129. The show must go on

In which an old adversary visits, the ‘shouldn’t be alone’ concept is revisited, and a party is planned.

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Laura

The banging on the door woke me up with a start. The doorbell rang immediately afterwards, and I reached over for my phone, to check the time. Twelve twenty four. I looked over at Matt in the light from the screen; he was lying on his front, head turned towards me, mouth slightly open, fast asleep. More banging on the door. I got out of bed and went to the window, looking down to see who was there. Someone was standing outside, but I couldn’t see who it was. I opened the window and leaned out.

‘Who is it?’

A face looked upwards.

‘Oh, flower, are you OK?’

The face shook its head.

‘I’ll be right down.’

I glanced over at Matt on my way out of the bedroom. Still fast asleep. I pulled on my dressing gown as I went down the stairs, stuffing my phone in the pocket. Moments later, I had let a tear-stained Charlie in, put the kettle on and sat her down at the kitchen table, where she laid her head on her arms and sobbed.

‘Do your mum and dad know you’re here?’

Charlie was fifteen, and pretty much did what she wanted, but Amy worried about her constantly, and I wanted to make sure Charlie’s parents knew where she was at this time of night.

‘Dunno.’

‘I’ll just text, then, so they don’t worry.’

There were some sniffs, a shrug.

‘They won’t fucking care, they don’t give a shit about me.’

I got my phone out and quickly texted Amy, hoping she wasn’t asleep.

‘Charlie’s here. Upset. Will talk and send home. L x’

‘That’s not true, Charlie. Have you had a disagreement?’

‘They’re just so … bloody unreasonable. It’s none of their business who I go out with.’

So this was about – oh what was his name, some kind of farm animal – Pig? No. Goat. He was seventeen, had a car, seemed perfectly nice, but Dec was understandably protective, and he was the cause of quite a few arguments. The usually placid, easy going Dec tried to impose curfews – time limits, no school night rules – all to no avail, and every time Charlie broke them there was a huge row. It looked like it had happened again.

‘Want to tell me about it, flower?’

Charlie lifted her head and nodded, looking at me as if the world was ending. She glanced at my dressing gown, and then at the clock.

‘Shit, Lau, sorry, I didn’t realise it was so late, well late for you. I didn’t wake Matty up did I?’

‘Charlie, I don’t think Matt would wake up if you knocked the house down around him.’

‘Ha ha, no, you’re right, but I know he gets tired.’

The contradiction that was Charlie Summers; one minute headstrong selfish teenager, the next considerate almost-adult.

The kettle switched itself off, and I stood up to make us tea.

‘Thanks, Lau, you’re cool.’

It was easier to be cool when it wasn’t your own children. Amy and I often talked about how irritating it was when your own children went to someone else for advice and support, but had agreed to always be there for each other’s when they needed it.

‘So what’s this all about?’

‘They think they can rule my life, who I can see, where I can go.’

‘Yeah, remind me again how old you are, flower.’

‘Nearly sixteen. I can do what I fucking well want.’

I smiled to myself. Charlie had only recently had her fifteenth birthday.

‘Well you’ll be able to do more when you actually are sixteen, in about a year, although you won’t be able to do just what you want, but for now your mum and dad have the right to say what they think is best for you. Sometimes it’s better to talk about it and agree together.’

‘Have you ever tried to talk to them? They’re just like, all ‘you can’t see Goat he’s too old, where are you going, be back by eleven’. Eleven! The clubs don’t open till midnight. It’s not like I’m fucking five.’

‘Have you been going to clubs?’

Charlie looked sideways at me, from underneath her dark eyelashes, reminding me for all the world of how she looked when she was five, and didn’t answer.

‘You know you’re both under age.’

‘Oh Lau, everyone does it, everyone has fake ID. Goat’s cool, he’d never let anything happen.’

‘OK, assuming that’s the case, Goat seems nice enough, can you think what your mum and dad might be worried about?’

Charlie’s answer was interrupted by my phone pinging.

‘Thanks, Lau. Do u want me 2 come an get her?’

‘No, just chatting.’

‘So?’

‘What?’

‘Goat’s a few years older than you –’

‘He’s only just seventeen, it’s like, only just over a year.’

I let the maths slide, as it wasn’t worth getting into the argument.

‘He’s still older. Think about it, flower. You’re not a mum, so you won’t understand how absolutely terrifying it is to think of your daughter, who only five minutes ago was a tiny baby, having sex with someone called Goat, who takes her to clubs.’

‘Who said we were having sex?’

‘Are you?’

Charlie looked down at her hands and nodded. She looked up at me, her big blue eyes full of protest.

‘But everyone does. We’re careful, we always use a condom.’

‘You know that he is actually breaking the law, don’t you.’

‘Well we both are, then.’

‘No, just Goat. You’re the one who’s under age, he’s the one with the responsibility. Charlie, I don’t know if your dad knows you’re sleeping together, but if he doesn’t, and he finds out, you’re going to have to hide Goat for a very long time.’

‘Who’s gona hahv tuh hide Goat?’

Matt had come into the kitchen unnoticed by either of us. Charlie looked at me pleadingly. Matt was likely to get almost as angry as Dec if he found out exactly what Charlie had been up to.

‘Go back to bed, flower, Charlie and I are just chatting.’

‘Yuh always chuck meh ouh when thehrs anything juicy. Any teh goin?’

‘Kettle’s just boiled.’

Matt wandered over to the counter and got a mug out.

‘Sorry I woke you up, Matty. I was trying to be quiet.’

‘Noh yuh wehrnt, yuh nehly broke the bluhdy door down.’

‘Sorry.’

‘I thought you were still asleep when I came down.’

‘Only half. Thoht I’d hehr sohm goss if I kep my eyes shut an my ears open.’

He shot Charlie a direct gaze.

‘Duh yuh lohv him?’

It seemed Matt had heard quite a lot of our conversation. I held my breath.

‘What?’

‘Goat. Duh yuh lohv him?’

‘Well, yeah, course.’

‘Does he lohv yuh?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Does he treht yuh righ? Never makes yuh duh stuff, lehs yuh say noh, always careful, uses protection?’

‘Yeah, he’s great, really, like, caring and that.’

‘An he’s not seeing anyone else?’

‘No. I’d break his legs.’

‘Ha ha, yuh would too. Chahlie, everything Lau said is righ. She’s always righ. An I wana kick his fucking teeth in fuh touching yuh, buh I wohnt. Prohbly jus fall over if I tried. Yuh jus nehd tuh know tha wehr here if yuh nehd tuh talk, an we’ll prohbly tell yuhr mum an dad a loh of wha yuh tell us, buh tahk tuh us, wohnt yuh. Plehs.’

Charlie nodded. I slowly exhaled.

‘An listen as well. I know yuh think wehr ancient, buh me an Lau have behn aroun a bih. Well, meh mohr than Lau, I was a bih of a floozy back in the day –’

‘You were? No way, Matty, you’re like Mr Married.’

Matt shrugged. ‘Sohm hair raising tales tuh beh told. Maybeh one day.’

Charlie looked at me for confirmation.

‘It’s true, flower. Matt had a reputation as a bit of a stud when I first knew him. He’d broken hearts all across the city.’

Charlie looked incredulous.

‘How come I’ve never heard about this?’

‘Long tihm agoh.’

‘Yeah, it was a long time ago, flower, but Matt knows what he’s talking about when it comes to boys behaving badly. But he also knows how to treat people, and what’s right and what’s wrong, and we just want to make sure you’re being safe and looked after.’

‘Yeah, well, I am. It’s not like when I went out with Billy and he was all hands everywhere and having to push him off me all the time, Goat like totally knows how to look after me, he’s literally a gentleman.’

‘Wha, born intuh an upper clahs fahmly in the Victorian era?’

‘What?’

‘When yuh say ‘literally’, tha mehns sohmthing is actually, rehly true.’

‘Yeah, whatever, Matty, didn’t come here for an English lesson.’

‘Chehky brat. So wha yuh gona duh now?’

‘About what?’

‘Ih’s nehly sodding one o’clock. Goh hohm and say sohry tuh yuhr parents.’

‘No way, they don’t care where I am, no way I’m fucking apologising.’

‘Yuh know wha ih looks lihk, when yuhr all arsy abouh goin ouh?’

‘No.’

‘Looks tuh them lihk ih’s Goat’s fault. They think ‘tha boy, he’s noh good fuh her, look how he mahks her behave’. If yuh stopped bein arsy an listened, an did wha they said sohmtimes, they’d think ‘wehl wehl, tha Goat, he’s a good influence’. They migh listen tuh yuh as wehl. Donht yuh wan them to know how greht Goat is?’

‘Well, yeah …’

‘Goh hohm, then, Charlotte Lucy Summers, an apologise tuh yuh parents fuh keeping them up. Come an see us tomohrow an let us know how ih went.’

Charlie thought about it, and nodded. She was a hot-headed, impulsive, headstrong girl, but if you said it right, she listened. Matt had hit just the right note.

‘OK. Thanks, Matty. Thanks, Lau. You’re both so cool. Sorry to wake you up.’

‘Any time, flower. See you tomorrow.’

I let Charlie out, and texted Amy to say she was on her way home. Then I turned to Matt, who had sat on a chair at the table.

‘Fuck, I wana punch his fucking lighs ouh.’

‘You were awesome, flower. I hope Amy and Dec will be as sensitive and understanding when it’s one of our two.’

‘Shih, I’m not letting Dec give his fatherly opinion tuh Ella, who knows wha half-arsed advice he’d end up saying. Can yuh hehp meh back upstairs, Lau?’

‘Course, flower. Grab on.’

Cal

Just being with Chrissie, feeling that ‘click’ as we slotted together, helped a lot, but we both had a lot of talking to do as we worked out things like where we were going to live (I stayed with Mum and Dad for a few months while Chrissie moved into a house nearby), where she was going to work (temping agencies for now, and maybe doing a teaching degree later), how we were going to handle bumping into Ayesh at the supermarket (me: panic; Chrissie and Ayesh: with dignified silence followed up with less dignified sizing each other up and sending visual daggers to each other while I dumped the trolley and fled, pulling Chrissie with me), how we were going to do family events (with a lot of checking exactly who had invited who, especially if anyone had invited Ayesh, and initially staying away if Ayesh had been asked, even if she said she wasn’t coming, which she always did), how we were going to go about socialising with friends of mine who had been friends of mine and Ayesh’s, many of whom were Raiders team-mates and whose wives and girlfriends were also Ayesh’s friends (similar to family events, but with less forgiveness on the cards if Ayesh got upset, and more likelihood that we would see her there).

I moved into Chrissie’s house in the summer; we always intended for it to be our house, but there was so much to talk about and think about that it felt right for her to be on her own for a while so things could settle down. Both of us had been traumatised, and if I’m honest I needed time and space to truly separate from the life I had with Ayesh before plunging straight into life with Chrissie.

My life had been tangled together with Ayesh’s in more ways than our emotions. There were things like shared bills (which Ayesh now had to pay herself), shared possessions, our flat (which she could no longer afford on her own), a holiday we’d booked but needed to cancel – every time I thought I’d got there, that there wasn’t anything else that could crop up to make me feel guilty, there would be another message via Mum or Iz that Ayesh needed to talk to me about the tenancy or the Sky contract or any of a million things that reinforced my feelings of selfishness and guilt.

The only good thing that came out of it all was that Ayesh and I had to talk to each other, about details, about finances, about all the things that have to be done when two people who were together now aren’t, and we managed to do it without getting upset, in the end. Ayesh had to move out of the flat, because it was too much for her to afford on her own, and once that happened, I didn’t have so much contact with her, not for a long time.

Mum still saw Ayesh, but not as much, and I think it was starting to feel a bit weird to both of them as time went on. Iz stayed in touch, but then Iz has seventeen hundred Facebook friends and follows over two thousand people on Twitter because she can’t bear to let any of them go, even the weirdoes who only friended her because she’s got long blonde hair.

That summer, Chrissie and I went away together, the off-season being our first chance to really leave everything (by which I mean my enormous, overly curious and far-too-opinionated family) behind and have some time truly to ourselves.

Chrissie came from a Mum-Dad-two-kids family, who had moved around so much that grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins were scattered and rarely saw each other. She found it hard at first to be thrown into the mayhem of the Scotts – even though she’d experienced it before, we were both young enough that it didn’t affect us that much. Now we were older, and there were more of us, more was expected of us, and I knew that she struggled sometimes with Mum’s pop-rounds, Iz’s texts, the noise of everyone on a Sunday. People really tried hard to make her feel welcome, but by the time the rugby season finished and I had some downtime, I knew what we needed to do.

‘Oh Cal, really? Bali?’

‘Two weeks. A week on Saturday.’

‘I love you.’

‘Me or my credit card?’

‘Maybe a bit of both. Actually, right now, I think I love your credit card just a little bit more. Or a lot more. Oh sod it, I’ll just sleep with your card. You can have the spare room.’

And so we flew out to a fortnight of complete luxury, our hotel apartment virtually on the beach, with its own private pool, room service, spa facilities available, the complete works. We hardly moved for fourteen days, except to … well you can imagine without me having to spell it out. Oh, and I had to move far enough to get down on one knee and ask Chrissie to marry me.

It was the perfect setting. Sun sinking into the sea sending the sky into raptures of red and purple, soft waves splashing, a warm breeze lifting Chrissie’s hair away from her face, a great meal eaten and a bottle of wine nearly finished.

I’d had the ring with me, had been planning to do this when the moment was right, had been wanting to ask her since about a week after we got back together. I knew it wasn’t right to ask straight away, not only because of how insensitive it would have been to Ayesh, but because I knew Chrissie felt we needed time to find out about each other.

I knew right from the start how I felt. It was like Matty and Lau said, I just knew it was her and no one else, and I knew I was never going to change my mind. I’m pretty sure Chrissie felt the same way, but she trusted her emotions less. She felt she’d got it wrong that first time when she broke up with me, and had nearly got it wrong again by leaving. She wanted to be sure, so I waited until I thought she was sure, and then took her to Bali. You can’t get much more romantic than Bali at sunset – I knew this because I’d Googled it.

So, with dinner eaten and wine drunk, I took a deep breath, took the ring out of my pocket, knelt in front of the love of my life, took her hand in mine, and looked into her eyes as she gasped.

‘Chrissie Coulson, you need a new last name. Scott is way cooler. Why don’t you change it?’

‘I don’t know, I quite like it. I like my initials. CC. I sound like a bratty American teenager.’

‘Well if bratty teenager is where you’re aiming, maybe you have a point. Isn’t there anything I can do to persuade you?’

‘Hmm, well, you appear to be down on one knee.’

‘Yeah, it’s getting a bit uncomfortable. And that bird is giving me a funny look. Anything occurring to you?’

‘Well I do quite like my name. It has panache, you know, with the two Cs and everything. You think Scott is cooler? Hm, Chrissie Scott. Really? That’s quite a lot of sss.’

‘Just the right amount. Some good c and t as well. All great names have c and t in the right places – c at the start and t at the end.’

‘You might have something there. How would I go about changing my name then?’

‘There are a few methods I have researched.’

‘Go on.’

‘You can change it by deed poll. It’s not expensive, and quite quick I believe.’

‘Mm hmm. And?’

‘Well you could just start telling everyone you’ve got a new last name. It doesn’t have to be official. You’d announce it in the Herald – ‘Chrissie Coulson will henceforth be known as Chrissie Scott’ or something.’

‘I can see how it could happen. Anything else?’

‘Well, there is one other way, but it’s a bit out there. You have to answer a simple question. One word only. Has to be the right word, to the right question.’

‘Now I’m intrigued.’

‘I know the question.’

‘Do you know the answer?’

‘No, only you know that.’

‘You’d better ask it, then.’

‘Sure you’re ready?’

‘Very sure.’

‘OK. Chrissie, will you marry me?’

‘You’re right, that is a pretty easy question.’

‘In which case I’m going to have to hurry you for an answer.’

‘Yes.’

‘Correct. Go to the top of the class.’

And then I opened the box and showed her the ring, and we stopped messing about because it was real, we were getting married, and neither of us had ever been happier.

Mum had a whole year’s notice to plan it, which was almost a whole year more than she had for Matty and Lau’s wedding (less than a week) and Dec and Amy’s (just over two months), and I expected some gratitude for giving her the wedding she’d been craving, even if it wasn’t with the daughter-in-law she’d been expecting. And Chrissie wasn’t even pregnant. It was a level of planning, organisation and decency almost unheard of among the Scott and Summers families.

Mum had a flourishing party planning business, that had started as a hobby and grown through word of mouth following her successes with Dec, Amy, Matty and Lau. My wedding wasn’t the only big event planned that year; a few months before Chrissie and I got married, Matty was fifty, and Mum wasn’t about to let that one go without a fanfare.

Laura

‘Laura, what on earth’s the matter?’

Beth dropped her bag on the hall floor and put her arms round me. I took several deep breaths and tried to pull myself together. If I’d known I was going to dissolve into a blubbing puddle I would never have answered the door. I stood back from Beth, and tried to slap a convincing smile on my face.

‘Nothing, just having a funny moment.’

‘It doesn’t look very funny, sweetheart. Come on, sit down, I’ll put the kettle on. Is Matty upstairs?’

I nodded, and as Beth went into the kitchen, another wave of tears blurred my vision. I rummaged in my pocket for a tissue, and wiped my eyes. Beth’s voice floated into the living room.

‘Is everything set for tomorrow? You know all the times and everything, don’t you?’

I didn’t answer. Tomorrow. Matt’s fiftieth birthday. Big party planned by Beth. Except it wasn’t going to have a guest of honour, not if Matt was still intent on staying in bed and not speaking to anyone. I’d tried everything, all the tricks in the book, anything I’d ever tried that had worked before when he was miserable, but none of it worked this time.

His latest flare up of MS had affected his mobility so badly that we’d had to talk about either moving or adapting our house so he didn’t have to do the stairs. It had been a big blow to him, and since we’d first talked about it about a couple of days ago, he’d retreated into himself and stopped talking to anyone about anything. He wouldn’t even talk to the children, and although they were used to Matt’s ups and downs, they weren’t used to his unresponsiveness in the face of their chatter, and it upset me to see their hurt and confusion.

I hadn’t told anyone yet, I’d hoped to be able to jolly him out of his dark mood like I always did, but the longer it went on, the more desperate I became.

Beth had arrived just as I was having a weep to myself, and I’d sniffed to a halt before answering the door, but she’d seen the look on my face, had given me a sympathetic smile, and I’d started crying again.

‘Laura? Oh you are in here. Here you go.’

She handed me a mug, and sat down.

‘Are you OK for tomorrow? Cal’s coming over at about seven …’

Her voice trailed off.

‘Oh Laura, just tell me what’s happened.’

I shook my head. I didn’t even know where to start.

‘I don’t think … Matt’s … I can’t … he won’t … I don’t know what to do.’

My face felt like it crumpled, and fresh tears ran down my face. I buried my face in my hands, and felt Beth sit next to me and put her arm round my shoulders.

‘Oh sweetheart. Tell me, please. I know Matty can be difficult.’

I felt a surge of loyalty.

‘He’s not difficult. He’s just … oh he’ll hate it if I say anything, but to be honest I don’t know if I’ve got the energy to try to persuade him to tell you himself. He’s got worse in the last few days, and he can’t do the stairs. He’s stuck up there at the moment. We’ve had to talk about adaptations, a stairlift, or moving. He’s stopped talking to anyone. I can’t get through to him, at all. He just lies there, either pretending to be asleep or ignoring me, he won’t even talk to the children. I don’t think he’s going to be coming to his party.’

‘Oh Laura. Why didn’t you say something? Call one of us?’

‘Well you know what he’s like about telling people stuff. I can usually talk him round, it’s never gone on this long before.’

Beth looked at me with understanding, then shook her head.

‘He’s sucking you in. If he stops you talking to us too, he’s created this little bubble of Matty misery. He knows that he can’t fend us all off, but he can just about manage you, Josh and Ella. Can I go and see him?’

