61. Worried man blues

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

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Julia

That evening, I decided to go over and make some dinner, enough for two in case Matt came back early enough to eat. I took a change of clothes, so I could stay the night and go to work from there the next day; while I was hanging them up, I noticed how many of my clothes were hanging in Matt’s wardrobe. I also had a collection of toiletries in his bathroom, books on the bedside table and underwear in the drawer. I had no idea if Matt was comfortable with it or not, and resolved to ask him when he got back. He didn’t have anywhere near as much of his stuff at my flat; we tended to stay at his rather than mine, as it was closer to work, and I loved the view from his window. His bed wasn’t as comfortable as mine, but it was a small price to pay for the cool, tasteful spaciousness of his place. This, with my things in his apartment, was the closest I had ever come to living with someone, and a small thrill raced through me as I realised this. I wondered if I could see myself ever living with him, and surprised myself by realising that I could, in time.

We suited each other well. Matt was clean and tidy, had great taste in décor and furnishings, and we didn’t fall out about who left the top off the toothpaste, although that was mainly because we used separate toothpaste. I needed to have my own space, but I could definitely see a time when I would need to see Matt every day more than I needed my own company. I wasn’t about to tell him this, or allude to it in any way, but held the knowledge inside me.

Dec

As we walked through the door, Iz came hurtling into the hall and hurled herself into my arms.

‘Hey sweetie.’

I gave her a big cuddle and carried her into the living room. She poked a plastic fairy under my nose.

‘Who’s this?’

/stinkerbell.

‘Stinkerbell?’

/cal say Stinkerbell.

‘Oh, well, he must be right then. Have you had a good day with Daddy?’

/daddy an me go park an play horsie.

‘Sounds great. Is he a good horsie?’

/he go neigh.

‘Sounds like he got it just right.’

/he go woof doggy.

‘Wow, what a repertoire.’

We walked through to the lounge and sat next to Jay.

łDec, don’t leave me on my own all day again. There’s only so many times I can neigh and bark and meow before I go mad.

/daddy woof.

łOK, one more, Iz, then that’s it. Woof.

Iz giggled in delight.

/gain.

łNo more.

/gain, pease.

She looked at him from underneath her long blonde eyelashes.

/pease Daddy.

łOh, bloody hell, you’re impossible to resist, Iz. OK, last one. Woof.

/gain.

łNo, Iz, I’ve got to … er … help Mummy with dinner.

‘That’d be a first. Let’s go see what’s happening in the kitchen, Iz.’

We wandered through and found Beth opening the trays of food and putting out plates. Matt was sampling each dish as it was opened.

‘Leave some for us. Hey, that’s a whole spring roll. Iz, I reckon Uncle Matty could use a cuddle.’

Iz, always one for an extra bit of male attention, held her arms out to Matt, who gave me a dirty look as I passed her over.

}Cheap trick, Summers. Hey, blondie, you’re looking rather glamorous today. Nice hair clips, interestingly positioned. Did Daddy put them in, perchance?

I left Matt discussing hairstyles with Iz and wandered back into the living room, where Jay was sprawled on one sofa. On the other one, Amy and Rose had found a magazine with celebrity wedding pictures, and were exclaiming over it. I pushed Jay’s feet off the sofa onto the floor and sat down. Jay ran his hands through his hair.

łShit, I’m bloody wiped out. How the fuck does Beth do it every day?

‘Energy reserves of a rhino, probably.’

łBetter not let her hear you comparing any part of her to a rhino, mate. How did it go today?

‘Oh, had its ups and downs. Short or long version?’

łDo you mind short for now? Lacking a bit of concentration. Beth can fill me in later.

‘OK then … short version … I dragged everyone here, there and everywhere looking for something I could have found here.’

I put my hand on the spot over my heart that Matt had touched earlier.

‘Did the memory bottle thing. Had a bit of a major moment, scared the shit out of everyone. Feel better.’

łMemory bottle?

‘Oh, yeah, it was going to be scattering rose petals on the waves, but I decided to put some pictures in a bottle with my letter and send it out to sea instead. Everyone else gave me something to put in the bottle too – I thought Beth told you.’

łOh, yeah, yeah she did, she did ask me about something she was writing, I did have some input, I’m just useless at details. Sounds very moving. What sort of major moment?

‘Lost it. Total blubfest.’

łShit. You OK now?

‘Yeah. Got a lot out of my system.

łBut apart from being a bloody headcase, good way to commemorate it?

‘Yeah.’

łI’m glad to hear it, mate.

Jay and I never needed to talk about anything in great detail. I knew he worried about me and cared about me, and there were plenty of other people to do the searching questions and the angst with. Our shorthand was reassuring.

Beth came out of the kitchen.

_Right, everyone, it’s all out on the counter in here, help yourselves. I’m not setting the table, have it on your knees. James can you call Cal?

łCAL!

_I mean go and get him.

Jay hauled himself off the sofa with a groan and stomped up the stairs.

Matt was still in the kitchen, and still encircled by Iz who wouldn’t let him put her down so he could load his plate. He was trying to do it one-handed and failing messily. I laughed, unsympathetically.

‘Oh, Uncle Matty, are you having trouble there?’

}Help me out, mate?

‘I’ll just do mine first, then one for Amy, then we’ll eat it, then I’ll possibly come back and help you out.’

Even Matt wouldn’t swear out loud with Iz actually in his arms, so he mouthed several choice words at me, put his spoon down and flipped the finger at me. Then he picked up his spoon and continued to drop rice on the floor. I took the two plates in and sat next to Amy, passing hers over. As we ate, I noticed how tired she looked.

‘OK, babe?’

She nodded.

)Wish I hadn’t fallen asleep in the car, I feel completely groggy now. I probably won’t sleep properly tonight.

‘Well that was never going to happen anyway, so just think of it as catching up on a bit of yesterday’s instead. How’s your chow mein?’

)Mm, lovely, I wouldn’t be surprised if this baby looks like a chicken.

‘Or a chocolate button, possibly.’

)Yeah, quite possibly – could it have something to do with all the chocolate sauce we – oh.

She stopped, blushing, realising Matt had come in. He was holding Iz close to him with one hand and balancing a piled plate in the other.

}Oh just stop it, don’t need to bloody well hear your perverted conception stories thanks.

Amy went a deeper shade of scarlet, and ignored Matt, who chuckled to himself at her discomfort, as she changed the subject.

)Dec, has it been OK, today? I’m just worried it didn’t turn out quite how you thought.

‘Yeah, babe, it’s been OK. It didn’t turn out how I thought, I guess, but I did it and shit happened. It was all good in the end. I was there, and you were all there with me, that’s the main thing.’

)Are you OK?

‘I’m OK.’

She reached up and pulled me down for a kiss. I brushed her hair back from her face, held her face in my hands and made the kiss a deep and lingering one.

‘Mm, chicken chow meiny. Love you, babe.’

)Love you too.

\gross

‘Oh, hey, Cal. Didn’t notice you sit down. We were otherwise occupied with some lovely snogging.’

Cal was concentrating hard on his plate.

\urgh, you put me off my dinner.

}Cal, you know that’s the chance you take when you sit too close to Dec and Amy. Snog fall-out can be a terrible thing. Personally I think those two should be banished to the conservatory while people are eating, just in case they can’t control themselves.

\it’s just gross.

Amy smiled over at him.

)You won’t always think so, Cal.

\i think I will, it’s gross now and it’ll be gross in a hundred years.

‘Well let’s agree to stop the snogging just for now so everyone can feel comfortable, but watch out after the washing up, Cal, anything could happen. And if you haven’t snogged someone in a hundred years time I’ll eat Matt’s hat.’

}You bloody won’t, it’s my best hat.

‘No, not that one, the woolly one with the red bobble.’

}I have not got a hat with a red bobble.

‘Well what am I supposed to eat in a hundred years time when Cal hasn’t snogged anyone?’

}Not my problem. Your bet, you supply the hat. And the cryogenic chamber to keep you alive until you’re a hundred and twenty three.

Normal service had been resumed. After the intensity of the day, it was good to relax, eat, talk and be silly, be with my family. Eventually, Amy started flagging beside me, and asked Matt to take us home. Rose got a lift too. Matt dropped us off and we made our way slowly up the steps to the flat.

Matt

Rose didn’t say much on the journey back to her flat, and I didn’t really think much of it, I suppose we were both lost in our own thoughts, until we were almost back at her place, sat at a red light.

‘Well, this has been a bit of a day, hasn’t it.’

‘Yeah. Not every day Dec buys everyone coffee.’

She smiled, indulging me.

‘You know what I mean, though, love. It feels a bit overwhelming, doesn’t it. I was worried there for a bit.’

I looked at her in surprise; Rose had seemed the epitome of cool, calm and collectedness. We had all looked to her to tell us what to do.

‘Really? You seemed to know what you were doing.’

The traffic light turned green and I pulled away.

‘I was just doing it automatically, I think. I remembered before, when he was in that state about those points – oh, you wouldn’t have been around, then, love, it was while he still lived here. Do you know the story?’

There wasn’t much of Dec’s story I didn’t know. He was pretty open about everything, didn’t seem to mind what I called Beth’s fussing, answered questions when asked, didn’t sulk about being asked if he was OK, generally behaved like a normal person rather than a thirty-four year old teenager.

‘Yeah, something about his passport, and Raiders getting docked points because of it, and he went all emo and shit.’

‘Well I don’t really know what emo means, love, but he was in a bad way. He went all quiet, and then me and Nico tried to get him to talk about it, and he just collapsed, a bit like today, poured it all out on my kitchen table. Nico and me were looking at each other, like we all were today. Nico wanted to call one of his doctor friends, get him some help. We didn’t want to leave him alone, we were that worried.’

‘Worried about – what, you thought he’d top himself?’

Rose nodded, looking down at her hands. I turned the car into the road where Rose’s building was.

‘Holy shit. Sorry.’

I didn’t usually apologise for swearing, but Rose never complained about it, so me being me, it seemed like the thing to do.

‘Yes, well, it wasn’t like he hadn’t tried it before, in a way.’

What?’

Just when you think you know someone. This had never got through the Scott family filter, and it shocked me. I pulled the car up outside the building, and we sat there, with the engine running. Rose didn’t take her seatbelt off.

‘Oh, not that he ever told me he tried, but, when I thought about it after, I just wondered … this would have been before you got to know him, as well, but when all that happened with him and Jay, when they told him they wanted him to stay away from them, and he got suspended from his rugby, he went on a hell of a bender. I cleared the empties up, and he’d drunk a lot. Too much. Mostly vodka. I don’t think he cared, really. He could have … I don’t like to think about it, what could have happened to him up there, all on his own.’

‘Shit, Rose. I had no idea. I knew he’d had a rough time, I even vaguely remember something about a lost few days, but I guess I only really heard Jay’s version. You really think he might have tried … on purpose?’

The thought of it did something weird to my brain. Dec was one of the cheeriest, most annoyingly bloody laid back people I knew, and imagining him feeling shit enough to want to end it all, only a few years ago, made me reassess a lot of things about him.

‘I think he was about as low as you can go. His flat was miserable – he was there all alone, no family, no friends, he’d sold all his stuff. I didn’t meet him for a while after he moved in, but his flat was right above mine. I could hear him, sometimes, crying. Terrible, it was. When those buggers from the paper started on him, though, I couldn’t just leave it. Well you know what I’m like, love. I let myself in and tried to look after him a bit. Not that he wanted me to, not at first.’

‘Sounds familiar.’

‘You and him have both got a stubborn streak that does you no favours, love.’

‘Maybe. He warmed up to you, eventually, though.’

‘He did. We’re a bit of an odd pair, aren’t we. When he started to tell me how things had been for him, all the things he’d let go, all the people he’d lost, well I was heartbroken for him. I thought about him living up there on his own, nothing to think about except who was dead or gone, and I just thought I’d try to cheer him up, help him out a bit. But on that night, after the points, I realised there wasn’t anything I could do. He’d seemed more cheerful, Nico had helped him pay back the money he owed people, everyone was being nicer to him, but at the back of it all was how he thought he’d messed it all up with your brother. It didn’t matter if he got his friends back, he’d lost Jay and Beth, and then he thought he’d lost his rugby, and it was too much. I think there was a bit of that feeling today, I know I felt the same … kind of helpless, like nothing I did would make any difference.’

‘But you were so bloody great, Rose. You said ‘hold him’, and we did, and it worked.’

‘Well it did, and I’m relieved. I’m not sure it was much to do with me, though, really. It’s good that he had us all.’

‘He’s told me before that he’s held on to you when he’s felt desperate, that you’ve pulled him out of some dark places.’

‘Really, love?’

‘Yeah, Rose. Give yourself credit. I didn’t know how bad things had been for him; I think he’s got a lot to thank you for.’

Rose waved this away.

‘Oh, it’s a two way thing. He’s given me so much, as well. I was a pretty lonely old biddy too before he came along.’

She reached over and undid her seatbelt. Then gave me a penetrating look.

‘Are you still thinking about what happened earlier? About whether it might happen to you?’

I shrugged. Dec might use Rose as a confessional, but I kept my thoughts to myself, on the whole. Who knows, maybe I’d be as cheery and annoyingly bloody laid back if I took a different approach, but the likelihood was slim.

Dec

‘Are you going straight to bed, babe? You look shattered.’

Amy nodded.

)I might get my PJs on and snuggle under the duvet, come and join me? Maybe there’s something on the telly I can doze off to.

‘OK. Fancy a hot chocolate or something?’

)You’re a mind reader. That would be completely awesome. Thanks hon.

I made Amy’s chocolate, and opened myself a beer. One of the advantages of the off season was that I didn’t have to be quite so careful what I ate and drank, so the odd takeaway and beer was alright. I couldn’t go overboard, though, and risk having to shed a lot of weight during pre-season training, which was starting the week after next. I still went to the gym most days, just to keep in shape.

I took the drinks into the bedroom, where Amy had changed into her night things and was sitting up under the duvet, with the TV showing one of the celebrity reality programmes she loved. I put one arm round her and got my phone out with the other hand. Sent a text to Rose, Matt and Beth.

Matt

As Rose put her fingers on the door handle, our phones both pinged with text messages. I knew mine was from Dec, as I recognised his tone. Rose fished in her bag while I clicked open the message.

Thx 4 coming 2day. I ❤ my awesome family. Xx

Rose read her screen.

‘Oh, it’s from Declan. Is yours the same?’

She showed me and I nodded.

‘Ah, he’s a good lad. I’ll wait to get inside to reply, I can’t get my fingers to work right sometimes. Thanks for the lift, love. Take care of yourself, now, won’t you.’

She gave me a light pat on the cheek and got out of the car.

As I drove off, I sagged in the seat. I hadn’t realised how much I was holding everything in, and how much I was looking forward to going home, opening a beer and just being on my own, letting it all out.

Dec

One immediate reply.

Beth: =Yr awesome family ❤ u2. Thx 4 asking me. Special day. xx

Rose took a little longer; she had never really got to grips with texting. Textspeak took her a while to translate sometimes, she could never find the punctuation and had to turn the predictive text off as it confused her too much.

Rose: =youre welcome see you soon

Matt didn’t reply, I wasn’t expecting him to.

Julia

When Matt finally came home from his outing, it was quite late. It was apparent he had forgotten I was going to be there, and wasn’t in a great mood, when he walked in and stopped in his tracks as he saw me sitting on the sofa drinking a glass of wine and reading a book.

Matt

As soon as I walked through the door, though, and saw the lights on, I remembered that Jules might be waiting for me. Shit. I don’t think I’d given Jules a thought all day, I’d been so caught up in everything that had happened. I really didn’t feel like talking to anyone, being with anyone. I just wanted to be on my own.

‘Oh, hi Jules. Shit, I forgot. Sorry.’

I ran a hand through my hair while I tried to decide what to say.

Julia

He dragged a hand through his hair, making it stick out, as he often did when he was stressed.

‘Fuck it, I’ve been ages, I would have texted.’

‘It’s alright. I’ve been quite happy. Have you eaten?’

Matt

I could smell the pasta Jules had made; she’d probably done enough for me as well. Bollocks.

‘Yeah, we had takeaway at Jay and Beth’s.’

I took a breath and just decided to say it.

‘Look, I know you’ve been waiting for me for bloody ages, but … oh shit this is awkward. I’m not in the best mood, I’ve got stuff on my mind, I’m not sure I’m up to doing a sleepover.’

‘Oh.’

Jules looked a bit disappointed, and to be fair she had been waiting for me for hours, but she didn’t seem too troubled.

Julia

I was disappointed, having been waiting all evening for him, but it wasn’t insurmountable.

‘No problem. But I’ve had quite a few glasses of wine, I can’t drive home.’

‘Oh.’

Matt

Bollocks. More bloody faffing before I can just be on my own. I toyed with the idea of calling a taxi, but the thought of pissing her off and then having to wait for the taxi while she sat there being pissed off was more than I could cope with. So now I was going to have to take her home in her car and get a sodding cab back myself.

‘I’ll take you then. Are you ready to go now?’

Yeah it was rude, but I was almost beyond caring. Jules got up and picked up her things without saying anything. I guess I’d managed to piss her off anyway, might as well just have phoned the bloody taxi.

Julia

Feeling a little disgruntled at being hustled out so soon, I stood up and got my things together without saying anything. Matt had made no moves to kiss me or hug me; in fact, he had remained standing by the door, and as soon as I was ready to go, he held it open and followed me out, down the stairs and across the car park. He did at least offer to drive my back in my car so I could get to work in the morning – I nearly let him off, but he was being so cold and distant that at that moment I didn’t feel kindly towards him at all, and didn’t argue with him. Once in the car, though, I couldn’t stand the silence any longer.

Matt

We didn’t speak until I drove away, and I wouldn’t have said anything if she hadn’t started the conversation. I recognised that she was making an effort, but I was winding myself up for a good wallow, and I didn’t feel like making it easy for her.

‘How did it go today? Was Dec alright?’

‘Yes and no, he got pretty upset. But I think he’s OK now. He sent a text saying how much he loves us or some such shit.’

Julia

‘Are you alright?’

It was obvious he wasn’t, but it wasn’t obvious whether he wanted to talk about it.

Matt

‘No. But don’t really want to go there.’

‘How will you get home?’

‘Taxi. Walk. Whatever.’

‘You can’t walk, it’s late.’

‘Fucking taxi then. Jesus.’

I was seriously irritated now, with her, with having to come out again, with having to talk, all irrational and unfair, but, yeah, I took it out on her like the dick I am. I didn’t speak to her again, didn’t even say goodbye when I dropped her off, walking away as I called a cab without looking back.

Julia

And that was the end of the conversation. Matt dropped me and my car off outside my flat without another word, without even a kiss on the cheek, and left me rather bewildered. I nearly rang someone – Dec? Beth? – to see if they could enlighten me as to what had caused his mood, but knew that would really make him cross. I hoped he would feel better the next day, or talk to me about it; I felt out of sorts, and also realised with annoyance that I’d left my work clothes at Matt’s apartment. Sighing, I changed into my night things and got into bed.

Matt

Yeah, I felt guilty, I’d been an arse, but I’d achieved my objective, and I sank into my sofa, bottle of beer in hand, and tried to let it all drift away, to feel the tension leave me. But it didn’t, even aided by two more bottles of beer. I kept thinking in circles about how much undealt with shit I had brewing inside me, and how I didn’t ever want to let go of it in the way that Dec had, but how I didn’t want to address it in any way that involved me actually talking to anyone about it, because what did talking achieve? You just went over and over things and how could that make things better? I was screwing myself up inside.

