I could hear Lau’s voice as she talked to Matty, but he didn’t seem to be replying. I wasn’t sure how long I should stay there waiting. I’d put my phone on silent, but I could feel it vibrating in my pocket. I didn’t want to look at my messages, because then I’d have to answer them, and I was pretty sure Matty wouldn’t want everyone knowing where he was. He particularly wouldn’t want Mum knowing where he was.
I walked over to him and sat beside him, the stone floor cold and hard against my bottom.
I heard footsteps walking over to me, and a rustle and a slight grunt as Lau sat down next to me. I still didn’t look up. If I just stayed here, like this, maybe she’d give up after a while, go home, leave me to it. Surely she would have had enough of me one of these days.
‘So this is where you got to. I thought it would have to be somewhere pretty special to drag me away from my Pilates class.’
No reply. I couldn’t see his face, could only read the stiff tension in the way he was sitting, hear his shallow breathing.
I tried my hardest, gave it a really good go, to ignore her and get back to my drifting, where I didn’t have to think of anything, where the world wasn’t one big fuck-up, where I could just float and nothing mattered. Didn’t work. The sense of Lau next to me, the scent of her, the sound of her breathing, it stopped me from going back. Didn’t stop me trying though.
I tried a different approach.
‘I can’t believe you never brought me here. Although it was a meeting place with an old flame, so fair enough, maybe you were being uncharacteristically diplomatic. It’s so quiet in here, you can’t hear the traffic at all, it’s like we’re in another world.’
Breezy chit-chat wasn’t going to do it. I had been more than half way to another place, and I wasn’t coming back easily, not just for a bit of gab about the weather, or old girlfriends, or whatever psychobollocks she was trying.
Still nothing. I sat for a while longer before trying again, feeling the cold from the flagstones seeping into my behind. Still all I could hear from Matt was his breathing; he wasn’t moving at all. If he had been sitting like that, his arms clamped over his head, his back hunched, for any length of time, his muscles would be cramping up, and he would be feeling very uncomfortable. However, if he was distressed enough, he might not even notice the physical discomfort. I tried some gentle cajoling.
‘Some people might say forty one, nearly forty two, is a bit old to be sulking like a teenager because a couple of things went wrong at school.’
Of all the things she could have said, calling me childish wasn’t what I was expecting. It riled me. Yeah, she’s very good at what she does, but at the time I hated it.
‘Some people should fuck off and mind their own business.’
I was shocked at the sound of my voice. It didn’t sound like me, rasping and raw as it was, and the words burst from me uninvited.
At long last, a response. Matt still had his head buried in his knees, as if he was in brace position on a plane, but speaking was a breakthrough.
‘Well, bad luck, I’m not going anywhere.’
‘Leave me the fuck alone, Lau.’
I wanted her to go away. This place was just for me, I hadn’t come here so all and sundry could come and chat to me while I was doing this.
‘No, I’m staying.’
Especially now he was talking. Before he spoke, I was worried Matt had locked himself away somewhere I couldn’t reach him. I couldn’t feel him, then. But now I knew he was coming back, slowly, from wherever it was he’d been.
‘You don’t have to talk to me, but I’m not going anywhere.’
I started to imagine everyone else turning up one by one, each having their pop at me, trying to pull me out of it.
‘Who else did you bring? I heard Cal.’
This was even better. He was fighting me, getting riled up. He had looked like he was shutting down, but now he was thinking about the outside world, and although it seemed I might be in for a fight, I started to think things might not turn out so badly. At least today.
Oh pull the other one, Lau.
‘Yeah, sure, I bet they’re all fucking lining up outside to come and have their fucking say.’
‘No one else knows we’re here. I needed Cal because I didn’t know exactly where this was. I asked him to wait, but I can ask him to go if you like.’
Well it would be something, I suppose.
I took that as a yes, and raised my voice so it would reach beyond the hedge.
He popped round the corner.
‘I think we’ll be OK here. Can you let everyone know I’ve found Matt, but don’t tell them where we are. Oh, here –’
She tossed me her car keys, which considering I’d only passed my test a few months ago was very trusting.
‘– just in case, would you mind fetching Ella and Josh from school? They get out at three, take them to Amy’s. I’ll let you know if we need picking up.’
‘Sure thing. Oh, before I go –’
I decided to give Matty the benefit of some of my own brand of advice.
‘Matty, stop being such a fucking drama queen. So you dropped something and fucked a few words up. Get over it. Nobody’s fucking perfect. No reason to chuck your fucking laptop across the room.’
What? I hadn’t chucked my laptop, the fucking bastard had chucked my laptop. Shit, it was even worse than I thought, if everyone assumed I’d just thrown a complete wobbler.
‘Fuck off, Cal.’
Matty was still sitting in the same crunched up way, with his arms over his head, and he didn’t look up when he spoke, but Lau smiled at me and I winked at her before setting off for Lau’s car.
He fucked off, probably still smiling. Nothing much wiped the perma-grin off his face these days, since he stopped being the Cob-on Kid and hatched out into Mr Sunshine around his sixteenth birthday. Now he was seventeen, and loving life, with a Raiders career underway, a pretty girlfriend, oh he just had it all. I tried to hate him for it, but I couldn’t. He was Cal, he was my nephew, I could wish him no ill, even though he had it all to look forward to and I’d just had it all taken away.
