126. She don’t have to know

In which the consequences of inconstancy are experienced.

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Laura

The chirruping of crickets eventually broke through my sleep and roused me. It was dark in the room, and my sleep fuddled brain couldn’t at first work out what it was. Then the blue light coming from the screen on Matt’s phone made me realise it was a ringtone. Knowing that Matt was unlikely to wake up, I reached over him and picked up his phone. Cal was calling, and it was half past two.

I had a very brief struggle with myself about whether I should answer it, but it would stop ringing before I managed to wake Matt up, so I pressed ‘answer’.

Cal

It took forever to answer, and I thought it really was just too late for anyone to wake up. Then the ringing tone stopped and there was a click and a rustle, and I expected to hear an earful of bollocking from Matty, but it wasn’t his voice.

‘Hey Cal. Matt’s asleep.’

I’d woken Lau up, not Matty. I should have known; Matty never woke up when he didn’t want to. He slept the hardest of anyone I’d ever known. I was silent while I tried to figure out if I wanted to do this with Lau. I’d picked Matty because, back in the day, before Lau, before Julia even, he’d done more than his fair share of other people’s girlfriends, and I thought he might have some advice that would help me.

Laura

I didn’t hear anything at first, just some vague breathing sounds. I wondered if he’d called by mistake.

‘Cal?’

‘Yeah. Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you up.’

His voice sounded strange, deeper and ragged.

‘Oh really? Because when you ring someone at half past two in the morning, that’s usually exactly what happens. Unless you ring Matt of course, in which case you wake his wife up.’

‘Sorry.’

I let the silence hang there, part of me feeling grumpy about being woken up, another part of me grumpy about not being the one who Cal had actually wanted to talk to, and the rest of me realising that Cal needed to say what he needed to say when he was ready to say it.

Cal

Lau didn’t say anything, as she waited for me to tell her why I was ringing Matty, although it would be pretty obvious after our earlier conversation.

‘Fuck it, Lau. I thought Matty might still be up. I could do with a chat.’

‘Do you want me to wake him up?’

‘Ha ha, no, I don’t think I could cope with listening to you bloody snogging him awake. You’re … you’re not … I don’t suppose I could come in, could I?’

‘What? Where are you?’

I sighed. ‘Outside. In my car.’

Laura

‘Oh Cal. I’ll be right down.’

I got out of bed and pulled my dressing gown on, pausing to try to ‘snog Matt awake’, unsuccessfully as it turned out, given that I had to hurry downstairs to let Cal in.

Cal was waiting on the doorstep, hands in the pockets of his hoody, shoulders hunched, avoiding my eyes. He looked pale, and his eyes were suspiciously red and watery, as if he’d been crying. I beckoned him into the kitchen, and put the kettle on.

Cal

I couldn’t look Lau in the eyes, but followed her into the kitchen where she put the kettle on. I would have liked something stronger than tea.

‘Don’t suppose you’ve got any beer?’

‘We’ve always got beer, Cal, but one of the middle-of-the-night visiting rules is tea only. And you’re driving.’

I nodded, but didn’t say anything, just sat down at the kitchen table and put my face in my hands. Lau put a mug of tea next to me, and I tried to pull myself together enough to say something that made sense, but it all flooded into me and swirled around, and I started crying. Properly crying, like I hadn’t done in front of anyone since I was a lot younger.

Laura

‘Oh Cal.’

I got up and stood next to him, my arm over his shoulders, murmuring ‘shh’ and ‘it’s OK’ and other nonsense reassurances. I couldn’t recall ever seeing Cal upset; he was usually so cheerful and chilled, taking everything in his stride, taking the drama out of things and making the most of what life threw at him. It unsettled me to see him like this. Eventually his shoulders stopped heaving, and I pulled a chair next to him and sat down, gently prising a hand away from his face. I wasn’t going to be able to talk to him if he wouldn’t look at me.

Cal

Lau always liked to be able to look in your eyes when she was talking to you, but I wasn’t sure she’d want to see what was written in mine right then.

Laura

Once his hands were moved, I turned his face towards me, shocked by the depth of pain I saw there.

‘Tell me, flower.’

Cal

It was hard to begin. Lau had implied that I could tell her anything, but Ayesh was part of the family, everyone loved her, and it was going to be upsetting. I tried to say the words a few times, but they disappeared back into my mouth. Then I decided to check she’d meant what she said.

‘Did you mean what you said about not disapproving?’

Lau nodded. ‘I just want to help you. You look really sad.’

I squeezed my eyes shut, then wiped them and looked at her. I was more than sad, I was lost.

‘I’ve got myself in a fucking situation, I don’t know what the fuck to do.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘Well, oh fuck, I really don’t know where to start. Me and Ayesh – a few months ago we thought she was pregnant. Turns out she wasn’t, but it made us think, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad, although we were shit-scared at the time. So we stopped using – you know.’

Laura

‘It’s called contraception, Cal, you can say the word, I’m a nurse, I won’t be outraged.’

I took his hand and shook it gently to let him know I was teasing.

Cal

Mum and Lau, nurses to the end, never got embarrassed saying shit that other people were rightly mortified to say.

‘OK, we stopped using contraception –

I emphasised the word and grimaced to let her know it wasn’t something I felt comfortable talking about with her.

‘– and thought we’d see how it went. Then about two weeks ago, it was after a game, I was in the bar doing the meet and greets, there was this girl, and it was Chrissie. I didn’t know it was her when she –’

‘Chrissie?’

‘Yeah, she was my … I went out with her for ages when I was at school, when I was young, she was, like, my first.’

I hadn’t been that communicative about how things were with me and Chrissie back then; I was a bit of a grouchy up myself teenager, and maybe I shouldn’t have expected Lau to remember someone she just thought was my mate from ten years ago.

Laura

I vaguely remembered the name, but not much else. Cal hadn’t been particularly forthcoming about the girls in his life when he was younger, had lots of girls who were friends, they came and went. Maybe Chrissie had been more than a friend.

‘Your first love?’

Cal

‘My first everything.’

‘Oh. When you were how old? No, never mind, I don’t want to know. Sorry, flower, carry on.’

‘So, it was her. I hadn’t seen her for fucking years. She broke my heart, when she moved away with her parents, then we were going to keep in touch, see each other in the holidays and shit, but she never really … and then she … it just messed me up.’

Laura

It suddenly came back to me, bits and pieces – Cal’s friend, they’d even babysat for us a couple of times hadn’t they? Oh, so definitely more than friends. I tried to match the fuzzy image of Cal’s friend with the blonde woman in the coffee shop – yep, they could well be the same person. Oh Cal.

‘Oh I remember now. That was the summer you were really, really grumpy. We all went to Spain, and you wouldn’t come out of your bedroom. I think we called you the Got a Cob On Kid or something.’

Cal

‘Yeah. Broken heart, Lau. Have some bloody sympathy. Anyway, there I am, minding my own business, in the bar at Raiders, and she just walks over, touches me on the shoulder and says, all like in my ear and breathy, ‘what’s a girl have to do to get a Fanta round here?’, and I looked up, because I recognised her voice even if I didn’t know it was her, if you know what I mean, and at first I didn’t know who she was, because, obviously she’s older, and looks different, but then I had a good look, and it was her, even though she’s blonder than she was, and she’s filled out a bit in various, er, places, and it was amazing. I just spent the rest of the evening talking to her, catching up, in some ways it was like all those years apart had never existed and we were still teenagers, talking about all kinds of shit, kind of knowing what the other one was thinking, laughing. Fuck, it felt like so long since I’d had a proper laugh. Anyway, this is going to sound so like a bad romcom, but one thing led to another, and I went back to her place, and we slept together.’

I stopped, looking into Lau’s eyes, trying to see if she hated me yet.

Laura

He stopped, looking into my eyes, trying to gauge my reaction.

‘Oh Cal.’

I took his hand again.

‘So what now? I have to say, you looked pretty serious about her in the coffee shop today.’

Cal

‘Fuck, it’s such a mess.’

‘So Ayesha doesn’t know about her?’

I shook my head and looked down at the table.

‘She can’t know. But I don’t know what … we’ve got to stop … fuck it Lau, we were trying to have a baby. Since Chrissie came back I haven’t … I’ve had to stop … I’ve been making all the excuses under the sun, but what if Ayesh is already pregnant?’

‘Oh Cal.’

‘So you keep saying. Could this be much more fucked up?’

‘Do you want to leave Ayesha for Chrissie?’

‘No! I mean … I can’t get my head round it. I love Ayesh. But when I’m with Chrissie, it’s more than that, it’s something deep, I feel like I’ve joined something back together that came apart. It feels right. I can’t hurt Ayesh, I love her, but … Chrissie, she rocks my world. I want to be with her. But if Ayesh is pregnant …’

‘What if she is?’

‘Well I’ll have to stay with her. I can’t do that to her, can I? We’d just been kind of waiting to see if anything happened, but now I really need to find out, but I can’t push it, because she’ll know something’s up, but if I keep on making excuses not to … you know … then she’ll know something’s up anyway, and I just don’t know how much longer I can go on with it all. I see Chrissie when I can, but I feel torn every time I see her. I feel a complete arsehole for what I’m doing to Ayesh, but I feel excited and happy that I’m with Chrissie.’

‘You’re running a bit of a risk meeting her in the city centre. Anyone could see you.’

‘Yeah, I know, but she texted and asked if we could talk, and she was on her break, so …’

‘Cal, it will be worse, so much worse, if Ayesha finds out from someone else.’

I looked down at the table and nodded, my shoulders hunched in dejection. I knew it would be worse, but in some ways it would be easier as well, because I wouldn’t be the one who would have to tell her. And maybe that was the game I’d been playing, to some extent: get seen with Chrissie and someone else will do my dirty work. Bastard cheating git.

‘I know. But if I tell her, I’ll have to do something about it, won’t I, like, choose or something.’

‘Do you know what you want?’

‘A good kick up the arse?’

‘Ha ha, no, that’s what you need, not what you want. I meant do you know who you want? If all the baby stuff was out of the picture, who would you choose?’

But that was just it, I wasn’t sure it was as simple as choosing. Chrissie – it was all still there, but I hadn’t worked out if it was from the past or if it was something that was real now. Ayesh – I’d loved her for a long time, but was it as deep and right as what I felt with Chrissie? This was where I was at, where I’d been for days, everything going in circles in my head, sending me mad.

‘I just don’t fucking know, Lau. I’ve been with Ayesh for bloody years, I’ve loved her for years, I nearly asked her to marry me at Christmas.’

‘Nearly?’

‘Yeah, never did it in the end. Too bloody terrified. Maybe I was trying to tell myself something. Maybe it’s all just a bit … predictable. But with Chrissie, I dunno, I’m scared it’s just teenage stuff, unfinished business, the excitement of it all after maybe settling down with Ayesh a bit. What if I fuck it all up with Ayesh and then it doesn’t work out with Chrissie?’

Laura

We’d all been expecting an announcement at Christmas, but when there was no proposal, we thought of different reasons it hadn’t happened, assumed Dec had got it wrong, and carried on waiting for what we had thought was inevitable.

‘Cal, you can’t think like that. If you’re spending time with someone else, things are already not working with Ayesha. You can’t hedge your bets like that, it’s not fair on anyone, you included. You need to decide whether you want to make it work with Ayesha or Chrissie. Come down on one side or the other, stick with whatever feels right.’

‘But what about … what if there’s a baby?’

‘I think … well it’s really, really not my place to say this, Cal, and this is only my opinion, and for God’s sake surely you’re only twelve, how can I be having this conversation with you, but baby or not, if it’s not going to work with Ayesha, it’s not going to work. I have no doubt that if there’s a baby, you’ll do the right thing by her, which might not mean staying with her, although it might, but it will mean supporting her however she wants or needs you to, and taking a fair amount of flak from a fair few people. And Chrissie wouldn’t find it easy if you chose her but there’s a baby; you might lose her too. I can’t decide this for you, you know that, but you need to decide, and pretty soon from the sounds of it, exactly who and what you want.’

Cal

She was right. She was stone cold no doubt about it right. The baby or not baby was a bit of a smokescreen, really, because if it wasn’t right with Ayesh it would never be right, and a baby wouldn’t stop it being wrong, it would just make things harder later. And if I hadn’t met Chrissie again, I’d never have realised. Oh God oh God oh God. I knew. I knew what I wanted, I knew and it was heartbreaking. Fresh tears started to trickle down my face, as I nodded at Lau.

‘It’s the telling her part that’s going to be the hardest. Fucking hell, Lau, how am I going to tell her?’

Laura

I thought back over the times I’d broken up with a bloke – the times I’d been cheated on, and lied to, or on one occasion done the cheating and lying. What had worked, and what hadn’t?

‘Be straight with her. Don’t lie to her to make it easy on you. Let her be angry. Don’t make excuses. Don’t get angry yourself. Don’t hug her. Tell her you’re there for her, and expect her to throw something at you. Then walk away and let her get on with her life how she wants to, whether you’re part of it or not.’

Cal looked up at me, his tear-stained cheeks nearly breaking my heart. If I could have done any of it for him, I would have. He was such a kind young man, so caring; he would never have chosen to hurt people he loved, and he didn’t deserve this heartache.

Cal

I looked up at Lau, at her worried face. I so wished I could ask her to come with me and help me do this, but I was the only one who could do this horrible, horrible thing to my lovely, blameless girlfriend. I felt like the most evil bastard the world had ever known.

‘I don’t know if I can do it.’

‘If you’re sure, then it’s the right thing to do, and knowing that will make it easier.’

Thank fuck for family like Lau. She always knew just what to say. I nodded, and breathed deeply.

‘Shit, Lau, you bloody know your stuff, don’t you.’

‘Just speaking from experience.’

‘What, dumped? Or dumper?’

Laura

‘Bit of both I suppose. Long time ago. But nothing like this, flower. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to hurt, a lot, if you decide to leave Ayesha. But whatever happens, you’ll look back in a year, and you won’t recognise yourself. Things will work out, one way or another.’

Cal shook his head slightly. He was in too deep, and it probably felt to him like he would never clamber out. He took another ragged breath.

Cal

I couldn’t imagine being in a place where things had worked out, all I could see was pain and hurt and having to explain over and over again what the fuck I thought I was doing. I took another ragged breath.

‘I should go, you’re gonna be wiped tomorrow.’

‘Don’t worry about it, Cal. Does Ayesha know you’re here?’

‘No, she was asleep when I left. She’s used to me getting up and pottering around. Oh holy fuck, I’m going to have to talk to her when I get back. There’s no fucking way I can just get back into bed like nothing’s happened.’

I looked at Lau, as if she was going to tell me I didn’t have to do it right away. She didn’t, of course.

‘Whatever you’ve decided, one way or the other or still working it out, she deserves to know, before other people know. If she has any say at all, she should have a chance to tell you how she feels.’

I hung my head and nodded.

‘I’m an arsehole, can’t believe what a complete fucking arsehole I am. I should be locked up and kept away from people, I don’t deserve good things.’

‘Cal, look at me.’

I didn’t lift my head until Lau took my chin and made me turn my head towards her. I slowly lifted my eyes to hers.

‘You are a good … God, I nearly said boy. You are a good man. Life sometimes gets in the way of where we thought we were heading, and shakes us up a bit. It hurts. If you do what’s right for you, but try to look after people on the way, you’ll be OK. You deserve good things. Take them when life offers them.’

I filled up with tears again, and nodded, brushing my eyes as I stood up.

‘Thanks, Lau, you’ve been great. I rang Matty because, well, I know he’s had a lot of experience with multiple women, but to be honest I think you’ve helped me more.’

‘I’m always here, flower. Both of us are always here.’

‘Thanks, Lau.’

Lau put her arms round me and squeezed tightly as a few more sobs burst out of me.

‘Let us know how it goes.’

I nodded against her shoulder, then straightened up and went home to Ayesh.

Laura

‘Mmph yuh been up?’

Matt’s eyes opened slightly as I got carefully back into bed.

‘Yeah. Been talking to Cal. He’s just gone.’

Matt’s eyes opened fully.

‘Wha? He was here? Why didn’t yuh wake me up?’

I rolled my eyes. ‘I tried, but even my best tongue action didn’t get me anywhere, and he was on the doorstep. Anyway, he said I’m better than you at helping him out with his multiple women problems, despite you being much more experienced in that respect.’

‘Nice one Cal. Are we ever gona beh allowed to forget that I used to be a tart?’

‘Probably not. But at least you’re my tart now.’

‘He never said you’re better than meh?’

‘He did indeed say that.’

‘Bastard. Last time I let him beat me at BattleStations. So wha’s goin on?’

‘He’s met someone else.’

‘Yeah, we worked that out.’

‘But there’s a possibility Ayesha is pregnant.’

‘Oh fuck.’

‘Yeah. So we chatted and he’s gone home. Hopefully to talk to her.’

‘Is he gona leave her?’

‘I don’t know. I think so.’

‘Fuck. Poor Cal. Poor Ayesh. At least he had you tuh help him. You’re pretty bloody amazing at advice, Lau.’

‘I know.’

‘An so modest.’

‘Yep, that’s me. Amazing and modest.’

‘Bloody tongue action needs some work, tho. How did yuh not wake me up?’

‘Hmm, well, I’m not sure, I did this …’

I kissed his lips and pushed my tongue gently into his mouth.

‘And then tried this …’

I nibbled his bottom lip, smiling as Matt’s breathing quickened and his hands moved to my hair, ‘Oh, it seems to be working a bit better now. Perhaps it’s all mended and I can stop.’

‘Don’t yuh bloody dare. Then what?’

‘Then …’

Cal

I did not rush back. I took the long way and I drove slower than I’ve ever driven before, in the name of getting my head round it, coward that I was. I sat in the car, tidying the glove box in the dark, for a good while before I got out, locked and double checked the lock on the car and slowly made my way up the stairs and into the flat. I thought about making myself a drink, but if I woke Ayesh up and she got up … well my thinking was that if I managed to get back into bed without waking her, then it would be morning before I had to talk to her. I even thought about sleeping in the spare room, ‘because I don’t want to disturb her’, look at me, such a caring boyfriend, but even I saw the excuse in that one, and I crept as quietly as I could into our room and got into bed.

I hadn’t been quiet enough, and Ayesh moved next to me and turned over.

‘Where have you been?’

‘What?’

‘You weren’t here, and I got up but you weren’t anywhere.’

‘Oh. Yeah.’

‘Where did you go?’

My heart was pounding. I needed to start spilling some of this soon, before my bottle left me and I was back in the same mess I’d been in earlier. I really was done with lying, but that only left telling the truth, and that was proving hard to begin doing.

‘I’ve been talking to Lau.’

‘What, on the phone?’

‘No, I went over there.’

‘Oh. Is she OK?’

‘Yeah. I’m not, though.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Ayesh, I need to tell you something. I don’t want you to hate me, but I think you will.’

There was a long silence. It was dark in the room, and I couldn’t see her eyes, but I could hear Ayesh’s breathing speed up, as she anticipated what I might be about to tell her.

‘OK.’

Come on Cal, that was step one, she knows something’s up, you’ve just got to do the next bit now. What did Lau say? Be straight with her. Don’t lie to her to make it easy on you.

‘I’ve been seeing someone else.’

I heard Ayesh’s gasp as I said it. I felt the shock of it, because it rang through me as it shot through her. It was as if someone else had spoken the words and they had hit both of us as hard, at the same time, because as I said it, I realised exactly what I had done, for the first time. As soon as I stopped lying to Ayesh, I stopped lying to myself.

Ayesh turned away, and I wanted to pull her to me, to say sorry, but Lau had said ‘don’t hug her’, and she was only turning the light on. I didn’t want the light on, because then I would see her eyes, and the look on her face, which I had put there, which, now I could see it, spoke to me of disbelief, disappointment, sorrow and, finally, of rage.

‘Who?’

‘What?’

‘Who is she?’

‘Does it matter?’

‘Yes it bloody matters. Who is she?’

Ayesh’s voice was icy cold with fury, like I’d never heard her before. I held on to Lau’s advice as the only thing that was making any impact on my thoughts, which were flying round my head like a flock of startled birds. Tell her straight.

‘Chrissie.’

It took her a few seconds to think about it, but Ayesh knew me pretty well, me and my past.

‘What … you mean … from school?’

I nodded.

‘How the fuck did you even meet up with her again? Did you go looking for her?’

‘No, nothing like that, it was by chance.’

Well, almost. I hadn’t planned it, anyway. Maybe Chrissie had, but I didn’t think so, not to end like this at any rate.

We were both sitting up now, and Ayesh was pulling her dressing gown round her shoulders, as if sitting in bed with me made her feel vulnerable.

‘And you’re seeing her? What exactly does that mean?’

‘I’ve been spending time with her, for a couple of weeks.’

Come on, Cal, you really need to hit her with the big one. Full disclosure. She has a right to know, and you deserve to have to tell her.

‘And I’ve slept with her once.’

The slap hit my face before I even saw it coming. The jolt whipped my head to the side, and the sting spread across my cheek like a lightning strike. Before I’d recovered from the fact that Ayesh, my gentle Ayesh, had hit me, she raised her voice and pointed to the door.

‘Get out.’

‘But I want to explain –’

‘Get the fuck out, Cal. You bastard. You fucking bastard.’

‘Ayesh, please, I know –’

‘Get. The. FUCK. OOOUUUT.’

Let her be angry. I had to trust that Lau knew what she was talking about, because I really didn’t want Ayesh to be this angry, I wanted to tell her it wasn’t about her, that I was the one who’d fucked up, I wanted her to calm down and hear my side … yeah, Lau was right. All I could do was get the fuck out and let her be angry.

‘OK.’

I got out of bed and quickly pulled my clothes on. I didn’t know where I was going to go, but Ayesh needed me not to be here. I needed me not to be here, this was more intense and horrible than I had imagined.

Ayesh had started to cry, big gulping sobs that made it sound like her heart was breaking in two, and it made me want to go to her and hold her and shush her and tell her it would be OK, but I had lost that right, the right to comfort my girlfriend who I loved, because it was me who had made her make those noises.

There was one last piece of advice I needed to follow. Tell her …

‘Ayesh, you know how to get hold of me if you need to, I don’t know, talk or something.’

… you’re there for her. And expect her …

The glass of water from her bedside table flew towards me and shattered on the wall with a crash and a splash as I dodged it

… to throw things.

I walked out, shaking, disoriented, head full of the most disastrous few minutes of my life. Had I really expected it to be any different? Had I thought that if I could explain my side of it, Ayesh would understand and be OK about it? Perhaps I had. I had proved to myself over and over again for the past two weeks that I was great at deluding myself.

I found myself at my car, less than fifteen minutes after I got out of it. The engine was still making the tick tick tick noises as it cooled. I took my keys out of my pocket and opened the door, then started the car, not really knowing where I was planning on going, but knowing I needed to be away from here.

I drove blindly at first, not paying attention to which way I was going, but then I realised where I was heading, and I let the familiar route do the driving for me. Before long I ended up where I needed to be. Home.

It wasn’t much past four o’clock, and no one would be up. I let myself in as quietly as I could, and crept up the stairs, opening the door to my old room. There was still a bed in there, but it was a guest room now, not my room. I didn’t want to put a light on, it would feel too bright and might wake Mum and Dad up, but there was stuff on the bed that I needed to move before I could lie down, and I dropped a box on the floor with a thump that reverberated around the silent house.

I stayed still for a moment or two, listening, then heard the inevitable sounds of movement from Mum and Dad’s room, and their door opening.

‘Who’s there?’

In the event of a break-in, it would be Mum who was shot through the heart trying to tackle intruders while Dad pulled the duvet over his head and grumbled about the noise.

‘Me. Cal. Go back to bed, Mum.’

If only she’d leave me alone till tomorrow morning, I could work out what I was going to say to her. Yeah, fat chance.

‘Cal? What are you doing here?’

The door opened and the light went on.

‘Why were you here in the dark?’

‘I was trying not to wake anyone up.’

‘Hm. That worked well.’

‘I dropped something.’

‘What are you doing here, sweetheart?’

‘I need somewhere to stay.’

‘Why? What’s happened?’

‘I’ve left Ayesh.’

‘Oh Cal!’

Mum sat down on the bed as if her legs had gone from under her, and I joined her, as I felt the same. Saying the words made it true. I’d left Ayesh. How had I done that?

‘What happened, sweetheart?’

‘I can’t talk about it tonight, Mum, I just want to go to bed. Can we do this tomorrow?’

‘Where is she?’

‘Back at the flat.’

‘Is she alright?’

‘I doubt it.’

‘Should someone be with her?’

‘I don’t know, Mum, but she won’t want to hear from anyone who’s anything to do with me right now.’

‘Oh Cal, what have you done?’

‘Tomorrow, Mum. My head’s too fucked at the moment. Please.’

I wasn’t going to sleep, but I needed the dark and the quiet so some of the madness that was spinning around me would stop.

‘Alright, but you are going to tell me what’s going on tomorrow.’

That was Mum’s ‘no arguing’ voice. It still worked, and I nodded, before starting to take my shirt off. Mum got the hint and got up, shutting the door behind her.

I stripped to my boxers and got into bed, but couldn’t even close my eyes. I stared up into the dark, feeling so ashamed of myself and trying to figure out my next action. Tomorrow was Saturday, there was a Raiders home game, and I was on the bench, but if I didn’t get my act together pretty soon, I wouldn’t be in a fit state to play. I could hardly string two thoughts together, let alone concentrate for eighty minutes of high intensity rugby. I would have to talk to Dad first thing and hope he was sympathetic.

As my situation whirled round me, I couldn’t even think about Chrissie and what I was going to say to her. I was struggling with what had just broken in two between Ayesh and me, and with what I had just done: walked out on seven years of happiness and love, given up a shared life and a shared home, and hurt, really hurt, the woman who had chosen to be with me rather than with her family.

While I was in the midst of my self-absorbed introspection, my phone rang. It was Ayesh’s ring tone, our favourite song, the one we always danced to when we were clubbing. With a lurch to my gut, I realised I was never going to dance with her again. I pressed the screen on my phone.

‘Hey.’

‘You know what you’ve done, don’t you?’

I was well aware of the many things I’d done, but didn’t know which particular one Ayesh meant. A general agreement was all I could come up with.

‘Yeah. I’m sorry, Ayesh.’

‘I don’t want an apology. I’d like to say I don’t want anything from you, not any more, but if I’m pregnant, you are going to be a father to this baby.’

Saying that, calling it this baby made me feel sick – I might have left my child before it was even born. It could be a real child, there could be a real person I was hurting before it was even in the world. All my clarity and resolve crumbled and left me with nothing solid to hold onto, except Ayesh. She needed … something.

‘Yeah, whatever you need. You know that.’

‘I’m doing a test tomorrow – oh my God that’s why you’ve been all ‘not tonight I’m tired’ isn’t it. You disgust me. You can come and pick up your stuff tomorrow. Today. If it’s still here when I get back from Rhi’s, it’s going in the skip.’

Ayesh had a routine on match day that either involved watching chick flicks with Mum or shopping and drinking coffee with her friend Rhianna. I guessed the chick flicks were off the table for the foreseeable future.

‘But I’m playing –’

‘Do you know how little of a shit I give about whatever the fuck you’re supposed to be doing? If it’s still here when I get back, it’s gone.’

She disconnected, leaving me with a gaping wound where my heart should have been. I had brought this whole mess on myself and on Ayesh, and it was right that I was feeling every bit of misery I was feeling, but it wasn’t right that Ayesh was hurting as much as she was. I’d done the right thing. I thought I’d done the right thing. Then. Now I wasn’t sure.

I rolled onto my side and cried, for me, for Ayesh and for us.

After a while, it started to get light outside, and I dragged myself out of bed and downstairs. I was going to need a lot of caffeine to help me through today, and I wanted to get a head start on it. I switched on Mum’s swanky new coffee maker and put some bread in the toaster, although I wasn’t hungry and the smell of it browning made me feel a bit sick.

I thought I might have some time on my own to think, but Mum must have heard me get up, and she was soon downstairs and sitting across the table from me, waiting for me to tell her what had happened.

‘Just let me drink my coffee, Mum.’

‘I want you to tell me what you’ve done.’

‘I told you, I’ve left.’

‘You didn’t say why.’

I fell back on my new catch phrase.

‘It’s complicated.’

‘I’m pretty clever, I pick things up really fast. Try me.’

I closed my eyes and tried to gather the strength to start this, the first of many times I was going to have to explain myself. It had all seemed so clear when I’d decided last night after talking to Lau, but everything had imploded crazily since then, and I was no longer sure of my reasons. How it felt was different to how I had thought it would feel when I was being vaguely logical. I stumbled to the start of an explanation.

‘I’ve … I can’t … it’s … I slept with someone else.’

What?’

‘I slept with someone else.’

‘You idiot. Is it serious?’

Mum was not being noticeably on my side. I hadn’t expected an easy time from her, but it seems I hadn’t been that good at judging anyone’s reactions so far, and now I was under attack before I’d even woken up properly. Hell, I hadn’t even been to sleep yet. I took a long swig of coffee before I answered.

‘Serious enough.’

‘What were you thinking? Ayesha loves you, she’s mad about you, I thought you were mad about her.’

‘So did I. I was. I am, I mean … fuck it, I don’t know, I’m such a headfuck right now, Mum.’

‘Then you need to finish it and go back to Ayesha. If you finish it, she’ll forgive you.’

‘No.’

I shook my head, and suddenly, that was one thing I was sure of. I had blown it with Ayesh, because I’d told her what I’d done, knowing it would be the end of us. I wasn’t going back, I couldn’t go back, I didn’t want to go back. It hurt, and I loved her, but I had left, and there was no going back.

‘But sweetheart, you have to try –’

‘Leave it, Mum. It’s over. It’s possible Ayesh is pregnant, and I’ve still left.’

Mum gaped at me, as if I had turned into a two-headed monster in front of her. Maybe that’s how she saw me right then, but I needed her to see how definite I was that I wasn’t going to change my mind, otherwise she’d think she could change it for me. I saw a lot of things flicker across her face. There was the brief flare of joy at the possibility of being a grandmother, which was quickly replaced with sorrow at the circumstances surrounding it, and then overridden with anger at a course of action she didn’t understand.

‘No … Cal, that’s, that’s just wrong. You can’t leave someone who’s having your baby.’

‘It’s not definite, might not be, probably isn’t. It’s a possibility, that’s all. It wouldn’t make any difference, though. Things have changed with us.’

‘Because you’ve had a … a … fling. You can’t just throw away everything you’ve got with Ayesha, your home, your life.’

‘It’s not a fling. It’s … Mum, it’s Chrissie.’

Mum looked confused for just a second.

‘Chri – oh! But when … how long … you never said a word.’

‘She’s only been back a few weeks. I just think I’ve got to be with her.’

If Chrissie would even consider being with me after this mess came out. She didn’t want to hurt Ayesh either, but now she was part of the big pile of crap that I’d dumped over all our lives.

‘Cal, you need to think very carefully about leaving Ayesha for someone you’ve only known for a few weeks.’

‘I’ve known her for years, Mum. She’s just the same. We’re just the same. I’m not going to argue with you about this, it’s my life, and I know how I feel. Me and Ayesh are over. She wants me to get my stuff today.’

‘Will you be moving in with her then?’

‘Oh I don’t fucking well know. She doesn’t even know I’ve left. She wanted us to break it off so Ayesh didn’t get hurt.’

‘Well there you –’

‘No Mum. Just stop. If you don’t want me to stay here while I sort myself out, I understand, I’ll go somewhere else.

‘Oh Cal, of course you can stay.’

‘Thanks. But you need to give me some space.’

‘And you have to realise that we all care about Ayesha too. We’ve known her for a long time, and we love her.’

‘I know. I’m sorry it’s going to be hard. You can still talk to her, you’d be good at talking to her, but maybe leave it a bit, yeah?’

‘Yes, maybe.’

‘Is Dad up yet?’

‘No, but he won’t be long.’

‘I’m supposed to be playing this afternoon.’

‘Do you think you can?’

‘I haven’t slept, and my head’s all over the place.’

‘Probably not then. Your dad’s not going to be very pleased.’

‘Just another one for the list then.’

Mum and I sat in silence for a while. I knew there was a lot Mum would want to say; maybe she was respecting my wishes and giving me space, or maybe she was just so mad at me she couldn’t speak to me.

Before long, we heard the unmistakable sounds of Dad shuffling downstairs, clearing his throat and sighing as he got over the daily disappointment of having to haul his arse out of bed yet again.

Mum pinned me with one of her meaningful looks. It was almost as powerful as her ‘no arguing’ voice.

‘You need to talk to him right now.’

‘Does he know?’

‘No, he’d gone back to sleep before I went back to bed last night.’

She stood up and took her coffee into the living room, leaving the way clear for an uninterrupted chat with Dad. Or should it be Scotty? Shit, this was way beyond the realms of the usual family/work dilemma.

‘Cal! You’re here early.’

‘Er, yeah. I was here all night.’

‘What? Oh, was that you in the spare room last night? It sounded like one of your sister’s strays until we remembered she’s back at Uni.’

Iz often took pity on people she met on nights out who were too pissed to find their way home. It never seemed to occur to her that it wasn’t that safe, installing random strangers in the guest room for Mum to trip over when she went to get the ironing pile. I suppose I was lucky she wasn’t home, and I hadn’t cuddled up to one of them by mistake in the dark.

‘Yeah, it was me. Sorry I woke you up. Er, Dad, I need to talk to you about something, but I’m not sure if … whether you should be Dad or Scotty.’

Dad frowned. He didn’t like it when family intruded on work, although he didn’t seem that bothered when it was the other way round.

‘OK. Just talk to me then. We’ll work it out as we go along.’

‘Right. Well, the thing is …’

God, was it going to be this hard every time I said it? Like I was just standing in front of the people I loved and saying ‘Look, here I am, the biggest bag of shit you’ll ever see, here are the crappy things I’ve done, feel free to take a pop’? Yeah, I expect so, because that was how it was.

‘… the thing is, I’ve left Ayesh.’

‘Oh. Jesus, Cal. Does your mum know?’

Well, dur Dad. Mum always knows everything, even though this time I’d had to tell her, rather than her guessing. But I was all out of sarcasm, it just felt too confrontational.

‘Yeah, she knows. But it only happened last night, I haven’t had any sleep and I’m a wreck, I’m not sure I can play today.’

‘Oh.’

I could almost see him switching from Dad-mode to Coach-mode.

‘I’m sorry, maybe I should be talking to Mac about this.’

‘No, Cal, it’s fine, anyone else would be talking to me, wouldn’t they. Let’s just imagine you’ve called me on the day of the match because you’re having a personal situation.’

‘Oookaay …’

‘So you say you haven’t had any sleep.’

‘No.’

‘And your concentration is affected.’

‘Yeah.’

‘And would you say your concentration has been affected for the last couple of weeks, maybe?’

Now I wasn’t sure what was going on. Dad was certainly in coach-mode, and being brisk and professional, but I hadn’t expected this. Had I really been off since I first saw Chrissie? Was that why I’d been dropped to the bench?

‘Er, yeah, possibly.’

‘OK, then, I’ll take you off the bench today, but you have until Tuesday to sort your head out and start concentrating, or you won’t be considered for the squad, until you’ve shown a bit more application than you’ve been giving recently. Got it?’

‘Got it, coach.’

Dad’s eyes softened and he tilted his head.

‘Seriously, Cal? You left Ayesha?’

And that’s when I broke down, again, full on sob-fest at the kitchen table that ended with Mum and Dad holding on to me as I poured snot and tears of shame on them.

Once it was over, or rather over for now, as it wasn’t to be the only time I broke down, Dad disappeared and left me with Mum. She seemed to have stopped being angry, for now at any rate, and was caught up with organising me. Mum never forgot a single thing people told her, and somewhere last night or this morning I’d told her that I had to collect my stuff from the flat. She was busy trying to sort it out for me.

