60. Sorrow about to fall

In which the smallest thing causes the biggest reaction.

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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.

48. She’s lost control

In which things escalate rather quickly.

Matt

I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to Jules for weeks. She was even less approachable than usual, and our teams were focussed on entirely different projects.

Then Phil stuck his managerial oar in and asked my team to take over one of her team’s accounts. Julia’s team were getting behind, and my team had just finished a project, so had a bit of time to give, and Phil decided to mix things up. This was unheard of – taking another team’s account was tantamount to throwing down a leather gauntlet and suggesting pistols at dawn. Jules was going to have a shit fit. I tried to dissuade Phil, but he kept quoting stats and deadlines at me, and in the end he just pulled rank, and I had no choice.

Julia

I never used my personal mobile phone when I was at work; I didn’t want any part of my private life interfering with my well constructed work cocoon. But that day I had forgotten to switch it off, as I sometimes did if I’d been charging it, and heard it announce a text in my bag. Tutting to myself, I reached for the phone to turn it to silent, and caught sight of the text on the screen. I saw the name ‘Nons’ and despite my rules, had to look. It was a typically bald informational statement from my mother.

‘Hello JuJu darling. Sorry to inform you Nons died yesterday. Just about to board. Will ring you tonight at 7pm.’

No ‘love Mum’, no ‘hope you’re OK’, but I would have been astounded if there had been. I stared at the message in disbelief. Nons. My aunt. She’d brought me up while my parents gallivanted round the world. She was my home, my rock. No. Appalled at myself, I felt tears well up in my eyes and slide down my cheeks. My lips trembled. No.

Matt

I procrastinated like mad, and didn’t talk to Jules about the account for a while, trying several different ways to introduce the subject, and then I walked past her office, looked in and saw her crying. Shit. Jules, Julia Marran, the fucking Ice Queen, was bloody crying. Phil must have gone off-piste, as he tended to sometimes, and told her. I did not do women crying, due to the previously mentioned fuckwittedness that came out of my mouth on such occasions. But this felt like partly my fault, so I took a deep breath.

‘Everything alright?’

Julia

Matt Scott’s voice filtered through my distress. Shit, he was the last person I wanted to see me like this.

‘Jules?’

I looked up to see him closing the door behind him, reaching for some tissues out of a box on my desk, handing them to me, crouching next to my chair with concern on his face.

‘It’s Julia.’

Matt

Shit, I’d forgotten about that, it had just slipped out. I looked down for a second.

‘Sorry. Julia. You just look like a Jules to me. What the fuck’s the matter?’

She avoided my eyes, sniffing back the tears, blinking hard and shaking her head.

Julia

I tried to pull myself together, sniffing back the tears, thinking of other things. I didn’t trust myself to speak for a while, so I just shook my head and remained silent. I needed to think – I wanted to call my mother, but I couldn’t do that at work, I had my own rules about using my personal mobile at work, and besides, I didn’t want to be overheard. Before I could even start to decide what to do, Matt spoke again.

Matt

‘Is it Phil? Has he said something about the Cullen report?’

She looked at me then, frowning.

‘No, what about the Cullen report?’

Oh bollocks. She wasn’t upset about that. Well not yet, anyway.

‘Oh, er, shit, well nothing then. Fuck. Had to open my big mouth.’

Julia’s demeanour changed, as if she’d completely forgotten she’d been upset just moments before. She wasn’t going to let it go.

Julia

His faux pas was actually helping me focus back on work and stop my tears. I was going to have to do something about my mother’s text soon, contact her, but right now I was at work, and Matt Scott was in my office having seen me crying. And he’d said something about a project my team was working on.

‘What about the Cullen report?’

I pushed my chair away from him, and he stood up, putting his hands out in front of him in a conciliatory gesture.

Matt

Maybe I should have just told her then, but I was a bigger coward than I realised, and I didn’t want a big confrontation, so I just tried to bullshit my way out of it.

‘Look, forget I said anything, sorry Jule – er – Julia, you looked upset and I just thought … just forget it. Shit.’

I turned round and walked out of the office, closing the door behind me.

Julia

I couldn’t leave it like that; if I did, I was going to have to deal with the news I’d just received, so I wiped my face and went in search of Phil, the manager of all the teams, who informed me that Matt’s team was going to be taking responsibility for the Cullen report, despite the weeks of work my team had already put into it. He wouldn’t listen to my arguments and told me to hand over all the research and data we had immediately.

I was furious. I rarely showed my emotions in the office (hence The Ice Queen), but today everybody knew I was seriously pissed off. I slammed my door shut and started gathering the information together with loud bangs and the odd shouted insult. It helped enormously in enabling me to direct my emotions at the files I was throwing into a box rather than at the more troubling other things that were filling my head.

