129. The show must go on

In which an old adversary visits, the ‘shouldn’t be alone’ concept is revisited, and a party is planned.

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Laura

The banging on the door woke me up with a start. The doorbell rang immediately afterwards, and I reached over for my phone, to check the time. Twelve twenty four. I looked over at Matt in the light from the screen; he was lying on his front, head turned towards me, mouth slightly open, fast asleep. More banging on the door. I got out of bed and went to the window, looking down to see who was there. Someone was standing outside, but I couldn’t see who it was. I opened the window and leaned out.

‘Who is it?’

A face looked upwards.

‘Oh, flower, are you OK?’

The face shook its head.

‘I’ll be right down.’

I glanced over at Matt on my way out of the bedroom. Still fast asleep. I pulled on my dressing gown as I went down the stairs, stuffing my phone in the pocket. Moments later, I had let a tear-stained Charlie in, put the kettle on and sat her down at the kitchen table, where she laid her head on her arms and sobbed.

‘Do your mum and dad know you’re here?’

Charlie was fifteen, and pretty much did what she wanted, but Amy worried about her constantly, and I wanted to make sure Charlie’s parents knew where she was at this time of night.

‘Dunno.’

‘I’ll just text, then, so they don’t worry.’

There were some sniffs, a shrug.

‘They won’t fucking care, they don’t give a shit about me.’

I got my phone out and quickly texted Amy, hoping she wasn’t asleep.

‘Charlie’s here. Upset. Will talk and send home. L x’

‘That’s not true, Charlie. Have you had a disagreement?’

‘They’re just so … bloody unreasonable. It’s none of their business who I go out with.’

So this was about – oh what was his name, some kind of farm animal – Pig? No. Goat. He was seventeen, had a car, seemed perfectly nice, but Dec was understandably protective, and he was the cause of quite a few arguments. The usually placid, easy going Dec tried to impose curfews – time limits, no school night rules – all to no avail, and every time Charlie broke them there was a huge row. It looked like it had happened again.

‘Want to tell me about it, flower?’

Charlie lifted her head and nodded, looking at me as if the world was ending. She glanced at my dressing gown, and then at the clock.

‘Shit, Lau, sorry, I didn’t realise it was so late, well late for you. I didn’t wake Matty up did I?’

‘Charlie, I don’t think Matt would wake up if you knocked the house down around him.’

‘Ha ha, no, you’re right, but I know he gets tired.’

The contradiction that was Charlie Summers; one minute headstrong selfish teenager, the next considerate almost-adult.

The kettle switched itself off, and I stood up to make us tea.

‘Thanks, Lau, you’re cool.’

It was easier to be cool when it wasn’t your own children. Amy and I often talked about how irritating it was when your own children went to someone else for advice and support, but had agreed to always be there for each other’s when they needed it.

‘So what’s this all about?’

‘They think they can rule my life, who I can see, where I can go.’

‘Yeah, remind me again how old you are, flower.’

‘Nearly sixteen. I can do what I fucking well want.’

I smiled to myself. Charlie had only recently had her fifteenth birthday.

‘Well you’ll be able to do more when you actually are sixteen, in about a year, although you won’t be able to do just what you want, but for now your mum and dad have the right to say what they think is best for you. Sometimes it’s better to talk about it and agree together.’

‘Have you ever tried to talk to them? They’re just like, all ‘you can’t see Goat he’s too old, where are you going, be back by eleven’. Eleven! The clubs don’t open till midnight. It’s not like I’m fucking five.’

‘Have you been going to clubs?’

Charlie looked sideways at me, from underneath her dark eyelashes, reminding me for all the world of how she looked when she was five, and didn’t answer.

‘You know you’re both under age.’

‘Oh Lau, everyone does it, everyone has fake ID. Goat’s cool, he’d never let anything happen.’

‘OK, assuming that’s the case, Goat seems nice enough, can you think what your mum and dad might be worried about?’

Charlie’s answer was interrupted by my phone pinging.

‘Thanks, Lau. Do u want me 2 come an get her?’

‘No, just chatting.’

‘So?’

‘What?’

‘Goat’s a few years older than you –’

‘He’s only just seventeen, it’s like, only just over a year.’

I let the maths slide, as it wasn’t worth getting into the argument.

‘He’s still older. Think about it, flower. You’re not a mum, so you won’t understand how absolutely terrifying it is to think of your daughter, who only five minutes ago was a tiny baby, having sex with someone called Goat, who takes her to clubs.’

‘Who said we were having sex?’

‘Are you?’

Charlie looked down at her hands and nodded. She looked up at me, her big blue eyes full of protest.

‘But everyone does. We’re careful, we always use a condom.’

‘You know that he is actually breaking the law, don’t you.’

‘Well we both are, then.’

‘No, just Goat. You’re the one who’s under age, he’s the one with the responsibility. Charlie, I don’t know if your dad knows you’re sleeping together, but if he doesn’t, and he finds out, you’re going to have to hide Goat for a very long time.’

‘Who’s gona hahv tuh hide Goat?’

Matt had come into the kitchen unnoticed by either of us. Charlie looked at me pleadingly. Matt was likely to get almost as angry as Dec if he found out exactly what Charlie had been up to.

‘Go back to bed, flower, Charlie and I are just chatting.’

‘Yuh always chuck meh ouh when thehrs anything juicy. Any teh goin?’

‘Kettle’s just boiled.’

Matt wandered over to the counter and got a mug out.

‘Sorry I woke you up, Matty. I was trying to be quiet.’

‘Noh yuh wehrnt, yuh nehly broke the bluhdy door down.’

‘Sorry.’

‘I thought you were still asleep when I came down.’

‘Only half. Thoht I’d hehr sohm goss if I kep my eyes shut an my ears open.’

He shot Charlie a direct gaze.

‘Duh yuh lohv him?’

It seemed Matt had heard quite a lot of our conversation. I held my breath.

‘What?’

‘Goat. Duh yuh lohv him?’

‘Well, yeah, course.’

‘Does he lohv yuh?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Does he treht yuh righ? Never makes yuh duh stuff, lehs yuh say noh, always careful, uses protection?’

‘Yeah, he’s great, really, like, caring and that.’

‘An he’s not seeing anyone else?’

‘No. I’d break his legs.’

‘Ha ha, yuh would too. Chahlie, everything Lau said is righ. She’s always righ. An I wana kick his fucking teeth in fuh touching yuh, buh I wohnt. Prohbly jus fall over if I tried. Yuh jus nehd tuh know tha wehr here if yuh nehd tuh talk, an we’ll prohbly tell yuhr mum an dad a loh of wha yuh tell us, buh tahk tuh us, wohnt yuh. Plehs.’

Charlie nodded. I slowly exhaled.

‘An listen as well. I know yuh think wehr ancient, buh me an Lau have behn aroun a bih. Well, meh mohr than Lau, I was a bih of a floozy back in the day –’

‘You were? No way, Matty, you’re like Mr Married.’

Matt shrugged. ‘Sohm hair raising tales tuh beh told. Maybeh one day.’

Charlie looked at me for confirmation.

‘It’s true, flower. Matt had a reputation as a bit of a stud when I first knew him. He’d broken hearts all across the city.’

Charlie looked incredulous.

‘How come I’ve never heard about this?’

‘Long tihm agoh.’

‘Yeah, it was a long time ago, flower, but Matt knows what he’s talking about when it comes to boys behaving badly. But he also knows how to treat people, and what’s right and what’s wrong, and we just want to make sure you’re being safe and looked after.’

‘Yeah, well, I am. It’s not like when I went out with Billy and he was all hands everywhere and having to push him off me all the time, Goat like totally knows how to look after me, he’s literally a gentleman.’

‘Wha, born intuh an upper clahs fahmly in the Victorian era?’

‘What?’

‘When yuh say ‘literally’, tha mehns sohmthing is actually, rehly true.’

‘Yeah, whatever, Matty, didn’t come here for an English lesson.’

‘Chehky brat. So wha yuh gona duh now?’

‘About what?’

‘Ih’s nehly sodding one o’clock. Goh hohm and say sohry tuh yuhr parents.’

‘No way, they don’t care where I am, no way I’m fucking apologising.’

‘Yuh know wha ih looks lihk, when yuhr all arsy abouh goin ouh?’

‘No.’

‘Looks tuh them lihk ih’s Goat’s fault. They think ‘tha boy, he’s noh good fuh her, look how he mahks her behave’. If yuh stopped bein arsy an listened, an did wha they said sohmtimes, they’d think ‘wehl wehl, tha Goat, he’s a good influence’. They migh listen tuh yuh as wehl. Donht yuh wan them to know how greht Goat is?’

‘Well, yeah …’

‘Goh hohm, then, Charlotte Lucy Summers, an apologise tuh yuh parents fuh keeping them up. Come an see us tomohrow an let us know how ih went.’

Charlie thought about it, and nodded. She was a hot-headed, impulsive, headstrong girl, but if you said it right, she listened. Matt had hit just the right note.

‘OK. Thanks, Matty. Thanks, Lau. You’re both so cool. Sorry to wake you up.’

‘Any time, flower. See you tomorrow.’

I let Charlie out, and texted Amy to say she was on her way home. Then I turned to Matt, who had sat on a chair at the table.

‘Fuck, I wana punch his fucking lighs ouh.’

‘You were awesome, flower. I hope Amy and Dec will be as sensitive and understanding when it’s one of our two.’

‘Shih, I’m not letting Dec give his fatherly opinion tuh Ella, who knows wha half-arsed advice he’d end up saying. Can yuh hehp meh back upstairs, Lau?’

‘Course, flower. Grab on.’

Cal

Just being with Chrissie, feeling that ‘click’ as we slotted together, helped a lot, but we both had a lot of talking to do as we worked out things like where we were going to live (I stayed with Mum and Dad for a few months while Chrissie moved into a house nearby), where she was going to work (temping agencies for now, and maybe doing a teaching degree later), how we were going to handle bumping into Ayesh at the supermarket (me: panic; Chrissie and Ayesh: with dignified silence followed up with less dignified sizing each other up and sending visual daggers to each other while I dumped the trolley and fled, pulling Chrissie with me), how we were going to do family events (with a lot of checking exactly who had invited who, especially if anyone had invited Ayesh, and initially staying away if Ayesh had been asked, even if she said she wasn’t coming, which she always did), how we were going to go about socialising with friends of mine who had been friends of mine and Ayesh’s, many of whom were Raiders team-mates and whose wives and girlfriends were also Ayesh’s friends (similar to family events, but with less forgiveness on the cards if Ayesh got upset, and more likelihood that we would see her there).

I moved into Chrissie’s house in the summer; we always intended for it to be our house, but there was so much to talk about and think about that it felt right for her to be on her own for a while so things could settle down. Both of us had been traumatised, and if I’m honest I needed time and space to truly separate from the life I had with Ayesh before plunging straight into life with Chrissie.

My life had been tangled together with Ayesh’s in more ways than our emotions. There were things like shared bills (which Ayesh now had to pay herself), shared possessions, our flat (which she could no longer afford on her own), a holiday we’d booked but needed to cancel – every time I thought I’d got there, that there wasn’t anything else that could crop up to make me feel guilty, there would be another message via Mum or Iz that Ayesh needed to talk to me about the tenancy or the Sky contract or any of a million things that reinforced my feelings of selfishness and guilt.

The only good thing that came out of it all was that Ayesh and I had to talk to each other, about details, about finances, about all the things that have to be done when two people who were together now aren’t, and we managed to do it without getting upset, in the end. Ayesh had to move out of the flat, because it was too much for her to afford on her own, and once that happened, I didn’t have so much contact with her, not for a long time.

Mum still saw Ayesh, but not as much, and I think it was starting to feel a bit weird to both of them as time went on. Iz stayed in touch, but then Iz has seventeen hundred Facebook friends and follows over two thousand people on Twitter because she can’t bear to let any of them go, even the weirdoes who only friended her because she’s got long blonde hair.

That summer, Chrissie and I went away together, the off-season being our first chance to really leave everything (by which I mean my enormous, overly curious and far-too-opinionated family) behind and have some time truly to ourselves.

Chrissie came from a Mum-Dad-two-kids family, who had moved around so much that grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins were scattered and rarely saw each other. She found it hard at first to be thrown into the mayhem of the Scotts – even though she’d experienced it before, we were both young enough that it didn’t affect us that much. Now we were older, and there were more of us, more was expected of us, and I knew that she struggled sometimes with Mum’s pop-rounds, Iz’s texts, the noise of everyone on a Sunday. People really tried hard to make her feel welcome, but by the time the rugby season finished and I had some downtime, I knew what we needed to do.

‘Oh Cal, really? Bali?’

‘Two weeks. A week on Saturday.’

‘I love you.’

‘Me or my credit card?’

‘Maybe a bit of both. Actually, right now, I think I love your credit card just a little bit more. Or a lot more. Oh sod it, I’ll just sleep with your card. You can have the spare room.’

And so we flew out to a fortnight of complete luxury, our hotel apartment virtually on the beach, with its own private pool, room service, spa facilities available, the complete works. We hardly moved for fourteen days, except to … well you can imagine without me having to spell it out. Oh, and I had to move far enough to get down on one knee and ask Chrissie to marry me.

It was the perfect setting. Sun sinking into the sea sending the sky into raptures of red and purple, soft waves splashing, a warm breeze lifting Chrissie’s hair away from her face, a great meal eaten and a bottle of wine nearly finished.

I’d had the ring with me, had been planning to do this when the moment was right, had been wanting to ask her since about a week after we got back together. I knew it wasn’t right to ask straight away, not only because of how insensitive it would have been to Ayesh, but because I knew Chrissie felt we needed time to find out about each other.

I knew right from the start how I felt. It was like Matty and Lau said, I just knew it was her and no one else, and I knew I was never going to change my mind. I’m pretty sure Chrissie felt the same way, but she trusted her emotions less. She felt she’d got it wrong that first time when she broke up with me, and had nearly got it wrong again by leaving. She wanted to be sure, so I waited until I thought she was sure, and then took her to Bali. You can’t get much more romantic than Bali at sunset – I knew this because I’d Googled it.

So, with dinner eaten and wine drunk, I took a deep breath, took the ring out of my pocket, knelt in front of the love of my life, took her hand in mine, and looked into her eyes as she gasped.

‘Chrissie Coulson, you need a new last name. Scott is way cooler. Why don’t you change it?’

‘I don’t know, I quite like it. I like my initials. CC. I sound like a bratty American teenager.’

‘Well if bratty teenager is where you’re aiming, maybe you have a point. Isn’t there anything I can do to persuade you?’

‘Hmm, well, you appear to be down on one knee.’

‘Yeah, it’s getting a bit uncomfortable. And that bird is giving me a funny look. Anything occurring to you?’

‘Well I do quite like my name. It has panache, you know, with the two Cs and everything. You think Scott is cooler? Hm, Chrissie Scott. Really? That’s quite a lot of sss.’

‘Just the right amount. Some good c and t as well. All great names have c and t in the right places – c at the start and t at the end.’

‘You might have something there. How would I go about changing my name then?’

‘There are a few methods I have researched.’

‘Go on.’

‘You can change it by deed poll. It’s not expensive, and quite quick I believe.’

‘Mm hmm. And?’

‘Well you could just start telling everyone you’ve got a new last name. It doesn’t have to be official. You’d announce it in the Herald – ‘Chrissie Coulson will henceforth be known as Chrissie Scott’ or something.’

‘I can see how it could happen. Anything else?’

‘Well, there is one other way, but it’s a bit out there. You have to answer a simple question. One word only. Has to be the right word, to the right question.’

‘Now I’m intrigued.’

‘I know the question.’

‘Do you know the answer?’

‘No, only you know that.’

‘You’d better ask it, then.’

‘Sure you’re ready?’

‘Very sure.’

‘OK. Chrissie, will you marry me?’

‘You’re right, that is a pretty easy question.’

‘In which case I’m going to have to hurry you for an answer.’

‘Yes.’

‘Correct. Go to the top of the class.’

And then I opened the box and showed her the ring, and we stopped messing about because it was real, we were getting married, and neither of us had ever been happier.

Mum had a whole year’s notice to plan it, which was almost a whole year more than she had for Matty and Lau’s wedding (less than a week) and Dec and Amy’s (just over two months), and I expected some gratitude for giving her the wedding she’d been craving, even if it wasn’t with the daughter-in-law she’d been expecting. And Chrissie wasn’t even pregnant. It was a level of planning, organisation and decency almost unheard of among the Scott and Summers families.

Mum had a flourishing party planning business, that had started as a hobby and grown through word of mouth following her successes with Dec, Amy, Matty and Lau. My wedding wasn’t the only big event planned that year; a few months before Chrissie and I got married, Matty was fifty, and Mum wasn’t about to let that one go without a fanfare.

Laura

‘Laura, what on earth’s the matter?’

Beth dropped her bag on the hall floor and put her arms round me. I took several deep breaths and tried to pull myself together. If I’d known I was going to dissolve into a blubbing puddle I would never have answered the door. I stood back from Beth, and tried to slap a convincing smile on my face.

‘Nothing, just having a funny moment.’

‘It doesn’t look very funny, sweetheart. Come on, sit down, I’ll put the kettle on. Is Matty upstairs?’

I nodded, and as Beth went into the kitchen, another wave of tears blurred my vision. I rummaged in my pocket for a tissue, and wiped my eyes. Beth’s voice floated into the living room.

‘Is everything set for tomorrow? You know all the times and everything, don’t you?’

I didn’t answer. Tomorrow. Matt’s fiftieth birthday. Big party planned by Beth. Except it wasn’t going to have a guest of honour, not if Matt was still intent on staying in bed and not speaking to anyone. I’d tried everything, all the tricks in the book, anything I’d ever tried that had worked before when he was miserable, but none of it worked this time.

His latest flare up of MS had affected his mobility so badly that we’d had to talk about either moving or adapting our house so he didn’t have to do the stairs. It had been a big blow to him, and since we’d first talked about it about a couple of days ago, he’d retreated into himself and stopped talking to anyone about anything. He wouldn’t even talk to the children, and although they were used to Matt’s ups and downs, they weren’t used to his unresponsiveness in the face of their chatter, and it upset me to see their hurt and confusion.

I hadn’t told anyone yet, I’d hoped to be able to jolly him out of his dark mood like I always did, but the longer it went on, the more desperate I became.

Beth had arrived just as I was having a weep to myself, and I’d sniffed to a halt before answering the door, but she’d seen the look on my face, had given me a sympathetic smile, and I’d started crying again.

‘Laura? Oh you are in here. Here you go.’

She handed me a mug, and sat down.

‘Are you OK for tomorrow? Cal’s coming over at about seven …’

Her voice trailed off.

‘Oh Laura, just tell me what’s happened.’

I shook my head. I didn’t even know where to start.

‘I don’t think … Matt’s … I can’t … he won’t … I don’t know what to do.’

My face felt like it crumpled, and fresh tears ran down my face. I buried my face in my hands, and felt Beth sit next to me and put her arm round my shoulders.

‘Oh sweetheart. Tell me, please. I know Matty can be difficult.’

I felt a surge of loyalty.

‘He’s not difficult. He’s just … oh he’ll hate it if I say anything, but to be honest I don’t know if I’ve got the energy to try to persuade him to tell you himself. He’s got worse in the last few days, and he can’t do the stairs. He’s stuck up there at the moment. We’ve had to talk about adaptations, a stairlift, or moving. He’s stopped talking to anyone. I can’t get through to him, at all. He just lies there, either pretending to be asleep or ignoring me, he won’t even talk to the children. I don’t think he’s going to be coming to his party.’

‘Oh Laura. Why didn’t you say something? Call one of us?’

‘Well you know what he’s like about telling people stuff. I can usually talk him round, it’s never gone on this long before.’

Beth looked at me with understanding, then shook her head.

‘He’s sucking you in. If he stops you talking to us too, he’s created this little bubble of Matty misery. He knows that he can’t fend us all off, but he can just about manage you, Josh and Ella. Can I go and see him?’

‘Feel free, if you think you can try something I haven’t thought of.’

Beth went up the stairs, and I sat and sipped my tea. I could hear Beth’s voice, but not what she was saying. I didn’t hear any response from Matt, and didn’t know what I thought about that. I wanted him to feel better and start talking again, but I wanted to be the one who made it happen. Then I smiled to myself – Laura Scott, just how arrogant are you? Hadn’t I just told Beth I’d tried everything? She was right, it was time to ask other people for help. Ever since I’d known him, Matt had fought against asking people when he needed something. I was stubborn too, but I usually recognised when someone else would do something better than I could. Beth was right, Matt had sucked me in, and I’d fallen for it. I heard Beth come back down the stairs.

‘Any luck?’

She sighed. ‘Not right at the moment. Maybe he’ll think about what I said …’

‘What did you say?’

‘I asked him how long he was planning to make all of you feel as miserable as he was feeling, I told him if he didn’t want to come to his party that was fine, but we would be celebrating his birthday with or without him, and it was going to be a great night and he’d regret it if he wasn’t there, and I reminded him that Cal’s getting married in a couple of months, and so he’d better start thinking of a way to get downstairs before then, as there is no way on this earth I am letting him miss my son’s wedding, if I have to come and carry him down myself.’

‘Well thanks for trying.’

‘Laura, I know this is none of my business, but how is he managing with the loo?’

To anyone else, this would have seemed both rude and inappropriate, but we’d both been nurses, and we’d both looked after Matt when he’d needed a lot of help. There really was no point in not saying what we were thinking.

‘Well he’s not eaten anything for a couple of days, so he’s only needed to go once. He struggled there on his own, God knows how, and I heard him up there, so I waited outside the bathroom. When he came out I was there, and he leaned on me, but he didn’t say anything.’

‘He’s not eating? Oh Laura. I think we need the big guns. Do you know if Dec’s home? And maybe we need to get a commode or something for the bedroom?’

She saw the look on my face, and she knew as well as I did how that was likely to go down with Matt.

‘Sweetheart, surely there are some things he can’t have a choice about. It affects you almost as much as him. Maybe you should get Social Services round to talk about adaptations?’

‘Not without his say so. We’ve always said in it together. I’m not going to start deciding things without him now, he needs to know he has a say.’

‘Then you need to make him understand that it’s not just about him. I know sometimes he thinks about things, seems like he’s not listening and then it’s like it’s his idea. If you wrap him up in cotton wool and don’t tell him how you’re feeling, then it’s all about him. He needs to know how upset you are, that he’s not the only one who hates how he’s feeling.’

I breathed in. ‘I know. You’re right. It’s just so hard for him, he feels every small thing he can’t do any more so much, I just want to protect him.’

‘Well, if you’re in it together, you both need to be honest with each other, otherwise it’s just both of you in it for Matty.’

‘He doesn’t feel he’s got anything to give any more’

‘Well we both know that’s not true. Iz was telling me what a laugh she had with him on Facetime the other week. Didn’t he help Gracie with her maths homework a few days ago? And Dec wouldn’t have a business without him. And as for all of you …’

‘You don’t have to tell me, it’s him you need to convince.’

‘OK then, I’m texting Dec. Hasn’t he been round lately?’

‘Not since all this. He was away at that sports dinner thing, I don’t think he got back until this morning.’

‘You know, the first time that Dec and Matty spent any time together, he managed to talk Matty out of something like this. That was a long time ago, now, but I still think if anyone can do it, it’s Dec.’

‘I’m up for trying anything, Beth. I just don’t know how much longer I can do this, being positive all the time, cheering him up, making the most of things. Sometimes I just feel like screaming about how unfair it is, he shouldn’t have his life taken away bit by bit, the kids should still have a dad who can run around with them, I should still have a husband who can –’

I stopped myself; if I carried on I was going to break down again.

‘Sorry. It’s not like I can say I didn’t know this was going to happen, I saw it so many times when I was working, I knew exactly what was likely to be in store for us. I’m having an off day, that’s all.’

‘Sweetheart, you’re entitled to a few off days, more than a few. You’re always so cheerful, you never seem to let anything get you down, you just get on with things. The trouble is that when you’re so good at it, we don’t know when you need us. You have to ask. Call or text, we’re all here.’

‘Thanks. But everyone’s got their own stuff – Dec and Amy are worried about Rose, you and Jay are doing more for Carol, the children are all growing up and needing different things …’

‘Yes, everyone’s got their worries, but that doesn’t mean that when you need us, we can’t make room for yours as well. Look at all the times you and Matty have helped out with Iz, and Charlie, and been there for Carol and Rose. We all look after each other don’t we?’

I looked down at the floor and nodded. In the last few months, without realising it, I’d started to cut myself off from everyone. Matt had begun withdrawing, and I’d allowed him to pull me with him. Well now I’d realised, it wasn’t going to continue.

‘Know what, you’re right. He’s not getting away with this. You’ve spent months planning this party, and if he’s not going to be there, that’s his loss. Yeah, text Dec, see if we can use a united front to show Matt what’s what. Thanks, Beth.’

*

‘So just so you know, one of us is going to be up here giving you grief until you get a bloody grip. We’ll let Lau do the night shift, but every other moment of the day, someone’s going to be here chatting or singing or telling you interesting facts about Doctor Who – OK, that last one will only be Rosa – but you’re not getting left alone to get on with it, mate. Oh, and first port of call is getting these bloody curtains open. It’s the middle of the fucking day.’

Dec strode over to the window and pulled the curtains wide. It was sunny outside, and light flooded into the bedroom. It made me wince, and Matt pulled the duvet over his head. Dec was having none of it.

‘No way, mate. You’re not suffocating yourself with your own farts. And this entire room stinks of your rank feet. You need to bloody well sort yourself out.’

He pulled the duvet away from Matt’s face and held it there.

‘I know it’s bright, that’s the point. Find something to be cheerful about. Get out of this pit of despair or whatever the fuck you’ve climbed into. We’ve got emails backed up to last Monday that I can’t answer, and if we lose business I’m taking it out of your bloody pocket money. How about a cuppa, Lau? I’m gasping, and I suspect Matt is too, not that he’d admit it, fucking stubborn fucking bastard that he is.’

I nodded and left the room, hearing Dec’s constant cajoling as I headed downstairs and into the kitchen. We weren’t out of the woods yet, not by a long way, but just having someone else take charge, as Beth and then Dec had done, made me breathe easier. I was pretty sure Matt was going to get angry before he got better, and I would bear the brunt of that, but I was prepared for it. If he even communicated with me it would seem like a major breakthrough.

*

‘Bye Dec. Thanks, flower, you’re a star.’

Dec grinned and put a hand on his hip.

‘Well which is it, Lau, flower or star? I need to know so I can put it on my chart.’

‘Ha ha. Both, I think.’

His expression turned more serious.

‘You’re gonna be OK tonight?’

‘Yeah. I know where you are, anyway.’

‘You do. Four doors down like always. Any time, night or day, call us.’

‘Thanks, Dec, that means a lot. I can’t believe how lovely you’re all being considering how he’s being to everyone.’

‘There’s not much I wouldn’t do for him. And middle of the night calls have always been on the cards with Matt. I hope it works, I hate to see him like this.’

‘I know, I do too. I understand it, but I just wish … oh but there’s no point wishing is there.’

‘Take care of yourself, Lau. See you tomorrow. Beth will have drawn up her rota by then. Oh shit, it’s the fucking party, isn’t it.’

‘Hm, I don’t think that’s happening. Beth told him it’s going ahead with or without him, but … I just don’t know.’

‘Well we’ve got all day tomorrow to work on him. He’ll be there or he won’t, two choices. ‘Night.’

‘Night, Dec.’

*

‘There’s a glass of water there. Your mouth must be proper dry, just have a couple of sips. I put a bit of bread and cheese on a plate too – it’s that crusty granary you like, baked fresh today, and some Cornish cheddar, just in case you’re peckish.’

Matt was lying on his side, eyes closed, turned towards the edge of the bed. I turned the light out, got in next to him and moved behind him, folding an arm round him and kissing his shoulder. He didn’t move, didn’t tense or relax or try to pull away. It was as if he was unconscious.

‘I love you, Matthew Robert Scott.’

I unhooked my arm and lay on my back, eyes open in the dark, thoughts too scattered to sleep. After a while I became aware of small sounds that Matt was making, little choking sobs, that told me he was crying and trying to do it silently.

I thought about how to respond. In the past, he had always cried with me, not because of me, and he’d sought me out to comfort him. I reached over and put my hand on his hip, needing to show him I was aware of him and was there for him. This time he did tense, and it was obvious that he didn’t want me to touch him. I decided to ignore his body language, and kept my hand where it was. Matt’s breathing became noisier and more snotty. Eventually, he spoke.

‘Why the fuck cahnt yuh all jus lehv meh alohn? Ih’s all I ever ask fuh, an I cahnt even hahv tha.’

Leaving my hand on his hip, I turned over towards him and spoke to the back of his head.

‘I’ve been leaving you alone for the last two days, and this is where it’s got you. We’ve done it your way, and it’s not working for any of us.’

‘Jus fuck off, Lau.’

‘No. You heard Dec. You’re not going to be left alone until you stop this. I’ve told you before, I’ll force feed you if you don’t eat, so you’ve got that to look forward to as well. You could also have a visit from the Mental Health team if you’re really lucky.’

‘Fuh fuck’s sake.’

‘Well those are your options, Matt. Pull yourself out of this, or we’ll get someone else to do it for you. I’m scared. The kids are scared.’

‘Whole fucking loh of yuh’d beh better off wihouh meh.’

‘Don’t be so ridiculous. You’re just looking for pity now.’

It was a calculated statement, and reaped its reward.

‘I never fucking asked fuh pity. Dohnt want anyohn tuh fucking pity meh.’

‘Then stop saying things designed to make people feel sorry for you. Oh, poor Matt, he’s in a right state, his poor family, they can’t wait to get rid of him. Is that what you want people to think? Or would you rather they thought, hey, that Matt, he’s a fighter, he’s got it tough at the moment, but you should see him, nothing can keep him down, his family are lucky to have him.’

‘Dohnt give a shih wha pehpl think.’

‘Yes you do, otherwise you’d be thinking about all the things we talked about the other day, all the things that have sent you here, running for cover, all the equipment, adaptations, things that would make your life easier, but would mean your MS is more noticeable. If you didn’t care, you’d just do it and sod them.’

‘Wha the fuck duh yuh know abouh wha I think?’

