89. Late

In which a whole lot of life is crammed into a short space of time, and wishes appear to have been granted.

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Laura

It was weeks later, after Christmas and well into January, that I first suspected. I ignored it at first, thinking it was indigestion, or the prolonged aftermath of a bad takeaway. It was impossible anyway, I had a coil fitted. And I was a nurse, things like that just didn’t happen to sensible medical people who knew better than to rely on a method of contraception that was only ninety eight per cent effective. And Matt had MS and related fertility issues. It was impossible.

So I ignored it for a while, convincing myself my period would start soon, it was always a bit hit and miss, then suddenly my next period was at least three weeks late too, I was still feeling tired and queasy, especially when anyone had a tuna sandwich, and finally I couldn’t ignore it any more I waited until my day off, when Matt was at work from lunchtime until later on, and bought a test.

Full of fear, I peed on the plastic stick and watched in horror as the little window showed two pink lines. Not willing to believe it, I peed on the other plastic stick, crossing fingers, toes and eyes that this time it would be a different result. The same pink lines appeared in the window, and my heart sank. And flipped at the same time. I so wanted this, but it was too soon, far, far too soon.

Matt and I had barely got used to living together. I’d got tenants for my house pretty quickly, and we’d moved all my stuff in just before Christmas, but it was still only January, we’d barely known each other six months. Matt was still recovering from his flare-up of MS, he had only recently started back at work, on extremely limited hours, and I just didn’t know what this news was going to do to him. He was due back from work in an hour or so, and I was going to have to tell him.

I tried to take my mind off it by cooking something nice for dinner, but I was too distracted, and I burnt the bottom of a saucepan before bursting into tears and throwing the whole lot across the kitchen where it crashed into the tiles, splattering blackened tomatoey mess everywhere. I sunk onto the floor and sobbed, barely hearing the key in the door.

Matt

I had just got home after a long day’s work – two whole hours that day. I’d had to get up at noon in order to be in for twelve thirty, and then the meeting I was in had overrun, so it was gone three o’clock by the time I got back. Scandalous, tantamount to slave labour.

I turned the key in the lock and opened the door, and there was Lau, on her knees in the kitchen, sobbing. Other sensations floated across my consciousness, but I didn’t stop to examine them fully – a smell of burning, something splattered on the kitchen wall – as the sight of Lau so upset scared the shit out of me. I thought she’d fallen, to start with, and sank to my knees beside her ready to scoop her up and run down the stairs with her to the car to drive her to hospital, but before I did that, I thought I ought to check.

‘Lau? Oh fuck, what is it?’

I put my arms round her, trying to get her to look at me, but her head remained down, and she carried on crying. It was beyond terrifying; I had never seen Lau this upset, even at Amy’s dad’s funeral, when I knew she was thinking about her own dad, and everyone else there was in floods, and she somehow dealt with it all in a way that released it without letting it overtake her. But this was something else, there was something uncontrolled about it, and I was on the edge of panic.

‘Lau?’

She tried to speak, but more sobs just erupted from her throat. I looked around to see if there were any clues, and the burning smell, coupled with the splattered red gloop across the wall, the cracked tile and the blackened, dented saucepan on the floor did nothing to assuage my alarm.

‘Hey, hey, fuck, Lau, what the fuck is it? Are you hurt?’

I checked what I could see of her body for burns, cuts or broken bits, but could see nothing obvious. She shook her head, but no explanation was forthcoming, so I tried a bit of humour, hoping that if I could make her smile, she might stop crying and tell me what the fuck was wrong.

‘You burnt my best saucepan? Well I’ll let you off this once, as long as –’

It wasn’t working, and I couldn’t bear it.

‘Oh Lau, don’t, please tell me.’

I felt the huge effort she made to pull herself together, and tried to hear what she was saying as she spoke indistinctly through the shudders.

‘… did a test … sorry … too soon … don’t know … what to do … sorry …’

It didn’t make things any clearer, as I had no idea what the words I could make out actually meant.

‘Lau, you’re not making any sense. Come on, get up, you can’t stay down here.’

I stood up and pulled on her arm, wanting to get her to the sofa where I would be able, I was sure, to at least get her to look at me. To my relief, she stood up, and I put my arm round her, as if she needed protecting, while we walked the few steps and sat down. I kept my arm there, across her shoulders, while she looked at her knees.

I was imagining – well, I’ll tell you some of the things I was imagining: a) Something terrible (by which I mean at least serious injury, horrible disease or possibly death) had happened to her mum, b) Something terrible (again, maiming, affliction or deceasement) had happened to my mum, or another member of my family, maybe one of the kids, c) Something terrible (also with the wounds, the contagion and the perishing) had happened to her, or d) Something terrible (see above) had happened that I couldn’t yet imagine, and so it was unimaginably terrible.

I was only imagining terrible somethings, and although none of it really seemed to fit with the saucepan and the red gloop, which I assumed and sincerely hoped was tomato and not a more sinister substance, there was nothing else I could think of that would have upset her this much.

‘Come on, Lau, you’re scaring the shit out of me. What’s wrong?’

The sobbing had diminished to a few quiet shivers; she took several deep breaths, opened her mouth to speak, closed her mouth again, and then spoke, almost in a whisper.

Laura

In the end it had to be said.

‘… I’m … pregnant.’

There was a long, long silence. Longer, surely, than any silence that meant good things were going to happen at the end of it. He didn’t remove his arm, but didn’t pull me closer either. I sat there, still looking at my knees, watching the teardrops fall onto my skirt and spread darkly across the fabric, waiting for Matt to freak and then run.

Matt

She had spoken quietly, but I had heard her, and there was no need to ask her to repeat it. I froze, for the longest time, as it sank in.

At first, it seemed a bit of an anti-climax, after all the awful injuries, illnesses and deaths I’d just imagined, and I wondered why she’d been crying so hard about something that wasn’t that bad. Then it caught up with me, and yeah, of course, I majorly freaked out, of course I did.

This was the one thing that I used to be terrified would somehow trap me. It was one of the reasons I deluded myself about what I really wanted for so long, and now it had happened, a woman was telling me she was pregnant, and it was mine, and for a moment it took me back there, to that time and place where it would have been the single most terrible thing that could have happened to me.

And it felt for a while like my brain had exploded in my skull, because wasn’t this the last thing I needed? I’d only just got back to something approaching a normal life, I didn’t need all the stress fucking it up again.

But it didn’t last long, because I’d just done all the imagining of terrible somethings, and in comparison, this was not only not that bad, it was actually good. It was a good thing. Better than that, it was a great thing. It was an incredible, wonderful, magnificently awesome thing. It was fucking mind-blowing

Lau was pregnant. I, me with my fucked-up downbelows, had managed to father a bloody child. This meant – oh holy fuck. This meant that I was going to get it, everything I’d wanted, everything this last fucking awful year had been about in a way, and I was going to get it with Lau. A family. And it wasn’t just about me, for fuck’s sake.

Yeah, I finally got there, and thankfully my thought processes hadn’t been available for general perusal by Lau. It was about us. It was always going to be about us, but especially now. I was going to be a fucking dad. Lau and me, we were going to be fucking parents. Lau, me and a baby, we were going to be a fucking family.

This all took me quite some time to process, all the thoughts whirling round my head, from shock, to panic, to acceptance, to excitement, while Lau sat with her head down, teardrops falling onto her skirt, soaking in, staining the fabric dark.

‘Holy, holy fuck. Holy fucking shit. Lau, if you ever, ever fucking scare meh like that again I’ll bloody well murder you.’

Laura

Matt’s arm tightened round my shoulders. It seemed like bad things might not be about to happen straight away, so I risked a look into his face, which was bent close to mine. I had never seen such a wide smile on his face, and he smiled quite a lot of the time. He took his arm away so he could hold my face in both hands and pulled my mouth towards his, kissing me tenderly.

Matt

I tightened my arm round her shoulders and pulled her towards me, bending my face close to hers. She still hadn’t looked at me, but slowly raised her eyes to mine. I was smiling, so widely, all thoughts of freaking out banished, at least for now, and I saw how scared she’d been of what I was going to say. I felt a pang of guilt that it had taken me so long to reassure her, to tell her how bloody fucking awesome this was, how happy I was.

I held her face in both hands and dropped a tender kiss on her mouth, to apologise, to say ‘woohoo’, just to kiss the mother of our child.

‘Seriously? Pregnant?’

She nodded.

‘Oh Lau. That’s just fucking awesome. Fuck, fuck, fuck, I can’t fucking believe ih. Shit. I mean, it’s OK, isn’t it? It’s what you want, isn’t it? It’s OK?’

Yeah, bit late now, Matt, after going all celebratory, to double check.

Laura

I stared at him, unable to speak. Yes, it was OK, if Matt was OK, it was the best news, the thing I’d wanted for so long, and if Matt wanted it too, and wasn’t freaked out, and didn’t run away or … I just nodded, then tried a smile.

Matt

Get going on the celebratory, Matt.

I stood up and danced around the room going ‘woooohoooo’ like a bloody nutter, arms wide, as if I’d just scored in the Cup Final for Spurs. This actually might feel a bit better than scoring in the Cup Final for Spurs. I suppose I would never know, as I was possibly just outside the age range for beginning a career with a top flight football team. But as is the way of things, something floated across my mind, I think I was imagining telling everyone: Beth, Dec, Jay, Mum, Lau’s mum – I stopped dancing.

‘Oh fuck, you know what this means. Your bloody mum’s gona go ape. OK, leh’s do this prohply.’

I didn’t even think twice about it. I would never in my life have ever thought that ‘doing things properly’ would mean getting married before having a baby. But it was what we needed to do. I had no moral grounds on which to base this sudden conviction, just a feeling that, for Lau and me, if we were having a baby, we needed to be married. I went back to the sofa and got down on one knee in front of her, holding her hand in both of mine, looking into her eyes.

‘Lau, we have never, in our entire fucking mad donkey’s breakfast of a relationship, done things in the righ order. This time we’re going to. Laura Louise Shoeman, will yuh marry me?’

I held her gaze, hoping against hope that she would feel the same as me. I wanted to see her answer before she said it. And I did. I knew it was coming before her lips formed the word.

Laura

His eyes were shining. I had absolutely no doubt that he meant it, he was always going to mean it, and I had absolutely no doubt about my answer.

‘Yes.’

I smiled a huge smile, almost dizzy with the speed at which I had gone from breaking my heart to overjoyed.

Matt

An enormous smile spread across her mouth, as I took her face in my hands again, wiped away the last of her tears, then laughed as new, happy tears rolled out of her eyes. Then I held her to me, still kneeling on the floor, Lau still on the sofa, and kissed her properly, passionately, as the mother of your child and the woman who has just agreed to be your wife should be kissed.

Lau got down on the floor too, and we knelt together and kissed some more, hands in each other’s hair, lips and tongues telling each other how outrageously good this was. Then I had too many questions, too much to say, and we sat back and held hands.

‘Whoa, Lau, I’m gona be a fucking father. Whoa. A baby. How long have yuh known?’

‘Just today. If I’d paid more attention, I would have done the test earlier. There were plenty of signs.’

‘Why didn’t yuh say?’

‘Well … I suppose it was one of those things, I didn’t ever actually think to myself ‘I’m probably pregnant’, I just pretended it wasn’t happening. It wasn’t until I was so late I had to notice, then I bought the test this morning, still thinking I was just ruling it out. I did it twice, I didn’t want to believe it the first time.’

‘Buh why not? You’ve wanted this as much as meh.’

‘It just felt like really bad timing. We’ve only ever talked about it in general what we want terms, not about when or how. I felt stupid, too. We should have taken more precautions. I didn’t know what you were going to say, or do, either.’

‘But Lau, you must have known I was gona beh over the fucking moon.’

Although, yeah, it had been touch and go for a bit, so I could see why she might have demurred.

‘I kept veering between ‘it’s OK, it’s what we both want’ and ‘Matt’s going to freak’. I’m glad you haven’t.’

Ha, again, glad she couldn’t read my mind. Part of me, somewhere, was still freaking, maybe waiting for things to become a little calmer so that it could come out and play.

‘I still can’t believe ih. And why are weh both down here on the floor? Get on the sofa, woman, start looking after yourself a bit. I need tuh have a word with my offspring.’

I lifted her off the floor and onto the sofa, and pushed her down so she was lying on her back. Then I lifted her shirt and put my lips onto her belly. It was hard to believe there was anything in there; it didn’t look any different from usual to me. But it … he … shit, it could be a he … would be so small, it was hardly surprising there was nothing to see. I wanted to talk to him.

‘Hey, baby, yuh are one lucky tiny little thing. You’ve goh Lau as your mum, and me as your dad. You’d better look after your mum, no kicking her inside ouh, or making her sick – whoa Lau, it wasn’t that curry. It was this one.’

I rubbed her belly, unable to wipe the grin off my face. For a while, too long, thinking about it, Lau had struggled with indigestion and feeling queasy. A mild case of food poisoning and its after-effects Or, obviously, not.

‘I can’t stop smiling. Fuck.’

‘OK, Matt, now may not be the time, but maybe you need to think about toning your language down.’

‘Wha? He’s not even born yet, he won’t knoh what I’m saying.’

‘They can hear loads of things in there. Start practising now, by the time she’s born, you’ll be able to say whole sentences without any swear words at all.’

‘Mm.’

So now Lau was going to be able to get in on the ‘stop Matt’s fucking bad language’ campaign. Not too happy about that one, but not about to get into an argument about it just yet, I was too fucking happy. And I’d had an idea. It was a mad idea, but Lau and me seemed to be going at a hundred miles an hour, never stopping, so why not keep on?

‘Lau, I’m gona call the registry office, see when weh can get – am I really saying this – married. How soon?’

‘How soon for you?’

‘Tomohrow if they’ve got a slot.’

Yeah, Matt and see how much that freaks you out. But I didn’t care. If it was tomorrow, in a way, that would make it easier, less time for me to bottle it.

‘It’s Saturday tomorrow.’

‘Aren’t ahl weddings on fucking Saturdays?’

Already I was noticeably not toning my language down.

‘Lots are, but not all people are available, especially at short notice. I assume you want your family to come? Aren’t Raiders playing away? Dec, Jay and Nico will already be on the coach to – where is it – Birmingham or something.’

‘Fuck. OK, what about weh do ih on a weekday? It’s easier for people to get to, they’re less likely tuh have other things on. Oh, maybe apart from work.’

It occurred to me that we weren’t going to be able to get a date, especially in the near future, when everyone we wanted to be there was going to be able to make it.

‘Shit, we’re just gona have tuh decide who we most want there, or, no, know what I think?’

I hauled myself onto the sofa and lay down beside her, face to face, stroking her hair, as I realised what needed to happen.

‘I think that we should just do this for us. Just book the first available date an tell people. If they want tuh have a big party, or we want one later, we can do that, but we should jus do this. OK, phoning now.’

I pulled my phone out of my pocket, looked up a number, taking my time, giving Lau the chance to stop me, but she didn’t, and so I pressed call.

‘Registrar, can I help you?’

It felt so, so unreal, like it wasn’t my voice saying the words.

‘Hello. What’s the earliest slot you have for a wedding?’

‘Hold on one moment please, I’ll just have a look for you.’

‘OK.’

I looked at Lau, who looked flushed and what I hoped was excited.

‘She’s jus looking.’

The woman came back on the line.

‘We’ve had a cancellation next Friday at three.’

Holy shit, a week’s time. I repeated the information to Lau, and she nodded. Holy shit.

‘OK, can I book ih?’

I was going to book my wedding. There were people who had taken substantial bets on this never happening.

‘Full names of the participants, please.’

‘Well, meh, I’m Matt Scott … Matthew Robert Scott …’

I waited for her to write it down, or type it or whatever she was doing

‘… an Laura Louise Shoeman …’

She wanted other details, addresses, dates of birth, other stuff, some of which I knew, some of which I had to ask Lau, then she gave me a list of things I needed to sort out, and I scribbled them on a piece of paper, disconnected and turned to look at Lau, feeling a bit dazed.

‘We’re getting fucking married next Friday. And we’re having a bloody baby in – when?’

‘I don’t know. I’ll have to make an appointment to see the doctor.’

‘Fuck, Lau, we’re gona have tuh fucking move, too, this place is far too small.’

Things just kept piling up: all the things that were going to change, and were going to have to change.

‘Surely not straight away, she can come in with us for the first few months.’

‘That’s wha Dec and Amy said, they were tripping over themselves within a week. Well we don’t have to think about it right now. Who are we going tuh tell?’

I remembered Dec’s middle of the night texts when both Charlie and the new one were on the way. I would love to repay him in kind. I remembered Beth and Jay announcing Iz’s imminent arrival at the Christmas dinner table. Something more formal like that would be good too.

Laura

My head was spinning with it all. I just wanted time to sit and think about it.

‘Matt, can we not tell anyone, just for a bit? I know we need to tell people soon so we can invite them, but can this just be us, just tonight, maybe tomorrow – you won’t be able to tell Jay, Dec or Nico until after the game, and by the time they get back, it’ll be too late. Sunday morning?’

Matt

I wasn’t sure I could wait a whole day, more than a day. Especially if one of them phoned me, I’d be bound to let it slip. I was going to have to turn my phone off or something equally drastic.

‘Bloody hell, Lau, yuh drive a hard bargain. Dec texted meh immediately, in the middle of the fucking night, both times. I was looking forward tuh repaying the favour.’

‘Please, Matt. It’s all happening so fast, I need to get my head round it.’

Lau was genuinely pleading with me, and yeah, it was a lot to take in, and sitting on it for a day might make it sink in.

‘Of course, gorgeous, Sunday ih is. Wha about your mum, though, we’re due to see her tomorrow.’

‘Dammit. I’ll put her off. We’ll go on Sunday instead, before lunch, if we’re still going to Beth and Jay’s?’

‘Why not? Well, maybe see how weh feel. Once Beth gets word, there’ll be noh stopping her. Oh, I’m going to enjoy stringing her along.’

It wasn’t often I got the chance to tell Beth something so huge. I was almost surprised she hadn’t worked it out before Lau.

‘I’m glad you’re using this as an opportunity to score points.’

‘Hey, I’m gona be centre of the universe –’

‘Ahem.’

Oh yeah, this was about us.

We’re gona be centre of the universe for the next few months. Well, maybe till Dec and Amy have theirs, then they can have a bih of glory, then it’s back to us. It’s all about the timing.’

Lau rolled her eyes. She knew how much this meant to me. I loved being an uncle, but it was a lesser role, and everyone knew it. This felt proper, real part of the family stuff. I caught sight of the red gloop splashed up the walls.

‘OK, I’m gona clear up this mess – holy crap, Lau, there’s tomato sauce fucking everywhere. An you owe meh a saucepan. Tell you what, if you have my baby I’ll let yuh off.’

‘Deal.’

‘Oh you’re too easy. Yuh could have held out for being let off, and a good Scottying. You’ll just have tuh beg for that later.’

I surveyed the devastation that had been wrought on the kitchen wall and worktop.

‘Lau, what the fuck did you do here?’

Lau looked at me, not embarrassed or guilty, just looked at me. I suppose pregnant women can get away with a lot, and she was no exception.

‘I was trying to take my mind off everything by cooking tea, but it didn’t work, and I burnt the sauce, so I just chucked the lot.’

‘Yuh just chucked the lot. At the wall.’

She shrugged, as if didn’t everyone just chuck saucepans full of hot liquid when it all got a bit much.

‘Sorry, flower. Here, let me give you a hand.’

‘Noh, you stay right there, woman. Might have tuh up the price of your let off though.’

‘To what?’

‘Scottying, cuddle afterwards, an sleep wih me all night.’

This always happened anyway, it’s not like it was a punishment. She nodded her agreement with an impish grin that nearly made me forget the cleaning.

But Scottying was off the table, or indeed any other handy surface, for now. I cleared up the burnt tomato sauce, binned the saucepan and ruefully regarded the broken tile that was going to be hard to replace. Lau must have been seriously stressed to cause this sort of mess; she was usually so cool-headed. I wished I’d been here when she was going through it all, but I guess she took the test on her day off precisely so I wasn’t around.

I looked over at her as I finished wiping up the last bits and started on some dinner. The look she gave me was one of trust and love, no hint of the earlier upset, and it sent a surge of calm through me. This was going to be OK. It was mad, just like everything we’d done so far was mad, but we were going to do it together, and that’s what would make it OK.

After dinner, we spent the evening cuddled up on the sofa together, some music playing. I couldn’t keep my hands off Lau’s belly, trying to picture the person who was in there, maybe a centimetre or two long. It was almost impossible to imagine, and every so often I’d say ‘fucking hell, Lau, I’m gona beh a dad’, because saying it made it feel like it was actually happening. And she’d look at me and nod, with wide eyes, and I’d wonder whether he’d have her eyes or mine, my nose or hers, and over the course of the evening, and into the next day, thinking all these things finally caught up with me, and it stopped feeling like we were in the middle of some weird story, and started feeling like this was part of our life, something we both wanted. Maybe just a bit sooner than we would have planned, but welcome to Matt and Lau World, where everything happens sooner than planned.

Laura

We spent the rest of the evening, and most of the next day, getting used to it all – we were having a baby, and we were getting married. I had to keep reminding myself.

I managed to put Mum off by vaguely saying we needed to ‘sort stuff’ and implying it was to do with the flat. We wrote a list of people we needed to tell and invite, and Matt spent a lot of time saying ‘fucking hell, Lau, I’m going to be a dad’. We both wandered around with slightly shell-shocked expressions. We talked about what sort of wedding we wanted and would be able to organise at such short notice, and had some ideas that basically meant it would be very simple, not that we had a tremendous amount of choice.

Matt Googled lots of things about babies and pregnancy, and asked me lots of questions I couldn’t answer about due dates and size, but by Sunday morning, it was beginning to feel a little bit more believable and a little less like a story someone had told me.

Matt

I’d turned my phone off, but turned it on briefly the next morning, just so people didn’t start breaking down my door. They were less likely to do that now Lau was here, but you just never knew. Predictably, there were several texts from Beth, as well as missed calls, and I could tell when she’d got Dec involved from the time on his texts. She hadn’t gone as far as Mum, though, so she can’t have been that worried.

‘Matty, been trying to call u. R U OK?’

‘Matty, where RU?’

‘Matty, can’t get hold of u or Laura. Pls call me.’

‘Hey mate. Beth’s trying to get hold of u abt lunch Sun, wants u 2 bring truffle oil?? Give her a call, get her off our backs? Cheers.’

Bloody truffle oil. That’s what you get for letting Beth rifle through the contents of your shopping bags.

Lau had her phone off too, for the same reason as me, and before I turned mine off again, I quickly winged a text to mollify Beth.

‘FFS Beth, can’t get a minute 2 ourselves. Will bring truffle oil. Call off the dogs.’

I hoped it would suggest we had been involved in nefarious activities that would not demand further explanation or contact, and we spent a strangely quiet Saturday, where there were no ringtones, textones or email bleeps from my phone, or Nokia default tones from Lau’s. I would like to say it was liberating and relaxing, but part of me felt like my hand had been cut off.

Still, we were having a baby, and that took the edge off my frustration somewhat. I wasn’t completely cutting myself off from technology, though, and I spent a fair bit of time on the internet, looking things up about babies and pregnancy, annoying Lau by asking her questions she couldn’t answer, like how big he was likely to be (you had to know how many weeks pregnant you were, and Lau was frustratingly clueless, considering she was a nurse), when he was likely to be born (same answer), whether she was going to puke early in the morning like Amy did (everyone’s different and although she hadn’t puked thus far, things might change) and whether she’d had any cravings (not that she was aware of, although now I thought about it she had eaten some weird combinations of things from time to time – ooh, smoked salmon croissant and pop tart at Christmas …).

By the time Sunday morning came, I was less startled at the thought of being a dad, and applauded Lau for her foresight in insisting on a day to get used to it. We’d discussed our wedding, quite a lot, and although I wouldn’t say I was as at ease with the thought of being a husband as I was being a dad, there was enough to do to take my mind off the enormity of it. Some would say that this wasn’t the right way to go about approaching one’s wedding, but I would counter that if I had actually stopped and thought about it, I would be so shit-scared I’d never do it, and I needed to do it, we needed to do it, it was right.

So we’d come up with a plan, which was to call my side of the family before going to lunch, where there would be a deal of fuss, but at least we wouldn’t be standing up and announcing it to everyone at once, but Lau’s mum we would do face to face. That wasn’t likely to be an enjoyable time; much as I liked April, she was staunchly Christian, and already didn’t approve of Lau moving in with me. She liked me well enough, but I didn’t think it would be sufficient to forgive me getting her daughter up the duff and forcing a shotgun wedding.

But anyway, back to the plan. After telling my lot, and before getting chewed up and spat out by Lau’s mum, I would text everyone at work, or maybe just Lexi, to save me a job, and Lau would tell everyone at her work, and then we’d tell whichever other friends we wanted to invite.

We weren’t quite sure what we were inviting them to just yet; I wondered if Beth would want to throw a party, as she loved doing a do, but it was short notice, so we decided that over the road from the Registry Office was the Pickled Pig, and that would do if all else failed. We weren’t going to have a honeymoon as such, as I had only just started back at work and taking time off felt a bit cheeky, but we might have a holiday before the baby came.

And that just left my own personal arrangements to make. Honeymoon – maybe not. But I wanted to book a night in the Ivy Leaf, in the honeymoon suite, which I had on good authority was the most luxurious suite in the city, even though there were, regrettably, no poster sized pictures of any of my family on the walls. I went online while Lau thought I was still Googling baby stuff, and to my amazement they had Friday night available, so I nabbed it.

There were other things I wanted to sort out – flowers for Lau, a suit, a few other surprises if I could manage it, but I hadn’t got my head round it all yet. Lau was writing lists like there was no tomorrow and she needed to get it all down on paper today, but I was trying to stay chilled and keep things in my head for now.

I called Mum first.

‘Hey Mum.’

‘Hello, Matthew dear. Are you alright?’

I wasn’t sure why she’d think I wasn’t.

‘Yeah.’

‘Oh, that’s good. I know Beth was worried yesterday.’

Oh what a surprise, Beth had been worrying all and sundry.

‘No, I’m good. Just wanted to let yuh know, er, ask if, shit, um …’

I was really ballsing this up. Mum was the hardest one to tell, because I had fucking about plans for everyone else, but Mum, well I just had to tell her straight. I took a deep breath.

‘Lau and me are getting married next Friday.’

There was a short silence.

‘Did you say married?’

I couldn’t tell from her voice if she was surprised, horrified, or pleased …

‘Yeah.’

‘Well I’m very happy for you dear, but it’s a bit, er, sudden, isn’t it?’

‘I know.’

‘Why so soon?’

I wondered if she had guessed. There are only a couple of reasons why you would be getting married with a week’s notice.

‘Lau’s, we’re, er, having a baby.’

Another silence, and then I could hear the smile in her voice.

‘Oh Matthew, a baby?’

She knew what it meant to me, and she was happy for me, sudden necessity for a hat notwithstanding.

‘Yeah.’

I smiled, letting out a breath I hadn’t realised I was holding, waiting for Mum’s approval.

‘And that’s … it’s a good thing, isn’t it?’

She was checking that we both wanted it.

‘Yeah, ih’s awesome.’

‘You’re both happy?’

‘Yeah, happy.’

‘Oh that’s just lovely. When is it due?’

That was going to be asked and not answered a lot until Lau managed to get to get an appointment at the doctor’s.

‘Don’t know yet, only jus found out.’

‘Have you told your brother?’

I could trust Mum not to tell anyone, but she wanted to know who knew so she could talk about it.

‘No, just about to call him, but can yuh come on Friday?’

‘Of course, dear. I wouldn’t miss this. Rose is picking me up in a while, can I tell her?’

‘Yeah, tell Rose, I’ll see yuh later at Jay’s.’

‘Congratulations, Matthew. I’m so pleased for you.’

‘Thanks Mum.’

‘Give my love to Laura.’

‘Yeh.’

‘Bye dear.’

‘Bye.’

I blew out my cheeks, relieved.

‘Tha went OK. She sends her lohv. First tick on the guest list.’

And now I couldn’t wait to call Jay, dialling his number immediately.

‘Heh mate.’

‘Matty, you’re alive.’

I ignored the obvious allusion to being incommunicado yesterday.

‘Yeh, I’m good. I’m just wondering if yuhr free next Friday afternoon.’

‘No, I’ve got a coaches’ planning meeting, for my sins.’

Bugger. I really wanted Jay to be there.

‘Oh, any way yuh can get out of ih?’

‘Depends what for. It’s going to be pretty dull, I could do with an excuse to miss it, to be honest. It’d have to be good, though.’

‘Well I was hoping yuh’d beh my best man.’

There was a silence. I was loving those silences, they were like applause.

‘What, you mean like best man … at a wedding?’

That was pretty quick on the uptake for Jay. I could almost hear the brain cells heating up as they went into overload.

‘Yeh, at my wedding.’

‘What the fuck, Matty? You’re not … you can’t tell me you’re … when did you say?’

He sounded really shocked, and I almost regretted stringing him along. Ha, no I didn’t.

‘Nex Friday afternoon.’

‘But that’s less than a week, you have to book things, arrange –’

He obviously thought I was a complete incompetent when it came to organising things, like he was. He would never have been able to sort this in a million years.

‘Ih’s all booked.’

Jay was still spluttering.

‘But what’s the big rush? Jesus, you’ve only just moved in together, is there really a need to get bloody married too?’

I expect he was panicking about whether he was going to have to dry-clean his suit.

‘Yeh, well, people tend tuh when they’re in lohv an having a baby.’

‘You’re what? Did you say having a baby?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Jesus, Matty. Jesus. Really?’

I could picture him pacing around, running a hand through his hair as he did when he was flummoxed.

‘Yeah.’

‘When’s it due?’

He finally found some unexploded brain cells, and realised that if he was going to tell Beth, he would need some details. Beth obviously wasn’t anywhere nearby, or she would have wrestled the phone from him by now.

‘Not sure yet. So, bes man, up for ih?’

‘Oh, of course, Matty. This is a lot to take in. Shit. I suppose I have to get all dressed up.’

I knew he’d been thinking about his suit. He hated dressing formally.

‘If yuh want.’

‘So there’s no dress code then.’

This amused me greatly, and gave me an idea, but I let him off the hook for now. I could always go back on it later.

‘No, wear wha the fuck yuh want – yuhr Tigger onesie for all I care.’

‘Piss off Matty, I have not got a onesie.’

‘Yeh yuh do, Iz told meh.’

‘Bloody kids, can’t trust either of them with a secret. Are we all invited, then?’

‘Well can yuh get Cal out of school?’

‘I expect so.’

‘Cool.’

‘So you haven’t told Beth yet?’

He sounded like he was going to enjoy surprising her, and I graciously bestowed this favour on him. Nothing at all to do with the fact that Beth would hate it if someone else told her stuff about me, when she tried so hard to get me to spill it herself.

‘No, yuh can tell her. I’ve got tons of people to call now. See ya later.’

I disconnected, grinning at Lau.

‘I’m going to have to call Dec now, before he does.’

I brought up Dec’s number and called.

‘Hey, Dec, er, I’ve goh a favour to ask.’

‘OK.’

He sounded his usual chilled self, with just a note of caution in his voice; this was doubtless due to me asking for a favour, which was akin to asking for help, and obviously something I never did, so he probably had an ear out for the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

‘Well, Fridays are your day off, righ?’

‘Yeah. Well, theoretically, depends on which day the weekend match is on, whether we’re travelling to an away game, and we have to do Captains Run and all that. Why?’

Oh bollocks. Why couldn’t he just have a normal job with normal hours?

‘Well, are you aroun nex Friday afternoon?’

‘Er, should be, what do you need?’

‘Well … I wondered if you’d be able to make ih to the Registry Office for my wedding.’

And there it was, that silence. I thank you.

‘ … your what?

‘Sorry ih’s a bit short notice.’

I wasn’t sorry at all. I was becoming less and less sorry every time I said it, because the results were so outstandingly hilarious.

‘Fucking hell, Matt. I need a minute to take it in … you and Laura are getting married? What the fuck?’

And now the denouement.

‘Yeh, well, ih seemed a bit necessary, what wih the lohving each other an having a baby in a few months an everything.’

More stunned silence. Oh I was going to live off this for weeks to come.

‘ … what?

‘Sorry to spring ih on you. Ih’s taken us a bih by surprise too.’

‘You don’t sound very sorry, you sound like you’re grinning your fucking head off.’

Well, he was right there. I was grinning my fucking head off. I was feeling very pleased with myself, and likely deserved a good slap for being so smug, but oh I was having a good time.

‘I’ve jus had a very similar conversation wih Jay. Ih’s been extremely fucking entertaihing. I’ll leave you to break the news to Amy, if tha’s OK. I’m expecting a very long phone call wih Beth soon, wanting lohs of details that I will obviously be unwilling to give her until she prises them out of meh, and then she’ll wan to organise some kind of huge gathering tha I’ll naturally be unwilling to agree to until she beats me into submission. I’m looking forward to ih immensely.’

‘Matt, that’s just fucking awesome. Congratulations, mate. I would offer to help, but it seems like you’ve got us all manipulated exactly where you want us. Awesome. I’m a bit speechless. It’s just huge.’

Dec seemed, so far, to be the one who was handling the information the best. Maybe it was because he just sauntered through life dealing with what came his way and not stressing too much about anything. There was something I wanted him to know, though, and I needed to be serious for a minute.

‘Dec, if Jay wahn’t my brother, I’d want you to be my bes man, but …’

There was all that unsaid shit, Dec was like my brother, but Jay really was my brother, and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here now.

‘Don’t be so fucking daft, it never crossed my mind. It has to be Jay. I’d only lose the rings and fuck up the speech anyway. Jay’ll lose the rings and fuck up the speech too, but at least it won’t be my fault.’

It was good to have great mates like Dec, who just got you and didn’t worry about shit.

‘I’d better let Amy know, so she can get shopping for a dress. You’re not going to be popular, with the baby so close to popping.’

