96. Home again

In which it’s good to be home.

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Laura

The next three days were wonderful. It felt like we’d got our various frustrations and stresses out of our systems, and relaxed into a good mix of sightseeing and staying in.

Our hotel was luxurious, with full spa facilities, and it was no hardship to spend lazy mornings there, but with all of Paris at hand, we made sure we spent time dining out, seeing things like the Louvre, and going to smaller, tucked away places to experience what Matt decided to call ‘le Paris de Scott’ – little cafés and patisseries we would always remember as special to us.

Matt

With limited time to explore, we made a hit list of things we wanted to do, and mixed this with some lounging around in the hotel’s outstanding spa.

We went to the Louvre, bypassed the huge queue for the Mona Lisa and stood for some time in front of Monet’s huge canvasses, whose colours and vibrancy were stunning. We wandered around the smaller streets finding small boutiques and patisseries, drinking the best coffee I’d ever tasted and eating wickedly delicious pastries. A couple of places we went to several times, and our favourite café was also a bistro, where we ate in the evening. Lau wasn’t man enough to try escargots. Ha, I wasn’t stupid enough. I’d tried them before, when we’d been on a huge family holiday, and was in no hurry to repeat the experience.

We could have spent our time rushing here, there and everywhere, trying to see everything and getting frustrated, but we decided that was stupid, and we’d be better off just doing what we felt like. The important thing was we were together; we could have been in Margate, and would have had an equally good time. Which I suppose brings me back to the shit that was at the back of my mind, but I was ignoring that, and so I just enjoyed myself.

Neither of us could quite believe it when Tuesday morning arrived and we were going home. I was even prepared to admit that I’d had an awesome time, and that I would like to thank those responsible for organising it. It must have been a life-changing experience.

Laura

All too soon, it was Tuesday morning and we had to catch our flight home. As the plane touched down in the city airport, and the doors opened, I smelt the air of home, and everything I had to look forward to here came rushing back. I gripped Matt’s hand and smiled up at him.

Matt

‘Wha?’

‘We’re home. Tomorrow, we find out when Philpotts is due, and we can start making plans.’

She seemed delighted to be back, and I suppose I’d missed home too. I was certainly looking forward to getting back to the flat, my cave, my bolthole. I just wanted the circus to stop, now. It had been a furiously hectic week or so, and I’d forgotten that Lau’s scan was booked for tomorrow, so although we’d be home, there was more excitement. It felt like it was never going to end. Finding out about the baby would be awesome, but a little bit of me groaned and put its head under the covers.

‘Oh yeah. Bloody hell, Philpotts is going tuh be a bit more real, isn’t he.’

Laura

We continued to refer to the baby as ‘he’, but although I hadn’t said anything to Matt, or anyone else, I just had a feeling the baby was a girl. I couldn’t have told you why, what it was that made me feel it, I was just certain. Maybe tomorrow we’d know more, although it was likely to be a bit early.

Matt

We got home and sank down on the sofa, both breathing big sighs. I automatically got my phone out of my pocket, ready to text everyone, but then realised what a commotion that would cause. Beth would call, I’d need to talk to Dec and Amy, people would want to see us. So I put the phone back in my pocket. Lau noticed and raised an eyebrow, it being unheard of for me to put my phone away if I didn’t need my hands for something else.

‘Don’t wana tell them we’re home yet, they’ll want us to go round, or come here, see pictures, tell them how great they are fuh thinking of it.’

‘Well, they are pretty great.’

‘Yeah, I know, buh just wana … catch my breath. It’s been mad, soh mad, the last couple of weeks.’

‘I know.’

I knew Lau was tuned in to how I was feeling, she always was. She also seemed to know when to push me to talk and when to leave it alone, and this time she left it. I’m not saying I always agreed with her judgements, just that she was usually, in hindsight, right. Bet you never thought you’d hear me say that, eh Lau?

Laura

I was sensing that undercurrent, the one that hadn’t really left since we argued in Paris, but we’d been too busy having a romantic honeymoon to examine. I really didn’t want to get into a deep and meaningful as soon as we got back, and highly doubted Matt would be up for it either, at least not without a bit of a run-up. So I let it go for now.

Matt

‘Cup of teh?’

I got up and went into the kitchen, filling the kettle and getting the mugs out. I saw a note on the counter.

‘Oh, yes please, Paris can do coffee, but I’m proper gagging for a cup of honest English tea. Oh, we haven’t got any milk though.’

‘Yeah, that’s what I thought. Look.’

I held up the note.

Hello Matty and Laura

Hope you’ve had a wonderfully romantic time in gay Paree. Just to save you having to go out again, I’ve brought a few things over. Milk, bread, just the essentials that might have gone off while you were away.

Call me as soon as you’re back!

Beth xxx

It was really thoughtful, and it pissed me right off.

‘I’m seriously gona get my keys back, ih’s out of order coming in here an –’

‘Doing something nice like make sure we’ve got milk. Yeah, bad form. It looks like she’s put more water in the flowers, and taken some of the dead ones out so they don’t smell, too. What a cow.’

‘Yeah, but you know wha I mean, there was all the business with packing our cases, I mean, the holiday was great, buh not sure ih’s OK for them to jus come in whenever they bluhdy feel like ih, do whatever they want. It’s a privacy thing. Who knows wha they migh have found in my bloody wardrobe.’

It was the principle, rather than the act itself, that was pissing me off. It made me feel like a child, that they a) needed to have a key, and b) thought they could just waltz in and do stuff without question. I could possibly see why it had been necessary when I was in the throes of the bastard MS, on my own, and thinking about ending it all. But I’d been better for months, and I had Lau now.

‘You’re right, it would have been terrible if they’d found that manky pair of gym shorts. Maybe you just need to have a chat with – who did you say had your keys? Jay and Dec? Make some rules.’

‘Yeah, maybe. Or jus get the keys back. Ih’s not like they need them any more, I’m OK now, an you’re here. I haven’t got Jay’s key, gave it back when I moved out.’

‘Dec’s still got one.’

Summers might be a law unto himself, but I had principles.

‘Tha’s up to him, or them, but I always ring the bell. I’d never jus barge in unless they knew I was coming.’

‘Fair enough. Let’s have a word next time we see them.’

Lau was being my grounded voice of reason again. I was trying my hardest to get her to be outraged too, but it wasn’t working.

‘Yeah, it’s your place too, you should have a say in who can come and go.’

I handed her a mug of tea.

‘OK – oh, thanks flower, just what I need. Beth didn’t leave any biscuits, did she?’

I rolled my eyes and went to look in the cupboard.

‘Yeah, chocolate digestives. I had a perfectly good stash of biccies, noh need for that. Here you go.’

I tossed her the packet.

‘Perfect. Now come here and rub my feet.’

‘OK, bossy cow.’

And devious cow, Lau, as if I didn’t know you were trying to take my mind off it, cool me down.

‘Come on, you know you love it.’

‘Yeah, I know. I know wha you’re doing, though, you’re trying tuh distract me from ranting.’

‘Oh, you saw through me.’

She put on an innocent expression, as if we didn’t know the little game we played with each other, where I knew she usually knew what I was thinking, but let her get away with talking me down from whatever it was, I don’t know, work rant, Beth rant, world news rant, general Matt’s-a-git rant. Sometimes I let her get away with it, sometimes I called her on it, but I always let her do it.

‘Yeh, I always know. Works though. Feet please.’

I sat on the sofa and Lau put her feet in my lap, leaning against the back of the seat, sipping her tea. I took her feet and gave them a good, firm rub, making her sigh with pleasure. While I was massaging and zoning out, it popped into my head how they’d done it, how they’d organised the trip to Paris – our cases, passports, everything we’d needed. Beth knew where everything was, because she’d fetched it all for me when I went to Egypt post-Jules. I shook my head at the bare-faced cheek of using my misfortunes against me, nearly got myself riled up again, but found myself too relaxed by rubbing Lau’s feet to do so. I made a mental note to be less predictable about where I stored important items in future, and moved past it to focus on the beautiful woman succumbing to my firm and manly touch.

‘How about head an shoulders?’

I loved massaging Lau, loved feeling the tension slide away from her, loved the little noises she made when I hit a good spot. But she shook her head.

‘Maybe later, sounds great, but I think you’re a bit tense. How about I do your shoulders?’

I nearly denied it, the tension, but there was never much hiding it from Lau, and maybe some unknotting was what I needed. I nodded.

‘How can yuh tell?’

Laura

‘Just the way you’re holding yourself.’

I sat behind him and started to massage his shoulders. I could feel big knots start to unravel, and after a while I felt more confident that Matt was relaxed enough for a gentle enquiry.

‘Want to tell me?’

Matt

And I thought I’d been so good at keeping it from her, that back of my mind shit all the time we’d been away, the little dissatisfied, grumbling voices that were just taking the edge off what should be the happiest time of my life. But she was Lau, and she got me, and so of course she’d noticed.

Laura

He didn’t talk straight away, just sighed and made appreciative noises. I hoped he might unravel his tongue, too, but didn’t hold my breath. Matt only ever talked when he was ready, and much as I wanted to get at the underlying strangeness, I knew better than to push him. He might not say anything now, but he knew I was there when he wanted to talk. After a while, sooner than I expected, I heard a deep breath, and felt him gather himself to speak.

Matt

I knew I would tell her, but I just sat leaning against her for a while, feeling safe with her, thinking about what was going on with me. Then, when I’d worked it out properly, I told her.

‘I’m freaking, aren’t I.’

Lau stopped massaging, and folded her arms round the front of me, laying her head against my shoulder, and nuzzling into my neck.

Laura

‘Are you? What about?’

I tried to keep my tone light and conversational, rather than probing.

Matt

She sounded vaguely interested, not inquisitional, and hit just the right note to make me want to carry on spilling.

‘Everything. Jus had a dose of realihy. Well, not jus. Back in Paris. When we rowed. Before then. I’m married. We’re married. Fucking married. Lau, this sounds terrible, but ih’s like everything I’ve been trying to escape the last few years, an now here I am, married, baby on the way. Shit. Sorry, sorry Lau, I don’t mean … I want it, I want it all, with yuh, but I feel out of control. It was soh quick, I hardly had time to think, I got caught up in it all an then …’

As the words were coming out, in a bit of a rush, I realised how it must sound to Lau, and I was scrambling to try to say it in a way that didn’t make it sound like –

Laura

‘Are you regretting it?’

I always found that asking a direct question got the best results with Matt. He turned to face me, and I moved from behind him to beside him, so I could look into his big grey eyes and see what he wasn’t telling me. He shook his head.

Matt

So that worked well. Lau always asked those sorts of questions so matter of factly, like it wouldn’t have upset her at all if I’d said ‘yeah I wish I hadn’t married you’ or some such shit. But that wasn’t what I’d been going to say, and despite the casual way she asked, I needed to reassure her.

I turned to face her, and as Lau moved from behind me to beside me, I looked into her eyes and shook my head, so she’d know I was sincere.

‘No, fuck no, Lau, I don’t regret any of it, it’s what I’ve wanted, and to do it with you is fucking amazing. You know wha I’m like, I don’t like people taking control, doing stuff for meh, helping meh. We’ve talked about it before, when I was ill, I didn’t realise how much I didn’t like it for other stuff too. With Beth doing all the wedding planner bit, it just got bigger than I could handle, and then when they changed the hotel, I was pissed off, but felt guilty for bein pissed off, then when you wanted to go out, in Paris, I was all ‘I’m doing this my way’ an I jus took it too far. I don’t feel like we sorted it. Yeah, we made up, had a great time, but bloody hell, Lau, I told yuh to fuck off. Tha’s not OK.’

Laura

‘No, I guess it isn’t, really, but we were both tired and emotional.’

I was surprised – I’d thought we had sorted it all out. I’d sensed something, some kind of thing that needed sorting, but hadn’t realised that there was more to our argument than both of us feeling the after-effects of a stressful week. I honestly hadn’t given a second thought, after Matt’s apology, to him telling me to fuck off.

Matt

I could have taken that, and let her accept some of the blame, but the more I’d thought about it, the more it felt like it was only really down to me, when it came to it.

‘Noh, I’m not gona let you let me off. We’re both stubborn, we’re gona bash heads again, I need to feel like I can control myself. This being married thing, I love ih, I love you, I’m just being an arse. I don’t wana fuck ih up.’

‘So what exactly are you freaking about?’

I was quiet for a moment as I tried to pinpoint exactly what it was that was simmering down there.

‘I think … I feel … not in control of things. We’re married. I can’t change it. I don’t wana, Lau, but if I did, I couldn’t, not without huge shit going on.’

Laura

‘Do you wish we’d waited a bit?’

He looked away from me, breathing in deeply, and I knew without him telling me what his reply was.

Matt

Whoa, how did she do it? She could just get right to the heart of what I was feeling before I even knew it myself.

‘Maybe a bit of me does. But no, Lau, I’ve loved it, most of me has loved this crazy week, baby, wedding, us, Paris, I’ve never had such a fucking mad amazing time in my life.’

Laura

He wasn’t being completely straight with me. He was telling me what he thought I wanted to hear, what he wanted to feel, so I tried some more honesty.

‘Part of me wishes we’d waited.’

Matt

‘Really?’

How did she manage it? Just say shit? Without having it dragged out of her by a team of enormous horses?

Laura

‘Yeah, just a part of me. I’ve loved it too, the madness, but a tiny bit wishes I’d had time to savour it, plan things myself, not be so reliant on other people being amazing.’

The relief washed over his face, as he realised it was alright to say it.

Matt

And there we had it, what it was all about, for me as well as Lau. Matt was feeling his life spinning out of his control, in the way life does, and he didn’t like it, and so instead of acknowledging it, he had to have a freak and make life bloody difficult for all and sundry.

‘Oh Lau, tha’s what I feel. I’m so happy, but it’s just a tiny bit tha’s saying ‘we could have waited an done it differently’, tha’s all.’

The more I thought about it and talked about it, the tinier it became. Having it sitting there festering at the back of my mind had been making it a bigger deal than it was, and now it was out there, it didn’t really seem worth the effort of freaking.

‘But we didn’t really have a choice, did we. We wanted to do it this way. Life’s not always about plans and arrangements, sometimes it’s about what happens to you and how you respond to it. I think we responded pretty well. Maybe it’s just catching up with us a bit. We need to give ourselves time to get used to it. Nothing should change, really, well, except we’re having a baby in … whenever. Oh Matt, that’s what I’m having trouble getting my head round. I almost keep forgetting. How can I forget?’

She looked stricken, and I stroked her cheek, and reminded myself that I wasn’t the only one for whom things were moving at breakneck speed.

‘Maybe getting married jus took up so much time the last week, there wasn’t time tuh think about it.’

Laura

And that was the truth of the matter. Wonderful and crazy as the last week had been, it hadn’t given us time to think about the baby who was coming to change our lives really, really soon. I was going to be a mother; Matt and I were going to have to look after a baby, keep her safe, be responsible.

‘Yeah, maybe. I want to think about it, though, this is something we have got time to plan for. I don’t want to get there, and suddenly there’s a baby and we haven’t got any stuff, or made any room for her, or –’

Matt

‘Wait, her? Philpotts is a boy, weh agreed.’

‘I know you think he’s a boy, Matt, but … I just feel she’s a girl.’

If the baby turned out to be a girl, I was going to have to do some major readjusting. For example, it was highly unlikely she was going to captain a victorious Spurs team to three successive Premier League titles. But I needed to focus on Lau.

‘I guess we might know tomorrow, but, anyway, my point is, I think, we got married really fast, and it was great, it is great, it was right. But I want us to have lots of time to think about Philpotts, get used to him or her, not freak when it happens. I think being married won’t make much difference to us, do you? We always said ‘holding hands forever’, we both said that in our vows, it’s just we’ve got a piece of paper saying it officially, and some photos of you wearing a kilt and showing your best bits to the world. Nothing should change between us. I just want to make sure we’ve thought about the baby.’

I looked at her, took her hand, kissed her fingers, trying to show how much I wanted to hold her, protect her, support her and love her. She’d got to the heart of my shit, and now I thought I might have got to the heart of hers, too. Sometimes I was as good at reading her as she was at reading me.

‘Are yuh telling me you’re freaking too?’

Lau laughed as she recognised the truth.

‘Yeah, I guess I am. Maybe about different things, but yeah, a fair amount of freaking going on.’

‘Ha ha, we’re a couple of freaks. Oh Lau, tha makes me feel better. We should freak together more often. Sorry, tho. I feel like I spoilt our honeymoon.’

‘You daft sod. You’re just looking for reassurance now. You know we had an amazing time. I’m glad we sorted this out, though. Matt, I know you’re not always comfortable talking about what’s on your mind, but please tell me, if you can, when something’s freaking you.’

Anyone else trying to cajole me into telling all when I was stressing would have been on a hiding to nothing, but this woman, my Lau, it was as if she was my security blanket, and everything I usually worried about when I was trying not to talk about shit just didn’t matter.

Laura

I could only keep reassuring him that it was always going to be alright to tell me how he was feeling. I don’t know where he got his ‘keep it all to myself’ ideas from, and I doubted I’d ever get him to be completely up front, but I was determined to tell him he was safe with me as much as I could.

Matt

‘I know, Lau, I know. I can talk to yuh better than anyone, even Dec, an he’s usually the one I bother at some ungodly hour, but I don’t always know what I’m thinking until I blow, then I feel guilty, then I think about why I blew, then I try to make it righ. I know it’s the wrong way round. I’ll try to realise when I’m freaking. Yuh can tell me too. We can have little freak parties, jus you an me.’

‘Partying might be just what we need. How about some non-alcoholic fruit juice, healthy snacks, and some womb music?’

‘Whoa, Lau, you’re jus goin wild. I can’t keep up.’

‘I know. Hold on to your hat, it’s going to be a crazy ride.’

‘Ha ha. I love you, Lau.’

‘I love you too.’

And so, finally, it was gone, that annoying niggle that had been underlying everything. If only I could say I learned from it, and that every time something bothered me from that day on, I just talked to Lau about it and life went smoothly. Ha fuckety ha.

Laura

And that sorted it. That thing that had been at the back of my mind since that first morning in Paris was gone. That didn’t mean everything was going to be perfect, far from it; in many ways Matt and I were still getting to know each other. Moving in together had shown us that we’d been pretty efficient at showing off our good sides to each other, and the coming months were going to be challenging as we stopped trying so hard. But if we managed to keep talking, and face what was bothering us, we stood a chance, more than a chance. Matt was complicated, and I wasn’t always easy to live with. The positives were that we loved each other and we made an effort to sort things out when they cropped up.

Matt

‘Oh bollocks.’

Something had just occurred to me.

‘What?’

‘I’m gona have to call Dec, see if Amy’s had Splodge yet.’

‘Surely they’d have told us?’

Possibly, but apart from replying to my ‘thank you’ texts, I hadn’t heard from any of them while we’d been away; some kind of Beth-imposed radio silence I assumed.

‘I suppose. Would they have, though? They might have thought we’d come back early.’

‘Would we have?’

That was a tricky one. There would have been no reason to rush back just because Amy was giving birth. She was more than capable of doing so without us.

‘Dunno. Maybe not. I was first there, tho, after Charlie was born. Set a precedent. Maybe I should just give them a quick ring? Text?’

Laura

Matt was worrying away at himself, wanting to call but not wanting to let any of his family know how much he wanted to talk to them.

‘Matt, it’s fine, if you want to call or whatever, just do it. You don’t have to justify it.’

Matt

And there she was again, calling me on shit.

‘I know. I’m being an arse. I jus spend half my life moaning abou them not leaving me alone, then as soon as I’m away I can’t wait tuh call. Needy or wha?’

‘You know what you are?’

‘A daft sod?’

It was Lau’s favourite thing to call me when I was being bloody ridiculous.

Laura

It was my favourite thing to call him. Just the right amount of almost-swearing to make it a fondly loving insult.

‘A daft sod. Just do what makes you happy, don’t tie yourself up in knots trying to work out why you’re doing it.’

He thought about it for a bit. I could see his inner struggle; it was always going to be there, his conflict between needing his family and not wanting to need them. This time, his need for them won. He picked up his phone and pressed a number, and I saw his whole body relax as Dec picked up.

Matt

It wasn’t just that I was looking for justification; I really was torn between calling them to find out what the news was, and having an evening of peace, here with Lau, letting the aftermath of the last week settle around us. But much as I would hate to admit it to anyone, it felt weird to not be in touch with them, to not know what was going on with all of them. In the end, I just needed to know, and I called Dec.

‘The honeymooner returns. Hey mate.’

‘Heh’

‘Are you back then?’

‘Yeah, been back for a bih.’

‘Did you have a good time – don’t give me any details.’

‘Yeah, had a fucking awesome time.’

‘Sounds about right. I did say no details though. How’s Lau?’

‘She’s great.’

‘Hasn’t she got the scan soon?’

I wondered if Beth had primed him with questions in case I called him instead of her, as Dec would not usually have been aware of things like dates for scans. Amy had had to programme all of her appointments and important dates into his phone so he didn’t miss them.

‘Yeah tomorrow.’

‘Shit, so you’ll know boy or girl, yeah? Maybe a date?’

It was weird talking about baby stuff with Dec. I always forgot he was more than ten years younger than me, but never thought of him as someone who had been through nearly two whole pregnancies with Amy, and knew a lot more about it than I did.