‘I know Matty and Dec are around this morning, but they’ll both be going to the game this afternoon.’

Yeah, the game I was no longer involved in. Didn’t really want to be reminded about that.

‘It’s OK, I’ll go this morning, I can go on my own.’

‘Have you got much?’

‘I don’t really know. I can’t think. Most of the stuff is ours, not mine. My clothes, I suppose. My X-box, my weights. I’ll leave everything else, I haven’t got anywhere to put it, and I shouldn’t be taking stuff anyway. It wouldn’t be right.’

‘I think someone should go with you. Would you like me to come?’

‘No, Mum, I’ll be fine.’

‘Call Dec. Or Matty. They’ll go with you.’

‘Jesus Christ, Mum, I said I’ll be fucking fine.’

‘Alright, Cal, there’s no need for that.’

‘Sorry, sorry. I’m having trouble controlling myself. Maybe I’ll call Dec.’

Mum nodded, but didn’t say anything else, just got up and made me yet another cup of coffee. The caffeine wasn’t doing much for my mood, as I was feeling jazzed and on edge, but if I didn’t keep drinking it I was going to pass out on the sofa before I got to go round to the flat.

I got my phone out and called Dec.

‘Calster! Looking forward to picking the splinters out of your behind later?’

‘Er, I’m not on the bench today.’

‘Oh. Are you starting then?’

‘No. I pulled out of the squad.’

‘Oh. Everything OK mate? Did you pick up a knock in training?’

‘No. Dec, I want to ask you a favour.’

‘Name it, mate.’

‘OK, first I need to explain something, but it’s hard, and I don’t want to do a lot of talking and answering questions, so can you just listen, and say if you can do it and I’ll do the talking later?’

‘Errr, OK.’

‘Right, well, me and Ayesh have split up –’

‘Fuck! Sorry, didn’t mean to say anything. Fuck, though.’

‘Yeah, well. Anyway, I’ve got to go and get my stuff today and I wondered if you’d go with me? I probably shouldn’t be there on my own.’

‘Yeah, no worries, Cal. Shit. Is Ayesh going to be there?’

‘Fuck no, but I’m a bit of a mess and I might need some moral support.’

‘No worries. Shall I meet you there?’

‘Great. An hour?’

‘Yep.’

‘Thanks, Dec.’

‘Cal, I know you said not to ask anything, but fuck me, that’s pretty huge.’

‘Yeah, I can’t do this.’

‘OK. See you later.’

125. I’m not the only one

In which an old flame is encountered, and lies and secrecy begin.

Laura

‘Hey Lau, is Josh there? I just wanted to wish him luck for his game.’

‘He’s getting ready. I’ll go and chivvy. Have a word with Matt for a bit.’

I handed the iPad over to Matt, who put it on its stand. I could hear the conversation as I went up the stairs.

‘Heh Iz.’

‘Hi Matty. I can’t believe I’m missing Josh’s first game for the under fourteens.’

‘Noh, meh neither.’

‘What, you’re not going?’

‘Not up tuh ih. Legs arsing abouh.’

‘But haven’t you got a like wheelchair?’

‘I’ve goh an ahtual whelchair, buh I’hm not gona goh an see Josh play wrapped up lihk an old man.’

‘Oh. So you’re going to miss your son’s only ever first game for the under fourteens because you’re too proud. What does Josh think?’

‘Hahvnt told him yet.’

I missed the next part of the conversation, as I opened the door to Josh’s bedroom and was confronted with a blizzard of clothes that seemed to settle around me.

‘Josh, what on earth are you doing? We’ve got to go soon. Iz is on Facetime, she wants to wish you luck.’

‘I can’t find my shorts.’

‘I’m not surprised, I doubt you’ll be able to find anything else. Have you emptied every single drawer onto the floor?’

‘Mum, I need my bloody shorts.’

‘Joshua James Scott, there is no need for language like that. Your shorts are in the airing cupboard. Go and find Dad, he’s talking to Iz.’

Josh stomped out and I heard him go down the stairs. He must have inherited his stomping ability from me, as he was great at it. I looked at the clothes scattered around the room and sighed; I’d tidy it up while Josh was out. I spotted his rugby shirt buried under a coat and a jumper, and fished it out, then walked down the hall to the airing cupboard where I picked out the shorts. I could hear voices from downstairs, and laughter. I hoped Iz had managed to talk Matt into coming with us, but wasn’t holding my breath.

This was a new chapter in Matt’s MS. He’d had a wheelchair before, when he was so ill the first time, before I knew him, but he’d got rid of it when his symptoms all but disappeared for several years. In the last month, his walking had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t walk more than a few steps on his own, and after a lot of badgering on my part, he had agreed to buy a wheelchair. He had yet to use it – it had sat accusingly under the stairs, gathering coats and shopping bags, and he stayed in rather than going out and having to use it.

I really understood how he felt; when he could get about, after a fashion, by just leaning on my arm, he could feel that people might not notice. If he was in a wheelchair, it made him conspicuous, and people would make sympathetic noises and ask what was wrong, and every time he had to explain it would feel like a tiny knife in his heart. I’d hoped the thought of missing Josh’s important rugby game would override his pride, but had been unable to persuade him.

I walked down the stairs and into the kitchen, where Josh and Matt were sitting at the table talking to Iz. I handed Josh his shirt and shorts.

‘Ooh, Joshy, is that your new kit?’

He nodded at Iz’s face in the iPad.

‘Yeah. It’s new this year, it’s got stripes down the side, it’s really cool.’

‘Let’s have a look, then, hold it up.’

Josh unfolded the shirt and held it up against himself.

‘Whoa, that’s totally awesome. You’ll have to take some pictures, Matty, or a vid or something. I need to see all Joshy’s tries.’

‘Yeh, all tehn.’

‘Daad, I’m not going to score ten tries.’

‘Wha kind of defehtist attituhd is tha? I wan at lehst tehn tries, an yuh should kick the conversions too.’

‘Gareth Jenkins does the kicking.’

‘See, thehr yuh goh again.’

‘Just do your best, flower. Dad will be proud of you whatever you do.’

‘You know tha, dohnt yuh Hippo. Nihn tries will beh fine.’

‘Anyway, guys, I’ve got to go, lunch date.’

‘Really, Iz? Does Harry know?’

Iz rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, Lau. It’s a study date. We’ve got a test and some of the guys are getting together to like swot.’

‘That’s alright then. I’ll stop being a boring old fart now and leave you to your date.’

‘OK. Good luck, then, Joshy, wish I was there.’

‘When are you coming back?’

‘Don’t know if I’ll make it this term, but defo for Christmas.’

‘But that’s ages.’

‘It’ll fly by. Facetime me whenever you want. If I don’t answer I’m snogging someone. Bye Matty, enjoy the game, bye Lau.’

We all said goodbye and waved, and the connection was broken.

I looked at Matt, who looked back defiantly, daring me to say anything. Josh hadn’t known his dad wasn’t planning on being there, so rather than spoil things, I raised an eyebrow and blew him a kiss.

‘Right Josh, go and pack your kit. Your boots are in the cupboard, socks – oh they’ll be somewhere on your bedroom floor. Put everything else in your bag before you look for them, otherwise you’ll lose it all again.’

‘Yes Mum.’

He turned and ran out of the room before I could boss him about any more. I turned to Matt.

‘I’m glad you’re coming.’

‘Yeh. Well. Iz is even mohr of a bossy cow than yuh sometimes.’

‘Surely not.’

‘Tahks after Beth. Never shuhs the fuck up. Geh the bluhdy machine in the car then, befohr I change my mihnd. Thehrs a bluhdy tartan blahnket sohmwehr, jus tuh finish the look.’

‘No there isn’t. I could find you a My Little Pony one, if you really want wrapping up.’

‘Pihs ohf.’

I walked over to where Matt was sitting, stood behind him and wrapped my arms round him.

‘I love you.’

‘I should thihk soh too.’

He bent his head and kissed my arm.

‘Come on, yuh nehd tuh geh Josh moving or he’ll beh distracted by something on the floor.’

‘What’s on the floor is his entire wardrobe. He was looking for his shorts. Now he’s looking for his socks. Hmm, maybe I’d better go and help him.’

*

‘Goh Josh, goh on, goh goh goh YEAAAH! WHOOO! Whatta try. Did yuh see tha Lau?’

Matt was on his feet, arms in the air, huge smile crinkling his eyes and mouth.

‘I saw it. Is that like a goal?’

‘Yuhr bluhdy useless, Lau. Yeh, lihk a goal, only not becohs a goal’s in footbahl. Oh shih, gona hahv tuh sit down again.’

Matt had gone pale, and sat down hard in his wheelchair, but it didn’t wipe the grin off his face.

*

‘Glad Matty went 2 watch. He wld hv missed Joshy’s first try.’

‘Yeh, me 2. Did u get pics? M sent a while a ago.’

‘Yeh, gr8! So proud of Joshy.’

‘Us 2. Thx 4 talking M round.’

‘He needed kick up the Rs. Glad 2 deliver. Gota go, clubbing beckons. Iz xx’

‘Who yuh texting?’

‘Iz. Catching up about the game.’

‘Did she geh the pics?’

‘Yeah, she’s a proud cousin.’

‘Thahks, Lau.’

‘What for?’

‘Not sayin I tol yuh soh or some such shih.’

‘Daft sod. I’m glad you were there to see it.’

Cal

There was no baby news from Cal and Ayesh, so we just went on as normal. We did the necessary things, but didn’t get stressed at the lack of results, because it was still early days and we were still getting used to the idea of even trying. No one knew we were trying, because we weren’t ‘trying’, we were just not not trying, so no one asked us about it; it was like a secret, which was exciting but also meant the pressure was off.

Laura

‘Oh but Mum, everyone’s going, and they’re all sleeping over. I’ll be the only one being picked up by, like, my parents. Charlie’s staying.’

‘Charlie’s older than you.’

‘Tom’s staying.’

I sighed with exasperation – Ella planned her confrontations, she always had an answer which was several steps ahead of my response, she knew what I would say and what she needed to reply in order to back me into a corner. It was impressive and infuriating.

‘Ella, who’re Chahlie an Tom’s mum an dad?’

I sat back and let Matt take over the argument. He was much better at it than me – he thought quicker, and his answers were less predictable.

‘Amy and Dec, but –’

‘An who’re yuhr mum and dad?’

‘Well dur, Mum and you, but –’

‘So what Chahlie an Tom are allowed tuh do, not really the point, would yuh agree?’

Ella was silent, not knowing whether agreeing or disagreeing was the best option, or whether it was time to wail ‘it’s not fair‘; Matt did this so much better than I did.

‘Hm. Soh, there ahr gona beh boys at this party?’

‘Dad, it’s a party. Tom’s going, like I said. Some other boys in his class. And girls too.’

‘An Maisie’s parents ahr gona be whehr?’

‘They’re like totally cool, they’re going out.’

‘An so yuhr asking us if yuh can be in a house full of rampaging teenagers, one of who is Charlie Summers, withouh adult supervision, overnigh?’

‘Yeah, but Dad –’

‘Why isn’t yuhr brother going?’

‘Oh he’s not interested, he’s so boring, all he like thinks about is rugby.’

‘Hm. An soh when I asked him earlier, did he a) say he wasn’t interested or b) say he didn’t want to be in a house full of rampaging teenagers withouh adult supervision becohs the very thought terrifies him?’

‘Actually, Dad, he said c) not my thing. I heard you ask him.’

‘Which is the same as b).’

‘Or the same as a).’

‘Ooh, yuhr good, buh yuhr not gona win this, Squeaks, I was school debating champ.’

‘Yeah, when you were young. You’re old now, and crippled.’

‘Ella!’

‘Ih’s OK, Lau, Ihv got this.’

Matt sounded calm, but Ella’s comment had stung him, as it was designed to.

‘Ella, first rule of debating, an listen carefully as yuhv got yuhr first debate in, wha, thirty minutes. When the other tehm resorts tuh insults, yuh know they’ve lost, an yuh know they know ih. Second rule of debating, know when yuhr having a debate an when yuhr not. This isn’t a debate, this is meh an yuhr mum saying yuh can goh tuh the party, buh we’re coming tuh fetch yuh at – when did weh say, Lau?’

‘Eleven.’

‘We’re coming tuh fetch yuh at eleven, an tha’s the end of ih.’

The silence from the back of the car bored holes into the back of our heads. We were on our way to Ella’s first debating team meet. She had just been picked, the youngest one in the team, and we were so proud of her. It was typical of Ella to bring up a contentious issue just as she was about to do something important; she almost seemed to thrive on having added stress.

Matt’s phone pinged.

‘Beth says gohd luhck.’

Ella decided to launch another attack.

‘If I had my own phone, she could text me herself.’

‘Ha ha, Squeaks, yuh rehly wana start this just as we’re parking, yuhr hilarious. Yuhv lost two phones since the summer, yuhr getting a smartphone fuh yuhr birthday, an soh noh more phones until July.’

‘It’s so unfair.’

Apparently it was now time to wail.

‘I know. The whole world hates yuh, starting with meh an yuhr mum, an yuh can’t do anything right, an yuh never get anything yuh rehly rehly want, an yuhr gona run away tuh China an tha’ll jus show us all. Glad weh sorted tha. Got yuhr folder?’

‘Yes.’

Ella could not have sounded more grumpy. Matt let it wash over him.

‘Right then, leh’s geh going an watch a new generation of Scotts ignite the debating wohld.’

*

Matt got to his feet to applaud Ella, pulling me up too so I could support him as he stood. His mobility had improved enough that he could walk from the car to the hall by leaning on me, but he did still need someone to lean on. His applause lasted longer than was strictly necessary, but he managed not to cheer or whoop, as promised.

Ella’s rebuttal to the main topic, that ‘Parents should not purchase war toys for their children’, had been well thought out and well argued, and she had shown no sign of nerves. A long time ago I’d given presentations on topics I knew a lot about, but this kind of speed argument was new to me, and I would have been terrified. Matt and I sat down, and he turned to me.

‘Tha was bluhdy outstahding.’

‘She was really good, but I can’t believe she thinks guns for boys are a good idea.’

‘Ha ha, Lau, ih’s a debate. She doesn’t hahv tuh believe wha she’s arguing, ih’s about how convincing she is an how she uses wha she knows.’

‘Oh. It’s very confusing, almost as bad as rugby. Do you think either of my children are ever going to take up activities I actually understand?’

*

‘Soh, Ella, yuhr mum thinks yuhr a bloodthirsty warmonger. Discuss.’

‘Oh Muum, we had to say that, that’s what debating is all about, trying to convince the judges you’ve got a better argument.’

‘Yes, so your father explained. I’m not really going to stand much of a chance at home, am I, especially when you both gang up on me.’

‘Not a hohp, Lau.’

‘Except … I’m the mum, and what I say goes, whether I understand the arguments or not.’

‘Damn, she’s got us, Squeaks. She found the loophole. Wehr toast.’

*

‘Come hehr.’

I snuggled up to Matt, who put his arms round me and held me tight. I felt a tension in him.

‘Everything OK, flower?’

He sighed. ‘Our babies are growing up. Scahred.’

‘Of what?’

‘Of not being able tuh control them, keep them safe. Being too old an crihpled.’

I knew Ella’s comment had hurt him; I pulled him tighter.

‘The older they get, the less able we’ll be to control them. And the more they’ll use anything they can to get a reaction. Ella’s smart mouth is going to get her in trouble one day soon. Takes after her dad. You might have to get used to fending off hurtful remarks from your own daughter.’

‘I don’t say hurtful things.’

‘No, but you and Dec have both bandied the word ‘cripple’ about, and I don’t think she really meant to hurt you, just score points. You do a fair amount of that, too.’

‘I s’pohs. Was a bih of a knife through the heart, tho.’

‘I know. It’s like when she told me I was too old to wear my purple dress.’

‘Wha, the short one that shows off yuhr tits?’

‘Er, it’s a bit low cut, maybe.’

‘Yeh. Never too old fuh tha one, Lau.’

‘Well, it still hurts when Ella says it. And she knows it, so she says it more.’

‘Yeh. Oh fuck ih, Lau, I wish I was a prohper dad.’

‘What on earth do you mean? You are a proper dad, you’re a great dad.’

‘I cahnt duh ih all. Wha other dads duh. They cahnt rely on meh, tuh take them places, fetch them if they nehd ih, tuh, I dunno, goh in the loft an fetch the Christmas decs, tuh goh on bike rides …’

He tailed off, a long list of the things he couldn’t always do clogging up his thoughts.

‘Whose dad can do everything? You’re great, and I mean awesomely great, at the things you can do. You’ve taught Ella about debating – she uses words like, oh, like they’re tools or something, ties me up in knots. You watch Josh playing rugby, he tries extra hard when you’re there, he’s so proud. You earn money for all of us so we can live here and eat and go on holiday. You do all that, and so much more, even though you sometimes send me in the loft for the tinsel. Come on, my love, stop this nonsense. Ella and Josh wouldn’t swap you for any other dad.’

‘Except maybe Dec, then Ella could goh tuh her party.’

‘Can you imagine Dec being Ella’s dad? He wouldn’t last five minutes. She’d have his credit card, survive on a diet of Doritos and Coke, and still charge him for babysitting, which she’d subcontract to Tom for less and make a huge profit. You know exactly how to handle her, when to encourage her to think for herself and when to impose limits. She’s just like you, you know that, don’t you?’

Matt considered for a moment.

‘Never thoht abou ih like tha. Who’s Josh like, then? He’s not bluhdy bossy like yuh.’

‘No, but he’s more single-minded than Ella. He focusses on one thing at a time, but Ella is all over the place, flitting from one interesting thing to the next, fingers in all the pies. Josh has to finish one thing, and think about it, and decide if he likes it, before he moves on to the next thing. Once he’s made his mind up, you can’t change it. Ella has about fifteen different opinions at once, I can’t keep up with them.’

Matt was looking at me wide-eyed.

‘Shih, Lau, how duh yuh know them soh well? Yuhr righ, buh I never stopped an thoht abou ih. Should pay mohr attention.’

‘Well I guess it doesn’t always pay to overanalyse things, and it isn’t as black and white as that, they’re their own people too – Ella has my, well let’s call it desire to organise people –’

‘She’s a bohsy cow.’

‘– and Josh would rather go it alone than ask for help, which I could say comes from you. But, Matt, never say you’re not a proper dad. They love you, none of us could do without you.’

Cal

It was after a Raiders home game. I was in the bar afterwards, as the players always were, meeting the supporters, chatting, being sociable. I was checking my watch to see if it was time to get off yet, when a voice in my ear took me back nearly ten years and froze me to my seat.

‘What’s a girl have to do to get a Fanta round here?’

I didn’t recognise the voice straight away, but something about it rocketed straight to my soul and started an explosion in my heart. I looked round to see who had spoken, but some deep down, long ago part of me knew before my eyes met hers who it would be. Chrissie.

I sat dumbly for what felt like hours, just looking at her. Then she smiled that rock star smile, and I smiled back, and she threw her arms round my neck and kissed my ear.

I could not believe my eyes. She looked just the same, but completely different. Obviously. The last time I saw her we were fifteen, now we were getting on for twenty five. Her hair was different (although mine was the same buzz cut it would always be), her face had got more … adult, as I suppose mine had, and her body was incredible. So sue me for noticing.

‘Chrissie. I can’t believe it. What the fuck are you doing here?’

‘I’ve just moved back. I’ve noticed you’ve become some kind of tosspot local celebrity, so I thought I’d come and see what all the fuss was about. You’re quite good, aren’t you.’

I shrugged semi-modestly. I’d scored two tries that afternoon, and was feeling pretty pleased with myself, if I’m honest.

‘You’ve moved back? With your family?’

‘No, on my own. God, it’s so good to see you.’

‘Yeah.’

All of the broken-hearted fifteen-year-old misery raised its head at that point. It was good to see her too, but it wasn’t like we’d parted on good terms. She’d torn me apart, and she must have known. I felt my smile fade.

‘Cal, I know it was a long time ago, but I’m sorry about how things ended with us.’

‘Yeah, me too.’

‘If it helps, I was really cut up.’

‘No, it doesn’t, not really. So was I.’

‘I had to see a therapist.’

Oh. That trumped my Cob-on Kid holiday somewhat.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Look, I don’t know if this is the right place to do this, but I’d love to catch up with you, what you’ve been up to in the last ten years or so, apart from becoming a rugby superstar. Can I buy you a drink?’

‘I hear Fanta is the in drink with girls these days.’

Chrissie laughed, and it was a sound that I remembered so well, a sound that set off memories and feelings I thought I’d got rid of when she left. Her laugh, God what I wouldn’t do to make her laugh back then. It always made me feel happy.

‘OK then.’

And she turned to the bartender and ordered two Fantas. With straws.

We sat on the bar stools and sipped our orange drinks, as I stole glances at Chrissie. Chrissie, who was beautiful and just the same but oh so different. Chrissie, who seemed to have reached inside me and woken something up that not only had I not realised was sleeping, but that I would have sworn I’d thrown out with the rubbish years ago.

We laughed, a lot, something I seemed to have forgotten how to do. Not that Ayesh and I didn’t laugh, but well, it wasn’t like this. Chrissie and I chatted for ages, just about daft things, some of it what we used to do back then, some of it about our lives now. I told her about Ayesh, and she remembered her from school. She said she’d broken up with someone she nearly got engaged to, and the way she described it was so similar to what happened to me when I didn’t propose at Christmas that I felt more connections. Then we wandered off onto the subject of Arsenal, who we both still loved and I could do the big star thing about, because I’d actually met Theo Walcott, even though I could hardly talk to him for being starstruck, but Chrissie went one better because in her job, which was a buyer for some big corporate thing, she’d been invited to a VIP box at the Emirates, and afterwards she’d met the whole team, so ner.

When I noticed that she was wearing the ring I gave her for her birthday a long time ago, it was inevitable, or it felt so, that we would go back to her new place, just for a look, and a drink of something stronger than Fanta, and once we were there, and alone, it was hard to deny the feelings that were fizzing between us, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t think about Ayesh once while I was there, because it all just seemed to fall into place. We hugged first, and then the rest just … happened – the same familiar movements, smells and sounds bringing the same responses from both of us, as if we were doing a dance we’d learned a long time ago. People say ‘one thing led to another’, don’t they, and it’s such a cliché, but it really happens, it happened to us, that doing the one thing triggered the next thing, and the next and the next.

So I didn’t think about Ayesh when I hugged Chrissie, and I didn’t think about Ayesh when I kissed Chrissie, and I didn’t think about Ayesh when I slept with Chrissie. I didn’t think about Ayesh until I had to go home to her, and it all rushed up to me, what I’d done, what I’d become, because with Chrissie, it was inevitable, and it was incredible. As if we’d never left each other, but not as if we were fifteen. No, not like that at all.

I slipped home in the early hours of Sunday morning, knowing Ayesh would be asleep. She was used to me coming home late after a game, because I’d often be out with the lads, celebrating if we’d won or commiserating if we’d lost. She didn’t come to many games, and more often than not she’d go and see Mum when I was playing, so they could jointly take each other’s mind off the fact that I was doing something that could potentially result in serious injury.

I couldn’t get into the same bed as her knowing what I’d just done, so I crawled into the spare bed and lay awake all night thinking about what a skanky bastard I was and cursing my cowardliness.

I didn’t sleep at all, and got up as soon as it started to get light to sit in the kitchen with a cup of tea. I hadn’t resolved anything in the night, but a few things had occurred to me. Ayesh and I were trying to have a baby. She might already be pregnant, and if she was, what did that mean for our future? Before today, I would have said that as soon as we found out, I would ask her to marry me, and that would be the rest of our lives. Now, I felt like I’d found a part of me that had been lost a long time ago. Chrissie made me feel like the real me. But I’d only just met her again, after all these years, and I loved Ayesh. God I was a mess. This whole thing was a mess. My life had gone from ordinary to spectacularly complicated in one short sentence breathed into my ear by someone I hadn’t seen for over a decade.

Before Ayesh got up, I went out for a run, taking my phone with me. I’d had it on silent in the night, but Chrissie had texted.

God Cal I’m so sorry I feel like an utter homewrecker.

I shouldn’t have answered, I know I shouldn’t, but Chrissie wasn’t the one in the wrong, she wasn’t the one in the relationship, and she didn’t deserve the blame.

Don’t beat yourself up. Took 2.

Thx, but feel bad.

And again, I should have left it, but again I didn’t.

Was gr8 2 cu, just went 2 far.

It was gr8. Seeing u I mean. Forgot what it was like.

It was like it always was.

Which I hoped she could take any way she chose, and hopefully might think I thought it was a bit juvenile, and not like it was something I’d been hankering after.

I missed you. All this time.

Oh shit. So now I really had to stop it, before she wanted to meet up again. I had to just cut her off.

Me too.

No Cal, you big fat loser, what the fuck are you doing? You need to just say it straight. Think of Ayesh.

Want to meet up?

Come on, this is your chance. Just say no and be done with it.

Yeah.

Oh fuck.

What did I say, a while back? I’d do anything in my power not to make that girl sad. That’s what I said. What a lying fucking scumbag. The only possible outcome of any of this was making Ayesh sad, but I couldn’t stop myself. I literally could not stop. I’m sure Matty would have had something to say about that if I’d said those words to him, because he always went off on one about misuse of the word ‘literally’, but where Chrissie was concerned, I did not seem to have control either of my mind or my actions.

Maybe, to justify it, I told myself I was just getting Chrissie out of my system, seeing her again to purge all the heartache from long ago, that as soon as I felt it had run its course I’d stop seeing her and go back to how I was. I’m sure I spouted all sorts of fucking lies to myself, to justify it.

I saw Chrissie again, and then again, and again. She was like a drug; the more I had the more I wanted. She was like she was before, only more – more beautiful, more funny, more sexy, more grown up, and it, what we had together was more as well – more intense, more overwhelming, more adult.

We didn’t sleep together again; but everything else we did – talking, laughing, listening to music, driving around in my car visiting some of our old haunts – it was as much of a betrayal. Oh and we kissed. A fair bit.

I hardly saw Ayesh, I couldn’t risk sleeping with her, and I needed to know whether or not she was pregnant. She usually took a test once a month, but not always, and it was around the time she would, but I couldn’t mention it to her without her thinking I was more bothered than I should have been. I’d always been laid back about it, because there was no rush, right? No pressure, babe. But now the pressure was on, and it was on me, because it meant something, but something terrible, if Ayesh was having our baby.

And just to make it worse, Lau found out. I mean, it could have been truly worse and Ayesh, or even Mum could have been the one to spot me, but Lau was bad enough.

Laura

‘Yeah, we’ll completely have to start Pilates again, now that Josie’s back from maternity leave. I’ve really noticed a difference since I stopped going.’

Amy and I were in a coffee shop in the city centre, our usual Wednesday morning haunt since we’d stopped going to our classes. It wasn’t strengthening our core, but we decided it was good for our souls and that was nearly as worthy.

‘As long as we can still come here for a chat afterwards.’

‘Yeah, course Lau. No pain, no gain. No painful stretching, no calorific drinks. Unless the trainer’s on maternity leave, then it completely doesn’t count.’

Amy grinned impishly at me.

‘Too right. Or we could do something more worthwhile with our time. I’ve been thinking about doing some voluntary work, maybe get a part time job or something.’

‘Really?’

I sighed. ‘No, not really. I can’t tie myself to anything in case Matt needs me. But sometimes I miss being useful to other people.’

‘Yeah, it would be nice to be someone else other than ‘Mum’ I suppose. But I don’t think I could even summon up the energy to apply for a job, let alone actually do one.’

‘You’ve got four full-time jobs, flower. You deserve a medal just for not murdering them all in their beds.’

‘Ha ha. Did you hear about Charlie’s latest?’

Cal

I’d been sneaking around for about two weeks, snatching time in the evening here, a lunch there, trying not to be gone from Ayesh so long that she wondered where I was spending all my time, but not to be at home for long enough that a night of passion was on the cards. I’ve never been a liar, don’t have the stomach for it, and every lie I told Ayesh made me feel physically sick, but I was still telling myself I was just working through it with Chrissie, and once I was done, it would stop and Ayesh really didn’t need to be hurt by knowing. Dickhead.

The usual pattern was that I’d say goodbye to Chrissie and not make plans to see her again, part of me hoping that would be the last time, telling myself I couldn’t do it again, that I wouldn’t answer her texts, and I definitely wouldn’t be sending her any messages. Then before even twenty-four hours had passed, one or other of us would text to say ‘thanks for today‘ and we’d arrange to meet another time. Soon.

So when Chrissie texted just as I was finishing training for the day and asked if we could meet in the city centre, right now, it was a bit unusual, but I was available, Ayesh was at work, and an afternoon fix of Chrissie sounded great.

Meeting in a coffee shop could be considered a bit risky for someone cheating on their girlfriend, but in my fucked up head I wasn’t cheating, I was purging, and the thought didn’t cross my mind. All that crossed my mind was seeing Chrissie again.

The coffee shop was busy, and Chrissie was waiting for me when I got there. She looked so beautiful that my heart swelled and I walked over to her and kissed her, so passionately it took both of us by surprise.

Laura

As Amy launched into an account of her oldest daughter’s most recent escapade, I caught sight of a familiar figure walking in through the door. It was Cal, and I was just about to raise my hand and wave, when he stopped by a table where a young blonde woman was sitting. He bent down and kissed the woman, pretty passionately, on the mouth before sitting down opposite her.

‘Lau?’

‘What?’

‘Is there something exciting happening behind me? You’ve been staring over my shoulder. Your mouth’s open.’

I closed my mouth and dragged my attention back to Amy.

‘Sorry, flower. I just saw Cal.’

‘Oh, where?’

Amy turned round.

‘I can’t see him.’

‘He’s got his back to us; he’s with that blonde woman. Stop staring. He just snogged her.’

‘What? No. He must just know her, it must have been a hello kiss.’

‘Yeah, a ‘hello tonsils, may I introduce you to my tongue’ kiss. It was a snog. He hasn’t broken up with Ayesha, has he?’

Amy frowned. ‘No. We were only there at the weekend, it all seemed good, although you never really know do you. Who is she then?’

Amy risked another quick look behind her.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Does he know we’re here?’

‘I don’t think so, it’s a bit dark all the way back here, and I didn’t catch his eye.’

‘You don’t think he’s … I can hardly say it … messing about? It doesn’t seem like Cal. I thought he was completely crazy about Ayesha. I’m sure he told Dec he was going to propose at Christmas, but then nothing happened and I forgot. What are we going to do? I’ve got to go in a minute, I’ve got the dentist.’

‘What do you mean what are we going to do?’

‘Well we can’t just walk past them.’

‘Why on earth not, Amy? He’s meeting her in a public place, whatever he’s doing, it must be public.’

‘But what if he sees us?’

‘We’ll just say hi. It’s up to him what he says or does after that. It’s none of our business really.’

Cal

I held Chrissie’s gaze as I sat down opposite her.

‘Well hello to you too.’

‘Yeah, must have missed you or something.’

‘Mm. Cal, thanks for coming. I need to talk to you.’

That didn’t sound good. Things that sounded good never started with ‘I need to talk to you’. I reached for Chrissie’s hand, needing something to steady myself. Her fingers were soft and cool, and I couldn’t help stroking her knuckles with my thumb.

‘OK.’

‘I don’t think we should be doing this … whatever it is we’re doing. I feel dreadful about your girlfriend. I think this should be the last time we see each other.’

I was horrified. Chrissie was doing the thing I should have had the balls to do nearly two weeks ago, after I slept with her – no, before I slept with her – and here she was being the one thinking about Ayesh. I was the worst kind of arsehole, wasn’t I. But still I wasn’t going to let her go. At the moment, it seemed like I never knew how I was going to feel, or what I was going to say until it came out of my mouth.

‘Chrissie, no. I can’t stop seeing you. I want to carry on.’

‘Are you going to leave Ayesha?’

‘It’s complicated.’

Oh what a bloody cliché. Chrissie didn’t know about the potential baby, and I wasn’t about to tell her, because that would make her run away at supersonic speed. Still, she raised an eyebrow at the tired old excuse I’d just trotted out.

‘Cal, I can’t be this person. I feel … so amazing when I’m with you, but when you’re not with me, I think about you being with her, and I feel angry because you’re not with me, but then I feel guilty because I shouldn’t feel like this about someone else’s boyfriend.’

‘How do you feel?’

‘Oh come on Cal, we’ve both said it, it’s like the last ten years never happened, like I never moved away, like we’ve picked up where we left off. Do you want me to say it? OK then. I love you.’

Shit. Shit. Double and triple shit. She wasn’t supposed to say she loved me, now I was going to have to think seriously about what my feelings for her were, and how they were different to what I felt for Ayesh. Shit shit shit with an added bit of oh holy fuck for good measure.

Laura

Despite saying it was none of my business, I’d always been a nosy cow, and I risked another look at Cal and the mystery woman. They were now holding hands across the table, and looked to be having an intense conversation.

‘They’re holding hands.’

‘Oh no. Do you think we should say something? Not now, but later, let him know we saw him?’

‘No, we should go, so you don’t miss your dentist appointment. We’ll just walk by and he’ll know we’ve seen, and if he wants to say anything that’s up to him, but otherwise we should butt out. I just can’t help looking though. I wonder who she is.’

I shook my head, trying to maintain an open mind. Cal was an adult, and entitled to his privacy. Yeah right, Laura Scott, you so wanted to know the juicy details.

‘Are you ready?’

Amy and I picked up our bags and made our way to the door, passing by the table where Cal was sitting, still clasping the hand of the blonde woman. He looked up as we walked past his table.

Cal

I was just about to attempt some kind of an answer, when I felt the people walking past our table staring at me. Thinking it might be a Raiders fan after a selfie or an autograph, I looked up to give them the ‘can’t you see I’m busy, I deserve a private life’ brush off, straight into the eyes of Laura Scott and Amy Summers. Oh holy fucking shit no. I let go of Chrissie’s hand as if it had burnt me.

‘Oh, hey Lau. Hey Amy. Er …’

I glanced at Chrissie, who was looking up at Amy and Lau as well. She probably remembered both of them from before, but neither of them seemed to know who Chrissie was, and she didn’t say a word to them. Her expression was neutral as she waited for me make the next move, but it was Lau who spoke first.

Laura

His glance flickered to the woman sitting opposite him, who was looking up at us as well. She looked slightly familiar, but I couldn’t place her.

‘Hi Cal. You caught us. We were just having hot chocolate with caramel syrup. Don’t tell Matt, he still thinks we go to Pilates on a Wednesday.’

Cal

‘Oh, ha ha, no, your secret’s safe with me.’

Lau looked at Chrissie, and I knew she hadn’t missed the irony of my stupid comment. As if Lau and Amy sneaking a drink in Starbucks was in any way the same as me being with someone who wasn’t Ayesh.

Laura

I looked pointedly at his companion – if we were going to be talking about secrets, he had a pretty big one sat across the table from him.

‘Likewise.’

Cal

Then they walked out, leaving me with burning red cheeks and a head full of ‘oh shit’.

‘Was that Lau and Amy?’

I nodded, still struck dumb with panic.

‘They didn’t recognise me, I guess. Probably just as well.’

I found my voice.

‘Shit, Chrissie. This is terrible.’

‘No, Cal, maybe it’s for the best. Maybe we should just finish it now, stop all this before it goes too far, you can tell them it’s nothing and mean it, and get on with your life.’

I hung my head. She was right, in that ending it was what we should do. But she wasn’t right about anything else.

‘I can’t, Chrissie. I can’t finish it. It’s already too late for me to just get on with my life, now you’re here.’

