36. Running in the family

In which changes are afoot, games are played and farewells are begun

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Dec

Beth and Carol looked at me. I looked back.

_What did you say to him last night?

‘Lots of things. I think we do needing help in a pretty similar way. Neither of us are very good at it. I’m just a little bit further down the line than he is.’

_Is he OK this morning?

‘Seems to be.’

_What you said to Jay, about not leaving him alone when he’s down. How did you know that?

‘It’s just what happened to me. The first few times Rose tried to help me I was really unpleasant to her – yelled at her, told her to fuck off, I think I nearly punched her once.’

_Dec!

Beth looked horrified, and Carol looked as if she was reassessing her ceasing of hostilities.

‘I was extremely hungover, probably still drunk, thinking about it. She took me by surprise, I know that’s no excuse. But she hung in there, didn’t let me go. She stayed up with me all night one time, when I was in a really bad way. She never gave up; she was just there. I kept telling her to go away, but she stayed. I wanted to show Matt that he can’t push people away, that there’s going to be someone there to hold on to when he needs it. I just think it’s what he needs.’

_But he gets so angry if you don’t leave him alone.

‘Yeah, he does, it works well, doesn’t it? Who wants to stay there with someone who’s so pissed off? You just have to ride it out and be stronger than him. It’s not easy. He won’t let it be easy.’

#It’s very hard to do the opposite of what someone is asking you to do.

‘Yeah, I know. I guess, if you think of what he’s really asking for, rather than the words he’s saying, it might be easier.’

They both looked at me, waiting for me to explain.

#What do you mean, dear?

‘He’s saying leave me alone. He’s actually asking you to show you care enough about him to not leave him alone through all his shit. Kind of like a test. If you leave him alone, he was right and he doesn’t deserve you.’

_Oh Dec. Is that really what it’s been like for you? Did we make you feel like that?

I shrugged. Didn’t want to make this about me.

‘I didn’t really think about it until yesterday. All afternoon I kept thinking about Matt on his own feeling like shit, and it just kind of occurred to me, we’ve both come close to losing everything in different ways. It affects you, makes you, I dunno, try to protect yourself. What I’ve done in the not so distant past, and what Matt does, is pretty similar. It’s all about willpower. I just decided I was more stubborn than he is. He ran me pretty close.’

#Well maybe there’s something in what you’re saying, Declan. Sometimes you can be too close to someone, and not see what they need because you need things too. Like being his mum means I feel I need to look after him, but he actually needs to do more for himself. I think you might have been able to see things more clearly because you’re a little further removed. Maybe we’ve been too busy taking care of him to help him get better?

_Oh Carol, that’s a really lovely way of putting it. Dec, if you’re right, you might have helped us to help him more, made a real difference. Thank you, sweetheart.

Beth got up and put her arms round me, giving me a kiss on the cheek.

łHey, unhand my wife. No time for that, we’re going on a family walk. Matty’s all ready, taken his meds and is now wearing about seventy layers of thick clothing. So before he faints from heat exhaustion, I suggest you get your coats and shoes and join us. Cal’s even got his coat and wellies on, so we haven’t got long before he gets bored and takes it all off again.

_Whose idea was that?

łMine. Why the hell not? We had a great time in the park yesterday, apart from all the mud, and nearly wrecking Dec. We need to do more of this stuff; sitting around snoozing in the house isn’t doing anything for the size of my arse. Come on, what are you waiting for?

We all did as we were told, finding coats, shoes and various other warm items. It didn’t take long to get ready, and we all left the house, Jay pushing Matt in his wheelchair.

\daddy how far are we going?

łDunno, Cal, could be a hundred miles.

\but I don’t want to walk a hundred miles.

łOh, OK, a bit less then. I’ll give you a piggy back if you get tired.

\can I have a piggy back now?

łNo, wait until you’re tired.

\i’m tired now.

Jay accepted defeat.

łDec, can you take over with Matty’s chair? OK with your arm?

‘No worries.’

He bent down and Cal jumped onto his back. Jay galloped up the road like a horse, to accompanying squeals from Cal. Beth and Carol followed, and I pushed Matt at a slower pace.

}Wha dih yuh say to them?

‘Not much. Told them to stop fussing over you. You’re going to have to ask for help a lot more now. Told them what it was like for me, too. Pretty much it. Oh, and next time you’re feeling miserable, don’t expect to be left alone.’

}Bolluhks, no mohr peace and quieht then.

‘Fraid not my friend.’

}Yuh are, ahrnt yuh.

‘What?’

}My friehd.

‘Yeah. Never in doubt.’

}Douhted ih lahs night. Thought you wehr jus being an annohying dick.

‘Well, I was that too. Call it a character flaw.’

} … Yuh knoh my girfriehnd lehf meh an took ahl my friehds?

‘Yeah, mate, Beth said something.’

}Havant had a friend since then. Jus fahmly, which is greht, thehr greht. But guhd tuh hahv someone who gets meh. Kehp in touch, yeh?

‘Yeah.’

}Hey, yuh gohn quieht.

He tilted his head backwards to look at me. It felt like a long time since someone had called me their friend, too. My leaky eyes let me down once more.

}Oh bluhdy hell, fucking hehd case blahrting again. Heh, lehs catch up wih Jay. Can yuh push fast?

I started running with the chair, bumping over the pavement, trying to avoid the potholes and the resulting jolts to Matt, as well as my arms.

}Heh Cal, race yuh.

Cal looked behind and saw us coming. Beth and Carol scrambled out of the way. Jay had been walking, but sped up when Cal told him we were coming. If the path hadn’t been going uphill, we would have overtaken them, but it was just too much for me to keep going. The strain on my arm started to tell, and my infrequently tested lungs started to protest. Jay slowed too, but he only had a six-year old on his back, whereas I was pushing a full-grown man wearing lots of clothes, in a metal wheelchair.

}Dohnt stop, yuh lohser.

‘Got to … gonna die.’

I slowed down and stopped, putting the brakes on the chair before I lay down on the path, panting.

}Fucking lighweigh.

‘Get out … and run yourself … next time you … want a fucking race.’

Cal had got down from Jay’s back and skipped back to us.

\we won, we won.

Jay followed more slowly, he looked nearly as tired as me, and bent over with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily.

łOK Cal … your turn … to give me … a piggy back.

\daddy, I can’t, you’re too big.

łThen maybe Uncle Matty’s … going to have to get out … of his wheelchair … and push me home.

}Uncle Mahty’s staying righ hehr, thahks. Cahnt mohv in ahl thehs clohths anyway.

#Perhaps we just all need to go a little bit more slowly. We could get to the river and feed the ducks, it’s not far, is it?

\we need bread to feed the ducks, Granny.

#Then it’s a good thing I brought some, isn’t it? Come on, Calum, see if you can remember the way.

They walked off ahead, Cal carrying the bag of bread. Beth stood looking at Jay and me, hands on hips. I stood up, having regained my composure, but Jay was still breathing hard.

_The pair of you want your heads banging together.

}Heh, wha abouh meh? My idea.

_You too, then, Matty. All three of you need a slap.

łCome on, Beth, it was just a bit of fun. Where’s the harm?

_Boys! I’ll never understand you.

She walked off after Cal and Carol, shaking her head. We stood and looked at each other, nonplussed.

łNot sure what we did. Good laugh. Rematch on the way back?

‘What, down the hill? Great, I can just let go. Make sure you hold on tight, Matt.’

łYeah, maybe not. Perhaps I can see Beth’s point. Better get after them, those ducks aren’t going to feed themselves.

Jay and I pushed Matt’s wheelchair between us up the hill. Jay took over at the top, and I walked beside Matt.

łYou alright, Matty?

}Greht, guhd tuh be ouh. Two dahys in a roh. Woo hoo.

łWe should do it more often. Very often in fact. I’m taking Dec back tomorrow, but Monday let’s start something new. As long as the weather’s good, let’s go for a walk every day, I don’t know, feed those bloody ducks or something. Get us both out of the house. Maybe you’ll feel up to walking a bit of the way yourself – up that bloody hill for a start.

}Yeh. Greht. Plehs. Noh wahking up the bluhdy hill thogh.

łOr how about coming to watch me coaching sometime? You can hold the players’ handbags.

}Ha ha. Yeh.

łAnd maybe I could give you a list and you could do the weekly shop?

}Fuck ohf. Bluhdy haht shopping. Do ih online fuh yuh tho.

łWorth a try. Beth doesn’t approve of online shopping.

We walked on to the river and caught up with Cal, Beth and Carol, who had made the fat ducks even fatter by the time we got there.

\daddy a duck pecked my finger.

łReally mate? Probably thought it was a worm.

\no, he was getting bread from my hand. It tickled. They’re all gone now.

Cal looked wistfully up the river in the direction the ducks had gone.

łWell we can come back soon and give them some more bread. Uncle Matty’s going to come for lots more walks to feed the ducks.

Jay looked at Beth, who raised her eyebrows. He nodded back at her.

\uncle Matty, has a duck ever pecked you?

}Er, noh tha I member.

\dec, has a duck ever pecked you?

‘No, mate, never, you must be the only one of us a duck has ever pecked.’

Cal beamed with pride.

\daddy, can you give me a piggy back?

Jay sagged.

łOh come on, Cal, fair dos, I carried you most of the way here.

\i want to race Uncle Matty again.

_I don’t think we’ll have any more races, the last one just about did for Daddy and Dec.

}Why dohn yuh climb up hehr and Daddy can push us both bahk hohm?

Cal conceded that this was almost as good as a piggy back, although Jay’s face showed he wasn’t too thrilled about his increased load. Cal climbed onto Matt’s lap, where Matt put his arms round Cal protectively.

_James, please be careful, I don’t want anyone falling out of any wheelchairs. No running, promise me.

łYou’ll be lucky. Thanks a bunch, Matty.

}Jus being hehpful. Yuh nehd to geh fit if yuhr going tuh kehp up wih meh every day, new rehgime and all tha.

łHmm, I’m starting to wonder if it’s such a good idea. Come on, then, Cal, let’s get rolling. I wonder what Mummy’s got planned for lunch? I wonder if it’s … frogs and snails?

}Tha was lahs nigh.

łBloody cheek, that was my curry.

}Zahctly.

Jay headed off with Matt and Cal, still talking nonsense at the top of their voices. As I watched them go, Beth touched my arm.

_We’re going to miss you.

‘I’m going to miss this. A lot.’

_You’ll come back and see us soon?

‘When I can. I think it’s going to be tricky, I’m going to be busy once I start training again. And I’m coaching with the youth team, and once I start playing again I’ll be with Trojans, even further away. I’ll come back whenever I can, if it’s OK with you.’

