80. So sorry

In which things are torn asunder, and a rescue mission takes place.

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Matt

I saw how it was now, could just imagine how Matt the Lad would have sucked up the attention from a woman with ‘a thing’ for him, used her and dropped her. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how long it might have repercussions, but it was undeniable that Lau was now being affected by it. It couldn’t happen. I wasn’t going to let my selfish former life to fuck up Lau’s current life. I wasn’t going to allow it. I was going to have to stop, stop all of it, right now, stop thinking about myself, before I did her any more damage. You shouldn’t risk friendships for skanky blokes you’d only just met.

What had I just been thinking? How could I have been congratulating myself about being there for Lau, when all the time I’d fucked this up for her? I couldn’t do it any more, how much more shit was there to come out and mess with the people I cared about? I’d be better off out of it all, away from anyone I could hurt with my past, present or future. I didn’t quite know what that meant, I was still reeling with it, as if the realisation had drenched me with a bucket of ice water.

Lau turned to look at me.

‘Matt?’
I shook my head.

‘I can’t jus stop bein a bastahd can I. Ih carries on, all the shih. Pehpl still think I’m like tha, yuh must still think I’m like tha. Wha I did tuh her, an plenty of others, still fucking pehpl up, even tho I’m not like tha any more Serves meh righ. Prohbly deserve everything Ih’v goh now.’

Laura

‘No!’

I was instantly on my feet, then kneeling by him on the floor, needing to face him, show him it wasn’t true.

‘Nobody deserves to get ill. Nobody deserves to be unhappy, whatever they’ve done. And especially if they’ve tried to change. Matt, you’ve been around a few years, you know the reputation you’ve got, I expect you know what people say about you. Only you know what’s true and what’s not, and only you can show people that you’re different. You’ve showed me. You’ve showed me a caring, sensitive man who is facing up to a hell of a lot of stuff, and has been trying to do it on his own. You can’t change what you’ve done or been in the past, but you can know in your heart how you are now.’

Matt

I couldn’t meet her eyes. She didn’t know me, not really. She’d only seen my charming side, the side that was trying to get in her knickers. Shit, it was as if I hadn’t changed at all. It was a punch to the guts to realise what a selfish bastard I was being, deciding this was the woman for me, with no thought for whether it was what she wanted. She certainly didn’t need it, a lifetime of my past and my future ruining things for her.

I’d surfed along on a wave of dreams, only thinking of how much better my life would be with her, not how much worse hers would be with me. I’d spent the last two days justifying it to her and to myself, saying how much I’d changed. I had hardly found out a thing about her, except her favourite colour, her favourite chocolates and her favourite film, all the other talking had been me, taking.

‘I dunno Lau. Maybe I dohnt deserve yuh, this, us. Yuhr pretty fucking top notch. Yuh should have someone who ihnt a complete tosser an a fucking cripple intuh the bargain.’

She reached out, held my chin and turned my face towards her. I slowly lifted my eyes to hers, but could hardly bear to look into them.

Laura

I could sense a distance between us that hadn’t been there before.

‘You know what, I do actually deserve someone flipping top notch.’

Matt

I felt my lips twitch into an almost-smile at her paraphrase of my swear. God she was great. I so wished she wasn’t, this would be so much easier.

Laura

‘That person is you. I’ve only known you – what – two days. I hardly know you, but I completely know you. I’m sure there’ll be hiccups, but you tick every single one of my boxes. Please, Matt, please don’t talk about yourself like that.’

Matt

I shook my head again, and lowered my eyes. There was no other way to think about myself. I had to be real, to stop deluding myself that I had anything to offer her. I slowly sat up and leaned forwards, my hands covering my face.

‘I hahvnt changed as much as I thoht. I’m still doin ih. I’m doin it tuh yuh. Not one nigh stands, buh bein selfish, rushin in, takin. You dohnt need meh fucking up yuhr friends, yuhr job, yuhr life. Shih, Lau, I can’t believe I dihnt see ih.’

I stood up. I had to do it now, before it was too hard. It was already nearly too hard.

‘I’m gona go. I can’t do this tuh yuh.’

Laura

‘No! What do you mean? You haven’t done anything. I want this.’

Oh God, he’d stood up. He was going. What? What just happened? As he started to walk out of the room, I got up off the floor and followed him, holding onto his arm to stop him leaving.

Matt

I shrugged her off and walked up the stairs, feeling numb. In fact, I could hardly feel my feet as I made them take me away.

Laura

He carried on, out of the room, up the stairs, me behind him all the way trying to make him talk to me, trying to stop him, terrified he would get to the front door and go.

Matt

Lau was frantic, trying to make me talk to her, but her superpower had deserted her, and I shut my ears to her so I wouldn’t be persuaded. I needed to think of what I had to do, for her, not what I wanted to believe, for me, and Lau was saying all the things that would make leaving too hard to do.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I stopped and turned to face her. I couldn’t just walk out, say nothing. I had never felt so miserable.

Laura

There was so much sorrow on his face, it nearly made my knees buckle.

Matt

‘Lau, I just can’t do ih. I can’t fuck up yuhr life like I fucked up so many pehpl’s. I was jus sailin along in a little Matt world, enjoying yuh, not thinking abouh wha ih meant. Call yuhr friend. Tell her – oh fuck ih, I dohnt know, tell her I dumped yuh too, or make ih up, say wha yuh like. Dohn ruin ih wih her fuh meh. Dohn fuck yuh job up fuh meh. Ih’m not woth ih. Sohry Lau.’

I shut my eyes against the expression on her face, which was of anguish. She’d see, pretty soon, that she had no reason to be upset, that she was better off.

Laura

‘No, Matt, don’t go, please –’

He turned and opened the front door and walked out. I didn’t know what to do, couldn’t think. I called after him.

‘If you go, that’s what screws my life up. I can deal with the rest, I can’t deal with it without you. If you go, you’ve just done to me exactly what you did to Rachel.’

Matt

That nearly stopped me in my tracks. I hadn’t seen it like that, what a close parallel there was. But it didn’t change things. She’d get over it. There wasn’t really anything to get over, was there. I carried on walking until I was out of sight of her house.

Laura

I saw him break his stride as I shouted out, but he didn’t stop and he didn’t look back, just walked up the road.

My legs went from under me before I could think about whether to follow him, and I fell to my knees by the door, the tears beginning to flow down my face, as I started to sob. Hardly able to breathe, I buried my face in my hands and wept, the realisation that Matt had gone – just walked out of my life as quickly as he’d walked into it – hitting me hard.

I sat by the open front door, crying, for a long time, then my knees began to hurt, and I stood, closed the door and dragged myself to the bedroom where I lay on the bed, shuddering sobs shaking me every so often, tears continuing to course down my face, soaking the pillow.

I barely understood it. We had promised to hold hands – had we said forever? I wasn’t sure I could remember clearly, but it felt like it. I was still reeling from the stupendous orgasm. Then that text from Rachel changed everything, made him think he’d somehow ruined things for me. I wanted to make him see he’d done the opposite, but I didn’t know how. I doubted he would answer if I called him. He would still be on his way home. But the phone seemed like my best bet. I tried to dry my eyes, and went downstairs in search of my own phone.

I called up Matt’s name on the screen and pressed call. As I expected, it went to voicemail:

‘Yeh ih’s Matt. I’m suhr I’m stihl alihv, buh prohbly jus wana bih of peace an quieh. Lehv a mehsage an I’ll cahl yuh.’

I tried leaving a message, but wasn’t really sure what I was saying, and it felt incoherent and hysterical.

‘Matt, please listen to me. I don’t know why you think you’ve messed up my life. You’ve done the opposite. The last couple of days have been just the best. You’re the best. Tonight, this evening, with you was incredible. Please don’t do this, please don’t take it away from me. I want to hold your hand, I’m doing it now, across the city. Please call me, please. Please talk about this. Please.’

I ran out of words and hung up on his voicemail. I realised I sounded like a desperate dumped woman, but that was how I felt, and for good measure I sent several texts. I had never done this, begged a man to take me back, in my life, but I had no pride where Matt was concerned. He had walked off with a large chunk of my heart, and I couldn’t bear the thought of being without him.

‘Matt, please call me. Please don’t do this. You are incredible.’

‘I’m still holding your hand.’

‘Please come back, I miss you.’

‘Bruce has just realised he’s dead people. I know how he feels.’

The last one was admittedly melodramatic, but I was getting increasingly desperate. None of it brought any reply. I hadn’t expected it to, but I’d needed to try.

Matt

Once I was far enough away, and there was no sign of her coming after me, I sagged to the ground, leaning up against a wall. I heard my phone ringing, with Lau’s tone, but ignored it, and then it pinged with a text, from Lau, so I turned my phone off.

I felt like I had ripped my own insides out. Noble self-sacrifice or not, that was possibly the fucking hardest thing I had ever had to do, and it was coming close to destroying me. Over the last couple of days I’d built this little fantasy up in my head, of how it would be me and Lau, together forever, holding hands into the sunset, all that shit that I never went for. I had let myself be swept along with it, I had swept Lau along with it, and it had become my world, in that short space of time. Now, without it, I was alone again and it hurt, caused me physical pain somewhere in my gut.

I don’t know how long I sat there, staring at nothing, attracting strange looks from people walking past. Eventually my bum went numb, matching my heart, and I realised I was going to have to get home somehow. Calling any of my bloody interfering family was not going to happen, and the thought of another two hour bus journey was equally unthinkable. So I called a taxi firm and waited for what felt like hours before spending twenty quid getting across the city and back to my flat.

Laura

Feeling empty, I cleared up my plate of dinner from earlier and put Matt’s beer bottle in the recycling bin. I didn’t want to do anything else, so I turned off the TV and went upstairs to bed, taking my phone with me. As I lay down, another bout of crying swept over me, and I sobbed until I wore myself out with it, and drifted off into a broken sleep.

I went over it all, between the dozes: what I could have done differently, how I could have handled it better, what I could have learnt from where things had gone wrong before, but I couldn’t come up with anything from my past experiences that helped. To be honest, I had never felt like this before. I hadn’t had loads of boyfriends, just a handful of reasonably nice blokes who had been alright, but weren’t The One, especially Bryan the Smackhead, oh and Ferdi the Chauvinist Pig. No one who had made me feel like I did about Matt, like I would fight to my dying breath to be with him. This all tumbled around in my head between snatches of sleep and bouts of crying.

Matt

I hardly noticed time passing as I sat on my own in the flat, while the light slowly faded around me; all I could think of was what a complete mess I’d made of my whole life. I had no one to blame but myself, although I tried everyone on for size before I came to that conclusion.

First on the rap sheet was my dad. He’d bloody died before I knew him, and that must have fucked me up in all kinds of hidden ways. Then Mum, well, she always let me get away with murder, never told me I was being inappropriate, or that she was disappointed in me, although I knew she wasn’t a great fan of Matt the Lad. Beth, well, if Beth had just once kept her nose out and let me get on with things, I might not have felt the need to go it alone so much. And Jay, he was at the root of a lot of it, with his macho silences, his never talking about shit, his being older, better, more successful than me. Lastly, Dec. He’d been as fucked up as me when we met, but he’d sorted his shit out and rubbed my nose in his sortedness every opportunity he got.

And then I got real, and stopped blaming them all. My dad could take no blame. Mum always let me know, not necessarily in so many words, but with a look here and a sigh there, when she thought I’d gone too far. Beth was kind and good at heart, and she irritated me more because she was usually right than because she was inherently annoying. Jay couldn’t help being older than me, and he never said or acted like he thought he was better than me. And he had given up his job to come and look after me when I needed him. Dec was just about the best mate anyone could have, and was so far from rubbing my nose in anything. He always made time for me, even though he had his family and his rugby. Shit, I was a selfish tosser.

I sat and stared into the dark, and thought hard about just what I was going to do, then I lined up my options on the counter.

I was seriously fucked up, I knew that. Not just with the bastard MS, but psychologically. My life felt out of my control, I was falling, spinning, from a great height. Lau had stabilised me for a while, but I didn’t have her any more, and the spiralling just got worse. Maybe if I gave Adam another go. He had seemed like a good bloke, and had talked some sense. So, he was an option.

There was my family. There was always my family. I spent a lot of time moaning about them, but really, they were fucking awesome, and they would do anything for me. I loved them all, loved being a part of the huge sprawly mass of people that Jay and Beth had gathered to them. They were part of me and I was part of them, and I’d do as much for them as they would for me. And the kids – God I loved those kids. So, the next option was embrace the family, stop being an arse about it, let them love me.

And finally. It was hard to think about, because it would be the end, and it would be terrifying. But maybe the world was better off without me, and maybe I was better off without the world. I already knew how I would do it, I had told Lau. Painkillers and whisky, enough to finish it with a deep sleep. I knew how much would do it, just let me drift off, I had found out. I knew they were all terrified I would do it one day, somehow, some way. And maybe, just maybe … so that was a third option.

I lined them up on the counter: Adam’s business card. Family photos. All the painkillers I possessed, my bastard MS meds and a large bottle of Jack Daniels. Then I sat and looked at them, thinking, considering, wondering.

I had been staring into the darkness for – what? Hours? I don’t know. It was still dark, quiet, I still didn’t have any answers, only options. I was half asleep, possibly totally asleep, in some kind of trance, and I couldn’t sense the time passing. I had laid my head on my arms, sitting at the table, and I could easily have been asleep. I was drifting, in the dark, waiting for some kind of revelation. Waiting for the spinning to stop and the arrow to point the way.

Laura

It must have been about three in the morning when I suddenly opened my eyes into the dark and knew I had to go over there. To Matt’s flat. Now. It felt urgent, it felt right. Matt – Matt was The One. What was I doing lying here in bed without him? Whyever had I let him just walk out of here? I needed to be with him, sorting this out, right now. God, I was angry too. How dare he walk out on me, just go, not even listen to me? He was going to get a piece of my mind. No one did that to me, just trampled all over my feelings.

Full of purpose, I jumped out of bed, pulling my discarded jeans on and a sweatshirt over the top of my sleeping shirt, grabbed my keys, ran to my car and drove across the city to Avondale.

As I pulled up in the car park, I did stop and briefly wonder what on earth I was doing here, at this hour, or even at all. The certainty I’d felt twenty minutes ago had faded a little, and I was less sure. But I was here now. I got out and made my way over to the rank of doorbells outside the entrance. I leaned on MRS. There was no reply.

Matt

The night silence was shattered by the sound of my buzzer. Who the fuck was that? It had happened before, and it was kids, fucking about. I ignored it, but it went on and on, for seconds, then minutes, then it got into a rhythm and I just shut it out for a bit. It was bound to be annoying Mrs Bartlett upstairs enough that she’d come down and tell me off tomorrow. If I was still here tomorrow …

Laura

I stood back to see if any lights went on, on the second floor, but it remained in darkness. I leaned on the bell again, for longer. And then again, and again. I must have pressed the bell over and over again for ten minutes. Finally, when I was almost certain he was either not at home, or was wearing ear plugs, I got the result I wanted.

Matt

Eventually, I got pissed off with it, after a lot longer than it would normally have taken to piss me off. I got up and pressed the button.

‘Fuck off, whoever the fuck yuh are.

‘It’s Laura.’

Shit. No. I couldn’t see her, she would make me change my mind. I was doing this for her. She wouldn’t understand, and she needed to stay out of it.

‘Lau – I can’t – goh away. Plehs.’

‘No. I’m going to ring your bell all night until you let me in. I might start ringing your neighbours’ bells as well.’

Oh bollocks, not at this time of night, she could give someone a heart attack.

‘Fuck ih. Wha do yuh wan?’

‘I want to see you.’

‘Why?’
‘Because I miss you.’

No, I wasn’t having that. I didn’t want her here confusing me, making me go back on it, making me want her. I needed to send her away, tell her how it was.

‘Go away, Lau. Yuhr better off withouh meh.’

‘I’m not. I’m much, much worse off. You don’t get to say what I need, that’s up to me.’

‘I’m a stubborn fucking bastahd, you wohnt win this.’

Laura

‘It’s not a competition. And if you think you’re more stubborn than me, you’re in for a surprise. OK, I think Pinky, or is it Jeff, is going to be the first one I press …’

I was desperate enough to do it, too. I had a whole row of buzzers to press – someone would let me in, if only to shut me up, although I might get a bit of abuse from annoyed residents.

Matt

Oh for fuck’s sake. Pinky, or Jeff, or Mr Critchley as I knew him, was eighty seven and would struggle out of bed to answer his buzzer, even if Lau had moved on to someone else. And she’d call him Jeff, and he’d let her in, and who knew what havoc she’d wreak trying to get into my flat if I didn’t let her in. Once she was inside, she’d start banging on doors.

Well alright, I could let her in, I didn’t have to talk to her, did I? Surely I could do strong and silent. For the sake of Mr Critchley, then. I pressed the buzzer, opened my front door and sat back down, elbows on the table, head in my hands.

Laura

I heard the door click, and quickly pushed it open, amazed that I’d done it, I’d got in, and I headed up the stairs. At the top, Matt’s door was slightly ajar, but he wasn’t standing there waiting for me. I pushed it open, the light from the hallway the only thing illuminating the room, and saw him sitting at his small dining table, head in his hands.

Matt

I didn’t look up when she walked in, I didn’t look up when she put a lamp on, and I didn’t look up when she sat across the table from me. When she stroked my fingers, I took them away from my face and looked into her eyes, because I wanted her to believe me, to see it in my eyes that I wasn’t going to back down, because I was right. I hadn’t expected to see that much sadness in her eyes, though, and it nearly changed my mind. My strong and silent crumbled.

‘I dohnt wana talk abouh this, Lau. Yuh should jus go. We’ve only known each other a couple of days, it wohnt beh tha bad after a while, we’ll forgeh.’

This was a complete lie. I was never going to get over this, over letting Lau go. I would never forget her.

Laura

If his eyes hadn’t been saying the complete opposite, I might have been convinced. But I realised this was the reason I’d needed to be here. His eyes would tell me what I needed to know.

‘You told me you’d found something you didn’t know you’d lost, but had always needed. How can you walk away from that?’

Matt

I had told her that, it was still true, I would always need her, but I couldn’t have her, it would be wrong to do it.

‘I nehd tuh. I can’t hurt another person, I’ve spent the last fuck knows how lohng being a fucking bastahd, I cahnt duh it any mohr.’

Laura

‘So are you never going to have another relationship again?’

He looked at me and shrugged. He hadn’t thought about it. He was making a gesture without thinking about the implications. Alright, that gave me something to work with.

Matt

Who knows? I might not even be here tomorrow, then what would it matter?

Laura

‘Matt, we’ve found each other. It’s been intense and fast, and I’m on the one hand completely overwhelmed and on the other completely terrified and oh my God what are all those pills doing on your counter?’

I had just noticed them, a huge bottle of paracetamol, packets of ibuprofen, some solpadeine and a few boxes of prescription drugs. They were stacked next to a large bottle of Jack Daniels. Matt closed his eyes and tilted his head back.

Matt

She had just noticed them, and I heard a note of panic enter her voice. She looked at me, terrified. I closed my eyes, so I couldn’t see her fear.

‘Matt? Oh my God.’

I hadn’t definitely decided. It was an option.

Laura

I was frantically trying to remember my talking someone down from suicide training, not that we’d had any specific training in that, but it had come up numerous times in various courses we’d done. There was something about remaining calm; there wasn’t a lot about if it was someone you were personally involved with, someone who was about to make the most ridiculously stupid decision of his life.

‘Lau, I –’

‘Tell me you’re not seriously going to.’

He hung his head, shaking it, but I wasn’t sure if he was denying it, or was just finding it all too much.

Matt

I hung my head, shaking it, not knowing until that moment that I wasn’t going to. I almost felt the rush as my future popped back into existence.

Laura

‘Matt?’
He looked up, the pain in his eyes almost touchable.

Matt

I looked up, knowing that options one and two were, in some ways harder, now that I had discounted option three.

‘I suppohs not. If I’d meant tuh, Ih’d have done ih by now. Buh ih’s hard tuh live wih who I am, wha I am, wha I’ve done tuh pehpl. An ih’s hard tuh live wih fucking bastahd MS makin a mockery of everything I wan tuh beh.’

Laura

Everything I said from now on was top of my head, seat of my pants, no time to think, emergency response stuff.

‘Matt, seriously, I know you’ve been a bit of a player. There are people who aren’t that happy with how you’ve treated them. But it’s not like you’re a serial killer or something. Give yourself a break. You’ve had some fun, you’ve been trying to exorcise some demons, and from what you’ve told me, a lot of those demons have been duffed up and sent back to where they came from. You’ve changed. It can take time for these things to sort themselves out. You can’t tell me everyone you’ve dated, slept with, or snogged, had a dreadful time and is living a terrible life? Most of them will have had a good time, maybe even used you to have it.’

Matt

She was trying to let me off, and it was tempting.

‘Buh yuhr friend –’

‘Rachel needs to get a life and stop dwelling. We’ll work it out or we won’t, but that’s up to us, not you. You need to stop feeling responsible for how other people act and feel.’

‘I dohnt.’

‘Come on Matt. You feel guilty because of how much your family care about you. You feel guilty because of how much I care about you. You feel guilty because of what happened with you and Julia – do I need to go on?’
And there she was again, with the getting me, understanding me. How had she managed that in two days? I looked at her, shook my head.

‘Noh. I knoh I’m a fuck up.’

Laura

I sighed with exasperation, that wasn’t what I meant, and I needed to change tack, away from what he thought he’d done to me, and others, to get him to focus on something else. This wasn’t going to be easy to say, but I thought of something that might do the trick.

‘OK. I’m going to tell you something. It might help. It might make me cry. If it does, it’s not your fault, OK? It’s just because I’m sad. A few years ago, my dad died. He just keeled over, right in front of me. I couldn’t do anything, he was dead in minutes. We found out afterwards that he had an aneurysm, he’d probably had it for years, it was always going to happen. But it didn’t stop me blaming myself. I’m a nurse, I should have spotted something, should have been able to do more. That’s ridiculous, right? How can you control something it isn’t possible to have control over?’

I looked at Matt, who was nodding. He reached for my hand, to comfort me, and I nearly cheered because it meant he wasn’t thinking about just himself any more. Instead, I felt my eyes fill with tears. I tried to speak around the closing of my throat.

Matt

Of course, it wasn’t her fault at all, but now she was looking even more sad and I couldn’t bear it. I reached for her hand, as her eyes filled with tears. When she spoke, I heard her throat close up with emotion, but she carried on.

Laura

‘So anyway, all this time later I’ve realised the truth of that, but it took a lot of help, from friends, family, and, yes, a counsellor, to get me to acknowledge it here …’

I placed my hand over my heart.

‘… as well as here.’

I touched my head.

Tears were running down my face; I still missed my dad every day. Matt reached up and wiped a few of them away.

‘I’m sorry Lau.’

‘Thanks. But I don’t need you to be sorry, I need you to get the point. You can’t solve things with pills and whisky, whether you just get blind drunk or end up in A and E having your stomach pumped, or wind up dead. That doesn’t solve things this end, at best it takes the pain away for you, at worst it causes a whole lot of other pain for other people. And that is your fault. It’s the most selfish thing anyone can do.’

‘I knoh. Ih’m still hehr aren’t I? Look over there. Ih’s not jus pills.’

I looked beyond the terrifying pile of painkillers. There were photos of Cal, Iz and Charlie, and what looked like a business card. I looked back at Matt, willing him to explain, hoping the relief I felt when he said he wasn’t going to do it was real, that he meant it.


Matt

‘I nehded to remind mysehf wha the options are. One – end ih all. Always an option, righ? Two – fahmly. Bloody annoying option, but they’re fucking good at caring abouh meh. An I … love them, an I wana see them grow up. Threh – Adam.’

‘Adam?’
‘Psychologist. Saw him a few tihms after Jules. Made a bih tuh much bluhdy sense, stopped goin.’

OK, so for ‘a few times’ read ‘once’. I still wasn’t through with lying to myself just yet. Lau didn’t say anything, just squeezed my hand and held my gaze.

‘Yeh, I know, prohbly tihm tuh give him another try.’

Laura

I nodded, almost dizzy with gratitude that he seemed to have dismissed the pills and booze option. I decided to push my luck.

‘Option four.’

‘Dihnt geh tha far.’

‘Option four – Lau. It even rhymes, so you can remember it.’

Matt

But that was just it, she couldn’t be an option, because all of the options were instead of her, so that I stopped thinking of her as an option. I opened my mouth to reply, but she spoke first.

‘I’m always going to be an option. I’m always going to be holding your hand now, forever, you’re never going to get rid of me. Even if you never see me again, I’ll always be there, holding your hand, across the city, across the country, across the world. Wherever you are, I’ll be there too.’

‘Buh wha abouh in the loo?’

I just couldn’t help myself.

Laura

‘Even there. Although I might try not to think about it too much.’

He looked up and gave me the ghost of a smile. I gave him a full smile back. I wasn’t sure if it was crisis averted yet, but smiles and attempts at humour were a start.