‘Ha ha, Matt, good one. I’ve spent the last fourteen years knowing how you think, thinking for you, holding hands through your crazy, scrambled thought processes. How’s this, then? Every time you lose something, every time there’s something you used to be able to do that goes away and doesn’t come back, it feels like a part of you has died. You’re worried about how much of you there is left, you feel like it’s nearly all gone, and you’re scared. Scared that we’ll stop loving you, scared of losing the rest, scared of how hard you’re going to have to fight to hang on to yourself.’

Matt was silent, apart from the small sobs that he was trying very hard not to let out. I reached up and stroked his hair.

‘I’m scared too. But not of the MS. I’m scared I’m going to lose you, my lovely, gentle, clever, kind, strong, sexy, funny Matt, my beach boy, who’s always been there, through everything, but now I’m wondering where he’s gone, and whether he’s coming back to me. I don’t like this Matt who’s lying there in his place at the moment. He’s dark and self-absorbed and doesn’t care that his children have both had to do their maths homework with their mother because they couldn’t face coming in here and you ignoring them. I don’t like this Matt who cares more about lying on his own in the dark being miserable, than about his business with his best friend. I don’t like this Matt who, when I touch him, tenses up as if I’m burning him rather than turning over and kissing me. I’m scared that this Matt is here to stay, and my Matt has gone for good.’

There was more silence. The sobs quietened, and finally stopped. I didn’t know if he’d gone to sleep or not. I doubted it – despite having been in bed for the last few days, I didn’t think Matt had been doing much sleeping. I moved my hand away from his hair and back to his hip. He didn’t move a muscle, or say a word.

I must have dozed off, because I found myself on my back, head turned to one side, away from Matt. I turned to face him, and saw that he had turned over himself, and was lying on his front, head towards me, mouth slightly open, asleep. His hair, which was still thick and sandy, but shot through with grey now, was, as usual, sticking out all over the place.

It wasn’t much, but it was better than the rigid, non-sleeping, determinedly facing away from me posture that had been my companion for the last two nights. I lay facing him, watching him sleep, until my alarm started peeping, and it was time to get up and get the children to school.

As I began to turn over, I felt a hand grip mine. I turned back to Matt and saw his big grey eyes looking pleadingly at me. I lay back down on my side and stroked his hair. We didn’t speak, just looked at each other, until Matt looked away briefly, breathed in, and:

‘Dohnt lehv meh, Lau, I nehd yuh.’

I nearly wept with relief, and my eyes did fill with a few tears.

‘I’ll just be downstairs, I’ve got the packed lunches to do and the kids aren’t up yet, I need to give them a knock.’

‘Can yuh duh lunches up hehr? Dohnt wana beh on my own.’

This was such a complete turnaround from wanting to be left alone, that I needed to respond. I thought fast, needing to reorganise how the morning routine worked in my head.

‘OK then, but I’ll have to go and get all the stuff, and give the kids a knock on my way past. I won’t be long.’

Matt nodded. ‘Jus fehl soh lohnly when yuhr all down thehr getting rehdy.’

‘Oh, my love. OK, I’ll grab some stuff and be right up.’

I leaned over and kissed his cheek, got out of bed, grabbed my dressing gown and hurried down the stairs, pausing only to bang on Josh and Ella’s doors. I grabbed a basket from the top of the fridge, tipped out all the leaflets and flyers that had gathered there, and filled it with bread, spread, cheese, ham, crisps, fruit, juice cartons and yogurts, then grabbed the lunch boxes. It was quite exciting, almost like a picnic, and I let myself smile. I’d been worried that Matt was going to stay in his misery for a long time, and although he was still miserable, he was at least doing something about it.

When I got back upstairs, Josh and Ella had found their way into the bedroom and were sitting on the edge of the bed, talking to Matt, who was smiling at them. I could see the effort it took for him to look involved and interested in their chat, and this told me it wasn’t real for him, not yet, but it was a huge step. I helped Matt lean forwards so I could prop him into a sitting position with pillows.

‘Josh tells meh yuh wehr doin simultaneous equations las nigh.’

‘Oh, is that what they were? I thought I was learning Martian or something.’

‘No Mum, it’s algebra.’

‘Might as well have been Martian, Hippo.’

I sat on the bed and started putting the lunch boxes together.

‘Mum, what are you doing?’

‘Lunch boxes. Unless you want to make your own sandwiches?’

‘No way. But why are you doing them up here, like in the bedroom?’

I glanced at Matt, who was looking back at me, begging me not to make it his fault.

‘Well, I think it’s a new thing for now, me and Dad are doing the lunch boxes together up here, I’m doing the sandwiches and Dad’s chucking everything else in.’

‘Yes, but why?’

‘Just to keep you on your toes. It could change at any minute. We could do it in the garden next week, or the bathroom. But for now, here will do just fine.’

‘You two are like so totally weird.’

‘Thanks Ella. Here’s your sandwich. Would you like to hand it to Dad so it can go in your lunch box with a juice and – your choice, an apple, cheese and onion crisps, yogurt. Two of three.’

‘What’s in the sandwich?’

‘You just watched me make it.’

‘Yeah, but I’ve, like, forgotten.’

‘More like weren’t paying attention because someone else was doing the work for you. It’s ham and cheese.’

‘Oh. Yogurt and crisps then, if they’re cheese and onion. And Josh will have apple and yogurt.’

‘Thanks, Ella, I can speak for myself.’

‘Yeah, but you’re gonna totally have apple and yogurt if it’s ham and cheese sandwich.’

I raised an eyebrow at Josh, saw him struggling with himself to have something different, but then give in.

‘Apple and yogurt, please, Dad.’

Ella looked at me triumphantly.

‘Stohp bein soh bluhdy bohsy, Squeaks.’

‘It’s not bossy, it’s saving time. If everyone listened to me, and did what I said, everything would be much more efficient.’

‘Ha ha, yuh jus defined bohsy. Hehr yuh goh, two lunch boxes. Geh drehsed now, Muhm’ll beh rehdy tuh take yuh soon.’

‘Actually, Matt, before we all shoot off …’

I looked pointedly at Ella and Josh, who got the message and raced out of the room. I reached into the drawer in my bedside table and got out the card and present that had been there for a week.

‘Wha’s this?’

‘Special day. Someone’s an old man.’

‘Tha’s noh way tuh talk abou Dec.’

‘I don’t mean Dec, do I. Oh, looks like Ella and Josh have remembered as well.’

‘Happy Birthday Dad.’

They said it together, smiles lighting up their faces, excited to be able to give him the present they’d spent ages choosing.

‘Oh yuh guys. Awesohm. I nehly fohgot. Wha’s this, then?’

Matt pulled the paper off the parcel – a pair of binoculars.

‘Whoa. These are greht. How did yuh know? Now I can look in Mrs Wilkins’ bedroom when she’s getting undrehsed.’

‘Daad, they for birdwatching.’

‘Oh, rehly? Shahm, I bet Mrs Wilkins looks dehd sexy in her support tights. Thehr awesohm. Thahks, guys. Yuhr the best. Greht card too.’

‘Rosa made it. She makes loads and sells them at school.’

‘Rehly? Clever old thing. Oh, looks lihk thehr’s sohmthing from yuh, Lau.’

I was a bit nervous about it, not knowing how Matt was going to take it. He hadn’t seemed that bothered about turning fifty, but I wondered if his dark mood of the last couple of days had something to do with it. I’d spent ages choosing the present, but was still unsure.

Matt unwrapped the paper, revealing a small jewellery box, opened the lid, and there was a silver coloured ring. It was actually platinum, a plain band, designed to fit his thumb. Matt looked up at me, one eyebrow raised in query. He wasn’t saying he didn’t like it, just wondering if there was any more to it.

‘I never got you a wedding ring. This is an eternity ring. It should fit your thumb, but if you want to wear it on a different finger, I can get it resized. Or if you don’t like it, you don’t have to wear it.’

‘I lohv ih, Lau. Whoa, eternity. Yuh rehly wana beh stuck wih meh tha long?’

‘Longer if I can.’

We looked at each other.

‘Ew, Mum, like, get a room or something.’

‘Er, I believe we already have a room, thank you Ella. I think I’m going to snog your dad now, so you can stay or go, whichever is less embarrassing for you.’

Ella and Josh scuttled out, clutching their lunch boxes, and I turned back to Matt, who was inspecting the ring more closely.

‘Yuh had ih engraved. Cahnt see wha ih says … oh, ih’s a picture. Aw, Lau, two hands, lihk yuhr ring.’

I always wore the one he gave me the first Christmas in this house.

‘And words. Can you see them?’

Matt’s eyes often played up, and he couldn’t always see clearly, especially small writing.

‘Leh’s hahv a goh. Er … oh, fuhever. Hohding hahds fuhever. Perfect Lau. Soh, if I hahv a thumb ring, dohs tha mehn I’m finally a cool duhd?’

Matt always wanted to be cool, but he didn’t always want to do the things that would have made him cool in his own eyes. He envied Dec’s tattoos – several added over the years to commemorate his parents and the births of all his children – but couldn’t bring himself to have one of his own as it wasn’t an original idea and might, heaven forbid, be seen as copying Dec. Matt had tried various types of clothing which he felt would mark him out – hats, shorts, baseball boots, bow ties – with limited success, and which were given up when they just led to mickey-taking. I’d hit on this as a small way to help him feel like he might be doing something slightly original, something that only some of the younger members of the family wore, none of us oldies.

‘Without a doubt. The coolest. Just don’t ask either of your children to confirm that.’

‘Ha ha, or anyohn under forty-five. I lohv ih Lau. I lohv yuh too. Thahks fuh bein hehr, kicking my ahrs. Yuh said yuh wehr gona snog meh?’

‘Oh, so I did. Come here then.’

I leaned down and kissed him, lingeringly, letting my tongue roam across his as my hands held his face. His arms went round me and held me tight.

Eventually, I pulled away and looked at Matt, who looked back at me. I had always been able to read him by his eyes, and they were telling me that he wasn’t there yet, but he was on the way. He nodded at me, as a kind of recognition, and sank back into his pillows, closing his eyes briefly.

‘Sohry Lau. An thahks.’

‘Yeah, well, we’re in this together, aren’t we. That means you need to look after me as much as I need to look after you.’

‘Yeh. Fohget tha sohmtimes. Nehded tha kick up the ahrs. Got bluhdy Beth an Dec all hot an bothered now, wohnt geh a minute’s pehce.’

‘No, starting in a few minutes when Beth’s arriving so I can take Ella and Josh to school.’

‘Noh. Dohnt nehd tha, I’ll beh OK fuh half an hour or soh.’

‘Tough. Not your choice, not my choice. Beth has done a timetable, and I believe it is being stuck to.’

‘Fuck.’

‘Yeah, don’t think you’re going to be allowed to slip back into your little cocoon of misery, even for a few minutes. Dec said we’re not leaving you alone, and he meant it. I believe there are precedents?’

‘Fuck yeh, him an meh as bad as each other when weh wehr younger. Fuck. Stihl wana tell yuh all tuh fuck off.’

‘I know. But it’s not going to happen, so save your breath.’

As I spoke, the doorbell rang. Assuring Matt I would only be a couple of seconds, I ran down to answer it, expecting Beth but not Tom, who was hovering at her shoulder looking nervous. Beth looked at my dressing gown.

‘Oh, aren’t you ready to go? Do you want me to take them?’

‘No, I’ll just get changed quickly; we’ve been doing birthday presents. Hi Tom, are you coming in?’

I ushered them into the hall as Beth smiled at the news that Matt had been communicating about his birthday.

‘Tom’s had an idea for tonight, in case Matty isn’t up to coming. How are things?’

‘A bit better. He’s talking to us again. I don’t think he’ll be coming tonight, though, I don’t think we’ll get him down the stairs.’

‘Well that’s where Tom’s idea comes in. Do you think he’s up to talking about it?’

‘Go and ask yourself, while I sling some clothes on.’

I led Beth and Tom up the stairs, and dashed into the bathroom to change, vaguely aware of voices from the bedroom. I pulled my clothes on as fast as I could, then had a quick recon of where Josh and Ella were in the getting ready stakes. We seemed to be on target for now, so I hurried into our bedroom, where an only slightly grumpy Matt was listening to Beth.

‘… so it’s really the best of both worlds, the party goes ahead, and you’re still there, you can see everything, everyone can see you and chat, but you don’t have to worry about getting downstairs for now.’

Matt looked up at me as I walked in, a resigned expression on his face.

‘What’s this?’

‘Oh Laura, Tom’s had a great idea. We can connect up all the computers, and beam the party to Matty and Matty to the party –’

‘Beam? It’s not Star Trek, Beth.’

‘Well whatever you call it, Tom, there’ll be a large screen there with Matty on it, so everyone can see him, and we’ll have a couple of laptops or iPads and things, Tom thinks he can rig up a few, so Matty can see what’s going on, people can chat with him, and –’

‘An everyohn laughs at the fucking crihpl who cahnt even mahk ih ouh of bed tuh his own party.’

Tom looked at Matt with a stricken expression; Matt had responded harshly, with no thought to how Tom would feel. I jumped in to the rescue.

‘Or, maybe, it’s the ideal party for an IT geek – how cool, to not even be there at your own party, but be able to be part of it. You don’t have to be all propped up on pillows, you can dress up, no one will know, it can be a ‘thing’, you know, a gimmick. Maybe Beth planned it this way all along?’

‘Ha ha, yes, Laura, I wish I had, it’s brilliant. And you won’t be here on your own, either Matty, there’ll be a regular supply of people here to keep the party spirit going.’

‘Dohnt nehd fucking bahbysitting.’

Matt was still reluctant to hand over control to anyone.

Beth rolled her eyes. ‘Who said anything about babysitting? I’ve literally had Dec and Amy’s lot fighting about who gets to stay with you.’

‘Lihterally?’

‘Yes, Matty, literally. I do know what it means. Tom, tell Matty what happened just before we left this morning?’

‘Gracie clobbered Charlie because Charlie said she was going to sit with Matty all night, and Gracie wanted a turn.’

‘So, now I’ve got another rota to organise, and plenty of people to placate, most of who would rather be with you than actually at the huge party I’ve been planning for ages.’

Beth looked at Matt with an eyebrow raised, and he wilted under her gaze.

‘Oh goh on thehn. Buh I wana beh in my bes stuff, noh jahmies. Hide the fucking pihlows.’

‘It’s a deal, you won’t regret it, sweetheart. I think I might offer this service at all my parties, actually, to cater for all the lazy customers who can’t be bothered to attend their own celebrations.’

‘Staht with Cal?’

Matt had a cheeky twinkle in his eye which almost made me cry, it seemed like such a long time since it had been there.

‘Oh no, Cal’s wedding is going to be literally, and not virtually, attended by all its guests and participants. That includes you. So while you’re up here on your bum, you can have a good think about how that’s going to happen. What time do you need to get going, Laura?’

‘In a minute. I’ll have another chivvy of Ella and Josh.’

‘I should go, Mum will be having a fit about waiting for me again.’

I went downstairs with Tom and opened the front door for him.

‘Thank you flower, it’s a great idea, it’s made a difference to Matt.’

He shrugged. ‘S’okay. I’ll get some kit from my mate Gaps, he can help me as well. Dad told me how he and Matty used to get, and how they used Facetime and stuff to help each other, and it just made me think.’

‘Well I’m glad it did. See you later.’

‘See ya, Lau.’

127. Dark days

In which help is sought, and judgements are made.

I texted Ayesh to tell her what time I was going to be at the flat, to give her time to leave in case she was still there. I didn’t get a reply, and had to assume it would be OK. I had no idea what the right thing to do was in this situation; it was still technically a flat we shared, I still had a key, both of our names were on the tenancy, but it didn’t feel like somewhere I could just turn up at and let myself in any more

I met Dec outside. He had brought bin bags and a couple of suitcases, which I hadn’t even thought about bringing, and he met me with a sympathetic grimace. He also met me with Matty, who he seemed to have filled in on some of the story.

‘Hey Cal. Hope you don’t mind, Matt’s along for the ride.’

‘Yeah, mate, didn’t trust Summers tuh lift anything heavy down the steps.’

‘And I thought Matt might just about be able to work the kettle to make us a drink while we’re busy doing the heavy lifting.’

I gave them a weak smile at their banter. I really wasn’t in the mood for arsing about. Dec’s face grew serious.

‘Matt says there’s someone else.’

‘Yeah, not out here, Dec. Can we just get inside?’

They followed me up the stairs, and waited as I put the key in the door. It felt really weird, as if I was visiting rather than coming back to the place I’d called home yesterday. My head started to spin, and I had to sit down as soon as I got in.

I looked around, and nothing there made any sense. My trainers were under the coffee table, next to Ayesh’s bunny slippers. My hoody was draped over the sofa. My X-box controller was in the middle of the floor. It was as if I’d never left, but it felt like I left a lifetime ago.

I couldn’t move, couldn’t even begin to decide what to take with me. Ayesh said if I didn’t take my stuff, she’d put it in the skip. What was mine? What was hers? What was ours?

‘Where are weh gona start, then?’

‘God, I don’t know.’

‘Mate, are you sure it’s definite? You weren’t just over-reacting?’

‘No, Dec. She told me to get the fuck out, right after I told her I’d slept with someone else. It seemed pretty reasonable to me.’

‘Maybe she’ll reconsider.’

‘I don’t think so. And even if she does, it’s over.’

‘Lau said she migh beh pregnant?’

I leaned forwards and ran my hands over my face. I really didn’t want to get into all this, but people seemed to want to know about it all, to go over everything, and maybe I deserved the torture.

‘Yeah, she might be. We’d sort of been semi-trying.’

‘Holy shit, Cal.’

‘Yeah. I’m hoping she’ll let me know pretty soon, because it’s fucking with my head not to know.’

‘What will you do if she is?’

‘I don’t know. I won’t know until I know, if that makes any sense. All of this, I’ve just been reacting to what’s going on. Every time I thought I knew what I’d do, but when it happened, I did something different. Look, can we just get on with this, I can’t do talking about it right now.’

‘No worries mate, but you seemed a bit uncertain where you wanted to start. Matt, go and make us some coffee.’

‘Yes oh lord and master and may one enquire of what your last slave perished? Was ih being commanded tuh jump off a cliff perchance?’

‘Piss off. I only asked because you make it better than me or Cal.’

‘Oh. Fair enuhf.’

Dec took the suitcases into the bedroom, then came back and pulled me onto my feet.

‘Clothes first, mate. That’s easy. Take all yours and leave all Ayesh’s. Unless there’s a little black lacy number that’s just for you, then shove it under your sweats and I won’t tell.’

‘Piss off.’

Dec’s teasing was having the desired effect, which was presumably making me think about something not full of misery, and for a while I just concentrated on emptying my wardrobe and drawers. I tried not to think about why I was doing it; just filling the suitcases. Matty made coffee for us all, and helped himself to stuff from the kitchen to make sandwiches. He could never resist messing about with other people’s ingredients.

Once the clothes were packed, though, I had to think about what else I was going to take. Nothing that we’d bought together, like the TV, the furniture, the laptop, some pictures. Things that were just mine, like my iPad, my X-box, my framed Glastonbury poster from the year we went, which was kind of a joint thing, but Ayesh gave it to me for my birthday, so it was mine wasn’t it?

‘Books?’

Matty was looking at the bookshelves.

‘They’re mostly Ayesh’s. Maybe a few comic books.’

‘Yuhr a Philistine Calum Scott.’

‘Bite me.’

‘DVDs?’

‘Nothing I’m bothered about keeping. Oh, maybe I should take them though, so she doesn’t have to chuck them.’

Dec and Matty looked at each other and shook their heads. Dec was the one to say what they were thinking.

‘Seriously, mate, you don’t need to worry about that. Let Ayesh worry about what you leave behind.’

‘No, I can’t. This should be as painless as possible for her.’

Another look was exchanged, and this time Matty had the floor.

‘Cal, when Ayesh gets home and all yuhr stuff is gone, ih’s gona hurt. Even if ih’s jus yuhr clothes. Yuh had a life here, two people, an now ih’s jus one person. A few DVDs isn’t gona make any difference.’

I just looked at him, as it sank in, deeper this time, just what I was doing, and just what I was taking away from Ayesh. As I tried to comprehend it, Ayesh’s text tone sounded on my phone.

To give myself time to think, I took my phone into the bedroom and looked at the message.

You lucked out. Test negative.

Oh my God, I could hardly breathe. In fact, my breath was almost stopped in my chest, and I could hear myself gasping. Dec and Matty both came in to see what the weird noise I was making was all about.

‘Cal? Fuck, mate, what’s up?’

‘I’ll geh some water.’

I was hardly aware of them fussing and trying to get me to drink, because all I could think was ‘thank fuck thank fuck’. There wasn’t a baby. There wasn’t an unborn person whose life I was going to be shitting on before it had begun. Thank fuck.

It took a while before I could think clearly, by which time Dec and Matty were so worried about me and my lack of responsiveness that they’d called Mum. And of course, rather than just talking to them on the phone like a normal person, she’d decided to drive over and take my pulse. Before she got there, I was back from my little jaunt into ‘thank fuck’ land, but she was already on her way.

‘Hey mate. Who was your text from, then?’

‘Nice ohn, Dec.’

Matty was rolling his eyes, as if Dec asking about the text was going to send me back where I’d been. Who knows, it could have I suppose. But it didn’t.

‘Ayesh. She’s not pregnant.’

‘Oh mate that’s great! Er … isn’t it?’

There was obviously something on my face that made him doubt it, and to be honest I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t feeling as overjoyed as I’d imagined I would. Maybe it was something to do with the things I’d been expecting to feel before all this madness had started. A few weeks ago a negative result would have been a bit disappointing, not cause for celebration. Now, it felt wrong to say it was great, although obviously neither Ayesh nor I would have wanted anything else right now. It was just another sign of how screwed this whole thing was. I replied with just one word.

Thanks.

Then Mum arrived, and fussing commenced. She’d brought her blood pressure tester, her stethoscope, a thermometer and a few other bits of nurse paraphernalia which she had no right to use when she hadn’t been an official nurse since before I was born.

I let her do it all, just to prove I was OK, and then we had to go into what had caused all the worry in the first place, and she looked both sad and happy at the same time when she found out she wasn’t going to be a granny. Probably because she was sad about not being a granny, but happy that she wasn’t going to be a granny to someone whose parents were at war with each other. Was I at war with Ayesh? I hoped not, I would like things to be civilised, even friendly, but I knew I had no right to even want that, let alone ask it, and if Ayesh wanted a war … well I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

After Mum had pronounced me fit to travel, I had a final look around to see if there was anything else I didn’t want to go in a skip, then Dec, Matty and Mum took my stuff down to the cars.

I stayed in the flat for a while, just looking at all the empty spaces where my things had been, and thinking about how it would feel to Ayesh when she came home. Matty was right, and thinking about it, he’d had it happen to him a couple of times, being the one who came back to half a home. It was going to hurt her. I could only think of one thing I could do, and it wasn’t going to make anything better. I left a note, with no expectation that it would end up anywhere other than in the bin without even being read.

Ayesh

This is shit. I hate what I’ve done to you and I’m sorry. I know I’ve hurt you very badly, and I wish I hadn’t.

I will always be here if you need a friend, but I can understand that you may never want to see me again.

With sadness

Cal

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I didn’t want to ask her to forgive me, because what I’d done was unforgivable. I didn’t want to say I loved her, because that would be unfair, and I didn’t want to say anything that would suggest I wanted to come back.

So I had a final look around, propped the note up on the table, and left with my family and my possessions, while a large bit of my heart stayed behind.

While I was on my way down the stairs, I thought of someone else who should know the no-baby news, and I texted Lau. She told me to take care, and althought this might have been better advice to have got before I started this, I doubt I would have listened, so maybe I should start now.

The rest of the day was taken up with moving my stuff back into my old room at Mum and Dad’s. Dad was at the game, Mum was out somewhere else, and I needed to keep myself busy.

My old room seemed a lot smaller than it used to, and I ended up putting a lot of my things in Iz’s room. She’d moan when she came back for the holidays, but maybe I would have moved somewhere else by then.

I kept avoiding thinking about the next thing I needed to do. Contact Chrissie. We’d agreed to have a rest for a few days, and to be completely honest I didn’t have the strength to think about what leaving Ayesh meant to me and Chrissie right now. I couldn’t just jump from leaving one woman to a full-on thing with another one, I needed some time to get my head round how I was really feeling. Part of me wanted to just contact Chrissie and say ‘I’ve left, let’s do this’, but most of me just needed not to be in the middle of some new emotional storm.

While I was trying not to think about any of this by sorting my socks into pairs, something I don’t think I’d ever done before in my life, Iz’s bright and breezy tone rang out on my phone. I debated with myself whether I was going to answer, but Iz could be as persistent as Mum, and I would get no peace until I picked up. Without a doubt someone would have told her what had been going on, whether it was Mum, Charlie, Lau or Ayesh herself, so I hoped I wasn’t going to have to go through the whole thing yet again. Only one way to find out.

‘Hey Iz.’

‘What the fuck do you think you’re playing at?’

Yep, it definitely sounded like she knew.

‘Mum just told me you’ve been fucking someone else. You twat. You ubertwat.’

I highly doubted those were the exact words Mum had used.

‘Hold on, Iz, just –’

‘How could you do that to Ayesh?’

‘I didn’t mean –’

‘I was going to be your bridesmaid.’

What? Hang on Iz – that’s what you’re focussing on? Not being a bridesmaid at a wedding that wasn’t even fucking happening?’

‘Well it’s never going to happen now, is it?’

‘Iz, I think I’m going to hang up and talk to you when you can be a bit more reasonable.’

‘You’ll be waiting a while, then. God, I’m so fucking angry with you Cal. How could you do it? Ayesh is gorgeous, she fucking loves you. Who was it? Some rugger bugger tart?’

‘Oh, thanks for that. No. It was someone I knew a long time ago.’

‘Who?’

‘It doesn’t seem like it makes much difference to you, Iz, you don’t have a very high opinion of me whatever I say.’

‘Do you deserve my high opinion?’

‘Probably not. It’s Chrissie.’

Iz was quiet for a blessed few seconds, then she launched in again.

‘You are fucking kidding me, right? That girl who ditched you about a thousand years ago and sent you loopy for a bit? Who never called or anything after she left?’

Well when she put it like that, I suppose I couldn’t deny it.

‘Yeah.’

‘Why the fuck, Cal, would you want to ditch Ayesh for her?’

‘OK, Iz, I’m going now. Talk to you another time, when you can be a bit more grown up about it.’

‘Grown up? Don’t make me laugh, you’re about the least –’

I disconnected before she could finish her insult. This was just another thing I’d messed up. Iz worshipped Ayesh; they spent long evenings doing each other’s hair and nails, singing to crap music and comparing celebrity gossip. If Iz had thought she was going to be a bridesmaid, Ayesh must have thought we were going to get married, and they must have had girls together sessions talking about it. Oh why the fuck was everything so fucking, arsing complicated.

Iz wasn’t finished with me yet, though, and a whole volley of text messages winged their way to me from her. I eventually stopped looking at them, but not before I read:

U really are a stupid arse.

What a selfish git. I nearly hate u.‘ (I took heart from the ‘nearly’.)

U need to crawl back 2 her and beg her 2 forgive u but I wouldn’t.

UR such a tosser. U don’t deserve 2 b happy ever again.

It was hurtful. I was in the mood for hurtful, up to a point; I couldn’t disagree with anything she said, it was about what I’d been saying to myself all day and most of last night, but there was only so much I could cope with at any one time and I muted my phone.

Iz and I got on well these days. Once the difficult early teenage years were over, for both of us, we realised that we quite liked each other, and I took on the proper role of cool older brother who could pick her up from parties without going off on one about how drunk or stoned she was, or who she’d been snogging when I arrived. She in her turn was funny, smart and good company for both Ayesh and me.

I hadn’t been on the wrong end of my sister’s temper for a long time, and this was just another unsettling thing in a long line of unsettling things that had happened in the past twenty-four hours. I didn’t reply to Iz, because I didn’t want to get into another slanging match, but I realised I was going to have to do something to repair things between us. Just not now, though. I had too much I needed to sort out, and Iz was going to have to wait.

Once I’d finished organising the finer details of my sock drawer, I was at a loose end. Being at a loose end was bad, because that would mean thinking, or making more decisions, and I already felt I’d made enough of those for a lifetime, let alone a day.

A few of my mates from Raiders had texted when they heard I wasn’t in the squad for ‘personal reasons’, and I really should answer them, but I couldn’t face that either. It reminded me that the game was being televised, and I switched it on, but that lasted about two minutes, as I realised I couldn’t watch a match I should have been playing in, would have been starting in if I hadn’t been, what had Dad called it, ‘lacking concentration’ or whatever for the last two weeks.

I turned the TV off and thought about my deadline. Have my head sorted by Tuesday, or forget about next weekend’s game as well. I had no idea how I was going to achieve that. Maybe I just had to admit that I wasn’t functioning properly, and try something like counselling. There was a sports psychologist at Raiders, who did general stuff with the squad about things like motivation and getting inside the head of the opposition, and he also offered individual sessions, but I’d never felt the need to see him personally. Perhaps I should find his number and give it a go before I screwed my career up along with the rest of my life. I could wait until Dad got home and ask him for his contact. That would put it off for a bit longer.

Now that I wasn’t watching the rugby or organising my sock drawer, the afternoon stretched ahead terrifyingly. I wasn’t sure where Mum had gone, but Dad wasn’t going to be back until later in the evening, after all the media stuff and the meet and greets at the stadium had finished. I could have done with some company, but telling someone else about all this was beyond me. I thought about going for a drink with Baggo, and just not telling him, but I wasn’t going to be scintillating company, and that would be a bit unfair.

For the lack of anything better to do, I did housework. I never did housework if I could avoid it – Ayesh had to practically tie the vacuum to my hands to make me hoover the flat, and she’d given up asking me to wipe the shower screen down after me. So it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to Mum when she came back from what had obviously been a shopping trip, by the looks of all the bags, and found me up to my elbows in Marigolds and a bucket of frothy water, scrubbing behind the cooker.

‘Cal, what on earth are you doing?’

‘Hi Mum. I think it’s caused displacement activity.’

‘Oh sweetheart. You’ve been here on your own, I didn’t think.’