There was a long silence. I sat and resisted touching Matt. I so wanted to, but he was tense and rigid, and emanating ‘hands off’ vibes, and I knew he wasn’t receptive to any type of touch just yet. I didn’t think I could cope with him shrugging me off, so I waited. I waited a long time. My bum went numb and my feet went to sleep. I felt the phone in my pocket vibrate with calls or texts many times, but I didn’t look at it; I needed to focus on Matt.
I texted Mum and Dad to let them know Matty was OK, or at least that we knew where he was, and braced myself for Mum not leaving me alone for the rest of the afternoon. I left my phone on silent while I drove Lau’s car back home, because the sheer amount of pings and bleeps would have put me off and caused an accident. As it was, I could hardly concentrate for the amount of vibrating the bloody thing was doing.
I carried on sitting, wrapped up in myself, legs numb, back aching, with Lau sitting next to me. She wasn’t so close that she was touching me, and I hoped she didn’t, because I didn’t want her to, couldn’t handle it, her soft and comforting touch. I felt jagged and sharp, cut and broken, and I didn’t want to touch her while I was like this.
I thought again about what Cal had said, that I’d thrown the laptop. Of everything that had happened this morning, all the reasons I had to feel stupid, to know it was all over, this felt the most unfair. I hadn’t done it on purpose. Well, I hadn’t done any of it on purpose, but I just felt like whining ‘the bastard MS made me do it’.
‘Is that what they think?’
I was confused. It had been so long since either of us had spoken, I couldn’t remember what the last thing was that had been said.
‘Is what what who thinks?’
I was so used to Lau knowing what was going on in my head that it was weird when she couldn’t actually read my thoughts.
‘That I chucked my fucking laptop?’
‘Well, Jay and Cal both told me that’s what you did. Why, what happened?’
Better again. He was asking specifically about this morning, checking details. He could go there. There was another long silence.
I still could hardly think about it, let alone say any of it, and it took several breaths trying to start, knowing that if I did, that was it, no more floaty oblivion, just hard, cold, dealing with it. Finally, one more deep breath, and I took the leap.
‘Fucking spasm. I kept dropping the fucking remote, they were all laughing at me, so I went to use the arrow keys on the laptop, and my arm just fucking spasmed and sent ih flying.’
I still had my arms over my head, and as I said the words, it just brought it all back, all the humiliation from the morning, and I started crying. I hadn’t thought I had any more tears left, but there are always some of the salty bastards to get you, aren’t there.
Matt still had his arms over his head, and his head on his knees, and now he was crying. It tore at me, to see him like this, but crying was good. It was when he was silent and distant that I was most scared for him. I wasn’t immune to his tears, though, and a wave of sadness washed over me.
‘Oh, my love …’
It was time for some touching. I put my arm round his shoulders and felt him shuddering, trying to control his sobs.
I felt Lau’s arm go round my shoulder, and it was OK, she was soft and safe, and now I needed to be with her, I was done with doing it on my own, she was here, where she needed to be, as she’d known she would need to be, and I could do it now. I made a huge effort to stop blarting, but it just turned to shudders.
‘Don’t fight it Matt, flower. Let it go. Be sad about it. Have a good weep, you’ve had a shit day.’
And so he wept, while I did my best to hold him, one arm round his shoulders, the other round the front of him, across his knees, as he howled out his anger and pain, humiliation and sadness.
And so I did, I let it all go, all the shit from the shit day to end all shit days. The shit day that began all the way back in yesterday, when I admitted the fucking bastard had come back, had carried on into the early hours of this morning when my best mate had told me he was moving to the other side of the world, and had continued when I’d shown myself up in front of everyone at work and broken an expensive piece of equipment before running away like a small child. I had been trying to hold it all in, to stop it becoming part of the world, so that it couldn’t get to me, but it was too much, and now Lau was here it was just about alright to let it out.
Lau did her best to hold me, but we weren’t in the greatest position, and it was awkward. I didn’t want to move out of my safe corner; I was making all sorts of noises, and having Lau there wrapped around me while I did so made me feel protected.
When I pulled up outside our house, I checked the screen, and Mum had tried to call me twenty-seven times. I mean, come on. That’s insane. I’d already told her Matty was with Lau and was OK. I had hardly got out of the car when she was running down the path.
‘Cal! Why are you driving Laura’s car? Why aren’t they with you? Where are they?’
‘Chill, Mum. Lau’s with Matty. He’s not ready to talk to anyone else yet.’
‘What do you mean? Where are they?’
‘Somewhere no one will find them.’
Mum continued haranguing me as I walked up the path, and I realised I was going to have to work hard not to either strangle her or let it slip where they were. I changed tack, in an attempt to divert Mum’s worrying to something else.
‘Lau’s brakes need fixing. I’m going to ask Wheels if he’ll have a look.’
It didn’t work, just set Mum off about the car.
‘Why have you got Laura’s car? You’re not insured to drive it.’
‘Relax, Mum. Look, put the kettle on, make us a coffee or something. Lau wants me to fetch Josh and Ella in case she’s not back.’
‘Why won’t she be back? Where’s she going?’
‘She’s not going anywhere, that’s the point. Look, Mum, Matty’s in a bad way, in his head, he needs some time and a bit of space, and he needs Lau. She’s staying with him for now, until he gets over himself. Neither of them need you barging in being all ‘let’s do this my way’. Just let them sort it, alright?’
Mum stopped and looked at me
‘Is Matty really in a bad way?’
‘Yeah, it looked like it. He was all kind of hunched over, like he just wanted to disappear. Lau got him talking, though. I really think he just needs to be with her.’
‘I suppose you’re right. You can’t drive that car again, though.’
‘Course I can. Apart from the shit brakes, it’s a doddle.’
