56. Baby do you wanna bump?

In which ground rules are established, and not everyone celebrates good news.

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Julia

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.’

‘Listen, Julia.’

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?’

‘What?’

‘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.

‘No!’

‘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.’

He sighed.

‘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.

‘Race you?’

He crouched down as if ready to speed off.

‘No.’

‘Oh come on, if we get back red-faced and breathless that would be the perfect way to arrive.’

‘No.’

‘Spoilsport. How about we walk in and give each other a good tonguing? Then I could bend you over my desk and –’

‘No.’

‘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.

Dec

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.

‘Hi Rose.’

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.

‘Hey 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.

‘Really?’

: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.’

)Really?

‘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.’

Amy sighed.

)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.’

Julia

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.’

Matt frowned.

‘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.’

‘Thanks, Matt.’

‘Sorry.’

‘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 …

Dec

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.

;Oh.

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.

)What?

;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.

‘OK?’

)OK.

‘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.

)Two?

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.

‘Smells great.’

_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.’

Beth laughed.

_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?’

/effin wangidge

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?’

)OK hon.

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.

\yeah.

‘It’s Dec. Me and Iz have come to help you beat up monsters.’

\kay.

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.

‘Who’s winning?’

\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.’

/iz 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.

/rrrrm.

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.

‘Cal!’

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?’

\kay.

‘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.

/dinner. Noggits.

‘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.

Julia

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.

‘Alright.’

‘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.’

‘I know.’

‘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.

51. Kiss me

In which there is another meeting in a churchyard and more rules are imposed.

Julia

Back in my flat, my heart was still pounding. I had come extremely close to having sex with Matt again. I had wanted it, a lot. Rationally, I shouldn’t have, and it was rare for my heart to rule my head. I was a little bit scared; not being in control always scared me, but I was excited too. I seemed to lurch between the two sides of me, the considered, rule-making, control freak and the impassioned risk-taker. The control freak usually won, but the risk-taker used stronger arguments. I would have all weekend to think about it, away from Matt, who seemed to be clouding my judgement.

I sent a quick text to Evie.

‘Hi Ev, I survived unbedded.’

There was no point in telling her just how close I’d come.

‘Kudos. I hear he’s a hard man to resist. Good evening?’

‘Very good. Off to Norfolk tomorrow, catch up next week?’

‘Hope all goes well. xx’

I set my alarm for a ridiculously early hour of the morning and got into bed. Just before I turned the light out, my phone pinged with a text from Matt.

Matt

Once back in my flat, I tried to settle, but couldn’t, my mind racing, going over the evening. I wasn’t going to see Julia now until next week, and I needed to think about something else. This wasn’t going to become an obsession; I’d been there before, and it had got me nothing but desolation.

I looked at things objectively. Jules had agreed with me that we were just seeing how things were going, whether we got along or not. She was as likely to call things off as I was, and I would if I started feeling any pressure.

I wasn’t too keen on the way she imposed rules on the whole thing, but I was happy enough to go with it at the moment, while we were testing the waters. Feeling a bit better about convincing myself it was just casual, I texted her.

‘I no u wont reply but night night 🙂 M x’

‘How do you know I won’t reply?’

‘U never do.’

‘Oh, you must be right then.’

‘Usually am.’

‘Big head.’

‘Jus sayin.’

‘You’ve just used up your quota of replies. No more now for 24 hours.’

‘Wot? There’s a quota? Fuck off! U can’t tell me that now. Come on, start again, I’ll b less wasteful.’

It was this kind of sudden introduction of a new rule that I knew I would find hard to get my head round. I pushed for all I was worth.

‘Please? 2nd chance?’

There was no reply. I wondered how much shit she would take from me.

‘Can’t go 24 hours without hearing fm u.’

Still no reply. It was always possible she might have turned her phone off. I never could, I needed to be in constant contact in case something interesting popped up on Periscope, or I got a text from someone in desperate need of the answer to a pub quiz question, but some people were able to do such an incomprehensible thing as turn theirs off.

‘Julia?’

I don’t know why I kept going, I was obviously losing this.

‘UR a hard woman.’

One more go.

‘OK u win. Cu in 24 hrs. M x’

Julia

I reached over and turned off the lamp. I lay in the dark, thoughts drifting over the evening – Matt, William, Nons. For the third night in a row, I cried myself to sleep.

The alarm woke me at five the next morning. I quickly got ready and took my bag out to the car. It was still dark as I set off, and the roads were nearly empty, but the skies got lighter as the traffic grew heavier. I listened to the radio to help me concentrate, stopped a couple of times for coffee to keep me awake, and arrived at Nons’ pebble-dashed semi-detached house just after twelve.

Matt

I got on with my life the next day, which being a Saturday mostly involved doing laundry and listening to the football scores come in on the radio as I cleaned the bathroom.

I know, it sounds rather domesticated for Matt the Lad, but he wasn’t really me. The real me was tidy, house-proud and possibly a bit dull, and I needed my weekends to sort out my flat. A few months ago, Saturday nights were full on, but I had recently stopped going out so much, and this Saturday I was going to be watching something on Netflix, with a few beers for company. Tomorrow, I was going to Jay and Beth’s for Sunday lunch, which always involved a whole afternoon with various family members, and there wouldn’t be time for chores.

While I worked, I texted Jules, knowing she wasn’t going to reply until later that night, if she replied at all and hadn’t changed her mind in some sudden rehashing of the small print. I sent her all sorts of nonsense – travel alerts that I heard on the radio, silly messages about current events, questions I knew she wasn’t going to answer, just keeping connected. Jules seemed so good at keeping the different parts of her life separate, I just wanted to make sure I at least penetrated the fringes of her weekend away from the city.

Julia

I took a deep breath before taking my key out and walking up the path. I had to stop myself calling out to her as I opened the door, and the thought that I would never again say ‘Only me’ and hear her call back ‘No such thing as only you, Jules’ nearly stopped my breath.

I looked around. It was as if Nons had popped out to the shop – her coats were on the hooks, her reminders were on the fridge, her glasses were on the table. I couldn’t take it in. She wasn’t coming back. I was going to miss her so much.

As I had expected, my parents had not been able to wait for me to arrive before dashing off to London to catch the art, and had left a brief note with a list of things I should be doing and people I should be contacting while I was there. They didn’t know if they would be back before tomorrow lunchtime, but ‘maybe you could stay on, just for a few hours, darling?‘. I knew from past experience that if I did, I would likely be waiting until well past the time when it was sensible to be driving all the way back, they would eventually phone to say they’d been unavoidably delayed by something important (like a show or a new restaurant) and I would drive home angry, tired and dangerous.

I checked my phone, which had been pinging for most of the journey. Matt had sent dozens of texts, mostly inconsequential chatter, some updates on travel news on the route he assumed I would be taking but actually hadn’t, and some that made me laugh. There was no denying that he was entertaining, even if I did feel a little bombarded.

I wasn’t used to being so aware of someone, of having them in my thoughts all the time. I was used to thinking about work problems, world affairs, books I was reading. I was still doing all this, but with constant interruptions for:

‘Hi J (is abbrv OK 4 txt? Hope so) did u no today = International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members? I miss u. Does that count?’

or

‘Why the Whistling Panhandler anyway? WTF?’

and

‘Be careful A14 lorry shed load of birdseed. Flocks of pigeons seen heading from all over Britain.’

I caught up with all of the texts, then put my phone on silent and went next door to see William. He looked small and frail, and had lost weight since the last time I saw him. We hugged and cried for a long time, both of us knowing exactly how the other was feeling. It felt good to finally be with someone who just understood, without me having to explain anything or analyse my emotions. Nons had been everything to both of us and the world was a dimmer place without her.

William made us a cup of tea and we sat in the kitchen, looking out of his window and into Nons’ kitchen. He told me how he’d gone to look for her after worrying all day about her. They usually smiled and waved at each other first thing in the morning, but he hadn’t seen her that day, and at first thought nothing of it; Nons sometimes went out early to go to the market or catch an early bus to Norwich. But as the day wore on and there was still no sign of her, he got more concerned and called round. There was no answer, so he started looking in the windows, eventually spotting her lying on the floor near the front door. Tears were running down his face as he told me this.

‘I just keep thinking, pet, if I’d only gone round when I first started to worry, maybe I could have done something, helped her …’

I tried to reassure him, tell him that there was nothing he could have done, but he was inconsolable.

We sat together for a couple of hours talking, crying, reminiscing, catching up. It was good to talk about Nons to someone who knew her so well; I’d spent all week keeping it to myself, and having William there to tell it all to, and to hear what he had to say, was therapeutic. Eventually, we got on to the subject of the funeral. I had given William’s phone number to the man from Bentley’s, and they had contacted him about Nons.

‘She’s in their Chapel of Rest. I didn’t know if you wanted to go and see her?’

I hadn’t even thought about it.

‘Have you been?’