I picked my phone up and saw the text Dec had sent. I realised it was late, I’d heard everything Beth said about how my shit was the last thing Dec needed on this night of all nights, but I tapped out a reply and sent it; I don’t know if I really thought about what I was doing. Maybe subconsciously. Maybe more consciously. I know he’d had a full on day, I know I should have thought about whether he might need a break from worrying about my shit, but there you have it. It was done now. It just remained to be seen whether he was a) still awake and b) perceptive enough.

A few moments later I found out that he was both a) and b), as my phone rang.

Dec

Eventually I dozed off in front of the TV, until my phone pinged and woke me up. Text.

Matt:=Bloody sentimental fucking nutter 😉 xx

I looked at the time. One thirty. Amy had curled up properly in the bed, while I had stayed sitting up, getting myself a sore neck into the bargain. I turned the TV and the light off. Thought about why Matt might have waited until one thirty to text me. Went into the living room. Called him.

}What the fuck?

‘What the fuck right back, you’re the one who just texted.’

}I was replying to you.

‘At one thirty in the morning. What’s up? Spill.’

}Oh bloody hell, Dec, do you always have to see right through me? It gets a bit tedious.

‘I don’t know why you can’t just ring someone for a chat like normal people.’

}Normal people aren’t usually up at the hours when I’d like a chat.

‘I’m up.’

}I refer you to my previous comment.

‘I think you actually like the games, seeing if people work it out. Are we as fucking clever as you, or something.’

}You could be right. It’s an open verdict so far.

‘So what’s bothering you? Bear in mind I’m going to be up with a puking Amy at three, so please excuse any tetchiness.’

}Well it’s nothing really, maybe you should go back to sleep.

‘Look Matt, you’ve woken me up at stupid o’clock to talk. Stop fannying about and just fucking talk.’

}Yep, there was a definite hint of tetchiness there. OK, OK, I’ll talk. I’m still … I guess … a bit freaked out about the stuff on the beach. I don’t know how you can be OK after all that, it was heavy duty. I thought we were going to be carting you off to the local asylum, straight-jacket, the lot. It went on for a bloody long time. Rose kept saying ‘hold him, just hold him’, but being so close to something so fucking intense was hard. It was bloody scary.

I paused for a moment. I hadn’t really thought about how it might have affected everyone else who was there, or how much they might have worried about me, even though Rose had mentioned something a bit earlier.

‘I’m sorry I scared you. I’m so sorry, Matt. It didn’t occur to me. I guess I knew I was going to come out of it. I knew how much shit there was. I didn’t think about it from your point of view, not having seen it all before, that you didn’t know that. Rose has been there with me through some tough times, she’s kind of an expert.

}I know we’ve always had this being there for each other thing going, but it just didn’t seem like it would be enough. Even Rose said she wasn’t sure, although, yeah, she seemed to know what she was doing at the time.

‘If it helps at all, having you all there holding me was exactly what I needed. Having all that shit pouring out of me needed some kind of containment, or maybe I would have been in trouble. I know you’re not great with touchy feely stuff, if I’d thought it was going to get like that I would have warned you.’

}Yeah, well, like I said this morning, the main reason I came was to try to protect you a bit from Rose and Beth going all weepy on you and making things worse, but as it turned out, it was me who unleashed the beast.

‘Matt, what you said, it really made a difference to me. It’s really helped. I feel better about my parents than I have for years. Yeah it blew it all wide open in a bit of a loud and messy way, but it made sense of the whole day. And you did help take the pressure off from the girls too. They get a bit emotional, and you’re good at turning it into laughter rather than tears.’

}Well, thanks, nice to know my arsing about has its uses. And I’m glad I didn’t completely fuck you up. But how do you know it won’t happen again, maybe when you don’t have four convenient family members ready to be showered with snot?

‘Well … I guess … it’s like a box. There’s this box and all the shit from over the years gets put in the box and if you never have a good clean up, eventually it starts to smell, and you keep smelling it and thinking, well that needs doing, but it’s not a very nice job, so you put it off. Eventually it’s full to bursting, and that’s what it does. Bursts. The box explodes, the shit gets blown away, it’s empty again.

}So I should think myself lucky it was only snot I was showered with?

‘What I mean is, as long as I’m a bit more aware of what’s bubbling in there, and make myself do something about it every so often, it’ll be OK. No more explosions. It’s another ten years before there’s another big anniversary, you’ve got plenty of notice.’

}OK, well, nice box-of-shit analogy, I’ll assume this has been thoroughly endorsed by your shrink, so how do I stop it happening to me? I’m terrified of something like that happening unannounced. What if my box is approaching dangerous shit levels?

‘Well, firstly, you’re not me, you haven’t had my experiences, we do things differently. So the chances of you reacting in the same way as me are remote, I would imagine. Secondly, use the people around you to talk to, offload some of it. I think the main reason I got myself in such a state today is because I find talking about Mum and Dad so hard. Every time I thought about them, it made me too sad, so I’d push it back down there. I blocked it out, didn’t deal with it, didn’t even think about it. If you can talk to people, deal with it, you clean it all out and it doesn’t build up. You know you can always talk to me, there are plenty of other people – talk to Jay and your mum about your dad, talk to your MS group if you still go, talk to Julia, just use people who are here, don’t shut us out. Rose always talks a lot of sense, too.’

}I know. I had a bit of a chat with Rose when I dropped her off earlier. She told me some hair raising stuff about when she first met you. I knew you had a tough time back then but, shit, I didn’t realise you were suicidal.

‘I’m not sure it ever got that bad, but I guess I was pretty low. Didn’t think I had much to live for, if that’s the same thing.’

}She mentioned something about ridiculous amounts of vodka and not really giving a fuck about what could have happened.

‘Yeah, well, it’s all a bit of a blur really. Feels like a long time ago. Rose was … well she saved me, really. Talked me down, if you like. Still is talking me down, I guess, in a way.’

}She really did haul you out of the shit by your bootlaces, didn’t she. Fuck, you were lucky to find her when you did.

‘Yeah. Wouldn’t be here now without her. But anyway. So, nice diversion, but back to you. There’s all of us. Use us. If you’re really that scared of losing control, you need to start making sure it doesn’t happen. Stop fucking about playing mind-games so much and talk properly.’

}You’re no fun. I will still text you in the middle of the night. It’s like our special signal. Thanks, Dec, you talk a lot of sense for a youngster.

‘Well, I’m sorry I freaked you out. Feeling any better?’

}Yeah, a bit. I’ll think about it. Talking about stuff not my most robust attribute. Might have to work on it.

‘Practice on me, sometime. Start small. Tell me about your day or something, without being a smart-arse or a sarcastic bastard.’

}OK, well today my day was mostly eclipsed by my mate having a psychiatric episode on a beach – oh fuck, that’s the sort of thing you mean isn’t it. I might need a lot of practice. Straight talking is fucking hard.

‘Everyone starts somewhere. I look forward to hearing about your day tomorrow, darling.’

}Fuck off. Thanks Dec. Go to sleep now.

‘Will do. I’ve got at least an hour before the vomming starts. Bye, Matt.’

I hung up and went back into the bedroom, feeling my way to the bed in the dark. I undressed, slipped under the duvet and cuddled up to Amy, trying not to wake her but unable to resist stroking her hair. She stirred. I felt guilty, and glad.

)Were you talking to someone?

‘Just Matt.’

)Is he OK?

‘He will be, he’s just overthinking stuff and undertalking stuff as usual. Ames, I’m sorry if I scared you this afternoon, all the big emotional drama and everything.’

She was quiet for a bit, and I thought she’d gone back to sleep.

)Well, it was a bit scary, I’ve never seen you that upset, and we were all looking at each other like ‘oh my God, what do we do if he doesn’t stop?’, and wondering if we needed to get some help or something. But Rose, she was just completely amazing. She knew just what to do. I know she’s seen you like that before, so maybe she was panicking a bit less, but she just made us all hold on to you and each other, and kept telling you it would be alright. I don’t know if you could hear her, you were making a bit of a racket.

‘I couldn’t hear anything, I was in a bit of a world of my own. Oh, babe, I’m so sorry. I just kind of came out of it and walked off like nothing had happened, didn’t I. I’ll have to talk to Beth tomorrow, I think she was as freaked out as Matt.’

)It’s OK, Dec. I think we can see you’re OK, it was just at the time it was so full on. I’m glad Rose was there.

‘Sorry you’re stuck with such a weirdo.’

)Ha ha, I’d choose your weirdness any time. Do you know the weirdest thing? When you were reading your letter, you had an Australian accent. Now that was completely bizarre.

‘No fucking way, I did not.’

)You did, hon, it was really strong, I was surprised Matt resisted saying something, he must have been on his best behaviour because he looked like he was completely busting a gut to chip in with something.

‘Fuck me. Must have been a bit of the old Charlie coming out.’

)It’s all in there somewhere, isn’t it. What time is it? Must be nearly time to get up and start puking.

‘We’ve got a while yet, just stay here and hold me. I need a gorgeous amazing woman in my arms right now. You’ll have to do though.’

)Watch it, or I might just have to miss the toilet next time you’re holding my hair. I’ve got quite good at aiming.

I put my arms round her and held her close, shut my eyes and drifted off to sleep.

Dreaming. I am flying, high above the world. I collect all the people I love and store them in my heart. They help me fly higher and higher and I reach the stars.

Matt

I thought about what Dec had said. He was just about the only person I would allow to make suggestions about what I should do. That’s not to say I took any notice, most of the time, but he could get away with saying stuff nobody else could.

And something he said about talking to people struck a chord, and I thought of Jules, who would be asleep by now, and would probably have her phone off, but I could at least show willing and apologise to her for the way I’d been when I got home. I sent a text.

Not only did she reply, she agreed to FaceTime, which we hadn’t done for ages, seeing each other so often, and was more than I deserved following my rudeness earlier. I apologised, she agreed I’d been a bit of a git, I told her a bit about what had been going on, what had been bothering me, the things I worried about being buried in my box-of-shit, and then … then she blew my fucking mind. Right. Out. Of. The. Water.

57. We are family

In which there are introductions, and opinions are formed.

Dec

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

‘Any luck?’

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

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

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

/cal’s lorry.

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

/make a bot. Dec do it.

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

‘Ta-da.’

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

/make a lorry.

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

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

łAbout time, Matty.

/unca Matty.

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

)Hey, hon. Good game with Cal?

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

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

Julia

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

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

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

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

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

‘Unca Matty.’

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

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

She turned her serious gaze on Matt

‘I fairy.’

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

‘Fairies got wings.’

‘Oh, my mistake.’

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

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

Dec

/unca Matty, Dec make lorry.

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

/dec make bot.

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

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

Julia

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, you’re as hilarious as Jay.’

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

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

Matt indicated the small blonde woman.

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

Rose stood up and beckoned me over to the table.

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

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

‘So you’re related to Matt?’

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

‘Oh, you’re Dec’s … er …’

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

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

I looked at her blankly.

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

I shook my head.

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

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

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

‘Oh, er …’

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

‘A few weeks, a month maybe.’

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

‘He has his moments.’

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

‘Poor Julia, she’s being Rosed.’

}Yeah, straight in the deep end.

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

}Go Jules.

‘Oh, she’s got a nickname – keeper?’

The slightest hesitation.

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

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

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

‘Hey, Cal. Did you win?’

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

‘Didn’t you pause it?’

He rolled his eyes.

\dur, you can’t pause boss fights.

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

\s’pose. When’s Nico coming on Skype?

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

\don’t know. Are you playing?

‘Hope so.’

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

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

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

‘Why don’t you ask Matt?’

\he doesn’t go to rugby.

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

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

\Matty …

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

Julia

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

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

‘It’s nice to be useful.’

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

‘Hey! Get your own plateful.’

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

‘Still get your own plateful.’

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

‘Matty …’

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

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

‘Thanks, mate. What’s up?’

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

‘What, Raiders?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘OK, then, sorted.’

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

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

‘Of course.’

Dec

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

‘Hi Carol, how’s it going?’

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

‘Thanks.’

#Amy looks very well.

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

#And you’d not be a little biased?

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

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

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

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

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

#I did, how did you know?

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

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

Iz wandered over and handed me Optimus Prime.

/make lorry pease.

‘OK, sweetie.’

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

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

/dec do it.

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

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

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

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

‘I guess so.’

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

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

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

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

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

Julia

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

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

Dec

_What time did Nico say he was going to try?

łIn about five minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¤Hi Nico, good to meet you.

~I’m Lisa, Julia.

¤Good to meet you too.

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

Lis held up a brightly coloured bag.

~Want to see what’s in it?

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

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

Amy sniffed and wiped her eyes.

>Amy, you don’t cry.

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

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

‘Ames, have you primed him or something?’

)No, he just knows what a woman needs.

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

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

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

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

She winked theatrically at us.

_Are you two enjoying Buenos Aires?

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

_Love to, if it’s at all possible.

łHave you started playing yet, mate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Is Dec looking after you?

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

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

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

>How about rugby? Is man enough?

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

Beth and Jay both looked at Matt in surprise.

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

Cal smiled but didn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

/eeco go. Where he go, Mummy?

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

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

Julia

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

Dec

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

\yeah.

‘It’s Dec. Can I come in?’

\kay.

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

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

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

\yeah.

‘Nico seemed happy to see you just now.’

\yeah.

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

A pause.

\yeah.

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

A roll of the eyes.

\yeah.

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

A slight smile at the corner of his mouth.

\yeah. Can I finish this now?

‘Yeah.’

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

‘Still want to play something later?’

\yeah.

‘OK.’

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

‘You OK, babe?’

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

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

)Can’t have done.

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

)Hm, I’ll let you know.

‘Well, anything I can do …’

)Just the breakfasts in beds to start with.

‘Bloody Nico.’

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

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

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

_Sorry, Matty, I got a bit carried away.

}As did Dec and Amy some weeks ago.

‘Way to lower the tone, mate.’

}My sincerest apologies.

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

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

:Can I do a toast, love?

_Oh, Rose, of course.

Rose stood up and cleared her throat.

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

łGo for it Rose.

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

‘Did you have this planned, Rose?’

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

‘Should I be worried?’

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

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

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

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

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

/mummy Dec cry.

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

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

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

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

Julia

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

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

‘You’re the only nutter, Dec.’

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

Dec

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

}Ha ha, under the thumb.

)Thanks, Rose, that was completely amazing.

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

:Oh, love …

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

I put my head in my hands.

‘Oh God, Jay, what now?’

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

He raised his glass.

łGrowing up.

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

/kiss better.

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

_Dec …

‘I was only repeating what Jay said.’

_Yes, but I’ve given up with him.

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

_Lovely. Unconditional love it is.

}Your turn, Dec.

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

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

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

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

‘Nice words, babe.’

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

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

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

‘He’s OK. I had a chat earlier.’

_Did you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_Will you stay in the flat, do you think?

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

‘No, not yet.’

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

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

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

‘Don’t, Beth, please.’

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

Julia

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

‘Come and see the garden.’

‘It’s dark.’

‘I know.’

I went with him.

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

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

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

‘We can go soon if you want.’

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

I looked up at him and caught a crinkly smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s on the cards.’

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

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

‘Did they adopt him?’

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

‘And Rose?’

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

‘Your family is very accepting.’

Matt looked at me, head on one side.

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

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

‘You’re lucky.’

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

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

‘Are you the only one in this country?’

I nodded.

‘I am now Nons is gone.’

‘You must miss her.’

I nodded again.

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

53. I don’t want love

In which it all gets a bit much, and consequently a request is made and chivalrously denied.

Julia

I ate alone that evening, as my mother and father had made reservations at a restaurant in the next town. I could have gone with them, but decided eating out was beyond me just then. I called round to see William and we arranged to meet, with our photos of Nons, the following afternoon, after the appointment at the solicitors. William was coming to the first part of that too, as he had been named in the will and had some papers to sign. Once I had finished my dinner, I felt restless, not wanting to sit alone in the quiet house, but not wanting the inanity of television or music. I pulled my phone out and dialled Matt’s number.

‘Hey! Bored of Norfolk already?’

It felt so good to hear his voice.

‘I really need some cheering up.’

‘On it! I’ve been looking up fascinating facts on Google today. Did you know that a snail can sleep for three years?’

‘What? It can not. Nothing sleeps for three years.’

‘Are you disputing the wisdom of Google?’

‘Well, naturally I wouldn’t want to call into question anything that has been published on the internet, it’s such a reliable source of information, but three years sounds excessive, how long do snails even live?’

‘Google was silent on the lifespan of snails. But bloody hell, what a life, carry your house round on your back, but as that’s fucking exhausting, you get to sleep for years at a time. I think I want to come back as a snail next time around.’

‘Really? A snail?’

‘I can think of worse lives than sleeping for three years. If I put my mind to it, I reckon I could manage eighteen solid months of sleep right now. I bloody love sleeping.’

‘Alright, then. So snails sleep for three years. What else does Google have to fascinate me factually with?’

‘Snails not doing it for you?’

‘Not so much.’

‘OK then, here’s one for you considering your long journey today. The average driver emits more than 900 pints of wind inside their car during their lifetime.’

‘Ew, no fart facts. Next.’

‘Fuck me, you’re a hard woman to impress. That impressed the shit out of me – oh, ha ha. Almost a pun. Anyway. No fart facts. Right, this is my last gasp attempt, and I know you will feel an affinity with the little chap for reasons that will become clear. Did you know that Donald Duck comics are banned in Finland?’

‘I can’t say I did, or that I ever thought I would have an affinity with any cartoon character. Why, exactly?’

‘Well, think about him. What does he wear?’

I had to think hard to remember.

‘Er … hat?’

‘Correct.’

‘Little jacket thing?’

‘Correct.’

‘Er … ooh, bow tie.’

‘You are fucking amazing, and correct.’

‘Er … shoes?’

‘Nope.’

‘Trousers?’

‘Nope.’

‘No trousers? Shorts.’

‘Nope.’

‘What? Donald Duck had no … oh! He didn’t, did he! But surely that’s not why Finland banned him. Aren’t Scandinavians renound for their lax rules about images of people who very specifically aren’t wearing pants?’

‘Again you are right, but again Google didn’t see fit to elaborate. I hope you’re thinking yourself lucky you have never been to Finland.’

‘How do you know I haven’t?’

‘Have you?’

‘No.’

‘I rest my case. You would have been banged up as a no-fuking-pants wearer quicker than you could say ‘smorgasbord’. You’d still be rotting in some remarkably clean prison, probably sharing a cell with Donald and his white feathery arse.’

‘Thank God for Google.’

‘I know. Who the fuck would have thought that fascinating facts would be responsible for keeping you out of jail?’

‘Thanks, Matt.’

‘Oh, any time you need to avoid prison, I’m your go-to Google man.’

‘No, I mean thanks for this, for cheering me up.’

‘Oh. Well, it seems to be my role in life to arse about, might as well put it to use. At the risk of fucking up my good work, are you OK?’

I paused. I didn’t want to lose the lighter mood I’d found with Matt.

‘Better now. I’m here on my own, Mum and Dad have gone out. I was getting a bit freaked out.’

‘Oh, Julia, you shouldn’t be there on your own.’

‘No, it’s OK now. I lived here for fourteen years, I came back here every holiday from Uni, it’s my home. I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m fine. You’ve cheered me up, honestly.’

‘FaceTime me.’

‘What?’

‘You’ve got an iPhone. FaceTime me. I want to see you.’

‘I’ve never used FaceTime before.’

‘What? You’re a fucking IT consultant. I despair. OK, you need to put my home email in your contacts.’

He told me what it was.