Lau still had the tiny Micra she’d had ever since I’d known her. She didn’t look after it very well – oh, it was immaculate inside and out, she was nearly as much of a neat freak as Matty, but she knew jack-shit about cars, and didn’t think it was worth bothering with all the regular checks that kept Matty’s car purring like a kitten. She thought using a dipstick was just something boys did to pass boy time, like watching football or reading comics. Matty used to get really frustrated about it, but he refused to do it for her, and as a result, her car was not in the best mechanical shape. As well as the brakes, it sounded like the timing was off, and there was a gravelly noise when you accelerated that needed looking at. I really spent way too much time at Baggo’s brother’s garage.
But Mum hadn’t been talking about my physical ability to drive the car, she’d been stressing about the insurance, or lack of it, and I took the opportunity she’d given me to draw her attention away from the fact that she didn’t know where Matty and Lau were.
‘You know that’s not what I meant, sweetheart. You can’t drive it without insurance, it’s illegal.’
‘Only if you have an accident or get stopped. That’s not going to happen.’
‘Cal, you can’t. I’ll go and fetch Josh and Ella.’
‘Haven’t you got your meeting thingy this afternoon?’
Thank goodness for Mum’s carefully filled in daily planner, with slots for everything any one of us might be doing on any given day, including Ayesh, but with Mum’s column the only one with any actual writing in it. I’d happened to glance at it this morning when I was looking for something to read while I ate my cereal.
‘Oh. Yes. Well Dad will have to go.’
‘He can’t, he’s got that press thing about Dec.’
‘Oh, so I suppose Dec can’t do it either.’
Mum was going to have to think again. What I didn’t tell her, what I wasn’t about to tell her, was that Lau had put me on her insurance while I was learning, God knows how much it must have cost her, but she’d take me out every so often for a practice when I got close to murdering Mum. It suited my purposes at that moment for Mum to be focussed more on solving that problem than beating me down until I confessed where Matty was.
‘Nope, just me. Is Ayesh home?’
‘Yes, she’s in her room doing some coursework.’
‘I’ll just go and say hi then.’
‘Maybe you should let her work.’
‘Yeah, after I’ve said hi.’
I was now a master at not letting Mum get her way. I did it with charm and a cheeky smile, and never ever just did what she told me. I always agreed that she was right, and then did what I wanted to do anyway, and she was powerless in the face of my skill. I tried to pass my wisdom on to Iz, but she seemed to prefer the screaming in Mum’s face method of getting her to change her mind, which didn’t work nearly so well and just stressed the whole household out.
Anyway, I knew where I was going to spend the next hour or two, and it was with my lovely girlfriend, whether Mum liked it or not.
After a while, just having Lau holding me wasn’t enough. I needed to connect with her. I lifted my head – it felt weird, after all this time bowed over, underneath my arms. The world felt too big, I could hear too much, feel too much, but I looked at Lau, into her sea blue green eyes, and knew she was there, in my world, in the world which was ending, but she was there with me. I gazed at her, and fell apart. I felt myself shatter against her as I clung on, feeling like this was the end, this was the finish of everything good, forever.
Somewhere in the middle of it, he lifted his head and looked at me, his face a mess of misery and dejection, and I wrapped him up in my arms as he fell apart, pouring it all out, breaking my heart to hear it.
She held me tight, and we ended up with our legs tangled up as we sat facing each other on the ground, her arms round me, me holding on to her so tightly.
It lasted a long time, me wailing all over Lau. I’d been arrogant for so long, thinking this was never going to come back, thinking life, the universe, whatever the fuck it was I thought I believed in, had good things in store for me. In one day, it had shown me its power to take away as well as to give, but it hadn’t taken Lau. She was there, holding me, and after a long time, I quietened down, my shudders diminished to the occasional quiver, I was breathing more or less evenly and my body loosened up. My shoulders ached, my back was shrieking, and my legs had started to cramp up. But I could feel it all. I was back.
A long time later, after the loud sobs had quietened, the shudders had diminished to the occasional shiver, and his breathing had calmed, and some of the tension had seeped away from his body, I pushed away from him slightly so I could see his face. I put a finger under his chin and lifted it, needing to see his eyes. The pain and sorrow in them almost undid me. Matt shook his head and looked away from me.
I almost didn’t want her to see, to see the wreck of a man I’d become in the last few hours, but her grip was firm. I looked at her, but the sympathy and understanding I saw were too much for me and I looked away.
‘I’ve fucked ih all up, Lau.’
My voice was broken, like the rest of my life.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Lost my job, made a total tit of myself, fucking laughing stock.’
It wasn’t all of it, but it was enough, somewhere to start.
‘Lost your job? How did you work that one out?’
Lau was great at thinking positively, but she hadn’t been there, she didn’t know what I must have looked like, talking unintelligible bollocks and throwing computers about the place.
‘They think I chucked a laptop. I was – I must have looked shit-faced. Wouldn’t be the first time someone’s thought I was pissed. Everyone was there.’
And someone had practically accused me of it, with the ‘vodka for breakfast’ comment. I knew how I came across when the fucking bastard was having its way with me.
‘Matt, of all the people I’ve talked to, and believe me I’ve talked to a lot of people today, everyone was just worried about you. They all know you’ve got MS don’t they?’
I didn’t know how many people knew. I’d been open about it at my interview, but that was a few years ago, and perhaps people had forgotten, the people who had known might have moved on. Cory and Jenna on my team knew I had some kind of unspecified ‘thing’.
