61. Worried man blues

In which the long day comes to an end for some, and is prolonged for others.

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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.

58. I’m not in love

In which festivities draw to a close, a decision is made, and we move on apace.

Dec

Rose and Carol had got their coats and were saying their goodbyes.

:Declan, I expect you to let me know every single little thing that happens with this baby, now. Appointments, scans, names, dates, the whole lot. Right, love?

‘Right, Rose.’

#Goodbye Declan, I’ll let you know about my lawn, then.

‘You know where I am, Carol.’

:Stand up, love, just need another hug.

I did as I was told, as I always did where Rose was concerned, and gave her a big squeeze back.

‘See you soon. Oh, Bonksy says hi.’

‘How is he, love?’

‘Same old Bonksy.’

‘Found himself a nice girl yet?’

‘No, he’s still crashing around breaking hearts left and right.’

‘He needs taking in hand, that lad. Maybe I’ll call round with a cake.’

‘I’m sure he’d appreciate the cake.’

:He doesn’t get cake without a bit of friendly advice. Bye love.

Julia

We went back into the house, and Matt chatted to Dec while I offered to help Beth and Amy clear the table. Rose and Carol had gone; I realised I hadn’t spoken to Matt’s mother and felt a little bit guilty.

Dec

Matt wandered over.

}You’re looking pensive. That’s never a good sign. Too much thinking is bad for the soul. Look, I’ve raided Jay’s beer store.

He handed a bottle over.

‘Ah, just what the doctor ordered. Sparkling wine is all very well for toasting and speeching and stuff, but beer hits the spot like nothing else.’

}That’s better, mate, all this love shit was making me worry I’d lost you to the dark side. Know what we need? A bloody good piss up. Boys night. Curry. Pub crawl, even. I might consider some karaoke if we can get rat-arsed enough.

‘Sounds good. You organising?’

}Well you’re apparently the grown up, it sounds like something you should do.

‘No way, I’m far too busy being responsible. Tell you what, I’ll send a text, see who’s around, you see who you can get, we’ll take it from there.’

}Think you’ll be allowed out?

‘Yes, Matt, I will be allowed out. Will you?’

}Piss off, I do what I want.

I had touched a nerve, and he knew it and was annoyed with himself for showing it.

‘Well in that case you’re the best one to sort it all, aren’t you. Oh, hey Cal, have you beaten the boss yet?’

\yeah, I just did it. Are you going to come and play with me now?

‘Yeah, sure. What are we going to play?’

}Have you got ‘My Little Pony for Beginners’, Cal? I think Dec might stand a chance of getting to level two in that one. Possibly.

‘Is that a challenge?’

}I’m not challenging you to anything like My Little Pony. Might lower myself to trouncing you and Cal at something a bit more meaty. Have you got three controllers, Cal?

\yeah. One of them’s a bit rubbish.

}Oh, Dec can have that one, no point wasting a decent one on him.

‘Hey, I’m right here.’

}How about a race? You’ve got GrandTour5, right? Even Dec can’t do too much wrong racing a car. He might finish last every time, but someone’s got to.

‘Still right here.’

}Let’s go, then.

‘Are you just going to leave Julia down here?’

}She’s gossiping in the kitchen with Beth and Amy, she’ll be fine. She’s quite self-sufficient.

Julia

Beth and Amy were in full flow talking about Dec’s plans for the future; there seemed to be some contract negotiations surrounding his job which could involve a move away from the city. They were both worried he was going to choose a move and financial security over staying in the city with his close network of friends and family.

‘Sorry, Julia, this must be very dull for you. Thank you for helping, it’s lovely you could come. I haven’t had a chance to talk to you all night, you must think I’m very rude.’

‘Not at all, you’ve been really busy organising all this.’

‘I love a family get-together. I do it as often as possible, but there are so many of us, it’s difficult to get everyone here at the same time. Although now Nico and Lis are in Argentina, that’s two less to think about I suppose. Are your family local?’

‘No, they all live abroad.’

‘That must be hard. My parents live in the States now, so I don’t see them very often, and I miss them a lot. It’s great having Carol so close though, it’s lovely for the children to have at least one grandparent they can see regularly. I’m really glad Matty persuaded you to come tonight; I was saying to Amy, we’ve all managed to meet you, but not get to know you. Matty said you work together?’

‘Yes, we’re both at GreenScreen.’

‘What’s he like to work with?’

Amy sounded genuinely interested.

‘Infuriating. And brilliant. But don’t let him know I said brilliant.’

‘Ha ha. No. Matt already knows he’s brilliant. He doesn’t need to be any more big headed.’

‘He thinks his family’s pretty brilliant, though. He used that exact word earlier.’

Beth shot me a surprised look.

‘Really? Matty’s not usually that gushing. You’re sure he wasn’t being sarcastic?’

‘No, he was telling me Jay gave up his job to look after him when he was ill.’

‘He told you about being ill?’

Beth and Amy exchanged a glance in which both sets of eyebrows were raised.

‘Yes.’

I waited.

‘Sorry Julia. It’s just Matty never talks about it, even with us. We’re just a bit surprised, but it’s great. You’re obviously getting on well.’

‘Yes I suppose we are.’

To divert attention away from further discussion of my relationship with Matt, I asked Beth for the recipe for one of the dishes she’d made. She gave me a verbal run down which led to a discussion about foods it is unwise to eat during pregnancy, and Beth and Amy were off again in a different world to me. They tried to include me but I had no interest and therefore no opinions. Shrugging and smiling seemed the most diplomatic option.

We sat down with a cup of tea after the clearing up was finished. Iz sat on Beth’s lap and fell asleep while Beth stroked her head. I felt compelled to comment.

‘She has beautiful hair.’

Beth smiled widely at me, proud as only a mother can be of something she had no control over.

‘I know. I don’t know where it came from. Cal’s is the same, he was so cute when he was little but he hates it now. I have to keep it short so the curls don’t show.’

‘Didn’t he make you delete all the photos of him from France, when it was all growing back?’

Amy was yawning as she spoke.

‘Sorry, I’m flagging a bit.’

‘Oh sweetheart you should go home. Go and shake that man of yours, he’ll be up there all night otherwise. What’s his favourite saying?’

They said it together.

‘Sorry babe, I lost track of time.’

Amy laughed and yawned again.

‘He’s much better than he used to be. Maybe I will go and dig him out though. Matt’s up there too, isn’t he? Could go on all night. Do you want me to poke him too, Julia?’

I smiled, thinking of Matt’s motivation for getting home and to bed in good time.

‘No, he’ll be ready to go in a while, I think.’

‘Oh. OK.’

Amy obviously didn’t understand what I meant, being unaware that I was spending the night at Matt’s apartment. I was pretty sure Matt wouldn’t be waiting too long before heading home.

Dec

As Matt predicted, I came last in every race, and he and Cal ribbed me mercilessly; it was good to see Cal smiling again. We lost track of time, until there was a tap on the door.

)Dec?

Amy popped her head round the door.

‘Hey babe.’

)It’s getting a bit late, can we go soon? If I’m going to work tomorrow, I need to get some decent sleep.

‘No worries, sorry, didn’t realise the time. OK Cal, you’ll have to do without me I guess.’

}Oh Cal, how will we cope without Dec’s vital contribution to the worst driver league tables?

‘Thanks for the game, guys. See you Saturday, Cal, shout extra loud if I’m playing. Show Matt what a real sport is all about.’

}Real sport? You don’t even have nets in your goals. You only play for eighty minutes. Real fucking sport my arse. Oops, sorry Cal.

I caught Cal’s eye and winked.

‘Come on then, babe. Bye Cal, see you Matt.’

Matt stood up.

}Dec, just wanted to say, I’m really happy for you. Both of you.

‘Cheers, mate. I know.’

We nodded at each other. Grinned. Brief man-hug.

}Fuck, Dec. It is immense. Piss off now before you get me started. OK Cal, where were we, top of the leader board …

Julia

After Amy and Dec had said goodbye, Beth apologetically stood up with Iz over her shoulder.

‘Sorry Julia, I need to put her to bed. Are you OK on your own for a bit? I won’t be long. I’ll give Matty a nudge while I’m up there, Cal should be going to bed soon anyway. Get yourself another drink if you like.”

‘I’ll be fine, thanks.’

I sat finishing off my tea, looking around the large lounge-dining room. It was full of the paraphernalia of family life: toys, children’s paintings on the wall, framed photographs dotted everywhere, shoes tucked behind the sofa. There was also a corner devoted to rugby, with a framed shirt covered with signatures, hung with medals and surrounded by photographs of rugby players, including a much younger-looking Jay.

It occurred to me how different Matt’s version of family life was to mine, what expectations he may have that could differ wildly to mine. This family seemed alright, they were welcoming and friendly, and obviously looked after each other, but I didn’t want to become part of it. I doubted I would ever feel completely comfortable in such a large family group. My ruminations were halted by Matt, who I heard jogging down the stairs and then he came into the lounge and sat next to me.

‘Sorry to desert you, Jules, I got carried away. Cal was beating me, couldn’t let that happen. Rematch on Saturday after the rugby. Whoa, I can’t believe I’m going to the rugby.’

‘Surely you’ve been before.’

‘Not since I was at school. I’ve seen Jay play a few times, years ago, with Mum. But I never really got it, possibly a tinge of jealousy about my big brother being in the limelight, and I’ve stood firm ever since. It’ll be the first time I’ve seen Dec play, too.’

‘It sounds like you’re looking forward to it.’

‘Know what, I bloody well am. Who’d have thought? Anyway, hot stuff, are you ready to go home and get laid?’

‘Hot stuff?’

‘Yeah. Not doing it for you as a pet name?’

‘No. Neither is the thought of ‘getting laid’.’

‘Sorry. Too much time with Dec. He’s always babe this and babe that, and he brings out my laddish side.’

‘Your laddish side doesn’t need much bringing out.’

‘True. Shall we go?’

‘We should say goodbye.’

‘Beth’s putting Iz to bed. Where’s Jay?’

‘I don’t know. I haven’t seen him since we started clearing up.’

Matt laughed.

‘Oh OK. I know where he’ll be then.’

He stood up, held his hand out and pulled me up, putting his finger to his lips. We walked quietly out of the lounge and across the hall to a closed door. Matt put his ear to the door and nodded to himself, then slowly opened the door to reveal an office, complete with desk, computer and chair. The chair contained Jay who was asleep, head flung back, snoring softly. Matt let go of my hand and crept up to Jay then bent down and kissed him hard on the lips. Jay woke immediately. I couldn’t see his face but saw his body jerk and heard his exclamation:

‘Jesus! What the … oh. Matty. Jesus you scared the living shit out of me. What the fuck are you playing at?’

Matt had stood back, laughing uproariously.

‘Too good to resist. Julia and I are going. Needed to wake you up to say goodbye.’

Jay ran a hand through his hair in a gesture very similar to the one Matt often used. He took a deep breath and shook his head.

‘Sorry Julia, Matty took me by surprise. I was in here trying –’

‘To avoid clearing up. You’re so bloody obvious Jay.’

‘Piss off Matty. You’ve made your point. Going now are you?’

‘Yeah. Say goodbye to Beth for us. I’ll see you Saturday.’

‘What’s Saturday?’

‘Cal. Rugby. You’re apparently getting tickets for the family seats?’

‘Oh yeah. OK.’

‘Don’t forget.’

‘I won’t. Ring Beth though, she can tell you what time. You’re sure you want to take him?’

‘Yeah, whatever. Cal can look after me, show me the ropes.’

Matt seemed to be downplaying his enthusiasm.

‘Don’t drink too much beer. You’re in charge of him.’

Matt put his hand over his heart and assumed a hurt expression.

‘I never drink when I’m looking after your children.’

‘No, maybe not, but there’s a lot of temptation with all the bars at the stadium.’

‘Give me some credit Jay.’

‘OK, OK.’

‘Right then, we’re going before I get accused of more as-yet-uncommitted misdemeanours. Thank Beth for the spread.’

‘Will do. Bye Julia.’

Jay stood up with a grunt, patted Matt on the shoulder and kissed me on the cheek before leading us to the front door.

Dec

Amy was nearly asleep on the way home, and I felt very guilty about how late it was. She went straight to bed when we got in, hardly pausing to change into her night clothes. I sat in the living room for a while. It had been an awesome day. I should have been as tired as Amy, considering the tiny amount of sleep I’d had the night before, and the full-on emotional roller coaster of the day’s events, but my mind was whirring and I couldn’t wind down.

I put the TV on quietly, hoping it would distract me. As I was absently half-watching a repeat of a nature programme, the phone rang. Our land-line hardly ever rang. It was either a particularly desperate late-night double glazing salesperson, or it was one of Amy’s parents – they were the only ones who used our home number. I thought about ignoring it, but didn’t want Amy to be woken up. Picked it up.

‘Hello.’

;Oh you’re home now. It’s Diane Wright.

‘Oh.’

I knew she didn’t want to talk to me, she never did, but I wasn’t going to wake Amy up for her, and I wasn’t going to make anything easy for her either, after the horrible time she’d given Amy this afternoon. I tried to make my ‘oh’ sound as unfriendly as I possibly could, and there was a short silence while Amy’s mother tried to decide how to tackle me.

;I’d like to speak to my daughter.

‘She’s gone to bed. You can talk to me.’

I felt feisty. Amy’s parents didn’t intimidate me, and after today I had issues with them I was happy to address.

;No, it’s Amy I wanted.

‘That’s not what she thought this afternoon.’

;I beg your pardon?

‘What did you want to say to Amy? Were you going to apologise?’

;I most certainly was not. I have never been spoken to like that in my life, we were both very shocked. She has never used such language to us.

‘Well, I think it was about time she did. Diane –’

I was very aware this was the first time I had ever used her first name.

‘– Amy is an adult. She has been for some time. She no longer answers to you, she only answers to herself. If you’ve rung here looking for an apology or an argument, you’re wasting your time, but if you want to try and mend things with Amy, that might be a bit more useful. Life’s too short to hold grudges. Look, I know you don’t think much of me, I can’t help that, fuck knows I’ve tried my best. But if you think anything of Amy at all, please try and look beyond what you feel about how she lives her life, and see what she’s feeling. If she’s happy, be happy for her. If she’s not, support her and make things better for her. That’s what families should do, not judge, disapprove and condemn.’

There was a long silence. For a moment, I wondered if she’d hung up while I was talking, then I heard a sharp breath.

;It happened to me.

‘What?’

;What’s happened to Amy. I fell pregnant before I was married. My parents were very angry, they made me marry Jack. Then I lost the baby. We had Amy a lot later.

Shit, this was not the late-night conversation I would have imagined having earlier today. It was so unexpected, I didn’t know what to say. Had a go, although I was completely out of my depth.

‘I’m really sorry to hear that, it sounds grim. But we’re not you, and you don’t have to be your parents. Surely you can understand even more how Amy felt this afternoon? She’s so happy, she just wanted you to be happy for her. It didn’t seem like much to ask.’

Another silence.

; … Maybe. Declan, I’d like to speak to Amy tomorrow. Would you tell her I called? You can tell her what I said if you want to, it’s up to you.

‘I’ll tell her.’

;Thank you.

I hung up. Sat on the sofa thinking for a long time about families, commitments, responsibilities, sacrifices. Finally started to feel tired, and went to bed. Amy stirred as I got under the duvet.

‘Sorry, babe, didn’t mean to wake you up. Go back to sleep.’

)Were you talking to someone?

‘Tell you tomorrow. Go to sleep.’

Closed my eyes and drifted off, feeling Amy put her arm round me and pull herself in close. It wasn’t long before I woke up to the sound of retching. Stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom for hair-holding duty.

‘Hey babe, here we are again. We should do this every night, it’s fun.’

Amy shot me a filthy look and carried on puking. I held her hair, rubbed her back, kissed her shoulders. Eventually she stood up.

)I think I’ve finished for now. I’ll just clean my teeth, then I’ll be back. Go and warm my spot up for me, hon.

When she clambered back into bed, I held her close.

‘Ames, can I tell you something? I think I’ve decided.’

)What about?

‘About staying or going.’

I felt her tense in my arms.

)OK. You know I’ll go with whatever you want.

‘Well that’s just it, it’s not just me, is it. I’ll tell you what I’ve decided, then you can tell me if you agree and we can battle it out. Yeah?’

)Do we have to battle tonight? I’m exhausted.

‘OK babe, no battles tonight, I just wanted to say this. I’ve been sitting thinking for ages. These offers from Warriors and TomCats, they are huge amounts of money, and the clubs are awesome. We’d be able to afford a really nice house, really nice stuff. If you think we should do it, I’ll do it. But I think I want to stay here. I’ve only ever known Raiders, it’s like my home, almost like another family, and they’ve been great to me, I owe them a lot. Jay says I should try other things, but there’s more than just the rugby. I talked to Cal tonight, he’s really missing Nico. If I go too … well, I don’t think I can do that to him. And then there’s Rose, in fact my whole family is here. And so is yours. When Beth was saying about Lis being broody and having a baby in a foreign country, I thought about where we could be in nine months, and I think I want us to be here, with them all. I don’t want us to do it alone, even if they don’t talk a foreign language in London. When it all happens, it’s going to be scary and weird, and I need people I know and love around me. I want Beth and Rose here, to mop me up, and Matt to take the piss out of me, and Jay to be Jay and not know whether to mop me up or take the piss.

)You foresee a lot of mopping and piss-taking in your future, then.

‘Fuck yes, I’m going to be an emotional wreck. In a good way.’

)Do I get a say?

‘Of course, babe, I just wanted to say what I was feeling. You tell me if it’s not what you want. Whenever. No rush.’

)Well, I’m actually completely relieved. I want all that too. I didn’t want to leave here anyway, but I know we might have to move on sometime. I don’t care about the money, we’re alright, aren’t we? Having people we love around us is much more important, I think I saw that tonight more than ever. I know we never know what’s around the corner, Jay and Beth may not stay forever, but for now it’s all stable, and I think I need that at the moment. Oh Dec, yes please, let’s stay. Please, please.

She put her arms round me and kissed me.

‘Well, when you put it like that, how can I refuse?’

)So, we don’t have to battle tomorrow?

‘Not about that. Maybe about who gets in the bathroom first.’

)I’ll be in there puking anyway.

‘You win then. No battling at all. You know what, I feel another late night phone call coming on.’

)You can’t.

‘I do believe Jay said what an honour it was to be called by me with important information, at any time of the day or night.’

)Hm, not sure he put it quite like that.

‘Let’s put it to the test.’

I picked up my phone from the bedside table and dialled their number. It rang a few times. Jay’s tired voice answered.

łJay Scott.

‘Jay, it’s Dec.’

łYou are taking the piss.

‘No, I have important information. But I need to talk to Beth.’

łShe’s asleep.

‘She’ll want to know this.’

łOh for fuck’s sake. You’d better be on time for training tomorrow.

There was a short muffled conversation, then Beth came on the line, her voice blurred with sleep.

_Dec? Is everything OK?

‘Yeah. I just wanted to let you know, I’m staying.’

_Oh, Dec … thank you, sweetheart.

‘You can tell Jay, but make sure he doesn’t tell Scotty.’

She laughed.

_I’ll do my best. Thank you. Thank you.

‘Night, Beth.’

_Night, sweetheart.

I put the phone on the bedside table, turned to face Amy.

‘Ames?’

)Yes hon.

‘Will you marry me?’

)Course, hon.

‘Just checking.’

I wrapped myself up in her, closed my eyes and slept.

Dreaming. I am flying. Amy and I are flying, high in the sky, carrying the stars. We fling them up into the dark, where they stay, twinkling, lighting up the universe.

Julia

‘What is it with you and snogging blokes?’

‘Ha ha. Gets a reaction.’

‘You do it to your family too, don’t you?’

I was lying in Matt’s arms, a mutually satisfying bout of sex having just finished.

‘Do what?’

‘Matt the Lad. You hide behind him.’

He was silent for a moment looking at me.

‘I suppose I do. I don’t want them to know everything about me. When I was ill I had no privacy, everyone knew fucking everything, literally couldn’t even wipe my own arse. Now I’ve got it back I hold on to it. Fannying about is a good way of deflecting unwanted fussing. They’ve all tried, look after your health Matt, don’t drink so much Matt, find yourself a nice girl Matt. I can’t be doing with it. I know they worry, I understand why, but it’s just too much a lot of the time. Me and Dec can talk about shit sometimes, he knows when to back off and when to push it. But yeah, Matt the Lad is always available for a good put down or shock value snog.’

‘Your family is very different from mine.’

‘Aren’t all families different? That’s why it feels so weird being in someone else’s.’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to drag you along every time there’s one of Beth’s gatherings.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I think the baby talk is going to be a bit much for the next few months. Rose has gone into overdrive, and Beth is so mumsy. Maybe manly rugby with Cal is just what I need.’

‘The baby talk is certainly a lot to cope with.’

‘Not the maternal type?’

I shook my head.

‘Never have been. I knew from fairly early on I don’t want children. Other women always try to persuade me. Apparently I’ll change my mind when I’m older. Well here I am, older, mind still unchanged.’

‘Shit, Julia, tonight must have been the last thing you wanted to do. Why didn’t you say?’

‘Well apart from not feeling the need to announce my intention to remain child free, to you or anyone else, as an excuse not to go, I wanted to spend the evening with you. And I was curious about your family.’

‘And now, curiosity satisfied, you realise we’re a bunch of weirdoes and you never want to see them again.’

‘I didn’t say that. I might not come with you every time there’s a celebration. And I might leave you and Cal to enjoy rugby on your own. But they seem nice – if I avoid them it won’t be because I don’t like them. I don’t think you and I are at the stage where we have to spend every minute in each other’s company are we? Maybe we never will be. I need my space and I know you do.’

‘Well I could happily spend every minute of the rest of my life doing what we just did. But yeah, I need to do my own thing. Aren’t we just fucking perfect for each other?’

I nodded.

‘I bloody love you.’

‘No you don’t.’

‘No, I don’t.’

He smiled and folded me up against him and pulled me tightly to him, kissing the top of my head.

Matt

I thought, after that, that we’d see more of my family, but Jules was never that keen, and although I did still see them on my own, as Jules and I spent more time together, I went round to Jay’s less, spent fewer evenings watching crap on TV and drinking beer with Dec, popped in to see Mum less. I didn’t really think about it.

It was around this time I was deceiving myself about a couple of pretty major things. Everything was going so well with Jules, we got on so well, and we’d worked out a way of being together that suited us. We did our own thing a lot, never felt the need to be with each other all the time, and it left me free to do things like watch football, socialise, play computer games, all the blokey things that seem to annoy the shit out of women, but as Jules did her own thing too, there was just this understanding. We did what we wanted to do, no pressure from either of us to do things together just for the sake of it. It felt ideal; it felt like I had the best of both worlds.

We spent plenty of time together, in bed and out of it. I really enjoyed being with Jules, talking to her, verbally sparring with her, almost as much as I liked holding her and making her moan. We were very good together; she was surprisingly adventurous in bed, and we both complemented and challenged each other.

Oh, but I was talking about deceiving myself. Yeah, about that. Jules told me fairly early on that she didn’t believe in love, that it didn’t exist for her. Maybe that was true for her, maybe she had her own little lies that she told herself, but it was convenient for me, at the time, to say the same. I was already a little freaked out by what I was trying hard to convince myself I wasn’t feeling for Jules, and so joining in with her ‘down with love’ stance suited me.

Looking back now, I can see I was scared. Scared of getting flattened like I had before. I never wanted to be in that place again, where I’d given everything to someone and instead of cherishing it, they destroyed it. So I convinced myself I was never going there again, I told her about Carrie, we laughed about being perfect for each other because neither of us believed in or wanted perfection. But inside, somewhere, I had fallen for Jules. I even told her, regularly, that I didn’t love her, to make her laugh, to continue the fantasy, but as time went on, I’d feel bad for an instant when I said it. Then I’d cover it all up by reminding myself what a good deal I had. But make no mistake, I loved Jules. I loved her for a long time, and if I’d told her, truthfully, just once, things might have been different. Oh, they probably wouldn’t have, because there was the other thing I was deceiving myself about.

Julia

Away from that chaotic family evening and stress of the day at work when everyone knew about us, I was seeing more and more that Matt and I were very similar, with similar outlooks on what we wanted from life. There was never a conflict about spending time together or apart; if one of us had other plans, including being alone, the other shrugged and found something else to do. We met up at least once or twice a week, often more, and our sex life was full, varied and exciting.

I sighed with contentment. Even being here, in Matt’s apartment, intending to stay the night, didn’t fill me with the horror it had with previous partners. I knew he didn’t want me to live there, he just wanted me to stay with him for that night, for some prolonged closeness and the chance of more sex later if the mood took us. Which it probably would. I snuggled in closely and enjoyed feeling safe, wrapped up in Matt.

The following weeks brought more sense of calm to my life. Despite my fears, things at GreenScreen didn’t change dramatically once people knew about Matt and me. Once the surprise of our relationship had worn off, people stopped being interested in us. We stuck to our rules, didn’t give them anything further to gossip about, were professional and did our jobs, and it worked. I began to relax about it; I was still The Ice Queen, and I was happy to feel once more like I knew exactly where I stood.

Away from work, Matt came with me to Norfolk for a weekend to help me sort out some of Nons’ things. I wasn’t going to sell the house yet, I couldn’t bear to part with it, but there were documents that needed dealing with, and I wanted to see how William was doing.

Matt and William got on like a house on fire. They talked about football virtually non-stop, and shared a love of beer that saw me spend a lonely Saturday evening going through Nons’ paperwork while they got pissed in front of a live football match on TV. Matt was apologetic later, but I didn’t really mind; William still wouldn’t come into the house, and I hoped that Matt had helped take his mind of things for a few hours.

We managed to go for a walk along one of the north Norfolk beaches. Matt hadn’t realised how beautiful that part of the country was, and enthused about the landscape, wanting to come back more often.

‘We can share the driving, it’ll be great.’

‘Yes, but sometimes I want to be up here on my own.’

‘Sure, but when you feel like company. I like seeing where you grew up.’

‘Does that mean we’ll get to see the delights of Stafford sometime then?’

‘Fuck no, there’s nothing there. Not now I’ve left, anyway.’

And he grinned immodestly and kissed me, and the subject was changed.

