The next day at work was difficult. Matt and I had to do a video conference presentation to the client, which went well, but the rest of the day was spent dodging comments, avoiding gossiping colleagues and not directly answering direct questions. By lunchtime I was exhausted, and Matt was looking frazzled too. As soon as he could, he escaped, claiming he was going to lunch with Roberta. I left it as long as I could and then left too, hearing to my dismay ‘See you in an hour, Roberta’ as the door closed behind me.
Waiting in the hideaway, Matt had eaten a sandwich and was half way through a bag of crisps. He looked up apologetically when he saw me.
‘You’ve been ages, I had to start without you.’
‘Well everybody knows who Roberta is now.’
‘Oh fuck. Look, this is getting silly. There’s only so much pretending we can do.’
‘What are you suggesting?’
‘We stop hiding it. Seriously, Jules, what’s the point now? It’s not like we’re doing anything wrong.’
‘Matt, we’ve talked about this so many times. I do things a certain way. It would change everything.’
Matt sat close to me and put his arm round my shoulders.
‘Everything has already changed. If we front up and admit it, we get respect. If we carry on pretending, we look like fucking idiots.’
‘But I can’t just drop it all …’
‘No one’s asking you to. You can still be The Ice Queen. You haven’t lost the ability to stop an irrelevant piece of gossip in its tracks. All that changes is that people know we’re seeing each other. They won’t get to know anything more than that. You know I won’t say anything, don’t you?’
‘I can’t bear it if people know about my private life.’
‘They won’t. Honestly, Jules, nothing is going to change apart from people knowing one piece of information. Think about it. You act just the same, I act just the same, we’re possibly allowed to smile at each other a couple of times a day. It’s almost better than nobody knowing.’
I tried to think about it logically, but my need for things to stay the same was almost overwhelming and I felt panicky and close to tears. Matt saw the look on my face and tilted my chin up towards him
‘Hey, if this is so hard, I … maybe we should just call it a day?’
‘I know work is important to you. Maybe we can’t do both.’
Was he really suggesting we stop seeing each other? The thought of it made my blood run cold.
‘Well what then? People know, we can’t change that. It’s freaking you out. You’ve had a lot to cope with the last few weeks. Perhaps you just need some time off from the stress.’
He looked so sincere, so concerned about me, I felt like I was being unreasonable. With a huge mental effort, I thought about what might happen if everyone at GreenScreen knew about us. In my head I went through the worst and best case scenarios. In all probability, reality would be somewhere in the middle. Matt was right, I could still be the same as I always was; I might have to shore up my frostiness, but that wasn’t impossible. Matt was waiting for an answer.
‘I think … I don’t want to do any of it without you.’
His face changed, from concerned and sincere to relieved and happy.
‘Thank fuck for that.’
He pulled me into a tight hug and kissed the top of my head.
‘Oh Jules, if ever a man made an offer he wanted to be refused, that was it. Fuck, fuck, fuck, don’t ever let me say something so bloody stupid again. What was I thinking?’
‘You were thinking about me, which is not like work Matt at all. You need to get your Matt the Lad head on if we’re going to go back and be the same.’
‘Alright then, show us your tits, love, and we can go back and face them.’
I smiled and rolled my eyes at him. Then pulled him down for a kiss, to show him how grateful I was.
‘Mm, nice tongue action, babe, fancy a shag?’
His smile was mischievous.
‘Alright, maybe I was a bit hasty. You can save it for the office.’
‘Make your bleeding mind up, woman –’
Matt’s phone rang, with the tone I now recognised as Beth’s. He hardly ever ignored her, and with a pained expression, apologised and answered.
‘Hey Beth … yeah, sorry, been a busy morning … yeah, sounds great, what time? … OK, I’ll be there … don’t know, do you need to know? … I’ll ask, get back to you … sure, see you later.’
He looked at me.
‘Sorry, she texted earlier, I said I’d call her back.’
‘I don’t know how you’ll feel about this, Beth’s getting some people together for Dec and Amy, to celebrate their news about the baby, she wondered if you wanted to come.’
It sounded like the last thing I would want to do. But I was beginning to realise how important Matt’s family was to him, and maybe if we were ‘coming out’ to people at work, I should get to know other people in his life as well. Tonight, however, seemed a bit soon with everything else that had happened in the last few hours.
‘I don’t know. Can I think about it?’
‘Course. Last minute acceptance or declinance is fine.’
‘Is declinance a word?’
‘It is now. I made it up just for you. Shall we go and face the rabble?’
‘Hold me first.’
He wrapped me up in his arms and I felt safe. I tried to hold on to the feeling as he let me go, took my hand and stood up.
He crouched down as if ready to speed off.
‘Oh come on, if we get back red-faced and breathless that would be the perfect way to arrive.’
