103. Child of mine

In which a dream becomes reality.

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Laura

It was a few hours later, we had been in the room with the babies, exhausted, elated, alternating between just staring at them and each other with wild-eyed expressions, and dozing briefly. We’d had one or other of them in our arms the whole time. They had been asleep, then awake, they were wearing tiny nappies and nothing else, as I hadn’t brought any of their clothes with me. I’d fed them again, feeling so, so proud of them, and myself, and glowing in the sense of deep love that I felt for them. Every time they opened their eyes and looked at me, I melted. Matt just kept saying, ‘I can’t believe it’ over and over again, with a ridiculous grin on his face. But now we needed to start telling people, and there were things we needed to think about.

‘Matt, what are their names?’

He looked up at me, tearing his eyes away from our son, sleeping in his arms.

Matt

Well if she was asking my opinion, I was going to take advantage of the first dibs I felt I was being offered.

‘Well, I still like my Tottenham heroes idea.’

It wasn’t ever a goer, but part of me would have loved it.

‘No.’

‘Oh come on, Lau. Glenn – could be boy or girl. Ginola – also boy or girl. We could have middle names like Ardiles, Klinsmann, Greaves, Chivers. You can’t tell me that Glenn Klinsmann Chivers Scott isn’t an awesome name.’

In my younger days, I had given a lot of thought to a football team of names, and I wasn’t letting go without a fight.

Laura

‘No.’

I had to be firm, because with Matt, although it was a joke, he was semi-serious if given any leeway at all. He could tie me up in knots with arguments, and before I knew it, I’d agreed to something ridiculous like, for example, Philpotts.

Matt

‘Oh. Fair enough.’

Choosing your battles was always a sound strategy.

‘So, our shortlist was …?’

‘Boy – Jacob, Harry, Joshua. Girl – Beatrice, Ella, Emily. I think Josh suits him.’

I looked down at the dozing bundle in my arms. He was definitely a Josh.

‘Yeah, me too. I, er, was wondering about a second name.’

It was something I’d been thinking about for the last month or so, on and off. I’d hit on a bit of an idea, and not really had time to talk to Lau about it, as it had been a rather unformed thought, and I hadn’t sounded her out. No time like the present, I suppose.

Laura

I was surprised. We’d discussed names a lot, and I was sure we’d decided that second names were useless except as something for other people to tease you about when you got older. I didn’t mind mine, and Matt didn’t mind his, but he did hate his initials.

‘Oh, I thought we said not?’

Matt

‘Yeah, but sometimes it can be like a present to someone, can’t it?’

I was trying to work up to it slowly, wishing I’d talked to Lau about it before, but we needed to do this, name them, now, and I couldn’t be as circumspect as I might have been.

Laura

Matt was looking at me shyly, as if asking permission, which he hardly ever did. I wondered how long whatever it was had been on his mind; usually I could tell when he was pondering something, but this had got past me. Possibly I had an excuse.

‘What are you thinking?’

Matt

‘Well, you know, kind of someone from the family. Jay and Beth have been pretty amazing to me over the years, and I know it’s not from your side of the family, but I was just thinking, could we have James as a second name? Jay isn’t James, but it’s, like, a nod in the direction. Cal’s second name is James, for the same reason. I’m not very good at saying thanks, this might do it a bit.’

I had still never, really, acknowledged how deeply affected I had been by Jay dropping everything and moving his family up to Stafford all those years ago. It felt like about time I did, and it seemed like a good way to approach the subject without actually having to say it.

Laura

I thought about how Matt expressed himself with his brother, how he hid behind messing about and refusing help, and realised it was really important to him. So, second names – not completely useless when you’re trying to say something you’d find it hard to actually, well, say.

‘Joshua James Scott. Actually, I really like it. Hey, Josh, what do you think of your name?’

Matt

He wriggled, a tiny hand waving in the air.

‘Whoa Lau, I think he likes it too, he’s giving it a thumbs up. Right then, next, let’s name your sister, mate.’

Lau looked down at her, considering.

‘Well, let’s see now, tiny lady. I don’t think you’re a Beatrice. So Emily or Ella.’

Beatrice had been Lau’s granny, April’s Mum. Ella was a granny of some sort. Emily was just a name we liked. Lau was right, though – much as she would have liked to name her after Granny Bea, our daughter wasn’t a Beatrice.

‘Didn’t we say Ella because that was your granny or something?’

‘My great granny, yeah. I didn’t know her, though.’

‘Well, fair’s fair, one name from my side of the family, one from yours.’

‘OK, then. And, well, now we’re doing second names, what about Elizabeth? You did say Jay and Beth.’

I looked at Lau for a long moment, so in awe of Lau’s sensitivity, understanding and equanimity. I’d thought about asking, but it seemed like a bit of a liberty. Much as I went on about Beth, got pissed off with her, wished that sometimes she was less involved in my life, I recognised that without her, I wouldn’t be where I was. When I really thought about Beth and stopped being an obstinate bastard for two seconds, I realised I thought of her and loved her as a sister.

‘Really?’

It came out as a whisper.

Lau nodded. ‘I know they both mean a lot to you.’

‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.’

Laura

‘Then it’s the least we can do, isn’t it, flower. Ella Elizabeth Scott. Oh yes, I like it very much. Hey, Ella. Welcome to your name. Ella and Josh. Our children. Oh my God …’

I was suddenly overcome with emotion too, visualising Ella and Josh through the years, learning to walk, playing on swings, going to school, playing with friends, being with family. Tears leaked down my face.

Matt

I saw the tears spring into Lau’s eyes as she said Ella’s name. It wasn’t the first time, and certainly wasn’t going to be the last, for either of us.

‘Lau?’

She shook her head, smiling.

‘It all just keeps hitting me. Here they are. It’s just a bit much.’

I let go of Josh with one hand and stroked her cheek, as I tried to tell her just how awesome she was.

‘So are you. You have been so bloody amazing, carrying these two for all that time, taking care of them. I’m glad I can help now. Hey, know what, it’s time we started waking people up and telling them, now we’ve got names.’

I pulled my phone out and turned it on.

‘What time is it?’

‘Actually, later than I thought. It’s nearly seven. I’m surprised Beth hasn’t been down here banging on the door.’

‘Did you even let her know we were here?’

There hadn’t been time, beforehand, to let anyone know, but the Scott family network never let anything noteworthy escape its clutches.

‘No, but I’m pretty sure Dec would have done. They don’t let much slip past the jungle telegraph.’

‘Ring her, flower. Oh, put it on speaker.’

I pressed Beth’s name and waited. The phone rang a few times, then –

‘Hi Matty, it’s early for you, everything alright, sweetheart?’

We looked at each other. Beth obviously didn’t know where we’d been all night, and I was absolutely delighted. An extra bonus for me; Beth was unaware of the events of the last twelve hours.

‘Yeah, everything’s fine. Are you going to come and see us today?’

There was a brief pause while Beth wondered why I was calling so early to ask this.

‘Um, yes, I can do, any particular reason?’

‘Well, don’t come to the house, we’re not there.’

‘Oh. Where are you, then?’

She sounded confused, and like she was about to get arsey about me playing silly buggers this early in the morning.

‘Maternity unit.’

A pause.

‘What?’

‘Maternity unit, you know, kind of hospital, where babies are born?’

‘What? You mean, you’ve had – Laura’s had – when? How are they? How’s Laura? James. JAMES. Really, Matty?’

And now it was full on chaos, as I imagined her not knowing what to do with herself while she absorbed the information.

‘Yeah, really. Lau went into labour last night, while I was out, bit of a panic, Dec helped us out, they arrived shortly after we got here, er one thirty-five and one fifty-three.’

‘Dec knew?’

Oh, and I’d managed to drop Dec in the shit too, for not saying anything. Perfect.

‘Yeah, I’m surprised he didn’t tell you. Maybe he just went home and went to bed. He’ll still be asleep.’

And the deeper I could drop him, the better.

‘Wait till I see him, how could he keep this to himself? Oh sweetheart. Is everything OK? How’s Laura?’

‘Lau?’

I looked at her, so she could add her feedback.

‘I’m great, Beth. It feels weird them being out instead of in, but amazing. Come and see us. We’re here all day, I’ll be in overnight.’

‘Oh Laura! How big are they? Have they got names? JAMES!’

‘They were both just under six pounds. No wonder I was so enormous. But they’re both just perfect. They’re called Joshua James and Ella Elizabeth.’

This time, the pause was longer, as she registered the names. She was going to get it, it was just a matter of how long it was going to take, and how much crying there was going to be.

After a second or two, and with her voice hardly a whisper, she spoke.

‘Oh my God. Thanks, you two. That’s incredible. JAMES!’

The yell, after the quiet response, startled me.

‘Get down here now!’

We both heard Jay’s voice grumbling in the background.

‘It’s Matty. They’ve had the babies. Here, talk to him.’

‘Matty? What? You’ve had them? When?’

Jay sounded his usual mardy self, as if we’d had the babies early just to irk him.

‘Las night, or maybe very early this morning.’

‘Jesus. You could have given us some bloody warning.’

Jay didn’t really like surprises, which meant I tried to surprise him as often as possible. It seemed like I had really succeeded this time.

‘We thought Dec might let you know. He had to bring us here, on account of me being shit-faced.’

‘What? You were drunk?’

And now big brother mode was operational, as he chastised me for doing something unforeseeably unwise. A few years ago, me being slaughtered wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but I was a different person now, and I ignored his tone.

‘Stag do. Special dispensation from Lau. Think she regretted ih about the time the first contraction hit while she was stuck upstairs.’

‘Jesus. Are you all OK? Fuck me, Matty, you’re a bloody dad. Jesus. Yeah, alright, Beth, but I think this is special circumstances.’

‘Yeah, we’re all great.’

We heard Beth’s voice.

‘Ask about the names.’

Jay would never remember to ask about all the necessary baby details without prompting from Beth. He would immediately forget a lot of the important details too.

‘Oh yeah. Names?’

‘Joshua James and Ella Elizabeth.’

There was a short silence and I imagined Beth looking at him, eyebrow raised, tapping her foot impatiently while she waited for him to work it out. I swear I heard the clatter of an actual penny dropping.

‘Oh my – Jesus, Matty. You bloody bastard – here, Beth.’

Jay’s voice was quivering; I don’t think I had ever made him cry before, almost dying notwithstanding. Score to me.

‘Sorry, sweetheart, James seems to be overcome with something suspiciously like emotion. I think he meant to say ‘thank you, what an honour’. We’ll be there soon. Visiting’s after nine, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah. We’ll be waiting.’

They disconnected, and we looked at each other, as I tried hard not to look like I had enjoyed every second of that conversation.

‘I bloody loved that. You don’t get one over on Beth very often. Jay, yeah, he’s easy, but Beth, she’s usually got some bloody sixth sense. Like your imaginary dead psychic granny.’

My phone pinged, Dec’s tone.

‘Oh shit, Dec. I should have called hours ago. I’m gona be in trouble now.’

Not that there was a particular order I had to do things, but Dec had helped out immeasurably last night, and he had deserved at least an update. Not much I could do about it now, except call him. I put it on speaker.

‘Hey Matt, just wondering how much longer we’re going to have to wait for you give us some sodding info.’

‘Yeah, mate, sorry, meant to call you. They’ve arrived. Got here, oh, before two. Everything’s perfect.’

‘What? You missed the opportunity to wake us up in the middle of the night? Ames, we got up early for nothing, they’ve been here for bloody hours. So, spill, names, weights.’

‘Joshua James, oh fuck, I can’t remember bloody weights. What was it Lau?’

Maybe Jay wasn’t the only one who forgot important baby information almost as soon as he’d been told it.

‘Five pounds ten.’

‘Got that? And Ella Elizabeth, er … Lau?’

‘Five pounds eleven.’

