83. Pencil full of lead

In which practicalities are faced, appointments are made, and shopping is scrutinised.

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Laura

I’d set the alarm on my phone to chime quietly, so I woke up slowly, not at first recognising the room, but gradually, with a smile, remembering I was in Matt’s bedroom. I turned over gently, to see Matt still asleep, facing me, on his side, mouth slightly open. I got out of bed as quietly as I could and went into the bathroom to shower. Matt’s shower was impressive, with several different pulse settings, and I luxuriated in the hot water.

Matt

Maybe it was the vast amount of catch-up sleep I’d managed to get the previous day, but I actually woke up at about seven thirty the next morning. I could hear the shower going, and for a split second I thought I must have left it running last night, and then I remembered what had actually happened last night, and that I’d fallen asleep with Lau in my arms, so it must be her in the shower. And that, quite probably, meant that she was naked, and I so had to see that.

I sat up, swung my legs out of bed, tested their ability to not crumple under me, which seemed pleasingly robust today, took my clothes off and went in search of naked Lau.

I stood in the doorway of the bathroom, not caring about the steam leaking out into the living room, and watched her for a few minutes. My shower was pretty good; it had a pulsing head, really strong stream, and I had a range of deluxe shower foams arranged along a glass shelf. Lau was making full use of it all, and had her eyes shut to stop the shampoo from getting in her eyes.

Oh, I could see her because it was a wet room, hence no shower cubicle. All the better to see you with my dear. I made my way over to her and stood behind her, having a brief debate with myself about what I planned to do next. I knew she freaked at the slightest unexpected touch, but she was irresistible, and I didn’t argue it for long. It went something like ‘I want to touch her’ ‘you’ll scare her’ ‘yeah but that’ll be funny’. Argument won.

Laura

I was just rinsing my hair, eyes closed against the shampoo and water, when a hand snaked around my waist. I screamed and span round. Matt stood there, hands in the air. He had absolutely no clothes on. None at all.

‘Sohry Lau. Couldn’t bear the thought of yuh in here on yuhr own. Dihnt mean tuh make yuh jump. Bluhdy hilarious tho.’

I spat water and soap bubbles out of my mouth, then sagged against the wall of the shower, as I tried to surreptitiously glance at the fully revealed glory of Matt Scott. And oh boy was it glorious. I mean he. Was he glorious.

Matt

Lau sagged against the wall of the shower. Then she noticed I was as naked as her, and yeah, she couldn’t resist a downwards glance at my tackle, or a little grin to herself at what she saw.

‘You scared me to death. Have you not got by now that I startle easily?’

‘Sohry.’

I really wasn’t sorry at all, and neither of us were thinking about me making her jump any more, but it’s the thought that counts, at least that’s what my mum always says. She probably didn’t mean it to apply to this specific situation; maybe I’ll ask her one day.

Laura

He didn’t really look very sorry, but he was completely naked, and so was I. It was the first time I’d seen him with no clothes on, and he didn’t disappoint; his body was slender but not skinny, his legs well muscled, and all other bits and pieces looked pretty damn good to me. In fact, I had to have a stern word with myself about my ‘only what we can both do’ promise to stop myself doing something completely shameless. Although he’d made me squeal and swallow shampoo, it seemed like a bit of a waste to be cross with him, and I hated waste, so I peeled myself off the wall and pulled him into the stream, where the water fell down on us as we kissed good morning.

His body felt so good wet; he was lean and hard, and his bum was particularly squeezable as I pulled him towards me. His hands found my breasts, and he pinched my nipples as I ran my hands up and down his back. As he moved his mouth down to my breasts – something he seemed to really like doing, and no, I’m not complaining – I arched my back and pressed them against his lips, moving my hands down without thinking, below his waist and then lower, stroking my way down to his balls.

Matt

I felt her hands move downwards, below my waist, along my cock, and was just about to regretfully remind her of the ‘both together’ clause, when she cupped my balls and a flood of fizzing surged under her fingers, then my dick twitched and I gasped as I froze.

‘Lau, yuh made ih twitch! An ih goh a bih bigger!’

We both looked down, to where it was indeed a little bit larger, and standing out from my body a bit.

‘Just ignore it.’

Ignore my first attempt at a hard-on for months?

‘Wha? Cahnt ignore my dick.’

‘Don’t focus on it, let what happens happen, we’ll just carry on. It’s not important.’

‘Ih fucking well is impohtant. Tha’s more movement than I’ve had foh months.’

I knew what she was trying to say, but it was too much of a significant event for me to just pretend it wasn’t happening.

‘And if you try to force it, you’ll chase it away. Just do what you were doing before, and I’ll do what I was doing before, and we’ll see. You can’t rush it, you’ll make it worse.’

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, nodded, and bent down to Lau’s breasts again, but all I could feel, all I could think about was Lau’s hands on me, cupping my balls, stroking my dick, as the sensation dribbled away. She took her hand away after a while, gently pushed me away from her chest, and kissed me, tenderly.

‘I’ve got to get ready for work. Sorry flower.’

‘S’okay. S’all gone now anyway.’

‘Seriously, Matt, if it comes back it will be a bit at a time, not all at once. Be patient.’

I nodded, disappointed; I really wasn’t very good at being sensible and patient, and although I knew she was right, everything she said was right, I just wanted it all back, right now, none of this farting around with a bit here and a bit there. I wanted a great big hard-on so I could … well, Lau had better watch out once I had a great big hard-on, that’s all I was saying. Lau turned the water off, and I pulled her to me for a hug.

‘I love seeing yuh naked. Yuhr fucking awesome.’

Laura

‘So are you. Nice, very nice, bum. Turn round a minute.’

He turned round, and I leaned down and kissed each bum cheek. I was getting to be very very fond of his bum, with it’s two perfect round buttocks which were just the right size for grabbing as I pulled him towards me.

Matt

I was getting that she liked my arse, and it was flattering, me being a skinny git who didn’t really have much at all in the way of muscular attributes. I turned round, and Lau leaned down and kissed each bum cheek. I loved that she always seemed to do exactly what she wanted to with me, and it was often something that took me by surprise.

‘Lau, yuhr a bih wanton ahrnt yuh?’

‘Just a little something for me to take to work with me.’

She wrapped herself in a towel and wound another one round her head, and I started to dry myself too.

I’d been thinking about some of the things Lau had said, in the time we’d been apart yesterday. I knew she couldn’t be my personal nurse, and I was getting that I maybe needed some proper answers to some of the questions I’d asked her. Beth would have been astounded at my next question; it was something she’d been trying to get me to do for months. But Beth wasn’t The One, so she’d missed a trick. I tried to make it sound casual, and not like I was breaking the habit of a lifetime.

‘Soh, if I was goin tuh, say, call some kind of service fuh some hehp, or some such shih, wha would I duh?’

If Lau realised how much of a break from tradition this was for me, she didn’t show it.

Laura

I tried not to show my delight and relief; Matt would benefit so much from some input from the team I worked for.

‘Have you still got the card I gave you last week at the church hall?’

Matt

To be honest, I couldn’t remember her giving me a card, but if she had, it would still be in my trousers from Wednesday. Oh bollocks, laundry.

‘Er … think I migh have washed ih.’

‘OK, well in case you did I’ll write the number down before I go. You need to call and – hm, you’ll have to give your name. It might be best if you ask for Anna. If Rachel answers, she might not be very nice. She should be professional, but there’s not always any telling with her. So ask for Anna – I’ll write that down too – and tell her you want to refer yourself, she’ll take details and there you’ll be, fully signed up for the city’s finest MS service.’

‘Yuhr sure I cahnt have yuh?’

She’d been pretty clear, but there seemed no harm in double checking, just in case there had been some major change in the rules she’d neglected to inform me about.

‘Yeah, I’m sure. I’m not going to be able to talk to them about you at all, even if they want to use my sex expertise.’

‘Shih, Lau, ih’s all a bit of a minefield, ihnt ih. Anyway, haven’t definitely decided tuh call, ih’s jus in case.’

No, I didn’t want to pin myself down to definitely calling, because there would be all sorts of questions if I didn’t, so best to just make it like I might do, I might not, depends.

Laura

‘OK.’

I kissed him on the cheek – the one on his face this time – and left him to dry himself in the bathroom, as I went in search of a plug for my hairdryer.

While I was drying my hair and dressing for work, I thought about what might actually happen if Matt called the service. It would cause a fair amount of comment, and although I would try to stay out of it as much as possible, all the conjecture and questions would be uncomfortable.

Then I remembered with a start and a groan that I’d forgotten to call Patrick as I’d planned to, to tell him what had gone on with Rachel on Friday. I picked my phone up from the bedside table and put it in my bag. I’d have to call from my car; it would be too awkward to have that conversation about Matt in Matt’s home.

Matt

I wrapped a towel round my waist and wandered in to watch her. I was still watching when she’d finished drying her hair.

‘What?’

‘Yuhr fucking gorgeous, Ih’m lovin yuh in yuhr uniform. Reminds meh of the first time I saw yuh.’

‘The first time you saw me, I was giving a very useful talk on sex, which you apparently enjoyed very much, and shouldn’t have been noticing my uniform.’

‘Ha ha. I only came to talk tuh yuh because I fancied yuh. Hardly listened tuh a word of yuhr talk, too busy watching yuhr tits jiggling in yuhr tunic.’

This was mostly true. I hadn’t really been concentrating on the content of Lau’s talk, more on the content of the woman giving the talk. Call me shallow, you won’t be the first.

‘They were not jiggling.’

‘They bluhdy were. Every time yuh pressed yuhr button tuh change the slide, jiggle jiggle. Drove meh wild. An all the other blokes there, I ‘spect.’

‘Really. Well I’ll have to remember to wear more supportive underwear next time then. Can I grab some toast?’

‘Yeh, course.’

Then I remembered my manners.

‘Duh yuh wan meh tuh make scrambled eggs? Or bacon?’

‘No, you go back to bed, it’s early for you. I’ll bring you something in – cup of tea?’

‘Hey, I geh breakfast in bed. Life of Riley. Thanks, Lau.’

Oh this was so cool. I hadn’t had breakfast made for me since – oh, yesterday, when Dec made me a cup of tea and some toast, but it wasn’t quite the same, especially as it had gone cold by the time I woke up. I lay down on the duvet, and just closed my eyes while I listened to Lau rummaging in my cupboards, clinking spoons against mugs and humming to herself. It felt so homely, so natural. I shut my eyes for a minute …

Laura

When I got back to the bedroom, Matt was asleep on his side, on top of the duvet. I folded the rest of the duvet over the top of him, kissed him gently on the cheek, left the tea and toast on the bedside table and ate mine in the living room before quickly scribbling the MS service number and Anna’s name on a piece of paper, then quietly leaving, pulling the door gently shut behind me.

In my car, I got my phone out and pressed Patrick’s name. He might already be at work, could be on his way, or may not have left yet. I should have called him before now, to avoid him being confronted with a situation when he arrived.

‘Hello Laura. Everything alright?’

‘Hi Patrick. Er, not sure. I meant to call you over the weekend, but things were a bit hectic. I’m not sure if Rachel’s called you …’

‘No. Is Rachel alright?’

‘Well, do you remember in supervision I was talking about a hypothetical situation?’

‘Yes.’

Patrick sounded concerned, and was probably wondering what I was about to tell him.

‘Well, the hypothetical person I was asking about is actually real, I know, big surprise. He’s someone Rachel knows from the past who upset her quite badly, and she found out on Friday that I’ve been seeing him, and I think, well I won’t really know until I get in this morning, but I don’t think she’s speaking to me. It’s upset things, she’ll want people to take sides, it will make things awkward for us all. I’m sorry. I just wanted you to know.’

I heard Patrick take a deep breath.

‘OK, Laura, well, it does sound a bit complicated. You girls have had your fallings out before though, haven’t you, you always seem to work it out.’

‘Yeah, but this feels a bit more serious. And, just to make things more complicated, Matt might be going to call the service to register with us. Obviously I can’t be his named worker, and Rachel wouldn’t be the ideal candidate, so that’s going to be tricky too.’

‘Hmm. Alright. Well, thanks for letting me know, Laura. I’m just about to set off for the office. I think we need to have a talk when I get in, just so we can be clear about the rules, the law and the guidelines, so we all know where we stand.’

‘Thanks Patrick. Sorry.’

‘OK, Laura, see you in a little while.’

We disconnected and I started the car.

Pulling up in the car park outside the office, I saw Kate, Anna and Patrick were already in, but Rachel’s car wasn’t there yet. A bit relieved, I walked up to the door and into the office. Kate and Anna looked up, Anna smiling, Kate raising her eyebrows.

‘Morning.’

‘Hello Lau. Thanks for the on-call on Saturday. Lifesaver.’

‘No problem. How did the dinner with the girlfriend go?’

‘Oh, I was just telling Kate, she’s a lovely girl, but took a bit of getting used to. Piercings, tattoos, pink and green hair, a bit intimidating, but we ended up talking about knitting, of all things.’

‘Good weekend, Lau?’

‘Yes thanks.’

I tried to leave it at that, but Kate was having none of it.

‘What, no gory details? You haven’t had gory details to spill for ages, out with it.’

‘I think maybe this isn’t the time or place.’

‘Rach isn’t coming in today, if that’s what you’re worried about.’

I actually felt my shoulders lift as if a weight had been taken off them.

‘Oh really?’

‘No, she’s called in sick. Well it is a kind of sick I suppose.’

‘Did you talk to her much over the weekend?’

‘Yeah, a fair bit. Went through the whole range of mad as hell, sad as hell, resigned as hell, then back to mad, she’s just in a bit of a state. I think she’s possibly coming round to the idea, but couldn’t face it this morning. I’ll go and see her after work. A few glasses of wine might help.’

‘I’m sorry, Kate, you’ve been landed with her. Is there anything I can do?’

‘Apart from dumping Matt Scott back in the bloody swamp he emerged from? No, Lau. I think your reduced contact policy is the best one really, let her cool off.’

‘Do you think she will cool off?’

‘Who knows, it’s Rach, she’s never been predictable. Does Matt even remember her? Have you even talked about her?’

‘We’ve talked about her, I don’t think he remembers her.’

‘Nice. You’re sure he’s the one for you, Lau?’

‘Yes. He’s changed.’

‘Yeah, he bloody well has. He’s got MS now. Bloody tosser.’

‘Steady on, Kate, you’re talking about Lau’s boyfriend.’

‘It’s OK, Anna. Kate’s entitled to her opinion.’

So much for not getting embroiled, I’d been here three minutes, and I was already in the middle of an uncomfortable conversation, and Rachel wasn’t even here.

‘Is Patrick in his office?’

‘Yes, he was here before us.’

‘I’ll take him a cup of tea. Anyone else want one?’

I wasted a bit of time fiddling with the kettle and teabags, and then couldn’t put it off any longer. I picked up Patrick’s mug and tapped on his door.

‘Come in – oh hello Laura. Is that for me? Thank you. Have a seat.’

I sat down, holding my own mug with both hands, nervously tapping my thumb on the handle.

‘I’m sorry Patrick. It’s already causing difficulties.’

‘Alright, Laura, I think we need to establish a few things, before we get into what’s causing difficulties. Firstly, this man – what’s his name? I can’t keep referring to him as ‘this man’.’

‘Matt.’

‘Oh – oh!’

I saw light dawn on Patrick’s face, as he realised exactly who we were talking about. He didn’t get that involved in our gossip sessions, but had been around long enough that he had been unable to escape a few Rachellings in his time.

‘Ah, I’m beginning to see things a bit more clearly. Alright, it doesn’t really change things that much though. When you first met Matt, you knew he had MS, but he wasn’t officially registered with the service, and wasn’t seeing any of you – I mean therapeutically.’

He gestured out towards the office, encompassing me, Kate, Anna and Rachel.

‘Well, I guess so. I’ve known who he was for ages, seen him around, but I’d never spoken to him before last Wednesday, and I didn’t know he had MS until then either, and no, he’s not registered with us or seeing any of us professionally yet, although he may call to refer himself. We talked about it this morning.’

‘So you haven’t begun a relationship with someone you knew was a patient. So, officially, according to law, you haven’t done anything wrong. It’s almost the same as if you were in a relationship with someone who subsequently developed MS. There’s only the one service in the city, he doesn’t have any choice if he wants help, so all we need to do is make sure that we give him, should he require it, as professional a service as we would give anyone else. You can’t be his named worker, and it sounds like Rachel wouldn’t be a good idea either, so Anna or Kate will have to fight for the honours. You can’t be involved in any clinical meetings or discussions about him, or look at his notes, or talk to him as a member of the service. Obviously any conversations you have with him in your private time are your own, but they can’t be official advice.’

‘I understand that. I’ve told him all that.’

‘Good. It sounds like you’ve got a good understanding of it. The other side of it, the possible upset that it may have caused between you and Rachel, will just have to be resolved between you and Rachel, as if it was any other person without MS who you were in dispute about. I hope it doesn’t affect the smooth running of the service, I expect you both to be mature and professional enough to sort out your differences. If anything else crops up, we’ll just have to deal with it at the time.’

‘Thanks, Patrick.’

I was incredibly grateful. I hadn’t given it much time or thought over the weekend, but had been worrying all the way over in the car about the implications for me and my job. I hoped that things now might be a bit smoother, if I kept a low profile and kept out of Rachel’s way.

The rest of the morning was filled with visits and preparations for a support group meeting in the afternoon, and Matt wasn’t mentioned again.

Matt

… and then Lau was naked, running towards me across a field, and I was just staring at her, and my eyes felt like they could swallow her whole, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up, Lau had gone, and my breakfast was cold next to me. I looked at my watch; it was nearly ten o’clock.

I resisted the urge to turn over and go back to sleep; I was sleeping my life away at the moment, and I needed to take control of it. Thinking that made me think of what I needed to do to take that control, who I might need to talk to, and I remembered Lau saying she was going to write down a number for me. I picked up the cold tea and toast and took it into the kitchen while looking to see if she’d left me a note. There it was, on the table:

Hey Beach Boy

Here is a number you might find useful – 555222. If you decide to call, ask for Anna Lovell.

Thanks for dinner last night and the shower this morning. You are multi-talented, and I’m hoping to find more skills to explore in the days to come.

Holding your hand until I see you later. I’ll come by after work, hope that’s OK.

See you soon

Lau xx

I read and re-read it, smiling to myself about being multi-talented. I hadn’t even felt singly-talented for a long time, and it was a boost to my confidence.

I still hadn’t decided about phoning the bastard MS service, and to postpone making a decision, I did some online shopping. I never went to the supermarket, even when I wasn’t a fucking cripple, and once my energy and mobility deserted me, I realised what a sensible lifestyle choice that was. I could sit in front of my computer, at my leisure, drinking a cup of coffee, adding things as they occurred to me, not getting side-tracked by lots of shit I didn’t need, not getting irritated by the length of the queues or other people’s screaming kids, not being frustrated by the absence of the one thing I really wanted to get, not getting half way home and remembering three more things I’d meant to put on the list. The only down side I could think of was sometimes having ‘out of stock’ items replaced, but the way I saw it, that just gave an added frisson of the unexpected to the whole procedure, Russian roulette with yogurt, so to speak. I didn’t know why everyone didn’t do it, especially as someone else lugged the whole lot of it up two flights of stairs for me. I even got a delivery slot for that afternoon, which meant I would have fully stocked cupboards for the rest of the week.

I took my time selecting my shopping and getting myself together. Beth texted while I was using my laptop; she texted every morning, give or take, and following Lau’s advice I’d been answering her instead of ignoring her. Her texts had become less insistent and more chatty, and much as I hated to admit it, it seemed there was an element of concern and worry behind it, rather than a need to boss people about. Or rather than solely a need to boss people about.

‘Hi Matty. Hope yr having a gd morning. We had flood in utility room waiting 4 plumber. Massive clean up going on and no water for tea :(‘

‘Oh no. Can I help?’

‘No thx, sweetheart. All under control. J was mopping b4 work tho ha ha.’

‘If u need cuppa tho, Avondale awaits.’

‘Ooh, actually, thx. Choc milk 4 Iz?’

‘Always got choc milk 4 blondie.’

‘Be there once plumber arrives :)’

I rarely invited Beth over, although she invited herself on many occasions and for many reasons. I was feeling benevolent, but realised I was going to have to stop grinning from ear to ear and be at least a bit grumpy, or she would guess something was up and I would get no peace. At least Iz would be a buffer, and the fact they were invited should stave off most of the nosy questions.

Beth arrived about twelve, and I provided lunch as well as tea. While we ate our sandwiches, the shopping arrived, and Beth couldn’t resist commenting.

‘That’s a lot of groceries, Matty.’

Shit, I’d forgotten that I’d ordered tons as I’d planned on cooking lots of fancy meals for Lau.

‘Yeh, I wahs ruhning low on ehverything. Fahncied sohm dihferent stuff too.’

Oh bloody hell, she was even having a rummage in the bags.

‘Heh, kehp yuhr nose ouh.’

‘Why do you need three different sorts of oil? Gosh, isn’t this truffle oil really expensive?’

‘Wehl, dihferent dishes nehd dihferent flavohrs, buh mihnd yuhr own. Yuh’ll fihnd the condohms if yuh dig any dehper.’

That stopped her. It was probably the thought of Iz asking ‘what’s comdoms Mummy’ rather than actually coming across any, but it was an effective deterrent, and I moved the bags into the kitchen for later disembowelling and redistribution. I’d inadvertently moved the subject onto somewhere else I didn’t really want to go, though.

Beth was looking at me with sympathy. Bugger, what had I said now?

‘You didn’t really buy condoms, did you Matty?’

Oh shit no. It was like talking about sex with your sister.

‘Noh, Beth, I wahs tryin tuh stop yuh prihcing up ahl my shopping.’

I gave her my best ‘back off or you’ll regret it’ stare, but she was unstoppable.

‘Has anything … come back … down there?’

She kept her eyes fixed on my face, but her meaning encompassed anything from the waist down. She only knew about my lack of action because it had happened last time, and because I was in the same house, and Jay had to wash me for a while, and, well, I suppose you can’t stop a man telling his wife shit.

When the fucking bastard returned this time, Beth had asked about it, as if it was an acceptable topic of conversation, and I had told her in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t going to discuss it with her, but she kept on and I ended up getting emotional and yelling, ‘Fuh fuck’s sahk, no, my dick migh as wehl hahv fucking wehl drohped off fuh all I can tehl ih’s thehr. Satisfihd? I nehver wan tuh tahk abouh this again.’ and with Iz and Cal in the next room, I guess she must have been satisfied, because she hadn’t asked after that. Until now. I wondered if she even remembered me yelling before, because I was getting near the point when I was going to be yelling again, Iz in close proximity or not, if she didn’t back off.

However, we were saved by the bell. Beth’s phone rang, it was the plumber needing a decision that required Beth’s immediate physical presence, and she beat a hasty retreat, promising, or was it threatening, to call me tomorrow.

I sank down on the sofa and considered why Beth pushed so many of my buttons. Maybe I should have been grateful that she was prepared to talk to me about things no one else would. It’s not like the world is full of places you can go for advice about sexual dysfunction because of a fucking bastard disease – your mates down the pub would look embarrassed and change the subject to the footy; your work colleagues would look at you like you’d grown two heads and you’d be reported for sexual harassment; your brother – well, your brother didn’t do deep and meaningfuls, left that to his interfering wife, and your kind of brother or mate or whatever, well he would have had a go, but was currently in the midst of fathering a brood of mini-mes, and would have been clueless. So if I’d wanted to talk to anyone, Beth would have been my best bet.

Maybe it was because she never gave up, maybe I felt it was like a competition – the more she pushed, the more I dug my heels in, and so when I finally told her something, it felt like I’d lost and she’d won, rather than just a sharing of information, or communication between two family members. So maybe it was more to do with me than with her; she certainly didn’t do it out of anything other than concern and caring, and no one else seemed to have the same issues with her that I did.

Does this sound like I’m beginning to cut her some slack, understand her, be more sharing? Ha, fuck off. No way. But thinking about it did make me realise that I needed to talk to someone. Lau wouldn’t do it, not in a detached nursey way, and I wondered if that was what I needed; someone who understood, but wasn’t emotionally involved. If only there was some kind of, oh I don’t know, specialist service for people with fucking bastard diseases, where you could go for a chat with someone who knew their shit – oh, hang on, what’s this note in Lau’s handwriting, with a number and a name …

Before I could talk myself out of it, I had dialled the number.

Laura

Close to lunchtime the phone rang. Kate was nearest to the phone, so she picked it up.

‘MS Service, Kate Fuller’

Matt

I nearly bottled it, nearly hung up, but I took a deep breath and ploughed on regardless.

‘Cahn I spehk tuh, er, Anna Lovell, plehs?’

My heart was pounding. I wondered if Lau was anywhere nearby.

Laura

‘Er …’

Kate shot a quick look at Anna.

‘… can I say who’s calling?’

Matt

‘Maht Scoht.’

‘Oh.’

She sounded surprised. Well, I guess they all knew about me, though I wasn’t sure how many people worked with Lau, or who exactly she had told.

‘Can I say what it’s about?’

‘Wan tuh refehr mysehf.’

Is that what you did? Referred yourself? No idea.

‘Well I can do that.’

Oh, no, Lau said this Anna woman.

‘Er, behn told tuh ask fuh Anna.’

The voice on the other end sounded a bit pissed off.

‘OK, fine, I’ll see if she’s free.’

The phone went to ‘on hold’ bleeps for a short time, and I nearly bottled it again, but now they knew who I was, and hanging up would be embarrassing, especially for Lau.

Laura

Kate put the phone on hold.

‘An, some wanker called Matt Scott wants to refer himself. Apparently I’m not good enough and only you will do.’

I kept my eyes glued to my computer screen, trying not to listen, but it was impossible not to.

‘Alright, Kate, I’ll take it. Is there a referral form there?’

Anna passed by my chair on the way to the phone and rested her hand briefly on my shoulder.

Matt

Just as I had convinced myself that a few moments of embarrassment for Lau would be better than torturing myself by going through my life history with a stranger, another voice came on the line.

‘This is Anna, I understand you want to refer yourself.’

And we were off. I had to give details, but not as many as I was fearing, just basics like date of birth, GP, full name. We agreed an appointment, she would come here to meet me, we didn’t mention Lau, and it was all over, I was officially a fucking cripple with my name on a computer and everything. It might make it worthwhile if there was a badge and a certificate too.

Laura

Neither Kate nor I did any work while Anna was talking to Matt, but neither did we look at each other. She asked all the questions we always asked, but was giving no clue about the replies she was getting, being as non-committal and professional as any of us would have been with anyone else. I was dying to know what he was saying, but I wouldn’t ever know unless he told me. When Anna had finished, and made an appointment to see him, Kate immediately jumped in.

‘So? What did he say?’

Anna looked at me, aware of what she may or may not be allowed to reveal.

‘An can’t discuss Matt with me in the room.’

‘What? But you must know it all already, Lau. That’s bloody ridiculous.’

‘Kate, Lau can’t be party to any professional discussions about Matt without his express permission.’

‘I wasn’t asking for a professional discussion, just a bloody good gossip.’

‘It’s alright, I’ll go and get the sandwiches. Talk all you want while I’m gone.’

I was relieved to be away from the office. It would hopefully get better as we all got used to it, but I could see me doing the sandwich run regularly for the foreseeable future, and volunteering for lots of visits and other tasks that would take me out and about. My phone pinged as I was getting into the car.

Matt

We disconnected, and I felt both elated and terrified. Lau would be pleased, I was sure. Beth would be ecstatic, but I wasn’t necessarily going to tell her, maybe just slip it in the conversation sometime – ‘oh yeah, my MS nurse said …’, maybe with a few more fuckings and bastards, and see how she reacted.

I texted Lau, to see if she had been there, and to see if the news had flown around the office. OK, maybe I was enjoying a tiny bit of celebrity status.

‘I did it. Were you there? Am I causing a stir?’

‘Yes I was there. Yes u r centre of attention. Good sleep?’

‘Awesome. Dreamed of u naked. Yum ;)’

‘What u up 2 2day?’

‘Online shopping, then wait 4 delivery, I lead an exciting life.’

‘Can I come over after work?’

‘Do u need 2 ask? Fuck yeah!’

‘Gr8. Just off to get sarnies. Talk l8r. Lau xx’

‘Check yr bag. Put sarnies in 4 u.’

‘When?’

‘Made them last night, put in this morning.’

‘Oh u! Got to get everyone else’s tho. Or did u make them for us all? =)’

‘Oh bollox. No, just u. Hope u like it anyway.’

‘Thanks my beach boy xx’

Laura

I got out of the car and checked the bag in the boot. I found an oblong parcel, wrapped in tin foil, with an ice pack attached to it with an elastic band, tucked at the bottom below yesterday’s clothes. There was a note tucked under the elastic band:

Hey Lau, hope you like chicken salad. Happy munching. M x

I smiled fondly to myself, reading the note several times, liking Matt’s curly writing, then got back in the driver’s seat and went to the supermarket.

Matt

So now I’d done it, I was on a roll. I phoned my GP and made an appointment to see her later in the week, and while I was at it, I called Adam. I know, right?

‘Adam Palmer.’

‘Heh. I dohnt knoh if yuh remehmber meh, buh –’

‘Hi Matt, yes of course.’

‘Wha?’

Was he bloody psychic or something?

‘Sorry, your name came up on caller ID.’

Oh. Dur, Matt.

‘What can I do for you?’

‘Cahn I mahk an appoihtmeht tuh see yuh?’

I wasn’t going to go into details, but he’d be able to hear from my unintelligible bollocks that I wasn’t the same as I’d been last time I’d seen him.

‘Of course. When were you thinking?’

He didn’t mention it, though, just gave me a list of dates, as if people he’d had one session with months ago rang him up all the time, speaking like they’d been on the Jägerbombs, and asking to see him again. Maybe they did, for all I know, but it helped me to not feel conspicuously mad.

So that was three things I’d done today that I felt self-righteous about, and I thought I deserved a beer. I didn’t usually drink in the middle of the day, in fact I didn’t drink much alcohol at all at that time, because it just increased my fatigue, and I was already sleeping more than I’d ever slept before, but a beer, cold and hoppy, sliding down my throat, after all that talking to people on the phone had made me hoarse – aah, that hit the spot.

Laura

Returning with sandwiches for Anna, Kate and Patrick, it seemed a change was in the air. Kate appeared less confrontational, and although we didn’t specifically mention Matt or Rachel or any of the issues that had got between us in the morning, she didn’t jump on every opportunity to have a go at me. She went out for a breath of fresh air after eating her sandwich, and Anna turned to me.

‘How’re you doing, Lau? All this must be a bit hard for you, love.’

‘I suppose it is, kind of, but I have to say, An, I’m having such a great time with Matt, it seems worth it.’

‘Well that’s great. Has he really changed? I’ve heard some wild things about him.’

‘I think he has. I don’t think it’s just the MS calming him down, he seems really – what’s the word – repentant about some of the things he’s done, not that they were really, like, evil or anything, but I guess he has been pretty inconsiderate and thoughtless. I think he was trying to change, even before he had his relapse, from what he says. Oh An, I really care about him, it’s happened so fast.’

‘I can see that, love. There’s no point telling you to be careful, you’re way beyond that, you’re as bad as Harry with Poppy, he’s smitten too.’

‘Poppy? Oh, the girlfriend. Knitting, eh?’

‘Yes, she apparently does bombs or something.’

‘Bombs?’

‘Oh I can’t remember what it’s called, where people cover things with wool and knitted things overnight – buses and lamp posts and things.’

‘Oh, yarn-bombing. They had some in the city centre the other week – I wonder if that was her?’

‘Well, it seems a bit daft, but more harmless than some of the things she could get up to I suppose. She does flash mobs as well.’

‘Ooh get you, An, with your ‘down wiv der kids’ lingo and knowing about yarn-bombing and flash mobs and stuff.’

‘Well, it’s kids keep you young, I suppose.’

‘Yeah. She didn’t persuade you to get a tattoo or a piercing, though?’

‘Ha ha, no, but I think I might have talked her into knitting Harry a jumper for Christmas. Yarn bomb him, rather than a tree, seems more useful.’

My phone pinged with a text. I glanced at the phone, which was lying face up on the desk next to me.

‘Just made appt w my GP. How many brownie pts do I get?’

I smiled to myself. I suspected Matt didn’t usually respond well to being advised what to do, and was feeling a bit self-satisfied with his fairly quick response to my prodding. Anna noticed my smile.

‘Matt?’

I nodded. ‘He made me a sandwich and put it in my bag, with an ice pack attached to it and a note.’

‘Oh that’s sweet.’

‘I know. I would never have thought Matt Scott would be sweet. It’s almost like he’s a different person to the git I used to get annoyed with at parties and in clubs. He’s a good, no, a great cook, he’s tidier than me, he’s thoughtful, sensitive and kind of vulnerable. He’s just so different than I thought he was.’

‘You haven’t known him long, though, have you. And he’s ill at the moment. OK, mum moment, I can’t help myself. You will be careful, won’t you.’

I nodded, but it didn’t mean anything. I was so far beyond careful, my heart was so fully given to Matt, if he chose to, he could stop my pulse. Anna rolled her eyes at me and shook her head.

‘OK, back to work. Do you want to share a lift to the support group? I think Gloria’s making her fruit cake.’

‘No, I’ll take my car, I’m going straight off afterwards.’

‘Matt-ward bound?’

I shrugged and smiled.

My phone pinged on the way to the support group, and when I arrived I checked the screen.

‘So none? 549?’

‘What?’

‘Brownie points. U didn’t reply.’

‘I was busy. Can’t always reply straight away. Be patient! 2. Minus 1 for impatience :)’

‘Soz, didn’t think. Thinking like a foul mouthed layabout not a Baptist working girl xx’

‘:) Going 2b busy, phone on silent. Don’t expect replies. Cu l8r. Lau xx’

Matt

I had got complacent about being off work, and used to having people I could reach for chat and contact when I wanted it. None of my family had what you would call conventional jobs – Beth: Housewife and mother. Full time and more, but always available on the end of the phone. Jay: Rugby coach. Full time, lots of weird hours, but often lazing around at home in the afternoons. Mum: Retired. Nothing better to do than make cakes and drink tea, obvs. Dec: Rugby player. Lots of running around and early morning training sessions, but, like Jay, a lot of lazing around at home in the afternoons. It was called ‘recovery’ or some such shit. Amy: Housewife and mother. Charlie was more than a full-time job, and she had another one on the way, but again, always there for tea and gossip if necessary. Nico and Lis: Always there for a square meal, a laugh, a chat. My work colleagues, who I wasn’t in touch with as much as I used to be, were always texting, tweeting, Instagramming, Facebooking, Snapchatting, WhatsApping; we worked in IT, it would have been a disciplinary offence not to.

