61. Worried man blues

In which the long day comes to an end for some, and is prolonged for others.

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Julia

That evening, I decided to go over and make some dinner, enough for two in case Matt came back early enough to eat. I took a change of clothes, so I could stay the night and go to work from there the next day; while I was hanging them up, I noticed how many of my clothes were hanging in Matt’s wardrobe. I also had a collection of toiletries in his bathroom, books on the bedside table and underwear in the drawer. I had no idea if Matt was comfortable with it or not, and resolved to ask him when he got back. He didn’t have anywhere near as much of his stuff at my flat; we tended to stay at his rather than mine, as it was closer to work, and I loved the view from his window. His bed wasn’t as comfortable as mine, but it was a small price to pay for the cool, tasteful spaciousness of his place. This, with my things in his apartment, was the closest I had ever come to living with someone, and a small thrill raced through me as I realised this. I wondered if I could see myself ever living with him, and surprised myself by realising that I could, in time.

We suited each other well. Matt was clean and tidy, had great taste in décor and furnishings, and we didn’t fall out about who left the top off the toothpaste, although that was mainly because we used separate toothpaste. I needed to have my own space, but I could definitely see a time when I would need to see Matt every day more than I needed my own company. I wasn’t about to tell him this, or allude to it in any way, but held the knowledge inside me.

Dec

As we walked through the door, Iz came hurtling into the hall and hurled herself into my arms.

‘Hey sweetie.’

I gave her a big cuddle and carried her into the living room. She poked a plastic fairy under my nose.

‘Who’s this?’

/stinkerbell.

‘Stinkerbell?’

/cal say Stinkerbell.

‘Oh, well, he must be right then. Have you had a good day with Daddy?’

/daddy an me go park an play horsie.

‘Sounds great. Is he a good horsie?’

/he go neigh.

‘Sounds like he got it just right.’

/he go woof doggy.

‘Wow, what a repertoire.’

We walked through to the lounge and sat next to Jay.

łDec, don’t leave me on my own all day again. There’s only so many times I can neigh and bark and meow before I go mad.

/daddy woof.

łOK, one more, Iz, then that’s it. Woof.

Iz giggled in delight.

/gain.

łNo more.

/gain, pease.

She looked at him from underneath her long blonde eyelashes.

/pease Daddy.

łOh, bloody hell, you’re impossible to resist, Iz. OK, last one. Woof.

/gain.

łNo, Iz, I’ve got to … er … help Mummy with dinner.

‘That’d be a first. Let’s go see what’s happening in the kitchen, Iz.’

We wandered through and found Beth opening the trays of food and putting out plates. Matt was sampling each dish as it was opened.

‘Leave some for us. Hey, that’s a whole spring roll. Iz, I reckon Uncle Matty could use a cuddle.’

Iz, always one for an extra bit of male attention, held her arms out to Matt, who gave me a dirty look as I passed her over.

}Cheap trick, Summers. Hey, blondie, you’re looking rather glamorous today. Nice hair clips, interestingly positioned. Did Daddy put them in, perchance?

I left Matt discussing hairstyles with Iz and wandered back into the living room, where Jay was sprawled on one sofa. On the other one, Amy and Rose had found a magazine with celebrity wedding pictures, and were exclaiming over it. I pushed Jay’s feet off the sofa onto the floor and sat down. Jay ran his hands through his hair.

łShit, I’m bloody wiped out. How the fuck does Beth do it every day?

‘Energy reserves of a rhino, probably.’

łBetter not let her hear you comparing any part of her to a rhino, mate. How did it go today?

‘Oh, had its ups and downs. Short or long version?’

łDo you mind short for now? Lacking a bit of concentration. Beth can fill me in later.

‘OK then … short version … I dragged everyone here, there and everywhere looking for something I could have found here.’

I put my hand on the spot over my heart that Matt had touched earlier.

‘Did the memory bottle thing. Had a bit of a major moment, scared the shit out of everyone. Feel better.’

łMemory bottle?

‘Oh, yeah, it was going to be scattering rose petals on the waves, but I decided to put some pictures in a bottle with my letter and send it out to sea instead. Everyone else gave me something to put in the bottle too – I thought Beth told you.’

łOh, yeah, yeah she did, she did ask me about something she was writing, I did have some input, I’m just useless at details. Sounds very moving. What sort of major moment?

‘Lost it. Total blubfest.’

łShit. You OK now?

‘Yeah. Got a lot out of my system.

łBut apart from being a bloody headcase, good way to commemorate it?

‘Yeah.’

łI’m glad to hear it, mate.

Jay and I never needed to talk about anything in great detail. I knew he worried about me and cared about me, and there were plenty of other people to do the searching questions and the angst with. Our shorthand was reassuring.

Beth came out of the kitchen.

_Right, everyone, it’s all out on the counter in here, help yourselves. I’m not setting the table, have it on your knees. James can you call Cal?

łCAL!

_I mean go and get him.

Jay hauled himself off the sofa with a groan and stomped up the stairs.

Matt was still in the kitchen, and still encircled by Iz who wouldn’t let him put her down so he could load his plate. He was trying to do it one-handed and failing messily. I laughed, unsympathetically.

‘Oh, Uncle Matty, are you having trouble there?’

}Help me out, mate?

‘I’ll just do mine first, then one for Amy, then we’ll eat it, then I’ll possibly come back and help you out.’

Even Matt wouldn’t swear out loud with Iz actually in his arms, so he mouthed several choice words at me, put his spoon down and flipped the finger at me. Then he picked up his spoon and continued to drop rice on the floor. I took the two plates in and sat next to Amy, passing hers over. As we ate, I noticed how tired she looked.

‘OK, babe?’

She nodded.

)Wish I hadn’t fallen asleep in the car, I feel completely groggy now. I probably won’t sleep properly tonight.

‘Well that was never going to happen anyway, so just think of it as catching up on a bit of yesterday’s instead. How’s your chow mein?’

)Mm, lovely, I wouldn’t be surprised if this baby looks like a chicken.

‘Or a chocolate button, possibly.’

)Yeah, quite possibly – could it have something to do with all the chocolate sauce we – oh.

She stopped, blushing, realising Matt had come in. He was holding Iz close to him with one hand and balancing a piled plate in the other.

}Oh just stop it, don’t need to bloody well hear your perverted conception stories thanks.

Amy went a deeper shade of scarlet, and ignored Matt, who chuckled to himself at her discomfort, as she changed the subject.

)Dec, has it been OK, today? I’m just worried it didn’t turn out quite how you thought.

‘Yeah, babe, it’s been OK. It didn’t turn out how I thought, I guess, but I did it and shit happened. It was all good in the end. I was there, and you were all there with me, that’s the main thing.’

)Are you OK?

‘I’m OK.’

She reached up and pulled me down for a kiss. I brushed her hair back from her face, held her face in my hands and made the kiss a deep and lingering one.

‘Mm, chicken chow meiny. Love you, babe.’

)Love you too.

\gross

‘Oh, hey, Cal. Didn’t notice you sit down. We were otherwise occupied with some lovely snogging.’

Cal was concentrating hard on his plate.

\urgh, you put me off my dinner.

}Cal, you know that’s the chance you take when you sit too close to Dec and Amy. Snog fall-out can be a terrible thing. Personally I think those two should be banished to the conservatory while people are eating, just in case they can’t control themselves.

\it’s just gross.

Amy smiled over at him.

)You won’t always think so, Cal.

\i think I will, it’s gross now and it’ll be gross in a hundred years.

‘Well let’s agree to stop the snogging just for now so everyone can feel comfortable, but watch out after the washing up, Cal, anything could happen. And if you haven’t snogged someone in a hundred years time I’ll eat Matt’s hat.’

}You bloody won’t, it’s my best hat.

‘No, not that one, the woolly one with the red bobble.’

}I have not got a hat with a red bobble.

‘Well what am I supposed to eat in a hundred years time when Cal hasn’t snogged anyone?’

}Not my problem. Your bet, you supply the hat. And the cryogenic chamber to keep you alive until you’re a hundred and twenty three.

Normal service had been resumed. After the intensity of the day, it was good to relax, eat, talk and be silly, be with my family. Eventually, Amy started flagging beside me, and asked Matt to take us home. Rose got a lift too. Matt dropped us off and we made our way slowly up the steps to the flat.

Matt

Rose didn’t say much on the journey back to her flat, and I didn’t really think much of it, I suppose we were both lost in our own thoughts, until we were almost back at her place, sat at a red light.

‘Well, this has been a bit of a day, hasn’t it.’

‘Yeah. Not every day Dec buys everyone coffee.’

She smiled, indulging me.

‘You know what I mean, though, love. It feels a bit overwhelming, doesn’t it. I was worried there for a bit.’

I looked at her in surprise; Rose had seemed the epitome of cool, calm and collectedness. We had all looked to her to tell us what to do.

‘Really? You seemed to know what you were doing.’

The traffic light turned green and I pulled away.

‘I was just doing it automatically, I think. I remembered before, when he was in that state about those points – oh, you wouldn’t have been around, then, love, it was while he still lived here. Do you know the story?’

There wasn’t much of Dec’s story I didn’t know. He was pretty open about everything, didn’t seem to mind what I called Beth’s fussing, answered questions when asked, didn’t sulk about being asked if he was OK, generally behaved like a normal person rather than a thirty-four year old teenager.

‘Yeah, something about his passport, and Raiders getting docked points because of it, and he went all emo and shit.’

‘Well I don’t really know what emo means, love, but he was in a bad way. He went all quiet, and then me and Nico tried to get him to talk about it, and he just collapsed, a bit like today, poured it all out on my kitchen table. Nico and me were looking at each other, like we all were today. Nico wanted to call one of his doctor friends, get him some help. We didn’t want to leave him alone, we were that worried.’

‘Worried about – what, you thought he’d top himself?’

Rose nodded, looking down at her hands. I turned the car into the road where Rose’s building was.

‘Holy shit. Sorry.’

I didn’t usually apologise for swearing, but Rose never complained about it, so me being me, it seemed like the thing to do.

‘Yes, well, it wasn’t like he hadn’t tried it before, in a way.’

What?’

Just when you think you know someone. This had never got through the Scott family filter, and it shocked me. I pulled the car up outside the building, and we sat there, with the engine running. Rose didn’t take her seatbelt off.

‘Oh, not that he ever told me he tried, but, when I thought about it after, I just wondered … this would have been before you got to know him, as well, but when all that happened with him and Jay, when they told him they wanted him to stay away from them, and he got suspended from his rugby, he went on a hell of a bender. I cleared the empties up, and he’d drunk a lot. Too much. Mostly vodka. I don’t think he cared, really. He could have … I don’t like to think about it, what could have happened to him up there, all on his own.’

‘Shit, Rose. I had no idea. I knew he’d had a rough time, I even vaguely remember something about a lost few days, but I guess I only really heard Jay’s version. You really think he might have tried … on purpose?’

The thought of it did something weird to my brain. Dec was one of the cheeriest, most annoyingly bloody laid back people I knew, and imagining him feeling shit enough to want to end it all, only a few years ago, made me reassess a lot of things about him.

‘I think he was about as low as you can go. His flat was miserable – he was there all alone, no family, no friends, he’d sold all his stuff. I didn’t meet him for a while after he moved in, but his flat was right above mine. I could hear him, sometimes, crying. Terrible, it was. When those buggers from the paper started on him, though, I couldn’t just leave it. Well you know what I’m like, love. I let myself in and tried to look after him a bit. Not that he wanted me to, not at first.’

‘Sounds familiar.’

‘You and him have both got a stubborn streak that does you no favours, love.’

‘Maybe. He warmed up to you, eventually, though.’

‘He did. We’re a bit of an odd pair, aren’t we. When he started to tell me how things had been for him, all the things he’d let go, all the people he’d lost, well I was heartbroken for him. I thought about him living up there on his own, nothing to think about except who was dead or gone, and I just thought I’d try to cheer him up, help him out a bit. But on that night, after the points, I realised there wasn’t anything I could do. He’d seemed more cheerful, Nico had helped him pay back the money he owed people, everyone was being nicer to him, but at the back of it all was how he thought he’d messed it all up with your brother. It didn’t matter if he got his friends back, he’d lost Jay and Beth, and then he thought he’d lost his rugby, and it was too much. I think there was a bit of that feeling today, I know I felt the same … kind of helpless, like nothing I did would make any difference.’

‘But you were so bloody great, Rose. You said ‘hold him’, and we did, and it worked.’

‘Well it did, and I’m relieved. I’m not sure it was much to do with me, though, really. It’s good that he had us all.’

‘He’s told me before that he’s held on to you when he’s felt desperate, that you’ve pulled him out of some dark places.’

‘Really, love?’

‘Yeah, Rose. Give yourself credit. I didn’t know how bad things had been for him; I think he’s got a lot to thank you for.’

Rose waved this away.

‘Oh, it’s a two way thing. He’s given me so much, as well. I was a pretty lonely old biddy too before he came along.’

She reached over and undid her seatbelt. Then gave me a penetrating look.

‘Are you still thinking about what happened earlier? About whether it might happen to you?’

I shrugged. Dec might use Rose as a confessional, but I kept my thoughts to myself, on the whole. Who knows, maybe I’d be as cheery and annoyingly bloody laid back if I took a different approach, but the likelihood was slim.

Dec

‘Are you going straight to bed, babe? You look shattered.’

Amy nodded.

)I might get my PJs on and snuggle under the duvet, come and join me? Maybe there’s something on the telly I can doze off to.

‘OK. Fancy a hot chocolate or something?’

)You’re a mind reader. That would be completely awesome. Thanks hon.

I made Amy’s chocolate, and opened myself a beer. One of the advantages of the off season was that I didn’t have to be quite so careful what I ate and drank, so the odd takeaway and beer was alright. I couldn’t go overboard, though, and risk having to shed a lot of weight during pre-season training, which was starting the week after next. I still went to the gym most days, just to keep in shape.

I took the drinks into the bedroom, where Amy had changed into her night things and was sitting up under the duvet, with the TV showing one of the celebrity reality programmes she loved. I put one arm round her and got my phone out with the other hand. Sent a text to Rose, Matt and Beth.

Matt

As Rose put her fingers on the door handle, our phones both pinged with text messages. I knew mine was from Dec, as I recognised his tone. Rose fished in her bag while I clicked open the message.

Thx 4 coming 2day. I ❤ my awesome family. Xx

Rose read her screen.

‘Oh, it’s from Declan. Is yours the same?’

She showed me and I nodded.

‘Ah, he’s a good lad. I’ll wait to get inside to reply, I can’t get my fingers to work right sometimes. Thanks for the lift, love. Take care of yourself, now, won’t you.’

She gave me a light pat on the cheek and got out of the car.

As I drove off, I sagged in the seat. I hadn’t realised how much I was holding everything in, and how much I was looking forward to going home, opening a beer and just being on my own, letting it all out.

Dec

One immediate reply.

Beth: =Yr awesome family ❤ u2. Thx 4 asking me. Special day. xx

Rose took a little longer; she had never really got to grips with texting. Textspeak took her a while to translate sometimes, she could never find the punctuation and had to turn the predictive text off as it confused her too much.

Rose: =youre welcome see you soon

Matt didn’t reply, I wasn’t expecting him to.

Julia

When Matt finally came home from his outing, it was quite late. It was apparent he had forgotten I was going to be there, and wasn’t in a great mood, when he walked in and stopped in his tracks as he saw me sitting on the sofa drinking a glass of wine and reading a book.

Matt

As soon as I walked through the door, though, and saw the lights on, I remembered that Jules might be waiting for me. Shit. I don’t think I’d given Jules a thought all day, I’d been so caught up in everything that had happened. I really didn’t feel like talking to anyone, being with anyone. I just wanted to be on my own.

‘Oh, hi Jules. Shit, I forgot. Sorry.’

I ran a hand through my hair while I tried to decide what to say.

Julia

He dragged a hand through his hair, making it stick out, as he often did when he was stressed.

‘Fuck it, I’ve been ages, I would have texted.’

‘It’s alright. I’ve been quite happy. Have you eaten?’

Matt

I could smell the pasta Jules had made; she’d probably done enough for me as well. Bollocks.

‘Yeah, we had takeaway at Jay and Beth’s.’

I took a breath and just decided to say it.

‘Look, I know you’ve been waiting for me for bloody ages, but … oh shit this is awkward. I’m not in the best mood, I’ve got stuff on my mind, I’m not sure I’m up to doing a sleepover.’

‘Oh.’

Jules looked a bit disappointed, and to be fair she had been waiting for me for hours, but she didn’t seem too troubled.

Julia

I was disappointed, having been waiting all evening for him, but it wasn’t insurmountable.

‘No problem. But I’ve had quite a few glasses of wine, I can’t drive home.’

‘Oh.’

Matt

Bollocks. More bloody faffing before I can just be on my own. I toyed with the idea of calling a taxi, but the thought of pissing her off and then having to wait for the taxi while she sat there being pissed off was more than I could cope with. So now I was going to have to take her home in her car and get a sodding cab back myself.

‘I’ll take you then. Are you ready to go now?’

Yeah it was rude, but I was almost beyond caring. Jules got up and picked up her things without saying anything. I guess I’d managed to piss her off anyway, might as well just have phoned the bloody taxi.

Julia

Feeling a little disgruntled at being hustled out so soon, I stood up and got my things together without saying anything. Matt had made no moves to kiss me or hug me; in fact, he had remained standing by the door, and as soon as I was ready to go, he held it open and followed me out, down the stairs and across the car park. He did at least offer to drive my back in my car so I could get to work in the morning – I nearly let him off, but he was being so cold and distant that at that moment I didn’t feel kindly towards him at all, and didn’t argue with him. Once in the car, though, I couldn’t stand the silence any longer.

Matt

We didn’t speak until I drove away, and I wouldn’t have said anything if she hadn’t started the conversation. I recognised that she was making an effort, but I was winding myself up for a good wallow, and I didn’t feel like making it easy for her.

‘How did it go today? Was Dec alright?’

‘Yes and no, he got pretty upset. But I think he’s OK now. He sent a text saying how much he loves us or some such shit.’

Julia

‘Are you alright?’

It was obvious he wasn’t, but it wasn’t obvious whether he wanted to talk about it.

Matt

‘No. But don’t really want to go there.’

‘How will you get home?’

‘Taxi. Walk. Whatever.’

‘You can’t walk, it’s late.’

‘Fucking taxi then. Jesus.’

I was seriously irritated now, with her, with having to come out again, with having to talk, all irrational and unfair, but, yeah, I took it out on her like the dick I am. I didn’t speak to her again, didn’t even say goodbye when I dropped her off, walking away as I called a cab without looking back.

Julia

And that was the end of the conversation. Matt dropped me and my car off outside my flat without another word, without even a kiss on the cheek, and left me rather bewildered. I nearly rang someone – Dec? Beth? – to see if they could enlighten me as to what had caused his mood, but knew that would really make him cross. I hoped he would feel better the next day, or talk to me about it; I felt out of sorts, and also realised with annoyance that I’d left my work clothes at Matt’s apartment. Sighing, I changed into my night things and got into bed.

Matt

Yeah, I felt guilty, I’d been an arse, but I’d achieved my objective, and I sank into my sofa, bottle of beer in hand, and tried to let it all drift away, to feel the tension leave me. But it didn’t, even aided by two more bottles of beer. I kept thinking in circles about how much undealt with shit I had brewing inside me, and how I didn’t ever want to let go of it in the way that Dec had, but how I didn’t want to address it in any way that involved me actually talking to anyone about it, because what did talking achieve? You just went over and over things and how could that make things better? I was screwing myself up inside.

I picked my phone up and saw the text Dec had sent. I realised it was late, I’d heard everything Beth said about how my shit was the last thing Dec needed on this night of all nights, but I tapped out a reply and sent it; I don’t know if I really thought about what I was doing. Maybe subconsciously. Maybe more consciously. I know he’d had a full on day, I know I should have thought about whether he might need a break from worrying about my shit, but there you have it. It was done now. It just remained to be seen whether he was a) still awake and b) perceptive enough.

A few moments later I found out that he was both a) and b), as my phone rang.

Dec

Eventually I dozed off in front of the TV, until my phone pinged and woke me up. Text.

Matt:=Bloody sentimental fucking nutter 😉 xx

I looked at the time. One thirty. Amy had curled up properly in the bed, while I had stayed sitting up, getting myself a sore neck into the bargain. I turned the TV and the light off. Thought about why Matt might have waited until one thirty to text me. Went into the living room. Called him.

}What the fuck?

‘What the fuck right back, you’re the one who just texted.’

}I was replying to you.

‘At one thirty in the morning. What’s up? Spill.’

}Oh bloody hell, Dec, do you always have to see right through me? It gets a bit tedious.

‘I don’t know why you can’t just ring someone for a chat like normal people.’

}Normal people aren’t usually up at the hours when I’d like a chat.

‘I’m up.’

}I refer you to my previous comment.

‘I think you actually like the games, seeing if people work it out. Are we as fucking clever as you, or something.’

}You could be right. It’s an open verdict so far.

‘So what’s bothering you? Bear in mind I’m going to be up with a puking Amy at three, so please excuse any tetchiness.’

}Well it’s nothing really, maybe you should go back to sleep.

‘Look Matt, you’ve woken me up at stupid o’clock to talk. Stop fannying about and just fucking talk.’

}Yep, there was a definite hint of tetchiness there. OK, OK, I’ll talk. I’m still … I guess … a bit freaked out about the stuff on the beach. I don’t know how you can be OK after all that, it was heavy duty. I thought we were going to be carting you off to the local asylum, straight-jacket, the lot. It went on for a bloody long time. Rose kept saying ‘hold him, just hold him’, but being so close to something so fucking intense was hard. It was bloody scary.

I paused for a moment. I hadn’t really thought about how it might have affected everyone else who was there, or how much they might have worried about me, even though Rose had mentioned something a bit earlier.

‘I’m sorry I scared you. I’m so sorry, Matt. It didn’t occur to me. I guess I knew I was going to come out of it. I knew how much shit there was. I didn’t think about it from your point of view, not having seen it all before, that you didn’t know that. Rose has been there with me through some tough times, she’s kind of an expert.

}I know we’ve always had this being there for each other thing going, but it just didn’t seem like it would be enough. Even Rose said she wasn’t sure, although, yeah, she seemed to know what she was doing at the time.

‘If it helps at all, having you all there holding me was exactly what I needed. Having all that shit pouring out of me needed some kind of containment, or maybe I would have been in trouble. I know you’re not great with touchy feely stuff, if I’d thought it was going to get like that I would have warned you.’

}Yeah, well, like I said this morning, the main reason I came was to try to protect you a bit from Rose and Beth going all weepy on you and making things worse, but as it turned out, it was me who unleashed the beast.

‘Matt, what you said, it really made a difference to me. It’s really helped. I feel better about my parents than I have for years. Yeah it blew it all wide open in a bit of a loud and messy way, but it made sense of the whole day. And you did help take the pressure off from the girls too. They get a bit emotional, and you’re good at turning it into laughter rather than tears.’

}Well, thanks, nice to know my arsing about has its uses. And I’m glad I didn’t completely fuck you up. But how do you know it won’t happen again, maybe when you don’t have four convenient family members ready to be showered with snot?

‘Well … I guess … it’s like a box. There’s this box and all the shit from over the years gets put in the box and if you never have a good clean up, eventually it starts to smell, and you keep smelling it and thinking, well that needs doing, but it’s not a very nice job, so you put it off. Eventually it’s full to bursting, and that’s what it does. Bursts. The box explodes, the shit gets blown away, it’s empty again.

}So I should think myself lucky it was only snot I was showered with?

‘What I mean is, as long as I’m a bit more aware of what’s bubbling in there, and make myself do something about it every so often, it’ll be OK. No more explosions. It’s another ten years before there’s another big anniversary, you’ve got plenty of notice.’

}OK, well, nice box-of-shit analogy, I’ll assume this has been thoroughly endorsed by your shrink, so how do I stop it happening to me? I’m terrified of something like that happening unannounced. What if my box is approaching dangerous shit levels?

‘Well, firstly, you’re not me, you haven’t had my experiences, we do things differently. So the chances of you reacting in the same way as me are remote, I would imagine. Secondly, use the people around you to talk to, offload some of it. I think the main reason I got myself in such a state today is because I find talking about Mum and Dad so hard. Every time I thought about them, it made me too sad, so I’d push it back down there. I blocked it out, didn’t deal with it, didn’t even think about it. If you can talk to people, deal with it, you clean it all out and it doesn’t build up. You know you can always talk to me, there are plenty of other people – talk to Jay and your mum about your dad, talk to your MS group if you still go, talk to Julia, just use people who are here, don’t shut us out. Rose always talks a lot of sense, too.’

}I know. I had a bit of a chat with Rose when I dropped her off earlier. She told me some hair raising stuff about when she first met you. I knew you had a tough time back then but, shit, I didn’t realise you were suicidal.

‘I’m not sure it ever got that bad, but I guess I was pretty low. Didn’t think I had much to live for, if that’s the same thing.’

}She mentioned something about ridiculous amounts of vodka and not really giving a fuck about what could have happened.

‘Yeah, well, it’s all a bit of a blur really. Feels like a long time ago. Rose was … well she saved me, really. Talked me down, if you like. Still is talking me down, I guess, in a way.’

}She really did haul you out of the shit by your bootlaces, didn’t she. Fuck, you were lucky to find her when you did.