‘Feel free, if you think you can try something I haven’t thought of.’

Beth went up the stairs, and I sat and sipped my tea. I could hear Beth’s voice, but not what she was saying. I didn’t hear any response from Matt, and didn’t know what I thought about that. I wanted him to feel better and start talking again, but I wanted to be the one who made it happen. Then I smiled to myself – Laura Scott, just how arrogant are you? Hadn’t I just told Beth I’d tried everything? She was right, it was time to ask other people for help. Ever since I’d known him, Matt had fought against asking people when he needed something. I was stubborn too, but I usually recognised when someone else would do something better than I could. Beth was right, Matt had sucked me in, and I’d fallen for it. I heard Beth come back down the stairs.

‘Any luck?’

She sighed. ‘Not right at the moment. Maybe he’ll think about what I said …’

‘What did you say?’

‘I asked him how long he was planning to make all of you feel as miserable as he was feeling, I told him if he didn’t want to come to his party that was fine, but we would be celebrating his birthday with or without him, and it was going to be a great night and he’d regret it if he wasn’t there, and I reminded him that Cal’s getting married in a couple of months, and so he’d better start thinking of a way to get downstairs before then, as there is no way on this earth I am letting him miss my son’s wedding, if I have to come and carry him down myself.’

‘Well thanks for trying.’

‘Laura, I know this is none of my business, but how is he managing with the loo?’

To anyone else, this would have seemed both rude and inappropriate, but we’d both been nurses, and we’d both looked after Matt when he’d needed a lot of help. There really was no point in not saying what we were thinking.

‘Well he’s not eaten anything for a couple of days, so he’s only needed to go once. He struggled there on his own, God knows how, and I heard him up there, so I waited outside the bathroom. When he came out I was there, and he leaned on me, but he didn’t say anything.’

‘He’s not eating? Oh Laura. I think we need the big guns. Do you know if Dec’s home? And maybe we need to get a commode or something for the bedroom?’

She saw the look on my face, and she knew as well as I did how that was likely to go down with Matt.

‘Sweetheart, surely there are some things he can’t have a choice about. It affects you almost as much as him. Maybe you should get Social Services round to talk about adaptations?’

‘Not without his say so. We’ve always said in it together. I’m not going to start deciding things without him now, he needs to know he has a say.’

‘Then you need to make him understand that it’s not just about him. I know sometimes he thinks about things, seems like he’s not listening and then it’s like it’s his idea. If you wrap him up in cotton wool and don’t tell him how you’re feeling, then it’s all about him. He needs to know how upset you are, that he’s not the only one who hates how he’s feeling.’

I breathed in. ‘I know. You’re right. It’s just so hard for him, he feels every small thing he can’t do any more so much, I just want to protect him.’

‘Well, if you’re in it together, you both need to be honest with each other, otherwise it’s just both of you in it for Matty.’

‘He doesn’t feel he’s got anything to give any more’

‘Well we both know that’s not true. Iz was telling me what a laugh she had with him on Facetime the other week. Didn’t he help Gracie with her maths homework a few days ago? And Dec wouldn’t have a business without him. And as for all of you …’

‘You don’t have to tell me, it’s him you need to convince.’

‘OK then, I’m texting Dec. Hasn’t he been round lately?’

‘Not since all this. He was away at that sports dinner thing, I don’t think he got back until this morning.’

‘You know, the first time that Dec and Matty spent any time together, he managed to talk Matty out of something like this. That was a long time ago, now, but I still think if anyone can do it, it’s Dec.’

‘I’m up for trying anything, Beth. I just don’t know how much longer I can do this, being positive all the time, cheering him up, making the most of things. Sometimes I just feel like screaming about how unfair it is, he shouldn’t have his life taken away bit by bit, the kids should still have a dad who can run around with them, I should still have a husband who can –’

I stopped myself; if I carried on I was going to break down again.

‘Sorry. It’s not like I can say I didn’t know this was going to happen, I saw it so many times when I was working, I knew exactly what was likely to be in store for us. I’m having an off day, that’s all.’

‘Sweetheart, you’re entitled to a few off days, more than a few. You’re always so cheerful, you never seem to let anything get you down, you just get on with things. The trouble is that when you’re so good at it, we don’t know when you need us. You have to ask. Call or text, we’re all here.’

‘Thanks. But everyone’s got their own stuff – Dec and Amy are worried about Rose, you and Jay are doing more for Carol, the children are all growing up and needing different things …’

‘Yes, everyone’s got their worries, but that doesn’t mean that when you need us, we can’t make room for yours as well. Look at all the times you and Matty have helped out with Iz, and Charlie, and been there for Carol and Rose. We all look after each other don’t we?’

I looked down at the floor and nodded. In the last few months, without realising it, I’d started to cut myself off from everyone. Matt had begun withdrawing, and I’d allowed him to pull me with him. Well now I’d realised, it wasn’t going to continue.

‘Know what, you’re right. He’s not getting away with this. You’ve spent months planning this party, and if he’s not going to be there, that’s his loss. Yeah, text Dec, see if we can use a united front to show Matt what’s what. Thanks, Beth.’

*

‘So just so you know, one of us is going to be up here giving you grief until you get a bloody grip. We’ll let Lau do the night shift, but every other moment of the day, someone’s going to be here chatting or singing or telling you interesting facts about Doctor Who – OK, that last one will only be Rosa – but you’re not getting left alone to get on with it, mate. Oh, and first port of call is getting these bloody curtains open. It’s the middle of the fucking day.’

Dec strode over to the window and pulled the curtains wide. It was sunny outside, and light flooded into the bedroom. It made me wince, and Matt pulled the duvet over his head. Dec was having none of it.

‘No way, mate. You’re not suffocating yourself with your own farts. And this entire room stinks of your rank feet. You need to bloody well sort yourself out.’

He pulled the duvet away from Matt’s face and held it there.

‘I know it’s bright, that’s the point. Find something to be cheerful about. Get out of this pit of despair or whatever the fuck you’ve climbed into. We’ve got emails backed up to last Monday that I can’t answer, and if we lose business I’m taking it out of your bloody pocket money. How about a cuppa, Lau? I’m gasping, and I suspect Matt is too, not that he’d admit it, fucking stubborn fucking bastard that he is.’

I nodded and left the room, hearing Dec’s constant cajoling as I headed downstairs and into the kitchen. We weren’t out of the woods yet, not by a long way, but just having someone else take charge, as Beth and then Dec had done, made me breathe easier. I was pretty sure Matt was going to get angry before he got better, and I would bear the brunt of that, but I was prepared for it. If he even communicated with me it would seem like a major breakthrough.

*

‘Bye Dec. Thanks, flower, you’re a star.’

Dec grinned and put a hand on his hip.

‘Well which is it, Lau, flower or star? I need to know so I can put it on my chart.’

‘Ha ha. Both, I think.’

His expression turned more serious.

‘You’re gonna be OK tonight?’

‘Yeah. I know where you are, anyway.’

‘You do. Four doors down like always. Any time, night or day, call us.’

‘Thanks, Dec, that means a lot. I can’t believe how lovely you’re all being considering how he’s being to everyone.’

‘There’s not much I wouldn’t do for him. And middle of the night calls have always been on the cards with Matt. I hope it works, I hate to see him like this.’

‘I know, I do too. I understand it, but I just wish … oh but there’s no point wishing is there.’

‘Take care of yourself, Lau. See you tomorrow. Beth will have drawn up her rota by then. Oh shit, it’s the fucking party, isn’t it.’

‘Hm, I don’t think that’s happening. Beth told him it’s going ahead with or without him, but … I just don’t know.’

‘Well we’ve got all day tomorrow to work on him. He’ll be there or he won’t, two choices. ‘Night.’

‘Night, Dec.’

*

‘There’s a glass of water there. Your mouth must be proper dry, just have a couple of sips. I put a bit of bread and cheese on a plate too – it’s that crusty granary you like, baked fresh today, and some Cornish cheddar, just in case you’re peckish.’

Matt was lying on his side, eyes closed, turned towards the edge of the bed. I turned the light out, got in next to him and moved behind him, folding an arm round him and kissing his shoulder. He didn’t move, didn’t tense or relax or try to pull away. It was as if he was unconscious.

‘I love you, Matthew Robert Scott.’

I unhooked my arm and lay on my back, eyes open in the dark, thoughts too scattered to sleep. After a while I became aware of small sounds that Matt was making, little choking sobs, that told me he was crying and trying to do it silently.

I thought about how to respond. In the past, he had always cried with me, not because of me, and he’d sought me out to comfort him. I reached over and put my hand on his hip, needing to show him I was aware of him and was there for him. This time he did tense, and it was obvious that he didn’t want me to touch him. I decided to ignore his body language, and kept my hand where it was. Matt’s breathing became noisier and more snotty. Eventually, he spoke.

‘Why the fuck cahnt yuh all jus lehv meh alohn? Ih’s all I ever ask fuh, an I cahnt even hahv tha.’

Leaving my hand on his hip, I turned over towards him and spoke to the back of his head.

‘I’ve been leaving you alone for the last two days, and this is where it’s got you. We’ve done it your way, and it’s not working for any of us.’

‘Jus fuck off, Lau.’

‘No. You heard Dec. You’re not going to be left alone until you stop this. I’ve told you before, I’ll force feed you if you don’t eat, so you’ve got that to look forward to as well. You could also have a visit from the Mental Health team if you’re really lucky.’

‘Fuh fuck’s sake.’

‘Well those are your options, Matt. Pull yourself out of this, or we’ll get someone else to do it for you. I’m scared. The kids are scared.’

‘Whole fucking loh of yuh’d beh better off wihouh meh.’

‘Don’t be so ridiculous. You’re just looking for pity now.’

It was a calculated statement, and reaped its reward.

‘I never fucking asked fuh pity. Dohnt want anyohn tuh fucking pity meh.’

‘Then stop saying things designed to make people feel sorry for you. Oh, poor Matt, he’s in a right state, his poor family, they can’t wait to get rid of him. Is that what you want people to think? Or would you rather they thought, hey, that Matt, he’s a fighter, he’s got it tough at the moment, but you should see him, nothing can keep him down, his family are lucky to have him.’

‘Dohnt give a shih wha pehpl think.’

‘Yes you do, otherwise you’d be thinking about all the things we talked about the other day, all the things that have sent you here, running for cover, all the equipment, adaptations, things that would make your life easier, but would mean your MS is more noticeable. If you didn’t care, you’d just do it and sod them.’

‘Wha the fuck duh yuh know abouh wha I think?’

‘Ha ha, Matt, good one. I’ve spent the last fourteen years knowing how you think, thinking for you, holding hands through your crazy, scrambled thought processes. How’s this, then? Every time you lose something, every time there’s something you used to be able to do that goes away and doesn’t come back, it feels like a part of you has died. You’re worried about how much of you there is left, you feel like it’s nearly all gone, and you’re scared. Scared that we’ll stop loving you, scared of losing the rest, scared of how hard you’re going to have to fight to hang on to yourself.’

Matt was silent, apart from the small sobs that he was trying very hard not to let out. I reached up and stroked his hair.

‘I’m scared too. But not of the MS. I’m scared I’m going to lose you, my lovely, gentle, clever, kind, strong, sexy, funny Matt, my beach boy, who’s always been there, through everything, but now I’m wondering where he’s gone, and whether he’s coming back to me. I don’t like this Matt who’s lying there in his place at the moment. He’s dark and self-absorbed and doesn’t care that his children have both had to do their maths homework with their mother because they couldn’t face coming in here and you ignoring them. I don’t like this Matt who cares more about lying on his own in the dark being miserable, than about his business with his best friend. I don’t like this Matt who, when I touch him, tenses up as if I’m burning him rather than turning over and kissing me. I’m scared that this Matt is here to stay, and my Matt has gone for good.’

There was more silence. The sobs quietened, and finally stopped. I didn’t know if he’d gone to sleep or not. I doubted it – despite having been in bed for the last few days, I didn’t think Matt had been doing much sleeping. I moved my hand away from his hair and back to his hip. He didn’t move a muscle, or say a word.

I must have dozed off, because I found myself on my back, head turned to one side, away from Matt. I turned to face him, and saw that he had turned over himself, and was lying on his front, head towards me, mouth slightly open, asleep. His hair, which was still thick and sandy, but shot through with grey now, was, as usual, sticking out all over the place.

It wasn’t much, but it was better than the rigid, non-sleeping, determinedly facing away from me posture that had been my companion for the last two nights. I lay facing him, watching him sleep, until my alarm started peeping, and it was time to get up and get the children to school.

As I began to turn over, I felt a hand grip mine. I turned back to Matt and saw his big grey eyes looking pleadingly at me. I lay back down on my side and stroked his hair. We didn’t speak, just looked at each other, until Matt looked away briefly, breathed in, and:

‘Dohnt lehv meh, Lau, I nehd yuh.’

I nearly wept with relief, and my eyes did fill with a few tears.

‘I’ll just be downstairs, I’ve got the packed lunches to do and the kids aren’t up yet, I need to give them a knock.’

‘Can yuh duh lunches up hehr? Dohnt wana beh on my own.’

This was such a complete turnaround from wanting to be left alone, that I needed to respond. I thought fast, needing to reorganise how the morning routine worked in my head.

‘OK then, but I’ll have to go and get all the stuff, and give the kids a knock on my way past. I won’t be long.’

Matt nodded. ‘Jus fehl soh lohnly when yuhr all down thehr getting rehdy.’

‘Oh, my love. OK, I’ll grab some stuff and be right up.’

I leaned over and kissed his cheek, got out of bed, grabbed my dressing gown and hurried down the stairs, pausing only to bang on Josh and Ella’s doors. I grabbed a basket from the top of the fridge, tipped out all the leaflets and flyers that had gathered there, and filled it with bread, spread, cheese, ham, crisps, fruit, juice cartons and yogurts, then grabbed the lunch boxes. It was quite exciting, almost like a picnic, and I let myself smile. I’d been worried that Matt was going to stay in his misery for a long time, and although he was still miserable, he was at least doing something about it.

When I got back upstairs, Josh and Ella had found their way into the bedroom and were sitting on the edge of the bed, talking to Matt, who was smiling at them. I could see the effort it took for him to look involved and interested in their chat, and this told me it wasn’t real for him, not yet, but it was a huge step. I helped Matt lean forwards so I could prop him into a sitting position with pillows.

‘Josh tells meh yuh wehr doin simultaneous equations las nigh.’

‘Oh, is that what they were? I thought I was learning Martian or something.’

‘No Mum, it’s algebra.’

‘Might as well have been Martian, Hippo.’

I sat on the bed and started putting the lunch boxes together.

‘Mum, what are you doing?’

‘Lunch boxes. Unless you want to make your own sandwiches?’

‘No way. But why are you doing them up here, like in the bedroom?’

I glanced at Matt, who was looking back at me, begging me not to make it his fault.

‘Well, I think it’s a new thing for now, me and Dad are doing the lunch boxes together up here, I’m doing the sandwiches and Dad’s chucking everything else in.’

‘Yes, but why?’

‘Just to keep you on your toes. It could change at any minute. We could do it in the garden next week, or the bathroom. But for now, here will do just fine.’

‘You two are like so totally weird.’

‘Thanks Ella. Here’s your sandwich. Would you like to hand it to Dad so it can go in your lunch box with a juice and – your choice, an apple, cheese and onion crisps, yogurt. Two of three.’

‘What’s in the sandwich?’

‘You just watched me make it.’

‘Yeah, but I’ve, like, forgotten.’

‘More like weren’t paying attention because someone else was doing the work for you. It’s ham and cheese.’

‘Oh. Yogurt and crisps then, if they’re cheese and onion. And Josh will have apple and yogurt.’

‘Thanks, Ella, I can speak for myself.’

‘Yeah, but you’re gonna totally have apple and yogurt if it’s ham and cheese sandwich.’

I raised an eyebrow at Josh, saw him struggling with himself to have something different, but then give in.

‘Apple and yogurt, please, Dad.’

Ella looked at me triumphantly.

‘Stohp bein soh bluhdy bohsy, Squeaks.’

‘It’s not bossy, it’s saving time. If everyone listened to me, and did what I said, everything would be much more efficient.’

‘Ha ha, yuh jus defined bohsy. Hehr yuh goh, two lunch boxes. Geh drehsed now, Muhm’ll beh rehdy tuh take yuh soon.’

‘Actually, Matt, before we all shoot off …’

I looked pointedly at Ella and Josh, who got the message and raced out of the room. I reached into the drawer in my bedside table and got out the card and present that had been there for a week.

‘Wha’s this?’

‘Special day. Someone’s an old man.’

‘Tha’s noh way tuh talk abou Dec.’

‘I don’t mean Dec, do I. Oh, looks like Ella and Josh have remembered as well.’

‘Happy Birthday Dad.’

They said it together, smiles lighting up their faces, excited to be able to give him the present they’d spent ages choosing.

‘Oh yuh guys. Awesohm. I nehly fohgot. Wha’s this, then?’

Matt pulled the paper off the parcel – a pair of binoculars.

‘Whoa. These are greht. How did yuh know? Now I can look in Mrs Wilkins’ bedroom when she’s getting undrehsed.’

‘Daad, they for birdwatching.’

‘Oh, rehly? Shahm, I bet Mrs Wilkins looks dehd sexy in her support tights. Thehr awesohm. Thahks, guys. Yuhr the best. Greht card too.’

‘Rosa made it. She makes loads and sells them at school.’

‘Rehly? Clever old thing. Oh, looks lihk thehr’s sohmthing from yuh, Lau.’

I was a bit nervous about it, not knowing how Matt was going to take it. He hadn’t seemed that bothered about turning fifty, but I wondered if his dark mood of the last couple of days had something to do with it. I’d spent ages choosing the present, but was still unsure.

Matt unwrapped the paper, revealing a small jewellery box, opened the lid, and there was a silver coloured ring. It was actually platinum, a plain band, designed to fit his thumb. Matt looked up at me, one eyebrow raised in query. He wasn’t saying he didn’t like it, just wondering if there was any more to it.

‘I never got you a wedding ring. This is an eternity ring. It should fit your thumb, but if you want to wear it on a different finger, I can get it resized. Or if you don’t like it, you don’t have to wear it.’

‘I lohv ih, Lau. Whoa, eternity. Yuh rehly wana beh stuck wih meh tha long?’

‘Longer if I can.’

We looked at each other.

‘Ew, Mum, like, get a room or something.’

‘Er, I believe we already have a room, thank you Ella. I think I’m going to snog your dad now, so you can stay or go, whichever is less embarrassing for you.’

Ella and Josh scuttled out, clutching their lunch boxes, and I turned back to Matt, who was inspecting the ring more closely.

‘Yuh had ih engraved. Cahnt see wha ih says … oh, ih’s a picture. Aw, Lau, two hands, lihk yuhr ring.’

I always wore the one he gave me the first Christmas in this house.

‘And words. Can you see them?’

Matt’s eyes often played up, and he couldn’t always see clearly, especially small writing.

‘Leh’s hahv a goh. Er … oh, fuhever. Hohding hahds fuhever. Perfect Lau. Soh, if I hahv a thumb ring, dohs tha mehn I’m finally a cool duhd?’

Matt always wanted to be cool, but he didn’t always want to do the things that would have made him cool in his own eyes. He envied Dec’s tattoos – several added over the years to commemorate his parents and the births of all his children – but couldn’t bring himself to have one of his own as it wasn’t an original idea and might, heaven forbid, be seen as copying Dec. Matt had tried various types of clothing which he felt would mark him out – hats, shorts, baseball boots, bow ties – with limited success, and which were given up when they just led to mickey-taking. I’d hit on this as a small way to help him feel like he might be doing something slightly original, something that only some of the younger members of the family wore, none of us oldies.

‘Without a doubt. The coolest. Just don’t ask either of your children to confirm that.’