So it was weird to know someone who couldn’t do that, whose job involved doing things where the phone had to be turned off. I mean, yeah, at the start Jules had been all ‘I don’t do texting’, but I soon won her over, and although she never texted from work, we were pretty much in contact the whole time whenever we were apart. I wanted that with Lau, I missed her, but was going to have to get used to the fact that she did a grown up job where ringtones and text pings weren’t acceptable. I was even more reliant on our ‘holding hands’ pact.

When Lau came home (I was already thinking of my home as her home, and I was constantly reminding myself that we’d been together less than a week) that evening, I greeted her as if I hadn’t seen her for months. It nearly felt like it.

‘Ooh, hello, miss me did you?’ she managed between breathtaking kisses.

‘Yuh hahv noh idea.’

‘I think you might have just given me one. How tired are you?’

I liked her thinking.

‘Not tihred at ahl. Wana wear meh ouh?’

‘Maybe. What’s for tea?’

‘Sohted. Cohtage pie in the ohven.’

I was nothing if not a forward planner when it came to getting Lau into bed, or whatever venue she chose for the execution of her idea.

‘Oh I like that. So we could, potentially, do a lot more of, say, this –’

She reached behind me and pulled me to her using my arse as leverage, and gave me a cheeky kiss, licking my nose on the way out.

‘– maybe somewhere more comfortable …’

‘Wha, lihk the behdrohm?’

‘Genius! How long till dinner?’

‘Ih’ll turn ih down a bih, kehp ih warm, couhd beh hours.’

And so a delicious time was had, discovering more about each other, how we kissed, how we touched, what made her sigh, what blew my mind. In-between, we were talking, getting to know each other. It was weird that it wasn’t weird, being so close physically to someone you hardly knew. It was just as if I’d always known her, and the things I found out about her didn’t feel new, just kind of confirmation of how it had always been.

If you’d asked me six months ago what I thought about the idea of soulmates, I’d have spouted off some condescending shit about how there isn’t some kind of grand plan for the universe, that destiny and fate are just bullshit, but now, with Lau, I couldn’t deny that I felt that we were designed for each other, that we fitted, that we were ‘meant to be’. Even though she really liked Boyzone.

‘Seriohsly, Lau? Ronan Kehting?’

‘He is a genius, writing songs for those other boys to sing, all those harmonies, don’t you think?’

‘Noh. Gihv meh a prohper songwriter, who writes prohper muhsic and cahn play an instruhment.’

‘Like?’

‘Anyohn who ihnt five prehty boys sat on stools. Muse. Sparklehorse. Bears Den.’

‘You’re a music snob. Oh, just like you’re a food snob.’

‘Wha? I am not.’

‘Yep, you are. You look down on boy bands because they’re popular, not because they don’t write their own stuff, because some of them do. And Ronan Keating plays the piano, I’ll have you know. And you look down on fast food, like burgers and pizza, because lots of people like them, not because it’s not tasty.’

‘Oh Lau, Lau, Lau. Places lihk Pizza Plahce serve shih tuh the mahses. Ih’s tohtal crap, I haht ih cos ih’s evil, not cos ih’s popular.’

‘Hm. Well, alright, then, maybe fast food and music not the same, but you are still a snob.’

‘Not abouh everything.’

‘No?’

‘Lihk my girhls in unifohm.’

‘True. You are a bit of a chav in that respect. Hey, Matt Scott the chav, who’d have thought?’

And so it went on, between kisses and touches, the teasing, the exploring, the getting-to-know-youing. We had time for dinner, even though the cottage pie had dried out a little by the time we got to it, and we cleared up together afterwards as if we’d always done that, loading the dishwasher, wiping the table, as if we were dancing it.

Ha ha, that just shows how soppy I was feeling, that clearing away the dinner things felt like a dance, and a sexy one at that. But soon after, it was back to bed, for more getting-to-know-youing, where I found out that Lau had always lived here, in this city, had done her nurse training here, had learned to drive here, had hardly ever left the county, let alone the country, and had only been abroad on holiday a handful of times, and that was counting a couple of hen weekends in Marbella and Ibiza that she couldn’t really remember.

Most of what we talked about that night was the little things – the bands, the films, the TV, the books, the minutiae. There was bigger shit to get off our chests; I’d told her about Jules and Carrie, briefly, but they were large contributors to what made me tick, and I wanted her to know about them, even felt like I could tell her about Carrie, all about her, like I’d never told anyone.

And I knew nothing about Lau’s past. I wanted to know about her men, to see how I measured up – oh, of course, it terrified me. Comparing myself to Martin had been a constant thing when I was with Carrie, and Jules had had a whole string of posh rich blokes who had wanted to marry her, and who were still her friends, and now I was a fucking cripple, so I wasn’t sure I was going to come out with that many man points in any battle of the exes, but in the same way that Jules and Carrie were a big part of who I was, so I wanted to know Lau’s defining moments, who had loved her and who had hurt her. Hopefully I wouldn’t be familiar with any of them, so I wouldn’t be tempted to go and beat the shit out of them for a) touching her and b) being stupid enough to let her go.

But exes and all that bollocks felt like it was for another day, and tonight was for more touching, more kissing, more holding. I had to check with her that it was OK; I was having the time of my life, malfunctioning man-parts notwithstanding, and I still couldn’t quite believe that she felt the same for me as I did for her.

‘Lau, ahr yuh suhr?’

‘Sure about what?’

‘Abouh this. I’m soh intuh yuh, jus cahnt quite beliehv ih’s truh.’

‘Do you think I just randomly go to bed with men I’m not completely and utterly into?’

Well, I suppose she had a point, maybe it was a bit like calling her a floozy.

‘Noh, buh –’

‘No. Exactly. I don’t understand it either, but yeah, I’m totally into you.’

‘Soh Ih’m not sohm random mahn?’

‘You’re so far from random. You feel very … specific. Is that the opposite of random?’

‘Yeh, spohs soh. Yuh dohnt jus fehl sohry fuh meh then?’

She tutted and rolled her eyes. I knew how needy I was being, but couldn’t help it.

‘Do you think I just randomly go to bed with men I feel sorry for then?’

‘Spohs not.’

‘Give me some credit, Matt. OK, maybe someone’s needing an ego boost. Here’s what I’m thinking, just so you’re sure, just so you know, and you can ask as many times as you like, the answer will be the same. You know, I feel like you’ve changed my life. You are so, so gorgeous, I’ve never known eyes like yours, you’re funny, gentle, kind, and have the cutest bum I’ve ever seen. Maybe your taste in music needs some work, but otherwise, ten out of ten, big tick, see me after class for some extra homework.’

I laughed at the last bit, feeling a bit guilty that I’d needed to hear her say what preceded it.

‘Wha kind of hohmwork? Science? I lihk science.’

‘I suppose you could consider it science. Biology, definitely. Biology’s a bit of a specialism of mine.’

‘Yuhr a nuhrse.’

‘Yeah, but not that kind of biology. More like … certain areas of anatomy, for example. Physiological reactions, maybe. Here, let me demonstrate.’

And with that, she dived into my boxers and, with a flourish, produced another hefty tingle.

‘Whoa, Lau! Holy fuck, if yuh kehp doin tha, Ih’ll beh back tuh nohmal in noh tihm.’

I followed her hands with mine, trying to coax the tingle into something more, but it remained elusive.

We carried on chasing tingles, mine and hers, for some time. I had a few more, and I know Lau had several too. Ultimately, though, sleep claimed me, and Lau got another early night. Or did to my knowledge. For all I know, she got up again as soon as I hit the black, and belly danced around the living room until midnight. Although I hope she would have woken me up to see that.

82. From where you are

In which holding hands across a city occurs.

Laura

Pulling up later outside Mum’s house, I took a deep breath and a moment to quickly take stock of what had happened to me since I last saw her. Last Saturday, it had been the usual round of not very exciting news, how’s your job, anything you need me to do, what have you got planned for next week, are you coming to church tomorrow, no probably not, both of us just touching base with each other and making sure we were both OK.

My whole world had changed in the last few days, and although I wasn’t going to hide anything from her, I certainly wasn’t going to tell her everything.

I let my breath out and got out of the car, waving to Mum who, as always, was looking out of her window as I walked to her front door.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘Hello my love. You look nice today.’

‘Oh, do I? Thanks.’

‘I’ve put the kettle on. Tea?’

‘Thanks. I brought a cake.’

‘Lovely. What’s the occasion?’

‘No occasion, just fancied it.’

I sat in the living room, looking around me at the familiar things, feeling comfortable and at home. Mum had lived here since she married Dad, and although they’d redecorated plenty of times over the years, the same photos, ornaments and mementoes of my childhood had always been put back over the top of it. I was an only child, and each piece of pottery or Christmas decoration seemed to have been preserved as a treasured relic. Mum came in with two mugs of tea, two plates and a knife for the cake.

‘So, what have you been up to this week, LauraLou?’

I immediately thought of Matt calling me that, and smiled to myself.

‘Oh, you know, work stuff. I had to work on my day off, Anna was poorly.’

‘So you’ve been busy then?’

‘You could say that. Had a bit going on, been seeing someone.’

‘Seeing someone as in … boyfriend?’

‘Oh Mum! Just seeing him, getting to know him.’

‘Well what’s he like?’

‘Lovely, of course.’

‘Of course. Does he have a name?’

‘There aren’t many people who don’t.’

She tutted and shook her head.

‘It’s like getting blood from a stone. Alright, my love, what’s his name? And while I’m at it, what does he do, where does he live, who are his parents and what are his intentions towards you?’

I grinned at her. I wasn’t being deliberately evasive, but a part of me wanted to protect what I had with Matt, and telling people felt like I was losing some control of it.

‘His name’s Matt. He does something in IT, don’t really understand what it is exactly. He lives in Avondale. I have no idea who his parents are or what his intentions are. But he likes birds, so you’ll have something to talk about.’

‘Of the feathered variety I hope. So I’m going to meet him then?’

‘I expect so, if things go well.’

‘Well I’m very pleased, Laura. It’s been a while since you had a young man. I hope he’s a bit better than that long-haired ruffian you brought round last time.’

My last boyfriend had, indeed had long hair, but he had always been polite and even thoughtful towards my mum, who sometimes couldn’t see further than her prejudices.

‘Nick wasn’t a ruffian. He dug your flower bed over for you.’

‘Well I didn’t take to him.’

‘I suppose I didn’t either, that’s why we parted company.’

‘So when do I get to meet him?’

‘When you’re a bit less eager, and a bit less likely to be throwing names like ‘ruffian’ about. Slice of cake?’

And the subject was dropped, although not indefinitely. I chatted with Mum for an hour or so, caught up on all the gossip about her friends and neighbours, surreptitiously checked her house for signs of self-neglect, and managed to wheedle out of her the date for her fracture clinic appointment.

I shared Mum’s self-assessment that she would be given the all clear when she went to have her ankle checked; her mobility was much better, and she was much less reliant on the crutches she’d been given. She would probably be downgraded to a stick, and have the Beckham boot removed.

Matt

Eventually I slept, for a couple of hours, waking up when my alarm went off, which didn’t always happen. Sometimes Dec would be buzzing the door for ages, and I’d sleep on through it, so he had a key in case it went on too long, and which he only used if I was expecting him. He and Amy were the only ones who knew how much and how heavily I was sleeping; it would have been impossible to keep it from them when I stayed with them, but I had managed to get them to promise not to say anything to Beth or Mum. It’s not like they could have done anything, and it helped me to feel more in control of things, having at least one thing that Beth didn’t ask about.

But anyway, today I woke up when my alarm went off, which was half an hour before Dec was due to pick me up, and it enabled me to be coherent when Dec finally arrived, late as usual and with a mountain of litter on his passenger seat that I had to dislodge before I could sit in his car.

‘Yuh rehly ahr a mehsy bahstrd ahrnt yuh?’

I never stopped bugging him about the state of his car. It was supposed to be his pride and joy, bought with money left to him by his parents. You’d never think so, the terrible care he took of it.

When Dec first got the car, I believe he used to hand wash it every week, hoover it out, the lot. Nowadays it was lucky to see the inside of a car wash once a year, and there was so much accumulated shit in it that I was surprised they could ever actually get a baby seat in it. And it wouldn’t be long before they’d need two baby seats.

‘Fuck off. Just because you’re Mr OCD with your polished steering wheel and specialist glass cleaner.’

Well, alright, he had a point, and the fact that I still cleaned my car even though I hadn’t driven it for months may make me sound a tad obsessive, but I liked driving something that didn’t smell like the inside of a cheese factory, and you never knew when the ability not to mow down pedestrians was going to return; you needed to be prepared. Plus, I never let pass the opportunity to remind Dec that my previously perfect car was no longer perfect because of him.

‘Yeh, well, if my passehger seht wahnt soh stained, I woulhnt nehd tuh compehsaht by dohbl clehning everything else.’

This was a legacy from a rescue mission a couple of years ago, in which I’d had to collect a dripping wet Summers from the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night and deposit him in the middle of the city. Bare-breasted madwomen were involved. Long story, ask Dec about Becca Davis and see how big a twitch you can elicit. My Italian leather passenger seat had never recovered.

‘Yeah, yeah. Anyway, we’re thinking of getting a new one.’

This was news. Big news.

‘Wha? A new cahr?’

‘Yeah. With another baby coming this is just too small.’

‘Hush yuhr mouth. Wha will Betsy thihk?’

I was being facetious, but Dec changing his car was huge, and said a lot about how he had been able to come to terms with the deaths of his parents.

‘I know, it’s pretty major. But I think of it like this. Betsy isn’t them, is she?’

Oh, for the uninitiated, Betsy is what Dec called his car.

‘They left me money, and I spent it on something that means a lot, but if I sell her, then that’s like recycling the money and using it on something else, like passing it on.’

So, with that kind of twisted justification, it appeared that Dec hadn’t sorted out quite as much in his head as had seemed the case on first inspection. He was feeling guilty about selling his car, even though he needed a new one so he could transport his growing family. Nothing good ever came of naming a car. Plus, I always felt a bit glad, in a schadenfreude way, when I realised Dec wasn’t quite as sorted as he appeared.

‘Fahr enough. Wha yuh gona geh?’

‘Dunno. Something like yours might do the trick. Big boot space, that’s what we need.’

We talked cars all the way to Dec’s house, which was a novelty, as Dec had previously shown no interest at all in the subject, but now he was all ‘mpg’ and ‘cubic metres’ and ‘manual versus automatic’, and I enjoyed giving him the benefit of my not so vast experience, which seemed vast compared to his.

When we arrived, Charlie was having her tea, and sharing it with Amy in the form of loud protesting screams and puréed vegetable hand prints splattered across her t-shirt. They both looked a bit frazzled.

‘Heh Amy. Wan meh tuh tahk over?’

‘Oh Matt, would you? That would be completely brilliant. I’ve got loads to do. Are you sure?’

I was always sure. Not being the one who had to do it all the time, I loved being able to take my time over Charlie’s meals, making up games to entice her to eat, both of us getting in an utter state. I’d brought spare clothes for just this eventuality.

Now I’ve had my own babies, I realise how bloody annoying it is when someone comes in and a) enjoys doing the thing you’ve just been finding really stressful and b) your baby starts giggling and behaving instead of wriggling and screaming. But back then, I had no idea, and I just liked being Unca Matty, who Charlie stopped screaming for, so I could feel a bit smug.

Charlie’s dinner over, it smelt like it was time for a nappy change, which I was happy to do, but I wasn’t happy to lift her out of her high chair. Ever since nearly dropping her, I wouldn’t risk lifting her too high in the air, not until I was sure my arms weren’t going to give way. I was dropping things left right and centre at the moment, and I didn’t want one of those things to be my best friend’s baby.

‘Amy?’

She appeared at the door of the kitchen.

‘Yeah?’

‘Wehr all dohn hehr, buh she’s filled her nahpy.’

‘Oh Charlie. Thanks Matt, I’ll grab her from here.’

‘I cahn duh ih, if yuh put the mat on the flohr?’

‘Oh you star. Come in the living room, we can all chat then, I’m just doing some ironing.’

Amy picked Charlie up and I grabbed the changing mat and the baby bag. It made me feel useful and responsible, looking after her, changing her nappy, feeding her. Not much did that these days, and I would always love her for it, and love Dec and Amy for letting me.

Charlie’s nappy changed to everyone’s satisfaction, I needed to change my own clothes, which were covered in puréed pea and carrot. After I’d put on a fresh t-shirt, I sent a quick text to Lau. I’d been thinking about her all the time I was feeding and changing Charlie, and now I needed to feel more connected.

Laura

Just before four o’clock, I said goodbye so Mum could head off for round two of tea and cake with Margaret. On the drive back, I heard my phone ping with a text, but had to wait until I pulled up outside my house to read it.

It was from Kate:

‘May have averted world war 3 @ work on Mon. R not happy, but has vented & agreed not to scratch yr eyes out. How’s yr w/end w loverboy?’

‘Thx Kate. Sorry 2 ruin yr w/end. Mine’s had it’s ups n downs. CU Mon. Lau x’

a little later I had one from Matt:

‘Hey Lau. Can feel u holding my hand. Like it. Giving it a squeeze. Charlie says hi, she’s looking forward 2 meeting u. Told her all abt u. M xx’

‘Charlie sounds v advanced 4 6mths. Enjoy chatting w her. Tell her to watch out 4 bad Uncle Matt.’

‘Yr no fun. Me n C misbehavin 2getha!’

‘Miss u xx’

‘Miss u 2 xx’

I was getting the feeling that Matt liked using his technology as well as working with it, and I might be in for some long text conversations, but that was OK, it helped me feel connected to him. It felt like a long wait until I would see him again.

I filled the time with housework – washing, cleaning, changing the bed – and watching Saturday evening TV, then started a film I’d recorded last weekend but hadn’t watched because I’d worked on Wednesday and then my life had changed since.

Matt

The last couple of texts came while I was back downstairs, and exacted some comment from Dec.

‘I hope you’re going to spend at least some time looking after our daughter rather than running your social life from your bloody phone all night.’

It was a standing joke, with more than a grain of truth, that I spent most of my life on my phone in one way or another. Admittedly, since I had been off work, the texts and tweets had diminished somewhat; I felt awkward engaging in the same banter with work colleagues now I was ‘on the sick’ that I had when I was in the thick of it. Still, as I well knew, once you get a reputation, it’s hard to live it down. And I didn’t want to draw Dec’s attention to who I might be texting.

‘Noh, Ih’m jus gona leh Chahlie screhm while I meet the hehvy demahnds of Snapchat.’

‘Same as usual then.’

‘Oh stop it, hon. We’re very grateful, Matt. Dec, we’re going to have to get ready in a minute.’

Dec looked at the clock. They were due to go out at six, meeting some friends for drinks before going for a meal to celebrate Amy’s birthday, which was on Monday.

‘Yeah, I suppose. I’m not going to have to do much, am I, though? Just change my shirt, I thought.’

‘Oh, aren’t you going to spruce up a bit?’

‘It’s only the Twisted Toad then that Moroccan place, it’s not that bloody posh.’

‘Yeah, hon, but Jude was talking about going to a club after.’

‘Really? Bollocks. Not sure I’m up to clubbing, babe.’

‘Oh Dec. We haven’t been clubbing for ages.’

‘Maybe we’re a bit past it.’

I felt the need to jump in at that point.

‘Yeh, twenty-threh an twenty-fohr, yuhr bohth bluhdy ancient. Jus goh fuh ih, Dec. It’s ohnly Amy’s twehnty-third birthday once, dohnt waste ih.’

Amy looked gratefully at me, while Dec looked more grumpily in my direction.

‘An doh ih gracefully, maht. Smihle.’

Dec got a lot of his mock grumpiness from Jay, who had a similar attitude to having to do anything that put him out, but unlike Jay, Dec could be called on it and cajoled into enjoying himself a bit.

‘Oh alright. I’ll change my shirt and put my new chinos on. How’s that?’

He knew it didn’t cut the mustard, as he was grinning at Amy, waiting for her to respond. He got his reward.

‘No! You need a shower, hon, wash your hair, good scrub up.’

‘But we can’t both desert Matt, that would be rude, babe.’

‘Dohnt wohry about meh an Charlie. Weh’ll beh doin cool stuhf. Wehr’s tha feely book?’

Dec shot me a dark look, but fetched the book, and a plastic box of other toys Charlie liked, then picked his daughter up and sat her on my knee.

‘You be good for Unca Matty. Mummy and me will just be upstairs.’

‘Yeh, beauhiful, an then thehr gona lehv yuh ahl alohn wih meh whihl they goh ouh an hahv a greht tihm. Shahl weh tehl them tuh stop fuhsing an goh an geh rehdy?’

Charlie was looking at me, listening to what I was saying, focussing on the eye contact I was giving her. She giggled and reached out a chubby little hand to touch my chin as I spoke to her, and I looked at the pair of them.

‘Seh? Yuhr daughter says buhger ohf an get rehdy.’

‘She said no such thing. Beth would have my guts for a tennis racquet if her first word was bugger.’

‘Yeh, well, behter watch yuhr stehp then.’

While Dec and Amy were getting ready, Charlie and I were playing lots of baby games. She was getting really interesting nowadays, not just a screaming shit-monster, albeit a very cute screaming shit-monster. She loved it when you talked to her and listened while she babbled, and would reward you with lots of smiles and eye contact.

Charlie loved her feely book, too, and we spent a long time chatting about the various merits of ‘crinkly’ versus ‘fluffy’. ‘Crinkly’ seemed to be extremely amusing, causing high pitched shrieks, whereas ‘fluffy’ was endlessly fascinating and needed lots of patting and stroking, until we remembered that there was ‘crinkly’ and turned back to have another squeal at the crinkliness. God I loved that girl.

Dec was, predictably, ready way before Amy, who, in the way of women, felt the need to completely overhaul her entire appearance for a group of friends who had seen her in all states of play. I had no idea why they did it; I much preferred a face that wasn’t painted to within an inch of its life, but most of them seemed to need the full works plastered on to feel anything approaching ready to go out.

‘Wanna beer, Matt?’

‘Noh, behter not. Nehd tuh beh able tuh wake up if Chahlie cries.’

‘Oh, fair enough. Fuck, what a sacrifice, thanks mate.’

‘Ha ha. Wohth ih. She wohnt, thogh, she usuahly slehps righ throgh, dohnt she?’

‘Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be fine. You’ve got our numbers if not, feel perfectly free to call after, oh, let’s say eleven, when attempts will be made to persuade me to go to a fucking club.’

‘Jus goh, Dec. Yuh’ll lohv ih when yuhr thehr, yuh gruhmpy old git. Ih’s fuh Amy, mehmber?’

‘Yeah yeah. I suppose. Might be a late night, though, sure it’s OK?’

‘Yeh, ih’ll beh fine.’

The only thing I was worried about was if I needed to lift Charlie but her cot had a fold down side and there was a padded mat on the floor, and I was going to make sure we were both upstairs before Dec and Amy left. I hated feeling anxious and unsure around Charlie, but if I did anything to harm her, I would never forgive myself.

Finally, the obligatory half an hour late, Amy declared herself ready, looked divine, and Dec took Charlie up to her room, where she and I got started on some serious wind down towards bed time action.

‘Bye bye, lovely girl.’

‘Thanks, Matt, you’re completely brilliant. Bye bye Charlie, be good for Unca Matty.’

They both stood in the doorway, looking at their daughter; it was touching, how hard they found it to leave her. Another pang of what I couldn’t imagine myself having tugged me somewhere deep inside.

‘See yuh. Dohnt make a loh of noihs when yuh cohm hohm pissed.’

Blowing kisses, they left and Charlie and I listened to their footsteps going down the stairs. I distracted her from the sound of the door closing and the car starting by blowing huge raspberries in her direction, but she still seemed to realise her mummy and daddy had gone, as her face clouded and I wondered if she was going to cry.

Grabbing the nearest thing to hand, which was Gigi the Giraffe, I performed a pantomime, complete with songs and ‘oh no he didn’t’s, which thankfully diverted her attention. I had put Charlie to bed loads of times, she was used to having me around, and after a short while, she settled down to watch me make an idiot of myself.

I sent some more texts to Lau, photos of me and Charlie and Gigi, letting her know what we were doing, letting her know I was thinking about her, holding her hand, missing her. Charlie and I did a lot of chatting, both of us talking our own version of unintelligible bollocks, then we played the ‘let’s tidy up your bedroom’ game, and had a laugh putting all her toys in various boxes, pressing all the buttons on all the toys, making all the lights flash, cuddling all the teddies, until it was all put away. Then it was story time, and after a while it was quiet, the curtains were shut, I was talking in a low voice, and even my eyes were starting to droop.

Charlie had had a long day, having been at Jay and Beth’s for the afternoon, being dressed up by Iz, and she looked ready for bed, so I stood up and placed her in her cot, but didn’t fold the side up, just sat by the cot, still talking in a low voice.

‘Heh, beauhiful, yuhr gona beh a good girl an goh tuh slehp fuh Unca Matty, yeh? Hehr’s Gigi, gihv her a cuhdl.’

Eventually, Charlie’s eyes closed, and I sat and watched her sleeping for a bit, before pulling up the cot-side and creeping out of the room, switching the baby monitor on as I went.

I went downstairs to make myself a drink, but carried it straight back up; I was knackered, and although it wasn’t yet eight thirty, I needed to go to bed. I texted Lau goodnight, and on a whim, as I really wanted to see her face before I sunk into the depths of sleep, I asked if I could Skype her.

Laura

Matt texted throughout the evening, sending me pictures of him and Charlie, as well as a running commentary on what they were up to. He seemed to be enjoying himself, and sent me a goodnight text at about eight thirty.

‘Feel 100 yrs old, but going 2 bed. Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright, u’ll b the death of me. Might make her put me 2 bed, she can stay up an watch MOTD.’

‘MOTD?’

‘Match of the Day. Don’t wanna miss Spurs, but seriously drooping.’

‘Record it.’

‘Genius. Do u have Skype? Or FaceTime (Apple only).’

‘Have Skype, no Apple tho.’

‘Fancy a quick Skype b4 bed? Need 2 sort out yr lack of Apple =O’

‘OK, will take me a while to fire up laptop.’

‘What’s yr Skype name?’

We exchanged details and I set it all up on the laptop, then waited for him. The ping came after a short while, and I pressed the button. The screen filled with his face, on his side, lying down in bed. I filled from bottom to top with wanting to be with him.

‘Hey Lau. I can only see the bottom of yuhr chin. Ih’s a sexy chin, buh I’d rather see yuhr face.’

I tilted the screen so it showed a rather unflatteringly lit shot of me.

‘Not sure I like this, I look like a washed out egg head with several chins.’

‘Yuh look bluhdy gorgeous.’

‘Aw thanks, flower. It’s good to see you. It sounds like you’ve had a good time with Charlie.’

‘Yeh, she kehps meh busy. We had a good tidy – Dec’s the pits at getting stuff ouh and never putting ih away. Amy’s given up. Made a game of ih, done in noh time.’

‘Did she go to bed alright?’

‘Yeh, she was tihred too. I think they spent the day wih Jay an Beth, Iz is a ball of energy, loves Chahlie, buh treats her like one of her dolls, dressing up an shih.’

‘Are you OK?’

‘Yeh, jus tihred. Yuh bluhdy exhaust meh, Lau. I love ih, buh maybe keep the early morning buzzer blasts tuh a minimum?’

‘Only if you behave yourself.’

I was glad we were acknowledging last night, even if it was indirectly. It felt important not to just pretend it hadn’t happened.

‘OK, fair enough. Fallin aslehp here, Lau. Gona have tuh say nigh nigh.’

His eyes were drooping as he spoke.

‘Night night, beach boy. Call me tomorrow if you want to see me.’

‘Always wana see yuh. Nigh.’

He blew a kiss towards me, then the screen went blank. I sat for a while looking at the black screen, feeling soppy and wistful, then roused myself and went to empty the washing machine.

Matt

It was so great to see her on the screen of my phone. It felt like a lifetime had passed, and already I hated those times when I got on with something and she slipped my mind for a few minutes. We didn’t make any specific arrangements to meet the next day, but I knew we would. I knew we were going to be meeting every day for the foreseeable, and with that thought, I slept.

Laura

I heard my phone ping while I was hanging things on the airer and rushed into the living room, hoping it was another text from Matt, but it was from Kate.

‘No problem. Hope u OK. Kate’s advice line open 2 all-comers. X’

Her text reminded me that Anna was on call, and I decided to check she didn’t need relieving while her son’s girlfriend was there.

‘Hi Anna, how’s on-call going? Need 2 divert 2 me? At a loose end, happy to.’

‘Oh you’re an angel. It’s been a bit busy here, and had a couple of calls. Can I divert until later? You can send it back at eleven. Thanks! Xx’

I finished hanging up my laundry, and then sat back in front of the TV, not getting too engrossed in anything in case I had any calls. There were a couple, but nothing too urgent, and I just gave some general advice and pointed them in the direction of their GP. It helped to fill the time, and before too long I was yawning and trying to stay awake until eleven when I could hand back to Anna.

As I watched the TV, the opening credits for Match of the Day came on, and I found myself watching for possibly the first time ever, just to see if Spurs had won or not. I didn’t even like football, so it was purely as a way of connecting to Matt. Shaking my head at myself, I kept one eye on the score while diverting the helpline back to Anna, and sending a text to her about who she’d missed while I’d taken over. Spurs won, beating Aston Villa with a last minute penalty. I found myself inexplicably delighted. Laura Shoeman, you really have got it bad, you poor besotted girl.

Unable to keep my eyes open any longer I dragged myself upstairs, undressed and got into bed.

I woke the next morning, expecting to feel an arm round my waist, then feeling disoriented when I realised I was alone. That really freaked me out. I was used to being disoriented when sleeping in other people’s houses, and the first night with Matt had shown that I could be just as freaked out if things had changed in my own bedroom, but now I missed Matt so much I was freaking out if he wasn’t there. It was time to acknowledge that I was one hundred per cent in love with him. I felt the realisation bloom in me, making me smile and frown, and filling me with equal measures of panic and excitement. I couldn’t tell him; it was too soon, and he didn’t deal well with pressure and commitment, despite all the things we’d said to each other. I would have to be careful it didn’t just come out of my mouth and mess things up.

I didn’t think he would be up yet so, despite really wanting to text or ring him, I got up and got on with things: I went to the supermarket and stocked up, I read the Sunday paper, even looking at the sports page to see if they said anything about Spurs, and I spent a bit of time tidying up my small courtyard garden.

Matt

I was asleep for bloody ages. I didn’t stir when Dec and Amy came home, apparently in the small hours. I don’t think Charlie woke up while I was asleep – I’d left my door open and had the baby monitor in with me as well, and although I slept heavily, I was usually alert to cries.

Whatever, when I finally woke up, it was nearly noon. There was a cold cup of tea and plate of toast on the bedside table, and I could hear voices from downstairs. My stomach was growling with hunger, but I wanted to text Lau before I did anything.

‘Morning Lau. Sleep well? I just got up, how laaaaazeeee is that?’

She replied gratifyingly quickly.

‘Very laaazeee. I have been shopping, informed myself of the day’s news n now gardening. Feeling virtuous ;)’

‘U haven’t got a garden.’

‘Hey! It’s tiny, but it’s gardeny. I have bird feeders 2.’

‘Glad 2 hear it. Imagining u bending over n digging. Phwoar :)’

‘I’m wearing shorts ;)’

‘Whoa. Nearly got a tingle just thinking about it. Gotta go soon, txt u l8r. Holding hands :)’

I tottered downstairs, yawning and rubbing my eyes and trying to wipe dried dribble off my cheek. One of the disadvantages of sleeping like the living dead was that you tended to wake up with all kinds of dried bodily fluids stuck to you. I wasn’t always a pleasant sight in the morning.

‘Evening.’

Of course, it would have been unlike Dec to let me get away with waking up so late, fucking cripple or no fucking cripple.

‘Piss ohf. Good tihm las nigh?’

‘Yeah, actually. We went to Sahara after dinner, had a blast. Bit of a hanger, but I’ll live.’

I felt a tiny twinge of envy, although it didn’t last long. It had been a long time since I’d set foot in a club, but part of the reason for that had been that I’d been trying to change my ways, another part was that I had been with Jules, who didn’t do clubbing, and another part was I really was getting too old for it. My envy was only fleeting, and it was because Dec had done something I couldn’t do at the moment, for whatever reason.

‘Guhd job Amy’s not drihnking thehn.’

‘Yeah, there are advantages to the three am puking sessions, I suppose. We hadn’t even got to bed before this morning’s one. Didn’t you hear? Ames is pretty fucking spectacular when she’s vomming.’

‘Noh, dihnt hehr a thing.’

‘That was a bloody long lie-in then.’

I had slept for about fifteen hours, but Dec didn’t need to necessarily know that.

‘Yeh, hahd a busy wehk. Nehd my strength fuh Beth.’

‘You’re in her good books, now you’ve been on that MS day thing, especially as you stayed. Maybe she’ll just chat about football today?’

‘Ha ha, oh I fucking wihsh. Noh, now she thinks she’s succehded, she’ll just kehp on.’

‘Seriously, though, mate, it must have been good for you to stay.’

Dec hardly ever made me talk about the bastard MS, and he wasn’t really making me now, and if it hadn’t been that I’d stayed for Lau, and only Lau, I would have answered him truthfully. But no, wasn’t going there just yet.

‘I cahn mahk my ohn decisions, thahks. An Pehter Jones was doin a tahk at the ehnd.’

‘What, Peter Jones who played for Raiders?’

‘Yeh.’

Nice diversion, Matt, smoothly handled. I congratulated myself.

‘What was he talking about?’

‘Hahving the bastard MS.’

‘What? Fuck. I had no idea. He was still playing when I first got here, it was his last season.’

We chatted a bit about Peter, which moved the focus away from me nicely, and then Amy and Charlie appeared, Amy looking understandably tired and Charlie looking cute in a flowery dress with matching headband. The headband was not destined to remain on her head for the duration of the walk from the house to the car, but the thought was there.

Sunday lunch went as Sunday lunch usually did. I didn’t always go, as sometimes I was just so wiped I couldn’t face it, but I enjoyed being part of it, especially when everyone was there (everyone being Jay, Beth, Iz and Cal; Dec, Amy and Charlie; Mum; Rose; Nico, Lis and now Bastien, and me), and now the rugby season was approaching, there would be fewer total attendance Sunday lunches, as half the family would be involved in travel back from away games, Sunday games and just general rugby busyness. So this was one of the last ones with guaranteed Scotts, Summerses and Tiagos before the season began. Sometimes during the season it was only Beth, Mum, the kids and me (so, you know, only five), but Beth would still make mounds of roast potatoes which would be hoovered up by the sporting menfolk on their return.