‘Maybe. I’ve talked to a couple of people about ih. I guess Jay migh have told people about me, before I started working there. Doesn’t change anything, though, I made a complete arse of myself. They were all laughing at me, getting my words wrong, dropping shit, I felt so fucking stupid.’
‘Well, it was mean to laugh, but isn’t that what you lot all do? I’m sure it wasn’t meant to hurt you, they just didn’t realise.’
‘But Lau, they think I chucked a laptop, that’s like toys out of the pram time, tantrum city. I’m finished.’
‘OK, Matt, I’m going to repeat your nephew’s words, maybe without all the swearing. Stop being a drama queen. Wait until you’ve talked to someone, Jay or someone else from the club. You don’t have to do it today, or tomorrow, or this week even, I think you’ve earned a few days off, but you can explain then, if you need to, and I think you’ll find that they’ll be pretty understanding. I guess it’s possible you might come in for a bit of ribbing, but you’ve always been able to hold your own with them, you know more words than most of them put together for a start.’
I rested my forehead on Lau’s shoulder and breathed deeply. She always knew exactly what to say, how to put things in perspective, how to stop me catastrophising. I nodded against her, and felt her stroke my hair, thinking about everything she’d said. It seemed like maybe it was time to stop her worrying, because calm as she was outwardly, she would be a mass of panic and fretting underneath.
‘Did you say ‘shit’ just now?’
I nearly laughed with the relief of it. He was teasing me.
‘Er, I might have.’
‘You said I’ve had a shit day.’
‘Well you have. Sometimes there’s only one word to describe things.’
‘Feels weird, hearing you swear.’
I didn’t feel like it, but I was trying to seem like cheery Matt, trying to pretend there was a possibility I could think about something light-hearted.
‘You have heard it before. I seem to remember using some choice language when the babies were being born.’
‘Special circumstances. Doesn’t count. Don’t do ih again.’
‘Well, that pretty much depends on you. Try not to have any more shit days.’
I looked up in mock outrage.
‘Totally up to you. Know what, my bum has completely gone to sleep, I need to stand up before my legs fall off.’
I saw the glimmer of a smile cross Matt’s face as I pulled away from him and got ready to stand up. I started to believe things had turned a corner.
I managed to force it, the tiniest hint of a smile, as she pulled away and got ready to stand. Lau’s bum was the answer to a lot of life’s problems.
‘Might need a massage, then.’
‘Great minds, flower.’
She stood up and held her hand out to me. It took me a while to get going, as I needed to unkink my aching back and shake some life into my own legs before I could even think of standing up, and then there were the pins and needles that surged down from my hips to my toes and were so bloody painful. I thought pins and needles were, like, little tickly things when you’d sat cross-legged for too long. Try folding yourself up for several hours and see how much it tickles.
I finally got my limbs into some kind of functional order, grasped Lau’s hand and stood, falling against her to be wrapped up again. In fact, we leaned against each other, both being a bit wobbly from our sitting on cold stone in early Spring. My hands wandered down to Lau’s backside, where they rested, in their accustomed place. It just felt right. I squeezed a bit, as she’d said she needed a massage. It was the least I could do.
‘Oh this is just so wrong in a graveyard.’
‘Just being helpful, Lau. You could return the favour, haven’t been able to feel my fucking arse for about two hours.’
I let my hands drift down to Matt’s bum cheeks and rubbed them vigorously. Oh things were always going to be alright as long as I could feel Matt Scott’s bum.
‘Whoa, gently there, Lau, don’t wana get too excited.’
‘Need to get the circulation going, don’t want those delightful buns to fall off.’
After that, we just stayed locked together, hands on each others bums. I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to leave this place, which for different reasons with different people had always felt like some kind of sanctuary. It felt like maybe, with Lau, just maybe I might be able to face it all, but there was going to be a lot of ‘it’ to face, a lot of talking, a lot of apologising, and I didn’t want to think about it for as long as I could get away with.
I could sense Matt’s unwillingness to leave this place and get back to the real world, but I also had a sense of ‘crisis over’. There was a fair amount of talking still to be done, firstly from me while I tried to persuade him to talk to everyone else who needed to know he was OK, and then to people at work, the people who had been at his presentation, and maybe later try and get him to contact the MS service.
Matt had kept up with Anna fairly regularly, until she left the team a couple of years ago, and he had declared himself unneedy of an MS nurse. I didn’t know anyone who worked there now; Anna had gone to work on a Neuro ward, Rachel had married Jed and gone travelling for a while before coming back and setting up an internet self-help book business with him, Kate had moved away in search of the perfect man and Patrick had retired. It was a good thing that nobody knew us, and Matt would just be another referral. If I could get him to ring them.
Ayesh turned out not to be nearly as interested in coursework as she was in snogging me, funnily enough, and we closed the curtains to the conservatory and enjoyed each other’s company, despite a couple of interruptions to turn away Mum’s offers of coffee and then cake, and then it was time for me to go and fetch Josh and Ella from school.
I tried calling Lau several times so I could ask her what she wanted me to do with her car once I’d dropped the kids off. I could leave it at their house, or take it back to the church. She didn’t answer, so I sent a text.
I’d picked my cousins up a couple of times, so the teachers knew who I was and didn’t report me as a child stealer. Josh and Ella were excitable, because I was unexpected, and they got to go home to Dec and Amy’s house, which was always exciting, being full as it was of uncontrollable Summers kids.
