78. Found out about you

In which a relationship encounters conflict and hostility.

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Matt

Over dinner we talked a bit, although looking back it was mostly me talking about me, needing to let her know things about me, how and why I’d been Matt the Lad, seeing Adam and why I hadn’t gone back. I wanted to talk to her all night, but I didn’t think I’d last that long, and she said she had to go back home. I was really disappointed that she wasn’t staying, I’d looked forward to another night like last night, with lots of holding and touching and getting to know each other.

‘It’s Friday tomorrow. We can do it then.’

‘Yeh, a date. We should go ouh first, like all the young dudes. Or sit an watch rubbish on the telly, like all the old dudes.’

I knew which I was more likely to be capable of, but I was happy to show willing.

‘How about a compromise and staying in to watch a DVD with some beers and G and Ts, like all the thirty-something dudes?’

I laughed, relieved that I wasn’t going to have to a) think of an excuse not to go out or stay out late or b) try to stay conscious while going out or staying out late.

‘I like ih. Behr, good. DVD, good. Lau, good. Wha’s not tuh like? Hahvnt yuh got Nehflix tho?’

‘No, I haven’t quite got into the techy TV stuff. Why have you?’

‘Yeh, cohrse, tech is my johb.’

‘Oh yeah. Well you’ll have to settle for my very untechy lifestyle for now, buster. Happy with that?’

‘Yeh.’

It was all fitting in with my plan, too, which was developing more form as the evening progressed, and the electric connection between us got stronger.

When we’d finished eating, Lau helped me clear up, and I could feel my energy draining away. I held on extra tight to the wine glasses, feeling like I was about to drop something or trip over or some such shit.

Laura

We finished up the curry, and I helped Matt clear the plates and load the dishwasher. To me, he looked a bit tired, and was seeming less coordinated than he had been earlier.

‘How about going to bed?’

My offer was purely noble, wondering if he could do with a lie-down, and I wasn’t thinking of him fondling my bum in any way. He raised an eyebrow.

Matt

I looked at Lau and raised an eyebrow, wondering exactly what she was proposing. Anything more than, well, nothing, just was not, sadly, going to happen tonight.

‘Well you did mention it earlier, you said you wanted to cuddle up and talk.’

Oh my God, this woman was just the knees of the fucking bees. She seemed to know what I was thinking.

‘Yeh. Sounds like the kind of greht idea I migh have had.’

I wanted her to be absolutely clear, though, about what I was and wasn’t able to offer.

‘Lau, yuh know I can’t … we can’t … fuck ih, yuh did the talk on sex, yuh know wha I mean.’

Laura

I’d heard what he’d said the previous night, and I knew he was anxious about what my expectations were. There was no way I was going to try to rush him into anything that he wasn’t ready for. I was scarcely ready myself, although I wouldn’t have said no to anything that had been offered. The fact was, Matt was having difficulty with his sexual functioning, and I knew, probably better than most, how low-key my responses needed to be.

‘Matt, we’re taking this slowly. Cuddle up and talk means cuddle up and talk. There’s no pressure to do anything else, ever. It’s enough for me. Talking means more to me, actually; I really want to get to know you. We’re so doing things a weird way round. Shall we?’

Matt

She stood up and held her hand out to me, and I took it and stood with her, thanking the gods of perfect women as I did so.

‘Thanks Lau. Yuhr fucking awesome.’

We undressed and got into bed, with minimum fuss, two people who had only known each other for just over twenty four hours but who were already comfortable enough with each other that they could just hop into bed for a chat and a cuddle. Lau was just wearing her underwear, and I was just wearing my boxers and t-shirt, and it was so fucking sexy but so fucking … friendly.

Laura

I turned onto my side and Matt turned to face me. We kissed first, softly and gently, causing little fizzing sparks to travel from my lips down to my fingertips and well beyond. It was delicious, knowing that it wasn’t going to go any further; it was almost better, just allowing myself to be filled up with fizzing desire. Almost. Then we lay and looked at each other, not really knowing where to start.

‘OK, so getting to know each other. Favourite colour?’

‘Navy an white.’

‘That’s two.’

‘Tottenham colours.’

‘Football?’

‘Yeh. Yuhrs?’

‘Don’t do football really.’

‘Noh, colour.’

‘Oh. Purple.’

‘Hearts?’

‘No, just the colour.’

‘Noh, Heart of Midlothian, footy tehm, play in purple.’

‘Oh. Maybe we can accept that I don’t really know or care much about football. Sorry, it seems to mean a lot to you, but that’s just how it is.’

‘Cahnt blame a blohk fuh trying. One day I’ll hahv a decent chat wih a woman abouh footy.’

‘Dream on.’

‘Ha ha, yeh. Childhood crush?’

‘George Smallwood. You?’

‘Lily Knight. Snog him?’

‘No, he was way older than me, never knew I existed, I was, like, ten and he was, I don’t know, eighteen or something. He lived a few doors up from me. You and Lily?’

‘Yeh, we pashed a bih. Roun the back of the portakabin at break. Then she wen off wih Harry Thomas one lunch and tha was tha.’

‘Oh, she broke your heart.’

‘Noh, snogged Lucy Carpenter two minutes later.’

‘I see your early sexual exploits may have set a pattern. Favourite film?’

‘Tha yuh’d have heard of? Amelie.’

Well that was a bit of an assumption.

‘What do you mean, that I’ve have heard of? I’m pretty cultured, me.’

‘OK then, MicMacs.’

Hm, correct assumption as it turned out.

‘Oh, OK, Amelie it is then. Good film. Mine’s The Sixth Sense. Saw it three times at the cinema, and have it on DVD.’

‘Stihl surprised at the ending?’

‘No, but you watch it differently. It’s kind of a ghostly love story. I thought Amelie had a bit of a twist, myself, I kept expecting her to get knocked off her bike at the end.’

‘Noh, never gona happen. Fihrst kiss?

‘Damian Wetherly.’

‘Ooh, quick ahnswer. Mehmorable thehn.’

‘For it’s sloppy grossness, yes. Surely you remember your first kiss?’

‘Lily’

‘What, you kissed your first crush? Lucky you.’

Matt shrugged modestly.

‘Did you lose your virginity to her too?’

‘Ha ha, noh Lau, weh wehr only ten. Buh Damiahn …’

‘God no. Steven Rasmussen. First boyfriend. Sixteen. My parents’ bed, while they were at a wedding.’

Matt was quiet for a moment, and it almost felt like he was finding the thought of me having sex with someone else difficult to process.

‘How about you?’

‘Bes maht’s girfriehd.’

‘No!’

Although I could well believe it, having heard some of the stories about Matt.

‘What, when you were at school or something?’

‘Noh, Uni.’

It took a second or two to work it out.

‘What, you didn’t have sex until you were – what – eighteen?’

Matt nodded.

‘Nehly nihnteen.’

‘Blimey. I’m surprised.’

‘Hihden depths, Lau.’

Well that was becoming apparent. There was a lot more to find out about this man, and I was looking forward to doing a bit of digging. Matt had his next question ready, however.

‘Favourite position?’

‘For yoga?’

I did, of course, know exactly what he meant.

‘Sex.’

I knew that.

‘I’m not sure. It depends on lots of things.’

‘Cohm on Lau, everyone’s goh a favourite. Good Baptist girl like yuh, I beh ih’s missionary.’

‘Cowgirl.’

‘Holy fuck. Whoo. Yuh duh like tuh beh in charge.’

‘You’d better believe it. Yours?’

‘Wish I could show yuh.’

He looked so sad, I immediately needed to make him feel better.

‘Oh Matt, there’s all the time in the world. Actually, I’m going to change mine. At the moment, my favourite sexual position is face to face, having a chat. You’re giving me everything I need right now.’

‘Lau …’

Matt’s eyes had filled with tears.

‘It’s really important to you, isn’t it, flower.’

He nodded, unable to speak.

‘You’ll get there, just don’t put pressure on yourself. Enjoy the other bits as well.’

He nodded again.

‘Ih’s jus such a big part of meh, wha I’ve been the last few yehrs. Now ih’s gone, ih’s … I can’t explain.’

Enough people had told me what it was like, that I had the words.

‘It’s like you’ve lost an arm, or the ability to walk. It affects every part of your life, all the time, sometimes you can’t think about anything else except not being able to have sex.’

He looked at me with something approaching awe.

‘Yuh understand!’

‘Not really. I know the words, what people have told me, what I’ve read. I can’t possibly really understand, it hasn’t happened to me.’

Matt

We started off slow, with colours, interests, all that shit, and worked up to more intimate comparisons.

Favourite colours: Matt – navy and white – Spurs, keep up.

Lau – purple (not football related).

Football: Matt – yes, very much so.

Lau – not so much.

Films: Matt – arty French nonsense.

Lau – sentimental tosh not that I was judging her taste in films in any way.

Childhood crushes: Matt – Lily.

Lau – some git called George.

First kisses: Matt – Lily.

Lau – Damian the Dick (not her nickname, it was applied by me).

Virginity lost: Matt – Cindy.

Lau – Steven something German and too much information it made me feel weird.

Favourite Positions: Matt – didn’t get to answer.

Lau – cowgirl! Fuck, she was a goer. As soon I was back in working order, we were going to have some bloody fun!

And then I got a bit maudlin about not being able to show her my favourite position, and she changed her mind, and said her favourite was face to face, having a chat, and it made me cry because it was so bloody thoughtful, the cow.

And then she blew my mind by telling me exactly how it felt, this fucking bastard MS and what it had done to my sex drive – as if I’d lost an arm or the ability to walk, and that sometimes it was all I could think about, not being able to do it – and I knew, if I hadn’t before, that she was always going to get me. Not just because I had the bastard MS and she knew a lot about the bastard MS, but because on some deep level, although we were so different in the things we liked and didn’t like, we were the same where it mattered, in understanding how we worked, what made us tick.

‘Will ih … will I geh ih back?’

I had to ask. I’d stopped myself from talking to Lau like she was a nurse, an expert in the thing I had, but this was so big for me that I couldn’t help myself. I needed to know.

Laura

It was what everyone asked, whether it was their sexual function or their ability to walk in a straight line, and it was what I could never answer. The truth was that it would probably come and go, and then it would take longer to come back after it had gone, and then one day it might not come back at all. But I wasn’t going to be saying that right at this moment.

‘No one can promise that. With most people, yes, it comes back. There’s a big psychological element too. Wanting it too much can play as big a part as the physical side of it. And that is the end of Laura Shoeman’s sexual counselling session. That will be one hundred pounds, please, I take personal cheques and cash. Further appointments should be booked through my personal assistant.’

I needed to stop being Nurse Laura. I was here with this gorgeous man, who I kept forgetting had the very disease I spent my working life dealing with, and I wanted to get to know him. I knew there was so much more to him than MS, and I wanted to stop him fixating on it, and tell me about his life.

Matt

She had managed to tell me to step away from the medical questions and make me laugh, at the same time.

‘Ha ha. Lau, yuhr greht, even if yuhr prices ahr a bih stehp. I wan yuh tuh know abouh meh.’

Laura

‘OK, get spilling then.’

I said this with a smile, but inside I was a little worried – was he going to tell me everything? We could be here some time.

Matt

‘Well, OK, buh first, I wan tuh tell yuh abouh yuh. I wan yuh tuh know tha when I first saw yuh, yesterday, the second I saw yuh, I was like, whoa. Ih was profound. I jus knew it was yuh. I wahnt gona stay, Beth talked meh into goin, buh I only agreed tuh put my head roun the door, then I was gona goh, buh I saw yuh an couldn’t stay away. I made ih up abouh wanting tuh talk.’

Lau pretended to be astounded.

‘Then when we were at Meahn Beahn, yuh touched my hand an, whoa, like electric shock. Ih’s like I’ve been looking foh yuh all my life. Whatever I’d behn doing, whoever I’d behn with, I’d have had to stop it to beh wih yuh.’

I was still finding it hard to believe, but it was true. If I’d been with Carrie, or Jules, or if I’d been on my way to the other side of the world, it would all have stopped so I could be here with Lau.

Laura

He looked like he could hardly believe what he was saying, but I believed it, because I felt it. It hadn’t been as instant for me, but it felt like it was now as deep. I felt like I could reach out and touch it, this thing that was binding us together.

‘You know what, that’s what it’s like for me too. Not exactly when I first saw you, all I was thinking was ‘blimey, isn’t that Matt Scott?’, but then I couldn’t stop looking at you, and yeah, I felt the same in Mean Bean, it was like a jolt when we touched. I’m still getting it. I can’t quite take it in, but I love it.’

Matt

Every time she said it, said that she’d felt the same things, I got a bit closer to believing that it was going to happen, was happening right now, but there was still shit she needed to know. It was all very well me thinking that nothing would stop me being with her, that she could tell me anything and it wouldn’t make any difference, but she didn’t necessarily have the same point of view.

‘OK, tha’s greht, I’m glad we fehl the same. I wan tuh tell yuh abouh Jules. I keep almost saying stuff, then goin ‘yuh can’t say tha, Lau wouldn’t understand’ but I think maybe yuh would. We were together foh abouh nine months. I ruined her lihf. She’s the reason I’m like I am now, I mehn trying tuh beh honest an shih.’

Laura

I had been dying to know about Julia, but now he was talking about her, I felt a bit shy about it. Their relationship, or its ending, had obviously affected Matt a lot, and part of me felt ridiculously threatened by what they must have had. I put on what I hoped was an interested and not at all a jealous cow expression.

‘What was she like?’

Matt

‘Bih like meh.’

I’d answered before I really thought about it, but it was partly true.

‘Really?’

Lau frowned, as if she knew different, and again I wondered how much she knew from other people.

Laura

Not from what I’d heard, but I didn’t know her.

‘Only tha she hid herself too. I hide behind Matt the Lad, she hid behind being The Ice Queen. She was warm an funny, but scared and insecure. Weh ended up being too dihferent, we wanted dihferent things, or rather jus the one dihferent thing, buh because I was tuh busy hiding, I hid wha I wanted from myself. I wan a fahmly, rehly wan ih, member I said yesterday?’

I nodded, feeling again the thrill of being invited to join Matt in the journey that led to children. Was that what he’d said? It felt like it. But we’d only known each other a day. God, this was completely insane.

‘She dihnt want children. At all. Ever. Noh compromise. I told her I did a week after weh moved in together.’

‘Oh Matt.’

I could only imagine how devastating that had been for both of them. I knew how much I wanted children, and if the opposite had happened to me, if someone I was committed to had told me it was never going to happen, it would have been the end.

Matt

She looked so sad, it was as if she felt it, how much it had hurt both of us.

‘I dihnt know. Ih was when Chahlie was born, I saw them all together, goh this surge of … lohs of things – jehlousy, recognition, felt ahl protehtive, I jus wanted ih, wha they had. I knew that day ih was gona end wih me an Jules, ih would either go on fuh a while, both pretending ih was OK, then ripping us apart, or ih could rip us apart there an then. Tha’s wha happened. She smashed the place up, picked up her stuff, I never saw her again, apart from one of the mos fucking awful wehks at work Ih’v ever had. The worst thing was, she had this thing, she said she dihnt believe in love, said ih was made up by pehpl. So I’d tell her I dihnt love her, like ih was gona make her fehl better. Buh I did, I so did, I even pretended tha. I told her in the end, wrote a letter, buh way tuh late. So tha’s why now, if I feel ih, I say ih. I try tuh be honest abouh wha I want, wha I’m feeling, first tuh myself and then tuh other pehpl. I’m getting there, buh still a bluhdy mardy git sometimes. Cahnt always dehl wih pehpl caring.’

Laura

‘Do you still love her?’

I needed to know, not that I thought it would make any difference to me, but you need to know these things rather than wondering. Matt’s story was so sad, he obviously still felt very guilty about what had happened, and I wanted to know how he felt now. He’d said, incredibly, unbelievably, that when he saw me – me – only yesterday, he would have finished it anyway. That took a lot of getting my head round, and I just wanted to know how things stood with him and Julia.

Matt

Well that was a bloody awkward question. I knew Lau had seen Jules’ photo, and would have seen me flicking past her pictures on my phone. I could have just said no, but I wanted to start as I intended to go on, and that meant being as honest as I could. I took a deep breath and sighed it out.

‘I think part of meh will always love her. Part of meh still loves Carrie, or how she was tuh staht wih. Buh foh meh ih’s abouh putting ih away, moving on.’

Laura

It was a truly honest reply. He wasn’t trying to soften anything for me; he was just telling me his truth. I reached up and stroked his hair. He put his hand over mine, then pulled it to his mouth and gently kissed my knuckles, looking into my eyes as he did so.

Matt

She seemed OK with this big splurge of information, and I wanted her to know I was grateful.

‘Soh, wha tha means is I tell yuh wha I’m feeling when I feel ih. Try noh tuh hide or be scared of ih. Migh not always manage ih. Migh beh a bih intense foh yuh.’

I really wanted to start this that way, facing up to everything as it happened, not letting my need to keep things to myself, or to do things on my own, or for bloody man points, stop me from being open about shit. I really wanted it. I was at least going to try.

‘Honesty is the best way. I’m pretty up front, usually. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but everyone knows where they are.’

‘OK, then, leh’s start now. Ih’m amazed an fucking terrified. I feel like I’ve found something I dihnt know I was looking foh, buh always needed. I dihnt think I believed in love at first sigh.’

Oh shit, what the fuck was I saying? I said I was being open, not bloody blurting out ridiculousness. Extreme backtracking was in order.

‘Not sayin I love yuh, migh be a bih soon, buh dohnt know how tuh describe wha I’m fehlin.’

I wondered if I’d got away with it. Lau didn’t seem fazed, she was just looking at me the same way she had been all evening, her direct gaze seeming to find a connecting link with my soul. However, this was the closest I had come for a long time to telling someone I loved them. It would, in a way, have been easy to say, as I was feeling such strong emotions for Lau, but saying it now would have been foolhardy, and I wasn’t sure, not yet.

Laura

My heart was pounding. Despite his backtracking, Matt had practically said he loved me. It was mad, crazy, absolutely the most bonkers thing, but so thrilling and so fast. How can you feel like that for someone you’ve just met, who you barely know? But it was true, mad as it was; I felt exactly the same. Sensible Nurse Laura decided to talk for me, though.

‘There’s no rush to say anything we can’t take back later. Let’s just see how it goes. The ‘L’ word is huge. The other ‘L’ word is a bit less scary.’

Matt

I waited for her to tell me which other ‘L’ word she had chosen. I could think of a few I could try – lick, lap, lips …

‘Like.’

‘Oh. Yeh. And lust. Lohs of lust foh yuh, Lau. I like lusting after Lau a loh. Yuhr turn: Matt makes me …’

I tried to reduce the intensity a bit, to back us both away from what I had nearly declared so rashly, and I waggled my eyebrows, indicating she should finish the sentence.

‘Oh. OK … Matt makes me mad with … er … magnetism …’

‘Magnetism? Tha’s best yuh can come up wih?’

‘I thought it was a fair shot for being put totally on the spot.’

‘How abouh manly masculinity?’

‘If you like.’

‘Manly Matt likes Lusty Lau a loh.’

‘And Lusty Lau … er … must have Manly Matt.’

‘Yuhr rubbish at this.’

‘Oi! My name is much easier to rhyme with.’

‘Not rhyming, alliterating.’

‘OK, clever clogs. You just had some lucky words.’

‘Leh’s call ih a draw. Lau …’

I looked into her eyes. She looked back. I loved messing about with her, batting words to and fro, but it wasn’t all I wanted to do. There was a plan to be following.

‘I rehly wana kiss yuh.’

‘OK. What’s stopping you?’

‘Not much. Buh not often behn in bed wih a woman, an snogged an tha’s ih.’

‘We managed OK yesterday, didn’t we?’

‘Yeh, buh yuh wanted more, an I frehked.’

This, us, being together but not being able to be properly together, was going to get weird – or should that be weirder – if we didn’t talk about it.

‘I didn’t notice you freaking, I noticed you asking me to stop and me stopping. Isn’t that what everyone does? Matt, I’ll say it as often as you need me to, we’re taking it slowly here. Maybe some things are going way way fast, but that’s fine because other things can go way way slow. Slow is fine, slow is good, slow is damn good, we can get to know each other, talk about things, work stuff out before we worry about sex. We’re doing everything else the wrong way round, why not that too?’

God, she was awesome. She was just so calm and down to earth about it all, like it was completely normal for her to spend two nights in a row in bed with a fucking cripple with fucked-up downbelows, kissing and feeling each other up and nothing more, no more fucking anything for the foreseeable.

Laura

He carried on looking into my eyes. If he didn’t kiss me soon, I was going to take matters into my own hands.

‘Lau, yuhr fucking amazing.’

I shrugged modestly, relishing the compliment.

Matt

‘Knoh wha, though, I’m bluhdy knackered.’

I laughed.

‘Cahnt believe I’m saying tha, wha’s time? Shih, not even eigh yet. Quick snog then sleep foh me, yuh gona stay?’

‘I can’t stay the night, I haven’t brought anything with me.’

‘Stay foh bih? Jus cuddle.’

I was still pushing, trying to get her to stay. I wondered whether, if she fell asleep, she’d end up staying the night anyway. I didn’t care if she slept in her undies – was extremely unambivalent to the idea actually – and I could rustle up a spare toothbrush if necessary.

From the living room, Beth’s text tone sounded. I sighed. I’d managed to forget, for a couple of hours, that I was the personal property of Beth Scott due to being short-sighted enough to have awarded her health coordinator status. I was bloody irritated that she’d reminded me.

‘Wha now? They’ve made ih since this afternoon withouh checking up on meh.’

‘Just answer them, Matt.’

I sighed again, closed my eyes, almost too tired to bother, then opened them, gave Lau a quick kiss on the lips and tottered into the living room to retrieve my phone.

Laura

I watched him walk unsteadily to the living room, retrieve his phone, and come back to bed.

‘You’re really tired, aren’t you.’

He looked at me ruefully and nodded.

‘Even if I was fuhly functional, wouldn’t hahv the energy tonigh. Iz does foh meh, an had a long day yesterday. Wih lohs of excitement.’

He winked at me, then bent his head to his phone to read his text.

Matt

‘Oh, ha ha, apparently Iz told Beth she was going tuh live wih me so she can hahv pizza and ice crehm foh lunch every day.’

Excellent. My afternoon’s work was yielding fruit. That would teach Beth. Oh, no, that’s right, it wouldn’t, but that didn’t stop me gloating about my small and extremely time-limited victory.

‘So she’s not checking up on you, then, just checking in.’

Oh alright, you win, Lau. You always did.

‘OK, yuhr righ, I did hear wha yuh said yesterday, Ih’v been texting back more today. Maybe ih’s worked.’

‘Bossy Nurse Laura strikes again.’

She raised a brow at me, impishly

‘Yeh. Cohm here before yuhr head gehs too big tuh snog.’

Laura

We moved towards each other and our lips met with the increasingly familiar jolt of electricity. We held each other tightly and moved slowly and lingeringly in each other’s mouths, hands roaming over each other’s bodies. I felt Matt’s hands slide down my back and settle on my bum, where he stroked me over the top of my knickers. I followed suit and moved my hands along his side, unable to resist slipping my hand under the waistband of his boxers, where it came to rest on his bum cheek. It was very firm and was crying out for a squeeze, so I squeezed.

Matt

‘Holy fuck, Lau, yuhr killing me.’

‘Sorry, shall I stop?’

‘Fuck noh. Loving ih. Yuhv goh greht hands.’

We held each other, touching, kissing, looking deep into each other’s eyes, until I was unable to stop the blackness of sleep claiming me. It drifted in from the corners of my vision and took me away while I was stroking Lau’s soft hair and feeling her lips tasting mine.

I hope you’ve noticed. I hope you’ve been paying attention to what I have been doing and what I haven’t been doing. There has been a lot of groping and feeling up that Matt and Lau have been doing, and I expect you assume that all parts have been fair game, but if you think about it, no, not all parts. I have been saving myself. We have been going faster than a speeding bullet the last couple of days, but I kind of knew that there were some places I needed to save until later to explore.

Part of it was my plan, and part of it was it just felt right. No cupping was had, by either of us, just stroking of arses, deep kisses. We could have knocked ourselves out, gone everywhere, but it was as if we were balancing the insane speed we were going at emotionally with going slow slow slow in the physical reconnaissance mission. Without Lau telling me, or me having to ask, I knew it was too soon to be touching the bits enclosed in her sensible black bra and pants. Maybe the simple nature of her underwear was sending a message in itself. I didn’t know when she’d be ready, but I knew I’d know. I had never been so in tune with anyone in my life.

Laura

We snuggled together for a while longer, touching, kissing a bit – and oh, his kisses were just as thrilling and tantalising and delicious as they had been the first time – until I felt Matt’s movements slow and stop, his body relax. I spent a long time looking at his face – his eyes were shut, his mouth slightly open, and I heard his breathing deepen. I waited a while, until he’d had the chance to fall properly asleep, then disentangled myself gently and climbed out of bed, grabbing my dress and uniform as I crept out of the room, pulling the door shut behind me. I dressed quickly, then, on a whim, found a bit of paper and wrote a note.

I left it on my pillow, then I let myself quietly out of the flat and drove home, smiling to myself the whole way.

I went to bed early myself. I’d had a tiring twenty four hours or so, and some solid sleep felt like a really good idea. Matt had other ideas, though.

Matt

I woke up and I was alone. It felt wrong, more wrong than sleeping alone had ever felt before. It was the dead of night, and Lau was gone and I missed her. Then I saw the note she’d left, sitting on her pillow, where her head had rested, facing me, just a few hours ago.

Hope you slept well, you look so cute when you’re asleep.

Thanks for a lovely evening,

looking forward to tomorrow’s 30-something DVD night.

My place?

Text me.

Lusty Lau xx

Something that had been blinking at the edge of my consciousness came into view as I read the note. I had no idea how old Lau was. I hadn’t even thought about it. She’d written ’30-something DVD night’, so I assumed she was in her thirties, and yeah I guess I knew she wasn’t like eighteen or some such shit. She certainly wasn’t older than me, but she had a kind of, oh I don’t know, can I call it an ‘ageless quality’ and not sound like a complete arse? Probably not. I guess I mean it didn’t matter. She could have been eighteen or twenty eight or thirty eight or forty eight or more maybe (OK I’m being generous to myself, perhaps), and she would still have been Lau, still the one I’d been looking for. It wasn’t important, but it was … relevant. To the whole having a family thing. I hoped it would become clearer without me having any awkward conversations, and I dismissed it from my mind for now.

So anyway, I was missing Lau, like crazy. I reached for my phone. She’d said text her, although she probably didn’t mean text her in the middle of the night, but you couldn’t be too careful, wouldn’t want to piss her off by mistake.

Laura

A ping from my phone woke me up in the middle of the night. I reached for it blearily, in my disoriented state thinking it was the alarm. The time said three twenty. There was a text.

‘Yr not here 😦 miss u. Thx 4 note.’

Matt

There was a bit of a pause, and I nearly drifted back to sleep. Then she answered.

‘U shld b asleep. Need ur strength 4 2moro = film nite.’

‘U said txt u.’

‘Didn’t mean immediately.’

‘Oh. Shld b more specific w yr bossiness ;)’

‘Will remember 🙂 Go 2 sleep now. Specific enough?’

‘Yeh. Night Lau x’

‘Night x’

‘Sleep tight.’

‘Thx. U2.’

‘Don’t let bedbugs etc.’

‘Go 2 sleep.’

‘Can’t. Miss u.’

‘Me 2 but need sleep. Night. Still holding hands, if it helps.’

‘Yeh. Helps 🙂 xx’

And so I floated back to sleep, holding her hand in my thoughts.

I dreamed that night. I hardly ever dream, or if I do I don’t remember them, but that night I dreamed I was riding a horse along a beach, looking for something. Just as I found it, I woke up. I felt more awake and alert than I had for a long time, and I checked the time. I was amazed to find that it was only just gone quarter past seven.

Lau. My next thought was Lau. She would be getting ready for her day. I grabbed my phone and started texting, thinking that she wouldn’t have much opportunity once she got to work.

Laura

And so another day dawned, at seven seventeen, with the insistent alarm tone of my phone pulling me out of a dream in which I was following a horse along a beach. There was more to it than that, but it skittered away as dreams do and I’d forgotten it before I’d swung my legs out of bed. As I pulled my dressing gown on, my phone pinged. Text from Matt.

‘Hey Lau, u up?’

‘Yes. Just.’

‘We didn’t have dessert.’

‘Oh yeah. Never mind. Bring 2nite?’

‘Cool. Wot time?’

‘I’ll b home after five. NE time after then :)’

‘Wot DVD?’

‘Bring one? One each. If we last that long. DVD nite can b 2 nites. Or 3.’

‘gr8. Cu l8r. M xx’

‘cu xx’

And so, happily set up for the day, I showered, dressed, had breakfast and left for work. Anna was back, her cold on the mend, and when I got in Kate was filling her in on developments with her patients while she’d been off.

‘Hi Lau, thanks for doing the LMS day, I owe you one.’

‘No problem, An, it was a good day.’

With a sudden shiver, I realised that if Anna hadn’t been off sick, I wouldn’t have met Matt. I wouldn’t be in the middle of this thrilling swirl of excitement and emotion. The things that hinge on the common cold virus.

‘Hey, yeah, An, you’ll never guess who came along as a newbie.’

Still not wanting to discuss it, I scowled at Kate, who deliberately didn’t look at me.

‘No, who?’

‘Matt Scott.’

‘What, Rach’s Matt?’

‘Well, Rach’s and half the bloody women in the city’s Matt, yeah.’

‘He’s been diagnosed?’

Kate turned to me, questioning eyebrows raised.

‘Don’t look at me, I just had a quick chat with him afterwards.’

This earned an exasperated snort from Kate.

‘How’s Rach taken it?’

‘Pretty bloody philosophically, actually. She said yesterday he wasn’t a superhero and it was time to move on.’

‘Wow. Might be the best thing that’s ever happened to her, well since ‘that night’.’

Matt

So that was my evening sorted, and the plan was taking shape nicely. Now for the rest of the day. I was feeling great, and getting up early would enable me to organise things so I wasn’t dashing about. I lay in bed for a while, enjoying feeling clear-headed. I sent Lau another text and then I fell asleep, and woke up near lunchtime, feeling muzzy.

Laura

I busied myself boiling the kettle and putting teabags in mugs, trying not to get involved in the conversation. I heard my phone ping in my bag. Another text from Matt.

‘Holding hands xx’

‘:) xx’

Kate noticed me texting.

‘Your mum up and about early, is she?’

It was a sad reflection of my recent lack of romantic success that the person who was most likely to be texting me this early in the morning was my mother, but I smiled ambiguously and let her think what she wanted to.

‘Have a chilled evening yesterday?’

‘Yeah, great, had a takeaway, wine, went to bed early.’

It was all true; leaving stuff out like where and who with, and not mentioning the odd head massage and going to bed with a handsome man again wasn’t like really lying.

‘Sounds like just what you needed, Lau, you weren’t really here yesterday afternoon.’

‘Yeah, I think it was. Oh, hi Rach. Tea?’

The morning went on, all of us either on visits or catching up with writing notes on the computer. Lunchtime came and went with the usual sandwich run, and then we had a referral meeting to set up our schedule for the next week. There was always a steady flow of new referrals to the service, and we each had responsibility for a fairly large caseload.

Matt

I picked up my phone and saw several texts from various people.

Lau: ‘:) xx’

Dec: ‘Alright, m8? Hope u still on 4 Charlie sitting/sleepover Sat :)’

Beth: ‘How r u 2day?’

‘Hi Matty. There’s an all-ability walking group in Telton. Interested?’

‘Emailed u article abt MS and diet.’

‘Don’t forget Amy’s birthday.’