We disconnected, and I couldn’t conceal my glee from Lau, who had been watching proceedings with raised eyebrows.

‘I loved every bloody second of that.’

My phone rang, it was Beth, who must have been hitting redial until I finished talking to Dec. I looked at Lau, still grinning.

‘Beth. I’m not gona answer.’

Lau rolled her eyes, but smiled too, indulging me with a shake of her head. Then her phone rang. Lau didn’t have different tones for different people, but I was sure it would be Beth. She checked with me before she answered.

‘Can I get this?’

‘Up tuh you.’

‘Don’t you want to talk to her?’

‘If she begs.’

Lau shook her head again, and answered her phone.

Laura

‘Hi Beth.’

‘Oh Laura, James has just told me your news. Oh sweetheart, how are you?’

‘I’m great. Really good, happy, scared, amazed, you name it.’

‘When did you find out?’

‘Day before yesterday. I’d been ignoring some pretty obvious signs, for quite a while.’

‘How’s Matty?’

‘Grinning from ear to ear like a crazy person.’

‘So you’re both happy, then?’

‘Yeah, we’re both very happy. Can you make the wedding?’

‘Oh Laura, try to stop me. Are you having a reception or anything?’

‘We haven’t really had a chance to organise anything. We thought we’d just go to the pub afterwards.’

‘Oh you can’t do that. Let me do something for you. I love this sort of thing.’

‘Well … that does sound great – Matt, Beth wants to organise a do.’

Matt held his hand out for the phone. I could see he was going to give Beth a hard time before he caved and let her have her way, which was what he wanted anyway but meant he didn’t actually have to ask her.

Matt

I knew it. Score. I pumped a quick celebratory fist, then held my hand out for Lau’s phone.

‘Hey Beth.’

‘Oh congratulations sweetheart.’

‘Thank you.’

‘You both sound very happy.’

I supposed I was going to have to put up with everyone double checking it was a good thing for both of us.

‘Yeah, very happy thanks.’

‘Oh that’s so lovely. Matty, have you got any plans for a do, or a party, reception type thing?’

Yeah, my plan had been to get Beth to organise it, but only after I’d had my fun.

‘Well, we thought we’d just all pile over the road to the Pickled Pig afterwards.’

So here I was, lining it up.

‘Oh Matty, you can’t just go to the pub. You have to have a proper reception.’

‘Why do we ‘have’ tuh?’

Yep, let her explain to me exactly why I needed her to do this.

‘This is your special day, sweetheart, you’ll only have one chance to have a reception on the day. Don’t you want it to be special?’

‘Yeah, course.’

And it would be really special once Beth had organised it.

‘You really hadn’t thought of anything else?’

Nope, that will be your job, Beth.

‘No, but we can get just as pissed in the pub as in a village hall somewhere.’

‘Oh Matty, you can’t drink too much, Laura won’t be.’

And step away from the advice, Beth.

‘Well, no, Lau probably won’t be drinking, but I fucking will beh.’

I wouldn’t, not on my wedding day, not when I was marrying the girl of my dreams, the love of my life, I wanted to remember every second, but I was intent on getting as much winding up out of Beth as I could manage.

‘Matty, I’m really good at organising things like this.’

Which is why you’re going to be organising our reception.

‘I know yuh are.’

‘And I love doing things like this.’

Which is why you’re going to be organising our reception.

‘I know yuh do.’

‘I know somewhere that would be ideal. I’ve got a friend with a heated barn.’

That sounded like just the thing. Now to reel her in.

‘Oh really?’

‘It’s in Thursley, do you know the crossroads out that way?’

‘No, I don’t know it.’

Although I knew Thursley, and it was a lovely little village. Ideal for, say, a wedding reception.

‘Well it’s just off the crossroads, down a farm track. It wouldn’t be expensive to hire, I’m sure. It could be a wedding present.’

‘No, don’t spend your money, Beth.’

‘Not my money, James will pay.’

Oh this just got better. Not that I was wanting to avoid paying by any means, but Jay was so stingy that Beth splashing his cash around was the icing on the cake.

‘Oh, well, Jay’s money, tha’s a different matter.’

‘Don’t you think it would make a lovely wedding present, sweetheart?’

I pretended to weigh this up for a moment.

‘Yeah, I suppose it beats a toaster.’

‘I’ll call about the barn now.’

Now to inject just a hint of backing out.

‘Where did yuh say again?’

‘Thursley. It’s a big heated barn, we could set up a bar there, get a band, oh Matty it will be wonderful.’

‘Oh, tha does actually sound pretty cool.’

‘How many are you inviting? Do you have any idea yet?’

I could hear Beth’s organisational brain ticking over. She really was great at all that shit, had thrown some awesome parties for Dec and Amy on their respective twenty-first birthdays, and for Jay’s fortieth, and always did fantastic kids parties for Cal and Iz. Yeah, I know, it would have been a lot easier to have just asked her, but this way was so much more fun.

‘Yeah, we have got a sort of guest list.’

‘Rough numbers?’

‘Not many, an it’s a Friday, not sure who’d beh able to come at short notice.’

‘I suppose you can only hope people will be able to get the time off.’

‘Yeah, family a few friends an work people … oh – Lau, where’s that list of people?’

She handed it over. I’d like to say she looked awed at my astute handling of Beth, but she looked more amused. I quickly totted up the names on the list.

‘Fifty max, tha’s if everyone can come an brings someone.’

‘Oh that sounds easy, Matty. It’s not like it’s hundreds. Shall we go for it, then?’

I tried to sound as reluctant as I could.

‘Yeh, OK, but I still think the pub would beh just as easy.’

‘No, Matty. I’m insisting.’

Ha, of course you are, Beth. Hook, line and sinker.

‘OK, if you’re sure.’

‘I’ll get Lis to help, she’s got some great contacts. And if I start tomorrow, I can get a lot of the food sorted. Carol and Rose can help as well, maybe a catering firm for some of it –’

‘Yeah, OK, con whoever you like into helping, as long as ih’s not me.’

‘No, sweetheart, you won’t have to do a thing.’

Result.

‘Cool.’

‘Oh it’s so lovely, Matty, after everything, I’m so pleased for you.’

‘Yeah, thanks.’

‘To find all this, now, after the year you’ve had …’

And much as Beth went on, and I felt like she interfered and offered advice when it wasn’t wanted, she did actually care, she didn’t just want information so she could gossip, she wanted to help if she could. And she knew how much having a family meant to me, and it made her happy.

‘I know, it’s fucking amazing.’

‘Congratulations again, sweetheart.’

‘Thanks.’

‘We’ll talk more over lunch.’

‘See yuh later.’

As I disconnected, Lau’s phone announced a text, and while she read it and replied, I basked in the success of my morning’s conversations:

Mum informed

Dec repaid

Jay best man

Beth recruited .

It just remained to tell a few more people, which I could do by text, and that was me done. I’d text Lexi, she’d take care of everyone at work, then I’d text Andrew, and I’d have to call Phil because I’d need Friday off.

Laura

As he disconnected, a text pinged onto my phone from Amy.

‘Dec just told me your news! 🙂 Friday? Really?!! Got no clothes that fit – pls come shopping w me. Amy x’

‘I haven’t got a dress either. Wld ❤ a shopping buddy cu l8r. L x’

I looked up from my phone. Matt was looking at me like the cat that got the cream.

‘You got your own way, then?’

His grin broadened.

Matt

I believe there was more smug basking on my part.

‘Yeah. Beth’s gona ask Lis tuh help her, she’s got a friend who’s got a heated barn, she’s gona cook an ask Mum an Rose as well, an get a catering firm to do some of it. Reception sorted.’

‘Nice work. You’re sure she wants to?’

‘She feels even better now she thinks I dihn’t really want to, but she’s persuaded meh.’

When you thought about it, actually, I’d been doing her a favour, kind of like my gift to her. I was such a benefactor.

‘Devious.’

Or such a devious bastard. Maybe a beneficent devious bastard.

88. The nurse who loved me

In which things are looking up … then down … then up again … then …

Matt

So I’d just asked Lau to move in with me and she’d said yes, and I didn’t freak, not even a tiny bit, not even in that part of me reserved for freaking when everything is perfectly fine.

‘Woohoo. Move all your girly crap in here, cushions, woolly post-modern bog roll concealers, the lot. Or whatever. I’ll bring my sofa tuh yours and cram my clothes in your bloody tiny wardrobe. Or we can spend every weekend from now till the end of the world looking round other people’s houses an talking about mortgages.’

‘I’ll move in here. I can rent my house out, leave most of the big stuff there.’

‘Really?’

It sounded suspiciously like she’d given it some serious thought.

‘Really. I’ve thought about it. It makes sense. I love your flat, you love your flat, we’re never at mine. You’re so close to the High Street here, and you’re close to work when you go back.’

I have to confess I was relieved. I did like Lau’s house, but only because Lau lived there. I loved my flat, with its views and the large living space and the awesome shower, and although I would have done anything for Lau, I would rather stay here.

‘Thank fuck for tha. I mean, I’d live anywhere with yuh, Lau – in a tent near the landfill if yuh asked me – you’re not gona ask me, are yuh?’

‘No.’

‘But I love ih here too. And if you’re here, ih’s going to be the perfect place. I migh never go back to work, I’ll just sit here all day thinking ‘Lau’s here now, this is perfect’ and sighing happily. I migh even sing tuh myself.’

She batted me on the arm.

‘You’re daft. Do you realise what we’ve just done, though?’

‘Yeah.’

I was perfectly aware of what a non-Matt-type undertaking I had just made.

‘We’ve done the commitment thing. Well that can’t happen. Bye Lau, see ya, don’t slam the door on your way out.’

I pretended to try to push her out of bed but she just rolled over and lay on top of me, face close to mine, looking into my eyes.

‘I love you, Matthew Robert Scott.’

‘I love you, Laura Louise Shoeman.’

Laura

As the start of our sex life, that first time was a lot to live up to, but things just got better from there. Matt was so attentive. He’d kneel beside me, stroking me and kissing me, he’d pull me up and down the bed, he’d sigh and gaze at me. He knew when to go fast and when I needed slow, although that’s not to say there weren’t times when we both raced for the finish line and he held his arms aloft as if he’d scored for Spurs.

I once started to say ‘if you paid as much attention to …’ and then couldn’t think of anything he didn’t pay as much attention to – cooking, washing up, he was big on the details, lots of instinct, very thorough. Lucky me.

I never lost the thrill of waking up to him cupping my breasts and whispering ‘Lau, I declare you’re breathing faster and bits of you just got more lumpy’, or me snuggling up to him and finding he already had a meaty erection.

Part of it always remained a juvenile ‘Matt Scott fancies me’ thing, but most of it was due to the deep physical attraction we’d both felt almost instantly, and that never waned.

Matt

The next morning I was woken by a tongue in my mouth and a hand on my balls. It’s the sort of thing that tends to focus the mind and wrench you from sleep pretty damn smart, and I opened my eyes as I put my arms round Lau and snogged back with all my might. But she pulled away, and I gave a frustrated groan.

‘Wha yuh doin? C’mere.’

‘Uh uh. You need to get up, about half an hour ago. We’ve got to meet Dec in twenty minutes.’

‘Wha? Why did yuh start all tha, then?’

‘I’ve been trying to wake you up since nine o’clock. You are a ridiculously heavy sleeper when you want to be.’

Well I suppose that was true, it took a lot to actually make me wake up before my brain decided it was time these days. I was bloody frustrated that we weren’t going to continue the tonguing and groping though.

‘So yuh decided tuh employ foul means, then?’

‘It was a last resort. It was a hard job, but it needed to be done.’

‘Think yuhself lucky I’m feeling forgiving an don’t spank yuh.’

‘Hm. Maybe later, then, beach boy?’

Oh she was such a tease, as she walked out of the room, tossing her hair. I just wanted to grab her and finish what she started, but we really did have to get going if we were going to meet Dec at ten.

Any other time, for any other reason, and I would have felt confident to be at least an hour late, but I knew Dec wanted to get on with sorting things at Amy’s parents’ house, and he wouldn’t have slept well last night, so it was likely he’d be there on time. I didn’t want to keep him waiting there, so I subdued my desire for Lau, showered and dressed quickly, and we turned up outside the house at the same time as Dec.

I’d never actually been inside, and only knew where it was because I’d dropped both Dec and Amy off there before, in the early days of their relationship when Dec wasn’t driving and Amy’s car was being repaired. It was weird actually going through the front door, a little bit like being a voyeur. I couldn’t help looking around at all their things, making judgements about them based on their pictures, their furnishings, their colour scheme, and had to remind myself that Amy’s dad was dead and that was why I was even here at all.

Then we reached the kitchen, and all thoughts of judgement went out of my head.

‘Holy fuck.’ (That was me.)

‘Shit.’ (Dec.)

‘Oh my God.’ (Lau.)

Dec stood frozen in the doorway, staring at the chaos. The table, which presumably should have been in the middle of the room, was pushed to one side, against the cupboards, and on the floor was a mess of torn packets of what I assumed had contained syringes, and other medical paraphernalia such as a couple of latex gloves; there was a broken wooden chair; there was a lot of blood; and to one side, upside down, was a shoe. Just a shoe. The blood was mainly in a pool on the floor, and it had dried, but there were smears on the cupboards and some footprints leading up to the back door.

I looked at Dec, whose face had gone the colour of ashes, and I put my hand on his shoulder. He tensed and let out a whimper, as if he’d forgotten there was anyone with him, and I’d made him jump.

Lau looked up at his face as she heard the sound he made.

‘Come with me, Dec. Matt will make a start in here, we’ll go and get the things Diane wanted.’

She raised her eyebrows at me to check it was OK, and took Dec’s elbow, tugging him with her away from the scene and up the stairs. I heard her voice as she chattered overhead, and Dec’s monosyllabic replies. Oh she was good. I guess she’d had a bit of practice at dealing with shock, and knew what to do, but seeing her in action was an education.

Before I did as instructed and started clearing up, I found some coffee and some cups and boiled the kettle. I filled mugs for us all and put them in the living room, then found the cleaning stuff under the sink. I couldn’t find a bucket in the kitchen, but a quick reccy in the hall found a cupboard under the stairs complete with bucket, mop and Marigolds, which I donned before starting anything else. I picked up all the litter and put it in the bin, then took the bin bag out and tied it. As I filled the bucket with hot water and surface cleaner, I heard Dec and Lau come down the stairs.

‘… sooner the better. Matt and I can handle this, Dec. Honestly.’

‘I can’t leave you guys to clear up all that shit.’

‘Matt, I was just saying, we’ll do this. Dec should be with Amy.’

Lau looked at me for support.

‘Yeh, course. I’ve done coffee if anyone wants it?’

Dec looked gratefully at me, as he was still pale, and he headed into the living room, following my gesture, unable to prevent his gaze sliding beyond the kitchen door as he passed, but quickly averting his eyes.

We sat down and sipped coffee, not saying anything as there didn’t seem to be anything worth saying that wasn’t trite or clichéd.

It felt weird, sitting there in someone else’s house, someone I didn’t know, had only met once and had been quite rude to, and was now in the midst of clearing up the evidence of their last journey through this world.

I’d made the coffee strong, and put sugar in it, as my knowledge of the treatment of shock only extended to hospital dramas and the internet, but it seemed to bring some of the colour back to Dec’s face, and he roused himself as he drained the last from his mug.

‘Right, better get on with it, then. What needs doing?’

‘No, Dec. I meant it.’

Lau had her determined look on, the one that always made me stop and listen to her. Dec didn’t stand a chance.

‘You go home, Matt and I will finish up here. You’ve done most of it, anyway, haven’t you Matt?’

She had no way of knowing how much I’d done, but I wasn’t going to argue with her.

‘Yeh, nearly finished. We’ll drop the keys round in a bih. Seriously, mate, go home. Did you geh everything you needed?’

‘Yeah, it was only clothes and washing stuff and shit.’

I sensed Dec struggling with himself, wanting to go but feeling he should stay.

‘Are you guys sure?’

We both nodded.

‘You are both fucking awesome. Thanks.’

He stood up, picking up the bag of Amy’s mum’s stuff he’d collected, and we stood too, hugs all round, and shooed him out of the door.

Then we turned and surveyed the damage. Now most of the detritus had been cleared away, it was just the mopping and wiping to do, and there was a full, foamy bucket just waiting for us – and then I turned and looked at Lau, and she had tears on her face and memories in her eyes.

‘Oh Lau, noh noh noh, come here.’

I pulled her to me and held her tight. She sniffled a bit, then lifted her chin.

‘Your dad?’

She nodded. ‘Yeah. It’s just taken me back there, all this. Sorry, flower, I thought I’d be OK. I am OK, just a wobble.’

‘Well yuhr not doin any of this, Lau.’

I tried a copy of her determined look; it must have worked, because she nodded again and looked up at me, trying, I suppose to gauge if I was going to be OK doing it on my own.

‘I’ll beh fine. Go an sit down, won’t take meh long.’

‘Thanks, flower. Actually, I might go and wait in the car, it’s just a bit weird being here, if you’re going to be OK on your own.’

‘Yeh, fine. Migh spur me on to finish quickly.’

It certainly did that. Not that I believed in ghosts, but it was one of the weirdest things I’ve done, clearing up a dead man’s blood in a kitchen I’d never visited; wiping bloody fingerprints from cupboards I’d never opened; bagging up a broken chair and hunting for the wheely bin to dispose of it all; moving the table and chairs back into the middle of the room, even though I didn’t know exactly where they should go; having a final look to make sure there wasn’t anything left, no little reminders to upset a woman I hardly knew and didn’t much care for; locking the door of a house I didn’t own and was unlikely ever to return to; driving away with a strangely sorrowful feeling.

o0o

‘Yuh OK, Lau?’

It was later that afternoon, and Lau had been quiet since we got back.

‘Yeah. Just thinking. You know, I might go and see Mum.’

‘Didn’t yuh goh yesterd – oh, everything happened, didn’t ih.’

‘Yeah, I had to call her. But I think I just want to be there, it might stop me feeling so weird.’

‘Wan meh tuh come?’

‘No, flower, thanks though.’

I was relieved, as I was feeling a bit weird too, and some time on my own might help me stop dwelling on things I couldn’t change and shouldn’t really be so bothered about. Clearing up a dead man’s blood had affected me more than I was willing to admit.

Lau disappeared off to April’s, and I put the TV on, entertaining myself with one of the better written sit-coms, enjoying a laugh, which helped to restore my mood. I decided to text Dec, and see how it was all going there.

‘Hey. How’s everyone?’

‘As u’d expect. It’s all a bit gloomy. Got anything happy to tell me?’

He probably didn’t expect me to have anything, or maybe wanted a bit of Matt’s special brand of fucking about to relieve the mournfulness, but I chose to spill the beans on the newest chapter in Matt and Lau: The Need for Speed.

‘Lau’s moving in :)’

‘WHOA! That is happy. :):) Cheered me up. Can I tell Ames? Will make her smile.’

‘Tell NE1 u like.’

‘Really? Bloody hell. Who r u & what have u done with Matt Scott?’

‘Ha bloody ha.’

‘Is gr8 news tho. U don’t know the meaning of slow do u?’

‘What is this ‘slow’ of which u speak?’

‘LOL. Thx 4 2day.’

‘:)’

It occurred to me that if Dec had been on the receiving end of a text like this from me, he would have called me. I liked the idea of turning the tables for once, so I called him up.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Heh, I knoh this is what everyone always says, buh if there’s anything I can do …’

‘No, we’re fine, thanks though. You’ve done enough. Today was awesome.’

‘Can’t have been easy fuh yuh, though.’

There was a pause. I’d learned from my sessions with Adam that sometimes pauses were there for people to gather their thoughts, rather than to be filled with chatter, so I let this one go on for a short while, before I said anything else.

‘I knoh yuh never forget about them, Dec, but things like this, ih must be like living ih again.’

‘Yeah.’

Dec’s voice sounded choked, and the one-word answer showed me he didn’t trust himself to speak. He was holding himself together for Amy and her mum, and although I didn’t want to make him blart, I did want him to know that he ‘didn’t have to be alone when he was feeling this shit’. Dec and Amy supported each other, but he would feel the need to be strong for her, and I wanted to lend a shoulder if required.

‘Mate, I know yuh don’t want to say anything with Amy there, but if yuh want to come round, or go out for a drink, in the next day or soh, talk about ih, yuh knoh where I am.’

There was a big shuddery breath.

‘Thanks, mate.’

‘Any time. Heh, ih might be yuhr turn tuh text me ridiculously early this morning.’

‘Yeah. Fat chance of you bloody answering though.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, yuh could be right. Any time, though, I mean ih.’

‘Thanks.’

That felt better. It was usually me being called to ‘talk about it’, although I was usually a more reluctant participant than Dec had just proven to be. I’d call him again tomorrow, and try to set my brain to be alert to any texts I might get in the middle of the night. Maybe if I turned the volume up on the phone – oh but then it would wake Lau up – ah but then she might have to wake me up using her freshly patented snogging method. It was all good.

I was still feeling a bit weird about the earlier cleaning-up-blood event, but I sorted my head out while Lau was gone, and when she got back, she’d sorted her head out too. She and her mum had had a good old reminisce about her dad, and rather than feeling sad, she was feeling full of nostalgia, and talked to me about things she remembered for a long time.

I often say that Dec is the most sorted person I know, but really it’s Lau. She always knows what she needs to feel sane, and doesn’t hide from either going to get it, or asking for it. If I’d ever followed her example, I would be a much less fucked up person than I am, but sadly I have stayed fucked up for the entirety, and am likely to remain so for the foreseeable. Sorry Lau.

And so, because I’d learned my lesson from Jules, we told everyone else our plans as soon as possible, and everyone had comments and advice, although most people managed to keep their ‘isn’t it a bit soon’ thoughts to themselves except Beth (‘exactly how long have you known each other, sweetheart?’), but most of all we had help with the moving of stuff, Lau’s stuff.

She left a lot of it in her house, because she was renting it out, but she did fill my flat with a lot of crap – er, of her personal possessions. My toilet cistern now sported a crocheted toilet roll cover. Her name was Ann, surname Drakes, and she caused much hilarity and comment whenever we had people over. My wardrobes were crammed to bursting, and we had to buy another one fairly soon after Lau moved in, although I did manage to persuade her that we both needed a clothing cull before we were smothered by all the fabric.

And maybe with anyone else, the filled spaces, the knick-knacks on the shelves, the overflowing drawers would have grated on me and made me feel resentful, but what I actually felt was that the flat was full of Lau. She had just flowed into the spaces and now everywhere I looked, there was a bit of her and a bit of me nestled side by side, and I loved it; in fact, I couldn’t imagine, now she was living there, how it would feel to live on my own, without her. Or rather, I could, but it wasn’t somewhere I ever wanted to go again.

Laura

Matt’s remission continued. As he improved, regained his mobility, his energy and most of the other faculties he’d lost in his flare-up, I started to really get to know him. I realised why he’d found being immobile so frustrating – he always wanted to be doing something, although sometimes what he wanted to do was a lot of sex, as we didn’t seem to be able to stop once he’d got his function back. Matt was pretty good at it, and I don’t think I’m too shabby if feedback is anything to go by, so life was busy and hectic and full of action.

Even before Matt started to get better, I would forget that he had MS. I never saw him as a project or an object of pity, and although I made allowances for the things he struggled with, they were just part of us, part of how we were with each other, as if helping him up the stairs sometimes was the same as him popping to the shop to buy me tampons when I needed them.

Matt

We’d got the move sorted just before Christmas, and would have loved to have had our first Christmas all to ourselves, but that was never going to happen, so we managed the morning together before we had to cross the city for Beth’s traditional festive extravaganza. She had invited approximately two million people this year, so it wasn’t just family, but it was always a happy time, lots of kids, lots of laughing, games, food, presents, and it was something to look forward to, after our quiet morning at home.

Lau and I had agreed no presents, and I had made her promise faithfully that it actually meant ‘no presents’, and not ‘but I’ll get you something anyway, and you’d better get me something or I’ll be upset’, but she assured me it meant no presents, not that we’d do it every year, just this year, and if we really wanted, we could give each other a kiss. Well that was a no-brainer, and I would have given her that anyway, but it made for a good start to the day, giving and receiving Christmas kisses, then Christmas touches, and, oh go on then, Christmas lovin’.

I made us breakfast, Lau’s favourite (Pop Tarts, I know, but they were her favourite) and mine (croissants with smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers, I know, I’m apparently a food snob), and she pinched some off my plate because really she liked good food and not processed crap, and I pinched some off her plate, because really I liked a bit of tasteless sugary shit as much as the next person. And then I gave her another Christmas present, and another and another, and it really was the best idea for a Christmas present either of us could have come up with, and then I gave her her real Christmas present, no, I hadn’t gone back on our deal, but I’d decided something and sorted it out in the last few days, and I’d saved it until today, because I thought she’d be pleased.

‘Lau, I’ve got something tuh tell yuh.’

‘Mm hmm.’

Her mouth was still full of, I’m embarrassed to recount, a bite of Pop Tart mixed with a bite of smoked salmon croissant. She chewed, swallowed, and looked at me expectantly, wrinkling her nose slightly at what I assumed was the odd mixture of flavours disappearing down her throat.

‘Yuh know we were gona have tha long weekend in York?’

She looked at me, frowning, hearing the ‘it’s not going to happen’ in my words.

‘Yeeees.’

‘We’re gona have tuh do ih another time.’

‘Oh. OK. Well, never mind. It’s not like York is going anywhere, is it?’

She looked disappointed, though, and was possibly wondering why I was telling her this on Christmas morning. I admired her self-restraint at not immediately asking why we couldn’t go, although it didn’t last long.

‘It’s not like we’ve booked it or anything.’

I saw her brows knit together slightly as she tried to work out what was preventing us from going.

‘Oh, is it the same weekend as the semi-final?’

Good guess, Lau, but incorrect. And I will now put you out of your misery.

‘Noh. Ih’s because I’m goin back tuh work on the Monday.’

‘What? Oh Matt, that’s awesome.’

The frown disappeared from her face, which lit up with pleasure for me.

‘When did you decide that?’

‘Only a couple of days ago. Wanted tuh tell you today. Jus a few hours a week tuh start wih, see how wiped I geh, buh ih’s the Monday after tha weekend, so …’

‘Oh of course, flower. We can go any time. A long weekend away isn’t what you need just before going back. Have you heard from anyone?’

She meant from work. She knew I’d missed being part of all the socialising and social networking that went on, having been in self-imposed exile from it all.

‘Noh, not yet, gona text a few people in a couple of days.’

‘Oh Matt, I’m so pleased for you. You’re nearly there, aren’t you, nearly back to where you were.’

I nodded. It was another thing ticked off that made me feel like I was getting my life back, and I was grateful to … well the universe, I suppose, for giving me this most excellent woman to have my life back with.

‘We’ll go tuh York another time, yeh?’

‘You bet. Now you’ll be earning an honest wage, you’ll be able to treat me in the manner to which I would like to become accustomed.’

‘Fuck off, weh goh Dutch or not at all.’

‘Skinflint.’

‘Gold digger.’

‘Love you.’

‘Love yuh.’

As it happened, we didn’t go to York, because as things progressed Lau didn’t want to be too far away from home, but we did have a long weekend in Bath for my birthday, a few weeks before it all kicked off, and bloody hell, considering Lau was the size of a three-bedroomed semi-detached house, we had some of the most outstanding sex so far. It was as if her hormones were going crazy, and although we did wander around the city a bit, we mostly stayed in our hotel and shagged each other senseless. I will always think fondly of Bath. But spoiler alert and all that. Pretend I didn’t mention it, yeah?

And so Christmas was had, and Beth’s praises were sung for days, and she basked in it while complaining about the amount of work she’d had to do, but oh, it was so lovely, we’ll have to do it all again next year. And then I had to get myself psyched up to go back to work.

I did this mainly by hitting the texts, and social media, letting everyone know I was back in circulation, finding it easier to answer all the bloody nosy questions via a keyboard, rather than having awkward conversations face to face on my first day back. Some of the questions were about why I’d been off, and although it was really none of anyone’s damn business, I answered them honestly, so they’d understand why I was only coming back for a couple of meetings a week and maybe an hour here or there to start with. There were a few questions about what Jules was doing now, which I couldn’t answer, and some about Lau, who Lexi had filled everyone in on after meeting her in the High Street a while ago.

I had no qualms about telling everyone how great Lau was, as a) it was true and b) it would help to lay Matt the Lad to rest once and for all. I didn’t want to see him ever again, I didn’t want to hide behind him, I wanted to be Matt Scott. People would have to do some adjusting when I got back, as I wasn’t going to be the all-out fun guy I’d been before. There would still be doughnuts and coffee, and chatting and banter, but I was going to be me, not some arsehole who didn’t respect people. And being in touch with everyone before I returned helped me to do the groundwork for that before I got there.

I hardly slept the night before my first day. It was ridiculous; I was only going in for one meeting, just a general staff meeting, I wasn’t going to have to say anything unless I wanted to and I knew nearly everyone who was going to be there. But I still tossed and turned, thinking about everything that might be said, how people might be, how it was all going to work. I was keeping Lau awake as well, moving about so much, sighing, tutting, and eventually she just pulled me to her and did this thing where she just felt me all over.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking, no, it wasn’t in any way sexual. She was just doing a check, with me, making sure I was OK everywhere, showing me I was OK everywhere. She went from my toes up to my hair, just stroking, feeling, touching, reassuring, and that’s where it started, this thing that she did. It calmed me down, and I slept afterwards, and she’s done it nearly every night of our lives after that, just letting me know that she’s there for all of me, forever, whatever. The few times she hasn’t done it, that’s when I know something’s up, that I’ve fucked up in some way, or things aren’t right, and I need to do some uncharacteristic talking to get back on track.

So I went back to work, getting on for a year after I had last been in. There were a few new faces, including the bloke who had replaced Jules, and I was kind of grateful for that, because at least there were some people who didn’t know what I was like before.

It was weird, going in for the first time, seeing Lexi sitting at reception, chatting with her kind of like I’d just been on a long holiday, then seeing everyone from my old team, but it being different because Phil had shuffled things about and I didn’t really have a team any more, not yet, then going and talking to Phil and the constant stream of interruptions from people who ‘just wanted to check’ various things, but really wanted a good gawp at the fucking cripple who had returned to the fold. Then we all filed into the big meeting room and we were off, work had begun again for me.

Shit, I was so unbelievably wiped that night. I had lost concentration in the meeting after about ten minutes; the sheer amount of information I was trying to squeeze into my brain just overloaded me. For the last several months, my big event of the day might have been taking Iz to the park, or doing an online shop, or maybe, if I was really stretching myself, both on the same day. But now I had to catch up with how things had changed, the pace of everything, the new priorities, new technology. It was daunting, tiring, terrifying. When I got home, I felt like giving up, finding a job in a supermarket or something.

‘I don’t think I can do ih, Lau.’

‘It’s your first day, Matt. Give yourself a chance.’

‘Too much has changed, I’m lef behind.’

‘You’ll get there. You need to work up to it.’

‘I’m bluhdy knackered. I’m gona beh asleep soon.’

‘Not before I’ve cooked your tea, I hope?’

‘Oh would yuh? Yuhr awesome.’

Much as I loved cooking for Lau, I just didn’t have the energy to cook in the first few weeks after returning to work, and she took over culinary duties. I loved her meals, even though I teased her about some of the recipes and ingredients she used, which were usually plain and simple. She did a quiche to die for, I could never do it the same as her, even though she told me all her secrets, which included using pre-rolled pastry.

But after a few weeks, I got used to being back in the workforce, as Lau had assured me I would; I was less tired, I could think more clearly, I settled in, I got used to everyone, and everyone got used to me. I still rolled up late, carrying a tray of doughnuts from time to time, and so maybe things weren’t that different after all.

And then it happened, the thing that changed it all, forever. I suppose you know what’s coming, don’t you, but I had no idea. Lau had no idea. We were clueless innocents, about to have our world turned upside down.

87. Sticky drama

In which there is a sad event, there is a happy event, and then there is a proposition.

Iz

Here’s another post-watershed viewing alert for all you sensitive folk. Don’t leave this page unattended in the presence of minors. Just saying. And I know there has been naughtiness that I haven’t warned you about, but Matty and Lau are always at it in some form or another, so it’s just the major bits. You’re on your own for the minor indiscretions.

Matt

It was a few weeks later, a Saturday morning, early, the sun barely up, when I woke to a familiar sensation. The significance escaped me at first, lost in the fog of waking up, but with a gasp I realised what it was. I had a hard-on. One hundred per cent completely and fully hard. It felt bloody awesome, and I needed to tell someone. Oh, someone in particular, not just throw open the window and shout to the first person unfortunate enough to be walking by; that’s the sort of behaviour that precedes a visit from the local constabulary. No, I mean Lau, as I am sure you will have surmised.

You had to be careful waking Lau up, because if you did anything too suddenly, you jolted her into instant attack mode, so you had to be gentle and slow. I didn’t feel like being gentle and slow, but I made myself slip my arm softly round her waist, concentrating on the softness of the skin I could feel beneath the bottom of her sleep shirt. Then I started with some soft kisses just where her neck met her shoulder. She liked that, it made her go ‘mm’, and her ‘mm’ was so fucking sexy.

I could feel her begin to wake up and push back against me, saying ‘hi’ with her body, and I started to feel for her breasts, pushing my hips into her. I so wanted to do something productive with this hard-on, but I was worried that if Lau didn’t get going soon, it would go away, like all the preceding tingles and semis had. I was sure Lau would be able to feel it, I was pushing myself right up against her.

Laura

I was woken from a deep sleep by an arm round my waist and kisses at the crease of my neck. This wasn’t unusual, and I’d got used enough to it that it no longer startled me into full wakefulness, but it felt early for Matt. It also felt more urgent than usual, his hands feeling for my breasts and his hips pushing into me – and there was a little bit extra.

‘Good morning.’

‘Heh Lau. I got a hard-on. Woohoo.’