Dec and Amy had four children, and their house was always full of noise and chaos because Dec and Amy were so laid back. Dec loved being a dad so much – he’d been adopted when he was a baby, and his parents had died when he was thirteen, and all he wanted in life was to give all his kids the kind of childhood he never had after that, which meant lots of love and, it seemed, no saying no. Amy tried with the discipline, but she couldn’t say no to anyone either, and couldn’t be the bad guy, so Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa ruled the roost there.
They were all great kids, just a bit exhausting to be around. Dec was always being a horse or a piggy-back ride or a sword-fighter, and Amy was always making drinks and snacks or trying to read stories and have some calm time before bed.
I remembered Dec when I was little, how much time we’d spent together and what it had meant to me, and realised how much love he had to give his family. We had a different relationship now, because we were both older, but we were still as close as brothers, and I realised as I pulled up outside their house how much I was going to miss him and his crazy family while he was away.
Josh and Ella ran up the path and rang the doorbell, and disappeared inside. As I walked towards the door, my phone vibrated in my pocket, and I realised I hadn’t turned the ringer back on. Pulling it out, I saw from the screen that Mum was on the warpath again, with five texts sent since I’d left the house, demanding that I tell her where Matty and Lau were. I shook my head and decided to ignore Mum, but tried calling Lau again, and sent her another text telling her I’d picked the kids up and asking what she wanted me to do with her car. Then I put the phone back in my pocket.
‘Let me guess, your mum wants you to tell her where Matty’s hiding out?’
Amy had it spot on. I rolled my eyes at her.
‘Mum needs to realise that some people can solve their problems without her help.’
‘She just texted me too, in case I was hiding them here. Not that they’d be getting much peace and quiet if I was – listen to that lot!’
The addition of Josh and Ella had added a few hundred decibels of noise to the squealing that was going on.
‘Do you want a cup of something, Cal?’
‘No, you’re OK. I should get the car back to Lau.’
‘Sure? Dec’s just had a delivery from his agent, there’s free hats and t-shirts all round.’
‘Ha ha, I think I’ll pass. So you’re really going to Australia?’
Amy’s eyes grew serious.
‘Yeah. I can hardly believe it. This time next month, we’ll be living in Perth.’
‘I’m gonna miss you guys.’
‘Yeah. Me too. Great opportunity, though.’
Amy’s eyes misted with tears.
‘Oh who am I kidding. I completely can’t believe I’m not going to see everyone every day. And now Matt’s … I’m dreading it, we’ll be so far away. Don’t tell Dec.’
‘Sure thing. You’ll be fine, though, Amy. We’ll Facetime and Skype all the time. Maybe come and visit.’
‘Yeah. Anyway, you’d better get the car back to Lau.’
And so I was dismissed, presumably before I caused proper tears that Dec didn’t need to see, and I went back to the hedge room.
I found my way in, unsure what I was going to find, or even if Matty and Lau were still going to be there. They were still there, standing up, wrapped up in each other, hands on each other’s arses. They both had their eyes closed, and they looked like they were totally unaware of anything else that was going on apart from each other. I hoped it meant that Matty was feeling better, but I felt awkward just looking at them, so I coughed to let them know I was there.
I don’t know how long we stood there, arms round each other, but eventually there was a rustle from the hedge, and a cough.
‘Er, if you two have had enough of feeling each other up …’
Lau opened her eyes and turned towards me, but neither of them spoke.
‘Lau, do you ever answer your fucking phone? Just for future reference, in a family crisis it’s the done thing to, like, let people know you’re OK and not be all unreachable and shit. Goes for you too, Matty, just so you know.’
It seemed like it was time for a reality check, now that maybe the worst of the crisis was over and Matty was possibly back in the land of the living, although he still had his eyes closed. Lau looked at her phone and raised her eyebrows at the screen. I’d tried calling her God knew how many times, and I suspected Dec and Beth had also been trying all afternoon.
I automatically reached for the phone in my pocket and looked at the screen. Ten missed calls from Cal, similar quantities from Dec and Beth.
‘Sorry, flower. Are the children OK? Have you picked them up?’
A quick glance at the time on my phone showed it was half past three. I had been here with Matt for over three hours.
Well of course they were OK, that wasn’t the point. Kids are a big responsibility and they should both be a bit more aware.
‘Yeah, they’re with Amy. I only wanted you to know they were OK, Jesus, is it too much to ask that you have your phone on? What if the school had needed to contact you or something?’
‘Sorry, Cal.’ I smiled to myself at his grown up rebuke. ‘Won’t happen again.’
‘Fair enough. Have you had a fucking word with yourself, Matty?’
Matty opened his eyes and looked at me. He took a deep breath, and I saw a change come over him, from some kind of hopelessness to some kind of well, if not optimism, at least someone who knew where to look for their strength.
This was a good kid, he was caring, he’d brought Lau here to find me, he’d taken care of Josh and Ella while I visited the land of the hopeless and lost. He needed taking down a bloody peg or two.
‘What is it with bloody teenagers thinking they’re the boss of me? When Dec was about your age he thought he could give me fucking grief when he wanted to as well. Respect your elders, Calum Scott.’
It lifted my spirits, to hear him have a go at me. I knew he was going to be OK. He wasn’t yet, but he was going to be.
‘Oh, I see you have. Radical. Here’s your keys, Lau, your car’s right out the front. You need to get your brakes checked, they’re shit. I’m going to see Baggo, he just lives round the corner. Oh, Mum says ring her, like, half an hour ago. I’d do it soon, she’s on the warpath because I wouldn’t tell her where you are. It won’t be me fucking copping it, though, and she’ll start tearing the city apart soon. Oh, and Matty, they’ve rescheduled your presentation for next Friday.’
