‘How do you mean?’
‘Would you still be my friend?’
‘Well, yeah, of course, but only if I was allowed to constantly tell you what a mistake you’d made, and bad-mouth him at every opportunity.’
‘Well that doesn’t quite seem like the sort of friend I’d need.’
‘Oh? You’d want someone who says to your face that he’s the guy for you, while all the time thinking what an evil bastard he is, and then gets chased off, so isn’t even around to pick up the pieces next time, which could be when he’s done something even worse?’
‘So you don’t think I should go back to him, is that what you’re saying?’
Oh, and here I was, where I didn’t want to be, giving an opinion about something when I could only really have my own agenda at heart.
‘I guess I am saying that. It’s my personal opinion, though, and I can’t pretend I’m completely unbiased. I’ve loved being here with you, getting to know you. You’re so great, you deserve more than some small-minded controlling bully who gets off on keeping you completely to himself. I should stop now, before I say something I’ll regret.’
‘Well, at least you’re honest. Matt, I’ve been thinking all week. I don’t know if I’ve got a choice other than to go back.’
‘I haven’t got anywhere else, I can’t afford anywhere else. He pays the rent, he pays the bills, he even pays my mum’s debts when she’s drunk away the monthly payments.’
‘Shit, Carrie. Why haven’t you told me any of this?’
‘Because I feel enough of a loser already. I rely on a bloke who’s this far away from beating the crap out of me for real, and I can’t escape. I’ve got nothing, my life is just a complete and utter disaster.’
And then she started to cry, and I could do nothing but pull her into my arms, and hold her while she sobbed, thoughts speeding through my head, none of them coherent enough to be of any help to either of us, but feeling the need to keep her safe, to look after her, forever.
Carrie’s sobs petered out after a while, but she still clung on to me, and I still held her and stroked her hair, and told her it would be alright.
‘Sorry. I was trying so hard not to do this.’
‘Because it’s not fair. Blokes don’t do sobbing, do they?’
‘Well, I suppose it’s not our favourite pastime, but sometimes it’s a catalyst for a conversation that needs to happen. We’re not too good at doing that, either, in general.’
‘One day you’re going to answer a direct question with a yes or a no.’
‘And the next day the world will end.’
She looked up, her own world of trouble scribbled in her eyes.
‘OK, then, maybe we should talk, properly, instead of all the superficials we’ve been doing the last few days. Sit down.’
‘I quite like standing here like this.’
‘Yeah. But it’s distracting. I need you to keep your hands where I can see them.’
‘Ha ha, you sound like you’re about to frisk me.’
‘In your dreams.’
Reluctantly, I let her go, and sat on the sofa. She sat too, far enough away that there was no risk of touching each other without serious intent. I was apprehensive, having done very few deep and meaningfuls with anyone, let alone a woman I really, really wanted to spend a large part of my foreseeable with. I waited for her to begin.
‘I like you a lot.’
‘This week, spending time with you, meeting your family, I feel like I’ve got to know you better than I ever knew Martin.’
She just talked about him the past tense. That was good, right?
‘I’ve enjoyed it too.’
‘But I’ve been with him for a long time.’
Hmm, present perfect tense there. Bit less obvious. Bugger. Also, focus less on the grammar and more on what she’s saying, Matt.
‘That is a long time.’ About three years and six months longer than anyone I’d ever been involved with.
‘It’s not easy to just say something’s turned bad when it used to be good.’
‘Sure, I can understand that, but, to run the risk of your wrath, maybe if we looked at some of the stuff Beth gave you –’
‘There’s no need.’
‘Because I already did it, back home, on the internet, looked it all up, domestic violence, domestic abuse, and those words just didn’t fit. All the descriptions fitted, but the words – they were just too harsh. They made me feel like I was falsely accusing him, even in my mind. Maybe, oh I don’t know, maybe I was looking for ways round it, ways it wasn’t true. But yeah, if I have to say it out loud, he’s abused me. Not with his fists, but in lots of other ways.’
I reached towards her, tried to take her hand, but she withdrew from my touch. Tears ran down her face again, but I knew she didn’t want me to hold her this time.
‘But I still feel for him, I still worry about him, I’m still grateful to him for everything he’s done for me, even if, now I think about it, it’s all been to try to get more control over me. Shit, if I go back to him, that just proves it, doesn’t it? Shit, Matt. I just said it, didn’t I? He pays the rent, he pays the bills, he even bails my mum out of debt. I was just about to go back to him for that.’
Something had dawned on her face, a realisation. I held my breath, not daring to believe yet that it might last, that she really meant it, that she wouldn’t change her mind.
‘Even – bloody hellfire, you remember that job? When I met you in that café after my interview and you ate that foul smelling wrap?’
‘I remember everything except the foul smell.’
‘His mate got me the interview. You don’t think … me not getting the job was something to do with … and now I think about it, nearly every job I’ve been for, it’s because Martin has come home and said ‘my mate says his company need a secretary’ or receptionist, or whatever, what if he’s talked me down to these wasters, and that’s why I didn’t get the jobs? So he can look like he’s helping, but actually there’s no chance I’ll ever get a job, get some independence.’
She was starting to look panicky, as if nearly everything that had ever gone wrong in her life could somehow be pinned on Martin. Who knows, maybe it could, the job thing sounded plausible, but she needed some perspective, and paranoia wasn’t going to help anyone.
