How the fuck had I let that happen? Did I have no willpower at all? Of all things, Carrie’s voice floated back to me from the past, ‘You blokes all say that, that you won’t be able to stop, but you just have to … stop, don’t you. Because carrying on isn’t really an option, is it?’
Jules looked like she was asleep; at any rate, she was curled up with her eyes closed. I pushed myself off the sofa and covered her with a throw, picked up her clothes and folded them, placing them in a pile near her head, then quickly dressed myself.
I was appalled at what I’d just done. Even in the full throes of Matt the Lad, I would never have screwed with someone who was having such an obviously hard time as Jules. I mean, OK, it’s not like I handed out a mental health questionnaire: You are about to get lucky with Matt. Please tick one of the following: a) I am in full possession of my faculties and happy with this state of affairs. b) I’ve had a few Jägerbombs, actually, but I know what I’m doing and am happy with the outcome. c) I am an off-my-kecks emotional wreck, probably shouldn’t really. But generally, especially in the whole keeping away from crying women scheme of things, I made sure everyone was OK with it all. Now, though, now, here was Jules, naked on my sofa, the evidence of my thoughtless dick-driven urges. So much for getting your act together, Matt. So much for being a better man. So much for sorting yourself out. What was the point of the last few weeks of abstinence and soul-searching if the moment some woman, who five minutes ago was seriously trying to do you an injury, looks for some kind of contact, you go all one hundred per cent full on. I could have stopped, couldn’t I? I should have stopped, shouldn’t I? I didn’t stop, did I?
I felt shame sweep over me, and I sat down hard in an armchair, leaned forward and pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes. When was I going to stop making a total fuck-up of my life? I was a mess. I was messing with other people. I seriously needed some help. I seriously was not going to ask for any help. Total, complete and utter fuck-up.
Was it seconds later? Minutes? Hours? I came to myself, lying on my side, a chenille throw covering me. I was naked underneath it. Matt was sitting on the edge of an armchair, fully clothed, head in his hands. He looked up, possibly sensing movement from me, and held a supplicating hand out towards me.
‘Julia, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I fucking did that. Or rather I can believe I fucking did that, it’s what I do after all, I just can’t believe I did it to you, in that state. You’re right, I’m a fucking arsehole. I’m so sorry.’
He turned his head away, and put his hands back over his face.
She didn’t say anything, just closed her eyes briefly, then opened them and looked at me again. I couldn’t take her gaze, so I turned my head away, and put my hands back over my face. Then, far later than it should have, it occurred to me that she would just want to get the fuck out of there, rather than stare at the bastard who had just thoughtlessly fucked her, and she needed to get dressed. So I forced my thoughts away from their damning introspection and stood up.
Thoughts started to flood into my mind. I set about organising them into priority order. I was desperate to regain some kind of control over this mad day, but things had spun so far out of my reach, I wasn’t sure which bit of me I was trying to push things back into. I wasn’t at work or at home, and I had no anchor, no fixed point to pin everything onto.
Alright, prioritise, I was good at that. Top priority: get out of here. Action plan: get dressed. Equipment needed: clothes. I looked around me and found a neatly folded pile of garments by my head, so I reached for them. Objective achieved. Next problem: I was naked. Action plan: tricky, but I could try to get dressed underneath the throw. Equipment needed: aforementioned clothing, already acquired.
Matt suddenly got up and spoke.
‘Sorry, Julia. You get dressed, I’ll be in the bathroom.’
He walked over to the window and pulled a blind across it, then went into another room, closing the door behind him.
I lay where I was, in the darkened room, for a few moments, wondering if my scattered thoughts were going to gather themselves. They didn’t show any sign of doing so, so I stuck to the action plan. Clothes on.
I almost faltered at the first hurdle when I picked up my pants to find they were merely a torn strip of fabric. Reality almost shoved its way through with a flash of memory, before I screwed them up and stuffed them under a cushion. Didn’t need pants. There, that was easily avoided. Everything else seemed to be in working order, so I stood up and quickly pulled trousers, bra and shirt on, slipped my shoes on my feet and put my bag on my shoulder.
I didn’t feel the need for a goodbye, only a quick exit, so I let myself out and drifted in a daze back along the streets, past the churchyard, to the car park at GreenScreen, where I sat in my car breathing deeply for as long as I dared. Eventually, impelled by the possibility of someone I knew going to their car and seeing me, I started the engine and drove off. I found myself outside my flat some time later, having apparently driven home without incident.
I closed the blinds and went and locked myself in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet and listening to the small sounds of her dressing and leaving. It didn’t take her long, and she didn’t slam the door behind her, but the click, as the latch caught, reverberated through me nonetheless.
I stayed where I was for a long time, condemning myself, hating myself, berating myself. Then I got up and went back into the living room, opened the blinds and started tidying, not really thinking about what I was doing, straightening cushions, putting the throw over the back of the sofa. When I picked up one of the cushions, I found a scrap of black fabric – all that was left of Jules’ pants. I had torn them off her body in my frenzy, and it made me feel sick, that I’d done that to her. Oh it wasn’t the first time I’d ripped someone’s knickers off, not by a long way, but this was very different. It spoke to me of someone who had no self-control, who would stop at nothing to feed his need, and who respected no one’s feelings. It shocked me deeply.