‘Yeah. Wouldn’t be here now without her. But anyway. So, nice diversion, but back to you. There’s all of us. Use us. If you’re really that scared of losing control, you need to start making sure it doesn’t happen. Stop fucking about playing mind-games so much and talk properly.’

}You’re no fun. I will still text you in the middle of the night. It’s like our special signal. Thanks, Dec, you talk a lot of sense for a youngster.

‘Well, I’m sorry I freaked you out. Feeling any better?’

}Yeah, a bit. I’ll think about it. Talking about stuff not my most robust attribute. Might have to work on it.

‘Practice on me, sometime. Start small. Tell me about your day or something, without being a smart-arse or a sarcastic bastard.’

}OK, well today my day was mostly eclipsed by my mate having a psychiatric episode on a beach – oh fuck, that’s the sort of thing you mean isn’t it. I might need a lot of practice. Straight talking is fucking hard.

‘Everyone starts somewhere. I look forward to hearing about your day tomorrow, darling.’

}Fuck off. Thanks Dec. Go to sleep now.

‘Will do. I’ve got at least an hour before the vomming starts. Bye, Matt.’

I hung up and went back into the bedroom, feeling my way to the bed in the dark. I undressed, slipped under the duvet and cuddled up to Amy, trying not to wake her but unable to resist stroking her hair. She stirred. I felt guilty, and glad.

)Were you talking to someone?

‘Just Matt.’

)Is he OK?

‘He will be, he’s just overthinking stuff and undertalking stuff as usual. Ames, I’m sorry if I scared you this afternoon, all the big emotional drama and everything.’

She was quiet for a bit, and I thought she’d gone back to sleep.

)Well, it was a bit scary, I’ve never seen you that upset, and we were all looking at each other like ‘oh my God, what do we do if he doesn’t stop?’, and wondering if we needed to get some help or something. But Rose, she was just completely amazing. She knew just what to do. I know she’s seen you like that before, so maybe she was panicking a bit less, but she just made us all hold on to you and each other, and kept telling you it would be alright. I don’t know if you could hear her, you were making a bit of a racket.

‘I couldn’t hear anything, I was in a bit of a world of my own. Oh, babe, I’m so sorry. I just kind of came out of it and walked off like nothing had happened, didn’t I. I’ll have to talk to Beth tomorrow, I think she was as freaked out as Matt.’

)It’s OK, Dec. I think we can see you’re OK, it was just at the time it was so full on. I’m glad Rose was there.

‘Sorry you’re stuck with such a weirdo.’

)Ha ha, I’d choose your weirdness any time. Do you know the weirdest thing? When you were reading your letter, you had an Australian accent. Now that was completely bizarre.

‘No fucking way, I did not.’

)You did, hon, it was really strong, I was surprised Matt resisted saying something, he must have been on his best behaviour because he looked like he was completely busting a gut to chip in with something.

‘Fuck me. Must have been a bit of the old Charlie coming out.’

)It’s all in there somewhere, isn’t it. What time is it? Must be nearly time to get up and start puking.

‘We’ve got a while yet, just stay here and hold me. I need a gorgeous amazing woman in my arms right now. You’ll have to do though.’

)Watch it, or I might just have to miss the toilet next time you’re holding my hair. I’ve got quite good at aiming.

I put my arms round her and held her close, shut my eyes and drifted off to sleep.

Dreaming. I am flying, high above the world. I collect all the people I love and store them in my heart. They help me fly higher and higher and I reach the stars.

Matt

I thought about what Dec had said. He was just about the only person I would allow to make suggestions about what I should do. That’s not to say I took any notice, most of the time, but he could get away with saying stuff nobody else could.

And something he said about talking to people struck a chord, and I thought of Jules, who would be asleep by now, and would probably have her phone off, but I could at least show willing and apologise to her for the way I’d been when I got home. I sent a text.

Not only did she reply, she agreed to FaceTime, which we hadn’t done for ages, seeing each other so often, and was more than I deserved following my rudeness earlier. I apologised, she agreed I’d been a bit of a git, I told her a bit about what had been going on, what had been bothering me, the things I worried about being buried in my box-of-shit, and then … then she blew my fucking mind. Right. Out. Of. The. Water.

60. Sorrow about to fall

In which the smallest thing causes the biggest reaction.

Dec

That was it. Over. I’d said what I wanted to say, and got through it without stopping, and by not looking at anyone, I’d managed to finish reading the letter without crying myself. I’d had plenty of tears when I was writing it, had cried in Amy’s arms a few times when writing to them had made it feel like they were still alive, but this felt like a closing of sorts, and I was able to keep a grip on myself. I looked up and saw Rose and Beth wiping their eyes. I started to roll the letter and pictures up, to put them in the bottle.

_Wait a minute, Dec. Sweetheart, that was really, really lovely. I’m so proud of you. I hope you don’t mind, we’ve all got some things, a few words we’d like to go in the bottle too.

‘But … how did you know –’

)Sorry, hon. I told them you changed your mind. I wanted to do something, and I thought it might be nice if everyone did. I hope that’s OK.

‘Of course, babe. What have you done, though? There’s not much room in here.’

I held up the wine bottle I’d brought with me.

:It’s just a few words from each of us, love. Not much. We want to tell your mam and dad what you’re like, what we think of you. It won’t take up much room.

My family never ceased to amaze me. It was perfect.

‘Fuck, I can’t believe you guys, that’s a bloody awesome thing to do.’

)Shall I start?

I nodded, put my arm round Amy’s shoulders as she read from her piece of paper.

)Dec is everything to me. He is the most caring man you could wish for. He would walk to the other side of the world and back if I asked him to, he’d do anything for anyone. He’s going to be the father of your grandchild, and he’s going to be amazing. He gets up every morning to hold my hair when I’m being sick, and he sometimes doesn’t even grumble when I ask him for breakfast in bed. Dec isn’t the most practical person, and if we need anything doing we usually have to get a man in. Or Matt. But he has so much love, and is so generous with his time. He often helps Carol in her garden, he’s always at the club coaching the under elevens or publicising some charity event or something and he always has time to stop and chat to anyone – Raiders supporters, shop assistants, neighbours, anyone. Dec has really missed having you around, and I think he’ll always be sad you’re gone, but he’s got a great family who love him to bits and try to keep him sane. Having our baby is going to be the most exciting thing we’ve ever done, and I know he wishes you were here for it. Thank you for making him what he is today, for giving him to us.

Amy looked up at me and I bent down and kissed her, my heart overflowing.

‘Awesome, babe. I love you. Will you marry me?’

)Course, hon. Always. You OK?

‘Yeah, I should be blubbing, shouldn’t I, but it’s just not there. I’m OK.’

Amy gave me the piece of paper and I rolled it up with the others.

_Me next. I’ve tried to keep it short, but there was such a lot James and I wanted to say.

I held my other arm out and pulled Beth in close.

_OK, sweetheart. Here goes then.

She started reading.

_Dec was a very angry young man when he came to us. He made out he was a bit of a bad lad, but I was pretty sure I could see the real Dec underneath the attitude and the bad language. James took a bit of convincing, but with love and patience Dec stopped hiding behind his behaviour, and we saw the boy who’s turned into the lovely man he is now. You’d both be so proud of him. He’s loving, caring, loyal, he loves our two children so much, and they adore him. He’s so much a part of our family we can’t imagine it without him. Dec doesn’t talk much about you, it makes him too sad, but when he does it sounds like he had a very happy childhood. We can’t replace you, but we can love him enough that maybe it doesn’t hurt him quite so much all the time. We did have a bit of a hard time a few years ago, when things went a bit wrong for all of us, but we came through it, one way and another, and I think it made us all stronger, helped us realise what really mattered to us – things like acceptance, openness, being together, love and family. Now Dec’s going to be a father, James and I have realised how much he’s grown up, and how privileged we’ve been to be a part of his life. He’s going to be a great dad, he’s so good with Cal and Iz, he always knew just how to be with Cal, even when he first arrived as a stroppy sixteen year old, and every other word was a swear word. Now it’s just every word in three, so he’s made some progress. I’m so sorry I never met you, I would have loved to have known Dec’s mum and dad, to have found out what he was like when he was Charlie. I think you’d be very pleased with how … he’s … turned –

Beth lowered her bit of paper. Her bottom lip was trembling and some tears had run down her cheeks. It looked like there was a bit more written on the page, but she was choked up, and couldn’t read any further. I took it from her and put it with the rest, then and wrapped her up in a hug.

‘Thanks Beth. You’re fucking amazing.’

She wiped her eyes.

_Sorry, I couldn’t quite finish. There wasn’t much more, I was waffling anyway.

‘It was perfect. Can I put the cork in now?’

:Not yet love, you’ve got to listen to me yapping on now. Don’t worry, it’s not long, I’m not a great writer, or speaker.

‘Rose, you could talk the hind legs off a herd of donkeys and you’d still not be finished.’

:Yes, love but not speeches and stuff. Anyway, this isn’t a speech, it’s just telling your mam and dad some things. Hope that’s alright.

‘Come here, then.’

Amy and Beth stepped back and I put my arm round Rose. She put her glasses on and took out a piece of paper that had been folded and unfolded many times. She fiddled with it nervously, clearing her throat.

‘Rose, it’s only me.’

:No it’s not, love, it’s your mam and dad as well. They’re a lot to live up to. I just want to say it right.

‘Whatever you say will be right. It always is. They’d love you. I love you. You’re great.’

:Thanks love. You know I think the world of you, don’t you.

‘I know.’

Rose squared her shoulders, took a deep breath and started reading.

:Declan often says I’m like a mum to him. He agreed once to let me mother him, and I’ve held him to it all this time. I’ll carry on as long as he wants it, too. But I’ll never be his Mum, and that’s the thing I find really hard, that he hasn’t got you both. By, he’s a grand young man. I can’t take your place, I wouldn’t want to, but I’m very glad I’m here in mine watching him grow up. He’s a credit to you. He’s found it hard without you, but he’s resourceful and strong, and he’s made his own way. The family he’s found, all of us, well it’s not traditional or conventional, but it’s full of love and laughter and that’s the most important thing. You don’t need to worry about him, he’ll be alright. That’s all, love.

Rose took her glasses off and looked up at me. I bent down and kissed her on the cheek, pulled her in for one of her enormous hugs. Took her piece of paper from her and started to put the top on the bottle.

}Er, what about me?

I looked up at Matt, surprised.

‘You only decided you were coming this morning, you – oh, you’re taking the piss.’

He looked a bit hurt.

}No, although you’re right, I haven’t had time to prepare anything along the lines of the three muses here. Anyway, it’s only something little, and I’m not speechifying it, but this is from the first time I watched you play, a few months ago. I just wrote something on the back. It should fit in the bottle.

He held out a match ticket, from the game I had persuaded Cal to ask him to go to. I turned it over. On the back, he had written I don’t know much about rugby, but if Declan Summers is half as good a player as he is a friend, he’s fucking awesome and destined for greatness. I was really touched. This whole thing wasn’t something Matt would have felt very comfortable about, and he could easily have avoided it, or done or said something light-hearted to take the emotion out of it. Usually, a bit of banter would have occurred, but I recognised this was a serious gesture.

‘Thanks, Matt. It means a lot that you did this.’

He nodded. I put the ticket in the bottle and pushed the cork into the top. Then I wrapped some tape round it. It didn’t really matter if it was absolutely waterproof; it was never going to reach its destination, I just didn’t want it to sink while I was still watching it. I held the bottle for a while, still trying to conjure up some kind of feeling. Maybe Beth was right, and I would feel what I was trying to feel later, when I’d sorted through it in my mind. Holding onto a bottle wasn’t going to make anything happen.

I drew my arm back and threw the bottle, as hard as I could, out into the sea. I was pretty good at throwing things, and it went a long way; we watched it bobbing for quite a while, as the tide took it further and further out. Amy and Rose had their arms round me, Matt had his arm over Beth’s shoulder. I wasn’t sure how long to stand watching a bottle getting smaller and smaller on the outgoing tide, but I knew nobody was going to suggest leaving until I made the first move.

Matt

It went much as expected, really. We all wandered aimlessly with him for most of the day, trying to help him do his anniversary thing in whatever way he saw fit, but it had all been pretty low-key, he’d seemed fairly upbeat about the whole thing, apart from a couple of times when he got a bit wobbly, and I stepped in with my metaphorical jester’s hat on and eased the tension as was my role. He even did this, like, thousand page long speech on the beach, his accent getting thicker and more Australian as he read it, and he got through sentimental addresses from Amy, Beth and Rose without any kind of emotional outpouring. It’s not that he didn’t want to get emotional, I think he kind of did in a way, but whatever it was he was expecting, he didn’t quite get there.

And then yours truly, theoretically the class comedian, well I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. Maybe it had all got to me more than I’d realised, but we were all just standing watching his message in a bottle float out to sea, and I was re-running the day in my mind, in some kind of speeded up action replay, and I just had this image, which almost made me laugh, of Dec dashing around this town he used to live in, chasing after shadows and peering in corners, like he was trying to find something. I wondered if he knew he’d been looking for his mum and dad, and then the image changed into something even more potentially amusing, of Dec running about looking for the thing that had never left him, that he always carried with him, kind of like when someone’s looking for their glasses when they’re on their head all the time.

Obviously, it wasn’t really amusing, it was quite poignant, but it was the image that amused me, not the reality. But anyway, I just said it, without thinking.

‘Hey, you know what’s just occurred to me, Dec.’

‘No. Do tell.’

He probably thought I was going to say ‘the pubs open in half an hour’ or some such shit.

‘Well, I’ve watched you today tramping here and there, looking for I don’t know what, memories or feelings or something, and getting all frustrated because it’s not happening. What’s just occurred to me is that you’ve been looking for your mum and dad. You left them behind, in a way, when you moved to the city, and maybe part of you thought they’d be here when you came back, and you’d find them again, somehow. You’ve been looking in the wrong place. They’re not here –’

I gestured to the beach in front of us and the town behind us.

‘– or here –’

I pointed to the tattoo on his forearm, now a fairly tasteful swirl of roses and calligraphy.

‘– they’re here.’

Dec

He walked up to me and put his hand on my chest, over my heart. I stared at him, and as the truth sunk in, I felt it shockwave through me. When my legs buckled, Matt tried to catch me, but I collapsed to my knees as the memories, the sadness, the grief, the sorrow, the pain, the anger, came boiling up from the place I’d buried it all.

Matt

I don’t know what I’d expected, maybe a nod as he thought about it, a word or two of agreement. What I did not fucking well expect was for the most anguished expression I have ever seen to come over his face, as he dropped to the ground, on his knees. I tried to catch him, but he was sixteen stone of rugby player, and there was no way I could hold him. And the noises that started coming out of him – wails, moans, incoherent shouts. I was bloody terrified.

Dec

It swept over me and I knelt on the beach and sobbed and howled and raged. I couldn’t keep it buried any more, I had to let the hurt out, noisily and painfully, as memories crashed over me and feelings rampaged through me. I cried because they were dead. I cried because they’d left me. I cried for the good times I’d lost and the hard times I’d found. I cried because they were never coming back. I cried because they’d never know me or Amy or our baby. I cried for it all, everything that had been and everything that would never be and everything that should have been and everything that shouldn’t have been. I threw handfuls of sand at the sea. I pulled my hair. I shouted and screamed. But mostly I cried. I don’t know how long I knelt there, feeling it all, remembering it all, crying it all, because I’d never really cried about it before and there was a lot of crying to be done.

Matt

Dec was just beside himself, I don’t think he knew what he was doing. He hurled sand around, he wailed, he pulled his hair, he shouted, he cried and cried, tears and snot pouring out of him at the same time as all the noise, and it just went on and on. I looked helplessly at Rose, Beth and Amy, hoping for some guidance, but they were all looking as shocked as I felt.

Rose recovered first, and got on her knees beside him, putting her arms round him. I stood rooted to the spot, looking on, horrified.

‘Just hold him. He needs to know we’re here.’

Rose seemed sure, but I didn’t think any amount of cuddling was going to help him out of this, and I got my phone out in case we needed to call someone … well, who I had not a clue, but it felt way beyond me, and I wanted to hand it over to someone else.

Amy and Beth had followed Rose onto their knees on the sand, and after a while, feeling foolish, I joined them, making a circle round Dec, holding his shoulders, saying reassuring things. It seemed to last for hours, but it eventually started to calm down; it wasn’t hours, but it was a bloody long time, and then, finally, to my overwhelming relief, he stopped, and flopped forwards, head on his knees, panting and sniffing, the occasional shudder.

Dec

They all held me, even Matt. None of them tried to stop it. After a long, long time, I felt it recede, felt cleaned and emptied by it. I was exhausted, could hardly lift my head up, and I knelt on the sand trying to get my breath back. I felt Amy’s hand on the back of my neck, stroking my hair; I looked up into her eyes, which were filled with tears as she rested her forehead on mine.

)It’s OK, Dec. We’re all here. Take your time, hon.

I closed my eyes and took several deep, ragged, snotty breaths.

‘Did someone say something about man-size tissues?’

Matt

Yes, that would be me, as a joke, back when we were having a laugh at lunchtime, and nobody was going all mental patient all over the place.

‘Well I did, but I actually was taking the piss that time.’

‘Here you are, love.’

Rose could always be relied on to have a tissue. Dec blew his nose, wiped his eyes and sniffed a bit. I was still reeling from the disaster zone I seemed to have caused.

‘Fucking hell, Dec, I’m sorry. If I’d thought you were going to –’

‘It’s OK. I needed it. That was ten years worth of bottled up shit. Sorry it was a bit explosive. Fuck. Did I scare the seagulls?’

After all that, he was worried about the effect he’d had on the wildlife?

‘Sod the fucking seagulls, you scared the living shit out of me.’

I was seriously shaken up, that was my best mate, who for a bloody long time, I’d thought was going to be seeing out the end of the day in a straight-jacket.

Dec

Matt did look a bit shaken. Thinking back, although we’d both helped each other through some difficult times, and there had been tears on both sides, this was in a different league from anything Matt had ever witnessed.

‘Sorry. Call it blub club plus, or something.’

Matt

I sat down on the sand next to him, needing to tell him how scared I’d been, but unwilling to upset him any further.

‘Fuck, Dec, that was extreme. I thought you were going to stop breathing, or hurt yourself or something. Are you OK now?’

Dec

I nodded. I felt as if something that had kept me tied up had been cut away, and now I was free. It was what I’d been looking for, expecting to find, ever since we arrived here this morning.

‘Thanks for being here.’

Matt

I nodded back, but felt tears pricking at the corners of my eyes, whether of relief or concern I was not in a position to tell, so I got up and started to walk down the beach before anyone noticed.

Dec

Matt nodded in turn, got up and started to walk down the beach. He looked like he was wiping his eyes as he went. I put both my arms round Amy, held her close and stared out at the sea. The bottle had disappeared, floating too far away to be able to see. Behind me, I became aware of more sniffing. Beth was being comforted by Rose, trying to muffle it and not succeeding. They were having a muted conversation in between the sniffles.

_… I just never realised there was so much pain and hurt there, all this time.

:It’s always been there, love. He’s hidden it away. I’ve seen bits of it before, not quite like this though.

Beth looked up, saw me watching her. She wiped her eyes.

_Oh Dec, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. It just took me by surprise, that’s all. Rose did say something like this might happen, but we’d been everywhere today, and did all the words, and I didn’t think it was going to. I just got upset, seeing you like that.

I stood up, and she came over and kissed my cheek.

_Are you alright?

‘You know what, I think I am. I think I’ve been carrying all that shit around with me for ten years and it’s about fucking time I got rid of it. It feels like it’s been getting harder and harder to keep it all down there, not all of it will always go away when I try to make it. Now it’s out and gone, and I don’t have to worry about hiding it any more. Sorry if it was a bit dramatic.’

_Oh, Dec, sweetheart, well I won’t say it wasn’t dramatic, but please don’t apologise. Whatever you need, you know we’re here. Where’s Matty going?

‘I think I freaked him out a bit. He’s just getting himself together. He was supposed to be the comic relief, not the best supporting actor.’

Beth looked thoughtful, then headed off after Matt.

Matt

I hadn’t got far, and hadn’t finished wiping my eyes, when Beth caught up with me.

‘Matty, wait.’

I didn’t wait. The last thing I wanted was Beth trying to get to the bottom of things with me.

‘Matty.’

She took my arm and pulled me back, making me slow down to match her stride.

‘Well that was a bit of an event, wasn’t it.’

‘Mm.’

‘Are you alright, Matty?’

‘Not really. Are you?’

I thought if I could turn it round on her, it might focus things away from the bloody traitorous leakage running down my face.

‘No. I didn’t expect anything that powerful. I was a bit scared.’

I don’t think I’d ever known Beth to be anything other than completely in control of things, and I admired her ability to just say how she was feeling. How different my life would be if I could a) realise how I was feeling and b) say it.

‘Where did it all come from?’

‘Oh Matty, this has will have been building up for years. Sometimes it’s the smallest things that set it all off.’

‘And sometimes it’s the stupidest. What the fuck was I thinking?’

‘You can’t blame yourself, sweetheart. It could have been anything any one of us said or did.’

‘Nice try, but I’m pretty sure I was the one who started it all.’

‘It wasn’t your fault. I think it will have helped him.’

‘Yeah, well, we’ll see. I thought he’d sorted all his shit out with his shrink.’

‘I know seeing Adam has really helped him, but that doesn’t mean he’s sorted through all his troubles. He’s made loads of progress, but sometimes you store things up without realising. You know he never talks about his parents. Maybe he never lets himself think about them, either. All of that, back there, could be a culmination of the last ten years, and a full on day of thinking about them, remembering them, talking about them. Think of yourself as the last straw, not the only straw.’

As we walked, I looked out to sea, not at Beth. She always talked sense, really, much as I moaned about her meddling ways, but although I’d been worried about having been the one who caused it all for Dec, there were now other misgivings tapping at my consciousness. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about them, and didn’t speak for a while, as we walked along the shoreline.

‘Matty, talk to me. What’s bothering you?’

How did she always know? It was like she had a sixth sense when you wanted to keep something from her. I didn’t want to do this right now.

‘Piss off, Beth, sometimes people just want to be alone with their thoughts.’

‘I know, sweetheart, but when you’ve just seen your friend very distressed, and been very worried about him, maybe being alone with any thoughts that might have been thrown your way isn’t the best thing.’

‘Do you ever stop fussing over people?’

She sighed. ‘No, I suppose I don’t. And I’m not going to stop now. Please tell me, Matty. I’d like to help if I can.’

‘Seriously, Beth, just piss off. I’m quite capable of walking up the fucking beach on my own, I don’t need you to fucking babysit my every move.’

It was the tone of voice that usually worked, if the ‘fuck’s didn’t. Beth was pretty persistent, but hated being told to piss off, and usually called the cavalry, i.e. Dec, when I came on too strong with her. If I went on long enough with it, she’d give up, I was sure.

‘You know what, Matty, I think I won’t this time. What’s going to happen if you get back to Dec and you’re still being like this? He’ll know, and then he’ll spend all night trying to drag it out of you, won’t he. And that’s not fair on him, not today. So just get over yourself, tell me about it, let me help you sort it out, and we can go back and convince Dec that everything’s OK.’

Oh bollocks, she had a point. Dec was almost as good as Beth at knowing when I needed to talk, and both of them were better at knowing it than me. Sighing to myself, realising I may as well give it up willingly, rather than walk all the way along the coast to avoid it, I tried to explain.

‘It’s just bloody terrifying, the thought of how much shit we’ve all got lurking in us, waiting to burst its way out like that. I don’t think I could handle it if it happened to me. I don’t know how he’s handled it, how he’s not foaming at the mouth in the back of the little white van or some such bollocks.’

‘Oh Matty, you and Dec are so different, you’ve had such different experiences, just because he’s reacted like this doesn’t mean you will. Losing his parents like he did, when he did, we can never really understand what that’s like.’

‘Maybe, but I’ve got a fair amount of unsorted crap of my own that I’d rather not think about.’

‘If you talked about things a bit more, sweetheart …’

‘Yeah, well, that’s the thing, though, isn’t it. I don’t do talking, I do this, don’t I.’

I waved my hand vaguely in the direction of the rest of the way down the beach.

‘I’m not going to change any time soon.’

‘Oh Matty, if you’d –’

‘No, Beth. You wanted me to tell you what I was thinking. I’ve told you. Now can we go back? Fuck, we’ve walked miles.’

I turned round and looked back along the sand. I couldn’t see Dec, Amy or Rose, but they would have been small dots by now.

Dec

I stood and watched as she caught him up, taking his arm and walking further up the beach. I wasn’t sure what I’d missed; my head was still in a whirl, I wasn’t really thinking clearly. Amy followed my gaze.

)What are you thinking?

‘Nothing coherent. Still a bit wobbly. Come here.’

I pulled her into my arms, kissed her and folded her into a hug.

‘You have been amazing. How are you doing, babe? Knackered yet?’

)Not yet, but it won’t be long. There are plenty of places to sit down, I’m completely fine.

‘We should go as soon as Matt and Beth get back. Jay won’t last much longer on his own with Iz once Cal’s home from school. Rose, how are you doing? Cup of tea before we go?’

:What everyone else wants to do is fine, don’t worry about me, love.

‘How about we go back and wait in the café? Two birds, one cup of tea.’

)Good plan. I’ll text Beth and let her know.