For now, though, dinner and the ensuing afternoon was predictably chaotic, with everyone using most of the available downstairs space to spread out, talk, play, eat and circulate.

I hadn’t seen Mum for a couple of weeks, and although I texted or phoned her most days, I’d been so preoccupied recently that I hadn’t been in touch since our brief chat on Thursday. She had looked relieved to see me, and then quickly covered it up with a smile, and a quick kiss and a hug. I felt her watching me while we ate, and knew she was waiting for an opportunity to talk to me without other people overhearing. I gave in to her silent scrutiny and found her an opening.

‘Heh Muhm, Beth said she’s mahking a vegetahble pahtch fuh Cal an Iz. Wana check ih ouh?’

Mum looked assessingly at me and I pulled a face at her. She knew what I was doing.

‘Yes, she told me. Let’s go and see, dear. I think it’s only been marked out at the moment though.’

‘Ih’m suhr yuh’ll wana hahv a quick chehk, geh the lohdown.’

‘Yes, that would be nice. I haven’t been in the garden for a couple of days.’

The Enigma Machine had nothing on us. We walked through the conservatory and over to the bit of garden that had been pegged out with short stakes and string, and it looked like Jay was in for a day of digging before too long.

‘Wha yuh thihk, thehn? Guhd position?’

‘Yes, Beth asked me about where to put it. I think here gets enough sun, but not in the middle of the day, so it should be ideal. How have you been, dear? I haven’t heard from you for a while.’

Mum would have heard about some of my exploits, the main one being needing to be hauled up the street and ending up asleep in someone else’s bed. I really should have talked to her properly afterwards, but my thoughts had been elsewhere and I hadn’t thought to say anything during our brief conversation on Thursday.

‘Sohry, Muhm. Hahd a busy wehk. Shouhd hahv rung or texted. I spohs yuh hehrd abou meh on Wednesday?’

‘Beth mentioned something, and there was a little bit of a kerfuffle when no one could get hold of you on Wednesday afternoon.’

‘Yeh, thoght soh. Jus overdid ih. Not slehping wehl, got up early, long day. Not payin attenhtion tuh the signs sayin ‘yuhr fucking tihred Matt, goh hohm, this way tuh yuhr behd’. Spehnt las few days catchin uhp.’

I hated keeping stuff from Mum, and I knew that if I asked her to, she wouldn’t say anything, and I was very tempted to tell Mum about Lau, it was hard not to, but I stopped myself.

‘Sohry I dihnt tell yuh, I knoh yuh wohry.’

‘Oh don’t be silly, Matthew. You don’t have to call me every five minutes to report on your whereabouts.’

Yeah I did, just to stop that look appearing at the corners of her eyes. It was far more effective than all of Beth’s constant contact.

‘Are you … alright? There haven’t been any changes with you?’

I couldn’t stop myself grinning, tried to rein it in, she noticed, I saw her noticing, saw her stop herself asking. OK then, let’s do this.

‘Yuh cahnt say anything. Prohmis.’

‘Of course. Cross my heart. You know I love a secret, dear.’

‘Not Beth, noh one.’

She especially liked keeping secrets from Beth. It was hard, as Beth used some kind of virtual sniffer dog to find hidden information, but it wouldn’t be for long and we could do it, I was sure. Mum’s eyes lit up at the thought of knowing something Beth didn’t.

‘You have my word, and now my undivided attention.’

‘OK.’

I took a breath while I tried to find the words to explain Lau.

‘I met sohmone. Sohmone amazing.’

Mum tried valiantly to keep some of the things she was feeling from showing on her face, but I saw concern mingled with the pleased smile, and a brief frown which was chased away by raised eyebrows.

‘A girl, dear?’

I nodded.

‘You sound happy about it.’

There was some hesitation in her voice, but I was going to ignore any negativity. I was happy, I was over the moon, and I knew they would all worry about how I would cope, what it would do to me, if I was ready, whether I was setting myself up to be hurt again, but right now, I was happier than I could ever remember being, and if that wasn’t good for me, I didn’t know what was.

‘Yeh, Ih’m hahpy. Yuh’ll lihk her Muhm, rehly. She’s not lihk Jules, or any of the ohthers.’

Mum had tried her best with Jules, but it’s hard to get on with someone who is determined not to let you in. Mum had not really had a chance to get to know any of the others she’d met, as they’d been shipped off pretty soon after, but she had made it known, subtly, that she didn’t think they were ‘my type’, whatever the fuck that was.

‘I’m sure I will, dear, I’d like to meet someone who’s put that smile back on your face. It’s been missing for quite a while.’

‘Heh, I smihl.’

I spent half my life smiling when I felt like I was dying inside.

‘Yes dear, I know. You do it very well. You know you won’t be able to keep this from Beth for long? She can sense a secret from a great distance, and when a relationship is involved, she’s even more perceptive.’

‘I knoh. Jus nehd a few days tuh mysehf.’

‘Alright then, dear. It’s between us, I won’t say anything.’

‘Thahks Muhm.’

‘What’s her name?’

‘Laura. Lau.’

Just saying her name widened my grin and brought a warm, fuzzy feeling to my insides.

‘You’ve gone all soppy, Matthew. I’ll have to get the details from you another time – it looks like we’ve got company.’

Mum had noticed Beth and Iz making for us across the lawn; Beth had worked out that Mum and I were talking about something other than the vegetable patch, and wanted in. She was using Iz as an excuse, but we stopped our conversation and changed the subject well before she was within earshot. She’d know soon enough, then Mum could look all smug and be all like ‘oh, didn’t you know?’ and Beth would be fuming. Little revenges, that’s what matters.

OK, I know it seems like I’m spending forever on this bit, telling you the ins and outs of a duck’s arse about how Lau and I got together, telling you shit you might already know, but be warned, I’m going to be here for a while. I’m in no hurry to leave here, where it all began, where I was happy, where Lau was new.

Oh shit, that sounds like it all went pear-shaped, no no no. It’s just that it’s so great, reliving it all, I want to stay for a while; wallow in it all; have a bath in Lau’s freshness and vitality; remember how exciting it was. So be prepared. Matt and Lau: The Early Days is destined to go on for some time.

Aaaanyway, the afternoon ticked on, and as usually happened I started to flag well before anyone thought about going home, and as I was a stubborn fucker who didn’t like a fuss (what? You’d noticed? How shrewd of you), I just willed myself to stay awake and on my feet, or at least upright on a sofa, until Dec and Amy eventually thought they should go home and take me with them.

I texted Lau to say come round, but not until after I’d had a rest (which in Matt’s special code was crashing unconscious in bed for at least a couple of hours), and she was going to wait for my text.

Fortunately, I’d had a long sleep the previous night, and this was one of the Sundays I managed to make it up the stairs unassisted. Dec had learned the hard way (i.e. by me going off on one, at length, in the back seat of his car) not to ask me if I needed help, but that didn’t stop him waiting to see how I managed to walk from the car to the entrance door, and if I looked dodgy on my feet, he’d just come and lend a shoulder. The bastard. I tried my hardest never to look dodgy on my feet, but it was way out of my control, and often, after I got back from Jay and Beth’s, I’d already used up most of my energy reserves.

Today, however, I just made it up the stairs and through the front door without assistance, but was dragging my feet so badly across the living room to the bedroom that I thought I might trip. I arrived at the bed with a second or two to spare to slip my shoes off, and then I was out of it.

I woke up about six, got myself sorted, then texted Lau to say come over. I’d told her I was going to cook her dinner, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me this time. I had a whole freezer full of sauces I’d made a while ago, and it was an easy task to prepare some chicken, vegetables and rice to go with it all.

Laura

Matt texted the all clear just after half past six. I’d already packed a bag with sleeping clothes, toiletries and my work clothes for the next day, making the massive assumption that I was going to be staying the night without even thinking twice about it.

I hopped in the car and was there by seven, pressing MRS and being buzzed in without a greeting. Matt’s front door was open, and delicious smells were wafting out of it. I walked in quietly and put my bag down gently inside the door. Matt had his back to me, and was standing at the hob, stirring. I crept up behind him, just about to scare him by pinching his bum.

Matt

I let Lau in when she buzzed, left the front door ajar, and went back to stirring the dinner at the hob. I had my back to the door, but my splashback tiles were shiny black, and by watching the reflection when I heard her come in, I saw her put her bag down and try to sneak up on me.

Oh she wasn’t serious; even if I hadn’t seen her, she did not have the silent capabilities necessary for sneaking. I could hear the rustling of her clothes, and her breathing, even over the bubbling of the sauce in the pan. She was just reaching out towards my bum, when I spoke.

‘Hey Lau.’

She squealed and jumped back, holding a hand against her chest.

‘How did you know I was there?’

‘Wha, apart from yuh making a noise lihk a herd of elephants?’

‘Cheek! I was using my Ray Mears bush skills, you can’t possibly have heard me.’

‘OK, Lau, if yuh say soh. Buh ever heard of reflehtive suhfaces?’

I pointed to the tiles, and she looked embarrassed, which made me feel a little guilty, but not so much that I was going to stop teasing her.

‘Oh.’

‘Surely Mearsy teaches yuh tuh knoh yuhr environment?’

‘OK, lesson learned. Never sneak up on Matt.’

‘Yuh behter believe ih. Oh Lau …’

I propped the spoon on the side of the pan, turned and folded her up in my arms.

‘I mihsed yuh.’

It felt so good to be holding her again, it had been too long – more than twenty-four hours, in fact.

‘Mm, missed you too. Did you have a good time with your brother?’

‘Yeh, buh was thinking abouh yuh all the tihm. Nehly told them abouh yuh.’

It had been harder than I’d thought, not saying anything to anyone but Mum, and Lau’s name hadn’t been far from the tip of my tongue the whole afternoon.

‘Why didn’t you?’

‘Dohnt like them knowing everything about meh.’

‘Why not?’

I sighed. I suppose Lau needed to know the kind of fucked up thought processes that made me tick.

‘Need tuh keep something fuh meh jus fuh now. When I was ill las time, I – they – Jay gave up his job an moved tuh Stafford, goh a house wih enough room fuh meh, I moved in from hospital. They were greht, buh when yuh cahnt even squehz one ouh wihouh a fahmly mehting abouh cohlour an fucking consistency, yuh nehd yuhr privacy.’

Lau nodded as if she understood.

‘Fair enough. I told Mum about you.’

‘Did yuh? Wha she say?’

‘Hoped you weren’t a ruffian.’

I was many things a mother might find objectionable, but I didn’t think ‘ruffian’ fitted the bill.

‘Wha yuh tell her?’

‘That you’re a foul mouthed layabout with an excellent oral sex technique, but not a ruffian.’

Ooh, I liked it, that she could tease me back a bit. And of course I liked it that she thought I had an excellent oral sex technique.

‘Ha ha. Thanks. Wouldn’t wan tuh beh yuhr bih of rough. The rest is true. When duh I get tuh meet her?’

‘Really?’

I nodded, surprised at my eagerness to meet Lau’s mum. I wasn’t a great one for meeting the parents, couldn’t actually remember ever having done it before, but I wanted to know everything about Lau, and she seemed to spend a lot of time with her mum, so it was a no-brainer.

‘She wanted to know the same thing. I see her most Saturdays. Next weekend?’

I had the briefest little freak to myself. Holy shit, I was going to meet Lau’s bloody mum next weekend. Meeting the mum – that’s like huge, major shit, it’s like dust off the glad-rags, it’s like discuss the china pattern, it’s like tuxedo or morning suit … then I got over myself. It’s like meeting someone’s mum, Matt. Like you were just thinking, before you freaked.

‘OK. An yuhr coming tuh Jay an Beth’s on Sunday. My muhm’ll beh thehr too.’

It was going to happen, and it gave me a deadline. I’d have to tell them all before next weekend; it would stop me putting it off.

Laura

I looked up at him. He had a determined look on his face, rather than one that said ‘I really want to do this’, but I could see he was making an effort.

‘Wow.’

Matt

Lau looked like she knew what a big thing that would be for me.

‘I know. I fehl a bih like I’m on a speeding train, an ih’s thrilling an everything, buh I’m shih-scared. Buh ih’s OK cos I’ve goh yuh. We can beh shih-scared together.’

‘We can.’

Lau agreed amicably, not seeming shit-scared in the slightest.

‘This smells lush, what is it?’

She pointed to the pan, which I needed to get back to, to stop it burning.

‘Thai grehn curry.’

‘Have you made it since you got home?’

She looked so impressed, I wished I’d made it from scratch, but I came clean.

‘Yeh, dohnt take long, made a batch of sauce an froze ih las wehk.’

‘I am in awe of your domestic skills.’

Oh well, if she was still impressed, then it was a double result.

‘I’ve brought pudding though, I’ve been busy in the kitchen too.’

She fetched a plastic box full of chocolate chip cookies. I was glad she had some cooking skills – maybe she was a baker rather than a chef, in which case we would complement each other nicely.

‘I haven’t taste tested them yet, so we might need a back up.’

‘Goh ice cream. They smell lush too.’

I grinned at Lau as I repeated her very Devon adjective.

‘Sorted then. How long till it’s ready?’

‘Not long. Rice is nehly done, quihk salad, ih’s there. Go an sit down. Or stay here an grope my bum, either way.’

I knew which one I preferred, and it seemed Lau did too, as she stood close behind me, so close I could feel her breath on my neck, sending goosebumps up into my scalp.

‘Mm, second option is good for me.’

‘Meh too. Jus dohnt geh in the way of meh stirring.’

‘No, I’ll be behind you. Just here. Concentrate on what you’re doing.’

I tried my best to concentrate, but it was bloody hard with Lau feeling my arse up. She was giggling as she did it, too, which made her jiggle against me, and again I cursed the fucking bastard for not allowing me to respond. Although, if I had, we wouldn’t have had any dinner for quite a while.

The meal eaten, with just enough beer and gin and tonic drunk to make us happily content, Lau declared me a fine cook and all round ace gent. Oh alright, what she actually said was, ‘Blimey, you make a good curry.’ And so I had to point out that it wasn’t a curry like you’d get from the Taj Mahal on the High Street, but a Thai Green Curry, like they make in Thailand, and she called me pedantic, but said it was still flipping tasty, and I teased her about not being able to swear except when I scared her by whispering, or by going off on one in the middle of the night, and she said she had been scared, and then it all got a bit serious for a bit while we thought about how I’d been, only two nights ago, but then I thought about how I was now, how different I felt, how different she made me feel, and I just grinned at her, and she grinned back, and we knew, I think both of us knew, that it was going to be OK, I wasn’t going back there, as long as we were always holding hands.

But, of course, the fucking bastard couldn’t just let me be happy and have a normal evening. I got really tired, in spite of my earlier sleep, and by about half past eight I was just wiped. I didn’t want to stay up until I crashed, but I wanted to spend some time with Lau, holding her to me, like I’d been thinking of doing all day. I looked ruefully at the clock.

‘Sohry, Lau, I’m gona have tuh goh tuh bed. Yuh can stay up, come in later. Goh DVDs, books, computer –’

‘Can’t I come to bed with you?’

Oh yes, angel mine, always.

‘Thoht ih’d beh bih early fuh yuh?’

‘I’ve brought a book, I’m perfectly happy reading in bed, unless the light will disturb you.’

‘Noh, I can sleep through anything. Yuh sure? Ih’d love tuh have yuh wih meh.’

She gave me a big smile.

‘Perfect. I’ll just clean my teeth. It’s like a proper sleepover. Minus the squealing girls and smuggled cider.’

I thought of the sleepovers I’d had, which consisted of: me, Andrew and Jonathan Woodgrove; the Star Wars trilogy; a family bag of tortilla chips; a large bottle of Tesco cola.

‘Yuhr sleepovers sound much more exciting than mine.’

‘No squealing girls?’

‘Noh, jus smelly boys talking abouh squealing girls. An thinking abouh them. Ohnly increhsed the smelliness.’

‘Ew. I’m so glad I’m a girl.’

‘Meh too. See yuh in bed.’

I cleaned my teeth first, then gave the bathroom over to Lau. I lay waiting for her, determined to stay awake until she’d got undressed and got into bed, at the very least. Hopefully longer. She came back in and started to undress.

‘Glad I dihnt miss this by bein aslehp.’

‘You’re very easily pleased, aren’t you.’

‘Are yuh kidding? Ih’s lihk having my own personal strip tehse. Yuhr soh fucking sexy.’

‘OK, well here goes, I’m putting my old sleeping shirt on …’

And in order to do that she had to take off her shirt and her bra.

‘… and a fresh pair of pants.’

Which necessitated the removal of the current pants. I watched it all, breathlessly.

‘Da da da …’

She sung the opening bars of The Stripper and wiggled about a bit as she changed. She was taking the mickey, but she was so unbelievably sexy, and I wanted her more than I’d ever wanted anyone. Bloody, fucking, bollocking, arsing bastard MS.

‘Cohm here, yuh bluhdy siren.’

‘Siren? That’s a new one. Not been called a siren before.’

I couldn’t understand why. She had been singing her song, calling my ship to wreck on her rocks, for days.

‘Jus shut the fuck up an geh over hehr.’

She walked slowly over to the bed, made a big deal of very slowly and deliberately turning the duvet down and plumping the pillows before getting in, making me wait. I grabbed her as soon as her backside hit the mattress, which made her squeal, and pulled her to me.

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

‘I thought you needed your sleep.’

‘How am I supposed tuh slehp wih yuh dancing naked roun my bluhdy bedroom?’

‘I wasn’t dancing, I was just getting changed. I think you should close your eyes and count sheep.’

She put as much ‘prim’ in her voice as she could muster.

‘Fuck tha. Need tuh duh some serious groping fihrst.’

‘Well don’t blame me if you’re knackered tomorrow.’

Oh, I wasn’t going to be doing any blaming, if I got my way now. I might be recovering, but I’d be doing it blissfully. We moved into each other’s arms and spent a glorious time kissing, touching, feeling, being with each other.

Eventually, I felt my wakefulness slipping away, and I couldn’t fight it any longer, even to stay up with Lau. I fell asleep, leaning against her, holding her, feeling her with me as I plummeted into the dark.

Laura

I could feel Matt’s energy leaving him, as his body sagged more heavily against mine, and before long he was asleep, leaning against me, arm over me, legs tangled with mine. I couldn’t move, but didn’t need to, finding my own entertainment watching him sleep and stroking his thick unruly hair away from his face. After a while I dozed too, waking up briefly as Matt turned over onto his back, releasing me. I turned the lamp off and lay back down, trying to remind myself not to freak out when I woke up in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar sensations in the morning.

81. Hold my hand

In which two people find that the morning after the night before is a happy place.

Matt

I was lying on my front, as I usually was when I woke up, and after a few of the obligatory seconds of disorientation, I realised I wasn’t alone; there was a beautiful woman asleep beside me, her body turned away from me, her form vaguely outlined by the duvet and highlighted by the morning sun filtering in through the curtains.

I smiled to myself, stretched, needed to touch the beautiful woman, so I slipped my arm under the duvet and around her waist. As I did so, her whole body flinched, and she let out a little squeal. I remembered her being similarly startled that first night; it was possible she woke up even worse than I did.

Laura

I woke with a start as someone put their arm round my waist. I let out a scream and pulled away, only to have the arm tighten around me and pull me backwards towards them. I was in a strange room, light filtering through the curtains. As my head unravelled itself from sleep, a voice whispered in my ear, making me jump again.

Matt

‘Morning Lau. Yuhr bluhdy jumpy in bed, aren’t yuh?’

I felt her relax against me, then she turned over and I forgot about teasing her as she directed her blue/green/grey gaze at me. I reminded myself, as if I needed to, how lucky I was that Lau was who she was, and that she wanted to be here with me.

‘Yeah. Sorry. It always takes me a while to wake up, even at home. I didn’t know where I was. Or who you were.’

‘Still the same bluhdy fucked up cripple I was last nigh.’

It was important that I didn’t just pretend it hadn’t all happened. What Lau had done, said, for me last night was incredible. I needed to acknowledge it.

‘Let’s not start that again.’

She pulled me close.

‘I nehd tuh. I nehd tuh say this, ask this. Then noh more, prohmis.’

She sighed. Then nodded.

‘Lau, yuh know abouh this, bastahd MS, more than anyone I know. I’m pretty bad at the moment, buh I know ih could geh better, or worse, much worse. I can’t duh tha tuh yuh.’

Laura

‘Too bad. It’s done. I’m here now. We haven’t said forever, we haven’t even made plans for today. Let’s enjoy what we’ve got, what we are now. I’m not going anywhere, Matt, whether you want me to or not. Look, I’m going to be a bit nursey now, and then I’ll be back to me. Relationships are tricky for people with MS, but usually because of how things change when one person gets it; it changes the balance of things, the dynamics have to be sorted out, reorganised. When one person already has it and meets someone – well I’m guessing it’s already there, part of the whatever it is that has attracted them to each other. OK, Nurse Laura over and out. It might get tricky for us when you start to get better. But either way, you’re stuck with me. Holding hands, whatever. Besides, who better to have with you than a self-declared MS sexpert? You’d better get used to it, buster.’

Matt was silent for a while, holding my gaze. I gazed back, lost in the winter sea colour of his grey eyes.

Matt

It was a lot to take in. When Jules had told me she was going to take care of me if I got ill again, it blew my mind. This did the same, possibly more, because however much reading Jules had done about it, she couldn’t possibly have really known what she was letting herself in for. Lau knew, with certainty, all the permutations, all the possibilities. She also knew, now, from personal experience, what I was like. And she was still here, she was still going to do it. God. I had no words to respond. No, she was right, neither of us had said we were going to be together forever, but it felt like it. It felt like it didn’t need saying, especially after last night and all the drama.

So I picked up on something she’d just said, used it to distract myself, before I started getting all bloody emotional again.

‘Plans fuh today, then?’

Lau grinned, looking like she thought she’d won an argument. Maybe she had.

‘Well, I thought maybe you could make me some of your yummy scrambled egg, and then we could stay here for a long lazy morning, and then I’ve got to go and see my mum. I usually go and see her on Saturday afternoons. You can come if you like, see how much she loves how sweary you are.’

Oh God, no, not yet, not today. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck, and needed more sleep before I went over to Dec and Amy’s later.

‘Not suhr I’m up fuh meeting the mother jus yet. Will duh soon tho. I like a challenge.’

‘It will be epic. What about the rest, though? Breakfast in bed? Other stuff in bed?’

‘Yeh, ih’s a plan. Lau … thanks. Yuhr fucking A.’

‘A? What does that mean.’

‘Oh, er, Austrahlian abbrehviation fuh, er, awesome.’

‘You don’t sound too sure. You wouldn’t be making it up would you?’

‘Noh, I never bullshih.’

‘Hmm, we’ll see.’

I smiled as I felt as far from my despair of the previous night as it was possible to feel. Things were opening up in front of me, I could almost feel my life beginning to change, and it was all because of Lau.

Laura

‘How about you stop telling porkies and get going on my breakfast.’

He grinned, quickly kissed me on the lips and got out of bed. I watched him walk out of the bedroom, checking how steady he was on his feet; it seemed to have improved from last night, and his back view, with his small, tight buttocks wrapped in his sleeping shorts, made me hug myself with pleasure.

The clatter of pans and the smell of cooking and toast stopped me from going back to sleep, and a short while later I was rewarded with a tray complete with a plate of scrambled eggs, some buttered toast cut into triangles and a cafetière of coffee. I sat up, and Matt placed the tray across my legs.

‘Wow. This is the best breakfast I’ve had since …’

‘Yesterday?’
‘No, better than yesterday, it’s in bed. Always a winner. And proper coffee trumps teabags any day. Not that I’m complaining about yesterday, that was mighty fine too. Where’s yours?’

‘Jus coming, couldn’t fit ih all on the tray.’

He left the room and returned with his own tray, handing it to me while he got back into bed.

‘Very civilised. Oh my God, and delicious. What on earth do you put in your scrambled eggs?’

‘Family secret. I’ll take it to my grave.’

‘Oh. That’s disappointing.’

‘Ih’s paprika.’

‘Blimey, you gave that up quickly. You’d be useless under torture.’

‘I would if yuh were torturing meh. Yuhd only have to say yuh were disappointed, I’d spill the country’s secrets.’

‘That’s information worth knowing. Oh my God, this coffee’s incredible too. Is there anything you’re not amazing at?’

‘Well not tha I’m gona admit. You’ll have tuh find out foh yuhself.’

As we finished our breakfast, Matt’s phone started ringing. While he reached for it, I looked for mine, which wasn’t there, wasn’t anywhere, as I hadn’t brought it with me last night.

I didn’t know what the time was, so as Matt started talking I went in search of a clock. Eventually I found one on the DVD player. It said ten o’clock. Surely it was wrong. DVD clocks were notoriously always wrong, re-setting themselves, not being reset after power cuts – or maybe that was just me. Admittedly, Matt seemed like the sort of bloke who would have a permanently correct clock on his DVD player, but it couldn’t be ten. If it was ten, I was late calling my mum, and she’d be worried. I heard Matt finish his call in the bedroom and went back in.

‘Is it really ten o’clock?’

‘Yeh. Time fuh our other stuff in bed.’

He pulled the duvet aside and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. I hopped in and sat up next to him, as it occurred to me that most of the time we had spent together so far had been in bed, but not doing the activities you might have expected.

‘Can I ring my mum first? I usually call her before ten on a Saturday, but I’ve left my phone at home.’

‘Sure.’

He handed over his phone. I had to think for a minute about what her number was, it was so long since I’d actually dialled it. For good measure, I saved it onto Matt’s phone, as ‘Lau’s Mum’, noting with satisfaction that it nestled nicely underneath ‘Lau’ in his address book.

‘I thoht yuh were calling her, not putting yuhr entire bluhdy family on my phone.’
‘You never know when you might need to ring her, to explain why I haven’t called her, maybe because I was in bed with you for example.’

‘Oh, OK, shall I duh tha now? Give ih here.’

He snatched the phone from me and pressed call. I tried to get the phone back from him, but he held it away from me and I could hear it ringing. After the customary three rings, I heard her answer, and redoubled my efforts to get the phone back. I could hear her saying ‘Hello? Hello?’ and then ‘LauraLou, is that you?’

‘LauraLou? Ha ha!’

He finally handed the phone over, laughing.

‘Hi Mum, sorry, had a bit of a problem with the line, sorry I’m late calling, I stayed with a friend last night, and I left my phone at home.’

‘Oh, is that why I didn’t recognise the number? I was getting worried when you didn’t ring. I haven’t heard from you for a few days. Are you coming this afternoon?’

‘Yeah, I’ll be there. Anything you want me to bring?’

‘No, my love, I’ve been pretty good, I got to the shop yesterday, got a few things I needed. I’ve got another appointment at the fracture clinic, in a couple of weeks, I think they’ll give me the all clear.’

‘Oh that’s great. Let me know the date, I’ll come with you.’

‘No, no, Laura, I’ll go on my own. Don’t take a day off just for me.’

‘Well we’ll talk about it nearer the time, shall we?’

‘Alright my love. When did you say you’d be over? Only Margaret was asking if I wanted to go over for a cuppa later. We said about four.’

‘I’ll be there before then. See you later.’

‘Bye my love.’

I disconnected and handed the phone back to Matt.

‘Thanks. And thanks for freaking my elderly disabled mum out.’

He looked stricken.

‘Sorry, Lau, I didn’t think.’

‘I’m teasing. She’s only just sixty, and she’s only got a broken ankle. She fell off a stepladder a couple of months ago trying to put up a bird box in her garden.’

‘Oh, she likes birds? I can see a way in alrehdy. Big on birds, meh.’

‘Yeah, so I’ve heard.’

‘Especially ones wih interesting brehsts. Like, er, robins an suchlike.’

I raised an eyebrow.

‘Yeh, ‘specially like interesting brehsts.’

He looked pointedly at my chest, then laughingly back up at my face.

‘Actually, I duh goh birding sometimes. If yuh look ouh the window when I draw the curtains, there’s a bird feeder. I’ve got binoculars an shih, books on the shelf, yuh can check. Buh definitely like a good brehst.’

Matt

I made breakfast, went back to bed, Lau called her mum on my phone, then programmed her mum’s number in, and I would usually have got all arsey about that and felt trapped or violated or some such shit, but instead I felt pleased that Lau was starting to link her life to mine, even in small ways. And, of course, having Lau here, in my bed, was too good an opportunity to waste, now I was properly awake, and so I angled my body towards her, stroked her cheek and then ran my hand down her body, until I cupped her breast.

‘This one fehls like a rehly good one. Worth exploring.’

To my delight, her nipples were growing hard under her sleeping shirt. I hoped she was up for more of what we’d done last night, on her sofa.

Laura

My body was responding to his touch, nothing I could do about that, but I already had a strategy.

‘Be my guest.’

Matt

She lay on her back and stretched her arms over her head, enticingly.

‘Rehly? Whoa, Lau.’

I held her breast in my hand for a moment, then ran my thumb lightly over the fabric of her shirt, feeling her nipple peak even more, but I wanted to touch her skin to skin; so I slid my hand under her t-shirt, then pulled it all the way up so I could see her too, and lowered my head to take her in my mouth and suck, running my tongue over the nubbly mouthful. Lau arched her back and moaned. I licked my way across to her other breast, felt my way around it with my mouth, kissing, sucking, nibbling, teasing. Between us, we pulled her t-shirt completely off, and I marvelled again at her awesome body, so full, so inviting.

Lau was arching her back, giving me the best view, and I slid my hand downwards, down her side, across her waist, onto her belly, down further – then she put her hand on mine and stopped me. I pulled back and looked up into her face, wondering what I’d done. She was smiling, but shook her head.

‘Wha? Why not? Dohnt yuh like ih?’

I frowned.

Laura

‘Matt, I love it, no one’s ever made me feel like you do. But we’re doing this together. Last night, when you did what you did for me, was sensational. No one’s ever made me feel like that. But until I can do the same for you, or we can do something together, we’re only doing what we can both do.’

I’d come up with this last night, while I was lying next to Matt. I had had an awesome time, and Matt taking care of me the way he had was unbelievable, but it felt important that we started this off fairly, and this was the best way I could think of.

Matt

‘Buh I love ih, I loved yesterday, making yuh come, ih was soh fucking sexy.’

I didn’t get it; why didn’t she want it? I knew she’d enjoyed it – she’d virtually just said it was the best she’d ever had.

‘I know, me too, but it makes things lopsided, starts things off on an uneven footing. I’m not backing down on this, Matt. Equal, the same, or not at all.’

Oh my fucking God. When was this woman going to stop getting more bloody awesome? I stared at her, unable to comprehend how, what, why she would do that for me. It made total sense, although it was with some regret that I actually saw the sense it made and decided not to battle with her about it. She took the hand she’d stopped just below her belly button, and placed it back on her breast.

‘So, up here, fine, I can do that for you too, we can have a good play, get to know each other’s likes and dislikes, but no pressure on either of us. Just tingly and nice and oh my God, yes, that too.’

So she wasn’t saying nothing at all, was she, she was just saying no downbelows until my fucked-up downbelows stopped being fucked up, then both sets of downbelows were fair game. It was encouraging, even, like she was saying it would come back given time.

In the interim, I had pinched her nipple and started to suck the other one, but looked up to speak.

‘I cahnt believe how incredible yuh are, Lau. I soh, soh dohnt deserve yuh.’

‘Yeah, well, not many do. Anyway, buster, flip over, there’s some nipple action of my own I’d like to try.’

Laura

He sat up, but didn’t lie on his back as instructed.

‘Hold on, Lau. Tha’s twice yuh called meh buster. Is tha my new endearment? Yuh said yuh were gona think of one, buh I thoght ih was beahch boy.’

I thought about it. I tended to throw pet names about willy-nilly, but Matt seemed to want to know what I was going to call him.

‘Well … it could be ‘buster’, if you like it, but it’s more of a ‘don’t mess with me’ kind of name, isn’t it? If you don’t like ‘beach boy’, and you really don’t go for ‘flower’, well, could be baby – ‘

‘Noh, Nico calls Lis tha all the time, grates.’

‘– or darling –’

‘Fuck noh, not behn married fifty threh yehrs.’

‘– dude?’

‘Hmm, has a ring, buh weh dohn live in California, soh noh.’

‘Sweetheart?’
‘Noh, noh, noh, Beth calls everyone tha, if she thinks yuhr fahmly.’

I was running out of options.

‘Babe?’
‘Dec calls Amy babe all the bluhdy time. You wehr gona give meh a manly name tha made yuh grow bollocks.’

‘OK, er, mate?’

‘Ha ha, bluhdy hell, Lau, yuh sound lihk a builder.’

‘Well, beach boy, I think your family seem to have first dibs on all the best names. We might have to invent a new one.’

Matt

I suddenly wondered why I was pissing around. She’d already said it, the name I wanted to hear her call me.

‘Noh, tha’s it. Yuh jus said ih.’

‘Did I?’

‘Beach boy. I like ih behter than all the rehst. Lihked ih wehn yuh said ih the other day.’

‘Really? I thought it wasn’t manly enough.’

‘Noh, buh ih’s diffrehnt from anything ehlse. Yuh made ih up. Ih’s jus ours. An ih mahks meh sound lihk a surfer dude, tha’s cool.’

‘If that explains it to you, then let’s go with that. I’ll try not to overuse it, and I expect the odd ‘flower’ might slip through every now and then. OK, beach boy, let’s get this show on the road. On your back, please.’

I’ve never got tired of hearing it, her special name. She doesn’t use it that often, I get called ‘flower’ more often than I care to admit, and she uses her mum’s ‘my love’ quite a lot too, but ‘beach boy’ is just for me.

Laura

With a delighted smile, Matt lay on his back, put his hands behind his head and waited as I knelt beside him, bent my head down and started to kiss his chest, trailing my lips up his sternum and then to one side, flicking my tongue over his nipples then taking one into my mouth, sucking it hard while at the same time running my fingers over the other one and flicking it with my finger.

I felt his hands in my hair, stroking, massaging, touching my ears, running his finger down my jawline and back up my neck and down my shoulder and arm, as I teased his nipples into hardened little buds on his chest, and heard him moan softly. Then he suddenly gasped and grabbed my hair so tightly it hurt.

Matt

She did it, she made me moan, and then suddenly, it all headed south, and a shot of heat hit my dick, and I gasped, my legs lifting off the bed with a jerk.

Lau stopped and looked up, looking worried. I’d gripped her hair pretty tightly, and I loosened my hold. We locked eyes as I explained.