I had never been so happy to see a front door. I lurched out of the car and fumbled, trembling, with the key to the street door. I shoved it open and ran up the stairs, to more fumbling with my front door key. When I finally got it open, I fell into my flat, tumbling head first onto the sofa, where I lay and felt another burst of sobbing racking my body.
Now I was home, I could face what I truly felt. I was safe here, I was me, not pretending or acting. The full implications of what had just happened could be analysed another time, but I had to face the fact that I had just had sex with Matt Scott. Stupid, meaningless, thoughtless sex. Unprotected sex. Rough, noisy, hot sex. With Matt Scott. A work colleague. An egotistical arsehole who would use it to torture me at every turn from now on. I nearly cried again, but was beginning, now I was home, to be able to gather a semblance of order to it all. I needed to think about what this meant, how I was going to deal with it, but first I needed a drink.
I had been thirsty for hours, and had cried too much. Dehydration was making me feel sick and woozy. I fetched myself a large glass of water and drank it all in one go. I fetched another, and sipped it more slowly, feeling the fuzziness in my head start to dissipate.
It kept hitting me. I had sex with Matt Scott. Stupid – yes. Meaningless – yes. Hot – where did that come from? I needed to think about it rationally, about how I was going to be able to function at work tomorrow. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be going in tomorrow. I had wasted enough time this afternoon, and there were projects that needed handling. No, the only question was not whether but how I was going to do this. I wrapped myself in The Ice Queen and started building tomorrow out of her snowy mantle.
My phone rang several times, but I ignored it until I could think straight enough to realise that it was probably work wondering where I was. I called them back and said I wasn’t feeling well and had gone home sick. Then I made myself a strong cup of coffee and sat down to give myself a severe talking to.
I went through it all – how I’d been in Stafford before Carrie; how I’d been with Carrie; how I’d been when I was ill; how I’d been since I’d got better and started to explore life in this city; how I’d been, or thought I’d been, for the last few weeks. I tried to make sense of it all. The best I could come up with was that, Carrie aside, I really didn’t do commitment. I was happier with one night or at the most a few nights, which wasn’t fair on the women I’d been with, who didn’t necessarily know that. I was a total bastard.
Some time later, I had worked it all through in my mind, how I was going to act, what I was going to say, how I was going to respond to taunts, teasing, questions. I felt a lot better. It was going to be alright. I could do this. Nothing had really changed, just a mistake, an accident caused by being under pressure. Handled in the right way, nothing would be any different.
My self-congratulation was interrupted by my phone ringing in my bag. I looked at the clock. Seven o’clock. My mother. God, she was going to tell me about Nons. I’d completely forgotten. Crushed, I answered.
‘JuJu darling. Oh, darling isn’t it just terrible?’
‘I got your text.’
‘Oh did you? You didn’t reply, I wondered whether it had gone astray.’
‘I was at work, you know I can’t reply when I’m at work.’
This was a half-truth designed to circumvent any expectation of being able to be in contact with my mother while I was working. It wasn’t a GreenScreen rule that you couldn’t use a personal mobile; it was my rule. Shades of grey.
‘Oh nonsense, it was important, they would have understood.’
‘Mum, what happened?’
‘Oh, yes. Sorry, darling, it’s all been frightful, your father and I have had to fly over to sort everything out, we’ve had to cut our trip to Florence short and we might have to cancel our reservations in Reykjavik –’
I was beyond irritated. This was typical of my mother; my parents’ travel arrangements always took precedence over any other life event. It seemed they were even more important than the death of her only sister. Why had I thought the ‘just terrible’ thing was Nons, when obviously it was having to cut short a trip to Florence. I don’t know what else I expected – my mother and father had been travelling nearly all of my life, and when they weren’t globe-trotting, they stayed with my sisters in Europe.
‘Tell me what happened to Nons.’
‘Oh, alright JuJu.’
She sounded surprised that I was asking, irritated that I had interrupted her report on her itinerary.
‘They think she had a heart attack.’
‘A heart attack, darling. William found her yesterday, he’d apparently been worried when he hadn’t seen her all day. He looked through the kitchen window and saw her on the floor, and called the emergency services. They had to break the door down. Made a terrible mess everywhere, your father and I have had to stay here while we’re waiting for an emergency carpenter.’
I was only getting snippets of the information I wanted, the rest was irrelevant. Biting back a terse remark, I started to ask the questions I needed answers to.
‘Was she still … alive … when they found her?’
‘Oh no, she’d been dead for hours. They said it would have been instant, or at least very quick, painless.’
But they always said that, didn’t they, what was the point in saying to relatives ‘oh no, it would have been slow and hurt a lot’?
‘Was she alone?’
I couldn’t bear the thought of Nons dying alone, I wished I’d been there to hold her hand and whisper that I loved her.
‘Yes, darling, who else do you think would have been there?’
Well it would have been nice if her sister, for example, had been able to visit before she died rather than after. But saying that was going to lead to a conversation in which I learned nothing except my mother’s opinion of me, so I held my tongue.
‘But she hadn’t been ill, had she?’
‘I don’t think so, JuJu, but I hadn’t been in touch for a little while. Did she say anything to you?’
‘No, nothing. I was going to go up this weekend, I haven’t – hadn’t seen her for ages.’