I smiled to myself, incredibly pleased, but knowing I needed to be nursey. I turned over and faced him.

Matt

I immediately kissed her hard, my tongue pushing its way into her mouth, holding her face against mine, pushing myself against her belly. I was hard – did I mention that? – and I could feel her along me, and it was so, so fucking awesome.

Laura

Matt had been experiencing more and more tingles over the past weeks, often accompanied by movement, and I was hopeful it meant a return of function that may mean a diminishing of his MS symptoms. His mobility and speech had certainly improved slightly, but neither of us had mentioned it. I knew what this meant to him, but also knew I was going to have to be the one who was sensible. I didn’t feel like being sensible, I wanted this almost as much as he did. But sensible I was going to have to be.

‘Remember what we talked about?.’

I ran my hand down his body, and felt him tremble. He could hardly think, he wanted it so much.

Matt

Lau ran her hand down my body, and it made me quiver. I was strung so tight I could hardly think, and I certainly wasn’t going to be remembering anything we had talked about that might be about to deny me what I so wanted to do.

‘I want yuh, Lau. Fuck what we said. I’m rehdy.’

I looked at her imploringly, hoping she could see how much I needed it, and it would change her mind.

Laura

I’d known this would be difficult.

‘We’re going to take it slowly. Only what we can both do, remember?’

Matt

She was infuriating. I felt like I was going to burst all over us both, and I didn’t want to do that, I wanted … well, I wanted to be in her, I wanted all of her, all of it, everything I hadn’t had, hadn’t been able to do up until now.

‘Lau, I’ve goh a hard-on the size of Apollo thirteen. I can do fucking anythihg.’

‘Well, let’s start slowly.’

So that didn’t mean no, did it, it meant let’s start slowly and then do it. We’d get there. Oh but I was so impatient, it could disappear at any second. And I suppose that was the point. God I hated it when Lau was right.

Lau ran her hand over my arse and carried on down my thigh. I sighed, it felt so good, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I kissed her again, tongue thrusting deep into her mouth, trying to show her what I wanted to do, what I knew I could do. She pushed me over onto my back, kissing me back, moving her hands down my chest and – oh, she was actually going there.

I felt her hands on my swollen dick through the fabric of my boxers, and it felt so good. She ran her hand along my erection and I moaned into her, as I thrust against her hand and ohh, just that little movement caused a deluge of fizzing sparks to pour along me from the tip of my cock, down into my balls, where they bubbled, waiting.

Lau moved her hands away, and I let a disappointed sound escape from me, but it was only so she could pull my boxers down and look at me, in all my glory. And it was glorious. I’m not being immodest, I’m not commenting on size, or girth, or any of that, but just the fact of it, lying there, hard and, OK, I’m going to use the word throbbing because that’s how it felt, well that made it glorious.

Laura

We both stared down at his erection, Matt looking almost impossibly proud of himself.

‘Impressive, flower.’

Matt

Oh, you just never get tired of hearing your girl say that, do you.

‘Bluhdy awesome. Never thought I was going tuh feel tha again.’

‘I think it deserves something special.’

Lau stroked a finger along its length, as I closed my eyes and groaned.

‘Oh yeh, Lau. Dohnt stop.’

Everything was heightened; even the slightest touch was driving me wild, and Lau was giving it her all. She kissed me quickly on the lips, then started kissing down my throat, stopping at my nipples to suck and tease, then continuing her journey downwards, and I could finally see where this was going.

Oh, Lau, you are just the best.

She carried on, past my navel and finally got to the head of my dick, where she licked and kissed it gently, taking just the head into her mouth, holding the base with her fingers. She was not a novice, and I held my breath as her tongue and lips ignited even more of the sparking desire.

‘Oh my fucking God, Lau, you’ve dohn this before.’

‘Mmm.’

The vibration of her voice as she held me in her mouth sent a shock wave through me and I couldn’t help thrusting upwards, which made her gag. She pulled away briefly, coughing a bit.

‘Oh fuck, sohry Lau. That was bluhdy ace.’

Lau didn’t say anything, but repositioned herself and licked me from base to tip, looking me in the eye the whole time, then took me in her mouth again, tongue working over the surface, sucking, licking and teasing.

Then, to my extreme disappointment, I felt it all start to ebb, the sparks and fizzing subsided and flowed away, and I went soft. I groaned again, but this time in frustration. Lau didn’t stop, though, and I loved her for showing me that a hard-on wasn’t the be all and end all for her, that she could give me pleasure without it. But eventually I just wanted to hold her, and I put my fingers in her hair and tugged gently to bring her back up into my arms. Lau had been spot on; I wouldn’t have lasted long enough for what I wanted to do.

‘Yuh are bluhdy annoyingly righ most of the time, Lau. How did yuh knoh?’

‘State secret. Only me and MI5 are allowed to know.’

‘Really? I bet ih’d be easier to get ih out of Stella Rimington than you. Oh, buh Lau, I had a hard-on. A real live hard-on. You were sucking me off an everything. Whoa.’

I pulled her to me, and then felt the emotion welling up in me. I was safe with Lau, I could be myself, show her how I was feeling, and I felt like crying. Having a hard-on was huge (emotionally, I’m still not giving details about the physical), and I needed to let it out.

Laura

He pulled me into a tight hug. I felt his body convulse, as he started to cry, and I held him tightly, stroking his hair, kissing the bits I could reach, shushing him. This sounds cheesy, but I really did feel so privileged that he felt he could cry with me, that I was his safe place. After a while, it subsided, and he relaxed his hold on me, pulling his head back and looking into my eyes.

Matt

‘Sohry, Lau. I thought tha was never gona happen again. I’m so relieved. You know … I feel like … I’ve been a bit better the last couple of weeks. Have yuh noticed?’

I hadn’t mentioned it before; had been scared to, in case it was nothing, or I was misreading things. But she nodded.

‘I didn’t want to say anything. Have you talked to Anna about it?’

So it wasn’t just my imagination; I could dare to dream this nightmare might be coming to an end.

‘No, seeing her Monday, though. Migh tell her about my hard-on.’

It was a significant enough event to tell Anna, but even though there was this pact of silence between them all, it wasn’t information I was going to risk being discussed at Lau’s work. And really, I was just trying to wind Lau up.

‘If you feel you must.’

‘Ih’s very important.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Will I hahv any more any time soon?’

‘Who knows? Does it feel likely?’

‘Oh, I hate ih when yuh do tha reflecting back shit. OK, I’ll play ih your way. Ih feels to me like I’ve been getting more tingles and more movement, and now, finally, I’ve got the big one. Ih didn’t last long, buh, yeh, ih feels likely.’

‘Good.’

‘An now, Laura Louise Shoeman, ih’s time tuh fulfil my side of the bargain.’

‘What side of which bargain?’

‘The bargain tha says you only geh what I geh. An I just got one hell of a blow-job. On yuhr back.’

I had been waiting for weeks for a chance to do this again, but Lau had stuck to her ‘above the waist for both of us’ guns, in the main. Now, however, it seemed that she had been waiting as eagerly as I had, as she rolled onto her back and spread her legs.

‘Whoa, you’re ready, aren’t yuh.’

‘Like you wouldn’t believe. I remember the last one. This one had better be as awesome.’

And I guess that was the start of it, the big recovery. It took longer than before, and the bastard MS had lasted longer than before, even though I hadn’t had a life-threatening complication to create mischief with my ability to be a normal person. But once I started to get better, once it all began to piss off from whence it came, it was like it just rolled away, and every week I could do more. I could go a whole day without falling asleep, I could talk without people surreptitiously smelling my breath for hints of beer, I could get up the stairs to my flat without having to hold on to the rail for dear life and above all, the best thing, I could make love to Lau.

I don’t usually call it ‘making love’, it seems like a poncey metaphor for sex. But with Lau, although my increasingly frequent hard-ons hadn’t yet made it to shaggable timescales, we could do enough with each other that it really did feel like we were getting closer, showing each other how much we loved each other.

Oh, I know I seem like I’m completely obsessed with sex, as if I was, oh I don’t know, an unstoppable shag monster or something. I guess I did, do, think about it a lot, but at that time it was my marker for how much of a fucking cripple I was, and when I started getting it back, I felt like I was getting me back.

Lau had warned me that things might change between her and me, the balance of things might shift, when I started getting better, but she was so considerate, so thoughtful, so bloody stubborn, that it didn’t happen.

It wasn’t as if when we met she decided I needed taking care of; if she had, we wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. She did, and does, take care of me, but I like to think I’ve done my share of taking care of her over the years, OK, maybe not equally, she is Lau, and she is remarkably fucking amazing, after all. But there was never an imbalance, at the start, that had to be redressed when I started needing less help, and so, to go back to my original point, when we were in bed together, or on the sofa, or the floor, or against the wall, it really felt like we were making love, like this thing between us was growing even deeper, even more incredible.

It wasn’t just having a working dick that improved. Being able to stay awake and functional for longer periods meant that I could start to do things I did before, and had been missing a lot.

I took Cal to see Raiders, which he was delighted about as it meant he no longer had to sit with the juniors, but could lord it over his mates by sitting in the family seats.

I started to feel like I might be able to handle work again, and contacted Phil to talk about the next step there.

I got out and about, not driving yet, not trusting my wayward nervous system; nearly running that bloke over on the zebra crossing had really put the wind up me, and I thought it might be a long time before I was willing to risk it. However, I tried a bit of non-strenuous hiking with Lau, which nearly killed her and proved to me that as unfit as I thought I had become with my enforced immobility, she really was at the nadir of fitness, despite being a healthy woman without a fucking bastard neurological disease. It cheered me up no end to see her red-faced and sweating after climbing a fairly moderate hill, and I decided we could embrace our fitness levels together. Lau wasn’t keen but agreed, only if I went with her to see Michael Buble.

It was a close thing, I nearly refused, but it was a one off and I made her promise no one would find out or it was deal off. She kept the promise until the day after, when she posted photos all over Facebook, and my shame was known. That meant several steeper hills for Lau, but she was unrepentant.

Lau and Mum were like co-conspirators. Lau would often come with me when I went to see Mum and not only because I needed her to drive me there; I was more than capable of getting the bus. She even went round without me, to do odd bits and pieces that she knew Mum couldn’t do so well herself but wouldn’t ask anyone, like some of the ironing that she noticed had got a bit out of hand, or taking a few bits of shopping that Mum had mentioned she hadn’t been able to get. They must have talked about me when I wasn’t there, because I would often be on the receiving end of the odd comment from Lau.

‘So tell me about your Star Wars collection, then.’

‘I don’t have a Star Wars collection.’

‘No, not now, but apparently you had an extensive one when you were younger, and used to polish the boxes once a week.’

This was said with an impish smile and a tilt of the head.

‘I did not pohlish the boxes.’

‘Really?’

‘Noh. I dusted the boxes.’

‘Ah. Huge difference. What happened to them all, though?’

Martin kicked them into tiny pieces, that’s what happened to them. I had stopped mourning them a long time ago.

‘Why, would yuh like me tuh rekindle my interest?’

‘Well of course that’s up to you. But I always wanted to know why you guys keep things in boxes. Aren’t they easier to play with out of the box?’

‘Lau, Lau, Lau. Yuh don’t know anything, do yuh? Yuh don’t play with Star Wars collectables. Yuh just … collect them.’

‘Why?’

‘Same way yuh collect shoes.’

‘I wear my shoes.’

‘Noh yuh don’t, not all of them. I’ve seen shoes in boxes in yuhr wardrobe you’ve never worn.’

This was a complete guess but, from the outraged look on her face, an accurate one.

‘You’ve been rifling through my wardrobe?’

‘Ha ha, noh Lau, but yuh jus told meh it’s true.’

‘Oh you.’

I got a cuff on the arm, and was starting to build up quite a collection of those, too. Lau was deliciously easy to tease; she always believed me when I said something the first time, and sometimes I could lead her down the garden path for quite a while before she cottoned on. The further I led her, the harder the cuff, and rightly so.

Although the rugby season was well underway, there was still the occasional full-on Sunday lunch at Jay and Beth’s when circumstances prevailed, and Lau and I were regulars whatever the guest list. When I was with Jules, I hadn’t always gone, and when I had, I’d often gone on my own, to a barrage of questions. I loved going with Lau, who got on with everyone, who everyone liked and, more importantly, now trusted.

To start with there had been a bit of an unspoken kind of trial period, where people were wondering if she was up to something untoward, or if I was being foolishly impetuous, but Lau won them over, and once she’d met everyone a few times, I think they could see that although it had been quick, it was real; that although we were still getting to know each other, there was something deep there.

It really felt like, although we had jumped into this mad thing that was Lau and Matt with both feet, declared deep feelings inconceivably early, and then got to know each other properly, that whatever we’d found out, whatever had been revealed, it wouldn’t have mattered.

That’s the thing with soulmates, it’s the recognition. And although I didn’t change my stance on supernatural, paranormal or religious experiences, I did notice my opinions towards things like ‘karma’ changing, and I was less likely to take the piss out of people who stated that ‘the universe’ knew what it was doing. Maybe I was starting to believe that; not that there was a supreme being with a plan for us all, I didn’t believe that, but that somehow, maybe it was Jung’s collective unconscious, things happened for a reason, that there is a person shaped hole inside all of us, and sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we meet the person who fits it.

That’s how it felt with Lau. She fitted the space inside me, and I fitted her space, and getting to know each other after that was just the icing on the cake, rather than the list of pros and cons that led to a decision. The decision had already been made, and we were just filling it out with details.

We were certainly very different, in outlook, personality and tastes. It didn’t cause arguments, although it caused teasing, because it just felt like more to explore about each other. If we’d been the same, we would have had less to talk about, but as it was, we hardly seemed to stop talking.

Laura

As the weeks went on, things steadily improved for Matt. His mobility and speech continued to get better, and his energy levels increased. He began to have more erections, which were more sustained, and although he was hard to hold back, he seemed to accept going slowly. He was better at saying when he was getting tired, too, and the aftermath of Sunday lunch was less of an ordeal. He started to talk about going back to work, and had an appointment with his firm’s occupational health advisers. I understood that his contract had always been flexible to take into account possible health fluctuations; he was really lucky, he would be able to slot back in as and when he was able to.

Matt and Mum got on like a house on fire. She even let the odd swear word pass without comment, especially if Matt was apologetic enough afterwards and made out he hardly ever used bad language. Mum wasn’t an idiot, and had would have had enough conversations with Carol by now to know what was what, but seemed to appreciate an effort was being made.

I loved being part of Matt’s family. The Sunday gatherings weren’t usually as full-on as that first one had been, and we didn’t always go, but I was beginning to feel like I belonged. Matt and I had also looked after all of the children together, at various times, and I loved being with them all. Bastien was tiny and cute, Charlie was just developing her own wilful personality, Iz was a bundle of energy demanding constant attention and entertainment, and Cal was a teenager-in-waiting, one minute whining and complaining, and the next playing silly games with us. We had been out several times with Dec and Amy. They were younger than Matt and me, but they were very easy company, and Amy and I had struck up a friendship.

Work had settled down a bit after the falling out with Rachel. We still didn’t really talk much, but she didn’t completely ignore me, and the team balance had righted itself. It was hard not to ask Anna what was going on with Matt. I knew he told me most of it, but also knew he needed to keep some things to himself, to have a part of him that was just his. I never pressed either of them for information, and knew that Matt would tell me the important stuff, and Anna wouldn’t tell me anything. Occasionally I’d come into the office and the conversation would stop dead, and I’d know that they’d been talking about Matt, either professionally or having a good gossip. It made me feel a bit outside of things, but it was a small price to pay.

Matt and I started to talk in very general terms about moving in together. I spent most of my evenings and nights at his flat, and hardly spent any time in my house, except to grab clothes every now and then. It seemed a bit of a waste, but part of me was reluctant to give up my house. It was the first house that was mine – or partly mine, mostly the bank’s – and I was attached to it; I had put down a deposit with money my dad left me after he died. But Matt and I were starting to feel permanent, and it was going to have to go eventually. His flat was much nicer, and it made sense. We hadn’t made any decisions, just floated the idea, and as neither of us had freaked out, it seemed like it was going to happen one day.

Matt

It wasn’t long before it became apparent that it would be more sensible to live together. We didn’t even talk about it, as in one of us bringing the subject up in some kind of momentous way, and I can’t remember which one of us dropped it into the conversation first, but it would go something like this:

‘I’m just popping home to get that CD.’

‘Bollocks, weh forgot. Sorry, meant tuh remind yuh.’

‘I need to pick up my post anyway.’

‘Don’t forget yuhr jumper.’

‘Oh yeah. God, it’ll be so much easier when we’re both in one place.’

Me: So not freaking out.

Or

‘I rehly like yuhr house, why don’t we come here more often?’

‘Because it’s easier for me to just flop at yours after work than drive back over here and worry about you getting home the next day. Your place is nicer, too.’

‘Buh you’re paying bills fuh shit you’re not using.’

‘Yeah, but it’s only the fridge-freezer really.’

‘Wha abouh water, an council tax, and mortgage? Be easier if we jus shared everything, all in one place.’

‘I know, flower. We should think about it, shouldn’t we.’

Me: Still not freaking out, and I’d been the one to bring it up.

But we didn’t get round to it, not for a while, and in the meantime, I recovered a lot, started walking and talking almost like a normal person, picked up babies without being worried I was going to drop them on their heads, and started staying up late. Sometimes it was ten thirty before I went to bed, and I could still give Lau a bloody good feel up before I went to sleep. I was a human miracle.

So summer became autumn, and I was well and truly on my feet. Still bloody knackered if I overdid it, but was getting better at judging it, and didn’t crash like I used to, just got weary and needed to sleep it off.

I’d been to talk to work’s Occupational Health woman, and we’d wondered about me going back after Christmas, a few hours a week only, to see how it went. It was a major boost to my confidence, as I’d been off work for eight months already, and needed to be earning my keep and paying my way.

I’d been to watch Raiders with Cal a few times, which was another thing that increased my self-esteem. Cal could be a pretty grouchy kid at times, but the look on his face when I offered to take him for the first time in months, how pleased he was, well it meant a lot to me.

One Saturday in November, I’d left Lau at my flat for the afternoon, as she had declined to come with us, being a complete sporting duffer; I caught the bus over to Jay’s place to collect Cal. I knew he liked it better when we parked in the official Raiders car park, where the players parked, where Jay could get us a pass to park, but until I was up to driving, it was the bus for us.

I quite liked going by bus, as we travelled with other supporters, and walked into the ground with other supporters, and had conversations with them without them knowing who we were, as if we were normal fans rather than family of Jay Scott, and I kind of wanted Cal to get that too, that although he enjoyed the privileged position of being son of the coach, there was a lot to be said for just enjoying watching as a civilian.

We’d been to the club shop to get a car sticker, bought pasties and chips once we got through the turnstiles, taken our seats, read the programme, watched the players warm up and joined in the cheering contest when I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket.

Laura

Matt had taken Cal to the rugby and I was at Matt’s flat, thinking about making something for dinner, when my phone rang. It was Amy.

‘Hi flower.’

‘Lau, sorry, I’ve tried to get hold of Beth but her phone’s off. Is there any way you could have Charlie for a bit?’

She sounded upset.

‘Of course. What’s happened?’

‘My … dad’s … they’ve just …’ her words turned to sobs.

‘Oh Amy. I’ll be right there.’

I grabbed my bag and ran down to my car, driving across the city as fast as I could. I knew Amy had an uneasy relationship with her dad; he hadn’t approved of her and Dec not being married when they had Charlie, and had been less than impressed when they announced they were expecting another baby soon after she was born.

When I arrived outside Dec and Amy’s house, she was waiting at the door, coat on, car keys in hand. Her face was puffy and her eyes were red.

‘Oh Amy, what’s happened?’

‘Dad’s in hospital, he’s collapsed, they don’t think …’ she started to cry again.

‘Oh flower, you can’t drive like this. Let me take you. Is the car seat in your car?’

She nodded. I took the keys from her and got the seat out of the car, then quickly put it in mine while she got Charlie. Ten minutes or so later we were outside the hospital.

‘You go in, I’ll take Charlie to Matt’s. We’ve got some of her things there. Has she had her lunch?’

‘Yeah, she’s fed and changed. Lau, can you make sure Dec knows? He’ll come and pick her up later, after the game. Oh, and Beth, if you can get hold of her.’

‘Of course. Will you be OK on your own?’

She nodded, more tears rolling down her face.

‘Mum’s there, we’ll be OK. Thanks Lau.’

I took her hand briefly, then she got out and I drove away.

When I got to Matt’s flat with Charlie, I texted Dec, although I knew his phone would be off this close to the start of a game. I called Matt, unsure if he would hear the ringer.

Matt

I took my phone out, expecting to hit ‘decline’, but it was Lau. She wouldn’t be calling unless it was important, and a tiny shiver of worry went through me.

‘Heh, Lau. Changed your mind? Bet you wish you were here now.’

‘No. Matt, Amy’s dad’s in hospital. I’ve brought Charlie here.’

‘Shit. Is he OK?’

‘Well, no, he’s in hospital. Amy didn’t know much. She wanted me to tell Dec, and I’ve sent a text, but can you find him after the game? Charlie’s fine here, isn’t she, we’ve got loads of her stuff, nappies and things, from before.’

‘Yeh, you know where ih is, don’t you?’

‘Yeah, I’ve found it all.’

‘Do you want me to come back?’

I knew she’d be perfectly alright on her own with Charlie, they always had a great time together, but it would be a few hours before I was home if I stayed until the end of the game, and she was going to be with someone else’s baby in someone else’s home.

Laura

Truthfully, I would have liked Matt to come back, but he loved taking Cal to watch the rugby, and I knew Cal would be upset to miss it, especially as they were already there.

‘No, I’ll be fine, Charlie’s no trouble. Don’t disappoint Cal, it’s the first time you’ve taken him for ages. I’ll ring Beth.’

Matt

I was relieved, as Cal really would not have enjoyed having to leave before kick-off, but it was going to be hard to concentrate on the game while I was worrying about Amy.

‘Thanks Lau. Let me know if yuh hear anything.’

‘OK. See you later.’

I disconnected and turned the ringer up to full volume. Cal was looking at me, scowling.

‘Why have we got to go?’

‘Weh haven’t mate, but I’m keeping an ear out for my phone. Amy’s dad’s not well an Lau’s got tuh look after Charlie.’

Cal’s face took on the appeased expression of someone who had been about to have a major strop but had heard good news at the last minute. He didn’t know Amy’s dad, and he was only just about to turn eleven, so he didn’t really care about the status of some stranger’s health.

‘So we’re staying here.’

He needed to double check I wasn’t going to whisk him away. I was fairly sure I wouldn’t have to.

‘Yeh, Cal. Lau wants us to find Dec after the game so weh can tell him. His phone’s off.’

That cheered Cal up. Usually I made him wait for the players to come up to the supporters’ bar, like everyone else had to, but if we were going to have to look for Dec straight after the game, it meant going past the stewards and the kudos that entailed.

Laura

I called Beth.

‘Hello Laura. How are you?’

‘Hi Beth. I don’t know if you’ve picked up Amy’s messages?’

‘No, I’ve only just turned my phone on, it’s been charging.’

‘She was trying to get hold of you. Her dad’s been taken into hospital. I’m looking after Charlie here at Matt’s. She just wanted you to know.’

‘Oh no, poor Amy. Is she OK?’

‘No, she was in a bit of a state. But her mum was there already, they can look after each other.’

‘What happened to her dad?’

‘She didn’t really know much, but he collapsed at home and she thought it didn’t sound good.’

‘Ohh.’ There was a silence. It wasn’t that long since Beth’s dad had died, and although she seemed fine in her own brisk Beth way, it would be natural if situations like this brought up strong emotions. I heard Beth take a breath and imagined her straightening herself up and shaking away whatever thoughts had momentarily frozen her. ‘I don’t suppose she’s been able to get hold of Dec.’

‘I’ve asked Matt to find him after the game.’

‘I’ll leave a message for James and get him to call me later. Bloody rugby – the whole world stops while it goes on. Thank you, sweetheart. Do you need any help with Charlie?’

I noticed the ‘bloody’ which was unusual for Beth and told me how upset she was, and the ‘sweetheart’, which was reserved for family, and felt a secret flush of pleasure.

‘No, I’m fine, we’ve got everything we need here. It’s only for a few hours.’

Matt

The game was exciting, as Raiders games usually were, but even more exciting was feeling my jeans fill with a swelling hard-on half way through the first half. I mean, inconvenient or what, but it felt awesome. I covered it up with the match programme and tried to think Anne Widecombe thoughts, but it didn’t go away until nearly the end of half time. It was the best one yet, and I was convinced that the next one would be the one that would kick-start Matt Scott Superstud into his new one-woman-only phase. Eventually it subsided and I could stop feeling so conspicuous, but I looked forward to being with Lau that evening so we could try to coax it back.

What with that and thinking about having to find Dec afterwards to impart some unhappy tidings, I wasn’t really concentrating on the match, but it went on without my full attention anyway.

The game ended, with a Raiders win by one point, and we headed off as soon as the final whistle went to find Dec, who would still be in the changing room having the team de-briefing. We made our way past several stewards and security people, most of them recognising Cal as Jay’s son, some of them recognising me as Jay’s brother, and were escorted to the door of the changing room by Bill, the Head Steward, who greeted Cal like a mate.

‘Cal! Haven’t seen you for ages. Still playing on the wing for the juniors?’

‘Yep.’

‘Scored any tries recently?’

‘I got one in training last week.’

‘Good lad. Right, I’ll just give them a knock, might take a while to answer, Mr Barker usually likes to have a bit of a chat after the game.’

He tapped on the door, and we waited.

‘I only knock once. They know I’m here, but you can’t interrupt Mr Barker. They’ll answer in good time.’

From what I knew of Don Barker, who I’d met a few times, the worst you’d get would be a raised eyebrow if you did interrupt, but sometimes that kind of low-key approach earned you more respect than a bollocking. It wasn’t long before the door was opened by one of the conditioning coaches.

‘Alright, Bill?’

‘These two gentlemen need to speak to Mr Summers.’

The coach looked at me blankly, then at Cal, and recognised him.

‘Oh, hey Cal. Shall I get your dad?’

I spoke before he could shut the door.

‘Actually, could yuh get Dec, please? Amy’s been trying to get hold of him, ih’s pretty urgent.’

I became more important to him as he realised I knew Dec, and Bill the security guard and Cal gave me added authority.

‘Oh, OK mate, I’ll get him.

The door closed, and Cal and I stood looking at Bill for a few moments before it opened again, to reveal Dec. He was already changed, was carrying his kit bag and was putting his phone in his pocket. He looked pale.

‘Hey Matt. Alright, Cal?’

‘Dec, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Amy’s been trying to get hold of yuh.’

‘Yeah, I know, Beth left messages, and I’ve just called. I’m going there now.’

‘How are things?’

‘Not sure. Better go, mate.’

I patted him on the shoulder and he started to walk off, then turned round and spoke as he walked backwards down the corridor.

‘Oh, Ames said Lau’s got Charlie at your place?’

I nodded.

‘I’ll come and get her later.’

‘OK. We can have her all nigh if you need ih.’

He nodded.

‘OK. Here’s the key in case you need any of her stuff.’

Dec pulled a key off his key ring and tossed it to me, and I was impressed with myself when I caught it.

‘Cheers mate. Appreciated.’

He turned and jogged away down the corridor.

The door opened again, and Jay stood there.

‘Hey Matty.’

Jay put his hand on Cal’s head and ruffled his hair.

‘Sorry tuh interrupt your debrief, buh I was supposed to tell Dec about Amy’s dad.’

‘Yeah, sorry, Beth left me about twenty messages on my phone, and also contacted everyone she could think of at the club. I’m surprised she didn’t get it announced over the tannoy – ‘Would Mr Declan Summers please report to the ticket office where he has an urgent message’, just as he was about to score or something.’

‘Yeh, we jus saw him. He looked a bit shocked.’

‘Thanks anyway, Matty. Cal, do you want to come home with me?’

He did, of course, because that meant spending time with the players that his mates didn’t. He was probably going to be allowed in the changing room now.

‘S’pose.’

But there was no way he was going to appear enthusiastic about it.

‘If you want to hang around, I’ll drop you home too, Matty.’

‘No, tha’s OK, I’ll get the bus. Lau’s looking after Charlie, I should make sure she’s alright.’

‘Thanks for bringing Cal today. What do you say, Cal?’

Cal rolled his eyes, hating to be reminded of his manners like a small child.

‘Thanks Matty.’

He mumbled as incoherently as he could get away with and didn’t look me in the eyes. Luckily I was a similarly ungrateful bastard in my turn, so knew that he appreciated it really.

‘Noh problem Cal. Chips an pasty on you nex time?’

He grinned, and his whole face changed, in that mercurial way that kids have from the age of ten to about, oh, thirty-five in my case.

I caught a bus from the stadium, frustrated by the length of the queue I had to wait in, and finally got home about six, having texted Lau to say I was on my way. It would be so much easier if I drove, things like emergencies would be a lot more manageable and I wouldn’t have to rely on the quirky bus routes that ran through the city. Maybe I should just do it; I hadn’t had a spasm for ages.

I opened the door to the flat and peered into the living room. Lau was sitting on the sofa, with Charlie asleep next to her.

‘Hey Lau. How’s ih been?’

‘Fine, she’s been asleep for the last hour or so. Any word from Amy?’

‘No. I managed to find Dec, but Beth had already called Jay and got him tuh pass the message on. He went straight there, he said he’ll come and geh Charlie as soon as he can. I said we can have her for the nigh if we need to. I’ve got their key, we can go and pick stuff up.’

‘Of course.’

‘Hey, beautiful, how’s the sleepy girl? Have you behaved fuh Lau?’

I bent over her, all tucked up on the sofa, and softly kissed her forehead. She stirred and moved her arms, but didn’t wake up. I looked at Lau and smiled.

‘She’s soh cute when she’s asleep.’

‘I know. Shame they have to wake up sometimes.’

It was what people always said, but I knew Lau loved kids and could entertain them endlessly.

‘You don’t mean tha.’

I wagged a finger at her, our mutual desire for children one of the unspoken constant connections between us.

‘No, I don’t.’

She grinned mischievously.

‘Do you want some dinner? Or did you have pasty and chips again?’

‘I had pasty an chips, kind of a ritual, buh how about dinner now? I’m starving.’

And I loved cooking for Lau, especially when she’d done something awesome for my mate.

‘OK, but I haven’t made anything.’

‘I’ll do some pasta. Chicken, tomatoes, mushrooms?’

As I suggested it, I started getting things together, ingredients from the fridge and the cupboards, pans, spoons.

‘Mm, sounds yummy. Oh, did they win?’

‘Wha?’

I’d nearly forgotten where I’d been.

‘Oh, Raiders, yeah. Dec scored a try, so Cal was pleased. He likes showing off tuh his mates. I was thinking about yuh all game.’

‘Yeah, right, and not thinking about thirty hefty blokes beating each other to pieces at all.’

I grinned at her.

‘No, jus you. Got another boner. Had to let ih go, though. Match programme not big enough to hide it.’

‘You’re on top form this week, flower.’

She was right. If we’d been counting, that would have been six. Not that we were counting. Maybe I was. Lau might have been. We didn’t have a chart or anything, though. That would just have been sad. Perhaps there was a kind of a chart in my head. Just a little one.

‘I know. Yuh never know, might come back later. Next time, Lau –’

I pointed at her, using the knife I was holding, but only in a gesticulating way, and not intended to threaten,

‘– I’m having my own way. No more of this waiting bollocks. Yuhr having a good Scottying, like ih or not.’

Lau raised her eyebrows at me, but didn’t say anything. I wondered if she thought it was time, too. To be honest, I wasn’t taking no for an answer any more. I’d been patient and sensible, listened to my body rather than just my libido, and I knew I was ready. Really ready, rather than just eager. Bloody eager, though. Bloody, bloody eager.

Laura

Being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I could wait any longer either. There was only so long I could be sensible and nursey before Lusty Lau took over.

Matt

Dinner didn’t take long to make, and just as we finished loading the dishwasher, Charlie woke up. Immediately after she started crying, the door buzzer went, and it was Dec, still looking pale, with added stressed and unhappy on top.

‘Hey mate. How’s it going?’

‘Ames’ dad died.’

He looked haunted, and I could only imagine the memories it was bringing back for him.

‘Oh no. Shit. Sorry. How is she?’

‘Broken. Just in bits. I hate seeing her like that. Hey Lau.’

He looked at Lau, and then at Charlie, who Lau was holding and trying to shush.

‘Hey lovely girl.’

Charlie’s tears stopped when Dec spoke to her, and she held out her arms to him. Dec took her and held her close, looking near to tears himself.

‘Poor Amy. Where is she now?’

‘I took her home, Diane’s going to stay with us for a bit.’

‘Bad luck, mate.’

I knew Dec didn’t think much of Amy’s mum, but they got on better than they used to.

‘Yeah, well, she’s a bit hard going sometimes, but she can’t go home at the moment. I might have to go over and clear up. Apparently he keeled over in the kitchen, hit his head, made a bit of a mess.’

‘We’ll help. Leh us know. Lau’s good with blood.’

It felt good to be able to offer to help someone out for a change.

‘Actually, mate, that’d be great. Wasn’t looking forward to being there on my own. I was going to go over tomorrow morning, get some things for Diane. Thanks. Oh fuck.’

I saw Dec’s face crumple, and he sat down suddenly as tears rolled down his face.

‘Sorry, I don’t know why it’s upset me so much. I should be over all this by now, it just brings it all back. I didn’t even like Jack, he was a wanker who made Ames’ life a misery. She’s so cut up though. Sorry, Charlie-girl, shouldn’t talk about your grampa like that.’

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Things like this were always going to affect Dec, I imagined. Losing both your parents when you’re thirteen isn’t something you are ever likely to forget, or get over, or recover from, even though Dec was just about as sorted a bloke as you could hope to meet. There were always going to be times like this when it felt so close to what happened to him that it tore at him again. And when something hurts the woman you love, it hurts you too. I sat next to Dec and put an arm round his shoulders.