‘Ha ha, or anyohn under forty-five. I lohv ih Lau. I lohv yuh too. Thahks fuh bein hehr, kicking my ahrs. Yuh said yuh wehr gona snog meh?’

‘Oh, so I did. Come here then.’

I leaned down and kissed him, lingeringly, letting my tongue roam across his as my hands held his face. His arms went round me and held me tight.

Eventually, I pulled away and looked at Matt, who looked back at me. I had always been able to read him by his eyes, and they were telling me that he wasn’t there yet, but he was on the way. He nodded at me, as a kind of recognition, and sank back into his pillows, closing his eyes briefly.

‘Sohry Lau. An thahks.’

‘Yeah, well, we’re in this together, aren’t we. That means you need to look after me as much as I need to look after you.’

‘Yeh. Fohget tha sohmtimes. Nehded tha kick up the ahrs. Got bluhdy Beth an Dec all hot an bothered now, wohnt geh a minute’s pehce.’

‘No, starting in a few minutes when Beth’s arriving so I can take Ella and Josh to school.’

‘Noh. Dohnt nehd tha, I’ll beh OK fuh half an hour or soh.’

‘Tough. Not your choice, not my choice. Beth has done a timetable, and I believe it is being stuck to.’

‘Fuck.’

‘Yeah, don’t think you’re going to be allowed to slip back into your little cocoon of misery, even for a few minutes. Dec said we’re not leaving you alone, and he meant it. I believe there are precedents?’

‘Fuck yeh, him an meh as bad as each other when weh wehr younger. Fuck. Stihl wana tell yuh all tuh fuck off.’

‘I know. But it’s not going to happen, so save your breath.’

As I spoke, the doorbell rang. Assuring Matt I would only be a couple of seconds, I ran down to answer it, expecting Beth but not Tom, who was hovering at her shoulder looking nervous. Beth looked at my dressing gown.

‘Oh, aren’t you ready to go? Do you want me to take them?’

‘No, I’ll just get changed quickly; we’ve been doing birthday presents. Hi Tom, are you coming in?’

I ushered them into the hall as Beth smiled at the news that Matt had been communicating about his birthday.

‘Tom’s had an idea for tonight, in case Matty isn’t up to coming. How are things?’

‘A bit better. He’s talking to us again. I don’t think he’ll be coming tonight, though, I don’t think we’ll get him down the stairs.’

‘Well that’s where Tom’s idea comes in. Do you think he’s up to talking about it?’

‘Go and ask yourself, while I sling some clothes on.’

I led Beth and Tom up the stairs, and dashed into the bathroom to change, vaguely aware of voices from the bedroom. I pulled my clothes on as fast as I could, then had a quick recon of where Josh and Ella were in the getting ready stakes. We seemed to be on target for now, so I hurried into our bedroom, where an only slightly grumpy Matt was listening to Beth.

‘… so it’s really the best of both worlds, the party goes ahead, and you’re still there, you can see everything, everyone can see you and chat, but you don’t have to worry about getting downstairs for now.’

Matt looked up at me as I walked in, a resigned expression on his face.

‘What’s this?’

‘Oh Laura, Tom’s had a great idea. We can connect up all the computers, and beam the party to Matty and Matty to the party –’

‘Beam? It’s not Star Trek, Beth.’

‘Well whatever you call it, Tom, there’ll be a large screen there with Matty on it, so everyone can see him, and we’ll have a couple of laptops or iPads and things, Tom thinks he can rig up a few, so Matty can see what’s going on, people can chat with him, and –’

‘An everyohn laughs at the fucking crihpl who cahnt even mahk ih ouh of bed tuh his own party.’

Tom looked at Matt with a stricken expression; Matt had responded harshly, with no thought to how Tom would feel. I jumped in to the rescue.

‘Or, maybe, it’s the ideal party for an IT geek – how cool, to not even be there at your own party, but be able to be part of it. You don’t have to be all propped up on pillows, you can dress up, no one will know, it can be a ‘thing’, you know, a gimmick. Maybe Beth planned it this way all along?’

‘Ha ha, yes, Laura, I wish I had, it’s brilliant. And you won’t be here on your own, either Matty, there’ll be a regular supply of people here to keep the party spirit going.’

‘Dohnt nehd fucking bahbysitting.’

Matt was still reluctant to hand over control to anyone.

Beth rolled her eyes. ‘Who said anything about babysitting? I’ve literally had Dec and Amy’s lot fighting about who gets to stay with you.’

‘Lihterally?’

‘Yes, Matty, literally. I do know what it means. Tom, tell Matty what happened just before we left this morning?’

‘Gracie clobbered Charlie because Charlie said she was going to sit with Matty all night, and Gracie wanted a turn.’

‘So, now I’ve got another rota to organise, and plenty of people to placate, most of who would rather be with you than actually at the huge party I’ve been planning for ages.’

Beth looked at Matt with an eyebrow raised, and he wilted under her gaze.

‘Oh goh on thehn. Buh I wana beh in my bes stuff, noh jahmies. Hide the fucking pihlows.’

‘It’s a deal, you won’t regret it, sweetheart. I think I might offer this service at all my parties, actually, to cater for all the lazy customers who can’t be bothered to attend their own celebrations.’

‘Staht with Cal?’

Matt had a cheeky twinkle in his eye which almost made me cry, it seemed like such a long time since it had been there.

‘Oh no, Cal’s wedding is going to be literally, and not virtually, attended by all its guests and participants. That includes you. So while you’re up here on your bum, you can have a good think about how that’s going to happen. What time do you need to get going, Laura?’

‘In a minute. I’ll have another chivvy of Ella and Josh.’

‘I should go, Mum will be having a fit about waiting for me again.’

I went downstairs with Tom and opened the front door for him.

‘Thank you flower, it’s a great idea, it’s made a difference to Matt.’

He shrugged. ‘S’okay. I’ll get some kit from my mate Gaps, he can help me as well. Dad told me how he and Matty used to get, and how they used Facetime and stuff to help each other, and it just made me think.’

‘Well I’m glad it did. See you later.’

‘See ya, Lau.’

125. I’m not the only one

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

Laura

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

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

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

‘Heh Iz.’

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

‘Noh, meh neither.’

‘What, you’re not going?’

‘Not up tuh ih. Legs arsing abouh.’

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

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

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

‘Hahvnt told him yet.’

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

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

‘I can’t find my shorts.’

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

‘Mum, I need my bloody shorts.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ooh, Joshy, is that your new kit?’

He nodded at Iz’s face in the iPad.

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

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

Josh unfolded the shirt and held it up against himself.

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

‘Yeh, all tehn.’

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

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

‘Gareth Jenkins does the kicking.’

‘See, thehr yuh goh again.’

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

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

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

‘Really, Iz? Does Harry know?’

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

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

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

‘When are you coming back?’

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

‘But that’s ages.’

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

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

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

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

‘Yes Mum.’

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

‘I’m glad you’re coming.’

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

‘Surely not.’

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

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

‘Pihs ohf.’

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

‘I love you.’

‘I should thihk soh too.’

He bent his head and kissed my arm.

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

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

*

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

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

‘I saw it. Is that like a goal?’

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

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

*

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

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

‘Yeh, gr8! So proud of Joshy.’

‘Us 2. Thx 4 talking M round.’

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

‘Who yuh texting?’

‘Iz. Catching up about the game.’

‘Did she geh the pics?’

‘Yeah, she’s a proud cousin.’

‘Thahks, Lau.’

‘What for?’

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

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

Cal

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

Laura

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

‘Charlie’s older than you.’

‘Tom’s staying.’

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

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

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

‘Amy and Dec, but –’

‘An who’re yuhr mum and dad?’

‘Well dur, Mum and you, but –’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, but Dad –’

‘Why isn’t yuhr brother going?’

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

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

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

‘Which is the same as b).’

‘Or the same as a).’

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

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

‘Ella!’

‘Ih’s OK, Lau, Ihv got this.’

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

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

‘Eleven.’

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

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

Matt’s phone pinged.

‘Beth says gohd luhck.’

Ella decided to launch another attack.

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

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

‘It’s so unfair.’

Apparently it was now time to wail.

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

‘Yes.’

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

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

*

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

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

‘Tha was bluhdy outstahding.’

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

‘Not a hohp, Lau.’

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

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

*

‘Come hehr.’

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

‘Everything OK, flower?’

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

‘Of what?’

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

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

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

‘I don’t say hurtful things.’

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

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

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

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

‘Er, it’s a bit low cut, maybe.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt considered for a moment.

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

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

Matt was looking at me wide-eyed.

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

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

‘She’s a bohsy cow.’

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah.’

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

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

‘Yeah, me too.’

‘If it helps, I was really cut up.’

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

‘I had to see a therapist.’

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

‘I’m sorry.’

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

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

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

‘OK then.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t beat yourself up. Took 2.

Thx, but feel bad.

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

Was gr8 2 cu, just went 2 far.

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

It was like it always was.

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

I missed you. All this time.

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

Me too.

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

Want to meet up?

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

Yeah.

Oh fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura

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

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

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

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

Amy grinned impishly at me.

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

‘Really?’

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

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

Laura

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

‘Lau?’

‘What?’

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

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

‘Sorry, flower. I just saw Cal.’

‘Oh, where?’

Amy turned round.

‘I can’t see him.’

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

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

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

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

Amy risked another quick look behind her.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Does he know we’re here?’

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

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

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

‘Well we can’t just walk past them.’

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

‘But what if he sees us?’

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

Cal

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

‘Well hello to you too.’

‘Yeah, must have missed you or something.’

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

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

‘OK.’

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

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

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

‘Are you going to leave Ayesha?’

‘It’s complicated.’

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

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

‘How do you feel?’

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

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

Laura

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

‘They’re holding hands.’

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

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

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

‘Are you ready?’

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

Cal

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

‘Oh, hey Lau. Hey Amy. Er …’

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

Laura

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

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

Cal

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

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

Laura

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

‘Likewise.’

Cal

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

‘Was that Lau and Amy?’

I nodded, still struck dumb with panic.

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

I found my voice.

‘Shit, Chrissie. This is terrible.’

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

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

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

‘What does that mean?’

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

Chrissie looked unsure, but nodded.

‘Don’t leave it too long.’

‘I won’t.’

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

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

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

‘Lau, it’s not what you think.’

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

Laura

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

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

‘Oh. Fuck.’

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

Cal

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

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

Laura

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

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

‘Up to you, you know where I am.’

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

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

Laura

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

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

‘Take care, Cal.’

Cal

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

Laura

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

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

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

‘Unless you’re Dec and Amy.’

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

‘Do you think he’ll talk to us?’

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

‘You should know.’

‘Yeh.’

Cal

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

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

‘Are you OK, huns?’

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

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

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

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

123. Welcome home

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

Laura

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

‘Have you got games on it?’

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

‘A few. I’ll show yuh laher.’

‘Am I coming in your car?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘I didn’t think it’d be long.’

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

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

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

‘Oh, you must be wiped.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do you think he’ll stay?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nearly home.’

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

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

‘What, Dec and Matty? A couple?’

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

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

‘What do you mean then?’

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

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

‘Isn’t it bloody hilarious?’

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

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

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

‘Oh I see.’

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

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

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

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

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

Laura

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

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

‘No, why should I?’

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

‘No I don’t, that’s so gay.’

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

‘But she’s so annoying.’

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

‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

Laura

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

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

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

‘Wha? Yuh back? Yuh OK?’

‘Yeah, Happy Anniversary.’

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

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

‘I only remembered because Beth told me.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What, not even croissants from Mean Bean?’

‘Noh way. When did yuh geh them?’

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

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

‘I’d never surprise you.’

‘Struh. Never stop suhprising meh, Lau. C’mere.’

Matt was propped up on a wedge of pillows, to help his breathing when he was in bed and keep his lungs from collecting fluid. He shifted over a bit, and I lay next to him, his arm round me, and held him tight.

‘Love yuh.’

‘Love you.’

‘How the bluhdy hehl hahv yuh put up wih meh fuh ten yehrs?’

‘It’s been hard, but I feel I have contributed to the sanity of some other poor woman who would otherwise have ended up with you.’

Matt knew I was joking, but his expression turned serious.

‘Noh, Lau, would never hahv behn anyone else. Only yuh.’

‘I know. Only you for me too. And I can’t believe it’s been ten years, either. I mean, obviously Ella and Josh are nearly ten, so I literally can believe it, but it’s gone by like nothing. It feels like yesterday we were in your flat, young and carefree –’

‘Mohr like getting on a bih an relatively unencumbered. Buh yeh, ih’s gone fast. Lohs of encumbrances now, lihk meh foh a start.’

I cuffed his arm.

‘Don’t start that. You’re not an encumbrance. You’re my crash test dummy.’

‘Wha?’

‘If ever I feel like I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a nurse, I just practice a bit on you. Hadn’t you noticed?’

‘Oh, all the bossing. Yeh, hard tuh ignore tha, bossy cow.’

‘I reserve special bossiness for my favourite people.’

‘Thahks.’

‘Welcome. Are you going to have some of this coffee, then? And share a croissant?’

‘Still not hungry, Lau, even tho yuh left ih, wha, two minutes since yuh last asked. Buh yeh tuh coffee, as I said before buh yuh never gave meh any. Heartless, tha’s wha yuh are.’

I rolled away from Matt and poured coffee from the flask into cups, then sat Matt up to help him drink it.

‘Sohry, Lau, not very romantic. When I’m better I’ll make ih up tuh yuh.’

‘Don’t be daft. You know what the best part about today is? I get to spend it all with you. Beth’s having the children until after tea, we can get up to absolutely anything, we’ve got the place to ourselves, or we could go off somewhere, quick day trip to Bangkok or Amsterdam or Grimsby, go bungee jumping, fly fishing, white water rafting. What do you fancy?’

‘Wish I could, Lau. Yuh deserve something greht.’

‘I’ve got something great. And who says we can’t do all of that?’

‘Lau …’

I reached over Matt and picked up his iPad from the bedside table.

‘I thought the internet was the gateway to the world. I’ve seen you do it so many times, gone places, done things. We should have our own little world tour today – Matt and Lau’s grand journey. Where are you going to take me first?’

Matt was looking at me, shaking his head.

‘Awesome. Thehr’s so many places I’d love tuh goh wih yuh, buh probably won’t ever. Leh’s go and visit them. Start wih Paris, revisit our honeymoon.’

‘I like it. Ooh la la. You can do all the other French talking stuff.’

‘Mais oui. Tha’s yuhr lot. Cahnt member any mohr. Thahk God fuh Google translate.’

And so we spent a while exploring the world and beyond on Matt’s iPad. We used Street View to look at the outside of the hotel we’d stayed in, and found some of the cafés and patisseries we’d visited in Paris. Then we went further afield and travelled to Morocco, Bali, Canada and the Arctic Circle.

Matt’s eyes started to droop, and he dozed for a while in the late morning, so I cleared the breakfast things up and took them downstairs, then prepared stage two of our day.

Matt woke up again shortly after one o’clock. I’d got back into bed with him, snuggling close, enjoying spending time with him, and hoping he was going to rouse before too long. I felt him stir, the disorientation that always gripped him for a few seconds, the realisation that I was cuddled close to him and had my arm across his chest. He reached down and stroked my hair.

‘Sohry, Lau, nodded off at the North Pole.’

‘That’s OK, it was too cold for me anyway. I’ve brought us a picnic.’

I pointed to the hamper that I’d placed by the side of the bed.

‘Wha’s this?’

‘Just a bit of a reminder of Paris.’

‘Yuh never got the Arc de Triomphe in thehr?’

‘No, but I did get a baguette or two, some brie and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Lunch?’

‘Awesome. Not tha hungry, tho.’

‘Maybe not, but how about you give it a try? It’s not just supermarket crap, it’s from that patisserie on the High Street, and the cheese is proper French stuff.’

‘OK, load meh up.’

I broke off a chunk of bread and cut some cheese, then filled a glass with the red wine. I put some on a plate for me, too, and tried to surreptitiously watch Matt while I ate to see if he was eating anything. I was really concerned about the amount of nutrition he was consuming, which was hardly any, and worried about what would happen if he didn’t start eating properly soon. I was pleased to see he ate all of the bread and cheese, and drank half of the wine.

‘More?’

‘Noh thahks. Tha was awesome. Prohper stuff. Wine’s gone tuh my hehd tho.’

‘You’re such a lightweight. I reckon I could drink you under the table these days.’

‘Wouldn’t take much. Got no body fat.’

‘Tell me about it. Your lovely bum’s dwindling away to nothing.’

‘I know. Jus not hungry at the momen. Sohry Lau, I know yuhr worried.’

‘I am worried. There’s nothing of you. You need calories to bulk you up, to stop you getting infections. You’re not going to be able to fight stuff off if you don’t have any reserves.’

Matt was quiet, looking down at his now empty plate.

‘Dohnt fehl lihk fighting.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Fehl lihk … stohping.’

‘What?’

‘Ih’s hard. Jus dohnt know if I can goh on.’

‘What exactly do you mean?’

My stomach had contracted with fear. I knew he found it difficult to cope with, this constant wearing down of his life, the relentless losing of small things, tiny things he’d always taken for granted and couldn’t do any more, like walking down steps without a hand rail, carrying things with confidence in one hand, and I also knew that he’d thought about it before, ending it, when it had seemed hopeless, when I first knew him.

‘Wha’s point in struggling tuh geh better, ih’ll only happen again, I’ll jus geh worse, I’m dragging yuh all down wih meh. Ih’s no life fuh yuh, or the kids.’

‘Is this you being selfless again?’

No answer.

‘I thought we sorted all that out before. We’re all, all of us, me, Josh, Ella, your entire larger than life family, all of us, so much better off with you than without you. I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here, no one to correct my grammar or feel my bum, but more importantly no one to love or to love me. How do you think Josh and Ella would feel growing up without their dad? You’re their world. You’ve given them so much, taught them how to ride bikes, how to download apps, how to swear –’

‘Lau! I hahv not!’

‘Well they’ve learned it from somewhere. I heard Josh say ‘shit’ the other day.’

‘Noh!’

‘Yes. I expect you’ll blame it on Dec –’

‘He’s so much –’

‘– worse than you, yeah, heard it all before. Anyway, my point is, you’ve taught them all that, but who’s going to teach them the rest? How to stand up to bullies, how to drive through a traffic light just before it turns red, how to kiss a woman until she tingles all over –’

‘Not sure I’ll beh teaching Ella tha.’

‘You don’t know. Have an open mind. Stop distracting me from my point. My point still is, if you starve yourself, give up, if that’s what your intention is, if it even is an intention, you’re not saving us, you’re depriving us. What would Charlie do without Matty to check her spelling and help her with her maths? How would Rosa cope without her ‘shnuggles’? Dec would have no one to banter with, Jay would –’

‘OK, I geh ih. Yuhd all miss meh. Dohnt I geh a say?’

‘Actually, no. Matthew Robert Scott, if it comes to it, I’ll have you force fed to stop you leaving us before your time. But it won’t come to that, because in your heart you’re not a selfish person. You know what you mean to us, and you know it would destroy us.’

Matt finally looked up from his contemplation of his plate. He sighed, defeated.

‘Yeah, OK. One day, tho, Lau, ih’s gona beh too hard.’

‘Not today, though. Not for a long time.’

I said it with more conviction than I felt.

‘OK.’

And I breathed a sigh of relief, because one day I was going to lose him, but he was staying for now. I wrapped him up as well as I could, folding my arms round him, pulling him close. If I could have shared some of my life force with him I would have, but he was going to have to eke out what he had left for himself. I felt him breathe a deep breath, felt the mental shift that was going on in him as he thought about what I’d said and absorbed it.

‘Soh I cahn kiss women until they tingle ahl over?’

‘Yeah. Well, this woman at any rate. Can’t speak for any others.’

‘Dohnt believe yuh. Surely thehrs sohm tiny bih tha dohnt tingle?’