‘It’s OK. Look, your kitchen is gleaming.’

‘My kitchen is always gleaming, thank you very much, but I will admit I haven’t been behind the cooker for a while. How are you?’

‘OK, as long as I don’t think. Let me put the cooker back and I’ll make you a coffee.’

‘I can do it sweetheart.’

‘I know, but I need to keep busy.’

‘I might get used to this. Cleaning and coffee.’

‘Yeah, it won’t last.’

‘Shame.’

Mum took her coat off and went upstairs with her bags of shopping, leaving me to finish up in the kitchen and start the coffee machine. While I was waiting for it to fill a cup, Ayesh’s ringtone drifted out of my pocket. She was calling me. My heart sped up as I anticipated what she was going to yell at me this time, and I walked through to the conservatory, where I hoped Mum wouldn’t be able to hear.

‘Hey Ayesh.’

‘Oh Cal, it’s horrible. I just got home, and you’ve been. I didn’t know … I didn’t know how it would be. I just wanted you to … it’s all gone. Everything that was us. You took … your Glastonbury poster and there’s … just … empty wall …’

She was saying this in-between big sobs, and each one stuck a knife of shame into me.

‘I’m sorry, I thought it was what you wanted.’

‘It was, I mean, I was angry, and I meant it, but I didn’t know it would be like this, coming back and it’s not us any more It’s just me.’

I thought about what Matty had said, about how hard Ayesh might find it coming back to half a home. I didn’t know what to say, and just listened to Ayesh cry, breaking her heart like she was breaking mine.

‘Ayesh, have you got anyone with you?’

‘No, I’ve just got back from Rhi’s.’

‘You need to call her.’

‘She’s going out.’

‘You need to call someone. I don’t think you should be on your own.’

God knows I’d had a hard enough time of it this afternoon – I felt like I was talking from experience.

‘Can you come … over?’

I didn’t know whether the hesitation was another choked sob, or if she’d started to say ‘come home’ and changed her mind.

‘What? Oh Ayesh, that … I don’t think that would be a good idea.’

‘You said, in your note, you said if I ever needed a friend.’

I tried to think. I had said that, and I’d meant it, but I was already fucked in the head. I didn’t think going over and comforting Ayesh about her bastard cheating boyfriend, who happened to be me, was going to significantly reduce the head-fucking, or be particularly helpful for Ayesh.

‘Yeah, I did, and I meant it, but I think the last thing you need is me.’

‘I do need you, Cal. I didn’t mean it, I don’t want you to go, come back, please, we can work it out.’

Oh holy shit. This was awful. Ayesh was tearing at my heart. I could do it, I could go back, stop all this, say I’d had a mad moment, made a terrible mistake, ask her to forgive me – I could see how it would go, it might even make things better between us. Chrissie and I were already taking a break, I could just call her, or text, and say she was right, I had to stay with Ayesh … but as soon as I thought about Chrissie, I knew I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t because I’d cheated on Ayesh, it was because of who I’d done it with, and what she meant to me. I hadn’t worked it all out yet, but in all of this fucked up crazy twenty-four hours, that was the one thing that I could hold on to. I had left Ayesh because I wanted to be with Chrissie. Whether I ended up with Chrissie or not, I couldn’t stay with Ayesh. I took a deep breath and tried to say it kindly.

‘Ayesh, I hate hearing you like this. I’m so sorry, I can’t come back. You were right to kick me out, I’ve done a terrible thing. I’m not who you need tonight. If you could bear it, I think Mum would come over.’

The sound of sobbing intensified in my ear. I had to stay so strong not to break down myself, do what she wanted, rush round there and hold her until she stopped crying. How could I be doing this to Ayesh? She didn’t show any signs of stopping, and I was beginning to worry about her. I walked into the kitchen, where Mum had finished making her coffee and was flipping through a magazine. She looked up when I came in and I held the phone away from me for a moment.

‘Mum, Ayesh is having a hard time. She wants me to go round, but I don’t think I should. Is there any way …’

Mum was standing up, collecting her bag and finding her keys before I’d even finished speaking.

‘Of course, sweetheart.’

‘Ayesh, Mum’s on her way.’

I couldn’t tell if she’d heard me, the sounds of crying didn’t lessen or increase, and I wondered if she had put the phone down somewhere and just not thought to disconnect. I took my key to the flat off my keyring and handed it to Mum.

‘Here, you might need to get in. You can leave it there, I shouldn’t have it any more.’

‘Oh Cal … but are you going to be OK here on your own?’

‘Yeah, I’ll call someone if I need to. Ayesh needs you more. Don’t be too down on my arse.’

‘No, we’ll be just down enough. I told Iz about what’s happened.’

‘Yeah, so I gathered. Nice little dose of her opinion that was.’

Mum looked torn between apologising, and saying serves you right, but didn’t speak, just kissed me on the cheek and left.

So I was back to where I’d been, on my own, too many thoughts to fight off, except now I was more worried about Ayesh. My phone was still playing me the sounds of her distress; I didn’t really want to listen to it until Mum got there, which would be about ten minutes, but I couldn’t just turn her off, it felt too harsh.

‘Ayesh … Ayesh … AYESH.’

‘Oh God, Cal, I thought I’d hung up.’

‘No. Mum’s on her way.’

‘OK.’

‘Will you be alright till she gets there? She’ll be there soon.’

‘No, Cal. I don’t think I’m going to be alright for a long time.’

‘Ayesh, I … I’m sorry.’

‘Save it, Cal.’

And then she hung up.

For lack of anything else to take my mind off it all, I put the TV on and watched the sports results come in. Raiders had lost to Chieftains by a point, knocking them off top place in the league. Arsenal had lost 2-1 away at Newcastle, taking them down to seventh in the league. It wasn’t a good day for Calum Scott’s teams, whichever one of them you were on.

After zoning out for an hour or so in front of Conference Leagues and National League Twos, I switched the channel over, and over, and over, trying to find something that interested me enough to stick with, at least until Dad got back, but everything was either too complicated, too cheerful or too romantic and I couldn’t face any of it for very long.

Just as I was on the point of burying myself in a few glasses of Dad’s Scotch, my phone sounded with Dec’s kookaburra textone. I never knew what a kookaburra sounded like until Dec made me put it on as his special sound, now it was the only bird song I could reliably recognise.

How u doing?

I didn’t know how to answer that in few enough words for a text, so I searched for a word that described what was uppermost in my mind, and texted back.

Shit.

On my way, bringing beer.

Half an hour and a couple of beers later, and Dec had got the whole sorry tale out of me. He’d learned bits and pieces from Matty, Dad and Amy, but I filled in the gaps and told him my side, and he was up to speed. Somehow, telling it all to Dec, who was as chilled as ever and seemed unshockable, was the easiest I had found it so far.

‘So what’s next, then? How long are you staying here?’

‘I don’t know. I’ve only just got here. I’m not sure how long I can live with Mum again. Or Dad. And Iz will be back for the holidays soon; I’m not her favourite person at the moment, either.’

I told him about the pasting she’d given me earlier.

‘She’ll get over it mate. You’ve just changed something for her that she thought was a definite. You’re kind of her role model.’

‘Ha, not at the moment I’m not.’

‘Maybe, but sometimes it’s a good thing when your role models fuck up. You have to think for yourself rather than doing what they do.’

‘I have fucked up, haven’t I.’

‘Well, some people might say so. Don’t be too hard on yourself, though. From what you say, you and Ayesh might have escaped something worse – a split with a wedding and a baby behind you.’

‘Don’t remind me. Jesus, I just feel so bad about it. What the fuck was I thinking, letting it get so far? I’m not sure I ever really thought I was ready to be a dad.’

‘Mate, no one’s ever ready to be a dad. It always kind of sneaks up on you.’

‘Like it did with you four times?’

‘Yep. Totally unprepared every single time.’

‘But you love it though.’

‘Yeah, course I do. My kids, and Ames, are the best things I ever did.’

‘But this, this is the worst thing I ever did.’

‘Ah mate, you’ve got to stop this. You did a good thing, an honourable thing, because you told her the truth and you left, you didn’t string her along once you knew, and you didn’t go back to her to make yourself feel better. And now you can try things with Chrissie, try and make something good out of that.’

‘I don’t deserve anything good.’

‘That’s bollocks, Cal; it’s not about what you deserve. It’s life throwing crap at you, and what it’s about is what you do with it, how you react. This was an impossible situation, once Chrissie came back. Someone was going to get hurt, either way. You can only do what’s right for you and try to limit the damage.’

‘Lau said virtually the same thing.’

‘I bet she did. I taught her everything she knows.’

‘You did not.’

‘No, you’re right, otherwise she’d be much less shit at box kicks.’

You’re shit at box kicks.’

‘Not as shit as Lau.’

‘You arse.’

Dec, with his laid back brand of wisdom, based on quite a lot of therapy when he was younger, was helping. So was the beer, although that just made Dec think he was funny.

‘Dec, I wondered about … you know … getting some help with my head.’

‘In what way?’

‘I’m a bloody mess. Dad’s given me an ultimatum – I get back up to speed by Tuesday, or I can forget playing. I’ve got to be able to give it one hundred per cent. Do you think Rhys could help?’

‘I’m sure he could, mate, but I’m not sure that three days is enough time. You might have to forget the deadline and just take as long as it takes to sort yourself out.’

‘But I might lose my place in the team.’

‘You need to think about what’s important. Is it playing, but at less than full whack, which might mean you lose your place anyway, or getting yourself sorted, when you can come back knowing you’re right there? It’s the same as any thigh strain or shoulder. If you keep on playing while it’s not mended, it won’t ever heal properly, and eventually you’ll suffer for it.’

‘I don’t know what to tell Dad.’

‘Hey, mate, it’s not Tuesday yet, is it? Give yourself a break, try not to worry about it till then. A lot can happen in forty-eight hours.’

‘Seventy-two.’

‘Oh, is it? Fair enough.’

Talking was definitely helping, despite Dec’s poor grip on mathematics, and I decided I would get Rhys’s number from Dad when he came back.

Mum got back before Dad, though, just as Dec was leaving. She’d had a tough time with Ayesh, and wasn’t that keen on discussing it, which I was relieved about in a way. Mum still hadn’t told me what she thought about the whole train-wreck, and I was just waiting for her to lay into me, but for now we dodged around each other while I tried not to talk about it at all.

Dad came home in a grump because of the defeat, and he and Mum sat in front of the crappest Saturday TV eating leftover lasagne. I sulked on the sofa with them for a while, then to everyone’s relief I went to bed.

It wasn’t long after I’d turned the light out that I heard a tap on the door.

‘Cal, are you still awake?’

I could have pretended I wasn’t, but Mum wasn’t being quiet enough to let me have that luxury. She knew that if I was asleep, she would have woken me up. Sighing, I turned the lamp back on.

‘Yeah. Come in.’

As I sat up, Mum came in and perched herself on the edge of the bed. I braced myself for a Beth Scott lecture.

‘Cal, you know Ayesha is really upset.’

‘Yeah, I kind of got that when she called.’

‘She’s sorry she threw you out, she feels terrible.’

‘I know.’

‘Maybe, sweetheart, it’s not too late, and you could go back?’

‘Jesus, Mum, are you fed up with me already?’

My attempt at humour didn’t get me very far. Probably because it wasn’t very funny.

‘Don’t be silly. You can stay here as long as you need to. I just don’t understand how you can leave, after all these years, for someone who to all intents and purposes you only met two weeks ago.’

‘But that’s kind of it. All these years. It’s all become a bit, not boring, Ayesh could never be boring, but … predictable. I love her, Mum, so much, and what I’ve done to her, it breaks me up. But whether things work with Chrissie or not, I think Ayesh and me have run our course.’

‘But you were trying for a baby.’

‘No, not trying. Just not trying not to. Seeing what happened. It’s a bit of a shit way to do it, if I’m honest. And I think what we were really doing, or maybe just what I was doing, was trying to spice things up a bit. When we thought she was pregnant after my birthday –’

‘What? What happened?’

‘Nothing. There was nothing, she was feeling sick, but it was because she was dehydrated, but we thought for a bit she might be, and it was kind of exciting and scary, but that’s what thrilled me, I think. The novelty, not being a dad. Being a dad scares the shit out of me. It’s not something I’m ready for, not really.’

‘Ayesha’s ready. She’s very upset that you would have walked out on her even if she was having a baby.’

‘Yeah, well she’s not, so I haven’t done that, have I.’

‘Would you really have done, Cal?’

This was the big thing for Mum, that I would have left the pregnant mother of my child.

‘Jesus, I don’t know, but probably. Yeah. Well I did, didn’t I, before I knew for sure? If it wasn’t going to work with me and Ayesh, it wasn’t going to work with me and Ayesh and a baby. I would have been there for her, just not as her boyfriend.’

‘Or husband.’

And this was the other big thing – that she thought Ayesh and me would get married, and she already thought of Ayesh as her daughter-in-law.

‘Mum, I’m sorry to deprive you of an imaginary big wedding and a non-existent grandchild, but if that’s what you and Ayesh and Iz have been cooking up between you on your girls nights in, then maybe you should have let me in on it too.’

‘That’s not fair.’

‘Isn’t it? Iz’s main complaint was that I was stopping her being our bridesmaid. I never even asked Ayesh to marry me – we never even talked about it.’

‘But you were going to, weren’t you?’

‘How the fuck do you know that? I mentioned it once to Dec, as a possibility. Jesus, did Ayesh know? I had the ring all ready and everything, but I didn’t do it.’

‘We all knew. We were waiting at Christmas, but it never happened, and we thought maybe you were delaying it until Ayesha’s parents came over, but then they cancelled, and –’

‘See Mum, this is where trying to control every fucking thing that goes on in this family gets you. If you all just bloody well stopped talking about every tiny little thing that happens, people would be a lot less upset and get a lot less hurt.’

‘Don’t you dare try to blame all this on me.’

‘Not all, Mum, but surely you can see that by letting Ayesh think I was going to ask her to marry me, all this has just hurt her more.’

I was getting up a head of steam on being angry now. It felt like too many people had interfered too much, made too many plans that relied on me feeling one way, when I actually felt another. Even though I didn’t know I felt it.

Mum was silent. She had her own anger simmering away, and it was obvious she wasn’t on my side, if there were sides to be taken. Of all the crap I’d taken over the last couple of days, this was one of the hardest things. I could cope with Ayesh hating me; I deserved it, despite what Dec spouted about life and deserving it. I could cope with Iz hating me; we’d hated each other on and off for a lot of our lives, and I was pretty sure we’d get over it. But my mum – she’d always defended me against everyone, stood up for me, whether I’d liked it or not at the time, against teachers pushing me too hard at school, against other mums who accused me of getting a place in the Colts because of who my dad was, against Katie Rivers’ parents. It felt wrong that she wasn’t defending me now. I needed her.

‘Look, Mum, it’s obvious we disagree about this. I know I’ve fucked up, but I’ve done what I think is right. We’re going to have to work it out, but not now. I’m wiped.’

Mum didn’t say anything, just nodded and left the room.

I thought that was the end of it, for now, turned the lamp out and curled up under the duvet, but a short while later there was another tap on the door.

‘You awake, Cal?’

Dad this time. Just as well my ability to sleep had disappeared along with my conscience and my sanity.

‘Yeah. Come in.’

I sat up and put the lamp on again.

‘I’m going to start charging admission.’

‘Hm. Less than a quid, I hope.’

‘Much less. Forty seven pence to come and have a pop at the dickhead who’s ruined everything for his entire family.’

Dad took up Mum’s perch on the edge of the bed.

‘Is that what your mum said, that you’ve ruined everything for everyone?’

‘Good as. Apparently I was supposed to be getting married, so Iz could be a bridesmaid and Mum could be a granny, but instead I’m a lowlife scummy cheater and now everything’s gone to shit and there’s not even going to be a wedding.’

‘But weren’t you going to marry her?’

Oh not this again. I didn’t have the brainpower to go over it with Dad as well.

‘No Dad. I thought about it but I changed my mind, all on my own without a huge family consultation. Turns out things were never going to work with us. End of.’

‘You know your mum’s really upset.’

‘Yeah, I get that. I didn’t do this to upset her. Does she really think I should stay with Ayesh just so she can plan the reception?’

‘That’s not fair, mate. There’s more to it than that. Ayesha lived here for quite a while, and you’ve been together for a long time. She’s part of the family, and surely you can understand why there might have been some expectations. We’re all having a bit of difficulty working out where we all fit with her now. Do we still invite her to Sunday lunch, or do we stop talking to her altogether? Is it OK to ask if she’s alright? Is it OK to talk to you about her? It’s just, we didn’t see this coming, mate, and now it’s like we don’t know what to do.’

‘Well join the club. I didn’t see it coming either, not until a couple of weeks ago, less than that. I don’t know what to tell you. I’d say yeah, look after her, talk to me about her if you need to, make sure she’s OK if she wants you to. Don’t ask her to Sunday lunch if I’m going to be there. Jesus, Dad, I can’t do all this, it’s too hard. I’m seriously doing my nut. I think … I might have to see Rhys. Have you got his number?’

‘Yeah. I was going to suggest it anyway. I’ve given him a bit of a heads up that you might call him.’

‘What did you tell him?’

‘Nothing really, just you’ve got some stuff going on.’

‘I might not be sorted by Tuesday.’

‘Don’t sweat it, Cal. Get yourself sorted, however long it takes.’

‘That’s what Dec said.’

‘Yeah, well, he’d know about getting yourself sorted if anyone would. Your mum wanted me to talk some sense into you, whatever that means, but I think seeing Rhys is the most sensible thing you can do. He said you can call tomorrow if you want to.’

‘What are you going to tell Mum?’

‘What I always tell her. She can’t solve the world’s problems single handed, and some things are best left to solve themselves.’

‘Do you think this can be solved?’

‘One way or another, mate, life goes on.’

‘I hate upsetting Mum.’

‘Cal, a long time ago we told you that we can be cross with you and still love you.’

I was transported back to that Christmas when it seemed so important to know the truth of that.

‘I remember.’

‘Hold on to it, mate. Try to get some sleep.’

‘Thanks Dad.’

‘No sweat. For what it’s worth, if you’re sure you’ve done the right thing, and it will mean less heartache in the long run, your mum will see it in the end too.’

Bloody hell, I must really have got Dad worried. He never did this heart-to-heart stuff. Suddenly self-conscious, he stood up and ham-fistedly tried to pat me on the shoulder. Then he walked out, leaving me to my muddled thoughts.

Turning over, I pulled the duvet over my head and gave in to the sadness that had been trying to leak out of me all day. It’s hard to cry quietly, and it’s painful, but I really didn’t want Mum or Dad to hear me, so I kept the noise to as much of a minimum as I could, flooding the pillow with the tears that I couldn’t help flowing out of me. It was about the end of me and Ayesh, the end of the good times, the end of our shared life, and it was about knowing I’d hurt not only her, but a lot of people I cared about.

Eventually I cried myself out, and I fell asleep, but I woke up with a start to my phone chuntering away with the Star Wars theme tune. It was Matty. God, could no one leave me to have five minutes to myself to just try and sort all this out? No, what was I thinking. This was the crazy Scott family, with more interested parties than a Wetherspoons at Christmas.

I checked the time before I answered. One thirty. The man had no sense of decency.

‘I was asleep.’

‘Noh yuh weren’t, yuh jus thought yuh were.’

‘Huh?’

‘Yuh were dreaming yuh were asleep. Dreams aren’t real, Cal.’

As usual, Matty’s twisted logic tied me in knots, and I was too befuddled to either try to make sense of it, or banter back.

‘Whatever. I’m sure you have a good reason for calling me in the middle of the fucking night.’

‘Not the middle, the night is yet yohng. I just wanted tuh remind yuh I’m available fuh uncley advice, an that Lau is not the only one who can sort yuh life out.’

Oh, I’d told Lau I thought she’d helped me more than Matty could have, and now he was in search of man points.

‘Poor Matty feeling left out?’

‘Yuh bet, yuh bastard. Yuh told her she was better than meh, I’m never gona hear the last of ih.’

‘Maybe if you woke the fuck up when your nephew in need calls you, you’d be top of the thanks-for-the-assist charts, but your lazy-arse ways have been your downfall.’

‘Yuh didn’t have tuh drive tuh our house tuh call. Signal’s not tha bad out this way.’

‘I was being considerate. Hammering on your door at stupid o’clock could have given you a heart attack, old man.’

‘Nothing wrong wih my ticker, yuh bloody upstart.’

‘No, because you never bloody wake up. You must have the most undisturbable heart known to man.’

‘Yeh, tha’s meh, top of the strongest heart league.’

‘Glad to have cheered you up. Can I go back to sleep now?’

‘Yeh, once yuh tell meh yuhr not lying there calling yuhrself a worthless piece of shit all night.’

Oh he was sly. Couching a ‘how are you really doing’ in the middle of all the arsing about, so I wouldn’t see it coming and avoid it. He surprised me into answering honestly.

‘Maybe not the whole night. I’m hoping to get back to sleep for some of it.’

‘Don’t mate. Yuhr not worthless, or a piece of shit. If yuh have tuh lie awake, do ih telling yuhrself yuhr a good bloke. Think of all the good times yuh had wih Ayesh, and –’

‘But I’ve just wiped them out –’

‘Daytime’s when yuh can beat yuhrself up, when people are around. Don’t do ih at night, on yuhr own, when there’s noh one tuh contradict yuh. Someone gave meh some good advice once fuh dealing with shit yuh can’t escape in the night. Two bits of advice, yuh can choose which one. One is, yuh just think of all the negative crap an imagine putting ih in a box, then put ih away tuh deal wih tomorrow. Then concentrate on good crap. Two is, write ih down. Write a letter or a story, something tuh stop ih goin in circles.’

‘Do either of them work?’

‘Yeah. Both work. An yuh can always call yuhr old Uncle Matty, wake up Lau an get a shitload of useful life lessons from her as well.’

‘Well I might have to give them both a try, now I’m lying here awake. Why exactly are you up right now anyway?’

‘Couldn’t sleep, mate. Oh, number threh. If you can’t sleep for thinking of something yuh should do, jus do ih. Night, Cal.’

‘Night Matty.’

As we disconnected, I thought about what Matty had said. I wouldn’t have stayed asleep very long anyway, and it made sense to try out some of his advice. I wasn’t about to get out of bed and start writing letters, but I tried putting all the negative crap in an imaginary box until tomorrow, and thinking instead about some good things.

My thoughts turned to Chrissie, as the one good thing that had come out of this whole sad pile. I hadn’t let myself think about her since I’d gone home to Ayesh from Lau, not in any meaningful way, but as I remembered how things had been in the stolen moments we’d had over the last couple of weeks, I realised how much I’d missed her. We hadn’t given each other a date to contact each other, we’d only said next week, after I’d supposedly sorted my head out, and Chrissie had said ‘Don’t leave it too long’. Was it officially next week now, being Sunday morning? Depends on your perspective I suppose. It was bloody early, or late, also depending on your perspective, but Matty’s words came back to me – if you can’t sleep for something you should do, just do it.

Before I could think about it any more, I texted her.

Hey. Sorry it’s late. Thinking about you. I left Ayesh.

There was no reply. If she had any sense, she’d have her phone on Do Not Disturb or silent, and maybe she wouldn’t see it until tomorrow. Maybe she’d seen it, and just didn’t want to reply. But I’d done it now. She knew, and it was up to her what that meant and what she did about it.

Feeling a little more purposeful, I pulled the duvet back over my head and dozed through the early hours of the morning.

Mum was always up first, and Sunday mornings were no exception. Dad always slept in the day after a Saturday game, and Mum would get him breakfast in bed before she either started preparations for a Sunday lunch extravaganza, or caught up with family phone calls to Nana Jane in America and my aunts Lou and Rachel. Today, to my surprise, I rated breakfast in bed too, despite not having played yesterday, and having felt like I wasn’t her favourite son of all time.

‘Thanks Mum, this is great.’

‘Don’t get crumbs on the sheets. How did you sleep?’

‘So so. Matty called me in the middle of the night.’

‘Did he? What for?’

‘Oh, just to arse about.’

‘Really? Why was he awake?’

‘He felt the need to share his ‘dealing with disaster’ tutorial.’

‘Did it help?’

‘A bit. I texted Chrissie.’

Mum’s pinched expression told her she wasn’t yet ready to discuss Chrissie, or what I might have told her.

‘Well enjoy your breakfast. Your dad and I thought we might go for a walk on the moors later, would you like to come?’

‘Aren’t you doing lunch?’

‘No, nobody much is around, so I thought I’d have a rest this week.’

‘Because of me?’

Mum sighed and shrugged.

‘Maybe a little, sweetheart. Just while things are settling down.’

‘I’d have thought a family get together would be just what you’d want.’

‘Yes, Cal, but who exactly is family at the moment?’

‘Shit, Mum. If I’m going to cause those sorts of questions, maybe I’d be better off just staying somewhere else so you can all get on with saying what an evil bastard I am and how you wish I’d just kept things as they were.’

‘Don’t be like that, I didn’t mean –’

‘Mum, you were great to Ayesh when you let her live here. If you can still be friends with her now, that’s great too, I’m not asking you to cut her out of your life. But I’m your son, she’s not your daughter, however much you wanted her to be, it’s not going to happen now. I’m a fucking mess here, I really don’t know how I’m going to get through the next few days, and I could really use your support.’

Mum looked at me for a few moments, and I could see a struggle going on between what she wanted to say and what she thought she should say. In the end, she opted for not saying much at all, which wasn’t like Mum.

‘Sweetheart, I love you dearly, but this is hard for me, and you need to give me time.’

‘Fine, Mum. I’ve got nothing but time at the moment.’

She turned and left the room, and I put the tray of breakfast on the floor, having lost my appetite. Just as I was thinking about getting up and going for a run to clear my head, my phone sounded with my generic ‘probably an insurance company’ ringtone. I glanced down, expecting it to be Unknown Caller, but with a jolt, I saw Chrissie Calling lighting up my screen. I nearly dropped the damn thing in my efforts to answer as quickly as possible.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey. I got your message. Did you really send it at two fifty seven?’

‘Yeah. Was having trouble sleeping.’

‘Oh Cal. Have you really left?’

‘Yeah. Night before last.’

‘Why didn’t you text then?’

‘Dunno. Or, I do, it’s been bloody hard, Chrissie. I’ve not been in a good place.’

‘You don’t sound like you’re in a great place now.’

‘No, but you’re making it better.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘What, for making it better?’

‘No, for causing it.’

‘You didn’t, not really. I think Ayesh and I were done, months ago. You might have helped me realise it.’

‘Wow. That’s very … gracious of you.’

‘Ha ha, not on purpose. It’s how I see it. How Lau helped me see it.’

‘Oh, you talked to her after Friday?’

‘Yeah, I did that in the middle of the night too. I think I ought to get a job doing shifts, I’d be ace working the graveyard.’

‘I haven’t slept that well since then, either.’

‘No?’

‘I really missed you, Cal, but I was thinking about how wrong it was, what we were doing.’

‘But surely it’s not still wrong?’

‘Maybe not. I don’t like thinking that you did that to her because of me.’

‘But I told you –’

‘What did you tell her?’

I tried to remember exactly what I’d said. It seemed important to Chrissie that she wasn’t the one to blame, but I wasn’t sure I could promise her that.

‘That I’d met someone else, and she went off on one, told me to get out, so I did.’

‘So she thinks it’s because of me.’

‘Does it matter what she thinks, what anyone else thinks?’

‘It matters to me.’

‘Don’t I count?’

‘Do you know how terrible I feel?’

‘Probably not as terrible as I feel.’

‘Maybe this is just … perhaps we should just forget it, Cal.’

‘What? No! You can’t say that, after all this –’

‘But isn’t that your point? You’re telling me you would have left anyway, so it shouldn’t matter if we’re together or not.’

She was tying me up in knots, now. My head was pretty mashed from two nights of little sleep and my days spent trying to resolve impossible dilemmas, and I just couldn’t see it. All I could see was that Chrissie had been troubled by me being with Ayesh, and now I wasn’t with Ayesh, she was still troubled, but there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it.

‘Chrissie, it matters if we’re together or not, it’s nothing to do with whether I’m with Ayesh. We should be together.’

‘I don’t think I can, Cal.’

‘What? No, please don’t say that. You’re what I’ve been holding on to, the good thing to come out of all this, what’s been waiting at the other end.’

‘I think we need to –’

‘No, don’t say it.’

‘We need to stop. I can’t do it.’

‘No, Chrissie, please.’

‘I’m sorry, Cal.’

‘Chrissie … Chrissie …’

But she’d disconnected. I tried dialling her number, but it went straight to voicemail. Just like before, when she’d decided it was best for us to stop, and I couldn’t talk to her.

73. A dream of you and me

In which a meeting has an unexpected outcome.

Laura

It didn’t take long to get to my road, and we talked about nothing much – possibly the weather, or the one-way system, nothing memorable. Despite the slur to his speech, I liked the sound of Matt’s voice, his northern, or was it Midlands, accent making the words sound rich and soft. Oh hark at me. I just liked the way he spoke; it wasn’t what I had expected.

I found a parking space outside my house, a minor miracle after five o’clock on a weekday, and told Matt to wait in the car while I took the trolley inside.

‘Sohry, fehl I should beh hehping or sohmthing.’

‘Don’t be daft, it’ll only take a second or two.’

As I opened the front door my phone pinged again in my bag. I took it out and read the five short text messages from Kate.

‘Not THE Matt Scott?’

‘Lau? Spill. Can I tell Rach?’

‘Lau don’t ignore me’

‘I swear if u don’t answer I’m coming down there’

‘Last chance’

I hit reply and sent a message

‘God give a girl a chance to drive home. Yes that Matt Scott. Needs 2 talk. Best not tell Rach yet eh?’

I sent the text and put the phone back in my bag. It rang almost straight away. I pulled it out, but put it back and turned the ringer off when I saw it was Kate calling. She’d have to wait until I was back home properly for a chat.

Matt

She trotted back to the car and opened the door for me, offering her hand, but I’d already lost enough man points with the not helping, and decided to struggle out by pulling up on the car door instead. I saw how she was looking at me, Beth looked at me that way most days, and I gave her a rueful smile at my own stubbornness.

‘Are you OK to walk there? It’s only just round the corner.’

‘Yeh, s’fine. Fehl a bih of a twat now, noh sure wha Ihm gohna say.’