‘Ah mate, ih’s always gona be there for you. Shit like this will always bring stuff back. Look at us – four people, only one dad between us. Life’s a bitch. Make the mos of him, beautiful.’

I unhooked my arm from around Dec and stroked Charlie’s forehead. Dec straightened, nodded and took a deep breath.

‘Got to pull myself together, can’t do this in front of Ames. Thanks mate. Are you sure you’re both OK for tomorrow morning?’

Lau and I both nodded.

‘Probably the earlier the better. Ten OK?’

‘Fine. We’ll meet you there.’

It would be a miracle if Dec managed to get out of the house before eleven, let alone across the city by ten, but I suppose this could be deemed to be an exceptional circumstance. Dec stood up, hoisting Charlie onto his shoulder and wiping his eyes.

‘Come on then lovely girl, let’s go and cheer Mummy up. Bye Matt, bye Lau.’

I saw him to the door, closed it behind him and turned to Lau, noticing as I did so how sad she looked, and I remembered her dad with a mental kick to myself. Possibly the last thing she needed to be doing was clearing up after Jack Wright, especially considering everything I had just been thinking about past events never really leaving you.

‘Oh, Lau. I didn’t think about your dad. Are yuh OK?’

She nodded, and I saw that she was upset, but she’d managed to put it away in that place she had where she could put shit like this. It was something to do with her work; she had to detach herself from everyone’s sadness so she could do her job without breaking down every five minutes, and she got good support at work to help her deal with it. She was pretty up front about confronting her own shit, and I knew if she felt she needed to talk about it she would do, either with me or someone else she could confide in.

Laura

I was obviously upset for Amy, and seeing Dec lose it a bit was emotional, but I dealt with difficult emotions every day at work, and had learned how to portion parts of me off so it didn’t affect me too much.

‘It is very similar to what happened with Dad, but I’m OK.’

Matt joined me on the sofa, putting an arm over my shoulder and pulling me close.

Matt

‘Will you be alright tuh go tomorrow morning? I can go on my own if you want.’

‘No, it’ll be fine. I think Dec will need people there, if only so we can strong arm him out of the room if it gets too much for him.’

‘Ha ha, I’d like to see tha. I think it’d take more than me an you tuh beat Dec in a fight. You haven’t seen him on a rugby pitch, have you. He’s an animal.’

‘You haven’t seen me in a fight, either. It could be a close thing.’

Thinking about it, I wasn’t sure who I would back in a fight between Dec and Lau. It would depend how much chocolate was at stake, and what the rules were about high tackles.

‘Now I’m scared. Don’t you an Dec gang up on meh, now. I’m just a fucking cripple.’

‘Matt …’

Lau sounded exasperated. I couldn’t get her to see why I called myself a fucking cripple, because I couldn’t explain it properly to myself. It was something to do with calling it as I saw it, something to do with getting my retaliation in first, something to do with wanting people to correct me, something to do with me and Dec all those years ago when he was a bloody nutter too, and maybe lots of other somethings I couldn’t define. Lau constantly tried to stop me doing it, especially now I was getting better. She thought it stopped me thinking of myself as normal, but it was just something I did, and until I felt ‘better’, whatever that felt like, I wasn’t going to stop.

Laura

I couldn’t stop him referring to himself as a cripple, even though he was getting better. He’d told me it was a kind of self-deprecating nickname he and Dec had come up with the first time he was ill, with Dec being labelled a nutter on account of emotional difficulties he was having, but I thought it just carried on the thought that he wasn’t ‘normal’, whether it was a joke or not.

Matt

‘OK, OK, I’m jus a skinny streak of nothing. Better?’

Although sometimes I was going to compromise.

‘Better, and truer. But a skinny streak of nothing with a lovely bum.’

‘Ooh, Lau. Know wha, for that, you can have a feel.’

I stood up and waggled said lovely bum in her face. Before I knew it, she grabbed me and bit me on the arse, through my trousers. I gasped as I felt my dick swell.

‘Lau – you did ih.’

I turned round and proudly showed her the bulge in my jeans.

‘It’s Scotty time. Come on.’

Iz

Just a quick warning. You know the score by now.

Matt

There was to be no hanging around, this needed doing, and it needed doing now. I grabbed Lau’s hand and pulled her to her feet, pausing only to guide her hand to the bulge, just so she could feel how hard it was. Yeah, I was pretty pleased with it.

‘Tha’s not going anywhere, anytime soon.’

‘It’d better not.’

Whoa, so she was as up for it as I was, which just made me harder. I pulled her with me to the bedroom and started pulling her clothes off, hardly pausing to kiss her, heading straight for her breasts with my mouth. I really only had one goal, but I didn’t want to appear impolite. Lau pulled my shirt off and undid my belt, letting my trousers drop to the floor. My dick was tenting the front of my boxers, and I pushed it urgently against her.

‘I’m not gona last long, Lau. I mean, yeah, I am, but not before I pop.’

I was going to come as soon as a very low threshold was reached, and I wanted to be inside her when I did. Lau pulled my mouth onto hers with one hand and pushed my boxers down with the other, then cupped my arse cheeks in both hands, using them to pull me against her. I pushed her knickers down her thighs and turned her to the bed, pushing her onto her back, possibly none too gently. Lau reached up and pulled me down on top of her, kissing any part of my body that passed her mouth. My hands were everywhere, grabbing, stroking, gripping, but I had only one destination.

I pulled her knickers off completely and pushed her legs apart, kneeling between them, gripping my dick in one hand and guiding it into her. Ohh how easily I glided in, how agonisingly, excruciatingly, exquisitely she slid against me, fuck how I wanted this woman, wanted to claim her, wanted to be the best she’d ever had. Lau moaned, a sound that seemed borne of almost as much longing as I felt in me.

‘Fuck me, you’re so wet, Lau.’

‘I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Ohh that’s amazing.’

I couldn’t wait any longer, and started to thrust, feeling the slippery friction as I pushed all the way into her, hard and fast, the velvet smooth of her setting fire to the hard planes of me as if I were doused in petrol; there was to be no going slowly, this was destined to be a short, fast journey.

I was grunting with the effort, and groaning with need and longing, and I could feel the finish line approaching fast as my balls started to fizz. Lau clenched me from inside, and it felt like my cock doubled in size, too, and I shouted out again, even as I felt her wrap her legs round my back, pulling me further and deeper into her. I sped up, until my world was a blur of my dick moving against the inside of Lau, the sliding, the quivering, the slap of me against her, the rise and fall of us, the in and out, and I was shouting but I didn’t know what I was saying.

‘Fuck, Lau, yeah, tha, unh, yeah, yeah, ohh, fuck, fuck, cuh, I’m, ple – oh Lau, angel!’

And then suddenly I was there. It all exploded from my balls up through the base of my cock to the very end, and I thrust up into Lau as far as I could, and stayed there while paradise erupted around me. I remained motionless, pushed up on my hands, eyes closed, a roar in my ears which could have been the blood in my veins, the shout from my throat or the universe coming back into alignment, while I emptied myself into her, each shudder causing shock-waves through my world.

Then I opened my eyes, and looked down at Lau in wonder at this woman who had given it back to me, and in the most spectacular way. I had had orgasms before, many times, but nothing and no one on this earth had made me feel like that, like I was connected to a power supply.

A smile started to creep across my face, my arms gave way, and I collapsed on top of her, heart beating wildly, trying to catch my breath, and then kissed her from neck to mouth, then rolled onto my side as I slipped out of her, still twitching a bit, pulling Lau with me so we were face to face.

While I got my breath back, I stroked her hair and looked into her eyes, trying to tell her silently how fucking amazing that had been. I couldn’t think of any words that would even begin to do justice to it, but eventually I stopped panting and spoke.

‘Lau, that was better than I ever imagined. Oh my fucking God, it’s been so fucking long. Ohh … yuh are awesome. Fucking awesome. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’

I resumed my frantic kissing of any part of Lau that was close enough, then pulled her tightly to me, overcome with the emotion of it all. My head was buried in her neck, and my tears trickled down my face and across her throat. Lau pushed me gently away from her and wiped my eyes with her fingers.

‘Hey, Matt, it’s OK. This is good, isn’t it?’

I nodded. ‘I know. I just can’t believe ih, there was a time I thought ih wasn’t gona fucking happen. I can’t even think how long ih’s been.’

‘Well, it must be getting on for a year. That’s a long time, especially for someone as … er … experienced as you.’

As straight talking as Lau was, she never really knew how to refer to my Matt the Lad days. She meant, I suppose, that considering how much sex I’d had, it must have felt like a long wait, and yeah, readers, you will know how true that is. However, I wanted her to know that it wasn’t just the having of the sex that was so hugely important, it was who I was having it with.

‘Noh, Lau, you know what, for the last couple of months it’s been about you. I mean, yeah, getting ih up’s important to me, I’m a bloody bloke aren’t I, but I’ve so wanted to do that with you. So fucking much.’

And then it occurred to me, how focussed I’d been just on me and what I needed, no change there then.

‘Oh fuck, and it’s gone again, and I didn’t even wait for you, I just went in all guns blazing, Matt has to get his end away and –’

‘Stop it, Matt. It was fine, it was great, there’s going to be plenty of time to do it all again and take it slower. Feeling you inside me, how much of you I could feel, it was – I’ve never – just wow. I’ve waited a long time for that too. It was worth it.’

If I’d believed in angels, I would have outed Lau as one in disguise. I wondered if she had any idea how much better she made me feel.

‘Really?’

‘Really. God, do you know how much I love you?’

‘I bloody hope ih’s as much as I love you.’

‘At least as much. Might be a bit more.’

‘Doubt ih’s more, not possible. Not gona leh you beat me.’

‘Too bad. I believe I win.’

‘How d’you work that out?’

‘I am the ref. You said the ref is always right.’

‘Tha’s in rugby. Sometimes football. Who made yuh the bloody love ref?’

‘Self-appointed. I’ve taken all the exams, passed all the tests. The certificate’s on its way.’

‘Can’t we call ih a draw? I don’t wana think I migh be lacking in the love department.’

‘Well … alright. Ref judges a draw is achieved. Love all.’

‘Ha ha. Good score. Know wha, Lau, just because my hard-on’s gone dohnt mean you miss out.’

I stroked a nipple, which rather pleasingly immediately stood to attention.

‘See, there’s plenty more ways of getting a good Scottying.’

‘I do see that. Care to show me more?’

I showed her more with my tongue, lips and fingers, for some time, until it all reached a very satisfactory conclusion.

Laura

Afterwards, lying in the gentle glow of heat and love, in his arms, kissing softly and touching gently, Matt suddenly propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at me.

‘Lau, move in with me. Or I’ll move in with yuh. Or we’ll get somewhere together. It’s bloody stupid having two places. You belong with me. Let’s do ih.’

I smiled up at him. Yes, it was time.

‘OK. Let’s.’

86. Family affair

In which the family is met, and a new addition seeks acceptance.

Laura

After a lazy Sunday morning – I was enjoying the enforced taking-it-easy that Matt’s energy levels were dictating – I drove us, under Matt’s directions, to Jay and Beth’s house, across the other side of the city, not far from Raiders’ enormous stadium. Matt had told me that Jay and Beth had lived in this house for ages, that he had lived with them for a short time when he first moved to the city, recovering from his first brush with MS and an almost fatal bout of pneumonia, and that Dec had also lived here for three years as a teenager. So it really was a family home.

I already knew Beth, and knew Jay Scott and Declan Summers by their faces and reputations, but Matt’s mum was going to be there, as well as someone called Rose, whose relationship to everyone I hadn’t quite sorted out in my head, and another couple called Nico and Lis – Nico Tiago was another rugby player. Their lives seemed bound up with each other, and with all the famous sports people and their wives and children swelling the numbers, I was feeling a little intimidated. But I put on my best friendly face and was determined to enjoy myself and make a good impression.

Matt

After a lazy Sunday morning – my Sunday mornings were always lazy, and I was dragging Lau down with me, but breakfast in bed with Lau for two hours was just too delicious – Lau drove us across the other side of the city to Jay’s house.

As we pulled up outside, Lau put on her best smile, but I saw worry at the corners of her eyes. I hadn’t helped make it any less intimidating with my constant grumbling about them all, and felt guilty.

‘Rehdy?’

‘Mm hm.’

‘Jus ‘mehmber, Beth’s roast potatoes are tuh die foh, an she loves it if yuh tell her in front of Rose. Then yuhr in.’

This was true. Beth and Rose constantly tried to outdo each other in the kitchen.

‘But probably not with Rose.’

‘Yuh’ll beh fine wih Rose, yuhr wih meh. She’ll have us married off befohr yuhv sat down. She’s had lohs of disappointments as far as I’m concerned. Come on, embrace the madness.’

‘I’m embracing.’

We got out of the car and walked up the path, hand in hand, me squeezing Lau’s fingers like she had mine the day before. I rang the bell, and the door opened almost instantly to reveal Iz and Beth. They must have seen us arrive and been waiting. Iz held her arms up to me and I scooped her up as we walked in, making sure I held on tight and paid attention to any signs of the dropsy.

‘Heh, beauhiful. Yuh behn helping Daddy cook the dinner?’

Iz shook her head. ‘Mummy cook.’

‘Oh yeh, wha was I thinkin? Iz, this is Lau.’

Iz regarded the competition with suspicion for a second, then buried her face in my shoulder. Iz was a complete tart, always wanting to be picked up and cuddled, but only if you were of the male persuasion.

‘Oh, a touch of the shys. Iz, Lau’s goh Smarties in her bag.’

I’d told Lau the best way to get Iz to talk to her was chocolate, and we’d stopped off on the way and bought some of the good stuff. As I knew it would, this piqued Iz’s interest. She lifted her head up and gave Lau another look. Lau nodded to confirm the bribe, but sensibly didn’t try for anything else. She was a rival, after all, and needed to prove her worth first.

Laura

It was true. I wasn’t above bribing small children to get them to like me. Iz lifted her head from Matt’s shoulder and looked at me again. I nodded and smiled at her, but didn’t push it. She would get used to me in her own time.

Matt

Beth was hovering, desperate to get in on the action – not the being cuddled by me action, no don’t be daft. The Lau action.

‘Hi Laura, it’s lovely to see you again.’

Beth kissed Lau on the cheek.

‘Come and meet everyone. Sorry, it’s a bit of a madhouse, standard practice for a Sunday I’m afraid.’

She was being all bright and cheery, as if she hadn’t spent the past few days gossiping about me and the suitability of my romantic choices. But I knew.

Well of course Lau wowed them all, being friendly and chatty, finding just the right thing to say to everyone. I sat back and watched as she talked pregnancy with Amy:

Laura

‘How old is Charlie?’

‘Six months. There’s another one on the way, too.’

‘Oh, Matt did say. That’s very close together.’

‘Well I suppose we wouldn’t have necessarily planned it that way, but it’s a happy accident I guess.’

‘That’s great. I bet you’re tired though.’

‘Completely wiped. I didn’t know it was possible to be so thoroughly exhausted all the time. We moved house not long after I had Charlie, too, just to put the icing on the cake.’

‘Sounds pretty full-on.’

‘We don’t seem to do anything by halves.’

Matt

She got flirted at by Nico:

Laura

‘Hello Laura. They all tease me because I sometimes tell womens they are beautiful. Please sit down, you are safe. Huh, you are very beautiful though.’

He spoke with a Spanish-sounding accent, and I sat down, a little overwhelmed.

Matt

Made Iz like her with a combination of chocolate and conspiracy:

Laura

‘What’s this? I’ve found a tube of Smarties in my bag. I wonder if anyone would like one?’

Iz looked at me hopefully.

‘How about you, Iz, have you got a favourite colour Smartie?’

She nodded, still reluctant to speak to me.

‘Tell me, whisper in my ear.’

She stood up and I bent forward, her breath tickling my ear lobe.

‘Purple.’

‘Oh, mine too. Here, I bet we can find a purple one, can’t we?’

She nodded.

Matt

Got Rose on her side, which wasn’t hard as Rose was on the side of anyone who looked like they might be remotely romantically interested in me:

Laura

Rose leaned around Amy.

‘Hello, love, I’m looking forward to having a chat. I’ve heard a lot about you.’

‘Rose, yuh bluhdy well have not. Or if yuh have, ih’s not from meh. I know yuh all gossip abouh meh, my life’s so bluhdy interesting, buh honestly Lau, I haven’t told them anything.’

Rose just smiled to herself and sat back in her seat, as if she was well used to Matt going on, and let it roll over her.

Matt

Revealed some previously undisclosed plotting with my brother, of all people:

Laura

‘Nice to meet you, Laura, my offer still stands, I can get some of the lads to come and remove this lump any time he’s annoying you.’

Jay was very different to Matt, even down to the way they spoke. Matt had a noticeable northern accent, although he’d already corrected me on that and said it wasn’t north, it was West Midlands. It sounded northern to me. But anyway, Matt’s brother didn’t have a trace of anything slightly northern in his accent, although I noticed that the twinkle in his eye was the same as when Matt was teasing me. I was intrigued to see how these two unlikely brothers got along.

Matt

‘Wha?’

I had no idea what Jay was talking about; it sounded like he was just trying one of his usual half-arsed attempts at humour.

‘Well I wasn’t sure if you make a habit of falling asleep in inconvenient places. When Laura called Beth the other week to tell us where you were, I offered some of the lads to come and move you.’

Jay had a bloody annoying smirk on his face, as he realised that I didn’t know about this.

‘Yuh fu – bluhdy well did not. Lau?’

I caught my ‘fuck’ just in time, and looked over at Lau. It did sound like the sort of thing Jay would do, but surely Lau would have told me. She was looking apologetic, though. Bugger.

‘Sorry, it’s true. I forgot.’

Dec, of course, thought this was bloody hilarious.

‘Who exactly were you planning to con into that little scheme, Jay? I know you’ve had us doing some bloody weird things, but moving Matt would have been about the riskiest. I can just see his face now when he wakes up in the arms of the Academy boys. ‘Stay still a minute, mate, we’ve just got to get you in the back of the kit van.’ Ha ha.’

Well, obviously, I started out really pissed off, but Lau was looking at me all worried, and I quickly reviewed my reactions, and as it hadn’t actually happened, and had just been Jay having a really bad idea, I gave in and laughed too.

Mum was looking at me intently, trying to communicate something through sheer willpower; I suddenly realised that she wanted to talk to Lau. Of course, dur, Mum wanted to suss Lau out for herself.

‘Heh, Mum, Lau’s mum knohs yuh.’

‘Really, dear? What’s your mother’s name, Laura?’

‘April Shoeman.’

‘Oh yes! We go to the same gardening club. She’s a very nice lady.’

‘Apparently yuh tol her all abouh meh.’

I was going to have to have words with Mum about what she spread around the gardening club. Anyone could turn out to be the parent of the girl of my dreams, and all sorts of inappropriate information could have been passed on.

‘Well not on purpose, dear, it was just general chatter about our children. I didn’t know she knew you, or I might not have told her everything about you. I didn’t make the connection between your Laura and April’s daughter, although she told me what your job is, dear. I suspect there may have been other things she told me about Laura that she might not otherwise have, too.’

‘Rehly? Wha things?’

Now I was definitely going to have to have a word. Tough stance on parental gossiping or not, I would love to know what Mum knew about Lau.

‘Oh, just general things, I can’t really remember.’

She tried the ‘I’m a bit of a vague old woman’ trick, but I was unconvinced. So was Amy, who laughed.

‘Diplomatic, Carol. How completely amazing that you know each other though.’

‘I’ll certainly have some catching up to do next time I see her. You’ve met her, then, dear?’

‘Yeh, Lau took meh roun yesterday. We had teh an cake, the full works. Posh china, everything. I puh up a bird box.’

‘She trusted you with a hammer, Matt?’

Amy looked mildly incredulous, not surprisingly. The last time I had attempted any DIY, the results had been somewhat catastrophic.

‘She dihnt know abouh the las time.’

Laura

Well now I just had to butt in.

‘Last time?’

Matt looked sheepish, and Amy answered for him.

Matt

Lau looked from one to the other of us, wanting some answers. I looked guiltily at Amy, who was the one to spill the beans.

‘Matt was staying with us a few weeks ago. He thought he’d be helpful and put together a flat-pack coffee table. He … er …’

Amy stopped and looked at me, seeming unsure what she was allowed to say. I shrugged at Lau and took over the tale.

‘Had a fucking spasm, in the mihdle of hammering. Smashed the top of the table.’

Lau did a kind of cartoony gulp.

‘Oh. I’m glad you didn’t tell me that before you went up a stepladder with a drill.’

I was possibly going to be made to talk about this again, perhaps later when there weren’t witnesses.

‘Heh, I was tryin tuh impress yuhr mum. Wha yuh gona duh tuh impress mine?’

Diversionary tactics and attack mode required.

Laura

‘I think I’ll go and have a nice chat with her. A lot less risky.’

I stood up and went to the other sofa, where a space had opened up next to Cal, who was playing a card game with Jay. I had just remembered a conversation I’d had with my mum a few weeks ago about the son of a friend who had MS, and what advice I might have about ways to get him to accept help. I had to stop myself laughing as I recalled what I’d told her: ‘Just get him to call the MS service, give him one of our cards’. I could imagine how well that would have been received.

‘Hello.’

‘Hello, dear. What a coincidence, you being April’s daughter. How’s she getting on? I haven’t seen her since she broke her ankle.’

‘She’s doing pretty well, still hobbling a bit, but on the mend. I’m sure she’ll be back at gardening club soon.’

‘I hope so. She keeps us all in line.’

‘I bet she does. Have you got a big garden?’

‘It’s not huge, dear, but it’s big enough for me … ‘

I was beginning to really like Matt’s mum. She was quiet, but not shy, and seemed to know Matt pretty well. I’d seen her watching everyone, and suspected she didn’t miss much that went on. Matt thought the world of her, and they seemed to get on really well.

Matt

Lau was chatting to Mum as if she’d known her for years. I watched, impressed, until Mum started telling Lau untruths about me.

‘… the boys are very good, and come over and help me out. Declan cuts my grass, Jameson lifts the heavy things and Matthew sits with a beer and tells everyone what they’re doing wrong.’

‘Heh! Fucking scandalous lies. No wonder yuhr mum thoht I was a rugby player, Lau. I beh yuh tell pehpl all sorts of shih, Mum.’

‘And sometimes he makes it all the way through a sentence without swearing.’

‘Although not very often, I bet.’

Uh oh, Mum and Lau already had some kind of mother-girlfriend diss the boyfriend pact going on. I was toast.

‘He was very well behaved with Mum. Only one ‘bloody’ slipped out. I must have put the wind up him.’

‘That is impressive, dear. He must have been trying hard for you.’

Yeah, I had been, I had been trying bloody hard. Glad someone noticed.

And of course there were all the kids – Cal, Iz, Charlie and Bastien, who Lau seemed to love and want to talk about and cuddle (except Cal, who was throwing off some very uncuddly vibes but agreed to play Uno with Lau and Jay), and then there was dinner, and Lau had made such a hit with Iz that they sat next to each other and whispered about ponies and pink glitter.

I had glanced at Lau from time to time, who was joining in as if she’d been coming here for years and loved it. It brought a smile to my face to see it, how relaxed she was, and how well she got on with everyone.

Laura

Coming from a very small family, I had always wanted lots of brothers and sisters. This family didn’t seem to fit any traditional mould, but that made it easier to feel like I could belong, and I loved being in the middle of it all, taking part when I could or observing the happy chatter when there were jokes I didn’t understand or just to have a bit of a breather. I had quickly got over being starstruck by all the famous rugby players, and saw what a close family they all were. A very well muscled close family. Lots of biceps on show. Not that I noticed, obviously, having eyes only for Matt.

We all sat round the huge table to eat, and Matt had his hand on my thigh under the tablecloth. Half way through the main course, he leaned over and whispered in my ear.

‘Yuh OK?’

I nodded, smiling as I felt his lips tickle my earlobe.

‘I fucking love yuh, Lau.’

I smiled and looked at him as he kissed me firmly on the lips. It didn’t go unnoticed, and Dec, Jay and Nico felt the need to comment.

‘Watch out, Cal, snog alert, avert your eyes.’

‘Ugh, Matty, save it for later.’

‘Matty this is good, we never see this before so soon. I think maybe Laura she is special?’

Matt

‘Yeh yeh, never seen anyone kiss anyone befohr? Weh all used tuh geh bluhdy eye-strain averting our eyes from Dec an Amy snogging every second. Tha wahnt even a snog. Jus a reassuring peck. Yuh loh are bluhdy raucous, ih was necessary.’

I was glad they’d seen it, though, and that they knew Lau was different, someone I didn’t mind showing my feelings with, someone I was happy to be happy with. I was also glad it was out there now. It had been disastrous before with Jules; I’d thought I was being so clever, hiding moving in from everyone, but it had done me no favours in the end. So now I was going to show everyone how I was feeling from the start, so they could see it, even if I wasn’t going to talk about it endlessly.

Laura

And so it went on, chatter, teasing, eating, being together. I loved it. They were all great. I managed to talk to Rose across the table. She talked a lot, but was a lovely woman, and I managed to piece together her relationship to everyone. She wasn’t actually related to anyone, but she and Dec seemed to have a kind of ‘mum and son’ thing going on. She had helped him out when he was a teenager, with advice, a listening ear and a place to stay when he’d needed it, when there had been some kind of rift between Dec, and Jay and Beth. She’d filled the space left by the death of his parents, and he filled a space left by having no children of her own, and they both still seemed to need it. She told me she was thinking about retiring from her job in a local opticians, and wanted to work as a volunteer for a children’s charity.

‘I so love being with the little ones, and I’m dead lucky having this lot, so I want to do something for the ones who don’t have everything they deserve.’

‘Oh, that’s lovely. Will you miss work?’

‘Some of it, I suppose, I like meeting different people, but there’s always the bits you don’t enjoy, aren’t there, love. They’ve just changed the computer system where I work and I don’t get it at all, I don’t. I’ve never been that handy with computers, but it’s not just that, I want a change, do something I feel good at. If I can do something like this volunteering thing, it’ll make a nice change.’

Rose chatted away, hardly leaving any pauses, and before I knew it, lunch was over. As the meal came to an end, I felt a tug on my sleeve. Iz was looking up at me.

‘Smarties?’

She said it so quietly, no one else would have heard, and had the cutest pleading expression on her face, but she had just finished a huge bowl of ice cream and I thought I wouldn’t make myself very popular if I made her throw it all up. So I decided to make a deal. I bent down to her.

‘I think I need to help clear the table and wash up, Iz, but afterwards, when we’ve had a sit down and maybe a game of something, we can find some more Smarties. OK?’

She nodded. As Beth stood up and started to move plates together, there was a mass exodus from the table. I started to pick up bowls and put cutlery in a heap.

Matt

And then dinner was over, and everyone was full, and the table needed clearing, so Jay, Dec, Cal and Nico scarpered as Beth stood up and started to move plates together. It happened every time, and I was embarrassed for men everywhere, when this was the role model acted out by three relatively famous blokes who should know better. Maybe I should out them in GQ or something. I was slightly ashamed of them all, but proud of Lau, who started helping without offering or being asked. I was so proud that it’s possible I may have forgotten to offer to help myself.

Laura

‘Oh, you don’t need to do that, Laura.’

‘It’s fine, I’d like to help. Thanks, Beth, that was yummy. I’m so full now, though.’

‘Thank you. It’s a bit of a Sunday ritual. There aren’t always so many of us, but there was a fair amount of nosiness about you, I have to say – oh, thank you sweetheart.’

This was addressed to Amy, who had handed Beth a pile of plates.

‘Why don’t you go and sit down? Laura and I have got it covered.’

Beth raised her eyebrows at me to check, and I nodded. I suspected I was about to get the grilling Matt had warned me about. As we took a pile each of dessert bowls into the kitchen I decided to take the initiative.

‘Matt said you were worried about me being an MS nurse, with him having MS and everything.’

She looked at me appraisingly as we stacked plates into the dishwasher.

‘Well, I have to admit, I was wondering how appropriate it is.’

‘I did give it a lot of thought. And I talked it over with my boss. It’s all above board, legal, all that. But I suspect that’s not what you’re really worried about.’

‘Matty’s really vulnerable. He’s had a hard time over the last few years, with one thing and another, and I suppose I’m worried about why he’s latched on to you, now. And what you might be getting out of it all. It seems to have happened very fast.’

‘It has been fast. Breathtakingly fast. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t thought about it and talked about it. I’ve been very clear with Matt that I can’t be his MS nurse, and I don’t discuss the specifics of it with him in that way. I’m pretty clear in my own mind what’s professional and what’s personal. And to be honest, most of the time, I forget he’s got MS. We love being together, we just get on with it.’

‘He’s complicated, he’s been through a lot.’

‘Tell me about it. He’s told me about being ill before, and about Carrie and Julia,’

Beth raised her eyebrows in surprise at this.

‘But everyone’s got their baggage, we’re still learning about each other. All we know at the moment is we want to be together.’

‘Well, all I can do is wish you good luck, then. Sorry to come on a bit strong, Laura, but we all worry about him. I know he hates it; if he’s told you everything else, he’s doubtless told you about his annoying family who never give him a moment’s peace.’

I shrugged. ‘I understand why you do it. I worry about him too. I try to get him to see it from your side. I told him to reply to texts a bit more often so you know he’s OK.’

‘Oh! I thought he was being a bit more communicative recently. Oh, well done. Let’s hope it lasts. Right, let’s get this lot in the dishwasher then we can go and have a sit down. With any luck the boys will all be asleep and we can have a bit of peace and quiet.’

It seemed my interrogation was over, for now. I breathed out slowly, knowing that Beth was the person I needed to convince, in order for everyone else to accept me. I didn’t know if I’d managed it yet. I thought about it from the family’s point of view; it must seem very sudden, and I could see why they would worry. I would think the same in their shoes.

Matt

With Lau being given the third degree by Beth, I sat next to Mum, just to make sure her pointed looks were only ‘make sure I get to talk to her’ looks, and didn’t have a meaning I hadn’t yet fathomed.

‘Heh Muhm. Hoh yuh doin?’

‘I’m very full, now. I should have declined those extra potatoes.’

‘Beth is bluhdy bohsy wih her potatoes. Dohnt want any lef over.’

‘No. I noticed you let yourself be persuaded to thirds as well as seconds.’

‘Wha can I say? I lohv a spud.’

Mum had had enough of potato talk for now, and changed the subject.

‘Laura seems lovely, dear.’

‘Yeh. She is. I lohv her.’

Mum raised her eyebrows slightly, as if she hadn’t heard this from several different sources.

‘An she lohvs meh.’

I knew I sounded defiant, like I was trying to convince her.

‘I’m sure you know exactly how you feel, Matthew. All I said was ‘she seems lovely’. I’m glad you’re happy.’

‘Oh Muhm, I’m soh happy. We’ll cohm roun an see yuh prohply in the week.’

‘That would be lovely, dear.’

‘Yuh’ll lohv her too. Yuh’ll forget yuh haven’t known her long. She mahks yuh forget.’

I was so desperate for Mum to like her, I was being a bit pushy. No one likes being told who they’re going to like, do they, so I backed off a bit.

‘Anyway, I’ll call yuh. Cal, wana geh beat at BattleStations?’

I spent the next hour fighting for my life against Cal, who had obviously been practising his alien robot warmonger techniques since I was last there, and ran me pretty close. I could have blamed it on the fucking bastard, but to be honest, my gaming hand-eye coordination was the one thing that didn’t seem to have deserted me, so maybe I had to blame my lack of practice on being otherwise occupied for the last week or so. Oh, Dec was playing as well, but as he was woeful and was just there to provide Cal and me with backup, and as cannon fodder for the enemy, it goes without saying that both of us beat him hands down. Hands up, even.

Laura

The living room was man-free, sleeping or otherwise. Amy and Lisa sat together, holding Charlie and Bastien, and Carol and Rose were chatting together. Beth flopped onto one sofa and I sat on the adjoining corner of the other one. Rose looked up.

‘Well done, love. Anything else needs doing in there?’

‘No, it’s all sorted, Rose. We can put our feet up. Unless anyone wants coffee?’

Everyone shook their heads, being crammed full of food and unable to move.

‘So Laura, how’s life in the NHS these days? I’m a bit out of touch.’

‘Oh, I don’t suppose it’s changed that much. A bit less money around, a few less people, more patients, more paperwork. The job is still the same. Do you miss it?’

‘Sometimes. I’ve loved being at home with the children, but Cal’s older now, and Iz will be going to school soon, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.’

‘Me and Dec reckon you should be a party planner.’

Amy looked up from her game of peekaboo with Charlie.

‘You’d be completely brilliant.’

‘Yes, I’ve got a great CV of precisely two parties.’

‘You’d come highly recommended. Laura, Beth planned a surprise party for my twenty-first the year before last. It was completely amazing, we had a marquee on the beach, a sleepover, there was music, food, it was so, so awesome.’

‘I didn’t plan it on my own.’

‘Oh no, Dec helped as well didn’t he. What did he do, now, oh yeah, he made a playlist. I don’t know what you’d have done without him.’

‘He did more than that, sweetheart …’

‘He confessed all. He told me how you even had to bully him into thinking about it more than five minutes before. You’re so organised, you’ve just got that brain for thinking about lots of different things at the same time and not forgetting anything vital.’

‘She’s right, Beth.’

Lisa looked up from Bastien, who was having a feed.

‘You are super-efficient. Maybe it’s years of having to be doubly organised to make up for Jay. How he runs a team of rugby players I’ll never know. Matt seems a bit more organised, Laura. His flat is always so tidy.’

‘I know. I am quite impressed. He’s a great cook, too. Very domesticated. He tells me he learned it all from his mum.’

I smiled over at Matt’s mum, who’s name I still hadn’t managed to catch.

‘Ooh, Carol, there’s a compliment if ever I heard one.’