‘Nope, don’t think so.’

I grinned to myself, knowing where this was heading, and pleased, so pleased, Matt had chosen to come out fighting rather than withdraw into himself.

‘Need tuh check ih’s ahl stihl working. Wouldn’t want tuh leave bihs of yuh untingled.’

‘Be my guest.’

I turned my face up to his and felt his soft lips on mine, his tongue, his mouth as warm and tender and exciting as it always was, as it always had been. I kissed back, tangling my tongue with his, folding my arms round his neck as he wound his arms round my back and pulled me against him.

He suddenly coughed, and we broke apart as his body shook again and again, and he had to lean back against the pillows. When the coughing had subsided, he lay still, eyes closed, panting. I wiped his mouth with a tissue and ran a wipe over his forehead, which had broken out in a sweat.

‘Thahks, Lau. Did I make yuh tingle ahl over?’

‘Yeah, flower. Every single bit. Maybe my little toenail – oh, no, there it goes. My little toenail was always a late developer.’

He fell asleep smiling.

While Matt was sleeping, I tidied up the lunch things and put some washing on, pottered about clearing up, sorting out tomorrow’s school uniforms, tidying the shoes in the hall, lots of little jobs that needed doing but wouldn’t do themselves, until I looked around and thought I’d rather be with Matt than with a pile of ironing.

I took a tea tray upstairs, and when I got back to the bedroom, he was still asleep, so I slipped under the covers and put my arm around him, kissing him on the mouth until he woke up. It was still the only reliable method of waking him. Yeah, Laura Scott, that’s why you’re doing it.

‘Mmph … wha … mm … yeh, Lau. Oh. Wha?’

His eyes opened and he was back with me.

‘Afternoon lazybones. Cup of tea? Bit of Rose’s bara brith?’

‘Yeh. I’m actually a bih peckish.’

‘Large slice of delicious Welsh cakey stuff slathered in butter for the handsome man on the wrong side of the bed.’

I handed the plate over and put a mug of tea on his bedside table.

‘Yuhr the one on the wrong side of the bed.’

‘Good thing we both think so, then, isn’t it.’

‘Lau …’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thahks.’

‘What for? Cup of tea is no great hardship to make, and Rose made the cake.’

‘Thahks fuh spending the day wih meh hehr, instehd of wanting Paris or New York or sohm such shih.’

I looked up at him and stroked his cheek.

‘Wherever we were today, it would still be our tenth wedding anniversary. I’d still be in bed with you somewhere in the world. Today hasn’t been much different from how I would have imagined it, really.’

‘Yuhr so effin awesome.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s as may be. I’ve brought this up, we haven’t had it out for ages.’

I reached over and picked up the photo album, the one with all the pictures from our wedding in it.

‘I want to see how many more wrinkles you’ve got than you used to. I, obviously, have fewer than I had back then.’

‘Yeh, course, yuh look tehn yehrs younger than yuh did then.’

‘Is the correct answer.’

I balanced the album on our knees and we started to flick through the pages, remembering the day.

We’d got about half way through the album, compiled by Matt from pictures various friends and relatives had sent and given us, when there was a jingling tone that came from the iPad, sitting on Matt’s bedside table.

‘What’s that?’

Matt looked over at it.

‘Oh. Facetime request from Iz. Weh can ignore ih.’

‘No, answer it.’

‘Suhr?’

I nodded, and Matt pressed the screen.

‘Hey Matty – oh, Lau. Are you … in bed? It’s like three thirty.’

‘Yeah, Matt’s been in bed all day, he’s such a lazy sod.’

Iz smiled back at us, her long blond curls bouncing over her shoulders.

‘Oh, well, sorry for interrupting, hope there was nothing going on oh shit it’s your anniversary.’

Iz put both hands over her mouth.

‘Sorry.’

‘Isohbel Flohra Scoht, where did yuh learn language lihk tha?’

Iz grinned.

‘Er, from you Matty.’

‘Oh. Fair enough. Not Dec, then?’

‘Him too. And Dad.’

‘You poor girl, you had no chance.’

‘You’re right, Lau. Sorry to disturb you both in bed at this time in the like afternoon. I’ll catch ya later.’

‘Noh, waih Iz. Wha did yuh wan?’

Iz shrugged.

‘Oh nothing, just boy stuff.’

Something about her posture told me it was important to her.

‘Doesn’t sound like nothing, flower. Dan been misbehaving again?’

Iz and her boyfriend had a fiery relationship, and she often called Matt or me to talk about the latest break up or make up.

‘Not exactly … I think I might have been, though, strictly speaking.’

She looked a bit embarrassed.

‘Spihl, Iz.’

‘Are you sure it’s OK? Mum would have a fit if she knew I’d called you on your anniversary. I can’t talk to her about this, though, she gets all like squeaky about … stuff.’

‘Yeh, s’ohkay. We weren’t doing any … stuhf. Sahdly. Spihl.’

‘OK, then, if you’re like sure.’

We both nodded. Iz used both of us as agony aunts from time to time. The deal was that we never kept anything from Beth and Jay, which meant that Iz didn’t have to face direct questions and still had the benefit of non-parental grown-up advice. Some of the scrapes she got herself into were eye-wateringly complicated, and it was hard sometimes not to screech ‘what were you thinking’, much as Beth would have done, but we usually managed to remain objective enough to help her.

‘Well, Matty, I know you’ve been around a bit in your time –’

‘Thahks fuh tha, Iz, on my tenth anniversary, in behd wih my lohvly wihf, who is the only woman I’ve behn around wih in ahl tha tihm.’

‘What? It’s not like Lau doesn’t know all about you. Is there a single woman left in this city you haven’t like snogged at some time? I was at Carly’s the other day, talking about my family, and her aunt was there and she was like ‘oh, is your uncle Matt Scott?’ and I was like ‘yeah’ and she was like ‘oh’ and this like slushy look comes on her face. Happens all the bloody time.’

Matt looked at me with an abashed expression.

‘Sohry Lau. I guess sohm of us ahr famous fuh the wrong reasons.’

‘Infamous, maybe.’

Matt was always embarrassed to be reminded of his colourful past, as often as I’d tried to tell him and show him it didn’t matter to me, and never had. I’d felt far more threatened by his long term relationships with Carrie and Julia, but even that dwindled with time.

‘Yeh, anyway. Iz. Boy stuff. Yuhv behn misbehaving.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘You kind of did, Iz. Just tell us.’

Iz looked down.

‘Oh alright.’

She took a breath and then looked up again.

‘Well, you know me and Dan have been all like ‘you’re dumped’ ‘no you’re dumped’ ‘no I love you again’ for like years.’

‘Yeah, at least six weeks, flower.’

‘Well we were all ‘I love you’, until he wound me up at Alice’s party because he was slobbering over Katie again, like as if I couldn’t totally see him, so I gave him the cold shoulder when he finally decided to talk to me, and then he was like ‘you’re so dumped’ so to teach him a lesson I snogged Joey Manners in front of him.’

‘Oh Iz. So what happened?’

‘Well, Dan was like ‘what the fuck’, and he grabbed me and I thought he was going to hit Joey, but he had tears, like real tears in his eyes, and I thought I’d gone a bit far, and we made up again, but …’

Iz ground to a halt and looked down.

‘Buh wha?’

‘Well, Joey is a really good kisser, I never realised how like amazing he is, and he’s got these big brown eyes and I love his hair, and after the party he texted me and he’s like ‘can I see you’ and I’m like ‘OK’ and we met in the park the next day, so if anyone saw us it was like a total coincidence, and we sat on a bench and we like talked for hours and I really liked him and I wanted to kiss him again, but I thought about Dan and how he nearly cried and I was all like ‘I’m confused’ and Joey was so understanding but now I’m like ‘I don’t know what to do’ and so that’s it really. Oh, and Dan and me nearly like did it after the party.’

This last was slipped in as a quickly spoken postscript, but I suspected it was the most important part of the whole saga.

‘How nearly?’

Iz rolled her eyes.

‘Nearly enough. Bits out in the open, we would have if we’d had … anything. But he couldn’t find the one he thought he had, so we didn’t.’

I risked a quick look at Matt, whose eyes were bulging slightly at the description. I suspected the times when Iz had talked to him alone, she hadn’t been quite so forthright, but in our chats she’d let it all hang out, as it were.

‘Iz, sorry to come on a bit strong, but how old is Dan?’

‘Like, seventeen.’

‘You’re not sixteen yet. He would have been breaking the law.’

More eye rolling.

‘Yeah, yeah, Lau, whatever, I was careful, wasn’t I? Jesus, everyone does it. But what am I going to do about Joey?’

‘Well, who do you like the best?’

‘Duh, if I knew that I wouldn’t need to be talking to you. I’ve been with Dan like forever –’

‘Yeh, at least threh mohths.’

‘–but Joey’s so sweet. I never talked to him much before, but he was telling me about his sister, who’s like special needs, and he was so cute saying how he wants to like protect her. Dan just teases his sister until she cries.’

‘Canht yuh see them both?’

‘No, Matty, that’s so like not cool.’

‘Do you want to finish with Dan, flower?’

‘Well I might have if he hadn’t like nearly cried and we hadn’t like nearly done it. We were in his room, and we had music on and candles, it was like so romantic, and we were just kissing and he started touching –’

‘Whoa, tuh much info Iz.’

‘Really? But I know we keep being like on again off again fuck off don’t fuck off, and it’s just like really tiring, and with Joey it’s all exciting and fuzzy and I keep like hugging myself when I think about him, and when I think about Dan I just like think tosser sometimes but sometimes I’m a bit like loved up but then he does something that annoys me and I’m like tosser again. What would you do Lau?’

Talking to Iz was like being assaulted by an army of words with hardly any punctuation, and it was a struggle to keep up sometimes, but my brain finally got there.

‘Well, I reckon I’d think hard about what would make me happiest, being with someone who I didn’t know very well but made me feel excited and fuzzy, or being with someone who I knew well and liked a lot but kept annoying me so much I kept breaking up with him, and who also seems a bit keen on Katie. I don’t think ‘nearly doing it’ comes into it much, really.’

‘Oh. OK. And so like what would you choose, excited and fuzzy, or like a lot but bloody annoying?’

‘Well, a long time ago I chose excited and fuzzy and never regretted it.’

‘Aw Lau, yuh soppy cow.’

‘What? Oh, you mean you and Matty. But you’ve been together for like ever.’

‘We have now, but when we first met, it was very quick, we barely knew each other, in fact I didn’t like what I did know of him much, but we knew almost straight away, and it was very exciting and fuzzy.’

‘Really? Did you do it like really soon?’

‘Noh noh noh, yuh dohnt geh tuh know tha, Iz. Lau, stop sharing.’

‘OK, but what I will say, Iz, is that Matt and I were a lot older when we met than you are now, and you have your whole life ahead of you to kiss whoever you want and be with whoever you want. I doubt you’ll believe me, but whoever you choose now isn’t who you’ll be with when you’re forty. Take it slowly, maybe just be friends with Joey and keep Dan at a distance, and see what happens; your feelings might work themselves out.’

‘But Dan won’t like me being friends with Joey, especially after seeing us like snogging at the party.’

‘He can’t choose your friends. As long as when you tell him you’re just friends, that’s the honest truth, you’ve nothing to worry about.’

‘I thought you’d tell me like who I should choose.’

‘Ha ha, no Iz, that’s totally up to you. But you can talk to us about it any time.’

‘Thanks, Lau, you’re totally cool. I couldn’t tell mum I nearly did it, like I couldn’t tell her about Alfie. I should go, I’ve got so much homework. Thanks for chatting, guys, enjoy the rest of your anniversary in bed.’

And with a wink, Iz disconnected, leaving me slightly breathless. Matt looked at me.

‘Alfie? Tha skinny kid wih drehdlocks?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Wha abouh Alfie?’

‘Oh, you know, girls stuff.’

‘Gihls stuhf lihk …’

‘Well …’

‘They dihnt … did they?’

Matt’s eyes were wide and incredulous.

I nodded.

‘Lau! I’ll fucking kill him. Tha’s my fucking niece, she’s only fifteen, how old was he?’

I kept my voice level.

‘The same age, she’s a bit older, actually. I think she took the lead, she was experimenting.’

‘Wha? Sohm fucking experimeht.’

‘Calm down Matt, she was sensible about it, and planned ahead, and used protection, and at least she told me about it.’

‘Did yuh tell Beth an Jay?’

‘Er, kind of Beth, but not Jay, I didn’t think a murder charge would look good.’

‘Wha yuh mehn kind of?’

‘Well, Beth asked me if I knew what was going on with Iz and Alfie, she was hardly ever at home, they were having a hard time keeping tabs on her, and I suggested she asked Iz. Then I told Iz she should tell her mum, even though it might be uncomfortable, and so that’s what happened. I didn’t have to break a confidence, but I got them to sort it out themselves. Iz told her a version that avoided bloodshed but explained things, and I don’t think Jay knows, so don’t say anything. You’ll be exactly the same when it’s Ella.’

‘Ella’s never bluhdy well talking to a boy, leh alohn snogging one. In fact, she’s leaving schuhl tomorrow, wehr hohm tuting her, locking her in. But whoa, Lau, yuhr guhd. Canht believe you gave Beth advice.’

‘I do have my talents.’

‘I know. Fuck, tho, Iz all grown up.’

‘Yeah, a bag of hormones. Watch out world. I don’t envy her being that age, it’s all so confusing.’

‘Not fuh meh. When I was fiftehn, all I thoht abouh was computers an rockets. Sohmtimes Pamela Anderson.’

‘Seriously? I bet you had girls chasing you from all over.’

‘Noh, I was a geek. Yuhv sehn the pictures, hahvnt yuh?’

It was true, Matt’s teenage years weren’t his most attractive phase from what I could see in the family photos, although his big grey eyes were always there.

‘Ih wahnt till I wehnt tuh Uni an my mate’s girfriehd cut my hair, ih was like Celebrity Makeover. Changed my wardrohb, goh my confidence, never looked back, mahking up fuh lost tihm ever since. Till yuh, I mehn.’

‘Yeah, well, we’ll let that one slide. How about we –’

My train of thought was interrupted by my phone ringing. It had been silent all day, as had Matt’s, and I suspected Beth had organised a mass radio silence in our honour. This was Beth, however.

‘Hey Beth, how are the terrible two?’

‘Oh, fine, they’re playing games on the computer with Iz, while we’re waiting for tea. How’s the day gone?’

‘Lovely. We’ve been to Paris, Toronto, Marrakech and the North Pole, and had all sorts of goodies to eat.’

‘Apparently you’ve had a visit from my forgetful daughter as well?’

‘Oh, yeah, Iz just called, we had a chat.’

‘I told her before she went to school not to bother you today, she’s brainless. Unless it’s boys or music, it goes straight out of her head.’

‘It’s fine, Beth, it was lovely to talk to her.’

‘Well, good. I’m glad she didn’t disturb you too much. I wouldn’t have called now, except that Iz actually wondered if you’d like us to have the children overnight? They love staying here, I can pop them to school tomorrow …’

I looked at Matt, who was tapping on his iPad.

‘Beth says she can have Josh and Ella for the night if we want.’

He looked up, considering, pursed his lips.

‘Can weh save ih, use another tihm? I’m gona beh aslehp soon. Bih of a waste?’

‘Thanks Beth, but Matt was wondering if we could have a sleepover credit? Use it later when we’re less wiped?’

‘Of course, sweetheart. If you’re sure. Happy to have them now, and another time too.’

‘Thanks, flower, but we’ll stick to the plan, I think.’

‘OK, see you after tea then.’

We disconnected, and I felt Matt’s hand reach for mine.

‘Thahks Lau. Yuh never say ‘Matt’s a fucking crihpl’, yuh always say ‘wehr wiped’.

‘Well, as I’ve said many times, in it together.’

‘Luhv yuh.’

‘Love you too.’

I smoothed his sandy hair down and gazed into his winter-sea eyes.

‘You’re still my beach boy. Do you want a bit of peace and quiet before they get back?’

‘Ohnly if ih’s wih yuh. Cahn yuh shuh the fuck up fuh a bih?’

He was grinning wearily as he said it.

‘Iz dohs my hehd in. Jus hahv a bih of a slehp …’

He closed his eyes and drifted off, his grip on my hand relaxing as he went.

Cal

Ayesh and I went flat-hunting in secret, because we didn’t want Mum to be the one to make the decision, and if she’d known she would have been unable to resist telling us the best flat to go for and why the one we wanted had all these drawbacks, and we’d end up with Mum’s love-nest and not ours. Which would have been kinda creepy, let’s be honest.

We found the ideal place, which had two bedrooms and a huge bathroom, a big kitchen/lounge/diner and, what sold it for Ayesh, a lighting system that responded to hand waves. If Mum had seen it she would have dismissed it as a gimmick, but Ayesh loved it, and I loved the power shower, so we said we’d take it. Then we went home and broke the news.

It is so the best way to deal with Mum, to not only make up your mind before you tell her something, but to have taken steps to make it happen, preferably have signed some sort of contract. Even if it’s only about what you want on your toast. If she sniffs a weakness, she’ll have your mind changed before you can say ‘but I wanted peanut butter’.

We graciously let Mum help with the moving arrangements, but declined her offer of organising a house-warming – who wants their mum involved in a night of drunken party games to welcome your mates to your new place? Anyway, we moved, we had space and the occasional bit of peace and quiet, and the more frequent bit of raucous noisiness much to the distress of our neighbours, I’m sure.

And the second bedroom was useful for Iz to camp out in when Mum got too much, and over time for Charlie to camp out in when Dec and Amy suddenly realised they needed to try to exert some control over their wayward teenager, and there were Ella and Josh sleepovers, and sometimes all four Summers kids with Matty and Lau’s two squeezed in there if we really felt like regretting having somewhere with a spare room.

We loved our flat. It was just right for us. And it was the start of some great, happy times. Ayesh’s job was going really well, she got a promotion, and I was playing regularly in the Raiders first team. Everything had come together for us, and as is the way of things when it’s going well, we just floated along on a tide of happy, not really thinking too much about the future. We were still young, and years pass quickly when you’re young and happy.

Then things have a way of bringing you to a terrifying standstill, and you have to re-evaluate. Things like babies.

The Philpotts Letters – 9

Days disappear and my world keeps on changing, I feel you here and it keeps me sane (Dream Theater)

Days disappear and my world keeps on changing, I feel you here and it keeps me sane (Dream Theater)(although strictly speaking it should be Dream Theatre, but hey, they’re American, maybe they’ve suffered enough)

Dear Awesome Children

Well this is a doozy. Really wasn’t expecting this one, at all. You know how sometimes, something is just there, but you so don’t want it to be that you kid yourself that you’ve completely forgotten about it, as if forgetting about it means it’s not there, and possibly never existed? Maybe I’m not making any sense.

So, I’ve got this thing, this fucking enormous bloody huge thing, in my head, or my nerves, or just somewhere in my body, and it’s always going to fucking well be here and I hate it, I just hate it so fucking much, that even though it’s fucked me up twice in my life already, I decided to ignore it when it went away last time, as if that would ensure it never came back.

It’s not even like it’s something physically there, like a tumour, that I could have cut out or, I don’t know, shrunk with fatal doses of radiation or some such shit. No, this fucker lurks around, waiting until you’ve got complacent, then it comes back and takes your legs from under you. Literally.

Now, I find it hard, even after all this time, to name my old nemesis. I call it the fucking bastard. But its real name is multiple sclerosis, and it really is the fuckingest of bastardy bastards because it visits for a while, then it buggers off, but it always takes a little souvenir with it, like your ability to say ‘it’, or some of the strength in your right knee, or a bit of your vision.

Anyway, I’m sure if you’ve lived with me for any length of time, which by the time you get to read this, if I ever deem it appropriate, you will have, you’ll know all about the fucking bastard. You’ll probably know more than me, because I am bloody great at not thinking about it, not finding out about it, not wanting to know.