‘Spoilsport. How about we walk in and give each other a good tonguing? Then I could bend you over my desk and –’
‘You’ve changed, Julia Marran, time was when I only had to suggest it from behind and you had your arse in the air quicker than you could say ‘knickers down’. Oh alright, how about …’
As we walked back, he continued to suggest more and more outrageous ways of returning to the office, which helped to take my mind off the potential aftermath. In the end, just as we were about to go through the door, he put his arm over my shoulder, and we walked in together, staring everyone down as we walked through the office and then separated and went to our respective desks. None of my team dared to say a word to me, but I heard Matt’s team bombard him with questions, that he answered sparingly but truthfully. I could hear all other ears on them, and noticed Lexi was busying herself with files nearby. The questions slowly died down, and Matt’s team got back to work. It felt like it might be alright, but I was still unsettled and nervous of how things might change, whether I would be able to manage my team in the same way. Only time would tell.
Rose was sitting at a table when I arrived, two empty tea cups on the table in front of her telling me she’d been waiting a while.
I kissed her on the cheek. Checked my watch. Sat down.
‘I’m not late, am I?’
:No, love, I’ve been here a while. I know I’m a silly old woman, I’ve been worrying what your news is. Have you decided about your contract? Are you moving away, is that it?
‘Oh, Rose, I’m sorry. Bloody texts, you can never say as much as you want, and I was a bit pushed for time. No, I’m … I still haven’t decided about the contract stuff. And it’s just got a bit more complicated. You’re going to be a granny.’
I sat back and watched the information tick around in her head. I loved seeing Rose speechless. It didn’t happen very often, and I found it highly amusing. In a minute, all the words she wanted to say would come tumbling out at once, and get stuck on each other.
:Wait – are you saying you’re … is Amy … you’re going to … you’re not –
‘Yes, Amy is. We are going to. I am. Rose, I’m going to be a dad. Fuck, I’ve been saying it all day long, I still can’t believe it.’
:Oh Declan, love.
Her eyes had filled with tears, which spilled down her cheeks. She fished in a pocket for a tissue. I took her hand and held it. Through her tears, she smiled broadly.
:That’s just the best news. I’m that happy for you both. How long have you known?
‘Since last night.’
:Oh, that’s not long love, don’t people usually wait for scans and things before making announcements nowadays?
‘Apparently so, I think I jumped the gun a bit, started telling people straight away. I’m really excited. I called Jay at half three, think yourself lucky I didn’t call you too.’
:Ah, love, you do tend to wear your heart on your sleeve these days, don’t you. How’s Amy? Any sickness?
‘Yeah, she says she’s been sick for a couple of weeks, naturally I’ve been completely oblivious. She’s fine otherwise though. She took today off, we didn’t really sleep last night after we found out.’
My phone rang, I glanced at the screen. Beth.
_Hi Dec. How’s it going?
‘Great. Really great. Sorry for waking you all up last night.’
_Don’t be daft. We’re honoured. Or rather, I am. James is just a grumpy old man. Needs his beauty sleep more than most. Dec, are you and Amy around this evening?
‘Later on. We’re going to Amy’s parents about tea time.’
_I’m planning a family get-together. Just some food, a bit of a drink. Matt and Julia are coming, Carol’s coming, I’m going to ask Rose, just need the guests of honour.
‘I’m actually with Rose at the moment. We’ll be there I’m sure, as long as Amy’s dad doesn’t get his shotgun out.’
_Oh, that’s great. Good luck with Amy’s mum and dad – fingers crossed nobody gets shot. Invite them tonight if you think it would help. Can I have a quick word with Rose, then?
I handed my phone over.
:Hello love … yes isn’t it lovely news … well he hasn’t stopped grinning since he got here, so I’d say so … oh, that sounds grand … no, don’t worry love, I can get there, I’ll bring Carol too … see you later.
She handed the phone back to me.
‘You’re coming then?’
:As if I’d miss it. Chance to coo over Amy and talk about babies all night.
‘Want a lift?’
:No love, I’ll drive myself.
:I’ve been having lessons, get my confidence up a bit. I’m getting quite good.
‘Bloody hell, Rose, you are full of surprises.’
:And so are you, there’s never a dull moment, is there? This is the biggest one yet, though. But, I’m sorry to have to dash, I’ve got to get back to work, I’m already late. I’m so pleased for you, love. Stand up, let’s give you a big hug.
I did as I was told and was enveloped in a Rose Special.
:Oh love, a family of your own.
Out of everyone I knew, Rose was the person who would understand what this meant to me. I felt my eyes prickle with tears and nodded into the top of her head. She let me go, looked up and wiped my eyes with a tissue. Then, with a twinkle in her eye and a wicked smile, she licked the tissue and moved it towards the corner of my mouth. I ducked my head.
‘Rose! Piss off!’
:Sorry love, couldn’t resist. Don’t often get the chance to tease you. See you later.
She picked up her bag, put on her coat and went, smiling back at me as she went through the doorway.
I ordered a coffee and a sandwich, and called Amy.
‘Hey babe, how you doing?’
)Oh, I feel like a fraud sitting here watching TV. I nearly called and said I’d go in.
‘Don’t you dare. One of us needs to be a slacker. I got extras for being late – twice round the pitch and fifty bench presses.’
)No way, who gave you that?
‘Jay. His way of paying me back for waking him up this morning.’
)Did he say anything?