Matt

Well, of course, she went to Phil and got the whole story, and she had the predicted shit fit, shut herself in her office and started chucking things around, swearing loudly. Phil, the bastard, I really don’t know what he was up to, he must have had some kind of death wish on my behalf, but he insisted I went and got all the files from her. Everyone could hear her doing violence to things, and I thought it was particularly unfair to be made to interrupt, but there we had it. I was a minion when all was said and done.

I tapped softly on the door, in the partial hope that she wouldn’t hear. She didn’t answer, but I knew I wasn’t really going to get away with that one, so I tapped louder. Still no answer, so I just opened the door. I tried to look as apologetic as I could, but I was under no illusions that I was in for an earful.

Julia

‘Piss off. You’ve done enough for today.’

He had the decency to hang his head and look embarrassed.

‘Sorry, Julia. Really, I’m sorry, I thought you must know, shit, what a fucking balls-up. Phil wanted me to come and get the stuff, but it can wait.’

‘No, take it, it’s all right here.’

I took the box of papers and thrust it into his arms, pushing him back out of the door as I did so, then I turned round, grabbed my bag and my coat and walked out of the office, not sure where I was going or whether I would be back before the end of the day. As I stamped down the stairs, trying hard not to cry before I got well away from the building, I heard a voice shouting my name.

Matt

She just looked so upset, more upset than I thought could be accounted for by Phil’s shenanigans, and much as I hated crying women, I felt a bit responsible, so I dumped the box on a desk and followed her.

‘Julia, wait.’

If I concentrated really hard, I would remember not to call her Jules.

She didn’t wait. She hurried down the stairs and disappeared through the outer door, so I ran after her, catching up with her just before she crossed the road. I grabbed her arm and pulled her round to face me, more roughly than I meant to because I wanted to make sure she didn’t get away. She angrily pulled her arm out of my grip.

‘What the fuck do you want?’

She was nearly spitting she was so annoyed.

‘Just to see if you’re OK. I feel terrible.’

‘Well I’m not OK. And I’m glad you feel terrible. Just leave me alone.’

Well, she’d done it now. She’d invoked the ‘leave me alone I’m feeling shit’ code, and I was powerless to do anything else. I smiled, probably very irritatingly.

Julia

Something seemed to click behind his eyes and a tiny smile flickered at the corner of his mouth, then disappeared.

‘No.’

‘What?’

‘No, I won’t leave you alone. When you feel as shit as this, you shouldn’t be on your own.’

It sounded almost as if he was reciting the words, and I was astounded to see a grin spread across his face.

‘Come on.’

‘What?’

‘Come with me, I want to show you a secret.’

He grabbed my hand and started to pull me down the street. I was by now completely flummoxed. All thoughts of how I should be behaving and with whom had vanished completely, and having someone telling me what to do was, for the moment, very welcome. I could regain some control in a while, once I had first regained some composure.

Matt

I didn’t think she’d come with me, but she put up less of a fight than I’d imagined she would. At first I thought she was dragging her feet on purpose, and then I realised she was wearing heels, and couldn’t keep up with the pace I’d set. So I slowed down, and she became more compliant, following me quietly.

‘Sorry. We’re nearly there.’

‘Where?’

‘Wait and see.’

I so wanted to see the look on her face when we got there, she was going to be so surprised, it was going to take her mind off whatever it was that had upset her, it was also going to take her mind off the Cullen report, and so I kept a tight hold on her hand and led her through the gates of the churchyard.

Julia

The smug look on his face nearly had me marching back up the street, but Matt had a firm grip on my hand, and in a few more steps he led me through the gates of the churchyard and started picking his way between the gravestones. My heels were struggling with the long grass, so I stopped to take them off.

‘Watch out for the dog shit.’

I sighed.

‘No, you watch out for the dog shit. This is your bloody mystery tour. Any canine faeces I find on the bottom of my feet, I will wipe off on your shirt.’

‘Fair enough. Shit, you’re a hard woman.’

‘Ice Queen, remember.’

‘Yeah. Fuck. Anyway, here we are.’

Matt

When she took her shoes off to, presumably, prevent her from sinking into the grass surrounding the gravestones, I thought it was safe to let go of her hand, and she followed me, grumbling about getting dog shit on her feet, until we had crossed the grass and were standing in front of a tall box hedge which boundaried one edge of the cemetery. She stood and looked at it, unimpressed.

‘It’s a hedge.’

‘No kidding, not much gets past you does it, bugger I thought you’d be more impressed with a bit of greenery…’

As I was speaking, I backed away from her, and then found what I was looking for. This was my pièce de resistance; when Cal had shown me a few months ago I had been stunned, and I’d been dying to try it out on someone else. I stopped talking and took a step to my right, entering the hidden outside anteroom that held a couple of gravestones and a stone bench. She wouldn’t have a clue what had just happened; it would have looked like I’d disappeared.