Mum had called but not left a message, as she never did, and Beth must have recruited Jay into the ‘let’s all bug Matty, I’m obviously not annoying him enough on my own’ campaign, as there was a voicemail from him.

‘Hi Matty, er, just, er, wondered if you could, er – oh alright, Beth, just let me do it. Give Beth a call, or something, mate, she’s giving me a ton of bloody grief, you’ll save my ears. Wha –’

I tried not to be exasperated. They all knew I slept hard and never heard my phone if I was really gone. Lau’s words kept coming back to me, and I pinged off a few texts:

‘Hey. Yep, looking 4ward 2 keeping Charlie up l8 on Sat ;)’

‘Beth. I am alive. Was there something u needed? No 2 cripples walking gp, thx tho. Diet? Donuts n beer do it 4 me. CU Sun.’

‘Hey Jay. Tell Beth hv already got Amy’s present. Hope u hv 2.’

Then I called Mum back. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have allowed herself to be drafted into Beth’s circle of bothering, as she was usually pretty good unless it was a real emergency, so there was something specific she wanted to talk to me about.

‘Heh Muhm.’

‘Matthew, dear. I tried to call you earlier.’

‘Yeh, I knoh. Ahr yuh OK?’

‘Yes, dear, but I was wondering if you could help me out with something?’

Mum, bless her heart, always tried her hardest to think of ways to make me feel useful. She knew I was pretty fucked in the limbs department, and my usual handyman abilities were out the window at the moment, so it was often something like a cryptic crossword clue, or she was writing a letter to someone and wanted another word for ‘nice’. She didn’t think I knew what she was doing, or maybe she did and we just played the game of not letting on that I knew she knew I knew, because it was out of kindness, and it worked, in a weird kind of way. It’s always good to be needed, even if it’s only for the answer to seven across.

‘Wha yuh nehd?’

‘Well I was talking to someone at the gardening club the other day, and we were discussing sauces.’

This time it was cooking. Well, I was pretty into cooking, so fair enough.

‘Uh huh.’

‘Well, we were having a slight disagreement about the ingredients of béarnaise sauce. I said that béarnaise had shallots and tarragon, but someone else said that was hollandaise. I was sure you’d know.’

‘Top of the clahs, Muhm. The sauhce is the sahm, buh diffrehnt grehdy yuhms.’

‘Different what, dear?’

I laughed. ‘Iz’s new wohd. Ingrehdiehts. I lihk hers behter.’

‘Ha ha, me too. So what’s in hollandaise? I just want to make sure I get it right next week.’

‘Lehmon juhs an cahenne. Goh geh ’em.’

‘I will. Thank you, dear. How are you?’

Mum was allowed to ask because a) she always talked about something else first and b) she was my mum. I didn’t always tell her the truth, because you don’t always tell your mum everything, but today I was taking advice from a particularly lovely expert in my specific fucking bastard neurological disorder, and I told her the truth. Oh, not about the lovely expert, I wasn’t spilling everything just yet, come on, do you know me at all?

‘Bih wihped. Hahd busy cohple of days. Ohnly jus wohk up.’

‘Oh, you had that day at the church hall, didn’t you. Beth said you stayed for the whole thing.’

Bloody Beth, see, this was why I was so reluctant to do things, go anywhere, talk about anything, because it got endlessly discussed with everyone whether you wanted it or not. I felt like I was public property, and it really pissed me off, and then I stopped talking to anyone about anything. Like with Mum, now. I expect she’d been part of the whole ‘where’s Matty, let’s all panic until we know he’s tucked up in his own bed’ malarkey, even though she hadn’t texted or called herself, but I wasn’t going there right now, and I just closed off.

‘Did she?’

Mum sensed my withdrawal, as she changed the subject.

‘So are you going to Sunday lunch?’

‘Yeh. Staying at Dec an Amy’s Satuhday nigh, lohking after Chahlie while thehr ouh fuh Amy’s birthday. Goin wih them Suhnday mohning.’

I wondered about taking Lau along with me, but I wanted her to myself for a bit longer before I subjected her to the madness of a full-on Scott interrogation. Maybe another time.

Mum, sensing that I’d been annoyed by Beth talking about me to all and sundry, wrapped things up before I could take any further umbrage.

‘Alright, well I’ll see you on Sunday, then. Rose is bringing me.’

‘OK, Muhm, seh yuh thehn.’

I pottered about, getting myself some lunch, changing my bed, doing laundry, all things that should have been so mundane, but all things that sapped my strength, and I had to do slowly and efficiently to conserve my energy. Half way through the afternoon, I sent Lau a text.

Can’t wait 2 cu l8r. Amelie n cheesecake. Mm. Xx.

There wasn’t an immediate reply, and I got on with something else, then I heard the ping and picked up my phone.

Laura

Half way through the afternoon, it was my turn to make the tea. I heard my phone ping on my desk, but didn’t think much of it until I heard Rachel’s voice.

‘Lau … you’ve got a text from Matt?

‘What?’

She was holding my phone up, with the screen clearly showing his name. I never blushed, but I felt my face begin to heat up.

‘Why’s Matt texting you? Is it Matt Matt, as in newly diagnosed with MS and while we’re at it serial woman dumper Matt?’

She looked at the screen. Anna and Kate looked on wide-eyed.

‘Oh my God! You’re seeing him later? What the fuck Lau? He’s texted you kisses.’

I couldn’t make my mouth say any words. I stood there, kettle in my hand, trying to find a single thing to say that would explain it without lying my head off. I could have lied my head off, I might even have made it sound convincing, but eventually Rachel was going to know. And I never lied, but I felt like I had spent the last couple of days at work half-lying. Maybe it was better for all of us that she knew now, when it was new, and I hadn’t been deceiving everyone for ages. My face went hot – it wasn’t embarrassment, it was shame, my half-truths and deceit catching up with me. Trying to ignore my reddened cheeks, I had a stab at it.

‘I’m sorry, Rach, maybe I should have said something, but it’s early days –’

‘Lau!’

This was Kate.

‘You’re not serious, you’re seeing Matt bloody Scott? Oh that is just wrong on so many levels.’

Rachel had turned as red as me, and I saw her expression darken.

‘Well I think I’ll just reply, shall I?’

She started to tap on my phone. I dropped the kettle back onto the table in my haste to get the phone back from Rachel, but she gave it a final triumphant tap and threw it on my desk before picking up her bag and marching out of the office. Kate and Anna continued to look at me, open mouthed.

‘What? It’s not like it’s illegal.’

I lifted my chin defiantly.

‘Bloody hell, Lau, no wonder you didn’t want us all asking about him. What are you thinking? Apart from all the grief he’s given Rach, who is your friend in case you need reminding, he’s a wanker of the first order and, just to top it all, he’s got bloody MS. Could you be seeing a more inappropriate person?’

I held her gaze, determined not to be ashamed. What Matt and I were starting to have wasn’t shameful, I’d checked it out with Patrick, it was just that things were awkward while Rachel was getting used to it.

Then I had a bit of a reality check. I’d known how upset Rachel was going to be, and I’d gone ahead anyway, not really caring. Now things were going to be really tricky here, I had lost a good friend, and, yes, Kate was right, it was a pretty inappropriate relationship. As I was thinking all this, my phone rang. I walked over to where Rachel had thrown it. The screen announced that Matt was calling. I answered, then walked outside.

Matt

I was more than a bit surprised by Lau’s response.

‘Get lost you cocking ballache.’

What? Something had gone badly wrong. Either I had done something to upset her, although what the fuck it could have been I had no clue, or someone had told her something about me, or maybe someone had taken her phone, maybe she’d been mugged, or – I needed to stop catastrophising and call her. I frantically hit call and waited for what seemed like a million rings before it was answered.

‘Hello.’

So she hadn’t lost her phone. It must have been directed at me, then. She didn’t sound that pleased to hear from me. Fuck, what had I done?

‘Lau? Wha’s wrong?’

Laura

Wow, it was as if he was psychic. How could he have possibly known what had just happened? He couldn’t. What did he mean, then?

‘Er …’

Matt

She sounded hesitant and a bit confused.

‘Why did yuh call me a cocking ballache?’

Laura

‘Oh.’

Oh great. Rach had really landed me in it.

‘I didn’t. That was Rachel. Sorry, a whole lot of something smelly just hit the fan here. She saw your text, wasn’t happy, sent you a reply.’

Matt

Oh, the friend. Well that explained things a bit, but sounded bad from Lau’s point of view.

‘Oh fuck. Are yuh OK?’

Laura

Matt seemed to be taking it well. At least he didn’t think it was me who’d sent him an insulting message.

‘Been better. It was bound to happen eventually. I’d have liked a bit more time to prepare, but whatever. Better out than in, as they say.’

I tried to put a smile in my voice, but felt close to tears and took a deep shuddering breath.

Matt

She sounded like she was putting on a brave face and I so wished I could see her, hold her, make it alright.

‘Are yuh nearly finished foh the day?’

‘Hour or so more.’

Oh bloody hell, I needed to get going, if I was going to get all the buses I needed to cross the city to Lau’s house. I tried to sound as reassuring as I knew how to, before I disconnected and set off.

‘Hang in there. Hohding hands till I see yuh.’

‘Thanks. Need it. Better go.’

‘Bye Lau.’

I sent her some virtual strength through our still mentally clasped hands, not that it was likely to make any difference, but was the best I could manage.

71. Hopeless wanderer

In which the worst is faced, and help is sought.

Julia

And I did move away and live my life. I loved my new job in Norwich, and I loved living in Nons’, or rather my, house, where I had all my memories of growing up alongside all my grown-up things.

William and I got on really well, but he was getting older, and eventually his daughters persuaded him to move back up north so they could stop worrying about him so much.

Matt

So. I’ll ease into it. Plans were afoot for the big moving day; Dec and Amy finally got the green light for moving into their house, and I took a day off to help them, because big burly men seemed inexplicably difficult to come by at a rugby club, or maybe there was some big training thing they all had to go to but Dec was given dispensation because he was moving. I wasn’t really paying attention while they were all discussing it, and I fell asleep in the middle of it. It wasn’t going to happen for a week anyway, and Sunday lunch at Jay and Beth’s always filled my belly and slowed me down. I woke up after a short time, and was not pleased to find the conversation hadn’t moved on.

‘Oh, back with us Matty. We were just saying, if you put some boxes in your car, Dec and Amy could hire a smaller van.’

‘Yeah, whaever.’ I noticed the slur instantly, tiny though it was. I tried to play it cool, see if anyone else was looking at me like they’d noticed too, without making it obvious I was looking. I seemed to have got away with it. It was just because I was tired. I was so knackered all the time with work being more than full-on since Jules left, I only felt half awake at any given moment recently. It would hardly be surprising if a word or two got slurred on its way out. I dismissed it, refused to acknowledge its presence.

‘What time are you going to be there?’

‘When?’

‘Come on Matty, keep up, on moving day.’

‘Oh I dohnt bloody knoh.’

Shit, there it was again. Or rather wasn’t. There was no way I was going to allow this to happen. I tried really hard, concentrated on speaking clearly, limiting the amount of words I was saying.

‘There’s ages yet.’

That was better. Three whole words, clear as a bell. I fixed Beth with my best ‘I’m not getting involved in this, ask me again when it’s nearer the time’ look, and kept pretty quiet for the rest of the afternoon. There were a few more times when my words weren’t as clear as I might have liked, I wasn’t sure if anyone else had noticed, but I saw Amy look at me a couple of times. I was fairly safe with Amy, who was a bit intimidated when I was in a ‘don’t mess with me’ mood.

I got home that afternoon and went straight to bed, sleeping right through until I had to get up to go to work. No. This was not happening. I convinced myself I was OK. I tried really hard not to slur my words, and I made it go away. Result. Whatever it was, I’d beaten it with determination. Probably just tiredness, as I’d thought. Or a virus.

The day of the big move came, with all the attendant fuss and bother on the part of Beth. Rose was having Charlie and Iz, I was meeting the van at Dec and Amy’s flat, and Beth was going straight to the new house once Cal was at school.

Of the three of us, Rose undoubtedly had the hardest task, as Iz and Charlie were each a handful on their own, and trouble was never far away when they were together. If anyone could handle them, though, it was Rose, and she was so pleased to be getting her hands on Charlie for a whole day, all to herself, that she might not even notice if Iz screamed the place down from the moment she got there.

I arrived at Dec and Amy’s flat shortly after the van, and took my turn carrying boxes down the two flights of stairs and filling my four wheel drive up with them. I drove the first load to the house, with Amy in the front seat. She was going to unlock the place, then stay behind to unpack and let Beth in.

‘Big day fuh the Suhmers-Wrights, then.’

Fuck, where had that come from? I’d been trying really hard. Amy glanced at me, frowning slightly.

‘Yeah. Exciting though. This last week, I’ve really noticed how cramped we are.’

‘They say babies tahk up more room than grohn ups.’

Shit, I was going to have to stop bloody talking.

‘Tell me about it. Charlie’s already got more clothes than me and Dec put together.’

I daren’t say anything else, and it created an awkward silence as we approached the road where they were going to live.

‘Oh, Beth’s here already. I’ll just go and let her in.’

Amy hopped out of the car, leaving me to open the boot and lift the boxes out. I managed the first two with no difficulty, but when I carried the third one over the threshold my arms gave way, and it fell from my grip to the floor with a crash.

‘Fuck.’

I bent down to pick it up again, noticing that the label on the box said ‘Fragile’.

‘Alright, Matty?’

Beth’s voice floated from the living room, which was Unpacking Central for the day.

‘Yeah. Not sure abouh the crockery.’

Amy appeared in the hall and I looked at her ruefully.

‘Sorry, Amy, I’m a klutz. I’ll pay fuh anything I’ve broken.’

‘Oh don’t be daft, there’s nothing valuable. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Matt … are you alright?’

‘Yeah, I didn’t drop ih on my foot or anything. Noh harm done.’

I chose to deliberately misunderstand her, but she still put her hand on my arm and looked up at me, worried. Fuck. I really hoped she wasn’t going to say anything to Beth, or that would be my peace shattered for the foreseeable, but how could I ask her not to say anything without making a big deal out of it? And how can you make a big deal out of nothing? It was nothing, after all.

‘I’ll go back fuh the rest, then.’

I turned and hurried to the car before she could say anymore.

Later that day, once all their stuff had been moved from one place to the other, unpacked, vaguely sorted, and the beers were out, I could relax. I hadn’t dropped anything else, but I felt weird, a bit wobbly. I convinced myself I was coming down with something, and just needed to take it easy. Trouble was, there was no taking it easy at the moment, I was working way above my hours, I’d had to talk fast to get today off, and there was no sign of a let up in the next couple of weeks, as they still hadn’t filled Jules’s post.

As I was relaxing among the boxes, I was suddenly aware of glances and various people leaving the room (Amy and Beth) and me being on my own with Dec. He didn’t speak for a few minutes, just continued drinking his beer, surveying the packing crates as if he was doing a logistical analysis. Then he took a deep breath.

‘So, are you going to go to your GP, or are you just going to pretend it’s not happening for another week or so, until you can’t ignore it?’

‘What?’

Well, obviously, option two. It was my MO. Denial followed by dogged defence of said denial.

‘Matt. Do us all a favour, and for once in your fucking life don’t make me drag it out of you. You know exactly what I mean, it’s all over your face. Amy said you dropped a box today –’

‘So? Has noh one ehver dropped a fucking box befohr?’

‘Listen to yourself. Anyone would think you’d had half a dozen beers, not half of one.’

I drained my bottle and held it up, defiantly.

‘Whole one.’

‘I’m not saying it’s anything, shit, what the fuck do I know? All I’m saying is, go and see your GP. You’re working too hard, not sleeping, could be any fucking thing, and I hope, I really bloody hope, that it is. Just go and get it checked, yeah? For your peace of mind and ours.’

And so of course I went on the attack, it was the best form of defence, wasn’t it? Who said that? Some genius.

‘Oh, well, as long as you’re all bloody peaceful, that’s alright. Wouldn’t want Beth to lose any sleep worrying about me, or have to disturb your precious bloody infant with a text. Thanks for the beer, Dec, I’ll see myself out.’

I even managed to say that without a single unintelligible bollock, and then I stood up and walked out of the house to my car, half expecting to hear someone come after me, but it seemed like, this time, they were going to leave me to it. From the past, the infuriatingly prescient words of the great philosopher Declan Summers rang in my ears. ‘One day they’ll leave you alone more and more, you’ll have got your wish.’ It nearly stopped me, nearly turned me round to apologise, tell them how scared I was, ask for their help, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t admit to myself what I was scared of, so I drove off in a fury, fuck them, fuck them all.

And nothing stopped, work just got busier, and I was tired, so tired of it all, of the work, of pretending I was feeling OK, of being Matt the Lad, who didn’t exist any more. All I was doing was getting up, working, coming home, sometimes not even eating before going to bed, then getting up to do it all again, trying not to trip, trying not to stumble, trying to see everything clearly, trying not to fall apart. It was like those times in Stafford when Eyeti was so busy, but I was older now, it was harder, I was missing Jules and I was feeling wretched.

Of course, something was bound to happen. When you’re ignoring things that can’t be ignored, it usually takes some kind of event to bring you to your senses. As was becoming the norm, it was Charlie who did it.

Dec and Amy visited unannounced. They caught me off guard when I was expecting a pizza delivery, and I let them in. I hadn’t heard from anyone all week, not since Dec tried to talk to me on the day they moved.

I didn’t know what to make of it – maybe it was a new tactic to try and smoke me out, or tough love, or some such fucktardery. So when my buzzer sounded and it was Dec’s voice saying ‘Let us up you bastard, we’ve got beer and ice-cream and your pizza, and if you ever want to see it again you’ll open your fucking door. Oh, and Charlie really, really needs a change’, I pressed the door opener button.

‘How the fuck did yuh geh my pizza?’

‘Delivery boy believed us when we said we were you. Maybe it was the hefty tip we offered him – you’re going to have to be more generous next time.’

‘Ih’m not sharing, Ih’m bluhdy stahving.’

My speech was getting worse, people were starting to pick up on it at work, and I saw the look Dec gave me when he heard it, but he didn’t comment.

‘Fair enough, we’ve had our tea anyway. Can Ames use your bathroom to change this one?’

‘Suhr.’

Amy disappeared with Charlie and a large bag of vital baby gear. Dec sat on the sofa and looked at me.

‘Wha?’

‘You know what.’

‘Fuck ohf.’

‘No. You know how this works. We’ve left you alone all week, thinking you might come to your fucking senses on your own, but it seems you need a kick up the arse this time. Just like every other time. You don’t get to be on your own. I know you’re up to your eyeballs at work, you’re fucking knackered, I can see that, but you look, I don’t know, there’s something else, and if I have to fucking well drag you to see your doctor myself I will. I mean it.’

‘Piss ohf. Ih’m a bihg boy now.’

‘Yeah, so grown up you storm out when I try to help you, and go all silent on us.’

‘Piss ohf.’

I was running out of pithy epithets.

‘No. I’m staying right here until you promise me you’ll go and see someone. It might not be what you think it is. Beth says –’

‘Oh fuck Beth. Yuh’ve all behn talking abouh meh, hahvnt yuh?’

‘Yeah, mate, we have. We’re worried. About what’s going on with you, and how hard you’re working when you’re obviously not well, especially after the shitty time you’ve had recently. You’ve lost fucking tons of weight, not that you had a lot to lose. Look at this place.’

Dec gestured at the flat, which I had been unable to clear up for days, but still looked tidier than his kitchen.

‘You never leave it like this, washing up not done, teabags on the drainer. You’re not yourself. Bottom line, I’m staying right here, on your sofa, until you promise.’

‘Wha am I, threh? OK, I prohmis.’

I held my fingers up in the Scout salute, hoping to shut him the fuck up. I had never been a Scout.

‘Nah, don’t believe you.’

‘Wha? Fuck ohf. Piss ohf. Gona eat my pizza, ih’s gehting cold.’

I opened the box and shovelled half a slice into my mouth, even though I had no appetite.

‘Well at least you’re eating, that’s something.’

‘Phmpf hff.’

I had a mouthful of pizza; I hadn’t suddenly developed an even worse speech defect. Dec continued to sit and look at me, and I found it irritating beyond measure, but also strangely reassuring. Here we were, having our old conversation, the old battle. I knew it was going to be OK in the end, it was just a matter of how long I made him wait. I ate more of the pizza while he sat with his arms folded, watching with the hint of an amused smile on his face.

After a while, Amy came out of the bathroom with Charlie in her arms and a full nappy bag dangling from her finger.

‘Have you got anywhere I can put this, Matt?’

‘Bin.’

I gestured over to the kitchen. Amy walked towards me with Charlie, who looked at me in a very beguiling way.

‘Can you just grab her while I take it over?’

I couldn’t resist, could I? I wasn’t completely heartless, just annoyed and self-centred. I held my arms up, and as Amy handed her over, to my horror I felt my grip slip. Charlie started to slide out of my useless fingers, and it all seemed to happen in slow motion as she began to fall backwards, then Amy realised what was happening, dropped the nappy bag and lunged forwards to catch Charlie before she hit the floor. I stared, wide-eyed, at Charlie, who was quickly scooped up into Amy’s arms and held tight.

‘Fuck, Amy, fuck, Ih’m soh sohry, my fingers …’

I looked at the offending digits as if they were going to explain to me what the fuck they thought they were playing at.

‘It’s OK, Matt, no harm done. You’re alright, aren’t you, lovely girl?’

She smiled at Charlie, safely nestled in her arms, but her face spoke of that moment of terror when something dreadful nearly happens to your child.

I carried on looking at Charlie, thinking about what had almost happened, what might happen again if I didn’t do something about my misbehaving nerves and muscles. I took a deep breath and glanced at Dec, who looked almost as scared and relieved as Amy. He hadn’t spoken, but was continuing to watch me with even more dogged determination, and didn’t need to say anything.

‘OK. Ih’ll go an seh the doctor. Yuh dohnt hahv tuh sleep on the sofa ahl night. Dohnt leh meh drop yuhr baby again. Fuck, Ih’m sohry, Ih’m soh sohry.’

They both breathed out a sigh of relief and looked at each other. Charlie was squirming in Amy’s arms, looking at me.

‘Do you still want a cuddle with Unca Matty, lovely girl? Go on then.’

‘Wha? Noh!’

Amy sat down beside me and passed Charlie over.

‘It’s OK, Matt, you can’t drop her from there. I think you need a good cuddle, and Charlie’s completely excellent at it.’

I stared at Amy in amazement as I wrapped my arms tightly round Charlie, and looked at Dec for confirmation. He looked equally happy for me to hold their daughter, only minutes after I’d nearly dropped her on the floor.

‘Fuck, yuh guys. Thahks.’

Dec and Amy stayed for a little while, until I showed obvious signs of being wiped out. I promised again that I’d go to the doctor, and that I’d text tomorrow with the time of my appointment. Not that Dec didn’t trust me, of course, but I didn’t have the best track record in doing what I was told, even following salutary lessons in listening to my mate. He agreed in turn not to report back to Beth, for the time being, and that he would leave that to me, as long as I agreed to tell him what was going on.

I flopped into bed almost as soon as they had gone, but found sleep elusive. I finally spiralled down into unconsciousness while trying to convince myself that I was overtired and had a virus, and everybody was just fussing too bloody much as per.

The next morning, just before I set off for work, I had a text from Dec.

‘Have u rung yet?’

‘Just abt 2. Stop nagging.’

‘Nope, not gonna stop. Ring now.’

It didn’t seem like I had much choice, so I called, told them it wasn’t urgent, because, well, it wasn’t like my leg was hanging off or I’d severed an artery or some such shit, I was just tired or had a virus or something. I got an appointment for a few days time, texted Dec, hoping that would stop the fussing. No such luck. Now I had constant reminders from him, at least twice a day, of the date and time of my appointment. It was as if he had nothing better to do than torment me via text message.

I steered clear of them all for the next few days and over the weekend, being so busy at work that I didn’t have time to think about it. Yeah, maybe I was keeping myself intentionally over-occupied. I have no idea what Dec said to keep Beth at bay, but it must have satisfied her because I didn’t hear from her once.

Then it was time for my appointment. I really couldn’t afford the time off work, but I’d managed to make it first thing, so I could go in to work afterwards and put in nearly a full day. I was so sure it was going to be tiredness or a virus. So sure. OK, terrified it wasn’t going to be that, but putting all my eggs in the tiredness and virus basket and not prepared to look at any other baskets, with or without eggs.

I sat in the waiting room, not able to concentrate on any of the magazines, on any of the games on my phone (which I always played despite all the fascist ‘do not use mobile phones’ notices), on anything except the clock, which ticked on towards my appointment time, then a few minutes after it, then well after it, until thirty minutes after my appointment time, my name was called. I was a wreck.

The doctor apologised for the wait, and I nodded but didn’t say anything. She asked what she could do for me, and I sat and looked at her and didn’t know where to start.

‘You haven’t been to see me for quite a while, have you?’

I shook my head. I never went to the doctor, had had little reason to since I registered when I first moved down to the city. I didn’t even know if this was my regular GP.

‘Is there something specific you’re worried about?’

I bit back a sarcastic retort. No, of course not, I just felt like taking time out of my busy schedule to arse about in her office. Instead of saying this, however, I nodded, trying to brace myself to say the words. I couldn’t force them out of my mouth, though. It could change everything.

The doctor looked at her computer screen. It was angled away from me so I couldn’t see what was on it. Probably just as well; ‘Serious Fuck Up’ was never pleasant reading. If it wasn’t there before, it would be after I left.

‘I see here that you have MS.’

I nodded.

‘Forgive me for playing guessing games, but you seem to be having trouble telling me how I can help you. You’ve had no symptoms for several years?’

I nodded again. I was barely holding on, ready to run as fast as my stuttering legs would take me.

‘Have any of the symptoms returned?’

I nodded, found my voice.

‘Buh Ih’m tihred, rehly busy at work, jus brohk up wih my girfriehd, I thihk ih’s strehs.’

She looked at me and nodded, not discounting my theory, but not confirming it either. She seemed relieved that I’d spoken, but would have been unable to miss the mess my mouth was making of words.

‘Maybe you could tell me some of your symptoms?’

‘Wehl, ha, spehking ihnt greht, Ih’m drohping shih … er …’

‘Any changes to your vision?’

Yeah, shit, everything was blurry. I’d been meaning to get my contact lenses checked out. I nodded. The doctor raised an eyebrow to encourage me to continue.

‘Dohbl sohmtimes.’

‘How about walking? Any trips, stumbles?’

‘Yeh. Buh Ih’m tihred.’

‘Of course. Tiredness can cause all of these things, but –’

I tried to forestall her. I had one last card left.

‘Couhd ih beh a virus?’

She nodded her head, considering.

‘It could be, but to be perfectly honest, Matt, it sounds to me like you’re having a flare-up of MS.’

‘Noh.’

It came out as a pathetic whimper. It took me back to that time up in Stafford, when a different doctor told me the same news. I felt as if I’d left my body for a moment, could feel the universe shift around me as I floated, directionless, amongst the black holes and supernovas. Then I came back, and the doctor was still talking, but I didn’t hear a word. It was all over. I’d had a few years when I’d managed to fool myself into thinking I’d defeated it, but it had been there all the time, waiting for its chance. The fucking bastard.

I took my cues from the doctor. She stood up, held her hand out, it was obviously time to go, to stop clogging up her already over-running surgery.

I stumbled outside, and couldn’t remember where I’d parked the car. I couldn’t see it, and couldn’t think, so I just started to walk, as best I could, heading fuck knows where. After a long while, stumbling half-blindly along the streets, getting caught in a heavy rain shower, I recognised where I was; my feet had led me here, of course they had. Here was where I would be OK, here was where I could stop and get sorted. Here was Declan Summers.

I rang the bell. There was a short wait, barely long enough for me to consider walking away, before Dec’s tall frame was outlined in the frosted glass at the front door. He was still wearing his muddy training gear; he must have just got home.

Dec

I’d just got back after a tough session, and was looking forward to a hot bath, after all morning on the training ground in the pouring rain. Having a bath again, after all our time in the flat with only a shower, was still a bit of a treat, and I had a really long soak planned, with a special bath-time playlist sorted on my MP3 player. I was so keen I’d come straight home without showering at the club.

Amy and Charlie were out, and I was just heading up the stairs when the doorbell rang. I stopped in mid-stride, extremely reluctant to go back and answer the door to what, at this time of day, was likely to be someone trying to sell me something, but as usual unable to ignore the doorbell. I sighed, turned round and went to the door, where a familiar shape was outlined in the frosted glass. I pulled the door open.

‘Matt, hi.’

}Cah I come in?

‘Course, is everything OK?’

He stepped over the threshold without answering and stood, wild-eyed and wary, in the hallway, hands shoved in his pockets, not meeting my eyes. He looked like he’d been out in the rain – his hair was wet, and his clothes were damp. I wondered where he’d been.

Matt

I was sure he could see ‘everything’ wasn’t ‘OK’. It was unlikely, given his badgering for the past few days, that he’d forgotten I was going to see the doctor today, but he seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I stepped over the threshold without answering and stood in the hallway, hands shoved in my pockets, looking at the floor. My clothes were still damp from the downpour, and I felt dishevelled and unsettled.

‘Beer?’

No, Dec, my life is falling apart. Help me.

‘Noh, bih early for me.’

‘Really? Since when?’

‘Since I fucking saih so.’

I couldn’t be doing with banter, not now. Don’t fucking tease, me Dec. Help me.

Dec

I noticed the slur in his speech, which seemed a bit worse since I last saw him, and remembered that today was his appointment with the doctor.

‘OK then. Come and sit down and tell me what’s bothering you.’

He followed me into the lounge and sat perched on the edge of the sofa, clasping and unclasping his fingers, looking preoccupied and uncomfortable. I decided to let him talk in his own time. If the silence went on too long, I’d have to rethink my strategy. He didn’t speak for a long while, taking lots of deep breaths, seeming several times to be on the point of starting, then stopping himself. I was pretty sure I knew what he was here to say, but I wanted him to tell me without me dragging it out of him. He would give me more information if he didn’t think he had lost something by giving it; however, he was obviously finding it hard to say, and I was about to ask him what was up …

Matt

I followed him into the lounge and sat down on the sofa, perching on the edge, not wanting to leave a wet patch from my rain-soaked jeans, still feeling ready to run. I watched myself clasping and unclasping my fingers, as if they didn’t belong to me. Dec didn’t say anything else, just sat and waited. I tried to say it, several times. It was almost as hard as trying to speak in the doctor’s surgery. I had to make myself say it. If I didn’t it was only going to get worse. Worse would be very bad.

‘Ih’s back.’

‘What?’

Oh come on, Dec. You know as well as I do. Don’t make me fucking say it. But he just looked at me, and I was going to have to.

‘Bastard MS. Ih’s fucking come back. Ih’ve jus been tuh my GP like you saih. She saih ih’s a flare up. I’m fucked.’

And as a few stray thoughts started to filter into my head, I felt like I truly was fucked. It was all ending, back to square one, beyond square one. I had no safety net, no other options, apart from falling all the way to the bottom of the pit in the middle of Fucksville, UK.

‘Shit, Matt, no way, I’m really sorry.’

‘Dohnt need your fucking pity.’

Anger was simmering down there, now.

‘I’m not giving you pity, for fuck’s sake. You know me better than that. What else did she say?’

‘Dohnt knoh.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Once she saih ih’s back, I couhnt listen any more. Dihnt hear what she saih. Wha’s fucking poin? S’all over now.’

‘That’s bullshit for a start. What do you think is all over?’

Dec was being particularly stupid today. He must know what I’d been dreading, he’d seen what I was like before, when I lost it all last time, he’d been in the same place at the start.

‘Nohmal life. Back to having my ahrs wiped. No behr, no sex, no fucking say in anything.’