‘No, I didn’t see him to talk to, I was really late, then he was in a meeting when I got out of the shower. I spoke to Beth just now, though, she wants a family get together later, after we’ve been to your mum and dad’s. Rose is going, Matt and Julia are going, Carol’s going …’
)Sounds great, and a good excuse not to stay too long with Mum and Dad. Oh that sounds terrible doesn’t it. I’m dreading it a bit though.
‘Don’t worry, babe, it’ll be fine. Don’t let them spoil it.’
)You’re right. Fuck ’em.
‘Amy! You swore!’
)Your influence must be finally rubbing off on me.
‘I feel terrible now. Might take a vow of abstinence from bad language.’
‘Fuck, no. Wouldn’t last a second.’
)Ha ha. When are you coming home?
‘I’m just eating my lunch, I’ll be there in about half an hour? Put the kettle on, babe. Love you.’
)Love you, bye.
When I got home, Amy looked wiped. She said she felt fine, but she looked tired and worried.
‘We don’t have to go to Jay and Beth’s if you’re not up to it.’
)Don’t be daft, I wouldn’t miss it. We haven’t all got together for ages. And I really want a good chat with Julia. I haven’t met her properly yet, and Matt hasn’t exactly told us anything about her. I’m just worried about telling Mum and Dad. I know what they’ll be like. I don’t want an argument.
‘There’d better not be any fucking arguments, babe. There’d better only be happiness, congratulations and joy, or they’ll have me to fucking answer to.’
)That’s what I mean. Dec, please, please try to keep a lid on it. And please, please try not to say ‘fuck’ quite so much. Mum completely hates it.
She looked up at me with her big blue eyes, the ones I couldn’t resist when they were pleading. I considered myself to be fairly laid back and accepting of most people – I could talk to nearly anyone, and I rarely lost my temper – but Amy’s parents, and the way they treated their only daughter, had made me see red on more than one occasion.
‘OK, Ames, I’ll do my best. They just push my buttons, they’re so condescending to you, and they don’t even bother to hide what a fucking disappointment I am … but OK. I will try my absolute best.’
)Thanks hon. I know you will. How about you make me a cup of tea, and we go over there and kick their arses?
‘That I would like to see. One cup of tea coming up for the arse-kicking lady with the baby.’
My life seemed to lurch from big decision to big decision at the moment, and the next one was whether to go to Matt’s family gathering later. My choice would have been not to go; I hardly related normally to my own family, and Matt’s seemed to be more involved in his life than I was used to. But I really wanted to be with him this evening, and this might be the only way.
In the end I decided to go with him, to see them all, and then I could decide how involved I was prepared to be another time. I’d met most of them one way or another anyway, and with more people there, and the focus on the parents-to-be, I wouldn’t feel so in the spotlight. Decision made, I was able to focus on what I was doing for the rest of the afternoon, and was surprised to look up and see most people had gone. Matt sauntered past, satchel over his shoulder and turned in to lean on the door post to my office.
‘So … any plans for this evening?’
I quickly scanned the room to see who was left, so I could temper my reply accordingly. There were a couple of people within earshot.
‘I thought I might accompany a friend to a family celebration.’
He grinned widely.
‘That sounds like an excellent plan. I’m sure your friend will be delighted with your company, but might possibly need to provide you with some details as to time and venue.’
‘Well my friend knows how to contact me.’
‘Maybe your friend will be waiting for you in the car park.’
I sighed and rolled my eyes.
‘Or maybe if my friend would just hang on a minute I’ll walk down with him and we can talk on the way to my car.’
Matt’s grin widened. He remained leaning on the doorpost as I finished what I was doing, closed the computer down, shut files away and grabbed my bag and coat. As I reached him, he put his arm round me and kissed my cheek, then whispered in my ear.
‘You look bloody gorgeous, I’ve been thinking about snogging you all afternoon.’
I kept my voice at a normal pitch, conscious that eyes were on us.
‘Really? I’ve been busy thinking about how to adapt our presentation for Friday.’
‘Oh, me too, me too. I’ve got some bloody good ideas, we can discuss them on the way out.’
I walked in front of Matt, and he tried his hardest to feel my bum all the way down the stairs. When we got to the bottom, and I saw the reception desk was empty, I turned and faced him.
‘Look, Matt, I know this is extremely exciting for you, but I really meant it when I said about keeping work and private separate. I can’t do this, it’s too confusing. I don’t know where I am.’
He held his hands up in surrender.
‘OK. Just trying my luck, I guess. Still working out where the line is.’
‘The line is, no touching or lewd suggestions whispered in my ear while we’re on work premises. Work premises are anywhere inside the front door.’
I turned and walked off towards the door. He ran after me and got in front of me before I reached it.
‘I’m sorry, Jules. I’m just not used to all these rules. I’m used to being pretty open about how I’m feeling.’
‘I know. I’ve witnessed enough of your office flings to know how you do things.’
‘Shit, Jules, is that what you think this is?’
I hadn’t realised until I said it that I didn’t want to be in the same category as all the other women who had been publicly picked up and dropped by Matt. I didn’t say anything, but he must have read the look on my face. He held the door open for me and I walked through.
‘Jules, can we talk about this? Not here, can we go back to your place or something? It’s all starting to feel a bit weird. I didn’t mean to upset you.’
‘What time do we have to be there this evening?’
