98. I’ve got news for you

In which word gets around.

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Matt

My phone pinged with a text, at the same time as Lau’s. They were both from Beth, the same question.

‘Any news from the scan? Waiting …’

‘She can wait. We’ll surprise her, jus go roun unannounced. Oh, unless … do you want tuh jus be somewhere quiet, take it all in, have a think?’

Lau

I smiled up at Matt. I loved that he was thinking about what I wanted, but I was as excited as he was, although maybe a little less eager to score points over the rest of the family. Oh who was I kidding, surprising Beth was major, and it didn’t happen very often, it was as good a reason as any.

‘No. I want to tell people, I think saying it, showing them the pictures, helps make it more real, stops the freaking. Come on, back in the car, Beth first, then our mums. Then Amy. I’m going to text the girls at work.’

Matt

‘I wana text Dec, I’m so gona love this, I beat him hands down. Twins, hah! Oh, but then he might text Beth, spoil it. Oh bollocks, though, if we wait until after we’ve seen Beth, she’ll text him and spoil it.’

Tying myself up in knots about who to text and what to say was way more fun than tangling myself in fight or flight running under a bus on the way to Brazil.

‘Ask him not to say anything?’

‘Huh, yeah right, tha’s asking for it, he won’t be able to resist.’

‘Say I’ve asked.’

‘Ooh, you’re an evil cow. Tha migh just work. On it.’

Dec may possibly do the opposite of what I asked, just for the hell of it, but he didn’t know Lau well enough yet for that. I sent a text.

‘Just had scan. Due Julyish. Oh, and it’s a they. Twins. Lau says pls don’t tell Beth until we do.’

‘Sent. Right, leh’s get round to Beth before Dec crumbles.’

Laura

We stood on the doorstep, arms round each other, giggling, the whole situation suddenly seeming very funny. Beth’s car on the drive told us she was in, and as an added bonus, Lis’s car was outside on the road. The door opened, revealing Iz and moments later, Beth.

‘Iz, sweetheart, what have I told you about not opening – oh! Matty, Laura, hello! Come in, how was Paris? Have you just had the scan? How are you both? Lis is here, come and tell us everything.’

Iz held her arms up to Matt, who scooped her up and planted a big kiss on her cheek. She solemnly wiped her face with the back of her hand.

‘Hey beautiful. Not so keen on the sloppy kisses?’

Iz shook her head.

‘Sorry, blondie. Come on, leh’s go an sit down. We’ve got some news for your mum.’

Beth turned and looked at us, talking as we walked into the living room and sat down.

‘Due date?’

Matt

I jumped in as I saw Lau open her mouth to reply; I knew how long I wanted to string Beth along, and Lau was shit at playing games of any sort. She was likely to blurt it within seconds.

‘End of Julyish.’

‘Oh, that’s not very exact.’

‘No, well, there were some complicating factors, eh Lau.’

Lau nodded, keeping schtum, just for me.

‘Well are you going to tell me, or shall we play twenty questions?’

Yeah, at least twenty, if at all possible.

‘Ha ha, Beth, I love ih when I irritate yuh. Guess if you wan.’

‘Can I have a go?’

Lis was always up for joining in the fun, although she wasn’t as entertaining, as she didn’t get annoyed with me.

‘Yeh, Lis, write your guess on a piece of paper an if you’re correct yuh get a prize. Basty provides it, a full stinky nappy, jus for you.’

‘Gee thanks, really makes it worth my while. I can get one of those free any time I like without any effort at all.’

Beth was losing patience.

‘Laura, you’re being very quiet, is everything alright, sweetheart?’

Beth had gone in for the kill. She knew as well as I did that Lau couldn’t avoid a direct question.

Laura

I nodded. ‘Matt wanted to have his fun. I’ll give you a clue.’

Matt

No Lau, don’t do it.

Laura

‘There –’

‘Oh! Twins?’

Matt

Unbelievable.

‘Holy shit, Beth, how the fuck do you do it?’

‘Matty! Honestly. You really are going to have to tone down your language. If you won’t do it for us, at least do it for your own.’

‘Sorry, Beth, buh Lau didn’t even say anything. I know she’s usually bloody useless at giving cryptic clues –’

‘Thanks.’

‘– but she didn’t have a chance to give anything away.’

‘She said ‘they’re’. As in they are, as in more than one.’

‘I said ‘there’ as in, er, ‘there might be …’, as in yes, you’re right, it’s twins.’

Lau caved, as I knew she would, and Beth looked triumphantly at me while Lis squealed, making Bastien jump and starting him off wailing. Iz ran in to see what the noise was about.

‘Basty crying.’

‘I know, sweetheart, he’s alright, he’ll go back to sleep in a minute.’

‘Or maybe not. Iz, it’s time for Basty’s lunch, come and help me feed him, yeah?’

Iz nodded, and followed Lis to the kitchen.

Beth looked at Lau, melting.

‘Two at once, sweetheart. Wow.’

‘I know. Talk about life-changing.’

‘You two don’t know the meaning of the words ‘taking it slowly’ do you?’

‘Ha ha, noh, we’re full-on hundred miles an hour people. Matt and Lau, don’t even know where the brake pedal is. Next item on the madness agenda, finding a fucking house big enough for a family of four.’

Beth frowned at the ‘fucking’, but as there were no small children within earshot, let it pass.

‘God, Matty, a family of four. You’ve caught up with me and James in one leap.’

And that was it in a nutshell. Not that it was a competition, because as I’m sure you will be aware, I am not competitive in the slightest. But, oh, to have achieved everything I wanted, had yearned for, in a way, over the last year, in the space of less than a fortnight, and that I could now consider myself equal to Jay in the family department, well, it meant a lot. And it was typical of Beth to know just how important it was, without me ever having said anything to her.

‘Have you told James yet?’

‘No, he’s at work, isn’t he? I texted Dec, but I guess he’s still training too.’

‘James will be back in a while, it was just a morning session today. How about Amy?’

‘Thought we’d pop roun an see them in a bit, after the mums, buh I think Lau texted her in the car?’

Lau nodded. ‘She hasn’t replied yet, though. I expect she’s got enough on her mind at the moment.’

‘Yes, you could be right. You heard about the panic over the weekend?’

‘Yeah, Dec said Braxton-Hicks or something.’

Beth smiled, and looked at me soppily.

‘Oh Matty, look at you, knowing all the technical terms like an old pro. I’m so pleased for you, sweetheart.’

She sat back and looked at us both.

‘You know, I’m so lucky. After Iz, that was it, no more for me,’

I was aware of some kind of gynaecological shit going down after Iz was born, but not the details. I guess Beth was happy with her family but might have liked more.

‘But the babies just keep coming, first Charlie, then Basty, now three more. Sometimes this family is a lot to cope with, eh Matty, but there’s never a dull moment, and the children keep us young. Or very, very old, one or the other.’

‘Yeah. You’re gona be Aunty Beth now.’

She already was, in a way, to Charlie, although what kind of random pseudo relation you’d actually call her – granny? If I was feeling particularly mean, then yeah. But this was bona fide Aunty territory, and she swelled up a bit with pride.

‘Oh Matty, I am, aren’t I. Well, I know I already am with my sister’s children, but I’ll be a very proud aunty of these two. A special privilege.’

Iz chose that moment to run back into the room breathlessly announcing,

‘Basty did a big sick. It in Lis’s hair, Mummy.’

‘Oh God. Coming, Lis.’

Beth got up and hurried to the kitchen, while Iz stood next to me, twirling a golden curl round a finger, looking at me from underneath her eyelashes. I put an arm round her and pulled her close.

‘Hey blondie. Know what? Me and Lau jus went all the way tuh France an we brought you something. It’s in Lau’s bag.’

Laura

I belatedly remembered the doll I had tucked in a pocket of my handbag. Iz looked at me shyly. She wasn’t usually shy, and had no qualms about asking for something she wanted; today she was playing the coy-but-cute card.

‘Yeah Iz, it’s in here somewhere. Come and help me find it.’

I pulled my bag onto my lap and Iz skipped over to begin digging into the different pockets. It was a game we played a lot, with my huge bag with it’s many flaps and zips. I knew exactly where the present was, and kept Iz away from it until the last minute. When her hand found the packet, she looked up at me, and I nodded.

‘You found it, flower, well done. Have a look inside.’

Iz unwrapped the bag and took out the doll, which was a small cloth man wearing a beret and striped Breton shirt, with a string of onions round his neck. He was a model cliché. Iz seemed less than impressed; she might have preferred pink and fairy wings, or maybe the bride and groom figures from the wedding cake that I’d promised her but forgotten to bring with me.

Matt

‘Do yuh like him, Iz? He’s Pierre.’

Iz nodded, not particularly convincingly, picked the doll up and sped out of the room while we laughed.

‘Well that could have gone down better.’

‘Ungrateful brat. See if weh bring her anything back next time we’re on holiday.’

We heard a key in the door, and a moment later, Jay walked in.

‘Hey Matty, thought I saw your car outside. Hey Laura –’

He bent down to kiss her cheek.

‘– how was Paris?’

‘Wonderful. Thanks Jay, it really was fantastic. We’ll bore you with the pictures later.’

‘Look forward to it. Hotel OK?’

Jay was fishing for thanks, and although I wasn’t disinclined to thank him, he wasn’t going to be allowed to bask.

‘Hotel was bloody awesome. View of the Eiffel Tower from the balcony, hundreds of Euros of room service racked up tuh your credit card, we hardly left the room.’

Jay went a bit pale.

‘Seriously? You didn’t go out at all?’

I knew the stingy git in him would baulk a bit at that.

‘Noh need, we had everything on tap, all our meals sent up, breakfast, drinks from the mini-bar, views when weh wanted. We were on our honeymoon, kind of expected ihnt it? Oh, did jus go out long enough tuh get you this – Lau?’

Lau rummaged in her bag and found a small, tacky, plastic Eiffel Tower. She handed it over with a grin. Well, he did ask for it, literally.

‘Wow, thanks mate, glad you brought back such a great present, sorry to make you go to all the trouble of actually going out into, oh I don’t know, France, for some actual bloody holidaying in romantic bloody Paris. Jesus, if I’d known you were going to stay in the whole time, I’d have got you a DVD of the bloody Eiffel Tower and booked you into the Travelodge down the road.’

Iz ran in with her newly bestowed doll in her hand.

‘Look Daddy.’

