137. I will remember you

In which final goodbyes are said.

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Cal

We had hardly agreed about anything before it was time for lunch, and soon after that, Iz arrived. They’d had a nightmare journey with roadworks littering the motorways, so that had to be discussed, they all had to have food and drink thrust on them, and then we realised the kitchen was getting rather crowded, so we moved into the living room.

Dec was still sitting staring at nothing. He didn’t seem to have moved since I’d talked to him earlier, and I saw glances pass between Mum and Amy, and between Rosa, Tom and Charlie.

‘Dec, sweetheart, sorry but we’re going to have to disturb your peace. There’s not enough room for us all in the kitchen. Do you want anything to eat? Or drink? Dec. Please look at me.’

Mum was using her ‘no arguing’ voice. She didn’t bring it out very often these days, but it seemed to have some kind of residual effect on Dec, who slowly raised his eyes to Mum, although I wouldn’t like to swear that he actually saw her.

‘Do you want anything to eat?’

There was a small shake of the head. Iz was looking at Dec with a worried expression, and I saw her talk in a low voice to Amy, who nodded and spoke back to her in the same whisper.

Iz, never one to shirk a fight, even when she’s only just arrived on the scene, mentally rolled her sleeves up.

‘Right, then, Dec. I think it’s time for some plain speaking. Apparently you’ve been moping about like some teenage girl since last night. Get over yourself and either have a good cry or say something supportive to your family, or help Mum with the washing up. Something. This sitting here staring into space isn’t doing any of us any good.’

We all stared at her. OK, once I’d seen the look on her face, I knew she was just trying to get a reaction, but to start with I couldn’t believe how insensitive she was being. Dec looked at her and did another little shake of his head, but it wasn’t a ‘no’ shake like when I’d tried talking to him; it was a ‘shake myself out of it’ kind of shake. Then he spoke.

‘But … Matt …’

‘Yeah, Dec, we all know. Matty’s dead.’

Jesus but it sounded harsh. It was what Dec needed, though. He shuddered as she said the words, then looked at Amy pleadingly, as if she was going to jump in and save him from my cruel sister. My cruel sister had other ideas though, and she kept on.

‘We’re all feeling it, but there are things to be doing, and the first thing is to all look after each other. We can’t do that if you’re not even with us. We all miss him, we all feel like nothing’s ever going to be the same, but there are things we need to do, for him and for Lau.’

Dec looked at her, really looked, like he was seeing her, and realising where he was for the first time. His eyes were wide, and he nodded.

‘OK. Sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry, Dec, just come here and give me a hug.’

And to my amazement, he stood up and walked over to Iz, folding her up in his arms. I expected both of them to cry, but they didn’t, and after a while Dec let go and stood in the middle of the room looking lost.

Iz was still on the warpath.

‘Right then, Dad’s next. He’s not going to be escaping everything in his pit.’

She turned to walk out of the room, but Dec put his hand on her arm.

‘I’ll go.’

Iz turned back, surprised.

‘Really? You’re sure?’

Dec nodded and walked past us all. We could hear his footsteps as he climbed the stairs, and then his and Dad’s low voices. Then we all stopped being astonished and looked first at Iz and then at each other.

‘Well done, sweetheart. That was some speech.’

‘I just couldn’t bear to see him like that. Was I a bit over the top?’

‘No, you were just right. And you didn’t even swear.’

‘Yeah, well, with Dec swearing’s like water off a duck’s back. He probably took more notice because I didn’t.’

Iz shrugged and sat down and we all regrouped to eat lunch.

Mum was insistent on sorting out as much of Matty’s list as was possible. She’d called undertakers and venues, but there was still a lot of detail that needed arranging. We eventually realised that, list or no list, we were going to need Lau to give the final say on things. We couldn’t do that today, because it was too soon, and she’d asked to be left alone. Josh and Ella were with her, and maybe they could help tomorrow.

Chrissie arrived with the children mid-afternoon, not long after Dec and Dad appeared in the living room. They were both red-eyed and quiet, but looked more with-it that they had been earlier. My family has always worked best when people are talking to each other, rather than isolating themselves, and maybe Dec and Dad were feeling similar enough things that they could help each other.

Neither of them were going to stop being devastated for quite some time, but I wasn’t as worried as I had been earlier.

Eventually, after we’d talked about arrangements as much as we could, and Mum had fed us more cake and tea, we felt we’d done all that could be done for the day, and we just talked about Matty. We’d been doing this anyway, as part of the arrangements, but now it was full-on reminiscence.

‘Oh, do you remember when he started wearing that stupid hat? It was some kind of trilby thing, and he thought he looked so cool.’

‘Nah, he knew he didn’t look cool, he just liked seeing who would say something and having a discussion about it.’

‘It wasn’t as bad as his shorts phase – remember when he would only wear his cargo shorts, even if it was below zero outside? Some bollocks about lower temperatures being good for circulation in your calf muscles.’

‘Yeah, he loved a crackpot theory.’

‘What, like his ‘cats are really aliens’ thing?’

‘I think he might have had something there. I mean, we just let them wander into our houses, eat food we’ve bought for them and then wander out again to who knows where. We’ve been brainwashed.’

‘I see he brainwashed you too. You do know practically everything he ever said was so we’d all argue with him?’

‘Well not everything. Some things were specifically to wind Mum up.’

‘Oh, you mean his fruity language, Cal? I didn’t mind that.’

‘What? You never stopped complaining about it.’

‘I know, it kept him occupied, kept his brain ticking over. I loved the way he used words, he couldn’t just call someone a twat, they had to be, oh I don’t know, a giant thundertwatted pissarse of a fuckninny.’

Mum!

‘What?’

‘Just … Jesus.’

‘Well someone needs to keep it up, it’s not the same without the slightly blue tinge to the air round here. I miss it.’

And so it went on. There was a lot to talk about and remember, because Matty was a man who had never sat still, literally or metaphorically. And we all wanted to remember lots of things, because for a short time it made it feel like he was still there, still with us in the room.

But children need feeding and putting to bed, and I’d left Chrissie on her own with them all day, so eventually we went home. I wasn’t sure what to do about Uni. I wasn’t due in for lectures tomorrow, but didn’t know how understanding they’d be if I took any more time off. In the grand scheme of things, uncles don’t rate that highly in the compassionate leave stakes, but Matty wasn’t ‘just’ an uncle. He was the life and soul of our family, and I was going to need a while to get used to him not being there.

I decided the best thing to do would be to call my tutor tomorrow, and at least try to get an extension on my essay.

At home that evening, the children in bed, lying on the sofa with Chrissie, sadness just washed over me. Our family had lost another member, and it felt smaller. Not just because there was one less of us, but because Matty was such a big personality. He filled a room with his laughter, his chat, his way of including everyone in what was going on, and I knew we were going to feel his absence every time we all got together.

We had respected Lau’s wish not to have anyone contact her, but I texted Josh, to check there was nothing I could do. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

Hey Joshy, just wanted to say hope ur OK. Anything u need, u know where I am.

Yeah, thanks cuz. OK for tonight, but might need something tomoro, if u can call round?

Sure thing.

Chrissie and I went to bed early, having got little sleep the previous night. Lily was no respecter of grief, or lack of sleep, and she screamed the place down in the early hours. Chrissie got up, even though she was working the next day, and left me to try my best to get back into the fitful doze I’d been having beforehand.

I may have slept a bit during the night, but I spent a lot of it remembering Matty, thinking about things he’d done, things he’d said. He always had something to say in any situation, and would often choose his words so that people laughed instead of crying or getting angry. I remembered him really pissing off Amy’s parents once.

It was not long after Amy was expecting Charlie, so I must have been about nine or ten. Amy and Dec’s news hadn’t been very well received by Amy’s mum and dad, and she’d hardly spoken to them since telling them and then walking out when they gave her a hard time. My mum, of course, was unable to resist trying to mend things, and invited them over for Sunday lunch, imagining that what everyone needed in their lives was a good feed and several million family members making a bloody racket while spilling drinks and dropping gravy on each other.

Amy’s parents were very straight-laced. They only had Amy, no other kids, and they weren’t used to a lot of noise and chaos, and they looked really uncomfortable, both sitting on the sofa waiting for lunch, and then sitting at the table eating it. Mr Wright asked several times for someone to pass the salt before anyone heard him, and then just as it was heading down to his end of the table, Iz tried to climb on his lap to show him her latest soft toy, and knocked the salt cellar over. He took several deep breaths and decided to do without salt.

Neither Mr Wright or his wife said much, except to respond to the occasional question about their garden or the weather. None of us really knew what to say to them; even Rose was a bit non-plussed, and they didn’t give much back in the way of conversation.

I think Mum had been holding back on baby talk, maybe thinking that if they talked about it too soon it would leave nothing to talk about at the dinner table, but she could finally wait no longer, and waded in.

‘So are you excited about the baby, Diane?’

Amy’s mum looked down at her plate and didn’t answer, and I saw Mum frown, as a look passed between Dec and Amy. Amy’s dad took a deep breath and did his own bit of wading in.

‘I don’t see how we can be excited at the prospect of our daughter being an unmarried mother. We warned Amy of the dangers of irresponsible behaviour, but she didn’t listen, and now this is the result. Single parents are a scourge on society, and for our daughter to be one, well it’s unacceptable. Your ward has a responsibility to Amy.’

I was puzzled by the word ‘ward’, although he seemed to mean Dec, if the direction his fork was pointing in was anything to go by.

‘It is his duty to marry my daughter, and I can’t see why you aren’t insisting it happens before this child is born. It’s a disgrace.’

He managed to silence everyone. Even Iz stopped talking to her peas and looked up at us all, every one of us staring at Amy’s dad, wondering if we’d actually heard what we’d heard. Dec looked like he was going to punch him, Amy looked like she was about to cry, Rose’s eyebrows had nearly disappeared into her hair, Mum was actually lost for words.

Matty recovered first. He picked up his wine glass and held it up, so we all looked at him.

‘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.’

And he lifted the glass to his mouth and downed his wine in one swallow. He might have wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. His eyes did not leave Mr Wright’s the whole time.

It silenced the tirade, although Amy’s dad muttered ‘well’ under his breath, which wasn’t really much of a comeback to be honest.

They made their excuses and left pretty soon after that, and Mum gave Matty a big hug.

Matty always seemed to be able to talk in public like that – off the cuff, saying the right thing, remembering everything he needed to say, getting things in the right order. His wedding was a case in point, where he remembered his vows to Lau without a single scrap of paper or any words written on his hand. There were one or two teary eyes that day, too, although not because anyone had insulted anyone.

I was too cool to say at the time, but Matty and Lau’s wedding was awesome. Mum organised it with about five days’ notice. Matty and Lau announced they were having a baby, and getting married the next Friday, on the Sunday before, and they planned to have a quick, quiet do, but Mum was never going to let that happen. She would have managed something spectacular with less than a day, I reckon. But she pulled out all the stops and called in a lot of favours so that Matty and Lau had a really special day.

The registry office in the city centre was the venue for the ceremony, and Matty had asked me to be in charge of the CD player. He had planned loads of little surprises for Lau, to make it seem like less of a rush and more like he wanted it to be special. The first surprise was when we arrived.

Gran and Rose had picked me up from school with Iz. I’d been allowed out early to get ready for the wedding, and had been promised it didn’t mean getting dressed up in anything uncool. Mum had even bought me new trainers and a Hollister sweatshirt, and the new clothes were waiting for me to change into at Gran’s.

Rose drove us to the nearest car park, and we walked up the street to where we could see a few people gathered. As we approached, a taxi pulled up, and Dad got out, and he was wearing a skirt! OK, he was wearing a kilt, but seriously, what’s the diff? I was embarrassed, I mean, it was my dad, running round the streets wearing women’s clothes. And then Matty got out of the taxi, and he was wearing exactly the same. Dad ran into the building, holding his skirt down front and back, looking suitably ashamed of himself, but Matty took his time, waving at people, chatting, as if he wasn’t wearing something completely ridiculous. I heard Rose and Gran talking.

‘Oh love, don’t they look handsome. I bet you’re that proud.’

‘They do look lovely, dear.’

What? Oh well, they were women, they were bound to think that. I looked around, worried that by some misfortune, anyone I knew had seen, but my luck was in, and I didn’t see anyone I knew, from school or rugby or anywhere else.

When we got inside, Matty was talking to loads of people, while Dad stood in a corner and looked like he didn’t want anyone to notice him. The waiting room was starting to fill up, and Matty wanted a practice run of our ‘turn the CD player on’ routine.

‘Soh, Cal, when I wink like this –’

He did a wink with both eyes, twice.

‘– yuh turn ih on, yeah? Give ih a goh.’

He did the winking thing, and I pretended to press play. It’s not like it was hard. Why he couldn’t just say ‘now’, I had no idea, but Matty liked to make things complicated if he could.

‘Awesome. Keep an eye on meh, they’ll be here soon.’

And sure enough, Lau came up the stairs, looking very pretty, and Matty did the double wink thing, and I pressed play, and bagpipe music blared out. Bagpipes. I had been responsible for bagpipes. I thought it might be some embarrassing slushy love song, that would have been bad enough, but bagpipes. Ugh. However, everyone else seemed to love it, including Lau, and not long after that the ceremony got going.

As I said, Matty remembered his words, although if it wasn’t written down anywhere, who’s to say that’s what he was always going to say, and he and Lau snogged with tongues, twice. Which was ultra embarrassing, although, again, no one else seemed that bothered.

Then we all got in our cars and drove to the barn at Thursley, which Mum had hired from my friend Archie’s mum. I’d been there before, because we’d used the barn for Archie’s party when he did paintballing. It was huge, and Mum had spent most of the week decorating it, or telling other people how to decorate it. It looked really different from when we did paintballing, and there was loads of food.

I suppose I did get bossed about a lot at the party, but mostly it was Lis doing the bossing, because she’d helped Mum with the party. Lis was much better at bossing than Mum, because she made it seem like you were doing her a favour, not like you should just do what she says and like it like Mum did. I ran about taking messages to people, and some of it was cool because I got to go backstage, where not many people knew there was anything going on, and talk to the band and the choir, and tell them important messages, and bring them drinks and food, and I even plugged in a microphone.

Best of all, even though there was a lot of dancing, I didn’t have to do any of it, because I managed to look busy enough that I escaped. I know Mum nearly caught me, but I told her I’d be back in a minute after I’d taken Gran a glass of wine, and she looked kind of proud and let me go, and oh dear, I just never found my way back to her after that.

I suppose, given Matty’s past, it was a wonder he ever settled down with a family. I didn’t know him very well before we moved up to Stafford, but after we all came back to the city, and Matty was better, well let’s just say he wasn’t a shining example of monogamy. That’s not to say he flaunted women, or maybe not that much anyway, but they were just never around long enough for me to take much notice of them. He did bring women round, sometimes for Sunday lunch, sometimes just to say hi, but we hardly ever saw them more than once, and they weren’t usually that interested in me or Iz, so we learned to ignore any woman Matty had with him. There were one or two who stood out, though, like the really tall, thin one with bright orange hair, and piercings pretty much everywhere. I couldn’t stop staring, and neither could Iz, despite Mum’s not so gentle reminders to be polite. The woman, whose name I can’t even begin to guess at, just stared back at us, with a kind of ‘what?’ look on her face. I think she was there to give Mum something to go on at Matty about, because she wasn’t his usual type, who was typically blonde, a fair bit younger than him, short skirts, high heels, lots of perfume. One of these ones threw up in Mum’s rosebush, before she even got inside, and Matty got a mouthful that time for not ensuring his ‘friends’ were recovered enough from their night of partying to come to lunch.

And of course there was Julia. Julia was not Matty’s usual type at all, either to look at, or in personality. She was fairly quiet, small and dark-haired, and dressed mostly in grey or browny colours. ‘Sludge tones’ as I heard Mum whisper to Lis once. We didn’t see that much of her, because Matty often came over without her, but he was with her for a long time, and everyone started to assume they were a couple, even though they didn’t live together, or even seem to do that much together. She was good to talk to, though. She never treated me like a kid, didn’t just ask about school, but asked me about X-box games, remembered my friends’ names, that kind of thing. She came round less and less, though, and so did Matty, and it seemed like she was taking him away from us, so I didn’t mind too much when I found out he’d broken up with her.

Then Lau came, and it was like someone had plugged Matty in and switched him on. He was so different. Maybe it was just because he’d been ill, and was sad about being ill, and about breaking up with Julia, but he seemed like a different person. Just the way he looked at Lau, it was like in films, all soppy, and he touched her and kissed her all the time (ugh sooo embarrassing), and you could tell by the way that she looked at him that she felt the same. From then, it was no more women, you could see there wasn’t going to be anyone else for him but Lau. Maybe the children came earlier than planned, if there had ever been a plan, but that was right too.

Seeing Matty with his children gave me something to want to emulate. He adored the pants off those little tykes when they were young, and loved them with all his heart when they were growing. Twins can’t have been easy, although I don’t really have more than a faint memory of those early days – I didn’t do any babysitting until they were well past the screaming and pooping stage. But I will always remember the look on Matty’s face as he walked up the path to Mum and Dad’s house, one or other of the twins in his arms, looking like he’d found the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Like he finally fitted, and it was in the place he’d least expected.

So it was those thoughts and memories that kept me awake that night, the night after Matty died. They were bittersweet, because Matty was great, but he’d gone, and every remembering reminded me of that. I dozed and drifted on the tide of recollection, and then finally fell under into sleep.

The next day, Chrissie let me sleep while she got the kids up and dressed, and only woke me up when she was about to leave. Did I mention my wife is bloody awesome? I’d managed maybe three hours tops, but the extras under the duvet was much appreciated.

Having kids to take care of tends to help take your mind off your troubles; a three-year-old and an eighteen-month-old together are more than enough to occupy your mind and body. I wanted to call my tutor, but I couldn’t until the afternoon, when I rather hopefully tried to get them to nap together again. Lily went down with little fuss, but Conor wouldn’t stay in bed, and in the end I relented. I called Uni anyway, and they were really understanding, telling me to keep in touch, and let them know how much time I needed.

I texted Lau, but didn’t get a reply. I spoke to Mum and Iz, neither of whom had managed to contact Lau either, but we decided there was nothing to worry about, and Amy and Dec were just down the road if a drop-in was required.

I remembered Josh saying there might be something I could do, but he hadn’t said what, and on a whim, once Lily had woken up, I bundled them both in the car and drove over there.

I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Lau, not really. I’d just begun the very first steps towards accepting Matty was gone, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to find or how I was going to react. But I did know that Lau, Josh and Ella were part of our family, and it didn’t feel right for this huge thing to have happened to them, and us not know how they were dealing with it, or be helping them however we could.

I got Conor and Lil out of the car, and we walked up the path to the front door together.

I thought no one was going to answer the door at first, but after a while, I heard the latch, and Ella stood there, pale-faced with red-rimmed eyes.

‘Cal! Oh, you know what, it’s great to see you. Come in.’

She opened the door wider, and we walked into the hall, where I gave her a big hug and mumbled ‘I’m so sorry’ into her ear. She nodded against me, then stood back.

‘I didn’t think I wanted to see anyone, but I just realised I want to see everyone. Thanks for coming over.’

‘Hasn’t anyone else been?’

‘No, we’ve been putting people off, Mum’s not really up to it.’

‘Should we go, then?’

‘No, don’t, I don’t know if she’ll want to see you, but you can have a drink in the kitchen if not. She’s in the living room. Hey, Conor, do you want to see the cool game I’ve got on my laptop?’

Conor, as much of a gamer as his old man, nodded and followed Ella into the kitchen, as Josh came down the stairs.

‘Oh, hey Cal. I thought I heard you. I didn’t miss your call, did I?’

‘No, I just thought I’d come over.’

‘Thanks.’

There was a brief pause while I tried to decide whether to hug him, and what to say, but he made that decision for me by moving towards the living room door.

‘Did you want to see Mum?’

‘Yeah, just a quick hi.’

I opened the door to the living room and went in, Lily still in my arms. Josh was hovering behind me, as if he wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to say or do something stupid. He had a point, this was all way out of my comfort zone, and anything could come out of my mouth if I wasn’t careful.

Lau was sitting on the sofa, legs tucked under her, watching the TV. Or rather, with her face pointing in the direction of the TV. Her face had the same expression I’d seen on Dec’s the day before, and she didn’t look up. I stood between Lau and the screen, and she slowly lifted her eyes to me. It scared me to see how little of Lau there was in her face – she looked like she hadn’t slept, which was likely, and she looked so pale, so sad, almost haunted.

‘Hi Lau. Me and Lily just wanted to come and give you a kiss, see how you are.’ I wanted to say ‘I’m so sorry’ but it didn’t seem right, she didn’t look like she’d cope with me saying it, and I hoped she’d know without me saying.

I put Lil down on the floor, and she toddled over to Lau and held her arms out to be picked up. Lau usually gave the best smooshes, and Lil loved her to bits, but Lau didn’t react. I scooped Lily up again and held her close so she could kiss Lau, which she did, but Lau still didn’t seem to notice there was anyone else in the room.

I looked around at Josh, who shrugged and tilted his head to beckon me out. We joined Ella and Conor in the kitchen.

‘How’s it been for you guys? Lau looks pretty terrible.’

Josh nodded. ‘She didn’t sleep, as far as I can gather. She spent the night like that, on the sofa. I think it’s because of the bed.’

‘Shit, I never thought.’

For Lau to have gone to bed, she’d have had to sleep in the room with Matty’s empty hospital bed. There was no way it could happen.

‘I wondered if you’d help me move her bed upstairs? I mean, eventually she’ll need a bigger one, maybe, but for now, I think we should just move her back upstairs to their old room.’

‘Yeah, sure thing. I should have thought. Are you sure you’re up to it?’

‘I’d rather do it now, it’s been on my mind all day.’

Ella seemed absorbed in the computer with Conor, but her eyes kept sliding my way as if she wanted to say something.

‘OK, let’s do it then. Ella, are you OK with Lil as well?’

‘Yeah, as long as I don’t have to do any nappies.’

‘Shouldn’t do. I haven’t brought one anyway. I could do with a cuppa when we’re done, yeah?’

Ella nodded, seemingly satisfied that whatever she wanted to say could be postponed until after moving the bed.

It wasn’t hard to do, physically. What was hard was going into that room and seeing that empty bed, and trying to ignore it while we packed up the single divan and carried it bit by bit up into the upstairs room that used to be Lau and Matty’s room but had been turned into a lounge for Josh and Ella when Matty got too frail to do the stairs. Even now, using a word like ‘frail’ to describe Matty just seems wrong; he was so full of life, until just a few weeks beforehand, that we never thought of him as weak, really.

But anyway, Josh and I managed to move the bed and re-make it upstairs, not to Lau’s hospital corners standards, but well enough that she would be able to sleep in it.

Josh went to tell Lau what we’d done, and I went to collect my reward in the shape of a cup of tea.

‘Kettle on, then, Ella?’

She gestured to a steaming mug on the counter, which I picked up with a grin.

‘Good timing.’

‘Yeah, it’s not like you weren’t stomping around like a herd of bison so I could tell exactly when you were coming back down.’

‘I suppose. Good guess work then. How’ve you been?’

I bent down and scooped Lily up from Ella’s lap and held her up towards the ceiling, as I noticed Ella’s face crumple.

‘It’s been terrible. I feel so bad. I wasn’t here, was I, and Josh has been so brilliant, phoning everyone, talking to Beth about arrangements, I’ve just been bloody useless …’

Her voice tailed off as tears began to run down her face.

‘But I thought – Mum said you got here in time.’

‘He never woke up, I never said goodbye.’

‘Last time you spoke to him, though, you know, like, on the phone or whatever, you said goodbye then, didn’t you?’

‘Yeah, of course.’

‘Then that’s all that matters. Knowing Matty, he knew every time could be the last time, and that’s how he would have taken it. It really isn’t that important to actually say the words, is it? You were here for your mum, and that would have mattered more to Matty than saying a word.’

‘Maybe.’

‘And the same goes for feeling useless. People do things in different ways. Josh has done what he’s been able to; if he couldn’t then one of us would have done it. Ella, it’s not a competition. Being here is enough. And we’re all here for you too, you don’t have to stay here day in day out if it’s too much. Go and see Mum, or pop up and see Amy.’

‘Isn’t it too soon?’

‘Who for? You should do what you feel.’

‘It’s bloody shit being here, but I don’t think I should leave Mum. Not that I’ve been any use. As soon as I look at her, I just start crying.’

‘You definitely need to get out then. Go and see Mum; we were just saying yesterday no-one’s seen you for weeks.’

‘But what about Josh?’

‘What about him?’

‘I shouldn’t leave him here, should I?’

‘I think Josh is big enough to cope. And he knows how to use a phone, funnily enough, so he can call one of his eight million family members should he require assistance with making a sandwich.’

‘Yeah, alright, piss off. I just feel guilty that I spent so much of last year away from here, and now I want to go again.’

‘OK then, how’s this. Go and sit with your mum, take her a cup of tea and a biscuit, either chat to her or sit and watch the TV with her, do it for a good hour, so she knows you’re there for her, and then go out for a bit. Then come back and sit with her again. Does that feel doable?’

Ella nodded, a little uncertainly.

‘You can tell her to go and get some sleep now her bed’s been moved.’

‘Yeah, see, I couldn’t even help with that, Josh said I wouldn’t be able to lift it.’

‘Well, he’s got a point. Hey, there’s lots you can help with, though. We’ve got a whole list going on at Mum and Dad’s. You know your dad has still got us twisted round his little finger with his ridiculous arrangements?’

‘Really? Like what?’

I reeled off some of the things Matty had requested for his funeral, and Ella laughed, then immediately looked guilty for laughing, then smiled again as I rolled my eyes at her.

‘Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad. I might go and see Beth, but I’ll make a drink for Mum first.’

Ella sighed and stood up to put the kettle on as Josh came in.

‘Ella tells me you’ve been awesome.’

Josh shrugged.

‘Have you got much time off?’