‘Fuck that, we can be late or not go at all, this is important.’
‘Alright. Get in then.’
I opened the car and he got in. We didn’t talk on the short journey to my flat, and Matt was right, it was starting to feel a bit weird. I managed to get a parking space right outside my flat, and we walked up the steps and into the building in silence. As I opened the door to my flat, it was almost as if a verbal dam had burst, and Matt started talking, hardly drawing a breath.
‘Jules, I’m sorry, I’m, it, I’ve, I think, I thought, shit, I just got carried away. You’re right, it was bloody exciting, everyone knowing, but I should learn to keep it in my trousers, metaphorically speaking of course. I didn’t think about how it might feel for you, having witnessed my less than discreet flirtations. There’s no way I think of you like that, like them, oh shit I’m not saying this very well, I think I understand what you mean, it must be horrible to feel like everyone’s watching your every move. I’m just an egomaniac. I’m sorry. Sorry Jules. I hate it when you go all quiet. Please talk to me.’
He said all this looking at the floor, in one long burst, not leaving me a pause to interject at all.
‘Well I will now you’ve shut up for two seconds so I can get a word in. I’m sorry I was less than gentle with you. Today has been hard. I feel incredibly under pressure, and I took it out on you. That’s not to say I’m happy to have my bum felt down the stairs, or whatever else I said –’
‘Whispering lewd shit in your ear.’
‘– alright, and so maybe we need to just think for a little while about what’s acceptable and what’s not. We still don’t know what this is that we’re doing, it’s new, and I don’t want to be working it out in the full gaze of everyone at GreenScreen. Come and sit down, I’ll make us a drink. Tea or coffee?’
‘Don’t suppose you’ve got beer?’
‘You had the last one.’
‘Coffee then. Thanks.’
I poured two mugs of coffee and sat down next to him on the sofa, taking his hand.
‘I must be very frustrating.’
‘Shit, that’s a bloody understatement. If you weren’t bloody worth it, I’d have buggered off weeks ago …’
He grinned at me, eyes crinkling in the way that had become very familiar.
‘… I expect I have similarly, if opposite, frustrating qualities.’
‘We don’t need to compare notes on each other’s shortcomings, Matt; we can enjoy doing that another time. I think we just need to work out where this line is, somewhere that’s acceptable for both of us.’
‘OK, well, I know you don’t like me doing stuff at work, so I won’t be flirty or touchy or snoggy unless specifically invited, which I know is unlikely. How’s that for starters?’
I smiled at him gratefully.
‘It’s a great start. I think having lunch together, in or out of the office, is alright. And we can talk to each other about non-work things, but if I feel like it’s getting out of hand or straying into areas I feel uncomfortable with, I reserve the right to be a sniffy bitch about it.’
‘Naturally, I wouldn’t accept anything less than sniffy bitchiness should I stray into uncomfortable areas. It would be a just punishment.’
‘If we’re pissed off with each other, or arguing, we leave it outside. I’m not going to be bickering with you in public, any more than I’m going to be snogging you in public.’
‘Fair enough. I guess GreenScreen has seen more than its fair share of my dirty laundry. About time I started leaving it at home. We already know we can work well together, this last project has been awesome. I think we could do it whatever was going on between us outside.’
‘I guess that’s my bottom line. Work can’t be affected, either by something between us, or how our teams are affected by us.’
‘OK. Agreed. What else?’
I thought about it.
‘I can’t honestly think of anything else.’
‘Did we just sort all that out in five minutes flat? My coffee’s not even cold yet. Whoa, feels much less weird now, though.’
I smiled at him.
‘Who’d have thought Matt Scott would be doing sensible relationship chat?’
‘I know. I’m definitely going to be kicked out of the evil bastard club.’
‘Don’t be. We’re still working it all out. Maybe I should think a bit before throwing a hissy fit.’
‘It’s all turned out OK in the end though. Here, know what I want to do now? I did say I’d been thinking about it all afternoon.’
I lifted my head towards him and he bent down and kissed me tenderly, at first, and then more urgently, and before long we were taking each other’s clothes off and moving towards the bedroom …
As we pulled up outside Amy’s parents’ house, I felt the familiar sinking feeling. Mr and Mrs Wright (we hadn’t managed to progress to first name terms) had never liked me very much; they had formed their first impression based on the picture published in the local paper all that time ago when I was photographed at my flat, drunk and raging, with vomit down my shirt.
The subsequent news reports of passport scandals, car crashes, beatings and suspensions had done nothing to make them skip for joy when Amy announced she was seeing me, and to make things worse, I had called the police on DivDav, who had apparently had a fair amount of sunlight shining out of his arse when Amy was going out with him.
When Amy’s mum walked in on us on one of her unannounced visits to Amy’s room, in the early days when we just couldn’t keep our hands – or bodies – off each other, my reputation was sealed.
I had eventually got fed up with trying to be polite and make them like me, or even accept me, and our visits, infrequent as they were, usually degenerated into antagonistic bickering in which Amy played piggy in the middle and ended up miserable.
I took Amy’s hand and squeezed it. She looked at me, apprehensively, and I tried to reassure her.
‘Best behaviour, promise.’