‘Yeah, I guess, haven’t had time tuh think about it.’

‘Well tomorrow should sort that. You’re going with Lau, aren’t you?’

‘Yeh. Yuhr obviously not in the labour ward.’

‘Oh, well, we were, Friday night, after the party, Ames was having full on bloody contractions, all the screaming and swearing started, we were all set, Rose came over, but when we got there they just sent us home.’

‘Oh, rehly? Fuck, is she OK?’

‘Yeah, they said it was Braxton Hicks, like fake contractions. It’s all quiet at the moment. Still waiting.’

It would take a lot to fluster Dec into panicking.

‘Oh, jus a false alarm then.’

‘Yeah, but Ames is bloody pissed off. She’s well fed up with waiting, she can hardly get up. Or sit down.’

‘Yeah, I bet, bloody hell.’

‘Matt, now you’re back, would you … I hope you don’t mind me asking, but if Rose can’t come over for some reason when it all happens, can we call you?’

I loved that he asked, that I was second in line, that he didn’t care that only a few months ago I was a fucking cripple who couldn’t be trusted not to drop his daughter.

‘Yeah, course, but no way is Rose gona miss it.’

There would have to be some kind of earthquake that opened up a ravine between Rose’s flat and Dec’s house for her not to be there.

‘You’ll do it? Might be middle of the night.’

‘Yeah, you know I will, second stand-by or whatever.’

‘Thanks mate. Are we going to get to see the happy couple anytime soon?’

I immediately wanted to go round there, open a few beers, see him and Amy and Charlie, but a larger part of me still wanted to relax here with Lau, just for tonight.

‘Sure, weh’ll call in tomorrow after Lau’s had the scan.’

I raised my eyebrows at Lau to check; she nodded.

‘Great. I’m training in the morning, but come and see Ames, she’d love it. Assuming there’s no other news.’

‘Yeh, let us know.’

‘I’ll wait till a reasonable hour.’

Of course you will Dec, like that ever happened.

‘No, don’t worry about tha, any time, jus call or text, we’d like tuh know.’

‘Will do, then mate.’

‘OK, see you tomorrow, hopefully. Cheers mate. Bye.’

As conversations go, it was pretty standard, but reconnecting with my family had made me feel kind of secure. While we were away, I’d felt somewhat adrift, and recognising that now felt weird, suddenly knowing how much they all meant to me. I turned to Lau.

‘Amy had some Braxton-Hicks thingies yesterday. Got all the way tuh the maternity unit, sent her home. Called Rose over for Charlie, everything. False alarm. Still waiting.’

Laura

I could see that the security that contact with his family gave him had returned. I hadn’t realised it had gone, while we were away, but seeing it back made me realise just how vital they all were to him. I doubted he even realised himself.

Matt

‘Is she OK?’

‘Yeah, jus fed up I think. Sure it’s OK tuh call round tomorrow?’

‘Yeah, that’d be good. We should go and see Jay and Beth too, maybe our mums. Do a bit of a tour?’

‘Shit, I suppose so. Not today, tho. Migh phone them all, but I jus wana be here with you. Come here, not had a proper welcome home yet.’

I shuffled over on the sofa, and folded Lau up in my arms, pulled her onto my lap, then leaned down to kiss her, softly, lips roaming over hers, slipping my tongue into her mouth and flickering it across hers. Before long, my hands had found their way under her shirt and undone her bra, because, well, when you’ve got a hot girl on your lap it’s rude not to, and I squeezed and stroked her breasts, feeling the changes in them.

‘Lau, I think you’re getting bigger every day. Are yuh sore?’

‘A bit. Don’t squeeze too hard.’

‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to hurt you. You’re jus so fucking sexy.’

Lau sighed and sat back against me, allowing me to touch and feel, but not seeming to have the energy to respond.

‘Alright, Lau?’

‘Yeah, that’s lovely, flower, but I’m wiped. Don’t stop.’

I didn’t need more than one invitation. I carried on touching, gently stroking her, then bent my head down, lifted up her shirt and put my mouth to her nipple, sucking gently. Lau sighed and stretched her arms above her head, looking content, and I looked up into her eyes. Then it suddenly felt weird. These were the breasts that our baby was going to be sucking on in a few months time, in the same way I was doing but for a very different reason. Shit. Weird. I pulled her shirt down and sat up.

‘Hey, you stopped.’

‘Yeah, jus had a weird thought, didn’t seem right.’

‘What weird thought?’

‘Well, Philpotts is going to be using these for food soon. Not sure ih’s right to be perving on them.’

‘You weren’t perving. They’re dual purpose. Business and pleasure. And until Philpotts is actually here, all pleasure. Definitely pleasure.’

I knew Lau was disappointed that I’d stopped, but I needed to sort out the weirdness.

‘Yeah. Think I need to get my head round ih a bit first. Sorry Lau. Normal service will be resumed when Matt stops being a fucking mad freak-out.’

I leaned forwards, dejected. Playing with Lau’s awesome boobs was one of life’s little pleasures, and for the time being I was putting them out of bounds. Lau leaned towards me and put her arm round my shoulder, pulling me towards her.

‘It’s OK, flower. All this is taking some getting used to. Everything’s changing really quickly, it’s a bit full-on.’

‘Sorry, Lau. I’m jus a fuck-up. Keep freaking on you.’

I couldn’t believe it, less than half an hour after the last one, here was another freak incident fucking with my head.

‘As long as you’re freaking on me and not going all quiet, I can handle it. It’s when you stop talking I don’t know what to do.’

I turned my head and looked at her. God I loved this woman so much. Whatever I threw at her, she coped with. She made me so happy. But what was happening to both of us was scary. In a few months, before we’d really got to know each other properly, we were going to be parents, and everything was going to have to change. Everything was going to have to change before then, really. It was never-ending. I was scared.

Laura

He turned his head and looked at me. I could see all sorts of emotions flickering through his big grey eyes – love was there, happiness too, but he was scared, maybe of the big things like being married, being a father, maybe of smaller things like the ways we were both going to have to change in a relatively short space of time. He may not even have known exactly what it was he was afraid of, and he wasn’t going to tell me about it just now.

‘Matt, I love you so much. Don’t forget, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, I’m holding your hand. I’ll never stop.’

‘I know, Lau. Me too.’

He sighed and rubbed his hands over his face and then, inevitably, through his hair, making it all stick out.

Matt

‘Fuck, I need tuh do something, stop me bloody moping. What am I bloody well thinking? Here I am, world’s most gorgeous woman by my side, an I’m fucking freaking. Get a bloody grip, Matt Scott.’

‘Fancy going out? Get something for tea?’

It was awesomely right, spot on.

‘Going out sounds jus the thing. We haven’t been to the deli for ages – let’s get a coffee out and bring back some bits and pieces. Hahv a picnic at home?’

‘Great idea. Does the deli do cheese and onion crisps?’

‘Maybe bluhdy expensive poncey ones – aged mature cheddar an caramelised shallot or some such shit.’

‘No, has to be Walkers. I’ve had a hankering since Friday, fat chance of getting any in France.’

‘OK, stop off at the corner shop, then deli. Come on, woman, what are you hanging around for? There are crave crisps to be had.’

My mood lightened as suddenly as it had dipped, maybe Lau’s hormonal mood swings were osmosing into me. We grabbed our coats and went out.

Our first evening in our flat as married people went pretty much as you would have expected. We ate, we watched some TV, we called a few people, we went to bed. Actually, that wasn’t as expected, as Lau was wiped and we just slept. First time for weeks that had happened, but extenuating circumstances were present. There was always tomorrow morning, our last chance before going back to work.

I woke up really early, and resisted touching Lau. She was tired, and it was about time I stopped pestering her for sex – yeah, like it was always me doing the pestering, but she was fast asleep, and I’d woken up with shit on my mind, and bloody annoyingly couldn’t get back to sleep. So I got up and tried to deal with it.

I’d tried to go back to sleep, but had ended up thinking about the baby, about what it meant, how things were going to change, what it might mean for Lau and me. It all started whirling round in my head, until I suddenly thought of something Adam had suggested the last time I saw him, a few weeks ago.

I got up, much earlier than I was used to, but sure that this was a way to stop the whirling and try to make my peace with this huge coming event, the thing I’d wanted in a hypothetical way, but now it was real was doing a pretty good job of sending me crazy.

Laura

I woke up the next morning feeling sick and apprehensive. It was still early, dark outside, and I felt chilly. I turned over to pull Matt towards me, but he wasn’t there and I saw light filtering through the gaps around the door from the lounge. It was unusual for Matt to be up early; he slept a lot, still needing to recuperate, and on days off he was sometimes still in bed close to lunch time. I slipped out of bed and opened the door. He was sitting on the sofa, laptop open, typing. He looked up as I came into the room.

Matt

‘Hey Lau. Sorry, didn’t mean tuh wake you up. Jus been writing a letter.’

‘I don’t think you woke me up. I didn’t hear anything. Didn’t sleep very well, feeling a bit sick. It’s a bit early for you, isn’t it?’

‘Couldn’t sleep either. Big day, stuff on my mind. Fancy some ginger tea?’

While we were in France, we’d discovered that ginger tea was great for helping Lau’s sicky feeling.

‘Thanks, that would be great. Are you still freaking, then?’

‘I was, a bih, but I jus wrote a letter to Philpotts, an it really helped. Who’d have thought that bloody psychologists know what they’re bluhdy well talking about?’

‘Adam told you to write it?’

‘Yeah, kind of, last time I saw him, we talked about all kinds of shit, it was just a suggestion for when I’m trying to work stuff out, I didn’t know about Philpotts. Wana see?’

I gestured at the laptop. Lau looked like she was battling between having a nosy and thinking it was private.

Laura

I really wanted to have a look, but it felt like an intensely personal thing. I was touched he wanted to share it.

‘Are you sure? It feels a bit intimate.’

Matt

‘Come on, Lau, you can’t get much more intimate than you and me. Have a look.’

It was true. We’d never said ‘no secrets’ because we didn’t want to get all stressed about surprises and presents and shit, and hey, Lau, if we’d said that then none of this monstrously long story would have got done. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Laura

‘OK then.’

I pulled the laptop towards me and read.

79. Night moves

In which there is a coming together, er, so to speak.

Laura

Feeling better from having heard his voice, but with my head still all over the place, I disconnected and went back into the office. Anna and Kate watched me without speaking as I sat back down at my desk. I no longer felt like making a cup of tea, and just sat in front of the computer, staring at it without seeing it. After a while, I heard the kettle go, and Anna placed a mug in front of me. I looked up at her.

‘Thanks, An.’

She pulled a chair over and sat next to me.

‘How did all this happen, Lau?’

I ran my hands over my face.

‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s been a bit mad. After the LMS day, he waited afterwards while I was packing up and said he needed to talk, about, you know, having MS, and so we went to a café and talked. He unloaded some stuff, I held his hand, we had a moment. Then he realised he’d lost his wallet, so we were going back to my car to see if it was there when he kind of half collapsed, needed me to manhandle him, the nearest place was my house.’

‘You took him into your bloody house?’

Kate had pulled up a chair, and was looking eager for information.

‘He could hardly stand up, he was semi-conscious. I was practically carrying him. I couldn’t have got him into my car, and I didn’t know where he lived.’

‘Oh Lau, after everything we said on that Lone Working course.’

‘I know, An, I know. But I didn’t have a choice.’

‘Know those big white vans, noisy buggers, flashing blue lights, good at giving ill people lifts?’

‘I wasn’t going to call an ambulance, Kate. He was just tired. He slept it off for a couple of hours, I contacted his family, let them know where he was.’

‘You should have told me, Lau. Was he there when you rang me?’

I nodded. Kate rolled her eyes with exasperation.

‘What if he’d tried something on?’

‘Kate, he was asleep. I was perfectly safe.’

‘So when did everything … happen … between you, then?’

‘Nothing’s happened. We’ve just held hands. Kissed a bit.’

It didn’t sound much, given the monumental emotions I was feeling and the amount of upset I had already caused, but I was trying to downplay it, so it didn’t sound so bad.

‘So it’s not too late, you can still bloody well stop it.’

‘I’m not going to stop it. It’s … amazing.’

‘Ah love, you sound besotted.’

‘Yeah, well, she would be. Isn’t that how the bloody man operates? Gets you hooked then drops you.’

‘It’s not like that.’

‘How do you know? You’ve only known him five bloody minutes.’

‘I feel like I’ve known him forever.’

‘Oh Jesus, you’ve got it bad. Lau, have you even thought about Rach? You saw her just now. This will destroy her.’

‘Of course I’ve thought about her. I’ve thought about everything – Rach, working here, him having MS – I know it’s completely crazy. But nothing has ever felt so right. He feels the same as I do.’

Kate snorted.

‘Yeah, I bet he does. Got his own personal MS advisor with benefits. Don’t expect he’s had much luck with the ladies since he got it.’

‘Come on now, Kate, I think we need to give Lau a break. She hasn’t done this on purpose, there are some things you just have no control over. Feelings is one.’

Anna turned to me.

‘Just promise me you’re being a bit sensible, Lau.’

I nodded.

‘A bit.’

I didn’t add that if Matt had been ‘fully functional’ as he’d put it, all sense would have gone out the window, and there would have been a bit more to the story so far than I had told them just now.

‘What are you going to do about Rach?’

I sighed as I looked at Kate.

‘I don’t know. She needs time to cool off. I’ll try ringing her or texting later.’

‘Don’t leave it too long, you know how she gets. Don’t end up on her blacklist.’

I nodded.

‘I suspect I’m already at the top of that. I’ll try though.’

Anna stood up and put an arm round my shoulder.

‘It’s not that we’re not happy for you, Lau. It’s been a while since you had someone. I know you can’t always choose these things. We’re just worried about the who and the how fast.’

I looked up at her. Anna was older than the rest of us, married with nearly grown up children. She was a bit like our mum and always mixed a sympathetic ear with a dose of common sense.

‘I know. Thanks, An. God, what a day. Know what, let me take those last three cases, including that one Rach was going to do. Then we can finish up and I can go home.’

We finished inputting all the information onto the computer, washed up the mugs and started to lock up for the weekend.

‘Who’s helpline on call?’

‘Me.’

That was Anna.

‘Hope it’s not too busy, I’ve got Harry’s new girlfriend coming for tea on Saturday.’

‘You should be OK, Mrs Ramsden’s up country visiting her family, she won’t have an emergency until middle of next week when she’s missing her grandchildren. I’ll be on emergency Rachel Telford call though.’

Kate sounded resigned, and looked at me with a shake of the head.

‘Seeing him this weekend?’

‘Yes.’

She tutted and sighed.

‘Oh well, have a nice time. Think of me answering the phone at all hours to a dribbling wreck.’

‘Sorry, Kate.’

She waved her hand dismissively and walked to her car.

‘See you Monday, Lau.’

‘Bye, An. Have a good one with the girlfriend. Hand the on call over to me if you need to.’

‘Don’t be daft. Enjoy yourself.’

‘Thanks.’

Matt

So the afternoon had gone, and I had to get across the city to Lau’s, using buses I hadn’t used before, carrying the cheesecake we didn’t eat last night (and to be honest wasn’t all that appetising, but Lau bought it, so it seemed special) and my Amelie DVD, and picking up some beer and chocolates from the shop on the way to the bus stop. It was about the maximum weight I was going to be able to carry without dropping the lot.

Laura

We got in our cars. Anna drove off while I stayed sitting for a while, trying to sort through how things might change here. Rachel was going to be upset, hurt and angry, and want people to take sides. It was likely to affect our whole team and make life very uncomfortable for me, for I didn’t know how long. I was going to have to call Patrick over the weekend to tell him, and catch the fall-out from that too.

Bolstering myself with the thought of a whole weekend free to do what I wanted without anyone judging me, and with Matt if we chose to be together, I started the engine and drove home.

I’d been trying to compose a text to Rachel in my head as I drove. When I got in, I sat down and tapped it out. I wanted to contact her, even though I was pretty sure she wouldn’t answer.

‘I’m so sorry, Rach. Sorry for what I’m doing, and sorry for not telling you. You know where I am if you want to talk. Lau x’

It wasn’t great literature, but I thought it said both ‘sorry’ and ‘I’m not going to stop seeing him’ without being quite so blunt, while at the same time being as conciliatory as I could.

Once the text was sent, I relaxed a little and got changed. It was only a DVD and a takeaway, and I wanted to feel comfortable, so I just put on a pair of jeans and a loose top, with, just in case, sexy pink underwear with coloured bra straps that showed at the wide neck of my top. I was as capable as the next woman of being a floozy.

So, dressed to mildly maim if not to kill, I went in search of the DVD I was going to suggest. If Matt was bringing Amelie, I was going to dig out Bruce Willis, so we could see dead people. Eventually I located the DVD and rooted out some takeaway menus. I found a few bottles of beer I had kicking around in the fridge, but had no idea if they were good ones or even if beer had a sell-by date. If they weren’t acceptable, I could pop to the offy. Finally, as ready as I could be, I sat and waited for Matt.

Matt

The buses were a nightmare, with long waits between the two changes, and the last stop was a fair way from Lau’s house. It took me almost two hours. Lau hadn’t been specific about a time, but I’d wanted to get there soon after she got home; I’d really missed her, more than it should have been possible to miss someone I had only just met. As I walked up the path to her front door, though, all the stress from the journey melted away and left me with a tingle of anticipation. I rang the doorbell.

Laura

The trouble with saying something vague like ‘anytime after five’, is that you have to be ready for five, but the person could literally arrive anytime between five o’clock and the end of the world, and not consider themselves rude in any way. It got to six, and I started to wonder, firstly if he was coming at all, and then secondly, whether I should text or call to see when or if he was planning to arrive.

After my illogical panic the last time he was here, I tried to dismiss the first thought, and tied myself up in knots with the second one. I’d seen how much it bothered him when people checked up on him, so it was never really a goer, but what if he’d fallen over or something? I began to understand why his family kept in such regular contact, but managed to stop myself from picking up my phone.

I pottered about some more, plumping already chubby cushions, putting some music on, turning the DVD player on, then off again in case we wanted to talk first, then on again because did it really matter if the DVD player was on while we were talking? I thought about how much preparation Matt had put into yesterday evening, i.e. sleeping all afternoon, and tried not to worry so much.

Finally, eventually, at last, at half past six, the doorbell went. I ran up the stairs faster than was really sensible for someone as unfit as me, and flung the door wide. There he was, silly grin plastered to his face, big grey eyes all crinkled up in his smile. Gorgeous, he was just gorgeous.

Matt

A smile split my face as I saw her. It felt like I hadn’t seen her for weeks, and now I was home. Lau was panting and a bit red in the face, although she was smiling too.

‘Hey Lau, yuh behn runnin?’

‘Only up the stairs. Not very fit.’

‘Nehd tuh come hikin wih meh. Few hills soon sort yuh ouh.’

Laura

Ignoring that as an unlikely occurrence, I held the door wide and he stepped inside, dropping the bag he’d brought as I closed the door and catching me up in a hug. The hug rapidly became his hands in my hair, my arms round his neck, our mouths devouring each other with lips and tongues and licks and kisses until he was as breathless as me and we pulled apart, panting.

Matt

I found it incredible that a) we’d only known each other a couple of days and b) we were both so hungry for each other’s company.

‘Shih, I nehded tha.’

I hadn’t realised how much. It was like a lifeboat to a drowning man, and I suddenly felt buoyant.

Laura

I smiled widely at him, unable to tear my eyes from his face, the anxiety of the last hour and a half gone in an instant. Matt picked up the bag he’d dropped, and handed it to me.

‘Behr, cheesecake, chocolates, DVD. Chocolates for yuh, buh only if yuh share. Cheesecake migh have goh bih squashed on the bus.’

‘You came on the bus?’

‘Yeh. Dohnt drive at the moment. Spasms. Nehly ran someone over. Too scary.’

Matt

Although admitting this wasn’t easy, it was great to be able to say it without having to explain what spasms were, or why they happened, to just know that Lau knew the what and the why, and I didn’t have to spend the next half an hour listening to someone going all ‘oh that’s terrible, I had no idea’.

No, Lau was matter of fact about it, like she was about everything, and she just treated it like she did everything else – the unintelligible bollocks, the exhaustion, the fucked-up downbelows – like it was merely something that was part of me, not something that she had to pick to pieces ad infinitum. Realising this was another revelation, maybe two revelations.

Revelation a) it was possible to treat someone with a fucking bastard neurological condition as if they were a normal person. Revelation b) all of those things – the unintelligibles, the tiredness, the downbelows – were part of me. Holy shit, that was a big revelation and not one I could assimilate right at that moment.

How did you do it, Lau? How did you manage to not see me as just another one of your fucking cripples? Because I swear from the moment we met, you didn’t see it, the fucking bastard, or rather you saw past it or through it or some such shit, and yeah, of course it was there, it’s not like you ignored it or pretended or anything, but it was like it didn’t matter, because you saw me. No one else could do that. To everyone else I was poor Matt, who’d been taken over by this thing, but it was never like that with you, was it. You just saw me.

Anyway, where was I? Blah di blah, snog, bag of stuff, chat about the bus, mention the spasms – oh yeah.

‘Oh. You should have said, we could have done this at yours.’

Yeah, I’d thought about that, but, tortuous bus journey aside, getting out was good.