Matt

I offered her a kind of smile. Yeah, what she’d just said made a difference. If she was going to hold my hand whatever the fuck I did, of course it made a bloody difference. She smiled back.

‘Fucking hell, Lau, yuhr as bad as bluhdy Dec. He told meh once we were connected by fahmly, as if there was a webcam in my head when I wiped my ahrs. Wha is ih wih yuh caring pehpl an bogs?’

She would have no idea what I was talking about, but I knew. I knew that somehow, in the same way that Dec would always have my back, Lau would always keep me safe, whether I wanted her to or not. And, oh, I wanted her to, I just still wasn’t sure it was the right thing to want.

Laura

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but he’d obviously made some connection between what I’d said and what someone else had said to him in the past. And now I needed to push it further, because I was done with being Nurse Laura, I needed to be Lusty Lau, who cared so much about this man in front of me that if I didn’t get him back I was going to make personal use of the pills and whisky that were lurking on the counter so menacingly.

‘Matt, I need you. We need each other. We belong with each other. I feel it between us.’

He looked up and as his eyes met mine, there was a jolt. I saw it hit him too.

Matt

I looked up and as her eyes met mine, there was that electric shock. She felt it too, it was like that time in Mean Bean when she touched my hand.

Laura

‘Tell me you don’t feel it fizzing between us, right now?’

He shook his head, but this time I knew it wasn’t to deny it.

Matt

I shook my head, in disbelief.

‘Yeh, I do. Lau, I never felt anything like I fehl when I’m wih yuh. Buh I’m trying tuh beh selfless fuh once in my fucking life.’

This was the heart of things, right now. I was done with being selfish, I wanted to show the world I could think about someone other than myself and my woes, or my jollies, for once.

‘What’s the point in being selfless about this? It’s not like anyone’s going to benefit. I’ve been breaking my heart since you left this evening, and you don’t look like you’ve been that happy either. Let’s end the sadness. We were made for each other, weren’t we?’

She was a fast talker; she was giving me hope. Hope that I could have what I wanted, and as well as being alright, it wasn’t wrong. Slowly, I nodded, then felt tears fill my eyes, fuck them the salty bastards. I brushed them away in exasperation.

Laura

He continued to look into my eyes, and I could see the hope there, hope that he could have what he wanted and it would be alright. Slowly, he nodded. I saw his eyes fill with tears, which he brushed away with an exasperated flick of his hand.

‘Well if we’re made for each other, it’s a bit of a waste not to be together. I hate waste, it really upsets me.’

‘Fuck, Lau, rehly dohn wana upset yuh any more tonigh.’

‘Well stop this bloody nonsense, then.’

‘Yuh swore! Only bluhdy, buh still.’

‘Desperate times …’

I saw him take a deep breath. He was stubborn, and as a stubborn person myself, I recognised him steeling himself to change his mind and accept a different way. And also as a stubborn person myself, I rejoiced a little at getting my own way, particularly as the end result was Matt looking at me a little sheepishly, trying out a smile on the face that had so recently looked like its world could easily come to an end.

Matt

It felt like it might be time to stop the bloody nonsense. I took a deep breath, sure that Lau had no idea how stubborn I usually was and how much willpower it took to change my mind, see things differently.

‘OK.’
‘OK what?’

‘OK bluhdy cohm here an kiss meh before I change my bluhdy mind.’

We were both on our feet before I’d finished saying it, and I held her tightly against me, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, so I kissed her instead, then I tasted salt, and I pushed Lau away so I could look at her, and she was the one crying, streams of tears from the corners of her eyes.

Laura

I was in his arms and he was kissing me and holding me and his mouth was on mine and his arms round me felt so good, so right, it was like coming home, and it wasn’t until he stopped and pushed me away, and wiped my face with his fingers that I realised I was crying.

Matt

I wiped her eyes, the guilt welling up in me again.

‘Oh Lau, dohnt. Dohnt do tha. Not cos of meh.’

She rolled her eyes.

‘I’m happy, you bloody stupid man. Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again. Don’t you ever push me away and lock me out. I’m in here now.’

She placed her hand over my heart.

‘If you cut me out, you’re cutting out a piece of yourself.’

It was more than I deserved. I was going to try to deserve it, to deserve Lau, who wasn’t going to let me throw it all away, and who wanted me, and had changed my mind.

‘OK. I’ll try. Not guhd at all this. Wana try wih yuh tho, Lau, yuhr fucking wohth ih. Yuh never bluhdy give up, duh yuh?’

‘Not often. You’re fairly determined yourself, I have to say.’

Yeah, Lau, understatement much? She’d learn.

‘I’m pretty fucking stubborn. Prohbly beh some fireworks along the way.’

‘I’m OK with fireworks. Easier to deal with than silence and staring.’
‘Mm.’

Oh fuck, all of a sudden I couldn’t focus, could hardly stand upright. I hadn’t even noticed the tiredness creeping up on me, having been preoccupied with recent dramas. I found myself leaning on Lau; without her I would have fallen over. Ha, if that wasn’t a metaphor for my whole life since then, I don’t know what is.

Laura

Matt seemed to suddenly crumple. His face had gone ashen, and he sagged against me, like he had yesterday outside Mean Bean.

‘Matt?’
‘Tihred.’

His voice was barely audible. He really was going to have to learn to pace himself, but until then, Nurse Laura would heed a blue light call.

‘OK, into bed.’

I put Matt’s arm round my shoulder and my arm round his waist, much as I had the other day when I’d hauled him down the street, and supported him into the bedroom.

Matt

‘Shruf … dohb … buhl …’

I was trying to apologise, but I knew it was all coming out garbled, and any second now I was going to be asleep.

Laura

He was trying to speak, but none of his words were making any sense, so I ignored him while I sat him on the edge of the bed and swung his legs onto the mattress, then laid him back on the pillow, before covering him with the duvet.

Matt

I made myself last until Lau sat me on the edge of the bed, so she didn’t have to try and lift me. I wasn’t a heavyweight, but I was too much for her to lift on her own. Of course, now I know that if I’d fallen over, she would have left me on the floor and fetched a blanket and a pillow, but that was before I knew about the sensible practicalities of NHS manual handling training. So, as soon as the objective was achieved, i.e. my arse on the mattress, it was lights out for me, and I knew no more until I stirred, some hours later.

Laura

I had no idea if I was invited, but as I was still in my sleeping shirt, I pulled off my sweatshirt and jeans and climbed in next to him. I lay awake for some time, listening to the tone and regularity of his breathing, my heart rate gradually slowing down to an acceptable speed. I’d done it, persuaded him, changed his mind, got him back. Matt was sleeping next to me, and I didn’t intend to ever let him get so far away from me again. I smiled for a long time before I eventually drifted off to sleep.

46. She said

In which Dec finds himself in a sticky situation.

Dec

I couldn’t see Amy’s car as I pulled into the parking bay. The flat was ominously quiet and dark as I opened the door.

‘Ames?’

No reply. Fuck. Why had I let myself get so caught up with Cal’s project? Thinking about Perth had brought back some great childhood memories, talking about my dog, my friends, places I used to go. Talking about it like it was part of Cal’s school work helped me to think about it without focussing on my parents and all the sadness that brought. I’d enjoyed myself so much, I’d lost track of time, and suddenly it was late. Too late. I saw a note on the coffee table.

Tired of waiting. It’s always something isn’t it. Gone to Jude’s. Don’t wait up, won’t be back. A

What the fuck did that mean? Was she … had she … how long was she going for? Beginning to panic, I tried calling her. Maybe I could fix some of this over the phone. It went straight to voicemail. I hated leaving messages, but made an attempt.

‘Ames, I’m so sorry. I know I keep fucking up. Please don’t stay out, please come back and talk to me. I can’t bear this, not talking, knowing I’ve upset you and not sorting it out. I feel so far away from you. Please come back. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please don’t go. I love you. I love you so much.’

I hung up before I started to cry. It felt like things were broken between us, and I didn’t know how to mend it. Couldn’t bear to think about where it might end if I didn’t. The thought of losing her nearly sent me back to that dark place where I’d been when my parents died, and when I’d lost Jay and Beth. I was just about holding on. I sent Amy a text as well, then made myself a cup of tea and scooped some of the takeaway curry I’d brought home onto a plate. I sat staring at it all for a long time while it went cold, unable to decide if I should go to Jude’s to find Amy, or whether I’d just make things worse. If they could be any worse. My phone rang. For a second I thought it might be Amy, but it wasn’t her ringtone. The tone and the screen announced Beth.

‘Hey.’

_Dec, were you supposed to be spending time with Amy tonight?

‘Yeah.’

_Cal just told me, he said didn’t think you were going to stay as long as you did. I’m so sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t realise. You should have said, I’d never have let him keep you here so long if I’d known. Is everything OK?

I took a deep breath, tried not to cry, failed.

_Oh Dec, what’s happened? Tell me, sweetheart.

‘She’s not here, she’s gone to Jude’s. I think I’ve fucked it all up. Shit, I’m so fucking stupid. She left this note saying she’s not coming back, I don’t know what she means, she’s not answering her phone, I don’t know what to do. I think she might have … left. I can’t lose her, I just can’t, I love her –’

_Dec, listen to me, you haven’t lost her, she’s just angry. James and I went through something similar when he was still playing. Rugby is a pretty full on career, it can swallow you, and there are always lots of lovely ladies who’d like to have a bit of your man, given half a chance. You both have to be pretty strong, in yourself and together.’

Beth’s reassuring words were helping to calm me down a bit, but I was still on the verge of panic.

‘You’ll get through this, I’m sure, you just need some time together, talk, tell each other how you’re feeling. It’ll be the end of the season soon, you’ll have the summer to wind down, get some normality back. Actually, thinking about it, James and I would have a blip of some sort at the end of every season, it’s all bound up with stress and expectations. It wasn’t until he stopped playing and started coaching that things changed. This is your first real season with all that pressure, isn’t it. It can be hard, you just have to work at it.

‘How did you fix it?’

_Well I think things tended to fix themselves, once the season was out of the way and we could spend time catching up with each other. Eventually I realised what was going on and just accepted it. We talked about it too, so we’d both recognise what was going on. That’s so important, sweetheart.

‘It’s a bit difficult when you’re not even in the same fucking building.’

_Yes, that is a bit of an added problem. Can I maybe suggest that the next time Cal asks you to do something when you’ve already got something important on, you just say no?

‘I can’t say no to Cal, I can’t let him down.’

_I know, sweetheart, you’re so lovely to him, but it’s OK sometimes. He’ll understand, he won’t stop asking. Make sure you talk to Amy, Dec. Even if you have to stay in for the next week to make sure you see her.

‘It’s hard –’

_I know. Do whatever it takes. She loves you. You both want it to work. So make it work. You just –

I didn’t hear the rest, as I heard a key in the door.

‘Ames?’

I rushed to the door, disconnecting from Beth as it opened, so relieved she’d come back. She looked at me with big, sad eyes, as I took in the large holdall she had with her.

‘Fucking hell, Amy, were you really moving out?’

)I don’t know. I’ve been completely miserable the last few days. I was going to stay the night at Jude’s and see how I felt.

My legs felt weak. I was terrified I was going to do or say something that would make her change her mind and leave again.

‘But you came back …’

)I got your voicemail and your text. It made a difference. Oh Dec, I don’t want to leave, but I can’t bear this uncertainty. I can’t bear it if every time you’re late or have to go somewhere last minute, or go out without telling me where you’re going, I think you’re with her.

‘Amy, what the fuck? I was with Cal. I know I was longer than I should have been, and I’m so sorry I asked you to be here and then I wasn’t, but who did you think I was with?’

Although I didn’t need to ask. She looked at me, pain in her eyes.

)God she’s a conniving cow, she’s got between us without even lifting a finger.

‘Shit, you thought I was with Becca fucking Davis? Fuck, Amy, you really thought I was with her?’

)I don’t know what to think. It all feels like it used to at school, all the mind games and then the inevitable conversation – ‘Sorry Amy, but Bec’s more fun than you. Let’s just be friends.’

I tried to hold on to what Beth had told me, that Amy was feeling insecure. It was hard. It hurt that she could believe I would cheat on her.

‘Do you think I’ve been lying to you?’

)No …

‘Well what then? It sounds like you think every time you don’t know where I am, I’m with Becca fucking Davis.’

)Dec, I’ve hardly seen you for weeks. I never know where you are these days. I thought when we moved in together we’d see each other all the time, but it’s not like that, it’s like we never bother making time for each other any more And you slept on the sofa again last night. It’s like you can’t bear to be with me, like you don’t want me any more She keeps texting me, telling me things you said or did, making it sound like you were with her. Now she’s on the scene, it feels like it’s only a matter of time and she’ll have you –

She started to cry and dropped her bag to put her hands over her face. We were still by the front door; she hadn’t even closed it behind her.

‘Oh Ames, this has just all got a bit out of control. Come here, babe.’

I pulled her into my arms and held her close, unable to stop my own tears. I couldn’t bear her being so sad. I couldn’t bear being so sad myself. After a while we both sniffed to a halt, stood back and looked at each other.

‘This is shit, Amy, how have we let this happen? We need to sort it out.’

She nodded. I pushed the front door shut, as if that would somehow keep her here, and took her by the hand to lead her into the living room. We sat together on the sofa.

‘OK, there’s lots I need to say, I’ve been a fucking thoughtless dickhead and taken you for granted and I need to apologise, but before any of that I just need to be absolutely sure that you know and believe that I love you, and only you, forever. Do you believe me?’

She looked up at me, nodded.

‘Do you love me?’

)Yes, of course. But that’s –

‘Hold on, there’s something else that goes with that, that I need to know you believe. I haven’t spent one second with Becca fucking Davis since she was in the bar after the game. She can throw herself at me all day long for all I care, I’ll never take any notice of her, she’ll make herself look like a fucking idiot for trying. I only want you, I’ve only ever wanted you, I’m not interested in anyone else, just you. I’m sure she would like you to believe something different. You can only believe one of us. If you believe her, she’s won, got what she wanted – I don’t mean me, she’ll never have me, I mean power. That’s what all this is about, she’s a bully and likes to take power away from people. Do you believe me?’

Another nod, less certain.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry I’ve caused all this. It’s just been so manic recently, I’ve stopped keeping in touch with you.’

I glanced at Amy’s note on the table: It’s always something isn’t it.

‘I know I’m always getting caught up, side-tracked, late back.’

)Well I am getting a bit fed up of hearing ‘Sorry babe, I lost track of time’. Dec, I really love that you’re always helping people out, I really love how sociable you are, but I’m here too, I need you too. Like, last Sunday after the under elevens game, you went off to cut Carol’s grass and you were gone all day because Matt came round while you were there and you ‘lost track of time’. I thought we were going to talk then, but we never got more than a few minutes, and it’s been days now. There’s only so often I’m willing to wait in all day on the off-chance you’re going to actually turn up when you say you will. It’s not fair.

I thought about it, how often that happened, how I just expected her to be here when I’d finished talking or helping out or having another beer. It happened a lot.

‘I’m so sorry, Ames. I’m treating you like shit, like you don’t matter. You matter the most to me in the world. You’d really think after everything that’s happened to me, I’d realise when I was taking the people I love for granted. You’re so precious to me, I should remember it every day. If I’d been in tune with you a bit more, I wouldn’t have even thought about giving Becca Davis your number, I’m such a fucking dick.’

)Why did you?

I hung my head, embarrassed.

‘This is pretty lame. It felt awkward not to, she was pretty insistent. I was saving my own face. I’m so sorry, babe. I honestly thought she was an old friend, or rather to be more honest, wasn’t really paying attention to what you were saying, and chose to believe she was an old friend. I’m so sorry.’

Amy glanced at me, then looked down, shoulders hunched.

)When she rang me, while I was out with Cara and everyone, I could hardly believe it. She was just the same as she was at school, I knew she was up to something. I’d seen her after Raiders games a few times, hadn’t spoken to her, didn’t know if she still recognised me, she obviously saw us together and decided to try her old tricks.

‘But all they are is tricks. If we’d been a bit more in touch with each other, it would never have gone so far. We’ve both been so busy, I think I need to let you know what’s going on with me more, maybe do a bit less, make sure I have time for us to be together. And once the season’s finished and your exam’s over, we’ll have lots more time. Oh Ames, I’ve missed you. I feel like there’s been more than distance between us sometimes. I’ve hated sleeping on the fucking sofa.’

)Why did you, then? I didn’t ask you to.

‘Well, actually, you did the first night, you might not remember, you were pretty wasted. Fair enough, you were bloody furious with me. But after that, it felt like we were kind of avoiding each other, and then we felt so far apart it was a bit weird to be in bed with you. I wanted you so much but, well, that wasn’t going to happen, so I just put myself out of harm’s way.’

)But I asked you not to last night.

‘I know babe, I wish I’d talked to you about it. I didn’t want to come back until we’d sorted things out. I wanted to talk, but I fell asleep before you got back. I didn’t hear you come in.’

)It just made me feel even more like you didn’t want me.

Amy looked so unhappy and I felt so bad. I tentatively put my arm round her shoulders, and felt her relax a little as she rested her head against me.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry. I just can’t move for fucking up at the moment. I want you. I need you. I love you. I love you so much. I should say it all the time, so you never feel like this again. I’ve taken you for granted, I’ve got previous, I should know by now that I have to work at things, talk about things, keep things out in the open. Me and you, we’re the most important things to each other. We can do without anything else, jobs, homes, cars, all that shit, but we can’t do without each other. We need to be strong together. We are still together, aren’t we? Are we OK?’

)If you’re sure you still want me –

How had I let things slip so far that she could doubt it?

‘Amy, I love you, I want you, I need you. I always will. We want each other, don’t we? I know I’ve already asked you this, but will you marry me?’

Amy choked back a sob with a half smile, and looked up at me with her beautiful blue eyes.

)Of course, hon. Oh Dec, I love you. I’ve been so unhappy, I think I convinced myself Becca would win, like she always did, and I couldn’t see any other end to it. You must think I don’t trust you. I do, it just all got tangled up with her. It’s what she does.

‘Maybe I need to have a bit of a word with her –’

)No, hon, just leave it, she feeds off it. Tell you what we can do though, next home game I’ll hang around afterwards, we can have the biggest snog the Raiders Bar has ever seen, tongues and everything. That might just do it.

And suddenly there it was, over. I sagged with relief as I felt Amy melt against me, and the tension between us evaporated.

‘I like the sound of that. Can I feel you up too?’

)Don’t push your luck.

I pulled her closer and folded her up in my arms, so glad we’d managed to sort things. I could see Amy’s holdall still in the hall, and it made my blood run cold to think how close I might have been to losing her.

)Oh, you know what, thinking about that weekend while I remember, I saw Mum and Dad a couple of days ago. They’re going on a cruise in a few weeks, three months round the world, it’s to celebrate Dad’s retirement.

‘Bloody hell, lucky them. That’s great.’

I genuinely meant this, as they would be out of the country and out of Amy’s business for a quarter of the year.

)It means they won’t be here for my birthday, so they want to have a special meal before they go. They want you to come too.

‘Really? They want me to come?’

)Well, OK, I said I wouldn’t go unless you were invited too. It’s almost the same. They’ve booked that fancy place near Cathedral Park, Fishers or whatever it’s called. It’s for a week on Saturday, I know you’ve got a game, I said it would have to be later so you have time to do all your post-match stuff, so they booked it for nine. Sorry, hon, I really want you to be there, hope you don’t mind.

I was more than happy to celebrate Amy’s birthday early with her parents if it meant that, firstly, they would be out of the country for three months, and, secondly, I wouldn’t have to invite them to her surprise party, so they wouldn’t be there all night disapproving of her having fun.

‘No worries. Sounds perfect. Now, did you mention some snogging? I think we need to get practising so we’re word perfect on the night. Come here, you gorgeous woman. I’ve fucking missed you. Let me show you how much.’

o0o

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

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Declan Summers @summs12 5 May

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o0o

Dec: =Good luck babe. U’ll smash it. See you l8r, tell me how gr8 u were. Luv u 2 bits xxx

Amy: =Thx hon, sooooooo nervous. Luv u 2 xxx

o0o

_Hi Dec, just ringing to see how Amy got on with her exam.

‘She’s not back yet, they all went out for a drink afterwards, I’m not expecting her until much later. She thinks it went OK though, sounded pretty confident actually.’

_Oh that’s great, I’m so pleased. So, if Amy’s not there, is it a good time to do some surprise party plotting?

‘Great idea. Over the phone, or do you want to come round?’

_Oh, I can’t, James is out, no babysitter. You could come to ours?

‘No, I’d better stay here in case Amy comes back early or needs me to give her a lift or something, she’s expecting me to be here.

_Sounds like someone’s learned a lesson or two.

‘Yeah, the hard way. As usual, it takes a fucking crisis, but I get there in the end. Phone it is then …

o0o

– … young player of the season is … Declan Summers. Well done, Declan, come and get your trophy – oh, er, when you’re ready. Declan? Well, it certainly looks like Declan’s young lady is eager to congratulate him on his award … er, right … ahem … ah, thank you, yes, here you are, congratulations. Phew, Declan, you’ve made me blush. That doesn’t happen very often. And now on to the award for …

o0o

Amy had gone home to change, ready to be picked up by her parents. I still had some photos with sponsors to finish up, some handshaking with various corporate people and a bit of mingling with any remaining supporters before I could get out of my Raiders suit, into my ‘dinner with Amy’s parents’ suit, and head off to the restaurant.

The whole day had been spectacular, starting with Raiders winning the semi-final of the play-offs, courtesy of a last minute try from one Declan Summers, followed by my award for young player of the season, and then by signing a new personal sponsorship deal that considerably increased my income for the next two years.

The well-rehearsed and very enjoyable kiss with Amy as my award was announced seemed to have seen off any lingering doubts in Becca Davis’ mind that her scheming was going to work, as she left the room with a face like thunder during the presentation.

I finally finished the photos and the handshakes and headed to the bar, where a few people were still listening to the band as it played its last couple of numbers. Jay and Nico were leaning on the bar, watching the sports channel on subtitles. I went over and stood next to them.

>Hey Declan, you want a beer?

‘No thanks, Nico, I’m off out soon.’

I nodded at the TV screen.

‘Did Arsenal win?’

>Yes, they win. Cal’s Theo Walcott score a goal, he is happy now. Both his teams win, but only one of his best players score. Your try must make up for this, is only second best. Tottenham, they lose. Matty is not happy, yes?

‘Probably not, he’ll get over it, I expect he’ll find some understanding woman to console him later.’

łHey, that’s my little brother you’re telling the truth about. You’ve escaped the media circus at last, then. Seeing spots before your eyes?

‘Ha ha, yeah a bit. That flash was really bright, and my jaw’s aching from all the fake smiling.’

łJust think of that lovely money, that’ll make it a real smile. Well done, mate, you’ve earned it.

‘Thanks. I think I might head off in a minute, can’t be late for Amy’s parents.’

łOh yeah, the dreaded meal. Just think of it as a free dinner followed by three whole months of not having to think about them. See – now that looks like a real smile, mate. Just a word of advice, though. Don’t try the snogging display on them. Might not go down well.

>Ha, yes, this is some kissing we are seeing. We think we watch movie awards, not rugby awards.

I grinned.

łDid it do the trick?

‘Don’t know what you mean.’

łNo, mate, course you don’t. Oh, did Brett find you?

‘Brett? Oh, Bonksy. No, was he looking for me?’

łYeah, just now, said he needed a favour. Dec, I’ve been meaning to ask for ages, why ‘Bonksy’? What does it actually mean?

‘Fucked if I can remember, it was so long ago, from Academy days. I was Captain Sensible for a while, that’s just fucking hilarious!’

łYou did have a bit of an earnest quality about you back then. Seem to have shaken it off pretty well now. Oh, here’s Brett, I’ll leave you to it. See you soon, mate, have a good evening if at all possible.

Jay clapped me on the shoulder and turned back to the TV as Bonksy approached.

]Hey Summs, I’m glad I caught you, I wondered if you could do me a favour?

‘If I can. I’m just on my way to dinner with Amy’s parents, big posh restaurant, I can’t be late.’

]Oh, nice one. Is it in town by any chance?

‘Er, yes, why?’

]Great, then it won’t take you any time at all, it’s on the way.

‘What exactly do you want me to do?’

]Well I’ve got myself in a bit of a bind, see there was this girl earlier, and I liked her and everything, and I kind of said I’d give her a lift home, but now I’ve been getting on really well with this other girl, and so giving the first one a lift home not really an option, but seems a bit rude to leave her in the lurch, and all the buses have gone now. She lives, oh I don’t know, I can’t remember exactly where, but it’s not far, practically on your way. Please, mate, you’d be doing me a real favour.

I hesitated, not wanting to complicate my evening by unnecessary Bonksy diversions. It didn’t sound like much, though, just taking someone somewhere I was already on the way to, maybe having to listen to her complaining about what a dick Bonksy was. I looked at my watch. Plenty of time to get changed, do Bonksy’s dirty work and still not be late for the restaurant. I sighed. Bonksy and I hadn’t seen much of each other since Amy and I moved in together; it felt kind of good to be helping him out of his scrapes again.