‘What does that mean?’

I sighed. ‘I’m not sure I know. Fuck it, I know this is really unfair on you. It’s unfair on Ayesh, but I’m trying to get my head around a lot of shit. Maybe we should … not stop seeing each other, but give each other a rest, for a few days, is that fair? No, it’s not, of course it’s not, but can I ask that? I’ll sort my head out and text you, next week?’

Chrissie looked unsure, but nodded.

‘Don’t leave it too long.’

‘I won’t.’

I stood up to go, Chrissie staying in her seat, but looking up at me with her green eyes. I ran a finger down her cheek and held her gaze, hoping she could see something in my face apart from what a two-timing cheating bastard I was, then I left.

I drove home on autopilot, unable to get the encounter with Lau and Amy out of my head. What if they told Ayesh? What if they told Mum? Mum was more scary, because she would truly kill me. Ayesh was already part of the family, it would be like I’d cheated on Mum as well.

As soon as I got home, I got my phone out and made a call.

‘Lau, it’s not what you think.’

Which was true, as long as what she thought was that it was just a perfectly innocent skinny latte with an old friend.

Laura

I considered pretending I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I’d been thinking about him all the way home, and I’d always thought being up front was better than playing games.

‘Well, what I think is you’ve spent time in a coffee shop with a woman who you kissed pretty thoroughly and then spent some time holding hands and having a deep conversation with.’

‘Oh. Fuck.’

‘Yeah. Cal, it really isn’t any of my business, I was surprised to see you … like that, I suppose. I thought you and Ayesha were happy.’

Cal

I sighed. ‘Yeah. It’s bloody complicated.’

Why were the only words I could use to describe this pitiful situation ones that were trotted out in the worst chick flicks?

Laura

‘It usually is, flower. Do you want to talk about it?’

Another sigh. ‘Not really. Trying to get my head round some shit.’

‘Up to you, you know where I am.’

‘I know. You won’t tell Ayesh? I know it’s not fair to ask.’

‘OK, here’s the deal, it’s the same deal I have with any of you,’

Here, I was including Iz, Charlie, and Gracie, all of who had used Matt and me for parent-free confessionals, about topics ranging from boys to bras to bullying.

‘I won’t tell her anything unless she asks me a direct question, or unless someone is going to get hurt by me not telling her. Sometimes it’s a fine line, I will use my judgement, and I’m not prepared to argue with anyone about that.’

Cal

Lau and Matty were unofficial agony aunt and uncle to most of the family, usually Dec’s kids, with a bit of Iz thrown in for good behaviour. They never promised not to tell secrets, but to my knowledge they never had, and Lau had strict rules about what she was prepared to keep to herself, which may have stopped a few confession sessions, but not many, because Lau’s advice was always top drawer.

‘OK. Fair enough. I nearly talked to Matty last week, but I didn’t know where to start, and I don’t always like to bother him.’

I’d picked up the phone several times to call or Facetime Matty, but he got tired too much these days, and the times I wanted to talk were usually the middle of the night.

Laura

‘What? Matt would be horrified to hear you say that. You’re never a bother, Cal. You know Matt’s got all the time in the world for you. Give him a call. Or pop and see him, us, whenever. Anytime. Kettle’s always on; disapproval’s always off.’

‘Thanks, Lau. Might take you up on it.’

‘Take care, Cal.’

Cal

Lau always made people feel better. I disconnected and sat stewing over what the fuck I was going to do. Not coming to any conclusions, and it being close to the time Ayesh would be home, I went out. There weren’t many places I could go where my preoccupation wouldn’t be noticeable and commented on, so I took the car and sat in a dark corner of the empty car park at Raiders Stadium, until it was late.

Laura

‘Soh he didn’t tell you what’s going on?’

‘No, he just said it was complicated. Poor Cal. I hate to think of him having problems with Ayesh, they’re so good together.’

‘Yeah, but they’ve been together foh a long time, starting when they were both still pretty young. Sometimes you just change too much when you get older.’

‘Unless you’re Dec and Amy.’

‘Yeah, except then. Maybe tha’s why he hasn’t gone tuh Dec, tho.’

‘Do you think he’ll talk to us?’

‘I don’t know, Lau, depends wha ih is. Hope so, ih’s shit trying to keep stuff tuh yourself.’

‘You should know.’

‘Yeh.’

Cal

Ayesh was in bed when I got home. She’d left me a note hoping I was OK, and saying she’d left some chilli in the microwave if I was hungry. I hadn’t even checked my phone while I was out, but she had texted several times, the last two sounding worried. God I was a nasty piece of fucking shit, sitting on my own thinking only about myself, when Ayesh was worried about me.

I got undressed and slid into bed, next to Ayesh, who stirred when I got in.

‘Are you OK, huns?’

‘Yeah babe. Sorry, my phone ran out of charge while I was at Baggo’s. I didn’t realise till I got home just now.’

And so the lies continued. Every time, it broke a piece of me off and crushed it.

Ayesh pulled me into her and draped her arm over me, then fell asleep again, while I lay there staring into the darkness, hating myself for what I was doing to this wonderful woman.

After several hours of beating myself up, I couldn’t take it any more I was close to losing it, so I got up and into my car, and drove across the city, tears filling my eyes as I drove. When I got there, I lost my nerve. It was late, really late, the house was in darkness, and no one would be awake. It was too much, having come all this way only to realise I was going to have to go home again, and I couldn’t stop the sobs that welled up in me, the end result of several hours of giving myself grief and being unable to think of a way out of this, or at least a way that had a satisfactory outcome for everyone (i.e. me, I suppose, if I’m honest). Then I remembered ‘Anytime. Kettle’s always on; disapproval’s always off’ and I pressed the name on my phone.

124. Thorn in my pride

In which a party is planned, pride is overcome and a proposal is considered.

Laura

‘Lau, have you got the ‘on the day’ list?’

‘Good morning, Cal, how are you? Me? Lovely of you to ask. Yeah, I’m good thanks.’

My sarcasm was met with a panicked silence as Cal tried to think of a polite way to hurry me up. I gave in.

‘The ‘on the day’ list? Didn’t I give that to you, as it’s your responsibility?’

‘No way. Fuck, I’ve bloody lost it. You can’t remember what was on it, can you?’

‘No.’

‘Fuck.’

Another panicked silence as Cal tried to think of a way to ask me for the help he needed, but had assured me wouldn’t be necessary. I gave in again.

‘But I have got a copy, for just such situations.’

‘Oh, Lau, you’re a bloody superstar. I don’t suppose you can read it out? Or email it?’

‘No, I can’t email it, it’s handwritten, and I haven’t got time to type it up.’

I quickly read out the things on the list, and hoped Cal was writing them down carefully enough so he could, firstly, read them, and secondly, understand his shorthand.

‘You need to get cracking, though, Cal, I haven’t got time to do any of it for you. If you miss anything out, you are solely responsible for the failure of your mother’s surprise fiftieth birthday party.’

‘Er … is it supposed to be a surprise?’

Now it was my turn to panic. The whole point of it all was that it was a surprise. Cal had promised on his life that he wouldn’t let the cat out of the bag.

‘Yes … why? Oh Cal, what have you done?’

‘Ha ha, gotcha Lau. I can keep a secret.’

‘That’s not what I heard, and if your mum hasn’t sussed out what’s going on with her psychic abilities I’ll be amazed, but just stick to the list and you’ll be fine.’

‘What time are you and Matty getting there?’

‘We’re coming with your mum and dad and Dec and Amy. She’ll think we’re going to the restaurant, we’ll try and keep her talking while Dec drives over there, and hope she doesn’t notice too soon. Matt’s going to call or text you when we park, so keep your phone on and in your hand. It’s all on the list, step by step. If you’re worried you’re going to miss something, ask Iz; she’s got it covered.’

‘I won’t need to ask Iz.’

Matt and I had a bet that he would ask Iz to help him – I said half an hour after arriving, Matt said twenty minutes.

‘OK, flower. Any last minute questions?’

‘No, I don’t think so. I can always ring you.’

‘Course you can. Get cracking on that list now, Cal.’

‘Sure thing. Cheers, Lau, see ya later.’

‘Bye, flower.’

Matt looked up from his morning newspaper with a grin.

‘Does he hahv a clue wha he’s doin?’

‘He’s proper hopeless. He’s lost the list I gave him of everything he needs to do today, in what order. He’s already missed picking up the flowers. He’s just going to have to sort it though, he offered to do it, and I haven’t got time now.’

The arrangements for Beth’s party had been incredibly convoluted, and would have benefited from Beth’s organisational skills, if it hadn’t been a surprise for her. Amy had masterminded it all, sorting the venue (the ballroom in an old hotel), the theme (Dirty Dancing, Beth’s favourite film) and the guest list (extensive), and we’d got together as a family to plan as much as we could without Beth knowing what was going on.

It had been difficult; Beth always knew when something was up, and she’d asked some probing questions, but it remained to be seen whether she’d guessed or not. We’d tried to throw her off the scent by pretending to organise dinner with her and Jay, Dec and Amy, and Matt and me at her favourite restaurant and thrown in all sorts of fake ‘surprises’ that we let slip. But she was clever, and could sniff out a secret with ease, especially if Cal was the one trying to keep it. We couldn’t do it without him, though, as we were part of the decoy. At least now Cal had moved out of home, he would have less opportunity to cough up the info.

I’d primed Iz in what needed doing, and given her another copy of the list, as I’d known Cal would lose his, and didn’t have any confidence in him keeping hold of the second one either. Iz had a much more sensible head on her shoulders, and was going to keep a subtle eye on her older brother.

‘Anything I can duh?’

‘What, apart from going to fetch Lis and Nico from the station in, oh, half an hour?’

‘Oh yeh. Forgot.’

I rolled my eyes.

‘You’re as hopeless as Cal. One job, that’s all you’ve got.’

‘Maybe I’m craving mohr responsibility.’

‘OK then, how about ironing Ella’s party dress?’

‘Noh, hate ironing.’

‘Icing the cake?’

‘Don’t thihk soh.’

‘What about reading the paper, drinking tea and offering unhelpful suggestions when they’re least wanted?’

‘I like ih. Tha’s wha I’ll do.’

‘Good. Glad you’re taking your responsibilities seriously. Half an hour, Matt.’

‘Yeh, I’m ready now, jus finishing the paper.’

‘Josh wanted you to test him on his spelling before you go.’

‘I’ve goh time. Where is he, anyway?’

‘I don’t know. Can you read the paper and find him at the same time?’

‘Yeh, course. JOSH!’

I frowned at the shout, which brought a cheeky smile to Matt’s face. From upstairs:

‘What?’

‘Spelling plehs.’

‘I’m doing something.’

‘Unless ih’s spelling, get down hehr wih your book, mate.’

‘Oh Daad.’

Matt went back to his newspaper, knowing he wouldn’t have to tell Josh another time. Ella would have been a different matter, and would have involved several trips up the stairs and some tough negotiations as well, but for now she didn’t need to be prised away from her room.

Josh’s grumpy footsteps were soon heard stomping down the stairs, but he had his spelling book with him, and sat next to Matt on the sofa. Matt continued with the paper for a while, watching out of the corner of his eye to see if he had managed to annoy Josh enough yet. A huffed breath told him he had made a start.

‘Dad, I’ve got my spelling book.’

‘Mm hm. Jus finishing this interesting article abouh the Amazon Rain Forest. Did yuh know ih’s over five an a half million kilometres big?’

‘No, Dad, but –’

‘Spehl kilometre.’

Josh looked up, surprised.

‘It’s not in my book.’

‘Noh, but yuh need tuh be able tuh spehl ih. Kilometre?’

Josh rolled his eyes.

‘K-I-L-O-M-E-T- er -E-R.’

‘Nearly. Have another goh.’

‘Oh, I did the R and E the wrong way.’

‘Try ih again, then.’

‘K-I-L-O-M-E-T-R-E.’

‘Awesome. Where’s your book?’

As I made the icing for Beth’s cake, I listened to Matt and Josh’s voices. Matt was so good at helping with homework. He knew a lot, but never showed off or made the children feel stupid, and I thought he would have been a good teacher. Or rather, he was a good teacher, to our children.

Ella wandered down in search of a snack, and Matt spotted her.

‘Squeaks, any spelling you need tuh practise?’

‘No, Dad, I know it all.’

‘Rehly? You know labyrinth?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Go on then.’

‘I know it.’

Ella was always harder to persuade than Josh, as she probably did know it, but didn’t want to risk getting it wrong, so wasn’t likely to perform publicly. She worked much harder than Josh at making sure she got her homework finished.

‘Humour me.’

‘H-U-M-O-U-‘

‘Yeh, hilarious, Squeaks. Maybe labyrinth was too hard …’

Sometimes Ella would respond to this challenge. Not today.

‘They’re all hard, that’s why it’s a test. If they were all easy, we wouldn’t need to learn them.’

‘Fair enough. How about one not on the list? Next level? Functional.’

If it wasn’t part of the test, Ella was more than happy to show off what she knew.

‘Easy. F-U-N-C-T-I-O-N-A-L.’

‘Awesome. Wha’s it mean?’

‘I don’t know, Dad, you only asked me to spell it.’

Ella and Matt enjoyed their verbal battles. I couldn’t see into the living room, but I imagined Josh sitting next to Matt feeling relieved that the pressure was off him for a while, then getting bored pretty soon, and starting to fidget, thus drawing Matt’s attention back to him. Josh liked being active, and words weren’t really his strong point. He was due at rugby training soon; Matt was going to drop him off on the way to the station, and pick him up later. Ella had agreed to help me with the cake, but it was likely she’d change her mind if something more interesting to do occurred to her. Something like Nico Tiago and his family.

After a while, homework done and children teased, Matt set off with Josh, and Ella and I started the cake. It was enormous. Rose had made it, and I had somehow agreed to ice it, even though Rose would have made a much better job of it. She had lost confidence over the last year or so, and I couldn’t persuade her that her icing skills were still far superior to mine.

‘Go on, love, I can’t even do a straight line these days, it all goes to wiggles.’

So Ella and I mixed icing sugar and food colouring, and did our best to decorate the cake with bought decorations, sparklers and candles. Cal was going to pick it up before we went to pick up Jay and Beth, and I hoped he’d manage to get it to the party unscathed. Just as we were adding the finishing touches, I heard the front door open, and Nico’s familiar laugh floated through into the kitchen.

I glanced at Ella, who had gone all shy. She had a bit of a crush on Nico, not helped by his enthusiastic declaration of her beauty every time he saw her. The fact that Nico told every woman he saw that she was beautiful didn’t make any difference, and her cheeks were starting to pink up.

‘Lau?’

‘In the kitchen.’

Matt came in, followed by Nico, Lis and Bastien, who at eleven was a year older than Ella and another reason for her blushes. We hadn’t seen them for a while, as they’d been busy with the rugby season in Argentina, but now the Argentinian rugby team were in the UK for the autumn internationals, and Nico had brought his family over.

‘Laura, hello, you are beautiful still. But who is this grown up lady who help you? Is not Ella, I am sure, last time I see Ella she is little girl, but she is all woman now.’

Ella’s colour deepened.

‘Oh leave the poor girl alone, Nico. Hi Lau, hey Ella, it’s great to see you.’

Lis strode over and gave us both hugs while Bastien and Ella looked shyly at each other. They hadn’t seen each other for about a year, and although they’d spent a lot of time in each other’s company before Nico and Lis moved back to Buenos Aires, it usually took a while for them to be comfortable with each other again.

‘Wow, Lau, have you just done this cake?’

‘Well, Ella and I have just iced it. All the decorations were bought, and Rose made the cake. But the buttercream icing, all our own work.’

‘Oh it’s fab. You’re very clever.’

‘Rose wouldn’t do it; she would have made it look professional.’

‘Oh, is she still a bit …’

‘Yeah, a bit. Dec and Amy were talking about her moving in with them.’

‘Really? Where the hell were they thinking of putting her?’

‘Another extension was mentioned.’

‘Ha, they have no garden soon. Or they must move to a castle.’

‘Yeah, I think moving might be on the cards eventually. I don’t know what I’d do without them just down the road, though.’

‘Talking of which, do yuh guys want tuh dump your bags upstairs? We’ve put yuh in Ella’s room, we’re putting Basty and Ella in wih Josh so they get noh sleep and weh have tuh yell at them all nigh. Then I think Amy’s doing sohm lunch, an I’ve got tuh go an get Josh.’

‘Josh he does well in youth team?’

‘Yeh, he’s great. He scored a try last week, he was soh excited.’

‘So were you, flower, you didn’t stop talking about it all afternoon.’

‘Heh, if yuh can’t be proud of your kids – I dihnt stop talking about Ella’s essay prize either.’

‘Ella, you win prize? You are beautiful and clever. You must take after your mother.’

‘Why don’t you show Nico your essay, my love?’

‘Oh, I like this, yes please.’

Ella trotted off to find her essay, which had won a school prize for creative writing at the end of the summer term. She loved writing stories, and was always scribbling something, whether it was making her own tiny newspapers or penning long, convoluted stories involving lots of princesses and butterflies.

‘So Matty, how are you?’

‘Good, thanks, Nico. Or rather, not too bad. Never quite geh tuh good at the moment, but I’m aiming fuh average.’

‘You are better than when we last see you.’

‘Well tha’s not hard, I was in hospital on a drip. I’m hoping Sahnta brings meh something better than phlegm this year.’

‘We all hope this for you.’

‘Thanks. Anyway, moving swiftly on, I think Dec and Amy are keen fuh yuh tuh call roun, there’s food an everything. I know Chahlie’s behn waiting all morning. She wouldn’t goh tuh ballet in case she missed yuh.’

‘Ha, then we should go, baby. I don’t like to keep such a small fiery woman waiting.’

‘Yeah, Nico, it wouldn’t be like you to keep anyone waiting, would it. We’ll just put our bags upstairs. Basty, you take yours into Josh’s room, yeah? Oh, thanks, Matt. Are you sure you can – sorry, sorry.’

Lis rolled her eyes as Matt tutted.

‘I know, stop fussing, sorry, been away a while, almost forgot the don’t-help-Matt rules.’

‘Cheers, Lis, buh I’m not helpless jus yet.’

Matt and Nico disappeared upstairs, with Bastien and Ella following.

‘How are things, Lau?’

I shrugged. ‘Better than they were, Matt’s back at work, but you can see he’s lost some mobility and he’s still having trouble speaking.’

‘How’s he coping? He used to get really down.’

‘Yeah, he still does. He hates it, but we get through it together. The children are a godsend, he pushes himself for them, tries not to let it get to him, and eventually he comes out of it.’

‘He’s lucky he’s got you.’

‘We’re lucky we’ve got each other.’

‘Yeah, that too.’

‘How’s Basty getting on at school?’

‘Oh, great. His Spanish is really coming along, he doesn’t need the lessons any more, he’s got so many friends, they all chatter away, I don’t understand half of it, so I expect it’s mostly swearing and boobs. Oh, and guess what, he’s in the rugby team. With Cal, Josh and Tom we only need a few more and we’ll have a whole team between us, yeah?’

‘Yeah, and then maybe I’ll have to learn the rules.’

‘Nah, no point. Just look at the bums and thighs, that’s all you need to know.’

‘Bit awkward when it’s your son and his mates.’

‘True. Isn’t there something about putting the ball over a white line?’

‘Beats me. Lots of running around thumping each other is all I’ve ever been able to work out.’

‘I would say it’s a boy thing, but Beth always seems to know what’s going on.’

‘Beth always knows what’s going on about everything. I’ll be amazed if she hasn’t sussed out tonight, especially if she’s grilled Cal at all.’

‘Ha ha, true, Cal was always rubbish at keeping secrets. I don’t think she will have tried to find out though, she wouldn’t want to spoil it for everyone even if she suspects.’

From upstairs we heard furniture being moved about, and then Matt and Nico came back downstairs.

‘… wha yuh can duh with GPS. Haven’t you goh the new TrakaTwo system?’

‘We have Traka.’

‘Well Traka’s behn around fuh a while, but this is an upgrahd. Raiders goh ih end of las season, up an running by August foh pre-season.’

‘I must talk to Jaime, ask if I can come and see. You will help explain? I know Jaime he not so good at technical things.’

‘If ih was up tuh Jay wehd still all be using pencil and paper, buh thankfully ih’s not and Raiders are top of the league. Are yuh goin tuh the game this afternoon?’

Nico looked at Lis and raised his eyebrows.

‘I don’t decide yet. What you think baby? Matty he tell me about this GPS which do amazing things.’

Lis raised her eyebrows back at him.

‘I thought we were going to catch up with everyone before the party, yeah?’

‘We have time after the game, and at the party also. Declan, he will be going to Raiders, and Matty and Tom and Josh, yes?’

Matt nodded.

‘So all the men are deserting us. I suppose Cal’s playing, is he?’

‘No, he’s got an injury, he’s not in the squad at the moment, that’s why I’ve been able to get him to help out, although I’ve had to remind him about so many things, and pick up after him, I would have been better off doing it myself.’

‘What is it about Scott men? They’re all useless at being organised.’

‘Heh! Bluhdy cheek.’

‘Sorry, Matt, present company excepted. But Jay, Dec and Cal are all hopeless.’

‘Yeh, even tho Dec ihnt a true Scott, he has all the hallmarks of a lazy disorganised bastard. Maybe weh were swapped at birth.’

‘Ten years apart?’

‘Thahks fuh tha, Lau.’

‘What was going on upstairs? Were you moving stuff?’

‘Yeh. Ella decided tha if weh moved the bunks tuh the other wall, she’d have more room tuh sleep on the floor, so me an Nico shifted ih.’

‘Are you sure this is OK, guys? It’s a bit of a tight squeeze for you. We were perfectly happy to get a hotel.’

‘Oh don’t be daft, Lis, it’s lovely having you here. Ella and Josh have been so excited about Basty staying, they’ve got all sorts planned for him. Although I don’t think sleeping is one of them.’

‘Let’s get going to Dec and Amy’s then, yeah? I’m dying to see their new kitchen.’

The day went quickly. First, lunch with the Summers family, a chaotic muddle of overexcited children, chatter and laughter. Then Matt went to the Raiders game with Nico, taking Charlie, Bastien, Tom, Josh and Ella – who didn’t usually bother with rugby, but wasn’t about to be left out of anything where both Nico and Bastien were going to be. That left me with Lis, Amy, Rose, Gracie and Rosa, and we pottered about doing last minute things for Beth’s party. Beth didn’t know Nico and Lis were here, so we couldn’t include her.

When the rugby lot arrived home, jubilant after a win, it was time to get ready. Nico and Lis were bringing our children to the party, and Cal was picking up Dec and Amy’s, and I hoped that between them they wouldn’t be too late.

Dec parked his people carrier outside Jay and Beth’s house, and walked up the path.

‘Place yuhr bets, how long are weh gona beh sat out here?’

‘Oh, Beth’s usually completely ready on time.’

‘Yeh, Amy, buh she’s had tuh organise Jay, an now Dec’s in thehr, could beh bluhdy ages.’

‘Are you suggesting my husband might in some way hold things up by, oh I don’t know, getting sidetracked and losing track of time?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Ha ha, you’re completely right. I should have gone in instead. Shall I go and hurry them up?’

‘Let’s give them a minute. Matt, did you bring the presents?’

‘Yeh, Lau, I remembered tuh do the one important job I had today.’

‘Oh, I thought that was making a playlist. You made enough fuss about wanting to do it.’

‘Alrigh, two important jobs. Oh, bluhdy hell, here they are. Glad weh dihnt bet, I’d be well ouh of pocket.’

The car door opened and Beth and Jay got into the rear seat, behind Matt and me.

‘Hello everyone. This is so lovely.’

‘Hi Beth. Happy Birthday.’

‘Yeh, how’s ih fehl tuh be old?’

‘Wouldn’t know, Matty, ask me when I am. I’m only fifty.’

‘Fair poihn. Hahd a good day?’

‘Yes, it’s been lovely. James even brought me breakfast in bed.’

‘Whoa, Jay, you know where the fucking toaster is? Bloody hell, who’d have thought.’

‘Yes I do thanks, Dec, although I didn’t do toast, I did a soft boiled egg with soldiers, with freshly brewed coffee and warm brioche with a selection of conserves.’

‘Fuuck. All by yourself, without burning the kitchen down?’

‘I can cook, thanks.’

‘Noh yuh bluhdy can’t. Oh, I beh Iz helped.’

Jay was silent.

‘Yeh. Nail on the hehd. I beh she did ih all.’

‘Oh alright, she did point me in the right direction for some of it, but it was all my idea. I know what you like, don’t I Beth?’

‘Yes, James, it was lovely. I think you might have cut the soldiers yourself.’

‘Ha ha, were they a bit wonky?’

‘Maybe just a bit, sweetheart, but boiled egg and soldiers is my favourite breakfast, even if the army is a bit lopsided. Oh, shouldn’t we have turned down there?’

‘No, going a different way.’

‘Oh. Anyway, after breakfast, Iz took me shopping and bought me the most gorgeous pair of shoes –’

‘She bought them?’

‘Well not exactly, Amy, she chose them, I paid for them.’

‘What are they like?’

‘Have a look, Laura.’

Beth hooked her foot over the seat back between the head rests.

‘Blimey, Beth, how on earth can you do that?’

‘At my age, do you mean?’

‘No, I mean at all. I’ve never been that bendy.’

‘I disagreh, Lau. Always bendy enough fuh meh.’

‘Yeah, too much info, Matty.’

‘Great shoes, though, Beth. Iz has got a great eye.’

Amy had turned round to try and get a glimpse, but it was too dark.

‘Oh, I’ll just have to wait till we get there. What did you do this afternoon?’

‘Well, first I went to see Carol, and we had some lunch, then I went home and did the laundry.’

‘What? On your birthday?’

‘Well it needed doing, and everyone was out. Cal came round before he went to the game, brought a bunch of flowers that didn’t even look as if they were from the garage, and a card that Ayesha had made –’

‘She does completely amazing cards. I told her she should start a business.’

‘I think she does sell them, just a few at work and things. Maybe I should set her up at the craft fair, I’ve got a few contacts. She does jewellery as well, earrings and things, have you seen them?’

‘She gave me some earrings for my birthday, I loved them.’

‘Dec, where are you taking us? This is a really long way round.’

‘No it’s not. Bonksy told me this short cut, it leads to a little car park, we won’t have to pay.’

‘Really? We’re not going to have to walk miles are we? These shoes are a bit high. I’d rather pay and be closer, sweetheart.’

‘It’ll be fine, Beth, stop stressing.’

‘Beth, did I tell yuh I saw Pehter Jones the other day?’

‘Oh really, Matty? How is he?’

‘Dihnt look greht, in a wheelchair. He was wih his wife, in the supermahket. He’s a grandad now.’

‘Oh really? That’s so lovely. You should give him a call, James.’

‘Yeah, I’ve been meaning to. Remind me, will you? I think there’s some kind of Raiders old boys thing happening next year, I should make sure he’s invited.’

‘Who qualifies as an old boy?’

‘Well I do, Dec, you’re still a bit young but maybe they’ll let you be a waiter or something.’

‘Oh, is it just eating? There’s no game or anything?’

‘I’m not sure most of us would survive more than thirty seconds on a rugby pitch these days. Maybe you and Nico would stand a chance, but the likes of me, Peter, Dom, Andy and co would need serious body armour.’

‘Do you still miss playing, Dec?’

‘Yeah, all the fucking time. I know I’m a sensible businessman now –’

‘Sensibhl? Mohr like leaves the hard work tuh the IT expert and gallivants off roun the country talking tuh old rugby chums.’

Dec and Matt had started a rugby-focussed IT business in the summer after Dec finished playing. Dec had the contacts and Matt had the expertise, and both of them were good with people, and so far it was working well. Matt had pulled back a bit from his job at Raiders, although he still did a couple of days a week; working from home, with Dec just up the road, was ideal. Even when he wasn’t so well, he could sit in front of his computer and email people, and Dec could do the phoning when Matt found it hard to speak. It was working at the moment, and business was steadily increasing.

‘As I was saying, Lau, yeah, I miss it all the time. I thought about offering my services to one of the local lower league sides –’

‘You didn’t, hon!’

‘Just thought about it, Ames.’

‘Oh. I thought I’d got away with worrying every weekend in case you came home with a broken leg or a head missing or something.’

‘Sorry, babe. I won’t do anything without talking to you.’

‘What is it with you rugby playing blokes? You’re gluttons for punishment if you ask me.’

‘Yeh, Lau, yuhr lucky yuhv got a shy retiring geek, noh chance of mangled limbs or missing body parts.’

‘I don’t deny I’m lucky to have you, flower, but I would never describe you as shy or retiring.’

The banter carried on, as we frantically tried to divert Beth’s attention from the journey, which was taking us away from rather than into the city centre. Eventually she noticed.

‘That was a sign for Pembury. This isn’t a short cut, Dec.’

‘Yeah, think I might have taken a wrong turning. Bloody Bonksy. I’ll just pull in here and see if I can find out where we are.’

He pulled the car to a halt in a car park, which was full of cars. If Beth recognised any of them as belonging to family and friends, she didn’t say.

‘I’m a bit lost. Beth, will you come with me? You’re good with directions. I’m going to ask in here. Sorry.’

‘Oh Dec. You’re hopeless.’

By now, I was sure Beth knew there was something going on, particularly as Matt hadn’t whipped out his phone to check Google maps and have a go at Dec about his sense of direction. As Dec and Beth got out of the car, Matt called Cal.

‘The eagle has lahded.’

I could clearly hear Cal’s confused reply.

‘What?’

Matt sighed. ‘Wehr here. Yuhr mum’s jus about tuh come in.’

‘Oh shit.’

He hung up and we got out of the car, following Beth and Dec at a distance. They seemed to be having a disagreement near the door, and their words became clearer as we approached.

‘… not going to go into a strange building in the middle of nowhere and tell them I don’t know where I am. Why won’t you come in with me?’

‘I am coming in with you, I just said ‘you go first’, that’s all.’

‘There could be anyone in there.’

‘Doesn’t sound like it, it’s quiet.’

‘Maybe there’s no one here.’

‘Lights are on.’

‘I’m still not – oh, what are you all doing?’

‘Thoht wehd come an help.’

‘Alright, Beth, we’ll go in together, yeah?’

‘Fine.’

Dec held his arm out to Beth and pulled the door open. It was a huge hall, and everyone was standing round the walls, facing the door. It had been exquisitely decorated, and Cal had followed his instructions to the letter, maybe with some help from Iz and Ayesha. Beth stopped in the doorway as she saw Cal, and then everyone shouted ‘SURPRISE!’ and the evening started.

o0o

‘Well maybe Iz could take them, then.’

‘Noh way in hehl is Iz drihvin my children tuh school. She only passed her test las wehk.’

I snorted with frustration.

‘Well I don’t know what else to suggest. The car won’t be ready for a few days, Amy has a car full on the school run, Jay will be at work and Beth’s away at her conference, and you won’t let me ask anyone else. Maybe we could get the bus. There’s probably a timetable on the internet.’

‘Yuh cahnt goh on the bus wih crutches.’

‘Well what are we going to do then, keep them at home on their first day of big school?’

‘Fuck. Ihm such a fucking dick.’

I thought it would come down to this, blaming himself; it was why he wasn’t amenable to any solutions I offered.

Following a sudden exacerbation of MS symptoms, Matt had crashed the car when his leg had spasmed. He had been pulling onto the driveway, and had hit the garage door, destroying it and crumpling the front of the car. I had been in the passenger seat, and my side of the car had hit the garage with enough force to bash my ankle, which had been stretched forwards in the act of sympathetic braking. Matt was shaken and scared, and was now feeling stupid, frustrated and disabled. His insurance company was unlikely to renew his policy, or at least were going to up the premiums unaffordably, and he was facing having to give up driving. It was huge, and he wasn’t dealing with it well. I sighed inwardly.

‘No you’re not. It was an accident. We’ll think of something. How about we get a taxi?’

‘Tha’ll cost a bluhdy fortune.’

‘It’ll only be for a couple of days. Beth’ll be back on Thursday, she’ll be more than happy to take them until I can drive. I’m not planning on using these any longer than I have to.’

I gestured to the crutches propped by the side of my chair.

‘I so dohnt wana tell Beth.’

‘I know, Matt. I’m sure you wish we didn’t have to tell anyone, but they all mean well, and I’ll hold the fussing at bay for you.’

‘I know. Dohnt know wha I’hd duh wihout yuh, Lau.’

And that was the next part of it, he thought he was useless on his own, and it was only me who was holding him together. I recognised it as a kind of checking; checking I was still there for him, telling me he was grateful. I had never really been able to convince him that he did as much for me as I did for him, that we were in it together, whatever ‘it’ was, that our whole marriage didn’t revolve around his MS, that there were so many positives to life with Matt that made it easy to cope with the rough times. So my sigh was only inward, a kind of strengthening myself for the battle to convince him he was worth the struggle.

‘Well I expect that without me, you’d be a gibbering wreck on the floor, surrounded by empty takeaway containers, and fending off the rats with your shoe.’

‘Prohbly. Or migh not bother fending them off, jus leh them fucking eat meh.’

Now he knew he was being ridiculous, but was getting maudlin and wallowing in it.

‘Am I going to have to get Dec over to – oh what is it you two always say to each other – be there whether you like it or not, or whatever.’

‘Not leave meh alohn when I’m fehling this shih.’

‘That’s it.’

‘Not alohn, got yuh.’

‘I know. You know you’ve always got me. Just reminding you that I’ve got reinforcements if I need them, and I’m not afraid to use them. Just because you like going it alone sometimes doesn’t mean I have to.’

‘Cow.’

He looked incredibly grumpy, but shot me a look from under his still long, still beautiful eyelashes and I knew I’d talked him round for now. He took a deep breath, then sighed it out. Matt was one of the most stubborn people I knew, and we had our fights over the daftest of things, but sometimes he knew when he was hanging on for the sake of it. This was one of those times.

‘Taxi then?’

‘OK. I’ll call now. Then maybe you should text Beth, ask her to help out on Friday?’

‘Shih. Cahnt yuh duh ih?’

‘Just text, Matt. You don’t have to talk to her.’

‘Buh she’ll ring as soon as I tex.’

‘You don’t have to answer. Although if you just talked to her, you’d save yourself a lot of aggro. She’s been really good, Jay or Dec must have told her about the car, and she hasn’t called or checked on you at all.’

‘I s’pohs. Thihk she’s scared of meh since Chrismus.’

Last Christmas, Matt had been doing pretty well, some residual mobility problems and slightly slurred speech aside. He had been helping Beth clear up in the kitchen after Christmas dinner, and had dropped a glass. I wasn’t in the room, and Beth’s version was different to Matt’s. Beth said she just asked if he was alright, meaning to check he hadn’t cut himself; Matt said she immediately went over the top with sympathy. However it really happened, something pushed Matt’s buttons, maybe it was something that Beth said, maybe it was fear that dropping the glass was the start of the return of symptoms, and he started yelling at Beth. All his pent up frustrations from years back, years of wanting people to leave him alone when he was fed-up and miserable, years of hating needing help, years of feeling like he was constantly being watched for signs of illness, all of this came out in a verbal attack on his sister-in-law.

I listened, horrified, from the living room as he told her to ‘fucking back the fuck off’, that he wanted her to ‘stop being a fucking interfering bitch and stay the fuck out of my life’, then he told her it was ‘only a fucking glass, they break all the fucking time, look’, and smashed another one on the floor.

Before he could say or do anything else, Jay and I had rushed into the kitchen in time to see Matt leave by the other door and go out into the cold, leaving the front door wide open. I knew that Matt would need time to calm down, and that if I followed immediately he would still be angry. I would leave it a while and then try to find him.