‘Noh, ih’s fine. Good tuh geh ouh. Not sure how late at nigh the buses goh, tho, soh can I stay?’

I knew it was cheeky, but I also knew it would be OK. All part of the plan.

‘Ooh, what a good ploy to get between my sheets.’

I loved that I was transparent, and that she didn’t mind, and that I’d known she wouldn’t mind.

‘Inspired, I thoht.’

I had plenty more of those sorts of inspirations up my sleeves.

‘Well, as you’ve brought me, let’s see …’

Lau looked into the bag.

‘… a weird French DVD, yesterday’s smushed up cheesecake and … oh my God my favourite chocolates … OK, you can stay.’

The chocolates had been a lucky guess, mostly inspired by the paltry selection available at the corner shop on the way to the bus stop. Fortunately, Lau didn’t have sophisticated cocoa tastes.

‘Ih’s not hard tuh geh into yuhr bed is it?’

‘No, chocolate will do it every time.’

‘Nohted.’

‘Come on down.’

She led the way down the stairs, into the living room and gestured to the sofa.

‘Nah.’

‘What do you mean, ‘nah’?’

I was about to try my luck again. I wasn’t bothered about watching a DVD, mine or hers, but I was bothered about how we were going to be arranged while we did it.

‘Wrong sofa tuh TV configuration. Nehd tuh beh able tuh lie down wih yuh. Nehd tuh move ih.’

Laura

‘What? You want to move my furniture?’

Apart from the bare-faced cheek of it, which should have made me cross, but actually made me laugh, I was imagining the horrors that lurked beneath the sofa, un-vacuumed.

‘Yeh. Feng shui’s all wrong. Sofa should beh facing east.’

‘Oh, do you know about feng shui?’

It didn’t seem like a Matt Scott sort of thing, but he’d constantly surprised me since the day before yesterday. Matt laughed and stroked my cheek.

‘I know fuck all abouh feng bluhdy shui. Lau, you’re soh easy tuh wind up. Jus wanted tuh curl up wih yuh tuh watch DVD, so we can touch a bih an whatever weh fehl like withouh, yuh know, having tuh ask or move too much. An withouh getting a stiff neck watching sideways.’

Curling up on the sofa, touching, and watching Bruce Willis sounded pretty amazing.

‘Oh. Fair enough. But you might have to avert your gaze from the dust bunnies that have perished underneath the sofa. There’s been a bit of a massacre.’

‘OK. Dead bunnies not noticed by meh. I migh have tuh geh yuhr hoover ouh later.’

‘Be my guest.’

We moved the sofa to Matt’s satisfaction, and he sat down while I put the cheesecake and beer in the fridge.

‘Do you want one of these now?’

‘Noh, too warm.’

‘I’ve got some beer already in the fridge, don’t know if it’s your cup of tea.’

Matt

‘Hope ih’s nothing lihk teh. Give ih a shot.’

She came back with drinks, a gin and tonic for her and a bottle of something, er, I want to say Hungarian, for me. I took a mouthful; it was fairly nasty.

‘Ih’s nice an cold.’

‘Is that all that you can say about it?’

‘Er, tastes lihk piss?’

Laura

I laughed. I didn’t know much about beer, and those bottles had been at the back of my fridge since I last had the girls round – beer was Kate’s tipple.

Matt

Lau laughed, not offended in the least. She didn’t seem like a beer drinker, and I wondered how long it had sat in her fridge. Maybe since her last boyfriend – fuck, I needed to find out about that. Or rather, didn’t ever want to find out, didn’t like the thought of her with anyone else. Or maybe it was a brother. Yeah, that’d be it. Brother. Brothers drink beer all the time, in my experience. Lau interrupted my frantic self-reassurance.

‘OK, well you’ll have to wait for yours to cool down then. Or join me in a G and T.’

‘Noh, this’ll do. Wha we eatin?’

Lau handed me a pile of menus, but none of them really hit the spot. I guess I wasn’t that hungry, not for food. I was hungry for time with Lau, couldn’t wait to get my hands on her, and food was just going to get in the way. Lau seemed like a woman who enjoyed her three meals a day, though. Maybe a quicker way would be to go out, if there was anywhere close by – like the coffee shop round the corner. Ideal.

‘How late is Meahn Beahn open?’

‘Until nine, but they don’t deliver either.’

‘Noh, buh they’re so close yuh could almost geh them tuh throw yuhr dinner onto the bluhdy plate. Weh could go there – eat ouh?’

‘If that’s what you want. They haven’t got a huge selection, it’s mostly salads.’

‘Salad is good. Tryin tuh beh healthy.’

And trying to get eating over with as quickly as possible. Serve yourself salad bar five minutes walk away did it for me.

‘OK, then, let’s do it. Now, or in a bit?’

‘In a bih. Leh’s try ouh the new sofa position.’

We got comfortable, me semi-reclining, Lau leaning back against me. I folded my arms round her, leaned down, pushed her hair aside with my mouth and kissed her in that sweet spot just below her ear. I’d learned yesterday just what that did to her, and I’d learned well, as she breathed out a sigh.

Laura

As his breath sighed across my earlobe, all the magical tingles came to life and started partying down below.

‘You can move my furniture anytime.’

‘Doin ih foh yuh?’

‘Very … er … comfortable.’

I sighed and snuggled down against him.

‘I’m not squashing you am I?’

Matt

‘Dohn mind a bih of squashing in the righ places.’

And she was finding all the right places.

‘Then carry on. Do you want to start a DVD, or wait till we’ve eaten?’

I didn’t care, I’d got what I wanted, for now, making a start on the plan.

‘Dohn mind. Happy jus doin this, tuh be honest. Buh ih’s yuhr date nigh, yuh choose.’

‘Oh, this is a date, is it? I’d have dressed up a bit if I’d known.’

‘Yuh look lovely, Lau, yuhr soh beauhiful.’

Laura

Hearing him murmur that in my ear set my pulse racing, especially as he pulled my hair away from my face and stroked his fingertips down the side of my neck.

Matt

It was true, she was beautiful. She was only wearing jeans, and some kind of loose fitting top, but she looked awesome, particularly as I could see her lacy pink bra straps at the wide neck of her top. The bra straps were encouraging, as they were extremely noticeable, extremely sexy and extremely different from the black cotton she had worn before. They spoke to me. They said ‘Come and explore me’. They said ‘I wouldn’t be averse to you seeing more of me’. They said ‘If you think I’m hot, wait till you see what’s underneath me’. They were speaking my language.

‘Well, thanks, but you should see me when I really make an effort. Shall we go in a bit? They run out of homity pie if you leave it too late.’

Oh yeah, food. Focus, Matt, don’t get distracted by talking bra straps.

Laura

I don’t know why food seemed so important – maybe I just wanted to get it over with, so it didn’t get in the way of … anything … later. I was very happy as things were, however, so we stayed cuddled up for a while, then my hunger got the better of me, and I cajoled a slightly reluctant Matt – who seemed happy to loll on the sofa drinking beer for the rest of the evening despite having been the one who suggested going out – to walk down the road.

Going into Mean Bean felt strange; I hadn’t been back since I was there with Matt last time, and that was officially work. Now it was definitely for pleasure. I waved at Bridget and we took seats in a booth. Matt looked at the menu while I had a look at the specials. He seemed fidgety and kept sighing and tutting. Eventually I asked him what the matter was.

‘Jus not rehly hungry. I’d rather be back at yuhrs on yuhr sofa. Buh s’okay. Sohry, I’ll have wha yuh have. Can’t decide.’

‘How about we take it away? Then you can eat it later if you want to.’

He grinned, boyishly happy that his problem had been solved.

‘Soh resourceful. Thanks, Lau. Sure s’okay?’

‘It’s fine. We’ve managed to be outside for, ooh, about ten minutes, that’s enough for anyone.’

We went to the counter and ordered, taking a bag full of salads and pie home. I put some on a plate when we got back, Matt deciding to wait for a while.

‘Which DVD, yours or mine?’

‘Yuhrs. I won’t beh watching ih anyway, I’ll beh otherwise engaged.’

‘Really? Doing what?’

‘Wait an see.’

Matt took up his semi-reclining position on the sofa, then beckoned me over.

‘I think I need to sit up properly to eat this, it’ll go everywhere.’

‘Huhry up, then, gehting lonely.’

I ate a few mouthfuls of salad and a bite of homity pie, which was proper tasty but not what I was hungry for right at that moment. I put my plate on the floor and shuffled into position, grabbing the remote control. I’d eaten enough to stop my stomach rumbling, and now I wanted to get back to the good stuff. Which didn’t really include Mr Bruce Willis, but the whole point was a DVD night, so I decided to play along.

Matt

Lau had filled a plate with salad and homity pie from Mean Bean, but I didn’t want any, couldn’t contemplate eating. Lau only ate a few mouthfuls before, it seemed, she could resist me no longer and turned in to snuggle back against me.

‘Yuh dihnt eat much.’

‘Other things to do. I can go back to it, the joy of salad is it doesn’t get cold.’

‘Wha things?’

‘Oh I’m sure you’ll think of something.’

‘Something like …’

It felt like it was time to get going on the plan. I’m sure by now you’re thinking there’s some elaborate scheme afoot, full of complexities and intrigue. No, just wanted to get in her knickers. It was looking good, though.

‘Hold on, just going to press play. OK, Brucie, do your stuff. You had an idea?’

Well, more of a plan, but …

‘Yeh. Hope Brucie’s not watching.’

‘No, he’s too busy being dead.’

‘Wha? Brucie’s a dead pehpl? Yuh spoilt the whole film now. Definitely noh poin watching. OK, I was jus gona see … if … this …’

I stroked lightly down her neck to the top of her shoulders and touched one of the bra straps.

‘… is as sexy as it looks.’

I noticed her shiver slightly under my touch, and heard her gasp as I pulled the top to one side slightly, pushing my finger between the strap and her smooth skin, then ran my finger along the inside of her neckline, touching the curve of her breast. I was hardly breathing, it was such a huge moment. I could do this in my sleep, had done so countless times, but it felt as if it had never meant so much, there had certainly never been as much riding on my moves as on me being able to turn Lau on. I wanted us to click, I wanted to show her how I could make her feel, I wanted to show her how I felt about her.

Laura

I nearly forgot to breathe. He didn’t explore down any further inside my bra, but pulled his hand out of my top and gently cupped my breast outside the fabric, leaving his hand resting there and leaning over to kiss my neck.

In my position leaning up against him, I couldn’t reach much but I ran my hands along his outer thigh to his knee to an accompanying sigh. Matt’s hands began another little journey inside my top, this time pulling the neck down as low as he could to get a look at my bra.

Matt

I was ready for any sign that Lau was anything less than willing, but all I could feel was her melting into me, tiny hitches in her breathing, her eyes fluttering closed, the smile spreading from the corners of her mouth.

It was so sexy, being able to touch her, think completely about what I could do for her, without having to worry about what was happening for me (which was still a big fat nothing and barring a miracle was likely to stay that way for the foreseeable).

I started another foray inside her top, this time pulling the neck down as low as I could to get a look at her bra. It was lacy, made of something translucent, bright pink, with flowers embroidered here and there. It was definitely a bra that had been designed to be seen, not just to support.

‘Looks awesome, Lau. Thought yuh dihnt dress up tonigh?’

‘Not on the outside.’

‘Did yuh wear this foh meh?’

‘Yeah.’

As she said it, I felt it. A little spark, a fizz, in my fucked-up downbelows. It was the first time I’d felt anything down there for months, and I gasped and wrapped my arms round her tightly, kissing her hard where her neck met her shoulder. Maybe, just maybe, this was that unlikely miracle, and she was going to make me better.

‘What was that for?’

‘Jus goh a tingle in my dick. Not had any tingles fuh soh bluhdy long. Thanks Lau.’

Laura

Tingles were great, I was getting plenty, and I wanted to congratulate him. I reached my hand back behind me and stroked the back of his neck as well as I could.

On the screen, Bruce Willis was being murdered. Off screen, something was coming to life.

Iz

Right then folks, here is a huge bit of parental guidance. Matty is about to do some very naughty things to Lau, and if you are at all squeamish about what your more mature relations might have got up to, then skip ahead a bit. Don’t mind me, I’ve had to read it in all its minute detail, thanks Lau, but I wouldn’t want any of the rest of you to have to unless you want to. Scarred for life doesn’t even cover it.

Matt

I wondered if she knew how momentous this was, how much I’d dreaded never feeling anything there again. The tingles disappeared almost as soon as they had arrived, but rather than hanker after them, I sat back with a sigh, and started running my fingers through her hair, rubbing her scalp in small circles. Then, still rubbing her head with one hand, I moved the other down to her breast, still over the top of her shirt, where I continued with the same circular motions. Wanting to feel her skin, I moved my hand under her top and then up, to the fabric of her bra, rubbing my fingers lightly over her nipple. It went hard straight away, and I knew she was feeling it, and I was going to give her as much pleasure as I was capable of, as much as she would let me. Nipples aside, though, she wasn’t letting me know how she was feeling. I needed to hear from her before I went any further.

Laura

I was trying really hard not to react, as I didn’t want to freak him out again, but the sensation was overwhelmingly erotic, and I had started to throb in all the places where throbbing was required. I hardly dared to move, because if I did, I was going to jump on him, and that would ruin it, because it was breathtakingly sensual.

‘Is this OK, Lau?’

I bent my head up to try and look him in the eye.

‘Are you kidding me? It’s amazing. I’m on fire.’

‘Yuhr not saying anything.’

‘I can hardly speak.’

Matt

That was alright then. Speechless with desire was fine.

‘Want mohr?’

Laura

‘Just go slowly, there’s no hurry.’

Although my body was trying to have a serious argument with that statement.

Matt

She was being considerate of me, now, of my fucked-up downbelows, letting me know she could wait. Oh but this so wasn’t going to be about me. At least not in the usual way. I was going to get off on getting Lau off.

‘I’m happy wih my tingle. I wan to duh something foh yuh. Take yuh top off?’

Laura

Oh God, oh God, he wanted to undress me. He pulled at the bottom of my shirt and lifted it over my head as I sat forwards, lifted my arms up and just let him. Laura Shoeman you are such a tart.

Matt

‘Turn roun.’

I wanted to see her, all of her. The view from above was pretty awesome, she had a great cleavage, and her bosom heaved prettily as she breathed, but I suspected she would be stupendous from the front.

Laura

I swivelled to face him, so I was kneeling between his legs, and he looked at me, first at my breasts, enclosed in the pink see-through bra, then at my face, as if trying to gauge something. He’d seen me in my underwear twice already, but this wasn’t my boring black cotton, this was my date night see-through pink lace. He could definitely see my nipples. I didn’t care; in fact, I was enjoying the look on his face a lot.

Matt

OK, when I said it wasn’t going to be about me, I didn’t mean I wasn’t going to enjoy any of it. Oh she was breath-taking. Her pink bra with the embroidered flowers contained her full breasts, and I could see the buds of swollen nipples peeking from beneath the petals. I could feel my eyes going wide as I looked at her, but Lau didn’t seem self-conscious at all, just watched me looking at her, her mouth slightly open.

So, plan going well thus far. I had wondered how far I could go – I knew how far I wanted to take it, but didn’t want to be too pushy. However, Lau didn’t seem at all hesitant or unsure, and seeing her kneeling there, looking at me, I knew I was going to try for all the way, the big O. I knew what I was doing when it came to coming, although I had been out of practice for a while.

I leaned forwards and slowly pushed Lau backwards, so she was lying on her back and I was kneeling between her legs. I bent down to the flowery bra and put my mouth over her nipple, sucking and nibbling the hard nub through the lace. Lau moaned softly and held my face to her by winding her fingers in my hair. Holy fuck she was sexy.

Laura

Oh God, I felt like I was ablaze all over, with special ultra-flaming hotspots. His tongue found its way inside my bra, and he pulled the cups down below my breasts so my nipples were exposed, like actually out in the open, and then he began a twin assault with tongue and fingers that sent shooting stars from my chest to my groin. I thought I was going to explode with pleasure.

Matt

I was expecting, or maybe just hoping for, more tingles, but they didn’t arrive, so I just continued. This really, really, wasn’t about me, although I was enjoying myself immensely.

I pushed my tongue inside her bra, and pulled the cups down to expose her nipples. They were pink and perky and very happy to see me, and just begging to be touched; I bent my head again, and took one into my mouth, the other between my fingers. She felt so good, so soft, and the flesh of her breast quivered enticingly with every movement.

‘Oh my God you’re good at this.’

I looked up at her, smiling. She must have known I’d done it before.

‘Lohs of practice. Hahnt yuh heard?’

Laura

And that was just it; I had heard. I knew just how experienced he was, yet here I was, Laura Shoeman, being undressed by Matt Scott. It felt unreal, almost as if I was dreaming. All those times I’d seen him copping off with women here, there and everywhere, had I been secretly wishing it was me? I mean so secretly that I didn’t even tell myself, obviously, because if you’d asked me more than a couple of days ago, I would have denied that Matt Scott was my type, whatever that may have meant. I didn’t have a ‘type’, unless ‘feckless loser’ was a type. No time to think about it now, things were happening rather quickly …

At the same time as Matt’s hand travelled down towards my jeans, which he opened expertly with one hand, exposing my matching pink see through pants, he started kissing his way down my abdomen, sucking my belly-button and licking all the way to the top of the my pants. He looked up at my face every so often, checking I was OK. I was more than OK, I was in ecstasy.

Matt

I opened her jeans with one hand, impressed at my coordination, which didn’t seem to have deserted me in my time of need, yay.

Lau was wearing pink lacy see-through knickers that matched her bra, and as I reached her belly-button with my tongue, I noticed the dark, trimmed triangle that was clearly visible. I was approaching my destination, and was hoping I could get Lau to hers in good time. I looked up at her face again, checking it was still OK, that she was fine with me being here, touching her here. The look on her face told me she was more than fine, and I sent my tongue on a mission to complete the journey.

I pushed the lacy knickers down slightly and ran my tongue along the top of her mound, as she moved slowly beneath me, then I pushed her knickers back up and continued licking over the fabric. I stopped briefly to push her jeans down her thighs, giving me more room to manoeuvre, leaned forwards and found her swollen and ready. As I pushed the tip of my tongue over her, then sucked through the sheer fabric, Lau moaned and wriggled against me, pushing her hips up against my tongue. I smiled into her, and began kissing my way back up to her breasts, feeling behind her to try and undo her bra strap. I couldn’t manage it, as she was lying on her back, so she sat up for me, as I pulled her to me and unhooked her, pulling the straps down her arms and the bra completely off, revealing her naked breasts.

Laura

He pulled me to him, kissing my mouth thoroughly as he put his arms around my back, unhooking me easily, then slowly pulled the straps down my arms, revealing me, completely topless.

He stared at me as if he’d never seen a pair of breasts in his life before.

Matt

I had to stop and stare. Fuuuuck she was beautiful. I already knew she was the most beautiful, most desirable woman I’d ever seen, that we were destined to be together, but I was destined to be with this woman, who had the face and body of an angel. I was bowled over.

‘Lau, you’re fucking gorgeous.’

She smiled self-deprecatingly and wiggled her chest so her breasts jiggled; I had to close my eyes for a second, the sight was overwhelming. They didn’t stay closed for long, though; too much to see.

Laura

Well tart doesn’t even begin to describe it, Laura Shoeman. Oh but I was so loving it, how he made me feel, as if I was the first woman he’d ever enjoyed, as if he was discovering all this for the first time. Sex had, for me, previously been fairly perfunctory with an expectation that it was my job to make sure the guy had a good time. Matt was totally focussed on me, for whatever reason, and it was unbelievably hot.

‘Holy, holy fuck, I migh jus die now, hahpy man.’

Matt bent his head down to my breasts and sucked as much of each of them into his mouth as he could while I arched my back under the touch of his tongue and lips.

Matt

After a while, I remembered that this wasn’t about me, although Lau did seem to be enjoying herself regardless, and I pushed her onto her back again, restarting my journey downwards.

Laura

He reached his destination with his hands first, and slipped his fingers below the fabric of my pants – oh sweet Lord, Matt Scott was officially in my pants. I should be going ‘who the hell do you think you are’ and ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing’, but instead I was going ‘ooh’ and ‘mmm’ and ‘oh God’ and ‘yes’ – then he began to pull my jeans and underwear off. I lifted my bum up to make it easier, and as soon as he had dropped my clothes on the floor, he clamped his mouth over me, kissing and sucking, using teeth and tongue, igniting me. Oh my God, he knew where everything was, and not only that, he knew just what to do with it!

I arched my back, wanting his mouth as tight against me as I could get it so I could get the most out of this. I’d heard Matt Scott was an expert lover, but that usually meant wham, bam, thank you ma’am, let’s go again, not putting just the right amount of pressure in just the right place for just the right length of time until wowzers. His tongue licked in broad strokes from back to front, which then became narrower and narrower until he was using just the tip to explore and excite me. I felt his tongue enter me, searching for the sensitive spots, and his fingers danced over me as I squirmed and moaned. I could feel him smiling into me as I pushed my pelvis against his face, trying to feel more of him in me, wanting more, wanting him all.