‘Well, it’s possible I suppose, but it’s a bit pointless hypothesising. I think we need to focus on what we do now, how we sort you out. Do you think … it sounds a bit like you might have made a decision.’
She held my gaze. ‘I think I’ve just realised what’s been going on. I might have loved him, properly, once, but that’s not there anymore, there’s just all this crap. I’m not going back.’
I did a little dance. In my head. This wasn’t the time or place for real little dances, it wouldn’t help matters, but deep in my mind, a tiny little jig of delight was being performed.
‘OK. Well, good for you, excellent decision if I may be so bold as to – oh fuck that, come here.’
I shuffled along the sofa as quickly as my still jigging brain would take me and pulled her towards me, holding her tight. Then, suddenly, letting her go as I realised we still had a lot to sort out.
‘That is, well done and all that, but before I get carried away, oh ha ha, literally Carried away, I still think we should –’
Before I could get any further, she pulled me towards her and kissed me –
PG! PG! PG!
– and I was so taken by surprise that I let her, is what I told myself, also telling myself that what happened afterwards was due to extenuating circumstances, like her pulling my t-shirt off and pressing her hand against my crotch, and wrapping her tongue round mine like she intended to tie them together, or her slowly taking off her tight vest top, stretching up so her breasts were straining against her bra, then taking my hand and putting it on her chest, or her taking off her bra and pushing one of her nipples into my mouth, so I had no choice at all but to suck it, and lick it until it hardened and peaked under my tongue, or any of the other things that she did, that made me do other things, none of them my fault, you understand, until we ended up in my room, naked, writhing, me in her, her around me, calling out in passion, and then doing it again, twice, before I eventually woke up to the sound of the phone, the feel of an arm round my waist and confusion in my brain, where I believe a very small celebratory jig may still have been taking place.
I addressed the first thing – the phone. Where the bloody hell was it? It wasn’t my mobile, it must be – oh wait, there was a phone by the bed, wasn’t there. Yes. That was it. It was ringing. OK, second problem, the arm round my waist. Fuck, it felt good, didn’t really want to remove it. But it didn’t seem like the phone was going to stop until I answered it. So I unpeeled the arm and moved closer.
‘Hello Mr Scott. It’s reception here.’
‘Reception. We’ve been trying to deliver your breakfast for the last half an hour, we wondered if you had left the room already.’
‘No. Quite. Would you be good enough to open the door for the waiter?’
I hung the receiver back in the cradle.
‘Bloke in recept – whoa, you are a sight for sore eyes. Good morning you gorgeous naked woman.’
I pulled Carrie into my arms and kissed her, deeply, relishing the feel of her soft skin against mine. She kissed me back just as deeply, then pulled her head back.
‘What was that?’
‘That noise. Tapping – oh! Breakfast!’
‘You’re my breakfast. Come here.’
‘No, I need my bacon. I’ll just go and answer the door.’
I watched as Carrie pulled on my bathrobe, admiring the little wiggles she did with her arse, in fact admiring everything about her naked form. As I watched her leave the room, I realised that we hadn’t really solved anything for her last night, other than not going back to Martin, and had in fact just made things a whole lot more complicated. I resolved to devote most of today to helping Carrie sort out accommodation, job and money.
Then she walked back in with a tray of breakfast, robe falling open to reveal her in all her splendour, and my resolution counted for nothing for another hour or so.
We spent most of our remaining time in Devon exploring the delights of the five different rooms in the Scott Suite. There were two bedrooms, two bathrooms, both with pulsing power showers and Carrie’s with a huge jacuzzi bath, as well as the large living room.
Beth was hard to ignore, and had tried several – no, make that many, many – times to contact me by text and voicemail, all of which I’d been too busy to answer. She had lost patience by Friday morning and started calling constantly, hanging up and trying again when she got the voicemail. I gave in eventually.
‘Matty! Oh thank God. Where are you?’
‘At the hotel.’
‘Where have you been?’
‘At the hotel.’
‘I meant since Tuesday night.’
‘At the hotel.’
‘What? Really? Are you alright? Oh … oh Matty, tell me you and Carrie haven’t done anything silly.’
‘Well … that depends on your definition of silly, really. Shall I describe what we’ve been doing? I can give you details, in varying levels of graphic, if you like. Let’s see, where shall I start?’
‘No, no, I get the picture. Oh Matty. Are you sure? I thought she was thinking about going back to him.’
‘Yeah, well, she thought. Decided not. We were both quite happy about it.’
‘OK, well, that sounds a bit better, I suppose. But why didn’t you just text me or something? I’ve been trying to get hold of you, I thought something must have happened.’
‘Something did. Lots of somethings. Or rather the same something, lots of times.’
‘Oh. Sorry, Beth. Had other things on my mind.’
Beth snorted. ‘Amongst other places. So what have you sorted out for Carrie?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Is she going to live with you? Have you got her a job? Have you thought about what kind of help is she going to get to live her life in the town where her abusive boyfriend –’
‘– ex-boyfriend lives?’
‘Yeah, I thought as much. Matty, I love you dearly, but sometimes thinking with your men’s bits isn’t the best way to solve a problem. Actually, it’s hardly ever the best way.’
‘Kind of depends on the problem.’
‘That’s why I said hardly ever and not never. Come over tonight, we can have a think, even if it’s just so you both know what you need to consider. Maybe someone to talk to who doesn’t have a lust-addled brain is what you need. Come about seven? Cal will be in bed, Dec will be out with his friends before clubbing and illegally drinking, not that I know that of course, it’ll just be me and James.’