This is very unlike me, because I want to know about everything. I am always looking up words I don’t know when I read, or Googling things that catch my interest, and I research the fuck out of everything before I make any major decisions. But this, this is different. I feel like it knows me from the inside out, and I do not want to get any more acquainted than I already am. It scares me bloody shitless, it’s as if I’m being stalked from inside my own body.

Anyhow, though, cathartic as these ramblings are, they’re not really getting to the point – the point of all the freaking. The point is you guys.

See, the fucking bastard is back. It made its entrance pretty spectacularly this time, and it nearly broke me. Thank God for your mum – she sorted me out, as she always does, and as long as I have her to hold on to, I’ll be alright, you know, in relative terms.

And if it was just me and your mum, I’d be OK, I think. I’d have nothing to freak about (but I probably still would, just for old times sake). However, there is the two of you (or should that be ‘are the two of you’? A bit shaky on the old grammar) and I’m just thinking about how this is going to affect you, what it’s going to mean to you to have a fucking cripple as a dad.

I mean, all the things I might not be able to do in years to come – Father of the Bride speech at your wedding, Ella. My unintelligible bollocks could well fuck that up. Playing football in the park with you, Josh. Possibly a bit closer on the event horizon than Ella’s wedding, I grant you. You both having to explain to your friends, and maybe their parents, what’s wrong with me. I want to protect you from all that, from everything, from people thinking I’m shit-faced, and you being embarrassed to be seen with me (I mean more embarrassed than just because I’m your dad, because, obvs, being seen with your dad anyway is, like, sooooo embarrassing – do you like the way I’m channelling future teenage you guys, even though you’re only five, and still think I’m cool?).

If there were anything I could do to shield you from this, I would. I can’t think of a single fucking thing. Well, I did think of one thing, but it would have done for me, and your mum didn’t even let me consider it. I could have left you, so you could get on with it without me. I offered, you know, nobly, but your mum just got pissed off with me, for which I was mightily grateful and not a little relieved. But sometimes I just wonder if it wouldn’t be better for all of you if I was just … not here.

But then, I lived all my life without my dad, and I can’t say that did me much good, so maybe it’s better for you to have a fucking cripple rather than nothing.

I love you guys. You are my life, and I will do everything in my power (which is currently akin to an almost discharged triple A battery) to be the best dad I can be. At the moment, it doesn’t feel like my best will be anywhere near good enough.

Yours in the fucking bastard

Dad xxx

119. Runaway

In which avoidance is attempted, fleeing occurs, and a search is launched.

Cal

I was spending less time at school now, being in the Academy. I was required to do certain subjects, but the rest of the time I could count training as schooling, which suited me fine. This particular morning, training had been put on hold because Matty was giving a presentation about the new Traka GPS system, and everyone had to be there. I was getting my kit together at home, when Mum and Dad both came into my room, together, with really serious expressions on their faces. I thought someone must have died, and I sat down on the bed to await the bad news.

‘What?’

‘Dec called us early this morning, sweetheart.’

Oh shit, it was about Dec? What the fuck had happened?

‘Yeah, he’s signed for another club.’

‘He’s moving away, sweetheart.’

Oh, well that didn’t sound too drastic. I’d been half expecting it for a while, if I was honest. Dec wasn’t as young as he used to be, in rugby terms; he was no longer an automatic first choice in the first team, and if he didn’t try another club soon, he would have missed his chance. Dad was always going on at him about giving himself new challenges, and it looked like he’d finally taken the plunge before he got too ancient.

‘Cool. Where to?’

‘West Coast Speeders.’

It took me a few seconds to remember where Speeders played. Fucking Australia. That put things in a different light. Dec had been part of my family as long as I could remember. He’d moved in with us when I was two, and he was like my brother. I was really going to miss him if he was in Australia. Shit.

‘Oh. Not so cool, then. Are you guys OK?’

‘Your mum’s a bit upset.’

‘So were you, earlier, James. It’s a bit of a shock, sweetheart, that’s all.’

‘Who else knows?’

People were always pretty secretive about things like new contracts, and I didn’t want to go blurting it to the nearest reporter who was hanging around Raiders Stadium.

‘It’s going to be announced in a press release at nine. Your mum’s made a cake, there’s going to be a little presentation before Matty’s thing this morning.’

‘You’ve made a cake already? Bloody hell, Mum. Does Matty know?’

Dad nodded.

‘Dec was going straight round there after he called us. He spent all night on the phone to Australia, I don’t think he’s slept at all. I don’t know how Matty’s going to take it.’

‘If he even wakes up to talk to it’ll be a miracle.’

Matty was notorious for being hard to wake up. He’d sleep until noon every day if Lau didn’t use some pretty full-on techniques to rouse him.

‘True. We’ll find out later this morning I guess. You nearly ready? Want a lift?’

‘Sure.’

I didn’t often get a lift to work from Dad, especially now I’d passed my test and had my own car, and I inwardly raised my eyebrows at this unusual offer. I assumed Dad just wanted to chat more about Dec’s move without upsetting Mum, and I was right. He bent my ear all the way there about whether it was too soon for Dec to be leaving Raiders behind, like it wasn’t what Dad had been encouraging him to do for over ten years, and then hinted at people they had lined up to replace him but wouldn’t actually spill the beans about who it was, while suggesting there might be an England international who was interested. It really was beyond frustrating being Scotty’s son sometimes.

Matt

My presentation was scheduled for ten, which gave me a bit of time to go over it while drinking several cups of coffee, in an attempt not to fall asleep in the middle of it. I decided to check it over in the room where I was giving the presentation, so I knew everything was working. I had set it all up and gone through it once, when the door opened and most of the first team players trooped in.

Cal

When we got to the ground, the place was buzzing with Dec’s news. The man himself hadn’t arrived yet, but Dad had brought Mum’s cake and handed it over to the catering department, who were putting it on a platter. Billy Kipi, the team captain, was going to do a short speech, in recognition of the long time Dec had been with Raiders, before Matty did his GPS thing, and we were going to sing a rude version of an Australian folk song. We were just waiting for Dec to arrive and be brought up by his mate, Bonksy aka Brett Deressie, who had been at the club as long as Dec, but was now a forwards coach.

Matt

I looked at the clock, surprised to see it was only twenty to ten. The players weren’t known for their fondness of presentations, and usually outdid themselves in their excuses to avoid them at all costs, so for them all to be here early was a bit strange.

‘Hi Matt – you’re not on till ten, are you?’

It was Billy Kipi, the team captain. I looked up.

‘No, yuh have twenty whohl minutes tuh learn where the little pocket in yuhr shirt is for the GPS. Then thehr’s a test.’

Fuck, no. I couldn’t be doing the unintelligible bollocks, not now. Billy frowned, then realised I was joking about the test, and his face cleared. Maybe he hadn’t noticed the unintelligible bollocks.

‘Ha ha. We didn’t think anyone would be in here yet, we’re just doing this thing for Summs. Do you mind?’

As he spoke, and I shook my head, one of the admin staff brought in a huge covered platter and put it on the table in front of me. Oh fuck, there was going to be some kind of speech or something, and I was going to have to sit through it, when all I wanted to do was not think about it. I looked around for Dec, but he wasn’t in the room yet, although Cal was sitting at the back, and he smiled at me.

Cal

We were all waiting in the conference room. I took a seat at the back and watched the preparations for Dec’s surprise taking shape. Matty was already there, setting up his computer, but he looked a bit off. He looked like he hadn’t slept, he was pale and sweaty, and he kept pushing his hands through his hair, which made it stick out, and made him look a bit mad. When he walked over to the projector, he looked like he was limping, and when he talked to Billy about the cake and speech, it sounded a bit like he was slurring his words.

I couldn’t think what was wrong with him, and I could hardly believe it, but he looked drunk. Either that or he was ill. If he wasn’t ill, he was shit-faced and that wasn’t good, not at before ten in the morning. It seemed more likely that he was shit-faced, because Matty didn’t really get ill, and he did like his beer, but I’d never known him be anything less than professional at work, and I was really surprised. I wondered if Dec’s news had made him hit the Scotch.

Matty didn’t look too happy that there was going to be fucking about with a cake and stuff, but he didn’t really have a choice. He caught my eye, and I gave him a smile to, I don’t know, reassure him or something. He seemed like he needed reassuring, which was worrying, because Matty was as self-assured as they came.

Matt

I’d just bent my head back down to the laptop when there was a big cheer. I looked up to see Dec being led into the room by Brett Deressie, also known as Bonksy. As they came in, the players all started singing Waltzing Matilda, although quite a few of the words had been changed, and not to ones that Lau or Beth would have approved of. Dec was pulled over to the table, and the top was whisked off the platter to reveal a large cake in the shape of Australia, complete with a flag and a tiny rugby player in a West Coast Speeders shirt on the west coast. Dec caught my eye and looked at me apologetically, but I shook my head at him and grinned, and he returned to the general hilarity.

Cal

I saw Dec look at Matty apologetically, but Matty shook his head and grinned, as if it was OK by him, and the hilarity continued, but as soon as no one was looking at Matty, he stopped smiling. There was a lot of banter, mostly about different ways of sodomising kangaroos, and Billy did a short speech which took the piss out of Dec while saying what a great bloke he was and how much he’d be missed. Dec seemed pretty chuffed with all the fuss, but eventually it all had to calm down and we had to remember we were there for Matty’s presentation.

Matt

The banter was thick in the air, but I just tried to ignore it all as I got the laptop ready. It was a new laptop, the latest model, specifically designed for Raiders to be able to cope with instant updates from the new GPS system. I hadn’t used it for a presentation, and wanted to familiarise myself with it before I started, but I couldn’t concentrate properly.

Then, about five minutes before I was due to begin, my left leg started trembling violently. Fuck, fuck, fuck, this was turning into a complete balls-up. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to stand, but I pressed my thighs together and pushed down on my knees with my hands, which had worked in the past and seemed to stop the shaking.

I looked up, and saw the room was full. The players were all there, Jay and the other coaches had taken their seats, the CEO was approaching the table, and it seemed I was about to be ‘on’. I took as many deep breaths as I could and prayed to the universe that I would get through this without making an arse of myself.

Cal

Matty had been working for Raiders for several years, it was quite a family affair these days. He was in charge of anything to do with IT, although I was never completely sure of his job title. He was a rock star with anything remotely connected to computers or tech of any sort – if it was broken, he knew how to fix it; if it was old, he knew the best upgrade; if it was new, he knew how to work it. Raiders had been using GPS for training and match stats for ages, but there was a new system on the market that was being used by some of the Southern Hemisphere sides, and Matty and his team had been researching it with a view to it being introduced at Raiders next season. This presentation was the result of almost a year of work, and I was pretty sure he wouldn’t have wanted it to be eclipsed by Dec’s ‘I’m moving to Australia’ news.

While Matty made his final preparations, looking ill-at-ease, unwell and uncomfortable, which was so unlike the usually chilled and sociable Matty as to be remarkable, the CEO made his way to the front to introduce him.

Matt

Malcolm turned to face the room, cleared his throat, waited for the hush that was his due, and started speaking.

‘Good morning all. Thanks for coming. I’m very excited about this presentation. The new GPS system is groundbreaking state of the art technology, and Raiders are the first club in the country to use it. When Matt’s team went to look at it in development, their reports suggested that it would give us the edge over other teams, and now it’s here, I believe they’re right. I don’t pretend to understand all the technical details, that’s Matt’s job, but I’m hoping that by the time he’s finished telling you about it, you’ll be as convinced as I am that this technology will help Raiders to retain their place at the forefront of British rugby. Matt.’

So no pressure there, then. Shit. My hands were trembling now, but I couldn’t tell if it was from nerves or, well, my nerves. I stood up and leaned my hip against the table, to forestall any further shaking and give me some support. The computer and projector were already on, and the slide show had been loaded onto its title page. Everything was as ready as it could be. I kept telling myself it was fine, I’d done hundreds of presentations before, I knew the GPS system inside out, I could do it in my sleep. I practically was asleep, that was the problem. I took a deep breath and launched in.

Cal

I couldn’t see that well from the back of the room, but it seemed like Matty’s leg was shaking, and his hands certainly were, as if he was really nervous. Matty never got nervous about presentations, he had all the information in his head and he could just say it, like it was nothing to talk to a roomful of people. Not today, though. He looked like he wished he could disappear, and I wondered again about whether he’d had a drink or two. Then I saw him take a deep breath as he started. His voice was quiet and hesitant.

Matt

‘Heh everyohn. This is the new Traka stysem, er, system. Sohry, wrong teeth in this morning.’

Shit. I was going to have to arse my way through this after all. I picked up the remote control for the laptop and clicked onto the next slide, which was a video of the Traka in use.

Cal

This was bad. In front of the CEO and everything, and Matty seemed more than half-cut. He wasn’t just getting his words muddled, he was slurring and stuttering like he’d had a liquid breakfast, but surely he wouldn’t have. I glanced over at Dad, who was looking like thunder. The same thing must have occurred to him.

Matt

As I started to speak again, the remote slipped out of my hand onto the floor. I stared at it angrily. I didn’t need it for a while, but I was going to have to bend down and pick it up, and my legs had started shaking again.

‘This video shows how sohm of the teams in the Southern Hesi … Hephi … Hemisphehr –’

‘Are you sure it’s just your teeth, Matt? Too much vodka for brekkie maybe?’

Cal

This got a huge laugh, and it seemed to take the pressure off as we all waited for one of Matty’s sarcastic comebacks, but he didn’t say anything, just bent down and picked up the remote, which fell straight out of his hands again.

Matt

I could think of no witty comeback, for the first time in my life. I bent down and picked up the remote, which fell straight out of my hands again, fortunately onto the table this time.

‘Out of the top fihv tehms in Super Fifteen, fohr use Tra … ka.’

Oh what the fuck now? My mouth just froze up in the middle of a word. I wasn’t going to get through this if things didn’t improve quickly. Sweat was running down my face, and I could feel myself going red as I got more flustered.

Cal

Matty looked terrible, getting paler by the second, sweat was running down his face, and then his cheeks started going red on top of his pallor, as he got more worked up.

Matt

I picked up the remote again, but as I tried to change the slide, it evaded my grasp once more. There were a few chuckles, but I daren’t look at anyone to see what they were thinking, in case I met the eyes of Dec or Jay.

Cal

A few people laughed, but not as many as before, as it was becoming more obvious there was something really wrong here. I felt really bad for him, to be showing himself up like this in front of a roomful of people would be mortifying, and Matty looked like he was doing anything he could to avoid looking at anyone.

Matt

I decided to ditch the remote. It was too small and fiddly anyway, and the arrow keys on the laptop would be more reliable. I reached for the computer, and my fingers had just touched it when a huge spasm flung my arm to the side.

Cal

All of a sudden he whacked the laptop with a huge shove and sent it flying across the room, where it smashed against a wall and fell to the floor with a flash and a puff of smoke. The room went still, while Matty looked at the laptop with an anguished expression on his face.

Matt

There was a stunned silence, and it was the final straw for me.

‘Fuck it, I can’t do this.’

I said it to myself, and it was true. I needed to stop, to get out of there, this was as fucked up as I was going to allow it to get, if indeed it could get any more fucked up, which seemed doubtful, and I headed for the door and then ran as quickly as my bastard legs would carry me, out of the building and into the car park, where I started my car and drove away.

Cal

He didn’t say it very loud, but the room had gone so silent, we all heard it. As he finished speaking, he turned and stumbled, limping, out of the room, and we all sat and looked first at each other, and then at Dad, who was talking in a low voice to Malcolm Howard, the CEO.

In the silence, I suddenly put things together. I’d been a lot younger when Matty was ill before, but, yeah, of course, there had been the difficulty speaking, the trouble walking and the coordination problems. Fuck – had his MS come back? It all made sense. I looked over at Dad to see what he was going to do.

Dad looked shocked, then angry, then blanked his expression as he realised everyone was looking at him, and Malcolm was the first to react.

‘OK, everyone, er, I think we’ll come back to this another time. I think, er, Jay, it’s back to the morning’s training, maybe, er, half an hour break?’

Dad nodded, but didn’t speak, and Malcolm got up to herd everyone out of the room. Dec had sat next to him and was talking quietly but intently to him, and I went over to join in.

‘… come back. He didn’t look right this morning, and maybe, if I think about it, it’s been coming the last couple of weeks.’

‘Shit. We need to find him.’

I needed to know whether they were both thinking the same as I was.

‘Is Matty ill again?’

Dad looked up.

‘Probably. Shit, we need to find him. Cal, can you check the car park? We should call Laura, see if she’s seen him.’

‘She’ll be at Pilates. Ames usually goes with her, but she cancelled this morning because of all the fuss.’

‘I’ll leave a message then …’

Matt

Maybe it wasn’t the most advisable thing to do, to drive at speed across the city when my limbs had started acting under their own volition, but I just needed to escape, to put as much distance between me and that nightmare back there as I could. For the first part of the journey, tears misted my eyes, and then I realised it wasn’t just the tears; my vision had blurred with the fucking bastard too. It really is a miracle I didn’t kill someone.

Cal

Dad’s voice faded behind me as I ran out to the car park to see if Matty’s car was there. It had been there this morning, as Dad had parked next to it, but it was gone now. I didn’t like to think of Matty driving anywhere in the state he was in, and I decided to call Lau, even though it was likely several other people had already called her. Her phone went to voicemail, so I left a message.

I didn’t want to panic her, but I didn’t want her to think there was nothing to worry about, either. Then I went back to the conference room to tell Dad and Dec that Matty’s car had gone. Dad had been to Matty’s office, but he wasn’t there, and he couldn’t find him anywhere else in the building.

‘Shit. I have no idea where he’s gone. I’d better tell Beth.’

He sent a quick text to Mum, then looked at me.

‘You don’t have any idea where he’d be, do you?’

‘Me? No. I would have said with Lau somewhere, but if he’s not with her I’m stuck.’

Since Matty met Lau, and had a whirlwind romance complete with a wedding and twins within a year of meeting her, he had been a lot calmer, a lot more sorted. He told everyone she made him feel safe, and you could see it about him, that Lau was Matty’s safe place. I really hoped he was with her somewhere, because I worried what kind of a state he’d be in if he couldn’t even go to Lau.

‘I’ll try Ames again, maybe she can pop down the road and see if he’s gone home.’

‘Good plan. Beth might call round there too.’

‘Do we need to alert … anyone?’

Dec sounded like he was clutching at straws.

‘Like?’

‘Police, hospitals …’

‘It’s not like he’s missing, he’s not been gone long enough. And I really don’t want to think about hospitals. Shit, he shouldn’t have been driving. I think we’ll just wait to hear from Laura. I’ll go and get her out of her class if I don’t hear soon.’

Someone brought coffee for us, and as we sipped and worried about Matty, Dad had a text from Mum, and Dec had a text from Amy, both saying Matty wasn’t at home and no one they knew had seen him.

Matt

I came to my senses after a while, at least the senses that told me to stop driving before I had an accident. I looked around at where I was, peering through the fog and double images for landmarks, and saw I wasn’t far from Avondale, where I used to live.

I pulled over and parked in the street, but stayed gripping the steering wheel, sucking air in through my nose, tears leaking out of my eyes, seeing nothing except my whole world ending.

This fucking bastard disease, it took everything from you, either little by little, pretending it had gone away and then coming back, or in huge explosive occurrences like this morning. I wasn’t going to be able to go back to Raiders, I couldn’t face any of them after that debacle.

I didn’t want to be there, snivelling in my car, I wanted to be somewhere quiet, where curious people weren’t peering in the window. I thought about going home, but Lau would be there, and I couldn’t face her either, not now. As I thought about her, my phone started ringing. It was Jay’s ringtone. Oh fuck, none of them were going to leave me the fuck alone now. I turned my phone off. Fuck them all.