We strolled back down the beach towards the café, arm in arm. We didn’t talk much. I tried to work out how I was feeling, how things had just changed for me. I had spent the last ten years trying to avoid feeling what I had just felt very publicly, and now everything was out there, I felt a bit light-headed, almost as if I was floating. I was dehydrated from all the crying, and my throat was sore, my voice croaky.

One of the biggest things had been what Matt had said. I could now think of Mum and Dad not as burdens of sadness to keep hidden, but as thirteen years of my life that weighed very little and that I wore with me, in my heart. I was no longer scared of what accessing the memories and emotions associated with those thirteen years would do to me; I had faced it, and rid myself of a lot of baggage. I would still be sad when I thought about them and talked about them, but I was pretty sure I would be able to do it much more easily now.

We reached the café and ordered tea for Rose. Amy had water, and put her feet up on the bench seat, resting her back against my arm and her head against the back of the seat. She looked like she might fall asleep soon. I had a sudden urge for a coke float, which used to be my favourite thing on a Saturday morning, gathered here with Billy, Jase, and Will. The drinks arrived, and Rose poured out her tea.

:Don’t know how you can drink that, love, so much sugar, it looks revolting.

‘It is pretty sweet and sickly. It’s nostalgia, really. Special treat on a Saturday morning.’

I sucked a bit through the straw, pulled a face.

‘No, it’s not the same. I don’t think I’ve got such a sweet tooth as I used to have.’

:I can get another cup, you can share my tea if you like.

‘I couldn’t possibly deprive you, but thanks for the offer. I’ll grab some of Amy’s water in a bit. She’s nearly asleep, look.’

) … no I’m not. Just resting my eyes.

:You have a snooze, love, it’s been a long day.

)Mm. Might do. Carry me to the car, later, hon.

‘OK, babe. Whatever you say.’

I reached round and put my hand on her stomach, kissing her behind her ear.

‘How’s the bubster doing?’

)Fine, hon.

:How are you doing, Declan love?

‘OK. I feel, well, apart from feeling a bit foolish and hoping not too many people were out there to see me, it feels like a good thing in a way. I didn’t realise all that was in there. I’ve been feeling a bit, like there’s something bubbling under, for a while. I could keep a lid on it, but only just, and it was making me a bit edgy. I think the lid’s blown off now, but it took a lot of crap with it. Back to manageable levels.’

:Well, good. That’s good. You gave us all a bit of a turn out there, though, love. Last time I saw you like that, remember when your team lost all those points and you poured your heart out onto my kitchen table, while me and Nico looked at each other and wondered what on earth we were going to do. This was worse, though, I … I wondered if you were going to be alright when you stopped. There was so much hurt on your face, old pain. Sometimes it’s hard to get back from those old places.

I looked at the worry on Rose’s face. I wanted to reassure her.

‘I was always going to be alright, Rose, the same way and for the same reason I was always going to be alright that time with you and Nico. Because I had people with me who cared enough about me to hold on to me. As long as I have all of you, I’ll always be alright. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but that’s the truth. If we look after each other, we can make sure we’ll all always be alright.’

Rose took my hand and squeezed it. Then her knack for changing the subject at just the right moment kicked in.

:Oh, I meant to tell you, Bron and Gethin are coming down next weekend. Gethin’s got a new girlfriend, Bron wants me to check her out.

‘Where are they all going to sleep?’

:Oh, they’ll get a B&B or something. Bron’ll stay with me, I expect.

‘I know someone who might put them up …’

Matt

‘Where are they?’

‘Amy just texted. She said they’ve gone to wait in the café. I think we should go back, and you should tell Dec why you were upset, and let him know you’re OK.’

‘You appear to be the boss.’

‘Don’t be like that, Matty, you know I’m right. Dec doesn’t need to be up all night holding you together.’

‘I suppose not.’

‘You know if you ever need someone to offload to –’

‘Yeah, you’ll be the first interfering busybody I call. Enough now.’

I started walking back along the beach, a bit faster than Beth could manage without trotting to keep up. It meant she didn’t have enough breath to badger me, and I was silent until we reached the café.

Dec

We carried on chatting until Matt and Beth arrived. Matt looked a bit wild-eyed and wary, like he did when something was up that he didn’t know how to talk about. Beth held my gaze and raised her eyebrows at me. They sat down at the table, squeezing next to Rose, as Amy was still asleep with her legs stretched out.

‘Good walk?’

}It’s a lovely location. Ten out of ten for childhood reminiscence spots.

_Matty.

}Oh alright. Dec, Beth says I should tell you, so you don’t have to drag it out of me later. Told her to piss off, but for once she stood firm. Not a big deal really. Any other day and I might have put up more of a fight, but you get special dispensation today.

_Matty. Just say it.

}OK. Well, first, before I do, I just want to check how you are. Are you still a bloody hysterical blart bomb likely to explode with salt water, snot, showers of sand and unbelievably loud noises at any minute, or are all things Summers a bit calmer?

‘I’m feeling OK, thanks for asking so sensitively.’

}Fuck off, having my own mini-crisis here. Alright, Beth, I’m doing it now, I just didn’t want to set him off again. OK, Dec, when you did your little display just now up the beach, it scared ten fucking kinds of zombie-shit out of me. Not just because I thought you were going to do yourself an injury, although there was that. I’m a bit afraid of what I might have lurking down there for me, waiting to pop up at some inconvenient moment. There’s all the shit with Carrie. Then there’s the bastard MS waiting in the wings, the nearly dying of pneumonia, and although my dad died when I was two, and I thought I was OK about it because it was so long ago, that’s a nice little undercurrent too. And, oh, just all of the joys of being the current Mr Matthew Robert Scott. Shit, this is so the wrong time to be unloading all this. But anyway, long story short, I was worried about what I might have waiting to ambush me. So that’s why I buggered off up the beach, as well as to get the image of you, bawling your eyes out, right out of my head.

‘You’re not me, Matt.’

}Well thankful fucks to the god of small mercies for that.

‘Just because something happens to me doesn’t mean it will happen to you.’

}I know that, and Beth reminded me of the same thing. I think … I was so pleased with myself for working out what was going on here with you, that when it produced that reaction I was really shocked. I don’t think I could let go like that, I don’t ever fucking want to.

‘It’s not like I had a choice.’

}That’s kind of my point. But I’m not dwelling, I’m putting it all away to ponder another day. Seriously. I was under orders to tell you why I wandered off, and I’ve done my duty. May we speak of this no more.

‘OK.’

}What the fuck have you been drinking? It looks disgusting.

‘Coke float.’

}Ugh, I can’t think of many less palatable combinations than brown sugary liquid and creamy curdling blobs. Is there anything else on offer?

Matt

As promised, I briefly shared with the group why I had seen fit to flounce off, and then the subject was dropped and to all intents and purposes things returned to normal.

I still had an underlying unease, although I covered it up with my normal arsing about. Dec would have noticed if he hadn’t been preoccupied with his day, so I kept things to myself and resolved to … well, do nothing about it, I suppose.

Dec

He looked at the menu, while I considered what he had told me. Matt was really complex. People couldn’t tell when he was being serious, and he often wrapped up sincerity in bluff and sarcasm to put everyone off the scent. He had a lot of things he wouldn’t readily talk about, and pushing him to talk usually resulted in him retreating further behind his front. I hoped he would come to one of us in his own way and his own time if he needed to.

As we waited for Matt’s and Beth’s drinks to arrive, I noticed I was being stared at from the other side of the café. There was a woman at a table with a boy, who looked about eight or so. Something about his face looked familiar, but there was no way I could have known him when I lived here – he was too young. The boy was looking at me intently, but looked away when I caught his eye, and he kept glancing back to see if I was still looking, then looking away again when he saw I was. I looked at the woman, I assumed she was his mum, to see if I recognised her, but I couldn’t recall her. After a while, they got up and the woman went to the till to pay. As they passed our table, the boy slowed down and looked again. I smiled at him. He smiled back and stopped.

*Are you Declan Summers?

I nodded, and his mum turned round at the sound of his voice.

*Ned, come here, now.

He held his ground for the briefest moment, but couldn’t disobey and ran up to her, looking back at me. He tugged on his mum’s t-shirt.

*Mum, it’s Declan Summers.

*Who?

*He plays for Raiders. Uncle Jason used to go to school with him.

Something clicked. That was who he looked like – Jason Dixon. He must be related to Jase. Nephew? I tried to recall details of his family. Did he have an older sister? Couldn’t remember.

They left the café, the boy looking back over his shoulder and trying to get his mum to listen to him. I might have followed, but Amy was still asleep against me, and I didn’t want to disturb her.

:Did you know them, love?

‘I don’t think so. The boy looked like someone I used to know, I suppose he might have been related, but I didn’t know the boy or the woman. He seemed to know me, though.’

}The perils of dining with a sporting superstar, one just can’t have a mochaccino in peace these days without it being ruined by the rabble.

We finished our drinks, although I left most of my coke float and drank Amy’s water, and then we decided to put Jay out of his misery and go home. Jay had texted Beth a couple of times asking when we were going to be back, and she was starting to feel guilty.

_I hardly ever have a day off from the children, I’m just prolonging it as much as I can. He’ll cope. I might text him and tell him what to do for our tea, so it’s ready when we get home.

‘Great idea, Beth, if you really want to eat black oven chips and rubber burgers.’

}Or worse, find the house burnt down and all your possessions charred to a crisp. Nothing more likely to ruin an appetite.

_Sadly, I think you could be right. How about we pick up takeaway on the way back, then?

}Top idea. I’ll wash up.

_Really, Matty?

}Fuck, no. That’s what the dishwasher is for. Right, are we all ready? Dec, wake Amy up unless you’re giving her a fireman’s lift to the car park. Or I could go and fetch the car … oh fuck it, why did I even suggest that, you’re all going to sit here and let me sod off on my own now, aren’t you.

_I’ll come with you, sweetheart. I think Amy could do with the extra rest, and Rose has done a lot of walking about today.

‘And I’m propping Amy up. If I come, she’ll fall over.’

}You’re excused, fucking nancy. Summers is deducted five man points for using a lame excuse. Right, won’t be long. Beth, you remember where we parked don’t you …

As they left, Amy stirred and woke up. She swung her legs over the edge of the seat, sat up, yawned and rubbed her eyes.

)Hello. Did I doze off?

‘Yeah, babe. Huge snores and everything. Look – the whole place has emptied because of the noise.’

)I wasn’t snoring! Rose, I wasn’t snoring?

Rose laughed.

:No, love, but you were pretty fast asleep. Are you still getting morning sickness?

)Yeah, three o’clock every morning, you could set your alarm by it if you really wanted to be up then.

:I’m not surprised you’re tired, then, love. Shouldn’t last much longer, hopefully, first twelve weeks is usually the worst.

)Hope so. Aren’t Matt and Beth back yet?

‘They’ve been and gone.’

)What, while I was asleep? Was I asleep that long?

I laughed at the surprised look on her face.

‘Yeah, babe. They’ve gone to fetch the car so I don’t have to carry you through town over my shoulder. Sorry I wore you out today. Early night, yeah?’

)Sounds lovely. But really, an early night, with just going to bed early to sleep and not …

She stopped herself and looked at Rose, who laughed.

:I know what ‘early night’ means, love, I’ve even had a few myself, although not for a while, mind. Declan, let the poor girl catch up on her sleep and stop being so demanding.

‘It’s not my fault she’s bloody irresistible.’

:Actually, love, it is. Have some willpower.

)Thanks Rose.

‘Yeah, thanks Rose. Thanks a bunch.’

We laughed as I pulled Amy close enough to whisper in her ear.

‘You’re just too fucking gorgeous, fancy a quickie out the back, by the bins?’

She laughed and whispered back.

)Have some willpower.

I gave her a wet sloppy kiss on the cheek and hugged her tight to me. I was starting to feel some kind of normality creeping back following the weirdness of the episode on the beach. We sat and chatted for a while longer, and just as I was beginning to wonder if they’d got lost on the way back to the car park, I saw Matt’s four wheel drive pull up outside the café. He honked the horn. Amy and Rose got up and walked to the car, while I paid the bill for the drinks.

As I was leaving the café, I noticed a car coming pretty fast down the road along the seafront. It braked sharply and pulled in behind Matt’s car. Both front doors opened, and the little boy from before got out of the passenger side. A man got out of the driver’s side. The boy had a big grin on his face and turned to speak to the man.

*See, it is him.

The man stared at me, realised he was staring, closed the car door and walked with the boy to where I had stopped. I was aware of everyone in Matt’s car watching.

*Charlie?

‘Er, Declan.’

*You don’t remember me.

I thought about the boy, and who he’d reminded me of, and his Uncle Jason. I added a few years to the face of the boy from my memories.

‘Jase?’

The man smiled, nodded and held out his hand. I grinned, and clasped it.

‘Fucking hell!’

*I hope you don’t mind, Neddy here recognised you in the café, he goes to Raiders with his dad a lot. He came back full of how he’d seen you, wouldn’t give his mum any peace, she rang me and I had to come straight down, see if you were still here. What are you doing here?

‘I’m with my family.’

I gestured to the car. They all waved at him, and he raised a hand self-consciously.

*Oh, well, sorry, looks like you’re all just off. I just wanted to see if it really was you. How long has it been?

‘Probably about seven years. That’s when I left.’

*Bit longer than that, you moved about so much, changed your name, we kind of lost touch. You’re doing well for yourself.

‘Yeah, I’m doing OK. How about you?’

*Yeah, pretty good, working with my dad, he’s got this timber business. Getting married next year. Remember Suzie McDonald?

‘Really, Suzie? Fuck me. Congratulations.’

I’d had to stop myself repeating her nickname, Suzie the Floozie.

*Uncle Jason …

*Oh, yeah, right. Ned was pretty keen to get your autograph, er, it feels a bit awkward, but would you mind? He’s brought a programme.

I laughed. ‘No, of course not. Do you ever come with him to the games?

*I’ve been a couple of times, when his dad couldn’t make it. Football’s really more my game, sorry. I follow the results, though, see if you’ve scored. You usually have.

Ned handed me the programme and a pen. He’d opened it to a page with my picture on.

‘I like this picture, Ned, it was my first try for Raiders.’

*I was there, it was near where I was standing, it was awesome. Did you really go to school with Uncle Jason?

‘Yeah, I did. I was just telling everyone today, we both used to sneak over the fence at the back of my house after school, so everyone thought we’d come straight home instead of going to the park. And we used to come here on a Saturday morning and drink coke floats.’

*He called you Charlie.

‘I know. I used to be called Charlie when I was at school with Jase.’

*But are you really Declan Summers?

‘Yes, I really am. What do you want me to put here?’

*To Ned, and your name, please.

I wrote in the programme and handed it back.

‘Ned, next time you and your dad, or your uncle if you can persuade him to give up the football, are at Raiders, let the girls in the ticket office know you’re there, ask them to tell me. You could come after, meet some of the players, get a tour of the ground, or something.’

Ned’s eyes went very round.

*What do you say, Ned?

*Thank you.

*Thanks, mate, that’s really good of you.

‘What’s your dad’s name?’

*Peter.

‘I’ll leave a message in the office, look out for you.’

*We should leave you to it, Char – er – Declan. Thanks for this, he’s a complete Raiders nut.

‘Keep it up, Ned. Seriously, Jase, come and find me after a game sometime, we can have a proper catch up. Great to see you, really great.’

*You too. Cheers mate, see you sometime.

We shook hands, they walked off to his car and got in. I got into the front seat of Matt’s.

}Satisfied your eager public have we?

‘Ha ha. It was an old friend.’

:Was that the little boy from the café, love?

‘Yeah, he’s Jason Dixon’s nephew.’

}Jason Dixon – why do I know that name?

‘I mentioned him today, at the house. He was my fellow fence hopper.’

}Oh yeah. So that was him. Happy reunion?

‘Bit weird meeting someone I probably last saw when we were wagging school together. His nephew’s a Raiders fan.’

}Yeah, we got that, with the autographs and the hero-worship and the big beam of light shining down on your head. Fucking egomaniac.

)Are you going to keep in touch?

I shrugged. ‘Up to him, I’ve told him to look me up after a game. See if it ever happens. I feel like I’ve left this place behind, especially after today. I’m not in any hurry to rekindle old stuff, he probably isn’t either. Good to see him, though. I was beginning to think nothing had stayed the same here. Matt are you ever going to start this car, or are we going to sit here bloody chatting for the rest of the week?’

}Yes, sir, starting the engine, sir, sorry to have kept you waiting, sir, even though it was you who was standing around outside keeping the faith with the little people, sir.

‘Piss off and drive us home.’

An hour or so later, having picked up a Chinese meal on the way home, we pulled up outside Jay and Beth’s house. Amy, Rose and Beth were all asleep in the back of the car.

}I vote we leave them here until we’ve had our pick of the takeaway, then we’ll wake them up so they can polish off the egg fried rice and prawn crackers no one ever wants.

‘Don’t like your chances if you deprive Amy of her chicken chow mein.’

}Bollocks, good point. Hadn’t taken into account hormonal surges as a risk factor. OK, better wake them up then, bagsy not it, see you inside.

Matt grabbed the bags of takeaway, jumped out of the car and slammed the door hard. Rose, Beth and Amy all woke up with a start. It was very funny.

‘Come on, ladies, Matt’s gone inside with dinner. I suggest you get going if you want there to be any left.’

)He’d better not be touching my chicken chow mein.

‘He’s well aware of the consequences if he does, babe, but everything else is fair game.’

Amy and Beth got out from either side of the car and went indoors; I stayed and helped Rose down from the back seat.

:Thanks, love. Alright?

‘I’m good, thanks, Rose. What a day. Thanks for coming.’

:You know I’ll always be there for you, love.

‘I know. It means a lot. Same here. Know what, Rose, you and me, we’re a little family all on our own, aren’t we. I mean, yeah, part of this fucking weird sprawly chaotic unexplainable one, but me and you, we’re a little unit too.’

:You’re right, love. Don’t start me off, now, I gave you my last tissue.

‘Ha ha, let’s go and fight Matt for dinner, then.’

59. He don’t live here no more

In which Dec goes back to his roots.

Julia

A few months after the family gathering, Matt told me there was a trip planned back to the town where Dec’s parents had died, to mark an anniversary. Matt hadn’t planned to go; he avoided emotion-filled occasions when he could, or at least coated them with a barrage of silliness that took some of the intensity out of them. But on the morning, he changed his mind and called me to say he wouldn’t be at work because he was going with Dec, Rose, Beth and Amy ‘to arse about for the greater good’.

We had made plans to spend the night at his flat, and Matt had already given me his key, so he told me to wait there for him if I wanted to, as he didn’t expect to be home too late. Exchanging keys had felt like one of those moments that had the potential to freak me out, but actually made me feel more in control – I knew that at any moment Matt could potentially walk in to my flat and disrupt my life, but I also knew that he wouldn’t, that he understood me enough to know that he had to let me know he was coming. It also helped me to really know I could trust Matt, as I could potentially walk in to his apartment at any time, even though I stuck to the same rules of prior contact.

Matt

I hadn’t even planned to be there. It was the tenth anniversary of Dec’s parents’ death, and Beth had cooked up this scheme for him to commemorate it in the town where he had lived with them, a small seaside town about a hour up the motorway and across the moors. It was the sort of thing I tried to avoid like the plague, as all that emotional shit seemed somehow contagious, and spending one of my hard earned days off watching my mate being reflective and contemplative and miserable was just … ugh.

So I’d told him I couldn’t get the time off work, and in reality we were crazily busy, so it wasn’t really a fib. But anyway, despite my best efforts, I kept feeling guilty, thinking about how he’d helped me out of so many holes, and not that he was in a hole, and he was going to be well supported by Rose, Beth and Amy, but somehow that made it worse, thinking about all the misery they were all going to suck out of him given half a chance, and I knew if I was there I’d be able to inject some inappropriate humour or impertinent sarcasm to proceedings and take the sting out of it … so on the morning, I changed my mind, called Phil to take the day off, called Jules to tell her to let herself in after work if she wanted to, and texted Dec to let him know I was coming.

Dec

I woke to the familiar sound of retching from the bathroom. It was dark, and sleep clung to my head as I stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom, where Amy was bent over the toilet.

‘Hey babe, how’s it going?’

I assumed my position by Amy’s side, holding her hair away from her face, rubbing her back, trying not to fall asleep as I knelt by her. I’d done this so many times, it wasn’t exciting any more, but I still wanted to be there, wanted to experience all the highs and lows of having a baby.

)You don’t have to come and help me every morning, hon.

‘I want to. Least I can do.’

More retching.

)It’s a big day for you, you should go and get more sleep.

‘I can’t sleep knowing you’re in here puking your guts up. Wouldn’t you rather I was here?’

)Oh you know I would, I completely love that you get up every morning with me, but I won’t mind if you sleep through it or decide that just once you’re going to turn over and ignore it.

‘Not going to happen, babe. How much longer is it going to last for?’

)God knows, hopefully not too much longer, I’ll be as pleased as you not to be up heaving before dawn. OK, I think I’m done. I’ll just clean my teeth – you go back to bed.

I wandered back into the bedroom, slid under the duvet and closed my eyes. I was asleep before Amy joined me.

The alarm woke us both a few hours later. I reached for it blearily and turned it off. Amy stretched beside me.

)Better get up, hon. We’ve got to pick Rose up in an hour.

‘Mm, come here, just a few more minutes.’

I reached for her and pulled her into my arms. She snuggled in willingly, but resisted all my other advances.

)We haven’t got time. Not if you’re making me breakfasts in beds.

I groaned.

‘What again? Nico’s got a lot to answer for.’

)Please, hon? Just tea and toast, nothing fancy.

‘I don’t know what I’d do if you ever did want anything fancy – might have to send out for takeaway.’

)See? I’m very undemanding really. I’ll just wait here, shall I?

She turned her big blue eyes on me and I was powerless to resist. On my way to the kitchen, I heard my phone ping in the bedroom with a text.

‘Who’s that, babe?’

I heard the rustle of bedclothes as Amy shuffled over to look at the screen.

)Matt. Oh, he’s coming. His exact words are ‘Change of heart, gonna tag along. Feel sorry for u being Rosed and Bethed all day. Must b going soft in my old age.’

I grinned to myself, hugely pleased that Matt had changed his mind and would be coming with us. I hadn’t been surprised when he had pleaded work commitments; big emotion filled days weren’t really his thing. But his presence would help to lighten any dark mood that threatened. His ability to take absolutely nothing seriously, and never hold back his sarcastic comments whatever the occasion, had often defused potentially tricky situations, most recently with Amy’s parents:

The Wrights had come for a family meal, instigated by Beth in an attempt to bridge some of the distance that existed between them, and Amy and me. It hadn’t been the greatest of successes – despite Rose’s constant conversation, Beth’s amazing cooking, and Iz’s disarming attempt to climb onto Amy’s dad’s lap at the dinner table to show him her teddy, Amy’s parents remained distant and difficult to engage in the general chatter that always surrounded our family gatherings. They obviously felt uncomfortable, and I wondered why they had agreed to come, when they seemed to want to be somewhere else.

Inevitably, the conversation turned to the baby. It seemed that this was what they had been waiting for, as Amy’s dad had launched into a tirade on unmarried mothers, and how it was my duty to marry his daughter now I had disgraced her. There was an awkward silence. I tried counting to ten, but would have needed ten thousand for it to stop me doing him violence. Before I could speak or act, though, Matt countered with:

}I would like to propose a toast to disgrace and the disgraced. If behaving disgracefully can bring the same smile to a face that Amy and Dec have been unremittingly wearing of late, then long may it continue. I personally plan to be a disgrace for the rest of my life. To disgrace.

Jack Wright looked open mouthed at Matt, who raised his glass and then drained it. It had stopped Amy’s dad in his tracks, and he didn’t continue. They left shortly after.

Having Matt along today might help us all not to get too emotional. I was dreading and anticipating it. Although I felt I could think and talk about Mum and Dad now without completely losing it, this anniversary and the way we were going to mark it, was going to be tough.

‘Is he coming here?’

)Don’t know, that’s all he said.

‘We’ll have to go in his car if there’s five of us. I’ll just do this then I’ll ring him.’

I made Amy’s breakfast, took it in to her, and called Matt.

‘Hey, you’re coming.’

}So it would seem.

‘Do you fancy driving too?’

}Oh go on then. Don’t really relish cramming in your bloody tiny geekmobile.

‘I’m offended on Betsy’s behalf. She’s not a geekmobile. We could always ask Rose to drive.’

}No way, you have to alert the emergency services at least forty eight hours before Rose attempts to drive on the motorway, we’ve left it too late. Otherwise, obviously, I would be only too happy. Anyway, her car’s even smaller than yours. And who calls their car Betsy for fuck’s sake? It’s embarrassing. Cars should have numbers or letters only, nothing to which you can become emotionally attached.

‘Thanks for that insight into the world according to Matt. Just as long as you’re happy to drive your bland nameless means of transport, we’re all happy. We’re picking Rose up, then Beth. Come and get us first?’

}OK, see you in a bit. You OK?

‘At the moment.’

}See you later.

I quickly stole a piece of toast from Amy, drank some orange juice, showered and dressed. I needed to finish some things off before we went. Amy was still drinking her tea, flipping through a magazine, and I knew I had time to do what I wanted to do.

I picked up the bag from the bedroom and took it in to the living room to sort through. I still needed to print off a couple of pictures, and finish off the letter, then it was good to go. I got my laptop out and started.

Matt arrived just as I had finished printing off everything I needed. I put it all in the bag, which I left by the door.