‘Only today and tomorrow, so I can be with Mum. I’m playing on Sunday, so I’ve got to train. I’m going to be playing for Dad. If I score, it’s his.’

‘Aren’t all your tries for him?’

‘Yeah, not that I ever let him know they were all for him, he was big-headed enough anyway, but the next one is, well, special.’

Josh was always so chilled. I had no idea how I would have reacted, when I was playing, to losing one of my parents, but I knew how I was when I left Ayesh, and it knocked me back for weeks. If Josh really felt up to playing in a few days, just so he could score a try for his dad, it showed a depth of determination and mental strength I wish I’d had at his age.

Ella finished making the tea, and took two cups in to the living room. Josh watched her go.

‘Has she just gone in with Mum?’

I nodded, and Josh let out a big breath.

‘Good. I thought I was going to have to wrestle her in there. She’s been sat in here every waking moment, like she can’t bear to talk to her, in case she breaks.’

‘Josh, I’ve just had a bit of a chat with Ella, and I’ll say the same to you. Maybe you need to get out a bit, see people, just to stop you going nuts? I know this is difficult, a fucking awful time for you all, but as long as you or Ella are here with Lau, there’s no reason not to leave the house.’

‘Yeah, I know that, but I couldn’t go out if Ells couldn’t be in the same room. Mum shouldn’t be on her own. Hopefully it’ll be OK now. I’m going back to training in a couple of days, so things will have to be sorted by then anyway.’

‘Make sure you have time for yourself, mate. Don’t just sort things for everyone else. You need time to feel … what you need to feel.’

‘Yeah, I know. I have. Do you mean blarting?’

Matty had a special ‘Stafford’ word for crying, and it seemed Josh had adopted it.

‘Yeah, if that’s what you need to do.’

‘Well I have done, but only on my own. I don’t really do that shit in front of people.’

‘Fair enough.’

We heard the living room door open, and footsteps went up the stairs, as Ella came back into the kitchen.

‘Mum’s going to have a lie down. I think she’s really pleased you moved the bed, she’s knackered.’

‘Did she say anything?’

‘No, just nodded when I said it might be good for her to have a rest, then went up there.’

‘Well done, Ells. That’s pretty major. Maybe she’ll feel like saying something, or eating something, when she’s had a sleep.’

This seemed like something that Mum might be able to help with, although I wasn’t sure Lau was ready for the full-on Beth Scott rescue package.

‘I think Mum would like to come and see you all. I know she’s got things she wants to talk about for the funeral and afterwards.’

Josh and Ella both nodded. They, obviously, weren’t identical twins, but they often used the same gestures – small head movements and glances – which showed how close they were.

‘Maybe she can get Mum to talk. If anyone can, Beth can.’

‘Give her a call. She’s been holding back to give you some space.’

‘Really? This is Beth holding back? She’s texted me, like, every five minutes today, asking about songs and cakes and halls.’

‘You know what she’s like. She’d love to come over.’

‘Yeah, I’ll call her.’

I thought about what Ella had said about Josh calling everyone.

‘I’ll tell her. I’m on my way over there now.’

Josh looked at me gratefully and nodded.

‘Thanks for coming, Cal, you’ve been great.’

‘Sure thing, family and all that. You both know where I am if you need anything, any time. This little one makes sure I’m awake at all kind of interesting times.’

I scooped Lily up and kissed the top of her head, smiling as she threw her arms round me.

‘Actually, Ella, why don’t you come over to Mum’s with me? I know she’d love to see you.’

Ella looked furtively at Josh, as if it was wrong to want to go out. Josh smiled at her and stroked her arm.

‘Yeah, go Squeaks. You must be going stir crazy.’

Ella smiled gratefully at her brother and went into the hall to pick up her bag. Conor was still absorbed in the computer game Ella had shown him, but I prised him away and we all left for Mum and Dad’s.

Ella was quiet as I drove, and the kids were occupied with their car toys, so I worried about Lau. She was a coper, I’d never seen her down, or at a loss, and it was so weird to see her not make a fuss of the kids. She loved Conor and Lily, and would always play with them, getting down on the floor to inspect a Lego house or a teddy den, chattering nonsense with them about dollies and chocolate biscuits.

Lau and Matty had been a unit for so long, married for over twenty years, that Lau had truly looked like she’d lost half of herself. I was pretty sure Mum would know what to do, how much to push her, and when to leave her alone, which was one of the reasons I was going over there now, as well as to save Josh another call and get Ella out of the house.

Josh had impressed me with the way he’d stepped up and sorted things. I knew there were lots of people who needed to know about Matty, and although Mum had called some of them, Josh had a list and had gone through it until everyone on it had been contacted. That can’t have been easy; it had been bad enough calling Iz and using a code word. And he was being really supportive of his mum and sister. I wasn’t sure I would have coped as well at his age.

As I pulled up outside the house, and started to unbuckle Conor and Lily, Mum opened the front door and came to help, her smile widening as she saw Ella get out of the car. Mum could never resist a cuddle with her grandchildren, and always wanted to get going as soon as possible, so she took Lily straight out of the car seat and gave her a big squeeze.

‘This is a nice surprise.’

‘We’re doing the rounds. We’ve just been to number forty-seven.’

Mum looked at me, eyebrows raised.

‘I can see that. I would have come over, Ella, but Josh said not to go yet.’

‘I know, Beth. We didn’t think Mum would cope, but it was fine with Cal. She’s gone to bed, first time she’s slept I think.’

‘And I didn’t call first, I just went over. We texted yesterday, and he said there was something I could do, so I just got us all in the car and popped over.’

In your face, Mum, is something I would have never said, but she didn’t have dibs on getting things accomplished. At least not always.

‘Oh. What did he want help with?’

‘Lau wouldn’t sleep in her bed, so we moved it upstairs. She went and had a lie-down straight away.’

Mum started walking towards the door again, talking over her shoulder.

‘I never thought! That empty bed just sitting there. We’ll have to arrange to get it taken away.’

‘I think Josh has got a handle on things, Mum, you don’t have to do everything. Although, Josh did ask if you’d go over sometime, chat with Lau.’

We got inside and headed for the kitchen, because Mum could never have a visitor without feeding them, and she always had something wicked to spoil Conor and Lily with. Sure enough, once she had given Ella a big hug and installed her in the living room with Dad, she managed to rummage in a cupboard with the hand that wasn’t holding Lil, and pulled out some chocolate fingers.

She had looked a tiny bit pleased when I passed on Josh’s message, and spoke quietly to me.

‘How are they all doing?’

‘Josh is great. He’s just getting on with things. Ella needed to be told to get out, have a break, but Lau is … not herself. I mean, not that it’s not completely understandable, but it’s like she’s shut down.’

‘It’s been tough on her, especially the last few weeks. Even when you’re expecting it, it’s a shock.’

‘Yeah, I know. And she’s been half of this ‘Matty and Lau’ team, and now there’s just her. And with Josh just moving out, that house is going to feel enormous.’

‘We’ll just have to look after her. I’m glad I can go over.’

‘How’s Dad?’

‘Well he got up today, so that’s a plus. He’s not said much, though. Dec’s not answering his calls, either. I talked to Amy, and she said he’s quiet, too. It’ll just take time, sweetheart. Everyone does things their own way. I heard from that catering place – they need to know rough numbers. I wonder if Ella knows?’

‘I don’t think Ella has been … that involved with the arrangements. Josh seems to have been doing it all himself.’

‘Hmm. I’ll definitely pop over tomorrow then. Maybe I can ask him then.’

And that was how Mum did things. She organised, she planned, she lost herself in arrangements. While Conor and Lily were occupied with chocolate biscuits, I gave her a big hug. With Dad incommunicado, I wondered where she was getting her support from. It would be me right now. Mum clung on tighter than normal, and when we let go, there were tears on her cheeks.

‘Thank you sweetheart. I needed that. It’s all so sad, I don’t know what we’ll do without Matty.’

‘We’ll never forget him.’

‘No. He’d never forgive us. Oh, Lily darling, mind where you’re putting your fingers – oh too late. Don’t worry sweetheart, I’ll get a cloth. Cal, keep an eye on her, I’ve just had those chairs cleaned.’

I herded the children away from Mum’s impractical cream upholstery, and once fingers had been wiped and mouths cleared of chocolate, we moved to the living room, where Ella was sitting on one of the sofas and Dad was stretched out on the other one, watching TV. To all intents and purposes, he didn’t look much different from usual, but there was a heavy sadness about him, maybe it was the set of his jaw, maybe a slump to his shoulders. He was hurting.

We didn’t stay much longer, having filled the kids up on chocolate biscuits just before tea time, and headed home to Chrissie, leaving Mum to take Ella home later.

Arrangements were made, and a date set for Matty’s funeral. Mum and Josh did most of the planning between them, as every time anyone asked Lau anything, she’d just say ‘it’s all written down’. We stopped asking in the end, as it was obviously too much for her to think about.

There was no church service, as Matty had made it clear he didn’t want any type of religion ‘impeding his passage to the afterlife’, as he put it. But the largest chapel in the crematorium couldn’t hold all the people who wanted to give him a send off. There were people stood at the back, and out of the doors. I knew a lot of them; there were former colleagues from Raiders and from his GreenScreen days; business contacts; friends and family from all over the city; Nico and Lis came, with Basty, and it became apparent that Basty and Ella were finding each other’s company particularly consoling; Matty’s old mate Andrew came, with a couple of people they both used to work with in Stafford; the place was full to bursting.

The notice in The Herald had been written by Matty, but edited by Beth, who had wanted people to at least know where to come to remember him.

Please note that

WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT

the artist formerly known as

Matthew Robert Scott

should henceforth be known as

The Late Matthew Robert Scott

Work it out for yourselves, people!

Memorial Service – City Crematorium 1st November 1pm

and afterwards at Hilton Hotel

No flowers, donations to a charity of your choice

One of the many things Matty had specified was that he didn’t want anyone to have to deal with ‘heaps of dying blooms from my heartbroken followers’, and he had instead requested that everyone attending should be given a balloon. He even said what he wanted printed on them:

‘Matt Scott Road Trip

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day

it’s a new life for me

and I’m feeling good

which was a quote from one of his favourite songs (Muse or Ella Fitzgerald, he loved them both). I guess it was better than ‘I told you I was ill’, which Josh told us was what he wanted to have before Lau persuaded him otherwise.

So the whole place was filled with bobbing helium-filled balloons, all colours, and it was almost enough to give it a party atmosphere, rather than a funereal one. Almost.

Lau sat ramrod straight, between Josh and Ella. Ella was crying before the coffin even came in, and Basty, who was sitting behind her, put a hand on her shoulder more than once. Josh remained dry-eyed, and I remembered him saying that he didn’t cry in front of people. Lau – well, she was there in body, but her mind and her heart were elsewhere that day, as if she’d hidden herself away so as not to be able to feel it. I couldn’t blame her; it was what I felt like doing.

Matty had suggested that, rather than a eulogy, people be invited to write down one word that summed him up as they came in, to be put in a hat (a top hat, naturally) and ten of the words pulled out and read at random. Josh had volunteered to do this, and the rule was, apparently, no repeats but no censorship. The words were:

Loving

Dedicated

Brilliant

Inappropriate

Hot for an old guy (which is officially five words, but was allowed through)

Mate

Lovely

Old Bastard (again over the word count but allowed through due to truthfulness)

Literally

Heart

Josh then went on to read a message Matt had written for everyone. Trust Matty to write his own eulogy:

‘Hello Everyone. Thanks for coming, sorry to interrupt your day, I’m sure you will be amply compensated with food and drink in a short while. I hope you’re enjoying the balloons.

Now, I trust none of you are moping or wearing black or some such shit, because I very specifically asked that you didn’t. There’s a reason. This get together, well, it shouldn’t be about dying and sadness, although I’m going to miss all you guys and I’d like to think you might miss me a little bit, even if it’s just because you can now have control of the TV remote.

Anyway, the reason I didn’t want black and moping is because I had a great life. I had a wonderful, gorgeous wife and two fantastic children, and if I could have traded it all for a longer, healthier life without them, I wouldn’t have. I had the best life I could have imagined. Fuck the fact I had the bastard MS. Fuck my bastard lungs. My family are the best, and I want you all to look after each other. My life has been a great success because out of it came Me and Lau, and Josh and Ella. And if that isn’t a reason to celebrate and wear neon pink, then I don’t know what is.

Take care of each other.’

Josh looked up after he had finished reading, and took a deep breath.

‘My dad was the best. I can’t believe he’s gone. I’m going to miss him so much.’

And with that, he broke down, blarting like the rest of us, and Beth had to go and help him back to his seat.

I expected Lau to comfort him, but she didn’t seem to have heard any of it, and just sat staring at the coffin.

To be honest, after that, we were all in tears. Balloons or not, we were saying goodbye to a good man, one of the best, and it was heartbreaking. Chrissie and I held each other’s hands tightly, and most people there were comforting the people near to them.

There weren’t any hymns; Matty had stated he didn’t want anything religious. There was a sing-along version of Time of Your Life (Good Riddance) by GreenDay, and a montage of photos of Matty through the ages projected onto a screen and accompanied by Another One Bites the Dust. The coffin had been brought in to Darth Vader’s theme (people who knew Matty well had smiled at this, score Matty), and disappeared to Joy Division Oven Gloves. And when it was all over, Goodbyee Don’t Cryee made us all smile again, and we filed out of the chapel and into cars for the final leg, leaving Matty there.

Conor and Lily were at the childminder’s for the day. We didn’t need to use childminders very often, as both of us were around enough, and we had Beth, Lau and Amy as willing victims – er, volunteers – most of the time. But today, we all wanted to be there, and the funeral would be too much for the little ones. After the official gathering, we would collect them and go round to Mum and Dad’s for the family get-together.

It’s odd how weddings and funerals are the places to see people you really wish you kept in touch with, but never do. Cousins, aunts and uncles appear that you hardly ever think about, but when you meet up again and chat, you realise are pretty ace people. Of course, sometimes there are people you wish had stayed in whichever dark corner of the country they came from, but on the whole, the extended Scott family, and lots of Matty’s friends, were excellent people, and I made a lot of new Facebook friends that day, if nothing else.

We’d all hoped that the funeral would be a closure for the people who were feeling it the most – Lau, Dec and Dad – but it didn’t seem to have worked out like that for any of them. They all had the same blank expression, that made you wonder where they’d gone. Dec excused himself not long after the service; Dad only stayed because he was practically stapled to Mum, who didn’t let go of him all day; Lau was only there in body. She said ‘hello’ and ‘thank you for coming’ to everyone, and said ‘fine’ when anyone asked how she was, but she was on automatic. Josh and Ella were never far from her side, and did most of the talking.

133. Plans

In which the dearly departed are remembered, and plans for the future are made.

Knowing Mum was coming made me relax slightly. Mum always knew what to do, always took charge. And I had a job now. I dialled nine nine nine, but the ambulance people wouldn’t just take my word for it. They made me check she wasn’t breathing, they made me check for a pulse, they made me shake her shoulder and say her name, and it was all seriously freaky, and by the time Mum arrived, I was sitting on the hall floor trying to think of anything else but how I’d just been touching her, and …

‘Oh sweetheart. Is the ambulance on its way?’

‘Yeah, but I don’t expect they’ll hurry.’

I stood up and let Mum give me a hug. I clung on a bit tighter than I would normally, and felt tears well up in my eyes.

‘Dad’s in your car with Dec. I didn’t want to leave either of you alone, so I brought him along.’

‘I bet he’s loving that.’

‘He’ll get over it.’

‘Is she in here?’

Mum went into the living room, on her own because I couldn’t go in there again. She came out after a while, wiping her eyes, and looked at me. It was my turn to give the comforting hug; Mum cried more than I’d ever seen her cry before, and I just held her while she sniffed into my sweatshirt. Then she stopped, stood back and wiped her eyes with a tissue.

‘How did you know?’

‘She called me.’

‘You? What did she say?’

‘Nothing, at least nothing I could understand.’

Mum nodded and patted my cheek.

‘Let’s go and check on Dec. There’s nothing we can do here until the ambulance turns up.’

I followed Mum out to my car. Dad had turned the reading light on, and he and Dec were illuminated in the front seats. Dec was staring ahead and Dad looked like he was trying to talk to him, but not having much success in starting a conversation.

Mum tapped on the driver’s side window, and Dad rolled the window down.

‘Hey you two. Hi Dec.’

Dec didn’t answer, just carried on staring ahead.

‘James, has he said anything?’

‘No, he’s been like this since we got here. I’m a bit out of my depth, Beth. Maybe you should try.’

Mum nodded, and she and Dad swapped places. Dad and I stood away from the car a bit while Mum tried to – well I don’t know what she was trying to do, get Dec to talk to her, look at her, something.

I looked at Dad, who seemed about a thousand miles outside his comfort zone. He gave me a weak smile.

‘Sorry to disturb your sleep.’

‘Yeah, well, wouldn’t have been my choice of early morning entertainment, but I guess you haven’t been having much of a laugh, either.’

He nodded in the direction of Rose’s flat.

‘No. Ah shit, Dad, it was fucking awful. She was just sitting there, with this look on her face … you could just tell right away she was … wasn’t there, you know?’

Dad slung an arm round my shoulder, as an ambulance pulled up behind Dec’s car. I took a deep breath and went to meet it, glancing over at my car, where Mum was still talking to Dec. I was going to have to do this on my own, or with Dad, which was just about the same thing.

I led the paramedics into the flat and pointed out the living room. I didn’t go in at first, but they kept asking me questions, and it felt weird just shouting to them from the hall, so in the end I went in, but stood by the door, not looking in the direction of the chair. I was feeling seriously weirded out by the whole thing.

When my phone jangled with Chrissie’s text tone, I jumped a mile, but used it as an excuse to not be in the room where people were doing things to other people that I really didn’t want to see.

Where ru? Thought u were downstairs.

Chrissie had been asleep when I left, and I’d thought I’d be back before long. I hadn’t even thought about letting her know where I was. I had to think hard before knowing how to explain it in a text, then realised I wasn’t going to be able to. I called her instead.

‘Hey babe.’

‘Where are you?’

‘At Rose’s. I thought Dec might need a hand.’

‘What with?’

‘Well I didn’t know, but I just had a feeling.’

‘And you’re still there?’

‘Yeah. It was … er … she’s, er, died.’

‘Oh Cal. Did you find her?’

‘Dec did. He’s really freaked, gone all catatonic or something. Mum’s trying to get him to talk. The ambulance is here, taking Rose away. Shit, Chrissie, it’s fucking horrendous. I’ll be home as soon as I can.’

‘No, don’t worry, I just didn’t know where you were, and I thought if you were up with Conor I’d come and keep you company, then I couldn’t find you, so … but be there, if they need you.’

‘Thanks, babe. I expect Mum’s got it, but I don’t know how much longer things will go on here.’

‘I’ll see you when you get home.’

‘Yeah, I’m going to need a big smushy cuddle with you and Conor.’

‘On it. Cal, I’m really sorry about Rose.’

‘Yeah, me too. See you later. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

As I disconnected, the paramedics emerged from the living room carrying a stretcher with a black body bag on it. Dad, who had retreated to the end of the hallway, was staring at it with wide eyes. I opened the front door for them, and followed them out. Dad came behind, and I shut the door behind him.

As they loaded the stretcher onto the ambulance, I glanced over to my car. Dec had turned his head to look, and Mum had put her hand on his arm. I saw him shake his head, and could see the word ‘no’ form on his mouth. Then the car door opened, and he ran along the pavement to the ambulance, just as they shut the back doors.

‘Let me in, I want to go with her.’

‘And you are?’

‘Her … she’s like my mum.’

Is she your mum?’

‘Not officially.’

‘Sorry, then, mate, you can follow us if you like, but, well, maybe you’d best leave it for now, eh?’

‘She shouldn’t be on her own in there.’

‘She won’t be, we’ll be with her.’

They weren’t kidding or being disrespectful, they were trying to reassure him. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time they’d had to try to placate someone who had freaked out.

‘Dec …’

Mum had followed him out of the car, and now put her arm round his waist, drawing him away, talking quietly to him. I could hear snatches of what she was saying,

‘ … for the best … arrangements … tell Amy … come on sweetheart …’

and eventually Dec nodded and allowed himself to be pulled away, as Mum nodded at the paramedics, and they got in the front of the ambulance and drove away.

Dec stood, looking after the disappearing vehicle, eyes wide and haunted.

‘What am I going to do? Without her?’

‘Dec, we’re all here to help you through it.’

‘No … I can’t do this again … I just can’t …’

And while Mum desperately tried to cling on to him, Dec sank to his knees and started sobbing, the sounds echoing around the empty street. Mum crouched down next to him, and gestured to me and Dad to help her. Neither of us were sure what we were supposed to be doing, but Mum had put her arms round Dec, and I crouched by him and put a hand on his shoulder while Dad hovered behind, looking uncomfortable.

‘For God’s sake, James. He needs us to hold him.’

Dad reluctantly got to his knees and put his hand on a shoulder as well. None of it seemed to make a difference to Dec, who continued wailing.

After a few minutes, when a few lights went on in the nearby flats, and people started to look out of their windows, Mum decided a change of plan was necessary.

‘You two are going to have to get him in one of the cars. Maybe ours, James. Get him in the back, if you can. Dec, stand up for us sweetheart, we’re going to take you home.’

Dec didn’t move. Dad, seizing an opportunity to do something that didn’t involve having to talk or be emotional in any way, stood up, then bent down and hauled Dec to his feet by his armpits. Dec’s legs looked like they might give way, and he was still making the godawful racket, so I pitched in and supported him from one side, Dad going the other. We made our way to Dad’s car like this, dragging Dec with us. He wasn’t resisting, but he wasn’t actively moving either. Mum opened the back door, and Dad and I bundled him in, putting his seat belt on like he was five. Mum sat next to him in the back, and Dad got in the driver’s seat.

‘Cal, can you drive Dec’s car? We’ll bring you back afterwards.’

‘I need the keys.’

Mum patted Dec’s pockets and found the keys in his hoody. She gave them to me, and I followed them across the city to Dec and Amy’s house.

It was starting to get light by the time we got there, the dawn glow making everything seem even more surreal.

The porch light was on at Dec’s house, and I assumed Mum would have called Amy while we were on our way. As soon as we pulled up, the front door opened, and Amy came out, in her dressing gown.

Dec had quieted somewhat, but was still crying, and still shuddering with huge sobs. Amy came down the path as Dad and I were pulling Dec out of the car, and as he saw her, it was as if she was the first thing he’d truly noticed since the ambulance had driven away. He practically fell into her arms, and let her lead him into the house.

I looked at Mum, waiting to be told what to do. There didn’t seem any point going in; Amy was what Dec needed, not us fussing about him. Mum sometimes saw things differently, though, so I wasn’t going to do anything until I was told to.

‘Beth, just let them get on with it.’

‘I know, James. I just … after all this time, I thought he might be over it.’

‘I guess losing your parents isn’t something you get over.’

‘He’s had Rose longer than he ever had his mum and dad.’

‘Yeah, so it’s going to hurt even more. You know he’ll ask if he needs us.’

‘I know. I just want to fix it.’

‘You can’t.’

‘I know. Are you OK Cal?’

‘No, I don’t think so. But I will be when I get home and give Conor a bloody good cuddle.’

‘Come here, sweetheart, give your mum a bloody good cuddle first.’

Mum held me tight and I felt her shudder. She was always this capable person who knew what to do in any crisis, but everyone often forgot that she felt things too, cared about everyone more than was strictly necessary.

‘Thank you, sweetheart. Come on, let’s get you back to your car.’

That night, and the weeks that followed, were hard for all of us. Dec was really cut up. In fact, cut up doesn’t even begin to describe it. He didn’t leave the house at all, until the day of Rose’s funeral. He wouldn’t see anyone, didn’t reply to texts or answer calls. Mum had long conversations with everyone about it, trying to decide the best thing to do. Matty wanted to do the ‘shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit’ thing, but was talked out of it in the end by Amy, who felt it wasn’t the same, and that Dec needed time to do things his way. There was talk of doctors and mental health teams and psychologists, but Dec refused it all, and just sat staring at the TV all day.

Matty wasn’t up to much at the time, either, having had a serious chest infection and a flare-up of MS that had knocked him off his feet. With Matty out of action and Dec incommunicado, their business was suffering, and it was only because Tom knew about the techy side, and had his dad’s chilled manner with people, that the whole thing didn’t fold.

Rose’s funeral was sad, but it got Dec out of the house, and I think it started him on the road to being normal again. He was like a ghost in the crematorium – pale, lifeless, and he’d lost loads of weight. Amy and his children held him up, emotionally and physically, and the crem was full of people who Rose had meant a lot to. She was a friendly person who made connections and helped out a lot in this city, and Dec seemed surprised and gratified that so many had come to see her off.

Dec didn’t say much, to any of us, but he read a speech he’d written, talking about what she’d meant to him and his family, and how she’d always said she couldn’t replace his mum, but how she’d come to mean something else, something there are no words for, something as irreplaceable. He made it almost all the way through the speech, before just stopping in the middle of a sentence and looking out of the window. Amy had to finish it off for him, while Charlie and Tom helped Dec back to his seat.

I thought that might have sent Dec back to his morose introspection, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect, and at the wake, which Mum had naturally organised, it was good to see him talking to people, even smiling a couple of times, and looking like he was actually taking notice of things again.

After a while, things got better for Dec. I don’t know if he got some help from somewhere, he’d seen a psychologist in the past to help sort his life out, but whatever it was, he slowly got his spark back.

Laura

We had terrible days, like the day Rose died and Dec was inconsolable, and they nearly lost their business because Matt couldn’t get out to meet the clients and Dec was in no fit state to be meeting and greeting people. Tom came to our rescue that time, using his way with technology, his inside knowledge of the rugby world and his easy manner with people to smooth things over and persuade people to wait until Dec had recovered, and handling some of the simpler meetings himself.