‘Sorry, Lau. Shit, that’s nearly twelve pounds of baby. OK Dec? All the information you need?’

‘Hold on a minute – what’s that, Ames? Oh, fuck, yeah, you’re right, babe. Love the names, mate. Have you spoken to Jay and Beth?’

‘Yeah, just now.’

It seemed Amy and Dec were pretty quick on the uptake too.

‘What did they think?’

‘Beth gushed, Jay, well I’m not sure, I think he needed a moment to himself, bloody cry baby.’

‘Ha ha. Listen, Ames is going to come over this morning some time, I’ll be over after training, with your car, unless you need it before. Lau, are you staying overnight?’

‘Yeah, they just want to keep an eye on my blood pressure, and because they’re both a bit on the small side. Although if you add it together, it’s quite a lot of baby.’

‘Yeah, fucking hell Lau, no wonder you were so bloody huge – er, sorry, I mean obviously in a pregnant lady way and not reflecting at all on anything – what, babe? Oh. Ames says I should shut up.’

‘Yeah, wise move, mate, Lau’s looking feisty.’

‘Great news, though, mate, I’m really looking forward to meeting them later.’

‘Cheers, Dec, see you.’

I pressed the button to disconnect, but ended up jiggling Josh and waking him up. He started to cry, which woke Ella up and started her off too.

‘Oh bugger. This is going to happen all the time, isn’t it. We’re going to have to creep around forever, or risk them both waking up and yelling at the same time.’

‘They might be hungry. We should give it a go, at least.’

‘Yeah, Lau, get your tits out. I know you said you were going to strip for me, but I wasn’t going to hold you to it.’

Alright, I know breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world, but I am a bloke, one of the blokiest, and I will never be able to see breastfeeding without seeing tits. Sorry, but there it is.

‘Put your tongue away, Matt, these are for Josh and Ella’s benefit for the foreseeable future, not yours. You should ring your mum. And work.’

‘Oh shit, you’re right.’

‘And I need to ring my mum. And while I’m nagging you, and turning into your worst nightmare in front of your eyes, mind your language in front of these two.’

‘Sorry, Lau, you’re right.’

Oh, she was so right. I renewed my determination to avoid bad words within earshot of my children. They were so tiny, so perfect, so innocent, that nothing bad should happen in their vicinity, wouldn’t as long as I was able to prevent it. This should, in all fairness, include the use of profanity.

I moved the still squawking Josh into Lau’s arms, a pillow under him to support him, and he suctioned on to Lau’s nipple and sucked with all his might. Ella joined him on the other side.

‘You’ll never be my worst nightmare, though. You’re my dream come true.’

I stroked Lau’s sweaty hair out of her eyes and kissed her forehead. I didn’t usually come out with sentimental tosh like that, or like calling her baby and angel, but this woman, this amazing woman, who had given me my family, who was the most awesome person you could think of knowing, deserved it. Oh, no, she didn’t deserve sentimental tosh and loose bandying about of pet names; she deserved me to bloody well mean it, which I did. I felt incredibly tender towards her, more than just the usual everyday overwhelming love I felt. And I wanted her to know I meant it, and wasn’t just fucking about, and as I looked into her eyes, I knew she did.

We were still gazing soppily at each other when Beth and Jay arrived, just after eight o’clock. They weren’t supposed to let anyone in before nine, but Beth knew the woman on the front desk and had blagged her way in. As the door opened, and Beth peered round, I found myself holding Ella (we’d swapped) closely to me, not wanting to give her up, but knowing handing her over was going to happen.

Beth’s face crumpled into a puddle of maternal instinct as she looked at the twins. Even Jay looked respectably happy, but took a back seat to Beth.

‘Ohh, you two, look at you, proud parents. Oh Matty, Laura, they’re gorgeous. I don’t know which one to cuddle first. Who’ve you got Matty?’

‘This is Ella. Say hi to your old Aunty Beth, Ella.’

I held Ella’s arm and waved a tiny hand at Beth, hoping it would be enough. Ha, fat chance.

‘Ohh, Ella. Come here and say hello properly, then, my little namesake.’

I gave in and handed Ella carefully to Beth. I now understood all the fuss about ‘mind the head’. Beth was a nurse, and was also well used to cuddling babies, but I almost warned her about minding the head. I managed not to though, and the look on Beth’s face was almost worth handing my daughter over for; she looked proud, adoring, and of course, tears were spilling down her face, although she was still managing to speak through them.

‘Well aren’t you just the most beautiful thing. You’re so tiny. After Tom, these two seem like they’re miniature. How much did you say she weighs, Laura?’

We hadn’t specified weights, I was sure. Beth always wanted to know the details, wanted to feel in command of the information.

‘Five pounds eleven. Josh is five ten.’

‘Jesus, Laura, that’s some load.’

‘Yeah, bigger than Tom was, when they’re added together. Do you want to give Josh a cuddle, Jay?’

I was surprised to see Jay looking eager, as Lau handed him over. Lau and I looked at each other, both acknowledging that it felt weird not to be holding them, even though they were in good hands.

‘Hey, Josh, mate. You’re not quite such a bruiser as your cousin.’

Jay meant Tom. We had decided a while ago that rather than work it out or invent new names, or tie ourselves up in knots with ‘friends or family’, all the kids would be cousins, whether there were actual aunties and uncles attached to them or not. It seemed to work.

‘Maybe you’ll make a scrum half, or a winger.’

Lau went a bit pale.

‘Oh my God, Jay, there’s no way I want to even think about him playing rugby. I don’t know how you do it with Cal, seeing them batter each other week after week.’

‘Sorry, Laura. He’s a cute little fella though. Tiny.’

Beth was standing close to Jay, trying to look at both of them at the same time.

‘They’re very different, aren’t they. Look at all this dark hair on Josh, but Ella is so fair.’

‘Yeah, it’s the only way I can tell them apart with their nappies on.’

‘Oh Matty, but they’re so completely different, look, their noses – oh. You’re teasing me.’

Of course I was. It was the most fertile time for it, when Beth was overcome with motheringness and wasn’t on the look out for Matty’s special brand of up-winding. She shot me an admonishing look that rolled straight off me, then her look softened.

‘Oh, but Matty, look at you, you look about to burst with pride. I’m so happy for you, sweetheart, so, so happy. I think I need to cuddle Josh before we go.’

‘You only just got here, Beth.’

‘Yes, but we’re not staying, you’ll both be exhausted enough as it is without people outstaying their welcome.’

Beth and Jay expertly swapped babies, as if they’d been doing it all their lives. I still nearly blurted out ‘mind the heads’, but still stopped myself.

‘I think they’ve changed the rules here since I had Iz, certainly since all of us were here for Charlie. Do you remember us all getting kicked out, Matty?’

‘No, I’d gone before that, but it was a bit of roomful.’

‘I think they’re more strict about two visitors at a time, and no children, unless they’re siblings.’

‘Really? That’s harsh.’

I saw Lau’s face crease with a frown.

‘But Amy’s coming in later, what’s she going to do with Charlie and Tom?’

‘I’ll text her, I can always keep them occupied for a bit. Oh, Josh, you are just the most perfect little man. James, wasn’t there something you wanted to say?’

Beth looked at Jay, who rolled his eyes at the ceiling.

‘Yeah, I don’t need reminding to do every sodding little thing, Beth.’

I couldn’t resist it.

‘Language, Jay.’

‘That’s rich, coming from you, Matty. Anyway, what Beth thinks I’m going to forget, or bottle, or something, is we’re both so chuffed about the names. It really means a lot. Thanks.’

Beth obviously didn’t think this was enough, and took over.

‘We can’t believe it, it’s so lovely of you.’

This was the moment when I could have said it, how much they meant, how grateful I was. But, of course, the whole point was that I didn’t have to say it. I saw Lau looking at me, willing me to just grip myself by the balls and do it, for once, but I didn’t. So she kind of did it for me.

‘Yeah, well, you’re both pretty special, we hope our children will live up to their names.’

I looked at Lau gratefully and nodded my agreement and my thanks.

‘Oh Laura.’

Beth was blarting again. Jay gave Ella to Lau and put his arm round her. He caught my eye and nodded, and I nodded back. It was as close to me saying ‘thanks for everything’ and him saying ‘you’re welcome’ as we’d ever got. Close enough for rock and roll.

Next on the guest list was Mum. I’d called her after I’d finished talking to Dec, and she’d been pleased as punch, in her not outwardly that fussed way. However, the fact that she was there on the dot of nine, having bussed it across the city in the rush hour, told me how keen she was to see her new grandchildren. She peered round the door, looking to see, I think, who else was there.

‘Hello, dears. Am I first?’

‘Hey, Mum. No, Jay and Beth have been and gone, but you’re second.’

I saw a slight hint of triumph flicker across her face as she realised she’d beaten April, then it was replaced by a look I’d learned to recognise as the province of the grandmother. It was part hunger, part longing, part pure joy, and today it was shared equally between Ella and Josh.

‘Oh Matthew. Laura, dear. Aren’t they just perfect?’

She came closer, and stood, torn between the two. I knew she was nervous about holding them, as the arthritis in her hands was pretty bad these days, so I stood up and gestured to the chair I had just vacated. I understood the fear of dropping other people’s precious children, and also knew how it felt to be trusted with them despite your crippledness quotient. I wanted Mum to feel comfortable and safe while she held her grandchildren.

‘Here, Mum, sit down. Meet Josh. Josh this is your granny. I’m sure she’ll tell you what she’d like you to call her.’

Mum sat down in the chair and arranged herself so I could pass Josh over to her without incident. Once she had him in her arms, I gave her a kiss on the cheek, and sat on the edge of the bed, watching her.

Mum just gazed down at him, not speaking for a while. I looked at Lau and smiled. Ella gave a little snuffle in Lau’s arms, and Lau was instantly focussed on her, until she quieted. I was way, way down the pecking order, and likely to be for some time to come. I looked back at Mum, who was still gazing at Josh.

‘He’s so like you, Matthew. You had the same shock of black hair, it got lighter later but no less thick. It’s like looking at you at that age. He’s beautiful.’

Josh was doing his gran the honour of appearing to stare straight back at her, although he wouldn’t be able to see beyond his own nose to all intents and purposes.

‘Oh, bad luck, son, you’re gona look like your dad. Have a look at Ella, Mum. Here –’

I picked up Josh and swapped him for Ella.

‘Oh, she’s gorgeous. Look at your little elfin face, and all your blonde hair. Laura, dear, your babies are beautiful. How are you?’

‘I’m great, Carol, walking on air at the moment, although I expect the happy hormones will wear off soon and I’ll need a good sleep. Not that I’ll get one for a few years yet, I suppose.’

Josh chose that moment to wake up properly with a squawk, and then feeding was needed, and Mum stayed and grannied with the best of them. She decided on Granny, which was what Cal and Iz called her, to avoid confusion.

Once Mum had gone, there was a bit of a lull, when Lau managed to doze, although I was so tired I had come through it and was buzzing out the other side. I carried Josh and Ella, one at a time, to the window for their first peek at the outside, showed them the car park and the sky, walked round the room, jiggled them, trying to keep them quiet so Lau could sleep on. I realised for the first time how much work they were going to be, just keeping up with their needs, let alone giving them happiness and a good quality of life. Neither of us were going to get a decent sleep until we were about ninety, and even then we were going to worry about them.

April came and cooed, Amy came and cooed while Beth looked after Charlie and Tom in the children’s area, and Dec came to coo in the afternoon. I had actually put both babies down, having a feed with Lau, as I was seriously flagging, and was worrying about my bastard arms having a sudden fit of the dropsy, so I’d sat in the chair and closed my eyes. Just for a second. The next thing I knew, I was being shaken, and Dec’s face, complete with off-kilter long-since-broken nose, was about an inch from mine.

‘Oh you’re awake, then, mate. Lau tells me a good snog is often the way to get your attention when you’re snoozing; I was just about to give it a try.’