Matt

I lifted my mouth away and moved my fingers into position, knowing I was going to make her come like this, she was ready, she wanted it. I pushed my middle finger up inside her, feeling the welcoming heat and moisture wrap itself around me. As I felt my way, I sent a second finger inside her, increasing Lau’s movements and moaning.

Laura

Once he was certain of his geography, he began to push harder, finding the places that made me buck and groan, thrusting into me as I pushed against him, feeling myself flowing towards a climax.

Matt

I started to push harder, finding the spots that made her buck against me, and then, as I found the right places, I started to thrust hard and fast with one hand, stroking backwards and forwards with the other, as I felt her building, the tension in her climbing, until she was on the edge.

Laura

He suddenly replaced the fingers which were sending me skywards with his mouth, and the tip of his tongue flicked backwards and forwards a few times, sending ripples of longing to gather and wait until, as he thrust harder and faster with his fingers, I felt myself stiffen as the pressure built higher and higher, and then I exploded in wave after wave of rapturous pulses.

‘Oh my God, Matt, oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God.’

He licked and stroked me for a while as the sensation swam around me, making me dizzy, then ebbed away; then he slowly made his way up my body until he was lying almost on top of me, to kiss me on the mouth. I responded as best I could, but was in no state to think of anything but the most spectacular orgasm I had ever had. It was mind-blowing; I was still having aftershocks. From the start, there had been that connection fizzing and buzzing between us, but that … just Wow! I had never felt like that before with anyone. I really got it now. Thirty-four years old and I finally found out what all the fuss was about.

Matt

I continued licking and stroking her for a while, feeling very pleased with myself as she quietened, as the pulsing slowed; then I slowly kissed my way back up her body until we were face to face, so I could kiss her mouth. She tasted fucking incredible, and I wanted her to taste herself too. She lay, panting, and kissed me gently back.

‘Enjoyed tha then?’

She nodded.

‘Any feedback?’

Never let it be said I’m not needy. I require constant praise and reassurance about my sexual performance, and I’m not afraid to ask for it. Lau shook her head in answer.

‘Thumbs up or down?’

I got a double thumbs up. I was getting that I’d taken her breath away. Result.

‘Thanks foh the tingle, Lau.’

She found her voice.

‘Blimey, if I get that for a tingle, what will I get when you get a full-on stiffy?’

‘Well ih’ll beh worth the wait. Oh look, Brucie’s still dead.’

‘Isn’t there something I could do for you?’

I shook my head. ‘Noh, I wish sohmthing was goin on, buh Ih’ll have tuh settle fuh getting ohf on Bruhce.’

‘Ha ha. You’re so lovely.’

Lau was glowing, and I have to admit to a bit of a satisfied inner warmth too. I won’t say I’d never looked after the woman exclusively, because I wasn’t a total self-centred bastard with Carrie or with Jules, but there had always been that little bit that asked when I was going to get mine. But I wasn’t going to tonight, dick-tingle notwithstanding, and that had been awesomely erotic, so sexy. I’d executed my plan with one hundred per cent success.

Laura

He sat up, handed me my top and renewed his reclined position at the other end of the sofa, looking like a kid with a lollipop. I sat up slowly, still reeling from it all, pulling my top on and collecting my pants and jeans from the floor, collecting myself, pulling my clothes on. Matt beckoned me over to him again, and I resumed my position against him and sighed contentedly as he pulled my hair away from my neck and resumed the gentle stroking he’d been doing before.

Was this really happening? Had I just had the most awesome oral sex from a man who, a few days ago, if I’d thought of him at all, I would have wanted to slap, but now thought about almost constantly with a soppy smile?

Matt

She sighed against me as I continued to stroke her hair, her arms, her cheek, anything I could touch. I felt so connected to her, although, yeah, she was practically lying on top of me, so that was fairly easy.

‘Hahpy?’
She nodded drowsily, and I wondered if it was too early to suggest going to bed. Then my phone pinged with Beth’s tone.

‘Hi Matty. How’s your day been? Have you had dinner yet? Lasagne if you’re interested, J can fetch you.’

‘No thanks, just eaten.’ Yeah, it was rude and I was the only one who got the joke, but it made me smile. ‘Good day, caught up with housework :%’

I felt Lau’s raised eyebrow.

‘Yeh, OK, wise one, they lehv meh alone if I reply. Noh need tuh look soh smug.’

‘How can you see what I’m looking like? You can only see the top of my head.’
‘Top of yuhr head looks bluhdy smug.’

I bent down and kissed her on the top of said smug-looking head, then folded my arms round her. We lay quietly together, while Bruce Willis wrestled with dead people. I wasn’t at all interested in his struggles, but was extremely happy he’d given me an excuse to be here with this fabulous woman.

There was another ping, but it wasn’t from my phone. Lau carried on nuzzling her cheek against my hand. I wasn’t complaining, but felt I needed to point out the injustice of the situation.

‘One rule fuh me, then?’

‘What?’
‘You dohnt have tuh answer yuhr texts?’

‘Oh. I thought it was yours.’

Lau pulled her phone out of her pocket and looked at the screen. I glanced at it over her shoulder, and caught the first few words.

‘Keep your sorrys. How could you Lau?’

Oh bugger, this didn’t look too good.

Laura

‘Stay away from me. I don’t want to talk to you if I can help it.’

‘Oh damn.’

‘Wha?’
‘Remember the stuff that hit the fan earlier? At work?’

Matt

I’d been so caught up, first in the bus journey over, and then in Lau, that it had slipped my mind.

‘Shih, Lau, I completely forgot. I mehnt tuh ask. Are yuh OK?’

‘Well, that was Rachel, the one who sent you the text. Could be friendship over.’

No, surely not. Hadn’t Lau said it was years ago?

‘Shih, Lau. Why ‘xacly? Is ih because of meh?’

She went quiet, and I didn’t know what to think, whether she was blaming me, or trying to spare me, or what.

Laura

I thought for a moment, wondering if it was because of Matt, or me, or Matt and me, or whether in the end it was because of Rachel.

‘Lau?’
‘I think it’s complicated. Apparently you and Rach had a one night stand some time ago – probably getting on for two years. She … it meant more to her than it did to you, and she hasn’t properly ever got over it. I knew what this – us – would do to her, so I guess I’ve chosen you over her. She’s going to be pretty upset and angry. I’m not sure if it’s mendable.’

Matt

She was speaking quietly, as if she was trying hard not to let it be a drama, but this was a friend of hers, someone she saw every day. It felt somewhat unreal for this … thing … that must have happened years ago could be causing so much grief now.

‘Buh – shih, Lau, I haven’t – I’ve only been wih Jules fuh – it must have been bluhdy ages ago. Even befohr Jules, I was trying tuh clean up my act, not beh such a bastahd, noh mohr one-nighers. I know ih’s not up tuh meh tuh say, buh shouldn’t she beh gehting a life?’

It really wasn’t up to me to say, I knew that, but I felt a sudden surge of panic, that after all this time, of deciding what I needed to do to put things right, my past was still popping up with this kind of shit to fuck with people’s lives.

Laura

‘Well, that’s what we’ve all tried to tell her, but you never know what’s going to mess you up, do you? I think she had a major crush on you before you slept with her, and in her mind it was the start of something big, so when she never heard from you, and the next time you saw her you blanked her like you didn’t know her, she was crushed.’

It felt a bit unreal to talk about it, the thing that Rachel had talked about so many times, with the person on the other end of it sitting here with me. Matt was silent. So quiet and still that I turned round to look at his face, which had gone white.

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 –


68. Lean on me

In which help is sought, and a sudden plan is made.

Dec

It seemed like I was having some success with distracting Matt, until his phone rang. He picked it up from the counter and looked at the screen. From the mixture of hope and sorrow on his face, I guessed it was Julia.

He talked to her for a short time, sounding calm and detached but looking more and more upset, at one point finding the cut along his cheekbone with his fingers. Then, just as he asked Julia if she was OK, she hung up on him.

‘Hello? Fuck.’

He looked at me miserably.

}She wants to come and get her stuff, clothes, everything. She hasn’t got her keys, having used them as target practice, so I’ve got to let her in. Shit, we only just moved it all in last weekend, I can’t believe it. Fuck it, I’m going to have to cancel the order for that fucking bed. Here, Dec –

He handed me the mountainous sandwich.

}– I’ve lost my appetite. Oh, and double fuck, I’m going to have to clean the fucking place up before she gets there.

‘Why?’

}Because there’s broken stuff all over the place, it’s a fucking mess.

‘Well, she threw it, I don’t see why you have to go rushing back to clear it all up to make it look tidy. Fuck her, let her see the mess she made. What time is she coming?’

}She said before work, so before nine.

‘Well you won’t have time then, you’re coming with me when I fetch Amy and Charlie, to get your car, so you’ll probably get there when she does. Oh, you’re staying here tonight, by the way, did I not mention?’

}I think you neglected to, but I was hoping. Thanks mate. Your couch is much appreciated. For sleeping purposes, soul-baring purposes and avoiding being the fuck at home on my own purposes. Thanks. Really, Dec, thanks.

He looked at me, I saw his face wobble, and he started to cry again. He looked lost and alone. Matt didn’t really do outward displays of emotion, but I reached towards him and hugged him. He clung on, sobbing hard. I ‘ssh’ed him and ‘it’s OK’ed him for a long time, until he ran out of tears and breath, and it all subsided. He stepped back, putting his hands over his face, breathing heavily. Rubbed his eyes. Looked up, embarrassed.

‘Sorry mate, I’m behaving like a fucking lunatic. Took me by surprise. It just creeps up on me. This morning I was living with her, now I’m not. I’m really going to miss her. Shit, what a fucking mess. I don’t want to feel like this, I can’t fucking handle it.’

He looked like he might start crying again, but walked away, into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Leaned forwards, head in his hands. I sat next to him, waiting. After a while he looked up.

}Know what? I think … maybe I should give your head-shrink bloke a try. Do you think he could help me sort my fucking life out?

‘Yeah, I do, but you’ve got to think it too. No point going just because I tell you to.’

}When have I ever done anything just because you sodding well told me to?

‘OK then.’

I took out my phone and dialled a number.

ɸAdam Palmer.

‘Adam, hi, it’s Declan Summers –’

Matt spluttered into the beer he had just lifted to his mouth.

}Fuck, Dec, I didn’t mean now.

‘– sorry it’s a bit late on a Sunday.’

ɸHello Declan. No problem. What can I do for you?

‘Well, I just wondered if you’d be able to fit in a friend of mine for an appointment?’

ɸOf course, if I can, how soon are you thinking?

‘As soon as possible, really.’

ɸOK, let’s have a look … well it might be a bit short notice, but I’ve had a cancellation. Do you think your friend would be able to come tomorrow?

‘I think he would. He’s actually here, can you talk to him?’

ɸThat sounds like a good idea. What’s his name?

‘Matt. Matthew Scott.’

If Adam recognised his name from our sessions, he didn’t show it.

ɸAlright, put him on.

‘Thanks Adam, much appreciated.’

I handed my phone over. Matt looked very uncomfortable, but reluctantly took the phone, holding it by his fingertips, as if it was hot.

}Hello … yeah … Matt, only my mum calls me Matthew … yeah … well I could … yeah, I’m free then … no, I don’t … no, don’t worry, I’ll ask Dec. He’ll probably bloody tie me up and drive me there himself, he’s so bloody keen … no, no, I – I think I need to … yeah … do I have to bring anything or do anything? … OK. Thanks very much. Yeah. See you tomorrow.

He handed me back the phone.

}I’m not getting much opportunity to change my mind at the moment, am I?

‘Not about to risk giving you the chance to. Honestly, Matt, it’ll be fine. You don’t know him, he doesn’t know you, you can tell him anything, everything, he’ll never tell another soul. It’s liberating. It’ll help. In the meantime, I think we need a diversion. Fancy putting a cot together?’

}Er, what?

‘Well, I’ve been meaning to do it for ages, we bought it weeks ago, it’s flat-pack. I guess with Charlie coming home tomorrow it’s about time I did it. Give me a hand? You’ll save me a bollocking from Amy.’

Matt rolled his eyes, and the hint of a smile caught the corner of his mouth. It seemed my diversion had worked – he could be all holier-than-thou about my lack of organisation, then he could help me with the cot, both of which would take his mind off the fact that he had just made an appointment to see a counsellor.

}You are fucking priceless. Your daughter comes home tomorrow morning, and you haven’t even got her anywhere to sleep yet.

‘Give me a break, she wasn’t due for another few days, I thought I had plenty of time.’

}Where exactly are you going to put this cot when you’ve, or rather we’ve, or more likely I’ve, built it? This isn’t quite Buckingham Palace is it.

‘She’ll have to be in our bedroom. We’ve been looking at houses and stuff, but there just hasn’t been time to get anything sorted.’

Matt looked at me and shook his head, enjoying feeling superior.

}Well we can at least give the poor neglected child a place to sleep. You get the screwdriver, I’ll get the beers. No arguments about sugar and shit, it’s a well known fact that beer helps you read flat-pack instructions.

As he predicted, Matt ended up doing most of the work. I was pretty useless at DIY, and had to hunt for the only screwdriver I possessed before I found it at the back of a drawer. Matt read the instructions and put everything together, while I handed him screws and bits of wood – sometimes they were even the right screws and bits of wood. We got through more beer, finished Matt’s monster sandwich and microwaved some popcorn.

Jay called me.

‘Hey.’

łJust checking on Matty. Is he OK?

‘Getting there. We’re building a cot.’

Matt looked at me.

‘OK, he’s building, I’m watching and supplying refreshments.’

łJust wondering if me or Beth need to be around tomorrow?

‘Can’t hurt, keep in touch. Here, talk to him.’

I handed my phone over.

}Hey … been better … yeah, she called, wants to pick her stuff up tomorrow … yeah, it is a bit … yeah, I’m staying here tonight, on Dec’s bloody uncomfortable sofa … yeah, I’ll be around, I’ll call, or you can call if you want – oh, I’ll have my phone off for an hour or so in the afternoon, so don’t go alerting the fucking coastguard if I don’t answer … I know, I know … I don’t know, I’ll have to see what it’s like being there … thanks, I might. Your sofa is marginally more comfortable anyway, with the added bonus of no day old infants screaming their heads off all night … yeah, thanks … OK, love back to her. Speak tomorrow.

He handed the phone back.

}Don’t think I’m going to be telling Jay about seeing Adam.

‘OK. Understood.’

}Thanks. OK, I think this is just about finished. Would you like to screw in the last screw, just so you can say you helped?

‘Hey, I helped. I supplied you with beer, I microwaved popcorn, I handed you stuff. You couldn’t have done it without me.’

}I would have been finished half an hour ago without you giving me dowels instead of bolts.

‘Fuck off.’

}You fuck off. Your next job is clearing all this shit up, where’s your hoover?

‘Oh bollocks to that, it’s too late.’

}Dec, in case you’ve forgotten, you are bringing your tiny baby home tomorrow. Now, Charlie won’t notice if the place looks like a war zone, but Amy certainly will and to avoid the maritals, I suggest a bit of an effort is made. You need to clean the kitchen up too.

I looked around. The floor was covered in sawdust, cardboard packaging, plastic packets and beer bottles. There was a fair amount of popcorn down there too. Clearing up was the last thing I wanted to start doing right now, but I imagined Amy’s face if she walked in to it tomorrow morning. Went and fetched the hoover.

‘I’m not sure I know how to work it. What do all these brushes and things do? Where’s the switch?’

}Dec, what precisely do you do with yourself all day when you’re not hurling a rugby ball around?

I shrugged, grinning sheepishly.

}I think Amy’s going to have her work cut out getting you to be a new man, you’re worse than Jay – ah, I’ve just realised who your domestic role model was in your formative years. Right, I’ll sort the kitchen, you get rid of all this lot and hoover the floor.

It didn’t take too long to sort everything out. When we had finished, I carried the cot into the bedroom and spent some time trying to find the right spot for it. I was sure Amy would move it tomorrow anyway, but I needed to do it myself to start with. Then I got a couple of blankets out of a cupboard, grabbed Amy’s pillows off the bed, took it all into the living room and put it on the sofa.

‘Hope you’re not too uncomfortable.’

}Cheers, mate. I’ll be fine, won’t sleep much anyway.

‘Well I’m fucking wiped. I haven’t slept, apart from the odd doze in a chair, since yesterday morning. Hope you don’t mind, I’m going to bed. Stay up as long as you want, watch TV, eat stuff, drink stuff, steal the silverware, whatever you want. You know where I am if you need me – just wake me up if you need anything, talk, whatever. I won’t mind. Thanks for helping me with the cot and everything.’

}Least I could do. Thanks for … all this, again. Seriously don’t know where I’d be without you. You’re a good mate. The best.

‘Time you went to bed, mate, you’re getting slushy. Doesn’t suit you.’

}Fuck off, then you bloody nutter.

‘That’s better. See you tomorrow.’

Matt

Dec took me back to their flat, patched me up with some beer, and got me to talk about it. After several attempts, I managed to talk to Jules, but she wouldn’t tell me where she was and hung up on me. I cried. I talked. Jules called me back and said she wanted to fetch her stuff from the flat the next day. She was so cold about it, wouldn’t talk to me about anything except what she needed to do. It’s not like she seemed like a different person, I knew she could do this, turn the Ice Queen on and off, but she hadn’t directed it at me for a long time, and it hurt a lot.

As I talked to Dec and my ability to think slowly returned, I understood what I’d done to Jules. In a way, it was exactly what Carrie had done to me. I’d let Jules think I was someone, that we were the same, wanted the same things. And then, without warning, I’d as good as told her I was someone different, that I was choosing a different life over her, a life she couldn’t understand and assumed I would never want. I hadn’t left Jules for an ex, but I could imagine she felt as betrayed by me right now as I had all those years ago when Carrie tore me to pieces.

It suddenly seemed like my time with Jules had been book-ended by me being a bastard. That first day, in my flat, when I just took her, carelessly, thoughtlessly; that was bastard thing number one. Then I tried to change, wanted to make sure it never happened again, and it didn’t, not in that way, but it didn’t stop bastard thing number two, when if I’d exercised a little self-reflection, I might have been able to prevent Jules from being hurt, or at least as hurt as she had been. Two selfish acts, enclosing nearly a year of whatever you want to call it – love? Togetherness? Even now, after all this time with Lau, I don’t quite know how to categorise what we had. At the time, all I could think about was what I’d done to Jules, how much I’d hurt her and how much I was going to miss her.

Jay called me, ostensibly to give me his standard ‘be strong, stay positive’ advice, then Dec gave me a bed for the night, or rather his lumpy sofa; going home wasn’t an option, I just couldn’t face it, but hadn’t known how to ask. Usually I wouldn’t have had any such scruples, fuck knows I’d had to sleep on their couch enough times when I’d been shit-faced in the past, but given that Dec had been up for nearly two days straight with Amy and Charlie, I had just enough about me to realise that I might be at the very least a bit of an inconvenience. Dec insisted, however, and we spent the rest of the evening putting a cot together and drinking beer. Or rather, I did both of those, and Dec sat on the floor handing me the wrong screws and trying not to fall asleep.

Dec

I grabbed my phone and went into the bedroom, just about awake enough to strip off my clothes and fall into bed. I wanted to text Amy before I fell asleep – I had felt an insistent tug at my heart throughout the evening, as if I was connected to them by invisible string, and I just wanted some contact.

Me: =Hey babe ru still awake?

Amy: =Yeh, Charlie’s having supper.

Me: =Can I call u?

Amy: =Pleeeeease xx.

I pressed ‘call’. From the living room, I heard voices and laughter coming from the TV.

‘Hey gorgeous. I missed you.’

)We missed you too. Although we did have quite a long sleep after you’d gone.

‘That’s great, babe, you must be shattered.’

)So must you. How’s Matt?

‘He’s in a bit of a state. He’s going to stay here tonight, doesn’t want to go home. Julia’s collecting her stuff tomorrow. He’ll find that pretty tough I think, he’s got to let her in. Oh – that’s how he got that cut under his eye, she threw the keys at him.

)Really? She did it on purpose?

‘Not sure. But it sounded like she lost it big time. He’s tried calling her, but she won’t talk to him. He’s pretty cut up, so I tried to take his mind off it. We did some flat-pack therapy, he put the cot together for us and I plied him with drink.’

)Oh, I’m so glad you’ve done the cot, I remembered about that this afternoon. How does it look?

‘Pretty good. Better than if I’d done it. It’s right here next to the bed, waiting for its important occupant. How is she?’

)She’s amazing. The most beautiful baby girl ever. Don’t forget the stroller car seat thingy tomorrow, will you?

‘I’ll try not to. It’s by the door. I’ll be there about half eight, OK?’

)Can’t wait to come home, hon. I love you.

‘I love you too. Will you marry me?’

)You know I will.

‘Just checking … I’m falling asleep here, babe, I’d better go. See you tomorrow.’

)Bye hon. Sleep well.

I ended the call, then opened the video file and watched the clip of Amy and Charlie until my eyes closed and I slept.

Dreaming. I am with Mum and Dad, we are flying above the world. I show them everything I’ve done, everywhere I’ve been, everyone I’ve loved since they’ve been gone. I show them Amy and Charlie. They love it all.

… woke up in the dark, the sound of breathing close to my face. Sat up, felt something brush my face.

‘Fuck!’

}Dec, are you OK? You were making your weird noises, but it sounded like you were crying. I couldn’t tell if you were awake or not.