‘OK. As long as it’s on the way. You’ve told her you’re not taking her home, haven’t you?’

]Well, no, I was kind of hoping …

‘Oh fucking hell, Bonksy. Oh alright then. For old times’ sake.

]Thanks mate, I owe you one.

‘You owe me several actually, at the last count, not that I am of course.’

I was speaking to Bonksy’s disappearing back, but he turned at the door.

]Oh, she’s waiting out the front by the programme kiosk. Cheers mate.

He walked out before I could ask her name or what she looked like. I quickly changed into my posh suit. By the time I was ready, there was hardly anyone left in the club. I headed out to the front of the stadium, kit bag in one hand and Raiders suit in its cover over the other shoulder. It had started to rain. There was someone waiting by the programme kiosk, hunched against the increasingly heavy drizzle. She had her back to me.

‘Hey there, are you waiting for Brett – shit.’

As she turned round, I recognised her. Becca Davis. Fuck.

ϸYeah – oh, hi Declan. Did Brett get held up?

I was completely at a loss for a few seconds.

‘Er, yeah, actually, he’s, er, not going to be able to take you home. Says he’s sorry.’

ϸOh. Had a better offer did he?

Fuck it, I had no reason to spare her feelings.

‘Something like that.’

I turned round and started to walk towards my car, fuck whatever I’d promised Bonksy.

ϸWait, Declan, is there any way you can give me a lift? It’s pissing down now, I haven’t got my coat and there aren’t any more buses from here. I can’t walk far, I’ve got a bad ankle.

I shouted back, over my shoulder:

‘Phone a taxi.’

ϸI’ve got no cash. Please, Declan, it’ll only take you a few minutes.

I had absolutely no reason to do anything for her, apart from my inexplicable inability not to help people out. In the end my pathetically overactive conscience got the better of me.

‘I’m heading into town. I’ll drop you off somewhere if it’s on my way.’

ϸOh you’re a star. I’m just off the bypass.

She trotted over to the car in high heels, no apparent sign of any bad ankle. I got the first twinge of misgiving. I put my suit in the boot while she got in the passenger seat and put her seatbelt on, then I got in myself. I started driving, determined to get her out of the car as quickly and with as little conversation as possible.

‘Where am I dropping you?’

ϸYou look nice, going somewhere special?

I looked directly ahead and not at her, her too-short skirt and her too-tight shirt.

‘Yeah. So whereabouts am I dropping you?’

ϸOh it’s not far, just past the retail park. I’ll say when. Going out with Amy are you?

I didn’t answer; Amy was not the topic of any conversation I was going to have with this woman. It didn’t stop her for long.

ϸWhy did you close your Twitter account? It wasn’t because of me, was it?

I didn’t answer.

ϸShame, it was fun keeping in touch. Are you on Facebook?

‘No. Is it much further?’

ϸJust a bit, we haven’t gone past the retail park yet. Don’t be so keen to get rid of me.

She was silent for a while, but kept wriggling in her seat, her skirt creeping further up her thighs as she did so.

ϸThat was quite a performance you put on in the bar.

‘What?’

ϸYou and Amy. All the tongues and roving hands. Very impressive.

‘Piss off, Becca. You know nothing about me and Amy.’

I bit my lip, annoyed that she had riled me into responding.

ϸI know enough to see you were trying to impress someone – maybe hoping to show someone what you’re made of?

‘OK, that’s it, I’ve had enough of your tiresome bullshit. You can get out now. Fuck off.’

I stopped the car. She turned in her seat and faced me, leaning forwards.

ϸMake me.

I sat in silence, clenching the steering wheel as it dawned on me just how much trouble I might have got myself into. I watched the windscreen wipers clear the screen a couple of times. Got out of the car, into the rain, and called Amy.

)Hey hon, are you on your way?

‘Ames, I really can’t believe I’m about to say this. I’m so sorry, babe. I’m in a bit of a situation. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I love you, I need you to trust me.’

)OK … Are you –

Silence.

‘Amy?’

I looked at the screen. It had gone blank. I pressed the power button several times, but nothing happened. Out of charge or just given up the ghost, it didn’t really matter. It had sealed my fate.

‘Fuck it. Fucking useless piece of fucking junk.’

I shoved the redundant phone back in my pocket and got back in the car, out of the rain.

‘What exactly are you trying to achieve?’

Becca settled back in the seat, crossed her legs and ran her hands through her hair.

ϸKeeping dry for starters. Mm, comfy seats, nice and warm, ooh look, it reclines. Join me?

‘I’m just going to go where I was going, you can stay in the car or get out–’

ϸThink I’ll stay. I’d really like to see the look on Amy’s face when you get back to the car after your night out and I’m in the front seat, looking a bit rumpled and like I just might have had a fucking good time with the driver. I might even cry a bit – Oh Declan, you’ve been ages, I thought you weren’t coming back – oh … Amy’s with you …

She made her face crumple and a tear rolled down her cheek.

ϸI … I thought after what we did … you said she didn’t mean anything to you, how could you do this …

She sat back and looked me boldly in the eye. She was a bloody good actress, I had to give her that. I could imagine it working on Amy, after everything else that had worked. I thought of a few choice names to call her, but tried to keep a lid on my rising temper. I needed to concentrate if I was going to get out of this.

‘What do you want?’

ϸOh, nothing you’re likely to give me, you haven’t got the balls, much as you want it.

‘There’s absolutely nothing I want from you, apart from getting the fuck out of my car.’

ϸNo, I didn’t think you’d actually admit it. You can’t tell me wet fish Amy Wright is actually satisfying you, though?

As I ignored her attempt to diss Amy, Becca hitched her skirt up a bit higher, undid a button on her shirt and licked her lips. It was so obvious, it was almost funny. Maybe it might have worked on someone else, someone who was unhappy, or unsure, or just fancied what she was offering. It didn’t work on me.

‘What do you want, Becca? Maybe you think I can’t sit here all night fending off your pathetic shit, but I’ve had worse all nighters, and I’ve always won in the end.’

Perhaps she realised I was serious, as she seemed to sag a little bit, and dropped her head.

ϸOh alright, sod it, you’re really not worth all this. All I actually want is for you to take me home, right to my door, so I don’t have to walk there in the rain. And you can tell that cock Deressie from me, he’s a fucking wanker.

The fight seemed to have gone out of her. I could hardly believe I’d got off so lightly. I might not have needed to call Amy at all. I started the car.

‘Fine. Which way?’

ϸNext left.

She gave me some directions which seemed to lead into, then out of, the housing estate. After a while, I was totally turned around, had no idea where I was. It took me a while to realise we were heading out of the city, and then suddenly we were on a country road.

‘Where the fuck are we?’

I’d totally fallen for it. I’d just told myself what a good actress she was, and then I’d let her fool me into driving her all the way out here, some dark lane, in the middle of the countryside.

ϸOh, whoops, must have made a mistake. Are we lost?

The road was narrow and there wasn’t anywhere to turn round. I drove for some time, looking frantically for a gateway or something so I could head back the way I’d come. Finally, in the headlights up ahead, just as I was considering reversing all the way back down the road, I saw the entrance to a field where the road widened and I would have my chance. I pulled in, and the car stalled. I tried to start it again, but the engine just kept turning over without catching. I looked at the dashboard. The petrol gauge was blinking on empty, as it had been since yesterday, but I’d forgotten about it. I banged the steering wheel in frustration.

‘Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, a million fucking fucks.’

ϸIs that a request? Not sure I can manage a million, definitely one or two, three at a push, if you’re really good …

‘Just piss off.’

I took my phone out to dial before I remembered it had died too.

‘Shit.’

If I’d thought I was in trouble before, I’d had no idea how bad things could get. Becca stretched in the seat beside me and looked at me with wide, delighted eyes.

ϸOh Declan, it almost seems like you might have planned this. What kind of a girl do you take me for?

She took her seatbelt off. Then unbuttoned her shirt and took that off too. I stared at her for a second and then turned and faced resolutely forwards, thinking ‘shit shit shit’.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

ϸWell it seems a shame not to make the most of the situation. It’s going to be a while before anyone comes to help us down this road. We may as well enjoy the wait. I can make it very enjoyable, look …

She reached behind her, undid her bra and took that off too. I tried to ignore how naked she was, but was finding it a bit difficult.

‘Have you got a phone?’

ϸYes, but I’m not sure I’m ready to call for help just yet. Maybe in a little while I might need to …

She leaned over, stretched her hand out and started stroking my thigh. In spite of myself, and to my shame, I felt myself responding. I forced myself to think about Amy and not what was going on in my pants.

‘Becca, just stop there. I don’t know what you think I’m going to do with you out here in the rain in the middle of fuck knows where, but it is not going to happen. Not here, not anywhere.’

ϸYour hard-on tells me different.

‘My hard-on tells you I’m thinking about Amy.’

It was mostly true, although I was finding the close proximity of Becca’s nipples shamefully distracting. I picked her hand up from my thigh and put it in her lap – I really needed to get out of there.

Becca suddenly leaned towards me, grabbed my head and kissed me, thrusting her tongue deep into my mouth and her naked breasts against me. Horrified, I pushed her away as hard as I could, and, wiping my mouth, tried to find the door handle.

‘I don’t know what the fuck you think you’re doing. Do you think you’re sexy or appealing or something? You’re just sad and pathetic. I’m going to get back to the city so I can carry on with my evening.’

At last, I found the door handle and shoved the door open, almost falling out of the car in my haste to be gone, away from this terrifying crazy woman who was making me feel things I definitely did not want ever to be feeling.

ϸI’m sure Amy would appreciate a text from me telling her not to worry …

Becca’s voice followed me out of the car. I sighed as I stood up. I’d had enough. I was already in deep enough shit, I was going to have to tell Amy everything anyway, nothing Becca Davis could do now was going to make it any worse.

‘Do what the fuck you want. You’re just a silly girl who’s never grown up. You think you’re still at school. Welcome to the real world, where grown ups don’t get sucked in to your childish shit. I suggest you put your shirt on and call a taxi. Good luck with your sad little life, just stay the fuck out of mine.

I hunched my shoulders against the pouring rain, and started to walk back down the road, cursing myself the whole way for the fucking gullible idiot I was, ignoring Becca’s shouts to wait, come back, she’d phone for help, then her yells that she was texting Amy right now and telling her how hard she’d made me, finally some loud sobs mixed in with most of the names I’d already called myself since leaving the club earlier. As her voice faded behind me, I trudged on through the rain, feeling bleak and stupid.

The downpour was a very effective cold shower, but I still felt guilty about how I’d responded to Becca’s touch. It was purely physical, no reasoning or emotional part of me was even slightly attracted to her, but I’d surely blown it with Amy now.

We’d been in such a good place since we’d sorted everything out. We’d been to see Jay and Beth and talked to them for a long time about how they managed to make things work when Jay was playing. Since then, we’d worked hard on communicating with each other, but I knew Amy still felt insecure about the amount of female attention that often came my way, and now this farce with Becca was just going to blow it all wide open again. And in front of her parents, who didn’t like me anyway. I hoped against hope that Becca was bluffing about texting Amy, but it seemed like the sort of thing she would do, so I prepared myself to face the fallout from that too.

The lights of the city grew slowly closer as I carried on walking. I was soaked right through to my skin, my suit was ruined, and my shoes squelched. It felt like hours later when I eventually reached the outskirts of the city, and the first street lights.

A car came towards me, and I thought about flagging it down, but realised no one was going to give me a lift in this muddy, saturated state. It was probably a taxi for Becca anyway. The car stopped behind me. I ignored it and kept on walking. The car reversed and the window wound down.

}So do you want a lift, or shall I leave you to enjoy your stroll in the deluge?

I stopped and looked properly at the car. Blinked the rain out of my eyes and tried to make sense of it.

‘Matt? What the fuck are you doing here?’

}Do you want me to tell you before or after you get in out of the rain and start ruining my Italian leather seats?

I opened the door and got in. He turned the heater up full, but my teeth still chattered.

}Fuck me, you’re absolutely drenched. I should have brought a towel. Or a dehumidifier. Or one of those fucking industrial suction pumps. Shit, Dec, you’re a sight for sore eyes, I’ve been all over looking for you.

‘What? How did you know?’

}Well I don’t know much, I have to say. You can fill me in on the way. Amy rang me, all in a panic, said you were supposed to be at Fishers with her parents, but you’d rung her saying there was a problem, then got cut off.

‘My fucking phone died.’

}Ah. Anyway, I didn’t know where you were, but doing a bit of detective work via Jay, then your mate Brett, we worked out you may have got waylaid by the charming @bouncybec.

‘Shit, does Amy know?’

}Well, none of us know anything for definite. It was Becca, then?

‘Yeah. Fuck, I’m such a dick. I couldn’t have been more fucking stupid if I’d tried.’

}You took the words out of my mouth. Dec, what possessed you to give the woman a lift? I don’t even know her, and I’d avoid her like the plague, and you know I’m not that fussy.

‘Well I didn’t know it was her when Bonksy asked me to do him a favour. Then I felt sorry for her.’

Matt gaped at me.

}You felt sorry for her?

‘For about two seconds. The wrong two seconds. I’m just too much of a sucker for a fucking sob story. Before I had a chance to think about it, she was in the car and I was screwed. Almost literally. My car’s way back up that road, I ran out of petrol. The last I saw of Becca fucking Davis she was in the passenger seat with her tits out trying her hardest to get me to shag her.’

}Tempted?

Fuck off Matt! No! Shit, what the fuck do you think of me?’

}OK, OK, sorry, just asking the question that Amy will no doubt ask you. I hope you’re similarly vehement in your denial when she does.

‘What time is it?’

}Ten twenty six, according to the cunningly placed dashboard clock right in front of your eyes.

‘Shit. And thanks for the fucking sarcasm, just what I need. Is Amy still at Fishers?’

}She said she was going to stay there and have the meal with her parents, apparently they’re not particularly understanding of your foibles and didn’t look too kindly on having their celebrations interrupted with any concerns over your well-being. Do you want to go straight there, or go home and get dry?

I sighed. I was wet, and cold, and I really didn’t want to face Amy and have to explain everything that had happened, in front of her parents, but it was what I had to do.

‘Straight there, please. Thanks Matt. Thanks for coming to look for me. How the fuck did you know I’d be here?’

Matt put the car in gear and drove away while he started to explain.

}Apparently Becca lives around here somewhere. Amy gave me a rough idea of her address, we couldn’t think of anywhere else you might have been persuaded to take her. I just drove around in a widening circle, luckily I came across you before too many hours had passed.

‘Thanks, it means a lot.’

I was still soaking wet and cold when Matt pulled up outside the restaurant. With a heavy heart I got out and waved him off. He’d offered to wait, but I didn’t know how long I’d be or what was going to happen inside, so I said I’d get a taxi, and hoped they’d accept sodden banknotes, as well as sodden customers.

The restaurant was nearly empty when I walked in. The maître d’ looked me up and down and started to turn me away.

‘I’m with the Wright party. Sorry, got caught in the rain.’

*Oh, certainly sir, but I think they’ve just about finished.

‘That’s fine. Are they upstairs?’

*Yes sir.

I walked slowly up the stairs, very aware of the squelching from my shoes, the wet, muddy footprints I was leaving behind me and the water steadily dripping from my clothes.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I saw Amy and her parents sitting at the only occupied table. There were coffee cups and wine glasses ready to be collected. It didn’t look like a particularly happy gathering. Amy looked up, saw me, got straight out of her seat, and came over to me. I saw her think about hugging me, and think better of it, but wasn’t sure if it was because I was so wet, or because she was upset. She gave me a big smile, which helped me be a bit more sure, and touched my cheek, which helped even more.

)Dec, you made it. Come and sit down.

This was so different from the reception I was expecting that it threw me, and I stayed where I was for a second or two. Then I walked over to the table.

‘Hi Mrs Wright, Mr Wright.’

Their reception was more predictable, and was silent and icy. They barely looked at me to acknowledge my presence. I decided to ignore them back and just spoke to Amy.

‘Ames, I don’t think I can sit down like this, I’m absolutely soaked, I’ll ruin the chair. I’ve had to ditch the car and walk for miles in the rain. I’m so sorry I missed your birthday meal.’

)Well, you did let me know you were going to be late, and you did ask me to trust you, so I did. Is everything OK?

I glanced at Amy’s parents, who were listening intently to our conversation, disapproval etched on their faces.

‘Apart from having to leave my car miles up a country lane with no petrol and a half naked fucking mad woman in it, and then being nearly drowned trying to get back here, yeah, I think everything’s OK. Have you had a good evening?’

)Apart from having to coordinate the rescue of my unbelievably naive fiancé from the clutches of a – half naked mad woman, you say? Yeah, it’s been good, thanks.

‘Are we OK?’

She looked at me, her big blue eyes shining. She didn’t look like she was pretending in front of her parents, and I began to hope that maybe things weren’t as screwed as I’d imagined.

)Yeah, hon. Thank God for Matt, but yeah. We’re OK.

She stood up and before I could stop her she put her arms round me and squeezed me tightly.

)You really are very, very wet.

‘I know.’

)So am I, now.

‘I know.’

)So are you going to put your arms round me or what?

‘I’m finding it hard to resist, but they are also very, very wet.’

)Just get on with it.

I did as I was told, put my arms round her, and buried my face in her hair for good measure, feeling happy and relieved.

)Mm, lovely, now I’m completely soaked too. I think I need to go home. Mum, Dad, thanks for a lovely meal, I’ve had a completely lovely time. Sorry I was on the phone so much. I think Dec and I are going to shoot off now, we both need to get out of these wet things, and we’ve got some catching up to do. Have a great trip, if I don’t see you before.

She kissed them both, I didn’t, and then we left.

45. Love shoulda brought you home

In which there may be trouble in paradise.

Cal

Then term started and I went back to my old school. I’d only missed Mrs Barnfield’s year, so it didn’t matter, because Mrs Barnfield was shouty, and this year was Mr Taylor, who told jokes and knew how to draw cartoons. And I was going to surprise Jake.

On the first day of school, I got out of bed as soon as Mum woke me up, and I put my school uniform on with a growing sense of excitement. My school was really near, and Mum and I always walked there, although Dec had walked me a few times when I first went, before Mrs Barnfield’s class. Today was different from how it used to be, because we had Iz with us. Mum was pushing her buggy, and some other mums were very interested, and we all walked to school together.

I kept a look out for Jake all the way, because sometimes he walked along the same path, but sometimes his mum or his brother drove him. I didn’t see Jake, but I did see Thomas Dabbs and Carly Binker, and we said hello, as if it was just yesterday we’d been in the same class. Mum talked to their mums as we walked, and explained a bit about moving away and then moving back, and said about Uncle Matty, but not about Dec, and they talked a lot about Iz, and Thomas and Carly and I smiled at each other. Thomas had a badge on his coat that said ‘7 Today!’, so it must be his birthday, and I wondered if he was having a party, and if I’d missed the invitation because no one knew I was back at school.

‘Is it your birthday?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you having a party?’

‘Yes, I’m going to Dinosaurland.’

A Dinosaurland party? I so had to wangle myself an invite.

‘Who’s going?’

‘Billy, Artie, Rhys and Joe.’

Thomas’s mum must have heard what we were saying.

‘Artie’s mum just texted me, Thomas, Artie’s not very well, so he can’t come. Oh, Cal, maybe you’d like to go?’

Well was that lucky or what? I looked up at Mum, hoping she wasn’t going to think of an excuse. I didn’t know Thomas that well, but we had played football in the playground sometimes, and Jake and I had swapped Pokémon cards with him a few times.

‘What do you say, Cal? Thank you, Sue, that sounds lovely. You like Dinosaurland, don’t you Cal?’

Well I’m sure I would if I’d ever been – so far I’d only seen the car park. But if this was what being back at my school was like, things were looking pretty good. I nodded and smiled more broadly at Thomas.

By the time we got to my school, I still hadn’t seen Jake, but there were loads of children in the playground. Jake was often one of the last to get to school, sometimes after the bell had gone, and Mum always made sure I was there early, so I wasn’t surprised not to see him. I stayed with Thomas and we went to get a ball from Mrs Nugent, who was playground teacher that morning.

After we’d been playing football for a while, and a few more people had joined in, I heard my name being shouted.

‘Cal!’

I heard running footsteps, and I turned round. Jake was running towards me, his school bag open, pens and paper flying out of it. He had the biggest smile on his face, and he was running so fast I thought he wasn’t going to stop, and he’d bang into me. But he stopped just as he reached me, and we stood grinning at each other. If we’d been grown-ups we might have had a cuddle, but we were six, and so we just got on with playing football, after saying hello in our own way:

‘Are you back for good?’

‘Yes.’

‘Cool. You can sit next to me. Let’s play football.’

And that was all it needed to click into place. It looked like Ewan Donohue had been Jake’s friend while I was away, but Ewan was really friends with Daniel Bosworth, and they didn’t like football, so I slotted back in nicely.

Before that first day was over, Jake had got in trouble with Mr Taylor for talking while we were supposed to be doing sums, and then he got in trouble for not having a pen, because all his pens had fallen out in the playground when he ran over to see me, and then he got in trouble for tipping his chair back until it fell over.

Matt

A few weeks before Christmas, I got a job. GreenScreen were a small IT consultancy firm looking to expand, and they felt similar to Eyeti. I sent them my CV, got an interview and got the job. Simple as that. They were aware, or rather, the manager was aware, that I was recovering from the bastard MS, and agreed to part time hours, with flexibility should I need it in the future, and also agreed not to share my health status with anyone else. My reference from Eyeti must have been good enough to convince him I was worth the risk. Even on part time hours, I was earning enough to buy a flat, having a pretty healthy savings account, and by then Iz really needed her own room – not that anyone was saying it, but I knew. So just before Christmas, I moved out, moved in and started my new life proper, without a spouted cup, a baby monitor or a wheelchair in sight.

That’s not to say Beth didn’t still feel the need to call me all the time to check I was OK, but I let her get on with it, and I went round there loads, because Beth’s Sunday roasts were legendary, and OK, because I missed them, alright? And just after Christmas, Mum moved down. She couldn’t stay away from Iz, and was spending more time visiting than she was living in her own home, so she sold that big old house of memories, and got a much smaller place, with a spare room for the odd sleepover, but which was a lot more manageable for someone who doesn’t get about as well as they used to.

Cal

Having Jake nearby, getting in trouble, made everything seem right. I hated getting in trouble, but Jake never seemed to care, and to me he appeared brave and fearless. He’d had some pretty wild schemes, like climbing the tree in the playground to see if we could see his house, even though there was a fence round the tree; or trying to sneak into the office at break to set the bell off; or mixing up people’s lunch boxes so they got the wrong sandwiches. I hardly ever did any of these things, because I was too scared of what Mum would say, and usually if I didn’t do it, Jake wouldn’t either, but sometimes he’d just go ahead anyway, and I’d be the lookout, like in a film.

Dec

SIX MONTHS AFTER IZ IS BORN

>Hey Declan.

‘Hi Nico. Are you and Lis around one day this week – I’d like to take you out to dinner.’

>Ha, we are around for taking out to dinners, for sure. Is a reason?

‘It’s my last payment on your loan. I want to say thanks.’

>Oh! Huh. I don’t realise this. Yeah, sure. I know we are busy tomorrow but Wednesday is good. Where we go?

‘Well, I thought about that new place near the cinema, it’s supposed to be really good.’

>Ha, and expensive. You need another loan to pay!

‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll try and get us a table.’

>Thank you, Declan, we like this. Is no need, but we like to eat fancy dinner and not pay.

Matt

Julia started at GreenScreen at the same time as me, having been part of the same recruitment drive, and I noticed her straight away, who wouldn’t, she was bloody gorgeous, and she was really upfront, didn’t bullshit anyone about anything, and I really liked that. Really liked it. But she always had this air of ‘touch me not’ about her, and to start with, in my newly found ‘I can have anyone’ state of mind, I didn’t want to get turned down. So l left her to her own devices, and played around with the temps, the admin staff, the business grads, each one adding another layer of veneer.

Cal

I know Mum despaired of my friendship with Baggo. His older brothers meant he was much more worldly wise than me, and his mum worked a lot, so he was often at home with just one or other of his brothers to look after him. They weren’t what you would call disciplinarians, and mostly just wanted Jake to be quiet and keep out of their way, so he did what he liked until his mum came home. Mum never let me go there to play if Jake’s mum was out, not after the time we got our own tea, which consisted of crisps, Jaffa cakes, ice cream and nearly a whole two litre bottle of cola between us, and I was sick in the car on the way home, and again on the drive when we got home, and again in the kitchen on my way to the toilet to be sick again.

Matt

I fucked around like nobody’s business, sometimes a different woman every week, sometimes more than one every week. I got myself a bit of a reputation – some of it was deserved, as I was a bit of a bastard, I see that now, and some of it a whole sack of shit that people made up about me. But I suppose that’s the price of a reputation, that it gets added to and gets out of your control.