Julia

As Matt was speaking, he was walking backwards away from me, and as he stopped talking he took a step to his right and – disappeared. Just vanished from sight, as if he’d stepped into the hedge. I stood with my mouth open.

‘Matt?’

Nothing, just the sound of the traffic from the street and leaves rustling in the breeze. I walked along the hedge trying to find the spot where he had disappeared, but it seemed to be continuous. It wasn’t until I was on my way back that I saw it, a cunningly hidden alcove grown into the hedge that was only visible from certain angles. I still might have missed it if I hadn’t seen the toe of Matt’s trainer peeping out at the very bottom edge. I would have loved to have paid him back with a similar joke, but I really wasn’t in the mood, and as I stopped being quite so flustered by the events of the afternoon so far, I was beginning to return to my work persona. The best I could do was spoil his surprise, so I walked into the alcove as nonchalantly as I could manage.

Matt

I’m not quite sure how Cal found out about this hidden room in the graveyard, although if Cal knew about it, then every other person in the city did. Certainly, judging from the amount of discarded shit – empty cans, fag ends, chip wrappers – littering the floor, plenty of people used it, but I had come here quite a few times with Cal, and we’d always been the only ones. We’d sit here and eat crisps and read comics, then go to the park and kick a ball about – see, I wasn’t always a bastard arsehole excellent no-strings lay; sometimes I was cool Uncle Matty. It brought a sense of perspective to life.

But anyway, now I’d shown the trick to Jules, and I really wanted to see what she was doing, but I had to stay where I was. I contented myself with standing at the entrance so I could see her face when she finally found it – I knew she’d work it out, she was smart, but for now, I wanted to enjoy … oh. She walked in as if she’d known it was there all the time, looking as underwhelmed as it was possible to look.

Julia

‘So where’s this big secret then?’

It was worth it for the crestfallen look on his face; it only lasted a second, but I knew I’d taken the wind out of his sails. He still flashed a quick grin and spread his arms wide, introducing me to a small enclosure about three metres square. There was a stone bench along one edge and two neat gravestones along the opposite edge announcing themselves memorials to John and Roberta Chartham who departed this earth 1776 and 1790 respectively. Matt sat on the bench and patted the seat next to him, so I sat, bending down to slip my shoes back on.

Matt

It pretty much took the wind out of my sails, but she was here now, all mine for a short time, I hoped. I flashed her a quick grin and spread my arms in welcome, then sat on the bench and patted the seat next to me. Still surprisingly compliant, she sat down.

‘Welcome to my lunchtime hideaway. I know you all think I go to The Anchor to get shit-faced, but in reality I come here and ponder the nature of the universe in general and the nature of Margie Feller’s boobs in particular – i.e. silicon or real – with a chicken mayo on brown, a packet of Walkers’ salt and vinegar, and a can of Fanta. Any visible shit-facedness upon my return is purely an act designed to distract.’

She raised a sceptical eyebrow.

‘And the beery breath?’

‘Oh come on, that was one fucking time, Phil gave me a bollocking, and anyway I was entertaining a sodding prospective client. What was I supposed to do, drink mineral water?’

Her eyebrow stayed raised.

‘Really? Fucking mineral water? Beside the point. So what do you think?’

I gestured around the hidden alcove.

‘It’s my secret. Nobody else knows about it.’

I tapped the side of my nose and winked, playing it up for all I was worth.

‘How did you find out about it?’

‘My nephew showed me.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Nine.’

‘Particularly good at keeping secrets is he?’

‘A bit shit actually – wait, are you trying to say I might not be the only one he’s told? Bloody hell, the little scamp, all this time I thought the empty bottles and fag ends must be his, I nearly told his mum, are you saying they could have been just … anybody’s?’

I held the back of my hand dramatically to my forehead.

‘I feel betrayed.’

I was starting to enjoy myself, almost forgetting that Julia had been upset, twice, and was here because I’d dragged her here.

Julia

Without thinking, I told him something I shouldn’t have.

‘Real.’

‘What?’

‘A secret for a secret. Margie Feller’s boobs. Completely real.’

Matt

Well I hadn’t expected that – either the telling of the fact, or the fact itself. I’d been trying to find out about Margie’s awesome boobs for some time, and people either didn’t know or were sworn to secrecy. I’d not had a chance to investigate for myself, as Margie was married and not interested in extra-marital boob feeling sessions, but in my own mind I had plumped, if you’ll forgive the expression, for fake, because they couldn’t possibly be real. Now I knew. Awesome.

‘Fuuucking hell.’ Oh, but … ‘How do you know? Have you, you know, like, felt them?’

My fascination for the subject temporarily distracted me, and Julia saw something in my expression that brought her back to herself somewhat. She closed down the part of her that had started to share stuff with me, and I couldn’t blame her.

Julia

His expression of totally prurient lecherousness reminded me who I was talking to. I wasn’t just having a chat with a normal person, I was discussing the private matters of a colleague with another colleague whose morals were, to put it bluntly, suspect. I needed to backtrack.

