67. Going out of my head

In which the truth hurts.

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Matt

The outcome was predictable – both the immediate and eventual fall out. I told Jules, eventually, after a few halting attempts. I couldn’t get the words out, not the ones that were going to make it easier for her to take, and she got pissed off with me, so I just blurted it, ‘I want children’, three words that sliced what we had in two.

Jules got upset, as I expected her to, and then she completely lost it, to a degree that scared me. She started throwing things, while I sat and took it all, the volley of words and more solid missiles. I took the abuse, too shocked to do anything else, thinking that I deserved everything. I expected some of the china to hit me, but she wasn’t aiming at me, she was aiming at the wall, the floor, anywhere where things would smash. I flinched at every crash. I flinched when she called me a lying fucking arsehole, and I flinched when she told me she never wanted to see me again.

When Jules grabbed her bag and headed towards the door, I stood up, finally propelled into something beyond passive acceptance. I didn’t want her to leave, not like this. I thought, once she’d had her say, maybe we could talk, decide what to do next, but if she left, that was it, I knew she wouldn’t come back.

I moved towards Jules, but she hurled the keys that were in her hand towards me, and they hit me in the face. I was more shocked by that than by all of the destruction she had just inflicted. I staggered backwards, and while I was regaining my balance and checking my face for blood, she left, slamming the door behind her; I heard her footsteps running down the stairs, and she was gone.

Dec

Arriving at the maternity unit, I parked more carefully this time, and paid at the machine, to avoid another ticket. I raced down the corridor, so eager to see them again. Burst into the room. Amy was in one of the chairs, feeding Charlie, and Diane was in the other chair. Unexpected visitors were going to be one of the many things I was going to have to get used to.

‘Hey babe.’

)Hey you. Have you been running?

‘Yeah, just from the car, couldn’t wait to see you. Hi Diane.’

;Hello Declan. Thank you so much for the email, that little video clip was just beautiful. I’ve sent it on to my sister, I hope you don’t mind.

‘No, course not.’

I knelt down by the chair and kissed Amy, for longer than was decent in front of her Puritanical mother, especially with Amy’s delightful chest exposed for feeding purposes. Charlie was otherwise engaged with the delightful chest and not at all interested in anything I had to offer, so I contented myself with stroking her hair.

‘How’s it been? All showered and rested? You look a bit better, babe, have you had a sleep?’

)I had a bit of a doze. Charlie’s been awake most of the time. Don’t think I’m going to sleep properly again for twenty years or so.

‘You and me both, in it together though. Except for the breastfeeding, obviously.’

;Amy, I think I’ll go now. I’ve had a lovely time with you and Charlie this afternoon. I’ll give you a call tomorrow, if I may.

)Call anytime, Mum. Come and see us anytime. You don’t have to ask.

;Alright, thank you.

She stood up, kissed Amy, and left.

‘Wow, two visits in one day. Had she been here long?’

)About half an hour.

‘Did I scare her off?’

)I don’t think so, hon. Whatever you said to her earlier, it did the trick. Things feel better somehow. Thanks Dec. I know you don’t really get on with her, but I think she’s warming up to you.

‘It was Charlie that did it, I just pointed her in the right direction.’

)Well, thanks for pointing. She said she talked to Dad, told him she was coming and he wasn’t stopping her.

‘Wow. Big step. Is she OK?’

)I think so.

‘Think he’ll be in touch?’

)Who knows. Have to wait and see. What have you been up to? Did you go home?

‘Yeah, had a shower, got changed, picked you up some chocolate buttons, got Charlie some clothes.’

)Oh, what did you bring? The ones we packed were too big, she’s completely swamped.

I handed her the bag, and she rummaged in it, pulling out a babygro.

)Oh, well done you, I’d completely forgotten about this one – it’s perfect. Nico and Lis brought loads of lovely stuff, I opened it after you’d all gone, but it’s all a bit big too. They put that little pair of shoes in though, do you remember, when they Skyped? They just fit, they’re so cute. I’ll show you later. You said you had dinner at Jay’s?

‘Yeah, Beth thought I might be lonely. She was right, it was weird being at home without you both. So we made Sunday dinner, all together like we used to, had a bit of a laugh. Matt turned up as well, he wanted a talk – he’s having a bit of a hard time.’

)Oh no. How come?

‘Well … I can’t say too much, you know how he gets if he finds out you’ve talked about him. But I guess I can say it’s about Julia. Might be all about to go belly up. Have to wait and see.’

)Poor Matt. He doesn’t do himself any favours.

‘No. Hopefully he’ll let me know later how things are.’

)Oh, well done, Charlie, is that all finished? Let’s have a huge burp from you then, lady.

‘It must be about the only time girls are actively encouraged to belch. Want me to do it? Good excuse for a cuddle, it’s been hours.’

)Okay, then, here’s a muslin for your shoulder.

‘A what?’

)It’s to soak up the sick.

‘There’s going to be sick?’

)Not guaranteed, but likely.

‘How much sick can there be, she’s only tiny.’

)You’d be surprised, hon. Still want to do it?

‘Of course, I want to do it all. Charlie, you and I need some stern words, though. No vomming on my shoulder. End of.’

)Here you go then. Ready for Daddy, gorgeous? Oh, what, Dec, what is it?

I had filled up with tears, as it caught me unawares.

‘I’m her Daddy, aren’t I?’

I hadn’t had a daddy of my own for a long time, but now I was someone’s Daddy, it felt like a broken bit of me just got fixed.

)Yes, you are. Her one and only. Oh Dec, you are completely adorable. Come on, hon, get ready to burp.

I quickly wiped my eyes and held Charlie over my shoulder, jiggling, patting and rubbing as I was instructed. Eventually it had the desired effect, and I moved her down into my arms, where she fell asleep, amazing blue eyes moving beneath tiny eyelids as she dreamed huge dreams. Amy moved her chair close to mine, and cuddled up as close as she could.

)There’s something about a tiny baby in the arms of a muscly man, makes me go weak at the knees.

‘I’d better carry on cuddling then.’

)You better had.

Julia

I got into my car and started to drive, but quickly realised that not only could I not really see where I was going, I was not in any fit state to be driving anywhere. I pulled over and abandoned my car in a side street, then started walking. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going, but suddenly, with a lurch of recognition, found myself outside the gates to the church, the one with the hidden outdoor room in the graveyard. I stumbled across the cemetery and found my way into the hideaway, where John and Roberta Chartham were crumbled into dust beneath the cold slabs. I curled up on the stone bench, ignoring its hardness and grime, and sobbed.

How could it all be so right one minute and so wrong the next? I tried to think back – had there been any signs, any at all, that Matt thought differently to how I believed he did? I couldn’t think of a single one. How could someone not know something so fundamental about themselves? All that talk, all the times we’d laughed about the fuss they were all making, the things we’d said to each other, our little club of two: united against babies and children – it made a fool of me.

Eventually my tears subsided, and I lay still on the bench, hearing the muted noises around me of the traffic on the High Street, a few birds chirping, planes overhead, wind rustling leaves. I was numb, but I needed to act. I must have grabbed my bag when I left my car, and I found my phone in it. There were a number of missed calls and texts from Matt, but I ignored them and dialled Evie.

‘Hi Jules.’

‘… Ev …’

I could hardly speak, and my throat closed up as I said her name. She knew instantly something was wrong.

‘What is it? Where are you?’

‘… Matt … he’s … he …’

‘What’s he done? That bastard, are you there? I’ll come over and –’

‘No! I’m not at home.’

‘Where are you then?’

‘It’s difficult to explain.’

‘Tell me Jules. What’s he done?’

‘N … nothing. Not like you think. Oh God Ev, I’ve been such an idiot.’

‘I’m coming to get you. Where are you?’

She was never going to find the hideaway, but I gave her the location of the church, and she said she was coming straight over. I had a little while to compose myself, so I found a tissue and wiped my face, then tried to run my fingers through my hair. It was cold and I didn’t have a jacket with me, but there wasn’t much I could do about that. I made my way to the gate of the cemetery and a few minutes later, Evie’s car pulled up outside. I got in and put my seatbelt on, then I started crying again, before I could say a word to her. She patted my arm, then drove off.

Matt

I stood where I was for a long time, staring at the door as if she was going to come back and help me clear up or something, as if she’d just dropped a plate. My head was spinning with it all, and a drop of blood trickled down my face from where the keys had hit me.

I slowly surveyed the mess: coffee splattered up the wall, gouges in the plaster, broken glass and crockery everywhere. All of it screaming ‘I hate you’ at me. Jules hadn’t said that, but she hadn’t needed to. I thought about her driving away in the state she was in, and tried to call her, but her phone went to voicemail.

I couldn’t stay there, in my newly trashed flat, in my newly trashed state. I wasn’t thinking clearly, and I was worried about Jules, so I picked up my car keys and went out. I think, to start with, I was looking for her, maybe worrying that I’d find her in a pile of twisted metal, but my brain stopped working after a while, and I drove around aimlessly, not paying attention to road signs or traffic lights. How I managed not to crash the car, I don’t know.

I drove to a supermarket and sat staring at the almost empty car park, everything whirling around in my head. Most of it was formless thoughts, splashes of self-loathing, wrenches of regret. I had no plan, and it was dark, and I started to get cold.

Dec

We passed a large part of the rest of the afternoon looking at Charlie, watching everything she did as if no baby had ever fed, burped, opened or shut her eyes or waved a tiny hand before.

I replied to texts and messages from friends and team mates, took a ton more pictures, sent some from my phone to Beth, Lis and Rose, avoiding Matt. Wondered how he was doing, and if he’d plucked up the courage to talk to Julia.

Beth and Rose texted back, gushing about the pictures, asking when they could come for another visit. After consulting with Amy, we agreed to try to stagger them; Amy had found the morning’s gathering a bit overwhelming, and we thought a couple of people at a time might be more manageable, especially as some of Amy’s friends were coming as well.

Julia

I was still crying when I sat down on Evie’s old, comfortable, smelly leather sofa and she pushed a glass of wine into my hand. I looked up at her, trying to wipe my eyes and pull myself together as she sat down and put an arm round my shoulders.

‘It’s alright, Jules, have a good weep, get it out of your system. Then tell me.’

Eventually I sniffed to a halt, and I blew my nose noisily on a tissue. I hadn’t cried for a long time, and it was making me feel sick.

‘It’s alright, I think I can speak now.’

‘Well take your time, my lovely. What’s the bastard done? It’s only five minutes ago you were telling me how perfect he is.’

‘I know. I think … maybe that’s made it worse. He hasn’t done anything, nothing like you might have expected from him. He told me … when I got home, he was waiting to talk to me, he looked awful, like he was ill or something. I thought his MS was back … oh shit … I shouldn’t have …’

‘Jules, slow down, my lovely, deep breaths. You’re not making any sense. Matt’s got MS?’

‘No one knows. I shouldn’t have said anything. You can’t tell anyone.’

‘Who am I going to tell? OK, I’m not sure he deserves any loyalty but I suppose people’s medical information is their own. Is that what he wanted to tell you?’

‘No. I thought he was going to tell me it had come back. But that wasn’t it. He rambled on for a bit, trying to say it, then just came out with it. He wants children.’

‘What?’

‘A family, the whole thing. His friend’s just had a baby, he went to see them this morning, and came back needing parenthood. I just don’t get it. We’ve talked about it so much, laughed about people and their babies, made jokes about his family and their obsession with children and large get-togethers. How can he change so much in so little time?’

‘Oh Jules. It’s a bit of a no-no for you, isn’t it.’

I nodded.

‘I can’t do it. I won’t do it. He knows that. I think he knew it would be the end, he must have just wanted it more than he wants us.’

As I realised this, I started to cry again.

‘Oh Jules. He’s broken your heart. I know you said you don’t love him, but –’

‘I don’t. He doesn’t love me, it’s not how either of us do things.’

‘But honestly, I don’t think you’d be this upset if you didn’t. You’re so practical, you’ve walked away before when things were turning out differently than you wanted, and hardly batted an eyelid. I think he might have slipped in under your radar.’

‘I don’t believe in love.’

Evie smiled to herself, trying to hide it.

‘Oh my lovely, just because you don’t believe in it doesn’t mean it isn’t going to sneak up on you when you’re not looking. You moved in with him. You changed him. You’re breaking your heart over him. He’s not worth it, but I think you need to be honest with yourself about it.’

I stayed silent. I wasn’t going to argue with Evie, who was a lost cause when it came to romance. Love was something invented by people, to give them a reason to do ridiculous things. I really, really liked Matt. In a way he was a best friend, someone I’d thought I was so compatible with.

‘OK then Jules, I can see we’re not going to have this particular discussion, and I think you need more wine rather than more talk.’

She got up and poured a glass as she was talking.

‘You’re staying here tonight, then we can think about what you need to do, when you’re feeling more up to it.’

‘I haven’t got any of my stuff, no clothes, no toothbrush.’

‘Do you want me to go and fetch something?’

I thought about it. I couldn’t bear to think about Evie going to the apartment and confronting Matt. I shook my head.

‘OK, my clothes might be a bit big, but you can just borrow my stuff until we’ve thought about what to do.’

My phone rang again, Matt’s ringtone. I ignored it, and turned the phone to silent, so I wouldn’t have to know every time he tried to call me.

‘Jules, can I just ask you one thing? It’s a tricky one, you don’t have to answer me, but maybe just think about it. Are you absolutely one hundred per cent sure that you couldn’t do what Matt wants and have a family with him? Hold on –’

Evie had seen the look on my face.

‘– I’m only asking because you need to be sure, so you don’t regret it later. I know you know your own mind, more so than anyone else, but just please, be so, so sure before you do anything final.’

I understood what she was saying, but I was sure, I had always been sure, I would always be sure. To me, a baby would completely ruin my life. I knew it with the same certainty that some women knew a baby would make their life complete. If that was what Matt wanted, we were heading in different directions, and regardless of whether we ended it now or limped along for another few months or years trying to ignore it, we would eventually go our separate ways. This resolved itself in my mind with a clarity that was almost painful as I considered Evie’s words.

‘Ev, I understand what you’re saying, but I’m sure. It’s over. It can’t ever work, and it’s better to end it now. It just hurts because I invested so much in it, I got carried away, I was enjoying myself. I don’t know why I let him get to me.’

And so I started to rebuild my icy fortress around me, shoring up my defences to make sure nobody ever got in again and hurt me the way Matt had. Evie noticed the change in me.

‘Oh Jules, don’t go there, let yourself be sad before you lock it all away.’

‘I don’t need to be sad, I need to be sorted. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow, I’ll have to face him, I need to think about what I’m going to do now. I haven’t got anywhere to live for a start.’

‘Stay here as long as you need, my lovely, but Jules, I really don’t think you should go to work. You need some time to get over this, even a day or two just to recover.’

‘No, I need to get back to normal. Thanks, though, I would appreciate your spare room for a few days.’

‘Consider it done. Wine and chat on tap for as long as you need.’

I smiled at her and took a deep, shuddering breath.

‘How about trashy TV, dinner, a bath and an early night?’

‘Thanks, Ev, it sounds perfect.’

She turned her television on, and I sat blankly in front of banality while my head whirred away. I hardly noticed when she put a plate of food in front of me, and didn’t eat much of it.

Matt

I started the car up and drove, out of the city and onto the motorway, putting my foot down and turning the music up, trying to shake myself out of the trance I seemed to be in, but it didn’t work, and I soon realised I wasn’t safe driving at speed on a busy road, so I turned round and headed back. But not home, I couldn’t face being there, and after a while, I was just driving in circles, unable to find somewhere else to go.

Dec

Visiting time finished at eight in the evening, and I was going to have to go home then too, although I would be coming back first thing to take them both home, something I couldn’t wait for – my family all together in our home.

I wasn’t really looking forward to spending the night in our empty flat, but was starting to feel the effects of my all-nighter, and suspected I’d sleep pretty much straight through. The same could not be said for Amy – Charlie had been so good in the morning, passed from person to person without a murmur, but she’d been a bit fretful this afternoon; who knew if it would continue. We were both going to have to get used to snatching sleep when we could and I guiltily anticipated my last peaceful night for some time.

The afternoon and evening wore on in a haze of Charlie. Beth and Rose and Amy’s friends came, cooed, went. Amy ate and fed. We both dozed a bit. I sat and adored both of them when I was awake.

Matt

I don’t remember where I went, but I kept passing the hospital, and a few hours and half a tank of diesel later, I pulled into the car park to the maternity unit. Dec and Amy would be there with Charlie, and they had something I wanted. I just … oh I don’t know. If I’d had a brain cell left I wouldn’t have gone there, not on that day, when they should just be getting on with being happy, but the part of me that had responded to Charlie that morning was the part of me that dragged me in there, no clear thought about it. As soon as I got there, I realised I shouldn’t have gone, but it was too late, Dec had seen the state I was in, and there I was, intruding on their time.

Dec

I was just beginning to think about getting ready to start to prepare to consider saying goodbye for the night, when the door opened. It was Matt. He looked terrible – pale and haggard. His eyes were red and watery, as if he had been crying. He had a cut and a bruise on his cheek.

‘Shit, Matt. What the fuck’s happened? Come in, sit down.’

}No, I don’t want to intrude. I just … fuck it, I’m sorry, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here.

He turned round and walked out, but I ran after him. Grabbed his arm, turned him round, started to walk back towards the room, where I could take care of him.

‘Matt, come back, sit down. You look fucking awful. Shit, you’re shaking.’

Looking dazed, Matt let me lead him back to the room, where Amy was sitting in one of the chairs, holding Charlie. I sat Matt down in the other chair and perched on the edge of the bed, facing him. As he leaned forwards and put his face in his hands, a few sobs escaped from him. He rubbed his face with his hands and looked up.

}Amy, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come. I’ve just been driving round and round, for hours, ended up here. Sorry.

)Whatever’s happened?

}Well I guess Dec’s told you about our heart to heart this afternoon?

)He didn’t tell me much, just said he thought something was up with you and Julia.

Matt looked at me, more tears in his eyes.

}You are the soul of discretion. Did you say anything to Jay or Beth?

‘Not a lot. Think you should tell them, though. They know something’s wrong and they’re worried.’

Matt shook his head, although it was at himself, not at what I had said.

}Don’t deserve you, mate.

‘Stop that now. I take it things didn’t go well with Julia?’

}You could say that. She’s gone, goes without saying really. Called me all the names under the sun, and I know a fair few. Don’t blame her at all, I’d have done the same in her position. Fuck, what a mess. I’m a mess, a complete fuck up.

Amy was looking confused, concerned, upset. She raised her eyebrows at me, put a hand on Matt’s arm.

}Sorry, Amy, you’re probably wondering what the fuck I’m rambling on about, if Dec hasn’t told you anything. I … Jules and me just … when I …

More tears rolled down his face. He looked completely miserable, and couldn’t find the words to explain what had happened.

‘Matt, visiting hours are nearly over. Why don’t you come home with me, tell me about it properly?’

Matt looked up, grateful. He nodded. Wiped his eyes.

}Thanks, Dec. That’d be great. You sure? Is there a bathroom round here? Need to wash my face. Fill Amy in, mate.

I sent him down the corridor to the bathroom. Amy looked at me wide-eyed.

)I’ve never seen him like that. Is he going to be OK?

‘I hope so. He does have his dark times. Hope this doesn’t set him off.’

)I’m really worried about him. What’s happened?

I knew I didn’t have long before Matt got back from the bathroom, so I was going to have to be quick if I was going to give Amy enough information to stop her worrying.

‘OK, headlines. Matt had some kind of light bulb moment seeing Charlie this morning – realised he wants a family. Him and Julia just moved in together, without telling any of us.

)Really? A bit more than sleepovers then.

‘Apparently they were more serious than we thought. But Julia very definitely does not want children, and he’s just told her he does. Didn’t go well by the looks of it.’

)Matt wants children?

‘So he says.’

)Well.

‘I know.’

)What do you think happened to his face? You don’t think Julia did it?

‘I can’t imagine it, but maybe. I’ll try to get him to tell me later.’

)Oh poor Matt. No wonder he’s in bits.

‘Yeah, it’s tough on him. I’ll take him back to our place, get him to eat something, get him to talk. Might get him to stay the night. Oh babe, don’t look so worried. He’ll sort it out.’

My phone rang. I fished it out of my pocket. Jay.

‘Hey.’

łDec, do you know where Matty is? We can’t reach him, he’s not answering his home phone or his mobile.

‘He’s here, with me and Amy.’

Jay breathed out, relieved.

łJesus, we were really worried. Is he OK?

‘Not really, not at the moment.’

łTell me what’s going on. Beth said you wouldn’t tell her anything when she was there.

‘I’ll get him to ring you. He’s coming back to ours in a bit. I’ll get him to ring, I promise.’

łWhy won’t you say? Is it something bad?

‘It’s something that should come from him, not me. You know that, Jay. He’ll go mad if I tell you his shit, he’ll go off on one and then I won’t be able to get him to talk to me about it. I’ll get him to ring you. I’m with him. He’ll be OK. Trust me.’

I hated this feeling of being in the middle of Jay and Matt. A long time ago I’d promised Jay I’d always talk to him, and I’d stuck to that for me – it had become my way of life. But the same wasn’t true of Matt, who hated people knowing things about him that he hadn’t told them, and this wasn’t mine to tell. It created a tension that pulled me from both sides.

łJesus, I’d forgotten what a stubborn fucking bastard you can be.

‘You know I’d tell you if there was something you needed to know, right?’

łOh I suppose so. I’ll just have to wait then. Make sure he rings.

‘I will.’

łAre you sure you’re OK to do this today?

‘It’s fine, no worries.’

As I disconnected, Matt came back into the room. I handed him my car keys.

‘Go and wait in the car, it’s right by the door. You can pick yours up tomorrow, I don’t think you should be driving. I’ll be there in a minute.’

}OK. Thanks. Amy, sorry again to barge in. Can I just have a quick look at Charlie?

)Here, have a cuddle, looks like you need it.

Amy passed Charlie over to Matt. He held my daughter close and looked into her eyes, while I looked at my girlfriend and silently thanked her for being so amazing with my fuck-up of a best friend.

}Hey, beautiful. It’s your old Uncle Matty here. You have no idea how much trouble you’ve caused me so far in your short life. Keep it up, girl, keep me on my toes.

Charlie stretched out a hand, and Matt put his finger inside the curl of her palm. She clasped his finger; he gasped. Eyes filled again.

}You are one seriously hot babe, Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright.

He kissed her forehead, started to hand her back to Amy.

‘Hold on, the old man needs to say goodnight.’

I took Charlie from Matt.

}I’ll be in the car, then. Bye Amy. Sorry.

)Don’t be daft, Matt. See you soon.

He walked from the room as I looked at Amy.

‘Thanks for being so great, I’m sure that’s the last thing you needed.’

)Dec, don’t be silly. He never asks for help. When he does, we have to be there for him.

‘Thanks, babe, you’re amazing. Hey, Charlie, have a good sleep for Mummy, won’t you. She likes breakfasts in beds, so if you could just sort that as well, you’d make her very happy.’

)You silly sod. Give her here, give me a big kiss, and go home. Don’t leave Matt in the car. Come and get me tomorrow. Don’t forget.

I did as I was told, lingering as long as I could over kisses and cuddles. It wasn’t quite as hard to leave this time, but it was close. I blew kisses from the door, then jogged down the corridor to the main entrance and the car. Matt was in the passenger seat, hunched over, looking sad. I got in, started the car and drove us home.

It still felt weird being at home without them. Like everything was on hold, waiting.

I installed Matt on the sofa, opened him a beer and made myself a strong coffee. I hadn’t had any proper sleep since yesterday morning, and I was starting to flag, although luckily there was no training tomorrow, just match reviews, and the individual ones would be first, for players involved in the game. I could go in later for the team review and get up to speed with Saturday’s game, then spend the rest of the day with Amy and Charlie.

Matt sat staring at the floor, holding the bottle of beer but not drinking it. I needed to get him talking, before he clammed up.

‘Do you want to talk about it, or do you want me to leave you alone?’

He looked up.

}Fuck me, Dec, your technique’s changed. I didn’t used to get a choice.

‘I didn’t mean I was going to sod off and leave you to it, you don’t get off that lightly. I meant, I suppose, take your time. Maybe I should have said, do you want to talk about it now or in a bit? That’s your choice.’

}What’s the point in waiting? It’s not going to get any better, is it. I’d rather just ignore it all and go to bed for a few months, but I don’t suppose that would be permitted by all and sundry. Saint bloody Declan fucking Summers would be there nagging me every time I closed my fucking eyes.

‘You said it. You know this shit doesn’t work, Matt. You’re not scaring me off, or pissing me off, or offending me, none of that will work, so just give up and tell me about it.’

}Sorry. Old habits. Shit, I’m such a fucking idiot, how did I get myself in this mess? I should have known it would end up completely fucked up. I should just stay away from people, everything I touch turns to shit.

‘Blah blah everyone’s too good to me, blah blah I don’t deserve it, blah blah why doesn’t everyone do me a favour and leave me to it blah blah blah.’

Matt looked at me, eyes narrowed. This was a well-trodden path between us, and he needed to know that he could count on the familiarity of it all, but I didn’t have the time or the energy to do it the long way. I was going to be asleep before too long, even though Matt could usually go all night.

‘Just saving you some time, you were winding yourself up to it. OK, we both know the routine, you feel sorry for yourself, you talk a load of bollocks, I tell you it’s a load of bollocks, I persuade you you’re actually a good bloke and we all love you. Can we just agree that’s how it was going to go, and skip to the end, where you actually tell me all about it? I’m too tired to fuck about.’

Matt continued to look at me, a slightly stunned look on his face.

}Fair enough. Bloody hell, Dec, what is this, speed counselling?

‘I’m not your counsellor, I’m your mate. You’re having a shit time and I’m trying to help you. Drink your beer, it’ll help you relax and talk to me.’

He took several gulps, possibly shocked into doing what he was told without arguing about it for one of the first times in his life.

}So when you said do you want to talk about it now or in a bit, you really meant now or … now?

‘I guess I did. Sorry I wasn’t more specific.’

}Where do you want me to start?

‘That’s up to you, it’s your shit.’

}Oh, I have some choice left then.

I was trying to make him fight me. If Matt got quiet and maudlin, I’d never get anything out of him. If I kept his attention by mixing things up a bit, and kept him talking, eventually he’d say whatever it was he needed to say.

‘As long as you talk. Tell me what happened with Julia?’

I thought I’d miscalculated for a minute, jumped in too soon. His face closed up, and he was silent for a while. Then he took a deep breath and started talking.

Matt

So I told him the sorry tale, what I could recall with any clarity. Dec listened without speaking, nodding, sipping his water, as I recounted how I’d waited, talked myself in and out of facing Jules, what had happened when she got home and I blurted it all out, how she trashed the place like I’d trashed her life, and how I’d driven around in some kind of fugue state until I’d rocked up to the Summers-Wright birthing suite to spoil their evening. As I talked I felt detached from it all, as if I had to maintain some distance from the content of the words I was saying to avoid the emotion they held, but the enormity of it all eventually forced its way through.

‘I feel like I’m going mad. I keep thinking about it, my head feels like it’s twice its normal size with all the weird shit that’s inside. I’ve really fucked up, haven’t I?

‘Matt, you told her the truth. Really fucking up would have been to carry on pretending, not saying anything. It took a lot of guts to tell her.’