}Still using your foolproof system I see.

‘Yeah, foolproof until I walk past it so many times I forget it’s there and go off without it.’

}Ah, well, that’s the thing about foolproof systems. Only as good as the quality of fool who invents them. Ready to go?

‘Yeah, I am, and I think I heard Ames – oh, there you are, babe. Have you got everything?’

)Think so. Hi Matt. Thanks for driving.

}Easiest all round – on my nerves for a start.

)I don’t know what you mean, we’re all very good drivers.

}Don’t get me started, Amy. I can list several reasons why I wouldn’t willingly get into a car driven by Rose, Beth, Dec or you, but I won’t as I don’t want to appear ungrateful for driving services rendered in times of need in the past.

‘Oh, you mean like when I had to drive up to Bristol Parkway in the middle of the fucking night, and then had to drive you all over the country the next fucking morning to find your car.’

}That’s kind of the event I was trying not to appear ungrateful for.

Matt looked a bit shame-faced, but in truth we had both done our share of rescuing each other in the past. I grinned at him to let him know I wasn’t holding a grudge.

‘Well I’ll remember next time how you wouldn’t willingly get in a car driven by me, and maybe pass you on to a different taxi service. Rose might be available – the fare could sting a bit, though. But for now, let’s just get going.’

We collected Rose and Beth, and set off up the motorway to a small seaside town about an hour’s drive away. I had not been back here since I left to join Raiders seven years ago – this was the town we had moved to from Australia, the town where I had spent four years of my life with Mum and Dad, and the next three years trying to cope with life without them. The town where they had died, exactly ten years ago. Beth had not let go of the idea that we should mark the anniversary in some way, and had cajoled me into making some plans.

Our first stop was a café on the seafront. I may have been there with my parents, although I couldn’t remember a specific instance, but my main memories were of hanging out here at weekends and after school, in my early to mid-teens, trying to look cool and impress girls by, naturally, ignoring them. It seemed like a good place to sit and decide what to do first.

The café had changed hands since I was last a customer; it had a new jazzy name, a fresh paint job, and the beaten up old pinball machine was long gone. It was no longer somewhere I would have hung out when I was fifteen; it still served coffee, though, which was the main reason for coming.

I expected walking through the door to set off a load of memories, but nothing startling happened. Maybe it had just changed too much.

:Alright, love?

‘Yeah, I’m fine. Just expected more of a reaction. It’s changed a lot since I was here last. A bit more upmarket.’

}They probably needed to purge all remnants of your spotty teenage presence to encourage normal customers back.

_It must feel weird, though, Dec. It was bad enough when we moved back after a few months away. This must be really strange.

‘Yeah, it is. I kind of expected it all to be the same. But it’s OK.’

I found myself looking round at the other people in the café, to see if I recognised anyone, and I looked up every time someone came in the door. Why they wouldn’t all have left for something better, as I had, and why anyone I knew would be here in the middle of the morning on a weekday, did not seem to have occurred to my brain, which was making me see old friends in the faces of all the customers.

)What do you want to do first, hon?

‘I don’t know, I had a vague idea of wandering along the seafront and then into town, look up some places I used to go, but if they’ve all changed as much as this has, I don’t know if there’s any point. Maybe do the seafront later, before the beach.’

It was all starting to feel a bit forced, like I was trying to make myself feel something, and I began to question whether I should have come at all.

_Why don’t we wander into town anyway? We can have a look round, I’ve never been here before, maybe we can get some lunch if we see anywhere nice. Where did you used to live?

‘With Mum and Dad?’

Beth nodded.

‘Not far from the town centre, actually. Walking distance, up the hill a bit.’

_Well how about we have a look around town, have a nosey at your old house, bit of lunch, then go to the crematorium, then back for a stroll down the seafront, maybe back here for coffee, then the beach?

}Bloody hell, Beth, I hope you can remember all that. I got lost after ‘town’.

_It’s all flexible, Matty, Dec knows what he wants to do.

‘Actually, thinking about it, I wonder if we could go to the crem first? I’m kind of dreading that bit, and maybe if we get it over with I’ll be a bit clearer. Sorry, I’m being a bit indecisive.’

Amy cuddled up to me.

)It’s OK, hon, just take your time, we’ll do whatever you want.

I smiled down at her and kissed her forehead. Took a deep breath.

‘OK, crem it is, then.’

The small crematorium was just outside of the town, in a stretch of woodland. The last time I had been here, I was thirteen years old. Again, I expected a rush of memories and emotions as we drove up to the reception office, and again there was nothing.

I did remember the day of my parents’ funeral; it was a day when everything had happened around me. I had hardly been involved in any of it, none of the planning, none of the short ceremony, I hadn’t even scattered the ashes myself. I didn’t remember being upset or crying, I couldn’t remember feeling anything at all. A foster parent had been with me, and I had been driven away immediately afterwards, before anyone else had left. It had been the first, in fact the only, funeral I had ever been to.

The office had a record of where people’s ashes were scattered and we walked up a slight hill to a wooded area where there were a couple of benches. Rose was puffing hard and sat down, Amy beside her. Matt had wandered up ahead, having caught sight of a bird he wanted to identify. I stood, looking around, trying to catch a feeling or a memory or something that made this trip worthwhile. Beth stood close to me and put her arm round my waist.

_Alright, sweetheart?

‘Yeah. Just not getting anything. I thought I’d be … I don’t know … a bit more emotional. This is where they are, everything that was left of them, this is where they ended up. I can’t feel it.’

_Don’t try and force it, Dec. Just be open – you might not feel anything at all, or it might catch up with you later, when you’re at home, or it might be that you’ve already felt so much over the last few years, and sorted so much out, that there just isn’t that big emotional moment you’re expecting.

I was silent and stood looking at the trees, listening to the leaves swishing in the breeze, thinking about what I may or may not have sorted out. Matt came back up the path.

}It bloody was a woodpecker, I thought it was. A green one. I used to see them from my window in Stafford. How’s it going here?

I shrugged.

‘Not sure why I came.’

}No big epiphany?

I shook my head. Matt took a deep breath.

}I’m not surprised. I did something similar up in Stafford, once I was back on my feet. Went to a load of places I’d been with Carrie.

I looked at him in surprise, so did Beth. Matt never, ever, talked about Carrie.

}Yeah, first date, first kiss, first grope, all that shit, not necessarily in that order. Trying to recapture some of it. Trying to make sense of some of it. Trying to say goodbye to all of it. Nothing. There was fuck all in any of those places. Places are just places. They don’t hold moments once they’ve gone, they have to make room for the next moment. Anyway. Not saying it’s the same for you, mate. This place is beautiful. Lush. I expect it’s all the compost it gets.

_Matty!

}What? If it was me, I’d like to think I was being useful after I’d shuffled off this mortal coil.

I laughed. This was exactly why I’d been pleased Matt had come.

‘You’re right, though. Plenty of potash or something.’

Matt looked at me.

}Potash? Seriously?

‘Yeah. Too much time helping Carol in the garden, it seeps in eventually.’

}Well I guess if you were going to learn about compost from anyone, it’d be Mum. Who’d have thought, though? Declan Summers – master gardener.

I stood looking at the area under the trees where my parents’ ashes had been scattered. Part of them must have become the grass and plants that were there, but they weren’t here. I went over to the bench and scooched in between Amy and Rose.

:Alright, love?

‘Yeah, I’m fine. Not really sure what I was expecting, but it feels like a bit of an anti-climax.

:It’s very peaceful. Nice to think of them up here looking out over the sea, nice bit of shade, cooling breeze.

‘I guess so. It is a lovely spot. They’re not here, though.’

Amy put her arm round me and squeezed, resting her head on my shoulder.

)Are you disappointed?

‘No, it just feels like … I’m not sure what the point of all this was now. Have I just dragged you all out here for nothing?’

)No, hon. I’ve always wanted to see where you’re from, I love being by the sea. There’s no pressure for something to happen, is there? We’ve got the beach later, we’ll have some lunch and look round town, take it easy. Just a day out, if nothing else. Right Rose?

:Right, love. Don’t try to make yourself feel something. We’re all here for you whatever happens, let’s just enjoy a sunny day out by the sea.

I was quiet for a while, looking out over the sea, thinking about what everyone was telling me. I stood up.

‘OK, everyone alright to go back to town and get something to eat?’

}Thought you’d never ask, I’m bloody ravenous.

We walked together down the path back to Matt’s car and drove back into town, parked, then went to the main shopping area to look for somewhere to have lunch.

The high street looked the same at first glance, but there were Costas, Pound Shops and charity shops where all the shops I remembered used to be. Gino’s Pizza Place had gone (estate agents), the comic-book shop had gone (factory outlet), and I wouldn’t have hung out here as a fifteen year old, either.

We found a café with a table for five and ordered. Beth asked what I wanted to do next.

‘I’m not sure. I had thought about going up to my old house, but after this morning, I’m not sure if there’s any point. It will all be different, other people live there now.’

}I bet they haven’t even got the blue plaque up yet.

‘What?’

}You know, ‘Declan Summers, rugby player of slight renown, lived in this place’. Or ‘Here lived Declan Summers, spinster of this parish’. Once that’s up there’ll be bus tours and everything.

_I’d quite like to see where you used to live, Dec.

)Me too. Is it far?

‘About ten minutes walk, up the hill.

:Doesn’t sound far, love. Shall we just go and have a little look?

I shrugged. ‘OK.’

I wasn’t really that bothered now. I’d lived there for four years with Mum and Dad, but it was a long time ago. I didn’t think there would be anything to see, but was happy to wander up with everyone if they wanted to have a look.

)You’ve gone a bit quiet, hon.

‘Yeah, sorry, just … it’s turning out a bit different than I thought. I imagined everything setting off memories, and I could tell you ‘oh, that’s where I fell off my skateboard’ or ‘that’s where we used to hide out when we wagged school’ or ‘Mum used to bring me here to make me have my hair cut’ but it’s all changed, and there’s nothing, I just feel a bit … empty.’

Amy held my hand and looked at me, a slight frown above her eyes, while Rose tilted her head and had her usual wise idea.

:Why don’t you tell us about them, love? I know you wanted to show us, but maybe you can just tell us? You don’t often talk about them, and we don’t like to ask because it makes you sad, but today is about remembering them, isn’t it, and I think we’d all really like to know.

Rose looked round the table; everyone was nodding. As usual, Rose had managed to find a way to make things better. Talking would be harder than showing, but as long as I stuck to the good times, I could do it. I’d had enough sessions with Adam to know I could do it if I recognised my limits.

}We’ve stocked up on man-size tissues and everything. Blub club can be reinstated if absolutely necessary.

‘Thanks Matt, your faith in my ability to keep my composure is heartening.’

}Just know you of old, mate.

‘Alright, then, it sounds like a great idea, thanks Rose. I’ll tell you about them, the good stuff. There are still places I can’t go, things I can’t talk about. But they were great. Mum and Dad were the best. Maybe I’m looking back through the years and forgetting some of the things that make you hate your parents when you’re a teenager, maybe I wasn’t quite old enough to have got to that stage. We lived near the sea in Australia too, in Perth, but we moved here when I was nine. I don’t know if they wanted to move first, or if Dad’s job came up first; I do remember being really upset at leaving my friends behind. It didn’t take me long to make new ones, although it did take me a long time to get used to how fucking cold it is here in the winter.

:What did your Dad do, love?

‘I was never quite sure, to be honest. It was something with some air conditioning firm, he did training or wrote manuals or … sorry, I never paid much attention.’

_I guess you don’t when you’re young, sweetheart. Do you remember what your mum did?

‘She worked in an office, something to do with … maybe it was a solicitors, or a surveyor or something. I know there was typing involved.’

:What were they like, love?

I paused for a moment. That was a huge question, I had to trawl back through the years to even remember what they looked like sometimes, let alone what my thirteen year old self had made of their personalities.

‘Well, Mum was quite short, with dark hair. I was taller than her when I was thirteen. She always seemed to be singing or humming or something. She used to like baking and – oh my God, I’ve just remembered she used to make the most amazing Lamingtons. Have you ever had them?’

)Dec, your voice just went all Australian.

‘No it didn’t.’

}Yeah, mate, a very antipodean twang.

:I think I made Lamingtons once. Aren’t they kind of sponge cake squares covered in chocolate and coconut?

‘That’s right! Mum’s were the best. Although I’m sure yours were delicious too, Rose.’

_You’ll have to do some more, Rose. They sound lovely.

:I’ve got the recipe somewhere, I’ll have a go when I get home.

)Tell us more about your mum, hon.

‘OK … er … she used to like listening to CDs while she was cooking tea. She used to dance to Take That while she was stirring things on the hob – she’d try to get me to join in if I was in there with her, but I manfully resisted dancing of any sort, let alone to ‘Could it be Magic’.

}Oh how times have changed.

‘Take that, Matt.’ I flipped a finger at him. ‘When I was little, she used to sing to me to get me to sleep. Just silly nonsense songs, and poems sometimes, things she made up. She could play the guitar a bit. She –’

She didn’t deserve to have her life taken away by a lorry driver too busy talking on his mobile phone to stop at a roundabout. Fuck, couldn’t go there. Pushed it away. Held Amy’s hand very tight and squeezed my eyes shut. Breathed deeply. Felt the concern, opened my eyes and saw the looks pass between them all.

‘Sorry, I’m OK, you can all stop looking at each other. Just, there are some things I really don’t want to remember, I need to put them away somewhere.’

_Shall we talk about something else, sweetheart?

‘No, it’s OK. I’ve spent so long with the bad times in my head, it’s actually really great to remember good things.’

Our food arrived, which halted things for a short time, but Rose’s curiosity got the better of her before she had eaten a couple of mouthfuls.

:What about your dad, love? Did you see much of him, or did he work a lot?

‘He worked full time, but he was always around in the evenings and at weekends, so yeah, I saw quite a bit of him. He used to take me to rugby training. We used to watch Speeders when we lived in Perth, I trained with their juniors a bit before we came over here. Then I played schools rugby at the comp here, and joined the local club too. Dad was pretty dedicated, he took me to training twice a week in the evenings, and to matches every weekend. He drove the minibus for the away games sometimes … I wish he’d known I was scouted by Raiders, he’d have been made up. We went to watch them a few times, when the fixtures worked out and I wasn’t playing. It was like watching Speeders again, we got really into it. Playing was the one thing that kept me going after …’

After some bastard driving a lorry took him away from me. Pushed it away again. Swallowed hard and forced myself to think about something else, so they didn’t all get that look on their faces.

}Did you ever see Jay play?

‘Yeah I did, a few times. I was a bit star-struck when they told me I was going to be staying with him when I went to Raiders. Fuck me, living with Jay Scott!’

_Well you’d never have known, sweetheart.

‘Ha ha, hid it well, did I?’

}Still star-struck?

‘Fuck no. Watching him pick his toenails soon cured me.’

}Fair point. Enough to destroy anyone’s hero worship, witnessing that spectacle. Did it for me at a very early age.

)Were your parents strict?

I looked at Amy. She never asked me about them, although I would have gladly told her, so this seemed an important question to answer, especially given her upbringing.

‘I … can’t remember them being particularly strict. You don’t analyse things when you’re that young do you. I knew what I should and shouldn’t do, and when I’d crossed the line. I suspect I was yelled at, stopped from doing a few things I wanted to, I know I was grounded a couple of times, all that shit, but now they’re gone it’s hard to know what I’ve edited out. They were always there and always supported me when it mattered. I loved them. That’s all I know.’

:It must have been hard without them, love.

‘Yeah it was. Can’t go there, Rose. Not now.’

:Alright, love.

_You were happy, though?

‘I guess so, as much as you think about it at the time. I feel happy looking back, if that’s the same thing.’

_It sounds the same to me, sweetheart. What’s your best memory of being here?

I had a sudden surge of images. Getting a bike for my birthday and freewheeling down the hill. Playing cricket on the beach with Mum, Dad and a group of their friends and children. Scoring a last minute match-winning try for the school team and hearing Dad going mad, cheering from the sidelines, ‘That’s my son! Charlie Collier! That’s my boy!’. Having an illegal open fire on the beach with cans of cider, undercooked sausages on sticks and singing songs with mates until the early hours. Making a coke float last all morning in the beach café while we messed about and tried to out-impress each other. But the best? Tough call.

‘I don’t know if I can pick one. I had some good times before the accident and some wild times afterwards. Probably now I’d have to say my best memory is the day I left to come to the city. I’d had enough, couldn’t wait to go and start again somewhere else.

:Oh, love.

Rose patted my arm. Amy squeezed my hand. Beth gave me a sad smile. Matt did what I wanted him to do.

}Bloody hell, they’ve only bloody well got tutti-frutti ice cream on the menu. Fucktastic! I haven’t had that for years. Used to be my absolute favourite. Anyone care to join me?

‘Is it proper tutti-frutti, with the little green and red bits?’

}Let’s find out!

I nodded at Matt gratefully as he tried to attract the waitress’s attention. He caught my eye and winked. He was well aware of his role today. With the best will in the world, Beth and Rose always wanted the nitty gritty, and I didn’t have the strength for it. Amy was holding me up, mentally and physically through the squeeze from her hand, and always knew when to leave well alone. Matt knew too, being less keen than most on outward displays of emotion, and had a whole menu of diversionary tactics to stop a poignant moment in its tracks.

We changed the subject to favourite desserts, and chatted on until we’d paid the bill and left the café, when I led everyone along the high street and turned off up the hill.

Three quarters of the way along the street was the fairly nondescript semi detached house that I’d called home for four years. I stopped and, again, waited to feel something. The house hadn’t changed that much. Maybe the outside had been painted, the front door was a different colour. The garden looked much the same. There was no car on the drive, no lights on inside that I could see. Looking up I could see what used to be my bedroom window; it had pink curtains and a glittery mobile now.

_Didn’t your parents leave you the house?

‘No, it was rented. They didn’t really have anything to leave me, just a bit of money, it was in a trust until I was eighteen. I blew most of it on Betsy and going to Ibiza that year.’

}It’s a bloody good job we all know Betsy is your car.

_What happened to all their things? You didn’t have much when you came to us.

‘I don’t really know. I think they got house clearers in or something.’

:Haven’t you got anything to remember them by, love?

‘Nothing physical, I guess, but it’s only stuff, isn’t it. I don’t need stuff to remember them.’

_Have you got any photos? I’ve never seen a picture of them.

‘No, I didn’t think about photos until later, and by then the place had been re-let. There was nothing left. But anyway, this is where I used to live. It feels like a very long time ago.’

}Maybe we should peer through the window, give the occupants a ghostly visit from an old inhabitant?

_We can’t do that!

‘There used to be a way of getting over the fence at the back – don’t worry, Beth, I’m not suggesting we try it. It will have been made secure by now, anyway. Me and Jason Dixon used to use it as a short cut if we’d wagged school and gone to the park, so our mums would think we had come straight home. He lived just up the road –

A sudden recollection slammed into me. Jase and I had used the short cut one afternoon and had sneaked up the side of the house to make it seem like we had come up the front way. As we rounded the corner of the house, we were startled to see two police officers waiting at the front door. Jase scarpered straight off up the road, leaving me to it, while the policeman asked my name and then asked if I had a key to get in the house. I let them in, panicking that someone had seen us climbing over the fence and reported us. The policewoman had sat next to me on the sofa and ripped my world apart.

‘–no!’

I felt hands on my shoulders and Amy’s arm round my waist; they brought me back to now. I breathed deeply and shoved it all back inside, forcing myself in to the present.

‘Fuck. Sorry. Things just bubble up sometimes. Can’t always deal with them.’

Amy reached up and kissed me on the cheek.

)Are you OK, hon?

I nodded. Pulled her close and hugged her tightly. Took a final look at the house. They weren’t here. All that was here was misery, and that wasn’t what I wanted today to be about.

_Dec, I just had a thought, do you want to go and see the place where the accident happened? Did you ever do that while you lived here?

I had, and it was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do now.

‘No thanks, Beth. It’s a good thought, but I did go there, a roundabout on the bypass back out the other side of town. It’s just a roundabout. There was nothing there to say something so huge had happened, everything had been cleaned up and put back. Cars just carried on driving round as if it wasn’t important. Made me feel … insignificant.’

_OK, sweetheart, just wanted to make sure we’d thought of everything.

‘Let’s go. Beach now, I think it’s time.’

The sun was still shining. There were seagulls circling, looking for dropped chips and unwary tourists holding ice creams. The tide was just on the turn, meaning there was only a bit of soft sand in front of the waves, which were breaking with a gentle splash. We walked along the beach for a while, until there were no other people around, then stopped. At last we were here; this was what we had come here for. Everyone looked at me.

_How do you want to do this, Dec? Do you want us to wait somewhere?

‘No! Fuck, no. Don’t make me do it on my own. Are you all OK to stay? It might take a while, I’ve rambled on a bit.’

:Course, love.

_We’re here, sweetheart, whatever you need.

A hand on the shoulder from Matt, Amy took my arm and cuddled up close.

‘OK, then.’

Beth handed me my bag of stuff, which she had been carrying for me in her spacious handbag, and I turned and faced the sea, standing as close as I could without risking getting my feet wet. I took some sheets of paper out of the bag.

‘This was supposed to be a remembering day, although I seem to have spent most of it either avoiding bad memories or trying to force good ones that didn’t appear. But what I’ve done is write a letter to Mum and Dad, telling them some of the things that have happened to me since they’ve been gone. I know we talked about speeches and scattering rose petals, and I’m going to read the letter out loud, so it’s a kind of a speech, but afterwards I’m going to put it in this bottle with some photos and throw it in the sea. I’m not, like, sending it to them. They’re gone, it won’t ever reach them. But I will have sent it away, told them, even though they won’t ever know. Probably sounds a bit mad.’

Beth and Rose had tears in their eyes. Amy clung even tighter to my arm and leaned her head on my shoulder. I put my arm round her and was very, very glad she was there.

}Makes sense to me, mate, even for a bloody nutter like you.

‘OK then, here goes. It’s a bit long, hope you’re alright here for a bit. Please try not to get upset, guys, I’m going to find it hard enough as it is, and I really want to finish it.’

Asking this was a bit of a lost cause, looking at Beth and Rose’s faces, but I could only ask. I looked down at the pages, took a deep breath and started to read the words.

‘Dear Mum and Dad,

You’ve been gone a long time, exactly ten years today, and there are some things I want to tell you. I’ve done a bit of a list, the major things I want you to know from the last ten years. Some are good, and I hope they’d make you proud. Some are not my finest hours, and would have got me grounded at the very least. But if you were here you’d know about them, so it’s only fair. I’ve got some people here with me who are my family now. You wouldn’t have needed to worry about me, I’m well looked after.

I suppose this is a list of events. Some of them I’ve got pictures of, and I’m sending them to you too.

I suppose I should start when I was thirteen, because that’s when you left me and I had to live with strangers and it was hard.

Just before I was fourteen, I changed schools and changed my name. I’m Declan now, Dec to some. Hope you don’t mind. It helped, but sometimes I feel bad about not having the name you gave me any more.

There’s a picture here of me and some of my mates at Billy Tucker’s party. It was the first time I ever got pissed. From the look of me, I already was pretty wasted in the picture. I was ill like you would not believe later, and all the next day, but I think I did it again soon afterwards. Mum, you would have said ‘some people never learn’. And, yeah, I know, fourteen is pretty young. I didn’t do it that often, but when you need to impress your mates and be the toughest, sometimes you have to do unwise things.

I didn’t get much wiser when I was fifteen, and here’s a picture of me on crutches after I broke my foot jumping off the sea wall onto the beach, in an attempt to get Gemma Pritchard to notice me. She certainly noticed me, it was a bit difficult to miss all the screaming in agony, but she still snogged Will Callaghan while I was at the hospital. I really regretted it, even apart from the pain and Gemma snogging Will, because I missed the end of the rugby season. I was lucky that I was mostly in plaster over the summer, so I could play once I got back to school after the holidays. I was bloody lucky I didn’t fuck up my foot for good. Fifteen was also when I got arrested for fighting in Gino’s pizza place after Billy Tucker called me a fucking liar. I can’t even remember why he did now, but it seemed important at the time. We gave each other black eyes and trashed a couple of tables, and Gino called the police. We got a severe telling off, for the first time but not the only time. I also got a tattoo, it was pretty naff, as I was trying for something dark and troubled but had it done cheap by this mate of a mate, so it didn’t quite turn out how I wanted. So, fifteen not my most impressive age. I’ve had the tat covered up now, though, by a proper body artist, and I know you never liked them, Mum, but it says ‘Mum and Dad’, and it feels like I carry the memory of you with me in some way.

It all changed when I was sixteen. I got picked for the county under-18s side and I got scouted by Raiders. Yes, Dad, Raiders. They offered me a scholarship and accommodation, and I left here and followed my dream. I moved in with Beth and Jay – Jay Scott, the Raiders full-back, although he was a coach by the time I got there. Bloody hell, eh? They’re my family now. Their son, Cal, was about two when I moved in; we got on like a house on fire. There’s a picture of the four of us here, I think we were at Pizza Place or something. I was a bit of a handful when I got there, that’s putting it mildly, but they sorted me out, took care of me. Kind of made up for all the people who didn’t want me after you’d gone. You’d love them – I do.

Seventeen was more of the same, really. I got into the Raiders Academy, made some great mates – here’s one of me, Bonksy, DivDav, Mikey, Danno and Big, out on the lash – no, I wasn’t legally old enough, none of us were, but we were having a great time, which is all that counted. I got a couple of GCSEs, unbelievably, and passed my driving test. I went to Twickenham to see England play Argentina – Nico Tiago scored an amazing try right in front of where I was sitting. I also got a couple of games off the bench with Raiders Reserves.