‘No, only one secret traded at a time. And that one’s not for sale. I shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.’

He sensed the shift.

‘Aw Jules – fuck, sorry, sorry, Julia, it’s just you look so much like a Jules to me – you’ve gone all Ice Queen on me. I thought we were getting somewhere.’

‘Where precisely did you think we were getting?’

‘Well somewhere we could have a laugh, forget you think I’m an uncontrollable shag monster, forget I think you have a ten foot pole lodged in your arse, take your mind off your woes, call a truce?’

I was confused.

‘A truce?’

‘Yeah, you know, cease hostilities, wave a white flag, stop hating each other for, oh I don’t know, perhaps we could make it to half a bloody hour?’

‘Do you hate me?’

For some reason it seemed important that he didn’t.

Matt

Oh bloody hell, I hadn’t really meant that, it was a, I don’t know, metaphor or something.

‘Fuck. No, I didn’t mean that, I said ‘hating each other’ didn’t I. I suppose I meant fighting with each other. Haven’t we been doing that since we both started at GreenScreen: rival teams, rival contracts, all designed to up the stakes and get the most out of both of us?’

She stared at me, and I realised with horror that she hadn’t known. Phil was open with me about pitting our teams against each other to increase competitiveness and up productivity; it had never occurred to me that Julia wasn’t in on it. Oh shit and now she looked like she was going to bloody well cry again. All this had been to stop her crying in the first place, and I’d just made her do it again. Nice one, Matt.

Julia

I stared at him. How naïve had I been? It had never occurred to me, and I felt absolutely stupid. Unbelievably, I felt tears prickle at the corners of my eyes for the second time that day. I’d been sucked into one huge game, a game that Matt was playing and winning, because he knew all the rules, while I wasn’t even aware I was a competitor.

‘Oh shit, Julia, fuck, I’m sorry, fuck, no, don’t do that, here –’

He handed me a rather used looking tissue from his pocket

Matt

‘–sorry, it’s not that fresh. Fuck, I’m such a dickwad. I thought everyone knew how it was? No, no, no, please don’t, I don’t do women crying, oh fuck, come here.’

I put my arm round her shoulder as she buried her face in her hands and started sobbing. This didn’t noticeably diminish the crying, so I put my other arm round the front of her and held her while she cried. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard, holding Julia Marran while she cried her eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

Julia

I felt his arm go round my shoulder as I buried my face in my hands and started sobbing. The news about Nons had just caught up with me, and the fresh revelations from Matt had tipped me over the edge. I wasn’t an emotionally expressive person, and crying made me feel sick, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt Matt’s other arm go round the front of me and he made some attempt to hold me while I wept. It felt surreal, sitting on a stone bench in a hidden outside room in a graveyard being held by Matt Scott while I cried my eyes out. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me about it.

After a while I snivelled myself to a standstill, and stayed hunched over, my face in my hands, feeling awkward and bilious. Matt released his hold, then tried to get me to look up by pushing my chin up and pulling on my hands. I shook my head.

‘Come on Jules, we both know you’re going to look a complete nightmare, all blotchy and dribbly and gloopy and shit, I won’t be shocked. You’ll make your back ache if you sit hunched over like that.’

He pulled on my hands again, and this time I let go, but kept my eyes shut as he gently pulled me so I was sitting back against the seat. I took several deep, shuddering breaths.

‘There you go, that’s better. Hmm, not as bad as I was expecting. Bloody expensive waterproof mascara? You’re worth it!’

I heard him chuckle to himself at his little joke. I opened my eyes and gave him the full Ice Queen special.

‘Hey, you’re back with us, your majesty.’

Matt was turned towards me on the seat, apparently not affected by the icy blast coming from my eyes.

‘Want to tell me? I mean, if all that was just about Phil’s little office politics games and my fucking cack-handed foot-in-mouth explanation, then my heartfelt apologies and by all means keep the tissue –’

‘You really are a self-centred prick aren’t you.’

‘–but if there was something else, I know I’m a self-centred prick, but for the next little while I’m your self-centred prick and I can listen in a way that only self-centred pricks can.’

I took a deep breath.

‘It’s personal.’

‘OK.’

‘I don’t mix work and personal.’

‘OK.’

‘What?’

‘Well, I couldn’t help but notice, we’re not at work, and you’ve just been blarting your fucking eyes out all over my shirt sleeve.’

He held up his arm which was damp around the elbow.

‘So, I’m thinking maybe this isn’t work, which makes it kinda personal, which means, spill.’

‘I’m not about to tell you my personal business.’

‘I disagree. I think you are about to, and I will tell you why.’

This was the very type of annoying light banter that usually frustrated the hell out of me at work, as it wasted so much time. However, I had to admit I was currently finding it diverting. I huffed a breath out and crossed my arms over my chest as I waited for the inevitable nonsense.