All the children were growing up, moving away, or staying close by. Tom had a practical way with computers, and had become part of Dec and Matt’s business. Charlie had been away to Uni, given up her course in History, and come home to look for a career, which hadn’t been forthcoming and had led to lots of waitressing jobs. Gracie was half way through her Physiotherapy training in Manchester, where she shared a tiny flat with Iz, who was working for a language school, and Iz’s boyfriend Ben. Rosa had just left school and was working in a local jewellery shop while she got her own jewellery design business underway.

Amy and I often compared notes on the emptiness or otherwise of our houses; with Ella off on the other side of the world after finishing her Law degree, and Josh still living with us but usually at Raiders either training or attending a players’ function of some sort, I often felt like I had an empty nest. Although when Josh brought his mates back for a noisy session, it felt like the complete opposite.

Cal

We all missed Rose. She had been around almost as long as I could remember, and we all used to tease her about how much she talked, and how she and Mum had this, like, competition going to see who knew Dec the best, and who could feed us the best, almost as if they were trying to be the best mother figure. In truth, I don’t know that Dec really saw either of them as his mum. He often said Rose was like his mum, but I think that was only because he couldn’t find another word for it. He never made the same comparison with Mum, almost as if with his age and her age, he fell in the too-young-to-be-a-brother but too-old-to-be-a-son category, and it was just something else that was never defined.

I know Mum missed Rose, had missed for some time her being there and comparing notes about Dec and his family, having a gossip about the kids, tutting at the state of their house, all of that, because Rose hadn’t really been up to any of that for a good couple of years at least.

Rose had always tried her best to organise Dec, and Amy to some extent, but most of it had gone over his head. So she’d try with the rest of us, sometimes with some success. I remember visiting Gran, and interrupting one of their afternoon tea sessions. Lau’s mum, April, was there too, and I’d rocked up expecting to get going on taking some garden waste to the tip. I got distracted with tea and cake, and let the three witches brew their schemes as I munched and sipped. When I was little, I used to keep quiet in the hope that people would forget I was there and say something juicy. I used the same technique, and it worked for a while.

‘Isobel’s got into Manchester.’

This was Gran. She always used people’s full names.

‘Oh love, that’s so far away. Such a long journey, that is.’

This was Rose. Never really travelled, except to Wales to visit her sister and across the city to see Dec, Mum or Gran.

‘I lived in Manchester when I was younger. It’s a very cultured city.’

April had lived nearly everywhere. At least five different countries, and she knew someone in any city you talked about. I’m not quite sure how she’d crammed it all in, because Lau had always lived in the city and hardly left the county, so April must have travelled a lot before she had Lau.

‘I’ve got a friend who lives near the Arndale Centre. Maybe I could put them in touch.’

I smiled into my teacup at this (Gran always liked people to have proper cups and saucers, even though you didn’t get as much and the handles were fiddly). April was very religious, and her friends mostly seemed to be too. The thought of Iz scandalising April’s church mates with tales of her free-from-home exploits was quite amusing. Not that they wouldn’t get on – Iz got on with most people, of any age, any anything – and she might like knowing someone close to such a major shopping centre.

‘I’ll mention it to her, dear. Now Rose, tell me more about Charlie and her teacher. What exactly did she do to get detention?’

Charlie was the only person Gran called by her shortened name. Probably because although she was Charlotte, she had been Charlie since the minute she was born and the name had slipped under Gran’s radar.

‘Oh Carol, she was so cheeky. It’s been coming for a while with that one. Amy’s been to the school, but I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to do much good …’

Rose launched into a lengthy retelling of Charlie’s misbehaviour, with accompanying tuts from Gran and April. I drifted off a bit, having heard it all before from Mum, having discussed it with Iz (she and I being the oldest and therefore most sensible of the cousins, and also liking a good gossip) and knowing that Charlie Summers was always going to do exactly what she wanted regardless of detentions, tuts or anything anybody told her.

Half way through a second slice of Rose’s delicious ginger cake, I became aware that I was being discussed. Almost as if I wasn’t there.

‘… a good boy, always pops round and wheels the bin out. Although I think Ayesha wishes he’d do it for her a bit more often.’

‘Hey! Ayesh never has to wheel the bin out.’

‘No, love, because you always say you’re going to, and then it’s too late by the time she realises you haven’t and the bin lorry’s arrived, and she has to take the bags to the tip herself.’

I had no idea how Rose knew this. Oh alright, I had a very good idea. Ayesh would have told Mum, and word of this riveting bit of intel had been distributed far and wide. I was really going to have to have a word with Ayesh about what she told people. Or be more thoughtful in my chore-completion.

‘Oh great. Anything else I’m crap at?’

‘Well now you mention it, love, there’s the laundry, the washing up, the –’

‘OK, OK, I admit defeat. Gran, where are the garden bags?’

‘In the shed, dear.’

‘Right, I’d better go, before you think of anything else I should be better at. While I’m doing something nice for my Gran, if I can remind you.’

‘You’re a good boy, Calum.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Get back to your gossiping, ladies.’

Rose did love a good gossip, never seemed happier than when she was recounting something scandalous that a friend or neighbour had done or said, unless it was cuddling one of the children. But although she loved a good drama, she was kind and generous with her time, and often had wise words to say in the midst of her chatter.

When I was about fifteen, when all the stuff with Chrissie had gone on, when I was being the ‘Cob-on Kid’ on holiday, and everyone was taking the piss, she was the only one who didn’t act like it was some hilarious adolescent phase. I don’t know whether she knew exactly what was bothering me, but she stayed behind one day when everyone else had gone to the beach, leaving me to stew in my room.

When I heard everyone leave, and the silence of the villa settled on me like a cool shower in the wake of all the noise, I opened the door of my room and went into the kitchen in search of breakfast. I was starving, but there was no way I was going out there to be ripped to shreds by Matty’s smart mouth, Charlie’s annoying questions or one of Mum’s looks.

I got half way across the lounge when a movement made me jump almost out of my skin. Rose was sitting in a chair, reading a book, and she’d turned a page. No one had ever stayed behind when they all went to the beach, I’d always had the villa to myself at least until lunch time when they all piled back again and filled the place with talking, laughing, clattering plates, music and chaos. I just wanted some head-space to deal with everything, and being away from home was hard enough, let alone being expected to have a jolly time.

Seeing Rose sat there, not even looking at me, but just in my space and my time, really annoyed me. I ignored her, once I’d noticed her, and carried on into the kitchen, where I banged plates and scraped cutlery for all I was worth, to show how pissed off I was.

Rose didn’t look up, not once, didn’t say a word, not even good morning. Well, if she was trying to get me to talk to her by being all quiet and mysterious, she was going to have a long wait.

I filled a bowl with cereal, using up the last of the milk, and poured myself a glass of orange juice, then took it all back to my room, as there was no way I was going to sit at the breakfast bar while Rose watched me eat.

I stomped crossly back to my room, checking out of the corner of my eye for some sign that she’d noticed so I could ignore her more, but she kept her eyes on her book.

Back in my room, furious that I was imprisoned by her and unable to wander round the villa like I’d been used to, I ate my cereal and drank my juice. Then I took out my iPod, put the earphones in and tried to block everything out with some loud music.

It didn’t work. I lay on my bed not thinking of anything, but my empty thoughts kept reminding me that Rose was in the next room, just being there. I couldn’t relax into my sulk, not properly, because the reason I was sulking (sulking more should I say) was because she was out there, and why couldn’t she just leave me alone, why did she have to bug me? Everyone else pissed off and left me to my own devices all day, why did she have to just be sitting there, obviously wanting to disturb me and get in my way.

I was fifteen, I was a growing bag of hormones. Of course everything was about me. I see it now, but I didn’t see it then. Then, nothing was fair, everything was huge and dramatic and black or white. And right then, I just wanted her to go to the beach with everyone else so I could have my space back.

I took my headphones out and stood up, intending to go out and tell her to fuck off out with the rest of them. Then I found myself hesitating, unsure how to start, knowing if I was too rude I’d be in the shit with Mum, and kind of not caring but only in a theoretical way, not in any way that meant I would do it regardless.

As I wavered by my bed, I heard footsteps coming my way, and a tap on the door. I stood, frozen, as if caught in the middle of something I shouldn’t have been doing.

‘I’m just making a cuppa, love. Anything you want?’

Rose drank tea all day. Even in Spain, where sangria was easier to come by, and relaxed you a lot more.

Shit, though. Now she’d acknowledged me, spoken to me, I had to either reply to get her off my back, or not reply, which would make her tap harder on the door, maybe even come in. I didn’t want to talk to her, because then I wouldn’t be ignoring her any more, but I didn’t want her to come in, either, because it would be much harder to ignore her.

‘Calum?’

I thought, seriously, about saying ‘fuck off’ but in the end I just couldn’t do it. I could have said it to almost anyone else who was there, except possibly Gran, and it would have made me feel more powerful, but with Rose, although she was well used to bad language, and said the odd word that raised Mum’s eyebrows from time to time, it just didn’t feel right. Rose was about the same age as Gran, and she was kind of like a gran, and you just didn’t do that to your gran, unless she really really annoyed you. And all she’d done was ask if I wanted a cup of tea. It shouldn’t have tied me in as many knots as it seemed to have done. I tried the best compromise I could think of.

‘No, I’m fine.’

See? No ‘thank you’. That was a bit rude, but not offensive, and curt enough to get my message across, I felt.

‘Are you, though, love?’

Oh now she wanted to talk about whether I was fine or not. Well if she tried anything more than offering tea, she was going to get told to fuck off. Her look out. I didn’t answer, and sat down on the bed, getting my earphones ready to put in.

‘Alright then, I’ll be here if you feel like a chat, or if you want some pancakes.’

Oh the evil old witch. She’d mentioned pancakes. Now I could think of nothing but pancakes, the thick ones with syrup, the ones that Rose made that were de-fucking-licious. But no, I had to be firm. She wasn’t going to win me over.

I was starting to get hungry again, though. A bowl of cereal and a glass of juice doesn’t go far for a growing lad. I usually had half a loaf of toast smothered in marmalade too, but Rose being there had stopped my breakfasting.

I carried on with my music, forcing myself to stop thinking about pancakes, or syrup, or food of any sort. But it was like telling someone not to think about red balloons. I couldn’t help it. And to make it worse, I thought I could smell pancakes cooking. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks, but I could smell the batter as it hit the frying pan, and then I could imagine the batter turning brown, being flipped over, steam and oily smoke rising, a stack of thick pancakes dripping with maple syrup …

I was out of my bedroom before I realised what I was doing. I hadn’t imagined the smell of cooking; Rose was in the kitchen, frying pan in one hand, spatula in the other, a small pile of pancakes on a plate by the side of her. She looked round when she heard me coming out of my room, and smiled, but turned back without saying anything.

I stopped in the doorway of my bedroom, wanting to go back in, unwilling to give up the pancakes. The eternal teenager dilemma: food or funk. Food won. Food always won with me. If Mum had only realised this, she would have won a lot more arguments.

I ambled into the kitchen and opened the fridge, like I was just looking for something to drink. I even got a bottle of water out, and stood looking at it, as if it was hugely interesting.

Rose still didn’t speak, just carried on making more pancakes. The stack was getting taller, and was crying out for something gooey to be oozing down its sides. She had butter and syrup standing by, but there were more pancakes on the go, so she was waiting.

‘I think I might have made too many, love. Fancy giving me a hand?’

Yeah, it was pretty lame, and I didn’t believe her for a minute – Rose hardly ever ate the things she cooked herself. But it did the trick, got me off the hook of having to ask for myself, and enabled me to shrug a reply.

‘Here, then, there’s tidy. Put half of them on a plate. There’s maple syrup, butter, and I think there’s some lemon juice and sugar if you want to be traditional.’

Rose split the pile and put half on the plate that I’d got from the cupboard. I poured maple syrup over my half and stood in the kitchen, eating greedily, stickiness running down my chin while I shovelled hot pancakes in my mouth as fast as I could. Rose watched, but didn’t eat.

As I finished the last mouthful, and wiped my chin on the back of my hand, Rose rolled her eyes at my rudeness and then gestured to her plateful.

‘I’m not as hungry as I thought. Can you eat this lot as well?’

I shrugged again and held my hand out. You know, anything I can do to help, I like to be useful. As I had my mouth full of hot battery sugary goodness, Rose decided this was the time to talk to me.

‘I expect you’re wondering where I got the milk from to make these?’

I had wondered no such thing, not really knowing or caring about ingredients so much as the end result. I frowned a response and offered another shrug.

‘I mean, on account of you using the last of the milk for your cereal and putting the bottle back empty in the fridge.’

Oh she was not serious. Having a go at me when my mouth was too full to defend myself was unfair.

‘None left for my cuppa, was there.’

I had a pang of guilt. I hadn’t thought about how Rose was going to manage her eighty million cups of tea without milk, and I’d have liked to have said I didn’t care, but it turns out I wasn’t quite as hard as I’d have liked to be.

‘Good job I’ve got my own little fridge in my room, for when I need tea in the night.’

Oh well that was alright. What was she complaining about?

‘Except there’s no milk there, now, either.’

Just pile it on, Rose, why don’t you.

‘I reckon you and me should take a little stroll to the shops, get some supplies. What do you think?’

Well I’d been absolutely stuffed, hadn’t I, and not just with pancakes. She must have been planning it since I got up, maybe before. I had managed the whole of this holiday so far by staying in my room, not going out into the bright Spanish sunshine, it was a bit of a thing. This was going to be the holiday Cal didn’t leave his room. And now she’d tricked me. I’d used the last of the milk, and made her use hers to do something nice for me, and now I had no choice but to do what she asked. OK, maybe I did, because if I’d truly been the sulky teen I liked to think I was, I would have said ‘screw you’ and slammed my bedroom door again.

But I suppose I wasn’t that kid, I was the one whose mum had given a huge sense of right and wrong to from an early age, and leaving Rose without tea all day was not something I could do.

My answer was, you’ve probably guessed, a shrug. I’d managed the morning so far by saying three words to Rose, and that was pretty good going. I hoped I would be able to stand as firm on the short walk to the nearest shop.

Turned out I didn’t need to stand firm at all, at least not at first. Rose talked all the way there and all the way back, about all sorts of things, ranging from her nephew, who was about Dec’s age, and his wife and children, to her landlord’s plans to put new carpet in, to Charlie’s first day at school, Rosa’s first tooth, in fact she went through practically every member of the family, talking about her worries and hopes for them all, and then she ended up with me. By the time she got there, I’d forgotten about being uncommunicative, and was craving a chance to say something, anything, to stop the flow of words coming from Rose.

‘I hope this girl’s worth it, love.’

‘What?’

‘I hope she’s worth you missing having the time of your life with your family. You won’t get it back, you know.’

‘What would you know?’

‘I’ve had my fair share of romances gone wrong. I wasn’t always an old bird, you know.’

Why did adults always say that, as if they had any idea what it was like?

‘They all miss you, being with them.’

‘Yeah right.’

‘That’s why they’re being so annoying, Matt and Declan trying everything to cheer you up and get you out of your room. It’s not the same without you there. Your mam misses you the most.’

I knew that, really. I knew deep down I was spoiling things in some way, for everyone, but I just didn’t have it in me right then to be that happy chappy they all wanted me to be.

‘I can’t, Rose, I just can’t.’

‘They worry, you know. We all do, love.’

‘I can’t help it. It’s like …’

I tried to find words to say how big a hole Chrissie had left in my life.

‘… whenever I feel happy, it doesn’t last long, because I think about her, and everything goes a bit dark, because I want to tell her how I’m feeling, but I can’t. I can’t ever. And don’t tell me I’m too young, Mum said I’m too fucking young to feel like this, so that’s why I don’t talk to her, she’ll never understand.’

‘Oh love, I’d never say you’re too young. Love can hit you hard any time, young or old, and I’m sorry you’re feeling like this. Maybe, though, you might need to think about trying to pull yourself out of it. I don’t mean right now, you sound like you do need some time to yourself, but don’t let it go on too long. It can be hard to shake it off.’

I looked at Rose. The way she spoke, it sounded like she did understand how I was feeling, almost as if she’d felt it too. She was looking back at me.

‘Yes, love, I do know how it is. I was fifteen once, too. Same thing, loved a boy, he left, I was heartbroken. Cried my eyes out for weeks, I did. Then I decided I wasn’t going to let a boy, who wasn’t there any more, rule my life, and I stopped crying and started smiling. If you smile enough, you can convince yourself you’re happy sometimes.’

It sounded like a load of bullshit to me, but it was true that Rose did seem happy a lot of the time. It wasn’t going to work for me, though, not yet, although maybe some of what she said made sense.

‘I’m not going to smile, not right now. I need to be on my own.’

‘Fair enough, love. Just promise me you won’t let it rule your life.’

‘OK.’

‘I can have a word, if you like, get them to leave you alone a bit?’

‘No, it’s OK, don’t say anything. There’s only a couple of days before we go home, I don’t want the ten thousand questions.’

‘Alright, love.’

We got back with the milk, and to my knowledge Rose never told anyone about our conversation – to all intents and purposes, nothing had happened that morning. I stayed in my room for the rest of the holiday, dinner aside, and thought about Chrissie and what she’d meant to me and what she meant to me now.

When I got home, I realised that what Rose had said had stuck, and I started smiling more. It did make a difference, even outwardly – the way people reacted to me was different if I was smiling than if I was being a miserable git, and that made me feel different. I didn’t miss Chrissie any less, but I started to do things that made me forget, and in time it stopped hurting so much.

Rose often had wise words to say, and she was often surprisingly discreet. She loved a good gossip, talking about who was moving in with who in her flats, how terrible it was that the postman had run off with the woman who ran the convenience store, but when she had her chats with you, she didn’t tell anyone, she just talked and you generally just listened because you couldn’t get a word in, but she let you make your own mind up if you took her advice. Never came back and said ‘didn’t I tell you to …’ or ‘why didn’t you do what I said’.

When Chrissie came back and there was all the awfulness that went on with Ayesh, and it felt like everyone hated me for breaking up with her, Rose was the first one to say ‘I knew you and Chrissie should be together’, and she gave me a look like she remembered that morning in Spain, when I’d told her things I couldn’t tell anyone else, and I’ll always love her for that.

o0o

It wasn’t long after Rose’s funeral, in fact it was a few days after Conor’s first birthday, that we found out Lily was on the way. Not that we knew it was Lily, obviously, and it was a bit of a deviation from our plan as she was due in February, instead of the summer holidays. Babies – you just can’t trust them to get anything right.

From the start, she caused no end of trouble, and I expect she’ll go on causing it, like all the women in our family seem destined to do. Firstly, she was a bit of an accident – not in any way unwanted, Lily my lovely girl, we always wanted you, so much, still do, even when you’re screaming the place down because you wanted a green lolly and Mummy got you a red one. But anyway, there was a contraception mishap (hey Lau, I said it again), and before we knew it, Chrissie was having morning, noon and night sickness. She vomited at the slightest hint of food, almost literally anything would set her off, and she lost about a stone, instead of gaining weight, in the first couple of months after we knew.

Chrissie and the doctors finally got the puking under control, only for her blood pressure to spike, resulting in her being on bed rest for the last two months of the pregnancy, and the last month actually in hospital, because she just would not do as she was told.

That meant a month of me and Conor fending for ourselves, although to be honest we’d been doing that beforehand anyway, trying to keep Chrissie out of action.

And then when the time came for Lily to arrive, we nearly lost them both when there was some bleeding that wouldn’t stop, and I was shoved unceremoniously out of the room to pace in the corridor, sick with worry and angry at the lack of information.

It was very different from Conor’s birth, and it took us some time to stop feeling traumatised and begin life as a family of four. Chrissie was unwell for quite a while afterwards, and it was only because of a massive rally round by the rest of the family that we didn’t go under.

It was approaching the end of what I didn’t realise at the time was my last full season as a regular Raiders player. I’d felt for a while that I was maybe a metre off the pace, couldn’t get across the pitch as fast as I used to any more, missed a few important tackles. In the summer after that season, Raiders brought in the young TomCats and England winger who was hitting the headlines, and my regular playing days came to an end. I was destined to stay with Raiders until I called it a day – I couldn’t leave now, I wouldn’t know how to start again somewhere else – but it was with a game here and there in less important cup competitions, and a role in coaching, which I really didn’t enjoy.

Having a young family to support helped me to focus my attention on what I was going to actually do to support them once I stopped earning a living by playing rugby. I’d had my head in the sand about it for so long, and then suddenly, it hit me slap in the face.

While Lily was so little and Chrissie was so poorly, I had no choice but to carry on playing, when I was picked, helping out with the corporate and media stuff when asked to, and trying not to mourn my fading fitness or the lack of match appearance or win bonuses which decreased our income somewhat.

I felt it deeply, it affected my sense of who I was. I was a rugby player, had been since I was a teenager. It was a constant in my life, and losing that with possibly two thirds of my life left – well, I found it hard to accept. Until I talked to Matty, that is.

Matty had more bad days than good. He was regularly in hospital with pneumonia; he was more often than not either confined to his bed or his recliner chair; when he was up and about, he usually needed wheeling from place to place. He hated every second that he wasn’t what he considered normal, so he spent a lot of his life hating what he was. He could have become bitter and angry, but somehow he kept his sense of humour and his love of a good natter about nothing.

We could have just left him alone, God knows he told us to often enough, but his and Dec’s ‘you shouldn’t be alone when you feel this shit’ mantra had filtered down to us all, and when he was feeling down, that’s when we stepped up the visits, calls, texts and Facetimes.

Mum was coordinating the current campaign, and she’d text someone every day to suggest they might give Matty a ring, or call in to see if Lau needed anything from the shop. It was my turn, and I stopped off on the way home.

‘Hi Cal. How lovely to see you.’

‘Hey Lau. Just on my way home, wondered if there’s anything you need?’

‘Oh, no, thanks flower. Josh popped to the shop for me this morning. Come and have a coffee, though. I’ve got some chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven, too.’

‘Great. Is Matty about?’

I always asked this, even though Matty had no choice but to be ‘about’. It just continued the illusion, for him and for me, that there was a possibility he could be off on one of his hikes, or out checking the internet connection at Raiders.

‘Yeah, he’s had a snooze, just woken up.’

‘Lazy bastard.’

‘Matt’s always loved his sleep. He’s in the lounge, go through, I’ll be there in a minute.’

Lau headed off to the kitchen, and I walked through to the living room, where Matty was sitting in the large recliner chair they’d bought so he could sleep there in the day if he wanted to, without having the hassle of going back to bed.

These days, Matty was stick thin. He’d never had much body fat, but he was positively gaunt now. As I saw him, I had a sudden flashback to how he looked when he first came home from hospital up in Stafford, all those years ago, when I thought he looked like a ‘skellington’. He wasn’t that far off now, and I saw it with a lurch to my heart, how small his reserve of energy must be, and how exhausting every day must be for him. Before he could see me feeling sorry for him, I gave him a grin and plonked myself in the chair next to him.

‘About time you woke up, old man.’

‘Pihs ohf. I desehv my rehst.’

‘Yeah, I can see how a long day of sitting watching Countdown would tire someone out.’

‘Sihting watchihg Dec ruihn my businehs mohr lihk.’

Matty gestured to the laptop that was on a small table by his chair. He still spent a lot of time doing the IT side of their business, Linebreak, while Dec visited various locations and fed back via email and text.

‘Why, what’s he done now?’

‘Triehd tuh tehl Trohjans’ IT guy hoh tuh fihx thehr dahtabahs.’

‘Bugger. I take it he doesn’t know how to fix Trojans’ database?’

Matty looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

‘Cahl, yuh knoh he’s shih at compuhters. He cahnt evehn sahv a fihl, an now heh’s fucked ih up evehn mohr. Said he wahted tuh sahv meh a johb. Dickhehd. Cauhsed meh mohr wohk.’

‘Well that’s your afternoon sorted, then. I’ll leave you to it, shall I?’

‘Noh, dohnt goh, or Ih’ll hahve tuh sit an look at Lau ahl aftehnohn. Oh, heh Lau.’

Matty managed a cheeky grin as Lau came in with the coffee and cookies she’d promised.

‘Watch it, buster, I’m carrying a tray of hot drinks and it would be really unfortunate if one of them ended up in your lap, wouldn’t it.’

‘Lau, yuh wouhn’t, not my tahkle, wha wouhd yuh do wihout ih?’

‘Hmm maybe. Just watch your step then. Have a cookie and tell me how delicious it is, to make up for it.’

Lau was always trying to tempt Matty to eat, but Matty rarely had an appetite. He’d force enough down to keep him alive, but it was sad to see how little he cared about food any more. He’d always loved to cook, messing about with ingredients, making sauces for pasta, creating weird and wonderful sandwich fillings, doing amazing breakfasts for everyone, but now he hardly seemed to notice he was hungry.

‘I cahn smehl ih’s dehliciohs frohm hehr.’

‘Smelling’s not tasting, Matt. Here, Cal, show him what he’s missing.’

I dutifully ate a cookie. As I’d expected, it was really tasty. Chocolate chip cookies were Lau’s speciality.

‘Yeah, Matty, as good as ever. Possibly the best batch I’ve ever tasted.’

‘There you go, flower. How can you miss the chance to taste possibly my best batch ever?’

‘Goh on thehn, hahf a ohn.’

Lau smiled triumphantly and broke a cookie in half, handing it to Matty on a plate. She watched eagerly as he ate half of it, then put the plate down; Matty looked at her apologetically.

‘Dehd tahsty, Lau. Not huhgry tho.’

‘Never mind, flower. Here’s your coffee.’

She put Matty’s on the table by his laptop, then gave mine to me before picking up a mug of tea that Matty hadn’t drunk, and heading back to the kitchen. Matty’s coffee also remained untouched.

‘Hoh’s Chrihsie?’

‘Much better than she was, thanks. She’s been out a few times this week, taken Lily to appointments, came to the park with us yesterday.’

‘Greht. Lihly doing wehl?’