Matt

Yeah, so the other thing I was kidding myself about. Well, it was Dec’s fault. I like to blame Dec for as much as I can get away with blaming him for. He’s pretty easy going, and he’s got broad shoulders, he can take it. I mentioned that around the time Jules and I got together, Amy got pregnant. It made me feel weird, and I couldn’t explain it, so I didn’t explore it, it is the Matt Scott code: ‘Never Explore Uncomfortable or Inconvenient Feelings’. Maybe it just compounded my sense of being immature; I still thought of Dec as a teenager sometimes, but he was twenty-three by now, and well old enough to be a parent.

It was just that he sometimes seemed so much more grown up than me – I was approaching my mid-thirties, with not so much as a sniff of wanting to settle down and become a family man, and here was my much younger friend with the fiancée and the foetus, making me feel too old and too young at the same time.

If I’d analysed any of it back then, which was so, so never gonna happen, I would have realised I was envious of what he had. But I was so far from having any insight into my thoughts and actions, that it was easy to carry on letting everyone, myself included, believe that a family was the last thing I wanted. I guess it also served my purposes with Jules, united us against the onslaught. She sometimes came with me to Jay and Beth’s, usually on a Sunday, and we’d escape as soon as we could and laugh at the rampant mothering and grannying that had been going on.

‘Ugh, when they started talking about different things you could use afterbirth for. What the fuck? Don’t bloody well do that when I’m eating crème brulee thanks very much.’

‘I know, and even your brother was talking about the different colours of baby shit.’

‘Yeah, like Jay ever saw a full nappy. He was always conveniently busy when they needed changing. I reckon I’ve changed more of his kids’ nappies than he has.’

And then we’d count down the months, weeks and days until it was all over, and the speculation could end. But there was a part of me that was looking forward to meeting this new person, and part of me that would have loved to have someone call me Daddy. I just never went there, it was so far from everything I believed I was, everything I let other people believe I was, everything Jules and I believed we were.

Looking back now, with an analytical and maybe more objective mind, it’s interesting that Jules and I lasted almost exactly as long as Amy’s pregnancy. Oh, I don’t mean that I think there was some sort of cosmic force at work, just that maybe things run their course, not that they have a predetermined length of time or some such shit, but that eventually things come to light that bring things to an end, or make it impossible to continue, which is the same thing really. Maybe I’m trying to say I was reborn? Ha ha, no, that’s not how it felt at all, although my life changed irrevocably. It was just an observation.

So, there I was, all that time, in love with Jules, who never wanted kids, while I wanted to be a dad. And if you’d asked me to say, honestly, how I felt, and if I decided that, yep, OK, I’ll be honest, I would have said, no, of course I don’t love Jules, we’re just seeing how it goes, one day at a time, having fun, and don’t be so bloody ridiculous, no one’s going to tie me down with parenthood. Funny how things go.

Oh, and in the middle of it all, I nearly made Dec have a nervous breakdown. That was possibly the closest I ever came to examining all my shit – ha, given the box-of-shit analogy that Dec came up with that’s quite apposite – but even then I just decided to shove it all down. Maybe some of that is worth telling, it was a pretty major day.

57. We are family

In which there are introductions, and opinions are formed.

Dec

I picked Iz up and carried her downstairs, into the living room. Beth was laying out what looked like a banquet on the table, ably assisted by Amy, Rose and Carol. Jay was still grappling with the laptop.

‘Any luck?’

łNo, I can’t get the damn thing to work, it won’t accept the password. Do you really not have any idea what to do? Aren’t you supposed to be young?

‘Not a bloody clue. I’ve never Skyped before. Technology is a foreign country to me. Plus, I’ve got my hands full.’

On cue, Iz wriggled to get down and ran over to Jay to show him Optimus Prime.

/cal’s lorry.

łWow, Iz, I like him. Does he turn into a robot by any chance?

/make a bot. Dec do it.

She held the truck out to me. I took it and fiddled with the plastic bits, some of which were missing, and turned it back into Optimus Prime in almost all his glory.

‘Ta-da.’

łI’m impressed you can still remember how to do that. Shame your skills don’t stretch to useful things like working bloody computers.

/make a lorry.

‘At least it’s keeping me occupied – I see I could be here for some time.’

I dismantled and reassembled Optimus Prime several times for Iz while Jay continued to get frustrated with the computer and the table continued to fill up with food. We heard a car pull up outside. Jay stood up and went to the door, muttering.

łAbout time, Matty.

/unca Matty.

Sensing some fresh male attention to be had, Iz ran off to wait by the door with Jay. I took the opportunity to wander over to Amy and kiss her.

)Hey, hon. Good game with Cal?

‘He was busy doing something else. I’ll play him after dinner. Good chat with the girls?’

)Lovely chat. Proper girly time. Just what I needed.

Julia

The front door opened, and a man I recognised as Jay stood in the doorway looking grumpy.

‘Where’ve you been? I’m having trouble with Skype and Nico’s calling soon. ‘

‘Hello Matty how lovely to see you, I notice you’ve brought a beautiful woman with you, come in and have a beer’

‘Yeah all that. Hi Julia, good to see you again’.

He leaned down and kissed my cheek, then moved out of the way so that we could go in. His small blonde daughter was waiting behind him.

‘Unca Matty.’

She lifted her arms up to Matt and he hoisted her up, while she looked triumphantly at us all.

‘Hello beautiful. I like your dress. Very, er, sparkly. Oh, wings too. You must be a … goblin.’

She turned her serious gaze on Matt

‘I fairy.’

‘Are you sure? I thought fairies were green with huge ears and warts and horns.’

‘Fairies got wings.’

‘Oh, my mistake.’

‘Matty, I really need some help with this computer.’

Jay was almost hopping from foot to foot with impatience, and I could see Matt purposely slowing down. He walked through the door to the lounge carrying Iz, Jay following closely behind and me bringing up the rear. Across the large room I saw the man and woman I recognised as Dec and Amy. Iz pointed at Dec.

Dec

/unca Matty, Dec make lorry.

}Yeah, blondie, and that’s not all he’s made recently from what I’ve heard.

/dec make bot.

}Sounds more like it Iz. Hold on a minute, beautiful, let me just put you down, there’s someone I need to kiss.

He walked over to where Amy and I were standing, took my face in his hands and planted a wet kiss on my mouth. There was a hint of tongue and an evil glint in his eyes.

Julia

Matt set Iz down and walked over to where Amy and Dec were standing. I expected him to go to Amy, but he stopped in front of Dec, held his face still and planted a wet kiss on Dec’s mouth. It looked like he might have slipped his tongue inside from the startled look on Dec’s face.

‘Ugh, no, wrong one. Far too hairy. Come here, Amy, I meant you.’

He kissed her quickly and more sensibly on the lips and briefly hugged her. It seemed like Matt the Lad existed in some form outside of work as well.

‘Well done, you. At least you’ve had plenty of practice with Dec. Should be a breeze.’

He addressed this to Amy, and she smiled but Dec answered.

‘Yeah, you’re as hilarious as Jay.’

Matt turned to the rest of the people in the room. There was Jay, who was standing by a laptop, Matt’s mother, and a small round lady with short blonde hair who I didn’t recognise.

‘Everyone knows Julia, don’t they? Oh, maybe not Rose.’

Matt indicated the small blonde woman.

‘Rose, this is Julia; Julia, Rose. Rose is – oh bollocks, know what, I’ve given up trying to explain who’s who in this bloody family. Rose is great. That’s all you need to know.’

Rose stood up and beckoned me over to the table.

‘Thanks very much, love. Julia, here’s a plate, look. Let’s go and grab something before the boys eat it all.’

She had a strong Welsh accent and a forthright manner that brooked no argument. I followed her over to the table.

‘So you’re related to Matt?’

‘Oh no love, I’m kind of an accidental family member. I came with Declan, and now they can’t get rid of me.’

‘Oh, you’re Dec’s … er …’

I didn’t want to offend her by aiming too high or too low in the age range. She could as easily be his mother or his grandmother or anything in-between.

‘Well I’m not actually related at all, but he needed a mam a few years ago and I fitted the bill I suppose. Have some of these, love, Beth made them, she’s a great cook. No, me and Declan go back a few years, since all that trouble at his rugby club.’

I looked at her blankly.

‘You know, with the passport and getting beaten senseless?’

I shook my head.

‘Oh. Well he’ll be pleased there’s someone doesn’t know about it I suppose. It was a terrible time but we got through it together and now here he is about to become a dad. I can’t think of anything better, love, can you?’

I could think of several million things better than becoming a parent, but Rose didn’t seem like the sort of person who would understand my point of view, so I just smiled. Rose changed tack.

‘So you and Matt, then? How long have you been going out?’

‘Oh, er …’

I hadn’t ever thought of Matt and me in terms of ‘going out’ but decided not to go into a long explanation,

‘A few weeks, a month maybe.’

‘He’s a bit of a handful I’d imagine.’

‘He has his moments.’

‘You seem like a sensible girl. Might be just what he needs, not like some of the …’

She ground to a halt, belatedly realising that being uncomplimentary about women Matt might have previously brought to meet the family might not be particularly diplomatic.

Dec

I had no doubt that before ten minutes had passed, Rose would know Julia’s life history and be making plans to marry her off to Matt. She’d tried with all of the long string of women Matt had toyed with over the last couple of years – they had all lasted just long enough for Rose to get her hopes up, before they disappeared when Matt declared them ‘too clingy’ or ‘not his type’ or ‘getting a bit serious’.

Matt’s MS was still in remission. He still had days when he got tired if he overdid it, and he still had dark days. A couple of times he’d needed us to hold him through the night, literally and metaphorically, as he gave in to the shadows behind his bravado. Mostly, he covered it all up with messing about and sarcastic comments, and anyone from outside who wanted to get close was kept at arms length. People loved him because he was fun, had an easy smile and a wicked glint in his eye, breathed life and soul into any party, but he couldn’t handle being loved; to him, trusting someone was too risky. So he broke their hearts and moved on to the next one.

Matt had moved into his own place a few months after Iz was born; it was important to him to be independent of Jay and Beth as soon as possible. He got a job with an IT consultancy firm, part time and flexible to take into account any fluctuations in his health in the future, and was currently making his way through the female portion of the payroll. Julia was the latest. They’d been seeing each other for almost a month, and I didn’t hold out much hope of it lasting another month before Julia went the way of all the other women he’d brought round. Not that Matt had told us about Julia – we only knew about her because Amy and I had met them in a shop, and Jay and Beth had met her when they’d turned up unannounced at Matt’s flat, and Matt had been cooking Julia dinner.

Matt was one of my closest friends. We understood each other. We didn’t talk about anything particularly deep, except on those rare occasions when either of us instinctively recognised it was necessary. We’d both been to dark places, helped each other out in times of need and had a shared understanding of what it was like to feel out of control of your own life. There was a lot we didn’t need to say to each other. I stood next to him and we watched Rose bombarding Julia with questions.

‘Poor Julia, she’s being Rosed.’

}Yeah, straight in the deep end.

‘She seems to be holding her own, even got a tiny word in edgeways just then.’

}Go Jules.

‘Oh, she’s got a nickname – keeper?’

The slightest hesitation.

}Nah. Jay, what kind of fuckery are you inflicting on that poor laptop?

Matt wandered over to help Jay and left me pondering his distraction techniques.

I decided to grab a plate and fill it with some of Beth’s delicious cooking. Cal had been called down and was standing grouchily by the table eating crisps from a bowl.

‘Hey, Cal. Did you win?’

\no, Mum made me come down before I’d finished.

‘Didn’t you pause it?’

He rolled his eyes.

\dur, you can’t pause boss fights.

‘Oh. Bad luck then, try again after dinner.’

\s’pose. When’s Nico coming on Skype?

‘When your dad manages to sort out the computer. I think he’s had to ask Matt to help him. Are you coming to the game on Saturday?’

\don’t know. Are you playing?

‘Hope so.’

\dad says I’ve got to sit with the under elevens.

‘Well, you are under eleven. It’ll be good to sit with all your mates from training, won’t it?’

\i want to sit in the family bit, but there’s no one to take me. Iz is going to a birthday party, so Mum can’t come.

‘Why don’t you ask Matt?’

\he doesn’t go to rugby.

‘He might if you asked him, as a favour. He might like to be asked.’

Cal considered it, didn’t dismiss it, ate another handful of crisps. Made a decision.

\Matty …

My work there done, I finished loading my plate and sat down next to Carol.

Julia

Matt tapped a few keys on the laptop, and Jay suddenly smiled broadly and clapped him on the back. Matt wandered over to me and sat down, shaking his head.

‘Is it so hard to remember not to put caps lock on? You don’t have to be an IT consultant. Every bloody time someone presses the wrong button, it’s ‘Matty I’ve broken my computer, can you mend it?’ and I have to drive all the way over and press caps lock.’

‘It’s nice to be useful.’

Matt reached over and stole a piece of quiche from my plate.

‘Hey! Get your own plateful.’

‘Tastes better off someone else’s. Law of life.’

‘Still get your own plateful.’

Matt pouted, but was just about to get up when his nephew said his name.

‘Matty …’

‘Hey Cal, bring us some of those potato things and bacony whatsits, yeah?’

Cal scowled and went back to the table, returning shortly with Matt’s order.

‘Thanks, mate. What’s up?’

‘Can you take me to the rugby on Saturday?’

‘What, Raiders?’

‘Yeah. I want to sit in the family bit, but Mum’s taking Iz to a birthday party, so Dad wants me to sit with the under elevens.’

‘Whoa. Rugby eh? Yeah, cool mate, I’m not sure I understand it all though. Isn’t it just like football but you can pick the ball up?’

‘No! It’s really different from football. Spurs wouldn’t stand a chance against Raiders.’

‘Oh, my mistake. Definitely need you to explain it then. Will your dad get us some tickets?’

‘Yeah, he’s done it before for me and Mum, and with Lis sometimes.’

‘OK, then, sorted.’

Request granted, Cal wandered back to his bowl of crisps at the table. Matt looked at me, a proud expression on his face.

‘He’s never asked me before. I’m a bit chuffed. Oh sod it, we were talking about a hike weren’t we – can we do it on Sunday instead?’

‘Of course.’

Dec

Carol had finally decided to move down after Iz was born, the draw of being close to another grandchild proving too much to resist. She was a quiet, reserved woman, and often just sat watching the chaos of family life going on around her, but she had endless time for her family, giving generously whether it was listening to Cal talk non-stop about the latest computer game, cooking a fantastic dessert, or cuddling Iz until she fell asleep. She and Rose had found a lot of common ground, and Carol’s quietness complemented Rose’s need to talk. They had become really good friends.

‘Hi Carol, how’s it going?’

#It’s going well, thank you Declan. Congratulations on your news, dear.

‘Thanks.’

#Amy looks very well.

‘She looks amazing. She always does, though.’

#And you’d not be a little biased?

‘No, definitely not. Me? Not biased at all. How’s the garden?’

#Oh, there’s always something needs doing, now it’s getting a bit warmer. All the weeds have started poking up, and the grass will need cutting before too long.

‘I’ll come and do your grass for you. Remind me, when it needs it.’

#Thank you dear, it’s very kind of you. Are you sure?

‘Positive. Mm, these potato things are bloody lovely. Did you make them?’

#I did, how did you know?

‘Didn’t you make them before, for Amy’s twenty first? I never forget a good potato thing. Don’t tell Beth, but they might even be better than her roasties.’

#You’re too kind, dear. I won’t breathe a word.

Iz wandered over and handed me Optimus Prime.

/make lorry pease.

‘OK, sweetie.’

I scooped her up onto my lap and reorganised Optimus, handed him back.

‘Do you want me to show you how, Iz? You might be able to do it yourself.’

/dec do it.

She shuffled off my lap and brrmed the truck along the floor.

#You’ve got yourself a full-time job there.

‘Don’t I know it. She’s getting so big, where does the time go?’

#You’ll need to get used to saying that a lot before too long.

‘I guess so.’

#I’m very pleased for you, Declan. You and Amy will be wonderful parents.

‘Thanks, Carol, that really means a lot.’

Over on the other side of the room, Jay and Matt seemed to have sorted the laptop out.

łOK, everyone needs to squash up on the sofa so we can get the web-cam angle sorted. Come on, Dec, grab Amy and pile on. Cal, you can sit on the floor with Iz and your mum and me. Mum, you go next to Rose. Matty and Julia do what the hell you like as long as you’re in the shot.

We all shoved up, and Jay adjusted the angle of the laptop to make sure everyone was in the frame.

Julia

Then it was time for other people to arrive, only via Skype. Jay made everyone sit on the one sofa, with him and his wife and children on the floor in front. Matt sat next to me on the arm of the sofa, with his arm across my shoulders. I noticed various people looking at us at different times, and felt conspicuous.

I was feeling a little overwhelmed with the strangeness of the situation. Matt’s family were very welcoming, but they were nothing like my own family, and it made me see Matt in another light, highlighting some of the differences between us. He came from a family where everyone cared about each other, the opposite of my own family where people seemed to care only about themselves. Squashed on the sofa next to Rose, I felt hugely out of place, but Matt’s arm round me helped me to feel part of him, at least.

Dec

_What time did Nico say he was going to try?

łIn about five minutes.

‘He’ll be late, we could be sat here on each other’s laps for hours.’

łHe won’t be late, he knows we’re all waiting for him.

‘He’ll be bloody late. He’s always late. At least half an hour.’

łYeah, but he’s got Lis on his case, and I think they’re going out. They haven’t got very long. He won’t be late.

Five minutes later, contrary to my expectations, the alert sounded, and Nico and Lis appeared on the screen. We all cheered.

>Hey, is all of you! Cal, you look older, you grow more while I am away.

Cal straightened with pride. I reached forward to ruffle his hair, but he ducked away from my hand. I noticed he was wearing his Raiders shirt with a big number eleven and ‘TIAGO’ on the back.

>I also see a beautiful lady I don’t know.

}Nico, meet Julia. Jules, beware of this man, he will flirt with a house brick, even when his wife is right next to him. Especially when his wife is right next to him. I’m quite glad he’s thousands of miles away.

I noticed Matt had a proprietorial arm round Julia, and when he thought no one was looking, he kissed the top of her head.

¤Hi Nico, good to meet you.

~I’m Lisa, Julia.

¤Good to meet you too.

>Where is Declan and Amy? Ah, here you are, we are very pleased to see you. Felicidades both. We go shopping for you.

Lis held up a brightly coloured bag.

~Want to see what’s in it?

We all shouted ‘yes’. Lis reached in and took out a very small pair of shoes.

)Oh they’re so tiny and adorable. Thanks guys.

Amy sniffed and wiped her eyes.

>Amy, you don’t cry.

)What, not even a bit? Just with happiness. And a few hormones.

>Ha, with happiness is OK. Declan, you take care of Amy, you be nice to her, lots of breakfasts in beds.

‘Ames, have you primed him or something?’

)No, he just knows what a woman needs.

>Ha, yes is true. I know what womens needs.

~Is that so, Nico? Why don’t I get breakfasts in beds then?

>You don’t have baby. If you have baby, maybe you get breakfasts in beds.

~Hm, something I might need to work on then, yeah?

She winked theatrically at us.

_Are you two enjoying Buenos Aires?

~Oh Beth, it’s great, such a beautiful city, I’m loving seeing where Nico grew up. Come and see us.

_Love to, if it’s at all possible.

łHave you started playing yet, mate?

>Yes, I play last weekend. I score amazing try.

łWhat a surprise. Do you ever score any other type?

>No, they are all amazing. Is that lovely Rose sitting in the corner? Why so quiet Rose? Is not like you. I worry.

:I’m waiting for you to stop yapping so I can get a word in, love. I hope you’re remembering how to make proper Welsh tea.

>Ha! Yes, we have your special tea bags, it don’t taste the same, I don’t know what we do. I miss your tea.

:I miss you drinking it, love. Glad to see you’re enjoying yourselves.

~Enough talking about tea, I want to talk about babies. Amy, for the love of God, tell me you have a due date. Or at least an ETA.

)Well nothing new since this morning, Lis. I’ve made an appointment with the doctor, all I can tell you is about nine months from now. We literally only found out early this morning.

~Oh, I forgot. We’ve been to sleep and had a whole day since then. Oh well, better than nothing. You’ll have to text me or ring me when you know. I want all the details as they happen. How are you feeling?

)I’m feeling great. Being sick in the mornings, but otherwise fine.

~Is Dec looking after you?

)Yeah, he’s been completely amazing, but he always is.

Amy looked up at me and I bent down to kiss her.

}Oh please, guys, I think I’m going to start being sick right now, let alone in the mornings. Lis, you’ll have to get your baby fix another time, this is just too girly for words. I need to talk about, I dunno, motorbike engines and beards and football for a bit.

>How about rugby? Is man enough?

}Well, tempted as I am to say no, I really don’t want to be sat on by Dec, he might enjoy it too much. Cal and I are actually going to the game on Saturday.

Beth and Jay both looked at Matt in surprise.

>Ha, is good. Cal, you tell Matty the rules, maybe show him my amazing tries on YouTube before you go, and hope he stop following his terrible Tottenham football team.

Cal smiled but didn’t answer.

~Beth, Iz looks like she’s grown since we last saw her. I can’t believe we’re missing it all. We really miss all you guys.

_We miss you too. This is lovely, though. I’m glad we managed to sort the computer in time.

~It’s so great to see you all. Carol, you’ve been sat there very quiet. How are you doing?

#Oh fine, dear, it’s lovely to see you again.

~You too. Well, I’m afraid we’ve got to go, we’re off out to a charity function at the club, and if we don’t go now we’ll be late. And that would never do for Nico.

łOh is that why you’re all dressed up, I thought it was for us.

>Ha! Is for you too, Jaime. I know you like me in a suit. We go now, baby?

~Yeah, we better had. Oh, I can hardly bear to say goodbye, I’ve loved seeing you all, but it’s been too short. We’ll do it again soon, yeah?

}As soon as Jay works out how to input a password correctly, yes.

~Soon, soon, soon, then. Bye guys.

>Goodbye, chau, besos, suerte. Love you.

Lis leaned forwards, waved and cut the connection. There was a silence, and a sense of anti-climax. Cal got up and went upstairs, no longer smiling.

/eeco go. Where he go, Mummy?

Iz got up and looked behind the laptop, then looked back at Beth with a comically puzzled look on her face.

_He’s still in Argentina, sweetheart, he was just on the screen, like a TV programme. He’s gone now, but we’ll see him again soon.

Julia

Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of it, as Beth decided it was time for toasts and speeches. I came to learn that this family did a lot of toasting and speeching, but for now, this was my first.

Dec

I got up from the sofa and followed Cal. Knocked on his door.

\yeah.

‘It’s Dec. Can I come in?’

\kay.

I opened the door and sat on the bed next to Cal.

\i’m still trying to beat this boss, though.

‘No worries. I’m glad you asked Matt about the game, he seems really pleased to be taking you.’

\yeah.

‘Nico seemed happy to see you just now.’

\yeah.

‘Seeing him again, made me realise how much I miss him. He feels a long way away, doesn’t he?’

A pause.

\yeah.

‘Cal, you know you can talk to me about stuff, if you feel sad or anything?’

A roll of the eyes.

\yeah.

‘Or … if you need to, I don’t know, say ‘fuck’ without getting grief?’

A slight smile at the corner of his mouth.

\yeah. Can I finish this now?

‘Yeah.’

I reached over to ruffle his hair, stopped myself, patted him on the shoulder instead and stood up.

‘Still want to play something later?’

\yeah.

‘OK.’

I went back downstairs, where Beth was organising glasses of sparkling wine for everyone and fizzy apple for Amy. I took a glass and sat on the floor by Amy’s feet. She played with my hair, making the back of my neck tingle, and part of me wished we were curled up alone at home. I twisted round to face her and she bent over and kissed me.

‘You OK, babe?’

)I’m great. Apart from the apple juice. Forgot about the no wine thing. Nine months without wine! Longer with breastfeeding.

‘Didn’t really think it through, did you?’

)Can’t have done.

‘I could always drink it for you, you know, tell you what it tastes like, get a bit pissed on your behalf, help out a bit?’

)Hm, I’ll let you know.

‘Well, anything I can do …’

)Just the breakfasts in beds to start with.

‘Bloody Nico.’

Beth had finished pouring all the drinks, and everyone had a glass.

_OK everyone, I just wanted to do a little toast to Amy and Dec, and wish them well, and say how thrilled I am for them, and send them off on the start of this wonderful journey, and –

}Beth, pick one. A toast is just one thing, so we can all say it after you.

_Sorry, Matty, I got a bit carried away.

}As did Dec and Amy some weeks ago.

‘Way to lower the tone, mate.’

}My sincerest apologies.

_Anyway … alright, if I have to pick one thing to wish you both, it’s love. And family. Oh, that’s two. I can’t choose. Love and family.

She raised her glass. Everyone dutifully repeated. I looked round at Amy, she was smiling and her eyes were filling up.

:Can I do a toast, love?

_Oh, Rose, of course.

Rose stood up and cleared her throat.

:I think I might do a little speech, if that’s alright?

łGo for it Rose.

:Alright. Well, here it is then. I hope I remember everything I was going to say.

‘Did you have this planned, Rose?’

:Well, I thought I might get an opportunity, love. Sometimes you just want to say things and it’s never the right time, so I’ve had a bit of a think, and here’s what I thought.

‘Should I be worried?’

:No, love, never worry about what I’m going to say about you, it’s all good.

}Sounds great, Rose, as long as afterwards we can relive some of Dec’s most embarrassing moments. I can think of plenty of those.

_Matty, stop your chat for one minute and let Rose say what she wants to say.

:Thanks, love. Right. When I first met Declan, he was in a bit of a state. I won’t say any more, I think you all know enough about it by now. Well, something about him kicked off my maternal instincts and I couldn’t help interfering in his life, giving him advice when he didn’t want it, bothering him when he asked to be left alone, making a bit of a nuisance of myself. Declan and me made a deal back then, he lets me look after him, mother him a bit, I’ll be there for him when he needs it, whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, a square meal or a kick up the pants. Well, he turned things round for himself, and it’s been a long time since I needed to provide a shoulder, a meal or a boot up the backside, and I just wanted to say how proud I am of him and his Amy, and how happy and honoured I am that I’m part of his life. This news of yours, love, is the best I can imagine, it’s made my day, and I just know you’re going to be the best Mam and Dad there ever was. I think that’s all I wanted to say. Oh, a toast. Nothing fancy. Declan and Amy.