Beth, in the meantime, was distraught. She was well used to Matt swearing, and to him finding sympathy hard to accept, but wasn’t used to angry outbursts aimed directly at her; the worst she usually had to put up with from Matt was sarcasm.

Jay and I tried our hardest to comfort her, but she was shocked and upset, and didn’t calm down for ages. I hadn’t ever seen Beth fazed by anything, and nothing Jay or I said seemed to make any difference. She’d spent a lot of years trying to do what she thought was best for Matt, even in the face of his unwillingness to accept much in the way of help, and he’d finally gone too far in his rejection of her caring.

I went to look for him after a while, taking his coat, which he’d left behind, and was relieved when I saw him in the car – he hadn’t gone far, then, just out to the road. Matt was sitting in the driver’s seat, forehead leaning on the steering wheel. I got in next to him and put the coat over his shoulders, not saying anything.

Matt’s breathing was ragged and he sounded like he’d been crying. I sat with my arm round his shoulders, getting colder, waiting. There were lots of deep breaths, lots of almost mumbles as if he was going to say something and changed his mind. I just waited, arm round him. Eventually, I realised he wasn’t going to be able to start a conversation, so I gave it a shot. Gave him an out.

‘Shall I go and get Ella and Josh? Go home?’

A big intake of breath, a slight lift of the head, as if scenting the opportunity to escape.

‘Noh. I should goh an apologise, shouldn’t I.’

I squeezed his shoulders.

‘Only if you mean it.’

‘Yeah. Never spoke like tha tuh Beth in my life. Never spoke like tha tuh anyone, really. She doesn’t deserve ih. I know why she does ih. Jus made meh so mad, I went over the top.’

‘She is pretty upset.’

‘OK then.’

And he got out of the car and walked up the path and back into the house with me, where there was a big hug and a heartfelt apology and a forgiving. But things hadn’t been quite the same between Beth and Matt since, there was something there, something that got in the way, that stopped the easy exchange of texts, phone calls, pop-in visits. Beth held back, which she had never done before despite all of Matt’s show of reluctance, and I realised that Matt missed it, the contact, what he always called fussing. But some things take time to heal, and now with our transport problems and the fast approaching first day of big school, I sensed an opportunity for more mending.

‘Yeah, I think you could be right, but if you talk to her and ask her to help us out, maybe she’ll stop being quite so scared.’

‘Dunno, I quite lihk Beth being scared of meh.’

‘No you don’t, it freaks you out.’

There was a short silence.

‘Yeah, yuhr righ. Bluhdy cow, always bluhdy righ, always know wha bluhdy frehks meh. Alrigh then, have ih yuhr way.’

He got his phone out and pressed the screen.

‘Heh Beth … yeh, bouh the same, how’s the party planners’ convention? … ha ha, I know, buh tuh meh tha’s a party planners’ convention. I’m imagining clowns an tables full of seventy fihv differen types of party popper an jugglers on unicycles or some such shih … rehly? I thihk my way’s better. Maybe weh should join forces an plan nex yehr’s one, it’d beh much mohr fun … ha ha, yeh … well, actually, wanted a favour … yeh, well, I dohnt know if yuh heard, buh I crashed the fucking car the other day, knackered the car and broke Lau a bih as well … yeh, thoht they migh hahv … yeh, she’ll beh OK, hobbling a bih, she was trying tuh brake, duhnt rehly work from the passenger seat … ha ha, yeh, buh anyway, car’s in the shop for a bih, Lau’s in the shop for a bih, Ella an Josh start school tomorrow, and wehr a bih stuck … noh noh, wehr gona do taxis fuh tomorrow an Thursday, buh wondered if yuhd beh able tuh take them Friday? Hope tuh hahv the car back by Monday, an maybe Lau’ll beh back on her feet … oh, tha’d beh greht … noh, she’s got crutches at the moment. Wana word? … OK, thahks Beth, lihfsaver.’

Matt breathed out and passed his phone over to me.

‘Hi Beth. Thanks so much for helping us out, we’ve been going round in circles, we were even thinking about asking Iz.’

‘Oh no! I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I’m just glad I don’t have to sit next to her on the ring road any more I’m surprised Matty asked me, though.’

‘Yeah, well, about time too.’

‘I’m glad. It’s felt a bit weird for a while, I don’t like it when things aren’t right. Anyway, what have you done to your ankle?’

‘Oh, I was trying to brake, and it got a bit of a jolt when the car hit the garage. Must have been at a funny angle, they said it was a bad sprain, I’ll be OK in a few days. I’m just using the crutches when I’m out.’

‘Is the garage alright?’

‘We’ve had to get a new door, it definitely came off worst out of all of us.’

‘Is Matty going to carry on driving?’

‘Don’t know. No decisions as yet.’

I wasn’t sure how much of Beth’s side of the conversation Matt could hear or was listening to, and didn’t want to undo the bridge-building that had just occurred by annoying Matt. Beth picked up on it, much as she wanted to grill me.

‘OK, Laura, well I’ll see you on Thursday when I get back, maybe I can pop round for a coffee? I just said to Matty, I’ll be back in time to fetch Josh and Ella from school, so I could call in then?’

‘That’d be great. See you then, enjoy the rest of your party planners’ convention.’

‘Ha ha, it’s an Event Organisers Conference, and there are just a lot of powerpoints, not a clown or a juggler in sight. I think Matty’s ideas would be a lot more entertaining. I’ve learnt a lot, though. See you Thursday, sweetheart, take care of yourself.’

We disconnected and I handed the phone back to Matt.

‘Well done, you.’

‘Shouldn’t beh soh bluhdy hard, should ih? I’ve known Beth more than half my lihf, shouldn’t leh things build up.’

‘Well, no, but you’ve done something about it now, you’ve asked her to help us, and she appreciated it. She’s coming over on Thursday for a coffee, if you’re around.’

‘We’ll prohbly both be around for the foreseeable, noh car, noh can walky fuh either of us, both fucking cripples together. Fuck, haven’t said tha fuh a while. Sohry, Lau. Jus teasing, yuh don’t have tuh put yuh nursey face on.’

o0o

‘Whoa. Happy New Year, Lau. Happy New me.’

Matt let go of me and lay on his back, panting, a huge smile on his face.

‘I was starting tuh think I wasn’t gona geh ih back. You’re my lucky charm.’

I was pretty breathless myself, Matt’s excitement and enthusiasm at his newly discovered erection having given us a frantic first of January wake-up call.

‘I certainly feel lucky. Welcome back, flower. That was proper amazing.’

You’re proper amazing, Lau. Scottying back on the bedroom agenda. Woohoo. An I got rat-arsed last nigh. Shouldn’t have been able tuh get ih up at all. Whoa. This year, gona beh good. I jus feel ih.’

‘It’ll be what we make it, so yeah, here’s to this year.’

‘When are the kids coming back?’

‘Amy said before lunch. I said I’d have them all over here so her and Dec can go and see Rose.’

‘So …’

‘Yes, there is time for another go before they get here. You’re insatiable.’

‘Have tuh get ih when I can, no knowing when ih’s gona fuck off again. Come here you gorgeous woman.’

He pulled me into his arms and kissed me passionately. I loved it when Matt got his sexual mojo back, he seemed more … Matt. He’d come to terms with it coming and going, or as much as he ever would, but still had a huge appetite for sex when his libido allowed, and to see him so happy gave me a boost, too.

As Matt’s mouth found mine and our hands explored the well-known places and reignited the familiar tingles and fizzes, I felt myself relax, and tension I hadn’t realised I was feeling started to seep away. As we moved with each other and led each other to another startling climax, I felt Matt shudder against me and realised he was coming and crying at the same time. I pulled him tightly against me and held him, neither of us needing words; this was familiar ground, this was Matt being thankful for what he’d got back and terrified that next time it would never return, this was Matt feeling guilty for having MS and the way it affected our family, this was Matt hating the part of his life that made him feel less of a man. I didn’t need to say anything, I’d said it all before, and so I just held him and our bodies spoke for us.

Cal

It was November. I’d just turned twenty-four, and Ayesh and I were out having dinner to celebrate. She’d been a bit off colour for a few days, and we’d nearly cancelled, but she thought she was feeling better so we went ahead.

Half way through the evening, just as Ayesh’s plate of seafood was put in front of her, she turned pale and had to make a dash for the loo, from where I and, unfortunately, the rest of the customers, could hear her being noisily sick. She came out, wiping her mouth and looking embarrassed. I stood up and took her hand as she came back to the table.

‘Come on, babe, we should go, you’re not well.’

‘I think I’m feeling better now.’

‘Better enough for the seafood platter?’

She glanced at the plate and the look in her eyes told me we needed to go home, right now.

We were quiet on the journey home, Ayesh not responding to any of my attempts to talk, and it felt like more than just her feeling under the weather. I wasn’t surprised when she pulled me close to her as soon as we got in the door and clung on.

‘I think I might be pregnant.’

‘Shit. Really?’

I said it without thinking, and hated myself for the look it put on her face. We hadn’t ever talked about children, not about having any of our own. I knew Ayesh wanted kids one day, but one day seemed like years away, I still felt too young, too irresponsible to even think about it for me.

‘Sorry, Ayesh, I didn’t mean it like that. Have you done a test?’

‘No, but I think I’m late, and I’ve been feeling sick in the mornings for more than a week. Cal, what are we going to do?’

‘Hey, babe, don’t worry. It’s a good thing, isn’t it?’

‘I don’t know, is it?’

‘Well it’s happened to me and you, so yeah. It’s a good thing.’

I was trying to be as positive about it as I could, although inside I was thinking ‘shit shit shit I’m not ready to be a dad’. But letting Ayesh see that wasn’t going to help her, and I’d do anything in my power not to make that girl sad.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Hey, daft girl, this isn’t something to be sorry about. And we don’t know for sure. Tomorrow, get a test, we’ll do it together, or rather you do it and I’ll watch. Unless you don’t want me to watch you pee, in which case I’ll come in afterwards and hold the pee-covered stick and try not to go ‘ew gross, this is covered in pee’ too much.’

‘Do we have to wait until tomorrow?’

‘Er, we do unless you’ve got a pregnancy test in your sock drawer.’

‘But the supermarket is open twenty-four hours …’

I was sensing that this meant a lot to her, to know as soon as possible, so I drove across the city to the supermarket and put a pregnancy test in my basket, hiding it under a jumbo bag of Doritos and a big bar of chocolate and praying that I didn’t see anyone I knew. Which I didn’t.

Ayesh was waiting by the door when I got back, looking as if she hadn’t sat down the whole time I was gone. She took the test into the bathroom, and a minute or so later we were watching the little screen anxiously, minutes seeming to stretch for hours, before the two little words ‘Not pregnant’ popped up. Fuck, the relief. Well, for me. I’m not sure Ayesh felt the same way, because she wanted to do the other test in the box straight away.

‘Why?’

‘Sometimes they’re wrong.’

‘So how many more do we do?’

‘Just this one.’

She peed again, and the same two words popped up, and for me it was sorted. Not pregnant. But Ayesh was still feeling poorly, and she went to the doctor, where she had another test which also said ‘Not pregnant’, and she believed this one, especially as the doctor said she was just dehydrated and drinking too much caffeine. This proved to be the case after a couple of weeks drinking more water and less coffee and diet coke, and the morning sickness went away, and she felt tons better.

But it had been that fork in the road, the thing that made us stop and think about where we were heading, if we were heading anywhere. In some ways, we were still the same couple we were when we were seventeen, although our lives had moved on. We hadn’t ever talked seriously about the future, although I knew Mum expected some kind of big announcement in the not too distant. Now we had to talk about it, because it had almost happened. We had almost become parents. And I had been freaked out at first, but as the days went on, I started to think maybe it wouldn’t have been such a disaster, and maybe it was time I started acting like a grown up, and Ayesh was a bit sad about what might have been, even though there wasn’t ever anything to have been, and she started to think that maybe it wouldn’t have been such a disaster as well, and so we made a decision, not a major one, but we stopped trying to stop a baby, and waited to see what would happen. These things took time, unless you were Matty and Lau, and we’d both be able to get used to the idea.

I started to think that maybe I should do something like ask Ayesh to marry me, because if you were going to have a child, you should do it all properly, really, shouldn’t you, and Ayesh and I had been together forever, and maybe it was time I was responsible and faced up to what I felt about her. And I nearly did it, I nearly asked her at Christmas, I’d bought the ring and everything. I even mentioned it casually to Dec, or tried to make it seem casual, but what I was really doing was checking out his reaction, and trying to give myself no excuse for backing out of it, but at the last minute, something just stopped me, and I didn’t ask her. I put the ring in the pocket of one of my suits, and left it there for another time.

I can’t explain what I was waiting for. I loved Ayesh, I loved her with all my heart, but it wasn’t the right time.

A few months later, I found out why it didn’t feel like the right time, and it nearly broke me, and it nearly broke Ayesh.

123. Welcome home

In which there is a homecoming, an anniversary, and the young ones are growing up.

Laura

The two waves of family collided at the barrier in a tsunami of hugs and tears, squeals and chatter. Dec’s hair had been bleached blond from it’s sandy colour, and the children were all bigger, but it suddenly felt like they’d never been away. Everyone was talking loudly, laughing, touching, hugging. Jay took Amy’s bag and we drifted off towards the car park. Matt had all the children round him as he showed them his new phone, which had an app on it to tell you where you parked your car.

‘Have you got games on it?’

This was Tom, who loved all things computer game related.

‘A few. I’ll show yuh laher.’

‘Am I coming in your car?’

‘Well, tha depehds on who’s brought meh the bes preseht.’

This brought a chorus of offers from all of them, as it dawned on them that Matt’s car might have the best entertainment.

‘Noh, there’s not room for yuh all, geh in line for a rihd in the cool car.’

As I walked arm in arm with Amy, I watched Matt’s face, enjoying the expression I could see. The return of Dec and Amy and their family had been a major boost to him, and he was happier than I had seen him for a long time. He loved being surrounded by the children, loved teasing them and getting down to their level, loved joining in with their games and encouraging their creativity, and he’d missed this, a lot.

The passenger list sorted, we set off on the journey home, distributing sandwiches and drinks as we went. Matt sat on the back seat between Tom and Gracie; Ella and Josh had wanted to be with Charlie and Rosa, and so had been distributed among the other cars. Amy sat in the front with me, looking tired and tanned, as we listened to the back seat gang chattering away, at first, and then becoming quieter. After about half an hour I glanced in the rear view mirror, and they were all asleep.

‘I didn’t think it’d be long.’

Amy looked at me questioningly, and I gestured behind me with my head.

‘Oh, look at them all snuggled up, that’s completely lovely. I’ll try not to desert you as well, Lau. Is Matt still getting tired?’

‘Yeah, it’s kind of a permanent fixture these days. We didn’t sleep last night – or rather, I didn’t. Matt was snoring before we’d gone more than twenty miles on the way up.’

‘Oh, you must be wiped.’

‘Worth it, Amy, to be here when you arrived. I’m going to love having you down the road again.’

‘Me too. I missed our house so much, and I missed having you guys so close. Skype just isn’t the same.’

‘No, the coffee is nowhere near as good.’

‘Ha ha, lots of things aren’t as good. I can’t believe how much Josh and Ella have grown – you just don’t see it as much on a small screen. And Cal – he’s completely different. Really grown up. Ayesha is even more gorgeous than I remember.’

‘I know. It only seems like a week ago he was that grouchy teenager who wouldn’t talk to anyone, but he’s so lovely now, he’s considerate and – the last few months, when Matt was really bad, he’s just called in, done bits and pieces, lifted stuff, chopped the hedge. I don’t think Beth nagged him or anything.’

‘Do you think he’ll stay?’

‘Well, you know how it is at Raiders, I think Dec was a bit unusual, wasn’t he, staying so long, but I don’t think he’ll go just yet. Jay’s pushing him to expand his horizons a bit, though.’

‘He used to do that with Dec, tell him he should go and try new things, while he has the chance, but he’s a fine one to talk. He’s been at Raiders for ever, although I guess he didn’t start out there.’

‘Yeah, there is a bit of a family trend, isn’t there. Are you going to be able to make Jay’s birthday party tomorrow?’

‘Yeah, I hope we’ll be able to make it, I can’t believe Beth organised it for tomorrow. Although I suppose it is Jay’s actual birthday, and she had to plan it before she knew exactly when we were coming back. Still, maybe a good day’s sleep and we’ll be up for it.’

‘You don’t think Rose is going to let you get any sleep while she’s still awake, do you?’

‘Oh, I completely forgot about Rose. Ha ha, no, I suppose not. Oh well, I’ll just have to embrace the jet-lag. Maybe we can be Rosed in shifts.’

The drive continued, all the passengers falling asleep eventually. Matt finally woke up about ten miles from home.

‘Oh, sorry, Lau. I was so gona stay awake. Where are weh?’

‘Nearly home.’

‘Noh way! Oh, is everyone else aslehp? Have yuh been driving on yuhr own all the way?’

‘No, Amy kept me company for a while, then she gave in. It’s OK, flower, I’ve been fine.’

As we pulled up outside, the door to Dec and Amy’s house opened and Rose hurried as fast as she could down the path. Car doors opened at varying intervals, some people finding it harder to wake up than others, and Rose didn’t know where to go first. Dec solved her dilemma by walking quickly up to her and folding her up in a huge hug. Rose clung to him, not even trying to hide her tears. These two had a bond beyond friendship, and I knew Rose had found it hard to be apart from Dec and his family. She was terrified of flying, though, and hadn’t been able to face the long flight to see them, although Dec had tried to persuade her. She wasn’t good with computers, either, so although we had all included her in our Skyping and Facetiming when we could, she had felt more comfortable with phone calls.

When Rose had pulled herself together a bit, she looked around her at the children, her eyes growing wide at how big they’d got. Shaking her head, Rose did what she knew best and mothered everyone inside for some breakfast, while Jay, Matt and Cal carried bags inside.

Cal

So now he was back, and life ticked on again. I had the pleasure of playing in the same Raiders side as Dec, the same Premiership winning side as Dec, might I add. It was his last season as a player, and he retired at the end of it, with all the fanfare a testimonial season from such a great player should have. Dec was my, I don’t know what you’d call him, brother-type-person, and it was sometimes hard to remember he was this well-known and well-respected rugby player when he was hanging around being shit at Zombie Death, but when you saw him carving up on the rugby field, he was different; he was focussed and a bloody mental unit who never shied away from a big hit or a ridiculously brave tackle, and who won many games for Raiders because he had no respect for his personal safety. If only he’d brought the same ethos to BattleStations, it would have made my gaming life a lot easier.

I remember Iz and I having a late night talk about Dec once. I’d been to fetch her from a party, and we were downstairs chatting, me mildly amused at her being pissed in a teenagery not quite aware of the shit she was spouting kind of way. I kept wanting to laugh at her, but she was coming across all ‘I’m serious’, which was making me more amused. We were talking about Dec and Matty, who had just started up a rugby IT business together, and how long we thought it would be before Matty got annoyed with Dec’s laid back attitude to, well, everything, and Dec got narked with Matty’s control freak nature.

‘But that’s just it, though, isn’t it. I don’t think they will. They’re like the perfect couple.’

‘What, Dec and Matty? A couple?’

‘Yeah, kinda. Oh, not romantic, Cal, God, there’s more to life than romance, you arse.’

Iz always resorted to insults when she was pissed. Actually, when she wasn’t pissed, as well.

‘What do you mean then?’

‘Well they, like, perfectly complement each other. Dec’s all ‘hey man no worries’ and Matty would like to be like that, but he’s more ‘hey, don’t get fingerprints on my rear windows’. They can both talk the arses off people, but in different ways. Have you ever heard them talk to each other?’

‘Er, I think I might have one or two times.’

‘Isn’t it bloody hilarious?’

Well I knew they both tried to be hilarious, outdoing each other in the witty comeback competition, but I would never admit I found their chat particularly amusing.

‘Not that hilarious. Most of Dec’s jokes were born on the Ark.’

‘I don’t mean the jokes, God Cal, you are soooo literal sometimes. I mean the way they talk to each other, like Dec’ll go ‘I was lifting weights last week and I saw this guy’, and the main thing for him is the guy, but Matty’s all ‘shit, Dec’s stronger than me, he lifts weights’ and he makes some comment about busting a bicep or something, and it should make Dec feel really stupid, but it just rolls off him and he comes back with something that makes Matty laugh, and that’s how they go. Matty’s comments would have wound anyone else up to bursting years ago, but Dec doesn’t sweat it, and that amuses Matty, and that’s how they go. That’s why they’re the perfect couple for business you dork.’

‘Oh I see.’

How did my drunk little sister develop such insights into people I thought I knew just as well as her?

‘It’s why Lau and Matty are perfect for each other too, and Dec and Amy. Lau doesn’t let Matty get away with his shit, and he doesn’t feel he has to impress her with his wit. Amy’s laid back enough herself that Dec’s easy-goingness doesn’t worry her. Yeah maybe the washing up doesn’t get done that often, but neither of them stress it so it’s OK.’

‘So Dec’s perfect for Matty because Matty’s a control freak, but perfect for Amy because she’s as laid back as he is?’

‘Yep. Because one’s business and one’s love. Pay attention.’

And I think she had it just right. Iz was usually right when it came to people; she got it from Mum, who noticed more than most about what was going on with everyone.

Laura

Dec coming back to the city really helped Matt. He hadn’t realised just how much he relied on him, how their daft messing about covered up a bond which, from what Matt had told me, meant they could pretty much say anything to each other if they put their minds to it, and would do anything for each other too. Dec’s offer to stay, and be there for Matt if he needed it, had touched Matt deeply, and he had been determined to ‘be OK’ while Dec was away. It was almost as if he breathed an internal sigh of relief when Dec came back, as although MS symptoms came and went, more frequently now, Matt seemed more able to cope with them.

Cal

I haven’t really said much about Iz, have I? Iz is my fantastic, talented, brainy, gorgeous sister. Shit, she’s not going to be reading this is she? Scratch that, she’s my dorky, annoying, brain-dead, deadly dull sister, ha ha.

When Iz was first born, I thought she was going to be my playmate, because although Mum was pretty up front about the facts of life, thanks for scarring me emotionally at an early age Mum, she forgot to mention the teeny fact that babies don’t come out fully formed with goalkeeping abilities. I was quite resentful for quite some time about that. That and that she wasn’t a boy. I think my resentment carried on until I was about thirteen, and then I just decided to ignore her as the beneath my contempt seven year old she obviously was.

Poor Iz, she didn’t do anything to deserve the hard time I gave her, and Mum was always trying to get me to let her join in, but seriously, having a little sister tag along to anything you wanted to do with your mates was never a goer. The times me and Baggo left her in a shop and legged it when we were supposed to be looking after her on the way home from school (‘but we thought she’d gone home with you’), only to be in serious shit when Iz was brought home in tears by someone’s mum who happened to be in the shop we’d abandoned her in. OK, we only did it when we knew there was someone around who would take her home, and we felt justified in our actions by the girl seriously cramping our ‘style’ such as it was.

But in my defence, and I feel I am needing a defence as I can feel Iz’s intimidating glare on the back of my neck as I type, once I grew up a bit, maybe post Chrissie, I was less annoyed by Iz and more inclined to do the nice things Mum suggested, once in a while at any rate. And some of it was down to Matty. Thinking about how he described his early relationship with Dad, and thinking about the age difference between me and Iz, which is pretty similar, maybe he understood more than I ever knew at the time. He was always making me think, not just about Iz, about everything, he always tried to make everyone think, but he would talk about Iz with me in a way no one else did.

‘So, Cal, done anything nice for your little sister recently?’

‘No, why should I?’

‘Because she’s your little sister and you love her.’

‘No I don’t, that’s so gay.’

‘OK, well leaving aside that loving your sister isn’t gay it’s familial, and that the word ‘gay’ isn’t actually an insult and it’s objectionable to use it as such, it would be nice if you looked out for Iz sometimes. Maybe shared your Mars bar with her or something.’

‘But she’s so annoying.’

‘Do you mean she gets all whiny when someone asks her to do something she’d rather not?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Kind of backatcha, Cal. How about, let’s think of one nice thing you can do for Iz, something that’s not embarrassing in front of your mates, and might even be fun for you to do, but not so you’d have to admit it to anyone?’

And that’s how he’d do it. Calling me on how I was being, but making a fun way to make it better. I don’t know if Iz remembers any of the daft schemes we cooked up between us, things from complimenting her Barbie’s new shoes (but only when no one but Iz was in the room), to sharing my Smarties (but in secret, like on a mission, under the table so no one could see).

I think it made a difference to me, to think of nice things to do for Iz. It stopped me always thinking of her as the irritating brat little sister, and occasionally considering her as someone who had likes and dislikes separate from mine. I didn’t think about it like that at the time, of course, but maybe Matty helped to lay the groundwork for the way we are today, which is totally cool older brother and adoring younger sister. You know I only mean it, Iz.

Laura

The next year saw more changes. Dec retired from rugby, having decided that at thirty four, he would stop before injury took the decision away from him. Apart from the odd knock, he had been lucky not to have been seriously injured in his career, and wanted to be in control of when he finished. He hadn’t decided what he was going to do instead; coaching was an option, as he was heavily involved with the youth and academy sides, and had his coaching badges, but wasn’t sure if he would cope with being that close to rugby without playing.

It was an emotional time for Dec, and he was given a testimonial by the club, which meant lots of events. There was a special game at the end of the season, where a Declan Summers invitational team played a Raiders heroes team. Included in Dec’s team were Jay and Nico, who swapped sides at half time and played for the heroes. Cal wanted to play, but as a current player his insurance didn’t allow it, so he had to content himself with selling raffle tickets at the game.

The point of the testimonials is to raise funds for players to reward them for long service, but a lot of players donated some of the proceeds to charity, as Dec did. Matt was pretty well around this time and was involved in the testimonial committee. We went to the game together, with Ella and Josh, the first time we’d all been to the rugby together; Ella wasn’t interested in any sport, while Josh loved rugby and Raiders and went with Matt a lot. I was only interested as a family member, and didn’t really understand the rules, but it was a good day out, and to see Josh and Matt chatting away about the players and the game was lovely.

Josh was a good little rugby player himself, and was part of Raiders’ junior section. Matt took him to training on Saturday mornings when he could, and they’d often stay on and see the game when Raiders were playing at home.

Ella wasn’t sporty as such, although she was an active child, always doing something, whether it was looking something up in an encyclopaedia, badgering people to sponsor her in a swimathon or playing made up games with her friends. She worshipped Charlie, who was a year older than her and therefore Ella’s gateway to the adult world, and who always knew about everything, drawing on her vast experience of a couple of years in another country. Ella took after Matt in temperament; quick witted, good with words, not one for sitting doing nothing, a bit of a perfectionist. Stubborn as a mule.

Josh was more like me; he thought about things before he said or did anything, but was content with ‘good enough’, and was perfectly happy sitting on the sofa with Matt and me while we watched something daft on TV. Ella would be fidgeting, or drawing, or writing a story while she half watched the programme. Josh played football with Matt, and went for bike rides, and swimming with him. Ella did too, sometimes, but she and Matt were more likely to set quizzes for each other or read each other stories. When Matt was more affected by his MS, she would spend time chatting to him, whereas Josh would get a bit grumpy about not being able to be outside with his dad. I did my best to be a substitute, but didn’t really fill the gap, and often needed to enlist the help of Dec to provide the physical exertion that Josh needed. It frustrated Matt more than anything that he wasn’t always able to spend time with Josh as he would have liked, and he always tried to make up for it when he was feeling better, sometimes overdoing it and ending up in bed for a few days.

Cal

Well, time is marching on in my story. Dec’s back from Australia, Mum has launched her party planning business with Dad’s fiftieth, and Ayesh and I are just about to move out from Mum and Dad’s and into our own place.

It was getting pretty claustrophobic, me and Ayesh sharing my room. The house was pretty big, but Mum was everywhere, and at the time Iz was hitting adolescence with all guns blazing. The rows were immense and took over the whole house, and you could never tell when it was going to be safe to venture out, as Iz could be yelling in the morning before going to school, in the afternoon when she had a free period, in the evening before she wanted to go out, or in the middle of the night when she’d broken another curfew and Mum had caught her sneaking in.

Ayesh was working by then, we were both nearly twenty, I was earning a pretty good salary from Raiders, and it just seemed like time. Not peace and quiet, exactly, we were a bit young to be thinking like that, but making our own noise our own way without worrying about anyone else. It was appealing.

Laura

We spent our tenth wedding anniversary in bed. Matt had been ill over Christmas, a rapid onset of symptoms followed by another bout of pneumonia that had resulted in a hospital stay. He hated missing Christmas, although we tried to make the most of it, and invaded the hospital ward en masse on Christmas Day, raising the eyebrows of the nursing staff. Matt still managed to charm people wherever he was, though, and the huge amount of family members around the bed and the raucous nature of our hour or two there were overlooked as a special dispensation to one of their favourite patients.

When Matt came home in mid-January, he was stick thin and had no energy whatsoever. He had been signed off work for three months, although he found it hard to be out of contact and I often caught him texting or emailing members of his team. Some days, the debilitating combination of MS symptoms and remnants of the pneumonia left him unable to get out of bed, and our anniversary was one such day.

We hadn’t made any plans, other than that the children were going to go to Beth and Jay’s after school, so we could have our own celebration if we were up to it. On the morning, I could tell by Matt’s rattling breathing that he wasn’t going to make it downstairs, so I let him sleep while I got Ella and Josh ready for school, then went back to bed, taking a flask of coffee and some croissants with me on a tray, for when we both felt like breakfast. Matt slept more lightly these days, especially when his breathing was really difficult, and he stirred as I got back in beside him.

‘Wha? Yuh back? Yuh OK?’

‘Yeah, Happy Anniversary.’

Matt looked at me for a while, as it sunk in. Then I saw a pained looked cross his face.

‘Sohry, Lau, forgoh. Dihnt know the date. Sohry.’

‘I only remembered because Beth told me.’

This was a little fib, but if it made him feel less guilty about forgetting, I felt it was completely justified.

‘Wha? Yuh forgoh our anniversary? Yuh cow.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m here now to make it up to you. Whole day in bed together, what do you say?’

‘Fuck yeh. Hope yuhr up fuh some hoht lohvin.’

The effect of Matt’s lecherous leer was slightly spoiled by an explosion of coughing that left him gasping. I waited for the hacks to subside.

‘Always up for hot lovin’. Might settle for some hot coffee for now. Fancy breakfast? I’ve got croissants.’

‘Yuh ahr awesome. Not hungry tho. Coffee sounds greht.’

Matt was rarely hungry at the moment, but he was so thin I always tried to tempt him with different calorie-filled food.

‘What, not even croissants from Mean Bean?’

‘Noh way. When did yuh geh them?’

‘Bridget dropped them round, as a favour, yesterday. If you spent more time paying attention and less time snoozing all day, you’d have noticed.’

‘Yeh, well, if yuh spent less time bein secretive an doin stuff behin my bahk –’

‘I’d never surprise you.’

‘Struh. Never stop suhprising meh, Lau. C’mere.’

Matt was propped up on a wedge of pillows, to help his breathing when he was in bed and keep his lungs from collecting fluid. He shifted over a bit, and I lay next to him, his arm round me, and held him tight.

‘Love yuh.’

‘Love you.’

‘How the bluhdy hehl hahv yuh put up wih meh fuh ten yehrs?’

‘It’s been hard, but I feel I have contributed to the sanity of some other poor woman who would otherwise have ended up with you.’

Matt knew I was joking, but his expression turned serious.

‘Noh, Lau, would never hahv behn anyone else. Only yuh.’

‘I know. Only you for me too. And I can’t believe it’s been ten years, either. I mean, obviously Ella and Josh are nearly ten, so I literally can believe it, but it’s gone by like nothing. It feels like yesterday we were in your flat, young and carefree –’

‘Mohr like getting on a bih an relatively unencumbered. Buh yeh, ih’s gone fast. Lohs of encumbrances now, lihk meh foh a start.’

I cuffed his arm.

‘Don’t start that. You’re not an encumbrance. You’re my crash test dummy.’

‘Wha?’

‘If ever I feel like I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a nurse, I just practice a bit on you. Hadn’t you noticed?’

‘Oh, all the bossing. Yeh, hard tuh ignore tha, bossy cow.’

‘I reserve special bossiness for my favourite people.’

‘Thahks.’

‘Welcome. Are you going to have some of this coffee, then? And share a croissant?’

‘Still not hungry, Lau, even tho yuh left ih, wha, two minutes since yuh last asked. Buh yeh tuh coffee, as I said before buh yuh never gave meh any. Heartless, tha’s wha yuh are.’

I rolled away from Matt and poured coffee from the flask into cups, then sat Matt up to help him drink it.

‘Sohry, Lau, not very romantic. When I’m better I’ll make ih up tuh yuh.’

‘Don’t be daft. You know what the best part about today is? I get to spend it all with you. Beth’s having the children until after tea, we can get up to absolutely anything, we’ve got the place to ourselves, or we could go off somewhere, quick day trip to Bangkok or Amsterdam or Grimsby, go bungee jumping, fly fishing, white water rafting. What do you fancy?’

‘Wish I could, Lau. Yuh deserve something greht.’

‘I’ve got something great. And who says we can’t do all of that?’

‘Lau …’

I reached over Matt and picked up his iPad from the bedside table.

‘I thought the internet was the gateway to the world. I’ve seen you do it so many times, gone places, done things. We should have our own little world tour today – Matt and Lau’s grand journey. Where are you going to take me first?’

Matt was looking at me, shaking his head.

‘Awesome. Thehr’s so many places I’d love tuh goh wih yuh, buh probably won’t ever. Leh’s go and visit them. Start wih Paris, revisit our honeymoon.’

‘I like it. Ooh la la. You can do all the other French talking stuff.’

‘Mais oui. Tha’s yuhr lot. Cahnt member any mohr. Thahk God fuh Google translate.’

And so we spent a while exploring the world and beyond on Matt’s iPad. We used Street View to look at the outside of the hotel we’d stayed in, and found some of the cafés and patisseries we’d visited in Paris. Then we went further afield and travelled to Morocco, Bali, Canada and the Arctic Circle.

Matt’s eyes started to droop, and he dozed for a while in the late morning, so I cleared the breakfast things up and took them downstairs, then prepared stage two of our day.

Matt woke up again shortly after one o’clock. I’d got back into bed with him, snuggling close, enjoying spending time with him, and hoping he was going to rouse before too long. I felt him stir, the disorientation that always gripped him for a few seconds, the realisation that I was cuddled close to him and had my arm across his chest. He reached down and stroked my hair.

‘Sohry, Lau, nodded off at the North Pole.’

‘That’s OK, it was too cold for me anyway. I’ve brought us a picnic.’

I pointed to the hamper that I’d placed by the side of the bed.

‘Wha’s this?’

‘Just a bit of a reminder of Paris.’

‘Yuh never got the Arc de Triomphe in thehr?’

‘No, but I did get a baguette or two, some brie and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Lunch?’

‘Awesome. Not tha hungry, tho.’

‘Maybe not, but how about you give it a try? It’s not just supermarket crap, it’s from that patisserie on the High Street, and the cheese is proper French stuff.’

‘OK, load meh up.’

I broke off a chunk of bread and cut some cheese, then filled a glass with the red wine. I put some on a plate for me, too, and tried to surreptitiously watch Matt while I ate to see if he was eating anything. I was really concerned about the amount of nutrition he was consuming, which was hardly any, and worried about what would happen if he didn’t start eating properly soon. I was pleased to see he ate all of the bread and cheese, and drank half of the wine.

‘More?’

‘Noh thahks. Tha was awesome. Prohper stuff. Wine’s gone tuh my hehd tho.’