‘Tingly dick, tingly dick!’

Lau dropped her head forwards, relieved.

‘I thought I’d hurt you.’

‘Noh, yuh tingled meh. Still tingly. Mind if I have a fehl?’

It had already lasted longer than the tingle I’d felt last night, and I wondered if I could encourage it to stay, or even to grow into something else.

Laura

‘Feel free. I’ll just carry on shall I?’

I lowered my mouth to his nipple again, flattening my tongue on it and licking in broad strokes from one to the other, as I felt Matt’s hand travel to his boxers. I put my hand over the top of his, and felt him rub himself slowly, then stop. I pushed my fingers underneath his and laid my hand on the soft shape of his penis underneath the fabric of his boxers. I slowly stroked him, to and fro, a few times, then looked up at him. He shrugged.

Matt

The tingles died away as I felt Lau push her fingers under mine and touch my dick through the fabric of my shorts. She stroked a couple of times, but nothing happened, and I shrugged as she looked up at me. It seemed the rule about the downbelows was flexible.

‘Tingles hahv gone. Thanks, tho Lau. Yuhr so fucking hot, yuhr so gona mahk meh better. Cohm hehr.’

I gestured her back up to the pillow, so I could hold her, and we lay close together, as Lau stretched her face up, lips pursed, wanting a kiss. Well I was always going to be happy to oblige the dick-tingler with requests like that. After a good while of kissing, though, something kept occurring to me, and I had to ask.

‘Lau, can I ask yuh something?’

‘Not if it’s something hard, like algebra.’

‘Algebra’s easy, buh OK, noh equations befohr lunch. Something nuhrsy.’

‘Oh, OK. Go on then.’

‘If I’ve goh a tingly dick, does tha mean things are getting better?’

I couldn’t keep the hope out of my voice. The fucking bastard had been with me for too fucking bastard long, and I just wanted a sign that it might be fucking off some time soon. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t ever going to, but I so wanted it to. I knew I was ‘lucky’ in some respects, if you can even begin to call it that, but I mean in comparison to someone who’s got, oh I don’t know, terminal cancer or something, where it’s pretty much a downhill path. At least for me there was a chance, having got better before, that I might get some of the way back up there again. I just wanted a bit of hope.

Laura

I looked up at him, and saw the hope in his face.

‘Oh God, Matt, that’s a huge question. I can’t answer it. It might do, it might not do. OK, nursey response to a nursey question. You should get yourself signed up with the MS service, get yourself a worker who can help you answer your questions, or go to your GP. Or both.’

‘Wha duh yuh think ih is?’

‘I really, really can’t say. I’m sorry, flower. I can’t tell you something that gives you hope or dashes your hopes, and then be wrong. It’s not fair.’

Matt

I was disappointed. I wanted Lau to make things better, to say I was on the mend, and she was giving me what sounded like bullshit.

‘I’m only asking yuhr opinion. If yuh wanted hehp wih yuhr computer I’d give yuh my opinion.’

‘Maybe, but my computer hasn’t been staring at a pile of pills and a bottle of whisky half the night. OK, I won’t give an opinion. All I’ll say is let’s hope so. And go and get yourself checked out. And ring the MS service first thing on Monday and get signed up. Seriously, Matt, I think I’d rather have had algebra.’

It had dropped the mood a little bit. I should have been impressed that Lau wasn’t willing to give me false hope, but it felt like she had inside knowledge she wasn’t willing to share. I know, unfair of me. Still a git, eh?

Laura

Matt’s expression had clouded a little. I knew from experience how much hope people took from small events like tingles and twitches and good days, and how much the bad days when nothing worked properly knocked them back. I had learned to be non-committal until something was confirmed either way, and that needed a doctor as well as someone neutral to help with the fall-out.

It was hard to be that way with Matt; he wasn’t a patient, and I had a lot invested in his recovery or otherwise too. I had a vision of all the fine lines I was going to be walking if this thing with us was going to work out.

Matt

‘If I call the service, can I have yuh as my nuhrs?’

That might be a way round it. Cosy nursing sessions under the duvet would work very well.

Laura

‘No. Remember I talked about this with my boss? I can’t treat you. I can’t be involved with you professionally. I wouldn’t be able to attend any meetings or discussions about you. It would be Anna or Kate. Although Kate’s an OT.’

As Rachel would also be a non-starter. The cloud deepened in Matt’s expression.

Matt

Fuck it, I’d forgotten about all that. I began to see that if I wanted answers, I was going to have to go looking for them, and that what I’d just asked of Lau wasn’t on, wasn’t even approaching fair on her. Didn’t make me like it, though.

‘I hate talking to pehpl I dohnt know abouh this. Bad enough having tuh goh back tuh Adam.’

‘I know, flower, but you’ll get to know them really quickly, and you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them. Everyone says it about all of us, we’re all absolutely brilliant.’

‘An soh modest.’

I sighed as I made the concession.

‘OK Lau, I see yuhr point. I’d give yuh computer advice, buh if yuh nehded a major overhaul of yuhr computer system at work, I’d give yuh GreenScreen’s number. Fair enough.’

‘And if you ever need bandaging, or de-fibrillating, don’t hesitate to ask.’

‘An if I can hehp wih a good de-fragging jus leh meh know.’

Matt Scott, IT innuendo a speciality.

‘I know what de-fragging is.’

‘I bet yuh duh.’

The kidding about was making me feel better, so much better about everything.

‘Lau, this fehls soh good, being here wih yuh, after las nigh, yuh make meh soh hahpy. Thanks foh coming over and bullying meh.’

I folded her up in my arms, needing to feel her as close to me as possible, and we lay together for a while, just holding each other. It was like we’d got back on our mad journey, having made a stop at a crappy service station, but now having refuelled we were back on the bus for the mystery tour. Or some such metaphorical shit.

Laura

We lay snuggled together for a while, just holding each other. I realised I’d been holding on to some of the tension from the previous night, waiting to see if Matt still felt any of the anguish he’d shown, but it seemed like it might be OK to relax, and just start enjoying this again.

‘Matt …’

‘Yeh, LauraLou.’

‘OK, only my mum calls me that. It’s not even a tease option.’

Matt looked delighted, and I suspected I was going to regret telling him not to tease me.

Matt

Oh brilliant! I loved being told not to do things, it gave me loads of tease options. She seemed to know she’d made an elementary error, and tried to look stern, but she couldn’t manage it.

Laura

‘Anyway, you know a couple of days ago, we said just holding hands for now, nothing more, just see how it goes.’

‘Yeh.’
‘And I remember you saying you want to say how you feel when you feel it, or something, and I know this might freak both of us out, and I did just say we haven’t said forever, but this feels like a bit more than holding hands and seeing where it’s going.’

There was silence from Matt’s end. I daren’t look at him, scared of what I might see flitting across his face. Eventually there was an intake of breath.

Matt

I was silent. Yeah, it did feel like more, I’d been thinking that since I met her, but then I’d had my meltdown and it had scared me, and I’d wondered if I ought to back off a bit, decrease the intensity. Hearing Lau say she wanted more made it all feel real again; I’d never, really, thought long term with a woman.

Mercy was never a keeper, and I’d cheated on her as soon as she gave off ‘settling down’ vibes, great bloke that I was. With Carrie, it was pretty much ‘well things are OK, let’s keep it how it is’; with Jules we were still ‘seeing how things went’ when I fucked it all up. But now, with Lau, I was suddenly starting to think huge words like ‘forever’, and, yeah, of course, I was freaked out.

‘I know. Yuhr righ, ih fucking frehks meh righ ouh, buh ih’s OK. I dohn even knoh wha I’m doin tomorrow, I’m such a fucking mess at the moment, buh I knoh I’m gona beh doin ih wih yuh. Cahnt imagine not hohding yuhr hand, rehly or in my mind. An yuh said las nigh yuh’d beh hohding my hand fuhever.’

It was true. Freaking or not, I needed to be with Lau. I couldn’t imagine, now, ever letting go of her hand.

Lau looked at me, stretched up and pulled my head down for a kiss. I wanted to stay there, doing that, all morning and beyond, but she pulled away, looking regretful.

Laura

I risked a look up at him. He was smiling, eyes sparkling, crinkling at the corners, along with his mouth. I stretched up and kissed him. He put his hands to my face and held my mouth against his, but I pulled away.

‘Sorry, I’ve got to get going, I’ve got to go to Mum’s this afternoon.’

‘Stay a bih. Goh from hehr.’

‘I can’t. I haven’t got any clothes with me. I think I’d have a hard time explaining why I turned up to hers in my manky sleeping shirt in the middle of the afternoon. I need a shower and stuff. I can come back later.’

‘When?’
‘She’s going out at four, so after then I guess.’

Matt

Oh fuck it, Dec was coming to fetch me at four; it had seemed like a great idea at the time, I could help out with Charlie while they got ready. Now it meant I wasn’t going to see Lau until tomorrow afternoon. I looked at Lau, frowning.

‘I’m going tuh Dec’s, they asked meh tuh look after Chahlie. I’m gona stay the nigh. Fuck. Wanted tuh beh wih yuh.’

‘Do you spend all your life looking after other people’s children?’
I laughed. It was true that I was a convenient babysitter, but never a reluctant one. If I didn’t look after Cal, Iz and Charlie so much, I’d be visiting them anyway, so I might as well make myself useful.

‘Sometimes. I love ih tho. Getting in practice foh one day. An they all love their Unca Matty, he’s a bih bad. Sweeties an stayin up laht, an over eighteen X-box. Not fuh Iz or Chahlie wih the X-box.’

I tried my best to corrupt them all, in various ways. No point being an uncle if you can’t misbehave.

I had a wicked uncle once – wicked in the disreputable, bit of a bad role model sense, rather than, well, you know, mwahahah evil. He was who I based my uncling on. He was my dad’s older brother, and I guess he was my best shot at a father figure, although I didn’t see him very often.

Uncle Jock. His name wasn’t really Jock, it was Robert – my middle name was for him – but he was Scottish, and us English do things like that to foreigners, to put them in their place. He used to visit a couple of times a year, with his wife, Auntie Pam (she wasn’t Scottish, so no xenophobic nickname for her, just her own English name, which was punishment enough in itself). I don’t remember much about Auntie Pam, but I do remember Uncle Jock, who was a large man with a bushy red beard – oh, this could be where some of my ‘memories’ of my dad come from. I know they looked fairly similar from photos.

Anyway, getting side-tracked in the middle of getting side-tracked. So, Uncle Jock always brought us a mountain of chocolate, some of which he would let Mum see and confiscate for later distribution, and some of which he would give us when she wasn’t looking, so we could hide it in our rooms and eat it all in one go and feel sick.

Uncle Jock would spend his time with us punching Jay on the arm and congratulating him on being big and strong, but also firing hard questions at me and congratulating me on being brainy. When he was visiting, it was the only time Jay and I ever played together. Jock would make us all go out in the garden to kick a football about and he’d use his own size to bully Jay off the ball, and pass to me so I could score. Jay didn’t really like playing football, but I think he was a bit intimidated, and couldn’t refuse, at least when he was younger.

Uncle Jock would also cajole Mum into letting me stay up late to watch usually forbidden TV.

‘Let the boy experience some life, Carol, you can’t keep him wrapped up forever.’

And I’d sit, delighted, eyes wide as comedies with swear words and, if I was really lucky, the occasional topless lady, corrupted me.

And when Mum was otherwise engaged, often cooking with Auntie Pam, he’d slip me a tenner and tell me to buy something useless. He had lots of ideas for useless purchases, all things Mum frowned on – comics, X-ray specs (not real ones, they would have cost more than a tenner and wouldn’t have been available in the joke shop section of Woolworths), football stickers, Mars bars; there was a long list.

He was pretty clear on his opinions of green vegetables as well, and I always got let off eating cabbage when Uncle Jock was at the dinner table.

‘For God’s sake, Carol, the boy eats well enough, don’t be forcing him to eat shit he doesn’t like.’

Oh, and he swore. Uncle Jock was ace.

So, all in all, my role model for fatherhood came from a man who used to visit a couple of times a year until I was about ten. It wasn’t until I was a real dad that it all became clear, the difference between being a dad and being an uncle.

Then Uncle Jock stopped coming, and in the way of a child I didn’t really think about it, until years later when I asked Mum, and she looked sad and said he had dementia and had to go into a care home because Auntie Pam couldn’t look after him any more. He died when I was at Uni, and because I was in the middle of exams, I couldn’t go to his funeral. I wish he’d known what a big influence he had on my life.

But anyway, back to Lau, who has just learned that Unca Matty is a bit bad.

‘Why am I not surprised. You’re going to be a terrible father.’

No I wasn’t, I knew exactly how I was going to be.

‘Ih’ll beh a cool dad. Mohr like a mate, never tell them off, noh bedtime, noh eatin broccoli.’

I was still imagining operating the Uncle Jock model of parenting. Lau looked dubious, but let me hang on to my fantasy. I bet you’re laughing your head off now, Lau.

‘Good luck with that. Anyway, I need to get going. I’ll see you tomorrow, then?’

I frowned again; it seemed like a long time to wait, and I hoped I would last until the aftermath of Sunday lunch, which usually wiped me out.

‘I hope soh. Ih’s roast dinner at Jay an Beth’s. I dohnt geh up till laht, or I geh tuh tired, and Ih’ll be at Dec’s so we’ll goh from there. Can I call yuh?’

‘Course you can. I’ll be holding your hand until then.’

Laura

I swung my legs out of bed, and gathered up my jeans, pulling them on as Matt got up and stood behind me, putting his arms round me and kissing my neck. I stood up and leaned into him, resting my head back against his shoulder, then turned into his arms, folding mine round his neck and planting a large wet kiss on his mouth.

Before he could delay me with more kissing, touching and other villainous activities, I stepped back and out of the bedroom, trying to find my car keys. I had no idea where I’d left them last night, and tried to remember where I’d gone first. The table. There they were, still on top of the tablecloth. I picked them up, noticing as I did so that the pills and whisky from the night before had been cleared away, and then I made my way to the door. Matt leaned on the door frame of the bedroom and watched me go, a sad smile on his face. I blew him a kiss.

‘See yuh Lau. I’ll call yuh, or text or something. Prohbly both. Say hi tuh yuhr mum from meh.’

‘I will. I’ll tell her exactly what we’ve been up to this morning, she’ll be very interested, and have all sorts of advice.’

‘Rehly?’

‘No! Remember the strict Baptist? That was Mum. Her advice would involve quite a lot of burning in hell. I might mention you in passing, not make a big deal, get her used to the idea. Anyway, enjoy corrupting Charlie tonight, don’t keep her up too late.’

‘I’ll miss yuh.’

‘I’ll miss you too. Like you wouldn’t believe.’

‘Cohm here.’

‘No. I’m going. You’re a bad man, I’d never get away.’

‘Fuck ih, yuh saw through my plan.’

‘I’m going now, before you tempt me any more.’

‘Yuh keep saying tha, yuhr not gone yet.’

I was finding it incredibly hard to open the door and actually leave. It was only when Matt started to move towards me that I realised I had to go now or not at all, and I opened the door, waved, and shut it behind me, hurrying down the stairs and out into the car park.

This time when I looked up, I saw Matt standing at one of the windows. He raised a hand to me and I waved back, before getting in my car and driving away.

Matt

It took me a while to drift off to sleep once I’d gone to bed; my body felt rested, even after the travails of last night, and I kept thinking about Lau – her smile, her voice, her body, the way she pulled her mouth to one side when she was thinking, the way she just knew what to say, the way our bodies fitted together, the way she was Lau.

I was going to find it hard not to mention her to Dec, but I didn’t want to go public just yet. There would be questions and ‘oh Matt, don’t you think …’ and ‘isn’t it a bit …’ and ‘but what about …’ and I didn’t want to have to examine all of it right now. I wanted to enjoy it, this little haven, this little oasis, of something good in the middle of all the crapola that had gone on since Jules left.

I was going to tell all of them, and soon; I’d learned my lesson from moving in with Jules that it never helped matters to deliberately keep big shit from them all. But just a few days, that’s what I promised myself, to hug it to me and savour it, before everyone started questioning whether it was the right thing for me, like I had no say, like it wasn’t, er, actually my life, thanks.

80. So sorry

In which things are torn asunder, and a rescue mission takes place.

Matt

I saw how it was now, could just imagine how Matt the Lad would have sucked up the attention from a woman with ‘a thing’ for him, used her and dropped her. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how long it might have repercussions, but it was undeniable that Lau was now being affected by it. It couldn’t happen. I wasn’t going to let my selfish former life to fuck up Lau’s current life. I wasn’t going to allow it. I was going to have to stop, stop all of it, right now, stop thinking about myself, before I did her any more damage. You shouldn’t risk friendships for skanky blokes you’d only just met.

What had I just been thinking? How could I have been congratulating myself about being there for Lau, when all the time I’d fucked this up for her? I couldn’t do it any more, how much more shit was there to come out and mess with the people I cared about? I’d be better off out of it all, away from anyone I could hurt with my past, present or future. I didn’t quite know what that meant, I was still reeling with it, as if the realisation had drenched me with a bucket of ice water.

Lau turned to look at me.

‘Matt?’
I shook my head.

‘I can’t jus stop bein a bastahd can I. Ih carries on, all the shih. Pehpl still think I’m like tha, yuh must still think I’m like tha. Wha I did tuh her, an plenty of others, still fucking pehpl up, even tho I’m not like tha any more Serves meh righ. Prohbly deserve everything Ih’v goh now.’

Laura

‘No!’

I was instantly on my feet, then kneeling by him on the floor, needing to face him, show him it wasn’t true.

‘Nobody deserves to get ill. Nobody deserves to be unhappy, whatever they’ve done. And especially if they’ve tried to change. Matt, you’ve been around a few years, you know the reputation you’ve got, I expect you know what people say about you. Only you know what’s true and what’s not, and only you can show people that you’re different. You’ve showed me. You’ve showed me a caring, sensitive man who is facing up to a hell of a lot of stuff, and has been trying to do it on his own. You can’t change what you’ve done or been in the past, but you can know in your heart how you are now.’

Matt

I couldn’t meet her eyes. She didn’t know me, not really. She’d only seen my charming side, the side that was trying to get in her knickers. Shit, it was as if I hadn’t changed at all. It was a punch to the guts to realise what a selfish bastard I was being, deciding this was the woman for me, with no thought for whether it was what she wanted. She certainly didn’t need it, a lifetime of my past and my future ruining things for her.

I’d surfed along on a wave of dreams, only thinking of how much better my life would be with her, not how much worse hers would be with me. I’d spent the last two days justifying it to her and to myself, saying how much I’d changed. I had hardly found out a thing about her, except her favourite colour, her favourite chocolates and her favourite film, all the other talking had been me, taking.

‘I dunno Lau. Maybe I dohnt deserve yuh, this, us. Yuhr pretty fucking top notch. Yuh should have someone who ihnt a complete tosser an a fucking cripple intuh the bargain.’

She reached out, held my chin and turned my face towards her. I slowly lifted my eyes to hers, but could hardly bear to look into them.

Laura

I could sense a distance between us that hadn’t been there before.

‘You know what, I do actually deserve someone flipping top notch.’

Matt

I felt my lips twitch into an almost-smile at her paraphrase of my swear. God she was great. I so wished she wasn’t, this would be so much easier.

Laura

‘That person is you. I’ve only known you – what – two days. I hardly know you, but I completely know you. I’m sure there’ll be hiccups, but you tick every single one of my boxes. Please, Matt, please don’t talk about yourself like that.’

Matt

I shook my head again, and lowered my eyes. There was no other way to think about myself. I had to be real, to stop deluding myself that I had anything to offer her. I slowly sat up and leaned forwards, my hands covering my face.

‘I hahvnt changed as much as I thoht. I’m still doin ih. I’m doin it tuh yuh. Not one nigh stands, buh bein selfish, rushin in, takin. You dohnt need meh fucking up yuhr friends, yuhr job, yuhr life. Shih, Lau, I can’t believe I dihnt see ih.’

I stood up. I had to do it now, before it was too hard. It was already nearly too hard.

‘I’m gona go. I can’t do this tuh yuh.’

Laura

‘No! What do you mean? You haven’t done anything. I want this.’

Oh God, he’d stood up. He was going. What? What just happened? As he started to walk out of the room, I got up off the floor and followed him, holding onto his arm to stop him leaving.

Matt

I shrugged her off and walked up the stairs, feeling numb. In fact, I could hardly feel my feet as I made them take me away.

Laura

He carried on, out of the room, up the stairs, me behind him all the way trying to make him talk to me, trying to stop him, terrified he would get to the front door and go.

Matt

Lau was frantic, trying to make me talk to her, but her superpower had deserted her, and I shut my ears to her so I wouldn’t be persuaded. I needed to think of what I had to do, for her, not what I wanted to believe, for me, and Lau was saying all the things that would make leaving too hard to do.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I stopped and turned to face her. I couldn’t just walk out, say nothing. I had never felt so miserable.

Laura

There was so much sorrow on his face, it nearly made my knees buckle.

Matt

‘Lau, I just can’t do ih. I can’t fuck up yuhr life like I fucked up so many pehpl’s. I was jus sailin along in a little Matt world, enjoying yuh, not thinking abouh wha ih meant. Call yuhr friend. Tell her – oh fuck ih, I dohnt know, tell her I dumped yuh too, or make ih up, say wha yuh like. Dohn ruin ih wih her fuh meh. Dohn fuck yuh job up fuh meh. Ih’m not woth ih. Sohry Lau.’

I shut my eyes against the expression on her face, which was of anguish. She’d see, pretty soon, that she had no reason to be upset, that she was better off.

Laura

‘No, Matt, don’t go, please –’

He turned and opened the front door and walked out. I didn’t know what to do, couldn’t think. I called after him.

‘If you go, that’s what screws my life up. I can deal with the rest, I can’t deal with it without you. If you go, you’ve just done to me exactly what you did to Rachel.’

Matt

That nearly stopped me in my tracks. I hadn’t seen it like that, what a close parallel there was. But it didn’t change things. She’d get over it. There wasn’t really anything to get over, was there. I carried on walking until I was out of sight of her house.

Laura

I saw him break his stride as I shouted out, but he didn’t stop and he didn’t look back, just walked up the road.

My legs went from under me before I could think about whether to follow him, and I fell to my knees by the door, the tears beginning to flow down my face, as I started to sob. Hardly able to breathe, I buried my face in my hands and wept, the realisation that Matt had gone – just walked out of my life as quickly as he’d walked into it – hitting me hard.

I sat by the open front door, crying, for a long time, then my knees began to hurt, and I stood, closed the door and dragged myself to the bedroom where I lay on the bed, shuddering sobs shaking me every so often, tears continuing to course down my face, soaking the pillow.

I barely understood it. We had promised to hold hands – had we said forever? I wasn’t sure I could remember clearly, but it felt like it. I was still reeling from the stupendous orgasm. Then that text from Rachel changed everything, made him think he’d somehow ruined things for me. I wanted to make him see he’d done the opposite, but I didn’t know how. I doubted he would answer if I called him. He would still be on his way home. But the phone seemed like my best bet. I tried to dry my eyes, and went downstairs in search of my own phone.

I called up Matt’s name on the screen and pressed call. As I expected, it went to voicemail:

‘Yeh ih’s Matt. I’m suhr I’m stihl alihv, buh prohbly jus wana bih of peace an quieh. Lehv a mehsage an I’ll cahl yuh.’

I tried leaving a message, but wasn’t really sure what I was saying, and it felt incoherent and hysterical.

‘Matt, please listen to me. I don’t know why you think you’ve messed up my life. You’ve done the opposite. The last couple of days have been just the best. You’re the best. Tonight, this evening, with you was incredible. Please don’t do this, please don’t take it away from me. I want to hold your hand, I’m doing it now, across the city. Please call me, please. Please talk about this. Please.’

I ran out of words and hung up on his voicemail. I realised I sounded like a desperate dumped woman, but that was how I felt, and for good measure I sent several texts. I had never done this, begged a man to take me back, in my life, but I had no pride where Matt was concerned. He had walked off with a large chunk of my heart, and I couldn’t bear the thought of being without him.

‘Matt, please call me. Please don’t do this. You are incredible.’

‘I’m still holding your hand.’

‘Please come back, I miss you.’

‘Bruce has just realised he’s dead people. I know how he feels.’

The last one was admittedly melodramatic, but I was getting increasingly desperate. None of it brought any reply. I hadn’t expected it to, but I’d needed to try.

Matt

Once I was far enough away, and there was no sign of her coming after me, I sagged to the ground, leaning up against a wall. I heard my phone ringing, with Lau’s tone, but ignored it, and then it pinged with a text, from Lau, so I turned my phone off.

I felt like I had ripped my own insides out. Noble self-sacrifice or not, that was possibly the fucking hardest thing I had ever had to do, and it was coming close to destroying me. Over the last couple of days I’d built this little fantasy up in my head, of how it would be me and Lau, together forever, holding hands into the sunset, all that shit that I never went for. I had let myself be swept along with it, I had swept Lau along with it, and it had become my world, in that short space of time. Now, without it, I was alone again and it hurt, caused me physical pain somewhere in my gut.

I don’t know how long I sat there, staring at nothing, attracting strange looks from people walking past. Eventually my bum went numb, matching my heart, and I realised I was going to have to get home somehow. Calling any of my bloody interfering family was not going to happen, and the thought of another two hour bus journey was equally unthinkable. So I called a taxi firm and waited for what felt like hours before spending twenty quid getting across the city and back to my flat.

Laura

Feeling empty, I cleared up my plate of dinner from earlier and put Matt’s beer bottle in the recycling bin. I didn’t want to do anything else, so I turned off the TV and went upstairs to bed, taking my phone with me. As I lay down, another bout of crying swept over me, and I sobbed until I wore myself out with it, and drifted off into a broken sleep.

I went over it all, between the dozes: what I could have done differently, how I could have handled it better, what I could have learnt from where things had gone wrong before, but I couldn’t come up with anything from my past experiences that helped. To be honest, I had never felt like this before. I hadn’t had loads of boyfriends, just a handful of reasonably nice blokes who had been alright, but weren’t The One, especially Bryan the Smackhead, oh and Ferdi the Chauvinist Pig. No one who had made me feel like I did about Matt, like I would fight to my dying breath to be with him. This all tumbled around in my head between snatches of sleep and bouts of crying.

Matt

I hardly noticed time passing as I sat on my own in the flat, while the light slowly faded around me; all I could think of was what a complete mess I’d made of my whole life. I had no one to blame but myself, although I tried everyone on for size before I came to that conclusion.

First on the rap sheet was my dad. He’d bloody died before I knew him, and that must have fucked me up in all kinds of hidden ways. Then Mum, well, she always let me get away with murder, never told me I was being inappropriate, or that she was disappointed in me, although I knew she wasn’t a great fan of Matt the Lad. Beth, well, if Beth had just once kept her nose out and let me get on with things, I might not have felt the need to go it alone so much. And Jay, he was at the root of a lot of it, with his macho silences, his never talking about shit, his being older, better, more successful than me. Lastly, Dec. He’d been as fucked up as me when we met, but he’d sorted his shit out and rubbed my nose in his sortedness every opportunity he got.

And then I got real, and stopped blaming them all. My dad could take no blame. Mum always let me know, not necessarily in so many words, but with a look here and a sigh there, when she thought I’d gone too far. Beth was kind and good at heart, and she irritated me more because she was usually right than because she was inherently annoying. Jay couldn’t help being older than me, and he never said or acted like he thought he was better than me. And he had given up his job to come and look after me when I needed him. Dec was just about the best mate anyone could have, and was so far from rubbing my nose in anything. He always made time for me, even though he had his family and his rugby. Shit, I was a selfish tosser.

I sat and stared into the dark, and thought hard about just what I was going to do, then I lined up my options on the counter.

I was seriously fucked up, I knew that. Not just with the bastard MS, but psychologically. My life felt out of my control, I was falling, spinning, from a great height. Lau had stabilised me for a while, but I didn’t have her any more, and the spiralling just got worse. Maybe if I gave Adam another go. He had seemed like a good bloke, and had talked some sense. So, he was an option.

There was my family. There was always my family. I spent a lot of time moaning about them, but really, they were fucking awesome, and they would do anything for me. I loved them all, loved being a part of the huge sprawly mass of people that Jay and Beth had gathered to them. They were part of me and I was part of them, and I’d do as much for them as they would for me. And the kids – God I loved those kids. So, the next option was embrace the family, stop being an arse about it, let them love me.

And finally. It was hard to think about, because it would be the end, and it would be terrifying. But maybe the world was better off without me, and maybe I was better off without the world. I already knew how I would do it, I had told Lau. Painkillers and whisky, enough to finish it with a deep sleep. I knew how much would do it, just let me drift off, I had found out. I knew they were all terrified I would do it one day, somehow, some way. And maybe, just maybe … so that was a third option.

I lined them up on the counter: Adam’s business card. Family photos. All the painkillers I possessed, my bastard MS meds and a large bottle of Jack Daniels. Then I sat and looked at them, thinking, considering, wondering.

I had been staring into the darkness for – what? Hours? I don’t know. It was still dark, quiet, I still didn’t have any answers, only options. I was half asleep, possibly totally asleep, in some kind of trance, and I couldn’t sense the time passing. I had laid my head on my arms, sitting at the table, and I could easily have been asleep. I was drifting, in the dark, waiting for some kind of revelation. Waiting for the spinning to stop and the arrow to point the way.

Laura

It must have been about three in the morning when I suddenly opened my eyes into the dark and knew I had to go over there. To Matt’s flat. Now. It felt urgent, it felt right. Matt – Matt was The One. What was I doing lying here in bed without him? Whyever had I let him just walk out of here? I needed to be with him, sorting this out, right now. God, I was angry too. How dare he walk out on me, just go, not even listen to me? He was going to get a piece of my mind. No one did that to me, just trampled all over my feelings.

Full of purpose, I jumped out of bed, pulling my discarded jeans on and a sweatshirt over the top of my sleeping shirt, grabbed my keys, ran to my car and drove across the city to Avondale.

As I pulled up in the car park, I did stop and briefly wonder what on earth I was doing here, at this hour, or even at all. The certainty I’d felt twenty minutes ago had faded a little, and I was less sure. But I was here now. I got out and made my way over to the rank of doorbells outside the entrance. I leaned on MRS. There was no reply.

Matt

The night silence was shattered by the sound of my buzzer. Who the fuck was that? It had happened before, and it was kids, fucking about. I ignored it, but it went on and on, for seconds, then minutes, then it got into a rhythm and I just shut it out for a bit. It was bound to be annoying Mrs Bartlett upstairs enough that she’d come down and tell me off tomorrow. If I was still here tomorrow …

Laura

I stood back to see if any lights went on, on the second floor, but it remained in darkness. I leaned on the bell again, for longer. And then again, and again. I must have pressed the bell over and over again for ten minutes. Finally, when I was almost certain he was either not at home, or was wearing ear plugs, I got the result I wanted.

Matt

Eventually, I got pissed off with it, after a lot longer than it would normally have taken to piss me off. I got up and pressed the button.

‘Fuck off, whoever the fuck yuh are.

‘It’s Laura.’

Shit. No. I couldn’t see her, she would make me change my mind. I was doing this for her. She wouldn’t understand, and she needed to stay out of it.

‘Lau – I can’t – goh away. Plehs.’

‘No. I’m going to ring your bell all night until you let me in. I might start ringing your neighbours’ bells as well.’

Oh bollocks, not at this time of night, she could give someone a heart attack.

‘Fuck ih. Wha do yuh wan?’

‘I want to see you.’

‘Why?’
‘Because I miss you.’

No, I wasn’t having that. I didn’t want her here confusing me, making me go back on it, making me want her. I needed to send her away, tell her how it was.

‘Go away, Lau. Yuhr better off withouh meh.’

‘I’m not. I’m much, much worse off. You don’t get to say what I need, that’s up to me.’

‘I’m a stubborn fucking bastahd, you wohnt win this.’

Laura

‘It’s not a competition. And if you think you’re more stubborn than me, you’re in for a surprise. OK, I think Pinky, or is it Jeff, is going to be the first one I press …’

I was desperate enough to do it, too. I had a whole row of buzzers to press – someone would let me in, if only to shut me up, although I might get a bit of abuse from annoyed residents.

Matt

Oh for fuck’s sake. Pinky, or Jeff, or Mr Critchley as I knew him, was eighty seven and would struggle out of bed to answer his buzzer, even if Lau had moved on to someone else. And she’d call him Jeff, and he’d let her in, and who knew what havoc she’d wreak trying to get into my flat if I didn’t let her in. Once she was inside, she’d start banging on doors.

Well alright, I could let her in, I didn’t have to talk to her, did I? Surely I could do strong and silent. For the sake of Mr Critchley, then. I pressed the buzzer, opened my front door and sat back down, elbows on the table, head in my hands.

Laura

I heard the door click, and quickly pushed it open, amazed that I’d done it, I’d got in, and I headed up the stairs. At the top, Matt’s door was slightly ajar, but he wasn’t standing there waiting for me. I pushed it open, the light from the hallway the only thing illuminating the room, and saw him sitting at his small dining table, head in his hands.

Matt

I didn’t look up when she walked in, I didn’t look up when she put a lamp on, and I didn’t look up when she sat across the table from me. When she stroked my fingers, I took them away from my face and looked into her eyes, because I wanted her to believe me, to see it in my eyes that I wasn’t going to back down, because I was right. I hadn’t expected to see that much sadness in her eyes, though, and it nearly changed my mind. My strong and silent crumbled.

‘I dohnt wana talk abouh this, Lau. Yuh should jus go. We’ve only known each other a couple of days, it wohnt beh tha bad after a while, we’ll forgeh.’

This was a complete lie. I was never going to get over this, over letting Lau go. I would never forget her.

Laura

If his eyes hadn’t been saying the complete opposite, I might have been convinced. But I realised this was the reason I’d needed to be here. His eyes would tell me what I needed to know.

‘You told me you’d found something you didn’t know you’d lost, but had always needed. How can you walk away from that?’

Matt

I had told her that, it was still true, I would always need her, but I couldn’t have her, it would be wrong to do it.

‘I nehd tuh. I can’t hurt another person, I’ve spent the last fuck knows how lohng being a fucking bastahd, I cahnt duh it any mohr.’

Laura

‘So are you never going to have another relationship again?’

He looked at me and shrugged. He hadn’t thought about it. He was making a gesture without thinking about the implications. Alright, that gave me something to work with.

Matt

Who knows? I might not even be here tomorrow, then what would it matter?

Laura

‘Matt, we’ve found each other. It’s been intense and fast, and I’m on the one hand completely overwhelmed and on the other completely terrified and oh my God what are all those pills doing on your counter?’

