And then he went, but not before making me give him my mobile number and watching me programme his number into mine. I was mentally breathless with it all, maybe I was a little bit mad, I was certainly behaving somewhat out of character. It remained to be seen how we managed to keep it up at work.
Matt’s revelation yesterday that he and I were in some kind of competition instigated by Phil had shaken me, but this evening’s events changed the rules and things may take a while to settle down for me. I shook my head, to try to shake it all out. I had things to do. I had been about to call William, and now I had to be Jules and put all thoughts of Matt Scott to one side.
William had loved Nons forever. He lived next door to her, and although eventually he’d married someone else and had a family, because he’d given up hope, he and Nons had always stayed close. When he got divorced and his children left home, he stayed, determined that if he couldn’t have Nons, he could at least look after her.
I don’t think Nons had known any of this; William was adamant that he couldn’t tell her. I’d found out when I’d gone round to borrow some kitchen implement or other, and had seen the photos he had spread out on his kitchen table. They were all of her, various ages. He’d just been sitting, looking at them. He’d shrugged, picked them all up and put them in a box, and then told me. And made me promise not to tell her.
I don’t know if Nons ever knew, or guessed, but she did think of William as her best friend. They were in and out of each other’s houses all the time, he did her gardening, she sewed up the holes in his trouser pockets. They watered each other’s plants when they went on holiday. They even went on holiday together sometimes, and got a different neighbour to water both their plants. William was going to be heartbroken, and I pressed his name on my phone with trepidation.
‘William, it’s Jules.’
‘Oh, lass …’
‘Are you alright?’
‘No, pet, not really, it’s not sunk in yet. I keep looking over at her kitchen window, expecting to see her washing up, giving me a wave with her Marigolds.’
As he talked, I could hear a deep sadness in his voice. It matched how I was feeling, and although it was painful to talk about Nons and acknowledge we were never going to see her again, it helped to be remembering her with someone who had loved her as much as I did. We talked for a while, I told him I was coming up at the weekend, and we said goodbye.
Next on the list were my parents. I almost put this one to the bottom of the list, as the least desirable of the tasks, but it needed doing. My mother was much the same as the previous day, full of the inconvenience of it all, asking what I had managed to organise for the weekend, because obviously they needed to make plans that didn’t involve seeing me for longer than they had to, or that necessitated them making any cumbersome arrangements. I told her I would be there on Saturday by noon, and stay until Sunday afternoon. She wanted me to be there for longer, but I resisted her whining and stood firm.
Finally, I could get to Evie. My best friend, the person who knew me better than anyone. We’d been at school together, we’d shared lunch boxes, lipstick, boyfriends, cars, flats, clothes, ups and downs.
Evie had spent a few years abroad after she left university, but we’d kept in touch, and when she came back to England she got a job in this city, much to my joy. We saw each other every week or two, and were in touch by phone or text most days. I had a lot to tell her – I would end up telling her everything; she always knew when something had happened, and could get me to open up.
‘Jules, hi, ‘sup?’
‘Oh, you know.’
‘Informative. Everything alright?’
‘No, not really. Nons died.’
‘Oh Jules, no. When?’
‘Day before yesterday.’
‘You must be devastated.’
I told her the story, and she was sympathetic and understanding and listened as I cried and talked, and she was just what I needed – somewhere I could face it all, feel it all, be absolutely real about it all, before I put it all away again so my life could go on.
‘I’ll come round tomorrow, Jules, bring a bottle, we can have a good sesh, remember her properly.’
‘I can’t tomorrow, Ev.’
I stopped myself saying what I was doing, wondering how she was going to react to the mad whatever it was that Matt and I had agreed to.
‘Oh OK, that’s cool, what are you up to?’
‘Meeting someone for a drink.’
‘By someone, would you mean a person of the male persuasion?’
‘I would mean that.’
‘Come on, then, you’ve got to give me more to go on, you know I want details, descriptions, height, weight, star signs, marks out of ten, the works.’
I thought about stringing her along, but decided to rip the plaster off and get it over with.
There was a stunned silence.
‘Do you mean the Matt Scott from work who makes your life a living hell and has shagged practically everything with a pulse between here and Inverness?’
‘That’s the one. Although I wouldn’t say he makes my life a living hell exactly.’