She nodded. We got out of the car, walked up the path and rang the bell. Mrs Wright answered the door.
;Amy, we weren’t expecting you. Your father’s just got home.
)Hi Mum, we were just on our way out, thought we’d call round and say hi, er, have a quick chat.
Mrs Wright looked uneasy.
;You’d better come in then. Dinner’s almost ready, are you stopping?
)No, Mum, we’re eating out. Thanks though.
;Go through, then, I’ll bring in a pot of tea. Or I could find a beer, Declan?
‘No thanks, tea is fine.’
In all my visits, I had never drunk beer and had no idea why they always offered it. It felt like a reminder that I was different to them, and of that picture in the paper from years ago. Amy and I sat in the living room, nervously holding hands.
‘Shit, this is like death row. The condemned prisoners await execution.’
)Shh. She’ll be back in minute.
‘Where’s your dad?’
)He’ll be getting changed.
The door opened and Amy’s parents came in together. There was a big performance of pouring out tea and adding milk and sugar. They couldn’t remember if I took sugar; they never could. I’d been visiting them for nearly three years and they still couldn’t remember I didn’t take fucking sugar in my tea. No one else in the world riled me like Amy’s parents – I got along with everyone, pretty much. But the Wrights always seemed determined to undermine and upset their beautiful, gentle daughter, and I couldn’t usually let it go without commenting. However, reminding myself of my promise, I reined my temper in, and thought of Amy sitting next to me, worrying. Squeezed her hand, she squeezed back.
;How was work today, Amy?
)Oh … er, I didn’t go in. I wasn’t feeling well.
;Really? What was the matter?
)Feeling a bit sick. Actually, Mum that’s what we –
;Oh, not this bug that’s been going round? Your father had a touch of that last week. Didn’t keep him off work though, did it Jack?
«Take more than a problem with my digestive system to keep me away. Can’t take too many sick days, gives a bad impression.
)No, it wasn’t a bug, it –
;You must be feeling better now, though, if you’re going out. You should be careful, it doesn’t look good if someone sees you out on the town after you’ve called in sick.
)We’re not going out on the town, we’re going to Jay and Beth’s. Beth said you can come too if you like.
More disapproval, this time reserved for my unconventional family. They couldn’t get their heads round how it all worked, and from the amount of worried looks and frowns they tossed our way whenever we mentioned them, you’d think I had introduced Amy to some sort of cult. They didn’t know how to react to me not having parents, and although this may have bought me some degree of sympathy and understanding elsewhere, with the Wrights it only bought more awkwardness. They had nobody to compare social standings with, nobody they could directly blame for my shortcomings. It was unlikely they were going to consider coming with us to Beth’s get-together.
The silence gave Amy the opportunity to say what we had come here to say.
)We actually came here to tell you something; we’ve got some exciting news.
They both frowned. Their daughter told them she had some exciting news, and they frowned. I could already see how this was going to go. Tried to hold onto my promise to Amy. She shot me a nervous glance, so I gave her a big smile.
)I’m … I mean we’re … well, it’s early days … but –
;Oh Amy, no.
;You’re not … expecting … are you?
There was a look of horror on her face. I glanced at Mr Wright, whose fists were balled up and lips were clamped together. Amy’s face was a picture of misery and dejection. This wasn’t how it should be. I could feel myself getting very angry.
)Yes, Mum, I am.
‘It’s actually brilliant news.’
I put my arm round Amy and pulled her close.
«Yes, I’m sure you’re very pleased with yourself.
;Oh Amy, what are you going to do?
)What do you mean?
;Well you’re so young, you’re not married, you can’t possibly have a baby.
I nearly lost it. Amy could feel me tensing beside her and looked at me as I opened my mouth and drew breath to speak. She put a restraining hand on my arm and then spoke herself.
)I can’t possibly have a baby?
«It’s very irresponsible of the pair of you to get yourselves in this position. I didn’t expect it of you, Amy.
The unspoken yet clear implication being that I was fulfilling all their expectations of irresponsibility, and dragging Amy down with me. I could feel myself bristling, but I clenched my teeth to prevent myself causing a scene, which wasn’t what Amy wanted. Or so I thought. As I sat and tried to dampen my anger, I felt Amy pull herself upright in her seat. I looked at her face, which was almost shining with rage. I had never seen her look so furious.
)OK. That’s enough. I told Dec before we got here that I didn’t want him to lose his temper and I didn’t want him to swear. He’s kept his end of the bargain, but I think I’m about to do both of those things. How dare you? This is the most exciting and amazing day of my life. I am completely over the moon. I am going to have a baby with the man I love, who I am going to marry one day. I couldn’t be more happy. This will be your first, who knows, maybe only, grandchild. Instead of treating us like silly teenagers, you should be celebrating with us. Instead of trying to make us feel like shit, you should be happy for us.’
Amy’s mum gasped at the ‘shit’, and her dad started to say something, but Amy was unstoppable.
‘Instead of telling us what we can and can’t fucking possibly do, you should be asking us how you can help.’
There was more gasping at the ‘fuck’, and even I was surprised, but Amy was in full flow and she was a sight to behold. She was usually quiet and reserved with her parents, but right now she was blazing with fury, and I sat back to enjoy the show.