‘Yeah, growing every day. Conor’s got a cold, so he’s a grumpy little git. I would have brought him round at the weekend, but I didn’t want you to catch it.’

Matty rolled his eyes, as if catching a cold made no difference to him, when in reality it would have had him on a drip within twenty-four hours.

‘I saw Raihders sihgned Joss Tenk.’

Joss Tenk was the whizz-kid England winger who was set to replace me.

‘Yeah, great signing for us.’

‘Yuh OK wih ih?’

I looked at Matty, who knew as well as anyone what it meant for me, in all likelihood, unless I managed to find some previously undiscovered reserve of speed, fitness and (let’s face it) youth over the pre-season. I could have bullshitted him, but he would have seen through me in a second.

‘I haven’t got a choice, Matty. I’m not going to last forever, am I? I’m off my pace, and he’s a great signing. Raiders can’t afford to be sentimental. I’ll just have to try my best over the off season, see if I can’t show them there’s life in the old dog yet.’

‘Wha yuh gona duh?’

‘Well, work hard, train hard –’

‘Noh, wih yuhr lihf.’

It was a while since anyone had been this blunt with me. I’d avoided that question so well and for so long, that people had given up asking. I always hinted at some vague plan without actually expanding on it, and had become expert in avoiding being specific. Even Chrissie, who had begun to seriously question what I was going to do when I stopped playing, had been too poorly since Lily was born to be persistent, and I’d gone back to ignoring it all.

‘Oh I don’t know. Something will turn up.’

‘Yeh, yuhr righ, cos wehl paid johbs jus fahl in yuhr lap wehn yuhv got noh qualificahtions or expehriehce.’

‘I’ve got my coaching badges.’

‘Oh yeh. Weh ahl knoh hoh much yuh lohv cohching.’

‘Back the fuck off, Matty.’

I was getting defensive. I’d called round to see Matty and maybe have a bit of a chat about the weather and the kids, and instead I was getting the third degree about my career prospects.

‘Noh, Cahl, I dohnt thihk I wihl. Thihs fucking bahstrd’s gona geh meh ohn day, an I wana say shih befohr ih does.’

‘Matty …’

I hated it when Matty talked as if it was inevitable he wasn’t going to last much longer. However bad he got, he had so much guts and determination, he loved Lau and his kids so much, he always battled back. This was just another setback, I was sure, and I didn’t want to think about it being anything else.

‘Noh, Cahl. I wana say thihs. If yuhd behn shih at rugby, wha wouhd yuh hahv dohn?’

His question sparked a memory, of lying face down on the physio table at Raiders, talking to Kieran about what he was doing with his life because he knew he wasn’t going to be a professional sportsperson. Being a Physio wasn’t a substitute, it was completely different, and I wouldn’t say it was something that had ever occurred to me, except in a ‘bloody hell that’s too difficult’ kind of way. But I had always been fascinated with how the body healed itself and how it could be helped along. I had a sudden image of me being part of a different sort of team; one that looked at how to get the most out of arms and legs, how to help muscles repair, when to exercise and when to rest. It was just the seed of an ambition, but it took root in my head as I shrugged and answered Matty.

‘Dunno. Something physical, something not academic.’

I hardly had any GCSEs, not because I couldn’t have got some if I’d applied myself, but because I had other priorities at the time. Raiders Academy had always been hot on studying, but my focus had never been on schoolwork, it had always been on the outdoors, running about, throwing a ball, being buried under a pile of blokes, instead of under a pile of books.

‘Yuh couhd, tho. Duh the acadehmic thihg.’

‘Nah, I’m too old.’

‘Fuck ohf wih yuhr ‘tuh ohld’. Cahl, yuhv got a fahmly. They’ll lohv yuh whaever, buh yuhv got the braihs tuh beh amahzing. Duh ih while yuh can. Duh sohmthing tha hehps yuh look ahfter them. Yuhr gona nehd tuh suppoht them. Yuh nehd tuh duh the behst thihg yuh cahn. Migh tahk sohm hahd wohk.’

‘But I …’

My protests died away as Matty ignored me and took a big, noisy slurp of his coffee. He had decided the conversation was over, and when he’d finished swallowing his mouthful, he turned the topic to football, and we argued Tottenham versus Arsenal for a good half an hour before I had to go home.

Later that evening, my head still whirring with the possibilities Matty had made me think about, I pulled Chrissie against me on the sofa, after Conor and Lily were in bed.

‘Matty thinks I should go back to school.’

‘Oh does he? To do what?’

‘Get a career.’

‘Mm hmm. Did he give you any other careers advice?’

‘What, apart from never managing Spurs because they wouldn’t want someone who obviously knows nothing about football as evidenced by my poor taste in teams?’

‘Not that you’d take the job if they offered you a million a year.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Yeah, apart from that, then.’

‘Well, no, he didn’t come up with anything, but … I did have a thought.’

Chrissie twisted in my arms and looked up at my face, an eyebrow raised quizzically at me. She knew I never talked about this, and I wasn’t really sure what I was doing talking about it myself, but something from this afternoon had got under my skin, and I needed to think out loud about it.

‘Well go on, then, share please.’

‘Alright then. I know it’s not the most original thing, but I was wondering about training to be a Physio.’

‘What, like Gracie?’

‘Yeah. Well, maybe more along the lines of Sports Physio than helping old ladies with their hip replacements, but it’s all the same training.’

‘That’s a lot of Uni, Cal.’

I looked down at Chrissie. She wasn’t suggesting I couldn’t do it, I knew she’d support me whatever I did, the same way I’d support her, we’d find a way to do whatever we all needed to do to be a family. She was wondering if I’d thought of all the implications and consequences, and fair enough, thinking things through wasn’t my strong point, and I had only just begun to think about this, I hadn’t thought any of it through at all. She also knew I was a lazy bastard at heart, and training aside, did as little as I could to get by.

‘Yeah, I know, I don’t know if I could do it, I mean, fuck, I’d have to do a shitload of exams just to get on the course. I honestly don’t know if I could actually stand it, but I think I want to find out.’

‘That sounds like a good place to start. Find out what you’d have to do. You should ask Gracie.’

‘I guess I could start with her, but she’s such a brainbox, she had all her exams sorted before she went, knew what grades she needed, passed everything with an A star. And she’s young. You know, old dog, new tricks and all.’

‘Yeah, but Cal, you haven’t really got a choice but to learn new tricks, have you?’

Trust my Chrissie to just say it how it was. She didn’t go on at me, usually said her piece once and then let it stew until I made my mind up, but once we were talking, she just said what she thought. And she was right. I didn’t have long before any decisions about my future were out of my hands, and I would be without a playing contract or, indeed, a job of any sort. It was like a light going on – I had to start doing something about it; should have been doing something about it for a long time.

‘Shit, Chrissie, you’re right. God, I need to do something, don’t I? I’ll call Gracie tomorrow, have a chat. Maybe talk to the guys at Raiders too.’

‘Yeah, sounds like a plan. Hey, who’d have thought, eh? Cal Scott has a plan.’

‘I know. Well weird. I think I need to lie down.’

‘You practically are lying down.’

‘Oh yeah. Well that’s alright then, no need to move at all.’

We sat together in comfortable silence for a bit.

‘How is Matty?’

‘He was out of bed, which is good, but still talking this shit about wanting to say everything while he’s got the chance.’

‘It sounds sensible to me. Do what you need to while you’ve got the energy.’

I didn’t respond immediately. It was too hard to think about Matty wanting to set his affairs in order, because I’d have to think about why he’d need to do that.

‘You know what, though, he’s a bit of an inspiration. He’s never let anything stop him doing what he wanted, or maybe what he needed to do. I mean, he can’t get around without help, and his speech has gone to shit, but he’s still working, still sorting out people’s IT stuff. He made it happen with Dec, and he’s training up Tom so when he –’

I stopped, as it was too hard to say what I’d almost said, that he was training up Tom to take over from him when he wasn’t around any more Matty was making sure everything was in place, that it was all sorted. I knew he’d made Lau some kind of partner in the business so she’d be financially OK, and it seemed he was working his way through the whole family, trying to make things as right as he could. Thinking back, I knew he’d talked to Iz about marrying Ben (fat chance, Matty, but nice try), he’d talked to Mum about ways to manage her business so she could step back a bit (Mum was rather taken aback at being told what to do for a change), he’d told Dad to retire and go travelling before he was too old (that went down well); I couldn’t think of any of us he hadn’t tried to sort out one way and another. He’d made some waves, thinking about it, but it hadn’t stopped him.

‘He is pretty inspiring, Cal. Nothing seems to stop him. He just fights all the time.’

‘Yeah, that’s what I mean. He wants his family to be OK, and he’s just going for it. I should be doing the same, whatever it takes. If I have to do some studying, take some exams, get off my arse a bit, I bloody well should, to make sure you’re all OK and we don’t have to worry.’

‘We’ll be OK, whatever.’

‘Yeah, and I know it’s not just up to me, but I think now playing isn’t so certain any more, I need to man up, be part of Team Scott. Unless you think thirty-one is a bit young to be manning up?’

I looked at Chrissie hopefully, but she just cuffed me on the arm and shook her head.

132. May you never

In which we encounter birth and death.

‘Hello sweetheart. Everything alright?’

‘Yeah, just off to the hospital. The baby’s coming.’

‘Oh Cal! That’s so lovely. I’ll be there as soon as I can.’

‘What? Why are you coming?’

‘Well I thought I might be able to help –’

‘Thanks, Mum, but I think we can manage. We’ll call you later, and you can come and start being a granny.’

‘Oh but –’

‘Thanks for offering, Mum, but we’ve got this. Gotta go, we’re in the car. Bye.’

As far as being assertive with Mum went, it was pretty successful. Chrissie and I had been very sure that we didn’t want Mum anywhere near the delivery room giving anyone and everyone the benefit of her advice, but we were sure that we wanted her there as soon as possible afterwards so she could cuddle her new grandson.

‘Well done you.’

‘I handled that quite well, didn’t I?’

‘Yep. Now, drive on – ooh – they’re expecting us.’

It was early afternoon, the sun was shining, it was just like going on a day-trip, apart from the occasional ‘ooh’ as I drove.

Just as I pulled up outside the hospital, parking in the ambulance-only bit because there was no way Chrissie was going to be walking across the car park, there was an ear-splitting scream.

‘Aaaaah fuck. Aah shit that fucking hurts.’

This was more like it. Now I was proper panicked, like I thought I ought to be, and Chrissie looked like she was in real pain, with screaming and everything. Now we were getting somewhere.

‘OK, OK, just wait here, I’ll get a wheelchair or something.’

‘Don’t, you can’t leave me.’

‘Well I’ve got to babe, I can’t stay parked here.’

‘No Cal, don’t leave me, please.’

‘Two seconds, just to get a wheelchair.’

‘No!’

Chrissie reached over and grabbed my arm, harder than I would have thought her capable of. Serene Chrissie had left the building, and Determinedly Unreasonable Chrissie had taken her place.

‘Chrissie, we can’t stay here –’

There was a tap on my window. Looking round, I saw a man wearing a hi-vis jacket with ‘AMBULANCE’ across the front in blue. I opened the window.

‘You can’t park here, mate.’

‘Yeah, I know. I’ve just brought my wife in. She’s in labour.’

The man looked over at Chrissie and saw what was obvious, that she was heavily pregnant, with a large side order of fraught and hysterical.

‘You need a wheelchair. I’ll get you one.’

Before I could thank him, he’d headed off; I prised Chrissie’s fingers from my arm and got out of the car to open the passenger door for her.

‘I’m sure he won’t be long, grab hold of me and get out, babe.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Sure you can. Here, hang on to me, swing your legs round –’

‘I mean I can’t do it. I can’t have the baby.’

What was this now? How could she even be thinking that? That was totally illogical.

‘But … but … you haven’t got a choice. It’s not like they do refunds. Come on, it’s just nerves.’

‘It is not just nerves. Are you the one who’s going to be in level ten pain, or squeezing a person out of your vagina?’

‘Er, no, but maybe keep your voice down a bit, babe.’

‘Don’t you dare. This fucking well hurts. I can’t do it.’

I didn’t know how to respond. Chrissie hadn’t moved from the front seat, and if we were there much longer I was going to have to explain myself to more irate ambulance drivers.

‘OK, then, what do you want to do?’

‘Well how should I know? Don’t just stand there looking like a moron, help me.’

‘But I don’t know what to –’

Aaaaaah. Aaaaaah fucking hell fucking hell fucking hell.

Chrissie bent over her stomach, her face going red and her hands gripping her knees. I had never seen a woman in such pain before, and it was truly terrifying. Of course I’d seen plenty of blokes in a lot of pain, you know, dislocated finger, ruptured knee ligaments, internal bleeding, that kind of thing, usually on a muddy field, on their backs, being tended to by a physio while a game went on around them. They didn’t make much of a fuss about it. I didn’t think now was the time to mention it.

As Chrissie’s screeches subsided, I felt a tap on my shoulder and it was the ambulance bloke with the wheelchair.

‘Here you go mate. Your first is it?’

I nodded.

‘Yeah, thought I recognised the look of terror. Need a hand?’

I nodded again, suddenly helpless in the enormity of what seemed to be happening. The hi-vis man reached over and put his hand on Chrissie’s arm.

‘Alright there, love?’

I winced. Chrissie hated being called ‘love’ by men she didn’t know, and always tore anyone off a strip who tried. Except today.

‘No, I’m in fucking labour and it’s fucking agony.’

‘Oh, yeah, I know how that goes. Having a contraction now are you?’

‘Just had one.’

‘OK, then, we need to get you into the chair before the next one, so we can get you up to the Maternity Unit before junior makes a surprise entrance.’

To my amazement, Chrissie nodded and swung her legs round, allowing herself to be helped up by the ambulance man. Maybe they were trained in Jedi mind control or something.

As Chrissie sat in the chair, Obi-Wan Kenobi addressed me.

‘You need to move the car, mate.’

‘No, Cal, don’t leave me.’

‘I can take her if you like.’

I looked at him, undecided. Fuck it, I should have brought someone else with me who could park the bloody car. Why had Chrissie misled me with all the serenity and ‘ooh’, when really this was a panic situation that required quick thinking and not having to spend hours driving around looking for a bloody parking space?

‘Chrissie, I’ll be two minutes, I promise. I’ll run, I’ll catch you up.’

Two minutes was if I just dumped the car on the first lot of double yellow lines I found and paid the ticket or got the car unclamped later.

‘Don’t be long. I’m scared.’

‘I won’t, babe. I’ll be right there.’

As I drove off, Chrissie was pushed away by the hi-vis man, and I saw her looking desperately back over her shoulder, as if it was going to be the last time she saw me.

The gods were smiling on me, and a parking space opened up as I drove by it, so I abandoned the car at a bit of a crazy angle, then legged it as fast as I could to try and catch up with Chrissie and Obi-Wan.

The hospital was enormous, and the maternity unit was over the other side of it. There were lines painted on the floor to help idiots like me who had no sense of direction and couldn’t follow simple instructions, so I kept my eyes glued to the purple line as I raced down the corridors.

It wasn’t long before I picked up the sound of Chrissie’s voice.

‘Jesus fucking Christ where is he? He said two minutes.’

There was a less audible reply, so I just followed the sound of swearing. There were no more quiet ‘ooh’s, just ‘aaaaaah‘s and ‘fuck‘s.

I should stress that Chrissie didn’t normally swear a lot. Not that she never did, just that she chose her moments a bit less often than other people, me for example. I knew as well as anyone how helpful a good ‘holy fuck’ was in times of need, and it sounded like Chrissie was currently in a lot of need.

I sped up towards her voice, and she came into view as I rounded a corner, just as she was approaching the door to the maternity unit.

‘Chrissie!’

She turned her head as I reached her, and relief washed over her face, swiftly replaced by pain.

Aaaaah. Fuck. This is all your fault, you fucking bastard. Where the fuck have you been?’

I reached for her hand, but she batted me away.

‘Sorry, babe, I had to park the car.’

‘Here, mate, do you want to take over now?’

The Jedi Master ambulance driver handed the wheelchair over to me and started to walk away.

‘Thanks very much, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘That’s my job. Good luck. The name’s Dave, by the way, in case, you know …’

Obi-Wan Dave looked at me hopefully.

‘Thanks. We’ll bear it in mind, er, Dave.’

I opened the door to the unit and pushed Chrissie through it. She let out another scream, which brought quite a few people running, and before long we were in a room with a doctor and a midwife. Not Chrissie’s midwife, who was on holiday. This was apparently my fault.

‘Why did you have to knock me up just then, so Karen wouldn’t be here?’

‘Sorry, babe.’

‘Fucking men, the whole bloody lot of you are fucking useless.’

‘On behalf of men, sorry.’

I thought by being apologetic and remaining calm, I might get out of further abuse. This was not to be the case. Chrissie only stopped berating me long enough to scream, and then it was back to the badmouthing.

After what felt like hours and hours of sweating, screaming and swearing, Chrissie was pronounced ready for the delivery room, and she was helped into the wheelchair again. I tagged along behind, feeling a bit useless and a bit unwanted, until Chrissie looked for me and held her hand out, an expression of complete fear on her face. I reached for her hand, and she squeezed it so hard it hurt, a lot. I was slightly worried she might have broken a bone, but chose not to mention it.

‘Don’t leave me.’

‘Not going anywhere, babe.’

‘I’m scared.’

‘I know. You’re being so brave, so incredible. Just keep going, not long now.’

And then, after another forever in the delivery room, with a lot more sweating, screaming and swearing, he was suddenly there. I watched it all happen, and it was impossibly gruesome but spine-tinglingly awesome to watch him arrive. I got to cut the cord, and then I went back to Chrissie and held her hand and wiped her forehead and kissed her, and then they gave us our son, all wrapped up, and he was the most exquisitely beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Neither of us could speak, we could only look at him. The first thing he did was cry, and it broke my heart. I wanted to tear the world apart to look for the thing that would make it better. Turned out I didn’t have to, he just needed a feed. Took after his dad straight away on that front.

We had a few minutes with him while he fed, and then had to go back to the private room, where they’d put a little plastic cot with a blanket in it, but otherwise we were left on our own.

‘Look at him. He’s perfect.’

‘I know. You’re a clever thing, babe.’

‘No, it all just happened. Sorry I was yelling at you.’

‘Were you? I didn’t notice.’

‘Are you going to call your mum?’

‘In a while. I want to have him to ourselves for a bit. Can I have a hold?’

Chrissie reluctantly passed him over, and I held him against me, taking in all the tiny details of his face and his little hands, and the small noises he made as he moved.

‘Why don’t you call your mum, while I’ve got him?’

‘OK, good idea.’

While Chrissie talked to her parents, who still lived up north, I took him on a tour of the room, which wasn’t very big, but included a window, so we went and had a look outside.

‘Well, here you are at last, little man. In the world. Not much to see out there, really, just a car park, a few litter bins, oh look, there’s a cat. They go meow. Some clouds in the sky. I hope it’s not too much of a shock out here, I know you’ve been pretty comfy where you are. Time to grow up now, though, and –’

My meaningless drivel was cut through by Chrissie’s voice.

‘Conor … no, not after anyone. It’s just what he looks like.’

She looked guiltily at me as she said it, neither of us ever having mentioned Conor as a name, and for just a second I was annoyed at having the decision taken away from me, but as I looked back at the bundle in my arms, I realised that’s who he was. Conor. Not something beginning with ‘J’ after all.

‘Hey Conor.’

He wriggled, and one arm went into the air.

‘Oh, you like that do you?’

I smiled over at Chrissie and she relaxed, talked to her mum for a little while longer and then disconnected.

‘Sorry, Cal. I just said it without thinking.’

‘It’s fine. Probably the best way to do it. We’ve been overthinking his name, we should have known he’d have something to say about it. He is your son after all, he’d want an opinion.’

‘Oh Cal, he is, isn’t he. My son. Our son. Oh give him here, I can’t get enough of him. Call your mum now.’

And so I had no choice but to give him up and call Mum, which went as predicted, with Mum practically cutting me off mid-sentence so she could jump in the car and drive over.

With Mum on the case I really didn’t need to call anyone else; she would have the hands-free going all the way there. But I wanted to do some of it myself. I predicted that her list would start with Dad, then move on to Dec, then Amy if she wasn’t with Dec, then either Gran or Matty, it was a toss up. If I was quick, I could get in first. Maybe forget Dad and Dec, and go straight for Matty.

Matty was bound to pick up, because he was recovering from his most recent bout of pneumonia, and didn’t move far from the house at the moment. I called him.

‘Wha news?’

‘It’s a boy.’

Woohoo! LAU! Thehyv hahd him! Ahl OK?’

‘Yeah, great, he’s four kilos. Tons of black hair.’

‘An yuh cahled him Matthew. Ah thahks Cal, Ihm honohed.’

‘Ha ha, no. He’s called Conor. After no one, just because that’s his name.’

‘Ah maht, tha’s awesohm. Soh plehsed fuh yuh.’

‘Thanks. You’re now officially a great uncle. I’m going to start calling you Bulgaria.’

‘Pihs ohf, Greht Uhncle Bulgahria’s way befohr yuhr time.’

‘Maybe, but I’m not too young to remember you’re a cockwomble.’

I fist pumped – I’d been saving this joke up for months, praying no one else would think of it first. I’d deliberately avoided all references to great uncles, because I knew it would make Matty laugh, and I wanted to be the gifter of the humour. It wasn’t often anyone got one over on Matty in word games, especially me.

Matty did laugh, hard, and then broke off with a cough, and I listened to him hacking for a few moments, fleetingly guilty that I might have harmed him with my need to impress him.

‘Cal? It’s Lau. Matt’s having a bit of a cough, you can probably hear him. That’s great news, flower. Is Chrissie OK?’

‘Apart from having to fight me to the death over who gets to hold him, yeah.’

‘Four kilos, that’s not small. Stitches?’

‘Nope.’

‘Ooh, get you, all smug.’

‘Yeah, like it had anything to do with me, but I’ll take it.’

‘Is she staying in?’

‘Yeah, just tonight.’

‘Bring him to see us as soon as you can, won’t you?’

‘Sure thing. Soon as. Can’t you make it over, Lau?’

‘I’d love to, flower, but I’ll have to wait.’

This meant Matty wasn’t up to going out and she didn’t want to leave him, but he was still in the room, so she wouldn’t say.

‘I’d better go, Lau, other people to call, I’m trying to beat Mum to it.’

‘Good luck with that, flower. See you soon, I hope.’

I disconnected and tried Gran.

‘Hello?’

Gran never used caller ID, so she never knew who it was calling her.

‘Hi Gran, it’s Cal.’

‘Calum! Hello dear.’

‘Has Mum called you yet?’

‘No dear, why?’

Yes! Two down in the beating Mum to it stakes.

‘Well I just wanted to let you know you’re a great-granny.’

There was a brief pause and a slight intake of breath, then Gran replied in her unflappable way.

‘Oh that’s just lovely dear. I trust all is well?’

That was Gran’s way of being really excited and asking for more information.

‘Yeah, everything’s great. We’ve called him Conor. He was four kilos – er, oh, I don’t know what that is in pounds. Chrissie, what’s four kilos in pounds?’

‘Eight pounds thirteen.’

I had no idea how Chrissie knew that, maybe she’d made it up, but I took it.

‘Did you hear that Gran? Eight pounds thirteen.’

‘Goodness, Calum. That’s large. Is Chrissie alright?’

‘Yeah, no trouble at all.’

I loved telling people there were no stitches, as if my wife had the most stretchy lady parts, and it was all down to me, in some way.

‘Well I’m glad to hear that.’

‘I don’t know if you can make it in? Mum’s on her way, but if you call Dad or Dec, they might give you a lift.’

‘Oh I don’t want to trouble anyone.’

‘It won’t be any trouble, Gran. You do want to see your first great grandson don’t you?’

‘Well of course, dear.’

‘Call them then.’

‘You don’t think they’d mind?’

‘Gran, when did Dad or Dec ever mind you asking them to do anything?’

‘Alright then. I will.’

‘Great. See you in a bit.’

I disconnected and sat on the bed next to Chrissie, holding them both close as we gazed in stunned adoration at the most amazing baby that was ever born. I was pretty sure Mum would have contacted the rest of the world in the time I’d been talking to Matty and Gran, and sure enough texts started arriving not long after.

Dec: ‘Woohoo he’s here. On our way. Ready 4 invasion of the Summers?

Iz: ‘Aunty Iz says hi to little nephew. Any chance of details? Mum too excited to note names etc.

Dad: ‘Got to pick up your Gran then will b there. Well done.

Nico: ‘Cal this is great news from England. We like to see a picture soon please.

Ayesh: ‘Congratulations, Cal and Chrissie. Hope 2 cu & Conor soon Ayesh and Sam xx

Charlie: ‘Does this mean I’m an aunty? Congrats Daddy Cal. Love 2 Chrissie c ya l8r xxx

Mum really had been busy. I wouldn’t have put it past her to set up a conference call while she was on her way over so she could blitz as many people as possible. I almost turned on the TV in the room to see if it had made the headlines on the local – no, make that national – news.

It wasn’t long before the newest Scott grandmother made her appearance. We could hear her heels clicking down the corridor, gathering speed as she nearly broke into a run.

‘Ready babe? You’re going to have to hand him over now, you might not get him back for a while.’

‘I’ll get him back when I say so.’

This was likely true. Chrissie was superb at handling Mum.

The door opened, and Mum came in, breathless and shiny-eyed; her gaze honed in on Conor wrapped in Chrissie’s arms, and she hurried over to stare down at him. Chrissie and I could have been invisible for all the notice she took of us.

After a good minute or two of staring, Mum reached out and touched his cheek very gently, then looked at first Chrissie and then me.

‘Cal, he’s just perfect.’

I could sense the self-control she was having to use not to grab him from Chrissie. Chrissie seemed to realise too, and relaxed her grip slightly.

‘Would you like to give him a cuddle?’

Mum looked hungrily at Conor.

‘Oh I’d love to.’

She reached down and picked him up from Chrissie’s arms.