I felt so guilty, I’d been putting off visiting for so long, so many things I wanted to do instead – parties, shopping, weekends with friends. I’d spoken on the phone every week, as normal, and had sensed nothing out of place. But I might have noticed something if I’d seen her. The guilt welled up and mingled with the pain of losing her. I was almost grateful for all the weeping I’d done earlier that day; I was able to push it away. My mother did not cope well with emotions.
‘Oh well you still can, there’s lots needs doing. If you came up, your father and I could maybe fit in a couple of days in London, there’s a Mondrian exhibition at the Tate …’
This showed how important both Nons and I were in my parents’ lives. I was a place-filler, someone who could handle an inconvenient death for them while they looked at coloured squares. I was so used to it, I hardly felt the anger any more.
‘When’s the funeral?’
‘Oh darling, we haven’t had a chance to think about that, we’ve been too busy cancelling bookings and rearranging things. Perhaps it’s something you can help with when you come up?’
‘But I won’t be there until the weekend, I won’t be able to sort anything out on a Saturday, it will all be shut.’
‘Nonsense, these places are open twenty four hours these days. Or they should be.’
My mother’s answer to everything. If it wasn’t how she wanted it, well it should be, and she was just going to sit back until someone made it happen for her.
‘Oh, JuJu, I’ve got to go, your father’s having trouble with the online booking service. Give me a tinkle tomorrow, tell me what you want to do. Maybe you could phone some people, darling?’
She disconnected, and I felt the dull ache of the old rage fluttering up from the past. I let it flit around for a bit, but in the end it settled back down where it belonged. My mother was never going to change, she was always going to be concerned only with her own enjoyment, and she was never going to think of me as anything other than an inconvenience or a trophy, depending on whether I was disappointing her, or she was boasting about me.
My parents had me after my two older sisters had grown up and gone to university. I was not planned; I knew this at a very early age. I stopped them travelling the world, as they had intended to do after Sophie and Debra left home, until Auntie Nons, my mother’s unmarried sister, offered to look after me for a year when I was four, while they got it out of their systems. Except they never got it out of their systems, and Auntie Nons carried on looking after me, year after year, until I left to go to university myself. My parents were well into their seventies now, but showed no signs of ending their continuing search for that elusive unturned stone in some far off land.
Nons had fed and clothed me, cleaned my grazed knees, wiped my tears, waved me off to my first day of school, mopped me up after my first broken heart, persuaded me not to get a skull tattoo on my left buttock, taught me to drive, taught me to drink, and loved me as much as if I’d been her own child. Probably more.
Nons listened to me as I, at first, told her how my parents were going to come back and we were all going to live together in a huge house, and then as I downscaled my dreams to spending holidays with them by the sea and finally stopped mentioning them at all, as their gifts and postcards became less and less frequent. She never judged them, I never heard her say a bad word about my parents, even when I screamed at her and called her all the names under the sun for not being my mother.
My sisters hardly knew me; I had arrived when they were off discovering their own newly parent-free world, and a baby sister had not had nearly the same appeal as grown-up university life. Once I lived with Nons, I got the odd birthday card when they remembered, but hardly saw them and didn’t know them as people, just as names and faded photographs. They both lived abroad now, Debra in France and Sophie in Switzerland, and my parents used their houses as bases from which to plan their almost continuous World Tour.
I sat, numb, contemplating life without Nons. I should call William, he would be devastated, but I couldn’t face it right now. I couldn’t face talking to anyone, not even Evie, who would know just what to say to make everything alright. If I talked to anyone I was going to cry again, and I didn’t have the strength for that. I just about had the energy to make myself a sandwich and eat it, washing it down with a large glass of Pinot Grigiot, before I stumbled into bed, where, head full of Nons and how much I missed her, I cried myself to sleep.
I nearly fell back into the dark pit, but maybe some of the ‘not leaving you alone’ bollocks had permeated into my psyche, because the thought of Dec prising all of this out of me in some kind of all night intervention marathon made me realise I was just going to have to sort it myself. I was going to have to go back to square one in the ‘sorting my shit out’ plan, and start again. It was going to be hard to change. Harder, even, because I couldn’t let them at work know that Matt the Lad had altered his MO. I didn’t even know what I’d altered it to. I was still going to go out, get wrecked. Maybe I had to appear more wrecked than I was in order to stay in control of things. Shit, I couldn’t even stay in control of things when I was stone cold sober, as I had just proven. I had no hope. But I had to try. I had to believe there was no such thing as not being able to stop. I was going to make it true. I was going to change. This conclusion took me all of the rest of the day to come to, and I spent a sleepless night with everything still going round my head.
Oblivion felt good. I clung on to it as something tried to pull me out, something insistent and piercing. I wrapped myself up in the darkness, but the pull continued and eventually I surfaced, gasping, hearing the buzzing of the alarm clock and remembering it all.
Before I could dwell too much, I forced myself to go over my strategy for work today, pulling on my cold and distant persona as shield and armour to get me through, pushing unwanted thoughts about both Nons and Matt Scott as far to the back of my mind as they would go. I didn’t want distractions today, I had a lot to do.
I got out of bed and forced myself through my morning routine, propelling myself ever closer to the moment I was going to have to leave my sanctuary and face it all.