‘If you can’t be happy for me, on the best day of my life, then fuck you. Fuck both of you. Come on, Dec, let’s go somewhere they will be happy for us.’
As Amy stood up and took my hand, I nearly applauded. As Mr and Mrs Wright sat and stared open-mouthed at their daughter, we left the room and the house together, although as we walked down the path to the car, it caught up with Amy and she started to cry. I put my arm round her, to pull her close, but she pushed me away.
)No, not here, let’s just get in the car and go.
I opened the doors and we both got in. I pulled over in the next road, because Amy was still crying. It was awkward in the car, but I hugged her as tightly as I could.
‘Babe, you were magnificent. I’m so proud of you.’
)Oh Dec, what have I done? I’ve never spoken to them like that in my life.
‘Well it’s long overdue then. Sorry to say this, I know they’re your parents, but they really are the most joyless people I’ve ever met. Any chance to bring you down, make you feel like shit, they take it. What you said to them was spot on. They should be celebrating with you, with us. They might not like who you’ve chosen to spend your life with, although I thoroughly approve of your choice, but they should support you, be happy for you. It’s about time someone told them. You did great. You did say we were going to kick their arses, well I think they can consider their arses well and truly whooped. Don’t cry, Ames, please, I can’t bear it. They’re not worth it, not today.’
I carried on holding her, wiping her eyes with my sleeve. Slowly, her tears stopped and she looked at me. Her face was blotchy and her make-up had run. She looked beautiful to me, but she wasn’t going think so.
)God, I bet I look a mess.
‘I don’t know, babe, I think the red and black marbled look could be all the rage this season.’
She hurriedly pulled down the sun visor and looked in the mirror.
)Oh my God, I can’t go out like this, everything’s run everywhere. Look at your shirt, there’s mascara all over it, and all up your sleeve. I’m sorry hon.
‘Well I don’t give a toss about my shirt, but as you’re a notoriously vain cow who only thinks about her appearance, what do you want to do? Quick trip home?’
As I spoke, I ran a finger down her smeared cheek. Amy was the least vain person I knew, always looked awesome whatever she wore, whatever she’d done to her face or hair, but I knew she wouldn’t want everyone to see her like this, the evidence of how upset she’d been.
)I have got some wipes and stuff in my bag, maybe I can do a quick repair job here.
With a deep breath and a mental effort that was apparent in the determined set of her shoulders, Amy sorted herself out and focussed on putting her face back together. I watched with fascination, amazed firstly at how many tubes, bottles and brushes she could fit in her handbag, and secondly that she knew exactly what to do with them all. A while later, she was back together again; looking awesome and feeling better. She flashed a beaming smile at me.
‘You’re gorgeous, babe.’
)You’re not so bad yourself. Come on, flex those lovely muscles and get me to the party. I’m in the mood to be made a fuss of.
I started the car and drove off.
Pulling up outside Jay and Beth’s house was the complete opposite of pulling up outside Amy’s parents. I had so many good memories here, this was where some of the people I loved best in the world lived. My mood soared. I looked at Amy, and knew that she was feeling the same.
‘Let’s go talk babies then.’
We walked up the drive, hand in hand. I opened the front door – I’d never given my key back, even when they’d moved away and other people had lived there – and shouted into the house.
‘Any chance of a cup of tea? Pregnant lady dying of thirst out here.’
A squeal. Footsteps running. Laughter.
The door from the living room opened, Beth was first out. She couldn’t decide who to hug, and instead caught us both in a head lock.
_Oh, you two, how are you? This is so great. Thanks for coming. We’re just waiting for Matt and Julia now.
She let us go and looked at Amy with shining eyes. Jay was standing just behind Beth. He leaned forwards and kissed and hugged Amy.
łWell done, Amy. Don’t know how you’re going to cope with two to look after, though.
łWell you do such a good job with Dec, but they say the second one is harder …
‘Ha ha, you’re hilarious.’
łYou know I only mean it. Come here, mate.
Jay hugged me, slapped me on the back several times.
łCal says will you play on the X-box with him later?
‘Of course. Why can’t he ask me himself?’
łIt’s this new attitude of his, anyone would think he was a teenager already. Having to tread a bit carefully. What he actually mumbled when we told him why you were coming was ‘don’t s’pose Dec’ll want to play X-box then’.
There was a shriek from the doorway. A small blonde bombshell ran over and launched herself at me. I caught her up and held her over my head while she giggled and wriggled.
‘Hey Iz, you’re getting big. I’m going to have start doing more weights in the gym to keep up!’
Iz wrapped her arms round my neck and started talking as I carried her into the living room, where Rose and Carol were busy gossiping. They stopped when they saw Amy, and both of them looked at her with a strange expression I couldn’t interpret. Rose stood up and made for Amy, who wasn’t going to escape without an enormous hug.
:Oh, love, I’m so happy for you.
I sat down with Iz on my lap and watched it all. Amy was basking in it, it was so different from the response she had just left. She glowed; it was a cliché, but it was what she was doing. She radiated happiness, and I’d never loved her more.
/dec some joos.
I looked down at Iz, who was staring back up at me.
‘OK, sweetie, let’s go and find you some juice.’