When I was eighteen I left school with a couple more GCSEs, and went pro at Raiders. I was still part of their academy, but started to play more often, and started most games for the reserves. I got a couple of games in the first team off the bench, mostly in the cup, but one in the Premiership – there’s a copy of a clipping from the newspaper, it has my name on the team list. Sorry this is mostly rugby, that’s really all I was doing. There were nights out (with rugby mates), nights in (either at home or with rugby mates), and I went on holiday to Ibiza (with rugby mates). I was having a great time. I didn’t have an eighteenth party because we had a game the next day, but we did have a mass piss-up when the season finished – there were four of us who’d turned eighteen that year, and we all celebrated together. It was a pretty wild night, as you can see from the pictures. I can’t remember much about it. That was also the year I bought my car, here’s a picture. She’s called Betsy. We’ve been through a lot together.

Nineteen – everything went a bit shit. I really fucked up, you would not have been happy. It’s all a bit complicated, but the short version is I crashed my car, someone died and everything fell apart. I ended up stealing some money, almost got sacked from Raiders, lost Jay and Beth for a while. I went somewhere weird and dark in my head, nearly lost everything. I mean everything. I missed you the most then, when I had nothing and no one, and nobody to blame but myself. But, sometimes things are meant to be. I met Rose who, it’s fair to say, forced herself into my life and insisted on helping me when I was bloody awful to her. She saved me. She picked me up off the floor, literally a couple of times, sorted me out. She’s not you, Mum. But she is bloody close to it. Rose can talk for Wales, cook for Wales, and hug for Wales. She helped me out of the pit I was in, and things turned around for me. I slowly got back on my feet, started putting things right. There were a few setbacks on the way, and I’ve got the scars to prove it if you look closely, but I got there in the end. Someone else I got to know when I was nineteen is Matt. He’s Jay’s brother. He’s probably my best friend. You may have noticed I swear quite a lot. It’s mostly his fault, although he blames it on me. We’ve done our fair share of helping each other through dark times the last few years. I’m not sure you’d approve of him, but you’d like him. Everyone does.

Just before my twentieth birthday, I started seeing a psychologist, Adam. He’s really helped me sort my shit out. I talk about you a lot. Later that year, I started going out with Amy. Eventually. Long story. Very long. It took us ages to admit how we felt about each other, but we got there in the end. Amy is gorgeous and amazing. There’s a picture of us here, but it doesn’t do justice to her big blue eyes. She only has to look at me and I’d do anything for her. I love her so much. She’s my world. Just over a year after we started going out, we moved in together and I asked her to marry me – so when I was twenty one. She said yes, but we still haven’t got round to doing anything about it yet. Was I always so slow off the mark? I started playing in Raiders’ first team pretty regularly. Nico Tiago was one of my team mates and he’s a really good friend, part of the family, although he’s back in Argentina now. I had a proper twenty first birthday party, Beth did most of the organising, it was a brilliant night, we had a band, food, drink, a bouncy castle, it was perfect. I’ve put in a couple of pictures of me making a fool of myself – Mum, I was dancing to Take That, and yes, Dad, that is a pair of Australia underpants I’m wearing on my head. You’re only twenty one once.

Last year, when I was twenty two, I was told I might be picked for England. Wow. I wasn’t asked in the end, but that would have been a dilemma. I only ever really wanted to play for the Wallabies, although I think that’s pretty unlikely. Thankfully I didn’t have to choose, although a part of me was a bit disappointed after all the excitement. Raiders came second in the Premiership – we lost the final in the last minute, it was really close. At the end of the season we went on a big family holiday – Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz, Rose, Nico and Lis, Carol (Jay and Matt’s mum) and Matt, with Ames and me. There’s a picture of all of us in a restaurant trying to pluck up the courage to eat snails. We had a huge cottage practically on the beach in the south of France, and had an amazing time, chilling out, swimming, relaxing, and then called in at Disneyland Paris on the way back. I don’t know who was the biggest kid – me or Matt. Cal and Iz had quite a good time too. You can see in the picture that Matt and I were quite taken with Minnie Mouse, but Iz wasn’t so happy that the scary giant-headed cartoon person was kissing her uncle.

This year just gone, so I’m twenty three now, Raiders won the Prem. Awesome. But exciting as it was to be part of the team last season, I’m more blown away by the news I’m going to be a dad. I don’t know if you’d believe it, I can still hardly believe it myself. Ames and me still haven’t managed to get married, but now we’re going to be parents. The baby’s due next January – an early birthday present for me. Ames had her first scan last week, and I’ve put a copy of the picture in with everything else. I keep looking at it – we can’t tell boy or girl, but you can see the head and arm if you look closely. I think it’s made me miss you more, knowing what you’re never going to see and be part of.

I think about you every day. Sometimes I’m sad, sometimes I remember something we used to do that makes me happy for a bit, sometimes I can’t remember your faces and I feel bad, sometimes I can’t quite believe you’re gone. I wish you hadn’t died. I wish you knew all the awesome people I love. I wish you were here. I love you both and I always will.

Love

CHARLIE

58. I’m not in love

In which festivities draw to a close, a decision is made, and we move on apace.

Dec

Rose and Carol had got their coats and were saying their goodbyes.

:Declan, I expect you to let me know every single little thing that happens with this baby, now. Appointments, scans, names, dates, the whole lot. Right, love?

‘Right, Rose.’

#Goodbye Declan, I’ll let you know about my lawn, then.

‘You know where I am, Carol.’

:Stand up, love, just need another hug.

I did as I was told, as I always did where Rose was concerned, and gave her a big squeeze back.

‘See you soon. Oh, Bonksy says hi.’

‘How is he, love?’

‘Same old Bonksy.’

‘Found himself a nice girl yet?’

‘No, he’s still crashing around breaking hearts left and right.’

‘He needs taking in hand, that lad. Maybe I’ll call round with a cake.’

‘I’m sure he’d appreciate the cake.’

:He doesn’t get cake without a bit of friendly advice. Bye love.

Julia

We went back into the house, and Matt chatted to Dec while I offered to help Beth and Amy clear the table. Rose and Carol had gone; I realised I hadn’t spoken to Matt’s mother and felt a little bit guilty.

Dec

Matt wandered over.

}You’re looking pensive. That’s never a good sign. Too much thinking is bad for the soul. Look, I’ve raided Jay’s beer store.

He handed a bottle over.

‘Ah, just what the doctor ordered. Sparkling wine is all very well for toasting and speeching and stuff, but beer hits the spot like nothing else.’

}That’s better, mate, all this love shit was making me worry I’d lost you to the dark side. Know what we need? A bloody good piss up. Boys night. Curry. Pub crawl, even. I might consider some karaoke if we can get rat-arsed enough.

‘Sounds good. You organising?’

}Well you’re apparently the grown up, it sounds like something you should do.

‘No way, I’m far too busy being responsible. Tell you what, I’ll send a text, see who’s around, you see who you can get, we’ll take it from there.’

}Think you’ll be allowed out?

‘Yes, Matt, I will be allowed out. Will you?’

}Piss off, I do what I want.

I had touched a nerve, and he knew it and was annoyed with himself for showing it.

‘Well in that case you’re the best one to sort it all, aren’t you. Oh, hey Cal, have you beaten the boss yet?’

\yeah, I just did it. Are you going to come and play with me now?

‘Yeah, sure. What are we going to play?’

}Have you got ‘My Little Pony for Beginners’, Cal? I think Dec might stand a chance of getting to level two in that one. Possibly.

‘Is that a challenge?’

}I’m not challenging you to anything like My Little Pony. Might lower myself to trouncing you and Cal at something a bit more meaty. Have you got three controllers, Cal?

\yeah. One of them’s a bit rubbish.

}Oh, Dec can have that one, no point wasting a decent one on him.

‘Hey, I’m right here.’

}How about a race? You’ve got GrandTour5, right? Even Dec can’t do too much wrong racing a car. He might finish last every time, but someone’s got to.

‘Still right here.’

}Let’s go, then.

‘Are you just going to leave Julia down here?’

}She’s gossiping in the kitchen with Beth and Amy, she’ll be fine. She’s quite self-sufficient.

Julia

Beth and Amy were in full flow talking about Dec’s plans for the future; there seemed to be some contract negotiations surrounding his job which could involve a move away from the city. They were both worried he was going to choose a move and financial security over staying in the city with his close network of friends and family.

‘Sorry, Julia, this must be very dull for you. Thank you for helping, it’s lovely you could come. I haven’t had a chance to talk to you all night, you must think I’m very rude.’

‘Not at all, you’ve been really busy organising all this.’

‘I love a family get-together. I do it as often as possible, but there are so many of us, it’s difficult to get everyone here at the same time. Although now Nico and Lis are in Argentina, that’s two less to think about I suppose. Are your family local?’

‘No, they all live abroad.’

‘That must be hard. My parents live in the States now, so I don’t see them very often, and I miss them a lot. It’s great having Carol so close though, it’s lovely for the children to have at least one grandparent they can see regularly. I’m really glad Matty persuaded you to come tonight; I was saying to Amy, we’ve all managed to meet you, but not get to know you. Matty said you work together?’

‘Yes, we’re both at GreenScreen.’

‘What’s he like to work with?’

Amy sounded genuinely interested.

‘Infuriating. And brilliant. But don’t let him know I said brilliant.’

‘Ha ha. No. Matt already knows he’s brilliant. He doesn’t need to be any more big headed.’

‘He thinks his family’s pretty brilliant, though. He used that exact word earlier.’

Beth shot me a surprised look.

‘Really? Matty’s not usually that gushing. You’re sure he wasn’t being sarcastic?’

‘No, he was telling me Jay gave up his job to look after him when he was ill.’

‘He told you about being ill?’

Beth and Amy exchanged a glance in which both sets of eyebrows were raised.

‘Yes.’

I waited.

‘Sorry Julia. It’s just Matty never talks about it, even with us. We’re just a bit surprised, but it’s great. You’re obviously getting on well.’

‘Yes I suppose we are.’

To divert attention away from further discussion of my relationship with Matt, I asked Beth for the recipe for one of the dishes she’d made. She gave me a verbal run down which led to a discussion about foods it is unwise to eat during pregnancy, and Beth and Amy were off again in a different world to me. They tried to include me but I had no interest and therefore no opinions. Shrugging and smiling seemed the most diplomatic option.

We sat down with a cup of tea after the clearing up was finished. Iz sat on Beth’s lap and fell asleep while Beth stroked her head. I felt compelled to comment.

‘She has beautiful hair.’

Beth smiled widely at me, proud as only a mother can be of something she had no control over.

‘I know. I don’t know where it came from. Cal’s is the same, he was so cute when he was little but he hates it now. I have to keep it short so the curls don’t show.’

‘Didn’t he make you delete all the photos of him from France, when it was all growing back?’

Amy was yawning as she spoke.

‘Sorry, I’m flagging a bit.’

‘Oh sweetheart you should go home. Go and shake that man of yours, he’ll be up there all night otherwise. What’s his favourite saying?’

They said it together.

‘Sorry babe, I lost track of time.’

Amy laughed and yawned again.

‘He’s much better than he used to be. Maybe I will go and dig him out though. Matt’s up there too, isn’t he? Could go on all night. Do you want me to poke him too, Julia?’

I smiled, thinking of Matt’s motivation for getting home and to bed in good time.

‘No, he’ll be ready to go in a while, I think.’

‘Oh. OK.’

Amy obviously didn’t understand what I meant, being unaware that I was spending the night at Matt’s apartment. I was pretty sure Matt wouldn’t be waiting too long before heading home.

Dec

As Matt predicted, I came last in every race, and he and Cal ribbed me mercilessly; it was good to see Cal smiling again. We lost track of time, until there was a tap on the door.

)Dec?

Amy popped her head round the door.

‘Hey babe.’

)It’s getting a bit late, can we go soon? If I’m going to work tomorrow, I need to get some decent sleep.

‘No worries, sorry, didn’t realise the time. OK Cal, you’ll have to do without me I guess.’

}Oh Cal, how will we cope without Dec’s vital contribution to the worst driver league tables?

‘Thanks for the game, guys. See you Saturday, Cal, shout extra loud if I’m playing. Show Matt what a real sport is all about.’

}Real sport? You don’t even have nets in your goals. You only play for eighty minutes. Real fucking sport my arse. Oops, sorry Cal.

I caught Cal’s eye and winked.

‘Come on then, babe. Bye Cal, see you Matt.’

Matt stood up.

}Dec, just wanted to say, I’m really happy for you. Both of you.

‘Cheers, mate. I know.’

We nodded at each other. Grinned. Brief man-hug.

}Fuck, Dec. It is immense. Piss off now before you get me started. OK Cal, where were we, top of the leader board …

Julia

After Amy and Dec had said goodbye, Beth apologetically stood up with Iz over her shoulder.

‘Sorry Julia, I need to put her to bed. Are you OK on your own for a bit? I won’t be long. I’ll give Matty a nudge while I’m up there, Cal should be going to bed soon anyway. Get yourself another drink if you like.”

‘I’ll be fine, thanks.’

I sat finishing off my tea, looking around the large lounge-dining room. It was full of the paraphernalia of family life: toys, children’s paintings on the wall, framed photographs dotted everywhere, shoes tucked behind the sofa. There was also a corner devoted to rugby, with a framed shirt covered with signatures, hung with medals and surrounded by photographs of rugby players, including a much younger-looking Jay.

It occurred to me how different Matt’s version of family life was to mine, what expectations he may have that could differ wildly to mine. This family seemed alright, they were welcoming and friendly, and obviously looked after each other, but I didn’t want to become part of it. I doubted I would ever feel completely comfortable in such a large family group. My ruminations were halted by Matt, who I heard jogging down the stairs and then he came into the lounge and sat next to me.

‘Sorry to desert you, Jules, I got carried away. Cal was beating me, couldn’t let that happen. Rematch on Saturday after the rugby. Whoa, I can’t believe I’m going to the rugby.’

‘Surely you’ve been before.’

‘Not since I was at school. I’ve seen Jay play a few times, years ago, with Mum. But I never really got it, possibly a tinge of jealousy about my big brother being in the limelight, and I’ve stood firm ever since. It’ll be the first time I’ve seen Dec play, too.’

‘It sounds like you’re looking forward to it.’

‘Know what, I bloody well am. Who’d have thought? Anyway, hot stuff, are you ready to go home and get laid?’

‘Hot stuff?’

‘Yeah. Not doing it for you as a pet name?’

‘No. Neither is the thought of ‘getting laid’.’

‘Sorry. Too much time with Dec. He’s always babe this and babe that, and he brings out my laddish side.’

‘Your laddish side doesn’t need much bringing out.’

‘True. Shall we go?’

‘We should say goodbye.’

‘Beth’s putting Iz to bed. Where’s Jay?’

‘I don’t know. I haven’t seen him since we started clearing up.’

Matt laughed.

‘Oh OK. I know where he’ll be then.’

He stood up, held his hand out and pulled me up, putting his finger to his lips. We walked quietly out of the lounge and across the hall to a closed door. Matt put his ear to the door and nodded to himself, then slowly opened the door to reveal an office, complete with desk, computer and chair. The chair contained Jay who was asleep, head flung back, snoring softly. Matt let go of my hand and crept up to Jay then bent down and kissed him hard on the lips. Jay woke immediately. I couldn’t see his face but saw his body jerk and heard his exclamation:

‘Jesus! What the … oh. Matty. Jesus you scared the living shit out of me. What the fuck are you playing at?’

Matt had stood back, laughing uproariously.

‘Too good to resist. Julia and I are going. Needed to wake you up to say goodbye.’

Jay ran a hand through his hair in a gesture very similar to the one Matt often used. He took a deep breath and shook his head.

‘Sorry Julia, Matty took me by surprise. I was in here trying –’

‘To avoid clearing up. You’re so bloody obvious Jay.’

‘Piss off Matty. You’ve made your point. Going now are you?’

‘Yeah. Say goodbye to Beth for us. I’ll see you Saturday.’

‘What’s Saturday?’

‘Cal. Rugby. You’re apparently getting tickets for the family seats?’

‘Oh yeah. OK.’

‘Don’t forget.’

‘I won’t. Ring Beth though, she can tell you what time. You’re sure you want to take him?’

‘Yeah, whatever. Cal can look after me, show me the ropes.’

Matt seemed to be downplaying his enthusiasm.

‘Don’t drink too much beer. You’re in charge of him.’

Matt put his hand over his heart and assumed a hurt expression.

‘I never drink when I’m looking after your children.’

‘No, maybe not, but there’s a lot of temptation with all the bars at the stadium.’

‘Give me some credit Jay.’

‘OK, OK.’

‘Right then, we’re going before I get accused of more as-yet-uncommitted misdemeanours. Thank Beth for the spread.’

‘Will do. Bye Julia.’

Jay stood up with a grunt, patted Matt on the shoulder and kissed me on the cheek before leading us to the front door.

Dec

Amy was nearly asleep on the way home, and I felt very guilty about how late it was. She went straight to bed when we got in, hardly pausing to change into her night clothes. I sat in the living room for a while. It had been an awesome day. I should have been as tired as Amy, considering the tiny amount of sleep I’d had the night before, and the full-on emotional roller coaster of the day’s events, but my mind was whirring and I couldn’t wind down.

I put the TV on quietly, hoping it would distract me. As I was absently half-watching a repeat of a nature programme, the phone rang. Our land-line hardly ever rang. It was either a particularly desperate late-night double glazing salesperson, or it was one of Amy’s parents – they were the only ones who used our home number. I thought about ignoring it, but didn’t want Amy to be woken up. Picked it up.

‘Hello.’

;Oh you’re home now. It’s Diane Wright.

‘Oh.’

I knew she didn’t want to talk to me, she never did, but I wasn’t going to wake Amy up for her, and I wasn’t going to make anything easy for her either, after the horrible time she’d given Amy this afternoon. I tried to make my ‘oh’ sound as unfriendly as I possibly could, and there was a short silence while Amy’s mother tried to decide how to tackle me.

;I’d like to speak to my daughter.

‘She’s gone to bed. You can talk to me.’

I felt feisty. Amy’s parents didn’t intimidate me, and after today I had issues with them I was happy to address.

;No, it’s Amy I wanted.

‘That’s not what she thought this afternoon.’

;I beg your pardon?

‘What did you want to say to Amy? Were you going to apologise?’

;I most certainly was not. I have never been spoken to like that in my life, we were both very shocked. She has never used such language to us.

‘Well, I think it was about time she did. Diane –’

I was very aware this was the first time I had ever used her first name.

‘– Amy is an adult. She has been for some time. She no longer answers to you, she only answers to herself. If you’ve rung here looking for an apology or an argument, you’re wasting your time, but if you want to try and mend things with Amy, that might be a bit more useful. Life’s too short to hold grudges. Look, I know you don’t think much of me, I can’t help that, fuck knows I’ve tried my best. But if you think anything of Amy at all, please try and look beyond what you feel about how she lives her life, and see what she’s feeling. If she’s happy, be happy for her. If she’s not, support her and make things better for her. That’s what families should do, not judge, disapprove and condemn.’

There was a long silence. For a moment, I wondered if she’d hung up while I was talking, then I heard a sharp breath.

;It happened to me.

‘What?’

;What’s happened to Amy. I fell pregnant before I was married. My parents were very angry, they made me marry Jack. Then I lost the baby. We had Amy a lot later.

Shit, this was not the late-night conversation I would have imagined having earlier today. It was so unexpected, I didn’t know what to say. Had a go, although I was completely out of my depth.

‘I’m really sorry to hear that, it sounds grim. But we’re not you, and you don’t have to be your parents. Surely you can understand even more how Amy felt this afternoon? She’s so happy, she just wanted you to be happy for her. It didn’t seem like much to ask.’

Another silence.

; … Maybe. Declan, I’d like to speak to Amy tomorrow. Would you tell her I called? You can tell her what I said if you want to, it’s up to you.

‘I’ll tell her.’

;Thank you.

I hung up. Sat on the sofa thinking for a long time about families, commitments, responsibilities, sacrifices. Finally started to feel tired, and went to bed. Amy stirred as I got under the duvet.

‘Sorry, babe, didn’t mean to wake you up. Go back to sleep.’

)Were you talking to someone?

‘Tell you tomorrow. Go to sleep.’

Closed my eyes and drifted off, feeling Amy put her arm round me and pull herself in close. It wasn’t long before I woke up to the sound of retching. Stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom for hair-holding duty.

‘Hey babe, here we are again. We should do this every night, it’s fun.’

Amy shot me a filthy look and carried on puking. I held her hair, rubbed her back, kissed her shoulders. Eventually she stood up.

)I think I’ve finished for now. I’ll just clean my teeth, then I’ll be back. Go and warm my spot up for me, hon.

When she clambered back into bed, I held her close.

‘Ames, can I tell you something? I think I’ve decided.’

)What about?

‘About staying or going.’

I felt her tense in my arms.

)OK. You know I’ll go with whatever you want.

‘Well that’s just it, it’s not just me, is it. I’ll tell you what I’ve decided, then you can tell me if you agree and we can battle it out. Yeah?’

)Do we have to battle tonight? I’m exhausted.

‘OK babe, no battles tonight, I just wanted to say this. I’ve been sitting thinking for ages. These offers from Warriors and TomCats, they are huge amounts of money, and the clubs are awesome. We’d be able to afford a really nice house, really nice stuff. If you think we should do it, I’ll do it. But I think I want to stay here. I’ve only ever known Raiders, it’s like my home, almost like another family, and they’ve been great to me, I owe them a lot. Jay says I should try other things, but there’s more than just the rugby. I talked to Cal tonight, he’s really missing Nico. If I go too … well, I don’t think I can do that to him. And then there’s Rose, in fact my whole family is here. And so is yours. When Beth was saying about Lis being broody and having a baby in a foreign country, I thought about where we could be in nine months, and I think I want us to be here, with them all. I don’t want us to do it alone, even if they don’t talk a foreign language in London. When it all happens, it’s going to be scary and weird, and I need people I know and love around me. I want Beth and Rose here, to mop me up, and Matt to take the piss out of me, and Jay to be Jay and not know whether to mop me up or take the piss.

)You foresee a lot of mopping and piss-taking in your future, then.

‘Fuck yes, I’m going to be an emotional wreck. In a good way.’

)Do I get a say?

‘Of course, babe, I just wanted to say what I was feeling. You tell me if it’s not what you want. Whenever. No rush.’

)Well, I’m actually completely relieved. I want all that too. I didn’t want to leave here anyway, but I know we might have to move on sometime. I don’t care about the money, we’re alright, aren’t we? Having people we love around us is much more important, I think I saw that tonight more than ever. I know we never know what’s around the corner, Jay and Beth may not stay forever, but for now it’s all stable, and I think I need that at the moment. Oh Dec, yes please, let’s stay. Please, please.

She put her arms round me and kissed me.

‘Well, when you put it like that, how can I refuse?’

)So, we don’t have to battle tomorrow?

‘Not about that. Maybe about who gets in the bathroom first.’

)I’ll be in there puking anyway.

‘You win then. No battling at all. You know what, I feel another late night phone call coming on.’

)You can’t.

‘I do believe Jay said what an honour it was to be called by me with important information, at any time of the day or night.’

)Hm, not sure he put it quite like that.

‘Let’s put it to the test.’

I picked up my phone from the bedside table and dialled their number. It rang a few times. Jay’s tired voice answered.

łJay Scott.

‘Jay, it’s Dec.’

łYou are taking the piss.

‘No, I have important information. But I need to talk to Beth.’

łShe’s asleep.

‘She’ll want to know this.’

łOh for fuck’s sake. You’d better be on time for training tomorrow.

There was a short muffled conversation, then Beth came on the line, her voice blurred with sleep.

_Dec? Is everything OK?

‘Yeah. I just wanted to let you know, I’m staying.’

_Oh, Dec … thank you, sweetheart.

‘You can tell Jay, but make sure he doesn’t tell Scotty.’

She laughed.

_I’ll do my best. Thank you. Thank you.

‘Night, Beth.’

_Night, sweetheart.

I put the phone on the bedside table, turned to face Amy.

‘Ames?’

)Yes hon.

‘Will you marry me?’

)Course, hon.

‘Just checking.’

I wrapped myself up in her, closed my eyes and slept.

Dreaming. I am flying. Amy and I are flying, high in the sky, carrying the stars. We fling them up into the dark, where they stay, twinkling, lighting up the universe.

Julia

‘What is it with you and snogging blokes?’

‘Ha ha. Gets a reaction.’

‘You do it to your family too, don’t you?’

I was lying in Matt’s arms, a mutually satisfying bout of sex having just finished.

‘Do what?’

‘Matt the Lad. You hide behind him.’

He was silent for a moment looking at me.

‘I suppose I do. I don’t want them to know everything about me. When I was ill I had no privacy, everyone knew fucking everything, literally couldn’t even wipe my own arse. Now I’ve got it back I hold on to it. Fannying about is a good way of deflecting unwanted fussing. They’ve all tried, look after your health Matt, don’t drink so much Matt, find yourself a nice girl Matt. I can’t be doing with it. I know they worry, I understand why, but it’s just too much a lot of the time. Me and Dec can talk about shit sometimes, he knows when to back off and when to push it. But yeah, Matt the Lad is always available for a good put down or shock value snog.’