I threw Lau’s keys to her and turned round. They didn’t need me any more, so I waved and walked out.
He was such a good kid. Disrespectful cheek notwithstanding.
I raised my voice so he could hear me as he walked away.
‘Thank you, flower.’
I looked at Matt, who looked back. I could see some of the doubt seeping away, although there was still a lot of pain and hurt behind his eyes.
Lau turned her attention back to me, and I looked back at her. It felt better, maybe the world wasn’t ending today, maybe it was only beginning to end.
‘So, if they’ve rescheduled your presentation …’
‘Yeah, I get it Lau, I’m a fucking drama queen. We should get home, I think I’ve got some phoning to do.’
‘Thank God for that. I’ve been waiting for you to leave – I don’t think I can find my way out on my own.’
We drove home in silence, leaving Matt’s car in the street where he’d parked it. I was very conscious of the fragility of Matt’s emotions, and also of his usual defensive response to confrontations. I didn’t want to risk saying anything that would make him retreat back to that place he’d been when I found him; it hadn’t been a good place, and it had been hard for him to come back from it before. I touched his arm from time to time, but otherwise kept my eyes on the road and limited myself to sending mental strength.
We pulled up into our driveway and I took off my seatbelt.
‘I’ll just pop up the road and fetch Ella and Josh.’
It was like getting back on the pony, ripping off the plaster, any number of things that meant doing something painful to get it over with so it was done.
I gave him an appraising look. I hadn’t expected Matt to want to see anybody so soon.
‘Are you sure?’
I sighed. The wave of grief and pain had crashed over me and been dragged back with the tide. It had left a fair amount of flotsam and jetsam that needed clearing up.
‘Yeah. Need to stop being a tosser and face people, don’t I?’
‘You’re not a … actually I can’t think of the polite word for it. You’re not a tosser. You’ve had some fairly hefty life events to deal with in the last twenty four hours. If you want some time on your own, or at least just the four of us, I think that’s allowed.’
It was tempting, to just go indoors, hole up, hide from everyone, for a while. But it wasn’t going to help. And I needed to see Dec, to just … see him.
I took Matt’s hand and gave it a squeeze, wondering to myself if he realised how far he’d come since I first met him, when he wouldn’t even reply to texts because he thought people were interfering.
‘Come on, then, let’s fetch our children, and hope Dec hasn’t been giving them beer again.’
We walked up the road, hand in hand. As we stood outside Dec and Amy’s front porch, we could hear the excited noises being made by six children between the ages of three and seven. There was no such thing as chilling out in the Summers House of Fun.
‘Hmm. Sounds like sugar overload. Perhaps we should leave it and fetch them later.’
Lau grinned wickedly up at me and pretended to turn back for home.
‘Great plan, Lau, when they’ve had even more sugar, so they never get to sleep.’
‘Yeah, you’re right. OK, doorbell here we go.’
The noise that could be heard inside the house – squealing, running footsteps, unidentifiable musical noises – all increased as we saw a shape appear in the frosted glass. Dec opened the door, wearing a large hat with corks hanging off it, a child attached to each leg and one hanging on his back. Two more children were behind him, wearing smaller versions of the cork hats and carrying soft toys. Also in evidence were blue West Coast Speeders shirts.
‘Oh, Lau, hi –’
Dec saw me and his eyes widened.
‘Matt! Hey, mate. Great to see you guys. Sorry, we just opened a big box sent by my agent, lots of really naff Aussie stuff, we were giving it a try. Come in – no, let go of me, Tom, you too Ella, I need to let Matt and Lau in. Down you get Rosa.’
Dec slowly unravelled himself from the children so he could open the door wide enough to let us in, pulled the cork hat off and tossed it onto the banister post. As we went into the hall, Amy’s voice floated out of the kitchen.
‘Who is it, hon?’
‘Lau and Matt.’
Amy came into the hall, wiping her hands on a tea towel.
‘Oh Matt, how are you?’
I shrugged but didn’t answer, instead bending down to Rosa, who was tugging on my trousers and holding a furry koala up for my inspection. I picked her up and held her while she clung on, one arm round my neck.
‘Yeh, beautiful, g’day mate an all tha. Have you been playing Crocodile Dundee?’
Rosa shook her head, not understanding the cultural reference that was several decades before her time.
‘We play kalas an kangroos.’
‘Sounds just as good, Red. I like yuhr hat. Did the bottles fall off?’
I flicked a cork.
‘Oh, bad luck.’
‘Rosa, why don’t you go with Ella and Josh and Tom and Gracie and find Charlie? She was looking for a puzzle, wasn’t she?’
All five children thought this was a superb idea, and set off screaming up the stairs in search of Charlie.
Dec looked at me, while I looked back, not sure where to start. There was an awkward silence.
‘Mate, if I’d had any idea, I wouldn’t have signed.’
What was this? Oh do me a favour Declan Summers.
‘Don’t be a fuckwit, why should ih have stopped you? You’re not responsible for my appallingly timed health lapses. Chance of a lifetime, mate, goh an see the world with your family, you’ll have a blast.’
If I said it quickly, I could almost mean it.
Dec wasn’t convinced by my bluff, and waved off my response.
‘If you … Ames and me talked earlier, and if you need me to stay, I’ll cancel it all.’
I couldn’t have that. I knew he meant it, that was the worst thing, but if I even let him offer, it was going to undo me, I could feel it bubbling under, and I just wanted to do this, get out of it, in one piece.