As I wondered where I could go, my eyes found the spire of St Saviours church. I thought about going in, it would be quiet, and cool, but I didn’t want to talk to any bloody nosy vicar or old lady doing the flowers. Then I remembered the hideaway, the room in the hedge, the place that Cal had showed me, and I had showed Jules. As if it was calling to me, I got out of the car and practically felt my way over to the church, legs hardly working, tears still forcing their way out of my eyes.

I must have looked a sight, but fortunately I couldn’t see any pitying, or indeed terrified, glances. I found the gates to St Saviours, and stumbled through the long grass in the cemetery until I came to the box hedge. It had been a few years since I was here last, but even without being able to see clearly, I found my way in.

Laura

Before my class I’d sent Matt a good luck text for his presentation, and I checked my phone after the class to see if he’d replied. There were several missed calls and voicemail messages from everyone but Matt. I listened to the messages with growing alarm and dread.

Dec: ‘Lau, it’s Dec, give me a ring as soon as you get this.’

Amy: ‘Hey Lau, I know you’re in Pilates at the moment, but can you ring someone about Matt? Jay or Dec or someone.’

Cal: ‘Lau, do you know where Matty is? We’re trying to find him. He was well weird this morning.’

Jay: ‘Hey Laura, don’t want to worry you, but Matty’s had a bit of a meltdown this morning, he’s gone off somewhere. Call me.’

Beth: ‘Oh Laura, is everything alright? James told me about Matty’s presentation, do you know where he is? I’ve tried his mobile and your home number, I might try popping over.’

Heart pounding, I called Jay.

‘Laura, thank God, I was about to come in and pull you out of your class.’

‘What’s happened?’

‘Matty’s having symptoms again, isn’t he?’

I thought about my promise to Matt that we would keep it quiet for now.

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because he was doing a presentation this morning, and he could hardly talk, he was dropping stuff, he had to lean on the table to stop himself falling over. In the end he chucked his laptop across the room and stormed out.’

I was appalled. When he left for work, he’d been talking fine, no problems with walking. I shouldn’t have let him go to work, with the news from Dec this morning, the tiny amount of sleep he’d got, and the return of the MS, I should have known he would react badly. Now he’d gone off somewhere, upset, embarrassed and hurting, and I needed to find him.

‘What? Where did he go?’

‘No one knows. Have you heard from him?’

‘No. Did he drive?’

‘He must have done, his car’s gone. Jesus, Laura, how long has he been getting worse?’

I sighed. It sounded like the cat was out of the bag whatever I said.

‘I’ve noticed small signs for the last couple of weeks, but I didn’t say anything to him. He dropped a glass last night and got really upset. We’re pretty sure it’s back. But he wasn’t too bad when he left this morning, you wouldn’t have noticed if you didn’t know him.’

‘Jesus. Do you have any idea where he is?’

‘Not unless he went home. Beth said she tried to call him, but I doubt he’d answer her. If she went round, he’d ignore the doorbell too.’

‘Shit. I need to talk to him. He’s going to be feeling fucking awful.’

‘I don’t expect he’ll want to talk to anyone. I’ll go straight home and see if he’s there.’

‘Ring me when you know.’

Cal

He disconnected and looked at us. His side of the conversation had confirmed what we now all thought, that his MS was back, and Dad didn’t need to say it.

‘She’s going home, she’s going to ring, but I doubt he’ll be there. Dec, didn’t you say when he had his meltdown about Julia, he just drove round and round?’

‘Yeah, but that was years ago. Who knows what he’ll do now.’

‘I really hope he’s not driving.’

‘Well short of hunting him down on the roads, there’s not much we can do. We’re going to have to start training soon, and hope there’s some news when we’ve finished.’

Dad looked like the last thing he wanted to do was run a training session, and I wondered if he was going to get one of the other coaches to do it instead, but he squared his shoulders, got up and went to call everyone to the training pitch. He was trying some damage limitation for Matty; if he didn’t make a big deal out of it, and everything was OK, Matty wouldn’t have to answer so many questions. Although I thought it was unlikely that Matty was going to get away totally unscathed.

When Matty got ill the first time, he was living in Stafford, so none of us were around to see how he was, until he was suddenly lying in a hospital bed with tubes coming in and out of everywhere. I saw how he was after he came home, and how long it took him to get better, but I suppose I never really linked it to the second time he got ill, because he wasn’t in hospital, he was just Matty who got tired and couldn’t walk properly, and whose talking went a bit funny. I’d still go round to his flat, although he didn’t have the energy to play football in the park, but we’d play FIFA on his PlayStation instead, so I suppose I didn’t really notice. I was twelve, and a self-obsessed pre-teenager, so the only way it really affected me was that Matty didn’t take me to see Raiders, and I had to sit with the juniors more often, which made me really grouchy.

Matty was always pretty good at making out he was normal, so I wasn’t surprised that this time he’d managed to hide any symptoms from everyone. It was his bad luck that everything had gone wrong at once in front of a room full of people. He would hate that, and I hated to think about how he would be feeling now, knowing that everyone he worked with knew there was something up with him.

Matt

It was as if someone had switched off the noise. Not just the noise of the city traffic, which was somehow dulled, but all the noise from the last twenty four hours or so. This was where I needed to be, where no one would find me, where no one would come, where there was nothing but stone and hedge and the only people there were long dead. I walked over to the bench and sat down, looking for a while at the graves of John Chartham and Roberta Chartham.

I’d Googled them once, out of curiosity, and found out John had been the vicar here at St Saviours, and Roberta was his wife. There wasn’t much more information available, but it made them a bit more human. I found myself addressing them.

‘Hey guys. Sorry to interrupt your peace. Just need to get away for a bit. Hope you don’t mind.’

I realised I sounded like a lunatic, talking to dead people, so I stopped.

I felt strangely exposed sitting on the bench, and looked round the enclosure for somewhere more concealed. There really wasn’t anywhere else, unless I got under the bench, and that wasn’t going to work. I was feeling vulnerable, and wanted to screw myself up into a ball and hide, so I got up and wedged myself into the corner, pulling my knees up to my chin and folding my arms over my head. By wrapping myself up like this, it felt like I could hold on to me, stop everything I was from flying away.

I didn’t think about what had happened. I couldn’t. I did everything I could not to think about it. Every time a word or an action slipped into my head I pushed it away, hard. I told a lot of thoughts to fuck off while I sat there in a ball, and it would work for a while, then I’d get a glimpse of the remote control falling to the floor, or Dec’s face this morning, or Lau would float across my mind, and I’d have to tell them all to fuck off all over again.

I spent I don’t know how long doing that, trying to empty my mind of everything, as if I could really send it all away just by telling it to go. I was out of strategies; I knew if I thought about it, let any of it in, faced any of it, then it would be bad, I would lose myself. I had no other option, apart from sitting here trying not to think, trying to purge my mind of anything that might make any demands on me.

I passed a long time sitting like that. My legs might start to go numb, but that was good, because the less of me there was that could feel, the better. I got cold, but I didn’t care about that either, because cold was a different kind of numb, and if I could focus on being cold, I could ignore everything else.

I don’t know how long I sat there, trying to be nothing and no one to anyone, trying to make myself so small that I’d disappear, part of me wishing I was long dead like John and Roberta, part of me wishing I had never been born, the rest of me choosing not to examine who I was or what I might become.

Laura

I disconnected from Jay, grabbed my bags and hurried out to the car park, calling Matt as I went. I didn’t expect him to answer, but at least he would know I’d tried. As I expected, the call went to his voicemail.

‘Hey whoever you are. This is Matt, or Matty or Uncle Matty or Daddy or Matthew or Mr Scott or Sexy Bum if that’s you, Lau. Leave me a message if it’s either really important or outrageously rude. Catch ya laters taters.’

The voicemail beeped at me.

‘Matt, it’s me, everyone’s really worried about you, please let me know where you are. I won’t tell anyone, and I’ll leave you alone if you want me to, but I need to know you’re alright. Please, Matt.’

I sent a text, saying the same thing, as an extra measure, and also left a message on the home phone answer machine.

I drove across the city faster than I usually did, putting my foot down through orange lights, breaking the speed limit. Jay had really worried me; Matt would have hated appearing any less than a hundred per cent in front of all those people, and I didn’t know what he would have done. I needed to find him. My phone rang several times while I was on the way home, but glances at the screen showed it wasn’t Matt, so I ignored it. I pulled up outside the house and ran to the door, fumbling with my key in my haste to get inside. I threw the door open.

‘Matt!’

I called up the stairs, looked in the kitchen, living room and dining room, then ran up the stairs and looked in every room up there too. I went into the garden and checked the shed. I felt he was going to be holed up somewhere, in a state, but I couldn’t think where he would have gone. I checked everywhere again, but he hadn’t magically appeared since the last time. I ran up the road to see Amy.

‘Oh Lau, have you found him?’

I shook my head. ‘He hasn’t been here, has he?’

‘No. Come in for a bit.’

‘Oh, no thanks, Amy, I’d rather be at home, in case he comes back.’

I looked back down the road, as if I was going to see his car coming round the corner.

‘OK, Lau. Let me know when you find him.’

‘I will.’

Once back home, I called everyone I could think of, starting with his mum and getting gradually more desperate as nobody I called had seen him. I racked my brains, trying to think of anyone else he might have felt safe with, or any hidey-hole he might have – that was it! The words ‘hidey-hole’ floated around my brain for a few moments before they registered, then I was suddenly certain.

It was from a long time ago, something he’d told me about him and Julia. Now I just needed to remember where it was. I had a feeling it was near Matt’s old flat, and there was something about a graveyard, but the details eluded me. He couldn’t have mentioned it more than a couple of times; maybe if I went over there, I could try to find it. St Saviour’s church had a graveyard, I could have a look around. I grabbed the keys, feeling hopelessly desperate, and got in the car.

Cal

The training session was mercifully short, as Matty’s presentation was supposed to have taken up half of the allotted session, so after an hour, we found ourselves with some free time. I sent Lau a text.

Laura

‘Any news on where he’s hiding?’

And that did it, another piece of the memory slotted into place. I called him straight away.

Cal

I didn’t have any expectations of an answer – Lau would be doing her nut with worry, and probably had texts coming out of her ears asking if she’d seen Matty, but I wanted her to know I was thinking about her. I was surprised when she called me straight back.

‘Lau. Any news?’

‘I’ve had an idea. Do you remember a hideaway, in a hedge, in a graveyard somewhere? I think you showed Matt once.’

It took me completely by surprise. I hadn’t thought of the hedge room since I was little. I hissed out a breath.

‘How the fuck did you know about that? Jesus, I barely remember it myself.’

Laura

Cal, seventeen now, had picked up enough bad language from his father and his uncles to be swearing like a sailor well before he was a teenager. He had been careful around his family until his mid-teens, and then, much to Beth’s dismay, he’d joined the ranks of Scott men who couldn’t get more than a couple of sentences out without adding a profanity of some sort. Right now, though, bad language was the least of my worries.

‘Can you remember where it is?’

Cal

‘Yeah, it’s in that church near where you and Matty used to live. We’d go there when I went to his flat, he’d pretend he couldn’t remember how to get in so I’d show him again, then we’d sit and drink Fanta and eat crisps.’

‘Can I come and pick you up? Will you show me?’

‘Yeah, sure thing. Why do you think he’s there?’

‘I just think he’s gone somewhere where he can be alone, where no one else goes.’

‘Well, no one apart from all the druggies and winos.’

‘You’re not making me feel any better. Where are you?’

‘Still at the club, just finished training.’

‘I’ll see you in ten minutes.’

I doubted it would be ten minutes. Lau was a really slow driver, and sometimes took let’s be kind and call it the scenic route, because she was too busy singing along with the radio rather than concentrating on where she was going. I sat on the steps outside the Stadium and waited for her, thinking about the hedge room, and how I’d shown it to Matty all those years ago.

I must have been about nine or so, and I spent a lot of time with Matty. I’d go to his flat, and we’d eat pizza and play football in the park, and I’d tell him about school, which was a bit crap at the time. I was being bullied, about all sorts of things, not least of which was my hair.

My hair is the stupidest, most excruciatingly embarrassing hair a boy could ever have nightmares about. It’s blond, which isn’t so bad, but it’s curly, and when I say curly, I mean the sort of tight ringlets that a Jane Austen heroine would swoon over. I mean, get real. Mum loved it, and would never let me have it cut, so I had to put up with all the smart-arses at school calling me a girl, tugging my hair when they got a chance and generally making my life a misery.

As soon as I could, I got it all cut off, buzz cut all over, Baggo’s brother Troops did it with his Army clippers. Mum shouted, and cried, and went round to shout at Troops, but having short hair made my life so much easier. Troops would cut it every two weeks so it didn’t grow the curls back, even though it was pretty scary with him holding the clippers in one hand and a beer can or a cigarette in the other. Mum realised I was serious after a while, and gave me my own clippers for Christmas, and I’ve never looked back. But back then, I had to do as I was told, and I’d offload to Matty about how crap it was.

It didn’t help that my dad was a local celebrity, or rather a national celebrity who happened to live locally, so that made me a target as well. I was always accused of being up myself because I had a famous dad, of being teachers pet because I had a famous dad, of the PE teacher being in love with me because I had a famous dad. It sucked. It’s a wonder it didn’t put me off a career in rugby before it began.

Of course, I couldn’t tell Mum any of this, because she’d have been off up the school in a flash, giving the head teacher a bollocking and getting all the bullies in trouble, which would have just made things worse, so I told Matty, and he helped me think about bullies and why they did what they did, and how he was a bit nerdy at school and so he was bullied and what he did about it, and although none of it stopped the bullying, it made me feel better, like it wasn’t my fault.

So where was I? Oh yeah, the hedge room. Baggo was the one who had told me about the hedge room. He lived not far from St Saviours church, which was also not far from Matty’s flat. I don’t know how Baggo knew, maybe one of his brothers told him, but he blew my mind one day by showing me how to look like you had disappeared into the hedge. I just had to try it out on Matty, and I blew his mind too, and then, every chance we got Matty would take me to the graveyard at St Saviours, and act like he’d forgotten how to get into the hedge room, so I’d show him, and then we’d sit there and eat and drink stuff that Mum disapproved of while we chatted about my uninspiring school life.

Eventually, I grew a pair, around the same time as I started being serious about the Raiders junior section, and the bullies melted away in the face of a little bit of muscle and a more assertive attitude, and Matty and I didn’t go to the hedge room any more I didn’t realise until I read Matty’s story that he’d used it for more nefarious purposes in his lunch hour, and it’s hardly surprising that once he broke up with Julia we stopped going there altogether.

To be honest, I didn’t see much of Matty while he was with Julia, because he stopped coming over as much, and didn’t ask me round to his as much. Julia was a bit … erm I’m struggling to put it nicely. She was pretty and everything, and played with Iz and talked to me, but it always felt like she couldn’t wait to leave, and a lot of the time Matty would come by himself, and it was like he couldn’t wait to leave to be with her. He was really cut up when they split, but I don’t think any of the rest of us were, except being sad for him, obviously.

Anyway, I hadn’t thought about the hedge room for years, but now Lau had mentioned it, it seemed perfect, the only place he would have gone, away from anyone and everyone, almost part of a different time, a different life.

Laura

And so, another breakneck trip across the city later, Cal hopped into my car and we crossed the city again.

Cal

To my amazement, Lau turned up just over ten minutes after she’d called. I got in the car and immediately wished I hadn’t, as she was driving like a woman possessed, accelerating through orange lights, muttering under her breath when she had to stop at red ones, generally behaving like a crazy person. I suppose I could understand it, but I feared for my life a little bit.

‘Jesus, Lau, slow down you’re going to fucking kill us.’

‘Sorry, Cal, I’m really worried about him. Were you there this morning?’

I didn’t tell Lau I’d thought Matty was drunk, or that some of the other guys thought that too. She knew what was going on, and didn’t need extra things to worry about.

‘Yeah. I thought he wasn’t right when I first saw him, he looked like shit, he was, like, his legs were shaking when he stood up, and he got all flustered setting up, then he kept tripping over his words, and was trying to be all cool about it, making jokes about not having his teeth in and shit, and then he dropped the remote for the laptop a couple of times. The lads were giving him a bit of stick to start with, you know what he’s like, any opportunity for a bit of banter, gives as good as he gets normally, but it seemed like it was really bothering him, and then he dropped the remote again, and he went for his laptop and just shoved it across the table. It went right across the room and smashed into the wall. He was like ‘Fuck it, I can’t do this’ and walked out. We all just looked at each other. Dad was white as a sheet, at first I thought he was pissed off, but I think he was, like, shocked. He sent me after him, but I couldn’t find him. Is Matty ill again?’

‘Yeah, Cal, I think he is. And this news about Dec going to Australia might have tipped him over.’

‘Yeah, that’s major, about Dec. I never thought he’d leave, he’s been here forever. I can’t remember when he wasn’t, like, just here, like I’ve always known him. He’s like my brother, really.’

‘It’s going to be weird without them, isn’t it.’

‘Yeah. But we’ll have Skype and Facetime, as long as we make Tom do it and not Dec, he’s fucking shit with technology. And he won’t be away forever, it’s only for a year at the moment. I can’t see him staying over there, can you? Rose would have something to bloody say about it, for a start.’

I hadn’t really had time to get my head round Dec leaving, not with Matty going all weird, but as I was talking, trying to sound reassuring for Lau more than anything, I realised that it might be as OK as I was making it sound.

Laura

I wondered if Cal would have a word with Matt, if we ever found him, as his practical seventeen-year-old common sense might get through to him.

‘You’re having a very calming effect on me, Cal.’

Cal

‘Ha ha, am I? I don’t suppose I do big dramas.’

This was at least true of other people’s dramas, which I seemed to be able to be fairly chilled about. My own dramas were another matter.

‘Oh, look there’s the church – there’s a parking space just up there, I think it’s pay and display.’

I fed the machine a few coins while Lau parked, then led her through the gates of the graveyard and across the grass, up to a tall green hedge.

Matt

As time passed, I felt myself becoming part of the weird little outdoor room, as if I wanted to disappear into it so much, it was starting to absorb me. It was the most peculiar feeling, and I just let it happen, bit by bit, me flowing away into the stone. The curious part of me wondered what would happen to me when I’d finished flowing. Would just my clothes be left? Would I have gone –

Cal

‘It’s here somewhere. I can’t remember exactly where.’

I started to walk along the hedge, looking for the entrance. It was really well hidden, and you had to know just where to look.

Matt

Cal’s voice brought me back to the present with a start. My whole body tensed as the first thing from the outside world permeated my thoughts for what felt like half a lifetime.

‘Are you sure, Cal? It just looks like a hedge, there’s no –’

That was Lau. I mentally shook myself as I realised they’d found me. No, I didn’t want to be found, I wanted to go back to flowing, it was peaceful, it was nice. But I was to have no peace, no gentle flowing, not right now, as I heard the unmistakeable sounds of footsteps coming in to the enclosure.

Cal

Lau gasped as I disappeared, and I grinned to myself, even though this wasn’t a laughing matter. It seems it never got old, showing people the old trick.

Laura

One minute he was there, and the next he was gone, as if he’d been eaten by the foliage. I stood for a moment, mouth open, then started to run towards where Cal had been.

Cal

I looked around as I walked in, and immediately saw the crumpled shape of Matty, squashed in the corner of the hedge room, sitting on the floor, his suit all dirty, knees up to his chin, arms clasped tightly over his head, looking like he was not having a great time. He needed Lau.

‘Bingo.’

I raised my voice to call to Lau, and to let Matty know we’d found him. I had no idea whether he would be happy about that or not, but if anyone could get through to him, it was Lau. I stepped out of the hedge and gestured to her to go in.

Matt

Cal’s voice was near, but I didn’t look up. Then I heard him again, more distant, and realised he must have stepped out.

‘He’s here. Think you need to go and talk to him.’

Laura

I sagged with relief.

‘Thanks Cal. You’ve been amazing.’