‘Your family is very different from mine.’

‘Aren’t all families different? That’s why it feels so weird being in someone else’s.’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to drag you along every time there’s one of Beth’s gatherings.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I think the baby talk is going to be a bit much for the next few months. Rose has gone into overdrive, and Beth is so mumsy. Maybe manly rugby with Cal is just what I need.’

‘The baby talk is certainly a lot to cope with.’

‘Not the maternal type?’

I shook my head.

‘Never have been. I knew from fairly early on I don’t want children. Other women always try to persuade me. Apparently I’ll change my mind when I’m older. Well here I am, older, mind still unchanged.’

‘Shit, Julia, tonight must have been the last thing you wanted to do. Why didn’t you say?’

‘Well apart from not feeling the need to announce my intention to remain child free, to you or anyone else, as an excuse not to go, I wanted to spend the evening with you. And I was curious about your family.’

‘And now, curiosity satisfied, you realise we’re a bunch of weirdoes and you never want to see them again.’

‘I didn’t say that. I might not come with you every time there’s a celebration. And I might leave you and Cal to enjoy rugby on your own. But they seem nice – if I avoid them it won’t be because I don’t like them. I don’t think you and I are at the stage where we have to spend every minute in each other’s company are we? Maybe we never will be. I need my space and I know you do.’

‘Well I could happily spend every minute of the rest of my life doing what we just did. But yeah, I need to do my own thing. Aren’t we just fucking perfect for each other?’

I nodded.

‘I bloody love you.’

‘No you don’t.’

‘No, I don’t.’

He smiled and folded me up against him and pulled me tightly to him, kissing the top of my head.

Matt

I thought, after that, that we’d see more of my family, but Jules was never that keen, and although I did still see them on my own, as Jules and I spent more time together, I went round to Jay’s less, spent fewer evenings watching crap on TV and drinking beer with Dec, popped in to see Mum less. I didn’t really think about it.

It was around this time I was deceiving myself about a couple of pretty major things. Everything was going so well with Jules, we got on so well, and we’d worked out a way of being together that suited us. We did our own thing a lot, never felt the need to be with each other all the time, and it left me free to do things like watch football, socialise, play computer games, all the blokey things that seem to annoy the shit out of women, but as Jules did her own thing too, there was just this understanding. We did what we wanted to do, no pressure from either of us to do things together just for the sake of it. It felt ideal; it felt like I had the best of both worlds.

We spent plenty of time together, in bed and out of it. I really enjoyed being with Jules, talking to her, verbally sparring with her, almost as much as I liked holding her and making her moan. We were very good together; she was surprisingly adventurous in bed, and we both complemented and challenged each other.

Oh, but I was talking about deceiving myself. Yeah, about that. Jules told me fairly early on that she didn’t believe in love, that it didn’t exist for her. Maybe that was true for her, maybe she had her own little lies that she told herself, but it was convenient for me, at the time, to say the same. I was already a little freaked out by what I was trying hard to convince myself I wasn’t feeling for Jules, and so joining in with her ‘down with love’ stance suited me.

Looking back now, I can see I was scared. Scared of getting flattened like I had before. I never wanted to be in that place again, where I’d given everything to someone and instead of cherishing it, they destroyed it. So I convinced myself I was never going there again, I told her about Carrie, we laughed about being perfect for each other because neither of us believed in or wanted perfection. But inside, somewhere, I had fallen for Jules. I even told her, regularly, that I didn’t love her, to make her laugh, to continue the fantasy, but as time went on, I’d feel bad for an instant when I said it. Then I’d cover it all up by reminding myself what a good deal I had. But make no mistake, I loved Jules. I loved her for a long time, and if I’d told her, truthfully, just once, things might have been different. Oh, they probably wouldn’t have, because there was the other thing I was deceiving myself about.

Julia

Away from that chaotic family evening and stress of the day at work when everyone knew about us, I was seeing more and more that Matt and I were very similar, with similar outlooks on what we wanted from life. There was never a conflict about spending time together or apart; if one of us had other plans, including being alone, the other shrugged and found something else to do. We met up at least once or twice a week, often more, and our sex life was full, varied and exciting.

I sighed with contentment. Even being here, in Matt’s apartment, intending to stay the night, didn’t fill me with the horror it had with previous partners. I knew he didn’t want me to live there, he just wanted me to stay with him for that night, for some prolonged closeness and the chance of more sex later if the mood took us. Which it probably would. I snuggled in closely and enjoyed feeling safe, wrapped up in Matt.

The following weeks brought more sense of calm to my life. Despite my fears, things at GreenScreen didn’t change dramatically once people knew about Matt and me. Once the surprise of our relationship had worn off, people stopped being interested in us. We stuck to our rules, didn’t give them anything further to gossip about, were professional and did our jobs, and it worked. I began to relax about it; I was still The Ice Queen, and I was happy to feel once more like I knew exactly where I stood.

Away from work, Matt came with me to Norfolk for a weekend to help me sort out some of Nons’ things. I wasn’t going to sell the house yet, I couldn’t bear to part with it, but there were documents that needed dealing with, and I wanted to see how William was doing.

Matt and William got on like a house on fire. They talked about football virtually non-stop, and shared a love of beer that saw me spend a lonely Saturday evening going through Nons’ paperwork while they got pissed in front of a live football match on TV. Matt was apologetic later, but I didn’t really mind; William still wouldn’t come into the house, and I hoped that Matt had helped take his mind of things for a few hours.

We managed to go for a walk along one of the north Norfolk beaches. Matt hadn’t realised how beautiful that part of the country was, and enthused about the landscape, wanting to come back more often.

‘We can share the driving, it’ll be great.’

‘Yes, but sometimes I want to be up here on my own.’

‘Sure, but when you feel like company. I like seeing where you grew up.’

‘Does that mean we’ll get to see the delights of Stafford sometime then?’

‘Fuck no, there’s nothing there. Not now I’ve left, anyway.’

And he grinned immodestly and kissed me, and the subject was changed.

Matt

Yeah, so the other thing I was kidding myself about. Well, it was Dec’s fault. I like to blame Dec for as much as I can get away with blaming him for. He’s pretty easy going, and he’s got broad shoulders, he can take it. I mentioned that around the time Jules and I got together, Amy got pregnant. It made me feel weird, and I couldn’t explain it, so I didn’t explore it, it is the Matt Scott code: ‘Never Explore Uncomfortable or Inconvenient Feelings’. Maybe it just compounded my sense of being immature; I still thought of Dec as a teenager sometimes, but he was twenty-three by now, and well old enough to be a parent.

It was just that he sometimes seemed so much more grown up than me – I was approaching my mid-thirties, with not so much as a sniff of wanting to settle down and become a family man, and here was my much younger friend with the fiancée and the foetus, making me feel too old and too young at the same time.

If I’d analysed any of it back then, which was so, so never gonna happen, I would have realised I was envious of what he had. But I was so far from having any insight into my thoughts and actions, that it was easy to carry on letting everyone, myself included, believe that a family was the last thing I wanted. I guess it also served my purposes with Jules, united us against the onslaught. She sometimes came with me to Jay and Beth’s, usually on a Sunday, and we’d escape as soon as we could and laugh at the rampant mothering and grannying that had been going on.

‘Ugh, when they started talking about different things you could use afterbirth for. What the fuck? Don’t bloody well do that when I’m eating crème brulee thanks very much.’

‘I know, and even your brother was talking about the different colours of baby shit.’

‘Yeah, like Jay ever saw a full nappy. He was always conveniently busy when they needed changing. I reckon I’ve changed more of his kids’ nappies than he has.’

And then we’d count down the months, weeks and days until it was all over, and the speculation could end. But there was a part of me that was looking forward to meeting this new person, and part of me that would have loved to have someone call me Daddy. I just never went there, it was so far from everything I believed I was, everything I let other people believe I was, everything Jules and I believed we were.

Looking back now, with an analytical and maybe more objective mind, it’s interesting that Jules and I lasted almost exactly as long as Amy’s pregnancy. Oh, I don’t mean that I think there was some sort of cosmic force at work, just that maybe things run their course, not that they have a predetermined length of time or some such shit, but that eventually things come to light that bring things to an end, or make it impossible to continue, which is the same thing really. Maybe I’m trying to say I was reborn? Ha ha, no, that’s not how it felt at all, although my life changed irrevocably. It was just an observation.

So, there I was, all that time, in love with Jules, who never wanted kids, while I wanted to be a dad. And if you’d asked me to say, honestly, how I felt, and if I decided that, yep, OK, I’ll be honest, I would have said, no, of course I don’t love Jules, we’re just seeing how it goes, one day at a time, having fun, and don’t be so bloody ridiculous, no one’s going to tie me down with parenthood. Funny how things go.

Oh, and in the middle of it all, I nearly made Dec have a nervous breakdown. That was possibly the closest I ever came to examining all my shit – ha, given the box-of-shit analogy that Dec came up with that’s quite apposite – but even then I just decided to shove it all down. Maybe some of that is worth telling, it was a pretty major day.

57. We are family

In which there are introductions, and opinions are formed.

Dec

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

‘Any luck?’

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

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

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

/cal’s lorry.

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

/make a bot. Dec do it.

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

‘Ta-da.’

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

/make a lorry.

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

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

łAbout time, Matty.

/unca Matty.

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

)Hey, hon. Good game with Cal?

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

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

Julia

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

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

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

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

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

‘Unca Matty.’

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

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

She turned her serious gaze on Matt

‘I fairy.’

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

‘Fairies got wings.’

‘Oh, my mistake.’

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

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

Dec

/unca Matty, Dec make lorry.

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

/dec make bot.

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

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

Julia

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, you’re as hilarious as Jay.’

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

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

Matt indicated the small blonde woman.

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

Rose stood up and beckoned me over to the table.

‘Thanks very much, love. Julia, here’s a plate, look. Let’s go and grab something before the boys eat it all.’

She had a strong Welsh accent and a forthright manner that brooked no argument. I followed her over to the table.

‘So you’re related to Matt?’

‘Oh no love, I’m kind of an accidental family member. I came with Declan, and now they can’t get rid of me.’

‘Oh, you’re Dec’s … er …’

I didn’t want to offend her by aiming too high or too low in the age range. She could as easily be his mother or his grandmother or anything in-between.

‘Well I’m not actually related at all, but he needed a mam a few years ago and I fitted the bill I suppose. Have some of these, love, Beth made them, she’s a great cook. No, me and Declan go back a few years, since all that trouble at his rugby club.’

I looked at her blankly.

‘You know, with the passport and getting beaten senseless?’

I shook my head.

‘Oh. Well he’ll be pleased there’s someone doesn’t know about it I suppose. It was a terrible time but we got through it together and now here he is about to become a dad. I can’t think of anything better, love, can you?’

I could think of several million things better than becoming a parent, but Rose didn’t seem like the sort of person who would understand my point of view, so I just smiled. Rose changed tack.

‘So you and Matt, then? How long have you been going out?’

‘Oh, er …’

I hadn’t ever thought of Matt and me in terms of ‘going out’ but decided not to go into a long explanation,

‘A few weeks, a month maybe.’

‘He’s a bit of a handful I’d imagine.’

‘He has his moments.’

‘You seem like a sensible girl. Might be just what he needs, not like some of the …’

She ground to a halt, belatedly realising that being uncomplimentary about women Matt might have previously brought to meet the family might not be particularly diplomatic.

Dec

I had no doubt that before ten minutes had passed, Rose would know Julia’s life history and be making plans to marry her off to Matt. She’d tried with all of the long string of women Matt had toyed with over the last couple of years – they had all lasted just long enough for Rose to get her hopes up, before they disappeared when Matt declared them ‘too clingy’ or ‘not his type’ or ‘getting a bit serious’.

Matt’s MS was still in remission. He still had days when he got tired if he overdid it, and he still had dark days. A couple of times he’d needed us to hold him through the night, literally and metaphorically, as he gave in to the shadows behind his bravado. Mostly, he covered it all up with messing about and sarcastic comments, and anyone from outside who wanted to get close was kept at arms length. People loved him because he was fun, had an easy smile and a wicked glint in his eye, breathed life and soul into any party, but he couldn’t handle being loved; to him, trusting someone was too risky. So he broke their hearts and moved on to the next one.

Matt had moved into his own place a few months after Iz was born; it was important to him to be independent of Jay and Beth as soon as possible. He got a job with an IT consultancy firm, part time and flexible to take into account any fluctuations in his health in the future, and was currently making his way through the female portion of the payroll. Julia was the latest. They’d been seeing each other for almost a month, and I didn’t hold out much hope of it lasting another month before Julia went the way of all the other women he’d brought round. Not that Matt had told us about Julia – we only knew about her because Amy and I had met them in a shop, and Jay and Beth had met her when they’d turned up unannounced at Matt’s flat, and Matt had been cooking Julia dinner.

Matt was one of my closest friends. We understood each other. We didn’t talk about anything particularly deep, except on those rare occasions when either of us instinctively recognised it was necessary. We’d both been to dark places, helped each other out in times of need and had a shared understanding of what it was like to feel out of control of your own life. There was a lot we didn’t need to say to each other. I stood next to him and we watched Rose bombarding Julia with questions.

‘Poor Julia, she’s being Rosed.’

}Yeah, straight in the deep end.

‘She seems to be holding her own, even got a tiny word in edgeways just then.’

}Go Jules.

‘Oh, she’s got a nickname – keeper?’

The slightest hesitation.

}Nah. Jay, what kind of fuckery are you inflicting on that poor laptop?

Matt wandered over to help Jay and left me pondering his distraction techniques.

I decided to grab a plate and fill it with some of Beth’s delicious cooking. Cal had been called down and was standing grouchily by the table eating crisps from a bowl.

‘Hey, Cal. Did you win?’

\no, Mum made me come down before I’d finished.

‘Didn’t you pause it?’

He rolled his eyes.

\dur, you can’t pause boss fights.

‘Oh. Bad luck then, try again after dinner.’

\s’pose. When’s Nico coming on Skype?

‘When your dad manages to sort out the computer. I think he’s had to ask Matt to help him. Are you coming to the game on Saturday?’

\don’t know. Are you playing?

‘Hope so.’

\dad says I’ve got to sit with the under elevens.

‘Well, you are under eleven. It’ll be good to sit with all your mates from training, won’t it?’

\i want to sit in the family bit, but there’s no one to take me. Iz is going to a birthday party, so Mum can’t come.

‘Why don’t you ask Matt?’

\he doesn’t go to rugby.

‘He might if you asked him, as a favour. He might like to be asked.’

Cal considered it, didn’t dismiss it, ate another handful of crisps. Made a decision.

\Matty …

My work there done, I finished loading my plate and sat down next to Carol.

Julia

Matt tapped a few keys on the laptop, and Jay suddenly smiled broadly and clapped him on the back. Matt wandered over to me and sat down, shaking his head.

‘Is it so hard to remember not to put caps lock on? You don’t have to be an IT consultant. Every bloody time someone presses the wrong button, it’s ‘Matty I’ve broken my computer, can you mend it?’ and I have to drive all the way over and press caps lock.’

‘It’s nice to be useful.’

Matt reached over and stole a piece of quiche from my plate.

‘Hey! Get your own plateful.’

‘Tastes better off someone else’s. Law of life.’

‘Still get your own plateful.’

Matt pouted, but was just about to get up when his nephew said his name.

‘Matty …’

‘Hey Cal, bring us some of those potato things and bacony whatsits, yeah?’

Cal scowled and went back to the table, returning shortly with Matt’s order.

‘Thanks, mate. What’s up?’

‘Can you take me to the rugby on Saturday?’

‘What, Raiders?’

‘Yeah. I want to sit in the family bit, but Mum’s taking Iz to a birthday party, so Dad wants me to sit with the under elevens.’

‘Whoa. Rugby eh? Yeah, cool mate, I’m not sure I understand it all though. Isn’t it just like football but you can pick the ball up?’

‘No! It’s really different from football. Spurs wouldn’t stand a chance against Raiders.’

‘Oh, my mistake. Definitely need you to explain it then. Will your dad get us some tickets?’

‘Yeah, he’s done it before for me and Mum, and with Lis sometimes.’

‘OK, then, sorted.’

Request granted, Cal wandered back to his bowl of crisps at the table. Matt looked at me, a proud expression on his face.

‘He’s never asked me before. I’m a bit chuffed. Oh sod it, we were talking about a hike weren’t we – can we do it on Sunday instead?’

‘Of course.’

Dec

Carol had finally decided to move down after Iz was born, the draw of being close to another grandchild proving too much to resist. She was a quiet, reserved woman, and often just sat watching the chaos of family life going on around her, but she had endless time for her family, giving generously whether it was listening to Cal talk non-stop about the latest computer game, cooking a fantastic dessert, or cuddling Iz until she fell asleep. She and Rose had found a lot of common ground, and Carol’s quietness complemented Rose’s need to talk. They had become really good friends.

‘Hi Carol, how’s it going?’

#It’s going well, thank you Declan. Congratulations on your news, dear.

‘Thanks.’

#Amy looks very well.

‘She looks amazing. She always does, though.’

#And you’d not be a little biased?

‘No, definitely not. Me? Not biased at all. How’s the garden?’

#Oh, there’s always something needs doing, now it’s getting a bit warmer. All the weeds have started poking up, and the grass will need cutting before too long.

‘I’ll come and do your grass for you. Remind me, when it needs it.’

#Thank you dear, it’s very kind of you. Are you sure?

‘Positive. Mm, these potato things are bloody lovely. Did you make them?’

#I did, how did you know?

‘Didn’t you make them before, for Amy’s twenty first? I never forget a good potato thing. Don’t tell Beth, but they might even be better than her roasties.’

#You’re too kind, dear. I won’t breathe a word.

Iz wandered over and handed me Optimus Prime.

/make lorry pease.

‘OK, sweetie.’

I scooped her up onto my lap and reorganised Optimus, handed him back.

‘Do you want me to show you how, Iz? You might be able to do it yourself.’

/dec do it.

She shuffled off my lap and brrmed the truck along the floor.

#You’ve got yourself a full-time job there.

‘Don’t I know it. She’s getting so big, where does the time go?’

#You’ll need to get used to saying that a lot before too long.

‘I guess so.’

#I’m very pleased for you, Declan. You and Amy will be wonderful parents.

‘Thanks, Carol, that really means a lot.’

Over on the other side of the room, Jay and Matt seemed to have sorted the laptop out.

łOK, everyone needs to squash up on the sofa so we can get the web-cam angle sorted. Come on, Dec, grab Amy and pile on. Cal, you can sit on the floor with Iz and your mum and me. Mum, you go next to Rose. Matty and Julia do what the hell you like as long as you’re in the shot.

We all shoved up, and Jay adjusted the angle of the laptop to make sure everyone was in the frame.

Julia

Then it was time for other people to arrive, only via Skype. Jay made everyone sit on the one sofa, with him and his wife and children on the floor in front. Matt sat next to me on the arm of the sofa, with his arm across my shoulders. I noticed various people looking at us at different times, and felt conspicuous.

I was feeling a little overwhelmed with the strangeness of the situation. Matt’s family were very welcoming, but they were nothing like my own family, and it made me see Matt in another light, highlighting some of the differences between us. He came from a family where everyone cared about each other, the opposite of my own family where people seemed to care only about themselves. Squashed on the sofa next to Rose, I felt hugely out of place, but Matt’s arm round me helped me to feel part of him, at least.

Dec

_What time did Nico say he was going to try?

łIn about five minutes.

‘He’ll be late, we could be sat here on each other’s laps for hours.’

łHe won’t be late, he knows we’re all waiting for him.

‘He’ll be bloody late. He’s always late. At least half an hour.’

łYeah, but he’s got Lis on his case, and I think they’re going out. They haven’t got very long. He won’t be late.

Five minutes later, contrary to my expectations, the alert sounded, and Nico and Lis appeared on the screen. We all cheered.

>Hey, is all of you! Cal, you look older, you grow more while I am away.

Cal straightened with pride. I reached forward to ruffle his hair, but he ducked away from my hand. I noticed he was wearing his Raiders shirt with a big number eleven and ‘TIAGO’ on the back.

>I also see a beautiful lady I don’t know.

}Nico, meet Julia. Jules, beware of this man, he will flirt with a house brick, even when his wife is right next to him. Especially when his wife is right next to him. I’m quite glad he’s thousands of miles away.

I noticed Matt had a proprietorial arm round Julia, and when he thought no one was looking, he kissed the top of her head.

¤Hi Nico, good to meet you.

~I’m Lisa, Julia.

¤Good to meet you too.

>Where is Declan and Amy? Ah, here you are, we are very pleased to see you. Felicidades both. We go shopping for you.

Lis held up a brightly coloured bag.

~Want to see what’s in it?

We all shouted ‘yes’. Lis reached in and took out a very small pair of shoes.

)Oh they’re so tiny and adorable. Thanks guys.

Amy sniffed and wiped her eyes.

>Amy, you don’t cry.

)What, not even a bit? Just with happiness. And a few hormones.

>Ha, with happiness is OK. Declan, you take care of Amy, you be nice to her, lots of breakfasts in beds.

‘Ames, have you primed him or something?’

)No, he just knows what a woman needs.

>Ha, yes is true. I know what womens needs.

~Is that so, Nico? Why don’t I get breakfasts in beds then?

>You don’t have baby. If you have baby, maybe you get breakfasts in beds.

~Hm, something I might need to work on then, yeah?

She winked theatrically at us.

_Are you two enjoying Buenos Aires?

~Oh Beth, it’s great, such a beautiful city, I’m loving seeing where Nico grew up. Come and see us.

_Love to, if it’s at all possible.

łHave you started playing yet, mate?

>Yes, I play last weekend. I score amazing try.

łWhat a surprise. Do you ever score any other type?

>No, they are all amazing. Is that lovely Rose sitting in the corner? Why so quiet Rose? Is not like you. I worry.

:I’m waiting for you to stop yapping so I can get a word in, love. I hope you’re remembering how to make proper Welsh tea.

>Ha! Yes, we have your special tea bags, it don’t taste the same, I don’t know what we do. I miss your tea.

:I miss you drinking it, love. Glad to see you’re enjoying yourselves.

~Enough talking about tea, I want to talk about babies. Amy, for the love of God, tell me you have a due date. Or at least an ETA.

)Well nothing new since this morning, Lis. I’ve made an appointment with the doctor, all I can tell you is about nine months from now. We literally only found out early this morning.

~Oh, I forgot. We’ve been to sleep and had a whole day since then. Oh well, better than nothing. You’ll have to text me or ring me when you know. I want all the details as they happen. How are you feeling?

)I’m feeling great. Being sick in the mornings, but otherwise fine.

~Is Dec looking after you?

)Yeah, he’s been completely amazing, but he always is.

Amy looked up at me and I bent down to kiss her.

}Oh please, guys, I think I’m going to start being sick right now, let alone in the mornings. Lis, you’ll have to get your baby fix another time, this is just too girly for words. I need to talk about, I dunno, motorbike engines and beards and football for a bit.

>How about rugby? Is man enough?

}Well, tempted as I am to say no, I really don’t want to be sat on by Dec, he might enjoy it too much. Cal and I are actually going to the game on Saturday.

Beth and Jay both looked at Matt in surprise.

>Ha, is good. Cal, you tell Matty the rules, maybe show him my amazing tries on YouTube before you go, and hope he stop following his terrible Tottenham football team.

Cal smiled but didn’t answer.

~Beth, Iz looks like she’s grown since we last saw her. I can’t believe we’re missing it all. We really miss all you guys.

_We miss you too. This is lovely, though. I’m glad we managed to sort the computer in time.

~It’s so great to see you all. Carol, you’ve been sat there very quiet. How are you doing?

#Oh fine, dear, it’s lovely to see you again.

~You too. Well, I’m afraid we’ve got to go, we’re off out to a charity function at the club, and if we don’t go now we’ll be late. And that would never do for Nico.

łOh is that why you’re all dressed up, I thought it was for us.

>Ha! Is for you too, Jaime. I know you like me in a suit. We go now, baby?

~Yeah, we better had. Oh, I can hardly bear to say goodbye, I’ve loved seeing you all, but it’s been too short. We’ll do it again soon, yeah?

}As soon as Jay works out how to input a password correctly, yes.

~Soon, soon, soon, then. Bye guys.

>Goodbye, chau, besos, suerte. Love you.

Lis leaned forwards, waved and cut the connection. There was a silence, and a sense of anti-climax. Cal got up and went upstairs, no longer smiling.

/eeco go. Where he go, Mummy?

Iz got up and looked behind the laptop, then looked back at Beth with a comically puzzled look on her face.

_He’s still in Argentina, sweetheart, he was just on the screen, like a TV programme. He’s gone now, but we’ll see him again soon.

Julia

Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of it, as Beth decided it was time for toasts and speeches. I came to learn that this family did a lot of toasting and speeching, but for now, this was my first.

Dec

I got up from the sofa and followed Cal. Knocked on his door.

\yeah.

‘It’s Dec. Can I come in?’

\kay.

I opened the door and sat on the bed next to Cal.

\i’m still trying to beat this boss, though.

‘No worries. I’m glad you asked Matt about the game, he seems really pleased to be taking you.’

\yeah.

‘Nico seemed happy to see you just now.’

\yeah.

‘Seeing him again, made me realise how much I miss him. He feels a long way away, doesn’t he?’

A pause.

\yeah.

‘Cal, you know you can talk to me about stuff, if you feel sad or anything?’