I sighed, and turned towards Carrie, who was lying next to me, naked, stroking my thigh. It was driving me wild, and I really needed to stop Beth talking so I could do something about it.
‘Beth wants us to go for dinner tonight, so we can plan our triumphant return to the metropolis that is Stafford.’
‘Do we have to?’
‘Dinner or return to the metropolis?’
‘I think we do. Sorry. I hate to say it, but I think it might help, if we can just curb her enthusiasm a bit.’
‘But it’s our last night here.’
‘Hey, I didn’t say we have to stay all night. Couple of hours, three tops, then we can come back, and I can do more of this …’
I stroked her hair and pulled her towards me for a kiss. She moaned under my mouth and kissed back, gently biting my bottom lip and running her hands up and down my back, setting my spine on fire.
‘Oh, and you can do more of that anytime.’
‘Matty? Can you hear me?’
Shit, I’d completely forgotten I’d been talking to Beth. I picked the phone up.
‘Sorry. Yep, we’ll be there, seven was it? Yep, see you then. Bye.’
Before she had a chance to squawk, I disconnected, threw the phone on the floor and went back to what I’d been doing.
Some time later, taking a break for lunch, which we were feeding each other like giggling adolescents, Carrie looked up at me.
‘You know, you really are very good in the bed department.’
‘Why thank you, C, you’re not so shabby yourself.’
At some point over the last breathtaking forty eight hours, I’d started calling Carrie ‘C’. I liked it, and she didn’t seem to mind.
‘No, I mean, where did you learn all that? Don’t tell me I’m not your first, I’d feel so … used.’
She put the back of her hand against her forehead and sank dramatically against the back of the sofa.
‘Ha ha, well, I’m sorry to suddenly be not the man you thought I was, but you’re not my first. I was a bit of a late starter, but I made up for lost time.’
‘First time? Eighteen. Nearly nineteen, actually. You?’
‘Fifteen. So if you made up for lost time, does that mean there have been a lot?’
‘Er … does it really matter?’
‘Well that kind of answers my question, but no, I’m just interested. You seem to know your way around pretty well, I don’t think we’ve reached the end of your repertoire yet. You’ve either been out with a prostitute or had lots of women.’
‘Or read lots of books.’
‘What? You did not learn all that from a book.’
‘Not just one, no.’
‘You’re bloody kidding me.’
‘OK, maybe I am kidding a bit. To be honest, yeah, I suppose if I was going to count, there have been a lot. I don’t really do commitment, so I don’t let it go very far, so no one gets hurt, which means I’ve moved on every couple of weeks. I meant it about the books, though, to start with. I read loads, watched DVDs, worked out what to do, then when I got my chance I put it into practice, and it seemed to work. As time went on, I added bits I found out for myself, like this …’
I touched her breast and tweaked her nipple, rubbing my thumb across it afterwards to make it harden more,
‘… that’s all my own work.’
I looked into her face, and was surprised to see a frown.
‘What did I say? Sorry, I should have told you there have been a few, but none of them have ever mattered … oh, I haven’t got anything. I get tested for everything every few months, just to make sure.’
‘Mm. No, it’s not that.’
‘What have I done? What did I say?’
She looked up again and the cloud had gone from her eyes, or maybe it had just been papered over with something else.
‘Nothing. Sorry. Just feeling a bit in awe of your vast experience. I’ve only ever been with two blokes.’
‘Really? But you’re so hot. Hang on, I thought you said you were fifteen?’
‘The first time, yeah, but it was at a party, on a pile of coats, and it was such an awful experience, and I thought I was pregnant afterwards although I wasn’t, and I didn’t want to try it again for a long time. Five years, in fact, when I met Martin.’
‘So your sexual experience to date has been spotty teenager, bully boy, and …’
‘And now you. Yes, before you ask, you win hands down.’
I shot both fists into the air in celebration.
‘He shoots, he scores. Oh, and I have to say, even though I might have to search a bit longer to make all the comparisons, I’ve never met anyone like you. You feel incredible, you’re so amazing, you might even be the – is that a drop of garlic dip on your chin? Allow me.’
I leaned over and licked the droplet off slowly, finding her lips with my tongue shortly afterwards. I hoped she hadn’t realised what I’d been about to say, how I’d nearly blown it by calling her the love of my life. She’d just broken up with Martin, and even having sex was not a very good idea just now. Having me declare stupid crap like that wasn’t going to help at all. So I licked her all over, with the help of more garlic dip, and took my mind off my almost-gaffe.
After lunch, the hotel kicked us out for a couple of hours, as we had hung the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door, and they felt a need to change the bedding and replenish the miniscule bottles of shampoo. It took another call from reception when we ignored the knocking on the door. I wondered if Jay’s ‘free whenever you want it’ offer would be rescinded in the wake of the hefty bills we had doubtless run up.
So we drove out to the beach and lay in the sun for a bit. We were surrounded by people, there was no way we could get up to anything untoward, but just being there, lying next to Carrie, close enough to touch her, allowed to touch her, unlike earlier in the week when it had just been perving from behind my sunglasses, was erotic enough.
Then Carrie hit on the idea of sun cream, and we spent quite a lot longer than was necessary rubbing factor thirty on each other’s backs. And fronts. And arms. And legs. And as near to bums as we dared. And when our allotted time was up, we went back and got sand and Ambre Solaire all over the newly hoovered carpet.
