9. Ain’t no sunshine

In which things go from bad to worse for Matty.

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Matt

When you’re sleeping in a conservatory, however good the blinds are, there is a lot of light available to come in, and in the middle of summer that light wakes up very early and wants everyone to join the breakfast club. I could pretty much sleep through anything, but Carrie always woke up with the birds: early in summer, later in winter. And she didn’t like being awake on her own.

I woke to the feeling of an arm round my waist and fingers in my hair. I smiled to myself. It had only been one night, a couple of hours really, but I’d missed it, holding her until we woke up.

‘What is it with you and my hair? You can’t leave it alone.’

‘It’s always sticking up all over the place when you wake up. I like smoothing it down.’

‘What time is it?’

‘About five.’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, C, please let me go back to sleep, it’s unnatural to be awake in the middle of the night.’

‘Look around you, Matt, open your ears. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and that doesn’t happen in the middle of the night, however grumpy you are about it.’

Sighing, but not too hard, having a feeling there might be some make-up sex on the cards, I turned over. It was pretty bright in the conservatory, and Carrie’s blue eyes were lit up like sapphires.

‘Whoa. Do you know how breathtaking your eyes are?’

‘Why don’t you tell me?’

She carried on stroking my hair.

‘Your eyes are the colour of a cloudless summer sky.’

She kissed me on the lips, lightly.

‘Your eyes sparkle like the most brilliant diamonds.’

She kissed me again, pressing her mouth harder against mine.

‘I could swim in your eyes, they are like deep pools of pure ocean.’

Another kiss, this time prolonged and with a tongue flicking along my top lip.

‘I am enamoured of the way your eyes change colour when you’re impassioned – when you’re arguing or angry or just about to come.’

The next kiss took me by surprise with its ferocity.

Carrie forced my mouth open with her tongue and thrust it inside my mouth, pressing her body against mine at the same time. I heard and felt her moan into me.

‘If your incredible eyes were a painting, they would be the Mona Lisa, because they are full of emotion, but also full of mystery, and no money could buy their beauty.’

Carrie launched herself at me, pushing me onto my back, straddling me, grinding her hips into mine. I was taken aback at first, and could feel my swollen elbow protesting a little at the rough treatment, but quickly got over myself and relaxed into the moment.

I stretched my hands out, tucking them under Carrie’s short top, and tugged it upwards, reaching for her breasts. She arched her back, moving teasingly away from my fingers, but pulled her shirt over her head at the same time and I lay there and stared at her, pinned by her thighs. She slowly bent forwards again, strands of hair tickling my chest and face, and I reached for her breasts again, pushing them together and rubbing my thumbs over her nipples, feeling them pucker and grow hard under my touch.

Iz

Now, you may be wondering why there is no PG rating on this bit, and I admit I nearly gave it one fnah fnah, but my big bro was on hand to make sure that, this time, it wasn’t needed. You’ll see.

Matt

Carrie bent lower and placed her lips on mine, crushing into me, her tongue on a search for buried treasure. She rubbed her crotch against mine, so hard that I could feel her wetness soaking into my boxers. I could feel every movement of her slowly undulating dance along the length of my erection, as she fizzed and bubbled into my core. I reached up to her knickers and hooked my thumbs into the waistband, starting to edge them down …

‘Uncle Matty why are you fighting with Carrie.’

Shit.’ I pushed Carrie to the side and pulled the duvet back on top of us. ‘How long have you been standing there, Cal?’

‘I don’t know. Have you stopped fighting?’

I looked at Carrie, my sincerest apology in my eyes. She seemed more amused than anything, but these days I was never sure how she was going to react to anything.

‘Yeah, you interrupted us. We were having a really good fight until you came along. You should knock before you go into someone’s bedroom.’

‘But this isn’t your bedroom, it’s the concertree.’

Despite my annoyance, I smiled at his mispronunciation.

‘While we’re here, it’s our bedroom, and you should knock.’

And I was going to make sure Beth showed me how to lock the bloody door from the inside before tonight. Cal came further into the room and stood by the bed.

‘Mummy and Daddy don’t say I should knock.’

‘Don’t they? Do they lock their door?’

‘Yes, but I try the handle and they let me in. Dec doesn’t say I should knock.’

‘Is Dec ever awake when you go in his room?’

‘No, he’s always asleep.’

And I rest my case, your honour. Lock, pronto, before small children are blinded by sights they shouldn’t be seeing for at least another decade.

‘Uncle Matty, can you get my breakfast?’

‘Cal, it’s really early in the morning. Maybe you should just go back to bed.’

‘But I want some Weeties.’

‘Well go and jiggle Daddy’s door handle then.’

‘But he says go back to bed.’

‘Yeah, like I just did. Go on. I’ll get you some Weeties later, when we’ve all had a bit more sleep.’

‘But I want to play with someone.’

I bit back the ‘so do I’ that Cal could only interpret as an invitation without a lot of explanation, and tried being parental.

‘Sorry, Cal it’s too early. You’ll have plenty of people to play with at school, won’t you?’

‘It’s Romans today.’

‘What?’

‘We’re learning about Romans. We’ve got to take a sword and wear clothes like Romans.’

I was beginning to despair of ever escaping from Cal’s never-ending chatter, and was only vaguely aware of Carrie pulling on her shirt under the duvet.

‘That’s great, Cal, tell me all about it when you get home, but –’

‘Come on Cal. I’ll get your Weeties, then you can go back to bed until Mummy and Daddy get up.’

And she let Cal lead her out of the room and into the house, where she was gone for a few minutes before returning, a smug smile on her face. She closed the door and did something with the handle.

‘That should sort it.’

‘What?’

‘I locked the door. He won’t be doing that again in a hurry. Bloody hellfire, Matt, he nearly scared me to death.’

‘Me too. I hope he didn’t see too muhch.’

‘If he’d been a few minutes later, he’d have seen everything.’

‘Oh really? What, like this?’

I pulled her onto the bed and pulled her shirt over her head.

‘I think he already saw that. I meant this.’

She reached under the duvet, feeling her way to my boxers, pushed the duvet aside and pulled my boxers down.

‘Hm, glad to see you’re still interested.’

‘Always, always interested, C.’

‘Care to prove it?’

‘Yep.’

And I believe I did, over the course of the next little while, prove it rather well, particularly if Carrie’s muted yet enthusiastic utterances were a measure of my success.

The next few days were a strange mixture of light and shade. I think I was trying too hard to recapture the week we’d spent in Devon before, and although we had tender moments, we also annoyed each other and bickered. I was worried about Carrie. Something seemed to have changed in her, some kind of inner drive had left her, something I couldn’t put my finger on. She tried her best, joined in, chatted, had fun, but there was a forcedness about it that I sensed.

One afternoon, when Cal had appropriated Carrie to play outside with him, I was helping Beth make a salad for tea. In the middle of chopping some celery, she put her knife down and looked at me with her direct gaze. I braced myself for some interference.

‘How are you Matty?’

Not quite what I’d expected. Maybe she was taking the scenic route.

‘I’m fine. Great.’

‘So what’s this limp about then?’

‘What limp?’

‘You’re kind of dragging your right foot when you walk.’

What was this now? I did not drag my foot, I walked perfectly fine.

‘I am not.’

‘Have you tripped over more than usual recently?’

Wait, what was this? I mean, yeah, I’d fallen over when I arrived, but my elbow was fine now, just a bit of a bruise, nothing to go all Nurse Beth over.

‘Yeah, actually, a bit, but I’ve been tired. I had an insanely busy time at work a few weeks ago, doing silly hours seven days a week, and I just got exhausted. I’ve been a bit off colour since, but it’s getting better.’

‘Is it?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Any double vision or anything?’

‘Yeah, but I’ve been tired.’

‘Dropped anything? Difficulty speaking?’

‘Beth, what in the name of fuckery are you getting at?’

She was freaking me out by knowing things I hadn’t told anyone, even Carrie about, like my vision, and the speaking, which was really only the very occasional, extremely slight slur of the odd word. Because I was tired.

‘I think you should see your GP about it.’

Now I was scared. Beth obviously had an hypothesis, she’d worked in some full on places when she was a nurse.

‘Why? What do you think I’ve got?’

‘I just think you should get yourself checked out. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself properly. If you have exhausted yourself, or got run down, maybe you should find out how to stop it happening again. How have you been sleeping?’

Ha, well there was something she didn’t have on me.

‘Like the dead. Better than usual, more than usual. Carrie has to use all sorts of interesting methods to wake me up.’

Beth nodded to herself.

‘Will you go to your GP? For me?’

I rolled my eyes. ‘OK, if ih will shut you up, fine.’

‘Promise, Matty?’

‘I promise faithfully.’ I raised three fingers in the Scout sign. ‘Dib dib dib.’

‘Thank you.’

And that was the end of it, for the time being. Beth didn’t mention it again, and I certainly didn’t, but when I paid attention to the way I was walking, it did seem different. I was a bit uncoordinated too. The double vision came and went. I pushed it to the back of my mind for the rest of our time in Devon, and when we got home I forgot about making an appointment.

*

It was about a week later. We’d been home since Thursday, had enjoyed a long weekend, visited Mum and caught her up with Jay’s family gossip, and I’d been back at work a couple of days, when I got a text from Beth.

‘Any news from GP?’

Oh the appointment I was going to make. I’d forgotten all about it. On purpose.

‘No, haven’t been yet.’

‘When is appt?’

‘Not made one.’

If she was determined to nag, I was going to make her work hard for it.

‘U promised.’

Yes I had. Oh well, Matt, just do it and she’ll stop.

‘Doing it now.’

I called the surgery.

‘Tues 5.30 OK? Back off now xx’

‘Call me Tues then.’

‘Yes, mum.’

*

I got back in my car at the GP surgery, feeling like my legs were no longer attached to my body. I looked at the information leaflet in my hand like it was going to bite me, which in a way it already had. ‘Multiple Sclerosis’ it said. What the fuck? Oh, my GP didn’t say I had it, she just said she would refer me to a neurologist to get it checked out, but as soon as I told her about the tiredness, the vision, the talking, the dropping things and the tripping, something clicked behind her eyes, and her expression became serious. She said other stuff, but I didn’t hear her, couldn’t listen, as all I could think to myself was ‘fuck no, fuck no, fuck no, that’s a really serious thing, it’s really fucking huge, I’m just tired, tell Beth I’m just tired, don’t tell her I’ve got this fucking huge thing in me, in my head, because I’m just tired, that’s all.’

I don’t know how I got home, parked the car, made it up the stairs, put the key in the lock. There must be some kind of super-autopilot in the brain for situations when life deals its major showers of shit. I opened the door and stood there, swaying. Carrie was sitting on the sofa.

‘Hey babe.’

‘What did you call me?’

‘Er … babe.’

‘You never called me that before.’

She used to call him babe. I didn’t want her to think I was like him at all, ever.

‘Sorry. Won’t happen again if it gets that kind of response. What’s the matter with you? Have you been drinking?’

This struck me as amusing, because I’d been so far from drinking, but now it seemed like a very good idea indeed, so I laughed, but had to stop because it came out almost like a sob.

‘No. I’ve been to the doctor’s. But I could use a beer or two.’

‘Matt, come and sit down, you look a bit weird, and a bit wobbly. Why did you go to the doctor’s.’

Best tell the truth.

‘Because Beth made me.’

Yep, that was the truth.

‘What? When?’

‘I promised her.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I’m feeling tihred and shit. Dropping stuff. Can’t see sometimes.’

‘But isn’t that because you are tired? It isn’t long since you had all that work on, you weren’t getting much sleep, it’s not surprising it’s taken you a while to get back to normal.’

‘That’s what I told the doctor, but she gave me this.’

I handed Carrie the leaflet. It was bent and creased from me screwing it up, ready to throw it away, but changing my mind at the last minute. Carrie read the title, and I saw fear in her eyes for a split second, and then all expression was wiped from her face.

‘Multiple Sclerosis? I don’t really know what that is. Is it some kind of cancer?’

‘No, C. I don’t really know what the fuck it is either, but it’s something to do with nerves, and if I’ve fucking got it, I’m going to end up in a fucking wheelchair.’

‘Oh Matt. Come and sit down.’

I didn’t want to go and sit down. I wanted her to come to me, for once. I wanted this to be on my terms, for once. I needed some control, for once. I was tired of always being the one who gave in, who always gave up control, who never got my way. Right now, I needed it, needed to be the needy one.

‘Can’t you come here? I’m freaking out, C.’

She stood up and walked over, took my cheeks in her hands and looked into my eyes.

‘It’ll be OK, Matt.’

That was it, the full extent of the comfort she was able to offer. It was only because I grabbed her and put my arms round her and started shaking, trying so, so hard not to cry, that she held me. I didn’t know where she’d gone, my Carrie, my C, the girl I’d do anything for, who I’d thought would do anything for me; she was so far away that she wouldn’t even hug me when I told her I had this fucking huge thing in my head, and it hurt me, it hurt me more than anything. It felt like my C had gone somewhere, without me.

Inevitably, Beth interrupted our moment. I recognised her ringtone, chuntering away in my pocket. I wanted to ignore it, but Carrie chose to use it to break our embrace.

‘You should answer that, you know you’ll get no peace until you talk to her.’

She reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone, pressing the screen and answering for me.

‘Hi Beth. He’s just here.’

She handed me the phone and went back to the sofa.

I put the phone to my ear and walked to the bedroom, closing the door behind me. I sunk to the bed.

‘Hey.’

‘Hi Matty, just wondering what the GP said.’

‘You know what she fucking said, don’t you.’

‘Would you like to tell me?’

‘Wha’s the point?’

‘Matty, please tell me what your doctor said.’

‘She said blah blah here’s a leaflet, blah blah neurologist, blah blah fucking blah. That’s about as much as I could take in with the headline news on the fucking leaflet screaming at me.’

‘What headline news?’

‘Why do you want me to say it? You already know.’

‘I wonder if maybe you’re having trouble admitting it to yourself.’

‘Piss off Beth, I don’t need your pop psychology right now.’

‘What do you need, then, sweetheart?’

‘I need –’ I didn’t know what I needed. Things I wasn’t getting. I needed my girl to be here with me, feeling this with me, not sitting on the fucking sofa watching the fucking TV, for a start, ‘– I need you to leave me the fuck alone and stop fucking telling me what to do, is what I need.’

‘Alright Matty. I’m sorry you’re so upset. You know I’m here if you need anything, anything at all. Please call me, anytime.’

I disconnected without saying goodbye, rolled over onto the bed and lay staring at the curtains. I lay there for a long time, watching the room grow dark, listening to the small signs of life going on in the living room. My mind had switched itself off; I couldn’t think, I couldn’t feel. I was numb from the top of my head down. So I just lay and watched the darkness come.

Eventually I felt Carrie come in, undress and get into bed. I was still lying on top of the duvet, but I felt her arm go round my waist, and then she hitched herself closer until she was moulded to me, her front to my back, and then I couldn’t take it any more and I turned over with a sob and reached for her and clung to her like a drowning man clinging to a life-raft. I could feel it leaking air, knew it wasn’t going to keep me afloat for long, but it was going to keep me going for tonight, and so I held on.

When I woke up the next day, it was to my phone ringing. Carrie was gone, it was day, it felt late. I grabbed the phone, checking the time as I checked the caller. It was ten o’clock, and it was work calling to find out why I had missed my nine thirty. I told them I’d overslept as I’d been ill the night before, and wasn’t going to make it in, then asked them to cancel my appointments for the rest of the week. I still felt numb, but I needed to make a plan, I couldn’t deal with being in this state of knowing but not knowing. I didn’t want to go there, didn’t even want to say the name of the bloody thing, but somehow I needed to put my life back together. I really couldn’t remember much that the doctor had told me, and I didn’t know how to rectify that. Maybe Beth … I remembered bits of last night’s conversation with Beth. I had been pretty rude to her and I doubted she’d be that willing to help me. As if summoned, my phone pinged with a text. It was Beth. Thank fuck for interfering sisters-in-law who don’t take your strops either literally or personally.

‘Hi Matty. How r u this morning?’

‘Shit. Thanks for asking tho.’

So she was still speaking to me. This is where I needed to apologise. Come on Matt, it’s only a text, it’s not admissible in court.

‘Sorry abt last nite.’

‘No problem. Any time u need someone to curse at ;)’

‘Can I call u now?’

‘To curse?’

‘To talk.’

‘Of course.’

‘Hey.’

‘Oh Matty.’

‘Yeah, don’t Beth. You asked what I needed. I need businesslike. I need sensible.’

‘OK, sweetheart. Businesslike and sensible it is. What else do you need.’

‘I can’t remember what the doctor said yesterday, apart from I might have …’

I really couldn’t make myself say the words. Something froze them in my throat, nearly choking me.

‘That it might be something serious, and she gave meh a leaflet.’

‘Matty, did she say Multiple Sclerosis?’

‘Mm.’

‘OK. Can you remember anything else she said?’

‘Only that she needed me to see a neurologist to get it checked out, but I can’t remember if she said how that happens, or how long, or what they do there. I need to know, Beth, it’s sending me crazy, knowing but not knowing. How can I find out?’

‘Did you say you had a leaflet?’

‘Yeah, I don’t know where I’ve put it.’

‘Well the easiest way is to go back to your GP, then, get another one, and at the same time ask her to repeat what she said.’

‘I won’t be able to get an appointment for a few days, they’re always booked to the hilt. I need to know soon, before I go mad.’

‘OK, well see how soon you can get in, and in the mean time, I can tell you in general terms what happens, but it might not apply up there, so you can’t take it as gospel. I used to work on a Neurology ward, but some of this might be a bit out of date. Usually your GP will refer to a neurologist, you won’t have to do it yourself. You’ll be sent an appointment, in a few weeks time, and you’ll have a consultation. They’ll check your symptoms, but that doesn’t diagnose you. You sometimes have an MRI, and that can be conclusive, or it might not. Sometimes you have to have another relapse before they can diagnose you, sometimes with another MRI.’

‘Beth, are you telling me it might be months before I know for sure? I’m going have this hanging over me for months?’

‘I’m sorry sweetheart, but it might be. It could be longer. Brains are difficult things to get a true picture of. But it could be sooner. Have you told Carrie?’

‘Yeah.’

‘How did she take it?’

Like I’d told her I had an ingrowing toenail, which I should pretty much stop whining about.

‘Oh, pretty well. She’s gone off …’ who the fuck knows where ‘… to work this morning, I won’t see her till later.’

‘At least you’ve got each other, Matty. You’ve supported her so much in the past, I bet she’ll be pleased to be able to repay you a bit.’

‘Yeah. So. Thanks for that, Beth. I’ll make another appointment with the doc, and wait to see if I get to see a neurologist any time soon.’

‘Take someone with you to the GP, so they can listen if you get upset again. Take Carrie. One of you can write things down, and you can take a list of questions.’

‘I think I shouhd be taking you.’

‘Oh, that’s a brilliant idea, Matty, couldn’t you have your phone on and do that FaceTime thing you do with Cal?’

‘Genius, why didn’t I think of that?’

‘Because you’re not me, who always thinks of everything.’

‘Thanks for always thinking of everything Beth.’

‘You’re welcome, sweetheart. Call me any time, day or night. Bye, Matty.’

She disconnected and I realised I felt better. Still shit, but slightly more positive about the shit, thinking there were things I could be doing. I called the surgery, made a fuss and got an appointment for the next day. I texted Beth to make sure she would be around with Jay’s iPhone for a FaceTime. I had a shower, I got dressed. I cleared up the flat.

I was always amazed at how much mess Carrie could cause in the few hours I was at work. There were plates and cups scattered around, books open on their fronts with the pages bent, a half eaten packet of biscuits spilling crumbs on the floor, the remote control for the TV in danger of slipping down the side of the sofa, the sofa throws skewed and crumpled, two pairs of trainers in the middle of the floor. I tidied it all up, put the dishwasher on and opened the lid of the bin to put some half-eaten toast inside.

The bin was full, and on top was the leaflet shouting ‘Multiple Sclerosis’ at me. I hadn’t put it there. Carrie, who never tidied up, never threw stuff away, had deliberately put important information about my health in the bin with the banana skins and teabags. I picked the leaflet out and unfurled it on the counter, trying to smooth out the creases so it wouldn’t dry stuck together and I would stand a chance of being able to read between the tea stains later.

I texted her.

‘Where r u?’

‘With friends.’

‘Come home? Need 2 talk.’

‘Rnt u @ work?’

‘Took day off. Can u come?’

‘Can’t right now. Soon as I can. Everything OK?’

‘No.’

‘OK, be there asap.’

I sat and waited. I waited for two hours. What was going on? It was like Carrie was a different person, like over the last few weeks she’d undergone some kind of personality transformation. I couldn’t believe she could stay out for two hours after I’d asked her to come home and said I wasn’t OK, when the previous night I’d announced I might have a life-changing disease.

Eventually I heard the door open and Carrie peered in as if she was expecting a large animal to jump out at her. Her eyes rested on me, sitting on the sofa, and she didn’t seem much more pleased to see me than she would have a snarling tiger.

‘Hey babe.’

Again with the babe.

‘Please don’t call me tha.’

‘OK, chill. Is everything alright?’

‘No, C, I don’t think it is. Come and sit, down? Please?’

‘OK.’

She spent a fair amount of time faffing about putting her bag down, taking her jacket off, fiddling with her hair, before she finally came over and sat down next to me. I noticed she sat as far away from me as our tiny sofa would allow. I remembered not so long ago, when its tinyness had meant we were always crammed up against each other, and that was always a good thing.

‘Where have you been?’

‘With friends.’

I didn’t want this to be one of those conversations that ended in Carrie screaming ‘don’t you trust me’ at me, as seemed to have happened a few too many times recently, so I let that one go, as she obviously wasn’t going to elaborate.

‘Why did you take so long to get here?’

‘I was helping someone out, I couldn’t leave in the middle of it.’

‘I needed you.’

‘The world doesn’t always revolve around you Matt.’

I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that, in fact, this particular world never revolved around me, but I chose not to mention it at this point.

‘Anyway, I’m here now.’

‘Why did you throw my leaflet away?’

‘Tell me you didn’t make me come home to ask me that.

‘I didn’t make you come home, I asked you. I said I needed to talk to you, I said I wasn’t OK. And yeh, it’s one of the things I want to talk to you about.’

‘What else, then?’

‘You haven’t answered the first one yet.’

‘What, about the leaflet? It was on the floor, all screwed up, I thought it was rubbish.’

It felt like a lie; she hadn’t been that bothered about all the other things she’d left on the floor that she could have thrown away. It was the first time I had ever been aware of her lying to me.

‘It’s an important leaflet about the …’ the words were hard to say, but I fought against my compulsion to prevaricate, ‘… condition I might have, with information I’m going to find helpful as I try to work out what the fuck to do about it.’

‘Why are you talking to me like I’m a child? I know what a leaflet is.’

I could see I wasn’t getting anywhere. Sitting here looking at her as she bullshitted her way through whatever it was that was going on for her was breaking me. I didn’t have the strength to pull it out of her at that moment; I needed to get to the heart of things for me.

‘C, the next few weeks and months are going to be pretty difficult for me. I can’t do it on my own.’

And there it was again, that flash of fear, covered immediately by the poker face, the one that was giving nothing away.

‘I know Matt. I’ll be here for you. I am here for you. Whatever you need.’

‘I just need you.’

‘I know. I just said, I’ll be here. We’ve got all our friends too –’

‘I don’t want any of them to know, not yet, it’s not definite, until I’ve had tests and things.’

‘Oh, well there you go then, it’ll be alright, won’t it. You’ll be fine, Matt.’

I sighed. It was just how she’d been last night, in some sort of denial.

‘C, I won’t beh fine. I’m already not fine. I need to see another doctor, but I know there’s something wrong.’

I couldn’t believe I was having to talk her into this. I would be happier flying along with her on her fantastic journey, but it couldn’t happen. And maybe I’d had my moments of having my head in the sand, and perhaps I should allow her a few too, but I couldn’t, I needed her with me.

‘Until you know for definite, you should stay positive. Don’t think yourself into something bad.’

I admitted defeat to myself. Maybe what Carrie needed was time. She was obviously more freaked out than I was, she didn’t deal well with bad news, needed me to help her see the plans A, B and C, and when I was all at sea, she had no anchor. So perhaps once I got my head round things a little, I could help us plan our way through it.

‘Yeah, you’re right. Think positive. Always a good plan.’

She beamed. ‘See? Feeling better already, I bet. Have you done any lunch? I’m starving.’

*

I struggled my way to the weekend. At times, I almost forgot I might have a ‘deteriorating neurological condition’, as the leaflet I’d managed to read a paragraph of before I could read no more put it. At other times it was all I could think about, paralysing me as I imagined my possible future as a wheelchair-bound dribbling shell of a man, old before my time and object of pity, as the leaflet probably hadn’t put it, but I couldn’t look at it to find out.

I didn’t see much of Carrie, who was busy with classes most evenings, and spent her days being out ‘helping friends’ in some mysterious way that she was never happy to discuss but I assumed might involve a lot of sitting round complaining about what bastards men were. I never questioned Carrie too closely about where she was, never asked if I could go with her, never wanted to be that man who controlled her movements, so a lot of the time I had no idea where she was or what she was doing, and had made my peace with the freedom it gave Carrie, but it also meant that Carrie was becoming a closed book to me.

So I didn’t have a chance to talk to her much about anything, let alone something huge like this, and I kept it to myself, telling myself it was until I knew for sure, then we’d have a night in, do a lot of talking, sort something out. I got an appointment with a neurologist, only a week away, which I was surprised at.

I attended the appointment and was referred for an MRI. It was explained that while the MRI might confirm the presence of the dreaded disease, it also might not, and it could then be a while before a definitive diagnosis could be made. In the meantime, my traitorous body continued its underhanded mission by tripping me over, making me drop things, slurring my words and blurring my vision.

Finally, I’d had my MRI, and the GP had contacted me to say the results were in. She wouldn’t tell me over the phone, not a yes or no, not a hint. I had to drive all the way over there. I asked Carrie to come, and she said she would, but when it was time to leave, she wasn’t there, and I had to go without her.

*

So that was it. I had multiple sclerosis. MS. No shadow of a doubt. I sat and felt myself disappearing from the small room where my doctor had just removed all hope I was ever going to have a normal life again. I felt the edges of me blur, as my being expanded and floated off, coming apart.

‘Matt. Matt. Here, have some water.’

I came back together in a rush, and felt dizzy and sick. I took the glass, but my hand was shaking so much I couldn’t drink, and I put it down before I dropped it.

‘Is there anyone with you, in the waiting room?’

‘No. My girlfriend was … she couhn’t come.’

‘You didn’t drive here, did you?’

I nodded.

‘Is there someone who can come and get you? Maybe your girlfriend, if you explained?’

‘She doesn’t drive.’

It was part of Carrie. She didn’t drive, because Martin hadn’t let her learn, so he could keep her there, yadiyadiya, but the doctor didn’t need to know that.

‘Friends? Family?’

None of them, even Mum, knew what was going on with me; I didn’t want to involve them in the uncertainty, felt it would be better to say once I knew.

‘I don’t think you should drive, Matt. Have you got enough money for a taxi?’

I wondered, for a brief moment, what she would do if I said no. Would she rummage in her purse for a twenty? Would she call for an ambulance? Would she lend me one of those little mobility scooters?

‘Yeah. I’ll do that.’

‘You’re not going to be on your own at home are you?’

‘Only until she gets back.’

Although who knew when that was going to be these days.

‘Take care of yourself Matt. I’m sorry it’s not better news. Come and see me again in a couple of months, so we can give you a check up.’

Half way home in the taxi, I changed my mind. I didn’t need to be at home in my flat, on my own, trying not to be miserable, wondering what time my girlfriend was going to be home. I needed my mum. I had tried to shield her from this, but she was going to know sooner or later, and now I was certain, there was little point putting it off. And I so needed her, I so, so needed her.

As I pulled up outside her house, the house where I’d grown up and which she had kept pretty much the same since Jay and I were little, uPVC double glazing and the odd coat of paint aside, I knew I’d done the right thing. On the way, in the back of the taxi, I’d texted Carrie.

‘Sorry u couldn’t make it. Turns out I have got it.’

I left it at that. She hadn’t even called or texted to say she wasn’t coming to the GP with me, and for the first time I wondered how I was going to break up with her. Not if, not should I, but how. The thought shocked me to my core. I recoiled from it. Carrie was my girl, the love of my life, my heart, my soul. I didn’t think I could physically do it, say the words, write the note, send the text. Whatever had gone wrong between the two of us, I just had to fix it. But at least here, in the place I called home when all else failed, I would find acceptance and love and a safe place to show my feelings, if it came to that.