I breathed deeply all the way to work in my car, forcing myself to relax. Once I had seen him and got the first contact over with, I would feel calmer, I knew I would. That first contact wouldn’t be immediate, though.
Matt Scott worked part time, and usually rolled up half way through the morning, with bags of doughnuts and cups of coffee for his team. Part one of my strategy was to arrive early at the office, so I could leave early and reduce the amount of potential time in the vicinity of Matt Scott to a minimum.
I pulled up in the car park, the first car in the GreenScreen spaces. I unlocked the door and flicked all the lights on, illuminating the reception desk at the bottom and the stairwell as I walked up. Unlocking and walking through the door at the top of the stairs, I breathed in the tranquility. It wouldn’t last long; as soon as the first person arrived and started boiling the kettle, it would cease to be my space, but that was why I loved getting in first. For the first five, ten, occasionally twenty minutes of the day, it felt like mine, and that oasis helped me through. Today my oasis only lasted until I walked to my office, as I heard the door open behind me and voices filled up the silence.
‘Yeah, just walked out, he ran after her, neither of them came back – oh.’
The gossip stopped as soon as I was spotted taking my coat off, but there was no greeting, just a drive-by staring, which I shot back at them with interest, as they hurried past, bursting into giggles as they disappeared into the kitchen, from where I could hear their voices but not their words.
I turned on my computer and reached for the file I needed for this morning’s planning meeting. Yesterday’s hi-jacking of the Cullen report by Matt Scott’s team meant we would have to rethink our priorities, and I wanted to be clear about where I saw us heading before we were asked to take on anything else.
After organising my paperwork, I ventured into the kitchen for coffee. There was a small group of people in there, a couple from my team, one or two from Matt’s and some admin staff. The chatter stopped as I entered and people looked down into their coffee cups. Lexi, the receptionist, was the first to speak.
‘Yes, thank you.’
‘What have you done to your hand?’
‘I scratched it.’
I didn’t volunteer any further information, and Lexi didn’t quite have the nerve to push for more.
‘Oh. There were some messages for you yesterday afternoon. I put them in your tray.’
‘Yes, I saw them, thank you.’
‘Botley’s were trying all afternoon, I didn’t know where you were, I said you’d ring them first thing, although I didn’t really know if you were coming in or not –’
‘Thank you, Lexi, I’ll ring them.’
I knew they thought I was a supercilious cow, I encouraged that opinion to maintain some distance, but it was hard, on that morning, to have them all looking at me and wishing I wasn’t there, so they could get on with speculating. So I finished making my coffee and left, hearing ‘sniffy bitch’ and the resulting laughter as I walked back to my office.
The morning wore on. The meetings and project work I was doing filled my head and pushed everything else aside, which was a relief, although I found myself looking up every time the door opened, expecting it to be Matt, dreading it but wishing he would hurry up and get here so it would be over with, everyone would know, I could start to get on with it.
But Matt didn’t appear. It wasn’t that unusual for him to pitch up just before lunchtime, spend half an hour laughing and joking with everyone and then take them all off for a team lunch somewhere. But today, he didn’t appear at all. I tried to listen out for snippets of conversation that might give me a clue as to when he was expected, but in the end my anxiety got the better of me, and I went to see Phil.
The next morning, work loomed, and I just couldn’t face Jules that day. I hadn’t come up with anything I could say to her and I didn’t think I’d be able to look her in the eye. She’d made it clear what her opinion of me was, even before the disaster that was yesterday, and now it was going to be even lower. There were no words of apology I would be able to offer that would mean anything, but I certainly wasn’t going to be able to attempt any words of any description in front of the assembled gossip-mongers at GreenScreen. So I called in sick again and spent another miserable day trying to decide what to do about Julia.
‘Julia. Come in.’
‘I need to hand some things over to Matt, is he going to be in today?’
‘I believe he’s rung in sick. Can’t you do it with Joe?’
My heart sank. I would have to delay the ‘getting it over with’ part of my strategy.
‘I suppose I could. It just seemed more efficient to go straight to Matt so I know he’s got all the information he needs.’
Phil chuckled to himself.
‘You and your efficiency, Julia. I’m glad to see you came in today. Is everything alright? You left in a bit of a hurry yesterday.’
‘I’m fine, thank you.’
‘There were quite a few clients trying to get hold of you.’
‘I’ve contacted most of them. I’ll stay later today to make up my hours.’
Now I knew Matt wasn’t going to be in, I was happy to be there as long as it took to catch up with what I’d missed out on yesterday.
‘Don’t worry about it, Julia. You know, er, you can talk to me about anything, if there’s anything worrying you, don’t you?’
‘There’s nothing, thank you. Although, it’s possible I may need a day off in the next couple of weeks for a family funeral.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, someone close?’
Yes, as close as it was possible to be without her being your own mother.
To Phil, an aunt wasn’t really tragic news and he dismissed it as something that would take me away from the office for a day, but shouldn’t impact any further on my work. I was grateful that I wasn’t going to have to endure sympathy and entreaties to take some personal time. What I needed was impersonal time.
‘Yes, of course, just let Lexi know when you’ll be off. Now, I’ve had some thoughts about how you might re-jig your team’s workload …’
It was partly the thought of what she might have heard about me on the rumour mill that made me realise I was going to have to go and see her. We’d had unprotected sex – shit, I never had unprotected sex, I was always so careful, again with the what the fuck had I been thinking – and she needed to know it was OK, at least from the nasty diseases point of view.