‘Wha?’

Yeah, never at my best when I’d just woken up, but especially after more than twenty-four hours awake at a stretch, and now nursing the hangover I’d managed to delay by not sleeping. My head hurt like a bitch, and everything seemed too bright, including Dec’s face, which was still inexplicably nose to nose with mine.

He stepped back, mercifully, grinning. He was holding a baby.

‘Oh you look so appealing, with dribble down your chin. Maybe I’ll leave the snogging for now.’

Thoughts were trickling into my head. Maternity unit … screaming … babies … Lau … other people … and then I was all caught up and back with it. Head still hurt like a bitch though, and I wiped my mouth, just in case the dribble jibe was actually true. It wasn’t.

I squinted up at Dec, then looked at my watch. I’d been asleep about an hour. Bollocks, I really hadn’t wanted to leave Lau on her own holding both of them. She didn’t seem too bothered, though. But apologising to her was more important than immediately responding to the cheeky brat Summers.

‘Sorry Lau, I just closed my eyes for a second.’

‘Don’t worry, flower, you must have needed it. Dec’s been here a while, we’ve been taking turns.’

‘Bloody hell, Summers, can you feed babies with those oversized pecs, then?’

‘Ha ha, no. But your babies are fucking awesome, couldn’t decide which one to hold, so kept swapping.’

Lau and I glanced at each other. Well I wasn’t going to be the one to tell him off for saying ‘fuck’, and I doubted very much he would take any notice of Lau. Dec was pretty much a law unto himself when it came to swearing; it was as if it was part of his natural language. He didn’t notice he was doing it unless someone pointed it out, and when they did, he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. So we let it slide.

‘They are pretty awesome.’

I was not even going to pretend to be modest about it. My babies were the best, most awesomest babies ever ever ever.

‘I think Josh is my favourite.’

‘You can’t have a favourite!’

Lau was aghast.

‘Well Josh is mine. And Ella. Ella’s my favourite too.’

Ha Lau, you fell for it. If you’d just looked for the signs, you’d have seen the slight twitch at the corner of his mouth, it always gave the game away.

‘Aren’t you Ella? Don’t you think she looks like Tom?’

‘How can she possibly look like Tom?’

Yeah, the twitch was there again, but I ignored it, as a gift to him.

‘Well everybody looks like someone, don’t they.’

‘Yeah, mother, father, great uncle, cousin fifteen times removed.’

‘Hey, we’re family, mate. Counts for something.’

Dec loved this kind of non-winnable argument. He could hold out for hours, defending the most ridiculous of premises with the most illogical reasoning and most off-the-wall statements. I suppose it was endearing, and it kept us entertained in the evenings when everyone else had gone to bed.

‘You do my head in, Summers. OK, so she looks like Tom, and Josh looks like Carmen Miranda on account of I like bananas.’

‘Now you’re just being bloody daft.’

‘You’re both being bloody daft, if you don’t mind me saying so.’

Lau hadn’t sworn since giving birth, and she was probably missing it a bit. Dec looked suitably chastised.

‘Sorry, Lau. Just fucking about.’

Dec always deferred to Lau, maybe it was the tone of voice she used, maybe something else. He had told me once that she reminded him of his mum, but not in what way, so perhaps that was it.

Ella decided to give a loud yell, jerking in Dec’s arms, eyes flung wide, protesting vehemently against the unfairness of a world in which she was hungry. Her cries woke up Josh, who echoed his sister’s sentiments with even louder yells. It was incredible that such tiny people could fill a room with so much noise. They were unignorable.

Dec looked at Lau, who was lifting her shirt to start feeding Josh, and I could see the panic in his eyes. We were still those two wimpy guys who couldn’t stay in the room if someone other than their wife or life-partner was breastfeeding. I took Ella from him, laughing, and positioned her with Lau, while Dec averted his gaze.

‘I’ll be off, then, seems like time I went. Oh, Matt, here are your keys. Hope you don’t mind, I gave some of the lads a lift back from training. There might be a bit of mud on the seats.’

I nearly rose to it, but there was that twitch.

‘No problem, it’s due a valet, I’ll send the bill to Raiders, shall I?’

‘Yeah whatever.’

He was so eager to dash off before the sight of Lau’s tits blinded him, that he forgot to reply in kind, and almost ran out of the door, shouting ‘Bye Lau’ over his shoulder. I hurried after him.

‘Dec, wait.’

He stopped.

‘Seriously, mate, thanks for last night, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘No worries. It was worth it, all the hassle, they’re fucking awesome. I’m stoked for you, mate.’

Dec’s speech often had little clues to his Australian heritage. ‘No worries’ was standard Dec, but he sometimes sounded like he was auditioning for a part in Neighbours, especially when he was talking about his childhood or his parents. Usually I called him on it, but I was trying to be serious for once.

‘Thanks, mate. We’re not doing christenings or any of that shit, but if we were, you’d be godfather.’

‘Awesome. Cheers, mate. Means a lot. I’ll always look out for them, if that’s the same.’

‘Better.’

I grinned at him, and he grinned back, we had a brief man-hug which we had to immediately pretend hadn’t happened, and then he left.

Later on, after more visitors, Lau had had enough, and we asked the front desk to turn anyone else away. It was getting close to the time when I was going to have to leave, too. I nearly made a case for sleeping on the floor, but Lau was wiped, and I knew she was looking forward to some time on her own, even though she wouldn’t say it to me.

It was hard, though, making out I was OK with leaving them all, being sensible, hugging and kissing Lau without yelling ‘don’t make me go’, kissing Ella and then Josh goodbye, telling them I’d see them tomorrow morning to fetch them home, without cracking up. I spent longer than I should have on the farewells as it was, and before I found it impossible to leave, I fished my car keys out of my pocket and walked through the door, not even allowing myself a last glimpse through the glass in the door.

I admit to a tear or two on the way to the car, and to having to sit in the driver’s seat gripping the steering wheel tightly and breathing deeply before I drove off. Once my vision was unimpaired by extraneous salt water, I saw a note sellotaped to the steering wheel, in Dec’s big loopy capitals.

MATT – LEAVING THEM THE FIRST TIME IS HARD. CALL ME LATER, WE CAN GET WASTED – ER, I MEAN WET THE BABIES’ HEADS

D

I laughed. It was perfect. Not that I had any intention of getting wasted; my head was still pounding from yesterday. But moping on my own wasn’t how I’d envisaged spending my first evening as a father, and being jollied out of it in the excellent company of Declan Summers was just the ticket.

Ah, the best laid plans. We ended up getting wasted, watching some terrible Vince Vaughn film. We decided it was clinically impossible to watch a terrible Vince Vaughn film without beer to dull the pain, and as the fridge was stocked, we made our way through several bottles. Although actually, thinking about it, I got wasted but Dec may only have had a bottle or two. He is a professional athlete don’t you know.

I felt a slight twinge of guilt as I thought of Lau, stoically staying off the G and Ts until breastfeeding days were over, but there was nothing to be gained from watching the film sober except misery, and in the end, it just had to be done.

I texted Lau a few times during the evening, saying soppy things, asking for pictures of the babies. I’d taken a few myself, but wanted updates. Dec laughed at me, but he knew what it was like; he’d inundated us endlessly with pictures of Charlie, and then Tom, and I knew Mum and Beth had their phones primed with boasting pictures to show all their friends, so I felt vindicated in my need. Lau didn’t reply straight away every time – it seemed she had been able to get a little sleep, although requests for feeds seemed to be frequent.

The film finally finished, and although Dec stayed for a while and we played on the X-box, I started to droop and called a halt.

‘You lightweight, Matt. This is your last night of freedom, before X-box is banned and beer is locked away. You should be making the most of it.’

‘I fully intend to, but in the ‘having a night of unbroken sleep’ way that will elude me for years to come. Bugger off now, I’ve thrashed you enough times tonight, don’t be a glutton for punishment, it’s sad.’

‘You’ll be the sad one in a few years when Josh can beat you at BattleStations with one hand behind his back and a blindfold.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s as may be. For now, I am going to sleep off all these beers and be ready to wake fresh and peppy tomorrow so I can bring my family home.’

‘Oh well, you can’t say I didn’t try to make a man of you one last time.’

‘Piss off home, Summers. Come back and talk to me about being a man when you can last more than ten seconds in the Battledome.’

Dec stood up, still bantering, but at least making moves in the right direction, i.e. towards the door.

‘I agree that if the Battledome was all it took, you would be manliest of men, but sadly in the real world the bollocks of the dog are not you.’

My beer-fuddled brain took a while to sort that one out.

‘Learn speaky the English, Declan my pseudo-Australian friend, then try to play wordage with me.’

I herded him into the hall and undid the door.

‘Hey, there’s nothing Sudoku about my Australian, mate. All my numbers add up.’

‘Ha ha, that’s almost funny. See you soon, mate.’

‘I’ll be back when you’ve made me laugh.’

‘I’ll leave the hall light on, then. Dec …’

I was suddenly overcome with a need to be serious.

‘Yeah?’

‘Thanks. I needed this.’

‘I know, mate. Don’t go all girl-shaped on me now. You know where I am, any time.’

He patted my arm and walked away, waving over his shoulder.

I shut the door, and went back to the living room, where my phone had just pinged with a text from Lau. It was late, but I guess time was going to be taking on a different meaning from now on. She had sent me a picture of Josh and Ella, side by side in their hospital cots, both fast asleep.

‘Blissed out. Mum too. Miss u xxx’

I knew she was awake, so I called her up.

‘Hey, flower. I hoped you’d call.’

‘You could have called me.’

‘I didn’t want to interrupt your boys’ night.’

‘It was only Dec. He’s just gone home.’

‘Good beer session?’

How did she do it? I hadn’t mentioned beer, just that Dec was coming over and we were watching crap films on Netflix.

‘Bloody hell, Lau, I can’t believe you’re calling me on beer from across the city.’

‘Sorry, flower, I’m not judging, just asking. I can hear it in your voice.’

‘We were watching a Vince Vaughn film.’

‘Oh, well, it’s understandable then. I don’t think it’s actually possible to watch a Vince Vaughn film without some kind of alcoholic buffer.’

See, this is what I love about Lau. She just gets it.

‘Sorry to break my promise, two days in a row, though.’

‘Ha ha, you daft sod. Are you OK?’

‘Yeah. Miss you, though. Miss Ella and Josh like crazy. How can I miss them so much?’

‘Because you love them, flower. They’ve got inside your heart.’

‘Yeah, they bloody have. I’d do bloody anything for them. I’d kill for them. I’d die for them.’

There was a short pause, and I could hear Lau breathing, then sniffing. Oh fuck it, I’d made her cry.

‘Lau?’

‘I’m OK. Just hormones. I feel exactly the same. They’re lucky to have you as a dad, you’re going to be awesome.’

‘Not as lucky as they are to have you as their mum.’

‘I think we’re going to be a pretty awesome family, all told. Maybe top of the league.’

‘Ha, yeah, not that I am at all competitive, Lau, but I think we will occupy that number one spot for some time. World Champs.’

I heard a sharp cry in the background.

‘Who was that?’

‘Ella. She seems to be the one who wakes up first and takes Josh with her into full-on screaming mode, but if I feed her first, Josh has been happy to wait, on the whole.’

‘Whoa, Lau, you’re getting a handle on them already. Watch out babies, there’s gona be no hiding from your mum.’

The crying intensified.

‘I’d better go, flower. Sleep well, see you tomorrow.’

‘Bye Lau. Text me if you want, any time, if you’re up at odd times. I might even wake up.’

‘I won’t hold my breath. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

We disconnected, and that was the last time I could talk to my family for several hours. I drank a pint of water before going to bed, hoping to assuage the gods of hangovers (or as Terry Pratchett puts it, the ‘oh-gods’ of hangovers), then went to bed and knew no more until I woke up, full bladder causing havoc with my ability to sleep like the dead, at seven the next morning.