She held her glass up and sat down. Predictably, Amy and I had tears in our eyes. Iz toddled over to me and looked at me with concern.

/mummy Dec cry.

She looked at Beth with big serious eyes. I gave her a big smile, wiped my eyes, pulled her into a cuddle on my lap.

‘It’s just happy crying, sweetie. I’m OK.’

}Glad to see blub club is still alive and kicking. We haven’t met in earnest for some time.

I glanced up at Matt and caught him wiping the corner of his eye with his hand.

Julia

I wondered if it was a little premature to be wetting the head of a baby who had yet to have its first scan, let alone be born, but everyone seemed to be happy and emotional. Even Matt surreptitiously wiped his eyes once, only to be spotted by Dec, who turned round to me.

‘Julia, you must think we’re all bonkers.’

‘You’re the only nutter, Dec.’

Matt’s rejoinder was instant, and it felt like an automatic response. Dec seemed about to reply, but was stopped by a look from Beth. I got the sense there was a lot of history between these two men, whose relationship to each other I had yet to work out; they seemed bound together in some way that was expressed with in-jokes and messing about, and felt brotherly inasmuch as I had any understanding of the relationship.

Dec

I opened my mouth to say the next line, heard the intake of breath from Beth, looked at her, shut my mouth again.

}Ha ha, under the thumb.

)Thanks, Rose, that was completely amazing.

‘Yeah, means a lot. Thanks, Rose. I’ve never stopped needing you.’

:Oh, love …

łOK, then, I think I’ve got something to say too.

I put my head in my hands.

‘Oh God, Jay, what now?’

łWell, after Rose’s go, I don’t think I can be as eloquent or as heartfelt, and as we all know, I don’t really do this emotional shit. But here it is. Dec, you rang me at half past bloody three this morning and told me you’re going to be a dad. There’s a part of me that still thinks of you as this gawky, spotty teenager with a fuck-off attitude, and I was a bit surprised to find out this morning that you’re actually completely a grown up. I was, I have to admit, bloody grumpy at half past bloody three this morning, but having been thinking about it all day, I am actually rather honoured to be one of the first people you think of to call when something important happens. I’m proud of you, mate; you and Amy are going to be great parents. If you’re even half as good with your own as you are with mine, you’re going to walk it. Jesus, I still can’t get my head round it. Stop making me feel so bloody old. And maybe now you’ll make an honest woman of Amy.

He raised his glass.

łGrowing up.

Iz looked up at me from my lap, catching me wiping my eyes again. She flung her arms round my neck.

/kiss better.

‘Thanks, Iz. That’s much better. No more, please guys, I’m losing serious man points here. Thanks, Jay. Pretty good for someone who doesn’t do emotional shit.’

_Dec …

‘I was only repeating what Jay said.’

_Yes, but I’ve given up with him.

)I think Dec’s a bit of a lost cause as well. Actually, while we’re all giving speeches and getting emotional, I’d just like to say thanks to you all. None of you are actually related to me, but at this moment in time you feel more like my real family than, well, my real family. I know you and Dec all have a lot of history, but I couldn’t feel more welcome or more wanted, and the way you’ve handled our news has been completely brilliant. If I was going to make an apple juice toast, it would be to unconditional love.

_Lovely. Unconditional love it is.

}Your turn, Dec.

‘No, I don’t do speeches. Everyone here knows how I feel about them. I love you all. Jay and Beth, you’ve been my family for so long, I can’t imagine my life without you. Rose, you might as well be my mum. Carol, you hold us all together. Matt, you’re like best mate and brother rolled into one old codger. Amy … Ames, if I loved you any more than I do now, I would burst. Julia – well, I hardly know you, but you’ve sat and listened to us all being mad and still haven’t made a run for it. Either you’re as crazy as us or Matt’s picked –.

}OK, stop, everyone. This wine’s making us slushy, we haven’t drunk nearly enough of it yet. Sorry about the apple juice, Amy, but I need another glass or two of sparkly to get this party started.

Matt stood up and grabbed the bottle from the table, breaking the mood, which was what he had planned. I’d seen the way he looked at Julia when he thought nobody was watching, and I was reassessing my ‘less than a month’ prediction, although it still remained to be seen whether he would scare himself off before he gave it a chance.

Space available on the sofa again, I moved Iz off my lap and plonked myself next to Amy.

‘Nice words, babe.’

)You too, hon, considering you don’t do speeches.

Beth sat next to me and took my arm, snuggling up close.

_This has been lovely, Dec. I love it when we all get together. Shame Cal’s been sulking all evening.

‘He’s OK. I had a chat earlier.’

_Did you?

‘Well, more a kind of one-sided gruntathon over the top of the X-box. He’s missing Nico.’

_I did wonder. They’re so far away. If he’d gone to another club in England, we could have gone to see them, but Argentina …

‘It was great to see them earlier though, technology is so amazing. Maybe if Cal could do that more often it might help.’

_It’s worth a go. And I’d love to stay in touch with Lis more. She was getting broody before they left, looks like she still is, and you two haven’t helped! That’d be hard, though, foreign country, no family around. She doesn’t even speak the language yet.

‘Lis is tough, if she wants it she’ll make it happen.’

_You’re right there. Anything to get breakfast in bed, although I wouldn’t hold my breath with Nico. Amy, I meant to say, I’ve got loads of Iz’s old clothes and things. I know you don’t know boy or girl yet, but some of it would be OK whichever, babygros and stuff. Some of them aren’t even pink! Let me know and you can have it. Or we could have a sort through over a coffee.

)Thanks, Beth, that’d be great. God, just talking about clothes and stuff, makes it feel more real. Don’t you think, hon, it’s all been a bit floaty and dreamy and not quite real today?

I nodded; I’d pretty much floated through today too.

)I think I might come down with a bit of a bump soon.

‘Well you’ll definitely have a bit of a bump soon, babe. Better start letting out all your waistbands.’

)Or, just for that, maybe you’ll have to take me shopping for new clothes?

‘Nooo … surely we haven’t got room for a new baby as well as new clothes? Ames, you’ll have to choose. One or the other.’

_Will you stay in the flat, do you think?

)We don’t know. It is small. We don’t know what the future holds at the moment, do we, hon.

‘No, not yet.’

This felt uncomfortable; I was currently having contract negotiations through my agent, looking at a new deal to stay at Raiders. I had also been approached by a couple of other clubs, one a big London club, who had offered a lot of money for me to move there, although the likelihood was that I wouldn’t be guaranteed a place in the first team, and would therefore get less game time.

I couldn’t discuss it in Jay’s home. Much as I wanted to talk to him and Beth and ask his advice as Jay, he was still Scotty, and it had to be kept at the club. Beth knew this. She looked sad, and I could hardly bear to think about it right now.

_I know you can’t talk about it, sweetheart. We’d miss you.

‘Don’t, Beth, please.’

She squeezed my arm, then stood up and started clearing away the plates and glasses. Amy stroked my face, then got up and helped her. Nothing stopping the two of them having a good chat about it.

Julia

After a few more people had had their say, the toasting seemed to be over. Matt took my hand and pulled me up from the sofa.

‘Come and see the garden.’

‘It’s dark.’

‘I know.’

I went with him.

We went out into the garden via a conservatory. It was cool and quiet out there, and just what I needed. Matt put his arms round me and squeezed me tightly.

‘How are you doing? Sorry it’s a bit full on. Maybe this wasn’t the best occasion for you to meet everyone.’

‘It’s fine. Everyone’s very nice. I’m not really a baby person, but you all seem very excited, so it’s all good. I’m just kind of watching it all.’

‘We can go soon if you want.’

‘No, it’s fine. This is nice, though.’

I looked up at him and caught a crinkly smile.

‘This is always bloody nice. I love holding you.’

He bent down and kissed me, a lingering, tender, tingly kiss, his tongue dancing over my lips and into my mouth.

‘I fucking love kissing you too. Maybe we shouldn’t leave it too late to go back to mine.’

‘Maybe. Stay as long as you want, though.’

‘I might go and have a quick game of X-box with Cal. He was looking a bit mopey earlier, might need cheering up the way only a thrashing from your favourite uncle can do. Would you be OK if I did?’

‘I’ll be fine. I can help clear up, chat, even talk about babies if I have to.’

‘That’s on the cards.’

‘Matt, I’ve been trying to work out exactly how Dec and Amy are related to you.’

‘Oh. Yeah, it’s bloody complicated. I suppose they’re not, actually, not technically. Dec was … his parents died when he was young, he got signed by Raiders when he was about sixteen, and he came to live with Jay and Beth. He’s been part of the family since then.’

‘Did they adopt him?’

‘Fuck no! Oh, bloody long story a few years ago, about the time I was ill, I’ll tell you sometime, maybe not tonight, but long and short, there was a big bust up, then a big make up and Jay made it official Scott history that Dec’s part of the family.’

‘And Rose?’

‘Oh, Rose! I bloody love Rose, but she can talk for bloody England. Or Wales, should I say. Yeah, about the same time, Dec, well he was pretty fucked up just before the big make up. Rose just got involved, played a big part in de-fucking him. He’s sorted now, but they come as a pair. She’s a bit like his mum. But not officially related.’

‘Your family is very accepting.’

Matt looked at me, head on one side.

‘I guess they are, never really thought about it like that; I just kind of roll with it. There’s always something going on, people here and there. Jay and Beth are bloody brilliant. When I was ill, Jay gave up his job to come and look after me. I don’t know where I’d be now if he hadn’t done that.’

I thought about what my sisters would give up for me. Probably not a lot.

‘You’re lucky.’

‘I am. Do I get to meet your family anytime soon?’

‘Not unless you’re planning to jet off around the world trying to catch up with my parents or want to swan off to France or Switzerland to take a chance on catching one of my sisters at home.’

‘Are you the only one in this country?’

I nodded.

‘I am now Nons is gone.’

‘You must miss her.’

I nodded again.

‘Sorry, Matt, I still can’t talk about it. Shall we go in? It’s getting cold.’

49. Do you believe in shame?

In which regrets are experienced and articulated, leading to surprising consequences.

Matt

How the fuck had I let that happen? Did I have no willpower at all? Of all things, Carrie’s voice floated back to me from the past, ‘You blokes all say that, that you won’t be able to stop, but you just have to … stop, don’t you. Because carrying on isn’t really an option, is it?’

Jules looked like she was asleep; at any rate, she was curled up with her eyes closed. I pushed myself off the sofa and covered her with a throw, picked up her clothes and folded them, placing them in a pile near her head, then quickly dressed myself.

I was appalled at what I’d just done. Even in the full throes of Matt the Lad, I would never have screwed with someone who was having such an obviously hard time as Jules. I mean, OK, it’s not like I handed out a mental health questionnaire: You are about to get lucky with Matt. Please tick one of the following: a) I am in full possession of my faculties and happy with this state of affairs. b) I’ve had a few Jägerbombs, actually, but I know what I’m doing and am happy with the outcome. c) I am an off-my-kecks emotional wreck, probably shouldn’t really. But generally, especially in the whole keeping away from crying women scheme of things, I made sure everyone was OK with it all. Now, though, now, here was Jules, naked on my sofa, the evidence of my thoughtless dick-driven urges. So much for getting your act together, Matt. So much for being a better man. So much for sorting yourself out. What was the point of the last few weeks of abstinence and soul-searching if the moment some woman, who five minutes ago was seriously trying to do you an injury, looks for some kind of contact, you go all one hundred per cent full on. I could have stopped, couldn’t I? I should have stopped, shouldn’t I? I didn’t stop, did I?

I felt shame sweep over me, and I sat down hard in an armchair, leaned forward and pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes. When was I going to stop making a total fuck-up of my life? I was a mess. I was messing with other people. I seriously needed some help. I seriously was not going to ask for any help. Total, complete and utter fuck-up.

Julia

Was it seconds later? Minutes? Hours? I came to myself, lying on my side, a chenille throw covering me. I was naked underneath it. Matt was sitting on the edge of an armchair, fully clothed, head in his hands. He looked up, possibly sensing movement from me, and held a supplicating hand out towards me.

‘Julia, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I fucking did that. Or rather I can believe I fucking did that, it’s what I do after all, I just can’t believe I did it to you, in that state. You’re right, I’m a fucking arsehole. I’m so sorry.’

He turned his head away, and put his hands back over his face.

Matt

She didn’t say anything, just closed her eyes briefly, then opened them and looked at me again. I couldn’t take her gaze, so I turned my head away, and put my hands back over my face. Then, far later than it should have, it occurred to me that she would just want to get the fuck out of there, rather than stare at the bastard who had just thoughtlessly fucked her, and she needed to get dressed. So I forced my thoughts away from their damning introspection and stood up.

Julia

Thoughts started to flood into my mind. I set about organising them into priority order. I was desperate to regain some kind of control over this mad day, but things had spun so far out of my reach, I wasn’t sure which bit of me I was trying to push things back into. I wasn’t at work or at home, and I had no anchor, no fixed point to pin everything onto.

Alright, prioritise, I was good at that. Top priority: get out of here. Action plan: get dressed. Equipment needed: clothes. I looked around me and found a neatly folded pile of garments by my head, so I reached for them. Objective achieved. Next problem: I was naked. Action plan: tricky, but I could try to get dressed underneath the throw. Equipment needed: aforementioned clothing, already acquired.

Matt suddenly got up and spoke.

‘Sorry, Julia. You get dressed, I’ll be in the bathroom.’

He walked over to the window and pulled a blind across it, then went into another room, closing the door behind him.

I lay where I was, in the darkened room, for a few moments, wondering if my scattered thoughts were going to gather themselves. They didn’t show any sign of doing so, so I stuck to the action plan. Clothes on.

I almost faltered at the first hurdle when I picked up my pants to find they were merely a torn strip of fabric. Reality almost shoved its way through with a flash of memory, before I screwed them up and stuffed them under a cushion. Didn’t need pants. There, that was easily avoided. Everything else seemed to be in working order, so I stood up and quickly pulled trousers, bra and shirt on, slipped my shoes on my feet and put my bag on my shoulder.

I didn’t feel the need for a goodbye, only a quick exit, so I let myself out and drifted in a daze back along the streets, past the churchyard, to the car park at GreenScreen, where I sat in my car breathing deeply for as long as I dared. Eventually, impelled by the possibility of someone I knew going to their car and seeing me, I started the engine and drove off. I found myself outside my flat some time later, having apparently driven home without incident.

Matt

I closed the blinds and went and locked myself in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet and listening to the small sounds of her dressing and leaving. It didn’t take her long, and she didn’t slam the door behind her, but the click, as the latch caught, reverberated through me nonetheless.

I stayed where I was for a long time, condemning myself, hating myself, berating myself. Then I got up and went back into the living room, opened the blinds and started tidying, not really thinking about what I was doing, straightening cushions, putting the throw over the back of the sofa. When I picked up one of the cushions, I found a scrap of black fabric – all that was left of Jules’ pants. I had torn them off her body in my frenzy, and it made me feel sick, that I’d done that to her. Oh it wasn’t the first time I’d ripped someone’s knickers off, not by a long way, but this was very different. It spoke to me of someone who had no self-control, who would stop at nothing to feed his need, and who respected no one’s feelings. It shocked me deeply.

Julia

I had never been so happy to see a front door. I lurched out of the car and fumbled, trembling, with the key to the street door. I shoved it open and ran up the stairs, to more fumbling with my front door key. When I finally got it open, I fell into my flat, tumbling head first onto the sofa, where I lay and felt another burst of sobbing racking my body.

Now I was home, I could face what I truly felt. I was safe here, I was me, not pretending or acting. The full implications of what had just happened could be analysed another time, but I had to face the fact that I had just had sex with Matt Scott. Stupid, meaningless, thoughtless sex. Unprotected sex. Rough, noisy, hot sex. With Matt Scott. A work colleague. An egotistical arsehole who would use it to torture me at every turn from now on. I nearly cried again, but was beginning, now I was home, to be able to gather a semblance of order to it all. I needed to think about what this meant, how I was going to deal with it, but first I needed a drink.

I had been thirsty for hours, and had cried too much. Dehydration was making me feel sick and woozy. I fetched myself a large glass of water and drank it all in one go. I fetched another, and sipped it more slowly, feeling the fuzziness in my head start to dissipate.

It kept hitting me. I had sex with Matt Scott. Stupid – yes. Meaningless – yes. Hot – where did that come from? I needed to think about it rationally, about how I was going to be able to function at work tomorrow. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be going in tomorrow. I had wasted enough time this afternoon, and there were projects that needed handling. No, the only question was not whether but how I was going to do this. I wrapped myself in The Ice Queen and started building tomorrow out of her snowy mantle.

Matt

My phone rang several times, but I ignored it until I could think straight enough to realise that it was probably work wondering where I was. I called them back and said I wasn’t feeling well and had gone home sick. Then I made myself a strong cup of coffee and sat down to give myself a severe talking to.

I went through it all – how I’d been in Stafford before Carrie; how I’d been with Carrie; how I’d been when I was ill; how I’d been since I’d got better and started to explore life in this city; how I’d been, or thought I’d been, for the last few weeks. I tried to make sense of it all. The best I could come up with was that, Carrie aside, I really didn’t do commitment. I was happier with one night or at the most a few nights, which wasn’t fair on the women I’d been with, who didn’t necessarily know that. I was a total bastard.

Julia

Some time later, I had worked it all through in my mind, how I was going to act, what I was going to say, how I was going to respond to taunts, teasing, questions. I felt a lot better. It was going to be alright. I could do this. Nothing had really changed, just a mistake, an accident caused by being under pressure. Handled in the right way, nothing would be any different.

My self-congratulation was interrupted by my phone ringing in my bag. I looked at the clock. Seven o’clock. My mother. God, she was going to tell me about Nons. I’d completely forgotten. Crushed, I answered.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘JuJu darling. Oh, darling isn’t it just terrible?’

‘I got your text.’

‘Oh did you? You didn’t reply, I wondered whether it had gone astray.’

‘I was at work, you know I can’t reply when I’m at work.’

This was a half-truth designed to circumvent any expectation of being able to be in contact with my mother while I was working. It wasn’t a GreenScreen rule that you couldn’t use a personal mobile; it was my rule. Shades of grey.

‘Oh nonsense, it was important, they would have understood.’

‘Mum, what happened?’

‘When?’

‘To Nons.’

‘Oh, yes. Sorry, darling, it’s all been frightful, your father and I have had to fly over to sort everything out, we’ve had to cut our trip to Florence short and we might have to cancel our reservations in Reykjavik –’

‘Mum.’

I was beyond irritated. This was typical of my mother; my parents’ travel arrangements always took precedence over any other life event. It seemed they were even more important than the death of her only sister. Why had I thought the ‘just terrible’ thing was Nons, when obviously it was having to cut short a trip to Florence. I don’t know what else I expected – my mother and father had been travelling nearly all of my life, and when they weren’t globe-trotting, they stayed with my sisters in Europe.

‘Yes darling.’

‘Tell me what happened to Nons.’

‘Oh, alright JuJu.’

She sounded surprised that I was asking, irritated that I had interrupted her report on her itinerary.

‘They think she had a heart attack.’

‘What?’

‘A heart attack, darling. William found her yesterday, he’d apparently been worried when he hadn’t seen her all day. He looked through the kitchen window and saw her on the floor, and called the emergency services. They had to break the door down. Made a terrible mess everywhere, your father and I have had to stay here while we’re waiting for an emergency carpenter.’

I was only getting snippets of the information I wanted, the rest was irrelevant. Biting back a terse remark, I started to ask the questions I needed answers to.

‘Was she still … alive … when they found her?’

‘Oh no, she’d been dead for hours. They said it would have been instant, or at least very quick, painless.’

But they always said that, didn’t they, what was the point in saying to relatives ‘oh no, it would have been slow and hurt a lot’?

‘Was she alone?’

I couldn’t bear the thought of Nons dying alone, I wished I’d been there to hold her hand and whisper that I loved her.

‘Yes, darling, who else do you think would have been there?’

Well it would have been nice if her sister, for example, had been able to visit before she died rather than after. But saying that was going to lead to a conversation in which I learned nothing except my mother’s opinion of me, so I held my tongue.

‘But she hadn’t been ill, had she?’

‘I don’t think so, JuJu, but I hadn’t been in touch for a little while. Did she say anything to you?’

‘No, nothing. I was going to go up this weekend, I haven’t – hadn’t seen her for ages.’

I felt so guilty, I’d been putting off visiting for so long, so many things I wanted to do instead – parties, shopping, weekends with friends. I’d spoken on the phone every week, as normal, and had sensed nothing out of place. But I might have noticed something if I’d seen her. The guilt welled up and mingled with the pain of losing her. I was almost grateful for all the weeping I’d done earlier that day; I was able to push it away. My mother did not cope well with emotions.

‘Oh well you still can, there’s lots needs doing. If you came up, your father and I could maybe fit in a couple of days in London, there’s a Mondrian exhibition at the Tate …’

This showed how important both Nons and I were in my parents’ lives. I was a place-filler, someone who could handle an inconvenient death for them while they looked at coloured squares. I was so used to it, I hardly felt the anger any more.

‘When’s the funeral?’

‘Oh darling, we haven’t had a chance to think about that, we’ve been too busy cancelling bookings and rearranging things. Perhaps it’s something you can help with when you come up?’

‘But I won’t be there until the weekend, I won’t be able to sort anything out on a Saturday, it will all be shut.’

‘Nonsense, these places are open twenty four hours these days. Or they should be.’

My mother’s answer to everything. If it wasn’t how she wanted it, well it should be, and she was just going to sit back until someone made it happen for her.

‘Oh, JuJu, I’ve got to go, your father’s having trouble with the online booking service. Give me a tinkle tomorrow, tell me what you want to do. Maybe you could phone some people, darling?’

She disconnected, and I felt the dull ache of the old rage fluttering up from the past. I let it flit around for a bit, but in the end it settled back down where it belonged. My mother was never going to change, she was always going to be concerned only with her own enjoyment, and she was never going to think of me as anything other than an inconvenience or a trophy, depending on whether I was disappointing her, or she was boasting about me.

My parents had me after my two older sisters had grown up and gone to university. I was not planned; I knew this at a very early age. I stopped them travelling the world, as they had intended to do after Sophie and Debra left home, until Auntie Nons, my mother’s unmarried sister, offered to look after me for a year when I was four, while they got it out of their systems. Except they never got it out of their systems, and Auntie Nons carried on looking after me, year after year, until I left to go to university myself. My parents were well into their seventies now, but showed no signs of ending their continuing search for that elusive unturned stone in some far off land.

Nons had fed and clothed me, cleaned my grazed knees, wiped my tears, waved me off to my first day of school, mopped me up after my first broken heart, persuaded me not to get a skull tattoo on my left buttock, taught me to drive, taught me to drink, and loved me as much as if I’d been her own child. Probably more.

Nons listened to me as I, at first, told her how my parents were going to come back and we were all going to live together in a huge house, and then as I downscaled my dreams to spending holidays with them by the sea and finally stopped mentioning them at all, as their gifts and postcards became less and less frequent. She never judged them, I never heard her say a bad word about my parents, even when I screamed at her and called her all the names under the sun for not being my mother.

My sisters hardly knew me; I had arrived when they were off discovering their own newly parent-free world, and a baby sister had not had nearly the same appeal as grown-up university life. Once I lived with Nons, I got the odd birthday card when they remembered, but hardly saw them and didn’t know them as people, just as names and faded photographs. They both lived abroad now, Debra in France and Sophie in Switzerland, and my parents used their houses as bases from which to plan their almost continuous World Tour.

I sat, numb, contemplating life without Nons. I should call William, he would be devastated, but I couldn’t face it right now. I couldn’t face talking to anyone, not even Evie, who would know just what to say to make everything alright. If I talked to anyone I was going to cry again, and I didn’t have the strength for that. I just about had the energy to make myself a sandwich and eat it, washing it down with a large glass of Pinot Grigiot, before I stumbled into bed, where, head full of Nons and how much I missed her, I cried myself to sleep.

Matt

I nearly fell back into the dark pit, but maybe some of the ‘not leaving you alone’ bollocks had permeated into my psyche, because the thought of Dec prising all of this out of me in some kind of all night intervention marathon made me realise I was just going to have to sort it myself. I was going to have to go back to square one in the ‘sorting my shit out’ plan, and start again. It was going to be hard to change. Harder, even, because I couldn’t let them at work know that Matt the Lad had altered his MO. I didn’t even know what I’d altered it to. I was still going to go out, get wrecked. Maybe I had to appear more wrecked than I was in order to stay in control of things. Shit, I couldn’t even stay in control of things when I was stone cold sober, as I had just proven. I had no hope. But I had to try. I had to believe there was no such thing as not being able to stop. I was going to make it true. I was going to change. This conclusion took me all of the rest of the day to come to, and I spent a sleepless night with everything still going round my head.

Julia

Oblivion felt good. I clung on to it as something tried to pull me out, something insistent and piercing. I wrapped myself up in the darkness, but the pull continued and eventually I surfaced, gasping, hearing the buzzing of the alarm clock and remembering it all.

Before I could dwell too much, I forced myself to go over my strategy for work today, pulling on my cold and distant persona as shield and armour to get me through, pushing unwanted thoughts about both Nons and Matt Scott as far to the back of my mind as they would go. I didn’t want distractions today, I had a lot to do.

I got out of bed and forced myself through my morning routine, propelling myself ever closer to the moment I was going to have to leave my sanctuary and face it all.

I breathed deeply all the way to work in my car, forcing myself to relax. Once I had seen him and got the first contact over with, I would feel calmer, I knew I would. That first contact wouldn’t be immediate, though.

Matt Scott worked part time, and usually rolled up half way through the morning, with bags of doughnuts and cups of coffee for his team. Part one of my strategy was to arrive early at the office, so I could leave early and reduce the amount of potential time in the vicinity of Matt Scott to a minimum.

I pulled up in the car park, the first car in the GreenScreen spaces. I unlocked the door and flicked all the lights on, illuminating the reception desk at the bottom and the stairwell as I walked up. Unlocking and walking through the door at the top of the stairs, I breathed in the tranquility. It wouldn’t last long; as soon as the first person arrived and started boiling the kettle, it would cease to be my space, but that was why I loved getting in first. For the first five, ten, occasionally twenty minutes of the day, it felt like mine, and that oasis helped me through. Today my oasis only lasted until I walked to my office, as I heard the door open behind me and voices filled up the silence.