Jay crouched down to his daughter; it always surprised me, how focussed Jay could be on his children, how unselfconscious he was talking with Iz about My Little Pony and princesses.

‘Oh, wow, Iz, who’s this?’

‘Unca Matty an Lau bringed him. He’s spare.’

‘Spare?’

Jay looked confused, not that this was an uncommon occurrence.

‘Unca Matty say spare.’

Iz looked at me to back her up.

‘Oh, no Iz, he’s Pierre. It’s a French name.’

‘Peeyair.’

‘That’s right, blondie.’

Iz seemed a bit more enthusiastic about the doll now she had someone to show it off to, and possibly now she didn’t think he was some kind of leftover plaything.

‘Really? So, they must have gone out to get this as well – on the same trip to the same gift shop, I bet.’

Jay was being so outraged at us apparently having taken advantage of his generous gift that I was thoroughly enjoying myself, while Beth and Lis came back in, Lis with wet hair and a change of shirt.

‘Oh, hi Jay. Sorry, Basty just threw up all over me. Don’t you just love baby vomit, especially in your hair. Better get home. You two, I expect to hear all about Paris very soon – well, maybe not all, just the non X-rated highlights, yeah?’

‘Huh, don’t hold your breath, Lis, they stayed in their room and looked at the Eiffel Tower out of the window.’

‘No! Really, guys? Oh, that’s so romantic.’

Jay rolled his eyes, but Beth narrowed her gaze and looked sharply at me. I’d talked to her last night, and she knew it wasn’t true.

‘He’s winding you up, James. I’d have thought you’d be able to tell by now.’

‘Ha ha, gotcha. I love ih when you fall for it. Especially when ih’s because you’re being a tight-arse.’

‘Jesus, Matty, you bastard. Just wait –’

‘James, honestly.’

And I loved it when I got him in the shit with Beth, too.

‘Sorry, Beth. Blame Matty.’

‘Hey, I’m being good.’

Well, for the time-being, anyway.

Lis laughed at the usual Scott brothers shenanigans.

‘OK, people, I’m off before the family feuding starts in earnest. Bye Beth, thanks for cleaning me up. Bye Jay. Bye you two, congratulations on your news.’

As Lis left, I saw Jay looking confused. It didn’t take much in the usual run of things, but now he was trying to work out what the news was, as we had already done the baby and wedding bit. He turned to me as Beth left the room to see Lis to the front door.

‘News?’

‘Yeh.’

Great, more stringing it out.

‘About?’

‘Oh, baby stuff.’

Jay was so easy, it was hardly sport.

‘Oh, you had your scan, Laura.’

He turned to her, knowing he was more likely to get a sensible answer.

‘How did it go? Got a date?’

‘Yeah, end of July, give or take.’

‘So what was Lis talking about, congratulations? It’s not like you’re having another baby, is it.’

Oh he was handing it to me on a plate. I could hardly contain myself.

‘Well … kind of.’

‘What?’

I couldn’t hold it in any longer.

‘How does twins sound?’

‘What? Really? Fu … er … flipping heck.’

I nodded.

‘Jesus, Matty. You really know how to stack it up, don’t you, you pair. I can’t keep up. How are you, Laura?’

‘I’m fine, we’re still getting our heads round it.’

Beth came back in, smiling.

‘It’s lovely news, isn’t it. Have you got any pictures from the scan?’

‘Yeh, an a DVD too. Wana see?’

‘Oh yes, sweetheart. Iz, do you want to see Matty and Laura’s new babies on the TV?’

Iz looked at us assessingly.

‘Unca Matty hasn’t got a baby.’

‘No, not yet, sweetheart, the babies are in Laura’s tummy, like Dec and Amy’s baby. We won’t meet them until the summer, but a special camera has looked in Laura’s tummy. Oh, thanks, Laura. James, pop this in, would you?’

We watched the DVD, the first time we’d seen it, and had absolutely no objections when Beth wanted to play it over and over again. I was so proud of my boys (yeah, still on that track; no son of mine was going to be a girl) I just wanted to drink in every wriggle and squiggle.

Dec

‘Rose, it’s Declan. How soon can you get here? The baby’s on its way.’

:Oh, love, I’ll be there as soon as I can, about ten minutes? I’ve got my bag all packed. Everything tidy?

‘Yeah, all seems according to plan. Hurry, though. And no crying before you get here.’

:Alright love, I’ll control myself. See you soon.

Laura

I was just showing Beth the still photos, when Jay’s phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the screen.

‘Dec. Hey mate … oh bloody hell, what really this time? … oh, OK … well you can if you want, but they’re here, I can pass the message on … yeah, did you know? … oh, fair enough. I guess Rose is with Charlie? … Good luck, then, mate, yeah, see you soon. Let us know.’

He looked up.

‘Baby’s on its way. For definite this time. He was going to text you, Matty, but didn’t seem much point as you’re here. Rose is on her way over there, you can stand down red alert. He’ll let us know, hopefully not in the middle of the night, but he’s pretty fond of announcements in the early hours. Didn’t he text you when they found out?’

Matt shrugged. ‘Yeah, but I guess we’ve both done our fair share of waking each other up over the years. Important stuff, doesn’t really matter what time ih is.’

‘Huh, yeah, I’ll remind you of that next time I call you on a Saturday morning about match tickets.’

Matt grinned, nothing, not even Jay’s grumps, likely to get him down for now.

‘OK, Lau, weh should go an see the mums before word spreads. Don’t tell them, Beth, I know you love a good goss, but give us a chance tuh get there an back home before you call, righ?’

‘Alright, Matty, if you insist. Oh, come here, both of you, before you go, such lovely news.’

Matt

Jay and Iz got bored of the Squiggly Line repeat show after a while, and wandered off in search of their separate entertainments, but not before Jay got a call from Dec to say Amy was in labour, and I was not required as an emergency Charlie-sitter. Not that I’d ever thought I would be, with Rose waiting in the wings; it was just a little disappointing that they were overshadowing our baby news by actually having an actual baby on the same actual day, but I suppose they’d had the forethought to get in first, and I couldn’t begrudge them.

Finally Beth had seen the DVD enough times, and we thought we’d better go and spill the beans to Mum and April before Beth’s jungle telegraph did it for us.

Beth still wanted more, and while we were trying to make our escape, instructed us to ‘Come round tomorrow, dinner? Bring all your photos.’

‘We’ll text yuh. Bye.’

I pulled Lau down the drive, before doorstep chatting could commence, and we both sat in the car.

‘Shit, thought weh were never gona get away. Love Beth, but she’s bloody unstoppable sometimes. Right, your mum or mine? Ha ha, we must beh old, that should be your place or mine.’

‘Yeah, we’re an old married couple now, no more chat up lines or flirting.’

‘Fuck no, we’re far too sensible fuh that. What’s a nice girl like you doin in a dive like this?’

‘Ooh, looking for a man like you.’

‘Bloody hell, even our lines are ancient. There’s no hope, Lau.’

‘Apparently not. It was inevitable. Now you’re a dad, your hair’s going to fall out and you’ll have a beer gut by the end of the month. And I’ll start wearing sensible shoes and trying to hide my bingo wings with long sleeves.’

‘Ha ha. You’ll still be the sexiest mum at the school gate. Righ, let’s go an see some real mums, remind us how young we actually are. Mine first?’

‘OK.’

Laura

We drove the short distance to Carol’s house, texting her first to let her know we were on our way. She was at the door as we pulled up.

Carol rarely showed a lot of emotion; she often sat and quietly watched everything going on, adding the odd comment, seemingly enjoying being part of it all without needing to join in the competition for attention.

Matt and Carol had a very close relationship, although you’d never know it if you saw them together in a large group. When it was just the three of us, and I expect when it was just the two of them, Matt chatted away with her about her friends and neighbours, he did odd jobs for her, cooked meals for her and took good care of her. When there were more people about, he retreated behind his banter, albeit still watching out for her from the other side of his messing about.

Carol was more chatty when there were less people, and I sometimes smiled to myself to see them talking together like a couple of old folk about the terrible prices in the Co-op or the graffiti in the bus shelter.

And now we were walking up to her front door. Matt reached her and folded her up in a hug.

Matt

‘Heh Mum.’

‘Hello, dear. Hello Laura, dear.’

She hugged us both.

‘How are you? Did you have a nice time in Paris?’

‘Yeh, awesome. Got some pictures on the iPad if you wana see.’

‘Oh lovely, come through, I’ve got the kettle on.’

Well of course she had. She’d even had a few minutes’ notice, so there was nothing unusual about that.

We followed Mum into the kitchen, where the warning text had also given her time to put out cups and biscuits. I pinched a chocolate digestive off the plate, earning a bat on the arm.

‘You should offer one to Laura before feeding your face.’

Mum loved Lau. She always took her side over mine. Story of my life.

‘Lau’s more than capable of looking out fuh herself.’

‘Yes, dear, I know, but she’s too polite to grab a biscuit before it’s offered.’

‘Ha ha, polite? Yuh never tried to stop her getting her hands on a double choc chip. She’ll have your eye out.’

‘When you’ve both finished discussing me like I’m invisible, I think I’d like to sit down with a cup of tea and a biscuit, thank you very much.’

‘See Mum? Bossy cow.’

‘Matthew, that’s no way to talk about your new bride.’

I treated that with the contempt it deserved. Wasn’t I the new groom? Didn’t I get some special consideration too? I picked up the tray and carried it into the small living room, where Mum was obviously eagerly anticipating some sort of holiday slide show.

‘So, where’s this iPad then, Matthew?’

‘Oh, in the car. Er, weh, er, got some other news first. Lau had her scan this morning.’

‘Oh! I completely forgot.’

Mum looked worried. I suppose it was easy to forget that a) I knew what the news was, so wasn’t worried, b) she was my mum, and so genetically predisposed to worry, and c) given recent times, it could have been anything we were about to land on her – joining a commune at the end of the month and moving to a remote island in the Pacific Ocean? Not as unlikely as it would have seemed, say, a year ago.

‘Is everything alright?’

I put my hand over hers.

‘Yeh, it’s all good.’

Mum’s face cleared. She knew I never bullshitted her like I bullshitted everyone else.

‘Have you got a date?’

‘Yeah, late July.’

Oh, just because I didn’t bullshit her doesn’t mean I didn’t play the odd mind game. I like to think she enjoyed it as much as me.

‘That’s not a date, dear, that’s a month. I thought they were usually quite precise these days.’