‘No, pet, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. It’d be good to say goodbye, like, but she’s not going to hear me, is she? She won’t look like her, she won’t be her. Oh, I don’t know.’

Now I had the same dilemma. I had heard different stories from people I knew who had gone to see the bodies of loved ones. Some said it helped, they could say things they’d needed to, get some closure, and some said it was a horrible experience that traumatised them.

‘I feel a bit the same, William. I don’t know. We don’t have to decide yet, do we?’

‘No, lass, not yet. We can talk about it when the chap gets here.’

The man from Bentley’s was due to visit in the afternoon. He came as arranged, and we talked through some details. I was astounded at how many decisions there were to be made, and was grateful for our Halloween night when we had actually talked about it. We did our best to give Nons what we thought she would want, and the funeral director wrote it down so I could show my mother, or at least leave her a copy, when she got back. By the time he had gone, it was early evening, and starting to get dark.

I looked across at Nons’ house, unlit. I wasn’t superstitious and didn’t believe in the paranormal, but the thought of sleeping there alone was daunting. William caught my glance.

‘You can stay in my spare room if you like, lass.’

I shot him a look of gratitude.

‘Thank you, I’d really like that, if you’re sure. I don’t think I could be there on my own. Mum and Dad have taken my room, I’d have to sleep in Nons’ room …’

‘Stay here then, I could do with the company.’

And so I did. William put the television on and we watched the usual banal Saturday evening entertainment, but it didn’t require thinking about, and reduced the need for conversation. I checked my phone again.

Matt had sent several more texts, but I was determined to stick to my twenty four hour no-reply embargo. I found myself smiling at his inanity, despite myself. In some ways, he made me feel like a teenager, waiting for the next bit of attention, the next glance, the next note. William noticed how often I looked at my phone.

‘Waiting for a call, are you?’

‘No, I’m sorry, it’s very rude of me. Just checking my texts. I’ve had quite a few.’

‘Someone special?’

‘Er …’

I didn’t feel I could explain the full details of Matt and me to William, not when I wasn’t entirely sure what it all meant myself.

‘… kind of. It’s all quite new.’

‘Not had a lad for a while, Vonnie said.’

Nons’ real name was Yvonne. I’d mispronounced it when I was little, and it had stuck; William also had a pet name for her.

‘No, been busy at work, no time.’

‘Well it’s about time someone noticed what a lovely lass you are and made you an offer you couldn’t refuse.’

I knew Nons and William spent a lot of time tutting and shaking their heads over me for many reasons: I wasn’t married, I worked too hard, I ate too little, I wasn’t married, I tried to do too much by myself, I wasn’t married. Oh, and did I mention I wasn’t married? It always made me laugh that Nons, who had never married, and William, who had pined after Nons, married, divorced and then pined after Nons again, thought that me being married would solve all of my perceived problems.

‘I don’t think he’s going to be making me any offers, William, not if he knows what’s good for him. And I don’t think he’s the offering kind. We could be perfect for each other.’

William shook his head and muttered under his breath, something about leaving it too late, but I just smiled at him and he dropped the subject.

William went to bed early, and I turned in too, although I spent some time reading, and then decided to put Matt out of his misery.

‘Hello. This is not one of your replies, just a confirming text. Your quota is four. As a free item of information, J is not acceptable. Full names only. Thank you for your stream of consciousness, it has been enlightening.’

‘Julia! :))))) How ru? How was journey? Did u avoid birdseed? If I ask lots in 1 txt, can u reply all @ once = 1 reply? Don’t want 2 waste.’

‘Well OK, you can have up to 3 questions in each text. But if you don’t like the way I answer, that’s tough. So: I’m OK. Journey OK. Avoided birdseed.

‘Ooh, u almost used abbrvs. 3 incomplete sentences! Don’t reply 2 this, jus an observation.’

‘Yes, but I get to choose when I reply not you. Bad luck, 2 down, 2 to go.’

‘Bollox. UR tough. OK. Neeeeeed 2 no wot u wearing. In detail. Pretty pls xx’

‘An old t-shirt. Pants.’

‘Hey I said detail. Is that ALL ur wearing?? Holy fuck. RU in bed? Colours? Style? (Thong or granny pants) Laciness quotient of said articles. Shortness (amt of arse visible). Tightness (visible nips?). Anything else I need 2 no?’

‘That’s more than 3 questions, and this is your fourth reply. Goodnight.’

‘Noooo. U can’t! UR killing me.’

‘We r so gona b writing a txt agreement. Wot if I need important reply, e.g. if I’m stuck down a well and only u no the nbr of the well rescue service, but quota reached?’

‘Wot if I need 2 no footy scores when I’m in the well?’

‘Wot if I need 2 no nbr of pizza delivery in well vicinity?’

‘Hey, Julia, I jus fell down a well. Wot r the chances? Pls txt me nbr of nearest well rescue svc and also details of yr pants – thongs or granny. Thx. M x’

‘@ yr convenience obvs, but water lvl rising. To comfort me, pls also txt whether Spurs bt Everton. Thx. Mx’

‘B4 water reaches mouth pls txt nbr of pizza delivery. Need pepperoni. Thx Mx’

‘Goodbye cruel world blubble blup blip blup blubble …’

I smiled to myself and turned my phone off. There was no doubt Matt was very diverting. He had managed to distract me from the sounds I could hear coming from the room next door, which were William crying himself to sleep. Distraction over, I thought of Nons and did the same.

Matt

I suppose I could have called her, but I really got a sense that Jules wanted to leave me behind while she sorted her aunt out, and texting was all she was going to allow me. I didn’t want to seem like I couldn’t deal with her being away from me; we’d only just got to know each other, and I knew what it would look like to me if someone had smothered me with contact as much as I felt like smothering Jules.

Yeah, I was fooling myself about how I felt about her. I fooled myself about it for a long time. I’d been fucked up since Carrie, and was showing no signs of stopping any time soon.

Julia

I woke early the next morning, when I heard William stirring and going downstairs. I tried to drift back to sleep; I was tired after travelling, and wasn’t relishing the return journey, but being in an unfamiliar room, and also aware of several things I needed to do before I started back, stopped me from relaxing back into sleep. I got up, pulled on some pyjama bottoms and headed downstairs. William was in the kitchen.

‘Morning pet. Sleep alright?’

‘Oh, you know. It’s been hard the last few days.’

‘I know, lass. I know. I was about to do a Sunday fry up. How about it?’

I didn’t usually go for fried food, but today it appealed. There was something comforting about being here and someone cooking me bacon and eggs.

‘I’d really like that. Thanks William. Let me help though.’

So we did it together. I chopped and grilled some tomatoes and mushrooms while he filled two frying pans with eggs, bacon and bread.

‘I usually have a bit of black pudding, but I didn’t think you’d like it, being a southern softy.’

William’s north-eastern roots were apparent in his accent and his penchant for food made out of entrails. He’d often teased me and Nons about being southerners, but he had never seemed at all interested in returning to his Northumbrian homeland.

‘Er, no black pudding for me, thanks. But don’t let me stop you.’

‘No, lass, wouldn’t want to put you off. I’ll save it for later, when I don’t have to worry about your delicate constitution, like.’

We ate our breakfast in companionable silence, listening to the news on the radio. I went through a mental list of things I needed to do before I left; I was beginning to realise I was going to have to take more time off later in the week to sort things out. It was highly unlikely my parents had actually done anything, and the list of arrangements outside of the funeral grew longer all the time. Someone was going to have to register the death, someone was going to have to go to the solicitor to deal with the will, someone was going to have to sort out the finances. It was going to be down to me, and I felt overwhelmed with it all. It was hard enough coming to terms with Nons being gone; the sheer amount of bureaucracy and organisation involved in her dying was enough to send someone who wasn’t grieving over the edge. For me, I just about managed to push it down far enough that I could function on the surface.

I had a shower and got dressed, then wrote a list of things I wanted to check out with my mother and left it for her. I also, in a triumph of hope over experience, wrote a separate list of things I wanted her to do, while promising I would be back later in the week. I would have to wait until tomorrow to check out with Phil how much leave I could take, but I was sure I could get at least two days at the end of the week to tack on to the weekend.

I turned my phone on, and braced myself for the onslaught of texts. There were quite a few, Matt seeming not to have noticeably drowned down a well overnight. Impulsively, I dialled his number.

Matt

So the next day, I got up late. I texted Jules a few times in the morning. Texting was like breathing to me, it was how I convinced myself I was alive. I texted everyone, all the time; it wasn’t just Jules.

I picked Mum up and went to Jay and Beth’s early, knowing I was going to get commandeered into helping with something, whether it was peeling vegetables or playing with Cal or Iz. I usually tried to engineer it so that I ‘helped’ by playing X-box with Cal, but Dec and Amy were already there, and Dec had beaten me to it.

