted myself, then put my hand out to steady him as he lurched again.
‘Matt? Do you need to go back inside?’
He pulled himself upright and ran his hands over his pale face, taking deep breaths.
‘Fuck. Noh, jus need tuh geh hohm. I geh tired. Busy day. Fuck.’
As we set off along the pavement, Matt started to crumple again, and I hastily grabbed his arm and placed it over my shoulder. His pace became slower and slower, and his weight over my shoulder increased until I was almost carrying him by the time we got to my house. I decided I would do both of us an injury if I tried to get him in my car, and he didn’t look like he was in a fit state to tell me where he lived.
Thinking on my feet, the only real option was to try to get him into my house. Struggling under his weight more with every step, aware of curious glances from people walking past but beating them back with a furious scowl, I made it to the front door. I propped Matt against me while I hooked my keys out of my bag, then tried to persuade him over the threshold. He was barely awake.
‘Come on Matt, you need to lift your feet up over this step.’
‘Mmn … hosh … bo …’
I tapped his right leg, which lifted up and over the front step and into the hall way. One more leg to go. He mumbled some more nonsense as I bent down to try and position his left leg. I suddenly felt a hand on my bum and stood up quickly, feeling it fall away.
‘Hm nihs ahrs.’
A quick look at his face showed his eyes closed. Great, he was feeling me up in his sleep – obviously a skilled practitioner. Bending down a bit more carefully I tapped and tugged on his left leg until he moved that into the house as well, then I placed his arm across my shoulder again.
My house was an upside-down house; my bedroom was on the ground floor, and you had to go downstairs to the kitchen and living room. The novelty wore off very quickly. But it meant I wasn’t going to be able to get Matt into the lounge unless I tossed him down the stairs. He was going to have to go on my bed.
‘Come on, lovey, just a few more steps and we can both have a rest.’
I pulled on the arm slung across my shoulder, tugged on his waist and kicked at his shoes and ankles until he started to move his legs. It was painfully slow progress, but we made it eventually, and I sat him down on the edge of the bed. Using some unorthodox handling manoeuvres I shoved Matt into a roughly horizontal position and made sure he had a pillow under his head, then sank to the floor, panting and cursing my woeful fitness levels.
As I got my breath back, Matt’s phone rang and it occurred to me that, as it looked like he might be here for a while, I should really let someone know where he was. I thought about answering his phone, but apart from not wanting to rummage in his pockets, I had no way of knowing if the person calling him was someone he would want me to inform of his whereabouts. I didn’t really want to announce to some random insurance salesman that I had Matt Scott asleep on my bed, or indeed to some ex-girlfriend, or current girlfriend. The idea of Matt having a current girlfriend unnerved me a bit, and I was beginning to wish I’d made some different choices when Matt started to slow down.
Vital signs! Nurse Laura suddenly remembered to do some physical checks to make sure Matt was actually alright and not in need of medical assistance. I checked his pulse and breathing; they both seemed fine, and I remembered the sphygmomanometer, which is a show-offy name for a blood pressure measurer, on the counter in the kitchen waiting to be taken to the office. I would be able to check his blood pressure too.
I fetched the bag, wound the band round Matt’s arm, and began pumping it up. As the pressure increased, Matt roused a bit and tried to brush the sensation away.
I couldn’t help a bit of bright and breezy nursey reassurance, it was ingrained in me.
Once the blood pressure was done, with no apparent problems, Matt didn’t stir, and I went back to pondering how to contact someone about him.
I wondered if Beth Scott would be my best bet. It was unlikely their home number would be listed, with her husband being a coach at Raiders, but I thought I knew which school her son went to and was pretty sure he was in the same class as my friend’s nephew, Jake. It was a bit of a long shot, but I tried Marian, and asked her to call her sister and see if she could get a number for me.
While I waited, I went downstairs and made myself a cup of tea, feeling very weird about the man asleep on my bed upstairs, and even weirder about how twitchy and flustered it was making me. I couldn’t decide whether to go and wait with him or not; I finished my tea while I thought about it, then decided that he might not know where he was when he woke up, so I should really be there to explain.