‘Hello Conor. Oh you are just the most adorable thing. I’m your Granny – oh. Dammit. I was going to say Nana.’

‘Don’t stress it, Mum, it’s not like University Challenge, your first answer isn’t binding. You can be Nana, like Nana Jane.’

‘I don’t want to be Nana Beth, it sounds Victorian. Just Nana.’

‘Great.’

‘How’s that, then, Conor? I’m your Nana. I’m going to have you over for sleepovers, and feed you all the things your Mummy says you can’t have, and buy you really inappropriate things for Christmas.’

‘Really, Mum?’

‘No, I suppose not. But I hope you remember that it is my right to if I want to, as his Nana.’

‘You’ll always have the right to spoil him, Beth.’

‘Thank you sweetheart. I don’t think it’ll be hard. Oh, he’s so, so lovely. How are you Chrissie? He’s quite a weight. Was it hard work?’

‘No, not really. Didn’t seem to take that long.’

I stared at my lying wife, who seemed to have forgotten the hours calling me all the names under the sun – or maybe it was just ‘fucking bastard’ repeated at frequent intervals – while she screamed in pain through every contraction and all the pushing. Bloody hormones have a lot to answer for.

‘Cal said no stitches. Well done you. All that massaging and Vaseline must have worked after all.’

Oh dear God. Was there anything she hadn’t shared with my Mum? The massaging and Vaseline had been one of the perks of pregnancy, even though I hadn’t been quite sure why I was doing it. Some things you just don’t question, do you. If Mum knew, I could guarantee Amy and Lau would know, and that meant Dec and Matty would know and would be unable to resist taking the piss. In fact, it was amazing they hadn’t already.

To save me from further immediate embarrassment, the door opened again and Dec and Amy came in, closely followed by Tom, Gracie and Rosa.

‘Calum Scott you make me feel bloody ancient. How can you be a dad?’

‘Same way you are, old man.’

‘Let’s have a look then – come on Beth, hand him over.’

I thought Mum was going to resist for a moment, but she gave Conor to Dec without any fuss. Chrissie was watching closely, ready to demand his return at any minute.

‘Oh mate, he’s great. Look, Amy, he’s got my nose.’

‘Yeah, hon, course he has. Just like Josh has got your ears and Ella’s got your eyes. He’s perfect, Chrissie. Well done you.’

Conor started to cry, a little bleat at first, then full on yelling with added wriggling and arm-waving. Chrissie sat up a little straighter, looking worried, but Dec handed him straight back to her.

‘Thanks Dec. I think he just wants a feed.’

Chrissie pulled up her shirt and held Conor close so he could suckle; Dec went a bit pale and looked uncomfortable.

‘Maybe we’d better leave you to it.’

‘Don’t be daft, it’s fine.’

‘You could always wimp out in the corridor.’

Dec looked at me gratefully, despite the ironic nature of my suggestion.

‘Good thinking, Batman.’

As he turned to leave, Amy rolled her eyes at him.

‘Oh honestly hon, you’re not still squeamish? After all the babies there have been?’

‘Yep. Come and get me when it’s all over.’

Dec had a thing about breastfeeding. It had been fine, apparently, when it was Amy, no problem with that, but when it was anyone else’s wife or girlfriend, he’d be found waiting outside pretending to be interested in the January edition of Woman and Home. Matty was the same. Pair of losers.

Dad and Gran turned up shortly afterwards. I could hear Dad talking to Dec in the corridor, then the door opened and it became seriously crowded in the small room.

I had a sudden memory of a similar scene, many years ago, when Charlie was born, the room full to bursting with family, lots of noise and laughing, the small baby being handed round to everyone, and then all of us getting kicked out by a nurse for being too loud. There were about the same amount of people in the room today, despite there being notices up everywhere about the rules around two visitors at a time and keeping the noise down.

I watched proudly as everyone admired Conor, and as he coped admirably with being held by them all, the young Summerses included. He was the first baby in the family since Rosa, the first second cousin, or first cousin once removed, or third generation Scott, or whatever his official title was, and even though it would have meant even more people crammed into the small room, I wished Matty and Lau, and Iz and Ben could have been there. Rose would have made the family gathering complete, but she hardly went out, and even another baby to cuddle wasn’t enough to tempt her.

I made a mental list of people I was going to have to either visit or text pictures to, which included Baggo and Ayesh.

The loud Scott-Summers baby welcoming committee didn’t stay too long, although Mum had to be crowbarred out of the room by Dad, and Chrissie and I looked at each other, letting out a sigh. It was great being part of a big family, but exhausting too, especially after the day we’d had. It was early evening, and Chrissie looked wiped.

‘I should go soon, babe, let you get some sleep.’

‘Not yet, though. Stay with us for a bit.’

‘As long as you like, I can hardly bear to leave him.’

‘He is amazing.’

‘Yeah, he is. Can we Facetime Matty? And Iz? I really want to show him to them.’

‘Of course we can. I’ll scooch over, we can sit together here.’

So Chrissie and I snuggled together and I held my phone up, calling up Matty on Facetime. Soon, his face filled my phone screen. He couldn’t keep the smile from his face, although he was trying really hard to be cool.

‘Yuhv distuhbed my buhsy lying dohn scheduhl. Hohp ih’s impohtant.’

‘I’d say so. Here’s your great-nephew. Conor, say hi to Unca Matty.’

‘Uhnca Mahty … not behn cahled tha in a whihl. Heh Cohnor. He’s prehty cool.’

‘Yeah, we think so. We’ve got something to ask you.’

‘Noh, yuh cahn’t lihv hehr tihl he’s twehnty.’

‘Oh bugger. Well that’s that, Chrissie, he’s going to have to go back, if we can’t sponge off the old rellies.’

‘Lehs of the ohld thahks.’

‘Will you be his godfather?’

There was a long silence, and Matty’s eyes looked suspiciously like they filled with tears. It was even more suspicious when the view was suddenly of the ceiling of their bedroom, and we could hear rustling sounds. I looked at Chrissie and shook my head as the view returned to Matty, who had regained his composure.

‘Rehly, Cal?’

‘Yeah, we need some dodgy old atheist bastard to stand up and promise to look after our son’s spiritual well-being.’

‘Yeh, wehl, cahn’t promihs tuh beh able tuh stahnd uhp.’

‘No worries. Just being the dodgy old atheist bastard is good enough for us.’

‘Ha ha. Oh, Lau. Hehr, hahv a lohk, ih’s Cal an Chrihssie an Cohnor.’

There was a bit of readjustment as Lau came into the shot and sat next to Matty.

‘Hi guys – ohh, he’s gorgeous. How are you Chrissie?’

‘Yeah, good, tired though. Cal’s going to give me some peace in a bit.’

She looked up at me, and I could see the fatigue on her face. I wouldn’t stay long.

‘Lau, they wahnt meh tuh beh godfather.’

‘Why, did everyone else say no?’

Lau’s teasing was softened by a quick stroke on Matty’s face.

‘Chehky cow. Heh guys, cahn Josh have a quick look? Dehd quihk, promihs.’

‘Sure.’

Matty called Josh, and he came into the shot a few moments later. He’d been doing some kind of training and was still wearing his Raiders kit. Josh – the newest Scott on the Raiders block, on the point of breaking into the first team, in the middle of his first proper pre-season. Ella was away with friends celebrating the end of school, and I would have to text her later.

‘Hey Josh.’

‘Hi Cal. You’ve had him, then.’

‘We’ve had him. You can pass the good news on to the guys if you want.’

‘No, lazy arse, you can do that. He’s pretty cool, though. Alright, Chrissie?’

‘Yeah. Tired but happy.’

‘Will you be at training tomorrow, Cal?’

‘Yeah, but maybe not till later. Chrissie and Conor are coming home, and I’ve got the morning off.’

‘Any excuse.’

‘Come on Josh, let’s get off the iPad so Cal can get home.’

‘Thanks Lau. We’ll come and see you soon.’

‘Look forward to it. Bye flower.’

‘See yuh.’

‘Bye.’

I turned to Chrissie, who was really flagging now. She was almost asleep, and Conor was snoozing in her arms. I picked him up and placed him in his hospital cot, wrapping a blanket round him and stroking his head. As I looked back at Chrissie, her eyes closed and her head settled back against the pillows. I tucked the blankets around her and kissed her forehead, then took some pictures of Conor, to add to the several hundred I’d already taken. Iz’s Facetime would have to wait.

I looked at Conor for an age; I would have stayed all night, but Chrissie needed her rest, and our son was bound to wake up soon wanting food. Chrissie was going to call or text or Facetime if she was awake in the night and able to get to her phone, and I hoped this meant it would feel more like I was there too.

It was really hard to leave the room. Once I’d taken a step out into the corridor, it felt like I was back in a world I hadn’t visited for a long time. In fact, it felt like the world had changed. Now, it was a world where I was a dad, where Conor Scott was my son, and it felt completely new and utterly different from how it had felt before.

I drove home in a happy haze, microwaved some dinner and then called Iz while I emailed her from my laptop.

‘At last! I thought you’d forgotten about me.’

‘Sorry, I’ve only just got home. I wanted to Facetime, but Chrissie fell asleep. I’m just sending you some pictures and a vid.’

‘Mum sent some pictures. Actually she sent thirty-seven. Cal, he’s so gorgeous. I can’t believe he’s yours.’

‘Neither can I. He’s so perfect, I keep thinking someone’s going to come along and say ‘sorry, we made a mistake, this is the one who’s really your son’, and it’ll be some minging baby with enormous ears and a weird belly button.’

‘Ha ha. Ben and I were thinking about coming down at the weekend. Can we come and see him?’

‘Yeah! Chrissie’s coming home tomorrow, she’ll be glad of the company. I’ve got a pre-season game on Saturday. Oh, does Ben want tickets?’

‘Oh I suppose so.’

I could almost hear Iz rolling her eyes. She couldn’t escape rugby even in football mad Manchester, because her boyfriend was a huge Royals and England supporter, and whenever they visited, she had to sit through hours of rugby chat.

‘Great, I’ll sort it. Don’t pretend you won’t be happy to sit with Chrissie, cuddling your nephew.’

‘Yeah, if I can get a look-in. Did Mum even let you or Chrissie hold him all the time she was there?’

‘Maybe for a second or two. Chrissie’s more than capable of telling her to back off though.’

‘I know. She bloody scares me sometimes, your missis.’

‘Yeah. Me too. That’s the only reason I married her.’

‘It is not. It’s because I made you go and find her when you nearly let her move away.’

‘Jesus, Iz, you’d take credit for the bloody sun coming up if you could.’

‘And why not? It does mainly happen because of me.’

‘Ha ha. Have the pictures come through yet?’

‘Yeah, I’m just looking now. Oh, and the video, oh Cal. He’s so tiny.’

‘Not that tiny. Four kilos.’

‘Yeah, but compared to you, he’s so little. Aw you look well chuffed. How’s it feel, being a dad?’

‘I don’t know. Different to how I thought it would be. It’s like, kind of weird that they’re back in the hospital and I’m here. Like there’s some kind of link, pulling on me, so I can feel him all the time. I can’t believe I made him, or part of him. It’s the best thing I ever did.’

‘Well I can’t wait to see him. We’ll be there late Friday, so we’ll come and see you before you go to the game on Saturday. Is Joshy playing?’

‘No, but he’s going to be with the squad. You’ll see him in the kit doing the warm up.’

‘Well I won’t, but Ben will. If Josh was playing I might have gone. I hope I can see his first game.’

‘It won’t be long.’

‘I bet Matty’s pleased.’

‘I hope he’s better before Josh’s first game. He’d hate to miss it.’

‘Yeah. He’s not that great much of the time any more, is he.’

‘No. It’s horrible. He couldn’t come and see Conor today, we had to Facetime him from the hospital. We’ve asked him to be godfather.’

‘Oh wow, he’ll love that. Well, maybe not the God bit, but the honour and that.’

‘Would you be honoured?’

‘Er …’

I hadn’t meant to say anything, Chrissie and I were going to ask her together, but it felt like the right time. I had, of course, made a bit of a bodge of it.

‘I mean, we’d like you to be Conor’s godmother, when we get round to having a christening.’

Iz’s voice got very quiet.

‘Oh my God, Cal. Yes. Yes please. Wow. Thank you.’

‘I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I might not tell Chrissie, so if we ask you again at the weekend, you’ve got to act all ‘OMG what a surprise’, right?’

‘I’ll try. God, thanks. That’s amazing. Does Mum know?’

‘Do you think it would be a surprise if she did? She’d have blabbed to bloody everyone by now.’

‘How do you know she didn’t, and I was just demonstrating my talent at acting all ‘OMG what a surprise’?’

‘True. Well as long as everyone thinks nobody knew, that’s the main thing, isn’t it.’

‘If you say so, Cal.’

‘I should go, I’ve got texts to answer and ‘proud dad’ photos to post on Facebook.’

‘Go on, then, bugger off and greet your public.’

I disconnected from Iz, replied to all the texts, which included congratulations from team mates, Ella, and Rose. I also tried to call Baggo, but he had his phone off, or didn’t hear it, or more likely had forgotten to charge it, so I texted him.

Hi Bags. Here’s a photo of MY SON! He’s Conor and arrived earlier today. More photos about to be posted on Facebook. Will call u soon. Cal.

And then I set to work on Facebook. I had never really got people’s obsession with posting daily pictures of their new babies, not until now, when I just wanted everyone to ‘Like’ and comment, and tell me how awesome he was.

I also posted a picture on my Twitter account, and immediately got the expected flurry of replies from Raiders supporters, which I favourited to show I appreciated it.

Then I opened a beer and flicked the TV on, and sat not watching it, but scrolling through all the pictures of Conor I’d taken that day. I was entranced, and sat smiling stupidly to myself as I looked at the photos and watched the few short clips of video.

Baggo replied after a while.

Awesome mate. Proper little tyke. Must meet up soon, wet his head.

Then Chrissie called, just as my eyes started drooping and my head lolled backwards on the sofa.

‘Hey babe. How are you?’

‘Better now I’ve had a sleep. Sorry I passed out on you.’

‘I think you needed it. Full on day, with a new person at the end of it, can’t blame you for snoozing. How is he?’

‘Awake, but quiet. He’s just had some dinner. So have I, it’s pretty good in here. He says hi.’

Chrissie put on a squeaky voice.

‘Hi Daddy I miss you.’

‘Hey mate. You’re not missing much, though, son, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to watch your old man drinking beer and slobbing on the sofa over the next few years.’

‘Sounds like you’re having a relaxing time.’

‘Yeah I am, now. I called Iz when I got in, she’s coming down with Ben at the weekend.’

‘Oh great. We can ask her, then.’

‘Yep.’

And I couldn’t do it, couldn’t keep it from her.

‘I, er, might have let it slip though.’

‘What, you asked her already?’

‘Yeah, kind of couldn’t help it.’

‘What did she say?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Oh, well that’s great. One less thing to do.’

I was a little relieved. The last few months had been slightly unpredictable regarding how Chrissie handled changes in plans. She liked things ‘just so’ anyway, and often got exasperated with me being what she called ‘lackadaisical’ about arrangements; but being pregnant had made her cranky at times, and I’d come in for some stick. Not that I didn’t deserve it, mostly, but it would be nice to think I wasn’t permanently in trouble.

‘I’m getting Ben some tickets for Saturday’s game, so you and Iz can have a girly time in the afternoon.’

‘Sounds good. What time will you be here tomorrow?’

‘How about nine?’

‘Great. I can’t wait to bring him home.’

‘Me neither. I love you, Chrissie.’

‘Just as well I love you too, then, isn’t it.’

I eventually went to bed, after looking at all the pictures one more time. Chrissie texted me a couple of times in the night, to say she was feeding Conor, and we Facetimed once she knew I was awake. Watching them both was mesmerising, and although I should really have been sleeping, I couldn’t think of a better way of spending the night than watching my wife feed my son.

Laura

Ella went off to university to study Law; Josh worked his way through the ranks at Raiders, and became a regular starter in the first team. Matt managed to travel with us to take Ella to Durham to start university life, and with a huge effort he made it to Raiders Stadium with the rest of the family to watch Josh’s first team debut. He missed Josh’s first try and Ella’s starring role in the University production of The Importance of Being Earnest, as he was in hospital recovering from pneumonia both times. There was enough video footage of both events to more than make up for his absence, and he played them over and over again when he was back at home. I often heard him shouting ‘A handbag?!’ or ‘Scott goes over for his first’ and knew what he was watching.

Matt made it to Cal’s son’s christening; I don’t think anything could have stopped him from being there, as he was godfather to Conor, and it was one of his proudest moments.

We had good days, where things were normal, or felt normal, and we got happy and sad and cross and relaxed with each other. We had great days, like the day Matt and I went for a walk round the lake in the cold, and it was sunny and frosty, and although Matt was in his wheelchair, when we sat together, me on a bench and him next to me, it was like we were the only couple in the world, and we talked and talked about nothing and everything, and came home feeling like nothing was going to get to us ever again.

Cal

Having a son was brilliant. I mean, yeah, the lack of sleep was a pain in the arse, and when he was really little, all he seemed to do was eat, sleep and shit, but that didn’t last long, then he started to get interesting, and learn stuff, and it seemed like he changed every day.

Chrissie really wanted to go back to work, but she was taking a year out before she decided for definite. I was starting to weigh up my own employment options for when I finished rugby – I was thirty now, and I suppose the end was in sight. I really didn’t want to think about it, but with Dad and Dec on my case about not leaving it until the last minute, and every game could be my last and other such cheery bollocks, I had little choice.

Coaching wasn’t really my thing. I’d done some badges, and maybe I could have made a go of it, but I didn’t have the ability to control a group of people like the best coaches do. I could tell a bunch of kids the best way to step around a tackle, or how to hold a defensive line, but I’d never be able to give a group of grown men a bollocking to motivate them in the upcoming game.

I’d got a few GCSEs at school, but nothing that had inspired me, and by the time it came to A levels, I was purely thinking about my rugby career, despite advice from everyone to think about another option in case things didn’t work out, and I’d failed the two I took. I hadn’t had to have a plan before, and now I needed one. I needed to be able to provide for my family once my days of earning a living from the sport I loved were over.

I’d never thought about Physiotherapy as something I could do; the thought of doing something like a degree seemed really hard, and I’d seen how much work Chrissie put in to her teaching degree. I didn’t think I had the brains to put that much into learning something new.

It wasn’t until a student Physio came to Raiders on a placement from Uni at the same time as I’d developed an ongoing calf strain problem, that I even showed any interest in what it took to become a Physio.

I was having a massage in the treatment room and, as you do, we were chatting while Kieran (the student) iced and heated my calf, then massaged it. Chatting helped you relax and took your mind off what was happening, so you didn’t tense up the part that was being worked on.

I found out that Kieran had gone to the same schools as me, both primary and secondary, and that one of the reasons he was a Physio was because I’d been to his school and was a bit of a ‘legend’. I use this word lightly, because I know there is a signed picture of me and a signed Raiders shirt in the corridor near the hall, but to my certain knowledge my photo is anatomically altered regularly with a Sharpie, and Kieran confirmed that this was still the case. However, being a huge Raiders fan, this didn’t stop Kieran wanting to find a way to enter the world of professional sport, despite not having found a way to do this as a sportsperson himself.

‘And so when Uni said I was coming here for my placement, I couldn’t believe it. I went home and sat at the table for about an hour just going ‘wow’. Now I’m here, of course, I know you’re all just a bunch of tossers and I’m changing my allegiance to Trojans.’

‘Careful, Kieran. You know us tossers get to comment on your final report.’

‘Yeah, but you don’t know what you’d have done without me, so I’m pretty confident.’

Despite our banter, he was a good Physio, particularly as he hadn’t even qualified yet.

‘Is it hard, doing practical and academic stuff? My wife’s a teacher, and she had to do both when she was training.’

‘Well, I suppose there never seems enough time to do both, but you can’t do one without the other, and it’s great to put your learning into practice, like now. When you learn a technique, and practice on other students or on volunteers, it’s not the same as a real person with a real injury, and when you see what you know working on someone, it’s awesome.’

I recognised this concept from playing rugby. Practising moves on the training ground was one thing; using the same moves in a game and scoring or preventing a try as a result felt fantastic.

‘My cousin’s just started training to be a Physio, in Manchester. She spent some time here hanging round you lot, talking about obscure bones no one’s heard of and I think you make up, and recovery rates and other nonsense.’

‘Hey that made up nonsense is keeping you playing, old man.’

‘Fair point. Must be rewarding though, like you say, knowing how to put things right.’

‘Yeah it is, and frustrating when it doesn’t happen, and when you lot go out and blow weeks of work by twisting your knee in the first tackle.’

‘I’d love to be able to do something like that when I finish.’

‘Why don’t you?’

‘Nah, never been bookish, well not since I was little anyway.’

‘What will you do, do you think? I know some people have got, like, plumbing qualifications or are starting their own companies.’

‘Yeah, I know. Haven’t really got a plan. I should, I know, everyone goes on at me all the time, but I hate thinking of not playing.’

‘Happens to everyone some time, whether you’re working in a bank or playing rugby. You can’t go on forever.’

‘No, I suppose not.’

And that was the spark. I didn’t think about it a lot, but every so often I’d go back to it and something about working with muscles and bones, and using what I knew about strength and conditioning, appealed to me. Every time I talked to Gracie, I’d quiz her about what she was doing, and just wonder if I could do it. But that’s as far as I got, just wondering. I was still avoiding thinking about it.

o0o

It was a few weeks after my conversation with Kieran that I was woken in the night by my phone. I didn’t recognise the tone, but when I looked at the screen, it was Rose. Rose never called me. Actually, Rose hardly ever called anyone apart from Dec, and I assumed she’d pressed the wrong key by mistake. Still, you never knew, and I answered.

‘Hey Rose.’

There was no sound for a moment, then some words that didn’t make sense, then a noise I couldn’t interpret. Then the connection was lost.

Chrissie had woken up next to me.

‘Who was that?’

‘Rose.’

‘Is she OK?’

‘I don’t know. She wasn’t making sense. I thought she’d called me by mistake, but it was weird. Maybe I should call Dec.’

Dec’s phone rang for a while, and I wondered if it was on mute, but he finally answered.

‘What the fuck Cal? If your bloody baby’s keeping you awake, watch repeats of The Simpsons like normal people at this time of night.’

‘I just had a call from Rose.’

‘Oh. Oh, what? What did she want?’

‘I don’t know. It was weird. She said … well I don’t know, it was just garbled.’

‘Shit. I’ll call her.’

‘Can I do anything?’

‘No, mate. Thanks for letting me know.’

I disconnected and turned over, but couldn’t sleep. Something felt wrong. I texted Dec.

Anything to report?

She’s not answering. On my way over there.

Without thinking about it much, I got out of bed, pulled on some jeans and a sweatshirt, and got in the car. We lived closer to Rose than Dec and Amy did, and I’d get there about the same time.

The streets were almost deserted at that time of night, and the journey was quick and uneventful. Dec had just arrived at the sheltered flats when I got there. I got out of the car and hurried over to him as he opened the door to the lobby.

‘Cal? What the …’

‘Thought you might like someone with you.’

I had a really bad feeling, and didn’t want Dec walking in on something awful by himself.

‘Thanks.’

Dec knocked on Rose’s door, then unlocked it and went in, calling out as he did so.

‘Hey, it’s me.’

There was no reply. The flat was in darkness, so Dec flipped on the hall light.

‘Rose?’

It was all eerily silent.

‘Shit, Cal, where the fuck is she?’

‘Bed?’

It seemed logical. In the hall light, I could see how terrified Dec was. He was shaking, his eyes were wide and he was breathing fast.

‘Let me check. You stay here.’

‘Sorry, I feel like a complete wimp.’

‘Just stay there.’

I tapped on Rose’s bedroom door, then opened it and tried to see by the light from the hallway if she was in bed, but it was too dark. Almost holding my breath, I turned the light on. And breathed out. She wasn’t there. The duvet was turned back, as if she’d just got out of bed.

‘CAL!’

Dec’s shout startled me, and I ran out of the room and towards him. He wasn’t in the hallway; the door to the living room was open, with soft lamplight coming out. I hurried into the room, to find Dec standing staring at Rose, who was sitting in her armchair, eyes open, but no longer seeing. I stared at her for a long time, hoping to see the rise and fall of her chest as breath went in and out, but it was all terrifyingly still.

‘Fuck. Dec, go and wait in the car.’

It was the only thing I could think of to do. Dec was frozen to the spot, staring at Rose, who, just to be clear, was obviously dead. He didn’t need to be here, there were things that needed doing, and he wouldn’t be able to do them. Part of me wanted to freeze along with him – I’d never seen a dead person before, and it was freaking large parts of me out. But Dec, the look on his face, like he was having waking nightmares, I knew he needed to be out of there.

‘Dec. Dec.’

He slowly looked at me, but there was no understanding on his face. I knew he was going to need me to be pretty forceful, so I pulled hard on his arm and made him come with me. He started to resist as we got near the front door.

‘No … no I need to … she needs …’

‘I know, mate. I’m going to do it, OK? You need to sit in the car and wait, and I’ll come out when I’ve done it, yeah?’

I had no idea what Dec thought he needed to do; I was just trying to reassure him. I also had no way of making him stay in the car, but I had to trust that he would. I opened the passenger door of my car, and made sure I had my keys, so he wouldn’t take it into his head to go driving off, and then I went back into the flat. I couldn’t immediately face going back into the living room, so I got my phone out and called the one person everyone called in a crisis. Mum.

‘Hello sweetheart. Is everything alright?’

‘No. Rose is …’

I couldn’t make myself say the words, because then it would be real, and it felt too soon and too harsh for it to be real, and it might tip me over the edge into completely freaking out.

‘Rose is what?’

‘Me and Dec just found her.’

‘Found her where?’

‘In her flat. She was just sitting in her chair.’

‘Is she alright?’

‘No, Mum.’

‘Is she …’

Mum never minced her words, but it seemed even she found this hard to say.