‘And now ask Siri to FaceTime me. You’d better not fucking well tell me you’ve never used Siri.’

‘Well not since I first got the phone, it seemed like a bit of a gimmick. But OK, OK, I know how to do it.’

‘Go on then.’

I felt a bit foolish talking to a disembodied voice on my phone, but when seconds later Matt’s face appeared on the screen, I forgot my self-consciousness.

‘Hey you.’

His eyes and mouth crinkled into the familiar smile.

‘Hello.’

‘Have you seriously never done this before?’

‘No. I’ve done video conferencing at work, but not this. I suppose you’re an expert?’

‘Well I have got a nine year old nephew who likes arsing about on his dad’s phone, I’m always getting calls from him. Usually at inconvenient moments like when I’m on the loo.’

‘You don’t have to answer him.’

‘No, but it’s fucking hilarious when I do. Sometimes I show him my poo.’

‘Oh dear Lord. Which one of you is nine years old?’

‘Ha ha, sometimes I forget. Do you want me to show you anything?’

‘Nothing in the bathroom, thanks. Just you is fine.’

‘This is nice, Julia.’

‘Yes.’

We looked at each other for a while.

‘I like seeing you, I can tell if you’re OK.’

‘And am I?’

‘Not really, but you’re putting on a brave face.’

He’d pretty much called it accurately, so I just shrugged.

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to dampen the mood.’

‘No, it’s OK, it’s actually good to see you.’

‘So, how about a bit of a tour? You look like you’re sitting on a sofa – show me the living room.’

‘Really? Why?’

‘It helps me to imagine where you are. You’ve seen my place, you know where I am. I’m on the couch, by the way. It remembers you well.’

I felt my cheeks colour as I recalled why I should remember Matt’s plum coloured couch.

‘Are you blushing?’

‘No.’

‘You so are. You’re so cute when you blush. Come on, flick the camera angle, show me where you are.’

As much to divert the camera from my red cheeks as to do as I was asked, I changed the view and showed Matt what I could see from where I was sitting: the two comfy armchairs either side of the sofa, the wooden coffee table, the living flame gas fire, the large mirror above it, all the familiar trappings of the place I considered my home.

‘How about a walking tour? Take me to the kitchen, show me what you’ve done with those bloody meatballs.’

‘I feel silly.’

‘What are you talking about, woman? It’s just like taking a photo or a video, except it’s instant. Come on, hurry up.’

I took the phone into the kitchen, then up the stairs into my old room,

‘Those trousers aren’t yours are they?’

‘No, they’re my dad’s. They’re staying in here.’

‘So where are you staying?’

‘Nons’ room.’

‘Fuck! Really? Isn’t that, like, really weird?’

‘It might be. I haven’t slept here yet. When I came last time I couldn’t do it, I stayed with William.’

‘Show me.’

I took the phone into Nons’ room and showed him the bed with flowery duvet and pink padded headboard, the pine wardrobe and matching chest of drawers and the chair which had been Nons’ pride and joy, a bargain from a car boot sale that was actually an antique worth loads more than the ten pounds she paid for it, but not as much as the two hundred pounds she paid to have it reupholstered. I’d draped my black funeral dress over the chair, pending hanging it up. I turned the view back to me.

‘Well it doesn’t seem like a particularly scary bedroom. Bed looks comfy. Wardrobe looks spacious.’

‘It’s got all her clothes in it. I felt really strange earlier when I tried to put my things away in a drawer. I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to sleep in here or downstairs.’

‘Oh. Would it help if I was available all night on FaceTime? You wouldn’t be alone then. All night, any night, until you get home. Just ask Siri.’

‘I think … it might. Thanks. I might not call.’

‘I know. But just the thought I might get to see you in your old tshit and random pants will be enough to keep me going.’

Matt winked at me and grinned.

‘You have a pants fetish.’

‘Guilty.’

‘I assume it extends to all underwear.’

‘Also guilty.’

‘You won’t be seeing any of my underwear on FaceTime.’

‘I was hoping for a sneaky peek.’

‘I will have the duvet up to my chin should I require your services.’

‘Bollocks. Oh well, I’ll take what I can get.’

I heard a car pulling onto the drive and saw the headlights shining through the net curtains.

‘I think my parents are back. I should go.’

‘OK. Thanks for showing me round.’

‘Thanks for the arsing about.’

‘Anytime.’

‘I’m glad we’ve got this … this whatever it is we’re doing.’

‘Yeah, me too.’

I heard my parents come in through the front door.

‘Don’t wait up for me though.’

‘As if. Here, this is for you.’

He kissed his fingertips and blew towards me.

‘Thank you.’

‘What, don’t I get one back?’

‘No. I’m not as sentimental as you.’

‘Will you go out with me?’

‘I’ll have to ask my mum.’

‘If she says no, will you meet me behind the bike sheds anyway?’

‘No, I’ll get told off.’

‘Oh go on, I’ll share my CurlyWurly.’

‘So I’ve heard. Alright then. Got to go now, it’s past my bed time.’

I smiled, waved and disconnected, feeling much better. For all his ‘arsing about’, Matt was showing himself to be surprisingly sensitive. Feeling bolstered, I went downstairs.

‘Who were you talking to, darling?’

‘Just a friend.’

‘Not this boy that William was telling us about?’

I rolled my eyes, both at the question and that William had been gossiping about me.

‘How old do you think I am, Mum? I was talking to a friend. He is male, but he is not a boy.’

‘Sorry, darling. When are we going to meet him?’

I rolled my eyes again.

‘You’re not. You’ve never met anyone else – you’re never here. He’s just a friend.’

Although I knew this was far from the truth, however much I was trying to convince myself.

‘Oh, well, I suppose so. Oh JuJu, I know we haven’t been here very much for you. I think, now Nons has gone, we need to pay you a bit more attention.’

I bit back several retorts to that, and said nothing.

The evening, what was left of it, continued in the same vein, with both of my parents raising my hopes that they had started to care about me only to dash them with a thoughtless comment. I went to bed early, determined to sleep well, and not take up Matt’s offer of contacting him.

I was tired from driving and from the effort of not losing my temper with my self-involved parents, and went to sleep quickly. However, I woke up in the dark, not knowing where I was, and thought there was a large shadow looming by the side of the bed. I sat up with a start, and realised it was my black dress which I had forgotten to hang up, and which was still draped over the chair. But now my heart was pounding and my breathing was rapid, and sleep seemed a million years away. I felt very alone, despite my parents being asleep in the room next door, and after a few moments of hesitation, I reached for my phone. I thought about Facetiming Matt, but I didn’t want to wake my parents, so I texted.

‘Hello.’

Matt’s reply was gratifyingly instantaneous.

‘Hi. Want to FaceTime?’

‘No, it’s too noisy. Thanks for being awake.’

‘U OK?’

‘I freaked myself out – seeing shadows.’

‘Real or imagined?’

‘A bit of both, it was a black dress on a chair. My brain interpreted it as sinister.’

‘U hv 2 watch those little black numbers. They like 2 tease. OK now?’

‘Yes, I just gave myself a fright. I was disoriented. I think I’ll be alright, I’ll try to go back to sleep.’

‘OK, u no where I am xx’

‘Thank you.’

I turned the screen off, turned over and shut my eyes. After a while, I slept again, not waking until I heard movement from the room next door, and smelt toast. I lay there as long as I could, delaying the moment when I would have to go and make small talk with my mother and father, but there was a lot to do today, and putting it off wasn’t going to make it any easier. Sighing, I got up and began the day.

o0o

I went round to see William after breakfast, and we spent the morning in his garden, looking at his vegetables and herbaceous borders, and chatting. Before long, it was time to go to the solicitors. I went with William, and my parents went under their own steam. There wasn’t going to be any dramatic ‘reading of the will’ like I had seen in films and TV dramas. It wasn’t as glamorous as that; copies of the will had been sent to the four of us as beneficiaries, and there were some signatures needed.

It all took place in a small, cramped office at the back of the solicitors’ town offices. The five of us – my parents, William, me and Toby, who was the solicitor but seemed to be about eleven years old – sat knee to knee around a table and put our names to the various documents.

Nons had left her house to me; I was humbled. She hadn’t had much, and she had left what little money she had to William. She had left my parents a few pictures, that she thought might be valuable, but very likely weren’t. They didn’t need money, and had always been snooty about Nons’ tastes in art, believing as they did that their taste was the only one that counted. They weren’t at all bothered about not being left a lot; they knew as well as I did how little there was to leave, and probably knew how little they were entitled to anything anyway.

I was overwhelmed to have the house. I didn’t own my own flat, and the thought of having to decide what to do with Nons’ home was something I couldn’t cope with right then. There was no rush to decide, as the paperwork wouldn’t be completed for some time. We left the solicitors’ offices. William and I went home and my parents went to the Chapel of Rest.

William had cleared his dining room table, leaving a large space for putting out photographs. He had a huge box, and I had several older albums, plus my computer. I set a slide-show running on my laptop, of pictures I had taken and also scanned in, and Nons’ face smiled at us as we looked at the pictures. I started music playing, a playlist of some of Nons’ old favourites; we laughed and cried remembering things we’d done with Nons, listening to each other’s stories about events we both had and hadn’t known about, and then tried to lay the pictures out chronologically. A fair few photos of me ended up on the table, usually me pouting at the camera with Nons trying to cajole me into a smile by pulling a funny face. There was a picture of Nons at a wedding, and with a jolt I recognised the groom as William.

‘I didn’t know she’d gone to your wedding.’

‘Well I couldn’t not invite her, could I pet.’

‘Wasn’t it a bit awkward?’

‘No, it was never awkward with Vonnie. Pat didn’t know how I’d felt about her, they both got on really well.’

‘Do you think Nons ever knew?’

William was quiet for a moment.

‘I don’t know, maybe not back then, but there were a few times, when we’d been supping the ale a bit, when I maybe wasn’t as discreet as I should have been, like. I can’t believe she left me her money.’

‘It isn’t much. She would have wanted you to have it. William, is there anything of hers you’d like, from the house?’

William’s eyes had filled with tears, and he shook his head.

‘I can’t think about it, lass. Maybe in a while, after we’ve laid her to rest.’

‘I feel the same, it’s a lot to think about isn’t it? We’ll get there.’

I left William’s house in the early evening. My parents had come back from the Chapel of Rest, but hadn’t come round to join in our nostalgia. I wandered back into the house and we resumed our family script of misunderstandings, politely veiled criticism and failure to see the other person’s point of view. In the end I took my laptop out and checked my emails, deciding that lack of communication was better than the frustration of miscommunication.

Matt had texted a few times during the day, but as he had been at work I had stuck to my rules and not replied. Evie and a few other friends had texted and left messages, and I decided to go upstairs to answer them. After a few calls, I got another text from Matt.

‘Need more fascinating facts?’

‘More fascinating than snails, farts and Donald Duck?’

‘Equally as fascinating. Do u want disgusting or intriguing?’

‘Let’s start with intriguing.’

‘It’s impossible to touch yr nose with yr elbow.’

‘That’s not intriguing.’

‘Bet u just tried tho, didn’t u.’

‘I might have.’

‘Gotcha. Disgusting now. The avg person eats 8 spiders in their sleep in their life.’

‘Oh my God! That’s particularly horrible. I can’t go to sleep ever again. I don’t like fascinating facts.’

‘OK, let’s ditch the facts. Wanna talk properly?’

‘Yes please.’

My phone rang a few moments later.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you. Got one last fact for you. Did you know lobster’s bladders are in their skulls?’

‘Hmm. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘piss-head’.

‘Ha ha, brilliant. I hadn’t thought of that. How’s today been?’

‘Pretty full on. Solicitors, photos, parents. I’m exhausted. And now I can’t sleep for thinking about eating spiders.’

‘Sorry. It was too good to resist. I wish I could hold you.’

I breathed deeply. I wished it too, but I was scared of how much I wished it. Next Wednesday, when I would be able to see him again, felt like a long way away. I had a lot to get through before then, and wishing wouldn’t make things any easier.

‘Julia?’

‘I’m here, sorry, drifted off for a minute.’

‘Was it something I said?’

‘Yes and no.’

‘OK, spill, then.’

‘I’m just struggling a bit with how quickly things are going with us.’

‘You think things are going quickly?’

‘Well, maybe not in your terms. But I’m not used to feeling the way I’m feeling as soon as I have.’

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Like … oh I don’t know, I don’t want to say anything, I haven’t thought about it properly yet. I just know if something happens, if I feel upset or think of something crazy, you’re the first person I think of to tell. That’s just mad. I’ve only known you five minutes.’

‘Oh Jules. Fuck it, sorry, fuck, I’ve been trying really hard, that’s the first ‘Jules’ I’ve let slip. Shit. Sorry.’

‘See, that’s mad too, because I should be annoyed, but I’m not, it feels right. I feel like I’ve known you for a long time. I should be being more careful, but I don’t feel like being careful. I feel like driving back to the city right now and …’

I stopped, uncertain how much I wanted to divulge.

‘And what?’

‘I can’t talk about this, Matt. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have started it. Can we go back to arsing about with fascinating facts?’

‘Well, alright, I was kind of liking where that was heading, but if you haven’t had enough of snails and naked duck’s arses I’m sure there’s more where they came from …’

He reeled off more ridiculous nonsense he’d found on the internet, but it seemed I’d completely ruined the easy chat and made things a bit awkward. The jollity ground to a halt after a while.

‘Julia, would you like me to come up at the weekend?’

‘What? No!’

‘OK, just a thought, you don’t have to make it sound like I asked if you want me to poke your fucking eyes out or something.’

‘Sorry. I’ve made things difficult. I know you’re trying to help me. I’m not very good at being helped.’

‘Sorry backatcha. I think that was a bit of a selfish offer. I really want to see you, more than see you. It would feel weird for you if I was there, I know that, but I couldn’t fucking help myself. Julia – shit, I can’t believe I’m about to say this – would it be better if I stopped texting and calling you, just until you’re back?’

‘No!’

‘I don’t want to, but I just wondered if you’d find it easier to get your head round everything if I gave you some space.’

I sat for a moment, thinking. My head and my heart were having their own private battle.

‘I thought we agreed to say Chartham if we wanted to stop? Maybe a couple of days ago, before I came up here, I was considering it. But now … I don’t think I’m going to make it through the next few days without you. That probably puts way too much pressure on you.’

‘Sorry, Julia, I’m bloody useless at deep and meaningfuls. I do arsing about better than most, but I’m fucking awful at serious. But I’ll give it a shot. OK, here goes, ready? Uncharacteristically magnanimous gesture coming up. Actually, can we Facetime? I want to see you while we’re talking about this.’

‘OK.’

A few seconds later I was staring into Matt’s big grey eyes. He smiled his crinkly smile.

‘Hello. You look hot tonight. Just thought I’d say.’

‘Thanks.’

‘You could always reply ‘why thank you Matt, and I’d quite like to rip your clothes off too’ if you wanted to.’

I smiled and shook my head.

‘I could, but I fear your head would swell so much it wouldn’t all fit on the screen.’

‘So you’re not denying the possibility that you might quite like to rip my clothes off then?’

‘I am neither confirming nor denying anything. I thought you were going to go all deep and meaningful on me?’

‘Oh yeah, just building up to it while having a bloody good gawk at your bra. I can totally see it through your t-shirt.’

I looked down, horrified.

‘You can not! This was what I wore to the solicitors and round at William’s all afternoon.’

Matt laughed.

‘You are so easy to wind up, you’re so proper. So what if a solicitor had the chance to perv on your undies? Not that he did, because I can’t see a bloody thing, more’s the pity.’

‘Alright, deep and meaningful now, or I’m disconnecting.’

‘Oh fucking hell, you’re so bloody bossy. OK, OK, what I was going to suggest is that I won’t just randomly and incessantly text you. You can contact me whenever you like, and for whatever reason, whether you want to arse about or bawl your fucking eyes out, I’ll be here, or wherever I am, I’ll be there for you. Fuck, I’ve never had so many rules about phoning someone before. It’s fine, though. But just so you know, even though I’m not texting you or phoning or Facetiming, I will be thinking about you all the fucking time. Thinking about what I’m going to tell you next time we speak – I’ve got so much fucking office goss I’m saving up, I found out what Mike Davies keeps in his locked drawer! But anyway, that’s for another time. So you don’t have to worry about me popping up on your phone at inopportune moments, you have complete charge over when we speak, in what media, and what about. If you want to be on your own, that’s your choice. What do you think?’

‘I want to know what Mike keeps in his drawers.’

‘Ooh, that’s a diversionary reply worthy of me! Come on, Julia. Is it a goer?’

‘It sounds just about right. I know I’m a control freak, how did you know?’

‘Are you fucking kidding me? I’ve worked with the bloody Ice Queen all this time, it’s her stock in trade. You don’t get that good at work without some of it being part of you. So that’s what we’ll do then.’

He stopped talking and looked at me, a long look that I returned, drinking in his gaze. Eventually I nodded. He gave me a sad smile.

‘I can’t say I’m not going to bloody well miss this. But I’m just thinking of next week, when I can see you again.’

‘You can still think about me.’

‘I do anyway.’

‘I’ll think about you.’

‘Good.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Pleasure.’

‘Is one of us going to go, then?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Me, then?’

‘Gonna have to be, I seriously can’t make myself press the fucking button.’

‘Night then.’

‘Don’t go.’

‘We can’t just sit staring at each other.’

‘Why the fuck not? The view’s great from here.’

‘I’m tired.’

‘I can watch you sleep.’

‘Very sweet, but a bit stalkery?’

‘Maybe you’re right. I want to watch you sleep one day though. I bet you snore.’

‘I do not!’

‘Everyone says that. I’ll find out. I bet you dribble too.’

‘I don’t dribble.’

‘The only way to prove it is to spend the night with me.’

‘Goodnight, Matt.’

‘Goodnight, Jules.’

I pressed the button on the phone, and his face disappeared from the screen. I remained looking at the home page of my phone for a while, shaking my head at the uncharacteristic whimsy I was feeling all of a sudden. I got ready for bed, and resisted an urge to call Matt back to discuss my night attire. I got into bed, turned the light out and slept almost immediately.

o0o

The next few days passed with arrangements for Nons’ funeral, organising the reception, and several long walks along north Norfolk beaches while I thought and cried and wrote Nons’ eulogy in my head. The wind was bracing, as ever, and the shoreline was bleak, but it helped to sort through a lot of the things that had lain unresolved in my mind. I texted Matt a couple of times, and Facetimed him once while I was walking along the beach near Blakeney Point, as I thought he would like to see it. He was suitably impressed, and got enthusiastic about going on a hike when I got back. He kept his promise not to contact me, and although I missed him more than I thought I would, his absence helped me to focus on what I was doing there. Before I knew it, the day of the funeral had dawned and it was all going to be over.

Matt

So Jules went away for a week, to bury her aunt. And I missed her. I could not believe how much I missed her, even though we spoke on the phone and texted, and even, bloody hell, FaceTimed. I had fallen for Jules good and proper, and even though I wasn’t ready to examine just how much or in what way, I was prepared to admit that I wanted to see a lot more of her and spend time getting to know her.

Julia

I ghosted through the day in a dream. Part of me was screaming and raging with anger and hurt that Nons had been taken away from me, but I locked this away and concentrated on the things I needed to get done, like saying the eulogy, greeting people afterwards, paying the caterers and mopping up my mother who had suddenly become a quivering heap in the corner requiring lots of patience and tissues.

By the time it was all over and everyone had gone, it was late afternoon. My parents, my mother now recovered, had departed for the airport, and I gave William a lift home.