This was true. Now I’d semi-conned her into some kind of pseudo counselling session, I would have to deliver the goods. I had bolstered myself for this when I made my plan, but that was when it was a theory, a working hypothesis. Now I was going to have to give her something real, and I wasn’t relishing it.

I felt her put her hand on my arm as we walked, and wondered if she had any idea how much she made my pulse race. She suddenly stopped in her tracks.

Laura

I put a reassuring hand on his arm as we walked, more comfortable in my nurse guise than my giddy teenager guise. Thinking this suddenly made me realise I was still wearing my nurse’s uniform, and I stopped in my tracks.

‘Oh dammit, I need to get changed. Sorry, Matt, I forgot I was still wearing this.’

I indicated my tunic.

Matt

‘Noh a problem foh meh, I kinda lihk ih.’

I looked at the way she was filling out the tunic, which was spectacular.

Laura

His eyes swept over me appraisingly, making me feel hot and tingly.

‘Yes, but I’m not supposed to wear it out in public. Stay here, there’s a cardy in the car, I can put that over the top.’

I left Matt standing on the pavement while I made the quick dash to and from the car to pick up my big baggy cardigan.

Matt

She ran back to the car, opened the boot and pulled out a large woollen thing that covered up the tunic and all the curves that went with it. I made a disappointed face.

‘Shame.’

Laura

Matt made a disappointed mouth as I covered up the top. Thank God for baggy cardies; they made you feel sexless and frumpy, which was what I needed if I was going to be able to ignore the unsettling things that being with Matt was beginning to make me feel.

‘Cheeky! Uniforms aren’t all they’re cracked up to be you know. Most of them are itchy and don’t fit properly.’

‘Yuhrs seems tuh fit OK.’

He looked me up and down again, which despite the cardigan continued to unsettle me.

‘You’ll get me struck off with talk like that. Right, Mean Bean, mochaccinos on the NHS.’

And as a note to self, any more flirty banter on my employer’s time strictly off the agenda.

Matt

Oh, promising, she’d started with the flirty banter. Backed off pretty quickly, but it had been there. Very, very promising, Matt.

‘Ih’s a dehl. Wha I pay my taxes foh.’

‘Quite right. Here we are then.’

We can’t have walked more than a minute or two.

‘Bluhdy hell, yuh weren’t joking abouh roun the corner.’

‘It’s my downfall, I can nip out for breakfast in my PJs and slippers, get back before the alarm clock’s finished ringing.’

This was going better than I’d imagined. She was sounding relaxed, letting bits of personal information slip out. We reached Mean Bean, managed to secure the last booth and Laura went to buy the coffee, despite my protestations. She insisted that some bizarre NHS rule meant she could claim two coffees on expenses, but not one. It’s no wonder the country’s health service is in such a state.

While she was ordering, I thought I’d better try to let Beth know I was going to make my own way home. She would doubtless be wondering where I was; she would not have believed in a million years that I would have stayed at the church hall all day. But my phone couldn’t pick up a signal, whichever way I held it, and when Laura came back I was holding it up as high as I could, exasperated that the one time I try to do what they all nag me about, I’m prevented by a blackspot.

Laura

As I made my way back to the booth with the mochaccinos I saw Matt was holding his phone up in the air, looking at the screen in annoyance.

‘Problems?’

‘Noh fucking signal.’

‘It’s a bit flaky in here sometimes.’

‘Shih. Shuhd’ve called someone.’

‘Oh.’

I looked at my phone which was also displaying a ‘Searching…’ message where the bars should have been.

‘Sorry, mine too. Do you need to go in search of a signal?’

Matt sighed and shook his head.

‘Noh, fuck ih, leh em wohry foh bih. Noh a fucking bahby.’

He looked up and wiped his frown away with a crinkly smile.

Matt

I looked up at her and smiled. No point taking my frustration out on her, that wasn’t going to get me even close to where I wanted to be.

‘Bluhdy fahmly. Luhv em. They fucking kill meh.’

Laura tilted her head sympathetically.

‘Just worried I expect.’

‘Yeh.’

And a bunch of nosy, interfering –

‘When were you diagnosed?’

She cut across my familiar internal diatribe and silenced me. Shit. I had almost forgotten I was there on the pretext of talking about the bastard MS, and her direct question had taken me by surprise. I couldn’t speak for a short while, but Laura just sipped her coffee, waiting for me to answer. She seemed so chilled that in the end, I found the words. It wasn’t really such a big deal, was it?

Laura

There was a long silence. I realised I had been direct but I usually found that small talk increased people’s nerves and made it harder to find an opening into the things they really wanted to talk about. Matt had said he wanted to talk about things he found it hard to talk to his family about, so I wasn’t here for a natter about last night’s telly. I sipped my coffee while I waited for Matt to answer.

‘Five yehrs or so.’

I was really surprised. There had never been any indication, not that I’d ever spoken to him, but I prided myself on my radar and Matt had got under mine. I’d never even heard a whisper that Matt could have MS.

‘Really? I assumed it was more recent.’

Matt

‘Yeh, this tihm. Behn in remission. Thoht I’d goh away with ih. Nehly forgot I had ih. Fucker came bahk, cohpl months ago. Bastahd.’

That was the most I’d talked about it to anyone for a long time. Thinking about it made me angry, and I looked away.

Laura

‘That must have been hard.’

I had managed to slip into full nursey counselling techniques now, making statements, reflecting back, but Matt had looked away and seemed to be closing down.

Matt

‘Yeh.’

Yeah, it had been hard, and talking about it now was almost as hard. I felt myself closing down, stopping the words.

Laura

I tried to think of something I knew about him to keep him talking, and remembered seeing him with Beth this morning.

‘But your family are being supportive?’

Matt

I couldn’t prevent a snort. I had the most bloody annoyingly supportive, there-for-you family a man could wish not to have.

‘Fuck yeh. Always bluhdy ringing, texting, popping roun. Cahnt geh a second tuh mysehf tuh duh wha they all think I’m gona duh.’

Fuck, hadn’t meant to say that.

Laura

‘What do they think you’re going to do?’

Matt looked down at the foam on top of his coffee and didn’t meet my eyes.

Matt

What was the saying? In for a penny, in for a pound? I hoped Laura was up for a pound of sharing. I’d never said what I was about to say to anyone, but I felt like I knew her, like it would be safe to say it. I can’t explain how.

‘Well, yuh knoh. Pills or rope or I dunnoh, carving knihf. Buh prohbly be pihls. An a bohtle or two of Jahk Dahniels. Wha a way tuh goh, shih-faced tuh the end.’

Laura

‘So you have thought about it?’

I’d be amazed if he hadn’t considered it at some point. But I thought the way he was talking about it meant he was less likely to do anything serious about it at the moment.

He kept his eyes on the table as he answered.

Matt

Fuck, I hoped she wasn’t going to have to alert the Suicide Squad or something. I looked down as I answered. It was too big a thing to risk looking at her as I said it. I didn’t want to see pity, or contempt, or anything that said ‘oh you poor man’.

‘Yeh. Buh turns ouh I’m too bloody sehfish fuh tha even.’

I risked looking up at her, to see what she thought about that one. My traitor eyes swam with tears. Shit. I wasn’t going to fucking well cry.

Laura

He looked up at me and I was surprised to see his big grey eyes glistening. Was he about to cry?

‘Selfish?’

‘Yeh. Dihnt want the kids tuh remehber me as a fucking loser.’

‘Oh – you’ve got children?’

That was a new one but I went with it, and it seemed to distract him enough that the threatening tears disappeared.

Matt

Ha, that was better, that was funny in a darkly ironic way.

‘Noh. Fuck noh! Oh, whole other lohng saga righ thehr when yuhv goh a week or two. Noh, my niece, nephew and – oh fuck ih my fahmly’s so complicated. Anyway. Other pehpl’s kids.’

Explaining things like this always took at least twice as long because of my bloody family and their convoluted links.

Laura wrinkled her nose as she pondered it all. She looked adorable.

Laura

He looked at me, seeming to be willing me to understand. I tried to sum it up.

‘OK, got it, I think. You may have had some suicidal thoughts but you haven’t acted on them because you’re worried about what other people’s children will think of you when you’re dead.’

More reflecting and reframing. Sometimes it helped to be blunt; I usually judged it right.

Matt

Whoa, she knew how to summarise. Adorable or not, it felt like being hit with a blunt instrument.

‘Holy fuck.’

I looked at the table again. This was taking a turn I hadn’t expected, and we were getting into territory I had never explored with myself, let alone someone I had only just met. If you know me at all, you know if I even approach the truth about anything, I start fucking about so it doesn’t get too serious and real. This felt very serious and real, and we’d only just started talking. Lau, you are so good. Then, and still. What would I have ever done without you to make me see what I’m hiding from?

Laura

Matt bowed his head. I suspected he hadn’t fully admitted it to himself before, preferring to couch it in euphemisms and even jokes. After confronting him in such a direct way, he needed some reassurance.

I reached over and put my hand over his, to be startled by an electric jolt that travelled from my fingertips to my very core. It took me right out of my safe professional counselling zone and straight into teenager with the popular boy zone.

Matt

Laura reached over and took my hand, presumably to comfort me, but it felt, instead, like she’d wired me into the mains. Touching her hand hurled a bolt of human lightning right through me. I almost felt my hair stand on end. I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t have felt it, and I looked up from the table and into her eyes, where I saw, I just knew, that she had felt the same thing. It wasn’t just a mild flirty attraction, she was, certainly at that moment, affected as deeply by me as I was by her. It shook me out of my dark reveries. I held onto her hand, tightly, as I saw her force herself back to our conversation.

Laura

Matt looked up into my eyes; I don’t know what he saw there but his eyes widened slightly as I struggled to get a grip on myself. I forced my thoughts back to what he’d just said, and away from our clasped hands. Had he just felt that too? I heard a catch in his breath, and we looked at each other, startled, for a few seconds, before I remembered myself.

‘Matt. The last thing you are is selfish. It sounds like your family are keeping you going one way and another. Don’t ever think its selfish to love them. They need that from you.’

Matt

‘Not rehly. Thehrs plenty – ‘

My phone rang, interrupting the moment, and I had to let go of Laura’s hand to answer it.

‘Signal mus beh bahk. Shuhd geh this’.

It was Dec. They would have been taking it in turns to call while the rest got in touch with Scotland Yard to put out the sniffer dogs – and indeed a whole host of missed calls and texts popped up as I answered.

‘Heh.’

‘Where the fuck are you?’

‘I’m fine.’

‘That’s not exactly answering my question.’

No, dear Declan, that was the intention.

‘Having cohfee.’

‘Oh. Would it have hurt you to call Beth? She’s been going bat-shit.’

‘Sohry noh signal.’

‘Oh. Are you going round there later?’

‘Noh, going hohm after.’

‘Oh. Do you need a lift? I can come and get you.’

I had no idea how I was going to get home. Maybe a taxi, or chance the buses. No way I was going to rely on any of the family.

‘Noh thahks.’

‘You’re sure you don’t need anything, talk, … anything?’

‘Noh, jus nehd sohm fucking space.’

‘You know you don’t have to be on your own –’

It was the assumption that I was on my own that riled me up this time. They all thought they knew me, who I’d be likely to be with, who my friends were. I blasted back at him.

‘Noh, Dec, dohn start wih tha fucking shih yuh noh I’ll talk tuh yuh if I need tuh.’

‘Alright, mate, take it easy, you know how this works, we care about you, alright?’

‘OK.’

‘Don’t be a stubborn fucking bastard all your life.’

‘OK.’

I had no intention of doing what he told me, but the less I said, the less he would go on.

‘I’m going to call Beth and tell her you’re OK.’

‘Whahever, yuh’ll all talk abouh meh anyway.’

It sounded whiny and childish, but I was mostly in a whiny childish place these days.

‘Yeah, mate, like we’ve got nothing better to talk about than your feeble antics. Here, have a word with Charlie, she’s been wanting to chat to you all day.’

‘Oh yuh bastahd … Heh, beauhiful how’s yuh day behn? Tell Unca Matty all abouh ih even tho yuh cahnt talk yet.’

There was an indistinct burble and a giggle, then Dec came back on the line.

‘She’s laughing at you, you ridiculous old git.’

‘Yeh I heard her. Dead cuhte.’

‘Has that put a smile back on your wrinkled old face?’

‘Yeh I’m smihling yuh bastahd. Piss ohf now. Busy.’

‘OK. See you soon, mate.’

‘See yuh.’

I put my phone down and looked apologetically at Lau.

‘Sohry. If I dohn report my exac movements they call the FBI, an SWAT teams play havoc wih yuhr social lihf.’

She didn’t seem too worried about me taking personal calls on her NHS time.

Laura

‘No problem. Family?’

I realised I was being a bit nosy, but wanted to keep him talking.

Matt

‘Yeh. Well noh. Well soht of. Sohry.’

Oh shit, I was going to have to go through the ins and outs of it all wasn’t I.

‘Dec. Bes mate, bruhther, auhnty, stuhborn fucking interfering bastahd all in one. Goh a lihtl girl. Lohv her tuh bihs – hehr, look.’

I picked my phone up, found a picture of Charlie and turned the screen to face her. I’d got so used to Jules looking bored at family pictures that I was surprised and delighted when I saw Lau’s expression soften.

Laura

He picked his phone up and scrolled through his photos then turned the screen to face me. A dark haired baby with enormous blue eyes chuckled out at me. I felt a familiar pang and pushed it back down where it came from, as I always did when confronted with other people’s beautiful children.

‘Oh Matt, she’s gorgeous. How old?’

‘Six months. ‘

‘And she’s your niece?’

‘Well soht of. Dec’s kind of – bollocks I’m sure yuh dohn wan tuh know my bluhdy fahmly history.’

‘Try me. I’m a bit of a nosy cow.’

It was all too true that I loved finding out about people, I’d chat to anyone, anywhere. But it was also true that I felt the intensity of both the things we had been talking about, and that weird electric jolt; getting Matt to talk about something safe and familiar would make things feel easier.

Matt

Well it beat talking about the fucking bastard, so …

‘Oh fuck ih, why noh? Buh if I see yuh yawn, tha’s ih, dohble espresso on meh an straigh home wih yuh.’

Thing is, I just didn’t think I was boring her, even though I was boring myself a bit; Laura looked keen to hear about it.

‘Ha ha, it’s a deal. Come on, then, let’s have it.’

I had a quick think about what I was going to say, and it occurred to me that although Jay and Dec were my family, they were celebrities here in this city, and the whole story wasn’t common knowledge. Dec may well be open house in the family as far as talking about his shit was concerned, but he made sure he kept his private life to himself when it came to the general public.

‘Migh noh beh much tuh tehl rehly. My bruhther … thehr was this kid … bollocks, noh sure wha I cahn say. This is confidential, righ? Lihk a priest or sohmthing?’

‘Er, well, not exactly like a priest, there are certain things I’m not allowed to keep to myself – abuse, that kind of thing.’

I felt a stab of panic – no no no, how did I give her that impression?

‘Fuck! Noh! Shih, I jus mehnt a loh of ih’s noh my stohry, yuh cahnt tehl pehpl.’

Laura

‘Oh, OK, no problem then. My lips are sealed, as long as I’m not breaking the law. But I’ll let you know if there’s anything I need to pass on to the FBI.’

I winked at him, and he relaxed a bit. I was enjoying getting to know Matt Scott; it felt like something had started when we touched hands, and I wanted to keep him there with me as long as possible. Oh God, Laura Shoeman, did you just flipping wink at Matt Scott? Good grief.

Matt

She winked, oh it was so sexy, and I reduced panic stations to acceptable levels. I tried for a short version of it all, most of it what people knew about, nothing that I could see that Dec or Jay would be unhappy about.

‘Righ then. Whehr tuh start. OK – goh ih. Yehrs ago, prohbly abouh eigh or sohmthing, my bruhther gahv a room tuh this kid on a ruhgby scholarship. Jus a room foh few wehks. Threh yehrs laher he’s stihl thehr, part of the furniture, evryohn’s happy. Then sohm big shih goes down wih them, abouh the tihm I geh told Ihv goh … this.’

I gestured down at myself, to indicate the fucking bastard.

‘Then geh pneumonia. Sohm huge shih hits sohm fucking enormous fan down hehr, big bust up wih kid. Jay lehvs ih all behin an comes tuh Stafford tuh look after meh. I’ve nehly pegged ih in the mehntime. Kid – well ih’s a bih complicated, but lohng an shoht – kid an Jay mahk up, they all realise he wahs part of the fahmly all along, big Chrismus reunion. I wahs thehr, jus ouh of hospital, still trying noh to peg ih. Dec decides if he’s part of the fahmly tha mehns meh too, an starts interfering as if he’s bluhdy Beth or someone. Hahnt goh ohf my case since, fucking bastahd.’

I shrugged.

‘Tha’s ih rehly. Dec’s fahmly buh I dohn know wha tuh cahl him. Noh a bruhther, mohr than a friehnd, he’s hehped meh ouh of sohm deep shih. I’ve hehped him ouh of sohm deep shih tuh. Nehd each other.’

Dec would laugh his socks off if he heard me telling it like that, like it was no big deal, like I didn’t mind him helping me, like I didn’t hate needing him, like I didn’t go out of my way to make it difficult. But he didn’t hear, would never hear, me saying how much he meant to me, not in so many words, so that was OK.

I saw Lau breathe in, as she thought about what I’d said. She looked like she knew exactly who I was talking about, and was considering what to say next.

Laura

I took a deep breath. It was impossible not to recognise the people in Matt’s story. I didn’t pay much attention to sport on the whole, but you couldn’t live in this rugby-mad city and not be aware of Raiders and some of its principal characters. Jay Scott and Declan Summers were names most people knew, and, yes, it would have been four or five years ago when all that trouble hit the headlines and Declan Summers came through A&E while I was doing a bank shift, unconscious, his face beaten to a pulp. Matt was looking at me, waiting for some kind of response.

‘Well, it doesn’t sound that complicated really. As long as it works, for all of you, that’s the important thing.’

That wasn’t the response he needed.

Matt

Yeah, but that wasn’t that reassuring. I needed to know she wasn’t going to go blabbing about how the newest fucking bastard MS recruit was part of the whole Scott-Summers saga. I didn’t want to end up as centre spread in the Mail on Sunday’s ‘Rugby Hero’s Crippled Brother Misery Ooh and While We’re At It His Fuck-up of a Family‘ feature, and I was pretty sure Jay wouldn’t want it either.

‘Yeh, buh yuh know who I’m tahking abouh? Yuh wohn say anything?’

‘Matt, I’m not sure who you think I’m going to tell or what you think I’m going to tell them, but no, it’s your business and your family’s business. Thank you for telling me, though.’

My phone pinged, and I looked at the screen to see a text from Rose. It was one of many I’d ignored since I’d been in the cafe with Laura. The jungle drums must have been working overtime for Rose to get involved, and she must have been really wound up by Beth to have texted, as it took Rose about an hour to find the full stop on the keypad. I predicted that next on the list would be Mum, and I’d have the set.

I wanted to explain to Lau how bloody annoying they all were, never leaving me the fuck alone, always assuming something dire had happened if they couldn’t get hold of me for three minutes.

‘Tha’s Rose now. She’s Dec’s – oh bollocks, see, this is wehr – Rose kind of came wih Dec, she’s noh related to him either buh she thinks she’s his muhm. So dohs he. Dec, he’s noh rehly goh anyohn, he shuhd beh all alohn in the world, buh he jus pulls pehpl to him. He’ll never beh alohn.’

That was more than I should have said, but Lau was bloody good at just sitting there listening, and she made me want to talk. I quickly started a sarky reply back to Rose, but tried to maintain eye contact with Lau so as not to appear too rude. Just rude enough, I suppose.

Laura

He started replying to the text as I spoke, flicking his eyes up to mine to show me he was listening.

‘Do you feel alone?’

Matt’s fingers stopped in mid-text as I finished asking the question. His head remained down, looking at his phone, and I couldn’t see his face, but I saw him tremble slightly and then two tears fell onto the table. I reached out and took his hand again, steeling myself against the surge of heat. It was there, but I was prepared for it and I could ignore it and be distant and professional.

Matt pulled his hand away roughly, reached into his pocket and pulled out a tissue, then wiped his eyes. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and looked me in the eye, anger on his face.

Matt

I stopped in mid-text as she asked the question. Fuck, she’d managed to get to the very heart of me with four words, and it flooded over me. Before, I’d been on my own out of choice, going it alone, Matt the Lad, playing around, no ties required thanks very much. Now, although it was my fault Jules was gone, it wasn’t my choice and yeah, although I had started to get over her, had come to terms with some of it, and I tried really hard not to beat myself up about it – well I still missed her, or the Jules shaped hole where she had been, the togetherness, the closeness, and I did feel alone. I pushed people away because I was scared to depend on them, and being away from work and all the camaraderie I shared with my team just compounded things.

My eyes misted over, shit shit shit, and I couldn’t see the screen on the phone. Before I could stop them, two tears plopped onto the table, the bastards. I felt Laura take my hand again, but although the electricity was still there, it still took me aback, it made me angry; angry that she’d called me on feeling lonely, when I wasn’t prepared to admit that, not to myself, and certainly not to her. Shit, I’d only just met her, who did she think she was? She was as bad as all the rest of them.

I pulled my hand away from hers, found a tissue and scrubbed my face dry. Then I looked her in the eyes, in those angel’s eyes, those eyes that I wanted to be mine, and I nearly let her off, but it was still there, the anger, covering up the loneliness, and the shame about the loneliness, and I couldn’t just let it go, couldn’t just let her get away with making me cry in front of her. I took a deep breath, then vented.

‘Fuck yuh, clever medical pehpl. Thihk yuh know evrything. Yuh know fuck all abouh meh.’

I expected an equally angry reaction, maybe for her to pick up her bag and leave. I fixed my eyes on my phone, trying to finish my text to Rose, so I could appear unconcerned when she walked out.

Laura

If Matt had been speaking in code, which he was in a way, he would have been saying ‘Yes I feel alone, but I feel bad about feeling alone when my family love me so much, and I really wish you hadn’t pointed this out to me and made me cry, thank you very much.’ Maybe there would have been a bit more swearing. But he wasn’t ready for me to be telling him how he was feeling, so I stayed quiet for a while, sipping my drink, as he finished his text. He hadn’t got up and walked out, so something was keeping him there.

‘Another coffee?’

He looked up from his phone, surprised, expecting me to have taken offence at his words.

Matt

The mildness of her tone of voice took me by surprise, and I looked up, not knowing what to say. I wasn’t used to people just accepting it when I went off on one. That was the whole point of going off on one, that it was a bit unacceptable; how else was I supposed to get people to stop bloody going on?

‘Oh, er …’

‘It’s just, I’m going to have my dinner here, they do a great salad selection, I can get you something while I order if you like.’

It was as if I hadn’t just sworn at her, almost as if she was going to give me space to think about what I was going to do next, and I felt my anger cooling. If she went up to order more coffee, I could finish my text and get myself together a bit, and maybe we could start again. And maybe I could try a kind of apology too.

Laura

It was mainly a diversion; Matt obviously felt uncomfortable expressing his emotions in public. He could get himself together while I went up to the counter, and decide if he was staying or going.

Matt

‘OK then, another ohn of these. Buh leh meh pay. Ohnly fair. NHS buys me cohfee, I buy NHS cohfee. Mehbe jus yuh, noh the whole NHS. Cahnt run tuh threh million cohfees.’

I started to feel in my pocket for my wallet, but it wasn’t there. I felt in the other pocket, not there either.

‘Fuck! I’ve lohs my wallet.’

I looked all around the table and underneath it, felt in my pockets again, but it wasn’t anywhere on or near my person. The thought of having to cancel all my cards on top of the seriously long day I’d had was making me panic.

‘Shih! Fuck!’

Laura

‘OK, don’t freak, maybe it fell out in my car. Do you want to go back and have a look?’

The panic receded a little from his face in the light of a possible explanation, but he stood up immediately and nodded.

Matt

Oh, please let it be in her car. I clung to it as the most likely explanation. If I was lucky, she might offer to take me home too. I was getting more tired by the minute, and didn’t fancy trying to get a taxi, or the worse alternative, calling Dec. I stood up and nodded.

‘Sohry, wahs goin tuh buy yuh dihner. Sohry I wahs rude jus now.’

It sounded like I was apologising because she could help me out, rather than because I was sorry, but I was so worried about my wallet, I didn’t really care. She waved it all away anyway, like she was used to people telling her to fuck off. Maybe she was; if she was as blunt with all her patients as she was with me, I expect it happened all the time.

Laura

I waved his apologies away. I was so used to people telling me to fuck off when I hit the nail on the head, it hardly registered any more I didn’t really like swearing, something to do with my upbringing, but I didn’t take it personally and Matt seemed to use that particular form of release more than most people.

I collected my bag from under the table and waved to Bridget behind the counter as we left. Mean Bean stayed open until nine, so I could go back for my tea later, once I’d helped Matt find his wallet. As we left the coffee shop, though, Matt stumbled against me, nearly knocking me over. I righted myself, then put my hand out to steady him as he lurched again.

‘Matt? Do you need to go back inside?’

He pulled himself upright and ran his hands over his pale face, taking deep breaths.

‘Fuck. Noh, jus need tuh geh hohm. I geh tired. Busy day. Fuck.’

As we set off along the pavement, Matt started to crumple again, and I hastily grabbed his arm and placed it over my shoulder. His pace became slower and slower, and his weight over my shoulder increased until I was almost carrying him by the time we got to my house. I decided I would do both of us an injury if I tried to get him in my car, and he didn’t look like he was in a fit state to tell me where he lived.

Thinking on my feet, the only real option was to try to get him into my house. Struggling under his weight more with every step, aware of curious glances from people walking past but beating them back with a furious scowl, I made it to the front door. I propped Matt against me while I hooked my keys out of my bag, then tried to persuade him over the threshold. He was barely awake.

‘Come on Matt, you need to lift your feet up over this step.’

‘Mmn … hosh … bo …’

I tapped his right leg, which lifted up and over the front step and into the hall way. One more leg to go. He mumbled some more nonsense as I bent down to try and position his left leg. I suddenly felt a hand on my bum and stood up quickly, feeling it fall away.

‘Hm nihs ahrs.’

A quick look at his face showed his eyes closed. Great, he was feeling me up in his sleep – obviously a skilled practitioner. Bending down a bit more carefully I tapped and tugged on his left leg until he moved that into the house as well, then I placed his arm across my shoulder again.

My house was an upside-down house; my bedroom was on the ground floor, and you had to go downstairs to the kitchen and living room. The novelty wore off very quickly. But it meant I wasn’t going to be able to get Matt into the lounge unless I tossed him down the stairs. He was going to have to go on my bed.

‘Come on, lovey, just a few more steps and we can both have a rest.’

I pulled on the arm slung across my shoulder, tugged on his waist and kicked at his shoes and ankles until he started to move his legs. It was painfully slow progress, but we made it eventually, and I sat him down on the edge of the bed. Using some unorthodox handling manoeuvres I shoved Matt into a roughly horizontal position and made sure he had a pillow under his head, then sank to the floor, panting and cursing my woeful fitness levels.

As I got my breath back, Matt’s phone rang and it occurred to me that, as it looked like he might be here for a while, I should really let someone know where he was. I thought about answering his phone, but apart from not wanting to rummage in his pockets, I had no way of knowing if the person calling him was someone he would want me to inform of his whereabouts. I didn’t really want to announce to some random insurance salesman that I had Matt Scott asleep on my bed, or indeed to some ex-girlfriend, or current girlfriend. The idea of Matt having a current girlfriend unnerved me a bit, and I was beginning to wish I’d made some different choices when Matt started to slow down.

Vital signs! Nurse Laura suddenly remembered to do some physical checks to make sure Matt was actually alright and not in need of medical assistance. I checked his pulse and breathing; they both seemed fine, and I remembered the sphygmomanometer, which is a show-offy name for a blood pressure measurer, on the counter in the kitchen waiting to be taken to the office. I would be able to check his blood pressure too.

I fetched the bag, wound the band round Matt’s arm, and began pumping it up. As the pressure increased, Matt roused a bit and tried to brush the sensation away.

‘Fuck ohf.’

‘Nearly done.’

I couldn’t help a bit of bright and breezy nursey reassurance, it was ingrained in me.

Once the blood pressure was done, with no apparent problems, Matt didn’t stir, and I went back to pondering how to contact someone about him.

I wondered if Beth Scott would be my best bet. It was unlikely their home number would be listed, with her husband being a coach at Raiders, but I thought I knew which school her son went to and was pretty sure he was in the same class as my friend’s nephew, Jake. It was a bit of a long shot, but I tried Marian, and asked her to call her sister and see if she could get a number for me.

While I waited, I went downstairs and made myself a cup of tea, feeling very weird about the man asleep on my bed upstairs, and even weirder about how twitchy and flustered it was making me. I couldn’t decide whether to go and wait with him or not; I finished my tea while I thought about it, then decided that he might not know where he was when he woke up, so I should really be there to explain.

I grabbed a magazine and made myself comfortable in the armchair in the corner of the room; it wasn’t anything to do with being able to watch him while he slept, it was purely practical. He had lovely long eyelashes that curled onto his cheeks. Totally coincidental.

While I was in the middle of an article about the latest Hollywood break-ups, the silence was shattered by a loud ping from my phone. A glance at the screen announced a text from Kate – oh dammit, I’d forgotten to text to say I was back safely. I quickly checked that Matt hadn’t woken – he hadn’t even twitched – and glanced at the time. It was six fifty, and I’d told her I’d be in touch by half six. Kate would be really worried.

‘RU OK?’

‘Yeh soz forgot 2 txt. Home now’

‘Wot no details?’

‘Ring u l8r xx’

I hoped that would satisfy her for the time being; there was going to be an awkward phone call with a lot of explaining and a lot of apologising later on.

A short while later Marian called back with a long story about how she’d managed to track down Beth Scott’s phone number. After I’d listened to her tale and thanked her many times, I dialled the number.

‘Hello?’

‘Hi, is that Beth?’

‘Yes.’

‘Hi Beth, you might not remember me, my name’s Laura Shoeman –’

‘Laura! We worked together on Belton Ward a long time ago didn’t we?’

I was amazed at her memory.