Cal

There was never a dull moment with Baggo around. He was always in trouble for something, but it didn’t stop him trying anything, always seeing what excitement could be got from any situation. He wasn’t bad – he didn’t do shoplifting or glue-sniffing or get into fights or anything – he just couldn’t bear to be bored, and would do things to spice up dull times.

I think we complement each other, even now. Nowadays, I’m the settled family man, he’s the rogueish bachelor, different woman every time I see him; when we were seven, he was always wanting to do things that would get him in trouble, and I was always trying to persuade him not to for fear of being in the same trouble. If we hadn’t been friends, I might have been less adventurous, and Baggo might have been more reckless. I shudder to think.

Matt

So, yeah, I’d go to clubs, and parties, and I’d home in on the younger, faker ones, and, yes, I know how this sounds, I was such a tosser back then, but as I said, I was angry and hurting, and felt like I was owed something, and it was payback in a way, but I’d try to make sure the ones I chose weren’t the ones who were going to go all weepy and clingy when I left without cuddling them shortly afterwards, but sometimes I got that wrong, and she’d seemed all young and fake, but I broke her heart.

But I suppose I didn’t much care, back then. I was making my reputation as Matt Scott, party animal, and I can’t say why, I wouldn’t say I’m a particular looker – I’ve always seen a skinny nerd looking out of the mirror at me – but I was a bit of a prize. I sound like such an arrogant arsehole, even now, even to myself, but for a while, in certain undiscerning circles, if you ended up with Matt Scott, that was it, top of the tree, job done.

I can’t believe that Lau was there at some of those parties, in some of those clubs. I can’t believe that I might have walked right past her and not known her, I just can’t believe I didn’t notice her; how could I ever have not noticed her? I’m surprised she even spoke to me when I finally … but anyway, I’m getting all out of sequence. This is the Jules part of my story, or it will be in a bit if you’re patient.

Cal

I can’t remember exactly when everyone started calling Jake ‘Baggo’. It was definitely before we went to big school. His brothers both had nicknames: Michael was ‘Troops’ because he’d been in the Army, and Harry was ‘Wheels’ because he had loads of cars that he was always doing up.

Baggo was a lot younger than his brothers, who both still lived at home. We would sneak into their rooms when they were out and look at their stuff, and Baggo often found things that blew my mind, like magazines with ladies in with no clothes on, and cigarettes, and funny things on their computers with swears on them. Sometimes one of his brothers would come home while we were still in his room, and Baggo would get shouted at, and I’d try to make myself look invisible, but Baggo would just stand there grinning, and the shouting would stop, and he’d get a punch on the shoulder, but not hard, and he’d be let off, and we’d scuttle out and giggle.

Actually, thinking about it, Baggo’s brothers were often the reason we got in trouble, however indirectly. Sometimes it was because one of us repeated something we’d heard, or Jake brought something that belonged to them to school, like a lighter, or playing cards with naked ladies on them, or, once, a chocolate brownie that made us giggle a lot when we shared it at lunch. Usually the contraband would be discovered because Baggo couldn’t help showing off about it, and a teacher would push their way through the crowd that had gathered, and confiscate the penknife, copy of Playboy or firework, and then he’d be in trouble not only with the school and his mum, but with whichever brother he’d ‘borrowed’ the item from as well.

I’m not sure how I remained so uncorrupted. I love Baggo, he’s the best mate a bloke could have, and although I’ve done a fair amount of bailing him out, once literally when he got so rat-arsed that he didn’t realise the bloke he was bad-mouthing for getting in his way outside a club was a copper, well Baggo has been there for me plenty of times too. I can really talk to him, the way I can’t talk to anyone else. He’s a lad, the laddest of lads, and I wouldn’t trust any female member of my family with him for five minutes, but he gets me, and I get him, and we have talked, long into the night sometimes, about deep shit.

Dec

The Rugby Paper

Quick’s Q&A

John Quick shoots quick-fire questions at one of the rugby world’s up and coming young players. This week: Declan Summers, Raiders.

JQ: Declan, how’s the season going so far?

DS: It’s been fantastic so far, both for me and Raiders. Top of the Premiership at this stage is amazing, and to have played in so many games is awesome for me personally.

JQ: You had a tricky time a couple of years back, when problems with your passport caused Raiders to be deducted points and miss out on a top four spot. Have you been able to put that behind you?

DS: I had some fantastic support from the club and from my family then. It was a tough time, but I got the help I needed. The Raiders supporters have been immense, I owe them a lot. I’m not sure it will ever be completely behind me; I learned a lot of life lessons that still help me today.

JQ: Such as?

DS: Well, it’s important to talk to people about how you’re feeling, it’s important to keep your club informed about what’s going on with you personally. Everything you do affects someone else, and affects how you play. You can’t do things on your own. You need to stay mentally strong too.

JQ: It was well publicised that Jay Scott left Raiders when the news broke of your suspension. How did you greet his return as assistant coach?

DS: It was great news. Scotty is an excellent coach, Raiders really missed him while he was away. The whole squad benefits from his expertise and coaching style.

JQ: Your suspension meant you couldn’t play for Raiders until the beginning of last season. How did you cope with that?

DS: The club made sure I was involved with training and coaching to maintain my skills and fitness as part of the squad. Not playing for Raiders was hard, once I was fit again, but I was recovering from injuries until the April, so I wouldn’t have played until nearly the end of the season anyway. Being dual registered with Trojans was a fantastic opportunity to regain some match fitness, and being part of their push for promotion was hugely exciting.

JQ: The autumn internationals aren’t far away, and the squads are due to be announced soon. How would it feel to be included for the Wallabies?

DS: To play for Australia would be immense, it’s a bit of a dream of mine, but I have no illusions – it’s a tough squad to get into, and I’m based in England. I’m still young, and there’s plenty of time for that. I’d be over the moon to get the call though.

JQ: Some pundits are comparing you to a young Brian O’Driscoll. Do comparisons like that affect your game?

DS: No, I just play how I play, there’s no point thinking about it. It’s flattering to read, but I haven’t consciously modelled myself on any one player. I try to incorporate the things I admire about lots of great players into my game.

JQ: Who are your rugby heroes?

DS: There are so many. Nico Tiago is someone I’ve always looked up to, as a player and a person, although he’ll get even more big-headed if I tell him that. All the big names you might think – Hill, Fofana, Shoemark, Roberts, certainly O’Driscoll. You can learn from anyone, you just have to watch their game and pick things up.

JQ: We hear you have had something in your personal life to celebrate recently. Care to share?

DS: (Laughs) How the [expletive deleted] did you know that? Hardly anyone knows! Yes, I just got engaged to Amy. I guess we’re going to have to tell her parents now!

JQ: Congratulations Declan, and good luck for the rest of the season.

DS: Thanks.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Summers in Rugby Paper.

RadarRaider: Here’s a link to the Quick Q&A in today’s TRP. Summers has had some stick on here over the last year or so, I hold my hands up, I didn’t think Raiders should have kept him on, felt pretty let down by the whole business. He sounds like he’s learned his lesson and tried to make up for it. He’s certainly played well enough so far this season to earn his place – seems to have stepped up a notch since all the trouble. If we’d lost him to Trojans, that could have come back to bite us with them doing so well in the Prem this year. Just saying, maybe he’s served his time and some of us lot should cut him some slack.

RudolphtherednosedRaider: Totally agree RR. Don and the club obviously gave it some serious consideration, Summers seemed apologetic enough at the time, and that court case around the assault can’t have helped him. He was only a kid, must have been tough. Accept and move on. I’ve met him a couple of times in the bar after a game, always very pleasant, takes time to talk, take photos, autographs. Can’t deny he always gives his all for Raiders on and off the pitch, he’s involved in coaching the youth team and you always see him in the photos of the community and charity stuff. We wouldn’t still be top if it wasn’t for his tackle on Tupovi at Warriors last week.

YoHoHo: Still don’t think he should even be playing for Raiders. Yes, he’s made a contribution, but look what he lost us. We’d have been top four that season if he hadn’t cost us those ten points. Who knows, could have been Champions the way we were playing. We only just scraped into the HC. There are plenty of other centres out there, plenty of others coming up from the Academy. Not sure his face fits.

Cap’nBirdseye: Sorry, but served his time, cut him some slack? Not on your life. Wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire. Might do if he wasn’t though.

RadarRaider: Always nice to see people forgiving and forgetting(!). I suppose no one here has ever done anything they wish they hadn’t and tried to make amends? I personally think Summers’ contribution at the end of last season and beginning of this shows his commitment to the club. Hope he doesn’t move on at the end of this season – his contract’s up. Wouldn’t be surprised if the reaction of some of the supporters decided him. Can’t believe some people still boo when his name is read out on match days.

Matt

So, I started at GreenScreen, and Julia was there, but we were in different teams, and there was this kind of rivalry going on, which Phil, the manager, liked to play on, because it helped with morale and helped to get the work done better, quicker, happier. So I hardly spoke to Julia, because she kept herself to herself, and her team to her team, and she had this kind of frigid – no that’s unfair – she had this kind of cold and detached manner, which made some of the juniors call her the Ice Queen.

I was the opposite, I was Matt the Lad, I did football with the guys, I saw the girls at the weekends in clubs, I flirted, I bed-hopped like a baddun, I’d had most of the business grads, I was nothing if not a team player.

As time went on and it became harder to actually find anyone at work who I hadn’t slept with at one time or another, I did slow down a bit, and there were some who lasted a few weeks, a month even, as I realised that I was going to run out of available women before too long.

But they’d always have to go, in the end, because she’d start thinking we had ‘something special’, just because I’d taken her round to Jay’s, or held her hand, or talked about plans for mid-week. I didn’t want something special, I wanted to be an excellent no-strings lay, I wanted those cracks covered up so well that I forgot they were there.

Dec

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Declan Summers renews contract

RadarRaider: At last! Can’t believe it took so long for them to agree terms. Surely Summs is first name on the list. Great news. Only a year, though, obviously everyone keeping their options open. Looks like we’ll all be biting our nails again next season.

Raiderette: Woohoo! Have been waiting for this news for weeks. I heard he was talking to Warriors, but they’ve got Elliott and Trancher, can’t see him being first choice ahead of England internationals.

WestStandRaider: What a relief, well done Declan. Don’t know where we’d have been without him this season. His tackling has been immense, don’t know if anyone’s got the stats, he hasn’t missed many, he’s our top try scorer and he’s an animal in defence. He links up really well with Boydy too.

YoHoHo: Reckon we could do better. Wasn’t Astley available from Royals? Don seems to back away from big signings. Reckon Jay Scott still has a lot to do with team selection when it comes to Summers.

WestStandRaider: Yohoho, I can’t believe you’re still on this track. Yes, we all know there’s some kind of family connection with Scotty and Summs, it happens all over the place, remember Pete and Justin Farley at TomCats? Bill Witton and Jack Gooding for England? They’re professional enough not to let it matter. Don would never let it get in the way of team selection or team performance. Summs has done well enough this season to put to bed all this nonsense. He’s in the team because he’s good enough.

Matt

I often got pretty wasted, liking the beer maybe a bit too much for my own good. Mr Summers was usually the one whose number was top of my contacts list and who, even in my most drunken of stupors, I knew how to call. He rescued me many, many times when he should have been tucked up in bed either saving his strength for running around a rugby pitch like a lunatic, or ravishing his girlfriend. But more frequently than he should have been happy with, the early hours of Sunday morning would find him woken up by an incoherent call.

‘Hey maaaaate. You know I fuuuucking looove you right?’

‘Matt, it’s two fucking thirty. Where the fuck are you?’

‘Dunno. Just been kicked offa bloody train. Bastards. Kicked me offabloodytrain they did.’

‘What train?’

‘Dunno. Oh, I’ll ask ‘snice man. Hey mate, where issis? … He says Brissle.’

‘Oh fucking hell, Matt. What in the name of all that’s holy are you doing in fucking Bristol?’

‘Dunno. Can’t ‘member. Think I wuz … wuz I gonna go Stafford? Dunno.’

‘Why the fuck were you going to Stafford?’

‘Dunno. Oh! Wassit a bet? Might be a bet. Might have lost. Oh fuck it, can’t ‘member.’

‘Why did you get kicked off the train?’

‘Los my wallet. Dint havva ticket. No cash, ana bit pissed.’

A silence. A sigh.

‘Which station are you at?’

‘Brissle. Man said. Jus tol you.’

‘There are two stations in Bristol. Parkway or Temple Meads?’

‘Wha the fuck? Dunno.’

‘Are there any signs anywhere?’

‘Wha? Wha signs?’

‘Bloody enormous ones saying the name of the fucking station.’

‘Dunno. Everthin’s fuckin blurry.’

Another sigh, longer and louder.

‘OK. Stay where you are. Have you got that, Matt? Don’t move from the station, I’ll come and get you, but it’ll take me at least an hour and a bit, longer if you’re not at the first station I try. Don’t move, yeah?’

‘Oh maaate. You’re bloody brilliant, you are. Bes mate a bloke could have. I bloody looooove you, I do.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Just stay put.’

That was the sort of thing that Declan Charles Summers put up with from me, for more years than I had a right to expect. To my knowledge, his saintly girlfriend never voiced a word of complaint, or if she did I never got to hear about it, and although there were a few times when I did my share of helping him out of tricky situations, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for that time when I seemed to be pressing the self-destruct button on a regular basis.

Dec

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

1 0 2

TWEETS FOLLOWING FOLLOWERS

Tweets

Declan Summers @summs12 1 Apr

Hello World. I’ve given in and joined Twitter. It’s not an April Fool. #amazeme

#whichbuttonsdoipressagain

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Reply to @summs12

 

Becca Davis @bouncybec 1 Apr

Welcome to Twitter, Declan. #raidersfamily #enjoytheride #pushmybuttons

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 1 Apr

About bleeding time. Follow me. #notneedy #maybealittlebit

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Matt

But back to GreenScreen and how it all happened with Jules. It hadn’t occurred to me until it was too late, having my rep and all, that someone like Julia wouldn’t want to be with someone like I was trying to be.

I realised after we’d both been there a few months that we were both playing a role to some extent. I wasn’t nearly as much of a lad as I made out, but it made things easier in my team to make a big thing of the weekend, to party as hard as they did, to be one of them.

Julia wasn’t nearly as icy as she wanted everyone to think she was, but she did a good job of pretending, too, and most people didn’t see through it.

But anyway, a lot of my reputation was deserved, and I’d seen the look on Julia’s face when she heard tales of my exploits being bandied around as fact on a Monday morning, although half of it was complete bollocks. I was sure that if I’d ever been in with a chance with her, I’d pretty much burnt my bridges.

So I carried on with the shagging around, left a string of broken hearts in my wake, get me the big ‘I Am’, what a self-absorbed fucking gobshite wanker I was. Maybe it was payback, revenge, whatever you’d like to call it for dealing with what happened with Carrie. But those women didn’t deserve to be treated like shit. They didn’t deserve me using them to teach someone a lesson who wasn’t even in the same classroom. And after a while, this began to occur to me, and I started to think about what I was doing, and wondering who the fuck I thought I was, and I took a long hard look at myself and had a huge laugh at the douche canoe who was looking back. This was a slow process; I was enjoying myself, I can’t deny it, and despite my growing misgivings, I didn’t want to stop.

While all of that was going on, all the partying, all the working, all the feeling fucking normal for the first time in what felt like a very long time, I was still doing all the family stuff, seeing Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz, watching the kids grow up, enjoying being cool Uncle Matty, who dished out chocolate, allowed inappropriate TV programmes and said bad swears when Mummy and Daddy weren’t looking.

I kept an eye on Mum, and I suppose she kept an eye on me too. Dec and I continued our mismatched friendship, he remaining the more mature of us by a whisker, and by dint of having a proper grown-up relationship. He asked Amy to marry him about a year after they got together in Jay’s kitchen, but no wedding plans were forthcoming, despite Beth and Rose’s best persuasive efforts.

Dec

_Hi Dec, tell me if I’m interfering, but have you got anything organised for Amy’s twenty first?

‘What? No! It’s not for ages yet.’

_Well, theoretically, but if you’re going to book anything, I don’t know, a weekend away for example, it’s in the middle of summer and things get full up pretty far in advance. I didn’t know if you were planning a party or anything, venues get pretty busy in the summer too.

‘Oh fuck. I’m so bloody useless, you know what I’m like. I hadn’t given it a thought.’

_I thought you might not have, sweetheart. I just wanted to make sure you were, you know, prepared.

‘What should I do? If I’d thought about it at all, I would have gone ‘quick trip to the jewellery shop and a slap up meal’. Do I need to think bigger, then?’

_Ha ha, no clues from me, you need to work it out for yourself. I’m happy to help with the details, but it’ll mean so much more if you’ve thought of it on your own.

‘Beth! You can’t just drop this on me and leave me to it. I’ll only cock it all up. You did such an amazing job with my party … please?’

_Give it a go, sweetheart, you’ll do better than you think.

Matt

Oh, Rose! How could I forget about Rose? Dec had mentioned her that Christmas, as the person he’d held on to when he was in his own dark pit, but I didn’t actually meet her until I moved down here. Dec and Rose were kind of a package, now. Dec’s parents died when he was pretty young, and when he fell out with Jay and Beth, Rose kind of filled the gap and helped him through some tough times.

Dec didn’t really do relationships in the same way us normal people did, at least not family relationships. There was no name for what he had with Jay and Beth, and in the same way there was no name for what he had with Rose. The easiest way to describe it is she was like a mother to him, and she did mother him, but it was more than that. Your mum doesn’t choose you, she’s stuck with you because she’s your mum. With Dec and Rose, there was an unspoken recognition that they had chosen each other somehow, and although he hadn’t needed her in that way for a long time, they still needed each other.

So Rose was absorbed into the family too, and having the same interfering gene as Beth, she meddled in everyone’s lives, much as your annoying aunty might do. She put up with teasing and grumbling, and downright rudeness from me when she got too free with her advice about how to keep a woman, but she was a permanent fixture. And she was really good friends with Mum. They were polar opposites in outlook, personality and experience, but they both loved cooking, and they both adored their families, which overlapped in some convoluted way, and they spent a lot of time together.

Dec

RE: Booking enquiry

THE ORCHARD orchard@webserver.com

To: Declan Summers

Hi Declan

Thanks for your enquiry regarding a weekend booking in August. I’m really sorry, but we’re fully booked for the whole of August. If we can help in the future, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Regards

Sean

SEAN TIBBS

Reservations Manager

o0o

*Good afternoon, Bay Tree Hotel, how may I help you?

‘Oh, hi, can I speak to someone about hiring your function room?’

*Certainly, sir, did you have a date in mind?

‘First weekend in August, preferably the Saturday.’

*One moment, let me check our diary, but I know that is a very busy time …… … I’m sorry sir, as I thought, we’re fully booked throughout August. Is there another date we could offer you?

‘No, that’s OK. Thanks anyway.’

*… sorry, no vacancies …

*… full on that date …

*… no availability …

*… full …

*… sorry …

*… fully booked …

Matt

Right, where was I? Oh yeah. Dec and Amy. So they were engaged, but nothing more was forthcoming, and they moved in together, into a tiny flat, and they continued to be sickeningly inseparable There were a few blips along the way, I suppose, like Dec nearly fucking it all up by being an insensitive bastard, and then nearly compounding the fucking up of it all by getting himself semi-kidnapped by some certifiable stalker woman when he should have been having dinner with Amy and her stick-up-their-arses parents, but I suppose these are the things that life and love are made of – fuck knows I haven’t made things easy for Lau over the years, and the fact she’s stuck with me continues to astound, amaze and humble me. It always comes back to Lau, doesn’t it. It always will.

Dec

Matt: =Have u checked ur Twitter account lately?

Dec: =No. Don’t use much. Why?

Matt: =@bouncybec getting a bit saucy. Do u know her?

Dec: =Don’t think so.

Matt: =Might b nothing. Keep an i.

Matt

But, digressing again, I still haven’t got to Jules, have I? So, I’d been at GreenScreen for a couple of years or so, enjoying life, feeling great, all thoughts of the bastard MS well to the back of my mind. Work was going well, life was going well, I had my reputation, which didn’t hurt in a lot of ways, but I knew what was real and what was bullshit.

I suppose I’d kind of started to wonder if there was more to life than going out partying every weekend, getting hammered and having to extricate myself from another unfamiliar bed in the small hours. Maybe it had run its course. I was thirty-three, and it was starting to occur to me that it might be time to grow up. I had no idea what this meant, just that occasionally, in the dead of night, as I was gathering my underwear off the floor, it all felt a bit … immature.

So I backed off, went out less, didn’t try so hard to pull, gave myself a break, got a bit of breathing space, time to think. Plan A had been going pretty well so far, maybe it was time to start thinking about the next phase, where I could look for a different job, away from this city, away from the South West even.

Dec

Declan Summers @summs12 15 Apr

Great result against TomCats – thanks to all the Raiders supporters. 16th man

as usual. #idratherbearaiderthanapuss

Reply to @summs12

Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 great game today Declan #nothingwrongwithpusses 😉

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_____________________________________________________________________

Declan Summers @summs12 19 Apr

Looking forward to some down time. Training has broken me. #tired #bathplease

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 19 Apr

@summs12 Mmm bath sounds nice. #wishiwasabarofsoap

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Becca Davis @bouncybec 20 Apr

@summs12 Had that bath yet? #imagining

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Matt Scott @cybermatt 21 Apr

@summs12 make sure you scrub behind your ears.

#getridofunwantedgrime

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Matt

And all this time, Jules and I were working in parallel at GreenScreen, hardly talking to each other except in the context of work, and I’d look at her sometimes and wonder what might have been if I hadn’t been such a dick, and if I’d taken the time to get to know her, but she had this, like, shell around her, and it didn’t seem like anything was ever going to get through.

Dec

‘Hey babe, sorry, I’m still at the club, I got caught up, lost track of time.’

)What a surprise. Cara’s picking me up any minute. I won’t see you till later, then, if you’re still awake.

‘No worries, I’ll wait up. Haven’t seen you properly for ages and I actually need to kiss you quite a lot. Hey, I met someone who knows you. Becca Davis?

)Oh.

‘She said you were at school together.’

)Yes, we were.

‘She’d like to catch up, can I give her your mobile number?’

)Actually … I’d rather you – dammit, that’s Cara. I’ll tell you later, hon. Got to go. Love you.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Player of the Season

EastStandRaider: It’s that time of year again, get voting here for your player of the season.

RadarRaider: Only one in it for me, Miles Abrahams has been outstanding in the front row. Our scrum has been rock solid.

YoHoHo: Got to be one of the backs, the amount of superb tries we’ve scored. My choice would be Crofty, he’s creative, quick and can tackle well, and Nico Tiago has done a great job out on the wing yet again, always knows when to go looking for the ball.

Foxyraider: I’m pretty sure Declan Summers will be the ladies’ choice. He’s played really well and is a bit of a babe. What a combination.

YoHoHo: Good to see it’s someone’s ability and commitment that counts with some people. Summers is lucky he’s still here. Fail to see how he gets picked so much.

Foxyraider: I guess we’ll see when the results of the vote come out. A well-turned bum goes a long way in my book.

o0o

Dec: =Help! Tried everywhere u suggested. All booked. Considering dirty w/end in Blackpool. In caravan. Told u I was useless :((

Beth: =Don’t panic. Not useless just left a bit late. Other options. Had idea. Come round later, kettle on.

o0o

_So what do you think?

‘I think it sounds fucking awesome. Better than any of the lame-arse stuff I’ve managed to come up with and not even be able to book. Beth, you are a lifesaver. But really, are we really allowed to put a marquee up on the beach?’

_My friend Trish knows a man from the Council and all you need is a permit. It’s easily sorted. We’ll only really need to use it if it rains, and it’s somewhere to put the food, maybe have a sleepover if it’s warm enough? If we have it right down the end near Usley Point we won’t need to worry about noise or anything, and it’s easier to make sure we don’t get uninvited guests. We can use James’s four by four to take the food and drink down there, it’s ideal.

‘Awesome. A sleepover on the beach would be amazing – she’d love it. And you’re sure you and Rose are OK doing the food?’

_I’m sure, and Carol will help as well. I talked to Rose this morning. Her very words were ‘don’t you dare try asking some tinpot catering firm to do it, love’. She was deadly serious, I feared for my life if I contradicted her.

‘Ha ha, she takes her cooking very seriously.’

_She takes you and Amy very seriously, too, sweetheart.

‘I guess so. I bet she’s started planning a menu already. Probably already made a zillion – oh, what the fuck are those round things with prawns in?’

_Vol au vents?

‘Yeah. Those. She’ll have made a zillion. Actually, we might need to buy several new freezers, she’ll have made a ton of stuff by the weekend.’

_Now, the main thing is we need to make sure we keep it a secret, so don’t tell Cal, or Amy will know five minutes later. I’ll leave it as long as possible to tell James, but once he knows, he’s a bit of a loose cannon, he can never remember what he’s allowed to say. Think you can avoid telling Amy?

‘That won’t be difficult at the moment, haven’t clapped eyes on her for days, we’ve hardly been in at the same time, seems like for weeks.’