My next ploy was to investigate the garden with Mum, who loved a good nosy at what was going on in other people’s back yards, but I was allowed no peace, and Beth called me in to help peel potatoes. There was a full house today, with Dec, Amy, Mum and Rose, as well as the four in situ Scotts, so a fair few spuds needing a good bashing. Just as I was rolling my sleeves up, my phone rang. I looked apologetically at Beth, then looked at the screen, surprised to see Jules’ name.

‘Sorry, Beth, I need to get this.’

Beth rolled her eyes and moved on to the next victim. I answered and went into the conservatory, where I could still hear everything going on, but at least had a little privacy. Iz was playing in there, but I doubted she was going to tell anyone what I’d been talking about.

‘Julia?’

‘Hello.’

‘Is everything alright?’

I was so surprised to hear from her, I wondered if something had happened.

‘Yes, fine. I just thought I’d double check you managed to get out of the well. Water levels receded miraculously in the nick of time, I assume.’

Oh, she was referring to my nonsense from last night when I was trying to get her to override her four text rule, and I’d pretended I was stuck underground, about to drown. Maybe you had to be there, but I was really pleased that she was responding to it now.

‘Ha ha, yeah, well, you know how it is, this bloody collie dog comes along, drops a rope down, pulls me out, all that shit. Had a pizza strapped to its back. Even woofed me the footy scores.’

‘I’m so glad. I would have felt a little bit guilty if you’d drowned, but rules are rules.’

‘Don’t I bloody know it. You’ve got a heart of fucking stone.’

From the kitchen, I heard Beth shout ‘Language, Matty.’ Did she have radar instead of ears or something?

‘What? Oh, sorry, Beth, I didn’t see her there. Sorry, blondie. Sorry, Julia, just getting told to mind my language. I’m at my brother’s for Sunday lunch. You’ve just saved me from having to peel half a ton of bloody potatoes.’

‘Oh, sorry to intrude. I should leave you to it. I’ll be setting off in an hour or two, there’s a lot to do.’

Jules’ manner had changed, I didn’t know what I’d said, but she was more distant.

‘Don’t go on my account, they’ll only find me something else to do. Is it all going OK up there?’

‘Yes, OK, thanks.’

Julia

Now I knew Matt wasn’t alone I felt less comfortable talking to him. I liked that other people didn’t know about us, and if his family heard him talking to me on the phone, they would be bound to ask questions, and that sense of privateness would be lost.

‘When will you be back?’

‘It depends on the traffic, probably this evening sometime.’

Matt

‘Call me?’

I was surprised at how much I needed to know that she was home safely. Still kidding myself.

‘I’ll see how I am, I’ll be tired.’

‘Text then, just so I know you got back OK.’

Julia

I sighed. I hated it when people needed to know my every move, I felt like I couldn’t just change my plans without causing a huge scene.

‘I’m not promising. Don’t fuss, Matt. I’m perfectly capable of driving for a few hours without the world ending.’

There was a brief silence.

Matt

And I was going to have to de-Beth. I was fussing over her as if I wasn’t the one who kicked up a stink when it happened to me. I reined it in.

‘OK. Have a good trip. See you tomorrow.’

Beth couldn’t resist asking, when I finished talking to Jules. She knew I never gave her any details about anyone, but it didn’t stop her.

‘Girlfriend?’

‘Fu – er – get lost Beth. Just someone from work.’

It was true enough for me to say it convincingly.

‘Does she need an invite for next Sunday?’

‘No thanks.’

‘We like to meet your friends, sweetheart.’

‘Back off, Beth.’

Jay chose that moment to bring in a beer, which was welcome, and join the conversation, which was not.

‘What’s this? New woman, Matty?’

I sighed and rolled my eyes.

‘No. Just someone from work.’

‘Since when did you bloody work on a Sunday?’

‘I didn’t say I was working, I just said I was talking to someone from work.’

It was fast becoming a big deal, which I really didn’t want it to be. I should have just ignored my phone when it rang. I would next time. I stood up and walked into the living room.

‘It’s been a while since we met anyone ‘from your work’. Maybe you should stop dumping them all.’

‘Maybe you should all stop planning my wedding as soon as I bring anyone over, you might get to meet them more than once before you scare them off.’

‘I don’t think they’re the ones we scared off, Matty.’

Yeah, I definitely shouldn’t have answered my phone.

Julia

We disconnected, leaving me a vague sense of dissatisfaction. I was fast coming to the conclusion that I liked Matt a lot, I liked being with him and I liked talking to him, but I liked being on my own too, and doing my own thing, and finding the right balance, especially at the moment when my head was full of things I needed to do, as well as what I was feeling, was proving difficult. I was aware I had been abrupt with Matt, but I couldn’t address that at the moment. Overnight, I had come to a decision about viewing Nons’ body.

‘William, you know we were talking yesterday about going to the Chapel of Rest?’

‘Yes, pet.’

‘Well, I’ve decided I don’t want to. I want to remember her how she was, and I don’t want to take the risk of my last memory being something awful and fake. I think I’m going to spend some time looking at photos of her and thinking about her. I’ll be back in a few days, I’ll do it then.’

‘Oh lass, that sounds grand. I think I might do the same. I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing her, but people were saying I should, you know, and I thought … and, well, maybe you’d like to do it on your own, but if you’d like some company when you do that, I’d be happy to join you.’

‘I’d really love that. I’ll let you know when I’m coming back. It’ll be next week sometime.’

Matt

I weathered the storm, more than capable of holding my own against Jay, and managed to get him in trouble with Beth for saying ‘fuck’ at the dinner table. This successfully deflected attention away from me and my private life, and I further deflected it by asking Dec if he won his game with Cal, knowing that he wouldn’t have because he was the singular most useless exponent of video games the world has ever seen, and it opened a whole new avenue of teasing for us all to explore. I was pretty good at this.

Julia

I went back to Nons’ house, just to have a look round and see what was going to need doing. I was going to have to clear out cupboards and wardrobes at some point, but I couldn’t even bear the thought of it right now. I needed to find out how long my parents were staying and think about the food in the fridge and freezer. It was one of the items on my list for my mother, but I would have to bring some food up with me when I came back just in case.

I went and stood in my old room, which was currently blanketed in my parents’ clothes and travelling paraphernalia. On an impulse I took down the framed print of Van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night that had hung on my wall since I was fifteen. I loved the picture, had seen the original in an exhibition all those years ago, and had to have a copy. I had looked at it so many times, losing myself in the contrasts, the swirls, the fuzzy brightness, the deep darkness. I popped it into my travel bag and went back downstairs.

There was a tap on the front door. When I opened it, William was standing there with a plastic-wrapped package.

‘I made you some sarnies. You can have them now, or take them with you. I know what you’re like for eating, didn’t want you to go all that time without something inside you. There’s cheese and pickle and ham salad.’

I was so touched, tears sprang to my eyes. I took the sandwiches and kissed William on the cheek.

‘Thanks, William. That’s really lovely of you. I’ll be going in about half an hour, but can I do you a cup of tea before I go?’

William shook his head.

‘I can’t … can’t go in. Sorry, pet. It’s just too much, all her things and her not there.’

Before I could say anything, he’d turned round and walked back to his own house, wiping his eyes.

I texted my mother to let her know what I’d got done and where I’d left my lists. I didn’t expect a reply; she would probably call me at some inconvenient hour, either while I was still driving or when I had gone to bed. Then there was nothing more to be done but whisper a goodbye to Nons and leave.

Being there had resulted in both helping me start to come to terms with it, but also feeling even more sad. It was sinking in that I was never going to see her again, and I felt small and alone. I drove away before I could dwell more, and lost myself in the journey home.

I stopped a couple of times on the way back and checked my phone, but there were no messages or texts. At the back of my mind I wondered if I had offended Matt, but he didn’t seem like the type to get easily offended, and I told myself he would be enjoying himself with his family.

Matt

I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon, talking with the grown ups, playing with the children, all pretty standard fare for a Sunday afternoon, but it was part of me now, this large family, and I liked being there with them, the people who knew me, loved me, who I didn’t have to pretend with, who would, in fact, call me on it pretty hard if I pretended about anything.

Beth meddled, Jay grumbled, Dec bantered, Amy chatted, Rose tried to organise and Mum took it all in and then offered a one-line pithy insight. Cal was rapidly turning into a bit of an early developer adolescent, with occasional sulks and bad moods, but on the whole he was great to be with, and Iz was a little heartbreaker with her blonde curls and her need to be picked up and cuddled by every man in the room. Forget the grannies, Iz knew which side her bread was buttered, and it was the side with big strong arms and facial hair.

Julia

As I neared the city, I started to relax. Closer to home, I always felt more in control, I knew where I was and what I was doing there. It was almost eight o’clock by the time I got home. I checked my phone; my mother had texted me when they arrived back in Norfolk.

‘Sorry to miss you, we could have told you about the Mondrian it was magnificent.’