‘OK. Firstly, I am the soul of discretion. Ah ah, before you give me that ‘fuck off Matt Scott you are the most indiscreet fuckweasel anyone knows’ look, let me just advise you that I have never, ever kissed and told. There has been lots of kissing and lots of telling, and although I will admit to a lot, but not all, of the kissing, I have never done any of the telling. Think back. Where did any of those wild stories originate? The ladies in question or their cohorts? Yes. Me? No. Exactly. I rest my case. Your secret, sordid or otherwise, is safe with me. I’d rather it was a bit sordid, though, to be honest, just to make it worth my while.’

I turned my head away and studied the hedge, hoping his chattering would carry on long enough for my eyes to calm down so I could leave.

‘Secondly, I am a seriously stubborn fucking bastard. I’ve won competitions in it. I never give up. I’m pretty good at getting people to talk to me, even when they have no intention of it. Persistence is my middle name. Had a better ring to it than Robert, so I changed it.’

I turned my head back to look at him.

‘Your middle name is Robert?’

‘Was. Is now Persistence. Suits me, don’t you think?’

I tutted, rolled my eyes and turned back to my perusal of the hedge.

‘Thirdly, and this is the killer, the deal-breaker. If you talk to me I’ll tell you something about me that no-one else at GreenScreen knows – oh apart from Phil, and he knows everything about everyone anyway. If I divulge your secret to any living soul, you have my permission to spread the goss to the waiting ears of Lexi on reception, who will have informed the entire staff team before you’ve even got up the stairs, and the news will greet you, complete with Lexi’s imaginative embellishments, as you walk in the door.’

Intriguing as this was, I had no interest in acquiring personal information about Matt. Much as he seemed to enjoy the machinations of office affairs, I tried to keep myself out of them as much as possible. I was getting a bit tired of his assumption that I had some deep dark secret though.

‘It’s nothing, alright? I just got some bad news. I don’t usually have my phone on, but I picked up a text by mistake and now I wish I hadn’t.’

Matt seemed nonplussed for a second; maybe he thought he was going to have more of a battle with me, maybe he was so caught up in his game that he forgot I had a part to play too. More likely: he was astounded at the thought of not having one’s phone switched on and in one’s hand at all times. He recovered quickly, leaning back on the seat with a smug grin.

‘There you go, that wasn’t so hard was it. And the bad news was ..?’

‘None of your damn business.’

‘Oh Jules, don’t stop now, we were just getting started –’

‘Leave it, Matt, I’m not going to tell you. And stop calling me Jules. Only my friends call me that, and –’

And Nons. Not my immediate family. My family, my mother, father and two sisters, called me JuJu, which I hated. Everyone I loved called me Jules. I didn’t want this self-important – what had he called himself? – uncontrollable shag monster calling me Jules when Nons was never again going to call my name up the stairs in the morning to the smell of frying bacon, or say ‘Hello Jules how’s my favourite niece’ when she rang, or look disappointed and say ‘oh well Jules, there’s still time for you’ when I’d told another potential husband (in her eyes) to take a hike.

It was all too much. I didn’t want to be here with this man who was being far too understanding, far too nice. I wanted him to be the annoying cocky dickhead he usually was so I could rage at him and storm off, and be on my own, which was after all what I had asked for in the first place. I wanted Nons. I wanted her here so much. She was the only one who could possibly help me, and she was the only one who wouldn’t be able to. I almost felt my heart break. Without warning, the tears came again. Large sobs almost stopped me breathing. I couldn’t do this here, with Matt Scott.

I got up and stumbled towards the exit from the arbour. Except I didn’t, because I couldn’t find the way. Blinded by tears and disoriented by distress, I bumped into the side of the hedge twice, scratched my hands trying to scrabble my way out, and then gave up with a howl, slumping to the floor, curling up and giving in to it, no longer caring who was there to witness it. Nons was gone. I’d never felt so alone. Nothing else mattered.

Matt

Jules just fell on the floor and started sobbing, curled in a ball, racked with these horrible noises that sounded like an alien was trying to break out of her throat.

And she just kept saying ‘non’. I couldn’t work it out. It was like she was French or something. Maybe she was, she had a bit of an exotic look about her sometimes, and ‘Marran’, wasn’t that French for chestnut or some such bollocks?

But anyway, whether you do women crying or not, you don’t let someone just lie there on the floor in serious distress without trying to help them in some way. I didn’t have a lot of options, but I sat next to her and stroked her hair and tried to think of comforting things to say that were a bit more meaningful than ‘shh’ and ‘there there’, but didn’t really come up with much.

After what felt a very long time, but when women are crying it always feels like bloody ages to me, she stopped.