‘Yeah, just walked out, he ran after her, neither of them came back – oh.’

The gossip stopped as soon as I was spotted taking my coat off, but there was no greeting, just a drive-by staring, which I shot back at them with interest, as they hurried past, bursting into giggles as they disappeared into the kitchen, from where I could hear their voices but not their words.

I turned on my computer and reached for the file I needed for this morning’s planning meeting. Yesterday’s hi-jacking of the Cullen report by Matt Scott’s team meant we would have to rethink our priorities, and I wanted to be clear about where I saw us heading before we were asked to take on anything else.

After organising my paperwork, I ventured into the kitchen for coffee. There was a small group of people in there, a couple from my team, one or two from Matt’s and some admin staff. The chatter stopped as I entered and people looked down into their coffee cups. Lexi, the receptionist, was the first to speak.

‘Alright, Julia?’

‘Yes, thank you.’

‘What have you done to your hand?’

‘I scratched it.’

I didn’t volunteer any further information, and Lexi didn’t quite have the nerve to push for more.

‘Oh. There were some messages for you yesterday afternoon. I put them in your tray.’

‘Yes, I saw them, thank you.’

‘Botley’s were trying all afternoon, I didn’t know where you were, I said you’d ring them first thing, although I didn’t really know if you were coming in or not –’

‘Thank you, Lexi, I’ll ring them.’

I knew they thought I was a supercilious cow, I encouraged that opinion to maintain some distance, but it was hard, on that morning, to have them all looking at me and wishing I wasn’t there, so they could get on with speculating. So I finished making my coffee and left, hearing ‘sniffy bitch’ and the resulting laughter as I walked back to my office.

The morning wore on. The meetings and project work I was doing filled my head and pushed everything else aside, which was a relief, although I found myself looking up every time the door opened, expecting it to be Matt, dreading it but wishing he would hurry up and get here so it would be over with, everyone would know, I could start to get on with it.

But Matt didn’t appear. It wasn’t that unusual for him to pitch up just before lunchtime, spend half an hour laughing and joking with everyone and then take them all off for a team lunch somewhere. But today, he didn’t appear at all. I tried to listen out for snippets of conversation that might give me a clue as to when he was expected, but in the end my anxiety got the better of me, and I went to see Phil.

Matt

The next morning, work loomed, and I just couldn’t face Jules that day. I hadn’t come up with anything I could say to her and I didn’t think I’d be able to look her in the eye. She’d made it clear what her opinion of me was, even before the disaster that was yesterday, and now it was going to be even lower. There were no words of apology I would be able to offer that would mean anything, but I certainly wasn’t going to be able to attempt any words of any description in front of the assembled gossip-mongers at GreenScreen. So I called in sick again and spent another miserable day trying to decide what to do about Julia.

Julia

‘Julia. Come in.’

‘I need to hand some things over to Matt, is he going to be in today?’

‘I believe he’s rung in sick. Can’t you do it with Joe?’

My heart sank. I would have to delay the ‘getting it over with’ part of my strategy.

‘I suppose I could. It just seemed more efficient to go straight to Matt so I know he’s got all the information he needs.’

Phil chuckled to himself.

‘You and your efficiency, Julia. I’m glad to see you came in today. Is everything alright? You left in a bit of a hurry yesterday.’

‘I’m fine, thank you.’

‘There were quite a few clients trying to get hold of you.’

‘I’ve contacted most of them. I’ll stay later today to make up my hours.’

Now I knew Matt wasn’t going to be in, I was happy to be there as long as it took to catch up with what I’d missed out on yesterday.

‘Don’t worry about it, Julia. You know, er, you can talk to me about anything, if there’s anything worrying you, don’t you?’

‘There’s nothing, thank you. Although, it’s possible I may need a day off in the next couple of weeks for a family funeral.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, someone close?’

Yes, as close as it was possible to be without her being your own mother.

‘My aunt.’

‘Oh.’

To Phil, an aunt wasn’t really tragic news and he dismissed it as something that would take me away from the office for a day, but shouldn’t impact any further on my work. I was grateful that I wasn’t going to have to endure sympathy and entreaties to take some personal time. What I needed was impersonal time.

‘Yes, of course, just let Lexi know when you’ll be off. Now, I’ve had some thoughts about how you might re-jig your team’s workload …’

Matt

It was partly the thought of what she might have heard about me on the rumour mill that made me realise I was going to have to go and see her. We’d had unprotected sex – shit, I never had unprotected sex, I was always so careful, again with the what the fuck had I been thinking – and she needed to know it was OK, at least from the nasty diseases point of view.

I didn’t know where Jules lived, so I called Phil and begged him to give me her address, saying I needed to apologise about the Cullen fiasco. He agreed in the end, after I reminded him it was mostly his fault anyway and I was saving his arse too.

Julia

The rest of the day was filled with phone calls, meetings and computer work as I tried to catch up with the things I’d missed yesterday afternoon. By the time I looked at the clock, wondering if it was time to go home yet, I was virtually the only one left. Phil came past my door, coat over his arm.

‘You off soon, Julia?’

‘Yes, just finishing up.’

‘You alright locking up?’

‘Fine.’

And so I had my oasis back. With everyone gone, my shoulders untensed, I breathed more deeply and I relaxed. I enjoyed it for as long as I could, and then the thought of the phone calls I was going to have to make when I got home started intruding on the peace. Sighing, I put my coat on, picked up my bag and left.

Back home, having eaten, and started a new bottle of wine, I reviewed the day. It could have been worse. I had managed to make up for the time I lost yesterday afternoon, and although I was still dreading Matt’s return and the embarrassment I was going to face when everyone knew, I had weathered the storm of gossip this morning, and it had diminished to an apathetic drizzle by the afternoon.

I had spoken to Phil about my disappointment at having the Cullen report taken away from my team, he had listened to my point of view and agreed to do things differently another time. I was now home, enjoying a good glass of red, and feeling more relaxed. It was time to start calling some people. William was top of my list.

Matt

I parked in the next street and walked to Julia’s flat. I found her name on the bell outside, but there was no answer when I pressed it. I looked up at the building, but had no idea which windows would be hers, so couldn’t tell if she was in or not. I pressed the bell again, for longer.

‘Yes.’

I’d lucked out; she’d answered.

‘Julia, it’s Matt.’

Julia

Oh shit. How on earth did he know where I lived? I didn’t give my address out to anyone at work. What did he want? He wasn’t coming up.

‘Go away.’

I put the handset down and returned to my seat on the sofa, heart pounding and thoughts whirling. Then I got up and looked out of the front window, through the voile curtains, and saw him stand back from the door and look up at the building.

Matt

I nearly gave up, but as I looked around, an old lady started to walk up the steps towards me. I approached her, my best ‘I’m not a serial killer’ smile on my face.

‘Hi, do you live here?’

She was a worryingly trusting old lady, because she smiled back and answered.

‘Yes I do.’

‘I don’t suppose you could let me in could you? I’ve just buzzed Julia in flat five and I think there’s something wrong with her buzzer. I could hardly hear her, and the door won’t open.’

‘Oh dear, well, yes I suppose I could. These buzzers are a bit contrary sometimes. She’s a nice girl, your Julia.’

Thanking the cosmic supplier of contrary buzzers, I compounded the half truth that was backing up my story.

‘Yeah, she is, lucky me.’

I flashed her another ‘I’m harmless’ smile, and she opened the door for me.

Julia

To my horror, I saw Mrs Custance from 2B walk up the pavement towards him, keys in hand. I saw Matt talk to her, while she nodded and smiled and fell for his sweet talk, and let him in. Shit, shit, shit.

Matt

I let the old lady go ahead of me, partly because I’m polite like that, and partly because I didn’t want her to realise I wasn’t sure where Julia’s flat was. I found flat five on the second floor, and knocked on the door, speaking without waiting for her to open the door. She probably wasn’t going to anyway, so I might as well start straight away.

Julia

Well he wasn’t coming in. He could just stay out there and do or say whatever he had come to do or say, he could – a knock on the door startled me.

‘Julia, please, I need to talk to you.’

Well he could need all he wanted, I was not even going to answer him, let alone open the door.

Matt

There was no answer, no sound from behind the door that indicated she was at home. If she hadn’t answered her buzzer a few moments ago, I wouldn’t have believed she was actually there.

Julia

A long pause, during which I went to the peep hole to see if he had gone. The sight of his face, close up and distorted by the fish-eye lens, made me jump, and my hand came up involuntarily to ward him off, hitting the door. He must have heard.

Matt

I stood close to the door, as close as I could without putting my ear to it and listening, so that I could hear any small sounds of movement. There was a sudden bang on the door from the inside. She was right there, probably looking through the peephole to see if I’d gone or not. I took my chance.

‘Julia? Please let me in, I just want to say something, I’m not going to stay, I just need to do this.’

Julia

‘I’m not interested in what you need. Go away.’

So much for not even answering him.

Matt

She’d answered me. Result. I ploughed on with my plan.

‘It’s not just what I need, you need it too. You need to hear this. I can say it through the door if you want, but I’m not sure you want all your neighbours hearing about my STDs right n –’

She’d opened the door and pulled me inside before I’d finished the sentence. She slammed the door shut and glared at me, dark eyes flashing angry fire. I tried to look contrite; the STD thing was pretty shabby of me, but also true.

Julia

I’d expected a smirk on his face, triumphant that his scheme had worked, but he actually looked contrite. On closer inspection, he also looked pale and haggard.

‘Sorry, Julia, that was a bloody cheap trick. Like I said, I won’t keep you long, and I actually do want to tell you about my STDs. Or lack of them.’

As he was standing there, I was having flashbacks to yesterday afternoon in his flat – the kissing and the nakedness and the heat. My face was burning. I couldn’t speak.

Matt

She looked tired and pale. I hoped she hadn’t had as shit a time as I had over the last day or so. As I stood there, looking at her, her face started to redden and she looked really uncomfortable.

‘Are you OK?’

She nodded, curtly, and her pallor slowly returned, although she continued to look uncomfortable. OK then, let’s get on with this.

Julia

If by OK, he meant unable for the moment to think about anything other than his hands on me, my mouth on his, then yes, I was absolutely fine. Then he spoke again and broke the spell.

‘Well, anyway, we had unprotected sex yesterday.’

I snorted derisively. Matt took a breath and started in on a long explanation.

‘Yeah, well, I guess you were there. Sorry, I’ve been thinking about it all fucking day, I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t come to work, I couldn’t face you, I feel so bad about it, anyway, I just want to put your mind at rest. I know there are some wild stories floating around about me, some of them are true, some of them are, shall we say, exaggerated. I’ve heard the one about all the different things you can catch if you let Matt Scott’s dick within a mile of you. That’s one of the exaggerations. Actually, it’s more than that, it’s a tale put out there by a delightful lady by the name of Petra who was a little disappointed that I didn’t propose marriage after a night of passion, and decided to try to spoil my chances of any further nights of passion with any further delightful ladies by spreading malicious rumours. Worked for a while, too. But anyway, sorry, neither here nor there. It’s not true, not any of it. I’ve been thoroughly and regularly tested for any nasty diseases, infections, crawling things or viruses and my nether regions have been pronounced fit for use by all and sundry.’

Matt

I hoped I’d hit the right note of openness, reassurance and responsibility. It soon appeared I had failed, on all three counts.

‘Oh well that’s alright then.’

I could do sarcasm, but Julia’s tone of voice told me I was a novice when it came to caustic.

Julia

I’d found my voice, my full-blown, sarcastic, now-I’ve-really-had-it-with-you voice. This man had to be the most self-involved, egotistical, arrogant representative of his gender I had ever encountered. Flashbacks of naked, entwined bodies notwithstanding.

‘What?’

‘That’s all it is to you, isn’t it? Phew, I didn’t give her the clap, aren’t I a gent. Oh, I suppose you’re wondering if you might have impregnated me too? Well breathe easy, Matt, I’m on the pill. Another lucky escape, eh.’

Matt

‘No, that’s not what –’

Well it kind of was, but there’s no way I would have asked, and she’d cut me off again.

‘As long as your dick’s alright to be used by ‘all and sundry’, we can sleep in our beds, knowing Matt Scott’s still out there sticking it to some ‘delightful lady’ he has no intention of ever seeing again.’

I was really getting it with both barrels, and it was completely deserved. If only she knew how much of a champion she was being for all the other women I’d treated like shit. But I was still trying to explain.

‘Julia, please –’

‘Do you know what my biggest worry is about having had sex with you? Not what filthy diseases I may have been at risk of picking up, but whether I was actually out of my fucking mind. Yes there are plenty of wild stories about you, your mother must be so proud, but they don’t tell me about the health of your genitals. They tell me what a complete arsehole you are, what a taker you are, how little you give back, and I can’t believe I was stupid enough – no, worse than stupid, I must have been completely certifiable – to have allowed it to happen. Well you can go now, there’s not much I can do about it, it’s happened, you can tell your little gang, you can all have a good laugh, Hot Scott melted the Ice Queen, then maybe we can all get on with our lives and forget it ever happened.’

‘No!’

All the other stuff, it was pretty much what I thought. In her eyes I was a low-life, and fair enough; in my own eyes I was a low-life. But she thought I’d done it so I could score points at work, she honestly thought I’d go in and brag about it, and I had to put her right on that.

Julia

He actually looked appalled, and had gone a few shades paler.

‘I would never –’

‘But you already did, we already did. It’s too late.’

‘No, I mean, I haven’t told, I would never tell, anyone. I told you yesterday, I’m not the one who’s done any of the telling –’

‘So it’s not going to be all over the office tomorrow, how I shagged Julia Marran? Don’t make me laugh.’

Matt

Oh shit, she really thought I would. I had to convince her. Whatever else she thought of me, the sleeping around, partying hard bollocks, she had to know I wouldn’t bring it to work. I was never the one who spilt the beans, it was always someone else. I just chose to neither confirm nor deny things. Arsehole that I, assuredly, was.

‘No! Julia, please believe me. I feel fucking terrible that I let it happen in the first place, you were really vulnerable, really upset, I should have had more fucking self-control. The last thing I want to do is make it worse by telling anyone about it. I know I come across as a bit of an annoying bell-end sometimes, but is that really what you think of me?’

The look on her face, full of scorn and distaste, confirmed it. I looked down and muttered to myself.

‘Shit, nice one Matt.’

Julia

Then he lifted his head, and he actually looked miserable. In spite of myself, I felt a bit sorry for him. If this conversation had happened at work, there was no way I would have allowed him any sympathy at all, but we were in my home, where I was Jules, who had feelings and couldn’t hide behind ice walls all the time. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Matt

Then I looked up, miserably, wondering if there was any way I could salvage anything from this, or if I should just cut my losses and let her get on with her evening.

‘So you’re not going to tell anyone?’

Oh, this suddenly sounded more promising. Had I somehow managed to convince her, then? I shook my head.

‘No.’

‘So, if I hear even a hint from someone else about what happened yesterday –’

‘Then you must have told them. I promise you, Julia. I’ve spent all day at home, just thinking about it, thinking about the sort of person I am, I don’t like it, I don’t like being two different people just to get a job done, I don’t like what it’s done to me –’

‘What do you mean, two different people?’

‘This act I put on at work, fun Matt, man-of-the-people Matt, Matt the Lad. What did you call me? Hot Scott. Yeah, heard that one too. Oh, I won’t say some of it’s not me, or that I haven’t enjoyed a lot of it, but it’s over the top, an act, it’s how I get people to do what I want them to, gel as a team, relax at work so it doesn’t seem like work.’

‘But … that’s what I do.’

It burst out of her in a petulant wail, as if I’d taken her sweets.

‘Yeah I know, Julia Marran, Ice Queen, super bitch, don’t cross her, do exactly what she says or she’ll spear you with some frosty sarcasm. I know you’re not really like that. We’re kind of the same, you and me. Except completely and absolutely opposite to each other. I bet if we compared notes we’d have fucking tons in common – oh, know what, we do, don’t we. Books, films, art, we talked about it all in The Long Legged Frog.’

Julia

That seemed so long ago, but he was right, we had talked about a lot of different things, and I had been struck by how similar our tastes and opinions were. And yesterday at his flat, I had been expecting an extension of – what had he called it? – Matt the Lad, but had seen a glimpse of someone with style and flair, and who may be a little more grown up than I’d given him credit for.

‘I guess we did.’

Matt

She seemed, somewhat miraculously, to be warming up to me a little. I decided to make the most of it.

‘I had a really nice time that evening, getting to know you a bit, being myself a bit.’

I wanted to try to push home my advantage, salvage what I could of this mess. Even if I could just get her to stop hating me, see me as someone different, just for a while …

‘Mm.’ She nodded.

‘But I guess now I’ve fucked it all up and confirmed what a ‘taker’ I am. I’m so sorry, Julia. I don’t know if it means anything, but I really like you. Yesterday, I know what it must have seemed like, a bit out of the blue, but I’ve actually … well I suppose it doesn’t matter now.’

What was the point in telling her I’d had a thing for her? She’d made it pretty clear what she thought about me.

Julia

I wanted him to go on. He was starting to intrigue me. Yes, it was Matt Scott standing in my flat, a place nobody from work ever came to disrupt the equilibrium, but I was starting to see a different side to him, a side that interested me, a side that wasn’t self-involved, egotistical or arrogant.

‘Let’s say it matters. You’ve actually what?’

He looked at me, a slight frown above his eyes, wondering where I was going with that. I could see him thinking about whether it was worth it to finish his sentence, and deciding it might be. He took a deep breath, as if to steel himself against something.

Matt

What was she up to? Was this some kind of game where she gets a confession out of me and then slaps me down even harder? Oh well, she had earned it I suppose. I took a deep breath, to prepare myself for what might be coming.

‘OK then. I’ve actually been trying to pluck up the courage to ask you out. Since before the Long Legged Frog, but definitely after.’

Julia

‘What? But, but … me?’

I spluttered. I was so far removed from the women Matt was known for asking out, the dizzy blonde brigade, that I couldn’t quite take it in.

Matt

It was so cute, her seeming to think she wasn’t my type or something, I almost laughed. Like I had a type. Two lumpy bits in front? My type, simple as.

‘You’re fucking hot, Julia Marran. And you’re interesting. And, as I said, we’re the same in a way, I wanted to explore that a bit. Get to know you without all the ‘big act’ crap getting in the way for both of us. But you’re bloody scary, and I wasn’t sure what you’d say. Well, actually I was perfectly sure what you’d say, and I didn’t really want to hear it.’

I was being more bloody open and honest than I’d been in a long time, with anyone. It was true, she interested me, she attracted me, she intrigued me. And now she knew, and she could do with it what she would. It was almost as if I trusted her with an important part of me, and knew she would respect it. It felt right to be open with her, which should have felt wrong and had me panicking, but instead had me sharing. Bloody hell.

Julia

This was not possible. Nobody knew both sides of me, there wasn’t anyone who crossed over between the two worlds I inhabited. And now it was out of the bag, and I wondered how long it would be before it ruined everything.

‘Julia, I … yesterday was a mistake. Things got out of hand in a way I’m ashamed of –’

‘Weren’t there two of us in the room?’

Matt

Well of course there were, I knew that, but I also knew which one of us had cried several times, and then turned murderously violent, and then clung to me in some kind of daze.

‘Only one of us was thinking straight. I shouldn’t have –’

Julia

‘I was thinking straight. I know I was upset, I’d just thrown a huge wobbler, lots of stuff had gone on beforehand, but I knew exactly what I was doing. I’m not sure I could explain any of it, but if I’d wanted to I could have stopped it.’

I was letting him off the hook. Part of me had enjoyed seeing him miserable and beating himself up about it, but a larger part thought enough misery had already been caused, and he’d been pretty honest with me about a lot of things.

Matt

What was this? Was she letting me off the hook? I couldn’t quite believe it. She should be screaming at me about what a bastard I was, but she was saying she’d been in her right mind and had been up for it. Holy shit.

‘So … you wanted it too?’

‘At that moment, yes. I didn’t think about it, hadn’t planned it or ever even considered it, except in an ‘over my dead body’ kind of way. I liked the way you made me feel and I needed more. At that moment.’

‘Wow, Julia.’

The word that I’d been pushing out of my mind, the one that accused me, that put me in serious forever shit, the one I couldn’t even contemplate, I started to feel I could let it go. I’d been trying not to imagine police sirens and swabs and headlines and lots of other terrifying scenarios, but they had all been there, potentially, if I really had forced myself on her. But if I hadn’t, if she’d been willing … oh fuck, I’d still done a terrible thing, but maybe not quite as terrible as I hadn’t been completely able to admit to myself.

‘I don’t know what that means for now. You … you’re starting to fascinate me. You’re not what I thought you were. But there’s a lot of other stuff. I’m like I am at work for a reason. The same way you are, I guess. None of that can change, whatever we’ve found out about each other just now – if you tell anyone I’ll call you a liar.’

‘Wow, Julia.’

And not only had she been willing then, but it sounded like she was saying she might not be averse to getting to know me a bit better now.

‘Yes, you said.’

‘So are you saying … we could … what?’

I saw her thinking about it. I was hanging on her every word. It wasn’t going to be ‘let’s be fuck buddies’ or ‘marry me’ or anything easily definable in-between I was staying open to things; this evening had already thrown more pleasant surprises my way than I had been prepared for.

Julia

I considered it. I wasn’t going to make any promises. But the thought of getting to know Matt, the real Matt, was becoming more intriguing by the minute.

‘I’m saying we could get to know each other, who we really are away from work, and see if we like each other. That’s it. At work, things are exactly as they always were.’

Matt

And that was about as perfect for me as it was likely to get. No strings, nothing to make excuses about.

‘Wow, Julia.’

‘Stop saying that, you sound like an illiterate idiot. I’ll start regretting all this in a minute.’

‘No you won’t, because the thought of the hot sex will keep you going. It was fucking hot, wasn’t it?’

I just couldn’t resist mentioning it now, now I knew she wasn’t totally repulsed by the memory, now I knew it had been a two way thing. Her cheeks turned red again.

Julia

An unbidden recollection of Matt’s naked body pounding into mine turned my cheeks scarlet.

‘You blush! Oh you’re so cute. The Ice Queen blusheth.’

I glared at him from behind my crimson cheeks.

Matt

‘Oh don’t be like that. You want to get to know the real me? Well the real me is a bit of a tease. The real you had better bloody well get used to it. How about we seal our new deal? What’s that pub like down the end of your road? The Whispering Kettle or something? Fancy a pint?’

I realised I was pushing my luck, but the rush of relief I’d felt at the sudden turnaround had made me bold.

‘Matt, I think we’ve done enough to be going on with for one night, don’t you? Let’s start another night. I’ve got a lot to do this evening, and a lot to think about now.’

I hadn’t really expected anything more, but it was a bit disappointing nonetheless.

‘OK, fair enough. How about a snog before I go then?’

I flashed her a cheeky grin, knowing it was way beyond likely.

Julia

He was grinning cheekily, eyes and mouth crinkling. He would have, if I’d agreed, but he wasn’t expecting me to agree.

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Hug?’

It appealed.

Matt

I saw her hesitate and instantly closed the distance between us, wrapping my arms around her. She pulled me closer. It was just like yesterday, before it all went wrong. She melted into me and I loved how she felt in my arms, like she belonged there. I pushed that thought away. No one belonged there, I was my own person, I didn’t do belonging. But it felt nice, I liked it. There you are, I could admit that without freaking out, and after a short time I kissed the top of her head.

Julia

It was just like yesterday, I felt safe and held and it was so comforting. So much like yesterday that after a short time I felt him kiss the top of my head. But I had to stop it before it happened all over again. I moved my arms and pushed him gently away, looking up into his actually quite spectacular grey eyes.

‘Go home. I’ll see you tomorrow. At work. Me Ice Queen, you Lord of the Lads.’

Matt

‘Ha ha. Alright then, I’ll go. But can I see you tomorrow, after work?’

I’ve always been of the ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ persuasion.

‘Yes.’

And this time I got.

‘Text me during the day. Have you got my number?’

‘I don’t use my mobile at work.’

‘What, never?’

I spent half my working life messaging and using social media, some of it work, some of it not. I wouldn’t know what to do without my mobile in my hand.

‘Not on purpose.’

‘Then it’s going to have to be The Rustling Saucepan or whatever the fuck it’s called. I bet you’re a regular.’

I’d walked past it on my way from my car to her flat. It was as good a place as any.

‘They do a good Cabernet Sauvignon. And it’s The Whistling Panhandler. And it’s a wine bar.’

‘I knew it. Regular. OK, there. Eight? Seven?’

‘Eight thirty.’

‘Date. Yes, I’ve got a date with bloody Julia Marran, re-fucking-sult.’

Julia

The triumphant look on his face almost made me change my mind, as I had a sudden anxiety that this was all still some kind of game for him. Well, maybe it was, maybe it was for both of us – certainly a little voice I was trying to ignore was wondering if this was just a way of distracting myself from Nons. We’d have to see if either of us ended up on the winning side.

Matt

I nearly blew it then, Matt the Lad resurfacing just as she was starting to trust me. Then I saw her ignore it, and breathed a bit easier. I made sure we exchanged mobile numbers, even if she wasn’t going to use hers at work, then I left, mentally breathless, feeling tons better, still resolved to follow my not being a bastard plan, as well as my ‘never again get so completely carried away that I’m not sure if I’ve forced myself on someone’ plan, but nonetheless excited about developments with Jules.

46. She said

In which Dec finds himself in a sticky situation.

Dec

I couldn’t see Amy’s car as I pulled into the parking bay. The flat was ominously quiet and dark as I opened the door.

‘Ames?’

No reply. Fuck. Why had I let myself get so caught up with Cal’s project? Thinking about Perth had brought back some great childhood memories, talking about my dog, my friends, places I used to go. Talking about it like it was part of Cal’s school work helped me to think about it without focussing on my parents and all the sadness that brought. I’d enjoyed myself so much, I’d lost track of time, and suddenly it was late. Too late. I saw a note on the coffee table.