‘You’re such a lightweight. I reckon I could drink you under the table these days.’

‘Wouldn’t take much. Got no body fat.’

‘Tell me about it. Your lovely bum’s dwindling away to nothing.’

‘I know. Jus not hungry at the momen. Sohry Lau, I know yuhr worried.’

‘I am worried. There’s nothing of you. You need calories to bulk you up, to stop you getting infections. You’re not going to be able to fight stuff off if you don’t have any reserves.’

Matt was quiet, looking down at his now empty plate.

‘Dohnt fehl lihk fighting.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Fehl lihk … stohping.’

‘What?’

‘Ih’s hard. Jus dohnt know if I can goh on.’

‘What exactly do you mean?’

My stomach had contracted with fear. I knew he found it difficult to cope with, this constant wearing down of his life, the relentless losing of small things, tiny things he’d always taken for granted and couldn’t do any more, like walking down steps without a hand rail, carrying things with confidence in one hand, and I also knew that he’d thought about it before, ending it, when it had seemed hopeless, when I first knew him.

‘Wha’s point in struggling tuh geh better, ih’ll only happen again, I’ll jus geh worse, I’m dragging yuh all down wih meh. Ih’s no life fuh yuh, or the kids.’

‘Is this you being selfless again?’

No answer.

‘I thought we sorted all that out before. We’re all, all of us, me, Josh, Ella, your entire larger than life family, all of us, so much better off with you than without you. I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here, no one to correct my grammar or feel my bum, but more importantly no one to love or to love me. How do you think Josh and Ella would feel growing up without their dad? You’re their world. You’ve given them so much, taught them how to ride bikes, how to download apps, how to swear –’

‘Lau! I hahv not!’

‘Well they’ve learned it from somewhere. I heard Josh say ‘shit’ the other day.’

‘Noh!’

‘Yes. I expect you’ll blame it on Dec –’

‘He’s so much –’

‘– worse than you, yeah, heard it all before. Anyway, my point is, you’ve taught them all that, but who’s going to teach them the rest? How to stand up to bullies, how to drive through a traffic light just before it turns red, how to kiss a woman until she tingles all over –’

‘Not sure I’ll beh teaching Ella tha.’

‘You don’t know. Have an open mind. Stop distracting me from my point. My point still is, if you starve yourself, give up, if that’s what your intention is, if it even is an intention, you’re not saving us, you’re depriving us. What would Charlie do without Matty to check her spelling and help her with her maths? How would Rosa cope without her ‘shnuggles’? Dec would have no one to banter with, Jay would –’

‘OK, I geh ih. Yuhd all miss meh. Dohnt I geh a say?’

‘Actually, no. Matthew Robert Scott, if it comes to it, I’ll have you force fed to stop you leaving us before your time. But it won’t come to that, because in your heart you’re not a selfish person. You know what you mean to us, and you know it would destroy us.’

Matt finally looked up from his contemplation of his plate. He sighed, defeated.

‘Yeah, OK. One day, tho, Lau, ih’s gona beh too hard.’

‘Not today, though. Not for a long time.’

I said it with more conviction than I felt.

‘OK.’

And I breathed a sigh of relief, because one day I was going to lose him, but he was staying for now. I wrapped him up as well as I could, folding my arms round him, pulling him close. If I could have shared some of my life force with him I would have, but he was going to have to eke out what he had left for himself. I felt him breathe a deep breath, felt the mental shift that was going on in him as he thought about what I’d said and absorbed it.

‘Soh I cahn kiss women until they tingle ahl over?’

‘Yeah. Well, this woman at any rate. Can’t speak for any others.’

‘Dohnt believe yuh. Surely thehrs sohm tiny bih tha dohnt tingle?’

‘Nope, don’t think so.’

I grinned to myself, knowing where this was heading, and pleased, so pleased, Matt had chosen to come out fighting rather than withdraw into himself.

‘Need tuh check ih’s ahl stihl working. Wouldn’t want tuh leave bihs of yuh untingled.’

‘Be my guest.’

I turned my face up to his and felt his soft lips on mine, his tongue, his mouth as warm and tender and exciting as it always was, as it always had been. I kissed back, tangling my tongue with his, folding my arms round his neck as he wound his arms round my back and pulled me against him.

He suddenly coughed, and we broke apart as his body shook again and again, and he had to lean back against the pillows. When the coughing had subsided, he lay still, eyes closed, panting. I wiped his mouth with a tissue and ran a wipe over his forehead, which had broken out in a sweat.

‘Thahks, Lau. Did I make yuh tingle ahl over?’

‘Yeah, flower. Every single bit. Maybe my little toenail – oh, no, there it goes. My little toenail was always a late developer.’

He fell asleep smiling.

While Matt was sleeping, I tidied up the lunch things and put some washing on, pottered about clearing up, sorting out tomorrow’s school uniforms, tidying the shoes in the hall, lots of little jobs that needed doing but wouldn’t do themselves, until I looked around and thought I’d rather be with Matt than with a pile of ironing.

I took a tea tray upstairs, and when I got back to the bedroom, he was still asleep, so I slipped under the covers and put my arm around him, kissing him on the mouth until he woke up. It was still the only reliable method of waking him. Yeah, Laura Scott, that’s why you’re doing it.

‘Mmph … wha … mm … yeh, Lau. Oh. Wha?’

His eyes opened and he was back with me.

‘Afternoon lazybones. Cup of tea? Bit of Rose’s bara brith?’

‘Yeh. I’m actually a bih peckish.’

‘Large slice of delicious Welsh cakey stuff slathered in butter for the handsome man on the wrong side of the bed.’

I handed the plate over and put a mug of tea on his bedside table.

‘Yuhr the one on the wrong side of the bed.’

‘Good thing we both think so, then, isn’t it.’

‘Lau …’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thahks.’

‘What for? Cup of tea is no great hardship to make, and Rose made the cake.’

‘Thahks fuh spending the day wih meh hehr, instehd of wanting Paris or New York or sohm such shih.’

I looked up at him and stroked his cheek.

‘Wherever we were today, it would still be our tenth wedding anniversary. I’d still be in bed with you somewhere in the world. Today hasn’t been much different from how I would have imagined it, really.’

‘Yuhr so effin awesome.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s as may be. I’ve brought this up, we haven’t had it out for ages.’

I reached over and picked up the photo album, the one with all the pictures from our wedding in it.

‘I want to see how many more wrinkles you’ve got than you used to. I, obviously, have fewer than I had back then.’

‘Yeh, course, yuh look tehn yehrs younger than yuh did then.’

‘Is the correct answer.’

I balanced the album on our knees and we started to flick through the pages, remembering the day.

We’d got about half way through the album, compiled by Matt from pictures various friends and relatives had sent and given us, when there was a jingling tone that came from the iPad, sitting on Matt’s bedside table.

‘What’s that?’

Matt looked over at it.

‘Oh. Facetime request from Iz. Weh can ignore ih.’

‘No, answer it.’

‘Suhr?’

I nodded, and Matt pressed the screen.

‘Hey Matty – oh, Lau. Are you … in bed? It’s like three thirty.’

‘Yeah, Matt’s been in bed all day, he’s such a lazy sod.’

Iz smiled back at us, her long blond curls bouncing over her shoulders.

‘Oh, well, sorry for interrupting, hope there was nothing going on oh shit it’s your anniversary.’

Iz put both hands over her mouth.

‘Sorry.’

‘Isohbel Flohra Scoht, where did yuh learn language lihk tha?’

Iz grinned.

‘Er, from you Matty.’

‘Oh. Fair enough. Not Dec, then?’

‘Him too. And Dad.’

‘You poor girl, you had no chance.’

‘You’re right, Lau. Sorry to disturb you both in bed at this time in the like afternoon. I’ll catch ya later.’

‘Noh, waih Iz. Wha did yuh wan?’

Iz shrugged.

‘Oh nothing, just boy stuff.’

Something about her posture told me it was important to her.

‘Doesn’t sound like nothing, flower. Dan been misbehaving again?’

Iz and her boyfriend had a fiery relationship, and she often called Matt or me to talk about the latest break up or make up.

‘Not exactly … I think I might have been, though, strictly speaking.’

She looked a bit embarrassed.

‘Spihl, Iz.’

‘Are you sure it’s OK? Mum would have a fit if she knew I’d called you on your anniversary. I can’t talk to her about this, though, she gets all like squeaky about … stuff.’

‘Yeh, s’ohkay. We weren’t doing any … stuhf. Sahdly. Spihl.’

‘OK, then, if you’re like sure.’

We both nodded. Iz used both of us as agony aunts from time to time. The deal was that we never kept anything from Beth and Jay, which meant that Iz didn’t have to face direct questions and still had the benefit of non-parental grown-up advice. Some of the scrapes she got herself into were eye-wateringly complicated, and it was hard sometimes not to screech ‘what were you thinking’, much as Beth would have done, but we usually managed to remain objective enough to help her.

‘Well, Matty, I know you’ve been around a bit in your time –’

‘Thahks fuh tha, Iz, on my tenth anniversary, in behd wih my lohvly wihf, who is the only woman I’ve behn around wih in ahl tha tihm.’

‘What? It’s not like Lau doesn’t know all about you. Is there a single woman left in this city you haven’t like snogged at some time? I was at Carly’s the other day, talking about my family, and her aunt was there and she was like ‘oh, is your uncle Matt Scott?’ and I was like ‘yeah’ and she was like ‘oh’ and this like slushy look comes on her face. Happens all the bloody time.’

Matt looked at me with an abashed expression.

‘Sohry Lau. I guess sohm of us ahr famous fuh the wrong reasons.’

‘Infamous, maybe.’

Matt was always embarrassed to be reminded of his colourful past, as often as I’d tried to tell him and show him it didn’t matter to me, and never had. I’d felt far more threatened by his long term relationships with Carrie and Julia, but even that dwindled with time.

‘Yeh, anyway. Iz. Boy stuff. Yuhv behn misbehaving.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘You kind of did, Iz. Just tell us.’

Iz looked down.

‘Oh alright.’

She took a breath and then looked up again.

‘Well, you know me and Dan have been all like ‘you’re dumped’ ‘no you’re dumped’ ‘no I love you again’ for like years.’

‘Yeah, at least six weeks, flower.’

‘Well we were all ‘I love you’, until he wound me up at Alice’s party because he was slobbering over Katie again, like as if I couldn’t totally see him, so I gave him the cold shoulder when he finally decided to talk to me, and then he was like ‘you’re so dumped’ so to teach him a lesson I snogged Joey Manners in front of him.’

‘Oh Iz. So what happened?’

‘Well, Dan was like ‘what the fuck’, and he grabbed me and I thought he was going to hit Joey, but he had tears, like real tears in his eyes, and I thought I’d gone a bit far, and we made up again, but …’

Iz ground to a halt and looked down.

‘Buh wha?’

‘Well, Joey is a really good kisser, I never realised how like amazing he is, and he’s got these big brown eyes and I love his hair, and after the party he texted me and he’s like ‘can I see you’ and I’m like ‘OK’ and we met in the park the next day, so if anyone saw us it was like a total coincidence, and we sat on a bench and we like talked for hours and I really liked him and I wanted to kiss him again, but I thought about Dan and how he nearly cried and I was all like ‘I’m confused’ and Joey was so understanding but now I’m like ‘I don’t know what to do’ and so that’s it really. Oh, and Dan and me nearly like did it after the party.’

This last was slipped in as a quickly spoken postscript, but I suspected it was the most important part of the whole saga.

‘How nearly?’

Iz rolled her eyes.

‘Nearly enough. Bits out in the open, we would have if we’d had … anything. But he couldn’t find the one he thought he had, so we didn’t.’

I risked a quick look at Matt, whose eyes were bulging slightly at the description. I suspected the times when Iz had talked to him alone, she hadn’t been quite so forthright, but in our chats she’d let it all hang out, as it were.

‘Iz, sorry to come on a bit strong, but how old is Dan?’

‘Like, seventeen.’

‘You’re not sixteen yet. He would have been breaking the law.’

More eye rolling.

‘Yeah, yeah, Lau, whatever, I was careful, wasn’t I? Jesus, everyone does it. But what am I going to do about Joey?’

‘Well, who do you like the best?’

‘Duh, if I knew that I wouldn’t need to be talking to you. I’ve been with Dan like forever –’

‘Yeh, at least threh mohths.’

‘–but Joey’s so sweet. I never talked to him much before, but he was telling me about his sister, who’s like special needs, and he was so cute saying how he wants to like protect her. Dan just teases his sister until she cries.’

‘Canht yuh see them both?’

‘No, Matty, that’s so like not cool.’

‘Do you want to finish with Dan, flower?’

‘Well I might have if he hadn’t like nearly cried and we hadn’t like nearly done it. We were in his room, and we had music on and candles, it was like so romantic, and we were just kissing and he started touching –’

‘Whoa, tuh much info Iz.’

‘Really? But I know we keep being like on again off again fuck off don’t fuck off, and it’s just like really tiring, and with Joey it’s all exciting and fuzzy and I keep like hugging myself when I think about him, and when I think about Dan I just like think tosser sometimes but sometimes I’m a bit like loved up but then he does something that annoys me and I’m like tosser again. What would you do Lau?’

Talking to Iz was like being assaulted by an army of words with hardly any punctuation, and it was a struggle to keep up sometimes, but my brain finally got there.

‘Well, I reckon I’d think hard about what would make me happiest, being with someone who I didn’t know very well but made me feel excited and fuzzy, or being with someone who I knew well and liked a lot but kept annoying me so much I kept breaking up with him, and who also seems a bit keen on Katie. I don’t think ‘nearly doing it’ comes into it much, really.’

‘Oh. OK. And so like what would you choose, excited and fuzzy, or like a lot but bloody annoying?’

‘Well, a long time ago I chose excited and fuzzy and never regretted it.’

‘Aw Lau, yuh soppy cow.’

‘What? Oh, you mean you and Matty. But you’ve been together for like ever.’

‘We have now, but when we first met, it was very quick, we barely knew each other, in fact I didn’t like what I did know of him much, but we knew almost straight away, and it was very exciting and fuzzy.’

‘Really? Did you do it like really soon?’

‘Noh noh noh, yuh dohnt geh tuh know tha, Iz. Lau, stop sharing.’

‘OK, but what I will say, Iz, is that Matt and I were a lot older when we met than you are now, and you have your whole life ahead of you to kiss whoever you want and be with whoever you want. I doubt you’ll believe me, but whoever you choose now isn’t who you’ll be with when you’re forty. Take it slowly, maybe just be friends with Joey and keep Dan at a distance, and see what happens; your feelings might work themselves out.’

‘But Dan won’t like me being friends with Joey, especially after seeing us like snogging at the party.’

‘He can’t choose your friends. As long as when you tell him you’re just friends, that’s the honest truth, you’ve nothing to worry about.’

‘I thought you’d tell me like who I should choose.’

‘Ha ha, no Iz, that’s totally up to you. But you can talk to us about it any time.’

‘Thanks, Lau, you’re totally cool. I couldn’t tell mum I nearly did it, like I couldn’t tell her about Alfie. I should go, I’ve got so much homework. Thanks for chatting, guys, enjoy the rest of your anniversary in bed.’

And with a wink, Iz disconnected, leaving me slightly breathless. Matt looked at me.

‘Alfie? Tha skinny kid wih drehdlocks?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Wha abouh Alfie?’

‘Oh, you know, girls stuff.’

‘Gihls stuhf lihk …’

‘Well …’

‘They dihnt … did they?’

Matt’s eyes were wide and incredulous.

I nodded.

‘Lau! I’ll fucking kill him. Tha’s my fucking niece, she’s only fifteen, how old was he?’

I kept my voice level.

‘The same age, she’s a bit older, actually. I think she took the lead, she was experimenting.’

‘Wha? Sohm fucking experimeht.’

‘Calm down Matt, she was sensible about it, and planned ahead, and used protection, and at least she told me about it.’

‘Did yuh tell Beth an Jay?’

‘Er, kind of Beth, but not Jay, I didn’t think a murder charge would look good.’

‘Wha yuh mehn kind of?’

‘Well, Beth asked me if I knew what was going on with Iz and Alfie, she was hardly ever at home, they were having a hard time keeping tabs on her, and I suggested she asked Iz. Then I told Iz she should tell her mum, even though it might be uncomfortable, and so that’s what happened. I didn’t have to break a confidence, but I got them to sort it out themselves. Iz told her a version that avoided bloodshed but explained things, and I don’t think Jay knows, so don’t say anything. You’ll be exactly the same when it’s Ella.’

‘Ella’s never bluhdy well talking to a boy, leh alohn snogging one. In fact, she’s leaving schuhl tomorrow, wehr hohm tuting her, locking her in. But whoa, Lau, yuhr guhd. Canht believe you gave Beth advice.’

‘I do have my talents.’

‘I know. Fuck, tho, Iz all grown up.’

‘Yeah, a bag of hormones. Watch out world. I don’t envy her being that age, it’s all so confusing.’

‘Not fuh meh. When I was fiftehn, all I thoht abouh was computers an rockets. Sohmtimes Pamela Anderson.’

‘Seriously? I bet you had girls chasing you from all over.’

‘Noh, I was a geek. Yuhv sehn the pictures, hahvnt yuh?’

It was true, Matt’s teenage years weren’t his most attractive phase from what I could see in the family photos, although his big grey eyes were always there.

‘Ih wahnt till I wehnt tuh Uni an my mate’s girfriehd cut my hair, ih was like Celebrity Makeover. Changed my wardrohb, goh my confidence, never looked back, mahking up fuh lost tihm ever since. Till yuh, I mehn.’

‘Yeah, well, we’ll let that one slide. How about we –’

My train of thought was interrupted by my phone ringing. It had been silent all day, as had Matt’s, and I suspected Beth had organised a mass radio silence in our honour. This was Beth, however.

‘Hey Beth, how are the terrible two?’

‘Oh, fine, they’re playing games on the computer with Iz, while we’re waiting for tea. How’s the day gone?’

‘Lovely. We’ve been to Paris, Toronto, Marrakech and the North Pole, and had all sorts of goodies to eat.’

‘Apparently you’ve had a visit from my forgetful daughter as well?’

‘Oh, yeah, Iz just called, we had a chat.’

‘I told her before she went to school not to bother you today, she’s brainless. Unless it’s boys or music, it goes straight out of her head.’

‘It’s fine, Beth, it was lovely to talk to her.’

‘Well, good. I’m glad she didn’t disturb you too much. I wouldn’t have called now, except that Iz actually wondered if you’d like us to have the children overnight? They love staying here, I can pop them to school tomorrow …’

I looked at Matt, who was tapping on his iPad.

‘Beth says she can have Josh and Ella for the night if we want.’

He looked up, considering, pursed his lips.

‘Can weh save ih, use another tihm? I’m gona beh aslehp soon. Bih of a waste?’

‘Thanks Beth, but Matt was wondering if we could have a sleepover credit? Use it later when we’re less wiped?’

‘Of course, sweetheart. If you’re sure. Happy to have them now, and another time too.’

‘Thanks, flower, but we’ll stick to the plan, I think.’

‘OK, see you after tea then.’

We disconnected, and I felt Matt’s hand reach for mine.

‘Thahks Lau. Yuh never say ‘Matt’s a fucking crihpl’, yuh always say ‘wehr wiped’.

‘Well, as I’ve said many times, in it together.’

‘Luhv yuh.’

‘Love you too.’

I smoothed his sandy hair down and gazed into his winter-sea eyes.

‘You’re still my beach boy. Do you want a bit of peace and quiet before they get back?’

‘Ohnly if ih’s wih yuh. Cahn yuh shuh the fuck up fuh a bih?’

He was grinning wearily as he said it.

‘Iz dohs my hehd in. Jus hahv a bih of a slehp …’

He closed his eyes and drifted off, his grip on my hand relaxing as he went.

Cal

Ayesh and I went flat-hunting in secret, because we didn’t want Mum to be the one to make the decision, and if she’d known she would have been unable to resist telling us the best flat to go for and why the one we wanted had all these drawbacks, and we’d end up with Mum’s love-nest and not ours. Which would have been kinda creepy, let’s be honest.

We found the ideal place, which had two bedrooms and a huge bathroom, a big kitchen/lounge/diner and, what sold it for Ayesh, a lighting system that responded to hand waves. If Mum had seen it she would have dismissed it as a gimmick, but Ayesh loved it, and I loved the power shower, so we said we’d take it. Then we went home and broke the news.

It is so the best way to deal with Mum, to not only make up your mind before you tell her something, but to have taken steps to make it happen, preferably have signed some sort of contract. Even if it’s only about what you want on your toast. If she sniffs a weakness, she’ll have your mind changed before you can say ‘but I wanted peanut butter’.

We graciously let Mum help with the moving arrangements, but declined her offer of organising a house-warming – who wants their mum involved in a night of drunken party games to welcome your mates to your new place? Anyway, we moved, we had space and the occasional bit of peace and quiet, and the more frequent bit of raucous noisiness much to the distress of our neighbours, I’m sure.

And the second bedroom was useful for Iz to camp out in when Mum got too much, and over time for Charlie to camp out in when Dec and Amy suddenly realised they needed to try to exert some control over their wayward teenager, and there were Ella and Josh sleepovers, and sometimes all four Summers kids with Matty and Lau’s two squeezed in there if we really felt like regretting having somewhere with a spare room.

We loved our flat. It was just right for us. And it was the start of some great, happy times. Ayesh’s job was going really well, she got a promotion, and I was playing regularly in the Raiders first team. Everything had come together for us, and as is the way of things when it’s going well, we just floated along on a tide of happy, not really thinking too much about the future. We were still young, and years pass quickly when you’re young and happy.

Then things have a way of bringing you to a terrifying standstill, and you have to re-evaluate. Things like babies.

122. Far away

In which a family is separated by half a world for a while.

Matt

And so, for the next few days, it felt like a part of me had been cut out. I mean, yeah, I know, right, get over it Matt, they hadn’t gone on a one way trip to Mars where communications were a shade rudimentary, they’d gone to another part of the same planet, where they even had such things as wireless internet, telephones, computers and other newfangled communications devices. However, for the first few days we didn’t hear from them at all, as they were getting settled in, finding their feet, finding where they’d packed their newfangled communications devices.

Beth had the world’s shortest text from Dec (G’day), which we took to mean he had arrived in Terra Australis but hadn’t yet mastered the language, and then nothing, until Thursday, when we all got the same text ‘Facetiming at Matt’s 6pm that’s 1 in the bloody am for us so be there.’

So we were there, me, Lau, Josh, Ella, Jay, Beth, Cal, Iz, Mum, Rose, Cal’s girlfriend Ayesha, we all piled into our living room and waited for the Facetime chime. I’d set the iPad up on a stand so I didn’t have to hold it at arm’s length, as my bastard arms wouldn’t have lasted. In the last few days I’d taken severe hits in the walking and talking department, and was glad to be squished on the sofa with everyone else so it wasn’t as apparent. I wasn’t going to be doing much chatting.

At ten past six, the Facetime tone sounded, Ella pressed ‘answer’, and they all appeared on the screen. For an instant it felt like we were all there together, and then the time delay kicked in and we remembered they were half a world away. Rose gasped and put her hand to her mouth, and couldn’t speak for the entire duration of the call, tears leaking from her eyes. The rest of us cheered, shouted, talked over each other, asked dumb questions that weren’t heard or were lost in the time delay.

The children were all so excited to see each other; Ella and Josh had been waiting for days to see their cousins and get a tour of their house, but they were disappointed that time, as the house wasn’t ready and they were all staying in some swanky hotel courtesy of Dec’s new rugby club.

‘Yeah, we’ve got a suite, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, jacuzzi –’

‘I’ve got to share with Gracie.’

Charlie was immensely put out at this terrible injustice.

‘Yeh beauhiful, buh Rosa has tuh put up wih Tom snoring.’

This caused much more hilarity than it warranted, and I suspected the joint effects of a twenty four hour flight, jet-lag and it being the early hours of the morning for them were reaping their rewards.

‘When will you be in your house, sweetheart?’

‘Hopefully end of next week, unless the hotel kicks us out first. We’ve already broken a chair and spilt blackcurrant on the cream carpet.’

‘I doubt Australia’s seen anything like you lot, mate. When do you start training?’

‘Monday. I’ll let you know how their coach compares, see what I have to do to get fifty bench presses.’

‘Ella, didn’t you want to ask Charlie something?’

‘Yes Mummy, but there are too many people.’

‘Wehl hahv our own Facetihm, Squeaks, at the wehkend, yeh?’

‘Yes, Daddy.’

‘Leh us knoh a good tihm, Dec.’

And it rambled on, the story of the flight (they flew, they slept, when they woke up they were in Australia), how near the beach was (bloody near), how hot it was (bloody hot), how much they missed us all (bloody loads), how much we all missed them (even bloodier loads), arrangements for more, smaller, Skype and Facetimes as this really was a bit too chaotic, and then they were gone, and everyone started to go from ours as well.

I was worried about Rose, who hadn’t said one word, even when Dec had spoken to her directly. She’d only been able to smile and nod.

‘Can weh tahk yuh home, Rohs?’

‘Oh, no love, I brought your mam in my car.’

‘Ih’s a bih overwehlming ihnt it.’

She nodded, looking small and lost, and not at all like her bustly, larger than life self.

‘I knoh ih’s not the sahm, buh come an see us, any tihm.’

‘Yeah, Rose, please don’t stop coming to see us. We’re not quite as rowdy, but we do good cuddles.’

‘An bring cake. If yuh happen tuh hahv made any.’

Rose nodded again.

‘Well, thanks, I think I might be needing a few of those cuddles.’

‘Hehr, hahv one now.’

I stood up, rather unsteadily, and folded Rose up. Rose was pretty good at hugging; she was short and quite stout, but somehow seemed to envelop you, even though her arms can’t have reached all the way around.

While my head was down at her mouth level, she murmured in my ear.

‘I know you don’t like a lot of fuss, love, but if there’s anything I can do …’ ‘Thahks, Rose. Cake will beh fine.’

I winked at her, and she nodded. As she turned to go, Mum put her hand on my arm and just looked at me. She didn’t say anything, as she often didn’t, but it seemed I’d done something right in her eyes.

So the world turned, and we got used to nearly half our family being elsewhere, and sometimes it hardly seemed like they weren’t there, and sometimes it felt like they were at least on the other side of the Sun, but with the help of phones and computers, one of us talked to one of them nearly every day, possibly more than when they were up the road. The time difference meant I could indulge my occasional need for middle of the night arsing about without worrying about waking anyone up; by the time it was three in the morning here, it was mid-morning over there, and nobody minded.

And sometimes I needed it, to text him in the middle of the night. As things got worse, and I developed into more of a fucking cripple, I needed to just talk to someone who didn’t look at me with sympathy, and who I wasn’t trying to stay strong for.

Fuck, I’m back on the whinge thing, aren’t I. OK, positivity. It helps, much as I hate to admit it. After Dec and Amy had gone, things were bad for a while, maybe a week, but I got over it, and found that Dec had been right, the bastard. I had Lau and I had my kids, and they all helped me, well we helped each other. Being a family is so bloody awesome, it’s like having your own personal cheerleading squad, only without the short skirts and annoying chanting. Yeah, I missed Dec like I couldn’t have imagined, but it was dulled by having Lau, Josh and Ella there, and it became OK, because really, if I had them, I had everything.

Of course the fucking bastard was on the rampage, but it was contained to a fairly slow rampage. Bits and pieces of me fell away, and poor Lau had to pick up the bits and pieces that were left and help me to carry on, and sometimes it was bloody hard, like when my legs just went, and I had to dig out my walking pole in order not to fall over walking from the car park to the office. I felt so self-conscious on the morning Lau had to help me to the car that I nearly didn’t go in to work, but I was desperate to stay working as long as possible, and if I didn’t go in that day, it wasn’t going to be any better the day after, or the day after that, so in I went.

Raiders was, in some ways, the ideal place to be. There weren’t sympathetic looks and ‘poor you’; there was acknowledgement and disrespect and a nod at the stick with ‘planning a trip up Everest, Matt?’. There was nowhere to hide, but there was good humour and treating me like a normal person. It helped immensely, and I think being part of that environment was equal therapy to all the talking I did with Stefan and Adam.

I really missed those arsing about chats with the man from up the road, though. There were things I could say to Dec I couldn’t say to any other living being, whether I was married to them or paying them silly money to listen to me blathering on, and talking on the phone or via the internet just wasn’t the same. There was something about being in the same room, breathing the same air, belching the same dodgy curry, that enabled me to say things I would never say to anyone else.

Laura

The night of their flight, after the taxi had picked them up and we’d waved them off at midnight, we went to bed and Matt cried until morning.

Once Dec and Amy had gone, though, Matt rallied a bit, emotionally. He talked to me, and accepted help from everyone who was kind enough to offer it. He took all his sadness and buried it inside, deciding to make the most of what he had rather than raging against what he had been given.

I could always sense it, this sorrow, but he was dealing with it as best he was able, and I held him when he needed it, laughed with him when that was what was necessary, and let him see, always, how much I loved him and needed him.

That’s not to say it was always easy. There were days when I could see he was doing too much, that he was going to crash the next day, and he wouldn’t listen, and we argued. There were days when too many people made too much of a fuss over him, and he went off somewhere to get away from it all, and I had to go and find him, and we argued. There were days when I could see him wishing me, Ella and Josh weren’t there, so he didn’t have to care about us all and love us enough to stay with us, and eventually he’d snap at me or one of the children, and we argued.

The worst days were when he lost something else – another word he couldn’t say properly, another part of his vision that disappeared, the day he needed to take his walking pole into work to help him stay on his feet.

On those days, I lost him for a while. He was physically there, with us all, but he wouldn’t talk or look at us, he wouldn’t eat or move, until we went to bed, and then he’d hold onto me and sob, mourning it all.

Eventually, inevitably, his sexual functioning was affected, and although that, in a way, was the the biggest blow as it was the thing he’d been dreading the most, once it happened, he didn’t need to anticipate it any more He asked me constantly if he was going to get it all back. He knew I couldn’t answer, that no one could, but he also knew as well as I did that the more times he experienced a flare up, the more likely it was that he would remain affected afterwards in various ways, and the more frequently it was likely to happen in the future.

Matt

It was while Dec was away that I got the letter, and if he had been around I would have talked to him about it, and he would have made me see that I should just tell Lau, and I would have done, and none of this long tale of woe would have happened. I leave it to you to decide whether or not that is a good thing.

About a year after the Summers clan decamped to Australia, an envelope was delivered to me at Raiders, redirected from GreenScreen. There was a note and a flash-drive. From Julia. Holy shit. I had to read her name several times before I could quite believe it, but it was in her handwriting.

Dear Matt

I wrote this, and it’s about you. I thought you had a right to see it.

Julia

It threw me. I had no idea what was on the flash-drive, and I really didn’t know if I wanted to find out. I hadn’t thought about Jules for a long, long time, and had years ago made my peace with how things ended with us. Now I felt it starting to churn me up again, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t know what to do.

Lau, who I would usually have been able to rely on to tell me the sensible thing to do, had always had a hang-up about Jules. Maybe she wouldn’t any more, not with two children and several years of happily-married behind us, but I didn’t want to risk it. I wanted to talk to someone, but that someone was thousands of miles away, and I couldn’t find the words.

So I took the envelope home and put it in a box of old stuff from GreenScreen, intending to talk to Dec about it when he came home, assuming he did, or when I managed to work out how to address important issues over a delayed internet connection instead of arsing about like I didn’t have a care in the world.

I forgot all about it. At least I think I did. It was on my mind for a while, I suppose, wondering what was on the flash-drive, what Jules had written about me, but I wanted to do the right thing with it, and until I knew what that was, maybe I just blanked it from my mind. Really successfully, as it turned out.

Years and years later, it would only have been just over a year ago, maybe eighteen months, I was trying to sort some of my crap out, and I was going through old boxes. I nearly threw the whole box away, because it said ‘GreenScreen’ on it, and there was no reason to be keeping it, but for old times’ sake I took the lid off, and there was the envelope. Of course, I’d forgotten what it was, but the note jolted me when I looked at it, and I realised it was way too late to be telling Lau about it now. Maybe I should have just chucked the whole lot anyway, consigned it to history, let it go. But I like knowing shit. So I opened the flash-drive.

Lord of all the fuckeries. It really was a whole story, about Jules and me, in her words, and I couldn’t stop reading it. It didn’t make me feel nostalgic, but it explained a lot, and if ever I’d wanted closure, it gave me that. Not that she was fine about everything, because I think it really did fuck her up, but that what happened was for the best, for both of us, in the end.

And bloody hell, she was good at writing sex. A bit too good, maybe. I wondered if she’d tried to publish any of it anywhere, online erotica sites or something, and that was why she’d sent it to me, but that seemed so un-Jules that I couldn’t imagine it.

Iz

Well here Matty and I have to disagree. Julia wrote a lot of sex, but it wasn’t good, in my opinion. It was descriptive, in that it was mechanical, he did this then I did this, then we shouted a lot, but it wasn’t exactly emotional. You have to be a good writer to write good erotica, and Julia’s was … meh. Just as well she had a day job. Just as well Matty and Lau did as well. Let’s just say none of them are likely to be signed up for Saucy Stories Weekly. Should there happen to be such a publication.

Matt

Jules’ story churned up a lot of feelings that I didn’t immediately know what to do with. I thought about telling Lau, I thought about talking to Dec, but I didn’t think anyone would really understand it, how reading it had made me feel, and so just to show that I occasionally listened to what people told me, and because Adam wasn’t an annoyingly perceptive family member, I fell back on one of his staple strategies. Write it down. And so it started.

I thought it would be short, like Jules’ story was, but I have taken a very long and circuitous route to get from ‘a’ (the beginning) to ‘b’ (the end), and although I have had to hide things from people and do this when nobody knew, the whole process of telling my life as I’ve seen it has been therapeutic. I feel like I’ve managed to put things in order, sort them out, know what I feel about things, about people, about events, if only in my own head. Believe me, that is no mean achievement.

The main thing I learned throughout all of this is that if I had to make all those choices again, the one I would choose without question and despite anything else is Lau. There are lots of other things I would change, but not Lau – none of it would be worth it without Lau.

o0o

I managed to hold on to my deal with Lau to take help where it was offered, and allowed the family to stick their collective beaks in, by calling, visiting, babysitting, driving me places, offering ‘helpful’ advice and generally fussing about. I hope it wasn’t just taking on my part; as long as I was able, I did my share of helping too, with homework, sorting out people’s computer problems, being available for a sarcastic put down at any time of the day or night.

The old libido finally went, of course, and that was a bit of a black day, when I realised it had been quite a while since I’d got that excited, and that it was going to be bloody months before I was any use to Lau in the marital equipment department. I pestered her endlessly about how long it would be before we could exercise our conjugal rights again, although I knew, if previous instances were anything to go by, that I had to be patient. The conversation would go something like:

The scene: Matt and Lau’s bedroom. Some heavy petting has just taken place.

Matt: Sohry Lau.

Lau: What for?

Matt: Yuh knoh. Tha I canht finish the job.

Lau: (Either tuts or sighs heavily) You are the most ridiculous man. Nothing unfinished about that for me.

Matt: I dohnt get why yuh wohnt let meh, I dohnt see the poin in both of us bein frustrahted.

Lau: Well, it’s kind of like a solidarity thing.

Matt: But tha’s bohlocks. Yuh cahnt fehl wha I feel, so ih duhnt hehp yuh understahd. Last tihm, maybeh, ih was awesohm tha yuh did tha, but now, ih feels lihk, if I was an amputeh, would yuh cut yuhr leg off too?

Lau: No, of course not –

Matt: Exactly. Soh let meh. Let meh, plehs, Lau. It’d beh greht if at least one of us cahm sometihm in the next yehr or two.