I leaned over and put the light on. Matt was standing uncertainly by the bed. I touched my face; it was wet.

‘What the fuck are you doing there in the dark?’

}Sorry, mate, I didn’t want to put the light on and wake you up. Are you OK?

I sat up, took a deep breath, ran my hands over my face. Rubbed it away.

‘Yeah, I’m OK. I was having a dream. I was showing Charlie to Mum and Dad.’

Matt sat on the edge of the bed and gave me a sympathetic grimace.

}It must be hard, them not being around, especially today.

‘Yeah, I still miss them, and I still get sad when I think about them. I wish they were here, but if they were, I’d have a different life, so what’s the fucking point in wishing, doesn’t change anything.’

}Do you know what, they’d be so proud of you, and of Charlie. Major achievement.

‘Yeah, she is. My finest to date. Sorry I woke you up.’

}Wasn’t asleep. Fuck, you make some weird noises, don’t know how Amy puts up with it.

‘She used to think it was cute. I think she’s a bit less charmed now. Not much I can do about it really.’

}You don’t still have nightmares do you?

‘Fuck no, at least if I do I don’t remember them. No, that all stopped way back, once everything was sorted. Just keep everyone else awake now. Poor Ames, between me and Charlie she’s going to have zero sleep for, like, ever.’

I ran my hands over my face again.

‘I need to get back to sleep, early start. Sorry, Matt. How are you doing?’

}Just doing lots of thinking. Can’t sleep, stuff going round and round – should’ves, wish I’ds, fuck I’m such an idiots. Not productive. Hope your man can sort me out.

‘Just going to the appointment’s a start. Try to get some sleep, mate.’

}Will do.

He closed the door on his way out. I clicked on a photo of Charlie on my phone, and fell asleep gazing at her.

Deep, dreamless sleep.

Matt

I got little sleep, but it was nothing to do with Dec’s incredibly uncomfortable couch. I’d already called Phil and told him I wouldn’t be in to work the next day, but I had to be up and about early so I could let Jules in to my flat to pick up her stuff, as she’d left her keys in my flat together with a chunk of my face. I wasn’t looking forward to it; she’d asked me not to hang around, but the thought of going back afterwards and seeing space where her things had been filled me with dread.

I was a wreck. I got through the night by watching all the crap they put on TV in the dead of night – repeats of comedy shows, twenty four hour news channels, documentaries with little basis in fact and a lot of basis in hysteria – and going over everything that had happened today, and everything that was going to happen tomorrow.

As well as Jules extricating her life from mine, I had, in a moment of weakness, agreed to see Dec’s psychologist. Not only agreed, but actually made an appointment, for the following afternoon. I couldn’t see a way out of it now, without the combined forces of the Scotts descending on my arse, and so I was worrying about that too.

So, all in all, not a great night. I dozed a bit, and at one point I thought I heard crying coming from Dec’s room. I tapped on his door and went into his room, but he was asleep, obviously having one of his mad sleep moments. As I was about to leave, he woke up, and he was OK, I think he’d been dreaming about his parents. Hardly surprising that day of all days; I don’t think they were ever far from his mind, and I know he felt their absence more now he was a father. I headed back to the sofa and the TV, but by the time Dec stirred in the morning, I hadn’t managed any proper sleep.

Julia

Evie’s friend Julian’s brother was called Henry. He picked me up in his van at eight thirty; I’d told Matt I was going to be there before work, but not that I’d taken the morning off, so he should be expecting me. The door to the lobby had been wedged open, so Henry and I climbed the stairs and I rang the doorbell to the apartment, feeling strange and unreal, not looking forward to seeing Matt again, or to sorting through the things I had there. There was no answer. I rang again, longer. Still no answer. Angry, I pulled my phone out of my bag and called Matt’s number. There was no reply. I didn’t know what to do. Henry had given up a morning of his time to help me, and now we couldn’t even get in. I apologised to him, as my phone started to ring. It was Matt.

‘Sorry, I’m just in the car park. I stayed at Dec’s last night. I’m just coming.’

I tried to dampen my anger, but I was too wound up. By the time he rounded the corner at the top of the stairs and apologetically let us in, throwing a curious glance at Henry, I could hardly speak, and didn’t trust myself not to say or do something I would regret. Matt was true to his word, and once he had opened the door, he disappeared back down the stairs. I had barely been able to glance at him, but my quick inspection told me he looked awful – pale, dishevelled, with red-rimmed eyes. I suspected I didn’t look much better.

Entering the apartment, we were greeted by the aftermath of my rampage the day before. I had almost forgotten breaking all the crockery, and smashing the coffee cup against the wall. The reminder shocked me, and looking at Henry’s face, it shocked him too. I decided not to refer to it, but I was shaken at the state of the place. Matt always kept it neat and tidy, and to see it scattered with broken bits of china and glass felt wrong. It seemed like a metaphor.

I pointed out a couple of things that Henry could carry down to the van, and while he did that, I put all my clothes in the two suitcases I had borrowed from Evie. I emptied my side of the wardrobe, my shelves in the cupboards and my space in the drawers, amazed at how much of myself I had scattered around. The last thing I took was my old t-shirt, the one that I kept under the pillow on the bed, although doing so nearly brought me to my knees. When I had folded it up and put it there yesterday morning, I’d had no idea what the rest of the day would bring, no idea that today I would be coming back to pick everything up and leave for the last time. I sat on the edge of the bed, holding the t-shirt to my face, trying to fight back tears that I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to keep it, I knew I was never going to wear it again, but I put it in the suitcase and shut the top, to deal with later. Henry and I finished loading the van, took my things to the storage unit, and that was that. Done. Finished.

Matt

Dec drove me to the hospital to collect my car, and I drove back home, a bit later than I’d intended. Jules was already there, waiting, angry, and she rang me before I got back to find out where I was, which can’t have improved her mood. I wondered about trying to talk to her, but when I arrived she had a bodyguard with her, some bloke who I didn’t know, and a discussion of any sort was never going to happen.

I sat in my car while they loaded a van, telling myself to drive off so I didn’t have to watch, but unable make myself start the car and leave. Every bag and box they put in the back of the van felt like a physical blow. When they’d finished, they drove away, and it had ended; I sat in my car, but couldn’t bring myself to go back inside. I felt indescribably sad, and my flat already looked like shit, with all the broken stuff everywhere, and now it would be empty of Jules. So I just sat, looking up at the window, as if I expected her to look out and wave at me, or beckon me up. In the end, I called Beth. You can see how desperate I was.

‘Hi Matty. How are you?’

She knew about Jules – I’d talked to Jay the previous night.

‘Been better. Need … um … a bit of a hand with something.’

‘What can I help you with, sweetheart?’

That was the thing about Beth. I gave her a lot of shit; if it had been her asking me, after a lifetime of railing against the offers and the fussing, I wouldn’t have been able to resist some kind of sarky comment. But Beth just gave.

‘I can’t go back.’

There was a short pause while she worked out what I meant. That was the other thing about Beth, she had some kind of intuitive instinct that meant it wasn’t always necessary to go into long explanations. Of course, sometimes she made you go the long way round in the name of expressing yourself, but she was usually several steps ahead of you.

‘Oh Matty, I’ve been thinking about you all morning. Do you want to come over? Stay tonight?’

‘Yeah. Thanks, that’d be great later, but my flat’s a fucking mess. I need to get it cleaned up so I can stop thinking about it.’

And there was the problem. I needed to clean it all up, but I couldn’t go back to clean it all up, and I couldn’t ask someone else to clean it all up for me.

‘Well I think I know the answer to that one. You come and look after Iz, she’s been asking when her favourite uncle is going to come and feed her pizza and chocolate ice cream, and I’ll go and get Rose and we’ll clean up your flat for you.’

‘I can’t ask you to do that.’

I was humbled by her generosity.

‘Of course you can’t, but I’ve offered. You can argue with me if you like, Matty, I know you love a good stand-off when we try to help you, but you wouldn’t have rung me if you didn’t want me to do something for you, would you?’

Well she had me there, and I was mightily relieved, and had nothing left in me that would be able to stand up to an argument.

‘OK.’

‘Come over now, sweetheart. I’ll put the kettle on, I’ve just made a cake. We’ll sort you out.’

‘Thanks.’

‘See you in a minute.’

And thus it was that I spent the first morning of my life without Jules playing dollies with Iz, being dressed as a fairy complete with wings and wand, and eating ice cream until I felt sick. As therapy went, Iz was pretty awesome.

Beth returned just before I had to leave for my appointment with Adam Palmer, Dec’s shrink bloke, and I gratefully realised I hadn’t had time to worry about it. I briefly considered calling it off, but with Dec knowing I was supposed to be going, I decided to suck it up, just one time. No one said I had to go back again, did they? And only Dec knew I was going, I was fairly confident he wouldn’t tell anyone, as long as he thought I’d actually go, so I was pretty safe. Just the once, then.

I pulled up outside the terraced Victorian house, thinking how unlike a psychologist’s – what were they? Offices? Clinics? – place of work it seemed. I had imagined some kind of hospital type building, but this seemed like someone’s house; there was no plaque on the door, or anything to separate it from the other houses in the street. I walked up the path and rang the bell.

There was a short wait, which seemed longer as all of me was poised to run, and I kept repeating to myself ‘don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry’, which was ridiculous as a) if I was going to cry, this was surely the place to do it and b) there were no obvious man points on offer, so blarting was a safe activity.

Then the door opened, revealing a normal looking bloke, about my age, casually dressed. He didn’t look particularly scary, not scary enough to be causing my heart to beat as fast as it was. The urge to run away increased, but I managed to stand my ground.

‘Hi. Matt?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I’m Adam. Come on in.’

Adam showed me into what was obviously his house, which had been adapted to incorporate a small waiting room and a consulting room. I sat in an armchair, not a couch to be seen, and looked at him, waiting to be told what to do. The silence stretched a little uncomfortably, and I wondered if I was supposed to start, but he took a little breath in, and began to speak.

‘So what brings you here, then, Matt?’

I bit back a facetious reply like ‘my four wheel drive and a tank of diesel’. I had, after all, asked Dec to set me up with an appointment. I was going to have to watch my sarcasm levels. I aimed for vague honesty with a large dollop of avoidance.

‘I’m not sure, now. It seemed like a good idea last night.’

‘What was going on for you last night?’

‘I was a blubbering wreck all over Dec’s couch.’

As I said it, my ‘don’t cry’ mantra stopped working, my bottom lip trembled and tears started sliding down my face. No, fuck, no. Well reasoned excuses notwithstanding, I didn’t do crying in front of anyone. Well hardly anyone. Not these days. Not that I’d let anyone know about. If you ignore yesterday, when yeah, Declan Summers had copped a load of it. I grabbed a tissue from the discreetly placed box and rubbed at my eyes.

‘Shit. Sorry.’

I breathed hard and tried to stop myself. This was a bloody nightmare. I nearly got up and walked out there and then.

‘It’s OK. Take your time. Just tell me what you want to. There’s some water here if you need it.’

Adam pointed to a jug and glasses on a table, then sat back in his chair, hands in his lap, ankles crossed. I got my tear ducts and my breathing under control, then glanced at Adam, embarrassed.

‘Sorry. You must think I’m a fucking nutter.’

‘Not at all. Take a moment, tell me more when you’re ready.’

I took a few more deep breaths.

‘Am I supposed to tell you about my childhood now?’

I saw him suppress a smile. Not completely without humour then.

‘Would you find it helpful?’

‘Fuck no, if I start there we’ll still be here at bloody midnight. It’s right now I’m having trouble with.’

‘Let’s start with right now, then. Tell me how you’re feeling right now.’

And I did. I just told him everything, vomited words over him, he hardly had to say anything for about twenty minutes. It was as if it was coming out of me without me thinking about it; my head had been full of all the guilt and grief of the the last twenty-four hours, and now it had found a way to empty it out. I was almost able to sit back and listen to myself talk. It wasn’t particularly coherent; I got the order muddled, I went back and added things, I came out with lots of suppositions and justifications for what had happened, and when I finally ground to a halt, I felt as if some of it had left me. Adam asked a few questions, made some reassuring noises, I got through the rest of the appointment without losing it again. Job done.

I felt like I’d survived an interrogation. Then Adam asked if I wanted to make another appointment, and I said yes before even thinking about it. I didn’t want another bloody appointment, this one had been hard enough, but I couldn’t change my mind without looking like a right tosser, so I got my phone out and dutifully programmed it in, planning to call and cancel before the day came. We stood up, shook hands, and I left, having to stop myself running to my car and speeding away.

Instead, once I had walked to my car, I sat in the driver’s seat, gripped the steering wheel and let out a huge breath. I couldn’t believe Dec had done this for years, seeing Adam every week to start with. Going over everything, even though it had felt a bit cathartic, was not something I was going to be repeating on a weekly basis for the foreseeable. Adam had helped me get my head a bit straighter, maybe, but only a bit. He couldn’t change what I’d done to Jules, though, or the fuck up I’d made of my life so far. No amount of talking was going to change the past. And if I felt like unburdening, I could think of cheaper ways than going to a head-shrink Dec didn’t charge by the hour, and now he had a newborn, he was going to be up at the ridiculous hours I usually kept. Nope, I was definitely going to cancel that appointment.

I drove back to Jay’s, still not wanting to face the flat. I didn’t know how far Beth and Rose had got, but there were bound to be some reminders of the breakages. I’d asked Beth to bring some clothes back with her, and was hoping to stay for a couple of nights on their sofa-bed.

When I lived here, after I moved down from Stafford, I had the room that Cal now occupied, and when Iz was first born she slept in Jay and Beth’s room. Their house was bloody enormous, but it only had three bedrooms, a potential fourth upstairs being Beth’s dressing room, and one downstairs being used for Jay’s office. So it was a sofa-bed in the conservatory for me, at least for tonight, while I tried to sort my head out without telling Beth absolutely bloody everything, which was going to be a challenge.

When I got there, Cal was home from school and I escaped and lost myself in the X-box with him for an hour before dinner. While we ate, Beth filled me in on her exploits at my flat with Rose.

They had cleared away all the broken bits without incident, and had cleaned the carpet and walls, for which I was more grateful than I knew how to express. Beth was worried about the gouges in the walls, and the coffee stain had proved stubborn to remove. She talked about it so matter-of-factly, as if she went and cleared up after smash-fest break-ups every day. She even knew someone who would be able to fill the holes and repaint.

‘He’s my friend Trish’s husband, he does odd jobs here and there. Shall I phone him, sweetheart? Or would you rather do it yourself?’

What I wanted was every trace removed before I went back there, so I could pretend it hadn’t happened, and just get on with life in Matt Scott’s bachelor pad. But that would mean staying here for who knew how long.

‘Won’t that take ages to organise?’

‘Not necessarily. I’ll ring Trish and ask, shall I?’

She did so, but Mike wasn’t going to be able to do anything for a few days. I didn’t want to be here for days, I wouldn’t be able to relax, I’d have Beth on at me the whole time and I might be tempted to murder her, which wouldn’t noticeably improve things.

I needed to get away. I had some leave due from work; I’d hardly had a holiday for the last two years. If I took a few weeks off, then maybe when I got back to work, things would be better there with Jules. I couldn’t imagine going to work right now, how I would even get through an hour there let alone a day, a week?

Lost in my thoughts, I forgot that Beth was waiting for me to decide whether to ask Mike to fill and repaint.

‘Matty?’

‘What? Oh, sorry. Yeah, tell him go for it. I think I’m going to go away for a while.’

‘Really, sweetheart? Oh, that might be just what you need. Where are you going to go?’

‘Not sure. Only just thought about it. Beach. Books. Quiet. That kind of thing.’

‘Sounds lovely. I don’t suppose you want some stowaways?’

‘No thanks. Just me.’

Although another idea had just popped into existence. As soon as dinner was over, I got my phone out and texted Andrew.

‘How busy r u next cpl wks?’

‘Flat out. Y?’

‘Can u wangle time off? Immediate effect?’

‘Maybe. Again, y?’

‘Need 2 get away. Sun, sea, sitting.’

‘Wot no other S words? Boring. U OK?’

‘Been better. Up 4 it?’

‘In theory. Ring u l8r.’

While I was waiting for Andrew to call me, I checked out last minute holidays, and found something in Egypt that would fit the bill. Thinking about going away took my mind off everything, and I Googled flights and accommodation until I had a comprehensive list of comparisons. I didn’t need Andrew to come with me; I didn’t need anyone to come with me, but company would be better.

I’d kept in touch with Andrew since his email. He knew about Jules, although not the latest episode, of course, and we’d said so many times that we should get together soon. I hadn’t wanted to go up to Stafford; that chapter of my life was closed, and things had been pretty full on down here with Jules, and we just hadn’t arranged anything.

The more I thought about going away, the better an idea it seemed. When Andrew called me back, I had a plethora of travel facts to bombard him with, should he prove receptive to the idea of an impromptu pity party in the name of Scott.

I made my bed up in the conservatory and closeted myself away for the evening, pleading tiredness, although I felt I didn’t really need an excuse today for being unsociable. I closed the curtains to shut out family life, and locked the door to prevent incursions of the blonde variety in the form of Iz.

There was a TV in the conservatory, and I had my phone and iPad for entertainment, but I was impatient for Andrew to get back to me, and I couldn’t settle to anything. My mind kept drifting over the last two days, how everything had changed, what I could have said or done differently, what Jules might be doing now. None of it made me feel any better, most of it made me feel more guilty, and all of it drew me pretty close to the edge of the dark pit I used to frequent. This afternoon’s session with Adam notwithstanding, I was lower than I’d been for a long time.

I lay on my back on the sofa-bed, staring at the ceiling while drivel occurred on the TV. I’d thought I’d changed, I’d thought my potential for fucking up people’s lives had reduced, but I obviously still had it in me. When was I ever going to grow up and be responsible? To think things through? Was I always going to be reacting to things, taking what I could get along the way, or was I ever going to think about things, consider consequences?

The trouble was, I couldn’t imagine it. I hated the thought of being a proper grown up with responsibilities and duties, and yet here was the result of it all. Another spectacularly failed relationship, more upheaval and upset, another person I cared about who was no longer part of my life. Although I railed against the restrictions of adulthood, there was no denying that the thought of it sometimes seemed comforting and safe, and if I wanted a family, I needed to be a grown-up. I couldn’t reconcile it all in my head – what I wanted, and all the things that would need to change in order for me to even have a chance of any of it happening.

My phone interrupted my contemplations. They weren’t getting me anywhere anyway, and it was Andrew.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Mr Scott. So are you going to let me in on this sudden interest in travel?’

‘Yeah, I just need to get away, could do with some company, wondered if you were up for it. Egypt looks good this time of year.’

‘So I believe. Why the rush?’

‘Jules and I just imploded.’

‘Oh mate. I’m sorry.’

‘Yeah, well.’

‘When were you thinking?’

‘Well, there are some deals on the net, I could go tomorrow, but you said you were flat out.’

Tomorrow? You’re fucking kidding, right?’

‘Not fucking kidding.’

‘Oh mate, I’d love to, but there’s just no way. I could … maybe … do this weekend, possibly, if I do some fast talking.’

I had anticipated this, and had a plan.

‘How about if I go out first, and you come later? I don’t know how long you’ve got, but I’ve got a lot of leave coming, and I could easily do two weeks, maybe more. Come for a week, at the weekend.’

Andrew was silent for a moment, considering.

‘It sounds doable. I haven’t taken any time since I started here, it’s been pretty full on.’

And so, a while later, there we were booked up. I was going to fly out tomorrow evening, and Andrew would join me on the Saturday, then I would stay on for a couple of days after he left. We organised accommodation and flights on the internet while we spoke, and then I called Phil at home to tell him I needed to take some leave starting tomorrow. He wasn’t keen, as my team were in the middle of a couple of tricky projects, but I told him I was either taking leave or going off sick. Phil must have heard from Jules, as he made some comment about business and pleasure and never the twain, but begrudgingly gave me the time off.

Now I needed to organise packing. I still didn’t want to go back to the flat, so I had two choices. Maybe three. I could a) go shopping tomorrow and buy everything I needed, despite having everything I needed in my flat, b) get everything I needed out there, despite having everything I needed in my flat, c) ask Beth to get everything I needed from my flat. Well, I hated shopping, whether it was at home or abroad, and so that left me with just the one option. I checked the time, hoping they would still be up, and steeled myself.

‘Hello Matty, we were just off to bed. Is there anything you need? The kettle’s just boiled, there’s some of that pie in the fridge …’

‘I’m after a favour.’

‘Oh.’ Beth sat up straighter. ‘What do you need sweetheart?’

‘I’m going away tomorrow. I’ve just booked a couple of weeks in Egypt.’

‘Jesus, Matty. Tomorrow?’

‘Yeah. Time I visited the Sphinx. Thing is, I wondered if I could ask … I need a suitcase and clothes and toiletries and shit.’

As usual, it didn’t take long for Beth to catch up.

‘Oh of course, sweetheart. Have you got a list?’

‘Not yet. Working on it.’

‘Hang on, what?’

Jay, however, always took longer. He didn’t really pay attention anyway, and I suppose I didn’t help by being deliberately obtuse in my communication sometimes.

‘Oh James, use your brain. I’ll go and fetch Matty’s things for him tomorrow. You’ll have to let me know where everything is, Matty. What time’s your flight?’