‘Need your arse wiping right now, do you? Happy to oblige.’

How dare he make a joke about it?

‘Fuck off.’

I nearly got up and left, but I had nowhere else to go. I needed him.

‘Matt, I know it must be a huge shock, after all this time, but aren’t you being a bit dramatic?’

Oh, so now I was a drama queen.

‘Wha the fuck do you know abou ih?’

‘Absolutely nothing, I freely admit, but I have read some stuff and surely there are lots of different ways this can go, not just the worst possible way. Last time, you had pneumonia and that was what really fucked you up, wasn’t it?’

I was silent for a while. I covered my face with my hands, leaned forwards and took several deep, heaving breaths, almost sobbing. If Dec had read stuff, he’d done more than I had, for years. I’d read a bit in the beginning, but it scared the shit out of me to find out what could happen, so like everything else to do with this fucking bastard disease, I’d just buried it. Yeah, I knew that things could go several ways, but wasn’t it bound to be the worst way? Wasn’t it?

Dec

Matt was silent for a while. He put his hands over his face, leaned forwards and took several deep, heaving breaths, on the verge of sobs. He spoke through his fingers.

}Ih’s all jus like ih was before. Cahnt talk properly, dropping shit all over the place, tripping over nothing, cahnt see properly.

He looked up at the ceiling, blinking away tears.

Matt

This was so hard, to face this, admit it was true, and tell people. I looked up at the ceiling, trying to stop the tears that were filling my eyes from spilling down my face. If I started crying, it was going to be ugly.

‘Fuck ih, Dec, I dohnt think I can go back there. I cahnt fucking do it.’

‘Then don’t.’

‘Ih’s not like I have a fucking choice.’

Did he think I could just, like, decide what happened next?

Dec

I meant that he didn’t have to go down the route of it being a disaster; that there were other ways of looking at things, but I saw from the look on his face that this was too new, that he could only see the negatives at the moment. To be honest, I would have to do some thinking to come up with positives for him right at this moment, as well.

‘Have you told Beth?’

As I said it, I realised that Matt wouldn’t see that as a positive. The strength and support I got from talking things over with my family felt to Matt like restriction and interference. He looked at me, horrified.

Matt

Beth was the furthest person from my thoughts. I would never get any respite from thinking about it all if I said anything to her.

‘Fuck no! Cahnt cope wih all tha fussing and … oh shit … they’ll try to drag me back there to live wohnt they … shit, wha a cocking cluhsterfuck.’

When it happened before, and they came up to Stafford, and got a house especially for me, yeah, I appreciated it, they saved me, it was awesome. But now, going back there, it was like imagining some kind of twisted torture where you have to relive your worst humiliations over and over again.

Jay and I never talked about when he’d had to wipe my arse. It wasn’t even something we joked about. It was there, it had happened, it had been necessary, I was grateful. End of.

Dec

I thought of a way to make telling Beth a good thing. Now I just had to convince Matt.

‘Beth knows a lot about this kind of stuff, she can help you keep yourself as well as possible. She could help you. Maybe she can go back to the GP with you so at least someone listens to what you’re being told. There must be stuff you can do to make sure things don’t get any worse.’

Matt

I hadn’t thought about Beth actually helping me. Hadn’t been able to think beyond how much she was going to take over. Perhaps if she had a focus for her interference, being like a health coordinator or some such shit, she wouldn’t be so bloody unbearable.

Dec

More silence as Matt considered. Although he was frequently irritated with Beth’s need to solve everyone’s problems, this might just be a way to let both of them help each other.

}Maybe.

It was as much as he was likely to concede, and he would make up his own mind.

}You wohnt tell them, will you?

I sighed; this was Matt’s mantra.

Matt

I knew exactly what he was thinking. I always asked this, ‘don’t tell them I a) got so shit-faced I got on a train to Stafford without any money, or b) needed rescuing when Lauren Miller’s brother was looking for me with a baseball bat, or c) lost my car keys at four in the morning and needed the spare from my flat’. It helped me stay in control of it all. It was hard for him, though, when he was always so open about everything.

‘No, but you should. I don’t like keeping this important shit from them, and neither does Amy.’

I’d thought ‘don’t tell them’ meant everyone.

‘Fuck, dohnt tell Amy.’

‘Maybe I won’t tell her everything, but I don’t keep stuff from her, you know that. You tell me, you run the risk of me telling Amy. Otherwise I end up watching what I say, and it gets bloody close to lying to her. I won’t do that, even for you, mate.’

I’d temporarily forgotten about Dec’s open mouth policy when it came to Amy. They apparently had no secrets, bloody annoying lovey-dovey couple that they were.

Dec

Matt was silent, still not meeting my eyes.

‘Have you been back to see Adam?’

Matt

Well that was a bit out of left field. He hadn’t ever asked me about him, and all I had was a half-truthful excuse.

‘No, behn too busy.’

‘OK.’

The look on his face wound me up, although he was just looking at me and nodding.

‘Fuck off, I hahv.’

I put all the wounded injustice in my voice that I could muster, as I had been insanely busy recently, and even if I had made another appointment to see Adam, I wouldn’t have been able to keep it.

Dec

‘I said OK, you’re the one who’s getting all defensive.’

More silence. Matt had never told me about his appointment with Adam, and I had never asked him, and I wondered if he’d even gone in the first place.

Matt

I chose not to answer, as Dec seemed to be seeing through everything I said.

‘How many times did you go in the end?’

He really didn’t have the right to ask. He’d helped me make the initial appointment, I’d been, I’d talked, the end.

‘Look, jus piss off, Dec, I dihnt come here to geh the fucking third degree abouh my attendance at personal appoihtmehts.’

‘Why did you come here, then?’

That threw me. I was about to get into a debate about Adam, which was a great distraction technique, but Dec had just taken a turning off the path.

‘Wha?’

‘Well, you’re just getting pissed off with everything I say, I don’t think you want to talk. What do you need?’

As he said it, I realised it was true. I didn’t want to talk; talking would solve nothing, change nothing. What I wanted was what Dec always offered. ‘You shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit.’ I couldn’t ask him, though. That wasn’t how it worked, even now, when I was desperate. I looked at him, willing him to get it, what I wanted, what I needed, even though they’d just moved in here, they had a tiny baby, the last thing they needed was –

Dec

Matt finally met my eyes. I’d worked it out. He wanted something but couldn’t ask. I thought about what he’d needed in the past, what had helped him. You shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit. Well that was easy to solve.

‘Do you want to stay here for a few days? While you get used to it? No third degree, no fussing, just here if you need us, so you’re not on your own.’

He held my gaze as his chin quivered and tears filled his eyes. He nodded.

Matt

Thank fuck for understanding friends like Declan Summers. I stared at him in relief as I felt my chin shaking with the effort of not crying, and the salty bastards filled my eyes in any case. I nodded my thanks, unable to speak without breaking down completely.

‘But I will have to tell Amy. I can ask her not to say anything to Beth and Jay for a bit, but I really think you should tell them before they have to ask us why you’re here.’

I nodded again. Telling Beth and Jay would be child’s play after this. I was sure they already knew most of it anyway, it wasn’t like Beth ever missed a single sodding thing.

‘And you’ll have to help me clear the spare room, it’s full of shit we haven’t sorted from moving.’

It would keep me busy, stop me thinking, and it was welcome, more than welcome. I knew I needed to stay somewhere, be away from my flat, for a while, but if I’d gone to Jay and Beth’s, that would have felt like back to square one, being looked after because of the fucking bastard, and all the shit that entailed the first time. Helping Dec clear out their spare room seemed like a very small price to pay for me to retain that tiny bit of control over it all. Not that I was going to sound grateful about it, a moan would be expected, and I hated to disappoint.

‘Ih bluhdy knew Ih’d end up doing tha.’

‘Want to make a start now?’

‘Ih suppohs so –’

There was the sound of a key in the front door, and Amy’s voice as she came into the hall. I hurriedly wiped my eyes and sat up straighter, trying to look vaguely cheerful for them.

Dec’s face was a picture as he anticipated seeing them both. If I hadn’t been such a fuck-up I would have been jealous of the love I saw there for both of them, something I’d failed to find so far in my fucked up existence.

‘Here we are then Charlie, let’s see if Daddy’s home yet. Daddy? You home?’

‘In here, lovely girl, Unca Matty’s here too.’

‘Ooh Charlie, your favourite uncle’s come for some cuddles.’

I could hear Amy getting Charlie out of her stroller, and taking off coats and hats. Dec stood up as Amy came in carrying Charlie, and he folded them both up in hugs with kisses.

‘Hey babe. Hey lovely girl.’

‘Hey hon. God, you’re completely covered in mud. Good morning?’

‘Bloody wet morning. You?’

‘We managed to keep fairly dry, met Mum in a café in town, had a bit of a walk in the park after the downpour. Hi Matt – oh, did you get caught in the rain too?’

She looked at me, taking in my less than salubrious appearance.

‘Matt’s going to stay for a few days.’

‘Oh, OK, er …’

Amy looked unsure, and I didn’t know if it was because she didn’t want me lying around in her spare room indefinitely, or if there was something else, like me having a perfectly good place to live of my own, or being the careless arse who dropped her children. If Amy objected, I was stuffed.

‘We were just going to make some space in the spare room.’

And then Amy looked relieved, and the look had been because she’d wondered where I was going to sleep.

‘Oh, great! Thanks Matt.’

Dec

Amy gave me the slightest frown (‘what’s going on?’) which I replied to with the slightest raising of my eyebrows (‘something big, tell you later’). It didn’t go unnoticed.

Matt

She smiled at me, and gave Dec the slightest querying frown which he replied to with the slightest ‘later’ raising of his eyebrows. Guys, I’m right here.

‘Yeah, before your eyeballs fall ouh wih trying to commuhicate non-verbally – Amy, I hope ih’s OK for me to stay, I knoh you’ve only jus moved in. My fucking bastard MS has come bahk and Ih’m noh really dealing …’

‘Oh Matt …’

She looked so sad and sympathetic, she nearly had the tears starting again. I needed to be offhand.

‘Yeh, well, c’est la fucking vie.’

‘Stay as long as you need. I’m glad we’ve got space for you now, or rather will have once you’ve kindly cleared out the spare room.’

I didn’t know what I’d done to deserve friends and family like this. Amy was completely cool with an unexpected visitor just after they’d moved in to their new house with their new baby.

Dec

I looked at Amy with love and pride. She was completely unfazed by all this.

)Know what, Charlie? I think Unca Matty needs an extra special cuddle right now, here we go – oh, ew, with any luck, he’ll offer to change your stinky nappy too.

Matt

She handed Charlie over, wrinkling her nose and laughing. The stench of baby shit was unavoidable.

‘You know wha, I jus migh. Hello, beauhiful, whoa, yeh, you do stink. Thahks, both of you, you are both fucking awesome.’

I stayed with them for three weeks. I tried going back to work, although not that day because it was all too much. The next day I went in to GreenScreen, but with all the parts of me that were beginning to malfunction, I really wasn’t up to it. Of course I didn’t see that for myself, and it took Amy, when I came back and crashed on their sofa, slept through the evening, past dinner, almost impossible to wake up, to tell me I couldn’t carry on like it. And because she was Amy, and never voiced an opinion, or interfered or nagged like all the rest of them, because she was kind and sweet but had a look on her face I’d never seen before, like she was going to have a real go at arguing with me even though she hated arguing, I had a look at myself, and how hard I was trying to push myself, and I wondered what the point was.

‘Matt … Matt.’

‘Ungh … wha?’

‘It’s nearly ten o’clock. I’m sorry to wake you up, but you’ve missed dinner, and you’ve missed Charlie’s story, and I just think … look, I know this isn’t any of my business, and we said we weren’t going to go on at you, but you completely can’t keep doing this to yourself.’

‘Do wha?’

Amy gave me an assessing look, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get away with my usual slightly aggressive bullshit.

‘What do you remember after you got back from work?’

A telling silence.

‘Yeah, that’s because you’ve been practically unconscious since you got in. I tried to wake you up for dinner, Charlie was screaming the place down earlier, but you hardly opened your eyes. Do you do this every night?’

Another silence while I tried hard not to tell Amy to fuck off.

‘Matt, you can’t go on like this. You need to look after yourself. Dec’s just microwaving your dinner, because you’ve got to eat.’

‘Noh, I’m –’

‘I don’t care if you’re hungry or not. You’re going to eat it, and you’re going to eat your dinner every day, and you need to think about how you’re going to stay awake to eat it, and that might mean not going to work for a while, because work isn’t worth it, if that’s all you’re doing, if you never eat, if you’re either at work or you’re dead to the world. You can’t keep doing it to yourself.’

I was ill, I was just beginning to accept it. If I wasn’t going to crash and burn, I needed to stop. There was no point being here at Dec and Amy’s, trying to get my head round it all, if I was too tired to do anything but sleep. Amy was right, and although I didn’t like it, I eventually saw it and did something about it.

So I called Beth the next day and asked her to come to the see the doctor with me, and I told her on the way why we were going, and I was impressed that she hadn’t asked, that she just did as I requested, and when I told her, she just nodded, didn’t say ‘Oh Matty’ or go all bloody soppy. I told her I was hoping she would do my listening for me, and she did, and she was bloody brilliant. She knew the questions to ask, the things not to say to me, and at the end of the appointment at least one of us was clued up as to what the fuck to do next. It wasn’t me.

While I’m at it, I would like it to be noted for the official Matthew Robert Scott record, that Beth Scott is one fucking incredible woman, my life would be poorer without her in it, and I fucking love her. It is not something I am likely to be repeating to her face, so if someone would make sure she knows, that would be bloody ace.

I was signed off work, for long enough that I wasn’t going to have to worry about what was happening there; by the time I got back, it would have been someone else’s responsibility for a while.

So I sat around on my arse in Dec and Amy’s house, trying to be helpful, cooking the odd dinner, mending odd bits of stuff, doing odd bits of DIY that Dec was never going to get round to in a month of B&Q Sundays, smashing up the odd glass-topped coffee table by way of having a spasm with a hammer, dropping unimportant shit every now and then but not babies as I was always very careful not to hold Charlie anywhere she could fall from a great height, talking the odd bit of unintelligible bollocks, tripping over the odd non-existent obstacle.

The fucking bastard MS enveloped me, sapping my energy, making it difficult to predict how I was going to feel from day to day, but being there with Dec and Amy helped, I couldn’t have done it without them. They were just normal, they didn’t treat me like a fucking cripple, they let me do shit like cooking and cleaning, they talked to me like a normal person, they let me cuddle their baby and be Unca Matty again. I’ve never been one for showing my gratitude, and I don’t think they ever really knew how much of my sanity they saved by just letting me be there, not alone, part of their little family for a few weeks.

Eventually, of course, I had to go home. The bastard MS was taking its time fucking off, but Dec had been right, it had been the pneumonia that had done for me last time, and it was bad this time, bad enough with all the things I couldn’t do and had to sodding well ask for help with, like carrying more than one shopping bag – the amount of times I popped out to the local shop for milk, got sidetracked with other shit, and then couldn’t carry it all home. Well, OK, only twice actually, after that I stopped doing it and stuck to my mental list, but it was embarrassing enough those two times to have to have Dec come and get me like some bloody OAP. So it was bad enough, but because I’d managed to avoid nearly dying of pneumonia, it wasn’t as bad as last time.

And there was the nearly killing someone. I had got in my car and was driving to Jay’s for dinner. Someone started to cross the zebra crossing on the High Street, and just as I approached and was slowing down, my leg spasmed, my foot hit the accelerator and the car jerked forward uncontrollably. The man jumped back, a terrified look on his face, as my car kangarooed past him, and I could see him shaking his fist at me in the rear view mirror, but was too humiliated to stop and check he was OK. I shouldn’t have been driving with the state of my vision anyway, but this finished it for me. I turned round and went home and sat, shaking, in my flat before calling Jay to come and get me, and deciding that was it for driving for the time-being.

Once I left the sanctuary of the Summerses and went home, though, Beth’s instincts, let’s be generous and call them her nurturing instincts, kicked in, and she didn’t give me much peace. It was as if, while I was at Dec and Amy’s she knew I was OK, but once I was on my own she didn’t trust me to look after myself. If she wasn’t texting or calling, she was popping round, having a good snoop, making sure the food in my fridge wasn’t past its sell-by date, making sure I didn’t need one of those grabber sticks to reach the top of the bookcase, making sure I was still breathing.

She had a point, I suppose. I was really low; there was still all the shit with Jules I hadn’t dealt with properly, and the state I was in physically left me mentally broken. I spent a lot of time on my own, ruminating, and I suppose I could have stayed with Dec for longer, but I’ve always needed to do things myself, and they needed to have time to themselves as well without bumping into some fucking cripple at every turn.

Beth asked me directly if I was thinking of doing ‘anything silly’, and didn’t find it amusing when I replied ‘what, like drive a clown car in oversized lime green shoes’.

The truth was, I had considered it, the ‘something silly’. It didn’t feel silly, it felt like a completely rational thing to think about. If this was going to be my life, I wasn’t sure I wanted it. I didn’t want to be obliged to put up with all this shit, all this misery, all this everyone feeling they had a right to know what I was up to every fucking second of every fucking day, all this feeling like I deserved it for the bastard I’d been in the past. There would certainly be a fair few people who would not shed a tear if I shuffled off, and it was hard being me, a lot of the time.

I didn’t like myself very much, didn’t like how my life seemed to have turned out, didn’t like the ever-lengthening list of people I had pissed off or fucked up one way or another. But when it came to it, the practicalities, the realities of doing something irreversible, I wouldn’t, couldn’t do it. I loved everyone too much, knew too well what it would do to any or all of them if I took matters into my own hands. It would have taken a braver, more callous or more unbalanced soul than I to do that. Didn’t stop me thinking about it, though, and wondering …

So, things didn’t noticeably improve for a while. I slept a lot, I stumbled through my life, I put up with texts and calls from everyone all day, ignoring as many as I could, replying facetiously to some. I was signed off work again, for longer. I wondered if I would ever return, or if that was the end at GreenScreen, whether they would want me back, or I would even feel I could face everyone again.

Dec

I woke from a jumbled, instantly forgettable dream to the familiar sound of retching – no, that wasn’t right, I hadn’t heard that sound since … I jumped out of bed and ran to the bathroom, where Amy was bent over the toilet.

‘Ames? Are you feeling OK?’

She looked up at me, an unreadable expression on her face.

)I think you might need to get used to this again.

‘What? You’re not – how can that happen so soon?’

)I’m so sorry hon, I didn’t think it could either. I haven’t done a test yet, but I’m pretty sure.

A brief pause for more retching. I knelt next to her and lifted her hair away from her face, rubbing her back and kissing her shoulders, the familiar moves, a growing sense of excitement.

‘You’re just fucking amazing. I love you so much. This is awesome.’

She looked at me, exhausted, dark circles under her eyes. She was beautiful.

)Really, hon?

‘Why not? Like two for the price of one, instant enormous family, works for me.’

She stood up, washed her face and ran the toothbrush over her teeth. For once, I couldn’t interpret the expression on her face.

‘Are you OK about it?’

)Oh Dec, yes, I’m really happy, I’m glad you are too. It’s just a bit of a shock, it’s taken me completely by surprise, and I’m so tired, the thought of doing it all again, now we’ve got Charlie, it’s a bit overwhelming. Hold me?

I pulled her into my arms, where she had a bit of a weep.

‘We can do it, babe, you and me together. We’ll be awesome.’

I kissed the top of her head, stroked her hair and held her close. After a while she stopped sniffing and looked up at me.

)Shouldn’t you be calling Jay and waking them all up about now? It’s gone three thirty.

‘Ha ha, do you want me to?’

)I don’t think it would be appreciated. It feels different this time, doesn’t it? Less thrilling, maybe.

‘I’m just as thrilled, babe. Maybe a bit more aware of how bloody grumpy Jay gets when you ring him in the middle of the night. It’s just that we’ve done it before, know what to expect, it’s not all new. I might text Matt, just to keep him on his toes.’

)He probably needs his sleep more than Jay at the moment.

‘He’ll live. Come on, let’s go back to bed, I can text him from there.’

Matt

Not long after I went back to my flat following my stay at Dec and Amy’s, there was a text in the middle of the night. Fuck knows how it managed to wake me up, but there it was. Summers has always been an inconsiderate bastard with his breaking news.

This is yr early morning yr going 2b an uncle call.

Oh, I really did not need some kind of possibly pissed pissing about. I needed to be asleep, surely he knew that?

Wot? Already am. Didn’t need a fucking 4am reminder, thx.

Should have said ‘again’.

This took me a while to work out, dragging my consciousness out of the depths of ‘un’ as I just had. Then I got it. Oh holy shitbabies, they were having another one. Charlie was how old? A few months? Jesus. Talk about rubbing it in. But I couldn’t be bitter and jealous, I could only really feel happy for them, and maybe wonder how they were going to manage two such young kids. Oh the irony, future me.

Wot? Really? Fuck me. Fast workers. Awesome. Xx

Dec

Nico: =say hi to Bastien Tiago -pic-

Dec: =Hi Bastien. Charlie says come round 2 play. Amy says ‘Aww cute’. He is awesome :)) Lis OK?

Nico: =Lis is wonderful, you come today?

Dec: =Yeah! This afternoon.

Matt

So that was some good news from Summers in the middle of all the shittiness, and for a short time it diverted attention away from me, for which I was grateful. And not long after that, Nico and Lis had baby Bastien, and all was joy and happiness once again, and I smiled and cuddled him and said how cute he was, weren’t his little fingers and toes just so tiny, and they were, and he was lovely, but it just wasn’t sodding well fair that every other bugger in the world had kids, even people who didn’t want them, and I couldn’t. Even if I’d had someone to have kids with, it is doubtful I would have been capable of fathering one at that time. So I sucked it up, professed my (genuine) happiness to the new parents, and sat on my misery.

Beth took her role as Matty’s Health Coordinator very seriously, and despite having another mini-Dec to think about, was always trying to get me to sign up with the city’s bastard MS service, or go to this or that local event, or tell me about this book or that You Tube video she knew about. I usually told her to butt out, refused to take any details of anything that was going on, blanked it all.

I didn’t want to be part of a whole group of other fucking cripples; I’d done that when I first moved down. Part of me was a bit scared of who I might bump into, more people I’d pissed off or fucked up; another part of me was scared of who might not be around anymore and what that might predict for my future, but most of me was scared of admitting that I had this big fucking thing, that other people had it who might be worse than me, and I might end up like them.

So Beth kept trying, she never gave up despite my apparent lack of interest, my seeming apathy and my actual rudeness when she gave me information. And one day, she was going on so much about some How to Have The Bastard MS day or some such bollocks, I’d really had enough, I couldn’t take any more nagging.

‘How about if I drive you there? You wouldn’t have to worry about the buses then.’

‘I dohnt wohry abou fucking buses.’

‘You know what I mean, Matty. You’re always saying how much you hate the buses. How about I pick you up, about ten?’

‘Ih’s a bih early fuh meh.’

‘Get a good night’s sleep then, go to bed extra early. Is ten o’clock really that early, just once?’

I stayed silent, not wanting to commit myself.

‘How about it, Matty?’

Beth was sensing hesitation on my part, and was moving in for the kill.

‘Ih’ll beh a bunch of do-gooders sat in a cihrcle on plahstic chairs sharing wih the group.’

‘I’m sure it won’t. These Living with MS days are supposed to be very good. But if you like, you can just pop your head round the door for a quick look, and if there are any scary people sitting on any terrifying plastic chairs, you can leave, I’ll take you home, and we’ll never mention the subject again.’

I ignored Beth’s amateur attempt at sarcasm.

‘Rehly? If I goh, I can look roun the dohr and go home?’

‘If you don’t like what you see.’

‘An yuh’ll shut the fuck uhp abou ih?’

‘If you’ve checked it out properly and you don’t like the look of it.’

Beth was starting to realise what an out she’d given me in her eagerness to persuade me. I was a clever bastard, wasn’t I?

‘OK. Dehl.’

And that’s how I ended up at the church hall that day. I nearly chickened out, nearly didn’t let Beth get me in the car, nearly didn’t get out of the car when we got there, nearly didn’t open the door to the hall, but the thought of being able to hold Beth to the never mentioning it again was too good to miss, and after all, I was only going to put my head round the door and then go home.

So I got in the car, Beth drove me to the church hall, I got out of the car, I took a step inside the door, and –


70. Shake it out

In which there is an interlude while hard truths are avoided.

Julia

Of course, it wasn’t as easy as just collecting my things; there was still work. But Matt took a few weeks off, making it easier for me to cope with, and when I knew he was coming back I took some time off and went up to Norfolk, to sort out the house, finally able to bear to get rid of some of Nons’ things to make room for mine.

Matt

If pushed, I would say that my week in Egypt had helped me clear my head and get a bit of perspective. Maybe it had helped me distance myself from the disastrous way things had ended with Jules. I was still devastated, guilty, sad beyond words at how everything had happened, and I still didn’t know how I was going to face her at work, but I managed to go back to my flat. It was hard, but Beth’s friend’s husband had done a great job on the walls, had managed to match the paint, had even filled in and painted over the hole left where Jules had ripped her ‘Starry Starry Night’ picture off the wall, and Beth and Rose had done a great job on the cleaning. Apart from a faint smell of paint, and empty cupboards where my plates used to be, you would never have known Jules had lost it there, because of me, only a couple of weeks ago.

I still had over a week left of leave from work, and I spent a lot of time visiting Dec, Amy and Charlie. Their house move was on hold for a few weeks while the landlord had some repairs done; they didn’t seem too worried, as Charlie was only tiny, but their flat was totally full of stuff – clothes, jumbo packs of nappies, a stroller, the cot – and they would be so much better off with more space.

While I was away from work, I texted a few people to try to find out how Jules was, while attempting to remain discreet. As far as I was aware, no one knew Jules had moved in with me. I hadn’t told them, and I highly doubted Jules would have either, but they were bound to know something was up. The office had got used to us being together, although they’d stopped gossiping about it, as we gave them nothing to gossip about. We’d always been professional, and Jules’ rules had meant we never let home and work overlap.

I found out from Lexi that Jules was at work but acting ‘a bit weird, well more weird than usual, no offence’, and she asked me directly what was going on ‘with you two lovebirds’. I wanted to respect Jules’ privacy, but didn’t know if I could just pretend everything was the same, even to spare her feelings. As soon as I got back, it was going to be obvious that it wasn’t the same, anyway, so I just sent her a vague holding text, ‘Tell you when I see you’, which suggested there was something to tell, without saying mind your own business, which would have just inflamed her curiosity.

A couple of days before I was due return to work, I had another text from Lexi telling me that Jules was taking three weeks off ‘so it’s safe to come back’. It seemed that people had been coming to their own conclusions anyway. I suppose it did all seem pretty obvious, and GreenScreen was a hotbed of gossip, speculation and rumour mongering. It would have been surprising if they hadn’t worked out a version of events.

Going back to work was tiring. Being there, with constant reminders of Jules, even though she was absent herself, was tough. Everyone was openly curious about what had happened, although I tried to give them as little information as possible. There was no way I was telling anyone about my ‘I need a family’ revelation, or any details about what had gone on when Jules found out. But Lexi, in particular, was persistent. She never let it drop, and in an unguarded moment I let it slip that Jules had moved in a week before moving out again.

It was all I divulged, and I was mortified that I had, but once it was out, it was out, and it was around the office in about five minutes. I was even more careful after that, and no further information escaped. But it was wearing me out. I had a lot of work to catch up on after my holiday, and with Jules away, I had to pick up some of her team’s projects too. I found myself sleeping a lot when I was at home.

When I’d been back a couple of weeks, Phil asked to see me. I sat in his office and watched as he fiddled with papers and seemed to be doing anything rather than coming to the point.

‘OK, er, thanks for popping in Matt. Er …’

There was more fiddling, and it was making me nervous.

‘Is there a problem?’

‘No, no, not as such, it’s … I don’t know how … have you been in contact with Julia?’

I wondered if he was going to ask me to call her, to talk about a project that seemed to be going off the rails without her here. I really didn’t want to, she had asked me not to contact her, she wouldn’t want to talk to me about anything, and I could think of half a dozen other people who would be better candidates for an ear-bashing from Jules about slacking.

‘No. I haven’t spoken to her for a few weeks. She doesn’t want to talk to me.’

I thought I might be able to pre-empt his request.

‘Ah. Right. Then this might be a bit of a … er … surprise to you. Julia is leaving us. She’s coming back the week after next, for a week, and then she’s moving on.’

‘Holy fuck.’

In all the different ways this played out in my mind, it had never entered my head that she would leave. Jules was so good at not letting anything affect her when she was here, I’d just imagined having an awkward couple of weeks, maybe months, while we both got our heads round it, and then back to business as usual. But if she was leaving, then I was never going to see her again.

‘Where’s she going?’

‘She’s got another job, in Norwich, I believe.’

So not the other end of the world, but far enough away that we would never run into each other, and convenient for the house she inherited from her aunt. I found myself truly wishing her well, but crushed at the realisation of how soon she would be gone, completely gone from me.

I nodded at Phil, unable to speak.

‘I know this is an insensitive question right now, Matt, but will you be able to stand in temporarily on some of her team’s projects? There’s no way we can recruit to her position at such short notice, and Kyle will need some help with the Anderson project, maybe a couple of others.’

‘Yeah, no problem.’

I said the words, nodded, but wasn’t taking any of it in. My head was full of Jules. She was going to be gone. After all we’d shared I’d pushed her far enough that she wanted to go away, and I wasn’t going to be part of her world any more. She didn’t let many people in; I was one of the few who knew what she was really like, how warm and funny and giving she could be. And I’d blown it, chosen something that didn’t even exist, might never even exist, over what we’d had, over loving her.

‘Matt?’

I came back to myself, to see Phil looking at me with some concern.

‘Yeah, sorry. On it.’

I stuck a copy of a smile on my face, stood up and walked out. It was near lunchtime, and I kept going, through the office, down the stairs, out the door and along the street. I didn’t realise where I was heading until I ended up turning in through the gate of the cemetery, and my feet carried me the rest of the way, to the hidden anteroom in St Saviours churchyard.

It looked like someone had had a tidy up – there was no litter, no bottles, no dead leaves. I sat on the stone bench, feeling desperately lonely and deserted, all the worse for knowing I had brought it all on myself. If I had been more honest with myself, let alone Jules, from the start, things could have been so different.

I’d got used to pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and when the truth was inconvenient, I had ignored it. I didn’t want to love someone, not after Carrie. If I’d admitted my feelings earlier, maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe it wouldn’t. But it would have stopped this seemingly endless sense of regret, this constant dwelling on what could have been, and, now Jules was moving away, feeling this sadness, this hole, this empty part of me.

I sat for a long time, longer than I should have taken for lunch. It was tempting to stay there, where it was quiet and undemanding, and I could pretend it was just an ordinary lunch hour, and any minute Jules was going to come in and not eat a chicken sandwich.

I knew I wasn’t dealing well with all of it; I thought about talking to someone – Dec, Beth – but I still pretty much kept my issues to myself unless they were dragged out of me, and calling someone to talk would have seemed like a major thing. So in the end I took a lot of deep breaths, I squared my shoulders, I pushed aside all thoughts that weren’t directly associated with GreenScreen, and I went back.

I got through the rest of the day, virtually on auto-pilot, I went home and I slept. It had really taken it out of me. I fell asleep on the sofa, woke up briefly in the dark, and felt my way to bed, where I stripped to my boxers before falling straight to sleep again. I was still exhausted the next morning, but dragged myself to work, and focussed on the job, or, as it now turned out, jobs in hand.