_Oh Dec, come back and stay as long and as often as you like. I’d almost forgotten how much time rugby takes up – since we moved up here, I’ve seen so much more of James. You’ll keep in touch? There’s all sorts of things you can do on the computer, and now you’ve got your phone you can call us, or text.

‘Course I’ll keep in touch. Not so good with all the technology, maybe I need Matt to show me before I go.’

_Do that – he’s great with all that stuff, it’d help him to feel useful I’m sure. Are you sure you want to go tomorrow, sweetheart? You don’t have to be back in training until the sixth, do you? It seems like we’ve just got used to having you around again …

‘Ah, Beth, I’d really, really love to stay, but the longer I stay, the harder it’ll be to leave. You might never get rid of me. And I need to start working off some of your roast potatoes before I get into training. The conditioning team are going to be horrified at the state of me as it is.’

_Don’t let them bully you.

‘It’s what they’re good at. And what I need.’

_As long as you’re sure. Just want to hang onto you as long as I can now we’ve got you back.

I put my arm round her and pulled her close. What was this woman to me? Mother? Sister? Friend? A mixture of all and more. I loved her with all my heart.

‘A wise man once said to me, actually it was Matt the night before last, that families are connected wherever they are. We don’t have to be together to feel together. Or something like that. It helped me when I was feeling miserable about going home.’

_Oh Dec, that’s perfect. You and Matty have got on really well, haven’t you?

‘He’s great, I really like him. We’re kind of the same.’

_God help us. Come on, sweetheart, let’s go and see if it’s frogs and snails for lunch.

We caught up with Jay, who hadn’t managed to get very far with his unruly load. Cal was asking Jay to stop every time he saw a pine cone, so he could pick it up for Matt. Fir trees lined the road; there were a lot of pine cones.

łCome on Cal, you don’t need every single one.

\uncle Matty says every one’s different, and he needs them for his collection.

łHe no more collects pine cones than you collect pink dresses. Matty, please tell him.

}Thehr’s another ohn, Cal, it’s rehly big. Behst one yeht.

łMatty …

}Oh alright, I wahs jus waiting foh the lahdies to catch up.

\the ladies and Dec.

}Whaever yuh say, eh Auhnty Dec? Ohkay, enough pihn cohns, thahks Cal. Cahry on drihver.

łI swear, Matty, if you weren’t a bloody cripple …

_James, honestly!

łSorry. I swear, if you weren’t unable to defend yourself …

}Who sahys I cahnt? I’ve got my attack-Cal. Cal – pihn cohns launch!

Cal and Matt started pelting Jay over Matt’s shoulder. Cal was beside himself with glee and Matt cackled evilly. Jay stopped the wheelchair, put the brakes on and put his hands in the air.

łI surrender, give up, no more. Dec, please take over if your piss-poor arms can cope, and take this rabble home. I’m going to escort my lovely wife and charming mother in a more sedate fashion.

I took the brakes off, and started to push. Matt resumed holding on to Cal; the hilarity died down, but Matt and Cal continued to point out red cars and they excitedly spotted a squirrel in a tree. When we reached the house, Cal jumped off Matt’s knee and ran indoors, stripping off his coat as he went. Matt waited until Cal was out of earshot.

}Bolluhks, think I’ve wohn mysehf out. Cahn yuh hehp me?

‘Course, what do you need?’

}Clohths off, all thehs, into behd. Dohn thihk I cahn stahnd. Fuck.

I took Matt into his room and peeled off the top layers as he sat in the wheelchair. He had gone pale and was panting noisily.

‘OK, arm round my shoulder, can you help at all?’

}Prohbly noh. Gihv ih a try.

I stood up, lifting Matt up as well as I could. He had a little strength in his legs, but not much, and the effort made him breathe more raspingly. I sat him on the edge of the bed and swung him round to lie down. Pulled off the three pairs of trousers, leaving him in t-shirt and boxers.

‘Is that OK? Duvet over you?’

}Yeh. Thahks.

‘Need anything else?’

}Noh … th … muh … blr …

He fell asleep before my eyes, while he was still trying to speak. Jay, Beth and Carol came in through the front door, laughing. They stopped when they saw Matt was already in bed.

‘He said he was tired, asked me to get him into bed. Just fell straight to sleep.’

łBloody idiot overdid it. I thought he was getting a bit manic. He’s worse than Cal at admitting when he’s tired.

‘Will he be OK?’

łHopefully he’ll just sleep it off. Otherwise, fancy another sleepless night in the chair pissing him off?

Beth looked at me and realised I was feeling guilty.

_Don’t worry, Dec, it’s not your fault. Let’s make sure someone’s with him when he wakes up. Take it in turns. You first, James, I’ll bring some lunch in. New approach, remember?

łYeah, yeah.

Jay stomped off and sat in the chair by Matt’s bed, as the phone in my pocket started to ring. I pulled it out and looked at the screen. Nico. I went into the living room to answer it.

‘Nico, hi!’

>Declan, is good to hear you. You come to watch me play tomorrow.

‘Well, not just you, the whole team, but yeah.’

>You stay afterwards?

‘Hadn’t really thought, but yeah, I should think so.’

>Good, you have a drink after the game with me and Lis. Lis come also to watch me play. You tell us how is your Christmas.

‘Yeah, sounds good.’

>You have good times?

‘Yeah it’s been really great. Lis told me you had a busy day.’

>Was busy, much noise and much love. We enjoy. Many people and many childrens. We still find sticky places everywhere.

‘Sounds like a lot of fun, apart from the clearing up.’

>Ha, I let Lis clear up. I tell her is good for her, she is better wife.

I heard Lisa’s voice in the background, and suspected Nico was going to be in trouble for that one.

>Lis say see you tomorrow. I must go – she give me a cloth. What I do with this, baby? Ow. Tomorrow, then, Declan. Be careful with yourself.

‘OK, look forward to it. Bye.’

It occurred to me that I hadn’t checked with Jay that he had been able to get tickets for the game. I walked into Matt’s room, where Jay sat flicking through a magazine.

‘Sorry, I feel a bit responsible.’

łDon’t do that, Dec. Matty wants more control, more independence, more going out, he needs to know the consequences. We’re all still learning here. I guess he’s not going to get better unless he learns how far he can push himself. Sometimes it’s going to be too far. I think he’ll be OK.

Matt continued to sleep, breathing raggedly.

‘He’s out for the count.’

łYeah, well, I think he had a pretty good morning. Maybe it was worth it. We’ll see when he wakes up.

‘Would you rather not take me back tomorrow?’

łWhat? Where did that come from?

‘Just in case …’

łNo, it’ll be fine. I sorted us out seats for the game. Don wants to talk to you about it. Ring him. I think we put his number on your phone.

‘I’ll do it now.’

Cal

I enjoyed myself on our walk so much, and so did everyone else, that I still wondered why Dec wasn’t staying, because everything seemed better since he came. Mum and Dad and Granny laughed, and Uncle Matty had been out twice and had sat at the table, and nobody was cross with anyone. I just didn’t get it. It was better with Dec there, and I wanted him to stay, but I didn’t know how to say it.

When we got back, I did some drawing with Granny. I liked Granny’s drawings, because she was good at cartoons, and could draw Sonic the Hedgehog and Pikachu.

Dec

I headed into the living room, stood looking out of the window, and called Don’s number. It went to voicemail. I left a message and hung up. The phone rang almost immediately. I was expecting it to be Don, but the screen just showed a number, not a name.

‘Hello?’

ϙHello, Declan Summers?

‘Yeah.’

ϙIt’s DI Johnson.

‘Oh. Hi.’

ϙDeclan we have some news regarding our investigations into the assault on you and the subsequent incident in your flat.

‘OK.’

ϙWe’ve checked out the two names you gave us, David Allsop and Ben Hearne, and been able to match the DNA from samples taken from your flat to Ben Hearne, but not David Allsop. Mr Allsop has an alibi for the time of your assault. Mr Hearne does not, and he was seen following you out of the bar just prior to the assault. We also found his fingerprints on some of the glass from the bottle you were hit with. We have arrested Mr Hearne and are currently questioning him.

My legs buckled, and I sat down heavily on the sofa.

ϙDeclan, are you still there?

‘Yeah … I … fuck.’

ϙAre you alright? Is someone there with you?

‘Yeah … I’m OK.’

Although I felt far from it. Thinking it might be Big was one thing, having it confirmed was another. Deep down I’d been hoping I was wrong, that my dream was just a dream, that Big couldn’t possibly have done it. But it was him. Big, who had been my mate … it brought the whole episode into sharp focus, intruding into my time here with Jay’s family, making me too aware of what I was facing when I went home.

ϙI’ll keep you up to date with things. Thank you for the information you have already given us. Please let me know if you remember anything else.

‘OK.’

He rang off. I sat, immobile, on the sofa, staring at the ‘call ended’ screen on the phone. Beth called from the kitchen.

_Dec, is soup OK for you?

I didn’t answer. Hardly heard her. That was officially the end of it with me and Big; I couldn’t take it in.

_Dec? James, where’s – oh, there you are. Is soup – what’s the matter?

She came in and sat next to me, looked closely at my face.

_You’re white as a sheet.

‘Yeah … er … just had a call. Police. They’ve arrested Big. Er, Ben Hearne.

_Oh, sweetheart. What a shock for you.

‘Yeah.’

_You did think it was him, though, didn’t you?

‘Yeah. I kept hoping I was wrong. He was my mate, he was the only one who talked to me when things were tough. He was just a fucking liar. I don’t fucking get it.’

_Oh sweetheart …

Beth put her arm round my shoulders. I put my face in my hands and cried, for lost friendship, lost trust, lost pride.

_Oh Dec, don’t. He’s not worth it.

‘I know he’s fucking not. I was such an idiot. So desperate to get my friends back, I let him fool me.’

_Don’t be so hard on yourself. It sounds like he fooled a lot of people. How were you to know? They’ve got him now. He wasn’t so smart, really.

‘Not smart enough not to piss on my stuff, I guess.’

_What?

‘DNA from my flat.’

_Well, that just shows who’s the idiot then.

łWhat’s going on?

Jay stood in the doorway as I wiped my eyes.

łDec, seriously, we’re running out of tissues.

_He’s just had a bit of a shock. They’ve arrested Ben Hearne.

łJesus, no way. Ah, Dec, sorry, mate. That is a bit of a shocker. You were right, then?

‘Yeah.’

I sniffed and took a deep breath.

‘Yeah, I was, I’m OK. Like you say, it’s just a bit of a shock. Brings it all home, churns it all up again. Fuck, I am a head case, aren’t I.’

łBeen trying to tell you that since you got here. Bloody nutter.

He sat down on the other side of me and put his arm round the other shoulder. Having these two people at my side made me feel safer and less out of control than I had for a long time.

łBut you’re our bloody nutter. Wouldn’t have you any other way. You going to be OK?