Carol. I felt better now Lisa had said her name, I was almost avoiding talking to her so I didn’t have to say ‘Mrs Scott’ or ‘um’.

‘Well he could be right, he was always much keener on following me around the house and joining in than Jameson was when they were little. I hope I’m not responsible for everything though.’

‘Don’t worry, Carol, we won’t blame it all on you. Matty has to take responsibility for a lot of his, er, attributes. Laura, can’t you have a word about his swearing? He does tone it down when the children are within earshot, sometimes, but I dread the day Iz comes out with ‘fuck’. I know it will come. I’ve already heard it from Cal.’

‘I’m not sure I have much control. I don’t think he even knows he’s doing it half the time. He did do really well with my mum. Maybe he just needs the right motivation.’

‘It sounds like you could be his motivation. Where are they all, anyway?’

‘Dec and Matt went to play X-box with Cal, Jay and Nico went to look at something important in Jay’s office. I think they’re actually watching rugby on the computer.’

‘Where’s Iz?’

‘She went up with Dec and Matt, but I don’t know if she’s still up there.’

Matt

I briefly checked on Lau, who seemed to be having a fine old time talking to everyone and playing with the babies, as well as dishing out Smarties to Iz, then I went back up for round two with Dec and Cal. Nico and Lis had been on the point of leaving, lightweights, but I carried on playing for a while longer, before I felt the tendrils of tiredness snaking into my head.

Laura

The afternoon meandered on, people coming and going, cups of tea and coffee made, laughter, teasing, talking, a few tears from the babies. Iz had been in to collect more Smarties, but had vanished again, probably in search of male company. I found myself feeling very comfortable. Matt had come downstairs having beaten Cal and Dec at X-box. He was flexing his fingers and looking pleased with himself.

‘I still goh ih.’

He plonked himself next to me and put his arm round my shoulders.

‘Glad to hear it. What exactly have you still got?’

‘Master of the X-box universe.’

‘So, a bit of hand-eye coordination and you can push some buttons really fast?’

It was actually quite impressive for someone whose coordination had been affected as badly as Matt’s, but he didn’t want patronising praise, he wanted to feel normal.

‘Dohn knock ih till yuh’ve tried ih, Lau.’

Nico and Lisa had taken their leave, and Rose and Carol were just about to go too. I stood up to say goodbye. Carol hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, and I hugged her back.

‘It’s lovely to meet you, dear. I look forward to seeing you again.’

‘I hope so. Nice to meet you Rose.’

‘You too, love. Look after him, won’t you.’

‘We look after each other. But yes, of course.’

Dec and Amy were still there, Dec and Matt having been cajoled into another round of X-box. Amy looked tired, and eventually handed Charlie to Beth, then went upstairs in search of her man.

‘Oh, you’re a sleepy girl, aren’t you.’

‘She’s very like Amy, with that dark hair and big blue eyes.’

‘I know, everyone says so. Dec’s hoping for a boy this time, and that it looks a bit more like him. I think his features will come out in Charlie later on. Noses and things take time to develop. I can’t believe Dec’s a father, let alone going to have two soon. I still find myself thinking of him as that lad who rolled up on our doorstep with a major attitude and swore his way into our lives. Mind you, the swearing hasn’t got noticeably better. I think it developed more fully while he was in care, kind of a defence. He doesn’t need it now, but sometimes these things stick, don’t they. I don’t know what Matty’s excuse is.’

‘Pig-headedness?’

‘Ha ha, yes, probably. Telling Matty not to do something is the quickest way to get him to do it. Shame it doesn’t work with the washing up. Laura, I feel a bit bad about what I said earlier. Matty seems really happy, happier than I’ve seen him for a long time, and if he’s talking to you about things, well that’s really good. I hope it carries on for both of you.’

It was a major peace-offering, and I was pleased to see that Beth could admit it when she’d got something wrong. The way Matt talked about her, I’d begun to wonder if she really was just an interfering, overbearing sister-in-law, albeit one he regarded affectionately, but I could see that she truly cared about Matt, and just didn’t want him to get hurt.

‘Thank you. I do too.’

‘Well, I’m sure we’ll see you again soon. Next time Iz needs some Smarties, I know who to call.’

I looked at her guiltily.

‘Sorry, I know bribing with chocolate is fairly evil. I know how much Matt loves her, I just wanted her to like me.’

Beth laughed. ‘Well mission accomplished. Friend for life, I think. Matty thinks I don’t know, but I am aware he uses all sorts of foul methods when he’s babysitting. He doesn’t hide the evidence very well. Any means necessary, I suppose. And it’s OK when you’re an uncle. Or an honorary auntie.’

She smiled at me, and I smiled back, aware of the shift in opinion, the title she had just given me, and what that meant about her view of me. It was good to reconnect with Beth. We hadn’t known each other all that well when we worked together all those years ago, but I remembered her as kind, sensible and fair minded, and I was happy to find she was still all those things.

Matt

When was I ever going to learn to pace myself, so that I stopped before it got to this point? Now I was starting to feel tired, it was going to catch up with me really quickly. It happened every time I came here on a Sunday – I’d be in the middle of something, talking, playing, whatever it was, and before I knew it I was fighting to retain my coordination, to say anything that was even vaguely understandable, and all without letting any of them know.

Oh, you thought when I said I was going to be open about my feelings from now on, or whatever the fuck I said, that I meant everything? No, no, no. Only about Lau. Everything else was going to be a closed book, as per.

So I carried on playing with Cal for a bit, and then, to my relief, Amy came to get Dec, who as usual was oblivious to the time, or the fact that he’d left his girlfriend on her own with their demanding baby for two hours while he played computer games. What? I’d just done the same to Lau? Scandalous lies.

Laura

Matt and Dec came back downstairs, followed by Amy. She picked Charlie up from Beth’s lap and started to put her in her car seat, where she naturally woke up and started bawling.

‘Oh, that’s completely unfair. She’s been asleep all afternoon, now she’s grouchy. Sh sh, lovely girl, we’ll be home soon.’

Matt sat next to me and gave me a sloppy kiss on the cheek.

‘Sorry tuh desert yuh. Monsters tuh kill. Impohtant.’

‘Obviously. A monster invasion would have totally spoilt the afternoon.’

‘Shall weh goh too?’

There was a hint of tiredness around his eyes; it was time to make a move.

Matt

Lau had seemed to sense I was flagging, and we got ready to go, along with Dec, Amy and Charlie.

Laura

‘Oh, are you all going now? It’s going to be really quiet. Cal’s upstairs, Iz is playing in the conservatory, James – where is James? Oh. I bet he’s ‘working’ in his office.’

‘On ih.’

Matt left the room, and through the door I saw him cross the hall and hammer loudly on another door. The door opened slowly, a bleary eyed Jay looking questioningly at his brother.

‘Jesus, Matty, what the hell was that for?’

‘Wehr all goin now. Wake up an wave us ohf.’

‘I wasn’t, er, asleep.’

‘Like fuck. Yuhr hair’s all sticking up. Trying ouh new hair gel in there wehr yuh?’

‘Piss off. You’re going now, you say? Good. Come back in a few years, when we’ve moved.’

‘Ha ha, yuhr such a grouch when yuhv been woken up. See yuh soon.’

Jay rubbed a hand through his hair, in a gesture I’d seen Matt use many times. He wiped his hand over his face and breathed deeply. Then came out of the office.

‘Sorry, Beth, I was working and my eyes just drooped.’

‘Yes, James, I know. Every Sunday. Everyone’s going, say goodbye.’

‘Goodbye everyone.’

He managed a kiss for Amy, Charlie and me, batted Dec on the shoulder and slapped Matt round the back of the head. Beth kissed everyone, and they both stood at the door as we walked down the path to our cars. Charlie was still crying in her car seat, but it was snivels rather than yells, and it sounded like she might go back to sleep on the journey home.

‘So, Matt, maybe a double date is on the cards?’

Dec was grinning impishly.

‘Oh, hon, that’s a great idea.’

‘Yeh, except yuhr babysitter would beh on the date, and not sitting on the baby.’

‘We can ask Rose. How about it Laura?’

I quickly looked at Matt to check. He shrugged, leaving it up to me.

‘Sounds great, but bring Charlie. We can do something early.’

I thought this might suit Matt as well, but meant I didn’t have to say it directly.

‘Oh that would be completely awesome. I’m completely useless at staying up late at the moment anyway. How about Mean Bean? We can just have coffee, or eat if we want.’

‘An then yuh can have a nose in Lau’s house if yuh hint hard enough.’

‘There is that, Matt.’

‘She migh have hoovered the dust from under her sofa if yuh give her enough notice.’

‘Oi.’ I batted his arm. ‘That’s confidential dust.’

‘Sohry. Tuh late. Heh, Lau, yuh should have Amy’s number. Meh an Dec will only forget or fuck up arrangements.’

‘Oh, of course Laura.’

Matt

Dec wanted to chat about a double date, which very nearly finished me, as all I could think about was getting in the car and going home. But I forced myself to get through the conversation, Lau and Amy exchanged mobile numbers, and at very long last, I was sitting in the car and we were driving away.

I waited until we were out of sight of the house, and Dec’s car had pulled away, and then I let myself go, crumpling into the seat. I could feel my vision closing in, blackening at the edges, and I closed my eyes.

‘Fucking hell.’

‘OK?’

‘They wear meh ouh.’

‘You should have said something before.’

Yeah, I know I should. But then they’d go on, there would be a lot of making arrangements, and people telling me what to do.

‘Dohn wan them fuhsing.’

‘You really are the most stubborn man.’

Yeah, I know.

‘Yeh. Noh behn … flr …’

I just didn’t have any more juice left, and I was out.

Laura

Matt tipped his head back against the headrest, eyes closed, and didn’t say another word for the rest of the short journey across the city. When I had parked the car outside Matt’s flat, I stroked his cheek to wake him up. This didn’t produce anything besides a few mumbles. I lightly pinched the back of his hand, which made him open his eyes, although they were slightly unfocussed.

Matt

Lau must have driven home, presumably she found her way back without too much trouble, although knowing Lau it was a circuitous route, with maybe a doubling back or two, or a trip to a part of the city that wasn’t strictly in the realms of ‘on the way’. But I wasn’t conscious enough to notice, and the next thing I knew, I could hear her voice, coming as if from a long way away.

‘Matt. Wake up. Just for a minute, flower.’

I felt a hand clasp my chin and turn it to the left.

‘You need to get out of the car.’

I opened my eyes, with a huge effort, and her face came into focus. Shit, we were back here, and I was going to have to get up the twenty thousand steps to my flat. Why the fuck had I bought a flat on the bloody second floor? Why the fuck hadn’t I at least got a flat where there was a lift? I should have got a bloody bungalow. You can get nice views from bungalows, nice views of all the stairs there aren’t. But, anyway, I hadn’t, and now I was here with Lau, who was little, instead of with Dec, who was big, and I really needed to just hold myself together so she didn’t have to carry me up the stairs.

Laura

I saw the focus return to his eyes, and could feel the mental effort he made to rouse himself enough to get up the stairs to his flat. It occurred to me that I should have gone to my house, where there weren’t steps. Too late now. I opened the car door for him, and he gripped my arm to help pull himself out of the front seat.

‘Come on, arm round me.’

Matt

‘Noh, Ih’m –’

I didn’t want to hurt her by leaning on her too heavily.

‘Arm round me. If you fall over, I’m not picking you up, I’m calling an ambulance.’

I mumbled ‘bossy cow’ under my breath, but didn’t argue further because a) I needed all the energy I possessed to get up the stairs, b) she was right, as usual, I needed to lean on her and c) she bloody would call an ambulance, too, and that just was not an option.

Laura

He mumbled something that sounded like ‘bossy cow’, but his arm went round my shoulder, and my arm went round his waist. Together, we shuffled towards the lobby. Matt unlocked the door, and we manoeuvred our way through it, then slowly began the stairs. Matt slowed down even more as we reached the top, and by the time we got to his door, it was a struggle to get him to take another step.

Matt

The last coordinated action I managed was unlocking the door to the stairs, and then I sleepwalked up them. It would have taken ages, although I’m a bit vague on the details; when I got this tired, I had trouble lifting my feet up high enough to put them on the next step.

Lau must have dragged me all the way up, then unlocked the door to the flat with my keys. Her voice had been encouraging me all the way, but I couldn’t focus on specific words, only the sound of it. It just about held me up, kept me going.

In a brief moment of lucidity, I realised I was inside and the sofa was literally feet away. I could barely see, there were black spots dancing in front of my eyes, and I was breathing heavily.

Laura

‘Come on, Matt, just a few more steps and you can lie down.’

With a final effort, he dragged his feet with me to the sofa, where he flopped down, eyes closed, and was asleep in seconds. I rearranged his limbs into a position he wouldn’t wake up stiff from, and fetched a blanket to put over him.

Matt

It was like the last mile of a marathon, or what I imagine it would be like had I ever been foolish enough to participate in one. Lau and I stumbled together to the sofa, and I was gone before I even knew whether I’d sat down on it or not.

Laura

I wondered how often Matt had held himself together on a Sunday afternoon until he’d got back from the family meal, and then lost the rest of the day recovering. I sat by his head, stroking the hair away from his forehead, worrying about him. I knew he’d be OK after a sleep, but if he was always pushing himself beyond his limits he could be hampering his recovery, if he was going to recover. Officially it was more of a nursey thing, but I reasoned with myself that anyone could have noticed it, and I would try to address it with him without annoying him. I sat next to him for a while, grabbing a book, looking down at his sleeping face every so often.

Matt

I woke later, wanting to be pulled back down, I could have gone so easily, but I needed to wake up so I could sleep, in that perverse way of it.

I opened my eyes to find Lau sitting close to me, looking down at me, trying to discern how I was. She bent down and kissed me, and I realised she had put a throw over me. It was so sweet, and I so loved having someone here to look out for me.

I hadn’t realised how lonely an existence I’d made for myself, shutting everyone out who dared to care about me. I really was an arse. And now I’d made Lau haul me up the stairs, and I felt bad.

‘Heh, Lau. Sohry.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Fucking knackered.’

‘Sleep a bit longer, then.’

‘Noh.’

I sat up.

‘Wohn sleep tonigh. Yuh dihnt carry meh did yuh?’

Laura

‘Not quite. Matt, do you do this every Sunday? Hold it together till they bring you back, then crash?’

The look on his face told me that he did, but he only shrugged.

‘Why?’

I thought I knew the Matt Scott ‘don’t let them see you need anything’ answer, but wanted him to acknowledge it himself.

‘Jus wana beh normal Matt, Matty, Unca Matty, withouh them looking at meh all the time wondering if I’m gona keel over. They make meh fehl normal.’

‘You are normal. They all love you. If you didn’t stay as long, you could still enjoy it, and have some energy left when you get home. Or don’t go every week, or have a nap while you’re there, something. Surely having a snooze with one of the babies is normal. Even Jay was asleep. You can’t keep doing this.’

‘Mm.’

That was as far as I was going to get. ‘Mm’ meant conversation over, but I knew he often thought about what I said, and although he’d never actually say ‘Lau, I thought about it and you’re right‘, he’d sometimes just change the way he did things without comment.

Matt

As usual, what she said made complete sense, but I was a stubborn fucker, and admitting someone else knew better than me about my shit was never going to be easy, however much I loved them.

Oh, did I mention that I loved Lau? I did? Oh. It was loving her that was going to change me. I didn’t want her hauling me up any more stairs, or along any more streets, or anywhere, ever again. I knew I was going to have to start doing things differently; that didn’t mean I was necessarily going to just admit she was right and change there and then. Stubborn fucker, see?

‘Anyway, cup of tea?’

She even knew when to back off and do something awesome like make a cup of tea.

‘Lifesaver. I love yuh, Lau.’

‘I love you too.’

She stood up to go and put the kettle on, but I grabbed her hand and pulled her back down, onto my knee. She put her arms round my neck, gave me a quick kiss, then got up again.

‘Restorative tea. Then snogging.’

‘Yuhr soh wise. An make a bluhdy guhd cup of teh.’

And so that was the beginning of it all. Oh, I haven’t finished with the minutiae yet, there’s plenty more to tell, but that’s how it began, how I met her, and chased her, and caught her, and nearly lost her, and she came back after me, and we loved each other, and she got me and I got her and it was all fucking amazing.

I know now that the bastard MS comes and goes as it chooses, that it’s not people that bring it or send it on its way, but just then it really felt like Lau had begun chasing it off. I started to feel better, I wasn’t as tired all the time, my coordination improved, my speech improved, and, yes, my dick tingled like billy-ho, there was definite movement in the right direction (i.e. upwards haha), but the whole nine yards had not yet been reached. Yeah, boasting. I’m a bloke.

As I started to feel better, I was able to do more, stay awake longer, go out for picnics, we even went to the beach and swam in the sea. I really enjoyed the outdoors, which was something I hadn’t done much of late, as I couldn’t drive, and couldn’t go for many jaunts on the coat tails of other people because I didn’t know how long they’d want to be out and didn’t want to curtail their fun on my behalf. Having Lau willing to ferry me about here and there was great, and I made the most of it.

I missed hiking, and although I wasn’t up to that just yet, Lau and I decided we would get out and about more, and that was the springboard for even more improvement, almost as if being able to breathe sea air or the mist of the moors was as curative as the Victorians used to think it was.

85. Truly madly deeply

In which two people love each other, and the news begins to spread.

Matt

I didn’t wake up when Lau got up and left for work the next day, which I was disappointed about, as I hadn’t managed to make her a sandwich. Little routines like that mattered a lot, made me feel useful, wanted, and the thought of her eating some processed supermarket crap for her lunch made me a tiny bit sad. But I had to satisfy myself with texting her instead, when I finally woke up.

‘Hey u. Sorry was asleep. Loving u wears me out 🙂 🙂 xxx’

‘I love loving u.’

‘I love u loving me loving u.’

‘U = <3’

And so it went on, embarrassingly sentimental all day, as if we were much younger than we were, but it didn’t feel embarrassing, it felt like affirmation, confirmation, reassurance, and I couldn’t wait to see her later.

In the meantime, I had to fend off texts from Beth, Dec, even Jay.

‘Matty, would love 2 talk. R U around?’

‘Hey mate. Need info after last nite. Ames v curious. Me 2.’

‘Beth driving me mad. Pls talk 2 her abt this woman b4 I kill her. Beth, not the woman.’

I sent the same reply to all of them.

‘Me n Lau love each other :)’

And I left it at that. It was more information than I would normally have offered, and it didn’t stop the texts arriving from Beth, more of the same, but Dec actually called me, which is more than Beth dared to do, and I gave him some credit for that.

‘Hey mate. How’s it going?’

‘Greht, thahks.’

‘Good, good. So. Love life picked up a bit?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Oh come on, you’re not going to make me drag this out of you are you?’

‘Wha yuh wan tuh knoh?’

‘Bloody everything. All I know is her fucking name, and that you met her on that day you didn’t want to go to last week, and you know what she looks like out of her uniform, which to be perfectly honest is maybe too much information, but I guess I can’t be choosy if you’re actually volunteering it for a change.’

‘I lohv her.’

‘Oh, yeah, you did say, like that wasn’t news of the fucking century. You’re a bloody quick worker, aren’t you?’

‘Tahk my chances these days.’

‘And she feels the same?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Oh mate, you do sound like a bloody puppy with a new toy, but I’m fucking made up for you. You know Beth is going all squawky about it, I’m sure.’

‘Yeh, well, Beth cahn think wha the fuck she likes. She always says she jus wans meh tuh beh hahpy. Now I am.’

‘True enough. There’s no problems, then, with the whole nurse patient shit?’

‘Not her patieht, so noh.’

‘Cool. So, when am I going to meet her?’

‘Suhndy.’

‘Whoa, really? I thought you’d lie low for a bit, in an attempt to avoid all the prying.’

‘Yeh, done tha.’

‘What? How come?’

‘Las Suhndy. Lasted all afternohn, only tol Muhm.’

‘What? You told Carol? Fuck, she kept that close to her chest. I cut her grass on Monday, had a bloody good chat, she never even hinted.’

I really loved my mum.

‘Sohm pehpl dohnt fehl the need tuh shahr every fucking thing they find ouh.’

‘Yeah, and some people make such a bloody fuss about sharing even the most important things that it would be easier to extract a tooth, and just makes certain people try even harder to make you tell them shit.’

‘Yeah. Whaever.’

I had no idea what he was talking about, of course.

‘OK, then mate, we’ll see you and Laura on Sunday.’

‘Hoh’s Amy?’

‘Oh, yeah, great. Apart from still vomming every morning, but yeah, coping with Charlie. I guess, if you’re all loved up, you’re not gonna be so available for babysitting?’

‘Mehbe not. Ask meh, thogh. I lohv bein wih Chahlie.’

‘I know mate. She loves it too. Take care, then, see you in a few days. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’

‘Carte blanche thehn.’

‘What?’

‘Chehrs, mate, see yuh soon.’

I disconnected, feeling pleased with myself at having given away as much information as I was willing to and no more. I didn’t care if Dec went straight to Beth with what he had learned, didn’t care if the whole bloody world knew I loved Lau. For once, something fucking amazing had happened to me that I didn’t mind everyone knowing about.

And thus it all carried on, I don’t think I need to go into more detail about the snogging, feeling, holding, licking, caressing aspects of the next couple of days; it’s nauseating enough already. Suffice it to say there was a lot of it, and I felt it all coming back; not just the tingly dick, but I was less tired, my speech got a bit better, I didn’t have to hold on to shit so tightly to avoid spills. It was small, maybe it was just a fleeting improvement, but I clung on to the hope that I was starting to come out of this flare-up. I hardly dared to admit it to myself, so admitting it to anyone else, including Lau, was never going to happen.

So finally it was the weekend. Two whole days with Lau, plus the added bonus of not having to wake up early to wave her off with a freshly prepared sandwich. Two whole days to stare into her unfathomable eyes. Two whole days to – oh fuck, meet her mum and run the gauntlet of Beth’s Sunday lunch. Not such a relaxing weekend, then. But I was determined to spend as much time alone with Lau as I could; she was having a seriously positive effect on my well-being, so it could be considered medicinal.

Laura

It was Saturday morning. We both woke up lazily together, late for me and a bit early for Matt. It was just after nine o’clock, and I needed to call Mum to let her know that she’d need an extra tea cup.

‘Just going to ring my mum. You still up for a bit of Baptist preaching later?’

‘Bring ih on.’

I saw Matt mentally bracing himself, but he put on a big grin and snuggled in close while I dialled. As Mum answered, he slid a hand up to my breast and started teasing me.

‘Hello LauraLou.’

‘Hi, er, Mum, ahem. How are you? Mm.’

‘I’m well, my love, are you alright? You sound like you’ve got a bit of a cold.’

‘No, just woke up with a bit of a – ooh – cough, it’s just sleep, it’ll go.’

I pushed Matt’s hand away, but it strayed back, taking all my concentration to focus on what Mum was saying.

‘I don’t know if you’re planning to pop round this afternoon, but I’ve made some shortbread.’

‘Ohh yeahh. That’s my – uhh – favourite. Yes, yes. I mean, I’ll be there. Er, I’m going to bring Matt, if that’s OK.’

‘Oh, that’ll be lovely. I’ll dig out the good tea cups.’

‘You do that Mum, he won’t set foot in side the do – or if the good china’s not on showw.’

Matt had stopped teasing me with his fingers, and had started using his tongue. I could hardly speak, let alone make sense.

‘See you this afternoon, then, my love.’

‘Bye Mum.’

Matt

On Saturday morning we both woke up lazily together, just after nine o’clock. Lau always called her mum on Saturday mornings, and while she did that I made inroads into my continued investigations of the physiological responses of the female human body to male tactile stimulation. Yeah, I was feeling her up. While she was on the phone to her mum. So sue me.

When she’d finished talking, she looked sternly down at me.

‘You’re a wicked man.’

‘Yeh, buh yuh love it. An yuh love meh.’

I looked up at her from my comfortable position between her breasts, where a good tonguing had been in progress.

‘Sadly both are true. I’m a lost cause. Carry on.’

The morning continued in a similar vein, and we didn’t get out of bed until we both started to get hungry, and decided to wander out to the High Street (well of course we showered and dressed first, do I have to spell everything out?) to fetch bread, cheese and salad from the local deli.

As we left the shop, I heard a familiar voice.

‘Matt?’

I turned, and saw Lexi. I hadn’t seen her since being signed off work, and although she had texted a few times to start with, being the official GreenScreen social networker and gossip spreader, my lack of response had eventually stopped her pursuit of juicy titbits.

‘Heh Lexi.’

I felt awkward. Nobody from work had seen me in my full fucking cripple state, or possibly even knew what a fucking cripple I was. The more I spoke, the more obvious it would become. Then I remembered telling Lau that it didn’t matter who knew about me, and I got some strength from the feel of Lau’s hand in mine.

‘Hoh are yuh?’

Lexi raised an eyebrow at my unintelligible bollocks.

‘I’m good thanks. You’ve dropped off the face of the earth though. How are you?’

‘Sohry. Been ouh of touch. Been prehty bad.’

I saw Lexi looking at my and Lau’s entwined fingers.

‘Thihs is Laura.’

Lexi smiled one of her dismissive smiles at Lau, but didn’t say anything, even ‘hello’, the ill-mannered cow. I saw Lau’s face take on the amused expression she had when someone was being rude to her, previously witnessed when we were being shhed at the cinema.

‘Are you coming back any time soon? Coffee break isn’t the same without the doughnuts.’

‘Ha ha, glahd tuh see yuh miss meh fuh the impohtant things. Noh, prohbly not soon. Ih’ll beh in touch.’

I hoped it was enough of a hint to make her say goodbye; I really didn’t think I could cope with talking about office politics right now.

‘Well, good to see you, Matt. Don’t be a stranger.’

And with another glance at Lau, she turned and walked off.

‘Who was that again?’

‘Lexi. Receptionist at work. Bluhdy blabbermouth, yuh’ll beh all over the office by Monday. Prohbly alrehdy texting everyone.’

‘Do you mind?’

‘Noh, not rehly. Easier than telling everyone myself when I goh back. Duh yuh mind?’

‘Of course not. Everyone at my work knows about you.’

‘True. Migh not beh back fuh while tho.’

I had been signed off for three months, and my sick note was due to be reviewed in a couple of weeks or so, but I knew I wasn’t up to working just yet.

‘You should keep in touch with people from work.’

‘Noh. Fehl … embarrassed.’

‘You’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about.’

‘I’m a fucking cripple.’

‘You shouldn’t call yourself that. And anyway, here you are walking about, hot woman on your arm, just about to go home and make me a weird but tasty sandwich for lunch. I think you’re just skiving off.’

‘Oh yuh sussed meh. There’s noh fooling yuh is there.’

I loved the way Lau always saw the normality in everything we did.

‘Hardly ever. Come on, I’m starving.’

I put my arm round her, leaned down and kissed her, and we walked back together.

On the way back, my phone pinged with a text from Lexi.

‘So who exactly was that, then?’

‘Laura. I did say.’

‘GF?’

‘Yep.’

‘Sayonara Ice Queen.’

Lexi was a right sourpuss, and she had never liked Jules. She had her information now, and I didn’t need to feed her bitchiness, especially as she had never known the real Jules. So I ignored her last text, and didn’t get any more from her.

Laura

So, here we were, outside my mum’s house. I could see her looking out of the window, but had deliberately parked down the road a bit so she couldn’t have a good nosey before we were actually walking to the front door.

‘OK?’

‘As I’ll ever beh.’

‘She doesn’t bite. Well, not much. Slight teeth-marks only.’

‘Cohm on then, befohr I lose my nerve. Never met the mother befohr, wih anyone.’

‘Really?’

‘Noh, Carrie wahnt speaking tuh hers an Jules’s lived abroad. Noh one else was meeting the mother material. Cohm on, I’m rehly nervous.’

‘OK then.’

I opened the car door and waited for Matt to climb out of the car. I was glad Mum couldn’t see, as he was a bit slow, whether because he was reluctant or uncoordinated I couldn’t tell, but I didn’t want her to form any impressions about Matt before he’d even opened his mouth.

Matt

Lau opened the car door for me, and I made a bit of a botch job of coordinating my fucking cripple limbs; I hoped Lau’s mum wasn’t watching, as it wasn’t an ideal first impression, and I didn’t know how much Lau had told her about me and the fucking bastard. As we walked along the pavement, Lau gave my hand a squeeze, and I squeezed hers back pretty hard, feeling like holding her hand was going to keep me from doing anything stupid.

We got to the door as it opened, revealing a smartly dressed woman, who looked about, oh I don’t know, I’m bloody hopeless with ages, but she looked younger than my mum.

Laura

Mum was dressed in her Sunday best, expensive pink lippy and everything. She gave us a gracious smile.

‘Hello my love. And this must be …’

‘Hi Mum. Yes, this is Matt.’

Matt

‘Hello, Mrs Shoeman. Nice day for ih.’

It never hurt to start with a bland statement that couldn’t really be argued with. Although it wasn’t that nice a day, really.

‘Er, yes, I suppose it is. Come in, the kettle’s on.’

Laura

As we went into the living room, I laughed at the table, which was decked out for a tea party, with the fancy flowery china and a cake stand containing several types of cake and what looked suspiciously like cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

‘Blimey Mum, who else are you expecting? I said I was bringing Matt, not the Queen of flipping Sheba.’

‘I’m just making an effort. It’s nice to put yourself out, isn’t it Matt?’

Matt

‘Yeh, ih all looks greht.’

I was so trying to be on my best behaviour. Lau had already warned me about swearing and fucking about of any description being largely frowned on, and I had expected a stern woman who therefore frowned on everything, but Lau’s mum, well, for a start she looked a lot like Lau except older, so that was a plus, and she had the same permanent smile. She didn’t immediately strike me as someone who was particularly Puritanical, but I had only just met her whereas Lau had known her for more than thirty years, and I suppose she was better placed to judge.

‘Well sit down, you two, there’s the sofa, look.’

Laura

‘Oh yeah, I’ve never noticed it there all these years.’

I grabbed Matt’s hand and we sat down, huddled together on the small sofa like refugees from a storm.

‘I’ll just bring the tea in.’

‘Oh, let me do that, Mum.’

I got to my feet and followed her into the kitchen.

Matt

Lau got up to help, and I remembered her telling me that her mum had broken her ankle a while ago. I would have also offered my assistance, but the likelihood of me dropping or spilling something was high enough that it would have put paid to my ‘making a good impression’ mission, so I stayed put. Their voices carried from the kitchen.

Laura

‘No, Laura, there’s no need, I’ve been getting on quite well without my crutches this week. It’s only a tea pot. And look, that Occupational Therapist girl left me a trolley on wheels, so I don’t have to carry it.’

‘Oh, you’ve seen the OT?’

‘Yes, she came on Tuesday. I thought I told you?’

To be completely honest I’d been so wrapped up in Matt I’d hardly listened to anything Mum had told me for the past week. I felt a bit guilty and resolved to be more attentive. Mum pushed the trolley into the living room and put the teapot on the table.

Matt

‘Cool trohley. Could duh wih one of those.’

Although hell would need a few cans of de-icer before I actually allowed one anywhere near my flat.

Laura

‘You’ll have to break your ankle first, young man. I don’t recommend it.’

Mum was being frosty with Matt, but I’d warned him about it, and told him that as long as he didn’t swear or try to ravish me on the living room carpet, she’d thaw after a bit. Matt didn’t seem to mind the drop in temperature, and was being charming.

Matt

‘Lau said you did ih putting a bird box up?’

‘Yes, one of my less sensible ideas. I was trying to put it up too high. It never did go up in the end, fell on top of me as I came crashing down.’

‘Duh yuh wan meh tuh duh ih? I’m handy wih a drill.’

Oh what the fuck was I doing now? I couldn’t be trusted with a bloody drill, not at the moment, I’d avoided offering to help with the tea things for fuck’s sake.

‘Well … that would actually be rather nice. As long as you’re not going to fall off.’

Bollocks, she wasn’t going to politely decline like all good fucking cripples should, either.

‘Noh, Lau can hold the ladder, I’ll beh OK.’

I was very far from sure that this would be the case, but now had to appear confident, or risk looking like a prize twat for offering and then rescinding said offer.

‘Thank you, then, that would be very kind of you.’

Lau looked at me a bit uncertainly, but I just looked boldly at her and she didn’t say anything.

Laura

I looked at Matt, unsure he was steady enough on his feet to go balancing on the stepladder that had already injured Mum, but he seemed unconcerned. I had to trust him to know his limits.

‘The drill is in the shed, here are the keys. Are you alright finding it yourself? The ladder’s in there as well.’

Matt

Oh bugger, she wanted me to do it now. Lau’s mum handed me the shed keys and gestured in the direction of the garden, so, suppressing my misgivings, I let myself out of the back door and made my way to the shed.

Laura

As we watched him walk a little unsteadily up the garden, Mum rounded on me, and I realised why she’d been so keen to get him away up the garden path.

‘What’s wrong with him? Is he drunk?’

‘No Mum. He just talks like that.’

‘He can’t walk properly either. Are you sure he’s not drunk?’

‘He’s not drunk. Don’t be so judgemental. There are plenty of reasons people can’t talk or walk properly. Think about it. And shh, he’ll be back in a minute.’

Mum gave me a dark look but held her tongue. After Bryan the Smackhead it was a fair question. Maybe.

Matt

It didn’t take me long to find the drill, the ladder, a bag of screws and some rawl plugs, then go back inside. I carried it all without dropping any of it, which I felt boded well for both my immediate and long term future.

‘Is ih OK tuh use these?’

I held up the bags.

‘Oh yes, of course. Are you sure you’ll be alright up the ladder?’

Presumably she’d seen me walking up the garden, none too steadily, and probably thought I was pissed.

‘Yeh, fine. Rehdy tuh hold ih, Lau?’

We all trooped out into the garden, and I stood in the middle of the lawn, holding the drill, waiting to be told where to start.

‘Where duh yuh wan ih?’

‘Well I was aiming for over there, above the rose bush.’