‘Oh, my mistake, he’s not the one you phone me up about all the time – ‘you’ll never believe what he’s done now’ – you say it at least once a week, he sounds like a complete scumbag. Why are you going out with him?’
‘Well, it’s complicated, I had a bit of a meltdown at work yesterday, stormed out, he came after me. We talked. He’s different than I thought.’
‘More interesting, less of a wanker, more worth getting to know.’
‘Jules, my lovely, are you sure you know what you’re doing? You’ve hated him since you started there. Why the sudden – oh! You’ve shagged him, haven’t you.’
I don’t know how, but she always seemed to know. My silence spoke volumes.
‘Oh my God, Jules. What on earth possessed you?’
‘I don’t know. I was in a bit of a state, upset about Nons, upset about the stuff at work, he was nice to me, he made me feel better. He said something that annoyed me, and after I’d stopped trying to punch his lights out for being an arsehole, he just held me and it felt good, and then it just got … steamy.’
‘So he took advantage of you while you were in a fragile state?’
‘God, Evie, are you channelling the Victorian era or something? No! I was capable at all times of making my own decisions. He’s – he was – he’s just been to see me, actually. He didn’t come to work today, he felt so bad about it all.’
‘What, he came there? To your flat?’
Evie knew the implications of that, if not the full Ice Queen story.
‘Well I hope you gave him a hard time.’
‘Maybe a bit. Then we kind of decided to, I don’t know, see how things go. So I’m having a drink with him tomorrow.’
‘Just a drink?’
‘Won’t he try it on again?’
‘It’s possible I suppose –’
I had a sudden sense of how disappointed I would be if he did try it on after everything he’d said.
‘– but I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.’
‘I know you are, Jules, but you’re upset at the moment. You might not be thinking completely straight. Don’t let him smarm his way into your bed just because he knows what buttons to press to make you lose your marbles.’
‘I’ll be careful.’
‘I’m only nagging because I care.’
There weren’t many people whose nagging I would accept with good grace.
‘I know Ev. Thanks. Love you.’
‘Love you too, Jules. Call tomorrow and tell me all about it?’
‘Might do, might just text.’
‘Shall we get the gang together, have a big cheer-up for you?’
‘Not right now, Ev. I don’t really want to see anyone, and I’ve got loads to do.’
‘OK, whatever’s cool. See you soon, my lovely.’
I disconnected from Evie and sat back on the sofa, breathing out a sigh. That was it, for this evening, of talking, analysing, chewing over and confessing.
I needed a glass of wine and some dinner, so I wandered over to the fridge and tipped a bit of salad into a bowl, topped it with some mozzarella, and filled a glass from the bottle I’d opened yesterday.
While I ate and drank, I started to assimilate my day, putting the different bits in the right boxes. Little stabs of something like panic kept assaulting me as I remembered Matt’s visit, and it started to become clearer exactly how much I had allowed things to change – not just at work, where the potential for disaster was high, but in my private life, where I had permitted someone access to a part of me I usually hid.
I jumped, startled, as my phone beeped announcing a text. It was from Matt. I sighed. I might have also given up my solitude.
Well at least he wasn’t a rambling texter, although the use of emoticons irritated me. I allowed him a reply, though.
‘Hello. Was there something you wanted?’
‘Hell yeah 😉 but 4 now jus checkin u ok n still wan 2 meet 2moro’
I wasn’t particularly fond of text speak, either – with predictive text it was often quicker to type the full word, and the abbreviations seemed juvenile. Was he really checking about tomorrow? Was he feeling insecure, or having second thoughts himself? This was one of the many reasons I disliked communicating by text; there were too many unknowns in a truncated conversation.
‘Yes, I always keep my appointments.’
‘OK gr8 🙂 cu 2moz @ work. Xcited!! ;)’
Oh dear, a whole raft of winks, smileys, exclamation marks and abbreviations. I got the feeling Matt was going to be the one who always had the last word in a text conversation, and so I didn’t reply.
I got my laptop out and Googled funeral homes in the small north Norfolk town where Nons had lived. There were a couple in the area and I emailed the links to my mother so I could check them out with her later. Much as she would want to avoid the bother of making any arrangements herself, she would not allow any decisions to be arrived at without her, in case they reflected adversely on her reputation for style and artistry. Plans for the funeral were going to have to be delicately negotiated to avoid a lavish affair that didn’t reflect Auntie Nons’ simple tastes. I texted my mother and asked where Nons was at the moment.