Tired of waiting. It’s always something isn’t it. Gone to Jude’s. Don’t wait up, won’t be back. A

What the fuck did that mean? Was she … had she … how long was she going for? Beginning to panic, I tried calling her. Maybe I could fix some of this over the phone. It went straight to voicemail. I hated leaving messages, but made an attempt.

‘Ames, I’m so sorry. I know I keep fucking up. Please don’t stay out, please come back and talk to me. I can’t bear this, not talking, knowing I’ve upset you and not sorting it out. I feel so far away from you. Please come back. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please don’t go. I love you. I love you so much.’

I hung up before I started to cry. It felt like things were broken between us, and I didn’t know how to mend it. Couldn’t bear to think about where it might end if I didn’t. The thought of losing her nearly sent me back to that dark place where I’d been when my parents died, and when I’d lost Jay and Beth. I was just about holding on. I sent Amy a text as well, then made myself a cup of tea and scooped some of the takeaway curry I’d brought home onto a plate. I sat staring at it all for a long time while it went cold, unable to decide if I should go to Jude’s to find Amy, or whether I’d just make things worse. If they could be any worse. My phone rang. For a second I thought it might be Amy, but it wasn’t her ringtone. The tone and the screen announced Beth.

‘Hey.’

_Dec, were you supposed to be spending time with Amy tonight?

‘Yeah.’

_Cal just told me, he said didn’t think you were going to stay as long as you did. I’m so sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t realise. You should have said, I’d never have let him keep you here so long if I’d known. Is everything OK?

I took a deep breath, tried not to cry, failed.

_Oh Dec, what’s happened? Tell me, sweetheart.

‘She’s not here, she’s gone to Jude’s. I think I’ve fucked it all up. Shit, I’m so fucking stupid. She left this note saying she’s not coming back, I don’t know what she means, she’s not answering her phone, I don’t know what to do. I think she might have … left. I can’t lose her, I just can’t, I love her –’

_Dec, listen to me, you haven’t lost her, she’s just angry. James and I went through something similar when he was still playing. Rugby is a pretty full on career, it can swallow you, and there are always lots of lovely ladies who’d like to have a bit of your man, given half a chance. You both have to be pretty strong, in yourself and together.’

Beth’s reassuring words were helping to calm me down a bit, but I was still on the verge of panic.

‘You’ll get through this, I’m sure, you just need some time together, talk, tell each other how you’re feeling. It’ll be the end of the season soon, you’ll have the summer to wind down, get some normality back. Actually, thinking about it, James and I would have a blip of some sort at the end of every season, it’s all bound up with stress and expectations. It wasn’t until he stopped playing and started coaching that things changed. This is your first real season with all that pressure, isn’t it. It can be hard, you just have to work at it.

‘How did you fix it?’

_Well I think things tended to fix themselves, once the season was out of the way and we could spend time catching up with each other. Eventually I realised what was going on and just accepted it. We talked about it too, so we’d both recognise what was going on. That’s so important, sweetheart.

‘It’s a bit difficult when you’re not even in the same fucking building.’

_Yes, that is a bit of an added problem. Can I maybe suggest that the next time Cal asks you to do something when you’ve already got something important on, you just say no?

‘I can’t say no to Cal, I can’t let him down.’

_I know, sweetheart, you’re so lovely to him, but it’s OK sometimes. He’ll understand, he won’t stop asking. Make sure you talk to Amy, Dec. Even if you have to stay in for the next week to make sure you see her.

‘It’s hard –’

_I know. Do whatever it takes. She loves you. You both want it to work. So make it work. You just –

I didn’t hear the rest, as I heard a key in the door.

‘Ames?’

I rushed to the door, disconnecting from Beth as it opened, so relieved she’d come back. She looked at me with big, sad eyes, as I took in the large holdall she had with her.

‘Fucking hell, Amy, were you really moving out?’

)I don’t know. I’ve been completely miserable the last few days. I was going to stay the night at Jude’s and see how I felt.

My legs felt weak. I was terrified I was going to do or say something that would make her change her mind and leave again.

‘But you came back …’

)I got your voicemail and your text. It made a difference. Oh Dec, I don’t want to leave, but I can’t bear this uncertainty. I can’t bear it if every time you’re late or have to go somewhere last minute, or go out without telling me where you’re going, I think you’re with her.

‘Amy, what the fuck? I was with Cal. I know I was longer than I should have been, and I’m so sorry I asked you to be here and then I wasn’t, but who did you think I was with?’

Although I didn’t need to ask. She looked at me, pain in her eyes.

)God she’s a conniving cow, she’s got between us without even lifting a finger.

‘Shit, you thought I was with Becca fucking Davis? Fuck, Amy, you really thought I was with her?’

)I don’t know what to think. It all feels like it used to at school, all the mind games and then the inevitable conversation – ‘Sorry Amy, but Bec’s more fun than you. Let’s just be friends.’

I tried to hold on to what Beth had told me, that Amy was feeling insecure. It was hard. It hurt that she could believe I would cheat on her.

‘Do you think I’ve been lying to you?’

)No …

‘Well what then? It sounds like you think every time you don’t know where I am, I’m with Becca fucking Davis.’

)Dec, I’ve hardly seen you for weeks. I never know where you are these days. I thought when we moved in together we’d see each other all the time, but it’s not like that, it’s like we never bother making time for each other any more And you slept on the sofa again last night. It’s like you can’t bear to be with me, like you don’t want me any more She keeps texting me, telling me things you said or did, making it sound like you were with her. Now she’s on the scene, it feels like it’s only a matter of time and she’ll have you –

She started to cry and dropped her bag to put her hands over her face. We were still by the front door; she hadn’t even closed it behind her.

‘Oh Ames, this has just all got a bit out of control. Come here, babe.’

I pulled her into my arms and held her close, unable to stop my own tears. I couldn’t bear her being so sad. I couldn’t bear being so sad myself. After a while we both sniffed to a halt, stood back and looked at each other.

‘This is shit, Amy, how have we let this happen? We need to sort it out.’

She nodded. I pushed the front door shut, as if that would somehow keep her here, and took her by the hand to lead her into the living room. We sat together on the sofa.

‘OK, there’s lots I need to say, I’ve been a fucking thoughtless dickhead and taken you for granted and I need to apologise, but before any of that I just need to be absolutely sure that you know and believe that I love you, and only you, forever. Do you believe me?’

She looked up at me, nodded.

‘Do you love me?’

)Yes, of course. But that’s –

‘Hold on, there’s something else that goes with that, that I need to know you believe. I haven’t spent one second with Becca fucking Davis since she was in the bar after the game. She can throw herself at me all day long for all I care, I’ll never take any notice of her, she’ll make herself look like a fucking idiot for trying. I only want you, I’ve only ever wanted you, I’m not interested in anyone else, just you. I’m sure she would like you to believe something different. You can only believe one of us. If you believe her, she’s won, got what she wanted – I don’t mean me, she’ll never have me, I mean power. That’s what all this is about, she’s a bully and likes to take power away from people. Do you believe me?’

Another nod, less certain.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry I’ve caused all this. It’s just been so manic recently, I’ve stopped keeping in touch with you.’

I glanced at Amy’s note on the table: It’s always something isn’t it.

‘I know I’m always getting caught up, side-tracked, late back.’

)Well I am getting a bit fed up of hearing ‘Sorry babe, I lost track of time’. Dec, I really love that you’re always helping people out, I really love how sociable you are, but I’m here too, I need you too. Like, last Sunday after the under elevens game, you went off to cut Carol’s grass and you were gone all day because Matt came round while you were there and you ‘lost track of time’. I thought we were going to talk then, but we never got more than a few minutes, and it’s been days now. There’s only so often I’m willing to wait in all day on the off-chance you’re going to actually turn up when you say you will. It’s not fair.

I thought about it, how often that happened, how I just expected her to be here when I’d finished talking or helping out or having another beer. It happened a lot.

‘I’m so sorry, Ames. I’m treating you like shit, like you don’t matter. You matter the most to me in the world. You’d really think after everything that’s happened to me, I’d realise when I was taking the people I love for granted. You’re so precious to me, I should remember it every day. If I’d been in tune with you a bit more, I wouldn’t have even thought about giving Becca Davis your number, I’m such a fucking dick.’

)Why did you?

I hung my head, embarrassed.

‘This is pretty lame. It felt awkward not to, she was pretty insistent. I was saving my own face. I’m so sorry, babe. I honestly thought she was an old friend, or rather to be more honest, wasn’t really paying attention to what you were saying, and chose to believe she was an old friend. I’m so sorry.’

Amy glanced at me, then looked down, shoulders hunched.

)When she rang me, while I was out with Cara and everyone, I could hardly believe it. She was just the same as she was at school, I knew she was up to something. I’d seen her after Raiders games a few times, hadn’t spoken to her, didn’t know if she still recognised me, she obviously saw us together and decided to try her old tricks.

‘But all they are is tricks. If we’d been a bit more in touch with each other, it would never have gone so far. We’ve both been so busy, I think I need to let you know what’s going on with me more, maybe do a bit less, make sure I have time for us to be together. And once the season’s finished and your exam’s over, we’ll have lots more time. Oh Ames, I’ve missed you. I feel like there’s been more than distance between us sometimes. I’ve hated sleeping on the fucking sofa.’

)Why did you, then? I didn’t ask you to.

‘Well, actually, you did the first night, you might not remember, you were pretty wasted. Fair enough, you were bloody furious with me. But after that, it felt like we were kind of avoiding each other, and then we felt so far apart it was a bit weird to be in bed with you. I wanted you so much but, well, that wasn’t going to happen, so I just put myself out of harm’s way.’

)But I asked you not to last night.

‘I know babe, I wish I’d talked to you about it. I didn’t want to come back until we’d sorted things out. I wanted to talk, but I fell asleep before you got back. I didn’t hear you come in.’

)It just made me feel even more like you didn’t want me.

Amy looked so unhappy and I felt so bad. I tentatively put my arm round her shoulders, and felt her relax a little as she rested her head against me.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry. I just can’t move for fucking up at the moment. I want you. I need you. I love you. I love you so much. I should say it all the time, so you never feel like this again. I’ve taken you for granted, I’ve got previous, I should know by now that I have to work at things, talk about things, keep things out in the open. Me and you, we’re the most important things to each other. We can do without anything else, jobs, homes, cars, all that shit, but we can’t do without each other. We need to be strong together. We are still together, aren’t we? Are we OK?’

)If you’re sure you still want me –

How had I let things slip so far that she could doubt it?

‘Amy, I love you, I want you, I need you. I always will. We want each other, don’t we? I know I’ve already asked you this, but will you marry me?’

Amy choked back a sob with a half smile, and looked up at me with her beautiful blue eyes.

)Of course, hon. Oh Dec, I love you. I’ve been so unhappy, I think I convinced myself Becca would win, like she always did, and I couldn’t see any other end to it. You must think I don’t trust you. I do, it just all got tangled up with her. It’s what she does.

‘Maybe I need to have a bit of a word with her –’

)No, hon, just leave it, she feeds off it. Tell you what we can do though, next home game I’ll hang around afterwards, we can have the biggest snog the Raiders Bar has ever seen, tongues and everything. That might just do it.

And suddenly there it was, over. I sagged with relief as I felt Amy melt against me, and the tension between us evaporated.

‘I like the sound of that. Can I feel you up too?’

)Don’t push your luck.

I pulled her closer and folded her up in my arms, so glad we’d managed to sort things. I could see Amy’s holdall still in the hall, and it made my blood run cold to think how close I might have been to losing her.

)Oh, you know what, thinking about that weekend while I remember, I saw Mum and Dad a couple of days ago. They’re going on a cruise in a few weeks, three months round the world, it’s to celebrate Dad’s retirement.

‘Bloody hell, lucky them. That’s great.’

I genuinely meant this, as they would be out of the country and out of Amy’s business for a quarter of the year.

)It means they won’t be here for my birthday, so they want to have a special meal before they go. They want you to come too.

‘Really? They want me to come?’

)Well, OK, I said I wouldn’t go unless you were invited too. It’s almost the same. They’ve booked that fancy place near Cathedral Park, Fishers or whatever it’s called. It’s for a week on Saturday, I know you’ve got a game, I said it would have to be later so you have time to do all your post-match stuff, so they booked it for nine. Sorry, hon, I really want you to be there, hope you don’t mind.

I was more than happy to celebrate Amy’s birthday early with her parents if it meant that, firstly, they would be out of the country for three months, and, secondly, I wouldn’t have to invite them to her surprise party, so they wouldn’t be there all night disapproving of her having fun.

‘No worries. Sounds perfect. Now, did you mention some snogging? I think we need to get practising so we’re word perfect on the night. Come here, you gorgeous woman. I’ve fucking missed you. Let me show you how much.’

o0o

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

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Declan Summers @summs12 5 May

This is my last tweet. I have deleted the rest. Twitter didn’t amaze me, it saddened me. Deleting my account.

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o0o

Dec: =Good luck babe. U’ll smash it. See you l8r, tell me how gr8 u were. Luv u 2 bits xxx

Amy: =Thx hon, sooooooo nervous. Luv u 2 xxx

o0o

_Hi Dec, just ringing to see how Amy got on with her exam.

‘She’s not back yet, they all went out for a drink afterwards, I’m not expecting her until much later. She thinks it went OK though, sounded pretty confident actually.’

_Oh that’s great, I’m so pleased. So, if Amy’s not there, is it a good time to do some surprise party plotting?

‘Great idea. Over the phone, or do you want to come round?’

_Oh, I can’t, James is out, no babysitter. You could come to ours?

‘No, I’d better stay here in case Amy comes back early or needs me to give her a lift or something, she’s expecting me to be here.

_Sounds like someone’s learned a lesson or two.

‘Yeah, the hard way. As usual, it takes a fucking crisis, but I get there in the end. Phone it is then …

o0o

– … young player of the season is … Declan Summers. Well done, Declan, come and get your trophy – oh, er, when you’re ready. Declan? Well, it certainly looks like Declan’s young lady is eager to congratulate him on his award … er, right … ahem … ah, thank you, yes, here you are, congratulations. Phew, Declan, you’ve made me blush. That doesn’t happen very often. And now on to the award for …

o0o

Amy had gone home to change, ready to be picked up by her parents. I still had some photos with sponsors to finish up, some handshaking with various corporate people and a bit of mingling with any remaining supporters before I could get out of my Raiders suit, into my ‘dinner with Amy’s parents’ suit, and head off to the restaurant.

The whole day had been spectacular, starting with Raiders winning the semi-final of the play-offs, courtesy of a last minute try from one Declan Summers, followed by my award for young player of the season, and then by signing a new personal sponsorship deal that considerably increased my income for the next two years.

The well-rehearsed and very enjoyable kiss with Amy as my award was announced seemed to have seen off any lingering doubts in Becca Davis’ mind that her scheming was going to work, as she left the room with a face like thunder during the presentation.

I finally finished the photos and the handshakes and headed to the bar, where a few people were still listening to the band as it played its last couple of numbers. Jay and Nico were leaning on the bar, watching the sports channel on subtitles. I went over and stood next to them.

>Hey Declan, you want a beer?

‘No thanks, Nico, I’m off out soon.’

I nodded at the TV screen.

‘Did Arsenal win?’

>Yes, they win. Cal’s Theo Walcott score a goal, he is happy now. Both his teams win, but only one of his best players score. Your try must make up for this, is only second best. Tottenham, they lose. Matty is not happy, yes?

‘Probably not, he’ll get over it, I expect he’ll find some understanding woman to console him later.’

łHey, that’s my little brother you’re telling the truth about. You’ve escaped the media circus at last, then. Seeing spots before your eyes?

‘Ha ha, yeah a bit. That flash was really bright, and my jaw’s aching from all the fake smiling.’

łJust think of that lovely money, that’ll make it a real smile. Well done, mate, you’ve earned it.

‘Thanks. I think I might head off in a minute, can’t be late for Amy’s parents.’

łOh yeah, the dreaded meal. Just think of it as a free dinner followed by three whole months of not having to think about them. See – now that looks like a real smile, mate. Just a word of advice, though. Don’t try the snogging display on them. Might not go down well.

>Ha, yes, this is some kissing we are seeing. We think we watch movie awards, not rugby awards.

I grinned.

łDid it do the trick?

‘Don’t know what you mean.’

łNo, mate, course you don’t. Oh, did Brett find you?

‘Brett? Oh, Bonksy. No, was he looking for me?’

łYeah, just now, said he needed a favour. Dec, I’ve been meaning to ask for ages, why ‘Bonksy’? What does it actually mean?

‘Fucked if I can remember, it was so long ago, from Academy days. I was Captain Sensible for a while, that’s just fucking hilarious!’

łYou did have a bit of an earnest quality about you back then. Seem to have shaken it off pretty well now. Oh, here’s Brett, I’ll leave you to it. See you soon, mate, have a good evening if at all possible.

Jay clapped me on the shoulder and turned back to the TV as Bonksy approached.

]Hey Summs, I’m glad I caught you, I wondered if you could do me a favour?

‘If I can. I’m just on my way to dinner with Amy’s parents, big posh restaurant, I can’t be late.’

]Oh, nice one. Is it in town by any chance?

‘Er, yes, why?’

]Great, then it won’t take you any time at all, it’s on the way.

‘What exactly do you want me to do?’

]Well I’ve got myself in a bit of a bind, see there was this girl earlier, and I liked her and everything, and I kind of said I’d give her a lift home, but now I’ve been getting on really well with this other girl, and so giving the first one a lift home not really an option, but seems a bit rude to leave her in the lurch, and all the buses have gone now. She lives, oh I don’t know, I can’t remember exactly where, but it’s not far, practically on your way. Please, mate, you’d be doing me a real favour.

I hesitated, not wanting to complicate my evening by unnecessary Bonksy diversions. It didn’t sound like much, though, just taking someone somewhere I was already on the way to, maybe having to listen to her complaining about what a dick Bonksy was. I looked at my watch. Plenty of time to get changed, do Bonksy’s dirty work and still not be late for the restaurant. I sighed. Bonksy and I hadn’t seen much of each other since Amy and I moved in together; it felt kind of good to be helping him out of his scrapes again.

‘OK. As long as it’s on the way. You’ve told her you’re not taking her home, haven’t you?’

]Well, no, I was kind of hoping …

‘Oh fucking hell, Bonksy. Oh alright then. For old times’ sake.

]Thanks mate, I owe you one.

‘You owe me several actually, at the last count, not that I am of course.’

I was speaking to Bonksy’s disappearing back, but he turned at the door.

]Oh, she’s waiting out the front by the programme kiosk. Cheers mate.

He walked out before I could ask her name or what she looked like. I quickly changed into my posh suit. By the time I was ready, there was hardly anyone left in the club. I headed out to the front of the stadium, kit bag in one hand and Raiders suit in its cover over the other shoulder. It had started to rain. There was someone waiting by the programme kiosk, hunched against the increasingly heavy drizzle. She had her back to me.

‘Hey there, are you waiting for Brett – shit.’

As she turned round, I recognised her. Becca Davis. Fuck.

ϸYeah – oh, hi Declan. Did Brett get held up?

I was completely at a loss for a few seconds.

‘Er, yeah, actually, he’s, er, not going to be able to take you home. Says he’s sorry.’

ϸOh. Had a better offer did he?

Fuck it, I had no reason to spare her feelings.

‘Something like that.’

I turned round and started to walk towards my car, fuck whatever I’d promised Bonksy.

ϸWait, Declan, is there any way you can give me a lift? It’s pissing down now, I haven’t got my coat and there aren’t any more buses from here. I can’t walk far, I’ve got a bad ankle.

I shouted back, over my shoulder:

‘Phone a taxi.’

ϸI’ve got no cash. Please, Declan, it’ll only take you a few minutes.

I had absolutely no reason to do anything for her, apart from my inexplicable inability not to help people out. In the end my pathetically overactive conscience got the better of me.

‘I’m heading into town. I’ll drop you off somewhere if it’s on my way.’

ϸOh you’re a star. I’m just off the bypass.

She trotted over to the car in high heels, no apparent sign of any bad ankle. I got the first twinge of misgiving. I put my suit in the boot while she got in the passenger seat and put her seatbelt on, then I got in myself. I started driving, determined to get her out of the car as quickly and with as little conversation as possible.

‘Where am I dropping you?’

ϸYou look nice, going somewhere special?

I looked directly ahead and not at her, her too-short skirt and her too-tight shirt.

‘Yeah. So whereabouts am I dropping you?’

ϸOh it’s not far, just past the retail park. I’ll say when. Going out with Amy are you?

I didn’t answer; Amy was not the topic of any conversation I was going to have with this woman. It didn’t stop her for long.

ϸWhy did you close your Twitter account? It wasn’t because of me, was it?

I didn’t answer.

ϸShame, it was fun keeping in touch. Are you on Facebook?

‘No. Is it much further?’

ϸJust a bit, we haven’t gone past the retail park yet. Don’t be so keen to get rid of me.

She was silent for a while, but kept wriggling in her seat, her skirt creeping further up her thighs as she did so.

ϸThat was quite a performance you put on in the bar.

‘What?’

ϸYou and Amy. All the tongues and roving hands. Very impressive.

‘Piss off, Becca. You know nothing about me and Amy.’

I bit my lip, annoyed that she had riled me into responding.

ϸI know enough to see you were trying to impress someone – maybe hoping to show someone what you’re made of?

‘OK, that’s it, I’ve had enough of your tiresome bullshit. You can get out now. Fuck off.’

I stopped the car. She turned in her seat and faced me, leaning forwards.

ϸMake me.

I sat in silence, clenching the steering wheel as it dawned on me just how much trouble I might have got myself into. I watched the windscreen wipers clear the screen a couple of times. Got out of the car, into the rain, and called Amy.

)Hey hon, are you on your way?

‘Ames, I really can’t believe I’m about to say this. I’m so sorry, babe. I’m in a bit of a situation. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I love you, I need you to trust me.’

)OK … Are you –

Silence.

‘Amy?’

I looked at the screen. It had gone blank. I pressed the power button several times, but nothing happened. Out of charge or just given up the ghost, it didn’t really matter. It had sealed my fate.

‘Fuck it. Fucking useless piece of fucking junk.’

I shoved the redundant phone back in my pocket and got back in the car, out of the rain.

‘What exactly are you trying to achieve?’

Becca settled back in the seat, crossed her legs and ran her hands through her hair.

ϸKeeping dry for starters. Mm, comfy seats, nice and warm, ooh look, it reclines. Join me?

‘I’m just going to go where I was going, you can stay in the car or get out–’

ϸThink I’ll stay. I’d really like to see the look on Amy’s face when you get back to the car after your night out and I’m in the front seat, looking a bit rumpled and like I just might have had a fucking good time with the driver. I might even cry a bit – Oh Declan, you’ve been ages, I thought you weren’t coming back – oh … Amy’s with you …

She made her face crumple and a tear rolled down her cheek.

ϸI … I thought after what we did … you said she didn’t mean anything to you, how could you do this …

She sat back and looked me boldly in the eye. She was a bloody good actress, I had to give her that. I could imagine it working on Amy, after everything else that had worked. I thought of a few choice names to call her, but tried to keep a lid on my rising temper. I needed to concentrate if I was going to get out of this.

‘What do you want?’

ϸOh, nothing you’re likely to give me, you haven’t got the balls, much as you want it.

‘There’s absolutely nothing I want from you, apart from getting the fuck out of my car.’

ϸNo, I didn’t think you’d actually admit it. You can’t tell me wet fish Amy Wright is actually satisfying you, though?

As I ignored her attempt to diss Amy, Becca hitched her skirt up a bit higher, undid a button on her shirt and licked her lips. It was so obvious, it was almost funny. Maybe it might have worked on someone else, someone who was unhappy, or unsure, or just fancied what she was offering. It didn’t work on me.

‘What do you want, Becca? Maybe you think I can’t sit here all night fending off your pathetic shit, but I’ve had worse all nighters, and I’ve always won in the end.’

Perhaps she realised I was serious, as she seemed to sag a little bit, and dropped her head.

ϸOh alright, sod it, you’re really not worth all this. All I actually want is for you to take me home, right to my door, so I don’t have to walk there in the rain. And you can tell that cock Deressie from me, he’s a fucking wanker.

The fight seemed to have gone out of her. I could hardly believe I’d got off so lightly. I might not have needed to call Amy at all. I started the car.

‘Fine. Which way?’

ϸNext left.

She gave me some directions which seemed to lead into, then out of, the housing estate. After a while, I was totally turned around, had no idea where I was. It took me a while to realise we were heading out of the city, and then suddenly we were on a country road.

‘Where the fuck are we?’

I’d totally fallen for it. I’d just told myself what a good actress she was, and then I’d let her fool me into driving her all the way out here, some dark lane, in the middle of the countryside.

ϸOh, whoops, must have made a mistake. Are we lost?

The road was narrow and there wasn’t anywhere to turn round. I drove for some time, looking frantically for a gateway or something so I could head back the way I’d come. Finally, in the headlights up ahead, just as I was considering reversing all the way back down the road, I saw the entrance to a field where the road widened and I would have my chance. I pulled in, and the car stalled. I tried to start it again, but the engine just kept turning over without catching. I looked at the dashboard. The petrol gauge was blinking on empty, as it had been since yesterday, but I’d forgotten about it. I banged the steering wheel in frustration.

‘Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, a million fucking fucks.’

ϸIs that a request? Not sure I can manage a million, definitely one or two, three at a push, if you’re really good …

‘Just piss off.’

I took my phone out to dial before I remembered it had died too.

‘Shit.’

If I’d thought I was in trouble before, I’d had no idea how bad things could get. Becca stretched in the seat beside me and looked at me with wide, delighted eyes.

ϸOh Declan, it almost seems like you might have planned this. What kind of a girl do you take me for?

She took her seatbelt off. Then unbuttoned her shirt and took that off too. I stared at her for a second and then turned and faced resolutely forwards, thinking ‘shit shit shit’.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

ϸWell it seems a shame not to make the most of the situation. It’s going to be a while before anyone comes to help us down this road. We may as well enjoy the wait. I can make it very enjoyable, look …

She reached behind her, undid her bra and took that off too. I tried to ignore how naked she was, but was finding it a bit difficult.

‘Have you got a phone?’