I didn’t know where Jules lived, so I called Phil and begged him to give me her address, saying I needed to apologise about the Cullen fiasco. He agreed in the end, after I reminded him it was mostly his fault anyway and I was saving his arse too.
The rest of the day was filled with phone calls, meetings and computer work as I tried to catch up with the things I’d missed yesterday afternoon. By the time I looked at the clock, wondering if it was time to go home yet, I was virtually the only one left. Phil came past my door, coat over his arm.
‘You off soon, Julia?’
‘Yes, just finishing up.’
‘You alright locking up?’
And so I had my oasis back. With everyone gone, my shoulders untensed, I breathed more deeply and I relaxed. I enjoyed it for as long as I could, and then the thought of the phone calls I was going to have to make when I got home started intruding on the peace. Sighing, I put my coat on, picked up my bag and left.
Back home, having eaten, and started a new bottle of wine, I reviewed the day. It could have been worse. I had managed to make up for the time I lost yesterday afternoon, and although I was still dreading Matt’s return and the embarrassment I was going to face when everyone knew, I had weathered the storm of gossip this morning, and it had diminished to an apathetic drizzle by the afternoon.
I had spoken to Phil about my disappointment at having the Cullen report taken away from my team, he had listened to my point of view and agreed to do things differently another time. I was now home, enjoying a good glass of red, and feeling more relaxed. It was time to start calling some people. William was top of my list.
I parked in the next street and walked to Julia’s flat. I found her name on the bell outside, but there was no answer when I pressed it. I looked up at the building, but had no idea which windows would be hers, so couldn’t tell if she was in or not. I pressed the bell again, for longer.
I’d lucked out; she’d answered.
‘Julia, it’s Matt.’
Oh shit. How on earth did he know where I lived? I didn’t give my address out to anyone at work. What did he want? He wasn’t coming up.
I put the handset down and returned to my seat on the sofa, heart pounding and thoughts whirling. Then I got up and looked out of the front window, through the voile curtains, and saw him stand back from the door and look up at the building.
I nearly gave up, but as I looked around, an old lady started to walk up the steps towards me. I approached her, my best ‘I’m not a serial killer’ smile on my face.
‘Hi, do you live here?’
She was a worryingly trusting old lady, because she smiled back and answered.
‘Yes I do.’
‘I don’t suppose you could let me in could you? I’ve just buzzed Julia in flat five and I think there’s something wrong with her buzzer. I could hardly hear her, and the door won’t open.’
‘Oh dear, well, yes I suppose I could. These buzzers are a bit contrary sometimes. She’s a nice girl, your Julia.’
Thanking the cosmic supplier of contrary buzzers, I compounded the half truth that was backing up my story.
‘Yeah, she is, lucky me.’
I flashed her another ‘I’m harmless’ smile, and she opened the door for me.
To my horror, I saw Mrs Custance from 2B walk up the pavement towards him, keys in hand. I saw Matt talk to her, while she nodded and smiled and fell for his sweet talk, and let him in. Shit, shit, shit.
I let the old lady go ahead of me, partly because I’m polite like that, and partly because I didn’t want her to realise I wasn’t sure where Julia’s flat was. I found flat five on the second floor, and knocked on the door, speaking without waiting for her to open the door. She probably wasn’t going to anyway, so I might as well start straight away.
Well he wasn’t coming in. He could just stay out there and do or say whatever he had come to do or say, he could – a knock on the door startled me.
‘Julia, please, I need to talk to you.’
Well he could need all he wanted, I was not even going to answer him, let alone open the door.
There was no answer, no sound from behind the door that indicated she was at home. If she hadn’t answered her buzzer a few moments ago, I wouldn’t have believed she was actually there.
A long pause, during which I went to the peep hole to see if he had gone. The sight of his face, close up and distorted by the fish-eye lens, made me jump, and my hand came up involuntarily to ward him off, hitting the door. He must have heard.
I stood close to the door, as close as I could without putting my ear to it and listening, so that I could hear any small sounds of movement. There was a sudden bang on the door from the inside. She was right there, probably looking through the peephole to see if I’d gone or not. I took my chance.
‘Julia? Please let me in, I just want to say something, I’m not going to stay, I just need to do this.’
‘I’m not interested in what you need. Go away.’
So much for not even answering him.
She’d answered me. Result. I ploughed on with my plan.
‘It’s not just what I need, you need it too. You need to hear this. I can say it through the door if you want, but I’m not sure you want all your neighbours hearing about my STDs right n –’
She’d opened the door and pulled me inside before I’d finished the sentence. She slammed the door shut and glared at me, dark eyes flashing angry fire. I tried to look contrite; the STD thing was pretty shabby of me, but also true.
I’d expected a smirk on his face, triumphant that his scheme had worked, but he actually looked contrite. On closer inspection, he also looked pale and haggard.
‘Sorry, Julia, that was a bloody cheap trick. Like I said, I won’t keep you long, and I actually do want to tell you about my STDs. Or lack of them.’
As he was standing there, I was having flashbacks to yesterday afternoon in his flat – the kissing and the nakedness and the heat. My face was burning. I couldn’t speak.