‘Yeah. Fuck. Sorry. I’ll be OK now. Really.’

I took several deep breaths, tried to rearrange the information in my head in a way which made sense. My phone rang, making me jump, and I nearly dropped it. Looked at the screen. Don.

łYou’d better get that, mate.

He stood up and left the room. Beth squeezed my shoulder and did the same.

‘Hi Don.’

-Declan, I got your message. Jay tells me you’re coming to tomorrow’s game?

‘Yeah, he said he squared it with you?’

-Yes, that’s fine. Just a couple of things I wanted to go over with you. I’d appreciate you wearing your training kit, just so people know you’re representing us.

‘Sure, no worries.’

I wondered if he knew about Big.

-Good. Will you have a chance for the medics to look you over after the game? I’d like them to get a look at how you’re healing, see how much we can do in your initial training sessions.

‘Yeah, no problem. I was going to ask if someone could check me out while I’m there.’

-Perfect. How are you doing?

‘Things seem to be going pretty well, I’ve almost got full movement back in my right arm, bruises have gone down a lot, stitches going nicely, don’t look quite as much like Frankenstein as I did.’

-That’s good news. I’m glad to hear it, son.

‘Don, er, did you know, the police – er – they just called me, they’ve arrested Ben Hearne.’

Don was silent for a long time.

-I was aware they were investigating Ben, and David Allsop. I didn’t know they had arrested anyone.

‘They said they didn’t think it was DivDav – er, David. But they found DNA from Ben in my flat, and on the bottle I was hit with.’

-Declan, I’m very sorry to hear that, I know he was your friend. Thank you for telling me. I suspect I’ll need to talk to Adrian now about media coverage. It might put a different complexion on your attendance tomorrow. I’ll be in touch.

He hung up abruptly. Beth, who must have been waiting in the hallway, came back in to the room.

_OK?

‘Think so. I think I heard the sound of shit hitting the fan. Fuck, what a fucking mess. Sorry. Sorry, Beth, it just comes out. Too much time on my own, no one to tell me to mind my language.’

Beth rolled her eyes and ruffled my hair.

_I don’t remember it being much different when there was someone around to tell you. It’s part of your charm. When Cal’s expelled, I’ll send you the bill for a private school.

‘Ha ha, deal.’

_Oh, what a way to spend your last afternoon with us, Matty out cold, upsetting phone calls, what can we do to make it better?

I had a memory, and a thought.

‘How about … a game of charades?’

_Oh that’s brilliant! I’d forgotten about Christmas charades. Let’s do it in Matty’s room, we can all join in then. I’ll do some lunch, then we’ll get charading. Well remembered.

Beth busied herself with lunch. Carol and Cal were drawing pictures at the kitchen table. Jay was with Matt. I sat and caught my breath. The latest news from DI Johnson had knocked me, but at least I wasn’t going to bump into Big at the game tomorrow. I wondered what Don was going to do about it – he might even say I shouldn’t go. I decided that if that was the case I would try to stay here for a few more days.

After lunch, we all went into Matt’s room. Jay and I brought in extra chairs. Matt was still fast asleep. The game of charades brought back so many good memories for me from past Christmases. Cal understood the point of the game much better now he was older, but he hadn’t always, and I clearly remembered him repeating out loud the title Beth had just whispered to him, and then beaming when we all laughed, thinking he’d won. How old had he been then? Three? Four? He seemed so much older now, he had grown so fast.

We had an uproarious time. Jay opened a bottle of wine, to help us feel less self-conscious, and we threw ourselves into the game. Matt slept on, oblivious. I glanced at him from time to time to see if a loud shout or laugh had disturbed him, but he didn’t seem to stir.

After we had wrung the last bit of amusement out of charades, we moved on to some of Cal’s board games. Jay moved the table away from the side of Matt’s bed, and we all sat round it. With a bit of creative scoring, Cal won everything. Just as we were finishing, Matt woke up. He looked dazed and bleary eyed.

}Kehp the noihs dohn, crihpls trying tuh slehp hehr.

\mummy –

_Yes, Cal, I know. Uncle Matty doesn’t like doing as he’s told, and he’s too big for the naughty step.

I saw a relieved glance pass between Jay and Beth. Matt seemed to be feeling OK so far.

}Yuh behn playing wihouh meh?

łNot technically, you were here in the room. Can’t be helped if you were too lazy to wake up.

}Leh yuh ohf. Cal, who won Huhngry Hihpos?

\me!

}Wha ehls yuh play?

\pop-Up Pirate and Operation. And the game where you guess if it’s films or books and the answer’s Bob the Builder.

}Who wohn thohs?

\me!

}Wehl dohn. Glahd yuhr on my team. Especiahly if I mihsed bluhdy charahds.

łHang on a minute, you can’t just claim a victory like that, you were asleep.

}Yeh, buh Cal’s ahlways on my tehm, dohn matter if I’m awahk or noh. I win. Rohnd one tuh meh.

_Stop it you two, it’s only a game, doesn’t matter who wins.

}Lohng as ih’s meh.

_Well, Matty, you don’t seem to have suffered any ill effects from your morning’s efforts. Are you hungry?

}Stahving. Wha time issit?

_Nearly tea time. You slept right through.

}Shih, haht doin tha.

_Matty, honestly …

}Wha? Blahm Dec foh any inadvehtent swehrs.

‘Hey! I’m getting a bit pissed off with – oh shit, sorry – fu – dammit. I’ll shut up, shall I?’

I looked sheepishly at Beth who raised an eyebrow and didn’t need to say any more. I was all for trying, but I didn’t think I’d ever be able to rein in my bad language.

#Well you seem awake enough now, Matthew. I’ll do some tea, dear, you’ve got that mince, Beth dear, shall I do a shepherd’s pie?

_Oh Carol that would be wonderful. I’ll come and put the kettle on, get us all a drink.

And so my final evening with them, for now, had begun. I tried not to let it bother me, just relax and enjoy it, but I couldn’t help thinking about leaving tomorrow, and how hard it would be. To take my mind off it, I asked Matt to show me how to use my phone and laptop to use Skype and FaceTime. He didn’t seem to be suffering any further ill effects from his walk, and was very willing to show me what he knew.

}Bluhdy hell, Dec, I thought ehvryohn yuhr age knew this stuhf?

‘Never been great with technology. I can just about text and phone, use the internet if there’s free Wi-Fi. I only ever used my laptop for surfing the net and storing music. Oh, and eBay, but that tested my abilities. Haven’t had one for so long now, I’m kind of out of practice.’

}Did yuh rehly sell all yuhr stuhf?

‘Yeah. Necessary at the time.’

}And had yuhr phohn smashed and yuhr flat trashed and yuhr bank accohnt emptied?

‘Yeah.’

}Fucking hehl, Dec. Hahrsh.

‘No more harsh than what happened to you.’

}Ghess noht. Lehs staht League of Losers, incohporating bluhb cluhb and Crihpls Cohner.

‘I like it.’

}Am I ihn yuhr cohtacts?

‘No. I didn’t think you had a phone.’

}Only goh basic ohn, Cahrie took my iPhone. Buh can tex. And now hahv iPad, can mehsage an FaceTime if yuh hahv Wi-Fi.

‘I haven’t got internet at home, nor has Rose.’

}Bluhdy hell, it’s lihk the dahk ages. Yuhr phohn’s goh a contraht wih 3G. Or if yuhv got noh signhal, goh tuh Stahbucks or sohmthing. Or geh Wi-Fi. Or a dongle.

‘If I knew what the fuck one of those was, I’m sure I would. I should do something, though, otherwise this laptop’s not going to be much good.’

}Geh yuhsehf sohted. Nehd tuh kehp in touch.

‘Yeah. I really do, don’t I.’

I had a real sense of having made a friend. Previously, friendships had come easily, had been part of school, or Raiders, just people who were there who I had a laugh with, who were the same age as me. Matt and I had made a connection somehow, and it was another good thing I could take away from this Christmas.

I had a phone call later from Don, confirming that Jay and I could use the tickets for the part of the stand reserved for family of team members. He wanted to remind me that I wasn’t to talk to reporters, or anyone who I thought might be a reporter, and to refer them to him, or remind them about the press conference at the end of the game. He didn’t want me to attend it, and said it was fine to go to the bar afterwards and circulate. I assumed he had a plan, as he had the last time he suggested it.

I called Rose and told her I was coming back the next day. She sounded really pleased, full of plans for meals and what she needed to do to get the place ready. I told her we were going to watch the game, and although we’d call in and see her to drop off my bags beforehand, I might not be back till later on.

Business concluded, I could relax, and concentrate on enjoying the evening. I read Cal a story before he went to bed, or rather read him a long complicated chapter of a book about the history of flight.

łCal, do you spend all your time finding the longest chapters in all your books so you can avoid going to bed?

\no Daddy. This is my bedtime story. I like Concorde.

łWhatever you say, mate.

Cal

For my last bedtime story before Dec went home, I found the longest chapter in any of my books, which was about Concorde in my History of Flight book. It lasted a long time, but in the end we had to finish reading, and Dad put me to bed.

‘Daddy, why does Dec have to go home tomorrow?’

‘Well, I suppose he doesn’t have to, it’s just convenient.’

‘What’s caveenion?’

I liked knowing new words and what they meant. Caveenion sounded like an exciting sort of cave where onions grew.

‘It means it’s easy and it makes sense. There’s a rugby match on in the city, and me and Dec are going to watch it, and I’m going to talk to some of the people at Raiders, so it makes sense to take Dec home at the same time. Do you want to come, so you can say goodbye, and watch the rugby?’

‘But I like football.’

‘I know, mate. How about giving it a try?’

‘Can I wear my Arsenal shirt?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘But why does Dec have to go away?’

‘Mate, he doesn’t live here.’

‘But why?’

‘Cal, this was never Dec’s home, not like before. There’s no room for him, now Granny stays over so much. It doesn’t mean we don’t like him the same as we ever did. Come on mate, go to sleep.’

‘Kay Daddy.’

Dad left the door open a crack because of the monsters, and went back downstairs. I knew Dec wasn’t going to be sleeping underneath me; he had an airbed in Dad’s office, because of his screams. He hadn’t slept in my room last night when he was being with Uncle Matty, and I hadn’t liked it, and now it was his last night, and I wanted him near while I was asleep. I tried to get to sleep, but I couldn’t, and I could hear the TV and talking downstairs.

After a while, I decided to risk going downstairs. I sometimes got in trouble for going downstairs after I’d gone to bed, but it depended on what the reason was. Dad didn’t get as cross as Mum, so I hoped that Mum would be asleep or in the kitchen.