‘Yes –’

‘Didn’t I see you at the Living with MS session this morning?’

‘Yes.’

‘How lovely to hear from you. How are you?’

‘I’m good thanks. I’m actually ringing about your brother-in-law.’

‘Matty?’

A note of concern came into her voice.

‘Is he alright?’

‘Yes, he’s fine, nothing to worry about, I just thought someone should know where he is. He’s with me at home at the moment, we were having a chat in a café after the MS day today, and he got really tired, went down like a sack of potatoes, and I live just round the corner, and well, he’s asleep right now –’

‘Oh! I’ll be right there, where are you?’

The last thing I wanted, I was surprised to find, was someone to come and take him away. I wanted to be here when he woke up, so he could be all grateful and … what? Laura Shoeman, what on earth is going on?

‘No, no, I don’t think there’s any need for that, I’ve checked him over, his stats are all OK, he’s just tired himself out. Once he wakes up he’ll be fine. It’s just he was telling me about his family and how much you all worry, and I thought if you were trying to get hold of him …’

‘Oh Laura thank you. I’m sure he won’t thank you when he wakes up, he doesn’t like people fussing over him, but that’s so lovely of you. Are you sure he’s OK? You don’t want us to come and get him?’

‘No, no, I think it’s all under control.’

I felt very far from under control myself, but I meant the situation. Yes, the situation. That was completely under control. Completely.

‘Well please ring if you need us.’

‘I will. Thanks.’

‘Thank you Laura.’

Matt continued sleeping and I went back to my magazine, tearing my eyes away from him, until my phone rang again a short time later.

‘Hello?’

‘Hi Laura. It’s Jay Scott here, Matt’s brother.’

‘Oh! Hello.’

Well this was a turn up for the books. It’s not every day a local sporting hero calls you up on your personal mobile number. I kept my cool rather well, I thought.

‘I heard you’ve got my big lump of a brother lying around cluttering up the place, and wondered if you needed a few strong lads to come and shift him for you?’

Well, much as the image of Jay Scott and his team trooping into my bedroom was the stuff of fantasies, the thought of the sort of language I might be subjected to from Matt should he wake up during the process decided me against it.

‘Oh, no, Jay, thanks, I think he’s better sleeping it off. It wouldn’t be a good idea to move him while he’s still asleep, he might wake up and try to fight it. And once he does wake up he’ll be fine on his own, I’m sure.’

‘Are you positive? Matty’s done this before, worn himself out, and he can be asleep for bloody hours.’

‘It’s not a problem. He’s no trouble.’

I felt like I was discussing a dog I was looking after. I had to admit, just to myself, to a tingle of … something … that made me a bit thrilled to be the one looking after Matt Scott, who certainly was no dog.

‘OK, then, but seriously, if you change your mind, I can send the boys round.’

‘Good to know, thanks.’

None of my text bleeps or conversations seemed to have disturbed Matt, so I stayed where I was, just totally coincidentally watching his face. For any signs of movement or waking or medical distress, obviously.

After a while, though, there were things I had to do. I had finished my magazine, and had no form of entertainment in my bedroom other than watching Matt sleep. Attractive as that prospect was, I was going to have to ring Kate soon, or she would drive over and start banging on my door. I didn’t want to leave Matt to wake up on his own, but also didn’t want him to wake up and hear me discussing him with Kate, who wasn’t his biggest fan.

I decided to leave Matt a brief note explaining where he was and where I was, and let him sort himself out if he came to while I was out of the room. With any luck, he’d still be asleep when I’d finished with Kate.

I walked downstairs, picked up the phone from the handset at the bottom of the steps and dialled Kate.

‘Lau, about bloody time, I’ve not had any tea yet, I’ve been waiting for you to bloody ring me and tell me everything.’

‘Sorry Kate, I’ve only just sat down myself.’ I lied.

‘So are you telling me the Matt Scott has got MS?’

‘It appears so.’

‘Bloody hell! There are some, not a million miles away from the MS Service, who may be heard to say ‘serves him damn well right’, although they wouldn’t be me as that is a thought unworthy of a health professional.’

I decided to be prim and a bit patronising.

‘Yes it is unworthy, Kate. I wouldn’t wish MS on my worst enemy. Nobody deserves it.’

‘Oh stop being so bloody sanctimonious Lau. You know what I mean. I don’t know the bloke personally, but he’s made poor Rach’s life a bloody misery for nearly two years. And countless other poor women who –’

‘Who probably knew his reputation, knew what they were getting themselves into and thought they could change him. It takes two, Kate.’

She sputtered down the phone at me, as stunned by my defence of the Evil Git Matt Scott as I was.

‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this! You’ve sat through as many of Rach’s drunken sob sessions as I have.’

‘I know, and all I’m saying is it was a long time ago, it was one night, get over it. Although I might be a bit nicer to her face about it.’

Kate was silent for a moment. I wondered how annoyed she was with me. We had a ‘girls stick together’ vibe in the team, and I was breaking out of the mould. Why exactly are you breaking out of the mould, Laura Shoeman? Didn’t these girls pick you up after all your friends deserted you in the wake of Bryan the Smackhead, and don’t they deserve a little more loyalty and a little less … whatever it was I was doing?

‘Know what, Lau, you’re right. I mean, he is a bastard and everything, but it was a long time ago. Maybe she should get over it. Or get some help if she can’t. Set up a Matt Scott’s Castoffs support group or something.’

Phew, so she thought it was a good idea too. Maybe I was being fair and just, instead of inexplicably defending the man who had caused Rach so much heartache.

‘Ha ha, good idea. I hear there’d be lots of potential recruits.’

I was relieved that Kate had seen my side. The four of us worked closely and got on really well together, and the occasional fall-out we’d had in the past made things tricky for a while until we’d worked things out.

‘So, you’ve still got some gossing to do, lady. Tell me all. How did you come across him? Did he ring the helpline or something?’

‘No – didn’t you see him at the LMS day?’

‘No! Was he there? Bloody hell, Lau, I never saw him before, you should have pointed at him and said in a loud voice ‘that’s the scumbag who broke our Rachel’s heart’. All the regulars would have duffed him up in a second. Gloria would have hit him with her handbag, he’d have never got up again.’

Kate hadn’t joined the MS team until after Rachel’s one-night-stand disaster, so she had never seen Matt in action. However, the amount of informal counselling sessions we had all given Rach since meant she was an honorary member of the ‘We Hate Matt Scott’ club, and I knew I was going to have to play along, even though it felt strange, and I wanted to defend him.

‘Ha ha, that would have been worth it. He came in late, sat right at the back near the door.’

‘Oh – was he talking to you at lunchtime?’

‘Yes. He liked ‘the sex bit’ apparently.’

Kate tutted. ‘Dickhead.’

‘I know.’

‘Bloody good looking dickhead though.’

‘I know.’

‘I thought to myself, aye aye, Lau’s in there, I thought, especially when I saw him waiting for you after. But I didn’t know he was a bloody dickhead then. Bad luck, Lau.’

‘Mm.’

Was ‘mm’ non-committal enough?

‘So anyway, how did you end up in bloody Mean Bean with him? That’s like, two seconds from your house isn’t it? You’re sure he wasn’t trying it on?’

‘Oh, well, he came back after everyone had gone, asked if we could go for a coffee. He wanted to talk.’

‘I bet he did. Did he mean a coffee or … a coffee?’

I could imagine Kate waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

‘He meant a coffee and a chat about MS, as advertised on the helpline leaflet.’

Prim Laura had re-entered the building.

‘Alright Miss Prissy Pants, you can’t blame me for wondering, it’s not like he hasn’t got a bloody reputation or anything.’

‘Anyway, he’s got a lot on his plate, he opened up a bit, cried a bit –’

‘You made him cry! Oh Rach’s gonna love this.’

‘Kate, you can’t, that’s really unfair on him.’

‘Oh bollocks Lau, you almost sound like you feel sorry for him.’

‘It’s my job to feel sorry for him.’

‘It’s your job to act like you feel sorry for him. Your private opinions outside of NHS time are for your personal use. OK, OK, I’ll hold fire on calling Rach for a bit. So. He had a plateful, he opened, he cried. Then?’

‘Then …’

I wasn’t about to tell Kate that Matt was asleep upstairs. That would lead to all sorts of misunderstandings.

‘… then he got tired and we left. Bit boring in the end.’

It was so close to the truth, it really wasn’t a lie. I never lied. I had just told Kate the truth; I’d missed a few bits out, that was all.

‘Yeah, anti-climax or what. So, is he signed up? Do we need to vet the attendance list at the next clinic or have bouncers at the support groups when Rach is on? Bloody hell, it’s a good job she didn’t cover for An today, there would have been bloodshed.’

‘No, he’s not signed up to anything, he’s still coming to terms with it all I think. He doesn’t seem like much of a joiner-inner.’

‘I could have bloody told you that. Wanker.’

‘OK, Kate, tone it down a bit. This is a man with MS we’re talking about, he may well use our services in the future. You should have a bit more respect.’

Kate had pushed too many buttons – buttons she couldn’t have possibly known she was pushing, buttons I was a bit surprised to find were there to be pushed – and she’d then sworn just a bit too much as well. In retaliation, I’d used my full hoity-toity one-pay-grade-above-her authority and then regretted it.

‘I’m sorry Kate, that was uncalled for. It’s been a long day, when all I’d planned to do was paint my toenails. Sorry flower, ignore me. Just need a bath and a glass of something extremely alcoholic. Go and get your tea, I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘OK Lau, no probs. Sure you’re OK?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Go and have a bloody long soak and pour yourself something industrial strength.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, maybe I’ll try some of that purple stuff Nick left behind. Night, Kate.’

‘Night, Lau.’

Sending Kate off to have her tea reminded me I hadn’t eaten anything yet either, and it wasn’t looking like I was going to make it back to Mean Bean before they closed. I rummaged in the freezer for something quick and microwaveable. All I could find was a lentil casserole, which didn’t fill me with joyful anticipation but would at least fill me with proteiny goodness; probably a fair amount of gas too unless I was lucky.

I shoved the container in the microwave and ate it while it was too hot, burning my tongue. While I ate and sucked cooling air into my mouth, I texted Anna to find out how she was feeling. She replied that she felt a bit better, and might try to make it in tomorrow or the next day.

As I was disposing of the casserole container and rinsing the fork (oh the joys of microwave meals), I heard a noise from overhead. I froze for a moment, instantly imagining axe-wielding intruders – one of the disadvantages of an upside down house was being on constant high alert due to the front door being so far away – then I remembered Matt. While I was eating, I’d been thinking about something I wanted to add to my LMS presentation, and I’d forgotten who was lying on my bed for a moment. He must have woken up.

71. Hopeless wanderer

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

Julia

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

‘What time are you going to be there?’

‘When?’

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

‘Oh I dohnt bloody knoh.’

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

‘There’s ages yet.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fuck.’

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

‘Alright, Matty?’

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

‘Yeah. Not sure abouh the crockery.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ll go back fuh the rest, then.’

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

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

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

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

‘What?’

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

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

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

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

I drained my bottle and held it up, defiantly.

‘Whole one.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How the fuck did yuh geh my pizza?’

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

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

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

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

‘Suhr.’

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

‘Wha?’

‘You know what.’

‘Fuck ohf.’

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

‘Piss ohf. Ih’m a bihg boy now.’

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

‘Piss ohf.’

I was running out of pithy epithets.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Wha am I, threh? OK, I prohmis.’

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

‘Nah, don’t believe you.’

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

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

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

‘Phmpf hff.’

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

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

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

‘Bin.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Wha? Noh!’

Amy sat down beside me and passed Charlie over.

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

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

‘Fuck, yuh guys. Thahks.’

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

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

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

‘Have u rung yet?’

‘Just abt 2. Stop nagging.’

‘Nope, not gonna stop. Ring now.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I see here that you have MS.’

I nodded.

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

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

‘Have any of the symptoms returned?’

I nodded, found my voice.

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

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

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

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

‘Any changes to your vision?’

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

‘Dohbl sohmtimes.’

‘How about walking? Any trips, stumbles?’

‘Yeh. Buh Ih’m tihred.’

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

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

‘Couhd ih beh a virus?’

She nodded her head, considering.

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

‘Noh.’

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

‘Matt, hi.’

}Cah I come in?

‘Course, is everything OK?’

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

Matt

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

‘Beer?’

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

‘Noh, bih early for me.’

‘Really? Since when?’

‘Since I fucking saih so.’

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

Dec

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

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

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

Matt

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

‘Ih’s back.’

‘What?’

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

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

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

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

‘Dohnt need your fucking pity.’

Anger was simmering down there, now.

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

‘Dohnt knoh.’

‘What do you mean?’

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

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

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

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

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

How dare he make a joke about it?

‘Fuck off.’

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

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

Oh, so now I was a drama queen.

‘Wha the fuck do you know abou ih?’

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

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

Dec

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

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

He looked up at the ceiling, blinking away tears.

Matt

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

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

‘Then don’t.’

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

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

Dec

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

‘Have you told Beth?’

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

Matt

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

Dec

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

}Maybe.

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

}You wohnt tell them, will you?

I sighed; this was Matt’s mantra.

Matt

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

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

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

‘Fuck, dohnt tell Amy.’

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

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

Dec

Matt was silent, still not meeting my eyes.

‘Have you been back to see Adam?’

Matt

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

‘No, behn too busy.’

‘OK.’

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

‘Fuck off, I hahv.’

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

Dec

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

‘Why did you come here, then?’

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

‘Wha?’

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Want to make a start now?’

‘Ih suppohs so –’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hey babe. Hey lovely girl.’

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

‘Bloody wet morning. You?’

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

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

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

‘Oh, OK, er …’

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

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

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

‘Oh, great! Thanks Matt.’

Dec

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

Matt

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

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

‘Oh Matt …’

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

‘Yeh, well, c’est la fucking vie.’

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

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

Dec

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

‘Matt … Matt.’

‘Ungh … wha?’

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

‘Do wha?’

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

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

A telling silence.

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

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

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

‘Noh, I’m –’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

‘Ames? Are you feeling OK?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

)Really, hon?

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

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

‘Are you OK about it?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ha ha, do you want me to?’

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

Should have said ‘again’.

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

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

Dec

Nico: =say hi to Bastien Tiago -pic-

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

Nico: =Lis is wonderful, you come today?

Dec: =Yeah! This afternoon.

Matt

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

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

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

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

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

‘I dohnt wohry abou fucking buses.’

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

‘Ih’s a bih early fuh meh.’

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

I stayed silent, not wanting to commit myself.

‘How about it, Matty?’

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

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

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

I ignored Beth’s amateur attempt at sarcasm.

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

‘If you don’t like what you see.’

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

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

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

‘OK. Dehl.’

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

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


47. Someone like you

In which there is an explanation, a recovery, and a missed opportunity.

Dec

It felt so good to be out of my wet clothes and in the shower. I let the hot water run over me for a while, then got out and wrapped a towel round my waist, enjoying the sensation as I dried off and felt clean and warm.

Amy was waiting in bed, sitting up, pyjamas on. I stood in the doorway and looked at her. I wasn’t relishing the explaining I was going to have to begin in a minute, and just wanted to keep looking at her while she didn’t know everything, while she wasn’t angry or upset or disappointed.

)Hey you, feel better?

‘Much. Love a shower. Not a cold, rainy one though, not nearly so enjoyable.’

)Come and tell me all about it.

She pulled my half of the duvet aside and patted the sheet. I finished drying myself, pulled on a pair of boxers and got in next to her, unable to delay any longer. I put my arm round her and looked at her, hesitating.

)What’s the matter, hon?

‘This is hard. I’ve been so stupid. I don’t want to fuck things up between us again, but I don’t want to hide anything from you.’

)Well, if it helps, I already know you gave Becca Davis a lift which ended in her being half naked in your car, although not which half or how it … er … happened. Although the lovely Becca texted me earlier to describe in some detail what she would like me to think you and her got up to.

‘Oh, babe … I’m such a fucking idiot. Almost as soon as she got in the car I realised what I’d done, but she wouldn’t get out and it just kept getting worse and worse. I didn’t, I didn’t do any of it.’

)I know, hon.

‘What?’

)I know. Didn’t you hear me at the restaurant? I said I trust you. I don’t trust Becca Davis further than I could throw her, but I trust you. Remember you said I had to decide if I believe her? Well, she’s a lying cow, so why would I?

‘Ames … I don’t know what to say. You’re fucking amazing.’

)I still want to know all the gory details. Maybe without all the beating yourself up about what an idiot you’ve been. Let’s just take that for granted, yeah?

‘Ha ha, OK babe, fair enough. Well …’

I told her absolutely everything, and she took it all really well, until I told her about getting aroused when Becca touched me. She swallowed hard at that point, tried to continue smiling up at me, but had to look away and blink a lot.

‘You know it doesn’t mean anything, right? Right, babe?’

)Actually, doesn’t it mean a bit of you wanted her?

‘Only the fucking testosterone-driven uncontrollable too-bloody-male-to-think-straight part. She was waving her tits in my face, I’d have had to be, I don’t know, not a man, to be able to have any say in the whole process. All the other parts of me were thinking about you, how gorgeous you are, how much I love you – Amy, I honestly with all my heart swear that no thinking, feeling part of me wanted any part of Becca fucking Davis. My dick has a mind of its own sometimes, you know that, but I don’t have to do what it says, and I definitely didn’t want to do anything about it with Becca fucking Davis. Honestly, babe. Please don’t focus on this. I wasn’t sure whether to tell you, I knew you’d be upset, but I just didn’t want to hide any of it.

)Did you ever consider it? For just a second?

‘Shit, no, Amy. No! Fuck no. She’s got nothing I want, even with it on a plate and staring me in the face. I only want you. I wish I knew what to say so you could believe me.

)Sorry. It’s just … that was one of the things she said in her text, and you just said you didn’t do any of it, and now … well, you did.

‘But she’s just twisting it. Shit, Amy, fuck, she’s a vicious cow. I didn’t lay one finger on her, oh, apart from to take her hand off my leg, and to push her away when she tried to snog me – OK, so maybe I laid a couple of fingers on her.’

Amy continued to look down and I cursed Becca fucking Davis and her mad bitch scheming.

‘Ames, we didn’t snog. She tried, I shoved her away – oh, that was another thing in her text, wasn’t it?’

Amy nodded.

‘Shit. Bloody fucking cow. Ames, I didn’t want to touch her, I didn’t even want to look at her. I feel so stupid for letting her get me there in the first place so she could carry on doing this to you. Please, Amy, please believe me, you’re all I was thinking of, you’re all I ever want.’

I was close to tears now, it felt like I’d never to be able to convince her. Amy was quiet for a while, looking down, her hair covering her face so I couldn’t see her expression

) … OK, I just needed to know. I’ll just have to do a bit more trusting won’t I?

She took a deep breath, looked up, smiled and squared her shoulders.

)So what happened next?

I wrapped my arms around her, so relieved, knowing the effort she’d made to believe me. I pulled her closer to me, kissed her hair.

‘Where had I got up to? Oh yeah, my bloody uncontrollable dick. OK, so, after she tried to shove her tongue down my throat, which was pretty gross by the way, I basically told her she was sad and pathetic, needed to grow up and stop playing schoolgirl games, and to put her shirt on and fuck off out of our lives, and then I got out of the car and started walking. I bet that’s when she sent you the text, she did yell after me that she was going to, she tried everything to get me to stay with her.’

)I’m glad you didn’t.

‘Yeah, me too. I really, really did not enjoy getting soaked right through to my boxers, the rain was trickling down my back into some very uncomfortable places, and I feel like my feet are never going to recover, my shoes have rubbed everywhere. But it was still better than spending any more time with that mad fucking bitch.’

)So how far did you get before Matt found you?

‘Fuck, I don’t know. It felt like miles, but it was dark and raining and I was miserable and thinking about you with your parents, having them being all ‘I told you that boy was no good’, it felt like the longest walk of my life. Shit, I’m going to have to go and get the car, it’s not locked or anything, fuck knows what state she’s left it in. Shit, my fucking car.’

)Dec, do you think you can possibly wait until the morning to go and get the car? It’s late and I think what we’re talking about here is more important.

I swallowed my concern for my car. It meant a lot to me; I had bought it with money left to me by my parents, and it was in some ways irreplaceable. But not compared to Amy.

‘Yeah, it can wait.’

)So Matt found you where?

‘Oh babe, I don’t have a fucking clue where I was. She’d sent me all over the place. I only know I was walking back into the city. I’d got to some houses, just where the street lights started. Probably just as well, he might have run me over if I’d still been in the lane, my suit’s dark, so is my shirt, I didn’t think about whether cars would be able to see me. Matt’s was the only one I saw in all that time. Shit, Amy, I’m so glad you rang him. I would have had another hour or so in the rain without him. How did you work it out, where I was?’

)Well, when you rang to say you were, how did you put it, in a situation, I was really worried, especially when we got cut off and then I couldn’t get hold of you. I didn’t know your charge had run out, I thought, well, this is really silly I guess, but I remembered when you were beaten up and your phone was smashed. I completely couldn’t get it out of my head. I tried Jay and Beth, but they didn’t answer, so I tried Matt, and he really was so calm and knew just what to do. He knew Jay was home, so he went round, he called me from there, he’d called Bonksy, got a bit of a garbled story, but we worked out between us what must have happened. I told him whereabouts Becca used to live and he just went off to find you. The miracle is he hadn’t had anything to drink.

‘Yeah, that is actually a bit of a miracle for Matt at that time on a Saturday night.’

)Apparently he was just heading out to a club when I rang him.

‘Oh, so he hadn’t even started drinking yet.’

)Maybe. I didn’t ask. The other miracle is that he managed to find his way around in the dark, and actually found you. He’d never been out that way before. He must have a sat nav for a brain. He phoned me as soon as he spotted you. I was so relieved.

‘I bet your mum and dad were just loving all this.’

)Yeah, you can imagine – ‘Amy, do you not think you should order your main course now’. I was like, yeah Mum, once I’ve found out whether Dec is lying in a pool of blood somewhere or not, then I’ll completely have the sea bass with a side salad. God, they just didn’t get it at all. I’m not their most popular daughter right now, I should think.

‘You’re all they’ve got, they should be thankful you’re so fucking amazing. I should be thankful you’re so fucking amazing. Ames, I can’t believe how well you’ve taken all this. Walking down that road in the rain, all I could think was ‘That’s it, I’ve blown it, after everything we’ve talked about’, and call myself a fucking idiot over and over.

)But that’s kind of it, hon, isn’t it? We’ve done all that talking, and Beth and Jay have been completely amazing, and we’re stronger now. It’s not about me trusting you. I do. It’s not about you trusting me, either. It’s about us trusting in us. We know what we’ve got and we know how to keep it. We’re strong together – we beat Becca Davis! We’re awesome.

I looked at her with pride, admiration and so much love. She said we were strong, but she was stronger than me by a mile.

‘I love you so much, Ames. Will you marry me?’

)Always, hon. You’re going to have to stop asking one day.

‘Never, babe.’

o0o

}Fucking hell, Summers, it’s the middle of the bloody night. Even I was asleep. Alone, sadly, not that you asked, even though it was your shenanigans that ruined my night.

‘Sorry, Matt. I’m just worried about my car. I couldn’t lock it because she was still in it, and I don’t know where it is because I was fucking lost. I really don’t want anything to happen to it. Ames wanted me to wait until tomorrow, but I’ve just been lying awake worrying about it.’

A sigh.

}I’ll be there shortly. Make sure you have a bloody enormous strong coffee ready for me when I arrive.

‘Thanks, I really appreciate it.’

}Yeah, yeah.

o0o

}How far up here was it?

‘I don’t know. It felt like I was driving for miles, there wasn’t anywhere to turn round – oh, there it is … oh fuck.’

}Dec, I don’t think you’re going to be able to drive it home. Shit, what the fuck’s she done?

We pulled up behind my car, which was still in the gateway, all the doors open, all the lights on, all the stuffing ripped out of the seats, deep scratches along the paintwork and all four tyres flat. I sat, numb, and looked at it in Matt’s headlights.

}Come on, let’s inspect the damage.

‘I’m not sure I want to look any closer.’

}We need to see what she’s done, take some pictures, then we need to make it secure so nobody else who fancies a steering wheel or spark plug can help themselves.

‘I can’t take any pictures, I left my phone at home drying out.’

}I’ve got mine. And I’ve got a digital camera in the glove box for just such emergencies.

‘Well aren’t you prepared.’

}Yeah, you’re welcome. Come on, let’s get it over with.

I reluctantly got out of Matt’s car and approached mine. It looked worse the closer I got. As well as the damage to the car, all the contents of the inside of the car and the boot were scattered on the ground outside. There were CDs, tissues, my Raiders kit and suit, magazines, a picnic rug and road maps. They had all been broken, ripped, stamped on and otherwise destroyed. Everything, inside and out, was soaked with rainwater. The words ‘FUCK YOU’ were scratched into the roof.

}Fucking hell, Dec, you really pissed her off, didn’t you.

‘Looks like it. Fuck.’

I stood and stared, not sure quite what to do. Matt took his phone out and took several photos of the inside and outside of the car by the light of his headlights. Then he took some more with the digital camera.

}Well, that’s a record of it, I suggest picking all this shit up and putting it in the car – oh. Er … is this your club suit? Can you get another one?

‘Don’t know, they had a special tailor in to make them all up. I’m supposed to wear it after home games. Don’t expect they’ll want me to wear it like that. Shit, two suits ruined in one evening.’

Matt and I started picking things up and piling them in the boot. Then I turned the lights off – they weren’t very bright, as if the battery was nearly dead – and shut and locked the doors.

‘I guess I’ll have to call a garage tomorrow to get it towed. Do you think I’ll be able to get it repaired on the insurance?’

}Depends on your policy, they usually try to wriggle out of paying up for anything. I doubt you’ll get any admissions out of the lady in question, either, so it could take ages to sort out. You might have to suck it up and sort it yourself. Sorry, Dec, I know your car means a lot to you.

‘Yeah, well, it’s just a heap of metal and plastic, really, isn’t it?’

}Oh, mate, I know you don’t really mean that, you fucking nancy, but nice try. Summers is awarded five man points for putting on a brave face. You’ll get it fixed up, mate, it’ll be good as new. Which considering the fucking appalling way you’ve looked after it can only be a good thing. At least your swanky-arse sponsorship deal will help pay for it. Come on, let’s go back, there’s an outside chance I could actually manage an hour’s sleep tonight before your next drama unfolds.

o0o

Dec: =Msg fm last night’s reject. UR fucking wanker. Have 2 say I agree. No more favours.

Bonksy: =Wot u mean? Was problem? Thought all sorted with Scotty’s brother.

Dec: =*sigh*

Bonksy: =Wot?

o0o

‘Hey Beth.’

_Hi Dec. How do you fancy a fortnight in the South of France?

‘What?’

_James has just been offered this villa practically on the beach for a fortnight in June. It’s enormous, big enough for all of us. We’re going to take Cal out of school, Matty’s coming, Carol’s coming, Nico and Lis too, I thought we could ask Rose, and if you and Amy would like to come it would be a complete family holiday …

‘Whoa, sounds fucking awesome. We might have to cancel our month on the private yacht, or reschedule the visit of the Prince of Monaco, but as long as Ames is OK with it … fuck yeah!’

_You didn’t have anything else planned, did you?

‘Ha ha, Beth, very funny, you know I don’t do plans.’

_No, but Amy is a bit more organised. She hasn’t booked something you’ve forgotten about?

‘Shit, I’d better check, that would be the kind of sneaky thing she’d go and do. I’ll text her now.’

o0o

Dec: =Can we go south of France, 2 weeks in June with Beth n Jay n every1? Please canwecanwecanwe? xx

Amy: =What? Really? Sounds completely amazing!

Dec: =Really! We’re not booked 2 do anything?

Amy: =Not unless u booked it – oh, what am I thinking? 😉 xx

o0o

‘Hey Ames, sorry got held up at Carol’s, she needs some stuff taking to the tip. Just had a thought. It’s your birthday on Saturday isn’t it, shall we go out somewhere, have a meal or something?’

)A meal? Yeah, OK, that’d be … nice, I guess.

‘Great, I’ll book somewhere. Only the best for you, babe. See you soon. Love you.’

_Great performance, sweetheart. Do you think she suspects?

‘No, she sounded really pissed off and disappointed at my usual thoughtlessness and lack of foresight. I hope she doesn’t get too upset, I’ll have to spill.’

_Dec, you can’t! You’ve got to stay strong. It’s only a couple of days. Have you got that playlist finished yet?

‘Yeah, well I have now Matt helped me set it up. I’ve been sneaking out of bed after she’s gone to sleep to finish it off, all her favourites, things she used to go clubbing to, stuff from when she was a kid. I’ve been so devious getting it all out of her.’

_Well done, sweetheart.

‘Well, not really, it wasn’t that hard. You’ve done all the hard work. The hardest bit for me has been all the lying.

_They’re only tiny fibs, sweetheart. For a good cause.

‘I know, I know. It’s not easy though. Thanks so much, Beth, you’ve been fucking magnificent. You should go into business as a party planner or something.’

o0o

)Thanks hon, I’ve had the best day and night and morning ever. I’ll say a proper thank you later.

‘Well it was really all Beth, and Rose and Carol did the food. I can’t claim credit for anything except the playlist.’

)Actually, I think the playlist was my favourite bit. And besides, I don’t think Beth would appreciate how completely grateful I’m going to be. She might be a bit surprised if I tried to thank her the same way.

‘Oh? Oh! Well in that case, I accept your heartfelt gratitude and await my reward. Mm, come here for a quick preview?

o0o

Amy: =Just got results *drum roll* got a DISTINCTION!!!!! WOOOOOHOOOO!!!

Dec: =UR fucking AWESOME! Love u so much xxxxxxxx :)))))

Julia

Is there such a thing as the perfect mate? Not the love of your life, not your soul-mate, not any of those sentimental romantic lies ultimately designed to sell wedding venues and valentines cards. No, the perfect mate. Someone who so perfectly complements you physically, sexually, socially, attitudinally, intellectually that it’s just ridiculous not to, well, mate with them. In both the sexual and the ‘partners in (but not necessarily for) life’ sense.