‘I’ll be back in a few weeks, to start sorting the house out. I think I need to leave it a bit before I start tackling it.’

‘I understand, pet. I’ll give you a hand to sort through it all if you like. Let me know when you’re coming.’

‘Thanks, William. Will you be alright?’

‘I will be, lass. I will be.’

I packed up quickly and set off, wanting to leave this week behind me. I had hoped the journey would get me home in time to get a good night’s sleep before work tomorrow, but a major accident had closed one of the motorways and the resulting delays and diversions meant I didn’t get back to the city until well after midnight.

I felt frazzled and overtired, and without thinking about it, I found myself pulling onto the street where Matt’s apartment was. I stopped the car and got my phone out, not really sure what I was intending to do. It was far too late to call, and going to see him would be madness. But he had said I could call him anytime while I was away, and I wasn’t technically back home yet. And I really wanted to talk to him. I pressed his name. And then hung up. I started the car as my phone rang. I stopped the car and answered it.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you. Are you home?’

‘Not quite.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Outside.’

‘Outside where? Are you OK?’

I didn’t say anything, feeling suddenly foolish.

‘Julia, where are you?’

‘Nowhere, it’s alright, I’m going home now.’

‘Wait – shit – outside – are you outside here?’

I nodded, close to tears, forgetting he couldn’t see me.

‘Julia?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you outside here now?’

‘Yes.’

‘Stay there, I’m coming down.’

He disconnected. The car’s engine was running and I nearly drove away, but just as I was about to put my foot on the clutch and take the handbrake off, Matt came running out of the front door. He was wearing a t-shirt and boxer shorts, and was barefoot; he’d been in bed.

Matt ran over to the car and pulled the door open, crouching down close to me.

‘Julia, what the fuck?’

I looked up at him, trying not to cry. Seeing him made me realise just how much I needed to be with him. I shook my head.

‘I’m sorry I woke you up. I’m just being stupid.’

‘Come up.’

‘No, I should go.’

‘Julia, I’m freezing my fucking balls off out here. Come on, we can talk about it inside, yeah?’

He stood up and held his hand out. When I didn’t take it, he took mine and pulled. I got out of the car, and as soon as I was standing up, he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into him. I collapsed against him, giving in to the tears I had managed to hold back all day.

‘Hey, shh. It’s OK. It’s OK, Jules. Shh now.’

He held me while I cried, but after a time I felt him unwrap himself from me a little bit, and start to walk to the door, an arm still round me, holding me close to him. I thought about resisting, but being in Matt’s arms was where I wanted to be and I couldn’t fight it. I let him lead me in through the door and up the stairs to his flat, where he sat me down on the sofa, then kissed me on top of my head before heading towards the kitchen area to put the kettle on. I sat and sniffled to myself, trying to wipe my eyes on the back of my hands.

‘Here, it’s camomile.’

Matt handed me a mug of tea and then a box of tissues. Then he sat down beside me and put his arm around me again.

‘Have you only just got back?’

I nodded.

‘Shit, Julia, you must be wiped.’

Another nod.

‘Why didn’t you go straight home?’

‘I just needed … you.’

A sound somewhere between a moan and a laugh escaped from Matt.

‘Well I can’t say it’s not reciprocated, but shit, you don’t half choose your moments. You’re not in any fit state for anything I may have to offer you tonight, apart from my bed –’

I looked up at him, startled, scared and hopeful.

‘– I’ll sleep here on the sofa. I’ve got an old tshit you can use, and no fuking pants is fine by me.’

I nodded again, too exhausted to think, let alone argue. Matt stayed next to me, holding me against him, while I drank my tea. Then he took the cup from my hands and put it on the table.

‘Come on, it’s this way. Are you OK to get undressed? There’s a shirt in here you can use –’

He opened a drawer

‘– we can worry about everything else in the morning.’

‘Matt …’

‘Yep.’

‘Kiss me.’

He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply.

‘Holy fuck, Julia, you make it bloody difficult for a bloke to behave decently. Not tonight. I’m not going there again with you like this. If I start kissing you now, I won’t be able to stop.’

‘I won’t want you to stop.’

‘Don’t, Jules, please, I need to say no. I’m sorry, you have no idea how sorry, but not tonight. Soon though, bloody soon. Goodnight, gorgeous.’

He blew me a kiss and walked out, shutting the door behind him.

I sat on the edge of the bed for a while, not really sure what I was feeling. I was so, so tired, but I had so, so wanted to kiss Matt, and to feel him hold me again, whatever that might have brought. I was just about with-it enough to recognise what Matt had done and what it might mean to me later.

The duvet had been pushed back, and I felt the sheet underneath, which was still warm from Matt’s body. I pulled my clothes off and picked the top t-shirt from the drawer Matt had left open, pulling it on over my head. I kept my pants on. Then I slid under the duvet, holding the warmth from it around me, and switched the lamp off, falling into sleep almost immediately.

Matt

When Jules came back, she was in a bit of a state and she came to my flat late at night and said she wanted to kiss me, the inference being that she wanted to sleep with me, but fuck I was noble, and said no and slept on the sofa while she crashed in my bed. I hope you’re impressed, because I bloody well was.

Julia

As I woke up, it slowly registered that it was light. I couldn’t hear any of the familiar sounds I had got used to in Norfolk, and I couldn’t hear the traffic outside my flat. I opened my eyes. I was in a strange room. I closed my eyes and gathered my thoughts. I was in Matt’s bed. I groaned to myself, thinking about how ridiculous I must have looked yesterday.

I had no idea of the time – I had left my phone in the car along with my bags – but it felt late enough that I should be getting up. I didn’t want to be late for work on my first morning back. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and dragged my fingers through my hair; as I was about to stumble to the door, it opened and Matt came in with a cup of tea.

‘Hey you. Toast or cereal for breakfast? Or something fancier?’

‘What time is it?’

‘Just gone ten.’

What?

‘You needed to sleep.’

‘I’m late for work. Shit, Matt, it’s my first day back.’

I started to gather my clothes together, wondering how I was going to explain this to Lexi, and then get home, shower and change into something decent. I felt Matt’s hands on my shoulders.

‘Hey, stop panicking. I’ve phoned in for you.’

‘What? What the fuck did you tell them?’

‘Well, of course, I told them you’d stayed the night here and were so exhausted from the adventure that you were having a bit of a skive –

What?’

‘Stop shrieking, I rang Phil, told him you were taking an extra day because yesterday was a bit too much, and it’s all sorted. Don’t worry, I didn’t talk to Lexi, Phil will be discreet, he doesn’t know you’re here.’

I sat on the edge of the bed and put my head in my hands.

‘You can’t just do things like that on my behalf. You should have woken me up.’

‘Well I didn’t, not much we can do about it now. Tell me you didn’t need the sleep.’

I stayed silent.

‘Hmm. Well I’ve got to shoot off myself in a minute, can’t have both of us shirking, you’re welcome to stay here, all day if you want to, but if you go, pull the door shut behind you, make sure it clicks.’

I stayed sitting on the bed as he left the room, and I watched him through the open bedroom door as he left the flat, turning to wave as he did so. I sat for a long time, thinking about what I was doing there.

Matt was right, I had needed the sleep; but I should never have come here in the first place. Yesterday had been a weird, horrible day, and I had made some bad errors of judgement, not least of which had been asking Matt to kiss me. I was now awake enough to be well aware of what it had cost him to say no, but confronting that with him later was something I chose not to think about.

I pulled on the clothes I had worn the day before, folding the t-shirt I had slept in, and putting it on the pillow. I located my car keys and left, pulling the door shut behind me, trying not to think about the last time I did that or the circumstances in which I had left Matt’s flat then.

Arriving at my flat, I hauled my bags up the stairs and then started unpacking them, putting things out to wash or into the laundry basket for later. I thought about calling Phil to explain why I hadn’t rung in myself, but couldn’t think of a way to justify it that wouldn’t make things worse. I texted Evie to see if she was around for a chat later, and she replied that she would call me when she got home from work. I got some of the papers that I’d brought home from Norfolk – bank details and other things I needed to sort out – but I couldn’t bring myself to look at them.

I curled up on the sofa and cried, wishing I could get a grip on my emotions and stop bursting into tears at inconvenient moments. I missed Nons. I wanted Matt, but I didn’t want to want him. I felt impatient with myself, and could only imagine how frustrated he must be feeling with me. Slowly, my tears dried up and I fell into a doze.

I woke some time later to the sound of the door intercom. It startled me into instant wakefulness, and jolted me onto my feet. I pressed the button.

‘Hello.’

‘Julia, it’s Matt.’

I looked at the clock. It was one fifteen; he must have come over in his lunch hour.

‘Come up.’

I pushed the button again, and heard the buzz as he opened the door. I waited for his knock, which came, tentatively, a few moments later. I opened the door.

‘Hello.’

‘Hey you.’

A crinkly smile, but some uncertainty behind it.

‘I’m sorry about last night.’

‘No need. I just wanted to see how you are. Can I come in?’

I stood aside and let Matt walk into the flat, where he stood, unsure, by the door.

‘Sit down. Have you come in your lunch hour?’

‘Yeah, they all think I’m off wining and dining the elusive Roberta.’

He walked over to the sofa and sat down. I sat at the other end, a seat between us.

‘I’m sorry, I haven’t got anything to eat. I emptied my fridge before I left last week.’

‘I didn’t come here for a three course meal, Julia. You were, well, how can I put it tactfully? I can’t. OK. You were a fucking mess last night. I wanted to check you’re not still a fucking mess today.’

‘I’m not a fucking mess.’

Matt looked at me, studying my face.

‘No, maybe not, but you’re not right. You’ve gone all distant and Ice Queeny.’

‘I’m sorry. I feel silly and embarrassed. I don’t know why I came to yours last night, I wasn’t thinking straight.’

‘I thought you came because you needed me?’

I snorted.

‘Is that what I said?’

‘Yeah. You also asked me to kiss you. I’m sorry I had to say no.’

I closed my eyes and inhaled.

‘I’m not. I’m very grateful. You would have had every right to … do what I asked you to. You continue to astound me.’

‘Hey, that’s always good to know. A good astounding is my speciality. Not that it’s always called that, you understand. Jules, you have no idea how fucking hard it was to say no. I’ve missed you so much more than I thought I would this last week. When you turned up last night, even though I was half asleep and it was bloody freezing outside and I cut my fucking foot on a stone, it was so bloody great just to see you again. Just holding you sent all sorts of messages to all sorts of places, and I had to talk pretty bloody fast to them to get them to simmer down. It just wasn’t right last night. After last time, I wasn’t going to do that again, feel the way I did, have you leave the way you did.’

‘You cut your foot?’

He laughed, tutted and shook his head.

‘Yeah, focus on that why don’t you. Fuck, Julia, you’re better than me at avoiding the issue, and that’s saying something. I’m telling you I missed you and didn’t want to do something stupid in the heat of the moment last night that we’d both regret because you were a fucking mess and I was an uncontrollable shag monster.’

‘Alright, I get it. You were more of a gentleman than I thought you capable of. You have been on several occasions. But soon you’re going to have to stop saying no, because eventually I won’t be a fucking mess and you won’t have an excuse.’

‘Believe me, Julia, as soon as you stop being a fucking mess, I will be right here on your doorstep with a bottle of wine and a condom and you won’t even have to ask me to kiss you.’

‘Just the one condom?’

‘I would like to think that in these modern times, you have a supply. Mine will just be a spare in case we run out.’

I looked into Matt’s eyes. He looked relieved. I felt a bit better.

‘I’m not sure I’m there yet.’

‘I know. I’m keeping a close eye on the situation. Until then, you don’t have to worry, I’ll be saying no.’

‘Thank you. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this.’

‘A mate of mine says it’s not about deserving, it’s about how you react to things. I’m just reacting to you, the same as you’re reacting to me. It feels pretty fucking good so far. Hey, know what, I think I can risk a hug without turning into that uncontrollable shag monster. No snogging though.’

Matt opened his arms wide, and I fell into them, burying myself in his chest and holding him tightly against me. As his arms went round me, it felt like the place I most belonged in the world.

‘I’m scared.’

He pulled away and looked at me again.

‘Of what?’

‘Of this, I don’t know what it is, what it’s going to be.’

Matt sighed.

‘You know what, you don’t have the monopoly on freaking out. Didn’t we say at the start we were going to see where it goes? Let’s just do that. That doesn’t scare me, what fucking terrifies me is analysing it to death and killing it before it has the chance to be anything. Jules, I’m not looking for anything in particular, I don’t know if you are. I’m not trying to make us into a couple or anything, fuck, probably exactly the opposite. I’m a commitmentophobe, hadn’t you heard? I know it’s bloody terrifying for you not to know exactly what the rules are, but it’s just as bloody terrifying for me to feel like there are a bunch of rules I’m trapped by. I just feel like there aren’t any here.’

I carried on looking at him, trying to work out if what he said made me more, or less, terrified.

‘I think you need to try to let yourself go a bit. I know there’s this weird vibe with us knowing each other at work, but maybe we can try to forget about that when we’re not at GreenScreen. Try to just relax enough that we can be ourselves, maybe even challenge each other a bit. Then we might get a bit more of an idea of where we’re going, if indeed we have to be headed anywhere.’

‘Do you think I’m uptight?’

‘I think you think too much about shit that’s not important.’

‘So yes, then.’

‘I didn’t say that, and it’s not what I meant. Julia, you’ve had a major life event, with your aunt. You’re still getting your head round it. Let yourself do that and at the same time get your head around us too. We don’t have to be together every second. We both have our own lives. I think we need to be together, by which I mean sleep together, by which I actually mean fucking hot sex, just so we’re clear, very soon so we can get it out of the way – shit that wasn’t very romantic was it – I meant –’

‘I know what you meant. You’re right. It’s been this … thing … hasn’t it. An undercurrent. Until it happens, it’s going to affect everything else between us. I know what you were saying about it needing to be right, but … can we plan it?’

I looked up at him, conscious that my need to control things was affecting this too. He pushed a strand of hair away from my face.

‘It wouldn’t be appropriate if we didn’t, really, after everything else that’s been so well organised. I’m not doing anything tonight, but maybe, after everything I just said, it’s too soon …’

‘Evie’s calling me later, but I haven’t got any plans after that.’

Matt looked at me, assessingly.

‘You know what, there’s only so many times I can resist you, Julia. Tonight then. Come to mine? I’ll cook you something, planned seduction.’

‘Are you supposed to tell me if you’re planning to seduce me?’

‘Probably not. I’m Matt Scott, though, ‘evil seducer’ is on my doorbell. It’s a bit of a given.’

‘I thought that was ‘uncontrollable shag monster’?’

‘That’s just at weekends. Come here, soon-to-be-seduced Julia Marran. I want you in my arms right now.’

As he pulled me towards him again, I leaned into him and put my arms round his back, pressing myself up against him. I could feel his heart pounding in his chest. After a time, he kissed the top of my head, sighed, disentangled himself and pulled away.

‘I should get back. I can only have so many long lunches before Phil starts taking it out of my holiday.’

‘How exactly did you get such flexible hours?’

I saw a flicker of alarm cross his face for a split second, then it was gone.

‘Well … I was ill a few years ago – when I first moved down here I was living with my brother, they were looking after me – but I wanted to work again. But I got really tired, so I needed to work part time with the flexibility to come and go and up or down my hours as necessary. I had a pretty good reference from my job in Stafford, and Phil reckoned I was worth the risk.’

‘But you’re not ill now.’

‘I guess I just never renegotiated. It suits my lazy bastard ethos.’

I sensed a guardedness in Matt’s expression. He wasn’t telling me everything, but I didn’t have any rights to his personal information.

‘I work my share, I know I come in late, but I stay late if I need to, I don’t miss deadlines, I get my job done. I work more hours than I’m contracted for if anyone’s counting.’

He sounded defensive, as if he’d had to justify it to himself many times.

‘I know, I wasn’t questioning your work at all. You carry on being a lazy bastard, it suits you.’

‘OK, thanks, I will. Starting today. Long lunch hour followed by leaving early to get ready for my hot date. It is going to be fucking hot, Jules, I can’t wait.’

‘I’m looking forward to it too.’

‘Still scared?’

‘Petrified.’

‘Great! See you later – sevenish?’

He stood up and pulled me to my feet.

‘Here’s a little something to keep you interested.’

He leaned down and kissed me hard and long, tongue searching deep into my mouth, lips locked onto mine, hands in my hair holding my face to his, and then he pulled away.

‘Fuck, need to stop that, otherwise there will be no seduction tonight, just a quick hop to your bedroom right now. No, don’t even say that would be fine, you temptress, I can see it on your face. Well I’ve got no one to blame but myself for sending me back to work with the boner from hell. Fuck. I’m going now before I do something else I’ll regret. See you later.’

He backed towards the door, leaving me breathless and open mouthed in the middle of the room, then turned and walked out with a wave, pulling the door shut behind him.

I couldn’t settle after Matt left. I drifted around, unpacking, sorting my laundry, tidying up, but my mind wasn’t really on it. I was restless, thinking about my assignation later. The more I thought about it the more it felt like the right thing to do; get the sex out of the way and I might be able to think more clearly. Thinking logically about it didn’t stop my heart racing in anticipation, though, and I was in need of distraction.

I thought about going in to work for a couple of hours but that wasn’t going to distract me from Matt. In the end I went to the supermarket and filled my trolley with food I didn’t really want because I was wandering around in an unthinking haze. As I loaded the bags at the till I shook my head at what I’d bought, wondering when I was ever going to eat a tin of sausage and beans or a jar of pickled onions.

Back at my flat I filled my fridge and cupboards with my unwise purchases. The food was making me hungry and I realised with a start that I hadn’t eaten anything all day – in fact not since I stopped at a service station on the way home yesterday. I slotted some bread into the toaster and cut off a lump of cheese. It would have to do until dinner with Matt later, as I was euphemistically calling it, in the hope that he was a reasonable cook and we actually made it to the dinner table to eat.

Not long after I got back from the shop, Evie rang. We spent a while talking about Nons’ funeral and then about Evie’s job, where she was having ‘unreasonable boss’ trouble; then she asked about Matt.

‘So how’s it going with the stud muffin?’

‘The what?’

‘Has he managed to keep it in his boxers?’

‘Evie! I’ve been away, I haven’t seen him.’

‘I’ve heard some stories, Jules. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’

‘What stories?’

‘Kath – you know, from the dentist? She heard that he’s got some kind of STD, maybe more than one. Her friend Petra had to go to the GUM clinic. And he’s not the type to hang around once he’s got what he wants.’

If I hadn’t heard the Petra story from Matt I might have been swayed, but I was offended on Matt’s behalf.

‘You don’t know him Evie, nor does Kath. He’s not like everyone thinks. A lot of its an act. And that STD story is just a story.’

‘OK my lovely, whatever you say. You’re obviously smitten.’

‘I am not.’

‘Right.’

She filled that one word with as much sarcasm as she could muster.

‘When are you seeing him next?’

‘…tonight.’

‘For?’

‘Dinner’

‘Where?’

‘His place.’

‘Yeah and the rest Jules. You’ve gone all monosyllabic, you think you can kid me. Anything else on the menu? Or rather, anyone?

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Course you don’t. Wouldn’t have crossed your mind that womaniser Matt Scott might want to get in your knickers – it’s not like it hasn’t already happened once. I’m not judging you Jules, I think it’s great, go for it if it’s what you want. Just be careful. Not just about STDs, but don’t let him break your heart.’

I laughed.

‘Evie you’re hilarious. I don’t do heartbreak. We’re just seeing what happens, enjoying ourselves.’