Dec

After Cal had gone to bed, I helped Beth unload and load the dishwasher, and packed my belongings, which had got scattered around the house. I found the duplicate Christmas stocking stuffed in my bag, and left it in the cupboard in the utility room, then I went back to the living room and joined Jay and Carol in front of the TV, while Beth was fiddling with laundry in the kitchen.

Cal

I walked quietly down the stairs and listened at the bottom, to see if I could find out who was in the living room. I could only hear the TV, but the light was on in the kitchen, and I could hear somebody doing something in there – it must be Mum, because Dad hardly ever did things on his own in the kitchen.

I went and stood at the living room door.

‘Daddy …’

Cal, why are you out of bed?’

‘I can’t sleep.’

Come here, mate.’

I went to Dad, and he scooped me on to his lap and kissed me on the top of my head. It was going well so far.

Why can’t you sleep?’

‘I want Dec to sleep under me.’

Dad looked at Dec, who was on the other sofa.

But Dec has bad dreams and scares you.’

‘I won’t be scared. It’s only his dreams. I like when Dec does bad swears at night.’

I see.’

Dad liked doing bad swears too, and I thought this might help to explain it. He looked at Dec again. Dec grinned at me and shrugged at Dad.

‘Thanks, Cal. Yeah, I think I might’ve a couple of times – sat up and banged my head. Just came out. Sorry.’

Hmm. Well, Cal, I think we’ve got quite a long journey tomorrow, and we all need to get a good night’s sleep. So maybe Dec would be better off on the air bed in my office.’

That didn’t sound good, it sounded like the sensible thing to do. I needed something more than sensible, something that Dec could help with.

‘But Daddy, Optimus Prime is scared without Dec.’

Is he now? I thought he was king of the Transformers or something.’

‘Yes, but he likes having Dec sleeping under him too.’

Dec wasn’t there last night, he sat up with Uncle Matty’

Oh yeah. It felt like I was losing this one, but I had one last go.

‘Yes but Optimus Prime woke up and it was all quiet, and Dec wasn’t going ‘mm’ and ‘no’, and he didn’t like it.’

This was true, if you pretended that I was Optimus Prime. I hadn’t liked waking up in the dark and not hearing Dec breathing below me.

Dad looked at Dec again.

What have you done to him? He can’t sleep without your mad noises. OK, Cal, let’s ask Dec. Dec, how would you feel about sleeping in the bottom bunk for one last night?’

Dec looked really pleased.

‘I’d love it.’

Will you promise faithfully not to do any big swears?’

‘I promise to try, but I can’t really control what goes on while I’m asleep.’

It was a great thing to promise, because it meant I still might hear some loud swears, but if I did, Dec wouldn’t be in trouble about it. Dad sighed.

I suppose that’s good enough. OK Cal, you wheedled your way into that one. Go to bed now, Dec will be up later.’

I smiled at Dad and then Dec, and the ran back upstairs and got into bed.

Dec

łSure that’s OK?

‘If you’re sure, I did scare the living shit out of him last time.’

łHe seems to have taken it in his stride. Do you know what, I’m going to see if Matty wants to join us in here. There’s really no reason he has to stay in that room all on his own if he’s starting to feel more sociable. I’ll go and find out.

Jay left, returning a short while later with Matt in his wheelchair, wrapped up in a thick jumper and with a blanket over his knees.

łDon’t know why I didn’t bloody think of this before. Here you go, let’s just get you out onto this end of the sofa. Are you warm enough?

}Tohstie. Duh I hahv to hahv the blahnket? Its tartan foh fuck’s sahk.

łYeah, you have to have the old man blanket. We need something to take the piss out of. Anyone want a drink? Mum, glass of wine?

#That would be lovely, dear.

łDec, beer?

‘Great.’

łGrandpa Matty?

‘Behr. Oh, and fuck ohf ‘

łThink again.

}Oh, OK. Er … stihl behr.

łFuck it, you know what, I don’t think one beer is going to hurt. I’m not even going to ask Beth.

}Bluhdy hell, who ahr yuh and wha hahv yuh dohn wih my noh-fun bruhther?

łHa ha. Less of your lip, tartan boy, I still control the bottle opener.

Jay went to organise the drinks. He came back with three bottles of beer and a glass of wine.

łCheers, everyone. Here comes Beth, with her glass of delicious water. Matty, I’d advise you to get drinking before she realises what you’ve got there. Need help?

}Noh, not having hehp wih fucking behr.

łFair enough. Dec, small sips, don’t want you passing out on me, you lightweight. Mum, don’t slurp.

#Jameson, are you really sure Matthew should –

łYes, Mum, I’m sure. Got to try sometime. It’s only beer.

}Oh my Gohd, ih’s fucking awsohm. Mohr plehs.

łNo way. Make that one last, no more for you.

}Yuh jus said sohnly behr.

łHm, so I did. Well we’ll see how that one goes then, but treat it as if it is the only one you’re having. Dec was pissed on two the other night.

}Ihm betteh at hohding my drihnk.

łYou’re both completely out of practice. I’d drink you under the table in five minutes.

_If you were having a competition, which of course you won’t be, will you?

}Noh point, Muhm wouhd win hahns down.

The rest of the evening passed quickly as we relaxed in each other’s company. Matt managed to wheedle another beer out of Jay, much to Beth’s disgust.

}Cohm on Beth, ih hahdly touched the sihds. Nehd another threh or fohr to mahk a dent.

_You’re certainly not getting another three or four.

}Soh unfahr.

_Just remember, Matty, you’re on your own with me and your mum tomorrow. You’re at our mercy. We could easily make you eat sprout sandwiches and drink carrot juice if you don’t behave yourself tonight.

}Dec, stahy, dohnt lehv meh wih them.

‘You’re on your own, mate, no way I’m eating sprout sandwiches.’

}Bahstrd.

The conversation and banter was batted to and fro, and we all stayed up later than we had planned to. Matt suddenly drooped, eyes closing. His head kept dropping forwards as he struggled to stay awake.

łOK Matty, time for bed.

}Oh, buh I was jus stahting tuh enjoy mysehf.

łYou sound just like Cal – oh but! You’re falling asleep. You won’t miss anything, I think we’ll all be in bed soon. Me and Dec have got a long drive tomorrow, and Beth and Mum have got their work cut out trying to keep you away from the cooking sherry. Come on, hop in your chair, I can’t lift you if you’re asleep, you’re too bloody heavy.

Matt got in his wheelchair grumpily, and Jay took him back to his room. I sat where I was, not wanting to make a move. If I went to bed, that was it, evening over, end of my stay. Beth and Carol cleared up glasses around me and took them to the kitchen. Jay came back into the room.

łSays he wants you to tuck him in. Better be quick, he’s going to be asleep in a minute.

I hurried into Matt’s room. He looked asleep already.

‘Matt?’

His eyes flickered open.

}Auhnty Dec. Jus wahted to say thahks.

‘What for?’

}Whaever yuh said tuh Jay an Beth, it feels dihferent now. Migh even let meh get pihsed if Ihm lucky.

‘I wouldn’t count on it.’

}Sohmthing tuh aim fuh. Anyway, thahks.

‘No worries. Well at least that’s the beer sorted …’

}Wha?

‘Just the sex to go now, and you’re back to normal.’

}Ha ha, look fohward tuh reaching tha mihlstone in the nehr fuhture.

He held his hand out and I clasped it. His grip loosened, and he was asleep.

I wandered back into the living room. Jay was finishing off his beer, watching the end of a sit com.

łWell, that’s me done for tonight. Beth and Mum have already gone up. You going to be long?

‘I think I’ll stay down here for a bit.’

łNo moping, now.

‘I’m not moping, just thinking. Had a huge few days. Sorting through it. Trying to get my head round it.’

łJesus, with the state of your head, should we be afraid?

‘Ha ha. See you tomorrow.’

Jay went to bed, and I was alone with my reflections. In a way, the last few days seemed to have lasted forever. I felt like I had slotted back in to the way things used to be; Jay, Beth and Cal were exactly the same, it all felt exactly the same, even though the location was different. It had felt so natural, it was hard to remember what it had been like when I thought I’d lost them for good, when Jay told me ‘we’re done’ and Beth told me not to call them again. If ever I’d had blessings to count, these people, my family, were at the top of the list. It was going to be hard to leave them tomorrow.

My thoughts meandered on to tomorrow’s game and the challenges that it might bring. I would see people I hadn’t seen since I was beaten up – the bruises and scars still showed on my face. There were plenty of people who still held a grudge against me because of the points I’d cost Raiders; people I had withdrawn from and alienated; people who simply didn’t like what I’d done and how I’d behaved. I’d have to face them all, not just tomorrow, but for the foreseeable future. It was the legacy of my recent actions. But now I had Jay, Beth and Cal back, it seemed easier to face, gave me strength.

Eventually, despite my contemplations, I started to fall asleep. The house was quiet. I took a deep breath and headed up the stairs, undressed in the bathroom and slid into the bottom bunk. I lay awake for some time, the sleepiness that had overcome me downstairs having disappeared. I listened to Cal breathing, and the odd noises that the house made as its occupants slept.

I thought about being back in my flat, on my own. Not something I was looking forward to, but something I was going to have to do sooner rather than later, or I might never do it. Having family around me, people I trusted and loved, made me realise what I had been missing for months, and how much I needed it.

I thought about watching the game tomorrow. That was something I was looking forward to, despite having anxieties about who I might run into. I hadn’t seen a live Raiders game for months, and I was going to be with Jay and Cal. I wasn’t sure if Cal had ever seen a live game before, and I was going to enjoy being there with him for the experience.

Little by little drowsiness overtook me and I slept.

Dreaming. I am flying above the pitch, watching the game. Raiders are playing well, but can’t score. I can see what needs to be done. Don calls me over and sends me on as a replacement. They pass me the ball, I fly over the line and touch the ball down. As I land on the ground, a pair of brown boots appears by my head. I see one of the boots heading straight for my face …

5. Too soon to know

In which things go very well for Matty and Carrie, and then go slightly awry.

Matt

‘How do you mean?’

‘Would you still be my friend?’

‘Well, yeah, of course, but only if I was allowed to constantly tell you what a mistake you’d made, and bad-mouth him at every opportunity.’

‘Well that doesn’t quite seem like the sort of friend I’d need.’

‘Oh? You’d want someone who says to your face that he’s the guy for you, while all the time thinking what an evil bastard he is, and then gets chased off, so isn’t even around to pick up the pieces next time, which could be when he’s done something even worse?’

‘So you don’t think I should go back to him, is that what you’re saying?’

Oh, and here I was, where I didn’t want to be, giving an opinion about something when I could only really have my own agenda at heart.

‘I guess I am saying that. It’s my personal opinion, though, and I can’t pretend I’m completely unbiased. I’ve loved being here with you, getting to know you. You’re so great, you deserve more than some small-minded controlling bully who gets off on keeping you completely to himself. I should stop now, before I say something I’ll regret.’