We just about made it to Jay’s on time, only because we didn’t want to spend any longer there than we needed to. I did at least recognise that if we were going back tomorrow, we needed to think about what we were going to do if we ran into Martin, and how we were going to keep Carrie safe, and that Beth would be a good person to help.
It had been the most phenomenal week, but now a bit of reality had to be let in, and it seemed like Carrie was feeling it too, as she was very quiet on the short drive. I turned the engine off as we pulled up outside the house, and turned to look at her.
‘Yeah. I can’t believe it’s nearly all over.’
‘Don’t think like that. In percentage terms, assuming we don’t actually leave until tomorrow evening, we’ve still got more than fourteen per cent of the week left. That’s plenty.’
‘Doesn’t sound like very much.’
‘How about in hours? Let’s not leave until at least seven tomorrow, then we’ve got twenty four hours left.’
‘But we won’t be able to stay in the hotel until then.’
‘No, probably not, but we can stay around here, do something really special. Twenty four whole hours, C.’
‘You’re right, that sounds better than fourteen per cent. Hey, you do know your numbers, don’t you.’
‘A levels in Maths, Pure Maths and Bloody Mind-Bogglingly Complicated Maths at your service, ma’am.’
‘Get out of here. Come on then, before I change my mind and drag you back to the hotel by your hair.’
‘Oh balls, let’s just do that instead.’
‘No, my mind is made up.’
‘Yep. I’d much rather go and be preached at by your sister-in-law than shagging your brains out in our sumptuous hotel room. Goes without saying.’
‘You tease – oh sod it, here comes Cal, the game’s up. Out you get.’
I got out, scooped Cal up and walked up the path with him in my arms, not really listening while he chattered about SpongeBob Squarepants or some such shit, being more focussed on the sight of Carrie’s arse in her tight jeans as she walked in front of me. I was a hopeless case.
Beth was waiting just inside the front door, dispensing kisses as we arrived. Jay handed me a bottle of beer as I put Cal down, and gave Carrie a glass of water.
‘We’ve got plenty of other drinks, Carrie, but you do seem to like the tasteless stuff.’
‘It’s good for getting rid of impurities.’
‘Surely you don’t have any of those?’
‘No, Matt. That’s because I drink a lot of water.’
We went and sat in the living room while Jay and Beth dealt with Cal’s bedtime. Dec poked his head round the door.
‘You here again?’
‘It would seem so.’
And he was gone, the whole house reverberating with the slam of the front door as he went.
‘Fuckaduck, was that … four whole words?’
‘About that. You must be a good influence on him.’
‘Not sure I could cope with much more. Might have to start having a conversation with him next time I’m here.’
‘It would be a short one, I’m sure.’
‘Yeah. Something like ‘sup’ ‘not much’ ‘sick’ ‘laters’. I might have to practice.’
‘I can think of better things for you to practice.’
I arched an eyebrow. ‘Oh really?’
‘Mm. Not here though. Have a think over dinner.’
‘Oh I will. Are you sure there’s nothing I can practise here?’
‘You’ve thought of something?’
She leaned over and kissed my cheek, then turned my face towards hers. I didn’t need any further hints, and by the time Jay and Beth came back downstairs, our faces were almost welded together. We hadn’t forgotten where we were entirely, but we were putting on a bit of a show.
‘Jesus, Matty. Give it a rest for five minutes? You’ve been at it for three whole days, according to Beth. Take a break.’
I looked up, disentangled myself from Carrie, ran my hands through my hair and looked guiltily at Beth, who was glaring at us. Carrie laughed, adjusted her clothing and smoothed her hair.
‘Sorry. He’s a bit irresistible.’
‘Yeah, about as irresistible as a three week old pizza, and about as appetising. Thanks for putting me off my tea, Matty.’
‘OK, Jay, we’ve stopped. Didn’t hear you come downstairs. I might have been deafened when the adolescent slammed the front door.’
‘What if Cal had been with us?’
‘Oh Beth, what if he had? We were only kissing.’
‘He’s not used to seeing … displays … like that.’
‘Well, we’ve both said sorry. It won’t happen again, not much else we can do.’
I sat back and refused to be told off like a naughty child any more.
‘When’s tea, then?’
‘Won’t be long. Fancy giving me a hand, Matty? I need a hollandaise sauce for the fish.’
‘Oh. Er … OK. Right there.’ I looked at Carrie. ‘Jay doesn’t bite, but if you need me, yell ‘help’.’
‘Are you saying you can make a holland sauce?’
‘Hollandaise. Yeah. I can cook a bit. Won’t be long. I expect Beth wants to give me the benefit of some pearls of wisdom in the privacy of the kitchen, probably about corrupting the young or some such shit.’
‘Matty, no swearing in the house.’
‘Yeah, I can just about take that from Beth, mate, but you’ve got no chance. Fuck off.’
And I went into the kitchen, grinning to myself, always loving it when Jay tried to get all parental on my arse and I managed to show him who was really the daddy.
Beth was at the kitchen table, surrounded by implements and recipe books.
‘I’ve found a recipe, and I think I’ve got all the ingredients, but I’ve been a bit disorganised.’
‘That doesn’t sound like you, Beth, you’ve usually got everything completely under control weeks in advance.’
‘Well you threw me off, coming down here at short notice, then being out of touch for days – oh sweetheart, are you sure you know what you’re doing?’
‘I’ve made hollandaise sauce before. Don’t even need a recipe book, thanks.’
‘I didn’t mean that. I meant with Carrie.’