She looked tired and pale. I hoped she hadn’t had as shit a time as I had over the last day or so. As I stood there, looking at her, her face started to redden and she looked really uncomfortable.
‘Are you OK?’
She nodded, curtly, and her pallor slowly returned, although she continued to look uncomfortable. OK then, let’s get on with this.
If by OK, he meant unable for the moment to think about anything other than his hands on me, my mouth on his, then yes, I was absolutely fine. Then he spoke again and broke the spell.
‘Well, anyway, we had unprotected sex yesterday.’
I snorted derisively. Matt took a breath and started in on a long explanation.
‘Yeah, well, I guess you were there. Sorry, I’ve been thinking about it all fucking day, I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t come to work, I couldn’t face you, I feel so bad about it, anyway, I just want to put your mind at rest. I know there are some wild stories floating around about me, some of them are true, some of them are, shall we say, exaggerated. I’ve heard the one about all the different things you can catch if you let Matt Scott’s dick within a mile of you. That’s one of the exaggerations. Actually, it’s more than that, it’s a tale put out there by a delightful lady by the name of Petra who was a little disappointed that I didn’t propose marriage after a night of passion, and decided to try to spoil my chances of any further nights of passion with any further delightful ladies by spreading malicious rumours. Worked for a while, too. But anyway, sorry, neither here nor there. It’s not true, not any of it. I’ve been thoroughly and regularly tested for any nasty diseases, infections, crawling things or viruses and my nether regions have been pronounced fit for use by all and sundry.’
I hoped I’d hit the right note of openness, reassurance and responsibility. It soon appeared I had failed, on all three counts.
‘Oh well that’s alright then.’
I could do sarcasm, but Julia’s tone of voice told me I was a novice when it came to caustic.
I’d found my voice, my full-blown, sarcastic, now-I’ve-really-had-it-with-you voice. This man had to be the most self-involved, egotistical, arrogant representative of his gender I had ever encountered. Flashbacks of naked, entwined bodies notwithstanding.
‘That’s all it is to you, isn’t it? Phew, I didn’t give her the clap, aren’t I a gent. Oh, I suppose you’re wondering if you might have impregnated me too? Well breathe easy, Matt, I’m on the pill. Another lucky escape, eh.’
‘No, that’s not what –’
Well it kind of was, but there’s no way I would have asked, and she’d cut me off again.
‘As long as your dick’s alright to be used by ‘all and sundry’, we can sleep in our beds, knowing Matt Scott’s still out there sticking it to some ‘delightful lady’ he has no intention of ever seeing again.’
I was really getting it with both barrels, and it was completely deserved. If only she knew how much of a champion she was being for all the other women I’d treated like shit. But I was still trying to explain.
‘Julia, please –’
‘Do you know what my biggest worry is about having had sex with you? Not what filthy diseases I may have been at risk of picking up, but whether I was actually out of my fucking mind. Yes there are plenty of wild stories about you, your mother must be so proud, but they don’t tell me about the health of your genitals. They tell me what a complete arsehole you are, what a taker you are, how little you give back, and I can’t believe I was stupid enough – no, worse than stupid, I must have been completely certifiable – to have allowed it to happen. Well you can go now, there’s not much I can do about it, it’s happened, you can tell your little gang, you can all have a good laugh, Hot Scott melted the Ice Queen, then maybe we can all get on with our lives and forget it ever happened.’
All the other stuff, it was pretty much what I thought. In her eyes I was a low-life, and fair enough; in my own eyes I was a low-life. But she thought I’d done it so I could score points at work, she honestly thought I’d go in and brag about it, and I had to put her right on that.
He actually looked appalled, and had gone a few shades paler.
‘I would never –’
‘But you already did, we already did. It’s too late.’
‘No, I mean, I haven’t told, I would never tell, anyone. I told you yesterday, I’m not the one who’s done any of the telling –’
‘So it’s not going to be all over the office tomorrow, how I shagged Julia Marran? Don’t make me laugh.’
Oh shit, she really thought I would. I had to convince her. Whatever else she thought of me, the sleeping around, partying hard bollocks, she had to know I wouldn’t bring it to work. I was never the one who spilt the beans, it was always someone else. I just chose to neither confirm nor deny things. Arsehole that I, assuredly, was.
‘No! Julia, please believe me. I feel fucking terrible that I let it happen in the first place, you were really vulnerable, really upset, I should have had more fucking self-control. The last thing I want to do is make it worse by telling anyone about it. I know I come across as a bit of an annoying bell-end sometimes, but is that really what you think of me?’
The look on her face, full of scorn and distaste, confirmed it. I looked down and muttered to myself.
‘Shit, nice one Matt.’
Then he lifted his head, and he actually looked miserable. In spite of myself, I felt a bit sorry for him. If this conversation had happened at work, there was no way I would have allowed him any sympathy at all, but we were in my home, where I was Jules, who had feelings and couldn’t hide behind ice walls all the time. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Then I looked up, miserably, wondering if there was any way I could salvage anything from this, or if I should just cut my losses and let her get on with her evening.
‘So you’re not going to tell anyone?’
Oh, this suddenly sounded more promising. Had I somehow managed to convince her, then? I shook my head.