‘Well, at least you’re honest. Matt, I’ve been thinking all week. I don’t know if I’ve got a choice other than to go back.’

‘No choice?’

‘I haven’t got anywhere else, I can’t afford anywhere else. He pays the rent, he pays the bills, he even pays my mum’s debts when she’s drunk away the monthly payments.’

‘Shit, Carrie. Why haven’t you told me any of this?’

‘Because I feel enough of a loser already. I rely on a bloke who’s this far away from beating the crap out of me for real, and I can’t escape. I’ve got nothing, my life is just a complete and utter disaster.’

And then she started to cry, and I could do nothing but pull her into my arms, and hold her while she sobbed, thoughts speeding through my head, none of them coherent enough to be of any help to either of us, but feeling the need to keep her safe, to look after her, forever.

Carrie’s sobs petered out after a while, but she still clung on to me, and I still held her and stroked her hair, and told her it would be alright.

‘Sorry. I was trying so hard not to do this.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s not fair. Blokes don’t do sobbing, do they?’

‘Well, I suppose it’s not our favourite pastime, but sometimes it’s a catalyst for a conversation that needs to happen. We’re not too good at doing that, either, in general.’

‘One day you’re going to answer a direct question with a yes or a no.’

‘And the next day the world will end.’

She looked up, her own world of trouble scribbled in her eyes.

‘OK, then, maybe we should talk, properly, instead of all the superficials we’ve been doing the last few days. Sit down.’

‘I quite like standing here like this.’

‘Yeah. But it’s distracting. I need you to keep your hands where I can see them.’

‘Ha ha, you sound like you’re about to frisk me.’

‘In your dreams.’

Reluctantly, I let her go, and sat on the sofa. She sat too, far enough away that there was no risk of touching each other without serious intent. I was apprehensive, having done very few deep and meaningfuls with anyone, let alone a woman I really, really wanted to spend a large part of my foreseeable with. I waited for her to begin.

‘I like you a lot.’

‘Likewise.’

‘This week, spending time with you, meeting your family, I feel like I’ve got to know you better than I ever knew Martin.’

She just talked about him the past tense. That was good, right?

‘I’ve enjoyed it too.’

‘But I’ve been with him for a long time.’

Hmm, present perfect tense there. Bit less obvious. Bugger. Also, focus less on the grammar and more on what she’s saying, Matt.

‘How long?’

‘Four years.’

‘That is a long time.’ About three years and six months longer than anyone I’d ever been involved with.

‘It’s not easy to just say something’s turned bad when it used to be good.’

‘Sure, I can understand that, but, to run the risk of your wrath, maybe if we looked at some of the stuff Beth gave you –’

‘There’s no need.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I already did it, back home, on the internet, looked it all up, domestic violence, domestic abuse, and those words just didn’t fit. All the descriptions fitted, but the words – they were just too harsh. They made me feel like I was falsely accusing him, even in my mind. Maybe, oh I don’t know, maybe I was looking for ways round it, ways it wasn’t true. But yeah, if I have to say it out loud, he’s abused me. Not with his fists, but in lots of other ways.’

‘Carrie …’

I reached towards her, tried to take her hand, but she withdrew from my touch. Tears ran down her face again, but I knew she didn’t want me to hold her this time.

‘But I still feel for him, I still worry about him, I’m still grateful to him for everything he’s done for me, even if, now I think about it, it’s all been to try to get more control over me. Shit, if I go back to him, that just proves it, doesn’t it? Shit, Matt. I just said it, didn’t I? He pays the rent, he pays the bills, he even bails my mum out of debt. I was just about to go back to him for that.’

Something had dawned on her face, a realisation. I held my breath, not daring to believe yet that it might last, that she really meant it, that she wouldn’t change her mind.

‘Even – bloody hellfire, you remember that job? When I met you in that café after my interview and you ate that foul smelling wrap?’

‘I remember everything except the foul smell.’

‘His mate got me the interview. You don’t think … me not getting the job was something to do with … and now I think about it, nearly every job I’ve been for, it’s because Martin has come home and said ‘my mate says his company need a secretary’ or receptionist, or whatever, what if he’s talked me down to these wasters, and that’s why I didn’t get the jobs? So he can look like he’s helping, but actually there’s no chance I’ll ever get a job, get some independence.’

She was starting to look panicky, as if nearly everything that had ever gone wrong in her life could somehow be pinned on Martin. Who knows, maybe it could, the job thing sounded plausible, but she needed some perspective, and paranoia wasn’t going to help anyone.

‘Well, it’s possible I suppose, but it’s a bit pointless hypothesising. I think we need to focus on what we do now, how we sort you out. Do you think … it sounds a bit like you might have made a decision.’

She held my gaze. ‘I think I’ve just realised what’s been going on. I might have loved him, properly, once, but that’s not there anymore, there’s just all this crap. I’m not going back.’

I did a little dance. In my head. This wasn’t the time or place for real little dances, it wouldn’t help matters, but deep in my mind, a tiny little jig of delight was being performed.

‘OK. Well, good for you, excellent decision if I may be so bold as to – oh fuck that, come here.’

I shuffled along the sofa as quickly as my still jigging brain would take me and pulled her towards me, holding her tight. Then, suddenly, letting her go as I realised we still had a lot to sort out.

‘That is, well done and all that, but before I get carried away, oh ha ha, literally Carried away, I still think we should –’

Before I could get any further, she pulled me towards her and kissed me –

Iz

PG! PG! PG!

Matt

– and I was so taken by surprise that I let her, is what I told myself, also telling myself that what happened afterwards was due to extenuating circumstances, like her pulling my t-shirt off and pressing her hand against my crotch, and wrapping her tongue round mine like she intended to tie them together, or her slowly taking off her tight vest top, stretching up so her breasts were straining against her bra, then taking my hand and putting it on her chest, or her taking off her bra and pushing one of her nipples into my mouth, so I had no choice at all but to suck it, and lick it until it hardened and peaked under my tongue, or any of the other things that she did, that made me do other things, none of them my fault, you understand, until we ended up in my room, naked, writhing, me in her, her around me, calling out in passion, and then doing it again, twice, before I eventually woke up to the sound of the phone, the feel of an arm round my waist and confusion in my brain, where I believe a very small celebratory jig may still have been taking place.

I addressed the first thing – the phone. Where the bloody hell was it? It wasn’t my mobile, it must be – oh wait, there was a phone by the bed, wasn’t there. Yes. That was it. It was ringing. OK, second problem, the arm round my waist. Fuck, it felt good, didn’t really want to remove it. But it didn’t seem like the phone was going to stop until I answered it. So I unpeeled the arm and moved closer.

‘Ma’ Sco’.’

‘Hello Mr Scott. It’s reception here.’

‘Wha?’

‘Reception. We’ve been trying to deliver your breakfast for the last half an hour, we wondered if you had left the room already.’

‘Paren’ly not.’

‘No. Quite. Would you be good enough to open the door for the waiter?’

‘Sure.’

‘My thanks.’

I hung the receiver back in the cradle.

‘Supercilious arsehole.’

‘Who?’

‘Bloke in recept – whoa, you are a sight for sore eyes. Good morning you gorgeous naked woman.’

I pulled Carrie into my arms and kissed her, deeply, relishing the feel of her soft skin against mine. She kissed me back just as deeply, then pulled her head back.

‘What was that?’

‘What?’

‘That noise. Tapping – oh! Breakfast!’

‘You’re my breakfast. Come here.’

‘No, I need my bacon. I’ll just go and answer the door.’

‘Spoilsport.’

I watched as Carrie pulled on my bathrobe, admiring the little wiggles she did with her arse, in fact admiring everything about her naked form. As I watched her leave the room, I realised that we hadn’t really solved anything for her last night, other than not going back to Martin, and had in fact just made things a whole lot more complicated. I resolved to devote most of today to helping Carrie sort out accommodation, job and money.

Then she walked back in with a tray of breakfast, robe falling open to reveal her in all her splendour, and my resolution counted for nothing for another hour or so.

We spent most of our remaining time in Devon exploring the delights of the five different rooms in the Scott Suite. There were two bedrooms, two bathrooms, both with pulsing power showers and Carrie’s with a huge jacuzzi bath, as well as the large living room.

Beth was hard to ignore, and had tried several – no, make that many, many – times to contact me by text and voicemail, all of which I’d been too busy to answer. She had lost patience by Friday morning and started calling constantly, hanging up and trying again when she got the voicemail. I gave in eventually.

‘Matty! Oh thank God. Where are you?’

‘At the hotel.’

‘Where have you been?’

‘At the hotel.’

‘I meant since Tuesday night.’

‘At the hotel.’

‘What? Really? Are you alright? Oh … oh Matty, tell me you and Carrie haven’t done anything silly.’

‘Well … that depends on your definition of silly, really. Shall I describe what we’ve been doing? I can give you details, in varying levels of graphic, if you like. Let’s see, where shall I start?’

‘No, no, I get the picture. Oh Matty. Are you sure? I thought she was thinking about going back to him.’

‘Yeah, well, she thought. Decided not. We were both quite happy about it.’

‘OK, well, that sounds a bit better, I suppose. But why didn’t you just text me or something? I’ve been trying to get hold of you, I thought something must have happened.’

‘Something did. Lots of somethings. Or rather the same something, lots of times.’

‘Something bad.’

‘Oh. Sorry, Beth. Had other things on my mind.’

Beth snorted. ‘Amongst other places. So what have you sorted out for Carrie?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Is she going to live with you? Have you got her a job? Have you thought about what kind of help is she going to get to live her life in the town where her abusive boyfriend –’

‘Ex’

‘– ex-boyfriend lives?’

‘Er …’

‘Yeah, I thought as much. Matty, I love you dearly, but sometimes thinking with your men’s bits isn’t the best way to solve a problem. Actually, it’s hardly ever the best way.’

‘Kind of depends on the problem.’

‘That’s why I said hardly ever and not never. Come over tonight, we can have a think, even if it’s just so you both know what you need to consider. Maybe someone to talk to who doesn’t have a lust-addled brain is what you need. Come about seven? Cal will be in bed, Dec will be out with his friends before clubbing and illegally drinking, not that I know that of course, it’ll just be me and James.’

I sighed, and turned towards Carrie, who was lying next to me, naked, stroking my thigh. It was driving me wild, and I really needed to stop Beth talking so I could do something about it.

‘Beth wants us to go for dinner tonight, so we can plan our triumphant return to the metropolis that is Stafford.’

‘Do we have to?’

‘Dinner or return to the metropolis?’

‘Either.’

‘I think we do. Sorry. I hate to say it, but I think it might help, if we can just curb her enthusiasm a bit.’

‘But it’s our last night here.’