‘I knew what you meant. And no, I don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing. Does anyone, ever? All I know is I’ve never felt like this before, about anyone, and she’s amazing, I love her –’
I clapped my hand over my mouth as I said it, wishing I could call the words back. Beth’s eyes were wide, then her face softened.
‘Oh Matty. I always said that when you fell, you’d fall hard and fast.’
‘Shit, Beth, I didn’t mean to say it. You can’t say anything, she can’t know, not yet.’
‘You’re right, sweetheart, it would just be another complication. I’m not usually one for hiding things, but I think this is something she doesn’t need to be worrying about, she’s got a tough few weeks coming up.’
‘So you’re not going to reassure me that you know exactly what you’re doing and it’s all under control?’
‘You’d better make me some hollandaise sauce instead, then.’
Over dinner, Beth mentioned another conversation she’d had with her social worker friend.
‘She said there’s a shelter in Stafford, maybe somewhere you can stay for a few weeks while you sort yourself out.’
I expected Carrie to react badly to this, but looked at her to see her nodding. I was panicked by the sound of a shelter, and what it might mean for Carrie and me.
‘Wait, Beth, do you mean a battered wives’ home?’
‘Oh Matty, they’re not called that anymore, they’re women’s refuges. For all sorts of women in all sorts of situations and all sorts of relationships.’
‘But Carrie doesn’t need that now. You’ve got me, haven’t you?’
I thought she might look at me gratefully, maybe smile and nod, but she looked pained, and spoke directly to Beth.
‘Do you know any details?’
‘What? No, C, you can stay with me. I mean, before, yeah my flat was too small for both of us, but now –’
‘Really, Matt? Wasn’t the reason we came down here so that Martin didn’t come round and find us together? What’s changed?’
‘But … you can’t just …’
‘Sweetheart, you keep saying you want Carrie to be safe. Maybe she needs help from other people as well, people who know what they’re doing in this type of situation, people who aren’t going to get both of you hurt by not thinking clearly. Carrie, my friend has the contact details of the local Women’s Org group, who can help you out with everything. They’ve got people on the phones twenty four hours a day. Feel free to call from here if you want to.’
Beth handed over a card, which Carrie placed on the table in front of her and stared at.
‘You should both know that if Carrie goes this route, and if she gets a place in the shelter, they won’t let men in. You won’t be able to see each other while she’s there. And they’ll probably advise that you don’t have any relationships while you’re getting sorted, Carrie. They can’t enforce it, of course, but it seems sensible.’
‘Holy shit, Beth. C, I can look after you, I’ll move, I’ll get a place with two bedrooms, I’ll –’
‘I’m sorry, Matt, I think – I kind of knew about this. Maybe it’s best, maybe it’ll give us time to catch our breath. This week has been a whirlwind, incredible, but you can’t get a new flat in a day, it’ll take weeks, and it’s too risky. Maybe, if they can’t help me right away, I won’t have any choice, but I think it’s best to do it properly, with people who know what they’re doing.’
‘But what about us?’
I half noticed Beth getting up, taking some plates with her, and cuffing Jay on the arm to make him do the same. All I could think was that I was losing Carrie before I’d found her, she was going to go somewhere they thought all men were abusers, and she’d end up hating me. I badly wanted to dissuade her, even though I knew there wasn’t really an alternative. She was right. If Martin found out where I lived, it would be bad for us both.
‘You said earlier that you don’t do commitment.’
‘What? When did I say that?’
‘When you were telling me about the millions of women you’ve had and why you’ve had them.’
‘Oh. But I meant then. I didn’t mean you.’
‘I’m being sensible. I’m thinking clearly, it’s taken a few days to get here, but I’m thinking about me. I don’t want you to commit yourself to me, not if you can’t stick to it. I don’t want to be a tie for you, and I don’t want to be hurt again so soon after all this. I need to be sure.’
‘I’ll never hurt you.’
‘Heard that one before.’
‘I’m nothing like him.’
‘No. But you have the potential to hurt me, whether you want to or not. Matt, you said a few days ago that you’d always be here for me.’
‘So, are you changing your mind?’
‘Well, I’m not going anywhere either, not as far as we’re concerned. I need to sort myself out, I need to get somewhere to live, a way of supporting myself. I think these people,’ she picked up the card with the phone number on it, ‘might be able to help me do that. Then we can give us a go, a proper go, and we might even stand a chance.’
I nodded, unable to look at her, knowing she would be able to see the misery, the doubt I was feeling.
‘I’ve loved this week. You’re great. You’ve made me feel special, like I matter, like I’m worth bothering with, like I’m attractive. I haven’t felt like that for a long time. This week has helped me, you have no idea how much. But it’s been a bit unreal, hasn’t it. It’s time to go home and face it all now. This isn’t the end for us, it’s the beginning.’
‘It feels like the end.’
‘It’s the end of the week, and didn’t you say there’s still fourteen per cent left?’
‘Less than that, now, about thirteen.’
‘Well then, with your A level Bloody Mind-Bogglingly Complicated Maths, we can either spend that last thirteen per cent being miserable about what might or might not happen, or we can spend a hundred per cent of the rest of the week – and I like my number better, to be honest – being happy with each other and giving each other something to remember each other by.’
‘What, like a farewell gift?’
‘No, like a here’s what you’ll be missing, hurry back gift.’
‘Oh. That does sound better. I like your number better too. Hadn’t thought of that one, a hundred per cent of the rest of the week.’