‘So, if I hear even a hint from someone else about what happened yesterday –’
‘Then you must have told them. I promise you, Julia. I’ve spent all day at home, just thinking about it, thinking about the sort of person I am, I don’t like it, I don’t like being two different people just to get a job done, I don’t like what it’s done to me –’
‘What do you mean, two different people?’
‘This act I put on at work, fun Matt, man-of-the-people Matt, Matt the Lad. What did you call me? Hot Scott. Yeah, heard that one too. Oh, I won’t say some of it’s not me, or that I haven’t enjoyed a lot of it, but it’s over the top, an act, it’s how I get people to do what I want them to, gel as a team, relax at work so it doesn’t seem like work.’
‘But … that’s what I do.’
It burst out of her in a petulant wail, as if I’d taken her sweets.
‘Yeah I know, Julia Marran, Ice Queen, super bitch, don’t cross her, do exactly what she says or she’ll spear you with some frosty sarcasm. I know you’re not really like that. We’re kind of the same, you and me. Except completely and absolutely opposite to each other. I bet if we compared notes we’d have fucking tons in common – oh, know what, we do, don’t we. Books, films, art, we talked about it all in The Long Legged Frog.’
That seemed so long ago, but he was right, we had talked about a lot of different things, and I had been struck by how similar our tastes and opinions were. And yesterday at his flat, I had been expecting an extension of – what had he called it? – Matt the Lad, but had seen a glimpse of someone with style and flair, and who may be a little more grown up than I’d given him credit for.
‘I guess we did.’
She seemed, somewhat miraculously, to be warming up to me a little. I decided to make the most of it.
‘I had a really nice time that evening, getting to know you a bit, being myself a bit.’
I wanted to try to push home my advantage, salvage what I could of this mess. Even if I could just get her to stop hating me, see me as someone different, just for a while …
‘Mm.’ She nodded.
‘But I guess now I’ve fucked it all up and confirmed what a ‘taker’ I am. I’m so sorry, Julia. I don’t know if it means anything, but I really like you. Yesterday, I know what it must have seemed like, a bit out of the blue, but I’ve actually … well I suppose it doesn’t matter now.’
What was the point in telling her I’d had a thing for her? She’d made it pretty clear what she thought about me.
I wanted him to go on. He was starting to intrigue me. Yes, it was Matt Scott standing in my flat, a place nobody from work ever came to disrupt the equilibrium, but I was starting to see a different side to him, a side that interested me, a side that wasn’t self-involved, egotistical or arrogant.
‘Let’s say it matters. You’ve actually what?’
He looked at me, a slight frown above his eyes, wondering where I was going with that. I could see him thinking about whether it was worth it to finish his sentence, and deciding it might be. He took a deep breath, as if to steel himself against something.
What was she up to? Was this some kind of game where she gets a confession out of me and then slaps me down even harder? Oh well, she had earned it I suppose. I took a deep breath, to prepare myself for what might be coming.
‘OK then. I’ve actually been trying to pluck up the courage to ask you out. Since before the Long Legged Frog, but definitely after.’
‘What? But, but … me?’
I spluttered. I was so far removed from the women Matt was known for asking out, the dizzy blonde brigade, that I couldn’t quite take it in.
It was so cute, her seeming to think she wasn’t my type or something, I almost laughed. Like I had a type. Two lumpy bits in front? My type, simple as.
‘You’re fucking hot, Julia Marran. And you’re interesting. And, as I said, we’re the same in a way, I wanted to explore that a bit. Get to know you without all the ‘big act’ crap getting in the way for both of us. But you’re bloody scary, and I wasn’t sure what you’d say. Well, actually I was perfectly sure what you’d say, and I didn’t really want to hear it.’
I was being more bloody open and honest than I’d been in a long time, with anyone. It was true, she interested me, she attracted me, she intrigued me. And now she knew, and she could do with it what she would. It was almost as if I trusted her with an important part of me, and knew she would respect it. It felt right to be open with her, which should have felt wrong and had me panicking, but instead had me sharing. Bloody hell.
This was not possible. Nobody knew both sides of me, there wasn’t anyone who crossed over between the two worlds I inhabited. And now it was out of the bag, and I wondered how long it would be before it ruined everything.
‘Julia, I … yesterday was a mistake. Things got out of hand in a way I’m ashamed of –’
‘Weren’t there two of us in the room?’
Well of course there were, I knew that, but I also knew which one of us had cried several times, and then turned murderously violent, and then clung to me in some kind of daze.
‘Only one of us was thinking straight. I shouldn’t have –’
‘I was thinking straight. I know I was upset, I’d just thrown a huge wobbler, lots of stuff had gone on beforehand, but I knew exactly what I was doing. I’m not sure I could explain any of it, but if I’d wanted to I could have stopped it.’
I was letting him off the hook. Part of me had enjoyed seeing him miserable and beating himself up about it, but a larger part thought enough misery had already been caused, and he’d been pretty honest with me about a lot of things.
What was this? Was she letting me off the hook? I couldn’t quite believe it. She should be screaming at me about what a bastard I was, but she was saying she’d been in her right mind and had been up for it. Holy shit.
‘So … you wanted it too?’
‘At that moment, yes. I didn’t think about it, hadn’t planned it or ever even considered it, except in an ‘over my dead body’ kind of way. I liked the way you made me feel and I needed more. At that moment.’