I could almost convince myself.

‘Alright then my lovely. Have a good time tonight, I’ll wait to hear all about it later.’

When I’d finished talking to Evie I had about half an hour to get ready before I needed to leave. I spent far too long choosing clothes and selecting underwear, tying myself up in knots about the messages I would be sending. Eventually I reminded myself I had agreed to go to Matt’s so we could sleep together, which was a pretty clear message, and so I wore something I felt comfortable and sexy in. I was finally as ready as I’d ever be.

50. I want you to want me

In which Julia and Matt get to know each other better.

Julia

And then he went, but not before making me give him my mobile number and watching me programme his number into mine. I was mentally breathless with it all, maybe I was a little bit mad, I was certainly behaving somewhat out of character. It remained to be seen how we managed to keep it up at work.

Matt’s revelation yesterday that he and I were in some kind of competition instigated by Phil had shaken me, but this evening’s events changed the rules and things may take a while to settle down for me. I shook my head, to try to shake it all out. I had things to do. I had been about to call William, and now I had to be Jules and put all thoughts of Matt Scott to one side.

William had loved Nons forever. He lived next door to her, and although eventually he’d married someone else and had a family, because he’d given up hope, he and Nons had always stayed close. When he got divorced and his children left home, he stayed, determined that if he couldn’t have Nons, he could at least look after her.

I don’t think Nons had known any of this; William was adamant that he couldn’t tell her. I’d found out when I’d gone round to borrow some kitchen implement or other, and had seen the photos he had spread out on his kitchen table. They were all of her, various ages. He’d just been sitting, looking at them. He’d shrugged, picked them all up and put them in a box, and then told me. And made me promise not to tell her.

I don’t know if Nons ever knew, or guessed, but she did think of William as her best friend. They were in and out of each other’s houses all the time, he did her gardening, she sewed up the holes in his trouser pockets. They watered each other’s plants when they went on holiday. They even went on holiday together sometimes, and got a different neighbour to water both their plants. William was going to be heartbroken, and I pressed his name on my phone with trepidation.

‘Hello.’

‘William, it’s Jules.’

‘Oh, lass …’

‘Are you alright?’

‘No, pet, not really, it’s not sunk in yet. I keep looking over at her kitchen window, expecting to see her washing up, giving me a wave with her Marigolds.’

As he talked, I could hear a deep sadness in his voice. It matched how I was feeling, and although it was painful to talk about Nons and acknowledge we were never going to see her again, it helped to be remembering her with someone who had loved her as much as I did. We talked for a while, I told him I was coming up at the weekend, and we said goodbye.

Next on the list were my parents. I almost put this one to the bottom of the list, as the least desirable of the tasks, but it needed doing. My mother was much the same as the previous day, full of the inconvenience of it all, asking what I had managed to organise for the weekend, because obviously they needed to make plans that didn’t involve seeing me for longer than they had to, or that necessitated them making any cumbersome arrangements. I told her I would be there on Saturday by noon, and stay until Sunday afternoon. She wanted me to be there for longer, but I resisted her whining and stood firm.

Finally, I could get to Evie. My best friend, the person who knew me better than anyone. We’d been at school together, we’d shared lunch boxes, lipstick, boyfriends, cars, flats, clothes, ups and downs.

Evie had spent a few years abroad after she left university, but we’d kept in touch, and when she came back to England she got a job in this city, much to my joy. We saw each other every week or two, and were in touch by phone or text most days. I had a lot to tell her – I would end up telling her everything; she always knew when something had happened, and could get me to open up.

‘Jules, hi, ‘sup?’

‘Oh, you know.’

‘Informative. Everything alright?’

‘No, not really. Nons died.’

‘Oh Jules, no. When?’

‘Day before yesterday.’

‘You must be devastated.’

‘Pretty much.’

I told her the story, and she was sympathetic and understanding and listened as I cried and talked, and she was just what I needed – somewhere I could face it all, feel it all, be absolutely real about it all, before I put it all away again so my life could go on.

‘I’ll come round tomorrow, Jules, bring a bottle, we can have a good sesh, remember her properly.’

‘I can’t tomorrow, Ev.’

I stopped myself saying what I was doing, wondering how she was going to react to the mad whatever it was that Matt and I had agreed to.

‘Oh OK, that’s cool, what are you up to?’

‘Meeting someone for a drink.’

‘By someone, would you mean a person of the male persuasion?’

‘I would mean that.’

‘Come on, then, you’ve got to give me more to go on, you know I want details, descriptions, height, weight, star signs, marks out of ten, the works.’

I thought about stringing her along, but decided to rip the plaster off and get it over with.

‘Matt Scott.’

There was a stunned silence.

‘Do you mean the Matt Scott from work who makes your life a living hell and has shagged practically everything with a pulse between here and Inverness?’

‘That’s the one. Although I wouldn’t say he makes my life a living hell exactly.’

‘Oh, my mistake, he’s not the one you phone me up about all the time – ‘you’ll never believe what he’s done now’ – you say it at least once a week, he sounds like a complete scumbag. Why are you going out with him?’

‘Well, it’s complicated, I had a bit of a meltdown at work yesterday, stormed out, he came after me. We talked. He’s different than I thought.’

‘Different how?’

‘More interesting, less of a wanker, more worth getting to know.’

‘Jules, my lovely, are you sure you know what you’re doing? You’ve hated him since you started there. Why the sudden – oh! You’ve shagged him, haven’t you.’

I don’t know how, but she always seemed to know. My silence spoke volumes.

‘Oh my God, Jules. What on earth possessed you?’

‘I don’t know. I was in a bit of a state, upset about Nons, upset about the stuff at work, he was nice to me, he made me feel better. He said something that annoyed me, and after I’d stopped trying to punch his lights out for being an arsehole, he just held me and it felt good, and then it just got … steamy.’

‘So he took advantage of you while you were in a fragile state?’

‘God, Evie, are you channelling the Victorian era or something? No! I was capable at all times of making my own decisions. He’s – he was – he’s just been to see me, actually. He didn’t come to work today, he felt so bad about it all.’

‘What, he came there? To your flat?’

Evie knew the implications of that, if not the full Ice Queen story.

‘Yes.’

‘Well I hope you gave him a hard time.’

‘Maybe a bit. Then we kind of decided to, I don’t know, see how things go. So I’m having a drink with him tomorrow.’

‘Just a drink?’

‘Yes.’

‘Won’t he try it on again?’

‘It’s possible I suppose –’

I had a sudden sense of how disappointed I would be if he did try it on after everything he’d said.

‘– but I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself.’

‘I know you are, Jules, but you’re upset at the moment. You might not be thinking completely straight. Don’t let him smarm his way into your bed just because he knows what buttons to press to make you lose your marbles.’

‘I’ll be careful.’

‘I’m only nagging because I care.’

There weren’t many people whose nagging I would accept with good grace.

‘I know Ev. Thanks. Love you.’

‘Love you too, Jules. Call tomorrow and tell me all about it?’

‘Might do, might just text.’

‘Shall we get the gang together, have a big cheer-up for you?’

‘Not right now, Ev. I don’t really want to see anyone, and I’ve got loads to do.’

‘OK, whatever’s cool. See you soon, my lovely.’

I disconnected from Evie and sat back on the sofa, breathing out a sigh. That was it, for this evening, of talking, analysing, chewing over and confessing.

I needed a glass of wine and some dinner, so I wandered over to the fridge and tipped a bit of salad into a bowl, topped it with some mozzarella, and filled a glass from the bottle I’d opened yesterday.

While I ate and drank, I started to assimilate my day, putting the different bits in the right boxes. Little stabs of something like panic kept assaulting me as I remembered Matt’s visit, and it started to become clearer exactly how much I had allowed things to change – not just at work, where the potential for disaster was high, but in my private life, where I had permitted someone access to a part of me I usually hid.

I jumped, startled, as my phone beeped announcing a text. It was from Matt. I sighed. I might have also given up my solitude.

‘Hi :)’

Well at least he wasn’t a rambling texter, although the use of emoticons irritated me. I allowed him a reply, though.

‘Hello. Was there something you wanted?’

‘Hell yeah 😉 but 4 now jus checkin u ok n still wan 2 meet 2moro’

I wasn’t particularly fond of text speak, either – with predictive text it was often quicker to type the full word, and the abbreviations seemed juvenile. Was he really checking about tomorrow? Was he feeling insecure, or having second thoughts himself? This was one of the many reasons I disliked communicating by text; there were too many unknowns in a truncated conversation.

‘Yes, I always keep my appointments.’

‘OK gr8 🙂 cu 2moz @ work. Xcited!! ;)’

Oh dear, a whole raft of winks, smileys, exclamation marks and abbreviations. I got the feeling Matt was going to be the one who always had the last word in a text conversation, and so I didn’t reply.

I got my laptop out and Googled funeral homes in the small north Norfolk town where Nons had lived. There were a couple in the area and I emailed the links to my mother so I could check them out with her later. Much as she would want to avoid the bother of making any arrangements herself, she would not allow any decisions to be arrived at without her, in case they reflected adversely on her reputation for style and artistry. Plans for the funeral were going to have to be delicately negotiated to avoid a lavish affair that didn’t reflect Auntie Nons’ simple tastes. I texted my mother and asked where Nons was at the moment.

‘I don’t know. William dealt with it all while we were on our way.’

‘Didn’t you ask him?’

‘Too busy darling. Have you called anyone?’

She listed several distant relatives she wanted me to contact, and there went the rest of my evening, in a haze of sadness and condolences.

By the time I got to bed I had finished the bottle of wine and made inroads into another as a way of dulling it all. As I lay my head on my pillow, my phone bleeped. I picked it up from beside the bed. Another text from Matt.

‘Night x’

‘How observant’

‘Sarky cow. I meant goodnight 🙂 xx’

I didn’t reply. I didn’t want Matt to get used to chatting to me via texts whenever he felt like it. I needed to impose some boundaries. I flicked the screen off, put it back beside the bed and turned the light off. I was just drifting off to sleep when the phone bleeped again. Another text from Matt.

‘Feeling ignored :(‘

Good, that was the plan. I put the ringer on silent, turned over and cried myself to sleep for the second night in a row, as memories of Nons crowded into my mind.

It seemed like only minutes later that the alarm went. I hadn’t dreamed or woken all night. Suppressing a slight, unexpected thrill of excitement at the day and evening ahead, I made my way through my morning wake-up routine, and turned up at work early enough to be the first in again.

This time, the peace and quiet lasted for nearly twenty minutes and I had time to make myself coffee before anyone else arrived. I was immersed in emails and meeting minutes for a lot of the morning, and it wasn’t until I was in a meeting with my team that Matt arrived.

Matt

I texted Jules a couple of times later that night, trying to keep the vibe going, and got the distinct impression she was trying to keep me at arms length. It was the same at work the next day. No one would have known things had changed between us, even I almost doubted it, although the annoying barrage of questions from Lexi the pathologically inquisitive receptionist, about where I’d been for the last day and a half, helped to remind me.

Julia

As usual, the office seemed to grind to a halt to observe his grand entrance. His own team stopped what they were doing to high-five him and take delivery of the coffee he always brought with him. I noticed how the eyes of the members of my team slid enviously towards them, and for the first time wondered if my strategy of ruling with an iron rod was really the best way. Then I instantly dismissed it. I got results. People weren’t necessarily happy, but they worked hard. I was fair with people, they knew where they stood, and I gave credit where it was due. I wasn’t about to start changing just because of a few glances. I called everyone to order and we re-focussed.

Matt

I rather regretted making up a bad headache as my excuse for not going in the day before. Lexi kept trying to chat to me about my fictitious migraine, because ‘my mum gets them’. In the way that your health becomes public property once you divulge an issue, it seemed I was now an expert on triggers and pain relief; God alone knows how many fucking cripple friends and relations would crawl from the woodwork if I told them about the fucking bastard.

Julia

The day went much as every other day had at GreenScreen. Matt and I didn’t have much to do with each other, we hardly looked at each other let alone spoke, and we got through our work in much the usual way. It wasn’t until people had started to leave for the day that either of us gave any indication that things might have changed, and it was so subtle I doubted it would have been noticed.

I was still sitting at my computer when Matt walked past, on his way home, satchel slung over his shoulder. He turned briefly in to face me through the door and winked. It was such a small gesture, and there was nobody around to see him, but it sent a huge jolt of heat through me and I felt my cheeks burn. If anyone had noticed anything, it would have been my reaction and not his action that would have tipped them off. I determined to try to school my responses otherwise things were going to get awkward. I knew him well enough to know that, changed goal-posts or not, if I asked him not to do it, he would take it as a challenge and carry right on winking.

Home again, I braved another phone call with my mother. She wanted to talk about the links I had sent her to the two funeral homes, one of which was the Co-op; I already knew which one would, or rather wouldn’t, meet with her approval.

‘I’d like her to have a tasteful funeral, darling.’

‘I’m sure the Co-op do tasteful.’

‘Oh no, JuJu, it’s just so vulgar. Bentley’s sounds much more appropriate.’

‘Alright, then, but what about hymns or songs, flowers or not, order of service, humanitarian or Christian, cremation or burial?’

I already knew the answers to most of these, at least what Nons had wanted. We’d had a marvellously ghoulish Halloween evening a few years ago, watching Night of the Living Dead and then discussing how we would want to go out – bang or whimper, not gentle into that good night, who we’d come back and haunt, all of that.

It wasn’t that I wanted my mother’s opinion, I just wanted to make her aware of all the things that still needed deciding, beyond how long it was decent to remain at the wake before jetting off to Iceland to resume one’s travels.

‘Oh JuJu, honestly, I’m sure you can take care of all that. Call Bentley’s now, you can get some quotes at the very least.’

‘I think I’ll call William and ask him. He’d want to be involved.’

‘Oh. Well alright, darling, if you think you can’t do it on your own, I suppose William might be able to do something.’

Although she seemed to be having difficulty imagining just how her sister’s best friend in the world could possibly have any contribution to make to her funeral arrangements.

‘I’ll do it now. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mum.’

‘Tomorrow? Oh yes, you’re coming up. What time will you be here?’

‘If I leave early enough I could make it before lunchtime.’

‘Oh well, if we’re still here then we’ll see you.’

I wasn’t holding my breath that I was going to catch a glimpse of either of my parents before I had to begin the long drive home on Sunday afternoon.

Now for William.

‘Hello, pet. Lovely to hear from you.’

He sounded so sad, it was almost tangible.

‘How are you bearing up?’

‘Oh, you know, it keeps hitting me.’

‘I know, me too. I forget while I’m doing something, and then I’ll stop and suddenly her voice is in my head and it’s like it’s just happened all over again.’

‘Stay strong, lass.’

‘I’ll try. William, I wondered if you would help me with the funeral? Mum said you knew where they took her after?’

‘Yes, pet, she went in an ambulance, I think they’re doing a post mortem so she’ll still be at the hospital. I suppose after that it’s either the Co-op or Bentley’s.’

‘Well I don’t think Mum’s going to go for the Co-op. You know what she’s like. Not much point arguing. I’ll choose my battles for this one, I think. William, you knew her so well. Will you help me? I’m coming up tomorrow. Can I come and see you, talk about it all, make some arrangements?’

‘Of course, pet. I’d be honoured.’

‘Thanks William. I’ll see you then.’

Then I phoned Bentley’s, who had an answer machine but called back very quickly, confirming my mother’s assertion that ‘these places are open twenty four hours these days’. To my surprise, they agreed to meet me and William on Saturday afternoon so we could make some plans, and they agreed to contact the hospital to make the necessary arrangements with them.

With a shuddery sigh I relaxed a little bit, glad I had at least started to make inroads into the whole process of saying goodbye to Nons. I was finding it hard to take it all in, to feel it as real. I needed to be there, where she’d lived, so I could come to terms with her dying.

I still had a couple of hours before I was meeting Matt. I grabbed a piece of toast and a glass of wine, then ran a bubble bath where I soaked until my fingers went wrinkly. I dried off and wandered around in a bathrobe for a while, trying to decide what to wear. It was only the Whistling Panhandler, I ate or drank there at least once a week. And I kept trying to tell myself it was only Matt Scott, I didn’t want to make a special effort. He saw me every day at work anyway. But something kept pulling my eyes to my favourite turquoise dress, the one with no sleeves and an embroidered bodice. It was a bit BoHo, which made it different from anything I wore at work, and more importantly I felt good wearing it. I tried a few other combinations on, but it was the turquoise dress that stuck. A pair of comfortable shoes later and I was dressed to go out. I grabbed my bag and made the short trip down the road to the wine bar.

It was busy, as it usually was on a Friday evening. There was no sign of Matt. I checked my watch – I was a little early, so I found a table in the corner and waited. He didn’t keep me waiting long, and I watched him for a few moments as he came in, eyes anxiously scanning the room until they found mine, then his face seemed to light up, and he sauntered over, pulling me to my feet and kissing me on the cheek.

‘You’re here! I wondered if you’d chicken out on me. You’re not a great one for texting are you?’

‘I said I’d be here.’

‘I know, I know, I should have had more faith.’

He sat down in the other seat at the table, filling the space with his smile and his chatter.

‘Fuck me, you can play it cool, can’t you. I had my doubts all today that we even had that conversation yesterday. You’re bloody good.’

‘Thank you.’

‘It was a fucking hoot though, wasn’t it? Us knowing, and them all so not knowing. Haven’t had so much bloody fun for ages. I thought I was going to blow a gasket when Joe Billington asked where I got to the day before yesterday. I’m pretty sure there was some hot goss about us, Lexi was trying to wheedle stuff out of me all day – ‘so Matt, what shall I put on your sick form? Just a day, or a day and a half? What shall I put?’ – she was really disappointed when I said I had a migraine, and then I acted surprised when they said you hadn’t come back, and I said I hadn’t seen you. I think I pulled it off too, I’m almost as bloody good as you. So, Julia, how the fuck are you?’

‘Not quite as pleased with myself as you it would seem.’

‘Oh, alright, we’re going to start with the point scoring are we? Well fine, but I can do that at work any time, I was hoping to see something of the Julia from last night, the one who was going to take a few risks. Nice dress by the way.’

He ran his eyes over my body and I felt myself blush. I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. Matt had begun a verbal assault, pummelling me with information, that I didn’t have a ready response to. I was finding it hard to detach from my work head-space and reach that place I had been in yesterday when this had seemed like a good idea.

‘You know what, I think maybe I should go.’

I stood up. Matt stood up too, looking startled, and put his hand out towards me.

‘No! Shit, have I fucked up already? That must be a record, even for me.’

‘It’s not you. I’m just not sure this is a good idea any more’

‘Oh come on Julia, at least give it a go. Fuck, I’ve been giving it the verbals haven’t I. I always do that when I’m nervous. Please, sit down. I’ll shut the fuck up and listen for a bit. We don’t have to say anything if you don’t want.’

He gestured to my seat and as I sat down again, he looked relieved.

‘You do talk a lot.’

‘Sorry, I know, I thought you might have noticed that about me before now. It’s worse when I’m with a beautiful woman who intimidates the hell out of me.’

This was the smarming that Evie had warned me against. I rolled my eyes.

‘Do you want a drink? I recommend the Shiraz.’

‘Drink – fuck yeah. Not a great one for wine though, what’s their beer like?’

‘I’ve never tried it.’

‘Well … let me propose a little challenge then. I’ll have some of your nobby posh Shiraz stuff, if you try a pint of Otter. Great honest ale. Have a Beautiful Daze, it’ll knock your fucking socks off.’