I grabbed a magazine and made myself comfortable in the armchair in the corner of the room; it wasn’t anything to do with being able to watch him while he slept, it was purely practical. He had lovely long eyelashes that curled onto his cheeks. Totally coincidental.
While I was in the middle of an article about the latest Hollywood break-ups, the silence was shattered by a loud ping from my phone. A glance at the screen announced a text from Kate – oh dammit, I’d forgotten to text to say I was back safely. I quickly checked that Matt hadn’t woken – he hadn’t even twitched – and glanced at the time. It was six fifty, and I’d told her I’d be in touch by half six. Kate would be really worried.
‘Yeh soz forgot 2 txt. Home now’
‘Wot no details?’
‘Ring u l8r xx’
I hoped that would satisfy her for the time being; there was going to be an awkward phone call with a lot of explaining and a lot of apologising later on.
A short while later Marian called back with a long story about how she’d managed to track down Beth Scott’s phone number. After I’d listened to her tale and thanked her many times, I dialled the number.
‘Hi, is that Beth?’
‘Hi Beth, you might not remember me, my name’s Laura Shoeman –’
‘Laura! We worked together on Belton Ward a long time ago didn’t we?’
I was amazed at her memory.
‘Didn’t I see you at the Living with MS session this morning?’
‘How lovely to hear from you. How are you?’
‘I’m good thanks. I’m actually ringing about your brother-in-law.’
A note of concern came into her voice.
‘Is he alright?’
‘Yes, he’s fine, nothing to worry about, I just thought someone should know where he is. He’s with me at home at the moment, we were having a chat in a café after the MS day today, and he got really tired, went down like a sack of potatoes, and I live just round the corner, and well, he’s asleep right now –’
‘Oh! I’ll be right there, where are you?’
The last thing I wanted, I was surprised to find, was someone to come and take him away. I wanted to be here when he woke up, so he could be all grateful and … what? Laura Shoeman, what on earth is going on?
‘No, no, I don’t think there’s any need for that, I’ve checked him over, his stats are all OK, he’s just tired himself out. Once he wakes up he’ll be fine. It’s just he was telling me about his family and how much you all worry, and I thought if you were trying to get hold of him …’
‘Oh Laura thank you. I’m sure he won’t thank you when he wakes up, he doesn’t like people fussing over him, but that’s so lovely of you. Are you sure he’s OK? You don’t want us to come and get him?’
‘No, no, I think it’s all under control.’
I felt very far from under control myself, but I meant the situation. Yes, the situation. That was completely under control. Completely.
‘Well please ring if you need us.’
‘I will. Thanks.’
‘Thank you Laura.’
Matt continued sleeping and I went back to my magazine, tearing my eyes away from him, until my phone rang again a short time later.
‘Hi Laura. It’s Jay Scott here, Matt’s brother.’
Well this was a turn up for the books. It’s not every day a local sporting hero calls you up on your personal mobile number. I kept my cool rather well, I thought.
‘I heard you’ve got my big lump of a brother lying around cluttering up the place, and wondered if you needed a few strong lads to come and shift him for you?’
Well, much as the image of Jay Scott and his team trooping into my bedroom was the stuff of fantasies, the thought of the sort of language I might be subjected to from Matt should he wake up during the process decided me against it.
‘Oh, no, Jay, thanks, I think he’s better sleeping it off. It wouldn’t be a good idea to move him while he’s still asleep, he might wake up and try to fight it. And once he does wake up he’ll be fine on his own, I’m sure.’
‘Are you positive? Matty’s done this before, worn himself out, and he can be asleep for bloody hours.’
‘It’s not a problem. He’s no trouble.’
I felt like I was discussing a dog I was looking after. I had to admit, just to myself, to a tingle of … something … that made me a bit thrilled to be the one looking after Matt Scott, who certainly was no dog.
‘OK, then, but seriously, if you change your mind, I can send the boys round.’
‘Good to know, thanks.’