Julia

However upset you are, it is impossible to cry forever, although it is possible to cry for a very long time. Long enough to almost forget where you are and who you’re with, until you come back to yourself a little bit and feel a hand stroking your hair away from your face, and hear their voice saying nonsense designed to make you feel better. Then you realise where you are, what’s just happened and, finally, who it is who is stroking your hair.

I sat up and tried to organise myself. My face was puffy and tear-stained. I had a headache and felt sick. I was really thirsty. I tried to run my hands through my hair, but it was tangled and there were bits of leaf and twig stuck in it. I rummaged in my bag for a comb and a mirror. I did anything and everything to avoid looking at Matt, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me, watching quietly.

‘I think you need some antiseptic.’

Now he’d spoken, it wasn’t as easy to ignore him. I didn’t have to look at him though.

‘What?’

I continued to paw through my bag, no longer sure what I was looking for.

‘Your hands.’

He took my right hand and turned it palm upwards. I gasped at the bloody mess of scratches.

‘How did I …’

‘You scratched them on the hedge. What the fuck were you trying to do? The exit is over there.’

He pointed to the opposite side of the enclosure. I felt too stupid to even answer him.

‘Come on, Julia, come home with me.’

‘What?’

More stupidity. This man certainly had the ability to make me feel several IQ points below par.

‘I live a couple of streets away. I can clean you up, you need to put some plasters on it or something.’

‘No … I can –’

‘No, you can’t, whatever you were going to argue with me about. You can’t drive like that, you can’t do anything or go anywhere until you’re patched up. I told you I’m a stubborn fucking bastard. I will win this. Give in now and save yourself some time and effort.’

So I did give in. It was all too much, being here in this hidden place, after everything that had happened so far today. My hands hurt, my head hurt, my brain hurt, and I just did what I was told. It would be over soon, then I could go home and be on my own and everything would all be alright after that, but until then I would just do what I was told.

Matt

As I saw it, her choices were go back to work and face tons of questions about how she’d scratched her hands and why she looked like shit, or come back to mine where I could patch her up and lend her my bathroom so she could get the leaves out of her hair, and she could do what she wanted from there. She hardly argued when I suggested it. She stood up and followed me, silently, all the way to my flat.

Julia

I followed Matt out of the strange secret place, across the graveyard, down the street, along a few more streets, and then into an apartment building. I walked behind him up the stairs and he let me through his front door. We didn’t exchange a single word the whole time. Then I looked up at where I was and –

‘Wow!’

The view from his window was spectacular. The glass almost filled one wall, and it overlooked the river. Beyond were rolling hills, with the city in-between His apartment was stunning too – there was an open plan living and kitchen area, with a couple of doors to, presumably, bedroom and bathroom It was a modern and surprisingly minimally and tidily decorated space. I would have imagined empty beer bottles, pizza boxes and a few back issues of Nuts magazine spread around, but the place was spotless. Even a framed Star Wars poster seemed in keeping, and blended with everything else.

Matt

My flat was my pride and joy. I got it cut price via some unfortunate soul foreclosing on their mortgage and me being in the right place at the right time – poor them, lucky me. I fucking loved it. It was big and light and modern, and had the most impressive view over the river, across the city to the moors. It changed constantly, with the weather, the light and the time of day, and I never got bored of looking out of the window. The kitchen and lounge were in one large room separated by a counter, and I had put a small dining table next to the window. I had a huge squishy sofa, a couple of armchairs and a large TV with a couple of games consoles.

Julia hadn’t spoken since we left the graveyard, but when she saw the view she said, ‘Wow’ and looked around her in surprise. She was the first person who’d ever been up here who wasn’t family, or for whom the flat hadn’t been especially prepared for a lad’s night. No woman who wasn’t a member of my family had ever been here; I always went to ‘her place’. This was my sanctuary, somewhere I didn’t have to pretend, the odd night of watching football with the guys in a sea of beer bottles and takeaway containers notwithstanding.

Julia

‘Great view, eh?’

I nodded, trying to align the image I had of Matt Scott with the light, airy, tasteful apartment. It wasn’t computing. I continued to look out of the window, peripherally aware of Matt going through one of the doors and rummaging sounds emerging. His voice floated back to me.

‘Have a seat, just trying to find my first aid kit.’

I turned and looked into the room, and headed towards a plum coloured sofa. I sank into the generous cushions as the rummaging sounds continued.

‘Fuck it, I know I put it in here – oh. Bloody hell, Dec, can’t you ever put things back where you fucking well found them?’

This last was uttered sotto voce. The rummaging continued briefly and then stopped. Matt emerged, with a green and white box tucked under his arm. God, he even had a proper first aid kit. It was like he was changing into someone I no longer recognised.

‘Trust a mate with your fucking stuff, it could end up anywhere. Had to patch up my nephew the other day, game of footy got out of hand, kit got put back in the wrong place.’

Matt

I got Julia to sit on the sofa while I found the first aid box, then sat next to her.

‘Hold out your hands.’