‘Matthew! Come in, dear. Would you like some tea? The kettle’s on.’

The kettle was always on here, it must have been hardwired to the front doorbell or something. I think, if the world was ending in five seconds, Mum would still greet anyone with a cheery, ‘Hello dear, come in, the kettle’s on, let’s go and wait in the kitchen.’

‘Hi Mum.’

‘It’s lovely to see you, dear, you haven’t been round for a while.’

It wasn’t a criticism. Mum never complained if I didn’t go and see her, although I tried to call in on my way home from work at least once a week. It was a question. I hadn’t been to see her recently because Mum always knew when something was up, and I always ended up telling her what it was, and I hadn’t wanted to tell her about this, not until I was sure. So I’d texted and had short phone calls, but that had been it for the past few weeks.

‘No, sorry, had a lot on.’

We made it to the kitchen where, indeed, the kettle was on, the lid of the teapot was off, and it looked like a ‘nice cup of tea’ was on the go.

‘You look a bit peaky, dear.’

‘Do I? Yeah, well, not at my best jus at the moment.’

She waited. She had learned, over the years, when she had to ask, and when it was best to wait and let me do things in my own time. It was bloody irritating to have someone know you so well, but I bloody loved her for it too.

I’d tried different ways of telling her, on the way here, but all of them involved using the words, or the initials, same initials as me in a triumph of irony; I was still having trouble spitting it out. So I just handed over the leaflet, the new one the doctor had just given me. Mum looked at it, and the green words that told her, and a deep sadness filled her face.

‘Oh Matthew.’

She was the only one, the only person in this world, I would let get away with sympathy. Those two words were all it took to bring me to my knees. I literally fell forwards with the effort of not breaking down. She was beside me, her arms round me, pulling me towards her, folding me up, taking me to that safe place, my own safe-house, where for a few minutes it was alright, nothing mattered, because my mum was going to make it better.

I didn’t cry. I was feeling too emotional, and I knew if I started, I had too much bottled up, and I might not stop. So I held on to my mum and stuffed it all back down, taking strength from her. I took some ragged deep breaths, and looked up at her.

‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t be so daft, Matthew. Go and sit down, I’ll bring the tea through.’

I stood up, and had to help Mum up, who didn’t spend much time on the floor these days. I offered to carry the tea in, but she showed me a new trolley with wheels that she’d got.

‘Beth told me about them, and I went to that little disability shop in town, and ordered one. It’s been such a help.’

Beth had been busy organising the Stafford branch of the Scott family, it seemed. I wondered if she’d said anything to Mum about me; it seemed possible. She was always telling me when Mum seemed a bit off colour.

‘Did Beth tell you about me?’

Mum looked at me, surprised.

‘No dear. Did she know?’

‘She was the one who made me go to the doctor’s, weeks ago, after we were down there.’

‘No, she hasn’t mentioned it.’

Well bloody hell, Beth could keep shit to herself without being asked. Miracles happened.

‘Go and sit down, dear, I want to show you how this works.’

I sat on the sofa, and watched as Mum came in with a teapot, two cups and a packet of biscuits on her trolley. I gave her a round of applause.

‘That looks really useful. I might be borrowing ih soon.’

The sadness crossed Mum’s face again.

‘Oh Matthew, tell me what it means, I don’t know much about all this multiple sclerosis. It’s a bit of a mouthful isn’t it?’

‘You can just say the initials. It’s what all the cool kids are doing.’

‘How long have you known? You said Beth talked to you about it when you were in Devon?’

‘She noticed I was walking funny, asked me some questions, bullied me into getting it checked out. The doctor, I think she knew straight away, but I’ve had to arse about with a different doctor and an MRI scan.’

‘So when did you actually know?’

‘I’ve just come from the doctor’s.’

‘What, just now?’

I nodded.

‘Well shouldn’t you be at home, with Carrie?’

I looked down. Yeah, I should be at home with Carrie.

‘She’s out. I thought I’d come here for a bit of tea and sympathy.’

A frown dented her forehead briefly.

‘Oh. Well of course, dear, where else would you go?’

‘To be honest, I’m not coping very well with it all, I could use …’ someone to tell me what to do, my life’s turned to shit, I feel like I’m falling into a deep dark hole, ‘… a big cup of tea and lots of chocolate biscuits.’

Mum, as ever, was just great. She didn’t push it, she didn’t badger me for details, she asked a few questions, made a few suggestions, and before I knew it, I had a plan, at least for today; a mental list of things I needed to sort. I hadn’t told her, even hinted, at the fuck-up of a relationship that was waiting for me when I got home, but we talked about work, about life in general, and she got me to face things, little by little. Oh, I was still in shock, I still would have torn my right arm off if someone had offered me my old life back in exchange for it, but things, immediate things, seemed a bit more manageable.

On the way back to fetch my car from the surgery, in another taxi, I called work and arranged to see my manager in the morning. I called the number on the back of the leaflet and made an appointment to see someone called Maggie. I called Carrie’s mobile and the flat, but her mobile went to voicemail and there was no reply at the flat.

Pulling up in the street outside, I could see a light on in our living room. Carrie must be home. I locked the car and hurried up the stairs. Despite my brief flirtation with ending things, the thought of seeing her gave me a little thrill of anticipation, as it always did. My footsteps slowed as I reached the front door, and I wondered what kind of mood she was going to be in. It seemed hard to predict these days. I put my key in the lock and opened the door, and I heard the TV go off as I walked in.

Carrie was sitting on the sofa, watching me come in. I put my keys on the tiny dining table and sat on one of the chairs.

‘Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick.’

‘At my mum’s. You couhd have called.’

‘So could you.’

‘I needed someone to talk to. It’s been a bit of a fucking nightmare of a day.’

What with the having it officially confirmed that I have a life-destroying neurological condition just this afternoon.

‘I came back when I got your text.’

‘I didn’t know that. I tried to ring just now, there was no answer on your mobile, or here.’

‘I didn’t want to answer the phone, in case you rang and I was talking to someone else.’

The Mobius logic of that tied my brain into knots, and I couldn’t sort it out. And she still wasn’t saying it, ‘how are you, what do you need, how can I be here for you’.

‘So I went to the doctor’s on my own.’

‘How did it go?’

‘You said you got my text.’

‘Yeah.’

‘That’s how it went.’

I was finding it hard to contain my growing rage. She seemed so indifferent to it all, to this fucking huge, life-altering thing that was happening inside me. I would have taken sympathy, even pity, I was that desperate for something that told me she cared.

‘So what happens now?’

‘What happens? My nerves gradually shrivel up and I end up needing someone to wipe my arse and shovel food in me. Or maybe nothing. Haven’t worked it all out yet.’

I thought she flinched, when I said I’d need someone to wipe my arse. I had no idea if it was true, I’d barely been able to face the potential implications myself. I was lashing out with the worst case I could imagine, in the hope of making her react.

‘I meant what do we do?’

I don’t know, Carrie, you tell me. I can’t work this out on my own, you have to give me something to work with.

‘What do you think we should do?’

She didn’t answer, just shook her head, and looked at the clock.

‘I’ve got to go, my class starts in half an hour.’

‘Please dohnt go.’

I need you, I need you, I need you.

‘I’ve got to, I can’t cancel this late.’

‘Say you’re ill. No one wants a class where teacher’s got the runs. Say that.’

‘I can’t, I’d be letting all those people down.’

You’d be letting me down. Don’t I come first, just this once?

‘Please?’

‘I can’t. I’ll be back later, we’ll talk then.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. I’m sorry I’ve been a bit …’ she waved her hand around vaguely, ‘… about all this, it’s been a lot to take in. Talk later, really talk, yeah?’

She walked over to me, ruffled my hair and kissed me on the cheek, and I watched as she walked out and shut the door behind her.

I clung on to her last few words, allowing them to wipe out the disinterest she’d shown since I got home. It would have been a lot for her handle. If we could just talk, really talk, like she’d promised, we could work it out, find where things had gone wrong, put them right, get back to how things were, being together, there for each other. Even as I convinced myself, part of me held back, not believing. Part of me was still wondering how or when, not if, I was going to break up with her.

I texted Beth as I made myself some dinner, not really feeling like a conversation with her.

‘MRI results say yes :(‘

‘Oh Matty. Do u want 2 talk?’

‘No thx.’

‘R u OK?’

‘Not really. Saw mum b4. Sorted a few things.’

‘R u with Carrie?’

‘No, home alone making pasta. She’ll b back l8r.’

‘U no where I am.’

‘Thx.’

I ate my pasta, although I had no appetite and it felt like ashes in my mouth. Carrie came home, and we talked, really talked, more than I could remember us talking for a long time. We went to bed and she held me, and I told her how scared I was, how uncertain the future was, how much I hoped nothing much would change, but how terrified I was that everything would change. She held me in her arms, and smoothed my hair, and rubbed my back, and told me she’d been scared too, of the same things, and how she wasn’t good at bad news, but she wanted to help me, she was going to be there, always. And I relaxed. I felt safe, finally, knowing that we could do this together, me and Carrie, whatever happened we’d be together.

The next day when I woke up, she was gone. But that was OK, because she was often gone, she was busy, she had work, she had friends, she had people she helped. She’d left a note on her pillow:

Hey!

Out, but back later. Keep smiling!

C xx

It was more than she’d done before, and the note bolstered me through my day. I put it in my pocket, and smiled every time I touched it, as I got my keys or felt for change.

I saw my manager mid-morning, giving him brief details, gritting my teeth to say the words. Firstly, I asked him to keep my condition confidential from everyone at work, while I got my head round it. Then we agreed that I would reduce my hours, temporarily, so that there was no chance that over-tiredness would make things worse. To start with, I would halve my hours, doing fewer, shorter days, and we would review it in a month. I wasn’t sure I was keen on halving my pay, but I had saved a lot by Carrie not allowing me to spend it; it was a big enough cushion for contingencies.

And I suddenly saw how I could make things better between Carrie and me. I could do what she’d asked me to, all those weeks ago. I could live on less. It should have occurred to me before, that rather than getting another job, I could just work less in the one I had.

It solved so much, I came home with a lighter heart and cooked Carrie’s favourite meal, ready for when she came home. I couldn’t believe the difference it had made, firstly knowing the stress of work was diminished, and secondly knowing I had a way to fix things with Carrie. Despite the black cloud of the future, I felt like I was bathed in sunshine the whole afternoon.

Carrie came home earlier than I expected, and looked surprised at the evidence of cooking.

‘Hey C. I’ve made your favourite.’

‘Spag bol with a twist?’

‘Spag bol wih a twist.’

‘What’s today’s twist?’

‘You know I never tell. You’ve got to guess.’

‘When’s it ready?’

‘Whenever you are, bol’s all done, just need to put the spag on.’

‘OK, quick shower, and I’ll be there.’

I put the pasta in the boiling water and set the table, jigging a bit to the music that was playing on the iPod.

‘You seem happy.’

I turned to Carrie, who was leaning on the door frame watching me, damp hair curling on her shoulders.

‘I’ve been in to work.’

‘Ah, surrounded by computers again, your natural habitat.’

‘Ha ha, no I didn’t do any work, I went to see my boss.’

I loaded two plates and set them down on the table. Carrie walked over and sat down.

‘What about?’

‘About me being ill.’

‘You’re not ill.’

I looked back at her, astounded.

‘Did you not hear anything I said yesterday?’

She rolled her eyes.

‘Yeah, of course, I get it, you’ve got this thing, but it’s not making you ill right now, is it? You’ve just cooked dinner, you’re chatting away to me. I don’t mean it’s not serious, but all I meant is, take the good days, don’t wish them away saying you’re ill.’

‘Hmm.’

I kind of got what she was saying, but it got in the way of what I was trying to tell her.

‘Anyway, do you remember when we were at Jay and Beth’s, and we had that argument about me earning less and being a traffic warden or some such shit?’

‘Yeah. You’re not going to be a traffic warden are you?’

‘No. But I am going to reduce my hours. As of next week, I’m going part time, half-time actually. You’re right, I don’t really need all the money I earn, it’ll do me good to find out how I manage on a budget. You might even earn more than me in the next few weeks.’

Carrie had stopped eating and put her fork down.

‘But how will we pay for everything?’

‘Wha?’

‘We both need to be earning money, there’s rent, there’s bills, what if we can’t cover it?’

‘But I thought this was what you wanted?’

I was really confused. I’d thought this was going to make her happy, but the look on her face was the opposite of happy. She looked like the world was ending.

‘C, we’ll be fine, I’m not giving up work completely, I’m just trying this out to see if it makes things better for me. I thought it might make things better for us, too. We’ll have more time to be together. I can come and help you in the day.’

I reached out and clasped her hand, linking fingers, trying very hard to ignore the look of panic that crossed her face before she covered it up.

‘We’ve been on different planets the last few weeks, I thought this might make us a bit closer.’

‘Yeah, maybe.’

She didn’t sound convinced, but did at least try a bright smile and go back to eating her dinner.

‘I can’t work it out.’

‘What?’

‘The twist.’

‘Oh. It’s a flavour.’

‘I thought it tasted a bit weird.’

‘Weird good, or weird take this shit away from me and feed it to my mortal enemy?’

‘Just weird.’

She shrugged.

‘Are you giving up? Already?’

Carrie never gave up with the spag bol twist game, even if it came to ransacking the cupboards for the strange things I snuck into it. I spent ages preparing spag bol with a twist night, it was one of my favourite nights, but it didn’t feel reciprocated right now.

‘I don’t know what it is.’

‘Star anise.’

Suddenly, I couldn’t be bothered either, what was the point of a stupid cooking guessing game when we were trying to sort our lives out? When I was trying really hard to find a reason not to think about breaking up with her?

‘Never heard of it.’

‘Ih’s a spice. Shaped like a star.’

‘Oh. Cool. Maybe not again, though?’

‘Noted.’

It kind of put a dampener on the rest of the evening, and we both sat in front of the TV, lost in our own thoughts.

*

The next few weeks, then months went on in a similar vein, with Carrie blowing hot and cold, me trying to get my head round being seriously ill while not feeling much different, both of us treading on eggshells, which was making both of us irritable. We had more arguments than we had ever had before, mostly about paying the bills. It seemed that having less, ‘fitting into our means’, hadn’t been the answer after all, although not spending so much time at work was really helping me, despite finding it hard to come home when I’d done my allotted hours.

I made and cancelled several appointments with Maggie from some support service, never quite summoning the bottle to go and talk to a stranger about it all.

I still saw Mum, she was still a rock. I’d like to say we looked after each other, but at that time she was the one holding me up, offering suggestions and insightful comments. She’d had arthritis for so long, it was a part of her for me, and I was so self-absorbed I wouldn’t have noticed if one of her arms was missing.

About this time, Mum told me Jay and Beth had been having some trouble with Dec, he had moved out and they were worried about him. I didn’t have much time to think about it, if I’m honest, being wrapped up as I was in my own worries. Besides, how old was he now? He must be approaching twenty, surely it wasn’t that strange for someone his age to want a place of his own, somewhere he could be himself with his mates. I assumed Beth was feeling abandoned, assumed she’d get over it, didn’t give it much more thought, and went back to thinking about myself.

I had come back from Mum’s one evening at the beginning of October. I’d had dinner there, as Carrie said she was going to be out for the evening, so didn’t expect her to be there when I got back.

I’d got more and more used to spending my evenings on my own, asleep by the time Carrie got home. But I didn’t expect, when I opened the door to the flat, the certain knowledge, the shiver down my spine, that told me she’d gone. She wasn’t just out, she wasn’t there any more.

I don’t believe in psychic phenomena (even your imaginary psychic granny, Lau), or premonitions, anything like that, total bunkum, but it sliced through me even as I was trying to dismiss it as an open window or some such shit. I felt the blood drain from my face, and as I reached the table and saw the note, my legs buckled under me and I sank into a chair.

Hey Matt

I’m sorry to do this to you like this, but I’m leaving. It’s nothing you’ve done, it’s me. I’m going to live with Martin. He’s changed and he still loves me and I still love him.

Please don’t look for me, you won’t find me.

I wish you all the best, and hope you are better soon.

C

I stared at the note, read it and re-read it, hoping to find the bit where it became clear it was a joke. If it was a joke, it was in really poor taste, and not something we were going to be laughing about any time soon.

I grabbed my phone and dialled her mobile number, but it wouldn’t connect, so I tried again several times, the automated message telling me that the number I had called was currently unavailable getting more and more irksome. Then I saw it, her phone on the table. She’d taken everything else, but left that; the phone hadn’t even rung and a quick check showed that it no longer connected to a network. She had truly left me unable to contact her.

It began to force its way through that it was real. She’d really gone back to that fucking madman, the one who had caused all this in the first place, the one who had fucked our lives up so we never really stood a chance.

My girl was gone. She’d been leaving for months, and I’d chosen to ignore it, but now it made perfect sense. The mysterious friends she’d been helping out – they were him. How could she? After all this time, after all that therapy, after all that … us. How could she do the one thing that would break my heart into more pieces than I could count?

I felt as if I’d been smashed to pulp. My world narrowed to the note on the table, to the tears pricking at the corner of my eyes, and then I stopped holding any of it back. I’d stopped myself from crying for months, so that it wouldn’t be true, how sad I was about everything, so I could be happy for her and tell everyone else, yeah, I’m doing fine, bit under the weather. But now, now there was no point stopping myself.

I put my face in my hands and let it all out, my anguish, my pain, there was no one to see, no one to hear, and I could give vent to how I truly felt, which was as if Carrie Mitcham had cut the living heart out of me with a rusty fish knife and fed it, laughing, to a mangy dog.

I had never experienced such misery; it was palpable, as if I could reach out and touch it. It hovered blackly above me and pressed down on me, as I sobbed and gasped my way into it, embracing it as my new friend.

Eventually, I must have made my way into the bedroom, because I woke up, in the dark, shivering and miserable, the pillow damp, and a throat that felt as if I’d swallowed crushed glass. My friend the black misery was still with me, he wasn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable, but a few coherent thoughts were able to sneak past his defences.

Carrie had said don’t try to find her, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try. If I could talk to her, maybe I could make her see sense – oh I said coherent thoughts, didn’t I? Actually it was more like clutching at the thinnest of straws with the thickest of winter mittens. But anyway, I checked the time. It was the middle of the night, too late to be calling anyone, but first thing in the morning I was going to get on to all our friends, all the people we hadn’t seen in ages as going out was too expensive, and we couldn’t go over for dinner as there wasn’t room to have them back here, all that, but surely they were still our friends? They’d understand, wouldn’t they? And if they had heard from her, they would tell me, so I had to at least try.

I undressed and got into bed, trying not to think about Carrie’s side of the wardrobe, but in the end I couldn’t think about anything else, and I turned the lamp on and got up, flinging the door wide open. It was another knife to my empty chest cavity. Nothing there. All her shoes, clothes, everything. Same with her drawers, and while I was at it and full of the fun of stabbing my soul to the death, I checked out the bathroom for her toiletries and the living room, behind the sofa, for her yoga class stuff. All gone. All telling me she wasn’t coming back. None of it giving me any answers. I wandered miserably back to bed and spent the rest of the night alternately crying and staring into the blackness, holding my pillow as if it was her until it got light outside.

My throat was still sore the next morning, my head pounded, my body ached and my eyes were puffy. I had a raging thirst, and drank a pint of water in one go, before calling all our friends. Every single one went to voicemail. I couldn’t believe it, or understand it. Even Simon, who was surgically attached to his phone and always answered it, even in the middle of a conversation with someone else. So I texted, but that yielded no replies, either. I checked my phone to see if there was something wrong with it. There wasn’t, not that I could find.

As the morning wore on and I waited for text messages that never came, I started to feel decidedly ropey. I thought about my sore throat and headache, which I had put down to my bout of self-pity, but now wondered if I was getting a cold. I dosed myself up with paracetamol and cups of lemon and ginger tea and wrapped myself in one of the throws from the sofa, feeling shivery, and going hot and cold.

Suddenly I woke up and looked at the clock, and I’d been asleep for three hours. I stumbled to bed and wrapped myself in the duvet, promising myself I would do something more productive when I’d stopped feeling like shit. It wasn’t a work day, but if I was still like this tomorrow, there was no way I could go in. I drifted in and out of sleep all day and all night, waking at odd times, needing to drink, needing to pee, then falling back into bed to shiver and go hot and cold.

When I finally woke up properly it was to hear the phone ringing in the lounge, my mobile phone, where I’d left it. I got up too quickly, convinced it was going to be Carrie, not noticing it wasn’t her ringtone, and I crashed headlong into the wardrobe as I stumbled, my feet not taking me where I needed them to. I sat on the floor, stunned, trying to gather my thoughts, whimpering as the phone stopped ringing. The silence at least calmed me down a bit, and I got up slowly, head still spinning, and fumbled my way to the living room, supporting myself on the walls as I went.

I picked up my phone from the sofa, where I’d left it after texting everyone yesterday. The screen showed three texts, which for a moment I thought might be from the friends I’d sent messages to the previous morning, but all turned out to be from work, as was the recent missed call. Fuck – I should have been at work today. I called back and falteringly explained I was feeling lousy, backed up by a gravelly voice, and said that I would be back when I felt better. It was only a cold, I would be better in a few days, I was sure.

But I wasn’t. I got worse. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t do anything, I could hardly feed myself, and in the end, hating myself, I called Mum and asked her to come and look after me for the day. She came over willingly, even though it was a long trip on the bus since she stopped driving. I waited up for her so I could let her in.

‘Matthew, you look terrible.’

‘Better than I fehl, then.’

‘Oh, dear, go to bed, I’ll make some soup.’

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘Did I say you were? Soup will do you good and you need get some nutrition in you. I’ll just put this in the fridge?’

I noticed she’d brought a bag of shopping, which was just as well, as soup made from the ingredients I had available would have been made from water and powdered mustard or some such shit.

I pointed her in the direction of the kitchen, and went back to bed, where screwed up tissues littered the bed and the floor. Some time later, I felt a cool cloth on my forehead, and opened my eyes to see Mum sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at me with concern.

‘Well that’s the soup on, I’m just letting it cook a bit, then we’re good to go. Where’s Carrie?’

‘Oh …’

God, no one knew, did they? She’d left me and gone back to him, and then I’d got this shitty whatever it was that was mashing my brain, filling me with snot and phlegm and confusion, and I hadn’t been able to think further than ‘bleurgh’ for days.

‘Is this anything to do with it?’

She held up the note, the one that had been on the table since I found it, that I would have cleared away if I’d thought about it, before anyone came round and actually saw the thing that had torn me into a thousand bits with a thousand razor sharp teeth. I stared at it. Seeing it again, the thing that had caused all this pain I was feeling, made my guts clench and my stomach heave.

I sat up, pushed Mum out of the way and stumbled to the toilet, where I puked up the not very full contents of my stomach. As I knelt, head leaning on the bowl, panting, sobbing, I heard Mum come in, and felt her hand rub my back.

‘You poor boy. Come on, up with you. Go and sit in the lounge. I need to change your bed.’

‘Wha? No you don’t.’

‘Matthew, you need clean sheets. It smells in there, and clean sheets always feel better. Wipe your mouth, now, clean your teeth and go and wrap yourself up on your sofa. I won’t be long.’

I did as I was told, lacking the energy to argue, and sat half-dozing on the sofa, smelling the soup cooking, which was making me feel undeniable stirrings of hunger. How long was it since I ate anything? What day was it?

I could hear Mum rummaging around, trying to find clean bed linen, and couldn’t summon the strength to call out and tell her where it was. There weren’t many places to look, anyway.

After a while she came back in, looking a little flushed from the fight with the duvet, and sat next to me.

‘When did she go?’

I had lost track of time, and had no way of measuring how long it had been.

‘When I came home from yours. I found it waiting for me.’

‘Oh Matthew. I have to say, I find it a particularly cruel thing for her to do.’

‘Yeah, well.’

Couldn’t go there, couldn’t do that, assassinate her character, not yet, I still loved her. If she walked back in now and said she’d got it wrong, she was back, was I cooking tea? I’d do it.

‘Had you been having problems for long?’

I snorted, which made me cough.

‘Since weh met, apparently.’

‘That’s not what I meant, dear. You were so happy, weren’t you, before, well, I’d say before her organisation closed down.’

Yeah, maybe that had been the death knell. I couldn’t think clearly enough to analyse it all now. Maybe if she’d never bumped into him that time outside the Co-op … but maybe it would have happened sooner or later anyway, maybe he’d been watching out for her, maybe she’d looked out for him. Maybe she’d already met him again then, and it was another lie. I couldn’t go through it all, my head hurt.

‘She’s gone, Mum. That’s all.’

‘I know. I know. I’m sorry, and I’m sorry that you’re trying to deal with it all while you’re feeling like this.’

‘S’just a cohd.’

‘It’s a bad one, though, look at you. I think I’ll stay here tonight and make sure you eat and drink enough. Have you been keeping up your fluids?’

No.

‘Yeah.’

‘Well we’ll see, won’t we, dear. Oh Matthew, we’ll get you well. You’ll be back on your feet in a few days and telling me to stop fussing over you.’

‘Yeah.’

‘And maybe you’ll swear just a bit, so I know you’re still alive.’

‘Yeah, I fu –’ I was racked by a fit of coughing that took the words out of my mouth.

‘Why don’t you leave the swearing for a while, then, dear, it’s obviously too much for you just at the moment.’

I smiled weakly at her smug face and flopped back against the sofa.

Mum stayed that night, sitting on the sofa with a blanket over her knees, from what I could gather, but she had to go home the next night to get some sleep. I gave her the spare key so she could get in again without me having to get up, and she came for two more days, feeding me soup, filling my fridge and clearing away my tissues.

My cold dried up, I got my appetite and my strength back, and my head got clearer. This wasn’t a good thing, as the car crash that was me and Carrie was now there for the examining, and feeling lousy was replaced with feeling more miserable than I’d ever felt in my life.

I went back to work, but couldn’t concentrate. Thoughts of Carrie permeated my every waking moment. Where was she now? What was she doing with him? If I went to the school on a Thursday, would she be there? I might have tried it if I’d been up to doing anything except go to work and come home. I still barely had the energy to do that, and on top of everything my coordination had got worse, leading to more tripping, more dropping shit, more blurred vision and more slurred words.

A week or so after going back to work, I woke up on my day off with a pounding head and the same fuzzy feeling that had enveloped me when I had my cold. I headed to the bathroom cabinet for a thermometer and some paracetamol, wanting to head another cold off at the pass. I was dizzy and sweaty, the thermometer told me I had a temperature, and before long I was lying in bed shivering, not knowing what time of day or night it was. There seemed to be no cold, but a cough racked my body, and once I started I couldn’t stop.

I made one foray to the kitchen to fill a jug of water and grab an apple, before I was engulfed by sweats, delusions, hallucinations and nightmares. I can vaguely remember tottering into the bathroom, eyes screwed up against the sun streaming through the window, in search of something. I don’t think it was anything sensible, I think I was looking for a sword to fight a dragon or some such bollocks. That’s the last I remember, the end of life as I knew it, when everything changed and swirled and coalesced and evaporated.

8. Morning has broken

In which we see Matty and Carrie through Christmas, a birthday, a move and a holiday.

Matt

Christmas was amazing. A-ma-zing. With extra emphasis on the amazing. It snowed. I mean, not a surprise in December in New York, but it made everything like a fairy tale, like all the films you ever saw. And the hotel – whoa! It wasn’t one of the top hotels, not even close, but it beat the one we’d stayed at in Devon into a cocked hat. It was close to Central Park, there was a spa, everything was laid on.

I so enjoyed watching Carrie experience it all, her wide eyes as she found something new, or it snowed again, or we saw the lights on Fifth Avenue. We went everywhere together, explored it all together: the shops, the parks, the flea markets, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, restaurants, cafés, delis, Tiffany’s, shows, museums, art galleries, yellow cabs. It was a theme park ride through a fantasy world.

On Christmas Eve we exchanged presents at midnight, like in the movies. We’d both been devious and snuck back to get each other things we’d seen together – I got Carrie an Art Deco necklace, sparkling with rhinestones, that I’d seen her eyeing at a flea market. A quick ‘trip to the loo’ while we were at a coffee shop round the corner secured its purchase. She got me a signed, boxed C3PIO that I’d seen in a comic shop. I had no idea she’d even seen me notice it, or when she’d managed to buy it. It more than replaced the one that had been broken into pieces by Martin when he trashed my flat, and it got the thanks it deserved, for several hours into the night. On Christmas Day itself we had dinner in the hotel and went for a walk in Central Park afterwards, coming back a couple of hours later for hot chocolate and … well … sex. We had a lot of that. Not so much that we missed out on seeing other interesting sights, but let’s just say, we didn’t get much sleep.