Normally, a sleepy stumble to the loo and I’d be back in snooze mode almost before I could register I was awake, but this morning I was excited as fuck; I was going to fetch my family, if they were ready. I texted Lau.

‘Guess who’s awake?’

‘Really? U? Yr not sleep txting?’

‘Nope. Fully functional. Raring 2 go, even.’

‘When r u coming 2 get us?’

‘When can I?’

‘Whenever yr ready. We’re all having brekkie atm.’

‘Quick shower, toast, and I’m there. This is it, Lau. Two babies, all on our own. Last chance 2 back out.’

‘Oh, so not even tempted. See you soon xxxxxxxx’

And so I fetched them home, my family, and we showed them their room and we showed them their house, and their garden, and everyone came round to say hi (I almost literally mean everyone, it bloody felt like the stream of visitors would never end), and that was kind of it, how it all started, my family with Lau, Ella and Josh.

Maybe I should end the tale there, while it was all magical and we were both loved up with each other and them, and all the hormones were raging and making us adore them and bond with them, but real life’s not like that, is it, and although I wouldn’t say any of the magic faded completely, in a few weeks the lack of sleep and the demands of two babies to feed, clean and clothe took its toll on the constant grins as reality made itself glaringly obvious.

101. Movin’ on up

In which a move is made, and a need for beer and irresponsibility is felt.

Laura

By the time it came to moving day for us all, I was six months pregnant, and starting to feel the effect of carrying twins. My blood pressure had risen, I was off work, and I was banned from having any physical part in moving. I was advised to stay away altogether, but the thought of sitting with Mum drinking tea while other people sorted out my stuff was more stressful than being there.

The whole Scott clan turned out to help, before, during and after, despite Matt’s weak protests that he could handle it. There was a cleaning deputation, much to Matt’s disgust, who came armed with buckets, mops and Flash, and got going on the flat.

Matt

‘Why the fuck can’t we jus leave it? I keep it bloody clean.’

‘Yes, Matt, but it’ll give me peace of mind if I know it’s done, and I can’t do it myself.’

‘Oh bollocks to your bloody blood pressure. You’re killing meh, Lau.’

It did nearly kill me to let Beth fuss about and take over, but it was for Lau, not for me, and Lau didn’t seem to mind, not really, so I allowed it.

Laura

He didn’t really mean it, but it never came easy to Matt to accept help.

On the day, Dec, Jay and Nico helped the movers shift stuff into the right rooms, Beth, Lis, Amy, Mum, Carol and Rose made tea, unpacked stuff under my directions, while I looked after Iz, Charlie, Tom and Bastien, with help from various people at various times, and made the odd where-should-this-go decision.

By now, Matt was almost resigned to having loads of people around helping, getting in his way, offering unwelcome suggestions about where to put things and how to do things, but I knew he was inwardly pretty chuffed about how many members of his extended family had come along to help us.

Matt

Dec, Jay, Nico and I helped the movers shift stuff into the right rooms, it being a non-training day for them. I tried my hardest to help lift the same heavy things that they did, but really I was pretty feeble in comparison. Beth, Lis, Amy, Mum, April and Rose made tea and unpacked stuff under Lau’s directions, while Lau looked after Iz, Charlie, Tom and Bastien and made the odd crockery related decision.

I was almost resigned to having loads of people around helping, getting in my way while I was trying to organise the kitchen to my liking (Rose), offering unwelcome suggestions about where to put things (Mum) and how to do things (Beth), but I suppose having the whole family there to help was awesome.

We had a large delivery of pizza for tea, and copious amounts of beer, wine and tea were drunk, and then it was nearly midnight, and that was enough. The house would still be there tomorrow, and we could finish it then. I was beat, Lau looked wiped, and everyone who was left needed to go the fuck home.

I’d started shipping people off earlier, once Amy, Beth and Lis had disappeared with the kids. I sent Mum, April and Rose away first, then allowed myself ‘one final beer’ with Nico, although it was actually only my second of the day, and packed him off with Jay. Finally we were left with Dec, whose own home was only a ten second walk away.

‘So, time for bed, Lau?’

I looked wearily at Lau, not wanting to kick Dec out, but just wanting him to go home. There would be time for late night mates sessions aplenty in the future.

‘Yeah, I’m wiped. I put the bed linen on and everything, we just need to go up and collapse. Are you ready?’

‘Yeah.’

Dec finally got the message, last to pick up on non-verbal cues as always.

‘Oh, shit, sorry guys, I’m keeping you up. I was just getting ready for the long journey home.’

He grinned and stood up, draining his beer bottle.

‘Thanks for helping, Dec.’

‘No worries. It’s awesome you guys living so close. We’ll never need to buy milk again.’

‘Think again, mate, if yuh’re planning on raiding our fridge when yuh’re too lazy to walk to the shop. Bugger off now, me an Lau need some sleep.’

I had lost patience, and awesome as Dec’s all-day assistance had been, I was starting to feel those treacherous tendrils of fatigue snake their way into my head.

‘And welcome to the street to you too. Bye, Lau, see you, oh I don’t know, tomorrow or something if I lean far enough out of the bedroom window.’

He gave Lau a kiss and a hug, slapped me on the back, and left us to it. Lau looked at me, and fell into my arms, exhausted.

‘Your family are amazing.’

‘Our family, Lau.’

I still had to remind her, sometimes, that she was part of it, not just an invited guest.

‘Yeah, they bloody are, but yuh have to be so bloody firm with them, they jus take the piss. Nobody’s getting a key, right? We’d never get rid of them. Come on, missis, up the stairs. I’m even too tired tuh suggest anything untoward. Maybe tomorrow. How’s your blood pressure?’

‘Feels OK, I’ve been sitting down cuddling children most of the day, it’s been most relaxing.’

We started to walk up the stairs, Lau in front, me holding onto her waist, helping her up.

‘How’re the Philpottses?’

I’d hardly had time to check on her, except for asking where things should go. I hadn’t even talked to them today.

‘They’ve been pretty active, I think they could hear the excitement. I’ll show them their rooms properly tomorrow, when we’ve decided.’

‘Yeah, I still think together, for a while, they’ll beh lonely if we put them separately.’

Part of me couldn’t bear the thought of our two children ever being apart from us, let alone each other.

‘Maybe. But won’t it be harder if we do it later?’

‘Fuck knows. Too tired tuh think about it now.’

I looked at her, and she was so fucking beautiful.

‘Lau, you’re bloody gorgeous. If I wasn’t shagged, I’d give you a bloody good seeing to.’

‘If I wasn’t actually asleep, I might let you.’

I got into the bed and lay on my back, one arm outstretched to put round her. As the cool sheets warmed my skin, I needed this woman in my arms to thank her for making the bed and for being the woman of my dreams.

‘Come here.’

Lau lay down next to me and turned into my body, putting her arm round my chest.

‘What a day. Here we are, Lau, our own house. Ih’s gona be miles too big till the Philpottses arrive.’

‘I don’t think we’ll have much trouble filling it with our stuff. The challenge will be making room for them after we’ve been here a few months. It will be weird having the kitchen and lounge in separate rooms, we’re going to have to walk miles to get a cup of tea.’

‘I know, we didn’t think tha one through, did we. We might have to make up a flask so we don’t tire ourselves out getting a coffee.’

‘I love it here.’

‘Me too.’

It should have felt weird, our first night in this place, which wasn’t the flat, where we’d always been and now belonged to someone else. But it felt like home. It was home; it felt like it had always been home.

‘I feel like I’ve got a beach house with my beach boy.’

‘Ha ha. Does tha mean you’ll be walking around in your bikini all the time?’

‘In your dreams. I’m going to love having a family here with you.’

‘Me too. You know wha? I was thinking earlier, you know I said I was gona be a cool dad, no bedtimes, no telling off, all tha bollocks – oh fuck it – damn –’

I was really trying, but my excuse, for now, was that I was too tired to block the bad words.

‘– well I think I won’t, I think I’m gona be a complete fascist an never let them do anything. I can’t bear the thought of them getting hurt, or crying, an I migh jus never let them get out of bed.’

‘Ha ha, that would make for an interesting visit from Social Services. You’ll be a great dad. There’s no point worrying about it right now, you’ll just be yourself when they’re here, and you’ll love them, and want the best for them, which will include letting them out of your sight occasionally before they’re twenty seven.’

She had such a sensible head. She should have been matronly and boring, but she was fun and hot as fuck.

‘Lau, you’re so grounded. I feel like I’m never gona know what to do, but you, it feels like you’ll always know. I’ve dicked about for so long, I’m worried I won’t be responsible enough.’

‘Stop stressing, Matt. They’re not even here yet. When they are, it will feel OK, and you’ll know what to do. Well, as much as any parent ever does. I don’t know it all, I don’t know even half, we’re going to have to work it out together.’

‘I wish I was as sensible as you.’

‘I wish I was as brainy as you. You know a lot of stuff, too.’

‘Oh, yeah, like about websites an computer systems an shit.’

‘No, you know about things I’ve never even thought about, you’re always nattering to the kids about things like why the moon goes different shapes, and how deep the sea is, and that cats and lions and things can either purr or roar but not both. I’ll never be as brainy as you.’

‘Bullshit, Lau. You’re the cleverest person I know.’

‘Well, maybe we both use our brains differently. The Philpottses are going to learn tons of stuff from both of us, just as well it’s not all sensible stuff like ‘don’t fall off your bike, it hurts’, or all brainy stuff like ‘the square of the hippopotamus’.

‘Hypotenuse.’

I loved it when she got things so completely wrong. How does anyone go through life thinking it’s the square of the hippopotamus? She’s got Maths GCSE and everything.

Laura

I loved it when Matt thought I got things like that wrong by mistake. As if anyone thought it was the square of the hippopotamus! But he thought it was cute, and so I let him think it.

‘Oh. Well, whatever. They’re going to be well-rounded babies.’

Matt

‘They’re certainly making you well-rounded.’

I put my hand on the large swell of her belly.

‘They certainly are. I might have to sleep downstairs in a few weeks, I’m going to be too wide to get up here.’

‘I’ll sleep with you, if you do.’

‘Thanks, but I don’t think it will come to that. I love you.’

‘I love yuh, Lau.’

We lay together for a while, I kissed the top of Lau’s head a couple of times as she snuggled closer, and then I was asleep.

Laura

After a few days of leave, I went back to work for a week, before being signed off for the rest of the pregnancy with high blood pressure. It was infuriating in a way; I’d wanted to remain as active as possible, and now the advice was to relax, mentally and physically, and concentrate on being healthy. I was glad Matt was so well, as he worried about me, and had more to do, with getting the house straight, than he would have if I’d been fit.

Matt

Lau took a couple of weeks leave to ‘nest’, then her blood pressure got so high she was signed off work for the duration. She struggled with relaxing, she’s always been a doer. In the beginning of our relationship, we were forced to take it easy in a way, the fucking bastard ensuring I needed lots of long lie-ins and not much physical exertion, but as I got better, I wanted to be out and about more, and we both got fitter, went for walks (although Lau was no hiker, and always found hills a challenge). She hated having to sit still, and I dread to think about what she got up to while I was at work, although the threat of hurting the babies was a good deterrent from doing too much.

I loved getting the house straight, Lau sitting in a chair ordering me about: ‘paint the skirting board’, ‘hang those curtains’, ‘put that picture up there, no a bit higher, no a bit lower’. Drove me mad, and I loved every second.

Laura

It was a godsend having Amy so close. She called in regularly with Charlie and Tom, and we became really good friends. Other members of the family were never far away either, and Matt would often come home from work rolling his eyes at the amount of people round the kitchen table or lounging on the sofas in the living room. He was getting much better at both accepting and asking for help, having, seemingly, finally realised that people didn’t offer help to annoy him, but genuinely wanted to make life easier for us. I loved his family, and the way they embraced me, and my own mum, as part of it. Much as Matt liked to complain about them never leaving us alone, it was comforting to me to know that so many people so close-by were on hand for advice, help, suggestions and emergencies, and Matt put up with more than he would have liked to because of me.