}But she’s right, I’ve lied to her, ruined a year of her life –

‘Whoa, hold, on, what was ruined about it? You’ve both enjoyed being together, it doesn’t sound to me like she was on some search for the guy of her dreams to settle down with. She’s bound to say something like that, she’s hurt and she wants to hurt you back. You could just look at it like, we had a good time, it didn’t work out, it’s time to move on. Maybe the timing wasn’t perfect. And you haven’t really lied to her, you said yourself you’ve only just worked it out. You told her practically straight away.’

}But what’s to stop me from doing it again with someone else? I’ve been a right bastard over the years, haven’t I? Shit, I’ve just done to her what I’ve been terrified of some woman doing to me all this time. I have no clue what’s going on in my head. That shit with Carrie must have fucked with me even more than I thought.

Dec

It was the second time today that Matt had mentioned Carrie, his ex-girlfriend from Stafford who had left him when he got MS, lied to his friends about it and stolen all his possessions. He never talked about her. Ever. It felt like she was spilling into his life; I didn’t know her, had never talked to Matt about her, and didn’t know how to begin helping him with this. But I knew someone who did.

‘You know what, when the past starts interfering with the present, it might be time to get some proper help.’

Matt was silent for a moment, frowning.

}What, you mean Adam type proper help?

‘That’s what I mean. Someone who can help you sort through it all, work out why you keep doing stuff, how to stop yourself. I can’t do it, Jay can’t do it, we can only be here to pick you up afterwards. And we will, as often as you need it. But it won’t stop until you really sort it out.’

Matt shook his head.

}Don’t think I could, all that telling some stranger my deep dark secrets. It’s alright for you, you’re OK now, I can hardly remember what a fucking nutter you were back when I used to call you a fucking nutter and almost mean it.

‘I still see Adam.’

Matt looked up in surprise.

}Really? But you’re so … sorted.

I nodded.

‘Every few months. I need it. Some stuff doesn’t go away, and especially after that time on the beach, I need to make sure I keep myself OK. It really isn’t like you think. You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to, but you end up wanting to. And it’s not all raking up the past. A lot of it, especially now, for me, is about the present and the future.

}I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s for me. I can’t really do all the getting emotional stuff. Crying and shit. I mean, yeah, says the arse who’s been a gibbering wreck all evening, but that’s with you, you’re my mate and my family, you’ve pretty much been there, seen it all, done it all, you know me, you get it. But not someone I don’t know.

‘It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s just talking. Yeah, things can get emotional, but it all stays in the room. Instead of wandering around feeling out of control, worrying you’re going to lose it any second, you find ways to deal with it.’

}I don’t know, Dec. I don’t think so.

‘Up to you. Just a thought. Do you want a sandwich? I’m starving.’

}Wow, way to change the subject, mate. Actually, a sandwich sounds bloody marvellous. I have no clue what the time is, I haven’t eaten since Jay’s.

‘Talking of which, Jay has been trying to call you. I said you’d ring him, let him know what’s going on. They’re really worried about you.’

}Oh shit, I’d better call him before he goes all big brother on me. I turned my phone off.

I went into the kitchen to make some sandwiches, as well as to give Matt a bit of space. I could hear him talking to Jay, explaining briefly what had happened. He left a lot out, but probably said enough to stop Jay and Beth worrying all night. Then I heard him make another call.

Julia

A while later, Evie ran me a bath, handed me a spare towel and pointed out the guest toiletries, then closed the door behind her as she left me to it. Soaking in the hot bubbles, I found myself wondering what Matt was doing, then felt my rising hurt and anger as I imagined a Scott family gathering, Matt holding the new baby, tears of happiness in his eyes. I realised I was being melodramatic, and quickly reined in my thoughts, trying to relax instead. It was nearly impossible; everything I thought about brought me back to Matt, what we’d had, what we suddenly no longer had, things he’d said, things we’d done together, things we’d laughed about, places we’d been to. It all played over in my head and gave me no peace, mocking me. I lay in the bath for as long as I could, trying to collect my thoughts, but eventually I needed to act. I got out, dried myself and dressed, and rejoined Evie in the lounge.

‘Good soak?’

‘Yes thank you. Very cleansing.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Purposeful. I need to do something, I’m just not sure what.’

‘Don’t do anything hasty.’

‘No.’

To try to focus my mind, I took my phone out of my bag, to look up flats for rent on the internet. The screen was silently announcing another call from Matt. I pressed the button. Maybe I could just talk to him and tell him to stop.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey Jules, it’s me.’

Hearing his voice nearly undid all the careful shoring of defences I’d been constructing over the last few hours. I needed to be strong.

‘I don’t want to talk to you.’

‘Yeah, I know, no please wait, just … I just wanted to check you’re OK.’

‘You’ve just turned my life upside down, you don’t really think I’d be OK, do you?’

‘No, I don’t … I was worried about you driving off like that.’

‘You no longer have the right to worry about me.’

‘No, fuck, I know I don’t … where are you?’

‘Or the right to know where I am.’

‘OK, no, fair enough … I’m so sorry, Jules, I –’

‘Just fuck off, Matt.’

I disconnected as he started to apologise, unable to face hearing either an apology or an explanation. If I listened to his voice for too much longer I would remember how it felt when he whispered in my ear, and then I would remember how it felt when he kissed my neck, and then I would remember how it was to be in his arms, to be in his bed, to be in his life, and then I would remember that it was all gone. So I disconnected before that happened and made myself think about what I had to do next.

Dec

He started crying. I went back into the living room, put the sandwiches and another beer on the table.

‘Is she OK?’

Matt nodded, sniffed, wiped his eyes.

}Well, OK as in didn’t crash her car. She told me to fuck off. She wouldn’t tell me where she was, hung up on me. Don’t know what else I expected. Fuck, it’s hard, when you know someone so well, and one day you’re with them and the next you’ve fucked it all up and you’re not. I can’t get my head round it. I can’t just bloody stop caring about her.

‘Give yourself time to sort it all out in your head. It’s been a shit day for you. You need time to get it all straight. It doesn’t hurt to think about stuff, just as long as you keep some perspective and don’t blame yourself for everything. Eat your sandwich, it took me bloody ages to make that.’

}Yeah, I can see how pulling some ham out of a plastic packet and bunging it between two slices of bread would stretch your culinary skills. Haven’t you got any mustard, or pickle, or anything?

I gestured to the kitchen; I had known that a slice of ham in some bread would stimulate Matt’s need to create a sandwich masterpiece.

‘Be my guest. You know I’m useless at all that. I can do ham and bread. Might chuck in a bit of buttery spread if you’re lucky. That’s your lot.’

Matt wandered into the kitchen, taking the sandwiches with him. I heard him opening cupboards, getting things out of the fridge. My phone pinged in my pocket, and I fished it out smiling to myself as I saw it was a text from Amy, with a picture of Charlie looking straight at the camera.

Amy: =Hi Daddy n Unca Matty. I can’t wait 2 come home. I hope the sofa doesn’t smell of Unca Matty’s socks. Love Charlie xx

Me: =Hi Charlie, I’m impressed with yr txt skills. Can’t promise abt the sofa, u know Unca Matty. Look fwd 2 showing u yr home 2moro. I ❤ u n Mummy so much, lovely girl. Daddy xx

I took the phone into the kitchen to show Matt the text. He seemed to have taken every jar and bottle we possessed out of the cupboards and fridge, and was piling their contents precariously between two slices of bread.

‘Holy shit, Matt, are you making a sandwich or a bloody work of art?’

}I think I might have got carried away. You’ve got some good stuff in your cupboards, shame most of it hasn’t seen the light of day for several centuries. All this stuff is months out of date. And it’s all been opened and hardly used.

He gestured to several bottles and jars.

‘Not my province, Amy organises the shopping and the cooking. Yell at her.’

}I think you might be getting a little bit more involved in the domestic arrangements from now on, mate.

‘You could be right. Hey, we’ve had a text.’

I showed Matt the picture.

}Ha ha, bloody cheeky brat, how does Charlie know about my socks?

‘Mate, everyone knows about your socks. Day old babies, creatures a hundred miles under the sea, aliens from planets twenty million light years away. They all know about your socks. They show up on intergalactic hazard warnings.’

}Do you want to eat this sandwich, or would you like it shoved up your arse?

Julia

‘Evie, do you know anyone with a van?’

‘Er … I think Julian’s brother might have a van. What are you thinking?’

‘I want to go and get my things tomorrow, move it all out of there and into the storage unit.’

‘Oh Jules, that’s a big thing, take some time.’

‘No. I want to get it over with, have it all done, finished. Can you call him?’

So Evie called Julian’s brother, who had a van and who was willing to help me move all my things out of Matt’s flat and into storage. He could do it tomorrow morning. I called Phil and told him I needed to take some personal time tomorrow, but should be in by lunchtime. He made some comment about ‘trouble in paradise’ that made me wonder if Matt had already contacted him, but I didn’t want to discuss it, so left it. As I disconnected from Phil, I remembered that I no longer had the keys to the apartment, as I had thrown them at Matt. I was going to have to call him. I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath and called.

‘Jules?’

He sounded hopeful and wary.

‘I want to come and get my things tomorrow morning.’

There was a long silence.

‘Oh, OK.’

‘I’ve arranged for a van to be there before work tomorrow.’

‘Yeah, that’s fine.’

He sounded like he was trying to be distant and indifferent, but it wasn’t really working, as his voice was trembling.

‘I can’t get in, I haven’t got my keys.’

‘No, I remember …’

There was another pause.

‘… I’m not working tomorrow, I can let you in.’

‘I’d rather you weren’t there while I am.’

There was a sigh.

‘No, that’s fine, I won’t hang around.’

‘I’ll leave a cheque for the rent I owe.’

Another sigh, while he tried to decide whether to argue about it or not.

‘OK, if that’s what you want. Jules, are you OK?’

I disconnected. I didn’t want to talk to him about how I was feeling, I didn’t want him to care about me. He had just ripped my life apart and I wanted to hate him. Wanted to, but couldn’t. I finished a glass of wine with Evie, then went to bed where I stared at the darkness all night until it was time to get up.

66. The end of this chapter

In which truths are explored, revealed, accepted and expressed.

Julia

I was half-expecting Matt to be late back from the hospital; Scott family gatherings often consumed people and it was hard to escape. But to my surprise, he was back just after ten, and we headed off to the retail park. He was quiet, and it seemed his weird mood hadn’t been made any better by his visit. He didn’t give me many details about the new baby, for which I was grateful, but said he had held her, and that Nico and Lisa, who I had met via Skype, had turned up unexpectedly and it had all got a bit crowded and noisy, so he had left.

As we wandered around furniture shops, I sensed Matt’s mind wasn’t really on the task at first, but then he seemed to pull himself together and started paying attention, and then, predictably, messing about.

‘So, how big are we going then?’

‘Well the size of yours is alright.’

‘Yeah, mine’s bloody huge.’

‘It could just do with a bit more support.’

‘So – bloody huge, but not hard enough. A disappointing review all in all.’

‘Behave yourself.’

‘Sorry Jules, just trying to inject some light-heartedness into proceedings. Should we try them out do you think? Would they mind if we jumped up and down?’

‘I think they’d prefer us to just lie down.’

‘Well I don’t know if I can be responsible for my actions if I’ve got you lying next to me in a public place.’

‘I’m sure you’ll find a way to restrain yourself. What about this one? It’s oak, I like the headboard and footboard, and the mattress is in the sale.’

‘Has it got a telly that rises up like a submarine from the bottom end?’

‘I don’t believe it has. I don’t think you’re taking this very seriously.’

‘Sorry. You’re right. Let’s lie down then. Don’t blame me if we don’t get up again.’

Matt’s phone pinged with a text, and he got his phone out. He looked at the screen for a few moments, then showed it to me. It was a video of a tired looking Amy holding a very small baby, waving at the camera. Matt looked entranced and was waiting for my reaction. I didn’t know what to say, and just shrugged.

‘All babies look the same to me. I’m sure she’s adorable.’

He put his phone away, and we carried on.

Dec

Charlie was passed around a few more times, handling it all with great patience, but after a while, a nurse came in, raising her eyebrows at the amount of people in the room.

*OK, I think it’s time for everyone to go home, now. Amy and Charlie need some rest and quiet.

>We are just arriving!

łYou should have been here on time, then, Nico. Only yourself to blame.

When everyone started to stand up, I sat in the chair vacated by Nico and Iz.

*You too, Dad.

Suddenly realising this was directed at me, I looked up, startled.

‘What?’

*Mum and baby time now, just for a few hours, let her recuperate a bit.

‘But – I – no! Ames?’

)Actually, Dec, it might be a good idea to go home, get a shower, you could bring me back some chocolate buttons later?

‘But I can get you chocolate buttons from the shop. And I don’t need a bloody shower.’

łJesus, he’s worse than Cal used to be ‘oh but’.

Beth put her hand on my shoulder.

_Dec, sweetheart, I think what Amy’s trying to say, without hurting your feelings, is, maybe she could do with some time on her own where she doesn’t have to worry about how tired you are, whether you’ve had your lunch and how much you might be starting to smell.

Amy looked at Beth gratefully, but I felt like I’d been punched. I had envisaged spending the whole day with my girls.

)Sorry, hon, just a bit of down time, yeah? I need a shower myself, some sleep if I can. Charlie could do with another feed and a nap, she’s had a busy morning. Come back this afternoon, we’re not going anywhere. Can’t walk far with these stitches anyway.

I just sat and looked at them, on the verge of tears. I heard Jay and Beth quietly leave the room, Cal and Iz in their wake. Carol and Rose left too, Rose giving me a pat on the way. Nico squeezed my arm and Lis kissed me on the cheek. I hardly noticed them all go, and carried on looking at Amy. Looking at her properly, instead of through my love filter. She always looked beautiful to me, but she also looked tired, pale, wiped out. I pulled myself together.

‘I’m going to miss you. Fuck, Amy, I can’t believe how much I’m going to miss you both.’

)Take a photo, some video on your phone. You can send it to Mum, and you can look at us till later.

It was better than nothing, so I took my phone out, took pictures of Charlie, pictures of Amy, pictures of Charlie and Amy, video of Amy holding Charlie and waving, video of close-ups of Charlie looking at the camera. I hoped it was enough to last until I came back. I leaned over and held them. Kissed Amy, gave Charlie a gentle kiss on the forehead. Her skin was so soft, it felt like it might melt.

‘Can I just hold her before I go?’

)Oh Dec, of course.

I picked Charlie up and held her close, looking into her eyes.

‘I’ll be back, lovely girl, don’t forget me.’

)Dec, you’re going home for a few hours, not trekking to the Himalayas.

‘It feels like I’m going to be away forever though – a few hours is half her life! You wait till you have to leave her.’

)I’ll see you later, hon. Love you so much.

‘Love you too, babe. Will you marry me?’

)Yes, Dec, as I’ve said the last twenty, fifty, hundred times you’ve asked me, I will marry you.

‘Just checking.’

)Get out of here, before they send security.

I gave Charlie back, stroking her soft cheek and kissing her perfect forehead again.

‘Bye then.’

I backed towards the door, opened it and stepped out. Looked back through the window, almost unable to turn round and walk down the corridor. Blew my family a kiss – with a start followed by a huge grin I realised this was actually my family. Bits of me entwined with bits of Amy to make Charlie. We were tied together forever. It was the first time I’d ever known someone who was part of me, and it felt great. But now I had to leave them, and it felt crappy. I took a deep breath, then turned and ran down the corridor and out the main door before I could change my mind and chain myself to the bed.

Beth was waiting for me by the main entrance. I skidded to a halt, nearly running by her.

‘Sorry, Beth, didn’t see you.’

_Just checking you’re OK, sweetheart. It’s hard the first time, isn’t it?

‘So hard! I feel like I’ve left part of me back there.’

_Well I guess you have, in a way. Dec, it’s totally up to you, but how about coming over for lunch? Nothing special, just if you’d rather not be on your own. We can all do it together, like we used to. Extra helper now, with Iz.

As usual, Beth had seen what I needed before I’d even realised it myself. I was being torn away from my family, so she was offering me some alternative family time. I saw with new eyes what it meant to be called part of a family I hadn’t been born into, and felt doubly loved.

‘Beth, I’d love that. Your roast potatoes would really help. I’ll go home first, though, have the shower that everyone seems to think I need, pick up some stuff to bring in later.’

_Chocolate buttons?

‘Yeah, that kind of vital stuff. You would not believe how important chocolate buttons have been over the last few months. I seriously thought we might cause a global shortage.’

Beth laughed and touched my cheek.

_See you later, then, sweetheart.

She headed over to the car where Jay was waiting, engine going. I waved at them all, then tried to remember where I’d left my car. Eventually found it, parked at a bit of a crazy angle, a parking ticket on the windscreen.

‘Fuck.’

Got in, drove home.

Opening the front door to the flat felt slightly surreal. The last time I had been home, only two of us lived here. Now there were three of us, and everything had changed forever. Nothing had prepared me for how completely different I would feel, less than twenty four hours after leaving here the last time.

I sat on the sofa, pulled my phone out and watched the video of Amy and Charlie over and over. I hunted on my laptop for Diane’s email address, then I sent the photos and video to her, and also texted them to Rose, Beth, Lis and Matt for good measure. I found several packets of chocolate buttons, which I put by the front door to remind me to take them when I left. I went into our bedroom and found some baby clothes. We’d taken some in Amy’s bag when we left, but I just wanted to choose something myself; it made me feel a bit useful. I put the clothes next to the chocolate buttons. I had a shower, changed my clothes, cleaned my teeth, made myself presentable. I didn’t want to stay there any longer on my own, so I picked up the things I’d put aside and headed off to Jay and Beth’s.

It was an old fashioned Scott Sunday lunch, like we used to have when I lived there. We were all in the kitchen, Beth was directing operations, Cal was trying to be grumpy and uncooperative but couldn’t help being diverted by constant teasing from Jay and me. Iz wandered around finding bits of vegetable that had fallen on the floor and handing them to anyone who would take them. Despite the chaos, Beth eventually declared that we were just waiting for everything to finish cooking, and we could all go and sit down for five minutes.

_Unless someone would like to set the table?

łDec’s job.

Jay hurried out in the direction of the living room, closely followed by Cal.

‘Looks like it’s you and me, then, Iz. Help put the knives and forks out, sweetie? Look, here are the forks, can you carry them to the table? Put one on the side of the mat, like this. I’ll do the knives. Do you think we’ll have any pudding?’

/ice cream!

‘Well, there’s always a chance. Shall we put spoons out as well, then, in case there’s ice cream?’

/yes. Mummy have ice cream. Stawby an choccit.

‘Definitely spoons then.’

I turned round to get the spoons, and caught Beth watching us from the doorway. She had a strange smile on her face, and the hint of a tear in her eyes.

‘What?’

_You’re going to be great, that’s all. No, not going to be. Already are.

She turned round and went back into the kitchen.

Matt

We drove to the retail park and wandered around furniture shops, but I couldn’t concentrate on beds, and Jules got annoyed with me for fucking about too much. She was just telling me off for not taking it seriously, which I fully deserved, when I got a text from Dec. He had sent a video clip of Charlie and Amy, and my heart flipped when I saw it, as it brought all those feelings of want right back to the front of my mind. I showed Jules the video, not really knowing what I wanted her to say or do.

I knew she wasn’t into babies – we’d spent enough of the last nine months telling each other how not into babies we both were – so why I was so disappointed when she said, ‘All babies look the same to me. I’m sure she’s adorable.’, I don’t know. I felt like I’d been slapped, though. Charlie had had a profound effect on me, and I wasn’t used to Jules not feeling the same way as me about things.

We decided on a bed, or rather Jules decided and I agreed, having run out of the little enthusiasm I’d had by the time we’d got to the third shop.

Part of my mind was screaming something at me, something I didn’t want to hear, so I shoved it as far away as I could and pretended I wasn’t listening to the voice telling me that if I really wanted a family, if what I’d just become aware of really was what I wanted, I was going to have to face Jules with it. I could feel it bubbling inside me, and when we’d finally ordered the bed, and then Jules had gone off to lunch with her friend Evie, I was on my own, and I had to let it out and do something about it.

What I would usually have done is texted Dec on some pretext and arsed about until he worked out that I needed to talk about something. God forbid I ever actually came out and asked for help. But Dec was inconveniently engaged with the daughter who had caused all this, and I was going to have to rely on the back-up system that was Jay and Beth. I at least had enough insight to recognise that I needed to talk to someone, I just wasn’t relishing it being Beth.

So I got in the car and drove over to my brother’s house, feeling like my head was going to explode. I felt like my whole world had been stood on its end, like everything I thought I knew about myself had been tossed into the air and scattered. I felt anchorless. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted a family, which rather inescapably meant that I wanted children. And Jules didn’t.

I walked up the path to their front door, bracing myself as I rang the bell. Jay pretended to be surprised to see me, but Sunday lunch was always open house, and I often went along uninvited.

‘Matty! What’s this? We weren’t expecting company, I’d better get Beth to put some clothes on.’

‘Ha ha, the day Beth isn’t ready for visitors on a Sunday is the day the world ends. I just fancied a roast dinner. I knew you’d be good for it, you’re so predictable. And Beth always makes too much, I’m saving you wasting it, really.’

‘Good job we’re not having sushi this week then.’

‘That’s the thing about predictability; sushi tends not to be on the menu –’

As I walked into the living room, I saw Dec. I wasn’t sure what he was doing there, I thought he’d still be at the hospital, but I’d never been more relieved to see him.

Julia

Eventually, after I’d got cross with Matt for messing about in the bed shop, we had decided on a bed and a mattress. I got as sensible a decision from Matt as I could, and the whole process was a bit tiring. By the time we got back, I was in two minds as to whether to cancel Evie, but I hadn’t seen her for ages, and I wanted to tell her about moving in with Matt. I knew she wouldn’t tell anyone else, and I was interested in her reaction. She had met Matt a few times, and seemed to quite like him, but I knew she was still reserving judgement based on some of the things she’d heard about him.

Dec

Matt saw me, and a look of surprise and relief flickered across his face. The weird thing he’d had going on that morning was back, if it had ever gone away.

}Dec! Have you deserted them already?

‘No, I got kicked out. Some bad-ass nurse said Amy needed ‘mum and baby time’, whatever that means.’

}Probably means Amy paid them off to get rid of you so she can have Charlie all to herself. They’re bloody devious these women, saying it’s what always happens, they make it up as they go along half the time.

‘I’m beginning to think so. I thought you were doing stuff with Julia today?’

A wild-eyed, wary expression on his face. This was what was causing the weirdness – it was something to do with Julia. Matt was unlikely to talk to me about it while Jay and Beth were around, but he needed to get it out of his system. What he’d been thinking coming here, I didn’t know – he hadn’t known I would be here, and Beth would have noticed his agitation and been too curious for Matt to get away with not saying anything

Matt

I didn’t know how to begin, not here, not with Jay and Beth around. I don’t know why I’d thought I could talk about this with them, there’s no way I could have even started. I hoped I might be able to talk to Dec on my own, but didn’t hold out much hope, not today. Until I got the chance, I was going to have to try to act normally.

‘Just this morning. Free man this afternoon.’

Jay headed off into the kitchen, and I had my chance to at least ask Dec if he had time to talk, if indeed he had a few spare minutes before returning to the bosom of his family.

Dec

Something really wasn’t right. Matt seemed wired, as if he was trying too hard, losing control; I hadn’t seen him like this for a long time. Even Jay had picked up on it, and he raised an eyebrow at me before heading into the kitchen.

‘Well you’ve arrived just in time to avoid all the work, you jammy bastard.’

Matt

‘Good timing is a particular attribute of mine.’

But I didn’t seem to be using it to my advantage right now.

‘Fancy going for a beer after lunch?’

Oh thank fuck, he’d noticed something was up. I don’t know how he did it, but he always knew.

‘Yeah.’

Oh, but he’d be heading off again soon, surely?

‘Unless – when are you going back?’

‘No specific time. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for you to get it off your chest.’

‘Fuck, Dec, you know me too well. Thanks, mate, appreciate it.’

Dec

Matt was quiet through dinner, producing meaningful glances between Jay and Beth.

_Dec, when are you going back to see Amy?

‘A bit later, Matt and I are going for a beer first.’

Relief in their expressions. They knew Matt talked to me without quite as much fuss as if they were trying to crowbar information out of him.

łSounds good, mate. Actually, Beth, how about a trip out? We could go up on the moors, have a bit of a stroll, wrap everyone up.

\oh Dad …

łNo arguing, Cal, it’ll do us good.

Matt

I didn’t say much at dinner, and I could see Jay and Beth looking at each other, in-between the cooing over Charlie. In the end, Dec put Jay out of his misery and told him we were going for a drink. Jay decided a family outing was necessary, which left the house available for soul-baring. I had a fucking awesome family, which I didn’t appreciate often or deeply enough.

Once everyone else had gone, Dec got me a beer and himself a glass of water. I couldn’t let it pass, even though I knew his ‘I’m a professional athlete’ answer.

‘You’re a serious lightweight, Dec. Call yourself a rugby player? You give your sport a bad name.’

‘Ha ha, I have to be careful, it’s all sugar. Might allow myself one later. Maybe even two. Big day.’

‘She is amazing, I got your text.’

Thinking about Jules’ reaction when I showed her the video clip reminded me what I needed to think about, and I felt my face fall.

‘OK, Matt. Let’s do this. Spill.’

I ran my hands through my hair, took a deep breath and looked at Dec wretchedly. I didn’t want to say it, I didn’t want to talk about it, because then I’d have to do something about it, and I kind of knew what that was, but I didn’t want to address it. I looked away. If I wasn’t looking at him it might be easier to say.

‘I’m fucking freaking out.’

‘What, about Charlie?’

What? Maybe he got the wrong idea because I went all silent after I mentioned the video.

‘Fuck, no, mate. No, your text was just … shit, I suppose I should start at the beginning.’

‘It’s a very good place to start.’

Oh he wasn’t seriously quoting The Sound of Music?

‘Yeah, thanks for going all Julie Andrews on me when I’m baring my soul?’

‘Sorry.’

‘Anyway … well, Jules moved in with me last week, and we’ve been –’

Dec

‘Whoa, whoa, hold on, you can’t just slip that in like it’s nothing. Holy shit, Matt. I didn’t know things were that serious with you two.’

No one had known. It was typical of Matt to do something huge like move in with his girlfriend and then act like everyone must have known all along; he did it to try and avoid the inevitable family inquisition that would follow, but never seemed to realise that it just made people more curious about him and what he got up to.

Matt

I’d almost forgotten it was such a big deal. With everything else that had gone on in my head today, I’d managed to lose sight of the fact that Jules and I had this big secret we were keeping from the rest of my family. So now I had to go through all that first. And it wasn’t like it was just the moving in, none of them really knew how much we saw of each other, as I always gave them the brush off when they asked.

‘Yeah, well, that’s just it, I … we … didn’t want this big announcement, family gathering, meal, Beth going all ‘oh it’s so lovely’, Rose icing the wedding cake, Mum being all quietly hopeful, you and Amy rubbing your hands with glee going ‘you’re just like us now’. It’s not like that. I bloody love you all, but sometimes, fucking hell, it’s like you can’t have anything to yourself, it all has to be shared around.’

‘Are we really that bad?’

‘Sometimes. I need my space. Need people to back off.’

‘I know that.’

I’d always had a sneaking respect for Dec’s ability to throw himself into everything that was going on with this bloody family. He’d talk to anyone about anything, I don’t think I ever heard him say ‘none of your business’ or refuse to answer an impertinent question.

‘I don’t know how you do it, everyone knowing everything that’s going on with you. Do you keep anything to yourself?’