I considered for a moment. It seemed like a good way to start our whatever this was, and certainly some alcohol would relax me a bit.

‘Alright then! Nice one, Jules. Oh fuck it, sorry. Julia. You so look like a fucking Jules, it just comes out. Can you forgive me the odd one slipping through?’

‘Not really. But I’ll let you off that one, if you buy the drinks.’

Some time later, Matt was on his second glass of Shiraz and I had made it just over half way down my first pint of beer. It didn’t knock my socks off, although I didn’t dislike it. It was fizzy and filled me up; I really didn’t know how people drank pints and pints of it all at once. I was also conscious of needing to be up early to drive to Norfolk tomorrow.

Matt and I had managed to recapture some of the easy conversation we’d found at The Long Legged Frog, and had compared notes on Channel 4 documentaries, the Mann Booker prize and a recent exhibition at the local arts centre, when Matt’s phone pinged with a noticeable text tone. He took his phone out, having ignored other tones, and looked at the screen, then laughed.

‘Sorry, that was rude. It was my sister-in-law. She sent me a picture of my niece with chocolate ice cream all round her face. Here, look.’

I looked as politely as I could without encouraging further views of family photographs. I had never been interested in other people’s children, and had yet to find a way to say ‘no thanks’ to offers of photo viewings without offending the doting mother, father or, in this case, uncle. I smiled and nodded but didn’t say anything.

‘Have you got any?’

‘Any what?’

‘Nieces, nephews, third cousins twelve times removed.’

With a sinking feeling, I realised we were going to do the family history stuff now. Oh well, good while it lasted.

‘I’ve got a couple of nieces and nephews but they live abroad.’

‘Oh, that must be tough, missing them growing up. I’d hate it if I couldn’t see Cal and Iz.’

‘They’re pretty much grown up now. My sisters are both a lot older than me. I don’t see my family much.’

He looked surprised.

‘They’re not local then?’

‘No.’

‘I’m really lucky, my family are all down here. We all moved down a few years ago, bit of a job lot. Don’t know what I’d do without them. Not that I’d ever tell them that, bunch of smug, interfering do-gooders.’

Matt

My family took a bit of explaining, and I was interested in hers and thought showing her the picture of Iz might lead to some mutual boasting about nieces and nephews, but instead of sharing, she went quiet, and I suddenly remembered the dead aunt who had been at the heart of everything that happened in my flat. Shit, Matt, can’t you stop being a self-centred bastard for one evening?

Julia

He obviously didn’t mean his comment about his family, so I smiled but didn’t say anything. Matt looked at me.

‘Have I said something wrong?’

‘No.’

‘You’ve gone quiet.’

‘Not on purpose.’

Something dawned on his face.

‘Oh fuck, I’m such an arse, you said about your auntie, that’s who you were so upset about. Fuck it, Julia, why didn’t you stop me, here I was banging on about my bloody family, and you’re still … shit, you haven’t mentioned it at all. I don’t think anyone at work knows, even.’

‘Phil knows. I keep my personal life at home.’

‘But are you OK? Haven’t you got to go to the funeral and everything?’

First I had to organise the funeral, then I could go to it.

‘Yes, but things are still being sorted. I’ll be OK. Just one of those things.’

‘Fuck. I’m sorry. Were you close to her?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m sorry. Is there anything … fuck, that’s such an inane question, isn’t it? We all ask ‘is there anything I can do’, when the only thing you’d want someone to be able to do is bring them back. Sorry, it must be a shitty time for you at the moment.’

‘I’ve had better weeks.’

He reached over and took my hand. I would have pulled away, but he had a strong grip, and he had turned it palm upwards to look at the plasters still covering the scratches.

Matt

I backtracked and apologised, asked her a bit about it, tried to remind myself what a shit time she must have had over the last week, and held her hand, realising as I did so that her scratches were covered only by plasters.

‘You took the bandage off.’

‘Yes, it got wet in the shower. It’s only superficial, plasters are fine. I might go without tomorrow, see how I manage.’

‘Well I’m glad there’s no lasting damage. Just be careful next time you’re trying to claw your way out of a hidden room in a hedge in a graveyard.’

‘It’s not an experience I’m likely to be repeating anytime soon.’

‘Oh? I was hoping for some clandestine Fanta slurping one lunchtime.’

‘I don’t do lunch.’

‘What, never?’

‘It’s nice and quiet when everyone’s out.’

‘But you eat, though, right?’

I realised I sounded like someone’s mum. I guess if you spend enough time with Beth, the interfering rubs off eventually.

‘Sometimes.’

‘Did you have lunch today?’

I seemed to have tuned in to the Nag Channel, and Beth was to blame. Jules rolled her eyes, much as I would have done, much as I deserved.

Julia

I wasn’t about to get into my eating habits, I got nagged enough by Evie, and she was allowed.

‘Mind your own business. Anyway –’

I remembered something I could use as a diversion.

‘– you owe me a secret.’

‘What?’

‘You said if I told you why I was upset on Wednesday, you’d tell me something about you that nobody else knows.’

I thought I caught a glimpse of something – was it consternation? – in Matt’s eyes. He took a deep breath.

Matt

‘Oh fuck, I did, didn’t I.’

I’d been going to tell her about the bastard MS, for some unfathomable reason. What was I going to do now?

‘Well alright then, I did promise. Fuck it. OK … well if you must know, I’ve actually got …’

And I rescued it at the last minute, with something that was equally true and equally a secret

‘… a fucking massive crush on you.’

Julia

‘You’re such a liar, that’s not what you were going to say.’

‘It’s true. It’s not only true, but nobody else at work knows, which I believe were the terms of my promise.’

He sat back and folded his arms, nodding in self-congratulation.

‘You haven’t got a crush on me.’

‘I have. I said last night, I’ve been trying to pluck up courage to ask you out for bloody ages.’

‘That’s not a crush, that’s just your inability to believe there’s a woman in the office who hasn’t succumbed to your charms. Or rather hadn’t, I suppose.’

‘See? If it was just that I wouldn’t still be interested, would I? You’re remarkable, Julia. I’ve had a thing for you ever since I started at GreenScreen.’

‘Really?’

I loaded the word with as much scepticism as I could muster.

‘So why all the business grads and temps, then?’

He had the decency to look abashed.

‘Well, no sense waiting around when there’s no hope, is there? I had a reputation to maintain. I don’t suppose it improved my chances with you, though, did it?’

‘Not markedly, no.’

‘Well, like I said, if it means anything, I’ve done a lot of thinking, not only since Wednesday, but before. Things were getting out of hand, I wasn’t … haven’t been … oh fuck it, I know I’ve been an utter knobhead. I just want the chance to show you I’m not what you think I am. Fuck knows I don’t deserve it.’

He gave me a very direct look, his big grey eyes almost pleading. He looked vulnerable, a look I’d never seen on Matt Scott’s face before.

‘It’s OK, Matt. We already agreed last night to see what happens here. Maybe part of that is putting some things to one side, almost a clean slate type of thing. Alright then, I’ll believe that perhaps it’s possible you have a crush on me, although you seem a little old for one. I’ll admit that I’m intrigued by you and by what this is. But I’m also a bit disconcerted, I’m outside my comfort zone. I think maybe we need some kind of a safety word, so either of us can say it, and we stop in our tracks, no moving forward until whatever it is, is resolved.’

Matt’s expression cleared, and he gave me a big smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes and mouth.

‘A safety word – I like it. Has to be something unusual, so we don’t go all ‘whoa’ every time one of us says ‘biscuit’ or something. Something memorable though. A place, maybe?’

I thought of a word that could mean something to both of us.

‘Chartham.’

Matt

‘Huh?’

It was supposed to be something that meant something to both of us, but I was totally puzzled.

‘John and Roberta Chartham. 1776 and 1790.’

Then I recognised the names and the dates. The headstones.

‘Holy fuck … the hideaway! You fucking genius, woman.’

I grinned broadly.

‘What a memory. I’ve stared at those names billions of times, couldn’t have told you what they were if my bloody life depended on it. I suppose I’d better remember them now. Good old Mr and Mrs Chartham. I bet they never thought they’d be responsible for putting a halt to anything we might be venturing hundreds of years after their demise.’

‘So it’s agreed then, any time either of us feel like we need to take a time out or a step back or just stop the whole thing, that word means we stop. Whatever it is. Straight away. No questions.’

She obviously needed me to agree. I felt like I was signing some sort of contract.

‘Shit, Julia, you like your rules don’t you. I don’t think I’ve ever started anything with a woman where we both know so bloody comprehensively where we stand. Fair enough, but I should warn you I’m planning on taking some risks with you, so you might need to have our dear departed friends’ name on the tip of your tongue for the foreseeable future.’

I wasn’t a great one for rules, and Jules needed to know that I was likely to push the boundaries quite a lot. She smiled at me, though, and I smiled back, as we sealed the deal. The Charthams were going to ensure I never again wondered whether something I’d done with Jules was one- or two- sided. One whiff of their name and I’d stop, whatever it was, a snog, arsing about, buying shoes, talking, sleeping, breathing, whatever. Perfect.

Julia

The thought filled me with a thrill of anticipation and dread in equal measure. I didn’t know quite what I was getting myself into with Matt. He was different from anyone I’d ever known, any man I’d ever been out with, any man I’d ever put my trust in. Maybe I was mad with grief and after a while I’d see sense and pull back, and maybe that wouldn’t be fair on Matt. But for now it felt like whatever it was and however long it lasted, it was going to be worth it. I smiled at him, and was rewarded with another crinkly eyed offering.

‘Matt, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to be up early tomorrow, I’m driving to Norfolk. I should really go home and get some sleep.’

His mouth made a moue of disappointment, but he didn’t try to dissuade me.

Matt

I was disappointed to end our evening so early, but it would have been unfair of me to try to persuade her to stay.

‘That’s a bloody long way to drive. I hope you’re keen on flat landscapes and freezing cold North winds.’

‘It’s where I grew up. I’m used to the landscape and the climate.’

‘Oh, are you visiting family – oh shit, sorry Julia, is this about your aunt?’

I really was going to have to remember about her aunt. From what she’d told me, she had been a pretty important part of her life. But Jules seemed able to compartmentalise things, and because she wasn’t openly sorrowful, I kept forgetting.

Julia

I nodded. ‘Yes, I’ve got to go and sort the funeral out.’

‘Not much fun.’

‘No. But I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it.’

‘It sounds like you were very fond of her.’

‘That’s an understatement. Anyway, I should go.’

‘OK, I’ll walk you back.’

‘There’s no need.’

‘I know. I’d like to though. Don’t worry, I won’t be asking to come in for a ‘coffee’ or some such feeble ploy.’

‘Alright then.’

We stood up and left the wine bar, Matt placing his hand on my back as we did so and then draping his arm casually across my shoulders as we walked down the street. I could have shrugged him off or asked him not to at any time, but I liked how it felt, and our agreement over the ‘safety word’ helped me to feel less under pressure.

Matt

And there we were, outside the steps to her front door, looking at each other awkwardly. I’d had my arm across her shoulders during the short walk, expecting her to shrug me off all the way, but she didn’t.

She was a surprising woman, and I liked how different she was from anyone I’d ever known. As we neared Jules’ front door, she reached into her bag and I removed my arm, as clinging on while she rummaged for her keys felt a bit needy.

Jules straightened up and faced me, looking into my eyes, both of us uncertain how we should say goodbye. I really wanted to kiss her, but I didn’t want to ruin things, didn’t want to hear Jules say the safety word only minutes after we’d agreed to it.

Julia

We stared at each other for a silent moment, and then moved towards each other, lips meeting as if it had been inevitable all evening. Electricity seemed to fizz across our mouths, igniting our lips and tongues with sparks and static. I felt his hands on each side of my face as he held me in place while his tongue searched deep in my mouth. Then he wrapped his arms round me and pulled me close to him and we plunged still deeper, locking tongues and devouring each other, heedless of the fact that we were on the street. I put my arms round his neck and pressed myself against him, feeling his hard body along the length of mine – and then, with a gasp, it was gone. I opened my eyes and Matt was still standing in front of me, but a step back, a strange almost haunted look on his face.

Matt

There was no doubt this time that both of us were completely in our right minds, and both of us were completely into what we were doing, but it couldn’t go any further, although it was so hot, it was so, so fucking hot.

With a Herculean effort which I felt was deserving of some kind of headline in tomorrow’s broadsheets – maybe ‘Infamous Philanderer in Self-Denial Shock’ – I took a step back. Jules opened her eyes and looked queryingly up at me.

‘Sorry, Julia. Fuck. Fuck it, I wish I could … that was fucking outstanding, but we shouldn’t … I don’t think … maybe we should just go a bit more slowly. It would be so easy to say let’s to up to your place, and we could spend the night together, and I so fucking want to, and I think you want to, and it would be fucking awesome, I have absolutely no doubt. But after everything I’ve said to you, and everything I’ve thought about and promised myself the last couple of days, I want it to be right. Fuck, I can’t believe I’m saying this.’

Jules was panting slightly, her cheeks flushed, and she looked like she might take issue with me for a minute, but eventually she nodded.

Julia

I was still panting, the tingles from the kiss travelling all over my body. Part of me wanted to pull him to me again, tell him not to be so stupid, to grab his hand and run up to my flat. But another, more reasoning part, saw the effort it took him to stop, and recognised what it might mean to say goodnight here.

‘OK.’

I managed after a pause.

‘You’re right. Who’d have thought Matt Scott would be the sensible one in this scenario?’

Matt

‘I know. Fuck. Good thing we’re not telling people about anything, I’d be laughed out of the evil bastard club. They’d take my badge away and revoke my privileges.’

I reached down and brushed a stray strand of hair away from her face, then cupped her cheek with my palm. She rested her face on my hand, and it felt like it fitted there, then she reached up and stroked my face, tenderly. I was going to have to be really careful not to fall for this woman.

Julia

I rested my face on his hand and, feeling an unexpected tenderness towards him, reached up and stroked his face.

‘Thanks for a lovely evening Matt.’

‘Can we do it again? Next week sometime?’

‘I’d like that.’

‘Can I text you this weekend?’

‘If you like. I don’t always reply.’

‘Yeah, tell me about it. OK, a one-way stream of consciousness then. You’ll have to invoke the Charthams if it pisses you off too much.’

‘John or Roberta?’

‘I’ll leave that to you. Hope it all goes OK up there.’

‘Thank you.’

We stood looking slightly awkwardly at each other while we tried to decide how to leave things. Eventually, Matt stepped towards me.

‘Fuck it, I’m going to give you a hug. I can do this.’

He put his arms round my shoulders and squeezed me tightly. I did the same around his waist. I felt him kiss the top of my head.

‘What is it with you and my head?’

Matt

Well it was about the only part of her I could reach when we were standing like this, her being a short-arse, but I didn’t think that would go down very well.

‘It’s bloody irresistible.’

‘You’re easily tempted.’

‘Thought you’d have heard that about me by now. OK, I’m going now before I lose it and ravish you right here against a lamp post.’

It wasn’t far from the truth. I was going to need a long cold shower when I got home. I let her go, ran a finger down her cheek, turned and walked away. I turned back as I reached the end of the road, and was gratified to see she was still watching me. I blew her a kiss and headed home.

47. Someone like you

In which there is an explanation, a recovery, and a missed opportunity.

Dec

It felt so good to be out of my wet clothes and in the shower. I let the hot water run over me for a while, then got out and wrapped a towel round my waist, enjoying the sensation as I dried off and felt clean and warm.

Amy was waiting in bed, sitting up, pyjamas on. I stood in the doorway and looked at her. I wasn’t relishing the explaining I was going to have to begin in a minute, and just wanted to keep looking at her while she didn’t know everything, while she wasn’t angry or upset or disappointed.

)Hey you, feel better?

‘Much. Love a shower. Not a cold, rainy one though, not nearly so enjoyable.’

)Come and tell me all about it.

She pulled my half of the duvet aside and patted the sheet. I finished drying myself, pulled on a pair of boxers and got in next to her, unable to delay any longer. I put my arm round her and looked at her, hesitating.

)What’s the matter, hon?

‘This is hard. I’ve been so stupid. I don’t want to fuck things up between us again, but I don’t want to hide anything from you.’

)Well, if it helps, I already know you gave Becca Davis a lift which ended in her being half naked in your car, although not which half or how it … er … happened. Although the lovely Becca texted me earlier to describe in some detail what she would like me to think you and her got up to.

‘Oh, babe … I’m such a fucking idiot. Almost as soon as she got in the car I realised what I’d done, but she wouldn’t get out and it just kept getting worse and worse. I didn’t, I didn’t do any of it.’

)I know, hon.

‘What?’

)I know. Didn’t you hear me at the restaurant? I said I trust you. I don’t trust Becca Davis further than I could throw her, but I trust you. Remember you said I had to decide if I believe her? Well, she’s a lying cow, so why would I?

‘Ames … I don’t know what to say. You’re fucking amazing.’

)I still want to know all the gory details. Maybe without all the beating yourself up about what an idiot you’ve been. Let’s just take that for granted, yeah?

‘Ha ha, OK babe, fair enough. Well …’

I told her absolutely everything, and she took it all really well, until I told her about getting aroused when Becca touched me. She swallowed hard at that point, tried to continue smiling up at me, but had to look away and blink a lot.

‘You know it doesn’t mean anything, right? Right, babe?’

)Actually, doesn’t it mean a bit of you wanted her?

‘Only the fucking testosterone-driven uncontrollable too-bloody-male-to-think-straight part. She was waving her tits in my face, I’d have had to be, I don’t know, not a man, to be able to have any say in the whole process. All the other parts of me were thinking about you, how gorgeous you are, how much I love you – Amy, I honestly with all my heart swear that no thinking, feeling part of me wanted any part of Becca fucking Davis. My dick has a mind of its own sometimes, you know that, but I don’t have to do what it says, and I definitely didn’t want to do anything about it with Becca fucking Davis. Honestly, babe. Please don’t focus on this. I wasn’t sure whether to tell you, I knew you’d be upset, but I just didn’t want to hide any of it.

)Did you ever consider it? For just a second?

‘Shit, no, Amy. No! Fuck no. She’s got nothing I want, even with it on a plate and staring me in the face. I only want you. I wish I knew what to say so you could believe me.

)Sorry. It’s just … that was one of the things she said in her text, and you just said you didn’t do any of it, and now … well, you did.

‘But she’s just twisting it. Shit, Amy, fuck, she’s a vicious cow. I didn’t lay one finger on her, oh, apart from to take her hand off my leg, and to push her away when she tried to snog me – OK, so maybe I laid a couple of fingers on her.’

Amy continued to look down and I cursed Becca fucking Davis and her mad bitch scheming.

‘Ames, we didn’t snog. She tried, I shoved her away – oh, that was another thing in her text, wasn’t it?’

Amy nodded.

‘Shit. Bloody fucking cow. Ames, I didn’t want to touch her, I didn’t even want to look at her. I feel so stupid for letting her get me there in the first place so she could carry on doing this to you. Please, Amy, please believe me, you’re all I was thinking of, you’re all I ever want.’

I was close to tears now, it felt like I’d never to be able to convince her. Amy was quiet for a while, looking down, her hair covering her face so I couldn’t see her expression

) … OK, I just needed to know. I’ll just have to do a bit more trusting won’t I?

She took a deep breath, looked up, smiled and squared her shoulders.

)So what happened next?

I wrapped my arms around her, so relieved, knowing the effort she’d made to believe me. I pulled her closer to me, kissed her hair.