Matt

Lau and Amy got to know each other really well, and Amy introduced Lau to the Raiders players’ wives and girlfriends, a lot of whom also had young families. I was always a bit sniffy about socialising with the ‘rugger buggers’, but only because I liked to keep my life separate from Jay’s. Lau got on well with them all, she always got on with everyone anyway, but having new people to ask round for coffee went some way to helping her through what she felt was confinement.

In fact, the whole bloody crowd of family and friends, old and new, could hardly leave us alone, and it was often the case that I’d get home from work, just wanting to sit down in the quiet, only to find a whole gaggle of women, kids, babies, sometimes a dog or two, occupying the kitchen and the living room. I tried my best not to be irritated, recognising that Lau needed people around her more than I did, but it tried my patience on more than one occasion, and we tended to have the same almost-row after she’d had the gang round.

‘Thank fuck they’ve gone.’

‘It’s quiet without everyone.’

‘Yeah, peace at bloody last.’

‘Don’t be such a misery. Come and tell me about your day.’

‘Oh now you’re interested in my day. Just now all you were interested in was placentas. Sorry, haven’t got one of those to enthrall you with.’

‘You daft sod. Come here and hold me while you can still get your arms round me.’

And there it would end, as Lau could never be cajoled into taking my grumps seriously, and I could never resist putting my arms round her and feeling the babies pressing into me as I held her.

Laura

As the babies and I grew together, and I became less mobile, Matt and I became even closer. I still occasionally saw him freaking out inside when he thought about how fast things had happened for us, how quickly our lives had changed over the last year, but had learned how to help him through it by acknowledging it, allowing him to freak and retreat into himself, showing him I loved him. He was still seeing Adam as well, although he hadn’t told anyone apart from me about it, and this gave him another way of releasing pressure and finding coping strategies. Matt hadn’t stopped being a complicated man, he had just found ways to deal with a lot of his complexities. I loved him so much, and couldn’t wait for our children to arrive so we could be the family we both wanted.

Matt

I’d like to say my freaking days were over, but to be honest, as the day of their arrival rapidly approached, it still felt quick, sometimes too quick, and it would all start dancing about in my head: How the fuck was I going to be a dad? How the fuck were we ever going to manage two? How the fuck was I ever going to have any time to myself? Why the fuck hadn’t we waited, taken things more slowly? Why the fuck was I such an arse?

I tried my best to control it all, it really was just irrational freaking, and Lau, as ever, steadied me. She’d acknowledge my freak state with a word, a look, or a touch, she’d let it happen, not try to talk me out of it or reason with me, let me go all incommunicado for a bit, and then I’d come out of it on my own. Adam was also helping, with coping strategies, listening, all the shit that psychologists are supposed to offer, and he was bloody good at it. No one apart from Lau knew I’d started seeing him again; in fact, no one else apart from Dec knew I’d ever seen him in the first place, the Summers kid having somewhat miraculously managed not to splurge the goss to all and sundry, or rather Beth, which amounts to the same thing. It was better that way. It was a part of my life that was just for me.

o0o

There was a bloke at work who was getting married, the conventional way, it having been over a year in the planning. He seemed to have had his whole life mapped out for him by his fiancée, the poor bastard, down to when they were going to have their three children (two boys and a girl, apparently), and what they were going to do with his retirement fund. He was twenty-eight.

On balance, I preferred my way of doing things – act without thinking, do it all in a mad rush, less to worry about over a shorter period of time, job done, but poor Joe had had his ear bent every night since he proposed, and was looking forward to it all stopping once the big day had arrived. I didn’t have the heart to tell him what I suspected, that it was never going to stop.

But anyway, Joe had unexpectedly been allowed to have a stag night. Previously, it wasn’t going to be permitted, on account of the bride-to-be not trusting either him or his mates not to do something foolish, but at the last minute the best-man-to-be had a serious word with her and told her he was going to ‘lose’ the ring if she didn’t capitulate, and she backed down. I think there were provisos, about amount of alcohol consumed, type, gender and nakedness of entertainment, that sort of shit. The best-man-to-be readily agreed, with his fingers firmly crossed behind his back, and an impromptu stag was organised.

I was touched to be asked, along with several other work colleagues, but didn’t give an instant answer because of Lau. Not that she had me under the thumb or anything, but it was only a few weeks before the babies were due, she was the size of a house, and it felt a bit risky. Also, you can’t go on a stag without drinking. If I went, I wanted to get rat-arsed, as I hadn’t done at my own stag. That poked several holes in my ‘only do what Lau can do’ in the drinking department. I didn’t know how to broach the subject, and part of me thought I might just not broach it, and not go, which would make me feel less of a selfish git for really wanting to go.

However, I had missed nights like this – arsing about, being lads – and since I’d been back at work, things had been a bit weird, on account of me having been a fucking cripple, and not really being Matt the Lad any more So having a piss up with them all would make me feel more normal. But I didn’t need a piss up to feel normal, I had Lau, and things were different now, and I should just be satisfied. And so the arguments kept whirling around, unresolved.

Laura

A few weeks before the Philpottses were due to arrive, Matt came home from work, and I recognised the look on his face as the one he had when he wanted to do something he either thought he shouldn’t, or I wouldn’t approve of. I let him stew over dinner, then asked him.

Matt

Lau, I’ll never know how you know, but you knew. You always knew. Just as I was loading the dishwasher, she came up behind me and touched my back, lightly.

‘What is it?’

‘What’s what?’

‘What do you want to do that you think I’ll be mad about?’

I looked at her silently for a moment.

‘Bloody hell, Lau, this had better not be your dead granny whispering in your ear again. How the hell …’

She shrugged.

‘The Philpottses know you pretty well. They told me.’

‘Oh fuck, you’re all going to be against me, aren’t you.’

‘Well, no, it’s not about sides, flower. Although they did tell me they’d really rather you watched your language a bit.’

She’d got a bit of chastisement in, slipped in beside the knowing I needed to say something. Well played.

‘Ha ha, not fair, using the babies to tell me off. True, though, I have been slipping recently. It’s living so close to Dec.’

‘It’s about time you stopped blaming Dec, how long has he been copping grief for your swearing?’

‘As long as he’s been responsible. He’s tons worse than me. I used to have it under control, until he came barging up to Stafford that time, effing this and that, and he didn’t worry about it, so I thought why should I, and it annoyed Beth, so I just carried on. It’s all his fault in the first place.’

‘Not really the point, flower.’

‘No, OK, you win. All three of you. Bloody ganging up on me.’

I really was bottling it, and this way, if I changed the subject and made it about something else, she might forget she’d noticed I was a bit off. No such luck.

‘So, nice diversion, but what’s bothering you?’

I’d followed her into the living room and we flopped onto the sofa.

‘Oh, well, OK, you dragged it out of me. It’s Joe Billington’s stag do tomorrow, and he’s asked me, but there’s going to be a lot of beer …’

‘Oh, you’re not worried about your no drinking pact are you? Stag dos are exempt. I thought that was an unwritten rule.’

And so what the fuck had I been worried about? Lau was cool. Lau was always cool.

‘Seriously, Lau? You are fu – er – bloody awesome. I feel bad, though, I feel like I promised you and now it’s only, like, weeks to go and I’m caving.’

‘Well, firstly, ‘bloody’ is still swearing. Secondly, it might only be weeks to go until they’re born, but the ‘no G and Ts for me’ will last until I finish breastfeeding, so months more,’

Bollocks, I’d forgotten that. It put things in perspective a bit.

‘And thirdly, it’s not caving if it was an unwritten rule. If I had a stag do to go to, I’d be on the beers too, enormous bump or no enormous bump.’

‘Ha ha, maybe you should come, Lau, you’d enjoy the stripper.’

‘Er …’

Lau looked at me like she was feeling a little bit less cool about it.

‘Yeah, I’m joking.’

Laura

Matt’s eyes sparkled as he realised he had almost got me. He was much less successful at teasing me these days, as I’d got to read him pretty well and knew when he was bold-faced lying to get a reaction from me. This one had slipped past me, and I let him have his moment of triumph.

Matt

‘There probably will be a stripper, but I won’t be there for it, I’ll be home by midnight. You’re sure you’re OK? You’ve got everyone’s number, Dec and Amy are at home, I think, at least one of them will be.’

‘It’s fine, Matt, you should go and enjoy yourself before the babies ruin all that for the next twenty-odd years.’

‘You’re right. Actually, I won’t be back until the end of the decade, cheers for the permission, Lau.’

I grinned at her and patted her enormous, taut bump. It almost felt like something was trying to push it’s way out, it was stretched so tight.

‘Bloody hell, you feel like you’re ready to bloody explode, Lau.’

‘I know. Look, you can see feet.’

She pulled her shirt up and exposed her distended belly, pointing out the tiny feet. I had no idea if they both belonged to the same Philpotts, or if they were one of each, but it brought a lump to my throat, the same lump that cropped up every time something made them seem even more real – real feet! These babies had toes and everything. I ran my hands over the bumpy bits, and tried to grip one of them between my finger and thumb.

‘Holy f –, Lau, that’s just awesome. Hey, Philpottses, I can’t wait to meet you – oh, whoa, did you see that?’

The tiny feet had just repositioned themselves. Lau nodded, but looked uncomfortable. They’d probably both just dived on her bladder together.

‘Thanks for that, Philpottses. Sorry, Matt, need the loo now. Help me up?’

I gave her my hand, worried. She needed someone to help her up most of the time at the moment, unless she was sitting on a dining chair. Someone was usually around in the day while I was at work, but she’d be on her own tomorrow evening. As I pulled her to her feet, I changed my mind about going. Disappointing, but there would be other stags.

‘I won’t go tomorrow. If you can’t even get to the loo, you need someone here all the bloody time.’

‘No I don’t. Dec and Amy are seconds away; if I really need a good hoist, they’ll be right over. Honestly, go and enjoy yourself, please, I’ll be absolutely fine.’

I trusted Lau to know a) her own mind and b) her own body. She wasn’t like me, obstinately refusing to admit there was ever anything I needed help with, and she did seem genuinely sure it would be OK. I wanted to go so much, maybe I let myself be swayed by the conviction in her voice. Just to put in some added security, and put my mind at rest, I texted Dec and double-checked he was going to be around tomorrow evening in the event of Lau needed hauling up from her seat or dragging from one room to another. He was fine about it, and I felt easier knowing Lau wasn’t going to be relying on the willing but decidedly less muscly Amy.

Laura

And that was how I managed to find myself, at eleven o’clock the next evening, on my own upstairs, having contractions.

98. I’ve got news for you

In which word gets around.

Matt

My phone pinged with a text, at the same time as Lau’s. They were both from Beth, the same question.

‘Any news from the scan? Waiting …’

‘She can wait. We’ll surprise her, jus go roun unannounced. Oh, unless … do you want tuh jus be somewhere quiet, take it all in, have a think?’

Lau

I smiled up at Matt. I loved that he was thinking about what I wanted, but I was as excited as he was, although maybe a little less eager to score points over the rest of the family. Oh who was I kidding, surprising Beth was major, and it didn’t happen very often, it was as good a reason as any.

‘No. I want to tell people, I think saying it, showing them the pictures, helps make it more real, stops the freaking. Come on, back in the car, Beth first, then our mums. Then Amy. I’m going to text the girls at work.’

Matt

‘I wana text Dec, I’m so gona love this, I beat him hands down. Twins, hah! Oh, but then he might text Beth, spoil it. Oh bollocks, though, if we wait until after we’ve seen Beth, she’ll text him and spoil it.’