Lau: No. Thanks, flower, but I’m not going to be persuaded. It will make it all the more enjoyable when it’s both of us together. It’s like saving up for a holiday, or waiting for a birthday. Makes the wait worthwhile, and we can have fun together while we’re waiting.

Matt: How lohng ahr weh gona hahv tuh wait?

Lau: Precisely three hundred and fifty seven hours.

Matt: Whoa, tha’s only two wehks.

Lau: Or maybe more. Or maybe less.

Matt: Yuh fohgot I cahn duh mental arithmehtic, dihnt yuh.

Lau: Maybe a bit.

Matt: Yuh wehr trying tuh beh sarcastic wehrnt yuh.

Lau: Maybe a bit.

Matt: Lehv ih tuh the expehrts.

Lau: OK.

Matt: I bluhdy lohv yuh, Lau.

Lau: Good. Shut up and go to sleep now.

Matt: Another snog fihrst.

Lau: Oh go on then.

Mostly Lau kept me together, or I kept myself together so I didn’t affect us all, but sometimes it was too much. Sometimes, if Beth was being a pain, or something new had stopped working, or I had just had enough of people, I’d go off and hide for a bit.

To start with, it was the hideaway at St Saviours, but Lau always looked there first, so I took to finding other inaccessible spots – there was a taxi driver who often took me to the top of Whitman’s Hill, where there was an old shepherd’s hut that I sat in; I’d catch the bus to a small village and sit in a tea shop all afternoon staring at the horse-brasses until the last bus took me back again; I’d let myself into Raiders Stadium and sit at the back of the terrace, until the time I set the burglar alarm off and four police cars screeched up. But I didn’t do it very often. It gave me space, and Lau understood, and let me do it, as long as I came back after a bit.

And then, as if the bastard MS hadn’t taken enough from me, it teamed up with its old ally pneumonia, and they decided to have another go at kicking the shit out of me.

Ironically, I had started to feel like maybe the fucking bastard was fucking off – I had less trouble with the unintelligible bollocks, didn’t need to use the walking pole everywhere, could see a bit better. Admittedly, I’d had a bit of trouble swallowing, and a few drinks ended up going the wrong way. Maybe that was what did it, perhaps that’s how fluid got on my lungs, or maybe I had some kind of bug anyway, or maybe it was radiation from the bloody big screen. Never let it be said I don’t share the blame around for my misfortunes.

o0o

It was autumn. I’d been a fucking cripple for six months so far, and I’d had to change things at Raiders to take account of it. This involved reducing my hours and doing more from home, but sometimes shit happened that required me to be at the ground. Why does technology always throw a hissy fit when there just isn’t time to spend on putting it right?

It was a Friday afternoon, and the routine pre-match test of pretty much everything had shown up a glitch on the big screen. The sound wouldn’t sync with the visuals, the team sheet wouldn’t load properly, and something was wrong with the direct feed, causing pixellating and flickering. It wasn’t going to stop the match going ahead, but it needed fixing fast.

I did as much as I could from home, talking Jenna through some of the diagnostics, but eventually I realised I was going to have to go in and try the hands-on approach. Lau drove me over, and sat having coffee with the girls in the office while I wrestled with the glitch gremlins.

After an hour or so of trying everything, we thought we’d come up with a) a problem and b) a solution, which is always a handy way round to do things, and I headed out to the middle of the pitch, to check that everything was working, syncing and holding its own. I didn’t even realise I hadn’t taken my walking pole with me until I got out into the centre, and felt pretty chuffed with myself when it occurred to me that I was standing, supported by nothing, and hadn’t fallen flat on my arse. Things were looking up. I gave Jenna, who was in the media suite at the top of the grandstand, a thumbs up, and she fired up the screen.

The sky had gone dark, and the screen shone out against the black clouds, a video of Raiders’ most recent victory playing against the dramatic backdrop of lowering cumulo-nimbus. We tried a few adverts, the team sheet, the Twitter feed, it all seemed to be working, and I breathed a sigh of satisfaction just as the first fat rain drops plopped on my head.

Shit. It hadn’t occurred to me that as well as providing a great backdrop for the screen, the dark clouds might be holding some serious weather, which now seemed set to dump itself on me. I started to head off to the relative shelter of the dug outs, but without my stick it was slow going. Hurrying was a thing of the past, and before I’d got very far the clouds burst with a dramatic clap of thunder, kind of like you get in films but never seems to happen in real life. Maybe it only happens when something momentous is occurring, which I guess it was, not that I realised it at the time.

Before I was a quarter of the way to the dug outs, I was drenched right through, and bone-chillingly cold. By the time I got to the side of the pitch, there was little point sheltering in the dug outs, and I carried on down the tunnel and into the depths of the stadium.

I was freezing, teeth chattering like a set of wind-up joke dentures, and my clothes were dripping. The players weren’t training, so the changing rooms were locked and the heating wasn’t on. I blundered around trying to find somewhere appropriate to get warm and dry, but it took me a while, and I was shivering uncontrollably by the time I found the physio room, where a couple of players were having some treatment.

‘Matt! What the hell happened to you?’

Pete Dawson, one of the physios, looked up from the massage he was giving.

‘Rain.’

I was shivering too much to say more than a syllable at a time.

‘Shit, you’re fucking soaked.’

‘Mm.’

‘Here, I’ll get you a towel.’

He left his position by the table to grab a towel from a pile, and tossed one to me. I dried my hair, but my clothes were still dripping, and I needed to get out of them. Pete noticed my shivering.

‘Are you OK Matt?’

‘Cold.’

My phone rang, and I pulled it out of my pocket, wincing at how wet it was. Lau’s photo smiled out at me from the screen.

‘Heh.’

‘Matt, Jenna said you were out in the rain.’

‘Yeh.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Phy … si … o.’

‘Are you shivering?’

‘Mm.’

‘Oh God. I’m coming down there.’

‘Noh – ‘

But it was too late, she’d disconnected.

I sat on a small chair, clutching the towel, my sodden clothes making a puddle on the floor, while the two physios continued their treatment, throwing curious glances my way from time to time. After a while, there was a light tap on the door, and Lau stuck her head round.

‘Oh Matt. You need to get out of those things.’

She threw a frown in Pete’s direction, presumably for allowing me to sit in my saturated state, but this was a rugby club, nobody worried about a bit of rain.

Lau held out my walking pole, which she must have collected on the way. I took it, but was shaking too much to get to my feet, and she had to help me up.

Together we struggled out to the car, the cloudburst now over and the sun shining as if butter wouldn’t melt in its mouth, even though it obviously would, because, well, it was the sun, and butter would melt within several million miles of its mouth. I tried to worry about getting the car seats wet, but to be honest I just wanted to get home, dry and warm.

Lau fixed me up with a warm bath, some comfy jammies and a whisky toddy, and I spent the evening curled up under a blanket on the sofa, still shivering, feeling sorry for myself, but sure I’d be right as, oh the irony, rain the next day.

I wasn’t right as rain, but I managed to go to work to double-check the screen, feeling gradually worse as the day wore on. Over the next few days, it turned into a cold, with a cough which wouldn’t go, and my temperature kept spiking. Lau kept on at me about going to the doctor, as the cough got worse, I was struggling for breath, I was finding it harder not only to go into work, but to do things from home. But I wouldn’t, I didn’t want to, accept it, what it might mean, and in my usual fashion I thought that if I didn’t accept it, it would go away. That tactic had not worked once for me in my entire life, but it didn’t stop me employing it every single time something happened to me that I didn’t like.

So, I was coughing, struggling to breathe, dragging myself through every day feeling like shit, like worse than shit, honestly believing that the next day I would wake up and feel better.

But after a few days, I woke up to a feeling I hadn’t had for a long time, that I instantly recognised. It was the same head-pounding fuzziness, the same catch in my breath, the same oh shit not this again that I’d felt all those years ago when I’d ended up more than half dead on my bathroom floor. I fought it, I tried to deny it, but when Lau came upstairs and took my temperature, she called the doctor straight away, ignoring my protests. As the fever swept over me, I started hallucinating, weird living shapes growing out of the walls, giant octopuses swimming on the ceiling, purple witches flying in and out of the windows.

I didn’t really know much about the next couple of weeks, but when I was feeling a bit less like I’d been tripping on LSD, I found myself in hospital. I hadn’t nearly died, not quite, but when I finally woke up, and they were all there with the same looks on their faces, only this time I’d put the same look on Lau’s face too, I had to have a long hard look at how I coped with illness.

After a thousand years too long, I got better enough that they let me home and Dec stopped texting me once an hour asking if he needed to come back.

‘No, I’ll let u know when my funeral is.’

‘Not funny mate.’

‘It’s called gallows humour.’

‘Still not funny.’

‘I’m having a wicker coffin with purple satin lining.’

‘Not laughing.’

‘And family of baby bunnies 2 drop daisies on casket at the graveside.’

‘Yeah txt me again when u’ve stopped this bloody nonsense.’

‘Plus free bar on Jay.’

‘When’s this funeral again?’

Laura

Matt was in hospital for nearly three weeks while they pumped anti-biotics into him, semi-conscious for half of the time, irritated and desperate to get out for the other half.

It was a big wake-up call for him, though, bringing back as it did memories of that time when he nearly died. Jay sat by his bedside looking drawn and worried, the same memories on his mind as well. It was a great relief to everyone when Matt finally came home, and chastened as he was he agreed that he would look after himself better in future.

The damage had been done, though, and each time he relapsed in the coming years, he had to be really careful not to get a cold, as his chest just couldn’t cope with it. We never talked about it, but I knew that was what would finish him. Sometimes I wished I didn’t know so much about MS, hadn’t seen so many people experience what my family and I were going through.

Josh and Ella took it all in their stride – Matt was just Daddy, and sometimes he could run about and play football with them and drive them to parties and tickle them, and sometimes he didn’t have the energy to lift the remote control to the TV or walk to the loo without help or eat his breakfast. As they grew older, they understood more, and I could see it cross their minds that one day, Matt might not be there.

Ella coped with this by finding out as much about MS as she could – on the internet, in books, talking to people from the MS support group Matt attended when I nagged him enough – so she could make up her own mind about what she thought was going to happen to her dad; she asked us questions as well. Josh never really talked about it with Matt or me, but Ella told me he talked to her sometimes, and sometimes she’d ask me a question he had asked her that her extensive research hadn’t managed to find an answer to.

Family events came and went, sometimes Matt was fit for them and sometimes he wasn’t.

Matt

Oh God, here I am again, going over it all, the details, moaning on about it, when what I should be doing is just telling you the great bits. Because now there’s not time to do it all, to go over all the details of just how fucking amazing my life has been; there’s only time to tell you how, if I had known when the fucking bastard first reared its oh so fugly head that I would be doing battle with it for nigh on thirty years, and that its partner in crime, pneumonia, would come to claim me in the end, I would not have made it this far.

If I had known all that, I would have imagined my life as the shittest life it is possible to contemplate. But that hasn’t happened. I mean, yeah, I’ve hated having this fucking bastard thing, that takes my strength, stops me speaking, chains me to my bed, makes me rely on people to do shit for me. I’ve really fucking hated it. But that isn’t all my life has been.

My fucking amazing life has seen me married to this woman who – words fail me when I try to describe what Lau has meant to me. And they fail me when I think about Ella and Josh. Parents always think their kids are the best, but my kids actually are. I can claim no credit for them topping the league table of awesomeness. Lau can claim a lot of credit, but most of it they’ve managed on their own. From an early age they had to put up with their dad being unreliable in the physicality department, having to take things like going swimming or for bike rides with me when they could, being sullen and uncommunicative when things had seemed to be going well for me but suddenly got hijacked by some sudden recurrence of the fucking bastard and its evil ways.

So I’m going to stop whining on about my lot. I’ve had this fucking bastard thing, and it’s shit, and that’s that. I really, really want the people I love to know how I feel about them, and so rather than waste any more of what little time there may be left, I’m going to tell you all how I feel about you, because I’m never going to say it to your face without arsing around. Unless you’re Lau, in which case you know I love you forever, right? You should do, I say it enough.

I’m hoping that maybe some of you might put some other good bits into your own story. I’ve rambled on, and on, and on, for bloody pages, and I hope that maybe one or two of you might think ‘well bloody hell, he’s gone on ad infinitum about snogging Lau, but he’s totally ignored that time when I drove across the city to help him choose curtains. Know what, I’m going to bloody well write my own version, see how he likes that’. I think you should. It’s been cathartic, it’s been nostalgic, it’s been revelatory.

But I haven’t really got time for any more of it. Time seems to have caught up with me, finally. I’ve been running for a long time, keeping ahead of it, just, but I think now I might have let it get too close; it’s time to stop this. It’s just too tiring, and there are things I’d rather do with my last days than type.

Cal

Dec moving to Australia was maybe the biggest thing that happened back then. Matty having a flare up of MS and then getting pneumonia – well I guess it was big at the time, but over the years it became a bit commonplace, it happened more regularly, Matty would either be well or he wouldn’t, nobody made too much of a big deal either way, not to his face. But at least he was around, you could go and see him and take the piss out of him and have the piss taken out of you, whether he could actually say ‘piss’ or whether it came out all garbled. Dec wasn’t there. None of us realised how much we’d miss him, all of them. We thought that Facetiming and Skyping and calling and emailing and texting would keep us in touch enough that we’d hardly notice it, but we all noticed, a lot.

It was things like Dec missing my Raiders debut. It wasn’t televised, so he couldn’t even actually see it, and it was some ridiculous time of the day or night over there, so he wasn’t part of it. Everyone else was there, even though it was the coldest night of the year, even Gran came along, one of the few times she came to watch rugby. I came on as a replacement for the last twenty minutes, and even though I knew he wasn’t going to be there, the first person I looked for in the bar afterwards was Dec. We Skyped later and I relived all twenty minutes for him, tackle by tackle, pass by pass, but it wasn’t the same.

And the birthdays. All of them had birthdays while they were out there, obviously, and Amy had her thirtieth. There would have been meals and parties, but we had to do it all sat in front of a computer instead of elbowing each other for room round the table, we had to listen to them telling us about getting together with their new friends and people they called their ‘second family’, which made us all just a bit sad and jealous, although we tried to remember that it was great they were getting on well and having a good time.

Dec and his family were away for nearly three years. They missed my eighteenth birthday and both the swanky party Mum put on and the one she didn’t know about with my friends and several cases of beer. Actually, Dad didn’t know about that one either, as it was in the middle of the rugby season and we would have been skinned alive. They missed me and Ayesh announcing at a Sunday lunch that Ayesh was officially moving out of the conservatory and in to my room and the look on Mum’s face. They missed Gran and Rose gradually getting older, especially Rose who missed them so much she seemed to shrivel a bit more every day they were gone.

They nearly missed Dad’s fiftieth birthday, and they nearly missed me and Ayesh properly moving in together, not just shacking up in the same room. But they were home just in time.

With Dec’s typical inability to plan more than an hour ahead, we only had a few days notice of the exact date they were coming home. We obviously knew they were coming back, because Dec had signed for Raiders again, and there had been a wild celebration when he called us and told us. None of us had been sure whether he would really come back to England, and if he did, Dad was the only one who knew whether Raiders would offer him a contract, but he was saying nothing. It was our regular weekly Skype session, the one everyone tried to make if at all possible, when he told us.

‘Right Matty, is it all set up?’

‘Yeh, Jay, I hahv done this ohnce or twice befohre, ahtually.’

‘OK then, why can’t we see them?’

Dad seemed more eager than usual to get going with the Skyping. Usually he just sat nursing a beer while everyone chattered around him.

‘Er, mehbe becohs yuh dihnt call them yet?’

‘Oh yeah. How do I do that again?’

‘Oh fuh fucks sahk. Clihk the Skype icon.’

‘Which is?’

‘Big bluh squahr, white S. Mohron.’

‘Yep, got it, oh, it’s ringing. Is it supposed to do that?’

‘G’day mates!’

Dec appeared, with Amy sitting next to him and Tom and Gracie hanging over the back of the sofa.

‘Hey mate! Great to see you.’

Dad certainly was seeming very jovial. I noticed Mum looking at him appraisingly.

‘Hello all of you. Not a full house, sweetheart?’

Mum always wanted to see all of them, every time, and if she couldn’t she wanted to know exactly where they all were, so she could talk about it to them like she was there.

‘No, Charlie’s at a party and Rosa’s got the lurgy. She’s in bed.’

‘Oh no, poor Rosa. Just a cold?’

‘Yeah, she’ll be right soon as.’

Dec’s speech, which had always verged on the Australian-sounding at times, had tipped over into full Aussie mode within months of him arriving in Perth.

‘How’s things, then?’

Again with Dad asking questions and sounding interested. Mum definitely knew something was up. She probably guessed what it was as well, but Dec didn’t give her a chance to say.

‘Well we’ve got some news, don’t know how you’re fixed in a few weeks, but we’re coming home.’

The living room practically exploded with squeals and yells, while Dad sat back and looked suspiciously calm about it all. Mum had tears in her eyes, and Rose sat there with her mouth open, unable to speak. She hadn’t done much speaking since they left anyway, but now she was just dumbfounded.

‘James, did you know about this?’

Dad looked at Mum and shrugged.

‘I’d say he did, Beth. I’ve signed for Raiders, just for a year.’

Mum punched Dad on the arm, pretty hard.

‘How could you not say?’

‘You know what it’s like, Beth, I’m not allowed.’

‘You bastard. You could have given me a hint.’

Now all of us shut up, as Mum swearing was something that just didn’t happen, ever. Dad was in serious shit now.

‘Sorry, Beth, I didn’t think.’

This was Dad’s catchphrase when he was in trouble with Mum. ‘I didn’t think’ wasn’t going to do him much good later, from the look on Mum’s face as she turned back to the computer screen.

‘So, if you’re back in a few weeks, you’ll be able to come to James’s party?’

Dad was having a monster fiftieth birthday party, organised by Mum, with half the country invited. Dec or no Dec, it was going ahead on the day it had been planned.

‘Oh Beth, I completely forgot about Jay’s birthday. We were hoping you could fetch us from the airport, but you might be in the middle of party stuff.’

‘Don’t be daft Amy. Of course we’ll be there.’

And so it was all organised, the mass convoy because we all wanted to be there to see them come back rather than one of us driving a minibus to fetch them.

Laura

Matt and I hadn’t even bothered to go to bed, although we’d sent Ella and Josh up at the usual time. We were both too excited to sleep ourselves, though. Tonight, or rather at two in the morning tomorrow, we were all setting off to the airport – the four of us in our car, Jay, Beth and Iz in their car and Cal and his girlfriend Ayesha in theirs – to bring Dec, Amy, Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa back home.

There had been great excitement earlier in the week, when a removal lorry had arrived and deposited a lot of their belongings back in their house from storage. There was a container load on its way from Australia as well.

They had been away for two and a half years, Dec having signed for two more seasons after the first one. We’d kept in touch, Skyping or Facetiming at least once a week, but Matt and I hadn’t managed to visit. Jay and Beth had been out there once, over a year ago, and Dec had come back briefly when he got a surprise call up to the Australian national squad that played in the UK in the autumn internationals.

Dec, at the grand age of thirty-three, was approaching the twilight of his rugby career, and had re-signed for Raiders for a year while he considered his options. He had taken some coaching exams while he was in Australia, and was considering moving in that direction, which might take them away from the city again. But for now, what was important was that they were coming home.

The sensible thing would have been to hire a large people carrier and one of us to drive to the airport, to collect them all and their luggage, but we all wanted to be there when they got off the plane. Even Rose offered to drive, but looked relieved when everyone told her she’d be more useful making sure breakfast was ready at their old house. The Summers family were likely to be tired after a long flight, but they weren’t going to get away without a grand reintroduction to the Scott family. And we were all piling up there, with enough seats and boot space between us to carry them back with us.

Matt and I sat watching a DVD, drinking coffee and fidgeting, waiting for it to be time to wake the children up and get in the car. Matt checked the time on his phone every five minutes, which would have been irritating if I hadn’t been checking the clock every three.

It was strange being out of touch with them. The last couple of weeks, in particular, had been a flurry of preparations, calls, Skypes, texts, all times of the day and night as things occurred to people and plans were made, but now they had been out of contact for nearly twenty four hours as they made their way across the world.

‘I’m just not used to not getting texts from him, Lau.’

As often happened, Matt seemed to have tapped into my thoughts.

‘I know. It’s not like I text Amy that much, or I didn’t think I did, but a few times today I’ve seen something or read something, and thought it would make her laugh, and I’ve pressed the message button, and then remembered, but I can tell her in person in – less than seven hours.’

We smiled at each other, eyes sparkling.

‘Did yuh hear Josh Facetiming Tom earlier?’

‘Yeah, he made me laugh, he told Tom he was glad he was coming back because he’d missed playing in the long grass.’

‘That garden’s not going to know wha’s hit ih.’

‘Ha ha. The full force of the Summers clan. Tomorrow, Matt – they’re going to be here tomorrow, we can just pop up the road and see them.’

‘Yeah, well, some of us can’t pop as quickly as we used to, but ih’s a bloody sight nearer than Perth. We won’t have tuh think about wha time ih is there, it’ll be the same as ih is here.’

‘Josh and Ella can go there after school, we can have them all here after school –’

‘Oh, I thought we were saying things we were looking forward to.’

‘You love it, Rosa on your knee telling you secrets, pretending not to notice Tom and Josh tying your shoelaces together, Charlie and Ella on the dance-mat –’

‘Hours afterwards wihping the sticky fingerprints ohf the telly an picking bihs of Cheesy Wotsit out of my hair. Ih’s a bloody good job weh didn’t have any more, we’d need bouncers.’

‘Who says we’re not having any more? There’s always a chance.’

We had finally stopped actively trying for another baby about five years ago, when it just got too much, the monthly disappointment, and we realised how much greater the chance of having a baby with some kind of abnormality was as we were getting older. Although we had started using contraception again, a part of me wasn’t prepared to give up and I still felt, even at the age of forty-three, that it wasn’t too late if nature decided to play ball with us and we wanted to take a shot.

‘Yeah, fading fast, Lau. Even if I wasn’t a dog’s breakfast down there, we’re getting on a bih, our equipment’s not wha it was.’

‘Speak for yourself. My equipment still happens to be spick and span, thanks.’

‘Spick and span, eh? Which particular Enid Blyton book are yuh out of, then?’

‘Five Check Out Their Equipment. It’s one of the lesser known classics, banned for its graphic sexual content. Dick’s equipment was always in perfect working order. Timmy the dog, well, sadly he’d had the chop early on, and as for – oh, who was the girl who wanted to be a boy?’

‘Couldn’t tell yuh, but I think I see where this is goin. Naughty Enid, then, who’d have thoht.’

‘Yeah. We should check the children’s bookshelves, just in case a contraband copy has slipped through.’

‘I hear black mahket Blyton is much soght after in the plahground.’

I looked at the clock again and put on my whiniest back-seat-of-the-car voice.

‘Oh isn’t it time to go yet?’

‘Patiehce, LauraLou.’

Matt put on a voice that sounded uncannily like my mother.

‘Another coffee? Stop us falling asleep on the way?’

‘Yeh, that’d beh great. I’ll need to keep awake up the motorway, keep yuh company.’

I was going to be driving, as Matt was recovering from his latest flare up of MS and still not confident of either his braking or his steering. The more severe symptoms hadn’t lasted as long, but had returned about eighteen months after the previous relapse had ended. As his mobility improved and the slur in his speech became less pronounced, Matt’s mood lifted and his confidence returned, and things were going pretty well for him at the moment. Raiders had been very accommodating, and had allowed him to reduce and increase his hours as his condition worsened and improved, and work from home when he needed to. They recognised that Matt worked hard, loved his job, and was very good at it, and they didn’t want to lose his expertise.

Finally it was time to wake the children up and get in the car. Ella and Josh hardly woke up before they were asleep again, and Matt nodded off soon after we got on the motorway, despite all the coffee.

I was following Jay, who was under strict instructions to drive slowly enough for me to keep up, but Beth must have fallen asleep as the speed gradually crept up.

Cal

We stayed in convoy on the motorway until Mum fell asleep and was no longer saying ‘slow down and wait for everyone James’ every ten seconds, then Dad put his foot down and sprinted away. Lau didn’t drive fast, and left to her own devices could have ended up in Inverness rather than Heathrow, after a tour of Britain and a nice sing, so I stayed with her, me and Ayesh singing to my iPod under the starry skies.

Laura

I dropped back, not willing to go as fast as Jay, and his large four by four sped off ahead. Cal was behind me, and he stayed with me. I knew the way anyway, and I didn’t need to follow Jay to know where I needed to go – I always got where I was going in the end. Maybe I sometimes took a bit longer, but there were always interesting things to see on the journey. We were going to get there in plenty of time, the plane wouldn’t be landing for hours, but we wanted to be sure we were all there when it did.

Getting the sleepy occupants out of our car when we arrived wasn’t an easy task. Matt didn’t get any easier to wake up, and Ella and Josh had been asleep the whole way. I was fighting a losing battle, getting one awake only for the others to fall asleep again. In the end Cal and Ayesha woke up Josh and Ella and persuaded them out of the car while I pinched and shook Matt awake.

‘Mmph … no … too early.’

‘Matt, we’re here, at Heathrow.’

‘Wha? Ih’s … day off … go ‘way.’

‘Matt.’

I pinched the back of his hand, and that got his attention, just as I was about to resort to the kissing method. His eyes opened blearily and looked at me, then he rubbed his hands over his face and through his hair.

‘Are weh hehr? I dinht sleep the whohl way, did I?’

I nodded.

‘Shih, Lau, why did yuh let meh? I was gona keep yuh awake, sing yuh songs and set yuh a quihz. It was a bloody amahzing quihz.’

‘Well, you’ve never tried to wake you up when you’re fast asleep, but it’s hard enough when your hands aren’t full of steering wheel, so I had no chance, really. Come on, everyone’s waiting for us.’

We sat and drank more coffee while we waited, watching the skies lighten through the windows, and the flight numbers appear and disappear on the boards.

Cal

Finally the Arrivals board announced that their flight had landed, and we headed off to the gate to wait for them. None of us could stop smiling. It had been too bloody long. Mum and Dad had been out to Australia once to see them, but nobody else had made it, and to have them in touching distance again was going to be awesome.

Mum leaned on the barrier, unable to stop jiggling with impatience. She hated not being in control of things, and the whole lot of them had been out of contact for more than twenty-four hours while they were on their way. We just had to wait until we saw them come round the corner, but Mum wasn’t one of life’s waiters. Ella and Josh were finding it hard, too, and Lau kept finding things to take their mind off it, like little snacks she’d brought, or giving them little quizzes. Matty was usually the quiz-master, but he was distracted today. He’d really missed Dec, more than he would ever admit, and he was jiggling with his eyes fixed on the corner almost as much as Mum was.

It was Charlie we heard first. She was the most raucous Summers, and it was her ‘come on, Rosa, don’t be so slow‘ that we heard first. We recognised it, even though there was an Australian accent to it, as it was so bossy. And I looked at Dad, and Mum looked at Lau, and Matty straightened up, and then we heard Amy, and then Dec laughed, and then they were all there, taking up the whole corridor, and then they saw us and they were running towards us and we met at the barrier, hugging and kissing and smiling and laughing and suddenly noticing how different they all were with their sun-bleached hair and how the hell had the kids all got so tall but how really the same they all were and how great it was to see them again, how truly great, and how much we’d missed them, but now they were back, and we were all together again.

*

I think I get it now, what holds our bloody enormous sprawl of a family together. Declan Summers. If it wasn’t for him, we’d just be a normal family, mum, dad, two kids, we’d see Gran every so often, we’d see Matty every so often, it would be, you know, a good family but that would be it. Dec is kind of a magnet. Without him, we sort of start drifting away from each other, just slightly. He pulls us all towards the centre, without even realising he’s doing it. I think it started when we nearly went our separate ways, back when I was little and he was a teenager. He realised, at the same time that Mum and Dad realised, that he was part of our family, and he was so relieved not to have lost it all, that he’s always clung on extra tight to us all, so tight that it attracts other people who would have otherwise been on the fringes too, like Nico. It’s become the norm that anyone who’s attached to any of us gets pulled in to ‘the family’, and rather than it feeling too big, or overwhelming, it just gets bigger and noisier and better.

When Dec was in Australia, we were a little bit lost without him, and when he came back, it was like something immediately clicked back into place.

120. Everybody hurts

In which a hiding place is found, and reparations are made.

Cal

I could hear Lau’s voice as she talked to Matty, but he didn’t seem to be replying. I wasn’t sure how long I should stay there waiting. I’d put my phone on silent, but I could feel it vibrating in my pocket. I didn’t want to look at my messages, because then I’d have to answer them, and I was pretty sure Matty wouldn’t want everyone knowing where he was. He particularly wouldn’t want Mum knowing where he was.

Laura

I walked over to him and sat beside him, the stone floor cold and hard against my bottom.

Matt

I heard footsteps walking over to me, and a rustle and a slight grunt as Lau sat down next to me. I still didn’t look up. If I just stayed here, like this, maybe she’d give up after a while, go home, leave me to it. Surely she would have had enough of me one of these days.

Laura

‘So this is where you got to. I thought it would have to be somewhere pretty special to drag me away from my Pilates class.’

No reply. I couldn’t see his face, could only read the stiff tension in the way he was sitting, hear his shallow breathing.

Matt

I tried my hardest, gave it a really good go, to ignore her and get back to my drifting, where I didn’t have to think of anything, where the world wasn’t one big fuck-up, where I could just float and nothing mattered. Didn’t work. The sense of Lau next to me, the scent of her, the sound of her breathing, it stopped me from going back. Didn’t stop me trying though.

Laura

I tried a different approach.

‘I can’t believe you never brought me here. Although it was a meeting place with an old flame, so fair enough, maybe you were being uncharacteristically diplomatic. It’s so quiet in here, you can’t hear the traffic at all, it’s like we’re in another world.’

Matt

Breezy chit-chat wasn’t going to do it. I had been more than half way to another place, and I wasn’t coming back easily, not just for a bit of gab about the weather, or old girlfriends, or whatever psychobollocks she was trying.

Laura

Still nothing. I sat for a while longer before trying again, feeling the cold from the flagstones seeping into my behind. Still all I could hear from Matt was his breathing; he wasn’t moving at all. If he had been sitting like that, his arms clamped over his head, his back hunched, for any length of time, his muscles would be cramping up, and he would be feeling very uncomfortable. However, if he was distressed enough, he might not even notice the physical discomfort. I tried some gentle cajoling.

‘Some people might say forty one, nearly forty two, is a bit old to be sulking like a teenager because a couple of things went wrong at school.’

Matt

Of all the things she could have said, calling me childish wasn’t what I was expecting. It riled me. Yeah, she’s very good at what she does, but at the time I hated it.

‘Some people should fuck off and mind their own business.’

I was shocked at the sound of my voice. It didn’t sound like me, rasping and raw as it was, and the words burst from me uninvited.

Laura

At long last, a response. Matt still had his head buried in his knees, as if he was in brace position on a plane, but speaking was a breakthrough.

‘Well, bad luck, I’m not going anywhere.’

Matt

‘Leave me the fuck alone, Lau.’

I wanted her to go away. This place was just for me, I hadn’t come here so all and sundry could come and chat to me while I was doing this.

Laura

‘No, I’m staying.’

Especially now he was talking. Before he spoke, I was worried Matt had locked himself away somewhere I couldn’t reach him. I couldn’t feel him, then. But now I knew he was coming back, slowly, from wherever it was he’d been.

‘You don’t have to talk to me, but I’m not going anywhere.’

Matt

I started to imagine everyone else turning up one by one, each having their pop at me, trying to pull me out of it.

‘Who else did you bring? I heard Cal.’

Laura

This was even better. He was fighting me, getting riled up. He had looked like he was shutting down, but now he was thinking about the outside world, and although it seemed I might be in for a fight, I started to think things might not turn out so badly. At least today.

‘No one.’

Matt

Oh pull the other one, Lau.

‘Yeah, sure, I bet they’re all fucking lining up outside to come and have their fucking say.’

‘No one else knows we’re here. I needed Cal because I didn’t know exactly where this was. I asked him to wait, but I can ask him to go if you like.’

Well it would be something, I suppose.

‘Mm.’

Laura

I took that as a yes, and raised my voice so it would reach beyond the hedge.

‘Cal?’

He popped round the corner.

‘Yeah?’

‘I think we’ll be OK here. Can you let everyone know I’ve found Matt, but don’t tell them where we are. Oh, here –’

Cal

She tossed me her car keys, which considering I’d only passed my test a few months ago was very trusting.

Laura

‘– just in case, would you mind fetching Ella and Josh from school? They get out at three, take them to Amy’s. I’ll let you know if we need picking up.’

Cal

‘Sure thing. Oh, before I go –’

I decided to give Matty the benefit of some of my own brand of advice.

‘Matty, stop being such a fucking drama queen. So you dropped something and fucked a few words up. Get over it. Nobody’s fucking perfect. No reason to chuck your fucking laptop across the room.’

Matt

What? I hadn’t chucked my laptop, the fucking bastard had chucked my laptop. Shit, it was even worse than I thought, if everyone assumed I’d just thrown a complete wobbler.

‘Fuck off, Cal.’

Cal

Matty was still sitting in the same crunched up way, with his arms over his head, and he didn’t look up when he spoke, but Lau smiled at me and I winked at her before setting off for Lau’s car.

Matt

He fucked off, probably still smiling. Nothing much wiped the perma-grin off his face these days, since he stopped being the Cob-on Kid and hatched out into Mr Sunshine around his sixteenth birthday. Now he was seventeen, and loving life, with a Raiders career underway, a pretty girlfriend, oh he just had it all. I tried to hate him for it, but I couldn’t. He was Cal, he was my nephew, I could wish him no ill, even though he had it all to look forward to and I’d just had it all taken away.

Laura

There was a long silence. I sat and resisted touching Matt. I so wanted to, but he was tense and rigid, and emanating ‘hands off’ vibes, and I knew he wasn’t receptive to any type of touch just yet. I didn’t think I could cope with him shrugging me off, so I waited. I waited a long time. My bum went numb and my feet went to sleep. I felt the phone in my pocket vibrate with calls or texts many times, but I didn’t look at it; I needed to focus on Matt.

Cal

I texted Mum and Dad to let them know Matty was OK, or at least that we knew where he was, and braced myself for Mum not leaving me alone for the rest of the afternoon. I left my phone on silent while I drove Lau’s car back home, because the sheer amount of pings and bleeps would have put me off and caused an accident. As it was, I could hardly concentrate for the amount of vibrating the bloody thing was doing.

Matt

I carried on sitting, wrapped up in myself, legs numb, back aching, with Lau sitting next to me. She wasn’t so close that she was touching me, and I hoped she didn’t, because I didn’t want her to, couldn’t handle it, her soft and comforting touch. I felt jagged and sharp, cut and broken, and I didn’t want to touch her while I was like this.

I thought again about what Cal had said, that I’d thrown the laptop. Of everything that had happened this morning, all the reasons I had to feel stupid, to know it was all over, this felt the most unfair. I hadn’t done it on purpose. Well, I hadn’t done any of it on purpose, but I just felt like whining ‘the bastard MS made me do it’.

‘Is that what they think?’

Laura

I was confused. It had been so long since either of us had spoken, I couldn’t remember what the last thing was that had been said.

‘Is what what who thinks?’

Matt

I was so used to Lau knowing what was going on in my head that it was weird when she couldn’t actually read my thoughts.

‘That I chucked my fucking laptop?’

Laura

‘Well, Jay and Cal both told me that’s what you did. Why, what happened?’

Better again. He was asking specifically about this morning, checking details. He could go there. There was another long silence.