The word that I’d been pushing out of my mind, the one that accused me, that put me in serious forever shit, the one I couldn’t even contemplate, I started to feel I could let it go. I’d been trying not to imagine police sirens and swabs and headlines and lots of other terrifying scenarios, but they had all been there, potentially, if I really had forced myself on her. But if I hadn’t, if she’d been willing … oh fuck, I’d still done a terrible thing, but maybe not quite as terrible as I hadn’t been completely able to admit to myself.
‘I don’t know what that means for now. You … you’re starting to fascinate me. You’re not what I thought you were. But there’s a lot of other stuff. I’m like I am at work for a reason. The same way you are, I guess. None of that can change, whatever we’ve found out about each other just now – if you tell anyone I’ll call you a liar.’
And not only had she been willing then, but it sounded like she was saying she might not be averse to getting to know me a bit better now.
‘Yes, you said.’
‘So are you saying … we could … what?’
I saw her thinking about it. I was hanging on her every word. It wasn’t going to be ‘let’s be fuck buddies’ or ‘marry me’ or anything easily definable in-between I was staying open to things; this evening had already thrown more pleasant surprises my way than I had been prepared for.
I considered it. I wasn’t going to make any promises. But the thought of getting to know Matt, the real Matt, was becoming more intriguing by the minute.
‘I’m saying we could get to know each other, who we really are away from work, and see if we like each other. That’s it. At work, things are exactly as they always were.’
And that was about as perfect for me as it was likely to get. No strings, nothing to make excuses about.
‘Stop saying that, you sound like an illiterate idiot. I’ll start regretting all this in a minute.’
‘No you won’t, because the thought of the hot sex will keep you going. It was fucking hot, wasn’t it?’
I just couldn’t resist mentioning it now, now I knew she wasn’t totally repulsed by the memory, now I knew it had been a two way thing. Her cheeks turned red again.
An unbidden recollection of Matt’s naked body pounding into mine turned my cheeks scarlet.
‘You blush! Oh you’re so cute. The Ice Queen blusheth.’
I glared at him from behind my crimson cheeks.
‘Oh don’t be like that. You want to get to know the real me? Well the real me is a bit of a tease. The real you had better bloody well get used to it. How about we seal our new deal? What’s that pub like down the end of your road? The Whispering Kettle or something? Fancy a pint?’
I realised I was pushing my luck, but the rush of relief I’d felt at the sudden turnaround had made me bold.
‘Matt, I think we’ve done enough to be going on with for one night, don’t you? Let’s start another night. I’ve got a lot to do this evening, and a lot to think about now.’
I hadn’t really expected anything more, but it was a bit disappointing nonetheless.
‘OK, fair enough. How about a snog before I go then?’
I flashed her a cheeky grin, knowing it was way beyond likely.
He was grinning cheekily, eyes and mouth crinkling. He would have, if I’d agreed, but he wasn’t expecting me to agree.
‘I don’t think so.’
I saw her hesitate and instantly closed the distance between us, wrapping my arms around her. She pulled me closer. It was just like yesterday, before it all went wrong. She melted into me and I loved how she felt in my arms, like she belonged there. I pushed that thought away. No one belonged there, I was my own person, I didn’t do belonging. But it felt nice, I liked it. There you are, I could admit that without freaking out, and after a short time I kissed the top of her head.
It was just like yesterday, I felt safe and held and it was so comforting. So much like yesterday that after a short time I felt him kiss the top of my head. But I had to stop it before it happened all over again. I moved my arms and pushed him gently away, looking up into his actually quite spectacular grey eyes.
‘Go home. I’ll see you tomorrow. At work. Me Ice Queen, you Lord of the Lads.’
‘Ha ha. Alright then, I’ll go. But can I see you tomorrow, after work?’
I’ve always been of the ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ persuasion.
And this time I got.
‘Text me during the day. Have you got my number?’
‘I don’t use my mobile at work.’
I spent half my working life messaging and using social media, some of it work, some of it not. I wouldn’t know what to do without my mobile in my hand.
‘Not on purpose.’
‘Then it’s going to have to be The Rustling Saucepan or whatever the fuck it’s called. I bet you’re a regular.’
I’d walked past it on my way from my car to her flat. It was as good a place as any.
‘They do a good Cabernet Sauvignon. And it’s The Whistling Panhandler. And it’s a wine bar.’
‘I knew it. Regular. OK, there. Eight? Seven?’
‘Date. Yes, I’ve got a date with bloody Julia Marran, re-fucking-sult.’
The triumphant look on his face almost made me change my mind, as I had a sudden anxiety that this was all still some kind of game for him. Well, maybe it was, maybe it was for both of us – certainly a little voice I was trying to ignore was wondering if this was just a way of distracting myself from Nons. We’d have to see if either of us ended up on the winning side.
I nearly blew it then, Matt the Lad resurfacing just as she was starting to trust me. Then I saw her ignore it, and breathed a bit easier. I made sure we exchanged mobile numbers, even if she wasn’t going to use hers at work, then I left, mentally breathless, feeling tons better, still resolved to follow my not being a bastard plan, as well as my ‘never again get so completely carried away that I’m not sure if I’ve forced myself on someone’ plan, but nonetheless excited about developments with Jules.