Nothing about any of the arrangements I’d made or the lists of things she’d asked me to do that I’d ticked off, or the things I’d asked her to do. It was as if Nons hadn’t existed. She probably wanted me to call her, but I decided to leave it until tomorrow. Matt was still hovering at the back of my mind, so I texted him.

Matt

So I had my family fix, and I went home, and was in the middle of watching a film when I heard the text tone ping on my phone. It was Jules, letting me know she was home. I hadn’t expected her to, after fussing over her earlier, but I replied, thanking her, and got in a few of my quota of texts, having worked out a strategy to gain maximum information for minimum expending of valuable questions.

Julia

‘I’m home now. See you tomorrow.’

‘Thx. Sorry 4 fussing. No wot its like, hate it. Have a glass of Shiraz n relax. Or Otter 😉 ‘

‘Wine sounds good. Do you fancy your quota of replies a bit early?’

‘Fuck yeah! I’ve got a strategy worked out. Starting now?’

‘I’ll be kind and say the next one is number one.’

There was a delay, while I assumed the cogs were working in Matt’s head.

‘OK – 3 questions, yeah? Gona ask 1 personal, 1 work, 1 random. 1: tell me abt yr knickers FFS! Thong or granny. Bustin a gut here. 2: how u no abt Margie’s boobs? 3: Y the Whistling Panhandler? Wot kind of stupid-ass name is that?’

I didn’t answer immediately. I had things to do, like unpacking my bag and putting washing on, and I didn’t want Matt to think he could have my undivided attention whenever he wanted it. Eventually I was ready to answer him.

‘That is almost 4 questions, 3 being a 2 parter. You are lucky I’m feeling generous. 1: Neither. 2: Not my information to tell. 3: I have no idea. Try again.’

‘Fuck. Thought I’d got it sussed. Ur good. OK, being careful now. 1: So what sort of knickers do u wear? Note lack of multiple choice – ha! 2: What does Mike Davis keep in that bloody locked drawer? 3: Caravans – good cheap source of holiday accommodation or scum of the fucking earth?’

Matt had texted back straight away, which kept the pressure on me and made me stall again. If he had been less eager, he may have got a quicker response, but instead I went into the bathroom, took my toiletries out of my weekend bag and arranged them back on their shelf. Then I responded.

‘1: Various, depending on situation. 2: It is rumoured to be a very small mail order bride, but nobody knows for sure. 3: Ask me on a day when I haven’t been stuck behind about 2000 all afternoon. Next.’

‘OK, that’s a bit more like it. Pls note this is last one 4 now, I want to save one 4 l8r. 1: Re: knickers. In wot situation wld u wear thong? 2: Fancy lunch w John & Roberta 2moro? 3: Do u like walking? Radio silence will now be maintained. TTFN :)’

Another instant reply, but at least he was sticking to the rules. I didn’t make him wait quite as long, as a reward.

‘1: If no other choice. 2: No thanks. 3: Well I have to walk to get from one place to another, I’m not sure I have strong feelings about it one way or the other. I suspect that’s not what you mean. I have a pair of hiking boots and a backpack. I await your last effort with bated breath.’

And that was it for the time being. I unpacked my bag and put a few things in the washing machine, then made myself some pasta for dinner. I quickly called Evie and arranged that she would come over tomorrow evening. I finished up a bottle of wine that had been opened before I went to Norfolk, and turned the TV on, hoping for something bland but not soporific to keep my brain ticking over before I went to bed. I settled on a nature documentary, and immersed myself in butterflies and moths for an hour before my long journey caught up with me and I felt my eyes start to droop, sending me to bed. I was almost asleep when I heard my phone bleep from the lounge. I’d forgotten to bring it into the bedroom. Cursing, I got up to fetch it – I liked to have it by the bed for the alarm in the morning. The screen was glowing when I reached it, a text from Matt. I’d forgotten his last reply was still pending.

Matt

I saved one last text for when I was going to bed, as she so far hadn’t said goodnight to me, which seemed remiss of her, but here was her opportunity.

‘Goodnight. M x’

She replied much more quickly to this than to any of my other texts. Maybe the simple approach was the one that worked with her.

Julia

It was simple but effective. More effective than his relentless questioning about my pants, and it got an immediate reply.

‘Goodnight. Thank you. Julia’

Matt

The next day at work was a re-run of the previous week. We ignored each other as we would have done on any other work day, and then I hit on the perfect way remind Jules I wanted to have lunch with her. I announced to the office in general that I was going to lunch with Roberta, and I left for the hidden headstones without even looking at her. I picked up two lots of sandwiches, crisps and drinks on the way, and waited on the stone bench. I was prepared for her not to come, but had a feeling she would, and was delighted when I saw her peering cautiously round the side of the entrance.

Julia

The next day at work went much the same as Friday. Matt and I managed to treat each other as we would have done any other day, the work went smoothly, any remaining gossip about last Wednesday’s events seemed to have drained away.

I asked Phil for a few days off, explaining that funeral arrangements were my responsibility. With the funeral set for Tuesday, and needing to be in Norfolk prior to that to make sure things got done, we agreed I could have a week off from Wednesday. He was very fair about it.

At lunchtime, Matt announced to the room in general that he was going to lunch with Roberta, and did not look at me. There were a few raised eyebrows and murmured questions, as several people wondered out loud who Roberta was. I hid a smile, and then, on an impulse, left about fifteen minutes later as well.

I walked quickly up the street, into the cemetery and found the hidden alcove. Matt was waiting, legs crossed, arms folded, with two sandwiches, two packets of crisps and two cans of drink next to him on the bench. As well as a very smug look on his face.

‘You can’t have known I would come.’

Matt

‘You can’t resist me.’

I hadn’t known she would come, but it made it look good that I’d predicted her arrival, and if she hadn’t come she would never have known I’d got it wrong.

‘I wanted to talk to you.’

‘I refer you to my previous comment. Have a sandwich. I’ve got crisps too – Salt and Vinegar or Cheese and Onion?’

‘No thank you.’

‘Your loss.’

I deliberately didn’t try to persuade her to eat. I could always eat her share later. I started eating a chicken sandwich, while Jules remained standing in front of me.

‘Sit down, for fuck’s sake, you’re making the place look untidy.’

I moved some of the food aside to make room, and she sat down. I put my sandwich down and shuffled along the bench until I was pressed up against her hip. God I’d missed her. How had that happened? I put my arm round her, bent my face down and kissed her on the cheek. She leaned her head on my shoulder and sighed, as if she was trying to breathe out something bad.

‘That’s a heavy sound. You OK?’

She nodded against me, then shook her head, whatever that meant. I twisted round so I could see her eyes.

‘Julia?’

‘I’ve just got so much going on, I feel like my head’s going to explode.’

‘Tell me?’

Julia

If I was honest, that was what I’d come here for. I didn’t know how good Matt was at serious, I hadn’t seen it very often. But I suddenly just needed to offload. I told him about needing to take time off, and about how much responsibility I suddenly felt I had with all the arrangements that needed to be made. It all felt so far away, and I told him how little my parents were likely to help.

Matt let me talk, his arm holding me close, his thumb stroking my shoulder gently as I spoke. He kissed the top of my head a couple of times. I told him about William, and what Nons had meant to him, and I told him what she had meant to me. I didn’t cry, and it helped to get it all out of me.

Matt

I wasn’t usually that great at serious, but all I needed to do was listen and be strong and comforting. As she talked, I held her close. She told me all about her aunt, how close they’d been, how much she had to do to organise the funeral, how crap her parents were. I kissed the top of her head a couple of times, hoping it would seem sympathetic. I didn’t even worry about whether she was going to blart all over me again, maybe because I was becoming sensitive and emotionally available, but more likely because Jules just didn’t seem like she was about to cry.

Jules told me about her aunt’s neighbour, who had apparently had a thing for her aunt for ever but never told her, and she said it all without a single tear. I could feel the tenseness in her body, though, and I wondered if I was being selfish, carrying on with what we were doing. Now, there was a first, well the first for a long time: Matt Scott considering someone else ahead of himself.

‘Is all this –’

I gestured vaguely around, attempting to encompass both us and the situation we found ourselves in.

‘– too much at the moment?’

She looked up at me, thinking. I loved that she always thought before she said something, really considered her answer.

Julia

I looked up at him, considering. At times it was overwhelming, but spending time with Matt and having mad text conversations had helped prevent me spiralling into grief.

‘No, I think it’s kept me going in a way. You’re not part of it all. Maybe it feels a bit crazy sometimes. But good crazy.’

‘If it gets too much, please say. I know I can be an annoying fucker. I don’t always know when to rein it in. I don’t want to make things worse for you.’

Matt

Hey, and as well as Matt Scott not being selfish, he was being self-aware. Who knew.

‘I will. Please don’t stop being an annoying fucker, I think you’re keeping me sane.’

I laughed at that and kissed the top of her head again.