‘Are yuh sure? Ih gehs the sun all day, migh beh a bih hot fuh the birds tuh nest.’

‘Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Where would you suggest, then?’

I looked round the garden and pointed to a spot on the wall near some bushes.

‘How ‘bouh there? Gehs some sun, some shade, lohs of cover, yuh can see ih from yuhr kitchen.’

‘Perfect. I’ll leave you to it, then.’

I leaned the ladder against the wall as Lau’s mum went inside, where she could watch with no risk of being crushed by falling cripples. Lau held on tightly to the bottom of the ladder as I climbed up a few rungs, leaned against the wall and started drilling.

Laura

Matt positioned the stepladder near the chosen spot and I held tightly on to it, watching for any wobbles. Not that there would have been a thing I could have done about it if I’d seen one, but I had to at least look. He looked competent with the drill, and it only took a minute or two to put the nesting box up.

Matt

By holding on tightly and concentrating really hard, I managed to put the nesting box up in a few minutes, but I was sweating as I came back down the ladder, and wiped my forehead with the back of my hand, relieved.

‘Haven’t behn up a bluhdy ladder fuh months. Wahnt sure I was gona be able tuh duh it.’

Laura

I was horrified, the thought of what could have happened if Matt had fallen lurching through my brain and making me feel a bit sick.

‘Oh Matt! I thought you were OK about it, why did you offer?’

Matt

‘Sucking up? She prohbly thinks I’m drunk.’

I saw from the look on Lau’s face that her mum had said something while I was in the shed. I tried not to let it bother me; it wouldn’t be the first time, and it was understandable. Not that I welcomed it, but just understood it.

‘Happened befohr. Walk funny, talk funny, pehpl assume.’

‘Yeah, well, I told her off, told her to think of another reason.’

‘Why dihnt yuh jus tell her?’

‘It’s not mine to tell.’

Aw, she really was so thoughtful.

‘Ah, thanks Lau, buh yuh can. Or I will. She should know.’

Laura

I wondered how he was going to go about that. Matt couldn’t say ‘MS’ without sticking a whole heap of swear words in front of it, and I was intrigued to see if he would be able to rein himself in for Mum, or if he would use some other avoidance technique.

‘Well, we’ll see how it goes now. You’ve scored a few points.’

Matt

‘Brownie or man?’

‘Maybe a bit of both.’

‘Woohoo.’

Two types of points with one bit of easy DIY. Result.

Laura

‘Come on, cup of tea’s getting cold.’

I took his hand and led him back into the living room. Mum had been watching out of the kitchen window, but came in to pour the tea. She seemed to be a lot keener on Matt now, than before he risked breaking his neck to put up her bird box. It hadn’t hurt that Matt knew what he was talking about with regards to where it needed to to go.

‘Thank you Matt, that looks perfect. I’ll be able to see them going in and out from there.’

Matt

It seemed I had been forgiven for appearing pissed.

‘No problem. Anything else yuh nehd putting up, leh meh know.’

Oh now what the fuck was I up to? Surely I had just learned that home improvements in my current fucked up state were just bloody terrifying for all concerned. My need to suck up must be screwing with my ability to think straight.

Laura

I covered a smile with my hand. I wasn’t going to be letting him up any more ladders until I was sure he was steadier, and that he was offering out of more than a wish to score boyfriend points.

‘I’ll bear you in mind. How do you take your tea?’

Matt

‘Milk, two sugars plehs.’

‘Not many people take sugar these days.’

‘Ih’s a dying art.’

‘I agree. I tried to cut down, but I still have to have one, it’s not the same without. Have a piece of cake.’

So, bonding over calorific intake. Not bad.

‘Thanks.’

We must have stayed about an hour. Lau’s mum talked about the same sort of things my mum did, and it was no hardship to chat about nothing in particular, trying to make her see I was pleasant, and good for her daughter. I didn’t swear once, or even make a sarcastic comment. It felt well weird.

Laura

And so, ice seemingly broken, we chatted our way through an hour or so. Mum told us all about her neighbours, Matt tried to look interested and nearly managed it, then she asked about his parents, and he told her his dad had died when he was two, which got a lot of sympathy but as Matt didn’t remember his dad, it was a bit wasted. Then he told her his mum lived not far away, and it turned out they knew each other.

‘Oh, you’re Carol Scott’s boy. I thought you were in rugby, Laura said IT.’

She looked at me accusingly, as if I’d deliberately told her an awful lie.

Matt

‘Tha’s my brother, Jay. He’s a cohch wih Raiders. I am in IT.’

It would be nice if, just for once, someone met Jay and they said ‘Oh, you must be Matt Scott’s brother. I hear he’s a brilliant IT consultant. You must love being his brother’. Never gonna happen.

‘Oh yes, she has mentioned you. You’re very clever.’

Oh well, at least Mum had boasted about me. I saw something occur to Lau’s mum.

‘Oh! Haven’t you … that is, she said … I’ve just realised why …’

Laura

Mum looked at me for help, but I didn’t know what she was trying to say. Matt did, and gallantly came to her rescue.

Matt

She looked at Lau to help her say ‘I just realised why you walk and talk like a fucking cripple’, but Lau looked confused, and I decided to step in and sod my pride for once. I really, really did love Lau a lot.

‘She told yuh I’ve got MS.’

See? No fuckings or bastards or anything. Just came straight out with it. First time ever. I loved Lau a lot.

Laura

I was stunned. He’d just come out and said it, no shirking it, no swearing. Mum was oblivious to the huge effort Matt had just made for her, but I wasn’t, and I gave his hand a squeeze.

‘Yes. Oh you poor boy.’

‘Mum …’

She was risking blowing it if she gave Matt much more sympathy; he hated people fussing over him.

Matt

I didn’t have quite enough love not to frown at the sympathy, though. I hated pity, it made me feel all screwed up inside, like I wanted to shrink away from it. So although I frowned, I was still hanging on to trying to impress Lau’s mum by not sending a stinging bit of sarcasm her way.

‘Yeh, well, one of those things.’

Best to move on with a quick change of subject.

‘How duh yuh know my mum?’

‘We’re both in the gardening club.’

‘Oh. Mum loves her garden. Nehds a bih of help tho. My friend cuts her grass, and weh take stuff tuh the tip foh her.’

At least, I went along for the ride. Couldn’t drive there or really carry much out of the car, but I liked to feel I added moral support and encouragement.

‘Yes, she’s lucky to have so much help from her family. It seems quite extensive.’

‘There are bluhdy loads of us.’

Oh bollocks. I’d been trying so bloody hard not to fucking swear. It was so natural for me, though. However, I was annoyed with myself, and quickly put my hand to my mouth to apologise.

‘Sohry. Nehd tuh watch my language.’

‘Don’t worry, dear, there’s worse on the television every night. I hear a good swear is cathartic.’

Laura

I could hardly believe my ears. One of the evils of the world, according to Mum, was the amount of swearing that went on. It was right up there at number two nestled behind, at number one, the amount of sex outside of marriage. If she knew what was going through Matt’s head and coming out of his mouth most of the time, she’d be less forgiving.

Matt

I couldn’t help looking at Lau, who was regarding her mum with disbelief. I had been repeatedly warned about the perils of even letting a ‘bloody’ slip through, and now I had, and I’d been let off. Maybe the bird box had won me more than brownie points.

‘Ha ha, yeh ih can beh I suppose.’

‘Do you go to church, Matt?’

Laura

Oh, the conversation stopper. Well at least she’d waited until we were almost ready to go before introducing that one.

Matt

I’d forgotten about that. Lau had also warned me of the likelihood of this question; I’d got cocky with my success so far, and it had slipped my mind. Fortunately, I had prepared an answer that I hoped didn’t say ‘I’m a complete heathen’ while at the same time not exactly saying ‘count me in’.

‘Well, ih’s not unknown, buh prohbly not as often as I should. Weddings, funerals, all tha.’

‘Do you believe in God?’

Lau squeezed my hand. This one had also been on the cards.

‘Well, sohmtimes ih’s hard, especially when yuh goh sohmthing like MS.’

Holy shitswears, I’d done it again with no fucking bastards. I really was almost a reformed character.

‘Having faith can get you through hard times.’

‘I’m sure ih can. Ih must beh a comfort tuh yuh.’

‘It is. Maybe you could give church a try when it’s not a special occasion?’

‘Yeh, maybe. See how ih goes. Not good on Sunday mohnings at the mohment.’

Laura

And now we needed to beat a hasty retreat before she made it an official invitation to go to church with her soon, and we had to make up reasons why we couldn’t.

‘Mum, we’re going to shoot off now, we’ve got to go to the supermarket, we need to get some things for dinner. I’ll call you next week, come and see you soon.’

‘Alright, LauraLou, well, thank you for dropping by. Lovely to meet you Matt. I’ll be sure to tell your mother what a nice lad you are.’

‘Thanks Mrs Shoeman. She wohnt believe a word of ih, she knows meh tuh well.’

‘Oh, call me April, dear.’

I raised my eyebrows at her as we stood up. First name terms were for long term boyfriends only. Whatever he’d done, he’d done it right.

Matt

I saw Lau raise her eyebrows at her mum – or should I say April – as we stood up. Presumably that was quite a concession. Maybe I’d done a decent job at convincing Lau’s mum I was better than any long-haired ruffian Lau might have brought round before, pissed appearance and general heathenness notwithstanding.

We got back in Lau’s car, and I sagged with the release from the effort of behaving myself.

‘Fucking hehl, Lau.’

I leaned my head against the head-rest and closed my eyes.

‘You are one pretty impressive bloke. Do you know what you just did?’

‘Nehly fell off a lahder an swohr at yuhr mum?’

‘Ha ha, yeah, but she let you off the swearing, and she said you can call her April, for God’s sake. I don’t think she’d even let Moses call her April after one meeting.’

‘I beh Moses wouhnt have gohn up a lahder after five minutes, though.’

‘No, you’re right, you’re obviously better than Moses, I should have seen it before.’

‘Bluhdy righ. Leh’s goh.’

‘We should go to the supermarket now I’ve said we are. I hate lying to her.’

‘Yuh are so cute, LauraLou.’

‘Hey, I told you, only Mum gets to call me that.’

‘April an meh. We’re lihk tha.’

I crossed my fingers on top of each other to symbolise togetherness. Lau rolled her eyes and started the car.

True to her word, we pulled up in the supermarket car park.

‘We’re hehr now, weh don’t have tuh go in do weh?’

‘We do need something for dinner.’

‘I’ve goh lohds of stuff, I hahd a delivery this week.’

‘Yeah, but …’

I was fascinated by Lau’s struggle not to lie, even in a small way, even in a way that really didn’t matter, because April must have seen it as an excuse too, it was just a politeness, easier than saying ‘you’re getting a bit pushy now, Mum, we’re off’.

‘Oh goh on thehn, goh an get something fuh dinner. Fresh coriahnder.’

‘Aren’t you coming?’

‘Noh. Haht supermarkets. Hence online shohping.’

‘You can’t tell me you never go into a supermarket.’

‘Emergency ohnly.’

‘What sort of emergency?’

‘Someohn on fire, nehrest source of wahter?’

‘You are serious. Why do you hate them so much?’

‘Haht being herded – walk this way, look hehr fihrst, all tha shih.’

‘How is online shopping any different though? Your eyes are being herded aren’t they? Probably more psychology going on via your computer.’

Well of course that had occurred to me.

‘Yeh buh fewer crying kihds an less noihse.’

‘Oh, fair enough. I suppose this time on a Saturday there are going to be a lot of kids and noise. Maybe it’s not really worth it for a bit of fresh coriander we don’t really need.’

She started the engine, and I won round one of corrupting Lau.

I never really won any other rounds of corrupting Lau, because she was pretty incorruptible. By the time I met her, she was very clear about her standards and principles, what she was prepared to be flexible on and what she wouldn’t budge on.

Lying was one, she tried her hardest not to lie, ever, whereas I was the biggest fibber known to man – just ask me how I am sometime, you’ll hear a whole heap of shit. Don’t believe a word. But Lau, if she said she was going to do something, she bloody well did it.

She was pretty straight about what she said, too, and if you asked her if your bum looked big in those jeans, you’d better be prepared for the hard truth.

She was so what I needed. It’s not that people didn’t tell me the truth, they did, but I’d been fending them all off for so long that they’d got used to taking the long way round, and it all descended into thrusts and parries when I sensed some interfering about to happen and went about circumventing it. Lau didn’t have all that history, and just told me straight if I was being an arse, or if I needed to stop moping, or if I looked tired, or any of the things that would have wound me up if anyone else had done it. Loving her helped. Loving her has always helped, it has saved me.

So, anyway, that was Lau’s mum out of the way. Maybe I’d have to go back again next week – I hoped I wasn’t expected to go every Saturday, there was football to watch, and rugby when I was feeling better. Lau and I could always do virtual hand-holding, surely, it was what it was designed for. Anyhow, it had gone better than I’d imagined, April wasn’t the ogre I’d pictured, and it wouldn’t be painful to go back again.

Laura

So that was that over, and Matt had seemingly passed some kind of test. He wouldn’t have to come with me every week, but maybe needed to show his face every so often, be polite and not swear, and we’d all be happy. Now just his family to go, and those milestones would be out of the way.

Matt

Next on the list was Sunday lunch with the Scotts and assorted non-Scott family members. Beth had texted me the full guest list, and it seemed everyone who could consider themselves one of the family was going to be there to have a good stare at Lau.

84. You are all I see

In which past loves, past lives and present likes are compared, and there is a declaration.

Matt

I woke up when Lau got up the next morning. My sleep pattern seemed to have changed; I was still getting tired in the evenings, but managing to wake up earlier – having Lau to wake up to was pretty decent motivation, I guess.

I wanted to make her breakfast and another sandwich, so I got up while she was in the shower and made her pancakes for breakfast and a BLT for her lunch, now I knew it was her favourite. Or rather, it was her favourite so far; she had yet to taste the delights of the full selection from Matt Scott’s Sandwich Kitchen, and a few weird and wonderful concoctions were going to head her way in the next few days.

I nearly went back to bed after Lau had gone to work, but for once I actually didn’t feel like sleeping, and I luxuriated in having a whole morning to get on with things – only boring stuff like laundry and cleaning the bathroom, but things that I often came to at the end of the day with a sigh as they took away the last of my energy.

Beth texted while I was rewarding my efforts with a coffee and a chocolate biscuit.

‘Hi Matty. Up to anything 2day?’

‘Usual.’

It seemed I had been forgiven any misdemeanours from yesterday, but that didn’t mean I was going to be forthcoming with information.

‘Leak repaired?’

‘Yes, all better. Would u like dinner 2nite? Chicken in white wine sauce.’

‘Tempting, but have plans.’

And there’s no way you’re finding out what they are, Beth Scott.

‘Intriguing.’

I chose not to reply to the last one. If she wanted a nose she was going to have to call me, and I still wasn’t going to tell her. Instead, I texted Lau, reminding myself that she might be too busy to respond, and so it was just a ‘holding hands’ text.

‘Hey. Miss u. Sandwich in yr bag. Xx’

This time I got a reply.

‘Thank u 🙂 love yr sarnies BLT yum. Coming over after work xx’

I loved that she didn’t ask any more, just told me what she was going to be doing, knowing that I was OK with it, more than OK.

So now I had the afternoon to potter around getting dinner, which I had decided was going to be simple but effective, one of my pasta specials, with minimal yet tasty ingredients. And I was going to go all out on the pudding. Lau loved chocolate, and I could do a mouth-watering chocolate mousse with raspberries and cream, and, my pièce de résistance, crumbled up bits of Cadbury’s Flake at the bottom, and whole Flakes stuck in the top.

When Lau got home, she was the one who looked tired. I was surprised to find I’d made it through the whole day without sleeping, and I still had energy left. Lau said she’d had a hard day, so I gave her a head and shoulder massage, which she declared ‘heavenly’, and then we put the TV on, for the first time since we’d started to watch Brucie last week, and Lau fell asleep with her head in my lap.

I didn’t watch the TV, just stared down at Lau sleeping, learning the shape of her face, the outlines, creases and dimples, the shades of her hair. She woke up after half an hour or so, stretched and looked up at me looking down at her, smiling a floodlight wattage smile.

‘Sorry, flower, I didn’t mean to go to sleep, but I was so relaxed. I love waking up in your lap.’

‘Yuh hahd a hard day, yuh deserve a snuhz. Consihder my lap yuhr pilloh.’

I stroked her hair, and she sat up, still leaning against me.

‘I was having a weird dream, though.’

‘Wehrd how?’

‘Oh, you know, once you’re awake you half forget it, but you were in it.’

‘Yay.’

‘But Nick, old boyfriend, was there too, and the two of you were doing some kind of ‘DIY SOS’ challenge to see who could build a wall fastest or something.’

I didn’t like the sound of that, being challenged in Lau’s dreams by some old flame.

‘I hohp I won.’

‘Ha ha, I woke up before the end. Your wall was very impressive, though. Much better than Nick’s.’

So, maybe this was the time to find out. She’d kind of brought the subject up, so I took the opportunity.

‘Wahs Nick a buihlder?’

‘No, why do you say that?’

‘Cos he wahs buihlding a wall.’

‘Yeah, but so were you. It was only a dream, flower.’

‘What wahs he lihk?’

‘Who, Nick?’

No, some bloke we weren’t even talking about.

‘Yeh.’

‘He’s the one my mum called a ruffian.’

Oh, that sounded OK, if the mum disapproved. Mind you, she’d probably disapprove of me, admittedly for different reasons.

‘He wahs a bahd boy?’

‘No, he was pretty harmless, but he had long hair, and Mum didn’t really get it. She thinks men should be neat and tidy, otherwise they must be criminals or scroungers, or both.’

Well from the mother point of view, I was possibly onto a bit more of a winner than Nick, being both neat and tidy, and having short, mostly kempt hair. I was going to have to make sure it wasn’t sticking up when I visited.

‘Whehr did yuh meht?’

‘In a club.’

‘How lohng wehr yuh wih him?’

‘What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?’

‘Noh, jus interested in yuhr previous. Yuh knoh a lot of mine.’

Lau sat up, put her head on one side and bit her lip, considering.

‘OK. There’s not that much to tell, my previous have been a bit nondescript, kind of making up the numbers really. And there haven’t been that many, not proper ones. Nick was the last one, we went out for about six months, until I got fed up with him always being at gigs or band rehearsals, rather than with me, and then realised I was more irritated when he was around than when he wasn’t. Mum was delighted too.’

This was sounding promising, no big loves she was still hung up on, unless she was holding back. I was ready to hear more.

‘Who ehlse?’

‘Well, before Nick, there was Ferdi. We met when I was doing a Spanish class at night school.’

‘Wha the fuck kihnd of nahm’s Ferdi?’

‘A Spanish kind of name.’

‘Wha? He wahnt the bluhdy teacher was he?’

Yeah, like I could talk about shagging the teacher of the evening class.

‘No, he came along one evening to show us his toreador regalia.’

Oh fuck. A bloody bullfighter.

‘Wha? He fough buhls?’

‘No, he just had the proper kit. I think his grandad used to or something.’

‘Did yuh wahve yuhr red flahg at him?’

‘No. I gave him a lift home, and he asked for my number.’

Lau had an amused expression on her face, sensing that I myself was getting a little bullish, but she seemed happy to carry on giving me information.

‘Why did yuh brehk up?’

I was more interested in this bit, as it gave me a measure of what turned Lau on and off. And it allowed me to gloat about the blokes she’d ditched. Unless they’d ditched her. But who would ever ditch Lau?

‘He was a pig. Thought women should cook and clean for him, and expected me to do his washing up every time I went round. He really wasn’t worth it.’

Oh, well, that was also alright, I had no such chauvinistic opinions.

We discussed a couple of other of Lau’s conquests (Tim was a teacher who fell foul of Lau when he kept borrowing her car without asking, and Bryan turned out to be a smack-head and thus more trouble than he was worth – I sensed a longer story, but one to be rummaged around in later, when I wasn’t in need of a quick ego boost), and I realised she had a set of standards which blokes had to measure up to. I needed to know if I measured up.

‘So wha are yuhr criteria?’

‘A bit of planning for the future once in a while, not necessarily liking or even wanting children, but at least noticing they exist, choosing me over football once or twice every six months or so.’

I was pretty sure I met all of those not particularly stringent yardsticks, but she needed a bit of a tease.

‘Yuh are so strict. Yuh did know these were blokes yuh were going ouh wih? Noh sure yuh’ll keep me aroun much longer.’

I kissed her on the forehead, to let her know I wasn’t serious.

‘You’re a keeper.’

She snuggled up against me and leaned her head on my shoulder.

‘What about you? You’ve mentioned a couple of girlfriends, but not told me much.’

‘Well Cahrie wahs a long tihm ago. Buh I guehs she fucked meh up pretty wehl back then.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘I tohl yuh she lef meh fuh her ex, tohl everyone I hahd HIV?’

Lau nodded, frowning, then shook her head in disapproval.

‘Did I tell yuh she wehnt back tuh the flat, after she’d lef, while I was nehly dyin in hospital, an clehned ih ouh?’

‘No!’

‘Yeh. Took all my stuhf, work laptop, phohn, iPahd, fuhniture. Lef the shitty sofa an the Rohbie Wihliams poster.’

‘That’s evil.’

‘Yeh.’

‘I mean, to leave a Robbie Williams poster on a wall anywhere, is just unacceptable.’

‘Ha ha.’

‘Oh, but Matt, that all sounds awful.’

‘Yeh. Got pneumohia jus after I foun ouh I hahd the bahstrd MS. Hours from the grim rehper, appahrently.’

‘God, I don’t like to think of you nearly dying, it’s scary. Is that when your brother went to look after you?’

‘Yeh. Soh, tha’s how Cahrie fucked meh up. She wen bahk tuh the bahstrd I rescuhd her from, made up shih abou meh tuh justify ih, an stole my stuhf. Hard tuh trust anyone after tha, plus I had the bahstrd MS soh evhrything was fucked up lihk ih is now, so when I got my mohjoh bahk, I jus wen a bih mahd, prohv tuh mysehf Ihd stihl got wha ih tahks.’

‘You must have loved her a lot, for it to hurt you that much.’

‘Yeh.’

It still hurt, talking about it, which was one of the many reasons I never talked about it, but being here with Lau, my arm round her shoulders, her head leaning on my chest, it felt OK, contained, safe, and I continued.

‘Yuh know when pehpl say ‘she was my wohld’?’

Lau nodded.

‘Well tha was Cahrie. I would hahv done anything, practically anything, fuh her, buh turns ouh she dihnt fehl the sahm. I was thehr fuh her throgh a lot of shih, buh as soon as I nehded her, she was gohn. Ripped meh tuh pieces. If I hahnt had Jay an Beth, I dohnt knoh wha I wouhd hahv dohn. Buh I worked her ouh. She nehded tuh beh rescued – first her ex rescued her from her muhm, thehn I rescued her frohm her ex, then when I got bahstrd MS, she needed rescuing from tha, soh went back tuh her ex. She dihnt do helping, jus bein helpless.’

‘So she was the reason you were Matt Scott Superstud?’

‘Ha. Yeh, she was my excuhs. Sohm kind of, I duhno, revehnge or poin tuh prohv or sohm such shih. Buh ih jus mahd meh an arsehohl, dihnt it?’

‘Well, yeah, maybe. I know, when I saw you around, heard about you, I wasn’t that impressed. But everyone has their reasons, don’t they, and you’ve changed, you’re so different from the git I used to tut about, I can hardly believe you’re the same person. It’s almost like you’ve got the same face and the same name, but everything inside is so far from who you were. You’re just … lovely.’

‘Oh Lau …’

If ever I’d wanted approbation for how I’d tried to turn things around, what I’d just heard had given it to me, and I welled up with emotion.

‘Thahks.’

I sniffed a bit, and wiped my eyes, while Lau pretended not to notice and carried on talking.

‘And anyway, you haven’t been around the club and party scene for ages, have you, not that I have, really, I’m getting a bit past all that, but I haven’t heard your name in scandalised headlines, not for a couple of years or so. And you were with Julia for a long time. You need to stop thinking about who you were and remember who you are. From what I’ve heard, Julia Marran wouldn’t have tolerated any of your old kind of nonsense.’

I was curious about what she knew.

‘Wha hahv yuh hehrd abou Jules?’

‘Oh not much. One of my friends knew someone who used to work with her. Said she was, er, a bit unapproachable, didn’t stand for much messing about.’

That was obviously the polite version. Jules wasn’t known across half the city like I had been, but enough people knew her as the Ice Queen that she still had an impressive reputation.

‘Yeh, tha was Jules at work. She wahnt lihk tha rehly. She was a bih fucked up hersehf, nehded tuh beh in controhl of evhrything, couhnt leh goh at wohk. She was soh funny, thogh, an cahring. Said she wouhd look after meh if the bahstrd MS cahm bahk. Never got the chahnce, prohbly a good thing.’

‘Breaking up with her must have been hard.’

Lau was so cool talking about Carrie and Jules, but I just got a little glimmer of … something … that told me she might be having a bit of trouble assimilating what my feelings for Jules were now.

‘Yeh. Althogh she brohk up wih meh, rehly. Lihterally, wih all the shih she smashed. I knoh ih wouhnt hahv worked, buh I stihl fehl bad, lihk I chohs meh over her.’

‘But from what you told me, you both wanted completely different things, incompatible things. If you’d stayed together, one of you wasn’t going to get what they wanted.’

‘I knoh. Buh … oh thehr’s always gona beh a buh, ihnt thehr. Tha’s why – oh, I dihnt tehl yuh. Ih’m gona see my shrink.’

Lau sat up a bit straighter and looked me in the eye.

‘Wow, Matt. So today, you’ve made appointments with Anna, your GP and your psychologist. Talk about sorting your life out.’

‘Well not yet, only mahd the appoihtmehts, buh ih’s a start, yeh?’

‘I hope you’re proud of yourself.’

‘Yeh, a bih.’

A lot, actually. Starting to sort myself out, face some of the fucked up shit inside me, whether it was my nervous system, my sexual function or my psyche, felt like a big step.

‘I should think so too. I heard Anna talking to you earlier. Is she coming to see you?’

‘I thoght yuh wehrnt allohed tuh talk abou ih?’

‘Not to them, but you can tell me anything.’

‘Ih’m confused.’

‘Oh flower, just as long as you remember that I won’t ask them anything, and I’ll only ask you things your girlfriend would ask you, and you can tell me whatever you want. Oh, hey, I just said I was your girlfriend.’

She looked up at me impishly.

‘Yuh fucking are my girfriehd. Cohm hehr an prohv ih.’

We proved it for a while, with lips and tongues and tender touches, and then something occurred to me. I was still trying to get my head round what Lau was and wasn’t allowed to talk to me about.

‘Heh, Lau, can I stihl ask yuh stuhf?’

‘About what?’

‘Bahstrd MS stuhf.’

‘Well, yeah, but I might just refer you to An.’

‘Buh yuh migh not.’

‘But I might not.’

‘OK thehn. Do yuh thihk this time ih came bahk cos of Jules?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I knoh yuh dohnt knoh, buh can ih beh strehs?’

‘Yeah, it can be. But not always. Was there anything else happening back then?’

‘Shihloads. Dec had Chahlie, then when Jules lef, wohk was insane, rehly busy. I keep wonderin if ih was meh. Fehls lihk a punishmeht sohmtimes, fuh fucking Jules over.’

‘Oh Matt, it’s never a punishment. It can be a result of stressful events, but life is stressful, and it’s impossible to pin it on one thing, but it’s never just because you deserve it.’

‘Fehls lihk ih tho.’

‘Do you remember I said I felt guilty when my dad died?’

I nodded and stroked her cheek, because that sad look had come into her eyes again.

‘I nearly gave up nursing, afterwards. I love being a nurse, I don’t know what I would have done instead, but I didn’t think I deserved it, because I couldn’t save him.’

‘Buh tha wouhd hahv behn …’

‘Yeah, stupid and a waste, and life doesn’t give you what you deserve, it just gives you stuff to deal with. Who knows, maybe Julia did something that she feels she’s getting punished for, maybe it’s all just a big cycle of guilt that carries on because things just happen and we need to find a reason for them, and then blame things that can’t be blamed. Why not stop the cycle of guilt? Refuse to take the blame for your MS. Life is to blame.’

‘So fuck lihf?’

‘No, because life is wonderful, despite being cruel. Embrace life and all its wonder.’

It sounded like a speech she might have given many times before.

‘I bet yuh say tha tuh all yuhr fucking cripples.’

She gave me a sharp look.

‘Yeah, I do say it a lot. You’re not a cripple, Matt, and neither are any of the other people I say it to. Just because I say it a lot doesn’t make it any less meaningful. I really believe it. If you stopped thinking of yourself as crippled and started finding all the great things about yourself, which exist whether you’ve got MS or not, you might be a lot happier. But it’s not up to me to tell you that.’

‘Behter wait fuh Anna tuh list my qualities then.’

‘That’s not what I meant. You have to find out for yourself, believe for yourself, that you’re worth it. I know you are, and maybe that will help you find the good things. You think you deserve MS because of something or some things you’ve done. I say you deserve life because of who you are.’

She sounded impassioned, almost like she was preaching it, and I knew that believing this must be what drove her to do what she did as a job. If Beth had said it, I would have sulked and withdrawn, but it was Lau, it was who Lau was, and I loved it. I couldn’t sulk with her – not yet, at any rate, I’m sure Lau will be able to recount plenty of times I have sulked over the years – but just then, her words sounded like the finest sermon anyone had ever given, and I worshipped at the altar of Lau.

‘Hohly fuck, Lau.’

My eyes were wide as I looked at her. She shrugged.

‘Sorry to go off on one.’

‘Noh, yuhr righ.’

She looked surprised.

‘I am? That doesn’t sound like something you say very often.’

She nudged me with her elbow. Oh how well she knew me, already.

‘Ha ha. Yuh behn talking tuh Beth?’

‘No, but I have been talking to you quite a lot …’

At that moment, her stomach gave out a huge gurgle, and she clapped her hand to it in apology.

‘Bluhdy hell, I hahvnt done any dinner. Yuh must beh stahving.’

I jumped up and started the pasta, which was done and eaten in no time, before showing her the chocolate mousse, which was in individual glasses.

‘Oh. My. God. This looks like the most awesome desert I have ever seen. I’m scared to try it, in case it doesn’t taste as good as it looks. I didn’t know it was possible to cram so much chocolate in one pudding.’

I spooned a bit out, a spoonful that held raspberry, mousse, cream and Flake, and held it out to her. Lau wrapped her lips round the spoon and sucked the mousse from it, closing her eyes, tasting, swallowing, licking her lips. She looked so sexy, I could have eaten her up right then, sod the dessert. She didn’t speak, just made an ‘mmm’ sound, before opening her eyes, grabbing her spoon and making short work of the rest.

‘Aren’t you eating yours?’

‘Saving ih fuh other puhposes.’

She frowned as she wondered what I meant, making that wonderful little crease in her forehead that appeared when she was thinking.

‘Like?’

‘Wehl, yuh sehm tuh hahv enjoyed ih.’

‘I’ll say.’

She nodded enthusiastically.

‘Mehbe if ih was, oh I dohnt knoh, smeared on meh sohmwhere, couhd beh even mohr tasty?’

Her eyes widened, and a mischievous grin broke over her face.

‘But that could get very messy.’

‘Tha’s wha shohers an washing machines are fuh.’

Lau laughed.

‘And best of all, I get two desserts. Oh, you are so on. Where?’

‘Behd. Only plahce. Eat, slehp. Sohted.’

I stood up, took the mousse in one hand and Lau in the other, and pulled her into the bedroom, where we set about making a sticky mess of my bed. In the ensuing lickfest, more tingles were unearthed, and I started to wonder if things were looking up in the fucked up central nervous system department. I pushed the wondering away, as getting my hopes up never seemed to do me any good; I tried to take Lau’s advice and just enjoy what I had, what we had.

The bedclothes needed changing, and we both needed a shower, but that didn’t take long, and I started to get tired, but it was nearly nine o’clock and I’d been awake all day. Maybe I’d suffer tomorrow, but if I did it would be worth it. I already had an idea for tomorrow evening, had checked something on the internet, but was now too tired to talk about it, so it was going to have to wait until tomorrow, so I could see how I felt when I woke up, and make plans if I felt OK.

As I lay in bed, holding Lau, it seemed like we had done this every day for all of our lives. When we first started this crazy thing, it had been in equal parts thrilling and terrifying; now it was just thrilling, and I was no longer scared, either of not having my feelings reciprocated, or of the depth of those feelings. The time we had spent together since last week, the time we had spent talking, loving, finding out about each other, had made me feel safe with Lau, secure with her. Whatever happened, we would be holding hands through it, and it would be alright.

Laura

He told me how his MS symptoms started up again a couple of months after he and Julia split up. He was convinced there was a link; I was non-committal. I told him about how I nearly gave up nursing when my dad died. We exchanged favourites: TV (him – documentaries about weird things, me – Strictly and Downton), food (him – Lebanese, me – dessert), music (him – eclectic mix of folk, prog rock, old and new, indie, chart, me – pop), clothes (him – classic, rumpled smart casual, me – cheap and cheerful).

We had pretty different tastes, but it meant more things for both of us to try, not a drawing of the battle lines. We learnt about how to touch each other and talked about what we liked and didn’t like, things we’d done, had never done, would like to do, would never consider.

Matt had a few more tingles down below, which I thought was a really good sign but didn’t tell him. I had loads of tingles down below, and could easily have exploded, but I stuck to my guns, and felt that by decreasing the intensity of it all, the pressure was off Matt.

By Wednesday, a week after we first met, although we didn’t know everything about each other, we knew each other well, and it felt good, it felt less scary, it felt like, yeah, we’ve done the right thing, we jumped in not really knowing, but it’s working.

Matt

The next morning, I woke up with Lau again, made her breakfast, made her a sandwich. She smiled up at me as I handed it over.

‘I love that you do this for me. What is it today?’