As the rest of the week passed, I was aware of plans being made for Jules’ leaving. The arrangements didn’t involve a ‘do’ of any sort, as it was thought she wouldn’t want that. I wanted to tell them that although she would have said she didn’t want it, she would have secretly been so chuffed to have been asked, that they thought enough of her to organise something, but it was no longer any of my business, and everyone avoided asking me about it. I signed the card, put a tenner in the collection, and that was my contribution, as if I was just another colleague.

Then it was the weekend, and respite from it all, but if I stayed at home I was just going to spend my time dreading the next week, when Jules was back but there wouldn’t be enough time to make things right, or even make things less wrong, before she was gone for good. So I spent a lot of time with the family.

I went to see Mum, dug her garden, chatted about her neighbours and the scandalous price of decent tea bags and ate her frankly bloody marvellous fruit cake. I took Cal to watch Raiders, and we hung around afterwards like real supporters, as Cal liked to do, as if he couldn’t see the players whenever he wanted to. I played on the X-box with him afterwards, and then contrived to drink enough beers with Jay that I couldn’t drive home, and so needed to make use of the sofa-bed in the conservatory. Then Sunday dawned, I woke up late, late enough that there was no point going home before lunch, so I stayed and read the Sunday papers and played with Iz, until Dec and Amy showed up with Charlie, and it was time to play the game of avoiding peeling potatoes by any means necessary.

Outwardly I was OK – cheerful, arsing about, sarky comments by the shedload – but it was only covering up the turmoil I was feeling inside. I thought I’d got away with it, but Dec, who was turning into Mr Perceptive, cornered me as I was clearing away some of Iz’s dolls, ready for round two with an imaginary tea party that Iz was laying out in the conservatory. Dec sat on the couch as I knelt on the floor.

‘Want to tell me what’s up?’

‘What? Fuck off, nothing’s up.’

He looked at me and sighed.

‘OK, then, have it your way, but I’m turning my phone off tonight, so I won’t be answering any bloody three am ‘just arsing about but really, help me’ texts.’

I stopped what I was doing and looked at him.

‘You never turn your phone off.’

‘I do as of tonight, Amy’s orders. Charlie’s been woken up too many times by random texts and calls. We’ve decided to be out of radio contact from ten till seven, every night. Give ourselves a chance of some sleep.’

‘What if someone needs to get hold of you?’

By which, of course, I meant me.

‘We’ve got a landline for emergencies. Do you think you might need an emergency phone call?’

He knew I would never outright ring and ask to talk, and he also knew I needed to talk, and his expression was challenging.

‘You bastard.’

‘If you like. Or you could just spill, save us all some to-ing and fro-ing. Seriously, Matt, I know that look on your face. Has something else happened with Julia?’

How did he do it? Dec was not the most in tune person, he drifted through life missing hints and clues and downright obvious statements left, right and centre, but when it came to me he seemed to be inside my head. It was bloody infuriating. I gave in, put the last of Iz’s dolls in the toy box and sat back on my haunches.

‘She’s leaving, got another job, in Norwich.’

‘Shit. Harsh.’

‘Yeah. I haven’t seen her since the day after we split – first I was on holiday, and she’s been off work since I came back. She’s back next week, for one week, then she’s gone. Just fucking gone.’

Dec gave me a sympathetic grimace.

‘Have you spoken to her?’

‘No, not since I let her into the flat that day. She texted me and told me not to contact her. Shit, I thought I’d get a chance to, I don’t know, say sorry properly or something.’

‘You still might.’

‘Not at work. She does this thing at GreenScreen, kind of Ice Queen, total professional, nothing else. I’d be surprised if she even speaks to me, let alone allows me to have a cosy chat in the tea break. I just wish … oh fuck it, wishing for things is so fucking pointless.’

I got up and plonked myself on the couch next to Dec, running my hands through my hair.

‘What do you wish?’

He sounded so like Adam, I almost laughed, but I decided to answer.

‘For shit I can’t change, because I wish that things happened differently, that things happened in a different order, that I realised things sooner than I did.’

‘What things?’

‘There really is no point going over it all, it’s sending me fucking loopy.’

I wasn’t going to get into it, this wasn’t the time or indeed the place, with too many other people within earshot.

‘So are you thinking about it all the time, all this stuff you wish was different?’

‘Yeah. I’m not sleeping, not properly, and I’m so knackered. It all just whirls around.’

‘Have you thought of any other ways of saying it all to her? I mean, it won’t change anything, but if you could at least get some of it out, it might stop the whirling.’

I wondered if this was another of Dec’s shrink techniques. He might not make a bad counsellor, once his running around like a lunatic bashing grown men days were over.

‘I started writing her a letter, while I was away, but she’s told me not to contact her, and I want to respect that.’

‘Yeah, admirable, but if it’s just once, and if you’re not going to see her ever again, isn’t it worth chancing it? It can’t make anything worse, and she has the choice whether she reads it or not. I bet she would, it’s not like a text, that you can just delete without reading when you see who it’s from, it’s a letter, a real thing, I bet she wouldn’t be able to resist reading it, then she’s chosen to, and you haven’t made her.’

His logic kind of made sense, or maybe I just wanted it to.

‘Unca Matty, I need you to come.’

Iz announced her readiness for the next stage of perfect uncling. I sighed, smiled at her and stood up. Dec slapped my behind and stood up too.

‘You know the number if you need an emergency call.’

‘Yeah, unlikely. Thanks for listening to an old bloke rambling on.’

I followed Iz into the conservatory, which had ceased being my bedroom and was now tea-party central for several teddies, Cal’s old Transformer toys, and me.

Eventually, Sunday lunch, afternoon tea, and helping with bath-time and bed-time were all over with, and I couldn’t put off going back to my flat any longer without getting the third degree from Beth as well.

When I got back, I pulled my phone out and looked at the letter I’d begun to Jules when I was in Egypt. I revised it, and then wrote it out by hand, before slipping it into my work bag, so I could decide what to do with it later in the week. Just the process of writing it helped. I bloody hate it when Summers is right, it’s very annoying, but I did sleep better.

And so began the last week. On the Monday, Jules was already there when I arrived, as had happened every day of our working lives. I worked part time, and used it to get as much sleep as I could, whereas Jules was an early riser and liked being in first, before anyone else.

When I came through the door, I could feel everyone looking at me, waiting to see what I was going to say or do when I saw her in her office. I didn’t say or do anything except walk over to where my team sat, dish out the coffees I usually brought with me and start the day with my usual banter.

I don’t think anyone knew how hard it was for me to do that; I was dying inside, and the smile on my face felt like it was made of glass, ready to shatter. Jules and I didn’t even look at each other that day, but there were things I needed to talk to her about later in the week, some of the projects I was going to be dealing with, and I had to grasp the nettle or mettle or whatever the fuck it was you grasped. She was cold, distant, looked me in the eye and answered my questions. In my turn, I stuck to business, but I was trying to say sorry with my eyes, although I made sure there were always other people around when I talked to her, so she didn’t feel under pressure. We got through it, somehow. Everyone watched us, all the time, waiting for something juicy to happen, but I am pleased to report that we both handled ourselves with dignity.

Julia

By the time I got back to work, I had given my notice, and there was only one week when Matt and I were both there together. It was difficult, all eyes were on us, and if I hadn’t already been leaving, it would have pushed me to go. But it’s fair to say we both bore it with dignity. We had to talk, but spoke only about work, although I could see in Matt’s eyes that he wanted to say more. I didn’t give him the opportunity to be alone with me, and had told him by text some time ago that I didn’t want him to contact me, a request he had honoured.

Matt

On the last day, I gave the letter to Lexi, and asked her to give it to Jules when she left. There was a cake and a present planned for after lunch, and I managed to make an appointment with a client so I didn’t have to be there, as I didn’t think I would be able to handle seeing her go. I’d never know if she read my letter or not, and that was hard, but I was slowly making my peace with it.

Julia

When my last day came, I was touched to find a gift and card had been organised, and Margie had made a cake. Matt was absent from the presentation, but had signed the card – You’ll be fucking awesome in all you do. Mattand I found my eyes drawn to the short sentence and signature more often than they should have been.

With a sigh of relief, I walked down the stairs at the end of my last day, finishing a little earlier than I normally would, but desperate to leave and put it all behind me. As I walked past the reception desk, Lexi stopped me.

‘Julia, there’s a letter for you.’

‘Oh. Can you give it to Phil? He’s going to deal with all my correspondence.’

She shook her head.

‘It’s personal.’

She held it out and with a lurch to my heart I recognised Matt’s handwriting. I took it, unsure what to do with it.

‘Good luck, Julia.’

‘Thank you.’

I walked out to my car, carrying gift, card and remains of the cake, and holding the letter like it was a grenade. Putting all the other items in the boot, I sat in the driver’s seat, holding the envelope, trying to decide whether to read it or not. Despite my intention to put up my emotional barricades, I didn’t know how I was going to react to whatever it was that Matt wanted to say in a letter. In the end, my curiosity got the better of me.

Dear Julia

I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, I wouldn’t blame you if you tossed it unopened into the nearest litter bin, or set fire to it.

I know you asked me not to contact you, but I just couldn’t let you leave without trying to say I’m sorry. That probably doesn’t mean very much, I know I hurt you really badly. The last few weeks have been among the worst of my life, thinking about what I did to you, both how it all started and how it all ended.

I want to thank you for what you have meant to me over the past months. I have spent a lot of time examining my motives, my actions and my feelings. I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear about it, but I’ve finally realised I’ve been kidding myself about a lot of things. I’m sorry I didn’t realise what I wanted before it was too late and we got hurt. I’m also sorry I told you so often that I didn’t love you. It’s not true. I love you. I have for a long time. I know you don’t believe in love, but I do; I was hiding it from myself. I seem to be pretty bloody good at that. I don’t know if you can ever forgive me for how it ended with us. I’m not asking you to, and I know I won’t ever know if you have. Or haven’t. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself.

I keep dreaming about you. I’m holding you. Then I wake up, and I’m not holding you and it’s bad and I’ve nearly called you, not that you’d answer, and I’ve so wanted to say let’s forget it, what I said back then, please come home. But even if I said it and you agreed and you came back, it would be wrong and in time that difference between us would tear us apart again. I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’m sorry the timing was so fucking appalling. I’m sorry I’m not who you thought I was.

I want to wish you happiness, I want to wish you peace and I want to wish you the fucking amazing life you deserve.

I won’t contact you again, I’ll leave you alone and try to get on.

Goodbye Jules, I miss you.

Matt x

It took me a long time to compose myself after reading that. A small part of me read his words and wanted to run and find him and kiss him and hold him and feel his arms round me and tell him that I loved him too, and it was alright, we could find a way. But it was never going to happen. Too much of me would have to change and admit to things I was never going to admit to. So I folded up the letter and put it back in the envelope and stuffed it in the glove box, where I hoped I could forget about it and move away and live my life.

Matt

And then she was gone.

And I admit, I went home after work that day, and I curled on up my bed and cried. I hadn’t cried, not since that nightmare day when I’d fucked it all up and Jules had thrown things at me and I’d blarted all over Summers several times.

But this was a mourning. It was over, ended, finished, and although I recognised I’d been waiting until it was done to pick up and carry on, it was still done and I was still devastated.

I spent the weekend being miserable, feeling hollowed and dulled, and ignoring all texts and calls from Dec, Beth, Mum and even Jay, until the bastard Summers came round and wouldn’t stop buzzing my door.

It’s bloody annoying having such a loud door buzzer, one that you can’t turn off. Just as you’re getting up a good head of steam on some serious self-pity, there it goes, and again, and again. So eventually I let him in, just to stop him calling Social Services on my arse.

And, yeah, of course it helped to have someone there listening while I poured it all out, of course it did, but I didn’t want to need it, alright? I didn’t want to fucking need it.

Dec

‘Fuck it.’

)Oh hon, at least that will be the last time you’ll ever trip over the stroller.

‘Yeah, can’t say I’m going to miss that little joy. Is there anything else I need to do before the van arrives? Have we got time for a coffee?’

)Do you know what, I think we’ve actually done everything on the list. Completely unbelievable. Coffee sounds great, then I’ll go and drop Charlie off with Rose.

‘Make sure you get her to sign something promising to give her back.’

)Ha ha, yes, good idea. Not sure I’m going to be able to leave her there, actually.

‘You’ll be fine, Ames, it’s only for a few hours, you’re going back for feeds.’

)Yeah, you make it sound easy, but I remember you putting up a bit of a fight the first time you had to leave her.

‘True. You can do it, though, think of the alternative – me unpacking all the boxes and organising the cupboards myself. You’d never find anything again, especially the things I’d break and have to hide somewhere.’

)There is that, I suppose. Alright, you’ve almost convinced me. But if I don’t come back, you might need to send in the big guns and get Matt to haul me out.

‘Yeah, a large dollop of sarcasm will do the trick pretty quickly. Although he’s just as likely to get sidetracked by Charlie.’

)Do you think Matt’s OK to help today?

‘Yeah … why? Don’t you?’

)Well he’s just seemed a bit tired lately – he dozed off after lunch last Sunday, didn’t he? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do that. And he was slurring his words as well – I thought he’d had a bit to drink, but thinking back I don’t think he’d had anything.

‘Shit. I didn’t notice. Have you said anything to Beth?’

)No, I wouldn’t dare. He’d completely go nuts if I did, wouldn’t he?

‘Yeah, probably. Maybe I’ll have a word with him. Might just be tired, like you say, he has been working pretty much round the clock recently.’

)Oh, is that the van? No coffee then, hon. See you later. Give Daddy a kiss, Charlie.

Matt

The next bit is hard, too, so there will now follow a bit of fucking about while I procrastinate once more to avoid telling it.

The kids. Let me tell you about the kids. They’re all grown up now, Cal’s even got a couple of his own – how the bloody hell did that happen? But anyway, they’re all bloody awesome kids. I won’t tell you about Josh and Ella, because that’s for later, but Cal, Iz, Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa. Jay and Beth’s kids, and Dec and Amy’s kids. My nephews and nieces and whatever the fuck else they are. I was Unca Matty to them all, then just Matty.

Cal – I never knew Cal that well when he was really little. I only got to know him when I lived with them in Stafford, when he used to spend hours playing in my room, and when I was awake, I’d chat with him about his games, and he’d sometimes chat back, and sometimes tell me to shut the fuck up because he was concentrating (not literally, he didn’t start to swear in earnest until he was a teenager. You can imagine how delighted Beth was, and how much grief I used to get). He was always fairly serious about life when he was that age, six or so. He’d want to know the ins and outs of everything, asked me questions nobody else would ask about why I didn’t get out of bed, why my words came out funny, why I looked like a skellington. Beth used to try to shush him when he got too probing, but I’d always answer him, and sometimes it was a good way of telling them shit without actually saying it directly to them.

It was the best thing about being ill, getting to know Cal. I’d been pretty crap at being with kids before, never really knew quite where to pitch things, used too many words or sounded patronising, but when you can hardly talk, you just say the simple stuff, and it turns out that works. Kids don’t need to be talked down to, they can understand some pretty hard concepts, I just needed to stop wrapping it up in all the unnecessary bollocks, and there we were. Me and Cal, getting each other. Who’d have thought. Didn’t hurt that at heart I will always be six years old too.

When Cal got a bit older, he could be a mardy git, a teenager before his time, so we had something in common there too. We did have some fun, between the sulks, on the X-box, playing football, arsing about together, while I tried to make him laugh. Sometimes he’d tell me stuff; he was having a hard time at school, being bullied or some such shit, and having been a geeky nerd at school, I could relate to a lot of it. I was also a safer bet than his mum and dad, because I wasn’t going to immediately march down to the school and demand something was done about it. When he started playing rugby, though, he found his self-confidence, and stopped being so miserable, scared the bullies off, became Captain Sunshine. He really is one of the cheeriest bastards I know, takes after Dec, who I suppose is like a brother to him. Hardly anything seems to get him down – well, there was that bollocks with Ayesha and Chrissie, but that was a long time ago and he got over it pretty quickly.

One of my proudest moments, he must have been about ten or so, was when Cal asked me to take him to watch Raiders. I’d never been, I’d never seen Raiders play, never seen Jay or Dec play, and I thought I never would. It was a bit of a thing of mine, I liked saying ‘oh, I’ve never been’ when people said it must have been great watching Jay Scott play and then seeing their disbelieving faces. Rugby isn’t everything, despite some people’s opinions to the contrary. But when Cal asked me to go with him, and yeah, I know it was mainly because he didn’t want to sit with the juniors, but I was so, so unbelievably chuffed that I said yes, and thus started my own love affair with Raiders. It is weird watching members of your own family run around a pitch getting severely clattered. It makes you very protective, and brings out the supporter in you. ‘Bash the bastard’ became my war cry, and I suppose Cal joined in, and it was our thing. Just at the games, as Beth would have gone ape-shit on my arse if she’d known.

But that was just about topped by Cal asking me to be godfather to Conor, his first child. I’m not a great one for religion, and I don’t suppose Cal’s ever thought about it in his life, so me standing up there and promising all sorts of religious shit didn’t really mean much from that point of view, but what it did mean was that for as long as I had breath in my body, which, yeah, might not be that long now, but anyway, I was going to be looking out for Cal’s first born, being Unca Matty to him, arsing about, loving him. I guess I’m Great Unca Matty to Conor, and now Lily, which makes me sound bloody ancient. I hope I can be great. I’m doing my best.

Iz – well, Iz was a heartbreaker from the day she was born. Jay and Beth had wanted another baby for years, but it just looked like it wasn’t going to happen, and they didn’t want to do anything radical. They were settling for just having Cal, and were happy with that, when Iz popped up out of the blue. I’ve done some calculating, and I believe conception must have occurred when they were in Stafford looking after me, so I would like to claim some credit. Mm, maybe I don’t really want to examine that too closely. But anyway, she arrived with a fanfare when we were all living here, in the city, and she knocked our socks off then and ever since.

With her blonde ringlets, much better suited to a girl than a boy, and Cal hated his with such a vengeance that as soon as he was old enough he had his hair cut so short you couldn’t tell, but Iz … now she’s older, she has her hair really long, and you can see people looking at her wherever she goes. It helps that she has always been fairy princess gorgeous (ha ha, I know you hate that Iz, but if you want to be a tomboy, the ringlets have to go), big grey eyes framed by an elfin face, and the confidence that eluded Cal when he was younger.

Iz always knew exactly what she wanted, and didn’t shy away from asking for, nay demanding, it, often using her big eyes as a battering ram. She had the boys in her pocket while she was still at junior school, and once she got older, she had her pick of the best. Unfortunately she never seemed to choose the best. She had a weak spot for the underdog, and always went for the losers, the ones who didn’t know how to treat her, and because she was a caring girl, she always stayed with them longer than was good for her because she couldn’t bear to break their hearts. In the end, though, she’s found herself a great bloke, and although I hate him because he keeps her away from us (not as a prisoner, but by dint of them living in Manchester), I think the world of him because he makes her happy.

Iz says she doesn’t want kids, and I know she believes it now, and maybe she won’t change her mind, but she’d be an awesome mum.

Charlie – Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright (although Dec and Amy ditched the hyphen Wright when they got married) was always going to blaze a trail through the world. She punched her way into my life when she was only hours old, and she never stopped grabbing what she wanted with both hands. She was indulged when she was little, being surrounded by family who loved her, and brought up by parents who were so laid back they were almost horizontal. She also had to compete with Iz, and the screaming matches when they were younger could have shattered crystal. Charlie always, but always got her own way. I could certainly never say no to her, even when I said no to the same things when asked by my own children.

Charlie still hasn’t worked out what she wants from life, she flits from job to job, course to course, man to man, loving it all then hating it all, nothing in-between She leads the tribe of Summerses by the nose, calling them all to family meetings, telling them what to buy her for Christmas, deciding where they’re all going on holiday and who she’s going to get to pay for her to go. She is a force of nature, and long may she continue.

Tom – with a sister like Charlie, Tom had no real choice but to be chilled. He’s only a year younger, but he’s always taken a back seat and let everything happen around him. He takes after his dad in that respect. Apart from the rugby. Tom could have been a good rugby player, and he did do some training with Raiders juniors, but he didn’t have the drive to stick with it, it wasn’t what he loved, and to Amy’s great relief, he gave it up. To my joy, what he did have the drive to stick with was computers.

Nowadays most kids are pretty into computers, but on a superficial level, knowing how to do shit, running rings round the parental controls, all that. But Tom wanted to know the ins and outs, the nitty gritty, and we’ve spent many an afternoon with our heads bent over a bit of computer code, or dismantling the innards of a broken laptop, talking our own special language. Tom’s the reason why I’m pretty sure you’ll get to read all this, Lau, because I’m sending you a message, and I know you’ll go straight to him, and he’ll know what to do. Without Tom, I would feel bad, or rather worse than I do, about leaving Dec with our business. Tom is more than equipped to take over from me. He’s got the nous, the brains and he’s been carrying me more than a bit for the last few months anyway. Thanks, Tom, you’re fucking amazing.

Gracie – Dec and Amy thought she was the last of the gang. She’s lived up to her name, breaking the rule of the inappropriate virtuous nomenclature; even when she was little she could disarm you with her poise. She did ballet, and still enjoys dancing, although she never considered it as anything more than a hobby.

Through everything that’s happened to me over the years, Gracie is the one who has been able to make me feel special with a short text, or a picture of R2D2 when she was little, or just popping in for a cuppa and a cookie. When she comes round with her bag from the bakery, even when I’m at my most stubborn and not eating for anyone, I’ll share a mouthful of oatmeal and raisin cookie with her, because I can’t bear to see her big blue eyes look so sad when I don’t. She is sailing through Uni, and will succeed in her gentle, determined way at everything she does.

Rosa – Rosa, Rosa, Rosa. My Red. The last of the gang, the unexpected one. She doesn’t look like any of them – Charlie and Gracie have dark wavy hair and big blue eyes like Amy, and Tom looks like Dec with his straight light brown hair and his permanent smile. But Rosa surprised everyone with her Titian hair and green eyes; no one knows where it came from, although Dec doesn’t know anything about his birth family, so it could be from anywhere.

She is mercurial, one minute softly spoken and shy, and the next a firecracker. She changes her opinions daily, but can argue either side of a debate with ease. She has some humdingers with Ella, who likes to think she can win most arguments but gets taken down a peg or two by Rosa from time to time.

Rosa loves maths, and we’ve had some great nerd-offs, chucking equations and theorems at each other until I have to feign tiredness to avoid defeat, but she’s also got this creative side, and the jewellery she makes is exquisite.

Rosa was named for Rose, who was like a granny to all of Dec and Amy’s children. I have never seen Rose prouder than the day Dec and Amy announced what the new baby was going to be called if it was a girl, and although Rose loved all of Dec’s children as if they really were her own grandchildren, I think she had a hidden soft spot for her namesake.

All of the Summers kids are awesome. I often forget they’re not really my family – I mean, they are really my family, what I mean is they’re not my blood. I guess sometimes water is as thick as blood.

Bastien is Nico and Lis’s boy, and as much one of the cousins as any of them. He’s quiet, unlike either his mother or his father, and often sits and watches the madness going on with his big brown eyes. He’s pretty laconic, but has a little bit of fiery Latin temper if you push him too far, which it amuses us all to try at regular intervals. I think he would make a fine son-in-law for someone. I will leave it at that.

When all the kids are together, it is impossible to do anything but sit and watch as they show us what the next generation is going to be like, what they already are like.

Between them, they have already set the world on fire in their chosen fields, and there’s plenty more to come. I am so bloody proud of the lot of them, I love them all, and I know they love me, and if I could spare them the pain of what’s coming, I would.

But I’m supposed to be arsing about, not getting all wistful and shit. How else can I put off the hard bit, what happened in-between Jules and Lau? Because it’s nearly time for you, Lau, and that’s the bit I’m looking forward to telling because it’s happy, it’s sexy and it’s awesome. But for now, just a bit more arsing about, if you don’t mind, because I don’t want to say it just yet, how it came back.

Maybe a quick comparison – Carrie, Jules and Lau. Could you bear it Lau? You come out best, in all categories, you know you do. Let me show you:

Eyes: Carrie’s were bright blue, you always felt like you were skating on top of them, they gave nothing away. Jules’s eyes were brown and equally unfathomable until you got to know her, then you could see them twinkle when she was teasing, you could see them darken when she was annoyed, and you could tell when she was hurting. Lau’s eyes are always changing, from blue to green to grey, depending on the light, the temperature, how she’s feeling, what she’s doing. You could just watch Lau’s eyes all day, and they would tell you all about her, what she was thinking, what she was up to, without needing to talk to her. I could have written poetry about Lau’s eyes. Why did I never write poetry to your bloody gorgeous eyes, Lau? Probably because it would have gone something like ‘Lau your eyes of blue and green/Are the best I’ve ever seen’ and you would have laughed, and you deserve better.

Driving skills: Just to throw you off. I bet you thought I was going to go for ‘body’ or ‘tits’ or some such laddish shit, didn’t you. Nope. Carrie’s driving skills were non-existent, having never taken her test or even sat behind the wheel of a car. She couldn’t even ride a bike. Jules could drive, and she was bloody good as you would expect of anything Jules did, but she took it very seriously, holding on tight to the steering wheel until her knuckles went white, not allowing anyone (i.e. me) to talk to her unless she’d asked which turning to take, not really liking the CD player or radio on, but putting up with it so I could hear the footy scores, and not jump out of the car through boredom. Lau, well, I suppose she’s not a perfect driver (sorry, Lau, but you are female, it has to be said, ouch no, stop bloody bashing me woman), but we’ve always had a laugh and a sing whenever she’s driven us anywhere. Lau kind of feels her way in traffic, rather than ever absolutely knowing where she’s going. She takes lots of wrong turns, sometimes because she’s too busy singing along to the radio to pay attention, but uses them as opportunities to visit parts of the world she’s never been to before. Every new journey is a mystery tour – not regular journeys, I don’t mean she gets lost on the way to the shop, or to Jay’s or some such shit, but when she’s going somewhere new. Never used a sat nav. Proud of her for that.

Caring: Carrie didn’t give a shit. Jules gave a shit, found it hard to say, but offered to look after me if needed, which must have taken a lot of courage and was awesome. Lau gives so much more than a shit. She has given and given to me over the years, for bloody little reward, and she never stops. Every night, before we go to sleep, she holds me tight and touches me everywhere – oh, that sounds more pervy than I meant, she’s letting me know she’s there for me, she’s trying to find out how I am without asking me because she knows it bloody winds me up to be asked all the time. She knows, has known from the start, how to say things I won’t let other people get away with, how to get me to talk, how to get me to let her help me. My wife is fucking awesome.

Dress sense: Yeah, what do I know about it? But going to comment anyway, so fuck you. Carrie was a fan of the tight vest tops and jogging bottoms. It was fucking hot at the time, but on reflection a bit tarty and a bit chavvy. Jules always dressed very classically, muted colours mostly except for one or two surprising exceptions that said more about her character than the rest of her black and grey and taupe wardrobe. Lau has a whole mish-mash of colours and styles. She never wears anything dull, and is always buying cheap crap, not because she’s saving money, particularly, but because she knows she’ll be hating it in a few months, so it doesn’t need to last, or wash well. She’s got some awesome dresses that show off her delightful assets very well, but she’s not a great one for cleavage or tight tops, unfortunately. You should see her in stockings though, and nothing else. You’re never going to get the chance, if you know what’s good for you, that’s just for me, but whoa, Lau. I’m sure you know just what the very thought of that is doing to me.

Arguing: Well all three of them could argue for bloody Team GB, but to compare … Carrie didn’t like being argued with, got all defensive, didn’t like being disagreed with, got all moody and huffy, as if you’d dealt her a personal insult. Now, most will be aware that I like a good barney as much as the next man, but I stopped arguing with Carrie, let her think she was right even when she was ridiculously wrong, just to keep the peace. Not an ideal situation, I can see now, but so much of that situation was very far from ideal. Jules? Jules always but always knew her facts before even entering into such a commitment as an argument, so spats with her were more like debates, throwing information at each other until it became apparent who was correct. She was a bloody challenge to fight with, but it never really got heated, because you were either right or wrong. Look, Matt, here’s the research explaining just why you shouldn’t add salt to the water when you’re boiling an egg. Infuriating, if only because I hate to be proved wrong. Lau. Lau, I don’t know if you have ever properly researched anything in your life, other than Googling ‘Cutest Kitten Videos’ or some such tweeness, so you don’t use facts in an argument, which gives me wiggle room, and you don’t go all sulky and uncommunicative when I say you’re wrong, you laugh at me and use your bloody logic. Oh, not normal logic, which is similar if not the same as facts, really, but Lau Logic. I like to think I can debate my way out of most situations, put forward some telling points, add a bit of wordsmithery and leave the opponent begging for mercy. But you have this way of letting me have my fun, leading me on down the path of believing I’ve won, and then just going ‘that’s all well and good, but the way I see it …’ and of course, the way you see it is the sensible way, the way everyone should see it, you’ve called me on my bullshit again, and I am helpless in the face of it, and I have been Laued once more.

See, Lau? You win bloody hands down at everything. You are fucking awesome.

OK, then, I suppose I can’t put it off any longer.

Jules was gone, and the next chapter in my life was hard, and I nearly found it too tough, too difficult. But I’ll tell you anyway.

69. Various methods of escape

In which there is a reunion.

Matt

So I sat on the beach and read. I don’t know what I read, it didn’t really matter. I got from one end to another of several iBooks, hardly taking any of it in, trying to make my peace in my mind with what had happened. It kept coming back to the fact that I couldn’t change any of it; nothing I did, said or thought now would change what I’d done, said or thought in the past. I’d well and truly fucked things up, and the only thing to do was accept that and move past it. Trouble is, it wasn’t that easy, except in the most theoretical of ways. It was as if my life had been trundling along in its groove, and suddenly there was a derailment, and I had no idea how to get it back on track.

So sitting and pseudo-reading was all I did, and at least my body relaxed, if my mind couldn’t. Was it wise to be alone with my thoughts right now? I knew a few people who would have said no, but one of them was preoccupied with being a new father, one of them had been permitted to help and had noticeably stopped giving unwanted opinions as a result, and one of them was my mum.

I hadn’t spoken to Mum since the whole Jules thing blew up in my face. The last time I’d seen her was at the hospital with the rest of the family on the day Charlie was born, but I hadn’t spoken to her properly then. God, that seemed such a long time ago, but it was less than a week. I’d texted her to say I was going away, not having the inner strength for a call or a visit, and I’d given Beth dispensation to fill her in while I was gone. I knew she wouldn’t contact me, but would worry about me, and guilt made me call her after I had been away a few days, costing me an arm and a leg and quite possibly a vital bodily organ such as a spleen, or a gall bladder.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘Matthew! Where are you?’

‘Egypt.’

‘You sound so close.’

‘Nope, thousands of miles away.’

‘How are you dear? Beth told me about your troubles. I’m sorry things went badly for you.’

‘I’ll be OK. I just needed to get away, to try to work it all out. Sorry I didn’t tell you, it all happened a bit quickly.’

‘Not to worry, dear. Are you taking care of yourself? Eating enough, getting enough sleep, all the other things mothers are supposed to worry about?’

‘Yeah, Mum. The food’s great. Sleep, meh, who needs it. Not for want of trying.’

Mum sensibly changed tack, quite possibly realising she had as much information about my health as she was likely to receive.

‘Beth said Andrew’s joining you?’

‘Yeah, he’s coming on Saturday. I’m keeping his sun-lounger warm till then.’

‘Oh well that’s good, at least you won’t be on your own. It’s been a while since you saw him, hasn’t it?’

‘Yeah, years, since he buggered off to save Africa.’

‘Well, I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeing him again. Maybe he’ll look after you.’

I couldn’t do anything more to reassure her than I was; I could hear the worry in her voice.