_Oh. Everything OK, sweetheart?

‘It’s just … I’ve been really busy, with coaching the under elevens, and all the end of season stuff, play-offs, away games, stuff at the club after home games, and when I’m home she’s out doing Pilates or with her friends or studying for her exam.’

_You sound a bit fed up. Is that all it is, just not seeing much of each other?

A silence.

_Dec?

‘Well I suppose I was a bit of a twat on Saturday. She asked me not to do something but it was awkward, so I did it anyway. Maybe we’ve been sort of keeping out of each other’s way a bit since then … sleeping on the sofa, that kind of thing.’

_That actually sounds a bit serious, sweetheart. What happened?

‘Oh, it was just so fucking stupid, I was so fucking stupid. There was this girl, Becca Davis, she was talking to me after the Warriors game, in the bar. She mentioned that she knew Ames from school, and asked if she could have Ames’ mobile number so they could catch up. A bit later I called Ames and asked, but she was just going out, and she said no, or kind of started to, but there wasn’t time to talk about it. Anyway, later on Becca asked for her number again, and I didn’t know what to say. Ames hadn’t quite said no, she hadn’t given me a reason, and I thought, or maybe I convinced myself, it was because she was in a rush to go out, or she was pissed off with me for being late again, or didn’t want a long phone conversation with an old school friend just then. So …’

_Oh Dec, tell me you didn’t give her the number.

‘… so I gave her the number. So later on I’m at home waiting up for Amy, and she phones me, so angry, I’ve never known her like that. She swore at me, a lot, wasn’t really making much sense, but I kind of realised I’d fucked up. She didn’t come home till really late, she’d had a lot to drink and wasn’t really in a state to talk about it, but still in a rage, and she yelled at me and told me to sleep on the sofa. Next day, she was still pretty pissed off, but we managed to grab five minutes in the same room, and she tells me Becca Davis made her life a misery at school, bullied her, used to make a point of stealing her boyfriends. Last person on earth she wanted to get a call from on a girls night out.

_Oh, Dec.

‘It gets worse.’

_Oh sweetheart …

‘I opened a Twitter account a few weeks ago, Matt was badgering me, and so were some of the guys at Raiders. I’ve only posted a couple of things, just Raiders stuff. Becca Davis has been replying, a bit, I dunno, flirty or suggestive or something – I honestly didn’t realise it was her at the time. She’d told Ames, who had a look, and got really upset. I didn’t respond to any of it, but now …’

_Now Amy’s worried Becca Davis is going to steal you as well. Oh Dec. You need to sort it out. It’s easy for things like this to take on a life of their own and get out of hand. Avoid Becca if you can.

‘Well that’s part of the problem. She comes to the Raiders games, she’s always in the bar afterwards, I have to be polite and corporate, I can’t even ignore her or blank her, I can only try to palm her off onto someone else. She’s a bit persistent. Beth, I love Amy, I love her so much, I don’t want anyone else, but I can’t make her understand, I haven’t looked twice at Becca fucking Davis, I don’t even want anything to bloody do with her now I know how mean she was to Ames.’

_Sweetheart, Amy’s feeling insecure. I know she had a hard time at school, it really knocked her confidence. You know better than most of us that what happens to us when we’re younger affects how we feel about things later on; it’s not logical or rational. You might have to make a pretty big gesture to help her see you don’t want Becca. It might be awkward and uncomfortable for you, but I think you’ll have to just do it.

‘Like what?’

_Sorry, sweetheart, I can’t help you out this time. It really needs to come from you.

o0o

HEY AMES – FEEL LIKE I HAVEN’T SEEN YOU PROPERLY FOR DAYS. MISS YOU BABE. HOPING YOU’RE AROUND TONIGHT SO WE CAN TALK. I KNOW I’VE BEEN A MONUMENTAL DICKHEAD AND YOU’RE UPSET WITH ME. I’LL COOK DINNER IF YOU LIKE. LOVE YOU SO MUCH.

D XXX

Dec – Sorry hon, some people from the course are getting together tonight to go over our exam questions. I really want to go, I’m getting nervous. Tomorrow? Talking would be good. Love you. Axxx PS don’t cook! PPS Please don’t sleep on the couch tonight x

TOMORROW IT IS. D X

PS TAKEAWAY THEN?

o0o

\dec, Mum says you’re from Australia.

‘Yeah, Cal, I lived there when I was little.

\we’ve got to do some writing at school about Australia. Mum says you can help me.

‘Oh, no worries, if I can. What have you got to write about?

\i’ve got to choose a part of Australia and find out things about it. Did you have a kangaroo?

‘Ha ha, no, you can’t have kangaroos as pets. I had a dog called Woofster.’

\Was he a dingo?

‘No mate, you can’t have dingoes as pets either. Woofster was a cross between a Labrador and an Australian cattle dog.

\where did you live?

‘In Perth. It’s on the west coast. I don’t really know much about any other bits of Australia. Where are you going to do your project about?’

\if I write about Perth will you help me?

‘Course I will. When do you have to write it by?’

\tomorrow.

Tomorrow? That doesn’t leave us much time, mate. Oh, and Cal, I’ve got to spend some time with Amy tonight, it’s really important. I can come round now, but I can’t stay long. I’ll help you as much as I can.

o0o

Amy: =Where ru? Thought we were going 2 talk.

Dec: =Fuck, sorry babe, helping Cal with homework. Got delayed. Nearly done. Back soon. xxx

4. Come away with me

In which Matty and Carrie escape a problem only to run into a whole new set of complications.

Matt

I pulled up outside Dave’s Café, a delightfully unmodern greasy spoon with no parking outside. As it had taken me eighteen minutes to get there, I didn’t worry too much about parking on the double yellow lines, ditched the car and ran into the café.

Carrie was nowhere to be seen. Shit, I’d taken too long and she’d lost her nerve and gone back to him. I was such a pillock, why hadn’t I just given myself five more minutes? She’d still be here and – the door to the toilets opened and Carrie looked out warily. The relief that crossed her face when she saw me was probably mirrored on my own, and I crossed the floor to her quickly. When I reached her, I had to stop myself sweeping her into my arms; I hadn’t realised just how much I’d missed her, how unbelievably good it was to see her again, but she’d called me as a friend, she was in trouble, and she didn’t need me complicating matters just now. I stopped in front her, a completely inappropriate soppy grin on my face.

‘I thought you’d gone.’

‘Sorry. I thought I saw Martin through the window. I was hiding out. Thank you for coming.’

I hadn’t really got any further than meeting her in the café, in my mind, events having happened in a bit of rush, and now it occurred to me that I didn’t have a plan. I’d told her to pack some things, but didn’t know if she’d want to stay with me or not. Maybe the most important thing was to get out of the neighbourhood where she lived, thus diminishing the chances of running into muscle boy Martin.

‘Shall we go back to my place, decide what to do?’

Carrie nodded, seeming happy for me to make decisions for her at this point.

‘Come on then.’

I led the way to my car, pulling my phone out and sending a quick text to Mercy.

‘So sorry, Merce. Let me have the bill for the taxi. Mx’

I could try to rectify at least some of the disaster. Before I’d got home, I had her reply.

‘Have own friends 2 rescue me. Fuck u.’

So much for rectifying anything. Another one to chalk up to experience. Carrie had been silent for the journey until then, but must have seen the look on my face.

‘Problems?’

‘Er, not any more. Nothing for you to worry about. Here we are then. It’s a bit small, but it’s home.’

I picked up Carrie’s small bag and led her up the stairs to the small flat where I lived. I saw her expression when she realised there was only one bedroom, and I knew that staying with me wasn’t going to be an option for her.

‘Right, first things first, kettle on, cup of tea. Milk and sugar?’

‘Have you got anything herbal?’

‘Here.’

I handed her a tin full of fruit and herbal teas and she picked one out.

‘You’re very tidy.’

‘Am I? Blame my mum. She drilled it into me when I was little. Did a good job, can’t bear mess.’

‘I don’t really know what I’m doing here.’

Carrie was still standing just inside the door, which to be fair wasn’t that far from the rest of the flat, but she looked ill at ease, and I was suddenly worried that one wrong word would chase her away.

‘Come and sit down. Tell me about it?’

I beckoned her over to the sofa, which was a two-seater, nice and cosy for two people who knew each other well, but uncomfortable for two people who didn’t, one of who fancied the pants off the other, the other of who was aware of that but had just been through some sort of traumatic event.

I sat on the floor, just so there were no mixed messages or crossed wires, or mistaken nudges with a thigh. Carrie crossed the room slowly and sat down gingerly, perching on the edge of the seat, looking for all the world as if she wanted to run away. I got up again, made the tea, took the mugs over, and resumed my place on the floor.

‘Just talk to me, Carrie.’

‘I don’t know what to say. It all feels so stupid now.’

‘Well, why don’t you tell me about it, and we can decide after that if it’s stupid or not, and if it is, I can take you home, and if it isn’t, then we can think about what to do.’

The look of sheer panic that gripped her face when I mentioned taking her home told me it wasn’t stupid.

I decided to let her tell me about it in her own time, to try not to rush things. I was completely out of my comfort zone, never having met anyone before who had left someone they were scared of and asked me for help, and as well as giving Carrie time, I felt like I needed time to absorb it too. She kept her eyes fixed on the floor for a while, then looked up at me and held my gaze.

‘He’s just so jealous, it happens every term, every time there’s a new class, he comes afterwards to check everyone out, then scares off anyone he thinks is a threat. This time, with you, he just wouldn’t let it go, even when you left, even when he came every week afterwards just to make sure, he just kept going on and on. He was convinced I was still seeing you, that something was going on behind his back, and today, he just … he was worse than I’ve ever seen him. I think he’s got some real problems. He thought he’d seen you out of the window, and he went downstairs to fight you or something, but when you weren’t there he convinced himself you’d seen him coming, and run away. You weren’t there were you?’

‘No! I didn’t even know where you lived until you called me. And I was on top of Potter Hill, nowhere near you. He sounds seriously deranged.’

‘He came back up to the flat, with a right cob on, then started throwing his weight around.’

‘He hurt you?’

‘No, not really, just telling me what I was and wasn’t allowed to do. I tried to leave, to walk out, just get a bit of distance, and he grabbed the door out of my hand and slammed it shut. It wrenched my arm a bit. He told me I wasn’t allowed to leave the flat unless it’s with him.’

‘What? You didn’t stand for that, surely.’

‘Well no, obviously, but he was really laying down the law, all kind of ‘you’re my woman and what I say goes’, worse than he’s been before. He didn’t hurt me, but he did say I should do as I was told or it wouldn’t be pretty.’

‘Fucking bastard.’

‘Yeah, well, he meant it. It was the look on his face when he said it, it really scared me. I just imagined being locked up there in the flat forever, not able to go out on my own. He’s capable of doing it – you’ve seen how he uses his muscle. I think he’s on steroids or something, they’re messing with his head.’

‘Holy shit.’

‘Yeah. Anyway, he went out again, to the gym, it’s always to the gym, and I was so relieved to have some peace from all the intensity, but then he said I’d better be there when he came back, if I knew what was good for me.’

Oh yeah, I’d been on the end of that ‘if you know what’s good for you’ speech too.

‘And that’s when I called you. It just seemed to have got out of hand. He’ll be back by now, he’ll know I’ve gone.’

‘Have you? Gone, I mean.’

‘I don’t think I can go back.’

I inwardly fist-pumped, but kept my expression neutral.

‘Does he know where I live?’

‘I suppose it’s a possibility. All the details from my classes, addresses and stuff, are on my computer. He could find out if he wanted to.’

Shit, so we weren’t safe here, either. Was I building this up out of proportion? It didn’t feel like it. Martin had threatened me, and now he’d threatened Carrie, and he seemed like the sort of bloke who thought with his abs and pecs rather than his brain. If he found out where I lived, I didn’t fancy either of our chances if he got here and found us together, however innocently.

‘It would be bad if he turns up here and finds you here too, especially if he’s been making up fantasies about us.’

‘Well I suppose it wasn’t all fantasy on his part.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well I know you were attracted to me.’ Oh, that, OK. ‘It … wasn’t all one way.’

‘Holy shit, Carrie. Did you tell him that?’

‘No, of course not, I’m not stupid. But neither is he. Maybe I talked about you too much, maybe I shouldn’t have told him about you calling yourself Cute Arse that time after my interview. Oh bloody hellfire, this is such a mess.’

‘Do you love him?’

Carrie was silent for a minute, looking down at her hands and fiddling with a ring.

‘I did, in the beginning. I don’t know, now. Can you love someone you’re scared of?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘But you’re right, I shouldn’t stay here, he’ll go mental if he does come round and I’m here. I should go.’

‘Where will you go?’

The fact that she had called me, rather than a close girl friend, told me that she didn’t have anyone else. She hung her head.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Have you got any family nearby?’

Carrie laughed bitterly. ‘Just my mum, but unless I’m delivering money to buy the next bottle of booze, she’s not interested.’

‘So you couldn’t stay with her, then?’

‘Couldn’t, wouldn’t.’

‘Friends?’

Again, she wouldn’t meet my eyes as she answered.

‘He’s chased them all away, called them interfering do-gooders, scared them off with his bullying. Eventually they all got fed up trying to convince me he’s no good for me, and there’s no one left I can call on now. Except you.’

She looked up, a plea in her eyes, and my heart melted. No way was I going to turf her out, but no way were we just going to stay here, waiting for Martin to come along and kick the door down. Desperate times, desperate measures.

‘Have you ever been to Devon?’

‘What?’

‘Have you?’

‘Not since I was little, on holiday.’

‘Well maybe it’s time for a jaunt.’

‘What?’

‘My brother lives down there, I’m not sure they’ve got room for us, but I’m overdue a visit, and Beth, his wife, would be great at helping you sort all this out. We can get a B and B, separate rooms, just so you can have a break, without having to worry about bumping into Martin, or him coming round here, sort yourself out a bit. What do you say?’

She looked at me again, hopefully, as if I was offering her the winning ticket in the Lottery.

‘It would be good to escape for a bit.’

‘Sorted then.’

‘But I haven’t got much stuff with me, I didn’t have time. I’ve only got a change of underwear and a toothbrush.’

I waved that away as inconsequential.

‘You can either borrow stuff off Beth, or we can buy you stuff. We’ll sort it when we get there. Seriously? You’re up for it?’

‘Yeah. Why not.’

‘Great. I’ll just call them.’

‘Can I use your loo?’

‘Sure – that door.’

I got my phone out and pressed Jay’s name.

‘Jay Scott.’

‘Hey, it’s me.’

‘Matty! What have we done to deserve such an honour?’

‘Er, I need a favour.’

‘Oh, not just calling to find out how we all are, then?’

‘Obviously, would love to chat for hours, know how much you love a good gossip, but a bit short on time. I don’t suppose you’ve got room to put me and a friend up for a few days?’

‘Ah, no mate, sorry, not unless you’re happy on the sofa. Now Dec’s here we’ve got no spare room.’

Bugger, I’d forgotten about their lodger, the teenage rugby protégé. I would have been happy on the sofa with Carrie in the spare room, but it looked like it was going to be a B and B.

‘OK, no problem. We’re coming down today, you don’t know any good B and Bs do you?’

‘Does it have to be B and B? I could get you discount on a room in the big hotel near Raiders Stadium.’

‘Two rooms.’

‘Really? I thought when you said ‘friend’, you meant “friend”, as in –’

‘Yeah, very funny. Friends, as in separate rooms. That’d be great, though, the discount. Can you book for us? A week, from tonight?’

‘Sure. Impulse holiday is it?’

‘Kind of. I’ll explain when we get there. Are you in tonight?’

‘Mate, we’ve got a three year old. We’re always in.’

Three year old Cal, my nephew, was a great kid and I really didn’t see as much of him as a doting uncle should. Mum was always going down there to visit, coming back with pictures and stories about what he’d got up to. Maybe visiting Jay and Beth would help redress the balance a little.

‘Good, we’ll see you later then.’

‘Name?’

‘What?’

‘Your friend’s name? I’ll get in trouble if I haven’t asked, you know what Beth’s like.’

‘Oh. Carrie.’

‘Woman, then.’

‘Well spotted.’

‘Potential?’

‘Piss off, Jay. See you later.’

I disconnected, to the sound of Jay laughing, as Carrie came out of the loo.

‘All sorted. My brother hasn’t got room, I forgot they’ve taken in some teenage stray, but he can get us discount at a hotel nearby, Raiders privileges.’

‘What privileges?’

‘Raiders. They’re a rugby team. My brother is a coach.’

‘Oh. I didn’t realise. That’s great. Thank you.’

‘Are you ready, then?’

‘Yes, as I’ll ever be. This is weird.’

‘Yeah. But let’s just go with it. If it’s too weird, we can always come back, but maybe being away from here will be good. I said a week – can you get time off work?’

‘I don’t work in the summer holidays. That’s another thing Martin has over me – I can only pay my way when I’m working. How about you, though?’

‘It’ll be fine, I’m due some leave. I’m pretty up to date with things. I can always do stuff when I’m down there, if I take my iPad.’

And so we left, me locking up as securely as I could, worrying a little bit about old Mrs Harding next door, and what might happen if she came out for a nose while Martin was trying to find me, but there wasn’t much I could do about it without calling to see her and further delaying us with long explanations and repetitions for her deafness. I didn’t pack much beyond a few pairs of boxers and some toiletries. Carrie was going to need to go shopping, no reason I shouldn’t too, my pathological dislike of city centres notwithstanding.

Carrie was quiet for the first part of the journey. I thought it best to let her talk when she wanted to, but not to press her too much. She was going to be subjected to enough of an interrogation when she met Beth, and I thought I’d better prepare her.

‘My sister-in-law, Beth, she’s pretty bossy, but I think she’ll be able to help us figure out what to do.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, when my mum got arthritis, she was great, sorted out stuff for her, got things moving.’

‘I haven’t got arthritis.’

‘No, of course not, but it’s a different type of … trauma … I suppose, isn’t it.’

‘I suppose. Have they been married long?’

‘About four years. They’ve got a little boy, oh, and a big boy now as well.’

I launched into a detailed account of Cal and Dec, how great Cal was, with his blond ringlets, serious grey eyes and how he couldn’t say Uncle when he was younger, so I was Unca Matty. And how, about a year ago now, Jay and Beth had taken in a young lad who was newly signed by Raiders, who had no parents and needed temporary accommodation, and how he’d stayed, and looked like staying for the foreseeable.

I’d only met Dec a couple times; he was a typical teenager, in that people over the age of twenty were old age pensioners to him and not worthy of his notice. The first time I met him, shortly after he’d arrived, he’d been sullen, rude and done his best to annoy me. It had worked. But apparently Beth had worked her magic on him, and when I visited again later in the year, although I didn’t see much of him, he seemed to have less of a bad attitude.

Carrie seemed to relax as I burbled on, more comfortable with chatter than with serious talk. I looked over about an hour into the journey, and she was asleep. Or at least had her eyes closed and her head was leaning against the headrest.

As I drove I reflected on what a mad situation I had got myself into. Running away to Devon wasn’t going to solve anything in the long run. We were going to have to go back to Stafford in a few days, Martin would still be there, still need dealing with, Carrie would still need somewhere to live. All I had done was postpone it all in a fit of protective ardour. And possibly with less virtuous motives behind it too.

It hadn’t escaped me that spending time with Carrie would help us to get to know each other. She had as good as admitted that she was attracted to me, and some exclusive time together might help things along a little. I hoped I could strike the right balance between friend and something more without freaking her out and scaring her off. I would just have to ensure that my baser urges remained well hidden, and I that made no moves on her without being expressly invited. Looking at the beautiful woman sleeping beside me, a slight frown dimpling her forehead, that wasn’t going to be easy.

I pulled the car up outside Jay’s big house at the end of the cul-de-sac at about six o’clock. The front door opened and I saw Beth framed in the doorway, as an excited Cal ran down the path towards me. I got out of the car and scooped him up as he squealed, wriggling as I held him over my head, making him squeal even louder. He’d grown quite a bit since the last time I saw him and I couldn’t hold him like that for long, so tucked him onto my hip.

‘Unca Matty sausage for tea.’

‘That’s great mate. Let’s take you to Mummy for a minute, I need to get something out of the car.’

Beth took Cal from me, while giving me a quizzical raise of her eyebrows and looking pointedly at Carrie, who was still in the car. Ignoring Beth, I went round to the passenger door and opened it.

‘OK?’

‘Bit nervous. I don’t know these people.’

‘Not yet. Won’t take long. Beth’s a nosy cow, Jay’s a lazy sod, Cal’s three and a half and Dec’s a teenager. But I doubt you’ll see much of him anyway.’

‘I don’t know what I’m doing here.’

‘We’re escaping. Together. Think of it as like … an adventure. We’ll explore Devon, go to the seaside, eat ice-cream, get charged exorbitant amounts to see touristy shit. The price we pay is having to spend a bit of time with my family. At least we’re not staying with them. We can leave whenever you like, go to the hotel Jay’s arranged. Five minutes, if that’s all you can stand. At least come and say hello? It’ll save me a long phone call from the chronically curious Beth Scott.’

‘Really? Five minutes?’

‘Give it a shot. Stage one of the adventure?’

She gave me a weak smile and nodded. I held out my hand and helped her out of the car. When I looked up, Jay was standing at the front door with Beth and Cal, looking for all the world like the family unit they were.

I thought, as I walked up the path with Carrie, how different Jay’s life was from mine, how different his goals, his priorities were. It was almost as if we were from different families. But I also recognised how much easier I was with those differences now, how much less it irritated me that he was bigger and stronger, spent a lot of his life in the spotlight, that he was a family man. I’d chosen my own way, and it wasn’t the same as his, and that was OK.

‘This is Carrie. Carrie, you’ll probably have worked out by now that this is Beth, Jay and Cal.’

‘Otherwise known as nosy cow, lazy sod and three and a half?’

There was a short, stunned silence as Carrie’s forthrightness sunk in, then Beth laughed.

‘I see Matty’s given you the lowdown on our personality traits. Come on in, Carrie. Tea’s almost ready.’

She turned and went in, heading towards the kitchen. Jay waved us through into the lounge and pointed at the sofa.

‘I can’t believe you told your friend I’m a lazy sod.’

‘Can’t you? Really? Search your soul, Jay, the truth will out.’

‘Daddy, what lacy sold?’

‘Now look what you’ve done, I’ll be in the doghouse for that. Nothing, Cal, just grown up words.’

‘Lacy sold lacy sold’

‘Yep, lacy sold, your Daddy’s a big old lacy sold. Drink, you two?’

‘Beer please.’

‘Goes without saying, Matty. Carrie – wine, something stronger, something softer, what can I get you?’

‘Water would be great.’

‘Oh, OK. Not sure we’ve got any, have to check with Beth.’

He gave Carrie a wink and went off to sort the drinks.

I leaned over to Carrie, who was hugging the end of the sofa nearest to the door as if she thought someone was going to try to chain her to it and she’d need to make a swift exit.

‘See, they’re not so bad. And thanks for telling them what I called them. Big help.’

‘It seemed to break the ice.’

‘It certainly did that. You’ll probably have a few chunks in your water, if Jay can locate the tap. He’s not great at navigating the kitchen.’

Cal, who had been standing by me, leaning on my knee, looking solemnly at Carrie without speaking, climbed on the sofa and deposited himself in my lap.

‘Hey mate. How’s life?’

‘What you mean?’

‘Er … is everything good in the world of Cal?’

‘What you mean?’

‘I think what your Unca Matty is trying to say is, have you done anything good today?’

‘Hey, you speak kid. Impressive.’

Cal nodded, seeming to be thinking.

‘I do a poo. In the big boys’ toilet.’

‘Whoa, Cal. Clever you. Is there no end to your talents?’

‘What you mean?’

‘Oh boy, I’m going to have to take whatever class you took in kid, aren’t I?

‘Yeah. Stop using fancy words, he won’t understand them. That’s the class.’

‘Oh. Thank you for passing on your wisdom so succinctly.’

‘You like it, don’t you, words and stuff.’

‘I suppose I do. Is it annoying?’

‘Not to me, I quite like it, but a three year old might find it a bit much.’

Jay came in with our drinks, we had tea at the table – sausages, as predicted by Cal – then Beth put Cal to bed. Dec, the teenage lodger, poked his head round the door, saw me, nodded and said ‘Alright’, although I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement, then disappeared back from whence he came.

I noted that Carrie had lasted longer than five minutes, and still hadn’t asked to leave. She was looking more comfortable, although none of us had yet broached the reason for our unexpected visit. Chat over tea had been general catching up; family stuff (how Cal was getting on at pre-school), rugby stuff (how Jay was getting on at not playing and being a coach instead), my job (how I was getting on at not doing a spectacular job in a part of the world more exotic than Stafford), carefully keeping away from asking Carrie anything about herself. Beth came downstairs after a while, sighed and plonked herself down on one of the enormous sofas.

‘So, what’s all this about, then?’

‘What? Can’t a bloke just visit his brother and favourite sister-in-law when he feels like it?’