I lifted her up and carried her into the kitchen, where Beth was putting food out on plates.
‘Someone’s thirsty, Beth.’
_Oh, thanks, sweetheart. Could you do it? You know where everything is.
‘Yeah, no worries.’
I put Iz down and found a bottle of juice and Iz’s cup.
_I’ll be with you in just a minute, just doing the garlic bread.
_Garlic always gets your mouth watering, doesn’t it? What have you got on your shirt?’
I looked down at the smeared remains of Amy’s make-up. ‘Probably a mixture of mascara, er, foundation and, um, other stuff I am glad not to be aware of. Amy had a bit of a moment on the way.
_I’m so proud of you, Dec.
‘For having crap all over my shirt? You’re easily pleased.’
_You’re handling all this really well. It could have really freaked you out.
‘I’m not freaked out at all, although I suppose there’s plenty of time yet. Amy’s just amazing. She’s the one you should be proud of. She just basically told her parents to … er …’
I looked at Iz and for once managed to bite my tongue
‘Er, she used a word I’m very fond of. Cal used to call it a really bad swear. In fact, Amy used it a lot, and they thoroughly deserved it, they were being vile to her, trying to make her feel ashamed of herself. Well, you know what I think of them. She gave them a piece of her mind, kicked their fucking arses. Dammit, sorry. I was trying.’
_Well thanks for trying, anyway, Dec. Sounds like Amy might have got some stuff off her chest. I assume they won’t be joining us tonight?
‘Ha ha, no. But Ames was amazing, you should have seen her. Here you go, Iz. Two hands, now.’
Beth was looking at me, something shining in her face.
_You are going to be such a great dad. You’re a natural. Do you remember the first time you held Iz? You were so nervous. Took to it like a duck to water after, though. Look how you are with her now. She adores you. Oh Dec, I can’t believe it, you a dad. It makes me feel positively fossilised. I still remember when you first showed up here, you had that beaten up old rucksack, everything you owned crammed in it, and an attitude like I’d never seen. Do you remember the very first thing you said to me?
‘Er, no, am I about to be horribly embarrassed?’
_James had just picked you up from the station, he was putting the car away, I opened the door to say hi and you just walked up and said, and I’m paraphrasing for the benefit of our younger audience, ‘Eff me, who the eff do the effing taxi drivers think they effing are in this effing city?’
‘What? I never said that. Surely not so many effs. The first time I met you?’
_I can remember it clear as day. You obviously took issue with the attitude of a particular cab driver who’d had words with you earlier on. Though I suspect it was the language rather than the subject matter that was designed to catch my attention.
‘Well it seems to have worked, if you can remember it all these years later.’
_Oh Dec, I can’t believe it’s been years. It just seems like yesterday I was making you packed lunches and sending you off to school, praying you weren’t going to be home before noon with another bunch of weird friends. Now here you are, all grown up. You’ve turned into a fine young man.
Her eyes brimmed, and a couple of tears overflowed down her cheeks. My eyes followed suit, both of us too emotional for our own good. I pulled her into a hug.
‘Well if I have, it’s mostly down to you, Beth. Where would I be if you hadn’t spent all that time making me packed lunches and putting up with my friends and my moods and my effing bad language?’
I looked down at Iz, who had finished her drink and decided to join in the conversation. A quick glance at Beth showed her shaking her head at me, but prepared to forgive me in the name of nostalgia.
_Do you remember the second thing you said?
‘Oh God. How many more effs?’
_None. You saw Cal, and you said ‘Hey mate, what’s your name? Cool Lego, can I have a go?’. And you went and sat next to him and started playing with him. I knew it was going to be OK, then. Oh sweetheart. I wish your mum and dad could see you now.
I swallowed down the sadness that talking about them always caused me, appreciating that Beth never avoided mentioning them – when she did, it felt like they could be a part of things in a small way.
‘Yeah, me too. Especially today. It’ll be ten years in June. Sometimes it feels like yesterday. Sometimes I can hardly remember what they looked like. I dream about them a lot.’
_Oh Dec, really? Ten years? We should do something, mark it somehow.
I felt tears sting my eyes again. Beth always knew the right thing to do, and say.
‘I’d really like that. Thanks, Beth.’
I felt a tug on the knee of my trousers. Looked down. Iz was standing by me, arms raised. I laughed, wiped my eyes and hoisted Iz into my arms.
‘I guess she was feeling left out. Come on, Iz, let’s go and see what that big brother of yours is up to.’
We went via the living room, where Amy was talking animatedly to Rose and Carol. Jay seemed to be fiddling with a laptop.
łDec, any chance you could have a look at this? I’m trying to set up Skype, Nico and Lis said they’d call later.
‘Really? That’s great, I’ve never Skyped before. Don’t ask me though, I haven’t got a clue. Matt showed me once, never got the hang of it. Get him to do it when he gets here, he’s the IT professional.’
łI suppose so. I wanted to sort it before he got here, try not to look completely inept.
‘Ha ha, swallow your pride. It’ll make him feel useful.’
I caught Amy’s eye and she gave me a beaming smile.
‘Just up to catch Cal, play some X-box?’