I seemed to have pressed Beth’s organisational buttons, rather than her inquisitive buttons, as she was more focussed on the doing than the asking. Maybe she was being considerate of my fragile state, or maybe she was happy as long as I was asking for her assistance for a change.

‘Nine in the evening.’

‘Oh, there’s plenty of time then. Are you driving to the airport?’

OK, so there were still things I hadn’t thought of, brain having turned to sludge with recent events or some such shit.

‘Er, I suppose so.’

‘Why don’t you get the train, sweetheart? It’s much more relaxing.’

‘No it’s not, it’s a bloody nightmare, lugging all your bags through London. I’ll drive, I’ll go and sort parking now.’

‘James, you could take him.’

‘No, Beth, it’s fine. I’ll drive.’

‘I can’t anyway, Beth, I’ve got Colts training.’

So Beth had to be content with merely packing me a suitcase, finding my passport and waving me off. As I drove away, I felt my heart lifting a bit, glad to be getting away from everything. It didn’t stop it all whirling round inside me, but I knew now that I was going to get some peace to think, some company to mull things over, and some warm weather to combat the dreary January we were having. I had books on my iPad, and I intended doing absolutely nothing besides sitting on the beach reading until Andrew arrived in a few days’ time. I wouldn’t be able to do any of it guilt-free, because all the time I was wondering what Jules was doing, and whether she was ever going to stop hating me.

I couldn’t bear the thought of her hating me; even when we were just managing rival teams and I was being an annoying prick, I don’t think she hated me. Yeah, she didn’t think much of me, that’s true, and we needled each other from time to time, but she didn’t hate me. Now, I wasn’t sure. I had never been hated, to my knowledge, although the contempt some of my so-called friends from Stafford had shown may have come close, and to think that someone I’d been so close to might be feeling so strongly towards me burned me.

64. You’ve got to hide your love away

In which people say they love each other without using words.

Matt

I crashed into bed only when I could no longer keep my eyes open. I thought I’d lie awake ruminating, but I must have tired myself out with it all, because I was suddenly aware of my phone trilling at me. It wouldn’t usually have woken me up, not much did, but the sound was the FaceTime alert, and it must have permeated my slumber as significant. I grabbed the phone off the bedside table and saw Jules’ name. Even in my mid-sleep fog, I knew it was important.

‘Hey you.’

As her face appeared on my pillow and I tried to work out what she wanted to say, I aimed for casual, trying to make it seem as if the rest of my life didn’t depend on the next few minutes.

‘Hello.’

‘You OK?’

‘Yes.’

And it seemed as if I was going to have to drag it out of her.

‘Is there a reason you’ve called me at …’

I checked the time

‘… What The Fuck o’clock?’

‘Yes.’

Jules could be beyond frustrating sometimes, and now she was answering my questions with less than the bare minimum of information, and I couldn’t help feeling irritated.

‘Oh good, because I really wouldn’t want to just be lying here asking random questions. As long as there’s a fucking reason, that’s bloody fine.’

‘I already am.’

This floored me. What the fuck was that supposed to mean? My brain was wrapped in sleep and the previous day’s circular thinking, and I couldn’t work it out.

‘Already are what?’

‘Living with you.’

‘Oh.’

I couldn’t tell if this was a good thing or a bad thing, and was still wary about putting another foot wrong.

‘Meaning …’

‘Meaning, I’ve been here all day, thinking, and I eventually realised that even apart from all my stuff being at your place, this isn’t my home any more. I feel more at home over there, with you. I already am living with you, just maybe neither of us realised it. Until today.’

Oh thank you all that is holy and good, she’s OK with it. Somehow, it’s been pulled back from the jaws of disaster, and I can breathe.

‘So you’re not going to dump me for having the temerity to suggest a slightly longer term relationship?’

Just checking. Always good to check and double check you’re not going to be dumped.

‘No.’

I felt myself untense, which unleashed a diatribe borne of relief.

‘Thank fuck for that. Oh Jules, I thought I’d fucking blown it. Shit, I’ve been thinking about you all day, wondering if I should call or text. I shouldn’t have just blurted it, it just kind of occurred to me, and next thing I knew I was saying it, and I should have been as fucking freaked as you, but like you said, it had already happened, and that’s not quite as fucking terrifying as planning it, in some weird way, so as soon as I saw your face I realised I’d fucked up, but I couldn’t unsay it, and then –’

‘Matt, stop.’

I stopped.

‘You’re burbling.’

‘Sorry, I’m just so fucking relieved.’

‘I get that.’

‘Are you OK, though? You’re not like ‘oh well all my stuff’s there I suppose I’m going to have to’, even though you don’t really want to, are you?’

‘Do you even know me at all? Does that sound like the sort of thing I’d say?’

‘Ha ha, no, I suppose not, I’m just having my own little insecure moment – well, I’ve been having them all day, I suppose. I knew you needed to go off and have a think, but not knowing what you were thinking was bloody awful. I kept going ‘she’ll be OK’ and then ‘no, she’ll dump you’ and then ‘you should call’ and then ‘don’t be a twat, that’s the last thing she wants’.’

‘Well now you know what I want. I want to live with you.’

‘Holy fuck, Jules, this is huge. Both of us, making some bloody enormous commitment. Fuucking hell.’

I widened my eyes at her as it sunk in. I’d never asked anyone to move in before. With Carrie, it was half an assumption on my part, and half a reluctant ‘oh well if I must, my house is being sold and I haven’t got a choice’ on her part, and so this really was the biggest thing I’d ever done – we’d ever done. Jules had never shared a home with anyone, at least not a romantic partner. It really was commitment city for us.

‘But we’re not, really, are we. It’s still like it was in the beginning, in a way, we’re still finding out how it works, seeing how it goes. I think I’m going to give the flat up, though.’

Ha ha, Jules, yeah, let’s just keep this little fantasy going a bit longer. No, of course, it’s no big deal, you move in here and give your flat up and change both of our lives, and it’s just business as usual really. And I went along with it, because that’s how I wanted it to be as well.

‘Whoa, blow my fucking mind why don’t you.’

‘Yes, well, it makes sense, but we’re going to have to sit down and do it all properly, splitting bills and everything.’

I put on a mock serious expression. This was just Jules being Jules, making sure she knew how things were going to be.

‘Yes, of course, how wise and sensible, it’s a good job we’re not hopeless romantics.’

‘It’s a bit late at night to talk about the specifics, maybe we can do it tomorrow, after work, when we get home.’

‘I like the sound of that – ‘when we get home’. You’re not putting up any bloody girly fairy lights or furry cushions or shit, though.’

Jules wasn’t the only one who could call the shots about how it was going to be. I saw her suppress a smile.

‘Maybe that could be a point of negotiation.’

‘Nope, not negotiable. If I’d thought you were the fairy light and cushion type of woman, I’d never have asked.’

This was partially true. I knew Jules’ tastes, they were similar to mine, and it was another reason I’d been able to speak without thinking yesterday morning.

‘Maybe I’ve hidden my penchant for twinkling illuminations and plush furnishings from you all this time.’

‘You’d better bloody not have, you’re in for a big disappointment if you think my – our – place is having a womanly makeover.’

I paused to grin.

‘Jules, come home. Now?’

We both smiled at those words.

‘No, it’s way too late. I don’t expect you want to sleep.’

‘Fuck no, I want to celebrate.’

I was completely awake, now, and I wanted my girl here at home, in our bed, party for two.

‘Well that’s all very well for you, with your cushy part time job where you can roll up any time of the morning, or indeed afternoon, but I need to be in early, and I need my sleep.’

‘Please?’

‘This might be the last night I get to spend in my comfy bed.’

‘There’s not much of the night left. Wait, are you saying my bed’s not comfy?’

Although it was true that I slept better in Jules’ bed, even though we were hardly ever there. Not that I was going to admit it.

‘Not as comfy as mine.’

‘Bloody cheek. My bed’s the best.’

‘Well we’ll just have to agree to differ.’

‘Maybe … we won’t. How about, as a kind of ‘welcome Jules’ present, we buy a new bed? A bloody huge one with a telly that slides out of the end, and built in speakers, and a massaging mattress and –’

I was even willing to go shopping with her. I was a hopeless case.

‘Actually, a new bed that we’ve both chosen does sound like a good idea. I think we might have to compromise on some of the added extras.’

‘You’re not even here yet and you’re making me compromise. Might have to reassess … nah, you’re still fucking worth it. OK, here’s another compromise, just so you know I can. Come home, Jules, and sleep. I promise. I’ve got a hard-on the size of the Empire State Building, but I’ll ignore it for you, and let you snore away.’

It was the most magnanimous of gestures, as far as I was concerned. I might have to forego the party for two, but there would be plenty of other opportunities, and if it got her over here tonight, it would be worth it. I just wanted to hold her.

‘I do not snore.’

‘You bloody do snore. Mrs Bartlett from upstairs was down earlier complaining about it.’

‘If Mrs Bartlett from upstairs was complaining about noises from the bedroom, I doubt it was just me she would have been hearing.’

‘Well, there is that.’

‘So I can really just go to sleep?’

‘Yeah. Promise. Thinking about Anne Widdecombe as we speak.’

‘Alright then.’

‘Woohoo.’

I may have fist-pumped in the manner of a small boy.

‘See you in a bit.’

I opened the door to the bedroom, then got back into bed, so that when Jules arrived I could watch her coming through the front door, coming home, for the first time.

Julia

I disconnected, grabbed my car keys and my bag and drove across the city to Matt’s – or rather our – apartment. It was very early in the morning, and it all felt a bit unreal. As I pulled up outside and stopped the car, I took several deep breaths, and then made my way inside. Matt was waiting in bed, the bedroom door open and soft light spilling out into the living room; the rest of the flat was in darkness. I shut the door and called out.

‘Hi honey I’m home.’

‘What bloody time of night do you call this? Your dinner’s in the dog.’

I reached the bedroom and leaned on the door frame looking at Matt as he lay in bed, hands behind his head.

‘We haven’t got a dog.’

‘Oh yeah. Jules, we should get a dog.’

‘No dogs.’

‘But I’ve already given him a name. Frederick Ponsonby Smythe the Third.’

‘No dogs.’

‘Poor Frederick will be heartbroken. He’s a cockapoo.’

‘No dogs. Also, while we’re at it, no cats, birds, rodents or anything else that needs feeding or shits indiscriminately. Except you, of course. You can stay.’

‘You’re hilarious.’

He pulled the duvet back and patted the sheet.

‘Come on then, first night in your new place, big moment. Excited?’

‘I’m managing to control myself.’

Although I admit my heart was beating a little faster than usual. I walked over to the bed and felt under the pillow for my t-shirt, then laughed softly to myself.

‘It’s all making sense. I keep my old tshit here, I’ve brought half my books over, I even found myself wondering where to put one of my pictures the other day. How did we not realise?’

‘Which picture? It had better not be a bloody kitten.’

I pulled off my clothes and put my sleeping shirt on, while Matt watched appreciatively, then I got in to bed. He put his arm round me and I tucked myself in close to him.

‘Starry Starry Night. Van Gogh.’

‘I bloody love that painting. He painted it from his room in the loony bin.’

‘I know. I know practically everything there is to know about it. I’ve had the print for years.’

‘Where were you going to put it?’

‘On the wall.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, good move, otherwise we’d be stepping on it and shit.’

‘In here? Above the chest of drawers.’

He looked over at the spot and considered.

‘Yeah. I think it’d look great. Bring it over, we’ll do it.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. See, I’m not territorial or anything, this is totally our place, together. You weren’t thinking of moving anything or changing anything else in any way whatsoever though, were you?’

‘Weell, I thought we might have to paint the walls purple. It’s kind of a deal-breaker.’

‘Right then. Out you go, you’re no longer welcome. It’ll just be me and Frederick from now on.’

He pulled me into his arms and folded me up. I felt his erection nudging me.

‘Anne didn’t work her magic this time then?’

Matt

‘Ha ha, well, she did at the time, and then you showed up and shook your tits at me, and all Anne’s hard work went down the drain. It’s not a problem. You go to sleep. Look, putting the light out.’

And my intentions were honourable, but you know how it is, you’ve got a gorgeous woman lying next to you, old tshit and no fuking pants, and you’re too excited to sleep. And even though you’ve promised, and she’s tired, well, she’s fucking hot, and you’re trying to ignore your hard-on, but you just can’t help wondering if she’s as tired as she says she is. So I gave her a goodnight kiss, and I suppose it was a bit more than a peck on the cheek, seeing as it was a snog on the lips, and there was tongue action.

Julia

‘That’s not noticeably helping me get to sleep.’

‘Sorry. I’ll behave.’

I lay in his arms and waited. I didn’t have to wait long.

Matt

And I tried, I really did. I tried for at least a minute.

‘Jules …’

‘Yes.’

‘How sleepy are you?’

‘Pretty sleepy.’

She did sound tired. And it had been a full on day for both of us. And she had to get up earlier than I did. I should just stop, be a gent, behave myself like I’d promised.

‘Oh. OK.’

But it was so fucking hard, when I was … so fucking hard.

Julia

I waited some more.

‘Jules …’

‘Mm.’

‘You’re not asleep yet, then?’

‘Apparently not.’

‘Are you nearly?’

‘Well I might be, if I didn’t keep getting asked if I was asleep yet.’

I smiled to myself, knowing I was going to give in eventually. I waited a little bit longer.

Matt

No, she was right, I was being annoying, and I was also breaking my promise, which just wasn’t right on our first night of cohabitation. But she was so gorgeous, and I wanted her so much.

‘Jules …’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’

She pushed me onto my back and straddled me, and I got my way. I’m pretty sure she didn’t mind, really, if what happened after that was any kind of measure …

Julia

‘Welcome home, Jules.’

‘Can I get some sleep now?’

‘By all means.’

‘Thanks.’

‘My pleasure.’

‘I think Mrs Bartlett might be glad of some sleep too.’

‘I aim to please.’

‘Goodnight Matt.’

‘Goodnight Jules. Goodnight Mrs Bartlett.’

Matt

And there we were, a week later, all moved in and living together. To say things had happened quickly was a bit of an understatement; I certainly got to see Jules in decisive mode. She had given notice on her flat and negotiated a quick release from her tenancy by the end of the next day, and organised removals and storage for all her stuff. We took the day off to move her in on the Friday, naturally being banned by Jules from telling anyone at work what we were doing, so I had to fend Lexi off from curiosity killed the receptionist overload (‘So are you going away for the weekend together?’ ‘Yeah, kind of.’ ‘Kind of? How’s that?’ ‘Kind of a mystery tour.’ ‘What?’ ‘Tell you later.’). We didn’t tell anyone, actually, be they work, family, friends, anyone. I wanted to see how long it would take Beth’s spidey-sense to work it out, and liked having something of mine that wasn’t constantly being examined and picked apart by the rest of the family. It felt good having Jules all to myself, at least for a while, and I know she was more than happy with things that way.

Ever practical, the first thing Jules wanted to do was divvy up the bills, so while she was working things out I took a hammer to the bedroom wall and put up a hook for her Van Gogh print. It looked great there. It said ‘this is Jules’ bedroom too’, and I liked it a lot.

Julia

The next few days were a mad whirl of arrangements and organisation. I contacted my landlord to give notice on my flat, and he had a new tenant lined up twenty-four hours later. He agreed to waive my month’s rent if I could move out by the weekend, so Matt and I had to decide which items of my furniture we wanted to have at his place, and which ones I was going to, firstly, store and then eventually move up to Norfolk. I still hadn’t decided what to do with Nons’ house; renting it out was a possibility, but until I decided, I could keep my things there.

Matt and I took the day off on the Friday, hired a van, and spent the day shifting furniture and boxes from my flat to the storage place and his flat. We had decided not to tell anyone about me moving in, not to make a big deal about it. Matt warned me that if Beth found out – ‘or rather when she finds out, she always finds shit out’ – she would want to throw a party or at the very least have a big meal together ‘to welcome me to the family’, and we didn’t want that. We hoped we could just take it slowly and get used to it in our own time; Dec and Amy’s baby was due in a week or so, and that would deflect the focus from us – we hoped we might then be able to drop it into a conversation so no one noticed.

We sorted out practicalities like rent and food – Matt owned his apartment, so we agreed I would pay half his mortgage as rent, and we decided to stick to our current shopping arrangements. This meant that Matt would continue to shop online, and I would go out to choose my own food when I felt like it. We could always change things later. I brought my Starry Starry Night picture over as part of my van load, and Matt put up a picture hook for it. We lay in bed and looked at it on that Friday night.

‘Perfect.’

‘You’re pretty handy with a hammer.’

‘I know. I have many hidden talents.’

‘You know what would look even better in here?’

Matt looked at me suspiciously.

‘No, what?’

‘A bright pink furry duvet. And some multi-coloured fairy lights kind of draped around the –’

Matt cut me off with a hefty kiss, which had the dual impact of shutting me up and leaving me breathless.

‘Or, maybe, I’ve seen these lovely cushions in a catalogue, they’d look –’

Another kiss stopped me from continuing, this time coupled with his hand travelling under my shirt and pinching my nipple fairly hard.

‘Are you liking my ideas then? How about, Margie was telling me about this wallpaper you can get that’s got tiny kittens all over it, it sounds so –’

He flipped me onto my back and pinned my wrists above my head with both hands, nudged my legs apart with his knee and laid his whole weight on top of me. It nearly suffocated me, but he didn’t stay like that for long.

Lifting his torso from mine, Matt bent his head down and sealed my mouth with his, biting and sucking at my lips and tongue fiercely. He started to thrust against me, not inside me yet, but rubbing hard along me, setting me on fire. He lifted his mouth from mine and raised an eyebrow when I didn’t speak, then briefly supported himself on one arm as he reached down to position himself to enter me. That achieved, he clamped his mouth over mine again and began to pound into me. I wrapped my legs around his back, wanting more, wanting him to thrust harder and faster, our tongues tangling with each other’s, my hands still pinned above my head, him in me and me around him, both grunting with exertion and groaning with pleasure, as we raced each other to our mutual detonation. I felt him stiffen, and clenched him tightly.

‘Oh fuck, Jules, fuck yeah, fuck, fuck, ahhh, oh fuuuck, unhh.’

I felt him shudder into me once, twice and then a final time, and then I felt my own fireworks start as he continued to move in me, using his fingers on my clitoris to pull all the tingling throbbing from all over my body to that one place in my centre, and then ignite it in a swirl of sensation and light that flooded through me and took me with it on a wave of delirium.

I lay for some time, unable to think, hardly able to catch my breath, arms flung wide, Matt lying half on top of me, panting, both of us slippery with sweat. Eventually, I could move and I wriggled out from under Matt, who rolled over and pulled me to him, kissing me tenderly.

‘Well, fuck me, I hope that’s taught you not to go all girly on me.’

‘Oh, was I offending your masculinity? Is that why you were so, so manly and domineering?’

‘There’s only so much girl shit I can take before my testosterone takes over. Let that be a warning to you.’

‘Or a lesson in how to get it rough if I want it.’

‘Fuck yeah, that too. But if you want it rough, you seriously only have to ask.’

‘Sometimes it’s more fun not to have to.’

‘Julia Marran, you are one deviously wicked woman.’

He wrapped me up in his arms and we drifted off to sleep together.

Matt

We settled into life together almost immediately. I had expected Jules to have a little wobble, maybe try to exert her independence in some way, but nothing really changed apart from waking up together every morning and going to bed together every night, and that was awesome, more than awesome.

Sleeping with Jules had always been great, but being in this new phase of us brought an intensity to the bedroom that I hadn’t anticipated. We still pretty much did our own thing at other times, going in, staying out, doing stuff together and apart, and at the end of the first week we knew it felt great, like things were really working, why hadn’t we done it before?

Julia

And things were great that first week. I really enjoyed living within walking distance of work, and surprised myself by feeling totally at ease calling Matt’s place home. We were easy with each other, too, not noticeably changing our routine – Matt went out to watch football in the pub, I read my book when Matt was there and when he wasn’t, we both cooked meals, and we went out to dinner once. I was feeling settled and happy.

Matt

It was a Saturday, Jules had been living with me for a week and a day, and she had gone shopping before I’d got up. There was a Raiders home game that day, and I was taking Cal, as I had started to do regularly since he first asked me a few months ago. I was sitting watching a football preview programme on TV when my phone rang with Dec’s ringtone.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Hey. Amy’s in labour.’

I felt a little thrill of anticipation. Despite all the scoffing Jules and I had done about the whole baby thing, it was still my best mate who was about to become a dad. It was a big moment.

‘Holy shit. Are you on your way to hospital then?’

‘No, I don’t think they’ll want us there yet. I’m not going to be playing today, though, Don’s let me pull out of the squad.’

‘Bugger. Oh well, I’m sure there’s someone as good if not better waiting in the wings.’

‘Yeah, whatever.’

He sounded a bit worried – once you lost your place in the team, it could be hard to get it back, but babies tended not to care much about that when they decided to make their arrivals. Just ask Lau how convenient her labour was.

‘Don’t worry, mate, I hear Raiders are looking for ball boys. I’m sure you’ll find something to do.’

‘Piss off. Are you taking Cal?’

‘Yeah, heading off to pick him up in a bit. Hope it all goes well your end – let me know, yeah?’