‘Can I see you tonight?’

I was really liking this closeness, and wanted more of it. It was different from anything I’d had in the last few years, and although I should have been arsing my way out of it, telling myself she was being too clingy, that I was just in it for the kicks, well, she wasn’t being clingy. If anything, I was being the clingy one, and it just turned everything on its head.

‘No, I’m spending the evening with a friend.’

‘Tomorrow?’

‘I’ve got to do a shop so there’s food in the house up there, and then I need to pack. Then I’m going on Wednesday morning. I might not see you for a while.’

But I hadn’t seen her for ages, and I really wanted to spend some time with her, and soon. I tried desperately to find a way before she left.

‘I’ll come shopping with you. I can push the trolley, or go and fetch the baked beans, ask the work experience girl where the condoms are just to see how many different shades of red she goes. It also works with the work experience boy and tampons.’

But she had an answer for that.

‘You can’t come with me, someone might see us. How would we explain that one away?’

‘Why would we have to explain anything? So someone spots us, who gives a fuck?’

I wanted to be with her, but it seemed like every time I tried, I came up against a new rule that needed negotiating. Or maybe they were old rules that I just didn’t know about yet. I really liked Jules, but this was something that could make or break us.

‘I give a fuck. Doing shopping together is a bit obvious. It suggests a level of intimacy. How can we be work us if people know there’s an … outside of work us?’

I reminded myself that I knew Jules needed to keep her work persona separate from her real persona, and that she was under a lot of stress at the moment. I breathed out heavily, and thought of a compromise.

‘OK. I see your point. How about we go somewhere a bit off the beaten track? That farm place by the river? It’s only busy at weekends, weekday evenings are pretty quiet, and you can get nice stuff there, take that up with you instead of supermarket crap. Go on, Julia. Please say yes, otherwise I won’t see you for ages.’

It was my best begging voice – pleading without wheedling. As an added incentive, I took her hand and kissed her fingertips, liking the softness of them brushing my lips.

Julia

He took my hand and kissed my fingertips. It gave me goosebumps, and weakened my resistance.

‘Oh alright. But if we see anyone from work, even in the distance, I’m leaving you there with the trolley and going to the supermarket on my own. And we go in separate cars.’

Matt

I laughed. Her rules were bloody ridiculous. If I laughed at them instead of getting annoyed with them, maybe they would be easier to cope with.

‘Holy crap, it’s like a bloody SAS mission. OK. Deal. Separate cars, I get left holding the evidence if hostiles are spotted. The code word is ‘abort abort abort’. Should I wear dark glasses and full body camouflage, or is that a bit over the top?’

‘Take the piss all you want. I don’t want anything to interfere with how I do things at work. I thought you felt the same.’

‘Yeah, I did.’

But I was fast realising that my Matt the Lad persona had nothing on Jules’ Ice Queen, who was almost a full-blown acting role in her own right.

‘Have you changed your mind?’

‘Not exactly, but I’m wondering how long we can keep it up, how long we’ll want to keep it up.’

‘We have to keep it up. It’s not negotiable.’

‘But how long are we going to be sneaking around for? I mean, it’s exciting and everything now, fuck yeah, but longer term I think I’m going to want to hold your hand, talk to you properly, do this …’

This was why I’d wanted to meet her here. I leaned down and kissed her, softly pushing my tongue into her mouth, and around and over her tongue. Her mouth was warm and welcoming, and I felt desire creep along my spine and nestle in my groin. I didn’t persist, though, and pulled away, waiting to see if she wanted more.

Julia

He leaned down and kissed me, his soft lips making mine tingle and his tongue pushing wet flickers of sparking energy into my mouth. He pulled away and I was bereft for a moment.

‘Mm. I really fucking well want to do that, a lot, and not just here where dead people are the only audience we have to worry about.’

‘Don’t, Matt. It’s far too soon. I need to get used to what this is before anything changes. I like being with you. I really like it. Please don’t put pressure on me.’

He was silent for a while.

Matt

I was pretty sure she was talking about being together at work, and not kissing me now.

‘OK. Sorry. I just wanted you to know what I’m thinking. We’ll keep things the same, but we should carry on talking, checking it out. Come here. Avert your ghostly eyes John and Roberta, I’m about to pash this young lady.’

8. Morning has broken

In which we see Matty and Carrie through Christmas, a birthday, a move and a holiday.

Matt

Christmas was amazing. A-ma-zing. With extra emphasis on the amazing. It snowed. I mean, not a surprise in December in New York, but it made everything like a fairy tale, like all the films you ever saw. And the hotel – whoa! It wasn’t one of the top hotels, not even close, but it beat the one we’d stayed at in Devon into a cocked hat. It was close to Central Park, there was a spa, everything was laid on.

I so enjoyed watching Carrie experience it all, her wide eyes as she found something new, or it snowed again, or we saw the lights on Fifth Avenue. We went everywhere together, explored it all together: the shops, the parks, the flea markets, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, restaurants, cafés, delis, Tiffany’s, shows, museums, art galleries, yellow cabs. It was a theme park ride through a fantasy world.

On Christmas Eve we exchanged presents at midnight, like in the movies. We’d both been devious and snuck back to get each other things we’d seen together – I got Carrie an Art Deco necklace, sparkling with rhinestones, that I’d seen her eyeing at a flea market. A quick ‘trip to the loo’ while we were at a coffee shop round the corner secured its purchase. She got me a signed, boxed C3PIO that I’d seen in a comic shop. I had no idea she’d even seen me notice it, or when she’d managed to buy it. It more than replaced the one that had been broken into pieces by Martin when he trashed my flat, and it got the thanks it deserved, for several hours into the night. On Christmas Day itself we had dinner in the hotel and went for a walk in Central Park afterwards, coming back a couple of hours later for hot chocolate and … well … sex. We had a lot of that. Not so much that we missed out on seeing other interesting sights, but let’s just say, we didn’t get much sleep.

On our last day, we shopped again, finding presents to take back for friends and family, filling the spare suitcase we’d brought with stuff for us as well as stuff for the people we cared about.

And then we were back in the real world. Carrie had a bit of a dip, things didn’t feel so great for her. Her yoga and massage sessions were due to finish at the end of January, her house was being sold and she and the other women who shared it were set to leave at the end of March. It all felt a bit desperate for her. The organisation had put her in touch with other services that might be able to support her, but I was having trouble convincing her to stick with them, and she cancelled a lot of appointments with new support workers, saying that she didn’t have the energy to start all over again, telling it all again to someone else, reliving it for them.

We did at least start to look for another flat, somewhere we could share together. We spent several weekends doing the rounds of places I’d found on the internet or in the local paper, but although I liked quite a few of them, Carrie declared all them too expensive, and said we didn’t need anywhere as big as the ones I was looking at. I disagreed, knowing that I needed my space, more than a bedroom and a table in the living area, somewhere I could do my work or escape if I needed to, but she wouldn’t budge on it and I reluctantly down-scaled the properties I highlighted.

At last she was happy enough with one place, a tiny one-bedroom flat with a small living area divided from the kitchen area by a counter. It wasn’t far from where she used to live with Martin, and I worried that we might run into him. Carrie laughed at this and said he’d moved away, although she didn’t say how she knew. But the place was cheap enough to satisfy her, and she wouldn’t agree to any other places we looked at.

The flat itself was in need of some work, as it was dreary and dark, but I managed to get Carrie enthusiastic about decorating, and convinced the landlord that he needed to update the bathroom suite and kitchen cupboards before we moved in. The date was set for the end of April, which meant Carrie would have to live with me for a few weeks after her house was sold, but I made it sound more like a holiday, and she agreed.

This gave me an idea, and I asked her how she felt about a proper holiday, with Jay and Beth, once we’d moved in and got the place sorted. I hadn’t seen them for ages, not that this was unusual, and really wanted to give Cal the Jurassic Park toys I’d bought for him from New York. She actually looked happy with the idea. I hadn’t seen her look happy since Christmas, and wondered whether being stuck in Stafford was getting her down as much as anything else.

So I called Beth and arranged a few days at the beginning of June, just before they went on holiday themselves. Beth told us we could stay with them this time, as they’d had a conservatory built, and put a sofa-bed in there, so it doubled up as a guest room; we were no longer in danger of Jay-overload in the Scott Suite.

But that was in the future, and first we had to move in to our new flat, start our new life together, and even before that I had a really busy time at work.

Things at Eyeti had stepped up again. Work was flooding in, and we didn’t have enough staff to do it all. Over the years, I’d taken on a more senior position there, managing teams of people and dealing directly with important customers, and a lot of the shortfall fell on my shoulders. A couple of colleagues went sick, and it meant for a couple of nightmare weeks, just as Carrie moved out of her house and in with me, I was working eighteen hour days, coming home and doing more work while I shovelled food in my mouth, taking the laptop to bed and working for another couple of hours, then getting up a few hours later and doing it all again.