A roll of the eyes.

\yeah.

‘Or … if you need to, I don’t know, say ‘fuck’ without getting grief?’

A slight smile at the corner of his mouth.

\yeah. Can I finish this now?

‘Yeah.’

I reached over to ruffle his hair, stopped myself, patted him on the shoulder instead and stood up.

‘Still want to play something later?’

\yeah.

‘OK.’

I went back downstairs, where Beth was organising glasses of sparkling wine for everyone and fizzy apple for Amy. I took a glass and sat on the floor by Amy’s feet. She played with my hair, making the back of my neck tingle, and part of me wished we were curled up alone at home. I twisted round to face her and she bent over and kissed me.

‘You OK, babe?’

)I’m great. Apart from the apple juice. Forgot about the no wine thing. Nine months without wine! Longer with breastfeeding.

‘Didn’t really think it through, did you?’

)Can’t have done.

‘I could always drink it for you, you know, tell you what it tastes like, get a bit pissed on your behalf, help out a bit?’

)Hm, I’ll let you know.

‘Well, anything I can do …’

)Just the breakfasts in beds to start with.

‘Bloody Nico.’

Beth had finished pouring all the drinks, and everyone had a glass.

_OK everyone, I just wanted to do a little toast to Amy and Dec, and wish them well, and say how thrilled I am for them, and send them off on the start of this wonderful journey, and –

}Beth, pick one. A toast is just one thing, so we can all say it after you.

_Sorry, Matty, I got a bit carried away.

}As did Dec and Amy some weeks ago.

‘Way to lower the tone, mate.’

}My sincerest apologies.

_Anyway … alright, if I have to pick one thing to wish you both, it’s love. And family. Oh, that’s two. I can’t choose. Love and family.

She raised her glass. Everyone dutifully repeated. I looked round at Amy, she was smiling and her eyes were filling up.

:Can I do a toast, love?

_Oh, Rose, of course.

Rose stood up and cleared her throat.

:I think I might do a little speech, if that’s alright?

łGo for it Rose.

:Alright. Well, here it is then. I hope I remember everything I was going to say.

‘Did you have this planned, Rose?’

:Well, I thought I might get an opportunity, love. Sometimes you just want to say things and it’s never the right time, so I’ve had a bit of a think, and here’s what I thought.

‘Should I be worried?’

:No, love, never worry about what I’m going to say about you, it’s all good.

}Sounds great, Rose, as long as afterwards we can relive some of Dec’s most embarrassing moments. I can think of plenty of those.

_Matty, stop your chat for one minute and let Rose say what she wants to say.

:Thanks, love. Right. When I first met Declan, he was in a bit of a state. I won’t say any more, I think you all know enough about it by now. Well, something about him kicked off my maternal instincts and I couldn’t help interfering in his life, giving him advice when he didn’t want it, bothering him when he asked to be left alone, making a bit of a nuisance of myself. Declan and me made a deal back then, he lets me look after him, mother him a bit, I’ll be there for him when he needs it, whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, a square meal or a kick up the pants. Well, he turned things round for himself, and it’s been a long time since I needed to provide a shoulder, a meal or a boot up the backside, and I just wanted to say how proud I am of him and his Amy, and how happy and honoured I am that I’m part of his life. This news of yours, love, is the best I can imagine, it’s made my day, and I just know you’re going to be the best Mam and Dad there ever was. I think that’s all I wanted to say. Oh, a toast. Nothing fancy. Declan and Amy.

She held her glass up and sat down. Predictably, Amy and I had tears in our eyes. Iz toddled over to me and looked at me with concern.

/mummy Dec cry.

She looked at Beth with big serious eyes. I gave her a big smile, wiped my eyes, pulled her into a cuddle on my lap.

‘It’s just happy crying, sweetie. I’m OK.’

}Glad to see blub club is still alive and kicking. We haven’t met in earnest for some time.

I glanced up at Matt and caught him wiping the corner of his eye with his hand.

Julia

I wondered if it was a little premature to be wetting the head of a baby who had yet to have its first scan, let alone be born, but everyone seemed to be happy and emotional. Even Matt surreptitiously wiped his eyes once, only to be spotted by Dec, who turned round to me.

‘Julia, you must think we’re all bonkers.’

‘You’re the only nutter, Dec.’

Matt’s rejoinder was instant, and it felt like an automatic response. Dec seemed about to reply, but was stopped by a look from Beth. I got the sense there was a lot of history between these two men, whose relationship to each other I had yet to work out; they seemed bound together in some way that was expressed with in-jokes and messing about, and felt brotherly inasmuch as I had any understanding of the relationship.

Dec

I opened my mouth to say the next line, heard the intake of breath from Beth, looked at her, shut my mouth again.

}Ha ha, under the thumb.

)Thanks, Rose, that was completely amazing.

‘Yeah, means a lot. Thanks, Rose. I’ve never stopped needing you.’

:Oh, love …

łOK, then, I think I’ve got something to say too.

I put my head in my hands.

‘Oh God, Jay, what now?’

łWell, after Rose’s go, I don’t think I can be as eloquent or as heartfelt, and as we all know, I don’t really do this emotional shit. But here it is. Dec, you rang me at half past bloody three this morning and told me you’re going to be a dad. There’s a part of me that still thinks of you as this gawky, spotty teenager with a fuck-off attitude, and I was a bit surprised to find out this morning that you’re actually completely a grown up. I was, I have to admit, bloody grumpy at half past bloody three this morning, but having been thinking about it all day, I am actually rather honoured to be one of the first people you think of to call when something important happens. I’m proud of you, mate; you and Amy are going to be great parents. If you’re even half as good with your own as you are with mine, you’re going to walk it. Jesus, I still can’t get my head round it. Stop making me feel so bloody old. And maybe now you’ll make an honest woman of Amy.

He raised his glass.

łGrowing up.

Iz looked up at me from my lap, catching me wiping my eyes again. She flung her arms round my neck.

/kiss better.

‘Thanks, Iz. That’s much better. No more, please guys, I’m losing serious man points here. Thanks, Jay. Pretty good for someone who doesn’t do emotional shit.’

_Dec …

‘I was only repeating what Jay said.’

_Yes, but I’ve given up with him.

)I think Dec’s a bit of a lost cause as well. Actually, while we’re all giving speeches and getting emotional, I’d just like to say thanks to you all. None of you are actually related to me, but at this moment in time you feel more like my real family than, well, my real family. I know you and Dec all have a lot of history, but I couldn’t feel more welcome or more wanted, and the way you’ve handled our news has been completely brilliant. If I was going to make an apple juice toast, it would be to unconditional love.

_Lovely. Unconditional love it is.

}Your turn, Dec.

‘No, I don’t do speeches. Everyone here knows how I feel about them. I love you all. Jay and Beth, you’ve been my family for so long, I can’t imagine my life without you. Rose, you might as well be my mum. Carol, you hold us all together. Matt, you’re like best mate and brother rolled into one old codger. Amy … Ames, if I loved you any more than I do now, I would burst. Julia – well, I hardly know you, but you’ve sat and listened to us all being mad and still haven’t made a run for it. Either you’re as crazy as us or Matt’s picked –.

}OK, stop, everyone. This wine’s making us slushy, we haven’t drunk nearly enough of it yet. Sorry about the apple juice, Amy, but I need another glass or two of sparkly to get this party started.

Matt stood up and grabbed the bottle from the table, breaking the mood, which was what he had planned. I’d seen the way he looked at Julia when he thought nobody was watching, and I was reassessing my ‘less than a month’ prediction, although it still remained to be seen whether he would scare himself off before he gave it a chance.

Space available on the sofa again, I moved Iz off my lap and plonked myself next to Amy.

‘Nice words, babe.’

)You too, hon, considering you don’t do speeches.

Beth sat next to me and took my arm, snuggling up close.

_This has been lovely, Dec. I love it when we all get together. Shame Cal’s been sulking all evening.

‘He’s OK. I had a chat earlier.’

_Did you?

‘Well, more a kind of one-sided gruntathon over the top of the X-box. He’s missing Nico.’

_I did wonder. They’re so far away. If he’d gone to another club in England, we could have gone to see them, but Argentina …

‘It was great to see them earlier though, technology is so amazing. Maybe if Cal could do that more often it might help.’

_It’s worth a go. And I’d love to stay in touch with Lis more. She was getting broody before they left, looks like she still is, and you two haven’t helped! That’d be hard, though, foreign country, no family around. She doesn’t even speak the language yet.

‘Lis is tough, if she wants it she’ll make it happen.’

_You’re right there. Anything to get breakfast in bed, although I wouldn’t hold my breath with Nico. Amy, I meant to say, I’ve got loads of Iz’s old clothes and things. I know you don’t know boy or girl yet, but some of it would be OK whichever, babygros and stuff. Some of them aren’t even pink! Let me know and you can have it. Or we could have a sort through over a coffee.

)Thanks, Beth, that’d be great. God, just talking about clothes and stuff, makes it feel more real. Don’t you think, hon, it’s all been a bit floaty and dreamy and not quite real today?

I nodded; I’d pretty much floated through today too.

)I think I might come down with a bit of a bump soon.

‘Well you’ll definitely have a bit of a bump soon, babe. Better start letting out all your waistbands.’

)Or, just for that, maybe you’ll have to take me shopping for new clothes?

‘Nooo … surely we haven’t got room for a new baby as well as new clothes? Ames, you’ll have to choose. One or the other.’

_Will you stay in the flat, do you think?

)We don’t know. It is small. We don’t know what the future holds at the moment, do we, hon.

‘No, not yet.’

This felt uncomfortable; I was currently having contract negotiations through my agent, looking at a new deal to stay at Raiders. I had also been approached by a couple of other clubs, one a big London club, who had offered a lot of money for me to move there, although the likelihood was that I wouldn’t be guaranteed a place in the first team, and would therefore get less game time.

I couldn’t discuss it in Jay’s home. Much as I wanted to talk to him and Beth and ask his advice as Jay, he was still Scotty, and it had to be kept at the club. Beth knew this. She looked sad, and I could hardly bear to think about it right now.

_I know you can’t talk about it, sweetheart. We’d miss you.

‘Don’t, Beth, please.’

She squeezed my arm, then stood up and started clearing away the plates and glasses. Amy stroked my face, then got up and helped her. Nothing stopping the two of them having a good chat about it.

Julia

After a few more people had had their say, the toasting seemed to be over. Matt took my hand and pulled me up from the sofa.

‘Come and see the garden.’

‘It’s dark.’

‘I know.’

I went with him.

We went out into the garden via a conservatory. It was cool and quiet out there, and just what I needed. Matt put his arms round me and squeezed me tightly.

‘How are you doing? Sorry it’s a bit full on. Maybe this wasn’t the best occasion for you to meet everyone.’

‘It’s fine. Everyone’s very nice. I’m not really a baby person, but you all seem very excited, so it’s all good. I’m just kind of watching it all.’

‘We can go soon if you want.’

‘No, it’s fine. This is nice, though.’

I looked up at him and caught a crinkly smile.

‘This is always bloody nice. I love holding you.’

He bent down and kissed me, a lingering, tender, tingly kiss, his tongue dancing over my lips and into my mouth.

‘I fucking love kissing you too. Maybe we shouldn’t leave it too late to go back to mine.’

‘Maybe. Stay as long as you want, though.’

‘I might go and have a quick game of X-box with Cal. He was looking a bit mopey earlier, might need cheering up the way only a thrashing from your favourite uncle can do. Would you be OK if I did?’

‘I’ll be fine. I can help clear up, chat, even talk about babies if I have to.’

‘That’s on the cards.’

‘Matt, I’ve been trying to work out exactly how Dec and Amy are related to you.’

‘Oh. Yeah, it’s bloody complicated. I suppose they’re not, actually, not technically. Dec was … his parents died when he was young, he got signed by Raiders when he was about sixteen, and he came to live with Jay and Beth. He’s been part of the family since then.’

‘Did they adopt him?’

‘Fuck no! Oh, bloody long story a few years ago, about the time I was ill, I’ll tell you sometime, maybe not tonight, but long and short, there was a big bust up, then a big make up and Jay made it official Scott history that Dec’s part of the family.’

‘And Rose?’

‘Oh, Rose! I bloody love Rose, but she can talk for bloody England. Or Wales, should I say. Yeah, about the same time, Dec, well he was pretty fucked up just before the big make up. Rose just got involved, played a big part in de-fucking him. He’s sorted now, but they come as a pair. She’s a bit like his mum. But not officially related.’

‘Your family is very accepting.’

Matt looked at me, head on one side.

‘I guess they are, never really thought about it like that; I just kind of roll with it. There’s always something going on, people here and there. Jay and Beth are bloody brilliant. When I was ill, Jay gave up his job to come and look after me. I don’t know where I’d be now if he hadn’t done that.’

I thought about what my sisters would give up for me. Probably not a lot.

‘You’re lucky.’

‘I am. Do I get to meet your family anytime soon?’

‘Not unless you’re planning to jet off around the world trying to catch up with my parents or want to swan off to France or Switzerland to take a chance on catching one of my sisters at home.’

‘Are you the only one in this country?’

I nodded.

‘I am now Nons is gone.’

‘You must miss her.’

I nodded again.

‘Sorry, Matt, I still can’t talk about it. Shall we go in? It’s getting cold.’

52. Throw it in the bag

In which plans are made to meet in a shop.

Matt

I pulled her towards me and wrapped my arms around her, pressing her up against me. She felt so good, held snugly in my arms. I kissed her gently, soft brushes along her lips. She started to kiss back, hesitantly at first, and then she suddenly pushed into my mouth, probing with her tongue, sucking and pulling me into her. I moaned and I pushed my hands into her hair as I held her face against mine, and our tongues explored each other. I felt her run her hands down my back, her fingers fizzing and tingling their way down my spine, and I moaned again. This was going to get out of hand if I didn’t stop. Right now.

I pulled back slightly, but she moved forwards, trying to pull me back to her. I moved my head away and put a finger on her lips, with a regretful smile and a shake of my head. How was this the second time I’d been the sensible one, the second time I hadn’t been the one who got carried away? My reputation would be taking a serious battering, if only people knew.

‘Julia, you’ll be the death of me. You are fucking awesome, I could do that all day and then some. But this isn’t the time or the place. When you come back from Norfolk, maybe we should make some plans to be alone, when you’re feeling OK about it.’

I stroked her hair and then moved my fingers under her chin, lifting it slightly so I could breathe a kiss onto her lips. She looked delightfully dishevelled.

Julia

He smoothed my hair and lifted my chin to receive the briefest of kisses on the lips. I felt ruffled and out of breath, and would have really liked to continue what we had started, but saw the sense in what Matt was saying. I was sure I must be confusing him with what I was saying as opposed to how I was behaving.

‘I’m sorry, Matt, I’m giving you some very mixed signals. I guess I am a bit all over the place at the moment. Yes, next week we should have some time alone maybe. Tell you what, why don’t you text me about it?’

I tried an impish grin.

‘No way, not wasting one of my valuable opportunities on bloody schedule arrangements. And, by the way, we need to have words about this bloody texting malarkey. I’m really getting a raw deal here. You reply to four texts a day? And you decide when? Give me a break, woman!’

‘I don’t really like texting.’

‘Why? It’s just another way of talking. I thought we’d been having fun.’

‘Well, I suppose I have enjoyed it …’

Matt

‘Thought so. OK, I can see if you’re not a great texter it might be a bit irksome having some arse on at you all the time – text me, text me, all needy and shit. Am I like that?’

I looked down at her, genuinely wanting an answer, it not ever having noticeably annoyed anyone before.

‘Well … I don’t know if it’s you or me. I don’t like feeling like I have to reply; to me texts are just quick shorthand for if you’re checking a time to meet or giving someone some information. I don’t like being bombarded. I did really like all your nonsense at the weekend, but it was weird being so … connected … to you when I was miles away. I suppose I’m just not used to it, not like that. I text my friends, but it’s just about meeting up, simple stuff. If I want a deeper conversation I’ll ring them.’

‘OK, so the four reply thing, that was so you had some control over it?’

‘Maybe a bit. OK, honestly, yes.’

‘Hmm. OK, so maybe we need some middle ground. I need to stop with the incessant fucking about, you need to give me a bit more?’

I thought about how that might be achieved.

‘How about … well for a start, I need more than four a day, there’s all sorts of shit I find myself wanting to tell you, it’s not enough.’

I thought about what would be just about acceptable to me, and tried to imagine what Julia would agree to.

Julia

I wondered what he was going to suggest, and steeled myself to stand firm.

‘What if I limit myself to two texts an hour, and obviously only when we’re not at work. Fuck, that’s going to be hard, I spend all day on my phone arsing about with people. But anyway, that’s what I’ll do. Does that feel better?’

It did. Matt had managed to find a way that suited both of us, and I was gratified that he seemed to have taken my feelings on the matter into consideration, rather than just trying to push for what he wanted. I nodded again.

Matt

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if it was any better, but it was more than I was getting at the moment. She nodded again.

‘And you don’t have to feel you have to reply if you don’t want to, but I’d like it if you did, and I’d really like it if you did when I say goodnight. Helps me get to sleep, which is medicinal, and therefore additional to the deal for health reasons.’

I kissed the top of her head again.

‘And if you feel like you want me to text back extra to that, you have to say, otherwise it’ll be up to an hour later. Shit, Julia, I’m not even sure I can remember all that, let alone stick to it, but it sounds complicated enough to be one of your rules. What do you say?’

‘OK, have I got this right? Two texts an hour with no expectation of a reply unless I want to, or it’s to say goodnight?’

‘Yeah, in a nutshell.’

‘It’s a deal. You can always ring me if you want to talk to me.’

‘I know. It’s not the same. But thank you.’

Well that, I think, was a victory for me. I tried not to think too hard about it. I would just try to get away with what I could get away with.

Julia

He kissed the top of my head again. I was getting to like it when he did that, and I felt myself warming to him even more.

‘Matt …’

‘Yeah.’

‘I really like you. How did that happen?’

Matt

I felt a little frisson. A girl just said she liked me. Get a grip, Matt.

‘Haven’t got a fucking clue. I’m still the same fucking arsehole you yelled at and tried to knock senseless last week.’

‘I think that’s it, though. You’re not the same. Or rather, maybe you haven’t changed, but you’re different to how I thought you were.’

‘Maybe I have changed, Julia. I was exactly like you thought I was, but last week, in my flat, it shook me up. You shook me up. I want to be different for you.’

I thought about what being different meant, how I was going to express it.

‘Just so you know, and this isn’t to put pressure on you, so I hope it doesn’t, but it’s just you for me at the moment. No one else. No fucking about with any other women.’

Julia

I looked up at him, seeing in his eyes how much that meant for him to say.

‘That’s big for you, isn’t it.’

‘Pretty big. Pretty important.’

Matt

And it was. I hadn’t promised that, even considered it, for a long time.

‘Thank you, then.’

It was all getting a bit heavy. I needed to lighten the mood.

‘You know, Julia, I don’t usually do big serious pronouncements in my lunch hour. Right now I feel the need to arse about. Can you do this?’

I flipped into a handstand, something Cal and I practised in the park, and walked across the enclosure on my hands, then flipped back onto my feet, turning to grin childishly at her, ridiculously smug I hadn’t managed to fall on my arse. Cal would never believe me – I always fell on my arse. Made him laugh.

‘Well? Your turn.’

‘I don’t think so, I’m wearing a skirt.’

Oh she so didn’t get how I thought, not yet.

‘So? It’s only John and Roberta here to see.’

‘And you.’

‘I’m sorry to remind you, but I’ve already seen all you have to offer, I won’t be scandalised. And I’d get to see your knickers.’

I really would love to see her knickers, even upside down. Maybe now she would get a bit of an insight into the dark workings of my mind.

‘And what do I get out of it?’

‘A sense of achievement. Or maybe you can’t do it.’

I knew she was competitive, and so made the challenge obvious.

Julia

I heard the challenge, as he wanted me to, but chose not to rise to it.

‘I haven’t done a handstand since I was ten.’

‘About time you did another one then.’

I looked at the palms of my hands. My scratches were healing nicely, but I decided to play them as a card anyway, and held them up towards Matt.

‘Bollocks. Forgot about that. OK, you’re let off for today, but this isn’t over. Before too long you will be showing me your gymnastic capabilities, if I have to tip you upside down myself.’

‘You wouldn’t dare.’

‘Really? You’re daring me? Fuck me, you like living dangerously. Dare accepted. When your hands are better, watch out. No warning.’

He suddenly looked at his watch.

‘Oh fuck. We should get back, we’ve been gone ages.’

He held his hand out and as I took it to help me up, he grabbed the bottom of my skirt and pulled it up past my waist, making me squeal, then released it.

Matt

I got the glimpse of her knickers I’d wanted, although I’d had to behave like a nine year old boy to do it. Hm, maybe spending a bit too much time with Cal.

‘Bikinis. Nice. I’ve been meaning to ask, if you’d only wear a thong if there was no other choice, does that mean crotchless is a better option?’

‘What is it with you and knickers? I don’t really give them much thought. I buy ones I like, whatever colour, shape or size they are, and if they’re comfortable I’ll wear them and if they’re not I won’t. Thongs are bloody uncomfortable, I’ve never worn crotchless but I would imagine they’re bloody draughty. And a bit pointless.’

‘You’re so practical. You take all the mystery out of knickers. It’s a whole art form in itself, I could spend a whole day just thinking about French versus G-string.’

This was very nearly the case. I did have a thing for knickers. Oh, nothing extreme like stealing them from washing lines or some such shit, just liked them.

‘You’re weird. And more than a little perverted.’

‘So true.’

‘I’ll go back first, then. You’d better wait a bit.’

‘Fair enough. If I take enough doughnuts back with me, they might not notice how long I’ve been gone. Same time tomorrow?’

I thought I might be able to slip it in, and she’d agree before she’d realised. Not to be.

‘No.’

‘But you’re going away.’

‘And I’m seeing you tomorrow evening before I go.’

I opened my mouth to argue, but she cut me off.

‘No, you’re not going to persuade me.’

‘Not even like this …’

Julia

He pulled me towards him and clamped his mouth onto mine, wrapping his arms round my shoulders and pressing himself up against me. His tongue and lips were dancing over, under and around mine, and he set my body on fire. I sank into him and responded in kind, pulling his face down to mine by winding my fingers in his hair. I could feel every part of him that was pressed into me as if it was branding itself onto my skin. I moaned and arched my back against him, hearing him gasp.

Matt

I gasped at the onslaught of desire that surged through me. God I wanted this woman, wanted her in so many ways, but I was going to have to stop, again, fuck it fuck it fuck it.

I gently started to push her away, withdrawing from her until we were standing just inches apart, panting, cheeks slightly flushed, tiny lightning bolts passing between us where we were nearly touching, looking at each other with heat in our gaze that mirrored our emotions.

‘Fucking hell, Julia. Maybe we’d better not meet here tomorrow after all, I wouldn’t like to be responsible for the consequences. Shit. I’ve … you’ve … I think you’d definitely better go back first, it’s going to take me a while to, er, be less noticeable.’

I gestured downwards and grinned wryly.

‘Better think about icebergs and Anne Widdecombe for a bit, I think. Fuck.’

Julia

I reached up and touched his cheek, wanting to kiss his lips, but not daring to in case we started again.

‘See you back at the office, then.’

He nodded, smiling, still breathless, as I turned and left.

Matt

And that’s how it began. I could tell you everything from my point of view, but you’ve already got Jules’ version, if Lau’s shared it with any of you, and I love the way she’s told it, and it’s really not that different from my version, so I’m going a different way.

I’m going to tell you the other stuff, what was going on for me while we were going on for us. Some of it might cross over; there were some big things that happened, Charlie being the biggest, while Jules and I were together. But some of it, it might seem like I’ve missed bits out, but I haven’t really, I’ve just told you about other things instead. If I go over everything everyone else has said, I’ll run out of words, and you’ll all get bored and piss off. So from hereon in, there will be less of me and more of Jules, which many of you may count as a blessing, you impudent gits.

Julia

On the way back, I brushed my hair and tried to calm myself. As I walked into the the building, I felt self-conscious, as if everyone would know I had spent my lunch hour snogging Matt Scott, but Lexi barely looked up as I passed reception, and nobody else seemed to notice I had been away, let alone come back.

Matt returned with the promised doughnuts, and was thereby forgiven for being late back from his date with Roberta. I’d forgotten about his cover story, but it seemed to have worked as nobody questioned where he had been, or seemed to connect our absences.

The rest of the day was just a normal work day; I was so engrossed in what I was doing that I didn’t even notice Matt leave. I suddenly looked up and noticed that Phil and I were the only ones still there. I decided to go home, as I was expecting Evie in a couple of hours and needed to pick up some wine on the way back. I called goodnight to Phil and left.

o0o

Before Evie arrived, I needed to call my mother to see what she had done and what I still needed to do. I hadn’t held out much hope that she would have done much, but she surprised me by having been to the registrar and registered the death.

‘Oh darling, it was so sad, seeing her life reduced to all those forms.’

‘That’s not all her life is reduced to. There are plenty of ways to remember her.’

‘I know darling, but those places are so depressing.’

‘William and I are going to get together with some photos and have a good old bout of nostalgia, instead of going to the Chapel of Rest. Why don’t you join us?’

‘You’re not going to the Chapel of Rest? But why on earth not?’

‘I want to remember her my way, not how some mortician thinks she should look.’

‘But JuJu, everyone goes to the Chapel of Rest.’