‘OK then. Stop your whining. I’ve got a phone call to make, anywhere I can go to have some privacy?’
‘You can probably use Jay’s office. Jay?’
He appeared through the door so quickly, I suspected he’d been propelled by an eavesdropping Beth.
‘Can Carrie use your office to make a phone call?’
‘Yeah sure, this way.’
He led her out into the hallway. Beth came in with a bowl of trifle.
‘Dessert, if you’re staying.’
‘Hm, tempting, but might not, all things considered.’
‘Is she ringing them?’
‘It’ll be OK, Matty.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because she’ll get the help she needs from these people. Isn’t that the priority here?’
‘You knew what you were getting into, I did tell you –’
‘Please spare me the sodding I told you so, Beth.’
‘But thanks for everything you’ve done. And thank your friend, too.’
‘Any time. I know lots of people, I’ve got friends for most occasions.’
‘I’m beginning to see the truth of that.’
‘What time do you think you’ll set off tomorrow?’
‘Don’t know, I think we have to check out at twelve. We talked about staying a bit longer, but it depends what they say to Carrie now.’
‘Enjoy it then. Make some memories.’
‘Yeah, got quite a few of those, some of them aren’t even of the bedroom.’
‘It’s not the be all and end all, Matty.’
‘Ha ha, you’re so middle-aged, Beth.’
She narrowed her eyes, and I knew I’d stung her, but I was unrepentant. She’d helped a lot, but because of her help I was going to lose Carrie, maybe for a few weeks, but maybe for longer, and maybe for good, and I wanted to hurt her just a little bit in return.
Jay wandered in with a beer. He offered one to me, but I was driving back, and didn’t want to risk being stopped.
‘Ooh, trifle. Haven’t you started it yet?’
‘Matty thinks they won’t be staying.’
‘No reason I can’t have some though, is there? Sometimes I love not playing, I can have desserts all week long if I like. Can’t you pack them off with some in a plastic box or something? I’m sure they’ll find something, or someone, to eat it off later.’
‘What? It’s not like we can’t all see they’re love’s young dream. Jesus, even I can see it, must be beaming out the TV or something.’
‘Did Carrie get through to anyone?’
‘Oh, I don’t know mate, I just showed her into the office, didn’t stick around to listen. She’s still in there though, so unless she’s leaving a really long message on the answerphone, she must have done.’
Carrie came out a while later, after Beth and I had sat and watched Jay slurp his way through two bowls of trifle. I smiled at her, and she tried a smile back, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.
‘Did you talk to someone? What did they say?’
‘I’m going to see them – er, they said tomorrow afternoon. We’ll have to leave earlier than we said. Sorry.’
‘No problem. We’ve still got a hundred per cent of the rest of the week.’
‘Yeah. Can we go?’
‘Sure. Thanks Beth, great feast again.’
‘Yeah, thanks Beth, you’ve been awesome.’
‘You’re welcome, sweetheart. Do you want to take some trifle back with you?’
Jay snorted, but looked as if he might have had a swift kick under the table from Beth.
‘Oh, no thanks, I don’t usually do dessert, and I’ve eaten far too much this week. Thanks though.’
Carrie stood behind me and put her hand on my shoulder.
‘OK then. Got everything?’
‘Everything I came with, which was you. Not leaving without that.’
‘Right, homewards. Or Scott Suitewards, for our last night of drawing glasses and moustaches and the odd really huge knob on all the pictures.’
‘What? Matty, you haven’t. If I get a bill, I swear –’
‘Relax, Jay. We’ve only drawn on the ones in the bathrooms. And the knobs are tiny – same as yours – so no one will ever see.’
‘He’s teasing, James. Honestly, how long have you been brothers? Sometimes it’s like you don’t know each other at all. So will you call in before you go?’
‘No, probably not, if we need to leg it back for Carrie’s appointment. Thanks for everything.’
I stood up and gave her a big hug, then shook Jay’s hand while Carrie hugged her too.
And then we were back at the hotel for our last night. But something had gone out of it all, there was a pall hanging over us, and although neither of us said anything, neither of us started anything, and before long I found myself feeling sleepy.
‘I might go to bed.’
‘Need some company?’
‘Always. I’m pretty beat though.’
I undressed got into bed and turned out the lights, hearing the door open a few minutes later. I listened to the rustling sounds of Carrie taking her clothes off, felt the mattress bounce slightly as she got in beside me, and felt her body press against me, her breasts, her hips, her thighs, moulding themselves to me, and her soft hands stroking my chest. I felt like crying; I nearly did. This could be the last time I felt this, this week could be all the time I was allotted with Carrie, by whoever did cosmic time allotting, and it wasn’t fair.
‘Hey, are you going to spend a hundred per cent of the rest of the week being miserable?’
‘Can’t help it. I feel like I’m losing you.’
‘No Matt. I don’t know what you think is going to happen, but you’re not losing me. The woman on the phone thought it was really positive that I’ve got someone like you looking out for me. She said there are some rules around involvement with men while they’re helping me, but they don’t discourage relationships altogether. If they give me a room in the refuge, it’ll only be for a few weeks or so, they’ll help me find somewhere else, they’ll be helping me to sort out what I want, so I’m strong enough to deal with it. I’ll be even better than now.’
‘Impossible. You’re already perfect.’
‘Don’t say that, Matt, you don’t know how far from the truth you are. Will you wait for me? Until I’m sorted?’
‘Don’t promise things like that. Just promise until I’m sorted.’