‘Not much, I guess, but Matt, I’m coming from a very different place to you. I kept too much to myself for too long, and it nearly destroyed me. It’s all out there now, so if I’m too pigheaded or dumb to see trouble coming, there’s all you lot to tell me. You’ve always had your family, and I’ve slowly added to it, pretty much without asking you. I can really see how it gets too much.’

That wasn’t it. I had never begrudged Dec and his added extras being part of my family. It had always seemed right, like he just belonged with us.

Dec

It sometimes bothered me that, much as I loved this crazy, random family, there were members of it who hadn’t had any choice in the crazy randomness, and might at times have wished that some of the more random bits of it weren’t there.

}Don’t get me wrong, mate, I wouldn’t change it, not any of it, fuck, where would I be without you all? Stuck in some care home, dribbling, most likely. I must sound like an ungrateful bastard. When I was ill, and Jay gave up his job to come and look after me, that was humbling. You realise what you’ve got. That’s part of what I’m freaking out about.

So that was reassuring – Matt wasn’t specifically freaking about the crazy random family having another new addition – but I needed to find out what was at the root of it all.

‘So … Julia moved in, and ..?’

}Well, OK, so we kind of did it all low key, Jules has been staying over more and more, I suppose it’s kind of happened gradually, there wasn’t really a huge ‘let’s do it’ moment, we just realised half her stuff was already there, it had happened and so she gave up her place. She’s not a big one for families, doesn’t always want to join in with everything we do. We agreed no announcements, we thought we might be able to pop it in the conversation sometime –

Matt

Even as I was saying it I realised what a forlorn hope that had been.

‘Er, you do know Beth, the one with the sixth sense, married to your brother, never misses a thing?’

‘Yeah, well, a bit of hope over experience, I suppose. So that’s what we agreed, and I’ve been pretty happy with that, part of me thinking ‘ha ha, I know something you don’t know’, feeling a bit smug. Then you go and have your bloody beautiful baby, and for me, it’s pretty intense. I was blown away, Dec, so much more than with Cal or Iz, even though they’re brilliant too. I don’t know why, but Charlie’s just got to me. I wanted Jules to come with me this morning, be part of it, but she was just like ‘no, it’s your family, I don’t really do babies’, and I was like ‘but it’s Dec’s baby, it’s a huge thing, please come’, but she wouldn’t.’

Dec

So maybe it was more about how Julia was reacting to the crazy randomness. It was certainly true that since Matt had started seeing Julia, he had been around less, had come to less of the meals and get-togethers. Maybe it was because Julia wasn’t keen, not because Matt had got tired of us. We hadn’t got to know her that well, because she often didn’t come with Matt when he visited, and we’d all said it could be because we were a raucous bunch and not everyone’s cup of tea.

‘Well, fair enough, I guess. We are pretty full on when we’re all together. It can be a bit intimidating.’

Matt

And yeah, that was part of it, it was full on when everyone was together, and if you weren’t that type of person, then you felt like you didn’t belong. Jules had told me she didn’t feel like she fitted in, but I didn’t think it bothered her that much; I hadn’t realised until now just how much it bothered me.

‘She’s not intimidated, she’s just … it’s one of the things … I liked her in the first place because she always does what she wants. If she doesn’t want to do something, she doesn’t make excuses, she just says so. You always know where you are with her. It’s not like she’s mean with it or anything, there’s just no bullshit. With all of us, she doesn’t feel part of it, doesn’t really want to, I guess. She’s got her own friends, her family live abroad, we don’t do everything together, don’t expect to. It’s been refreshing, she lets me get on with my stuff and she does hers, it makes doing stuff together more exciting somehow. This has been the first time I’ve really wanted her to do something with me and she’s said no. I told her it was important to me, and she still wouldn’t.’

‘Sounds like she’s being true to herself.’

And I knew that. I knew Jules was never going to change her mind, not for me, not for anyone. It was me who had changed, or at least who had deluded myself about who I was and what I wanted, and expecting her to understand, let alone compromise, was unreasonable.

‘Yeah. I know. But I’m wondering if I’ve made a bloody huge mistake. I’ve been so concerned with having my space and keeping my distance and feeling pleased with myself about you lot not knowing everything … when I was with you this morning, I realised I’d forgotten that as well as being a pain in the arse sometimes, our family is pretty bloody great too, and I want her to share it.’

‘You can’t make her, if it’s not what she wants.’

I knew that, too. I knew Jules never did anything she didn’t want to, especially if you tried to persuade her, but part of me just wanted to grab her, shake her and say ‘Look, this is what we could have’. But it wasn’t going to happen.

‘No, I know, but I think … I think I always thought things might gradually change, especially now we’re living together, and she’d get sucked in. Now, I don’t know if she will, and I’m worried I might start to get sucked out.’

This was all just kind of occurring to me as I was speaking. I hadn’t ever sat down and thought about it, but as I was saying it, I realised how true it was, how much I’d distanced myself from them for Jules, how much staying with her would mean more distance. It was something else to get my head round.

Dec

Matt usually wanted me to ask something specific, the thing that had been on his mind, so he could tell me without seeming to have made the first move. I wasn’t sure what that was yet, but he seemed uncertain, as if he felt he had to choose between Julia and his family. Maybe he did, although it would never be because we had forced the choice on him. If he was thinking about some kind of ‘one or the other’ situation, he probably wanted to be sure of how he felt.

‘Do you love her?’

A long pause. Matt looked everywhere but at me. Finally down at his fingers. This wasn’t the question he wanted me to ask; it had taken him by surprise, and he didn’t know how to answer me.

Matt

It was like Dec to get to the heart of things. I could ramble on, distract myself with a load of waffle and forget what I was trying to sort out, but Dec often cut through my bullshit with a short question. It was probably all his years of counselling. And the truth was, at that moment in time, that I didn’t know if I loved Jules. I hadn’t worked it all out then, everything was too much, and until this morning I hadn’t thought I needed to know if I loved her or not. Now it seemed important.

‘I don’t know. I like her a lot. I love being with her. Fuck if I know, I can’t work out what I feel anymore. I’m so scared of loving someone and it going to shit like it did with Carrie …’

I stopped speaking as all of that welled up in me and threatened to stop me in my tracks. I never talked about Carrie, to anyone, because talking about her made it hurt again, as if it had just happened. Telling Jules about her all those months ago had been hard, and it wasn’t an experience I was about to repeat. Carrie wasn’t the issue here, or at least not directly. I took some ragged breaths.

Dec

He stopped speaking. It was a blunt admission for Matt, and it probably brought up some old hurt. Although it didn’t seem like this was the thing that Matt wanted to talk about it, I decided to explore it a bit more. He wasn’t sure if he loved her, but they’d just moved in together …

‘So you haven’t said it to her?’

Matt

Oh get real, Dec. Everyone says it, all the time, without meaning it. Of course, he didn’t know about Jules’ anti-love thing, or that I said it to her as a joke.

‘Fuck yeah, always saying it, doesn’t everyone? ‘Love you’, text it, whatever. Being sarcastic half the time. Can’t not say it in bed, not the done thing, seems ungrateful somehow.’

As I was saying it, I was imagining what an knob I must look to Dec, and I couldn’t help but think what a git I’d been to Jules, albeit unintentionally.

Dec

‘Shit, Matt. Has she said it?’

Another pause. Matt looked like he couldn’t decide what to tell me. There was more to this than I was ever going to get to the bottom of.

Matt

I knew she hadn’t, would never say it, but I had to be honest about what would have happened if she had.

‘No. I would have run screaming to the hills.’

‘Fucking hell, Matt, you are one emotional fun-ride. Have you ever thought about investing in a therapist?’

‘No need, when I’ve got you. You can pass on the wisdom of your countless lengthy sessions with the lovely Adam.’

Nope, talking to Dec was as much psychoanalysis as I was ever going to get.

‘It is all a bit twisted, isn’t it. And it was all going so well until this morning. You had to fuck it all up by having your bloody bundle of joy.’

I didn’t mean it to sound as whiny as it did, and I saw a brief flicker of hurt cross Dec’s face.

Dec

That did take me by surprise. I’d thought we were somehow talking about Julia and Matt moving in together, and Matt maybe regretting it, but now it seemed like it was about Charlie. I felt a flare of protectiveness towards my not-yet-day-old daughter, who had done nothing to anyone and yet was being blamed somehow for Matt’s emotional fuck-ups.

‘My apologies, shall I send her back?’

Matt

I needed to explain what I meant, so he could see it was my shit I was whining about, not his daughter.

‘Too late. Another can of worms opened. Jules doesn’t want kids. Very adamant. Not the ‘I’ll say I don’t till I’ve trapped some poor bastard then I’ll change my mind’ not wanting, but seriously doesn’t do babies, or kids actually, at all.’

Dec looked puzzled.

‘Really? She’s great with Cal and Iz.’

‘I know, she makes an effort when she’s with them, throws herself into anything she does, that’s another thing I love about her. There’s lots of things I love about her. Anyway, I’ve always thought I was ambivalent about the whole kid thing, not really bothered about it one way or the other, if it happens one day in the far, far, way far future, so be it, but not grown up enough yet to even think about it, let alone come down on one side of the fence or the other.

Dec

I had always assumed that about Matt, too. I couldn’t remember ever specifically talking with him about wanting children, or not wanting them, but Matt’s whole life for the last few years had been about avoiding commitment and responsibility. It had seemed obvious.

}But this morning, seeing you and Amy and Charlie, and holding her, and what you’ve got, your little family, all the love, all the potential, everything you’re going to have and do together … I so fucking want it. I really, really want all that. Fucking hell, it’s knocked me for six, complete revelation. Dec, I don’t know what to do. Jules is never going to change her mind, I’m never going to have any of it with her. I showed her the video you sent, I was being all proud and uncley, and she had a look, and said ‘all babies look the same to me’. She wouldn’t even pretend for a second.

I was struggling to keep up with this new development. It seemed as far from the person Matt was as it was possible to be, but somehow, it felt right. I thought about how much time he had for Cal and Iz, how interested he’d been in Amy’s pregnancy when Julia wasn’t around, the look on his face this morning when he held Charlie, and it all made sense. Maybe Matt hadn’t realised himself, maybe he’d avoided the truth, but now he was going to have to face it, and what it meant for him and Julia, and I was going to have to help him do it.

Matt

This was what I was here for, so I could tell Dec how it was and ask him what to do.

‘Matt, you can’t have it both ways. You’re with her because she’s independent and knows what she wants and doesn’t bullshit. Now you’re feeling differently about some stuff, you can’t be annoyed with her because she speaks her mind. You need to talk to her, tell her what you’re feeling.’

But I didn’t want him to say that. I didn’t want him to say I had to talk to her, tell her what I was feeling. I already knew that, and I wanted him to say something different.

‘I just bloody knew you were going to say that. What the fuck do I say? “Sorry, Jules, I’ve made a terrible mistake, I know you’ve just given up your flat and moved in with me but you’re probably going to want to piss off again now, I’ve decided I want a baby”?’

I suppose that’s what I was going to have to say, in the end, albeit a little more sensitively.

‘You’re sure it’s what you want, not just some emotional reaction? Babies do funny things, make tough men go all soppy, all that shit.’

Yeah, I’d tried to convince myself of that as well, but no. This was something that came from deep within me.

‘I think … if I’m totally, brutally honest with myself, which, yeah, I know, I’m not very often, it’s always been something I wanted. But it wasn’t available, and it scared the shit out of me to think about, there’s all the commitment bollocks that goes with it, so I just arsed about to cover it up, and ended up convincing myself it didn’t matter to me one way or the other.’

Ah, the commitment bollocks. I said this wasn’t about Carrie, but it was, really, wasn’t it. Maybe if I’d been less … or more … oh shit, I really couldn’t think about it.

Dec

So he was being honest with himself, which was unusual for Matt. Now he needed to face up to the consequences.

‘Do you want her to move out?’

Matt

The thought of it made me go cold. Jules had only been living with me a week, but it was my life now, and thinking of doing any of it without her was untenable.

‘Fuck no. I like her being there. She makes me laugh, she’s good for me, she’s very caring, we talked about what would happen if I get ill again, she’s not fazed by any of that. We like doing the same things, we give each other space, we kind of get each other. She’s fucking hot too, and we’re bloody good together. But this just feels like a huge thing. Too fucking huge. I don’t know if it can work.’

‘OK, I know it’s not what you want me to say, but you need to talk to her. If it’s too huge, it’s better that you both know now, rather than get months or years down the line and end up hating each other and bitter because she didn’t know that was how you felt. Or, even worse, if she got pregnant. It happened to us, and it was what we both wanted. If that happens, and you want it and she doesn’t, that could be really messy, you’re both going to end up getting really hurt. Tell her, Matt. If she’s a straight talker, she’ll appreciate it in you too.’

I’d hoped that he would find another way, something that would mean I didn’t have to tell her. But there was no other way, I’d known that all along really.

Dec

Matt was just about the furthest thing from a straight talker it was possible to be. He loved talking, using words to win arguments, to baffle people, to show off, and he often took the long way round instead of getting to the point. It felt like he was going to need to try a different route if he stood a chance of making anything work with Julia.

}Oh just stop making so much sense. I’m regretting telling you now.

‘No you’re not, it’s why you wanted to talk to me. You know what you’ve got to do, you just wanted someone to confirm it.’

Matt

‘Adam speak?’

It sounded like the sort of thing a shrink might say. It was also the truth.

‘Dec speak. Maybe a hint of Adam. Seriously, mate, talking to me is all very well; who knows, it might help you sort things out in your head, but nothing will change unless you talk to Julia.’

‘OK, I’m getting the point. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I really thought I was going to able to avoid deep and meaningfuls with Jules. Never thought I’d be the cause of one.’

I couldn’t remember having many myself, and most of them had been over in a matter of minutes. That was unlikely to be the case this time.

‘Do it soon.’

‘Yeah. I know. Shit, we just bought this fucking expensive bed. That’s what we were doing this morning. I should have put it off, I had all these nagging thoughts, just ignored them.’

‘Matt, talking to her doesn’t have to mean it’s over, maybe you can work something out.’

Yeah Dec, like what?

‘Did you ever have a deep and meaningful that ended well?’

‘Well, a few with Amy, yeah. Massive one with Jay years ago. I’ve actually found that things tend to end better if you talk about them rather keeping quiet. But that’s just me.’

‘Well … maybe there’s some hope for me then. I guess I’ll just have to give it a go.’

Maybe Jules wouldn’t react like I thought she would, like I’d betrayed her. Maybe she’d think of a way this could work. Maybe. I sighed, put my face in my hands, took a deep breath. I knew I had to do it soon, before I lost my courage.

‘I suppose I shouldn’t delay it.’

Another deep breath, while I waited in the hope that Dec would come up with a reason why I didn’t have to do it straight away, but he didn’t, the bastard.

‘OK then, best go off and do the deed. Fuck, Dec, sorry, didn’t mean to piss on your day.’

‘No worries, not feeling pissed on at all. Let me know how it goes, yeah?’

‘Yeah. Wish me luck.’

Although I was going to need more than the mythical gods of fate to help me now.

‘Luck, mate’

I stood up and walked out, got in my car and drove away.

Dec

I felt bad for Matt, and wished him well. I would give him a call later and see how it went, but for now I had a new family to think about. I got my phone out so I could talk to Amy.

)Hey, when are you coming back?

‘When am I allowed?’

)Oh, Dec, it’s not like that. Come back now, please, hon. We miss you. Where are you?

‘At Jay’s. I had dinner here, then had a chat with Matt. They’ve all gone out.’

)Sounds like you could do with some female company. I know just the girl. She’s petite, blue eyes, dark hair, no teeth, hell of a pair of lungs on her –

‘Sounds perfect, I’ll be right there. I like a woman with no teeth. Even better if she’s wearing a nappy.’

)Then it’s your lucky day.

‘Ha ha, see you soon babe.’

I hung up and texted Jay to let him know I was locking up.

Jay: =How’s Matty?

Me: =So-so b on standby.

Jay: =What’s happened?

Me: =I’ll let him tell u.

Jay: =Very informative, thanks.

Matt

I went over and over it in my mind while I drove back home, thinking so hard that I wasn’t concentrating on driving, and ran a red light. I thought of several different ways to say it, all of which ended badly, and by the time I reached the flat I was so nervous my legs shook all the way up the stairs.

When I got in, though, Jules wasn’t there. She must still be with Evie. All of my pent up nervous energy needed somewhere to go, to do something, but there was nothing to do but wait. I thought about texting, but didn’t know what to say, so I waited, tying myself up in more mental knots.

I rehearsed all the ways I could think of to start it all off, what I would say to begin. It wasn’t going to be pretty, however I did it, but at least if I started out right, I could hope Jules might listen to the rest of it. Then I started to talk myself out of saying anything. Maybe I was just having a late crisis about moving in together. It was huge for me, well for both of us, and we’d done it pretty quickly; perhaps it was a delayed backlash, subconsciously looking for a way out.

I’d sorted it all out in my head, that it was just cold feet, and then I thought of Dec’s face when I told him I hadn’t said anything, and how feeble my excuses would sound. And that’s all they were; excuses.

Julia

Evie and I spent the afternoon talking, laughing and catching up. I told her about Matt, and she hugged me and congratulated me, and I could see from the look in her eyes that although she was pleased I was happy, she was holding back some concern.

‘So you’ve finally done it then, Jules. I never thought I’d see you living with someone.’

‘I know, but it’s been surprisingly easy. There wasn’t this big build up when I was worrying about if he was going to ask me, it was suddenly just out there, and I did lose it a bit on the day we decided, but then I just realised it was right, and it had happened anyway. We’ve been getting on very well, no arguments, we both like things the same way, really.’

‘Hmm. You’re just perfect for each other.’

‘Don’t be like that. I think we are. I never thought I’d hear myself say that, I used to think he was a complete tool, but I really think he’s changed. I mean, yes, he’s completely sex mad, but only with me, and that’s fine. Better than fine.’

‘Jules, you’re so loved up. He could poke bloody needles in your eyes and you’d say it was because you like the same things.’

‘I’m not loved up. You know I don’t do love, and he doesn’t either. That’s what’s so great, we both know where we stand, there’s not this big romantic thing that’s not real. It’s all completely real. It just makes sense.’

‘OK, my lovely whatever you say. Good for you. It sounds like it’s what you want.’

‘It is, we both want the same things, or don’t want them to be more accurate. He’s got this huge family, lots of children and babies, but he doesn’t want to do all that, so he’s perfect for me.’

Evie nodded, but didn’t say anything.

‘So, anyway, I’ve bent your ear enough. Tell me about your boss.’

By the time Evie had finished pouring her heart out about her job, it was late afternoon and I was really tired. I loved spending time with my best friend, but I’d been woken up early after little sleep, then we’d shopped for the bed, and Evie’s off-loading had finished up the little energy reserves I had. Resisting her asking me to stay for tea, I drove home. Matt’s car was in his parking space, and I wondered if he was as tired as me. Maybe we could curl up in bed together for a sleep, or have an early night.

Matt

When I heard Jules’ key in the door, I knew it wasn’t cold feet. I knew I had to tell her, and I had to do it now. I felt the blood drain from my face, leaving me feeling sick and lightheaded.

Julia

I knew something was wrong the minute I walked in the door. Matt was sitting on the sofa with his head in his hands, and for a brief second I was reminded of that first day, when I woke up on his sofa after we’d had sex. Then I shook the thought from my head, but other concerns were lining up to make their own suggestions. He looked up and gave me a thin smile as I closed the door behind me, but he looked washed out, tired and emotional.

‘Hey you.’

‘Hello. Are you alright? You don’t look very well.’

‘Can we talk?’

‘I’m really tired, Matt, can it wait?’

I knew that waiting never helped a situation, but I really didn’t feel I could hold my own in a serious conversation just at the moment. I didn’t know what was going on with Matt, if he was having a delayed reaction to me moving in, or something else, maybe he was experiencing symptoms of MS again, but whatever it was, it looked bigger than I felt able to cope with right at that moment.

‘I don’t think it can, Jules. It’s important. There’s something I need to say.’

I sighed and sat down, my visions of a cosy nap together disappearing, and my stomach contracting with apprehension.

‘Alright then.’

Matt looked at the floor and fiddled with his fingers.

‘Holy fuck, this is hard.’

As I waited, my heart started to beat faster, and my head started to buzz with the anticipation of what he was going to say.

‘OK. I know we’ve talked about stuff and … we’ve got similar … we kind of think the same about a lot of shit and maybe I’ve … oh bollocks I had it all straight in my head. Let me start again. This morning, Dec’s baby, it’s kind of … no, I need to just …’

I couldn’t make any sense of it, and my patience ran out.

‘Matt, please can you just say whatever it is you want to say? I haven’t got the energy to sort through all this.’

‘Sorry. Sorry, Jules. OK. OK. Here’s the thing. I hope I haven’t misled you … I really have only just … shit, this is so hard.’

‘Matt, please, you’re worrying me. Please just say whatever it is.’

‘I want children.’

My heart nearly stopped. My blood nearly froze. It was the one thing, the one thing that was insurmountable, non-negotiable. Anything else – serious illness, a gambling addiction, a need to paint the flat black and recite poetry all day – anything else, I could have coped with it, dealt with it, discussed it and come to terms with. Children were not part of that deal, wanting children was a deal-breaker, and Matt knew that. I hoped I’d misheard him, or misunderstood him.

‘What?’

‘I’m sorry. I was trying to say it better than that, I didn’t mean to just blurt it.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m so sorry, Jules, I didn’t know. I honestly didn’t know, until this morning, it started when Dec rang, I just felt weird, kind of jealous, and then I went to see them, and Charlie, she’s so … small and … I didn’t know but … as soon as I saw her, saw them with her, it just kind of clicked, I realised that’s what I want.’

My heart still stuttered, my blood still chilled. He was still talking, and it wasn’t getting any better. Oh God oh God oh God, he really meant it. He wanted children, out of the blue, when yesterday he did not.

‘How can you not have known?’

‘I don’t know. I’m pretty good at avoiding stuff. But I swear, all those conversations we’ve had, I meant it, I thought I fucking meant it. I haven’t lied to you, it wasn’t until today that I knew.’

‘So … what are you expecting from me? Are you expecting me to have your children?’

‘No … I know how you feel about it. I just wanted to be honest with you about how I’m feeling.’

I could feel myself losing my grip on my temper, on all my emotions, as everything I thought was in my power began to slip away from me. I could feel my life spinning out of my control, falling out of my hands. My heart started again with a lurch, in fact now I could feel my heartbeat getting faster, and my cheeks flush as my voice rose.

‘Well it’s a pity you didn’t feel the need to be honest before I uprooted my whole life and moved in here with you, isn’t it. I’ve made a commitment to you, the biggest commitment I’ve ever made to anyone, and it’s all based on fucking lies and pretence.’

‘Jules …’

‘I’ve just wasted the best part of a year of my life on you, thinking you were someone you’re not.’

‘Jules, please believe me, I’ve only just worked it all out. I wasn’t deceiving you. If you’d have asked me yesterday, do I want kids, I’d have said no, or at least said fuck knows. I know I have no right to say this, but … is there any way we can work this out? I don’t want to lose you.’

The effrontery of it galvanised me. He had just told me the one thing that was going to split us up, and now he wanted to know how to make it better.

‘How exactly do you think we’re going to work it out, Matt? You want kids, I don’t. One of us is going to be very fucking disappointed. Well it’s not going to be me.’

I felt my anger rising up in me like a flood. I stood up, unable to contain myself, needing to do something significant. There was a coffee cup by the sofa; I picked it up and hurled it at the wall, where it smashed satisfyingly, splattering brown droplets across the Farrow and Ball Shaded White paintwork, and dribbling down towards the floor. Smashing things felt good, and I looked for more things to break.

In the meantime, I hurled more words at Matt. I can’t even remember exactly what I said, but they were vile, horrible words because I felt vile and horrible, because the way he’d betrayed me was vile and horrible. At that moment, I hated him; he had been perfect for me and he had just taken that away.

Matt sat looking at me as I screamed at him, his sad expression making me more and more angry. I found the plates, and threw them on the floor and at the wall as I hurled vitriolic insults him. I found the wine glasses we’d chosen together and smashed them one by one on the kitchen worktop as I screamed my pain at him.

I wanted to hurt him; I nearly threw things at him, but I stopped myself and threw them so near him that he flinched as they shattered near his head. He was a lying fucking arsehole, and I told him so, and finally I told him I never wanted to see him again. Then, before I really did him an injury, I left.

Just before I did, I took the keys to the flat out of my bag and turned round. Matt had got to his feet and was heading towards me. I didn’t want him to touch me, or be anywhere near me, so I launched the keys at him as hard as I could. They hit him in the face, and he stumbled backwards as I turned and went through the door, slamming it behind me and running down the stairs as fast as I could, blinded by the tears I could at last allow myself to release.

65. Isn’t she lovely

In which a new arrival brings a shock revelation.

Dec

I woke up in the chair, neck stiff, the usual post-sleep disorientation swirling round my head. There was a snuffle from beside the bed. I came to with sudden realisation. Looked over. There she was. Small. Perfect. Eyes open, looking up. My beautiful baby.

‘Hey, lovely girl.’

I picked her up in her blanket. She hardly seemed to weigh anything in my arms. I carried her over to the window, where I could see the moon shining brightly among the night clouds, and I looked down at her tiny face, her perfect mouth, her big blue eyes, just like her mum’s. If she wanted the stars, I’d fetch them for her. A miniature hand escaped from the blanket and stretched out. I put my finger in her palm, and she closed her fist around it, squeezing my heart at the same time.

‘Clever girl!’

I kissed her tiny forehead. She made more snuffling noises and continued to look into my eyes. I could hardly blink, I didn’t want to miss a second of her. My amazing daughter, moonlight on her cheeks.

‘Look, the moon’s shining for you. There’s a man in the moon, can you see his face? He’s happy to see you. I’m so happy to see you too, lovely girl.’

She let go of my finger, shut her eyes, opened her mouth to reveal a tiny tongue and lots of gums. Started to yell her indignation at the top of her voice.

‘Shh, sweetie, you’ll wake Mummy … oh, too late.’

Amy had stirred in the bed, turned over and opened her eyes.

)Oh, she’s real. I thought I might have dreamed her.

‘Hey, babe. I did ask her to keep it down, but she’s feeling a bit grumpy.’

)Let’s have a go at feeding her then, seemed to work last time.

I walked over to the bed and passed her to Amy. The yelling stopped, as she snuffled about, sensing imminent food, and Amy lifted her top up, showing her where to go. Feeding commenced. Amy looked up at me, eyes shining. I sat on the edge of the bed, stroking Amy’s hair, watching the pair of them. My family – it took my breath away.

)What time is it?

‘Fuck knows, I hardly know what day it is. Let’s have a look.’

I checked my phone.

‘Gone five.’

)That’s pretty reasonable. I think I must have got about an hour.

‘You must be shattered, babe. That was a long haul.’

Amy had started having contractions the previous morning. I’d been on my way to the club, due to play in the game that afternoon, but had been withdrawn from the squad when Amy called. Following doctors orders and advice from Beth, Rose and Carol, we hadn’t rushed straight to the hospital, but waited the appropriate time and done as we were told. By the time Amy decided she wasn’t going to wait any more, she was bending double every three minutes and yelling in pain.