‘You know you’re welcome anytime Matty. You also know what I mean. Come on, give.’

I looked at Carrie, who had gone pale and was looking down at her hands and fiddling with a ring.

‘Do you want me to say?’

She nodded, still looking down at her hands.

‘OK, but you’ll have to chip in if I get anything wrong.’

Another small nod.

‘Carrie’s boyfriend has been threatening her, she was scared, she left. I picked her up and brought her to mine, but we were worried he’d find us, so we’ve come down here to think about what to do. Is that it in a nutshell, Carrie?’

Another nod.

‘Oh Carrie. Has he done anything? Hurt you?’

‘No. Not really. Maybe small things, pinches, pulling my hair.’

This was news to me, but I kept my expression bland and stopped myself from rushing out to the car, driving back to Stafford and beating the shit out of him.

‘That’s not small, sweetheart. It’s the repertoire of a bully. Small jabs, little hurts, to let you know who’s in charge. What else has he done?’

‘I, er, he …’

Carrie looked at me imploringly. I took over.

‘I don’t know the whole story, but he seems to have reduced her life to just him, alienated her friends, controlling who goes to her bloody yoga classes even; he gave me the gangster treatment to stop me going. He’s paranoid about Carrie seeing other people, and he’d just announced that she wasn’t allowed to leave their flat without him. That’s when you rang me, wasn’t it?’

Carrie nodded, but didn’t say anything.

‘Oh sweetheart. It sounds like you got out just in time, it must have been very stressful.’

‘Wait, Matty, you’ve been doing yoga?’

‘Yeah, focus Jay. Not important right now.’

‘No, I grant you that, OK, but we’ll explore it later, for definite.’

‘Matty, you’ve obviously met this man. What’s he like?’

I glanced at Carrie. I didn’t hold a very high opinion of Martin, but he was her boyfriend, had been until earlier today, she’d loved him, I thought carefully about how I was going to give a balanced view of the bastard.

‘Big, strong bloke. Serious muscle. Carrie thinks he’s taking steroids. Nice line in intimidation.’

I left out the bit about him being the scum of the earth, the worst type of cowardly fucking bastard for what he’d done to her. It wouldn’t have been helpful.

‘He’s been good to me.’

Carrie’s voice was small and uncertain.

‘He’s helped me out, with money, with my mum. He’s always been there.’

‘Of course, Carrie.’

Beth’s voice was soothing.

‘If he hadn’t been good to you, you wouldn’t have stayed, would you? These things creep up on you, he changes bit by bit, you accept things you wouldn’t normally stand for because he’s been good to you. No one’s saying there haven’t been good times. Is it over between you, or do you want to go back to him?’

Carrie looked up, eyes wide and startled, and then a hint of indecision.

‘I … don’t know.’

‘What? You are joking, Carrie, there’s no way you can go back to him, he’s an arse-wipe, not fit to clean your fucking shoes.’

‘Matty. Stop it. Carrie has to consider it, what she wants, what the consequences are. She has to make her own decision. You two aren’t … together are you?’

‘What? No!’

My denial must have been more vehement than it needed to be as it elicited a raised eyebrow from both Beth and Jay.

‘I’m her friend. Just friends. Martin had this twisted idea there was something going on, but we hadn’t seen each other since I left the yoga class.’

I ignored Jay’s snigger.

‘He was seriously delusional.’

‘Well, maybe it needs to stay that way, Matty. Carrie, you need a clear head, time to think, consider your options. I think Matty did the right thing bringing you down here, it’s ideal, away from everything, everyone, space, time. If you need to talk, we’re here.’

Carrie nodded. ‘Thank you. Actually, Matt, I’m really tired. Can we go soon?’

‘Yeah, course. Jay, did you manage to book us a couple of rooms at the hotel?’

A smug grin crossed Jay’s face.

‘Yeah. Best rooms in the place.’

‘What have you done?’

‘Nothing! You’re so suspicious, little bro. Just followed your instructions.’

I gave him a scowl, to let him know how annoyed I’d be if he’d done anything stupid, like the bridal suite.

‘OK, thanks then.’

I stood up and turned to Carrie.

‘Shall we?’

It wasn’t a long journey; the hotel was really close to Jay’s house. Carrie turned to me as I got in and shut the driver’s door.

‘You’re right, she is a nosy cow.’

‘Did warn you.’

‘I like her, though, she says what she thinks. Your brother doesn’t say much, does he.’

‘Not noticeably.’

‘I expect you make up for it in the chat department.’

‘A distinct possibility.’

‘And your little nephew, with all that curly blonde hair, and his eyes are just like yours.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, big and grey. He’s a cutie.’

I tried to work out what she was saying, and decided things were already complicated enough without me finding backhanded compliments in simple statements. Beth had clearly warned me that getting involved with Carrie wouldn’t be a good idea at the moment, and I regretfully concurred.

‘He’s certainly a little heart-breaker. He’s been married twice and looking for wife number three.’

‘What?’

‘Nursery school. Hotbed of lunchtime weddings. And divorces by the sounds of it. You can’t say kids don’t get an early grounding in the intricacies of the adult world.’

‘Ha ha, no I guess not. Can we go to the beach tomorrow?’

‘Great idea. Although, I think I’m going to need to go shopping first, I didn’t bring much with me.’

‘Hm, me too. OK, shops, beach. Plan.’

I settled comfortably into the car seat, looking forward to spending time with Carrie, having her to myself for a whole week, with no pressure, getting to know her, her getting to know me.

‘Plan indeed. Oh, look, that’s it there, with the big blue sign shining into space.’

‘Swanky. Are you sure it’s not going to be really expensive? I haven’t got much money.’

‘Jay said discount. I’m hoping my tight-arse brother will know that should mean barely costing anything at all.’

We parked, grabbed our stuff from the boot and walked into reception, trying not to goggle at the opulence.

‘Hello, can I help you?’

‘Yeah, we’ve got two rooms booked in the name of Scott.’

‘Ah, yes sir. You’re in the Scott Suite. Here is your key, Sebastian will take your bags.’

‘Oh, that’s OK, our bags aren’t very heavy. Save Sebastian for someone with serious luggage.’

The lurking Sebastian looked seriously grumpy at missing out on a tip for carrying my boxers and Carrie’s toothbrush up in the lift.

‘Did you say the … er … Scott Suite? I asked my brother to book two rooms.’

‘Yes, sir, there are two bedrooms in the suite. We are always honoured to have members of Mr Scott’s family staying with us. Mr Scott wished me to tell you that the room is complimentary.’

‘What … free? Or just going to be really really nice about us?’

The woman behind the reception desk kept a stony face.

‘There will be no charge, sir.’

‘Whoa. Way to go Jay. Cheers then.’

‘Will sir and madam be requiring breakfast in the suite tomorrow?’

‘Is that free too?’

I was aware I was pushing the boundaries of polite behaviour when it came to such a posh hotel. It really didn’t ‘do’ to be so open about not wanting to pay for stuff.

‘All meals, beverages, snacks and services are included, sir.’

‘Seriously? Holy shit. In that case, yes, breakfast, full English, thank you very much.’

‘Enjoy your stay, sir, madam.’

‘Oh, you have no idea how much.’

I walked off to the lift, a big smile on my face. Jay’s idea of a discount was incredible.

‘You look pleased with yourself.’

‘Did you hear that? Free room and board. Anything from the mini-bar. Meals included. Here! Here is serious dosh.’

‘Did Jay pay for it, do you think?’

Bugger, hadn’t thought of that. Didn’t want to be beholden to the older brother because he thought I couldn’t pay my way. I’d have to check with him tomorrow.

‘No idea. Top floor please.’

We got out on the top floor, walking past the outstretched hand of the lift boy with innocent smiles on our faces. I wasn’t intending to get stung for tips just because we were staying for free. We walked to the room, opened the door, and –

‘Holy shit. You bastard, Jay.’

The walls of the main living area were plastered with framed, poster sized signed photos of Jay from all eras of his rugby career. Some from his Royals days, via his time with TomCats, some in an England shirt, then Raiders, and one in his coaching regalia. A quick look in the bedrooms uncovered more of the same in both.

‘I’m not going to get any sleep in here.’

‘Your brother’s quite famous, isn’t he.’

‘Yeah, whatever.’

‘This one, here, did he play for England, then?’

‘Might have.’

‘He was quite cute in his time, wasn’t he.’

‘Some may say so.’

‘Aw, are you jealous?’

‘No, got over it a long time ago. Just don’t particularly want his ugly mug gurning down at me all day and night. No wonder it was free, I doubt you’d get anyone to pay to stay in here.’

‘So you didn’t know he had a suite named after him in the local nobby hotel?’

‘He must have neglected to mention it.’

‘Modesty, I admire that in a man.’

‘Yeah, that’s why he didn’t tell me, too modest.’

My phone pinged with a text. Jay. What a surprise.

‘How do u like the room?’

‘It’ll b gr8 once housekeeping have removed all the offensive pictures some1 left behind.’

‘LOL enjoy yr stay. Think of me.’

‘Bit hard 2 think about any1 else.’

‘Job done, then.’

Well, just for that, Jay could pay, if indeed he had, and I was going to charge his credit card to the hilt with mini-bar, room service, laundry – if it was a performable service, I was going to get it performed. I looked around at the pictures. They were screwed to the wall, so I couldn’t even turn them round. Sighing, I turned to Carrie.

‘You choose which room you want, I’m happy in either. No, scratch that, I’m unhappy in either. Take the master, nice big bed, bit of comfort, yeah?’

‘Are you sure? It does look comfy.’

I don’t think Carrie realised how much I would sacrifice to see her happy and comfortable. Having the smaller of two pretty enormous beds was nothing.

‘I’m sure. Are you tired now? I know it’s still early, but if you want to go to bed that’s fine, you’ve had one hell of a day. If not, let’s fire up the TV and see what delights we can get on pay-per-view.’

‘I’m not ready for bed, not yet. What’s on telly?’

‘Well let’s see, shall we?’

And so we spent a very pleasant evening watching some crappy action film where the hero was in a race against time with a bunch of terrorists who had planted a bomb in a children’s playground. It was a ridiculous plot, and we laughed at the story and the dialogue, which were both trite. I ordered some snacks from room service, and we munched on ‘tortiles a jus’ (chips and dip) and ‘palomitas chocolat’ (chocolate coated popcorn) which would have been ten times cheaper if we’d got them from the local supermarket.

Eventually, I felt tired. I looked across at Carrie, and her eyes were drooping. The film hadn’t finished, but it was obvious the hero was going to save the day and get the girl in the end. If he didn’t, it was the worst action movie ever, and it was already pretty bad.

‘Hey, go to bed before I have to carry you in there and undress you.’

‘Careful, or I might just have to fall asleep now.’

Shit, no, didn’t mean to start flirty banter this close to bedtime.

‘You look tired. Go to bed.’

Carrie looked disappointed for a second, then nodded and stood up, yawning and stretching.

‘I am. Matt, thanks for this. It’s been a well weird day, I haven’t got my head round everything yet. Thanks for doing this for me.’

‘You should know that I’d do a lot to make sure you’re safe and happy.’

‘Can you do one more thing?’

‘If it’s within my power.’

‘Can I have a hug?’

Bollocks. A hug was well within my power, but a no-strings hug? When it was closer than I’d ever been to her? Oh well, in for a penny. Think random unsexy thoughts. Anne Widecombe. There you go.

‘Of course.’

I stood up and folded her up in my arms, feeling every curve of her body fit into every plane of mine. She nestled her head against my chest and sighed, and I was very aware of my body responding to the closeness. Bloody Anne Widecombe, why could the woman never do her job? Without intending to, I began stroking her hair. It was soft and fine and I loved the way it felt under my fingers.

I had my eyes closed, but felt Carrie look up at me. I opened my eyes to look down at her, and saw something in her face that definitely said more than friends. I saw desire, and want and need, and it couldn’t happen, not tonight, not while she was still sorting everything out. Why did being sensible and considerate feel so shitty? Regretfully, so regretfully, I gently pushed away from her, stroking her cheek as I did so and shaking my head.

‘Carrie, you’ll be the death of me.’

‘Don’t you want to?’

‘I think you know I do. I think you also know what a bad idea it would be, just now, with everything how it is. I think friends is how we should keep it, for the moment. I’ll still be here, when it’s all done. I’ll always be here for you. And if, after everything’s sorted, you still want to give us a go, then I’m so in. But not just a one night thing, not just a ‘thank you’, you deserve better than that.’

She looked down for a second, then back up at me, defiantly.

‘Trust me to find a knight in shining armour with a bloody conscience.’

‘Damn right. Off to bed with you milady. Your jousting tournament begins at nine of the morrow and there is a hectic afternoon of tapestry and banquet planning to be conquered.’

‘You really do like your fancy words, don’t you.’

‘Prefer numbers, actually.’

‘God, I hate to think what you do to numbers then.’

‘Tell you tomorrow. I’m off to bed, even if you’re happy to stand here all night insulting me and my beloved numbers.’

‘Matt … thank you. For thinking of me, putting me first. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it, you hardly know me.’

I was backing away from her towards the door to my room as she spoke, as I really really needed to stop talking to her, looking at her, wanting to touch her, so much more than touch her.

‘That’s something I intend to correct over the next week. Night.’

‘Night.’

And with that, I disappeared, gratefully and ruefully, behind the shield of the bedroom door.

I didn’t sleep much. I didn’t even get into bed for ages, putting on the small TV and watching re-runs of twenty year old sitcoms, hoping to feel myself tire, but there was too much on my mind. I was going to find it hard to be Carrie’s friend only, especially if she continued to offer me more, but that was what I needed to be.

Was I being stupidly noble? I didn’t think so. If I took advantage of her vulnerability now, she’d hate me later. If I wanted something more, something – I could barely believe I was thinking this – long term, I needed to seriously curb my libido now, so that when she finally could see the wood for the trees, I was a broad oak for her to shelter under not a bonsai that … oh I tried all the metaphors, some of them even worse than that one.

I lay on the bed, thinking, trying to sort it all out. Finally it occurred to me that if I was having this much trouble thinking about it, Carrie would be having much more, having left her evil boyfriend and escaped to the south west of England with her one-time yoga student, staying in an unfamiliar part of the country, in an unfamiliarly fancy hotel. She needed to decide lots of things, and I needed to help her do it objectively, without my dick getting in the way of both of us.

Right, that decided, I finally felt my eyes start to close, and I stripped down to my boxers and crawled into the annoyingly incredibly comfortable bed.

I slept the sleep of the righteous, which I felt I very nearly merited given my self-denial of the night before, until I vaguely heard movement beyond my door, then a tap.

‘Matt?’

‘Mm.’

‘Breakfast is here.’

‘Wha’s time?’

‘Nearly eight.’

‘Shit, s’middle o’ fucking night. Sunday fo’ fucksake.’

‘Sorry about that, but if you want breakfast warm you’re going to have to get up and have it now.’

Had to stop myself telling her to fuck off. I never, ever got up before ten, at the earliest, on a Sunday. Sundays were sacrosanct, sacred, devoted to St Elijah, patron saint of sleep. But this Sunday, today, I was going to be with Carrie, and I needed to get a civil tongue in my head and start thinking about how I was going to spend the day with her.

That roused me, the thought of spending the whole day with Carrie.

‘Is it under those silver cover things, keeping it warm?’

‘It is.’

‘Great. I’ll just have a shower, then I’ll be there.’

I jumped out of bed, almost energetically, and into the en-suite shower, quick wash down, towel dry, dressed in yesterday’s clothes, and I was there. Carrie was still in her bathrobe, looking sleep-rumpled and sexy, sitting at the table by the window, with the view across the city to the hills and moors beyond. She’d placed the covered platters on the table and was sitting with her chin on her hand, tapping the table, pretending to look bored.

‘About time. I’m starving.’

‘I’m so changing breakfast time to later, tomorrow.’

‘Why? It wastes half the day if you just lie in bed.’

‘I love my sleep.’

‘I love my life, I’d rather be awake to enjoy it.’

She had a point, I suppose. Maybe just for this week I could be flexible.

We shopped and beached that day. I hardly cared that I was doing two of my least favourite activities in the whole wide world, i.e. wandering aimlessly round shops going ‘what do you think’ ‘lovely’ ‘I don’t like it’ ‘well why did you ask’, and lying on a beach doing nothing except attracting melanomas.

I hardly cared, though, because the first meant I saw Carrie in a variety of different more or less revealing clothes, and had some say in her choice of underwear, and the second meant I got to see her in the new bikini she’d just bought. Or rather, I’d just bought, as she had little money and I had a paroxysm of gallantry, totally unselfishly motivated by the thought of lying next to her on the beach wearing nothing except two scraps of fabric. Yeah, the ‘being flexible’ was going well. The ‘helping objectively without my dick coming between us’? Not so much. Must try harder. And stop the double entendres, they’re not helping.

So the first couple of days, we just mooched around, seeing bits of Devon, eating cream teas, oohing at the scenery, aahing at the sunsets. I didn’t mention Martin, Carrie didn’t mention Martin, but I saw him flit across her face sometimes, maybe when she saw a couple with their arms round each other, or other seemingly random moments, I don’t know, maybe there was something on a menu that he really liked, or maybe she saw the brand of muscle vests he wore or some such shit.

We didn’t go and see Jay and Beth until the Tuesday. Beth was best taken in small doses, fairly far apart, or the urge to strangle her could become overpowering. I sometimes didn’t know how Jay did it, but knowing my brother, most of it washed over him. They were undoubtedly made for each other.

But anyway, Tuesday. Carrie and I had done the beach, twice. We’d done the moors, me finding out delightedly that Carrie did hiking, and thus buying us both walking boots in a miraculous BOGOF offer in the local Millets. We’d had more cream teas than you could wave a jam spoon at, and we’d been to Paignton Zoo, where we’d been fleeced at the entrance, and continued to be fleeced by the inside prices, where loads of miserable looking animals were out of their element, bored and cold. At least, that was my take on it. Carrie thought everything was ‘adorable’, especially the penguins, who at least didn’t look cold, but were conversely potentially at risk of heat stroke. And of course, I thought that made her adorable, so everything was alright. And we’d stayed in to dinner in the expensive posh hotel twice, once in the restaurant and once with room service, so we could eat in our bathrobes and spill pasta sauce down our fronts without worrying.

We’d talked about nothing, and everything, or rather everything except the elephant in the room, and got to know each other much better. Carrie was smart, with a dry sense of humour and a sassy outlook on life. This, combined with her general hotness, just made me like her even more. It was no longer just a physical attraction; you may have noticed I was more than a little infatuated before. I think it would be fair to say that, although I had always in the past kept well away from any verb beginning with L applying to any woman I was involved with, I could think of at least three that applied to Carrie. And the first two were ‘Like’ and ‘Lust’. And the third ended in ‘ove’.

So here we were, walking up the path to Jay’s front door, which opened to eject a hurrying Dec just as we were about to ring the bell.

‘Hey. Alright?’

It was definitely a question this time, but one that didn’t require an answer.

‘Yeah, man.’

Who did I think I was? In my head it sounded cool, but out of my mouth, it sounded the lamest of old man lame. I barely caught the smirk as he raced off down the path, but it was there, and it stung a bit.

‘Bloody young whippersnapper.’

‘Yeah, cos that’s a way cooler thing to say.’

I looked appraisingly at Carrie, who seemed to have read it all pretty accurately. Well at least my plan of her getting to know me seemed to be working, even if she was getting to know the bits I’d really rather keep to myself.

The door was still open, swinging in the aftermath of Hurricane Declan, and we walked through, calling out as we did so.

‘Oh, hi you two. Lovely to see you again, this is a treat, Matty, twice in one week. You will come again before you leave, won’t you? Come and sit down, tell me what you’ve been doing with yourselves.’

We sat on one of the sofas and talked to Beth about the last couple of days, laughing as we showed her some of the pictures I’d taken on my phone. She made suggestions for more places to see before we left, and then put her serious nursey face on. I’d seen it before, when she talked to Mum, or talked to me about Mum. I wanted to warn Carrie, but without saying something or gripping her hand, it was impossible.

‘So, Carrie, how is everything? Have you heard from your boyfriend?’

I knew she’d had texts and voicemails, wasn’t sure if she’d replied, or spoken to him directly. I might be about to find out.

‘He’s bombarded me a bit with texts and calls. I didn’t know whether to answer or not, I don’t want him to know where I am, he’ll just come down here and start causing trouble. I called him last night, just to tell him to stop calling.’

‘Uh huh.’ Beth kept her tone of voice neutral, but I wondered if she wanted to yell ‘you stupid girl’ like I did.

‘How did that go?’

‘Oh, he just got upset. All the texts, voicemails, he was saying sorry, he knew he’d gone over the top, he wouldn’t do it again, please come back. He said the same on the phone, but he … actually cried. He’s … I’ve never heard him cry before. He asked if I’d gone for good.’

‘What did you tell him, sweetheart?’

I tried not to stare too fiercely at her, but she glanced in my direction, and shrank away from me, so I probably didn’t succeed.

‘I said I was still thinking. I am still thinking. It’s been great being down here, I’ve had a lot of space and time, Matt’s been great.’

‘You didn’t fucking tell him that did you?’

‘No, silly, I didn’t mention you, I didn’t say where I was. He thinks I’m still in Stafford somewhere, from what he said.’

‘Carrie, it sounds like you’ve done some thinking. I don’t know if you’ve come to any conclusions, but I’ve talked to a friend of mine who’s a social worker, and she gave me some information on domestic violence –’

‘What? No, he hasn’t been violent, never.’

‘Just hear me out, sweetheart. You told me on Saturday that he pinched you and pulled your hair, and Matty said he told you that you weren’t to go out unless it was with him.’

Carrie didn’t answer, but nodded, staring mutinously at Beth.

‘Would it be fair to say he says things to you that don’t make you feel very good about yourself? That he blames you when things go wrong for him? And that being around him scares you sometimes?’

Another nod, the gaze dropped to her knees.

‘Have you ever left him before?’

‘Once, about eighteen months ago.’

‘Why?’

I saw Carrie’s jaw clench, realised a serious nerve had been touched, and although I was in awe of Beth’s way of getting to the heart of the matter within half an hour of us arriving, I hated seeing Carrie upset.

‘Beth, can’t we just leave this for now?’

‘How long for, Matty? Until she goes back to him again? Carrie, I know this is hard, and in the end it’s up to you, of course. I’ve brought you some information.’

Beth stood up and pulled some bits of paper from a drawer, walked over and handed them to Carrie, who took them as if they were an unexploded grenade.

‘Have a look at it, it might help a bit more with deciding what to do. Basically, it says that there are all sorts of abuse, or violence if that’s what you want to call it, and the seemingly little things all add up. The abuser wants control, and will do anything to get it, especially promising to change. He might even mean it at the time, but he’ll definitely say it if it gets you back there, where he can control you again. I’m willing to bet he said he’d change when you left last time.’

‘Martin’s not an abuser.’

Carrie spat the word out like it was poison. Her face closed down, and I don’t think she was listening to anything Beth said after that.

‘OK, well, have a read of that lot and see if you still agree afterwards. I’m happy, perfectly happy, for you to tell me I’m wrong, that he doesn’t tick all or even any of the boxes, but please promise me you’ll look at it.’

Carrie nodded and stuffed the pamphlets and information leaflets in her bag, then leaned back against the sofa, arms folded and legs crossed. It was the end of the matter for her, for now, possibly forever. I wasn’t sure if Beth had pushed things too far; only time would tell.

Seeming unruffled, Beth changed tack.

‘Are you two going to stay for dinner?’

‘Oh, er …’ I looked at Carrie, who shrugged. ‘Maybe, if you promise not to get all heavy on our arses again.’

‘Alright, Matty, no more heavy. Promise. I’ve made a lasagne, with sticky toffee pudding for dessert.’

‘Well I’m sold. Carrie, Beth is a really good cook. Even if her well-intentioned advice is a bit heavy-handed sometimes, her culinary touch is as light as a feather.’

I looked over at Carrie as she tutted and rolled her eyes at me.

‘You really have the gift of the gab, Scotty, don’t you.’

‘Oh, no no, you can’t call me Scotty, that’s what all the rugger buggers call Jay. Can’t have our two worlds colliding, the universe would implode.’

‘Total gab. Alright, thanks Beth, dinner sounds great.’

So we stayed, and chatted, and played with Cal, and Jay came home demanding feeding and beer, and family life went on around us as Beth got dinner ready, then chatted to us while she folded laundry, and Jay turned the TV on to watch a sports channel.

I checked Carrie silently a few times, but she seemed outwardly alright. I hoped I could talk to her later, maybe look at some of the information with her if she’d let me.

Dinner was, as usual with Beth’s cooking, delicious. Dec put in an appearance, shovelling the lasagne in his face faster than I would have thought humanly possible, not speaking as he was using his mouth for more important things. Beth asked him a few questions, but had obviously learned that they had to require yes or no answers, as he only nodded or shook his head to reply. He got up from the table before the sticky toffee pudding, as soon as his last mouthful had been dispatched, before he’d even swallowed it.

‘Er, Mr Summers.’