‘I’ll be OK, Mum. I’ll be back in a week or so, I’ll come and see you. I’ll bring you a plaster pyramid, or a papyrus with your name in hieroglyphs.’

‘That would be lovely, dear.’

Mum always appreciated any gift as if it were priceless, however much or little thought had gone into it – her old house had been packed to the rafters with things Jay and I had made or bought for her when we were younger – but I knew the thing she’d most appreciate would be to see me. Especially if the alternative was some crappy tourist tat. I’d save that for Jay.

‘No one will be able to say I didn’t think of you while I was out here.’

‘You’re a good boy.’

‘Yeah, well, that remains to be seen. I’ll see you when I get back.’

‘We’ll have a good talk. Goodbye, Matthew.’

‘Bye, Mum.’

It was a brief conversation, and I’d told her nothing, but I knew that me being in contact would put her mind at ease. I’m sure they were all worried about me spiralling down into my friendly neighbourhood black pit of despond while I was out here, but that wasn’t where I was headed. I wanted to try and sort myself out, work out what had happened and how to make sure it never happened again. Part of that meant digging deep into my psyche to ascertain just what it was that I wanted out of life.

OMFG what a whiny git I am. Was. Still am, I suppose, as here I am years later still going on about it all. The truth is, Lau, I want you to know it all. I never told you absolutely everything, and some things you just don’t say to your gorgeous wife – things like, you know, being with other women and shit. And you’re so cool about everything, I know you would have just listened and then said something bloody awesome, but shit, look how long it’s taken me to get this far in The Ballad of Matthew Scott. And now I just don’t have the time or the breath to say it all, so I hope one day you find this; I’m going to be a bit creative about leaving clues, so one day, after, you’ll find this and you’ll know everything. Ha, and you won’t be able to argue or ask me any of your bloody annoyingly penetrating questions. So there. See how grown up and mature I am. I love you, by the way. Always will. Holding hands forever.

So where was I? Oh yeah. Beach in Egypt. Fucking awesome, or it should have been. I suppose it was the ideal place to try to sort my life out, and I did do a lot of thinking. Hardly noticed the beach, probably would have been cheaper to turn the lights on and the radiators up in Jay’s conservatory. But I guess there’s something about being ‘away’ that can help when you’re thinking about serious shit.

I contemplated work, and whether I was going to be able to go back, with Jules there. I knew we would both be professional, that wasn’t the problem, but I also knew how stressed it would make her, and, yeah, how stressed it would make me. But I wasn’t in any state to go job hunting, and so I was going to have to go back and see how it was, try to keep Lexi’s inquisitiveness to a minimum, try to make things work at work.

I contemplated my life in the city that now felt like home to me. All the same objections applied to an immediate decision, but maybe it was time to think about moving away, trying some of the exciting jobs I’d thought about when I was younger, leaving Matt the Lad behind and starting over. Again. It was an option that both excited and terrified me in equal measure, and one I didn’t come to any conclusions about.

And then I contemplated the big thing, the one that had caused all this in the first place, the reason I was sitting here on a beach in northern Africa turning myself inside out. The thing that had lurked unexamined inside me for fuck knows how long. The thing that had destroyed Jules and me.

Family. My suddenly discovered need to have a family of my own, not just one that involved me being an uncle or a brother. Mum, Dad, kids. House, garden, car. Small unit of people. Possibly a dog, to make up the numbers.

I’d tried to convince myself, a few times, that it was just a weird moment, that it was an aberration, but I failed to make myself believe it. Once uncovered, the need had settled over me like a blanket, and no amount of denial or self-delusion was going to make it go away. It was what everyone did – not that I only wanted what everyone else had, that’s not what it was all about, but now I knew I wanted it, the unfairness of everyone else having it sliced into me. Even Nico and Lis were expecting a baby – they’d announced both this, and the fact that they were coming back to England in time for the birth, on the same day that Charlie was born. It was all working out for everyone else, but I couldn’t have it, or at least that’s how it felt.

Dec had sent a few texts, with pictures of Charlie, documenting the tiny amount of sleep he and Amy were achieving, but obviously so proud of her and his new status as a parent. I knew with every pang of envy that it was what I wanted, but at this moment it was unachievable.

Just thinking about the ramifications made my head spin – I was nearly thirty-five. The practicalities were that available women were becoming fewer and further between. Available women who didn’t already have children were even fewer and further. I didn’t think I wanted someone else’s children, I didn’t even think I wanted ‘someone else’. This thing had blown my world apart, and I wasn’t going to take second best just because there was some kind of hypothetical clock ticking in the background. And my heart was breaking, I could feel it heavy and dysfunctional in my chest – being with someone else was not something I could even imagine. It was another thing I couldn’t solve, would drive myself mad thinking about too much, so I parked it, along with all the other things, and tried to read my book and wait for Andrew, while the sun shone and the waves crashed and life went on.

I thought that when Andrew got there, things would carry on pretty much as they had been – beach, book, beer – but with someone to share the short walk to the bar. But Andrew had changed. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen him for several years, and until our recently rekindled contact I had thought of him as a devoted churchgoer. Even before that, he was a settled family man, seemingly happy to stay with the insurance company he’d worked for until he retired or keeled over from a heart attack like all good managers should if they worked hard enough. The last time I’d seen him which was about a year before he left for Africa, he’d been a fairly unprepossessing man, hair starting to thin, paunch starting to develop, middle age starting to approach. He wasn’t even thirty, but he’d had that air about him of resigned contentment; Cindy’s makeover was long-forgotten.

I nearly missed him when I went to meet him at the airport, because I didn’t recognise him. The hair was gone, I mean virtually all gone, shaved so close to his head that to all intents and purposes he was completely bald. He’d lost weight. He was wearing stylish clothes, and reflective sunglasses, and my gaze slid over him as he dropped his bags and walked up to me, arms held wide, a big smile on his face. I almost looked behind me to see who this dude was greeting, then he shoved his sunglasses up onto his hairless head and I recognised his eyes.

‘Matthew Scott come here and give me a bloody great man cuddle you bastard.’

I did as I was told, and saw over my shoulder several people turning their heads to look as he practically lifted me off me feet with a big roar.

‘God, Matt, you haven’t changed a bit.’

‘Whereas you, Andrew, have changed most of your bits. Looking good, you dog.’

We grinned at each other and hugged again.

‘Oh mate, it’s great to see you. It’s been too long. Here, give me a bag, the car’s this way. I hired it for the week, so we can go see dead Pharaohs or some such shit.’

‘Really? You’re here for the archaeology?’

‘Well not exclusively, but I thought we could give some of it a try.’

‘You’re the boss. Thought we could try the nightlife, though.’

‘Yeah, sure, if you want. This place is club city, according to the PR.’

‘What, you haven’t sussed them out yet?’

‘No, I’ve been chilling.’

I was getting the feeling that Andrew wasn’t just here to offer me a shoulder to cry on, which was fair enough, and I mentally adjusted my expectations as we walked to the car.

‘Well we need to get you out there, my boy. Back on the pony, or whatever the fuck the term is.’

‘Ha, I don’t think so, mate. I’ll be your wing-man, if you need one, but I really don’t need any complications right now.’

‘Who said anything about complications? No strings, that’s the way to go.’

‘Yeah, been there, trying not to go back there again.’

‘OK, whatever, mate. We can talk about it later, yeah? What car have you hired?’

‘Oh, nothing fancy, they drive like maniacs out here – I didn’t want any scratches.’

‘You haven’t changed at all, have you, still bloody meticulous as hell.’

I was reeling a little from how different Andrew was; I kept stealing glances at him, trying to get used to what he looked like, and to the unfamiliar feeling of being the boring one at the party. I hadn’t felt like that since I was at school. I hoped I would be able to keep Matt the Lad in retirement, but it looked like Andrew the Lad was in full employment and possibly recruiting help. Quite a few female eyes slid his way as we walked; it wasn’t his looks, it was his ‘look’. The way he was dressed, the way he carried himself, the way he looked back. I recognised it, as it had been me until a year or so ago. It said ‘notice me’. It said ‘give me a try, I’ll make it worth your while’. It said ‘hello ladies’. It might as well have said ‘get your coat, love, you’ve pulled’. Sighing internally, and realising that Andrew had his journey as much as I had mine, I unlocked the car and got in.

Andrew spent half of the short trip to the hotel checking his reflection in the mirror, wiping off microscopic specks of dirt, turning his head this way and that. I hoped I wasn’t going to have to tell him he was being a dickhead too early in the week.

We got back to the hotel, where we changed into shorts for the beach, and headed out, picking up drinks along the way. As we settled onto the sun loungers, I got a reassuring glimpse of the Andrew Distock I knew of old.

‘I heard this at work the other day: x squared asks x cubed if it believes in God. X cubed says ‘Well I do believe in higher powers’. Ba ding cha.’

‘Don’t tell me David Dibley still works for Eyeti. He was hawking that one around when I first started there.’

‘Really? Bollocks. Never heard it before. I forgot you know some of the old stagers there.’

‘Is Celia still on reception?’

‘Yeah, good old Ceel. Has covered for many a hangover for me.’

‘Always has a paracetamol.’

‘And a disappointed shake of the head. It’s like she’s your mum or something.’

‘How’s it going at Eyeti?’

‘Great, love it. Got you to thank, though, mate. You’re fondly regarded, even now. They’re all sad you don’t keep in touch.’

‘I do Twitter and Facebook.’

‘Not the same, though. You should come up, we could have a reunion.’

The thought of it made my blood run cold. Not that it wouldn’t have been great to see everyone, but imagining going back to Stafford, where part of my life had ended, where all those people knew all that shit, all those lies, about me – I was never going to do it. The place I was born was now dead to me, and I put Andrew off.

‘Yeah, well, needed to leave it all behind when I moved away.’

‘What exactly happened? You never told me the whole story; I know there was a woman, and you got ill.’

Maybe it was time to talk. It was the main reason I’d dragged Andrew all the way out here, after all. I swallowed hard and gave it a shot.

‘Well, the short version is I got dumped on from a great height by the girl of my dreams when she went back to her psychotwat of an ex-boyfriend, I nearly died of pneumonia, she took all my stuff while I was in hospital, and told all our friends I’d slept with her when I knew I had HIV.’

‘Fuck, Matt, you’ve got HIV?’

I rolled my eyes.

‘No. She told everyone I had. A few weeks after she left, I got ill and ended up on a drip. She didn’t even call to see how I was, she just cleared the flat out and told everyone a load of shitcrankery.’

Talking about it wasn’t helping. It was stirring everything up, making me feel all the anger, the hurt, the shame. I didn’t want to talk about Carrie, I realised. It was a long time ago, and the deeper she stayed buried the better.

‘Shit, mate. Sounds like you’re well rid. Is she still in Stafford?’

‘I have no idea. I don’t want to know anything about her. Can we talk about something else?’

‘Sure. Oh, I ran into someone who knows you. Mercy Carter.’

Oh bloody hell. More blasts from the past to bring it all back.

‘Really? I bet she had a lot of nice things to say about me. Where did you meet her?’

‘Club. Only last week, actually. I mentioned I was coming out here, must have said your name, she gave me a funny look and told me you left her on top of a hill when some woman called you. Must have been some woman, Merce is a babe.’

‘She deserved better than she got from me.’

‘Nah, don’t think like that. You take your chances, don’t you.’

‘I used to think so. It feels like it’s all coming home to roost at the moment.’

‘You and Jules?’

‘Yeah.’

Finally. Well, I say finally, Andrew had only just got here, but I’d been waiting for him to come for days, so I could talk to him about this.

‘What happened, then? Another woman?’

‘No, nothing like that.’

‘Was she playing away?’

‘No. It’s … complicated. Or simple, maybe. My mate had a kid, and I realised I want a family too. Every girl’s dream, right? Captain No Commitment suddenly wants a baby. Except Jules doesn’t. Ever. We didn’t stand a chance after that.’

‘Shit. Harsh. I must say I wouldn’t have seen it coming either, you’ve never seemed particularly family oriented.’

‘It surprised me too. I spent a lot of time convincing myself it was something else – I don’t know, cold feet about moving in together, or overload of baby hormones or some such shit.’

‘What, you moved in with her?’

I’d forgotten that Andrew didn’t know, that no one knew apart from my family.

‘Well technically she moved in with me, but yeah. She’d only been there a week when it all went tits up.’

‘God, Matt. Bit of a turn up for the books for you, isn’t it?’

‘I’ve been trying to clean up my act, be a bit more responsible.’

‘Don’t see the point. You’re only young once.’

‘But I think that’s part of it. I don’t feel young any more. I feel like I’ve been fucking about my entire life, disregarding people’s feelings, and now I’ve worked out what I want, but I’ve still hurt someone I care about.’

Andrew’s expression changed briefly, and some kind of sadness clouded his eyes. Then he hid it and offered to go and fetch more beer.

So that was the subject broached. Andrew hadn’t seemed particularly keen on soul-baring, but he had only just arrived, and maybe we would settle into our old routine of addressing issues through kidding around. My phone pinged with a text just as Andrew returned with the drinks, and I opened up yet another picture of Charlie.

‘Day seven in the Summers-Wright household of no sleep. She certainly can yell.’

Dec had sent it to everyone; he’d probably forgotten that texting me in Egypt would cost me almost as much as it cost him, but I didn’t really begrudge him it, and must have had a daft grin on my face, as Andrew remarked on it.

‘What’s got you all soppy?’

I showed him the picture of Charlie.

‘Jeez, you have got it bad, haven’t you. I remember when Rebecca was that tiny, she was a squealing mound of puke and shitty nappies. Not the most enjoyable time.’

‘Have you managed to see Rebecca since you got back?’

The same cloud I’d seen before creased his forehead.

‘No. Karen won’t talk to me. If I went over there, I don’t think she’d let me see her. It’s killing me, it’s not even like I can talk to her or Skype or anything.’

‘She can’t do that, you’ve got a right to see her.’

‘There’s nothing I can do from home. Until she comes back to the UK, I’m stuck.’

‘Do you think she will?’

‘I don’t bloody know. She’s got me by the bloody short and curlies now we’re divorced. I should have thought it through, but I just felt so fucking guilty I gave her everything she wanted. Anyway, not here to dwell on things that can’t be changed. I was chatting to a couple of girls at the bar, they’re going to a club tonight. Up for it?’

Well I wasn’t, not really, but I made an effort for Andrew, as he was obviously very up for it, and had flown to another continent because I had asked him to. After an hour or so more on the beach, we went back to the hotel for dinner, then downed a few more beers before heading out to the club Andrew had heard about.

It was a revelation, watching him go to work in the sea of dancing women, and I had a disorienting sensation of seeing myself through someone else’s eyes. Andrew did things exactly as I had, honed in on the same type of woman, used the same moves. He left me behind fairly swiftly after arriving, and I sat at the bar and watched his progress. A couple of women came up to me and tried to chat, but I rebuffed them as gently as I could. The whole thing was leaving me cold; I couldn’t believe I’d behaved like this only a year or so ago. Most of the women here were at least ten years younger than Andrew and me, and it felt, well, if not wrong, then slightly creepy. Andrew, with his shaved head, looked somewhat ageless, though, and he had no difficulty finding several dance/drink/smooch partners throughout the night. Eventually he came over, young skinny blonde hanging on his arm.

‘Not joining in Matt?’

‘Just watching tonight.’

‘You’re missing out mate. Me and Jody here are heading off, but Jody’s friend Layla … that’s her in the neon pink bikini top… thinks you’re cute.’

‘Oh. Well, thank your friend, Jody, but if you’re going, I’ll go back too.’

‘No, mate, stay, don’t leave on our account.’

‘I’m a bit tired, bed sounds good.’

‘Don’t I know it.’

Jody giggled.

I stumbled back to the hotel on my own, having left Andrew and Jody behind when they got engrossed in snogging against a wall. I’d had a bit more to drink than I’d intended, but I was happily pissed, not out of my skull, and although it was late, or early, depending on your point of view, I was too drunk to sleep just yet. I pulled my phone out and sent Dec a text, my judgement impaired enough that I didn’t think about waking him, Amy or Charlie up.

‘Hope Charlie’s keepin u on yr toes.’

It didn’t take long for a reply to wing its way expensively back.

‘Thanks 4 that. Just got 2 sleep.’

‘Turn yr fone off then.’

‘Will do now. U OK?’

‘Yeh. Bit pissed. Been 2 club w mate. Weird. Feeling my age.’

‘U should b more careful. Clubbing 4 da youth only. Need 2 talk? Awake now. Again.’

And I did. I suddenly missed home, the ease with which I could connect with people who knew me and cared about me. I called Dec’s name up on the screen and pressed.

‘Hey. This must be costing you a fortune.’

‘Yeah. Too pissed to care.’

‘So you’ve been clubbing, then.’

‘If you can call it that. More like standing at the bar drinking overpriced watered down beer watching my mate work the room, feeling slightly nauseated.’

‘Not much fun then.’

‘Something of an eye-opener, actually. I’ve been a dick in the past, and now I can see Andrew’s being a dick, I’m not sure whether I should tell him.’

‘Would you have listened if someone had told you?’

‘Good point. Not sure I want to spend a week trying not to pick up women, though. Andrew’s pretty full on.’

‘Would it hurt? It’s not like you’re …’

There was a pause while Dec tried to find a diplomatic way to say Jules had dumped me and I was now available.

‘Yeah, I know I’m technically single, but I came out here to get my head straight. I don’t think a shagathon is going to achieve that.’

‘Fair enough. How’s it been going, the getting your head straight?’

‘Well I was kind of hoping Andrew would be helping me out, but it hasn’t worked out like that so far. I’m expecting life, the universe and everything conversations with a bloke who’s only interested in the closest pair of decent tits. Oh maybe I do just need to chill. When the fuck did I turn into Mid-life Crisis Angst Man?’

‘About the time you made an important decision about what you wanted from your mid-life? It’s got to be a lot to get your head around, you’re not going to sort yourself out in a few days, are you. Give yourself a fucking break; you’re there for a holiday with your mate. Enjoy yourself, don’t overthink shit, don’t sit there punishing yourself for shit, but if you don’t want to do what he’s doing, then don’t.’

‘I suppose. Is it selfish to just want things to be how I want them?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thanks.’

‘You asked. I didn’t say I think there’s anything wrong with being selfish, especially now. You’ve had a fucking nightmare of a week. Take some time to do all the guilt, all the regrets, get pissed, cry if you want, get it all out of your system. Then you’ll have a clearer head to help you decide what you want to do next.’

‘Where does all this wise shit of yours come from? You don’t fancy jetting out here for a few days do you?’

‘Nope, too busy getting no sleep, wiping baby puke off my shoulder and emptying the nappy bin.’

‘Sounds awesome. Seriously though, you sound like you’re enjoying yourself just a little bit.’

‘I am, mate. Charlie’s the best thing that ever happened to me, to us. She’s bloody amazing. Oh, bit of news for you. We’ve found a house.’

‘Dec, sorry to break it to you, but there are houses bloody everywhere. They’re not exactly camouflaged. I can see one or two out of my hotel window. ‘

‘Ha ha. We’re going to move.’

‘Bloody great news. Buying or renting?’

‘Renting to start with, but I think the landlord might sell. Three bedrooms, big garden, Ames loves the kitchen. Fuck, I sound like a bloody grown-up.’

‘Again, sorry to break it to you, mate, but you’ve got a job and a missis and a kid. You’re so a grown-up. Whereas I have only one out of three, and will remain ungrown-up for quite some time the way things are going. Email me the details, yeah?’

‘OK, will do. Or Ames will, not quite sure how to do it.’

‘Oh bloody hell, Dec, you’re bloody hopeless.’

In the background I heard a shrill cry.

‘Bollocks. I’ve woken her up. I’m going to be in the shit now. Better go, Matt, don’t forget, pity party then head space.’

‘Cheers, mate, I fucking love you, man.’

‘Yeah, you’re pissed, have another think about that in the morning.’

As we disconnected and I lay on my bed watching the ceiling gently spinning, waiting to start feeling tired, I thought about the conversation I’d just had with Dec, and suddenly wanted to be at home. I was missing all the excitement with Charlie, I was missing just being there with everyone who I knew so well, and who cared about me, and I was here with Andrew, who was different from how he used to be, and I didn’t want to spend my week here getting to know him. I wanted it to be like it was before, which was bloody stupid; I wasn’t like I was before, and it was about time I started looking forward rather than backwards. If I was missing home so much, I should just change my flight and go back. Before I made a decision, I fell asleep.

I woke up slowly, the dull thump of a hangover beating a slow, steady rhythm behind my eyes. It was light, and late, and I’d missed breakfast, although I wasn’t sure I could have faced it anyway. I usually drank lots of water before sleeping if I’d been on the beer, but with my late night chat with Dec, I’d forgotten, and I was paying now.

Squinting against the sun coming through the uncovered windows, I turned onto my back and waited for the churning to stop. I was still in last night’s clothes, my mouth felt furry and my tongue thick, and I needed to freshen up. Much as I didn’t want to get up and have a shower, a shower was what I needed.

I hauled myself off the bed, breathing in wafts of body odour and stale beer, and stumbled hesitantly to the bathroom, running my hands through my hair. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and quickly looked away to avoid the gaze of the scruffy, pale eighty year old man who seemed to be looking back at me.

A shower invigorated me somewhat, and after I had dried off and dressed, I checked my phone, wondering if Andrew was up and about, or if he was trying to disentangle himself from Jody. There were no messages, so I sent him one.

‘U up yet?’

While I waited for a reply, I thought about my half-made decision to go home early. And I saw what a selfish bastard it would make me, to ask Andrew out here for a week then piss off home because I was a bit homesick and things weren’t going as I’d hoped. It was only a week, wasn’t it, and I hadn’t seen Andrew for years. If I was truly serious about getting my act together and treating people with more respect, I could sodding well start now. I took a paracetamol, straightened my shoulders and waited for Andrew to text me back.

While I waited, I went in search of breakfast. I had missed it in the hotel, but found a small café that served reasonable coffee and baklava, which was as good a breakfast as any. Dec texted half way through.

‘How’s the head?’

‘Getting better. How’s the baby puke?’

‘None so far today. Result. Talked 2 yr mate?’

‘Not yet. Do not disturb on his door.’

‘Enjoy the peace then. Charlie says hi.’

‘Send Charlie my heartfelt greetings. Can’t wait 2 c her. Missing out.’

‘Will send u pics.’

‘Gr8. Thx.’

Dec immediately sent several photos of Charlie, with and without her parents. They all looked so happy and right together, and I guiltily felt another stab of envy. I’d thrown away everything I had with Jules for this, but who knew if I would ever have it? Was it worth it? Couldn’t I have just this once made a decision that was about someone else and not all about me? Isn’t that what you did for people you loved?

And as I thought it, I realised it. I loved Jules. I had tried so hard not to, I’d played along with her ‘no such thing as love’ spiel, I’d told her I didn’t love her as a joke, as well as in all seriousness, so many times. I’d told myself I was never going there again, after Carrie, determined no one was going to get past my defences. None of it was true. I was well and truly in love with her, and I’d tossed it away because of something I wanted. Maybe I would have made the same decision if I’d realised earlier, I’d never know now, but Jules had deserved to know that, and it was unlikely I was going to get the opportunity to tell her. Even wanting to tell her was the act of a selfish bastard. Shit. Fuck. This was going to seriously do my head in. Just as I was reaching a peak of silently berating myself, my phone pinged. It was a text from Andrew.

‘Sorry. L8 nite. Where r u?’

I texted the name of the cafe, and waited for him to arrive. While I waited, I opened a writing app on my phone, and started a letter to Jules. When I’d seen the psychologist, he’d suggested it as a way of organising my thoughts. I didn’t have to send it, but he said it was a way of putting things away that I was getting stuck on.

Thinking about Adam made me remember I had an appointment with him next week sometime that I needed to cancel. Being on holiday was as good an excuse as any, and I quickly rang him. Being on holiday was also a good excuse not to hang about on the phone to make another appointment, and I told him I’d call when I got back, although I had no intention of doing so.

Andrew turned up just as I was disconnecting from Adam. He seemed to have lost a bit of his bounce, which I put down to a late night and lots of cocktails.

‘Hey. Alright?’

He shrugged and sat down.

‘Hanger? I had a monster this morning.’

‘No, not really. Didn’t have a good night.’

‘Oh? It looked like it was going well from where I was standing.’

‘Yeah, well, turns out Jody was underage.’

‘Shit. Did you find out before, or …’

‘Yeah, before, thank Christ. Something she said rang bells, and I counted back, and she couldn’t possibly be twenty like she said.’

‘Fuck, Andrew, even twenty makes you almost old enough –’

‘Yeah, yeah, spare me the sermon. In a few years that might be Rebecca with some dirty old man drooling all over her. I hope he does the decent thing like I did. Shit, I’ve come down to earth a bit this morning.’

He put his elbows on the table and leaned his face into his palms, then looked up, running a hand over his shiny head.

‘I got an email from Rebecca last night. Karen let her use her allocation to contact me. Christ, Matt, I miss them so much. What am I fucking about with all this shit for?’

‘I thought it was over with you and Karen.’

‘It is, our marriage is, because it was what she wanted. I destroyed it when I slept with someone else. But … oh I don’t know, I’m so fucked up. When we did the religion thing, it really changed her. She was so fired up, so passionate about it all, and that was exciting, it was a shot in the arm for us, and that’s what I got swept up in, but for her it changed from passion to almost obsession, and it changed her. She changed too much, for me. I still love who she was, before, but maybe not who she became, after. God didn’t do us many favours, really, the bastard. She’s still Rebecca’s mother, and I miss Rebecca so much. I’m on the same continent – why did I come here on holiday? I should have flown on a bit further and started pounding on their door, trying to see them. But Karen wouldn’t want to see me, I’ve gone back to my heathen ways. It’s such a fucking mess.’

‘You could still get a flight out, couldn’t you?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so, but I don’t think I should just turn up unannounced. And if I reply to Rebecca’s email, they might not get it for months.’

‘Do they really not have phones or anything?’

‘Well there is one in the main office, and field workers have basic ones for safety.’

‘Couldn’t you get a message to her?’

‘Not reliably. Maybe I should start making some plans, though. If I email back with a date, say in three or four months time, email the main office and ask them to pass it on, then I can get my shit together and get out there, try and sort some of it out.’

‘Sounds like a plan.’

‘Sorry, Matt, I know you wanted me out here to cheer you up, and I’ve just dumped a major downer on you.’

‘Cheer me up? I wanted you out here so we could talk, you bloody goon. Is that what all this party animal shit has been about?’

‘Maybe a bit. I have been going over the top recently, back home. Changed my image, liked the response it got, didn’t know when to stop. Acting like a bloody thirty-something adolescent.’

‘Been there, mate. Catches up with you in the end, one way or another.’

‘I guess so. It’s just been … after the last year, finding a way to feel good about myself has been addictive. I’ve always been a bit of a geek, a bit of a Melvin, but with the stress of breaking up with Karen, I lost weight, and needed to buy new clothes, and – do you remember at Uni, being made over by Cindy?’

I nodded. ‘Hard to forget.’

I chose not to remind Andrew that I’d slept with his girlfriend moments after being made over by her myself.

‘Well I remembered how that felt, what a boost it gave me, and I had another go, and it bloody well worked. I had half the admin team at Eyeti swooning.’

‘Half? There are only three, aren’t there?’

‘Yeah, well, technically, you’ve got me there. But you know what I mean. It’s heady. Especially when you feel a bit past it, and your wife doesn’t want you anymore.’

‘Or especially when you’ve just recovered from a shitty disease and moved to a new city. I know exactly where you’re coming from. Mate, you haven’t done anything wrong. Fuck, who would I be to judge anyway, I’ve been doing the same shit since I moved away from Stafford. But I’ve had enough now, it’s affecting people I care about, and I’m trying not to be such a bastard.’

We continued comparing ageing bastard notes for a long time. Our experiences were so different, but our behaviour so similar, that we helped each other work a lot of it out. We had both been responding to major setbacks; mine were being ill and being dumped, his were leaving his wife and daughter in a country thousands of miles away. We had both needed to feel a) important and b) in control. We had both gone about it in the same way, and had come to the same conclusion, that using people to feel better about yourself wasn’t really a satisfactory method of dealing with your shit.

Andrew decided that he would try to contact Karen while he was here, just in case there was any chance he could fly on before going back to Stafford.

I decided to finish my letter to Jules; I still didn’t know if I was going to send it to her or not, but a lot of it was an apology, and I wanted to give her that at least.

So eventually I got what I wanted, after a bit of a false start. Andrew was different; his experiences over the past few years had changed him, as I suppose mine had changed me. But in the end I felt as at ease with him as I had through school, Uni and beyond, and we spent the next few days either on the beach or wandering around various nearby tourist spots, chilling, chatting, arsing about when the mood took us.

We were watching the sunset, having a couple of beers, when Andrew’s phone rang. He looked at the screen and frowned, but answered.

‘Andrew Distock … oh, hey … yeah … really? … yeah, I could be there tomorrow, I’m in Egypt at the moment … on holiday, with Matt … ha ha, no, nothing like that, we’re a couple of pensioners really … yeah, I’ll get on it now, book a flight, I’ll let you know … no, don’t worry, I’ll hire a car or something … I really want to see her too, I’ve missed you both. Are you sure it’s OK? … great. Thanks, Karen. It means a lot … I know … we’ll talk, yeah? … no, I know, I’m not expecting anything, I just want to see Rebecca … OK. Well, hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow then … yeah, will do … bye.’

He disconnected and looked at me, fear and excitement mingling on his face.

‘Did you get that?’

‘Yeah, you’re deserting me.’

I put on a pout.

‘Too bloody right. You’re a miserable git, I’ve had a rubbish time and I’ll be glad to see the back of you.’

He raised an eyebrow and grinned, to show that what he actually meant was ‘I’m sorry I’m running out on you’.

‘Sod off back to your bloody family, then, you inconsiderate bastard.’

I grinned back to show him I was pleased for him – bloke speak for ‘I’m really glad you’ve sorted your life out a bit, and I’m happy for you but will miss your company’.

So the next morning I drove Andrew to the airport and waved him off to start a new page in his life-story. Then I drove back and kicked my heels at the resort, wondering what to do next. I started another book, but it didn’t grab my attention, and I found my mind wandering as I read and re-read the same few pages. I was thinking about the same few things, going over them, and in the end I decided to ditch the book and just write a list, as if I was going shopping for ingredients for a scrumptious ‘Matt’s Perfect Life’ cake.

My list included: Leave the past and all its shit behind, and stop letting it influence me in the here and now.

Make peace with Jules, if at all possible.

Be the best uncle I can be to the awesome children already in my life.

Be a sensible, mature grown up.

Be nice to my awesome family.

Find the perfect woman.

Have perfect children.

Get real about the last three, Matt, no make that four.

Well, it was a bit of a fantasy list. You have to have something to aim for, don’t you?

And then Dec bombarded me with tons of pictures and video of Charlie, and it made me really homesick. So I changed my flight, managed to wangle a refund on my room, and flew home early.

68. Lean on me

In which help is sought, and a sudden plan is made.

Dec

It seemed like I was having some success with distracting Matt, until his phone rang. He picked it up from the counter and looked at the screen. From the mixture of hope and sorrow on his face, I guessed it was Julia.

He talked to her for a short time, sounding calm and detached but looking more and more upset, at one point finding the cut along his cheekbone with his fingers. Then, just as he asked Julia if she was OK, she hung up on him.

‘Hello? Fuck.’

He looked at me miserably.

}She wants to come and get her stuff, clothes, everything. She hasn’t got her keys, having used them as target practice, so I’ve got to let her in. Shit, we only just moved it all in last weekend, I can’t believe it. Fuck it, I’m going to have to cancel the order for that fucking bed. Here, Dec –

He handed me the mountainous sandwich.