I’d driven to the hospital in a state of panic, Amy shouting and grabbing my arm all the way. We seemed to be the only ones panicking, everyone treated us as if we were making a huge fuss about nothing as I helped Amy into the room and we proceeded to wait for the rest of the day and most of the night for our daughter to put in an appearance. There was a fair amount of screaming on Amy’s part, and a lot of swearing directed at me, which I gathered was normal.

I played my part by holding Amy’s hand, wiping her forehead, bringing her ice and cold drinks and taking all the ‘fucking bastard’s on the chin. I was pretty terrified the whole time, Amy seemed to be in such a lot of pain and distress, no amount of reading books and going to classes had prepared me for how helpless I would feel. I stayed with her throughout, and holding Amy’s hand while our daughter was born was the most intense moment of my life.

There was lots of cleaning up and a few stitches, then Amy fed her, and we were taken back to the room, where we sat and held her and gazed at her. Earlier in the day, I’d phoned everyone to let them know things were on the move, but by the time she arrived, it was the early hours, and Amy banned me from calling anyone.

)I’ve told everyone we won’t let them know till a reasonable hour, they won’t be allowed to come in until later on anyway. There’s no point everyone getting sleepless nights. And we might want a bit of time alone with the baby afterwards.

Those were wise words. Much as I wanted everyone to meet this wonderful new person that Amy and I had made, I wanted her all to myself for as long as possible.

)Yeah, I’m pretty wiped. Better get used to it, though. I’m really thirsty, hon, is there any water?

The jug was empty, so I took it down the corridor and filled it up from the slow water cooler. When I got back, they were both asleep; I sat in the chair and stared at them, completely filled with love, amazement and wonder. Looked at the time again. Five twenty. Now very tempted to call someone. Got my phone out and turned it on, but really couldn’t do it with Amy asleep. So I sat and stared at them both some more.

They woke up together, both pairs of blue eyes opening at the same time, beauty in stereo.

‘Wow. Look at you two. My blue eyed girls.’

Amy looked down at her, still cradled in her arms.

)I can’t believe she’s here. Just look at her.

‘Budge over.’

Amy shuffled carefully over to one side of the single bed, and I climbed on next to her, pulling her close under my arm. My phone pinged.

)I thought you turned that off.

I looked at Amy guiltily.

‘I nearly called them while you were asleep.’

)You didn’t, though, did you?

‘No, babe, I resisted. Can we do it now? It’s gone six. It’s almost getting light.’

)It’s still early for a Sunday.

‘I bet Rose and Beth are already up, waiting.’

)You’re right.

She sighed.

)I’ve just so loved it being just us three. Oh, but I completely want to show her to everyone. Dec, I didn’t realise I’d love her so much.

‘Me neither. I can’t stop looking at her.’

)Go on, then, tell them.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket. Text.

Beth: =Any news???

I dialled her number. She answered on the first ring, had probably been waiting impatiently for my picture to flash up on the screen.

_Well?

‘Two eighteen a.m., seven pounds three ounces, Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright. All fingers and toes present and correct. Mother and baby doing well. Father an emotional puddle.’

She squealed very loudly. I heard Jay’s voice complaining in the background.

_Oh Dec! Congratulations, sweetheart. How’s Amy?

‘She’s great. Tired, sore, proud, happy, gorgeous, amazing.’

_Can we come and see you?

‘You’d bloody better. I don’t think you can come till nine, though.’

_Oh well, that gives me a chance to try and prise James and Cal out of bed … wait, Dec, did you say Charlotte?

‘Yeah, after Amy’s great-grandma …’

I waited to see if she would work it out.

_Are you going to shorten it?

She’d got it, with no clues or hints, and hardly any time to think about it.

‘Yeah –’

_Charlie! Ohhh, Dec, that’s … just so, so lovely. And isn’t Lucy …

‘Yeah. Mum.’

_Oh Dec. That’s just perfect. Oh sweetheart. She’d be so proud of you. Here, talk to James.

There was a crackle, then Jay.

łThanks for the early morning blub warning, mate. Beth’s in floods here.

‘Sorry.’

łIt’s all good, happy tears, apparently they don’t count. Might shed one or two myself if you don’t watch out. Congratulations, mate. I expect we’re coming to see you later. Amy OK?

‘She’s fucking awesome.’

łYou OK?

‘Also fucking awesome.’

Jay laughed.

łWe’ll see the fucking awesome three of you later, then.

We hung up. I turned to Amy.

‘Did you hear all that?’

)Most of it. Beth was quick off the mark.

‘She doesn’t miss much. Right, Rose next.’

I got her name up and pressed call. Another one answered on the first ring.

:Declan, love. Any news?

‘Yes, she’s here. Charlotte Lucy. Seven pounds three ounces. Born two eighteen this morning.’

Rose’s tears came even quicker than Beth’s.

:Oh love … sorry, love, I’m just a bit … I’ve been awake all night thinking about you.

Rose sniffed for a bit.

:How’s Amy?

‘She’s great. Are you going to come and see us? You can come any time after nine.’

More sniffs.

:Try and stop me, love. How are you?

‘I am on top of the world.’

:Oh love … I’m so happy for you …

‘Rose, I’m going to go, and let you pull yourself together. See you soon. Drive safely.’

:Bye love.

‘Bloody hell, Ames, I’m not sure I can cope with all this crying, it’s getting to me.’

)Try Matt next, then, you’re not likely to get any crying off him.

‘Don’t bank on it. Me and him used to be a right pair of cry-babies. Had a special club and everything. I will try him, though, just for the fun of waking him up.’

I dialled the number. The phone rang several times; just as I thought it would go to voicemail, it was answered.

Julia

I woke with a start to the sound of Matt’s phone. It was Dec’s ringtone. The morning light was just about starting to show through the curtains, but it was early. Matt didn’t stir. I nudged him.

Matt

Something nudged me awake. I tried to ignore it.

‘Matt.’

Oh it was Jules. She should know I don’t wake up this early. However bloody early it was. Too fucking early.

‘Ngh.’ I thought that conveyed my thoughts concisely.

‘Your phone’s ringing. It’s Dec.’

‘Mm wha?’

She was saying words, but they weren’t really sinking in. It was too fucking early.

‘Answer your phone – oh for fuck’s sake.’

I felt her reach over me and thought about fondling a breast, but it was too fucking early.

Dec

¤Hello.

‘Oh, I … was expecting Matt Scott … is that … Julia?’

¤Yes. Matt’s just here.

I opened my eyes wide at Amy, mouthed ‘she answered his phone!‘ at her.

Matt

I was suddenly pushed really hard. It jolted me fully awake, and I opened my eyes.

‘What?’

‘It’s Dec. He wants to talk to you. It sounds important.’

‘What?’

Awake but brain not yet fully functional, it being too fucking early and all.

‘Possibly there is some news about a baby?’

‘Oh. Right.’

I took the phone from Jules and held it to my ear.

‘This had fucking well better be Declan Summers telling me he’s become a father.’

‘It fucking well is.’

I could hear the grin in his voice. I felt a strange mixture of excitement and … was that envy? No. I was just pissed off that I’d been woken up.

‘I’ll let you off the bloody ridiculously early call then. I’m glad to see the ‘fuck’ police haven’t got to you yet, either. Your days are numbered, though. When can we visit?’

‘After nine.’

A quick glance at the time showed me it was still too fucking early.

‘Bollocks, that’s hours away. Fuck off, then, I’ve got more sleeping to do.’

Dec

The line went dead.

‘No crying. Too busy moaning about losing his sleep.’

)What a surprise. Didn’t he even want any details?

‘Not that he’d admit to. Plenty of time for that, he’ll be along later. Maybe with Julia – looks like she stayed the night. Or maybe he did, I don’t know where he was.’

)Wow. Who’d have thought, Matt doing sleepovers. It’s taken him long enough.

‘He’s not going to rush into anything.’

)Well there’s not rushing and there’s going so slowly you get overtaken by snails.

‘True. Ames, are you going to ring your mum?’

She sighed.

)Not yet, it’s too early.

‘Really? She’s just become a granny, she might want to know sooner rather than later.’

)Later, hon.

‘OK.’

Matt

I disconnected and turned over to go back to sleep. You do know I don’t do mornings, right? Alright, maybe I should have been more outwardly enthusiastic, but as I think I may have mentioned, it was too fucking early, and also, although I didn’t want to examine it too closely, Dec becoming a father was making me feel weird.

Jules wasn’t about to let me get away with that, though. For some reason she wanted to chat about the new arrival.

‘Well?’

‘What?’

Playing dumb never worked but it at least delayed things a bit sometimes.

‘You’re an uncle, or some weird kind of non-existent relation. Have you got a niece or a nephew? Or a Decew?’

‘Fuck knows, I didn’t ask.’

I tried to sound as pissed off as possible in the vain hope that she’d just leave me alone and let me go back to sleep.

‘Matt! You have to ask, if he didn’t say. You’re supposed to be all excited about weights and times and names. And you’re supposed to remember what they tell you. Call him back.’

She picked a fine time to come over all ‘this is what you do when your mates have babies’ on me.

‘Bollocks to that, it’s – what is it – Jules, it’s only just gone six on a bloody Sunday morning. Who’s bloody awake now?’

‘People who have just had babies.’

People with children full stop, more like. Suckers. I was thinking about sinking back down into a contented childless sleep, when Jules reached over me again, and this time I was on the ball enough to try a quick grope, which was ignored as she picked up my phone and scrolled down the contacts list.

‘I’m dialling for you. Here.’

She handed me the phone, and I sighed, defeated, and held it to my ear.

It was as if he’d been expecting me to call, I could almost hear the smug smile in his voice as he answered.

‘Forget something?’

I wasn’t having that. It was bad enough being woken up before enlightened people were stirring, but now I was copping it from all sides too.

‘Fuck off, I’m getting enough grief this end. Apparently it’s the done thing to inquire about the sex of the baby, certain vital statistics, maybe a name if such a thing is considered important, and not just roll over and go back to sleep like any civilised person at this time on a Sunday morning.’

‘Ha ha, thank Julia for remembering your manners.’

I ignored that. ‘Well go on then, I’m on tenterhooks now, the edge of my seat, or rather pillow.’

‘OK, then, as you asked so nicely, my beautiful daughter – that’s a clue to the sex of the baby, by the way – is called Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright. She is a very respectable seven pounds three ounces, she was born at two eighteen this morning, she has her mother’s eyes –’

‘And probably her father’s ability to cry at the drop of a hat.’

I was silent for a moment, as it sunk in. It had really happened. Dec and Amy were parents. They had a baby, a family.

‘Fuck me, Dec … you’ve got a daughter. That is fucking huge. Congratulations, mate.’

As I said the last word, I felt a rush of emotion. The whole situation felt enormous, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it all. I heard my voice break.

‘Thanks, Matt. See you later.’

‘Yeah.’

I disconnected, glad that I wasn’t going to have to speak to him any more right now.

Dec

‘Think he might just about almost have cried a tiny bit that time.’

)Round one to you, then, hon. I expect you’ll pay for it later. He didn’t work it out, then?

‘Probably a bit early in the morning. It might not even occur to him at all. He’ll be bloody annoyed if Beth tells him before he realises, though.’

Charlie stirred in Amy’s arms, waved her arms in the air, opened her mouth for another yell.

‘Are you hungry again, lovely girl?’

)Good girl, let’s have some breakfast before the hordes arrive.

‘What about breakfast for you Ames? I’m bloody starving.’

)Oh, hon, I could murder a cup of tea and some toast. Aren’t they going to bring it in though?

‘I’ll go and see what I can find.’

Breakfast for the Summers-Wright family sorted, burping completed, a phone call to Carol, a nappy changing lesson from a midwife, and a check on Amy and Charlie from the doctor done, there was nothing to do but hold my daughter and wait for everyone to arrive. I wrestled her away from Amy with a bit of a struggle, persuading her to ring her mum while I held my lovely girl close and took her for a tour of the room.

‘Hey Charlie, look out the window, that’s the world out there. It’s pretty amazing. We’re going to see a lot of it together. There’s trees – but don’t go falling out of any, and cats – but keep away from their claws, and litter bins – ew, though, a bit stinky, but look, there’s blue sky too, and clouds, which means there’ll be rain, but there’s sunshine as well. And wait until you see snow – oh Charlie, you are so going to love snow.’

I carried on talking nonsense while Amy made a call to her mum. I raised my eyebrows when she’d finished. Amy shrugged, looked sad.

‘What did she say?’

)Congratulations.

‘What else?’

)Not much.

‘Is she coming?’

)Doubt it. Don’t think Dad will let her.

‘Oh babe, I’m sorry.’

Amy’s parents had not softened towards us, although Amy had been in touch with her mum from time to time. Amy’s dad refused to speak to either of us and her mum had to choose her moments for contact, as this apparently caused huge arguments. Amy was hurt, I was angry, but there wasn’t much we could do about it.

Matt

I stayed lying on my side, taking a moment to collect myself and stop my bloody eyes from leaking salty bastards. Why was I so emotional? It was a bloody baby, for fuck’s sake. I pulled myself together and turned to face Jules, who was waiting for an update.

Julia

Matt carried on lying on his side, facing away from me. I thought I felt him wipe his eyes, but when he turned over onto his back, there was no sign.

‘So?’

‘Girl. Bloody hyphenated surname. Weighs seven somethings and a few something or others. Decided to arrive at some unearthly hour that should only exist if you’re out getting shit-faced.’

‘Are you going to go and see them?’

‘Yeah, later, can’t go in till nine. Come with me?’

‘No, I don’t think so. It’s your family. I don’t really do babies.’

Part of me was still worried that they would find out about Matt and me living together, and another part really didn’t want to have to go and gush about a tiny person whose only skill so far in life had been surviving being born.

Matt

‘Oh go on, you’re practically family. They’d love to see you.’

‘No, you go. If you go early enough, we can still go and look at beds when you get back.’

Bollocks. I’d completely erased the shopping for a bed plan from my mind.

‘Oh yeah, I forgot about the fucking bed. I’d better try to get there for nine, then, so we’ve got time before you go to Evie’s. Sure you won’t come? I’d really like you to, Jules.’

I didn’t usually try to coax Jules into doing something when she’d already said no, but I just wanted her with me. I wanted her to be part of this thing that was a huge thing for my family, I wanted her to be part of my family as well. I backed away from that, as it seemed like something to explore on a less weird day. Jules was not to be convinced, at any rate.

Julia

Something in his voice made me worry that if I went, he would end up telling them about us. I wondered if he was feeling upstaged. I decided not to risk giving him the opportunity – I didn’t think he’d do it without me there.

‘No. I’ll see them soon enough. Go back to sleep for a bit.’

Matt

I would have loved to have gone back to sleep, but I was no longer in the least bit tired.

‘No, I’m too awake now. Bloody hell. Fancy breakfast in bed? Fry-up?’

‘Now you’re talking. I haven’t had a fried breakfast for ages.’

‘OK, I’ll see what I can rustle up.’

Julia

Matt hauled himself out of bed, pulled a pair of boxers and a t-shirt on, and padded off to make some breakfast. After we’d finished, and I’d cleared the plates and pans into the dishwasher and got back into bed, I was half expecting Matt to make some moves on me. Sunday mornings were usually spent having sex, if we had time and no other plans. But this morning he seemed preoccupied.

‘Are you alright?’

He nodded.

‘You’re not quite here.’

He looked at me.

‘Sorry, Jules, I think I’m just still amazed that little Declan Summers, who is only, what, nine years old or something, is a dad. He’s wanted this, his own family, for so bloody long, and now he’s got it. I’m bloody happy for him. I wish I knew what I bloody wanted sometimes.’

‘I thought you did.’

‘Well I know what I don’t want. I know what scares me shitless and I’ll do anything to avoid, I know all that, but the other side, what do I actually want? I haven’t got a fucking clue. I just bumble along really, reacting. Oh, here’s a job. Yeah, looks good, I’ll have that. What’s that? A party? Sure, I’m not doing anything tonight. A beautiful woman in my arms? Fuck yeah. Plan for the future, you say? Fuck that.’

‘I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself. You’ve got this place, you’ve got us, neither of those just happened by accident.’

Matt

She was right. In the grand scheme of life, I had sorted out accommodation and a relationship, no mean feat. It was just that right now, I had no plans, I had no sense of where I was going, and it suddenly felt important that I did. I had no idea what to do about it.

‘I suppose so. Sorry, just feeling a bit weird. I’m going to get up, get over there, get it over with.’

I leaned over and kissed her, then got out of bed and got dressed. I sat in the living room for a while, flicking through the channels on the TV and settling on the repeat of Match of the Day, as it was still too fucking early to go to the maternity unit.

Dec

Charlie snuffled and looked up at me, Amy’s eyes staring at me from her perfect face. Every time, it nearly stopped my heart.

‘Oh, lovely girl.’

A sound at the door. I looked up. Matt, peering in through the window. I beckoned him in with my head.

Matt

I left earlier than I needed to, which meant I got there early too. In fact, as I peered through the glass in the door, I realised I had got there before anyone else, which surprised me.

Dec was standing by the window, holding a bundle of blankets with a small face and tiny hand peeking out. It brought an unexpected lump to my throat, and I looked away, at Amy, who looked dishevelled but radiant.

‘Shit, am I first? Can’t believe I beat Beth and Rose! Amy, you look great. Hours of agony and a sleepless night before pushing a person out of your nether regions obviously suits you.’

I went over and dispensed a kiss.

‘No Julia?’

I tried to make light of it, although it had upset me more than I realised that she wouldn’t come with me when I asked her. It also occurred to me that Jules had answered my phone, and it would have been apparent that she’d at the very least stayed the night. I was going to have to be careful not to let anything slip about our cohabitation status, or I’d be well and truly in the shit. Hopefully the small bundle in Dec’s arms would distract everyone enough for me.

‘She might come later, this is apparently family time. Let’s have a look, then.’

‘Want a hold?’

‘Fuck yeah.’

Dec

I passed Charlie over. It felt weird to give her to someone who wasn’t Amy, but Matt held her like an expert.

Matt

Dec moved the tiny bundle into my arms, and suddenly I knew. She was beautiful, she was so new, she was the next chapter in Dec’s life. He was her dad, she was his daughter, they had a bond that no one else could have with either of them. I wanted that. This was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted a family.

Oh fuck.

I held her and looked into her face. I know babies all look Winstonesque, but Dec’s daughter had Amy’s eyes. I’d never seen it before, but here it was. Yeah, think about that, Matt. Don’t go anywhere near that other shit you were … what the actual fuck had I just … no, no, don’t. Just don’t. Eyes. Like Amy’s.

‘Hi gorgeous. Amy, she is truly beautiful. Well done.’

I tried to focus on the baby girl in my arms, to avoid thinking about what had just detonated through my brain, in a pretty life-changing apocalyptic way.

‘Thanks Matt, we’re pretty pleased with the results.’

‘Hello, Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright.’

I even remembered her whole name – I hope you’re impressed.

‘You’re rather lovely, even if your name is a bit of a mouthful. If I was thirty years younger, you’d need to watch out.’

‘Charlie, this is Matt. He’ll teach you your first swear words. Probably before you’re two.’

I looked up at Dec, confused, but happy to be diverted from my own cataclysmic thought processes.

‘I thought you said she was Charlotte … oh, you’ve shortened it.’

And then it occurred to me. Dec’s other name. It was a nod, a memorial, to his parents, who had called him Charlie when they adopted him. It was brilliant.

‘Oh … oh! Charlie! Ha ha. That’s bloody genius! Hi Charlie, your mum and dad are clever aren’t they? Is Lucy some sort of code word too?’

‘My mum.’

‘Oh, mate, of course. That’s … actually that’s bloody lovely.’

It was, it really was so bloody lovely, and I was already emotional, and now the bloody tears were running down my face and threatening to drop onto Charlie.

‘Oh shit, look at me. Here, Amy, before I drip all over her. Fuck, sorry, beautiful.’

I handed Charlie to Amy and wiped my eyes on the back of my hand, looking around for something more absorbent.

‘Pass me one of those tissues, Dec, I’m not going to be blarting like a girl when Jay gets here.’

‘Er, might be a bit late for that …’

He gestured to the door, where Beth’s face had appeared at the glass. Bollocks. They had to turn up now, didn’t they.

‘Shit.’

Dec

Matt turned to look out of the window and wiped his face on his sleeve. I was a bit puzzled at Matt’s reaction – he rarely showed his emotions in public, and even though he was with family, it was uncharacteristic, particularly considering the sometimes barely disguised apathy both he and Julia showed when everyone was talking about the baby.

The door opened and Iz sidled in, looking self-conscious. When she saw me she ran over and held her arms up, so I whisked her up and gave her a cuddle. She was closely followed into the room by a grumpy looking Cal, a smiling Beth and a dishevelled Jay.

_Where is she then – oh! Amy, she’s gorgeous! Let’s have a proper look.

Beth sat on the edge of the bed, gave Amy a kiss and stroked Charlie’s cheek.

)Cuddle?

_I thought you’d never ask!

Amy handed her to Beth.

_Oh, Charlie, you look just like your mum.

Beth jiggled her and made various cooing noises. She and Amy were in a motherly world of their own and started comparing timings, weights and other details I hadn’t even known existed and which would have made me wince if I had.

Matt

I turned to look out of the window and wiped my face on the sleeve of my t-shirt. While all the squealing and cuddling was going on, I got a grip on myself, took a few deep breaths, then turned round and joined in the conversation, trying not to think, at all, about anything, other than what people were saying, stealing the odd glance at Charlie, watching, I was surprised to find, enviously as Dec and Amy showed her off to everyone.

Dec

Iz clung on to my neck and stared at Charlie. Cal stood by the wall, not really looking at anything.

‘Hey Cal, did we get you out of bed early?’

He shrugged.

‘Did you go to the game yesterday?’

\yeah.

‘Did we win?’

\yeah, 28-14. Bonus point.

‘Brilliant. Hope you missed me.’

\Sam Wallis was pretty good, he scored a try.

Sam Wallis was my last minute replacement, a seriously promising academy player who was pushing hard for a starting place. I hoped I would be able to wrestle my spot in the team back from him.

‘Good game?’

\yeah. I went with Matty.

‘Yeah? Think you’re winning him over?’

}Spurs will always be closest to my heart, but Raiders run a close second at times, even though I’ll never get the hang of bloody offside or, what’s that other one I always ask you about, Cal?

\off his feet.

}Yeah, off his feet, what’s that all about? And Sam Wallis, phew, what a number twelve. Player of the future, in my books. Sack the incumbent.

łOK, not in front of the coach. You’re here early, Matty.

}Well I was woken up in the middle of the night, weren’t you? Something about a baby. Couldn’t get back to sleep, so I decided to check it out. Turns out there is one! Pretty decent effort, too.

łJulia not with you?

‘No, she might come later.’

I wasn’t quite sure what I was sensing from Matt, but something was up. Something in his expression each time he’d mentioned Julia. He had been seeing her for quite a while – maybe eight or nine months – but they weren’t exactly joined at the hip, and they led fairly separate lives as far as I could tell. Julia seemed to avoid the Scott family engulfing that could easily swamp a person if they weren’t careful; she got on well with everyone, when we saw her, but she chose when she was involved, and seemed to keep herself at a distance, rather than being swallowed whole by us all. Maybe that’s why Matt had stuck with her; we didn’t all know his business, he had a life with someone that didn’t include us all the time. Everyone needed something different from a family, and Matt certainly valued his space, but it felt like he hadn’t been around as much in the last few months. I didn’t have time to think about it right now, but maybe a late night chat was on the cards.

_James, you’ve got to have a cuddle with Charlie, she’s beautiful.

Jay rolled his eyes comically and moved to the bed, where he took Charlie from Beth and held her in his arms. He had a tender expression, and Charlie looked straight at him.

łHey little one. Wow, you are beautiful. You must take after your mum. Dec, how does this amazing creature have any of your genes?

‘Maybe she’s got my brains.’

łShe’d better make the most of her looks, then, she’ll be thick as shit.

_James! Honestly.

łOh lighten up, Beth. Cal, do you want to have a look at Charlie?

Cal shrugged.

\i can see her from here.

łCome on, mate. She’s the newest member of the family. Come and say hi.

)Do you want a hold, Cal?

Cal looked at Amy, shrugged, looked like he wanted to say yes but thought it might appear too uncool.

)Sit in the chair, then, your dad will show you how.

Cal pushed himself away from the wall with an impressive show of not caring, and sat down.

łOK mate, hold your arm like this, that’s it. You’ve got to make sure to support her head, her neck’s really floppy, that’s right. Here we are … you’ve done it! Hey, Cal, I think she likes you.

Cal looked down at Charlie, looking pleased with himself, but a little unsure what to do next. Iz looked at me.

/Cal got baby.

‘Yeah, sweetie, she’s called Charlie. She’s my and Amy’s baby. Do you like her?

Iz gave this some consideration, and nodded seriously.

/Charlie a boy.

_Well, Charlie at nursery is a boy, isn’t he sweetheart, but this Charlie is a girl. It’s short for Charlotte.

łWell done on the name, by the way, guys. Keeping it a secret too, very good. Big surprise.

\why is it such a big surprise? Loads of people are called Charlie, there’s a girl in my class, and a boy.

Everyone looked at me. I felt the weight of explaining things to Cal that I hadn’t felt for a long time. Tried to find the words without needing to say too much.

‘Well, a long time ago, I used to be called Charlie, but I changed my name. It’s kind of a reminder. We didn’t tell anyone what we’d planned, so that’s why it’s a surprise.’

\oh. You weren’t called Charlotte, though?

This made everyone laugh; Matt in particular found it very amusing.

}Oh, the twist in the tale. Are you sure you only changed your name, Dec? Amy, I think I might need proof.

)I think our daughter is your proof, Matt.

}OK, fair point.

The door opened suddenly, and Rose burst in. Carol was behind her.

:Oh, love, the traffic out there is a nightmare. On a Sunday morning too – oh! Oh, there she is.

She looked at Charlie and then at me.

:She’s just perfect, Declan, love. Oh, sorry, everyone, babies just get me going.

She was fishing in her pocket for a tissue as she spoke, so I held the box out to her. She took one, wiped her eyes, then stood and stared hungrily at Charlie.

‘Cal, can Rose have a hold now? I wouldn’t want her to burst anything waiting.’

Cal nodded. Rose bent down and picked her up gently. She bent her head down to her and burbled some nonsense, totally engrossed. I don’t think Rose would have noticed if an earthquake had hit at that precise moment. Cal got out of the chair so Rose could sit down, and Carol took the other chair, looking on.

I saw a movement at the door, caught sight of a face at the window, then it was gone. I looked over at Amy. She hadn’t noticed and was smiling at Charlie, eyes full of love and happiness. I nearly left it alone. Couldn’t. I put Iz down, went to the door and looked down the corridor. Someone was walking away quickly. I followed.

‘Diane.’

I ran to catch up with her. She stopped, turned to face me.

‘Why didn’t you come in?’

;There are too many people in there already.

‘Amy would love to see you.’

;I think it would be … awkward.

‘Who gives a shit? She’s just had a baby. The most beautiful baby girl –’

I saw that hungry look steal over her face, the same one Rose had earlier.

‘–and she wants to show her to her mum. I don’t think she’ll think it’s awkward, I think she’ll be very pleased to see you, and very proud.’

;I think … I might have left it too late. Amy’s father has been so difficult about this whole thing. I should maybe have done more. It’s been very hard.

‘It’s not too late, but it’s been hard on Amy too. Most people have their mums around at a time like this. She’s missed you. We’ve got an amazing family, they’re all here now, they wouldn’t be anywhere else. They’ve been there for her through everything. But they’re not her mum. I’d give anything to have my mum here today. I think Amy feels the same about you.’