On our last day, we shopped again, finding presents to take back for friends and family, filling the spare suitcase we’d brought with stuff for us as well as stuff for the people we cared about.

And then we were back in the real world. Carrie had a bit of a dip, things didn’t feel so great for her. Her yoga and massage sessions were due to finish at the end of January, her house was being sold and she and the other women who shared it were set to leave at the end of March. It all felt a bit desperate for her. The organisation had put her in touch with other services that might be able to support her, but I was having trouble convincing her to stick with them, and she cancelled a lot of appointments with new support workers, saying that she didn’t have the energy to start all over again, telling it all again to someone else, reliving it for them.

We did at least start to look for another flat, somewhere we could share together. We spent several weekends doing the rounds of places I’d found on the internet or in the local paper, but although I liked quite a few of them, Carrie declared all them too expensive, and said we didn’t need anywhere as big as the ones I was looking at. I disagreed, knowing that I needed my space, more than a bedroom and a table in the living area, somewhere I could do my work or escape if I needed to, but she wouldn’t budge on it and I reluctantly down-scaled the properties I highlighted.

At last she was happy enough with one place, a tiny one-bedroom flat with a small living area divided from the kitchen area by a counter. It wasn’t far from where she used to live with Martin, and I worried that we might run into him. Carrie laughed at this and said he’d moved away, although she didn’t say how she knew. But the place was cheap enough to satisfy her, and she wouldn’t agree to any other places we looked at.

The flat itself was in need of some work, as it was dreary and dark, but I managed to get Carrie enthusiastic about decorating, and convinced the landlord that he needed to update the bathroom suite and kitchen cupboards before we moved in. The date was set for the end of April, which meant Carrie would have to live with me for a few weeks after her house was sold, but I made it sound more like a holiday, and she agreed.

This gave me an idea, and I asked her how she felt about a proper holiday, with Jay and Beth, once we’d moved in and got the place sorted. I hadn’t seen them for ages, not that this was unusual, and really wanted to give Cal the Jurassic Park toys I’d bought for him from New York. She actually looked happy with the idea. I hadn’t seen her look happy since Christmas, and wondered whether being stuck in Stafford was getting her down as much as anything else.

So I called Beth and arranged a few days at the beginning of June, just before they went on holiday themselves. Beth told us we could stay with them this time, as they’d had a conservatory built, and put a sofa-bed in there, so it doubled up as a guest room; we were no longer in danger of Jay-overload in the Scott Suite.

But that was in the future, and first we had to move in to our new flat, start our new life together, and even before that I had a really busy time at work.

Things at Eyeti had stepped up again. Work was flooding in, and we didn’t have enough staff to do it all. Over the years, I’d taken on a more senior position there, managing teams of people and dealing directly with important customers, and a lot of the shortfall fell on my shoulders. A couple of colleagues went sick, and it meant for a couple of nightmare weeks, just as Carrie moved out of her house and in with me, I was working eighteen hour days, coming home and doing more work while I shovelled food in my mouth, taking the laptop to bed and working for another couple of hours, then getting up a few hours later and doing it all again.

The place was a state – Carrie wasn’t a great one for housework, and I hated a mess, but I didn’t have the time or the energy to clear up. I wasn’t there for Carrie, I knew it, I kept apologising to her, but she kept telling me it was OK, she was going for coffee with a lot of her friends and they were supporting each other. She actually seemed more upbeat than she had for a while, and when I had a moment to think about it, I wondered if the dread of it all going was worse than the fact of it being gone.

After the mad rush at work had ended, and things subsided to merely hectic, I was exhausted, more tired than I knew it was possible to be. I dragged myself through a normal work day, and slept until the afternoon at weekends, despite Carrie’s attempts to rouse me. I was too tired for sex, and even if I hadn’t been, my libido certainly was; despite her best efforts, not a creature was stirring.

Then, a few weeks after that, I started getting double vision at odd times. I thought it might be my contact lenses, so I got those checked out, but there wasn’t a problem. I was still very tired, so put it down to that, and tried to look after myself a bit better.

A few weeks after that, I dropped a cup of camomile tea in Carrie’s lap when the mug slipped out of my hand as I was giving it to her. Luckily, I didn’t scald her, but we were both a bit shocked. When I dropped a glass of beer in a pan of curry, ruining the curry, the beer, and the glass, I wondered if I needed to get some help with de-stressing, and Carrie gave me some wonderful Reiki massages, which helped untense my shoulders, and untense our sex life, but didn’t noticeably improve my coordination, as I tripped over nothing and wrenched my shoulder against the sofa a few days after dropping the glass in the curry.

I really was exhausted, and looked forward to a few weeks off, when we would be moving, decorating our flat and then going down to Devon.

Moving day came, we gave in the keys to my flat and picked up the keys to our flat, and moved in. I’d had to get rid of a lot of my furniture, as it was too big, but we’d kept my bed and the small round dining table and two chairs. We needed a new sofa, but Carrie didn’t want to get a brand new one. She said one of her friends was selling their old two-seater, and it would do for the living area. We went and had a look, I wrinkled my nose at it a bit, possibly because it had belonged to someone else, with children and a dog, before, but Carrie said she loved it, convinced me we could clean it up, drape it with throws and it would look great with our intended colour scheme. So we got it, and picked it up the day after we moved in.

As we manhandled the sofa up the stairs and into the lounge, my heart nosedived at the sight of our flat – small, dark, horrible wallpaper, small lumpy sofa, view of the street from the window, harsh fluorescent light overhead in the kitchen area. I tried to see what it would look like when we’d finished with it, but really couldn’t just at that moment, and concentrated on looking at Carrie instead, who was looking excited and lovely.

We decorated our arses off, and at the end of a week our combined efforts, along with the new kitchen units and bathroom suite, and new spotlights in the kitchen, made me a lot happier with our new place. It said ‘Carrie and Matt live here’, it said ‘in your face dingy flat, we’ve made you awesome’. All except the Robbie Williams poster, which Carrie produced from nowhere and insisted on hanging above the TV. There wasn’t much I would refuse that girl, but this sorely tested the limits.

‘Seriously? I’ve never even heard you listen to a Robbie Williams song.’

‘It’s not about his singing, I just like him.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since I was little.’

‘Can’t it go in the loo?’

‘No, it’ll get all damp and wrinkly.’

‘Some would say there are worse things that could happen to Robbie.’

‘It’s staying.’

So the bloody thing stayed, but I used it as ammunition every time I wanted my way about something. I’d look consideringly at Robbie’s strutting form and then back at Carrie, and she’d realise what a sacrifice I’d made for her and give me whatever I wanted. Oh, no, that was in my dreams, and in reality it was the other way round. But underneath, I didn’t mind. I loved my girl, and I was with her, and I’d have lived in a mine shaft, or on a dung heap if she’d asked me to.

A couple of weeks after we’d moved in, Carrie came home after I’d got back from work. I was getting frustrated with the small amount of space available in which to work in the kitchen, had tried to chop an onion with a chopping board overhanging the edge of the counter, the whole lot had gone flying, and I’d cut my finger on the knife as I stupidly tried to catch it. Carrie saw the blood-stained kitchen roll and hurried over.

‘What have you done?’

‘Cut myself.’

‘Oh, is that what all the blood is? You’re very clumsy lately.’

‘This wasn’t clumsy, this was too much chopping board, too little space.’

‘Did you chop your finger, then?’

‘No, not exactly.’

‘What, then?’

‘Tried to catch the knife.’

‘What? Why?’

‘So … it didn’t fall on the floor and I’d have to pick it up and wash it.’

‘Yeah, I can see it’s saved you loads of time. Come here. Have you washed it?’

‘No, it’s still on the floor.’

‘Have you washed your finger, not the knife.’

‘Oh. No. Trying to stop the blood.’

‘Wash it first, then first aid it. Where are the plasters?’

‘Where did we put them?’

‘I can’t remember. I’ll look in the bathroom. You wash that.’

She walked off to the bathroom while I ran the cold tap, and shouted back to me, or rather talked a bit louder than normal, because it really wasn’t very far away and I could have heard her if she’d whispered.

‘You’ll never guess who I just bumped into.’

‘Osvaldo Ardiles.’

‘Who?’

I heard sounds of rummaging, as she looked for the first aid box in the bathroom cupboard.

‘Tottenham player of renown in days of yore.’

‘Oh. Why would you say that?’

The rummaging intensified.

‘You said I’d never guess, so I had to at least give it a go. Challenge accepted. Bishop Desmond Tutu.’

‘No. How long are you going to go on for?’

The rummaging stopped, and I imagined her standing there, frowning slightly, looking around her as she spoke.

‘How many more guesses have I got?’

‘Not many, I’m getting bored.’

‘Last one then. Er …’

‘Martin.’

His name froze my thoughts, my words, and my body. She came out of the bathroom with the first aid box in her hand and walked over to me, seemingly oblivious to my paralysis.

‘I’ll look for some big ones shall I?’

‘Where?’

‘In the plaster box.’

‘No, where did you see him?’

‘Outside the Co-op. I turned round and almost ran into him.’

‘Shit, C, are you OK?’

‘Yeah.’

She sounded unconcerned, whereas I had enough concern for both of us, and most of it was causing a logjam in my brain, making it hard to say words.

‘But wha … did … does … have … fucking hell.’

That was better, swearing always relieved the pressure a bit.

‘I thought you said he moved away.’

‘He did, but he came back. He got his old job back, apparently, cleaned himself up, got some help, ditched the steroids. He seemed … different.’

‘You didn’t talk to him did you?’

‘Well … yeah. Not for long.’

‘What, like he’s a normal person or something? He’s a maniac. He nearly held you prisoner. He made your life a fucking misery.’

‘Have you stopped bleeding yet?’

‘What?’

I looked down at my finger as if I’d only just remembered about it.

‘Nearly. Why did you talk to him? He could have done anything.’

Carrie motioned me to hold out my finger, while she wrapped a large plaster round the cut.

‘There. That was a close call, but I think you’ll live. I told you, he seemed different. He asked how I was, he was fine, he’s started doing his car racing again.’

What? She’d chatted to Martin about his fucking car racing? His obsession with car racing used to drive her nuts, especially as he used to make her go and sit in all weathers watching beaten up bangers growling round and round a dirt track. And now she just casually mentioned it as if it was a good thing, like she cared about it.

‘Did you tell him about us?’

‘Yeah. Of course. He says hi.’

‘I bet he did. You didn’t tell him where we live, did you?’

‘No, of course not, but I was coming out of the Co-op with a bag of shopping, it was obvious I live around here somewhere.’

‘Shit C, I can’t believe you’re being so bloody calm about this. You know what he’s capable of. If he wants you he’ll come and get you, and there’s not much either of us can do to stop him.’

‘Stop being so dramatic. He’s different. He doesn’t seem so psyched up. He said he’s seeing someone.’

‘What, a girlfriend?’

Well that would make things easier.

‘No, a counsellor.’

Oh. Well he was a fucking psychotwat, so it seemed like the least he could do.

‘He’s getting help, he said he’s trying to change things.’

‘It sounds like you had quite a chat.’

‘Yeah, well, I suppose we caught up a bit.’

Something in her voice, her expression, made me ask.

‘You’re not going to see him again, are you?’

Carrie laughed. I didn’t know what it meant – that I was ridiculous to even think it, that I was ridiculous to think she wouldn’t, that I was just ridiculous. It was as if all that fear, all that looking out for his shape to come looming out of alleyways, all that checking up and down the street before opening the door, that meant nothing to Carrie now.

‘No, not unless we run into each other in front of the Co-op again. You know it’s over, it’s been over for a long time.’

‘What if I run into him in front of the Co-op? He might not be so happy to chat with me.’

Not after I’d kicked him in the bollocks and broken both his arms, anyway.

‘Well you’ll have to deal with that if it happens, won’t you. I don’t think you need to worry too much, I don’t think he lives close by.’

‘I can’t believe it.’

‘Don’t worry about it, Matt, it was a one-off.’

‘We’ve only just moved in and already it’s an undesirable neighbourhood.’

‘Stop it. You’re making too much of this. If anyone should be freaking out, it should be me.’

I stopped my retort in its tracks, the one that said ‘you weren’t the one who had his door kicked off its hinges and his life broken into pieces’, because maybe she wasn’t, not physically, but emotionally, yeah he’d done all that to her, and the scars were still healing, and if she really, really was OK with seeing him, then maybe I needed to be OK with it too. Perhaps it was part of the process.

‘Sorry.’

I opened my arms and pulled her in for a hug.

‘You’re not getting blood on my top, are you?’

‘Nope.’

I had no idea.

‘Are you even looking to check?’

‘Mm hmm.’

I wasn’t.

Carrie pulled away and held my finger up for inspection.

‘Look, it’s leaking through the plaster. I’m going to have to soak this now.’

And she stomped off into the bedroom to change her shirt, leaving me to carrying on clearing up bits of half-chopped onion from the floor, and get on with cooking dinner.

*

Somewhere in the busyness that was moving out and moving in and decorating and everything else, I turned thirty. Bloody thirty. I should have had a fuck-off monster of a party to mourn the passing of my twenties, to leave me with the hangover to end all hangovers, and ensure I never forgot that I had, indeed, turned bloody thirty. But it was kind of ignored, we were up to our eyes in paint and packing crates, Carrie didn’t seem that bothered, we sort of agreed to do something later, in the summer, when we could have a barbecue in the park or something, and the day passed without much comment.

I got an insulting card from Jay, who had at least remembered, and seemed to have chosen the card himself judging from the insensitivity of it (a huge 30 on the front and some not so witty allusion to being old and wrinkly inside); it is possible I was being oversensitive. I called round to Mum’s and she’d made a cake with candles (although not thirty candles), and painted me a picture of Potter Hill, one of my favourite places. I appreciated the thought as well as the effort that had gone into it – Mum’s arthritis made it difficult for her to paint or draw these days, and although her skill hadn’t deteriorated, it took her a lot longer to finish something – but I knew Carrie wouldn’t want it up in the flat.

Mum knew me pretty well, and was usually spot on with presents, and if my walls were my own, I would have displayed it, but the poster of Robbie Williams and three mass-produced canvasses of large red flowers were all Carrie would consider putting on the wall. I knew this, because I’d tried with various items reflecting my own personal taste – a Star Wars promo poster, a framed Matisse print, a series of cartoons by a local artist – but all of it was deemed ‘not fitting in’ with whatever ambience our cluttered shoe box of a flat gave out. Robbie and flowers it was, then, and my stuff remained in Mum’s loft for … later.

So, I was thirty, and it was as if the whole world had just shrugged and continued on its way. I told Carrie not to do anything special, secretly hoping she’d push the boat out a little bit, but she gave me a card and a kiss, and then some hot sex, and that was my lot. What a whiny git I am, but hey. You’re only thirty once, right? Thank fuck, it’s bad enough once, but still.

*

A week or so after Carrie ran into Martin, we drove down to Devon. We’d both settled into life in the flat. I was slowly getting used to us living so on top of each other, and Carrie seemed more relaxed in general. She’d picked up a little more work, courtesy of some cards in the local newsagent, and some word of mouth business from people who had belonged to WO and although she was worrying about the impending summer holidays, which meant that her evening classes would finish for three months, the school had at least asked her back for the next school year in September. She was determined to pay half of everything, but I was as determined to find ways that meant she had money to spend on herself when she wanted to.

As we neared the city where Jay lived, I found myself feeling surprisingly happy about seeing them all again. Jay and I spoke to each other every so often, Beth more frequently and even Cal now Facetimed me occasionally, having worked out faster than his technophobe father what all the buttons on the iPhone were actually for, so we kept in touch, and Beth and Cal had come to stay for a weekend a few months previously, but I suppose when it comes to it, nothing beats physically being with someone to reconnect.

We pulled up outside the large house at the end of the cul-de-sac and I opened the car door.

‘How long are we staying again?’

‘I didn’t really say, they’re open to anything. A few days. Up to a week if we want to, I’ve taken next week off.’

‘Not that long.’

‘OK, we’ll see how ih goes.’

I understood her reluctance, she’d felt it when we were here last time, but she’d relaxed and enjoyed it. I opened her door and helped her out, then got our bags out of the boot.

‘We’ve got a bit more with us than last time. I think you had a toothbrush and a thong, and I had a pair of boxers.’

Reminding her about last time seemed to pull her face into a frown, and no response was forthcoming. I walked down the path, carrying both bags, Carrie some way behind me. The door opened as I approached, and Cal shot out, running towards me.

As I watched him, my feet tripped over themselves, and I started to fall, twisting as I did so to avoid falling on Cal. I landed on my elbow, and the jolt went right up my arm and through my shoulder.

‘Aaah. Shit. Shit.’

I heard a giggle.

‘You felled over Uncle Matty.’

Trust a five year old to state the bleeding obvious. He’d tell me I dropped the bags next.

‘And you did a swear.’

Or that I’d sworn.

‘Cal, get out of the way. Matty, are you alright?’

I looked up. Three faces peered down at me: Beth, Cal and Carrie. Beth bent down and touched my forehead, took my pulse, looking with concern into my face.

‘Matty?’

‘Urm … yeah. Bashed my arm up a bit. Bashed my manly pride up a bit more, though.’

‘Did you hit your head at all?’

‘No.’

‘Can you sit up? Let me have a look at that arm.’

I sat up, and Carrie crouched down beside me. I gave her the best ‘I’m alright’ smile I could muster.

‘You OK?’

I nodded at Carrie, unsure if I actually was.

Beth felt my elbow, which looked red and had started to swell, and she made me move my arm in different directions and wiggle my fingers. All seemed present and correct. And painful.

‘Maybe you should go to A and E.’

‘What? Do you think I’ve broken it?’

It hurt like buggery, but it didn’t feel broken.

‘No, I don’t think so, but maybe you should get it checked out.’

‘No, I’m not spending my first eight hours here stuck on a plastic chair in the emergency department, only to be sent home with an aspirin and told not to waste their time. Have you got a bag of frozen peas?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then that’ll do me. Help me up, C?’

I held my hand out to her and she pulled me up. I gathered one of the bags, and then looked at her as she made no move to pick up the other bag.

‘You’re going to have to take the other one.’

She picked it up without a word and followed us into the house.

When we got inside, Beth fussed about with ice packs and a sling and got me some ibuprofen.

‘It’ll help with the swelling.’

I saw Carrie frown. She didn’t approve of unnatural pain medication, but I was more than happy to down the pills if it meant me being more comfortable, and if Carrie wanted to give me some kind of natural … healing remedy … later, then I would take my medicine like a good boy. Everybody’s happy.

In the aftermath of Matt the Klutz, we sat on the sofas and drank tea, telling Beth about New York, showing pictures on the iPad, the sling holding the ice packs on my throbbing elbow.

‘It all sounds wonderful. I’d love to go to the Met.’

‘It was awesome, we didn’t have time to see ih all though. Maybe we’ll go back one day.’

I looked at Carrie, who was looking back at me and nodding. She seemed to have cheered up a bit, and I hoped it was just anticipation anxiety that had caused her apparent moodiness earlier.

‘Oh, we brought you something back, Beth.’

‘Did you? How lovely.’

‘You too Cal.’

‘What, Uncle Matty?’

‘We brought you a present from New York. C, could you go and get them? I don’t think I’m going to be bending this arm for a bit.’

And I was going to enjoy milking it for today, at least.

Beth waited until she had left the room before beginning her quick-fire interrogation.

‘How are things going? You said the women’s organisation folded?’

‘Yeah. She took it hard, but she’s getting there.’

‘Is she still getting help?’

‘After a fashion. Some other agency took over, but she’s not keen really – oh great, thanks C. Here, Beth, this is something for you, Happy Christmas, sorry it’s late, and here, Cal is yours. Don’t eat it all at once.’

‘Is it chocolate?’

Cal delved eagerly into the bag and pulled out the dinosaur set. His eyes grew round as he took in the toys.

‘But I can’t eat these.’

‘Best not to even try mate. They’re for playing with.’

‘But you said –’

‘Your Uncle Matty says some stupid things, sometimes, Cal. He thinks he’s funny.’

I looked at Carrie, a bit hurt.

‘Hey, I am funny. Maybe that one missed the mark a bit. Maybe Beth likes her scarf enough to eat?’

Beth had put the scarf on immediately. She was a scarfy person, and this one had stood out in the shop as right up her street. She was smiling, so I seemed to have got it right.

‘The bag says Tiffany’s.’

‘Yup.’

‘Really, Matty?’

‘Really.’

‘It’s gorgeous. Thank you. I mean, it would be gorgeous anyway, but it’s gorgeous.’

‘Jay will look gorgeous in his present too.’

‘What did you get him?’

‘Wait an see.’

‘Spoilsport.’

We continued with the pictures, moving on to the before and after of our flat. Beth’s face was a picture as she tried to find positive things to say about the before shots, calling it ‘cosy’ and ‘intimate’ for all she was worth, but her expression brightened throughout the decorating process, the pictures of me and Carrie with paint splodges on our faces and in our hair, to us proudly standing in front of the newly painted walls and be-throwed sofa, the fresh kitchen and the small but, yeah, definitely cosy and intimate bathroom.

‘Oh, you two have done such a good job. I hope your landlord appreciates it, and doesn’t charge you more rent.’

‘Well, that was the deal for the kitchen and bathroom units. We decorate, he supplies, rent stays the same.’

‘Hang on a minute, Matty. Above the TV – is that Robbie Williams?’

I believe I may have blushed with shame.

‘Miss Mitcham, would you care to field this one?’

‘Yeah, Beth, it’s Matt’s. He pestered me day and night, until I gave in. He plays Take That all day long, it drives me mad, but he won’t listen to me. That’s why I wanted to come down here, to get some peace. Please don’t make me go back.’

‘Ha ha. I always suspected Matty had some guilty pleasures, but nothing this twisted.’

‘When you two have quite finished, my tea cup is empty and I believe I am incapable of pouring a kettle, with my right arm being in a sling and all.’

‘Well then one of us must dash to the kitchen to see to your every whim, oh Master. Do you want another one, Carrie?’

‘I’ll have some more water. I’ll bring the cups through.’

I could hear them chatting in the kitchen, and had no doubt that Beth would have launched into her questions about Women’s Org. Carrie didn’t run screaming back into the lounge, though, so whatever it was they were talking about, it was going OK.

I heard the front door open, and slam shut, and a few moments later Dec came into the lounge. Rather than nodding and leaving, as he had always done before, he sat on the sofa.

‘Hi Matt. What happened to you?’

I reeled for a second; there were almost more words in those two sentences than he had ever spoken to me in total before.

‘Fell over just now and bashed my arm.’

‘Bummer. How did you manage that?’

Thinking about it, I couldn’t quite remember how I had fallen.

‘Dunno. Must have tripped.’

‘Looks painful. Good to see you again.’

‘You too. How are things?’

I had no idea what things I meant, but I was confident he’d be able to come up with some if he felt like it, given his newly discovered gift for communicating. Lo and behold, he did indeed find some things.

‘Great, thanks. I love the off-season, I can sleep in, eat shit, get pissed, and no one minds. At least not till I go back for pre-season and get a bollocking.’

‘Dec, you sweared in the house.’

‘Oh yeah.’

It only just seemed to have occurred to him. Beth’s rules obviously well-heeded then.

‘Hey, Cal, what have you got there, mate? Dinosaurs? Whoa, where did these come from?’

He plopped down onto the floor, where Cal was playing with the toys.

‘Uncle Matty went to Jurassic Park in America.’

‘Ha ha, not quite, that would have been great. I went to New York.’

Dec looked up. ‘Awesome. Cal, did you tell Uncle Matty about the new Dinosaurland that’s opening soon?’

‘No. Uncle Matty, there’s a going to be a Dinosaurland and Dec’s going to take me for my birthday and we’re going to buy a stegosaurus.’

‘Hey, Cal, that sounds great. I migh have to gatecrash your party.’

‘No, I don’t want a party, I’m going to Dinosaurland.’

Carrie’s advice about simplifying what I said when talking to Cal came floating back from the past.

‘Yeah, sorry, that’s what I meant. I meant I’d like to come too.’

‘No, it’s just for me and Dec.’

Dec shrugged apologetically.

‘What can I say? I’m prime six-year old birthday material.’

‘Congratulations.’

Carrie and Beth came back in with more drinks.

‘Oh Dec, you’re back. Did you get milk?’

Dec looked up from the dinosaurs.

‘No, was I supposed to?’

‘Oh honestly, I asked you when you went out this morning, you used it nearly all up on your huge bowl of cereal. Can you pop out and get some, sweetheart? I’ve just used the last in Matty’s tea.’

‘No worries.’

He jumped up from the floor in the way that only teenagers can, and left the room, the slam of the front door resounding afterwards in a familiar way.

‘Doesn’t leave the house any more quietly than he used to, then.’

‘No. Doesn’t listen any more closely than he used to either.’

I heard a car start in the drive, and looked out of the window to see a Mini Cooper reverse out and onto the road.

‘Bloody hell, is that his car?’

‘Matty, honestly.’

I chose not to spill the beans on Dec’s earlier far worse profanities, as it would sound suspiciously like churlishness.

‘Sorry. But is it?’

‘Yes. He got some money from a trust fund when he was eighteen, left by his parents, and he spent most of it on his car. He loves it, washes it every weekend, keeps it clean. It’s his pride and joy.’

‘He seems different than when we were here last.’

‘He’s a lovely boy, on the whole. He’s grown up a lot.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Nineteen.’

‘Think he’ll stay here?’

‘There aren’t any other plans at the moment. We have talked about if he wants to move out, how we could help him, but it’s all working at the moment, we’re quite happy, he’s quite happy, he’s much more responsible. He’s looking after the place when we go to Portugal next week.’

‘Not one for wild parties then?’

‘He’s been to a few in his time, but we’ve said not here, and we trust him when he says he won’t.’

‘Brave.’

‘I don’t think so.’

A very maternal look came over Beth’s face, one that told me I shouldn’t go on with my implied criticism of their golden boy, so I took the hint and dropped it.

Jay came in a while later and pretended to hate his ‘I heart NY’ t-shirt, but wore it all night, belying his protests. We ate dinner, chatting about nothing much, then watched one of Cal’s DVDs for a bit before he went to bed, Dec going up with him to read him a story before lights out.

‘He’s pretty good with Cal.’

‘They’re the best of friends.’

‘You’ve done a good job.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Hey, I had something to do with it.’

‘Yeah Jay, no one’s suggesting you didn’t. Both of you have been awesome.’

‘That’s better. Sometimes it feels like people only notice what Beth does around here.’

‘Isn’t that because Beth’s the only one who does anything?’

‘Piss off, Matty.’

That night, lying on the sofa bed in the conservatory, blinds closed, lights out, it felt a bit like we were in our own tent. We could hear noises from the garden, the breeze in the trees, an owl. I held Carrie close and murmured in her ear.

‘Are you OK? You’ve been quiet since we got here.’

‘Yeah. It’s just made me think, that’s all. It seems like such a long time ago we were last here.’

‘Well it’s a year and a half or so.’

‘Yeah, but so much has happened. It feels really different, doesn’t it? I mean, last time we were in the hotel, we could do what we wanted, this time it’s just a bit more … in your face maybe.’

‘Did Beth say something? When you were in the kitchen?’

‘No. Well, yeah, she did, but she only asked how I was doing without WO, wondered if she wanted me to put her in touch with her social worker friend. But if we’re staying here, it’s not going to be as relaxing, is it? I’ll never know when she’s going to ask me something personal. We won’t be able to be as … free as we were last time, either.’

‘I can talk to her, tell her to back off.’

‘Would she listen?’

‘Probably not.’

‘Then what’s the point?’

‘Well, we don’t have to beh here every minute, either. There are beaches to explore and hills to climb and restaurants to eat in. I’m sure Beth’s got a daily menu planned to the last carrot, but I’d quite like to put a spanner in her works and go off-piste a bit. Without them. Suit ourselves.’

Carrie seemed to perk up a little bit.

‘But we can’t go anywhere too fancy, can we.’

‘Why not? We’re on holiday. I’ve got holiday money, I’m more than happy to spend it on treating you than on jumbo boxes of fudge for the office on the way home.’

‘No.’

Carrie wriggled a little bit so there was more distance between us.

‘Are we still doing this, then, C? I’ve got money, I earn a good wage, but you won’t let me spend it. We don’t go out, we don’t go on holiday, we don’t buy nice stuff for the flat, we have to make do so you can afford it. It’s nonsense.’