I had just noticed them, a huge bottle of paracetamol, packets of ibuprofen, some solpadeine and a few boxes of prescription drugs. They were stacked next to a large bottle of Jack Daniels. Matt closed his eyes and tilted his head back.

Matt

She had just noticed them, and I heard a note of panic enter her voice. She looked at me, terrified. I closed my eyes, so I couldn’t see her fear.

‘Matt? Oh my God.’

I hadn’t definitely decided. It was an option.

Laura

I was frantically trying to remember my talking someone down from suicide training, not that we’d had any specific training in that, but it had come up numerous times in various courses we’d done. There was something about remaining calm; there wasn’t a lot about if it was someone you were personally involved with, someone who was about to make the most ridiculously stupid decision of his life.

‘Lau, I –’

‘Tell me you’re not seriously going to.’

He hung his head, shaking it, but I wasn’t sure if he was denying it, or was just finding it all too much.

Matt

I hung my head, shaking it, not knowing until that moment that I wasn’t going to. I almost felt the rush as my future popped back into existence.

Laura

‘Matt?’
He looked up, the pain in his eyes almost touchable.

Matt

I looked up, knowing that options one and two were, in some ways harder, now that I had discounted option three.

‘I suppohs not. If I’d meant tuh, Ih’d have done ih by now. Buh ih’s hard tuh live wih who I am, wha I am, wha I’ve done tuh pehpl. An ih’s hard tuh live wih fucking bastahd MS makin a mockery of everything I wan tuh beh.’

Laura

Everything I said from now on was top of my head, seat of my pants, no time to think, emergency response stuff.

‘Matt, seriously, I know you’ve been a bit of a player. There are people who aren’t that happy with how you’ve treated them. But it’s not like you’re a serial killer or something. Give yourself a break. You’ve had some fun, you’ve been trying to exorcise some demons, and from what you’ve told me, a lot of those demons have been duffed up and sent back to where they came from. You’ve changed. It can take time for these things to sort themselves out. You can’t tell me everyone you’ve dated, slept with, or snogged, had a dreadful time and is living a terrible life? Most of them will have had a good time, maybe even used you to have it.’

Matt

She was trying to let me off, and it was tempting.

‘Buh yuhr friend –’

‘Rachel needs to get a life and stop dwelling. We’ll work it out or we won’t, but that’s up to us, not you. You need to stop feeling responsible for how other people act and feel.’

‘I dohnt.’

‘Come on Matt. You feel guilty because of how much your family care about you. You feel guilty because of how much I care about you. You feel guilty because of what happened with you and Julia – do I need to go on?’
And there she was again, with the getting me, understanding me. How had she managed that in two days? I looked at her, shook my head.

‘Noh. I knoh I’m a fuck up.’

Laura

I sighed with exasperation, that wasn’t what I meant, and I needed to change tack, away from what he thought he’d done to me, and others, to get him to focus on something else. This wasn’t going to be easy to say, but I thought of something that might do the trick.

‘OK. I’m going to tell you something. It might help. It might make me cry. If it does, it’s not your fault, OK? It’s just because I’m sad. A few years ago, my dad died. He just keeled over, right in front of me. I couldn’t do anything, he was dead in minutes. We found out afterwards that he had an aneurysm, he’d probably had it for years, it was always going to happen. But it didn’t stop me blaming myself. I’m a nurse, I should have spotted something, should have been able to do more. That’s ridiculous, right? How can you control something it isn’t possible to have control over?’

I looked at Matt, who was nodding. He reached for my hand, to comfort me, and I nearly cheered because it meant he wasn’t thinking about just himself any more. Instead, I felt my eyes fill with tears. I tried to speak around the closing of my throat.

Matt

Of course, it wasn’t her fault at all, but now she was looking even more sad and I couldn’t bear it. I reached for her hand, as her eyes filled with tears. When she spoke, I heard her throat close up with emotion, but she carried on.

Laura

‘So anyway, all this time later I’ve realised the truth of that, but it took a lot of help, from friends, family, and, yes, a counsellor, to get me to acknowledge it here …’

I placed my hand over my heart.

‘… as well as here.’

I touched my head.

Tears were running down my face; I still missed my dad every day. Matt reached up and wiped a few of them away.

‘I’m sorry Lau.’

‘Thanks. But I don’t need you to be sorry, I need you to get the point. You can’t solve things with pills and whisky, whether you just get blind drunk or end up in A and E having your stomach pumped, or wind up dead. That doesn’t solve things this end, at best it takes the pain away for you, at worst it causes a whole lot of other pain for other people. And that is your fault. It’s the most selfish thing anyone can do.’

‘I knoh. Ih’m still hehr aren’t I? Look over there. Ih’s not jus pills.’

I looked beyond the terrifying pile of painkillers. There were photos of Cal, Iz and Charlie, and what looked like a business card. I looked back at Matt, willing him to explain, hoping the relief I felt when he said he wasn’t going to do it was real, that he meant it.


Matt

‘I nehded to remind mysehf wha the options are. One – end ih all. Always an option, righ? Two – fahmly. Bloody annoying option, but they’re fucking good at caring abouh meh. An I … love them, an I wana see them grow up. Threh – Adam.’

‘Adam?’
‘Psychologist. Saw him a few tihms after Jules. Made a bih tuh much bluhdy sense, stopped goin.’

OK, so for ‘a few times’ read ‘once’. I still wasn’t through with lying to myself just yet. Lau didn’t say anything, just squeezed my hand and held my gaze.

‘Yeh, I know, prohbly tihm tuh give him another try.’

Laura

I nodded, almost dizzy with gratitude that he seemed to have dismissed the pills and booze option. I decided to push my luck.

‘Option four.’

‘Dihnt geh tha far.’

‘Option four – Lau. It even rhymes, so you can remember it.’

Matt

But that was just it, she couldn’t be an option, because all of the options were instead of her, so that I stopped thinking of her as an option. I opened my mouth to reply, but she spoke first.

‘I’m always going to be an option. I’m always going to be holding your hand now, forever, you’re never going to get rid of me. Even if you never see me again, I’ll always be there, holding your hand, across the city, across the country, across the world. Wherever you are, I’ll be there too.’

‘Buh wha abouh in the loo?’

I just couldn’t help myself.

Laura

‘Even there. Although I might try not to think about it too much.’

He looked up and gave me the ghost of a smile. I gave him a full smile back. I wasn’t sure if it was crisis averted yet, but smiles and attempts at humour were a start.

Matt

I offered her a kind of smile. Yeah, what she’d just said made a difference. If she was going to hold my hand whatever the fuck I did, of course it made a bloody difference. She smiled back.

‘Fucking hell, Lau, yuhr as bad as bluhdy Dec. He told meh once we were connected by fahmly, as if there was a webcam in my head when I wiped my ahrs. Wha is ih wih yuh caring pehpl an bogs?’

She would have no idea what I was talking about, but I knew. I knew that somehow, in the same way that Dec would always have my back, Lau would always keep me safe, whether I wanted her to or not. And, oh, I wanted her to, I just still wasn’t sure it was the right thing to want.

Laura

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but he’d obviously made some connection between what I’d said and what someone else had said to him in the past. And now I needed to push it further, because I was done with being Nurse Laura, I needed to be Lusty Lau, who cared so much about this man in front of me that if I didn’t get him back I was going to make personal use of the pills and whisky that were lurking on the counter so menacingly.

‘Matt, I need you. We need each other. We belong with each other. I feel it between us.’

He looked up and as his eyes met mine, there was a jolt. I saw it hit him too.

Matt

I looked up and as her eyes met mine, there was that electric shock. She felt it too, it was like that time in Mean Bean when she touched my hand.

Laura

‘Tell me you don’t feel it fizzing between us, right now?’

He shook his head, but this time I knew it wasn’t to deny it.

Matt

I shook my head, in disbelief.

‘Yeh, I do. Lau, I never felt anything like I fehl when I’m wih yuh. Buh I’m trying tuh beh selfless fuh once in my fucking life.’

This was the heart of things, right now. I was done with being selfish, I wanted to show the world I could think about someone other than myself and my woes, or my jollies, for once.

‘What’s the point in being selfless about this? It’s not like anyone’s going to benefit. I’ve been breaking my heart since you left this evening, and you don’t look like you’ve been that happy either. Let’s end the sadness. We were made for each other, weren’t we?’

She was a fast talker; she was giving me hope. Hope that I could have what I wanted, and as well as being alright, it wasn’t wrong. Slowly, I nodded, then felt tears fill my eyes, fuck them the salty bastards. I brushed them away in exasperation.

Laura

He continued to look into my eyes, and I could see the hope there, hope that he could have what he wanted and it would be alright. Slowly, he nodded. I saw his eyes fill with tears, which he brushed away with an exasperated flick of his hand.

‘Well if we’re made for each other, it’s a bit of a waste not to be together. I hate waste, it really upsets me.’

‘Fuck, Lau, rehly dohn wana upset yuh any more tonigh.’

‘Well stop this bloody nonsense, then.’

‘Yuh swore! Only bluhdy, buh still.’

‘Desperate times …’

I saw him take a deep breath. He was stubborn, and as a stubborn person myself, I recognised him steeling himself to change his mind and accept a different way. And also as a stubborn person myself, I rejoiced a little at getting my own way, particularly as the end result was Matt looking at me a little sheepishly, trying out a smile on the face that had so recently looked like its world could easily come to an end.

Matt

It felt like it might be time to stop the bloody nonsense. I took a deep breath, sure that Lau had no idea how stubborn I usually was and how much willpower it took to change my mind, see things differently.

‘OK.’
‘OK what?’

‘OK bluhdy cohm here an kiss meh before I change my bluhdy mind.’

We were both on our feet before I’d finished saying it, and I held her tightly against me, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, so I kissed her instead, then I tasted salt, and I pushed Lau away so I could look at her, and she was the one crying, streams of tears from the corners of her eyes.

Laura

I was in his arms and he was kissing me and holding me and his mouth was on mine and his arms round me felt so good, so right, it was like coming home, and it wasn’t until he stopped and pushed me away, and wiped my face with his fingers that I realised I was crying.

Matt

I wiped her eyes, the guilt welling up in me again.

‘Oh Lau, dohnt. Dohnt do tha. Not cos of meh.’

She rolled her eyes.

‘I’m happy, you bloody stupid man. Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again. Don’t you ever push me away and lock me out. I’m in here now.’

She placed her hand over my heart.

‘If you cut me out, you’re cutting out a piece of yourself.’

It was more than I deserved. I was going to try to deserve it, to deserve Lau, who wasn’t going to let me throw it all away, and who wanted me, and had changed my mind.

‘OK. I’ll try. Not guhd at all this. Wana try wih yuh tho, Lau, yuhr fucking wohth ih. Yuh never bluhdy give up, duh yuh?’

‘Not often. You’re fairly determined yourself, I have to say.’

Yeah, Lau, understatement much? She’d learn.

‘I’m pretty fucking stubborn. Prohbly beh some fireworks along the way.’

‘I’m OK with fireworks. Easier to deal with than silence and staring.’
‘Mm.’

Oh fuck, all of a sudden I couldn’t focus, could hardly stand upright. I hadn’t even noticed the tiredness creeping up on me, having been preoccupied with recent dramas. I found myself leaning on Lau; without her I would have fallen over. Ha, if that wasn’t a metaphor for my whole life since then, I don’t know what is.

Laura

Matt seemed to suddenly crumple. His face had gone ashen, and he sagged against me, like he had yesterday outside Mean Bean.

‘Matt?’
‘Tihred.’

His voice was barely audible. He really was going to have to learn to pace himself, but until then, Nurse Laura would heed a blue light call.

‘OK, into bed.’

I put Matt’s arm round my shoulder and my arm round his waist, much as I had the other day when I’d hauled him down the street, and supported him into the bedroom.

Matt

‘Shruf … dohb … buhl …’

I was trying to apologise, but I knew it was all coming out garbled, and any second now I was going to be asleep.

Laura

He was trying to speak, but none of his words were making any sense, so I ignored him while I sat him on the edge of the bed and swung his legs onto the mattress, then laid him back on the pillow, before covering him with the duvet.

Matt

I made myself last until Lau sat me on the edge of the bed, so she didn’t have to try and lift me. I wasn’t a heavyweight, but I was too much for her to lift on her own. Of course, now I know that if I’d fallen over, she would have left me on the floor and fetched a blanket and a pillow, but that was before I knew about the sensible practicalities of NHS manual handling training. So, as soon as the objective was achieved, i.e. my arse on the mattress, it was lights out for me, and I knew no more until I stirred, some hours later.

Laura

I had no idea if I was invited, but as I was still in my sleeping shirt, I pulled off my sweatshirt and jeans and climbed in next to him. I lay awake for some time, listening to the tone and regularity of his breathing, my heart rate gradually slowing down to an acceptable speed. I’d done it, persuaded him, changed his mind, got him back. Matt was sleeping next to me, and I didn’t intend to ever let him get so far away from me again. I smiled for a long time before I eventually drifted off to sleep.

79. Night moves

In which there is a coming together, er, so to speak.

Laura

Feeling better from having heard his voice, but with my head still all over the place, I disconnected and went back into the office. Anna and Kate watched me without speaking as I sat back down at my desk. I no longer felt like making a cup of tea, and just sat in front of the computer, staring at it without seeing it. After a while, I heard the kettle go, and Anna placed a mug in front of me. I looked up at her.

‘Thanks, An.’

She pulled a chair over and sat next to me.

‘How did all this happen, Lau?’

I ran my hands over my face.

‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s been a bit mad. After the LMS day, he waited afterwards while I was packing up and said he needed to talk, about, you know, having MS, and so we went to a café and talked. He unloaded some stuff, I held his hand, we had a moment. Then he realised he’d lost his wallet, so we were going back to my car to see if it was there when he kind of half collapsed, needed me to manhandle him, the nearest place was my house.’

‘You took him into your bloody house?’

Kate had pulled up a chair, and was looking eager for information.

‘He could hardly stand up, he was semi-conscious. I was practically carrying him. I couldn’t have got him into my car, and I didn’t know where he lived.’

‘Oh Lau, after everything we said on that Lone Working course.’

‘I know, An, I know. But I didn’t have a choice.’

‘Know those big white vans, noisy buggers, flashing blue lights, good at giving ill people lifts?’

‘I wasn’t going to call an ambulance, Kate. He was just tired. He slept it off for a couple of hours, I contacted his family, let them know where he was.’

‘You should have told me, Lau. Was he there when you rang me?’

I nodded. Kate rolled her eyes with exasperation.

‘What if he’d tried something on?’

‘Kate, he was asleep. I was perfectly safe.’

‘So when did everything … happen … between you, then?’

‘Nothing’s happened. We’ve just held hands. Kissed a bit.’

It didn’t sound much, given the monumental emotions I was feeling and the amount of upset I had already caused, but I was trying to downplay it, so it didn’t sound so bad.

‘So it’s not too late, you can still bloody well stop it.’

‘I’m not going to stop it. It’s … amazing.’

‘Ah love, you sound besotted.’

‘Yeah, well, she would be. Isn’t that how the bloody man operates? Gets you hooked then drops you.’

‘It’s not like that.’

‘How do you know? You’ve only known him five bloody minutes.’

‘I feel like I’ve known him forever.’

‘Oh Jesus, you’ve got it bad. Lau, have you even thought about Rach? You saw her just now. This will destroy her.’

‘Of course I’ve thought about her. I’ve thought about everything – Rach, working here, him having MS – I know it’s completely crazy. But nothing has ever felt so right. He feels the same as I do.’

Kate snorted.

‘Yeah, I bet he does. Got his own personal MS advisor with benefits. Don’t expect he’s had much luck with the ladies since he got it.’

‘Come on now, Kate, I think we need to give Lau a break. She hasn’t done this on purpose, there are some things you just have no control over. Feelings is one.’

Anna turned to me.

‘Just promise me you’re being a bit sensible, Lau.’

I nodded.

‘A bit.’

I didn’t add that if Matt had been ‘fully functional’ as he’d put it, all sense would have gone out the window, and there would have been a bit more to the story so far than I had told them just now.

‘What are you going to do about Rach?’

I sighed as I looked at Kate.

‘I don’t know. She needs time to cool off. I’ll try ringing her or texting later.’

‘Don’t leave it too long, you know how she gets. Don’t end up on her blacklist.’

I nodded.

‘I suspect I’m already at the top of that. I’ll try though.’

Anna stood up and put an arm round my shoulder.

‘It’s not that we’re not happy for you, Lau. It’s been a while since you had someone. I know you can’t always choose these things. We’re just worried about the who and the how fast.’

I looked up at her. Anna was older than the rest of us, married with nearly grown up children. She was a bit like our mum and always mixed a sympathetic ear with a dose of common sense.

‘I know. Thanks, An. God, what a day. Know what, let me take those last three cases, including that one Rach was going to do. Then we can finish up and I can go home.’

We finished inputting all the information onto the computer, washed up the mugs and started to lock up for the weekend.

‘Who’s helpline on call?’

‘Me.’

That was Anna.

‘Hope it’s not too busy, I’ve got Harry’s new girlfriend coming for tea on Saturday.’

‘You should be OK, Mrs Ramsden’s up country visiting her family, she won’t have an emergency until middle of next week when she’s missing her grandchildren. I’ll be on emergency Rachel Telford call though.’

Kate sounded resigned, and looked at me with a shake of the head.

‘Seeing him this weekend?’

‘Yes.’

She tutted and sighed.

‘Oh well, have a nice time. Think of me answering the phone at all hours to a dribbling wreck.’

‘Sorry, Kate.’

She waved her hand dismissively and walked to her car.

‘See you Monday, Lau.’

‘Bye, An. Have a good one with the girlfriend. Hand the on call over to me if you need to.’

‘Don’t be daft. Enjoy yourself.’

‘Thanks.’

Matt

So the afternoon had gone, and I had to get across the city to Lau’s, using buses I hadn’t used before, carrying the cheesecake we didn’t eat last night (and to be honest wasn’t all that appetising, but Lau bought it, so it seemed special) and my Amelie DVD, and picking up some beer and chocolates from the shop on the way to the bus stop. It was about the maximum weight I was going to be able to carry without dropping the lot.

Laura

We got in our cars. Anna drove off while I stayed sitting for a while, trying to sort through how things might change here. Rachel was going to be upset, hurt and angry, and want people to take sides. It was likely to affect our whole team and make life very uncomfortable for me, for I didn’t know how long. I was going to have to call Patrick over the weekend to tell him, and catch the fall-out from that too.

Bolstering myself with the thought of a whole weekend free to do what I wanted without anyone judging me, and with Matt if we chose to be together, I started the engine and drove home.

I’d been trying to compose a text to Rachel in my head as I drove. When I got in, I sat down and tapped it out. I wanted to contact her, even though I was pretty sure she wouldn’t answer.

‘I’m so sorry, Rach. Sorry for what I’m doing, and sorry for not telling you. You know where I am if you want to talk. Lau x’

It wasn’t great literature, but I thought it said both ‘sorry’ and ‘I’m not going to stop seeing him’ without being quite so blunt, while at the same time being as conciliatory as I could.

Once the text was sent, I relaxed a little and got changed. It was only a DVD and a takeaway, and I wanted to feel comfortable, so I just put on a pair of jeans and a loose top, with, just in case, sexy pink underwear with coloured bra straps that showed at the wide neck of my top. I was as capable as the next woman of being a floozy.

So, dressed to mildly maim if not to kill, I went in search of the DVD I was going to suggest. If Matt was bringing Amelie, I was going to dig out Bruce Willis, so we could see dead people. Eventually I located the DVD and rooted out some takeaway menus. I found a few bottles of beer I had kicking around in the fridge, but had no idea if they were good ones or even if beer had a sell-by date. If they weren’t acceptable, I could pop to the offy. Finally, as ready as I could be, I sat and waited for Matt.

Matt

The buses were a nightmare, with long waits between the two changes, and the last stop was a fair way from Lau’s house. It took me almost two hours. Lau hadn’t been specific about a time, but I’d wanted to get there soon after she got home; I’d really missed her, more than it should have been possible to miss someone I had only just met. As I walked up the path to her front door, though, all the stress from the journey melted away and left me with a tingle of anticipation. I rang the doorbell.

Laura

The trouble with saying something vague like ‘anytime after five’, is that you have to be ready for five, but the person could literally arrive anytime between five o’clock and the end of the world, and not consider themselves rude in any way. It got to six, and I started to wonder, firstly if he was coming at all, and then secondly, whether I should text or call to see when or if he was planning to arrive.

After my illogical panic the last time he was here, I tried to dismiss the first thought, and tied myself up in knots with the second one. I’d seen how much it bothered him when people checked up on him, so it was never really a goer, but what if he’d fallen over or something? I began to understand why his family kept in such regular contact, but managed to stop myself from picking up my phone.

I pottered about some more, plumping already chubby cushions, putting some music on, turning the DVD player on, then off again in case we wanted to talk first, then on again because did it really matter if the DVD player was on while we were talking? I thought about how much preparation Matt had put into yesterday evening, i.e. sleeping all afternoon, and tried not to worry so much.

Finally, eventually, at last, at half past six, the doorbell went. I ran up the stairs faster than was really sensible for someone as unfit as me, and flung the door wide. There he was, silly grin plastered to his face, big grey eyes all crinkled up in his smile. Gorgeous, he was just gorgeous.

Matt

A smile split my face as I saw her. It felt like I hadn’t seen her for weeks, and now I was home. Lau was panting and a bit red in the face, although she was smiling too.

‘Hey Lau, yuh behn runnin?’

‘Only up the stairs. Not very fit.’

‘Nehd tuh come hikin wih meh. Few hills soon sort yuh ouh.’

Laura

Ignoring that as an unlikely occurrence, I held the door wide and he stepped inside, dropping the bag he’d brought as I closed the door and catching me up in a hug. The hug rapidly became his hands in my hair, my arms round his neck, our mouths devouring each other with lips and tongues and licks and kisses until he was as breathless as me and we pulled apart, panting.

Matt

I found it incredible that a) we’d only known each other a couple of days and b) we were both so hungry for each other’s company.

‘Shih, I nehded tha.’

I hadn’t realised how much. It was like a lifeboat to a drowning man, and I suddenly felt buoyant.

Laura

I smiled widely at him, unable to tear my eyes from his face, the anxiety of the last hour and a half gone in an instant. Matt picked up the bag he’d dropped, and handed it to me.

‘Behr, cheesecake, chocolates, DVD. Chocolates for yuh, buh only if yuh share. Cheesecake migh have goh bih squashed on the bus.’

‘You came on the bus?’

‘Yeh. Dohnt drive at the moment. Spasms. Nehly ran someone over. Too scary.’

Matt

Although admitting this wasn’t easy, it was great to be able to say it without having to explain what spasms were, or why they happened, to just know that Lau knew the what and the why, and I didn’t have to spend the next half an hour listening to someone going all ‘oh that’s terrible, I had no idea’.

No, Lau was matter of fact about it, like she was about everything, and she just treated it like she did everything else – the unintelligible bollocks, the exhaustion, the fucked-up downbelows – like it was merely something that was part of me, not something that she had to pick to pieces ad infinitum. Realising this was another revelation, maybe two revelations.

Revelation a) it was possible to treat someone with a fucking bastard neurological condition as if they were a normal person. Revelation b) all of those things – the unintelligibles, the tiredness, the downbelows – were part of me. Holy shit, that was a big revelation and not one I could assimilate right at that moment.

How did you do it, Lau? How did you manage to not see me as just another one of your fucking cripples? Because I swear from the moment we met, you didn’t see it, the fucking bastard, or rather you saw past it or through it or some such shit, and yeah, of course it was there, it’s not like you ignored it or pretended or anything, but it was like it didn’t matter, because you saw me. No one else could do that. To everyone else I was poor Matt, who’d been taken over by this thing, but it was never like that with you, was it. You just saw me.

Anyway, where was I? Blah di blah, snog, bag of stuff, chat about the bus, mention the spasms – oh yeah.

‘Oh. You should have said, we could have done this at yours.’

Yeah, I’d thought about that, but, tortuous bus journey aside, getting out was good.

‘Noh, ih’s fine. Good tuh geh ouh. Not sure how late at nigh the buses goh, tho, soh can I stay?’

I knew it was cheeky, but I also knew it would be OK. All part of the plan.

‘Ooh, what a good ploy to get between my sheets.’

I loved that I was transparent, and that she didn’t mind, and that I’d known she wouldn’t mind.

‘Inspired, I thoht.’

I had plenty more of those sorts of inspirations up my sleeves.

‘Well, as you’ve brought me, let’s see …’

Lau looked into the bag.

‘… a weird French DVD, yesterday’s smushed up cheesecake and … oh my God my favourite chocolates … OK, you can stay.’

The chocolates had been a lucky guess, mostly inspired by the paltry selection available at the corner shop on the way to the bus stop. Fortunately, Lau didn’t have sophisticated cocoa tastes.

‘Ih’s not hard tuh geh into yuhr bed is it?’

‘No, chocolate will do it every time.’

‘Nohted.’

‘Come on down.’

She led the way down the stairs, into the living room and gestured to the sofa.

‘Nah.’

‘What do you mean, ‘nah’?’

I was about to try my luck again. I wasn’t bothered about watching a DVD, mine or hers, but I was bothered about how we were going to be arranged while we did it.

‘Wrong sofa tuh TV configuration. Nehd tuh beh able tuh lie down wih yuh. Nehd tuh move ih.’

Laura

‘What? You want to move my furniture?’

Apart from the bare-faced cheek of it, which should have made me cross, but actually made me laugh, I was imagining the horrors that lurked beneath the sofa, un-vacuumed.

‘Yeh. Feng shui’s all wrong. Sofa should beh facing east.’

‘Oh, do you know about feng shui?’

It didn’t seem like a Matt Scott sort of thing, but he’d constantly surprised me since the day before yesterday. Matt laughed and stroked my cheek.

‘I know fuck all abouh feng bluhdy shui. Lau, you’re soh easy tuh wind up. Jus wanted tuh curl up wih yuh tuh watch DVD, so we can touch a bih an whatever weh fehl like withouh, yuh know, having tuh ask or move too much. An withouh getting a stiff neck watching sideways.’

Curling up on the sofa, touching, and watching Bruce Willis sounded pretty amazing.

‘Oh. Fair enough. But you might have to avert your gaze from the dust bunnies that have perished underneath the sofa. There’s been a bit of a massacre.’

‘OK. Dead bunnies not noticed by meh. I migh have tuh geh yuhr hoover ouh later.’

‘Be my guest.’

We moved the sofa to Matt’s satisfaction, and he sat down while I put the cheesecake and beer in the fridge.

‘Do you want one of these now?’

‘Noh, too warm.’

‘I’ve got some beer already in the fridge, don’t know if it’s your cup of tea.’

Matt

‘Hope ih’s nothing lihk teh. Give ih a shot.’

She came back with drinks, a gin and tonic for her and a bottle of something, er, I want to say Hungarian, for me. I took a mouthful; it was fairly nasty.

‘Ih’s nice an cold.’

‘Is that all that you can say about it?’

‘Er, tastes lihk piss?’

Laura

I laughed. I didn’t know much about beer, and those bottles had been at the back of my fridge since I last had the girls round – beer was Kate’s tipple.

Matt

Lau laughed, not offended in the least. She didn’t seem like a beer drinker, and I wondered how long it had sat in her fridge. Maybe since her last boyfriend – fuck, I needed to find out about that. Or rather, didn’t ever want to find out, didn’t like the thought of her with anyone else. Or maybe it was a brother. Yeah, that’d be it. Brother. Brothers drink beer all the time, in my experience. Lau interrupted my frantic self-reassurance.

‘OK, well you’ll have to wait for yours to cool down then. Or join me in a G and T.’

‘Noh, this’ll do. Wha we eatin?’

Lau handed me a pile of menus, but none of them really hit the spot. I guess I wasn’t that hungry, not for food. I was hungry for time with Lau, couldn’t wait to get my hands on her, and food was just going to get in the way. Lau seemed like a woman who enjoyed her three meals a day, though. Maybe a quicker way would be to go out, if there was anywhere close by – like the coffee shop round the corner. Ideal.

‘How late is Meahn Beahn open?’

‘Until nine, but they don’t deliver either.’

‘Noh, buh they’re so close yuh could almost geh them tuh throw yuhr dinner onto the bluhdy plate. Weh could go there – eat ouh?’

‘If that’s what you want. They haven’t got a huge selection, it’s mostly salads.’

‘Salad is good. Tryin tuh beh healthy.’

And trying to get eating over with as quickly as possible. Serve yourself salad bar five minutes walk away did it for me.

‘OK, then, let’s do it. Now, or in a bit?’

‘In a bih. Leh’s try ouh the new sofa position.’

We got comfortable, me semi-reclining, Lau leaning back against me. I folded my arms round her, leaned down, pushed her hair aside with my mouth and kissed her in that sweet spot just below her ear. I’d learned yesterday just what that did to her, and I’d learned well, as she breathed out a sigh.

Laura

As his breath sighed across my earlobe, all the magical tingles came to life and started partying down below.

‘You can move my furniture anytime.’

‘Doin ih foh yuh?’

‘Very … er … comfortable.’

I sighed and snuggled down against him.

‘I’m not squashing you am I?’

Matt

‘Dohn mind a bih of squashing in the righ places.’

And she was finding all the right places.

‘Then carry on. Do you want to start a DVD, or wait till we’ve eaten?’

I didn’t care, I’d got what I wanted, for now, making a start on the plan.

‘Dohn mind. Happy jus doin this, tuh be honest. Buh ih’s yuhr date nigh, yuh choose.’

‘Oh, this is a date, is it? I’d have dressed up a bit if I’d known.’

‘Yuh look lovely, Lau, yuhr soh beauhiful.’

Laura

Hearing him murmur that in my ear set my pulse racing, especially as he pulled my hair away from my face and stroked his fingertips down the side of my neck.

Matt

It was true, she was beautiful. She was only wearing jeans, and some kind of loose fitting top, but she looked awesome, particularly as I could see her lacy pink bra straps at the wide neck of her top. The bra straps were encouraging, as they were extremely noticeable, extremely sexy and extremely different from the black cotton she had worn before. They spoke to me. They said ‘Come and explore me’. They said ‘I wouldn’t be averse to you seeing more of me’. They said ‘If you think I’m hot, wait till you see what’s underneath me’. They were speaking my language.

‘Well, thanks, but you should see me when I really make an effort. Shall we go in a bit? They run out of homity pie if you leave it too late.’

Oh yeah, food. Focus, Matt, don’t get distracted by talking bra straps.

Laura

I don’t know why food seemed so important – maybe I just wanted to get it over with, so it didn’t get in the way of … anything … later. I was very happy as things were, however, so we stayed cuddled up for a while, then my hunger got the better of me, and I cajoled a slightly reluctant Matt – who seemed happy to loll on the sofa drinking beer for the rest of the evening despite having been the one who suggested going out – to walk down the road.

Going into Mean Bean felt strange; I hadn’t been back since I was there with Matt last time, and that was officially work. Now it was definitely for pleasure. I waved at Bridget and we took seats in a booth. Matt looked at the menu while I had a look at the specials. He seemed fidgety and kept sighing and tutting. Eventually I asked him what the matter was.

‘Jus not rehly hungry. I’d rather be back at yuhrs on yuhr sofa. Buh s’okay. Sohry, I’ll have wha yuh have. Can’t decide.’

‘How about we take it away? Then you can eat it later if you want to.’

He grinned, boyishly happy that his problem had been solved.

‘Soh resourceful. Thanks, Lau. Sure s’okay?’

‘It’s fine. We’ve managed to be outside for, ooh, about ten minutes, that’s enough for anyone.’

We went to the counter and ordered, taking a bag full of salads and pie home. I put some on a plate when we got back, Matt deciding to wait for a while.

‘Which DVD, yours or mine?’

‘Yuhrs. I won’t beh watching ih anyway, I’ll beh otherwise engaged.’

‘Really? Doing what?’

‘Wait an see.’

Matt took up his semi-reclining position on the sofa, then beckoned me over.

‘I think I need to sit up properly to eat this, it’ll go everywhere.’

‘Huhry up, then, gehting lonely.’

I ate a few mouthfuls of salad and a bite of homity pie, which was proper tasty but not what I was hungry for right at that moment. I put my plate on the floor and shuffled into position, grabbing the remote control. I’d eaten enough to stop my stomach rumbling, and now I wanted to get back to the good stuff. Which didn’t really include Mr Bruce Willis, but the whole point was a DVD night, so I decided to play along.

Matt

Lau had filled a plate with salad and homity pie from Mean Bean, but I didn’t want any, couldn’t contemplate eating. Lau only ate a few mouthfuls before, it seemed, she could resist me no longer and turned in to snuggle back against me.

‘Yuh dihnt eat much.’

‘Other things to do. I can go back to it, the joy of salad is it doesn’t get cold.’

‘Wha things?’

‘Oh I’m sure you’ll think of something.’

‘Something like …’

It felt like it was time to get going on the plan. I’m sure by now you’re thinking there’s some elaborate scheme afoot, full of complexities and intrigue. No, just wanted to get in her knickers. It was looking good, though.

‘Hold on, just going to press play. OK, Brucie, do your stuff. You had an idea?’

Well, more of a plan, but …

‘Yeh. Hope Brucie’s not watching.’

‘No, he’s too busy being dead.’

‘Wha? Brucie’s a dead pehpl? Yuh spoilt the whole film now. Definitely noh poin watching. OK, I was jus gona see … if … this …’

I stroked lightly down her neck to the top of her shoulders and touched one of the bra straps.

‘… is as sexy as it looks.’

I noticed her shiver slightly under my touch, and heard her gasp as I pulled the top to one side slightly, pushing my finger between the strap and her smooth skin, then ran my finger along the inside of her neckline, touching the curve of her breast. I was hardly breathing, it was such a huge moment. I could do this in my sleep, had done so countless times, but it felt as if it had never meant so much, there had certainly never been as much riding on my moves as on me being able to turn Lau on. I wanted us to click, I wanted to show her how I could make her feel, I wanted to show her how I felt about her.

Laura

I nearly forgot to breathe. He didn’t explore down any further inside my bra, but pulled his hand out of my top and gently cupped my breast outside the fabric, leaving his hand resting there and leaning over to kiss my neck.

In my position leaning up against him, I couldn’t reach much but I ran my hands along his outer thigh to his knee to an accompanying sigh. Matt’s hands began another little journey inside my top, this time pulling the neck down as low as he could to get a look at my bra.