‘Okay then. But will you promise …’
‘Not to go all feminist and man-hating, or go for couples counselling with Martin, or some such shit.’
Carrie laughed. ‘You don’t half get some daft ideas. OK, firstly I won’t be going anywhere with Martin, especially to couples counselling. And this organisation thing doesn’t seem to be particularly man-hating, it only hates the bad ones. You’re one of the good ones, you’re in.’
I turned over so we were facing each other, and as our arms went round each other, and we pulled each other closer, we kissed as if the world was ending, and we loved as if the world was ending, and in a way it was, this little week-long world we’d created down here in the south west of England, and we were never going to get it back. But she’d almost convinced me that there would be other worlds we could create, and as we moved against each other and into each other and felt the heat and the passion of each other, and as she did that just so, and I did this just like that, and we pulled each other to the edge and tumbled over it in raptures together, I started to believe it might not be the end of our world after all.
And so began Project Capture Carrie, third iteration, or 1.2 if you will. 1.0 had failed spectacularly and nearly got me beaten up by a meathead. 1.1 lasted a wonderful week in the west. 1.2 was going to be a longer process, requiring infinitely more patience on my part, a lot of will power, cold showers galore and a pillow to swear loudly into at regular intervals.
Carrie had been whisked away from her interview with the Women’s Org people into a safe house. I didn’t know where it was, what they’d said to her, what she’d told them. I didn’t know anything at all. She’d called me, shortly after I’d dropped her at the Women’ Org offices, to tell me she was giving up her mobile phone and wouldn’t be contacting me, or anyone, while she was there. She asked me not to speak, couldn’t give me any details. It was so quick. Just half an hour before, we’d been sitting nervously in my car, looking up at the windows trying to guess which one she’d be looking out of. I was still there, in the car, when she’d called, but I hadn’t seen her, even though she might have been standing looking at me.
It felt strange, to be suddenly without her. It felt like longer than a week that we’d been together, and I know we’d talked about what might happen, but it was suddenly real, too suddenly too real, and she felt ripped away from me.
I sat in my car for a long time, hoping to see her come out of the front door, but unless they’d disguised her as a middle-aged Indian woman or a teenage skateboarder, they must have taken her out of another door. My unnecessarily vivid imagination saw her under a blanket, being hustled into a windowless van. Or was that just serial killers?
Anyway, the reality was that she was gone for the time being, for the foreseeable, and at that moment there wasn’t much foreseeable for me without her.
I’d eventually driven away from the building, before a bunch of man-hating feminists decided to come and slash my tyres for stalking, and went home. I was a bit nervous about this as well, not knowing if I was going to have a front door or not when I got there. As I rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, I was relieved and a little surprised to find that not only was the door still there, but it didn’t even have a dent. Maybe he hadn’t worked out where I lived then.
As I was trying to find my keys in my pocket, Mrs Harding popped her head out. Good old Mrs Harding. She said she was deaf, but she could hear a potential for a good nosy through two doors and Cash in the Attic on full volume.
‘Oh, you’re back, Mark.’
And she always called me Mark. She knew it was one of the gospels, me being such a good boy and all.
‘Matt. Yep, I’m back.’
‘Did your friend find you?’
My blood seemed to freeze, as did my smile, and I tried not to look as scared as I felt.
‘Er, no, which friend is that, then?’
‘The chap who was here, he came a couple of times, banged on your door rather loudly, well he must have done for me to hear him. Then he banged on my door to see if I knew where you were. Said he needed to find you. He said it was urgent.’
‘Did you talk to him?’
‘Yes, nice chap. I told him I saw you go out with that young girl last Saturday, and you hadn’t been back since.’
‘Did he, er, say his name at all?’
‘Oh, do you know, he did, but can I remember? It was one of those ordinary mannish sort of names, a bit like yours, Mark.’
‘No, it wasn’t Matt. Let me think now. Oh, I’ve got it. Andrew.’
What? Really? Oh, but she must have got his name wrong.
‘Andrew? Are you sure? What did he look like?’
I didn’t want to put the name Martin in her head, in case it made her mis-remember, but I doubted even Mrs Harding’s physical descriptions of Andrew versus Martin could be confused with each other.
‘Oh, he was just a man really, a bit like you, tall, hair going a bit thin, glasses. Had a woman with him, and a baby.’
Oh, well why the fuck didn’t you fucking well say that in the fucking first place, instead of scaring the living shit out of me before I’ve even got my key in the sodding door, you bloody useless old bat. Is what I screamed at her in my mind, but I rather shakily plastered on my best smile, thanked her and said I would give him a ring to stop him calling round and bothering her. And in my relief I wasn’t even annoyed that she’d said Andrew was like me with his thinning hair. Bloody cheek, my hair was all still firmly attached to my head.
When I got in, after pouring myself a steadying finger of scotch, I double-checked my phone for texts and emails, but there was nothing from Andrew, which was curious. He knew it was the best way to get hold of me. The message light was flashing on my landline answerphone, which was also unusual as only cold callers ever rang it and I only needed it for the Wi-Fi.
I tapped the ‘play’ button, and the electronic woman inside the phone told me I had seven new messages. Two were from a different electronic woman inside the phone excitedly telling me I’d won a holiday and if I just called this number I’d be in the tourist destination of my dreams within the week. Two were just static, and three were, indeed from Andrew, telling me he was in Stafford for a few days, he had some news, could he call round. The last one was time-stamped Thursday, so I’d missed him.