‘It’s not nonsense. How can you say it’s nonsense? You know how important it is to me.’

‘Yeah, I do, believe me, I understand all your reasons. But do you understand that I would like to buy nice things for you, buy you presents, take you places, see you smile instead of seeing you worry. Sometimes I feel like I might as well get a job as a traffic warden for all the good being a manager at Eyeti does me. It’d be less stressful.’

‘Why don’t you then?’

‘What?’

‘Why do you stay there if it causes you so much stress? Those two weeks when you worked so hard, was it really worth it?’

‘Yeah, in the end it was, although it was shit at the time, and I know it was shit for you too. I stay there because I enjoy it. And it pays well. And they know I do a good job. It’s not just one thing.’

‘I’m just saying, if you think you’ve got too much money, maybe you need to do a job with less stress, maybe earn the same as me, so we can fit into our means a bit.’

‘Fit into our means? What’s that when it’s at home?’ I was about to call bullshit on her – it sounded like an excuse, although excusing what, I couldn’t work out.

‘We’ve got a smaller flat in a less fancy area, you’ve apparently got more money than you know what to do with, so why don’t you think smaller?’

I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Was she really so far up in cloud cuckoo land that she thought we’d survive if we were both earning the same as her?

‘You’re having a laugh. You don’t really want me to give up my job, do you? And do what? I’m not qualified to do anything else. And I don’t want to do anything else, previous comments about traffic wardens notwithstanding.’

‘I just don’t feel equal to you, that’s all. You’re always there to pick up the pieces with your credit card, we don’t have the same worries, the same fears as each other.’

‘Do you think things would be better if we both worried about how we were going to pay this month’s rent, or stressed about whether we should get value marge or posh buttery spread?’

‘I’m not saying it would be better, I’m saying it would be more equal. And now you’ve mentioned it, it doesn’t feel right when you do the shopping and you get all this fancy stuff, and when I do it just get the essentials, and then you go to the farm shop and get extra.’

I was bewildered at the size of this sudden gulf that seemed to have opened between us.

‘So, can I just be clear. You want me to get a job that pays much much less, so I can experience what it’s like to not have enough money to pay the rent. If I can’t manage that, you want me to never buy you anything, never pay for anything, never bail you out if you need it. And on top of all that, you want me to live on flour, milk and eggs and very little else, even though I do all the cooking, I love cooking, I know what makes a good ingredient and it isn’t ‘value’ crap.’

‘You make it sound unreasonable.’

I groaned with frustration.

‘C, it bloody well is unreasonable. You can’t ask that of me, ih’s not fair. I don’t know how to say this without rubbing your nose in it, but I earn more money than you, a lot more. I know how important your financial independence is to you, I never want to take that away from you. But I really don’t see how me making do with less is going to help us, I really don’t.’

‘So you won’t even consider any of it?’

I sighed. I wasn’t sure there was any of it I could seriously consider without laughing.

‘Well, there’s no way I’m giving up my job, let’s get that out of the way. I like buying you things, things that make you smile, but if you’re saying it makes you unhappy, maybe I can do it less often. And maybe I can cut back on the fancy food, and promise not to top up when you do the shopping. This is a seriously bizarre conversation to be having in my brother’s conservatory in the middle of the night. That’s the best I can offer.’

‘OK.’

‘Good. Let’s go to sleep.’

I turned on my side, away from Carrie, hurt and confused. I felt like I had made a huge compromise already when we took the flat, and lots more small compromises had added up – the sofa, the paint, not going out for meals so often – make that ever. None of it was important compared to being with Carrie, but it chipped away little by little at my happiness.

It was the first time since PCC 1.2.4 completed that I hadn’t hugged her and kissed her goodnight. I didn’t sleep for a long time, wondering if she was going to put her arm round me, or say something else. All of it was spinning round my mind. I didn’t know what was wrong with her, it felt like there was something, but maybe it was me, maybe I really was being insensitive and controlling. I slept fitfully all night, then, as is often the way, crashed into a deep slumber shortly before dawn.

7. Girl on fire

In which Matty and Carrie get reacquainted and we find out how they get on.

Matt

The next few weeks were sweet torture. Carrie and I saw each other several times a week, continuing our programme of graduated access to each other, me feeling a little like a teenager trying to get to first base.

By the end of the second week we had been to restaurants, the cinema, a play, a wine bar, a lido (where, yes, I’d hoped Carrie would wear the bikini from Devon, but she’d covered up with shorts and a vest top. Still had great legs though), tenpin bowling, Stafford Castle. We held hands everywhere, conveying zingy electric messages through the touch of our fingers, the rub of a thumb over a knuckle, skin on skin at the palms of our hands.

As I got into my car after saying goodbye at the castle (which didn’t feel right, leaving her to make her own way home, but there we had it), I heard her call my name. I got out of the car, and she was standing there, next to me, slightly breathless as if she’d been running.

‘Can we do the next bit? I can’t just say goodbye anymore.’

And she launched herself at me and into my arms, and the next half an hour was lost with her there, gripping me, face against my chest while I held her and smelt her hair and stroked her back and wanted more, so much more. The feel of her held tightly against me was going to have to last until the next time I saw her, so I stopped wanting what I couldn’t have and concentrated on feeling what I could.

Almost a week later, I picked her up from a car park in the town centre and we drove to a pub where a band I liked was playing. It fulfilled all the criteria of being a public place – noisy, lots of people – but the atmosphere was intimate, and people tended to mind their own business in a pub more than they did in some of the other places we’d been to. We got there early enough to claim a table in the corner and order some food, and we held hands and looked at each other as we chatted about nothing much. All the serious conversation was going on in the unsaid of our eyes.

Much as the waiting was driving me crazy, I had to admit that getting to know each other like this had been incredibly intense. We’d spent so much time talking, and exploring different things to do, which we would never have done if we’d spent the same amount of time involved in the sorts of activities I wanted to be involved in.

As Carrie told me more about her time in the refuge, I realised how damaged she’d been by her time with Martin, how much she covered it up with brashness, and how much she still relied on help from the WO to continue sorting herself out. It no longer seemed like an effort to do things her way, although there were times when my will-power was sorely tested, like this evening, when she looked so beautiful and was looking at me with those bright blue eyes, wondering what I was thinking.

‘I want to kiss you.’

‘What?’

‘That’s what I was thinking, C. You were wondering.’

‘Bloody hellfire, Matt, how do you know that?’

‘Could see it on your face, you’re an open book to me.’

‘Go on then.’

‘What?’

‘Kiss me.’

‘What?’

‘Thought you could read me like a book. You seem a little bit unclear about it right now.’

‘But … C, I’m not saying no, but here? I might not be able to stop if I start.’

‘You will. You’re not a machine on auto. You blokes all say that, that you won’t be able to stop, but you just have to … stop, don’t you. Because carrying on isn’t really an option here, is it?’

‘Er …’

I was a bit unsure what question I was supposed to be answering, all of my concentration having been scattered by the thought that I was going to kiss her, kiss my girl, at last.

‘So, anytime you’re ready.’

‘C …’

I leaned towards her and stroked her cheek, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and looked down into her eyes, which were sparkling mischievously up at me.

‘So that’s a yes, I take it.’

‘No, it’s a fuck yes. Stop talking now, you’re going to need your mouth for other things.’

I leaned down and showed her all the different gentle ways I could kiss her on the lips. I brushed lightly over her mouth with mine, barely touching her, and felt her shiver, as I also felt the hairs on my arm stand on end. I gently pressed my lips against hers – once at each corner and then in the middle. I nibbled, I licked, I sucked, I did it all with our mouths chastely closed, with one hand on her shoulder and one hand cupping her cheek. I could hear her little moans and sighs, so quiet that I was the only one close enough to hear them, which told me she wasn’t immune to my techniques, and so, emboldened, I pushed against her lips with my tongue and gave a little moan myself as they opened to let me in. I stayed gentle, exploring her tongue, teeth and lips, pushing her back with my tongue when she tried to be more forceful. I was going to prove, to us both, that I could control myself. Just as Carrie wrapped her arms around my neck to pull me deeper into her, I broke away and grinned at her.

‘You’re right. I can stop.’

‘You bastard.’

‘So it’s been said.’

‘You are the master. The Snogmaster. The Snogfather. That was one of, no, the most amazing kiss I’ve ever had.’

‘Thank you. I have to say, I quite enjoyed it myself. Oh look, here come the band. Pay attention now. The bass player used to be in Inspiral Carpets.’

‘Who?’

‘Oh C, you have a lot yet to learn from the Snogfather.’

I sat, a little smugly, holding Carrie’s hand, through the first set, enjoying the music, the atmosphere and the company of the beautiful woman sitting next to me. I got us drinks just before the band had a break, and at the start of the second set, I felt a tug on my hand. I leaned down so Carrie could yell loud enough in my ear that I could hear her over the music.

‘Do you want to go outside?’

I looked at her, not sure I’d understood.

‘Outside?’

Carrie nodded.

‘What for?’

‘Need another lesson.’

‘What?’

I was being particularly obtuse; maybe the loud music had scrambled my brain cells.

‘Want to kiss you again.’

‘Oh.’

I stood up so fast the table rocked and slopped beer and water across the table top. Ignoring this, I held my hand out to Carrie, grinning like a fool, and she took it. I pulled Carrie through the packed bar to the door, and looked for somewhere discreet, neither of us caring that we had just lost our table.

There was a beer garden, with a love-seat, and it was dark; everyone was inside watching the band. We made for the seat, but didn’t get as far as sitting down; Carrie pulled my arm when we were half way across the garden, and as I turned round, she wrapped her arms round my neck, and pulled my face down to hers, and we were gone, blown away, lost in each other, as our mouths rediscovered each other, lips whispered and kissed, tongues tasted, teeth nibbled.

I held her close, so close she felt like a part of me, and I felt myself swell as I wanted to be closer, as close as it was possible to be, and her body told me she wanted it too, but it wasn’t right, not here, even if no one was looking and no one interrupted us, this couldn’t be a frantic, thoughtless thing, not after all the care and detail we’d put into getting here slowly. So we kissed and kissed, and stroked, touched, caressed, feeling the longing, but letting it linger there between us, unassuaged.

Carrie shivered, and I pulled away from her, holding her a little apart from me.

‘Are you cold?’

‘A bit.’

‘Didn’t you bring a coat?’

‘No, I thought we were going to be inside all night. So did you.’

She was right, I hadn’t brought any extra clothing, knowing it was going to be hot and sweaty in the crowded pub on a late summer’s evening.

‘Do you want to go back in?’

‘No. I want to go home with you.’

My head was still spinning from the kissing, and I had to double check.

‘To my place? But …’

‘Yeah. To your place. To do this, at last.’

‘But …’

‘Yeah, you keep saying but, but I don’t hear a good reason why not.’

‘How about we only just passed the kissing and feeling each other up milestones, both in the same evening, and isn’t anything else somewhat ahead of schedule?’

‘Yeah, well, here’s what I think. This was about control, making sure I had it, and now I think we both get it, what it was all about, and the next step, it shouldn’t be about being controlled, it should be about being wild and happy, and it’s what I want, right now, and it feels right, so for this part of it all, please can we go to your place and please will you … can we be together?’

‘Yes.’

‘What?’

‘Yes.’

‘Bloody hellfire, is the world going to end tomorrow then?’

Now it was my turn to be confused.

‘What?’

‘You answered a direct question with a yes.’

‘I was saving time, but if you want me to prattle on –’

‘No, I want you to get your arse in your car and drive me to your place and shag me senseless, Matt. Got it?’

‘Got it.’

‘OK then. I’ve just got to send a text, so no one calls the police if I’m not back.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously.’

The pub wasn’t far outside of Stafford, but it was across the other side of town from where I lived. I drove like a maniac trying to get back as quickly as possible, coordination and clear thinking further hampered by Carrie’s hand on my thigh for the entire journey. As we pulled up in my street, Carrie looked around at where we were.

‘Is this near that street where the Polish shop and that new juice bar are?’

‘Yeah, as well as several charity shops of distinction.’

Carrie started laughing.

‘What?’

I searched my last utterance, but could find nothing even unintentionally amusing.

‘I live this close.’

She held her thumb and forefinger together.

‘No fucking way.’

‘I go to the shop, all the time, for milk and stuff. We’re always running out.’

‘Me too. Why have I never seen you in there?’

‘You’re probably at work. I usually go in the morning, before my first class.’

‘How far away – oh, sorry, you don’t have to say.’

‘No, no, it’s fine. This is Jeffries Street, isn’t it?’

I nodded.

‘Which is your flat?’

I pointed it out.

‘I knew it would be one of the big posh houses. I’m in the next street. You can probably see the house from yours, let’s go and find out.’

‘Wait – are you saying all this time, we’ve been meeting up here, there and everywhere, you could have just come round and saved me a fortune in diesel?’

‘Well of course I could, but I didn’t know that then, and the rendezvous have been part of the fun, haven’t they?’

Carrie hopped out of the car and waited impatiently for me on the pavement. She ran up the road as soon as I’d locked the car and waited for me by the front door as I walked more slowly up the street, enjoying the sight of her jiggling on the spot in her haste to get inside.

‘Eager to get in my pants, Miss Mitcham?’

‘You bet, Mr Scott, as are you, despite all your playing it cool. But first I want to see if I can see my room from your flat. Come on, open the door. Ground floor? First floor?’

‘Top floor, loft conversion.’

‘Ohh, I know which one is yours then. There’s only one loft conversion on your side of the street. Race you up the stairs.’

Inconsiderate of any other tenants who might have had an early night, we thundered up the stairs, giggling, stopping frequently to kiss, tease, then chase each other again. By the time we reached my door, we were both out of breath, rosy-cheeked and pumped full of adrenaline, endorphins and pheromones – a chemical explosion waiting to happen.

Carrie stood with her back against my front door and looked up at me, chest heaving pleasingly, her gaze burning me. I rested a hand either side of her and bent down to taste her mouth again. She ducked under my arm and grabbed my keys from my pocket before I had time to realise what she was doing, and shook them at me. I grabbed her round the waist and pushed her back against the door, pushing my hands up beneath her shirt and moaning at the feel of her skin, which was so soft and warm. I felt her arms go round my neck as I bent my mouth to her lips, then nuzzled and nibbled my way round to her earlobes, down the side of her neck and downwards to the collar of her shirt, where glimpses of cleavage had been driving me wild all night. Carrie kissed my ear as I found my way inside her shirt with my tongue, and the electrifying tingle that shot to my already hard dick gave me a jolt of pure ecstasy.

‘Let’s go inside first, do this properly.’

Her soft whisper, millimeters away from my ear, sent another jolt down below, and it was all I could do to stay on my feet. Carrie shook the keys again and gave them to me so I could unlock the door.

Once inside, lamps lit, she wanted to explore the place, look out of the window, find her house, but it was dark, and she was never going to be able to see it. And we had other things to be doing.

‘C … are you trying to put me off?’

‘No.’

‘Well come here then. You can have the tour tomorrow, or later. I want you, so much.’

l held my hand out to her. She stood by the window, biting her bottom lip, irresolute.

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t know. I was just thinking, how funny, what if they can see me, then I thought I’m going to have to tell someone, explain all this –’

‘What? You have to report back on us?’

‘No, I don’t have to, but it’s all part of my therapy, the help I’m getting. Maybe I’ve let myself get caught up in things a bit tonight.’

I tried to swallow my disappointment, be there for her. It was difficult with a hard-on the size of the Blackpool Tower, but I tried.

‘OK, then, let’s just have a drink, watch some TV, go to bed. You can have the spare room if you like. I don’t, ever, want to make you do something you don’t want to do. I love you too much for that.’

Shit, bollocks, holy mother of all that was now completely fucked up. Carrie’s eyes went wide at the same time as I pushed my hand over my mouth in a futile attempt to stuff the words back inside.

‘What did you say?’

‘Can we just pretend I didn’t?’

‘How is that going to help?’

‘It will help me feel like less of an idiot.’

‘I can think of a better way to do that.’

And she walked over to me, pulled my face down to hers and kissed me with a passion that even overtook that of the last hour or two, and that was saying something.

‘Feeling less of an idiot?’

‘Er, yeah, but a little more confused. I thought it would be a bad thing to say it, that it would complicate things for you. I think maybe we’ve done enough off-roading around the rules for tonight, my head might explode.’

‘It’s never a bad thing to tell someone you love them, what girl doesn’t want to hear that from a handsome man? You are awesome, Matt. Thank you for understanding me. Did you mean it about your spare room?’

‘Regretfully, I did. Although I would understand if you now want to make the long journey home.’ I gestured out of the window. ‘There might be a gap in the fence you could crawl through or something, to reduce your journey time.’

‘No, I want to stay here. I might tear my tights on the fence. And I want you to cook me breakfast. You keep telling me what a great cook you are, and you’re so going to prove it tomorrow.’

‘I have never said I’m a great cook. I’ve said I enjoy cooking, and talked about meals I may have enjoyed preparing in the past –’

‘So you’re getting your excuses in early, are you?’

‘Oh you evil cow, is that a challenge, then? Stupendous breakfast tomorrow morning chez Scott or I’m a big fat liar?’

‘If you like.’

‘Just wait then, prepare to be stupefied.’

‘It’d had better be good now.’

‘You have no idea.’

Carrie walked over to the sofa and plonked herself down on it, her face showing approval at the softness of the cushions. She patted the seat next to her and I walked over and sat down, unsure now what to do with my arms. I risked putting one round her shoulder, reasoning that she would tell me if she didn’t want it there, in which case I would move it. She sighed and nestled into me, which made it worth the risk, as it presented the top of her head to me and enabled me to drop a kiss on her hair and pull her closer, so she put her arm round my middle and rested her head on my chest.

‘Sorry Matt. I feel like the worst kind of cock-tease.’

‘Well if that’s what you were doing, then you are. But you didn’t do it on purpose, so it’s OK. My cock will understand, in a while, although it may not speak to me for a few days, until I apologise and buy it flowers.’

‘Ha ha, I love the way you never just say ‘that’s OK’, or ‘don’t worry about it’, you always come out with some long string of nonsense that says the same thing but takes about an hour more.’

‘I like that you love something about me.’

‘I’m not saying it back, not yet, not just because you said it.’

‘OK. Sounds … reasonable.’

‘When I say it, and let’s be clear, I will one day, it will be because I want to and I truly feel it.’

I could almost see tiny sparks coming from her eyes, and wasn’t quite sure where all the fire was coming from. I’d been stupid to let her know how I felt, and had no expectations that she would say it back.

‘OK. I’m just a little bit scared of you right now. I wasn’t trying to make you say it back, I was hoping we could just ignore it a little bit, like it’s not such a big deal.’

‘Martin used to make me say it to him.’

‘What? How?’

We hadn’t talked much about Martin, about her life with him. It was one of those things where I wanted to know, but knowing made my blood boil with a need for vengeance, and Carrie seemed uncomfortable talking about it, so we didn’t, really.

‘Sometimes he’d just go on and on, until I said it. All day and night, waking me up in the early hours. Sometimes I tried not to because maybe by the end I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t want to lie, but he’d just keep asking, saying it to me over and over, until he was yelling it in my face. Sometimes he’d tell me I couldn’t possibly love him because otherwise I wouldn’t have, I don’t know, looked at that bloke on the telly like that, or taken the last bit of milk, or something equally stupid, and it would start again, with him telling me I didn’t love him, until I just said I did to stop it. God Matt, I really don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want him here in this room with us.’

I pulled her close and kissed her hair, and realised completely why telling me she loved me, if she ever did, had to be something that she did in her own time, in her own way and under her control. And I resolved never to let those three little words out of my mouth again, until she’d told me first.

We sat not speaking for a while after that. I reached for the remote control on the iPod dock, turned some music on, and the soft tones of my ‘After Dark’ playlist filled the silence. I looked down at Carrie after a few minutes, and her eyes were closed. I stroked her hair back from her face and said her name, but she didn’t stir, and I sat there, happy, while she slept, her arm round me and her head on my chest.

I woke up with my head lolling back against the sofa, my arms empty, the room silent. It was after three in the morning. Had Carrie gone home? I got up, ran my hands through my hair to try to dispel the post-sleep disorientation that usually fogged my brain, and went to the door of the spare room, which was closed. I opened it as quietly as I could and peeked in, feeling a wash of relief as I saw the top of a blonde head on the pillow. I resisted the strong urge to go over and kiss her awake, and took myself off to my own room. I took my clothes off, put on my sleeping shirt and shorts, and lay down, but sleep evaded me. All of the parts of my body that had earlier been flooded with hormones, awaiting some jiggy action, seemed not to have got the message that there would be no jiggying tonight, hence their services were not required. I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling and tried not to think about the woman sleeping next door, and how much I’d wanted to curl up beside her, pull her towards me and – but I was trying not to think about it. Sometime near dawn, I must have fallen asleep.

It was light when I opened my eyes. Very light. The sun was shining through my pale blue curtains, insisting that it was late, and I should be out there enjoying its golden beams, not wasting the morning snoozing. I hated the sun telling me what to do, the interfering bastard, so I tried to close my eyes again, but my attention was taken by a hand on my stomach. A hand that didn’t belong to me. I reviewed the latest information from my sense of touch, which told me that as well as a hand on my stomach, there was a fair amount of someone else’s body touching a fair amount of mine, pretty close behind me, as well as the arm belonging to the hand, draped over my waist.

I smiled, fatuously, and stretched, happily, and put my hand over the one on my stomach, before turning over to find Carrie, looking at me with her bright blue eyes, a crooked smile on her mouth.

‘Hey gorgeous.’

‘Hey. So, if I don’t get my stupendous breakfast in ten minutes, you’re a big fat liar.’

‘Bollocks, I forgot. Why have I only got ten minutes?’

‘Because it’s ten to twelve, and twelve is when morning officially ends.’

‘Can I get an extension? I’d really, really rather explore what you’re doing here in my bed.’

‘There’ll be time for exploring later.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. I need some breakfast. I’ve been up since eight o’clock, which is pretty late for me. I’ve done my stretches and meditation, I’ve tried to read some of your hard sums books, I’ve watched some drivel on the telly, and I’ve finally watched you snore for half an hour –’

‘I do not snore.’

‘– and now I’m hungry and bored, and I need some breakfast in the next nine minutes, or I’m running up and down this street calling you a big fat liar.’

‘Right then.’

I jumped out of bed, possibly more quickly than I ever had before. I put the kettle on in the kitchen, I found eggs, butter and ham in the fridge, and put bread in the toaster. I poured boiling water into a pan and proceeded to kick the arse out of breakfast in six and a half minutes, clad only in my boxer shorts.

Carrie sat at the small table, watching me, but I refused to let her distract me. In a brief respite from stirring and watching, I poured a glass of orange juice, held the carton up to her, but she shook her head, so I held up a bottle of water, which got a nod and took them over to the table with cutlery.

I assembled two plates of stupendous breakfast in just over six and a half minutes, and delivered them to the table as the clock on the DVD turned from 11.59 to 12.00. Carrie looked at me with a gratifyingly impressed, and I would like to think amazed, look on her face. I noticed she was wearing one of my t-shirts, and a pair of my boxers, and she looked a hell of a lot sexier in them than I did.

I sat down opposite Carrie, waiting for her to start eating. She picked up her knife and fork.

‘What is this?’

‘Eggs Benedict.’

‘Won’t Benedict want them back?’

‘He’s willing to sacrifice them for your amazement. Eat up before it gets cold.’

I still hadn’t picked up my knife and fork; I wanted to see what her face said when she tasted it; I was nothing if not a needy cook. Carrie cut a bite of egg, ham and toast smothered in sauce and put it in her mouth. I watched in fascination as her eyes grew round and she looked at me, speaking with her mouth full.

‘Bloohy hehfigh Mah.’ She swallowed. ‘This is out of this world. You’re not a chef, are you?’

‘Nope, IT nerd. But thanks.’

And with that, I picked up my knife and fork and tucked in too. To be brutally honest, it wasn’t my best work, but with the limited time and pressure to perform, I thought I hadn’t done a bad job. Carrie didn’t speak until she’d finished, then pushed her plate away from her and leaned back in her chair.

‘That was totally stupendous. I thought you were just going to pour me a bowl of posh muesli or something, but … wow.’

‘So I’m safe from you running up and down the street calling me a big fat liar, then?’

‘Well, alright, although I was looking forward to that a lot. I’m too full now, though. That’ll have to do me for lunch as well. I don’t usually have much for breakfast, maybe an apple, but I think you might have converted me. Breakfast is my new official favourite meal of the day.’

I finished my eggs too, and picked our plates up, storing everything in the dishwasher and starting to fill the bowl for the pans.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Washing up.’

‘What now?’

‘Well, I hate washing up.’

‘Hm, and this is supposed to make sense in some weird way, is it?’

‘Well, yeah. Most stuff goes in the dishwasher, but anything that needs doing I do right away so I can’t see it looking at me from across the room when I’m watching TV. It’s one of the disadvantages of having a kitchen/lounge/diner.’

‘You’re weird. I hate washing up too, so I just leave it for days until I have no choice.’

‘Really? Days? How can you stand it?’

‘Don’t think about it. Easy. Why are we talking about washing up?’

‘You started it.’

‘I asked why you were doing it. I thought we might have better things to do.’

I looked round at her. She was playing with the hem of her – my – t-shirt and looking back at me through her eyelashes.

‘But last night you said –’

‘I know what I said. But you were so cool about it, and I’ve been thinking, properly thinking all morning, while you were snoring your head off –’

‘I don’t snore.’

‘– and I just want to be with you properly, like I wanted it last night, really, but freaked out a bit. I’m sorry I’m changing my mind every five minutes, it must be really annoying.’

‘As long as you eventually change it to coming to bed with me, right now, I completely forgive you.’

‘What, in your Marigolds?’

‘If that’s your thing.’

‘Not my thing.’

‘Then consider them gone.’

I pulled the rubber gloves off and tossed them over my shoulder, then pulled her up from her chair and tugged her with me to my bedroom.

To say that good sex was had by all would be an understatement. To say that great sex was had by all – ditto. Even to insinuate that only mind-blowingly hot sex and multiple orgasms were achieved several times by all participants would be a gross misrepresentation of the far more universe-shattering truth behind it all, but it would be fair to say that all participants were more than happy with the end results, which were all participants lying, unable to move, panting, big smiles on their faces, looking at each other in wonder and amazement, in the middle of the bed, with bedclothes and undergarments scattered around them.

*

And so it began, PCC 1.2.4. We’d got there, back to where we were in Devon, no more sex rules, no more worrying about how to touch, whether to kiss, wanting this, not allowed that. It was all there, all available, and it was truly worth waiting for.

There were other things that Carrie was still working on with the support of the WO, that she would continue to need their support with for some time. She stayed in the house at the back of mine for the time being; it was something she needed to do, and I had learned that delayed gratification could be better than instant gratification where Carrie and our relationship were concerned.

Carrie’s jobs helped her feel independent, and so did being able to afford where she lived. If she moved in with me, she couldn’t afford half the rent on the flat, although I told her that I was happy paying it all, and it stopped her from making that step, being scared of entering another relationship where she was reliant on someone else for a roof over her head. I could see her point and understand her fears. It wasn’t like she lived miles away, and she stayed over all the time anyway, so it was almost as if she lived there.

I took her to meet my mum, finally, after lots of nagging from both of them. They seemed to like each other, but I didn’t get them both together very often as Carrie seemed reluctant after the first visit. I finally asked Carrie about her own mum, as it was someone she never talked about, although I knew she lived in Stafford somewhere.

‘She’s gone, now.’

‘Gone … you mean, dead?’

‘For all I know, but that’s not what I meant. I meant, when I went into the shelter, one of the things was trying to sort out what the pressure points were in my life. My mum’s a drunk, but she’s never stuck with any treatment, any programme, she’ll do it for a few months, then something clicks and she’s back on the booze. She’d rather buy rotgut vodka than pay her electricity bill, so she was always asking for money, and I did my best, but I didn’t have much, and it frustrated the hell out of me that she wouldn’t stick with the help she got. Then when I met Martin he kind of took over, used to deal with her phone calls, sometimes he’d tell her where to go, sometimes he’d go and pay her bills, I don’t know why he did it, maybe so I’d have to stay with him. But it was a weight off my mind, and I didn’t think about it too much. But anyway, when I started looking at pressure points, my mum was one of them. Without Martin, I didn’t have the money to help her out when she asked for it, and while I was in the shelter I couldn’t check up on her, and she’s a mean bitch and I kind of hate her, even though she’s my mum, so one of the things they helped me do was refer her to a drugs and alcohol team once and for all, tell them I was not in a position to offer her any support for the foreseeable future, and leave it to them and her to deal with.’