Matt

I was ready for any sign that Lau was anything less than willing, but all I could feel was her melting into me, tiny hitches in her breathing, her eyes fluttering closed, the smile spreading from the corners of her mouth.

It was so sexy, being able to touch her, think completely about what I could do for her, without having to worry about what was happening for me (which was still a big fat nothing and barring a miracle was likely to stay that way for the foreseeable).

I started another foray inside her top, this time pulling the neck down as low as I could to get a look at her bra. It was lacy, made of something translucent, bright pink, with flowers embroidered here and there. It was definitely a bra that had been designed to be seen, not just to support.

‘Looks awesome, Lau. Thought yuh dihnt dress up tonigh?’

‘Not on the outside.’

‘Did yuh wear this foh meh?’

‘Yeah.’

As she said it, I felt it. A little spark, a fizz, in my fucked-up downbelows. It was the first time I’d felt anything down there for months, and I gasped and wrapped my arms round her tightly, kissing her hard where her neck met her shoulder. Maybe, just maybe, this was that unlikely miracle, and she was going to make me better.

‘What was that for?’

‘Jus goh a tingle in my dick. Not had any tingles fuh soh bluhdy long. Thanks Lau.’

Laura

Tingles were great, I was getting plenty, and I wanted to congratulate him. I reached my hand back behind me and stroked the back of his neck as well as I could.

On the screen, Bruce Willis was being murdered. Off screen, something was coming to life.

Iz

Right then folks, here is a huge bit of parental guidance. Matty is about to do some very naughty things to Lau, and if you are at all squeamish about what your more mature relations might have got up to, then skip ahead a bit. Don’t mind me, I’ve had to read it in all its minute detail, thanks Lau, but I wouldn’t want any of the rest of you to have to unless you want to. Scarred for life doesn’t even cover it.

Matt

I wondered if she knew how momentous this was, how much I’d dreaded never feeling anything there again. The tingles disappeared almost as soon as they had arrived, but rather than hanker after them, I sat back with a sigh, and started running my fingers through her hair, rubbing her scalp in small circles. Then, still rubbing her head with one hand, I moved the other down to her breast, still over the top of her shirt, where I continued with the same circular motions. Wanting to feel her skin, I moved my hand under her top and then up, to the fabric of her bra, rubbing my fingers lightly over her nipple. It went hard straight away, and I knew she was feeling it, and I was going to give her as much pleasure as I was capable of, as much as she would let me. Nipples aside, though, she wasn’t letting me know how she was feeling. I needed to hear from her before I went any further.

Laura

I was trying really hard not to react, as I didn’t want to freak him out again, but the sensation was overwhelmingly erotic, and I had started to throb in all the places where throbbing was required. I hardly dared to move, because if I did, I was going to jump on him, and that would ruin it, because it was breathtakingly sensual.

‘Is this OK, Lau?’

I bent my head up to try and look him in the eye.

‘Are you kidding me? It’s amazing. I’m on fire.’

‘Yuhr not saying anything.’

‘I can hardly speak.’

Matt

That was alright then. Speechless with desire was fine.

‘Want mohr?’

Laura

‘Just go slowly, there’s no hurry.’

Although my body was trying to have a serious argument with that statement.

Matt

She was being considerate of me, now, of my fucked-up downbelows, letting me know she could wait. Oh but this so wasn’t going to be about me. At least not in the usual way. I was going to get off on getting Lau off.

‘I’m happy wih my tingle. I wan to duh something foh yuh. Take yuh top off?’

Laura

Oh God, oh God, he wanted to undress me. He pulled at the bottom of my shirt and lifted it over my head as I sat forwards, lifted my arms up and just let him. Laura Shoeman you are such a tart.

Matt

‘Turn roun.’

I wanted to see her, all of her. The view from above was pretty awesome, she had a great cleavage, and her bosom heaved prettily as she breathed, but I suspected she would be stupendous from the front.

Laura

I swivelled to face him, so I was kneeling between his legs, and he looked at me, first at my breasts, enclosed in the pink see-through bra, then at my face, as if trying to gauge something. He’d seen me in my underwear twice already, but this wasn’t my boring black cotton, this was my date night see-through pink lace. He could definitely see my nipples. I didn’t care; in fact, I was enjoying the look on his face a lot.

Matt

OK, when I said it wasn’t going to be about me, I didn’t mean I wasn’t going to enjoy any of it. Oh she was breath-taking. Her pink bra with the embroidered flowers contained her full breasts, and I could see the buds of swollen nipples peeking from beneath the petals. I could feel my eyes going wide as I looked at her, but Lau didn’t seem self-conscious at all, just watched me looking at her, her mouth slightly open.

So, plan going well thus far. I had wondered how far I could go – I knew how far I wanted to take it, but didn’t want to be too pushy. However, Lau didn’t seem at all hesitant or unsure, and seeing her kneeling there, looking at me, I knew I was going to try for all the way, the big O. I knew what I was doing when it came to coming, although I had been out of practice for a while.

I leaned forwards and slowly pushed Lau backwards, so she was lying on her back and I was kneeling between her legs. I bent down to the flowery bra and put my mouth over her nipple, sucking and nibbling the hard nub through the lace. Lau moaned softly and held my face to her by winding her fingers in my hair. Holy fuck she was sexy.

Laura

Oh God, I felt like I was ablaze all over, with special ultra-flaming hotspots. His tongue found its way inside my bra, and he pulled the cups down below my breasts so my nipples were exposed, like actually out in the open, and then he began a twin assault with tongue and fingers that sent shooting stars from my chest to my groin. I thought I was going to explode with pleasure.

Matt

I was expecting, or maybe just hoping for, more tingles, but they didn’t arrive, so I just continued. This really, really, wasn’t about me, although I was enjoying myself immensely.

I pushed my tongue inside her bra, and pulled the cups down to expose her nipples. They were pink and perky and very happy to see me, and just begging to be touched; I bent my head again, and took one into my mouth, the other between my fingers. She felt so good, so soft, and the flesh of her breast quivered enticingly with every movement.

‘Oh my God you’re good at this.’

I looked up at her, smiling. She must have known I’d done it before.

‘Lohs of practice. Hahnt yuh heard?’

Laura

And that was just it; I had heard. I knew just how experienced he was, yet here I was, Laura Shoeman, being undressed by Matt Scott. It felt unreal, almost as if I was dreaming. All those times I’d seen him copping off with women here, there and everywhere, had I been secretly wishing it was me? I mean so secretly that I didn’t even tell myself, obviously, because if you’d asked me more than a couple of days ago, I would have denied that Matt Scott was my type, whatever that may have meant. I didn’t have a ‘type’, unless ‘feckless loser’ was a type. No time to think about it now, things were happening rather quickly …

At the same time as Matt’s hand travelled down towards my jeans, which he opened expertly with one hand, exposing my matching pink see through pants, he started kissing his way down my abdomen, sucking my belly-button and licking all the way to the top of the my pants. He looked up at my face every so often, checking I was OK. I was more than OK, I was in ecstasy.

Matt

I opened her jeans with one hand, impressed at my coordination, which didn’t seem to have deserted me in my time of need, yay.

Lau was wearing pink lacy see-through knickers that matched her bra, and as I reached her belly-button with my tongue, I noticed the dark, trimmed triangle that was clearly visible. I was approaching my destination, and was hoping I could get Lau to hers in good time. I looked up at her face again, checking it was still OK, that she was fine with me being here, touching her here. The look on her face told me she was more than fine, and I sent my tongue on a mission to complete the journey.

I pushed the lacy knickers down slightly and ran my tongue along the top of her mound, as she moved slowly beneath me, then I pushed her knickers back up and continued licking over the fabric. I stopped briefly to push her jeans down her thighs, giving me more room to manoeuvre, leaned forwards and found her swollen and ready. As I pushed the tip of my tongue over her, then sucked through the sheer fabric, Lau moaned and wriggled against me, pushing her hips up against my tongue. I smiled into her, and began kissing my way back up to her breasts, feeling behind her to try and undo her bra strap. I couldn’t manage it, as she was lying on her back, so she sat up for me, as I pulled her to me and unhooked her, pulling the straps down her arms and the bra completely off, revealing her naked breasts.

Laura

He pulled me to him, kissing my mouth thoroughly as he put his arms around my back, unhooking me easily, then slowly pulled the straps down my arms, revealing me, completely topless.

He stared at me as if he’d never seen a pair of breasts in his life before.

Matt

I had to stop and stare. Fuuuuck she was beautiful. I already knew she was the most beautiful, most desirable woman I’d ever seen, that we were destined to be together, but I was destined to be with this woman, who had the face and body of an angel. I was bowled over.

‘Lau, you’re fucking gorgeous.’

She smiled self-deprecatingly and wiggled her chest so her breasts jiggled; I had to close my eyes for a second, the sight was overwhelming. They didn’t stay closed for long, though; too much to see.

Laura

Well tart doesn’t even begin to describe it, Laura Shoeman. Oh but I was so loving it, how he made me feel, as if I was the first woman he’d ever enjoyed, as if he was discovering all this for the first time. Sex had, for me, previously been fairly perfunctory with an expectation that it was my job to make sure the guy had a good time. Matt was totally focussed on me, for whatever reason, and it was unbelievably hot.

‘Holy, holy fuck, I migh jus die now, hahpy man.’

Matt bent his head down to my breasts and sucked as much of each of them into his mouth as he could while I arched my back under the touch of his tongue and lips.

Matt

After a while, I remembered that this wasn’t about me, although Lau did seem to be enjoying herself regardless, and I pushed her onto her back again, restarting my journey downwards.

Laura

He reached his destination with his hands first, and slipped his fingers below the fabric of my pants – oh sweet Lord, Matt Scott was officially in my pants. I should be going ‘who the hell do you think you are’ and ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing’, but instead I was going ‘ooh’ and ‘mmm’ and ‘oh God’ and ‘yes’ – then he began to pull my jeans and underwear off. I lifted my bum up to make it easier, and as soon as he had dropped my clothes on the floor, he clamped his mouth over me, kissing and sucking, using teeth and tongue, igniting me. Oh my God, he knew where everything was, and not only that, he knew just what to do with it!

I arched my back, wanting his mouth as tight against me as I could get it so I could get the most out of this. I’d heard Matt Scott was an expert lover, but that usually meant wham, bam, thank you ma’am, let’s go again, not putting just the right amount of pressure in just the right place for just the right length of time until wowzers. His tongue licked in broad strokes from back to front, which then became narrower and narrower until he was using just the tip to explore and excite me. I felt his tongue enter me, searching for the sensitive spots, and his fingers danced over me as I squirmed and moaned. I could feel him smiling into me as I pushed my pelvis against his face, trying to feel more of him in me, wanting more, wanting him all.

Matt

I lifted my mouth away and moved my fingers into position, knowing I was going to make her come like this, she was ready, she wanted it. I pushed my middle finger up inside her, feeling the welcoming heat and moisture wrap itself around me. As I felt my way, I sent a second finger inside her, increasing Lau’s movements and moaning.

Laura

Once he was certain of his geography, he began to push harder, finding the places that made me buck and groan, thrusting into me as I pushed against him, feeling myself flowing towards a climax.

Matt

I started to push harder, finding the spots that made her buck against me, and then, as I found the right places, I started to thrust hard and fast with one hand, stroking backwards and forwards with the other, as I felt her building, the tension in her climbing, until she was on the edge.

Laura

He suddenly replaced the fingers which were sending me skywards with his mouth, and the tip of his tongue flicked backwards and forwards a few times, sending ripples of longing to gather and wait until, as he thrust harder and faster with his fingers, I felt myself stiffen as the pressure built higher and higher, and then I exploded in wave after wave of rapturous pulses.

‘Oh my God, Matt, oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God.’

He licked and stroked me for a while as the sensation swam around me, making me dizzy, then ebbed away; then he slowly made his way up my body until he was lying almost on top of me, to kiss me on the mouth. I responded as best I could, but was in no state to think of anything but the most spectacular orgasm I had ever had. It was mind-blowing; I was still having aftershocks. From the start, there had been that connection fizzing and buzzing between us, but that … just Wow! I had never felt like that before with anyone. I really got it now. Thirty-four years old and I finally found out what all the fuss was about.

Matt

I continued licking and stroking her for a while, feeling very pleased with myself as she quietened, as the pulsing slowed; then I slowly kissed my way back up her body until we were face to face, so I could kiss her mouth. She tasted fucking incredible, and I wanted her to taste herself too. She lay, panting, and kissed me gently back.

‘Enjoyed tha then?’

She nodded.

‘Any feedback?’

Never let it be said I’m not needy. I require constant praise and reassurance about my sexual performance, and I’m not afraid to ask for it. Lau shook her head in answer.

‘Thumbs up or down?’

I got a double thumbs up. I was getting that I’d taken her breath away. Result.

‘Thanks foh the tingle, Lau.’

She found her voice.

‘Blimey, if I get that for a tingle, what will I get when you get a full-on stiffy?’

‘Well ih’ll beh worth the wait. Oh look, Brucie’s still dead.’

‘Isn’t there something I could do for you?’

I shook my head. ‘Noh, I wish sohmthing was goin on, buh Ih’ll have tuh settle fuh getting ohf on Bruhce.’

‘Ha ha. You’re so lovely.’

Lau was glowing, and I have to admit to a bit of a satisfied inner warmth too. I won’t say I’d never looked after the woman exclusively, because I wasn’t a total self-centred bastard with Carrie or with Jules, but there had always been that little bit that asked when I was going to get mine. But I wasn’t going to tonight, dick-tingle notwithstanding, and that had been awesomely erotic, so sexy. I’d executed my plan with one hundred per cent success.

Laura

He sat up, handed me my top and renewed his reclined position at the other end of the sofa, looking like a kid with a lollipop. I sat up slowly, still reeling from it all, pulling my top on and collecting my pants and jeans from the floor, collecting myself, pulling my clothes on. Matt beckoned me over to him again, and I resumed my position against him and sighed contentedly as he pulled my hair away from my neck and resumed the gentle stroking he’d been doing before.

Was this really happening? Had I just had the most awesome oral sex from a man who, a few days ago, if I’d thought of him at all, I would have wanted to slap, but now thought about almost constantly with a soppy smile?

Matt

She sighed against me as I continued to stroke her hair, her arms, her cheek, anything I could touch. I felt so connected to her, although, yeah, she was practically lying on top of me, so that was fairly easy.

‘Hahpy?’
She nodded drowsily, and I wondered if it was too early to suggest going to bed. Then my phone pinged with Beth’s tone.

‘Hi Matty. How’s your day been? Have you had dinner yet? Lasagne if you’re interested, J can fetch you.’

‘No thanks, just eaten.’ Yeah, it was rude and I was the only one who got the joke, but it made me smile. ‘Good day, caught up with housework :%’

I felt Lau’s raised eyebrow.

‘Yeh, OK, wise one, they lehv meh alone if I reply. Noh need tuh look soh smug.’

‘How can you see what I’m looking like? You can only see the top of my head.’
‘Top of yuhr head looks bluhdy smug.’

I bent down and kissed her on the top of said smug-looking head, then folded my arms round her. We lay quietly together, while Bruce Willis wrestled with dead people. I wasn’t at all interested in his struggles, but was extremely happy he’d given me an excuse to be here with this fabulous woman.

There was another ping, but it wasn’t from my phone. Lau carried on nuzzling her cheek against my hand. I wasn’t complaining, but felt I needed to point out the injustice of the situation.

‘One rule fuh me, then?’

‘What?’
‘You dohnt have tuh answer yuhr texts?’

‘Oh. I thought it was yours.’

Lau pulled her phone out of her pocket and looked at the screen. I glanced at it over her shoulder, and caught the first few words.

‘Keep your sorrys. How could you Lau?’

Oh bugger, this didn’t look too good.

Laura

‘Stay away from me. I don’t want to talk to you if I can help it.’

‘Oh damn.’

‘Wha?’
‘Remember the stuff that hit the fan earlier? At work?’

Matt

I’d been so caught up, first in the bus journey over, and then in Lau, that it had slipped my mind.

‘Shih, Lau, I completely forgot. I mehnt tuh ask. Are yuh OK?’

‘Well, that was Rachel, the one who sent you the text. Could be friendship over.’

No, surely not. Hadn’t Lau said it was years ago?

‘Shih, Lau. Why ‘xacly? Is ih because of meh?’

She went quiet, and I didn’t know what to think, whether she was blaming me, or trying to spare me, or what.

Laura

I thought for a moment, wondering if it was because of Matt, or me, or Matt and me, or whether in the end it was because of Rachel.

‘Lau?’
‘I think it’s complicated. Apparently you and Rach had a one night stand some time ago – probably getting on for two years. She … it meant more to her than it did to you, and she hasn’t properly ever got over it. I knew what this – us – would do to her, so I guess I’ve chosen you over her. She’s going to be pretty upset and angry. I’m not sure if it’s mendable.’

Matt

She was speaking quietly, as if she was trying hard not to let it be a drama, but this was a friend of hers, someone she saw every day. It felt somewhat unreal for this … thing … that must have happened years ago could be causing so much grief now.

‘Buh – shih, Lau, I haven’t – I’ve only been wih Jules fuh – it must have been bluhdy ages ago. Even befohr Jules, I was trying tuh clean up my act, not beh such a bastahd, noh mohr one-nighers. I know ih’s not up tuh meh tuh say, buh shouldn’t she beh gehting a life?’

It really wasn’t up to me to say, I knew that, but I felt a sudden surge of panic, that after all this time, of deciding what I needed to do to put things right, my past was still popping up with this kind of shit to fuck with people’s lives.

Laura

‘Well, that’s what we’ve all tried to tell her, but you never know what’s going to mess you up, do you? I think she had a major crush on you before you slept with her, and in her mind it was the start of something big, so when she never heard from you, and the next time you saw her you blanked her like you didn’t know her, she was crushed.’

It felt a bit unreal to talk about it, the thing that Rachel had talked about so many times, with the person on the other end of it sitting here with me. Matt was silent. So quiet and still that I turned round to look at his face, which had gone white.

78. Found out about you

In which a relationship encounters conflict and hostility.

Matt

Over dinner we talked a bit, although looking back it was mostly me talking about me, needing to let her know things about me, how and why I’d been Matt the Lad, seeing Adam and why I hadn’t gone back. I wanted to talk to her all night, but I didn’t think I’d last that long, and she said she had to go back home. I was really disappointed that she wasn’t staying, I’d looked forward to another night like last night, with lots of holding and touching and getting to know each other.

‘It’s Friday tomorrow. We can do it then.’

‘Yeh, a date. We should go ouh first, like all the young dudes. Or sit an watch rubbish on the telly, like all the old dudes.’

I knew which I was more likely to be capable of, but I was happy to show willing.

‘How about a compromise and staying in to watch a DVD with some beers and G and Ts, like all the thirty-something dudes?’

I laughed, relieved that I wasn’t going to have to a) think of an excuse not to go out or stay out late or b) try to stay conscious while going out or staying out late.

‘I like ih. Behr, good. DVD, good. Lau, good. Wha’s not tuh like? Hahvnt yuh got Nehflix tho?’

‘No, I haven’t quite got into the techy TV stuff. Why have you?’

‘Yeh, cohrse, tech is my johb.’

‘Oh yeah. Well you’ll have to settle for my very untechy lifestyle for now, buster. Happy with that?’

‘Yeh.’

It was all fitting in with my plan, too, which was developing more form as the evening progressed, and the electric connection between us got stronger.

When we’d finished eating, Lau helped me clear up, and I could feel my energy draining away. I held on extra tight to the wine glasses, feeling like I was about to drop something or trip over or some such shit.

Laura

We finished up the curry, and I helped Matt clear the plates and load the dishwasher. To me, he looked a bit tired, and was seeming less coordinated than he had been earlier.

‘How about going to bed?’

My offer was purely noble, wondering if he could do with a lie-down, and I wasn’t thinking of him fondling my bum in any way. He raised an eyebrow.

Matt

I looked at Lau and raised an eyebrow, wondering exactly what she was proposing. Anything more than, well, nothing, just was not, sadly, going to happen tonight.

‘Well you did mention it earlier, you said you wanted to cuddle up and talk.’

Oh my God, this woman was just the knees of the fucking bees. She seemed to know what I was thinking.

‘Yeh. Sounds like the kind of greht idea I migh have had.’

I wanted her to be absolutely clear, though, about what I was and wasn’t able to offer.

‘Lau, yuh know I can’t … we can’t … fuck ih, yuh did the talk on sex, yuh know wha I mean.’

Laura

I’d heard what he’d said the previous night, and I knew he was anxious about what my expectations were. There was no way I was going to try to rush him into anything that he wasn’t ready for. I was scarcely ready myself, although I wouldn’t have said no to anything that had been offered. The fact was, Matt was having difficulty with his sexual functioning, and I knew, probably better than most, how low-key my responses needed to be.

‘Matt, we’re taking this slowly. Cuddle up and talk means cuddle up and talk. There’s no pressure to do anything else, ever. It’s enough for me. Talking means more to me, actually; I really want to get to know you. We’re so doing things a weird way round. Shall we?’

Matt

She stood up and held her hand out to me, and I took it and stood with her, thanking the gods of perfect women as I did so.

‘Thanks Lau. Yuhr fucking awesome.’

We undressed and got into bed, with minimum fuss, two people who had only known each other for just over twenty four hours but who were already comfortable enough with each other that they could just hop into bed for a chat and a cuddle. Lau was just wearing her underwear, and I was just wearing my boxers and t-shirt, and it was so fucking sexy but so fucking … friendly.

Laura

I turned onto my side and Matt turned to face me. We kissed first, softly and gently, causing little fizzing sparks to travel from my lips down to my fingertips and well beyond. It was delicious, knowing that it wasn’t going to go any further; it was almost better, just allowing myself to be filled up with fizzing desire. Almost. Then we lay and looked at each other, not really knowing where to start.

‘OK, so getting to know each other. Favourite colour?’

‘Navy an white.’

‘That’s two.’

‘Tottenham colours.’

‘Football?’

‘Yeh. Yuhrs?’

‘Don’t do football really.’

‘Noh, colour.’

‘Oh. Purple.’

‘Hearts?’

‘No, just the colour.’

‘Noh, Heart of Midlothian, footy tehm, play in purple.’

‘Oh. Maybe we can accept that I don’t really know or care much about football. Sorry, it seems to mean a lot to you, but that’s just how it is.’

‘Cahnt blame a blohk fuh trying. One day I’ll hahv a decent chat wih a woman abouh footy.’

‘Dream on.’

‘Ha ha, yeh. Childhood crush?’

‘George Smallwood. You?’

‘Lily Knight. Snog him?’

‘No, he was way older than me, never knew I existed, I was, like, ten and he was, I don’t know, eighteen or something. He lived a few doors up from me. You and Lily?’

‘Yeh, we pashed a bih. Roun the back of the portakabin at break. Then she wen off wih Harry Thomas one lunch and tha was tha.’

‘Oh, she broke your heart.’

‘Noh, snogged Lucy Carpenter two minutes later.’

‘I see your early sexual exploits may have set a pattern. Favourite film?’

‘Tha yuh’d have heard of? Amelie.’

Well that was a bit of an assumption.

‘What do you mean, that I’ve have heard of? I’m pretty cultured, me.’

‘OK then, MicMacs.’

Hm, correct assumption as it turned out.

‘Oh, OK, Amelie it is then. Good film. Mine’s The Sixth Sense. Saw it three times at the cinema, and have it on DVD.’

‘Stihl surprised at the ending?’

‘No, but you watch it differently. It’s kind of a ghostly love story. I thought Amelie had a bit of a twist, myself, I kept expecting her to get knocked off her bike at the end.’

‘Noh, never gona happen. Fihrst kiss?

‘Damian Wetherly.’

‘Ooh, quick ahnswer. Mehmorable thehn.’

‘For it’s sloppy grossness, yes. Surely you remember your first kiss?’

‘Lily’

‘What, you kissed your first crush? Lucky you.’

Matt shrugged modestly.

‘Did you lose your virginity to her too?’

‘Ha ha, noh Lau, weh wehr only ten. Buh Damiahn …’

‘God no. Steven Rasmussen. First boyfriend. Sixteen. My parents’ bed, while they were at a wedding.’

Matt was quiet for a moment, and it almost felt like he was finding the thought of me having sex with someone else difficult to process.

‘How about you?’

‘Bes maht’s girfriehd.’

‘No!’

Although I could well believe it, having heard some of the stories about Matt.

‘What, when you were at school or something?’

‘Noh, Uni.’

It took a second or two to work it out.

‘What, you didn’t have sex until you were – what – eighteen?’

Matt nodded.

‘Nehly nihnteen.’

‘Blimey. I’m surprised.’

‘Hihden depths, Lau.’

Well that was becoming apparent. There was a lot more to find out about this man, and I was looking forward to doing a bit of digging. Matt had his next question ready, however.

‘Favourite position?’

‘For yoga?’

I did, of course, know exactly what he meant.

‘Sex.’

I knew that.

‘I’m not sure. It depends on lots of things.’

‘Cohm on Lau, everyone’s goh a favourite. Good Baptist girl like yuh, I beh ih’s missionary.’

‘Cowgirl.’

‘Holy fuck. Whoo. Yuh duh like tuh beh in charge.’

‘You’d better believe it. Yours?’

‘Wish I could show yuh.’

He looked so sad, I immediately needed to make him feel better.

‘Oh Matt, there’s all the time in the world. Actually, I’m going to change mine. At the moment, my favourite sexual position is face to face, having a chat. You’re giving me everything I need right now.’

‘Lau …’

Matt’s eyes had filled with tears.

‘It’s really important to you, isn’t it, flower.’

He nodded, unable to speak.

‘You’ll get there, just don’t put pressure on yourself. Enjoy the other bits as well.’

He nodded again.

‘Ih’s jus such a big part of meh, wha I’ve been the last few yehrs. Now ih’s gone, ih’s … I can’t explain.’

Enough people had told me what it was like, that I had the words.

‘It’s like you’ve lost an arm, or the ability to walk. It affects every part of your life, all the time, sometimes you can’t think about anything else except not being able to have sex.’

He looked at me with something approaching awe.

‘Yuh understand!’

‘Not really. I know the words, what people have told me, what I’ve read. I can’t possibly really understand, it hasn’t happened to me.’

Matt

We started off slow, with colours, interests, all that shit, and worked up to more intimate comparisons.

Favourite colours: Matt – navy and white – Spurs, keep up.

Lau – purple (not football related).

Football: Matt – yes, very much so.

Lau – not so much.

Films: Matt – arty French nonsense.

Lau – sentimental tosh not that I was judging her taste in films in any way.

Childhood crushes: Matt – Lily.

Lau – some git called George.

First kisses: Matt – Lily.

Lau – Damian the Dick (not her nickname, it was applied by me).

Virginity lost: Matt – Cindy.

Lau – Steven something German and too much information it made me feel weird.

Favourite Positions: Matt – didn’t get to answer.

Lau – cowgirl! Fuck, she was a goer. As soon I was back in working order, we were going to have some bloody fun!

And then I got a bit maudlin about not being able to show her my favourite position, and she changed her mind, and said her favourite was face to face, having a chat, and it made me cry because it was so bloody thoughtful, the cow.

And then she blew my mind by telling me exactly how it felt, this fucking bastard MS and what it had done to my sex drive – as if I’d lost an arm or the ability to walk, and that sometimes it was all I could think about, not being able to do it – and I knew, if I hadn’t before, that she was always going to get me. Not just because I had the bastard MS and she knew a lot about the bastard MS, but because on some deep level, although we were so different in the things we liked and didn’t like, we were the same where it mattered, in understanding how we worked, what made us tick.

‘Will ih … will I geh ih back?’

I had to ask. I’d stopped myself from talking to Lau like she was a nurse, an expert in the thing I had, but this was so big for me that I couldn’t help myself. I needed to know.

Laura

It was what everyone asked, whether it was their sexual function or their ability to walk in a straight line, and it was what I could never answer. The truth was that it would probably come and go, and then it would take longer to come back after it had gone, and then one day it might not come back at all. But I wasn’t going to be saying that right at this moment.

‘No one can promise that. With most people, yes, it comes back. There’s a big psychological element too. Wanting it too much can play as big a part as the physical side of it. And that is the end of Laura Shoeman’s sexual counselling session. That will be one hundred pounds, please, I take personal cheques and cash. Further appointments should be booked through my personal assistant.’

I needed to stop being Nurse Laura. I was here with this gorgeous man, who I kept forgetting had the very disease I spent my working life dealing with, and I wanted to get to know him. I knew there was so much more to him than MS, and I wanted to stop him fixating on it, and tell me about his life.

Matt

She had managed to tell me to step away from the medical questions and make me laugh, at the same time.

‘Ha ha. Lau, yuhr greht, even if yuhr prices ahr a bih stehp. I wan yuh tuh know abouh meh.’

Laura

‘OK, get spilling then.’

I said this with a smile, but inside I was a little worried – was he going to tell me everything? We could be here some time.

Matt

‘Well, OK, buh first, I wan tuh tell yuh abouh yuh. I wan yuh tuh know tha when I first saw yuh, yesterday, the second I saw yuh, I was like, whoa. Ih was profound. I jus knew it was yuh. I wahnt gona stay, Beth talked meh into goin, buh I only agreed tuh put my head roun the door, then I was gona goh, buh I saw yuh an couldn’t stay away. I made ih up abouh wanting tuh talk.’

Lau pretended to be astounded.

‘Then when we were at Meahn Beahn, yuh touched my hand an, whoa, like electric shock. Ih’s like I’ve been looking foh yuh all my life. Whatever I’d behn doing, whoever I’d behn with, I’d have had to stop it to beh wih yuh.’

I was still finding it hard to believe, but it was true. If I’d been with Carrie, or Jules, or if I’d been on my way to the other side of the world, it would all have stopped so I could be here with Lau.

Laura

He looked like he could hardly believe what he was saying, but I believed it, because I felt it. It hadn’t been as instant for me, but it felt like it was now as deep. I felt like I could reach out and touch it, this thing that was binding us together.

‘You know what, that’s what it’s like for me too. Not exactly when I first saw you, all I was thinking was ‘blimey, isn’t that Matt Scott?’, but then I couldn’t stop looking at you, and yeah, I felt the same in Mean Bean, it was like a jolt when we touched. I’m still getting it. I can’t quite take it in, but I love it.’

Matt

Every time she said it, said that she’d felt the same things, I got a bit closer to believing that it was going to happen, was happening right now, but there was still shit she needed to know. It was all very well me thinking that nothing would stop me being with her, that she could tell me anything and it wouldn’t make any difference, but she didn’t necessarily have the same point of view.

‘OK, tha’s greht, I’m glad we fehl the same. I wan tuh tell yuh abouh Jules. I keep almost saying stuff, then goin ‘yuh can’t say tha, Lau wouldn’t understand’ but I think maybe yuh would. We were together foh abouh nine months. I ruined her lihf. She’s the reason I’m like I am now, I mehn trying tuh beh honest an shih.’

Laura

I had been dying to know about Julia, but now he was talking about her, I felt a bit shy about it. Their relationship, or its ending, had obviously affected Matt a lot, and part of me felt ridiculously threatened by what they must have had. I put on what I hoped was an interested and not at all a jealous cow expression.

‘What was she like?’

Matt

‘Bih like meh.’

I’d answered before I really thought about it, but it was partly true.

‘Really?’

Lau frowned, as if she knew different, and again I wondered how much she knew from other people.

Laura

Not from what I’d heard, but I didn’t know her.

‘Only tha she hid herself too. I hide behind Matt the Lad, she hid behind being The Ice Queen. She was warm an funny, but scared and insecure. Weh ended up being too dihferent, we wanted dihferent things, or rather jus the one dihferent thing, buh because I was tuh busy hiding, I hid wha I wanted from myself. I wan a fahmly, rehly wan ih, member I said yesterday?’

I nodded, feeling again the thrill of being invited to join Matt in the journey that led to children. Was that what he’d said? It felt like it. But we’d only known each other a day. God, this was completely insane.

‘She dihnt want children. At all. Ever. Noh compromise. I told her I did a week after weh moved in together.’

‘Oh Matt.’

I could only imagine how devastating that had been for both of them. I knew how much I wanted children, and if the opposite had happened to me, if someone I was committed to had told me it was never going to happen, it would have been the end.

Matt

She looked so sad, it was as if she felt it, how much it had hurt both of us.

‘I dihnt know. Ih was when Chahlie was born, I saw them all together, goh this surge of … lohs of things – jehlousy, recognition, felt ahl protehtive, I jus wanted ih, wha they had. I knew that day ih was gona end wih me an Jules, ih would either go on fuh a while, both pretending ih was OK, then ripping us apart, or ih could rip us apart there an then. Tha’s wha happened. She smashed the place up, picked up her stuff, I never saw her again, apart from one of the mos fucking awful wehks at work Ih’v ever had. The worst thing was, she had this thing, she said she dihnt believe in love, said ih was made up by pehpl. So I’d tell her I dihnt love her, like ih was gona make her fehl better. Buh I did, I so did, I even pretended tha. I told her in the end, wrote a letter, buh way tuh late. So tha’s why now, if I feel ih, I say ih. I try tuh be honest abouh wha I want, wha I’m feeling, first tuh myself and then tuh other pehpl. I’m getting there, buh still a bluhdy mardy git sometimes. Cahnt always dehl wih pehpl caring.’

Laura

‘Do you still love her?’

I needed to know, not that I thought it would make any difference to me, but you need to know these things rather than wondering. Matt’s story was so sad, he obviously still felt very guilty about what had happened, and I wanted to know how he felt now. He’d said, incredibly, unbelievably, that when he saw me – me – only yesterday, he would have finished it anyway. That took a lot of getting my head round, and I just wanted to know how things stood with him and Julia.

Matt

Well that was a bloody awkward question. I knew Lau had seen Jules’ photo, and would have seen me flicking past her pictures on my phone. I could have just said no, but I wanted to start as I intended to go on, and that meant being as honest as I could. I took a deep breath and sighed it out.

‘I think part of meh will always love her. Part of meh still loves Carrie, or how she was tuh staht wih. Buh foh meh ih’s abouh putting ih away, moving on.’

Laura

It was a truly honest reply. He wasn’t trying to soften anything for me; he was just telling me his truth. I reached up and stroked his hair. He put his hand over mine, then pulled it to his mouth and gently kissed my knuckles, looking into my eyes as he did so.

Matt

She seemed OK with this big splurge of information, and I wanted her to know I was grateful.

‘Soh, wha tha means is I tell yuh wha I’m feeling when I feel ih. Try noh tuh hide or be scared of ih. Migh not always manage ih. Migh beh a bih intense foh yuh.’