Julia

I turned them palm up and rested them on my knees, and Matt proceeded to tip antiseptic onto a cotton wool pad. The smell made my eyes smart.

Matt

‘I think I’m supposed to tell you this is going to sting, but you will already know that. Pretend you’re on some live reality TV show and please, do not swear.’

I started to clean her scratches with antiseptic. She hardly spoke, and I was a bit worried about how she was just letting me tell her what to do; it didn’t seem like her at all.

Julia

I watched dispassionately as the cotton wool headed towards my right palm. I remained dispassionate until the moment the cotton wool actually touched my right palm.

‘Ah!’

With a sharp intake of breath, I pulled my hand away, knocking the cotton wool out of Matt’s hand. The sting brought more tears to my eyes. Matt bent down to retrieve the cotton wool from the floor, then took my hand in his, holding it firmly.

‘I said it was going to fucking sting. Get a grip, woman.’

He glanced up at my face, and saw a couple of tears dribble their way down my cheeks.

‘Oh Jules, sorry.’

He reached up and brushed the droplets away with the tip of his forefinger.

‘Be a brave little soldier, for me, OK?’

‘Patronising bastard.’

My voice sounded raw and broken; apart from a ‘wow’ and an ‘ah’ I hadn’t spoken since all the crying in the graveyard.

‘That’s better, that’s my Ice Queen.’

I glared at him, daring him to say one more condescending word. He laughed, and bent his head over my palm.

‘Alright then, let’s do it your way. This is going to fucking hurt, right? Swear all the fuck you want, but keep still.’

He was right, it did fucking hurt, both hands, but I stayed still as ordered while he wiped and wadded and bandaged and plastered. My right hand only needed a couple of plasters, but the scratches on my left hand were long and awkwardly positioned, and he bandaged it up. He did a really professional looking job, and I was impressed despite myself.

Matt

I wiped her scratches and provided bandages and plasters; Beth would have been proud.

‘It pays to have a nurse in the family, lots of First Aid lessons.’

Julia

He gestured at an array of photographs on top of a bookshelf. Several people smiled down at me, but I had no idea which one was the nurse responsible for my neat bandages.

‘Right, that’s you done. Can I get you a drink?’

I was really thirsty, but just wanted to be gone. I’d had enough of this shitty day, with its nasty surprises and its surreal weirdness and its king-sized dollop of Matt Scott. I shook my head and started to rummage in my bag for my car keys.

‘No, I’d better go. Thanks for this.’

I held up my hands. Matt opened his mouth to speak, as though he was going to try to persuade me to stay, but held back and nodded instead. He was probably as exhausted as I was with the whole situation and wanted me gone as much as I wanted to go. I stood up, picked up my bag and coat, wincing at the pull on my scratches, and walked to the door. He held it open for me, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder as I passed in front of him.

Matt

Just as she was stepping through the doorway, I remembered how she’d kept saying ‘non’ when she was sobbing on the ground, and without thinking, it just came out.

‘I didn’t know you were French.’

‘What?’

‘Aren’t you French?’

It must have been delayed fuckwittedness from the earlier weeping.

‘No. What do you mean?’

The look on her face told me instantly that I was indeed making a complete arse of myself. It should have stopped me, but some outside force seemed to have taken over my mouth, and I found myself continuing.

Julia

This a propos of nothing remark left me completely flummoxed. It didn’t seem to be a joke, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

‘In the graveyard, you were all curled up on the floor, bit of a soggy puddle, and you kept saying ‘non’. Thought you must be French. Sorry, forget it.’

‘Nons.’

Dammit, hadn’t meant to say it out loud, just saying her name summoned the sobs again. I needed to get out of there.

Matt

She said it again, and now I was confused.

‘Yeah, that’s it – Jules, you really don’t look OK, will you please come and sit down and have a drink or something?’

Julia

Something snapped. I felt it go, in my brain, as the last ‘Jules’ broke the dam.

Matt

And then, if I thought she’d gone ape-shit before, back in the office, well that was nothing. This was something else, suddenly she was a berserker, like a red mist descended or something. She turned to face me, her eyes going dark with anger, her fists balled up. The force of her glare made me take a step backwards.

‘It’s JULIA you FUCKING ARSEHOLE. You think you can waltz around doing or saying what the FUCK you want because you’ve got a FUCKING cheeky grin and you know where to shove your dick. I’ve asked you to call me JULIA, you TOSSER, is it really that FUCKING hard to remember? And no I’m not fucking FRENCH. Nons is a name, a fucking NAME, it’s a name … Nons is her … was her … unh …’

She took a step towards me, and then another one, and she started trying to hit me, her fists still balled up, scrumpling the bandages. She was a lot shorter than me, and slight, so none of it really hurt me, but she was a hay-maker, and I needed to try to contain her, and I was a bit worried she was going to try to scratch my eyes out, so I used my height to gather her up, pin her arms to her side and just hold her there until she calmed down.