The place was a state – Carrie wasn’t a great one for housework, and I hated a mess, but I didn’t have the time or the energy to clear up. I wasn’t there for Carrie, I knew it, I kept apologising to her, but she kept telling me it was OK, she was going for coffee with a lot of her friends and they were supporting each other. She actually seemed more upbeat than she had for a while, and when I had a moment to think about it, I wondered if the dread of it all going was worse than the fact of it being gone.

After the mad rush at work had ended, and things subsided to merely hectic, I was exhausted, more tired than I knew it was possible to be. I dragged myself through a normal work day, and slept until the afternoon at weekends, despite Carrie’s attempts to rouse me. I was too tired for sex, and even if I hadn’t been, my libido certainly was; despite her best efforts, not a creature was stirring.

Then, a few weeks after that, I started getting double vision at odd times. I thought it might be my contact lenses, so I got those checked out, but there wasn’t a problem. I was still very tired, so put it down to that, and tried to look after myself a bit better.

A few weeks after that, I dropped a cup of camomile tea in Carrie’s lap when the mug slipped out of my hand as I was giving it to her. Luckily, I didn’t scald her, but we were both a bit shocked. When I dropped a glass of beer in a pan of curry, ruining the curry, the beer, and the glass, I wondered if I needed to get some help with de-stressing, and Carrie gave me some wonderful Reiki massages, which helped untense my shoulders, and untense our sex life, but didn’t noticeably improve my coordination, as I tripped over nothing and wrenched my shoulder against the sofa a few days after dropping the glass in the curry.

I really was exhausted, and looked forward to a few weeks off, when we would be moving, decorating our flat and then going down to Devon.

Moving day came, we gave in the keys to my flat and picked up the keys to our flat, and moved in. I’d had to get rid of a lot of my furniture, as it was too big, but we’d kept my bed and the small round dining table and two chairs. We needed a new sofa, but Carrie didn’t want to get a brand new one. She said one of her friends was selling their old two-seater, and it would do for the living area. We went and had a look, I wrinkled my nose at it a bit, possibly because it had belonged to someone else, with children and a dog, before, but Carrie said she loved it, convinced me we could clean it up, drape it with throws and it would look great with our intended colour scheme. So we got it, and picked it up the day after we moved in.

As we manhandled the sofa up the stairs and into the lounge, my heart nosedived at the sight of our flat – small, dark, horrible wallpaper, small lumpy sofa, view of the street from the window, harsh fluorescent light overhead in the kitchen area. I tried to see what it would look like when we’d finished with it, but really couldn’t just at that moment, and concentrated on looking at Carrie instead, who was looking excited and lovely.

We decorated our arses off, and at the end of a week our combined efforts, along with the new kitchen units and bathroom suite, and new spotlights in the kitchen, made me a lot happier with our new place. It said ‘Carrie and Matt live here’, it said ‘in your face dingy flat, we’ve made you awesome’. All except the Robbie Williams poster, which Carrie produced from nowhere and insisted on hanging above the TV. There wasn’t much I would refuse that girl, but this sorely tested the limits.

‘Seriously? I’ve never even heard you listen to a Robbie Williams song.’

‘It’s not about his singing, I just like him.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since I was little.’

‘Can’t it go in the loo?’

‘No, it’ll get all damp and wrinkly.’

‘Some would say there are worse things that could happen to Robbie.’

‘It’s staying.’

So the bloody thing stayed, but I used it as ammunition every time I wanted my way about something. I’d look consideringly at Robbie’s strutting form and then back at Carrie, and she’d realise what a sacrifice I’d made for her and give me whatever I wanted. Oh, no, that was in my dreams, and in reality it was the other way round. But underneath, I didn’t mind. I loved my girl, and I was with her, and I’d have lived in a mine shaft, or on a dung heap if she’d asked me to.

A couple of weeks after we’d moved in, Carrie came home after I’d got back from work. I was getting frustrated with the small amount of space available in which to work in the kitchen, had tried to chop an onion with a chopping board overhanging the edge of the counter, the whole lot had gone flying, and I’d cut my finger on the knife as I stupidly tried to catch it. Carrie saw the blood-stained kitchen roll and hurried over.

‘What have you done?’

‘Cut myself.’

‘Oh, is that what all the blood is? You’re very clumsy lately.’

‘This wasn’t clumsy, this was too much chopping board, too little space.’

‘Did you chop your finger, then?’

‘No, not exactly.’

‘What, then?’

‘Tried to catch the knife.’

‘What? Why?’

‘So … it didn’t fall on the floor and I’d have to pick it up and wash it.’

‘Yeah, I can see it’s saved you loads of time. Come here. Have you washed it?’

‘No, it’s still on the floor.’

‘Have you washed your finger, not the knife.’

‘Oh. No. Trying to stop the blood.’

‘Wash it first, then first aid it. Where are the plasters?’

‘Where did we put them?’

‘I can’t remember. I’ll look in the bathroom. You wash that.’

She walked off to the bathroom while I ran the cold tap, and shouted back to me, or rather talked a bit louder than normal, because it really wasn’t very far away and I could have heard her if she’d whispered.

‘You’ll never guess who I just bumped into.’

‘Osvaldo Ardiles.’

‘Who?’

I heard sounds of rummaging, as she looked for the first aid box in the bathroom cupboard.

‘Tottenham player of renown in days of yore.’

‘Oh. Why would you say that?’

The rummaging intensified.

‘You said I’d never guess, so I had to at least give it a go. Challenge accepted. Bishop Desmond Tutu.’

‘No. How long are you going to go on for?’

The rummaging stopped, and I imagined her standing there, frowning slightly, looking around her as she spoke.

‘How many more guesses have I got?’

‘Not many, I’m getting bored.’

‘Last one then. Er …’

‘Martin.’

His name froze my thoughts, my words, and my body. She came out of the bathroom with the first aid box in her hand and walked over to me, seemingly oblivious to my paralysis.

‘I’ll look for some big ones shall I?’

‘Where?’

‘In the plaster box.’

‘No, where did you see him?’

‘Outside the Co-op. I turned round and almost ran into him.’

‘Shit, C, are you OK?’

‘Yeah.’

She sounded unconcerned, whereas I had enough concern for both of us, and most of it was causing a logjam in my brain, making it hard to say words.

‘But wha … did … does … have … fucking hell.’

That was better, swearing always relieved the pressure a bit.

‘I thought you said he moved away.’

‘He did, but he came back. He got his old job back, apparently, cleaned himself up, got some help, ditched the steroids. He seemed … different.’

‘You didn’t talk to him did you?’

‘Well … yeah. Not for long.’

‘What, like he’s a normal person or something? He’s a maniac. He nearly held you prisoner. He made your life a fucking misery.’

‘Have you stopped bleeding yet?’

‘What?’

I looked down at my finger as if I’d only just remembered about it.

‘Nearly. Why did you talk to him? He could have done anything.’

Carrie motioned me to hold out my finger, while she wrapped a large plaster round the cut.

‘There. That was a close call, but I think you’ll live. I told you, he seemed different. He asked how I was, he was fine, he’s started doing his car racing again.’

What? She’d chatted to Martin about his fucking car racing? His obsession with car racing used to drive her nuts, especially as he used to make her go and sit in all weathers watching beaten up bangers growling round and round a dirt track. And now she just casually mentioned it as if it was a good thing, like she cared about it.

‘Did you tell him about us?’

‘Yeah. Of course. He says hi.’

‘I bet he did. You didn’t tell him where we live, did you?’

‘No, of course not, but I was coming out of the Co-op with a bag of shopping, it was obvious I live around here somewhere.’

‘Shit C, I can’t believe you’re being so bloody calm about this. You know what he’s capable of. If he wants you he’ll come and get you, and there’s not much either of us can do to stop him.’

‘Stop being so dramatic. He’s different. He doesn’t seem so psyched up. He said he’s seeing someone.’

‘What, a girlfriend?’

Well that would make things easier.

‘No, a counsellor.’

Oh. Well he was a fucking psychotwat, so it seemed like the least he could do.

‘He’s getting help, he said he’s trying to change things.’

‘It sounds like you had quite a chat.’

‘Yeah, well, I suppose we caught up a bit.’

Something in her voice, her expression, made me ask.

‘You’re not going to see him again, are you?’

Carrie laughed. I didn’t know what it meant – that I was ridiculous to even think it, that I was ridiculous to think she wouldn’t, that I was just ridiculous. It was as if all that fear, all that looking out for his shape to come looming out of alleyways, all that checking up and down the street before opening the door, that meant nothing to Carrie now.

‘No, not unless we run into each other in front of the Co-op again. You know it’s over, it’s been over for a long time.’

‘What if I run into him in front of the Co-op? He might not be so happy to chat with me.’

Not after I’d kicked him in the bollocks and broken both his arms, anyway.