‘I don’t know. William dealt with it all while we were on our way.’
‘Didn’t you ask him?’
‘Too busy darling. Have you called anyone?’
She listed several distant relatives she wanted me to contact, and there went the rest of my evening, in a haze of sadness and condolences.
By the time I got to bed I had finished the bottle of wine and made inroads into another as a way of dulling it all. As I lay my head on my pillow, my phone bleeped. I picked it up from beside the bed. Another text from Matt.
‘Sarky cow. I meant goodnight 🙂 xx’
I didn’t reply. I didn’t want Matt to get used to chatting to me via texts whenever he felt like it. I needed to impose some boundaries. I flicked the screen off, put it back beside the bed and turned the light off. I was just drifting off to sleep when the phone bleeped again. Another text from Matt.
‘Feeling ignored :(‘
Good, that was the plan. I put the ringer on silent, turned over and cried myself to sleep for the second night in a row, as memories of Nons crowded into my mind.
It seemed like only minutes later that the alarm went. I hadn’t dreamed or woken all night. Suppressing a slight, unexpected thrill of excitement at the day and evening ahead, I made my way through my morning wake-up routine, and turned up at work early enough to be the first in again.
This time, the peace and quiet lasted for nearly twenty minutes and I had time to make myself coffee before anyone else arrived. I was immersed in emails and meeting minutes for a lot of the morning, and it wasn’t until I was in a meeting with my team that Matt arrived.
I texted Jules a couple of times later that night, trying to keep the vibe going, and got the distinct impression she was trying to keep me at arms length. It was the same at work the next day. No one would have known things had changed between us, even I almost doubted it, although the annoying barrage of questions from Lexi the pathologically inquisitive receptionist, about where I’d been for the last day and a half, helped to remind me.
As usual, the office seemed to grind to a halt to observe his grand entrance. His own team stopped what they were doing to high-five him and take delivery of the coffee he always brought with him. I noticed how the eyes of the members of my team slid enviously towards them, and for the first time wondered if my strategy of ruling with an iron rod was really the best way. Then I instantly dismissed it. I got results. People weren’t necessarily happy, but they worked hard. I was fair with people, they knew where they stood, and I gave credit where it was due. I wasn’t about to start changing just because of a few glances. I called everyone to order and we re-focussed.
I rather regretted making up a bad headache as my excuse for not going in the day before. Lexi kept trying to chat to me about my fictitious migraine, because ‘my mum gets them’. In the way that your health becomes public property once you divulge an issue, it seemed I was now an expert on triggers and pain relief; God alone knows how many fucking cripple friends and relations would crawl from the woodwork if I told them about the fucking bastard.
The day went much as every other day had at GreenScreen. Matt and I didn’t have much to do with each other, we hardly looked at each other let alone spoke, and we got through our work in much the usual way. It wasn’t until people had started to leave for the day that either of us gave any indication that things might have changed, and it was so subtle I doubted it would have been noticed.
I was still sitting at my computer when Matt walked past, on his way home, satchel slung over his shoulder. He turned briefly in to face me through the door and winked. It was such a small gesture, and there was nobody around to see him, but it sent a huge jolt of heat through me and I felt my cheeks burn. If anyone had noticed anything, it would have been my reaction and not his action that would have tipped them off. I determined to try to school my responses otherwise things were going to get awkward. I knew him well enough to know that, changed goal-posts or not, if I asked him not to do it, he would take it as a challenge and carry right on winking.
Home again, I braved another phone call with my mother. She wanted to talk about the links I had sent her to the two funeral homes, one of which was the Co-op; I already knew which one would, or rather wouldn’t, meet with her approval.
‘I’d like her to have a tasteful funeral, darling.’
‘I’m sure the Co-op do tasteful.’
‘Oh no, JuJu, it’s just so vulgar. Bentley’s sounds much more appropriate.’
‘Alright, then, but what about hymns or songs, flowers or not, order of service, humanitarian or Christian, cremation or burial?’
I already knew the answers to most of these, at least what Nons had wanted. We’d had a marvellously ghoulish Halloween evening a few years ago, watching Night of the Living Dead and then discussing how we would want to go out – bang or whimper, not gentle into that good night, who we’d come back and haunt, all of that.