‘I’m not. And neither is William.’

She harrumphed as if what William did was neither here nor there, but continued to press me about my attendance.

‘What will people think, darling?’

‘I don’t actually give a monkey’s, Mum. It’s about what I think, and what I want to do.’

‘Don’t you think Nons would have wanted –’

‘Don’t you dare! Nons would have wanted me to do what made me feel better, not what everyone else would have wanted. I’m not discussing this, Mum.’

‘Alright, darling, well I suppose we’ll just have to explain as best we can.’

I clenched my jaw and bit back a sarcastic response. My mother didn’t deal very well with conflict, and she finished the phone call soon afterwards. I changed, ate and waited for Evie to arrive.

It was wonderful to see Evie. I was so comfortable with her, I could completely relax in her company. She gave me a huge hug, which took a little of my hurt about Nons away for a moment, and then sat and listened while I told her about it all over again, with the added extras from the weekend.

Evie knew my parents of old, and sympathised with me about how they made me feel, but without seeming to condemn them. She had that knack of knowing how to give support without appearing to judge people who, it may be considered, she had no right to criticise. It took us a bottle of wine to talk about Nons, and then she changed tack.

‘So, you and the office Romeo. How’s that going?’

‘Matt?’

‘Matt. Romeo. Charlie bloody Sheen. Whatever. A bit of spilling is in order, my lovely.’

‘Well, it’s going fine, thanks.’

‘Jules, that is not spilling, that is so far from spilling it is turning the bottle upside down with the top glued on.’

‘Sorry. It’s going well. Really well.’

Evie sighed.

‘I can see I’m going to have to drag this out of you syllable by syllable. Have you shagged him again?’

‘No!’

‘Don’t sound so shocked. I said ‘again’ because you’ve already done it once, it’s surely not beyond the realms of possibility. Snogs?’

‘A few.’

‘Gropes?’

‘Depends what you mean …’

‘I mean your hands touching his bulgy parts, or his hands touching your bulgy parts.’

‘Then no.’

‘Why, what did you mean?’

I thought about this lunchtime, my body arched so hard against his I could feel all of him along all of me. I felt my face heat up.

‘Er, close bodily contact.’

‘Ooh, how close? What could you feel? Did he have a hard-on?’

‘Pretty close. Yes, he did.’

‘Bloody hell, Jules. Where were you?’

‘In a graveyard.’

‘What? Seriously?’

‘Well, to be precise, a hidden kind of outside room in the hedge around the graveyard. It’s not like anyone could see us or anything.’

‘Oh well, that’s hardly outdoors at all then, no danger of being done for indecent exposure.’

‘We weren’t indecent!’

‘Well let’s see, shall we. Tongues?’

‘Yes.’

‘And we’ve already established a raging hard-on. Undies on show?’

‘Er, at one point, briefly.’

‘Jules! I’m shocked at you. And, I have to say, rather delighted on your behalf. It’s been too long since you let yourself go with a bloke. Perhaps I’m a little surprised it’s with this particular bloke but I trust your judgement, and if you think he’s OK, I’ll go with that. When do I get to meet him?’

‘Not for a very long time. I’m still working it all out. It’s pretty terrifying, and complicated with work and everything.’

Evie rolled her eyes at me, but she knew what I was like, how long it took me to get used to changes in my life.

‘Alright, my lovely, but you can’t blame me for trying. All I can say is, he’d better not hurt you, or he’s going to feel the toe end of my boot all the way up his colon.’

‘Do you know what, Evie, that’s the weird thing. I know what he’s like, or rather what he’s been like, one woman after another, broken hearts in his wake, but I don’t think he’ll hurt me. He’s trying so hard. If anything, he’s the one slowing it down, making sure we don’t rush into anything.’

‘Well, apart from the one time you already rushed into something.’

‘Yes, apart from that.’

‘You’re being careful, aren’t you? You must be feeling a bit fragile at the moment, with what happened to Nons.’

‘I have to be careful. I can’t let it get out of control, I need to think about work, nobody there can know.’

‘Would it be so terrible if they did?’

‘Yes. Everything would change, fall apart. I need it to be the same, at the moment.’

‘Alright my lovely, you seem to know what you’re talking about. You know I’m here, don’t you, if you need to whinge, moan, cheer, tell me all the sordid details, anything.’

‘I know, Ev. You’re the best.’

We finished another bottle of wine between us, talking, laughing, confiding, just being best friends. When Evie got up to go, I realised my head was spinning, and I stumbled a little bit going to the door.

‘Careful, my lovely, no accidents before bedtime.’

‘No, I think I might drink some water. Don’t really want a hangover tomorrow, although it might be a bit late for that. Thanks for coming, Ev, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘Anytime I can save your life by drinking large amounts of good wine, just let me know. Bye, Jules, take care of yourself.’

‘You too. I’ll call you next week, when I’m back.’

‘OK, my lovely, hope it all goes OK.’

I closed the door behind her, and sat down on the sofa. I checked my phone, which I’d had on silent while Evie was there. Matt had, inevitably, sent several texts.

‘Jus wonderin if is dress code 4 2moz shoppin? Wldnt want 2 appear 2 intimate in case of discovery. Unless I hear, I am goin smart cas, but happy to upgrade to black tie, or downgrade 2 scruff.’

‘Lack of response assures me I am on right lines. Wot yr feelins on waistcoats?’

Exactly an hour after his first text, there was a third one.

‘OK, so no feelins on waistcoats, might have 2 risk it. Am advised farm place does gd coffee. Jus 4 yr info n consideration. We cld sit separate tables, opp end of café, not lk @ each other?’

‘Come on, Julia, do ne of these merit a reply? Wasn’t serious abt coffee, well maybe a bit.’

Matt had stuck to his two texts an hour admirably, but the tone had become increasingly exasperated.

‘Jus remembered yr friend is there, u prob hv fone off. Soz. Ignore last slightly snarky txt xx’

‘Did u go 2 bed yet? Any chance of noing wot u wearin? Yes I am a perv.’

Despite me telling Matt I felt bombarded by his texts, I was reassured to find so many waiting for me. I felt a rush of something akin to tenderness, but quickly told myself it was the bottle of wine influencing me. I started to reply, although my fingers felt strangely uncoordinated.

‘Waistcoats? I don’t think so. Not unles with a morning suite. Smart casual is fine for shopping dont you think? No hoodies thourgh, I have standards. No to cofffee, even with full camouflage and/or invisibilility cloak. I am nott in bed. Clothing situation is li kely to change between now an then. Currently jens and old bagggy sweatshirt.’

‘Whoa thx 4 longest reply eva. OK, no hoody. No coffee. Clothing – phwoar. NE chance u txt me when u in bed?’

‘OK I’m feling benenevolent txt meee as mch as youou wann ill be in beed soon dot go away.’

‘On the edge of my seat. Not going ne where 2 xcited! :)’

I pottered around getting ready for bed, pondering the fluctuations in my mood that my various situations were causing. Underneath everything was a flowing sadness that was the knowledge that Nons was dead. But Matt was giving me flashes of release, both through not being part of that whole state and through his almost constantly upbeat chatter, whether face to face, on the phone or by text.

I seemed to flit between sorrow and laughter; I wasn’t sure if this was good or normal, but it felt better than just being miserable. I cleaned my teeth, changed into my sleeping shirt and got into bed in a wine-driven haze. I picked up my phone and texted Matt.

‘I’m in bed!!!!!! Im all yurs until I fall aslseep, which migt not be lonng. Ive turned ringer of so donot expect to anoy me into wakgin up if I don’t replyor ansewr take a long sielnce as a goodnght.’

‘Whoa! *rubs hands with glee* Don’t fall asleep yet! Pls! So, you’re in bed, I take it old t-shirt and random pants?’

‘Tshit yes. Pants no.’

‘Errr, not random pants, or … NO FUCKING PANTS?’

‘No fuking pants.’

‘Holy fuck. Y not?’

‘Dont were pants in my own beed.’

‘Holy holy fuck.’

‘Yuo seem very perturbrbed by this infornamtion.’

‘Too many mental images, may explode soon. Tell me something boring.’

‘Criket.’

‘Boring to me.’

‘You like crikcet?’

‘I’m a bloke.’

‘Not al meen like criket.’

‘Maybe, but all blokes do.’

‘Oh still ned somthnig boring?’

‘Yep.’

‘Clening the toilet.’

‘That did the trick. 4 future ref, cleaning or tidying of any description will defuse potential explosions caused by mental images of you without pants. Oh fuck, now need to imagine cleaning the whole bathroom.’

‘Are yuo in beed?’

‘Almost. Trying 2 work up energy 2 haul arse off couch.’

‘What do yuo wearin beed/’

‘Why Julia, u hv neva shown such intrest in me n my bed. Like it. 2B honest, deps on how warm it is. Winter – tshirt n pj bots. Summer – boxers or sometimes … fuck all! Don’t u xplode now.’

‘How aaaaabout toginht?’

‘2nite = tshirt n boxers. Mix n match. Y u wanna no?’

‘I just want to imanige you Im no intedonding to exploo ode just feels nice bbbbbbb’

‘4giv me asking, ru pissed? Yr spelling etc is terrible.’

‘A bit. tired toooo Sory. >> ‘

‘Don’t b. Like it. U seem softer. Must remember 2 ply u with drink.’

‘Mm sonds god think im ggggggggggoin to slep godnit ow0jcoleiiiiiiiiiiiii   iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii iiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’

‘Goodnight you sozzled knickerless babe xx’

o0o

I didn’t have the headache I deserved the next morning, largely due to having forced myself to drink nearly a pint of water before I went to bed, but I felt bad enough to curse my alarm when it went off and take a few extra minutes rousing myself before pulling myself up into the day.

I forewent breakfast in deference to a stomach that felt slightly delicate, and stood under the shower until I started to feel a little of the blurriness receding. By the time I got to work, I had my hangover under control, although I wasn’t the first in by some way, and Lexi greeted me from the reception desk with

‘Morning Julia. You alright? You look a bit pale.’

I tried a nod and then a smile, but she was probably so unused to me doing that, that she looked more concerned than reassured as I started up the stairs. Realising I didn’t have things as under control as I thought I did, at least outwardly, I tried to get a mental grip on myself.

I found it hard to concentrate all morning. I had loads to do to make sure things were up to date before my time off: I had to hand over work to Kyle on my team, and write lists of clients that needed contacting with updates. I seemed to spend my entire life writing lists of things for people to do at the moment.

Matt went out for lunch, but came back about half an hour later complaining about being stood up, to a chorus of sympathy from the women in the office, who tried to get him to tell them who he’d been stood up by. He told them nothing, as there was nothing to tell, but seemed to be enjoying the attention nonetheless.

Eventually I had done enough to be happy to leave for a week, and I left a bit early. I checked my phone when I got into my car and was unsurprised to see that Matt had texted before the door had closed behind me.

‘Skiver! Wot time rendezvous @ farm place?’

‘I’m not skiving, I finished all my work. Soon? 6pm?’

‘OK cu then’

I drove home, changed, had a quick cup of tea and then set out again for the farm place by the river. I didn’t see Matt’s four by four in the car park, but went inside anyway, grabbed a trolley and started wandering around.

After I had been in the shop about five minutes, I saw Matt come in through the door, and stood watching him try to find me. He couldn’t spot me, half-hidden as I was behind a display of marmalade, and he started to look exasperated. I got my phone out and sent a text.

‘Are you stuck down a well again?’

I watched as he pulled his phone out of his pocket, looked at the screen, smiled to himself, and then looked worried. Then he started typing.

‘No not this time. Where ru? Can’t see u.’

‘Think Paddington.’

‘Wot?’

‘It’s a clue.’

‘RU still pissed?’

‘No.’

‘Then WTF?’

‘Paddington Bear.’

‘Oh. UR in Darkest Peru?’

‘No.’

‘Good, cos long way 2 go 4 cornflakes. Near the dufflecoats?’

‘No.’

‘Oh – marmalade. I cu. V gd! :)’

He put his phone away, smiling, and walked towards me. As he reached me, he bent down to kiss me, but I ducked away. He rolled his eyes, but didn’t push it, and nudged me out of the way so he could take hold of the trolley.

‘Liking the treasure hunt.’

‘Do you like the treasure too?’

‘Fuck yeah, you’re my little pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Loving your playful side.’

‘Do you think you’ll like my bossy shopping side?’

‘Let’s find out. Dominate me, woman.’

I didn’t really know what I wanted, beyond the staples of bread, milk and eggs, so we wandered a bit aimlessly up and down aisles, and stopped in front of the deli counter, where I started to ask for various cheeses, meat and other things Matt badgered me into trying. As we were waiting for the man behind the counter to weigh out all my things, there was a voice from behind us.

‘Fuck me, is Matt finally getting something decent to put in the sandwiches next time we’re over?’

I span round, heart racing, expecting it to be someone from work, but it was a tall man with dark blond hair who seemed familiar, but I was sure I’d never met before. He was with a slender woman with long dark hair.

A succession of expressions chased each other across Matt’s face, starting with startled, changing to pleased, then, with a look at me, unsure, and then settling into defiant.

‘Fuck off Dec, I always make bloody fabulous sandwiches. Garnish and everything. Not that you eat it.’

‘What’s the fucking point of garnish?’

‘It denotes style and taste and is an indication of the standing of the sandwich maker in the sandwich making world.’

‘What, the standing that says that you’re a bit of a tosser who likes wasting green shit that no one eats?’

‘I’ll have you know –’

‘Hi, I’m Declan.’

The tall man addressed me, just as I was about to turn away and try to pretend I wasn’t with Matt. This was obviously a friend of his, and I was suddenly panicked at the thought of being drawn into a bit of his world I was unfamiliar with. There was an awkward pause.

‘Sorry, this is Julia. Julia – Dec and Amy.’

‘Hi Julia, nice to meet you. You’re brave, shopping with Matt.’

The woman, Amy, smiled and gestured at the trolley.

‘Am I?’

‘I don’t think he’s actually been in a shop for years.’

The tall man – Dec – shook his head as if in disbelief.

‘He gets everything delivered.’

‘Yeah, thanks for revealing all my secrets, mate. Anyway, good to see you, I’m sure you’ll need to be off wherever it is you’re going, somewhere important I expect, need to dash?’

Matt frowned at them both, indicating he wanted them to go. It seemed that Dec was cut from the same cloth as Matt, though, and he looked as if he was about to enjoy not going, and stay to be annoying instead. Amy pulled on Dec’s arm, and rolled her eyes at me, shaking her head slightly.

‘Come on you, we need to get something to take with us. Leave Matt alone, you can play at the weekend. Nice to meet you Julia, bye Matt.’

As they walked away, Amy cuffed Dec on the arm and I could hear their voices as they went.

‘Ow, what was that for?’

‘Stirring.’

‘I wasn’t fucking stirring.’

‘You were trying …’

Matt looked at me apologetically.

‘Sorry. I saw the look on your face. I tried to get rid of them as soon as I could.’

‘Who are they?’

‘Friends. Well, family. Both. It’s complicated.’

‘I haven’t met him before have I? He looks familiar.’

‘Ha ha, I don’t know, but you might recognise him from the telly. He plays for Raiders.’

‘He does what? Oh, is that football, or rugby or something? I don’t follow sport.’

‘Rugby. He gets his face on the local news when he scores a try or some such heroic shit. You’ve probably seen him on West at Six. He’s kind of my best mate, you’ll see a lot of him if you see a lot of me.’

No, it wasn’t from the TV; I always turned over or off when the sport came on. I had a sudden flash of an image of a larger than life picture of Dec’s face, complete with slightly bent broken nose, on an advertising hoarding that I passed every day on my way to work. I couldn’t remember what the advert was for, but it appeared that Matt’s friend was a public figure.

To save me from having to think about that one, my order was filled at the deli counter, and I turned away to put the things in the trolley. I thought of something I could ask Matt to go and find, and managed to concentrate on just the shopping from then on. Matt managed to persuade me to buy all sorts of things I didn’t really need but he made sound like fun. I tried to join in with his light-heartedness, but us being seen together by his friend had upset my equilibrium and I felt unsettled. We didn’t see anyone else either of us knew, much to my relief, but my senses were on high alert, and I wasn’t relaxed.

Matt wheeled the trolley out to my car and put the bags in the boot.

‘That should keep you going for a bit. When are you back again?’

‘Tuesday night, I should be able to get away by late afternoon. I’ll have to go back up again soon, though, there’s so much to sort out.’

‘Can’t anyone else in your family help out?’

I thought about my parents, who would probably be jetting off before the last sandwich had been eaten at the wake, and my sisters, who weren’t even coming.

‘Unlikely. Anyway, I want to do it. Nons was – she pretty much raised me, really, I know how she would have wanted things.’

‘It’s a lot for you to do on your own.’

‘Yes, well, you can’t always choose can you? William will help me.’

‘William?’

‘Nons’ friend, and next-door-neighbour. I told you about him.’

‘Oh yeah, well, at least you won’t be completely on your own. Julia, I know this is completely selfish, but I’m really going to miss you. I missed you last weekend, but you’re going to be gone nearly a bloody week this time.’

I sighed. The last thing I needed was to be made to feel bad about going away.

‘You’ll survive. I might not be in touch much, either.’

Matt looked down and nodded.

‘Fair enough. But you will call me if you need a bit of arsing about, won’t you? I can do that at a moment’s notice.’

He grinned his crinkly grin.

‘Yes, if I require any ridiculous nonsense, you’re on speed dial.’

‘Come for a drink with me?’

‘No, I want to go home.’

‘So this is it, then?’

‘Until next week, yes.’

‘Can I at least hug you?’

I looked around the car park, and felt exposed.

‘No.’

‘Peck on the cheek?’

‘No.’

‘Handshake?’

I could feel his exasperation, but needed to stand firm.

‘Just about acceptable.’

He held his hand out, and I took it, feeling a little foolish. He held on with both hands, and before I could stop him, raised my fingers to his lips and gently kissed my fingertips. He laughed at the annoyance on my face before dropping my hand.

‘Oh no, the fucking world’s about to end now, that bloody pigeon saw me kiss your fingers.’

He grinned.

‘I may not be able to resist texting you, or even calling. You are exempt from replying or responding in any way until you get back. You are also entitled to tell me to fuck off if I get annoying – or rather, more annoying than usual. Just say the word – it’s Chatham, by the way.’

‘No, it’s Chartham.’

‘Damn, thought I could slip that one by you.’

Matt shrugged and grinned at me, knowing I’d caught him trying to wriggle out of something on a technicality. I looked into his eyes – I was going to miss him more than I was prepared to admit to myself, let alone to him.

‘Please feel free to carry on annoying me. It’s comforting to know that some things never change.’

‘Ha ha. Good to know I have my uses. If you want a good laugh, though, you should look at your texts from last night.’

‘Why?’

‘Can you remember any of it?’

‘Er … weren’t you rambling on about my pants?’

‘Yeah, lucky guess, you were soooo fucking pissed.’

‘I was not. Well, I wasn’t that bad.’ I amended.

‘Just have a look. You are hilarious when you’re shit-faced.’

I stuck my tongue out at him.

‘I should go. I’ve got a lot to do.’

‘OK. Take care then. Have a good trip.’

We carried on standing there, looking at each other.

‘You’ll have to move, or I’ll run you over.’

‘You’ll have to get in your car, or you won’t be able to run me over.’

‘You hang up.’

‘Ha ha, no you hang up.’

‘You first.’

‘No you.’

‘OK, bored now.’

I opened the door and got into my car. Matt stood in front of it for a while, then moved aside. With a strangely choking sensation, feeling as if I was going to be away from everything I knew for months, I pulled away, and glanced back to see Matt looking forlornly after me in my rear view mirror.

o0o

The next morning I left early to try to avoid as much of the rush hour traffic around various cities as I could. The journey passed fairly uneventfully and I arrived around lunch time. There was a car parked on the drive that I assumed either belonged to or was being hired by my parents, and as I was taking my bags out of the boot, the front door opened to reveal my mother and father, looking for all the world like they were welcoming me back from a long trip away. I walked up the path, and into their arms, which were surprisingly sympathetic and comforting, and we all cried.

‘How was your journey, JuJu?’

My father always retreated to the comfort of travel details when faced with a potentially emotional reunion.

‘Not bad. Lots of traffic around, but no major hold ups.’

‘Which way did you come?’

We went into the house discussing motorways, A roads and B roads.

The house felt even more strange than it had a few days ago. My parents had managed to spread their possessions into all of the rooms, there were clothes, bags, shoes, books and CDs everywhere I looked. Nons’ stuff was still there, but it had been temporarily veiled with their things.

I took my bags of food into the kitchen and started to put everything away. The contents of the fridge were a strange mix of Nons’ Tupperware containers of pilchards and peas from tins she had opened and not used up, and the jars of olives, sun-dried tomatoes and tapenade that made up my parents’ staple diet when they weren’t dining out. I added my own weird assortment to the mix, Matt having induced me to buy quails’ eggs, several strong cheeses, some fruits I had never heard of and couldn’t remember the names of and some spiced meatballs, as well as the basic essentials and things I actually knew and liked.

I took Nons’ food out and emptied it into the bin; it had already been there over a week, and was looking a little the worse for wear. I tried not to think about what I was doing and what it meant.

As I was washing out the plastic containers, my phone bleeped. It wasn’t the first time today – I had had several texts from friends who had just started to hear about Nons, probably from Evie, and were sending their condolences and best wishes. I hadn’t heard from Matt, and although part of me appreciated his sensitivity, another part wanted him to be in touch. I was amazed at how much I was coming to rely on his closeness in such a short time, although it scared me at the same time as it excited me. With a little thrill of anticipation, I saw that this text was from Matt.

‘Had some of those spicy meatballs. Fucking hell, watch out 4 wasabi. Mouth on fire.’

‘Thanks for the warning. Might steer clear tonight’

And then, on an impulse:

‘I miss you.’

There was a longer than usual pause before his reply.

‘Miss u 2. Imagining old tshit and no fuking pants (see last nite’s txts 4 details).’

‘Will have pants tonight. Not my bed.’

‘Ah, but not in my imagination.’

‘Might call you later.’

‘gr8 :)’

I stood in the kitchen looking at my phone, wondering just how I’d managed to become so dependent on Matt Scott. A few weeks ago I would hardly have exchanged eye contact with him, let alone texted him about my underwear. He was having a profound effect on me, both positive – he diverted my attention from all the sadness, grief and arrangements surrounding Nons’ death – and negative – I was finding it hard to concentrate, and my painstakingly built work life was in danger of collapsing. I shook my head and tried to clear Matt out of it, or at least send him to the back of my thoughts for a while.

My mother came into the kitchen, carrying some used coffee cups.

‘Shall I put the kettle on, JuJu? Your father and I are going to have another one.’

She snapped me out of my reverie.

‘That sounds great. Thanks Mum.’

I went into the lounge, where we sat and drank coffee and talked about what had been done and what still needed doing. My parents surprised me by having taken care of quite a lot of the arrangements. My mother hadn’t interfered with the plans William and I had discussed for the funeral, and had booked a reception at the local hotel; she had invited people she knew, and people I had suggested; she had asked William who else would need to know; and she had put a notice in the local paper. There was also an appointment at the solicitors for arranging probate, which we were all going to attend tomorrow. I was really impressed, and I told them so.

‘Well, we’re here, darling, what else were we going to do? It’s not like there’s a lot else to occupy us. Shall I show you the pictures of our safari? We haven’t seen you since we got back from South Africa, have we …’

And so the good will I had been feeling towards them evaporated as soon as it had arrived, as I was thrown into a blow by blow account of their most recent trip. I lasted about half an hour before pleading eye strain from my journey, and took my bags upstairs to Nons’ room.

I nearly couldn’t unpack in there. I changed the bed, not knowing if this had been done but doubting it, and considered sleeping downstairs on the sofa, or even asking William if I could stay in his spare room again, but backed away from explaining that to my parents. Telling myself it was just a room, I started to put things away, but the sight of Nons’ clothes in the drawers was too much. Up until now, it had seemed slightly unreal, as if Nons was somewhere else and we were just using her house. Seeing her clothes just brought it all home, and I suddenly realised, properly, that I was never, ever, going to see her again.

I sat down heavily on the bed, sobs shaking me. I was vaguely aware of footsteps coming up the stairs, the door opening, and someone talking to me. An arm went round my shoulder as I turned my body into my mother’s embrace and wept. Nons was really gone, never coming back. It hurt me over and over again, as I clung to my mother, who was all I had now. Nons had been my mum all these years, and now I was left with this woman who I barely knew. I brought my tears under control and sat up, pushing my mother away. Looking up into her face, I saw there were tears in her eyes too, but whether for my heartache, or sorrow about her sister, or even grief over her curtailed tour of Florence, I had no idea.

‘Sorry, Mum, it just caught up with me. I’m alright now.’

‘Oh darling, it keeps catching up with me, too. I’ve been trying to distract myself with plans and arrangements, but it keeps popping up at odd times. We’ve got to be strong, we’ve got a lot to do in the next few days. Daddy and I are going to the Chapel of Rest later. You should come with us.’

‘No, Mum, I already told you, I’m not doing that. William and I are going to look at some photos and talk about Nons. You can come too if you like.’

‘Well think about it darling, we’ll let you know when we’re going.’

Exasperated and exhausted, I decided not to argue. We were both going to do what we wanted to regardless, so there seemed little point upsetting each other. I wiped my eyes and carried on unpacking my things as my mother left the room without another word.