I saw the indecision on her face. Decided to push it.

‘Come on, Diane. Come and meet Charlie. She’s so beautiful, she’s just like Amy. You don’t have to stay long, just say hello. You’ve come all the way down here, you must want to see her, hold her.’

She looked at me with a mixture of hope and fear on her face. Made a decision.

;I can’t stay long, Jack doesn’t know where I am.

‘Fuck Jack. Come on, come and meet your granddaughter.’

I held out a hand. Surprising me, she took it, and squeezed it very tightly as we walked back up the corridor to the room. I went in first.

Rose was still holding Charlie, looking like she was never going to let go; Jay and Matt were teasing Cal about something that had happened at school; Iz was sitting on Carol’s lap, chattering away; Beth was sat on the bed, head close to Amy’s watching Rose and Charlie.

‘Ames …’

Amy looked up, and I indicated behind me with my head and a raise of my eyebrows, then stood aside to let Diane walk in. Amy gasped and put her hand over her mouth, so I could only see her eyes, but they were wide and shining.

)Mum …

‘You all know Amy’s mum, don’t you.’

There was more than a hint of frostiness in the air. The last time everyone had seen her had been the family meal, when her husband had called Amy and me a disgrace.

‘She’s come to meet Charlie. Rose, you’re going to have to let go for a few minutes. You can have more cuddles later.’

I took Charlie from Rose and held her close to Diane.

‘Here she is, your amazing granddaughter. Charlie, meet your – actually, Diane, what do you want to be called? Grandma? Granny? Nan?’

Diane couldn’t stop staring at Charlie.

;Oh, er I hadn’t really thought …

)How about Granna, Mum?

Diane looked up and at Amy. Something passed between them; something somewhere had just been mended. Tears filled Diane’s eyes.

;Oh yes, Amy. Granna. Oh, my love, she’s beautiful. I’m sorry, so sorry I haven’t … I couldn’t …

)Don’t, Mum. It doesn’t matter. You came. Have a cuddle. She’s pretty good at cuddles. Dec?

‘Ready, Diane?’

I passed her over, then perched on the arm of Rose’s chair, watching as my beautiful daughter melted her Granna’s heart. I saw Rose’s expression soften, and everyone seemed to relax. It was still quiet, but no longer icy.

/unca Matty, I need a wee-wee.

Iz’s announcement shattered the tension.

}Thanks for that Iz. Why did you choose me to divulge this information to?

/Need a wee-wee.

}OK, blondie, I hear you. Anyone else care to field this one?

_Alright, sweetheart, let’s find the loo.

Beth and Iz left to wander down the corridor in search of facilities.

\dad, can I play on my DS now?

Cal had waited for Beth to leave the room, and now Jay was fair game as the soft touch.

łSure, mate, just turn the sound down.

Cal got out the console and sat cross legged on the floor by the window.

łDec, are there any more chairs anywhere? I feel like a spare part leaning up against the wall.

‘Maybe ask one of the nurses?’

łCome on Matty, make yourself useful, come and move some furniture.

Diane was still standing by the bed holding Charlie, still totally beguiled.

:She’s adorable, isn’t she, love?

;She is very, very lovely. Amy, she looks just like you when you were born. Exactly the same.

Rose, never one to leave things be, decided to put her oar in just a little bit.

:You should be very proud of your daughter, she’s a credit to you. Both her and Declan. They’re going to be very good parents.

;I am proud of her. I am, Amy.

)Thanks, Mum.

Diane looked like she was trying to drink in Charlie’s face. Carol started to get out of her chair.

#Why don’t you sit down, dear? It’s much easier to cuddle sitting down.

Diane seemed to rouse herself. She looked at Carol, then at Amy, regretfully.

;No, that’s alright, thank you. I’m so sorry, Amy, I’ve got to go. Your father doesn’t know I’m here. I … think … I need to talk to him.

She handed Charlie back to Amy.

;I’m so sorry.

)Come back soon, Mum.

;When are you going home?

)Some time tomorrow morning. Call me, I’ve got my mobile here.

Diane bent down and kissed Amy, and had another long look at Charlie.

‘Why don’t I take a picture? I can email it to you.’

Diane looked at me like I had just offered to fly to the moon for her.

;Oh Declan, that would be wonderful.

She walked over to me and, for the first time ever, kissed me on the cheek.

;Thank you so much.

‘Thank you too.’

She straightened her shoulders, arming herself for what would likely be a difficult return home, and left the room, looking back through the window for a last glance at Amy and Charlie. Amy looked at me and smiled.

‘Granna?’

)Oh, that was what we used to call my great grandma. Family name.

‘Sounds perfect, babe.

My phone rang. I fetched it from the bedside cabinet, glanced at the screen. Lis. Fuck, I had forgotten to call them.

‘Lis! I’m so sorry, I forgot to ring, I was waiting till it wasn’t so early there, then everyone turned up and it got crazy.’

~Hi Dec, don’t worry, Beth gave us a cheeky tinkle earlier. Hope you don’t mind! Congratulations, Daddy! How is she? How’s Amy?

‘They’re both absolutely gorgeous. I’ll text you a picture.’

~Oh there’s no need, Dec, we’re –

>We are here!

The door opened and to my utter astonishment Nico and Lis walked in. I stood with my mouth hanging open. Amy had a similar expression on her face. Rose and Carol looked very pleased with themselves, so they obviously knew. Cal stood up and put his game away.

‘Holy fuck! What the … when did … it’s so great to see you!’

Nico walked over and gave me a huge hug, while Lis did the same to Amy and Charlie.

>We are in England for business. We must see you and your baby. Ha, we keep secret as surprise. You have surprise?

‘Fucking gobsmacked.’

>So now I see your baby.

~Oh Nico, come and look, she’s perfect.

Lis had managed to take her from Amy. Charlie was dealing very well with the changes in handlers. Nico looked at Charlie with a tender expression.

>Hey beautiful lady. You are like your mother. Amy, she has your eyes. Ha, I hope she has nothing of Declan. You do well. You both do very well.

He kissed Amy.

>We bring baby things.

He handed a large bag to Amy, as Jay and Matt banged through the door carrying a chair each, which they put down on the other side of the bed.

łOn time as ever, Nico, we’ve been here for ages.

>I like to make dramatic entrance.

łOh that’s it, is it? You’re not the only ones who can do surprises, Dec.

‘Apparently not.’

}Watch out, Dec, it might be time to lock up your daughter if Nico’s on the loose.

‘He’s already tried it on. She wasn’t having any of it though.’

Beth and Iz came back in, Iz holding a cardboard cup. She held it up to me.

/dec, got slushie.

‘Great stuff, Iz, what colour?’

/blue one.

‘The best sort. Why don’t you sit with Granny to drink it?’

Iz looked round the room to see if there was a better offer. She fixed her eyes on the prize.

/sit wif Eeco.

He bowed.

>I am honoured, beautiful Isobel. Thank you, Jaime, to bring my chair.

Jay rolled his eyes as Nico sat down and Iz ran over to jump onto his lap.

łDec’s not the only one who’s going to need to lock up his daughter.

Beth and Lis had squealed and hugged and were now gathered round the bed with Amy, Rose and Carol, talking about who knows what in some cryptic baby language. I was beginning to realise that however many books I’d read and classes I’d been to, I was never going to be part of the club.

My attention was distracted by Nico looking at Jay questioningly.

>Jaime, I can say?

łI guess so, Nico, if you want to. It’s going to be announced tomorrow anyway.

>Declan, Lis and me are coming back to the city. I sign for Raiders again.

Again I stared open mouthed, as Cal let out a whoop.

\yes!

>Ha, Cal you are pleased, thank you for this. I hope you still have ‘TIAGO’ on your shirt.

łHis shirt’s getting a bit small, we were just about to get him another one. I thought we might get ‘SCOTT’ on the back this time – I guess that’s not likely now. Should have written it into your bloody contract.

Beth, who seemed to be able to listen to several conversations at once, had also squealed at Nico’s announcement.

_Lis, you kept that quiet! James, honestly, not even a hint?

~You know what it’s like, Beth, nothing’s ever settled till the last minute. Nico literally sorted it yesterday after the game. Er, actually, there’s something else we’ve been keeping a bit of a secret till everything was sorted … it’s one of the main reasons we’ve come back to England, really.

Lis looked over at Nico and smiled.

_You’re not … ?

~I am! Fourteen weeks. Oh, Amy, sorry, this is butting in on your celebration. Typical Lis and Nico, come in, take over. We’ll save it for later, yeah?

)That’s so great, Lis, not butting in at all. The more babies the better.

łJesus, Nico, you never said a word. Wasn’t that a bit risky, what if we’d said no?

>Ha, I know Raiders not resist my amazing tries. And I have plan B – if Raiders say no, maybe I am nanny for Declan and Amy?

}That I would like to see, Nico in his Mary Poppins uniform, sleeping on the sofa in Dec’s tiny flat. Listen, guys, sorry to break up the party, I’ve got to shoot off, me and Jules are doing stuff this morning. Plus my brain’s a bit crammed with all the news. This bloody family does my nut sometimes. Love you all but time to go.

Matt hugged and kissed Amy, kissed Charlie and stroked her cheek, raised a hand in farewell to everyone else, then stood in front of me, grinning.

}Look after them, mate, you have a bloody awesome little family there. See you soon.

He held out his hand, and as I went to clasp it, he raised his thumb to his nose and wiggled his fingers at me, before leaving. I hadn’t got to the bottom of the weird vibe I was feeling from Matt, but I didn’t have time to think about it. He seemed happy enough when he left, and I was sure whatever it was would keep, most likely until the early hours of some night when I really needed my sleep.

Matt

Rose and Mum arrived, Amy’s mum put in a brief appearance, and then Nico turned up with Lis, and it all got a bit chaotic. It was too noisy, and I was glad, in the end, that Jules hadn’t come. She would have hated it.

Remembering I needed to get back to Jules so we could buy a bed, I made my excuses and drove home. I was in no way able to assimilate the revelation I’d had when I held Charlie. I couldn’t admit it to myself, not yet, but it was there, just under the surface, waiting to be explored and acted on, and it made me irritable and manic.

57. We are family

In which there are introductions, and opinions are formed.

Dec

I picked Iz up and carried her downstairs, into the living room. Beth was laying out what looked like a banquet on the table, ably assisted by Amy, Rose and Carol. Jay was still grappling with the laptop.

‘Any luck?’

łNo, I can’t get the damn thing to work, it won’t accept the password. Do you really not have any idea what to do? Aren’t you supposed to be young?

‘Not a bloody clue. I’ve never Skyped before. Technology is a foreign country to me. Plus, I’ve got my hands full.’

On cue, Iz wriggled to get down and ran over to Jay to show him Optimus Prime.

/cal’s lorry.

łWow, Iz, I like him. Does he turn into a robot by any chance?

/make a bot. Dec do it.

She held the truck out to me. I took it and fiddled with the plastic bits, some of which were missing, and turned it back into Optimus Prime in almost all his glory.

‘Ta-da.’

łI’m impressed you can still remember how to do that. Shame your skills don’t stretch to useful things like working bloody computers.

/make a lorry.

‘At least it’s keeping me occupied – I see I could be here for some time.’

I dismantled and reassembled Optimus Prime several times for Iz while Jay continued to get frustrated with the computer and the table continued to fill up with food. We heard a car pull up outside. Jay stood up and went to the door, muttering.

łAbout time, Matty.

/unca Matty.

Sensing some fresh male attention to be had, Iz ran off to wait by the door with Jay. I took the opportunity to wander over to Amy and kiss her.

)Hey, hon. Good game with Cal?

‘He was busy doing something else. I’ll play him after dinner. Good chat with the girls?’

)Lovely chat. Proper girly time. Just what I needed.

Julia

The front door opened, and a man I recognised as Jay stood in the doorway looking grumpy.

‘Where’ve you been? I’m having trouble with Skype and Nico’s calling soon. ‘

‘Hello Matty how lovely to see you, I notice you’ve brought a beautiful woman with you, come in and have a beer’

‘Yeah all that. Hi Julia, good to see you again’.

He leaned down and kissed my cheek, then moved out of the way so that we could go in. His small blonde daughter was waiting behind him.

‘Unca Matty.’

She lifted her arms up to Matt and he hoisted her up, while she looked triumphantly at us all.

‘Hello beautiful. I like your dress. Very, er, sparkly. Oh, wings too. You must be a … goblin.’

She turned her serious gaze on Matt

‘I fairy.’

‘Are you sure? I thought fairies were green with huge ears and warts and horns.’

‘Fairies got wings.’

‘Oh, my mistake.’

‘Matty, I really need some help with this computer.’

Jay was almost hopping from foot to foot with impatience, and I could see Matt purposely slowing down. He walked through the door to the lounge carrying Iz, Jay following closely behind and me bringing up the rear. Across the large room I saw the man and woman I recognised as Dec and Amy. Iz pointed at Dec.

Dec

/unca Matty, Dec make lorry.

}Yeah, blondie, and that’s not all he’s made recently from what I’ve heard.

/dec make bot.

}Sounds more like it Iz. Hold on a minute, beautiful, let me just put you down, there’s someone I need to kiss.

He walked over to where Amy and I were standing, took my face in his hands and planted a wet kiss on my mouth. There was a hint of tongue and an evil glint in his eyes.

Julia

Matt set Iz down and walked over to where Amy and Dec were standing. I expected him to go to Amy, but he stopped in front of Dec, held his face still and planted a wet kiss on Dec’s mouth. It looked like he might have slipped his tongue inside from the startled look on Dec’s face.

‘Ugh, no, wrong one. Far too hairy. Come here, Amy, I meant you.’

He kissed her quickly and more sensibly on the lips and briefly hugged her. It seemed like Matt the Lad existed in some form outside of work as well.

‘Well done, you. At least you’ve had plenty of practice with Dec. Should be a breeze.’

He addressed this to Amy, and she smiled but Dec answered.

‘Yeah, you’re as hilarious as Jay.’

Matt turned to the rest of the people in the room. There was Jay, who was standing by a laptop, Matt’s mother, and a small round lady with short blonde hair who I didn’t recognise.

‘Everyone knows Julia, don’t they? Oh, maybe not Rose.’

Matt indicated the small blonde woman.

‘Rose, this is Julia; Julia, Rose. Rose is – oh bollocks, know what, I’ve given up trying to explain who’s who in this bloody family. Rose is great. That’s all you need to know.’

Rose stood up and beckoned me over to the table.

‘Thanks very much, love. Julia, here’s a plate, look. Let’s go and grab something before the boys eat it all.’

She had a strong Welsh accent and a forthright manner that brooked no argument. I followed her over to the table.

‘So you’re related to Matt?’

‘Oh no love, I’m kind of an accidental family member. I came with Declan, and now they can’t get rid of me.’

‘Oh, you’re Dec’s … er …’

I didn’t want to offend her by aiming too high or too low in the age range. She could as easily be his mother or his grandmother or anything in-between.

‘Well I’m not actually related at all, but he needed a mam a few years ago and I fitted the bill I suppose. Have some of these, love, Beth made them, she’s a great cook. No, me and Declan go back a few years, since all that trouble at his rugby club.’

I looked at her blankly.

‘You know, with the passport and getting beaten senseless?’

I shook my head.

‘Oh. Well he’ll be pleased there’s someone doesn’t know about it I suppose. It was a terrible time but we got through it together and now here he is about to become a dad. I can’t think of anything better, love, can you?’

I could think of several million things better than becoming a parent, but Rose didn’t seem like the sort of person who would understand my point of view, so I just smiled. Rose changed tack.

‘So you and Matt, then? How long have you been going out?’

‘Oh, er …’

I hadn’t ever thought of Matt and me in terms of ‘going out’ but decided not to go into a long explanation,

‘A few weeks, a month maybe.’

‘He’s a bit of a handful I’d imagine.’

‘He has his moments.’

‘You seem like a sensible girl. Might be just what he needs, not like some of the …’

She ground to a halt, belatedly realising that being uncomplimentary about women Matt might have previously brought to meet the family might not be particularly diplomatic.

Dec

I had no doubt that before ten minutes had passed, Rose would know Julia’s life history and be making plans to marry her off to Matt. She’d tried with all of the long string of women Matt had toyed with over the last couple of years – they had all lasted just long enough for Rose to get her hopes up, before they disappeared when Matt declared them ‘too clingy’ or ‘not his type’ or ‘getting a bit serious’.

Matt’s MS was still in remission. He still had days when he got tired if he overdid it, and he still had dark days. A couple of times he’d needed us to hold him through the night, literally and metaphorically, as he gave in to the shadows behind his bravado. Mostly, he covered it all up with messing about and sarcastic comments, and anyone from outside who wanted to get close was kept at arms length. People loved him because he was fun, had an easy smile and a wicked glint in his eye, breathed life and soul into any party, but he couldn’t handle being loved; to him, trusting someone was too risky. So he broke their hearts and moved on to the next one.

Matt had moved into his own place a few months after Iz was born; it was important to him to be independent of Jay and Beth as soon as possible. He got a job with an IT consultancy firm, part time and flexible to take into account any fluctuations in his health in the future, and was currently making his way through the female portion of the payroll. Julia was the latest. They’d been seeing each other for almost a month, and I didn’t hold out much hope of it lasting another month before Julia went the way of all the other women he’d brought round. Not that Matt had told us about Julia – we only knew about her because Amy and I had met them in a shop, and Jay and Beth had met her when they’d turned up unannounced at Matt’s flat, and Matt had been cooking Julia dinner.

Matt was one of my closest friends. We understood each other. We didn’t talk about anything particularly deep, except on those rare occasions when either of us instinctively recognised it was necessary. We’d both been to dark places, helped each other out in times of need and had a shared understanding of what it was like to feel out of control of your own life. There was a lot we didn’t need to say to each other. I stood next to him and we watched Rose bombarding Julia with questions.

‘Poor Julia, she’s being Rosed.’

}Yeah, straight in the deep end.

‘She seems to be holding her own, even got a tiny word in edgeways just then.’

}Go Jules.

‘Oh, she’s got a nickname – keeper?’

The slightest hesitation.

}Nah. Jay, what kind of fuckery are you inflicting on that poor laptop?

Matt wandered over to help Jay and left me pondering his distraction techniques.

I decided to grab a plate and fill it with some of Beth’s delicious cooking. Cal had been called down and was standing grouchily by the table eating crisps from a bowl.

‘Hey, Cal. Did you win?’

\no, Mum made me come down before I’d finished.

‘Didn’t you pause it?’

He rolled his eyes.

\dur, you can’t pause boss fights.

‘Oh. Bad luck then, try again after dinner.’

\s’pose. When’s Nico coming on Skype?

‘When your dad manages to sort out the computer. I think he’s had to ask Matt to help him. Are you coming to the game on Saturday?’

\don’t know. Are you playing?

‘Hope so.’

\dad says I’ve got to sit with the under elevens.

‘Well, you are under eleven. It’ll be good to sit with all your mates from training, won’t it?’

\i want to sit in the family bit, but there’s no one to take me. Iz is going to a birthday party, so Mum can’t come.

‘Why don’t you ask Matt?’

\he doesn’t go to rugby.

‘He might if you asked him, as a favour. He might like to be asked.’

Cal considered it, didn’t dismiss it, ate another handful of crisps. Made a decision.

\Matty …

My work there done, I finished loading my plate and sat down next to Carol.

Julia

Matt tapped a few keys on the laptop, and Jay suddenly smiled broadly and clapped him on the back. Matt wandered over to me and sat down, shaking his head.

‘Is it so hard to remember not to put caps lock on? You don’t have to be an IT consultant. Every bloody time someone presses the wrong button, it’s ‘Matty I’ve broken my computer, can you mend it?’ and I have to drive all the way over and press caps lock.’

‘It’s nice to be useful.’

Matt reached over and stole a piece of quiche from my plate.

‘Hey! Get your own plateful.’

‘Tastes better off someone else’s. Law of life.’

‘Still get your own plateful.’

Matt pouted, but was just about to get up when his nephew said his name.

‘Matty …’

‘Hey Cal, bring us some of those potato things and bacony whatsits, yeah?’

Cal scowled and went back to the table, returning shortly with Matt’s order.

‘Thanks, mate. What’s up?’

‘Can you take me to the rugby on Saturday?’

‘What, Raiders?’

‘Yeah. I want to sit in the family bit, but Mum’s taking Iz to a birthday party, so Dad wants me to sit with the under elevens.’

‘Whoa. Rugby eh? Yeah, cool mate, I’m not sure I understand it all though. Isn’t it just like football but you can pick the ball up?’

‘No! It’s really different from football. Spurs wouldn’t stand a chance against Raiders.’

‘Oh, my mistake. Definitely need you to explain it then. Will your dad get us some tickets?’

‘Yeah, he’s done it before for me and Mum, and with Lis sometimes.’

‘OK, then, sorted.’

Request granted, Cal wandered back to his bowl of crisps at the table. Matt looked at me, a proud expression on his face.

‘He’s never asked me before. I’m a bit chuffed. Oh sod it, we were talking about a hike weren’t we – can we do it on Sunday instead?’

‘Of course.’

Dec

Carol had finally decided to move down after Iz was born, the draw of being close to another grandchild proving too much to resist. She was a quiet, reserved woman, and often just sat watching the chaos of family life going on around her, but she had endless time for her family, giving generously whether it was listening to Cal talk non-stop about the latest computer game, cooking a fantastic dessert, or cuddling Iz until she fell asleep. She and Rose had found a lot of common ground, and Carol’s quietness complemented Rose’s need to talk. They had become really good friends.

‘Hi Carol, how’s it going?’

#It’s going well, thank you Declan. Congratulations on your news, dear.

‘Thanks.’

#Amy looks very well.

‘She looks amazing. She always does, though.’

#And you’d not be a little biased?

‘No, definitely not. Me? Not biased at all. How’s the garden?’

#Oh, there’s always something needs doing, now it’s getting a bit warmer. All the weeds have started poking up, and the grass will need cutting before too long.

‘I’ll come and do your grass for you. Remind me, when it needs it.’

#Thank you dear, it’s very kind of you. Are you sure?

‘Positive. Mm, these potato things are bloody lovely. Did you make them?’

#I did, how did you know?

‘Didn’t you make them before, for Amy’s twenty first? I never forget a good potato thing. Don’t tell Beth, but they might even be better than her roasties.’

#You’re too kind, dear. I won’t breathe a word.

Iz wandered over and handed me Optimus Prime.

/make lorry pease.

‘OK, sweetie.’

I scooped her up onto my lap and reorganised Optimus, handed him back.

‘Do you want me to show you how, Iz? You might be able to do it yourself.’

/dec do it.

She shuffled off my lap and brrmed the truck along the floor.

#You’ve got yourself a full-time job there.

‘Don’t I know it. She’s getting so big, where does the time go?’

#You’ll need to get used to saying that a lot before too long.

‘I guess so.’

#I’m very pleased for you, Declan. You and Amy will be wonderful parents.

‘Thanks, Carol, that really means a lot.’

Over on the other side of the room, Jay and Matt seemed to have sorted the laptop out.

łOK, everyone needs to squash up on the sofa so we can get the web-cam angle sorted. Come on, Dec, grab Amy and pile on. Cal, you can sit on the floor with Iz and your mum and me. Mum, you go next to Rose. Matty and Julia do what the hell you like as long as you’re in the shot.

We all shoved up, and Jay adjusted the angle of the laptop to make sure everyone was in the frame.

Julia

Then it was time for other people to arrive, only via Skype. Jay made everyone sit on the one sofa, with him and his wife and children on the floor in front. Matt sat next to me on the arm of the sofa, with his arm across my shoulders. I noticed various people looking at us at different times, and felt conspicuous.

I was feeling a little overwhelmed with the strangeness of the situation. Matt’s family were very welcoming, but they were nothing like my own family, and it made me see Matt in another light, highlighting some of the differences between us. He came from a family where everyone cared about each other, the opposite of my own family where people seemed to care only about themselves. Squashed on the sofa next to Rose, I felt hugely out of place, but Matt’s arm round me helped me to feel part of him, at least.

Dec

_What time did Nico say he was going to try?

łIn about five minutes.

‘He’ll be late, we could be sat here on each other’s laps for hours.’

łHe won’t be late, he knows we’re all waiting for him.

‘He’ll be bloody late. He’s always late. At least half an hour.’

łYeah, but he’s got Lis on his case, and I think they’re going out. They haven’t got very long. He won’t be late.

Five minutes later, contrary to my expectations, the alert sounded, and Nico and Lis appeared on the screen. We all cheered.

>Hey, is all of you! Cal, you look older, you grow more while I am away.

Cal straightened with pride. I reached forward to ruffle his hair, but he ducked away from my hand. I noticed he was wearing his Raiders shirt with a big number eleven and ‘TIAGO’ on the back.

>I also see a beautiful lady I don’t know.

}Nico, meet Julia. Jules, beware of this man, he will flirt with a house brick, even when his wife is right next to him. Especially when his wife is right next to him. I’m quite glad he’s thousands of miles away.

I noticed Matt had a proprietorial arm round Julia, and when he thought no one was looking, he kissed the top of her head.

¤Hi Nico, good to meet you.

~I’m Lisa, Julia.

¤Good to meet you too.

>Where is Declan and Amy? Ah, here you are, we are very pleased to see you. Felicidades both. We go shopping for you.

Lis held up a brightly coloured bag.

~Want to see what’s in it?

We all shouted ‘yes’. Lis reached in and took out a very small pair of shoes.

)Oh they’re so tiny and adorable. Thanks guys.

Amy sniffed and wiped her eyes.

>Amy, you don’t cry.

)What, not even a bit? Just with happiness. And a few hormones.

>Ha, with happiness is OK. Declan, you take care of Amy, you be nice to her, lots of breakfasts in beds.

‘Ames, have you primed him or something?’

)No, he just knows what a woman needs.

>Ha, yes is true. I know what womens needs.

~Is that so, Nico? Why don’t I get breakfasts in beds then?

>You don’t have baby. If you have baby, maybe you get breakfasts in beds.

~Hm, something I might need to work on then, yeah?

She winked theatrically at us.

_Are you two enjoying Buenos Aires?

~Oh Beth, it’s great, such a beautiful city, I’m loving seeing where Nico grew up. Come and see us.

_Love to, if it’s at all possible.

łHave you started playing yet, mate?

>Yes, I play last weekend. I score amazing try.

łWhat a surprise. Do you ever score any other type?

>No, they are all amazing. Is that lovely Rose sitting in the corner? Why so quiet Rose? Is not like you. I worry.

:I’m waiting for you to stop yapping so I can get a word in, love. I hope you’re remembering how to make proper Welsh tea.

>Ha! Yes, we have your special tea bags, it don’t taste the same, I don’t know what we do. I miss your tea.

:I miss you drinking it, love. Glad to see you’re enjoying yourselves.

~Enough talking about tea, I want to talk about babies. Amy, for the love of God, tell me you have a due date. Or at least an ETA.

)Well nothing new since this morning, Lis. I’ve made an appointment with the doctor, all I can tell you is about nine months from now. We literally only found out early this morning.

~Oh, I forgot. We’ve been to sleep and had a whole day since then. Oh well, better than nothing. You’ll have to text me or ring me when you know. I want all the details as they happen. How are you feeling?

)I’m feeling great. Being sick in the mornings, but otherwise fine.

~Is Dec looking after you?

)Yeah, he’s been completely amazing, but he always is.

Amy looked up at me and I bent down to kiss her.

