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.
‘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.’
‘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?’
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.’
‘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.
‘Goat. Duh yuh lohv him?’
‘Well, yeah, course.’
‘Does he lohv yuh?’
‘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?’
‘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?’
‘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?’
‘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.’
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.’
‘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?’
‘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.’
‘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, 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.
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.’
‘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.
‘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.’
‘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.
‘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.’
‘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.’