‘You have to be out of your teeny tiny fucking little mind, Declan Charles Summers. You’re so bloody up yourself. Why the fuck should I need you? I’ve got Lau, I’ve got the whole extended Scott army to bloody nag me and make my life a fucking misery as and when they see fit. I never heard a bigger load of bollocks in my life.’
‘Yeah, right. Come here, then.’
Dec walked towards me and pulled me into a huge bear hug.
I murmured into his ear, keeping a tight grip on my emotions.
Dec’s whispered reply very nearly finished me off, but the moment was broken by the sound of a large herd of children galloping downstairs, and we had to get out of the way or risk a messy trampling.
As I shook my head at the two stubborn men who loved each other like brothers, probably more, but would never say it as if they meant it in a thousand years, Matt and Dec let go of each other and moved out of the way to avoid being mown down. The crowd of little people surged across the hall and into the living room, Charlie holding a DVD and trailing the smaller children in her wake, and I followed after them.
‘Josh, Ella, it’s time to go. Take your shirts and hats off and give them back to Dec.’
‘Oh, no, it’s OK Lau, they can keep them, you never know Matt might stop being too stingy to fork out for a sports package that shows Super 15 and they can watch me, cheer me on, wearing them. Maybe not the hats, might take someone’s eye out if they get excited when I score.’
‘What do you say?’
I looked at Josh and Ella with my eyebrows raised.
‘Thank you Dec.’
They were well drilled in politeness, but looked disappointed that it was time to go; they loved playing with their almost-cousins.
‘They’re completely welcome to stay, Lau, I’m just doing pizza. If you want some time on your own? Dec’ll bring them back in a bit.’
Lau glanced at me. Much as I wanted a cuddle with my kids, I really could do with some peace and quiet, and Josh and Ella after an hour or two with the Summerses was usually anything but. Lau didn’t need much of a look to know what I was thinking.
‘Thanks, flower. You’re an angel.’
Amy smiled and touched my arm.
‘Any time, you know that.’
I nodded again, almost overcome with sudden emotion. It wouldn’t be long before ‘any time’ wouldn’t be possible. A few weeks and they’d be gone.
Lau nodded, tears sparkling in her eyes. I decided to be brisk and sound more cheerful than I was feeling about what was facing me when I got home.
‘Right then, Lau, best get back and make the most of the silence to bloody ring people and start grovelling.’
‘Grovelling? What for, mate?’
‘For being a prize fucking loony, smashing the club’s newest laptop, and then running off into the night like a –’
‘Right, Matt, you need to stop this now. I don’t know what your fucked up brain is imagining people are thinking, but this morning’s over with, forgotten. No grovelling or apologising needed. We know the score, it’s done. End of.’
A lot of that was what I needed to hear; it cleared up a lot of things I’d been worrying about. But I still had to apologise, explain, make amends.
‘Maybe for you. I’ll need to explain myself to certain, oh I don’t know, brothers, and maybe the odd CEO who may be a bit curious as to why his head of IT couldn’t hold on to a small piece of plastic or say two words together without having a hissy fit.’
Dec opened his mouth to argue, but I stopped him.
‘No, Dec. Ih’s much appreciated, you making out ih doesn’t matter, and I know ih doesn’t to you, and I’m grateful, but I am going to have to spend most of this evening on the phone to various people, not least of all Beth who, if the vibration in my trouser pocket is anything to go by, is about to call out Search and Rescue.’
Dec nodded at me, tacitly agreeing to let it go.
‘OK, you know best, you bastard. But, just so you know, there’s not going to be any comeback from the lads, they’re totally cool.’
‘Yeah, like I can’t hold my own against the shit banter supplied by a bunch of muscle-headed rugby players.’
By now we were both grinning stupidly at each other, happy to be winding each other up instead of talking about serious shit. God I loved my family. Lau pulled on my arm to direct me to the door, and we left, with a kiss and hug from Amy and a promise from Dec that he wouldn’t drop Josh and Ella off too late.
As we walked up the road, I took my phone out of my pocket and looked at the screen. I’d turned it back on in the car on the way home, but hadn’t looked at it. I could no longer avoid the calls and texts that were likely to have accrued on my silenced phone from a certain Mrs Beth Scott.
‘Holy crap, she’s persistent. She’s sent fifteen texts. Let’s see – squawk squawk squawk where are you, squawk squawk let me know you’re safe, squawk squawk squawk. Fifteen times. Bloody hell. I bet she’s sent you as many. Oh, and about a dozen voicemails.’
‘Maybe you should ring her.’
‘Yeah, well, I’ve got my phone out now, might as well make contact with The Mothership.’
Matt was always going to ring Beth. He didn’t mind nearly as much as he tried to pretend he did about her fussing over him. Matt pressed the screen and held the phone to his ear.
‘Oh Matty. At last. I’ve been so worried. How are you, sweetheart?’
‘Where were you? There have been people out everywhere looking for you, we nearly called the police.’
‘Didn’t Cal tell you?’
I knew he’d said he wouldn’t, but I also knew how persistent Beth could be, and how you ended up telling her shit you didn’t mean to.
‘No, all he’d say was that you were safe, and you were with Laura. So where were you?’
I hesitated. Once Beth knew, that was another place I wouldn’t be able to escape to if I ever needed to again. I let her know part of it.
‘I was over by Avondale, somewhere quiet.’
‘But were you alright, sweetheart? Jay and Cal said you left in a bit of a state.’ ‘No, I was pretty shit actually, but Lau was there, and I’m better.’