}Oh please, guys, I think I’m going to start being sick right now, let alone in the mornings. Lis, you’ll have to get your baby fix another time, this is just too girly for words. I need to talk about, I dunno, motorbike engines and beards and football for a bit.

>How about rugby? Is man enough?

}Well, tempted as I am to say no, I really don’t want to be sat on by Dec, he might enjoy it too much. Cal and I are actually going to the game on Saturday.

Beth and Jay both looked at Matt in surprise.

>Ha, is good. Cal, you tell Matty the rules, maybe show him my amazing tries on YouTube before you go, and hope he stop following his terrible Tottenham football team.

Cal smiled but didn’t answer.

~Beth, Iz looks like she’s grown since we last saw her. I can’t believe we’re missing it all. We really miss all you guys.

_We miss you too. This is lovely, though. I’m glad we managed to sort the computer in time.

~It’s so great to see you all. Carol, you’ve been sat there very quiet. How are you doing?

#Oh fine, dear, it’s lovely to see you again.

~You too. Well, I’m afraid we’ve got to go, we’re off out to a charity function at the club, and if we don’t go now we’ll be late. And that would never do for Nico.

łOh is that why you’re all dressed up, I thought it was for us.

>Ha! Is for you too, Jaime. I know you like me in a suit. We go now, baby?

~Yeah, we better had. Oh, I can hardly bear to say goodbye, I’ve loved seeing you all, but it’s been too short. We’ll do it again soon, yeah?

}As soon as Jay works out how to input a password correctly, yes.

~Soon, soon, soon, then. Bye guys.

>Goodbye, chau, besos, suerte. Love you.

Lis leaned forwards, waved and cut the connection. There was a silence, and a sense of anti-climax. Cal got up and went upstairs, no longer smiling.

/eeco go. Where he go, Mummy?

Iz got up and looked behind the laptop, then looked back at Beth with a comically puzzled look on her face.

_He’s still in Argentina, sweetheart, he was just on the screen, like a TV programme. He’s gone now, but we’ll see him again soon.

Julia

Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of it, as Beth decided it was time for toasts and speeches. I came to learn that this family did a lot of toasting and speeching, but for now, this was my first.

Dec

I got up from the sofa and followed Cal. Knocked on his door.

\yeah.

‘It’s Dec. Can I come in?’

\kay.

I opened the door and sat on the bed next to Cal.

\i’m still trying to beat this boss, though.

‘No worries. I’m glad you asked Matt about the game, he seems really pleased to be taking you.’

\yeah.

‘Nico seemed happy to see you just now.’

\yeah.

‘Seeing him again, made me realise how much I miss him. He feels a long way away, doesn’t he?’

A pause.

\yeah.

‘Cal, you know you can talk to me about stuff, if you feel sad or anything?’

A roll of the eyes.

\yeah.

‘Or … if you need to, I don’t know, say ‘fuck’ without getting grief?’

A slight smile at the corner of his mouth.

\yeah. Can I finish this now?

‘Yeah.’

I reached over to ruffle his hair, stopped myself, patted him on the shoulder instead and stood up.

‘Still want to play something later?’

\yeah.

‘OK.’

I went back downstairs, where Beth was organising glasses of sparkling wine for everyone and fizzy apple for Amy. I took a glass and sat on the floor by Amy’s feet. She played with my hair, making the back of my neck tingle, and part of me wished we were curled up alone at home. I twisted round to face her and she bent over and kissed me.

‘You OK, babe?’

)I’m great. Apart from the apple juice. Forgot about the no wine thing. Nine months without wine! Longer with breastfeeding.

‘Didn’t really think it through, did you?’

)Can’t have done.

‘I could always drink it for you, you know, tell you what it tastes like, get a bit pissed on your behalf, help out a bit?’

)Hm, I’ll let you know.

‘Well, anything I can do …’

)Just the breakfasts in beds to start with.

‘Bloody Nico.’

Beth had finished pouring all the drinks, and everyone had a glass.

_OK everyone, I just wanted to do a little toast to Amy and Dec, and wish them well, and say how thrilled I am for them, and send them off on the start of this wonderful journey, and –

}Beth, pick one. A toast is just one thing, so we can all say it after you.

_Sorry, Matty, I got a bit carried away.

}As did Dec and Amy some weeks ago.

‘Way to lower the tone, mate.’

}My sincerest apologies.

_Anyway … alright, if I have to pick one thing to wish you both, it’s love. And family. Oh, that’s two. I can’t choose. Love and family.

She raised her glass. Everyone dutifully repeated. I looked round at Amy, she was smiling and her eyes were filling up.

:Can I do a toast, love?

_Oh, Rose, of course.

Rose stood up and cleared her throat.

:I think I might do a little speech, if that’s alright?

łGo for it Rose.

:Alright. Well, here it is then. I hope I remember everything I was going to say.

‘Did you have this planned, Rose?’

:Well, I thought I might get an opportunity, love. Sometimes you just want to say things and it’s never the right time, so I’ve had a bit of a think, and here’s what I thought.

‘Should I be worried?’

:No, love, never worry about what I’m going to say about you, it’s all good.

}Sounds great, Rose, as long as afterwards we can relive some of Dec’s most embarrassing moments. I can think of plenty of those.

_Matty, stop your chat for one minute and let Rose say what she wants to say.

:Thanks, love. Right. When I first met Declan, he was in a bit of a state. I won’t say any more, I think you all know enough about it by now. Well, something about him kicked off my maternal instincts and I couldn’t help interfering in his life, giving him advice when he didn’t want it, bothering him when he asked to be left alone, making a bit of a nuisance of myself. Declan and me made a deal back then, he lets me look after him, mother him a bit, I’ll be there for him when he needs it, whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, a square meal or a kick up the pants. Well, he turned things round for himself, and it’s been a long time since I needed to provide a shoulder, a meal or a boot up the backside, and I just wanted to say how proud I am of him and his Amy, and how happy and honoured I am that I’m part of his life. This news of yours, love, is the best I can imagine, it’s made my day, and I just know you’re going to be the best Mam and Dad there ever was. I think that’s all I wanted to say. Oh, a toast. Nothing fancy. Declan and Amy.

She held her glass up and sat down. Predictably, Amy and I had tears in our eyes. Iz toddled over to me and looked at me with concern.

/mummy Dec cry.

She looked at Beth with big serious eyes. I gave her a big smile, wiped my eyes, pulled her into a cuddle on my lap.

‘It’s just happy crying, sweetie. I’m OK.’

}Glad to see blub club is still alive and kicking. We haven’t met in earnest for some time.

I glanced up at Matt and caught him wiping the corner of his eye with his hand.

Julia

I wondered if it was a little premature to be wetting the head of a baby who had yet to have its first scan, let alone be born, but everyone seemed to be happy and emotional. Even Matt surreptitiously wiped his eyes once, only to be spotted by Dec, who turned round to me.

‘Julia, you must think we’re all bonkers.’

‘You’re the only nutter, Dec.’

Matt’s rejoinder was instant, and it felt like an automatic response. Dec seemed about to reply, but was stopped by a look from Beth. I got the sense there was a lot of history between these two men, whose relationship to each other I had yet to work out; they seemed bound together in some way that was expressed with in-jokes and messing about, and felt brotherly inasmuch as I had any understanding of the relationship.

Dec

I opened my mouth to say the next line, heard the intake of breath from Beth, looked at her, shut my mouth again.

}Ha ha, under the thumb.

)Thanks, Rose, that was completely amazing.

‘Yeah, means a lot. Thanks, Rose. I’ve never stopped needing you.’

:Oh, love …

łOK, then, I think I’ve got something to say too.

I put my head in my hands.

‘Oh God, Jay, what now?’

łWell, after Rose’s go, I don’t think I can be as eloquent or as heartfelt, and as we all know, I don’t really do this emotional shit. But here it is. Dec, you rang me at half past bloody three this morning and told me you’re going to be a dad. There’s a part of me that still thinks of you as this gawky, spotty teenager with a fuck-off attitude, and I was a bit surprised to find out this morning that you’re actually completely a grown up. I was, I have to admit, bloody grumpy at half past bloody three this morning, but having been thinking about it all day, I am actually rather honoured to be one of the first people you think of to call when something important happens. I’m proud of you, mate; you and Amy are going to be great parents. If you’re even half as good with your own as you are with mine, you’re going to walk it. Jesus, I still can’t get my head round it. Stop making me feel so bloody old. And maybe now you’ll make an honest woman of Amy.

He raised his glass.

łGrowing up.

Iz looked up at me from my lap, catching me wiping my eyes again. She flung her arms round my neck.

/kiss better.

‘Thanks, Iz. That’s much better. No more, please guys, I’m losing serious man points here. Thanks, Jay. Pretty good for someone who doesn’t do emotional shit.’

_Dec …

‘I was only repeating what Jay said.’

_Yes, but I’ve given up with him.

)I think Dec’s a bit of a lost cause as well. Actually, while we’re all giving speeches and getting emotional, I’d just like to say thanks to you all. None of you are actually related to me, but at this moment in time you feel more like my real family than, well, my real family. I know you and Dec all have a lot of history, but I couldn’t feel more welcome or more wanted, and the way you’ve handled our news has been completely brilliant. If I was going to make an apple juice toast, it would be to unconditional love.

_Lovely. Unconditional love it is.

}Your turn, Dec.

‘No, I don’t do speeches. Everyone here knows how I feel about them. I love you all. Jay and Beth, you’ve been my family for so long, I can’t imagine my life without you. Rose, you might as well be my mum. Carol, you hold us all together. Matt, you’re like best mate and brother rolled into one old codger. Amy … Ames, if I loved you any more than I do now, I would burst. Julia – well, I hardly know you, but you’ve sat and listened to us all being mad and still haven’t made a run for it. Either you’re as crazy as us or Matt’s picked –.

}OK, stop, everyone. This wine’s making us slushy, we haven’t drunk nearly enough of it yet. Sorry about the apple juice, Amy, but I need another glass or two of sparkly to get this party started.

Matt stood up and grabbed the bottle from the table, breaking the mood, which was what he had planned. I’d seen the way he looked at Julia when he thought nobody was watching, and I was reassessing my ‘less than a month’ prediction, although it still remained to be seen whether he would scare himself off before he gave it a chance.

Space available on the sofa again, I moved Iz off my lap and plonked myself next to Amy.

‘Nice words, babe.’

)You too, hon, considering you don’t do speeches.

Beth sat next to me and took my arm, snuggling up close.

_This has been lovely, Dec. I love it when we all get together. Shame Cal’s been sulking all evening.

‘He’s OK. I had a chat earlier.’

_Did you?

‘Well, more a kind of one-sided gruntathon over the top of the X-box. He’s missing Nico.’

_I did wonder. They’re so far away. If he’d gone to another club in England, we could have gone to see them, but Argentina …

‘It was great to see them earlier though, technology is so amazing. Maybe if Cal could do that more often it might help.’

_It’s worth a go. And I’d love to stay in touch with Lis more. She was getting broody before they left, looks like she still is, and you two haven’t helped! That’d be hard, though, foreign country, no family around. She doesn’t even speak the language yet.

‘Lis is tough, if she wants it she’ll make it happen.’

_You’re right there. Anything to get breakfast in bed, although I wouldn’t hold my breath with Nico. Amy, I meant to say, I’ve got loads of Iz’s old clothes and things. I know you don’t know boy or girl yet, but some of it would be OK whichever, babygros and stuff. Some of them aren’t even pink! Let me know and you can have it. Or we could have a sort through over a coffee.

)Thanks, Beth, that’d be great. God, just talking about clothes and stuff, makes it feel more real. Don’t you think, hon, it’s all been a bit floaty and dreamy and not quite real today?

I nodded; I’d pretty much floated through today too.

)I think I might come down with a bit of a bump soon.

‘Well you’ll definitely have a bit of a bump soon, babe. Better start letting out all your waistbands.’

)Or, just for that, maybe you’ll have to take me shopping for new clothes?

‘Nooo … surely we haven’t got room for a new baby as well as new clothes? Ames, you’ll have to choose. One or the other.’

_Will you stay in the flat, do you think?

)We don’t know. It is small. We don’t know what the future holds at the moment, do we, hon.

‘No, not yet.’

This felt uncomfortable; I was currently having contract negotiations through my agent, looking at a new deal to stay at Raiders. I had also been approached by a couple of other clubs, one a big London club, who had offered a lot of money for me to move there, although the likelihood was that I wouldn’t be guaranteed a place in the first team, and would therefore get less game time.

I couldn’t discuss it in Jay’s home. Much as I wanted to talk to him and Beth and ask his advice as Jay, he was still Scotty, and it had to be kept at the club. Beth knew this. She looked sad, and I could hardly bear to think about it right now.

_I know you can’t talk about it, sweetheart. We’d miss you.

‘Don’t, Beth, please.’

She squeezed my arm, then stood up and started clearing away the plates and glasses. Amy stroked my face, then got up and helped her. Nothing stopping the two of them having a good chat about it.

Julia

After a few more people had had their say, the toasting seemed to be over. Matt took my hand and pulled me up from the sofa.

‘Come and see the garden.’

‘It’s dark.’

‘I know.’

I went with him.

We went out into the garden via a conservatory. It was cool and quiet out there, and just what I needed. Matt put his arms round me and squeezed me tightly.

‘How are you doing? Sorry it’s a bit full on. Maybe this wasn’t the best occasion for you to meet everyone.’

‘It’s fine. Everyone’s very nice. I’m not really a baby person, but you all seem very excited, so it’s all good. I’m just kind of watching it all.’

‘We can go soon if you want.’

‘No, it’s fine. This is nice, though.’

I looked up at him and caught a crinkly smile.

‘This is always bloody nice. I love holding you.’

He bent down and kissed me, a lingering, tender, tingly kiss, his tongue dancing over my lips and into my mouth.

‘I fucking love kissing you too. Maybe we shouldn’t leave it too late to go back to mine.’

‘Maybe. Stay as long as you want, though.’

‘I might go and have a quick game of X-box with Cal. He was looking a bit mopey earlier, might need cheering up the way only a thrashing from your favourite uncle can do. Would you be OK if I did?’

‘I’ll be fine. I can help clear up, chat, even talk about babies if I have to.’

‘That’s on the cards.’

‘Matt, I’ve been trying to work out exactly how Dec and Amy are related to you.’

‘Oh. Yeah, it’s bloody complicated. I suppose they’re not, actually, not technically. Dec was … his parents died when he was young, he got signed by Raiders when he was about sixteen, and he came to live with Jay and Beth. He’s been part of the family since then.’

‘Did they adopt him?’

‘Fuck no! Oh, bloody long story a few years ago, about the time I was ill, I’ll tell you sometime, maybe not tonight, but long and short, there was a big bust up, then a big make up and Jay made it official Scott history that Dec’s part of the family.’

‘And Rose?’

‘Oh, Rose! I bloody love Rose, but she can talk for bloody England. Or Wales, should I say. Yeah, about the same time, Dec, well he was pretty fucked up just before the big make up. Rose just got involved, played a big part in de-fucking him. He’s sorted now, but they come as a pair. She’s a bit like his mum. But not officially related.’

‘Your family is very accepting.’

Matt looked at me, head on one side.

‘I guess they are, never really thought about it like that; I just kind of roll with it. There’s always something going on, people here and there. Jay and Beth are bloody brilliant. When I was ill, Jay gave up his job to come and look after me. I don’t know where I’d be now if he hadn’t done that.’

I thought about what my sisters would give up for me. Probably not a lot.

‘You’re lucky.’

‘I am. Do I get to meet your family anytime soon?’

‘Not unless you’re planning to jet off around the world trying to catch up with my parents or want to swan off to France or Switzerland to take a chance on catching one of my sisters at home.’

‘Are you the only one in this country?’

I nodded.

‘I am now Nons is gone.’

‘You must miss her.’

I nodded again.

‘Sorry, Matt, I still can’t talk about it. Shall we go in? It’s getting cold.’

55. No one knows

In which things are discovered.

Matt

To start with, we took it slowly and saw each other a couple of times a week, did things together at weekends, like hikes and films. Jules relaxed the more she got to know me, the more she trusted me, and she stopped being so dependent on her rules.

She had let me call her Jules fairly early on, and I met a lot of her friends, who also called her Jules, and I realised then why she always looked like a Jules to me; because that’s who she really was. She met Dec and Amy, briefly, in a shop, she met Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz, briefly, on a flying visit to my flat, and she met my mum, briefly, when I called in on the way somewhere and made her get out and come into the house. But I sensed her reluctance to spend a lot of time with my family, how being with people briefly was good for her, and I just saw them on my own. It didn’t stop them asking about her. I had let her name slip a couple of times, and Beth wouldn’t leave it alone:

‘I’d love to meet Julia properly, when are you bringing her over for lunch?’

‘When are you next seeing Julia?’

‘What does Julia think about that, then?’

It nearly drove me away, but I’d got used to Beth over the years, and I managed to ignore it.

Then two things happened at almost the same time, which changed things in different ways. Firstly, everyone at GreenScreen found out about Jules and me. Secondly, Amy got pregnant. The two events were in no way connected, but the impacts of both were felt for quite a while.

Julia

We’d had a particularly difficult day; the client had suddenly changed his mind about what he wanted, but wasn’t prepared to shift on the deadline, so we had pulled out all the stops to try and turn things round. The teams had worked really hard to deliver their part of the bargain, and it was down to Matt and me to pull it all together in order to present a draft of something coherent the next day. As people left one by one, emailing or giving us their work as they did so, Matt and I strove to put it all in order and make a presentation.

It was late as the last person left the office, and I was tired. My eyes were sore from looking at a computer screen all day, and my back ached from sitting in one position. I sat back in my chair and stretched, giving a big groan as I did so. Matt looked up.

‘It’s been a bloody long day.’

‘I’ve had enough. Have we nearly finished?’

‘Nearly. I’ve just got to put Dave’s bit in and add a bit of blurb, and I think we’re done. Another twenty minutes, I reckon.’

‘Great. I don’t care if I never see another spreadsheet as long as I live.’

I rolled my shoulders, trying to get rid of the kinks.

‘Need some help with that?’

I looked up at him, frowning. It was a big breaking of the rules.

‘Oh come on, Jules, we’re the only ones here, it’s way after hours. I do a great shoulder rub.’

It was so appealing. I sat still and let him walk round behind me to start massaging my shoulders; as the knots unwound, it was like being in heaven. Of course, we couldn’t stick to just a shoulder rub, and before long I felt him lean down and kiss my neck, and then nibble my earlobe, and then my chair span round, and he pulled me to my feet and we were kissing, long and hard and –

‘Oh good, there’s still someone – oh my God!’

We sprang apart as Lexi walked in. She stopped with her hand over her mouth and a delighted, mischievous look in her eyes as she saw us.

‘Sorry. I think I left my – oh, there it is.’

She walked over to a desk and picked up a bag from beside it. And without another word, she turned and walked out. I looked at Matt, wide-eyed with alarm.

‘OK, you need to make a quick decision. I can run after her, ask her not to say anything, and she won’t, but she’ll hint and insinuate until everyone thinks they know without actually knowing, and it’ll go on for ever until one of us cracks. Or we can let her go, she’ll tell everyone, but it’ll be faster and we can deal with the fall-out. Quick, I won’t be able to catch her soon.’

I was paralysed for a few seconds. Neither option was appealing. But the long tortuous version seemed worse than the immediate version.

‘Let her go. Shit. See, this is why we had our rules. Bloody hell, Matt.’

‘Sorry.’

‘It’s as much my fault. I didn’t exactly try to stop you.’

‘You know it’s going to be all over the office tomorrow, before we even get in. She’ll have texted everyone – probably doing it now.’

‘I know. Shit.’

‘Come here.’

He held his arms open, and I let myself be folded up. There seemed little point in not.

‘You know what would be the best thing to do?’

‘Please tell me there’s a best thing.’

‘Yeah. Act as if nothing’s happened. Keep things exactly the same. Play by the same rules. Make them doubt it. We can say what we want if anyone asks – you’re as good as me at diverting attention and not answering tricky questions. Damage limitation. We just need to be more careful. I’ll keep my shoulder rubs to myself in future, at least until we’ve left the building. Fuck it, I’m sorry Julia. I know this is your worst nightmare.’

As ever, in his arms I felt safe and comforted, and it seemed less of a catastrophe than I would have imagined.

‘Well, it’s happened now. I suppose sometimes anticipating something is worse than the reality. Can we go? If we come in early tomorrow, we can still finish this before it’s due.’

‘You go, you look wiped. I’ll just tie it all up, it won’t take long, then we don’t have to come in early at all. Are we still OK for your place?’

I nodded.

‘Don’t cook, though, Jules, we’ll order takeaway or something. Let’s just have a relaxing evening, bottle of wine or something, finish off your shoulder rub. Properly, no snogging. Well not until I’ve finished, and then only if you feel like it. Yeah?’

‘It sounds heavenly. Are you sure you don’t mind finishing up here?’

‘It’s fine. I’ll text you when I’m on my way.’

‘OK, thanks.’

I picked up my bag and coat, and walked back to Matt, cupping his cheek in my hand. He took my hand and held my fingers against his lips.

‘It’ll be OK.’

I gave him an unconvinced smile and went home.

I’d managed to shower and change by the time Matt arrived, as well as looking out several takeaway menus from places that delivered locally. We ordered, and while we were waiting, Matt walked up to the Whistling Panhandler to get a bottle of wine. He arrived back with an expensive bottle of Zinfandel and several bottles of beer at the same time as the delivery boy, and we ate hungrily and drank needily. We hardly spoke until we’d finished, the music I’d put on filling the silence comfortably.

‘That feels a whole lot better,’ he said as we finished, ‘It felt like today was never going to fucking end.’

‘It almost has ended, I’ll be in bed soon.’

‘I still haven’t given you your shoulder rub. Hey, want one in the bath?’

‘I’ve already had a shower.’

‘I wasn’t suggesting you needed a good hose down, I thought it might be more relaxing. Bubbles, candles, me rubbing your shoulders … doing anything for you?’

‘It sounds amazing, but what about you?’

‘Are you kidding me? I get to perv on your boobs while giving said shoulder rub. It’s a win-win all rounder.’

He got up and headed to the bathroom.

‘You find some candles, I’ll fill her up.’

A while later, I was blissed out, floating in the semi-darkened room while Matt finished his massage. The music still floated through from the lounge, and I was half dozing. I’d been expecting Matt to start nuzzling my neck or touching me somewhere other than my shoulders, but he was true to his word and he managed to totally relax me.

‘How’s that, then, madam?’

‘Oh, have you finished?’

‘Fraid so. My fingers are getting cramp, and if you get much more sleepy you’re going to slip under the bubbles and drown.’

‘Wouldn’t you save me?’

‘I’d try, naturally, but I’d have to touch some pretty intimate areas, and I’m not sure either of us could cope with that tonight.’

‘Maybe it would be worth it to not drown though.’

‘Hm, not sure. A promise is a promise. I said no snogging, and I feel I should stick to my bargain.’

‘So … even if I started to slip under the water and was about to breathe my last, you would feel constrained by your honour …’

I slipped my shoulders under the water.

‘… and just sit and watch?’

‘Well my honour is very important to me. It’s a tough one.’

‘Oh. Well, fair enough I suppose.’

I slipped further into the water, my mouth covered by bubbles.

‘Of course, you can never say what you’ll do in any given situation until it happens, maybe my honour would be overridden by other considerations.’

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and slipped completely under the water, smiling to myself as I immediately felt Matt’s hands grip my waist and half push, half pull me up. I wiped the water from my eyes, and grinned up into his face, surprised to see him unsmiling and looking relieved.

‘Fuck, Julia, I thought it was going to be funny, but that completely freaked me out. You’re so slippery, I thought I was going to drop you. Shit. Sorry. Spoilt the moment. We’ve kind of made a mess of the bathroom too.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll get the mop, won’t take long.’

‘Sorry. I was trying for relaxing repartee, ended up making you work.’

‘I said don’t worry – it won’t take long to clear up. Can you hand me my bathrobe?’

He took the robe from the back of the door and held it up while I took the plug out and stood up.

‘Wow. You are so fucking hot. It seems a shame to cover you up.’

‘I’m not mopping naked, this isn’t some dodgy porn set. Oh, you’re soaked. Do you want me to dry your clothes?’

‘And what would I wear in the meantime? It’s not like I’m the one who’s comfortable sitting around in no fuking pants.’

‘No, of course not, how silly of me. Well, how about you throw your things in the dryer, and go and wait for me in bed?’

‘Whoa! What kind of boy do you take me for?’

He affected a look of outrage, which was muted somewhat by the eagerness with which he started taking his clothes off.

‘The kind of boy who would like to have a bit of a shoulder rub himself and maybe cuddle up with a girl he just called fucking hot, while his clothes are drying.’

‘Oh, well, maybe I am that kind of boy. Sounds perfect.’

I quickly dried my hair, then went to fetch the mop while Matt put his clothes in the dryer. A few minutes later, as I was tipping water down the sink, I heard him call out from the bedroom.

‘Where’s this fucking hot girl I ordered for my shoulder rub? She’s late.’

‘If she’s not there in half an hour, you get her free.’

‘Wow, that’s a bloody good deal. What’s her normal rate?’

‘Part exchange. Shoulder rub for a sexual act of her choice.’

‘Hmm … and why would I want to get out of paying that, exactly?’

‘She’s pretty demanding. You might not be able to cope.’

‘I’ll be the judge of that. Hope she’s here before half an hour’s up, then.’

‘Oh, here she is.’

I stood in the doorway of the bedroom and admired Matt, who was stretched out naked on the bed, hands behind his head, grinning at me.

‘Turn over then.’

‘Not sure I want to.’

‘It’s a bit hard to give you a shoulder rub if you’re lying on your shoulders.’

‘While this is true, I’m intrigued by the prospect of payment up front.’

‘No, those aren’t the terms. Service provision first, and then payment is accepted.’

‘OK. Are you going to keep the robe on?’

He pouted a little bit.

‘You’ll have your head in the pillow, what do you care?’

‘Just helps, that’s all.’

‘To relax?’

‘Maybe not exactly relax …’

‘Thought not. You turn over, let me sort things out this end.’

He flipped himself onto his front, while I slipped the bathrobe off as I straddled his back, and then smiled as his muffled voice reached me.

‘Did you just take it off?’

‘Never you mind.’

‘You’re completely naked up there, aren’t you.’

‘Just keep your mind on relaxing.’

‘It’s hard thinking about relaxing, knowing what you’ve got sitting on you – oh fuck that’s good.’

I carried on massaging his shoulders, not answering him, and his comments slowly dropped away to be replaced by soft moans as I felt the tension leave him. He had been as wound up as me by our busy day, and it felt good to help take some of it away from him. When I thought he might drop off to sleep if I carried on, I stopped and gently slipped off his back, lying down next to him and pulling the duvet over us.

‘You are so fucking amazing.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I bloody love you.’

‘No you don’t.’

‘No, I don’t. You are fucking amazing though. Have you given any thought to your payment?’

‘Well, actually, what I would like is a … well, I’m not sure if I can say it, it’s pretty radical. You might not have heard of it.’

He laughed, and propped himself up on an elbow.

‘Yeah, right.’

‘Well, alright then, but if you’re shocked, you’ve only got yourself to blame.’

‘Spit it out, Jules, I’m pretty unshockable.’

‘Have you ever spooned before?’

‘Ha ha. That is pretty rad, Jules. You will never, I’m sure, have heard any tales of Matt Scott spooning a woman, not from anyone. Not for a long, long time. Sounds great, you’ll have to remind me how it goes.’