‘Where had I got up to? Oh yeah, my bloody uncontrollable dick. OK, so, after she tried to shove her tongue down my throat, which was pretty gross by the way, I basically told her she was sad and pathetic, needed to grow up and stop playing schoolgirl games, and to put her shirt on and fuck off out of our lives, and then I got out of the car and started walking. I bet that’s when she sent you the text, she did yell after me that she was going to, she tried everything to get me to stay with her.’

)I’m glad you didn’t.

‘Yeah, me too. I really, really did not enjoy getting soaked right through to my boxers, the rain was trickling down my back into some very uncomfortable places, and I feel like my feet are never going to recover, my shoes have rubbed everywhere. But it was still better than spending any more time with that mad fucking bitch.’

)So how far did you get before Matt found you?

‘Fuck, I don’t know. It felt like miles, but it was dark and raining and I was miserable and thinking about you with your parents, having them being all ‘I told you that boy was no good’, it felt like the longest walk of my life. Shit, I’m going to have to go and get the car, it’s not locked or anything, fuck knows what state she’s left it in. Shit, my fucking car.’

)Dec, do you think you can possibly wait until the morning to go and get the car? It’s late and I think what we’re talking about here is more important.

I swallowed my concern for my car. It meant a lot to me; I had bought it with money left to me by my parents, and it was in some ways irreplaceable. But not compared to Amy.

‘Yeah, it can wait.’

)So Matt found you where?

‘Oh babe, I don’t have a fucking clue where I was. She’d sent me all over the place. I only know I was walking back into the city. I’d got to some houses, just where the street lights started. Probably just as well, he might have run me over if I’d still been in the lane, my suit’s dark, so is my shirt, I didn’t think about whether cars would be able to see me. Matt’s was the only one I saw in all that time. Shit, Amy, I’m so glad you rang him. I would have had another hour or so in the rain without him. How did you work it out, where I was?’

)Well, when you rang to say you were, how did you put it, in a situation, I was really worried, especially when we got cut off and then I couldn’t get hold of you. I didn’t know your charge had run out, I thought, well, this is really silly I guess, but I remembered when you were beaten up and your phone was smashed. I completely couldn’t get it out of my head. I tried Jay and Beth, but they didn’t answer, so I tried Matt, and he really was so calm and knew just what to do. He knew Jay was home, so he went round, he called me from there, he’d called Bonksy, got a bit of a garbled story, but we worked out between us what must have happened. I told him whereabouts Becca used to live and he just went off to find you. The miracle is he hadn’t had anything to drink.

‘Yeah, that is actually a bit of a miracle for Matt at that time on a Saturday night.’

)Apparently he was just heading out to a club when I rang him.

‘Oh, so he hadn’t even started drinking yet.’

)Maybe. I didn’t ask. The other miracle is that he managed to find his way around in the dark, and actually found you. He’d never been out that way before. He must have a sat nav for a brain. He phoned me as soon as he spotted you. I was so relieved.

‘I bet your mum and dad were just loving all this.’

)Yeah, you can imagine – ‘Amy, do you not think you should order your main course now’. I was like, yeah Mum, once I’ve found out whether Dec is lying in a pool of blood somewhere or not, then I’ll completely have the sea bass with a side salad. God, they just didn’t get it at all. I’m not their most popular daughter right now, I should think.

‘You’re all they’ve got, they should be thankful you’re so fucking amazing. I should be thankful you’re so fucking amazing. Ames, I can’t believe how well you’ve taken all this. Walking down that road in the rain, all I could think was ‘That’s it, I’ve blown it, after everything we’ve talked about’, and call myself a fucking idiot over and over.

)But that’s kind of it, hon, isn’t it? We’ve done all that talking, and Beth and Jay have been completely amazing, and we’re stronger now. It’s not about me trusting you. I do. It’s not about you trusting me, either. It’s about us trusting in us. We know what we’ve got and we know how to keep it. We’re strong together – we beat Becca Davis! We’re awesome.

I looked at her with pride, admiration and so much love. She said we were strong, but she was stronger than me by a mile.

‘I love you so much, Ames. Will you marry me?’

)Always, hon. You’re going to have to stop asking one day.

‘Never, babe.’

o0o

}Fucking hell, Summers, it’s the middle of the bloody night. Even I was asleep. Alone, sadly, not that you asked, even though it was your shenanigans that ruined my night.

‘Sorry, Matt. I’m just worried about my car. I couldn’t lock it because she was still in it, and I don’t know where it is because I was fucking lost. I really don’t want anything to happen to it. Ames wanted me to wait until tomorrow, but I’ve just been lying awake worrying about it.’

A sigh.

}I’ll be there shortly. Make sure you have a bloody enormous strong coffee ready for me when I arrive.

‘Thanks, I really appreciate it.’

}Yeah, yeah.

o0o

}How far up here was it?

‘I don’t know. It felt like I was driving for miles, there wasn’t anywhere to turn round – oh, there it is … oh fuck.’

}Dec, I don’t think you’re going to be able to drive it home. Shit, what the fuck’s she done?

We pulled up behind my car, which was still in the gateway, all the doors open, all the lights on, all the stuffing ripped out of the seats, deep scratches along the paintwork and all four tyres flat. I sat, numb, and looked at it in Matt’s headlights.

}Come on, let’s inspect the damage.

‘I’m not sure I want to look any closer.’

}We need to see what she’s done, take some pictures, then we need to make it secure so nobody else who fancies a steering wheel or spark plug can help themselves.

‘I can’t take any pictures, I left my phone at home drying out.’

}I’ve got mine. And I’ve got a digital camera in the glove box for just such emergencies.

‘Well aren’t you prepared.’

}Yeah, you’re welcome. Come on, let’s get it over with.

I reluctantly got out of Matt’s car and approached mine. It looked worse the closer I got. As well as the damage to the car, all the contents of the inside of the car and the boot were scattered on the ground outside. There were CDs, tissues, my Raiders kit and suit, magazines, a picnic rug and road maps. They had all been broken, ripped, stamped on and otherwise destroyed. Everything, inside and out, was soaked with rainwater. The words ‘FUCK YOU’ were scratched into the roof.

}Fucking hell, Dec, you really pissed her off, didn’t you.

‘Looks like it. Fuck.’

I stood and stared, not sure quite what to do. Matt took his phone out and took several photos of the inside and outside of the car by the light of his headlights. Then he took some more with the digital camera.

}Well, that’s a record of it, I suggest picking all this shit up and putting it in the car – oh. Er … is this your club suit? Can you get another one?

‘Don’t know, they had a special tailor in to make them all up. I’m supposed to wear it after home games. Don’t expect they’ll want me to wear it like that. Shit, two suits ruined in one evening.’

Matt and I started picking things up and piling them in the boot. Then I turned the lights off – they weren’t very bright, as if the battery was nearly dead – and shut and locked the doors.

‘I guess I’ll have to call a garage tomorrow to get it towed. Do you think I’ll be able to get it repaired on the insurance?’

}Depends on your policy, they usually try to wriggle out of paying up for anything. I doubt you’ll get any admissions out of the lady in question, either, so it could take ages to sort out. You might have to suck it up and sort it yourself. Sorry, Dec, I know your car means a lot to you.

‘Yeah, well, it’s just a heap of metal and plastic, really, isn’t it?’

}Oh, mate, I know you don’t really mean that, you fucking nancy, but nice try. Summers is awarded five man points for putting on a brave face. You’ll get it fixed up, mate, it’ll be good as new. Which considering the fucking appalling way you’ve looked after it can only be a good thing. At least your swanky-arse sponsorship deal will help pay for it. Come on, let’s go back, there’s an outside chance I could actually manage an hour’s sleep tonight before your next drama unfolds.

o0o

Dec: =Msg fm last night’s reject. UR fucking wanker. Have 2 say I agree. No more favours.

Bonksy: =Wot u mean? Was problem? Thought all sorted with Scotty’s brother.

Dec: =*sigh*

Bonksy: =Wot?

o0o

‘Hey Beth.’

_Hi Dec. How do you fancy a fortnight in the South of France?

‘What?’

_James has just been offered this villa practically on the beach for a fortnight in June. It’s enormous, big enough for all of us. We’re going to take Cal out of school, Matty’s coming, Carol’s coming, Nico and Lis too, I thought we could ask Rose, and if you and Amy would like to come it would be a complete family holiday …

‘Whoa, sounds fucking awesome. We might have to cancel our month on the private yacht, or reschedule the visit of the Prince of Monaco, but as long as Ames is OK with it … fuck yeah!’

_You didn’t have anything else planned, did you?

‘Ha ha, Beth, very funny, you know I don’t do plans.’

_No, but Amy is a bit more organised. She hasn’t booked something you’ve forgotten about?

‘Shit, I’d better check, that would be the kind of sneaky thing she’d go and do. I’ll text her now.’

o0o

Dec: =Can we go south of France, 2 weeks in June with Beth n Jay n every1? Please canwecanwecanwe? xx

Amy: =What? Really? Sounds completely amazing!

Dec: =Really! We’re not booked 2 do anything?

Amy: =Not unless u booked it – oh, what am I thinking? 😉 xx

o0o

‘Hey Ames, sorry got held up at Carol’s, she needs some stuff taking to the tip. Just had a thought. It’s your birthday on Saturday isn’t it, shall we go out somewhere, have a meal or something?’

)A meal? Yeah, OK, that’d be … nice, I guess.

‘Great, I’ll book somewhere. Only the best for you, babe. See you soon. Love you.’

_Great performance, sweetheart. Do you think she suspects?

‘No, she sounded really pissed off and disappointed at my usual thoughtlessness and lack of foresight. I hope she doesn’t get too upset, I’ll have to spill.’

_Dec, you can’t! You’ve got to stay strong. It’s only a couple of days. Have you got that playlist finished yet?

‘Yeah, well I have now Matt helped me set it up. I’ve been sneaking out of bed after she’s gone to sleep to finish it off, all her favourites, things she used to go clubbing to, stuff from when she was a kid. I’ve been so devious getting it all out of her.’

_Well done, sweetheart.

‘Well, not really, it wasn’t that hard. You’ve done all the hard work. The hardest bit for me has been all the lying.

_They’re only tiny fibs, sweetheart. For a good cause.

‘I know, I know. It’s not easy though. Thanks so much, Beth, you’ve been fucking magnificent. You should go into business as a party planner or something.’

o0o

)Thanks hon, I’ve had the best day and night and morning ever. I’ll say a proper thank you later.

‘Well it was really all Beth, and Rose and Carol did the food. I can’t claim credit for anything except the playlist.’

)Actually, I think the playlist was my favourite bit. And besides, I don’t think Beth would appreciate how completely grateful I’m going to be. She might be a bit surprised if I tried to thank her the same way.

‘Oh? Oh! Well in that case, I accept your heartfelt gratitude and await my reward. Mm, come here for a quick preview?

o0o

Amy: =Just got results *drum roll* got a DISTINCTION!!!!! WOOOOOHOOOO!!!

Dec: =UR fucking AWESOME! Love u so much xxxxxxxx :)))))

Julia

Is there such a thing as the perfect mate? Not the love of your life, not your soul-mate, not any of those sentimental romantic lies ultimately designed to sell wedding venues and valentines cards. No, the perfect mate. Someone who so perfectly complements you physically, sexually, socially, attitudinally, intellectually that it’s just ridiculous not to, well, mate with them. In both the sexual and the ‘partners in (but not necessarily for) life’ sense.

Well of course there is no such thing, but I thought I’d got close with Matt Scott. Apart from his over-affectionate, over-interested, over-populated family, he was, eventually, perfect for me. I was perfect for him. We were perfect together, theoretically speaking. Obviously, nobody’s actually perfect, and I was well aware of Matt’s flaws, as aware as he was of mine. And yet, it should have been the perfect match…

We both started working for GreenScreen at about the same time, and although he seemed serious enough about his work, his immature stalking of all the superficial, blonde, gel-nailed business school graduates meant I wanted little to do with him in the first year of our employment.

Eventually he ran out of playmates, as word of his standard modus operandi filtered down to the bottom feeders and dried up the ready supply. So he set his sights on bigger challenges and, according to office gossip, started dating women who might actually be able to hold a conversation with him about something more than the latest issue of OK magazine – word had it he had cleaned up his act a little, and although still a Lothario who would bed you, then drop you at the merest sniff of commitment, he would at least pay for dinner before trying to stick his hand down your bra.

Matt

It was kind of a no-no to interfere in another team’s projects, but when the boss asks you to do something, you don’t really have a choice. So when Phil asked me to have a look at the weakpoint analysis on the Duffenheim project that Jules’ team was handling, I had a go. I took the print-out, wandered over to her office and leaned on the door frame, watching her for a bit.

Jules was hot. She was … I can only describe her as petite, really, although when she was fired up you forgot how small she was. She had short dark hair that curled round her ears, and brown eyes that went almost black when she was angry. Which she was, with me, at first, quite a lot of the time.

So anyway, I stood watching her for a bit, wondering how long it would take her to realise I was standing there, arms crossed, my best get-your-coat-you’ve pulled smile on my face. Eventually she looked up, and I jumped in before she could send me packing.

‘You need me.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Oh, you won’t have to beg for it, Jules. Unless that’s what floats your boat.’

I was going to enjoy myself, because I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to her very often, and I wanted to see if she blushed. I had a whole arsenal (although as a Tottenham supporter it pains me to admit that) of flirty banter at my disposal.

Julia

‘It’s Julia. What are you talking about?’

He was quickly becoming irritating. I wasn’t about to respond to his innuendo, and I had work to do. His smirk widened, however, and he straightened up, running a hand through his thick, short, sandy hair, leaving a lot of it standing out at crazy angles.

Matt

Oh this was great, I already had a way to wind her up, and it was completely unintentional. In my mind, she was always Jules, it had just come out. I widened my smile, straightened up, and ran a hand through my hair.

‘See, the thing is, Jules …’

I paused, leaving a gap for her to correct me again, but she stayed silent and I inwardly applauded her self control.

‘…aha, I see I only get one warning, nice. Makes things interesting. OK, the thing is, Phil thinks you need me to help you with your Dufflebag project –’

Yeah, it was pretty childish, getting the name of the project amusingly wrong. Didn’t I mention I was immature?

Julia

‘Duffenheim. No.’

He laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling not unattractively. He had big grey eyes. I’m not sure why I noticed.

‘He said you’d say no. I, er, don’t think it’s a request actually. I’ve fixed your problem with the weakpoint analysis. Here.’

He handed me a sheet of paper with graphs printed on it. I put it on my desk without looking at it.

Matt

She spoke without looking at me, eyes fixed on her computer screen.

‘Tell Phil we’re working on a solution. Thanks for the offer, though.’

‘Come on Jul – ia.’

Calling her Jules had had an unexpected effect, so I tried it again, mixing it up a bit to keep her on her toes. But this time she didn’t answer, just started tapping the keyboard. She was good; this required the full Matt Scott treatment.

‘Just look at the bloody graphs, woman. Just one tiny little look, what’s it going to hurt? Then you can say thank you very much Matt you really are so brainy what can I possibly do to repay you and I can say oh I don’t know maybe dinner at eight my treat and a club afterwards and you can pretend you don’t really want to but you can let me persuade you because I really am so brainy and actually quite charming and handsome too in a kind of skinny but rugged way and –’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, alright.’

Julia

Just to stop him talking, I reached over to the piece of paper he’d given me and had a look at the graphs. It didn’t take me long to see they were brilliant, and Matt had managed to save my team hours of work. I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of letting him know that, though, because he shouldn’t have done it in the first place, so I studied the page as if I had seen several glaring errors.

Matt

What? She was going to come out with me? Just like that? She was – oh. She meant she was going to look at the print-out. She picked it up and looked at it, and if I hadn’t been looking at her really intently, I would have missed the split second when her eyes widened a fraction and she was impressed. But I did see it, and then I saw her rearrange her features so she appeared unaffected by what was clearly going to save her team hours of work, and I nearly laughed out loud. Instead, I channelled my amusement into more sport for me.

‘So this is where you say thank you very much Matt, you really are so brainy, et cetera, dinner, club, your place –’

She looked up and tried to throw ice daggers from her eyes, but I let them all bounce off me. It took more than a look to intimidate me, and I melted them with my solar smile. I wasn’t going to thaw the Ice Queen all in one go, but I might sneak in a bit of a defrosting if she let her guard down.

‘Meet you at The Long Legged Frog at eight. I’ve booked the table.’

I hadn’t done any such thing, but it was going to annoy the shit out of her to think I’d been confident enough to do so, and that I’d planned this whole thing. I turned and walked away, hands in my pockets, without another word.

Julia

Matt turned and walked away, hands in his pockets, leaving me annoyed and discomfited. He was arrogant enough that he might have booked a table in anticipation of winning some imaginary contest, but I suspected it was a bluff.

Matt

And that should have left me with a dilemma, because tables at the Long Legged Frog weren’t easy to come by, but I decided that, as she was really unlikely to turn up anyway, I’d just go down there, wait around for half an hour outside just in case, then bugger off home. If she did turn up, I’d confess, and maybe she’d let me take her somewhere else, or maybe she wouldn’t. But when I got there, I thought I’d check, and they bloody well had a table for two, so I sat and waited.

Julia

I can’t explain why I went to The Long Legged Frog that evening. Maybe part of me wanted to see if he really had booked a table. I certainly hadn’t planned on going inside, just peering through the window with my hood up, seeing if I could spot Matt, then I was going to walk away. But I couldn’t see properly through the windows, which were covered in some kind of streamers for a birthday party, and although I thought I could see someone near the back of the restaurant who looked like him, I wasn’t sure.

Matt

I waited for my self-allotted half an hour, picked something from the menu that I was going to ask them to do up as a takeaway, and was just about to order it, when I saw a hooded figure looking through the window. Not Death or anything so sinister – I’d always imagined Death as a tall bloke in a cape, carrying a pointy farming implement, but this was just a short-arse woman wearing a coat with a hood.

There was a birthday party going on at the table in the window, and it wasn’t easy to see, but I thought it was her. I had no idea if she’d seen me, and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, so I got up and went to the door, where there was Julia Marran, looking as indecisive as I had ever seen her, one foot on the threshold.

‘Well what the fuck are you waiting for? You’re already half an hour late, I was about to order takeaway.’

She had a weird kind of frightened rabbit look in her eyes, and I wondered if I’d just scared her away, so I made sure I was smiling as I said it, and gestured her inside before she could change her mind.

Julia

I looked up into Matt’s wide grey eyes, which were crinkling at the corners to take the bite out of his words. I took in his casual but well-chosen clothes, his deliberately rumpled appearance; there might be worse ways to spend an evening, especially if he was paying. Tables at the Long Legged Frog weren’t readily available, because the food was excellent; Matt’s confidence levels were obviously way higher than I had given him credit for if he really had booked before our earlier conversation.

Matt

As I led her to the table, part of me was wide-eyed with surprise. Holy fuck! Julia Marran had come on a date with me. She’d actually turned up. I mean, yeah, albeit looking like it wasn’t the place she most wanted to be in the world, but still. I wondered briefly whether I was going to get into her pants, and then brushed the thought away as unworthy.

Julia Marran wasn’t the kind of woman who you dallied with in any way, shape or form. You didn’t shag Julia Marran once, and then leave in the middle of the night while she was still asleep.

If I was lucky, Julia Marran would stay for the main course and I’d get home without my ego taking too much of a bruising. It was new territory for me, and although part of me resisted the novelty, another part of me was excited at the departure from the old familiar ways.

Let me be very clear – at this point, I was still an excellent no-strings lay. It was just that Jules was way classier than any of the women I usually took up with, and away from work there was something … vulnerable about her that grabbed me by my lapels and said ‘be gentle’.