I really wanted to start this that way, facing up to everything as it happened, not letting my need to keep things to myself, or to do things on my own, or for bloody man points, stop me from being open about shit. I really wanted it. I was at least going to try.

‘Honesty is the best way. I’m pretty up front, usually. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but everyone knows where they are.’

‘OK, then, leh’s start now. Ih’m amazed an fucking terrified. I feel like I’ve found something I dihnt know I was looking foh, buh always needed. I dihnt think I believed in love at first sigh.’

Oh shit, what the fuck was I saying? I said I was being open, not bloody blurting out ridiculousness. Extreme backtracking was in order.

‘Not sayin I love yuh, migh be a bih soon, buh dohnt know how tuh describe wha I’m fehlin.’

I wondered if I’d got away with it. Lau didn’t seem fazed, she was just looking at me the same way she had been all evening, her direct gaze seeming to find a connecting link with my soul. However, this was the closest I had come for a long time to telling someone I loved them. It would, in a way, have been easy to say, as I was feeling such strong emotions for Lau, but saying it now would have been foolhardy, and I wasn’t sure, not yet.

Laura

My heart was pounding. Despite his backtracking, Matt had practically said he loved me. It was mad, crazy, absolutely the most bonkers thing, but so thrilling and so fast. How can you feel like that for someone you’ve just met, who you barely know? But it was true, mad as it was; I felt exactly the same. Sensible Nurse Laura decided to talk for me, though.

‘There’s no rush to say anything we can’t take back later. Let’s just see how it goes. The ‘L’ word is huge. The other ‘L’ word is a bit less scary.’

Matt

I waited for her to tell me which other ‘L’ word she had chosen. I could think of a few I could try – lick, lap, lips …

‘Like.’

‘Oh. Yeh. And lust. Lohs of lust foh yuh, Lau. I like lusting after Lau a loh. Yuhr turn: Matt makes me …’

I tried to reduce the intensity a bit, to back us both away from what I had nearly declared so rashly, and I waggled my eyebrows, indicating she should finish the sentence.

‘Oh. OK … Matt makes me mad with … er … magnetism …’

‘Magnetism? Tha’s best yuh can come up wih?’

‘I thought it was a fair shot for being put totally on the spot.’

‘How abouh manly masculinity?’

‘If you like.’

‘Manly Matt likes Lusty Lau a loh.’

‘And Lusty Lau … er … must have Manly Matt.’

‘Yuhr rubbish at this.’

‘Oi! My name is much easier to rhyme with.’

‘Not rhyming, alliterating.’

‘OK, clever clogs. You just had some lucky words.’

‘Leh’s call ih a draw. Lau …’

I looked into her eyes. She looked back. I loved messing about with her, batting words to and fro, but it wasn’t all I wanted to do. There was a plan to be following.

‘I rehly wana kiss yuh.’

‘OK. What’s stopping you?’

‘Not much. Buh not often behn in bed wih a woman, an snogged an tha’s ih.’

‘We managed OK yesterday, didn’t we?’

‘Yeh, buh yuh wanted more, an I frehked.’

This, us, being together but not being able to be properly together, was going to get weird – or should that be weirder – if we didn’t talk about it.

‘I didn’t notice you freaking, I noticed you asking me to stop and me stopping. Isn’t that what everyone does? Matt, I’ll say it as often as you need me to, we’re taking it slowly here. Maybe some things are going way way fast, but that’s fine because other things can go way way slow. Slow is fine, slow is good, slow is damn good, we can get to know each other, talk about things, work stuff out before we worry about sex. We’re doing everything else the wrong way round, why not that too?’

God, she was awesome. She was just so calm and down to earth about it all, like it was completely normal for her to spend two nights in a row in bed with a fucking cripple with fucked-up downbelows, kissing and feeling each other up and nothing more, no more fucking anything for the foreseeable.

Laura

He carried on looking into my eyes. If he didn’t kiss me soon, I was going to take matters into my own hands.

‘Lau, yuhr fucking amazing.’

I shrugged modestly, relishing the compliment.

Matt

‘Knoh wha, though, I’m bluhdy knackered.’

I laughed.

‘Cahnt believe I’m saying tha, wha’s time? Shih, not even eigh yet. Quick snog then sleep foh me, yuh gona stay?’

‘I can’t stay the night, I haven’t brought anything with me.’

‘Stay foh bih? Jus cuddle.’

I was still pushing, trying to get her to stay. I wondered whether, if she fell asleep, she’d end up staying the night anyway. I didn’t care if she slept in her undies – was extremely unambivalent to the idea actually – and I could rustle up a spare toothbrush if necessary.

From the living room, Beth’s text tone sounded. I sighed. I’d managed to forget, for a couple of hours, that I was the personal property of Beth Scott due to being short-sighted enough to have awarded her health coordinator status. I was bloody irritated that she’d reminded me.

‘Wha now? They’ve made ih since this afternoon withouh checking up on meh.’

‘Just answer them, Matt.’

I sighed again, closed my eyes, almost too tired to bother, then opened them, gave Lau a quick kiss on the lips and tottered into the living room to retrieve my phone.

Laura

I watched him walk unsteadily to the living room, retrieve his phone, and come back to bed.

‘You’re really tired, aren’t you.’

He looked at me ruefully and nodded.

‘Even if I was fuhly functional, wouldn’t hahv the energy tonigh. Iz does foh meh, an had a long day yesterday. Wih lohs of excitement.’

He winked at me, then bent his head to his phone to read his text.

Matt

‘Oh, ha ha, apparently Iz told Beth she was going tuh live wih me so she can hahv pizza and ice crehm foh lunch every day.’

Excellent. My afternoon’s work was yielding fruit. That would teach Beth. Oh, no, that’s right, it wouldn’t, but that didn’t stop me gloating about my small and extremely time-limited victory.

‘So she’s not checking up on you, then, just checking in.’

Oh alright, you win, Lau. You always did.

‘OK, yuhr righ, I did hear wha yuh said yesterday, Ih’v been texting back more today. Maybe ih’s worked.’

‘Bossy Nurse Laura strikes again.’

She raised a brow at me, impishly

‘Yeh. Cohm here before yuhr head gehs too big tuh snog.’

Laura

We moved towards each other and our lips met with the increasingly familiar jolt of electricity. We held each other tightly and moved slowly and lingeringly in each other’s mouths, hands roaming over each other’s bodies. I felt Matt’s hands slide down my back and settle on my bum, where he stroked me over the top of my knickers. I followed suit and moved my hands along his side, unable to resist slipping my hand under the waistband of his boxers, where it came to rest on his bum cheek. It was very firm and was crying out for a squeeze, so I squeezed.

Matt

‘Holy fuck, Lau, yuhr killing me.’

‘Sorry, shall I stop?’

‘Fuck noh. Loving ih. Yuhv goh greht hands.’

We held each other, touching, kissing, looking deep into each other’s eyes, until I was unable to stop the blackness of sleep claiming me. It drifted in from the corners of my vision and took me away while I was stroking Lau’s soft hair and feeling her lips tasting mine.

I hope you’ve noticed. I hope you’ve been paying attention to what I have been doing and what I haven’t been doing. There has been a lot of groping and feeling up that Matt and Lau have been doing, and I expect you assume that all parts have been fair game, but if you think about it, no, not all parts. I have been saving myself. We have been going faster than a speeding bullet the last couple of days, but I kind of knew that there were some places I needed to save until later to explore.

Part of it was my plan, and part of it was it just felt right. No cupping was had, by either of us, just stroking of arses, deep kisses. We could have knocked ourselves out, gone everywhere, but it was as if we were balancing the insane speed we were going at emotionally with going slow slow slow in the physical reconnaissance mission. Without Lau telling me, or me having to ask, I knew it was too soon to be touching the bits enclosed in her sensible black bra and pants. Maybe the simple nature of her underwear was sending a message in itself. I didn’t know when she’d be ready, but I knew I’d know. I had never been so in tune with anyone in my life.

Laura

We snuggled together for a while longer, touching, kissing a bit – and oh, his kisses were just as thrilling and tantalising and delicious as they had been the first time – until I felt Matt’s movements slow and stop, his body relax. I spent a long time looking at his face – his eyes were shut, his mouth slightly open, and I heard his breathing deepen. I waited a while, until he’d had the chance to fall properly asleep, then disentangled myself gently and climbed out of bed, grabbing my dress and uniform as I crept out of the room, pulling the door shut behind me. I dressed quickly, then, on a whim, found a bit of paper and wrote a note.

I left it on my pillow, then I let myself quietly out of the flat and drove home, smiling to myself the whole way.

I went to bed early myself. I’d had a tiring twenty four hours or so, and some solid sleep felt like a really good idea. Matt had other ideas, though.

Matt

I woke up and I was alone. It felt wrong, more wrong than sleeping alone had ever felt before. It was the dead of night, and Lau was gone and I missed her. Then I saw the note she’d left, sitting on her pillow, where her head had rested, facing me, just a few hours ago.

Hope you slept well, you look so cute when you’re asleep.

Thanks for a lovely evening,

looking forward to tomorrow’s 30-something DVD night.

My place?

Text me.

Lusty Lau xx

Something that had been blinking at the edge of my consciousness came into view as I read the note. I had no idea how old Lau was. I hadn’t even thought about it. She’d written ’30-something DVD night’, so I assumed she was in her thirties, and yeah I guess I knew she wasn’t like eighteen or some such shit. She certainly wasn’t older than me, but she had a kind of, oh I don’t know, can I call it an ‘ageless quality’ and not sound like a complete arse? Probably not. I guess I mean it didn’t matter. She could have been eighteen or twenty eight or thirty eight or forty eight or more maybe (OK I’m being generous to myself, perhaps), and she would still have been Lau, still the one I’d been looking for. It wasn’t important, but it was … relevant. To the whole having a family thing. I hoped it would become clearer without me having any awkward conversations, and I dismissed it from my mind for now.

So anyway, I was missing Lau, like crazy. I reached for my phone. She’d said text her, although she probably didn’t mean text her in the middle of the night, but you couldn’t be too careful, wouldn’t want to piss her off by mistake.

Laura

A ping from my phone woke me up in the middle of the night. I reached for it blearily, in my disoriented state thinking it was the alarm. The time said three twenty. There was a text.

‘Yr not here 😦 miss u. Thx 4 note.’

Matt

There was a bit of a pause, and I nearly drifted back to sleep. Then she answered.

‘U shld b asleep. Need ur strength 4 2moro = film nite.’

‘U said txt u.’

‘Didn’t mean immediately.’

‘Oh. Shld b more specific w yr bossiness ;)’

‘Will remember 🙂 Go 2 sleep now. Specific enough?’

‘Yeh. Night Lau x’

‘Night x’

‘Sleep tight.’

‘Thx. U2.’

‘Don’t let bedbugs etc.’

‘Go 2 sleep.’

‘Can’t. Miss u.’

‘Me 2 but need sleep. Night. Still holding hands, if it helps.’

‘Yeh. Helps 🙂 xx’

And so I floated back to sleep, holding her hand in my thoughts.

I dreamed that night. I hardly ever dream, or if I do I don’t remember them, but that night I dreamed I was riding a horse along a beach, looking for something. Just as I found it, I woke up. I felt more awake and alert than I had for a long time, and I checked the time. I was amazed to find that it was only just gone quarter past seven.

Lau. My next thought was Lau. She would be getting ready for her day. I grabbed my phone and started texting, thinking that she wouldn’t have much opportunity once she got to work.

Laura

And so another day dawned, at seven seventeen, with the insistent alarm tone of my phone pulling me out of a dream in which I was following a horse along a beach. There was more to it than that, but it skittered away as dreams do and I’d forgotten it before I’d swung my legs out of bed. As I pulled my dressing gown on, my phone pinged. Text from Matt.

‘Hey Lau, u up?’

‘Yes. Just.’

‘We didn’t have dessert.’

‘Oh yeah. Never mind. Bring 2nite?’

‘Cool. Wot time?’

‘I’ll b home after five. NE time after then :)’

‘Wot DVD?’

‘Bring one? One each. If we last that long. DVD nite can b 2 nites. Or 3.’

‘gr8. Cu l8r. M xx’

‘cu xx’

And so, happily set up for the day, I showered, dressed, had breakfast and left for work. Anna was back, her cold on the mend, and when I got in Kate was filling her in on developments with her patients while she’d been off.

‘Hi Lau, thanks for doing the LMS day, I owe you one.’

‘No problem, An, it was a good day.’

With a sudden shiver, I realised that if Anna hadn’t been off sick, I wouldn’t have met Matt. I wouldn’t be in the middle of this thrilling swirl of excitement and emotion. The things that hinge on the common cold virus.

‘Hey, yeah, An, you’ll never guess who came along as a newbie.’

Still not wanting to discuss it, I scowled at Kate, who deliberately didn’t look at me.

‘No, who?’

‘Matt Scott.’

‘What, Rach’s Matt?’

‘Well, Rach’s and half the bloody women in the city’s Matt, yeah.’

‘He’s been diagnosed?’

Kate turned to me, questioning eyebrows raised.

‘Don’t look at me, I just had a quick chat with him afterwards.’

This earned an exasperated snort from Kate.

‘How’s Rach taken it?’

‘Pretty bloody philosophically, actually. She said yesterday he wasn’t a superhero and it was time to move on.’

‘Wow. Might be the best thing that’s ever happened to her, well since ‘that night’.’

Matt

So that was my evening sorted, and the plan was taking shape nicely. Now for the rest of the day. I was feeling great, and getting up early would enable me to organise things so I wasn’t dashing about. I lay in bed for a while, enjoying feeling clear-headed. I sent Lau another text and then I fell asleep, and woke up near lunchtime, feeling muzzy.

Laura

I busied myself boiling the kettle and putting teabags in mugs, trying not to get involved in the conversation. I heard my phone ping in my bag. Another text from Matt.

‘Holding hands xx’

‘:) xx’

Kate noticed me texting.

‘Your mum up and about early, is she?’

It was a sad reflection of my recent lack of romantic success that the person who was most likely to be texting me this early in the morning was my mother, but I smiled ambiguously and let her think what she wanted to.

‘Have a chilled evening yesterday?’

‘Yeah, great, had a takeaway, wine, went to bed early.’

It was all true; leaving stuff out like where and who with, and not mentioning the odd head massage and going to bed with a handsome man again wasn’t like really lying.

‘Sounds like just what you needed, Lau, you weren’t really here yesterday afternoon.’

‘Yeah, I think it was. Oh, hi Rach. Tea?’

The morning went on, all of us either on visits or catching up with writing notes on the computer. Lunchtime came and went with the usual sandwich run, and then we had a referral meeting to set up our schedule for the next week. There was always a steady flow of new referrals to the service, and we each had responsibility for a fairly large caseload.

Matt

I picked up my phone and saw several texts from various people.

Lau: ‘:) xx’

Dec: ‘Alright, m8? Hope u still on 4 Charlie sitting/sleepover Sat :)’

Beth: ‘How r u 2day?’

‘Hi Matty. There’s an all-ability walking group in Telton. Interested?’

‘Emailed u article abt MS and diet.’

‘Don’t forget Amy’s birthday.’

Mum had called but not left a message, as she never did, and Beth must have recruited Jay into the ‘let’s all bug Matty, I’m obviously not annoying him enough on my own’ campaign, as there was a voicemail from him.

‘Hi Matty, er, just, er, wondered if you could, er – oh alright, Beth, just let me do it. Give Beth a call, or something, mate, she’s giving me a ton of bloody grief, you’ll save my ears. Wha –’

I tried not to be exasperated. They all knew I slept hard and never heard my phone if I was really gone. Lau’s words kept coming back to me, and I pinged off a few texts:

‘Hey. Yep, looking 4ward 2 keeping Charlie up l8 on Sat ;)’

‘Beth. I am alive. Was there something u needed? No 2 cripples walking gp, thx tho. Diet? Donuts n beer do it 4 me. CU Sun.’

‘Hey Jay. Tell Beth hv already got Amy’s present. Hope u hv 2.’

Then I called Mum back. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have allowed herself to be drafted into Beth’s circle of bothering, as she was usually pretty good unless it was a real emergency, so there was something specific she wanted to talk to me about.

‘Heh Muhm.’

‘Matthew, dear. I tried to call you earlier.’

‘Yeh, I knoh. Ahr yuh OK?’

‘Yes, dear, but I was wondering if you could help me out with something?’

Mum, bless her heart, always tried her hardest to think of ways to make me feel useful. She knew I was pretty fucked in the limbs department, and my usual handyman abilities were out the window at the moment, so it was often something like a cryptic crossword clue, or she was writing a letter to someone and wanted another word for ‘nice’. She didn’t think I knew what she was doing, or maybe she did and we just played the game of not letting on that I knew she knew I knew, because it was out of kindness, and it worked, in a weird kind of way. It’s always good to be needed, even if it’s only for the answer to seven across.

‘Wha yuh nehd?’

‘Well I was talking to someone at the gardening club the other day, and we were discussing sauces.’

This time it was cooking. Well, I was pretty into cooking, so fair enough.

‘Uh huh.’

‘Well, we were having a slight disagreement about the ingredients of béarnaise sauce. I said that béarnaise had shallots and tarragon, but someone else said that was hollandaise. I was sure you’d know.’

‘Top of the clahs, Muhm. The sauhce is the sahm, buh diffrehnt grehdy yuhms.’

‘Different what, dear?’

I laughed. ‘Iz’s new wohd. Ingrehdiehts. I lihk hers behter.’

‘Ha ha, me too. So what’s in hollandaise? I just want to make sure I get it right next week.’

‘Lehmon juhs an cahenne. Goh geh ’em.’

‘I will. Thank you, dear. How are you?’

Mum was allowed to ask because a) she always talked about something else first and b) she was my mum. I didn’t always tell her the truth, because you don’t always tell your mum everything, but today I was taking advice from a particularly lovely expert in my specific fucking bastard neurological disorder, and I told her the truth. Oh, not about the lovely expert, I wasn’t spilling everything just yet, come on, do you know me at all?

‘Bih wihped. Hahd busy cohple of days. Ohnly jus wohk up.’

‘Oh, you had that day at the church hall, didn’t you. Beth said you stayed for the whole thing.’

Bloody Beth, see, this was why I was so reluctant to do things, go anywhere, talk about anything, because it got endlessly discussed with everyone whether you wanted it or not. I felt like I was public property, and it really pissed me off, and then I stopped talking to anyone about anything. Like with Mum, now. I expect she’d been part of the whole ‘where’s Matty, let’s all panic until we know he’s tucked up in his own bed’ malarkey, even though she hadn’t texted or called herself, but I wasn’t going there right now, and I just closed off.

‘Did she?’

Mum sensed my withdrawal, as she changed the subject.

‘So are you going to Sunday lunch?’

‘Yeh. Staying at Dec an Amy’s Satuhday nigh, lohking after Chahlie while thehr ouh fuh Amy’s birthday. Goin wih them Suhnday mohning.’

I wondered about taking Lau along with me, but I wanted her to myself for a bit longer before I subjected her to the madness of a full-on Scott interrogation. Maybe another time.

Mum, sensing that I’d been annoyed by Beth talking about me to all and sundry, wrapped things up before I could take any further umbrage.

‘Alright, well I’ll see you on Sunday, then. Rose is bringing me.’

‘OK, Muhm, seh yuh thehn.’

I pottered about, getting myself some lunch, changing my bed, doing laundry, all things that should have been so mundane, but all things that sapped my strength, and I had to do slowly and efficiently to conserve my energy. Half way through the afternoon, I sent Lau a text.

Can’t wait 2 cu l8r. Amelie n cheesecake. Mm. Xx.

There wasn’t an immediate reply, and I got on with something else, then I heard the ping and picked up my phone.

Laura

Half way through the afternoon, it was my turn to make the tea. I heard my phone ping on my desk, but didn’t think much of it until I heard Rachel’s voice.

‘Lau … you’ve got a text from Matt?

‘What?’

She was holding my phone up, with the screen clearly showing his name. I never blushed, but I felt my face begin to heat up.

‘Why’s Matt texting you? Is it Matt Matt, as in newly diagnosed with MS and while we’re at it serial woman dumper Matt?’

She looked at the screen. Anna and Kate looked on wide-eyed.

‘Oh my God! You’re seeing him later? What the fuck Lau? He’s texted you kisses.’

I couldn’t make my mouth say any words. I stood there, kettle in my hand, trying to find a single thing to say that would explain it without lying my head off. I could have lied my head off, I might even have made it sound convincing, but eventually Rachel was going to know. And I never lied, but I felt like I had spent the last couple of days at work half-lying. Maybe it was better for all of us that she knew now, when it was new, and I hadn’t been deceiving everyone for ages. My face went hot – it wasn’t embarrassment, it was shame, my half-truths and deceit catching up with me. Trying to ignore my reddened cheeks, I had a stab at it.

‘I’m sorry, Rach, maybe I should have said something, but it’s early days –’

‘Lau!’

This was Kate.

‘You’re not serious, you’re seeing Matt bloody Scott? Oh that is just wrong on so many levels.’

Rachel had turned as red as me, and I saw her expression darken.

‘Well I think I’ll just reply, shall I?’

She started to tap on my phone. I dropped the kettle back onto the table in my haste to get the phone back from Rachel, but she gave it a final triumphant tap and threw it on my desk before picking up her bag and marching out of the office. Kate and Anna continued to look at me, open mouthed.

‘What? It’s not like it’s illegal.’

I lifted my chin defiantly.

‘Bloody hell, Lau, no wonder you didn’t want us all asking about him. What are you thinking? Apart from all the grief he’s given Rach, who is your friend in case you need reminding, he’s a wanker of the first order and, just to top it all, he’s got bloody MS. Could you be seeing a more inappropriate person?’

I held her gaze, determined not to be ashamed. What Matt and I were starting to have wasn’t shameful, I’d checked it out with Patrick, it was just that things were awkward while Rachel was getting used to it.

Then I had a bit of a reality check. I’d known how upset Rachel was going to be, and I’d gone ahead anyway, not really caring. Now things were going to be really tricky here, I had lost a good friend, and, yes, Kate was right, it was a pretty inappropriate relationship. As I was thinking all this, my phone rang. I walked over to where Rachel had thrown it. The screen announced that Matt was calling. I answered, then walked outside.

Matt

I was more than a bit surprised by Lau’s response.

‘Get lost you cocking ballache.’

What? Something had gone badly wrong. Either I had done something to upset her, although what the fuck it could have been I had no clue, or someone had told her something about me, or maybe someone had taken her phone, maybe she’d been mugged, or – I needed to stop catastrophising and call her. I frantically hit call and waited for what seemed like a million rings before it was answered.

‘Hello.’

So she hadn’t lost her phone. It must have been directed at me, then. She didn’t sound that pleased to hear from me. Fuck, what had I done?

‘Lau? Wha’s wrong?’

Laura

Wow, it was as if he was psychic. How could he have possibly known what had just happened? He couldn’t. What did he mean, then?

‘Er …’

Matt

She sounded hesitant and a bit confused.

‘Why did yuh call me a cocking ballache?’

Laura

‘Oh.’

Oh great. Rach had really landed me in it.

‘I didn’t. That was Rachel. Sorry, a whole lot of something smelly just hit the fan here. She saw your text, wasn’t happy, sent you a reply.’

Matt

Oh, the friend. Well that explained things a bit, but sounded bad from Lau’s point of view.

‘Oh fuck. Are yuh OK?’

Laura

Matt seemed to be taking it well. At least he didn’t think it was me who’d sent him an insulting message.

‘Been better. It was bound to happen eventually. I’d have liked a bit more time to prepare, but whatever. Better out than in, as they say.’

I tried to put a smile in my voice, but felt close to tears and took a deep shuddering breath.

Matt

She sounded like she was putting on a brave face and I so wished I could see her, hold her, make it alright.

‘Are yuh nearly finished foh the day?’

‘Hour or so more.’

Oh bloody hell, I needed to get going, if I was going to get all the buses I needed to cross the city to Lau’s house. I tried to sound as reassuring as I knew how to, before I disconnected and set off.

‘Hang in there. Hohding hands till I see yuh.’

‘Thanks. Need it. Better go.’

‘Bye Lau.’

I sent her some virtual strength through our still mentally clasped hands, not that it was likely to make any difference, but was the best I could manage.

77. Kissy kissy

In which two people miss each other all day.

Laura

Matt Scott had certainly put a spell on me that acted in close proximity. The further away from him I got, the more I started to doubt what I had felt, what he had said, how we had seemed so … right together. It was only the thought of us holding hands across the city that stopped me from completely disbelieving it had happened. Somehow being with Matt was stopping me thinking and considering. I didn’t mind that, it was exciting to just act rather than questioning everything, but being apart meant I had time to think.

Matt

A quick check of the clock told me I had at least a couple of hours before Iz arrived. I cleared away the breakfast things and sat down on the sofa with my iPad, intending to find some games for Iz to play.

Laura

I got to work a lot later than I was used to. Rachel and Kate were already there, catching up with notes on the computer. They looked up as I walked in.

‘Nice of you to grace us with your presence.’ Kate grinned.

‘Well I worked on my day off. Bit of time owing seemed fair enough. Anyone want a cuppa?’

‘Yes please, I need a break from writing up Mrs Richards.’

Rachel handed me her cup, and Kate followed suit.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Oh, just had to give someone a lift.’

I tried to make ‘someone’ sound like ‘my mum’. I must have managed it, as there were no further questions.

While I was boiling the kettle, Kate was looking at me pointedly.

‘What?’

‘Any more news on your last minute counselling session?’

I’d almost forgotten about it, it seemed a million years ago. But now I was going to have to be careful what I said; I didn’t want to deceive either of them, they were my friends as well as my colleagues, but this whatever it was with Matt was just too new and unknown to announce and dissect, and there were Rachel’s feelings to consider too.

‘No, nothing to report.’

‘Going to write it up?’

Kate was really pushing, because, I realised, she wanted me to tell Rachel.

‘No, it was just coffee and a chat. Nothing official.’

Kate frowned at me, not understanding why I didn’t want to say anything. She didn’t know Matt and I were, well Matt and I, and I was at a loss as to what to say. Luckily, Patrick came out of his office, saw me and asked if we could meet earlier, as in now, as he had an appointment he’d had to rearrange. Relieved, I agreed, but realised it had only put off the inevitable.

Patrick and I discussed the usual list of cases and talked about the Living with MS days, how successful they’d been, how we could change things to make them better, and then he asked if there was anything else I wanted to discuss.

‘Actually, I have got a bit of a hypothetical situation.’

Patrick sat back in his chair.

‘Right. Let’s have it then.’

‘OK, well this is completely hypothetical. Don’t read anything into it, it’s just a question.’

‘Alright.’

A look of amusement crossed his face, and I realised I might just as well have said, ‘I’ve got this friend …’

‘Well, say someone works for a health service, and they meet someone who has a condition but isn’t formally known to the service but has used a couple of the resources, like an information day, and maybe a helpline, and the two people have, er, a relationship. Is that allowed?’

Patrick looked at me, frowning slightly.

‘Hypothetically, is the person with the condition likely to become a patient of the person who works for the health service?’

‘Unlikely, but, I suppose, possible.’

‘Hmm. I think that as long as things are informal, then there isn’t a problem. Anyone can come to the ‘information days’ or use a helpline, they don’t have to give their name, they don’t have to be a patient, we … er … the health service don’t have to know who they are. It becomes more tricky if someone is officially a patient of a service. Not impossible, just tricky. You – er – the person working for the health service wouldn’t be allowed to directly treat that person, for example. Or have access to their medical records.’

‘OK. That’s helpful. Thank you.’

‘Laura, I know this is hypothetical, but we’re not talking about a certain tall young man who may or may not have been waiting until Kate and I had left yesterday to go back into the church hall where he could talk to you on your own, are we?’

I should have known he’d work it out; Patrick didn’t miss much, and it’s not like my hypothetical health service employee was subtly camouflaged. I still wasn’t able to admit it out loud, though, it was still too new.

‘I don’t know what you mean, I was just asking out of interest.’

Patrick sighed.

‘Alright, Laura. You will be careful, hypothetically, won’t you.’

I chose not to answer, gathered some papers up, put them in a folder, smiled at Patrick and walked back into the main office.

I felt vindicated by the conversation. All of us had talked about whether we’d ever go out with a patient, and we’d all said no, it was a big taboo, even if he was the hottest, richest guy on earth, even if he was Ben Affleck (my personal favourite, and I’d said no, but secretly I so would have), Ryan Gosling (Kate’s heartthrob), Harry Styles (Rach’s guilty pleasure) or Liam Neeson (Anna’s golden oldie). But I knew where I stood, how I felt, and I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t.

Back in the main office, Kate was still on a mission to make me tell Rachel. I suppose I should have been grateful she wasn’t just blurting it out herself, but avoiding the comments and looks was becoming more difficult and it felt uncomfortable. When Rachel finally left the room, Kate rounded on me.

‘What’s your problem, Lau? Why don’t you want to tell Rach?’

‘It’s not her business. It’s not anyone’s. He’s not on our list, he was a drop-in, it’s not up to me to go telling anyone. I don’t think it would be helpful.’

‘It would help cheer Rach up.’

‘That’s mean. You wouldn’t like it if it was you some bunch of health professionals were gossiping about over their PG Tips, using your problems to have a good laugh.’

‘That’s beside the point. If anyone’s used to being gossiped about it’s bloody Matt Scott.’

‘He has a right to privacy.’

Kate snorted.

‘He has a right to a good kick up the arse and that’s more effort than I’d spend on him.’

‘Who’s this?’

Rachel had come back unnoticed by either of us. We were both silent, Kate scowling at me while I busied myself turning my computer on.

‘Kate? Who deserves a kick up the arse?’

‘Who do you think?’

‘Kate …’

I could tell by the way she avoided my eyes and lifted her chin that she was going to say something, but I didn’t know how to stop it.

‘Who are we usually talking about when kicks up the arse are mentioned?’

Rachel was quiet for a moment, looking from Kate to me and back again, then said in a small voice,

‘Matt. Why, what’s happened?’

‘Lau had coffee with him yesterday.’

Rachel looked at me with a stricken expression that told me everything I needed to know about how she would deal with the rest of the story so far.

‘What? Lau?’

I sighed. I couldn’t tell it all, not yet. I was going to have to lie.

‘It was strictly professional. Thanks Kate. He was at the LMS day yesterday. He wanted to talk afterwards, he had some issues he wanted to chat about.’

‘He was at the LMS day? Wait, Lau, has he …’

Rachel’s face showed a succession of emotions, starting with puzzlement as she started to work it out, comprehension as she realised, a brief glimpse of pity, and then, finally, triumph. It was hard to see it, how pleased she was.

‘… has he got MS?’

I nodded. Rachel’s eyes shone.

‘Well isn’t that just ironic. How very fitting. I hope he enjoyed your sex talk about how hard it can be to get it up.’

‘Rach, come on, have some compassion.’

‘Compassion? After what he did to me and countless other women across this city? He’s got everything he deserves. Did he say anything about the Ice Queen?’

‘No. We weren’t talking for long. He got tired … and needed to go home.’

With approximately fifteen hours between the getting tired and the needing to go home, obviously.

‘How bad is he?’

Her gleeful need for information made me feel slightly sick.

‘Rach, that’s unworthy of you. He’s got MS. It’s bad enough.’

Kate decided to weigh in.

‘Oh stop being such a goody-goody Lau. Anyone would think you cared about him. We goss about people all the bloody time, it doesn’t go outside the team. It won’t this time, will it Rach?’

Rachel looked at Kate and shook her head, but I wasn’t sure. Rachel told anyone who would listen about how Matt Scott had ruined her life, and it was likely that she would tell the same people now she felt he’d had his comeuppance. I felt I needed to warn her of the consequences, even though my main goal was to protect Matt.

‘It had better not, Rach, because if the whole city is talking about how Matt Scott has MS, and he finds out it’s because it came from us, we will all be in serious trouble. It’s breaching confidentiality.’

‘Lau, he’s not even a patient.’

‘It’s personal information he hasn’t given us permission to use. Rach, you can’t tell anyone. I know you want to, I know how much you want to tell everyone, but you can’t. You just can’t.’

Rachel lowered her eyes and nodded. Maybe, just maybe, if she didn’t get too drunk and forget herself, she would be able to keep it to herself.

There was an uncomfortable silence in the office for the rest of the morning, which I escaped from as soon as I could in the name of, firstly going on a couple of visits, and then the lunchtime sandwich run.

Matt

Before I knew it, the buzzer was sounding, and I was waking up groggily, iPad on the floor, still wearing yesterday’s clothes. I hadn’t realised I was still tired; I still didn’t pace myself very well, choosing to believe I could outsmart the fucking bastard by deciding not to allow myself to feel exhausted. Never worked, but it didn’t stop me trying.

Anyway, Iz was now here, and I was all rumpled and half-awake, and I just had to hope that Beth was so eager to get to her lunch appointment that she didn’t notice. The buzzer sounded again, twice, and I hurried over to answer it.

‘Yeh.’

‘Hi Matty. I wondered if you were in.’

‘On the loo. Cohm uhp.’

I pressed the door entry button and waited, trying to smooth my hair down and wipe some of the sleep from my eyes.

There was a knock on the door, and I opened it, sweeping Iz into my arms and making a big fuss of her so that Beth didn’t get a chance to comment on anything she may have noticed. I was well able to fend her off, but the less practice she got, the less I had to endure it.

‘Heh beauhiful. Ooh, who hahv yuh got hehr?’

I nodded at the doll Iz was clutching as I took her over to the sofa; I never held any of the kids for long, ever since I’d nearly dropped Charlie.

‘Barbie.’

‘Oh rehly.’

I looked at Beth, who had always taken a particularly anti-Barbie stance before Iz started pestering her for one.

‘Yes, well, some you win, some you lose, Matty. Carol bought it for her birthday, I think it was their little secret.’

I laughed out loud at Mum outwitting Beth in cahoots with Iz. It had been Iz’s birthday a couple of weeks ago, and I’d had strict instructions about the type of birthday present that would be acceptable. I had duly bought an educational game, and given it to Iz at her party, but had also snuck in a big box of tooth-rotting sweeties and a DVD of some sexist cartoon that Iz loved where Mummy did the housework and Daddy worked all day and the kids had adventures.

If Beth didn’t go on so much, people would be much better behaved around her children. ‘People’ meaning me; everyone else pretty much did as they were told.

‘Scohr Muhm.’

‘Hmm. Anyway, if you’re sure you’ll be OK until two …’

‘Yeh. Suhr. Goh tuh yuhr thing an hahv a guhd whaever ih is.’

‘I’m meeting –’

‘Yeh, whaever ih is. Goh. Meh an Iz hahv goh playpahks tuh explohr.’