‘Is she breathing?’

‘No.’

‘Oh God. Where’s Dec?’

‘He’s in my car. He just froze, like a statue. I had to drag him away.’

‘OK, Cal, I’m on my way. You need to call an ambulance, though. They’ll need to take her away.’

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.’

53. I don’t want love

In which it all gets a bit much, and consequently a request is made and chivalrously denied.

Julia

I ate alone that evening, as my mother and father had made reservations at a restaurant in the next town. I could have gone with them, but decided eating out was beyond me just then. I called round to see William and we arranged to meet, with our photos of Nons, the following afternoon, after the appointment at the solicitors. William was coming to the first part of that too, as he had been named in the will and had some papers to sign. Once I had finished my dinner, I felt restless, not wanting to sit alone in the quiet house, but not wanting the inanity of television or music. I pulled my phone out and dialled Matt’s number.

‘Hey! Bored of Norfolk already?’

It felt so good to hear his voice.

‘I really need some cheering up.’

‘On it! I’ve been looking up fascinating facts on Google today. Did you know that a snail can sleep for three years?’

‘What? It can not. Nothing sleeps for three years.’

‘Are you disputing the wisdom of Google?’

‘Well, naturally I wouldn’t want to call into question anything that has been published on the internet, it’s such a reliable source of information, but three years sounds excessive, how long do snails even live?’

‘Google was silent on the lifespan of snails. But bloody hell, what a life, carry your house round on your back, but as that’s fucking exhausting, you get to sleep for years at a time. I think I want to come back as a snail next time around.’

‘Really? A snail?’

‘I can think of worse lives than sleeping for three years. If I put my mind to it, I reckon I could manage eighteen solid months of sleep right now. I bloody love sleeping.’

‘Alright, then. So snails sleep for three years. What else does Google have to fascinate me factually with?’

‘Snails not doing it for you?’

‘Not so much.’

‘OK then, here’s one for you considering your long journey today. The average driver emits more than 900 pints of wind inside their car during their lifetime.’

‘Ew, no fart facts. Next.’

‘Fuck me, you’re a hard woman to impress. That impressed the shit out of me – oh, ha ha. Almost a pun. Anyway. No fart facts. Right, this is my last gasp attempt, and I know you will feel an affinity with the little chap for reasons that will become clear. Did you know that Donald Duck comics are banned in Finland?’

‘I can’t say I did, or that I ever thought I would have an affinity with any cartoon character. Why, exactly?’

‘Well, think about him. What does he wear?’

I had to think hard to remember.

‘Er … hat?’

‘Correct.’

‘Little jacket thing?’

‘Correct.’

‘Er … ooh, bow tie.’

‘You are fucking amazing, and correct.’

‘Er … shoes?’

‘Nope.’

‘Trousers?’

‘Nope.’

‘No trousers? Shorts.’

‘Nope.’

‘What? Donald Duck had no … oh! He didn’t, did he! But surely that’s not why Finland banned him. Aren’t Scandinavians renound for their lax rules about images of people who very specifically aren’t wearing pants?’

‘Again you are right, but again Google didn’t see fit to elaborate. I hope you’re thinking yourself lucky you have never been to Finland.’

‘How do you know I haven’t?’

‘Have you?’

‘No.’

‘I rest my case. You would have been banged up as a no-fuking-pants wearer quicker than you could say ‘smorgasbord’. You’d still be rotting in some remarkably clean prison, probably sharing a cell with Donald and his white feathery arse.’

‘Thank God for Google.’

‘I know. Who the fuck would have thought that fascinating facts would be responsible for keeping you out of jail?’

‘Thanks, Matt.’

‘Oh, any time you need to avoid prison, I’m your go-to Google man.’

‘No, I mean thanks for this, for cheering me up.’

‘Oh. Well, it seems to be my role in life to arse about, might as well put it to use. At the risk of fucking up my good work, are you OK?’

I paused. I didn’t want to lose the lighter mood I’d found with Matt.

‘Better now. I’m here on my own, Mum and Dad have gone out. I was getting a bit freaked out.’

‘Oh, Julia, you shouldn’t be there on your own.’

‘No, it’s OK now. I lived here for fourteen years, I came back here every holiday from Uni, it’s my home. I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m fine. You’ve cheered me up, honestly.’

‘FaceTime me.’

‘What?’

‘You’ve got an iPhone. FaceTime me. I want to see you.’

‘I’ve never used FaceTime before.’

‘What? You’re a fucking IT consultant. I despair. OK, you need to put my home email in your contacts.’

He told me what it was.

‘And now ask Siri to FaceTime me. You’d better not fucking well tell me you’ve never used Siri.’

‘Well not since I first got the phone, it seemed like a bit of a gimmick. But OK, OK, I know how to do it.’

‘Go on then.’

I felt a bit foolish talking to a disembodied voice on my phone, but when seconds later Matt’s face appeared on the screen, I forgot my self-consciousness.

‘Hey you.’

His eyes and mouth crinkled into the familiar smile.

‘Hello.’

‘Have you seriously never done this before?’

‘No. I’ve done video conferencing at work, but not this. I suppose you’re an expert?’

‘Well I have got a nine year old nephew who likes arsing about on his dad’s phone, I’m always getting calls from him. Usually at inconvenient moments like when I’m on the loo.’

‘You don’t have to answer him.’

‘No, but it’s fucking hilarious when I do. Sometimes I show him my poo.’

‘Oh dear Lord. Which one of you is nine years old?’

‘Ha ha, sometimes I forget. Do you want me to show you anything?’

‘Nothing in the bathroom, thanks. Just you is fine.’

‘This is nice, Julia.’

‘Yes.’

We looked at each other for a while.

‘I like seeing you, I can tell if you’re OK.’

‘And am I?’

‘Not really, but you’re putting on a brave face.’

He’d pretty much called it accurately, so I just shrugged.

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to dampen the mood.’

‘No, it’s OK, it’s actually good to see you.’

‘So, how about a bit of a tour? You look like you’re sitting on a sofa – show me the living room.’

‘Really? Why?’

‘It helps me to imagine where you are. You’ve seen my place, you know where I am. I’m on the couch, by the way. It remembers you well.’

I felt my cheeks colour as I recalled why I should remember Matt’s plum coloured couch.

‘Are you blushing?’

‘No.’

‘You so are. You’re so cute when you blush. Come on, flick the camera angle, show me where you are.’

As much to divert the camera from my red cheeks as to do as I was asked, I changed the view and showed Matt what I could see from where I was sitting: the two comfy armchairs either side of the sofa, the wooden coffee table, the living flame gas fire, the large mirror above it, all the familiar trappings of the place I considered my home.

‘How about a walking tour? Take me to the kitchen, show me what you’ve done with those bloody meatballs.’

‘I feel silly.’

‘What are you talking about, woman? It’s just like taking a photo or a video, except it’s instant. Come on, hurry up.’

I took the phone into the kitchen, then up the stairs into my old room,

‘Those trousers aren’t yours are they?’

‘No, they’re my dad’s. They’re staying in here.’

‘So where are you staying?’

‘Nons’ room.’

‘Fuck! Really? Isn’t that, like, really weird?’

‘It might be. I haven’t slept here yet. When I came last time I couldn’t do it, I stayed with William.’

‘Show me.’

I took the phone into Nons’ room and showed him the bed with flowery duvet and pink padded headboard, the pine wardrobe and matching chest of drawers and the chair which had been Nons’ pride and joy, a bargain from a car boot sale that was actually an antique worth loads more than the ten pounds she paid for it, but not as much as the two hundred pounds she paid to have it reupholstered. I’d draped my black funeral dress over the chair, pending hanging it up. I turned the view back to me.

‘Well it doesn’t seem like a particularly scary bedroom. Bed looks comfy. Wardrobe looks spacious.’

‘It’s got all her clothes in it. I felt really strange earlier when I tried to put my things away in a drawer. I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to sleep in here or downstairs.’

‘Oh. Would it help if I was available all night on FaceTime? You wouldn’t be alone then. All night, any night, until you get home. Just ask Siri.’

‘I think … it might. Thanks. I might not call.’

‘I know. But just the thought I might get to see you in your old tshit and random pants will be enough to keep me going.’

Matt winked at me and grinned.

‘You have a pants fetish.’

‘Guilty.’

‘I assume it extends to all underwear.’

‘Also guilty.’

‘You won’t be seeing any of my underwear on FaceTime.’

‘I was hoping for a sneaky peek.’

‘I will have the duvet up to my chin should I require your services.’

‘Bollocks. Oh well, I’ll take what I can get.’

I heard a car pulling onto the drive and saw the headlights shining through the net curtains.

‘I think my parents are back. I should go.’

‘OK. Thanks for showing me round.’

‘Thanks for the arsing about.’

‘Anytime.’

‘I’m glad we’ve got this … this whatever it is we’re doing.’

‘Yeah, me too.’

I heard my parents come in through the front door.

‘Don’t wait up for me though.’

‘As if. Here, this is for you.’

He kissed his fingertips and blew towards me.

‘Thank you.’

‘What, don’t I get one back?’

‘No. I’m not as sentimental as you.’

‘Will you go out with me?’

‘I’ll have to ask my mum.’

‘If she says no, will you meet me behind the bike sheds anyway?’

‘No, I’ll get told off.’

‘Oh go on, I’ll share my CurlyWurly.’

‘So I’ve heard. Alright then. Got to go now, it’s past my bed time.’

I smiled, waved and disconnected, feeling much better. For all his ‘arsing about’, Matt was showing himself to be surprisingly sensitive. Feeling bolstered, I went downstairs.

‘Who were you talking to, darling?’

‘Just a friend.’

‘Not this boy that William was telling us about?’

I rolled my eyes, both at the question and that William had been gossiping about me.

‘How old do you think I am, Mum? I was talking to a friend. He is male, but he is not a boy.’

‘Sorry, darling. When are we going to meet him?’

I rolled my eyes again.

‘You’re not. You’ve never met anyone else – you’re never here. He’s just a friend.’

Although I knew this was far from the truth, however much I was trying to convince myself.

‘Oh, well, I suppose so. Oh JuJu, I know we haven’t been here very much for you. I think, now Nons has gone, we need to pay you a bit more attention.’

I bit back several retorts to that, and said nothing.

The evening, what was left of it, continued in the same vein, with both of my parents raising my hopes that they had started to care about me only to dash them with a thoughtless comment. I went to bed early, determined to sleep well, and not take up Matt’s offer of contacting him.

I was tired from driving and from the effort of not losing my temper with my self-involved parents, and went to sleep quickly. However, I woke up in the dark, not knowing where I was, and thought there was a large shadow looming by the side of the bed. I sat up with a start, and realised it was my black dress which I had forgotten to hang up, and which was still draped over the chair. But now my heart was pounding and my breathing was rapid, and sleep seemed a million years away. I felt very alone, despite my parents being asleep in the room next door, and after a few moments of hesitation, I reached for my phone. I thought about Facetiming Matt, but I didn’t want to wake my parents, so I texted.

‘Hello.’

Matt’s reply was gratifyingly instantaneous.

‘Hi. Want to FaceTime?’

‘No, it’s too noisy. Thanks for being awake.’

‘U OK?’

‘I freaked myself out – seeing shadows.’

‘Real or imagined?’

‘A bit of both, it was a black dress on a chair. My brain interpreted it as sinister.’

‘U hv 2 watch those little black numbers. They like 2 tease. OK now?’

‘Yes, I just gave myself a fright. I was disoriented. I think I’ll be alright, I’ll try to go back to sleep.’

‘OK, u no where I am xx’

‘Thank you.’

I turned the screen off, turned over and shut my eyes. After a while, I slept again, not waking until I heard movement from the room next door, and smelt toast. I lay there as long as I could, delaying the moment when I would have to go and make small talk with my mother and father, but there was a lot to do today, and putting it off wasn’t going to make it any easier. Sighing, I got up and began the day.

o0o

I went round to see William after breakfast, and we spent the morning in his garden, looking at his vegetables and herbaceous borders, and chatting. Before long, it was time to go to the solicitors. I went with William, and my parents went under their own steam. There wasn’t going to be any dramatic ‘reading of the will’ like I had seen in films and TV dramas. It wasn’t as glamorous as that; copies of the will had been sent to the four of us as beneficiaries, and there were some signatures needed.

It all took place in a small, cramped office at the back of the solicitors’ town offices. The five of us – my parents, William, me and Toby, who was the solicitor but seemed to be about eleven years old – sat knee to knee around a table and put our names to the various documents.

Nons had left her house to me; I was humbled. She hadn’t had much, and she had left what little money she had to William. She had left my parents a few pictures, that she thought might be valuable, but very likely weren’t. They didn’t need money, and had always been snooty about Nons’ tastes in art, believing as they did that their taste was the only one that counted. They weren’t at all bothered about not being left a lot; they knew as well as I did how little there was to leave, and probably knew how little they were entitled to anything anyway.

I was overwhelmed to have the house. I didn’t own my own flat, and the thought of having to decide what to do with Nons’ home was something I couldn’t cope with right then. There was no rush to decide, as the paperwork wouldn’t be completed for some time. We left the solicitors’ offices. William and I went home and my parents went to the Chapel of Rest.

William had cleared his dining room table, leaving a large space for putting out photographs. He had a huge box, and I had several older albums, plus my computer. I set a slide-show running on my laptop, of pictures I had taken and also scanned in, and Nons’ face smiled at us as we looked at the pictures. I started music playing, a playlist of some of Nons’ old favourites; we laughed and cried remembering things we’d done with Nons, listening to each other’s stories about events we both had and hadn’t known about, and then tried to lay the pictures out chronologically. A fair few photos of me ended up on the table, usually me pouting at the camera with Nons trying to cajole me into a smile by pulling a funny face. There was a picture of Nons at a wedding, and with a jolt I recognised the groom as William.

‘I didn’t know she’d gone to your wedding.’

‘Well I couldn’t not invite her, could I pet.’

‘Wasn’t it a bit awkward?’

‘No, it was never awkward with Vonnie. Pat didn’t know how I’d felt about her, they both got on really well.’

‘Do you think Nons ever knew?’

William was quiet for a moment.

‘I don’t know, maybe not back then, but there were a few times, when we’d been supping the ale a bit, when I maybe wasn’t as discreet as I should have been, like. I can’t believe she left me her money.’

‘It isn’t much. She would have wanted you to have it. William, is there anything of hers you’d like, from the house?’

William’s eyes had filled with tears, and he shook his head.

‘I can’t think about it, lass. Maybe in a while, after we’ve laid her to rest.’

‘I feel the same, it’s a lot to think about isn’t it? We’ll get there.’

I left William’s house in the early evening. My parents had come back from the Chapel of Rest, but hadn’t come round to join in our nostalgia. I wandered back into the house and we resumed our family script of misunderstandings, politely veiled criticism and failure to see the other person’s point of view. In the end I took my laptop out and checked my emails, deciding that lack of communication was better than the frustration of miscommunication.

Matt had texted a few times during the day, but as he had been at work I had stuck to my rules and not replied. Evie and a few other friends had texted and left messages, and I decided to go upstairs to answer them. After a few calls, I got another text from Matt.

‘Need more fascinating facts?’

‘More fascinating than snails, farts and Donald Duck?’

‘Equally as fascinating. Do u want disgusting or intriguing?’

‘Let’s start with intriguing.’

‘It’s impossible to touch yr nose with yr elbow.’

‘That’s not intriguing.’

‘Bet u just tried tho, didn’t u.’

‘I might have.’

‘Gotcha. Disgusting now. The avg person eats 8 spiders in their sleep in their life.’

‘Oh my God! That’s particularly horrible. I can’t go to sleep ever again. I don’t like fascinating facts.’

‘OK, let’s ditch the facts. Wanna talk properly?’

‘Yes please.’

My phone rang a few moments later.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you. Got one last fact for you. Did you know lobster’s bladders are in their skulls?’

‘Hmm. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘piss-head’.

‘Ha ha, brilliant. I hadn’t thought of that. How’s today been?’

‘Pretty full on. Solicitors, photos, parents. I’m exhausted. And now I can’t sleep for thinking about eating spiders.’

‘Sorry. It was too good to resist. I wish I could hold you.’

I breathed deeply. I wished it too, but I was scared of how much I wished it. Next Wednesday, when I would be able to see him again, felt like a long way away. I had a lot to get through before then, and wishing wouldn’t make things any easier.

‘Julia?’

‘I’m here, sorry, drifted off for a minute.’

‘Was it something I said?’

‘Yes and no.’

‘OK, spill, then.’

‘I’m just struggling a bit with how quickly things are going with us.’

‘You think things are going quickly?’

‘Well, maybe not in your terms. But I’m not used to feeling the way I’m feeling as soon as I have.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Like … oh I don’t know, I don’t want to say anything, I haven’t thought about it properly yet. I just know if something happens, if I feel upset or think of something crazy, you’re the first person I think of to tell. That’s just mad. I’ve only known you five minutes.’

‘Oh Jules. Fuck it, sorry, fuck, I’ve been trying really hard, that’s the first ‘Jules’ I’ve let slip. Shit. Sorry.’

‘See, that’s mad too, because I should be annoyed, but I’m not, it feels right. I feel like I’ve known you for a long time. I should be being more careful, but I don’t feel like being careful. I feel like driving back to the city right now and …’

I stopped, uncertain how much I wanted to divulge.

‘And what?’

‘I can’t talk about this, Matt. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have started it. Can we go back to arsing about with fascinating facts?’

‘Well, alright, I was kind of liking where that was heading, but if you haven’t had enough of snails and naked duck’s arses I’m sure there’s more where they came from …’

He reeled off more ridiculous nonsense he’d found on the internet, but it seemed I’d completely ruined the easy chat and made things a bit awkward. The jollity ground to a halt after a while.

‘Julia, would you like me to come up at the weekend?’

‘What? No!’

‘OK, just a thought, you don’t have to make it sound like I asked if you want me to poke your fucking eyes out or something.’

‘Sorry. I’ve made things difficult. I know you’re trying to help me. I’m not very good at being helped.’

‘Sorry backatcha. I think that was a bit of a selfish offer. I really want to see you, more than see you. It would feel weird for you if I was there, I know that, but I couldn’t fucking help myself. Julia – shit, I can’t believe I’m about to say this – would it be better if I stopped texting and calling you, just until you’re back?’

‘No!’

‘I don’t want to, but I just wondered if you’d find it easier to get your head round everything if I gave you some space.’

I sat for a moment, thinking. My head and my heart were having their own private battle.

‘I thought we agreed to say Chartham if we wanted to stop? Maybe a couple of days ago, before I came up here, I was considering it. But now … I don’t think I’m going to make it through the next few days without you. That probably puts way too much pressure on you.’

‘Sorry, Julia, I’m bloody useless at deep and meaningfuls. I do arsing about better than most, but I’m fucking awful at serious. But I’ll give it a shot. OK, here goes, ready? Uncharacteristically magnanimous gesture coming up. Actually, can we Facetime? I want to see you while we’re talking about this.’

‘OK.’

A few seconds later I was staring into Matt’s big grey eyes. He smiled his crinkly smile.

‘Hello. You look hot tonight. Just thought I’d say.’

‘Thanks.’

‘You could always reply ‘why thank you Matt, and I’d quite like to rip your clothes off too’ if you wanted to.’

I smiled and shook my head.

‘I could, but I fear your head would swell so much it wouldn’t all fit on the screen.’

‘So you’re not denying the possibility that you might quite like to rip my clothes off then?’

‘I am neither confirming nor denying anything. I thought you were going to go all deep and meaningful on me?’

‘Oh yeah, just building up to it while having a bloody good gawk at your bra. I can totally see it through your t-shirt.’

I looked down, horrified.

‘You can not! This was what I wore to the solicitors and round at William’s all afternoon.’

Matt laughed.

‘You are so easy to wind up, you’re so proper. So what if a solicitor had the chance to perv on your undies? Not that he did, because I can’t see a bloody thing, more’s the pity.’

‘Alright, deep and meaningful now, or I’m disconnecting.’

‘Oh fucking hell, you’re so bloody bossy. OK, OK, what I was going to suggest is that I won’t just randomly and incessantly text you. You can contact me whenever you like, and for whatever reason, whether you want to arse about or bawl your fucking eyes out, I’ll be here, or wherever I am, I’ll be there for you. Fuck, I’ve never had so many rules about phoning someone before. It’s fine, though. But just so you know, even though I’m not texting you or phoning or Facetiming, I will be thinking about you all the fucking time. Thinking about what I’m going to tell you next time we speak – I’ve got so much fucking office goss I’m saving up, I found out what Mike Davies keeps in his locked drawer! But anyway, that’s for another time. So you don’t have to worry about me popping up on your phone at inopportune moments, you have complete charge over when we speak, in what media, and what about. If you want to be on your own, that’s your choice. What do you think?’

‘I want to know what Mike keeps in his drawers.’

‘Ooh, that’s a diversionary reply worthy of me! Come on, Julia. Is it a goer?’

‘It sounds just about right. I know I’m a control freak, how did you know?’

‘Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve worked with the bloody Ice Queen all this time, it’s her stock in trade. You don’t get that good at work without some of it being part of you. So that’s what we’ll do then.’

He stopped talking and looked at me, a long look that I returned, drinking in his gaze. Eventually I nodded. He gave me a sad smile.

‘I can’t say I’m not going to bloody well miss this. But I’m just thinking of next week, when I can see you again.’

‘You can still think about me.’

‘I do anyway.’

‘I’ll think about you.’

‘Good.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Pleasure.’

‘Is one of us going to go, then?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Me, then?’

‘Gonna have to be, I seriously can’t make myself press the fucking button.’

‘Night then.’

‘Don’t go.’

‘We can’t just sit staring at each other.’

‘Why the fuck not? The view’s great from here.’

‘I’m tired.’

‘I can watch you sleep.’

‘Very sweet, but a bit stalkery?’

‘Maybe you’re right. I want to watch you sleep one day though. I bet you snore.’

‘I do not!’

‘Everyone says that. I’ll find out. I bet you dribble too.’

‘I don’t dribble.’

‘The only way to prove it is to spend the night with me.’

‘Goodnight, Matt.’

‘Goodnight, Jules.’

I pressed the button on the phone, and his face disappeared from the screen. I remained looking at the home page of my phone for a while, shaking my head at the uncharacteristic whimsy I was feeling all of a sudden. I got ready for bed, and resisted an urge to call Matt back to discuss my night attire. I got into bed, turned the light out and slept almost immediately.

o0o

The next few days passed with arrangements for Nons’ funeral, organising the reception, and several long walks along north Norfolk beaches while I thought and cried and wrote Nons’ eulogy in my head. The wind was bracing, as ever, and the shoreline was bleak, but it helped to sort through a lot of the things that had lain unresolved in my mind. I texted Matt a couple of times, and Facetimed him once while I was walking along the beach near Blakeney Point, as I thought he would like to see it. He was suitably impressed, and got enthusiastic about going on a hike when I got back. He kept his promise not to contact me, and although I missed him more than I thought I would, his absence helped me to focus on what I was doing there. Before I knew it, the day of the funeral had dawned and it was all going to be over.

Matt

So Jules went away for a week, to bury her aunt. And I missed her. I could not believe how much I missed her, even though we spoke on the phone and texted, and even, bloody hell, FaceTimed. I had fallen for Jules good and proper, and even though I wasn’t ready to examine just how much or in what way, I was prepared to admit that I wanted to see a lot more of her and spend time getting to know her.

Julia

I ghosted through the day in a dream. Part of me was screaming and raging with anger and hurt that Nons had been taken away from me, but I locked this away and concentrated on the things I needed to get done, like saying the eulogy, greeting people afterwards, paying the caterers and mopping up my mother who had suddenly become a quivering heap in the corner requiring lots of patience and tissues.

By the time it was all over and everyone had gone, it was late afternoon. My parents, my mother now recovered, had departed for the airport, and I gave William a lift home.

‘I’ll be back in a few weeks, to start sorting the house out. I think I need to leave it a bit before I start tackling it.’

‘I understand, pet. I’ll give you a hand to sort through it all if you like. Let me know when you’re coming.’

‘Thanks, William. Will you be alright?’

‘I will be, lass. I will be.’

I packed up quickly and set off, wanting to leave this week behind me. I had hoped the journey would get me home in time to get a good night’s sleep before work tomorrow, but a major accident had closed one of the motorways and the resulting delays and diversions meant I didn’t get back to the city until well after midnight.

I felt frazzled and overtired, and without thinking about it, I found myself pulling onto the street where Matt’s apartment was. I stopped the car and got my phone out, not really sure what I was intending to do. It was far too late to call, and going to see him would be madness. But he had said I could call him anytime while I was away, and I wasn’t technically back home yet. And I really wanted to talk to him. I pressed his name. And then hung up. I started the car as my phone rang. I stopped the car and answered it.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you. Are you home?’

‘Not quite.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Outside.’

‘Outside where? Are you OK?’

I didn’t say anything, feeling suddenly foolish.

‘Julia, where are you?’

‘Nowhere, it’s alright, I’m going home now.’

‘Wait – shit – outside – are you outside here?’

I nodded, close to tears, forgetting he couldn’t see me.

‘Julia?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you outside here now?’

‘Yes.’

‘Stay there, I’m coming down.’

He disconnected. The car’s engine was running and I nearly drove away, but just as I was about to put my foot on the clutch and take the handbrake off, Matt came running out of the front door. He was wearing a t-shirt and boxer shorts, and was barefoot; he’d been in bed.

Matt ran over to the car and pulled the door open, crouching down close to me.

‘Julia, what the fuck?’

I looked up at him, trying not to cry. Seeing him made me realise just how much I needed to be with him. I shook my head.

‘I’m sorry I woke you up. I’m just being stupid.’

‘Come up.’

‘No, I should go.’

‘Julia, I’m freezing my fucking balls off out here. Come on, we can talk about it inside, yeah?’