‘Well, I lie on my side like this.’

I turned over.

‘And you lie behind me – that’s right – and put your arms round me and kind of pull me towards you so we fit each other – hey, that’s it. Kerching. Payment accepted.’

‘Are you sure that’s all you want?’

‘I’m too exhausted for anything else. Shall we just do this until your clothes are dry?’

I felt him nod, and then he kissed my hair. It was warm and soft and peaceful, and his arms around me felt right. I felt myself drifting – warm, safe and happy.

Dec

I was dreaming – a vague, mixed up, dream spattered with faces, noises, places. I gradually woke up, until I was back, in bed. It was dark, cold. Amy wasn’t beside me, the sheets on her side were cool. I heard a sound, saw a light from under the bedroom door. The sound again. A sob. Amy.

Instantly alert, I jumped out of bed and headed towards the sound of crying, which was coming from the bathroom.

‘Ames?’

I tapped on the bathroom door. The sniffing stopped.

)Yeah?

‘What’s the matter?’

A short silence.

)Nothing, just having a pee.

Her voice sounded thick. There was more sniffing. Another muffled, choked sob. My stomach contracted in fear.

‘Come on, babe, I can hear you.’

I tried the door handle. Locked.

‘Let me in?’

Silence. A sniff.

‘Please, Ames, you’re scaring me.’

After a long time, the lock turned, the door opened. Amy looked up at me with reddened eyes, runny nose, hair all over the place.

‘Oh, babe, what the fuck …?’

I gathered her into my arms as she crumpled, crying hard, onto my chest. I held her tightly, stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head, waiting for her to be able to speak. Worried out of my mind, but trying to stay calm for her.

‘It’s OK, shh, I’m here, shh.’

Amy’s tears slowly subsided but she clung on to me, eyes closed. I gently held her away from me, tilted her chin up and waited until she opened her beautiful blue eyes. The tears in them nearly broke my heart.

‘Tell me, babe.’

Without saying anything, she turned round and picked something up from the toilet cistern. Showed it to me. It was a white plastic stick; there were some pink lines on it in a little window. I frowned, taking a moment to recognise what she was showing me.

‘What’s this …’

And then I realised.

Shit! Amy, are you pregnant?’

She nodded miserably, unable to look me in the eye, as more tears ran down her face. My heart lurched, my stomach flipped, my mind whirled.

‘Fuuucking hell.’

I pulled her into my arms again, as a huge grin spread across my face.

‘Fucking, fucking hell.’

Amy’s crying intensified.

‘How fucking amazing is this? It’s … Amy, this is … it’s just fucking amazing.’

She stopped crying, looked up at me. Saw my smile.

)Really?

‘Fuck, yes. Why are you so upset, babe? Aren’t you happy about it?’

)Well it’s not what we planned. We said wait a few years, get married first, settle down, both be a bit older.

‘Fuck that, it’s happened now. Somehow. One of us slipped up – me, you, some guy in a condom factory somewhere. Don’t really care who. Oh – not the guy in the condom factory – remember a few weeks ago? Our amazing day? I think we were a bit forgetful in the condom department.’

Amy nodded, but the worry was still plain on her face.

)But we said we were too young. We made that list of things we want to do first …

‘Know what? Lets tear it up. New list. Number one: Have a bloody baby fucking immediately. Ames – shit – we’re going to have a baby. This is just fucking awesome.

)Really?

‘Really. Really, really. So. Fucking. Awesome.’

)Oh Dec, I was scared. I didn’t know what you’d say.

‘Why, babe? We’ve talked about it haven’t we? It’s what we both want, just maybe a bit sooner. Sooner is good too.

)I just didn’t want you to say it’s too soon, that we’d have to … I’d have to … do something about it.

‘What? No, babe, never. You didn’t really think that did you? We’re in this together, joint decisions. Besides, it’s what I want. Isn’t it what you want?

Amy flashed me a wide smile, full of relief.

)Yeah, it really is. Oh, hon, I’m just … it’s all mixed up with Mum and Dad. They’re not going to be happy at all. I’m scared about what they’ll say.

‘We’ll handle them together. They can’t make us do anything, babe. We’re grown ups, have been for a long time, despite how they treat you. Is that all you’re worried about? How long have you been worrying? How long have you known?’

)For definite? About ten minutes. I only just did the test. But I’ve been sick every morning for about two weeks, and I’m a week late, it’s been on my mind. But Dec, what about … there’s no room here. And what if you – we – move to London or something?

‘Come on, Ames, we’ve got months to worry about how much space we’ve got here – nine, right? Jay and Beth had Iz in with them for ages, didn’t they? Seriously, it’s not a problem. As for re-signing for Raiders or thinking about some of the other offers, well this is just something extra to think about. Listen, do we really want to talk about this in the toilet, or shall I make a cup of tea and we can go back to bed?’

)A cup of tea sounds completely amazing, hon.

Amy wiped her eyes, looking at herself in the mirror.

)God, I’m a sight.

She ran her fingers through her hair. My heart filled with love and desire as I looked at her.

‘Ames, you’re fucking gorgeous. Never more beautiful.’

I put my arms round her and kissed her on the mouth. She reached up and twined her fingers in my hair, kissing back.

‘Steady, babe, it’s that kind of wanton behaviour that got us here in the first place. Mind you, I guess you’re not going to get any more pregnant, are you …’

I scooped her up and carried her in my arms, back to bed, her arms round my neck, kissing as we went. The cup of tea went on hold for a while.

It was still dark later, with Amy curled up asleep beside me. I couldn’t sleep, it was all going round in my mind. Overwhelming, awesome news. Trying to get my head round it. I was taken aback by how thrilled and excited I was.

Amy and I had talked about wanting children, we were both really keen, but it had been one of those ‘in the future’ things like pensions and a steady job. Now it was a reality, I knew how much I wanted it – a family of my own.

I lay there and luxuriated in the feeling. No idea of the time. Checked my phone on the bedside table. Three fifteen. Got out of bed and headed into the kitchen to make the cup of tea I’d promised a while ago. Carried the two mugs back to the bedroom. Amy stirred as I got back into bed.

)What time is it?

‘Bloody early. Half three-ish.’

)I love this time of the morning. It feels like you’re the only ones in the world.

‘Yeah, then you remember you’ve got to be up for training in a few hours and so you shouldn’t be drinking shit with caffeine in it. Ames, I want to tell someone, I can’t keep this to myself, I’m going to burst. I don’t know how you kept it quiet for so long.’

)Well, I wasn’t sure, really. Not till tonight. I was kind of trying to pretend it wasn’t happening.

‘Oh babe, you’re sure you’re OK about it?’

)Yeah, hon, now I know you’re OK about it too, I’m completely happy. Who do you want to tell?

‘I feel like announcing it on the news. I’m going to be a dad! That’s huge! You’re going to be a mum.’

I put my hand on her stomach.

‘Fuck, there’s a tiny, tiny person in there!’

I bent over and put my ear against her belly.

‘Nope, can’t hear anything, obviously having a snooze.’

I turned my head and spoke into Amy’s belly button.

‘Hey, wake up in there, it’s your dad – whoa, fuck! I’m gonna be a dad. Whoa.’

It just kept hitting me, as the reality gradually broke through.

‘I would like to solemnly announce – no, fuck it, shout from the rooftops – that Declan Summers and Amy Wright are going to be parents. In sole charge of a tiny person. But I want to tell Jay and Beth. And Matt. And Rose – oh Rose is going to flip. And your parents, obviously.’

)Well obviously. They’ll be just delighted. Especially as we’ve missed out the getting married first bit.

‘Fuck them. If they can’t be as ecstatic as us, that’s their loss. I’m going to ring Jay now.’

)Dec, you can’t, it’s the middle of the night. You’ll wake them all up.

‘This is big news. I can’t wait.’

)You can’t!

Amy tried to take the phone out of my hand, but I’d already called up their home number on the screen. I held the phone high above my head and pressed ‘call’ with my thumb. Amy admitted defeat with a sigh and lay back down. The phone rang a few times. A sleepy voice.

łJay Scott.

‘Jay, it’s Dec.’

łJesus, Dec, what time is it?

‘About three thirty. Sorry it’s so early.’

łFuck, what’s happened?

‘Nothing – well, nothing bad. I’m going to be a dad.’

There was a long silence.

łWhat?

‘Me and Ames are having a baby.’

A shorter pause.

łFuck me, Dec, that’s … bloody astounding.

‘I know.’

łYou couldn’t have waited until a reasonable hour to tell me?

‘No, I don’t think I could.’

łFair enough. Mind if I go back to sleep now?

‘Be my guest.’

łYou’re too kind. Give Amy a kiss from me.

He hung up.

)I told you it was too early.

‘I know, he wasn’t really awake I don’t think. He might not even remember when he wakes up. This is from him.’

I gave Amy a lingering kiss.

)Wow, that was from Jay? Remind me to thank him.

‘OK, not all of it’s from Jay. I may have given it a bit of an upgrade.’

My phone rang. Beth’s mobile.

‘Hi.’

A high pitched squeal made me wince and hold the phone away from my ear.

‘Beth? Is that you? Or is your burglar alarm going off?’

_Dec, what fantastic news. I’m so excited. When did you find out? When’s it due? How’s Amy? Oh sweetheart, you’re going to be such a good dad.

‘Thanks, it’s pretty immense news. We’ve only just found out, a couple of hours ago. Ames is fine, do you want to talk to her?’

I passed the phone over, realising I was going to have to get to grips with the kind of information everybody wanted to know when hearing news about babies. Amy chattered excitedly with Beth. They got on really well, Amy was another member of the family now. As she talked to Beth, I thought about how my life was going to change in the next year. I was going to be responsible for another person, a tiny person who would be totally dependent on me and Amy for everything. It was pretty immense. Awe-inspiring. Overwhelming.

I sensed a change in Amy, looked at her expression. She had gone pale. She handed me the phone and ran to the bathroom.

‘Sorry, Beth, I think this is my first run in with morning sickness. I need to go and help Amy.’

_Just be thankful you don’t experience it first hand. Take care of her, Dec, lovely news, we’ll talk later.

I followed Amy into the bathroom, where she was bent over the toilet, heaving. I held her hair away from her face, rubbed her back, and guiltily loved every minute of it. All new territory, all new and exciting. Once she had stopped throwing up, Amy shooed me out to freshen herself up. I wandered back to bed, still too excited to think about sleeping. Training was going to be a dead loss today. I wanted to tell someone else, but there was no one who I could comfortably call at four o’clock. Not call, no, but text …

Me: =UR going 2b an aunty.

I sent it. If he was sensible, he’d have his phone on silent or turned off or something. Matt wasn’t known for being sensible.

Julia

I woke with a start to a shrill sound. Matt stirred against me.

‘Wha … th … fu …’

‘Is that your phone?’

‘Yeah … sorry. Meant to put it on silent. What time is it?’

He reached over to the bedside table and grabbed his phone.

‘It’s gone four! What? What the fuck is he texting me at this bloody time of night for?’

This last was said to himself. He typed a few words onto his phone, then another tone shattered the peace.

Dec

Matt:=Wtf ru on about? Do u no wot tim it is?

Me: =Me & Amy having baby. Gonna b a Dad. Holy fuck!! It’s 4:12. In the morning.

Julia

Fuuuucking hell. Oh my God, I don’t fucking believe it. Ha ha, shit.’

He typed again.

Dec

Matt:=It seems they’ll let any riff raff father children these days. Awesome 🙂 Luv 2 Amy. Bak 2 sleep now. Xx

The next person on the list was Rose, but I couldn’t do this to her over the phone or by text, and not at this time of the morning. I’d have to wait until later.

Nico and Lis. Tried to figure out the time difference. Nico had signed for the top side in Buenos Aires at the the end of last season, breaking the hearts of many Raiders fans. He and Lis had moved to Argentina a few months ago. They felt a long way away, even though they kept in touch. Buenos Aires was several hours behind the UK. It was too late to call. Probably too early to text. Fuck it, I was excited. Did it anyway.

Me: =Hey Nico. Sorry it’s early. Just found out Amy’s pregnant. Wanted you to know. Dec

There was no reply, he probably had his phone off, or hadn’t even heard the alert.

Julia

‘Sorry, Jules. Sorry, I fell asleep, I didn’t mean to. I’ll grab my things from the dryer.’

‘Don’t be silly. Stay.’

We had never yet stayed the night with each other, it seemed like a big step, but it also seemed silly for him to drive home for a couple of hours’ sleep.

‘Who is your text from?’

‘Dec. Do you remember meeting him at the farm place?’

I nodded.

‘He’s … wow, he’s going to be a dad. Him and Amy are having a baby. Bloody hell.’

‘Couldn’t he have told you later, when it wasn’t the middle of the night?’

‘Dec’s pretty immediate. He thinks it, he does it, or says it. Shit, I can’t get my head round it, he’s only – actually he’s absolutely bloody old enough. He’s just a lot younger than me, I forget he’s grown up sometimes. Mind you, sometimes I forget I’m grown up.’

‘I think we all forget you’re grown up at times.’

‘Sorry he woke you up. We might have slept right through if he hadn’t texted.’

He started to get out of bed. I held onto his hand.

‘Come on, Jules, I need to get my clothes.’

‘Are you really going?’

‘Yeah, I’ll just keep you awake if I stay. I don’t feel sleepy any more. We need at least one of us to have a functioning brain cell tomorrow, busy day, plus Lexi will be making mischief.’

I’d managed to forget about events at GreenScreen, safe and warm in Matt’s embrace, but now he’d reminded me about them, and I felt the relaxation slip away.

‘Don’t go yet.’

‘I’ll just get dressed, then I’ll come back and say goodbye.’

He hopped out of bed and I watched his naked back as he walked to the kitchen. He pulled his clothes out of the dryer and slipped them on, then came back to the bedroom, where he lay down next to me again.

‘Goodnight.’

He brushed my hair away from my face, cupped my cheek in his hand and kissed me gently. I put my arms round his neck and pulled him against me, not really understanding why I was so desperate for him to stay.

‘Hey, Jules, are you OK?’

I didn’t have a coherent response for him, so I just nodded.

‘Get some sleep, yeah?’

I nodded again.

‘Thanks for the spooning. Awesome.’

He kissed me again, lightly, stroked my hair and left. My flat felt empty without him, and it took me a long time to go back to sleep.

Dec

Amy climbed back into bed. I wrapped her up in a cuddle, stroked her hair.

‘How are you feeling?’

)Ugh, I hate being sick. I’m OK, once it’s passed it’s fine. Thanks for helping, hon. I think I’m going to take today off work.

‘What? Amy Wright pulling a sickie?’

)No! It’s not a sickie, I’m wiped out, I’ve been up half the night. Just one day, to slob around and feel better. Then I’ll have to get my strength up to visit Mum and Dad.

‘Sounds like a sickie to me – oh babe I’m kidding, you look really tired, you shouldn’t go in, you need to feel better. We’ll go to see your mum and dad later on this afternoon after your dad’s home from work, but only if you’re up to it.’

)Are you sure?

‘Yep, we need to get it over with. I’d hate them to find out from someone else.’

)Someone else like who – who else have you told while I’ve been in the bathroom?

‘Er, just Matt and Nico. Texted them. And I’m going to tell Rose later. Sorry, babe, I’m just too excited.’

)Oh God, is everyone at the club going to know too?

‘I don’t know if I can help myself. Do you want me to not say anything?’

)No, I guess not. I love that you’re so happy about it. It’s just that usually people have a few weeks to get used to the idea, wait to see there’s nothing wrong, then let everyone know.

‘Oh Ames, I’m sorry, I didn’t think. I just got carried away.’

)Well, let’s keep on getting carried away then. I love you, hon.

‘I bloody love you too. You’re amazing, wonderful, gorgeous and, fuck me, I can hardly believe it, the mother of my child. You couldn’t be more perfect if you tried.’

Amy snuggled into my arms.

)I think you need to try to go back to sleep. You’ll have to be up soon. Unless you fancy pulling a sickie yourself, spend the day with me?

‘I don’t think I’d get away with that one, especially now I’ve told Jay. I’ll be back after I’ve seen Rose, we’ll have some time before we go to your parents.’

Amy sighed.

)I suppose I wasn’t serious, I don’t think I’ve ever known any of you mad rugby players take a day off sick, even with legs hanging off and eyes missing. A bit of girly puking is completely not going to get much sympathy. We should try and sleep though.

‘OK, I’ll try.’

I held her tightly and shut my eyes. Amy fell asleep really quickly, I felt her relax and heard her breathing become steadier. I felt the slight twitches she always did when she was first falling asleep, and then she was still, breathing quietly, growing our baby inside her.

A blaring tone on my phone woke me up some time later. Nico.

>Declan?

‘Nico! Did you get my text?

>I get it. This is great news, yes?

‘Yeah, amazing.’

>Ha, good, I not sure from your words if you are happy. Lis and me, we are very happy. Amy is OK?

‘Amy is amazing.’

I looked into her eyes as I said it. She had woken up when the phone rang.

>Lis she has women’s questions about baby things. You OK to speak to her?

‘Sure, I’d love to speak to her. Thanks for ringing, Nico.’

>Be careful of yourselves. Here is Lis.

~Hey Dec. How exciting is this?

‘Hi Lis. What time is it there, it must be the middle of the night.’

~Pretty much. So you’re going to be a dad, yeah?

‘Yeah, unbelievable, eh?’

~It is pretty unbelievable. Surely you’re under age?

‘Ha ha.’

~How’s Amy?

‘She’s great, tired at the moment, she’s been up all night.’

~When’s it due?

‘Sorry, Lis, I don’t know, we literally only found out a few hours ago. I haven’t got my head round it yet.’

~You’re a useless lump, Declan Summers. Is Amy awake? I might get more sense out of her.

I looked at Amy and shook the phone at her, raising my eyebrows. She nodded.

‘Yeah, I’ll pass you over, you can talk baby details with someone more qualified.’

~Great to talk to you, Dec. Congratulations.

‘Thanks, Lis. Take care.’

I passed the phone to Amy, and glanced at the clock. Eight fifteen. Fuck! I was going to be late for training.

‘Fuck it!’

I jumped out of bed, gathering up my kit, grabbing a towel and stuffing it into my bag. I picked up a cereal bar and a bottle of water from the kitchen, then went back to the bedroom to wait by Amy, who was still talking to Lis. She looked up at me questioningly.

‘Sorry, babe, I need my phone.’

)Oh, OK. Sorry, Lis, Dec’s late for training. He needs to take his phone with him. Great to talk to you, I’ll ring soon or text or something.

She handed the phone back.

‘Sorry, Lis, gotta go, I don’t want to be filling Nico’s boots in the late-for-training chart.’

~I think his place at the top of the chart is pretty safe. Keep in touch, yeah? We miss you.

‘Bye Lis, miss you too.’

I bent over and kissed Amy quickly, then headed for the door.

‘Sorry, babe. Gotta go. Have a good lazy day. I’ll call you later.’

)Wait, come here.

I walked back to the bed. Amy reached up and pulled my face down to hers, planting a big wet kiss on my mouth.

)That’s better. Much more satisfactory. Now you can go.

‘Not fair. I just want to do this all day now.’

I sat on the bed, cupped her face in my hands and gave her another kiss, then wrapped my arms round her and gave her a huge squeeze.

)Don’t be late, hon.

‘Already am.’

)Jay’ll give you stick.

‘Don’t give a shit. I can take anything Scotty dishes out.’

)You’re squeezing a bit tight.

‘Oh OK, better let go then.’

I relaxed my grip, and Amy lay back down, wrapping herself back up in the duvet.

)Shame you don’t have time to get me breakfast in bed.

‘Yeah, shame, better be off then. Love you.’

)I thought that might speed you on your way. Love you.

I finally made it out of the flat, seriously tempted to make some excuse to spend the day with Amy. I couldn’t come up with anything that would sound remotely plausible and resigned myself to having to wait until later in the afternoon to see her again. I got in the car and drove to the club in a bit of a trance. Happiness floated around me in a cloud. I parked, grabbed my bag and ran to the changing room, which was empty by the time I got there. Changed as quickly as I could, ran to the training ground, where rucks and mauls were already in session. Sprinted onto the artificial surface.

łMr Summers, how nice of you to join us.

‘Sorry I’m late.’

łYou will be. Twice round the pitch, fifty bench presses if you’d be so kind.

‘What? Fuck off.’

łPardon?

‘Er, what luck, off … I go.’

I set off, and hardly had time to draw breath until the end of the session. Rucks and mauls was always punishing, and the extras hadn’t helped. It was tiring, it was cold, it was raining, but none of it could dampen my spirits as I headed for the showers with the rest of the squad. I suddenly remembered I hadn’t contacted Rose. Grabbed my phone before I went into the shower, sent a quick text.

Me: =Hi Rose. Can u meet 4 late lunch? 2.30 Luigi’s. Have news. Dec.

I hit the showers and the hot water revitalised my aching body. There was the usual banter from the lads, I came in for a ribbing due to my late arrival:

*Hey Summs, more bench presses for you tomorrow if you can’t haul yourself away from the lovely Amy.

*Reckon it was bench pressing Amy that made him late.

‘Fuck off, I overslept.’

*Hm, wonder why?

Kissing noises followed.

‘Actually, I didn’t get much sleep, neither of us did.’

*I knew it! You young studs are so fucking horny.

‘Amy’s having a baby.’

That shut them up. For about two seconds.

*Wahey, Deccy, get in there.

*Top performance, Summs.

*Hit the spot with that one then.

This was accompanied by backslapping, head-rubbing, arse patting, hand-shaking, jeering, cat-calling and all the other bantering paraphernalia of a room full of testosterone fuelled rugby players. I would have laid down my life for those guys, and I let them have their fun, grinning from ear to ear, as I dried myself off and got changed for the gym – I could put in an hour or so before it was time to meet Rose. Checked my phone, she had texted back.

Rose: =ok see you then

I was joined in the gym by Bonksy. Of the group of us who had been together in the Academy, DivDav had moved to another club when he was let go by Raiders; Big had obviously been out of the picture since he went to prison, no one knew where he was now; Mikey had hit the big time with Warriors, a big London club and was on the verge of breaking into the England side, and Danno had had to quit rugby after breaking his leg in a reserves game. Bonksy and I were the only ones left from that time a few years ago, and we were still mates. I started up the treadmill next to his, and set it for a short run. He had his headphones in, but took them out when he saw me.

]Congratulations, mate.

‘Cheers.’

]Shit, a baby, that’s pretty huge.

‘I know.’

]Aren’t you shit-scared?

‘Actually, no. I should be, shouldn’t I? Maybe I will be when I’ve thought about it. At the moment, I’m just fucking blown away.’

]Don’t ask me to babysit, will you?

‘Ha ha, don’t worry, mate, we’ll have plenty of doting aunties for all that. Strictly boys only for us!’

‘Yeah, you won’t be able to get rid of Rose now. Say hi to her for me.’

‘No worries. If I can get a word in.’

Bonksy laughed and put his headphones back in. I completed my run, showered again, and set off to meet Rose.

44. Dance little sister

In which we meet Isobel, and Matty finds his Plan D.

Matt

Not long after we got in the fun bus and started the drive down the hill and back to the Land of Signal, I heard Jay’s ringtone on my phone.

‘Hey. Any news?’

‘Hi Matty. Yeah, we’ve got a daughter.’

‘Woohoo.’

There was clapping and cheering from everyone on the bus, as they knew I was waiting for news, and I’d given them a thumbs up.

‘Is evhryone OK?’

‘Yeah, mate, everyone’s perfect. Any chance you can get over here? Dec’s bringing Cal.’

‘Yeh, on my way home now. Wha’s she called?’

‘Isobel Flora.’

‘Great. Look forward tuh meeting her. Well done, mate.’

‘See you soon, Matty.’

The fun bus driver agreed to drop me off at the hospital rather than at home, and I met up with Dec, Amy and Cal in the car park.

Cal

And then I finally had my baby sister. I had been looking forward to it for ages, because I didn’t know she was going to be a sister, she still might be a brother, and even if the baby was a sister, Mum had said that girls sometimes like football, and so I thought she might go in goal for me. She could be a bit little, but I would score more goals that way. I was still hoping for a brother, but a sister wouldn’t be too bad.

So when Mum told me Dec and Amy were coming to our house because she and Dad were going to hospital to have a baby, I was pleased that at last I could stop waiting, and I would be a big brother, which was very important. It was a very long day of waiting, because Mum and Dad went away in the morning, and me and Dec and Amy did lots of things all day, like going to the beach, and flying my kite, and eating sandwiches, and playing football, and eating chocolate, before Dec said that Mum had had the baby, and it was a sister, and we were going to go and see her in the hospital.

Dec

We bundled Cal into the car and set off. At the hospital entrance, we met Matt, who had just been dropped off by his friends.

\uncle Matty, I’ve got a sister.

}I know, Cal, I’m coming to meet her, like you.

\dec forgot to ask her name.

}Oh, good job one of us has got half a brain then. Her name’s Isobel Flora Scott.

\will she be able to play football with me?

}Maybe in a few years, but at the moment she’s really tiny. Leh’s go and see her.

Cal

Dec didn’t know what my sister’s name was, because he forgot to ask, but he said we would find out when we got there, because Dad couldn’t use his phone in the hospital. When we got there, Uncle Matty was in the car park too, because he’d been walking on a hill, and his friends had brought him in a minibus to see my sister. Uncle Matty knew my sister’s name, which was Isobel Flora, but he said it would be years before she would play football with me. Years! No one had said anything about it being years. I thought it might be a few weeks, maybe, until she got big enough to stand up, but I didn’t think I could wait years for someone to go in goal.

Dec

We all walked together along the corridor.

‘How was the hike?’

}Loved it. I’m bloody knackered now, but it was just what I needed. I’ve really missed getting out like that. I just took it slow, like everyone else, and enjoyed the views. Have you been up the top there? You can see righ over the river to the sea. There are deer and birds and everything.

‘Sounds like a great day, did you some good.’

}Yeah, thanks for talking me into sticking with it.

‘Pleasure. We had a good day on the beach, didn’t we Cal?’

\i flew my kite and Dec kissed Amy.

‘Cal, we didn’t kiss all day long, we did loads of cool things at the beach.’

}Probably quite a loh of kissing though, eh Cal?

Cal nodded.

\dec said he will sleep under my bed tonight and make dream noises.

}Did he? What have you done to deserve that?

‘Apparently my mad night noises are much sought after. Amy and Cal were fighting over them earlier.’

}Takes all sorts I suppose. Having experienced your utter insanity when you’re dreaming, I would say they’re bloody welcome to it. Are you still doing tha, then?

‘Apparently so. Worth reporting to Adam I guess.’

}Always worth – oh, here we are.

We checked where Beth and Jay were, and found the room. Beth was sitting up in bed, looking sweaty, tired and lovely, holding the tiniest person I had ever seen. Amy and I hovered by the door as Cal and Matt went in, unsure how many of us were allowed in at a time. Matt kissed Beth and hugged Jay, then sat in one of the chairs by the bed.

Cal

We got to the room where Mum and Dad were with my sister, and Mum was in a bed, holding a lot of blankets. I wondered where my sister was, and then the blankets moved and I saw a little tiny finger, and then Mum tilted the blankets and there was a face in there, and it didn’t look like a girl or a boy, just like a little face.

‘Hey, Cal, hop up on my lap and have a look at your sister.’