‘Hey, I didn’t say we have to stay all night. Couple of hours, three tops, then we can come back, and I can do more of this …’

I stroked her hair and pulled her towards me for a kiss. She moaned under my mouth and kissed back, gently biting my bottom lip and running her hands up and down my back, setting my spine on fire.

‘Oh, and you can do more of that anytime.’

‘Matty? Can you hear me?’

Shit, I’d completely forgotten I’d been talking to Beth. I picked the phone up.

‘Sorry. Yep, we’ll be there, seven was it? Yep, see you then. Bye.’

Before she had a chance to squawk, I disconnected, threw the phone on the floor and went back to what I’d been doing.

Some time later, taking a break for lunch, which we were feeding each other like giggling adolescents, Carrie looked up at me.

‘You know, you really are very good in the bed department.’

‘Why thank you, C, you’re not so shabby yourself.’

At some point over the last breathtaking forty eight hours, I’d started calling Carrie ‘C’. I liked it, and she didn’t seem to mind.

‘No, I mean, where did you learn all that? Don’t tell me I’m not your first, I’d feel so … used.’

She put the back of her hand against her forehead and sank dramatically against the back of the sofa.

‘Ha ha, well, I’m sorry to suddenly be not the man you thought I was, but you’re not my first. I was a bit of a late starter, but I made up for lost time.’

‘How old?’

‘First time? Eighteen. Nearly nineteen, actually. You?’

‘Fifteen. So if you made up for lost time, does that mean there have been a lot?’

‘Er … does it really matter?’

‘Well that kind of answers my question, but no, I’m just interested. You seem to know your way around pretty well, I don’t think we’ve reached the end of your repertoire yet. You’ve either been out with a prostitute or had lots of women.’

‘Or read lots of books.’

‘What? You did not learn all that from a book.’

‘Not just one, no.’

‘You’re bloody kidding me.’

‘OK, maybe I am kidding a bit. To be honest, yeah, I suppose if I was going to count, there have been a lot. I don’t really do commitment, so I don’t let it go very far, so no one gets hurt, which means I’ve moved on every couple of weeks. I meant it about the books, though, to start with. I read loads, watched DVDs, worked out what to do, then when I got my chance I put it into practice, and it seemed to work. As time went on, I added bits I found out for myself, like this …’

I touched her breast and tweaked her nipple, rubbing my thumb across it afterwards to make it harden more,

‘… that’s all my own work.’

I looked into her face, and was surprised to see a frown.

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’

‘What did I say? Sorry, I should have told you there have been a few, but none of them have ever mattered … oh, I haven’t got anything. I get tested for everything every few months, just to make sure.’

‘Mm. No, it’s not that.’

‘C?’

‘What?’

‘What have I done? What did I say?’

She looked up again and the cloud had gone from her eyes, or maybe it had just been papered over with something else.

‘Nothing. Sorry. Just feeling a bit in awe of your vast experience. I’ve only ever been with two blokes.’

‘Really? But you’re so hot. Hang on, I thought you said you were fifteen?’

‘The first time, yeah, but it was at a party, on a pile of coats, and it was such an awful experience, and I thought I was pregnant afterwards although I wasn’t, and I didn’t want to try it again for a long time. Five years, in fact, when I met Martin.’

‘So your sexual experience to date has been spotty teenager, bully boy, and …’

‘And now you. Yes, before you ask, you win hands down.’

I shot both fists into the air in celebration.

‘He shoots, he scores. Oh, and I have to say, even though I might have to search a bit longer to make all the comparisons, I’ve never met anyone like you. You feel incredible, you’re so amazing, you might even be the – is that a drop of garlic dip on your chin? Allow me.’

I leaned over and licked the droplet off slowly, finding her lips with my tongue shortly afterwards. I hoped she hadn’t realised what I’d been about to say, how I’d nearly blown it by calling her the love of my life. She’d just broken up with Martin, and even having sex was not a very good idea just now. Having me declare stupid crap like that wasn’t going to help at all. So I licked her all over, with the help of more garlic dip, and took my mind off my almost-gaffe.

After lunch, the hotel kicked us out for a couple of hours, as we had hung the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door, and they felt a need to change the bedding and replenish the miniscule bottles of shampoo. It took another call from reception when we ignored the knocking on the door. I wondered if Jay’s ‘free whenever you want it’ offer would be rescinded in the wake of the hefty bills we had doubtless run up.

So we drove out to the beach and lay in the sun for a bit. We were surrounded by people, there was no way we could get up to anything untoward, but just being there, lying next to Carrie, close enough to touch her, allowed to touch her, unlike earlier in the week when it had just been perving from behind my sunglasses, was erotic enough.

Then Carrie hit on the idea of sun cream, and we spent quite a lot longer than was necessary rubbing factor thirty on each other’s backs. And fronts. And arms. And legs. And as near to bums as we dared. And when our allotted time was up, we went back and got sand and Ambre Solaire all over the newly hoovered carpet.

We just about made it to Jay’s on time, only because we didn’t want to spend any longer there than we needed to. I did at least recognise that if we were going back tomorrow, we needed to think about what we were going to do if we ran into Martin, and how we were going to keep Carrie safe, and that Beth would be a good person to help.

It had been the most phenomenal week, but now a bit of reality had to be let in, and it seemed like Carrie was feeling it too, as she was very quiet on the short drive. I turned the engine off as we pulled up outside the house, and turned to look at her.

‘Alright?’

‘Yeah. I can’t believe it’s nearly all over.’

‘Don’t think like that. In percentage terms, assuming we don’t actually leave until tomorrow evening, we’ve still got more than fourteen per cent of the week left. That’s plenty.’

‘Doesn’t sound like very much.’

‘How about in hours? Let’s not leave until at least seven tomorrow, then we’ve got twenty four hours left.’

‘But we won’t be able to stay in the hotel until then.’

‘No, probably not, but we can stay around here, do something really special. Twenty four whole hours, C.’

‘You’re right, that sounds better than fourteen per cent. Hey, you do know your numbers, don’t you.’

‘A levels in Maths, Pure Maths and Bloody Mind-Bogglingly Complicated Maths at your service, ma’am.’

‘Get out of here. Come on then, before I change my mind and drag you back to the hotel by your hair.’

‘Oh balls, let’s just do that instead.’

‘No, my mind is made up.’

‘Really?’

‘Yep. I’d much rather go and be preached at by your sister-in-law than shagging your brains out in our sumptuous hotel room. Goes without saying.’

‘You tease – oh sod it, here comes Cal, the game’s up. Out you get.’

I got out, scooped Cal up and walked up the path with him in my arms, not really listening while he chattered about SpongeBob Squarepants or some such shit, being more focussed on the sight of Carrie’s arse in her tight jeans as she walked in front of me. I was a hopeless case.

Beth was waiting just inside the front door, dispensing kisses as we arrived. Jay handed me a bottle of beer as I put Cal down, and gave Carrie a glass of water.

‘We’ve got plenty of other drinks, Carrie, but you do seem to like the tasteless stuff.’

‘It’s good for getting rid of impurities.’

‘Surely you don’t have any of those?’

‘No, Matt. That’s because I drink a lot of water.’

We went and sat in the living room while Jay and Beth dealt with Cal’s bedtime. Dec poked his head round the door.

‘You here again?’

‘It would seem so.’

‘Alright?’

‘Yup.’

And he was gone, the whole house reverberating with the slam of the front door as he went.

‘Fuckaduck, was that … four whole words?’

‘About that. You must be a good influence on him.’

‘Not sure I could cope with much more. Might have to start having a conversation with him next time I’m here.’

‘It would be a short one, I’m sure.’

‘Yeah. Something like ‘sup’ ‘not much’ ‘sick’ ‘laters’. I might have to practice.’

‘I can think of better things for you to practice.’

I arched an eyebrow. ‘Oh really?’

‘Mm. Not here though. Have a think over dinner.’

‘Oh I will. Are you sure there’s nothing I can practise here?’

‘Well …’

‘You’ve thought of something?’

She leaned over and kissed my cheek, then turned my face towards hers. I didn’t need any further hints, and by the time Jay and Beth came back downstairs, our faces were almost welded together. We hadn’t forgotten where we were entirely, but we were putting on a bit of a show.

‘Jesus, Matty. Give it a rest for five minutes? You’ve been at it for three whole days, according to Beth. Take a break.’

I looked up, disentangled myself from Carrie, ran my hands through my hair and looked guiltily at Beth, who was glaring at us. Carrie laughed, adjusted her clothing and smoothed her hair.

‘Sorry. He’s a bit irresistible.’

‘Yeah, about as irresistible as a three week old pizza, and about as appetising. Thanks for putting me off my tea, Matty.’

‘OK, Jay, we’ve stopped. Didn’t hear you come downstairs. I might have been deafened when the adolescent slammed the front door.’

‘What if Cal had been with us?’

‘Oh Beth, what if he had? We were only kissing.’

‘He’s not used to seeing … displays … like that.’

‘Well, we’ve both said sorry. It won’t happen again, not much else we can do.’

I sat back and refused to be told off like a naughty child any more.

‘When’s tea, then?’

‘Won’t be long. Fancy giving me a hand, Matty? I need a hollandaise sauce for the fish.’

‘Oh. Er … OK. Right there.’ I looked at Carrie. ‘Jay doesn’t bite, but if you need me, yell ‘help’.’

‘Cheers Matty.’

‘Are you saying you can make a holland sauce?’

‘Hollandaise. Yeah. I can cook a bit. Won’t be long. I expect Beth wants to give me the benefit of some pearls of wisdom in the privacy of the kitchen, probably about corrupting the young or some such shit.’

‘Matty, no swearing in the house.’

‘Yeah, I can just about take that from Beth, mate, but you’ve got no chance. Fuck off.’

And I went into the kitchen, grinning to myself, always loving it when Jay tried to get all parental on my arse and I managed to show him who was really the daddy.

Beth was at the kitchen table, surrounded by implements and recipe books.

‘I’ve found a recipe, and I think I’ve got all the ingredients, but I’ve been a bit disorganised.’

‘That doesn’t sound like you, Beth, you’ve usually got everything completely under control weeks in advance.’

‘Well you threw me off, coming down here at short notice, then being out of touch for days – oh sweetheart, are you sure you know what you’re doing?’

‘I’ve made hollandaise sauce before. Don’t even need a recipe book, thanks.’

‘I didn’t mean that. I meant with Carrie.’

‘I knew what you meant. And no, I don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing. Does anyone, ever? All I know is I’ve never felt like this before, about anyone, and she’s amazing, I love her –’

I clapped my hand over my mouth as I said it, wishing I could call the words back. Beth’s eyes were wide, then her face softened.

‘Oh Matty. I always said that when you fell, you’d fall hard and fast.’