As I was talking, we’d got inside and I started to take off my tie, which Lau helped me with, and my jacket, and as I carried on talking, getting the full Beth treatment, Lau brought me a hoody and helped me put it on.
I looked down at myself and realised I was still wearing my gym clothes from this morning. I hadn’t even been wearing a jacket, but hadn’t noticed the cold. Now I felt chilly, and as Matt sat down on the sofa, I lit the gas fire in the living room, watching the flames leap and feeling warmer.
Beth was still going on.
‘Oh Matty, you’ve really been having symptoms for a couple of weeks? You should have said something.’
Oh like that was ever going to happen, Beth.
‘Yeah, well sometimes ih’s hard to admit things to yourself that you don’t want to be true. A bit like you and your cellulite.’
I had a quick smirk to myself as Beth started to squawk in earnest.
‘I do not have cellulite! I keep myself in good shape, I –’
It was amusing that even now, she sometimes couldn’t tell when I was just trying to shut her up.
‘Oh stop being outraged, Beth.’
‘Matty, James is here, can I pass you over?’
Might as well, I suppose. This was going to be one of the few conversations with Jay that was going to encompass work and home, and we were just going to have to embrace the weird.
‘Yeah, I think I need to talk to him.’
‘He was so worried about you, Matty.’
This was just the start, the beginning of all the apologising.
‘I know, I didn’t mean to worry anyone, just freaked out.’
‘Take care of yourself, sweetheart.’
‘Stay in touch.’
‘Yeah, see you soon.’
The phone was handed to Jay.
‘Matty, you’re alive.’
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Bit better now.’
If I said it enough times, it might start being true.
‘You’ve been having symptoms again.’
‘Yeah, the fucking bastard’s back.’
‘How bad is it?’
‘Not bad at the moment, well, apart from this morning.’
‘So this morning was, what, a blip or something?’
‘Yeah, well, feel a bit of a dick, probably owe Raiders a laptop.’
In truth, although the shakes, the unintelligible bollocks, the vision, it had all gone away since my meltdown, I could feel it lurking. I didn’t know how much of it was going to come crashing back, but I was preparing myself for it.
‘Well don’t worry about the bloody laptop, Matty, but maybe you need to talk to Malcolm.’
‘I know, I’ll talk to him now.’
‘Do you want us to come over? Beth’s getting a lasagne out of the freezer.’
Dear God no, the last thing I bloody needed was a houseful of people twittering over me.
‘No, I don’t need you all to bloody pile over, Lau’s here, just need some space.’
‘Can Laura manage alright?’
I sighed. Jay was catching the Beth bug. It was inevitable, I suppose.
‘It’s OK, Jay.’
I looked up at Lau.
‘Jay wants to know if you’re alright looking after me, Lau. You won’t forget to change my nappy and give me my four hourly feed, will you?’
She rolled her eyes at me.
‘Yeah, she’s fine with it, as long as she doesn’t forget the Calpol.’
‘Piss off, Matty, we’re just concerned.’
‘Piss off yourself.’
‘We’ll come over tomorrow, though. Beth says no excuses.’
‘Yeah, see you tomorrow.’
‘Be strong, Matty. Stay positive.’
I disconnected and flopped back against the sofa. It was exhausting trying to convince people everything was OK really, nothing to worry about, when I just wanted to scream. Lau took my hand and gave me a sympathetic look. Having her here, knowing what was going on for me and understanding without words, was what was keeping me sane, stopping me from actually screaming.
‘Only another four thousand calls and I can relax.’
‘Do you have to do them all now?’
‘Yeah, need to get ih done. In a minute. First, I need to do this.’
I turned in my seat and reached for her, pulling her towards me and holding her tight against me, speaking into her ear.
‘Lau you are so fucking phenomenal, you’re all that’s keeping me going. I’d just jack ih all in if ih wasn’t for you.’
‘Good job I’m here then.’
‘Yeah. I just can’t bullshit you, can I, you know exactly how I am, I don’t even have to say ih.’
‘To be fair, flower, you are much better at talking than you used to be.’
‘Always been bloody good at talking, Lau. Not always so good at talking sense. Love you.’
‘Right, next on the list, the big boss.’
I scrolled down my address book and tapped his name.
‘Hello Malcolm, it’s Matt Scott here.’
‘Matt. How are you?’
‘Yeah, well, better thanks, I just wanted to apologise about this morning.’
And so it went on, call after call, to some of the people who’d been there this morning, people who’d been out looking for me, some of the people who’d left messages on my phone or Lau’s phone asking about me, other members of the family, Mum, Cory, who’d heard from afar about what had happened, and I said the same to all of them.
‘I’m fine now, just had a bit of a wobble. Sorry to worry you. Talk to you about it tomorrow.’
I had no idea who I was going to see tomorrow. I didn’t know if I was going to go into work or not, although it appeared I still had a job.
And Matt carried on, making his way through his list of missed calls and texts. I sat and held his hand, half listening to him talk, proud of how well he was showing a brave face to the world when what he really felt like doing was running to the darkest most hidden place he could find until it all went away.
Then I started in on the texts, people who needed to know I was OK, but didn’t need to speak to me. I just wanted everyone to know I was normal, I was Matt, and although I might not have seemed like Matt this morning, that was a one-off, and now I was back. It wasn’t how I felt, but it was how I needed to be. Except with Lau. I could be me with Lau, and that was the difference this time. I had her, and I wasn’t trying to fool the whole world that everything was normal, because there was a Lau shaped bit of it who knew how things really were. It mattered, a lot.