Uncle Matty was sitting in a chair next to the bed, and he was holding his arms out to me, so I climbed onto his lap to have a closer look. The face in the blankets still didn’t look anything like I had thought it would – girls have long hair and sometimes hair grips, and boys have short hair but I couldn’t see any hair because it was covered by the blanket. I needed to be doubly sure.

‘Is she my sister?’

Mum nodded.

‘Yes, sweetheart, she is. She loves her big brother. Do you want to give her a kiss?’

The little face suddenly moved, and I could see her hair, which was blonde like mine, and she screwed her face up and opened her mouth and wriggled her hands, and suddenly I saw that she was a really, really, little girl, and I was her big brother, and I was going to have to look after her like big brothers do, so I would tell Archie Shepherd off if he was mean to her, and I might share my sweets if I had enough and she had run out, and I’d let her play cars with me as long as she didn’t mind having the second best ones. I did want to give her a kiss, because that’s what Mums and Dads and big brothers did to little sisters.

I nodded to Mum and she smiled again.

‘Climb up here then, gently now.’

I got on the bed and kissed her, and her cheek was all soft, and her eyes were open and she looked at me, then I climbed off and stood next to Mum, looking at my sister.

Dec

Jay put his arm round Cal’s shoulder.

}She is just beautiful.

Beth stroked the baby’s hair and looked at Matt.

_Would you like a cuddle?

}Well I’d have thought you’d be a bit tired, giving birth and all, but if you’re sure you’re up to it …

_With Isobel.

}I’d love to.

Matt stood up and took the tiny baby from Beth. He jiggled her and made cooing noises, and she opened her eyes and looked into his. His own eyes filled with tears. He kissed her on the cheek and gave her back to Beth, wiping his eyes.

}Fuck, didn’t see tha coming. Anyone got a tissue?

_Matty, did that really have to be your first word to her?

}Sorry, Beth. I guess she’ll just have to get used to cool Uncle Matty. It’s not like she can understand me yet.

_Start as you mean to go on.

}I think I did.

_Honestly.

}Blame Dec.

‘Hey!’

}Well when someone’s getting told off for saying ‘fuck’, it’s usually your fault.

łWhy are you both loitering by the door? You’re making the place look untidy. Come in.

Amy and I moved further into the room. I was a bit in awe of the tiny bundle in Beth’s arms. I had no close up experience of babies, and this was all very new and quite scary.

_Want a hold, Dec?

‘Oh, er, she’s really small …’

łAbout the size of a rugby ball, you can carry one of those well enough.

_Er, excuse me, there is nothing about my daughter that remotely resembles a rugby ball. You won’t try to score a try with her will you, Dec? Amy, why don’t you show him how to do it?

)Oh can I? She’s completely gorgeous.

Amy took Isobel from Beth, and sat in one of the chairs, rocking her and talking nonsense. I looked on in wonder. Amy’s eyes were shining, and she looked over at me, making my heart melt. She looked beautiful. Jay was grinning at me.

łWatch out, Dec, I think Amy’s getting ideas.

Amy gave him a look. Perhaps I should have felt panicked or trapped or something, but I just felt awestruck.

)Maybe one day.

She looked at me. I nodded, smiling, wondering for the first time what it would be like to have a family of my own, and liking the idea of it. Way in the future, obviously.

)Come on Dec, have a cuddle, she’s so amazing. Look, sit here and I’ll pass her over. You won’t drop her. Just remember to support her head. Yeah, that’s it. Hey, there she is.

I sat with Isobel in my arms. She was as light as air, but she was the weightiest thing I had ever carried. Her features were miniaturised, and the smallest hand I had ever seen poked out of the blanket she was wrapped in. I was filled with an emotion I couldn’t identify, which was mixed up with family and tenderness and love. She was the closest I was ever going to get to having a sister; I felt very protective.

‘God, she’s so tiny.’

I felt tears spill out of my eyes. I risked a look at Matt, who laughed and shrugged.

}Blub club till we die, I guess.

Amy put her hand on the back of my neck and stroked my hair.

Cal

Uncle Matty and Amy and Dec all cuddled my sister, and Uncle Matty even did a swear, although Mum told him off. Then I remembered that there had been a shop on the way in, and that shops in hospitals had sweets and drinks and other interesting things.

‘Mummy is there a shop here?’

I knew there was, but it was a way of talking about it first.

‘I don’t know, sweetheart.’

Mum usually knew things like where the shops were, so now I was going to have to be less sneaky, or she wouldn’t know what I wanted.

‘I would like a slushie and a dinosaur magazine.’

‘I think I saw a shop on the way in, do you want to come with me, Cal? Let’s see what we can find.’

I turned and looked at Amy. This was good, because Mum didn’t look like she was going to get out of bed to come to the shop with me, even though it was the middle of the day.

Dec

Amy took Cal’s hand and they went off together. Beth looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

_She’s very good with children.

łShe has a lot of practice with Dec. Things are obviously going very well with you two.

‘Yeah. She is just … amazing.’

}According to Cal they spent all day at the beach sucking each other’s faces.

‘On come on, you know Cal’s exaggerating. One or two kisses. Maybe three. And we were watching him the whole time. The whole time. Eyes open and everything.’

_Well I think it’s lovely. After all the months of wondering if you were ever going to sort it out, I’m really pleased. She’s lovely. She’s good for you. It’s lovely to see you so happy, sweetheart.

Isobel chose that moment to wake up and start bawling at the top of her voice. I was still holding her, and the noise and wriggling panicked me a bit. I looked at Beth, wondering what to do.

_It’s alright Dec, she’s hungry. Jay, can you pass her over? Er, you two can leave if you like I’m about to feed her. Or stay, it’s up to you.

As Beth started to unbutton her shirt, it dawned on me what she meant. I blushed, stood up and left the room, closely followed by Matt. We found a row of chairs in the corridor.

‘Bloody hell, this is all new territory.’

}I kind of remember when Cal was born. I dihnt see him for a while, couldn’t get away from work; he wasn’t so small and delicate by the time I saw him. I remember needing to leave the room on many occasions on account of feeding, though. Got very familiar with the kitchen. Did a loh of washing up.

‘Really?’

}Fuck, no. They’ll be a while in there, it can take bloody ages. I should go home, have a shower, fall asleep in my dinner. How long are you staying here?

‘We could go too, not sure if we should take Cal or leave him here, don’t want to tire Beth out. Not sure I can go in and ask at the moment though.’

}We’ll send Amy in when she gets back with Cal.

‘Good plan. So, you had a good hike – think you’ll go again?’

}Yeah, definitely.

‘With the same group?’

}Yeah, it’s all local people with the bastard MS, they take it nice and easy, and everyone understands what everyone needs. If I get a bih fitter, who knows I might move on to something else, but this suits me at the moment. They’re a really good bunch, we had a laugh. I thought they’d all be older, but there were a few around my age –

‘What, just mildly ancient?’

}Fuck off, you half-grown knob-cheeser. Anyway, we’ve arranged to go out for a drink next week. I need to meet some people down here, get out more, this is a really good start.

‘Excellent. More recruits to Cripples Corner?’

}Oh no, that’s just a Scott family tradition. Me, you and Mum. Fuck the rest.

I laughed, as Cal’s voice sounded along the corridor.

Cal

So I went to the shop with Amy, and she let me choose a slushie and, best of all, a Transformer magazine, which had a poster of Optimus Prime in it for my bedroom wall. I asked Amy a lot of things that I thought of while we were walking there and back; some of them I already knew the answers to because Mum had told me, like how my sister had got out of Mum’s tummy, but I wanted to see if Amy knew, and she didn’t know as well as Mum because she kept saying ‘er’ and mixing her words up; and some were things I wanted to know the answer to, like how long it would be before she could play football, and Amy didn’t really know that either, because baby horses could walk right away, so why couldn’t baby sisters?

Dec

\but why don’t her legs work?

)Well, when babies are born, not all their muscles work yet. They have to spend a long time doing baby exercises like standing and crawling to get themselves strong enough to walk.

\but when baby horses are born their legs work straight away.

)Well, yes, that’s right … it’s just different for people and horses.

\why?

Matt and I grinned at Amy, while she looked pleadingly at us.

‘Need some help?’

)Cal has so many questions. I can’t answer them all. He wanted to know when Isobel would be playing football with him.

}Diversionary tactics are required. Cal, wha’s in your magazine?

\there wasn’t a dinosaur one, so I got a Transformer one. Look, Optimus Prime is on the front.

Matt raised his eyebrows at a grateful Amy, as Cal opened the magazine and started showing him pictures.

‘Ames, Beth is feeding Isobel at the moment, we were wondering if you could go in and ask whether she wants us to take Cal home for some tea, or whether he’s staying here with her and Jay?’

)Why couldn’t you ask?

‘Well, Beth’s feeding, I’m not sure I’d know where to look.’

)Oh for God’s sake, it’s only boobs. It’s not like you’ve never seen any before.

‘Yeah, but it’s Beth, it feels weird … please?’

Amy rolled her eyes, but went into the room, taking Cal with her.

}Only boobs? She is aware you’re male, right?

‘Yes, well aware, thanks. I just don’t get girls sometimes … most of the time … ever, in fact.’

}Well that’s something we have in common – with the rest of the men in the world. Let’s just agree that girls aren’t actually human, but a different species. Makes ih easier to stomach, somehow.

A familiar voice floated towards us. Nico. Lis was with him.

>Ha, is Declan and Matty. Why you sit outside?

‘Beth’s feeding the baby.’

>Huh, so why you sit outside?

‘Well it feels … kind of wrong to be there.’

>No, is natural, is beautiful. We go in, Lis?

~Of course. I want to see Isobel.

They went into the room, and Nico’s loud voice and laugh drifted back out to us through the door.

‘Are we the biggest sexist pigs going, or is he just being Nico?’

}I’m on your side, mate, no one’s getting me in there till it’s all over. Beth’s like my sister. Only she’s not. Ew. Too weird. Besides, with Nico in there it’s like ten extra people have turned up, there wohnt be room for any more egos.

Cal

When I got back to Mum, she was feeding Isobel. She wasn’t giving her ice cream or chips, though. She was letting my sister suck her booby. She told me there was special Mummies milk in there, just how little sisters like it, and that she was too young for chips at the moment. I felt quite pleased that I was going to be able to eat chips and not have to suck Mum’s booby for my dinner.

Nico and Lis were in the room too, and they had brought me a present, which was a book about tractors, because I really liked tractors. I liked getting presents for having a little sister, and some of the things I got later, from people like Granny and Aunty Lou, were Woody from Toy Story and a T-shirt with ‘World’s Best Big Brother’ on it.

Dec

Amy came out, Cal in tow.

)OK, the decision is that, apart from you two being complete wimps, Cal is coming back with us for some tea and then bath and bed.

Predictably, Cal was reluctant to leave.

\but I want to stay with Nico.

)I know sweetie, but your mum’s tired and she needs to go to sleep in a bit.

\but Nico and Lis are still there

)They’re not staying long, and Daddy will be home soon too. Mummy’s staying here tonight, then Daddy will fetch her and Isobel home tomorrow so she can live with you all. How about we make a welcome home banner for her when we get back?

Cal considered the offer. He liked spending time with Amy almost as much as I did, but obviously for very different reasons.

\can I put dinosaurs on it?

)Of course, I bet Isobel will love dinosaurs.

With Cal placated, we got back to Jay and Beth’s house. Amy and Cal made a banner, I cobbled together an extremely unhealthy dinner of chicken nuggets, beans and oven chips while Matt had a shower, then Matt grumbled about the dinner and made some pasta which met his higher-than-mine taste standards. Then we all collapsed in front of the TV. Being a Sunday, there wasn’t much on, so Cal persuaded us all to start watching one of his DVDs.

‘Just the first bit, then it’s time for a bath.’

\oh, but the best bit is after the first bit.

I hid a smile at his delaying tactics; Cal hadn’t got any keener on going to bed, and I steeled myself to be firm with him.

‘Then you can watch the rest tomorrow when you get up.’

\oh, but I don’t want a bath.

‘I know, mate, you never do, but you like it once you get there. Have you still got your submarine? We could have a water battle.’

Bribery always went a long way towards persuading Cal, and now he was torn with indecision between battling bath time and battling me with water and submarines and various other toys. I won.

\kay. How long can I watch for?

‘Thirty minutes. We’re all watching the timer on the DVD.’

)Actually, Dec, if we’ve got half an hour, would you mind taking me home?

‘Sure, is that OK with you Matt?’

}Course.

‘Cal, are you sure you still want me to stay tonight?’

\yes I want you to sleep underneath.

‘OK, I’ll have to go and pick up my PJs then. I’ll try to be back before thirty minutes, OK, then we’ll have our water battle … er … bath.’

As I drove Amy back to her parents’ house, we passed the spot where I had crashed my car last summer. I drove past it nearly every day, but it still made my stomach churn and my heart beat faster. Amy noticed me looking, and she put her hand on my arm.

)Remember what Adam said – every time it gets a tiny bit easier. You only notice after lots of tiny bits.

‘I know. It’s true, looking back it’s easier now than the first time. Still makes me feel weird, though.’

She stretched in the seat, yawning.

)Well, today turned out a bit different to what we were expecting.

‘Thanks for helping out with Cal. He loves you.’

)He’s great. I really like being with him.

‘You were amazing with Isobel.’

)Oh, she’s completely adorable. Have you ever held a baby before?

‘No, my first time. How did I do?’

)Not bad, but I think you need lots more practice.

‘We’ll just have to volunteer for lots of babysitting then.’

)That’s what I was hoping you’d say.

I pulled up outside the house. It was hard to say goodbye, even overnight; Amy had been virtually living with me for the past few weeks. We’d spent some time early on at Amy’s house, but several calculated appearances at Amy’s bedroom door by her mum, interrupting various stages of undress, meant we spent most of our time at mine. Amy had a delightful chest, and I liked uncovering it and looking at it a lot, and Amy’s parents made it quite clear that this, and other related activities they had walked in on, were frowned on ‘under my roof’, so we moved it all to under my roof, where it definitely was not frowned on, and in fact was actively encouraged by both of us. Other than going to work, we’d been together the whole time; this would be our first night apart for a quite a while. We kissed long and lingeringly in the car.

)I’ll phone you later.

‘I’ll text you when I’ve finished Cal’s bath.’

)I love you.

‘I love you too, babe.’

)I’d better get out, you’ll be late back for Cal.

‘Go on then.’

)Yeah, in a minute …

More kissing. And then a bit more.

‘I just saw your dad look out of the window.’

)I’d better go then, see you tomorrow.

‘Love you.’

)Love you too.

‘Fuck, you’re gorgeous. Come here.’

It was worse than the ‘you hang up’ ‘no you hang up’ game, as the kissing and close bodily contact were a big deterrent to moving. I hadn’t realised how long we’d lingered until my phone rang in my pocket. I fished it out. Matt.

‘Hey, Matt.’

}Where the fuck are you? This DVD has nearly finished, and it’s way past time for Cal’s bath. Do you want me to do it? Cal won’t go up until you geh back.

Amy opened the car door, stroked my cheek and got out. I looked longingly after her as she walked up the path to the front door, where she turned, waved and blew me a kiss before rearranging her dishevelled hair and disappearing inside.

‘Sorry, I got held up. I’ll be back in a few minutes.’

}Stop licking her tonsils and feeling her up for two seconds, deliver her back to the bosom of her family and get your overexcited arse back here. This is several levels of taking the pissery.

‘Sorry, be right with you. Starting the car now.’

I pulled my seatbelt on and drove off. As I pulled up outside the house, I realised I’d forgotten to fetch any washing stuff or clothes to sleep in; I’d just have to make do with what I could find. I opened the front door to the sounds of splashing and squeals from upstairs; Matt had obviously managed to persuade Cal into the bath and started the water battle. I ran up, rolled up my sleeves and joined in, and by the time we’d finished, the bathroom was dripping. I fetched a mop and bucket, and tried to pass it to Matt.

}Fuck off, you’re the one who was late back, you get to clear it up. I get to dry off, dry Cal’s hair, read him a story, nice and quiet and relaxed, in the dark, while you make sure all the water disappears before Jay gehs back.

‘Bastard.’

}Bloody horny nutter.

‘Jealous old cripple.’

Jay arrived back home as I was tipping the bucket down the sink. He looked tired, but also elated, proud and very pleased with himself.

łHey, Dec, didn’t expect you to still be here. Jesus, you’re soaking – what the hell have you been doing?

‘Er, just a bit of playtime to encourage Cal into the bath. He wants me to stay the night in the bottom bunk.’

łWell aren’t you a glutton for punishment. Thanks for helping out today, we really appreciate it. Where is Cal?

‘In bed. Matt’s reading him a story.’

łI’ll just go up and say goodnight.

I towelled my hair dry, took one of Jay’s t-shirts from the laundry cupboard and sat on a towel on the sofa in my damp boxers, having put my jeans in the tumble dryer. I texted Amy, then flicked through the TV channels, listening to Jay, Matt and Cal’s voices upstairs. Matt came down a few minutes later, giving my boxers a sideways glance.

}Ugh. For fuck’s sake put ih away, Summers. Where are your trousers?

‘They got soaked. I put them in the dryer.’

}Well borrow some of mine, or Jay’s. I don’t really want to stare at that all night. Thinking about Amy by any chance?

He left the room, then came back and threw a pair of baggy sweatpants in my direction.

}Here, have Jay’s decorating sweaties. Haven’t seen active service for some years, and lots of handy splodges already, so one or two more won’t show if you really can’t control yourself.

I pulled them on and rearranged myself to be a little less obvious.

}That’s better. Bit of modesty goes a long way. Can’t you even manage one night without her?

I was actually missing Amy more than I’d thought I would; I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and whether her mum and dad would be giving her a hard time.

‘Piss off, I’m here, aren’t I? Is Cal settled yet?

}All sorted, although he’s currently putting in a request for a story from you as well, in a vain attempt to put off going to sleep even longer.

‘He’s the master.’

}He certainly is. Jay’s just about goh it covered. He’s telling him about his baby sister, good as any story.

‘She is pretty amazing.’

}Never thought you’d be that appreciative of babies.

‘Neither did I, but it feels different when it’s family.’

}Amy looked pretty taken with her.

‘Yeah, didn’t she.’

}Hasn’t scared you off then?

‘Ha ha, no. You did hear her say ‘maybe one day’, not ‘I need to make a baby with you, right here, right now’?’

}I suppose so. Tha could have been awkward. You’re being very chilled about the whole thing.

‘I just know, after all the effort of me and Amy getting together, nothing’s going to fuck it up. It took us long enough to get here, I’m happy to enjoy the ride, wherever it goes.’

}Fuck, yes, the longest will they, won’t they saga in the history of mankind.

‘You weren’t even down here then.’

}I goh the headlines, even if you yourself were strikingly reticent on the matter. Dec loves Amy, Amy loves Dec, what will it take to get them to say it? Worse than some bloody soap. I have to claim some credit, I must say, for my forthright words at the barbecue.

‘Piss off, I was going to say something anyway.’

}Yeah, like fuck you were. ‘Oh she’s just a mate’ you told me, as you pined away pathetically in a dark corner of the garden.

‘OK, maybe I did need a little nudge.’

}You’re welcome.

‘We would have got there eventually.’

}Bollocks would you, you’d still be pissing about now. Instead of hours of snogging and groping in the car jus now, you’d have been chastely dropping her off at home, promising to text her, staring miserably after her as she disappeared inside the forbidden fortress. And you’d have been back in time to give Cal his bath. I’ve given you all these extra weeks of bliss, as well as severely inconveniencing myself and getting half drowned into the bargain. I accept your grateful thahks.

I rolled my eyes. Decided to shift the focus of the conversation.

‘What about you, anyone worth looking twice at in the hiking group?’

Matt paused, and that was my in.

‘Come on, spill, details.’

}Well, there is this one girl, she’s a bit younger than me.

‘So not exactly a girl, but not in her sixties yet?’

}Fuck off you impudent urchin. We chatted quite a lot today. Seems really nice. Good arse. We got on pretty well. A few of us are going for a drink next week, she’ll be there. You can wipe that look off your face. I’m not looking for anything serious, I’m only jus getting better. I don’t know if getting involved with someone else with the bastard MS is the best idea. Actually, not sure ‘getting involved’ with someone is what I want at all. I just need to get my own bit of normal, start having some fun again.

łDid I hear someone mention fun? What’s the story?

‘Matt’s looking for lurve.’

łReally Matty?

}Piss off, Dec. No, just going out for a drink with some people next week. Goh to start somewhere.

łDrink sounds good – shall we have a practice now? I’ve got beers in. A toast to … oh, I don’t know, fatherhood? Family? Something less corny?

‘Love.’

łI said less corny, Dec. We all know you’re loved up, pretty hard to miss. Especially right this minute – Jesus, are they my sweatpants? Fuck, I may never be able to wear them again.

He went to get the beers. Came back looking thoughtful.

łYou know what, I am going to make a toast to love. Not just the full on snoggy type that Dec’s so fond of, but all of it. I feel pretty loved up myself today. I’ve got this fantastic daughter, courtesy of my incredible wife, I’ve spent time with my brilliant family and amazing friends and just watched my awesome son go to sleep. And you two are here helping me celebrate. Life just doesn’t get any better. To love.

We clinked our bottles together.

A few hours and many beers later I stumbled up the stairs, undressed quickly in the bathroom and climbed under the duvet in Cal’s bottom bunk as quietly as I could. I was asleep almost before I was lying down.

Dreaming. I am flying. High above the world. I can see it all, the people and patterns that make up my life. It is beautiful. It is amazing. It is awesome. It is love.

I woke up in the dark, disoriented. Someone was breathing on my face. I tried to sit up. Banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

A giggle. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

\you said a big swear. Can I come in with you?

I sighed.

‘Come on then.’

I pulled the duvet back and he jumped in, immediately filling the available space while I shuffled back against the wall. Eventually I slept.

Dreaming. Flying all night long.

Cal

Having a sister wasn’t that great, really, although everyone kept saying ‘Do you love your little sister?’ to me, and I had to say yes, because I didn’t think I would be allowed to say no. But she cried a lot, and woke me up at night sometimes, and Mum was busy feeding her and changing her nappies, although she sometimes let me help with the nappies so I could look at the poo. So I was quite glad when it was the start of school, and time to surprise Jake.

Not long after Isobel was born, everyone started calling her Iz. It was a lot easier to say, and it was like a nickname, so I liked it.

Matt

I couldn’t remember much about when Cal was born; I really wasn’t into babies back then, and I suppose you could say I wasn’t now, but having lived with Jay and Beth throughout the whole deal with cravings, hormonal rants, swelling belly, ooh feel it kicking no thanks I’d rather not, I felt a lot closer to this one.

When Cal had arrived, I didn’t rush down to see the new-born first born, and contented myself with emailed and texted pictures, which looked much like any other Churchill-a-like baby I’d ever seen. I visited with Mum several weeks later (it was her third visit) and dutifully held him and jiggled him a bit, but the amount of time I spent in a different room while Beth breastfed him hardly seemed worth the hassle. Not that Beth sent me out, you understand, but … well … you know, the whole boob thing. Yeah, I know, really not PC of me, really bad form, but that’s how it was. Didn’t want to see Beth’s boobs, really didn’t want to be thinking about them in any way either, so spent a lot of time in the kitchen honing my cooking skills and consequently getting brownie points from the new parents.

But this one was different. I felt like I knew this one a bit before it arrived. They didn’t want to know if it was a boy or a girl, they wanted it to be a surprise. I never understood why people did that, it’s not like it’s Secret Santa or something, it’s a baby, a tiny person, and surely if you can get to know it in any small way before it comes, that’s better than knowing jack-shit about it until it pops out. But hey, it wasn’t my baby, and it was up to them, so until Jay rang me I didn’t know if I had a niece or another nephew. And I’d been expecting to be a bit uninterested, like I had with Cal at first, until I’d got to know the little tyke in the last year or so, but as soon as I clapped eyes on Isobel Flora Scott, as soon as I held her, I was won. She had my heart. I mean, yeah, she looked as much like Winston as her brother had, but when I held her I actually cried, bloody huge tears and everything, she was so small and fragile, and I just wanted to protect her. Dec cried as well, we were still pretty much competing for the play-off position in the blub club league tables, but we both scarpered as soon as Beth started unbuttoning her top, and in the corridor we stayed until we managed to persuade Amy to go and get Cal so we could go home.

So Isobel, who pretty soon got shortened to Iz, would need a bedroom before too long. She was going in with Jay and Beth for a few months, and although there was talk of rejigging things and maybe using Jay’s office, I knew my days were numbered. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy with the end of my stay chez Scott being nigh, because it meant I was getting better, and by the end of September, I’d got a reference from Eyeti, a pretty bloody good one, too, and had hawked my wares around a few different IT companies in the city.

I’d upped my game in other ways too. Remember Imogen, from the hiking group? Yeah, well, she helped me prove I still had it. Now, I’m not proud of this, not now, but at the time it was pretty major for me. Imogen and I got on well, the hiking group went out a couple of times and then I saw Imogen just the two of us once or twice. OK, twice. And she definitely had that look in her eye, and things were definitely happening for me that said ‘Thunderbirds are go’. And she was a bit of a safety net, because if things didn’t go quite right, she had the bastard MS too, and she’d understand. But things did go right, very right indeed, and it was a great relief to know that everything worked, and I think we both had a good time, I mean I know I did, and she seemed to, but there was no way I was getting into anything, not with the huge hole in my chest where Carrie had ripped my heart out, so it was with regret that I finished things with Imogen before they could develop, and she was upset, and so then I couldn’t go hiking with them anymore.

But that was OK too, because I joined a normal person’s hiking group, got lucky there too, with Alice and Maya, although not together, you understand, then left that group as well, then just went for a walk when I felt like it, on my own, without feeling the need to surround myself with people. So you can see how my career as an excellent no-strings lay was resurrected in this city. It didn’t take me long to begin it, and it was fun, and it was reassuring, and it laid down a wafer thin veneer over my fractured life, a veneer that got thicker with every woman, with every ego-boosting response to my moves.

Yeah, I used a lot of people to make me feel better, I was an arrogant bastard, and I regret it, now. But at the time I was hurting, I was angry and I needed reassurance that I could still do it, and that was my justification for a long time – not in those exact words of course; if I thought about it at all, I’d say I was looking for some fun after a shit year, and that seemed like vindication enough.

That’s not to say it was all plain sailing. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t as good at fooling myself as I’d like to think; a couple of times it all came crashing down on me, and the pit opened up invitingly beneath me as the cracks in the veneer opened a little and the pain seeped through. When Iz was tiny, I felt in the way and useless, and looking back maybe I was just being an attention-seeking git, but I succumbed to the dark once or twice. It was really unfair of me, but I just went to bed and lay there with the curtains closed until somebody noticed. Which didn’t take long, because new mother or not, Beth Scott never missed anything. She didn’t have the time or energy to devote to my misguided angst-ins, but Dec did, and he extricated his tongue from Amy’s mouth long enough to come round and sit with me, annoying me until I gave in. He even held my hand, which was above and beyond, and has never been mentioned by either of us until now. It wasn’t just support and being there that he offered, he was pretty forthright about how selfish I was being with a new baby in the house, and I came to my senses, such as they were, and shoved my self-pity as far down as it would go, which was pretty far, and filled the pit up with as much blonde tits action as I could muster.

I tore up the plans. No more plans for Matt, they’d got me precisely nowhere. Whereas I’d got into the way of having a plan a, b and c, now my only plan was plan d. D for debauchery.