‘Yeah, well, it’s a bit hit an miss on account of Lau not knowing her dates, an also on account of it being twins.’

I sat back, job done, and watched Mum assimilate it. Her eyes widened.

‘Twins! Oh, Matthew. Laura, that’s wonderful, dear. Oh, but two babies, you’re going to have to get moving, aren’t you. You’ll never all fit in that flat of yours.’

Mum always managed to be positive but realistic about everything.

‘Noh, we thought we’d move in here.’

The look on her face was priceless, as, for once, she thought I was serious, for just a moment. She looked delighted at the thought of us living with her, which was humbling, then worried about where we’d all fit, and then really bloody worried about how she was going to say no. Hilarious.

‘He’s joking, Carol. We’ve got plenty of time to find somewhere. Don’t worry, you’ll be granny for visits and sleepovers only.’

‘Sorry, Mum, couldn’t resist.’

She tried to disguise the relief, but didn’t quite manage it.

‘Well, alright then, dear. You know I’d find room for you if you needed it.’

Yeah, it would have to be in the cupboard under the stairs, but I appreciated the sentiment.

‘I know, Mum. We’d never do that tuh you, we’d invade Jay and Beth, serve them righ for interfering all these years.’

‘Matthew, you know your brother only wants the best for you.’

‘I know. And you know I only want tuh annoy him in return.’

It was a conversation we had a lot. Mum thought I should try to curtail my gleeful Jay-winding-up sessions on account of ‘all he did for you’, but I maintained that Jay and I were happy as we were. She tutted and rolled her eyes, then sat back and looked at us.

‘Twins. Well, well. So you’ve caught up with Jameson in one go. No one can say you’re not fast workers, can they?’

‘Noh, they can’t. Caught up wih Dec and Amy too – oh, did yuh know Amy’s gone into labour? Dec called Jay while we were there.’

‘Yes, I did, Rose called me a while ago, she’s there with Charlie. She’s very excited.’

‘I bet. Charlie all tuh herself, an another one in the pipeline. All her grannying dreams come true.’

‘So am I going to see these pictures of Paris? I’ve got some of the wedding on my camera. Have you seen any yet?’

‘Yeh, some people have texted some an emailed, but we’d love tuh see yours too. I’ll jus go an fetch the iPad.’

Laura

As Matt jogged out to the car, Carol turned to me.

‘You’re quiet, Laura. Twins can be daunting.’

‘Yeah, I feel proper daunted. We’ve both had a bit of a morning, trying to get our heads round it. Not much we can do about it though, and it is great.’

This seemed like the best way to deal with it: just keep saying it, to myself and other people, and eventually it would stop being so new and freaky, and I would stop thinking ‘oh my God I’m having a baby’, quickly replaced by ‘oh my God not just one baby but two’, and would start feeling like a person who was just, you know, going to have a couple of babies in a few months, whatever, no big deal. It was going to take a while to get there, though.

‘Matthew seems happy about it, on the surface.’

‘Yeah, he’s trying.’

Carol knew Matt well, he hid less from her than anyone else. She knew what I meant – that Matt was happy, but also trying not to let anyone see how the suddenness of it was all affecting him.

‘Sometimes getting what you want is the scariest thing that can happen to you, dear. He’ll be alright.’

I smiled at her, and nodded, as Matt came back in with the iPad and we showed Carol our honeymoon. Well, all the bits that you were ever going to show your mum and mother-in-law.

Matt

Then we showed her the scan, and she cried. Then Lau cried. I maintain that I didn’t, but I can feel you raising your eyebrow at that one, Lau, so I will remain silent on the matter.

Then Mum picked up a brown paper parcel and handed it to me. I looked at her quizzically.

‘Wha’s this?’

‘It’s what you asked for, dear.’

Intrigued, I pulled the paper off, and staring up at me, out of an antique silver frame, was my wife, smiling widely, blue-green eyes sparkling. Mum had painted her picture while we were away.

‘Holy shit Mum, that’s awesome.’

I showed it to Lau, whose eyes went wide as her jaw dropped slightly.

‘Carol, did you do this?’

Mum nodded.

‘When? God, it’s like me, but … better. You’ve made me look … beautiful.’

‘Noh, Lau. She’s made yuh look like yuh always look. Which is beauhiful.’

‘I’m glad you both like it. I was a little worried. I don’t do much painting these days, I’m a little out of practice.’

‘Seriously? You need to keep it up, flower.’

‘Well thank you, dear.’

‘I said there was no rush, Mum.’

‘I know, dear, but I was looking at all the photographs from your wedding, and I was just inspired by them. You looked so lovely, Laura dear, I hope I’ve captured some of it.’

‘I can’t believe it, Carol. Thank you so much.’

‘Thahks, Mum.’

Then it was April’s turn, and I was a bit apprehensive about this one, because I’d said a lot of ‘fuck’, and shown a lot of my dick to a lot of people, in her presence, since I was last in her house, and I wondered whether maybe she’d rethought my position at number one in the Top Ten Most Suitable Men For Lau chart. She was waiting at the door as we walked up the path, and she was smiling. That was promising.

Laura

Again, we texted Mum to let her know we were coming, and to give her a chance to tidy up her already spotless house. She was looking out of the window as we pulled up. As we walked up the path, she opened the door, and opened her arms wide to hug us both on the doorstep.

‘Welcome back, both of you. Come in and tell me all about France.’

‘Well, April, weh can’t tell you all about France, having only seen a tiny bit of one city, but I’ve brought my iPad, and weh can bore you wih five hundred an twenty three different shots of the Eiffel Tower if you like.’

Matt

No point acting like I was going to be in the dog house. Might as well play it as normal, which meant sarky comments and the odd pleasantry.

‘Oh good. Maybe we don’t have to see all five hundred and twenty three.’

I put on a disappointed face.

‘Oh, buh I don’t know which ones I could possibly leave out, they’re all masterpieces.’

‘You daft boy.’

She almost sounded … fond. If I’d realised what a few bad words and indiscreet showings of my genitalia would achieve, I would have said ‘here you go, April, feast your eyes on my fucking todger’ the first time I saw her.

Laura

I loved it. My mum and my husband were teasing each other.

‘You daft boy. Come and sit down. Cup of tea? LauraLou?’

‘Yeah, thanks Mum.’

‘Not fuh me, thanks, April. Watching my weight. Lau should beh too, she’s put on a shocking amount the las couple of months.’

This was Matt’s way of reminding Mum that she should be asking about this morning’s appointment.

‘Oh, Laura, your scan! What did they say? Could they tell if it’s a boy or a girl?’

Mum couldn’t bring herself to say ‘sex’ even in the context of gender.

‘No, they couldn’t tell, it’s a bit early, and they were lying on top of each other, so all the important bits were hidden.’

Matt

I silently applauded Lau’s stringing along ability. Much as I’d been unable to stop her blurting to Beth, it seemed she had learned in the last couple of hours, and we both sat back and watched as the information filtered in and was processed through. April was silent for a few moments, frowning slightly, then her eyes widened, and she looked at Lau, then me. We were both smiling widely, and Lau nodded.

Laura

‘Oh Laura. Twins?’

I nodded again.

‘Oh, my love, that’s wonderful. Identical or – what’s the other one – fraternal?’

‘We don’t know yet. I’ve got another scan in a few weeks, they should be able to tell the sex and the identicalness or not then.’

‘How have you been?’

‘Oh, much the same. A bit tired, feeling a bit sick first thing in the morning, nothing too bad. Maybe some mood swings, Matt’d be the one to ask about that, I guess.’

Matt

Doing as she was told, April looked over at me, eyebrows raised. Well there was no way I was going to be telling tales on Lau, not that there were many to tell.

‘I think I’m the one wih the mood swings, Lau.’

‘Well, we’ve both been a bit up and down, especially today, it’s a lot to take in, but it’s exciting. We’ll need to move out of the flat before too long. I probably won’t be able to get up the stairs by the time they come, and – oh – things just keep occurring to me. Manhandling a double buggy up all those steps …’

Lau looked at me in dismay. I held on tightly to her hand. There would be lots of things we were going to suddenly think of, and we would just have to deal with them as they arose. Ha, look at me all sensible. When it was my turn to wake up in the middle of the night going ‘shit, isn’t there a law about car seats’, we’d see who was calm and collected.

‘We’ll sort ih, Lau. We’ve got six months. Tha’s bloody ages. Sorry, April, slipped out.’

I wasn’t sorry, I was testing out how much I could get away with, now she’d been subjected to the full Matt Scott experience.

‘Matt, I became well aware at your wedding how much you like a good swear, and how much you have been toning it down for my sake. Thank you, my love, I appreciate it, but please don’t apologise if the odd one slips out now and then.’

I think I sat with my mouth open for a second or two. Not only had I not been sent to hell for saying ‘bloody’, but she’d called me ‘my love’, which she only ever called Lau. Whoa, full on weird moment. Lau noticed, and pressed back as I squeezed her hand.

‘Hey April, have yuh got any photos of the wedding? Mum jus showed us hers on her camera, an we’ve had some in texts an emails, I thought I could collect them all, do something with them.’

An idea was forming, from the amount of photos people had sent us. We hadn’t had an official photographer, but pictures from cameras and phones had been dribbling to me via text and email since we got back, and I wanted to do something permanent with them, as well as the photos we’d already got. Kind of ‘Matt and Lau: The Early Days’. It sometimes came as a surprise to remember that it was early days for us, it felt like we’d been together forever.

‘Oh, yes, I took a few. I’ll go and get the camera.’

While April was rummaging upstairs, Lau turned to me.

‘You got a ‘my love’!’

‘I know! I nearly fell off my bloody seat. An I can say ‘bloody’ an not apologise. Wonder if I’ll get away wih a ‘fuck’?’

‘I wouldn’t push it. Strict Baptist forgiveness only goes so far. You’ve done something right, though.’

‘Making someone a granny obviously gohs a long way towards redemption.’

‘Ha ha. Let’s hope your eternal soul is safe, then.’

‘Bound tuh be. Twins equals double granny, tha’s enough for both of us.’

We watched the DVD with April, had more tea and cake, but even though I hinted like mad, April didn’t show me a painting she’d done of me while we were away, so that meant we could finally go home and chill before work tomorrow.