I’d kept in touch with Andrew since Uni. He’d moved to Aberystwyth when he got a post-grad job as a computer programmer with an insurance company, and had stayed there ever since, now head of the department, having met Karen, married her and recently had a little girl called … er … I want to say Rebecca. Let’s say Rebecca. Yeah, I’m a great mate.
Truth is, Andrew had been a great mate to me. All the crap with Cindy notwithstanding, we’d stayed friends at Uni, had used each other to talk to, take our frustrations out on, help through tough assignments, and afterwards we still called each other, fairly frequently, for chats, usually about Spurs, Star Wars and computer code, not much had changed, but occasionally one or other of us would need to get something off our chest, and we were comfortable enough for that to happen without too much macho nonsense.
It had kind of tailed off, two, maybe three, years previously when he met Karen. Obviously (I mean obviously now it had happened to me) when you meet the woman of your dreams, your mates take second place, and she should really be the one you talk to most, and who is your new best mate, at least that’s how I viewed it now, with my whole week’s worth of experience. But at the time I felt both the reduced frequency of his calls and the unavailability every time I suggested getting together as a bit of a slight. I’d been to his wedding, and judged Karen harshly on appearances. I’m sure she was a beautiful woman, with some lovely character traits, but she struck me as a bit … sorry ladies, prepare to throw things … plain, and compared to the vivacious Cindy, I couldn’t see what had attracted him to her. Still, it wasn’t my life, and so as was becoming customary at weddings for me, I snogged a bridesmaid, felt her up and didn’t call her. Well, it wasn’t like I was going to be going back, was it?
Andrew and I had continued emailing and texting whilst managing to never quite get round to visiting since he got married. It felt like enough.
So, a bit perplexed as to why Andrew hadn’t called my mobile or emailed me, I checked the number left on the answer machine, and dialled it. It was a hotel in Stafford, and the receptionist confirmed that Mr Distock had checked out yesterday morning. I wondered why he hadn’t stayed with his parents, but from what I remembered they’d moved to a smaller house when Andrew left home, and maybe didn’t have room for his family. He would have gone back to Aberystwyth after his visit.
I dialled his home number, three times, and got the long unobtainable tone each time. I dialled his mobile number, and got a message saying ‘this number does not exist’. I checked it several times, and assured the electronic woman on the end of the line that it did sodding well exist, look it’s here in my contacts, but she didn’t seem to be listening to me. It was really weird, like he’d vanished off the face of the earth on Thursday. Still, if he really wanted to talk to me, if he’d moved and changed his mobile, he’d be in touch before too long.
I sent him an email, and for good measure copied it to his work email address, only for the one to his personal account to bounce back with another ‘does not exist’ message, and the one to work to come back with an automated ‘Andrew Distock no longer works for Largesse Insurance’. I was now out of options, and he was just going to have to contact me when he could.
Chasing around trying to find Andrew took me a while, another finger of scotch and a couple of beers, following which I was feeling decidedly more mellow.
I thumbed through some of my photos from the week. Carrie in a bikini. Carrie talking to a penguin. Carrie red-faced and happy at the top of a hill. Carrie wearing nothing at all, smiling up at me.
God I missed her. It had only been – not even three hours yet. I couldn’t help wondering what she was doing, who she was talking to, how things were going for her. I couldn’t help wanting her.
I thought about another glass of scotch, but it always made me maudlin, and I was depressed enough already. Mum. That’s what I needed.
‘Hi Mum. Sorry, I’ve been away, meant to ring you.’
‘Yes, I’ve talked to Jameson. He told me you were down there.’
There was a silence, during which I felt all sorts of guilt-laden conversations take place, subconsciously.
‘Did he? What else did he tell you?’
‘Oh, do you mean about your young lady?’
I should have expected it, I suppose. If Jay hadn’t told her in some twisted fraternal revenge for cheeking him when I was twelve or something, Beth would have done because she was genetically incapable of keeping her nose out of anything, and thought everyone should be as happy to share bloody everything about their lives as she apparently was.
‘Well, yeah, kind of, I suppose. Trust Jay to blab.’
‘He didn’t blab, dear, it just came up in conversation. I asked if he’d heard from you, because I hadn’t for a while, not even a text, and I was just a wee bit worried when I couldn’t get you at home, although obviously you’re a big boy now –’
‘And what did he say?’
‘Oh I don’t remember his exact words, just that you’d been a little preoccupied with a friend you’d brought down to Devon to escape for a few days. Such a lovely word for a holiday, isn’t it, dear, ‘escape’. And so true of that part of the world.’
‘Yeah, it was a bit more literal, Mum. And you could have texted me, if you were really worried, or rung my mobile.’
But I knew she wouldn’t have done. Mobiles were for the receiving of texts from sons and daughters-in-law, and not for replying or calling oneself, of any description. To be fair to her, her arthritic fingers were a bit gnarly, and she couldn’t really do the small keys.
‘Are you in later? I could come round. Got some pictures to show you.’
Although I was going to have to severely edit out a lot of the ones taken in the last couple of days, as they showed rather a lot more of Carrie, and indeed me, than anyone would have been comfortable with.
‘Oh Matthew, that would be lovely. There’s that new talent programme on that you love to make fun of, you could bring some fish and chips over, maybe.’
‘Sounds great, Mum. See you later.’
And that was how I happened to be out when Martin finally worked out how to get my address from Carrie’s computer, and came crashing through my front door to find me.