He stood up and held his hand out. When I didn’t take it, he took mine and pulled. I got out of the car, and as soon as I was standing up, he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into him. I collapsed against him, giving in to the tears I had managed to hold back all day.

‘Hey, shh. It’s OK. It’s OK, Jules. Shh now.’

He held me while I cried, but after a time I felt him unwrap himself from me a little bit, and start to walk to the door, an arm still round me, holding me close to him. I thought about resisting, but being in Matt’s arms was where I wanted to be and I couldn’t fight it. I let him lead me in through the door and up the stairs to his flat, where he sat me down on the sofa, then kissed me on top of my head before heading towards the kitchen area to put the kettle on. I sat and sniffled to myself, trying to wipe my eyes on the back of my hands.

‘Here, it’s camomile.’

Matt handed me a mug of tea and then a box of tissues. Then he sat down beside me and put his arm around me again.

‘Have you only just got back?’

I nodded.

‘Shit, Julia, you must be wiped.’

Another nod.

‘Why didn’t you go straight home?’

‘I just needed … you.’

A sound somewhere between a moan and a laugh escaped from Matt.

‘Well I can’t say it’s not reciprocated, but shit, you don’t half choose your moments. You’re not in any fit state for anything I may have to offer you tonight, apart from my bed –’

I looked up at him, startled, scared and hopeful.

‘– I’ll sleep here on the sofa. I’ve got an old tshit you can use, and no fuking pants is fine by me.’

I nodded again, too exhausted to think, let alone argue. Matt stayed next to me, holding me against him, while I drank my tea. Then he took the cup from my hands and put it on the table.

‘Come on, it’s this way. Are you OK to get undressed? There’s a shirt in here you can use –’

He opened a drawer

‘– we can worry about everything else in the morning.’

‘Matt …’

‘Yep.’

‘Kiss me.’

He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply.

‘Holy fuck, Julia, you make it bloody difficult for a bloke to behave decently. Not tonight. I’m not going there again with you like this. If I start kissing you now, I won’t be able to stop.’

‘I won’t want you to stop.’

‘Don’t, Jules, please, I need to say no. I’m sorry, you have no idea how sorry, but not tonight. Soon though, bloody soon. Goodnight, gorgeous.’

He blew me a kiss and walked out, shutting the door behind him.

I sat on the edge of the bed for a while, not really sure what I was feeling. I was so, so tired, but I had so, so wanted to kiss Matt, and to feel him hold me again, whatever that might have brought. I was just about with-it enough to recognise what Matt had done and what it might mean to me later.

The duvet had been pushed back, and I felt the sheet underneath, which was still warm from Matt’s body. I pulled my clothes off and picked the top t-shirt from the drawer Matt had left open, pulling it on over my head. I kept my pants on. Then I slid under the duvet, holding the warmth from it around me, and switched the lamp off, falling into sleep almost immediately.

Matt

When Jules came back, she was in a bit of a state and she came to my flat late at night and said she wanted to kiss me, the inference being that she wanted to sleep with me, but fuck I was noble, and said no and slept on the sofa while she crashed in my bed. I hope you’re impressed, because I bloody well was.

Julia

As I woke up, it slowly registered that it was light. I couldn’t hear any of the familiar sounds I had got used to in Norfolk, and I couldn’t hear the traffic outside my flat. I opened my eyes. I was in a strange room. I closed my eyes and gathered my thoughts. I was in Matt’s bed. I groaned to myself, thinking about how ridiculous I must have looked yesterday.

I had no idea of the time – I had left my phone in the car along with my bags – but it felt late enough that I should be getting up. I didn’t want to be late for work on my first morning back. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and dragged my fingers through my hair; as I was about to stumble to the door, it opened and Matt came in with a cup of tea.

‘Hey you. Toast or cereal for breakfast? Or something fancier?’

‘What time is it?’

‘Just gone ten.’

What?

‘You needed to sleep.’

‘I’m late for work. Shit, Matt, it’s my first day back.’

I started to gather my clothes together, wondering how I was going to explain this to Lexi, and then get home, shower and change into something decent. I felt Matt’s hands on my shoulders.

‘Hey, stop panicking. I’ve phoned in for you.’

‘What? What the fuck did you tell them?’

‘Well, of course, I told them you’d stayed the night here and were so exhausted from the adventure that you were having a bit of a skive –

What?’

‘Stop shrieking, I rang Phil, told him you were taking an extra day because yesterday was a bit too much, and it’s all sorted. Don’t worry, I didn’t talk to Lexi, Phil will be discreet, he doesn’t know you’re here.’

I sat on the edge of the bed and put my head in my hands.

‘You can’t just do things like that on my behalf. You should have woken me up.’

‘Well I didn’t, not much we can do about it now. Tell me you didn’t need the sleep.’

I stayed silent.

‘Hmm. Well I’ve got to shoot off myself in a minute, can’t have both of us shirking, you’re welcome to stay here, all day if you want to, but if you go, pull the door shut behind you, make sure it clicks.’

I stayed sitting on the bed as he left the room, and I watched him through the open bedroom door as he left the flat, turning to wave as he did so. I sat for a long time, thinking about what I was doing there.

Matt was right, I had needed the sleep; but I should never have come here in the first place. Yesterday had been a weird, horrible day, and I had made some bad errors of judgement, not least of which had been asking Matt to kiss me. I was now awake enough to be well aware of what it had cost him to say no, but confronting that with him later was something I chose not to think about.

I pulled on the clothes I had worn the day before, folding the t-shirt I had slept in, and putting it on the pillow. I located my car keys and left, pulling the door shut behind me, trying not to think about the last time I did that or the circumstances in which I had left Matt’s flat then.

Arriving at my flat, I hauled my bags up the stairs and then started unpacking them, putting things out to wash or into the laundry basket for later. I thought about calling Phil to explain why I hadn’t rung in myself, but couldn’t think of a way to justify it that wouldn’t make things worse. I texted Evie to see if she was around for a chat later, and she replied that she would call me when she got home from work. I got some of the papers that I’d brought home from Norfolk – bank details and other things I needed to sort out – but I couldn’t bring myself to look at them.

I curled up on the sofa and cried, wishing I could get a grip on my emotions and stop bursting into tears at inconvenient moments. I missed Nons. I wanted Matt, but I didn’t want to want him. I felt impatient with myself, and could only imagine how frustrated he must be feeling with me. Slowly, my tears dried up and I fell into a doze.

I woke some time later to the sound of the door intercom. It startled me into instant wakefulness, and jolted me onto my feet. I pressed the button.

‘Hello.’

‘Julia, it’s Matt.’

I looked at the clock. It was one fifteen; he must have come over in his lunch hour.

‘Come up.’

I pushed the button again, and heard the buzz as he opened the door. I waited for his knock, which came, tentatively, a few moments later. I opened the door.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you.’

A crinkly smile, but some uncertainty behind it.

‘I’m sorry about last night.’

‘No need. I just wanted to see how you are. Can I come in?’

I stood aside and let Matt walk into the flat, where he stood, unsure, by the door.

‘Sit down. Have you come in your lunch hour?’

‘Yeah, they all think I’m off wining and dining the elusive Roberta.’

He walked over to the sofa and sat down. I sat at the other end, a seat between us.

‘I’m sorry, I haven’t got anything to eat. I emptied my fridge before I left last week.’

‘I didn’t come here for a three course meal, Julia. You were, well, how can I put it tactfully? I can’t. OK. You were a fucking mess last night. I wanted to check you’re not still a fucking mess today.’

‘I’m not a fucking mess.’

Matt looked at me, studying my face.

‘No, maybe not, but you’re not right. You’ve gone all distant and Ice Queeny.’

‘I’m sorry. I feel silly and embarrassed. I don’t know why I came to yours last night, I wasn’t thinking straight.’

‘I thought you came because you needed me?’

I snorted.

‘Is that what I said?’

‘Yeah. You also asked me to kiss you. I’m sorry I had to say no.’

I closed my eyes and inhaled.

‘I’m not. I’m very grateful. You would have had every right to … do what I asked you to. You continue to astound me.’

‘Hey, that’s always good to know. A good astounding is my speciality. Not that it’s always called that, you understand. Jules, you have no idea how fucking hard it was to say no. I’ve missed you so much more than I thought I would this last week. When you turned up last night, even though I was half asleep and it was bloody freezing outside and I cut my fucking foot on a stone, it was so bloody great just to see you again. Just holding you sent all sorts of messages to all sorts of places, and I had to talk pretty bloody fast to them to get them to simmer down. It just wasn’t right last night. After last time, I wasn’t going to do that again, feel the way I did, have you leave the way you did.’

‘You cut your foot?’

He laughed, tutted and shook his head.

‘Yeah, focus on that why don’t you. Fuck, Julia, you’re better than me at avoiding the issue, and that’s saying something. I’m telling you I missed you and didn’t want to do something stupid in the heat of the moment last night that we’d both regret because you were a fucking mess and I was an uncontrollable shag monster.’

‘Alright, I get it. You were more of a gentleman than I thought you capable of. You have been on several occasions. But soon you’re going to have to stop saying no, because eventually I won’t be a fucking mess and you won’t have an excuse.’

‘Believe me, Julia, as soon as you stop being a fucking mess, I will be right here on your doorstep with a bottle of wine and a condom and you won’t even have to ask me to kiss you.’

‘Just the one condom?’

‘I would like to think that in these modern times, you have a supply. Mine will just be a spare in case we run out.’

I looked into Matt’s eyes. He looked relieved. I felt a bit better.

‘I’m not sure I’m there yet.’

‘I know. I’m keeping a close eye on the situation. Until then, you don’t have to worry, I’ll be saying no.’

‘Thank you. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this.’

‘A mate of mine says it’s not about deserving, it’s about how you react to things. I’m just reacting to you, the same as you’re reacting to me. It feels pretty fucking good so far. Hey, know what, I think I can risk a hug without turning into that uncontrollable shag monster. No snogging though.’

Matt opened his arms wide, and I fell into them, burying myself in his chest and holding him tightly against me. As his arms went round me, it felt like the place I most belonged in the world.

‘I’m scared.’

He pulled away and looked at me again.

‘Of what?’

‘Of this, I don’t know what it is, what it’s going to be.’

Matt sighed.

‘You know what, you don’t have the monopoly on freaking out. Didn’t we say at the start we were going to see where it goes? Let’s just do that. That doesn’t scare me, what fucking terrifies me is analysing it to death and killing it before it has the chance to be anything. Jules, I’m not looking for anything in particular, I don’t know if you are. I’m not trying to make us into a couple or anything, fuck, probably exactly the opposite. I’m a commitmentophobe, hadn’t you heard? I know it’s bloody terrifying for you not to know exactly what the rules are, but it’s just as bloody terrifying for me to feel like there are a bunch of rules I’m trapped by. I just feel like there aren’t any here.’

I carried on looking at him, trying to work out if what he said made me more, or less, terrified.

‘I think you need to try to let yourself go a bit. I know there’s this weird vibe with us knowing each other at work, but maybe we can try to forget about that when we’re not at GreenScreen. Try to just relax enough that we can be ourselves, maybe even challenge each other a bit. Then we might get a bit more of an idea of where we’re going, if indeed we have to be headed anywhere.’

‘Do you think I’m uptight?’

‘I think you think too much about shit that’s not important.’

‘So yes, then.’

‘I didn’t say that, and it’s not what I meant. Julia, you’ve had a major life event, with your aunt. You’re still getting your head round it. Let yourself do that and at the same time get your head around us too. We don’t have to be together every second. We both have our own lives. I think we need to be together, by which I mean sleep together, by which I actually mean fucking hot sex, just so we’re clear, very soon so we can get it out of the way – shit that wasn’t very romantic was it – I meant –’

‘I know what you meant. You’re right. It’s been this … thing … hasn’t it. An undercurrent. Until it happens, it’s going to affect everything else between us. I know what you were saying about it needing to be right, but … can we plan it?’

I looked up at him, conscious that my need to control things was affecting this too. He pushed a strand of hair away from my face.

‘It wouldn’t be appropriate if we didn’t, really, after everything else that’s been so well organised. I’m not doing anything tonight, but maybe, after everything I just said, it’s too soon …’

‘Evie’s calling me later, but I haven’t got any plans after that.’

Matt looked at me, assessingly.

‘You know what, there’s only so many times I can resist you, Julia. Tonight then. Come to mine? I’ll cook you something, planned seduction.’

‘Are you supposed to tell me if you’re planning to seduce me?’

‘Probably not. I’m Matt Scott, though, ‘evil seducer’ is on my doorbell. It’s a bit of a given.’

‘I thought that was ‘uncontrollable shag monster’?’

‘That’s just at weekends. Come here, soon-to-be-seduced Julia Marran. I want you in my arms right now.’

As he pulled me towards him again, I leaned into him and put my arms round his back, pressing myself up against him. I could feel his heart pounding in his chest. After a time, he kissed the top of my head, sighed, disentangled himself and pulled away.

‘I should get back. I can only have so many long lunches before Phil starts taking it out of my holiday.’

‘How exactly did you get such flexible hours?’

I saw a flicker of alarm cross his face for a split second, then it was gone.

‘Well … I was ill a few years ago – when I first moved down here I was living with my brother, they were looking after me – but I wanted to work again. But I got really tired, so I needed to work part time with the flexibility to come and go and up or down my hours as necessary. I had a pretty good reference from my job in Stafford, and Phil reckoned I was worth the risk.’

‘But you’re not ill now.’

‘I guess I just never renegotiated. It suits my lazy bastard ethos.’

I sensed a guardedness in Matt’s expression. He wasn’t telling me everything, but I didn’t have any rights to his personal information.

‘I work my share, I know I come in late, but I stay late if I need to, I don’t miss deadlines, I get my job done. I work more hours than I’m contracted for if anyone’s counting.’

He sounded defensive, as if he’d had to justify it to himself many times.

‘I know, I wasn’t questioning your work at all. You carry on being a lazy bastard, it suits you.’

‘OK, thanks, I will. Starting today. Long lunch hour followed by leaving early to get ready for my hot date. It is going to be fucking hot, Jules, I can’t wait.’

‘I’m looking forward to it too.’

‘Still scared?’

‘Petrified.’

‘Great! See you later – sevenish?’

He stood up and pulled me to my feet.

‘Here’s a little something to keep you interested.’

He leaned down and kissed me hard and long, tongue searching deep into my mouth, lips locked onto mine, hands in my hair holding my face to his, and then he pulled away.

‘Fuck, need to stop that, otherwise there will be no seduction tonight, just a quick hop to your bedroom right now. No, don’t even say that would be fine, you temptress, I can see it on your face. Well I’ve got no one to blame but myself for sending me back to work with the boner from hell. Fuck. I’m going now before I do something else I’ll regret. See you later.’

He backed towards the door, leaving me breathless and open mouthed in the middle of the room, then turned and walked out with a wave, pulling the door shut behind him.

I couldn’t settle after Matt left. I drifted around, unpacking, sorting my laundry, tidying up, but my mind wasn’t really on it. I was restless, thinking about my assignation later. The more I thought about it the more it felt like the right thing to do; get the sex out of the way and I might be able to think more clearly. Thinking logically about it didn’t stop my heart racing in anticipation, though, and I was in need of distraction.

I thought about going in to work for a couple of hours but that wasn’t going to distract me from Matt. In the end I went to the supermarket and filled my trolley with food I didn’t really want because I was wandering around in an unthinking haze. As I loaded the bags at the till I shook my head at what I’d bought, wondering when I was ever going to eat a tin of sausage and beans or a jar of pickled onions.

Back at my flat I filled my fridge and cupboards with my unwise purchases. The food was making me hungry and I realised with a start that I hadn’t eaten anything all day – in fact not since I stopped at a service station on the way home yesterday. I slotted some bread into the toaster and cut off a lump of cheese. It would have to do until dinner with Matt later, as I was euphemistically calling it, in the hope that he was a reasonable cook and we actually made it to the dinner table to eat.

Not long after I got back from the shop, Evie rang. We spent a while talking about Nons’ funeral and then about Evie’s job, where she was having ‘unreasonable boss’ trouble; then she asked about Matt.

‘So how’s it going with the stud muffin?’

‘The what?’

‘Has he managed to keep it in his boxers?’

‘Evie! I’ve been away, I haven’t seen him.’

‘I’ve heard some stories, Jules. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’

‘What stories?’

‘Kath – you know, from the dentist? She heard that he’s got some kind of STD, maybe more than one. Her friend Petra had to go to the GUM clinic. And he’s not the type to hang around once he’s got what he wants.’

If I hadn’t heard the Petra story from Matt I might have been swayed, but I was offended on Matt’s behalf.

‘You don’t know him Evie, nor does Kath. He’s not like everyone thinks. A lot of its an act. And that STD story is just a story.’

‘OK my lovely, whatever you say. You’re obviously smitten.’

‘I am not.’

‘Right.’

She filled that one word with as much sarcasm as she could muster.

‘When are you seeing him next?’

‘…tonight.’

‘For?’

‘Dinner’

‘Where?’

‘His place.’

‘Yeah and the rest Jules. You’ve gone all monosyllabic, you think you can kid me. Anything else on the menu? Or rather, anyone?

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Course you don’t. Wouldn’t have crossed your mind that womaniser Matt Scott might want to get in your knickers – it’s not like it hasn’t already happened once. I’m not judging you Jules, I think it’s great, go for it if it’s what you want. Just be careful. Not just about STDs, but don’t let him break your heart.’

I laughed.

‘Evie you’re hilarious. I don’t do heartbreak. We’re just seeing what happens, enjoying ourselves.’

I could almost convince myself.

‘Alright then my lovely. Have a good time tonight, I’ll wait to hear all about it later.’

When I’d finished talking to Evie I had about half an hour to get ready before I needed to leave. I spent far too long choosing clothes and selecting underwear, tying myself up in knots about the messages I would be sending. Eventually I reminded myself I had agreed to go to Matt’s so we could sleep together, which was a pretty clear message, and so I wore something I felt comfortable and sexy in. I was finally as ready as I’d ever be.

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.

50. I want you to want me

In which Julia and Matt get to know each other better.

Julia

And then he went, but not before making me give him my mobile number and watching me programme his number into mine. I was mentally breathless with it all, maybe I was a little bit mad, I was certainly behaving somewhat out of character. It remained to be seen how we managed to keep it up at work.

Matt’s revelation yesterday that he and I were in some kind of competition instigated by Phil had shaken me, but this evening’s events changed the rules and things may take a while to settle down for me. I shook my head, to try to shake it all out. I had things to do. I had been about to call William, and now I had to be Jules and put all thoughts of Matt Scott to one side.

William had loved Nons forever. He lived next door to her, and although eventually he’d married someone else and had a family, because he’d given up hope, he and Nons had always stayed close. When he got divorced and his children left home, he stayed, determined that if he couldn’t have Nons, he could at least look after her.

I don’t think Nons had known any of this; William was adamant that he couldn’t tell her. I’d found out when I’d gone round to borrow some kitchen implement or other, and had seen the photos he had spread out on his kitchen table. They were all of her, various ages. He’d just been sitting, looking at them. He’d shrugged, picked them all up and put them in a box, and then told me. And made me promise not to tell her.

I don’t know if Nons ever knew, or guessed, but she did think of William as her best friend. They were in and out of each other’s houses all the time, he did her gardening, she sewed up the holes in his trouser pockets. They watered each other’s plants when they went on holiday. They even went on holiday together sometimes, and got a different neighbour to water both their plants. William was going to be heartbroken, and I pressed his name on my phone with trepidation.

‘Hello.’

‘William, it’s Jules.’

‘Oh, lass …’

‘Are you alright?’

‘No, pet, not really, it’s not sunk in yet. I keep looking over at her kitchen window, expecting to see her washing up, giving me a wave with her Marigolds.’

As he talked, I could hear a deep sadness in his voice. It matched how I was feeling, and although it was painful to talk about Nons and acknowledge we were never going to see her again, it helped to be remembering her with someone who had loved her as much as I did. We talked for a while, I told him I was coming up at the weekend, and we said goodbye.

Next on the list were my parents. I almost put this one to the bottom of the list, as the least desirable of the tasks, but it needed doing. My mother was much the same as the previous day, full of the inconvenience of it all, asking what I had managed to organise for the weekend, because obviously they needed to make plans that didn’t involve seeing me for longer than they had to, or that necessitated them making any cumbersome arrangements. I told her I would be there on Saturday by noon, and stay until Sunday afternoon. She wanted me to be there for longer, but I resisted her whining and stood firm.

Finally, I could get to Evie. My best friend, the person who knew me better than anyone. We’d been at school together, we’d shared lunch boxes, lipstick, boyfriends, cars, flats, clothes, ups and downs.

Evie had spent a few years abroad after she left university, but we’d kept in touch, and when she came back to England she got a job in this city, much to my joy. We saw each other every week or two, and were in touch by phone or text most days. I had a lot to tell her – I would end up telling her everything; she always knew when something had happened, and could get me to open up.

‘Jules, hi, ‘sup?’

‘Oh, you know.’

‘Informative. Everything alright?’

‘No, not really. Nons died.’

‘Oh Jules, no. When?’

‘Day before yesterday.’

‘You must be devastated.’

‘Pretty much.’

I told her the story, and she was sympathetic and understanding and listened as I cried and talked, and she was just what I needed – somewhere I could face it all, feel it all, be absolutely real about it all, before I put it all away again so my life could go on.

‘I’ll come round tomorrow, Jules, bring a bottle, we can have a good sesh, remember her properly.’

‘I can’t tomorrow, Ev.’

I stopped myself saying what I was doing, wondering how she was going to react to the mad whatever it was that Matt and I had agreed to.

‘Oh OK, that’s cool, what are you up to?’

‘Meeting someone for a drink.’

‘By someone, would you mean a person of the male persuasion?’

‘I would mean that.’

‘Come on, then, you’ve got to give me more to go on, you know I want details, descriptions, height, weight, star signs, marks out of ten, the works.’

I thought about stringing her along, but decided to rip the plaster off and get it over with.

‘Matt Scott.’

There was a stunned silence.

‘Do you mean the Matt Scott from work who makes your life a living hell and has shagged practically everything with a pulse between here and Inverness?’

‘That’s the one. Although I wouldn’t say he makes my life a living hell exactly.’

‘Oh, my mistake, he’s not the one you phone me up about all the time – ‘you’ll never believe what he’s done now’ – you say it at least once a week, he sounds like a complete scumbag. Why are you going out with him?’

‘Well, it’s complicated, I had a bit of a meltdown at work yesterday, stormed out, he came after me. We talked. He’s different than I thought.’

‘Different how?’

‘More interesting, less of a wanker, more worth getting to know.’

‘Jules, my lovely, are you sure you know what you’re doing? You’ve hated him since you started there. Why the sudden – oh! You’ve shagged him, haven’t you.’

I don’t know how, but she always seemed to know. My silence spoke volumes.

‘Oh my God, Jules. What on earth possessed you?’

‘I don’t know. I was in a bit of a state, upset about Nons, upset about the stuff at work, he was nice to me, he made me feel better. He said something that annoyed me, and after I’d stopped trying to punch his lights out for being an arsehole, he just held me and it felt good, and then it just got … steamy.’

‘So he took advantage of you while you were in a fragile state?’

‘God, Evie, are you channelling the Victorian era or something? No! I was capable at all times of making my own decisions. He’s – he was – he’s just been to see me, actually. He didn’t come to work today, he felt so bad about it all.’

‘What, he came there? To your flat?’

Evie knew the implications of that, if not the full Ice Queen story.

‘Yes.’

‘Well I hope you gave him a hard time.’

‘Maybe a bit. Then we kind of decided to, I don’t know, see how things go. So I’m having a drink with him tomorrow.’

‘Just a drink?’

‘Yes.’

‘Won’t he try it on again?’

‘It’s possible I suppose –’

I had a sudden sense of how disappointed I would be if he did try it on after everything he’d said.

‘– but I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.’

‘I know you are, Jules, but you’re upset at the moment. You might not be thinking completely straight. Don’t let him smarm his way into your bed just because he knows what buttons to press to make you lose your marbles.’

‘I’ll be careful.’

‘I’m only nagging because I care.’

There weren’t many people whose nagging I would accept with good grace.

‘I know Ev. Thanks. Love you.’

‘Love you too, Jules. Call tomorrow and tell me all about it?’

‘Might do, might just text.’

‘Shall we get the gang together, have a big cheer-up for you?’

‘Not right now, Ev. I don’t really want to see anyone, and I’ve got loads to do.’

‘OK, whatever’s cool. See you soon, my lovely.’

I disconnected from Evie and sat back on the sofa, breathing out a sigh. That was it, for this evening, of talking, analysing, chewing over and confessing.

I needed a glass of wine and some dinner, so I wandered over to the fridge and tipped a bit of salad into a bowl, topped it with some mozzarella, and filled a glass from the bottle I’d opened yesterday.

While I ate and drank, I started to assimilate my day, putting the different bits in the right boxes. Little stabs of something like panic kept assaulting me as I remembered Matt’s visit, and it started to become clearer exactly how much I had allowed things to change – not just at work, where the potential for disaster was high, but in my private life, where I had permitted someone access to a part of me I usually hid.

I jumped, startled, as my phone beeped announcing a text. It was from Matt. I sighed. I might have also given up my solitude.

‘Hi :)’

Well at least he wasn’t a rambling texter, although the use of emoticons irritated me. I allowed him a reply, though.

‘Hello. Was there something you wanted?’

‘Hell yeah 😉 but 4 now jus checkin u ok n still wan 2 meet 2moro’

I wasn’t particularly fond of text speak, either – with predictive text it was often quicker to type the full word, and the abbreviations seemed juvenile. Was he really checking about tomorrow? Was he feeling insecure, or having second thoughts himself? This was one of the many reasons I disliked communicating by text; there were too many unknowns in a truncated conversation.

‘Yes, I always keep my appointments.’

‘OK gr8 🙂 cu 2moz @ work. Xcited!! ;)’

Oh dear, a whole raft of winks, smileys, exclamation marks and abbreviations. I got the feeling Matt was going to be the one who always had the last word in a text conversation, and so I didn’t reply.