Tying myself up in knots about who to text and what to say was way more fun than tangling myself in fight or flight running under a bus on the way to Brazil.

‘Ask him not to say anything?’

‘Huh, yeah right, tha’s asking for it, he won’t be able to resist.’

‘Say I’ve asked.’

‘Ooh, you’re an evil cow. Tha migh just work. On it.’

Dec may possibly do the opposite of what I asked, just for the hell of it, but he didn’t know Lau well enough yet for that. I sent a text.

‘Just had scan. Due Julyish. Oh, and it’s a they. Twins. Lau says pls don’t tell Beth until we do.’

‘Sent. Right, leh’s get round to Beth before Dec crumbles.’

Laura

We stood on the doorstep, arms round each other, giggling, the whole situation suddenly seeming very funny. Beth’s car on the drive told us she was in, and as an added bonus, Lis’s car was outside on the road. The door opened, revealing Iz and moments later, Beth.

‘Iz, sweetheart, what have I told you about not opening – oh! Matty, Laura, hello! Come in, how was Paris? Have you just had the scan? How are you both? Lis is here, come and tell us everything.’

Iz held her arms up to Matt, who scooped her up and planted a big kiss on her cheek. She solemnly wiped her face with the back of her hand.

‘Hey beautiful. Not so keen on the sloppy kisses?’

Iz shook her head.

‘Sorry, blondie. Come on, leh’s go an sit down. We’ve got some news for your mum.’

Beth turned and looked at us, talking as we walked into the living room and sat down.

‘Due date?’

Matt

I jumped in as I saw Lau open her mouth to reply; I knew how long I wanted to string Beth along, and Lau was shit at playing games of any sort. She was likely to blurt it within seconds.

‘End of Julyish.’

‘Oh, that’s not very exact.’

‘No, well, there were some complicating factors, eh Lau.’

Lau nodded, keeping schtum, just for me.

‘Well are you going to tell me, or shall we play twenty questions?’

Yeah, at least twenty, if at all possible.

‘Ha ha, Beth, I love ih when I irritate yuh. Guess if you wan.’

‘Can I have a go?’

Lis was always up for joining in the fun, although she wasn’t as entertaining, as she didn’t get annoyed with me.

‘Yeh, Lis, write your guess on a piece of paper an if you’re correct yuh get a prize. Basty provides it, a full stinky nappy, jus for you.’

‘Gee thanks, really makes it worth my while. I can get one of those free any time I like without any effort at all.’

Beth was losing patience.

‘Laura, you’re being very quiet, is everything alright, sweetheart?’

Beth had gone in for the kill. She knew as well as I did that Lau couldn’t avoid a direct question.

Laura

I nodded. ‘Matt wanted to have his fun. I’ll give you a clue.’

Matt

No Lau, don’t do it.

Laura

‘There –’

‘Oh! Twins?’

Matt

Unbelievable.

‘Holy shit, Beth, how the fuck do you do it?’

‘Matty! Honestly. You really are going to have to tone down your language. If you won’t do it for us, at least do it for your own.’

‘Sorry, Beth, buh Lau didn’t even say anything. I know she’s usually bloody useless at giving cryptic clues –’

‘Thanks.’

‘– but she didn’t have a chance to give anything away.’

‘She said ‘they’re’. As in they are, as in more than one.’

‘I said ‘there’ as in, er, ‘there might be …’, as in yes, you’re right, it’s twins.’

Lau caved, as I knew she would, and Beth looked triumphantly at me while Lis squealed, making Bastien jump and starting him off wailing. Iz ran in to see what the noise was about.

‘Basty crying.’

‘I know, sweetheart, he’s alright, he’ll go back to sleep in a minute.’

‘Or maybe not. Iz, it’s time for Basty’s lunch, come and help me feed him, yeah?’

Iz nodded, and followed Lis to the kitchen.

Beth looked at Lau, melting.

‘Two at once, sweetheart. Wow.’

‘I know. Talk about life-changing.’

‘You two don’t know the meaning of the words ‘taking it slowly’ do you?’

‘Ha ha, noh, we’re full-on hundred miles an hour people. Matt and Lau, don’t even know where the brake pedal is. Next item on the madness agenda, finding a fucking house big enough for a family of four.’

Beth frowned at the ‘fucking’, but as there were no small children within earshot, let it pass.

‘God, Matty, a family of four. You’ve caught up with me and James in one leap.’

And that was it in a nutshell. Not that it was a competition, because as I’m sure you will be aware, I am not competitive in the slightest. But, oh, to have achieved everything I wanted, had yearned for, in a way, over the last year, in the space of less than a fortnight, and that I could now consider myself equal to Jay in the family department, well, it meant a lot. And it was typical of Beth to know just how important it was, without me ever having said anything to her.

‘Have you told James yet?’

‘No, he’s at work, isn’t he? I texted Dec, but I guess he’s still training too.’

‘James will be back in a while, it was just a morning session today. How about Amy?’

‘Thought we’d pop roun an see them in a bit, after the mums, buh I think Lau texted her in the car?’

Lau nodded. ‘She hasn’t replied yet, though. I expect she’s got enough on her mind at the moment.’

‘Yes, you could be right. You heard about the panic over the weekend?’

‘Yeah, Dec said Braxton-Hicks or something.’

Beth smiled, and looked at me soppily.

‘Oh Matty, look at you, knowing all the technical terms like an old pro. I’m so pleased for you, sweetheart.’

She sat back and looked at us both.

‘You know, I’m so lucky. After Iz, that was it, no more for me,’

I was aware of some kind of gynaecological shit going down after Iz was born, but not the details. I guess Beth was happy with her family but might have liked more.

‘But the babies just keep coming, first Charlie, then Basty, now three more. Sometimes this family is a lot to cope with, eh Matty, but there’s never a dull moment, and the children keep us young. Or very, very old, one or the other.’

‘Yeah. You’re gona be Aunty Beth now.’

She already was, in a way, to Charlie, although what kind of random pseudo relation you’d actually call her – granny? If I was feeling particularly mean, then yeah. But this was bona fide Aunty territory, and she swelled up a bit with pride.

‘Oh Matty, I am, aren’t I. Well, I know I already am with my sister’s children, but I’ll be a very proud aunty of these two. A special privilege.’

Iz chose that moment to run back into the room breathlessly announcing,

‘Basty did a big sick. It in Lis’s hair, Mummy.’

‘Oh God. Coming, Lis.’

Beth got up and hurried to the kitchen, while Iz stood next to me, twirling a golden curl round a finger, looking at me from underneath her eyelashes. I put an arm round her and pulled her close.

‘Hey blondie. Know what? Me and Lau jus went all the way tuh France an we brought you something. It’s in Lau’s bag.’

Laura

I belatedly remembered the doll I had tucked in a pocket of my handbag. Iz looked at me shyly. She wasn’t usually shy, and had no qualms about asking for something she wanted; today she was playing the coy-but-cute card.

‘Yeah Iz, it’s in here somewhere. Come and help me find it.’

I pulled my bag onto my lap and Iz skipped over to begin digging into the different pockets. It was a game we played a lot, with my huge bag with it’s many flaps and zips. I knew exactly where the present was, and kept Iz away from it until the last minute. When her hand found the packet, she looked up at me, and I nodded.

‘You found it, flower, well done. Have a look inside.’

Iz unwrapped the bag and took out the doll, which was a small cloth man wearing a beret and striped Breton shirt, with a string of onions round his neck. He was a model cliché. Iz seemed less than impressed; she might have preferred pink and fairy wings, or maybe the bride and groom figures from the wedding cake that I’d promised her but forgotten to bring with me.

Matt

‘Do yuh like him, Iz? He’s Pierre.’

Iz nodded, not particularly convincingly, picked the doll up and sped out of the room while we laughed.

‘Well that could have gone down better.’

‘Ungrateful brat. See if weh bring her anything back next time we’re on holiday.’

We heard a key in the door, and a moment later, Jay walked in.

‘Hey Matty, thought I saw your car outside. Hey Laura –’

He bent down to kiss her cheek.

‘– how was Paris?’

‘Wonderful. Thanks Jay, it really was fantastic. We’ll bore you with the pictures later.’

‘Look forward to it. Hotel OK?’

Jay was fishing for thanks, and although I wasn’t disinclined to thank him, he wasn’t going to be allowed to bask.

‘Hotel was bloody awesome. View of the Eiffel Tower from the balcony, hundreds of Euros of room service racked up tuh your credit card, we hardly left the room.’

Jay went a bit pale.

‘Seriously? You didn’t go out at all?’

I knew the stingy git in him would baulk a bit at that.

‘Noh need, we had everything on tap, all our meals sent up, breakfast, drinks from the mini-bar, views when weh wanted. We were on our honeymoon, kind of expected ihnt it? Oh, did jus go out long enough tuh get you this – Lau?’

Lau rummaged in her bag and found a small, tacky, plastic Eiffel Tower. She handed it over with a grin. Well, he did ask for it, literally.

‘Wow, thanks mate, glad you brought back such a great present, sorry to make you go to all the trouble of actually going out into, oh I don’t know, France, for some actual bloody holidaying in romantic bloody Paris. Jesus, if I’d known you were going to stay in the whole time, I’d have got you a DVD of the bloody Eiffel Tower and booked you into the Travelodge down the road.’

Iz ran in with her newly bestowed doll in her hand.

‘Look Daddy.’

Jay crouched down to his daughter; it always surprised me, how focussed Jay could be on his children, how unselfconscious he was talking with Iz about My Little Pony and princesses.

‘Oh, wow, Iz, who’s this?’

‘Unca Matty an Lau bringed him. He’s spare.’

‘Spare?’

Jay looked confused, not that this was an uncommon occurrence.

‘Unca Matty say spare.’

Iz looked at me to back her up.

‘Oh, no Iz, he’s Pierre. It’s a French name.’

‘Peeyair.’

‘That’s right, blondie.’

Iz seemed a bit more enthusiastic about the doll now she had someone to show it off to, and possibly now she didn’t think he was some kind of leftover plaything.

‘Really? So, they must have gone out to get this as well – on the same trip to the same gift shop, I bet.’

Jay was being so outraged at us apparently having taken advantage of his generous gift that I was thoroughly enjoying myself, while Beth and Lis came back in, Lis with wet hair and a change of shirt.

‘Oh, hi Jay. Sorry, Basty just threw up all over me. Don’t you just love baby vomit, especially in your hair. Better get home. You two, I expect to hear all about Paris very soon – well, maybe not all, just the non X-rated highlights, yeah?’

‘Huh, don’t hold your breath, Lis, they stayed in their room and looked at the Eiffel Tower out of the window.’

‘No! Really, guys? Oh, that’s so romantic.’

Jay rolled his eyes, but Beth narrowed her gaze and looked sharply at me. I’d talked to her last night, and she knew it wasn’t true.

‘He’s winding you up, James. I’d have thought you’d be able to tell by now.’

‘Ha ha, gotcha. I love ih when you fall for it. Especially when ih’s because you’re being a tight-arse.’

‘Jesus, Matty, you bastard. Just wait –’

‘James, honestly.’

And I loved it when I got him in the shit with Beth, too.

‘Sorry, Beth. Blame Matty.’

‘Hey, I’m being good.’

Well, for the time-being, anyway.

Lis laughed at the usual Scott brothers shenanigans.

‘OK, people, I’m off before the family feuding starts in earnest. Bye Beth, thanks for cleaning me up. Bye Jay. Bye you two, congratulations on your news.’

As Lis left, I saw Jay looking confused. It didn’t take much in the usual run of things, but now he was trying to work out what the news was, as we had already done the baby and wedding bit. He turned to me as Beth left the room to see Lis to the front door.

‘News?’

‘Yeh.’

Great, more stringing it out.

‘About?’

‘Oh, baby stuff.’

Jay was so easy, it was hardly sport.