‘Well you’ll have to deal with that if it happens, won’t you. I don’t think you need to worry too much, I don’t think he lives close by.’

‘I can’t believe it.’

‘Don’t worry about it, Matt, it was a one-off.’

‘We’ve only just moved in and already it’s an undesirable neighbourhood.’

‘Stop it. You’re making too much of this. If anyone should be freaking out, it should be me.’

I stopped my retort in its tracks, the one that said ‘you weren’t the one who had his door kicked off its hinges and his life broken into pieces’, because maybe she wasn’t, not physically, but emotionally, yeah he’d done all that to her, and the scars were still healing, and if she really, really was OK with seeing him, then maybe I needed to be OK with it too. Perhaps it was part of the process.

‘Sorry.’

I opened my arms and pulled her in for a hug.

‘You’re not getting blood on my top, are you?’

‘Nope.’

I had no idea.

‘Are you even looking to check?’

‘Mm hmm.’

I wasn’t.

Carrie pulled away and held my finger up for inspection.

‘Look, it’s leaking through the plaster. I’m going to have to soak this now.’

And she stomped off into the bedroom to change her shirt, leaving me to carrying on clearing up bits of half-chopped onion from the floor, and get on with cooking dinner.

*

Somewhere in the busyness that was moving out and moving in and decorating and everything else, I turned thirty. Bloody thirty. I should have had a fuck-off monster of a party to mourn the passing of my twenties, to leave me with the hangover to end all hangovers, and ensure I never forgot that I had, indeed, turned bloody thirty. But it was kind of ignored, we were up to our eyes in paint and packing crates, Carrie didn’t seem that bothered, we sort of agreed to do something later, in the summer, when we could have a barbecue in the park or something, and the day passed without much comment.

I got an insulting card from Jay, who had at least remembered, and seemed to have chosen the card himself judging from the insensitivity of it (a huge 30 on the front and some not so witty allusion to being old and wrinkly inside); it is possible I was being oversensitive. I called round to Mum’s and she’d made a cake with candles (although not thirty candles), and painted me a picture of Potter Hill, one of my favourite places. I appreciated the thought as well as the effort that had gone into it – Mum’s arthritis made it difficult for her to paint or draw these days, and although her skill hadn’t deteriorated, it took her a lot longer to finish something – but I knew Carrie wouldn’t want it up in the flat.

Mum knew me pretty well, and was usually spot on with presents, and if my walls were my own, I would have displayed it, but the poster of Robbie Williams and three mass-produced canvasses of large red flowers were all Carrie would consider putting on the wall. I knew this, because I’d tried with various items reflecting my own personal taste – a Star Wars promo poster, a framed Matisse print, a series of cartoons by a local artist – but all of it was deemed ‘not fitting in’ with whatever ambience our cluttered shoe box of a flat gave out. Robbie and flowers it was, then, and my stuff remained in Mum’s loft for … later.

So, I was thirty, and it was as if the whole world had just shrugged and continued on its way. I told Carrie not to do anything special, secretly hoping she’d push the boat out a little bit, but she gave me a card and a kiss, and then some hot sex, and that was my lot. What a whiny git I am, but hey. You’re only thirty once, right? Thank fuck, it’s bad enough once, but still.

*

A week or so after Carrie ran into Martin, we drove down to Devon. We’d both settled into life in the flat. I was slowly getting used to us living so on top of each other, and Carrie seemed more relaxed in general. She’d picked up a little more work, courtesy of some cards in the local newsagent, and some word of mouth business from people who had belonged to WO and although she was worrying about the impending summer holidays, which meant that her evening classes would finish for three months, the school had at least asked her back for the next school year in September. She was determined to pay half of everything, but I was as determined to find ways that meant she had money to spend on herself when she wanted to.

As we neared the city where Jay lived, I found myself feeling surprisingly happy about seeing them all again. Jay and I spoke to each other every so often, Beth more frequently and even Cal now Facetimed me occasionally, having worked out faster than his technophobe father what all the buttons on the iPhone were actually for, so we kept in touch, and Beth and Cal had come to stay for a weekend a few months previously, but I suppose when it comes to it, nothing beats physically being with someone to reconnect.

We pulled up outside the large house at the end of the cul-de-sac and I opened the car door.

‘How long are we staying again?’

‘I didn’t really say, they’re open to anything. A few days. Up to a week if we want to, I’ve taken next week off.’

‘Not that long.’

‘OK, we’ll see how ih goes.’

I understood her reluctance, she’d felt it when we were here last time, but she’d relaxed and enjoyed it. I opened her door and helped her out, then got our bags out of the boot.

‘We’ve got a bit more with us than last time. I think you had a toothbrush and a thong, and I had a pair of boxers.’

Reminding her about last time seemed to pull her face into a frown, and no response was forthcoming. I walked down the path, carrying both bags, Carrie some way behind me. The door opened as I approached, and Cal shot out, running towards me.

As I watched him, my feet tripped over themselves, and I started to fall, twisting as I did so to avoid falling on Cal. I landed on my elbow, and the jolt went right up my arm and through my shoulder.

‘Aaah. Shit. Shit.’

I heard a giggle.

‘You felled over Uncle Matty.’

Trust a five year old to state the bleeding obvious. He’d tell me I dropped the bags next.

‘And you did a swear.’

Or that I’d sworn.

‘Cal, get out of the way. Matty, are you alright?’

I looked up. Three faces peered down at me: Beth, Cal and Carrie. Beth bent down and touched my forehead, took my pulse, looking with concern into my face.

‘Matty?’

‘Urm … yeah. Bashed my arm up a bit. Bashed my manly pride up a bit more, though.’

‘Did you hit your head at all?’

‘No.’

‘Can you sit up? Let me have a look at that arm.’

I sat up, and Carrie crouched down beside me. I gave her the best ‘I’m alright’ smile I could muster.

‘You OK?’

I nodded at Carrie, unsure if I actually was.

Beth felt my elbow, which looked red and had started to swell, and she made me move my arm in different directions and wiggle my fingers. All seemed present and correct. And painful.

‘Maybe you should go to A and E.’

‘What? Do you think I’ve broken it?’

It hurt like buggery, but it didn’t feel broken.

‘No, I don’t think so, but maybe you should get it checked out.’

‘No, I’m not spending my first eight hours here stuck on a plastic chair in the emergency department, only to be sent home with an aspirin and told not to waste their time. Have you got a bag of frozen peas?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then that’ll do me. Help me up, C?’

I held my hand out to her and she pulled me up. I gathered one of the bags, and then looked at her as she made no move to pick up the other bag.

‘You’re going to have to take the other one.’

She picked it up without a word and followed us into the house.

When we got inside, Beth fussed about with ice packs and a sling and got me some ibuprofen.

‘It’ll help with the swelling.’

I saw Carrie frown. She didn’t approve of unnatural pain medication, but I was more than happy to down the pills if it meant me being more comfortable, and if Carrie wanted to give me some kind of natural … healing remedy … later, then I would take my medicine like a good boy. Everybody’s happy.

In the aftermath of Matt the Klutz, we sat on the sofas and drank tea, telling Beth about New York, showing pictures on the iPad, the sling holding the ice packs on my throbbing elbow.

‘It all sounds wonderful. I’d love to go to the Met.’

‘It was awesome, we didn’t have time to see ih all though. Maybe we’ll go back one day.’

I looked at Carrie, who was looking back at me and nodding. She seemed to have cheered up a bit, and I hoped it was just anticipation anxiety that had caused her apparent moodiness earlier.

‘Oh, we brought you something back, Beth.’

‘Did you? How lovely.’

‘You too Cal.’

‘What, Uncle Matty?’

‘We brought you a present from New York. C, could you go and get them? I don’t think I’m going to be bending this arm for a bit.’

And I was going to enjoy milking it for today, at least.

Beth waited until she had left the room before beginning her quick-fire interrogation.

‘How are things going? You said the women’s organisation folded?’

‘Yeah. She took it hard, but she’s getting there.’

‘Is she still getting help?’

‘After a fashion. Some other agency took over, but she’s not keen really – oh great, thanks C. Here, Beth, this is something for you, Happy Christmas, sorry it’s late, and here, Cal is yours. Don’t eat it all at once.’

‘Is it chocolate?’

Cal delved eagerly into the bag and pulled out the dinosaur set. His eyes grew round as he took in the toys.

‘But I can’t eat these.’

‘Best not to even try mate. They’re for playing with.’

‘But you said –’

‘Your Uncle Matty says some stupid things, sometimes, Cal. He thinks he’s funny.’

I looked at Carrie, a bit hurt.

‘Hey, I am funny. Maybe that one missed the mark a bit. Maybe Beth likes her scarf enough to eat?’

Beth had put the scarf on immediately. She was a scarfy person, and this one had stood out in the shop as right up her street. She was smiling, so I seemed to have got it right.

‘The bag says Tiffany’s.’