‘Yeah, although if it’s a middle of the night job, we won’t be telling anyone until morning. Boss’s orders.’

By which I assumed he meant Amy and not Beth, although you couldn’t always tell.

‘OK mate, well good luck, keep me posted.’

Julia

The next Saturday, I called Evie in the morning and arranged to go and see her for lunch the next day. Matt and I were going to go bed shopping in the morning, but that left the afternoon free. He often went to Jay and Beth’s for Sunday lunch, whether he was invited or not, and I decided not to go with him mainly because baby speculation was reaching fever pitch but also because I didn’t want to run the risk of them all finding out about our new living arrangements.

Matt was taking Cal to watch the rugby that afternoon, and he never got up very early on a Saturday if he didn’t have to, so I took myself off into town to do some shopping. Matt hated shopping, made all his purchases on line, whether it was food, clothes, birthday presents or anything else, and there was no chance he was going to come with me, especially as he was going to be devoting a chunk of his Sunday morning to looking at beds.

I took my time in town, had lunch, and got back just before Matt had to set off to collect Cal. As I walked in the door, he was finishing a phone call.

Matt

As I spoke, the door opened and Jules came in, carrying several shopping bags. She kissed me on the forehead and dumped the bags on one end of the sofa before flopping down next to me.

‘What babe?’

Attention back on my phone, I heard Amy’s voice in the background, possibly an exclamation of pain.

‘OK, right there. Sorry, Matt. Needed. Catch you later.’

‘Yeah, love to Amy, see you soon mate. Bye.’

I looked at Jules as she raised an eyebrow at me in query.

‘Amy’s gone into labour.’

Julia

‘Oh. That’s early, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, I think it is a bit. Dec’s had to pull out of the game today, Cal’ll be disappointed.’

‘Oh well, at least it will all be over with soon, everyone will know if it’s a boy or a girl, what the mysterious name is going to be, and all the constant conjecturing can stop.’

‘Yeah.’

I looked hard at Matt, he seemed a bit off, but nothing I could put my finger on.

‘Are you alright?’

He seemed to rouse himself, gave me a big grin and stood up.

‘Yeah. I guess it’s just a pretty big day for the Scott family, even if the main protagonists aren’t Scotts. I think you might be disappointed if you think they’re all going to shut the fuck up now, though. Beth still talks constantly about Cal and Iz, isn’t that what mothers do?’

‘I wouldn’t know. My mother doesn’t talk constantly about me, I’m quite sure.’

I hadn’t even heard from my mother for over two months, and that was only a short text informing me that ‘Dubai far too hot. Off to Moscow.’

Matt looked at me sympathetically.

‘Well my mum’s stopped bragging about me and Jay now she’s got grandchildren. Maybe it’s an age thing.’

‘Maybe.’

‘I’d better get going. Good shop? I see you needed many more items of clothing. Any pants?’

‘I did buy some underwear. Stop rifling, I’ll show you later.’

‘Promise?’

‘Promise. You won’t be disappointed.’

‘Crotchless?’

‘Not if you paid me. Wait and see.’

He pouted, but gave me a hug and kiss and left to fetch Cal.

Matt

I really did feel a bit weird about it, as if something momentous was happening. Well, I suppose it was, but it wasn’t happening to me, and I didn’t really care greatly for babies in general, much as I was excited for Dec and Amy in particular. In fact, I was a bit resentful that I was likely to see less of them, as always happened with new parents and exhaustion and shit. Piles of shit, actually. So I wasn’t quite sure what I was feeling, and it didn’t fit with what I should be feeling, what I thought I’d feel, so I basically just ignored it. Jules seemed to notice and asked if I was alright, but I grinned at her and told her everything was fine. Then I went to watch Raiders with Cal, and didn’t think any more about my bloody incomprehensible feelings.

When I dropped Cal back at Jay’s, Beth was predictably in full-blown anticipatory overdose. She asked three times if I’d heard from Dec, although she knew full well he’d call her first, or at the latest second, after Rose. And he had contacted her a while ago anyway, to say Amy had gone into the maternity unit, and things were going well, but not to expect anything for a while. It was almost as if Beth hadn’t had children of her own, and wanted it all to happen immediately.

‘Beth, calm down.’

We were standing in the kitchen, where I’d made her a camomile tea in an attempt to stop her having a stroke, which I thought might put a bit of a dampener on the day. Telling her twice before to calm down hadn’t had a noticeable effect, but I was enjoying being the one who was telling her what to do for a change. I hardly ever saw Beth flustered.

‘I am calm.’

‘You are so far from calm. You know they’ll be fine, right?’

‘I know, sweetheart. It’s just hard not knowing what’s going on. I did offer to go with them, but they said no.’

‘Ha ha, I’m not surprised, if this is what you’re like. Amy needs organised professionals, not family members going all hyper.’

‘I’ve worked on maternity wards.’

‘Yeah, a million years ago. It’s nothing personal.’

‘Oh I know that, really. I just can’t wait to meet him. Or her. I know they know if it’s a boy or a girl, I don’t know why they wouldn’t say.’

‘Beth, believe me when I tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that keeping a secret from you is so bloody hard, it’s worth seeing the look on your face just to keep going, in the face of all your probing.’

‘I don’t probe.’

‘You bloody do, you can’t help yourself. I’m just saying, sometimes we all like keeping things to ourselves that you don’t know about.’

Shit, if Beth had been on her game, she would have sniffed out Jules and I living together in a heartbeat after that. But it went right over her head in a haze of baby, and I decided to escape before I gave too much away. A quick game on the X-box with Cal, and I was off home to Jules. The thought of Jules waiting at home, our home, still made me smile.

Julia

I spent the afternoon trying on my new clothes and reading a book. I was really engrossed in the novel, and didn’t realise the time until I looked up and it was starting to get dark. I put some lights on, and was just starting to wonder where Matt was, and whether I needed to start some dinner, when I heard his key in the lock, and he walked in. He looked tired, but gave me a big crinkly smile, sat down next to me on the sofa and hugged me.

‘Hello. Good game?’

‘Yeah, really good. I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. You have loads of men, and they chuck the ball to each other and chase each other, and then one of them gets caught, and they all pile on top of him. I think they might be trying to squash him. And one of the ones in the pile gets the ball and runs really fast until one of the others catches him and then they all pile on top of him too. It’s great fun. There’s fighting and everything, but it’s all part of the game, so nobody really minds.’

‘Hmm, sounds delightful. Have you eaten?’

‘Yeah, had a pasty and chips with Cal at the stadium. Have you?’

‘How on earth do you stay so skinny? No, not yet, I was just thinking about it. Might just have a sandwich if you’re not having anything.’

‘I’ll do you something.’

‘Oh, no, there’s no need –’

‘Let me, Jules, I’d like to, I’ve deserted you all afternoon.’

‘Alright then, but I don’t feel deserted. I’ve had a nice quiet time, me and the apartment getting to know each other. We’ve had some thoughts about beds.’

‘Oh you’ve both been plotting, have you? Tell me while you eat. Pasta?’

‘Perfect.’

He got up and walked over to the kitchen, getting out a pan and filling it with water.

‘Sorry I’m a bit late back, I stayed at Jay’s for a bit. Still no news from babyland, but I think Amy’s gone into hospital now.’

‘Excitement in overdrive?’

‘Yeah, kind of. For Beth and Jay it’s almost like being grandparents. Weird. I escaped, me and Cal played on the X-box. I let him win.’

‘Oh, you lost to Cal?’

‘No, I let him win.’

‘Oh. One day you really must explain the difference.’

‘Jules, you wouldn’t know one end of a controller from the other. Cal would beat the pants off you. And that’s my job.’

‘Ha ha. Shall I open a bottle of wine?’

‘If you want some. I’m going to have a beer or several. I’ve been very good all afternoon, avoided temptation because I was in charge of a minor and then I was driving. Now I’m letting my hair down – by all means join me with your namby-pamby wine.’

Although Matt’s bantering tone was light, I was sensing something slightly strange from him, the same slight weirdness I felt this morning. There was no point pushing it with him, he would withdraw and get defensive if I asked him what was wrong. He’d tell me soon enough if he didn’t sort it out, or at least I hoped he would. He busied himself making my dinner, and I put my head back in my book. It wasn’t long before the pasta was cooked and Matt brought it over with a glass of wine.

‘What, no table service?’

‘Didn’t seem much point just for you. Besides, I can sit beside you and do this.’

He bent down and kissed my neck, then nibbled my earlobe. It sent tingles of desire racing down to my core, but I concentrated on eating.

‘Mm, this is really good.’

‘I have to agree. Very tasty indeed.’

He licked my neck and gently kissed the curve of my jaw. He planted a few more tender kisses along my jaw until he reached the corner of my lips.

‘Hey, you should have made enough for two if you wanted some.’

‘I love it when you pretend you’re not interested.’

‘I am interested – in my dinner. You just made it for me, I’m eating it. And drinking my wine.’

I took a mouthful.

‘I’ve been thinking about you all afternoon, wondering about your new undies.’

‘Have you really? Not at all diverted by large men trying to squash each other then? I’m wearing them now.’

‘Really? Whoa.’

Matt pulled my top slightly to the side so he could see the lacy edge of my bra.

‘All looks bloody good so far. Peep-hole?’

‘No. What is it with you and holes in underwear? The whole point of underwear is to contain things, not to let them out.’

‘Ah, that’s my Jules, practical to the last.’

He bent down and kissed my breast where it disappeared into the lace of the bra. I felt a flicker of his tongue as he slid it behind the fabric. I ate another couple of mouthfuls, knowing that I wouldn’t get to finish my meal. Soon Matt would be driving me wild and my resistance would be over.

‘Matching knickers?’

Sighing, I put the plate down on the floor.

‘Yes.’

‘Yum. Bikinis?’

‘No.’

He put a hand on my thigh and slid it up a little way, to the hem of my skirt.

‘Shorts?’

‘No.’

‘French?’

‘No.’

With each answer, his hand crept further up my thigh, pulling the hem of the skirt with it. His fingers brushed the inside of my leg, until I was sure he would be able to feel my wetness.

‘Pantaloons?’

I laughed. ‘No.’

His hand crept higher and then stopped, just about at the point where he thought he would be able to feel the edge of my pants.

‘No fuking pants?’

He looked a bit confused.

‘No. Keep going.’

He pushed his hand up further, until finally his fingers encountered what they were searching for and he started to explore the fabric.

‘Oh my … Jules … thong?’

I nodded.

‘Holy shitmenot. Were there no other pants available in the whole of the city? I thought thongs were for when there was no other pants option.’

‘I thought you might like them. They’re particularly uncomfortable, so maybe the quicker you have a look and get them off me, the better.’

‘You got them for me?’

I nodded again. He grinned.

‘I don’t deserve you.’

‘No, you don’t. You bugger off all afternoon leaving me to read my book in peace, and then you cook me dinner when you come home even though you’ve had yours, you bastard, and then you rip my clothes off and –’

‘I haven’t ripped your clothes off.’

‘Are you waiting for permission?’

Our last night together was pretty incredible. We were totally immersed in each other, responding to each other without needing to talk, seeming to know when to slow down, when to speed up, when to kiss tenderly, when to fuck hard, who should be on top, when to use fingers, when to use tongues, when to stop, when to start again. It was the early hours before we finally went to sleep, utterly exhausted and completely satisfied, Matt curled up against my back, holding me tightly against him.

Matt

When I got back, I made a quick bite of pasta for Jules, and then we got lost in exploring her new underwear, and all the fun that brought to the bedroom. For a full description of all the frolics, see her account. She tells it well. It was our last time, the last fucking amazing time we were together, before …

62. Beautiful surprise

In which Matt’s mind is blown, Dec is featured in a magazine and a surprise gift is not a spider.

Julia

I had been asleep for a while when my phone bleeped with a text. It was Matt’s tone, and I was instantly awake, reaching for the phone on the bedside table. I glanced at the time; it was after two. It was a while since Matt had texted me at odd hours of the night, having presumably not seen the need to mess about quite so much now he had more ready access to me and could do it face to face.

‘Hi Jules. Sorry for being an arse. And sorry for being an arse by waking you up to apologise for being an arse. M x’

‘Both apologies accepted. Are you alright?’

‘Wasn’t. Bit better now. 2 complicated 2 txt. Feel like a FaceTime? Haven’t had one 4 ages.’

‘OK.’

I waited for my phone to announce Matt’s FaceTime request, pressed the button as it did so, and Matt’s face appeared.

‘Hey you.’

‘Hello.’

‘I forgot how gorgeous you look when you’re all tousled in my phone.’

‘More gorgeous than tousled right next to you?’

‘Differently gorgeous. I’m sorry.’

‘No need.’

‘Yes need. I was bloody rude to you earlier. I just forgot you were going to be there when I got home. It’s been a bit of a day to be honest, and I thought I was going to be on my own. You probably got that.’

‘There was a bit of a vibe, I have to admit.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m an ignorant bastard. Sorry.’

‘Alright, no more apologising. Do you want to tell me about it?’

‘Well … I guess I don’t really, but I’ve just got off the phone with Dec, and fuck, that boy talks a lot of sense for a bloody teenager –’

‘He’s a teenager?’

‘No! Silly lady. I was alluding to the fact that he’s loads younger than me. Thank you for making me point that out.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Anyway, with the wisdom of the young, he suggested that maybe I should talk things over with you when I’m bothered, instead of keeping them to myself. Or rather that you might be one of the people I could talk to. So if you’re up for it, I’d like to unburden. Otherwise I can try Jay, but he’s a lot less hot in an old tshit than you.’

‘What’s bothering you?’

‘Dec had a major … I don’t know what you’d call it. Breakdown? On the beach, after all the serious stuff. He’d done his speech and everyone had done theirs, and we were just watching his letter in a bottle go floating out to sea, and I had to go and light the blue touch paper by pointing something out to him that just … shit, Jules, he just fucking lost it. Fell over like he’d been shot, crying, shouting, chucking sand all over the place, screaming, trying to pull his hair out, it went on and on, as if there was something, some kind of grief or whatever, just pouring out of him. I thought he might stop breathing or have a heart attack or something, it was terrifying.’

‘It sounds awful. What did you do?’

‘Well I didn’t know what the fuck to do, but Rose knows Dec and has seen him a bit like it before, and she just told us to hold him, so we all put our arms round him, I was feeling like a right dick, but I suppose that doesn’t matter, and eventually he calmed down, stopped making the godawful noise he’d been making, and just knelt on the sand, trying to get his breath back. We all kind of breathed a sigh of relief, but I started thinking, it was such a little thing I said to start it all off, I … well I can’t really remember exactly what it was, something about him looking in the wrong place for his mum and dad when they were in his heart all the time. Don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, sounds a bit bloody sentimental for me, but anyway, it was just a comment, and it opened the floodgates. And I started thinking, what if I’ve got similar amounts of shit inside me somewhere, and one day someone makes an equally innocent comment, trying to be helpful, and I end up a gibbering wreck like that? I couldn’t cope with that. I don’t do emotion, not in public.’

‘Is Dec alright now?’

‘Yeah, I’ve just been talking to him, he’s back to normal, or as normal as he gets.’

‘You’re not the same as Dec, though.’

‘Well, sometimes I think there is a lot the same about us. When I was ill and he was fucked up, we’d both been through a lot in different ways, lost a lot, one way and another, both hated needing help and we’d both go all ‘leave me the fuck alone’ if people tried. He’s worked really hard at getting sorted, and I’ve just got on with pretending it never happened.’

‘But however similar your general experiences are, you’re different people. Just because he reacts in one way doesn’t mean you will too.’

‘I know it might not mean that, but what if it does?’

‘Then you’ll have to deal with it if it happens. You’ll send yourself mad just thinking about the possibilities otherwise.’

‘But some of the possibilities are terrifying. Like … what if the bastard MS comes back?’

It was the first time Matt had mentioned MS since he told me he had it all those months ago. I had waited for him to mention it again, but when he hadn’t, I had realised that it was something he didn’t want to discuss. I had thought about it, though, read about it, knew it was a possibility, knew what I could offer.

Matt

I’d just mentioned my fears about the bastard MS coming back; it must have been late, and I must have had one too many beers, because I hadn’t mentioned it since that first night, and had never intended to.

‘I mean, I can’t go back to living with Jay and Beth, having my arse wiped.’

‘You really know how to catastrophise, don’t you. If your MS comes back, we do it together. You won’t have to live with Jay and Beth. You’ll have me.’

‘What?’

I was sure I hadn’t heard right. Jules was strictly unsentimental, I wouldn’t say she didn’t care about people, but she didn’t help out for the sake of it.

‘I think you heard me.’

I was silent, looking at her in my iPad for a long time, searching her face. She looked back at me, seeming for all the world like she really meant it. I felt tears fill my eyes, and found it hard to breathe. This was way, way beyond anything I would have ever asked or expected from anyone. I wouldn’t even expect my family to go through all that again for me.

Julia

He looked at me for a long time without speaking, a frown creasing his forehead. I saw his eyes fill with tears, but didn’t comment.

‘Fucking hell, Jules –’

It was almost a whisper.

‘– you can’t mean it.’

Matt

It felt like too huge a thing to hear, like it might break if I spoke loudly.

‘I mean it.’

‘Fucking hell.’

I felt a tear spill out of my eye and run down my cheek. It seemed I still had trouble controlling the salty bastards in times of high emotion. I sniffed and wiped my eyes. No, she must have just said it on the spur of the moment, it was late, she was tired.

‘You don’t know what you’re saying.’

‘I do know. I’ve found out. All the possibilities, likelihoods, options. Full risk analysis.’

Well, yeah, that did sound like Jules, thinking everything through.

‘Fucking hell.’

‘And anyway, it hasn’t come back, has it? You’re fit and healthy and there’s no reason to believe you’re not going to stay that way.’

‘Fucking hell, Jules, I don’t deserve you.’

‘So true, but I’m stuck with you at the moment, as half my clothes are in your wardrobe. I was going to ask you – do you mind me having so much of my stuff at your place?’

As a change of subject, it took the pressure off nicely. I had noticed that a lot of her stuff was at mine, but it made me feel like she was here when she wasn’t, and I didn’t mind in the slightest.

‘No, I like it. I can sniff your knickers when you’re not here, stops me missing you.’

‘You’re a perv.’

‘Never said I wasn’t.’

Julia

I had given Matt an out from the intensity of the conversation, and he took it. I knew he didn’t like talking about big emotional stuff, and would think about what we’d said in his own time and come to his own conclusions. It sounded like he may have had a similarly intense talk with Dec, so he would have a lot to mull over.

‘How are you feeling now.’

Matt

‘Bit fragile.’

Or more like I was about to break into a million pieces, ready to be scooped up by her and held in her hands.

‘Thanks, Jules. You’re so fucking great.’

‘Do you want me to come over?’

Oh my God, more than she would ever know. No one had ever said anything to me that meant more to me, and I wanted to touch her, hold her, say thank you thank you thank you.

‘Want? Fuck, yeah. But no, don’t, it’s too late, and you were shit-faced earlier.’

‘I was not shit-faced, I’d had too much to safely drive. I’m fine now, I could be there in fifteen minutes. I’d be wearing my old tshit and random pants.’

You know about the tshit and random pants, right? Oh go and read Jules’ version, it’s all in there, hilarious drunken text. Oh no, you misunderstand. It’s not my drunken text.

‘Ohh fuuck. Now look what you’ve done. Instant hard-on. I’m never going to get to sleep now.’

‘I might as well come over then. See you in a bit.’

And she disconnected. I knew it would take her a while to drive over to me, but I stood waiting by the door, full of emotion, feeling humbled. I hadn’t felt like this since I found out Jay had given up his job to come and look after me when I was ill before, but this was different.

Jules wasn’t my family, we’d only known each other a few months. Looking back, that was the moment I loved her. And I would like to suggest that she loved me; you don’t tell someone you’re going to face some fucking bastard disease with them if you don’t love them. Caught you out, Jules. Sorry it was too late.

Julia

Without giving him the chance to respond, I disconnected, pulled on some pants and jogging bottoms, grabbed my overnight bag and drove over to Matt’s.

Matt

I waited by the door for her, and when she opened it I pulled her to me, needing to show her what it meant, what she’d said. I kissed her with fierceness and passion, my hands finding their way under her t-shirt before the door had closed behind her. This was my way of showing her what she meant to me.

‘God you’re fucking amazing. I want you so much.’

I will leave the rest to your imagination … maybe it was me being so ardent, maybe it was because we’d made up after being a bit off with each other, maybe it was just late at night and felt right, but we were both so up for it, we were naked and noisy on the sofa before you could say ‘pants off’. It was loud and primal and urgent, but afterwards I looked down at her and something in me melted.

I picked her up and carried her to the bedroom – ha, I make it sound like it was nothing, I did stagger a bit, but Jules was small and slight, and it felt like nothing, although I was glad the bedroom wasn’t far away. I put her on the bed and covered her up with the duvet, then went to fetch her night clothes, which had been abandoned on the floor of the living room.

‘Aren’t you getting in too?’

‘Yeah, just a minute, won’t be long.’

I came back in and handed her the t-shirt, putting her jogging bottoms in a drawer.

‘What about my random pants?’

‘You wear no fuking pants in your bed.’

For an explanation, see aforementioned hilarious drunken text.