‘Holy shit, C.’

‘Does it sound harsh?’

I couldn’t imagine ever leaving my mum to fend for herself, whatever she’d done, but I also couldn’t imagine her doing anything that would make me want to.

‘Yeah, a bit.’

‘Maybe you’ve never had to think about it with your mum, but a part of me was relieved that I wouldn’t have to do it anymore, all the effort for so little reward. She never hugged me, never once told me she loved me, that I can remember, my whole life. Once my Dad sodded off to wherever, she turned to me to meet her needs, but she wouldn’t have noticed me otherwise.’

‘C, I never realised. It sounds grim.’

‘It was grim. I’ve done it now, I’m free of her, I can’t think about it any other way. I’m not going to look her up, or think about her if I can help it. She had her chances, I’ve given her too many, and she blew them all.’

It took me a while to assimilate that, how coldly she’d been able to cut her mother out of her life. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for her, but I still couldn’t see myself doing it.

But both of us were constantly reassessing each other in the light of things we found out about each other, and we changed and grew in each other’s eyes. Our life, separate but together, became normal for us and before I knew it, nearly a year had passed. Bloody hell, I’d been in a relationship for over a year, and still wasn’t showing any signs of expiring by overdosing on commitment.

We’d made some good friends, some of them women Carrie had known from the shelter and their partners, some of them friends of mine who hadn’t been too happy to introduce excellent no-strings lay Matt to their wives and girlfriends, but seemed more at ease with obviously besotted Matt and his lovely girlfriend Carrie. We carved a life for ourselves, in this town, and for the first time since I realised I was going to have to stay to keep an eye on Mum, I was truly happy I had.

*

I was in the kitchen, making tea, waiting for Carrie to come round after one of her evening classes, when I heard the key in the door. Although Carrie didn’t live there, she had her own key, and knew she was always, always welcome. I turned to greet her, the words dying on my lips as I saw her expression, her pale face, eyes big and haunted. I was by her side before she could close the door.

‘What? What’s happened?’

‘They’ve pulled the funding for Women’s Org Stafford.’

‘Who have?’

‘Oh I don’t know, the government, someone. They’re closing the house and the drop-in centre, the safe-houses are going. I’m going to lose my jobs.’

‘Holy shit, that’s beyond terrible.’

I pulled her to me and held her. I felt her trembling, and I wrapped her up in my arms to try and make her feel safe.

‘What am I going to do without them, Matt?’

‘You’ll be OK. You’re so strong now, you’re more help to them than they are to you.’

‘Where am I going to work?’

‘There’ll be other places that need yoga and massage. Don’t worry about it tonight, we’ll have a look tomorrow, have a think, see what we can come up with.’

It was the way I did things – strategise, plan, plan B, plan C. Carrie was different, more chaotic. When people gave her solutions, she tore them apart and said why it would never work; she needed answers before she started; she catastrophised; she panicked.

Carrie disentangled herself from me and walked over to the sofa. I went to the hob to stir a saucepan that was in danger of bubbling over.

‘I can’t wait until tomorrow. I barely held it together at the school tonight, I can’t do another class with this over my head.’

‘Call in sick tomorrow then, if you can’t cope with the classes. I’ll take the day off too, we’ll sort it out.’

‘I can’t do that, it’ll be obvious.’

‘What, that a huge blow like this has affected your ability to do your job, which you might not have much longer? Yeah, that’ll be obvious, but also completely understandable.’

‘I can’t.’

Once she said no, there was no persuading her, so I didn’t bother arguing and changed tack.

‘Is there someone you can call? Talk about it, what your options are?’

‘There are no options. There is no money, that’s it. Gone.’

And here we were, where we often ended up, going round in circles. I tried to think of someone else she could call, someone not connected with the organisation, who might have a chance of talking her down, but couldn’t come up with anyone she would be open with. Then I thought of …

‘Beth. Call Beth.’

I could hardly believe I was suggesting it, I was opening us both up for a world of interfering sister-in-lawing, but Beth had said a long time ago she had a friend for every occasion, or some such shit, and although we hadn’t been down to see them since that week in Devon, I knew she would come through in some way, if she could.

‘No, I’m not calling your brother’s busybody wife, who I haven’t seen for over a year, to tell her I’ve just lost everything.’

‘Beth’s not a busybody.’

Oh she so was a busybody, but admitting that wasn’t helping my cause.

‘She’d love to help you if she can. She’s great at listening.’

‘Yeah, when she’s not talking. Don’t you remember how much she went on when we were there?’

‘Er, I remember her helping you get in touch with WO and by default getting you the help you needed.’

And yeah, I remembered her going on, but that also wasn’t helping my cause.

‘And look where it’s got me. I might as well not have bothered, I’m worse off than before, at least I didn’t know how things could be before.’

‘But C, I know I might be at risk of blowing my own trumpet here, but WO surely isn’t the only important thing in your life? What about me? You’ve got me, you’ll always have me. So they close the house – live here. Don’t pay rent until you can afford it. I’ll ask at work, a couple of people there would be interested in a yoga class, I can –’

‘Don’t you dare try to take over. That’s just what he did.’

She was looking at me as if she’d just found a slug on her lettuce.

‘What?’

‘I won’t live with someone who thinks they can keep hold of me by paying for everything.’

‘What the fuck? You know that’s not what I said. C, sometime you’re just going to have to accept an offer of help from me as what it is, no ulterior motive, just because, fuck it, I’m going to say it, because I love you.’

It had been a year, and I was still waiting to hear her say it, but this felt like time to remind her that I could do things, did do things for her, not just for me. Maybe a small part of me wanted to remind her that she’d once said she would say it to me one day.

‘I know you want to be independent, and you are, you’ve shown everyone you can be, and I’m so proud of you for getting there. But independent doesn’t mean doing absolutely every sodding thing on your own. Everyone needs other people sometimes. Like …’

I searched my memory for something from my life I could compare to this. Not much sprang to mind until I remembered my old flat.

‘… when my door got kicked down in my old place. If I was completely independent, not needing anyone, I would have slept in the corridor, wouldn’t I, or spent a miserable month in the Travelodge, but I went to my mum’s, because I knew it would make me feel better and she’d want to help. I needed her. It’s OK to need people, it’s perfectly OK, everyone needs people sometimes, it makes us feel good too.’

Carrie was quiet, then, curled up on the sofa, TV remote in her hand, flicking through the channels, lost in her own world while I finished making tea. She didn’t speak until we’d nearly finished eating.

‘Don’t you think Beth would be a bit sniffy if I just called her out of the blue and asked for help?’

‘I can’t imagine Beth ever being sniffy. Give her a go.’

She nodded, but didn’t say anything else until I was clearing away the plates.

‘If I moved in with you …’

She had really been doing some thinking while she was flicking through cartoons and infomercials.

‘Yeah?’

‘Would it have to be here?

‘Well, no, I suppose not. Don’t you like it here?’

‘Yeah, I do, but it’s yours. I’d feel better if it was ours. Maybe something a bit cheaper, so I could at least pay as much as I can afford.’

‘OK. Plan.’

‘I don’t know when the house is going, it might not be for a while yet. I’d like to stay there as long as possible.’

‘Of course, it gives us longer to look for somewhere.’

‘Matt …’

‘Mm?’

‘I’m sorry I said, you know, about wanting to keep me here by paying for things. I was in a state. It wasn’t very nice of me.’

‘It’s OK. I understand, you bloody irritating lady.’

‘Dinner was awesome.’

‘Thank you. And for dessert …’

This was my big surprise, I’d been anticipating it all day, but the last hour had, I’d thought, scotched it for now.

‘Oh, no, I couldn’t eat anything else. I might just have a bath and go to bed.’

‘Did I say it was food? Just wait two seconds to have your bath.’

I went to the fridge, took out a plate with a silver coloured cover over it, and deposited it on the table in front of her.

‘I thought it wasn’t food.’

I exaggerated an exasperated sigh and stood with a hand on my hip.

‘Lift the lid.’

She did as she was told, which was a minor miracle, and looked puzzled at the envelope lying on the plate. She picked it up, opened it and her mouth fell open as she saw the plane tickets and hotel reservation.

‘New York? Really? When did you do this?’

Then her face fell.

‘I can’t afford it.’

‘You don’t have to – no, don’t get your knickers in a twist again. Listen. This is a thank you from a client, a big rich client who thinks I did a good enough job for him that I deserve to take my beautiful girlfriend to New York for Christmas –’

‘Christmas?’

‘Yeah, didn’t you see the dates? Seven days, from the twenty first of December.’

‘Oh Matt!’

Her eyes were shining and for a little while all of the bad was chased from her mind.

‘Really, someone gave you this?’

‘Yep, and spending money too.’

That was a little white lie, but I knew she would insist on going halves if I didn’t say it. It didn’t seem particularly evil of me, and it was making her smile, so it must have been a good thing to do.

Every day for the next week, I silently thanked Mr Sato for his generosity; without Christmas to look forward to, I don’t know how Carrie would have got through the next couple of months, as the WO slowly dismantled around her, tearing her carefully built life apart.

I tried to show her that I could be as big a part of her life, could keep her as safe, if in different ways, but I was treading a fine line, I felt, between caring and smothering, and didn’t want to be accused again of being like Martin. It made me realise that there was still some distance between us, some space, a gap, a need, that I couldn’t yet fill. She still held back, still didn’t say she loved me. I accepted it, held her, loved her and helped her plan for our future without WO.

6. Waiting for a girl like you

In which Matty reconnects in different ways with varying outcomes.

Matt

I didn’t get home until the next morning, Mum and me having shared a bottle of wine with the fish and chips, and both of us having opted for an early night. We’d watched the talent show, I’d taken the piss out of it mercilessly, and then I’d shown Mum some of the photos from Devon. I hadn’t needed to tell her much, she’d seen it.

‘You like her a lot, don’t you, I can see it in your face.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Is she in some kind of trouble?’

‘Did Jay tell you that as well?’

‘No, dear, but you said it was a literal escape. What were you running away from?’

Not much got past Mum, even though she dressed up her scouting for information in vagueness and seeming misunderstandings.

‘Her fucking evil bastard boyfriend.’

‘Language, Matthew.’

‘He deserves it, I’m not going to apologise. He deserves worse than that, he deserves worse than any words that exist to describe him.’

I gave Mum the edited highlights, playing down the threats, playing up the great time we’d had, how much Beth and Jay had helped us out. I’m not sure I got away with all of it; a worried crease appeared between her eyebrows that didn’t go away despite my best bullshitting.

‘So where is she now?’

‘In a safe house. She didn’t have anywhere else to go, and it really wasn’t a good idea for her to stay with me. I can’t see her, or even talk to her until she’s got somewhere to live.’

‘You don’t even know where she is?’

I shook my head.

‘Oh Matthew, that’s terribly sad. I’m sorry for you dear, you must miss her very much.’

‘Yeah I do. I can hardly believe it, I’m not the one who goes around pining after women. But Carrie’s just got to me. Hey ho, though, it won’t be forever, hopefully just a few weeks and I’ll see her again. Oh, and you’ll never guess who came round while I was away …’

I silently thanked Andrew for giving me the perfect diversion from maternal sympathy overload, and launched into an account of my afternoon trying to track him down.

The next morning, the obligatory fried breakfast out of the way (hey, I cooked it, alright? I do an awesome fry-up), cups of tea consumed, Sunday papers partially read, and the full horror of the Scott Suite divulged, I went home.

Nothing immediately alerted me to the carnage I was going to find when I rounded the corner of the stairs, but the missing front door and splintered door frame, cordoned off with strips of ‘police crime scene’ tape, alerted me pretty quickly and heart-stoppingly.

Mrs Harding must have installed a spy camera in the ceiling or something, as she came out and watched as I stood there open-mouthed, gazing through the tape to the wrecked room beyond.

‘Hello Mark.’

‘Matt. Hi Mrs H. Er …’

Words failed me, and I gestured helplessly towards where my door used to be. The actual door was lying in two pieces in the middle of the floor of the living room, surrounded by smashed up bits of TV, computer, phone and pictures. Books were flung about, ripped and broken.

‘I had to call the police, some thug up here was making such a racket, I was terrified.’

She sounded like it was my fault, and looked like she was expecting me to apologise.

‘Did you see who did it?’

‘No, I was cowering in my bedroom ready to jump in the wardrobe if they tried it on my door.’

Yeah, this would have to be the first time you didn’t stick your beak out for a good nose, wouldn’t it. It was an unworthily selfish thought, but I didn’t feel remotely charitable.

‘Well I’m sorry if it disturbed you.’

I tried to put as much sarcasm in my voice as possible, and I can layer on the sarcasm when I need to. I felt bad about it for a second, as it must have been scary for an old lady to listen to a door being broken down only a wall’s thickness away from where you were, but the tone of voice rolled right off her.

‘I should think so too. Don’t know what kind of company you’re keeping, but you need to change your friends if that’s the sort you’re bringing round here.’

I wheeled round to her, angry at the injustice of being told off for having my flat trashed.

‘Hey, none of my friends did this. Someone’s broken in and wrecked the place.’

‘Yes. Well. I told the police your name, they said they were going to try to find you. Been out all night, have you?’

‘At my mum’s.’

Not that it was any of her business if I’d been visiting all the strip joints and pole-dancing clubs in town.

‘Hm.’

Which she obviously thought I had.

‘Hold on – what name did you give the police?’

‘Your name. Mark Short.’

‘It’s Matt, Mrs Harding. Matt Scott. My name has never been Mark, I don’t know why you insist that it is, so it’s hardly surprising the police didn’t manage to find me to tell me about my flat. Now if you’ll excuse me, it looks like I have some clearing up to do.’

She glared at me coldly as I ripped the police tape and stepped into my living room.

‘I don’t think you should be doing that.’

I swung round, the last day of sadness, confusion and now anger bubbling out of my mouth.

‘Just piss off and leave me the fuck alone. If you can’t even get my name right, just don’t even fucking talk to me.’

I stomped through the broken glass and bits of plastic to my bedroom. I don’t know what I had been expecting, maybe a haven from the destruction, but there was more of the same in there.

My duvet had been ripped in half, spilling the filling like snow across the bed and floor, and my bookshelves had been pulled over, scattering the contents everywhere. A glass of water that had been on my bedside table had been smashed over the books, and several of them now sported wrinkled pages.

As I surveyed the devastation, I started to tremble, my lips started to quiver. I was not going to cry because of something that arsehole had done. But being here was overwhelming and I needed to get out.

Patting my pockets to make sure I had my keys and my mobile, I rushed out of the flat, down the stairs and to my car. I was shaking too much to put the key in the ignition. I took several deep breaths, realising as I did so that driving at this moment wasn’t a good idea.

I felt very alone. I had lots of mates here in Stafford, but when I thought about it, they were all footy mates, or work mates, or chess mates – nobody close enough to call on in an emergency like this. Andrew had disappeared into thin air. Carrie was in a secret hideaway, and this wasn’t something I would have dumped on her anyway, given the circumstances. That left Jay or Mum. I needed my Mum.

‘Hey Mum.’

‘Matthew. Is everything alright, dear?’

‘No. Can I stay at yours tonight?’

‘Of course, whatever’s happened?’

‘Someone’s broken into my flat, trashed it.’

She gasped. ‘No! How terrible! Are the police there?’

‘It happened last night. The police have been and gone. I suppose I need to call them, tell them it’s my flat. My neighbour gave them the wrong name.’

‘Oh come back over, Matthew, stay as long as you need to, you know that.’

‘Thanks Mum. It’ll take me a bit longer than usual, I’m too shaky to drive, I’m going to get a taxi.’

‘Oh Matthew, be careful.’

Mum was awesome. She always came across as slightly vague and laissez-faire about things, but her mind was as sharp as a tack, and before I even got there she’d written a list of things I needed to do – police, insurance, carpenter, landlord, and more. All the things that would have occurred to me eventually, but would have needed me to be in a calmer state than I currently was. She sat with me while I made the calls, offering words when mine failed me, patting my shoulder or touching my hand when I choked up, grimacing with me through the stupid questions the insurance company asked me.

Only when I’d finished, when I’d managed to pay a carpenter to fix the door at treble the normal rate because it was a Sunday and the bloody landlord wouldn’t agree to pick up the bill, when the police had finished asking me questions about Martin and why he might have wanted to harm my property, which I hadn’t answered fully because I didn’t want them bothering Carrie on her first day of being safe, when the insurance company had emailed me a claim form, only then did she look at me, concern in her eyes.

‘Are you sure this girl of yours is worth it?’

My shoulders sagged, all the pent up tears came flooding out, and she gathered me up in a hug that only a mum can give, full of unconditional love, empty of judgement. It didn’t last long, and as I sniffed to a halt, pushed away from her and smiled weakly at her, I answered her.

‘Yeah, she bloody well is. Because that could have been her, but it wasn’t, because of me.’

‘Well, alright dear, fair enough. But I’m worried for you. What if he comes back and breaks the new door?’

‘What if he does? It’s still a mess in there, he can’t trash it anymore than it already is.’

‘But after it’s all cleared up, after you go back.’

I was silent for a moment, an idea I’d had forming since the middle of last week taking on an urgency and a focus.

‘I don’t think I’m going back. I mean, yeah, to get any of my stuff that’s salvageable, but he broke the big stuff, and it’ll just be books and clothes and kitchen stuff. The insurance can sort out the mess, that’s what I pay my premiums for, and I’ll give in my notice tomorrow. Oh, er, can I stay here while I look for somewhere else?’

‘You know I’d be delighted to have you to myself for a while. I don’t see you enough these days.’

And if I’d still been an excellent no-strings lay, there’s no way I’d be trying to bum a bed off my mum for a few weeks, but without Carrie I was going to be without need of a bachelor pad, and the relative monastery of Carol Scott’s spare bedroom, aka my old bedroom complete with Airfix model of the Saturn 5 rocket I made when I was eleven, would suit me just fine.

‘Thanks, Mum, you’re awesome. I’ll enjoy it too.’

So Project Capture Carrie 1.2.1 began the next day. I regretfully informed my cheapskate landlord that I wouldn’t be returning to my flat; I called in to work to let them know I needed a couple of days of personal time due to a traumatic break-in; I went back with boxes and bin bags, collected everything that was collectable, itemised and photographed everything that was damaged beyond repair, including some collectables, wrote it all on my insurance claim form, left the mess for the landlord and the insurance company to fight over, and started looking for a new place to live.

It only took a day. I found a two bedroom flat (ever hopeful, but a spare room would be handy anyway) about as far away as you could get in Stafford from either my flat or Carrie’s old flat. It was a nice area, and the kitchen looked out, eventually if you looked far enough, to hills beyond. It was close to a little shopping street, which had a café and a small food store amongst the charity shops; it all felt good.

I agreed to move in at the end of the month, signed the tenancy, and spent the rest of the afternoon buying furniture for it online. The previous flat had been furnished, and somehow the thought of all those unknown people who might have sat on my sofa or slept in my bed always made me uneasy. Having my own stuff was way better, especially if it was new. My bank account was taking a bit of a battering, but I was enjoying it in a strange way. It almost felt like a new episode of life was opening up, one where I took charge of things for a change instead of going with the flow.

I still kept a close look out for Martin, all the time. I hadn’t seen him for more than six months, but I was sure I’d recognise him, as sure as I was that he’d recognise me. I didn’t know if the police had contacted him about my flat, or been able to pin anything on him, but he was unlikely to have warmed to me for giving his name to them. Who knows, maybe it wasn’t him who broke down the door. Yeah, maybe the pope doesn’t wear a funny hat. So I was still on my guard, every day.

Once back at work, I was thrown right into a morass of business. While I’d been away, Eyeti had put some expansion plans into force, and new work was rolling in without, as yet, the staff to cope with it all. I picked up as much slack as I could, and was grateful for the distraction. On my second day back, I answered my phone without checking the screen.

‘Matt Scott.’

‘Well aren’t you the brisk business man. Hello Matty.’

‘Beth?’

‘How are you? Carol’s just this minute told me about all your troubles. Why didn’t you call us, sweetheart?’

My brain did a strange loop-the-loop thing, as I’d been thinking hard about how to solve a work problem, and had successfully pushed every single other thing in my life out of my head while I wrestled with it.

‘Matty?’

‘Yeah, sorry, I was just in the middle of something. You threw me. It’s OK. I mean I’m OK, it’s all sorted now. There’s nothing you could have done. Mum was great, I’m staying with her until I move into my new place.’

‘And when were you going to tell us about your new place?’

‘Oh, when I moved in I expect. Why would you need to know? You never visit me.’

‘Only because you never ask. And you only have one bedroom.’

‘Had. Two now. Fancy a visit?’

‘Well we’d love to. Will you be in before the start of the season?’

Ah, so it was still down to the rugby.

‘When is that?’

‘Well pre-season has already started, but weekends are still fine. Pre-season friendlies start in August, so no weekends then, and the season starts in September.’

‘How do you do it, Beth?’

‘What?’

‘Let your whole life be ruled by a bloody sport? Only seeing people in the summer?’

‘I suppose if you’re with someone who’s worth it, it’s easy.’

And ain’t that the truth.

‘Yeah. So, it’s not sounding like a visit from you is likely before next year, then. Although you could always come up with Cal, leave Jay to fend for himself.’

‘You know, I might do that one day. Be careful what you wish for.’

‘I always am.’

‘But you’re sure you’re alright? Nothing else to report? Have you heard from Carrie?’

‘No, but I’m assuming that the old saying is true about no news being good news. It’ll be at least a couple of weeks yet, I’m sure. I’d kind of like to be in my new place when I next see her, could be a bit of an embarrassing reunion if we have to do it at Mum’s.’

‘Ha ha. I’m sure Carol wouldn’t mind staying in the kitchen while you two go at it on the coffee table.’

‘Beth!’

‘What?’

‘Such unladylike talk from you, of all people.’

‘Well, you’ve made it nearly the entire way through a conversation without swearing, it needed one of us to lower the tone.’

‘True. Piss off then, I’ve got work to do.’

‘Bye Matty.’

‘Bye Beth.’

For a couple of weeks, work hardly stopped. I barely had time to eat or sleep, let alone think, and that helped me more than anything. Although I was living at Mum’s, I didn’t see much of her, as I’d get home late, eat dinner, and then collapse into bed before getting up ridiculously early to do it all over again. There was no respite at weekends, as the work needed doing. The light at the end of the tunnel was that Eyeti had recruited new staff, who would be starting in a week, so help was at hand.

At the end of the third week of work hell, as I fell exhausted on the sofa on the Friday, looking forward to my first Saturday off since I’d got back from Devon, Mum handed me a stack of post.

I’d had my mail redirected from my old flat, and the Post Office seemed to save it all up in one huge bundle to deliver on a Friday. I flicked through it absently, one eye on the TV, most of the post being bills or advertising; however, there was a handwritten envelope that caught my eye. The writing was familiar. I looked at the franking mark, but it was smudged and I couldn’t read it. As I opened the envelope and saw the header at the top of the paper – ‘African Technology Ministry’ with smiling pictures of African children in schoolrooms – I nearly binned it with the other charity advertising, but something made me look down at the bottom of the page for the signature. I had recognised the writing on the envelope, after all. And there it was. Not a signature, a single name. Andrew. It was a letter, from Andrew. I hadn’t had a letter, an actual letter, for years. I sat up straighter, interested now, and began to read.

Dear Matt

I’m so sorry I haven’t been able to contact you to tell you our news before now. I tried to see you a few weeks ago when we were in Stafford, but you must have been away. Please apologise to your neighbour for causing her any disturbance.

Karen, Rebecca and I have moved to Kenya, to work for the ATM. It was a bit of a sudden move. A few months ago, we found Jesus

Oh, Jesus, no.

and I realised that there was a reason I was so interested in computers and technology.

Yeah, because you’re a geek, Andrew.

I found a job with ATM, whose aim is to provide every person in Africa with usable technology that will improve their lives in the name of the Lord. While we are working for ATM, we will not own any personal technology, as this will deprive another African person of something we could have given to them.

Except for some kind of Iron Age typewriter, obviously. Which, who knows, an African person might find more useful than the Angry Birds app.

I’m sorry I was unable to contact you to tell you this, or explain why I have not contacted you before.

I am permitted a certain amount of emails per month to contact friends and family who may otherwise not hear of the wonderful work of the ATM, or the love that Jesus has for them.

Well yippee, we’ll all look forward to hearing from you, in that case.

You can contact me on adistock@afrtechmin.org. I’d love to hear from you, but I might not be able to read your email for some months. Please be patient with me, as you have always been.

Until now you stupid, stupid arse.

Please be mindful that any emails might not be read only by me, as we use them for teaching purposes, and that your particular style of humour may not be appreciated by a seven year old African child.

Your friend

Andrew

‘Fuck me backwards with a stick of rhubarb.’

‘Language, Matthew. And, er, inappropriately rude suggestions. What’s the matter?’

‘Do you remember I told you about Andrew coming to see me while I was away?’

‘Yes dear. Didn’t you go to his wedding a few years ago? Haven’t they got a little girl now? Rebecca isn’t it?’

How did they do this, women, remember every tiny detail of every bloody person in the world’s sodding life, when I can’t even remember my best friends’ daughter’s name?

‘Yes, yes and yes. Well he’s only gone and got religion and flown off to Africa and eschewed technology until everyone in Africa has some of their own. Or the apocalypse lets him off, presumably.’

‘Oh dear. He might be some time without a laptop then, in either case.’

My mum’s sense of humour took me by surprise sometimes. It was just the right thing to say, and it made me laugh, a lot.

‘Know what else? I’m allowed to email him, but I must curb my wit because it might not be appreciated by any seven year old child who might stumble across it in some bizarre teaching accident. But that’s my natural level! A seven year old child would be my ideal audience! Right, I’m cooking up the best seven year old wit email I can muster, and sending it tomorrow.’

‘Really dear?’

Mum had that look in her eyes, the one I usually tried to ignore but inevitably had to pay attention to in the end.

‘What?’

‘Well, whatever you think of Andrew’s new life, he’s been your friend for a long time, and he’s asked you for something specific, or in this case specifically not for something. I expect he’d be happy to hear from you, he’ll be in a strange country, amongst strangers, and letters from friends are always welcome, but if you just write something wicked, firstly you might get him into trouble, and secondly he might think you don’t care about him, or that his new circumstances have upset you in some way.’

‘Well they bloody have. Who gets religion these days? We used to laugh our arses off at the Christian Union lot at Uni.’

‘It’s still his life, Matthew. All I’m suggesting, is be a bit kind, especially while this is new to him.’

‘Bloody hell, Mum. OK, I’ll be sensible. Won’t stop me composing a doozy of an email for later on, when he needs an out and I can get him the sack. Or maybe I could smuggle him an iPad, or –’

My phone rang, interrupting my stream of ideas for rescuing Andrew from the clutches of the African Technology Ministry. I glanced at the screen. Number withheld. Could be a cold caller, but these days, I was never sure.

‘Matt Scott.’

‘Hi Matt. It’s Carrie.’

I gasped. I had been hoping, but not expecting, to hear from her for a while.

‘Hey you. Oh C, it’s so good to hear your voice. Where are you?’

‘I can’t tell you that, I just wanted to say, things are good, great, it’s all going according to plan. I’m going to have a job and somewhere to live pretty soon, and I’ll be in touch.’

‘That’s brilliant, C. How are you?’

‘I’m really good. I’ve met some amazing people. I so want to see you, can you wait just a bit longer?’

‘You know I can. I miss you so much.’

‘Yeah, same here. I can’t say any more, I’ve got to go, but take care of yourself.’

‘You too.’

‘Bye.’

‘Bye.’

I continued to hold the phone to my ear after she had disconnected, hoping maybe she was still there and I’d hear her breathing. Eventually I realised how ridiculous I was being, and disconnected too, and looked at Mum, unable to rein in the big soppy grin splitting my face.

‘Well that just tells me everything I need to know about how you feel about her, dear. The look on your face is priceless.’

‘I’m bloody hopeless, aren’t I?’

‘I’d say so. Do you want some shepherd’s pie? I’ve kept it warm.’

‘Love some.’

I sighed happily as Mum went into the kitchen to fetch my dinner. PCC 1.2.2 seemed to be underway.

Life went on. Work had quietened down with the new intake of staff, and a further round of recruitment was going to ease things more. I could finally count on my weekends and evenings again, and the day quickly came when I got the keys to my new flat. I even had time for a day off to move in, and enjoyed putting things where I wanted them, taking delivery of furniture, putting some of it together but leaving the rest for the weekend.