‘Shit, Beth, I didn’t mean to say it. You can’t say anything, she can’t know, not yet.’

‘You’re right, sweetheart, it would just be another complication. I’m not usually one for hiding things, but I think this is something she doesn’t need to be worrying about, she’s got a tough few weeks coming up.’

‘Yeah.’

‘So you’re not going to reassure me that you know exactly what you’re doing and it’s all under control?’

‘Ha! Hardly.’

‘You’d better make me some hollandaise sauce instead, then.’

Over dinner, Beth mentioned another conversation she’d had with her social worker friend.

‘She said there’s a shelter in Stafford, maybe somewhere you can stay for a few weeks while you sort yourself out.’

I expected Carrie to react badly to this, but looked at her to see her nodding. I was panicked by the sound of a shelter, and what it might mean for Carrie and me.

‘Wait, Beth, do you mean a battered wives’ home?’

‘Oh Matty, they’re not called that anymore, they’re women’s refuges. For all sorts of women in all sorts of situations and all sorts of relationships.’

‘But Carrie doesn’t need that now. You’ve got me, haven’t you?’

I thought she might look at me gratefully, maybe smile and nod, but she looked pained, and spoke directly to Beth.

‘Do you know any details?’

‘What? No, C, you can stay with me. I mean, before, yeah my flat was too small for both of us, but now –’

‘Really, Matt? Wasn’t the reason we came down here so that Martin didn’t come round and find us together? What’s changed?’

‘But … you can’t just …’

‘Sweetheart, you keep saying you want Carrie to be safe. Maybe she needs help from other people as well, people who know what they’re doing in this type of situation, people who aren’t going to get both of you hurt by not thinking clearly. Carrie, my friend has the contact details of the local Women’s Org group, who can help you out with everything. They’ve got people on the phones twenty four hours a day. Feel free to call from here if you want to.’

Beth handed over a card, which Carrie placed on the table in front of her and stared at.

‘You should both know that if Carrie goes this route, and if she gets a place in the shelter, they won’t let men in. You won’t be able to see each other while she’s there. And they’ll probably advise that you don’t have any relationships while you’re getting sorted, Carrie. They can’t enforce it, of course, but it seems sensible.’

‘Holy shit, Beth. C, I can look after you, I’ll move, I’ll get a place with two bedrooms, I’ll –’

‘I’m sorry, Matt, I think – I kind of knew about this. Maybe it’s best, maybe it’ll give us time to catch our breath. This week has been a whirlwind, incredible, but you can’t get a new flat in a day, it’ll take weeks, and it’s too risky. Maybe, if they can’t help me right away, I won’t have any choice, but I think it’s best to do it properly, with people who know what they’re doing.’

‘But what about us?’

I half noticed Beth getting up, taking some plates with her, and cuffing Jay on the arm to make him do the same. All I could think was that I was losing Carrie before I’d found her, she was going to go somewhere they thought all men were abusers, and she’d end up hating me. I badly wanted to dissuade her, even though I knew there wasn’t really an alternative. She was right. If Martin found out where I lived, it would be bad for us both.

‘You said earlier that you don’t do commitment.’

‘What? When did I say that?’

‘When you were telling me about the millions of women you’ve had and why you’ve had them.’

‘Oh. But I meant then. I didn’t mean you.’

‘I’m being sensible. I’m thinking clearly, it’s taken a few days to get here, but I’m thinking about me. I don’t want you to commit yourself to me, not if you can’t stick to it. I don’t want to be a tie for you, and I don’t want to be hurt again so soon after all this. I need to be sure.’

‘I’ll never hurt you.’

‘Heard that one before.’

‘I’m nothing like him.’

‘No. But you have the potential to hurt me, whether you want to or not. Matt, you said a few days ago that you’d always be here for me.’

‘Yeah.’

‘So, are you changing your mind?’

‘No.’

‘Well, I’m not going anywhere either, not as far as we’re concerned. I need to sort myself out, I need to get somewhere to live, a way of supporting myself. I think these people,’ she picked up the card with the phone number on it, ‘might be able to help me do that. Then we can give us a go, a proper go, and we might even stand a chance.’

I nodded, unable to look at her, knowing she would be able to see the misery, the doubt I was feeling.

‘I’ve loved this week. You’re great. You’ve made me feel special, like I matter, like I’m worth bothering with, like I’m attractive. I haven’t felt like that for a long time. This week has helped me, you have no idea how much. But it’s been a bit unreal, hasn’t it. It’s time to go home and face it all now. This isn’t the end for us, it’s the beginning.’

‘It feels like the end.’

‘It’s the end of the week, and didn’t you say there’s still fourteen per cent left?’

‘Less than that, now, about thirteen.’

‘Well then, with your A level Bloody Mind-Bogglingly Complicated Maths, we can either spend that last thirteen per cent being miserable about what might or might not happen, or we can spend a hundred per cent of the rest of the week – and I like my number better, to be honest – being happy with each other and giving each other something to remember each other by.’

‘What, like a farewell gift?’

‘No, like a here’s what you’ll be missing, hurry back gift.’

‘Oh. That does sound better. I like your number better too. Hadn’t thought of that one, a hundred per cent of the rest of the week.’

‘OK then. Stop your whining. I’ve got a phone call to make, anywhere I can go to have some privacy?’

‘You can probably use Jay’s office. Jay?’

He appeared through the door so quickly, I suspected he’d been propelled by an eavesdropping Beth.

‘Yeah?’

‘Can Carrie use your office to make a phone call?’

‘Yeah sure, this way.’

He led her out into the hallway. Beth came in with a bowl of trifle.

‘Dessert, if you’re staying.’

‘Hm, tempting, but might not, all things considered.’

‘Is she ringing them?’

‘Yep.’

‘It’ll be OK, Matty.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because she’ll get the help she needs from these people. Isn’t that the priority here?’

‘I suppose.’

‘You knew what you were getting into, I did tell you –’

‘Please spare me the sodding I told you so, Beth.’

‘Sorry, sweetheart.’

‘But thanks for everything you’ve done. And thank your friend, too.’

‘Any time. I know lots of people, I’ve got friends for most occasions.’

‘I’m beginning to see the truth of that.’

‘What time do you think you’ll set off tomorrow?’

‘Don’t know, I think we have to check out at twelve. We talked about staying a bit longer, but it depends what they say to Carrie now.’

‘Enjoy it then. Make some memories.’

‘Yeah, got quite a few of those, some of them aren’t even of the bedroom.’

‘It’s not the be all and end all, Matty.’

‘Ha ha, you’re so middle-aged, Beth.’

She narrowed her eyes, and I knew I’d stung her, but I was unrepentant. She’d helped a lot, but because of her help I was going to lose Carrie, maybe for a few weeks, but maybe for longer, and maybe for good, and I wanted to hurt her just a little bit in return.

Jay wandered in with a beer. He offered one to me, but I was driving back, and didn’t want to risk being stopped.

‘Ooh, trifle. Haven’t you started it yet?’

‘Matty thinks they won’t be staying.’

‘No reason I can’t have some though, is there? Sometimes I love not playing, I can have desserts all week long if I like. Can’t you pack them off with some in a plastic box or something? I’m sure they’ll find something, or someone, to eat it off later.’

‘James, honestly.’

‘What? It’s not like we can’t all see they’re love’s young dream. Jesus, even I can see it, must be beaming out the TV or something.’

‘Did Carrie get through to anyone?’

‘Oh, I don’t know mate, I just showed her into the office, didn’t stick around to listen. She’s still in there though, so unless she’s leaving a really long message on the answerphone, she must have done.’

Carrie came out a while later, after Beth and I had sat and watched Jay slurp his way through two bowls of trifle. I smiled at her, and she tried a smile back, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.

‘Did you talk to someone? What did they say?’

‘I’m going to see them – er, they said tomorrow afternoon. We’ll have to leave earlier than we said. Sorry.’

‘No problem. We’ve still got a hundred per cent of the rest of the week.’

‘Yeah. Can we go?’

‘Sure. Thanks Beth, great feast again.’

‘Yeah, thanks Beth, you’ve been awesome.’

‘You’re welcome, sweetheart. Do you want to take some trifle back with you?’

Jay snorted, but looked as if he might have had a swift kick under the table from Beth.

‘Oh, no thanks, I don’t usually do dessert, and I’ve eaten far too much this week. Thanks though.’

Carrie stood behind me and put her hand on my shoulder.

‘OK then. Got everything?’

‘Everything I came with, which was you. Not leaving without that.’

‘Right, homewards. Or Scott Suitewards, for our last night of drawing glasses and moustaches and the odd really huge knob on all the pictures.’

‘What? Matty, you haven’t. If I get a bill, I swear –’

‘Relax, Jay. We’ve only drawn on the ones in the bathrooms. And the knobs are tiny – same as yours – so no one will ever see.’

‘He’s teasing, James. Honestly, how long have you been brothers? Sometimes it’s like you don’t know each other at all. So will you call in before you go?’

‘No, probably not, if we need to leg it back for Carrie’s appointment. Thanks for everything.’

I stood up and gave her a big hug, then shook Jay’s hand while Carrie hugged her too.

And then we were back at the hotel for our last night. But something had gone out of it all, there was a pall hanging over us, and although neither of us said anything, neither of us started anything, and before long I found myself feeling sleepy.

‘I might go to bed.’

‘Need some company?’

‘Always. I’m pretty beat though.’

‘That’s fine.’

I undressed got into bed and turned out the lights, hearing the door open a few minutes later. I listened to the rustling sounds of Carrie taking her clothes off, felt the mattress bounce slightly as she got in beside me, and felt her body press against me, her breasts, her hips, her thighs, moulding themselves to me, and her soft hands stroking my chest. I felt like crying; I nearly did. This could be the last time I felt this, this week could be all the time I was allotted with Carrie, by whoever did cosmic time allotting, and it wasn’t fair.

‘Hey, are you going to spend a hundred per cent of the rest of the week being miserable?’

‘Can’t help it. I feel like I’m losing you.’

‘No Matt. I don’t know what you think is going to happen, but you’re not losing me. The woman on the phone thought it was really positive that I’ve got someone like you looking out for me. She said there are some rules around involvement with men while they’re helping me, but they don’t discourage relationships altogether. If they give me a room in the refuge, it’ll only be for a few weeks or so, they’ll help me find somewhere else, they’ll be helping me to sort out what I want, so I’m strong enough to deal with it. I’ll be even better than now.’

‘Impossible. You’re already perfect.’

‘Don’t say that, Matt, you don’t know how far from the truth you are. Will you wait for me? Until I’m sorted?’

‘Yeah. Forever.’

‘Don’t promise things like that. Just promise until I’m sorted.’

‘Okay then. But will you promise …’

‘What?’