Well of course there is no such thing, but I thought I’d got close with Matt Scott. Apart from his over-affectionate, over-interested, over-populated family, he was, eventually, perfect for me. I was perfect for him. We were perfect together, theoretically speaking. Obviously, nobody’s actually perfect, and I was well aware of Matt’s flaws, as aware as he was of mine. And yet, it should have been the perfect match…

We both started working for GreenScreen at about the same time, and although he seemed serious enough about his work, his immature stalking of all the superficial, blonde, gel-nailed business school graduates meant I wanted little to do with him in the first year of our employment.

Eventually he ran out of playmates, as word of his standard modus operandi filtered down to the bottom feeders and dried up the ready supply. So he set his sights on bigger challenges and, according to office gossip, started dating women who might actually be able to hold a conversation with him about something more than the latest issue of OK magazine – word had it he had cleaned up his act a little, and although still a Lothario who would bed you, then drop you at the merest sniff of commitment, he would at least pay for dinner before trying to stick his hand down your bra.

Matt

It was kind of a no-no to interfere in another team’s projects, but when the boss asks you to do something, you don’t really have a choice. So when Phil asked me to have a look at the weakpoint analysis on the Duffenheim project that Jules’ team was handling, I had a go. I took the print-out, wandered over to her office and leaned on the door frame, watching her for a bit.

Jules was hot. She was … I can only describe her as petite, really, although when she was fired up you forgot how small she was. She had short dark hair that curled round her ears, and brown eyes that went almost black when she was angry. Which she was, with me, at first, quite a lot of the time.

So anyway, I stood watching her for a bit, wondering how long it would take her to realise I was standing there, arms crossed, my best get-your-coat-you’ve pulled smile on my face. Eventually she looked up, and I jumped in before she could send me packing.

‘You need me.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Oh, you won’t have to beg for it, Jules. Unless that’s what floats your boat.’

I was going to enjoy myself, because I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to her very often, and I wanted to see if she blushed. I had a whole arsenal (although as a Tottenham supporter it pains me to admit that) of flirty banter at my disposal.

Julia

‘It’s Julia. What are you talking about?’

He was quickly becoming irritating. I wasn’t about to respond to his innuendo, and I had work to do. His smirk widened, however, and he straightened up, running a hand through his thick, short, sandy hair, leaving a lot of it standing out at crazy angles.

Matt

Oh this was great, I already had a way to wind her up, and it was completely unintentional. In my mind, she was always Jules, it had just come out. I widened my smile, straightened up, and ran a hand through my hair.

‘See, the thing is, Jules …’

I paused, leaving a gap for her to correct me again, but she stayed silent and I inwardly applauded her self control.

‘…aha, I see I only get one warning, nice. Makes things interesting. OK, the thing is, Phil thinks you need me to help you with your Dufflebag project –’

Yeah, it was pretty childish, getting the name of the project amusingly wrong. Didn’t I mention I was immature?

Julia

‘Duffenheim. No.’

He laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling not unattractively. He had big grey eyes. I’m not sure why I noticed.

‘He said you’d say no. I, er, don’t think it’s a request actually. I’ve fixed your problem with the weakpoint analysis. Here.’

He handed me a sheet of paper with graphs printed on it. I put it on my desk without looking at it.

Matt

She spoke without looking at me, eyes fixed on her computer screen.

‘Tell Phil we’re working on a solution. Thanks for the offer, though.’

‘Come on Jul – ia.’

Calling her Jules had had an unexpected effect, so I tried it again, mixing it up a bit to keep her on her toes. But this time she didn’t answer, just started tapping the keyboard. She was good; this required the full Matt Scott treatment.

‘Just look at the bloody graphs, woman. Just one tiny little look, what’s it going to hurt? Then you can say thank you very much Matt you really are so brainy what can I possibly do to repay you and I can say oh I don’t know maybe dinner at eight my treat and a club afterwards and you can pretend you don’t really want to but you can let me persuade you because I really am so brainy and actually quite charming and handsome too in a kind of skinny but rugged way and –’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, alright.’

Julia

Just to stop him talking, I reached over to the piece of paper he’d given me and had a look at the graphs. It didn’t take me long to see they were brilliant, and Matt had managed to save my team hours of work. I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of letting him know that, though, because he shouldn’t have done it in the first place, so I studied the page as if I had seen several glaring errors.

Matt

What? She was going to come out with me? Just like that? She was – oh. She meant she was going to look at the print-out. She picked it up and looked at it, and if I hadn’t been looking at her really intently, I would have missed the split second when her eyes widened a fraction and she was impressed. But I did see it, and then I saw her rearrange her features so she appeared unaffected by what was clearly going to save her team hours of work, and I nearly laughed out loud. Instead, I channelled my amusement into more sport for me.

‘So this is where you say thank you very much Matt, you really are so brainy, et cetera, dinner, club, your place –’

She looked up and tried to throw ice daggers from her eyes, but I let them all bounce off me. It took more than a look to intimidate me, and I melted them with my solar smile. I wasn’t going to thaw the Ice Queen all in one go, but I might sneak in a bit of a defrosting if she let her guard down.

‘Meet you at The Long Legged Frog at eight. I’ve booked the table.’

I hadn’t done any such thing, but it was going to annoy the shit out of her to think I’d been confident enough to do so, and that I’d planned this whole thing. I turned and walked away, hands in my pockets, without another word.

Julia

Matt turned and walked away, hands in his pockets, leaving me annoyed and discomfited. He was arrogant enough that he might have booked a table in anticipation of winning some imaginary contest, but I suspected it was a bluff.

Matt

And that should have left me with a dilemma, because tables at the Long Legged Frog weren’t easy to come by, but I decided that, as she was really unlikely to turn up anyway, I’d just go down there, wait around for half an hour outside just in case, then bugger off home. If she did turn up, I’d confess, and maybe she’d let me take her somewhere else, or maybe she wouldn’t. But when I got there, I thought I’d check, and they bloody well had a table for two, so I sat and waited.

Julia

I can’t explain why I went to The Long Legged Frog that evening. Maybe part of me wanted to see if he really had booked a table. I certainly hadn’t planned on going inside, just peering through the window with my hood up, seeing if I could spot Matt, then I was going to walk away. But I couldn’t see properly through the windows, which were covered in some kind of streamers for a birthday party, and although I thought I could see someone near the back of the restaurant who looked like him, I wasn’t sure.

Matt

I waited for my self-allotted half an hour, picked something from the menu that I was going to ask them to do up as a takeaway, and was just about to order it, when I saw a hooded figure looking through the window. Not Death or anything so sinister – I’d always imagined Death as a tall bloke in a cape, carrying a pointy farming implement, but this was just a short-arse woman wearing a coat with a hood.

There was a birthday party going on at the table in the window, and it wasn’t easy to see, but I thought it was her. I had no idea if she’d seen me, and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, so I got up and went to the door, where there was Julia Marran, looking as indecisive as I had ever seen her, one foot on the threshold.

‘Well what the fuck are you waiting for? You’re already half an hour late, I was about to order takeaway.’

She had a weird kind of frightened rabbit look in her eyes, and I wondered if I’d just scared her away, so I made sure I was smiling as I said it, and gestured her inside before she could change her mind.

Julia

I looked up into Matt’s wide grey eyes, which were crinkling at the corners to take the bite out of his words. I took in his casual but well-chosen clothes, his deliberately rumpled appearance; there might be worse ways to spend an evening, especially if he was paying. Tables at the Long Legged Frog weren’t readily available, because the food was excellent; Matt’s confidence levels were obviously way higher than I had given him credit for if he really had booked before our earlier conversation.

Matt

As I led her to the table, part of me was wide-eyed with surprise. Holy fuck! Julia Marran had come on a date with me. She’d actually turned up. I mean, yeah, albeit looking like it wasn’t the place she most wanted to be in the world, but still. I wondered briefly whether I was going to get into her pants, and then brushed the thought away as unworthy.

Julia Marran wasn’t the kind of woman who you dallied with in any way, shape or form. You didn’t shag Julia Marran once, and then leave in the middle of the night while she was still asleep.

If I was lucky, Julia Marran would stay for the main course and I’d get home without my ego taking too much of a bruising. It was new territory for me, and although part of me resisted the novelty, another part of me was excited at the departure from the old familiar ways.

Let me be very clear – at this point, I was still an excellent no-strings lay. It was just that Jules was way classier than any of the women I usually took up with, and away from work there was something … vulnerable about her that grabbed me by my lapels and said ‘be gentle’.

Julia

The evening went much better than I would have anticipated. Matt was surprisingly good company; he had a quick wit and a keen intellect, which he usually hid under lots of laddish banter about beer and football; he had a degree in systems technology (a better one than mine although only just); was well-read and appreciated good literature even if he didn’t enjoy the same books as me; he liked the same arts films that I did, and generally surprised me with his ability to talk in an informed way about lots of different subjects. He even made me laugh a few times. He didn’t offer much personal information, but then neither did I, and our conversation was doing fine without needing to bother about family histories.

Matt swore a lot, his speech was peppered with variations on a theme of ‘fuck’, ‘shit’ and ‘bollocks’, not that it worried me, as I wasn’t averse to the odd curse when appropriate, but it was noticeable. To start with I thought he was trying to impress me or irritate me but I realised after a while that, just as I blocked it out, so he didn’t really notice he was doing it.

Matt

So, we talked. We actually bloody well talked. Books, films, art, we had a lot in common. We had similar degrees, although mine was a bit better than hers – score – and the evening flew by. I had expected her to be distant and unapproachable, but Julia was different away from work. I wasn’t sure if she realised how far her act had slipped; I saw a bit of the real her, and I liked it.

When we’d finished our meal, done the coffee, and the waiters were starting to hover as time ticked on, I paid the bill as I’d promised and we left. I couldn’t resist another go, though; it had worked so well before.

‘So where are we going now?’

I knew she had no intention of going anywhere else, but my spiel back in the office had been dinner, club, your place.

‘I’m going home.’

‘Oh great, your place then. Skip the club. Fuckably good plan. Where do you live?’

I was pushing for all I was worth. Maybe I stood a chance, maybe I didn’t. Don’t ask, don’t get.

Julia

I couldn’t work out if he was joking, serious or pushing his luck, and decided some clarification was in order.

‘Just so we’re clear, Matt, I’m going home, to my home, on my own, without you. Thank you for dinner, and thank you for the weakpoint analysis. I think we’re even now.’

Matt

And it was Return of the Ice Queen. I mimed stabbing myself in the heart as if with an icicle, and staggered back against a wall for added effect.

‘But Jules, we were getting on so well.’

We had been getting on well, and part of me was disappointed to be dismissed so summarily. I pushed my bottom lip out in a sulk.

‘It’s Julia. I will admit I’ve had a better evening than I was expecting.’

‘Ouch.’

‘You’re really quite pleasant company. It’s a shame you’ve let your reputation hide your intelligence.’

‘Double ouch. You really tell it how you see it don’t you. I can see it’s going to be a bit of a bloody challenge getting into your knickers.’

I realised my mistake as soon as I said it. I hadn’t even thought about the flirty banter while we were inside, but the second I mentioned her knickers, the shutters went up and I lost her. She rolled her eyes, and walked off. I felt the need to rescue something; the need for this not to be finished just yet. I hurried after her and pulled her gently by the arm.

Julia

I started to walk in the direction of my car, a little disappointed that he had been unable to refrain from making at least one sexual remark. I felt his hand on my arm.

‘Hey. No goodbye?’

His hand turned me slightly towards him, and without warning he leaned forwards and kissed me on the mouth. His hand came up to cup my cheek as he tilted my face up towards him. I thought about pushing him away, but to be honest I had heard tales of Matt Scott’s kisses and I wanted to find out how true they were. Albeit without letting his tongue anywhere near mine.

Matt

I turned her slightly towards me, quickly leaned forwards and kissed her, tilting her face up to mine with my hand. And she let me. Well, after a fashion she let me. She didn’t wrap her arms round me, or touch me in any way, but she just stood there while I bombarded her with my best tongue and lip action. Or the best I could manage with someone who wouldn’t open her mouth.

I ran my tongue along the edges of her lips and probed her locked down teeth looking for a way in. I sucked her bottom lip gently into my mouth and nibbled on it, running my tongue over it and then trying again to force my way into her mouth. I got frustrated and mashed both lips against hers, then gave her the smallest of pecks all the way around her mouth, then tried again with my tongue. It was like she had lockjaw or something, and I suddenly found it really, really funny, standing there trying my best, while Julia just stood there letting me, having no intention of actually giving anything back.

Julia

Matt’s lips were soft and warm, and his tongue was insistent and surprisingly inventive. He made a very good attempt, and I was tempted to give in and experience the full version of a Matt Scott kiss, but I felt him hum or cough or something, and suddenly realised he was laughing, with his mouth still pressed to mine. I pulled my head back and looked into his smiling eyes as he continued to laugh.

‘Something’s amusing you?’

Matt

‘You know your nickname’s The Ice Queen, right?’

I was sure she must do, despite each new batch of juniors thinking they’d made it up. I might have helped them along a bit.

‘That’s supposed to be a secret. The juniors all think I’ll stab them with an ice pick if I find out that’s what they call me.’

‘Well I was just thinking, you’re so hard to give a good Frenching to, I think your new nickname should be The No-Dice Queen. Shit, Julia, anyone’d think my tongue carried the plague the way your barricades are rammed home.’

‘For all I know it does, from what I hear you’re not that particular where you put it. Thanks for the meal, Matt, see you at work tomorrow.’

Julia

I walked off again, surprising myself by feeling a little disappointed that he didn’t come after me again. I heard a quiet ‘Bye Jules’ as my footsteps took me to my car.

Matt

Wow, that stung. I knew what tales were out there about me, and I knew Julia would have heard most of them, in passing if not directly, but to be confronted with that brief but damning assessment of me, and hearing the distaste with which she said it, brought me up sharp and stopped my games instantly.

Julia walked off along the street, as I stood there, chastened. I managed a subdued, ‘Bye Jules’ as she went.

Julia

Back in the sanctuary of my flat, I sank down onto the sofa with a glass of wine and reflected on the evening. When I’d woken up that morning, I would have laughed in the face of anyone who told me that by the end of the day I would have survived a meal and a kiss with Matt Scott.

Although I had my impulsive side, most of the things I did were considered, and I was very careful to maintain strict control over how I revealed myself at work. My Ice Queen persona had been painstakingly developed by me to keep colleagues at a distance and remain efficient within my team. Workplace complications tended to have an impact on getting the job done and I did not welcome diversionary intimacies of any sort. I had a full and satisfying social life which was completely separate from work; I was a different person when I was spending time with my friends, who would have recognised The Ice Queen as little as anyone from GreenScreen would have recognised Jules. I smiled wryly to myself as I thought about Matt trying to get away with calling me that. It was one of the ways I was able to retain my distance at work. Only people who got close to me called me Jules, and he wasn’t going to be one of those. I was going to have to be careful not to make too much of an issue of it, though, as he was the sort of guy who would carry on to get a reaction.

Anyway, I was hardly going to come across him again after tonight; his brief involvement in the Duffenheim project was over, he’d had his fun and failed in his quest. He would have moved on to the next more willing victim by tomorrow. Or even tonight. I was surprised to find that thought gave me a bit of a pang of … what? Regret? Ridiculous. I finished my wine, washed up the glass and went to bed.

Matt

And I suppose that’s when I started seriously evaluating my life, with all the wine, women and song (possibly reworked into beer, birds and bad karaoke if you want to be honest and slightly insulting) needing a long hard look. I’d started to slow down, put the brakes on a bit, already, but Jules throwing back some of the things she’d doubtless heard about me, and the way she said it, made me realise what some people, people whose opinions I valued, might actually believe about me. I let a lot of the bollocks stand, because it suited me, and a lot of other bollocks just became hard-wired into the myth. But I never had anything nasty or infectious. After Carrie convinced the population of Stafford that I had, I made doubly sure I was always protected, and I got myself thoroughly and regularly checked. I’d heard the stories of the nasties you could get if you let Matt Scott near you, but I knew where they’d originated from, thank you Petra, and I did my best to squash them. Obviously my best squashing hadn’t been enough.

Ironically, what people thought about the state of my sexual health and morals wasn’t a million miles from the heap of shite that Carrie led everyone to believe about me up in Stafford. The difference this time was that it was largely my own doing.

So now it was all coming home to roost. I was getting tired of being fun-boy Matt, and sometimes I was lonely, despite the surprising closeness I still maintained with my family. I wouldn’t say I was looking for someone, or if I was, I was not in any way prepared to admit it to myself. But I began to see that this state of affairs couldn’t last, had maybe had its time, and I changed. Oh, I was still Matt the Lad, the chat was still there, I still partied, snogged, groped, but that final bit, that back to your place, fumble with the underwear, ooh yeah, cheers love, that went – or at least saw a drastic cut in occurrences.

And I would look at Jules sometimes, and kick myself, because she was an echo of what might have been. I could have chased her, I could have convinced her, I could have won her over, if things had been different. But she thought I was the worse kind of sleazeball, and she wasn’t far wrong, and that was the end of that.

Julia

Much as I expected, if I thought about it at all, I didn’t see a lot of Matt at work after that. I presented his graphs to my team, we acknowledged the man-hours they had saved us, and I didn’t really think about him. It wasn’t until Nons died several weeks later that I even spoke to him again.

46. She said

In which Dec finds himself in a sticky situation.

Dec

I couldn’t see Amy’s car as I pulled into the parking bay. The flat was ominously quiet and dark as I opened the door.

‘Ames?’

No reply. Fuck. Why had I let myself get so caught up with Cal’s project? Thinking about Perth had brought back some great childhood memories, talking about my dog, my friends, places I used to go. Talking about it like it was part of Cal’s school work helped me to think about it without focussing on my parents and all the sadness that brought. I’d enjoyed myself so much, I’d lost track of time, and suddenly it was late. Too late. I saw a note on the coffee table.

Tired of waiting. It’s always something isn’t it. Gone to Jude’s. Don’t wait up, won’t be back. A

What the fuck did that mean? Was she … had she … how long was she going for? Beginning to panic, I tried calling her. Maybe I could fix some of this over the phone. It went straight to voicemail. I hated leaving messages, but made an attempt.

‘Ames, I’m so sorry. I know I keep fucking up. Please don’t stay out, please come back and talk to me. I can’t bear this, not talking, knowing I’ve upset you and not sorting it out. I feel so far away from you. Please come back. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please don’t go. I love you. I love you so much.’

I hung up before I started to cry. It felt like things were broken between us, and I didn’t know how to mend it. Couldn’t bear to think about where it might end if I didn’t. The thought of losing her nearly sent me back to that dark place where I’d been when my parents died, and when I’d lost Jay and Beth. I was just about holding on. I sent Amy a text as well, then made myself a cup of tea and scooped some of the takeaway curry I’d brought home onto a plate. I sat staring at it all for a long time while it went cold, unable to decide if I should go to Jude’s to find Amy, or whether I’d just make things worse. If they could be any worse. My phone rang. For a second I thought it might be Amy, but it wasn’t her ringtone. The tone and the screen announced Beth.

‘Hey.’

_Dec, were you supposed to be spending time with Amy tonight?

‘Yeah.’

_Cal just told me, he said didn’t think you were going to stay as long as you did. I’m so sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t realise. You should have said, I’d never have let him keep you here so long if I’d known. Is everything OK?

I took a deep breath, tried not to cry, failed.

_Oh Dec, what’s happened? Tell me, sweetheart.

‘She’s not here, she’s gone to Jude’s. I think I’ve fucked it all up. Shit, I’m so fucking stupid. She left this note saying she’s not coming back, I don’t know what she means, she’s not answering her phone, I don’t know what to do. I think she might have … left. I can’t lose her, I just can’t, I love her –’

_Dec, listen to me, you haven’t lost her, she’s just angry. James and I went through something similar when he was still playing. Rugby is a pretty full on career, it can swallow you, and there are always lots of lovely ladies who’d like to have a bit of your man, given half a chance. You both have to be pretty strong, in yourself and together.’

Beth’s reassuring words were helping to calm me down a bit, but I was still on the verge of panic.

‘You’ll get through this, I’m sure, you just need some time together, talk, tell each other how you’re feeling. It’ll be the end of the season soon, you’ll have the summer to wind down, get some normality back. Actually, thinking about it, James and I would have a blip of some sort at the end of every season, it’s all bound up with stress and expectations. It wasn’t until he stopped playing and started coaching that things changed. This is your first real season with all that pressure, isn’t it. It can be hard, you just have to work at it.

‘How did you fix it?’

_Well I think things tended to fix themselves, once the season was out of the way and we could spend time catching up with each other. Eventually I realised what was going on and just accepted it. We talked about it too, so we’d both recognise what was going on. That’s so important, sweetheart.

‘It’s a bit difficult when you’re not even in the same fucking building.’

_Yes, that is a bit of an added problem. Can I maybe suggest that the next time Cal asks you to do something when you’ve already got something important on, you just say no?

‘I can’t say no to Cal, I can’t let him down.’

_I know, sweetheart, you’re so lovely to him, but it’s OK sometimes. He’ll understand, he won’t stop asking. Make sure you talk to Amy, Dec. Even if you have to stay in for the next week to make sure you see her.

‘It’s hard –’

_I know. Do whatever it takes. She loves you. You both want it to work. So make it work. You just –

I didn’t hear the rest, as I heard a key in the door.

‘Ames?’

I rushed to the door, disconnecting from Beth as it opened, so relieved she’d come back. She looked at me with big, sad eyes, as I took in the large holdall she had with her.

‘Fucking hell, Amy, were you really moving out?’

)I don’t know. I’ve been completely miserable the last few days. I was going to stay the night at Jude’s and see how I felt.

My legs felt weak. I was terrified I was going to do or say something that would make her change her mind and leave again.

‘But you came back …’

)I got your voicemail and your text. It made a difference. Oh Dec, I don’t want to leave, but I can’t bear this uncertainty. I can’t bear it if every time you’re late or have to go somewhere last minute, or go out without telling me where you’re going, I think you’re with her.

‘Amy, what the fuck? I was with Cal. I know I was longer than I should have been, and I’m so sorry I asked you to be here and then I wasn’t, but who did you think I was with?’

Although I didn’t need to ask. She looked at me, pain in her eyes.

)God she’s a conniving cow, she’s got between us without even lifting a finger.

‘Shit, you thought I was with Becca fucking Davis? Fuck, Amy, you really thought I was with her?’

)I don’t know what to think. It all feels like it used to at school, all the mind games and then the inevitable conversation – ‘Sorry Amy, but Bec’s more fun than you. Let’s just be friends.’

I tried to hold on to what Beth had told me, that Amy was feeling insecure. It was hard. It hurt that she could believe I would cheat on her.

‘Do you think I’ve been lying to you?’

)No …

‘Well what then? It sounds like you think every time you don’t know where I am, I’m with Becca fucking Davis.’

)Dec, I’ve hardly seen you for weeks. I never know where you are these days. I thought when we moved in together we’d see each other all the time, but it’s not like that, it’s like we never bother making time for each other any more And you slept on the sofa again last night. It’s like you can’t bear to be with me, like you don’t want me any more She keeps texting me, telling me things you said or did, making it sound like you were with her. Now she’s on the scene, it feels like it’s only a matter of time and she’ll have you –

She started to cry and dropped her bag to put her hands over her face. We were still by the front door; she hadn’t even closed it behind her.

‘Oh Ames, this has just all got a bit out of control. Come here, babe.’

I pulled her into my arms and held her close, unable to stop my own tears. I couldn’t bear her being so sad. I couldn’t bear being so sad myself. After a while we both sniffed to a halt, stood back and looked at each other.

‘This is shit, Amy, how have we let this happen? We need to sort it out.’

She nodded. I pushed the front door shut, as if that would somehow keep her here, and took her by the hand to lead her into the living room. We sat together on the sofa.

‘OK, there’s lots I need to say, I’ve been a fucking thoughtless dickhead and taken you for granted and I need to apologise, but before any of that I just need to be absolutely sure that you know and believe that I love you, and only you, forever. Do you believe me?’

She looked up at me, nodded.

‘Do you love me?’

)Yes, of course. But that’s –

‘Hold on, there’s something else that goes with that, that I need to know you believe. I haven’t spent one second with Becca fucking Davis since she was in the bar after the game. She can throw herself at me all day long for all I care, I’ll never take any notice of her, she’ll make herself look like a fucking idiot for trying. I only want you, I’ve only ever wanted you, I’m not interested in anyone else, just you. I’m sure she would like you to believe something different. You can only believe one of us. If you believe her, she’s won, got what she wanted – I don’t mean me, she’ll never have me, I mean power. That’s what all this is about, she’s a bully and likes to take power away from people. Do you believe me?’

Another nod, less certain.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry I’ve caused all this. It’s just been so manic recently, I’ve stopped keeping in touch with you.’

I glanced at Amy’s note on the table: It’s always something isn’t it.

‘I know I’m always getting caught up, side-tracked, late back.’

)Well I am getting a bit fed up of hearing ‘Sorry babe, I lost track of time’. Dec, I really love that you’re always helping people out, I really love how sociable you are, but I’m here too, I need you too. Like, last Sunday after the under elevens game, you went off to cut Carol’s grass and you were gone all day because Matt came round while you were there and you ‘lost track of time’. I thought we were going to talk then, but we never got more than a few minutes, and it’s been days now. There’s only so often I’m willing to wait in all day on the off-chance you’re going to actually turn up when you say you will. It’s not fair.

I thought about it, how often that happened, how I just expected her to be here when I’d finished talking or helping out or having another beer. It happened a lot.

‘I’m so sorry, Ames. I’m treating you like shit, like you don’t matter. You matter the most to me in the world. You’d really think after everything that’s happened to me, I’d realise when I was taking the people I love for granted. You’re so precious to me, I should remember it every day. If I’d been in tune with you a bit more, I wouldn’t have even thought about giving Becca Davis your number, I’m such a fucking dick.’

)Why did you?

I hung my head, embarrassed.

‘This is pretty lame. It felt awkward not to, she was pretty insistent. I was saving my own face. I’m so sorry, babe. I honestly thought she was an old friend, or rather to be more honest, wasn’t really paying attention to what you were saying, and chose to believe she was an old friend. I’m so sorry.’

Amy glanced at me, then looked down, shoulders hunched.

)When she rang me, while I was out with Cara and everyone, I could hardly believe it. She was just the same as she was at school, I knew she was up to something. I’d seen her after Raiders games a few times, hadn’t spoken to her, didn’t know if she still recognised me, she obviously saw us together and decided to try her old tricks.

‘But all they are is tricks. If we’d been a bit more in touch with each other, it would never have gone so far. We’ve both been so busy, I think I need to let you know what’s going on with me more, maybe do a bit less, make sure I have time for us to be together. And once the season’s finished and your exam’s over, we’ll have lots more time. Oh Ames, I’ve missed you. I feel like there’s been more than distance between us sometimes. I’ve hated sleeping on the fucking sofa.’

)Why did you, then? I didn’t ask you to.

‘Well, actually, you did the first night, you might not remember, you were pretty wasted. Fair enough, you were bloody furious with me. But after that, it felt like we were kind of avoiding each other, and then we felt so far apart it was a bit weird to be in bed with you. I wanted you so much but, well, that wasn’t going to happen, so I just put myself out of harm’s way.’

)But I asked you not to last night.

‘I know babe, I wish I’d talked to you about it. I didn’t want to come back until we’d sorted things out. I wanted to talk, but I fell asleep before you got back. I didn’t hear you come in.’

)It just made me feel even more like you didn’t want me.

Amy looked so unhappy and I felt so bad. I tentatively put my arm round her shoulders, and felt her relax a little as she rested her head against me.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry. I just can’t move for fucking up at the moment. I want you. I need you. I love you. I love you so much. I should say it all the time, so you never feel like this again. I’ve taken you for granted, I’ve got previous, I should know by now that I have to work at things, talk about things, keep things out in the open. Me and you, we’re the most important things to each other. We can do without anything else, jobs, homes, cars, all that shit, but we can’t do without each other. We need to be strong together. We are still together, aren’t we? Are we OK?’

)If you’re sure you still want me –

How had I let things slip so far that she could doubt it?

‘Amy, I love you, I want you, I need you. I always will. We want each other, don’t we? I know I’ve already asked you this, but will you marry me?’

Amy choked back a sob with a half smile, and looked up at me with her beautiful blue eyes.

)Of course, hon. Oh Dec, I love you. I’ve been so unhappy, I think I convinced myself Becca would win, like she always did, and I couldn’t see any other end to it. You must think I don’t trust you. I do, it just all got tangled up with her. It’s what she does.

‘Maybe I need to have a bit of a word with her –’

)No, hon, just leave it, she feeds off it. Tell you what we can do though, next home game I’ll hang around afterwards, we can have the biggest snog the Raiders Bar has ever seen, tongues and everything. That might just do it.

And suddenly there it was, over. I sagged with relief as I felt Amy melt against me, and the tension between us evaporated.

‘I like the sound of that. Can I feel you up too?’

)Don’t push your luck.

I pulled her closer and folded her up in my arms, so glad we’d managed to sort things. I could see Amy’s holdall still in the hall, and it made my blood run cold to think how close I might have been to losing her.

)Oh, you know what, thinking about that weekend while I remember, I saw Mum and Dad a couple of days ago. They’re going on a cruise in a few weeks, three months round the world, it’s to celebrate Dad’s retirement.

‘Bloody hell, lucky them. That’s great.’

I genuinely meant this, as they would be out of the country and out of Amy’s business for a quarter of the year.

)It means they won’t be here for my birthday, so they want to have a special meal before they go. They want you to come too.

‘Really? They want me to come?’

)Well, OK, I said I wouldn’t go unless you were invited too. It’s almost the same. They’ve booked that fancy place near Cathedral Park, Fishers or whatever it’s called. It’s for a week on Saturday, I know you’ve got a game, I said it would have to be later so you have time to do all your post-match stuff, so they booked it for nine. Sorry, hon, I really want you to be there, hope you don’t mind.

I was more than happy to celebrate Amy’s birthday early with her parents if it meant that, firstly, they would be out of the country for three months, and, secondly, I wouldn’t have to invite them to her surprise party, so they wouldn’t be there all night disapproving of her having fun.