I bought Mum a huge bunch of flowers to say thanks, and told her she was welcome to use my spare room anytime she had her front door kicked in. She countered that she’d rather use it because her son wanted his mother to stay over, maybe when she’d had one too many glasses of red wine, so we agreed that was an acceptable compromise, as long as I wasn’t entertaining a lady-friend. We also agreed that either of us would hang a sock on the door if we got lucky, which would curtail any embarrassment felt at unexpected early morning semi-clothed meetings, and I told her where to find the supply of condoms in the bathroom. She was a bit of an old dear sometimes, but mostly my mum was alright.

I’d been in my flat for about a week. I’d just got in from work, with laptop, iPad, keys and bag of shopping falling from my hands as I tried to open the door to the flat without putting any of it down, when I heard my phone ringing in my pocket. I dropped it all to fish the phone out, wincing at the sound of smashed eggs and broken glass. It was another number withheld. There had been several of these, each time raising my hopes, only to dash them when some bastard announced that he was sorry to hear about my recent accident, but …

I opened my door on autopilot and started to nudge everything across the floor with my feet as I answered, fully expecting to be commiserated with about my recent imaginary fender bender.

‘Matt Scott.’

‘It’s Carrie.’

My day lit up.

‘Hey C.’

‘I’m out.’

‘Holy fuck. Really? Where are you?’

‘Still can’t say. Can we meet?’

‘Fuck yeah. Name the time and place.’

‘Pizza Place. Thirty minutes?’

‘Pizza Place? Really? OK, whatever you say. Which one, retail park or town centre?’

‘Town centre.’

‘I’ll be there. Woohoo.’

‘I haven’t got long, I just want to explain things to you.’

‘What things?’

‘Not over the phone, Matt. I want to do it in person.’

‘OK. Thirty minutes. I’m there.’

Pushing misgivings aside, I shoved food into the fridge, dumped broken eggs and jam jars in the bin, put my laptop and iPad on the counter, quickly changed my shirt, vainly checked my face in the mirror and ruffled my hair rakishly, grabbed my keys and set off for PCC 1.2.3.

I saw her as soon as I walked in, sitting with her back to the door, but they made me wait in the queue to be seated, which I nearly got arsey about, but didn’t want Carrie’s first sight of me in over a month to be while I was getting shirty with a sixteen year old waiter. Eventually I convinced them I was with someone who was already sitting at a table, and I walked over, trying for maybe a slight hint of insouciance, but unable to stop myself rushing over at the last minute and skidding to a halt in front of her.

The look on her face when she looked up at me was almost worth the last few weeks. It spoke to me without words of feeling the same longing, the same missing you, the same ache that I’d felt. I wanted to pull her into my arms and hold her all night, but I sensed some hesitation, realised I needed to play by rules I may not be fully aware of yet, and sat down opposite her.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey.’

‘You’re even more gorgeous than I remember.’

I put my hands on the table, wanting to take hers in mine, but her hands remained on her lap.

‘So are you.’

‘Really? Shucks.’

‘I missed you.’

‘I missed you too. Can I hold your hand?’

‘Well … I was hoping to get to the food before I did this, but let’s see how far we get before they ask us what we want and we say large deep pan meat feast with two salads and a beer for you and a water for me, yeah?’

I raised an eyebrow. ‘I see you’re taking control of the situation.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s part of what all this is about. You know I said I want to explain things?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I bet you worried all the way over what I’m going to say, didn’t you.’

‘No.’

‘Really?’

‘Alright then, yeah.’

‘You’ve no need to worry, it’s nothing bad.’

‘You haven’t got religion, have you? Because I’ve already had one friend turn to the dark side this month, I couldn’t cope if you did too.’

‘Ha ha. No. Isn’t religion officially the light side, though? Anyway, not important right now. I want to explain what’s going to happen, with us.’

‘Oookaay.’

She was sounding very composed, very sure, and very clear. It was a little bit scary.

‘It doesn’t sound like I have much of a say.’

‘Let me explain first, then you’ll see why it feels like that.’

‘You’re not trying to get me to join the Moonies?’

‘The what?’

‘A cult.’

‘No. Focus, Matt, it’s nothing to do with religion, OK?’

‘Alright. Talk then. Oh, here comes the waiter so we can tell him what you decided we want.’

The words came out sounding a bit more petulant than I had intended.

‘Don’t be like that, just – oh, large deep pan meat feast, two salads, a beer and a water please. Thanks. Hear me out, please? I don’t want to screw up this first time by arguing with you.’

‘I don’t want to argue with you, either. I’ve missed you so much, C, I’ve thought about you every minute of the day, imagined you, how you smell, what your voice is like, how it feels when you touch me.’

‘Matt, stop it. I’ve missed you too, just as much, done all those things. I can’t do all that right now.’

‘Oh. Have we at least got time to eat the pizza I’m going to be picking all the meat off while I’m listening to you tell me how things are going to be?’

Petulant Matt was back, feeling a little hard done by. Carrie didn’t reply, and as I looked at her, I noticed with horror that her eyes were filling with tears.

‘No! C, I’m sorry, I’m a fucking idiot. Tell me. Say anything. I’ll stop being a whiny kid. I was just expecting things to be one way, and you’ve thrown me a curve ball and I’m sulking. Please. Here.’

I handed her a serviette from the dispenser.

‘You seem to make a habit of mopping me up in eating places.’

‘I’m a git, what can I say. Please. Tell me. I’m listening.’

‘Alright then. But just so you know, saying it is harder than hearing it.’

‘Try me.’

I attempted my best relaxed posture, but under the table I couldn’t stop my leg jiggling with anxiety. It didn’t feel like good news, and I suppose I’d been trying to put off the actual moment when she told me she couldn’t have a relationship with me other than ‘friends’ or else her women chums would shave off all her hair and tattoo ‘harlot’ on her forehead.

‘OK.’ She took a deep breath. ‘I’ve talked to a lot of people the last few weeks. Counsellors, psychologists, social workers, volunteers, other women like me, you name it. People I would have never thought in a million years I’d be talking to. It took a lot of sorting out, a long time to get there, but I realised that I’ve had no control over my life for the last four years, since Martin took it away from me. I need to take the control back, and if I just jump into something full on with you, I’ll lose it again. You’re the best, Matt, you’re so caring, you always think about me, but you’d want to do it for me, or help me with money, or something, even live with you, I don’t know, and I need to do it on my own, for a bit, to prove to myself that I can. So my plan is we do this, us, in stages. The end goal is us, together, like we were in Devon. But not yet, not until I know I have some control. So there are steps, and much as they’re going to frustrate the hell out of both of us, I need to prove to myself that I can do it, that I can control it, before we go to the next step. So, the first step, tonight, is going out for a meal, somewhere there are lots of people, no touching, no kissing, no hugging, however much we want to. If that works, and I feel like I have control, then whatever we do next will still be busy and crowded, I don’t know, cinema or something, but we can hold hands. If that isn’t disastrous –’

I put my hand up, in the manner of schoolboy asking to be excused.

‘What?’

‘Can I ask questions? I’ve got a zillion.’

‘Can it wait till I’ve finished? I’ve kind of been psyching myself up to this.’

‘OK.’

But I had tons of questions already, I was impatient, and I hoped I remembered half of them before she got to the end. I was relieved by the thought of us getting back to how we were in Devon, but terrified by imagining all the different ways I could fuck it all up between now and then if I wasn’t really, really careful.

‘OK, so after holding hands, we can do hugging, but not groping, and all still in public. Then kissing. Then we can go somewhere more private if we want to, I don’t know, a club or something, and if all that goes well, then it’s my place or yours and we’re back to where we were.’

She spread her arms wide and smiled, a weight seemingly gone from her shoulders as if she’d just explained the simplest thing in the world to a small child, and managed it well.

‘Can I ask questions now?’

She nodded.

‘What happens if I fuck it all up?’

‘You won’t.’

‘Believe me there is a lot of potential for it. I’ve been waiting for you for weeks. Did I mention the thinking about you all the bloody time? What if I get ahead of myself, ahead of the schedule? Do I just get sent to the naughty step, or is it three strikes and I’m out, or zero tolerance? What? It feels like I’m being put under the microscope here, to see how well I do, what score I get. It’s a lot of pressure.’

‘You do have a choice.’

‘Do I? What, like it or lump it?’

Carrie looked defiantly back at me. I’d nailed it.

‘Seriously? After all this time, you come back, lay down the law as dictated by some man-hating bearded ladies, and say, yeah I’ve missed you like fuck too, Matt, but if you don’t like it, well, adios?’

Our pizza chose that moment to be delivered. It nearly ended up on the floor, disgusting processed meat and greasy cheese covered thing that it was, interrupting my time with Carrie. As the waiter placed our drinks and salad bowls on the table and exhorted us to ‘enjoy our meals, guys’, I suspected he could have cut the silence into slices and distributed them as a taster platter to the other tables.

‘You do remember why I’ve been away, don’t you?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Do you? Really? Because it sounds like you think I’ve been having a lovely time by the pool with my friends, instead of curled up in a ball hating myself most days, trying to work up the courage to talk to the next bloody know-all fuss-pot who thinks she knows about me and my problems, but turns out that, yeah, she actually does know, in the end, and after a while, I stopped crying all the time, and only cried after the sessions, not before them, and eventually they were bloody great, and they’ve saved my bloody life, and if you can’t see that, and see beyond the oh-so-witty things you call them, to the work they do with train wrecks like me, then you’re not the man I thought you were, and we’re done here.’

I sat, chastened, staring at the table. I had been a selfish git, there was no denying it. I’d been in the real world while Carrie confronted some ugly demons in some kind of purgatory, and it hadn’t occurred to me that keeping her safe would involve more than a few arts and crafts sessions and maybe a weekly talk by a lesbian, while everyone fended off the menfolk at the door with pitchforks. I didn’t share this vision with Carrie; instead, I gave myself a mental slap.

‘So, this plan of yours, no touching today, then?’

‘Not today.’

‘But next time, I can hold your hand?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Can I call you, or text you?’

‘Yeah. I’ve changed my number, I’ll give it to you now.’

She held her hand out for my phone.

‘But nothing rude or flirty, not yet.’

She held my gaze, imploring me to understand. I wasn’t sure I did, not right now, but I nodded as she tapped her number in and gave me back my phone, because even if I didn’t get it, I could do it.

‘And no badgering me. If I need peace and quiet, leave me alone.’

‘OK.’

‘You said you had lots of questions.’

‘Don’t seem important now. You’ve got somewhere to live?’

‘Yeah. I’ll take you sometime.’

‘Where is it?’

‘In Stafford.’

‘OK, fair enough. That’s good. What if Martin finds it?’

‘He won’t. Er, didn’t you know he’d been arrested? I thought you must have, it was because of you.’

‘What?’

‘The police came to see me, the second day I was there, Martin told them about me, and they found me somehow. They told me about your flat, asked me about Martin. I told them all about him, but not all about us.’

‘Shit, I specifically didn’t say much to them about you, I didn’t want them barging in with their size elevens all over your safe house.’

‘Aw thanks, that’s sweet, but it did the trick. Got him arrested, and he resisted arrest, so he might have a jail term. Maybe it’ll sort him out.’

‘Or make him more dangerous.’

‘Yeah, let’s not go there. But anyway, you don’t need to worry about me where I am, it’s secure. And I’ve got a restraining order against Martin. Maybe you should think about it, too.’

‘What?’

‘Seriously, Matt. He trashed your flat. I’m so sorry about that. I’d hate … you should think about it.’

I noticed it, the shift, from her feeling guilty about it, to the onus on me to protect myself. It was impressive, and I felt proud of her.

‘I’ve moved, he won’t find me.’

‘Up to you. Where to?’

‘In Stafford. I’ll take you sometime.’

‘Very funny. Fair do’s, I suppose, if we’re going to be on an equal footing.’

‘Can you tell me about your job?’

Carrie’s eyes lit up, and lifted my heart. This was something she could tell me, something she was excited about.

‘Yeah, as well as the yoga classes at the school, which start in a month or so, and a couple of other things I had from before, I’m going to be doing classes at two of the safe houses, and massage and aromatherapy at the drop-in centre off the High Street twice a week. WO is paying me, not loads, but it will all help.’

‘Go C. That’s so great. But won’t – oh I’m going to shut up. It’s occurring to me that this isn’t some shambles of a giddy women’s club, it’s more like a secret society run with military precision, by ex-members of MI5 or something.’

‘Ha ha, not quite, but they do know their shit. Are you going to have any of this pizza or not?’

‘Not.’

‘Really? Not a meat lover?’

‘Not a compressed leftover brains and rat droppings lover, and not a Pizza Place lover, so’s you’d notice. But that’s OK. I can sit and gaze at you while you eat it. You’re beautiful with mozzarella strings on your chin.’

I wanted to reach over and rub them off with my thumb, then run my thumb along her bottom lip, while she gently licked it with the tip of her tongue …

‘Go and get a salad then.’

‘Again with the rat droppings.’

‘Sorry, I didn’t realise you were such a snobby eater.’

‘Only the best goes into this finely tuned set of tubes.’

I patted my abdomen.

‘Well, how about you choose where we go next time, then? It doesn’t have to be a meal, it can be anything.’

What I really wanted to do was get her to my place, cook her the lightest filet mignon with a couple of crispy potato fries and a mustard sauce, feed it to her while kissing the juices from her mouth, and then lead her to the bedroom for the second course. But that seemed to be step three thousand and ninety four, and felt like a lifetime away.

‘There’s a French film on at the Arts Cinema.’

‘Yeah?’

‘There? Tomorrow?’

‘Can’t tomorrow, not in the evening, anyway, I’ve got a class. Friday?’

‘Plan. Meet you there 6.30.’

‘Will I need to learn French before then?’

‘Mais non, ma petite fleur, le film a des sous-titres.’

‘Do I need to learn it now? You seem to have turned into Eric Cantona.’

‘Ha ha, I’d prefer David Ginola. It will have subtitles. And you’ll be too busy holding my hand to watch it anyway.’

‘You could be right. God Matt, it’s so hard not to touch you.’

I could have said ‘why don’t you then’, but I was starting to get it, why she needed to do this, what it meant to her, and I just wagged an admonishing finger at her while stealing a bit of rat-shit pepperoni off her pizza.

And so we chatted, about this and that, she told me a tiny bit of what it had been like for her since I last saw her, but mostly we kept it light, and it felt like we could almost grasp hold of a bit of how it had been with us, and how it would be again. She was still Carrie, she was still beautiful, she was still the woman I desired above all others. But she had changed, was still changing, and both of us needed to get used to that, while we were getting used to seeing each other again. I won’t say all of this occurred to me while I was sitting there talking nonsense with her, as mostly what occurred to me was ‘holy fuck you’re gorgeous’ and ‘I want you so much’ and other variations on a theme. But enough of it filtered through that by the time we’d eaten as much as we were going to – which in my case was limited to a couple of stolen pieces of pepperoni because she thought it was cute when I did it – and she said she was going to have to go, I didn’t pin her to her seat to stop her from leaving me again. Although I felt like doing it. Instead, I took a deep breath.

‘I’m sorry if I was a dick earlier.’

‘It’s OK. I guess … I didn’t look at it from your point of view. I’ve been thinking about me, how I’m going to do things, all this time, I’ve had to. I suppose I can see that you haven’t been through that process with me, and it was a bit of a surprise.’

‘I just felt like, I can see it’s important for you to have control, but it felt, feels, like I don’t have any, and I don’t like it, and that’s a big lesson for me, but at first it didn’t seem fair, I’ve wanted something so different for the first time I saw you again. But I understand, you’re not saying never, you’re just saying ‘slowly’, I get it. You’re right, I was going to ask you to move in, I’ve got a flat with two bedrooms, but to be honest my mum’s bagged the spare for when she’s shit-faced on cheap plonk after we’ve ripped Britain’s Got Very Little Talent to shreds, so you can’t come now, anyway.’

‘Ha ha. I’ll have to meet your mum sometime, she sounds great. Bet my mum could drink her under the table, though.’

I’d forgotten the vague hints Carrie had given me that her mum had a drink problem, and winced at my insensitivity.

‘Well, meeting the mother, that’s a long way down the line, not been there yet, with anyone.’

‘Really? You always talk about her like you get on with her really well.’

‘Yeah, I do, but it says something, doesn’t it, taking a girl to meet your mum?’

‘What does it say? This is my mum?’

‘Yeah, don’t pretend you girls don’t all have your secret signals you use to confuse us poor blokes. Meeting the mother is like, ‘buy the hat, Mum’. No roses on Valentines Day is ‘pack your bags’, can I buy you a drink is ‘toast or cereal or me for breakfast’ –’

‘I can see you’ve made a full and detailed study of women. Maybe you need to try some of it out on a real one.’

‘Love to. Hoping to.’

Carrie looked at me, a half-smile on her face.

‘I’ve had a great time tonight, seeing you again is awesome.’

‘Me too. Like I said, sorry for earlier. I’m with you, I’m going to do this with you.’

Her half-smile became a whole one and my heart skipped.

‘Thank you. I’ve had a thought, what you said about not having control, well that’s not right, is it? I’m not going to change the rules, but you get to choose the places. All of them. No more Pizza Place.’

It actually made a hell of a difference.

‘Whoa, C, that’s awesome. Thank you. I want to hug you.’

‘You can’t.’

‘I know.’

‘Stop it then.’

‘Sorry. I’ll put myself on the naughty step when I get home, give myself a stern lecture on the benefits of self-control, discipline, will-power and resolve, and hope it prevents a repeat performance.’

‘You’ve still got the gift of the gab, haven’t you.’

‘Not quite sure why I would lose my super-power.’

‘Come on, it’s time for me to go.’

‘You’re breaking my heart. Coffee?’

‘No thanks. Anyway, isn’t it made from rat droppings here?’

‘I expect so.’

Carrie stood up, and I stood too, feeling awkward, not knowing if I should leave with her, or stay while she went. In the end I stayed, watching her walk away from me, turning to wave at the door and disappear into the night.

I was awash with a churning mass of emotions. I’d seen her again after all this time, and that was better than great. After a shaky start, the chemistry between us had still been there, and that was even better than better than great. But this new thing, these rules, made my heart heavy and that was much worse than great. I let the waiter bring me a cup of rat-shit coffee, and I stared into its murky depths, lost in thoughts.

My phone pinged, and I picked it up. A text from Carrie. Already. This was good.

‘Gr8 2 c u looking 4ward 2 film wots it called?’

‘Micmacs. Loved being w u 2nite. Missed u.’

‘Missed u 2. c u soon tho xxx.’

‘Thinking abt u xxx’

‘u 2 🙂 nite nite xxx’

‘xxx’

As I sat there reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the texts, slightly nauseated by the smell of the coffee, it crossed my mind how things might be, how I could make my peace with this whole ‘take it slower than a snail on Valium’ deal.

It wasn’t that Carrie was changing the goalposts for us, saying we couldn’t be what I wanted us to be. Despite what I’d said to her, I hadn’t really got that, hadn’t been able to look beyond my upset at not getting what I’d been expecting. No, Carrie wanted it as much as I did, the closeness we’d had, but she was putting other things first so that when we had it, it was right for her, for both of us. The goalposts were still in the same place, we’d just moved further away from them and needed a few fancy moves to get us within striking distance again. Now I had a footballing analogy, I felt much better, bloke that I was. I left my coffee, paid the bill and went home.

2. Do you remember the first time?

In which Matty does some things for the first time, and does other things for the last time.

Matt

I pushed her away and stumbled backwards.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

I so wished I had my glasses; the whole world felt out of focus, things were happening that I didn’t quite understand, and it was all making me feel a bit sick and dizzy, but she’d put them somewhere, and I couldn’t see to look for them. Cindy moved towards me again, until I put up my hands in a kind of fending off gesture.

‘Andrew’s my mate.’

She laughed again, compounding the confusion I was trying to fight my way through.

‘It’s OK, Matt. Drew and me have a … um … open relationship. We both see other people if we want to.’

‘What?’

First I’d heard of it, but then Andrew didn’t really confide in me much any more.

‘Yeah. It’d be OK.’

Her voice was low and breathy, and she was so damn close, and now she was touching my arm, running her fingers slowly down from my shoulder, and I thought I was going to explode. I was so conflicted. This was what I’d been thinking about for weeks, Cindy touching me, kissing me, me touching her, it had filled my alone time, given me some nicely sordid little fantasies for the shower, but it being real was different. I couldn’t quite get my head round it.

She was closer now. I’d backed up against the wall, and she was right in front of me, almost touching, so almost that it felt like there were little arcs of static between us. She reached up again and cupped my cheek.

‘You’re so cute. It’s really OK to have a bit of fun, Matt. Drew would be totally OK, I know it.’

Now she was closer, I could see her face, and look into her eyes, and I was lost. I was gone. Whatever ear-splitting alarm bells were going off in my head, this was Cindy, this was my daydream come true, offering ‘a bit of fun’, and saying her boyfriend, my best mate, would be OK with it. I stopped struggling with my conscience, and my hormones took over.

Iz

OK, so here’s the first taste of Matty love. Go Matty and all that, but this is what you have to look forward to.

Matt

Now, I may have lacked experience in the women department, but what I lacked in practical application I had more than made up for in theoretical learning. I had read books – no, not just porn, but real books, about what made women tick, what turned them on, where to touch, what to do, how to be. I’d watched DVDs – again, not just porn, but ‘how to’ stuff. I was pretty much a theory into practice kind of guy, and I had a head full of knowledge that was just aching to be tried on a real live woman. Here was real live Cindy, apparently desperate for it to be tried on her, putting all my well-researched theories into practice.

‘I’ve never –’

How could I have never? I was eighteen. Eighteen and a half if you want to split hairs. Practically middle-aged in the virginity stakes. But there it was, and I needed to get my excuses in first.

‘I know. Drew said. It was so cute, the two of you coming here all innocent.’

Oh great – did Andrew just blurt all my secrets?

‘It’ll be OK, Matt, you’ll be fine. I know you want to, I’ve seen you looking at me.’

Yeah, well, cat out of the bag, then, nothing to lose. Unable to stop another groan or moan or grunt escaping from my throat, I tentatively lifted my hand up to touch her hair, then the other hand, then cupped her face in my palms, with my fingers in her hair, and bent down to her mouth, which opened beneath my lips, and all the softness and slipperiness and tongueiness I had ever imagined opened with it.

And then things happened really quickly. I’d always, in my imagination, taken things really slowly the first time, so I could savour the moment and relish the experience. But I hadn’t factored in several years of teenage neediness, nearly two months of pining forlornly after Cindy, or the fact that she had her tongue down my throat, her hands up my shirt and her luscious body pressed hard against me. All of these elements made for an explosive cocktail, and before I knew it she’d pulled my shirt over my head, had divested herself of most of her clothes too, and was standing in front of me in her bra and pants. Then I definitely wasn’t able to go slow.

Every single one of my buttons had been well and truly pushed, and stopping now would cause cataclysmic, seismic chain reactions that would be felt in the depths of rural China. I pulled her towards me with my hands on her buttocks and kissed her deeply, grinding my crotch into hers. She kissed back, but started to pull me towards the bed. I willingly followed her lead, and lay down next to her, where we rolled around for a while, kissing and rubbing against each other until I wasn’t sure I could take it much longer.

This was so much more than my distant memories of pashing Lily Knight, this was real, this was grown up, this was sex, or at least it was going to be in the very near future. I felt Cindy reach for my belt, unbuckle it, and slide the zip down on my jeans, then her hand wriggled below the waistband of my boxers and I felt her fingers on my cock. I nearly let rip against her right then, but just managed to control myself.

‘You can touch me, Matt, I won’t break.’

She turned away from me and arched her back, and I could see her nipples peaking through the lacy fabric of her bra. They were irresistible, and with widened eyes I bent my head down to them. As I touched and tasted her breasts through her bra with my tongue and fingers, she wiggled my jeans and underpants down my thighs. When she had taken off the remainder of my clothes, she reached behind her and unclasped her bra, and I had my first ever view of a real live pair of breasts. I was awestruck.

‘Holy fuck.’

‘Hopefully.’

I couldn’t help myself; I leaned down to her, cupped them both, kissed them both, sucked them both, unable to stop feasting on them.

I’ve always been a bit of a breast man – actually who isn’t? Some of us say it’s legs or arses or necks or even elbows, but really, when it comes down to the nasty, it’s those two soft orbs of womanliness that are the difference between us, those glorious spheres that quiver and tremble with every movement, that have nipples that harden under your touch, your breath, or even your gaze.

Nipples are so much more subtle than dicks; if you can see a woman’s nipples through her shirt, it might not be because she’s aroused, she could just be cold. Or she may just be excited about what she’s talking about. You can never assume, you have to delve, and I’ve always loved a good delve.

Breasts don’t have to be big, although big is beautiful. They can be small but perfectly formed; they can be the ideal medium-sized handful; they can be purely perky or delightfully droopy; they can be high fliers or low slung; they can be almost anything and they’ll attract my attention.

I have given a lot of thought to breasts over the years. Lau’s are perfect – not so big that they’re the only thing you notice when you meet her, although yeah, I noticed. Not so small that she has to wear padded push-up bras to get a cleavage; what you see is what you get – well that’s pretty much Lau all over. But more of Lau later. Patience, dear readers.

Anyway, so I’m a breast man. Could be something to do with all that time with my mum – ew, let’s not explore that little nugget too deeply – and Cindy was pushing me closer and closer to the edge with hers. I could easily have come just by looking at her, but I wanted to do it properly.

‘Shit, condom.’

‘I’m on the pill.’

‘But we should still …’

‘Why? I’m clean and you’ve never done it before, so why do we need it?’

I ignored all the reasoned arguments about only ninety nine percent guarantees, and not knowing her that well so could I trust her, and I didn’t need any further persuasion, especially as I had no condoms, and didn’t fancy sprinting down to the vending machine in the Student Union while Cindy went off the whole idea back in my room.

‘You’re forgetting something.’

Cindy ran her thumb under the top of her pants, if you could call the tiny scrap of nothing much pants.

‘Can’t do anything with these on. Take them off.’

I was open to suggestions or, as it turns out, direct orders, at that point, and did as I was told, pulling the lacy thong down her thighs, over her feet and dropping it on the floor. I would have liked to have explored it a bit longer, having a bit of a thing for knickers, but events were urgently coming to a head.

‘Come on, Matt, what are you waiting for?’

I groaned as Cindy spread her legs, and the promised land awaited and I just knelt and stared at her naked body in awe. I felt a moment of panic, as I wondered if I really knew what to do, but it seemed like my brain was happy on autopilot as I knelt between her thighs, positioned myself and plunged forwards into her. I had never felt anything like it, in all my wildest wanking fantasies. To feel myself inside her, filling her, pulling out, thrusting back in, the friction, the movement, the sensation. I wanted it to last, but it wasn’t going to last, it was going to be over soon, I could feel it building and bubbling, filling my balls and setting my cock on fire, and Cindy seemed to be building and bubbling too, writhing beneath me, moaning, and here it came, here I came. It rushed through me, searing my body with hot electricity, pouring out of me in streams of throbbing … joy. I shouted, and Cindy shouted, and I collapsed on her, panting, unable to move or feel or speak, until she pushed me off her and I rolled onto my side, a grin on my face.

I was spent. I was in heaven, or somewhere very like it. Surely not my smelly room in halls, it must be some kind of divine antechamber. There was an angel lying next to me at any rate. I looked into Cindy’s eyes, smiled, and pulled her close, kissing her hair, stroking her soft skin.

‘Wow.’

‘Good?’

‘Wow.’

She laughed and rolled away from me.

‘Good then. Bin bags.’

‘What?’

‘We’ve got to get to the charity shop before they close.’

‘What? No. I can’t move.’

‘Come on, get up, no time. They shut at one on a Wednesday. Here.’

She threw my jeans and t-shirt at me so they landed on my chest. I really didn’t want to get up. I wanted to hold her close and talk about what had just happened, how amazing it was, how much I loved her. Nothing in my books and DVDs said it would all be over within minutes of all the shouting.

‘Can’t we just … stay here for a bit? I dunno, hold each other and talk or something?’

‘Ha ha, no Matt. That was great, but cuddling is just for me and Drew.’

‘Oh.’

It was as if someone had plunged me into an ice bath. The glow I’d been feeling disappeared instantly, replaced by a sinking feeling.

‘What was all that about then?’

‘We were just having fun, weren’t we?’

Yeah, if your idea of fun is having your heart ripped out and stomped on fairly comprehensively. But obviously if you’ve been stupid enough to believe something different when it isn’t true, you’re not about to admit it.