It wasn’t that I wanted my mother’s opinion, I just wanted to make her aware of all the things that still needed deciding, beyond how long it was decent to remain at the wake before jetting off to Iceland to resume one’s travels.
‘Oh JuJu, honestly, I’m sure you can take care of all that. Call Bentley’s now, you can get some quotes at the very least.’
‘I think I’ll call William and ask him. He’d want to be involved.’
‘Oh. Well alright, darling, if you think you can’t do it on your own, I suppose William might be able to do something.’
Although she seemed to be having difficulty imagining just how her sister’s best friend in the world could possibly have any contribution to make to her funeral arrangements.
‘I’ll do it now. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mum.’
‘Tomorrow? Oh yes, you’re coming up. What time will you be here?’
‘If I leave early enough I could make it before lunchtime.’
‘Oh well, if we’re still here then we’ll see you.’
I wasn’t holding my breath that I was going to catch a glimpse of either of my parents before I had to begin the long drive home on Sunday afternoon.
Now for William.
‘Hello, pet. Lovely to hear from you.’
He sounded so sad, it was almost tangible.
‘How are you bearing up?’
‘Oh, you know, it keeps hitting me.’
‘I know, me too. I forget while I’m doing something, and then I’ll stop and suddenly her voice is in my head and it’s like it’s just happened all over again.’
‘Stay strong, lass.’
‘I’ll try. William, I wondered if you would help me with the funeral? Mum said you knew where they took her after?’
‘Yes, pet, she went in an ambulance, I think they’re doing a post mortem so she’ll still be at the hospital. I suppose after that it’s either the Co-op or Bentley’s.’
‘Well I don’t think Mum’s going to go for the Co-op. You know what she’s like. Not much point arguing. I’ll choose my battles for this one, I think. William, you knew her so well. Will you help me? I’m coming up tomorrow. Can I come and see you, talk about it all, make some arrangements?’
‘Of course, pet. I’d be honoured.’
‘Thanks William. I’ll see you then.’
Then I phoned Bentley’s, who had an answer machine but called back very quickly, confirming my mother’s assertion that ‘these places are open twenty four hours these days’. To my surprise, they agreed to meet me and William on Saturday afternoon so we could make some plans, and they agreed to contact the hospital to make the necessary arrangements with them.
With a shuddery sigh I relaxed a little bit, glad I had at least started to make inroads into the whole process of saying goodbye to Nons. I was finding it hard to take it all in, to feel it as real. I needed to be there, where she’d lived, so I could come to terms with her dying.
I still had a couple of hours before I was meeting Matt. I grabbed a piece of toast and a glass of wine, then ran a bubble bath where I soaked until my fingers went wrinkly. I dried off and wandered around in a bathrobe for a while, trying to decide what to wear. It was only the Whistling Panhandler, I ate or drank there at least once a week. And I kept trying to tell myself it was only Matt Scott, I didn’t want to make a special effort. He saw me every day at work anyway. But something kept pulling my eyes to my favourite turquoise dress, the one with no sleeves and an embroidered bodice. It was a bit BoHo, which made it different from anything I wore at work, and more importantly I felt good wearing it. I tried a few other combinations on, but it was the turquoise dress that stuck. A pair of comfortable shoes later and I was dressed to go out. I grabbed my bag and made the short trip down the road to the wine bar.
It was busy, as it usually was on a Friday evening. There was no sign of Matt. I checked my watch – I was a little early, so I found a table in the corner and waited. He didn’t keep me waiting long, and I watched him for a few moments as he came in, eyes anxiously scanning the room until they found mine, then his face seemed to light up, and he sauntered over, pulling me to my feet and kissing me on the cheek.
‘You’re here! I wondered if you’d chicken out on me. You’re not a great one for texting are you?’
‘I said I’d be here.’
‘I know, I know, I should have had more faith.’
He sat down in the other seat at the table, filling the space with his smile and his chatter.
‘Fuck me, you can play it cool, can’t you. I had my doubts all today that we even had that conversation yesterday. You’re bloody good.’