‘Not to go all feminist and man-hating, or go for couples counselling with Martin, or some such shit.’

Carrie laughed. ‘You don’t half get some daft ideas. OK, firstly I won’t be going anywhere with Martin, especially to couples counselling. And this organisation thing doesn’t seem to be particularly man-hating, it only hates the bad ones. You’re one of the good ones, you’re in.’

‘C?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Hold me.’

I turned over so we were facing each other, and as our arms went round each other, and we pulled each other closer, we kissed as if the world was ending, and we loved as if the world was ending, and in a way it was, this little week-long world we’d created down here in the south west of England, and we were never going to get it back. But she’d almost convinced me that there would be other worlds we could create, and as we moved against each other and into each other and felt the heat and the passion of each other, and as she did that just so, and I did this just like that, and we pulled each other to the edge and tumbled over it in raptures together, I started to believe it might not be the end of our world after all.

And so began Project Capture Carrie, third iteration, or 1.2 if you will. 1.0 had failed spectacularly and nearly got me beaten up by a meathead. 1.1 lasted a wonderful week in the west. 1.2 was going to be a longer process, requiring infinitely more patience on my part, a lot of will power, cold showers galore and a pillow to swear loudly into at regular intervals.

Carrie had been whisked away from her interview with the Women’s Org people into a safe house. I didn’t know where it was, what they’d said to her, what she’d told them. I didn’t know anything at all. She’d called me, shortly after I’d dropped her at the Women’ Org offices, to tell me she was giving up her mobile phone and wouldn’t be contacting me, or anyone, while she was there. She asked me not to speak, couldn’t give me any details. It was so quick. Just half an hour before, we’d been sitting nervously in my car, looking up at the windows trying to guess which one she’d be looking out of. I was still there, in the car, when she’d called, but I hadn’t seen her, even though she might have been standing looking at me.

It felt strange, to be suddenly without her. It felt like longer than a week that we’d been together, and I know we’d talked about what might happen, but it was suddenly real, too suddenly too real, and she felt ripped away from me.

I sat in my car for a long time, hoping to see her come out of the front door, but unless they’d disguised her as a middle-aged Indian woman or a teenage skateboarder, they must have taken her out of another door. My unnecessarily vivid imagination saw her under a blanket, being hustled into a windowless van. Or was that just serial killers?

Anyway, the reality was that she was gone for the time being, for the foreseeable, and at that moment there wasn’t much foreseeable for me without her.

I’d eventually driven away from the building, before a bunch of man-hating feminists decided to come and slash my tyres for stalking, and went home. I was a bit nervous about this as well, not knowing if I was going to have a front door or not when I got there. As I rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, I was relieved and a little surprised to find that not only was the door still there, but it didn’t even have a dent. Maybe he hadn’t worked out where I lived then.

As I was trying to find my keys in my pocket, Mrs Harding popped her head out. Good old Mrs Harding. She said she was deaf, but she could hear a potential for a good nosy through two doors and Cash in the Attic on full volume.

‘Oh, you’re back, Mark.’

And she always called me Mark. She knew it was one of the gospels, me being such a good boy and all.

‘Matt. Yep, I’m back.’

‘Did your friend find you?’

My blood seemed to freeze, as did my smile, and I tried not to look as scared as I felt.

‘Er, no, which friend is that, then?’

‘The chap who was here, he came a couple of times, banged on your door rather loudly, well he must have done for me to hear him. Then he banged on my door to see if I knew where you were. Said he needed to find you. He said it was urgent.’

‘Did you talk to him?’

‘Yes, nice chap. I told him I saw you go out with that young girl last Saturday, and you hadn’t been back since.’

Oh shit.

‘Did he, er, say his name at all?’

‘Oh, do you know, he did, but can I remember? It was one of those ordinary mannish sort of names, a bit like yours, Mark.’

‘Matt.’

‘No, it wasn’t Matt. Let me think now. Oh, I’ve got it. Andrew.’

What? Really? Oh, but she must have got his name wrong.

‘Andrew? Are you sure? What did he look like?’

I didn’t want to put the name Martin in her head, in case it made her mis-remember, but I doubted even Mrs Harding’s physical descriptions of Andrew versus Martin could be confused with each other.

‘Oh, he was just a man really, a bit like you, tall, hair going a bit thin, glasses. Had a woman with him, and a baby.’

Oh, well why the fuck didn’t you fucking well say that in the fucking first place, instead of scaring the living shit out of me before I’ve even got my key in the sodding door, you bloody useless old bat. Is what I screamed at her in my mind, but I rather shakily plastered on my best smile, thanked her and said I would give him a ring to stop him calling round and bothering her. And in my relief I wasn’t even annoyed that she’d said Andrew was like me with his thinning hair. Bloody cheek, my hair was all still firmly attached to my head.

When I got in, after pouring myself a steadying finger of scotch, I double-checked my phone for texts and emails, but there was nothing from Andrew, which was curious. He knew it was the best way to get hold of me. The message light was flashing on my landline answerphone, which was also unusual as only cold callers ever rang it and I only needed it for the Wi-Fi.

I tapped the ‘play’ button, and the electronic woman inside the phone told me I had seven new messages. Two were from a different electronic woman inside the phone excitedly telling me I’d won a holiday and if I just called this number I’d be in the tourist destination of my dreams within the week. Two were just static, and three were, indeed from Andrew, telling me he was in Stafford for a few days, he had some news, could he call round. The last one was time-stamped Thursday, so I’d missed him.

I’d kept in touch with Andrew since Uni. He’d moved to Aberystwyth when he got a post-grad job as a computer programmer with an insurance company, and had stayed there ever since, now head of the department, having met Karen, married her and recently had a little girl called … er … I want to say Rebecca. Let’s say Rebecca. Yeah, I’m a great mate.

Truth is, Andrew had been a great mate to me. All the crap with Cindy notwithstanding, we’d stayed friends at Uni, had used each other to talk to, take our frustrations out on, help through tough assignments, and afterwards we still called each other, fairly frequently, for chats, usually about Spurs, Star Wars and computer code, not much had changed, but occasionally one or other of us would need to get something off our chest, and we were comfortable enough for that to happen without too much macho nonsense.

It had kind of tailed off, two, maybe three, years previously when he met Karen. Obviously (I mean obviously now it had happened to me) when you meet the woman of your dreams, your mates take second place, and she should really be the one you talk to most, and who is your new best mate, at least that’s how I viewed it now, with my whole week’s worth of experience. But at the time I felt both the reduced frequency of his calls and the unavailability every time I suggested getting together as a bit of a slight. I’d been to his wedding, and judged Karen harshly on appearances. I’m sure she was a beautiful woman, with some lovely character traits, but she struck me as a bit … sorry ladies, prepare to throw things … plain, and compared to the vivacious Cindy, I couldn’t see what had attracted him to her. Still, it wasn’t my life, and so as was becoming customary at weddings for me, I snogged a bridesmaid, felt her up and didn’t call her. Well, it wasn’t like I was going to be going back, was it?

Andrew and I had continued emailing and texting whilst managing to never quite get round to visiting since he got married. It felt like enough.

So, a bit perplexed as to why Andrew hadn’t called my mobile or emailed me, I checked the number left on the answer machine, and dialled it. It was a hotel in Stafford, and the receptionist confirmed that Mr Distock had checked out yesterday morning. I wondered why he hadn’t stayed with his parents, but from what I remembered they’d moved to a smaller house when Andrew left home, and maybe didn’t have room for his family. He would have gone back to Aberystwyth after his visit.

I dialled his home number, three times, and got the long unobtainable tone each time. I dialled his mobile number, and got a message saying ‘this number does not exist’. I checked it several times, and assured the electronic woman on the end of the line that it did sodding well exist, look it’s here in my contacts, but she didn’t seem to be listening to me. It was really weird, like he’d vanished off the face of the earth on Thursday. Still, if he really wanted to talk to me, if he’d moved and changed his mobile, he’d be in touch before too long.

I sent him an email, and for good measure copied it to his work email address, only for the one to his personal account to bounce back with another ‘does not exist’ message, and the one to work to come back with an automated ‘Andrew Distock no longer works for Largesse Insurance’. I was now out of options, and he was just going to have to contact me when he could.

Chasing around trying to find Andrew took me a while, another finger of scotch and a couple of beers, following which I was feeling decidedly more mellow.

I thumbed through some of my photos from the week. Carrie in a bikini. Carrie talking to a penguin. Carrie red-faced and happy at the top of a hill. Carrie wearing nothing at all, smiling up at me.

God I missed her. It had only been – not even three hours yet. I couldn’t help wondering what she was doing, who she was talking to, how things were going for her. I couldn’t help wanting her.

I thought about another glass of scotch, but it always made me maudlin, and I was depressed enough already. Mum. That’s what I needed.

‘Hello dear.’

‘Hi Mum. Sorry, I’ve been away, meant to ring you.’

‘Yes, I’ve talked to Jameson. He told me you were down there.’

There was a silence, during which I felt all sorts of guilt-laden conversations take place, subconsciously.

‘Did he? What else did he tell you?’

‘Oh, do you mean about your young lady?’

I should have expected it, I suppose. If Jay hadn’t told her in some twisted fraternal revenge for cheeking him when I was twelve or something, Beth would have done because she was genetically incapable of keeping her nose out of anything, and thought everyone should be as happy to share bloody everything about their lives as she apparently was.

‘Well, yeah, kind of, I suppose. Trust Jay to blab.’

‘He didn’t blab, dear, it just came up in conversation. I asked if he’d heard from you, because I hadn’t for a while, not even a text, and I was just a wee bit worried when I couldn’t get you at home, although obviously you’re a big boy now –’

‘And what did he say?’

‘Oh I don’t remember his exact words, just that you’d been a little preoccupied with a friend you’d brought down to Devon to escape for a few days. Such a lovely word for a holiday, isn’t it, dear, ‘escape’. And so true of that part of the world.’

‘Yeah, it was a bit more literal, Mum. And you could have texted me, if you were really worried, or rung my mobile.’

But I knew she wouldn’t have done. Mobiles were for the receiving of texts from sons and daughters-in-law, and not for replying or calling oneself, of any description. To be fair to her, her arthritic fingers were a bit gnarly, and she couldn’t really do the small keys.

‘Are you in later? I could come round. Got some pictures to show you.’

Although I was going to have to severely edit out a lot of the ones taken in the last couple of days, as they showed rather a lot more of Carrie, and indeed me, than anyone would have been comfortable with.

‘Oh Matthew, that would be lovely. There’s that new talent programme on that you love to make fun of, you could bring some fish and chips over, maybe.’

‘Sounds great, Mum. See you later.’

And that was how I happened to be out when Martin finally worked out how to get my address from Carrie’s computer, and came crashing through my front door to find me.