ϸYes, but I’m not sure I’m ready to call for help just yet. Maybe in a little while I might need to …

She leaned over, stretched her hand out and started stroking my thigh. In spite of myself, and to my shame, I felt myself responding. I forced myself to think about Amy and not what was going on in my pants.

‘Becca, just stop there. I don’t know what you think I’m going to do with you out here in the rain in the middle of fuck knows where, but it is not going to happen. Not here, not anywhere.’

ϸYour hard-on tells me different.

‘My hard-on tells you I’m thinking about Amy.’

It was mostly true, although I was finding the close proximity of Becca’s nipples shamefully distracting. I picked her hand up from my thigh and put it in her lap – I really needed to get out of there.

Becca suddenly leaned towards me, grabbed my head and kissed me, thrusting her tongue deep into my mouth and her naked breasts against me. Horrified, I pushed her away as hard as I could, and, wiping my mouth, tried to find the door handle.

‘I don’t know what the fuck you think you’re doing. Do you think you’re sexy or appealing or something? You’re just sad and pathetic. I’m going to get back to the city so I can carry on with my evening.’

At last, I found the door handle and shoved the door open, almost falling out of the car in my haste to be gone, away from this terrifying crazy woman who was making me feel things I definitely did not want ever to be feeling.

ϸI’m sure Amy would appreciate a text from me telling her not to worry …

Becca’s voice followed me out of the car. I sighed as I stood up. I’d had enough. I was already in deep enough shit, I was going to have to tell Amy everything anyway, nothing Becca Davis could do now was going to make it any worse.

‘Do what the fuck you want. You’re just a silly girl who’s never grown up. You think you’re still at school. Welcome to the real world, where grown ups don’t get sucked in to your childish shit. I suggest you put your shirt on and call a taxi. Good luck with your sad little life, just stay the fuck out of mine.

I hunched my shoulders against the pouring rain, and started to walk back down the road, cursing myself the whole way for the fucking gullible idiot I was, ignoring Becca’s shouts to wait, come back, she’d phone for help, then her yells that she was texting Amy right now and telling her how hard she’d made me, finally some loud sobs mixed in with most of the names I’d already called myself since leaving the club earlier. As her voice faded behind me, I trudged on through the rain, feeling bleak and stupid.

The downpour was a very effective cold shower, but I still felt guilty about how I’d responded to Becca’s touch. It was purely physical, no reasoning or emotional part of me was even slightly attracted to her, but I’d surely blown it with Amy now.

We’d been in such a good place since we’d sorted everything out. We’d been to see Jay and Beth and talked to them for a long time about how they managed to make things work when Jay was playing. Since then, we’d worked hard on communicating with each other, but I knew Amy still felt insecure about the amount of female attention that often came my way, and now this farce with Becca was just going to blow it all wide open again. And in front of her parents, who didn’t like me anyway. I hoped against hope that Becca was bluffing about texting Amy, but it seemed like the sort of thing she would do, so I prepared myself to face the fallout from that too.

The lights of the city grew slowly closer as I carried on walking. I was soaked right through to my skin, my suit was ruined, and my shoes squelched. It felt like hours later when I eventually reached the outskirts of the city, and the first street lights.

A car came towards me, and I thought about flagging it down, but realised no one was going to give me a lift in this muddy, saturated state. It was probably a taxi for Becca anyway. The car stopped behind me. I ignored it and kept on walking. The car reversed and the window wound down.

}So do you want a lift, or shall I leave you to enjoy your stroll in the deluge?

I stopped and looked properly at the car. Blinked the rain out of my eyes and tried to make sense of it.

‘Matt? What the fuck are you doing here?’

}Do you want me to tell you before or after you get in out of the rain and start ruining my Italian leather seats?

I opened the door and got in. He turned the heater up full, but my teeth still chattered.

}Fuck me, you’re absolutely drenched. I should have brought a towel. Or a dehumidifier. Or one of those fucking industrial suction pumps. Shit, Dec, you’re a sight for sore eyes, I’ve been all over looking for you.

‘What? How did you know?’

}Well I don’t know much, I have to say. You can fill me in on the way. Amy rang me, all in a panic, said you were supposed to be at Fishers with her parents, but you’d rung her saying there was a problem, then got cut off.

‘My fucking phone died.’

}Ah. Anyway, I didn’t know where you were, but doing a bit of detective work via Jay, then your mate Brett, we worked out you may have got waylaid by the charming @bouncybec.

‘Shit, does Amy know?’

}Well, none of us know anything for definite. It was Becca, then?

‘Yeah. Fuck, I’m such a dick. I couldn’t have been more fucking stupid if I’d tried.’

}You took the words out of my mouth. Dec, what possessed you to give the woman a lift? I don’t even know her, and I’d avoid her like the plague, and you know I’m not that fussy.

‘Well I didn’t know it was her when Bonksy asked me to do him a favour. Then I felt sorry for her.’

Matt gaped at me.

}You felt sorry for her?

‘For about two seconds. The wrong two seconds. I’m just too much of a sucker for a fucking sob story. Before I had a chance to think about it, she was in the car and I was screwed. Almost literally. My car’s way back up that road, I ran out of petrol. The last I saw of Becca fucking Davis she was in the passenger seat with her tits out trying her hardest to get me to shag her.’

}Tempted?

Fuck off Matt! No! Shit, what the fuck do you think of me?’

}OK, OK, sorry, just asking the question that Amy will no doubt ask you. I hope you’re similarly vehement in your denial when she does.

‘What time is it?’

}Ten twenty six, according to the cunningly placed dashboard clock right in front of your eyes.

‘Shit. And thanks for the fucking sarcasm, just what I need. Is Amy still at Fishers?’

}She said she was going to stay there and have the meal with her parents, apparently they’re not particularly understanding of your foibles and didn’t look too kindly on having their celebrations interrupted with any concerns over your well-being. Do you want to go straight there, or go home and get dry?

I sighed. I was wet, and cold, and I really didn’t want to face Amy and have to explain everything that had happened, in front of her parents, but it was what I had to do.

‘Straight there, please. Thanks Matt. Thanks for coming to look for me. How the fuck did you know I’d be here?’

Matt put the car in gear and drove away while he started to explain.

}Apparently Becca lives around here somewhere. Amy gave me a rough idea of her address, we couldn’t think of anywhere else you might have been persuaded to take her. I just drove around in a widening circle, luckily I came across you before too many hours had passed.

‘Thanks, it means a lot.’

I was still soaking wet and cold when Matt pulled up outside the restaurant. With a heavy heart I got out and waved him off. He’d offered to wait, but I didn’t know how long I’d be or what was going to happen inside, so I said I’d get a taxi, and hoped they’d accept sodden banknotes, as well as sodden customers.

The restaurant was nearly empty when I walked in. The maître d’ looked me up and down and started to turn me away.

‘I’m with the Wright party. Sorry, got caught in the rain.’

*Oh, certainly sir, but I think they’ve just about finished.

‘That’s fine. Are they upstairs?’

*Yes sir.

I walked slowly up the stairs, very aware of the squelching from my shoes, the wet, muddy footprints I was leaving behind me and the water steadily dripping from my clothes.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I saw Amy and her parents sitting at the only occupied table. There were coffee cups and wine glasses ready to be collected. It didn’t look like a particularly happy gathering. Amy looked up, saw me, got straight out of her seat, and came over to me. I saw her think about hugging me, and think better of it, but wasn’t sure if it was because I was so wet, or because she was upset. She gave me a big smile, which helped me be a bit more sure, and touched my cheek, which helped even more.

)Dec, you made it. Come and sit down.

This was so different from the reception I was expecting that it threw me, and I stayed where I was for a second or two. Then I walked over to the table.

‘Hi Mrs Wright, Mr Wright.’

Their reception was more predictable, and was silent and icy. They barely looked at me to acknowledge my presence. I decided to ignore them back and just spoke to Amy.

‘Ames, I don’t think I can sit down like this, I’m absolutely soaked, I’ll ruin the chair. I’ve had to ditch the car and walk for miles in the rain. I’m so sorry I missed your birthday meal.’

)Well, you did let me know you were going to be late, and you did ask me to trust you, so I did. Is everything OK?

I glanced at Amy’s parents, who were listening intently to our conversation, disapproval etched on their faces.

‘Apart from having to leave my car miles up a country lane with no petrol and a half naked fucking mad woman in it, and then being nearly drowned trying to get back here, yeah, I think everything’s OK. Have you had a good evening?’

)Apart from having to coordinate the rescue of my unbelievably naive fiancé from the clutches of a – half naked mad woman, you say? Yeah, it’s been good, thanks.

‘Are we OK?’

She looked at me, her big blue eyes shining. She didn’t look like she was pretending in front of her parents, and I began to hope that maybe things weren’t as screwed as I’d imagined.

)Yeah, hon. Thank God for Matt, but yeah. We’re OK.

She stood up and before I could stop her she put her arms round me and squeezed me tightly.

)You really are very, very wet.

‘I know.’

)So am I, now.

‘I know.’

)So are you going to put your arms round me or what?

‘I’m finding it hard to resist, but they are also very, very wet.’

)Just get on with it.

I did as I was told, put my arms round her, and buried my face in her hair for good measure, feeling happy and relieved.

)Mm, lovely, now I’m completely soaked too. I think I need to go home. Mum, Dad, thanks for a lovely meal, I’ve had a completely lovely time. Sorry I was on the phone so much. I think Dec and I are going to shoot off now, we both need to get out of these wet things, and we’ve got some catching up to do. Have a great trip, if I don’t see you before.

She kissed them both, I didn’t, and then we left.

45. Love shoulda brought you home

In which there may be trouble in paradise.

Cal

Then term started and I went back to my old school. I’d only missed Mrs Barnfield’s year, so it didn’t matter, because Mrs Barnfield was shouty, and this year was Mr Taylor, who told jokes and knew how to draw cartoons. And I was going to surprise Jake.

On the first day of school, I got out of bed as soon as Mum woke me up, and I put my school uniform on with a growing sense of excitement. My school was really near, and Mum and I always walked there, although Dec had walked me a few times when I first went, before Mrs Barnfield’s class. Today was different from how it used to be, because we had Iz with us. Mum was pushing her buggy, and some other mums were very interested, and we all walked to school together.

I kept a look out for Jake all the way, because sometimes he walked along the same path, but sometimes his mum or his brother drove him. I didn’t see Jake, but I did see Thomas Dabbs and Carly Binker, and we said hello, as if it was just yesterday we’d been in the same class. Mum talked to their mums as we walked, and explained a bit about moving away and then moving back, and said about Uncle Matty, but not about Dec, and they talked a lot about Iz, and Thomas and Carly and I smiled at each other. Thomas had a badge on his coat that said ‘7 Today!’, so it must be his birthday, and I wondered if he was having a party, and if I’d missed the invitation because no one knew I was back at school.

‘Is it your birthday?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you having a party?’

‘Yes, I’m going to Dinosaurland.’

A Dinosaurland party? I so had to wangle myself an invite.

‘Who’s going?’

‘Billy, Artie, Rhys and Joe.’

Thomas’s mum must have heard what we were saying.

‘Artie’s mum just texted me, Thomas, Artie’s not very well, so he can’t come. Oh, Cal, maybe you’d like to go?’

Well was that lucky or what? I looked up at Mum, hoping she wasn’t going to think of an excuse. I didn’t know Thomas that well, but we had played football in the playground sometimes, and Jake and I had swapped Pokémon cards with him a few times.

‘What do you say, Cal? Thank you, Sue, that sounds lovely. You like Dinosaurland, don’t you Cal?’

Well I’m sure I would if I’d ever been – so far I’d only seen the car park. But if this was what being back at my school was like, things were looking pretty good. I nodded and smiled more broadly at Thomas.

By the time we got to my school, I still hadn’t seen Jake, but there were loads of children in the playground. Jake was often one of the last to get to school, sometimes after the bell had gone, and Mum always made sure I was there early, so I wasn’t surprised not to see him. I stayed with Thomas and we went to get a ball from Mrs Nugent, who was playground teacher that morning.

After we’d been playing football for a while, and a few more people had joined in, I heard my name being shouted.

‘Cal!’

I heard running footsteps, and I turned round. Jake was running towards me, his school bag open, pens and paper flying out of it. He had the biggest smile on his face, and he was running so fast I thought he wasn’t going to stop, and he’d bang into me. But he stopped just as he reached me, and we stood grinning at each other. If we’d been grown-ups we might have had a cuddle, but we were six, and so we just got on with playing football, after saying hello in our own way:

‘Are you back for good?’

‘Yes.’

‘Cool. You can sit next to me. Let’s play football.’

And that was all it needed to click into place. It looked like Ewan Donohue had been Jake’s friend while I was away, but Ewan was really friends with Daniel Bosworth, and they didn’t like football, so I slotted back in nicely.

Before that first day was over, Jake had got in trouble with Mr Taylor for talking while we were supposed to be doing sums, and then he got in trouble for not having a pen, because all his pens had fallen out in the playground when he ran over to see me, and then he got in trouble for tipping his chair back until it fell over.

Matt

A few weeks before Christmas, I got a job. GreenScreen were a small IT consultancy firm looking to expand, and they felt similar to Eyeti. I sent them my CV, got an interview and got the job. Simple as that. They were aware, or rather, the manager was aware, that I was recovering from the bastard MS, and agreed to part time hours, with flexibility should I need it in the future, and also agreed not to share my health status with anyone else. My reference from Eyeti must have been good enough to convince him I was worth the risk. Even on part time hours, I was earning enough to buy a flat, having a pretty healthy savings account, and by then Iz really needed her own room – not that anyone was saying it, but I knew. So just before Christmas, I moved out, moved in and started my new life proper, without a spouted cup, a baby monitor or a wheelchair in sight.

That’s not to say Beth didn’t still feel the need to call me all the time to check I was OK, but I let her get on with it, and I went round there loads, because Beth’s Sunday roasts were legendary, and OK, because I missed them, alright? And just after Christmas, Mum moved down. She couldn’t stay away from Iz, and was spending more time visiting than she was living in her own home, so she sold that big old house of memories, and got a much smaller place, with a spare room for the odd sleepover, but which was a lot more manageable for someone who doesn’t get about as well as they used to.

Cal

Having Jake nearby, getting in trouble, made everything seem right. I hated getting in trouble, but Jake never seemed to care, and to me he appeared brave and fearless. He’d had some pretty wild schemes, like climbing the tree in the playground to see if we could see his house, even though there was a fence round the tree; or trying to sneak into the office at break to set the bell off; or mixing up people’s lunch boxes so they got the wrong sandwiches. I hardly ever did any of these things, because I was too scared of what Mum would say, and usually if I didn’t do it, Jake wouldn’t either, but sometimes he’d just go ahead anyway, and I’d be the lookout, like in a film.

Dec

SIX MONTHS AFTER IZ IS BORN

>Hey Declan.

‘Hi Nico. Are you and Lis around one day this week – I’d like to take you out to dinner.’

>Ha, we are around for taking out to dinners, for sure. Is a reason?

‘It’s my last payment on your loan. I want to say thanks.’

>Oh! Huh. I don’t realise this. Yeah, sure. I know we are busy tomorrow but Wednesday is good. Where we go?

‘Well, I thought about that new place near the cinema, it’s supposed to be really good.’

>Ha, and expensive. You need another loan to pay!

‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll try and get us a table.’

>Thank you, Declan, we like this. Is no need, but we like to eat fancy dinner and not pay.

Matt

Julia started at GreenScreen at the same time as me, having been part of the same recruitment drive, and I noticed her straight away, who wouldn’t, she was bloody gorgeous, and she was really upfront, didn’t bullshit anyone about anything, and I really liked that. Really liked it. But she always had this air of ‘touch me not’ about her, and to start with, in my newly found ‘I can have anyone’ state of mind, I didn’t want to get turned down. So l left her to her own devices, and played around with the temps, the admin staff, the business grads, each one adding another layer of veneer.

Cal

I know Mum despaired of my friendship with Baggo. His older brothers meant he was much more worldly wise than me, and his mum worked a lot, so he was often at home with just one or other of his brothers to look after him. They weren’t what you would call disciplinarians, and mostly just wanted Jake to be quiet and keep out of their way, so he did what he liked until his mum came home. Mum never let me go there to play if Jake’s mum was out, not after the time we got our own tea, which consisted of crisps, Jaffa cakes, ice cream and nearly a whole two litre bottle of cola between us, and I was sick in the car on the way home, and again on the drive when we got home, and again in the kitchen on my way to the toilet to be sick again.

Matt

I fucked around like nobody’s business, sometimes a different woman every week, sometimes more than one every week. I got myself a bit of a reputation – some of it was deserved, as I was a bit of a bastard, I see that now, and some of it a whole sack of shit that people made up about me. But I suppose that’s the price of a reputation, that it gets added to and gets out of your control.

Cal

There was never a dull moment with Baggo around. He was always in trouble for something, but it didn’t stop him trying anything, always seeing what excitement could be got from any situation. He wasn’t bad – he didn’t do shoplifting or glue-sniffing or get into fights or anything – he just couldn’t bear to be bored, and would do things to spice up dull times.

I think we complement each other, even now. Nowadays, I’m the settled family man, he’s the rogueish bachelor, different woman every time I see him; when we were seven, he was always wanting to do things that would get him in trouble, and I was always trying to persuade him not to for fear of being in the same trouble. If we hadn’t been friends, I might have been less adventurous, and Baggo might have been more reckless. I shudder to think.

Matt

So, yeah, I’d go to clubs, and parties, and I’d home in on the younger, faker ones, and, yes, I know how this sounds, I was such a tosser back then, but as I said, I was angry and hurting, and felt like I was owed something, and it was payback in a way, but I’d try to make sure the ones I chose weren’t the ones who were going to go all weepy and clingy when I left without cuddling them shortly afterwards, but sometimes I got that wrong, and she’d seemed all young and fake, but I broke her heart.

But I suppose I didn’t much care, back then. I was making my reputation as Matt Scott, party animal, and I can’t say why, I wouldn’t say I’m a particular looker – I’ve always seen a skinny nerd looking out of the mirror at me – but I was a bit of a prize. I sound like such an arrogant arsehole, even now, even to myself, but for a while, in certain undiscerning circles, if you ended up with Matt Scott, that was it, top of the tree, job done.

I can’t believe that Lau was there at some of those parties, in some of those clubs. I can’t believe that I might have walked right past her and not known her, I just can’t believe I didn’t notice her; how could I ever have not noticed her? I’m surprised she even spoke to me when I finally … but anyway, I’m getting all out of sequence. This is the Jules part of my story, or it will be in a bit if you’re patient.

Cal

I can’t remember exactly when everyone started calling Jake ‘Baggo’. It was definitely before we went to big school. His brothers both had nicknames: Michael was ‘Troops’ because he’d been in the Army, and Harry was ‘Wheels’ because he had loads of cars that he was always doing up.

Baggo was a lot younger than his brothers, who both still lived at home. We would sneak into their rooms when they were out and look at their stuff, and Baggo often found things that blew my mind, like magazines with ladies in with no clothes on, and cigarettes, and funny things on their computers with swears on them. Sometimes one of his brothers would come home while we were still in his room, and Baggo would get shouted at, and I’d try to make myself look invisible, but Baggo would just stand there grinning, and the shouting would stop, and he’d get a punch on the shoulder, but not hard, and he’d be let off, and we’d scuttle out and giggle.

Actually, thinking about it, Baggo’s brothers were often the reason we got in trouble, however indirectly. Sometimes it was because one of us repeated something we’d heard, or Jake brought something that belonged to them to school, like a lighter, or playing cards with naked ladies on them, or, once, a chocolate brownie that made us giggle a lot when we shared it at lunch. Usually the contraband would be discovered because Baggo couldn’t help showing off about it, and a teacher would push their way through the crowd that had gathered, and confiscate the penknife, copy of Playboy or firework, and then he’d be in trouble not only with the school and his mum, but with whichever brother he’d ‘borrowed’ the item from as well.

I’m not sure how I remained so uncorrupted. I love Baggo, he’s the best mate a bloke could have, and although I’ve done a fair amount of bailing him out, once literally when he got so rat-arsed that he didn’t realise the bloke he was bad-mouthing for getting in his way outside a club was a copper, well Baggo has been there for me plenty of times too. I can really talk to him, the way I can’t talk to anyone else. He’s a lad, the laddest of lads, and I wouldn’t trust any female member of my family with him for five minutes, but he gets me, and I get him, and we have talked, long into the night sometimes, about deep shit.

Dec

The Rugby Paper

Quick’s Q&A

John Quick shoots quick-fire questions at one of the rugby world’s up and coming young players. This week: Declan Summers, Raiders.

JQ: Declan, how’s the season going so far?

DS: It’s been fantastic so far, both for me and Raiders. Top of the Premiership at this stage is amazing, and to have played in so many games is awesome for me personally.

JQ: You had a tricky time a couple of years back, when problems with your passport caused Raiders to be deducted points and miss out on a top four spot. Have you been able to put that behind you?

DS: I had some fantastic support from the club and from my family then. It was a tough time, but I got the help I needed. The Raiders supporters have been immense, I owe them a lot. I’m not sure it will ever be completely behind me; I learned a lot of life lessons that still help me today.

JQ: Such as?

DS: Well, it’s important to talk to people about how you’re feeling, it’s important to keep your club informed about what’s going on with you personally. Everything you do affects someone else, and affects how you play. You can’t do things on your own. You need to stay mentally strong too.

JQ: It was well publicised that Jay Scott left Raiders when the news broke of your suspension. How did you greet his return as assistant coach?

DS: It was great news. Scotty is an excellent coach, Raiders really missed him while he was away. The whole squad benefits from his expertise and coaching style.

JQ: Your suspension meant you couldn’t play for Raiders until the beginning of last season. How did you cope with that?

DS: The club made sure I was involved with training and coaching to maintain my skills and fitness as part of the squad. Not playing for Raiders was hard, once I was fit again, but I was recovering from injuries until the April, so I wouldn’t have played until nearly the end of the season anyway. Being dual registered with Trojans was a fantastic opportunity to regain some match fitness, and being part of their push for promotion was hugely exciting.

JQ: The autumn internationals aren’t far away, and the squads are due to be announced soon. How would it feel to be included for the Wallabies?

DS: To play for Australia would be immense, it’s a bit of a dream of mine, but I have no illusions – it’s a tough squad to get into, and I’m based in England. I’m still young, and there’s plenty of time for that. I’d be over the moon to get the call though.

JQ: Some pundits are comparing you to a young Brian O’Driscoll. Do comparisons like that affect your game?

DS: No, I just play how I play, there’s no point thinking about it. It’s flattering to read, but I haven’t consciously modelled myself on any one player. I try to incorporate the things I admire about lots of great players into my game.

JQ: Who are your rugby heroes?

DS: There are so many. Nico Tiago is someone I’ve always looked up to, as a player and a person, although he’ll get even more big-headed if I tell him that. All the big names you might think – Hill, Fofana, Shoemark, Roberts, certainly O’Driscoll. You can learn from anyone, you just have to watch their game and pick things up.

JQ: We hear you have had something in your personal life to celebrate recently. Care to share?

DS: (Laughs) How the [expletive deleted] did you know that? Hardly anyone knows! Yes, I just got engaged to Amy. I guess we’re going to have to tell her parents now!

JQ: Congratulations Declan, and good luck for the rest of the season.

DS: Thanks.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Summers in Rugby Paper.

RadarRaider: Here’s a link to the Quick Q&A in today’s TRP. Summers has had some stick on here over the last year or so, I hold my hands up, I didn’t think Raiders should have kept him on, felt pretty let down by the whole business. He sounds like he’s learned his lesson and tried to make up for it. He’s certainly played well enough so far this season to earn his place – seems to have stepped up a notch since all the trouble. If we’d lost him to Trojans, that could have come back to bite us with them doing so well in the Prem this year. Just saying, maybe he’s served his time and some of us lot should cut him some slack.

RudolphtherednosedRaider: Totally agree RR. Don and the club obviously gave it some serious consideration, Summers seemed apologetic enough at the time, and that court case around the assault can’t have helped him. He was only a kid, must have been tough. Accept and move on. I’ve met him a couple of times in the bar after a game, always very pleasant, takes time to talk, take photos, autographs. Can’t deny he always gives his all for Raiders on and off the pitch, he’s involved in coaching the youth team and you always see him in the photos of the community and charity stuff. We wouldn’t still be top if it wasn’t for his tackle on Tupovi at Warriors last week.

YoHoHo: Still don’t think he should even be playing for Raiders. Yes, he’s made a contribution, but look what he lost us. We’d have been top four that season if he hadn’t cost us those ten points. Who knows, could have been Champions the way we were playing. We only just scraped into the HC. There are plenty of other centres out there, plenty of others coming up from the Academy. Not sure his face fits.

Cap’nBirdseye: Sorry, but served his time, cut him some slack? Not on your life. Wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire. Might do if he wasn’t though.

RadarRaider: Always nice to see people forgiving and forgetting(!). I suppose no one here has ever done anything they wish they hadn’t and tried to make amends? I personally think Summers’ contribution at the end of last season and beginning of this shows his commitment to the club. Hope he doesn’t move on at the end of this season – his contract’s up. Wouldn’t be surprised if the reaction of some of the supporters decided him. Can’t believe some people still boo when his name is read out on match days.

Matt

So, I started at GreenScreen, and Julia was there, but we were in different teams, and there was this kind of rivalry going on, which Phil, the manager, liked to play on, because it helped with morale and helped to get the work done better, quicker, happier. So I hardly spoke to Julia, because she kept herself to herself, and her team to her team, and she had this kind of frigid – no that’s unfair – she had this kind of cold and detached manner, which made some of the juniors call her the Ice Queen.

I was the opposite, I was Matt the Lad, I did football with the guys, I saw the girls at the weekends in clubs, I flirted, I bed-hopped like a baddun, I’d had most of the business grads, I was nothing if not a team player.

As time went on and it became harder to actually find anyone at work who I hadn’t slept with at one time or another, I did slow down a bit, and there were some who lasted a few weeks, a month even, as I realised that I was going to run out of available women before too long.

But they’d always have to go, in the end, because she’d start thinking we had ‘something special’, just because I’d taken her round to Jay’s, or held her hand, or talked about plans for mid-week. I didn’t want something special, I wanted to be an excellent no-strings lay, I wanted those cracks covered up so well that I forgot they were there.