Laura

We spent a while with Mum, looking at various pictures of the wedding, Paris, watching the DVD of the scan, looking at the stills, basking in Mum’s approval. Considering the last time we were here she practically threw us out, I was relieved and surprised at the turnaround. Mum was very firm in her beliefs, and it meant a lot that she now seemed so accepting of Matt and me. Us being married had a lot to do with it, but we hadn’t done it for her, so whatever the reason, it was all good.

Matt

Cooking was so not on the cards for either of us, knackered and lazy as we were feeling, and I also wanted to ignore the food Beth had filled the cupboards with in a contrary fit of independence. So we ordered pizza. While we were waiting, I wandered to the fridge and got a beer out without thinking. Then I remembered my promise to Lau, thought about it, and put it back. She noticed.

‘Open it, flower.’

‘Noh, I don’t need ih.’

‘We don’t need pizza, but we’re having it. You’re not planning on getting wasted, are you?’

‘Noh.’

‘Have it, then, don’t make me feel bad.’

I sat next to her, taking her hand in mine. I wanted her to know how serious I was about this. It wasn’t going to make any difference to anything, but it was a promise and it was something I wanted to do for Lau. She was giving up a lot to have our baby, not just alcohol, but part of her body, comfort, rational hormones, all that shit, and I just wanted to do this to show her I was with her.

‘Lau, I don’t wana make yuh feel bad, you shouldn’t, this is something I decided, not something yuh made me do. Look, when yuh did tha for me, the ‘only do wha we can both do’ thing, it was fucking amazing, ih meant so much. An yuh stuck to it. I don’t need a beer righ now, maybe sometimes I will, hard day at the office or some such bollocks, an I’m not gona beat myself up about it, but I’m happy wih orange juice tonight. So we can do it, or not do it, together. Something else weh can do together.’

‘OK, then, flower, it sounds like an amazingly good deal. Who knows when I might need you to be sober in the next few months? ‘

It didn’t feel that amazing, to be honest, but if Lau said it, it must be right. And it earned me a big pash that continued until the pizza arrived, so everyone was a winner.

Dec called me in the middle of the night, to tell me that the new baby had arrived. I don’t know why I woke up when my phone buzzed; somehow I seemed to know when it was Dec. I nearly always stirred when the notes of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ floated out of my phone, and although it was on silent, I woke to the buzzing, unsurprised to pick up and see ‘Dec Calling’ and a photo of him wearing a pair of Australia underpants on his head. It was something he often did at parties; I suppose everyone needs a talent.

‘Heh.’

‘Hey mate. Sorry to wake you up.’

He so was not sorry, I could hear the enormous grin in his voice.

‘S’fine.’

I knew he’d be calling to tell me about the baby, but I was so full of sleep that the next couple of rounds of my side of the conversation were going to be monosyllabic.

‘We’ve got a son.’

‘Cool.’

I couldn’t help a yawn escaping.

‘Yeah, and to save you summoning the energy to fucking ask, he’s bloody enormous, over nine pounds, he’s called Tom. Thomas Jack, actually. He’s screaming his bloody head off, so I’m outside. Ames needed stitches, so she’s not too happy, but he’s awesome, mate, just awesome.’

Dec’s happiness was infectious, and I roused myself a little.

‘Well done, mate.’

‘Can you come in later? Bring Lau? You’ve got to see him, he’s bloody huge.’

But surely not the biggest baby ever born. Nine pounds wasn’t that unheard of, although I did have a twinge of sympathy for the slight-framed Amy.

‘Yeh, course. Can’t wait. Text yuh later, yeh?’

‘Yeah, no worries. Better get back to Ames. See you later, mate.’

‘Dec?’

The sleep was fast disappearing, and I was aware I’d sounded less than enthusiastic. Although I was sure Dec knew me well enough to understand that waking me up at four thirty wasn’t going to find me at my best, I wanted to tell him how pleased I was for him.

‘Yeah?’

‘Congratulations, mate. Whoa, you’ve got a son. Father of two. Holy shit. That’s nearly grown up!’

‘Ha ha, need a couple more before I’m ready to admit to that. Cheers Matt.’

As we disconnected, I thought back to when Dec had called me to tell me about Charlie. It was only a year later, and my life was so different. There was no Jules colluding with my well-woven pretence that I didn’t want a family. I’d been through another bout with the bastard MS. Above all, I had Lau and the babies on the way. Thinking about it all, though, and how I’d felt on that day, when it all crashed around me and Jules smashed the flat up, made me think about her, and what I did to her.

I didn’t think about Jules much these days, not really. It was something I couldn’t change, wouldn’t change even if I could, and so it was best to leave it in the depths. But now, it all flooded out, and I felt truly sad at the way things had ended, what a cock-up I’d made of the whole thing, how much I must have hurt her. Especially that, hurting her. I had no idea if she had been totally fucked up by it all, or whether, in her Jules way, she’d managed to put it behind her and get on with her life.

I felt emotions I’d shoved deep down starting to surface, and tears blurred my vision. I got out of bed and found my way onto the sofa, where I gave in to a bout of self-pity that I hadn’t felt for a long time.

I didn’t want to wake Lau up; hopefully she’d be asleep for a few more hours yet. I sniffed quietly to myself, knowing that eventually I’d stop, not knowing if I was going to be able to talk to Lau about it. I hated keeping shit from her, but I was unsure how she’d feel about me being sad about Jules. Lau was awesome, but this was a fairly recent ex we were talking about, and much as Lau encouraged talking and being up-front, I’d detected a hint of uncertainty whenever Jules’ name was mentioned. So I just curled up on the sofa and sniffed to myself.

The Philpotts Letters – 1

Freak out, le freak c’est chic (Chic)

Iz

So included in the general ‘here are all the stories, try and make them all smush together, Iz’ package, there were several letters Matty wrote to his progeny. I thought about just adding them at the end, but I think it works better if I add them in at the time in the story when they were written. Matty introduced them like this:

Hey fruit of my loins (is that too embarrassing to think about? Are you going all ‘bleurgh, Daaaad, that’s like sooo groooosss’? Hope so!). These are just for you, I promised myself I’d give them to you one day, but it always seemed a bit, oh I don’t know, self-indulgent, and what if you hated them? But now I’m not going to know if you hated them or not, having left them to you posthumously and all, so I’m going to make you read them anyway. You’ve got to, last wishes are legally binding.

It all started when you were first on your way, just a handful of cells, and it set me off on my journey of freaking out about being a dad. It has been a looong and freeeeaky journey. Enjoy.

Oh, Philpotts is what we called you before you were born. Cool womb name, huh? Yeah, thought so. Tell your mother, she thought I was mad.

One more thing, then I’ll let you get on. I have given each letter a title based on song lyrics. You might not recognise them, as you are both cruelly disparaging of my sublime taste in music, but I assure you they are all bona fide lyrics, although not necessarily the title of the song. I implore you to find these fine songs on my iTunes and listen to them

And here’s the first one:

***

Freak out, le freak c’est chic (Chic)

Dear Philpotts – shit, that sounds very formal from a dad to a son. And I probably shouldn’t be saying ‘shit’ to you, being so young, but if I’m going to be your dad, you’d probably better get used to it. And to your mum telling me off about it.

Anyway, Philpotts, you’re not even here in the world yet, and you’ve changed my life forever. I’m a bit scared of you – well, I suppose not of you, you’re only a few centimetres tall so I could beat you in a fight no problem, but of what you represent; I’m scared because nothing’s ever going to be the same now, and I suspect, if you’re any good at your job, you’re going to go on changing my life. I thought I was good at surprises and being spontaneous, but I’ve found out I’m only good at spontaneity when I’m in control of it. You’ve come along so fast, I feel pretty damn out of control (I hope you and your mum noticed I said ‘damn’ and not ‘fucking’, which is what I wanted to say, but thought I’d better not).

Philpotts, you’ve been responsible for some radical changes the last couple of weeks. You won’t have ever known me as anyone other than your dad, who is married to your mum. But until recently I’ve been a very different person, someone who was never going to settle down and have a family, who would have, and often did, run for it pretty damn (see? Still not saying ‘fucking’) sharpish from anyone who even thought very quietly to themselves about ‘tying me down’. That’s not to say I wasn’t tied up a few times, but that’s neither here nor there, and maybe something I shouldn’t be discussing with you before you’re old enough. I’d like to think I’m going to be such a cool dad that we’ll be able to talk about it one day, though. I wouldn’t want all my experience to go to waste. But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah, not settling down and all that shit.

But then I met your mum, and I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life with her. You know when you just know? Oh, right, you probably don’t yet, not being born and all, although you probably feel the same way about her – she is pretty great, and she is your mum after all. Anyway, as soon as I met her, I knew that sooner or later she was going to be tying me down, although we haven’t actually tried that yet and it’s on my ‘to do’ list, but let’s not go there right now. And so when, almost two weeks ago, she told me you were on your way, I didn’t freak, well not after the first few seconds, because I knew it would happen one day, it was what we both wanted so much. And why not that day, rather than any other day in the future?

I was so happy, I still am, and it seemed exactly the right thing for me and your mum to get married, so that we were your proper mum and dad before you arrived. I didn’t freak then, but I have been freaking a bit since, because I’ve had time to think about how different everything is going to be.

Things that will have to change: a) we’re going to have to move house, because this flat is too small for you and all your stuff; b) I’m not going to get much sleep, and I really need my sleep; c) things are going to be a lot more messy than I like; d) but most of all, you’ll be here.

I’ve just got used to your mum being here, and I love it, I love her. And I was worried you might mess all that up, and things would be different between me and her because of you, but I’ve been up half the night thinking about it, and I think, yeah, of course things will be different, how could they be the same, there will be three of us instead of two, but she’s still your mum, and I still fucking love her so fucking much (sorry, ‘damn’ just didn’t seem the right word), and I already love you, and I really can’t wait to see you. OK, I am strongly opposed to misuse of the word ‘literally’, but I literally can’t wait to see you. I want to fast forward to when you’re here, so I know what you look like, how you sound, how you feel in my arms. I’m so looking forward to holding you, looking at you, talking to you, playing with you, watching you sleep, even changing your nappy.

Ah, and then I freak a little bit again, because I’ve just gone too far, too big, and it all feels a bit much to think about. Get used to it, Philpotts, your dad’s a fuck-up. He freaks at the bloody stupidest of things. But always remember, he loves you, and he loves your mum, and he’s never, ever going to leave you, no matter how much he freaks.

So, just to recap, you’re on your way, hurrah, freak, love you. Oh, that looks like I’m calling you a freak. No. That would be me.