‘It was a fucking hoot though, wasn’t it? Us knowing, and them all so not knowing. Haven’t had so much bloody fun for ages. I thought I was going to blow a gasket when Joe Billington asked where I got to the day before yesterday. I’m pretty sure there was some hot goss about us, Lexi was trying to wheedle stuff out of me all day – ‘so Matt, what shall I put on your sick form? Just a day, or a day and a half? What shall I put?’ – she was really disappointed when I said I had a migraine, and then I acted surprised when they said you hadn’t come back, and I said I hadn’t seen you. I think I pulled it off too, I’m almost as bloody good as you. So, Julia, how the fuck are you?’
‘Not quite as pleased with myself as you it would seem.’
‘Oh, alright, we’re going to start with the point scoring are we? Well fine, but I can do that at work any time, I was hoping to see something of the Julia from last night, the one who was going to take a few risks. Nice dress by the way.’
He ran his eyes over my body and I felt myself blush. I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. Matt had begun a verbal assault, pummelling me with information, that I didn’t have a ready response to. I was finding it hard to detach from my work head-space and reach that place I had been in yesterday when this had seemed like a good idea.
‘You know what, I think maybe I should go.’
I stood up. Matt stood up too, looking startled, and put his hand out towards me.
‘No! Shit, have I fucked up already? That must be a record, even for me.’
‘It’s not you. I’m just not sure this is a good idea any more’
‘Oh come on Julia, at least give it a go. Fuck, I’ve been giving it the verbals haven’t I. I always do that when I’m nervous. Please, sit down. I’ll shut the fuck up and listen for a bit. We don’t have to say anything if you don’t want.’
He gestured to my seat and as I sat down again, he looked relieved.
‘You do talk a lot.’
‘Sorry, I know, I thought you might have noticed that about me before now. It’s worse when I’m with a beautiful woman who intimidates the hell out of me.’
This was the smarming that Evie had warned me against. I rolled my eyes.
‘Do you want a drink? I recommend the Shiraz.’
‘Drink – fuck yeah. Not a great one for wine though, what’s their beer like?’
‘I’ve never tried it.’
‘Well … let me propose a little challenge then. I’ll have some of your nobby posh Shiraz stuff, if you try a pint of Otter. Great honest ale. Have a Beautiful Daze, it’ll knock your fucking socks off.’
I considered for a moment. It seemed like a good way to start our whatever this was, and certainly some alcohol would relax me a bit.
‘Alright then! Nice one, Jules. Oh fuck it, sorry. Julia. You so look like a fucking Jules, it just comes out. Can you forgive me the odd one slipping through?’
‘Not really. But I’ll let you off that one, if you buy the drinks.’
Some time later, Matt was on his second glass of Shiraz and I had made it just over half way down my first pint of beer. It didn’t knock my socks off, although I didn’t dislike it. It was fizzy and filled me up; I really didn’t know how people drank pints and pints of it all at once. I was also conscious of needing to be up early to drive to Norfolk tomorrow.
Matt and I had managed to recapture some of the easy conversation we’d found at The Long Legged Frog, and had compared notes on Channel 4 documentaries, the Mann Booker prize and a recent exhibition at the local arts centre, when Matt’s phone pinged with a noticeable text tone. He took his phone out, having ignored other tones, and looked at the screen, then laughed.
‘Sorry, that was rude. It was my sister-in-law. She sent me a picture of my niece with chocolate ice cream all round her face. Here, look.’
I looked as politely as I could without encouraging further views of family photographs. I had never been interested in other people’s children, and had yet to find a way to say ‘no thanks’ to offers of photo viewings without offending the doting mother, father or, in this case, uncle. I smiled and nodded but didn’t say anything.
‘Have you got any?’
‘Nieces, nephews, third cousins twelve times removed.’
With a sinking feeling, I realised we were going to do the family history stuff now. Oh well, good while it lasted.
‘I’ve got a couple of nieces and nephews but they live abroad.’
‘Oh, that must be tough, missing them growing up. I’d hate it if I couldn’t see Cal and Iz.’
‘They’re pretty much grown up now. My sisters are both a lot older than me. I don’t see my family much.’
He looked surprised.
‘They’re not local then?’
‘I’m really lucky, my family are all down here. We all moved down a few years ago, bit of a job lot. Don’t know what I’d do without them. Not that I’d ever tell them that, bunch of smug, interfering do-gooders.’
My family took a bit of explaining, and I was interested in hers and thought showing her the picture of Iz might lead to some mutual boasting about nieces and nephews, but instead of sharing, she went quiet, and I suddenly remembered the dead aunt who had been at the heart of everything that happened in my flat. Shit, Matt, can’t you stop being a self-centred bastard for one evening?