I got my laptop out and Googled funeral homes in the small north Norfolk town where Nons had lived. There were a couple in the area and I emailed the links to my mother so I could check them out with her later. Much as she would want to avoid the bother of making any arrangements herself, she would not allow any decisions to be arrived at without her, in case they reflected adversely on her reputation for style and artistry. Plans for the funeral were going to have to be delicately negotiated to avoid a lavish affair that didn’t reflect Auntie Nons’ simple tastes. I texted my mother and asked where Nons was at the moment.

‘I don’t know. William dealt with it all while we were on our way.’

‘Didn’t you ask him?’

‘Too busy darling. Have you called anyone?’

She listed several distant relatives she wanted me to contact, and there went the rest of my evening, in a haze of sadness and condolences.

By the time I got to bed I had finished the bottle of wine and made inroads into another as a way of dulling it all. As I lay my head on my pillow, my phone bleeped. I picked it up from beside the bed. Another text from Matt.

‘Night x’

‘How observant’

‘Sarky cow. I meant goodnight 🙂 xx’

I didn’t reply. I didn’t want Matt to get used to chatting to me via texts whenever he felt like it. I needed to impose some boundaries. I flicked the screen off, put it back beside the bed and turned the light off. I was just drifting off to sleep when the phone bleeped again. Another text from Matt.

‘Feeling ignored :(‘

Good, that was the plan. I put the ringer on silent, turned over and cried myself to sleep for the second night in a row, as memories of Nons crowded into my mind.

It seemed like only minutes later that the alarm went. I hadn’t dreamed or woken all night. Suppressing a slight, unexpected thrill of excitement at the day and evening ahead, I made my way through my morning wake-up routine, and turned up at work early enough to be the first in again.

This time, the peace and quiet lasted for nearly twenty minutes and I had time to make myself coffee before anyone else arrived. I was immersed in emails and meeting minutes for a lot of the morning, and it wasn’t until I was in a meeting with my team that Matt arrived.

Matt

I texted Jules a couple of times later that night, trying to keep the vibe going, and got the distinct impression she was trying to keep me at arms length. It was the same at work the next day. No one would have known things had changed between us, even I almost doubted it, although the annoying barrage of questions from Lexi the pathologically inquisitive receptionist, about where I’d been for the last day and a half, helped to remind me.

Julia

As usual, the office seemed to grind to a halt to observe his grand entrance. His own team stopped what they were doing to high-five him and take delivery of the coffee he always brought with him. I noticed how the eyes of the members of my team slid enviously towards them, and for the first time wondered if my strategy of ruling with an iron rod was really the best way. Then I instantly dismissed it. I got results. People weren’t necessarily happy, but they worked hard. I was fair with people, they knew where they stood, and I gave credit where it was due. I wasn’t about to start changing just because of a few glances. I called everyone to order and we re-focussed.

Matt

I rather regretted making up a bad headache as my excuse for not going in the day before. Lexi kept trying to chat to me about my fictitious migraine, because ‘my mum gets them’. In the way that your health becomes public property once you divulge an issue, it seemed I was now an expert on triggers and pain relief; God alone knows how many fucking cripple friends and relations would crawl from the woodwork if I told them about the fucking bastard.

Julia

The day went much as every other day had at GreenScreen. Matt and I didn’t have much to do with each other, we hardly looked at each other let alone spoke, and we got through our work in much the usual way. It wasn’t until people had started to leave for the day that either of us gave any indication that things might have changed, and it was so subtle I doubted it would have been noticed.

I was still sitting at my computer when Matt walked past, on his way home, satchel slung over his shoulder. He turned briefly in to face me through the door and winked. It was such a small gesture, and there was nobody around to see him, but it sent a huge jolt of heat through me and I felt my cheeks burn. If anyone had noticed anything, it would have been my reaction and not his action that would have tipped them off. I determined to try to school my responses otherwise things were going to get awkward. I knew him well enough to know that, changed goal-posts or not, if I asked him not to do it, he would take it as a challenge and carry right on winking.

Home again, I braved another phone call with my mother. She wanted to talk about the links I had sent her to the two funeral homes, one of which was the Co-op; I already knew which one would, or rather wouldn’t, meet with her approval.

‘I’d like her to have a tasteful funeral, darling.’

‘I’m sure the Co-op do tasteful.’

‘Oh no, JuJu, it’s just so vulgar. Bentley’s sounds much more appropriate.’

‘Alright, then, but what about hymns or songs, flowers or not, order of service, humanitarian or Christian, cremation or burial?’

I already knew the answers to most of these, at least what Nons had wanted. We’d had a marvellously ghoulish Halloween evening a few years ago, watching Night of the Living Dead and then discussing how we would want to go out – bang or whimper, not gentle into that good night, who we’d come back and haunt, all of that.

It wasn’t that I wanted my mother’s opinion, I just wanted to make her aware of all the things that still needed deciding, beyond how long it was decent to remain at the wake before jetting off to Iceland to resume one’s travels.

‘Oh JuJu, honestly, I’m sure you can take care of all that. Call Bentley’s now, you can get some quotes at the very least.’

‘I think I’ll call William and ask him. He’d want to be involved.’

‘Oh. Well alright, darling, if you think you can’t do it on your own, I suppose William might be able to do something.’

Although she seemed to be having difficulty imagining just how her sister’s best friend in the world could possibly have any contribution to make to her funeral arrangements.

‘I’ll do it now. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mum.’

‘Tomorrow? Oh yes, you’re coming up. What time will you be here?’

‘If I leave early enough I could make it before lunchtime.’

‘Oh well, if we’re still here then we’ll see you.’

I wasn’t holding my breath that I was going to catch a glimpse of either of my parents before I had to begin the long drive home on Sunday afternoon.

Now for William.

‘Hello, pet. Lovely to hear from you.’

He sounded so sad, it was almost tangible.

‘How are you bearing up?’

‘Oh, you know, it keeps hitting me.’

‘I know, me too. I forget while I’m doing something, and then I’ll stop and suddenly her voice is in my head and it’s like it’s just happened all over again.’

‘Stay strong, lass.’

‘I’ll try. William, I wondered if you would help me with the funeral? Mum said you knew where they took her after?’

‘Yes, pet, she went in an ambulance, I think they’re doing a post mortem so she’ll still be at the hospital. I suppose after that it’s either the Co-op or Bentley’s.’

‘Well I don’t think Mum’s going to go for the Co-op. You know what she’s like. Not much point arguing. I’ll choose my battles for this one, I think. William, you knew her so well. Will you help me? I’m coming up tomorrow. Can I come and see you, talk about it all, make some arrangements?’

‘Of course, pet. I’d be honoured.’

‘Thanks William. I’ll see you then.’

Then I phoned Bentley’s, who had an answer machine but called back very quickly, confirming my mother’s assertion that ‘these places are open twenty four hours these days’. To my surprise, they agreed to meet me and William on Saturday afternoon so we could make some plans, and they agreed to contact the hospital to make the necessary arrangements with them.

With a shuddery sigh I relaxed a little bit, glad I had at least started to make inroads into the whole process of saying goodbye to Nons. I was finding it hard to take it all in, to feel it as real. I needed to be there, where she’d lived, so I could come to terms with her dying.

I still had a couple of hours before I was meeting Matt. I grabbed a piece of toast and a glass of wine, then ran a bubble bath where I soaked until my fingers went wrinkly. I dried off and wandered around in a bathrobe for a while, trying to decide what to wear. It was only the Whistling Panhandler, I ate or drank there at least once a week. And I kept trying to tell myself it was only Matt Scott, I didn’t want to make a special effort. He saw me every day at work anyway. But something kept pulling my eyes to my favourite turquoise dress, the one with no sleeves and an embroidered bodice. It was a bit BoHo, which made it different from anything I wore at work, and more importantly I felt good wearing it. I tried a few other combinations on, but it was the turquoise dress that stuck. A pair of comfortable shoes later and I was dressed to go out. I grabbed my bag and made the short trip down the road to the wine bar.

It was busy, as it usually was on a Friday evening. There was no sign of Matt. I checked my watch – I was a little early, so I found a table in the corner and waited. He didn’t keep me waiting long, and I watched him for a few moments as he came in, eyes anxiously scanning the room until they found mine, then his face seemed to light up, and he sauntered over, pulling me to my feet and kissing me on the cheek.

‘You’re here! I wondered if you’d chicken out on me. You’re not a great one for texting are you?’

‘I said I’d be here.’

‘I know, I know, I should have had more faith.’

He sat down in the other seat at the table, filling the space with his smile and his chatter.

‘Fuck me, you can play it cool, can’t you. I had my doubts all today that we even had that conversation yesterday. You’re bloody good.’

‘Thank you.’

‘It was a fucking hoot though, wasn’t it? Us knowing, and them all so not knowing. Haven’t had so much bloody fun for ages. I thought I was going to blow a gasket when Joe Billington asked where I got to the day before yesterday. I’m pretty sure there was some hot goss about us, Lexi was trying to wheedle stuff out of me all day – ‘so Matt, what shall I put on your sick form? Just a day, or a day and a half? What shall I put?’ – she was really disappointed when I said I had a migraine, and then I acted surprised when they said you hadn’t come back, and I said I hadn’t seen you. I think I pulled it off too, I’m almost as bloody good as you. So, Julia, how the fuck are you?’

‘Not quite as pleased with myself as you it would seem.’

‘Oh, alright, we’re going to start with the point scoring are we? Well fine, but I can do that at work any time, I was hoping to see something of the Julia from last night, the one who was going to take a few risks. Nice dress by the way.’

He ran his eyes over my body and I felt myself blush. I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. Matt had begun a verbal assault, pummelling me with information, that I didn’t have a ready response to. I was finding it hard to detach from my work head-space and reach that place I had been in yesterday when this had seemed like a good idea.

‘You know what, I think maybe I should go.’

I stood up. Matt stood up too, looking startled, and put his hand out towards me.

‘No! Shit, have I fucked up already? That must be a record, even for me.’

‘It’s not you. I’m just not sure this is a good idea any more’

‘Oh come on Julia, at least give it a go. Fuck, I’ve been giving it the verbals haven’t I. I always do that when I’m nervous. Please, sit down. I’ll shut the fuck up and listen for a bit. We don’t have to say anything if you don’t want.’

He gestured to my seat and as I sat down again, he looked relieved.

‘You do talk a lot.’

‘Sorry, I know, I thought you might have noticed that about me before now. It’s worse when I’m with a beautiful woman who intimidates the hell out of me.’

This was the smarming that Evie had warned me against. I rolled my eyes.

‘Do you want a drink? I recommend the Shiraz.’

‘Drink – fuck yeah. Not a great one for wine though, what’s their beer like?’

‘I’ve never tried it.’

‘Well … let me propose a little challenge then. I’ll have some of your nobby posh Shiraz stuff, if you try a pint of Otter. Great honest ale. Have a Beautiful Daze, it’ll knock your fucking socks off.’

I considered for a moment. It seemed like a good way to start our whatever this was, and certainly some alcohol would relax me a bit.

‘Alright then! Nice one, Jules. Oh fuck it, sorry. Julia. You so look like a fucking Jules, it just comes out. Can you forgive me the odd one slipping through?’

‘Not really. But I’ll let you off that one, if you buy the drinks.’

Some time later, Matt was on his second glass of Shiraz and I had made it just over half way down my first pint of beer. It didn’t knock my socks off, although I didn’t dislike it. It was fizzy and filled me up; I really didn’t know how people drank pints and pints of it all at once. I was also conscious of needing to be up early to drive to Norfolk tomorrow.

Matt and I had managed to recapture some of the easy conversation we’d found at The Long Legged Frog, and had compared notes on Channel 4 documentaries, the Mann Booker prize and a recent exhibition at the local arts centre, when Matt’s phone pinged with a noticeable text tone. He took his phone out, having ignored other tones, and looked at the screen, then laughed.

‘Sorry, that was rude. It was my sister-in-law. She sent me a picture of my niece with chocolate ice cream all round her face. Here, look.’

I looked as politely as I could without encouraging further views of family photographs. I had never been interested in other people’s children, and had yet to find a way to say ‘no thanks’ to offers of photo viewings without offending the doting mother, father or, in this case, uncle. I smiled and nodded but didn’t say anything.

‘Have you got any?’

‘Any what?’

‘Nieces, nephews, third cousins twelve times removed.’

With a sinking feeling, I realised we were going to do the family history stuff now. Oh well, good while it lasted.

‘I’ve got a couple of nieces and nephews but they live abroad.’

‘Oh, that must be tough, missing them growing up. I’d hate it if I couldn’t see Cal and Iz.’

‘They’re pretty much grown up now. My sisters are both a lot older than me. I don’t see my family much.’

He looked surprised.

‘They’re not local then?’

‘No.’

‘I’m really lucky, my family are all down here. We all moved down a few years ago, bit of a job lot. Don’t know what I’d do without them. Not that I’d ever tell them that, bunch of smug, interfering do-gooders.’

Matt

My family took a bit of explaining, and I was interested in hers and thought showing her the picture of Iz might lead to some mutual boasting about nieces and nephews, but instead of sharing, she went quiet, and I suddenly remembered the dead aunt who had been at the heart of everything that happened in my flat. Shit, Matt, can’t you stop being a self-centred bastard for one evening?

Julia

He obviously didn’t mean his comment about his family, so I smiled but didn’t say anything. Matt looked at me.

‘Have I said something wrong?’

‘No.’

‘You’ve gone quiet.’

‘Not on purpose.’

Something dawned on his face.

‘Oh fuck, I’m such an arse, you said about your auntie, that’s who you were so upset about. Fuck it, Julia, why didn’t you stop me, here I was banging on about my bloody family, and you’re still … shit, you haven’t mentioned it at all. I don’t think anyone at work knows, even.’

‘Phil knows. I keep my personal life at home.’

‘But are you OK? Haven’t you got to go to the funeral and everything?’

First I had to organise the funeral, then I could go to it.

‘Yes, but things are still being sorted. I’ll be OK. Just one of those things.’

‘Fuck. I’m sorry. Were you close to her?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m sorry. Is there anything … fuck, that’s such an inane question, isn’t it? We all ask ‘is there anything I can do’, when the only thing you’d want someone to be able to do is bring them back. Sorry, it must be a shitty time for you at the moment.’

‘I’ve had better weeks.’

He reached over and took my hand. I would have pulled away, but he had a strong grip, and he had turned it palm upwards to look at the plasters still covering the scratches.

Matt

I backtracked and apologised, asked her a bit about it, tried to remind myself what a shit time she must have had over the last week, and held her hand, realising as I did so that her scratches were covered only by plasters.

‘You took the bandage off.’

‘Yes, it got wet in the shower. It’s only superficial, plasters are fine. I might go without tomorrow, see how I manage.’

‘Well I’m glad there’s no lasting damage. Just be careful next time you’re trying to claw your way out of a hidden room in a hedge in a graveyard.’

‘It’s not an experience I’m likely to be repeating anytime soon.’

‘Oh? I was hoping for some clandestine Fanta slurping one lunchtime.’

‘I don’t do lunch.’

‘What, never?’

‘It’s nice and quiet when everyone’s out.’

‘But you eat, though, right?’

I realised I sounded like someone’s mum. I guess if you spend enough time with Beth, the interfering rubs off eventually.

‘Sometimes.’

‘Did you have lunch today?’

I seemed to have tuned in to the Nag Channel, and Beth was to blame. Jules rolled her eyes, much as I would have done, much as I deserved.

Julia

I wasn’t about to get into my eating habits, I got nagged enough by Evie, and she was allowed.

‘Mind your own business. Anyway –’

I remembered something I could use as a diversion.

‘– you owe me a secret.’

‘What?’

‘You said if I told you why I was upset on Wednesday, you’d tell me something about you that nobody else knows.’

I thought I caught a glimpse of something – was it consternation? – in Matt’s eyes. He took a deep breath.

Matt

‘Oh fuck, I did, didn’t I.’

I’d been going to tell her about the bastard MS, for some unfathomable reason. What was I going to do now?

‘Well alright then, I did promise. Fuck it. OK … well if you must know, I’ve actually got …’

And I rescued it at the last minute, with something that was equally true and equally a secret

‘… a fucking massive crush on you.’

Julia

‘You’re such a liar, that’s not what you were going to say.’

‘It’s true. It’s not only true, but nobody else at work knows, which I believe were the terms of my promise.’

He sat back and folded his arms, nodding in self-congratulation.

‘You haven’t got a crush on me.’

‘I have. I said last night, I’ve been trying to pluck up courage to ask you out for bloody ages.’

‘That’s not a crush, that’s just your inability to believe there’s a woman in the office who hasn’t succumbed to your charms. Or rather hadn’t, I suppose.’

‘See? If it was just that I wouldn’t still be interested, would I? You’re remarkable, Julia. I’ve had a thing for you ever since I started at GreenScreen.’

‘Really?’

I loaded the word with as much scepticism as I could muster.

‘So why all the business grads and temps, then?’

He had the decency to look abashed.

‘Well, no sense waiting around when there’s no hope, is there? I had a reputation to maintain. I don’t suppose it improved my chances with you, though, did it?’

‘Not markedly, no.’

‘Well, like I said, if it means anything, I’ve done a lot of thinking, not only since Wednesday, but before. Things were getting out of hand, I wasn’t … haven’t been … oh fuck it, I know I’ve been an utter knobhead. I just want the chance to show you I’m not what you think I am. Fuck knows I don’t deserve it.’

He gave me a very direct look, his big grey eyes almost pleading. He looked vulnerable, a look I’d never seen on Matt Scott’s face before.

‘It’s OK, Matt. We already agreed last night to see what happens here. Maybe part of that is putting some things to one side, almost a clean slate type of thing. Alright then, I’ll believe that perhaps it’s possible you have a crush on me, although you seem a little old for one. I’ll admit that I’m intrigued by you and by what this is. But I’m also a bit disconcerted, I’m outside my comfort zone. I think maybe we need some kind of a safety word, so either of us can say it, and we stop in our tracks, no moving forward until whatever it is, is resolved.’

Matt’s expression cleared, and he gave me a big smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes and mouth.

‘A safety word – I like it. Has to be something unusual, so we don’t go all ‘whoa’ every time one of us says ‘biscuit’ or something. Something memorable though. A place, maybe?’

I thought of a word that could mean something to both of us.

‘Chartham.’

Matt

‘Huh?’

It was supposed to be something that meant something to both of us, but I was totally puzzled.

‘John and Roberta Chartham. 1776 and 1790.’

Then I recognised the names and the dates. The headstones.

‘Holy fuck … the hideaway! You fucking genius, woman.’

I grinned broadly.

‘What a memory. I’ve stared at those names billions of times, couldn’t have told you what they were if my bloody life depended on it. I suppose I’d better remember them now. Good old Mr and Mrs Chartham. I bet they never thought they’d be responsible for putting a halt to anything we might be venturing hundreds of years after their demise.’

‘So it’s agreed then, any time either of us feel like we need to take a time out or a step back or just stop the whole thing, that word means we stop. Whatever it is. Straight away. No questions.’

She obviously needed me to agree. I felt like I was signing some sort of contract.

‘Shit, Julia, you like your rules don’t you. I don’t think I’ve ever started anything with a woman where we both know so bloody comprehensively where we stand. Fair enough, but I should warn you I’m planning on taking some risks with you, so you might need to have our dear departed friends’ name on the tip of your tongue for the foreseeable future.’

I wasn’t a great one for rules, and Jules needed to know that I was likely to push the boundaries quite a lot. She smiled at me, though, and I smiled back, as we sealed the deal. The Charthams were going to ensure I never again wondered whether something I’d done with Jules was one- or two- sided. One whiff of their name and I’d stop, whatever it was, a snog, arsing about, buying shoes, talking, sleeping, breathing, whatever. Perfect.

Julia

The thought filled me with a thrill of anticipation and dread in equal measure. I didn’t know quite what I was getting myself into with Matt. He was different from anyone I’d ever known, any man I’d ever been out with, any man I’d ever put my trust in. Maybe I was mad with grief and after a while I’d see sense and pull back, and maybe that wouldn’t be fair on Matt. But for now it felt like whatever it was and however long it lasted, it was going to be worth it. I smiled at him, and was rewarded with another crinkly eyed offering.

‘Matt, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to be up early tomorrow, I’m driving to Norfolk. I should really go home and get some sleep.’

His mouth made a moue of disappointment, but he didn’t try to dissuade me.

Matt

I was disappointed to end our evening so early, but it would have been unfair of me to try to persuade her to stay.

‘That’s a bloody long way to drive. I hope you’re keen on flat landscapes and freezing cold North winds.’

‘It’s where I grew up. I’m used to the landscape and the climate.’

‘Oh, are you visiting family – oh shit, sorry Julia, is this about your aunt?’

I really was going to have to remember about her aunt. From what she’d told me, she had been a pretty important part of her life. But Jules seemed able to compartmentalise things, and because she wasn’t openly sorrowful, I kept forgetting.

Julia

I nodded. ‘Yes, I’ve got to go and sort the funeral out.’

‘Not much fun.’

‘No. But I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it.’

‘It sounds like you were very fond of her.’

‘That’s an understatement. Anyway, I should go.’

‘OK, I’ll walk you back.’

‘There’s no need.’

‘I know. I’d like to though. Don’t worry, I won’t be asking to come in for a ‘coffee’ or some such feeble ploy.’

‘Alright then.’

We stood up and left the wine bar, Matt placing his hand on my back as we did so and then draping his arm casually across my shoulders as we walked down the street. I could have shrugged him off or asked him not to at any time, but I liked how it felt, and our agreement over the ‘safety word’ helped me to feel less under pressure.

Matt

And there we were, outside the steps to her front door, looking at each other awkwardly. I’d had my arm across her shoulders during the short walk, expecting her to shrug me off all the way, but she didn’t.

She was a surprising woman, and I liked how different she was from anyone I’d ever known. As we neared Jules’ front door, she reached into her bag and I removed my arm, as clinging on while she rummaged for her keys felt a bit needy.

Jules straightened up and faced me, looking into my eyes, both of us uncertain how we should say goodbye. I really wanted to kiss her, but I didn’t want to ruin things, didn’t want to hear Jules say the safety word only minutes after we’d agreed to it.

Julia

We stared at each other for a silent moment, and then moved towards each other, lips meeting as if it had been inevitable all evening. Electricity seemed to fizz across our mouths, igniting our lips and tongues with sparks and static. I felt his hands on each side of my face as he held me in place while his tongue searched deep in my mouth. Then he wrapped his arms round me and pulled me close to him and we plunged still deeper, locking tongues and devouring each other, heedless of the fact that we were on the street. I put my arms round his neck and pressed myself against him, feeling his hard body along the length of mine – and then, with a gasp, it was gone. I opened my eyes and Matt was still standing in front of me, but a step back, a strange almost haunted look on his face.

Matt

There was no doubt this time that both of us were completely in our right minds, and both of us were completely into what we were doing, but it couldn’t go any further, although it was so hot, it was so, so fucking hot.

With a Herculean effort which I felt was deserving of some kind of headline in tomorrow’s broadsheets – maybe ‘Infamous Philanderer in Self-Denial Shock’ – I took a step back. Jules opened her eyes and looked queryingly up at me.

‘Sorry, Julia. Fuck. Fuck it, I wish I could … that was fucking outstanding, but we shouldn’t … I don’t think … maybe we should just go a bit more slowly. It would be so easy to say let’s to up to your place, and we could spend the night together, and I so fucking want to, and I think you want to, and it would be fucking awesome, I have absolutely no doubt. But after everything I’ve said to you, and everything I’ve thought about and promised myself the last couple of days, I want it to be right. Fuck, I can’t believe I’m saying this.’

Jules was panting slightly, her cheeks flushed, and she looked like she might take issue with me for a minute, but eventually she nodded.

Julia

I was still panting, the tingles from the kiss travelling all over my body. Part of me wanted to pull him to me again, tell him not to be so stupid, to grab his hand and run up to my flat. But another, more reasoning part, saw the effort it took him to stop, and recognised what it might mean to say goodnight here.

‘OK.’

I managed after a pause.

‘You’re right. Who’d have thought Matt Scott would be the sensible one in this scenario?’

Matt

‘I know. Fuck. Good thing we’re not telling people about anything, I’d be laughed out of the evil bastard club. They’d take my badge away and revoke my privileges.’

I reached down and brushed a stray strand of hair away from her face, then cupped her cheek with my palm. She rested her face on my hand, and it felt like it fitted there, then she reached up and stroked my face, tenderly. I was going to have to be really careful not to fall for this woman.

Julia

I rested my face on his hand and, feeling an unexpected tenderness towards him, reached up and stroked his face.

‘Thanks for a lovely evening Matt.’

‘Can we do it again? Next week sometime?’

‘I’d like that.’

‘Can I text you this weekend?’

‘If you like. I don’t always reply.’

‘Yeah, tell me about it. OK, a one-way stream of consciousness then. You’ll have to invoke the Charthams if it pisses you off too much.’

‘John or Roberta?’

‘I’ll leave that to you. Hope it all goes OK up there.’

‘Thank you.’

We stood looking slightly awkwardly at each other while we tried to decide how to leave things. Eventually, Matt stepped towards me.

‘Fuck it, I’m going to give you a hug. I can do this.’

He put his arms round my shoulders and squeezed me tightly. I did the same around his waist. I felt him kiss the top of my head.

‘What is it with you and my head?’

Matt

Well it was about the only part of her I could reach when we were standing like this, her being a short-arse, but I didn’t think that would go down very well.

‘It’s bloody irresistible.’

‘You’re easily tempted.’

‘Thought you’d have heard that about me by now. OK, I’m going now before I lose it and ravish you right here against a lamp post.’

It wasn’t far from the truth. I was going to need a long cold shower when I got home. I let her go, ran a finger down her cheek, turned and walked away. I turned back as I reached the end of the road, and was gratified to see she was still watching me. I blew her a kiss and headed home.