Your freaking dad

Matthew Robert Scott BSc Hons

67. Going out of my head

In which the truth hurts.

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.’

56. Baby do you wanna bump?

In which ground rules are established, and not everyone celebrates good news.

Julia

The next day at work was difficult. Matt and I had to do a video conference presentation to the client, which went well, but the rest of the day was spent dodging comments, avoiding gossiping colleagues and not directly answering direct questions. By lunchtime I was exhausted, and Matt was looking frazzled too. As soon as he could, he escaped, claiming he was going to lunch with Roberta. I left it as long as I could and then left too, hearing to my dismay ‘See you in an hour, Roberta’ as the door closed behind me.

Waiting in the hideaway, Matt had eaten a sandwich and was half way through a bag of crisps. He looked up apologetically when he saw me.

‘You’ve been ages, I had to start without you.’

‘Well everybody knows who Roberta is now.’

‘Oh fuck. Look, this is getting silly. There’s only so much pretending we can do.’

‘What are you suggesting?’

‘We stop hiding it. Seriously, Jules, what’s the point now? It’s not like we’re doing anything wrong.’

‘Matt, we’ve talked about this so many times. I do things a certain way. It would change everything.’

‘Listen, Julia.’

Matt sat close to me and put his arm round my shoulders.

‘Everything has already changed. If we front up and admit it, we get respect. If we carry on pretending, we look like fucking idiots.’

‘But I can’t just drop it all …’

‘No one’s asking you to. You can still be The Ice Queen. You haven’t lost the ability to stop an irrelevant piece of gossip in its tracks. All that changes is that people know we’re seeing each other. They won’t get to know anything more than that. You know I won’t say anything, don’t you?’

‘I can’t bear it if people know about my private life.’

‘They won’t. Honestly, Jules, nothing is going to change apart from people knowing one piece of information. Think about it. You act just the same, I act just the same, we’re possibly allowed to smile at each other a couple of times a day. It’s almost better than nobody knowing.’

I tried to think about it logically, but my need for things to stay the same was almost overwhelming and I felt panicky and close to tears. Matt saw the look on my face and tilted my chin up towards him

‘Hey, if this is so hard, I … maybe we should just call it a day?’

‘What?’

‘I know work is important to you. Maybe we can’t do both.’

Was he really suggesting we stop seeing each other? The thought of it made my blood run cold.

‘No!’

‘Well what then? People know, we can’t change that. It’s freaking you out. You’ve had a lot to cope with the last few weeks. Perhaps you just need some time off from the stress.’

He looked so sincere, so concerned about me, I felt like I was being unreasonable. With a huge mental effort, I thought about what might happen if everyone at GreenScreen knew about us. In my head I went through the worst and best case scenarios. In all probability, reality would be somewhere in the middle. Matt was right, I could still be the same as I always was; I might have to shore up my frostiness, but that wasn’t impossible. Matt was waiting for an answer.

‘I think … I don’t want to do any of it without you.’

His face changed, from concerned and sincere to relieved and happy.

‘Thank fuck for that.’

He pulled me into a tight hug and kissed the top of my head.

‘Oh Jules, if ever a man made an offer he wanted to be refused, that was it. Fuck, fuck, fuck, don’t ever let me say something so bloody stupid again. What was I thinking?’

‘You were thinking about me, which is not like work Matt at all. You need to get your Matt the Lad head on if we’re going to go back and be the same.’

‘Alright then, show us your tits, love, and we can go back and face them.’

I smiled and rolled my eyes at him. Then pulled him down for a kiss, to show him how grateful I was.

‘Mm, nice tongue action, babe, fancy a shag?’

His smile was mischievous.

‘Alright, maybe I was a bit hasty. You can save it for the office.’

‘Make your bleeding mind up, woman –’

Matt’s phone rang, with the tone I now recognised as Beth’s. He hardly ever ignored her, and with a pained expression, apologised and answered.

‘Hey Beth … yeah, sorry, been a busy morning … yeah, sounds great, what time? … OK, I’ll be there … don’t know, do you need to know? … I’ll ask, get back to you … sure, see you later.’

He looked at me.

‘Sorry, she texted earlier, I said I’d call her back.’

He sighed.

‘I don’t know how you’ll feel about this, Beth’s getting some people together for Dec and Amy, to celebrate their news about the baby, she wondered if you wanted to come.’

It sounded like the last thing I would want to do. But I was beginning to realise how important Matt’s family was to him, and maybe if we were ‘coming out’ to people at work, I should get to know other people in his life as well. Tonight, however, seemed a bit soon with everything else that had happened in the last few hours.

‘I don’t know. Can I think about it?’

‘Course. Last minute acceptance or declinance is fine.’

‘Is declinance a word?’

‘It is now. I made it up just for you. Shall we go and face the rabble?’

‘Hold me first.’

He wrapped me up in his arms and I felt safe. I tried to hold on to the feeling as he let me go, took my hand and stood up.

‘Race you?’

He crouched down as if ready to speed off.

‘No.’

‘Oh come on, if we get back red-faced and breathless that would be the perfect way to arrive.’

‘No.’

‘Spoilsport. How about we walk in and give each other a good tonguing? Then I could bend you over my desk and –’

‘No.’

‘You’ve changed, Julia Marran, time was when I only had to suggest it from behind and you had your arse in the air quicker than you could say ‘knickers down’. Oh alright, how about …’

As we walked back, he continued to suggest more and more outrageous ways of returning to the office, which helped to take my mind off the potential aftermath. In the end, just as we were about to go through the door, he put his arm over my shoulder, and we walked in together, staring everyone down as we walked through the office and then separated and went to our respective desks. None of my team dared to say a word to me, but I heard Matt’s team bombard him with questions, that he answered sparingly but truthfully. I could hear all other ears on them, and noticed Lexi was busying herself with files nearby. The questions slowly died down, and Matt’s team got back to work. It felt like it might be alright, but I was still unsettled and nervous of how things might change, whether I would be able to manage my team in the same way. Only time would tell.

Dec

Rose was sitting at a table when I arrived, two empty tea cups on the table in front of her telling me she’d been waiting a while.

‘Hi Rose.’

I kissed her on the cheek. Checked my watch. Sat down.

‘I’m not late, am I?’

:No, love, I’ve been here a while. I know I’m a silly old woman, I’ve been worrying what your news is. Have you decided about your contract? Are you moving away, is that it?

‘Oh, Rose, I’m sorry. Bloody texts, you can never say as much as you want, and I was a bit pushed for time. No, I’m … I still haven’t decided about the contract stuff. And it’s just got a bit more complicated. You’re going to be a granny.’

I sat back and watched the information tick around in her head. I loved seeing Rose speechless. It didn’t happen very often, and I found it highly amusing. In a minute, all the words she wanted to say would come tumbling out at once, and get stuck on each other.

:Wait – are you saying you’re … is Amy … you’re going to … you’re not –

‘Yes, Amy is. We are going to. I am. Rose, I’m going to be a dad. Fuck, I’ve been saying it all day long, I still can’t believe it.’

:Oh Declan, love.

Her eyes had filled with tears, which spilled down her cheeks. She fished in a pocket for a tissue. I took her hand and held it. Through her tears, she smiled broadly.

:That’s just the best news. I’m that happy for you both. How long have you known?

‘Since last night.’

:Oh, that’s not long love, don’t people usually wait for scans and things before making announcements nowadays?

‘Apparently so, I think I jumped the gun a bit, started telling people straight away. I’m really excited. I called Jay at half three, think yourself lucky I didn’t call you too.’

:Ah, love, you do tend to wear your heart on your sleeve these days, don’t you. How’s Amy? Any sickness?

‘Yeah, she says she’s been sick for a couple of weeks, naturally I’ve been completely oblivious. She’s fine otherwise though. She took today off, we didn’t really sleep last night after we found out.’

My phone rang, I glanced at the screen. Beth.

‘Hey Beth.’

_Hi Dec. How’s it going?

‘Great. Really great. Sorry for waking you all up last night.’

_Don’t be daft. We’re honoured. Or rather, I am. James is just a grumpy old man. Needs his beauty sleep more than most. Dec, are you and Amy around this evening?

‘Later on. We’re going to Amy’s parents about tea time.’

_I’m planning a family get-together. Just some food, a bit of a drink. Matt and Julia are coming, Carol’s coming, I’m going to ask Rose, just need the guests of honour.

‘I’m actually with Rose at the moment. We’ll be there I’m sure, as long as Amy’s dad doesn’t get his shotgun out.’

_Oh, that’s great. Good luck with Amy’s mum and dad – fingers crossed nobody gets shot. Invite them tonight if you think it would help. Can I have a quick word with Rose, then?

I handed my phone over.

:Hello love … yes isn’t it lovely news … well he hasn’t stopped grinning since he got here, so I’d say so … oh, that sounds grand … no, don’t worry love, I can get there, I’ll bring Carol too … see you later.

She handed the phone back to me.

‘You’re coming then?’

:As if I’d miss it. Chance to coo over Amy and talk about babies all night.

‘Want a lift?’

:No love, I’ll drive myself.

‘Really?’

:I’ve been having lessons, get my confidence up a bit. I’m getting quite good.

‘Bloody hell, Rose, you are full of surprises.’

:And so are you, there’s never a dull moment, is there? This is the biggest one yet, though. But, I’m sorry to have to dash, I’ve got to get back to work, I’m already late. I’m so pleased for you, love. Stand up, let’s give you a big hug.

I did as I was told and was enveloped in a Rose Special.

:Oh love, a family of your own.

Out of everyone I knew, Rose was the person who would understand what this meant to me. I felt my eyes prickle with tears and nodded into the top of her head. She let me go, looked up and wiped my eyes with a tissue. Then, with a twinkle in her eye and a wicked smile, she licked the tissue and moved it towards the corner of my mouth. I ducked my head.

‘Rose! Piss off!’

:Sorry love, couldn’t resist. Don’t often get the chance to tease you. See you later.

She picked up her bag, put on her coat and went, smiling back at me as she went through the doorway.

I ordered a coffee and a sandwich, and called Amy.

‘Hey babe, how you doing?’

)Oh, I feel like a fraud sitting here watching TV. I nearly called and said I’d go in.

‘Don’t you dare. One of us needs to be a slacker. I got extras for being late – twice round the pitch and fifty bench presses.’

)No way, who gave you that?