He obviously didn’t mean his comment about his family, so I smiled but didn’t say anything. Matt looked at me.
‘Have I said something wrong?’
‘You’ve gone quiet.’
‘Not on purpose.’
Something dawned on his face.
‘Oh fuck, I’m such an arse, you said about your auntie, that’s who you were so upset about. Fuck it, Julia, why didn’t you stop me, here I was banging on about my bloody family, and you’re still … shit, you haven’t mentioned it at all. I don’t think anyone at work knows, even.’
‘Phil knows. I keep my personal life at home.’
‘But are you OK? Haven’t you got to go to the funeral and everything?’
First I had to organise the funeral, then I could go to it.
‘Yes, but things are still being sorted. I’ll be OK. Just one of those things.’
‘Fuck. I’m sorry. Were you close to her?’
‘I’m sorry. Is there anything … fuck, that’s such an inane question, isn’t it? We all ask ‘is there anything I can do’, when the only thing you’d want someone to be able to do is bring them back. Sorry, it must be a shitty time for you at the moment.’
‘I’ve had better weeks.’
He reached over and took my hand. I would have pulled away, but he had a strong grip, and he had turned it palm upwards to look at the plasters still covering the scratches.
I backtracked and apologised, asked her a bit about it, tried to remind myself what a shit time she must have had over the last week, and held her hand, realising as I did so that her scratches were covered only by plasters.
‘You took the bandage off.’
‘Yes, it got wet in the shower. It’s only superficial, plasters are fine. I might go without tomorrow, see how I manage.’
‘Well I’m glad there’s no lasting damage. Just be careful next time you’re trying to claw your way out of a hidden room in a hedge in a graveyard.’
‘It’s not an experience I’m likely to be repeating anytime soon.’
‘Oh? I was hoping for some clandestine Fanta slurping one lunchtime.’
‘I don’t do lunch.’
‘It’s nice and quiet when everyone’s out.’
‘But you eat, though, right?’
I realised I sounded like someone’s mum. I guess if you spend enough time with Beth, the interfering rubs off eventually.
‘Did you have lunch today?’
I seemed to have tuned in to the Nag Channel, and Beth was to blame. Jules rolled her eyes, much as I would have done, much as I deserved.
I wasn’t about to get into my eating habits, I got nagged enough by Evie, and she was allowed.
‘Mind your own business. Anyway –’
I remembered something I could use as a diversion.
‘– you owe me a secret.’
‘You said if I told you why I was upset on Wednesday, you’d tell me something about you that nobody else knows.’
I thought I caught a glimpse of something – was it consternation? – in Matt’s eyes. He took a deep breath.
‘Oh fuck, I did, didn’t I.’
I’d been going to tell her about the bastard MS, for some unfathomable reason. What was I going to do now?
‘Well alright then, I did promise. Fuck it. OK … well if you must know, I’ve actually got …’
And I rescued it at the last minute, with something that was equally true and equally a secret
‘… a fucking massive crush on you.’
‘You’re such a liar, that’s not what you were going to say.’
‘It’s true. It’s not only true, but nobody else at work knows, which I believe were the terms of my promise.’
He sat back and folded his arms, nodding in self-congratulation.
‘You haven’t got a crush on me.’
‘I have. I said last night, I’ve been trying to pluck up courage to ask you out for bloody ages.’
‘That’s not a crush, that’s just your inability to believe there’s a woman in the office who hasn’t succumbed to your charms. Or rather hadn’t, I suppose.’
‘See? If it was just that I wouldn’t still be interested, would I? You’re remarkable, Julia. I’ve had a thing for you ever since I started at GreenScreen.’
I loaded the word with as much scepticism as I could muster.
‘So why all the business grads and temps, then?’
He had the decency to look abashed.
‘Well, no sense waiting around when there’s no hope, is there? I had a reputation to maintain. I don’t suppose it improved my chances with you, though, did it?’
‘Not markedly, no.’
‘Well, like I said, if it means anything, I’ve done a lot of thinking, not only since Wednesday, but before. Things were getting out of hand, I wasn’t … haven’t been … oh fuck it, I know I’ve been an utter knobhead. I just want the chance to show you I’m not what you think I am. Fuck knows I don’t deserve it.’