Matt

The sound of Lau’s voice cut through the fog that had enveloped me, it was like a beacon. I didn’t want a beacon, I wanted the fog. I could drift in the fog.

Cal

‘Do you want me to stay?’

Lau nodded. ‘Would you mind, for a bit? Just until I know what’s what.’

‘Sure thing. I’ll be out here – oh, this is how you get in, look.’

I showed her the way, and Lau walked through, as I made myself comfortable, sort of, on the edge of a gravestone.

Laura

He pointed to a bit of the hedge that looked like any other bit of the hedge until you stepped close to it, when it became a well disguised gap in the hedge. I walked through, and into a small peaceful enclosure with a stone floor, a stone bench and two gravestones. And Matthew Robert Scott sitting on the floor in the corner, suit crumpled and dirty, knees up to his chest, arms over his head, trying to shut the world out.

118. State of shock

In which an old enemy returns, and bad news is imparted.

Matt

So here it is. Josh and Ella were five, they were happy at school, they were growing by the day, and learning so much stuff it was hard to keep up with them sometimes. I was loving life. I had my family, my job, friends, house, car, it was all going according to plan. Maybe that was one of the warning signs; nothing ever just pootles along merrily forever, does it. Sometimes it all crashes around you.

Looking back, I’d been ignoring it for a couple of weeks at least, probably longer. I’d fall asleep after dinner, a few of my words were slurred, but this wasn’t going to happen, it fucking well wasn’t going to come back, it had left me alone for nearly five years, and so I just worked hard, put it to the back of my mind, wished it away, and it seemed to go, and I wondered if I’d been imagining it.

Then it started creeping back, the odd unintelligible bit of bollocks, the occasional stumble, once I couldn’t get my arm to lift a cup into the dishwasher. My legs would tremble at odd times, sitting, standing or walking. I still ignored it. Because ignoring things makes them go away, doesn’t it.

Laura

One afternoon, school run completed, and Matt home from work, I was in the living room with Josh and Ella, waiting for Matt to bring us all a drink. Ella was lying on the floor colouring a picture; Josh was playing with his cars, pushing them up and down the sofa, having made a village on the cushions.

Matt

I was making everyone a drink – tea for Lau, blackcurrant squash for the kids, beer for me – and listening to their noises. Josh was playing cars, making engine sounds and beeps. Ella was colouring, and asking Lau which colour went with purple. I picked up the glass to pour my beer into, and as the liquid reached the top of the glass, my arm started to quiver. I tried to hold on, but my arm gave an almighty spasm, my hand let go, and glass and bottle fell to the floor. It was as if it had got pissed off with me ignoring it, and was making sure I knew it was back. Because it was, it was back. It was fucking back.

As the glass smashed on the floor and I stared at the burst of beer and froth that splattered the tiles and the units, it just slammed into me, and kept on pounding me. It was all my brain could compute.

‘Fuck off you fucking –’

Laura

I hissed a sharp intake of breath as Matt dropped the c-bomb. Sweary as he was, it was one of the few words I’d rarely heard him say. I felt my heart pinch with worry as Ella looked up from her drawing.

‘Daddy said a swear.’

Josh continued brrmming his cars along the sofa, shaking his head.

‘Really, Daddy.’

I smiled to hear my usual rebuke repeated. Matt didn’t swear as much as he used to, at least not within earshot of Josh and Ella, but a fair amount of cursing still went on, and the kids were always keen to join in the nagging. At least they hadn’t asked what it meant.

‘Alright in there?’

There was no reply. Sighing, I got to my feet and walked through the house.

Matt

I turned round to lean on the sink, breath heaving in my chest. This was the end, if it was back; the end of my normal life. How was I going to carry on now?

I heard Lau call out, but couldn’t answer her, couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, all I could do was stare into the sink as hot tears flowed down my face and dropped into the washing up bowl.

Laura

In the kitchen, Matt was standing with his back to me, leaning on the sink, shoulders heaving.

‘Oh Matt.’

I picked my way through the explosion of glass and beer that had spread across the floor, until I could stand behind him and fold myself round him.

Matt

I felt her behind me, putting her arms round my waist and resting her face on my shoulder, and I span round, into her arms, crushing her to me, needing her to be there, my safe place. I tried to speak, to tell her, but it came out in shudders and sobs.

‘Ih’s back … the fucking … bastard’s … back. I thought … ih … had … gone.’

Laura

I’d been dreading something like this for a couple of weeks; I’d noticed small signs – a slight slur in the speech, stumbles and trips, difficulty focussing on the pictures the twins brought back from school, the fear in his eyes.

‘I know, flower.’

Although both of us knew it never really went, just lay in wait.

Matt

Of course she knew. She always knew everything. She’d been waiting for me to know.

‘Daddy, why are you crying?’

Oh shit, the kids were at the door. Lau turned round as I took deep breaths and tried to dry my eyes. Josh and Ella were standing in the doorway, eyes wide at the sight of their blarting father and the puddle of glass and beer spread across the kitchen floor. I tried a kind of smile, while Lau spoke to them.

Laura

‘Don’t come in, kids, there’s broken glass. Daddy’s sad because he dropped his beer.’

The immediately practical Ella rolled her eyes.

‘But Daddy you can get another one in the fridge. Mummy can clean up the floor.’

Josh stayed silent, always the one to soak everything up first and ask questions later.

‘I know, Squeaks, I’m just getting a cloth. Shoo, now, Daddy will bring your squash in a minute.’

Reluctant to leave the scene of impressive carnage, Ella and Josh lingered for a moment, eyeing the tempting puddle, until I waved my hands at them to urge them away. As they trotted off I turned back to Matt, lifting my hand to his face and wiping away a stray tear. I needed to show him I wasn’t just making light of it, to reassure him quickly, but was aware of the likelihood of small ears listening beyond the kitchen.

‘In it together, yeah?’

Matt

I put my hand over hers, then moved my lips to her palm, kissing it gently. If there was anyone I wanted with me while my world was ending, it was Lau. Always Lau.

‘Don’t know what I’d do without you, Lau. You don’t deserve this.’

My voice was ragged, whispering.

Laura

‘Matthew Robert Scott, I’ve never heard such rubbish in all my life. When I signed on the dotted line, I knew exactly what I deserved, and it was you. It was always you, it will always be you. Now, a bit less nonsense and a bit more making blackcurrant squash to give to your gasping children while I clean up the floor. It needed a good mop anyway. And try not to track beery footprints through the house.’

Matt

I pulled her towards me while she was still talking, while she was still being practical and making it better, and we held each other tightly, as our bodies spoke of sorrow and pain and hard times to come, things that we couldn’t say while the children were within earshot.

‘Love you Lau.’

‘Love you too.’

So I made squash for the kids, and for the rest of the evening, until they went to bed, I was just Daddy, same old Daddy, who’d had a bit of a hissy fit when he spilt his beer, but came back in with the blackcurrant joking and smiling like it hadn’t happened. That was on the outside. On the inside I was folding into myself, how the fuck was I going to tell them, how the fuck were they going to understand their Daddy was going to become a fucking cripple who couldn’t walk, talk, pick them up, play football with them, reliably hit the right key on the computer … shit.

It all started hitting me, as Lau was upstairs with them and I sat on the sofa staring at nothing. This was worse, so much worse than before. I had two children who relied on me, not only to put food on their table, but to be their Daddy, and all the things that entailed. It wasn’t only going to be me who lost everything, it was going to be them too. I shrank into myself, trying to hide from it all.

Lau came back downstairs after tucking them in and reading them a story, and we sat curled up on the sofa, TV on, us silent. I knew she’d want to discuss it, and I nearly started a couple of times, but I didn’t even know where to begin.

Laura

After the children had gone to bed, we sat curled up on the sofa, a film on the TV that neither of us were watching, Matt’s arm round me as I lay against his chest. I heard him breathe in a couple of times as if he was going to say something, but he let the breath out without speaking.

‘Want to talk about it?’

Matt sighed. ‘No, not really. Ih’s not going to change anything, is ih. Can’t face ih just now. Need time.’

‘OK, whatever you need.’

I knew Matt well enough by now to know when to push him to talk and when he really did need the space he always asked for whether he needed it or not. At this moment there was a lot of thinking going on for him, now it was out in the open, and when he’d done that, I would push if I needed to. It wasn’t lost on me that I was experiencing MS from the other side, the side where – unlike at work – you couldn’t just detach from the pain and hurt of people, the side where you were in the middle of it all and there was no let up, no nine to five, no lunch break

‘Are you watching this?’

‘No, not really. Do you want to watch something else?’

‘No, I was thinking about going to bed.’

‘It’s still early.’

‘I didn’t necessarily mean to sleep.’

‘Oh.’

Matt’s face lit up, then darkened.

Matt

I looked at her expression, her come to bed eyes, and for a second she had me fooled. Then I knew what she was doing.

‘I don’t need a pity fuck, thanks.’

I realised straight away I’d offended her, that she’d been genuine. God, I was already retreating behind lashing out at the people I loved.

Laura

I tried not to be offended; he was feeling vulnerable and hitting out. Matt wasn’t the only one who maybe needed the reassurance that physical closeness always brought us, and it hadn’t been an offer, it had been a suggestion.

‘You don’t know me at all if you think there’s anything pitying in trying to get you into bed. You’re the hotty with the great bum that all my friends are jealous of, I just thought that rather than sitting here vegging in front of a crappy film neither of us are watching, we could maybe explore said bum in more comfort. Maybe explore my bum too. I found a muscle the other day.’

‘You did not!’

To my relief, Matt took the line I’d dangled; the opportunity to tease me.

Matt

She had a saucy smile, and she was throwing me a life-line. I caught it and clung on for dear life.

‘You have no muscles in your arse, that’s why it’s so lush.’

‘I’m telling you I found a muscle. It’s all those squats and lunges at the gym. Will says –’

Lau was doing really well at the gym. She didn’t need to do any of it, not for me, but she was getting fitter for her, and losing some of the curves she found most vexing.

‘Oh Will says, your uhmayzing personal trainer who gets to perv on you in your gym top. What does Willy-boy say?’

‘I’m not going to tell you now, I don’t think you’ll take Willy-boy seriously.’

She feigned a pout.

‘Does he say you’ve got a fantastic arse?’

‘No, but he –’

‘Then he’s an idiot. Come on, let’s go and see just where this imaginary bum muscle is.’

I grabbed her hand, losing myself in the moment, in the Matt and Lau of it, while I could. I pulled her out of her seat, and she ran past me up the stairs, as I followed, trying to tickle her newly toned arse.

I spent some considerable time looking for Lau’s bum muscle, using various inventive search methods, before pronouncing it invisible to the naked eye.

‘But hey, Lau, I bet you’ve hidden it somewhere else. Is it … here?’

Iz

Lord Above, just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more … hang on to your jam sandwiches folks.

Matt

I conducted a thorough investigation of her mouth with my tongue and lips that left us both breathless and flushed.

‘Well, Lau, there is a pretty good muscle in there, but it’s not the one I’m looking for. How about here?’

I kissed my way down her throat and had a good hunt around her breasts with my mouth and fingers. Lau tangled her fingers in my hair and moaned. How could I have thought this was out of pity? She was enjoying herself as much as I was.

‘Nope, no sign of a muscle in there either. Just have to keep on looking.’

Holding her gaze, I let my hand drift lower, brushing her belly button before settling between her legs. Lau twitched as I found her most sensitive spot, and she grasped my shoulders as I moved myself downwards and followed my fingers with my mouth. It was her favourite, and never failed to light her up; I grinned against her as it worked again.

My fingers probed lower and deeper, until they were in her, and I started to thrust. Lau clenched around me, inside her.

‘Whoa, there it is, that’s the muscle I was looking for. Naughty Willy-boy if he’s been working on this one!’

I knelt between her legs, continuing to thrust into her with my fingers, watching Lau writhe, building the heat as I gazed down at her. God she was awesome, and I wanted her so much.

‘Ready, Lau?’

‘Yeah, oh God, yeah.’

‘Work that body. Here we go.’

I slipped my fingers out and guided my hard-on into her. As I filled her, pushed into her, felt the familiar sensation, allowed it to blow my mind again, as it did every time, I started to thrust, slowly and rhythmically, so I could feel every part of her sliding and sparking against every part of me.

At first I propped myself up on my arms, so just our hips were touching, then her mouth was so appealing, I bent down and kissed her, wrapping her up in my arms as she folded her legs round my back and drew me deeper into her. My thrusts became more urgent and we both started to cry out before remembering the children and dropping the volume, but we stayed locked together, bodies slipping against each other, breathing hard, moaning our pleasure, and then coming, and coming and coming, plunging deep into each other, exploding with the release.

I clung on to Lau for a long time afterwards, wanting, needing to be as close to her as I could. After a while, it was overwhelming, the whole mess, and it started coming out, first in gulps, then shudders. I tried not to let go, but there was too much of it, and before long I was quivering against her, sobbing. Lau soothed me, stroking my back, kissing my hair, whispering nonsense to me, until I calmed down. I still held on as if I was drowning.

Lau was waiting, to see if I was going to say anything. This time I was.

‘I don’t wana lose this.’

‘Oh my love.’

I knew she wouldn’t say ‘you won’t’, because I had last time, and indeed the time before, and Lau never made empty promises.

‘Don’t mourn it before it’s gone. Make the most of it while it’s here.’

I sniffed and wiped my eyes.

‘Oh you’re right, you bloody cow, you always know what to say. Anyone would think you used to be a nurse or something.’

‘Still am a nurse, thanks.’

Lau was always very firm about the fact that even though she wasn’t working, she had trained as a nurse, and a nurse was what she would stay, come what may.

‘Yeah, OK, fair enough. Oh Lau, I’m sorry.’

I let go of her and rolled onto my back, with my arm over my face. Lau snuggled into my side with an arm over my chest.

‘What are you sorry about?’

‘All this. Fucking bastard MS, me fucking freaking, you having to be all ‘one step at a time’ when you just want to freak yourself. You know … Lau, you know you don’t have to stay, no one would blame you, least of all me, if you took the kids and went.’

It was something that had occurred to me as I thought about how it was going to affect them all. Surely it would be easier for them all if they could just get on with things without having to bother about me?

Lau pushed me away from her angrily, and her eyes were flashing fire.

‘What the hell are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere, and neither are Josh and Ella. You can stop this ‘poor me’ nonsense right now. Just for the record, as you seem to have forgotten, I love you. When I met you, you were having a flare-up of MS, so if I was going to bail out because of that, then would have been the time. How dare you think I care about you so little that I run, and take our children with me, at the first sign of something untoward? What sort of a person do you think I am?’

I closed my eyes, didn’t speak for a moment.

‘Sorry, Lau, didn’t think of it like that. Trying to be selfless.’

‘Yeah, I seem to remember you trying that before one time, and we nearly didn’t get together in the first place as a result, in fact, you nearly – well who knows what you might have done that night. The point is, there is no ‘selfless’ when it comes to our family, we are all together, we help each other and love each other and support each other, and need each other. If you even think of going it alone, that’s selfish, not selfless. We all need you. God, you are proper infuriating.’

I couldn’t look at her. My eyes were spilling tears again; I just didn’t deserve it, this love, this loyalty, when all I was going to be able to offer them, soon, was pain and unhappiness. Lau folded me up in her arms again, and I squeezed her tightly against me as I cried again. I could feel her strength pouring into me, and part of me felt selfish for taking it, but God how I needed it, how I needed her comfort, as she stroked my back and made soft noises in my ear. It all subsided after a time, but Lau carried on holding me, and we lay in the darkness and breathed together.

Just as I was starting to drift into the black, the door handle rattled. We didn’t have a lock on the door, but the twins had taken to visiting in the early hours, so we had put a chair in front of the door, so we at least had some warning. We must have woken them up.

Laura

‘Mummy.’

It was Ella. It usually was, and she would be closely followed by Josh, who didn’t like being left on his own in the room they still shared.

‘Go back to bed, Squeaks.’

Matt

Lau was stricter than me about letting them in, and at the moment was protecting me. I suddenly wanted them all here, our family together.

‘Can’t they come in, Lau? Four way cuddle would be great right now.’

Laura

I sighed. It sent all sorts of mixed messages, but sometimes other things were more important. I got out of bed and moved the chair. Ella stood outside the door, holding her teddy. As predicted, Josh was at her shoulder. Both were looking up at me with big sleepy eyes.

‘Come on then. No noise or giggling, now.’

I tried to be strict, but it was a treat to have us all snuggled up together. We’d all be tired tomorrow, but it wasn’t tomorrow yet, it was now. Ella and Josh trotted into the bedroom and jumped into the bed as Matt held the duvet open for them – there was just enough room for us all, Josh and Ella on the inside, Matt and me on the outside.

Matt

By the time the kids had rolled over a few times and spread out, one of us would be off to the guest room, usually Lau, but before that happened, we all smushed together, me starting a bit of tickling because Lau loved trying to make us stop and behave, and then kisses and cuddles before going to sleep. I folded them both up, one after the other, with big hugs. Josh, as usual, submitted willingly, but Ella would only stand it for a short while.

‘You’re squeezing me Daddy.’

Laura

Our children were so different; Ella always took the lead, asked questions, said what she wanted, did what she wanted, threw a tantrum when she didn’t get what she wanted, using pester-power and volume to see her needs were met. Josh was happier to follow, riding on his sister’s coat tails, picking up the crumbs she left behind. When Josh made a fuss, you knew it was really important.

I wondered how they would react to the return of Matt’s MS, and started to think about what we might say to them. There had been some really good children’s resources around when I worked in the MS team; I’d give them a ring and see if I could beg some freebies.

Eventually we settled down, and Matt, Josh and Ella fell asleep while I listened to the sound of their breathing. I dozed off eventually, but woke later, teetering on the edge of the bed, with Ella curled against my back, her knees digging into my kidneys; it was usually me who ended up in the spare room. Stifling a resigned sigh, I rolled out of bed and walked round the bed.

Matt

I woke up, arse hanging over the edge of the bed, to see Lau creeping out of the room.

‘Lau?’

‘Been squeezed out. See you tomorrow.’

‘Don’t go.’

I couldn’t bear the thought of this night, of all nights, without her.

‘There’s no room.’

‘Wait, then.’

She waited by the bed as I climbed out, disentangling myself from Josh.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Coming with you.’

‘We won’t both fit in the spare bed.’

‘Yeah we will. You and your muscly arse, me a skinny streak of nothing, plenty of room. Come on, we’ll wake them up if we stand here chatting.’

I couldn’t see her clearly, but I recognised the shape of her rolling her eyes at me as I followed her to the door.

Laura

We would have been better off taking Josh and Ella’s beds, but I knew Matt wanted to wrap himself up in me tonight, so we headed off to the spare room.

I woke early, cramped, neck stiff, shoved up against the wall. Matt was lying on his front, half hanging off the side of the single bed, head turned towards me, mouth open. His hair stuck out at wild angles, and I reached out and smoothed it, as I did most mornings.

I heard a noise from our room; it was Matt’s phone. It was set to go off every two minutes when he got a text, unless he read it. I decided to fetch it before it pinged again, to avoid waking Ella and Josh early, if possible. I carefully sat up and rearranged the duvet around Matt, before shuffling to the end of the bed and hopping off. Although I was trying to be quiet, I probably could have jumped up and down on the mattress without waking him, but it was a habit from being around the children.

The screen on Matt’s phone was lit up on his bedside table. I glanced at Ella and Josh, but they were dead to the world, Ella’s arm flung out across Josh’s chest. I looked down at the phone – it was a short text from Dec. I quickly carried the phone into the spare room before it pinged again.

It wasn’t unusual for Dec and Matt to text each other at all sorts of times of the day and night, sometimes it was a bit of a competition to see who could annoy the other the most, but something about this one made me try to wake Matt.

I tried shaking him gently, not wanting him to fall out of bed from his precarious perch. I tried speaking into his ear. I tried pinching him. The most I got was a mumbled curse and a move to a more comfortable position, away from the edge of the bed, as he rolled onto his back. As a last resort, I kissed him, using the full force of my tongue and lips to try and rouse him, tweaking his nipples as I did so.