Jay’s voice had a paternal scolding tone to it I’d never heard before.

‘Mm?’

It was the only answer possible with a half-chewed mouthful of lasagne.

‘Plate please. Beth doesn’t spend all day cooking for you so you can make her clear up after you too.’

The mouthful was swallowed.

‘Sorry, Beth.’

Dec picked his plate, glass and cutlery up and took it into the kitchen. There was the sound of a dishwasher being loaded, then the other door to the kitchen opening and closing, footsteps going upstairs, then some music from above. I looked at Jay.

‘Impressive.’

‘What?’

‘Discipline. Never thought you had it in you.’

‘Piss off, Matty.’

‘James, honestly.’

Beth indicated Cal with her eyes.

‘Sorry.’

‘Ha ha, I see you’re not the only one dishing out the rules. Seriously, though, nice work with the adolescent. When I first met him I thought he was a rude, sullen, ignorant git.’

‘Matty.’

‘What?’

I reviewed the words I’d used.

‘Oh, sorry, ignorant, er, sorry Beth, can’t think of any words that aren’t rude to describe him. But he seems to have really come along. He’s progressed to uncommunicative and unsociable. Nice work.’

‘He has changed a lot. Not sure it’s down to me. More to do with Beth.’

‘He’s had a tough start to life, Matty. You know both his parents died? He just needed some stability, a few house rules.’

‘So how long is he here for, then? It must be more than a year already.’

Beth and Jay looked at each other.

‘There’s no timescale, really, he can be here as long as he wants, or needs to be.’

‘Holy, er, cow. Are you adopting him or something?’

‘No, Matty, nothing like that. He just fits with us, don’t you think?’

‘Er, OK, if you say so.’

‘Well we all like him, don’t we Cal?’

‘What Mummy?’

Cal looked up from his bowl of pudding, where he had been making trails with the sticky toffee sauce.

‘Say ‘pardon’, not ‘what’, sweetheart. We all like Dec, don’t we?’

‘Yes, Mummy.’

‘Tell Unca Matty what happens most nights before you go to bed.’

‘I clean my teeth and do a wee.’

‘Yes, sweetheart, but what does Dec do?’

‘Dec reads me a story.’

‘Seriously, Cal? He can speak more than two words at one time? Whoa.’

‘Stop it, Matty. Don’t belittle things you don’t understand. Dec and Cal get on really well together, they teach each other a lot, and have a lot of fun together too. You know what teenagers are like, unfamiliar people send them into themselves.’

‘OK, point taken.’

Although I thought to myself that if Dec went much more into himself he’d disappear up his own teenage arse, but as had just been pointed out to me, what the fuck did I know about it?

Dinner eaten, dishwasher stacked by Carrie and me (because, you know, Beth didn’t spend all day cooking so we could make her clear up after us too), and coffee on the go, we sat down in the living room again. Carrie started doing exaggerated yawns while we were drinking the coffee, and I got the hint after the third one.

‘Maybe it’s time we were off. We’ve got a lot of pay-per-view movies to catch up with on your credit card, Jay. Thanks for that, by the way. Almost makes up for having you grinning down at me from every angle except the fucking ceiling.’

‘Matty.’

‘What? Cal’s not even in here.’

‘That’s not the point. The rule is, no swearing in the house.’

‘Yeah, that seems to be working well for everyone.’

I rolled my eyes at Beth’s ridiculous rules. Jay said ‘fuck’ all the time and hardly seemed to notice when Beth berated him, and in all likelihood Cal would be swearing before he got to infant school, so she might as well give up now. To prove my point, Jay wasn’t even listening, being too busy laughing at his little prank with the Scott Suite.

‘Ha ha, sorry, mate, just couldn’t resist. It’s not exactly on my credit card, it’s just, when they named the suite after me, they said I could have it for free anytime I liked. I’ve never used it before. Seemed too good to pass up.’

‘Maybe you should have offered it to Mum. She’d love saying goodnight to all your photos, I bet she does every night anyway.’

‘Nah, Mum prefers staying in Dec’s stinking pit where she can see my real handsome face first thing in the morning.’

‘I bet she leaves her glasses off until you’ve been up a couple of hours though, otherwise it’d be a bit of a shock to the system.’

‘You’re hilarious.’

‘Oh, nowhere near as hilarious as you. The Scott Suite. Does Mum even know?’

‘Er, no. I was too embarrassed to tell her. I suppose it’s too much to ask you to keep it to yourself?’

‘Oh way way too much. I’ve taken pictures of the whole caboodle, it’ll make my year to show her when I get back.’

‘How is Carol, Matty? I spoke to her last week, and she sounded a bit down.’

I actually hadn’t seen Mum for a while, having been busy at work, and preoccupied with how I was going to break up with Merce. It all seemed a long time ago. I’d texted her a few times, but Mum never texted back, and would never leave a message to say she wasn’t OK. I felt guilty all of a sudden. When I got back to Stafford, I would need to make amends.

‘Oh, er, to be honest I haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks. Maybe that’s upset her.’

‘A couple of weeks, Matty? That’s not like you.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ve been busy with stuff. I don’t always get over there as much as I’d like.’

‘Stuff like … yoga classes?’

‘Yeah, whatever. Time to go, yeah, Carrie?’

With Jay’s laugh ringing in my ears, I stood up and walked out, making sure I trod on his foot as I walked past, in the best tradition of brothers. Beth shook her head at us and opened the front door to let us out.

‘Thanks for dinner, Beth, remarkable as always.’

‘Come again, won’t you, before you go back. Carrie – I’m sorry if I upset you earlier. Please, just have a look at the leaflets?’

Carrie nodded, but didn’t say anything. I kissed Beth on the cheek, and we drove back to the hotel.

‘Are you really tired, or was all that yawning just code for ‘get me out of here, if Jay belches one more time I’m going to throw up’?’

‘I’m a bit tired, but if you want to watch a film, I’ll stay up with you. I can always doze off in front of Alan Rickman. Steven Seagal might be a bit harder.’

‘I wondered if you wanted to have a look at that stuff Beth gave you.’

Carrie gave me a pained look.

‘Not tonight.’

‘Any night?’

‘I don’t know. Don’t go on. You keep saying it’s my choice, then putting me under pressure.’

This was a little unfair, seeing as this was the first time I’d brought the subject up all week, but I let it go, recognising that she was feeling fragile.

‘Not intentionally. I just want to make sure you’re happy.’

‘Mm. Matt, if I went back to Martin, what would you do?’

My heart felt like it had dropped onto the floor.

3. The things we do for love

In which we meet Carrie, and Matty shows us the lengths he will go to in order to impress her.

Matt

I loved my job at a new, small, independent firm specialising in IT consultancy and systems analysis. They had started modestly, but had big ambitions starting in Stafford, then branching out via the rest of the Midlands towards world domination. I loved the people, I worked hard and quickly made it up the ranks, and I stayed longer than I intended because I was enjoying it.

My plans to leave meant I could still live a commitment-free life, as I wasn’t going to be staying, so why get involved too deeply with anything, or anyone? I stayed with Mum when I first came back, but soon got my own small flat and lived the single guy’s life. I spent longer than was healthy playing PlayStation and Xbox games; I went to clubs and met women, I slept with them, I saw a few of them more than once, but never more than half a dozen times. Some of the women I came across were girls I’d known at school, and I rather immodestly enjoyed watching them work out who I was, remember what I’d been like back then, and do a double-take.

I had a lot of friends, some from work, some from the walking group I went to when I needed a good hike, some from the local chess club, drinking buddies, football buddies, people I’d met at parties, people from all walks of life. Finally, Matt Scott actually had a life. Every few months I’d look at the job pages and think about leaving, and then decide to give it a bit longer; I was enjoying myself too much to want to change just then, but suddenly I looked up and nigh on four years had gone by.

Then one day I was at Mum’s, for Sunday lunch, which I did every few weeks, now I had my own place. I was in her living room flicking through the uninspiring channel selection on her pretty ancient TV, when I heard a shout and a crash from the kitchen. I ran through, to find her in the middle of a lake of gravy with the remains of a gravy boat smashed into it and a saucepan on its side.

‘Mum! Are you OK?’

She looked shocked – pale and a bit trembly – and I pulled out a chair for her to sit on while I fetched a mop and bucket to clear up. She still hadn’t answered me when I started mopping.

‘Mum?’

‘Yes dear.’

‘What happened?’

I was getting a bit freaked out by her just sitting there looking at me, and was trying to get her to talk to me.

‘Oh, I was just pouring the gravy into the gravy boat, and … I don’t know what happened, my wrist just gave way.’

‘Has it happened before?’

‘Not with gravy. But it is hard lifting saucepans these days. It’s just the arthritis.’

‘Just the what?’

She had said absolutely nothing to me about it before.

‘Arthritis, dear. Makes things a bit painful sometimes.’

My mum was one of the most stoic people I knew. She wasn’t Scottish, but she’d lived in Scotland most of her life before moving down to Stafford when she married my father, who was Scottish, and I was sure she had assimilated some of the dourness. If she said things were a bit painful sometimes, I could only guess at how much things were really hurting a lot of the time. I didn’t know much about arthritis, but I intended to find out.

‘Fucking hell, Mum. Have you seen a doctor?’

‘Language, Matthew. Yes of course I have.’

‘And?’

‘And what?’

I put the mop back in the bucket and looked at her, forcing her to look up at me.

‘And what did the sodding doctor say?’

‘That I’ve got rheumatoid arthritis and I have to put up with it. They gave me some tablets and some splint things, but I don’t really think I need to wear them.’

‘Shit. Why didn’t you say something? At least ask me to do the bloody gravy or something.’

‘Well you’re not always here, dear, I can’t call you every time I need to pour something out of a saucepan, can I?’

‘You know you can, you can call me anytime, whenever you need anything.’

She gave me a wistful smile.

‘You’re a good boy, but you know I can’t, you’ve got your own life. I’m fine, really dear, don’t worry about me.’

I snorted in frustration.

‘Oh OK, then, I won’t worry at all. You just tell me you’ve got some bloody arthritis thing, and you’ve trashed your kitchen floor because you dropped a shitload of boiling hot gravy all over it, and it could have been all over you, that’s not going to make me worry in the slightest. Fucking hell Mum, were you ever going to tell me?’

‘Matthew, really. Stop swearing.’

‘Yeah, Mum, that’s what we need to be focussing on here is my fucking language. Aren’t there people who can help, give you, oh I don’t know, saucepan tippers or some such shit? Or maybe, use the splint things when you’re lifting saucepans. Or don’t use saucepans. Maybe have something easier to cook, frozen pizza or microwave lasagne or something.’

‘Honestly, you make it sound like I’m ready for my grave.’

‘Well you might be if you carry on dropping hot liquid all over yourself.’

‘Don’t be so melodramatic.’

And so we carried on arguing, back and forth, Mum not willing to concede that she might need any help at all, me getting more and more frustrated by her obstinacy. People who know me well will doubtless be having a small chuckle to themselves at the irony. Some of the astute among you may be able to discern a genetic trait. Us Scotts are a stubborn lot, it’s bred into us and we all learn it from each other and reinforce it as time goes on. Nature and nurture, side by side.

At any rate, that put paid to any thoughts of me moving away. Mum needed someone nearby to keep an eye on her, to offer covert suggestions of ways life could be easier, to cook her the odd meal when she’d let me, with lots of microwaveable leftovers to freeze, to run the hoover round because I’d ‘had mud on my shoes’, to dig the garden because it really was too much for her and she was at least prepared to admit that.

I talked to Jay about her, but there wasn’t much he could do from afar. He was miles away in the south west, he was just about to get married to Beth, and he played rugby. It always came down to that. He had little free time during the season, and was tied to a two year contract, so, as much as he at least said ‘if there’s anything I can do’, it was down to me to make sure Mum was OK. He also said I shouldn’t put my life on hold to look after her, and that it wasn’t what she would want, if she knew, but I disregarded that as not his business; he had different priorities to me, and a different relationship with Mum.

I reassessed my future, which had been pretty much an open book and a one way ticket to the rest of the world up till then, but had now narrowed to Stafford, or one of the other Midlands towns where Eyeti, the company I worked for, was planning to expand to. I mourned it, to myself, what could have been, but it wasn’t ever really a choice. I straightened my shoulders, lifted my chin, stopped looking at the spectacular jobs on offer in Europe, the States and the Middle East, and decided that my adventure was going to be to see how far I could go with Eyeti. I might make it as far as Solihull, if I was lucky.

Reassessing my future, and realising I was going to be staying put for the foreseeable, meant reassessing other things, like relationships, friendships, what I did and who I did it with. I didn’t consciously decide this, but found I was spending my time differently, putting down roots, making plans further than just a few months ahead. I started thinking about the women I went out with as potential partners, although I was still an excellent no-strings lay, but there was sometimes a strange sense of regret when I called it off, a vague haunting remnant of what might have been. And Stafford isn’t huge – I won’t say I’d shagged every woman in town, as that would be a downright lie, and with a population of over a hundred thousand people, a physical impossibility, but I was running into the same faces in clubs, at parties, in pubs, and I needed to freshen things up a bit.

So I went on a few holidays, wild times, kind of 18-30 type of thing. Drank myself shit-faced and shagged myself sore for two weeks at a time, then came back and fended off all the texts and emails from women I’d been stupid enough to give my real details to in a drunken stupor. More than one tried to convince me I’d asked her to marry me, and one tried to convince me she was pregnant.

That terrified me, and it took a lot of driving to and from Canterbury, where she lived, before she finally confessed she’d made it up. Breathing a long, deep sigh of relief, I swore off fuckfest holidays and took myself down to Devon to spend a week with Jay and his new wife Beth, in the hope that the change of scene would reset me.

Beth was a force of nature. She was a nurse, and bossy with it. She demanded all the details of Mum’s arthritis, promised to put her in touch with a specialist she knew in the Midlands, phoned Social Services to arrange a visit, really sorted stuff out. I felt a bit ashamed that I hadn’t got my arse into gear and done some of the same things, but I didn’t have Beth’s contacts, her knowledge, or her direct way of confronting a problem. Beth also didn’t know Mum very well, and could pretend she didn’t know how proud Mum was, or how stubborn, and used this to ride roughshod over any protests.

Beth was good for Jay. She organised him, bullied him, told him what to do, and he just rolled over and did it with no protest. They’d met, unsurprisingly, in the local hospital, when Jay had been part of the Raiders’ Christmas visit to the children’s ward. Beth had taken the initiative and asked for his number, and Jay probably didn’t know what had hit him after that.

I remembered his previous girlfriend, Lisa, who was a lot younger than him, a few years younger than me even. She’d had the same up front manner, but Jay didn’t stand for it coming from someone so young, and it didn’t work out. Beth definitely took charge of Jay, which seemed to be what he wanted and needed. I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted or needed, but it seemed nobody got a choice where Beth was concerned. She was good to talk to, when she wasn’t bossing me about, and I chatted to her quite a lot while I was there about how things were going for me.

‘James told me you’d thought of going abroad.’

‘Yeah, but I’m staying put for now.’

‘Does your mum know?’

‘That I was looking for jobs in another country? No. It was only a thought.’

‘James says you’re pretty good at what you do.’

‘Does he? How would he know?’

‘He’s proud of you. Could you see yourself moving away?’

‘Not at the moment.’

‘You don’t think you’ll regret it later?’

‘Who ever knows what they’ll feel later? I have to do what’s right now.’

‘Are you happy?’

‘Yeah. I’ve got good friends, do lots of things I enjoy and I like my job. Can’t say fairer than that.’

‘As long as you don’t say never, and resent things that you could have changed.’

See what I mean? She was pretty relentless, and never backed off from saying what she felt.

I’d been to their wedding a year or so earlier, and it was a huge affair, with lots of personalities from the rugby world in attendance. I wasn’t Jay’s best man, not even close, hadn’t even considered that he might ask me, so wasn’t disappointed when he didn’t. But the whole event made me think, just for a minute, about whether I was happy being an excellent no-strings lay, or whether I wanted something else, something with more strings attached, something like Jay had with Beth. Then I shook myself out of it, snogged a bridesmaid, felt her up, didn’t call her, and carried on with life as I knew it.

I’d been back in Stafford for four or five years when I met Carrie. I was getting tired of the same old round of pubs, clubs, football matches and work, the same faces, the same conversations, so I decided to mix things up a bit and try something new that didn’t involve copious amounts of alcohol and scary texts from women I barely remembered.

I scoured the local paper for evening classes available at the local school, and decided to go for taster sessions in Yoga, Glass Painting and Italian for Beginners. I also signed up for some weekend National Trust volunteering in a fit of green ardour. I didn’t make it past the first five minutes of the first class, which happened to be yoga.

Carrie was teaching the class, and I was smitten as soon as I clapped eyes on her. She was medium height, had blonde shoulder length hair, bright blue eyes and a really toned body, with a tight top that left little to the imagination. I’d never thought yoga was my thing, but as soon as I saw Carrie, I realised it was what my life had been crying out for all this time.

Cal

Let me tell you about the important people in my life:

Dec. Declan Summers. Charlie Collier. I never knew him as Charlie, but plenty of people did, apparently, back in the day. He’s the reason everything’s screwy, but in a good way. Right, I’m going to try to explain it.

Dec is not related to any of us, well except his own kids, obviously. I don’t remember a time before he was around, part of the family, but I guess you don’t remember things not being, you just remember things being, don’t you? He came to live with us when he was sixteen and I was two. He’s like my brother, he might as well be my brother, it’s just he’s not officially my brother. He’s kind of like my dad’s brother too, and like Matty’s brother, and I suppose that’s ironic, because he hasn’t got any real brothers, as far as we know. In fact, he hasn’t got any real family, if you count ‘real’ as ‘blood relatives’ (not that he’s ever let anyone even talk about trying to find his birth family) but this huge family of all of us, related and not, has kind of grown up around him, pulled in by him, glued together by him. Oh, and Dec is married to Amy, and they’ve got four children: Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa, who are my kind of cousins. And I suppose I can’t talk about Dec without mentioning Rose, who also wasn’t related to any of us, but was like Dec’s mum, so was kind of like my gran, kind of like everyone’s gran, oh, see, it’s all getting bloody confusing. Let’s move swiftly on to something easier.

Matty. Matt Scott. Matty was my uncle, my dad’s brother. It’s still hard to say ‘was’ about Matty, because I don’t think I’ll ever be used to him being gone. Matty and the truly remarkable Lau, had two children, Josh and Ella, who are my bona fide cousins.

Nico Tiago. Nico was my childhood hero, he is one of my dad’s best friends and he helped save Dec, back in the day. Nico is from Argentina, and he’s married to Lis, who actually used to go out with Dad in Mediaeval times, and their son is Bastien. Nico and Lis’s son, not Dad and Lis. Dad and Lis don’t have a son. Stop making things complicated, it’s already bad enough. So they’re not ‘real’ family either, but Bastien and Ella – well just wait and see. We all call Bastien Basty, when we’re being nice, and Bastyard when we want to see him go red and get that little crease over his nose where he’s frowning and about to swear in Spanish.

I’ve got two grannies, but I don’t see Nana Jane that much because she lives in the States. Granny Carol is Dad’s mum. April is Lau’s mum and Diane is Amy’s mum, and they’ve been pretty good sort of kind of almost grannies to us all too. No grandads left, which is sad. Oh, unless you count my dad, who is obviously Conor and Lily’s grandad. This family isn’t big on keeping dads, so I should be grateful I’ve still got mine.

I think that’s it for family, unless there’s someone I’ve missed, there always seem to be tons of us everywhere. I suppose I’ve got a couple of aunties, Mum’s sisters, but we don’t see them that much, mainly because they both annoy my dad a lot.

I’ve been pretty lucky that I can count my family among my friends, especially now I’m older, but I have had some awesome mates along the way, and although they don’t really need explaining like my family, I’ll mention them now anyway, so you get used to their names before they crop up.

Baggo. Jake Bagwell. Baggo has been my best mate since the first day of school. We’ve helped each other into and out of so many scrapes, not all of them when we were kids, either. Baggo’s still enjoying the single life, and although we thought he’d got there once, he may just not be cut out for settling down.

Ayesha Chaudhry. I thought I was going to marry Ayesh, but it turns out I was just going to cause her pain instead. She is an incredible woman, and I am proud to call her and her chap, Sam, my friends.

That’s it for now. It’s a bit like the beginning of those Shakespeare plays we used to have to read at school in English – the list of the main characters with a bit about them, but trying not to give away spoilers. Not that anyone reading this won’t already know the end, if there’s going to be an end. It’s not like it’s some kind of murder mystery, it’s just writing things down from my point of view.

 

Matt

I was shit at yoga. Couldn’t figure out my Downward Dog from my Cobra, kept falling over, my legs and arms seemingly unable to obey a single command from my brain, but it made her look at me and smile, so I did it more. At the end of the class I sauntered over, planning to try out my excellent no-strings lay techniques on her, but before I could talk to her, some musclebound git in a gym vest, cut-off cargoes and the latest Nikes, burst through the door, hugged her and stuck his tongue down her throat. She pushed him away, laughing, then noticed me.

‘Oh hi, er, Matt isn’t it? Did you enjoy the class?’

‘Yeah, very much so.’

Although now I was beginning to regret staying behind, as muscle boy was lingering, scowling, undoubtedly recognising my intentions, and it was going to seriously hamper my methods to have him lurking while I made my moves.

‘Great. Well, we’re here from next Thursday at seven, so see you then?’

I recognised a dismissal when I heard one, but was determined to make my mark, so chose to ignore it.

‘Well maybe I’ll try to stay upright next week.’

‘Ha ha, good plan. You’ll get there, lots of people struggle the first few weeks.’

Muscle boy chose to interrupt.

‘Are you nearly done, Carrie? Our table’s booked for half nine.’

‘Yeah, sure. Sorry, Matt, I need to lock up here. It’s our anniversary.’

‘Oh, OK, cool, have a good one.’

Bugger. Not only was he a muscle boy, she’d been with him for long enough to have an anniversary. I graciously conceded defeat for now, but was determined to resume the battle next Thursday. It gave me a whole week to plan my strategy. I nodded at muscle boy, who stared stonily back at me and left them to lock up.

It was a long, long, time since I’d felt like this, like my whole life revolved around one person, one person who sneaked into my thoughts even when I believed I was thinking about other things. The last time was Cindy. Now Carrie was there, at the back of my mind when she wasn’t at the front of it. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, I even practised yoga moves at home so she might be impressed at the next class. I bloody hated yoga, there’s no way I would have considered going back under any other circumstances. I was lost.

Several more weeks of yoga didn’t see me making much progress in either poise and flexibility, or Project Carrie, although I was heartened by the absence of muscle boy. I tried hanging around after class, but lots of other people had questions for her, and I didn’t like being too obvious; it would have put a real spanner in the works to be told to sod off before I’d got anywhere. I was going to bide my time and wait for the right moment. I was sure it would come. It wasn’t like she didn’t look at me sometimes, and if I wasn’t mistaken, her gaze sometimes held mine a split second longer than was strictly necessary. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but it wasn’t a complete write-off either.

Then, in one of those moments of pure karma, which I naturally don’t believe in, but having been to five whole yoga classes I now at least knew how to spell, the moment was there to be seized.

I was taking an early lunch, on my way to meet an Eyeti client. I’d just sat at a table in my favourite Lebanese café in town, one of Stafford’s few interesting places to eat, and was ordering a spicy falafel wrap, when I saw her. I had to look twice, as I’d never seen Carrie out of her yoga gear, or with her hair up, but it was definitely her, dressed in a businessy shirt and with her hair kind of twisted up and held in a clip. But I didn’t really pay much attention to her appearance, as the first thing I noticed about her was that she was crying.

Now, I really don’t do women crying. Can’t handle it at all, get tongue tied, say pathetically fuckwitted things, tend to leave well alone. But she was breaking her heart, and everyone else in the café was ignoring her, and maybe I should have as well, but I just couldn’t. I walked over and sat down opposite her.

‘Carrie?’

She looked up, a horrified expression appearing on her face when she realised someone she knew had sat at her table. She rummaged in her bag for a tissue and hurriedly wiped her eyes. It didn’t noticeably diminish the red blotchiness, but did remove some of the smeared mascara.

‘What’s wrong?’

She tried a smile, plastered it over the top of the misery.

‘Oh, hi. Nothing, just had a shit morning.’

‘Anything I can do?’

She shook her head, her face crumpling and more tears falling from her eyes. I reached out and touched her hand, which was full of damp tissue. She pulled away and held both of her hands over her face, hiding from me. I waited. Eventually, she stopped sniffling, and moved her hands away from her face to rummage for more tissues. She didn’t look up, but spoke into her bag.

‘I’m OK, honestly. I was supposed to be meeting someone, but I got a text and oh bloody hellfire I thought I’d put a clean one in here.’

The lack of un-snot ridden tissues seemed to be a defining moment in the morning’s woes for her, as she started crying again in earnest. I thought hard about whether to stay there, only to add to it all when I eventually uttered my anticipated fuckwitted comment, but it felt worse to just get up and go back to my table. Besides, the waiter had brought over my falafel wrap, assuming I was now dining with the weeping woman.