‘Yeah, I suppose.’

‘Well then. Bin bags, for this lot. Come on.’

And for some reason, I did what she said. I put my clothes in bin bags, I meekly followed her to Oxfam and gave them away, and I bought what she told me to from the same shop. I did it all in a daze, unable to put coherent thoughts together, unable to speak much. I even let her lead me into an opticians, where a lucky cancellation meant a trial pair of contact lenses and an order for a new pair of glasses. Walking back without my glasses on, I felt naked, which further compounded the strangeness.

When I got back to my room, Cindy having gone to the Union bar in search of Andrew, I dumped the shopping bags on the floor and flopped onto my bed. Cindy seemed to have lost interest in the ‘big reveal’, and I still hadn’t looked at myself in the mirror. I was – well, heartbroken may be overstating it a little, I don’t think my heart was broken. For the few minutes we were – what were we doing? Fucking? Yeah, sounds right. For the few minutes we were fucking, Cindy was the love of my life. I’d wanted her since Andrew got her. I’d overlooked several annoying character flaws in favour of several distractingly attractive physical traits, but since she metaphorically poured cold water on me straight after the sex, I’d been in a stupor of regret and self-condemnation. I’d just slept with my best friend’s girlfriend. I’d just ignored all the carefully constructed fantasies of how I wanted my first time to be, of how respectful and careful and giving I was going to be, to have a frantic fuck with someone I shouldn’t have. Instead of lying here glowing, revelling in the fact that I had at last HAD SEX, I was lying here cold and miserable inside.

It felt like Cindy had used me. Whether she and Andrew really did have an open relationship or not, I had no idea, but she had wanted me at that moment, and she’d had me, and that was that.

I could have lain there all afternoon feeling sorry for myself, wondering whether to say something to Andrew, and what exactly that something would be, and I did spend some time doing that. But then I made a decision. I’d lost my virginity, not in the way I’d planned, and not with someone I would have chosen, not really.

My crush on Cindy was well and truly over, as any woman who would sleep with their boyfriend’s best mate wasn’t for me, even though the twisted logic of that and what it said about me had to be shoved far to the back of my mind. But I’d had sex. I’d done it. It had been incredible, and if only for that I could be thankful to Cindy. She’d cut my hair and changed my clothes, and I decided to have a good look at what she’d done.

I hauled myself off my bed and walked over to the mirror. I looked back at myself. Skinny, lanky, dorky, stupid Star Wars t-shirt. Cool haircut, though. And my eyesight was so poor that it had been a while since I’d studied myself without glasses – but contact lenses undoubtedly changed my ‘look’. Maybe the clothes would make a bit of a difference after all. Feeling ridiculous, I looked in the bags from the charity shop for a different shirt and trousers, and changed into them. Considered the results in the mirror, although as I turned this way and that, I felt like a preening princess. But even so, I had to admit to looking and feeling different. The bloke staring back at me was still a skinny lanky dork, but he had a bit of something about him. Maybe it was the hair, maybe it was the clothes, maybe it was the lack of specs. I quite liked it, and smiled stupidly at myself.

There was a knock at the door. I opened it to find Andrew, and immediately felt embarrassed at my newly makeovered state; he didn’t look too happy to see it either.

‘She did it, didn’t she.’

He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me backwards into the room.

‘What?’

‘Cind. She cut your hair. Bought you clothes. Did she fuck you too?’

‘What?’

‘I’m not stupid, Matt. Where are your glasses? What’s all this?’

He pulled at the collar on my shirt.

‘Er …’

‘Did you?’

‘What?’

‘Fuck her?’

This was so far removed from any conversation I’d ever had with Andrew that all sensible words fled my brain, but he must have seen something in my face.

‘Jesus Christ, you did, didn’t you. What did she tell you? That we had an open relationship?’

‘Er …’

‘Jesus Christ. You fucking knob. She’s my – Christ, Matt, she’s the best thing that ever, ever happened to me and you’ve just fucking – ugh you knob.’

And with that he punched me. It came out of nowhere, and I suppose really it wasn’t that hard of a punch, him being a nerdy dork with no muscles, just like me, but it connected with my cheek and knocked me backwards so that I fell on my arse on the floor, and he jumped on top of me and we started wrestling as I tried to get up and he tried to stop me. He grabbed the collar of my shirt and pulled my head up, then let go and the back of my head bounced on the floor.

‘Ow.’

‘Sorry.’

‘What?’

We stopped wrestling and looked at each other. Andrew had tears running down his face, and a strange mixture of emotions raced across him: sorrow, anger, shame, and finally laughter. He started to shake with it, seeming to come close to the edge of tears again. I lay pinned beneath him, trying to get my breath back, trying to work out what was going on.

Eventually Andrew stood up and held a hand out to me. I took it warily, and pulled myself to my feet, wondering what was coming next.

‘Shit, Matt, you bastard. You fucking bastard.’

I hung my head, barely able to look at him.

‘Sorry. She said you –’

‘I know exactly what she said. She said it all to me, that first night. She’s got a boyfriend, back home, some footballer bloke. Apparently they have an open relationship too, and she’s done the haircut and clothes thing with him as well. When she told me she’d made you over, I just started thinking, what if that’s what she does, how she does blokes? I think she collects virgins.’

‘What?’

That seemed to be my catchphrase at the moment; I had spent most of today in a haze of not understanding and getting things completely wrong.

‘This footballer bloke, she told me she was his first too, then me, now you. And I think – shit I hate to say this – I think she might have done the open relationship thing with someone else.’

‘What, here? On campus?’

Andrew nodded. I sat down on the bed, and he sat next to me.

‘Christ, what a mess, Matt.’

‘So you guys don’t have an open relationship?’

Andrew snorted.

‘Well she obviously does, she just neglected to inform me. I thought we were pretty exclusive, apart from her back home boyfriend, who apparently ‘didn’t need to know about us’. Shit, I’m just as bad, aren’t I.’

‘Sorry. I just believed her. Still, I shouldn’t have done it.’

‘She’s hard to resist.’

‘Yeah.’

‘You’re a fucking bastard bumhole for doing my girl.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I should dump her.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I might not, though.’

‘OK.’

‘I don’t want you to fuck her again.’

‘OK.’

And there we had it. Andrew spent the rest of his three years at University being tormented by Cindy. I lost count of the times he knocked on my door, needing to talk, needing reassurance that he was doing the right thing, or wanting permission to dump her, or just wanting to tell me he loved her but that he’d found out about yet another ‘makeover’.

He eventually dumped her for good just before Finals, which screwed both of them up so much they both failed – some would say justice was done.

Whereas I’d lost my virginity, but found something else, a new haircut, new clothes, a new face. I’d also found attractiveness, confidence, of a sort. And Cindy had been right – walking into the canteen that night had been a revelation.

Shallow as it made me, I couldn’t help being pleasantly surprised at the amount of girls who came and sat at my table, chattering to each other at first, but swinging covert glances my way, and holding eye contact. The new bruise deposited on my cheekbone by Andrew was also a bit of a talking point, and elicited sympathy and a few tender touches too. I was asked if I was ‘new’, and when I told them I’d been here since the beginning of term, and always sat in this spot for dinner, I smiled to myself at the ‘no, that other bloke sits here, kind of skinny, with … oh!’. I went back to my room that night a new man. I wondered if Andrew felt the same way.

And thus began the belated chapter in the life of Matt Scott: Ladies Man. The rest of that term, I chatted girls up, tentatively at first, worrying all the time they were going to laugh in my face, but gaining confidence as even if they didn’t fall at my feet, they at least talked back. I went on dates, I had lots more sex. University campuses seem to be the place for it; lots of girls and boys away from the constraints of home life for the first time, eager to test out their new found freedom. It worked for me. I took more interest in my appearance, not to the point of obsession, but there were to be no more haircuts from my mum, and I bought my own clothes now.

By the time I went home for Christmas, I was juggling two potential girlfriends and a couple of one night stands who wanted it to be more. It was a little overwhelming, and I relished the three week break back in Stafford, where I could get on with some course work in peace. I turned my mobile phone off and decided to take a breather from the whirl of girls.

When I got home, I was surprised to find Jay installed in the living room. We grunted a greeting, mine a more subdued grunt than usual, as he was an interloper these days, someone who treated the place like it was home, but was hardly ever there. A bit like me, now I was at Uni, I suppose.

‘How come you’re back?’

Jay was never around for the festive season, there was always a game on Boxing Day, or thereabouts, or there was training or travelling or some such shit.

‘Done my hamstring. Out for a few weeks.’

‘Oh. Bummer.’

‘Yeah.’

Not playing rugby was just about the worst thing that could happen to Jay. He was naturally taciturn, but not playing rugby made him sullen and self-pitying and a general pain in the arse to be around. I sighed inwardly at the thought of trying to be jolly for him for the next – how long?

‘So you’re back for, what, a week or two?’

‘Not sure. Might have to go back in a few days, start rehab.’

‘What, before Christmas?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Mum’ll be disappointed.’

Jay shrugged, Mum’s disappointment being neither here nor there for him when compared to the thrill of doing lots of exercises so he could play again.

‘Your brother thinks he might be able to do some physio with the Old Rotarians down the road.’

Mum had come in, unheard by me, and I turned round and gave her a welcoming hug.

‘Hi Mum. Oh, well, that’ll be great if Jay can stay here a bit longer.’

I looked at him pointedly, but he was staring impassively at the TV.

‘Yes dear. It’s lovely to see you, Matthew, have you brought much washing?’

I grinned and fetched my bags.

‘Is that a new haircut, dear?’

‘Yeah. Andrew’s girlfriend did it.’

This stirred Jay.

‘What, Dipstick’s got a girl?’

Andrew’s surname was Distock, with predictable consequences.

‘Must have missed the headlines on the news. Class minger is she?’

‘Jameson, stop it now. Andrew’s a nice looking boy. So is Matthew. What have you done with your glasses, dear?’

‘I got contacts.’

‘You look very different. You can see your eyes. You haven’t got a girlfriend have you?’

She looked at me hopefully. I laughed and shook my head at her.

‘Not yet. Too young to get tied down.’

I wasn’t about to get into the tangled web of girlfriends, potential girlfriends and one nighters that had littered the last few breathtaking weeks.

‘Yeah, and the class minger’s taken.’

‘Fuck off, Jay.’

And I wasn’t about to take Jay’s shit anymore. He was sitting there like he owned the place, like the whole world revolved around him and his precious hamstring, and he needed a – well, maybe a slap would just get me in more trouble than it was worth, but give me a few years in a gym and I could do it. At least a slap. Anyway, I’d gone away to Uni a boy, but I felt like I’d come back a bit of a man, and I wanted him to know.

‘Matthew, language.’

‘Sorry, Mum, but –’

‘Jameson’s come back to … recuperate from more than an injury. Just be nice to him.’

‘What?’

‘Just be nice.’

She looked at me, asking me with her eyes. I caved, and looked at Jay, who was still staring at the TV. Fascinating programme about sharks, apparently. I looked back at Mum, who mouthed ‘later’ at me and took my bag into the kitchen to start my laundry.

I have to say, in my defence, I usually did my own laundry, but Mum liked to do it, is what I told myself, and I’d had a hard term and I was knackered from the long forty minute bus and train journey home and deserved a bit of pampering.

I sat down on the sofa, slipped my shoes off – Timberland boots I’d found in a charity shop the week before – and lounged along the length of it, prepared to give sharks a go in the name of being nice to Jay. After a while I felt his eyes on me and looked up at him.

‘What?’

‘You. What’s with the new look?’

I shrugged. ‘Just fancied a change.’

‘Working for you is it?’

‘S’pose.’

This was Jay and me communicating at the highest level. There were hardly any grunts at all. Sophisticated linguistic effort on both sides.

‘What’s she like, then?’

‘Who?’

‘Dipstick’s woman.’

‘Don’t know why you’d care, you think she’s the bloody class minger.’

‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to be a git.’

What? Had Jay just apologised? I hadn’t heard the trumpets announcing the end of the world, so I had trouble believing it.

‘I was just interested. Feels weird you guys being all grown up. So what’s she like then?’

This felt strange, talking normally with Jay, but I bit the bullet.

‘Pretty, I guess. Bit of a bitch, though.’

‘Oh?’

‘Fucks around.’

‘And Dipstick puts up with it?’

‘He’s besotted.’

‘Idiot.’

‘Yeah, well.’

We went back to watching sharks. Apparently, they don’t have any bones, and some of them can live up to a hundred and fifty years. Who knew.

Jay wasn’t finished yet though.

‘Seriously, Matty, what’s with the hair, and the contacts?’

‘Like I said, time for a change.’

‘And Dipstick’s bitch girlfriend was the one to change you?’

He’d hit a bit closer to the truth than I liked, and I made my reply deliberately offhand.

‘Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

Jay gave me a sharp look.

‘She didn’t fuck around … with you?’

I shrugged, trying to make it as small a deal as possible.

‘Amongst others.’

Jay’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline.

‘Holy shit, Matty. You broke your duck.’

‘Fuck off. How do you know when I broke my duck? How do you know I had a duck to break?’

‘It’s written all over your Jack Wills jeans and your lack of nerd-specs. You got laid, little bro.’

‘So? Who hasn’t?’

I was really trying to hold my own with Jay. This was about the most adult conversation I’d ever had with him, not that there was a lot of previous experience to compare with, and I was determined it wasn’t going to dissolve into petulant insults and sneering, at least on my part.

‘Ha ha, nice try at nonchalance.’

Nonchalance? Since when did Jay know words like nonchalance?

You hadn’t, at least not to my knowledge, not before you went away to Uni. You didn’t seriously boff your mate’s girlfriend? Not your first time?’

Jay was looking at me with a mixture of disbelief and awe and … something else I couldn’t identify.

‘It wasn’t like that.’

I squirmed with embarrassment. I’d tried to erase the whole Cindy incident from my mind, had hardly seen her or Andrew since, had been comfortable with not exploring it in any way.

‘What was it then? Mistaken identity? They were on a break? They have one of these modern ‘we can see other people’ things going on? And by the way, good on Dipstick if he’s managed to wangle that one.’

‘Yeah, you’d think.’

‘What? Really? They see other people?’

‘Not they. Her.’

‘Oh. Oh Matty …’

I would almost describe the look that came over Jay’s face as sympathetic.

‘She told you they do other people, and you did her, and then you found out Dipstick wasn’t quite as open-minded as she was.’

‘Yeah, very perceptive.’

When the hell had Jay got perceptive?

‘He punched me, actually. And his name’s Andrew, not Dipstick.’

‘He punched you? Like, actually made contact? Did it hurt? Jesus. I’ve been away too long.’

‘Yeah, it hurt. But I deserved it.’

‘Yeah, I’ll say you did. But he didn’t dump her?’

‘No, like I said, besotted.’

‘Sounds like he deserves what he got as well then.’

‘Whatever. Can we talk about something else? Or find out more about sharks?’

‘Your call.’

We turned back to the TV, but it wasn’t long before Jay’s newly awakened curiosity surfaced again.

‘So was it just the once, or have there been more?’

‘What is it with the zillion questions?’

‘Just showing an interest. You’re my little bro, I worry about you.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since you went out into the big wide world away from mummy’s apron-strings and started fucking around with your best mate’s woman.’

‘Piss off. I’m not about to go into details to satisfy your prurient prying.’

‘Fine, have it your way. Just thought you might like to talk about it with someone other than Mum. But I’m sure she’ll be up for advice on premature ejaculation, or what to do when the condom splits, or how to leave in the morning when you’ve got no intention of seeing her again.’

I was silent for a moment, battling with myself. It would be good to have someone to talk to about it all, but Jay? I’d never talked to Jay about doing the washing up, let alone about doing a relationship. I wasn’t sure he was sincere, and prior experiences told me I was as likely to get the piss taken out of me as I was to find out anything useful. Still, he did seem to be showing signs of being vaguely human, against all the odds, and I made a snap decision to give him a chance. We could always go back to grunting like Neanderthals for the remainder of the holidays if being homo sapiens didn’t work out.

‘Well how do you, then?’

‘What, leave in the morning?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Best not to.’

‘What? Not leave?’

‘Best not to wait until morning. Once you’ve stayed the night, they think it’s, like, a “relationship”, so if you’re not up for a “relationship” – ‘

Jay was busy air-quoting for my benefit.

‘– or for extricating yourself from one, make sure you bugger off as soon as possible afterwards, and never cuddle them or say you’ll call them unless you want weeks of needy emails or texts.’

‘But I always cuddle. Kind of says thanks.’

‘Ha ha, really? You’re so cute. But it’s making a rod for your own back, mate. Unless she’s The One. Or one of the ones.’

‘And how do you know if she is?’

‘Jesus, Matty, how the fuck would I know? You don’t need to know either, not when you’re still barely out of nappies. There’s plenty of time for you to find The One yet.’

‘But I thought you and …’ oh what was her name, Mum had told me, ‘… Sophia were …’

I tailed off as an incredibly miserable expression crossed over Jay’s face.

‘What?’

‘Don’t go there, mate, that’s all. You’re best off playing the field, not committing to anyone, that way you won’t be crushed when it all goes tits up. Just try not to fuck with someone else’s girl along the way.’

Jay really looked on the verge of tears, and I couldn’t handle it, had never seen him cry, even when we were kids. I backed off the deep and meaningful, and tried some lighthearted banter.

‘Yeah, well, me and commitment not exactly an item. Cuddling afterwards is the fullest extent, and maybe not that any more, if I take your advice.’

Jay gave me a weak smile and turned back to the TV, where the sharks had given way to World War Two, and we sank back into our more comfortable reticent state.

Later on, I was sitting up with Mum after Jay had gone to bed, and she told me the whole story. I had only half realised there even was a whole story; Jay’s life outside of rugby usually held little drama, it was on the pitch where the highs and lows seemed to happen. But nevertheless, there were off-field events apart from the hamstring that had caused my brother to come home for some recuperation.

The short version is that Jay’s girlfriend, Sophia, had been having some of her own open relationship action with Jay’s team mate and friend, and he’d been among the last on the team to know. They’d been together for about a year, and had moved in together a couple of months ago. It had affected Jay to the point of him considering leaving his team, Royals, and looking for another club, but he was under contract until the end of the season, and it was likely he was going to have to stay there for another few months at least.

I felt terrible. I’d done exactly the same to Andrew as Jay’s mate had done to him, and then asked Jay advice about it. I was probably lucky to have got away without another punch, which would have done a lot more damage than Andrew’s, and for Jay to be civilised about it was remarkable in the circumstances. Mum sensed my discomfort, but I couldn’t tell her the details of my newly non-virginal status without serious embarrassment, and much as I talked to her about a lot of things, this was one of those subjects I couldn’t broach.

‘Are you alright, dear?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You’ve gone very quiet.’

‘Just thinking.’

‘Anything you want to talk about?’

‘No, not really. Just think I might have made things worse for Jay.’

‘How’s that, dear? You’ve not been fighting again, have you? Honestly, Matthew, you’ve only been home five minutes, I did say be nice to him.’

‘No Mum, nothing like that. I didn’t know about him and Sophia, and I just … told him about some stuff that I wouldn’t have done if I had known.’

‘Oh.’

I saw that she wanted to ask me, but that she knew I wasn’t really up for talking about it.

‘Just … be a bit sensitive, Matthew. I know your brother doesn’t really talk about things, but this has hit him hard.’

‘Yeah. I’ll try.’

My way of trying was to be my annoying little brother self. I didn’t think Jay would want to talk to me about his woman troubles, and the best I could do was not let him wallow by antagonising him as much as I could. I made a point of talking about computer code at dinner time, of watching re-runs of University Challenge and blatantly celebrating when I got the answers right, of reading books with titles like Moonwalking with Einstein, and Introduction to Algorithms, but none of it had the desired effect of making him annoyed with me. He didn’t even really seem to notice, and it was as if he’d finally given up being irritated by my brains, much as I’d given up being overawed by his brawn.

We rubbed along together for the Christmas holidays. Jay had found somewhere to get his physio, and had decided to stay for and beyond Christmas itself. I’d finished my assignments, and decided one morning to look at my phone, which I’d had on silent and in a trouser pocket since I got home, to avoid the girls who had been plaguing me before the end of term. (This was obviously before I became chairman of the board of phone addicts anonymous, as turning my phone off for even half an hour these days has me sweating.) As I turned the phone on, I saw all the texts and voicemails, and my heart quailed a little bit.

‘Holy shit.’

‘Finally caught up with you have they?’

Jay had just come in after a training session, and was leaning on the door frame in his gym gear.

‘Who’s caught up with me?’

‘Whoever it was you were just ‘holy shitting’ about.’

‘Oh. Yeah. You could say that.’

I glanced down at the phone’s screen again. Admittedly I hadn’t turned it on for more than two weeks, but surely this volume of phone usage was excessive? I wasn’t that big of a catch; I’d hoped that if I just went out of radio contact, they’d get bored and make my decisions for me.

‘Wanna tell me?’

I looked at Jay, who pushed himself away from the door and sat down in the armchair across from me.

‘I know I’m more the strong and silent type, but if I can help at all …’

Jay and I hadn’t had a recurrence of our touchy feely moment since Mum told me about Sophia; I’d wanted to stay clear of it all in case I brought up stuff that made either of us uncomfortable. Maybe … just maybe … it was time to stop acting like a ten year old, and talk to my brother like we were both grown ups. I sighed.

‘I just turned my phone on, it’s been off all holidays. I’ve had a few more messages than I was anticipating.’

‘Messages from?’

‘A few girls.’

‘Ah. Maybe not my specialist subject just at the moment.’

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to remind you –’

‘Jesus, Matty, it’s not like I’ve forgotten. Come on then, shoot. More than one girl? Go Matty!’

‘Yeah, well, I was kind of hoping it would be down to one or less by the time I got back, but they all seem to be hanging in there. Sarah’s texted twelve times – I miss you. Where are you? Did you get my text? Happy Christmas kiss kiss kiss. Text me. Etcetera. Ruby’s left five voicemails, I dread to think what they say. Charlotte has texted and left voicemails, and Pia has sent me lots of happy and sad faces and kisses.’

‘Bloody hell, Matty. Four women on the go. I bow to you.’

‘I can’t do it, though, they’re doing my head in. Pia and Ruby were just one night, I never intended – I feel like such a bastard. Sarah and Charlotte are both hot, but they don’t know about each other, and I’m going seriously loopy trying to juggle it all.’

Jay had an amused look on his face.

‘A bit like buses, then.’

‘What?’

‘None for years then four come along at once.’

‘Oh. Ha ha. Funny. Not. What am I going to do? I was hoping if I ignored them it would all have resolved itself when I got back. Now I’m just going to be straight back into the middle of it all.’

‘OK. First rule of women. Never expect them to do your dirty work. You’re going to have to decide who you want, if you want any of them, and tell the others thanks but no thanks. Jesus, I can’t believe I’m actually giving you girl advice.’

‘Neither can I. Isn’t there an easier way?’

‘You could always leave Uni and stack shelves.’

‘Shit. But how am I going to choose?’

‘Well there’s no law to say you can’t have more than one girl on the go at one time, but believe me, it quickly becomes messy and complicated, even when everyone’s happy with it.’

‘Really? Have you done it?’

‘Not since I was at school. Remember Shona McKenna?’

I nodded.

‘And Rosie Phillips?’

I nodded again. ‘Oh. Both at the same time? Did they know?’

‘Well, yeah, kind of, but Shona was in a different year to me, and she and Rosie didn’t come across each other very often. But at the end of term it was the school dance, and I took Rosie, but asked Shona as well. Ever seen two girls trying to scratch each other’s eyes out? Hot as fuck, but seriously scary, especially as once they’d finished with each other they both joined forces and came after me. Believe me, Matty, you’re better off sticking with the one woman at a time, and ones who don’t have added complications like already having boyfriends.’

‘It does sound less stressful.’

‘Trust me. You need to call the one-nighters and let them down gently, and call whichever of the long-termers will cause you more lost sleep if you don’t have her than if you do, and pick her. And let the other one down gently. And Jesus, Matty, stop cuddling them afterwards. It seriously gives them the wrong idea.’

And after that, something changed between Jay and me. Something matured; things were different. I wouldn’t say we became pals, or even greatly altered the way we communicated with each other. We didn’t even see any more of each other than we had before, but Jay would occasionally call me and ask how I was doing, and I’d text him or email him if I’d seen his photo on the back page of a paper. Something like – Me: I c u muscled yr way onto the Guardian sports pages. Thumb wrestling or something? Jay: Don’t b jealous, u’ll nerd yr way onto the cover of Geek Weekly one day. He even sent me a pair of trainers he’d got free from a sponsor. Cindy would have been proud.

I finally worked out the girl thing, as much as anyone was ever going to, and had a few short-lived flings but nothing long term. I was more interested in my degree, to be honest, than I was in having a girlfriend, but I was very interested in sex, and was happy to see a woman for a few weeks while we stayed casual and exciting, but got used to ending it, quickly, when she showed signs of wanting more commitment. I used all the moves I’d learned from books and DVDs, and added a few of my own, and always made it a point to ensure we both had a good time.

I finished my degree, graduated with first class Honours, and was amazed and choked when Jay came with Mum to my graduation. The ceremony was in June, and he was spending some time in Stafford before joining his new club, Raiders, who were based down south. His presence caused a bit of a stir, which I would have resented a few years ago, but had grown comfortable and self-confident enough with to enjoy the reflected attention.

I had landed a one-year contract with an IT company in Holland, and Jay took Mum and me out to a posh restaurant to celebrate and say ‘bon voyage’. I left the next day, knowing Mum would miss me and worry about me, but needing to start living my own life.

I carried on my commitment-free life in Holland, stockpiling casual relationships while avoiding being tied down in any but the most erotic way. My book, DVD and now practical knowledge had stood me in good stead, and most women were impressed at how well I knew my way around their bodies. I got a reputation for being an excellent no-strings lay, and it suited me that way. Nobody was under any illusions and nobody got hurt.

I also got a reputation for being an excellent Information Systems technician, and once my contract was up, it was easy to find another job with the reference I was given from the Dutch company. I could conceivably have gone anywhere in the world, but I fancied a bit of familiarity and home comforts, and when I was offered the job in Stafford, I took it, fully intending to stay for a maximum of a year before jetting off somewhere exotic.

  Funny how things turn out …

1. Beginnings

In which we meet everyone, but especially Matty, and decide whether or not we like him.

Iz

How do I let myself get talked into these things, eh? Just because I’ve done languages at Uni and happen to be an interpreter, and, you know, like words and stuff, people think – assume – I’m OK with just spending every waking minute putting everyone’s rambling life stories into some kind of order. Well, alright, I admit I have loved it. So I’m not really moaning, because it’s been awesome making everyone’s tales fit with everyone else’s. It’s just the assumption that I take issue with, and the constant ‘Iz, have you finished putting the book together?’ and ‘I don’t suppose there’s room for one of my poems?’ and ‘When can we all read it?’. Because without all the hassle and interruptions, I would have finished a looooot sooner, I can tell you.

However, here it is, done. I thought it was five people’s stories, and it is that, but really what it is, what it has become, is Matty’s story, with a big slice of Lau, a large helping of Dec, a dollop of Cal and a spoonful of Julia. It’s like a family album, like a huge panoramic photo of our family through the ages, or rather through the ages of Matthew Robert Scott age 0 – 57 and a little bit beyond.

I hope I’ve done a good enough job, I’m pretty pleased with it, the whole thing has helped me know different sides of people I thought I knew pretty well, and I hope you will feel the same. I haven’t changed anything without permission, and haven’t left anything out, although obviously there are millions of things that have happened to us all that aren’t in there. I’ve had some great reminiscences about things that happened, and some great argy-bargies about things that I said happened and others said didn’t, or the other way round. That’s the thing about remembering, it’s so subjective.

Oh, and while I’m on the theme of subjectivity, weeelll, there may be one or two or nineteen or twenty bits where the heat is on, if you get my drift. I might warn you about them, I might just let you hurtle headlong into them. Watch out for my ‘parental guidance’ alerts, but also, just be on your toes. Rumpy pumpy could crop up anywhere, without warning. Just saying. TBH it’s not that great (let’s be generous and call it) erotica. Julia is rather clinical – this went here, he did that, I screamed that – Matty just copied her really, and Lau should have remembered the phrase ‘too much information’ once in a while. But anyway, now you know.

Anyway, Scott family, and anyone else who reads it (Tom, if you really feel the need to blog it, knock yourself out), enjoy it for what it is: the stories of some mighty fine people and one mighty fine person in particular.

Iz xx

Cal

This is for Matty.