I made my way up the stairs, Iz clinging to my neck.
/cal play monster.
‘Is he, sweetie? Shall we see if he needs any help?’
She nodded solemnly. I knocked on Cal’s door. It used to be my door when I lived here, then Matt’s when he first moved down; Cal had negotiated a swap when Iz graduated to her own room.
‘It’s Dec. Me and Iz have come to help you beat up monsters.’
I pushed the door open. Cal was sitting on his bed, game controller in hand, focussed on a battle on the screen between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a giant blue robot.
\i’ve got to level fifteen. I keep dying. This boss is really hard.
‘Do you want me to have a go?’
Cal gave me a pitying look.
\you won’t be able to do it, you couldn’t even do level five. Iz’d be better than you.
It was true that I was woefully useless at computer games.
‘Fair enough. Maybe Iz could try.’
She nodded seriously and held her hand out for the controller.
\no, Iz, I was joking. Here, play with this.
He grabbed the nearest thing to hand to distract Iz, and passed it to her.
‘Hey, Iz, look at this, it’s Optimus Prime. He’s seen better days. I didn’t know you still had him, Cal.’
Iz proceeded to bend Optimus Prime’s arms and legs beyond the levels of human endurance. Luckily for him, he was a Transformer.
‘Look, sweetie, if you do this …’
I bent a few limbs
‘… and this …’
I pushed a few bits of plastic together
‘… he turns into this.’
Iz was delighted with the huge truck, took it from me and started pushing it up and down the floor.
Cal carried on battling, a look of intense concentration on his face.
‘So do you want to play something, then?’
\yeah in a minute. I just want to finish this.
Several minutes went by, but the battle seemed no closer to finishing. I found another truck by the bed, crouched down on the floor and brrrrmed with Iz. The sounds of the battle intensified, Cal’s fingers were almost a blur on the controller.
\no, no, no. Fuck.
A defiant look.
\what? You say it all the time. So does Matty.
‘Yeah, and you know how much trouble I get in. I definitely try not to say it when Iz’s in the room. Just be careful mate, she’s too young.’
And so are you, I thought, but didn’t say it, remembering the things I used to say when I was his age and me and my mates were trying to impress each other. Part of me was chuffed at the thought that he might be trying to impress me, but a larger more pragmatic part saw the test and the challenge – would I tell him off, would I tell Jay and Beth? I decided I was hardly in a position to be telling anyone off, however young, for saying ‘fuck’, and let it go at that.
‘So, do you want to play something now? I think your mum’s nearly ready with something to eat, shall we wait till after? I think Nico and Lis are Skyping later, if we can get it set up.’
Mentioning Nico sent a dark look over Cal’s face. He had pretty much idolised Nico, and I wondered how well he was coping with him being so far away. It’s hard when your heroes leave, even harder when they’re part of your family. It was one of the reasons I was having difficulty deciding whether to stay at Raiders or move away.
\i’m going to have another go at this. I nearly did it last time.
‘OK, we’ll play later, yeah?’
‘Come on Iz, let’s go and see if there’s any dinner yet.’
Iz picked up Optimus Prime and lifted her arms up to be carried.
‘Not sure if there’s nuggets, sweetie, let’s go and see. I think Iz wants to take old Optimus with her, is that OK Cal?’
He shrugged, absorbed in his battle.
We lay wrapped up in each other, not talking, just touching, almost sleepy in the afterglow. Then Beth’s tone sounded from Matt’s phone, which was in his trouser pocket on the floor in the lounge.
‘Shit! Beth’s meal thing. I completely forgot.’
He jumped out of the bed and started putting his clothes on in the living room.
‘Do you still want to come? You don’t have to, I completely understand.’
‘I still want to come. I need to shower first, though.’
‘Hm, me too. Let’s save time and do it together.’
‘That’s not really going to save time, is it. Not in the long run. We’re bound to get distracted.’
‘Julia Marran, are you calling me an unstoppable shag monster?’
‘Yes, I believe I am.’
‘OK, fair enough. You go first, then. Hey, how about, radical idea, and maybe you’ve had to cope with a few too many radical ideas today, but how about you stay at mine tonight? Jay’s is nearer to me than you, we could walk to work together tomorrow, I could get you breakfast in bed, and more importantly, I get to sleep with you tonight. Also, you can give me a lift home without me feeling too guilty about it.’
It should have been another decision that freaked me out, it should have made me frosty and distant, but it was just one of those things that felt right, and I wanted to do it without weighing up the pros and cons. This was one of those few times when my heart ruled my head.
‘Really? Woohoo! Go and get ready then, I’ll just text and say we’ll be late.’
I showered quickly, and while Matt had his turn, I threw some things into a bag – toiletries, clothes for work tomorrow, a book, for some unknown reason, and my phone.
We pulled up outside a large detached house at the bottom of a cul-de-sac. I took a deep breath and looked at Matt, who took my hand.
‘Come on Jules. The sooner we go in the sooner you can start enjoying yourself.’
‘Or being quizzed about my intentions.’
‘You haven’t got any.’
‘Don’t forget it then. They’re all great, they’ll love you.’
I took his reassurance for what it was and nodded, undid my seatbelt and got out of the car.