Matt

I woke with Lau’s tongue in my mouth and her fingers tweaking my nipple. This was more like it, a proper wake-up call. Oh, but she pulled away as I started kissing her back. She shoved my phone in front of my face, but I didn’t understand.

‘Wha? No, c’mere, keep snogging.’

‘You’ve got a text from Dec.’

‘Wha? He can piss off, ih’s only –’

I took the phone and looked at the time.

‘– shit, Lau, ih’s only bloody five o’clock.’

‘Yeah, but I think you need to read it.’

I still wasn’t quite awake, and I ran a hand through my hair as I tried to gather my thoughts. I looked blearily at the phone, and clicked on the message.

‘Shit.’

‘What does he say?’

‘RU awake, need 2 talk. Urgent.’

‘Ring him then.’

No, no, no, I couldn’t cope with any more drama, not today, I needed time to get my head around things. I combed my hair with my fingers again, then lay down, holding my arm out for Lau to get back in beside me. She climbed in and cuddled up, as I hit ‘call’.

‘Hey, ih’s me.’

‘Hey mate. You’re awake, then?’

‘Well I am now, what’s the big emergency?’

I was hoping that maybe it was something relatively innocuous, like Amy was poorly and we needed to look after the kids while he was at training, although why he was calling this bloody early in the morning I had no idea.

‘Can I come over? I’m … I’ve got … I just need to tell you something.’

What the fuck? I didn’t like the sound of this.

‘Oh, well, I guess, yeah.’

‘Coffee would be good.’

‘OK, I’ll put the kettle on.’

‘Five minutes?’

‘Yeah, see you in a bit.’

Oh I didn’t like this at all. Dec wasn’t fucking about or anything. It was something pretty huge. I turned to Lau.

‘He’s coming round.’

‘Why?’

‘Said he needed to tell me something. Shit, ih sounds big, Lau.’

I heard the tremble in my voice. I knew what Lau’s response would be – don’t worry about it until you know for sure – but all sorts of possibilities were flooding into my mind, each one worse than the last. And on top of it all was me; me and the fucking bastard.

‘I don’t want him to know about … me, not just yet.’

‘OK, flower, but … he’ll notice eventually.’

‘Yeah. But not today. Please.’

‘Sure, of course, it’s totally up to you. I’ll go and put the kettle on, while you find some pyjama bottoms or something.’

Laura

I grabbed my dressing gown from our bedroom, and went quickly downstairs, as I heard a light tap on the door. I let Dec in, looking at him quizzically. He looked nervous, which was unlike him; he was usually laid back about everything.

‘Go through, flower.’

I gestured to the living room.

‘I’m just making a drink. Tea or coffee?’

‘Thanks, Lau, coffee would be great, it’s early for me.’

‘It’s early for all of us.’

‘Yeah, I know, sorry.’

‘Matt’s on his way down, just getting decent.’

‘Oh, good, wouldn’t want any indecency from Matt, not before breakfast anyway.’

Matt

Lau went downstairs to let Dec in while I found some trousers. I heard a light tap on the door, then Dec and Lau’s voices, then Lau went back into the kitchen. I sat upstairs, on the bed, for as long as I could, knowing I was avoiding whatever it was, knowing it would surely be better to know than to imagine. Finally, I made my way downstairs and into the living room, where Dec was waiting.

I kept telling myself it might not be anything bad. Last time I’d convinced myself it was, and they were getting married. Dec didn’t always consider the effect of how he did things on other people, yeah, who was I to judge. I should just wait.

But as I went into the living room and saw the look on Dec’s face, saw him look ill-at-ease, fiddling with his fingers, hardly able to meet my eyes, I knew. At least, I knew it wasn’t good.

Lau brought some coffee in, and then turned to go, but I wanted her here, needed her here while he told me whatever it was. I felt for her hand and looked up at her, begging her to stay with my eyes.

‘Stay, Lau.’

Lau looked at Dec, to check it was OK with him. He nodded back at her.

‘Yeah, Lau, you should hear this too.’

She sat next to me and squeezed my hand, trying to keep me calm. Dec looked down for a while, taking a few deep breaths. It was almost more than I could stand, waiting for him to spit it out.

‘Please, Dec, get on with ih, I’m imagining all sorts of terrible shit, put me out of my fucking misery.’

Dec looked up and met my eyes.

‘I’ve signed for West Coast Speeders.’

A jolt went through me, I felt it lift me out of my seat slightly. I’d been pretty sure he was going to tell me he’d signed for another club, had steeled myself for it, was expecting him to be on his way to London, maybe TomCats or Warriors, one of the big clubs. West Coast Speeders were in Australia. He was moving to the other side of the fucking world. I couldn’t speak, just looked at him. Dec filled the silence with more information, but I could hardly take it in. I was numb.

Laura

I felt the shock go through Matt. He didn’t say anything, just looked back at Dec. Dec couldn’t possibly know the hammer blow he had just dealt Matt, with his MS symptoms returning – how much Matt would have relied on having Dec around.

Matt

‘It’s going to be announced at nine this morning, I wanted you to know before you went to work, or you heard it on the fucking telly or something.’

I still just stared at him, it was Lau who spoke.

Laura

Still nothing from Matt, although I had a question.

‘Where are West Coast wotsits?’

I’d vaguely heard of the team, but didn’t think they were in the league that Raiders played in.

Matt

Oh, Lau wouldn’t know, she knew fuck all about rugby anyway, let alone which continent teams played on.

‘Australia. Perth. It’s where I lived when I was little.’

‘Australia? Oh Dec.’

Laura

I squeezed Matt’s hand with all my might, as my eyes filled with tears. Amy and Dec were our best friends, our children played together and fought together, in and out of each other’s houses all the time. I couldn’t imagine our lives without them just up the road.

Matt

I looked at Lau, and saw tears in her eyes. It wasn’t just me this was going to affect. Amy was Lau’s friend, their kids were in and out of our house all the time, what would Beth and Jay think? What about Rose? Considering the impact this news would have on people who weren’t me made me slightly less self-obsessed, made me think of something to say. Dec was sitting there looking miserable and tense, when this was great for him, an incredible opportunity.

‘Didn’t you support Speeders when you were a kid?’

I tried to keep my tone light, but I heard the catch in my voice. At least I wasn’t spouting unintelligible bollocks.

Dec looked relieved that I had spoken, and that I was acting normal.

‘Yeah. I used to train with them as well, before I moved to England, with their juniors. It’s like my last chance, I’m getting older and don’t always make the first team here any more. If I don’t go now, they might not ask again, and it’s like a childhood dream kind of thing. And there’s a small chance, if I’m playing in Oz, that I could get the call from the Wallabies.’

‘That’s great for you, mate. Fucking brilliant.’

With a huge effort, I managed a smile for him. He was my mate, almost my brother, and if I couldn’t fake a bit of happiness on his behalf, I wasn’t really worth much. A few more tears spilled down Lau’s face.

Laura

I saw the effort Matt made to be happy for his friend, his brother, and was so proud of him, but I couldn’t match his faked composure, or stop a few tears spilling down my face.

‘We’ll miss you.’

Matt

She said it for me, for all of us.

‘I know, Lau. I can’t really believe we’re going to be moving away. I’ve lived here, in this city for, well it feels like my whole life. Everything I know is here. It’s scaring the shit out of me, and we’ll miss you guys too, but it won’t be forever. I’ve only got two or three more years left of playing before I’m too knackered, and I’m only signing for a year to start with.’

‘When are you going, mate?’

‘At the end of the season. May, sometime, depending on what Raiders get up to in the league. I might be able to fit a couple of games in over there before their season finishes.’

Shit, that was really soon. I wasn’t going to have any time to take it in, get used to it. Shit. I squeezed Lau’s hand so tightly I saw her wince, and loosened my hold slightly.

‘Holy fuck, that’s only a few weeks – why so soon?’

‘Well their season’s already started over there. I’m going to get stuck right in as soon as I arrive, but I’ve got to finish up here with Raiders first.’

‘I assume you’ve told Jay.’

‘Yeah, I just rang him. I’ve only just sorted it out – time difference and all that. Been on the phone to agents and admin people all bloody night, now I’ve got to go in for training. Gonna take a bit of stick, I should think.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Oh, you know Jay, not at his best for early morning calls. But he was OK. It was Beth who was in floods. Oh shit, this is going to be so hard, telling everyone. I should go, I’ve got to call a few people, then go round to see Rose on my way to training. Really, really not looking forward to that one.’

If I thought I wasn’t handling it well, I only had to think of Rose to put things in perspective. Rose had no family of her own, apart from a sister and nephew in Wales, and Dec, Amy and their children were like her own children and grandchildren. She was going to be destroyed.

Dec stood up to go, and Lau went out with him. I gave him as good a smile as I could muster, but it was a pretty feeble effort. As soon as he left the room, I dropped my head back on the sofa and closed my eyes, the news pounding through me, threatening to overpower me. The fucking bastard was back, and Dec wasn’t going to be here. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fucking fair.

Laura

I showed Dec to the door. He looked at me and lowered his voice.

‘Is he OK?’

‘Yeah, we’re both just surprised. And sad for us. Great for you, though, flower. Exciting.’

‘He just seems a bit …’

Dec’s words trailed off and he shrugged. I knew he meant more than just being upset. He would have noticed the same things I had over the past week or so, but I decided to play innocent.

‘He’ll be fine, once we get used to it. One of Beth’s huge parties will sort things.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, oh fuck, she’s going to throw a humdinger isn’t she. Take care, Lau.’

‘You too. Have a good day.’

Matt

Lau came back in and tried to take my hand, but I just couldn’t do it, didn’t want to touch anyone, be with anyone, just needed time to process it all, put it somewhere it didn’t all hurt so fucking much. Maybe tomorrow I’d laugh at myself for being such a melodramatic wanktard, but today it was a pain deep in my gut, and I needed to be there in the middle of it, sore, bruised and miserable. I pulled away from Lau, curled my knees up to my chest and turned away from her.

‘Just wana be on my own for a bit.’

To her credit, she didn’t try to get me to talk, or even try to stay with me.

‘OK, then. Here, put this round you so you don’t get cold.’

I hardly noticed while she put the throw from the back of the sofa over me, and left the room.

I spent the next couple of hours hovering over the pit of despair, the same one that had tried to drag me into it before, when Dec had climbed in and pulled me out. Except now he couldn’t, because he was the reason I was here, and I couldn’t let him know how devastated I was, I couldn’t tell him I needed him here like I needed all of them here, that him fucking off to another continent was the worst news I’d ever heard. Because he had his own life, and he deserved it, he’d worked hard for it, and fuck knows he’d spent enough time in the past propping me up and being there for me. I wasn’t about to make him feel guilty about going and making the most of life while he had the opportunity.

So I hovered there, on the edge, nearly falling in, the darkness beckoning, and then it crossed my mind, just floated in there, what I was supposed to be doing today. I’d managed to toss everything else out to make room for my enormous bout of self-pity, but it suddenly occurred to me that I was supposed to be giving a presentation this morning. People were relying on me. Maybe I’d been considering taking the day off to bury myself under the duvet, I hadn’t really thought about it coherently, but with a plummeting heart, I realised I was going to have to get myself into some kind of shape, slap on some smart clothes and a professional attitude, and tell a room full of people about shit that right at that moment I couldn’t have cared less about.

It was almost more than I could bear, and I seriously considered calling in sick, but there was no one else who could do it, and it had taken ages to sort out this date so everyone who needed to be there was there. I was going to have to pull myself together and do it. Maybe working would distract me.

I looked at the time. Gone seven, so Lau would be up soon, ready to start chivvying Ella and Josh. I rubbed my hands over my face, trying to disperse both my tiredness and the churning that was going on inside my head. Things needed doing, the day needed to start, so I got up and went into the kitchen to make some breakfast.

Laura

Ella woke me up, holding my phone, which was bleeping insistently, to my ear. It was seven eighteen and the alarm had been going for a minute.

‘Mummy wake up your phone is making me cross.’

I took the phone and turned it off.

‘Sorry, Squeaks, I forgot it was in there. There, all better.’

‘Where’s Daddy?’

‘Oh, I think he’s … downstairs already. Shall we go and find him?’

Ella nodded and took my hand as I got out of bed and made for the stairs.

‘Is Josh still asleep?’

I peered into our bedroom as I passed, and could make out Josh’s sleeping form. He was clutching Ella’s teddy.

‘Yes, he was saying things last night.’

Josh often sleep-talked. He slept more deeply than Ella, who could wake at the slightest sound, and she often reported the weird things her brother chattered about in the night.

We went downstairs together; I was a bit apprehensive about what I would find in the living room, how Matt would be, but when Ella and I opened the door, he wasn’t there, and the throw had been folded up and returned to the back of the sofa. I heard noises from the kitchen.

‘Hey, Squeaks, if we’re lucky Daddy’s making breakfast. Do you want Weeties?’

Ella considered, her morning breakfast choices being the first of many things she weighed up seriously before continuing her morning routine.

‘Coco Pops.’

‘OK, I’ll tell Daddy.’

Ella continued into the living room, and I made my way into the kitchen, where Matt was busy making his breakfast. I looked at his face; he looked terrible, dark circles under his eyes, pale and drawn.

Matt

Lau came in on her own, Ella having gone into the living room to turn the TV on. I carried on making tea and toast, putting more bread in the toaster for Lau and getting the Coco Pops out for Ella. It all felt automatic, like it wasn’t really me doing it. I felt dreadful, only half alive. Lau came over and looked at me, studying my face.

Laura

‘Matt, you look awful. Maybe you shouldn’t go to work today.’

‘I’ve got to, I’m doing a presentation about the new GPS, to everyone, players, coaches, admin, the whole bloody club.’

‘Can’t Cory or Jenna do it?’

‘Cory’s on a course and Jenna’s on holiday.’

‘Oh. Are you sure you can do it?’

‘Yeah, Lau, I’ve not got a bloody choice. I’m just tired, I didn’t sleep after Dec went, and not much before. I’ve been wiped before, I’ll be OK.’

‘Here, let me do that, then.’

I took the kettle out of his hand, noticing the shake as he held it.

‘Ella’s up, Josh is still fast asleep, whole bed to himself.’

‘Go Hippo, sleep hard.’

Matt tried a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

‘We’ll talk later, flower.’

Matt

I closed my eyes briefly, unable to face the thought of all the talking, fussing, I was going to have to endure once they all got wind of it. Then I nodded and took Ella’s cereal to her.

I dragged myself through getting ready. None of it seemed real, it was all overlaid with a sense of being outside my own life looking in, wishing so hard things were different that I was almost detaching myself from reality.

I was ready about the same time as Josh and Ella. I usually took them to school on my way to work, and today was no different. Lau had got them ready, and she gave them their sandwich boxes as I stood by the door.

Lau come over and straightened my tie, giving me a kiss as she did so. There was a lot we weren’t saying to each other, not only because the children were right there, but because we both knew I wasn’t going to talk about it yet.

‘Must be an important presentation, for you to get all togged up in your posh.’

‘Important enough. The CEO’s gona be there, not exactly one where I can wear my cargo shorts and ‘I’m with Stupid’ t-shirt.’

‘You look lovely, you should dress up more often. Not just for work.’

She gave me a meaningful look and I did my best to flash her a smile

‘Noted. See you later, Lau. Kiss your mum, kids.’

Lau bent down to Josh, who gave her a big cuddle and a kiss, and to Ella, who pecked her on the cheek, eager to get going and see her friends. If I could just focus on this, the ordinary stuff, I’d be OK. Ordinary was fine; it was big, huge, life-changing shit that was hard. I chatted to them both in the car and saw them into the playground, then continued my journey to work, where it became a bit more difficult to feel ordinary.

Laura

I waved them all off and went to pack my gym bag. I usually went with Amy, as we had a Pilates class together later on in the morning, but she had texted to say that with all the events of last night, she wasn’t going.

87. Sticky drama

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

Iz

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

Matt

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

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

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

Laura

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

‘Good morning.’

‘Heh Lau. I got a hard-on. Woohoo.’

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

Matt

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

Laura

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

‘Remember what we talked about?.’

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

Matt

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

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

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

Laura

I’d known this would be difficult.

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

Matt

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

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

‘Well, let’s start slowly.’

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

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

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

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

Laura

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

‘Impressive, flower.’

Matt

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

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

‘I think it deserves something special.’

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

‘Oh yeh, Lau. Dohnt stop.’

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

Oh, Lau, you are just the best.

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

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

‘Mmm.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘If you feel you must.’

‘Ih’s very important.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Will I hahv any more any time soon?’

‘Who knows? Does it feel likely?’

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

‘Good.’

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

‘What side of which bargain?’

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

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

‘Whoa, you’re ready, aren’t yuh.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I did not pohlish the boxes.’

‘Really?’

‘Noh. I dusted the boxes.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why?’

‘Same way yuh collect shoes.’

‘I wear my shoes.’

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

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

‘You’ve been rifling through my wardrobe?’

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

‘Oh you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

‘I need to pick up my post anyway.’

‘Don’t forget yuhr jumper.’

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

Me: So not freaking out.

Or

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura

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

‘Hi flower.’

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

She sounded upset.

‘Of course. What’s happened?’

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

‘Oh Amy. I’ll be right there.’

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

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

‘Oh Amy, what’s happened?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded, more tears rolling down her face.

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

‘Shit. Is he OK?’

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

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

‘Yeah, I’ve found it all.’

‘Do you want me to come back?’

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

Laura

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

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

Matt

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

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

‘OK. See you later.’

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

‘Why have we got to go?’

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

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

‘So we’re staying here.’

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

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

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

Laura

I called Beth.

‘Hello Laura. How are you?’

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

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

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

‘Oh no, poor Amy. Is she OK?’

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

‘What happened to her dad?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

‘Yep.’

‘Scored any tries recently?’

‘I got one in training last week.’

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

He tapped on the door, and we waited.

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

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

‘Alright, Bill?’

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

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

‘Oh, hey Cal. Shall I get your dad?’

I spoke before he could shut the door.

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

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

‘Oh, OK mate, I’ll get him.

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

‘Hey Matt. Alright, Cal?’

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

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

‘How are things?’

‘Not sure. Better go, mate.’

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

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

I nodded.

‘I’ll come and get her later.’

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

He nodded.

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

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

‘Cheers mate. Appreciated.’

He turned and jogged away down the corridor.

The door opened again, and Jay stood there.

‘Hey Matty.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘S’pose.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks Matty.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hey Lau. How’s ih been?’

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

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

‘Of course.’

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

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

‘She’s soh cute when she’s asleep.’

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

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

‘You don’t mean tha.’

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

‘No, I don’t.’

She grinned mischievously.

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

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

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

‘OK, but I haven’t made anything.’

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

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

‘Mm, sounds yummy. Oh, did they win?’

‘Wha?’

I’d nearly forgotten where I’d been.

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

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

I grinned at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura

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

Matt

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

‘Hey mate. How’s it going?’

‘Ames’ dad died.’

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

‘Oh no. Shit. Sorry. How is she?’

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

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

‘Hey lovely girl.’

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

‘Poor Amy. Where is she now?’

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

‘Bad luck, mate.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lau and I both nodded.

‘Probably the earlier the better. Ten OK?’

‘Fine. We’ll meet you there.’

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

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

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

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

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

Laura

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

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

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

Matt

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Matt …’

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

Laura

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

Matt

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

Although sometimes I was going to compromise.

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

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

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

‘Lau – you did ih.’

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

‘It’s Scotty time. Come on.’

Iz

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

Matt

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

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

‘It’d better not.’

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

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

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

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

‘Fuck me, you’re so wet, Lau.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Really?’

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

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

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

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

‘Too bad. I believe I win.’

‘How d’you work that out?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura

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

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

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

‘OK. Let’s.’