It’s not about you, Matty, you raging egomaniac, but reading your story made me realise how much knowing a different side of things can mean to the people you love.

So it’s for Matty, because I miss him, but it’s about all of you, family and friends. This is my side of things.

How do I do it? Just straight, factual, one thing after another, like Lau? Or jumping around here and there like Matty? Or starting straight then adding clips and cuttings like Dec? I suppose I should just get going and see how it pans out.

One thing I do know: There. Will. Be. No. Porn. Jesus, I don’t think I’ve ever blushed so much in my life as when I was reading Matty’s and Lau’s stories, even if you say you censored yours before it got to me, Lau. Neither my kids nor my mum will be reading details of … private stuff, because it’s just not going in, alright?

I can at least start at the beginning. Can’t I? Maybe not. Things can get pretty confusing round here, even if you start out in a straight line trying to explain them. Perhaps that’s where I should start, with who we all are and what we all are to each other. Let’s give it a go.

Me. I’m Cal. Calum James Scott, son of Beth and Jay, brother of Iz. I’m married to Chrissie and we’ve got two children, Conor and Lily. I’ve been a rugby player in my time, but retired a few years ago, and now I’m a Physiotherapist.

That’s easy so far, isn’t it? A nice ordinary family, simply explained. Then it starts to get interesting …

Dec

I thought this would be easy to write, because I’d done most of it way back then, when I was more than a little bit mad, when writing it all down helped me. But it’s made me think about it all again, about what I lost and what I found, or rather who I found, and I can’t go back over it, not right from the start to now, it’s too hard, opens up too many hurting places.

God, Matt would laugh at me – I can almost hear him calling me a ‘miserable doomwank’. So, OK, because it’s important that people you love know about things, I’m going to do this, but only up to a point. Only up until it’s good, until it’s shining, kind of the top of the mountain. All downhill from there, as they say, and I’m not really up for that journey, downhill I mean. And there are some things I’m not going to tell you, because I spent a lot of time in a therapist’s room sorting them in my head, and to go there again will seriously fuck me up.

So, off we go to the top of the shiny mountain.

Julia

Dear Matt

I wrote this, and it’s about you. I thought you had a right to see it.

Julia

Laura

From: lustylau@hotnet.com

Hello Everyone

I’ve just had a lovely surprise. Well, I think it’s lovely. Maybe I’m not quite sure yet. But Matt left all of us something. He addressed it to me, but it’s obvious it’s for all of you too.

He hid a story on the computer, something he’d been writing in secret for over a year. It’s his story, and parts of it are your parts of his story, and I know he wanted you to read it, because he says things in it he would never say to you out loud, only in his heart.

You don’t have to read it, Matt would have understood. But if you would like to, here it is. Don’t print it off, for goodness sake. It’s really long.

Just a word of warning – some of Matt’s descriptions are rather intimate. He gets up close and personal, about our relationship and about previous relationships. It’s probably not something to read to small children. I wondered about cutting bits out, to make it less embarrassing (I mean to me, Matt wouldn’t have given a hoot), but I’ve decided to leave it as it is.

I’ve only just finished reading it, and I think I’m going to do something similar. It feels good to think that something of you lives on after you’ve finished. It feels good to think that Matt has kept this much of him alive for us.

As I said, take your time, read it slowly, or never if it’s too much.

I’m planning on getting some kind of memory file together, maybe on the computer or real paper in a real box somewhere for the things that I don’t know how to computerise (help Tom!), so if you’ve got anything, please let me have it.

Anyway, here it is.

Laura xx

Matt

My name is Matt, and I am a swearaholic. Actually, although most people call me Matt, I have been known to answer to Matty and Matthew, with the occasional ‘arrogant bastard’ thrown in for good measure. And a couple of people call me Dad, or Daaad if I’ve done something particularly squeamishly embarrassing, which I try to manage at least once a week, because it makes them say ‘Daaad’ and I bloody love it. But, yeah, swearaholic. Even invented ‘Fuckotinell’ to help counter it, but it never really did the trick – in all likelihood because, despite some people’s assertion that I have some kind of compulsion to say, oh I don’t know, fuck or bollocks a bit too often, I would retort that it’s not actually a compulsion, not a neurological medical condition as such; I already have one of those. No, I can trace the origins of the increase in the ‘fuck’ rate to a certain Christmas, when a certain teenager name of Declan Summers took it into his head to shove his way past my painstakingly erected defences, without even so much as a by-your-leave, to become my best mate-brother-aunty-ohidon’tknowwhatthefuckheis.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A lot had happened in my thirty years on this planet before the year that I nearly died. I’ve been around a bit, got a bit of a reputation in some quarters, so you might think you know me; I doubt you do. In any case, here’s my story, here’s how I got where I am, the whole roller-coaster, hands in the air and scream, wind in your hair, log flume water in your pants, hundred mile an hour fun ride that has been Matt Scott. Ready? I hope so.

Ha ha. Fun ride? With me? That’s a laugh. I wish. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to convince people I’m different than I am, that I’m not always sure what ‘me’ is. Without wishing to sound maudlin, I’m here at what is potentially the end of it all for me, and without Lau, without that huge, inexplicable, indescribable, fucking amazing love I have for her, and that somehow, unbelievably, she has for me, well I wouldn’t even have made it this far. But again, ahead of myself. Oh bollocks, maybe you should just resign yourself to this being an all-over-the-place, out of sequence, mixed up splurge of a life story, because really, being the story of Matthew Robert Scott, it couldn’t be any other way.

I will at least start at the beginning. I’m told it’s a very good place to start. Or as near to the beginning as I remember. I was born – no, of course I don’t remember being born, but my mother and my birth certificate tell me – in Stafford, which is in the Midlands, England, UK, Europe, Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Universe, should you wish to send me a letter from the Aldebaran system.

I am Matthew Robert Scott, my parents having lacked the foresight to consider what the initials MRS would do to a teenage boy. I am the youngest of two boys, my brother Jay being five years older than me.

You will have heard of Jay; most people have. Full name Jameson Lucas Scott. You will notice that he got the big long Scottish sounding rufty tufty name, shortened with a cool nickname, and I’m name after some wanker in the Bible. Probably the weediest of the disciples or some such shit. Practically a self-fulfilling prophecy, as nearly all the women I’ve ever met, especially in this city, when I’ve mistakenly let slip that my brother is Jay Scott, have said, ‘Wow, I really fancied him when he played for Raiders. You’re nothing like him, are you’. It’s one of the reasons I hate him. Not really hate him. Oh but, yeah, really really hate him. He’s my brother, doesn’t that come with the territory? Mostly I hate him for being five years older than me, for how far ahead of me that makes him, how much bigger and stronger than me he’s always been, how much more confident and worldly wise he seemed growing up. I also hate him for rescuing me when I nearly died. I also love him for rescuing me when I nearly died. My relationship with Jay is really fucking screwed. But then again, probably no more screwed than any other family.

Sooo, anyway. Back to the epistle. My father died when I was two; I barely remember him – just a vague impression of largeness, a booming laugh and scratchy whiskers. And maybe even that is a false memory borne of poring over photos and talking to my mum about him. I always used to say that because I was so young when he died, and it was a long time ago, well, I don’t remember him, thus it doesn’t really matter. But it does matter, he was always there-but-not-there, throughout my whole childhood. Jay was seven so he remembers more, but he never talks about him. We were never able to bond over fond memories of our father, because the way Jay chose to remember him was to try and be just like him. Their build is the same, they have the same features – when I see Jay now and compare him to the photos I’ve seen of my father, he’s got the same eyes, the same chin, the same bulky rugby player’s shoulders, chest and thighs. Jay even calls me Matty because that’s what my father used to call me. I, on the other hand, look much more like my mum, with the skinny build, the light brown hair and greyish eyes, although I’m a lot taller than her. I wouldn’t have had a hope of following in my father’s footsteps, even if that had been my chosen path, because I was far too scrawny. I’d like to think my way was more healthy than Jay’s – talking to Mum, looking at photos, asking questions – but to be honest, I claim the prize as the bigger fuck up in the long run, so who’s to say?

So I guess that’s how it all started, my story, with the absence of a father figure, the presence of a mother figure and a brother figure, a leaning towards books and knowing shit, and a leaning away from anything that required a muscle of any description.

By the time I was ten or so, Jay was already playing rugby for the county, had already attracted schoolboy contracts from various local clubs, had been scouted by England youth teams, was the popular boy at school, had more girlfriends than he seemed to know what to do with, and really disliked having a little brother. Especially a little brother who spent a lot of time with his head in a book or fiddling with the innards of a CD player; especially a little brother who needed protecting from the bullies at school, on the orders of our mum; especially a little brother who knew answers to questions on Mastermind. And most especially a little brother who enjoyed spending time with our mum, being ten and still liking that closeness, when a fifteen year old, who might still have wanted the closeness with his mum but would never admit it in a million years, could only look on and sneer when we spent Saturday mornings making cakes or pulling up weeds or sorting out socks from the washing basket. I’m still a good sock sorter-outer, it appeals to the neat freak in me, and is about all I can contribute to the running of the house these days.

God, I’ve spent so long over the years analysing Jay and me. Some of it with paid professionals, some of it on my own in the dark. I often wonder if Jay has spent anywhere near as many minutes thinking about us, but it’s unlikely, as he’s not really a thinker. Shit happens and he reacts, he doesn’t really plan – he’s got Beth for that. But anyway, what it boils down to is this: if someone were to say ‘tell me about your childhood’, and I’ve spent enough time with shrinks over the past few years to know that they never actually say that, but if they did, then the edited highlights would be: a) my dad died when I was really little and my mum and I leaned on each other more than maybe we would have done otherwise. b) my brother made my life difficult, whether on purpose or not. c) despite this, I looked up to my brother and wanted to be like him. d) I never was like my brother in any way, and we never really connected when we were young.

That’s pretty much it. I could tell you about the miserable dark evenings standing on the touchline of some muddy rugby pitch in the middle of sodding nowhere with Mum, waiting for Jay to come on as a sub, or replacement, or whatever the don’t-give-a-toss they call them. I could tell you about all the times Jay wasn’t there when I was getting the school maths prize or being a shepherd in the Nativity play or playing in the recorder concert. I could tell you about my brief brush with popularity with girls when I was nearly eleven, which came to nothing when Jay found out and told all his mates I was gay. I could tell you about all the times I was knocked over and sat on, usually with a hair pull or a finger bent backwards, because I’d said something clever that made him feel stupid. I could tell you about every teacher in every school in every class I ever sat in asking if I was Jay’s little brother. I could tell you about all the times … oh but what’s the point? It was then. Maybe I sound bitter. I guess I was. I wanted Jay to notice me, to think I was worth something. I needed, craved, some male approval, a someone to replace my father, but he was so busy being popular and strong and older, I was beneath his notice. And I suppose, if I’m being fair, it’s not a role many teenage boys would willingly step into. Then, when he was eighteen, he was gone. He left school, signed professional terms with a rugby club, and left home.

Jay and I didn’t see each other much after that. I spoke to him if I happened to pick up the phone when he called to talk to Mum, and if he came back to stay in the off season, we’d be there together and we’d grunt at each other, but he wasn’t really interested in anything I was doing, and I had never been able to keep up with his physicality, so we really had nothing in common. It was almost a relief, a liberation, to be just me and Mum. I got on with things my way, I did my homework, passed most of my exams with straight As, joined the computer club, the chess club and the debating society with no one to call me a ‘poncey wanker’ for playing to my strengths.

Yeah, I was a nerd, a geek, I was gangly and gawky, I wore glasses, I had acne, my hair was thick and unruly and cut by my mum and I didn’t really care about the latest trainers or designer jeans. Luckily my mates were equally nerdy, and we’d talk for hours about the latest version of computer code, or the finer points of Star Wars back history, or, OK, as we got older, occasionally the finer points of Pamela Anderson.

I made my mum proud, as did Jay, and when it was time to think about my further education, I chose a University near to home, so I could come back regularly. Said it was to do laundry, but really it was where I felt comfortable.

My course was Information Systems & Computer Science, and my best mate Andrew was there too. He was as nerdy as me, and I’d thought we’d be able to carry on as we had at school with our prattling about science fiction, our off-the-cuff equation battles, our joint love of all things Tottenham Hotspur, and our occasional drunken ‘what’s the answer to life the universe and everything if it’s not forty two’ sessions.

But I hadn’t counted on Andrew dropping the nerdiness and landing himself a seriously hot babe in Freshers’ Week. It was as if he underwent some kind of overnight larval transformation. On the Tuesday he was Andrew – skinny, gawky, hair in his eyes, slight squint. Then on the Wednesday, we went to the Freshers’ Ball, downed copious amounts of cheap cider, he must have been pissed enough to ask a girl to dance and she must have been pissed enough to say yes, all while I was pissed enough to be sat in the stalls with my head spinning trying not to vomit. I lost track of him, but the next day I knocked on his door at noon, hangover pounding behind my eyes, and I had to look twice when he opened it to check I had the right room. He looked completely different.

‘Whoa. Holy shit, Andrew. Did you get lucky with Edward Scissorhands?’

‘Ha ha. Er …’

Andrew looked behind him and moved his body to stop me going any further into the room.

‘Are you coming to the Chess Club thing?’

He ran a hand through his newly chopped, and actually, now I thought about it, pretty trendy hair.

‘Shit, Matt, sorry, I completely forgot. Er …’

Again with the look behind him. I heard a giggle, and tried to look over his shoulder.

‘Sorry, mate, maybe another time, I, er …’

Andrew pulled the door to behind him and stepped out into the corridor of the halls where we both had rooms.

‘I, look, sorry, I, er, hooked up with Cindy last night and, well she’s still here. Sorry to blow you off, but …’

He shrugged, unable to disguise the huge smug bastard grin of the newly de-flowered.

‘No shit, Andrew. You dog.’

I punched him on the shoulder, feeling more than a little envious – Cindy was a girl we had both identified early on in Freshers’ Week as someone we ‘would’, although of course we ‘would’ just about anyone, given the desperate nerd-virgins we were.

‘Did she cut your hair?’

‘Yeah. Her sister’s a hairdresser, apparently she taught her. She said it brings out the sparkle in my eyes.’

He ruffled the haircut again trying and failing to look embarrassed, but managing to look extremely pleased with himself.

‘Yeah, looks great mate. Loving those sparkly eyes. Later then.’

And so things changed for me and Andrew. He was still my mate, they included me in lots of things, but Cindy wasn’t into Star Wars or computer code, or even Spurs (she was a girl, it was just about forgivable), and three’s a crowd, and they bloody snogged all the bloody time. Oh, and I had the hots for Cindy. Big time. Like there wasn’t a whole university full of girls I could have obsessed over, I had to pick the one who was doing it with my bloody best friend to be hopelessly in love with.

So spending time with them was bitter sweet. I really didn’t have any other friends, being a bit of a loser back then at the socialising thing, but seeing her with him was torture. And not seeing her was torture. So I hung around like either a lost puppy or a bad smell depending on your take on things.

I tried to join societies, clubs, go to things on my own in the hope of making some friends, and there were people on the course I talked to and hung out with a bit, but Andrew was my best mate, I used to tell him everything, in a blokey kind of way, and although I tried to give them time on their own, I felt like I needed him and didn’t want to just disappear. I told myself I was ‘being there’ in case things went wrong with Cindy, someone he could talk to for advice if it was necessary. Yeah, right, I know.

Cindy had friends she hung out with when she wasn’t sucking Andrew’s tonsils, and she’d sometimes have a go at setting me up with one or other of them, but somehow it never came off – they’d cancel or be really vague about when they were available and, oh, actually look, there’s this other boy … and anyway, I was hung up on Cindy, who was small and blonde and vivacious and curvy, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Maybe it was the whole ‘want her because you can’t have her’ thing – she was a safe bet because she was my best mate’s girlfriend and therefore off-limits. But thinking about it rationally didn’t make it any easier.

Occasionally Cindy and I would hang out together, if Andrew had a tutorial, or was doing laundry or something, and none of her girl-gang was around. On one of these occasions, we were in Andrew’s room waiting for him to get back from a meeting with his tutor. I was looking at my emails and she was flicking through a glossy magazine. I was also checking her cleavage out of the corner of my eye when I thought I could get away with it. Her top was low cut; there was a bit of lacy bra showing at the edge of the neckline, and it was driving me wild. She suddenly looked up. I quickly looked down at my computer.

‘Hey, Matt, this is what you need.’

‘Huh?’

I looked up, trying to seem as if I’d been engrossed in some piece of startlingly well-written cyber literature. She turned the magazine to face me and showed me a neon-pink headline which positively yelled, ‘Man Makeovers – Ten Top Tips to Get Your Geek Gorgeous!

‘You need a makeover.’

‘What? No I don’t.’

‘Why not? I could do it. I could cut your hair, like I did Drew’s.’

Oh, I neglected to mention, Andrew’s name was now Drew, to Cindy and indeed everyone except me. Could he be any more lame? And yeah, I was a green-eyed monster. Couldn’t help it. He was shagging the girl I wanted.

‘I don’t want my hair cut.’

Although the thought of her standing close to me, running her fingers across my scalp, maybe pressing into me a bit, did nearly make my eyes go crossed and raised my pulse rate several notches. I was glad I had the laptop to disguise my hard-on, which had been threatening since I noticed the lacy bra, but had now developed fully.

‘Oh but why not?’

I do believe she even pouted a bit. It might have been the pout that did it, especially as she stuck out her chest at the same time.

‘It says here that a man’s haircut and clothes are what attract seventy per cent of women at initial glance.’

‘Oh really. Empirical study is it? Or just Cosmo bollocks?’

‘Don’t be so snooty. Why don’t you give it a try? I’m at a loose end this morning, we could go to your room, I could cut your hair, we could have a look at your clothes, make you a new man.’

‘I’m happy with being an … um … old man.’

‘Yeah, that’s your problem. You look ten years older than you are. All it would take is a little trim …’

She got up and sat next to me, looking at my hair, then reaching out and pulling at a strand, between forefinger and middle finger, measuring. I wondered if she had any idea of the effect she had on me. My breathing sped up, and I tried to calm myself so she wouldn’t notice.

‘Come on.’

She stood up and took my hand, pulling me to my feet. I quickly shut the laptop and clamped it to my groin as she tugged me along the corridor to my room. I wasn’t quite sure when I had agreed to this, but it was apparently somewhere between the pout and me looking ten years older than I was. I stood in the middle of my room, laptop jammed against the bulge in my jeans.

‘What are you standing there for? I can’t cut your hair standing up, you’re too tall. Sit down.’

She gestured to the bed. There wasn’t anywhere else. I sat down, laptop still stuck to me like glue.

‘Put your bloody computer down, Matt. I know you love it like you want to marry it, but you’ll get hair in it, and won’t that mess with the, er, microchip thingy or something. I’ll get a towel, look, so you don’t get the bits all over your clothes.’

She fetched the towel, which I held around me like a cape while I slid the laptop off my crotch.

‘Who usually does your hair?’

‘My mum.’

‘Oh. Well that explains a lot. Mums don’t always know best, do they.’

I was silent, not prepared to criticise my mum at this point.

‘Your hair’s lovely and thick, isn’t it. Nice colour, too. Oh, you’re going to have to take your glasses off, they’ll get in the way.’

‘I can’t see without them.’

‘Well dur, otherwise you wouldn’t need them. As long as I can see, you don’t need to worry. Give them here, I’ll put them on the – oh you’ve got amazing eyes, I never noticed before. You should defo try contacts.’

So first my hair’s a nice colour and now I’ve got amazing eyes. And this is my best friend’s girlfriend. If things got any more awkward I might possibly self-combust. And then she started touching my hair, pulling at it, and then snipping with the scissors she’d grabbed from the bedside in Andrew’s room, and things definitely got a whole lot more awkward. I’d never been in this close proximity to a girl – well, not since my brush with popularity when I was nearly eleven and snogged Lily Knight and Lucy Carpenter both in one lunchtime behind a portakabin.

Lily was my first kiss. She was in my class, and we were in our last year at junior school – the year when hormones started surging, and boys noticed that girls were girls rather than just not boys. I definitely noticed Lily was a girl. She had big blue eyes and wore her hair in a high ponytail, and she was really really good at spelling. She always came first in the spelling tests. I always came second, and it was my aim to beat her at least once before we went to secondary school, so there may have been an ulterior motive to my romantic interest; possibly I was trying to nobble the opposition. Oh come on, I said nobble. I was ten.

It was the lunchtime before the spelling test. I’d asked Mum to test me all week, and I knew I could get all of the words right, even ‘miscellaneous’, which I could never pronounce, didn’t have a clue what it meant, but could finally spell. If I could just distract Lily enough, I might have a chance. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but it started well enough, with me sharing my crisps with her at lunchtime. We got talking about stuff – ten year old stuff, nothing particularly earth shattering, she had a cat called Biggles, and I liked the name, and I told her about the Biggles books, but she already knew about them because her brother had some and that was why the cat was called Biggles – and she suddenly grabbed my hand and told me she wanted to show me something behind the portakabin. Poor naïve me had no idea that this was code for having a bit of a pash, so I went with her willingly, expecting maybe a secret passage or something, and was extremely surprised when she pounced on me as soon as we got there, crushing her mouth against mine in a facsimile of a movie kiss. Maybe it was a secret passage of sorts.

So I was surprised, but not so much that I didn’t enjoy it; I enjoyed it a lot, in fact, and we spent the rest of the lunchtime kissing. Fairly chastely, but still, to ten year old me, it was a highlight of my life so far. Sadly I still came second in the spelling test, but the upside was that lunchtimes after that became much more entertaining, with several more pashing sessions to follow.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if Lily was my girlfriend, she ditched me. I had gone to our usual spot behind the portakabin only to find her locking lips with Harry Thomas, the class clown, who must have joked his way into her favour, the bastard. I walked away despondent, but was accosted on the way back to the playground by Lucy Carpenter, who was one of Lily’s friends. She’d obviously heard about Lily and my lunchtime trysts, and wasn’t shy in expressing herself.

‘Lily says you’re a good kisser.’

What does a boy say to that? Yeah I am sounds rather big-headed. Am I? sounds a bit disingenuous and needy. So I shrugged, and let her take my hand and lead me to a different part of behind the portakabin, where I showed her just what a good kisser I was.

And then Jay found out, from Lily’s brother, and he decided to out me to the world, even though I wasn’t even in, and that was the end of my junior school kissing career, as I spent the remainder of my lunchtimes there fending off juvenile homophobic bullying. Cheers Jay. Did I mention I hate him?

But anyway, back to Cindy. Things were getting awkward, especially in my jeans, and I needed to alleviate the tension. I tried to focus on something boring. Maths. Equations, standard deviation, Pythagoras’ theorem. None of it boring, not to me, but it almost worked as a distraction. Locks of my hair were falling past my shoulders and onto the towel, as well as drifting onto the bed and the floor. Cindy was kneeling behind me, her knees either side of my hips. I was hyper-aware of her breasts brushing my shoulders, and indeed all the places where her body was touching mine, and Pythagoras was taking a bit of a battering.

As Cindy chattered, I didn’t say a word, I was trying so hard to concentrate my way out of saying or doing something to offend her. Finally, after what felt like hours of exquisite torment, she leaned back, then shuffled off the bed, to stand in front of me and look. She gave me a satisfied smile.

‘There, that’s tons better. Shows off those eyes. You’re a bit of a babe, Matt. Now all we need is to sort out your wardrobe …’

She walked over to the cupboard where my clothes were hanging. She was a blur.

‘Wait.’

The blur turned round, and looked like it might have raised its eyebrows.

‘Where did you put my glasses? I can’t see a thing, and I haven’t seen what you’ve done yet.’

‘Oh no, you don’t get your glasses back until the big reveal. Honestly, have you never watched any of those celebrity makeover programmes?’

I honestly never had, so I shook my head. Cindy tutted and turned back to the wardrobe, where she started taking clothes off hangers.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Sorting your clothes. Two piles. This one is ‘no hope, down to Oxfam with you’, and this one is ‘oh well it’ll have to do’. I’m hoping for a third pile of ‘wowzers’, but it’s not looking promising.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with my clothes.’

‘Not for an old age pensioner. Does your mum buy your clothes too?’

I shrugged, trying not to feel embarrassed, because that was exactly what usually happened. It hadn’t ever felt embarrassing before.

‘Isn’t your brother, like, some kind of sports hero? Doesn’t he get you free cool stuff?’

‘No.’

I wasn’t prepared to bring Jay into this. I’d never told anyone here that Jay Scott, Royals and England rugby player, was my brother, because I hated all the people who wanted to know me so they could get to Jay. Andrew must have told her.

‘Oh, you should defo get him to. Maybe ask for me as well. I went out with a footballer last year, he only played for Port Vale, but he got me a really cool pair of Nikes.’

Well at least now I knew where I stood with Cindy: a complimentary pass back to the sporting freebie world. I didn’t reply, as she continued heaping my clothes into two piles. From my fuzzy vantage point on the bed, the ‘off to Oxfam’ pile was considerably bigger than the ‘have to do’ pile, and I was likely to be wearing the same t-shirt and cargo shorts until the end of term.

‘Am I actually going to have any clothes left to wear when you’ve finished?’

‘Well, there is quite a large charity shop pile, but I did this with Drew, it was so cool, we took three bags of stuff to the charity shop, and then replaced it with loads of other stuff from the same shop, so it was dead recycly and all that. There’s this really good place just off the High Street, they do lots of vintage and labels and stuff. You’re pretty skinny, so there’ll be loads of stuff for you to try.’

‘No, I don’t do shopping.’

‘What? How do you get clothes, then?’

What, apart from my mum?

‘Internet.’

Another tut, and probably a roll of the eyes.

‘Well you’re going shopping with me today. We’ll bag this stuff up and then get you some cooler stuff.’

I was starting to feel irritated. Cindy had decided I wasn’t good enough as I was, and was just barging through my whole life, changing everything. I half expected her to announce she was changing my course from Information Systems & Computer Science to Fashion & Media, as well.

‘Look, thanks Cindy, I appreciate the haircut and everything, but I really don’t want to get rid of my clothes, or buy new ones, or even old smelly ones from a charity shop, and –’

‘Oh come on Matt, it’ll be fun. You’re already half way there. Just imagine what everyone will say when you walk into the canteen this evening and you look totally hot.’

‘Well that’s not hard to imagine, as I won’t.’

Self-confidence not high on my list of personality traits back then, but I wasn’t usually as openly self-deprecating. There was a brief silence, as Cindy turned to look at me, then walked over and sat down next to me.

‘You totally already do, Matt.’

She took my hand, and all the aching desire I’d managed to push away while she was irritating me returned with a vengeance. I felt my cheeks burn and my jeans got tight again. Bugger.

‘Cindy, I –’

‘Underneath that hair, those dorky glasses and those Matalan Online clothes, you’re a total hotty. I never realised before.’

She squeezed my hand and leaned up to kiss me on the cheek. My burning red cheek that was giving away everything. Shit shit shit. And then she lifted her hand up to the back of my neck and put her fingers in my hair and as a bolt of pure want shot to my dick, I couldn’t stop a sound coming out of my mouth. It was a moan or a groan or a grunt or some such bollocks, but I couldn’t stop it, and once it was there, it was there.

Cindy looked pointedly down at my crotch where the traitorous hard-on was throbbing for all to see. She laughed. I loved her laugh, it kind of tinkled and set the hairs on the back of my neck on end, but I didn’t want that tinkly laugh directed at my hard-on, so I pulled away from her and stood up, turning my back on her, unable to think what to say or do, trying not to die of shame.

‘Oh Matt, don’t worry, it happens all the time, Drew’s always bulging out all over.’

‘Yeah but he’s your boyfriend.’

‘So?’

I thought that was patently obvious. You shouldn’t be getting a hard-on when sitting next to your best mate’s girlfriend. Didn’t girls know anything?

‘So maybe you should just go.’

She laughed again.

‘Why? To spare your blushes? Don’t be silly Matt. I’m not embarrassed.’

I wheeled round to face her, my anger and shame somewhat offset by not being able to focus on her face, and the slightly off-balance wobble that made me stumble.

‘Well I fucking well am. You should go, Cindy. Thanks for the haircut. See you sometime.’

‘But that would be such a waste.’

She stayed sitting on the bed, and I couldn’t clearly see her face without going up to her and peering, so I didn’t have a clue what she was thinking.

‘What?’

‘A waste of a good stiffy.’

What?

What was going on now? I was about to find out, as Cindy stood up, walked over to me and put her arms round my neck, stood on tiptoe and pulled my face down to hers.  And that’s when things got a whole lot more interesting …