‘Oh, you had your scan, Laura.’

He turned to her, knowing he was more likely to get a sensible answer.

‘How did it go? Got a date?’

‘Yeah, end of July, give or take.’

‘So what was Lis talking about, congratulations? It’s not like you’re having another baby, is it.’

Oh he was handing it to me on a plate. I could hardly contain myself.

‘Well … kind of.’

‘What?’

I couldn’t hold it in any longer.

‘How does twins sound?’

‘What? Really? Fu … er … flipping heck.’

I nodded.

‘Jesus, Matty. You really know how to stack it up, don’t you, you pair. I can’t keep up. How are you, Laura?’

‘I’m fine, we’re still getting our heads round it.’

Beth came back in, smiling.

‘It’s lovely news, isn’t it. Have you got any pictures from the scan?’

‘Yeh, an a DVD too. Wana see?’

‘Oh yes, sweetheart. Iz, do you want to see Matty and Laura’s new babies on the TV?’

Iz looked at us assessingly.

‘Unca Matty hasn’t got a baby.’

‘No, not yet, sweetheart, the babies are in Laura’s tummy, like Dec and Amy’s baby. We won’t meet them until the summer, but a special camera has looked in Laura’s tummy. Oh, thanks, Laura. James, pop this in, would you?’

We watched the DVD, the first time we’d seen it, and had absolutely no objections when Beth wanted to play it over and over again. I was so proud of my boys (yeah, still on that track; no son of mine was going to be a girl) I just wanted to drink in every wriggle and squiggle.

Dec

‘Rose, it’s Declan. How soon can you get here? The baby’s on its way.’

:Oh, love, I’ll be there as soon as I can, about ten minutes? I’ve got my bag all packed. Everything tidy?

‘Yeah, all seems according to plan. Hurry, though. And no crying before you get here.’

:Alright love, I’ll control myself. See you soon.

Laura

I was just showing Beth the still photos, when Jay’s phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the screen.

‘Dec. Hey mate … oh bloody hell, what really this time? … oh, OK … well you can if you want, but they’re here, I can pass the message on … yeah, did you know? … oh, fair enough. I guess Rose is with Charlie? … Good luck, then, mate, yeah, see you soon. Let us know.’

He looked up.

‘Baby’s on its way. For definite this time. He was going to text you, Matty, but didn’t seem much point as you’re here. Rose is on her way over there, you can stand down red alert. He’ll let us know, hopefully not in the middle of the night, but he’s pretty fond of announcements in the early hours. Didn’t he text you when they found out?’

Matt shrugged. ‘Yeah, but I guess we’ve both done our fair share of waking each other up over the years. Important stuff, doesn’t really matter what time ih is.’

‘Huh, yeah, I’ll remind you of that next time I call you on a Saturday morning about match tickets.’

Matt grinned, nothing, not even Jay’s grumps, likely to get him down for now.

‘OK, Lau, weh should go an see the mums before word spreads. Don’t tell them, Beth, I know you love a good goss, but give us a chance tuh get there an back home before you call, righ?’

‘Alright, Matty, if you insist. Oh, come here, both of you, before you go, such lovely news.’

Matt

Jay and Iz got bored of the Squiggly Line repeat show after a while, and wandered off in search of their separate entertainments, but not before Jay got a call from Dec to say Amy was in labour, and I was not required as an emergency Charlie-sitter. Not that I’d ever thought I would be, with Rose waiting in the wings; it was just a little disappointing that they were overshadowing our baby news by actually having an actual baby on the same actual day, but I suppose they’d had the forethought to get in first, and I couldn’t begrudge them.

Finally Beth had seen the DVD enough times, and we thought we’d better go and spill the beans to Mum and April before Beth’s jungle telegraph did it for us.

Beth still wanted more, and while we were trying to make our escape, instructed us to ‘Come round tomorrow, dinner? Bring all your photos.’

‘We’ll text yuh. Bye.’

I pulled Lau down the drive, before doorstep chatting could commence, and we both sat in the car.

‘Shit, thought weh were never gona get away. Love Beth, but she’s bloody unstoppable sometimes. Right, your mum or mine? Ha ha, we must beh old, that should be your place or mine.’

‘Yeah, we’re an old married couple now, no more chat up lines or flirting.’

‘Fuck no, we’re far too sensible fuh that. What’s a nice girl like you doin in a dive like this?’

‘Ooh, looking for a man like you.’

‘Bloody hell, even our lines are ancient. There’s no hope, Lau.’

‘Apparently not. It was inevitable. Now you’re a dad, your hair’s going to fall out and you’ll have a beer gut by the end of the month. And I’ll start wearing sensible shoes and trying to hide my bingo wings with long sleeves.’

‘Ha ha. You’ll still be the sexiest mum at the school gate. Righ, let’s go an see some real mums, remind us how young we actually are. Mine first?’

‘OK.’

Laura

We drove the short distance to Carol’s house, texting her first to let her know we were on our way. She was at the door as we pulled up.

Carol rarely showed a lot of emotion; she often sat and quietly watched everything going on, adding the odd comment, seemingly enjoying being part of it all without needing to join in the competition for attention.

Matt and Carol had a very close relationship, although you’d never know it if you saw them together in a large group. When it was just the three of us, and I expect when it was just the two of them, Matt chatted away with her about her friends and neighbours, he did odd jobs for her, cooked meals for her and took good care of her. When there were more people about, he retreated behind his banter, albeit still watching out for her from the other side of his messing about.

Carol was more chatty when there were less people, and I sometimes smiled to myself to see them talking together like a couple of old folk about the terrible prices in the Co-op or the graffiti in the bus shelter.

And now we were walking up to her front door. Matt reached her and folded her up in a hug.

Matt

‘Heh Mum.’

‘Hello, dear. Hello Laura, dear.’

She hugged us both.

‘How are you? Did you have a nice time in Paris?’

‘Yeh, awesome. Got some pictures on the iPad if you wana see.’

‘Oh lovely, come through, I’ve got the kettle on.’

Well of course she had. She’d even had a few minutes’ notice, so there was nothing unusual about that.

We followed Mum into the kitchen, where the warning text had also given her time to put out cups and biscuits. I pinched a chocolate digestive off the plate, earning a bat on the arm.

‘You should offer one to Laura before feeding your face.’

Mum loved Lau. She always took her side over mine. Story of my life.

‘Lau’s more than capable of looking out fuh herself.’

‘Yes, dear, I know, but she’s too polite to grab a biscuit before it’s offered.’

‘Ha ha, polite? Yuh never tried to stop her getting her hands on a double choc chip. She’ll have your eye out.’

‘When you’ve both finished discussing me like I’m invisible, I think I’d like to sit down with a cup of tea and a biscuit, thank you very much.’

‘See Mum? Bossy cow.’

‘Matthew, that’s no way to talk about your new bride.’

I treated that with the contempt it deserved. Wasn’t I the new groom? Didn’t I get some special consideration too? I picked up the tray and carried it into the small living room, where Mum was obviously eagerly anticipating some sort of holiday slide show.

‘So, where’s this iPad then, Matthew?’

‘Oh, in the car. Er, weh, er, got some other news first. Lau had her scan this morning.’

‘Oh! I completely forgot.’

Mum looked worried. I suppose it was easy to forget that a) I knew what the news was, so wasn’t worried, b) she was my mum, and so genetically predisposed to worry, and c) given recent times, it could have been anything we were about to land on her – joining a commune at the end of the month and moving to a remote island in the Pacific Ocean? Not as unlikely as it would have seemed, say, a year ago.

‘Is everything alright?’

I put my hand over hers.

‘Yeh, it’s all good.’

Mum’s face cleared. She knew I never bullshitted her like I bullshitted everyone else.

‘Have you got a date?’

‘Yeah, late July.’

Oh, just because I didn’t bullshit her doesn’t mean I didn’t play the odd mind game. I like to think she enjoyed it as much as me.

‘That’s not a date, dear, that’s a month. I thought they were usually quite precise these days.’

‘Yeah, well, it’s a bit hit an miss on account of Lau not knowing her dates, an also on account of it being twins.’

I sat back, job done, and watched Mum assimilate it. Her eyes widened.

‘Twins! Oh, Matthew. Laura, that’s wonderful, dear. Oh, but two babies, you’re going to have to get moving, aren’t you. You’ll never all fit in that flat of yours.’

Mum always managed to be positive but realistic about everything.

‘Noh, we thought we’d move in here.’

The look on her face was priceless, as, for once, she thought I was serious, for just a moment. She looked delighted at the thought of us living with her, which was humbling, then worried about where we’d all fit, and then really bloody worried about how she was going to say no. Hilarious.

‘He’s joking, Carol. We’ve got plenty of time to find somewhere. Don’t worry, you’ll be granny for visits and sleepovers only.’

‘Sorry, Mum, couldn’t resist.’

She tried to disguise the relief, but didn’t quite manage it.

‘Well, alright then, dear. You know I’d find room for you if you needed it.’

Yeah, it would have to be in the cupboard under the stairs, but I appreciated the sentiment.

‘I know, Mum. We’d never do that tuh you, we’d invade Jay and Beth, serve them righ for interfering all these years.’

‘Matthew, you know your brother only wants the best for you.’

‘I know. And you know I only want tuh annoy him in return.’

It was a conversation we had a lot. Mum thought I should try to curtail my gleeful Jay-winding-up sessions on account of ‘all he did for you’, but I maintained that Jay and I were happy as we were. She tutted and rolled her eyes, then sat back and looked at us.

‘Twins. Well, well. So you’ve caught up with Jameson in one go. No one can say you’re not fast workers, can they?’

‘Noh, they can’t. Caught up wih Dec and Amy too – oh, did yuh know Amy’s gone into labour? Dec called Jay while we were there.’

‘Yes, I did, Rose called me a while ago, she’s there with Charlie. She’s very excited.’

‘I bet. Charlie all tuh herself, an another one in the pipeline. All her grannying dreams come true.’

‘So am I going to see these pictures of Paris? I’ve got some of the wedding on my camera. Have you seen any yet?’

‘Yeh, some people have texted some an emailed, but we’d love tuh see yours too. I’ll jus go an fetch the iPad.’

Laura

As Matt jogged out to the car, Carol turned to me.

‘You’re quiet, Laura. Twins can be daunting.’

‘Yeah, I feel proper daunted. We’ve both had a bit of a morning, trying to get our heads round it. Not much we can do about it though, and it is great.’

This seemed like the best way to deal with it: just keep saying it, to myself and other people, and eventually it would stop being so new and freaky, and I would stop thinking ‘oh my God I’m having a baby’, quickly replaced by ‘oh my God not just one baby but two’, and would start feeling like a person who was just, you know, going to have a couple of babies in a few months, whatever, no big deal. It was going to take a while to get there, though.

‘Matthew seems happy about it, on the surface.’

‘Yeah, he’s trying.’

Carol knew Matt well, he hid less from her than anyone else. She knew what I meant – that Matt was happy, but also trying not to let anyone see how the suddenness of it was all affecting him.

‘Sometimes getting what you want is the scariest thing that can happen to you, dear. He’ll be alright.’

I smiled at her, and nodded, as Matt came back in with the iPad and we showed Carol our honeymoon. Well, all the bits that you were ever going to show your mum and mother-in-law.

Matt

Then we showed her the scan, and she cried. Then Lau cried. I maintain that I didn’t, but I can feel you raising your eyebrow at that one, Lau, so I will remain silent on the matter.

Then Mum picked up a brown paper parcel and handed it to me. I looked at her quizzically.

‘Wha’s this?’

‘It’s what you asked for, dear.’

Intrigued, I pulled the paper off, and staring up at me, out of an antique silver frame, was my wife, smiling widely, blue-green eyes sparkling. Mum had painted her picture while we were away.

‘Holy shit Mum, that’s awesome.’

I showed it to Lau, whose eyes went wide as her jaw dropped slightly.