‘Surprise. Noh peeking till lunch.’

I’d outdone myself this time, no boring chicken or BLT, this was a Lebanese spicy wrap, one of my favourites. She’d love it or hate it, but if I told her she’d decide now whether she liked it or not.

‘Spoilsport. Thanks, flower. See you later?’

‘Yeh, come over after work, I’m taking yuh ouh.’

‘Oh?’

I felt good, really good, this morning. I would take it easy, although I was looking after Iz over lunch. Maybe have a sleep after she’d gone, and I was hopeful I’d be good to go.

‘Yeh. Cinema. My favourite film’s on at the ArtsPlex.’

‘What, Amel – oh, no, that was your favourite film I would have heard of. Oh what was it, weird name. Micky something?’

‘MicMacs.’

I grinned. It had been out at the cinema years ago, and I had it on DVD, but introducing Lau to my favourite film, my favourite director, as it was meant to be seen, on the big screen, was going to be an unexpected pleasure.

‘OK, then, let’s do it. Your treat?’

‘Course. Cahnt subject yuh tuh French weirdness an make yuh pay too.’

Laura

‘Quite right. See you later. Kiss me.’

He folded me up in his arms and kissed me long and deep, and I was sorely tempted to call in sick and stay with him all day, as I had been each morning, but it would look pretty bad if anyone spotted me at the cinema after pretending to be ill, and anyway it would mean other people having to pick up the slack while I skived off. I squared my shoulders, stroked his cheek and left.

Matt

Well never let it be said I don’t respond to bossy women. I did as I was told and kissed her, wishing as I had every morning that she didn’t have to go and we could spend the day together. But she did have to go, and I watched her from the window as she approached her car, waved up at me, then drove away.

I took it slowly for the rest of the morning. I caught up with emails, replying to people I should have been in touch with a long time ago, Andrew being one of them. I’d heard from him shortly after I got back from Egypt, just a quick text to say he’d managed to see Rebecca, that things were less antagonistic between him and Karen, and that he was coming back to the UK in a couple of days.

He’d emailed a few weeks later, telling me that although he and Karen weren’t going to get back together, they had been able to talk about what might be best for Rebecca, and were still negotiating how they might both be able to spend time with her. I could only imagine how difficult and delicate that process might be, but hadn’t had the mental space to be able to sympathise before. Andrew didn’t know about my flare-up, and was probably wondering why I hadn’t been in touch.

Hi Andrew

Sorry I’ve been off the radar for a bit. Haven’t been well, flare-up of the old bastard MS.

Meant to say, a long time ago, thanks for jetting all the way out to Egypt, was great to see you, and it really helped me sort some of my shit out.

Glad to hear things have defrosted a bit with you and Karen. Hope you get to see Rebecca again soon.

Stay in touch, mate, would be great to hear from you. Say hi to Eyeti bods.

Matt.

I sent similar emails (without the shit about Andrew’s family, dur) to other people I should have contacted a while ago, sent some fucking-about emails to some work colleagues just to let them know I was still alive and starting to be kicking again. Then Beth dropped Iz off, and we went to the play park and ate ice cream, and Beth fetched her, all without mishap, Beth seeming to have learned, for the time being, from the condom incident.

I had the sleep I had promised myself, but was woken from it by my phone announcing Declan Summers’ own personal ringtone.

‘Hey, Matt, any chance you could babysit tonight?’

Not ‘Hi Matt how are you doing’, or some such shit, not that I would have responded appropriately, which was probably why he’d stopped asking me. Yeah, yeah.

‘Oh, not tonigh, mate, sorry. Going out wih …’

Oh shit, I’d completely forgotten none of them knew about Lau.

‘Er … going out.’

It sounded lame, even to me, and even the most incurious of people would have been honour-bound to ask.

‘Oh, OK, no worries, I can ask Rose. Who was that you said you’re going out with?’

Dec was not the most incurious, and although he was asking in a seemingly innocent manner, he wasn’t going to let it go. I hardly ever went out with anyone at the moment, be it mates down the pub or women of my dreams, especially in the evenings, even more especially when it was obviously a big fat deal. Bugger.

‘I dihnt … no one. A friend.’

I was all flustered. I knew Dec could read me if he wanted to, not like in a psychic way, as there is no such thing, but he was so used to me keeping shit from him and having to extract it painful bit by painful bit, that he was good at interpreting signals I didn’t necessarily know I was giving off.

‘OK, I’ll mind my own then, message received.’

And that was the best way to get me to talk, the bastard, by being all considerate and shit, and then backing off.

‘Laura.’

I didn’t think I could do it any longer, hide her from him. Dec knew practically everything there was to know about me, had helped me through a lot of it, and although I loved keeping shit from Beth, it didn’t feel right with Dec. And I wanted to tell him about her.

‘What?’

‘I’m going out wih Laura.’

Not just tonight, but as a Facebook status, were I of a mind to update mine.

‘Oh.’

I knew he understood, heard the surprise, which was due as much to me not having mentioned anything before as to it being new information. He probably thought I’d been seeing her for a while and not seen fit to tell him.

‘Not sure I know her.’

And now he was definitely fishing.

‘Noh. She was on tha thing Beth made me go on. One of the nuhses. Bluhdy hot in unifohm. Fucking outrageously hot out of ih.’

Well now I was spilling, I might as well tell him the essentials.

‘I see … so it’s going pretty well, pretty quickly then?’

‘Been seeing her for a bih.’

Yeah, almost a whole week.

‘Actually, I think … I migh …’

Oh holy shitbombs, what the fuck was I about to say? As I nearly said the words, I realised how true they were, how deep it ran, how much I already …

‘Might what?’

‘Dunno, Dec … fuck … she’s fucking amazing …’

I wanted him to know all about her, but I didn’t know where to begin.

‘Think I migh beh …’

Oh dear God, if I wasn’t careful, I was going to say …

‘In lohv …’

Holy shit. I’d said it. And now I knew, with a pounding heart, that it was completely, one hundred per cent, totally, utterly, wholly, absolutely, entirely true. Holy shit.

‘Holy shit.’

Dec echoed my sentiments. I heard the shock in his voice. I just didn’t go around making statements like that. He probably thought I was ill. Alright, I was ill, but having some kind of change of personality.

‘Watch out, Matt Scott’s unleashed his feelings on an unsuspecting world. Have a great time tonight, mate, see you soon, for a bloody good catch up.’

Yeah, I was going to have to catch up with Summers soon, but as we disconnected, I realised first I was going to have to catch up with myself, and then I was going to have to catch up with Lau. I couldn’t say something like that to Dec, and not say the same thing to Lau. But it felt way, way too soon, it could wreck things. But hadn’t I told her I was trying to say what I felt when I felt it? But then, I hadn’t planned on being in love within a week. But what did I think all this had been about then? But, but, but. All that ‘she’s the one’ shit, all that ‘it’s her’ bollocks, all that ‘meant for each other’ crap. It really was all shit, bollocks and crap if being in love wasn’t what it was all about.

So now, I had to tell Lau. I was in love with her. I’d told Dec. I didn’t think he’d be able to keep that to himself, and I hadn’t asked him to, which was kind of permission in Dec’s world, and if I called him back and asked him not to say anything, that just made a big deal of it, and maybe, just maybe he wouldn’t say anything because he was my mate, oh but if he happened to talk to Beth, then it would squirm out into the conversation somehow. My only hope was that he wouldn’t get round to talking to Beth for a long time, at least until I’d said something to Lau.

I spent the rest of the afternoon fretting about how I was going to tell Lau, while I got a light tea ready so we could go to the cinema soon after she got home from work. Just a chicken salad, which I put in the fridge to cool, but it took me ages, as I kept playing different scenarios over in my head and losing concentration on food preparation.

I didn’t want to say anything when Lau first got home; she needed time to unwind, and we were on a fairly tight time schedule for getting to the ArtsPlex. Maybe I should cancel the ArtsPlex? But then it would make it seem like a huge deal, and I suppose it was a huge deal, but I wanted it to seem less huge. I couldn’t do it in the car, as I didn’t want to cause an accident, or, worse, a heavy silence at traffic lights. Maybe in the cinema, before it started. But then it might spoil the whole film …

I was gradually talking myself out of saying anything at all, as every situation had a reason not to do it, although admittedly a fairly tenuous one. As it approached the time when Lau was due home, I decided I would feel my way and tell her ‘when it felt right’, which could well equate to not doing it at all if I didn’t watch myself. It was the best I could come up with.

Laura

The day went. Rachel was back, and it was frosty but not unbearable. We talked when we needed to, but not otherwise; nobody mentioned Matt when she was around, or even when she wasn’t. Now he was an official registered patient, it was like he didn’t exist, which was how it should be.

I went on my visits, I ate Matt’s sandwich (some kind of Lebanese wrap with falafels and spicy dip – Laura’s sandwich review: weird but yum), I wrote my notes and I came home. Or rather went back to Matt’s flat, which was starting to feel like home.

Matt had made a quick tea for when I got there – I was getting used to not having to cook at all, and was liking it – which we ate before we left for the cinema. Matt seemed a little quiet and preoccupied, but I knew he’d looked after Iz for a couple of hours in the afternoon, and thought he might be tired. It hadn’t taken me long to find out that he didn’t like me to ask if he was alright, especially if he wasn’t, and I was learning that he would tell me if he wasn’t feeling up to doing something. Trusting him to tell me was getting easier, but sometimes I couldn’t help myself. Today I let it go, and hoped he would say if his energy levels got too low.

The car journey to the cinema was companionably quiet. We went in, Matt paid for the tickets, and we took our seats in the dark, holding hands through the trailers, but not talking. I was starting to get a little concerned about Matt – he was distant and uncommunicative, and I resolved to confront him about it once we left the cinema, as no good ever came of leaving things unsaid. However, just as the film was about to start, I heard Matt take a deep breath as he leaned over and murmured in my ear.

Matt

It was on my mind, and I knew I was preoccupied and quiet while we ate, while we travelled, and while we sat in the cinema waiting for the film to start. I saw Lau look at me, worried, wondering what was going on, so I took her hand and squeezed, took a deep breath, psyched myself up … and bottled it. About five times.

It wasn’t that I was scared to say it, not of the words or the feeling itself, although that was enough to have me freaking out where I sat. My main fear was not knowing how Lau was going to react. Many different outcomes vied for prominence in the possibility show running through my mind, and not many of them were good. I didn’t think I could bear it if I fucked this up with Lau before it had begun, but if I said nothing and either Dec or Beth let the figurative cat out of the metaphorical bag, then I stood an equal chance of fucking it up.

I sat there, about to tell her, all the way through the adverts and the trailers, but it wasn’t until the rating certificate came up, just as the film was about to start, I realised I wasn’t going to be able to sit through the whole film feeling like this. Come on, Matt, get a grip. It’s just words. I took a deep breath and leaned over to speak into her ear.

‘Lau … I’m … in lohv wih yuh.’

She sat perfectly still for possibly one second, but in that second, all the worst case scenarios burst into being in my mind. I wondered if she’d even heard me properly through my unintelligible bollocks, or if I’d spoken loudly enough – was I going to have to say it again? I didn’t know if I could; I wondered if she was going to dump her popcorn in my lap and storm out; I wondered if she was going to stop holding my hand and go tense; I tried to work out from her profile exactly what she was thinking.

Shit, I shouldn’t have said anything, why did I have to say it just now, when the fucking film was starting? What a fucking idiot, she thinks I’m a complete tosser now, and I’ve just ruined the bloody film, and we’re going to have to bloody sit here in awkward silence until it finishes, and then –

Laura

I turned to look at him, wondering if I’d heard him right, heart just about bursting through my chest. I could see his face flickering with the lights from the screen, his eyes were shining, but his expression was a mixture of fear, hope and bafflement, as if he wasn’t quite sure why he’d suddenly said it, and was terrified of what my response might be. Oh! He’d been psyching himself up to say it. That would explain the strained silences and slightly ‘off’ feeling from a non-sharer like Matt. I, on the other hand, shared with gusto what was on my mind, and had been trying not to say ‘I love you’ for days. Prepare to share, buster.

‘Oh my God. I love you too.’

As soon as I spoke, his expression changed. The fear and bafflement disappeared, and a huge grin spread across his mouth.

Matt

Just one second later. Holy fuck. How could I have doubted it? She was Lau, we were made for each other. And she loved me too. Holy, holy, holy fucking shit. A huge grin surged across my mouth. Lau smiled back at me, her eyes shining in the light from the screen, and we moved towards each other and kissed each other passionately.

We didn’t see any of the film; we just snogged as if we were fifteen, groping each other, staring at each other, more snogging, more groping.

There were more than a few ‘shh’es from people around us, but we were on our own on the back row, and we didn’t care. We bloody, fucking loved each other and it was bloody, fucking awesome.

We hadn’t said a word to each other since our separate declarations, and we walked out, both in a daze, just looking at each other, still not speaking. It was as if the rest of the world didn’t exist, there was just me looking at Lau looking at me, our arms tightly round each other, giving each other a squeeze every so often. Somehow we managed to get to a café without getting run over or bumping into anything, and we ordered coffee and sat down, holding hands across the table. Lau broke our silence.

‘Wow, Matt. So why did you choose that moment to tell me?’

‘Ih’v behn meaning tuh since yuh goh back from work. Couldn’t pluck up the courage. Couldn’t sit throgh the whohl film knowin an not tellin yuh.’

‘Is that why you’ve been so quiet? I thought you were tired.’

I nodded. ‘Dec rang meh earlier, wanted me tuh babysit tonigh.’

Lau tutted. I think she thought everyone took advantage of me as far as child care went.

‘I told him abouh yuh, said we were going ouh, told him I love yuh. Jus came ouh. Once I told him, I needed tuh tell yuh.’

I shrugged, still unable to stop smiling, the corners of my mouth pulling upwards of their own accord.

Laura

He shrugged, the silly grin still stuck to his face. It definitely all made sense now. Matt wasn’t good at facing his own feelings, and found it hard to express himself honestly at times. He had also been scared I might not feel the same, but under pressure to be honest with me. He’d been ruminating on it all since before I got home from work. I filed this useful information about Matt away for later, as I was sure I was going to need a lot of help in the future with decoding Matt’s unspoken communication.

‘Well, yay Dec, I suppose. I’ve been trying not to tell you for a few days.’

Matt

‘Wha? Why?’

Now I did feel foolish. I’d been battling with myself for a couple of hours, and Lau had been doing the same for days. Pair of losers, both of us.

‘Didn’t want to freak you out. It’s been a bit full-on, big proclamations seem even more full on, but I’ve nearly said it a few times.’

I wondered, briefly, what I would have done if she had said it first. It could have completely thrown me, or it could have made me go ‘yeah, course, me too’.

Maybe it was best this way; we’d never know.

‘Oh Lau, wha are we like? Going soh fast, then trying to goh soh slow, ih’s mental. I was soh scared yuh weren’t gona say ih back tho.’

‘How could you not know I would?’

‘Jus insecure. Fucked up too many tihms.’

Thinking about it, I’d never said it and had it said back to me – Carrie never got round to saying it, and it was never an option with Jules. Maybe Mercy would have if I’d given her the chance. It seems like enough to have stopped me ever saying it again.

‘Not this time. This time you’ve got it just right. I love you, Matt Scott.’

Lau’s smile widened on her face as she relished saying it, and she punctuated the statement with a little satisfied nod.

‘An I love yuh, Laura Louise Shoeman.’

We leaned across the table and kissed until our coffees came.

Laura

As we drove home, Matt’s phone rang. He had different tones for different people, and I recognised Beth’s tone, as I’d heard it a fair bit while I’d been spending time with Matt.

Matt

‘Hey Beth.’

‘Hi Matty. Sorry to interrupt your evening out.’

Oh, so she knew I was out, did she?

‘Er, yeh, how did yuh – oh yuh behn talking tuh Dec, fucking jungle drums.’

I should have expected it, really. I was glad, now, that I’d told Lau when I did.

‘I’m at Dec’s, babysitting.’

‘Oh, I thoht he was gona ask Rose.’

‘Rose couldn’t do it.’

‘Oh.’

I thought I’d managed to steer the conversation well away from me, but oh no, Beth was on the hunt.

‘Dec said you were out with someone, um, special?’

What exactly had he told her? Not every bloody thing I’d said, I hoped.

‘Yeh, I’ve behn on a date, not tha it’s any of yuhr bluhdy business.’

‘Dec said her name was Laura.’

Oh for fuck’s sake, it sounded like Dec had spilt the whole lot. That’s what you get for not specifically stating ‘don’t say anything’ and getting him to sign a contract to that effect.

‘Yeh.’

‘Laura as in from the Living with MS day, Laura who took you home?’

‘Yeh.’

‘But she’s part of the MS service.’

Oh, well spotted, Beth. She’d said it as if I was doing something outrageously inappropriate, and needed to be told, and of course, it got my back up.

‘I knoh she is.’

‘She’s an MS nurse.’

Again with the stating the bloody obvious, as if I hadn’t got it the first time.

‘Yeh, Beth, the bluhdy uniform kind of gives ih away.’

‘But surely that’s not – there are rules about that sort of thing, sweetheart.’

I wasn’t having it, any of it, she always thought she bloody knew best, as if no one else could sort shit out without her bloody well sticking her beak in.

‘Noh, ih’s not a problem, ih’s cool, she’s sorted ih, stop stressing.’

I looked over at Lau, who must have known she was being discussed, but she just looked amused, rather than as irritated as I felt.

‘But she could lose her job, Matty. You really haven’t thought –’

Right then, all buttons fully pushed, she was having it with both barrels, and I didn’t care about any mixed metaphors.

‘OK, jus fucking well back off, Beth, not yuhr problem.’

Maybe it was my tone of voice, maybe she realised she had gone beyond my tolerance limit, but she actually changed the subject. Instantly.

‘Alright, whatever you say. So have you had a nice time, then?’

Despite my annoyance, I took the new topic as the olive branch it seemed to be and backed off myself.

‘Yeh, had a greht time. Saw a film. Had coffee. On our way home.’

‘Matty, I’m sorry. I’m just worried about you, jumping into – no, sorry, I’m not going to start again. I just worry, that’s all.’

Well I guess it was a sort of apology. Beth was never going to change, maybe I should just take it for what it was.

‘Oh, OK, I know, I know yuh all fucking wohry, yuh can jus stop tho, I’m doin OK.’

‘So you’re getting on well with Laura, then?’

Ha, yeah, you could say that.

‘Yeh she’s bluhdy greht, I fucking love her.’

I wondered if Dec actually had told Beth absolutely everything I’d told him. Beth could have taken my last declaration as a serious statement or as fucking about. I didn’t give her the chance to ask which it was. I looked over at Lau and put my hand on her thigh, so she got that I was being serious.

‘Beth, can I bring her tuh lunch on Sunday?’

Now Beth knew, and Dec and Mum knew, I just wanted her to meet everyone, be part of it all.

‘You’re assuming I’m doing Sunday lunch now, are you?’

‘Oh come on, there’s always lunch round yuhrs on Sunday.’

‘It would be nice if people didn’t just take it for granted that I’m happy to feed the five thousand every weekend.’

Beth was well and truly getting her own back now. There was no way she minded, she bloody loved having everyone there, feeling like the family matriarch or some such shit.

‘I’m not taking yuh fuh granted.’

‘I think you are.’

I sighed, decided to play the game.

‘OK, are yuh doing yuhr big fuck off everyone’s invited lunch on Sunday?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Am I invited?’

‘Yes.’

‘OK then, can I bring a guest, of the female variety?’

‘You may.’

‘Thank yuh. Shih, Beth, who rattled yuhr cage?’

‘I think you’ll find that was you, Matty. It’s usually you.’

‘Ha ha, fair enough.’

‘While I’ve got you on the phone, though, sweetheart, I wondered if you’d be able to babysit tomorrow or Friday?’

Nope. Couldn’t do babysitting. Had Lau to, er, do. If Lau was up for it. I was sure she would be, Lau had always seemed up for a good doing, even before we loved each other.

‘Oh, er, not sure, pretty busy in the evenings fuh the rest of the week.’

‘Oh. Never mind, then, I’ll ask someone else.’

Beth sounded very slightly put out. I hardly ever said no to babysitting, especially when there was a free meal and a bed for the night in it. Not this time, though.

‘Yeh, sohry, maybe Rose?’

‘Maybe. I’d better phone her now, she’ll be in bed soon. See you, Matty.’

‘OK, see yuh soon. Bye.’

I disconnected, put my head against the seat, then turned and looked over at Lau.

‘Bluhdy Beth, drives meh up the bluhdy wall.’

I tried my best Beth impersonation.

‘”Yuh duh know she’s a nurse in the MS service.” Shih, no fucking way, I thought yuh were wearing yuhr uniform jus tuh make meh horny. Bluhdy Dec, can’t keep his mouth shut, they drive meh mad, talking abouh meh.’

‘It’s just because they care.’

‘I know ih is, I dohn mind them caring, buh, shih, yuh know how ih feels when yuh trip over, or bang yuhr head, an everyone rushes over an looks worried an asks if yuhr alrigh an shih, an yuh feel stupid an jus wana crawl away an beh on yuhr own?’

Lau nodded. I loved how she got me.

‘Well tha’s how I fehl all the bluhdy time. They never know when tuh back off.’

‘Well I think you told her pretty clearly.’

‘Yuh have tuh beh clear wih Beth, she dohnt take any notice otherwise. Lau, she said yuh could lose yuhr job.’

Lau smiled and shook her head.

‘I won’t lose my job. I’ve talked to Patrick about it, it’s fine, it’s all above board, legal, OK.’

‘Tha’s wha I said. Oh fuck. Yuh’ll prohbly geh the third degree on Sunday. Not tuh late to change yuhr mind.’

I belatedly wondered if subjecting Lau to the full force of Scott curiosity, before we’d worked out a lot of what we were, was a bit mean.

‘No way, I want to meet your family. I can hold my own, don’t worry.’

‘Thanks, Lau. Love yuh. Fuck, I love saying tha.’

It was true. I was going to be saying it a lot from now on.

We got home, there was more looking into each other’s eyes, there was more snogging, there was more everything. Or rather, everything I was capable of. It would have been the icing on the cake to be able to report that my genitals behaved themselves for once, and allowed me to show Lau just what she meant to me, but it was not to be, and fatigue overtook me before I could even apologise about it.

82. From where you are

In which holding hands across a city occurs.

Laura

Pulling up later outside Mum’s house, I took a deep breath and a moment to quickly take stock of what had happened to me since I last saw her. Last Saturday, it had been the usual round of not very exciting news, how’s your job, anything you need me to do, what have you got planned for next week, are you coming to church tomorrow, no probably not, both of us just touching base with each other and making sure we were both OK.

My whole world had changed in the last few days, and although I wasn’t going to hide anything from her, I certainly wasn’t going to tell her everything.

I let my breath out and got out of the car, waving to Mum who, as always, was looking out of her window as I walked to her front door.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘Hello my love. You look nice today.’

‘Oh, do I? Thanks.’

‘I’ve put the kettle on. Tea?’

‘Thanks. I brought a cake.’

‘Lovely. What’s the occasion?’

‘No occasion, just fancied it.’

I sat in the living room, looking around me at the familiar things, feeling comfortable and at home. Mum had lived here since she married Dad, and although they’d redecorated plenty of times over the years, the same photos, ornaments and mementoes of my childhood had always been put back over the top of it. I was an only child, and each piece of pottery or Christmas decoration seemed to have been preserved as a treasured relic. Mum came in with two mugs of tea, two plates and a knife for the cake.

‘So, what have you been up to this week, LauraLou?’

I immediately thought of Matt calling me that, and smiled to myself.

‘Oh, you know, work stuff. I had to work on my day off, Anna was poorly.’

‘So you’ve been busy then?’

‘You could say that. Had a bit going on, been seeing someone.’

‘Seeing someone as in … boyfriend?’

‘Oh Mum! Just seeing him, getting to know him.’

‘Well what’s he like?’

‘Lovely, of course.’

‘Of course. Does he have a name?’

‘There aren’t many people who don’t.’

She tutted and shook her head.

‘It’s like getting blood from a stone. Alright, my love, what’s his name? And while I’m at it, what does he do, where does he live, who are his parents and what are his intentions towards you?’

I grinned at her. I wasn’t being deliberately evasive, but a part of me wanted to protect what I had with Matt, and telling people felt like I was losing some control of it.

‘His name’s Matt. He does something in IT, don’t really understand what it is exactly. He lives in Avondale. I have no idea who his parents are or what his intentions are. But he likes birds, so you’ll have something to talk about.’

‘Of the feathered variety I hope. So I’m going to meet him then?’

‘I expect so, if things go well.’

‘Well I’m very pleased, Laura. It’s been a while since you had a young man. I hope he’s a bit better than that long-haired ruffian you brought round last time.’

My last boyfriend had, indeed had long hair, but he had always been polite and even thoughtful towards my mum, who sometimes couldn’t see further than her prejudices.

‘Nick wasn’t a ruffian. He dug your flower bed over for you.’

‘Well I didn’t take to him.’

‘I suppose I didn’t either, that’s why we parted company.’

‘So when do I get to meet him?’

‘When you’re a bit less eager, and a bit less likely to be throwing names like ‘ruffian’ about. Slice of cake?’

And the subject was dropped, although not indefinitely. I chatted with Mum for an hour or so, caught up on all the gossip about her friends and neighbours, surreptitiously checked her house for signs of self-neglect, and managed to wheedle out of her the date for her fracture clinic appointment.

I shared Mum’s self-assessment that she would be given the all clear when she went to have her ankle checked; her mobility was much better, and she was much less reliant on the crutches she’d been given. She would probably be downgraded to a stick, and have the Beckham boot removed.

Matt

Eventually I slept, for a couple of hours, waking up when my alarm went off, which didn’t always happen. Sometimes Dec would be buzzing the door for ages, and I’d sleep on through it, so he had a key in case it went on too long, and which he only used if I was expecting him. He and Amy were the only ones who knew how much and how heavily I was sleeping; it would have been impossible to keep it from them when I stayed with them, but I had managed to get them to promise not to say anything to Beth or Mum. It’s not like they could have done anything, and it helped me to feel more in control of things, having at least one thing that Beth didn’t ask about.

But anyway, today I woke up when my alarm went off, which was half an hour before Dec was due to pick me up, and it enabled me to be coherent when Dec finally arrived, late as usual and with a mountain of litter on his passenger seat that I had to dislodge before I could sit in his car.

‘Yuh rehly ahr a mehsy bahstrd ahrnt yuh?’

I never stopped bugging him about the state of his car. It was supposed to be his pride and joy, bought with money left to him by his parents. You’d never think so, the terrible care he took of it.

When Dec first got the car, I believe he used to hand wash it every week, hoover it out, the lot. Nowadays it was lucky to see the inside of a car wash once a year, and there was so much accumulated shit in it that I was surprised they could ever actually get a baby seat in it. And it wouldn’t be long before they’d need two baby seats.

‘Fuck off. Just because you’re Mr OCD with your polished steering wheel and specialist glass cleaner.’

Well, alright, he had a point, and the fact that I still cleaned my car even though I hadn’t driven it for months may make me sound a tad obsessive, but I liked driving something that didn’t smell like the inside of a cheese factory, and you never knew when the ability not to mow down pedestrians was going to return; you needed to be prepared. Plus, I never let pass the opportunity to remind Dec that my previously perfect car was no longer perfect because of him.

‘Yeh, well, if my passehger seht wahnt soh stained, I woulhnt nehd tuh compehsaht by dohbl clehning everything else.’

This was a legacy from a rescue mission a couple of years ago, in which I’d had to collect a dripping wet Summers from the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night and deposit him in the middle of the city. Bare-breasted madwomen were involved. Long story, ask Dec about Becca Davis and see how big a twitch you can elicit. My Italian leather passenger seat had never recovered.

‘Yeah, yeah. Anyway, we’re thinking of getting a new one.’

This was news. Big news.

‘Wha? A new cahr?’

‘Yeah. With another baby coming this is just too small.’

‘Hush yuhr mouth. Wha will Betsy thihk?’

I was being facetious, but Dec changing his car was huge, and said a lot about how he had been able to come to terms with the deaths of his parents.

‘I know, it’s pretty major. But I think of it like this. Betsy isn’t them, is she?’

Oh, for the uninitiated, Betsy is what Dec called his car.

‘They left me money, and I spent it on something that means a lot, but if I sell her, then that’s like recycling the money and using it on something else, like passing it on.’

So, with that kind of twisted justification, it appeared that Dec hadn’t sorted out quite as much in his head as had seemed the case on first inspection. He was feeling guilty about selling his car, even though he needed a new one so he could transport his growing family. Nothing good ever came of naming a car. Plus, I always felt a bit glad, in a schadenfreude way, when I realised Dec wasn’t quite as sorted as he appeared.

‘Fahr enough. Wha yuh gona geh?’

‘Dunno. Something like yours might do the trick. Big boot space, that’s what we need.’

We talked cars all the way to Dec’s house, which was a novelty, as Dec had previously shown no interest at all in the subject, but now he was all ‘mpg’ and ‘cubic metres’ and ‘manual versus automatic’, and I enjoyed giving him the benefit of my not so vast experience, which seemed vast compared to his.

When we arrived, Charlie was having her tea, and sharing it with Amy in the form of loud protesting screams and puréed vegetable hand prints splattered across her t-shirt. They both looked a bit frazzled.

‘Heh Amy. Wan meh tuh tahk over?’

‘Oh Matt, would you? That would be completely brilliant. I’ve got loads to do. Are you sure?’

I was always sure. Not being the one who had to do it all the time, I loved being able to take my time over Charlie’s meals, making up games to entice her to eat, both of us getting in an utter state. I’d brought spare clothes for just this eventuality.

Now I’ve had my own babies, I realise how bloody annoying it is when someone comes in and a) enjoys doing the thing you’ve just been finding really stressful and b) your baby starts giggling and behaving instead of wriggling and screaming. But back then, I had no idea, and I just liked being Unca Matty, who Charlie stopped screaming for, so I could feel a bit smug.

Charlie’s dinner over, it smelt like it was time for a nappy change, which I was happy to do, but I wasn’t happy to lift her out of her high chair. Ever since nearly dropping her, I wouldn’t risk lifting her too high in the air, not until I was sure my arms weren’t going to give way. I was dropping things left right and centre at the moment, and I didn’t want one of those things to be my best friend’s baby.

‘Amy?’

She appeared at the door of the kitchen.

‘Yeah?’

‘Wehr all dohn hehr, buh she’s filled her nahpy.’

‘Oh Charlie. Thanks Matt, I’ll grab her from here.’

‘I cahn duh ih, if yuh put the mat on the flohr?’

‘Oh you star. Come in the living room, we can all chat then, I’m just doing some ironing.’

Amy picked Charlie up and I grabbed the changing mat and the baby bag. It made me feel useful and responsible, looking after her, changing her nappy, feeding her. Not much did that these days, and I would always love her for it, and love Dec and Amy for letting me.

Charlie’s nappy changed to everyone’s satisfaction, I needed to change my own clothes, which were covered in puréed pea and carrot. After I’d put on a fresh t-shirt, I sent a quick text to Lau. I’d been thinking about her all the time I was feeding and changing Charlie, and now I needed to feel more connected.

Laura

Just before four o’clock, I said goodbye so Mum could head off for round two of tea and cake with Margaret. On the drive back, I heard my phone ping with a text, but had to wait until I pulled up outside my house to read it.

It was from Kate:

‘May have averted world war 3 @ work on Mon. R not happy, but has vented & agreed not to scratch yr eyes out. How’s yr w/end w loverboy?’

‘Thx Kate. Sorry 2 ruin yr w/end. Mine’s had it’s ups n downs. CU Mon. Lau x’

a little later I had one from Matt:

‘Hey Lau. Can feel u holding my hand. Like it. Giving it a squeeze. Charlie says hi, she’s looking forward 2 meeting u. Told her all abt u. M xx’

‘Charlie sounds v advanced 4 6mths. Enjoy chatting w her. Tell her to watch out 4 bad Uncle Matt.’

‘Yr no fun. Me n C misbehavin 2getha!’

‘Miss u xx’

‘Miss u 2 xx’

I was getting the feeling that Matt liked using his technology as well as working with it, and I might be in for some long text conversations, but that was OK, it helped me feel connected to him. It felt like a long wait until I would see him again.

I filled the time with housework – washing, cleaning, changing the bed – and watching Saturday evening TV, then started a film I’d recorded last weekend but hadn’t watched because I’d worked on Wednesday and then my life had changed since.

Matt

The last couple of texts came while I was back downstairs, and exacted some comment from Dec.

‘I hope you’re going to spend at least some time looking after our daughter rather than running your social life from your bloody phone all night.’

It was a standing joke, with more than a grain of truth, that I spent most of my life on my phone in one way or another. Admittedly, since I had been off work, the texts and tweets had diminished somewhat; I felt awkward engaging in the same banter with work colleagues now I was ‘on the sick’ that I had when I was in the thick of it. Still, as I well knew, once you get a reputation, it’s hard to live it down. And I didn’t want to draw Dec’s attention to who I might be texting.

‘Noh, Ih’m jus gona leh Chahlie screhm while I meet the hehvy demahnds of Snapchat.’

‘Same as usual then.’

‘Oh stop it, hon. We’re very grateful, Matt. Dec, we’re going to have to get ready in a minute.’

Dec looked at the clock. They were due to go out at six, meeting some friends for drinks before going for a meal to celebrate Amy’s birthday, which was on Monday.

‘Yeah, I suppose. I’m not going to have to do much, am I, though? Just change my shirt, I thought.’

‘Oh, aren’t you going to spruce up a bit?’

‘It’s only the Twisted Toad then that Moroccan place, it’s not that bloody posh.’

‘Yeah, hon, but Jude was talking about going to a club after.’

‘Really? Bollocks. Not sure I’m up to clubbing, babe.’

‘Oh Dec. We haven’t been clubbing for ages.’

‘Maybe we’re a bit past it.’

I felt the need to jump in at that point.