Matt

I still could hardly think about it, let alone say any of it, and it took several breaths trying to start, knowing that if I did, that was it, no more floaty oblivion, just hard, cold, dealing with it. Finally, one more deep breath, and I took the leap.

‘Fucking spasm. I kept dropping the fucking remote, they were all laughing at me, so I went to use the arrow keys on the laptop, and my arm just fucking spasmed and sent ih flying.’

I still had my arms over my head, and as I said the words, it just brought it all back, all the humiliation from the morning, and I started crying. I hadn’t thought I had any more tears left, but there are always some of the salty bastards to get you, aren’t there.

Laura

Matt still had his arms over his head, and his head on his knees, and now he was crying. It tore at me, to see him like this, but crying was good. It was when he was silent and distant that I was most scared for him. I wasn’t immune to his tears, though, and a wave of sadness washed over me.

‘Oh, my love …’

It was time for some touching. I put my arm round his shoulders and felt him shuddering, trying to control his sobs.

Matt

I felt Lau’s arm go round my shoulder, and it was OK, she was soft and safe, and now I needed to be with her, I was done with doing it on my own, she was here, where she needed to be, as she’d known she would need to be, and I could do it now. I made a huge effort to stop blarting, but it just turned to shudders.

Laura

‘Don’t fight it Matt, flower. Let it go. Be sad about it. Have a good weep, you’ve had a shit day.’

And so he wept, while I did my best to hold him, one arm round his shoulders, the other round the front of him, across his knees, as he howled out his anger and pain, humiliation and sadness.

Matt

And so I did, I let it all go, all the shit from the shit day to end all shit days. The shit day that began all the way back in yesterday, when I admitted the fucking bastard had come back, had carried on into the early hours of this morning when my best mate had told me he was moving to the other side of the world, and had continued when I’d shown myself up in front of everyone at work and broken an expensive piece of equipment before running away like a small child. I had been trying to hold it all in, to stop it becoming part of the world, so that it couldn’t get to me, but it was too much, and now Lau was here it was just about alright to let it out.

Lau did her best to hold me, but we weren’t in the greatest position, and it was awkward. I didn’t want to move out of my safe corner; I was making all sorts of noises, and having Lau there wrapped around me while I did so made me feel protected.

Cal

When I pulled up outside our house, I checked the screen, and Mum had tried to call me twenty-seven times. I mean, come on. That’s insane. I’d already told her Matty was with Lau and was OK. I had hardly got out of the car when she was running down the path.

‘Cal! Why are you driving Laura’s car? Why aren’t they with you? Where are they?’

‘Chill, Mum. Lau’s with Matty. He’s not ready to talk to anyone else yet.’

‘What do you mean? Where are they?’

‘Somewhere no one will find them.’

Mum continued haranguing me as I walked up the path, and I realised I was going to have to work hard not to either strangle her or let it slip where they were. I changed tack, in an attempt to divert Mum’s worrying to something else.

‘Lau’s brakes need fixing. I’m going to ask Wheels if he’ll have a look.’

It didn’t work, just set Mum off about the car.

‘Why have you got Laura’s car? You’re not insured to drive it.’

‘Relax, Mum. Look, put the kettle on, make us a coffee or something. Lau wants me to fetch Josh and Ella in case she’s not back.’

‘Why won’t she be back? Where’s she going?’

‘She’s not going anywhere, that’s the point. Look, Mum, Matty’s in a bad way, in his head, he needs some time and a bit of space, and he needs Lau. She’s staying with him for now, until he gets over himself. Neither of them need you barging in being all ‘let’s do this my way’. Just let them sort it, alright?’

Mum stopped and looked at me

‘Is Matty really in a bad way?’

‘Yeah, it looked like it. He was all kind of hunched over, like he just wanted to disappear. Lau got him talking, though. I really think he just needs to be with her.’

‘I suppose you’re right. You can’t drive that car again, though.’

‘Course I can. Apart from the shit brakes, it’s a doddle.’

Lau still had the tiny Micra she’d had ever since I’d known her. She didn’t look after it very well – oh, it was immaculate inside and out, she was nearly as much of a neat freak as Matty, but she knew jack-shit about cars, and didn’t think it was worth bothering with all the regular checks that kept Matty’s car purring like a kitten. She thought using a dipstick was just something boys did to pass boy time, like watching football or reading comics. Matty used to get really frustrated about it, but he refused to do it for her, and as a result, her car was not in the best mechanical shape. As well as the brakes, it sounded like the timing was off, and there was a gravelly noise when you accelerated that needed looking at. I really spent way too much time at Baggo’s brother’s garage.

But Mum hadn’t been talking about my physical ability to drive the car, she’d been stressing about the insurance, or lack of it, and I took the opportunity she’d given me to draw her attention away from the fact that she didn’t know where Matty and Lau were.

‘You know that’s not what I meant, sweetheart. You can’t drive it without insurance, it’s illegal.’

‘Only if you have an accident or get stopped. That’s not going to happen.’

‘Cal, you can’t. I’ll go and fetch Josh and Ella.’

‘Haven’t you got your meeting thingy this afternoon?’

Thank goodness for Mum’s carefully filled in daily planner, with slots for everything any one of us might be doing on any given day, including Ayesh, but with Mum’s column the only one with any actual writing in it. I’d happened to glance at it this morning when I was looking for something to read while I ate my cereal.

‘Oh. Yes. Well Dad will have to go.’

‘He can’t, he’s got that press thing about Dec.’

‘Oh, so I suppose Dec can’t do it either.’

Mum was going to have to think again. What I didn’t tell her, what I wasn’t about to tell her, was that Lau had put me on her insurance while I was learning, God knows how much it must have cost her, but she’d take me out every so often for a practice when I got close to murdering Mum. It suited my purposes at that moment for Mum to be focussed more on solving that problem than beating me down until I confessed where Matty was.

‘Nope, just me. Is Ayesh home?’

‘Yes, she’s in her room doing some coursework.’

‘I’ll just go and say hi then.’

‘Maybe you should let her work.’

‘Yeah, after I’ve said hi.’

I was now a master at not letting Mum get her way. I did it with charm and a cheeky smile, and never ever just did what she told me. I always agreed that she was right, and then did what I wanted to do anyway, and she was powerless in the face of my skill. I tried to pass my wisdom on to Iz, but she seemed to prefer the screaming in Mum’s face method of getting her to change her mind, which didn’t work nearly so well and just stressed the whole household out.

Anyway, I knew where I was going to spend the next hour or two, and it was with my lovely girlfriend, whether Mum liked it or not.

Matt

After a while, just having Lau holding me wasn’t enough. I needed to connect with her. I lifted my head – it felt weird, after all this time bowed over, underneath my arms. The world felt too big, I could hear too much, feel too much, but I looked at Lau, into her sea blue green eyes, and knew she was there, in my world, in the world which was ending, but she was there with me. I gazed at her, and fell apart. I felt myself shatter against her as I clung on, feeling like this was the end, this was the finish of everything good, forever.

Laura

Somewhere in the middle of it, he lifted his head and looked at me, his face a mess of misery and dejection, and I wrapped him up in my arms as he fell apart, pouring it all out, breaking my heart to hear it.

Matt

She held me tight, and we ended up with our legs tangled up as we sat facing each other on the ground, her arms round me, me holding on to her so tightly.

It lasted a long time, me wailing all over Lau. I’d been arrogant for so long, thinking this was never going to come back, thinking life, the universe, whatever the fuck it was I thought I believed in, had good things in store for me. In one day, it had shown me its power to take away as well as to give, but it hadn’t taken Lau. She was there, holding me, and after a long time, I quietened down, my shudders diminished to the occasional quiver, I was breathing more or less evenly and my body loosened up. My shoulders ached, my back was shrieking, and my legs had started to cramp up. But I could feel it all. I was back.

Laura

A long time later, after the loud sobs had quietened, the shudders had diminished to the occasional shiver, and his breathing had calmed, and some of the tension had seeped away from his body, I pushed away from him slightly so I could see his face. I put a finger under his chin and lifted it, needing to see his eyes. The pain and sorrow in them almost undid me. Matt shook his head and looked away from me.

Matt

I almost didn’t want her to see, to see the wreck of a man I’d become in the last few hours, but her grip was firm. I looked at her, but the sympathy and understanding I saw were too much for me and I looked away.

‘I’ve fucked ih all up, Lau.’

My voice was broken, like the rest of my life.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Lost my job, made a total tit of myself, fucking laughing stock.’

It wasn’t all of it, but it was enough, somewhere to start.

‘Lost your job? How did you work that one out?’

Lau was great at thinking positively, but she hadn’t been there, she didn’t know what I must have looked like, talking unintelligible bollocks and throwing computers about the place.

‘They think I chucked a laptop. I was – I must have looked shit-faced. Wouldn’t be the first time someone’s thought I was pissed. Everyone was there.’

And someone had practically accused me of it, with the ‘vodka for breakfast’ comment. I knew how I came across when the fucking bastard was having its way with me.

‘Matt, of all the people I’ve talked to, and believe me I’ve talked to a lot of people today, everyone was just worried about you. They all know you’ve got MS don’t they?’

I didn’t know how many people knew. I’d been open about it at my interview, but that was a few years ago, and perhaps people had forgotten, the people who had known might have moved on. Cory and Jenna on my team knew I had some kind of unspecified ‘thing’.

‘Maybe. I’ve talked to a couple of people about ih. I guess Jay migh have told people about me, before I started working there. Doesn’t change anything, though, I made a complete arse of myself. They were all laughing at me, getting my words wrong, dropping shit, I felt so fucking stupid.’

‘Well, it was mean to laugh, but isn’t that what you lot all do? I’m sure it wasn’t meant to hurt you, they just didn’t realise.’

‘But Lau, they think I chucked a laptop, that’s like toys out of the pram time, tantrum city. I’m finished.’

‘OK, Matt, I’m going to repeat your nephew’s words, maybe without all the swearing. Stop being a drama queen. Wait until you’ve talked to someone, Jay or someone else from the club. You don’t have to do it today, or tomorrow, or this week even, I think you’ve earned a few days off, but you can explain then, if you need to, and I think you’ll find that they’ll be pretty understanding. I guess it’s possible you might come in for a bit of ribbing, but you’ve always been able to hold your own with them, you know more words than most of them put together for a start.’

I rested my forehead on Lau’s shoulder and breathed deeply. She always knew exactly what to say, how to put things in perspective, how to stop me catastrophising. I nodded against her, and felt her stroke my hair, thinking about everything she’d said. It seemed like maybe it was time to stop her worrying, because calm as she was outwardly, she would be a mass of panic and fretting underneath.

‘Lau.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Did you say ‘shit’ just now?’

Laura

I nearly laughed with the relief of it. He was teasing me.

‘Er, I might have.’

Matt

‘You said I’ve had a shit day.’

‘Well you have. Sometimes there’s only one word to describe things.’

‘Feels weird, hearing you swear.’

I didn’t feel like it, but I was trying to seem like cheery Matt, trying to pretend there was a possibility I could think about something light-hearted.

‘You have heard it before. I seem to remember using some choice language when the babies were being born.’

‘Special circumstances. Doesn’t count. Don’t do ih again.’

‘Well, that pretty much depends on you. Try not to have any more shit days.’

I looked up in mock outrage.

‘Lau!’

Laura

‘Totally up to you. Know what, my bum has completely gone to sleep, I need to stand up before my legs fall off.’

I saw the glimmer of a smile cross Matt’s face as I pulled away from him and got ready to stand up. I started to believe things had turned a corner.

Matt

I managed to force it, the tiniest hint of a smile, as she pulled away and got ready to stand. Lau’s bum was the answer to a lot of life’s problems.

‘Might need a massage, then.’

‘Great minds, flower.’

She stood up and held her hand out to me. It took me a while to get going, as I needed to unkink my aching back and shake some life into my own legs before I could even think of standing up, and then there were the pins and needles that surged down from my hips to my toes and were so bloody painful. I thought pins and needles were, like, little tickly things when you’d sat cross-legged for too long. Try folding yourself up for several hours and see how much it tickles.

I finally got my limbs into some kind of functional order, grasped Lau’s hand and stood, falling against her to be wrapped up again. In fact, we leaned against each other, both being a bit wobbly from our sitting on cold stone in early Spring. My hands wandered down to Lau’s backside, where they rested, in their accustomed place. It just felt right. I squeezed a bit, as she’d said she needed a massage. It was the least I could do.

‘Oh this is just so wrong in a graveyard.’

‘Just being helpful, Lau. You could return the favour, haven’t been able to feel my fucking arse for about two hours.’

Laura

I let my hands drift down to Matt’s bum cheeks and rubbed them vigorously. Oh things were always going to be alright as long as I could feel Matt Scott’s bum.

Matt

‘Whoa, gently there, Lau, don’t wana get too excited.’

‘Need to get the circulation going, don’t want those delightful buns to fall off.’

After that, we just stayed locked together, hands on each others bums. I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to leave this place, which for different reasons with different people had always felt like some kind of sanctuary. It felt like maybe, with Lau, just maybe I might be able to face it all, but there was going to be a lot of ‘it’ to face, a lot of talking, a lot of apologising, and I didn’t want to think about it for as long as I could get away with.

Laura

I could sense Matt’s unwillingness to leave this place and get back to the real world, but I also had a sense of ‘crisis over’. There was a fair amount of talking still to be done, firstly from me while I tried to persuade him to talk to everyone else who needed to know he was OK, and then to people at work, the people who had been at his presentation, and maybe later try and get him to contact the MS service.

Matt had kept up with Anna fairly regularly, until she left the team a couple of years ago, and he had declared himself unneedy of an MS nurse. I didn’t know anyone who worked there now; Anna had gone to work on a Neuro ward, Rachel had married Jed and gone travelling for a while before coming back and setting up an internet self-help book business with him, Kate had moved away in search of the perfect man and Patrick had retired. It was a good thing that nobody knew us, and Matt would just be another referral. If I could get him to ring them.

Cal

Ayesh turned out not to be nearly as interested in coursework as she was in snogging me, funnily enough, and we closed the curtains to the conservatory and enjoyed each other’s company, despite a couple of interruptions to turn away Mum’s offers of coffee and then cake, and then it was time for me to go and fetch Josh and Ella from school.

I tried calling Lau several times so I could ask her what she wanted me to do with her car once I’d dropped the kids off. I could leave it at their house, or take it back to the church. She didn’t answer, so I sent a text.

I’d picked my cousins up a couple of times, so the teachers knew who I was and didn’t report me as a child stealer. Josh and Ella were excitable, because I was unexpected, and they got to go home to Dec and Amy’s house, which was always exciting, being full as it was of uncontrollable Summers kids.

Dec and Amy had four children, and their house was always full of noise and chaos because Dec and Amy were so laid back. Dec loved being a dad so much – he’d been adopted when he was a baby, and his parents had died when he was thirteen, and all he wanted in life was to give all his kids the kind of childhood he never had after that, which meant lots of love and, it seemed, no saying no. Amy tried with the discipline, but she couldn’t say no to anyone either, and couldn’t be the bad guy, so Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa ruled the roost there.

They were all great kids, just a bit exhausting to be around. Dec was always being a horse or a piggy-back ride or a sword-fighter, and Amy was always making drinks and snacks or trying to read stories and have some calm time before bed.

I remembered Dec when I was little, how much time we’d spent together and what it had meant to me, and realised how much love he had to give his family. We had a different relationship now, because we were both older, but we were still as close as brothers, and I realised as I pulled up outside their house how much I was going to miss him and his crazy family while he was away.

Josh and Ella ran up the path and rang the doorbell, and disappeared inside. As I walked towards the door, my phone vibrated in my pocket, and I realised I hadn’t turned the ringer back on. Pulling it out, I saw from the screen that Mum was on the warpath again, with five texts sent since I’d left the house, demanding that I tell her where Matty and Lau were. I shook my head and decided to ignore Mum, but tried calling Lau again, and sent her another text telling her I’d picked the kids up and asking what she wanted me to do with her car. Then I put the phone back in my pocket.

‘Let me guess, your mum wants you to tell her where Matty’s hiding out?’

Amy had it spot on. I rolled my eyes at her.

‘Mum needs to realise that some people can solve their problems without her help.’

‘She just texted me too, in case I was hiding them here. Not that they’d be getting much peace and quiet if I was – listen to that lot!’

The addition of Josh and Ella had added a few hundred decibels of noise to the squealing that was going on.

‘Do you want a cup of something, Cal?’

‘No, you’re OK. I should get the car back to Lau.’

‘Sure? Dec’s just had a delivery from his agent, there’s free hats and t-shirts all round.’

‘Ha ha, I think I’ll pass. So you’re really going to Australia?’

Amy’s eyes grew serious.

‘Yeah. I can hardly believe it. This time next month, we’ll be living in Perth.’

‘I’m gonna miss you guys.’

‘Yeah. Me too. Great opportunity, though.’

Amy’s eyes misted with tears.

‘Oh who am I kidding. I completely can’t believe I’m not going to see everyone every day. And now Matt’s … I’m dreading it, we’ll be so far away. Don’t tell Dec.’

‘Sure thing. You’ll be fine, though, Amy. We’ll Facetime and Skype all the time. Maybe come and visit.’

‘Yeah. Anyway, you’d better get the car back to Lau.’

And so I was dismissed, presumably before I caused proper tears that Dec didn’t need to see, and I went back to the hedge room.

I found my way in, unsure what I was going to find, or even if Matty and Lau were still going to be there. They were still there, standing up, wrapped up in each other, hands on each other’s arses. They both had their eyes closed, and they looked like they were totally unaware of anything else that was going on apart from each other. I hoped it meant that Matty was feeling better, but I felt awkward just looking at them, so I coughed to let them know I was there.

Matt

I don’t know how long we stood there, arms round each other, but eventually there was a rustle from the hedge, and a cough.

Cal

‘Er, if you two have had enough of feeling each other up …’

Lau opened her eyes and turned towards me, but neither of them spoke.

‘Lau, do you ever answer your fucking phone? Just for future reference, in a family crisis it’s the done thing to, like, let people know you’re OK and not be all unreachable and shit. Goes for you too, Matty, just so you know.’

It seemed like it was time for a reality check, now that maybe the worst of the crisis was over and Matty was possibly back in the land of the living, although he still had his eyes closed. Lau looked at her phone and raised her eyebrows at the screen. I’d tried calling her God knew how many times, and I suspected Dec and Beth had also been trying all afternoon.

Laura

I automatically reached for the phone in my pocket and looked at the screen. Ten missed calls from Cal, similar quantities from Dec and Beth.

‘Sorry, flower. Are the children OK? Have you picked them up?’

A quick glance at the time on my phone showed it was half past three. I had been here with Matt for over three hours.

Cal

Well of course they were OK, that wasn’t the point. Kids are a big responsibility and they should both be a bit more aware.

‘Yeah, they’re with Amy. I only wanted you to know they were OK, Jesus, is it too much to ask that you have your phone on? What if the school had needed to contact you or something?’

Laura

‘Sorry, Cal.’ I smiled to myself at his grown up rebuke. ‘Won’t happen again.’

Cal

‘Fair enough. Have you had a fucking word with yourself, Matty?’

Matty opened his eyes and looked at me. He took a deep breath, and I saw a change come over him, from some kind of hopelessness to some kind of well, if not optimism, at least someone who knew where to look for their strength.

Matt

This was a good kid, he was caring, he’d brought Lau here to find me, he’d taken care of Josh and Ella while I visited the land of the hopeless and lost. He needed taking down a bloody peg or two.

‘What is it with bloody teenagers thinking they’re the boss of me? When Dec was about your age he thought he could give me fucking grief when he wanted to as well. Respect your elders, Calum Scott.’

Cal

It lifted my spirits, to hear him have a go at me. I knew he was going to be OK. He wasn’t yet, but he was going to be.

‘Oh, I see you have. Radical. Here’s your keys, Lau, your car’s right out the front. You need to get your brakes checked, they’re shit. I’m going to see Baggo, he just lives round the corner. Oh, Mum says ring her, like, half an hour ago. I’d do it soon, she’s on the warpath because I wouldn’t tell her where you are. It won’t be me fucking copping it, though, and she’ll start tearing the city apart soon. Oh, and Matty, they’ve rescheduled your presentation for next Friday.’

I threw Lau’s keys to her and turned round. They didn’t need me any more, so I waved and walked out.

Matt

He was such a good kid. Disrespectful cheek notwithstanding.

Laura

I raised my voice so he could hear me as he walked away.

‘Cal.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thank you, flower.’

‘Sure thing.’

I looked at Matt, who looked back. I could see some of the doubt seeping away, although there was still a lot of pain and hurt behind his eyes.

Matt

Lau turned her attention back to me, and I looked back at her. It felt better, maybe the world wasn’t ending today, maybe it was only beginning to end.

Laura

‘So, if they’ve rescheduled your presentation …’

‘Yeah, I get it Lau, I’m a fucking drama queen. We should get home, I think I’ve got some phoning to do.’

‘Thank God for that. I’ve been waiting for you to leave – I don’t think I can find my way out on my own.’

We drove home in silence, leaving Matt’s car in the street where he’d parked it. I was very conscious of the fragility of Matt’s emotions, and also of his usual defensive response to confrontations. I didn’t want to risk saying anything that would make him retreat back to that place he’d been when I found him; it hadn’t been a good place, and it had been hard for him to come back from it before. I touched his arm from time to time, but otherwise kept my eyes on the road and limited myself to sending mental strength.

We pulled up into our driveway and I took off my seatbelt.

‘I’ll just pop up the road and fetch Ella and Josh.’

Matt

‘I’ll come.’

It was like getting back on the pony, ripping off the plaster, any number of things that meant doing something painful to get it over with so it was done.

Laura

I gave him an appraising look. I hadn’t expected Matt to want to see anybody so soon.

‘Are you sure?’

Matt

I sighed. The wave of grief and pain had crashed over me and been dragged back with the tide. It had left a fair amount of flotsam and jetsam that needed clearing up.

‘Yeah. Need to stop being a tosser and face people, don’t I?’

That too.

‘You’re not a … actually I can’t think of the polite word for it. You’re not a tosser. You’ve had some fairly hefty life events to deal with in the last twenty four hours. If you want some time on your own, or at least just the four of us, I think that’s allowed.’

It was tempting, to just go indoors, hole up, hide from everyone, for a while. But it wasn’t going to help. And I needed to see Dec, to just … see him.

Laura

I took Matt’s hand and gave it a squeeze, wondering to myself if he realised how far he’d come since I first met him, when he wouldn’t even reply to texts because he thought people were interfering.

‘Come on, then, let’s fetch our children, and hope Dec hasn’t been giving them beer again.’

Matt

We walked up the road, hand in hand. As we stood outside Dec and Amy’s front porch, we could hear the excited noises being made by six children between the ages of three and seven. There was no such thing as chilling out in the Summers House of Fun.

‘Hmm. Sounds like sugar overload. Perhaps we should leave it and fetch them later.’

Lau grinned wickedly up at me and pretended to turn back for home.

‘Great plan, Lau, when they’ve had even more sugar, so they never get to sleep.’

‘Yeah, you’re right. OK, doorbell here we go.’

The noise that could be heard inside the house – squealing, running footsteps, unidentifiable musical noises – all increased as we saw a shape appear in the frosted glass. Dec opened the door, wearing a large hat with corks hanging off it, a child attached to each leg and one hanging on his back. Two more children were behind him, wearing smaller versions of the cork hats and carrying soft toys. Also in evidence were blue West Coast Speeders shirts.

‘Oh, Lau, hi –’

Dec saw me and his eyes widened.

‘Matt! Hey, mate. Great to see you guys. Sorry, we just opened a big box sent by my agent, lots of really naff Aussie stuff, we were giving it a try. Come in – no, let go of me, Tom, you too Ella, I need to let Matt and Lau in. Down you get Rosa.’

Dec slowly unravelled himself from the children so he could open the door wide enough to let us in, pulled the cork hat off and tossed it onto the banister post. As we went into the hall, Amy’s voice floated out of the kitchen.

‘Who is it, hon?’

‘Lau and Matt.’

‘Oh!’

Amy came into the hall, wiping her hands on a tea towel.

‘Oh Matt, how are you?’

I shrugged but didn’t answer, instead bending down to Rosa, who was tugging on my trousers and holding a furry koala up for my inspection. I picked her up and held her while she clung on, one arm round my neck.

‘Kala bear.’

‘Yeh, beautiful, g’day mate an all tha. Have you been playing Crocodile Dundee?’

Rosa shook her head, not understanding the cultural reference that was several decades before her time.

‘We play kalas an kangroos.’

‘Sounds just as good, Red. I like yuhr hat. Did the bottles fall off?’

I flicked a cork.

‘No bottles.’

‘Oh, bad luck.’

‘Rosa, why don’t you go with Ella and Josh and Tom and Gracie and find Charlie? She was looking for a puzzle, wasn’t she?’

All five children thought this was a superb idea, and set off screaming up the stairs in search of Charlie.

Dec looked at me, while I looked back, not sure where to start. There was an awkward silence.

‘Mate, if I’d had any idea, I wouldn’t have signed.’

What was this? Oh do me a favour Declan Summers.

‘Don’t be a fuckwit, why should ih have stopped you? You’re not responsible for my appallingly timed health lapses. Chance of a lifetime, mate, goh an see the world with your family, you’ll have a blast.’

If I said it quickly, I could almost mean it.

‘Yeah, whatever.’

Dec wasn’t convinced by my bluff, and waved off my response.

‘If you … Ames and me talked earlier, and if you need me to stay, I’ll cancel it all.’

I couldn’t have that. I knew he meant it, that was the worst thing, but if I even let him offer, it was going to undo me, I could feel it bubbling under, and I just wanted to do this, get out of it, in one piece.

‘You have to be out of your teeny tiny fucking little mind, Declan Charles Summers. You’re so bloody up yourself. Why the fuck should I need you? I’ve got Lau, I’ve got the whole extended Scott army to bloody nag me and make my life a fucking misery as and when they see fit. I never heard a bigger load of bollocks in my life.’

‘Yeah, right. Come here, then.’

Dec walked towards me and pulled me into a huge bear hug.

‘Thanks mate.’

I murmured into his ear, keeping a tight grip on my emotions.

‘Always’.

Dec’s whispered reply very nearly finished me off, but the moment was broken by the sound of a large herd of children galloping downstairs, and we had to get out of the way or risk a messy trampling.

Laura

As I shook my head at the two stubborn men who loved each other like brothers, probably more, but would never say it as if they meant it in a thousand years, Matt and Dec let go of each other and moved out of the way to avoid being mown down. The crowd of little people surged across the hall and into the living room, Charlie holding a DVD and trailing the smaller children in her wake, and I followed after them.

‘Josh, Ella, it’s time to go. Take your shirts and hats off and give them back to Dec.’

‘Oh, no, it’s OK Lau, they can keep them, you never know Matt might stop being too stingy to fork out for a sports package that shows Super 15 and they can watch me, cheer me on, wearing them. Maybe not the hats, might take someone’s eye out if they get excited when I score.’

‘What do you say?’

I looked at Josh and Ella with my eyebrows raised.

‘Thank you Dec.’

They were well drilled in politeness, but looked disappointed that it was time to go; they loved playing with their almost-cousins.

‘They’re completely welcome to stay, Lau, I’m just doing pizza. If you want some time on your own? Dec’ll bring them back in a bit.’

Matt

Lau glanced at me. Much as I wanted a cuddle with my kids, I really could do with some peace and quiet, and Josh and Ella after an hour or two with the Summerses was usually anything but. Lau didn’t need much of a look to know what I was thinking.

Laura

‘Thanks, flower. You’re an angel.’

Amy smiled and touched my arm.

‘Any time, you know that.’

I nodded again, almost overcome with sudden emotion. It wouldn’t be long before ‘any time’ wouldn’t be possible. A few weeks and they’d be gone.

Matt

Lau nodded, tears sparkling in her eyes. I decided to be brisk and sound more cheerful than I was feeling about what was facing me when I got home.

‘Right then, Lau, best get back and make the most of the silence to bloody ring people and start grovelling.’

‘Grovelling? What for, mate?’

‘For being a prize fucking loony, smashing the club’s newest laptop, and then running off into the night like a –’

‘Right, Matt, you need to stop this now. I don’t know what your fucked up brain is imagining people are thinking, but this morning’s over with, forgotten. No grovelling or apologising needed. We know the score, it’s done. End of.’

A lot of that was what I needed to hear; it cleared up a lot of things I’d been worrying about. But I still had to apologise, explain, make amends.

‘Maybe for you. I’ll need to explain myself to certain, oh I don’t know, brothers, and maybe the odd CEO who may be a bit curious as to why his head of IT couldn’t hold on to a small piece of plastic or say two words together without having a hissy fit.’

Dec opened his mouth to argue, but I stopped him.

‘No, Dec. Ih’s much appreciated, you making out ih doesn’t matter, and I know ih doesn’t to you, and I’m grateful, but I am going to have to spend most of this evening on the phone to various people, not least of all Beth who, if the vibration in my trouser pocket is anything to go by, is about to call out Search and Rescue.’

Dec nodded at me, tacitly agreeing to let it go.

‘OK, you know best, you bastard. But, just so you know, there’s not going to be any comeback from the lads, they’re totally cool.’

‘Yeah, like I can’t hold my own against the shit banter supplied by a bunch of muscle-headed rugby players.’

By now we were both grinning stupidly at each other, happy to be winding each other up instead of talking about serious shit. God I loved my family. Lau pulled on my arm to direct me to the door, and we left, with a kiss and hug from Amy and a promise from Dec that he wouldn’t drop Josh and Ella off too late.

As we walked up the road, I took my phone out of my pocket and looked at the screen. I’d turned it back on in the car on the way home, but hadn’t looked at it. I could no longer avoid the calls and texts that were likely to have accrued on my silenced phone from a certain Mrs Beth Scott.

‘Holy crap, she’s persistent. She’s sent fifteen texts. Let’s see – squawk squawk squawk where are you, squawk squawk let me know you’re safe, squawk squawk squawk. Fifteen times. Bloody hell. I bet she’s sent you as many. Oh, and about a dozen voicemails.’

‘Maybe you should ring her.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ve got my phone out now, might as well make contact with The Mothership.’

Laura

Matt was always going to ring Beth. He didn’t mind nearly as much as he tried to pretend he did about her fussing over him. Matt pressed the screen and held the phone to his ear.

Matt

‘Hey.’

‘Oh Matty. At last. I’ve been so worried. How are you, sweetheart?’

‘OK.’

‘Where were you? There have been people out everywhere looking for you, we nearly called the police.’

‘Didn’t Cal tell you?’

I knew he’d said he wouldn’t, but I also knew how persistent Beth could be, and how you ended up telling her shit you didn’t mean to.

‘No, all he’d say was that you were safe, and you were with Laura. So where were you?’

I hesitated. Once Beth knew, that was another place I wouldn’t be able to escape to if I ever needed to again. I let her know part of it.

‘I was over by Avondale, somewhere quiet.’

‘But were you alright, sweetheart? Jay and Cal said you left in a bit of a state.’ ‘No, I was pretty shit actually, but Lau was there, and I’m better.’

As I was talking, we’d got inside and I started to take off my tie, which Lau helped me with, and my jacket, and as I carried on talking, getting the full Beth treatment, Lau brought me a hoody and helped me put it on.

Laura

I looked down at myself and realised I was still wearing my gym clothes from this morning. I hadn’t even been wearing a jacket, but hadn’t noticed the cold. Now I felt chilly, and as Matt sat down on the sofa, I lit the gas fire in the living room, watching the flames leap and feeling warmer.

Matt

Beth was still going on.

‘Oh Matty, you’ve really been having symptoms for a couple of weeks? You should have said something.’

Oh like that was ever going to happen, Beth.

‘Yeah, well sometimes ih’s hard to admit things to yourself that you don’t want to be true. A bit like you and your cellulite.’

I had a quick smirk to myself as Beth started to squawk in earnest.

‘I do not have cellulite! I keep myself in good shape, I –’

It was amusing that even now, she sometimes couldn’t tell when I was just trying to shut her up.

‘Oh stop being outraged, Beth.’

‘Matty, James is here, can I pass you over?’

Might as well, I suppose. This was going to be one of the few conversations with Jay that was going to encompass work and home, and we were just going to have to embrace the weird.

‘Yeah, I think I need to talk to him.’

‘He was so worried about you, Matty.’

This was just the start, the beginning of all the apologising.

‘I know, I didn’t mean to worry anyone, just freaked out.’

‘Take care of yourself, sweetheart.’

‘OK.’

‘Stay in touch.’

‘Yeah, see you soon.’

The phone was handed to Jay.

‘Matty, you’re alive.’

‘Hey.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Bit better now.’

If I said it enough times, it might start being true.

‘You’ve been having symptoms again.’

‘Yeah, the fucking bastard’s back.’

‘How bad is it?’

‘Not bad at the moment, well, apart from this morning.’

‘So this morning was, what, a blip or something?’

‘Yeah, well, feel a bit of a dick, probably owe Raiders a laptop.’

In truth, although the shakes, the unintelligible bollocks, the vision, it had all gone away since my meltdown, I could feel it lurking. I didn’t know how much of it was going to come crashing back, but I was preparing myself for it.

‘Well don’t worry about the bloody laptop, Matty, but maybe you need to talk to Malcolm.’

‘I know, I’ll talk to him now.’

‘Do you want us to come over? Beth’s getting a lasagne out of the freezer.’

Dear God no, the last thing I bloody needed was a houseful of people twittering over me.

‘No, I don’t need you all to bloody pile over, Lau’s here, just need some space.’

‘Can Laura manage alright?’

I sighed. Jay was catching the Beth bug. It was inevitable, I suppose.

‘It’s OK, Jay.’

I looked up at Lau.

‘Jay wants to know if you’re alright looking after me, Lau. You won’t forget to change my nappy and give me my four hourly feed, will you?’

She rolled her eyes at me.

‘Yeah, she’s fine with it, as long as she doesn’t forget the Calpol.’

‘Piss off, Matty, we’re just concerned.’

‘Piss off yourself.’

‘We’ll come over tomorrow, though. Beth says no excuses.’

‘Yeah, see you tomorrow.’

‘Be strong, Matty. Stay positive.’

I disconnected and flopped back against the sofa. It was exhausting trying to convince people everything was OK really, nothing to worry about, when I just wanted to scream. Lau took my hand and gave me a sympathetic look. Having her here, knowing what was going on for me and understanding without words, was what was keeping me sane, stopping me from actually screaming.

‘Only another four thousand calls and I can relax.’

‘Do you have to do them all now?’

‘Yeah, need to get ih done. In a minute. First, I need to do this.’

I turned in my seat and reached for her, pulling her towards me and holding her tight against me, speaking into her ear.

‘Lau you are so fucking phenomenal, you’re all that’s keeping me going. I’d just jack ih all in if ih wasn’t for you.’

‘Good job I’m here then.’

‘Yeah. I just can’t bullshit you, can I, you know exactly how I am, I don’t even have to say ih.’

‘To be fair, flower, you are much better at talking than you used to be.’

‘Always been bloody good at talking, Lau. Not always so good at talking sense. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

‘Right, next on the list, the big boss.’

I scrolled down my address book and tapped his name.

‘Hello Malcolm, it’s Matt Scott here.’

‘Matt. How are you?’

‘Yeah, well, better thanks, I just wanted to apologise about this morning.’

And so it went on, call after call, to some of the people who’d been there this morning, people who’d been out looking for me, some of the people who’d left messages on my phone or Lau’s phone asking about me, other members of the family, Mum, Cory, who’d heard from afar about what had happened, and I said the same to all of them.

‘I’m fine now, just had a bit of a wobble. Sorry to worry you. Talk to you about it tomorrow.’