Dec

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Declan Summers renews contract

RadarRaider: At last! Can’t believe it took so long for them to agree terms. Surely Summs is first name on the list. Great news. Only a year, though, obviously everyone keeping their options open. Looks like we’ll all be biting our nails again next season.

Raiderette: Woohoo! Have been waiting for this news for weeks. I heard he was talking to Warriors, but they’ve got Elliott and Trancher, can’t see him being first choice ahead of England internationals.

WestStandRaider: What a relief, well done Declan. Don’t know where we’d have been without him this season. His tackling has been immense, don’t know if anyone’s got the stats, he hasn’t missed many, he’s our top try scorer and he’s an animal in defence. He links up really well with Boydy too.

YoHoHo: Reckon we could do better. Wasn’t Astley available from Royals? Don seems to back away from big signings. Reckon Jay Scott still has a lot to do with team selection when it comes to Summers.

WestStandRaider: Yohoho, I can’t believe you’re still on this track. Yes, we all know there’s some kind of family connection with Scotty and Summs, it happens all over the place, remember Pete and Justin Farley at TomCats? Bill Witton and Jack Gooding for England? They’re professional enough not to let it matter. Don would never let it get in the way of team selection or team performance. Summs has done well enough this season to put to bed all this nonsense. He’s in the team because he’s good enough.

Matt

I often got pretty wasted, liking the beer maybe a bit too much for my own good. Mr Summers was usually the one whose number was top of my contacts list and who, even in my most drunken of stupors, I knew how to call. He rescued me many, many times when he should have been tucked up in bed either saving his strength for running around a rugby pitch like a lunatic, or ravishing his girlfriend. But more frequently than he should have been happy with, the early hours of Sunday morning would find him woken up by an incoherent call.

‘Hey maaaaate. You know I fuuuucking looove you right?’

‘Matt, it’s two fucking thirty. Where the fuck are you?’

‘Dunno. Just been kicked offa bloody train. Bastards. Kicked me offabloodytrain they did.’

‘What train?’

‘Dunno. Oh, I’ll ask ‘snice man. Hey mate, where issis? … He says Brissle.’

‘Oh fucking hell, Matt. What in the name of all that’s holy are you doing in fucking Bristol?’

‘Dunno. Can’t ‘member. Think I wuz … wuz I gonna go Stafford? Dunno.’

‘Why the fuck were you going to Stafford?’

‘Dunno. Oh! Wassit a bet? Might be a bet. Might have lost. Oh fuck it, can’t ‘member.’

‘Why did you get kicked off the train?’

‘Los my wallet. Dint havva ticket. No cash, ana bit pissed.’

A silence. A sigh.

‘Which station are you at?’

‘Brissle. Man said. Jus tol you.’

‘There are two stations in Bristol. Parkway or Temple Meads?’

‘Wha the fuck? Dunno.’

‘Are there any signs anywhere?’

‘Wha? Wha signs?’

‘Bloody enormous ones saying the name of the fucking station.’

‘Dunno. Everthin’s fuckin blurry.’

Another sigh, longer and louder.

‘OK. Stay where you are. Have you got that, Matt? Don’t move from the station, I’ll come and get you, but it’ll take me at least an hour and a bit, longer if you’re not at the first station I try. Don’t move, yeah?’

‘Oh maaate. You’re bloody brilliant, you are. Bes mate a bloke could have. I bloody looooove you, I do.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Just stay put.’

That was the sort of thing that Declan Charles Summers put up with from me, for more years than I had a right to expect. To my knowledge, his saintly girlfriend never voiced a word of complaint, or if she did I never got to hear about it, and although there were a few times when I did my share of helping him out of tricky situations, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for that time when I seemed to be pressing the self-destruct button on a regular basis.

Dec

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

1 0 2

TWEETS FOLLOWING FOLLOWERS

Tweets

Declan Summers @summs12 1 Apr

Hello World. I’ve given in and joined Twitter. It’s not an April Fool. #amazeme

#whichbuttonsdoipressagain

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Reply to @summs12

 

Becca Davis @bouncybec 1 Apr

Welcome to Twitter, Declan. #raidersfamily #enjoytheride #pushmybuttons

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 1 Apr

About bleeding time. Follow me. #notneedy #maybealittlebit

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Matt

But back to GreenScreen and how it all happened with Jules. It hadn’t occurred to me until it was too late, having my rep and all, that someone like Julia wouldn’t want to be with someone like I was trying to be.

I realised after we’d both been there a few months that we were both playing a role to some extent. I wasn’t nearly as much of a lad as I made out, but it made things easier in my team to make a big thing of the weekend, to party as hard as they did, to be one of them.

Julia wasn’t nearly as icy as she wanted everyone to think she was, but she did a good job of pretending, too, and most people didn’t see through it.

But anyway, a lot of my reputation was deserved, and I’d seen the look on Julia’s face when she heard tales of my exploits being bandied around as fact on a Monday morning, although half of it was complete bollocks. I was sure that if I’d ever been in with a chance with her, I’d pretty much burnt my bridges.

So I carried on with the shagging around, left a string of broken hearts in my wake, get me the big ‘I Am’, what a self-absorbed fucking gobshite wanker I was. Maybe it was payback, revenge, whatever you’d like to call it for dealing with what happened with Carrie. But those women didn’t deserve to be treated like shit. They didn’t deserve me using them to teach someone a lesson who wasn’t even in the same classroom. And after a while, this began to occur to me, and I started to think about what I was doing, and wondering who the fuck I thought I was, and I took a long hard look at myself and had a huge laugh at the douche canoe who was looking back. This was a slow process; I was enjoying myself, I can’t deny it, and despite my growing misgivings, I didn’t want to stop.

While all of that was going on, all the partying, all the working, all the feeling fucking normal for the first time in what felt like a very long time, I was still doing all the family stuff, seeing Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz, watching the kids grow up, enjoying being cool Uncle Matty, who dished out chocolate, allowed inappropriate TV programmes and said bad swears when Mummy and Daddy weren’t looking.

I kept an eye on Mum, and I suppose she kept an eye on me too. Dec and I continued our mismatched friendship, he remaining the more mature of us by a whisker, and by dint of having a proper grown-up relationship. He asked Amy to marry him about a year after they got together in Jay’s kitchen, but no wedding plans were forthcoming, despite Beth and Rose’s best persuasive efforts.

Dec

_Hi Dec, tell me if I’m interfering, but have you got anything organised for Amy’s twenty first?

‘What? No! It’s not for ages yet.’

_Well, theoretically, but if you’re going to book anything, I don’t know, a weekend away for example, it’s in the middle of summer and things get full up pretty far in advance. I didn’t know if you were planning a party or anything, venues get pretty busy in the summer too.

‘Oh fuck. I’m so bloody useless, you know what I’m like. I hadn’t given it a thought.’

_I thought you might not have, sweetheart. I just wanted to make sure you were, you know, prepared.

‘What should I do? If I’d thought about it at all, I would have gone ‘quick trip to the jewellery shop and a slap up meal’. Do I need to think bigger, then?’

_Ha ha, no clues from me, you need to work it out for yourself. I’m happy to help with the details, but it’ll mean so much more if you’ve thought of it on your own.

‘Beth! You can’t just drop this on me and leave me to it. I’ll only cock it all up. You did such an amazing job with my party … please?’

_Give it a go, sweetheart, you’ll do better than you think.

Matt

Oh, Rose! How could I forget about Rose? Dec had mentioned her that Christmas, as the person he’d held on to when he was in his own dark pit, but I didn’t actually meet her until I moved down here. Dec and Rose were kind of a package, now. Dec’s parents died when he was pretty young, and when he fell out with Jay and Beth, Rose kind of filled the gap and helped him through some tough times.

Dec didn’t really do relationships in the same way us normal people did, at least not family relationships. There was no name for what he had with Jay and Beth, and in the same way there was no name for what he had with Rose. The easiest way to describe it is she was like a mother to him, and she did mother him, but it was more than that. Your mum doesn’t choose you, she’s stuck with you because she’s your mum. With Dec and Rose, there was an unspoken recognition that they had chosen each other somehow, and although he hadn’t needed her in that way for a long time, they still needed each other.

So Rose was absorbed into the family too, and having the same interfering gene as Beth, she meddled in everyone’s lives, much as your annoying aunty might do. She put up with teasing and grumbling, and downright rudeness from me when she got too free with her advice about how to keep a woman, but she was a permanent fixture. And she was really good friends with Mum. They were polar opposites in outlook, personality and experience, but they both loved cooking, and they both adored their families, which overlapped in some convoluted way, and they spent a lot of time together.

Dec

RE: Booking enquiry

THE ORCHARD orchard@webserver.com

To: Declan Summers

Hi Declan

Thanks for your enquiry regarding a weekend booking in August. I’m really sorry, but we’re fully booked for the whole of August. If we can help in the future, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Regards

Sean

SEAN TIBBS

Reservations Manager

o0o

*Good afternoon, Bay Tree Hotel, how may I help you?

‘Oh, hi, can I speak to someone about hiring your function room?’

*Certainly, sir, did you have a date in mind?

‘First weekend in August, preferably the Saturday.’

*One moment, let me check our diary, but I know that is a very busy time …… … I’m sorry sir, as I thought, we’re fully booked throughout August. Is there another date we could offer you?

‘No, that’s OK. Thanks anyway.’

*… sorry, no vacancies …

*… full on that date …

*… no availability …

*… full …

*… sorry …

*… fully booked …

Matt

Right, where was I? Oh yeah. Dec and Amy. So they were engaged, but nothing more was forthcoming, and they moved in together, into a tiny flat, and they continued to be sickeningly inseparable There were a few blips along the way, I suppose, like Dec nearly fucking it all up by being an insensitive bastard, and then nearly compounding the fucking up of it all by getting himself semi-kidnapped by some certifiable stalker woman when he should have been having dinner with Amy and her stick-up-their-arses parents, but I suppose these are the things that life and love are made of – fuck knows I haven’t made things easy for Lau over the years, and the fact she’s stuck with me continues to astound, amaze and humble me. It always comes back to Lau, doesn’t it. It always will.

Dec

Matt: =Have u checked ur Twitter account lately?

Dec: =No. Don’t use much. Why?

Matt: =@bouncybec getting a bit saucy. Do u know her?

Dec: =Don’t think so.

Matt: =Might b nothing. Keep an i.

Matt

But, digressing again, I still haven’t got to Jules, have I? So, I’d been at GreenScreen for a couple of years or so, enjoying life, feeling great, all thoughts of the bastard MS well to the back of my mind. Work was going well, life was going well, I had my reputation, which didn’t hurt in a lot of ways, but I knew what was real and what was bullshit.

I suppose I’d kind of started to wonder if there was more to life than going out partying every weekend, getting hammered and having to extricate myself from another unfamiliar bed in the small hours. Maybe it had run its course. I was thirty-three, and it was starting to occur to me that it might be time to grow up. I had no idea what this meant, just that occasionally, in the dead of night, as I was gathering my underwear off the floor, it all felt a bit … immature.

So I backed off, went out less, didn’t try so hard to pull, gave myself a break, got a bit of breathing space, time to think. Plan A had been going pretty well so far, maybe it was time to start thinking about the next phase, where I could look for a different job, away from this city, away from the South West even.

Dec

Declan Summers @summs12 15 Apr

Great result against TomCats – thanks to all the Raiders supporters. 16th man

as usual. #idratherbearaiderthanapuss

Reply to @summs12

Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 great game today Declan #nothingwrongwithpusses 😉

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_____________________________________________________________________

Declan Summers @summs12 19 Apr

Looking forward to some down time. Training has broken me. #tired #bathplease

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 Mmm bath sounds nice. #wishiwasabarofsoap

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 20 Apr

@summs12 Had that bath yet? #imagining

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 21 Apr

@summs12 make sure you scrub behind your ears.

#getridofunwantedgrime

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Matt

And all this time, Jules and I were working in parallel at GreenScreen, hardly talking to each other except in the context of work, and I’d look at her sometimes and wonder what might have been if I hadn’t been such a dick, and if I’d taken the time to get to know her, but she had this, like, shell around her, and it didn’t seem like anything was ever going to get through.

Dec

‘Hey babe, sorry, I’m still at the club, I got caught up, lost track of time.’

)What a surprise. Cara’s picking me up any minute. I won’t see you till later, then, if you’re still awake.

‘No worries, I’ll wait up. Haven’t seen you properly for ages and I actually need to kiss you quite a lot. Hey, I met someone who knows you. Becca Davis?

)Oh.

‘She said you were at school together.’

)Yes, we were.

‘She’d like to catch up, can I give her your mobile number?’

)Actually … I’d rather you – dammit, that’s Cara. I’ll tell you later, hon. Got to go. Love you.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Player of the Season

EastStandRaider: It’s that time of year again, get voting here for your player of the season.

RadarRaider: Only one in it for me, Miles Abrahams has been outstanding in the front row. Our scrum has been rock solid.

YoHoHo: Got to be one of the backs, the amount of superb tries we’ve scored. My choice would be Crofty, he’s creative, quick and can tackle well, and Nico Tiago has done a great job out on the wing yet again, always knows when to go looking for the ball.

Foxyraider: I’m pretty sure Declan Summers will be the ladies’ choice. He’s played really well and is a bit of a babe. What a combination.

YoHoHo: Good to see it’s someone’s ability and commitment that counts with some people. Summers is lucky he’s still here. Fail to see how he gets picked so much.

Foxyraider: I guess we’ll see when the results of the vote come out. A well-turned bum goes a long way in my book.

o0o

Dec: =Help! Tried everywhere u suggested. All booked. Considering dirty w/end in Blackpool. In caravan. Told u I was useless :((

Beth: =Don’t panic. Not useless just left a bit late. Other options. Had idea. Come round later, kettle on.

o0o

_So what do you think?

‘I think it sounds fucking awesome. Better than any of the lame-arse stuff I’ve managed to come up with and not even be able to book. Beth, you are a lifesaver. But really, are we really allowed to put a marquee up on the beach?’

_My friend Trish knows a man from the Council and all you need is a permit. It’s easily sorted. We’ll only really need to use it if it rains, and it’s somewhere to put the food, maybe have a sleepover if it’s warm enough? If we have it right down the end near Usley Point we won’t need to worry about noise or anything, and it’s easier to make sure we don’t get uninvited guests. We can use James’s four by four to take the food and drink down there, it’s ideal.

‘Awesome. A sleepover on the beach would be amazing – she’d love it. And you’re sure you and Rose are OK doing the food?’

_I’m sure, and Carol will help as well. I talked to Rose this morning. Her very words were ‘don’t you dare try asking some tinpot catering firm to do it, love’. She was deadly serious, I feared for my life if I contradicted her.

‘Ha ha, she takes her cooking very seriously.’

_She takes you and Amy very seriously, too, sweetheart.

‘I guess so. I bet she’s started planning a menu already. Probably already made a zillion – oh, what the fuck are those round things with prawns in?’

_Vol au vents?

‘Yeah. Those. She’ll have made a zillion. Actually, we might need to buy several new freezers, she’ll have made a ton of stuff by the weekend.’

_Now, the main thing is we need to make sure we keep it a secret, so don’t tell Cal, or Amy will know five minutes later. I’ll leave it as long as possible to tell James, but once he knows, he’s a bit of a loose cannon, he can never remember what he’s allowed to say. Think you can avoid telling Amy?

‘That won’t be difficult at the moment, haven’t clapped eyes on her for days, we’ve hardly been in at the same time, seems like for weeks.’

_Oh. Everything OK, sweetheart?

‘It’s just … I’ve been really busy, with coaching the under elevens, and all the end of season stuff, play-offs, away games, stuff at the club after home games, and when I’m home she’s out doing Pilates or with her friends or studying for her exam.’

_You sound a bit fed up. Is that all it is, just not seeing much of each other?

A silence.

_Dec?

‘Well I suppose I was a bit of a twat on Saturday. She asked me not to do something but it was awkward, so I did it anyway. Maybe we’ve been sort of keeping out of each other’s way a bit since then … sleeping on the sofa, that kind of thing.’

_That actually sounds a bit serious, sweetheart. What happened?

‘Oh, it was just so fucking stupid, I was so fucking stupid. There was this girl, Becca Davis, she was talking to me after the Warriors game, in the bar. She mentioned that she knew Ames from school, and asked if she could have Ames’ mobile number so they could catch up. A bit later I called Ames and asked, but she was just going out, and she said no, or kind of started to, but there wasn’t time to talk about it. Anyway, later on Becca asked for her number again, and I didn’t know what to say. Ames hadn’t quite said no, she hadn’t given me a reason, and I thought, or maybe I convinced myself, it was because she was in a rush to go out, or she was pissed off with me for being late again, or didn’t want a long phone conversation with an old school friend just then. So …’

_Oh Dec, tell me you didn’t give her the number.

‘… so I gave her the number. So later on I’m at home waiting up for Amy, and she phones me, so angry, I’ve never known her like that. She swore at me, a lot, wasn’t really making much sense, but I kind of realised I’d fucked up. She didn’t come home till really late, she’d had a lot to drink and wasn’t really in a state to talk about it, but still in a rage, and she yelled at me and told me to sleep on the sofa. Next day, she was still pretty pissed off, but we managed to grab five minutes in the same room, and she tells me Becca Davis made her life a misery at school, bullied her, used to make a point of stealing her boyfriends. Last person on earth she wanted to get a call from on a girls night out.

_Oh, Dec.

‘It gets worse.’

_Oh sweetheart …

‘I opened a Twitter account a few weeks ago, Matt was badgering me, and so were some of the guys at Raiders. I’ve only posted a couple of things, just Raiders stuff. Becca Davis has been replying, a bit, I dunno, flirty or suggestive or something – I honestly didn’t realise it was her at the time. She’d told Ames, who had a look, and got really upset. I didn’t respond to any of it, but now …’

_Now Amy’s worried Becca Davis is going to steal you as well. Oh Dec. You need to sort it out. It’s easy for things like this to take on a life of their own and get out of hand. Avoid Becca if you can.

‘Well that’s part of the problem. She comes to the Raiders games, she’s always in the bar afterwards, I have to be polite and corporate, I can’t even ignore her or blank her, I can only try to palm her off onto someone else. She’s a bit persistent. Beth, I love Amy, I love her so much, I don’t want anyone else, but I can’t make her understand, I haven’t looked twice at Becca fucking Davis, I don’t even want anything to bloody do with her now I know how mean she was to Ames.’

_Sweetheart, Amy’s feeling insecure. I know she had a hard time at school, it really knocked her confidence. You know better than most of us that what happens to us when we’re younger affects how we feel about things later on; it’s not logical or rational. You might have to make a pretty big gesture to help her see you don’t want Becca. It might be awkward and uncomfortable for you, but I think you’ll have to just do it.

‘Like what?’

_Sorry, sweetheart, I can’t help you out this time. It really needs to come from you.

o0o

HEY AMES – FEEL LIKE I HAVEN’T SEEN YOU PROPERLY FOR DAYS. MISS YOU BABE. HOPING YOU’RE AROUND TONIGHT SO WE CAN TALK. I KNOW I’VE BEEN A MONUMENTAL DICKHEAD AND YOU’RE UPSET WITH ME. I’LL COOK DINNER IF YOU LIKE. LOVE YOU SO MUCH.

D XXX

Dec – Sorry hon, some people from the course are getting together tonight to go over our exam questions. I really want to go, I’m getting nervous. Tomorrow? Talking would be good. Love you. Axxx PS don’t cook! PPS Please don’t sleep on the couch tonight x

TOMORROW IT IS. D X

PS TAKEAWAY THEN?

o0o

\dec, Mum says you’re from Australia.

‘Yeah, Cal, I lived there when I was little.

\we’ve got to do some writing at school about Australia. Mum says you can help me.

‘Oh, no worries, if I can. What have you got to write about?

\i’ve got to choose a part of Australia and find out things about it. Did you have a kangaroo?

‘Ha ha, no, you can’t have kangaroos as pets. I had a dog called Woofster.’

\Was he a dingo?

‘No mate, you can’t have dingoes as pets either. Woofster was a cross between a Labrador and an Australian cattle dog.

\where did you live?

‘In Perth. It’s on the west coast. I don’t really know much about any other bits of Australia. Where are you going to do your project about?’

\if I write about Perth will you help me?

‘Course I will. When do you have to write it by?’

\tomorrow.

Tomorrow? That doesn’t leave us much time, mate. Oh, and Cal, I’ve got to spend some time with Amy tonight, it’s really important. I can come round now, but I can’t stay long. I’ll help you as much as I can.

o0o

Amy: =Where ru? Thought we were going 2 talk.

Dec: =Fuck, sorry babe, helping Cal with homework. Got delayed. Nearly done. Back soon. xxx

44. Dance little sister

In which we meet Isobel, and Matty finds his Plan D.

Matt

Not long after we got in the fun bus and started the drive down the hill and back to the Land of Signal, I heard Jay’s ringtone on my phone.

‘Hey. Any news?’

‘Hi Matty. Yeah, we’ve got a daughter.’

‘Woohoo.’

There was clapping and cheering from everyone on the bus, as they knew I was waiting for news, and I’d given them a thumbs up.

‘Is evhryone OK?’

‘Yeah, mate, everyone’s perfect. Any chance you can get over here? Dec’s bringing Cal.’

‘Yeh, on my way home now. Wha’s she called?’

‘Isobel Flora.’

‘Great. Look forward tuh meeting her. Well done, mate.’

‘See you soon, Matty.’

The fun bus driver agreed to drop me off at the hospital rather than at home, and I met up with Dec, Amy and Cal in the car park.

Cal

And then I finally had my baby sister. I had been looking forward to it for ages, because I didn’t know she was going to be a sister, she still might be a brother, and even if the baby was a sister, Mum had said that girls sometimes like football, and so I thought she might go in goal for me. She could be a bit little, but I would score more goals that way. I was still hoping for a brother, but a sister wouldn’t be too bad.

So when Mum told me Dec and Amy were coming to our house because she and Dad were going to hospital to have a baby, I was pleased that at last I could stop waiting, and I would be a big brother, which was very important. It was a very long day of waiting, because Mum and Dad went away in the morning, and me and Dec and Amy did lots of things all day, like going to the beach, and flying my kite, and eating sandwiches, and playing football, and eating chocolate, before Dec said that Mum had had the baby, and it was a sister, and we were going to go and see her in the hospital.

Dec

We bundled Cal into the car and set off. At the hospital entrance, we met Matt, who had just been dropped off by his friends.

\uncle Matty, I’ve got a sister.

}I know, Cal, I’m coming to meet her, like you.

\dec forgot to ask her name.

}Oh, good job one of us has got half a brain then. Her name’s Isobel Flora Scott.

\will she be able to play football with me?

}Maybe in a few years, but at the moment she’s really tiny. Leh’s go and see her.

Cal

Dec didn’t know what my sister’s name was, because he forgot to ask, but he said we would find out when we got there, because Dad couldn’t use his phone in the hospital. When we got there, Uncle Matty was in the car park too, because he’d been walking on a hill, and his friends had brought him in a minibus to see my sister. Uncle Matty knew my sister’s name, which was Isobel Flora, but he said it would be years before she would play football with me. Years! No one had said anything about it being years. I thought it might be a few weeks, maybe, until she got big enough to stand up, but I didn’t think I could wait years for someone to go in goal.

Dec

We all walked together along the corridor.

‘How was the hike?’

}Loved it. I’m bloody knackered now, but it was just what I needed. I’ve really missed getting out like that. I just took it slow, like everyone else, and enjoyed the views. Have you been up the top there? You can see righ over the river to the sea. There are deer and birds and everything.

‘Sounds like a great day, did you some good.’

}Yeah, thanks for talking me into sticking with it.

‘Pleasure. We had a good day on the beach, didn’t we Cal?’

\i flew my kite and Dec kissed Amy.

‘Cal, we didn’t kiss all day long, we did loads of cool things at the beach.’

}Probably quite a loh of kissing though, eh Cal?

Cal nodded.

\dec said he will sleep under my bed tonight and make dream noises.

}Did he? What have you done to deserve that?

‘Apparently my mad night noises are much sought after. Amy and Cal were fighting over them earlier.’

}Takes all sorts I suppose. Having experienced your utter insanity when you’re dreaming, I would say they’re bloody welcome to it. Are you still doing tha, then?

‘Apparently so. Worth reporting to Adam I guess.’

}Always worth – oh, here we are.

We checked where Beth and Jay were, and found the room. Beth was sitting up in bed, looking sweaty, tired and lovely, holding the tiniest person I had ever seen. Amy and I hovered by the door as Cal and Matt went in, unsure how many of us were allowed in at a time. Matt kissed Beth and hugged Jay, then sat in one of the chairs by the bed.

Cal

We got to the room where Mum and Dad were with my sister, and Mum was in a bed, holding a lot of blankets. I wondered where my sister was, and then the blankets moved and I saw a little tiny finger, and then Mum tilted the blankets and there was a face in there, and it didn’t look like a girl or a boy, just like a little face.

‘Hey, Cal, hop up on my lap and have a look at your sister.’

Uncle Matty was sitting in a chair next to the bed, and he was holding his arms out to me, so I climbed onto his lap to have a closer look. The face in the blankets still didn’t look anything like I had thought it would – girls have long hair and sometimes hair grips, and boys have short hair but I couldn’t see any hair because it was covered by the blanket. I needed to be doubly sure.

‘Is she my sister?’

Mum nodded.

‘Yes, sweetheart, she is. She loves her big brother. Do you want to give her a kiss?’

The little face suddenly moved, and I could see her hair, which was blonde like mine, and she screwed her face up and opened her mouth and wriggled her hands, and suddenly I saw that she was a really, really, little girl, and I was her big brother, and I was going to have to look after her like big brothers do, so I would tell Archie Shepherd off if he was mean to her, and I might share my sweets if I had enough and she had run out, and I’d let her play cars with me as long as she didn’t mind having the second best ones. I did want to give her a kiss, because that’s what Mums and Dads and big brothers did to little sisters.

I nodded to Mum and she smiled again.

‘Climb up here then, gently now.’

I got on the bed and kissed her, and her cheek was all soft, and her eyes were open and she looked at me, then I climbed off and stood next to Mum, looking at my sister.

Dec

Jay put his arm round Cal’s shoulder.

}She is just beautiful.

Beth stroked the baby’s hair and looked at Matt.