He gave me a very direct look, his big grey eyes almost pleading. He looked vulnerable, a look I’d never seen on Matt Scott’s face before.
‘It’s OK, Matt. We already agreed last night to see what happens here. Maybe part of that is putting some things to one side, almost a clean slate type of thing. Alright then, I’ll believe that perhaps it’s possible you have a crush on me, although you seem a little old for one. I’ll admit that I’m intrigued by you and by what this is. But I’m also a bit disconcerted, I’m outside my comfort zone. I think maybe we need some kind of a safety word, so either of us can say it, and we stop in our tracks, no moving forward until whatever it is, is resolved.’
Matt’s expression cleared, and he gave me a big smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes and mouth.
‘A safety word – I like it. Has to be something unusual, so we don’t go all ‘whoa’ every time one of us says ‘biscuit’ or something. Something memorable though. A place, maybe?’
I thought of a word that could mean something to both of us.
It was supposed to be something that meant something to both of us, but I was totally puzzled.
‘John and Roberta Chartham. 1776 and 1790.’
Then I recognised the names and the dates. The headstones.
‘Holy fuck … the hideaway! You fucking genius, woman.’
I grinned broadly.
‘What a memory. I’ve stared at those names billions of times, couldn’t have told you what they were if my bloody life depended on it. I suppose I’d better remember them now. Good old Mr and Mrs Chartham. I bet they never thought they’d be responsible for putting a halt to anything we might be venturing hundreds of years after their demise.’
‘So it’s agreed then, any time either of us feel like we need to take a time out or a step back or just stop the whole thing, that word means we stop. Whatever it is. Straight away. No questions.’
She obviously needed me to agree. I felt like I was signing some sort of contract.
‘Shit, Julia, you like your rules don’t you. I don’t think I’ve ever started anything with a woman where we both know so bloody comprehensively where we stand. Fair enough, but I should warn you I’m planning on taking some risks with you, so you might need to have our dear departed friends’ name on the tip of your tongue for the foreseeable future.’
I wasn’t a great one for rules, and Jules needed to know that I was likely to push the boundaries quite a lot. She smiled at me, though, and I smiled back, as we sealed the deal. The Charthams were going to ensure I never again wondered whether something I’d done with Jules was one- or two- sided. One whiff of their name and I’d stop, whatever it was, a snog, arsing about, buying shoes, talking, sleeping, breathing, whatever. Perfect.
The thought filled me with a thrill of anticipation and dread in equal measure. I didn’t know quite what I was getting myself into with Matt. He was different from anyone I’d ever known, any man I’d ever been out with, any man I’d ever put my trust in. Maybe I was mad with grief and after a while I’d see sense and pull back, and maybe that wouldn’t be fair on Matt. But for now it felt like whatever it was and however long it lasted, it was going to be worth it. I smiled at him, and was rewarded with another crinkly eyed offering.
‘Matt, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to be up early tomorrow, I’m driving to Norfolk. I should really go home and get some sleep.’
His mouth made a moue of disappointment, but he didn’t try to dissuade me.
I was disappointed to end our evening so early, but it would have been unfair of me to try to persuade her to stay.
‘That’s a bloody long way to drive. I hope you’re keen on flat landscapes and freezing cold North winds.’
‘It’s where I grew up. I’m used to the landscape and the climate.’
‘Oh, are you visiting family – oh shit, sorry Julia, is this about your aunt?’
I really was going to have to remember about her aunt. From what she’d told me, she had been a pretty important part of her life. But Jules seemed able to compartmentalise things, and because she wasn’t openly sorrowful, I kept forgetting.
I nodded. ‘Yes, I’ve got to go and sort the funeral out.’
‘Not much fun.’
‘No. But I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it.’
‘It sounds like you were very fond of her.’
‘That’s an understatement. Anyway, I should go.’
‘OK, I’ll walk you back.’
‘There’s no need.’
‘I know. I’d like to though. Don’t worry, I won’t be asking to come in for a ‘coffee’ or some such feeble ploy.’
We stood up and left the wine bar, Matt placing his hand on my back as we did so and then draping his arm casually across my shoulders as we walked down the street. I could have shrugged him off or asked him not to at any time, but I liked how it felt, and our agreement over the ‘safety word’ helped me to feel less under pressure.