I had no idea who I was going to see tomorrow. I didn’t know if I was going to go into work or not, although it appeared I still had a job.

Laura

And Matt carried on, making his way through his list of missed calls and texts. I sat and held his hand, half listening to him talk, proud of how well he was showing a brave face to the world when what he really felt like doing was running to the darkest most hidden place he could find until it all went away.

Matt

Then I started in on the texts, people who needed to know I was OK, but didn’t need to speak to me. I just wanted everyone to know I was normal, I was Matt, and although I might not have seemed like Matt this morning, that was a one-off, and now I was back. It wasn’t how I felt, but it was how I needed to be. Except with Lau. I could be me with Lau, and that was the difference this time. I had her, and I wasn’t trying to fool the whole world that everything was normal, because there was a Lau shaped bit of it who knew how things really were. It mattered, a lot.

118. State of shock

In which an old enemy returns, and bad news is imparted.

Matt

So here it is. Josh and Ella were five, they were happy at school, they were growing by the day, and learning so much stuff it was hard to keep up with them sometimes. I was loving life. I had my family, my job, friends, house, car, it was all going according to plan. Maybe that was one of the warning signs; nothing ever just pootles along merrily forever, does it. Sometimes it all crashes around you.

Looking back, I’d been ignoring it for a couple of weeks at least, probably longer. I’d fall asleep after dinner, a few of my words were slurred, but this wasn’t going to happen, it fucking well wasn’t going to come back, it had left me alone for nearly five years, and so I just worked hard, put it to the back of my mind, wished it away, and it seemed to go, and I wondered if I’d been imagining it.

Then it started creeping back, the odd unintelligible bit of bollocks, the occasional stumble, once I couldn’t get my arm to lift a cup into the dishwasher. My legs would tremble at odd times, sitting, standing or walking. I still ignored it. Because ignoring things makes them go away, doesn’t it.

Laura

One afternoon, school run completed, and Matt home from work, I was in the living room with Josh and Ella, waiting for Matt to bring us all a drink. Ella was lying on the floor colouring a picture; Josh was playing with his cars, pushing them up and down the sofa, having made a village on the cushions.

Matt

I was making everyone a drink – tea for Lau, blackcurrant squash for the kids, beer for me – and listening to their noises. Josh was playing cars, making engine sounds and beeps. Ella was colouring, and asking Lau which colour went with purple. I picked up the glass to pour my beer into, and as the liquid reached the top of the glass, my arm started to quiver. I tried to hold on, but my arm gave an almighty spasm, my hand let go, and glass and bottle fell to the floor. It was as if it had got pissed off with me ignoring it, and was making sure I knew it was back. Because it was, it was back. It was fucking back.

As the glass smashed on the floor and I stared at the burst of beer and froth that splattered the tiles and the units, it just slammed into me, and kept on pounding me. It was all my brain could compute.

‘Fuck off you fucking –’

Laura

I hissed a sharp intake of breath as Matt dropped the c-bomb. Sweary as he was, it was one of the few words I’d rarely heard him say. I felt my heart pinch with worry as Ella looked up from her drawing.

‘Daddy said a swear.’

Josh continued brrmming his cars along the sofa, shaking his head.

‘Really, Daddy.’

I smiled to hear my usual rebuke repeated. Matt didn’t swear as much as he used to, at least not within earshot of Josh and Ella, but a fair amount of cursing still went on, and the kids were always keen to join in the nagging. At least they hadn’t asked what it meant.

‘Alright in there?’

There was no reply. Sighing, I got to my feet and walked through the house.

Matt

I turned round to lean on the sink, breath heaving in my chest. This was the end, if it was back; the end of my normal life. How was I going to carry on now?

I heard Lau call out, but couldn’t answer her, couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, all I could do was stare into the sink as hot tears flowed down my face and dropped into the washing up bowl.

Laura

In the kitchen, Matt was standing with his back to me, leaning on the sink, shoulders heaving.

‘Oh Matt.’

I picked my way through the explosion of glass and beer that had spread across the floor, until I could stand behind him and fold myself round him.

Matt

I felt her behind me, putting her arms round my waist and resting her face on my shoulder, and I span round, into her arms, crushing her to me, needing her to be there, my safe place. I tried to speak, to tell her, but it came out in shudders and sobs.

‘Ih’s back … the fucking … bastard’s … back. I thought … ih … had … gone.’

Laura

I’d been dreading something like this for a couple of weeks; I’d noticed small signs – a slight slur in the speech, stumbles and trips, difficulty focussing on the pictures the twins brought back from school, the fear in his eyes.

‘I know, flower.’

Although both of us knew it never really went, just lay in wait.

Matt

Of course she knew. She always knew everything. She’d been waiting for me to know.

‘Daddy, why are you crying?’

Oh shit, the kids were at the door. Lau turned round as I took deep breaths and tried to dry my eyes. Josh and Ella were standing in the doorway, eyes wide at the sight of their blarting father and the puddle of glass and beer spread across the kitchen floor. I tried a kind of smile, while Lau spoke to them.

Laura

‘Don’t come in, kids, there’s broken glass. Daddy’s sad because he dropped his beer.’

The immediately practical Ella rolled her eyes.

‘But Daddy you can get another one in the fridge. Mummy can clean up the floor.’

Josh stayed silent, always the one to soak everything up first and ask questions later.

‘I know, Squeaks, I’m just getting a cloth. Shoo, now, Daddy will bring your squash in a minute.’

Reluctant to leave the scene of impressive carnage, Ella and Josh lingered for a moment, eyeing the tempting puddle, until I waved my hands at them to urge them away. As they trotted off I turned back to Matt, lifting my hand to his face and wiping away a stray tear. I needed to show him I wasn’t just making light of it, to reassure him quickly, but was aware of the likelihood of small ears listening beyond the kitchen.

‘In it together, yeah?’

Matt

I put my hand over hers, then moved my lips to her palm, kissing it gently. If there was anyone I wanted with me while my world was ending, it was Lau. Always Lau.

‘Don’t know what I’d do without you, Lau. You don’t deserve this.’

My voice was ragged, whispering.

Laura

‘Matthew Robert Scott, I’ve never heard such rubbish in all my life. When I signed on the dotted line, I knew exactly what I deserved, and it was you. It was always you, it will always be you. Now, a bit less nonsense and a bit more making blackcurrant squash to give to your gasping children while I clean up the floor. It needed a good mop anyway. And try not to track beery footprints through the house.’

Matt

I pulled her towards me while she was still talking, while she was still being practical and making it better, and we held each other tightly, as our bodies spoke of sorrow and pain and hard times to come, things that we couldn’t say while the children were within earshot.

‘Love you Lau.’

‘Love you too.’

So I made squash for the kids, and for the rest of the evening, until they went to bed, I was just Daddy, same old Daddy, who’d had a bit of a hissy fit when he spilt his beer, but came back in with the blackcurrant joking and smiling like it hadn’t happened. That was on the outside. On the inside I was folding into myself, how the fuck was I going to tell them, how the fuck were they going to understand their Daddy was going to become a fucking cripple who couldn’t walk, talk, pick them up, play football with them, reliably hit the right key on the computer … shit.

It all started hitting me, as Lau was upstairs with them and I sat on the sofa staring at nothing. This was worse, so much worse than before. I had two children who relied on me, not only to put food on their table, but to be their Daddy, and all the things that entailed. It wasn’t only going to be me who lost everything, it was going to be them too. I shrank into myself, trying to hide from it all.

Lau came back downstairs after tucking them in and reading them a story, and we sat curled up on the sofa, TV on, us silent. I knew she’d want to discuss it, and I nearly started a couple of times, but I didn’t even know where to begin.

Laura

After the children had gone to bed, we sat curled up on the sofa, a film on the TV that neither of us were watching, Matt’s arm round me as I lay against his chest. I heard him breathe in a couple of times as if he was going to say something, but he let the breath out without speaking.

‘Want to talk about it?’

Matt sighed. ‘No, not really. Ih’s not going to change anything, is ih. Can’t face ih just now. Need time.’

‘OK, whatever you need.’

I knew Matt well enough by now to know when to push him to talk and when he really did need the space he always asked for whether he needed it or not. At this moment there was a lot of thinking going on for him, now it was out in the open, and when he’d done that, I would push if I needed to. It wasn’t lost on me that I was experiencing MS from the other side, the side where – unlike at work – you couldn’t just detach from the pain and hurt of people, the side where you were in the middle of it all and there was no let up, no nine to five, no lunch break

‘Are you watching this?’

‘No, not really. Do you want to watch something else?’

‘No, I was thinking about going to bed.’

‘It’s still early.’

‘I didn’t necessarily mean to sleep.’

‘Oh.’

Matt’s face lit up, then darkened.

Matt

I looked at her expression, her come to bed eyes, and for a second she had me fooled. Then I knew what she was doing.

‘I don’t need a pity fuck, thanks.’

I realised straight away I’d offended her, that she’d been genuine. God, I was already retreating behind lashing out at the people I loved.

Laura

I tried not to be offended; he was feeling vulnerable and hitting out. Matt wasn’t the only one who maybe needed the reassurance that physical closeness always brought us, and it hadn’t been an offer, it had been a suggestion.

‘You don’t know me at all if you think there’s anything pitying in trying to get you into bed. You’re the hotty with the great bum that all my friends are jealous of, I just thought that rather than sitting here vegging in front of a crappy film neither of us are watching, we could maybe explore said bum in more comfort. Maybe explore my bum too. I found a muscle the other day.’

‘You did not!’

To my relief, Matt took the line I’d dangled; the opportunity to tease me.

Matt

She had a saucy smile, and she was throwing me a life-line. I caught it and clung on for dear life.

‘You have no muscles in your arse, that’s why it’s so lush.’

‘I’m telling you I found a muscle. It’s all those squats and lunges at the gym. Will says –’

Lau was doing really well at the gym. She didn’t need to do any of it, not for me, but she was getting fitter for her, and losing some of the curves she found most vexing.

‘Oh Will says, your uhmayzing personal trainer who gets to perv on you in your gym top. What does Willy-boy say?’

‘I’m not going to tell you now, I don’t think you’ll take Willy-boy seriously.’

She feigned a pout.

‘Does he say you’ve got a fantastic arse?’

‘No, but he –’

‘Then he’s an idiot. Come on, let’s go and see just where this imaginary bum muscle is.’

I grabbed her hand, losing myself in the moment, in the Matt and Lau of it, while I could. I pulled her out of her seat, and she ran past me up the stairs, as I followed, trying to tickle her newly toned arse.

I spent some considerable time looking for Lau’s bum muscle, using various inventive search methods, before pronouncing it invisible to the naked eye.

‘But hey, Lau, I bet you’ve hidden it somewhere else. Is it … here?’

Iz

Lord Above, just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more … hang on to your jam sandwiches folks.

Matt

I conducted a thorough investigation of her mouth with my tongue and lips that left us both breathless and flushed.

‘Well, Lau, there is a pretty good muscle in there, but it’s not the one I’m looking for. How about here?’

I kissed my way down her throat and had a good hunt around her breasts with my mouth and fingers. Lau tangled her fingers in my hair and moaned. How could I have thought this was out of pity? She was enjoying herself as much as I was.

‘Nope, no sign of a muscle in there either. Just have to keep on looking.’

Holding her gaze, I let my hand drift lower, brushing her belly button before settling between her legs. Lau twitched as I found her most sensitive spot, and she grasped my shoulders as I moved myself downwards and followed my fingers with my mouth. It was her favourite, and never failed to light her up; I grinned against her as it worked again.

My fingers probed lower and deeper, until they were in her, and I started to thrust. Lau clenched around me, inside her.

‘Whoa, there it is, that’s the muscle I was looking for. Naughty Willy-boy if he’s been working on this one!’

I knelt between her legs, continuing to thrust into her with my fingers, watching Lau writhe, building the heat as I gazed down at her. God she was awesome, and I wanted her so much.

‘Ready, Lau?’

‘Yeah, oh God, yeah.’

‘Work that body. Here we go.’

I slipped my fingers out and guided my hard-on into her. As I filled her, pushed into her, felt the familiar sensation, allowed it to blow my mind again, as it did every time, I started to thrust, slowly and rhythmically, so I could feel every part of her sliding and sparking against every part of me.

At first I propped myself up on my arms, so just our hips were touching, then her mouth was so appealing, I bent down and kissed her, wrapping her up in my arms as she folded her legs round my back and drew me deeper into her. My thrusts became more urgent and we both started to cry out before remembering the children and dropping the volume, but we stayed locked together, bodies slipping against each other, breathing hard, moaning our pleasure, and then coming, and coming and coming, plunging deep into each other, exploding with the release.

I clung on to Lau for a long time afterwards, wanting, needing to be as close to her as I could. After a while, it was overwhelming, the whole mess, and it started coming out, first in gulps, then shudders. I tried not to let go, but there was too much of it, and before long I was quivering against her, sobbing. Lau soothed me, stroking my back, kissing my hair, whispering nonsense to me, until I calmed down. I still held on as if I was drowning.

Lau was waiting, to see if I was going to say anything. This time I was.

‘I don’t wana lose this.’

‘Oh my love.’

I knew she wouldn’t say ‘you won’t’, because I had last time, and indeed the time before, and Lau never made empty promises.

‘Don’t mourn it before it’s gone. Make the most of it while it’s here.’

I sniffed and wiped my eyes.

‘Oh you’re right, you bloody cow, you always know what to say. Anyone would think you used to be a nurse or something.’

‘Still am a nurse, thanks.’

Lau was always very firm about the fact that even though she wasn’t working, she had trained as a nurse, and a nurse was what she would stay, come what may.

‘Yeah, OK, fair enough. Oh Lau, I’m sorry.’

I let go of her and rolled onto my back, with my arm over my face. Lau snuggled into my side with an arm over my chest.

‘What are you sorry about?’

‘All this. Fucking bastard MS, me fucking freaking, you having to be all ‘one step at a time’ when you just want to freak yourself. You know … Lau, you know you don’t have to stay, no one would blame you, least of all me, if you took the kids and went.’

It was something that had occurred to me as I thought about how it was going to affect them all. Surely it would be easier for them all if they could just get on with things without having to bother about me?

Lau pushed me away from her angrily, and her eyes were flashing fire.

‘What the hell are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere, and neither are Josh and Ella. You can stop this ‘poor me’ nonsense right now. Just for the record, as you seem to have forgotten, I love you. When I met you, you were having a flare-up of MS, so if I was going to bail out because of that, then would have been the time. How dare you think I care about you so little that I run, and take our children with me, at the first sign of something untoward? What sort of a person do you think I am?’

I closed my eyes, didn’t speak for a moment.

‘Sorry, Lau, didn’t think of it like that. Trying to be selfless.’

‘Yeah, I seem to remember you trying that before one time, and we nearly didn’t get together in the first place as a result, in fact, you nearly – well who knows what you might have done that night. The point is, there is no ‘selfless’ when it comes to our family, we are all together, we help each other and love each other and support each other, and need each other. If you even think of going it alone, that’s selfish, not selfless. We all need you. God, you are proper infuriating.’

I couldn’t look at her. My eyes were spilling tears again; I just didn’t deserve it, this love, this loyalty, when all I was going to be able to offer them, soon, was pain and unhappiness. Lau folded me up in her arms again, and I squeezed her tightly against me as I cried again. I could feel her strength pouring into me, and part of me felt selfish for taking it, but God how I needed it, how I needed her comfort, as she stroked my back and made soft noises in my ear. It all subsided after a time, but Lau carried on holding me, and we lay in the darkness and breathed together.

Just as I was starting to drift into the black, the door handle rattled. We didn’t have a lock on the door, but the twins had taken to visiting in the early hours, so we had put a chair in front of the door, so we at least had some warning. We must have woken them up.

Laura

‘Mummy.’

It was Ella. It usually was, and she would be closely followed by Josh, who didn’t like being left on his own in the room they still shared.

‘Go back to bed, Squeaks.’

Matt

Lau was stricter than me about letting them in, and at the moment was protecting me. I suddenly wanted them all here, our family together.

‘Can’t they come in, Lau? Four way cuddle would be great right now.’

Laura

I sighed. It sent all sorts of mixed messages, but sometimes other things were more important. I got out of bed and moved the chair. Ella stood outside the door, holding her teddy. As predicted, Josh was at her shoulder. Both were looking up at me with big sleepy eyes.

‘Come on then. No noise or giggling, now.’

I tried to be strict, but it was a treat to have us all snuggled up together. We’d all be tired tomorrow, but it wasn’t tomorrow yet, it was now. Ella and Josh trotted into the bedroom and jumped into the bed as Matt held the duvet open for them – there was just enough room for us all, Josh and Ella on the inside, Matt and me on the outside.

Matt

By the time the kids had rolled over a few times and spread out, one of us would be off to the guest room, usually Lau, but before that happened, we all smushed together, me starting a bit of tickling because Lau loved trying to make us stop and behave, and then kisses and cuddles before going to sleep. I folded them both up, one after the other, with big hugs. Josh, as usual, submitted willingly, but Ella would only stand it for a short while.

‘You’re squeezing me Daddy.’

Laura

Our children were so different; Ella always took the lead, asked questions, said what she wanted, did what she wanted, threw a tantrum when she didn’t get what she wanted, using pester-power and volume to see her needs were met. Josh was happier to follow, riding on his sister’s coat tails, picking up the crumbs she left behind. When Josh made a fuss, you knew it was really important.

I wondered how they would react to the return of Matt’s MS, and started to think about what we might say to them. There had been some really good children’s resources around when I worked in the MS team; I’d give them a ring and see if I could beg some freebies.

Eventually we settled down, and Matt, Josh and Ella fell asleep while I listened to the sound of their breathing. I dozed off eventually, but woke later, teetering on the edge of the bed, with Ella curled against my back, her knees digging into my kidneys; it was usually me who ended up in the spare room. Stifling a resigned sigh, I rolled out of bed and walked round the bed.

Matt

I woke up, arse hanging over the edge of the bed, to see Lau creeping out of the room.

‘Lau?’

‘Been squeezed out. See you tomorrow.’

‘Don’t go.’

I couldn’t bear the thought of this night, of all nights, without her.

‘There’s no room.’

‘Wait, then.’

She waited by the bed as I climbed out, disentangling myself from Josh.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Coming with you.’

‘We won’t both fit in the spare bed.’

‘Yeah we will. You and your muscly arse, me a skinny streak of nothing, plenty of room. Come on, we’ll wake them up if we stand here chatting.’

I couldn’t see her clearly, but I recognised the shape of her rolling her eyes at me as I followed her to the door.

Laura

We would have been better off taking Josh and Ella’s beds, but I knew Matt wanted to wrap himself up in me tonight, so we headed off to the spare room.

I woke early, cramped, neck stiff, shoved up against the wall. Matt was lying on his front, half hanging off the side of the single bed, head turned towards me, mouth open. His hair stuck out at wild angles, and I reached out and smoothed it, as I did most mornings.

I heard a noise from our room; it was Matt’s phone. It was set to go off every two minutes when he got a text, unless he read it. I decided to fetch it before it pinged again, to avoid waking Ella and Josh early, if possible. I carefully sat up and rearranged the duvet around Matt, before shuffling to the end of the bed and hopping off. Although I was trying to be quiet, I probably could have jumped up and down on the mattress without waking him, but it was a habit from being around the children.

The screen on Matt’s phone was lit up on his bedside table. I glanced at Ella and Josh, but they were dead to the world, Ella’s arm flung out across Josh’s chest. I looked down at the phone – it was a short text from Dec. I quickly carried the phone into the spare room before it pinged again.

It wasn’t unusual for Dec and Matt to text each other at all sorts of times of the day and night, sometimes it was a bit of a competition to see who could annoy the other the most, but something about this one made me try to wake Matt.

I tried shaking him gently, not wanting him to fall out of bed from his precarious perch. I tried speaking into his ear. I tried pinching him. The most I got was a mumbled curse and a move to a more comfortable position, away from the edge of the bed, as he rolled onto his back. As a last resort, I kissed him, using the full force of my tongue and lips to try and rouse him, tweaking his nipples as I did so.

Matt

I woke with Lau’s tongue in my mouth and her fingers tweaking my nipple. This was more like it, a proper wake-up call. Oh, but she pulled away as I started kissing her back. She shoved my phone in front of my face, but I didn’t understand.

‘Wha? No, c’mere, keep snogging.’

‘You’ve got a text from Dec.’

‘Wha? He can piss off, ih’s only –’

I took the phone and looked at the time.

‘– shit, Lau, ih’s only bloody five o’clock.’

‘Yeah, but I think you need to read it.’

I still wasn’t quite awake, and I ran a hand through my hair as I tried to gather my thoughts. I looked blearily at the phone, and clicked on the message.

‘Shit.’

‘What does he say?’

‘RU awake, need 2 talk. Urgent.’

‘Ring him then.’

No, no, no, I couldn’t cope with any more drama, not today, I needed time to get my head around things. I combed my hair with my fingers again, then lay down, holding my arm out for Lau to get back in beside me. She climbed in and cuddled up, as I hit ‘call’.

‘Hey, ih’s me.’

‘Hey mate. You’re awake, then?’

‘Well I am now, what’s the big emergency?’

I was hoping that maybe it was something relatively innocuous, like Amy was poorly and we needed to look after the kids while he was at training, although why he was calling this bloody early in the morning I had no idea.

‘Can I come over? I’m … I’ve got … I just need to tell you something.’

What the fuck? I didn’t like the sound of this.

‘Oh, well, I guess, yeah.’

‘Coffee would be good.’

‘OK, I’ll put the kettle on.’

‘Five minutes?’

‘Yeah, see you in a bit.’

Oh I didn’t like this at all. Dec wasn’t fucking about or anything. It was something pretty huge. I turned to Lau.

‘He’s coming round.’

‘Why?’

‘Said he needed to tell me something. Shit, ih sounds big, Lau.’

I heard the tremble in my voice. I knew what Lau’s response would be – don’t worry about it until you know for sure – but all sorts of possibilities were flooding into my mind, each one worse than the last. And on top of it all was me; me and the fucking bastard.

‘I don’t want him to know about … me, not just yet.’

‘OK, flower, but … he’ll notice eventually.’

‘Yeah. But not today. Please.’

‘Sure, of course, it’s totally up to you. I’ll go and put the kettle on, while you find some pyjama bottoms or something.’

Laura

I grabbed my dressing gown from our bedroom, and went quickly downstairs, as I heard a light tap on the door. I let Dec in, looking at him quizzically. He looked nervous, which was unlike him; he was usually laid back about everything.

‘Go through, flower.’

I gestured to the living room.

‘I’m just making a drink. Tea or coffee?’

‘Thanks, Lau, coffee would be great, it’s early for me.’

‘It’s early for all of us.’

‘Yeah, I know, sorry.’

‘Matt’s on his way down, just getting decent.’

‘Oh, good, wouldn’t want any indecency from Matt, not before breakfast anyway.’

Matt

Lau went downstairs to let Dec in while I found some trousers. I heard a light tap on the door, then Dec and Lau’s voices, then Lau went back into the kitchen. I sat upstairs, on the bed, for as long as I could, knowing I was avoiding whatever it was, knowing it would surely be better to know than to imagine. Finally, I made my way downstairs and into the living room, where Dec was waiting.

I kept telling myself it might not be anything bad. Last time I’d convinced myself it was, and they were getting married. Dec didn’t always consider the effect of how he did things on other people, yeah, who was I to judge. I should just wait.

But as I went into the living room and saw the look on Dec’s face, saw him look ill-at-ease, fiddling with his fingers, hardly able to meet my eyes, I knew. At least, I knew it wasn’t good.

Lau brought some coffee in, and then turned to go, but I wanted her here, needed her here while he told me whatever it was. I felt for her hand and looked up at her, begging her to stay with my eyes.

‘Stay, Lau.’

Lau looked at Dec, to check it was OK with him. He nodded back at her.

‘Yeah, Lau, you should hear this too.’

She sat next to me and squeezed my hand, trying to keep me calm. Dec looked down for a while, taking a few deep breaths. It was almost more than I could stand, waiting for him to spit it out.

‘Please, Dec, get on with ih, I’m imagining all sorts of terrible shit, put me out of my fucking misery.’

Dec looked up and met my eyes.

‘I’ve signed for West Coast Speeders.’

A jolt went through me, I felt it lift me out of my seat slightly. I’d been pretty sure he was going to tell me he’d signed for another club, had steeled myself for it, was expecting him to be on his way to London, maybe TomCats or Warriors, one of the big clubs. West Coast Speeders were in Australia. He was moving to the other side of the fucking world. I couldn’t speak, just looked at him. Dec filled the silence with more information, but I could hardly take it in. I was numb.

Laura

I felt the shock go through Matt. He didn’t say anything, just looked back at Dec. Dec couldn’t possibly know the hammer blow he had just dealt Matt, with his MS symptoms returning – how much Matt would have relied on having Dec around.

Matt

‘It’s going to be announced at nine this morning, I wanted you to know before you went to work, or you heard it on the fucking telly or something.’

I still just stared at him, it was Lau who spoke.

Laura

Still nothing from Matt, although I had a question.

‘Where are West Coast wotsits?’

I’d vaguely heard of the team, but didn’t think they were in the league that Raiders played in.

Matt

Oh, Lau wouldn’t know, she knew fuck all about rugby anyway, let alone which continent teams played on.

‘Australia. Perth. It’s where I lived when I was little.’

‘Australia? Oh Dec.’

Laura

I squeezed Matt’s hand with all my might, as my eyes filled with tears. Amy and Dec were our best friends, our children played together and fought together, in and out of each other’s houses all the time. I couldn’t imagine our lives without them just up the road.

Matt

I looked at Lau, and saw tears in her eyes. It wasn’t just me this was going to affect. Amy was Lau’s friend, their kids were in and out of our house all the time, what would Beth and Jay think? What about Rose? Considering the impact this news would have on people who weren’t me made me slightly less self-obsessed, made me think of something to say. Dec was sitting there looking miserable and tense, when this was great for him, an incredible opportunity.

‘Didn’t you support Speeders when you were a kid?’

I tried to keep my tone light, but I heard the catch in my voice. At least I wasn’t spouting unintelligible bollocks.

Dec looked relieved that I had spoken, and that I was acting normal.

‘Yeah. I used to train with them as well, before I moved to England, with their juniors. It’s like my last chance, I’m getting older and don’t always make the first team here any more. If I don’t go now, they might not ask again, and it’s like a childhood dream kind of thing. And there’s a small chance, if I’m playing in Oz, that I could get the call from the Wallabies.’

‘That’s great for you, mate. Fucking brilliant.’

With a huge effort, I managed a smile for him. He was my mate, almost my brother, and if I couldn’t fake a bit of happiness on his behalf, I wasn’t really worth much. A few more tears spilled down Lau’s face.

Laura

I saw the effort Matt made to be happy for his friend, his brother, and was so proud of him, but I couldn’t match his faked composure, or stop a few tears spilling down my face.

‘We’ll miss you.’

Matt

She said it for me, for all of us.

‘I know, Lau. I can’t really believe we’re going to be moving away. I’ve lived here, in this city for, well it feels like my whole life. Everything I know is here. It’s scaring the shit out of me, and we’ll miss you guys too, but it won’t be forever. I’ve only got two or three more years left of playing before I’m too knackered, and I’m only signing for a year to start with.’

‘When are you going, mate?’

‘At the end of the season. May, sometime, depending on what Raiders get up to in the league. I might be able to fit a couple of games in over there before their season finishes.’

Shit, that was really soon. I wasn’t going to have any time to take it in, get used to it. Shit. I squeezed Lau’s hand so tightly I saw her wince, and loosened my hold slightly.

‘Holy fuck, that’s only a few weeks – why so soon?’

‘Well their season’s already started over there. I’m going to get stuck right in as soon as I arrive, but I’ve got to finish up here with Raiders first.’

‘I assume you’ve told Jay.’

‘Yeah, I just rang him. I’ve only just sorted it out – time difference and all that. Been on the phone to agents and admin people all bloody night, now I’ve got to go in for training. Gonna take a bit of stick, I should think.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Oh, you know Jay, not at his best for early morning calls. But he was OK. It was Beth who was in floods. Oh shit, this is going to be so hard, telling everyone. I should go, I’ve got to call a few people, then go round to see Rose on my way to training. Really, really not looking forward to that one.’

If I thought I wasn’t handling it well, I only had to think of Rose to put things in perspective. Rose had no family of her own, apart from a sister and nephew in Wales, and Dec, Amy and their children were like her own children and grandchildren. She was going to be destroyed.

Dec stood up to go, and Lau went out with him. I gave him as good a smile as I could muster, but it was a pretty feeble effort. As soon as he left the room, I dropped my head back on the sofa and closed my eyes, the news pounding through me, threatening to overpower me. The fucking bastard was back, and Dec wasn’t going to be here. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fucking fair.

Laura

I showed Dec to the door. He looked at me and lowered his voice.

‘Is he OK?’

‘Yeah, we’re both just surprised. And sad for us. Great for you, though, flower. Exciting.’

‘He just seems a bit …’

Dec’s words trailed off and he shrugged. I knew he meant more than just being upset. He would have noticed the same things I had over the past week or so, but I decided to play innocent.

‘He’ll be fine, once we get used to it. One of Beth’s huge parties will sort things.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, oh fuck, she’s going to throw a humdinger isn’t she. Take care, Lau.’

‘You too. Have a good day.’

Matt

Lau came back in and tried to take my hand, but I just couldn’t do it, didn’t want to touch anyone, be with anyone, just needed time to process it all, put it somewhere it didn’t all hurt so fucking much. Maybe tomorrow I’d laugh at myself for being such a melodramatic wanktard, but today it was a pain deep in my gut, and I needed to be there in the middle of it, sore, bruised and miserable. I pulled away from Lau, curled my knees up to my chest and turned away from her.

‘Just wana be on my own for a bit.’

To her credit, she didn’t try to get me to talk, or even try to stay with me.

‘OK, then. Here, put this round you so you don’t get cold.’

I hardly noticed while she put the throw from the back of the sofa over me, and left the room.

I spent the next couple of hours hovering over the pit of despair, the same one that had tried to drag me into it before, when Dec had climbed in and pulled me out. Except now he couldn’t, because he was the reason I was here, and I couldn’t let him know how devastated I was, I couldn’t tell him I needed him here like I needed all of them here, that him fucking off to another continent was the worst news I’d ever heard. Because he had his own life, and he deserved it, he’d worked hard for it, and fuck knows he’d spent enough time in the past propping me up and being there for me. I wasn’t about to make him feel guilty about going and making the most of life while he had the opportunity.

So I hovered there, on the edge, nearly falling in, the darkness beckoning, and then it crossed my mind, just floated in there, what I was supposed to be doing today. I’d managed to toss everything else out to make room for my enormous bout of self-pity, but it suddenly occurred to me that I was supposed to be giving a presentation this morning. People were relying on me. Maybe I’d been considering taking the day off to bury myself under the duvet, I hadn’t really thought about it coherently, but with a plummeting heart, I realised I was going to have to get myself into some kind of shape, slap on some smart clothes and a professional attitude, and tell a room full of people about shit that right at that moment I couldn’t have cared less about.

It was almost more than I could bear, and I seriously considered calling in sick, but there was no one else who could do it, and it had taken ages to sort out this date so everyone who needed to be there was there. I was going to have to pull myself together and do it. Maybe working would distract me.

I looked at the time. Gone seven, so Lau would be up soon, ready to start chivvying Ella and Josh. I rubbed my hands over my face, trying to disperse both my tiredness and the churning that was going on inside my head. Things needed doing, the day needed to start, so I got up and went into the kitchen to make some breakfast.

Laura

Ella woke me up, holding my phone, which was bleeping insistently, to my ear. It was seven eighteen and the alarm had been going for a minute.

‘Mummy wake up your phone is making me cross.’

I took the phone and turned it off.

‘Sorry, Squeaks, I forgot it was in there. There, all better.’

‘Where’s Daddy?’

‘Oh, I think he’s … downstairs already. Shall we go and find him?’

Ella nodded and took my hand as I got out of bed and made for the stairs.

‘Is Josh still asleep?’

I peered into our bedroom as I passed, and could make out Josh’s sleeping form. He was clutching Ella’s teddy.

‘Yes, he was saying things last night.’

Josh often sleep-talked. He slept more deeply than Ella, who could wake at the slightest sound, and she often reported the weird things her brother chattered about in the night.

We went downstairs together; I was a bit apprehensive about what I would find in the living room, how Matt would be, but when Ella and I opened the door, he wasn’t there, and the throw had been folded up and returned to the back of the sofa. I heard noises from the kitchen.

‘Hey, Squeaks, if we’re lucky Daddy’s making breakfast. Do you want Weeties?’

Ella considered, her morning breakfast choices being the first of many things she weighed up seriously before continuing her morning routine.

‘Coco Pops.’

‘OK, I’ll tell Daddy.’

Ella continued into the living room, and I made my way into the kitchen, where Matt was busy making his breakfast. I looked at his face; he looked terrible, dark circles under his eyes, pale and drawn.

Matt

Lau came in on her own, Ella having gone into the living room to turn the TV on. I carried on making tea and toast, putting more bread in the toaster for Lau and getting the Coco Pops out for Ella. It all felt automatic, like it wasn’t really me doing it. I felt dreadful, only half alive. Lau came over and looked at me, studying my face.

Laura

‘Matt, you look awful. Maybe you shouldn’t go to work today.’

‘I’ve got to, I’m doing a presentation about the new GPS, to everyone, players, coaches, admin, the whole bloody club.’

‘Can’t Cory or Jenna do it?’

‘Cory’s on a course and Jenna’s on holiday.’

‘Oh. Are you sure you can do it?’

‘Yeah, Lau, I’ve not got a bloody choice. I’m just tired, I didn’t sleep after Dec went, and not much before. I’ve been wiped before, I’ll be OK.’

‘Here, let me do that, then.’

I took the kettle out of his hand, noticing the shake as he held it.

‘Ella’s up, Josh is still fast asleep, whole bed to himself.’

‘Go Hippo, sleep hard.’

Matt tried a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

‘We’ll talk later, flower.’

Matt

I closed my eyes briefly, unable to face the thought of all the talking, fussing, I was going to have to endure once they all got wind of it. Then I nodded and took Ella’s cereal to her.

I dragged myself through getting ready. None of it seemed real, it was all overlaid with a sense of being outside my own life looking in, wishing so hard things were different that I was almost detaching myself from reality.

I was ready about the same time as Josh and Ella. I usually took them to school on my way to work, and today was no different. Lau had got them ready, and she gave them their sandwich boxes as I stood by the door.

Lau come over and straightened my tie, giving me a kiss as she did so. There was a lot we weren’t saying to each other, not only because the children were right there, but because we both knew I wasn’t going to talk about it yet.

‘Must be an important presentation, for you to get all togged up in your posh.’

‘Important enough. The CEO’s gona be there, not exactly one where I can wear my cargo shorts and ‘I’m with Stupid’ t-shirt.’

‘You look lovely, you should dress up more often. Not just for work.’

She gave me a meaningful look and I did my best to flash her a smile

‘Noted. See you later, Lau. Kiss your mum, kids.’

Lau bent down to Josh, who gave her a big cuddle and a kiss, and to Ella, who pecked her on the cheek, eager to get going and see her friends. If I could just focus on this, the ordinary stuff, I’d be OK. Ordinary was fine; it was big, huge, life-changing shit that was hard. I chatted to them both in the car and saw them into the playground, then continued my journey to work, where it became a bit more difficult to feel ordinary.

Laura

I waved them all off and went to pack my gym bag. I usually went with Amy, as we had a Pilates class together later on in the morning, but she had texted to say that with all the events of last night, she wasn’t going.