‘But this isn’t –’

‘Yeah, it is. For as long as you want it, this bed is your bed. No fuking pants from now on.’

It wasn’t much, but it was the best I could do to say how much what she’d said meant to me. And, naturally, it meant that I got to curl up next to her when she wasn’t wearing knickers. Everyone’s a winner.

She smiled at me as I climbed under the duvet, then I gathered her up in my arms, and we fell asleep tangled together, neither of us having a clue how much we loved each other. Or rather, being disinclined to pay any attention to said clues.

Julia

As the months went by, we saw each other more and more. We went to Matt’s after work more often than not as it was close, but we still had our own interests and our own friends, and I had my own flat I could retreat to when I needed to. Matt also had no compunction about kicking me out when he needed time to himself, either, and it felt very easy between us.

Dec

PSYCHOLOGIES

Issue No. 23.

Continuing our series of articles looking into the psychology of sport, this month we look at Rugby Union.

What the Ruck?

Declan Summers plays at inside centre for Premiership outfit Raiders, who are currently in the hunt for a treble of Premiership, European Cup and Domestic Cup. Declan’s career has taken off in the last couple of years, seeing him become a regular starter in the Raiders team, and tipped for international honours in the near future. But it could all have been very different. Sara Aston delves into the psyche of the young rugby player.

I meet Declan Summers in a plush hospitality suite at Raiders Stadium. He is a tall, muscular, softly spoken young man with a level gaze and serious expression, who considers my words and weighs his responses before answering – not guarded, exactly, but deliberate. I get the sense that he is thinking carefully about what information I can have access to. His conversation is peppered with the expletives you might expect from a rugby player, or indeed a man of his age; he says ‘fuck’ almost as often as he takes a breath. It is not intended to offend, it is just something that seems to occur naturally in his speech.

As we talk, the view from the suite is of the pitch at Raiders’ impressive stadium. A player out on the grass is kicking a rugby ball over the posts, again and again. I ask how long Declan has been with Raiders. He appears to consider this, as if he can’t quite remember.

‘I came here when I was sixteen, so seven years ago. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been here all my life. This place gets inside you, becomes part of you in a way.’

Sixteen sounds young to leave home and begin a rugby career, but it is well known that Declan’s parents died when he was thirteen, leaving him without family and in foster care, on the other side of the world from his childhood home in Australia. When he was signed from school by Raiders on a scholarship, he was taken in by Jay Scott [who is currently assistant coach at Raiders, and was then backs coach] and his family. I wonder how the death of his parents affected him at such a young age.

‘I had to change completely. I was this normal thirteen year old, doing normal thirteen year old stuff, parents to tell me right and wrong, help me out when I needed it, show me how to grow up. Suddenly I had to do it all on my own, fight my own battles. I changed the people I hung out with, changed the way I responded to things, just to survive. It was harsh. I was pretty wild, none of my foster families could cope with me, I had a major attitude, wouldn’t do what I was told. I had five placements in three years. None of them could wait for me to leave.’

So what changed when he was fostered by Jay Scott?

‘They didn’t foster me! They gave me a room for a few weeks when I first came here, and I liked it so I stayed. They turned me round; Jay and his wife, Beth, just accepted me with all my shit, made me part of their family. There was never anything official. What changed for me was they didn’t judge me, they told me the rules and expected me to stick to them, and they wanted me there. That was the most important thing. Nobody had wanted me for a long time.’

Declan still has close ties to Jay Scott’s family, but it is not something he will be drawn on, stating that he values his family’s privacy. People have misconstrued their relationship and accused Scott of favouritism, a charge Declan fervently denies.

‘If anything I have to work harder to prove myself here. He gives me no special favours, I certainly don’t get a place in the side because of it. We keep the rugby strictly professional, it doesn’t get discussed between us outside of the club, except in the same way as with any other player. Everyone here knows the score, anyone has a problem they can talk to me about it, and they would, but no one has, not for a long time.’

There is a challenge in his tone, and I reflect on his playing style – he is aggressive in tackles, defends recklessly and attacks with abandon. Is he overcompensating for something? He laughs – it doesn’t happen often, and it changes him, chases the shadows from his face.

‘Well, I put it all out there, I suppose, I’ve never done it any other way. You can’t play rugby half-heartedly. I never really thought about whether I use it as a release, or compensating or whatever. Maybe, yeah. I’d rather leave it on the pitch than take it home and fuck up the people I love.’

Could it be that there is something – maybe anger or aggression – that drew him to rugby as an activity where such emotions are acceptable, even encouraged?

‘I suppose it could be that, but it’s not a conscious motive. I loved rugby from an early age, loved watching it and playing it. I grew up in Australia, where it’s a more mainstream sport than it is here, and I played at school from when I was really young. I never really wanted to do anything else, it was my dream. I guess you could say that has driven me, if you’re looking for motivation, rather than a need to find an arena to be aggressive.’

It is well documented that Summers’ career at Raiders nearly ended a few years ago when it came to light that he had provided the club with an invalid passport when he arrived. He was suspended for almost the entire season, and admits that there were times when he feared he would eventually be dismissed.

‘To be honest, I couldn’t have complained if they’d terminated my contract; I wasn’t even a first team player at the time, and I cost them a place in the play-offs. The club were extremely generous in their support and guidance. I made several very bad choices, they all added up and I was having a really hard time.’

One of the things that must have made it harder was Jay Scott’s seemingly related decision to resign as Raiders’ backs coach and relocate to the Midlands with his family. Was this difficult for Declan at a time when, by his own admission, he was finding life pretty tough and needed a lot of support?

‘It was an added factor. There was a lot of stuff going on for me that most people don’t know about. I was in a dark place. I got some incredible help from some unexpected people. Plus, the club put me in touch with a psychologist, Adam, who has helped me see things differently. There was stuff I hadn’t dealt with around my parents, it had built up over time, and I was having some kind of post-traumatic reaction. With Adam’s help I’ve managed to sort out why I was being the way I was and tried to change things, react differently, accept help, be less stubborn about things. When I started seeing him, I was also recovering from the physical effects of some fairly major injuries. Being able to recover mentally from that, and work out how I got to that point in the first place, has helped me get back the inner strength I need to carry on playing, as much as the physical recovery process has.’

I realise my question has been expertly sidestepped and ask again, more directly, about the reported rift at that time between Summers and Scott.

‘It’s not something I talk about. It was a shit chapter in a bad story. End of.’

I ask about a new chapter in the Declan Summers story – he is to become a father in a few months time. He becomes animated as he talks about this obviously happily anticipated event.

‘I can’t wait, it’s so exciting. I’m just so into everything, I’ve read the books, been to the classes with Amy, she gets a bit fed up with me being so geeky about it. I just want to be part of it all.’

It is apparent that Declan is looking forward to parenthood. Is it, perhaps, an opportunity to put right some of the things he missed out on from his own childhood?

‘No, I don’t see it that way at all. You can’t let the past influence you like that, it puts too much pressure on you. You have to deal with what’s in front of you now.’

But doesn’t he feel he deserves some happy times after all the hard times?

‘It’s taken me a long while to realise that life’s not about deserving or not deserving it. You can seriously fuck yourself up thinking that way. Shit just happens to you. What’s important is how you react to it, that’s what makes the difference. I’ve reacted badly in the past. I really believe that you’re made of how you respond to what life throws at you – if it’s shit you fetch a shovel, if it’s sugar you fetch a spoon.’

I wonder if that’s something Declan has learned through therapy.

‘Yeah, that’s part of it, but most of the things I’ve learnt have come from the people around me. Therapy has helped me to listen to the lessons, not teach me new ones necessarily. I know some awesome people, who talk a lot of sense, and I hope I’ve learnt to react better now, talk to people, ask for help, be a bit less self-absorbed.’

Is introspection something he considers a character flaw?

‘It certainly didn’t help me. If you over analyse everything, go into yourself, don’t talk about it, it all just sits there in your head and never gets sorted. I think I’m better now at being more open, saying how I feel, admitting if I’ve fucked up or if I need help with something, talking about what’s making me sad, or happy. I’m sure not everyone appreciates it, but I hope people know where they are with me, and I know where I am with myself.’

Declan’s words display an emotional maturity that belies his youth, and I find I am frequently having to remind myself that he is only twenty-three years old. Could this be another consequence of having to become self-sufficient in his early teens?

‘Well I definitely had to fend for myself, teach myself what I needed to know. I guess I had to grow up fast in some ways, but I got stuck in others. I think it wasn’t until I started therapy that I began to untangle all that, and work out how it was all affecting me.’

It sounds like therapy was the turning point?

‘It was definitely a turning point. There have been lots of those, lots of second chances. Therapy has helped me to make sense of everything, but without the generosity and love of people around me, it would have been much harder. I can’t point to one thing and say ‘with or without this, it would have all been different’, because there are so many of those things – they could be events, or people, or something random like something someone says to you. I can look back now and see how things kind of weave together and affect each other, but there’s not usually just one thing. I guess every day you come across lots of turning points, you could go one way or the other. You don’t see it until later.’

Was there a particular event, something that influenced how things wove together at that time, one way or another? He is silent, looking out of the window. I get the impression he is trying to decide whether to reveal something or not.

‘I crashed my car, a few years ago. A man died. It set off the whole chain of events that led to me being suspended. It also set off something in my head, some kind of mental trauma. It was like –’ he pauses, and for the first time, his composure slips and I see the pain on his face ‘– like I’d done to someone else what someone did to me when my parents died. It triggered everything that happened. I can trace everything that went on at that time to that event, in some way. I suppose another thing was being attacked and beaten up. It started things turning the other way, started mending things.’

Can he explain? He smiles enigmatically.

‘Not really. Just, sometimes the most surprising things turn out for the best.’

Like being beaten up?

‘Exactly.’

He refuses to elaborate.

The sun shines through the window of the executive suite and illuminates the faint linear scars running down each side of Declan’s face. It is a physical reminder of that attack shortly after Raiders were deducted ten points from their Premiership total following the previously mentioned passport misdemeanour. The perpetrators of the assault were a team mate and an ex-coach, who both served time in prison for the ferocious attack that left Declan unconscious, with deep lacerations and several broken bones. That must have been difficult to come to terms with. Declan is quiet for a moment, considering.

‘The hardest part of that whole thing was thinking someone is your mate, and finding out they hate you and want to hurt you. It made me re-evaluate my friendships, I questioned people’s motives for a while, found it hard to let people in. You can’t function in a team sport like rugby if you don’t trust the people you’re with every day, and I had to let go of that mistrust. The guys at Raiders are a really close knit group. We all help each other, support each other, yeah, take the piss out of each other, but at the end of the day we’re a unit. There’s no room for someone who’s holding back from that. So that’s something I had to really work on. The squad here is amazing, everyone’s fighting for a place on the team, but we’re all rooting for each other at the same time. It’s an awesome place to work.’

It strikes me that what he is describing is another kind of family. ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. We put our bodies on the line for each other every week, no questions. We know each other inside out.’ Declan seems to have surrounded himself with families. Is this a way of replacing something he’s missed out on at a crucial stage in his early life? There is another long, considering pause.

‘It’s not something I’ve done consciously, but family is very important to me. Not necessarily the traditional mum, dad, kids, although I’m made up that I’ll have that soon, too. What’s important to me is to be surrounded by people who love you enough to tell you when you’re being a dick, as well as when you’re being fucking amazing. I guess you can call it family; I can’t think of another name for it. When it works, it’s fucking awesome.’

From the window of the executive suite, we can see the sun beginning to set over the huge grandstand. The kicker has long since gone, a few seagulls drift in the sky, the empty seats await the next home game. I get the feeling Declan Summers, supported by his various families, will be a force to be reckoned with, both in rugby and in his personal life, for some time to come.

o0o

The Independent Sport.

Rugby Shorts

Previously uncapped Raiders centre Declan Summers has been called up to the Wallabies’ Autumn International squad to ease their back line injury woes. With Davison, Hendricks, Smythe and Marsh all injured, Summers is likely to be on the bench for Saturday’s match with Scotland.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Summers in Wallabies squad

RadarRaider: Great news for Summers, he’s been on fire this season. Bit of a bu***r he won’t be playing against TomCats, could do with his intensity against Peterson.

CityRaider: Well done, Declan. Hope it’s the first of many. Can’t quite understand why he’s not been targetted by England under residency, but this is great news for him, he’s having a fantastic season so far.

Raiderette: Yay for Summs, boo for us, he’s my first pick on the team sheet at the moment.

WestStandRaider: I heard he was offered England but turned it down. Not quite sure how he qualifies for Aus, I’m pretty sure he was born in England, but looks like it was what he wanted. Congratulations, Declan.

RadarRaider: WSR, he’s got an Australian passport. You MUST remember all that grief a few seasons ago when he cost us top four with the points deduction. Isn’t he adopted or something? Australian parents?

RudolphtherednosedRaider: Reckon we should all stay out of his business. Pleased for the lad, it’s not easy to get in the Wallabies when you don’t play in Oz. Hope he’s picked, he could do some damage against the Scots. He’ll learn a lot from international rugby, come back to Raiders stronger and better.

BillX: Hopefully it’ll give Sam Wallis a bit of a run, I really rate him. He’s been great off the bench on several occasions this season.

o0o

The Independent Sport

Rugby International

Scotland 6 v 20 Australia

Tries:

Robinson

Summers

Cons:

Byron (2)

Pens:

McIntosh (2) Byron (2)

o0o

Matt followed me out into the kitchen, pulled open a drawer and handed me a packet wrapped in brown paper.

‘What’s this?’

}Just something I found, thought you might like it. I didn’t want to give it to you in front of everyone, for the sake of your dignity, but I wanted to make sure Rose was on hand just in case.

‘In case of what?’

}Oh just bloody well open it, Summers. It’s Christmas, it’s a present. Just don’t go all bat-shit if you can possibly help it.

‘You’re worrying me now. What is it?’

}For the sake of fuck. If you don’t bloody well tear the paper off, I’ll take it back and –

Matt made to grab the parcel, but I held it away from him.

‘Alright, I’ll open it. Trying not to go bat-shit. But if it’s a spider, so help me I will kill you. With my bare hands.’

}It’s not a fucking spider. How many flat rectangular spiders do you know?

‘I try to know as little as possible about any spiders. OK, here goes then.’

I turned the package over and started to peel the tape off, going slowly because Matt was making me nervous. I was worried about what the present was going to be, and how I might react to it – it didn’t seem like something I was going to be overjoyed to get. Matt was jiggling with frustration, and I could see his fingers twitching as if he was having to stop himself from tearing the wrapping off himself.

I unfolded the paper to reveal the back of a wooden photo frame, and before I turned it over, I briefly wondered if it was a picture of me scoring my try for Australia. That would be OK, maybe a bit emotional, but it wasn’t like I didn’t have tons of photos of it from every conceivable angle on my computer. I didn’t do the big rugby shrine thing that Jay had going on in his living room, but then I hadn’t had such a star-studded career as him, not yet anyway.

I turned the frame over, and had to look at the two people smiling up at me for a few seconds before I truly recognised them. I hadn’t seen their faces for over ten years, had started to forget what they really looked like. But this was my mum and dad. Mum and Dad, who I’d lost and thought I’d never see again. I was speechless, motionless, breathless, as I stared and stared at the photo, while memories and feelings flooded into me.

}Say something, mate. Do I need to call the men in white coats?

I looked up at Matt, tearing my eyes away from my parents. I couldn’t speak, could only shake my head.

}It is them isn’t it?

I nodded.

}Thank fuck for that. I’d hate to have given you a framed picture of two random people for Christmas. Nothing says ‘you don’t know me at all’ like the wrong – whoa steady on there, man points at stake.

I had put the frame down on the counter and pulled Matt to me in a fierce hug. This was overwhelming. I had done a fair amount of searching for pictures on the internet in the years since my parents died, but had never come up with anything. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask Matt, computer genius, to help, and now he’d found a picture, a good one too, without me even asking.

‘You’re fucking amazing, Matt. Fucking amazing. How the fuck did you find it?’

I let him go, and picked up the picture, hungry to see it again. I ran my finger over their faces, feeling the frustration of not being able to actually touch the two people under the glass, but overjoyed at being able to look at them. They looked younger than I remembered, though more dated, and subtly different from the pictures I had in my memory. Time had begun eroding the clarity of their faces in my mind, and this reminder could not have been more welcome.

}I did a bit of detective work. I went online, found an old newspaper report, no pictures, but it said where your dad worked, I contacted the company, and there were a few people who were still there from back then. Sent a letter asking if anyone had any photos of Tom and Lucy Collier. People were great, so helpful – I’ve got loads more, mate, you can have them all, but this was the best one.

‘You’ve got more?’

}Yeah, I put them all on a flash-drive – here.

Matt held out a small plastic drive. I took it like it was a precious jewel, which it was in a way.

‘Thanks. You don’t know how much …’

My voice tailed away as my throat closed up with emotion.

}Yeah I do. You don’t have to say anything, I just wanted you to have a picture of them. It’s not much, I know, but you should at least have that.

‘It’s everything. Oh you bloody bastard, I haven’t done this for ages.’

Tears were streaming down my face and Matt tore off a bit of kitchen roll, handing it to me with a smirk.

}I love turning you into a fucking loony. Makes my Christmas that bit more special.

‘Happy to oblige, then.’

I wiped my eyes, and looked down at Mum and Dad again.

‘Can I show Amy?’

}It’s yours to do with as you wish. I was personally hoping for pride of place on the mantelpiece.

‘Your arse won’t fit on the mantelpiece, you’ll have to make do with hogging the sofa like usual.’

}Oh the wit of Summers knows no beginning.

‘Thanks mate.’

}Pleasure.

I walked into the living room, where everyone was watching ‘Elf’.

‘Ames, there are some people I’d like you to meet.’

Julia

I saw more of Matt’s family and got to really like them, finally understanding the circumstances and emotions that bound them all together. That said, I often didn’t go to their big sprawling gatherings with Matt, but sometimes we both went and would come back laughing about how much more we had learned than we ever wanted to about oestrogen, cervixes and the different colours of baby shit. There was a big focus on Dec and Amy’s impending arrival, and it was another reason I limited my involvement with them. Matt and I had lain in bed making a pros and cons list of parenthood. On the ‘cons’ side, which was long, was included loss of sleep, hormonal surges, crying, pooping and vomiting. The ‘pros’ side consisted only of ‘must have sex to conceive’. Matt loved Cal and Iz, but seemed to share my horror of having children of my own.

‘I’m always totally relieved to give them back, especially when Cal’s being a grouchy complaining little git or Iz is screaming her head off because she’s tired’ seemed to be his philosophy.

And so we became closer and saw more of each other, and one Sunday morning, we were sitting in bed eating croissants after very enjoyable wake-up sex, when I heard an intake of breath from Matt. I looked up at him.

61. Worried man blues

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

Julia

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

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

Dec

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

‘Hey sweetie.’

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

‘Who’s this?’

/stinkerbell.

‘Stinkerbell?’

/cal say Stinkerbell.

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

/daddy an me go park an play horsie.

‘Sounds great. Is he a good horsie?’

/he go neigh.

‘Sounds like he got it just right.’

/he go woof doggy.

‘Wow, what a repertoire.’

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

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

/daddy woof.

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

Iz giggled in delight.

/gain.

łNo more.

/gain, pease.

She looked at him from underneath her long blonde eyelashes.

/pease Daddy.

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

/gain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Energy reserves of a rhino, probably.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

łMemory bottle?

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

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

‘Lost it. Total blubfest.’

łShit. You OK now?

‘Yeah. Got a lot out of my system.

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

‘Yeah.’

łI’m glad to hear it, mate.

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

Beth came out of the kitchen.

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

łCAL!

_I mean go and get him.

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

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

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

}Help me out, mate?

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

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

‘OK, babe?’

She nodded.

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

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

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

‘Or a chocolate button, possibly.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

)Are you OK?

‘I’m OK.’

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

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

)Love you too.

\gross

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

Cal was concentrating hard on his plate.

\urgh, you put me off my dinner.

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

\it’s just gross.

Amy smiled over at him.

)You won’t always think so, Cal.

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

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

}You bloody won’t, it’s my best hat.

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

She smiled, indulging me.

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

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

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

The traffic light turned green and I pulled away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Holy shit. Sorry.’

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

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

What?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sounds familiar.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Really, love?’

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

Rose waved this away.

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

Amy nodded.

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

‘OK. Fancy a hot chocolate or something?’

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

Rose read her screen.

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

She showed me and I nodded.

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

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

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

Dec

One immediate reply.

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

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

Rose: =youre welcome see you soon

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

Julia

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

Matt

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

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

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

Julia

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

I took a breath and just decided to say it.

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

‘Oh.’

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

Julia

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

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

‘Oh.’

Matt

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

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

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

Julia

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

Matt

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

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

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

Julia

‘Are you alright?’

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

Matt

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

‘How will you get home?’

‘Taxi. Walk. Whatever.’

‘You can’t walk, it’s late.’

‘Fucking taxi then. Jesus.’

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

Julia

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

Matt

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

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

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

Dec

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

Matt:=Bloody sentimental fucking nutter 😉 xx

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

}What the fuck?

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

}I was replying to you.

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

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

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

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

‘I’m up.’

}I refer you to my previous comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

)Were you talking to someone?

‘Just Matt.’

)Is he OK?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No fucking way, I did not.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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