_Would you like a cuddle?

}Well I’d have thought you’d be a bit tired, giving birth and all, but if you’re sure you’re up to it …

_With Isobel.

}I’d love to.

Matt stood up and took the tiny baby from Beth. He jiggled her and made cooing noises, and she opened her eyes and looked into his. His own eyes filled with tears. He kissed her on the cheek and gave her back to Beth, wiping his eyes.

}Fuck, didn’t see tha coming. Anyone got a tissue?

_Matty, did that really have to be your first word to her?

}Sorry, Beth. I guess she’ll just have to get used to cool Uncle Matty. It’s not like she can understand me yet.

_Start as you mean to go on.

}I think I did.

_Honestly.

}Blame Dec.

‘Hey!’

}Well when someone’s getting told off for saying ‘fuck’, it’s usually your fault.

łWhy are you both loitering by the door? You’re making the place look untidy. Come in.

Amy and I moved further into the room. I was a bit in awe of the tiny bundle in Beth’s arms. I had no close up experience of babies, and this was all very new and quite scary.

_Want a hold, Dec?

‘Oh, er, she’s really small …’

łAbout the size of a rugby ball, you can carry one of those well enough.

_Er, excuse me, there is nothing about my daughter that remotely resembles a rugby ball. You won’t try to score a try with her will you, Dec? Amy, why don’t you show him how to do it?

)Oh can I? She’s completely gorgeous.

Amy took Isobel from Beth, and sat in one of the chairs, rocking her and talking nonsense. I looked on in wonder. Amy’s eyes were shining, and she looked over at me, making my heart melt. She looked beautiful. Jay was grinning at me.

łWatch out, Dec, I think Amy’s getting ideas.

Amy gave him a look. Perhaps I should have felt panicked or trapped or something, but I just felt awestruck.

)Maybe one day.

She looked at me. I nodded, smiling, wondering for the first time what it would be like to have a family of my own, and liking the idea of it. Way in the future, obviously.

)Come on Dec, have a cuddle, she’s so amazing. Look, sit here and I’ll pass her over. You won’t drop her. Just remember to support her head. Yeah, that’s it. Hey, there she is.

I sat with Isobel in my arms. She was as light as air, but she was the weightiest thing I had ever carried. Her features were miniaturised, and the smallest hand I had ever seen poked out of the blanket she was wrapped in. I was filled with an emotion I couldn’t identify, which was mixed up with family and tenderness and love. She was the closest I was ever going to get to having a sister; I felt very protective.

‘God, she’s so tiny.’

I felt tears spill out of my eyes. I risked a look at Matt, who laughed and shrugged.

}Blub club till we die, I guess.

Amy put her hand on the back of my neck and stroked my hair.

Cal

Uncle Matty and Amy and Dec all cuddled my sister, and Uncle Matty even did a swear, although Mum told him off. Then I remembered that there had been a shop on the way in, and that shops in hospitals had sweets and drinks and other interesting things.

‘Mummy is there a shop here?’

I knew there was, but it was a way of talking about it first.

‘I don’t know, sweetheart.’

Mum usually knew things like where the shops were, so now I was going to have to be less sneaky, or she wouldn’t know what I wanted.

‘I would like a slushie and a dinosaur magazine.’

‘I think I saw a shop on the way in, do you want to come with me, Cal? Let’s see what we can find.’

I turned and looked at Amy. This was good, because Mum didn’t look like she was going to get out of bed to come to the shop with me, even though it was the middle of the day.

Dec

Amy took Cal’s hand and they went off together. Beth looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

_She’s very good with children.

łShe has a lot of practice with Dec. Things are obviously going very well with you two.

‘Yeah. She is just … amazing.’

}According to Cal they spent all day at the beach sucking each other’s faces.

‘On come on, you know Cal’s exaggerating. One or two kisses. Maybe three. And we were watching him the whole time. The whole time. Eyes open and everything.’

_Well I think it’s lovely. After all the months of wondering if you were ever going to sort it out, I’m really pleased. She’s lovely. She’s good for you. It’s lovely to see you so happy, sweetheart.

Isobel chose that moment to wake up and start bawling at the top of her voice. I was still holding her, and the noise and wriggling panicked me a bit. I looked at Beth, wondering what to do.

_It’s alright Dec, she’s hungry. Jay, can you pass her over? Er, you two can leave if you like I’m about to feed her. Or stay, it’s up to you.

As Beth started to unbutton her shirt, it dawned on me what she meant. I blushed, stood up and left the room, closely followed by Matt. We found a row of chairs in the corridor.

‘Bloody hell, this is all new territory.’

}I kind of remember when Cal was born. I dihnt see him for a while, couldn’t get away from work; he wasn’t so small and delicate by the time I saw him. I remember needing to leave the room on many occasions on account of feeding, though. Got very familiar with the kitchen. Did a loh of washing up.

‘Really?’

}Fuck, no. They’ll be a while in there, it can take bloody ages. I should go home, have a shower, fall asleep in my dinner. How long are you staying here?

‘We could go too, not sure if we should take Cal or leave him here, don’t want to tire Beth out. Not sure I can go in and ask at the moment though.’

}We’ll send Amy in when she gets back with Cal.

‘Good plan. So, you had a good hike – think you’ll go again?’

}Yeah, definitely.

‘With the same group?’

}Yeah, it’s all local people with the bastard MS, they take it nice and easy, and everyone understands what everyone needs. If I get a bih fitter, who knows I might move on to something else, but this suits me at the moment. They’re a really good bunch, we had a laugh. I thought they’d all be older, but there were a few around my age –

‘What, just mildly ancient?’

}Fuck off, you half-grown knob-cheeser. Anyway, we’ve arranged to go out for a drink next week. I need to meet some people down here, get out more, this is a really good start.

‘Excellent. More recruits to Cripples Corner?’

}Oh no, that’s just a Scott family tradition. Me, you and Mum. Fuck the rest.

I laughed, as Cal’s voice sounded along the corridor.

Cal

So I went to the shop with Amy, and she let me choose a slushie and, best of all, a Transformer magazine, which had a poster of Optimus Prime in it for my bedroom wall. I asked Amy a lot of things that I thought of while we were walking there and back; some of them I already knew the answers to because Mum had told me, like how my sister had got out of Mum’s tummy, but I wanted to see if Amy knew, and she didn’t know as well as Mum because she kept saying ‘er’ and mixing her words up; and some were things I wanted to know the answer to, like how long it would be before she could play football, and Amy didn’t really know that either, because baby horses could walk right away, so why couldn’t baby sisters?

Dec

\but why don’t her legs work?

)Well, when babies are born, not all their muscles work yet. They have to spend a long time doing baby exercises like standing and crawling to get themselves strong enough to walk.

\but when baby horses are born their legs work straight away.

)Well, yes, that’s right … it’s just different for people and horses.

\why?

Matt and I grinned at Amy, while she looked pleadingly at us.

‘Need some help?’

)Cal has so many questions. I can’t answer them all. He wanted to know when Isobel would be playing football with him.

}Diversionary tactics are required. Cal, wha’s in your magazine?

\there wasn’t a dinosaur one, so I got a Transformer one. Look, Optimus Prime is on the front.

Matt raised his eyebrows at a grateful Amy, as Cal opened the magazine and started showing him pictures.

‘Ames, Beth is feeding Isobel at the moment, we were wondering if you could go in and ask whether she wants us to take Cal home for some tea, or whether he’s staying here with her and Jay?’

)Why couldn’t you ask?

‘Well, Beth’s feeding, I’m not sure I’d know where to look.’

)Oh for God’s sake, it’s only boobs. It’s not like you’ve never seen any before.

‘Yeah, but it’s Beth, it feels weird … please?’

Amy rolled her eyes, but went into the room, taking Cal with her.

}Only boobs? She is aware you’re male, right?

‘Yes, well aware, thanks. I just don’t get girls sometimes … most of the time … ever, in fact.’

}Well that’s something we have in common – with the rest of the men in the world. Let’s just agree that girls aren’t actually human, but a different species. Makes ih easier to stomach, somehow.

A familiar voice floated towards us. Nico. Lis was with him.

>Ha, is Declan and Matty. Why you sit outside?

‘Beth’s feeding the baby.’

>Huh, so why you sit outside?

‘Well it feels … kind of wrong to be there.’

>No, is natural, is beautiful. We go in, Lis?

~Of course. I want to see Isobel.

They went into the room, and Nico’s loud voice and laugh drifted back out to us through the door.

‘Are we the biggest sexist pigs going, or is he just being Nico?’

}I’m on your side, mate, no one’s getting me in there till it’s all over. Beth’s like my sister. Only she’s not. Ew. Too weird. Besides, with Nico in there it’s like ten extra people have turned up, there wohnt be room for any more egos.

Cal

When I got back to Mum, she was feeding Isobel. She wasn’t giving her ice cream or chips, though. She was letting my sister suck her booby. She told me there was special Mummies milk in there, just how little sisters like it, and that she was too young for chips at the moment. I felt quite pleased that I was going to be able to eat chips and not have to suck Mum’s booby for my dinner.

Nico and Lis were in the room too, and they had brought me a present, which was a book about tractors, because I really liked tractors. I liked getting presents for having a little sister, and some of the things I got later, from people like Granny and Aunty Lou, were Woody from Toy Story and a T-shirt with ‘World’s Best Big Brother’ on it.

Dec

Amy came out, Cal in tow.

)OK, the decision is that, apart from you two being complete wimps, Cal is coming back with us for some tea and then bath and bed.

Predictably, Cal was reluctant to leave.

\but I want to stay with Nico.

)I know sweetie, but your mum’s tired and she needs to go to sleep in a bit.

\but Nico and Lis are still there

)They’re not staying long, and Daddy will be home soon too. Mummy’s staying here tonight, then Daddy will fetch her and Isobel home tomorrow so she can live with you all. How about we make a welcome home banner for her when we get back?

Cal considered the offer. He liked spending time with Amy almost as much as I did, but obviously for very different reasons.

\can I put dinosaurs on it?

)Of course, I bet Isobel will love dinosaurs.

With Cal placated, we got back to Jay and Beth’s house. Amy and Cal made a banner, I cobbled together an extremely unhealthy dinner of chicken nuggets, beans and oven chips while Matt had a shower, then Matt grumbled about the dinner and made some pasta which met his higher-than-mine taste standards. Then we all collapsed in front of the TV. Being a Sunday, there wasn’t much on, so Cal persuaded us all to start watching one of his DVDs.

‘Just the first bit, then it’s time for a bath.’

\oh, but the best bit is after the first bit.

I hid a smile at his delaying tactics; Cal hadn’t got any keener on going to bed, and I steeled myself to be firm with him.

‘Then you can watch the rest tomorrow when you get up.’

\oh, but I don’t want a bath.

‘I know, mate, you never do, but you like it once you get there. Have you still got your submarine? We could have a water battle.’

Bribery always went a long way towards persuading Cal, and now he was torn with indecision between battling bath time and battling me with water and submarines and various other toys. I won.

\kay. How long can I watch for?

‘Thirty minutes. We’re all watching the timer on the DVD.’

)Actually, Dec, if we’ve got half an hour, would you mind taking me home?

‘Sure, is that OK with you Matt?’

}Course.

‘Cal, are you sure you still want me to stay tonight?’

\yes I want you to sleep underneath.

‘OK, I’ll have to go and pick up my PJs then. I’ll try to be back before thirty minutes, OK, then we’ll have our water battle … er … bath.’

As I drove Amy back to her parents’ house, we passed the spot where I had crashed my car last summer. I drove past it nearly every day, but it still made my stomach churn and my heart beat faster. Amy noticed me looking, and she put her hand on my arm.

)Remember what Adam said – every time it gets a tiny bit easier. You only notice after lots of tiny bits.

‘I know. It’s true, looking back it’s easier now than the first time. Still makes me feel weird, though.’

She stretched in the seat, yawning.

)Well, today turned out a bit different to what we were expecting.

‘Thanks for helping out with Cal. He loves you.’

)He’s great. I really like being with him.

‘You were amazing with Isobel.’

)Oh, she’s completely adorable. Have you ever held a baby before?

‘No, my first time. How did I do?’

)Not bad, but I think you need lots more practice.

‘We’ll just have to volunteer for lots of babysitting then.’

)That’s what I was hoping you’d say.

I pulled up outside the house. It was hard to say goodbye, even overnight; Amy had been virtually living with me for the past few weeks. We’d spent some time early on at Amy’s house, but several calculated appearances at Amy’s bedroom door by her mum, interrupting various stages of undress, meant we spent most of our time at mine. Amy had a delightful chest, and I liked uncovering it and looking at it a lot, and Amy’s parents made it quite clear that this, and other related activities they had walked in on, were frowned on ‘under my roof’, so we moved it all to under my roof, where it definitely was not frowned on, and in fact was actively encouraged by both of us. Other than going to work, we’d been together the whole time; this would be our first night apart for a quite a while. We kissed long and lingeringly in the car.

)I’ll phone you later.

‘I’ll text you when I’ve finished Cal’s bath.’

)I love you.

‘I love you too, babe.’

)I’d better get out, you’ll be late back for Cal.

‘Go on then.’

)Yeah, in a minute …

More kissing. And then a bit more.

‘I just saw your dad look out of the window.’

)I’d better go then, see you tomorrow.

‘Love you.’

)Love you too.

‘Fuck, you’re gorgeous. Come here.’

It was worse than the ‘you hang up’ ‘no you hang up’ game, as the kissing and close bodily contact were a big deterrent to moving. I hadn’t realised how long we’d lingered until my phone rang in my pocket. I fished it out. Matt.

‘Hey, Matt.’

}Where the fuck are you? This DVD has nearly finished, and it’s way past time for Cal’s bath. Do you want me to do it? Cal won’t go up until you geh back.

Amy opened the car door, stroked my cheek and got out. I looked longingly after her as she walked up the path to the front door, where she turned, waved and blew me a kiss before rearranging her dishevelled hair and disappearing inside.

‘Sorry, I got held up. I’ll be back in a few minutes.’

}Stop licking her tonsils and feeling her up for two seconds, deliver her back to the bosom of her family and get your overexcited arse back here. This is several levels of taking the pissery.

‘Sorry, be right with you. Starting the car now.’

I pulled my seatbelt on and drove off. As I pulled up outside the house, I realised I’d forgotten to fetch any washing stuff or clothes to sleep in; I’d just have to make do with what I could find. I opened the front door to the sounds of splashing and squeals from upstairs; Matt had obviously managed to persuade Cal into the bath and started the water battle. I ran up, rolled up my sleeves and joined in, and by the time we’d finished, the bathroom was dripping. I fetched a mop and bucket, and tried to pass it to Matt.

}Fuck off, you’re the one who was late back, you get to clear it up. I get to dry off, dry Cal’s hair, read him a story, nice and quiet and relaxed, in the dark, while you make sure all the water disappears before Jay gehs back.

‘Bastard.’

}Bloody horny nutter.

‘Jealous old cripple.’

Jay arrived back home as I was tipping the bucket down the sink. He looked tired, but also elated, proud and very pleased with himself.

łHey, Dec, didn’t expect you to still be here. Jesus, you’re soaking – what the hell have you been doing?

‘Er, just a bit of playtime to encourage Cal into the bath. He wants me to stay the night in the bottom bunk.’

łWell aren’t you a glutton for punishment. Thanks for helping out today, we really appreciate it. Where is Cal?

‘In bed. Matt’s reading him a story.’

łI’ll just go up and say goodnight.

I towelled my hair dry, took one of Jay’s t-shirts from the laundry cupboard and sat on a towel on the sofa in my damp boxers, having put my jeans in the tumble dryer. I texted Amy, then flicked through the TV channels, listening to Jay, Matt and Cal’s voices upstairs. Matt came down a few minutes later, giving my boxers a sideways glance.

}Ugh. For fuck’s sake put ih away, Summers. Where are your trousers?

‘They got soaked. I put them in the dryer.’

}Well borrow some of mine, or Jay’s. I don’t really want to stare at that all night. Thinking about Amy by any chance?

He left the room, then came back and threw a pair of baggy sweatpants in my direction.

}Here, have Jay’s decorating sweaties. Haven’t seen active service for some years, and lots of handy splodges already, so one or two more won’t show if you really can’t control yourself.

I pulled them on and rearranged myself to be a little less obvious.

}That’s better. Bit of modesty goes a long way. Can’t you even manage one night without her?

I was actually missing Amy more than I’d thought I would; I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and whether her mum and dad would be giving her a hard time.

‘Piss off, I’m here, aren’t I? Is Cal settled yet?

}All sorted, although he’s currently putting in a request for a story from you as well, in a vain attempt to put off going to sleep even longer.

‘He’s the master.’

}He certainly is. Jay’s just about goh it covered. He’s telling him about his baby sister, good as any story.

‘She is pretty amazing.’

}Never thought you’d be that appreciative of babies.

‘Neither did I, but it feels different when it’s family.’

}Amy looked pretty taken with her.

‘Yeah, didn’t she.’

}Hasn’t scared you off then?

‘Ha ha, no. You did hear her say ‘maybe one day’, not ‘I need to make a baby with you, right here, right now’?’

}I suppose so. Tha could have been awkward. You’re being very chilled about the whole thing.

‘I just know, after all the effort of me and Amy getting together, nothing’s going to fuck it up. It took us long enough to get here, I’m happy to enjoy the ride, wherever it goes.’

}Fuck, yes, the longest will they, won’t they saga in the history of mankind.

‘You weren’t even down here then.’

}I goh the headlines, even if you yourself were strikingly reticent on the matter. Dec loves Amy, Amy loves Dec, what will it take to get them to say it? Worse than some bloody soap. I have to claim some credit, I must say, for my forthright words at the barbecue.

‘Piss off, I was going to say something anyway.’

}Yeah, like fuck you were. ‘Oh she’s just a mate’ you told me, as you pined away pathetically in a dark corner of the garden.

‘OK, maybe I did need a little nudge.’

}You’re welcome.

‘We would have got there eventually.’

}Bollocks would you, you’d still be pissing about now. Instead of hours of snogging and groping in the car jus now, you’d have been chastely dropping her off at home, promising to text her, staring miserably after her as she disappeared inside the forbidden fortress. And you’d have been back in time to give Cal his bath. I’ve given you all these extra weeks of bliss, as well as severely inconveniencing myself and getting half drowned into the bargain. I accept your grateful thahks.

I rolled my eyes. Decided to shift the focus of the conversation.

‘What about you, anyone worth looking twice at in the hiking group?’

Matt paused, and that was my in.

‘Come on, spill, details.’

}Well, there is this one girl, she’s a bit younger than me.

‘So not exactly a girl, but not in her sixties yet?’

}Fuck off you impudent urchin. We chatted quite a lot today. Seems really nice. Good arse. We got on pretty well. A few of us are going for a drink next week, she’ll be there. You can wipe that look off your face. I’m not looking for anything serious, I’m only jus getting better. I don’t know if getting involved with someone else with the bastard MS is the best idea. Actually, not sure ‘getting involved’ with someone is what I want at all. I just need to get my own bit of normal, start having some fun again.

łDid I hear someone mention fun? What’s the story?

‘Matt’s looking for lurve.’

łReally Matty?

}Piss off, Dec. No, just going out for a drink with some people next week. Goh to start somewhere.

łDrink sounds good – shall we have a practice now? I’ve got beers in. A toast to … oh, I don’t know, fatherhood? Family? Something less corny?

‘Love.’

łI said less corny, Dec. We all know you’re loved up, pretty hard to miss. Especially right this minute – Jesus, are they my sweatpants? Fuck, I may never be able to wear them again.

He went to get the beers. Came back looking thoughtful.

łYou know what, I am going to make a toast to love. Not just the full on snoggy type that Dec’s so fond of, but all of it. I feel pretty loved up myself today. I’ve got this fantastic daughter, courtesy of my incredible wife, I’ve spent time with my brilliant family and amazing friends and just watched my awesome son go to sleep. And you two are here helping me celebrate. Life just doesn’t get any better. To love.

We clinked our bottles together.

A few hours and many beers later I stumbled up the stairs, undressed quickly in the bathroom and climbed under the duvet in Cal’s bottom bunk as quietly as I could. I was asleep almost before I was lying down.

Dreaming. I am flying. High above the world. I can see it all, the people and patterns that make up my life. It is beautiful. It is amazing. It is awesome. It is love.

I woke up in the dark, disoriented. Someone was breathing on my face. I tried to sit up. Banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

A giggle. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

\you said a big swear. Can I come in with you?

I sighed.

‘Come on then.’

I pulled the duvet back and he jumped in, immediately filling the available space while I shuffled back against the wall. Eventually I slept.

Dreaming. Flying all night long.

Cal

Having a sister wasn’t that great, really, although everyone kept saying ‘Do you love your little sister?’ to me, and I had to say yes, because I didn’t think I would be allowed to say no. But she cried a lot, and woke me up at night sometimes, and Mum was busy feeding her and changing her nappies, although she sometimes let me help with the nappies so I could look at the poo. So I was quite glad when it was the start of school, and time to surprise Jake.

Not long after Isobel was born, everyone started calling her Iz. It was a lot easier to say, and it was like a nickname, so I liked it.

Matt

I couldn’t remember much about when Cal was born; I really wasn’t into babies back then, and I suppose you could say I wasn’t now, but having lived with Jay and Beth throughout the whole deal with cravings, hormonal rants, swelling belly, ooh feel it kicking no thanks I’d rather not, I felt a lot closer to this one.

When Cal had arrived, I didn’t rush down to see the new-born first born, and contented myself with emailed and texted pictures, which looked much like any other Churchill-a-like baby I’d ever seen. I visited with Mum several weeks later (it was her third visit) and dutifully held him and jiggled him a bit, but the amount of time I spent in a different room while Beth breastfed him hardly seemed worth the hassle. Not that Beth sent me out, you understand, but … well … you know, the whole boob thing. Yeah, I know, really not PC of me, really bad form, but that’s how it was. Didn’t want to see Beth’s boobs, really didn’t want to be thinking about them in any way either, so spent a lot of time in the kitchen honing my cooking skills and consequently getting brownie points from the new parents.

But this one was different. I felt like I knew this one a bit before it arrived. They didn’t want to know if it was a boy or a girl, they wanted it to be a surprise. I never understood why people did that, it’s not like it’s Secret Santa or something, it’s a baby, a tiny person, and surely if you can get to know it in any small way before it comes, that’s better than knowing jack-shit about it until it pops out. But hey, it wasn’t my baby, and it was up to them, so until Jay rang me I didn’t know if I had a niece or another nephew. And I’d been expecting to be a bit uninterested, like I had with Cal at first, until I’d got to know the little tyke in the last year or so, but as soon as I clapped eyes on Isobel Flora Scott, as soon as I held her, I was won. She had my heart. I mean, yeah, she looked as much like Winston as her brother had, but when I held her I actually cried, bloody huge tears and everything, she was so small and fragile, and I just wanted to protect her. Dec cried as well, we were still pretty much competing for the play-off position in the blub club league tables, but we both scarpered as soon as Beth started unbuttoning her top, and in the corridor we stayed until we managed to persuade Amy to go and get Cal so we could go home.

So Isobel, who pretty soon got shortened to Iz, would need a bedroom before too long. She was going in with Jay and Beth for a few months, and although there was talk of rejigging things and maybe using Jay’s office, I knew my days were numbered. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy with the end of my stay chez Scott being nigh, because it meant I was getting better, and by the end of September, I’d got a reference from Eyeti, a pretty bloody good one, too, and had hawked my wares around a few different IT companies in the city.

I’d upped my game in other ways too. Remember Imogen, from the hiking group? Yeah, well, she helped me prove I still had it. Now, I’m not proud of this, not now, but at the time it was pretty major for me. Imogen and I got on well, the hiking group went out a couple of times and then I saw Imogen just the two of us once or twice. OK, twice. And she definitely had that look in her eye, and things were definitely happening for me that said ‘Thunderbirds are go’. And she was a bit of a safety net, because if things didn’t go quite right, she had the bastard MS too, and she’d understand. But things did go right, very right indeed, and it was a great relief to know that everything worked, and I think we both had a good time, I mean I know I did, and she seemed to, but there was no way I was getting into anything, not with the huge hole in my chest where Carrie had ripped my heart out, so it was with regret that I finished things with Imogen before they could develop, and she was upset, and so then I couldn’t go hiking with them anymore.

But that was OK too, because I joined a normal person’s hiking group, got lucky there too, with Alice and Maya, although not together, you understand, then left that group as well, then just went for a walk when I felt like it, on my own, without feeling the need to surround myself with people. So you can see how my career as an excellent no-strings lay was resurrected in this city. It didn’t take me long to begin it, and it was fun, and it was reassuring, and it laid down a wafer thin veneer over my fractured life, a veneer that got thicker with every woman, with every ego-boosting response to my moves.

Yeah, I used a lot of people to make me feel better, I was an arrogant bastard, and I regret it, now. But at the time I was hurting, I was angry and I needed reassurance that I could still do it, and that was my justification for a long time – not in those exact words of course; if I thought about it at all, I’d say I was looking for some fun after a shit year, and that seemed like vindication enough.

That’s not to say it was all plain sailing. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t as good at fooling myself as I’d like to think; a couple of times it all came crashing down on me, and the pit opened up invitingly beneath me as the cracks in the veneer opened a little and the pain seeped through. When Iz was tiny, I felt in the way and useless, and looking back maybe I was just being an attention-seeking git, but I succumbed to the dark once or twice. It was really unfair of me, but I just went to bed and lay there with the curtains closed until somebody noticed. Which didn’t take long, because new mother or not, Beth Scott never missed anything. She didn’t have the time or energy to devote to my misguided angst-ins, but Dec did, and he extricated his tongue from Amy’s mouth long enough to come round and sit with me, annoying me until I gave in. He even held my hand, which was above and beyond, and has never been mentioned by either of us until now. It wasn’t just support and being there that he offered, he was pretty forthright about how selfish I was being with a new baby in the house, and I came to my senses, such as they were, and shoved my self-pity as far down as it would go, which was pretty far, and filled the pit up with as much blonde tits action as I could muster.

I tore up the plans. No more plans for Matt, they’d got me precisely nowhere. Whereas I’d got into the way of having a plan a, b and c, now my only plan was plan d. D for debauchery.