‘Jay. His way of paying me back for waking him up this morning.’

)Did he say anything?

‘No, I didn’t see him to talk to, I was really late, then he was in a meeting when I got out of the shower. I spoke to Beth just now, though, she wants a family get together later, after we’ve been to your mum and dad’s. Rose is going, Matt and Julia are going, Carol’s going …’

)Sounds great, and a good excuse not to stay too long with Mum and Dad. Oh that sounds terrible doesn’t it. I’m dreading it a bit though.

‘Don’t worry, babe, it’ll be fine. Don’t let them spoil it.’

)You’re right. Fuck ’em.

‘Amy! You swore!’

)Your influence must be finally rubbing off on me.

‘I feel terrible now. Might take a vow of abstinence from bad language.’

)Really?

‘Fuck, no. Wouldn’t last a second.’

)Ha ha. When are you coming home?

‘I’m just eating my lunch, I’ll be there in about half an hour? Put the kettle on, babe. Love you.’

)Love you, bye.

When I got home, Amy looked wiped. She said she felt fine, but she looked tired and worried.

‘We don’t have to go to Jay and Beth’s if you’re not up to it.’

)Don’t be daft, I wouldn’t miss it. We haven’t all got together for ages. And I really want a good chat with Julia. I haven’t met her properly yet, and Matt hasn’t exactly told us anything about her. I’m just worried about telling Mum and Dad. I know what they’ll be like. I don’t want an argument.

‘There’d better not be any fucking arguments, babe. There’d better only be happiness, congratulations and joy, or they’ll have me to fucking answer to.’

Amy sighed.

)That’s what I mean. Dec, please, please try to keep a lid on it. And please, please try not to say ‘fuck’ quite so much. Mum completely hates it.

She looked up at me with her big blue eyes, the ones I couldn’t resist when they were pleading. I considered myself to be fairly laid back and accepting of most people – I could talk to nearly anyone, and I rarely lost my temper – but Amy’s parents, and the way they treated their only daughter, had made me see red on more than one occasion.

‘OK, Ames, I’ll do my best. They just push my buttons, they’re so condescending to you, and they don’t even bother to hide what a fucking disappointment I am … but OK. I will try my absolute best.’

)Thanks hon. I know you will. How about you make me a cup of tea, and we go over there and kick their arses?

‘That I would like to see. One cup of tea coming up for the arse-kicking lady with the baby.’

Julia

My life seemed to lurch from big decision to big decision at the moment, and the next one was whether to go to Matt’s family gathering later. My choice would have been not to go; I hardly related normally to my own family, and Matt’s seemed to be more involved in his life than I was used to. But I really wanted to be with him this evening, and this might be the only way.

In the end I decided to go with him, to see them all, and then I could decide how involved I was prepared to be another time. I’d met most of them one way or another anyway, and with more people there, and the focus on the parents-to-be, I wouldn’t feel so in the spotlight. Decision made, I was able to focus on what I was doing for the rest of the afternoon, and was surprised to look up and see most people had gone. Matt sauntered past, satchel over his shoulder and turned in to lean on the door post to my office.

‘So … any plans for this evening?’

I quickly scanned the room to see who was left, so I could temper my reply accordingly. There were a couple of people within earshot.

‘I thought I might accompany a friend to a family celebration.’

He grinned widely.

‘That sounds like an excellent plan. I’m sure your friend will be delighted with your company, but might possibly need to provide you with some details as to time and venue.’

‘Well my friend knows how to contact me.’

‘Maybe your friend will be waiting for you in the car park.’

I sighed and rolled my eyes.

‘Or maybe if my friend would just hang on a minute I’ll walk down with him and we can talk on the way to my car.’

Matt’s grin widened. He remained leaning on the doorpost as I finished what I was doing, closed the computer down, shut files away and grabbed my bag and coat. As I reached him, he put his arm round me and kissed my cheek, then whispered in my ear.

‘You look bloody gorgeous, I’ve been thinking about snogging you all afternoon.’

I kept my voice at a normal pitch, conscious that eyes were on us.

‘Really? I’ve been busy thinking about how to adapt our presentation for Friday.’

‘Oh, me too, me too. I’ve got some bloody good ideas, we can discuss them on the way out.’

I walked in front of Matt, and he tried his hardest to feel my bum all the way down the stairs. When we got to the bottom, and I saw the reception desk was empty, I turned and faced him.

‘Look, Matt, I know this is extremely exciting for you, but I really meant it when I said about keeping work and private separate. I can’t do this, it’s too confusing. I don’t know where I am.’

He held his hands up in surrender.

‘OK. Just trying my luck, I guess. Still working out where the line is.’

‘The line is, no touching or lewd suggestions whispered in my ear while we’re on work premises. Work premises are anywhere inside the front door.’

I turned and walked off towards the door. He ran after me and got in front of me before I reached it.

‘I’m sorry, Jules. I’m just not used to all these rules. I’m used to being pretty open about how I’m feeling.’

‘I know. I’ve witnessed enough of your office flings to know how you do things.’

Matt frowned.

‘Shit, Jules, is that what you think this is?’

I hadn’t realised until I said it that I didn’t want to be in the same category as all the other women who had been publicly picked up and dropped by Matt. I didn’t say anything, but he must have read the look on my face. He held the door open for me and I walked through.

‘Jules, can we talk about this? Not here, can we go back to your place or something? It’s all starting to feel a bit weird. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘What time do we have to be there this evening?’

‘Fuck that, we can be late or not go at all, this is important.’

‘Alright. Get in then.’

I opened the car and he got in. We didn’t talk on the short journey to my flat, and Matt was right, it was starting to feel a bit weird. I managed to get a parking space right outside my flat, and we walked up the steps and into the building in silence. As I opened the door to my flat, it was almost as if a verbal dam had burst, and Matt started talking, hardly drawing a breath.

‘Jules, I’m sorry, I’m, it, I’ve, I think, I thought, shit, I just got carried away. You’re right, it was bloody exciting, everyone knowing, but I should learn to keep it in my trousers, metaphorically speaking of course. I didn’t think about how it might feel for you, having witnessed my less than discreet flirtations. There’s no way I think of you like that, like them, oh shit I’m not saying this very well, I think I understand what you mean, it must be horrible to feel like everyone’s watching your every move. I’m just an egomaniac. I’m sorry. Sorry Jules. I hate it when you go all quiet. Please talk to me.’

He said all this looking at the floor, in one long burst, not leaving me a pause to interject at all.

‘Well I will now you’ve shut up for two seconds so I can get a word in. I’m sorry I was less than gentle with you. Today has been hard. I feel incredibly under pressure, and I took it out on you. That’s not to say I’m happy to have my bum felt down the stairs, or whatever else I said –’

‘Whispering lewd shit in your ear.’

‘– alright, and so maybe we need to just think for a little while about what’s acceptable and what’s not. We still don’t know what this is that we’re doing, it’s new, and I don’t want to be working it out in the full gaze of everyone at GreenScreen. Come and sit down, I’ll make us a drink. Tea or coffee?’

‘Don’t suppose you’ve got beer?’

‘You had the last one.’

‘Coffee then. Thanks.’

I poured two mugs of coffee and sat down next to him on the sofa, taking his hand.

‘I must be very frustrating.’

‘Shit, that’s a bloody understatement. If you weren’t bloody worth it, I’d have buggered off weeks ago …’

He grinned at me, eyes crinkling in the way that had become very familiar.

‘… I expect I have similarly, if opposite, frustrating qualities.’

‘We don’t need to compare notes on each other’s shortcomings, Matt; we can enjoy doing that another time. I think we just need to work out where this line is, somewhere that’s acceptable for both of us.’

‘OK, well, I know you don’t like me doing stuff at work, so I won’t be flirty or touchy or snoggy unless specifically invited, which I know is unlikely. How’s that for starters?’

I smiled at him gratefully.

‘It’s a great start. I think having lunch together, in or out of the office, is alright. And we can talk to each other about non-work things, but if I feel like it’s getting out of hand or straying into areas I feel uncomfortable with, I reserve the right to be a sniffy bitch about it.’

‘Naturally, I wouldn’t accept anything less than sniffy bitchiness should I stray into uncomfortable areas. It would be a just punishment.’

‘If we’re pissed off with each other, or arguing, we leave it outside. I’m not going to be bickering with you in public, any more than I’m going to be snogging you in public.’

‘Fair enough. I guess GreenScreen has seen more than its fair share of my dirty laundry. About time I started leaving it at home. We already know we can work well together, this last project has been awesome. I think we could do it whatever was going on between us outside.’

‘I guess that’s my bottom line. Work can’t be affected, either by something between us, or how our teams are affected by us.’

‘OK. Agreed. What else?’

I thought about it.

‘I can’t honestly think of anything else.’

‘Did we just sort all that out in five minutes flat? My coffee’s not even cold yet. Whoa, feels much less weird now, though.’

I smiled at him.

‘Who’d have thought Matt Scott would be doing sensible relationship chat?’

‘I know. I’m definitely going to be kicked out of the evil bastard club.’

‘Thanks, Matt.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t be. We’re still working it all out. Maybe I should think a bit before throwing a hissy fit.’

‘It’s all turned out OK in the end though. Here, know what I want to do now? I did say I’d been thinking about it all afternoon.’

I lifted my head towards him and he bent down and kissed me tenderly, at first, and then more urgently, and before long we were taking each other’s clothes off and moving towards the bedroom …

Dec

As we pulled up outside Amy’s parents’ house, I felt the familiar sinking feeling. Mr and Mrs Wright (we hadn’t managed to progress to first name terms) had never liked me very much; they had formed their first impression based on the picture published in the local paper all that time ago when I was photographed at my flat, drunk and raging, with vomit down my shirt.

The subsequent news reports of passport scandals, car crashes, beatings and suspensions had done nothing to make them skip for joy when Amy announced she was seeing me, and to make things worse, I had called the police on DivDav, who had apparently had a fair amount of sunlight shining out of his arse when Amy was going out with him.

When Amy’s mum walked in on us on one of her unannounced visits to Amy’s room, in the early days when we just couldn’t keep our hands – or bodies – off each other, my reputation was sealed.

I had eventually got fed up with trying to be polite and make them like me, or even accept me, and our visits, infrequent as they were, usually degenerated into antagonistic bickering in which Amy played piggy in the middle and ended up miserable.

I took Amy’s hand and squeezed it. She looked at me, apprehensively, and I tried to reassure her.