Julia

The evening went much better than I would have anticipated. Matt was surprisingly good company; he had a quick wit and a keen intellect, which he usually hid under lots of laddish banter about beer and football; he had a degree in systems technology (a better one than mine although only just); was well-read and appreciated good literature even if he didn’t enjoy the same books as me; he liked the same arts films that I did, and generally surprised me with his ability to talk in an informed way about lots of different subjects. He even made me laugh a few times. He didn’t offer much personal information, but then neither did I, and our conversation was doing fine without needing to bother about family histories.

Matt swore a lot, his speech was peppered with variations on a theme of ‘fuck’, ‘shit’ and ‘bollocks’, not that it worried me, as I wasn’t averse to the odd curse when appropriate, but it was noticeable. To start with I thought he was trying to impress me or irritate me but I realised after a while that, just as I blocked it out, so he didn’t really notice he was doing it.

Matt

So, we talked. We actually bloody well talked. Books, films, art, we had a lot in common. We had similar degrees, although mine was a bit better than hers – score – and the evening flew by. I had expected her to be distant and unapproachable, but Julia was different away from work. I wasn’t sure if she realised how far her act had slipped; I saw a bit of the real her, and I liked it.

When we’d finished our meal, done the coffee, and the waiters were starting to hover as time ticked on, I paid the bill as I’d promised and we left. I couldn’t resist another go, though; it had worked so well before.

‘So where are we going now?’

I knew she had no intention of going anywhere else, but my spiel back in the office had been dinner, club, your place.

‘I’m going home.’

‘Oh great, your place then. Skip the club. Fuckably good plan. Where do you live?’

I was pushing for all I was worth. Maybe I stood a chance, maybe I didn’t. Don’t ask, don’t get.

Julia

I couldn’t work out if he was joking, serious or pushing his luck, and decided some clarification was in order.

‘Just so we’re clear, Matt, I’m going home, to my home, on my own, without you. Thank you for dinner, and thank you for the weakpoint analysis. I think we’re even now.’

Matt

And it was Return of the Ice Queen. I mimed stabbing myself in the heart as if with an icicle, and staggered back against a wall for added effect.

‘But Jules, we were getting on so well.’

We had been getting on well, and part of me was disappointed to be dismissed so summarily. I pushed my bottom lip out in a sulk.

‘It’s Julia. I will admit I’ve had a better evening than I was expecting.’

‘Ouch.’

‘You’re really quite pleasant company. It’s a shame you’ve let your reputation hide your intelligence.’

‘Double ouch. You really tell it how you see it don’t you. I can see it’s going to be a bit of a bloody challenge getting into your knickers.’

I realised my mistake as soon as I said it. I hadn’t even thought about the flirty banter while we were inside, but the second I mentioned her knickers, the shutters went up and I lost her. She rolled her eyes, and walked off. I felt the need to rescue something; the need for this not to be finished just yet. I hurried after her and pulled her gently by the arm.

Julia

I started to walk in the direction of my car, a little disappointed that he had been unable to refrain from making at least one sexual remark. I felt his hand on my arm.

‘Hey. No goodbye?’

His hand turned me slightly towards him, and without warning he leaned forwards and kissed me on the mouth. His hand came up to cup my cheek as he tilted my face up towards him. I thought about pushing him away, but to be honest I had heard tales of Matt Scott’s kisses and I wanted to find out how true they were. Albeit without letting his tongue anywhere near mine.

Matt

I turned her slightly towards me, quickly leaned forwards and kissed her, tilting her face up to mine with my hand. And she let me. Well, after a fashion she let me. She didn’t wrap her arms round me, or touch me in any way, but she just stood there while I bombarded her with my best tongue and lip action. Or the best I could manage with someone who wouldn’t open her mouth.

I ran my tongue along the edges of her lips and probed her locked down teeth looking for a way in. I sucked her bottom lip gently into my mouth and nibbled on it, running my tongue over it and then trying again to force my way into her mouth. I got frustrated and mashed both lips against hers, then gave her the smallest of pecks all the way around her mouth, then tried again with my tongue. It was like she had lockjaw or something, and I suddenly found it really, really funny, standing there trying my best, while Julia just stood there letting me, having no intention of actually giving anything back.

Julia

Matt’s lips were soft and warm, and his tongue was insistent and surprisingly inventive. He made a very good attempt, and I was tempted to give in and experience the full version of a Matt Scott kiss, but I felt him hum or cough or something, and suddenly realised he was laughing, with his mouth still pressed to mine. I pulled my head back and looked into his smiling eyes as he continued to laugh.

‘Something’s amusing you?’

Matt

‘You know your nickname’s The Ice Queen, right?’

I was sure she must do, despite each new batch of juniors thinking they’d made it up. I might have helped them along a bit.

‘That’s supposed to be a secret. The juniors all think I’ll stab them with an ice pick if I find out that’s what they call me.’

‘Well I was just thinking, you’re so hard to give a good Frenching to, I think your new nickname should be The No-Dice Queen. Shit, Julia, anyone’d think my tongue carried the plague the way your barricades are rammed home.’

‘For all I know it does, from what I hear you’re not that particular where you put it. Thanks for the meal, Matt, see you at work tomorrow.’

Julia

I walked off again, surprising myself by feeling a little disappointed that he didn’t come after me again. I heard a quiet ‘Bye Jules’ as my footsteps took me to my car.

Matt

Wow, that stung. I knew what tales were out there about me, and I knew Julia would have heard most of them, in passing if not directly, but to be confronted with that brief but damning assessment of me, and hearing the distaste with which she said it, brought me up sharp and stopped my games instantly.

Julia walked off along the street, as I stood there, chastened. I managed a subdued, ‘Bye Jules’ as she went.

Julia

Back in the sanctuary of my flat, I sank down onto the sofa with a glass of wine and reflected on the evening. When I’d woken up that morning, I would have laughed in the face of anyone who told me that by the end of the day I would have survived a meal and a kiss with Matt Scott.

Although I had my impulsive side, most of the things I did were considered, and I was very careful to maintain strict control over how I revealed myself at work. My Ice Queen persona had been painstakingly developed by me to keep colleagues at a distance and remain efficient within my team. Workplace complications tended to have an impact on getting the job done and I did not welcome diversionary intimacies of any sort. I had a full and satisfying social life which was completely separate from work; I was a different person when I was spending time with my friends, who would have recognised The Ice Queen as little as anyone from GreenScreen would have recognised Jules. I smiled wryly to myself as I thought about Matt trying to get away with calling me that. It was one of the ways I was able to retain my distance at work. Only people who got close to me called me Jules, and he wasn’t going to be one of those. I was going to have to be careful not to make too much of an issue of it, though, as he was the sort of guy who would carry on to get a reaction.

Anyway, I was hardly going to come across him again after tonight; his brief involvement in the Duffenheim project was over, he’d had his fun and failed in his quest. He would have moved on to the next more willing victim by tomorrow. Or even tonight. I was surprised to find that thought gave me a bit of a pang of … what? Regret? Ridiculous. I finished my wine, washed up the glass and went to bed.

Matt

And I suppose that’s when I started seriously evaluating my life, with all the wine, women and song (possibly reworked into beer, birds and bad karaoke if you want to be honest and slightly insulting) needing a long hard look. I’d started to slow down, put the brakes on a bit, already, but Jules throwing back some of the things she’d doubtless heard about me, and the way she said it, made me realise what some people, people whose opinions I valued, might actually believe about me. I let a lot of the bollocks stand, because it suited me, and a lot of other bollocks just became hard-wired into the myth. But I never had anything nasty or infectious. After Carrie convinced the population of Stafford that I had, I made doubly sure I was always protected, and I got myself thoroughly and regularly checked. I’d heard the stories of the nasties you could get if you let Matt Scott near you, but I knew where they’d originated from, thank you Petra, and I did my best to squash them. Obviously my best squashing hadn’t been enough.

Ironically, what people thought about the state of my sexual health and morals wasn’t a million miles from the heap of shite that Carrie led everyone to believe about me up in Stafford. The difference this time was that it was largely my own doing.

So now it was all coming home to roost. I was getting tired of being fun-boy Matt, and sometimes I was lonely, despite the surprising closeness I still maintained with my family. I wouldn’t say I was looking for someone, or if I was, I was not in any way prepared to admit it to myself. But I began to see that this state of affairs couldn’t last, had maybe had its time, and I changed. Oh, I was still Matt the Lad, the chat was still there, I still partied, snogged, groped, but that final bit, that back to your place, fumble with the underwear, ooh yeah, cheers love, that went – or at least saw a drastic cut in occurrences.

And I would look at Jules sometimes, and kick myself, because she was an echo of what might have been. I could have chased her, I could have convinced her, I could have won her over, if things had been different. But she thought I was the worse kind of sleazeball, and she wasn’t far wrong, and that was the end of that.

Julia

Much as I expected, if I thought about it at all, I didn’t see a lot of Matt at work after that. I presented his graphs to my team, we acknowledged the man-hours they had saved us, and I didn’t really think about him. It wasn’t until Nons died several weeks later that I even spoke to him again.

46. She said

In which Dec finds himself in a sticky situation.

Dec

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

‘Ames?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hey.’

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

‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How did you fix it?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s hard –’

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

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

‘Ames?’

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

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

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

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

‘But you came back …’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

)No …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked up at me, nodded.

‘Do you love me?’

)Yes, of course. But that’s –

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

Another nod, less certain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

)Why did you?

I hung my head, embarrassed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

)But I asked you not to last night.

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

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

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

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

)If you’re sure you still want me –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

)Don’t push your luck.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Really? They want me to come?’

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

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

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

o0o

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

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Declan Summers @summs12 5 May

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

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o0o

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

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

o0o

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

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

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

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

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

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

_Sounds like someone’s learned a lesson or two.

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

o0o

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

o0o

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

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

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

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

>Hey Declan, you want a beer?

‘No thanks, Nico, I’m off out soon.’

I nodded at the TV screen.

‘Did Arsenal win?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned.

łDid it do the trick?

‘Don’t know what you mean.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Er, yes, why?’

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

‘What exactly do you want me to do?’

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

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

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

]Well, no, I was kind of hoping …

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

]Thanks mate, I owe you one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was completely at a loss for a few seconds.

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

ϸOh. Had a better offer did he?

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

‘Something like that.’

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

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

I shouted back, over my shoulder:

‘Phone a taxi.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where am I dropping you?’

ϸYou look nice, going somewhere special?

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

‘Yeah. So whereabouts am I dropping you?’

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

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

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

I didn’t answer.

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

‘No. Is it much further?’

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

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

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

‘What?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

ϸMake me.

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

)Hey hon, are you on your way?

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

)OK … Are you –

Silence.

‘Amy?’

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

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

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

‘What exactly are you trying to achieve?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What do you want?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Fine. Which way?’

ϸNext left.

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

‘Where the fuck are we?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Just piss off.’

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

‘Shit.’

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

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

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

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

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

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

‘Have you got a phone?’

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

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

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

ϸYour hard-on tells me different.

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

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

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

‘I don’t know what the fuck you think you’re doing. Do you think you’re sexy or appealing or something? You’re just sad and pathetic. I’m going to get back to the city so I can carry on with my evening.’

At last, I found the door handle and shoved the door open, almost falling out of the car in my haste to be gone, away from this terrifying crazy woman who was making me feel things I definitely did not want ever to be feeling.

ϸI’m sure Amy would appreciate a text from me telling her not to worry …

Becca’s voice followed me out of the car. I sighed as I stood up. I’d had enough. I was already in deep enough shit, I was going to have to tell Amy everything anyway, nothing Becca Davis could do now was going to make it any worse.

‘Do what the fuck you want. You’re just a silly girl who’s never grown up. You think you’re still at school. Welcome to the real world, where grown ups don’t get sucked in to your childish shit. I suggest you put your shirt on and call a taxi. Good luck with your sad little life, just stay the fuck out of mine.

I hunched my shoulders against the pouring rain, and started to walk back down the road, cursing myself the whole way for the fucking gullible idiot I was, ignoring Becca’s shouts to wait, come back, she’d phone for help, then her yells that she was texting Amy right now and telling her how hard she’d made me, finally some loud sobs mixed in with most of the names I’d already called myself since leaving the club earlier. As her voice faded behind me, I trudged on through the rain, feeling bleak and stupid.

The downpour was a very effective cold shower, but I still felt guilty about how I’d responded to Becca’s touch. It was purely physical, no reasoning or emotional part of me was even slightly attracted to her, but I’d surely blown it with Amy now.

We’d been in such a good place since we’d sorted everything out. We’d been to see Jay and Beth and talked to them for a long time about how they managed to make things work when Jay was playing. Since then, we’d worked hard on communicating with each other, but I knew Amy still felt insecure about the amount of female attention that often came my way, and now this farce with Becca was just going to blow it all wide open again. And in front of her parents, who didn’t like me anyway. I hoped against hope that Becca was bluffing about texting Amy, but it seemed like the sort of thing she would do, so I prepared myself to face the fallout from that too.

The lights of the city grew slowly closer as I carried on walking. I was soaked right through to my skin, my suit was ruined, and my shoes squelched. It felt like hours later when I eventually reached the outskirts of the city, and the first street lights.

A car came towards me, and I thought about flagging it down, but realised no one was going to give me a lift in this muddy, saturated state. It was probably a taxi for Becca anyway. The car stopped behind me. I ignored it and kept on walking. The car reversed and the window wound down.

}So do you want a lift, or shall I leave you to enjoy your stroll in the deluge?

I stopped and looked properly at the car. Blinked the rain out of my eyes and tried to make sense of it.

‘Matt? What the fuck are you doing here?’

}Do you want me to tell you before or after you get in out of the rain and start ruining my Italian leather seats?

I opened the door and got in. He turned the heater up full, but my teeth still chattered.

}Fuck me, you’re absolutely drenched. I should have brought a towel. Or a dehumidifier. Or one of those fucking industrial suction pumps. Shit, Dec, you’re a sight for sore eyes, I’ve been all over looking for you.

‘What? How did you know?’

}Well I don’t know much, I have to say. You can fill me in on the way. Amy rang me, all in a panic, said you were supposed to be at Fishers with her parents, but you’d rung her saying there was a problem, then got cut off.

‘My fucking phone died.’

}Ah. Anyway, I didn’t know where you were, but doing a bit of detective work via Jay, then your mate Brett, we worked out you may have got waylaid by the charming @bouncybec.

‘Shit, does Amy know?’

}Well, none of us know anything for definite. It was Becca, then?

‘Yeah. Fuck, I’m such a dick. I couldn’t have been more fucking stupid if I’d tried.’

}You took the words out of my mouth. Dec, what possessed you to give the woman a lift? I don’t even know her, and I’d avoid her like the plague, and you know I’m not that fussy.

‘Well I didn’t know it was her when Bonksy asked me to do him a favour. Then I felt sorry for her.’

Matt gaped at me.

}You felt sorry for her?

‘For about two seconds. The wrong two seconds. I’m just too much of a sucker for a fucking sob story. Before I had a chance to think about it, she was in the car and I was screwed. Almost literally. My car’s way back up that road, I ran out of petrol. The last I saw of Becca fucking Davis she was in the passenger seat with her tits out trying her hardest to get me to shag her.’

}Tempted?

Fuck off Matt! No! Shit, what the fuck do you think of me?’

}OK, OK, sorry, just asking the question that Amy will no doubt ask you. I hope you’re similarly vehement in your denial when she does.

‘What time is it?’

}Ten twenty six, according to the cunningly placed dashboard clock right in front of your eyes.

‘Shit. And thanks for the fucking sarcasm, just what I need. Is Amy still at Fishers?’

}She said she was going to stay there and have the meal with her parents, apparently they’re not particularly understanding of your foibles and didn’t look too kindly on having their celebrations interrupted with any concerns over your well-being. Do you want to go straight there, or go home and get dry?

I sighed. I was wet, and cold, and I really didn’t want to face Amy and have to explain everything that had happened, in front of her parents, but it was what I had to do.

‘Straight there, please. Thanks Matt. Thanks for coming to look for me. How the fuck did you know I’d be here?’

Matt put the car in gear and drove away while he started to explain.

}Apparently Becca lives around here somewhere. Amy gave me a rough idea of her address, we couldn’t think of anywhere else you might have been persuaded to take her. I just drove around in a widening circle, luckily I came across you before too many hours had passed.

‘Thanks, it means a lot.’

I was still soaking wet and cold when Matt pulled up outside the restaurant. With a heavy heart I got out and waved him off. He’d offered to wait, but I didn’t know how long I’d be or what was going to happen inside, so I said I’d get a taxi, and hoped they’d accept sodden banknotes, as well as sodden customers.

The restaurant was nearly empty when I walked in. The maître d’ looked me up and down and started to turn me away.

‘I’m with the Wright party. Sorry, got caught in the rain.’

*Oh, certainly sir, but I think they’ve just about finished.

‘That’s fine. Are they upstairs?’

*Yes sir.

I walked slowly up the stairs, very aware of the squelching from my shoes, the wet, muddy footprints I was leaving behind me and the water steadily dripping from my clothes.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I saw Amy and her parents sitting at the only occupied table. There were coffee cups and wine glasses ready to be collected. It didn’t look like a particularly happy gathering. Amy looked up, saw me, got straight out of her seat, and came over to me. I saw her think about hugging me, and think better of it, but wasn’t sure if it was because I was so wet, or because she was upset. She gave me a big smile, which helped me be a bit more sure, and touched my cheek, which helped even more.

)Dec, you made it. Come and sit down.

This was so different from the reception I was expecting that it threw me, and I stayed where I was for a second or two. Then I walked over to the table.

‘Hi Mrs Wright, Mr Wright.’

Their reception was more predictable, and was silent and icy. They barely looked at me to acknowledge my presence. I decided to ignore them back and just spoke to Amy.

‘Ames, I don’t think I can sit down like this, I’m absolutely soaked, I’ll ruin the chair. I’ve had to ditch the car and walk for miles in the rain. I’m so sorry I missed your birthday meal.’

)Well, you did let me know you were going to be late, and you did ask me to trust you, so I did. Is everything OK?

I glanced at Amy’s parents, who were listening intently to our conversation, disapproval etched on their faces.

‘Apart from having to leave my car miles up a country lane with no petrol and a half naked fucking mad woman in it, and then being nearly drowned trying to get back here, yeah, I think everything’s OK. Have you had a good evening?’

)Apart from having to coordinate the rescue of my unbelievably naive fiancé from the clutches of a – half naked mad woman, you say? Yeah, it’s been good, thanks.

‘Are we OK?’

She looked at me, her big blue eyes shining. She didn’t look like she was pretending in front of her parents, and I began to hope that maybe things weren’t as screwed as I’d imagined.

)Yeah, hon. Thank God for Matt, but yeah. We’re OK.

She stood up and before I could stop her she put her arms round me and squeezed me tightly.

)You really are very, very wet.

‘I know.’

)So am I, now.

‘I know.’

)So are you going to put your arms round me or what?

‘I’m finding it hard to resist, but they are also very, very wet.’

)Just get on with it.

I did as I was told, put my arms round her, and buried my face in her hair for good measure, feeling happy and relieved.

)Mm, lovely, now I’m completely soaked too. I think I need to go home. Mum, Dad, thanks for a lovely meal, I’ve had a completely lovely time. Sorry I was on the phone so much. I think Dec and I are going to shoot off now, we both need to get out of these wet things, and we’ve got some catching up to do. Have a great trip, if I don’t see you before.

She kissed them both, I didn’t, and then we left.