‘No worries. Sounds perfect. Now, did you mention some snogging? I think we need to get practising so we’re word perfect on the night. Come here, you gorgeous woman. I’ve fucking missed you. Let me show you how much.’

o0o

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

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Declan Summers @summs12 5 May

This is my last tweet. I have deleted the rest. Twitter didn’t amaze me, it saddened me. Deleting my account.

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o0o

Dec: =Good luck babe. U’ll smash it. See you l8r, tell me how gr8 u were. Luv u 2 bits xxx

Amy: =Thx hon, sooooooo nervous. Luv u 2 xxx

o0o

_Hi Dec, just ringing to see how Amy got on with her exam.

‘She’s not back yet, they all went out for a drink afterwards, I’m not expecting her until much later. She thinks it went OK though, sounded pretty confident actually.’

_Oh that’s great, I’m so pleased. So, if Amy’s not there, is it a good time to do some surprise party plotting?

‘Great idea. Over the phone, or do you want to come round?’

_Oh, I can’t, James is out, no babysitter. You could come to ours?

‘No, I’d better stay here in case Amy comes back early or needs me to give her a lift or something, she’s expecting me to be here.

_Sounds like someone’s learned a lesson or two.

‘Yeah, the hard way. As usual, it takes a fucking crisis, but I get there in the end. Phone it is then …

o0o

– … young player of the season is … Declan Summers. Well done, Declan, come and get your trophy – oh, er, when you’re ready. Declan? Well, it certainly looks like Declan’s young lady is eager to congratulate him on his award … er, right … ahem … ah, thank you, yes, here you are, congratulations. Phew, Declan, you’ve made me blush. That doesn’t happen very often. And now on to the award for …

o0o

Amy had gone home to change, ready to be picked up by her parents. I still had some photos with sponsors to finish up, some handshaking with various corporate people and a bit of mingling with any remaining supporters before I could get out of my Raiders suit, into my ‘dinner with Amy’s parents’ suit, and head off to the restaurant.

The whole day had been spectacular, starting with Raiders winning the semi-final of the play-offs, courtesy of a last minute try from one Declan Summers, followed by my award for young player of the season, and then by signing a new personal sponsorship deal that considerably increased my income for the next two years.

The well-rehearsed and very enjoyable kiss with Amy as my award was announced seemed to have seen off any lingering doubts in Becca Davis’ mind that her scheming was going to work, as she left the room with a face like thunder during the presentation.

I finally finished the photos and the handshakes and headed to the bar, where a few people were still listening to the band as it played its last couple of numbers. Jay and Nico were leaning on the bar, watching the sports channel on subtitles. I went over and stood next to them.

>Hey Declan, you want a beer?

‘No thanks, Nico, I’m off out soon.’

I nodded at the TV screen.

‘Did Arsenal win?’

>Yes, they win. Cal’s Theo Walcott score a goal, he is happy now. Both his teams win, but only one of his best players score. Your try must make up for this, is only second best. Tottenham, they lose. Matty is not happy, yes?

‘Probably not, he’ll get over it, I expect he’ll find some understanding woman to console him later.’

łHey, that’s my little brother you’re telling the truth about. You’ve escaped the media circus at last, then. Seeing spots before your eyes?

‘Ha ha, yeah a bit. That flash was really bright, and my jaw’s aching from all the fake smiling.’

łJust think of that lovely money, that’ll make it a real smile. Well done, mate, you’ve earned it.

‘Thanks. I think I might head off in a minute, can’t be late for Amy’s parents.’

łOh yeah, the dreaded meal. Just think of it as a free dinner followed by three whole months of not having to think about them. See – now that looks like a real smile, mate. Just a word of advice, though. Don’t try the snogging display on them. Might not go down well.

>Ha, yes, this is some kissing we are seeing. We think we watch movie awards, not rugby awards.

I grinned.

łDid it do the trick?

‘Don’t know what you mean.’

łNo, mate, course you don’t. Oh, did Brett find you?

‘Brett? Oh, Bonksy. No, was he looking for me?’

łYeah, just now, said he needed a favour. Dec, I’ve been meaning to ask for ages, why ‘Bonksy’? What does it actually mean?

‘Fucked if I can remember, it was so long ago, from Academy days. I was Captain Sensible for a while, that’s just fucking hilarious!’

łYou did have a bit of an earnest quality about you back then. Seem to have shaken it off pretty well now. Oh, here’s Brett, I’ll leave you to it. See you soon, mate, have a good evening if at all possible.

Jay clapped me on the shoulder and turned back to the TV as Bonksy approached.

]Hey Summs, I’m glad I caught you, I wondered if you could do me a favour?

‘If I can. I’m just on my way to dinner with Amy’s parents, big posh restaurant, I can’t be late.’

]Oh, nice one. Is it in town by any chance?

‘Er, yes, why?’

]Great, then it won’t take you any time at all, it’s on the way.

‘What exactly do you want me to do?’

]Well I’ve got myself in a bit of a bind, see there was this girl earlier, and I liked her and everything, and I kind of said I’d give her a lift home, but now I’ve been getting on really well with this other girl, and so giving the first one a lift home not really an option, but seems a bit rude to leave her in the lurch, and all the buses have gone now. She lives, oh I don’t know, I can’t remember exactly where, but it’s not far, practically on your way. Please, mate, you’d be doing me a real favour.

I hesitated, not wanting to complicate my evening by unnecessary Bonksy diversions. It didn’t sound like much, though, just taking someone somewhere I was already on the way to, maybe having to listen to her complaining about what a dick Bonksy was. I looked at my watch. Plenty of time to get changed, do Bonksy’s dirty work and still not be late for the restaurant. I sighed. Bonksy and I hadn’t seen much of each other since Amy and I moved in together; it felt kind of good to be helping him out of his scrapes again.

‘OK. As long as it’s on the way. You’ve told her you’re not taking her home, haven’t you?’

]Well, no, I was kind of hoping …

‘Oh fucking hell, Bonksy. Oh alright then. For old times’ sake.

]Thanks mate, I owe you one.

‘You owe me several actually, at the last count, not that I am of course.’

I was speaking to Bonksy’s disappearing back, but he turned at the door.

]Oh, she’s waiting out the front by the programme kiosk. Cheers mate.

He walked out before I could ask her name or what she looked like. I quickly changed into my posh suit. By the time I was ready, there was hardly anyone left in the club. I headed out to the front of the stadium, kit bag in one hand and Raiders suit in its cover over the other shoulder. It had started to rain. There was someone waiting by the programme kiosk, hunched against the increasingly heavy drizzle. She had her back to me.

‘Hey there, are you waiting for Brett – shit.’

As she turned round, I recognised her. Becca Davis. Fuck.

ϸYeah – oh, hi Declan. Did Brett get held up?

I was completely at a loss for a few seconds.

‘Er, yeah, actually, he’s, er, not going to be able to take you home. Says he’s sorry.’

ϸOh. Had a better offer did he?

Fuck it, I had no reason to spare her feelings.

‘Something like that.’

I turned round and started to walk towards my car, fuck whatever I’d promised Bonksy.

ϸWait, Declan, is there any way you can give me a lift? It’s pissing down now, I haven’t got my coat and there aren’t any more buses from here. I can’t walk far, I’ve got a bad ankle.

I shouted back, over my shoulder:

‘Phone a taxi.’

ϸI’ve got no cash. Please, Declan, it’ll only take you a few minutes.

I had absolutely no reason to do anything for her, apart from my inexplicable inability not to help people out. In the end my pathetically overactive conscience got the better of me.

‘I’m heading into town. I’ll drop you off somewhere if it’s on my way.’

ϸOh you’re a star. I’m just off the bypass.

She trotted over to the car in high heels, no apparent sign of any bad ankle. I got the first twinge of misgiving. I put my suit in the boot while she got in the passenger seat and put her seatbelt on, then I got in myself. I started driving, determined to get her out of the car as quickly and with as little conversation as possible.

‘Where am I dropping you?’

ϸYou look nice, going somewhere special?

I looked directly ahead and not at her, her too-short skirt and her too-tight shirt.

‘Yeah. So whereabouts am I dropping you?’

ϸOh it’s not far, just past the retail park. I’ll say when. Going out with Amy are you?

I didn’t answer; Amy was not the topic of any conversation I was going to have with this woman. It didn’t stop her for long.

ϸWhy did you close your Twitter account? It wasn’t because of me, was it?

I didn’t answer.

ϸShame, it was fun keeping in touch. Are you on Facebook?

‘No. Is it much further?’

ϸJust a bit, we haven’t gone past the retail park yet. Don’t be so keen to get rid of me.

She was silent for a while, but kept wriggling in her seat, her skirt creeping further up her thighs as she did so.

ϸThat was quite a performance you put on in the bar.

‘What?’

ϸYou and Amy. All the tongues and roving hands. Very impressive.

‘Piss off, Becca. You know nothing about me and Amy.’

I bit my lip, annoyed that she had riled me into responding.

ϸI know enough to see you were trying to impress someone – maybe hoping to show someone what you’re made of?

‘OK, that’s it, I’ve had enough of your tiresome bullshit. You can get out now. Fuck off.’

I stopped the car. She turned in her seat and faced me, leaning forwards.

ϸMake me.

I sat in silence, clenching the steering wheel as it dawned on me just how much trouble I might have got myself into. I watched the windscreen wipers clear the screen a couple of times. Got out of the car, into the rain, and called Amy.

)Hey hon, are you on your way?

‘Ames, I really can’t believe I’m about to say this. I’m so sorry, babe. I’m in a bit of a situation. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I love you, I need you to trust me.’

)OK … Are you –

Silence.

‘Amy?’

I looked at the screen. It had gone blank. I pressed the power button several times, but nothing happened. Out of charge or just given up the ghost, it didn’t really matter. It had sealed my fate.

‘Fuck it. Fucking useless piece of fucking junk.’

I shoved the redundant phone back in my pocket and got back in the car, out of the rain.

‘What exactly are you trying to achieve?’

Becca settled back in the seat, crossed her legs and ran her hands through her hair.

ϸKeeping dry for starters. Mm, comfy seats, nice and warm, ooh look, it reclines. Join me?

‘I’m just going to go where I was going, you can stay in the car or get out–’

ϸThink I’ll stay. I’d really like to see the look on Amy’s face when you get back to the car after your night out and I’m in the front seat, looking a bit rumpled and like I just might have had a fucking good time with the driver. I might even cry a bit – Oh Declan, you’ve been ages, I thought you weren’t coming back – oh … Amy’s with you …

She made her face crumple and a tear rolled down her cheek.

ϸI … I thought after what we did … you said she didn’t mean anything to you, how could you do this …

She sat back and looked me boldly in the eye. She was a bloody good actress, I had to give her that. I could imagine it working on Amy, after everything else that had worked. I thought of a few choice names to call her, but tried to keep a lid on my rising temper. I needed to concentrate if I was going to get out of this.

‘What do you want?’

ϸOh, nothing you’re likely to give me, you haven’t got the balls, much as you want it.

‘There’s absolutely nothing I want from you, apart from getting the fuck out of my car.’

ϸNo, I didn’t think you’d actually admit it. You can’t tell me wet fish Amy Wright is actually satisfying you, though?

As I ignored her attempt to diss Amy, Becca hitched her skirt up a bit higher, undid a button on her shirt and licked her lips. It was so obvious, it was almost funny. Maybe it might have worked on someone else, someone who was unhappy, or unsure, or just fancied what she was offering. It didn’t work on me.

‘What do you want, Becca? Maybe you think I can’t sit here all night fending off your pathetic shit, but I’ve had worse all nighters, and I’ve always won in the end.’

Perhaps she realised I was serious, as she seemed to sag a little bit, and dropped her head.

ϸOh alright, sod it, you’re really not worth all this. All I actually want is for you to take me home, right to my door, so I don’t have to walk there in the rain. And you can tell that cock Deressie from me, he’s a fucking wanker.

The fight seemed to have gone out of her. I could hardly believe I’d got off so lightly. I might not have needed to call Amy at all. I started the car.

‘Fine. Which way?’

ϸNext left.

She gave me some directions which seemed to lead into, then out of, the housing estate. After a while, I was totally turned around, had no idea where I was. It took me a while to realise we were heading out of the city, and then suddenly we were on a country road.

‘Where the fuck are we?’

I’d totally fallen for it. I’d just told myself what a good actress she was, and then I’d let her fool me into driving her all the way out here, some dark lane, in the middle of the countryside.

ϸOh, whoops, must have made a mistake. Are we lost?

The road was narrow and there wasn’t anywhere to turn round. I drove for some time, looking frantically for a gateway or something so I could head back the way I’d come. Finally, in the headlights up ahead, just as I was considering reversing all the way back down the road, I saw the entrance to a field where the road widened and I would have my chance. I pulled in, and the car stalled. I tried to start it again, but the engine just kept turning over without catching. I looked at the dashboard. The petrol gauge was blinking on empty, as it had been since yesterday, but I’d forgotten about it. I banged the steering wheel in frustration.

‘Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, a million fucking fucks.’

ϸIs that a request? Not sure I can manage a million, definitely one or two, three at a push, if you’re really good …

‘Just piss off.’

I took my phone out to dial before I remembered it had died too.

‘Shit.’

If I’d thought I was in trouble before, I’d had no idea how bad things could get. Becca stretched in the seat beside me and looked at me with wide, delighted eyes.

ϸOh Declan, it almost seems like you might have planned this. What kind of a girl do you take me for?

She took her seatbelt off. Then unbuttoned her shirt and took that off too. I stared at her for a second and then turned and faced resolutely forwards, thinking ‘shit shit shit’.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

ϸWell it seems a shame not to make the most of the situation. It’s going to be a while before anyone comes to help us down this road. We may as well enjoy the wait. I can make it very enjoyable, look …

She reached behind her, undid her bra and took that off too. I tried to ignore how naked she was, but was finding it a bit difficult.

‘Have you got a phone?’

ϸYes, but I’m not sure I’m ready to call for help just yet. Maybe in a little while I might need to …

She leaned over, stretched her hand out and started stroking my thigh. In spite of myself, and to my shame, I felt myself responding. I forced myself to think about Amy and not what was going on in my pants.

‘Becca, just stop there. I don’t know what you think I’m going to do with you out here in the rain in the middle of fuck knows where, but it is not going to happen. Not here, not anywhere.’

ϸYour hard-on tells me different.

‘My hard-on tells you I’m thinking about Amy.’

It was mostly true, although I was finding the close proximity of Becca’s nipples shamefully distracting. I picked her hand up from my thigh and put it in her lap – I really needed to get out of there.

Becca suddenly leaned towards me, grabbed my head and kissed me, thrusting her tongue deep into my mouth and her naked breasts against me. Horrified, I pushed her away as hard as I could, and, wiping my mouth, tried to find the door handle.

‘I don’t know what the fuck you think you’re doing. Do you think you’re sexy or appealing or something? You’re just sad and pathetic. I’m going to get back to the city so I can carry on with my evening.’

At last, I found the door handle and shoved the door open, almost falling out of the car in my haste to be gone, away from this terrifying crazy woman who was making me feel things I definitely did not want ever to be feeling.

ϸI’m sure Amy would appreciate a text from me telling her not to worry …

Becca’s voice followed me out of the car. I sighed as I stood up. I’d had enough. I was already in deep enough shit, I was going to have to tell Amy everything anyway, nothing Becca Davis could do now was going to make it any worse.

‘Do what the fuck you want. You’re just a silly girl who’s never grown up. You think you’re still at school. Welcome to the real world, where grown ups don’t get sucked in to your childish shit. I suggest you put your shirt on and call a taxi. Good luck with your sad little life, just stay the fuck out of mine.

I hunched my shoulders against the pouring rain, and started to walk back down the road, cursing myself the whole way for the fucking gullible idiot I was, ignoring Becca’s shouts to wait, come back, she’d phone for help, then her yells that she was texting Amy right now and telling her how hard she’d made me, finally some loud sobs mixed in with most of the names I’d already called myself since leaving the club earlier. As her voice faded behind me, I trudged on through the rain, feeling bleak and stupid.

The downpour was a very effective cold shower, but I still felt guilty about how I’d responded to Becca’s touch. It was purely physical, no reasoning or emotional part of me was even slightly attracted to her, but I’d surely blown it with Amy now.

We’d been in such a good place since we’d sorted everything out. We’d been to see Jay and Beth and talked to them for a long time about how they managed to make things work when Jay was playing. Since then, we’d worked hard on communicating with each other, but I knew Amy still felt insecure about the amount of female attention that often came my way, and now this farce with Becca was just going to blow it all wide open again. And in front of her parents, who didn’t like me anyway. I hoped against hope that Becca was bluffing about texting Amy, but it seemed like the sort of thing she would do, so I prepared myself to face the fallout from that too.

The lights of the city grew slowly closer as I carried on walking. I was soaked right through to my skin, my suit was ruined, and my shoes squelched. It felt like hours later when I eventually reached the outskirts of the city, and the first street lights.

A car came towards me, and I thought about flagging it down, but realised no one was going to give me a lift in this muddy, saturated state. It was probably a taxi for Becca anyway. The car stopped behind me. I ignored it and kept on walking. The car reversed and the window wound down.

}So do you want a lift, or shall I leave you to enjoy your stroll in the deluge?

I stopped and looked properly at the car. Blinked the rain out of my eyes and tried to make sense of it.

‘Matt? What the fuck are you doing here?’

}Do you want me to tell you before or after you get in out of the rain and start ruining my Italian leather seats?

I opened the door and got in. He turned the heater up full, but my teeth still chattered.

}Fuck me, you’re absolutely drenched. I should have brought a towel. Or a dehumidifier. Or one of those fucking industrial suction pumps. Shit, Dec, you’re a sight for sore eyes, I’ve been all over looking for you.

‘What? How did you know?’

}Well I don’t know much, I have to say. You can fill me in on the way. Amy rang me, all in a panic, said you were supposed to be at Fishers with her parents, but you’d rung her saying there was a problem, then got cut off.

‘My fucking phone died.’

}Ah. Anyway, I didn’t know where you were, but doing a bit of detective work via Jay, then your mate Brett, we worked out you may have got waylaid by the charming @bouncybec.

‘Shit, does Amy know?’

}Well, none of us know anything for definite. It was Becca, then?

‘Yeah. Fuck, I’m such a dick. I couldn’t have been more fucking stupid if I’d tried.’

}You took the words out of my mouth. Dec, what possessed you to give the woman a lift? I don’t even know her, and I’d avoid her like the plague, and you know I’m not that fussy.

‘Well I didn’t know it was her when Bonksy asked me to do him a favour. Then I felt sorry for her.’

Matt gaped at me.

}You felt sorry for her?

‘For about two seconds. The wrong two seconds. I’m just too much of a sucker for a fucking sob story. Before I had a chance to think about it, she was in the car and I was screwed. Almost literally. My car’s way back up that road, I ran out of petrol. The last I saw of Becca fucking Davis she was in the passenger seat with her tits out trying her hardest to get me to shag her.’

}Tempted?

Fuck off Matt! No! Shit, what the fuck do you think of me?’

}OK, OK, sorry, just asking the question that Amy will no doubt ask you. I hope you’re similarly vehement in your denial when she does.

‘What time is it?’

}Ten twenty six, according to the cunningly placed dashboard clock right in front of your eyes.

‘Shit. And thanks for the fucking sarcasm, just what I need. Is Amy still at Fishers?’

}She said she was going to stay there and have the meal with her parents, apparently they’re not particularly understanding of your foibles and didn’t look too kindly on having their celebrations interrupted with any concerns over your well-being. Do you want to go straight there, or go home and get dry?

I sighed. I was wet, and cold, and I really didn’t want to face Amy and have to explain everything that had happened, in front of her parents, but it was what I had to do.

‘Straight there, please. Thanks Matt. Thanks for coming to look for me. How the fuck did you know I’d be here?’

Matt put the car in gear and drove away while he started to explain.

}Apparently Becca lives around here somewhere. Amy gave me a rough idea of her address, we couldn’t think of anywhere else you might have been persuaded to take her. I just drove around in a widening circle, luckily I came across you before too many hours had passed.

‘Thanks, it means a lot.’

I was still soaking wet and cold when Matt pulled up outside the restaurant. With a heavy heart I got out and waved him off. He’d offered to wait, but I didn’t know how long I’d be or what was going to happen inside, so I said I’d get a taxi, and hoped they’d accept sodden banknotes, as well as sodden customers.

The restaurant was nearly empty when I walked in. The maître d’ looked me up and down and started to turn me away.

‘I’m with the Wright party. Sorry, got caught in the rain.’

*Oh, certainly sir, but I think they’ve just about finished.

‘That’s fine. Are they upstairs?’

*Yes sir.

I walked slowly up the stairs, very aware of the squelching from my shoes, the wet, muddy footprints I was leaving behind me and the water steadily dripping from my clothes.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I saw Amy and her parents sitting at the only occupied table. There were coffee cups and wine glasses ready to be collected. It didn’t look like a particularly happy gathering. Amy looked up, saw me, got straight out of her seat, and came over to me. I saw her think about hugging me, and think better of it, but wasn’t sure if it was because I was so wet, or because she was upset. She gave me a big smile, which helped me be a bit more sure, and touched my cheek, which helped even more.

)Dec, you made it. Come and sit down.

This was so different from the reception I was expecting that it threw me, and I stayed where I was for a second or two. Then I walked over to the table.

‘Hi Mrs Wright, Mr Wright.’

Their reception was more predictable, and was silent and icy. They barely looked at me to acknowledge my presence. I decided to ignore them back and just spoke to Amy.

‘Ames, I don’t think I can sit down like this, I’m absolutely soaked, I’ll ruin the chair. I’ve had to ditch the car and walk for miles in the rain. I’m so sorry I missed your birthday meal.’

)Well, you did let me know you were going to be late, and you did ask me to trust you, so I did. Is everything OK?

I glanced at Amy’s parents, who were listening intently to our conversation, disapproval etched on their faces.

‘Apart from having to leave my car miles up a country lane with no petrol and a half naked fucking mad woman in it, and then being nearly drowned trying to get back here, yeah, I think everything’s OK. Have you had a good evening?’

)Apart from having to coordinate the rescue of my unbelievably naive fiancé from the clutches of a – half naked mad woman, you say? Yeah, it’s been good, thanks.

‘Are we OK?’

She looked at me, her big blue eyes shining. She didn’t look like she was pretending in front of her parents, and I began to hope that maybe things weren’t as screwed as I’d imagined.

)Yeah, hon. Thank God for Matt, but yeah. We’re OK.

She stood up and before I could stop her she put her arms round me and squeezed me tightly.

)You really are very, very wet.

‘I know.’

)So am I, now.

‘I know.’

)So are you going to put your arms round me or what?

‘I’m finding it hard to resist, but they are also very, very wet.’

)Just get on with it.

I did as I was told, put my arms round her, and buried my face in her hair for good measure, feeling happy and relieved.

)Mm, lovely, now I’m completely soaked too. I think I need to go home. Mum, Dad, thanks for a lovely meal, I’ve had a completely lovely time. Sorry I was on the phone so much. I think Dec and I are going to shoot off now, we both need to get out of these wet things, and we’ve got some catching up to do. Have a great trip, if I don’t see you before.

She kissed them both, I didn’t, and then we left.

45. Love shoulda brought you home

In which there may be trouble in paradise.

Cal

Then term started and I went back to my old school. I’d only missed Mrs Barnfield’s year, so it didn’t matter, because Mrs Barnfield was shouty, and this year was Mr Taylor, who told jokes and knew how to draw cartoons. And I was going to surprise Jake.

On the first day of school, I got out of bed as soon as Mum woke me up, and I put my school uniform on with a growing sense of excitement. My school was really near, and Mum and I always walked there, although Dec had walked me a few times when I first went, before Mrs Barnfield’s class. Today was different from how it used to be, because we had Iz with us. Mum was pushing her buggy, and some other mums were very interested, and we all walked to school together.

I kept a look out for Jake all the way, because sometimes he walked along the same path, but sometimes his mum or his brother drove him. I didn’t see Jake, but I did see Thomas Dabbs and Carly Binker, and we said hello, as if it was just yesterday we’d been in the same class. Mum talked to their mums as we walked, and explained a bit about moving away and then moving back, and said about Uncle Matty, but not about Dec, and they talked a lot about Iz, and Thomas and Carly and I smiled at each other. Thomas had a badge on his coat that said ‘7 Today!’, so it must be his birthday, and I wondered if he was having a party, and if I’d missed the invitation because no one knew I was back at school.

‘Is it your birthday?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you having a party?’

‘Yes, I’m going to Dinosaurland.’

A Dinosaurland party? I so had to wangle myself an invite.

‘Who’s going?’

‘Billy, Artie, Rhys and Joe.’

Thomas’s mum must have heard what we were saying.

‘Artie’s mum just texted me, Thomas, Artie’s not very well, so he can’t come. Oh, Cal, maybe you’d like to go?’

Well was that lucky or what? I looked up at Mum, hoping she wasn’t going to think of an excuse. I didn’t know Thomas that well, but we had played football in the playground sometimes, and Jake and I had swapped Pokémon cards with him a few times.

‘What do you say, Cal? Thank you, Sue, that sounds lovely. You like Dinosaurland, don’t you Cal?’

Well I’m sure I would if I’d ever been – so far I’d only seen the car park. But if this was what being back at my school was like, things were looking pretty good. I nodded and smiled more broadly at Thomas.

By the time we got to my school, I still hadn’t seen Jake, but there were loads of children in the playground. Jake was often one of the last to get to school, sometimes after the bell had gone, and Mum always made sure I was there early, so I wasn’t surprised not to see him. I stayed with Thomas and we went to get a ball from Mrs Nugent, who was playground teacher that morning.

After we’d been playing football for a while, and a few more people had joined in, I heard my name being shouted.

‘Cal!’

I heard running footsteps, and I turned round. Jake was running towards me, his school bag open, pens and paper flying out of it. He had the biggest smile on his face, and he was running so fast I thought he wasn’t going to stop, and he’d bang into me. But he stopped just as he reached me, and we stood grinning at each other. If we’d been grown-ups we might have had a cuddle, but we were six, and so we just got on with playing football, after saying hello in our own way:

‘Are you back for good?’

‘Yes.’

‘Cool. You can sit next to me. Let’s play football.’

And that was all it needed to click into place. It looked like Ewan Donohue had been Jake’s friend while I was away, but Ewan was really friends with Daniel Bosworth, and they didn’t like football, so I slotted back in nicely.

Before that first day was over, Jake had got in trouble with Mr Taylor for talking while we were supposed to be doing sums, and then he got in trouble for not having a pen, because all his pens had fallen out in the playground when he ran over to see me, and then he got in trouble for tipping his chair back until it fell over.

Matt

A few weeks before Christmas, I got a job. GreenScreen were a small IT consultancy firm looking to expand, and they felt similar to Eyeti. I sent them my CV, got an interview and got the job. Simple as that. They were aware, or rather, the manager was aware, that I was recovering from the bastard MS, and agreed to part time hours, with flexibility should I need it in the future, and also agreed not to share my health status with anyone else. My reference from Eyeti must have been good enough to convince him I was worth the risk. Even on part time hours, I was earning enough to buy a flat, having a pretty healthy savings account, and by then Iz really needed her own room – not that anyone was saying it, but I knew. So just before Christmas, I moved out, moved in and started my new life proper, without a spouted cup, a baby monitor or a wheelchair in sight.

That’s not to say Beth didn’t still feel the need to call me all the time to check I was OK, but I let her get on with it, and I went round there loads, because Beth’s Sunday roasts were legendary, and OK, because I missed them, alright? And just after Christmas, Mum moved down. She couldn’t stay away from Iz, and was spending more time visiting than she was living in her own home, so she sold that big old house of memories, and got a much smaller place, with a spare room for the odd sleepover, but which was a lot more manageable for someone who doesn’t get about as well as they used to.

Cal

Having Jake nearby, getting in trouble, made everything seem right. I hated getting in trouble, but Jake never seemed to care, and to me he appeared brave and fearless. He’d had some pretty wild schemes, like climbing the tree in the playground to see if we could see his house, even though there was a fence round the tree; or trying to sneak into the office at break to set the bell off; or mixing up people’s lunch boxes so they got the wrong sandwiches. I hardly ever did any of these things, because I was too scared of what Mum would say, and usually if I didn’t do it, Jake wouldn’t either, but sometimes he’d just go ahead anyway, and I’d be the lookout, like in a film.

Dec

SIX MONTHS AFTER IZ IS BORN

>Hey Declan.

‘Hi Nico. Are you and Lis around one day this week – I’d like to take you out to dinner.’

>Ha, we are around for taking out to dinners, for sure. Is a reason?

‘It’s my last payment on your loan. I want to say thanks.’

>Oh! Huh. I don’t realise this. Yeah, sure. I know we are busy tomorrow but Wednesday is good. Where we go?

‘Well, I thought about that new place near the cinema, it’s supposed to be really good.’

>Ha, and expensive. You need another loan to pay!

‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll try and get us a table.’

>Thank you, Declan, we like this. Is no need, but we like to eat fancy dinner and not pay.

Matt

Julia started at GreenScreen at the same time as me, having been part of the same recruitment drive, and I noticed her straight away, who wouldn’t, she was bloody gorgeous, and she was really upfront, didn’t bullshit anyone about anything, and I really liked that. Really liked it. But she always had this air of ‘touch me not’ about her, and to start with, in my newly found ‘I can have anyone’ state of mind, I didn’t want to get turned down. So l left her to her own devices, and played around with the temps, the admin staff, the business grads, each one adding another layer of veneer.

Cal

I know Mum despaired of my friendship with Baggo. His older brothers meant he was much more worldly wise than me, and his mum worked a lot, so he was often at home with just one or other of his brothers to look after him. They weren’t what you would call disciplinarians, and mostly just wanted Jake to be quiet and keep out of their way, so he did what he liked until his mum came home. Mum never let me go there to play if Jake’s mum was out, not after the time we got our own tea, which consisted of crisps, Jaffa cakes, ice cream and nearly a whole two litre bottle of cola between us, and I was sick in the car on the way home, and again on the drive when we got home, and again in the kitchen on my way to the toilet to be sick again.

Matt

I fucked around like nobody’s business, sometimes a different woman every week, sometimes more than one every week. I got myself a bit of a reputation – some of it was deserved, as I was a bit of a bastard, I see that now, and some of it a whole sack of shit that people made up about me. But I suppose that’s the price of a reputation, that it gets added to and gets out of your control.