}– I’ve lost my appetite. Oh, and double fuck, I’m going to have to clean the fucking place up before she gets there.

‘Why?’

}Because there’s broken stuff all over the place, it’s a fucking mess.

‘Well, she threw it, I don’t see why you have to go rushing back to clear it all up to make it look tidy. Fuck her, let her see the mess she made. What time is she coming?’

}She said before work, so before nine.

‘Well you won’t have time then, you’re coming with me when I fetch Amy and Charlie, to get your car, so you’ll probably get there when she does. Oh, you’re staying here tonight, by the way, did I not mention?’

}I think you neglected to, but I was hoping. Thanks mate. Your couch is much appreciated. For sleeping purposes, soul-baring purposes and avoiding being the fuck at home on my own purposes. Thanks. Really, Dec, thanks.

He looked at me, I saw his face wobble, and he started to cry again. He looked lost and alone. Matt didn’t really do outward displays of emotion, but I reached towards him and hugged him. He clung on, sobbing hard. I ‘ssh’ed him and ‘it’s OK’ed him for a long time, until he ran out of tears and breath, and it all subsided. He stepped back, putting his hands over his face, breathing heavily. Rubbed his eyes. Looked up, embarrassed.

‘Sorry mate, I’m behaving like a fucking lunatic. Took me by surprise. It just creeps up on me. This morning I was living with her, now I’m not. I’m really going to miss her. Shit, what a fucking mess. I don’t want to feel like this, I can’t fucking handle it.’

He looked like he might start crying again, but walked away, into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Leaned forwards, head in his hands. I sat next to him, waiting. After a while he looked up.

}Know what? I think … maybe I should give your head-shrink bloke a try. Do you think he could help me sort my fucking life out?

‘Yeah, I do, but you’ve got to think it too. No point going just because I tell you to.’

}When have I ever done anything just because you sodding well told me to?

‘OK then.’

I took out my phone and dialled a number.

ɸAdam Palmer.

‘Adam, hi, it’s Declan Summers –’

Matt spluttered into the beer he had just lifted to his mouth.

}Fuck, Dec, I didn’t mean now.

‘– sorry it’s a bit late on a Sunday.’

ɸHello Declan. No problem. What can I do for you?

‘Well, I just wondered if you’d be able to fit in a friend of mine for an appointment?’

ɸOf course, if I can, how soon are you thinking?

‘As soon as possible, really.’

ɸOK, let’s have a look … well it might be a bit short notice, but I’ve had a cancellation. Do you think your friend would be able to come tomorrow?

‘I think he would. He’s actually here, can you talk to him?’

ɸThat sounds like a good idea. What’s his name?

‘Matt. Matthew Scott.’

If Adam recognised his name from our sessions, he didn’t show it.

ɸAlright, put him on.

‘Thanks Adam, much appreciated.’

I handed my phone over. Matt looked very uncomfortable, but reluctantly took the phone, holding it by his fingertips, as if it was hot.

}Hello … yeah … Matt, only my mum calls me Matthew … yeah … well I could … yeah, I’m free then … no, I don’t … no, don’t worry, I’ll ask Dec. He’ll probably bloody tie me up and drive me there himself, he’s so bloody keen … no, no, I – I think I need to … yeah … do I have to bring anything or do anything? … OK. Thanks very much. Yeah. See you tomorrow.

He handed me back the phone.

}I’m not getting much opportunity to change my mind at the moment, am I?

‘Not about to risk giving you the chance to. Honestly, Matt, it’ll be fine. You don’t know him, he doesn’t know you, you can tell him anything, everything, he’ll never tell another soul. It’s liberating. It’ll help. In the meantime, I think we need a diversion. Fancy putting a cot together?’

}Er, what?

‘Well, I’ve been meaning to do it for ages, we bought it weeks ago, it’s flat-pack. I guess with Charlie coming home tomorrow it’s about time I did it. Give me a hand? You’ll save me a bollocking from Amy.’

Matt rolled his eyes, and the hint of a smile caught the corner of his mouth. It seemed my diversion had worked – he could be all holier-than-thou about my lack of organisation, then he could help me with the cot, both of which would take his mind off the fact that he had just made an appointment to see a counsellor.

}You are fucking priceless. Your daughter comes home tomorrow morning, and you haven’t even got her anywhere to sleep yet.

‘Give me a break, she wasn’t due for another few days, I thought I had plenty of time.’

}Where exactly are you going to put this cot when you’ve, or rather we’ve, or more likely I’ve, built it? This isn’t quite Buckingham Palace is it.

‘She’ll have to be in our bedroom. We’ve been looking at houses and stuff, but there just hasn’t been time to get anything sorted.’

Matt looked at me and shook his head, enjoying feeling superior.

}Well we can at least give the poor neglected child a place to sleep. You get the screwdriver, I’ll get the beers. No arguments about sugar and shit, it’s a well known fact that beer helps you read flat-pack instructions.

As he predicted, Matt ended up doing most of the work. I was pretty useless at DIY, and had to hunt for the only screwdriver I possessed before I found it at the back of a drawer. Matt read the instructions and put everything together, while I handed him screws and bits of wood – sometimes they were even the right screws and bits of wood. We got through more beer, finished Matt’s monster sandwich and microwaved some popcorn.

Jay called me.

‘Hey.’

łJust checking on Matty. Is he OK?

‘Getting there. We’re building a cot.’

Matt looked at me.

‘OK, he’s building, I’m watching and supplying refreshments.’

łJust wondering if me or Beth need to be around tomorrow?

‘Can’t hurt, keep in touch. Here, talk to him.’

I handed my phone over.

}Hey … been better … yeah, she called, wants to pick her stuff up tomorrow … yeah, it is a bit … yeah, I’m staying here tonight, on Dec’s bloody uncomfortable sofa … yeah, I’ll be around, I’ll call, or you can call if you want – oh, I’ll have my phone off for an hour or so in the afternoon, so don’t go alerting the fucking coastguard if I don’t answer … I know, I know … I don’t know, I’ll have to see what it’s like being there … thanks, I might. Your sofa is marginally more comfortable anyway, with the added bonus of no day old infants screaming their heads off all night … yeah, thanks … OK, love back to her. Speak tomorrow.

He handed the phone back.

}Don’t think I’m going to be telling Jay about seeing Adam.

‘OK. Understood.’

}Thanks. OK, I think this is just about finished. Would you like to screw in the last screw, just so you can say you helped?

‘Hey, I helped. I supplied you with beer, I microwaved popcorn, I handed you stuff. You couldn’t have done it without me.’

}I would have been finished half an hour ago without you giving me dowels instead of bolts.

‘Fuck off.’

}You fuck off. Your next job is clearing all this shit up, where’s your hoover?

‘Oh bollocks to that, it’s too late.’

}Dec, in case you’ve forgotten, you are bringing your tiny baby home tomorrow. Now, Charlie won’t notice if the place looks like a war zone, but Amy certainly will and to avoid the maritals, I suggest a bit of an effort is made. You need to clean the kitchen up too.

I looked around. The floor was covered in sawdust, cardboard packaging, plastic packets and beer bottles. There was a fair amount of popcorn down there too. Clearing up was the last thing I wanted to start doing right now, but I imagined Amy’s face if she walked in to it tomorrow morning. Went and fetched the hoover.

‘I’m not sure I know how to work it. What do all these brushes and things do? Where’s the switch?’

}Dec, what precisely do you do with yourself all day when you’re not hurling a rugby ball around?

I shrugged, grinning sheepishly.

}I think Amy’s going to have her work cut out getting you to be a new man, you’re worse than Jay – ah, I’ve just realised who your domestic role model was in your formative years. Right, I’ll sort the kitchen, you get rid of all this lot and hoover the floor.

It didn’t take too long to sort everything out. When we had finished, I carried the cot into the bedroom and spent some time trying to find the right spot for it. I was sure Amy would move it tomorrow anyway, but I needed to do it myself to start with. Then I got a couple of blankets out of a cupboard, grabbed Amy’s pillows off the bed, took it all into the living room and put it on the sofa.

‘Hope you’re not too uncomfortable.’

}Cheers, mate. I’ll be fine, won’t sleep much anyway.

‘Well I’m fucking wiped. I haven’t slept, apart from the odd doze in a chair, since yesterday morning. Hope you don’t mind, I’m going to bed. Stay up as long as you want, watch TV, eat stuff, drink stuff, steal the silverware, whatever you want. You know where I am if you need me – just wake me up if you need anything, talk, whatever. I won’t mind. Thanks for helping me with the cot and everything.’

}Least I could do. Thanks for … all this, again. Seriously don’t know where I’d be without you. You’re a good mate. The best.

‘Time you went to bed, mate, you’re getting slushy. Doesn’t suit you.’

}Fuck off, then you bloody nutter.

‘That’s better. See you tomorrow.’

Matt

Dec took me back to their flat, patched me up with some beer, and got me to talk about it. After several attempts, I managed to talk to Jules, but she wouldn’t tell me where she was and hung up on me. I cried. I talked. Jules called me back and said she wanted to fetch her stuff from the flat the next day. She was so cold about it, wouldn’t talk to me about anything except what she needed to do. It’s not like she seemed like a different person, I knew she could do this, turn the Ice Queen on and off, but she hadn’t directed it at me for a long time, and it hurt a lot.

As I talked to Dec and my ability to think slowly returned, I understood what I’d done to Jules. In a way, it was exactly what Carrie had done to me. I’d let Jules think I was someone, that we were the same, wanted the same things. And then, without warning, I’d as good as told her I was someone different, that I was choosing a different life over her, a life she couldn’t understand and assumed I would never want. I hadn’t left Jules for an ex, but I could imagine she felt as betrayed by me right now as I had all those years ago when Carrie tore me to pieces.

It suddenly seemed like my time with Jules had been book-ended by me being a bastard. That first day, in my flat, when I just took her, carelessly, thoughtlessly; that was bastard thing number one. Then I tried to change, wanted to make sure it never happened again, and it didn’t, not in that way, but it didn’t stop bastard thing number two, when if I’d exercised a little self-reflection, I might have been able to prevent Jules from being hurt, or at least as hurt as she had been. Two selfish acts, enclosing nearly a year of whatever you want to call it – love? Togetherness? Even now, after all this time with Lau, I don’t quite know how to categorise what we had. At the time, all I could think about was what I’d done to Jules, how much I’d hurt her and how much I was going to miss her.

Jay called me, ostensibly to give me his standard ‘be strong, stay positive’ advice, then Dec gave me a bed for the night, or rather his lumpy sofa; going home wasn’t an option, I just couldn’t face it, but hadn’t known how to ask. Usually I wouldn’t have had any such scruples, fuck knows I’d had to sleep on their couch enough times when I’d been shit-faced in the past, but given that Dec had been up for nearly two days straight with Amy and Charlie, I had just enough about me to realise that I might be at the very least a bit of an inconvenience. Dec insisted, however, and we spent the rest of the evening putting a cot together and drinking beer. Or rather, I did both of those, and Dec sat on the floor handing me the wrong screws and trying not to fall asleep.

Dec

I grabbed my phone and went into the bedroom, just about awake enough to strip off my clothes and fall into bed. I wanted to text Amy before I fell asleep – I had felt an insistent tug at my heart throughout the evening, as if I was connected to them by invisible string, and I just wanted some contact.

Me: =Hey babe ru still awake?

Amy: =Yeh, Charlie’s having supper.

Me: =Can I call u?

Amy: =Pleeeeease xx.

I pressed ‘call’. From the living room, I heard voices and laughter coming from the TV.

‘Hey gorgeous. I missed you.’

)We missed you too. Although we did have quite a long sleep after you’d gone.

‘That’s great, babe, you must be shattered.’

)So must you. How’s Matt?

‘He’s in a bit of a state. He’s going to stay here tonight, doesn’t want to go home. Julia’s collecting her stuff tomorrow. He’ll find that pretty tough I think, he’s got to let her in. Oh – that’s how he got that cut under his eye, she threw the keys at him.

)Really? She did it on purpose?

‘Not sure. But it sounded like she lost it big time. He’s tried calling her, but she won’t talk to him. He’s pretty cut up, so I tried to take his mind off it. We did some flat-pack therapy, he put the cot together for us and I plied him with drink.’

)Oh, I’m so glad you’ve done the cot, I remembered about that this afternoon. How does it look?

‘Pretty good. Better than if I’d done it. It’s right here next to the bed, waiting for its important occupant. How is she?’

)She’s amazing. The most beautiful baby girl ever. Don’t forget the stroller car seat thingy tomorrow, will you?

‘I’ll try not to. It’s by the door. I’ll be there about half eight, OK?’

)Can’t wait to come home, hon. I love you.

‘I love you too. Will you marry me?’

)You know I will.

‘Just checking … I’m falling asleep here, babe, I’d better go. See you tomorrow.’

)Bye hon. Sleep well.

I ended the call, then opened the video file and watched the clip of Amy and Charlie until my eyes closed and I slept.

Dreaming. I am with Mum and Dad, we are flying above the world. I show them everything I’ve done, everywhere I’ve been, everyone I’ve loved since they’ve been gone. I show them Amy and Charlie. They love it all.

… woke up in the dark, the sound of breathing close to my face. Sat up, felt something brush my face.

‘Fuck!’

}Dec, are you OK? You were making your weird noises, but it sounded like you were crying. I couldn’t tell if you were awake or not.

I leaned over and put the light on. Matt was standing uncertainly by the bed. I touched my face; it was wet.

‘What the fuck are you doing there in the dark?’

}Sorry, mate, I didn’t want to put the light on and wake you up. Are you OK?

I sat up, took a deep breath, ran my hands over my face. Rubbed it away.

‘Yeah, I’m OK. I was having a dream. I was showing Charlie to Mum and Dad.’

Matt sat on the edge of the bed and gave me a sympathetic grimace.

}It must be hard, them not being around, especially today.

‘Yeah, I still miss them, and I still get sad when I think about them. I wish they were here, but if they were, I’d have a different life, so what’s the fucking point in wishing, doesn’t change anything.’

}Do you know what, they’d be so proud of you, and of Charlie. Major achievement.

‘Yeah, she is. My finest to date. Sorry I woke you up.’

}Wasn’t asleep. Fuck, you make some weird noises, don’t know how Amy puts up with it.

‘She used to think it was cute. I think she’s a bit less charmed now. Not much I can do about it really.’

}You don’t still have nightmares do you?

‘Fuck no, at least if I do I don’t remember them. No, that all stopped way back, once everything was sorted. Just keep everyone else awake now. Poor Ames, between me and Charlie she’s going to have zero sleep for, like, ever.’

I ran my hands over my face again.

‘I need to get back to sleep, early start. Sorry, Matt. How are you doing?’

}Just doing lots of thinking. Can’t sleep, stuff going round and round – should’ves, wish I’ds, fuck I’m such an idiots. Not productive. Hope your man can sort me out.

‘Just going to the appointment’s a start. Try to get some sleep, mate.’

}Will do.

He closed the door on his way out. I clicked on a photo of Charlie on my phone, and fell asleep gazing at her.

Deep, dreamless sleep.

Matt

I got little sleep, but it was nothing to do with Dec’s incredibly uncomfortable couch. I’d already called Phil and told him I wouldn’t be in to work the next day, but I had to be up and about early so I could let Jules in to my flat to pick up her stuff, as she’d left her keys in my flat together with a chunk of my face. I wasn’t looking forward to it; she’d asked me not to hang around, but the thought of going back afterwards and seeing space where her things had been filled me with dread.

I was a wreck. I got through the night by watching all the crap they put on TV in the dead of night – repeats of comedy shows, twenty four hour news channels, documentaries with little basis in fact and a lot of basis in hysteria – and going over everything that had happened today, and everything that was going to happen tomorrow.

As well as Jules extricating her life from mine, I had, in a moment of weakness, agreed to see Dec’s psychologist. Not only agreed, but actually made an appointment, for the following afternoon. I couldn’t see a way out of it now, without the combined forces of the Scotts descending on my arse, and so I was worrying about that too.

So, all in all, not a great night. I dozed a bit, and at one point I thought I heard crying coming from Dec’s room. I tapped on his door and went into his room, but he was asleep, obviously having one of his mad sleep moments. As I was about to leave, he woke up, and he was OK, I think he’d been dreaming about his parents. Hardly surprising that day of all days; I don’t think they were ever far from his mind, and I know he felt their absence more now he was a father. I headed back to the sofa and the TV, but by the time Dec stirred in the morning, I hadn’t managed any proper sleep.

Julia

Evie’s friend Julian’s brother was called Henry. He picked me up in his van at eight thirty; I’d told Matt I was going to be there before work, but not that I’d taken the morning off, so he should be expecting me. The door to the lobby had been wedged open, so Henry and I climbed the stairs and I rang the doorbell to the apartment, feeling strange and unreal, not looking forward to seeing Matt again, or to sorting through the things I had there. There was no answer. I rang again, longer. Still no answer. Angry, I pulled my phone out of my bag and called Matt’s number. There was no reply. I didn’t know what to do. Henry had given up a morning of his time to help me, and now we couldn’t even get in. I apologised to him, as my phone started to ring. It was Matt.

‘Sorry, I’m just in the car park. I stayed at Dec’s last night. I’m just coming.’

I tried to dampen my anger, but I was too wound up. By the time he rounded the corner at the top of the stairs and apologetically let us in, throwing a curious glance at Henry, I could hardly speak, and didn’t trust myself not to say or do something I would regret. Matt was true to his word, and once he had opened the door, he disappeared back down the stairs. I had barely been able to glance at him, but my quick inspection told me he looked awful – pale, dishevelled, with red-rimmed eyes. I suspected I didn’t look much better.

Entering the apartment, we were greeted by the aftermath of my rampage the day before. I had almost forgotten breaking all the crockery, and smashing the coffee cup against the wall. The reminder shocked me, and looking at Henry’s face, it shocked him too. I decided not to refer to it, but I was shaken at the state of the place. Matt always kept it neat and tidy, and to see it scattered with broken bits of china and glass felt wrong. It seemed like a metaphor.

I pointed out a couple of things that Henry could carry down to the van, and while he did that, I put all my clothes in the two suitcases I had borrowed from Evie. I emptied my side of the wardrobe, my shelves in the cupboards and my space in the drawers, amazed at how much of myself I had scattered around. The last thing I took was my old t-shirt, the one that I kept under the pillow on the bed, although doing so nearly brought me to my knees. When I had folded it up and put it there yesterday morning, I’d had no idea what the rest of the day would bring, no idea that today I would be coming back to pick everything up and leave for the last time. I sat on the edge of the bed, holding the t-shirt to my face, trying to fight back tears that I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to keep it, I knew I was never going to wear it again, but I put it in the suitcase and shut the top, to deal with later. Henry and I finished loading the van, took my things to the storage unit, and that was that. Done. Finished.

Matt

Dec drove me to the hospital to collect my car, and I drove back home, a bit later than I’d intended. Jules was already there, waiting, angry, and she rang me before I got back to find out where I was, which can’t have improved her mood. I wondered about trying to talk to her, but when I arrived she had a bodyguard with her, some bloke who I didn’t know, and a discussion of any sort was never going to happen.

I sat in my car while they loaded a van, telling myself to drive off so I didn’t have to watch, but unable make myself start the car and leave. Every bag and box they put in the back of the van felt like a physical blow. When they’d finished, they drove away, and it had ended; I sat in my car, but couldn’t bring myself to go back inside. I felt indescribably sad, and my flat already looked like shit, with all the broken stuff everywhere, and now it would be empty of Jules. So I just sat, looking up at the window, as if I expected her to look out and wave at me, or beckon me up. In the end, I called Beth. You can see how desperate I was.

‘Hi Matty. How are you?’

She knew about Jules – I’d talked to Jay the previous night.

‘Been better. Need … um … a bit of a hand with something.’

‘What can I help you with, sweetheart?’

That was the thing about Beth. I gave her a lot of shit; if it had been her asking me, after a lifetime of railing against the offers and the fussing, I wouldn’t have been able to resist some kind of sarky comment. But Beth just gave.

‘I can’t go back.’

There was a short pause while she worked out what I meant. That was the other thing about Beth, she had some kind of intuitive instinct that meant it wasn’t always necessary to go into long explanations. Of course, sometimes she made you go the long way round in the name of expressing yourself, but she was usually several steps ahead of you.

‘Oh Matty, I’ve been thinking about you all morning. Do you want to come over? Stay tonight?’

‘Yeah. Thanks, that’d be great later, but my flat’s a fucking mess. I need to get it cleaned up so I can stop thinking about it.’

And there was the problem. I needed to clean it all up, but I couldn’t go back to clean it all up, and I couldn’t ask someone else to clean it all up for me.

‘Well I think I know the answer to that one. You come and look after Iz, she’s been asking when her favourite uncle is going to come and feed her pizza and chocolate ice cream, and I’ll go and get Rose and we’ll clean up your flat for you.’

‘I can’t ask you to do that.’

I was humbled by her generosity.

‘Of course you can’t, but I’ve offered. You can argue with me if you like, Matty, I know you love a good stand-off when we try to help you, but you wouldn’t have rung me if you didn’t want me to do something for you, would you?’

Well she had me there, and I was mightily relieved, and had nothing left in me that would be able to stand up to an argument.

‘OK.’

‘Come over now, sweetheart. I’ll put the kettle on, I’ve just made a cake. We’ll sort you out.’

‘Thanks.’

‘See you in a minute.’

And thus it was that I spent the first morning of my life without Jules playing dollies with Iz, being dressed as a fairy complete with wings and wand, and eating ice cream until I felt sick. As therapy went, Iz was pretty awesome.

Beth returned just before I had to leave for my appointment with Adam Palmer, Dec’s shrink bloke, and I gratefully realised I hadn’t had time to worry about it. I briefly considered calling it off, but with Dec knowing I was supposed to be going, I decided to suck it up, just one time. No one said I had to go back again, did they? And only Dec knew I was going, I was fairly confident he wouldn’t tell anyone, as long as he thought I’d actually go, so I was pretty safe. Just the once, then.

I pulled up outside the terraced Victorian house, thinking how unlike a psychologist’s – what were they? Offices? Clinics? – place of work it seemed. I had imagined some kind of hospital type building, but this seemed like someone’s house; there was no plaque on the door, or anything to separate it from the other houses in the street. I walked up the path and rang the bell.

There was a short wait, which seemed longer as all of me was poised to run, and I kept repeating to myself ‘don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry’, which was ridiculous as a) if I was going to cry, this was surely the place to do it and b) there were no obvious man points on offer, so blarting was a safe activity.

Then the door opened, revealing a normal looking bloke, about my age, casually dressed. He didn’t look particularly scary, not scary enough to be causing my heart to beat as fast as it was. The urge to run away increased, but I managed to stand my ground.

‘Hi. Matt?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I’m Adam. Come on in.’

Adam showed me into what was obviously his house, which had been adapted to incorporate a small waiting room and a consulting room. I sat in an armchair, not a couch to be seen, and looked at him, waiting to be told what to do. The silence stretched a little uncomfortably, and I wondered if I was supposed to start, but he took a little breath in, and began to speak.

‘So what brings you here, then, Matt?’

I bit back a facetious reply like ‘my four wheel drive and a tank of diesel’. I had, after all, asked Dec to set me up with an appointment. I was going to have to watch my sarcasm levels. I aimed for vague honesty with a large dollop of avoidance.

‘I’m not sure, now. It seemed like a good idea last night.’

‘What was going on for you last night?’

‘I was a blubbering wreck all over Dec’s couch.’

As I said it, my ‘don’t cry’ mantra stopped working, my bottom lip trembled and tears started sliding down my face. No, fuck, no. Well reasoned excuses notwithstanding, I didn’t do crying in front of anyone. Well hardly anyone. Not these days. Not that I’d let anyone know about. If you ignore yesterday, when yeah, Declan Summers had copped a load of it. I grabbed a tissue from the discreetly placed box and rubbed at my eyes.

‘Shit. Sorry.’

I breathed hard and tried to stop myself. This was a bloody nightmare. I nearly got up and walked out there and then.

‘It’s OK. Take your time. Just tell me what you want to. There’s some water here if you need it.’

Adam pointed to a jug and glasses on a table, then sat back in his chair, hands in his lap, ankles crossed. I got my tear ducts and my breathing under control, then glanced at Adam, embarrassed.

‘Sorry. You must think I’m a fucking nutter.’

‘Not at all. Take a moment, tell me more when you’re ready.’

I took a few more deep breaths.

‘Am I supposed to tell you about my childhood now?’

I saw him suppress a smile. Not completely without humour then.

‘Would you find it helpful?’

‘Fuck no, if I start there we’ll still be here at bloody midnight. It’s right now I’m having trouble with.’

‘Let’s start with right now, then. Tell me how you’re feeling right now.’

And I did. I just told him everything, vomited words over him, he hardly had to say anything for about twenty minutes. It was as if it was coming out of me without me thinking about it; my head had been full of all the guilt and grief of the the last twenty-four hours, and now it had found a way to empty it out. I was almost able to sit back and listen to myself talk. It wasn’t particularly coherent; I got the order muddled, I went back and added things, I came out with lots of suppositions and justifications for what had happened, and when I finally ground to a halt, I felt as if some of it had left me. Adam asked a few questions, made some reassuring noises, I got through the rest of the appointment without losing it again. Job done.

I felt like I’d survived an interrogation. Then Adam asked if I wanted to make another appointment, and I said yes before even thinking about it. I didn’t want another bloody appointment, this one had been hard enough, but I couldn’t change my mind without looking like a right tosser, so I got my phone out and dutifully programmed it in, planning to call and cancel before the day came. We stood up, shook hands, and I left, having to stop myself running to my car and speeding away.

Instead, once I had walked to my car, I sat in the driver’s seat, gripped the steering wheel and let out a huge breath. I couldn’t believe Dec had done this for years, seeing Adam every week to start with. Going over everything, even though it had felt a bit cathartic, was not something I was going to be repeating on a weekly basis for the foreseeable. Adam had helped me get my head a bit straighter, maybe, but only a bit. He couldn’t change what I’d done to Jules, though, or the fuck up I’d made of my life so far. No amount of talking was going to change the past. And if I felt like unburdening, I could think of cheaper ways than going to a head-shrink Dec didn’t charge by the hour, and now he had a newborn, he was going to be up at the ridiculous hours I usually kept. Nope, I was definitely going to cancel that appointment.

I drove back to Jay’s, still not wanting to face the flat. I didn’t know how far Beth and Rose had got, but there were bound to be some reminders of the breakages. I’d asked Beth to bring some clothes back with her, and was hoping to stay for a couple of nights on their sofa-bed.

When I lived here, after I moved down from Stafford, I had the room that Cal now occupied, and when Iz was first born she slept in Jay and Beth’s room. Their house was bloody enormous, but it only had three bedrooms, a potential fourth upstairs being Beth’s dressing room, and one downstairs being used for Jay’s office. So it was a sofa-bed in the conservatory for me, at least for tonight, while I tried to sort my head out without telling Beth absolutely bloody everything, which was going to be a challenge.

When I got there, Cal was home from school and I escaped and lost myself in the X-box with him for an hour before dinner. While we ate, Beth filled me in on her exploits at my flat with Rose.

They had cleared away all the broken bits without incident, and had cleaned the carpet and walls, for which I was more grateful than I knew how to express. Beth was worried about the gouges in the walls, and the coffee stain had proved stubborn to remove. She talked about it so matter-of-factly, as if she went and cleared up after smash-fest break-ups every day. She even knew someone who would be able to fill the holes and repaint.

‘He’s my friend Trish’s husband, he does odd jobs here and there. Shall I phone him, sweetheart? Or would you rather do it yourself?’

What I wanted was every trace removed before I went back there, so I could pretend it hadn’t happened, and just get on with life in Matt Scott’s bachelor pad. But that would mean staying here for who knew how long.

‘Won’t that take ages to organise?’

‘Not necessarily. I’ll ring Trish and ask, shall I?’

She did so, but Mike wasn’t going to be able to do anything for a few days. I didn’t want to be here for days, I wouldn’t be able to relax, I’d have Beth on at me the whole time and I might be tempted to murder her, which wouldn’t noticeably improve things.

I needed to get away. I had some leave due from work; I’d hardly had a holiday for the last two years. If I took a few weeks off, then maybe when I got back to work, things would be better there with Jules. I couldn’t imagine going to work right now, how I would even get through an hour there let alone a day, a week?

Lost in my thoughts, I forgot that Beth was waiting for me to decide whether to ask Mike to fill and repaint.

‘Matty?’

‘What? Oh, sorry. Yeah, tell him go for it. I think I’m going to go away for a while.’

‘Really, sweetheart? Oh, that might be just what you need. Where are you going to go?’

‘Not sure. Only just thought about it. Beach. Books. Quiet. That kind of thing.’

‘Sounds lovely. I don’t suppose you want some stowaways?’

‘No thanks. Just me.’

Although another idea had just popped into existence. As soon as dinner was over, I got my phone out and texted Andrew.

‘How busy r u next cpl wks?’

‘Flat out. Y?’

‘Can u wangle time off? Immediate effect?’

‘Maybe. Again, y?’

‘Need 2 get away. Sun, sea, sitting.’

‘Wot no other S words? Boring. U OK?’

‘Been better. Up 4 it?’

‘In theory. Ring u l8r.’

While I was waiting for Andrew to call me, I checked out last minute holidays, and found something in Egypt that would fit the bill. Thinking about going away took my mind off everything, and I Googled flights and accommodation until I had a comprehensive list of comparisons. I didn’t need Andrew to come with me; I didn’t need anyone to come with me, but company would be better.

I’d kept in touch with Andrew since his email. He knew about Jules, although not the latest episode, of course, and we’d said so many times that we should get together soon. I hadn’t wanted to go up to Stafford; that chapter of my life was closed, and things had been pretty full on down here with Jules, and we just hadn’t arranged anything.

The more I thought about going away, the better an idea it seemed. When Andrew called me back, I had a plethora of travel facts to bombard him with, should he prove receptive to the idea of an impromptu pity party in the name of Scott.

I made my bed up in the conservatory and closeted myself away for the evening, pleading tiredness, although I felt I didn’t really need an excuse today for being unsociable. I closed the curtains to shut out family life, and locked the door to prevent incursions of the blonde variety in the form of Iz.

There was a TV in the conservatory, and I had my phone and iPad for entertainment, but I was impatient for Andrew to get back to me, and I couldn’t settle to anything. My mind kept drifting over the last two days, how everything had changed, what I could have said or done differently, what Jules might be doing now. None of it made me feel any better, most of it made me feel more guilty, and all of it drew me pretty close to the edge of the dark pit I used to frequent. This afternoon’s session with Adam notwithstanding, I was lower than I’d been for a long time.

I lay on my back on the sofa-bed, staring at the ceiling while drivel occurred on the TV. I’d thought I’d changed, I’d thought my potential for fucking up people’s lives had reduced, but I obviously still had it in me. When was I ever going to grow up and be responsible? To think things through? Was I always going to be reacting to things, taking what I could get along the way, or was I ever going to think about things, consider consequences?

The trouble was, I couldn’t imagine it. I hated the thought of being a proper grown up with responsibilities and duties, and yet here was the result of it all. Another spectacularly failed relationship, more upheaval and upset, another person I cared about who was no longer part of my life. Although I railed against the restrictions of adulthood, there was no denying that the thought of it sometimes seemed comforting and safe, and if I wanted a family, I needed to be a grown-up. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head – what I wanted, and all the things that would need to change in order for me to even have a chance of any of it happening.

My phone interrupted my contemplations. They weren’t getting me anywhere anyway, and it was Andrew.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Mr Scott. So are you going to let me in on this sudden interest in travel?’

‘Yeah, I just need to get away, could do with some company, wondered if you were up for it. Egypt looks good this time of year.’

‘So I believe. Why the rush?’

‘Jules and I just imploded.’