‘Unca Matty, can Barbie come to the playpark?’

‘Yeh, blohndie. Say bye tuh Muhmmy.’

‘Bye Mummy.’

Iz dismissed Beth as crisply as only a four year old can, and Beth disappeared, looking slightly hurt. I had managed to avoid any searching questions, and now I was going to have a good time with Iz.

I could still feel Lau holding my hand, and I hoped it wasn’t stopping her getting any work done, but it was getting me through my day. I loved spending time with Iz, but she was demanding, always asking questions, wanting to have races, never happy to sit and look at stuff. That was great, it was what being a kid was all about, and she was never going to be one of those obese children you see on the news when it’s Fat Kid Week or some such shit. But she bloody exhausted me a lot of the time, and I had to either keep up and suffer later, or be inventive with things that kept her occupied while giving me a bit of a rest.

Today’s cunning plan, which mostly worked, was to let Iz run around in the play park, showing me how good she was at swinging the swing by herself, making a friend or two who she could dash madly about squealing with while I took a breather on a bench, at the same time fending off curious glances from the mums of the new friends, who wondered if I was her dad or some child stealer but couldn’t decide how to ask. Then, having expended some of her newly four year old energy, it was down to Pizza Place for a bit of a sit, some colouring courtesy of The Place’s freebies for children, and a good slice of the cheesy tomatoey rat-shitty gloop they called pizza.

My opinion of Pizza Place hadn’t changed, but I did acknowledge its usefulness as a haven for frazzled child-carers. Iz never ate much of the evil stuff and I never ate any of it, but we always ordered a pizza of our choice each, because Iz was never allowed a whole one to herself and usually had to share what Cal wanted. I didn’t tell her off when she didn’t eat hers, because she didn’t tell me off when I didn’t eat mine, and I boxed it all up ‘for later’, took it home, and binned it once she had gone. It was a small price to pay; I wanted to be cool Unca Matty, and I succeeded a lot of the time.

Pizza having not been noticeably eaten, but slices of the rat-shit special put in takeaway boxes and carried up the road, it was time for copious amounts of chocolate ice-cream. I know, I know, she was only really having ice-cream for lunch, bad Unca Matty, but I knew she’d have a balanced meal for dinner via Beth, who calculated nutritional benefits to the microgram of Riboflavin, whatever the fuck that was, and my main aim was to be cool, rather than to instil any kind of discipline or indeed healthy eating habits.

Iz knew exactly where I kept the ice-cream, and she headed to the freezer while I got the bowls and the scoop out.

‘Unca Matty, can I spook it?’

‘Yeh, Iz, hehr’s the spook.’

I never corrected Iz when she got words wrong, as a) who was I to be correcting words just at the moment and b) it was dead cute. So we spooked several spookfuls of chocolate ice-cream into two bowls, squirted strawberry sauce and toffee sauce on top (strawberry is one of your five a day, isn’t it?), and sprinkled pink sparkles over the lot. It made a delightfully sticky mess, and we both ensured a lot of it got on our hands and round our mouths. I took a selfie of us and sent it to Beth, then as an afterthought, asked Beth for Lau’s number ‘so I could say thanks’. I should have asked for her number this morning, but it hadn’t occurred to me.

Beth’s reply came back almost immediately.

‘Honestly, Matty, I don’t know who’s the biggest child. Here’s Laura’s number. R u going 2 contact the MS service?’

No, I had no intention of contacting any bastard MS service, whether Lau worked there or not. I ignored Beth’s text, which is why texts are so great, and sent the picture to Lau.

Laura

I drifted round the local supermarket with my basket, looking for a pudding to take to Matt’s later. Chocolate was always my dessert of choice, but I’d found that men often didn’t particularly like it. I wanted to get something he’d really like, but hardly knowing him was hindering my decision making. Eventually I plumped for a lemon cheesecake, partly as it was a catch-all dessert and partly because I was running out of time and needed to choose something and happened to be standing in front of lemon cheesecakes.

When I got back with the sandwiches, the atmosphere seemed to have cleared a little. We sat and chatted while we ate, about the usual things, TV programmes we’d watched, our mothers and their bossiness, plans for the weekend, nothing at all about sharing a bed with completely unsuitable and inappropriate handsome men, and it felt easier.

‘I’m sorry, Lau.’ Rachel said, out of the blue.

‘What for?’

‘What I said. We were talking while you were out,’

I looked at Kate who was nodding at Rachel.

‘You’re right, I can’t tell anyone. I don’t even think I want to. It was a bit of a shock, that’s all, but I think it’s made me realise he’s only human. God, I’ve been moping after him all this time like he’s some superhero or something. I think I need to move on.’

‘Oh Rach, that’s OK, and if it’s made you feel like you can move on, well that’s a good thing.’

I didn’t want to think about whether she would have moved on far enough to cope with the news that Matt had spent the night with me, or a discussion of what exactly it was that was developing between us in the ‘holding hands’ department. Maybe if we had enough time before she found out, she would deal with it well. And maybe pigs would fly.

‘So are you going to see him again?’

My heart gave a lurch as Kate asked the question, then I realised she meant professionally.

‘Oh, no, we didn’t arrange anything. I guess he’s got the helpline number, he’ll probably ring that.’

‘So he could get me if I’m on call?’

Rachel seemed unsure whether this delighted or panicked her.

‘It’s possible, I suppose. He doesn’t seem like the helpline type, though, it was just a spur of the moment thing after the LMS day. I wouldn’t worry, flower. And if by some million to one chance he does, and it’s your day, you can just pretend the line’s gone dead and transfer the call to me.’

How noble was that? Telling Rach that if something that was never going to happen should happen, I’d deal with it for her, when firstly it was never going to happen, and secondly dealing with it would be one of the least onerous favours I was ever unlikely to do for her.

‘Really? Thanks, Lau, you’re a good friend.’

Which of course made me feel terrible. But not terrible enough to tell all and deal with it there and then.

Peace made between the three of us, it was time for our planning meeting. We had decided to re-jig the format of the Living with MS days, introduce some new topics, and change things around a bit. We’d all had vague ideas from time to time of how things could be better, but now we had the afternoon to make some real plans and freshen things up. I made my contributions, but found my attention wandering, my focus dragged away from guest speakers and venues by a pair of grey eyes and the thought of someone holding my hand from afar.

It didn’t help when I got a text. I pulled my phone out of my bag and looked at the screen, but didn’t recognise the number. I had a closer look when we stopped for a cup of tea. It was from Matt; I couldn’t remember giving him my number – he must have got it from Beth. He’d sent me a selfie of him and Iz, both with ice cream round their mouths.

‘Who’s da messiest? Close call. Liking holding hands with u. M x’

I quickly dashed off a reply.

‘Def u. Liking it 2. CU l8r. Lau x’

I saved his number to my phone. It wasn’t long before another text came, and I got a tiny thrill as my phone announced ‘Matt’.

‘Curry OK 4 l8r? x’

‘gr8 🙂 x’

Kate handed me my tea, and I quickly put my phone in my bag, wondering if having photos and texts from Matt on display was really such a good idea while nobody knew.

Matt

The texting topped me up. I was starting to feel, now Lau had been gone a few hours, like maybe I’d imagined it all, like maybe I’d made more of it than there had been. But the texts, with the kisses, restored my confidence that I hadn’t imagined it, and I started to look forward to the evening. I had plans for Lau, plans that involved showing her that even though I had fucked-up downbelows, we could still be close, we could still connect … yeah, alright, maybe I thought I might be in with a chance of getting in her knickers. One way or another. Maybe not tonight, maybe even I recognised that it could look presumptuous at best, but that didn’t stop the planning from whirring away as I got on with things at home.

I needed to get cracking on dinner after Iz had gone, but I was starting to feel tired, and it might have to wait until I’d had a sleep. I was frustrated at how worn out I was at the moment; I seemed to be snoozing my life away, it was such a waste, but I knew that when I ignored the fatigue, everything just went to shit and I ended up, well, regaining consciousness in strange bedrooms.

Beth came to fetch Iz at two o’clock, and although I really didn’t want to, I offered her a cup of tea, which she naturally accepted, feeling the need to sit down and give me the benefit of her advice.

‘So, Matty, you wore yourself out yesterday.’

‘Noh.’

She raised an eyebrow at me and my monosyllabic reply.

‘So you didn’t collapse and have to be dragged to a stranger’s house?’

‘I dihnt say tha. I said ‘noh’ when yuh said I wohr mysehf ouh.’

I enjoyed the look of puzzlement on her face and then delivered the punchline.

‘Ih was yuhr fault.’

The increased puzzlement was also enjoyable.

‘Yuh made meh goh tuh tha bluhdy day, geh up early, concehtrate fuh hours on hard chairs. Yuhr fault, yuh wohr me ouh.’

Light dawned, and she tutted and rolled her eyes.

‘Nobody made you stay, Matty. I believe the deal was that you only had to put your head round the door. I don’t remember forcing you at gunpoint.’

‘Noh buh yuh wehr shoving meh pretty hahd. Dihnt wan tuh mahk a scene.’

‘Well that would be a first. You’ve never been above embarrassing me before when it means you get your own way.’

She’d obviously given it some thought, which was a bit of a bugger. Usually with Beth I had the benefit of thinking more quickly than she did, but she’d had all night to consider it, and I was tired now. I needed a diversion. Ignoring her last comment, I used my niece.

‘Heh, Iz, goh an fetch the box from the frihdge.’

Iz ran over, collected the pizza and presented it to Beth.

‘Unca Matty says we can have it for dinner, Mummy.’

Beth narrowed her eyes at me and looked at Iz, and then at the box as if it was an unexploded bomb. She was such a hypocrite, I knew she took Iz and Cal to Pizza Place regularly.

‘Well it’s very kind of Unca Matty, but we’ve already got our dinner sorted, sweetheart.’

‘Yeh, Iz, ih’s prohbly brohcoli nuggets an rice.’

I couldn’t resist it; I didn’t usually interfere in Beth’s child rearing, but I needed some time with Lau, free of interference, before Beth got wind of it, and the longer I spent with Beth, the more likely she was to guess something was up. No one could ever keep anything from Beth; it was as if she was a mind-reader or something. My distract-and-disperse strategy was working for now, as Iz looked horrified at the thought of broccoli, her least favourite dinner component, and she went into full-on whine mode, explaining it all to Beth as I had explained it to her.

‘But Mummy, it’s two pizzas, Meat Feast for Daddy and Vegtle Superman for you. Unca Matty telled me its greedy yums are –’

‘Greedy yums, sweetheart?’

‘Unca Matty said.’

‘Yeh, Beth, grehdy yuhms. Things tha goh intuh a recipe an mahk it tahst yuhmy, an mahke yuh grehdy.’

‘Oh. Ingredients, sweetheart. And did you mean Vegetable Supreme?’

Beth always, but always corrected pronunciation, grammar, all that shit. Always Iz’s, never mine, although my words often came out more wrongerer than any four year old’s. I loved the idea of Vegtle Superman pizza, and I preferred greedy yums, it explained it much better.

‘And Unca Matty telled me there are special ones in pizza from Pizza Place.’

I mouthed ‘rat-shit’ to Beth over the top of Iz’s head and laughed at the disgust on her face. She decided it was time to go, before I gave Iz any more fodder with which to argue. Result.

‘Well, maybe Uncle Matty should have the pizza to himself, as he thinks it’s so tasty, Iz.’

‘Oh but Mummy –’

‘No, sweetheart, leave it here.’

Iz put on a sulky face, and I congratulated myself on ruining Beth’s afternoon. Beth and Iz had some breath-taking stand-offs; it was hard to work out who was the most determined to get their own way and some of the battles went on for days. This one looked set to last until at least tea-time, possibly beyond, and had successfully diverted Beth from any more nosiness about events that may have occurred yesterday.

I waved goodbye to them from the door, then shut it after them and stumbled to my bedroom, removing clothing as I did so. Wearing just my t-shirt and boxers, I crashed into bed, and was asleep before I could pull the duvet over me.

Laura

The meeting wore on, I tried to pay attention, and even contributed a little, but the nearer it got to time to go home, the more I was thinking about the evening ahead.

‘Lau?’

‘What?’

‘Honestly, you’ve been away with the bloody fairies all afternoon. Are you OK?’

‘Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired. I worked my day off yesterday.’

‘Why don’t you go home? Put your feet up, have a glass of something, by which I mean something stronger than Ribena, and relax? We can do the rest here.’

I looked gratefully at Kate. I hardly ever left early, in fact all of us put in more hours than we were paid for, it was fine, it was part of loving your job. But just this once, I decided to take it when it was offered.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Sure, Lau, off you go. Have some peace and quiet, chill.’

I smiled at her, feeling a fraud, as peace and quiet and chilling were the last things I was going to be doing. I still left, with a wave, nearly running to my car in my eagerness to get going.

I drove home faster than was strictly legal or sensible, ran up the path and into the house, where I grabbed something vaguely nice to wear out of the wardrobe, pulled a pair of shoes from underneath the bed and dashed downstairs to find a bottle of wine in the cupboard. Feeling less than fully prepared, but too excited to slow down, I rushed across the city to Avondale to meet my fate. Or have nice curry and maybe a bit of a snog with someone I hardly knew. Whichever it turned out to be.

A short while later, I was standing in front of the array of door bells, wondering which one was Matt’s. None of them seemed to have his name on, or indeed anybody’s actual name. There was a whole bunch of initials, a few names that seemed like nicknames (Pinky, Gaff, Butch) and some were just numbers. I couldn’t remember what number was on the door of Matt’s flat. I was flummoxed for a minute, then went through them in my head, one by one, trying to eliminate some of them.

I left the numbered ones in reserve, disregarded the nicknames as impossible to interpret, then looked at the initials. I was down to a choice of two – MGS or MRS – but couldn’t decide between them. I chose MGS, thinking that no one would be cruel enough to give their son initials that made him a married woman. There was no reply.

Phew, at least if it was the wrong flat I hadn’t made a total fool of myself. I tried MRS. There was no reply to that one either. Oh. Damn. I looked at all the numbered buttons and decided to start with the higher numbers, as Matt was a couple of floors up. Just as I was about to press forty-one, a voice came out of the speaker.

Matt

A few seconds later, my door buzzer went. I cursed, loudly. Fuck off, I really needed to sleep before Lau got here. However, it could be Beth coming back to collect something of Iz’s she’d left behind, and if I didn’t answer she’d get the Army round to break the door down. Sighing, I tottered to the intercom.

‘Hello?’

‘Matt?’

Holy shit, it was Lau. I quickly glanced at my watch; I’d been asleep for more than three hours. How the fuck had that happened?

‘Oh, Lau, sohry. Come up.’

I buzzed the door open, then opened my front door and leaned on the door frame to wait for her, trying to collect my thoughts. I should have put some clothes on and unruffled myself, but I didn’t have the energy. I was so looking forward to seeing Lau again, and my heartbeat rose as I heard her footsteps coming up the stairs.

Laura

He didn’t exactly sound thrilled, which took the edge off my excitement a little, but I pushed the door when it buzzed and climbed the stairs to the second floor. His door was open and he was waiting, leaning on the door frame, wearing only a t-shirt and boxer shorts, hair sticking out all over the place, grinning blearily. He looked as good as I’d spent all day trying to half-convince myself he didn’t; in fact, being clothed so sparingly only enhanced it.

Matt

‘Heh Lau.’

Lau looked at my scruffy attire.

‘Hello. I’m glad I didn’t go to a lot of trouble dressing up.’

I ran a hand through my hair and looked down at my clothes.

‘Sohry. I’ve behn asleep. Iz wore meh ouh. Dihnt mean tuh sleep soh long.’

‘Oh.’

She looked apologetic, and then undecided.

‘Are you sure it’s alright to be here? I can come tomorrow if –’

‘Dohnt yuh fucking dare.’

I pulled her inside and closed the door before she could back out on sympathy grounds.

‘Behn waiting fuh this all day. Worth ih too. Whoa, hotter than I ‘member.’

I held her at arms length and looked at her, drinking in how gorgeous she was, and how bloody hot she looked. I just had to kiss her, so I leaned towards her, and we locked lips, tangled tongues, delved deep into each others’ mouths, and I loved the soft wetness of her, the gentleness, the passion, with which she gave me a bloody good tonguing. She was a great kisser, there was no hint of garlic this time, and I felt a hand run down my back and touch my bum while I was burying my hands in her hair.

Laura

It was quite some time later that we stopped and pulled apart and looked at each other. I really, really liked kissing Matt.

Matt

‘Whoa, Lau, yuh are something else. Where yuh learn tuh kiss like tha?’

‘Sunday School.’

I laughed. ‘Seriously? Should’ve paid mohr attention tuh Baptist girls.’

‘We know how to snog. Practised on each other a lot.’

The image that danced into my head weakened my knees.

‘Holy fuck. Think I need tuh sit down.’

I grinned and took her hand, pulling her to the sofa. She draped a dress over the back, and handed me a carrier bag, which she had somehow managed to hold on to while she was kissing and groping me. I looked inside to see a bottle of wine and a cheesecake, then put it on the coffee table.

‘Thanks Lau. Sohry, haven’t started dinner yet.’

I’d meant to, I really wanted to cook her something spectacular, but the thought of it made me groan to myself.

‘Why don’t we just order out, if you’re tired?’

How did she know? Oh, apart from the fact I was dressed for bed and looked like I’d just woken up.

‘Buh I wanted tuh cook foh yuh.’

Laura

Oh, he was so sweet.

‘Another time? I just want to be with you. We can just have cheesecake and wine if you like.’

‘Ha ha, noh, nehd my protein. There’s a greht Indian jus down the road, do good takeaway. Wana choose?’

Matt

I gave her a menu, still unsure if it was acceptable.

‘Sure ih’s OK?’

Jules used to hate it when I suggested takeaway rather than ‘proper’ cooking … oh stop comparing, Matt. It should be abundantly clear that this woman is neither Jules, nor Jules-like.

‘Sounds great.’

And I rest my case. We chose and I ordered. It occurred to me that it might be a bit early for dinner, but it was done now. I was hungry, as I’d only had ice-cream for lunch, and most of that had ended up on my face, but I didn’t know how hungry Lau was. Still, we didn’t have to eat it all right away, did we.

‘How will they know which flat it is?’

‘They know meh.’

‘Oh. So are you MGS or MRS?’

‘Wha?’

‘Your doorbell. None of them actually have names on them, except Pinky, Gaff and Butch. It took me ages to work out which one was you, and then it could have been either.’

I’d completely forgotten about the doorbells. It was a bit of received wisdom that you didn’t put your own name on your bell, it was just asking for trouble.

‘Oh. Yeh, no one puts their name on. Yuh geh random pehpl pressing and asking for Matt, yuh dohn know who ih is. Yuh only tell pehpl yuh know which button tuh press. Sohry, forgot yuh dihnt know. Pinky’s real name’s Jeff, by the way. If someone asks fuh Pinky, he knows he duhnt know them. Why dihnt yuh jus call me tho?’

Laura

Well, yes, Laura. That would have made more sense than pressing any old doorbell. Is someone not thinking straight, hmm?

‘So which one are you?’

‘MRS.’

‘Your parents seriously called you ‘Mrs’?’

Matt

I nodded, ruefully. There wasn’t anything I hadn’t already heard, and I’d stopped being bothered by it.

‘Ih’v embraced ih now. Announce my shahm tuh the world throgh my doorbehl.’

‘So R is your middle initial?’

‘Migh beh.’

Why are people always so shy about their middle names? I was no different. It seemed like some kind of secret that shouldn’t just be handed out to the first person who asked.

Laura

He looked at me coyly, as if it was a slightly embarrassing personal defect, so I took the lead.

‘My middle name’s Mildred.’

‘Ih fucking well is noh. No one’s middle name’s Mildrehd.’

‘I’m sorry you see fit to knock the name given me by my dear parents, I’m sure I shan’t be nearly so cruel when you reveal that yours is Ronald. Or Ranulf, or Ralph, Ramon, Rafael –’

Matt

‘Robert, for fuck’s sake.’

I tried hard to be a bit mardy, but she grinned pure sunshine at me and I lost the will to scowl.

‘There, that wasn’t so hard, was it. Laura Louise Shoeman, pleased to meet you.’

Her whole name. It sounded like something you might call an angel. Yeah, I really thought that, and then immediately laughed out loud.

‘Fuck yuhr good at getting meh tuh say stuff, Laura Louise Shoeman.’

She looked at me smugly; she knew exactly how good she was. She has always known, and has always been as good, and she’s the best at getting me to talk, say things I didn’t mean to spill, just for her. I wish I didn’t bloody love her so much.

‘Never say I don’t take my work home with me. Talking of which, I am going to get out of this uniform –’

I tried a spectacular pout, much good it did me.

‘– and into something marginally more comfortable. Have you got anywhere I can change?’

‘Bedroom. Tha one.’

I stood up when she did, and followed her.

‘Er, I was going to get changed?’

‘Yeh, meh too. Do ih together? I wohnt peek, promise.’

No, peeking of any sort was definitely not on the cards.

Lau rolled her eyes as she came to a halt by the bed. Then she started to undo the poppers on her tunic, looking me straight in the eye as I looked back, torn between her face and the slowly revealed sumptuousness beneath her uniform.

‘Yeah, I can see you’re not peeking at all.’

Oh, she’d spotted that, had she? Well I was about to get out of it on a technicality.

‘Noh, not peeking. Having a bluhdy good gawp. Yuhr soh fucking sexy, Lau. Can’t keep my eyes off yuh. Sohry, duh yuh feel uncomfortable?’

‘Actually, no. I don’t embarrass easily, and we did spend the night together last night, even if it was pretty innocently.’

Too right. And she had just about admitted she was brazen. Things were getting better and better. The plan was going according to itself, even though I hadn’t quite figured it out yet. Maybe it was one of those self-fulfilling plans.

‘Nothing innocent abouh las nigh, Lau. If everything was working properly, yuh’d have behn well an truly Scottied.’

‘Oh really? Would I have had any say in the matter?’

‘Yeh, course. Yuh wanted it too tho.’

I was pretty sure that was true, judging from her reaction this morning when I’d had to stop her.

Laura

He was right. If it had been available, I would have had sex with Matt. But I knew what MS could do to the libido, and knew as well how careful I had to be not to make a big deal of it. And it wasn’t a big deal. I had enough going on with the rest of this craziness right now.

‘Well I’m sure any girl would find it hard to turn down a good Scottying.’

As I said this I slipped the tunic off my shoulders and pulled my trousers down, so I stood in just my bra and pants. Nothing fancy or lacy, just good honest black cotton. Matt appeared spellbound, and I thanked my empty evening a couple of nights ago for making sure I was trimmed and plucked in all the right places.

Matt

As she said this she slipped the tunic off her shoulders and pulled her trousers down, so she stood in just her black cotton bra and pants. I was awestruck; I had never seen anyone look so beautiful and appealing in something that I would have considered, before this moment, serviceable.

Lau’s skin was smooth and creamy, and although all the good stuff was well covered by the underwear, the swell of her breast disappearing into her bra cup and the shape of her hips beneath her knickers were tantalising. There were still no stirrings from my fucked-up loins, though, and I couldn’t understand it.

‘Holy fuck. How is this not giving me the hard-on from hehven?’

‘I thought you were going to get dressed too.’

I sat down on the edge of the bed. Putting clothes on was the very opposite of what I wanted to do right now.

‘Do I hahv tuh?’

‘Of course not, it’s your place, you can do what you like. Are the takeaway delivery boys used to you opening the door to them in your undies?’

I tutted; if only I hadn’t been so eager to order a curry, we could have got into bed and carried on where we left off this morning.

‘Shih, forgot abouh the takeaway. Was goin tuh suggest we jus cuddle up an talk.’

Lau started to pull her dress on, covering herself up, and I felt a real sense of regret. She laughed at me, eyes dancing as she teased me, seeming to know what her floor-show was doing to me.

‘There’s plenty of time, isn’t there? I’m starving, let’s wait for the takeaway. Put some trousers on, man.’

‘Ooh, Lau, I like ih when yuhr bossy.’

‘Just as well, I’m really good at it, and I keep in practice.’

I had a feeling I was letting myself in for a lot of bossing. Who knows, maybe it would be OK coming from Lau. I got up and pulled some jeans out of the wardrobe, then put them on. I smiled at Lau and spread my arms, inviting her comments.

Laura

‘That’s better. Good boy.’

I turned and flounced out of the bedroom, heading for the sofa. He was right behind me, and we sat close together, holding hands, not speaking for a while, just being next to each other, looking with rather bewildered expressions into each other’s eyes.

‘Matt …’

‘Yeh.’

‘I need to tell you something that happened today.’

He looked at me, a small frown forming.

Matt

Oh now what? Was there a problem with her work? Was she in trouble?

‘OK.’

‘Do you remember I told you about Rachel, my friend, who, er …’

Yeah, I remembered the friend. Or at least, I remembered her telling me about the friend.

‘Who I fucked aroun with an broke her heart? Yeh. Kind of story of my lihf. Yuh work wih her yuh said?’

‘Yeah. Anyway, when you and me had coffee yesterday, I had to tell people where I was going and who with, kind of health and safety thing, and, well, now Rachel knows about your MS. I tried to avoid her finding out, but we work so closely, it’s difficult. I don’t think she’ll tell anyone, but she doesn’t always know when to keep quiet, especially if she’s had a drink. I just wanted you to know, I don’t know what you’ve told people. I’m sorry.’

Oh fuck, hardly anyone knew about the fucking bastard. People at work just knew I was off long term sick; I know most of them thought it was stress related, coming as soon as it did after breaking up with Jules. I did a quick evaluation of what it would mean if word got out that I was a fucking cripple. I thought about the potential Sunday paper feature I had imagined yesterday; I looked down at the floor, then at our hands, linked together, then up into Lau’s face. I was safe with Lau, I could do anything, say anything, be anything, and it would be OK. It was maybe time to stop being so precious about who knew the truth about me, it’s not like I’d done anything wrong, I had a fucking disease. Jay was more than capable of holding his own in the media world, this was my information, not his. Did it really matter if people knew?

‘Know wha, Lau, ih dohnt matter who knows. Yuh only have tuh look at meh or talk tuh meh tuh know something’s up. If everyone knows wha ih is, then there’s no … when I had ih first time, I was wih someone who couldn’t cope. Carrie. She lef me foh her ex, an told people I’d fucked aroun an had HIV. Think I’d rather pehpl know the truth.’

It wasn’t until I said it that I knew it was true. People probably thought all sorts of things about me at the moment, assuming they were thinking about me at all. It really would be better if what they thought was the truth.

‘Oh my God, who would do that? That’s … unforgivable.’

Yeah, it was, I wasn’t forgiving Carrie, just using her as an example.

‘Yeh, well, long tihm ago now. Thanks fuh telling meh, Lau, buh dohn worry. There’s worse things been said abouh meh.’

‘I talked to my boss today, too, about us. Well, not about us specifically, I was being all hypothetical, but I think he spotted you going back into the hall yesterday, and he kind of guessed.’

It was kind of weird talking to Lau about me being a fucking cripple with the fucking bastard MS. It so didn’t seem to matter between us – we’d hardly mentioned it – but there was life beyond us where it did matter. I wondered if there was going to be a problem and tried to prepare myself to do whatever, say whatever I needed to, to make it right. Was I going to have to be noble and self-sacrificing? I bloody hoped not, I really wasn’t very good at it.

I frowned, and stroked Lau’s cheek.

‘Are yuh worried abouh yuhr job?’

‘I was, a bit, not enough to make any difference. Patrick said that he didn’t see a problem with how things are at the moment, you not being a patient of mine or anything. But we might have to think again if things change, I mean if you need to use our service at all.’

‘Shih, I never thought. Yuh could geh in trouble?’

But only in theory, if I used their service. Unlikely.

‘No, I don’t think so, I think I know where the line is now I’ve talked to Patrick. I think my main worry is Rachel. Once she knows about you and me, things will get really difficult.’

‘Oh Lau, sohry tuh make things hard for yuh.’

Matt Scott, the git that just kept on gitting. I put my arm round her and pulled her to me. She leaned against me and sighed.

Laura

He let go of my hand and put his arm round my shoulders, pulling me to him. I nestled into the space made by his arm, and felt safe and protected.

‘I don’t mind. This – whatever it is – I think it might be worth it.’

Matt

‘Oh Lau.’

Whoa, this woman was unbelievable. I’d spent a lot of today wondering if I’d misread her signals, if I’d been so keen that I’d misinterpreted how she was feeling, but she’d just said we were worth it, along with any hassle that might ensue. I’d just rocked up, said she was the one for me, and against all logical odds she was going with it.

I bent my head down and tilted her head up with my finger, kissing her mouth softly. Lau put her hand up to cup my cheek and turned towards me, pressing herself against me. We kept things soft and gentle and tender, just exploring each other with tiny tongue-flicks, nibbles and pecks against each other. It was a bloody marvellous way to get to know someone, and the little sparks of static that fizzed between us were thrilling.

Laura

I cupped his cheek with my hand and melted into the kiss, turning towards him and pressing myself against him. It stayed soft and gentle and tender, tiny flicks of his tongue against mine, it was almost more sensuous than the full-on snog we’d had earlier.

Matt

I suddenly thought of another way I could get to know a different part of her body. Oh stop it, not one of those parts, I thought I made it clear my unstoppable shag monster days were over? Honestly. It’s not that bit of the plan yet. No, I could do head massages, actually massages of most body parts, but heads a speciality. I hadn’t even been officially taught, although I’d had some pointers from Carrie, who did Reiki and Shiatsu. I hadn’t practised for some time, not since Jules and not since my nerves stopped sending reliable messages to my muscles, but I wanted to try to take some of Lau’s heavy day away from her.

‘Yuhv had a hard day – fancy a head massage?’

‘You can do head massages?’

I nodded. ‘Fingers migh not work, ih’s been a while, buh weh can try. Come on, hop on.’

I grabbed a cushion, patted my lap, and Lau wriggled round until she was lying on the sofa with her head on the cushion on my knees. Ignoring the fact that her head was very close to my manly extremities, that honestly wasn’t the reason for offering, no, honestly, I began. After a while of stroking, touching, massaging, Lau was sighing with pleasure, and I felt useful, valued, worth more than I’d felt in a long time.

Laura

I felt his hands in my hair, firstly softly stroking, then touching more firmly, using his fingertips to rub and stroke all over my head. His fingers moved confidently through my hair, pressing into my skull here and there, causing shivers and tingles to radiate outwards from the spots where his fingertips were touching me. I felt waves of tension leave me, and my whole body went limp. It was soothing, relaxing, making me sigh with pleasure.

The door buzzer shattered the mood, and Matt removed his hands from my head with a stroke to my cheek. I felt briefly like someone had poured cold water on me, although the sense of heat and wellbeing remained.

‘Fuck. OK Lau, tha’s yuhr lot fuh now. Tea’s up.’

He pushed me up and went to the door intercom, buzzing the door open and paying the delivery boy, then went to the kitchen to get plates and cutlery. I sat on the sofa, hardly able to move, in a state of complete bliss.

‘Where on earth did you learn to do that?’

‘Wha? Pay foh takeaway? My muhm brung me up proper.’

‘No, dafty, head massage. That was totally amazing.’

‘Glad yuh liked ih. Made ih up rehly. I’m good at massages.’

Seriously? Nobody who is that good just makes it up. But maybe now wasn’t the time to argue about it. If he was good at massages, I was going to be very relaxed a lot of the time.

‘Hooray.’

We smiled at each other.

‘Let’s eat this befohr ih gehs cold.’

Matt carried the plates over to the table, then went back for naan bread and cutlery. I sat down on a chair.

‘I love that you eat at the table. I usually slob out on the sofa. This is civilised.’

‘My sofa cost a bluhdy fortune. Not abouh tuh risk masala sauce stains. Much chehper tuh geh a new tablecloth.’

I was silent for a moment, looking at him, considering what I’d known about Matt, what I’d heard and what I’d supposed from the mixture of the two.

‘Wha?’

‘You’re not what I expected.’

‘Wha’d yuh expec?’

‘Well, maybe more … less … er … maybe more beer and football, less cooking and housework and flipping amazing massages.’

‘Heh, I do behr an football. Two of my threh favourite things tuh duh.’

I didn’t need to ask what the third was.

‘It wasn’t a criticism.’

‘I know. Lau, pehpl think they know meh. A loh of wha they know is shih, some of wha they know was meh buh not now, and some is the truth. Not many pehpl know the real meh, I’ve behn pretty guhd at hiding.’

‘Why have you wanted to hide?’

Matt looked away, out of the window, either considering the question, or deciding whether to answer it. I hoped he wasn’t going to want to hide too much from me. I was good at getting people to talk, but it was tiring having to extract information all the time.

‘Ih’s complicated. I’ve behn pretty fucked up. Since I was ill first tihm, then Carrie, then moved hehr, then work, ih’s all mixed up togehther. Needed tuh beh a certain way at work, like I was Matt plus, larger than lihf, women, flirting, drinking. Got the johb done.’

The picture he was painting sounded like the Matt I’d thought I knew, but it didn’t match up with the computer job he’d told me about this morning, and I wasn’t sure how it all fitted in.

‘I thought you worked in IT.’

‘Yeh, we’re not all nerds. Anyway, needed pehpl tuh see meh a certain way, soh couldn’t leh them see the other bits of meh. Soh no one knows I can cook, no one knows I can uhs a hoover, the lads come hehr foh behr an pizza, ih’s a mess till well after they’re gone. I tol yuh yesterday, I’m a bluhdy fuck up. Saw a counsellor a while bahk. Dihnt get anywhere.’

‘You could always give it another go.’

‘Noh, not foh meh. How’s the curry?’

I accepted the change of subject as the diversion it was, and agreed that the curry was tasty, if a bit salty, and could do with washing down with copious amounts of alcohol, although not too copious for me. I was starting to get a feeling for when I could push Matt to talk more, and when it really was ‘subject closed’. We filled our wine glasses and clinked them together.

‘Dohnt usually drink wine.’

‘Me neither, I’m a G and T girl.’

‘Always behr foh meh. Heh, I’ve got G and T if yuh wan?’

‘Maybe another time, I’ve got work tomorrow and I’m going to have to drive home.’

‘Oh, yuh not staying?’

He looked really disappointed.

‘No, it’s a school night. It’s still early, though, we’ve got plenty of time.’

‘Yeh, I know, I jus had such a greht time las nigh, behn a long tihm since I did jus a slehpover. Wanted tuh duh ih again.’

And so did I, so much, but I was having to try really hard to be sensible. I couldn’t be late to work again, and if I stayed here, with Matt, I was going to find it hard to leave the bed, let alone the flat, or travel across the city, away from him.