And there we were, outside the steps to her front door, looking at each other awkwardly. I’d had my arm across her shoulders during the short walk, expecting her to shrug me off all the way, but she didn’t.
She was a surprising woman, and I liked how different she was from anyone I’d ever known. As we neared Jules’ front door, she reached into her bag and I removed my arm, as clinging on while she rummaged for her keys felt a bit needy.
Jules straightened up and faced me, looking into my eyes, both of us uncertain how we should say goodbye. I really wanted to kiss her, but I didn’t want to ruin things, didn’t want to hear Jules say the safety word only minutes after we’d agreed to it.
We stared at each other for a silent moment, and then moved towards each other, lips meeting as if it had been inevitable all evening. Electricity seemed to fizz across our mouths, igniting our lips and tongues with sparks and static. I felt his hands on each side of my face as he held me in place while his tongue searched deep in my mouth. Then he wrapped his arms round me and pulled me close to him and we plunged still deeper, locking tongues and devouring each other, heedless of the fact that we were on the street. I put my arms round his neck and pressed myself against him, feeling his hard body along the length of mine – and then, with a gasp, it was gone. I opened my eyes and Matt was still standing in front of me, but a step back, a strange almost haunted look on his face.
There was no doubt this time that both of us were completely in our right minds, and both of us were completely into what we were doing, but it couldn’t go any further, although it was so hot, it was so, so fucking hot.
With a Herculean effort which I felt was deserving of some kind of headline in tomorrow’s broadsheets – maybe ‘Infamous Philanderer in Self-Denial Shock’ – I took a step back. Jules opened her eyes and looked queryingly up at me.
‘Sorry, Julia. Fuck. Fuck it, I wish I could … that was fucking outstanding, but we shouldn’t … I don’t think … maybe we should just go a bit more slowly. It would be so easy to say let’s to up to your place, and we could spend the night together, and I so fucking want to, and I think you want to, and it would be fucking awesome, I have absolutely no doubt. But after everything I’ve said to you, and everything I’ve thought about and promised myself the last couple of days, I want it to be right. Fuck, I can’t believe I’m saying this.’
Jules was panting slightly, her cheeks flushed, and she looked like she might take issue with me for a minute, but eventually she nodded.
I was still panting, the tingles from the kiss travelling all over my body. Part of me wanted to pull him to me again, tell him not to be so stupid, to grab his hand and run up to my flat. But another, more reasoning part, saw the effort it took him to stop, and recognised what it might mean to say goodnight here.
I managed after a pause.
‘You’re right. Who’d have thought Matt Scott would be the sensible one in this scenario?’
‘I know. Fuck. Good thing we’re not telling people about anything, I’d be laughed out of the evil bastard club. They’d take my badge away and revoke my privileges.’
I reached down and brushed a stray strand of hair away from her face, then cupped her cheek with my palm. She rested her face on my hand, and it felt like it fitted there, then she reached up and stroked my face, tenderly. I was going to have to be really careful not to fall for this woman.
I rested my face on his hand and, feeling an unexpected tenderness towards him, reached up and stroked his face.
‘Thanks for a lovely evening Matt.’
‘Can we do it again? Next week sometime?’
‘I’d like that.’
‘Can I text you this weekend?’
‘If you like. I don’t always reply.’
‘Yeah, tell me about it. OK, a one-way stream of consciousness then. You’ll have to invoke the Charthams if it pisses you off too much.’
‘John or Roberta?’
‘I’ll leave that to you. Hope it all goes OK up there.’
We stood looking slightly awkwardly at each other while we tried to decide how to leave things. Eventually, Matt stepped towards me.
‘Fuck it, I’m going to give you a hug. I can do this.’
He put his arms round my shoulders and squeezed me tightly. I did the same around his waist. I felt him kiss the top of my head.
‘What is it with you and my head?’
Well it was about the only part of her I could reach when we were standing like this, her being a short-arse, but I didn’t think that would go down very well.
‘It’s bloody irresistible.’
‘You’re easily tempted.’
‘Thought you’d have heard that about me by now. OK, I’m going now before I lose it and ravish you right here against a lamp post.’
It wasn’t far from the truth. I was going to need a long cold shower when I got home. I let her go, ran a finger down her cheek, turned and walked away. I turned back as I reached the end of the road, and was gratified to see she was still watching me. I blew her a kiss and headed home.