‘Carrie, sorry if I seem a tad impertinent –’ see? Instant fuckwittery. Who says shit like ‘a tad impertinent’ except me? ‘– but you don’t actually seem to be OK. You seem to be quite upset. Tell me to piss off if you like, but if you need some company, or a share of my falafel wrap, which I have to say smells bloody gorgeous, I’ll be here, at your table for the next fifteen minutes or so. Oh, and you can use my serviette as a tissue if you want.’

She didn’t tell me to piss off, but didn’t communicate in any other way, either, for a few minutes. Then she looked up, briefly into my eyes, then down to the serviette, which she took and rubbed at her eyes again.

I carried on eating my wrap – I was hungry, and despite my offer, wasn’t about to wait for her to decide whether she was in or out of its spicy goodness – and after a few minutes, I heard her take a deep breath, saw her straighten her shoulders, then heard her mutter, kind of under her breath, but loud enough that she must have known I would hear.

‘Bloody mothers and fucking boyfriends, more trouble than they’re bloody worth.’

I looked up from my lunch and saw her regarding me with a steely blue stare, as if daring me to disagree.

‘I’m with you. Never had a bloody mother-fucking boyfriend who wasn’t more trouble than he was worth.’

Her eyes narrowed. As I was saying it, trying to be all smart-arsey, I realised how it sounded, but decided to pretend I was being deliberately ambiguous.

‘Are you gay?’

So she was pretty direct; not a bad thing. At least we were likely to know where we stood.

‘No.’

‘But you said –’

‘I said I’ve never had a boyfriend who wasn’t more trouble than he was worth. It’s true, but only because I’ve never had a boyfriend. And am extremely unlikely to ever have one, just so we’re clear.’

She rolled her eyes, but the tiny hint of a smile that lifted the corners of her mouth made the crap joke and the embarrassing explanation seem worth it.

‘Oh. Yeah, I was just a bit surprised, to be honest, because I thought you’d been – oh never mind.’

‘You thought I’d been what?’

‘I said never mind. It’s not like you’d be the first bloke to think he was in with a chance because he tried to look cute falling on his arse in my yoga class.’

‘You think I’ve got a cute arse?’

This flustered her for a moment, but she rallied.

‘You’ve certainly got a cute mouth. Matt, isn’t it?’

Oh nicely done, Carrie. Take the wind out of my sails by pretending you’re not sure of my name, even though I haven’t been able to get yours out of my mind for the last few weeks.

‘Yeah. But you can call me Cute Arse. Probably do, in the privacy of your own home, for all I know. I expect you give us all nicknames – mine is obviously as previously stated, I bet the largeish red haired lady is Sweaty Betty, the chap who stands at the back is Bow-legged Bob, the airhead who jumps around in her electric blue Reeboks is Joined the Wrong Class –’

‘You’re a bit judgemental aren’t you.’

Her words were harsh, but there was still that hint of a smile on her mouth, which curved upwards in a very pleasing shape. I could easily imagine kissing that mouth. Had done, quite a few times, already.

‘No judging going on, just my memory system. Once I know everyone’s real names, their nicknames fade away. Like, Sandra – middle-aged mumsy type – she was Softly Spoken, because it was really hard to hear what she was saying, then when I finally caught her name, she was Softly Spoken Sandra, because of the sibilance, now she’s just Sandra. But I was talking about your nicknames. Don’t tell me you don’t do it, I’ve got friends who are teachers, and you all do it.’

‘Well alright, you got me. It’s hard to resist, and sometimes it’s funny telling Martin about people and calling them Busty Babs or whatever –’

‘There’s a Busty Babs? I can’t imagine how I didn’t notice her. Point her out on Thursday, please.’

‘Ha ha, she was from last year, she hasn’t turned up this term.’

‘And Martin is?’

Although I guessed he was muscle boy, and the ‘fucking boyfriend’ who had caused all the recent grief and mascara streaks.

‘You met him. My boyfriend. My so-called boyfriend.’

I liked the sound of Martin as a so-called boyfriend. It had potential.

‘Anything important he has, like his second cousin’s birthday or racing his stupid cars, I have to be there, rain or shine, no excuses. I had this job interview, he was supposed to meet me for lunch, it went really, really badly, like the godmother of all bad interviews, and all I wanted was to tell him about it so he could tell me it’s OK, I’ll get the next one, the job was shit, they didn’t deserve me anyway, but no. Something came up at the bloody gym. I don’t know, giving away a free muscle with every two kilometres on the treadmill or something. But anyway he just blows me off. By text. Didn’t even have the balls to phone, in case I got upset. Well guess what, Martin, I’m upset, but oh, that’s OK, because you don’t have to deal with it. Dickhead.’

‘It’s OK, you’ll get the next one, that one was shit, didn’t deserve you anyway.’

I wondered if she’d notice my subtle altering of her words, to encompass fucking boyfriends as well as jobs.

‘What?’

‘It seemed like you wanted someone to say it, so I said it.’

‘Oh. Well, thanks, but it’s not like it means as much coming from you, no offence, but you don’t know what the job was, or how good I would have been at it.’

There was a slight emphasis on the word ‘job’ that told me she’d noticed what I’d done, but had chosen to ignore it.

‘I’m sure you’d have been brilliant at … er …’

‘I bet you can’t even guess what it was.’

Bugger. Was I about to get myself into a real mess? Shoot too low and it’s like she doesn’t deserve anything decent, but shoot too high and – actually, what was wrong with shooting too high?

‘Brain surgeon?’

‘Try again. Still working on my brain surgery NVQ.’

‘Rocket scientist?’

‘NASA haven’t approved my CRB check yet. I think they might have spotted me running a red light from space or something.’

‘Headmistress of the world’s best yoga school?’

Sometimes, you can be really hung up on a girl, and imagine what she’s like, and fantasise about her, and then when you finally meet her, talk to her, even if she’s the hottest woman you’ve ever met, she can be dull as ditchwater, and it’s over before it’s begun. That so didn’t happen with Carrie. The more I talked to her, the more I liked her. Really liked, not just fancied. She was funny, bright, pretty, open, the whole package. Muscle boy Martin notwithstanding, I wanted her.

‘Now you’re just sucking up to teacher. Please don’t bring me an apple on Thursday. Receptionist.’

‘Receptionist?’

‘Yeah. So not even something worth getting upset over.’

‘Receptionist for who, or what?’

‘That new hotel on the ring road.’

‘Oh. Well, now I really can say that job was shit, they didn’t deserve you anyway. I know someone who worked there for a couple of weeks, not a receptionist, but in the office. They pay crap, expect long hours and unpaid overtime, and don’t give staff discount to their spa. And the manager is a wanker. So I’ve heard.’

‘Yeah, well, the manager is the one who told me my CV is a mess, I’m under-qualified and who looked me up and down like I was something nasty on the bottom of his shoe and told me I wasn’t smart enough.’

‘Like I said, wanker. There’ll be other jobs, Carrie.’

A look of desperation came over her face.

‘Well I bloody well hope so because I’ve been looking for a long time, and I need the money. I just can’t catch a break. The school is talking about changing the evening classes next year, focussing more on GCSEs and less on leisure stuff like yoga. If I lose my classes, I’ll really … I don’t know what I’ll do. Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be going on. Thanks, you’ve been great, listening to me moan. You must have somewhere to be.’

I looked at my watch. Even if I left right away I was going to be late for my appointment.

‘Do you mind if I send a quick text?’

She shook her head, and started to get her things together as I frantically sent a message to the company secretary asking her to call and make up an excuse to the client, and to say that I would be there as soon as possible.

‘I should get going anyway. Thanks for talking to me, you have actually cheered me up a bit.’

‘Aren’t you going to have any lunch?’

She shook her head. ‘I need to get back. Thanks, though. I’ll see you Thursday.’

And she stood up and was gone. I hadn’t even managed to get her phone number, and now I was even more hung up on her.

Thursday night couldn’t come soon enough. I ended up in the car park at the school half an hour before the class began, just because I couldn’t stand waiting around at home. Then I had to sit in my car, because I didn’t want to seem so loser-keen that I turned up any earlier than two minutes before it was due to start. Late would have been better, but would have meant less time in the presence of Carrie. Hopelessly lost. Or hopeless loser.

Carrie showed no sign that anything had passed between us in the preceding week. I’d thought that at least I would have got a smile, a nod, a small acknowledgement that I’d seen her in a less than happy frame of mind, and had, by her own admission, ‘cheered her up a bit’. But even my best pratfalls didn’t gain me much eye contact, and she was Ms Professional Yoga Instructor to all of us.

After the class, I spent as long as I could clearing my mat away, tying my laces, putting my hoody on, checking I had my wallet, in an attempt to be the last to leave, so I could at least ask if she was alright. It almost worked, as Bow-legged Bob (whose real name was Dave, but despite my claims, would always be Bow-legged Bob to me) finished talking to Carrie and left. As he was opening the door, however, he was almost knocked over by the hulking shape of muscle boy Martin, who filled the door frame and glowered at me while Bob aka Dave was trying to get past. Carrie looked up and saw him.

‘Oh, hey. I’m nearly done here, wait in the car for me?’

‘No, that’s OK. I’ll carry your stuff out if you like.’

Carrie looked at him tenderly, and I felt like punching him. Not that he would have felt it; he seemed to have muscles absolutely everywhere.

‘Aw, thanks babe.’

Ugh, and she called him babe. I despised pet names of any sort. And she hadn’t even noticed I was there. It was time to speak.

‘Thanks for tonight, Carrie, I think I might have finally got the hang of the Triangle.’

She smiled, not coldly but not warmly and just said, ‘See you next week.’

Which was much worse than before. It was a brush-off. I looked at Martin, and saw the challenge in his eyes.

‘Just try it,’ they said, ‘just fucking try it, mate.’

And I faltered a bit, because he was a lot bigger than me, and Carrie had shown slightly less than no interest, and I decided to leave it for this week.

Bwaak bwaak bwaak, yeah, I heard it too, the chicken noises in my head. Didn’t make any difference.

‘Yeah, next week.’

I walked out, trying to put as much casual into my step as I could muster as I headed out of the building. Two could play at that game. Trouble was, it suddenly felt like I was the only one playing the game, and it wasn’t much fun playing on your own. Maybe it was time to have a serious chat with myself, go clubbing, be the excellent no-strings lay, get her out of my system, get myself –

With a shove that knocked all the air out of me, I was slammed none too gently against the wall, my arm bent behind me pinning me in place and a mouth placed close to my ear. I tried to struggle out of it, but I couldn’t move. It didn’t hurt, but I was in no doubt that it could hurt, with just a little bit more pressure.

‘Fuck off and leave Carrie alone. Don’t come back to her class, if you know what’s good for you, Mr Cute Arse.’

I didn’t say anything, largely on account of having no air in my lungs. I tried another struggle, but was still held firmly; the muscles holding me knew exactly what they were doing. I had a sense of surreality, like I was in a bad movie. Certainly the words were from a rather poor script.

‘Did you hear me?’

It would have been hard not to without having a major hearing impairment, as he was speaking directly into my left ear. I nodded. It wasn’t an agreement to do as he said, just an acknowledgement that I’d heard, although he may have had a different take on it. Size and strength difference notwithstanding, I didn’t want Martin to win this one, even if it was on a technicality.

As suddenly as I’d been pinned, I was released, and when I turned round, Martin was walking towards Carrie, who had just come out of the school entrance, carrying all the stuff Martin had said he would carry for her. He put his arm round her and walked away, without looking back.

What is it with blokes like Martin that make them pull shit like that? Just before our little encounter, I’d been thinking about ways to put it all behind me, get her out of my system. It may have entailed leaving the class, I hadn’t got that far in my planning. If he had come up to me afterwards, tapped me on the shoulder, said ‘Excuse me mate, I can see you’re into Carrie, but she’s my girlfriend and I love her, so please just leave it’, I might have been persuaded, even if I wasn’t already on the verge of leaving it in my mind. But now, having been told what to do by a bully-boy meathead with a bicep where his brain should have been; now that he had filled me with adrenaline and testosterone, there was no way, no fucking way on this earth, I was going to be cowed. And he’d called me Mr Cute Arse, so unless he had a thing for my glutes, Carrie had told him about our conversation, and he hadn’t liked it, which made me think that maybe he wasn’t sure of her, and maybe there was a chance, just a chance. And maybe he’d got all overpowering and ‘if you know what’s good for you’ with her, and that thought made me feel protective. See? Blokes. Giant walking knobs, every one of us. Yeah, see you next week, Carrie.

So, it was Thursday, and there I was at the school again, a bit anxious about running into Martin, but confident that with a roomful of yoga classmates, nothing bad could really happen. Surely, after seven weeks of stretching and bending, we’d be more than a match for him en masse. Wouldn’t we? I wasn’t intending to stick around afterwards for a repeat performance, but my nerves were jangling a little nonetheless.

When Carrie walked in and saw me, her eyes widened, and something akin to fear flitted across her face, just for a split second. Then she carefully schooled her expression to class mode, and started the warm up. She gave me no eye contact throughout the entire class, took us through our paces, and finished bang on time. I don’t know what I had expected, but maybe a message of some sort in her eyes, a smile, a scowl, something.

As I had no intention of being around when muscle boy appeared after class, I hurriedly put my shoes on once Carrie had finished the warm down, plopped my mat on the pile, picked up my car keys and walked towards the door.

‘Matt?’

I turned round. It was Softly Spoken Sandra, annoyingly speaking loudly enough for me to hear and have to stop and answer her. Sod it, I wanted to be gone. I pasted a neutral expression on my face.

‘Yep.’

‘You’re a computer bod, aren’t you?’

Oh fuck, someone who wanted some free IT advice. Just turn it off and on again, pretty much always works.

‘You could say that.’

‘Do you know much about tablets – iPads and things?’

‘Yeah, a bit. Depends what you’re after.’

Hopefully nothing complicated that was going to take ages to explain in words of one syllable.

‘It’s my son’s twenty first birthday, and I’d like to get him something like that, but I just wondered if you had an opinion about the best sort to get.’

‘Well … I’ve got an iPad. All my own computer stuff is Apple, although I’ve done stuff with Android machines like Samsung at work. Does he have a preference?’

‘No, well, I don’t know. I haven’t asked him, it’s a surprise.’

‘Oh. Then my advice would be to try to find out, maybe from a mate or something. People are sometimes attached to a particular make, like me and Apple stuff. What make of phone has he got?’

‘I’ve no idea.’

‘Well that might give you a clue. Tell you what, find out, and we can have a chat next week.’

And I can get the fuck out of here before I get my head kicked in. As we were talking, I’d been trying to head towards the door, but Sandra had remained standing in the middle of the room, as if I wasn’t about to have five levels of shit beaten out of me by a git in a muscle vest.

‘Oh, I might not be here next week, I’m going to my daughter’s, she’s just had a baby …’

Oh fuck no, not the family history, I didn’t have time for this. Needed to be rude.

‘Well whenever you’re next here, then.’

‘But it’s his birthday a week on Saturday.’

Not my problem lady, why don’t you Google Which Tablet? I sighed, got my wallet out and pulled out a business card.

‘Look, here’s my mobile number, text me.’

The look of panic on Sandra’s face told me she didn’t do texting.

‘Or ring me, when you know. I’ll do my best.’

A look of relief flashed across her face.

‘Thank you so much, Matt. I told my husband I’d ask you. That’s really helpful of –’

‘No problem. Sorry, gotta dash.’

I started to jog out of the door, Sandra and I being the last in the room apart from Carrie.

‘Matt?’

No, just leave me the fuck alone, don’t get my teeth kicked in with inanities about Apple versus Samsung, I really don’t love my iPad that much.

With a grimace rather than a smile I turned back, but it wasn’t Sandra who had spoken; she walked past me and out of the door. It was Carrie.

My grimace rearranged itself into something more pleasant, and I raised my eyebrows.

‘I was surprised to see you here.’

I didn’t answer, not really much I could say. I didn’t know if Martin’s display of strength last week had been all his own idea, or whether she had had a say in it. So I shrugged and let her say whatever it was she wanted to say. If it was ‘get lost’, then so be it. But if not, then …

‘Martin can be a dickhead.’

So what was that? An apology?

‘Yeah, well, he and I seem to communicate differently to each other.’

‘You don’t want to piss him off.’

‘No, I don’t want to. But he’s not going to intimidate me, and that might unintentionally piss him off.’

Ha ha, who was I kidding? He intimidated the shit out of me. It sounded all tough and manly, though, and I was beginning to get a bit of a vibe from Carrie. Not necessarily an ‘I want you’ vibe, but something weird, like she wanted me to know something, but wasn’t sure how to go about it, as she wasn’t about to tell me.

‘Seriously Matt. He’s hurt people.’

No shit. With muscles and an attitude like his, it would be surprising if he hadn’t. I had a flash of insight; it was a little late arriving.

‘He hasn’t hurt you has he?’

Carrie dropped her gaze to the floor and shook her head.

‘No, he’d never hurt me.’

‘What, never as long as you do what he says?’

She looked up, a flash of anger in her eyes.

‘He’d never hurt me. I’m sorry he was mean to you last week, maybe his way wasn’t the right way, but maybe you should listen to what he said. Maybe this class isn’t right for you.’

‘Seriously? You can afford to kick people out of your class because your boyfriend takes a dislike to them?’

‘For me. Would you do it for me?’

There was a note of desperation in her voice.

‘What, not come back?’

She nodded, not looking at me. I was getting a sense of being a bit out of my depth, and it scared me.

‘He’s not picking me up this week, but he’ll ask if you were here, and when he finds out you were, he’ll be back next week to make sure you get the message again. I don’t want you to get hurt.’

My man-pride bristled at the implication that I was going to be the one getting hurt, foolish skinny runt that I was.

‘I’m more than capable of holding my own.’

Ha, yes, if we were playing Scrabble I could beat him hands down.

‘You’re not, Matt. Look, you seem like a decent bloke. I’ve asked you nicely, don’t make me go official, make … claims about you. If that’s what it takes, I’ll do it.’

What?

I was astounded, unsure if she was serious or just trying her hardest to convince me.

‘Please, can we just do this as, I don’t know, friends? Please?’

She sounded frantic. In the face of all her pleading, I could do nothing more than back down. It really felt like Carrie was in some kind of unhealthy relationship with Martin, and yeah, I felt protective, but there didn’t seem to be much I could do about it, except she’d just pulled the ‘friends’ card. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

‘OK, then, as a friend of yours, I’ll do this, I’ll stop coming to your class,’

Carrie closed her eyes briefly and nodded.

‘But I want something in return.’

She looked at me warily, waiting.

‘I want to give you my mobile number. Hide it in your phone under pizza delivery or something if you’re worried about him finding it, but I want you to promise that if you ever, ever need a friend, someone to talk to, to help you out of some kind of trouble, if you need anything at all, you’ll call me.’

Carrie looked back at me for a long time, her blue eyes troubled, her brow creased in a frown. She was undecided. Then she decided. What was most telling was that she didn’t laugh and say ‘trouble? What are you talking about?’ or ‘oh, I’ve got loads of friends’ or ‘don’t be daft, that won’t be necessary, he’s a sweetie’ or ‘on your bike mate, you’re pushing your luck’. She just nodded and handed me her phone so I could programme my number into it.

Thursdays after that lacked a certain something, that something being Carrie Mitcham. I changed my course to Italian for Beginners, which was run by middle-aged Roberto, but having missed more than half a term, not having the hots for the instructor, and never having spoken a word of Italian, I found it hard to devote the same passion to it as I had to yoga.

Still, it gave me a focus of sorts, and the time I spent on a couple of conservation weekends weren’t wasted either, as I met Mercy. We bonded over a cup of weak tea during a break from the hacking and digging, and I liked her enough to ask her out. There didn’t seem much point pining over Carrie, who had made herself perfectly clear, and I might as well have some fun.

You always expect people named after virtues to be pretty straight, don’t you? Grace, Charity, Temperance (although I haven’t yet met a Temperance), whatever. The names suggest something worthy from their owners. Mercy was loud, raucous even, had a wicked sense of humour, jet black curly hair and an enormous bosom. Sold to the lecherous skinny guy in the muddy green wellies. We started seeing each other, casually, for the odd coffee, then dinner, a film, a play; we liked enough of the same things for it to be easy and comfortable between us, and enough of different things to have something to banter about.

After a few months, though, I started to notice that she would slow down and gaze into the windows of jewellers when we walked past, and her conversation became littered with references to friends’ weddings, past, present and future.

With a heavy heart, I searched my soul to see if Mercy was ‘the one’, and before my search had got very far, I had to admit that, no, she was a mate, she was great in bed, we were compatible in many ways, not all of which were due to her enormous bosom, but I didn’t love her, and I was going to have to do something about it before … well, just before. Maybe my way of going about things wasn’t thoughtful or considerate, but that was who I was then. I was terrified of being trapped in some kind of unwanted commitment, and I fell back on my default position: all will become clear.

We were out, Merce and I, a picnic on a hill, sun was shining, I was going to call it off. I really wasn’t looking forward to it; this was the longest relationship I’d had since – well ever, in fact, and although I’d let women down gently many times before, it had been after a few weeks, not nearly six months, not after they’d started getting daft ideas about happy ever afters. This wasn’t going to be gentle. Merce was very open with her emotions, and I anticipated either yelling or weeping. Of the two, I would rather have had yelling, but I wasn’t going to have much say in it.

We had just spread out the food and opened the wine (my thinking being that if she had a glass or two, it might soften things a bit for both of us), when my phone rang. It was just a number, no name, so no one from my contacts list, most likely a cold caller. I nearly left it, but last minute procrastination made me give Merce an apologetic grimace, as if it was a call I’d been expecting, and had to answer.

‘Matt Scott.’

There was nothing for a few seconds, and I nearly disconnected, then a faint sniff.

‘Matt?’

‘Yep.’

‘It’s Carrie.’

My turn to be silent, just for a second, while I caught my breath. I stood up, turned my back on Merce and walked far enough away that I would hopefully be out of earshot.

‘Carrie? Is everything OK?’

More sniffing. ‘You said, I promised, if I ever needed a friend, if I was ever in trouble …’

‘What do you need?’

I barely remembered Merce was sitting twenty metres away. My heart was pounding, adrenaline coursing. If he’d hurt her I’d … do my best to kill him. At least bruise his sorry arse in some way.

‘I’m scared.’

‘Where are you?’

‘At home.’

‘Is he there?’

‘No, but he’ll be back soon. He said if I wasn’t here when he gets back …’

I could imagine the kind of threats he’d made.

‘You need to get out of there now. Meet me – shit, I don’t know where you live.’

She told me, and I knew the area fairly well.

‘OK, grab some things, don’t take too long, meet me in Dave’s Café. Do you know it?’

‘Yes, but –’

‘I’ll be there in ten minutes, fifteen max.’

And that was going to involve some fancy driving and the hope that the police didn’t have their speed radars going along the bypass.

‘Don’t move, just sit at the back, or stand by the toilets if there aren’t any seats. Don’t sit in the window. I’ll be right there.’

‘OK.’

‘Go now. Quickly.’

‘Thank you.’

I disconnected and turned round. Shit, I’d completely forgotten about Merce. I couldn’t leave her on the top of a hill, I couldn’t take her with me, and I didn’t have time to pack everything up, drop her home and get to Carrie in my ridiculously tight fifteen minute time slot. The last thing I wanted was for Carrie to think I wasn’t coming. I ran my hands through my hair.

‘Merce –’

‘I heard. Have you got to go?’

‘Friend in need kind of thing. Trouble is –’

‘Yeah, I’m a bit of an inconvenience.’

I heard all the undertones and indeed overtones in her voice. I’d told her a bit about Carrie. If she’d heard any of my conversation, she would know who I’d been talking to.

‘No, never, Merce, it’s just I told her I’d be there in fifteen minutes, but if I take you home first, I’ll be late. Sorry, I just didn’t think.’

‘I’ll be OK here.’

‘What?’

‘I can get a taxi back.’

‘What? No you can’t.’

‘I’d say I’d wait for you to come back, but that might not be for a while, might it. And weren’t you going to dump me anyway?’

‘What?’

‘Come on Matt, you hardly spoke on the way here, I’ve been a bit needy, it’s not like it hasn’t happened to me before. Maybe it’s better this way. Just go, rescue your friend, I’ll be fine.’

‘Merce, I –’

‘Go on. Thanks, Matt, it’s been a great few months. Sorry you were a bastard in the end.’

Oh shit. I hope she didn’t know about –

‘I know you’ve slept with someone else.’

Oh shit. I hope it’s only –

‘Or rather sometwo else.’

Oh shit. I fully deserved the Bastard Crown she had just metaphorically awarded me.

‘Piss off, then.’

I didn’t have any answer for her, or any time to talk about it, and the clock was ticking, so I turned and ran back to my car, further proving what a bastard I really was. It occurred to me as I was half way to the café that I should have at least offered to pay for the taxi. Even confirmed bastards would think I was a bastard.