Cal

There was never a dull moment with Baggo around. He was always in trouble for something, but it didn’t stop him trying anything, always seeing what excitement could be got from any situation. He wasn’t bad – he didn’t do shoplifting or glue-sniffing or get into fights or anything – he just couldn’t bear to be bored, and would do things to spice up dull times.

I think we complement each other, even now. Nowadays, I’m the settled family man, he’s the rogueish bachelor, different woman every time I see him; when we were seven, he was always wanting to do things that would get him in trouble, and I was always trying to persuade him not to for fear of being in the same trouble. If we hadn’t been friends, I might have been less adventurous, and Baggo might have been more reckless. I shudder to think.

Matt

So, yeah, I’d go to clubs, and parties, and I’d home in on the younger, faker ones, and, yes, I know how this sounds, I was such a tosser back then, but as I said, I was angry and hurting, and felt like I was owed something, and it was payback in a way, but I’d try to make sure the ones I chose weren’t the ones who were going to go all weepy and clingy when I left without cuddling them shortly afterwards, but sometimes I got that wrong, and she’d seemed all young and fake, but I broke her heart.

But I suppose I didn’t much care, back then. I was making my reputation as Matt Scott, party animal, and I can’t say why, I wouldn’t say I’m a particular looker – I’ve always seen a skinny nerd looking out of the mirror at me – but I was a bit of a prize. I sound like such an arrogant arsehole, even now, even to myself, but for a while, in certain undiscerning circles, if you ended up with Matt Scott, that was it, top of the tree, job done.

I can’t believe that Lau was there at some of those parties, in some of those clubs. I can’t believe that I might have walked right past her and not known her, I just can’t believe I didn’t notice her; how could I ever have not noticed her? I’m surprised she even spoke to me when I finally … but anyway, I’m getting all out of sequence. This is the Jules part of my story, or it will be in a bit if you’re patient.

Cal

I can’t remember exactly when everyone started calling Jake ‘Baggo’. It was definitely before we went to big school. His brothers both had nicknames: Michael was ‘Troops’ because he’d been in the Army, and Harry was ‘Wheels’ because he had loads of cars that he was always doing up.

Baggo was a lot younger than his brothers, who both still lived at home. We would sneak into their rooms when they were out and look at their stuff, and Baggo often found things that blew my mind, like magazines with ladies in with no clothes on, and cigarettes, and funny things on their computers with swears on them. Sometimes one of his brothers would come home while we were still in his room, and Baggo would get shouted at, and I’d try to make myself look invisible, but Baggo would just stand there grinning, and the shouting would stop, and he’d get a punch on the shoulder, but not hard, and he’d be let off, and we’d scuttle out and giggle.

Actually, thinking about it, Baggo’s brothers were often the reason we got in trouble, however indirectly. Sometimes it was because one of us repeated something we’d heard, or Jake brought something that belonged to them to school, like a lighter, or playing cards with naked ladies on them, or, once, a chocolate brownie that made us giggle a lot when we shared it at lunch. Usually the contraband would be discovered because Baggo couldn’t help showing off about it, and a teacher would push their way through the crowd that had gathered, and confiscate the penknife, copy of Playboy or firework, and then he’d be in trouble not only with the school and his mum, but with whichever brother he’d ‘borrowed’ the item from as well.

I’m not sure how I remained so uncorrupted. I love Baggo, he’s the best mate a bloke could have, and although I’ve done a fair amount of bailing him out, once literally when he got so rat-arsed that he didn’t realise the bloke he was bad-mouthing for getting in his way outside a club was a copper, well Baggo has been there for me plenty of times too. I can really talk to him, the way I can’t talk to anyone else. He’s a lad, the laddest of lads, and I wouldn’t trust any female member of my family with him for five minutes, but he gets me, and I get him, and we have talked, long into the night sometimes, about deep shit.

Dec

The Rugby Paper

Quick’s Q&A

John Quick shoots quick-fire questions at one of the rugby world’s up and coming young players. This week: Declan Summers, Raiders.

JQ: Declan, how’s the season going so far?

DS: It’s been fantastic so far, both for me and Raiders. Top of the Premiership at this stage is amazing, and to have played in so many games is awesome for me personally.

JQ: You had a tricky time a couple of years back, when problems with your passport caused Raiders to be deducted points and miss out on a top four spot. Have you been able to put that behind you?

DS: I had some fantastic support from the club and from my family then. It was a tough time, but I got the help I needed. The Raiders supporters have been immense, I owe them a lot. I’m not sure it will ever be completely behind me; I learned a lot of life lessons that still help me today.

JQ: Such as?

DS: Well, it’s important to talk to people about how you’re feeling, it’s important to keep your club informed about what’s going on with you personally. Everything you do affects someone else, and affects how you play. You can’t do things on your own. You need to stay mentally strong too.

JQ: It was well publicised that Jay Scott left Raiders when the news broke of your suspension. How did you greet his return as assistant coach?

DS: It was great news. Scotty is an excellent coach, Raiders really missed him while he was away. The whole squad benefits from his expertise and coaching style.

JQ: Your suspension meant you couldn’t play for Raiders until the beginning of last season. How did you cope with that?

DS: The club made sure I was involved with training and coaching to maintain my skills and fitness as part of the squad. Not playing for Raiders was hard, once I was fit again, but I was recovering from injuries until the April, so I wouldn’t have played until nearly the end of the season anyway. Being dual registered with Trojans was a fantastic opportunity to regain some match fitness, and being part of their push for promotion was hugely exciting.

JQ: The autumn internationals aren’t far away, and the squads are due to be announced soon. How would it feel to be included for the Wallabies?

DS: To play for Australia would be immense, it’s a bit of a dream of mine, but I have no illusions – it’s a tough squad to get into, and I’m based in England. I’m still young, and there’s plenty of time for that. I’d be over the moon to get the call though.

JQ: Some pundits are comparing you to a young Brian O’Driscoll. Do comparisons like that affect your game?

DS: No, I just play how I play, there’s no point thinking about it. It’s flattering to read, but I haven’t consciously modelled myself on any one player. I try to incorporate the things I admire about lots of great players into my game.

JQ: Who are your rugby heroes?

DS: There are so many. Nico Tiago is someone I’ve always looked up to, as a player and a person, although he’ll get even more big-headed if I tell him that. All the big names you might think – Hill, Fofana, Shoemark, Roberts, certainly O’Driscoll. You can learn from anyone, you just have to watch their game and pick things up.

JQ: We hear you have had something in your personal life to celebrate recently. Care to share?

DS: (Laughs) How the [expletive deleted] did you know that? Hardly anyone knows! Yes, I just got engaged to Amy. I guess we’re going to have to tell her parents now!

JQ: Congratulations Declan, and good luck for the rest of the season.

DS: Thanks.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Summers in Rugby Paper.

RadarRaider: Here’s a link to the Quick Q&A in today’s TRP. Summers has had some stick on here over the last year or so, I hold my hands up, I didn’t think Raiders should have kept him on, felt pretty let down by the whole business. He sounds like he’s learned his lesson and tried to make up for it. He’s certainly played well enough so far this season to earn his place – seems to have stepped up a notch since all the trouble. If we’d lost him to Trojans, that could have come back to bite us with them doing so well in the Prem this year. Just saying, maybe he’s served his time and some of us lot should cut him some slack.

RudolphtherednosedRaider: Totally agree RR. Don and the club obviously gave it some serious consideration, Summers seemed apologetic enough at the time, and that court case around the assault can’t have helped him. He was only a kid, must have been tough. Accept and move on. I’ve met him a couple of times in the bar after a game, always very pleasant, takes time to talk, take photos, autographs. Can’t deny he always gives his all for Raiders on and off the pitch, he’s involved in coaching the youth team and you always see him in the photos of the community and charity stuff. We wouldn’t still be top if it wasn’t for his tackle on Tupovi at Warriors last week.

YoHoHo: Still don’t think he should even be playing for Raiders. Yes, he’s made a contribution, but look what he lost us. We’d have been top four that season if he hadn’t cost us those ten points. Who knows, could have been Champions the way we were playing. We only just scraped into the HC. There are plenty of other centres out there, plenty of others coming up from the Academy. Not sure his face fits.

Cap’nBirdseye: Sorry, but served his time, cut him some slack? Not on your life. Wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire. Might do if he wasn’t though.

RadarRaider: Always nice to see people forgiving and forgetting(!). I suppose no one here has ever done anything they wish they hadn’t and tried to make amends? I personally think Summers’ contribution at the end of last season and beginning of this shows his commitment to the club. Hope he doesn’t move on at the end of this season – his contract’s up. Wouldn’t be surprised if the reaction of some of the supporters decided him. Can’t believe some people still boo when his name is read out on match days.

Matt

So, I started at GreenScreen, and Julia was there, but we were in different teams, and there was this kind of rivalry going on, which Phil, the manager, liked to play on, because it helped with morale and helped to get the work done better, quicker, happier. So I hardly spoke to Julia, because she kept herself to herself, and her team to her team, and she had this kind of frigid – no that’s unfair – she had this kind of cold and detached manner, which made some of the juniors call her the Ice Queen.

I was the opposite, I was Matt the Lad, I did football with the guys, I saw the girls at the weekends in clubs, I flirted, I bed-hopped like a baddun, I’d had most of the business grads, I was nothing if not a team player.

As time went on and it became harder to actually find anyone at work who I hadn’t slept with at one time or another, I did slow down a bit, and there were some who lasted a few weeks, a month even, as I realised that I was going to run out of available women before too long.

But they’d always have to go, in the end, because she’d start thinking we had ‘something special’, just because I’d taken her round to Jay’s, or held her hand, or talked about plans for mid-week. I didn’t want something special, I wanted to be an excellent no-strings lay, I wanted those cracks covered up so well that I forgot they were there.

Dec

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Declan Summers renews contract

RadarRaider: At last! Can’t believe it took so long for them to agree terms. Surely Summs is first name on the list. Great news. Only a year, though, obviously everyone keeping their options open. Looks like we’ll all be biting our nails again next season.

Raiderette: Woohoo! Have been waiting for this news for weeks. I heard he was talking to Warriors, but they’ve got Elliott and Trancher, can’t see him being first choice ahead of England internationals.

WestStandRaider: What a relief, well done Declan. Don’t know where we’d have been without him this season. His tackling has been immense, don’t know if anyone’s got the stats, he hasn’t missed many, he’s our top try scorer and he’s an animal in defence. He links up really well with Boydy too.

YoHoHo: Reckon we could do better. Wasn’t Astley available from Royals? Don seems to back away from big signings. Reckon Jay Scott still has a lot to do with team selection when it comes to Summers.

WestStandRaider: Yohoho, I can’t believe you’re still on this track. Yes, we all know there’s some kind of family connection with Scotty and Summs, it happens all over the place, remember Pete and Justin Farley at TomCats? Bill Witton and Jack Gooding for England? They’re professional enough not to let it matter. Don would never let it get in the way of team selection or team performance. Summs has done well enough this season to put to bed all this nonsense. He’s in the team because he’s good enough.

Matt

I often got pretty wasted, liking the beer maybe a bit too much for my own good. Mr Summers was usually the one whose number was top of my contacts list and who, even in my most drunken of stupors, I knew how to call. He rescued me many, many times when he should have been tucked up in bed either saving his strength for running around a rugby pitch like a lunatic, or ravishing his girlfriend. But more frequently than he should have been happy with, the early hours of Sunday morning would find him woken up by an incoherent call.

‘Hey maaaaate. You know I fuuuucking looove you right?’

‘Matt, it’s two fucking thirty. Where the fuck are you?’

‘Dunno. Just been kicked offa bloody train. Bastards. Kicked me offabloodytrain they did.’

‘What train?’

‘Dunno. Oh, I’ll ask ‘snice man. Hey mate, where issis? … He says Brissle.’

‘Oh fucking hell, Matt. What in the name of all that’s holy are you doing in fucking Bristol?’

‘Dunno. Can’t ‘member. Think I wuz … wuz I gonna go Stafford? Dunno.’

‘Why the fuck were you going to Stafford?’

‘Dunno. Oh! Wassit a bet? Might be a bet. Might have lost. Oh fuck it, can’t ‘member.’

‘Why did you get kicked off the train?’

‘Los my wallet. Dint havva ticket. No cash, ana bit pissed.’

A silence. A sigh.

‘Which station are you at?’

‘Brissle. Man said. Jus tol you.’

‘There are two stations in Bristol. Parkway or Temple Meads?’

‘Wha the fuck? Dunno.’

‘Are there any signs anywhere?’

‘Wha? Wha signs?’

‘Bloody enormous ones saying the name of the fucking station.’

‘Dunno. Everthin’s fuckin blurry.’

Another sigh, longer and louder.

‘OK. Stay where you are. Have you got that, Matt? Don’t move from the station, I’ll come and get you, but it’ll take me at least an hour and a bit, longer if you’re not at the first station I try. Don’t move, yeah?’

‘Oh maaate. You’re bloody brilliant, you are. Bes mate a bloke could have. I bloody looooove you, I do.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Just stay put.’

That was the sort of thing that Declan Charles Summers put up with from me, for more years than I had a right to expect. To my knowledge, his saintly girlfriend never voiced a word of complaint, or if she did I never got to hear about it, and although there were a few times when I did my share of helping him out of tricky situations, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for that time when I seemed to be pressing the self-destruct button on a regular basis.

Dec

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

1 0 2

TWEETS FOLLOWING FOLLOWERS

Tweets

Declan Summers @summs12 1 Apr

Hello World. I’ve given in and joined Twitter. It’s not an April Fool. #amazeme

#whichbuttonsdoipressagain

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Reply to @summs12

 

Becca Davis @bouncybec 1 Apr

Welcome to Twitter, Declan. #raidersfamily #enjoytheride #pushmybuttons

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 1 Apr

About bleeding time. Follow me. #notneedy #maybealittlebit

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Matt

But back to GreenScreen and how it all happened with Jules. It hadn’t occurred to me until it was too late, having my rep and all, that someone like Julia wouldn’t want to be with someone like I was trying to be.

I realised after we’d both been there a few months that we were both playing a role to some extent. I wasn’t nearly as much of a lad as I made out, but it made things easier in my team to make a big thing of the weekend, to party as hard as they did, to be one of them.

Julia wasn’t nearly as icy as she wanted everyone to think she was, but she did a good job of pretending, too, and most people didn’t see through it.

But anyway, a lot of my reputation was deserved, and I’d seen the look on Julia’s face when she heard tales of my exploits being bandied around as fact on a Monday morning, although half of it was complete bollocks. I was sure that if I’d ever been in with a chance with her, I’d pretty much burnt my bridges.

So I carried on with the shagging around, left a string of broken hearts in my wake, get me the big ‘I Am’, what a self-absorbed fucking gobshite wanker I was. Maybe it was payback, revenge, whatever you’d like to call it for dealing with what happened with Carrie. But those women didn’t deserve to be treated like shit. They didn’t deserve me using them to teach someone a lesson who wasn’t even in the same classroom. And after a while, this began to occur to me, and I started to think about what I was doing, and wondering who the fuck I thought I was, and I took a long hard look at myself and had a huge laugh at the douche canoe who was looking back. This was a slow process; I was enjoying myself, I can’t deny it, and despite my growing misgivings, I didn’t want to stop.

While all of that was going on, all the partying, all the working, all the feeling fucking normal for the first time in what felt like a very long time, I was still doing all the family stuff, seeing Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz, watching the kids grow up, enjoying being cool Uncle Matty, who dished out chocolate, allowed inappropriate TV programmes and said bad swears when Mummy and Daddy weren’t looking.

I kept an eye on Mum, and I suppose she kept an eye on me too. Dec and I continued our mismatched friendship, he remaining the more mature of us by a whisker, and by dint of having a proper grown-up relationship. He asked Amy to marry him about a year after they got together in Jay’s kitchen, but no wedding plans were forthcoming, despite Beth and Rose’s best persuasive efforts.

Dec

_Hi Dec, tell me if I’m interfering, but have you got anything organised for Amy’s twenty first?

‘What? No! It’s not for ages yet.’

_Well, theoretically, but if you’re going to book anything, I don’t know, a weekend away for example, it’s in the middle of summer and things get full up pretty far in advance. I didn’t know if you were planning a party or anything, venues get pretty busy in the summer too.

‘Oh fuck. I’m so bloody useless, you know what I’m like. I hadn’t given it a thought.’

_I thought you might not have, sweetheart. I just wanted to make sure you were, you know, prepared.

‘What should I do? If I’d thought about it at all, I would have gone ‘quick trip to the jewellery shop and a slap up meal’. Do I need to think bigger, then?’

_Ha ha, no clues from me, you need to work it out for yourself. I’m happy to help with the details, but it’ll mean so much more if you’ve thought of it on your own.

‘Beth! You can’t just drop this on me and leave me to it. I’ll only cock it all up. You did such an amazing job with my party … please?’

_Give it a go, sweetheart, you’ll do better than you think.

Matt

Oh, Rose! How could I forget about Rose? Dec had mentioned her that Christmas, as the person he’d held on to when he was in his own dark pit, but I didn’t actually meet her until I moved down here. Dec and Rose were kind of a package, now. Dec’s parents died when he was pretty young, and when he fell out with Jay and Beth, Rose kind of filled the gap and helped him through some tough times.

Dec didn’t really do relationships in the same way us normal people did, at least not family relationships. There was no name for what he had with Jay and Beth, and in the same way there was no name for what he had with Rose. The easiest way to describe it is she was like a mother to him, and she did mother him, but it was more than that. Your mum doesn’t choose you, she’s stuck with you because she’s your mum. With Dec and Rose, there was an unspoken recognition that they had chosen each other somehow, and although he hadn’t needed her in that way for a long time, they still needed each other.

So Rose was absorbed into the family too, and having the same interfering gene as Beth, she meddled in everyone’s lives, much as your annoying aunty might do. She put up with teasing and grumbling, and downright rudeness from me when she got too free with her advice about how to keep a woman, but she was a permanent fixture. And she was really good friends with Mum. They were polar opposites in outlook, personality and experience, but they both loved cooking, and they both adored their families, which overlapped in some convoluted way, and they spent a lot of time together.

Dec

RE: Booking enquiry

THE ORCHARD orchard@webserver.com

To: Declan Summers

Hi Declan

Thanks for your enquiry regarding a weekend booking in August. I’m really sorry, but we’re fully booked for the whole of August. If we can help in the future, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Regards

Sean

SEAN TIBBS

Reservations Manager

o0o

*Good afternoon, Bay Tree Hotel, how may I help you?

‘Oh, hi, can I speak to someone about hiring your function room?’

*Certainly, sir, did you have a date in mind?

‘First weekend in August, preferably the Saturday.’

*One moment, let me check our diary, but I know that is a very busy time …… … I’m sorry sir, as I thought, we’re fully booked throughout August. Is there another date we could offer you?

‘No, that’s OK. Thanks anyway.’

*… sorry, no vacancies …

*… full on that date …

*… no availability …

*… full …

*… sorry …

*… fully booked …

Matt

Right, where was I? Oh yeah. Dec and Amy. So they were engaged, but nothing more was forthcoming, and they moved in together, into a tiny flat, and they continued to be sickeningly inseparable There were a few blips along the way, I suppose, like Dec nearly fucking it all up by being an insensitive bastard, and then nearly compounding the fucking up of it all by getting himself semi-kidnapped by some certifiable stalker woman when he should have been having dinner with Amy and her stick-up-their-arses parents, but I suppose these are the things that life and love are made of – fuck knows I haven’t made things easy for Lau over the years, and the fact she’s stuck with me continues to astound, amaze and humble me. It always comes back to Lau, doesn’t it. It always will.

Dec

Matt: =Have u checked ur Twitter account lately?

Dec: =No. Don’t use much. Why?

Matt: =@bouncybec getting a bit saucy. Do u know her?

Dec: =Don’t think so.

Matt: =Might b nothing. Keep an i.

Matt

But, digressing again, I still haven’t got to Jules, have I? So, I’d been at GreenScreen for a couple of years or so, enjoying life, feeling great, all thoughts of the bastard MS well to the back of my mind. Work was going well, life was going well, I had my reputation, which didn’t hurt in a lot of ways, but I knew what was real and what was bullshit.

I suppose I’d kind of started to wonder if there was more to life than going out partying every weekend, getting hammered and having to extricate myself from another unfamiliar bed in the small hours. Maybe it had run its course. I was thirty-three, and it was starting to occur to me that it might be time to grow up. I had no idea what this meant, just that occasionally, in the dead of night, as I was gathering my underwear off the floor, it all felt a bit … immature.

So I backed off, went out less, didn’t try so hard to pull, gave myself a break, got a bit of breathing space, time to think. Plan A had been going pretty well so far, maybe it was time to start thinking about the next phase, where I could look for a different job, away from this city, away from the South West even.

Dec

Declan Summers @summs12 15 Apr

Great result against TomCats – thanks to all the Raiders supporters. 16th man

as usual. #idratherbearaiderthanapuss

Reply to @summs12

Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 great game today Declan #nothingwrongwithpusses 😉

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_____________________________________________________________________

Declan Summers @summs12 19 Apr

Looking forward to some down time. Training has broken me. #tired #bathplease

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 Mmm bath sounds nice. #wishiwasabarofsoap

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 20 Apr

@summs12 Had that bath yet? #imagining

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 21 Apr

@summs12 make sure you scrub behind your ears.

#getridofunwantedgrime

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Matt

And all this time, Jules and I were working in parallel at GreenScreen, hardly talking to each other except in the context of work, and I’d look at her sometimes and wonder what might have been if I hadn’t been such a dick, and if I’d taken the time to get to know her, but she had this, like, shell around her, and it didn’t seem like anything was ever going to get through.

Dec

‘Hey babe, sorry, I’m still at the club, I got caught up, lost track of time.’

)What a surprise. Cara’s picking me up any minute. I won’t see you till later, then, if you’re still awake.

‘No worries, I’ll wait up. Haven’t seen you properly for ages and I actually need to kiss you quite a lot. Hey, I met someone who knows you. Becca Davis?

)Oh.

‘She said you were at school together.’

)Yes, we were.

‘She’d like to catch up, can I give her your mobile number?’

)Actually … I’d rather you – dammit, that’s Cara. I’ll tell you later, hon. Got to go. Love you.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Player of the Season

EastStandRaider: It’s that time of year again, get voting here for your player of the season.

RadarRaider: Only one in it for me, Miles Abrahams has been outstanding in the front row. Our scrum has been rock solid.

YoHoHo: Got to be one of the backs, the amount of superb tries we’ve scored. My choice would be Crofty, he’s creative, quick and can tackle well, and Nico Tiago has done a great job out on the wing yet again, always knows when to go looking for the ball.

Foxyraider: I’m pretty sure Declan Summers will be the ladies’ choice. He’s played really well and is a bit of a babe. What a combination.

YoHoHo: Good to see it’s someone’s ability and commitment that counts with some people. Summers is lucky he’s still here. Fail to see how he gets picked so much.

Foxyraider: I guess we’ll see when the results of the vote come out. A well-turned bum goes a long way in my book.

o0o

Dec: =Help! Tried everywhere u suggested. All booked. Considering dirty w/end in Blackpool. In caravan. Told u I was useless :((

Beth: =Don’t panic. Not useless just left a bit late. Other options. Had idea. Come round later, kettle on.

o0o

_So what do you think?

‘I think it sounds fucking awesome. Better than any of the lame-arse stuff I’ve managed to come up with and not even be able to book. Beth, you are a lifesaver. But really, are we really allowed to put a marquee up on the beach?’

_My friend Trish knows a man from the Council and all you need is a permit. It’s easily sorted. We’ll only really need to use it if it rains, and it’s somewhere to put the food, maybe have a sleepover if it’s warm enough? If we have it right down the end near Usley Point we won’t need to worry about noise or anything, and it’s easier to make sure we don’t get uninvited guests. We can use James’s four by four to take the food and drink down there, it’s ideal.

‘Awesome. A sleepover on the beach would be amazing – she’d love it. And you’re sure you and Rose are OK doing the food?’

_I’m sure, and Carol will help as well. I talked to Rose this morning. Her very words were ‘don’t you dare try asking some tinpot catering firm to do it, love’. She was deadly serious, I feared for my life if I contradicted her.

‘Ha ha, she takes her cooking very seriously.’

_She takes you and Amy very seriously, too, sweetheart.

‘I guess so. I bet she’s started planning a menu already. Probably already made a zillion – oh, what the fuck are those round things with prawns in?’

_Vol au vents?

‘Yeah. Those. She’ll have made a zillion. Actually, we might need to buy several new freezers, she’ll have made a ton of stuff by the weekend.’

_Now, the main thing is we need to make sure we keep it a secret, so don’t tell Cal, or Amy will know five minutes later. I’ll leave it as long as possible to tell James, but once he knows, he’s a bit of a loose cannon, he can never remember what he’s allowed to say. Think you can avoid telling Amy?

‘That won’t be difficult at the moment, haven’t clapped eyes on her for days, we’ve hardly been in at the same time, seems like for weeks.’

_Oh. Everything OK, sweetheart?

‘It’s just … I’ve been really busy, with coaching the under elevens, and all the end of season stuff, play-offs, away games, stuff at the club after home games, and when I’m home she’s out doing Pilates or with her friends or studying for her exam.’

_You sound a bit fed up. Is that all it is, just not seeing much of each other?

A silence.

_Dec?

‘Well I suppose I was a bit of a twat on Saturday. She asked me not to do something but it was awkward, so I did it anyway. Maybe we’ve been sort of keeping out of each other’s way a bit since then … sleeping on the sofa, that kind of thing.’

_That actually sounds a bit serious, sweetheart. What happened?

‘Oh, it was just so fucking stupid, I was so fucking stupid. There was this girl, Becca Davis, she was talking to me after the Warriors game, in the bar. She mentioned that she knew Ames from school, and asked if she could have Ames’ mobile number so they could catch up. A bit later I called Ames and asked, but she was just going out, and she said no, or kind of started to, but there wasn’t time to talk about it. Anyway, later on Becca asked for her number again, and I didn’t know what to say. Ames hadn’t quite said no, she hadn’t given me a reason, and I thought, or maybe I convinced myself, it was because she was in a rush to go out, or she was pissed off with me for being late again, or didn’t want a long phone conversation with an old school friend just then. So …’

_Oh Dec, tell me you didn’t give her the number.

‘… so I gave her the number. So later on I’m at home waiting up for Amy, and she phones me, so angry, I’ve never known her like that. She swore at me, a lot, wasn’t really making much sense, but I kind of realised I’d fucked up. She didn’t come home till really late, she’d had a lot to drink and wasn’t really in a state to talk about it, but still in a rage, and she yelled at me and told me to sleep on the sofa. Next day, she was still pretty pissed off, but we managed to grab five minutes in the same room, and she tells me Becca Davis made her life a misery at school, bullied her, used to make a point of stealing her boyfriends. Last person on earth she wanted to get a call from on a girls night out.

_Oh, Dec.

‘It gets worse.’

_Oh sweetheart …

‘I opened a Twitter account a few weeks ago, Matt was badgering me, and so were some of the guys at Raiders. I’ve only posted a couple of things, just Raiders stuff. Becca Davis has been replying, a bit, I dunno, flirty or suggestive or something – I honestly didn’t realise it was her at the time. She’d told Ames, who had a look, and got really upset. I didn’t respond to any of it, but now …’

_Now Amy’s worried Becca Davis is going to steal you as well. Oh Dec. You need to sort it out. It’s easy for things like this to take on a life of their own and get out of hand. Avoid Becca if you can.

‘Well that’s part of the problem. She comes to the Raiders games, she’s always in the bar afterwards, I have to be polite and corporate, I can’t even ignore her or blank her, I can only try to palm her off onto someone else. She’s a bit persistent. Beth, I love Amy, I love her so much, I don’t want anyone else, but I can’t make her understand, I haven’t looked twice at Becca fucking Davis, I don’t even want anything to bloody do with her now I know how mean she was to Ames.’

_Sweetheart, Amy’s feeling insecure. I know she had a hard time at school, it really knocked her confidence. You know better than most of us that what happens to us when we’re younger affects how we feel about things later on; it’s not logical or rational. You might have to make a pretty big gesture to help her see you don’t want Becca. It might be awkward and uncomfortable for you, but I think you’ll have to just do it.

‘Like what?’

_Sorry, sweetheart, I can’t help you out this time. It really needs to come from you.

o0o

HEY AMES – FEEL LIKE I HAVEN’T SEEN YOU PROPERLY FOR DAYS. MISS YOU BABE. HOPING YOU’RE AROUND TONIGHT SO WE CAN TALK. I KNOW I’VE BEEN A MONUMENTAL DICKHEAD AND YOU’RE UPSET WITH ME. I’LL COOK DINNER IF YOU LIKE. LOVE YOU SO MUCH.

D XXX

Dec – Sorry hon, some people from the course are getting together tonight to go over our exam questions. I really want to go, I’m getting nervous. Tomorrow? Talking would be good. Love you. Axxx PS don’t cook! PPS Please don’t sleep on the couch tonight x

TOMORROW IT IS. D X

PS TAKEAWAY THEN?

o0o

\dec, Mum says you’re from Australia.

‘Yeah, Cal, I lived there when I was little.

\we’ve got to do some writing at school about Australia. Mum says you can help me.

‘Oh, no worries, if I can. What have you got to write about?

\i’ve got to choose a part of Australia and find out things about it. Did you have a kangaroo?

‘Ha ha, no, you can’t have kangaroos as pets. I had a dog called Woofster.’

\Was he a dingo?

‘No mate, you can’t have dingoes as pets either. Woofster was a cross between a Labrador and an Australian cattle dog.

\where did you live?

‘In Perth. It’s on the west coast. I don’t really know much about any other bits of Australia. Where are you going to do your project about?’

\if I write about Perth will you help me?

‘Course I will. When do you have to write it by?’

\tomorrow.

Tomorrow? That doesn’t leave us much time, mate. Oh, and Cal, I’ve got to spend some time with Amy tonight, it’s really important. I can come round now, but I can’t stay long. I’ll help you as much as I can.

o0o

Amy: =Where ru? Thought we were going 2 talk.

Dec: =Fuck, sorry babe, helping Cal with homework. Got delayed. Nearly done. Back soon. xxx