‘Yeh, twenty-threh an twenty-fohr, yuhr bohth bluhdy ancient. Jus goh fuh ih, Dec. It’s ohnly Amy’s twehnty-third birthday once, dohnt waste ih.’

Amy looked gratefully at me, while Dec looked more grumpily in my direction.

‘An doh ih gracefully, maht. Smihle.’

Dec got a lot of his mock grumpiness from Jay, who had a similar attitude to having to do anything that put him out, but unlike Jay, Dec could be called on it and cajoled into enjoying himself a bit.

‘Oh alright. I’ll change my shirt and put my new chinos on. How’s that?’

He knew it didn’t cut the mustard, as he was grinning at Amy, waiting for her to respond. He got his reward.

‘No! You need a shower, hon, wash your hair, good scrub up.’

‘But we can’t both desert Matt, that would be rude, babe.’

‘Dohnt wohry about meh an Charlie. Weh’ll beh doin cool stuhf. Wehr’s tha feely book?’

Dec shot me a dark look, but fetched the book, and a plastic box of other toys Charlie liked, then picked his daughter up and sat her on my knee.

‘You be good for Unca Matty. Mummy and me will just be upstairs.’

‘Yeh, beauhiful, an then thehr gona lehv yuh ahl alohn wih meh whihl they goh ouh an hahv a greht tihm. Shahl weh tehl them tuh stop fuhsing an goh an geh rehdy?’

Charlie was looking at me, listening to what I was saying, focussing on the eye contact I was giving her. She giggled and reached out a chubby little hand to touch my chin as I spoke to her, and I looked at the pair of them.

‘Seh? Yuhr daughter says buhger ohf an get rehdy.’

‘She said no such thing. Beth would have my guts for a tennis racquet if her first word was bugger.’

‘Yeh, well, behter watch yuhr stehp then.’

While Dec and Amy were getting ready, Charlie and I were playing lots of baby games. She was getting really interesting nowadays, not just a screaming shit-monster, albeit a very cute screaming shit-monster. She loved it when you talked to her and listened while she babbled, and would reward you with lots of smiles and eye contact.

Charlie loved her feely book, too, and we spent a long time chatting about the various merits of ‘crinkly’ versus ‘fluffy’. ‘Crinkly’ seemed to be extremely amusing, causing high pitched shrieks, whereas ‘fluffy’ was endlessly fascinating and needed lots of patting and stroking, until we remembered that there was ‘crinkly’ and turned back to have another squeal at the crinkliness. God I loved that girl.

Dec was, predictably, ready way before Amy, who, in the way of women, felt the need to completely overhaul her entire appearance for a group of friends who had seen her in all states of play. I had no idea why they did it; I much preferred a face that wasn’t painted to within an inch of its life, but most of them seemed to need the full works plastered on to feel anything approaching ready to go out.

‘Wanna beer, Matt?’

‘Noh, behter not. Nehd tuh beh able tuh wake up if Chahlie cries.’

‘Oh, fair enough. Fuck, what a sacrifice, thanks mate.’

‘Ha ha. Wohth ih. She wohnt, thogh, she usuahly slehps righ throgh, dohnt she?’

‘Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be fine. You’ve got our numbers if not, feel perfectly free to call after, oh, let’s say eleven, when attempts will be made to persuade me to go to a fucking club.’

‘Jus goh, Dec. Yuh’ll lohv ih when yuhr thehr, yuh gruhmpy old git. Ih’s fuh Amy, mehmber?’

‘Yeah yeah. I suppose. Might be a late night, though, sure it’s OK?’

‘Yeh, ih’ll beh fine.’

The only thing I was worried about was if I needed to lift Charlie but her cot had a fold down side and there was a padded mat on the floor, and I was going to make sure we were both upstairs before Dec and Amy left. I hated feeling anxious and unsure around Charlie, but if I did anything to harm her, I would never forgive myself.

Finally, the obligatory half an hour late, Amy declared herself ready, looked divine, and Dec took Charlie up to her room, where she and I got started on some serious wind down towards bed time action.

‘Bye bye, lovely girl.’

‘Thanks, Matt, you’re completely brilliant. Bye bye Charlie, be good for Unca Matty.’

They both stood in the doorway, looking at their daughter; it was touching, how hard they found it to leave her. Another pang of what I couldn’t imagine myself having tugged me somewhere deep inside.

‘See yuh. Dohnt make a loh of noihs when yuh cohm hohm pissed.’

Blowing kisses, they left and Charlie and I listened to their footsteps going down the stairs. I distracted her from the sound of the door closing and the car starting by blowing huge raspberries in her direction, but she still seemed to realise her mummy and daddy had gone, as her face clouded and I wondered if she was going to cry.

Grabbing the nearest thing to hand, which was Gigi the Giraffe, I performed a pantomime, complete with songs and ‘oh no he didn’t’s, which thankfully diverted her attention. I had put Charlie to bed loads of times, she was used to having me around, and after a short while, she settled down to watch me make an idiot of myself.

I sent some more texts to Lau, photos of me and Charlie and Gigi, letting her know what we were doing, letting her know I was thinking about her, holding her hand, missing her. Charlie and I did a lot of chatting, both of us talking our own version of unintelligible bollocks, then we played the ‘let’s tidy up your bedroom’ game, and had a laugh putting all her toys in various boxes, pressing all the buttons on all the toys, making all the lights flash, cuddling all the teddies, until it was all put away. Then it was story time, and after a while it was quiet, the curtains were shut, I was talking in a low voice, and even my eyes were starting to droop.

Charlie had had a long day, having been at Jay and Beth’s for the afternoon, being dressed up by Iz, and she looked ready for bed, so I stood up and placed her in her cot, but didn’t fold the side up, just sat by the cot, still talking in a low voice.

‘Heh, beauhiful, yuhr gona beh a good girl an goh tuh slehp fuh Unca Matty, yeh? Hehr’s Gigi, gihv her a cuhdl.’

Eventually, Charlie’s eyes closed, and I sat and watched her sleeping for a bit, before pulling up the cot-side and creeping out of the room, switching the baby monitor on as I went.

I went downstairs to make myself a drink, but carried it straight back up; I was knackered, and although it wasn’t yet eight thirty, I needed to go to bed. I texted Lau goodnight, and on a whim, as I really wanted to see her face before I sunk into the depths of sleep, I asked if I could Skype her.

Laura

Matt texted throughout the evening, sending me pictures of him and Charlie, as well as a running commentary on what they were up to. He seemed to be enjoying himself, and sent me a goodnight text at about eight thirty.

‘Feel 100 yrs old, but going 2 bed. Charlotte Lucy Summers-Wright, u’ll b the death of me. Might make her put me 2 bed, she can stay up an watch MOTD.’

‘MOTD?’

‘Match of the Day. Don’t wanna miss Spurs, but seriously drooping.’

‘Record it.’

‘Genius. Do u have Skype? Or FaceTime (Apple only).’

‘Have Skype, no Apple tho.’

‘Fancy a quick Skype b4 bed? Need 2 sort out yr lack of Apple =O’

‘OK, will take me a while to fire up laptop.’

‘What’s yr Skype name?’

We exchanged details and I set it all up on the laptop, then waited for him. The ping came after a short while, and I pressed the button. The screen filled with his face, on his side, lying down in bed. I filled from bottom to top with wanting to be with him.

‘Hey Lau. I can only see the bottom of yuhr chin. Ih’s a sexy chin, buh I’d rather see yuhr face.’

I tilted the screen so it showed a rather unflatteringly lit shot of me.

‘Not sure I like this, I look like a washed out egg head with several chins.’

‘Yuh look bluhdy gorgeous.’

‘Aw thanks, flower. It’s good to see you. It sounds like you’ve had a good time with Charlie.’

‘Yeh, she kehps meh busy. We had a good tidy – Dec’s the pits at getting stuff ouh and never putting ih away. Amy’s given up. Made a game of ih, done in noh time.’

‘Did she go to bed alright?’

‘Yeh, she was tihred too. I think they spent the day wih Jay an Beth, Iz is a ball of energy, loves Chahlie, buh treats her like one of her dolls, dressing up an shih.’

‘Are you OK?’

‘Yeh, jus tihred. Yuh bluhdy exhaust meh, Lau. I love ih, buh maybe keep the early morning buzzer blasts tuh a minimum?’

‘Only if you behave yourself.’

I was glad we were acknowledging last night, even if it was indirectly. It felt important not to just pretend it hadn’t happened.

‘OK, fair enough. Fallin aslehp here, Lau. Gona have tuh say nigh nigh.’

His eyes were drooping as he spoke.

‘Night night, beach boy. Call me tomorrow if you want to see me.’

‘Always wana see yuh. Nigh.’

He blew a kiss towards me, then the screen went blank. I sat for a while looking at the black screen, feeling soppy and wistful, then roused myself and went to empty the washing machine.

Matt

It was so great to see her on the screen of my phone. It felt like a lifetime had passed, and already I hated those times when I got on with something and she slipped my mind for a few minutes. We didn’t make any specific arrangements to meet the next day, but I knew we would. I knew we were going to be meeting every day for the foreseeable, and with that thought, I slept.

Laura

I heard my phone ping while I was hanging things on the airer and rushed into the living room, hoping it was another text from Matt, but it was from Kate.

‘No problem. Hope u OK. Kate’s advice line open 2 all-comers. X’

Her text reminded me that Anna was on call, and I decided to check she didn’t need relieving while her son’s girlfriend was there.

‘Hi Anna, how’s on-call going? Need 2 divert 2 me? At a loose end, happy to.’

‘Oh you’re an angel. It’s been a bit busy here, and had a couple of calls. Can I divert until later? You can send it back at eleven. Thanks! Xx’

I finished hanging up my laundry, and then sat back in front of the TV, not getting too engrossed in anything in case I had any calls. There were a couple, but nothing too urgent, and I just gave some general advice and pointed them in the direction of their GP. It helped to fill the time, and before too long I was yawning and trying to stay awake until eleven when I could hand back to Anna.

As I watched the TV, the opening credits for Match of the Day came on, and I found myself watching for possibly the first time ever, just to see if Spurs had won or not. I didn’t even like football, so it was purely as a way of connecting to Matt. Shaking my head at myself, I kept one eye on the score while diverting the helpline back to Anna, and sending a text to her about who she’d missed while I’d taken over. Spurs won, beating Aston Villa with a last minute penalty. I found myself inexplicably delighted. Laura Shoeman, you really have got it bad, you poor besotted girl.

Unable to keep my eyes open any longer I dragged myself upstairs, undressed and got into bed.

I woke the next morning, expecting to feel an arm round my waist, then feeling disoriented when I realised I was alone. That really freaked me out. I was used to being disoriented when sleeping in other people’s houses, and the first night with Matt had shown that I could be just as freaked out if things had changed in my own bedroom, but now I missed Matt so much I was freaking out if he wasn’t there. It was time to acknowledge that I was one hundred per cent in love with him. I felt the realisation bloom in me, making me smile and frown, and filling me with equal measures of panic and excitement. I couldn’t tell him; it was too soon, and he didn’t deal well with pressure and commitment, despite all the things we’d said to each other. I would have to be careful it didn’t just come out of my mouth and mess things up.

I didn’t think he would be up yet so, despite really wanting to text or ring him, I got up and got on with things: I went to the supermarket and stocked up, I read the Sunday paper, even looking at the sports page to see if they said anything about Spurs, and I spent a bit of time tidying up my small courtyard garden.

Matt

I was asleep for bloody ages. I didn’t stir when Dec and Amy came home, apparently in the small hours. I don’t think Charlie woke up while I was asleep – I’d left my door open and had the baby monitor in with me as well, and although I slept heavily, I was usually alert to cries.

Whatever, when I finally woke up, it was nearly noon. There was a cold cup of tea and plate of toast on the bedside table, and I could hear voices from downstairs. My stomach was growling with hunger, but I wanted to text Lau before I did anything.

‘Morning Lau. Sleep well? I just got up, how laaaaazeeee is that?’

She replied gratifyingly quickly.

‘Very laaazeee. I have been shopping, informed myself of the day’s news n now gardening. Feeling virtuous ;)’

‘U haven’t got a garden.’

‘Hey! It’s tiny, but it’s gardeny. I have bird feeders 2.’

‘Glad 2 hear it. Imagining u bending over n digging. Phwoar :)’

‘I’m wearing shorts ;)’

‘Whoa. Nearly got a tingle just thinking about it. Gotta go soon, txt u l8r. Holding hands :)’

I tottered downstairs, yawning and rubbing my eyes and trying to wipe dried dribble off my cheek. One of the disadvantages of sleeping like the living dead was that you tended to wake up with all kinds of dried bodily fluids stuck to you. I wasn’t always a pleasant sight in the morning.

‘Evening.’

Of course, it would have been unlike Dec to let me get away with waking up so late, fucking cripple or no fucking cripple.

‘Piss ohf. Good tihm las nigh?’

‘Yeah, actually. We went to Sahara after dinner, had a blast. Bit of a hanger, but I’ll live.’

I felt a tiny twinge of envy, although it didn’t last long. It had been a long time since I’d set foot in a club, but part of the reason for that had been that I’d been trying to change my ways, another part was that I had been with Jules, who didn’t do clubbing, and another part was I really was getting too old for it. My envy was only fleeting, and it was because Dec had done something I couldn’t do at the moment, for whatever reason.

‘Guhd job Amy’s not drihnking thehn.’

‘Yeah, there are advantages to the three am puking sessions, I suppose. We hadn’t even got to bed before this morning’s one. Didn’t you hear? Ames is pretty fucking spectacular when she’s vomming.’

‘Noh, dihnt hehr a thing.’

‘That was a bloody long lie-in then.’

I had slept for about fifteen hours, but Dec didn’t need to necessarily know that.

‘Yeh, hahd a busy wehk. Nehd my strength fuh Beth.’

‘You’re in her good books, now you’ve been on that MS day thing, especially as you stayed. Maybe she’ll just chat about football today?’

‘Ha ha, oh I fucking wihsh. Noh, now she thinks she’s succehded, she’ll just kehp on.’

‘Seriously, though, mate, it must have been good for you to stay.’

Dec hardly ever made me talk about the bastard MS, and he wasn’t really making me now, and if it hadn’t been that I’d stayed for Lau, and only Lau, I would have answered him truthfully. But no, wasn’t going there just yet.

‘I cahn mahk my ohn decisions, thahks. An Pehter Jones was doin a tahk at the ehnd.’

‘What, Peter Jones who played for Raiders?’

‘Yeh.’

Nice diversion, Matt, smoothly handled. I congratulated myself.

‘What was he talking about?’

‘Hahving the bastard MS.’

‘What? Fuck. I had no idea. He was still playing when I first got here, it was his last season.’

We chatted a bit about Peter, which moved the focus away from me nicely, and then Amy and Charlie appeared, Amy looking understandably tired and Charlie looking cute in a flowery dress with matching headband. The headband was not destined to remain on her head for the duration of the walk from the house to the car, but the thought was there.

Sunday lunch went as Sunday lunch usually did. I didn’t always go, as sometimes I was just so wiped I couldn’t face it, but I enjoyed being part of it, especially when everyone was there (everyone being Jay, Beth, Iz and Cal; Dec, Amy and Charlie; Mum; Rose; Nico, Lis and now Bastien, and me), and now the rugby season was approaching, there would be fewer total attendance Sunday lunches, as half the family would be involved in travel back from away games, Sunday games and just general rugby busyness. So this was one of the last ones with guaranteed Scotts, Summerses and Tiagos before the season began. Sometimes during the season it was only Beth, Mum, the kids and me (so, you know, only five), but Beth would still make mounds of roast potatoes which would be hoovered up by the sporting menfolk on their return.

For now, though, dinner and the ensuing afternoon was predictably chaotic, with everyone using most of the available downstairs space to spread out, talk, play, eat and circulate.

I hadn’t seen Mum for a couple of weeks, and although I texted or phoned her most days, I’d been so preoccupied recently that I hadn’t been in touch since our brief chat on Thursday. She had looked relieved to see me, and then quickly covered it up with a smile, and a quick kiss and a hug. I felt her watching me while we ate, and knew she was waiting for an opportunity to talk to me without other people overhearing. I gave in to her silent scrutiny and found her an opening.

‘Heh Muhm, Beth said she’s mahking a vegetahble pahtch fuh Cal an Iz. Wana check ih ouh?’

Mum looked assessingly at me and I pulled a face at her. She knew what I was doing.

‘Yes, she told me. Let’s go and see, dear. I think it’s only been marked out at the moment though.’

‘Ih’m suhr yuh’ll wana hahv a quick chehk, geh the lohdown.’

‘Yes, that would be nice. I haven’t been in the garden for a couple of days.’

The Enigma Machine had nothing on us. We walked through the conservatory and over to the bit of garden that had been pegged out with short stakes and string, and it looked like Jay was in for a day of digging before too long.

‘Wha yuh thihk, thehn? Guhd position?’

‘Yes, Beth asked me about where to put it. I think here gets enough sun, but not in the middle of the day, so it should be ideal. How have you been, dear? I haven’t heard from you for a while.’

Mum would have heard about some of my exploits, the main one being needing to be hauled up the street and ending up asleep in someone else’s bed. I really should have talked to her properly afterwards, but my thoughts had been elsewhere and I hadn’t thought to say anything during our brief conversation on Thursday.

‘Sohry, Muhm. Hahd a busy wehk. Shouhd hahv rung or texted. I spohs yuh hehrd abou meh on Wednesday?’

‘Beth mentioned something, and there was a little bit of a kerfuffle when no one could get hold of you on Wednesday afternoon.’

‘Yeh, thoght soh. Jus overdid ih. Not slehping wehl, got up early, long day. Not payin attenhtion tuh the signs sayin ‘yuhr fucking tihred Matt, goh hohm, this way tuh yuhr behd’. Spehnt las few days catchin uhp.’

I hated keeping stuff from Mum, and I knew that if I asked her to, she wouldn’t say anything, and I was very tempted to tell Mum about Lau, it was hard not to, but I stopped myself.

‘Sohry I dihnt tell yuh, I knoh yuh wohry.’

‘Oh don’t be silly, Matthew. You don’t have to call me every five minutes to report on your whereabouts.’

Yeah I did, just to stop that look appearing at the corners of her eyes. It was far more effective than all of Beth’s constant contact.

‘Are you … alright? There haven’t been any changes with you?’

I couldn’t stop myself grinning, tried to rein it in, she noticed, I saw her noticing, saw her stop herself asking. OK then, let’s do this.

‘Yuh cahnt say anything. Prohmis.’

‘Of course. Cross my heart. You know I love a secret, dear.’

‘Not Beth, noh one.’

She especially liked keeping secrets from Beth. It was hard, as Beth used some kind of virtual sniffer dog to find hidden information, but it wouldn’t be for long and we could do it, I was sure. Mum’s eyes lit up at the thought of knowing something Beth didn’t.

‘You have my word, and now my undivided attention.’

‘OK.’

I took a breath while I tried to find the words to explain Lau.

‘I met sohmone. Sohmone amazing.’

Mum tried valiantly to keep some of the things she was feeling from showing on her face, but I saw concern mingled with the pleased smile, and a brief frown which was chased away by raised eyebrows.

‘A girl, dear?’

I nodded.

‘You sound happy about it.’

There was some hesitation in her voice, but I was going to ignore any negativity. I was happy, I was over the moon, and I knew they would all worry about how I would cope, what it would do to me, if I was ready, whether I was setting myself up to be hurt again, but right now, I was happier than I could ever remember being, and if that wasn’t good for me, I didn’t know what was.

‘Yeh, Ih’m hahpy. Yuh’ll lihk her Muhm, rehly. She’s not lihk Jules, or any of the ohthers.’

Mum had tried her best with Jules, but it’s hard to get on with someone who is determined not to let you in. Mum had not really had a chance to get to know any of the others she’d met, as they’d been shipped off pretty soon after, but she had made it known, subtly, that she didn’t think they were ‘my type’, whatever the fuck that was.

‘I’m sure I will, dear, I’d like to meet someone who’s put that smile back on your face. It’s been missing for quite a while.’

‘Heh, I smihl.’

I spent half my life smiling when I felt like I was dying inside.

‘Yes dear, I know. You do it very well. You know you won’t be able to keep this from Beth for long? She can sense a secret from a great distance, and when a relationship is involved, she’s even more perceptive.’

‘I knoh. Jus nehd a few days tuh mysehf.’

‘Alright then, dear. It’s between us, I won’t say anything.’

‘Thahks Muhm.’

‘What’s her name?’

‘Laura. Lau.’

Just saying her name widened my grin and brought a warm, fuzzy feeling to my insides.

‘You’ve gone all soppy, Matthew. I’ll have to get the details from you another time – it looks like we’ve got company.’

Mum had noticed Beth and Iz making for us across the lawn; Beth had worked out that Mum and I were talking about something other than the vegetable patch, and wanted in. She was using Iz as an excuse, but we stopped our conversation and changed the subject well before she was within earshot. She’d know soon enough, then Mum could look all smug and be all like ‘oh, didn’t you know?’ and Beth would be fuming. Little revenges, that’s what matters.

OK, I know it seems like I’m spending forever on this bit, telling you the ins and outs of a duck’s arse about how Lau and I got together, telling you shit you might already know, but be warned, I’m going to be here for a while. I’m in no hurry to leave here, where it all began, where I was happy, where Lau was new.

Oh shit, that sounds like it all went pear-shaped, no no no. It’s just that it’s so great, reliving it all, I want to stay for a while; wallow in it all; have a bath in Lau’s freshness and vitality; remember how exciting it was. So be prepared. Matt and Lau: The Early Days is destined to go on for some time.

Aaaanyway, the afternoon ticked on, and as usually happened I started to flag well before anyone thought about going home, and as I was a stubborn fucker who didn’t like a fuss (what? You’d noticed? How shrewd of you), I just willed myself to stay awake and on my feet, or at least upright on a sofa, until Dec and Amy eventually thought they should go home and take me with them.

I texted Lau to say come round, but not until after I’d had a rest (which in Matt’s special code was crashing unconscious in bed for at least a couple of hours), and she was going to wait for my text.

Fortunately, I’d had a long sleep the previous night, and this was one of the Sundays I managed to make it up the stairs unassisted. Dec had learned the hard way (i.e. by me going off on one, at length, in the back seat of his car) not to ask me if I needed help, but that didn’t stop him waiting to see how I managed to walk from the car to the entrance door, and if I looked dodgy on my feet, he’d just come and lend a shoulder. The bastard. I tried my hardest never to look dodgy on my feet, but it was way out of my control, and often, after I got back from Jay and Beth’s, I’d already used up most of my energy reserves.

Today, however, I just made it up the stairs and through the front door without assistance, but was dragging my feet so badly across the living room to the bedroom that I thought I might trip. I arrived at the bed with a second or two to spare to slip my shoes off, and then I was out of it.

I woke up about six, got myself sorted, then texted Lau to say come over. I’d told her I was going to cook her dinner, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me this time. I had a whole freezer full of sauces I’d made a while ago, and it was an easy task to prepare some chicken, vegetables and rice to go with it all.

Laura

Matt texted the all clear just after half past six. I’d already packed a bag with sleeping clothes, toiletries and my work clothes for the next day, making the massive assumption that I was going to be staying the night without even thinking twice about it.

I hopped in the car and was there by seven, pressing MRS and being buzzed in without a greeting. Matt’s front door was open, and delicious smells were wafting out of it. I walked in quietly and put my bag down gently inside the door. Matt had his back to me, and was standing at the hob, stirring. I crept up behind him, just about to scare him by pinching his bum.

Matt

I let Lau in when she buzzed, left the front door ajar, and went back to stirring the dinner at the hob. I had my back to the door, but my splashback tiles were shiny black, and by watching the reflection when I heard her come in, I saw her put her bag down and try to sneak up on me.

Oh she wasn’t serious; even if I hadn’t seen her, she did not have the silent capabilities necessary for sneaking. I could hear the rustling of her clothes, and her breathing, even over the bubbling of the sauce in the pan. She was just reaching out towards my bum, when I spoke.

‘Hey Lau.’

She squealed and jumped back, holding a hand against her chest.

‘How did you know I was there?’

‘Wha, apart from yuh making a noise lihk a herd of elephants?’

‘Cheek! I was using my Ray Mears bush skills, you can’t possibly have heard me.’

‘OK, Lau, if yuh say soh. Buh ever heard of reflehtive suhfaces?’

I pointed to the tiles, and she looked embarrassed, which made me feel a little guilty, but not so much that I was going to stop teasing her.

‘Oh.’

‘Surely Mearsy teaches yuh tuh knoh yuhr environment?’

‘OK, lesson learned. Never sneak up on Matt.’

‘Yuh behter believe ih. Oh Lau …’

I propped the spoon on the side of the pan, turned and folded her up in my arms.

‘I mihsed yuh.’

It felt so good to be holding her again, it had been too long – more than twenty-four hours, in fact.

‘Mm, missed you too. Did you have a good time with your brother?’

‘Yeh, buh was thinking abouh yuh all the tihm. Nehly told them abouh yuh.’

It had been harder than I’d thought, not saying anything to anyone but Mum, and Lau’s name hadn’t been far from the tip of my tongue the whole afternoon.

‘Why didn’t you?’

‘Dohnt like them knowing everything about meh.’

‘Why not?’

I sighed. I suppose Lau needed to know the kind of fucked up thought processes that made me tick.

‘Need tuh keep something fuh meh jus fuh now. When I was ill las time, I – they – Jay gave up his job an moved tuh Stafford, goh a house wih enough room fuh meh, I moved in from hospital. They were greht, buh when yuh cahnt even squehz one ouh wihouh a fahmly mehting abouh cohlour an fucking consistency, yuh nehd yuhr privacy.’

Lau nodded as if she understood.

‘Fair enough. I told Mum about you.’

‘Did yuh? Wha she say?’

‘Hoped you weren’t a ruffian.’

I was many things a mother might find objectionable, but I didn’t think ‘ruffian’ fitted the bill.

‘Wha yuh tell her?’

‘That you’re a foul mouthed layabout with an excellent oral sex technique, but not a ruffian.’

Ooh, I liked it, that she could tease me back a bit. And of course I liked it that she thought I had an excellent oral sex technique.

‘Ha ha. Thanks. Wouldn’t wan tuh beh yuhr bih of rough. The rest is true. When duh I get tuh meet her?’

‘Really?’

I nodded, surprised at my eagerness to meet Lau’s mum. I wasn’t a great one for meeting the parents, couldn’t actually remember ever having done it before, but I wanted to know everything about Lau, and she seemed to spend a lot of time with her mum, so it was a no-brainer.

‘She wanted to know the same thing. I see her most Saturdays. Next weekend?’

I had the briefest little freak to myself. Holy shit, I was going to meet Lau’s bloody mum next weekend. Meeting the mum – that’s like huge, major shit, it’s like dust off the glad-rags, it’s like discuss the china pattern, it’s like tuxedo or morning suit … then I got over myself. It’s like meeting someone’s mum, Matt. Like you were just thinking, before you freaked.

‘OK. An yuhr coming tuh Jay an Beth’s on Sunday. My muhm’ll beh thehr too.’

It was going to happen, and it gave me a deadline. I’d have to tell them all before next weekend; it would stop me putting it off.

Laura

I looked up at him. He had a determined look on his face, rather than one that said ‘I really want to do this’, but I could see he was making an effort.

‘Wow.’

Matt

Lau looked like she knew what a big thing that would be for me.

‘I know. I fehl a bih like I’m on a speeding train, an ih’s thrilling an everything, buh I’m shih-scared. Buh ih’s OK cos I’ve goh yuh. We can beh shih-scared together.’

‘We can.’

Lau agreed amicably, not seeming shit-scared in the slightest.

‘This smells lush, what is it?’

She pointed to the pan, which I needed to get back to, to stop it burning.

‘Thai grehn curry.’

‘Have you made it since you got home?’

She looked so impressed, I wished I’d made it from scratch, but I came clean.

‘Yeh, dohnt take long, made a batch of sauce an froze ih las wehk.’

‘I am in awe of your domestic skills.’

Oh well, if she was still impressed, then it was a double result.

‘I’ve brought pudding though, I’ve been busy in the kitchen too.’

She fetched a plastic box full of chocolate chip cookies. I was glad she had some cooking skills – maybe she was a baker rather than a chef, in which case we would complement each other nicely.

‘I haven’t taste tested them yet, so we might need a back up.’

‘Goh ice cream. They smell lush too.’

I grinned at Lau as I repeated her very Devon adjective.

‘Sorted then. How long till it’s ready?’

‘Not long. Rice is nehly done, quihk salad, ih’s there. Go an sit down. Or stay here an grope my bum, either way.’

I knew which one I preferred, and it seemed Lau did too, as she stood close behind me, so close I could feel her breath on my neck, sending goosebumps up into my scalp.

‘Mm, second option is good for me.’

‘Meh too. Jus dohnt geh in the way of meh stirring.’

‘No, I’ll be behind you. Just here. Concentrate on what you’re doing.’

I tried my best to concentrate, but it was bloody hard with Lau feeling my arse up. She was giggling as she did it, too, which made her jiggle against me, and again I cursed the fucking bastard for not allowing me to respond. Although, if I had, we wouldn’t have had any dinner for quite a while.

The meal eaten, with just enough beer and gin and tonic drunk to make us happily content, Lau declared me a fine cook and all round ace gent. Oh alright, what she actually said was, ‘Blimey, you make a good curry.’ And so I had to point out that it wasn’t a curry like you’d get from the Taj Mahal on the High Street, but a Thai Green Curry, like they make in Thailand, and she called me pedantic, but said it was still flipping tasty, and I teased her about not being able to swear except when I scared her by whispering, or by going off on one in the middle of the night, and she said she had been scared, and then it all got a bit serious for a bit while we thought about how I’d been, only two nights ago, but then I thought about how I was now, how different I felt, how different she made me feel, and I just grinned at her, and she grinned back, and we knew, I think both of us knew, that it was going to be OK, I wasn’t going back there, as long as we were always holding hands.

But, of course, the fucking bastard couldn’t just let me be happy and have a normal evening. I got really tired, in spite of my earlier sleep, and by about half past eight I was just wiped. I didn’t want to stay up until I crashed, but I wanted to spend some time with Lau, holding her to me, like I’d been thinking of doing all day. I looked ruefully at the clock.

‘Sohry, Lau, I’m gona have tuh goh tuh bed. Yuh can stay up, come in later. Goh DVDs, books, computer –’

‘Can’t I come to bed with you?’

Oh yes, angel mine, always.

‘Thoht ih’d beh bih early fuh yuh?’

‘I’ve brought a book, I’m perfectly happy reading in bed, unless the light will disturb you.’

‘Noh, I can sleep through anything. Yuh sure? Ih’d love tuh have yuh wih meh.’

She gave me a big smile.

‘Perfect. I’ll just clean my teeth. It’s like a proper sleepover. Minus the squealing girls and smuggled cider.’

I thought of the sleepovers I’d had, which consisted of: me, Andrew and Jonathan Woodgrove; the Star Wars trilogy; a family bag of tortilla chips; a large bottle of Tesco cola.

‘Yuhr sleepovers sound much more exciting than mine.’

‘No squealing girls?’

‘Noh, jus smelly boys talking abouh squealing girls. An thinking abouh them. Ohnly increhsed the smelliness.’

‘Ew. I’m so glad I’m a girl.’

‘Meh too. See yuh in bed.’

I cleaned my teeth first, then gave the bathroom over to Lau. I lay waiting for her, determined to stay awake until she’d got undressed and got into bed, at the very least. Hopefully longer. She came back in and started to undress.

‘Glad I dihnt miss this by bein aslehp.’

‘You’re very easily pleased, aren’t you.’

‘Are yuh kidding? Ih’s lihk having my own personal strip tehse. Yuhr soh fucking sexy.’

‘OK, well here goes, I’m putting my old sleeping shirt on …’

And in order to do that she had to take off her shirt and her bra.

‘… and a fresh pair of pants.’

Which necessitated the removal of the current pants. I watched it all, breathlessly.

‘Da da da …’

She sung the opening bars of The Stripper and wiggled about a bit as she changed. She was taking the mickey, but she was so unbelievably sexy, and I wanted her more than I’d ever wanted anyone. Bloody, fucking, bollocking, arsing bastard MS.

‘Cohm here, yuh bluhdy siren.’

‘Siren? That’s a new one. Not been called a siren before.’

I couldn’t understand why. She had been singing her song, calling my ship to wreck on her rocks, for days.

‘Jus shut the fuck up an geh over hehr.’

She walked slowly over to the bed, made a big deal of very slowly and deliberately turning the duvet down and plumping the pillows before getting in, making me wait. I grabbed her as soon as her backside hit the mattress, which made her squeal, and pulled her to me.

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

‘I thought you needed your sleep.’

‘How am I supposed tuh slehp wih yuh dancing naked roun my bluhdy bedroom?’

‘I wasn’t dancing, I was just getting changed. I think you should close your eyes and count sheep.’

She put as much ‘prim’ in her voice as she could muster.

‘Fuck tha. Need tuh duh some serious groping fihrst.’

‘Well don’t blame me if you’re knackered tomorrow.’

Oh, I wasn’t going to be doing any blaming, if I got my way now. I might be recovering, but I’d be doing it blissfully. We moved into each other’s arms and spent a glorious time kissing, touching, feeling, being with each other.

Eventually, I felt my wakefulness slipping away, and I couldn’t fight it any longer, even to stay up with Lau. I fell asleep, leaning against her, holding her, feeling her with me as I plummeted into the dark.

Laura

I could feel Matt’s energy leaving him, as his body sagged more heavily against mine, and before long he was asleep, leaning against me, arm over me, legs tangled with mine. I couldn’t move, but didn’t need to, finding my own entertainment watching him sleep and stroking his thick unruly hair away from his face. After a while I dozed too, waking up briefly as Matt turned over onto his back, releasing me. I turned the lamp off and lay back down, trying to remind myself not to freak out when I woke up in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar sensations in the morning.