‘Oh mate. I’m sorry.’

‘Yeah, well.’

‘When were you thinking?’

‘Well, there are some deals on the net, I could go tomorrow, but you said you were flat out.’

Tomorrow? You’re fucking kidding, right?’

‘Not fucking kidding.’

‘Oh mate, I’d love to, but there’s just no way. I could … maybe … do this weekend, possibly, if I do some fast talking.’

I had anticipated this, and had a plan.

‘How about if I go out first, and you come later? I don’t know how long you’ve got, but I’ve got a lot of leave coming, and I could easily do two weeks, maybe more. Come for a week, at the weekend.’

Andrew was silent for a moment, considering.

‘It sounds doable. I haven’t taken any time since I started here, it’s been pretty full on.’

And so, a while later, there we were booked up. I was going to fly out tomorrow evening, and Andrew would join me on the Saturday, then I would stay on for a couple of days after he left. We organised accommodation and flights on the internet while we spoke, and then I called Phil at home to tell him I needed to take some leave starting tomorrow. He wasn’t keen, as my team were in the middle of a couple of tricky projects, but I told him I was either taking leave or going off sick. Phil must have heard from Jules, as he made some comment about business and pleasure and never the twain, but begrudgingly gave me the time off.

Now I needed to organise packing. I still didn’t want to go back to the flat, so I had two choices. Maybe three. I could a) go shopping tomorrow and buy everything I needed, despite having everything I needed in my flat, b) get everything I needed out there, despite having everything I needed in my flat, c) ask Beth to get everything I needed from my flat. Well, I hated shopping, whether it was at home or abroad, and so that left me with just the one option. I checked the time, hoping they would still be up, and steeled myself.

‘Hello Matty, we were just off to bed. Is there anything you need? The kettle’s just boiled, there’s some of that pie in the fridge …’

‘I’m after a favour.’

‘Oh.’ Beth sat up straighter. ‘What do you need sweetheart?’

‘I’m going away tomorrow. I’ve just booked a couple of weeks in Egypt.’

‘Jesus, Matty. Tomorrow?’

‘Yeah. Time I visited the Sphinx. Thing is, I wondered if I could ask … I need a suitcase and clothes and toiletries and shit.’

As usual, it didn’t take long for Beth to catch up.

‘Oh of course, sweetheart. Have you got a list?’

‘Not yet. Working on it.’

‘Hang on, what?’

Jay, however, always took longer. He didn’t really pay attention anyway, and I suppose I didn’t help by being deliberately obtuse in my communication sometimes.

‘Oh James, use your brain. I’ll go and fetch Matty’s things for him tomorrow. You’ll have to let me know where everything is, Matty. What time’s your flight?’

I seemed to have pressed Beth’s organisational buttons, rather than her inquisitive buttons, as she was more focussed on the doing than the asking. Maybe she was being considerate of my fragile state, or maybe she was happy as long as I was asking for her assistance for a change.

‘Nine in the evening.’

‘Oh, there’s plenty of time then. Are you driving to the airport?’

OK, so there were still things I hadn’t thought of, brain having turned to sludge with recent events or some such shit.

‘Er, I suppose so.’

‘Why don’t you get the train, sweetheart? It’s much more relaxing.’

‘No it’s not, it’s a bloody nightmare, lugging all your bags through London. I’ll drive, I’ll go and sort parking now.’

‘James, you could take him.’

‘No, Beth, it’s fine. I’ll drive.’

‘I can’t anyway, Beth, I’ve got Colts training.’

So Beth had to be content with merely packing me a suitcase, finding my passport and waving me off. As I drove away, I felt my heart lifting a bit, glad to be getting away from everything. It didn’t stop it all whirling round inside me, but I knew now that I was going to get some peace to think, some company to mull things over, and some warm weather to combat the dreary January we were having. I had books on my iPad, and I intended doing absolutely nothing besides sitting on the beach reading until Andrew arrived in a few days’ time. I wouldn’t be able to do any of it guilt-free, because all the time I was wondering what Jules was doing, and whether she was ever going to stop hating me.

I couldn’t bear the thought of her hating me; even when we were just managing rival teams and I was being an annoying prick, I don’t think she hated me. Yeah, she didn’t think much of me, that’s true, and we needled each other from time to time, but she didn’t hate me. Now, I wasn’t sure. I had never been hated, to my knowledge, although the contempt some of my so-called friends from Stafford had shown may have come close, and to think that someone I’d been so close to might be feeling so strongly towards me burned me.

64. You’ve got to hide your love away

In which people say they love each other without using words.

Matt

I crashed into bed only when I could no longer keep my eyes open. I thought I’d lie awake ruminating, but I must have tired myself out with it all, because I was suddenly aware of my phone trilling at me. It wouldn’t usually have woken me up, not much did, but the sound was the FaceTime alert, and it must have permeated my slumber as significant. I grabbed the phone off the bedside table and saw Jules’ name. Even in my mid-sleep fog, I knew it was important.

‘Hey you.’

As her face appeared on my pillow and I tried to work out what she wanted to say, I aimed for casual, trying to make it seem as if the rest of my life didn’t depend on the next few minutes.

‘Hello.’

‘You OK?’

‘Yes.’

And it seemed as if I was going to have to drag it out of her.

‘Is there a reason you’ve called me at …’

I checked the time

‘… What The Fuck o’clock?’

‘Yes.’

Jules could be beyond frustrating sometimes, and now she was answering my questions with less than the bare minimum of information, and I couldn’t help feeling irritated.

‘Oh good, because I really wouldn’t want to just be lying here asking random questions. As long as there’s a fucking reason, that’s bloody fine.’

‘I already am.’

This floored me. What the fuck was that supposed to mean? My brain was wrapped in sleep and the previous day’s circular thinking, and I couldn’t work it out.

‘Already are what?’

‘Living with you.’

‘Oh.’

I couldn’t tell if this was a good thing or a bad thing, and was still wary about putting another foot wrong.

‘Meaning …’

‘Meaning, I’ve been here all day, thinking, and I eventually realised that even apart from all my stuff being at your place, this isn’t my home any more. I feel more at home over there, with you. I already am living with you, just maybe neither of us realised it. Until today.’

Oh thank you all that is holy and good, she’s OK with it. Somehow, it’s been pulled back from the jaws of disaster, and I can breathe.

‘So you’re not going to dump me for having the temerity to suggest a slightly longer term relationship?’

Just checking. Always good to check and double check you’re not going to be dumped.

‘No.’

I felt myself untense, which unleashed a diatribe borne of relief.

‘Thank fuck for that. Oh Jules, I thought I’d fucking blown it. Shit, I’ve been thinking about you all day, wondering if I should call or text. I shouldn’t have just blurted it, it just kind of occurred to me, and next thing I knew I was saying it, and I should have been as fucking freaked as you, but like you said, it had already happened, and that’s not quite as fucking terrifying as planning it, in some weird way, so as soon as I saw your face I realised I’d fucked up, but I couldn’t unsay it, and then –’

‘Matt, stop.’

I stopped.

‘You’re burbling.’

‘Sorry, I’m just so fucking relieved.’

‘I get that.’

‘Are you OK, though? You’re not like ‘oh well all my stuff’s there I suppose I’m going to have to’, even though you don’t really want to, are you?’

‘Do you even know me at all? Does that sound like the sort of thing I’d say?’

‘Ha ha, no, I suppose not, I’m just having my own little insecure moment – well, I’ve been having them all day, I suppose. I knew you needed to go off and have a think, but not knowing what you were thinking was bloody awful. I kept going ‘she’ll be OK’ and then ‘no, she’ll dump you’ and then ‘you should call’ and then ‘don’t be a twat, that’s the last thing she wants’.’

‘Well now you know what I want. I want to live with you.’

‘Holy fuck, Jules, this is huge. Both of us, making some bloody enormous commitment. Fuucking hell.’

I widened my eyes at her as it sunk in. I’d never asked anyone to move in before. With Carrie, it was half an assumption on my part, and half a reluctant ‘oh well if I must, my house is being sold and I haven’t got a choice’ on her part, and so this really was the biggest thing I’d ever done – we’d ever done. Jules had never shared a home with anyone, at least not a romantic partner. It really was commitment city for us.

‘But we’re not, really, are we. It’s still like it was in the beginning, in a way, we’re still finding out how it works, seeing how it goes. I think I’m going to give the flat up, though.’

Ha ha, Jules, yeah, let’s just keep this little fantasy going a bit longer. No, of course, it’s no big deal, you move in here and give your flat up and change both of our lives, and it’s just business as usual really. And I went along with it, because that’s how I wanted it to be as well.

‘Whoa, blow my fucking mind why don’t you.’

‘Yes, well, it makes sense, but we’re going to have to sit down and do it all properly, splitting bills and everything.’

I put on a mock serious expression. This was just Jules being Jules, making sure she knew how things were going to be.

‘Yes, of course, how wise and sensible, it’s a good job we’re not hopeless romantics.’

‘It’s a bit late at night to talk about the specifics, maybe we can do it tomorrow, after work, when we get home.’

‘I like the sound of that – ‘when we get home’. You’re not putting up any bloody girly fairy lights or furry cushions or shit, though.’

Jules wasn’t the only one who could call the shots about how it was going to be. I saw her suppress a smile.

‘Maybe that could be a point of negotiation.’

‘Nope, not negotiable. If I’d thought you were the fairy light and cushion type of woman, I’d never have asked.’

This was partially true. I knew Jules’ tastes, they were similar to mine, and it was another reason I’d been able to speak without thinking yesterday morning.

‘Maybe I’ve hidden my penchant for twinkling illuminations and plush furnishings from you all this time.’

‘You’d better bloody not have, you’re in for a big disappointment if you think my – our – place is having a womanly makeover.’

I paused to grin.

‘Jules, come home. Now?’

We both smiled at those words.

‘No, it’s way too late. I don’t expect you want to sleep.’

‘Fuck no, I want to celebrate.’

I was completely awake, now, and I wanted my girl here at home, in our bed, party for two.

‘Well that’s all very well for you, with your cushy part time job where you can roll up any time of the morning, or indeed afternoon, but I need to be in early, and I need my sleep.’

‘Please?’

‘This might be the last night I get to spend in my comfy bed.’

‘There’s not much of the night left. Wait, are you saying my bed’s not comfy?’

Although it was true that I slept better in Jules’ bed, even though we were hardly ever there. Not that I was going to admit it.

‘Not as comfy as mine.’

‘Bloody cheek. My bed’s the best.’

‘Well we’ll just have to agree to differ.’

‘Maybe … we won’t. How about, as a kind of ‘welcome Jules’ present, we buy a new bed? A bloody huge one with a telly that slides out of the end, and built in speakers, and a massaging mattress and –’

I was even willing to go shopping with her. I was a hopeless case.

‘Actually, a new bed that we’ve both chosen does sound like a good idea. I think we might have to compromise on some of the added extras.’

‘You’re not even here yet and you’re making me compromise. Might have to reassess … nah, you’re still fucking worth it. OK, here’s another compromise, just so you know I can. Come home, Jules, and sleep. I promise. I’ve got a hard-on the size of the Empire State Building, but I’ll ignore it for you, and let you snore away.’

It was the most magnanimous of gestures, as far as I was concerned. I might have to forego the party for two, but there would be plenty of other opportunities, and if it got her over here tonight, it would be worth it. I just wanted to hold her.

‘I do not snore.’

‘You bloody do snore. Mrs Bartlett from upstairs was down earlier complaining about it.’

‘If Mrs Bartlett from upstairs was complaining about noises from the bedroom, I doubt it was just me she would have been hearing.’

‘Well, there is that.’

‘So I can really just go to sleep?’

‘Yeah. Promise. Thinking about Anne Widdecombe as we speak.’

‘Alright then.’

‘Woohoo.’

I may have fist-pumped in the manner of a small boy.

‘See you in a bit.’

I opened the door to the bedroom, then got back into bed, so that when Jules arrived I could watch her coming through the front door, coming home, for the first time.

Julia

I disconnected, grabbed my car keys and my bag and drove across the city to Matt’s – or rather our – apartment. It was very early in the morning, and it all felt a bit unreal. As I pulled up outside and stopped the car, I took several deep breaths, and then made my way inside. Matt was waiting in bed, the bedroom door open and soft light spilling out into the living room; the rest of the flat was in darkness. I shut the door and called out.

‘Hi honey I’m home.’

‘What bloody time of night do you call this? Your dinner’s in the dog.’

I reached the bedroom and leaned on the door frame looking at Matt as he lay in bed, hands behind his head.

‘We haven’t got a dog.’

‘Oh yeah. Jules, we should get a dog.’

‘No dogs.’

‘But I’ve already given him a name. Frederick Ponsonby Smythe the Third.’

‘No dogs.’

‘Poor Frederick will be heartbroken. He’s a cockapoo.’

‘No dogs. Also, while we’re at it, no cats, birds, rodents or anything else that needs feeding or shits indiscriminately. Except you, of course. You can stay.’

‘You’re hilarious.’

He pulled the duvet back and patted the sheet.

‘Come on then, first night in your new place, big moment. Excited?’

‘I’m managing to control myself.’

Although I admit my heart was beating a little faster than usual. I walked over to the bed and felt under the pillow for my t-shirt, then laughed softly to myself.

‘It’s all making sense. I keep my old tshit here, I’ve brought half my books over, I even found myself wondering where to put one of my pictures the other day. How did we not realise?’

‘Which picture? It had better not be a bloody kitten.’

I pulled off my clothes and put my sleeping shirt on, while Matt watched appreciatively, then I got in to bed. He put his arm round me and I tucked myself in close to him.

‘Starry Starry Night. Van Gogh.’

‘I bloody love that painting. He painted it from his room in the loony bin.’

‘I know. I know practically everything there is to know about it. I’ve had the print for years.’

‘Where were you going to put it?’

‘On the wall.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, good move, otherwise we’d be stepping on it and shit.’

‘In here? Above the chest of drawers.’

He looked over at the spot and considered.

‘Yeah. I think it’d look great. Bring it over, we’ll do it.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. See, I’m not territorial or anything, this is totally our place, together. You weren’t thinking of moving anything or changing anything else in any way whatsoever though, were you?’

‘Weell, I thought we might have to paint the walls purple. It’s kind of a deal-breaker.’

‘Right then. Out you go, you’re no longer welcome. It’ll just be me and Frederick from now on.’

He pulled me into his arms and folded me up. I felt his erection nudging me.

‘Anne didn’t work her magic this time then?’

Matt

‘Ha ha, well, she did at the time, and then you showed up and shook your tits at me, and all Anne’s hard work went down the drain. It’s not a problem. You go to sleep. Look, putting the light out.’

And my intentions were honourable, but you know how it is, you’ve got a gorgeous woman lying next to you, old tshit and no fuking pants, and you’re too excited to sleep. And even though you’ve promised, and she’s tired, well, she’s fucking hot, and you’re trying to ignore your hard-on, but you just can’t help wondering if she’s as tired as she says she is. So I gave her a goodnight kiss, and I suppose it was a bit more than a peck on the cheek, seeing as it was a snog on the lips, and there was tongue action.

Julia

‘That’s not noticeably helping me get to sleep.’

‘Sorry. I’ll behave.’

I lay in his arms and waited. I didn’t have to wait long.

Matt

And I tried, I really did. I tried for at least a minute.

‘Jules …’

‘Yes.’

‘How sleepy are you?’

‘Pretty sleepy.’

She did sound tired. And it had been a full on day for both of us. And she had to get up earlier than I did. I should just stop, be a gent, behave myself like I’d promised.

‘Oh. OK.’

But it was so fucking hard, when I was … so fucking hard.

Julia

I waited some more.

‘Jules …’

‘Mm.’

‘You’re not asleep yet, then?’

‘Apparently not.’

‘Are you nearly?’

‘Well I might be, if I didn’t keep getting asked if I was asleep yet.’

I smiled to myself, knowing I was going to give in eventually. I waited a little bit longer.

Matt

No, she was right, I was being annoying, and I was also breaking my promise, which just wasn’t right on our first night of cohabitation. But she was so gorgeous, and I wanted her so much.

‘Jules …’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’

She pushed me onto my back and straddled me, and I got my way. I’m pretty sure she didn’t mind, really, if what happened after that was any kind of measure …

Julia

‘Welcome home, Jules.’

‘Can I get some sleep now?’

‘By all means.’

‘Thanks.’

‘My pleasure.’

‘I think Mrs Bartlett might be glad of some sleep too.’

‘I aim to please.’

‘Goodnight Matt.’

‘Goodnight Jules. Goodnight Mrs Bartlett.’

Matt

And there we were, a week later, all moved in and living together. To say things had happened quickly was a bit of an understatement; I certainly got to see Jules in decisive mode. She had given notice on her flat and negotiated a quick release from her tenancy by the end of the next day, and organised removals and storage for all her stuff. We took the day off to move her in on the Friday, naturally being banned by Jules from telling anyone at work what we were doing, so I had to fend Lexi off from curiosity killed the receptionist overload (‘So are you going away for the weekend together?’ ‘Yeah, kind of.’ ‘Kind of? How’s that?’ ‘Kind of a mystery tour.’ ‘What?’ ‘Tell you later.’). We didn’t tell anyone, actually, be they work, family, friends, anyone. I wanted to see how long it would take Beth’s spidey-sense to work it out, and liked having something of mine that wasn’t constantly being examined and picked apart by the rest of the family. It felt good having Jules all to myself, at least for a while, and I know she was more than happy with things that way.

Ever practical, the first thing Jules wanted to do was divvy up the bills, so while she was working things out I took a hammer to the bedroom wall and put up a hook for her Van Gogh print. It looked great there. It said ‘this is Jules’ bedroom too’, and I liked it a lot.

Julia

The next few days were a mad whirl of arrangements and organisation. I contacted my landlord to give notice on my flat, and he had a new tenant lined up twenty-four hours later. He agreed to waive my month’s rent if I could move out by the weekend, so Matt and I had to decide which items of my furniture we wanted to have at his place, and which ones I was going to, firstly, store and then eventually move up to Norfolk. I still hadn’t decided what to do with Nons’ house; renting it out was a possibility, but until I decided, I could keep my things there.

Matt and I took the day off on the Friday, hired a van, and spent the day shifting furniture and boxes from my flat to the storage place and his flat. We had decided not to tell anyone about me moving in, not to make a big deal about it. Matt warned me that if Beth found out – ‘or rather when she finds out, she always finds shit out’ – she would want to throw a party or at the very least have a big meal together ‘to welcome me to the family’, and we didn’t want that. We hoped we could just take it slowly and get used to it in our own time; Dec and Amy’s baby was due in a week or so, and that would deflect the focus from us – we hoped we might then be able to drop it into a conversation so no one noticed.

We sorted out practicalities like rent and food – Matt owned his apartment, so we agreed I would pay half his mortgage as rent, and we decided to stick to our current shopping arrangements. This meant that Matt would continue to shop online, and I would go out to choose my own food when I felt like it. We could always change things later. I brought my Starry Starry Night picture over as part of my van load, and Matt put up a picture hook for it. We lay in bed and looked at it on that Friday night.

‘Perfect.’

‘You’re pretty handy with a hammer.’

‘I know. I have many hidden talents.’

‘You know what would look even better in here?’

Matt looked at me suspiciously.

‘No, what?’

‘A bright pink furry duvet. And some multi-coloured fairy lights kind of draped around the –’

Matt cut me off with a hefty kiss, which had the dual impact of shutting me up and leaving me breathless.

‘Or, maybe, I’ve seen these lovely cushions in a catalogue, they’d look –’

Another kiss stopped me from continuing, this time coupled with his hand travelling under my shirt and pinching my nipple fairly hard.

‘Are you liking my ideas then? How about, Margie was telling me about this wallpaper you can get that’s got tiny kittens all over it, it sounds so –’

He flipped me onto my back and pinned my wrists above my head with both hands, nudged my legs apart with his knee and laid his whole weight on top of me. It nearly suffocated me, but he didn’t stay like that for long.

Lifting his torso from mine, Matt bent his head down and sealed my mouth with his, biting and sucking at my lips and tongue fiercely. He started to thrust against me, not inside me yet, but rubbing hard along me, setting me on fire. He lifted his mouth from mine and raised an eyebrow when I didn’t speak, then briefly supported himself on one arm as he reached down to position himself to enter me. That achieved, he clamped his mouth over mine again and began to pound into me. I wrapped my legs around his back, wanting more, wanting him to thrust harder and faster, our tongues tangling with each other’s, my hands still pinned above my head, him in me and me around him, both grunting with exertion and groaning with pleasure, as we raced each other to our mutual detonation. I felt him stiffen, and clenched him tightly.

‘Oh fuck, Jules, fuck yeah, fuck, fuck, ahhh, oh fuuuck, unhh.’

I felt him shudder into me once, twice and then a final time, and then I felt my own fireworks start as he continued to move in me, using his fingers on my clitoris to pull all the tingling throbbing from all over my body to that one place in my centre, and then ignite it in a swirl of sensation and light that flooded through me and took me with it on a wave of delirium.

I lay for some time, unable to think, hardly able to catch my breath, arms flung wide, Matt lying half on top of me, panting, both of us slippery with sweat. Eventually, I could move and I wriggled out from under Matt, who rolled over and pulled me to him, kissing me tenderly.

‘Well, fuck me, I hope that’s taught you not to go all girly on me.’

‘Oh, was I offending your masculinity? Is that why you were so, so manly and domineering?’

‘There’s only so much girl shit I can take before my testosterone takes over. Let that be a warning to you.’

‘Or a lesson in how to get it rough if I want it.’

‘Fuck yeah, that too. But if you want it rough, you seriously only have to ask.’

‘Sometimes it’s more fun not to have to.’

‘Julia Marran, you are one deviously wicked woman.’

He wrapped me up in his arms and we drifted off to sleep together.

Matt

We settled into life together almost immediately. I had expected Jules to have a little wobble, maybe try to exert her independence in some way, but nothing really changed apart from waking up together every morning and going to bed together every night, and that was awesome, more than awesome.

Sleeping with Jules had always been great, but being in this new phase of us brought an intensity to the bedroom that I hadn’t anticipated. We still pretty much did our own thing at other times, going in, staying out, doing stuff together and apart, and at the end of the first week we knew it felt great, like things were really working, why hadn’t we done it before?

Julia

And things were great that first week. I really enjoyed living within walking distance of work, and surprised myself by feeling totally at ease calling Matt’s place home. We were easy with each other, too, not noticeably changing our routine – Matt went out to watch football in the pub, I read my book when Matt was there and when he wasn’t, we both cooked meals, and we went out to dinner once. I was feeling settled and happy.

Matt

It was a Saturday, Jules had been living with me for a week and a day, and she had gone shopping before I’d got up. There was a Raiders home game that day, and I was taking Cal, as I had started to do regularly since he first asked me a few months ago. I was sitting watching a football preview programme on TV when my phone rang with Dec’s ringtone.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Hey. Amy’s in labour.’

I felt a little thrill of anticipation. Despite all the scoffing Jules and I had done about the whole baby thing, it was still my best mate who was about to become a dad. It was a big moment.

‘Holy shit. Are you on your way to hospital then?’

‘No, I don’t think they’ll want us there yet. I’m not going to be playing today, though, Don’s let me pull out of the squad.’

‘Bugger. Oh well, I’m sure there’s someone as good if not better waiting in the wings.’

‘Yeah, whatever.’

He sounded a bit worried – once you lost your place in the team, it could be hard to get it back, but babies tended not to care much about that when they decided to make their arrivals. Just ask Lau how convenient her labour was.

‘Don’t worry, mate, I hear Raiders are looking for ball boys. I’m sure you’ll find something to do.’

‘Piss off. Are you taking Cal?’

‘Yeah, heading off to pick him up in a bit. Hope it all goes well your end – let me know, yeah?’

‘Yeah, although if it’s a middle of the night job, we won’t be telling anyone until morning. Boss’s orders.’

By which I assumed he meant Amy and not Beth, although you couldn’t always tell.

‘OK mate, well good luck, keep me posted.’

Julia

The next Saturday, I called Evie in the morning and arranged to go and see her for lunch the next day. Matt and I were going to go bed shopping in the morning, but that left the afternoon free. He often went to Jay and Beth’s for Sunday lunch, whether he was invited or not, and I decided not to go with him mainly because baby speculation was reaching fever pitch but also because I didn’t want to run the risk of them all finding out about our new living arrangements.

Matt was taking Cal to watch the rugby that afternoon, and he never got up very early on a Saturday if he didn’t have to, so I took myself off into town to do some shopping. Matt hated shopping, made all his purchases on line, whether it was food, clothes, birthday presents or anything else, and there was no chance he was going to come with me, especially as he was going to be devoting a chunk of his Sunday morning to looking at beds.

I took my time in town, had lunch, and got back just before Matt had to set off to collect Cal. As I walked in the door, he was finishing a phone call.

Matt

As I spoke, the door opened and Jules came in, carrying several shopping bags. She kissed me on the forehead and dumped the bags on one end of the sofa before flopping down next to me.

‘What babe?’

Attention back on my phone, I heard Amy’s voice in the background, possibly an exclamation of pain.

‘OK, right there. Sorry, Matt. Needed. Catch you later.’

‘Yeah, love to Amy, see you soon mate. Bye.’

I looked at Jules as she raised an eyebrow at me in query.

‘Amy’s gone into labour.’

Julia

‘Oh. That’s early, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, I think it is a bit. Dec’s had to pull out of the game today, Cal’ll be disappointed.’

‘Oh well, at least it will all be over with soon, everyone will know if it’s a boy or a girl, what the mysterious name is going to be, and all the constant conjecturing can stop.’

‘Yeah.’

I looked hard at Matt, he seemed a bit off, but nothing I could put my finger on.

‘Are you alright?’

He seemed to rouse himself, gave me a big grin and stood up.

‘Yeah. I guess it’s just a pretty big day for the Scott family, even if the main protagonists aren’t Scotts. I think you might be disappointed if you think they’re all going to shut the fuck up now, though. Beth still talks constantly about Cal and Iz, isn’t that what mothers do?’

‘I wouldn’t know. My mother doesn’t talk constantly about me, I’m quite sure.’

I hadn’t even heard from my mother for over two months, and that was only a short text informing me that ‘Dubai far too hot. Off to Moscow.’

Matt looked at me sympathetically.

‘Well my mum’s stopped bragging about me and Jay now she’s got grandchildren. Maybe it’s an age thing.’

‘Maybe.’

‘I’d better get going. Good shop? I see you needed many more items of clothing. Any pants?’

‘I did buy some underwear. Stop rifling, I’ll show you later.’

‘Promise?’

‘Promise. You won’t be disappointed.’

‘Crotchless?’

‘Not if you paid me. Wait and see.’

He pouted, but gave me a hug and kiss and left to fetch Cal.

Matt

I really did feel a bit weird about it, as if something momentous was happening. Well, I suppose it was, but it wasn’t happening to me, and I didn’t really care greatly for babies in general, much as I was excited for Dec and Amy in particular. In fact, I was a bit resentful that I was likely to see less of them, as always happened with new parents and exhaustion and shit. Piles of shit, actually. So I wasn’t quite sure what I was feeling, and it didn’t fit with what I should be feeling, what I thought I’d feel, so I basically just ignored it. Jules seemed to notice and asked if I was alright, but I grinned at her and told her everything was fine. Then I went to watch Raiders with Cal, and didn’t think any more about my bloody incomprehensible feelings.

When I dropped Cal back at Jay’s, Beth was predictably in full-blown anticipatory overdose. She asked three times if I’d heard from Dec, although she knew full well he’d call her first, or at the latest second, after Rose. And he had contacted her a while ago anyway, to say Amy had gone into the maternity unit, and things were going well, but not to expect anything for a while. It was almost as if Beth hadn’t had children of her own, and wanted it all to happen immediately.

‘Beth, calm down.’

We were standing in the kitchen, where I’d made her a camomile tea in an attempt to stop her having a stroke, which I thought might put a bit of a dampener on the day. Telling her twice before to calm down hadn’t had a noticeable effect, but I was enjoying being the one who was telling her what to do for a change. I hardly ever saw Beth flustered.

‘I am calm.’

‘You are so far from calm. You know they’ll be fine, right?’

‘I know, sweetheart. It’s just hard not knowing what’s going on. I did offer to go with them, but they said no.’

‘Ha ha, I’m not surprised, if this is what you’re like. Amy needs organised professionals, not family members going all hyper.’

‘I’ve worked on maternity wards.’

‘Yeah, a million years ago. It’s nothing personal.’

‘Oh I know that, really. I just can’t wait to meet him. Or her. I know they know if it’s a boy or a girl, I don’t know why they wouldn’t say.’

‘Beth, believe me when I tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that keeping a secret from you is so bloody hard, it’s worth seeing the look on your face just to keep going, in the face of all your probing.’

‘I don’t probe.’

‘You bloody do, you can’t help yourself. I’m just saying, sometimes we all like keeping things to ourselves that you don’t know about.’

Shit, if Beth had been on her game, she would have sniffed out Jules and I living together in a heartbeat after that. But it went right over her head in a haze of baby, and I decided to escape before I gave too much away. A quick game on the X-box with Cal, and I was off home to Jules. The thought of Jules waiting at home, our home, still made me smile.

Julia

I spent the afternoon trying on my new clothes and reading a book. I was really engrossed in the novel, and didn’t realise the time until I looked up and it was starting to get dark. I put some lights on, and was just starting to wonder where Matt was, and whether I needed to start some dinner, when I heard his key in the lock, and he walked in. He looked tired, but gave me a big crinkly smile, sat down next to me on the sofa and hugged me.

‘Hello. Good game?’

‘Yeah, really good. I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. You have loads of men, and they chuck the ball to each other and chase each other, and then one of them gets caught, and they all pile on top of him. I think they might be trying to squash him. And one of the ones in the pile gets the ball and runs really fast until one of the others catches him and then they all pile on top of him too. It’s great fun. There’s fighting and everything, but it’s all part of the game, so nobody really minds.’

‘Hmm, sounds delightful. Have you eaten?’

‘Yeah, had a pasty and chips with Cal at the stadium. Have you?’

‘How on earth do you stay so skinny? No, not yet, I was just thinking about it. Might just have a sandwich if you’re not having anything.’

‘I’ll do you something.’

‘Oh, no, there’s no need –’

‘Let me, Jules, I’d like to, I’ve deserted you all afternoon.’

‘Alright then, but I don’t feel deserted. I’ve had a nice quiet time, me and the apartment getting to know each other. We’ve had some thoughts about beds.’

‘Oh you’ve both been plotting, have you? Tell me while you eat. Pasta?’

‘Perfect.’

He got up and walked over to the kitchen, getting out a pan and filling it with water.

‘Sorry I’m a bit late back, I stayed at Jay’s for a bit. Still no news from babyland, but I think Amy’s gone into hospital now.’

‘Excitement in overdrive?’

‘Yeah, kind of. For Beth and Jay it’s almost like being grandparents. Weird. I escaped, me and Cal played on the X-box. I let him win.’

‘Oh, you lost to Cal?’

‘No, I let him win.’

‘Oh. One day you really must explain the difference.’

‘Jules, you wouldn’t know one end of a controller from the other. Cal would beat the pants off you. And that’s my job.’

‘Ha ha. Shall I open a bottle of wine?’

‘If you want some. I’m going to have a beer or several. I’ve been very good all afternoon, avoided temptation because I was in charge of a minor and then I was driving. Now I’m letting my hair down – by all means join me with your namby-pamby wine.’

Although Matt’s bantering tone was light, I was sensing something slightly strange from him, the same slight weirdness I felt this morning. There was no point pushing it with him, he would withdraw and get defensive if I asked him what was wrong. He’d tell me soon enough if he didn’t sort it out, or at least I hoped he would. He busied himself making my dinner, and I put my head back in my book. It wasn’t long before the pasta was cooked and Matt brought it over with a glass of wine.