Julia

And then coherence, if you could call it that, slipped away and although I vaguely remember lurching towards Matt, fists raised, and maybe he held my wrists, possibly to prevent me scratching his eyes out, and then there might have been some strong arms around me, pinning my arms to my sides while I may have yelled and screamed and thrashed, I don’t really remember any of it until suddenly there I was, wrapped up in Matt Scott’s arms, face against his chest, breathing in little shudders as he stroked my hair.

Matt

It took a long time, and she yelled and screamed and thrashed and cried, but I just held her, wrapping her up, as she slowly, slowly calmed down, and I felt it all gradually leave her, and we were standing there, her face against my chest, as she breathed in little shudders and I stroked her hair and I accidentally kissed the top of her head, didn’t mean to, just did it. I felt her stir against me.

Julia

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head?’

Jesus, my voice sounded even worse than before. My throat was ragged and sore. I had a raging thirst.

Matt

Her voice sounded ragged and broken. And a bit pissed off.

‘Yeah. Sorry. Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

‘Please don’t.’

‘Oh. OK. Sure. Anything else you want me not to do?’

It was best to be clear about these things. Standing there with her in my arms, in the aftermath of a storm of emotion, there were all sorts of things I might do that she wouldn’t want me to. Really didn’t want to have her trying to bash me again. In any case, she didn’t answer, so I assumed I was alright to carry on stroking her hair, at the very least. We were kind of rocking, folded up in each other, almost lulling each other to sleep. It felt unreal. And very nice.

Julia

I wasn’t sure how to respond to this. It felt good to be held, as if someone could take it all away. But the one doing the holding – that was another matter. I really wasn’t sure how I felt about that. He carried on stroking my hair.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

He was almost lulling me to sleep, gently rocking me on my feet as we stood there, me folded up in him.

‘I’m sorry I called you Jules.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Not sure I deserved to have the crap beaten out of me though.’

‘Mm.’

I was sure he had deserved it. He’d certainly had something coming to him, couldn’t focus on the whats or the whys just now. I carried on almost sleeping, being held up by a pair of strong arms.

Matt

I’d got the apology out of the way, but now I wanted to find out what it was all about.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Who’s Nons?’

She answered in a kind of dazed voice, head still buried in my chest.

Julia

I was so sleepy, I could just say it now and it didn’t matter.

‘My aunt. She died.’

Matt

‘Ohh. Fuck, Julia, I’m sorry.’

It all made sense now. Why would I have ever thought she was upset about some nonsense at work? She never got upset about work stuff. But somebody dying, that was huge. I felt terrible about it, about how inconsiderate I must have been, so I dropped a consoling kiss onto the top of her head.

Julia

I felt a familiar sensation. It roused me enough to ask about it.

‘Did you just kiss the top of my head again?’

‘I believe I did.’

‘After I asked you not to?’

‘Sorry. It seemed like the thing to do.’

More soft swaying, almost like we were dancing, but slower and more gentle. I felt soothed.

Matt

I just wanted to make her feel better, I swear, but you can probably see where this is going. And then I became aware of my hard-on, which had popped up at the most bloody inconvenient time. I needed to alert her to my arousal status without scaring her off completely.

‘Julia …’

‘Mm hm.’

‘This is bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Maybe a bit too bloody nice.’

‘Mm hm … what?’

‘I don’t just want to kiss the top of your head.’

‘What?’

She lifted her head away from my chest and looked up at me, then looked down.

‘Fuck, Julia, I think we need to stop this before I kiss something I’ll regret.’

And I really meant it, I really did want to stop, because she was in a state, and I didn’t want to be that kind of arsehole, not with her, not while she was like this, all upset and emotional.

But then she reached up and put her hand round my neck, pulling my face down to hers. Fuck it, I even managed to resist for a second or two, and then Matt the Lad kicked in, like some kind of reflex, and my mouth met hers, and I couldn’t stop.

Julia

To his credit, he resisted for a brief moment, and then his lips were on mine, and his hands were in my hair, and my hands were under his shirt, and his tongue was slipping over and around mine, and somehow he was standing in front of me without his shirt and I was running my hands down his chest and then he was slipping my bra off my shoulders …

Matt

… our hands were everywhere, ripping off clothes, exploring urgently. Our tongues and lips pressed and tangled and tasted …

Julia

… and then nipples were sucked and our hands were lower, much lower, and more clothes were coming off and then there was nothing between us but air, and then, and then there was no air between us …

Matt

… and before I could think about it, we were naked, our bodies pressed against each other, and I lifted her up and laid her on the sofa, and she pulled me towards her and our bodies joined and I thrust and pounded and it was hard and fast and explosive and …

Julia

… and we were kissing and licking and sucking and fucking, hard and fast and noisily and urgently and then, and then …

Matt

Oh fuck.

Julia

Oh Jesus.