‘Best behaviour, promise.’

She nodded. We got out of the car, walked up the path and rang the bell. Mrs Wright answered the door.

;Amy, we weren’t expecting you. Your father’s just got home.

)Hi Mum, we were just on our way out, thought we’d call round and say hi, er, have a quick chat.

Mrs Wright looked uneasy.

;You’d better come in then. Dinner’s almost ready, are you stopping?

)No, Mum, we’re eating out. Thanks though.

;Go through, then, I’ll bring in a pot of tea. Or I could find a beer, Declan?

‘No thanks, tea is fine.’

In all my visits, I had never drunk beer and had no idea why they always offered it. It felt like a reminder that I was different to them, and of that picture in the paper from years ago. Amy and I sat in the living room, nervously holding hands.

‘Shit, this is like death row. The condemned prisoners await execution.’

)Shh. She’ll be back in minute.

‘Where’s your dad?’

)He’ll be getting changed.

The door opened and Amy’s parents came in together. There was a big performance of pouring out tea and adding milk and sugar. They couldn’t remember if I took sugar; they never could. I’d been visiting them for nearly three years and they still couldn’t remember I didn’t take fucking sugar in my tea. No one else in the world riled me like Amy’s parents – I got along with everyone, pretty much. But the Wrights always seemed determined to undermine and upset their beautiful, gentle daughter, and I couldn’t usually let it go without commenting. However, reminding myself of my promise, I reined my temper in, and thought of Amy sitting next to me, worrying. Squeezed her hand, she squeezed back.

;How was work today, Amy?

)Oh … er, I didn’t go in. I wasn’t feeling well.

;Really? What was the matter?

)Feeling a bit sick. Actually, Mum that’s what we –

;Oh, not this bug that’s been going round? Your father had a touch of that last week. Didn’t keep him off work though, did it Jack?

«Take more than a problem with my digestive system to keep me away. Can’t take too many sick days, gives a bad impression.

)No, it wasn’t a bug, it –

;You must be feeling better now, though, if you’re going out. You should be careful, it doesn’t look good if someone sees you out on the town after you’ve called in sick.

)We’re not going out on the town, we’re going to Jay and Beth’s. Beth said you can come too if you like.

;Oh.

More disapproval, this time reserved for my unconventional family. They couldn’t get their heads round how it all worked, and from the amount of worried looks and frowns they tossed our way whenever we mentioned them, you’d think I had introduced Amy to some sort of cult. They didn’t know how to react to me not having parents, and although this may have bought me some degree of sympathy and understanding elsewhere, with the Wrights it only bought more awkwardness. They had nobody to compare social standings with, nobody they could directly blame for my shortcomings. It was unlikely they were going to consider coming with us to Beth’s get-together.

The silence gave Amy the opportunity to say what we had come here to say.

)We actually came here to tell you something; we’ve got some exciting news.

They both frowned. Their daughter told them she had some exciting news, and they frowned. I could already see how this was going to go. Tried to hold onto my promise to Amy. She shot me a nervous glance, so I gave her a big smile.

)I’m … I mean we’re … well, it’s early days … but –

;Oh Amy, no.

)What?

;You’re not … expecting … are you?

There was a look of horror on her face. I glanced at Mr Wright, whose fists were balled up and lips were clamped together. Amy’s face was a picture of misery and dejection. This wasn’t how it should be. I could feel myself getting very angry.

)Yes, Mum, I am.

‘It’s actually brilliant news.’

I put my arm round Amy and pulled her close.

«Yes, I’m sure you’re very pleased with yourself.

;Oh Amy, what are you going to do?

)What do you mean?

;Well you’re so young, you’re not married, you can’t possibly have a baby.

I nearly lost it. Amy could feel me tensing beside her and looked at me as I opened my mouth and drew breath to speak. She put a restraining hand on my arm and then spoke herself.

)I can’t possibly have a baby?

«It’s very irresponsible of the pair of you to get yourselves in this position. I didn’t expect it of you, Amy.

The unspoken yet clear implication being that I was fulfilling all their expectations of irresponsibility, and dragging Amy down with me. I could feel myself bristling, but I clenched my teeth to prevent myself causing a scene, which wasn’t what Amy wanted. Or so I thought. As I sat and tried to dampen my anger, I felt Amy pull herself upright in her seat. I looked at her face, which was almost shining with rage. I had never seen her look so furious.

)OK. That’s enough. I told Dec before we got here that I didn’t want him to lose his temper and I didn’t want him to swear. He’s kept his end of the bargain, but I think I’m about to do both of those things. How dare you? This is the most exciting and amazing day of my life. I am completely over the moon. I am going to have a baby with the man I love, who I am going to marry one day. I couldn’t be more happy. This will be your first, who knows, maybe only, grandchild. Instead of treating us like silly teenagers, you should be celebrating with us. Instead of trying to make us feel like shit, you should be happy for us.’

Amy’s mum gasped at the ‘shit’, and her dad started to say something, but Amy was unstoppable.

‘Instead of telling us what we can and can’t fucking possibly do, you should be asking us how you can help.’

There was more gasping at the ‘fuck’, and even I was surprised, but Amy was in full flow and she was a sight to behold. She was usually quiet and reserved with her parents, but right now she was blazing with fury, and I sat back to enjoy the show.

‘If you can’t be happy for me, on the best day of my life, then fuck you. Fuck both of you. Come on, Dec, let’s go somewhere they will be happy for us.’

As Amy stood up and took my hand, I nearly applauded. As Mr and Mrs Wright sat and stared open-mouthed at their daughter, we left the room and the house together, although as we walked down the path to the car, it caught up with Amy and she started to cry. I put my arm round her, to pull her close, but she pushed me away.

)No, not here, let’s just get in the car and go.

I opened the doors and we both got in. I pulled over in the next road, because Amy was still crying. It was awkward in the car, but I hugged her as tightly as I could.

‘Babe, you were magnificent. I’m so proud of you.’

)Oh Dec, what have I done? I’ve never spoken to them like that in my life.

‘Well it’s long overdue then. Sorry to say this, I know they’re your parents, but they really are the most joyless people I’ve ever met. Any chance to bring you down, make you feel like shit, they take it. What you said to them was spot on. They should be celebrating with you, with us. They might not like who you’ve chosen to spend your life with, although I thoroughly approve of your choice, but they should support you, be happy for you. It’s about time someone told them. You did great. You did say we were going to kick their arses, well I think they can consider their arses well and truly whooped. Don’t cry, Ames, please, I can’t bear it. They’re not worth it, not today.’

I carried on holding her, wiping her eyes with my sleeve. Slowly, her tears stopped and she looked at me. Her face was blotchy and her make-up had run. She looked beautiful to me, but she wasn’t going think so.

)God, I bet I look a mess.

‘I don’t know, babe, I think the red and black marbled look could be all the rage this season.’

She hurriedly pulled down the sun visor and looked in the mirror.

)Oh my God, I can’t go out like this, everything’s run everywhere. Look at your shirt, there’s mascara all over it, and all up your sleeve. I’m sorry hon.

‘Well I don’t give a toss about my shirt, but as you’re a notoriously vain cow who only thinks about her appearance, what do you want to do? Quick trip home?’

As I spoke, I ran a finger down her smeared cheek. Amy was the least vain person I knew, always looked awesome whatever she wore, whatever she’d done to her face or hair, but I knew she wouldn’t want everyone to see her like this, the evidence of how upset she’d been.

)I have got some wipes and stuff in my bag, maybe I can do a quick repair job here.

With a deep breath and a mental effort that was apparent in the determined set of her shoulders, Amy sorted herself out and focussed on putting her face back together. I watched with fascination, amazed firstly at how many tubes, bottles and brushes she could fit in her handbag, and secondly that she knew exactly what to do with them all. A while later, she was back together again; looking awesome and feeling better. She flashed a beaming smile at me.

‘You’re gorgeous, babe.’

)You’re not so bad yourself. Come on, flex those lovely muscles and get me to the party. I’m in the mood to be made a fuss of.

I started the car and drove off.

Pulling up outside Jay and Beth’s house was the complete opposite of pulling up outside Amy’s parents. I had so many good memories here, this was where some of the people I loved best in the world lived. My mood soared. I looked at Amy, and knew that she was feeling the same.

‘OK?’

)OK.

‘Let’s go talk babies then.’

We walked up the drive, hand in hand. I opened the front door – I’d never given my key back, even when they’d moved away and other people had lived there – and shouted into the house.

‘Any chance of a cup of tea? Pregnant lady dying of thirst out here.’

A squeal. Footsteps running. Laughter.

The door from the living room opened, Beth was first out. She couldn’t decide who to hug, and instead caught us both in a head lock.

_Oh, you two, how are you? This is so great. Thanks for coming. We’re just waiting for Matt and Julia now.

She let us go and looked at Amy with shining eyes. Jay was standing just behind Beth. He leaned forwards and kissed and hugged Amy.

łWell done, Amy. Don’t know how you’re going to cope with two to look after, though.

)Two?

łWell you do such a good job with Dec, but they say the second one is harder …

‘Ha ha, you’re hilarious.’

łYou know I only mean it. Come here, mate.

Jay hugged me, slapped me on the back several times.

łCal says will you play on the X-box with him later?

‘Of course. Why can’t he ask me himself?’

łIt’s this new attitude of his, anyone would think he was a teenager already. Having to tread a bit carefully. What he actually mumbled when we told him why you were coming was ‘don’t s’pose Dec’ll want to play X-box then’.

There was a shriek from the doorway. A small blonde bombshell ran over and launched herself at me. I caught her up and held her over my head while she giggled and wriggled.

‘Hey Iz, you’re getting big. I’m going to have start doing more weights in the gym to keep up!’

Iz wrapped her arms round my neck and started talking as I carried her into the living room, where Rose and Carol were busy gossiping. They stopped when they saw Amy, and both of them looked at her with a strange expression I couldn’t interpret. Rose stood up and made for Amy, who wasn’t going to escape without an enormous hug.

:Oh, love, I’m so happy for you.

I sat down with Iz on my lap and watched it all. Amy was basking in it, it was so different from the response she had just left. She glowed; it was a cliché, but it was what she was doing. She radiated happiness, and I’d never loved her more.

/dec some joos.

I looked down at Iz, who was staring back up at me.

‘OK, sweetie, let’s go and find you some juice.’