‘What, no table service?’

‘Didn’t seem much point just for you. Besides, I can sit beside you and do this.’

He bent down and kissed my neck, then nibbled my earlobe. It sent tingles of desire racing down to my core, but I concentrated on eating.

‘Mm, this is really good.’

‘I have to agree. Very tasty indeed.’

He licked my neck and gently kissed the curve of my jaw. He planted a few more tender kisses along my jaw until he reached the corner of my lips.

‘Hey, you should have made enough for two if you wanted some.’

‘I love it when you pretend you’re not interested.’

‘I am interested – in my dinner. You just made it for me, I’m eating it. And drinking my wine.’

I took a mouthful.

‘I’ve been thinking about you all afternoon, wondering about your new undies.’

‘Have you really? Not at all diverted by large men trying to squash each other then? I’m wearing them now.’

‘Really? Whoa.’

Matt pulled my top slightly to the side so he could see the lacy edge of my bra.

‘All looks bloody good so far. Peep-hole?’

‘No. What is it with you and holes in underwear? The whole point of underwear is to contain things, not to let them out.’

‘Ah, that’s my Jules, practical to the last.’

He bent down and kissed my breast where it disappeared into the lace of the bra. I felt a flicker of his tongue as he slid it behind the fabric. I ate another couple of mouthfuls, knowing that I wouldn’t get to finish my meal. Soon Matt would be driving me wild and my resistance would be over.

‘Matching knickers?’

Sighing, I put the plate down on the floor.

‘Yes.’

‘Yum. Bikinis?’

‘No.’

He put a hand on my thigh and slid it up a little way, to the hem of my skirt.

‘Shorts?’

‘No.’

‘French?’

‘No.’

With each answer, his hand crept further up my thigh, pulling the hem of the skirt with it. His fingers brushed the inside of my leg, until I was sure he would be able to feel my wetness.

‘Pantaloons?’

I laughed. ‘No.’

His hand crept higher and then stopped, just about at the point where he thought he would be able to feel the edge of my pants.

‘No fuking pants?’

He looked a bit confused.

‘No. Keep going.’

He pushed his hand up further, until finally his fingers encountered what they were searching for and he started to explore the fabric.

‘Oh my … Jules … thong?’

I nodded.

‘Holy shitmenot. Were there no other pants available in the whole of the city? I thought thongs were for when there was no other pants option.’

‘I thought you might like them. They’re particularly uncomfortable, so maybe the quicker you have a look and get them off me, the better.’

‘You got them for me?’

I nodded again. He grinned.

‘I don’t deserve you.’

‘No, you don’t. You bugger off all afternoon leaving me to read my book in peace, and then you cook me dinner when you come home even though you’ve had yours, you bastard, and then you rip my clothes off and –’

‘I haven’t ripped your clothes off.’

‘Are you waiting for permission?’

Our last night together was pretty incredible. We were totally immersed in each other, responding to each other without needing to talk, seeming to know when to slow down, when to speed up, when to kiss tenderly, when to fuck hard, who should be on top, when to use fingers, when to use tongues, when to stop, when to start again. It was the early hours before we finally went to sleep, utterly exhausted and completely satisfied, Matt curled up against my back, holding me tightly against him.

Matt

When I got back, I made a quick bite of pasta for Jules, and then we got lost in exploring her new underwear, and all the fun that brought to the bedroom. For a full description of all the frolics, see her account. She tells it well. It was our last time, the last fucking amazing time we were together, before …

62. Beautiful surprise

In which Matt’s mind is blown, Dec is featured in a magazine and a surprise gift is not a spider.

Julia

I had been asleep for a while when my phone bleeped with a text. It was Matt’s tone, and I was instantly awake, reaching for the phone on the bedside table. I glanced at the time; it was after two. It was a while since Matt had texted me at odd hours of the night, having presumably not seen the need to mess about quite so much now he had more ready access to me and could do it face to face.

‘Hi Jules. Sorry for being an arse. And sorry for being an arse by waking you up to apologise for being an arse. M x’

‘Both apologies accepted. Are you alright?’

‘Wasn’t. Bit better now. 2 complicated 2 txt. Feel like a FaceTime? Haven’t had one 4 ages.’

‘OK.’

I waited for my phone to announce Matt’s FaceTime request, pressed the button as it did so, and Matt’s face appeared.

‘Hey you.’

‘Hello.’

‘I forgot how gorgeous you look when you’re all tousled in my phone.’

‘More gorgeous than tousled right next to you?’

‘Differently gorgeous. I’m sorry.’

‘No need.’

‘Yes need. I was bloody rude to you earlier. I just forgot you were going to be there when I got home. It’s been a bit of a day to be honest, and I thought I was going to be on my own. You probably got that.’

‘There was a bit of a vibe, I have to admit.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m an ignorant bastard. Sorry.’

‘Alright, no more apologising. Do you want to tell me about it?’

‘Well … I guess I don’t really, but I’ve just got off the phone with Dec, and fuck, that boy talks a lot of sense for a bloody teenager –’

‘He’s a teenager?’

‘No! Silly lady. I was alluding to the fact that he’s loads younger than me. Thank you for making me point that out.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Anyway, with the wisdom of the young, he suggested that maybe I should talk things over with you when I’m bothered, instead of keeping them to myself. Or rather that you might be one of the people I could talk to. So if you’re up for it, I’d like to unburden. Otherwise I can try Jay, but he’s a lot less hot in an old tshit than you.’

‘What’s bothering you?’

‘Dec had a major … I don’t know what you’d call it. Breakdown? On the beach, after all the serious stuff. He’d done his speech and everyone had done theirs, and we were just watching his letter in a bottle go floating out to sea, and I had to go and light the blue touch paper by pointing something out to him that just … shit, Jules, he just fucking lost it. Fell over like he’d been shot, crying, shouting, chucking sand all over the place, screaming, trying to pull his hair out, it went on and on, as if there was something, some kind of grief or whatever, just pouring out of him. I thought he might stop breathing or have a heart attack or something, it was terrifying.’

‘It sounds awful. What did you do?’

‘Well I didn’t know what the fuck to do, but Rose knows Dec and has seen him a bit like it before, and she just told us to hold him, so we all put our arms round him, I was feeling like a right dick, but I suppose that doesn’t matter, and eventually he calmed down, stopped making the godawful noise he’d been making, and just knelt on the sand, trying to get his breath back. We all kind of breathed a sigh of relief, but I started thinking, it was such a little thing I said to start it all off, I … well I can’t really remember exactly what it was, something about him looking in the wrong place for his mum and dad when they were in his heart all the time. Don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, sounds a bit bloody sentimental for me, but anyway, it was just a comment, and it opened the floodgates. And I started thinking, what if I’ve got similar amounts of shit inside me somewhere, and one day someone makes an equally innocent comment, trying to be helpful, and I end up a gibbering wreck like that? I couldn’t cope with that. I don’t do emotion, not in public.’

‘Is Dec alright now?’

‘Yeah, I’ve just been talking to him, he’s back to normal, or as normal as he gets.’

‘You’re not the same as Dec, though.’

‘Well, sometimes I think there is a lot the same about us. When I was ill and he was fucked up, we’d both been through a lot in different ways, lost a lot, one way and another, both hated needing help and we’d both go all ‘leave me the fuck alone’ if people tried. He’s worked really hard at getting sorted, and I’ve just got on with pretending it never happened.’

‘But however similar your general experiences are, you’re different people. Just because he reacts in one way doesn’t mean you will too.’

‘I know it might not mean that, but what if it does?’

‘Then you’ll have to deal with it if it happens. You’ll send yourself mad just thinking about the possibilities otherwise.’

‘But some of the possibilities are terrifying. Like … what if the bastard MS comes back?’

It was the first time Matt had mentioned MS since he told me he had it all those months ago. I had waited for him to mention it again, but when he hadn’t, I had realised that it was something he didn’t want to discuss. I had thought about it, though, read about it, knew it was a possibility, knew what I could offer.

Matt

I’d just mentioned my fears about the bastard MS coming back; it must have been late, and I must have had one too many beers, because I hadn’t mentioned it since that first night, and had never intended to.

‘I mean, I can’t go back to living with Jay and Beth, having my arse wiped.’

‘You really know how to catastrophise, don’t you. If your MS comes back, we do it together. You won’t have to live with Jay and Beth. You’ll have me.’

‘What?’

I was sure I hadn’t heard right. Jules was strictly unsentimental, I wouldn’t say she didn’t care about people, but she didn’t help out for the sake of it.

‘I think you heard me.’

I was silent, looking at her in my iPad for a long time, searching her face. She looked back at me, seeming for all the world like she really meant it. I felt tears fill my eyes, and found it hard to breathe. This was way, way beyond anything I would have ever asked or expected from anyone. I wouldn’t even expect my family to go through all that again for me.

Julia

He looked at me for a long time without speaking, a frown creasing his forehead. I saw his eyes fill with tears, but didn’t comment.

‘Fucking hell, Jules –’

It was almost a whisper.

‘– you can’t mean it.’

Matt

It felt like too huge a thing to hear, like it might break if I spoke loudly.

‘I mean it.’

‘Fucking hell.’

I felt a tear spill out of my eye and run down my cheek. It seemed I still had trouble controlling the salty bastards in times of high emotion. I sniffed and wiped my eyes. No, she must have just said it on the spur of the moment, it was late, she was tired.

‘You don’t know what you’re saying.’

‘I do know. I’ve found out. All the possibilities, likelihoods, options. Full risk analysis.’

Well, yeah, that did sound like Jules, thinking everything through.

‘Fucking hell.’

‘And anyway, it hasn’t come back, has it? You’re fit and healthy and there’s no reason to believe you’re not going to stay that way.’

‘Fucking hell, Jules, I don’t deserve you.’

‘So true, but I’m stuck with you at the moment, as half my clothes are in your wardrobe. I was going to ask you – do you mind me having so much of my stuff at your place?’

As a change of subject, it took the pressure off nicely. I had noticed that a lot of her stuff was at mine, but it made me feel like she was here when she wasn’t, and I didn’t mind in the slightest.

‘No, I like it. I can sniff your knickers when you’re not here, stops me missing you.’

‘You’re a perv.’

‘Never said I wasn’t.’

Julia

I had given Matt an out from the intensity of the conversation, and he took it. I knew he didn’t like talking about big emotional stuff, and would think about what we’d said in his own time and come to his own conclusions. It sounded like he may have had a similarly intense talk with Dec, so he would have a lot to mull over.

‘How are you feeling now.’

Matt

‘Bit fragile.’

Or more like I was about to break into a million pieces, ready to be scooped up by her and held in her hands.

‘Thanks, Jules. You’re so fucking great.’

‘Do you want me to come over?’

Oh my God, more than she would ever know. No one had ever said anything to me that meant more to me, and I wanted to touch her, hold her, say thank you thank you thank you.

‘Want? Fuck, yeah. But no, don’t, it’s too late, and you were shit-faced earlier.’

‘I was not shit-faced, I’d had too much to safely drive. I’m fine now, I could be there in fifteen minutes. I’d be wearing my old tshit and random pants.’

You know about the tshit and random pants, right? Oh go and read Jules’ version, it’s all in there, hilarious drunken text. Oh no, you misunderstand. It’s not my drunken text.

‘Ohh fuuck. Now look what you’ve done. Instant hard-on. I’m never going to get to sleep now.’

‘I might as well come over then. See you in a bit.’

And she disconnected. I knew it would take her a while to drive over to me, but I stood waiting by the door, full of emotion, feeling humbled. I hadn’t felt like this since I found out Jay had given up his job to come and look after me when I was ill before, but this was different.

Jules wasn’t my family, we’d only known each other a few months. Looking back, that was the moment I loved her. And I would like to suggest that she loved me; you don’t tell someone you’re going to face some fucking bastard disease with them if you don’t love them. Caught you out, Jules. Sorry it was too late.

Julia

Without giving him the chance to respond, I disconnected, pulled on some pants and jogging bottoms, grabbed my overnight bag and drove over to Matt’s.

Matt

I waited by the door for her, and when she opened it I pulled her to me, needing to show her what it meant, what she’d said. I kissed her with fierceness and passion, my hands finding their way under her t-shirt before the door had closed behind her. This was my way of showing her what she meant to me.

‘God you’re fucking amazing. I want you so much.’

I will leave the rest to your imagination … maybe it was me being so ardent, maybe it was because we’d made up after being a bit off with each other, maybe it was just late at night and felt right, but we were both so up for it, we were naked and noisy on the sofa before you could say ‘pants off’. It was loud and primal and urgent, but afterwards I looked down at her and something in me melted.

I picked her up and carried her to the bedroom – ha, I make it sound like it was nothing, I did stagger a bit, but Jules was small and slight, and it felt like nothing, although I was glad the bedroom wasn’t far away. I put her on the bed and covered her up with the duvet, then went to fetch her night clothes, which had been abandoned on the floor of the living room.

‘Aren’t you getting in too?’

‘Yeah, just a minute, won’t be long.’

I came back in and handed her the t-shirt, putting her jogging bottoms in a drawer.

‘What about my random pants?’

‘You wear no fuking pants in your bed.’

For an explanation, see aforementioned hilarious drunken text.

‘But this isn’t –’

‘Yeah, it is. For as long as you want it, this bed is your bed. No fuking pants from now on.’

It wasn’t much, but it was the best I could do to say how much what she’d said meant to me. And, naturally, it meant that I got to curl up next to her when she wasn’t wearing knickers. Everyone’s a winner.

She smiled at me as I climbed under the duvet, then I gathered her up in my arms, and we fell asleep tangled together, neither of us having a clue how much we loved each other. Or rather, being disinclined to pay any attention to said clues.

Julia

As the months went by, we saw each other more and more. We went to Matt’s after work more often than not as it was close, but we still had our own interests and our own friends, and I had my own flat I could retreat to when I needed to. Matt also had no compunction about kicking me out when he needed time to himself, either, and it felt very easy between us.

Dec

PSYCHOLOGIES

Issue No. 23.

Continuing our series of articles looking into the psychology of sport, this month we look at Rugby Union.

What the Ruck?

Declan Summers plays at inside centre for Premiership outfit Raiders, who are currently in the hunt for a treble of Premiership, European Cup and Domestic Cup. Declan’s career has taken off in the last couple of years, seeing him become a regular starter in the Raiders team, and tipped for international honours in the near future. But it could all have been very different. Sara Aston delves into the psyche of the young rugby player.

I meet Declan Summers in a plush hospitality suite at Raiders Stadium. He is a tall, muscular, softly spoken young man with a level gaze and serious expression, who considers my words and weighs his responses before answering – not guarded, exactly, but deliberate. I get the sense that he is thinking carefully about what information I can have access to. His conversation is peppered with the expletives you might expect from a rugby player, or indeed a man of his age; he says ‘fuck’ almost as often as he takes a breath. It is not intended to offend, it is just something that seems to occur naturally in his speech.

As we talk, the view from the suite is of the pitch at Raiders’ impressive stadium. A player out on the grass is kicking a rugby ball over the posts, again and again. I ask how long Declan has been with Raiders. He appears to consider this, as if he can’t quite remember.

‘I came here when I was sixteen, so seven years ago. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been here all my life. This place gets inside you, becomes part of you in a way.’

Sixteen sounds young to leave home and begin a rugby career, but it is well known that Declan’s parents died when he was thirteen, leaving him without family and in foster care, on the other side of the world from his childhood home in Australia. When he was signed from school by Raiders on a scholarship, he was taken in by Jay Scott [who is currently assistant coach at Raiders, and was then backs coach] and his family. I wonder how the death of his parents affected him at such a young age.

‘I had to change completely. I was this normal thirteen year old, doing normal thirteen year old stuff, parents to tell me right and wrong, help me out when I needed it, show me how to grow up. Suddenly I had to do it all on my own, fight my own battles. I changed the people I hung out with, changed the way I responded to things, just to survive. It was harsh. I was pretty wild, none of my foster families could cope with me, I had a major attitude, wouldn’t do what I was told. I had five placements in three years. None of them could wait for me to leave.’

So what changed when he was fostered by Jay Scott?

‘They didn’t foster me! They gave me a room for a few weeks when I first came here, and I liked it so I stayed. They turned me round; Jay and his wife, Beth, just accepted me with all my shit, made me part of their family. There was never anything official. What changed for me was they didn’t judge me, they told me the rules and expected me to stick to them, and they wanted me there. That was the most important thing. Nobody had wanted me for a long time.’

Declan still has close ties to Jay Scott’s family, but it is not something he will be drawn on, stating that he values his family’s privacy. People have misconstrued their relationship and accused Scott of favouritism, a charge Declan fervently denies.

‘If anything I have to work harder to prove myself here. He gives me no special favours, I certainly don’t get a place in the side because of it. We keep the rugby strictly professional, it doesn’t get discussed between us outside of the club, except in the same way as with any other player. Everyone here knows the score, anyone has a problem they can talk to me about it, and they would, but no one has, not for a long time.’

There is a challenge in his tone, and I reflect on his playing style – he is aggressive in tackles, defends recklessly and attacks with abandon. Is he overcompensating for something? He laughs – it doesn’t happen often, and it changes him, chases the shadows from his face.

‘Well, I put it all out there, I suppose, I’ve never done it any other way. You can’t play rugby half-heartedly. I never really thought about whether I use it as a release, or compensating or whatever. Maybe, yeah. I’d rather leave it on the pitch than take it home and fuck up the people I love.’

Could it be that there is something – maybe anger or aggression – that drew him to rugby as an activity where such emotions are acceptable, even encouraged?

‘I suppose it could be that, but it’s not a conscious motive. I loved rugby from an early age, loved watching it and playing it. I grew up in Australia, where it’s a more mainstream sport than it is here, and I played at school from when I was really young. I never really wanted to do anything else, it was my dream. I guess you could say that has driven me, if you’re looking for motivation, rather than a need to find an arena to be aggressive.’

It is well documented that Summers’ career at Raiders nearly ended a few years ago when it came to light that he had provided the club with an invalid passport when he arrived. He was suspended for almost the entire season, and admits that there were times when he feared he would eventually be dismissed.

‘To be honest, I couldn’t have complained if they’d terminated my contract; I wasn’t even a first team player at the time, and I cost them a place in the play-offs. The club were extremely generous in their support and guidance. I made several very bad choices, they all added up and I was having a really hard time.’

One of the things that must have made it harder was Jay Scott’s seemingly related decision to resign as Raiders’ backs coach and relocate to the Midlands with his family. Was this difficult for Declan at a time when, by his own admission, he was finding life pretty tough and needed a lot of support?

‘It was an added factor. There was a lot of stuff going on for me that most people don’t know about. I was in a dark place. I got some incredible help from some unexpected people. Plus, the club put me in touch with a psychologist, Adam, who has helped me see things differently. There was stuff I hadn’t dealt with around my parents, it had built up over time, and I was having some kind of post-traumatic reaction. With Adam’s help I’ve managed to sort out why I was being the way I was and tried to change things, react differently, accept help, be less stubborn about things. When I started seeing him, I was also recovering from the physical effects of some fairly major injuries. Being able to recover mentally from that, and work out how I got to that point in the first place, has helped me get back the inner strength I need to carry on playing, as much as the physical recovery process has.’

I realise my question has been expertly sidestepped and ask again, more directly, about the reported rift at that time between Summers and Scott.

‘It’s not something I talk about. It was a shit chapter in a bad story. End of.’

I ask about a new chapter in the Declan Summers story – he is to become a father in a few months time. He becomes animated as he talks about this obviously happily anticipated event.

‘I can’t wait, it’s so exciting. I’m just so into everything, I’ve read the books, been to the classes with Amy, she gets a bit fed up with me being so geeky about it. I just want to be part of it all.’

It is apparent that Declan is looking forward to parenthood. Is it, perhaps, an opportunity to put right some of the things he missed out on from his own childhood?

‘No, I don’t see it that way at all. You can’t let the past influence you like that, it puts too much pressure on you. You have to deal with what’s in front of you now.’

But doesn’t he feel he deserves some happy times after all the hard times?

‘It’s taken me a long while to realise that life’s not about deserving or not deserving it. You can seriously fuck yourself up thinking that way. Shit just happens to you. What’s important is how you react to it, that’s what makes the difference. I’ve reacted badly in the past. I really believe that you’re made of how you respond to what life throws at you – if it’s shit you fetch a shovel, if it’s sugar you fetch a spoon.’

I wonder if that’s something Declan has learned through therapy.

‘Yeah, that’s part of it, but most of the things I’ve learnt have come from the people around me. Therapy has helped me to listen to the lessons, not teach me new ones necessarily. I know some awesome people, who talk a lot of sense, and I hope I’ve learnt to react better now, talk to people, ask for help, be a bit less self-absorbed.’

Is introspection something he considers a character flaw?

‘It certainly didn’t help me. If you over analyse everything, go into yourself, don’t talk about it, it all just sits there in your head and never gets sorted. I think I’m better now at being more open, saying how I feel, admitting if I’ve fucked up or if I need help with something, talking about what’s making me sad, or happy. I’m sure not everyone appreciates it, but I hope people know where they are with me, and I know where I am with myself.’

Declan’s words display an emotional maturity that belies his youth, and I find I am frequently having to remind myself that he is only twenty-three years old. Could this be another consequence of having to become self-sufficient in his early teens?

‘Well I definitely had to fend for myself, teach myself what I needed to know. I guess I had to grow up fast in some ways, but I got stuck in others. I think it wasn’t until I started therapy that I began to untangle all that, and work out how it was all affecting me.’

It sounds like therapy was the turning point?

‘It was definitely a turning point. There have been lots of those, lots of second chances. Therapy has helped me to make sense of everything, but without the generosity and love of people around me, it would have been much harder. I can’t point to one thing and say ‘with or without this, it would have all been different’, because there are so many of those things – they could be events, or people, or something random like something someone says to you. I can look back now and see how things kind of weave together and affect each other, but there’s not usually just one thing. I guess every day you come across lots of turning points, you could go one way or the other. You don’t see it until later.’

Was there a particular event, something that influenced how things wove together at that time, one way or another? He is silent, looking out of the window. I get the impression he is trying to decide whether to reveal something or not.

‘I crashed my car, a few years ago. A man died. It set off the whole chain of events that led to me being suspended. It also set off something in my head, some kind of mental trauma. It was like –’ he pauses, and for the first time, his composure slips and I see the pain on his face ‘– like I’d done to someone else what someone did to me when my parents died. It triggered everything that happened. I can trace everything that went on at that time to that event, in some way. I suppose another thing was being attacked and beaten up. It started things turning the other way, started mending things.’

Can he explain? He smiles enigmatically.

‘Not really. Just, sometimes the most surprising things turn out for the best.’

Like being beaten up?

‘Exactly.’

He refuses to elaborate.

The sun shines through the window of the executive suite and illuminates the faint linear scars running down each side of Declan’s face. It is a physical reminder of that attack shortly after Raiders were deducted ten points from their Premiership total following the previously mentioned passport misdemeanour. The perpetrators of the assault were a team mate and an ex-coach, who both served time in prison for the ferocious attack that left Declan unconscious, with deep lacerations and several broken bones. That must have been difficult to come to terms with. Declan is quiet for a moment, considering.

‘The hardest part of that whole thing was thinking someone is your mate, and finding out they hate you and want to hurt you. It made me re-evaluate my friendships, I questioned people’s motives for a while, found it hard to let people in. You can’t function in a team sport like rugby if you don’t trust the people you’re with every day, and I had to let go of that mistrust. The guys at Raiders are a really close knit group. We all help each other, support each other, yeah, take the piss out of each other, but at the end of the day we’re a unit. There’s no room for someone who’s holding back from that. So that’s something I had to really work on. The squad here is amazing, everyone’s fighting for a place on the team, but we’re all rooting for each other at the same time. It’s an awesome place to work.’

It strikes me that what he is describing is another kind of family. ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. We put our bodies on the line for each other every week, no questions. We know each other inside out.’ Declan seems to have surrounded himself with families. Is this a way of replacing something he’s missed out on at a crucial stage in his early life? There is another long, considering pause.

‘It’s not something I’ve done consciously, but family is very important to me. Not necessarily the traditional mum, dad, kids, although I’m made up that I’ll have that soon, too. What’s important to me is to be surrounded by people who love you enough to tell you when you’re being a dick, as well as when you’re being fucking amazing. I guess you can call it family; I can’t think of another name for it. When it works, it’s fucking awesome.’

From the window of the executive suite, we can see the sun beginning to set over the huge grandstand. The kicker has long since gone, a few seagulls drift in the sky, the empty seats await the next home game. I get the feeling Declan Summers, supported by his various families, will be a force to be reckoned with, both in rugby and in his personal life, for some time to come.

o0o

The Independent Sport.

Rugby Shorts

Previously uncapped Raiders centre Declan Summers has been called up to the Wallabies’ Autumn International squad to ease their back line injury woes. With Davison, Hendricks, Smythe and Marsh all injured, Summers is likely to be on the bench for Saturday’s match with Scotland.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Summers in Wallabies squad

RadarRaider: Great news for Summers, he’s been on fire this season. Bit of a bu***r he won’t be playing against TomCats, could do with his intensity against Peterson.

CityRaider: Well done, Declan. Hope it’s the first of many. Can’t quite understand why he’s not been targetted by England under residency, but this is great news for him, he’s having a fantastic season so far.

Raiderette: Yay for Summs, boo for us, he’s my first pick on the team sheet at the moment.

WestStandRaider: I heard he was offered England but turned it down. Not quite sure how he qualifies for Aus, I’m pretty sure he was born in England, but looks like it was what he wanted. Congratulations, Declan.

RadarRaider: WSR, he’s got an Australian passport. You MUST remember all that grief a few seasons ago when he cost us top four with the points deduction. Isn’t he adopted or something? Australian parents?

RudolphtherednosedRaider: Reckon we should all stay out of his business. Pleased for the lad, it’s not easy to get in the Wallabies when you don’t play in Oz. Hope he’s picked, he could do some damage against the Scots. He’ll learn a lot from international rugby, come back to Raiders stronger and better.

BillX: Hopefully it’ll give Sam Wallis a bit of a run, I really rate him. He’s been great off the bench on several occasions this season.

o0o

The Independent Sport

Rugby International

Scotland 6 v 20 Australia

Tries:

Robinson

Summers

Cons:

Byron (2)

Pens:

McIntosh (2) Byron (2)

o0o

Matt followed me out into the kitchen, pulled open a drawer and handed me a packet wrapped in brown paper.

‘What’s this?’

}Just something I found, thought you might like it. I didn’t want to give it to you in front of everyone, for the sake of your dignity, but I wanted to make sure Rose was on hand just in case.

‘In case of what?’

}Oh just bloody well open it, Summers. It’s Christmas, it’s a present. Just don’t go all bat-shit if you can possibly help it.

‘You’re worrying me now. What is it?’

}For the sake of fuck. If you don’t bloody well tear the paper off, I’ll take it back and –

Matt made to grab the parcel, but I held it away from him.

‘Alright, I’ll open it. Trying not to go bat-shit. But if it’s a spider, so help me I will kill you. With my bare hands.’

}It’s not a fucking spider. How many flat rectangular spiders do you know?

‘I try to know as little as possible about any spiders. OK, here goes then.’

I turned the package over and started to peel the tape off, going slowly because Matt was making me nervous. I was worried about what the present was going to be, and how I might react to it – it didn’t seem like something I was going to be overjoyed to get. Matt was jiggling with frustration, and I could see his fingers twitching as if he was having to stop himself from tearing the wrapping off himself.

I unfolded the paper to reveal the back of a wooden photo frame, and before I turned it over, I briefly wondered if it was a picture of me scoring my try for Australia. That would be OK, maybe a bit emotional, but it wasn’t like I didn’t have tons of photos of it from every conceivable angle on my computer. I didn’t do the big rugby shrine thing that Jay had going on in his living room, but then I hadn’t had such a star-studded career as him, not yet anyway.

I turned the frame over, and had to look at the two people smiling up at me for a few seconds before I truly recognised them. I hadn’t seen their faces for over ten years, had started to forget what they really looked like. But this was my mum and dad. Mum and Dad, who I’d lost and thought I’d never see again. I was speechless, motionless, breathless, as I stared and stared at the photo, while memories and feelings flooded into me.

}Say something, mate. Do I need to call the men in white coats?

I looked up at Matt, tearing my eyes away from my parents. I couldn’t speak, could only shake my head.

}It is them isn’t it?

I nodded.

}Thank fuck for that. I’d hate to have given you a framed picture of two random people for Christmas. Nothing says ‘you don’t know me at all’ like the wrong – whoa steady on there, man points at stake.

I had put the frame down on the counter and pulled Matt to me in a fierce hug. This was overwhelming. I had done a fair amount of searching for pictures on the internet in the years since my parents died, but had never come up with anything. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask Matt, computer genius, to help, and now he’d found a picture, a good one too, without me even asking.

‘You’re fucking amazing, Matt. Fucking amazing. How the fuck did you find it?’

I let him go, and picked up the picture, hungry to see it again. I ran my finger over their faces, feeling the frustration of not being able to actually touch the two people under the glass, but overjoyed at being able to look at them. They looked younger than I remembered, though more dated, and subtly different from the pictures I had in my memory. Time had begun eroding the clarity of their faces in my mind, and this reminder could not have been more welcome.

}I did a bit of detective work. I went online, found an old newspaper report, no pictures, but it said where your dad worked, I contacted the company, and there were a few people who were still there from back then. Sent a letter asking if anyone had any photos of Tom and Lucy Collier. People were great, so helpful – I’ve got loads more, mate, you can have them all, but this was the best one.

‘You’ve got more?’

}Yeah, I put them all on a flash-drive – here.

Matt held out a small plastic drive. I took it like it was a precious jewel, which it was in a way.

‘Thanks. You don’t know how much …’

My voice tailed away as my throat closed up with emotion.

}Yeah I do. You don’t have to say anything, I just wanted you to have a picture of them. It’s not much, I know, but you should at least have that.

‘It’s everything. Oh you bloody bastard, I haven’t done this for ages.’

Tears were streaming down my face and Matt tore off a bit of kitchen roll, handing it to me with a smirk.

}I love turning you into a fucking loony. Makes my Christmas that bit more special.

‘Happy to oblige, then.’

I wiped my eyes, and looked down at Mum and Dad again.

‘Can I show Amy?’

}It’s yours to do with as you wish. I was personally hoping for pride of place on the mantelpiece.

‘Your arse won’t fit on the mantelpiece, you’ll have to make do with hogging the sofa like usual.’

}Oh the wit of Summers knows no beginning.

‘Thanks mate.’

}Pleasure.

I walked into the living room, where everyone was watching ‘Elf’.

‘Ames, there are some people I’d like you to meet.’

Julia

I saw more of Matt’s family and got to really like them, finally understanding the circumstances and emotions that bound them all together. That said, I often didn’t go to their big sprawling gatherings with Matt, but sometimes we both went and would come back laughing about how much more we had learned than we ever wanted to about oestrogen, cervixes and the different colours of baby shit. There was a big focus on Dec and Amy’s impending arrival, and it was another reason I limited my involvement with them. Matt and I had lain in bed making a pros and cons list of parenthood. On the ‘cons’ side, which was long, was included loss of sleep, hormonal surges, crying, pooping and vomiting. The ‘pros’ side consisted only of ‘must have sex to conceive’. Matt loved Cal and Iz, but seemed to share my horror of having children of my own.

‘I’m always totally relieved to give them back, especially when Cal’s being a grouchy complaining little git or Iz is screaming her head off because she’s tired’ seemed to be his philosophy.

And so we became closer and saw more of each other, and one Sunday morning, we were sitting in bed eating croissants after very enjoyable wake-up sex, when I heard an intake of breath from Matt. I looked up at him.