None of my text bleeps or conversations seemed to have disturbed Matt, so I stayed where I was, just totally coincidentally watching his face. For any signs of movement or waking or medical distress, obviously.
After a while, though, there were things I had to do. I had finished my magazine, and had no form of entertainment in my bedroom other than watching Matt sleep. Attractive as that prospect was, I was going to have to ring Kate soon, or she would drive over and start banging on my door. I didn’t want to leave Matt to wake up on his own, but also didn’t want him to wake up and hear me discussing him with Kate, who wasn’t his biggest fan.
I decided to leave Matt a brief note explaining where he was and where I was, and let him sort himself out if he came to while I was out of the room. With any luck, he’d still be asleep when I’d finished with Kate.
I walked downstairs, picked up the phone from the handset at the bottom of the steps and dialled Kate.
‘Lau, about bloody time, I’ve not had any tea yet, I’ve been waiting for you to bloody ring me and tell me everything.’
‘Sorry Kate, I’ve only just sat down myself.’ I lied.
‘So are you telling me the Matt Scott has got MS?’
‘It appears so.’
‘Bloody hell! There are some, not a million miles away from the MS Service, who may be heard to say ‘serves him damn well right’, although they wouldn’t be me as that is a thought unworthy of a health professional.’
I decided to be prim and a bit patronising.
‘Yes it is unworthy, Kate. I wouldn’t wish MS on my worst enemy. Nobody deserves it.’
‘Oh stop being so bloody sanctimonious Lau. You know what I mean. I don’t know the bloke personally, but he’s made poor Rach’s life a bloody misery for nearly two years. And countless other poor women who –’
‘Who probably knew his reputation, knew what they were getting themselves into and thought they could change him. It takes two, Kate.’
She sputtered down the phone at me, as stunned by my defence of the Evil Git Matt Scott as I was.
‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this! You’ve sat through as many of Rach’s drunken sob sessions as I have.’
‘I know, and all I’m saying is it was a long time ago, it was one night, get over it. Although I might be a bit nicer to her face about it.’
Kate was silent for a moment. I wondered how annoyed she was with me. We had a ‘girls stick together’ vibe in the team, and I was breaking out of the mould. Why exactly are you breaking out of the mould, Laura Shoeman? Didn’t these girls pick you up after all your friends deserted you in the wake of Bryan the Smackhead, and don’t they deserve a little more loyalty and a little less … whatever it was I was doing?
‘Know what, Lau, you’re right. I mean, he is a bastard and everything, but it was a long time ago. Maybe she should get over it. Or get some help if she can’t. Set up a Matt Scott’s Castoffs support group or something.’
Phew, so she thought it was a good idea too. Maybe I was being fair and just, instead of inexplicably defending the man who had caused Rach so much heartache.
‘Ha ha, good idea. I hear there’d be lots of potential recruits.’
I was relieved that Kate had seen my side. The four of us worked closely and got on really well together, and the occasional fall-out we’d had in the past made things tricky for a while until we’d worked things out.
‘So, you’ve still got some gossing to do, lady. Tell me all. How did you come across him? Did he ring the helpline or something?’
‘No – didn’t you see him at the LMS day?’
‘No! Was he there? Bloody hell, Lau, I never saw him before, you should have pointed at him and said in a loud voice ‘that’s the scumbag who broke our Rachel’s heart’. All the regulars would have duffed him up in a second. Gloria would have hit him with her handbag, he’d have never got up again.’
Kate hadn’t joined the MS team until after Rachel’s one-night-stand disaster, so she had never seen Matt in action. However, the amount of informal counselling sessions we had all given Rach since meant she was an honorary member of the ‘We Hate Matt Scott’ club, and I knew I was going to have to play along, even though it felt strange, and I wanted to defend him.
‘Ha ha, that would have been worth it. He came in late, sat right at the back near the door.’
‘Oh – was he talking to you at lunchtime?’
‘Yes. He liked ‘the sex bit’ apparently.’
Kate tutted. ‘Dickhead.’