‘Carol, did you do this?’

Mum nodded.

‘When? God, it’s like me, but … better. You’ve made me look … beautiful.’

‘Noh, Lau. She’s made yuh look like yuh always look. Which is beauhiful.’

‘I’m glad you both like it. I was a little worried. I don’t do much painting these days, I’m a little out of practice.’

‘Seriously? You need to keep it up, flower.’

‘Well thank you, dear.’

‘I said there was no rush, Mum.’

‘I know, dear, but I was looking at all the photographs from your wedding, and I was just inspired by them. You looked so lovely, Laura dear, I hope I’ve captured some of it.’

‘I can’t believe it, Carol. Thank you so much.’

‘Thahks, Mum.’

Then it was April’s turn, and I was a bit apprehensive about this one, because I’d said a lot of ‘fuck’, and shown a lot of my dick to a lot of people, in her presence, since I was last in her house, and I wondered whether maybe she’d rethought my position at number one in the Top Ten Most Suitable Men For Lau chart. She was waiting at the door as we walked up the path, and she was smiling. That was promising.

Laura

Again, we texted Mum to let her know we were coming, and to give her a chance to tidy up her already spotless house. She was looking out of the window as we pulled up. As we walked up the path, she opened the door, and opened her arms wide to hug us both on the doorstep.

‘Welcome back, both of you. Come in and tell me all about France.’

‘Well, April, weh can’t tell you all about France, having only seen a tiny bit of one city, but I’ve brought my iPad, and weh can bore you wih five hundred an twenty three different shots of the Eiffel Tower if you like.’

Matt

No point acting like I was going to be in the dog house. Might as well play it as normal, which meant sarky comments and the odd pleasantry.

‘Oh good. Maybe we don’t have to see all five hundred and twenty three.’

I put on a disappointed face.

‘Oh, buh I don’t know which ones I could possibly leave out, they’re all masterpieces.’

‘You daft boy.’

She almost sounded … fond. If I’d realised what a few bad words and indiscreet showings of my genitalia would achieve, I would have said ‘here you go, April, feast your eyes on my fucking todger’ the first time I saw her.

Laura

I loved it. My mum and my husband were teasing each other.

‘You daft boy. Come and sit down. Cup of tea? LauraLou?’

‘Yeah, thanks Mum.’

‘Not fuh me, thanks, April. Watching my weight. Lau should beh too, she’s put on a shocking amount the las couple of months.’

This was Matt’s way of reminding Mum that she should be asking about this morning’s appointment.

‘Oh, Laura, your scan! What did they say? Could they tell if it’s a boy or a girl?’

Mum couldn’t bring herself to say ‘sex’ even in the context of gender.

‘No, they couldn’t tell, it’s a bit early, and they were lying on top of each other, so all the important bits were hidden.’

Matt

I silently applauded Lau’s stringing along ability. Much as I’d been unable to stop her blurting to Beth, it seemed she had learned in the last couple of hours, and we both sat back and watched as the information filtered in and was processed through. April was silent for a few moments, frowning slightly, then her eyes widened, and she looked at Lau, then me. We were both smiling widely, and Lau nodded.

Laura

‘Oh Laura. Twins?’

I nodded again.

‘Oh, my love, that’s wonderful. Identical or – what’s the other one – fraternal?’

‘We don’t know yet. I’ve got another scan in a few weeks, they should be able to tell the sex and the identicalness or not then.’

‘How have you been?’

‘Oh, much the same. A bit tired, feeling a bit sick first thing in the morning, nothing too bad. Maybe some mood swings, Matt’d be the one to ask about that, I guess.’

Matt

Doing as she was told, April looked over at me, eyebrows raised. Well there was no way I was going to be telling tales on Lau, not that there were many to tell.

‘I think I’m the one wih the mood swings, Lau.’

‘Well, we’ve both been a bit up and down, especially today, it’s a lot to take in, but it’s exciting. We’ll need to move out of the flat before too long. I probably won’t be able to get up the stairs by the time they come, and – oh – things just keep occurring to me. Manhandling a double buggy up all those steps …’

Lau looked at me in dismay. I held on tightly to her hand. There would be lots of things we were going to suddenly think of, and we would just have to deal with them as they arose. Ha, look at me all sensible. When it was my turn to wake up in the middle of the night going ‘shit, isn’t there a law about car seats’, we’d see who was calm and collected.

‘We’ll sort ih, Lau. We’ve got six months. Tha’s bloody ages. Sorry, April, slipped out.’

I wasn’t sorry, I was testing out how much I could get away with, now she’d been subjected to the full Matt Scott experience.

‘Matt, I became well aware at your wedding how much you like a good swear, and how much you have been toning it down for my sake. Thank you, my love, I appreciate it, but please don’t apologise if the odd one slips out now and then.’

I think I sat with my mouth open for a second or two. Not only had I not been sent to hell for saying ‘bloody’, but she’d called me ‘my love’, which she only ever called Lau. Whoa, full on weird moment. Lau noticed, and pressed back as I squeezed her hand.

‘Hey April, have yuh got any photos of the wedding? Mum jus showed us hers on her camera, an we’ve had some in texts an emails, I thought I could collect them all, do something with them.’

An idea was forming, from the amount of photos people had sent us. We hadn’t had an official photographer, but pictures from cameras and phones had been dribbling to me via text and email since we got back, and I wanted to do something permanent with them, as well as the photos we’d already got. Kind of ‘Matt and Lau: The Early Days’. It sometimes came as a surprise to remember that it was early days for us, it felt like we’d been together forever.

‘Oh, yes, I took a few. I’ll go and get the camera.’

While April was rummaging upstairs, Lau turned to me.

‘You got a ‘my love’!’

‘I know! I nearly fell off my bloody seat. An I can say ‘bloody’ an not apologise. Wonder if I’ll get away wih a ‘fuck’?’

‘I wouldn’t push it. Strict Baptist forgiveness only goes so far. You’ve done something right, though.’

‘Making someone a granny obviously gohs a long way towards redemption.’

‘Ha ha. Let’s hope your eternal soul is safe, then.’

‘Bound tuh be. Twins equals double granny, tha’s enough for both of us.’

We watched the DVD with April, had more tea and cake, but even though I hinted like mad, April didn’t show me a painting she’d done of me while we were away, so that meant we could finally go home and chill before work tomorrow.

Laura

We spent a while with Mum, looking at various pictures of the wedding, Paris, watching the DVD of the scan, looking at the stills, basking in Mum’s approval. Considering the last time we were here she practically threw us out, I was relieved and surprised at the turnaround. Mum was very firm in her beliefs, and it meant a lot that she now seemed so accepting of Matt and me. Us being married had a lot to do with it, but we hadn’t done it for her, so whatever the reason, it was all good.

Matt

Cooking was so not on the cards for either of us, knackered and lazy as we were feeling, and I also wanted to ignore the food Beth had filled the cupboards with in a contrary fit of independence. So we ordered pizza. While we were waiting, I wandered to the fridge and got a beer out without thinking. Then I remembered my promise to Lau, thought about it, and put it back. She noticed.

‘Open it, flower.’

‘Noh, I don’t need ih.’

‘We don’t need pizza, but we’re having it. You’re not planning on getting wasted, are you?’

‘Noh.’

‘Have it, then, don’t make me feel bad.’

I sat next to her, taking her hand in mine. I wanted her to know how serious I was about this. It wasn’t going to make any difference to anything, but it was a promise and it was something I wanted to do for Lau. She was giving up a lot to have our baby, not just alcohol, but part of her body, comfort, rational hormones, all that shit, and I just wanted to do this to show her I was with her.

‘Lau, I don’t wana make yuh feel bad, you shouldn’t, this is something I decided, not something yuh made me do. Look, when yuh did tha for me, the ‘only do wha we can both do’ thing, it was fucking amazing, ih meant so much. An yuh stuck to it. I don’t need a beer righ now, maybe sometimes I will, hard day at the office or some such bollocks, an I’m not gona beat myself up about it, but I’m happy wih orange juice tonight. So we can do it, or not do it, together. Something else weh can do together.’

‘OK, then, flower, it sounds like an amazingly good deal. Who knows when I might need you to be sober in the next few months? ‘

It didn’t feel that amazing, to be honest, but if Lau said it, it must be right. And it earned me a big pash that continued until the pizza arrived, so everyone was a winner.

Dec called me in the middle of the night, to tell me that the new baby had arrived. I don’t know why I woke up when my phone buzzed; somehow I seemed to know when it was Dec. I nearly always stirred when the notes of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ floated out of my phone, and although it was on silent, I woke to the buzzing, unsurprised to pick up and see ‘Dec Calling’ and a photo of him wearing a pair of Australia underpants on his head. It was something he often did at parties; I suppose everyone needs a talent.

‘Heh.’

‘Hey mate. Sorry to wake you up.’

He so was not sorry, I could hear the enormous grin in his voice.

‘S’fine.’

I knew he’d be calling to tell me about the baby, but I was so full of sleep that the next couple of rounds of my side of the conversation were going to be monosyllabic.

‘We’ve got a son.’

‘Cool.’

I couldn’t help a yawn escaping.

‘Yeah, and to save you summoning the energy to fucking ask, he’s bloody enormous, over nine pounds, he’s called Tom. Thomas Jack, actually. He’s screaming his bloody head off, so I’m outside. Ames needed stitches, so she’s not too happy, but he’s awesome, mate, just awesome.’

Dec’s happiness was infectious, and I roused myself a little.

‘Well done, mate.’

‘Can you come in later? Bring Lau? You’ve got to see him, he’s bloody huge.’

But surely not the biggest baby ever born. Nine pounds wasn’t that unheard of, although I did have a twinge of sympathy for the slight-framed Amy.

‘Yeh, course. Can’t wait. Text yuh later, yeh?’

‘Yeah, no worries. Better get back to Ames. See you later, mate.’

‘Dec?’

The sleep was fast disappearing, and I was aware I’d sounded less than enthusiastic. Although I was sure Dec knew me well enough to understand that waking me up at four thirty wasn’t going to find me at my best, I wanted to tell him how pleased I was for him.

‘Yeah?’

‘Congratulations, mate. Whoa, you’ve got a son. Father of two. Holy shit. That’s nearly grown up!’

‘Ha ha, need a couple more before I’m ready to admit to that. Cheers Matt.’

As we disconnected, I thought back to when Dec had called me to tell me about Charlie. It was only a year later, and my life was so different. There was no Jules colluding with my well-woven pretence that I didn’t want a family. I’d been through another bout with the bastard MS. Above all, I had Lau and the babies on the way. Thinking about it all, though, and how I’d felt on that day, when it all crashed around me and Jules smashed the flat up, made me think about her, and what I did to her.

I didn’t think about Jules much these days, not really. It was something I couldn’t change, wouldn’t change even if I could, and so it was best to leave it in the depths. But now, it all flooded out, and I felt truly sad at the way things had ended, what a cock-up I’d made of the whole thing, how much I must have hurt her. Especially that, hurting her. I had no idea if she had been totally fucked up by it all, or whether, in her Jules way, she’d managed to put it behind her and get on with her life.

I felt emotions I’d shoved deep down starting to surface, and tears blurred my vision. I got out of bed and found my way onto the sofa, where I gave in to a bout of self-pity that I hadn’t felt for a long time.

I didn’t want to wake Lau up; hopefully she’d be asleep for a few more hours yet. I sniffed quietly to myself, knowing that eventually I’d stop, not knowing if I was going to be able to talk to Lau about it. I hated keeping shit from her, but I was unsure how she’d feel about me being sad about Jules. Lau was awesome, but this was a fairly recent ex we were talking about, and much as Lau encouraged talking and being up-front, I’d detected a hint of uncertainty whenever Jules’ name was mentioned. So I just curled up on the sofa and sniffed to myself.

89. Late

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

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.