I lifted her up and carried her into the kitchen, where Beth was putting food out on plates.

‘Someone’s thirsty, Beth.’

_Oh, thanks, sweetheart. Could you do it? You know where everything is.

‘Yeah, no worries.’

I put Iz down and found a bottle of juice and Iz’s cup.

_I’ll be with you in just a minute, just doing the garlic bread.

‘Smells great.’

_Garlic always gets your mouth watering, doesn’t it? What have you got on your shirt?’

I looked down at the smeared remains of Amy’s make-up. ‘Probably a mixture of mascara, er, foundation and, um, other stuff I am glad not to be aware of. Amy had a bit of a moment on the way.

_I’m so proud of you, Dec.

‘For having crap all over my shirt? You’re easily pleased.’

_You’re handling all this really well. It could have really freaked you out.

‘I’m not freaked out at all, although I suppose there’s plenty of time yet. Amy’s just amazing. She’s the one you should be proud of. She just basically told her parents to … er …’

I looked at Iz and for once managed to bite my tongue

‘Er, she used a word I’m very fond of. Cal used to call it a really bad swear. In fact, Amy used it a lot, and they thoroughly deserved it, they were being vile to her, trying to make her feel ashamed of herself. Well, you know what I think of them. She gave them a piece of her mind, kicked their fucking arses. Dammit, sorry. I was trying.’

Beth laughed.

_Well thanks for trying, anyway, Dec. Sounds like Amy might have got some stuff off her chest. I assume they won’t be joining us tonight?

‘Ha ha, no. But Ames was amazing, you should have seen her. Here you go, Iz. Two hands, now.’

Beth was looking at me, something shining in her face.

_You are going to be such a great dad. You’re a natural. Do you remember the first time you held Iz? You were so nervous. Took to it like a duck to water after, though. Look how you are with her now. She adores you. Oh Dec, I can’t believe it, you a dad. It makes me feel positively fossilised. I still remember when you first showed up here, you had that beaten up old rucksack, everything you owned crammed in it, and an attitude like I’d never seen. Do you remember the very first thing you said to me?

‘Er, no, am I about to be horribly embarrassed?’

_James had just picked you up from the station, he was putting the car away, I opened the door to say hi and you just walked up and said, and I’m paraphrasing for the benefit of our younger audience, ‘Eff me, who the eff do the effing taxi drivers think they effing are in this effing city?’

‘What? I never said that. Surely not so many effs. The first time I met you?’

_I can remember it clear as day. You obviously took issue with the attitude of a particular cab driver who’d had words with you earlier on. Though I suspect it was the language rather than the subject matter that was designed to catch my attention.

‘Well it seems to have worked, if you can remember it all these years later.’

_Oh Dec, I can’t believe it’s been years. It just seems like yesterday I was making you packed lunches and sending you off to school, praying you weren’t going to be home before noon with another bunch of weird friends. Now here you are, all grown up. You’ve turned into a fine young man.

Her eyes brimmed, and a couple of tears overflowed down her cheeks. My eyes followed suit, both of us too emotional for our own good. I pulled her into a hug.

‘Well if I have, it’s mostly down to you, Beth. Where would I be if you hadn’t spent all that time making me packed lunches and putting up with my friends and my moods and my effing bad language?’

/effin wangidge

I looked down at Iz, who had finished her drink and decided to join in the conversation. A quick glance at Beth showed her shaking her head at me, but prepared to forgive me in the name of nostalgia.

_Do you remember the second thing you said?

‘Oh God. How many more effs?’

_None. You saw Cal, and you said ‘Hey mate, what’s your name? Cool Lego, can I have a go?’. And you went and sat next to him and started playing with him. I knew it was going to be OK, then. Oh sweetheart. I wish your mum and dad could see you now.

I swallowed down the sadness that talking about them always caused me, appreciating that Beth never avoided mentioning them – when she did, it felt like they could be a part of things in a small way.

‘Yeah, me too. Especially today. It’ll be ten years in June. Sometimes it feels like yesterday. Sometimes I can hardly remember what they looked like. I dream about them a lot.’

_Oh Dec, really? Ten years? We should do something, mark it somehow.

I felt tears sting my eyes again. Beth always knew the right thing to do, and say.

‘I’d really like that. Thanks, Beth.’

I felt a tug on the knee of my trousers. Looked down. Iz was standing by me, arms raised. I laughed, wiped my eyes and hoisted Iz into my arms.

‘I guess she was feeling left out. Come on, Iz, let’s go and see what that big brother of yours is up to.’

We went via the living room, where Amy was talking animatedly to Rose and Carol. Jay seemed to be fiddling with a laptop.

łDec, any chance you could have a look at this? I’m trying to set up Skype, Nico and Lis said they’d call later.

‘Really? That’s great, I’ve never Skyped before. Don’t ask me though, I haven’t got a clue. Matt showed me once, never got the hang of it. Get him to do it when he gets here, he’s the IT professional.’

łI suppose so. I wanted to sort it before he got here, try not to look completely inept.

‘Ha ha, swallow your pride. It’ll make him feel useful.’

I caught Amy’s eye and she gave me a beaming smile.

‘Just up to catch Cal, play some X-box?’

)OK hon.

I made my way up the stairs, Iz clinging to my neck.

/cal play monster.

‘Is he, sweetie? Shall we see if he needs any help?’

She nodded solemnly. I knocked on Cal’s door. It used to be my door when I lived here, then Matt’s when he first moved down; Cal had negotiated a swap when Iz graduated to her own room.

\yeah.

‘It’s Dec. Me and Iz have come to help you beat up monsters.’

\kay.

I pushed the door open. Cal was sitting on his bed, game controller in hand, focussed on a battle on the screen between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a giant blue robot.

‘Who’s winning?’

\i’ve got to level fifteen. I keep dying. This boss is really hard.

‘Do you want me to have a go?’

Cal gave me a pitying look.

\you won’t be able to do it, you couldn’t even do level five. Iz’d be better than you.

It was true that I was woefully useless at computer games.

‘Fair enough. Maybe Iz could try.’

/iz try.

She nodded seriously and held her hand out for the controller.

\no, Iz, I was joking. Here, play with this.

He grabbed the nearest thing to hand to distract Iz, and passed it to her.

‘Hey, Iz, look at this, it’s Optimus Prime. He’s seen better days. I didn’t know you still had him, Cal.’

Iz proceeded to bend Optimus Prime’s arms and legs beyond the levels of human endurance. Luckily for him, he was a Transformer.

‘Look, sweetie, if you do this …’

I bent a few limbs

‘… and this …’

I pushed a few bits of plastic together

‘… he turns into this.’

Iz was delighted with the huge truck, took it from me and started pushing it up and down the floor.

/rrrrm.

Cal carried on battling, a look of intense concentration on his face.

‘So do you want to play something, then?’

\yeah in a minute. I just want to finish this.

Several minutes went by, but the battle seemed no closer to finishing. I found another truck by the bed, crouched down on the floor and brrrrmed with Iz. The sounds of the battle intensified, Cal’s fingers were almost a blur on the controller.

\no, no, no. Fuck.

‘Cal!’

A defiant look.

\what? You say it all the time. So does Matty.

‘Yeah, and you know how much trouble I get in. I definitely try not to say it when Iz’s in the room. Just be careful mate, she’s too young.’

And so are you, I thought, but didn’t say it, remembering the things I used to say when I was his age and me and my mates were trying to impress each other. Part of me was chuffed at the thought that he might be trying to impress me, but a larger more pragmatic part saw the test and the challenge – would I tell him off, would I tell Jay and Beth? I decided I was hardly in a position to be telling anyone off, however young, for saying ‘fuck’, and let it go at that.

‘So, do you want to play something now? I think your mum’s nearly ready with something to eat, shall we wait till after? I think Nico and Lis are Skyping later, if we can get it set up.’

Mentioning Nico sent a dark look over Cal’s face. He had pretty much idolised Nico, and I wondered how well he was coping with him being so far away. It’s hard when your heroes leave, even harder when they’re part of your family. It was one of the reasons I was having difficulty deciding whether to stay at Raiders or move away.

\i’m going to have another go at this. I nearly did it last time.

‘OK, we’ll play later, yeah?’

\kay.

‘Come on Iz, let’s go and see if there’s any dinner yet.’

Iz picked up Optimus Prime and lifted her arms up to be carried.

/dinner. Noggits.

‘Not sure if there’s nuggets, sweetie, let’s go and see. I think Iz wants to take old Optimus with her, is that OK Cal?’

He shrugged, absorbed in his battle.

Julia

We lay wrapped up in each other, not talking, just touching, almost sleepy in the afterglow. Then Beth’s tone sounded from Matt’s phone, which was in his trouser pocket on the floor in the lounge.

‘Shit! Beth’s meal thing. I completely forgot.’

He jumped out of the bed and started putting his clothes on in the living room.

‘Do you still want to come? You don’t have to, I completely understand.’

‘I still want to come. I need to shower first, though.’

‘Hm, me too. Let’s save time and do it together.’

‘That’s not really going to save time, is it. Not in the long run. We’re bound to get distracted.’

‘Julia Marran, are you calling me an unstoppable shag monster?’

‘Yes, I believe I am.’

‘OK, fair enough. You go first, then. Hey, how about, radical idea, and maybe you’ve had to cope with a few too many radical ideas today, but how about you stay at mine tonight? Jay’s is nearer to me than you, we could walk to work together tomorrow, I could get you breakfast in bed, and more importantly, I get to sleep with you tonight. Also, you can give me a lift home without me feeling too guilty about it.’

It should have been another decision that freaked me out, it should have made me frosty and distant, but it was just one of those things that felt right, and I wanted to do it without weighing up the pros and cons. This was one of those few times when my heart ruled my head.

‘Alright.’

‘Really? Woohoo! Go and get ready then, I’ll just text and say we’ll be late.’

I showered quickly, and while Matt had his turn, I threw some things into a bag – toiletries, clothes for work tomorrow, a book, for some unknown reason, and my phone.

We pulled up outside a large detached house at the bottom of a cul-de-sac. I took a deep breath and looked at Matt, who took my hand.

‘Come on Jules. The sooner we go in the sooner you can start enjoying yourself.’

‘Or being quizzed about my intentions.’

‘You haven’t got any.’

‘I know.’

‘Don’t forget it then. They’re all great, they’ll love you.’

I took his reassurance for what it was and nodded, undid my seatbelt and got out of the car.