‘Bloody good looking dickhead though.’
‘I thought to myself, aye aye, Lau’s in there, I thought, especially when I saw him waiting for you after. But I didn’t know he was a bloody dickhead then. Bad luck, Lau.’
Was ‘mm’ non-committal enough?
‘So anyway, how did you end up in bloody Mean Bean with him? That’s like, two seconds from your house isn’t it? You’re sure he wasn’t trying it on?’
‘Oh, well, he came back after everyone had gone, asked if we could go for a coffee. He wanted to talk.’
‘I bet he did. Did he mean a coffee or … a coffee?’
I could imagine Kate waggling her eyebrows suggestively.
‘He meant a coffee and a chat about MS, as advertised on the helpline leaflet.’
Prim Laura had re-entered the building.
‘Alright Miss Prissy Pants, you can’t blame me for wondering, it’s not like he hasn’t got a bloody reputation or anything.’
‘Anyway, he’s got a lot on his plate, he opened up a bit, cried a bit –’
‘You made him cry! Oh Rach’s gonna love this.’
‘Kate, you can’t, that’s really unfair on him.’
‘Oh bollocks Lau, you almost sound like you feel sorry for him.’
‘It’s my job to feel sorry for him.’
‘It’s your job to act like you feel sorry for him. Your private opinions outside of NHS time are for your personal use. OK, OK, I’ll hold fire on calling Rach for a bit. So. He had a plateful, he opened, he cried. Then?’
I wasn’t about to tell Kate that Matt was asleep upstairs. That would lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.
‘… then he got tired and we left. Bit boring in the end.’
It was so close to the truth, it really wasn’t a lie. I never lied. I had just told Kate the truth; I’d missed a few bits out, that was all.
‘Yeah, anti-climax or what. So, is he signed up? Do we need to vet the attendance list at the next clinic or have bouncers at the support groups when Rach is on? Bloody hell, it’s a good job she didn’t cover for An today, there would have been bloodshed.’
‘No, he’s not signed up to anything, he’s still coming to terms with it all I think. He doesn’t seem like much of a joiner-inner.’
‘I could have bloody told you that. Wanker.’
‘OK, Kate, tone it down a bit. This is a man with MS we’re talking about, he may well use our services in the future. You should have a bit more respect.’
Kate had pushed too many buttons – buttons she couldn’t have possibly known she was pushing, buttons I was a bit surprised to find were there to be pushed – and she’d then sworn just a bit too much as well. In retaliation, I’d used my full hoity-toity one-pay-grade-above-her authority and then regretted it.
‘I’m sorry Kate, that was uncalled for. It’s been a long day, when all I’d planned to do was paint my toenails. Sorry flower, ignore me. Just need a bath and a glass of something extremely alcoholic. Go and get your tea, I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘OK Lau, no probs. Sure you’re OK?’
‘Go and have a bloody long soak and pour yourself something industrial strength.’
‘Ha ha, yeah, maybe I’ll try some of that purple stuff Nick left behind. Night, Kate.’
Sending Kate off to have her tea reminded me I hadn’t eaten anything yet either, and it wasn’t looking like I was going to make it back to Mean Bean before they closed. I rummaged in the freezer for something quick and microwaveable. All I could find was a lentil casserole, which didn’t fill me with joyful anticipation but would at least fill me with proteiny goodness; probably a fair amount of gas too unless I was lucky.
I shoved the container in the microwave and ate it while it was too hot, burning my tongue. While I ate and sucked cooling air into my mouth, I texted Anna to find out how she was feeling. She replied that she felt a bit better, and might try to make it in tomorrow or the next day.
As I was disposing of the casserole container and rinsing the fork (oh the joys of microwave meals), I heard a noise from overhead. I froze for a moment, instantly imagining axe-wielding intruders – one of the disadvantages of an upside down house was being on constant high alert due to the front door being so far away – then I remembered Matt. While I was eating, I’d been thinking about something I wanted to add to my LMS presentation, and I’d forgotten who was lying on my bed for a moment. He must have woken up.