‘Yup.’

‘Really, Matty?’

‘Really.’

‘It’s gorgeous. Thank you. I mean, it would be gorgeous anyway, but it’s gorgeous.’

‘Jay will look gorgeous in his present too.’

‘What did you get him?’

‘Wait an see.’

‘Spoilsport.’

We continued with the pictures, moving on to the before and after of our flat. Beth’s face was a picture as she tried to find positive things to say about the before shots, calling it ‘cosy’ and ‘intimate’ for all she was worth, but her expression brightened throughout the decorating process, the pictures of me and Carrie with paint splodges on our faces and in our hair, to us proudly standing in front of the newly painted walls and be-throwed sofa, the fresh kitchen and the small but, yeah, definitely cosy and intimate bathroom.

‘Oh, you two have done such a good job. I hope your landlord appreciates it, and doesn’t charge you more rent.’

‘Well, that was the deal for the kitchen and bathroom units. We decorate, he supplies, rent stays the same.’

‘Hang on a minute, Matty. Above the TV – is that Robbie Williams?’

I believe I may have blushed with shame.

‘Miss Mitcham, would you care to field this one?’

‘Yeah, Beth, it’s Matt’s. He pestered me day and night, until I gave in. He plays Take That all day long, it drives me mad, but he won’t listen to me. That’s why I wanted to come down here, to get some peace. Please don’t make me go back.’

‘Ha ha. I always suspected Matty had some guilty pleasures, but nothing this twisted.’

‘When you two have quite finished, my tea cup is empty and I believe I am incapable of pouring a kettle, with my right arm being in a sling and all.’

‘Well then one of us must dash to the kitchen to see to your every whim, oh Master. Do you want another one, Carrie?’

‘I’ll have some more water. I’ll bring the cups through.’

I could hear them chatting in the kitchen, and had no doubt that Beth would have launched into her questions about Women’s Org. Carrie didn’t run screaming back into the lounge, though, so whatever it was they were talking about, it was going OK.

I heard the front door open, and slam shut, and a few moments later Dec came into the lounge. Rather than nodding and leaving, as he had always done before, he sat on the sofa.

‘Hi Matt. What happened to you?’

I reeled for a second; there were almost more words in those two sentences than he had ever spoken to me in total before.

‘Fell over just now and bashed my arm.’

‘Bummer. How did you manage that?’

Thinking about it, I couldn’t quite remember how I had fallen.

‘Dunno. Must have tripped.’

‘Looks painful. Good to see you again.’

‘You too. How are things?’

I had no idea what things I meant, but I was confident he’d be able to come up with some if he felt like it, given his newly discovered gift for communicating. Lo and behold, he did indeed find some things.

‘Great, thanks. I love the off-season, I can sleep in, eat shit, get pissed, and no one minds. At least not till I go back for pre-season and get a bollocking.’

‘Dec, you sweared in the house.’

‘Oh yeah.’

It only just seemed to have occurred to him. Beth’s rules obviously well-heeded then.

‘Hey, Cal, what have you got there, mate? Dinosaurs? Whoa, where did these come from?’

He plopped down onto the floor, where Cal was playing with the toys.

‘Uncle Matty went to Jurassic Park in America.’

‘Ha ha, not quite, that would have been great. I went to New York.’

Dec looked up. ‘Awesome. Cal, did you tell Uncle Matty about the new Dinosaurland that’s opening soon?’

‘No. Uncle Matty, there’s a going to be a Dinosaurland and Dec’s going to take me for my birthday and we’re going to buy a stegosaurus.’

‘Hey, Cal, that sounds great. I migh have to gatecrash your party.’

‘No, I don’t want a party, I’m going to Dinosaurland.’

Carrie’s advice about simplifying what I said when talking to Cal came floating back from the past.

‘Yeah, sorry, that’s what I meant. I meant I’d like to come too.’

‘No, it’s just for me and Dec.’

Dec shrugged apologetically.

‘What can I say? I’m prime six-year old birthday material.’

‘Congratulations.’

Carrie and Beth came back in with more drinks.

‘Oh Dec, you’re back. Did you get milk?’

Dec looked up from the dinosaurs.

‘No, was I supposed to?’

‘Oh honestly, I asked you when you went out this morning, you used it nearly all up on your huge bowl of cereal. Can you pop out and get some, sweetheart? I’ve just used the last in Matty’s tea.’

‘No worries.’

He jumped up from the floor in the way that only teenagers can, and left the room, the slam of the front door resounding afterwards in a familiar way.

‘Doesn’t leave the house any more quietly than he used to, then.’

‘No. Doesn’t listen any more closely than he used to either.’

I heard a car start in the drive, and looked out of the window to see a Mini Cooper reverse out and onto the road.

‘Bloody hell, is that his car?’

‘Matty, honestly.’

I chose not to spill the beans on Dec’s earlier far worse profanities, as it would sound suspiciously like churlishness.

‘Sorry. But is it?’

‘Yes. He got some money from a trust fund when he was eighteen, left by his parents, and he spent most of it on his car. He loves it, washes it every weekend, keeps it clean. It’s his pride and joy.’

‘He seems different than when we were here last.’

‘He’s a lovely boy, on the whole. He’s grown up a lot.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Nineteen.’

‘Think he’ll stay here?’

‘There aren’t any other plans at the moment. We have talked about if he wants to move out, how we could help him, but it’s all working at the moment, we’re quite happy, he’s quite happy, he’s much more responsible. He’s looking after the place when we go to Portugal next week.’

‘Not one for wild parties then?’

‘He’s been to a few in his time, but we’ve said not here, and we trust him when he says he won’t.’

‘Brave.’

‘I don’t think so.’

A very maternal look came over Beth’s face, one that told me I shouldn’t go on with my implied criticism of their golden boy, so I took the hint and dropped it.

Jay came in a while later and pretended to hate his ‘I heart NY’ t-shirt, but wore it all night, belying his protests. We ate dinner, chatting about nothing much, then watched one of Cal’s DVDs for a bit before he went to bed, Dec going up with him to read him a story before lights out.

‘He’s pretty good with Cal.’

‘They’re the best of friends.’

‘You’ve done a good job.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Hey, I had something to do with it.’

‘Yeah Jay, no one’s suggesting you didn’t. Both of you have been awesome.’

‘That’s better. Sometimes it feels like people only notice what Beth does around here.’

‘Isn’t that because Beth’s the only one who does anything?’

‘Piss off, Matty.’

That night, lying on the sofa bed in the conservatory, blinds closed, lights out, it felt a bit like we were in our own tent. We could hear noises from the garden, the breeze in the trees, an owl. I held Carrie close and murmured in her ear.

‘Are you OK? You’ve been quiet since we got here.’

‘Yeah. It’s just made me think, that’s all. It seems like such a long time ago we were last here.’

‘Well it’s a year and a half or so.’

‘Yeah, but so much has happened. It feels really different, doesn’t it? I mean, last time we were in the hotel, we could do what we wanted, this time it’s just a bit more … in your face maybe.’

‘Did Beth say something? When you were in the kitchen?’

‘No. Well, yeah, she did, but she only asked how I was doing without WO, wondered if she wanted me to put her in touch with her social worker friend. But if we’re staying here, it’s not going to be as relaxing, is it? I’ll never know when she’s going to ask me something personal. We won’t be able to be as … free as we were last time, either.’

‘I can talk to her, tell her to back off.’

‘Would she listen?’

‘Probably not.’

‘Then what’s the point?’

‘Well, we don’t have to beh here every minute, either. There are beaches to explore and hills to climb and restaurants to eat in. I’m sure Beth’s got a daily menu planned to the last carrot, but I’d quite like to put a spanner in her works and go off-piste a bit. Without them. Suit ourselves.’

Carrie seemed to perk up a little bit.

‘But we can’t go anywhere too fancy, can we.’

‘Why not? We’re on holiday. I’ve got holiday money, I’m more than happy to spend it on treating you than on jumbo boxes of fudge for the office on the way home.’

‘No.’

Carrie wriggled a little bit so there was more distance between us.

‘Are we still doing this, then, C? I’ve got money, I earn a good wage, but you won’t let me spend it. We don’t go out, we don’t go on holiday, we don’t buy nice stuff for the flat, we have to make do so you can afford it. It’s nonsense.’

‘It’s not nonsense. How can you say it’s nonsense? You know how important it is to me.’

‘Yeah, I do, believe me, I understand all your reasons. But do you understand that I would like to buy nice things for you, buy you presents, take you places, see you smile instead of seeing you worry. Sometimes I feel like I might as well get a job as a traffic warden for all the good being a manager at Eyeti does me. It’d be less stressful.’

‘Why don’t you then?’

‘What?’

‘Why do you stay there if it causes you so much stress? Those two weeks when you worked so hard, was it really worth it?’

‘Yeah, in the end it was, although it was shit at the time, and I know it was shit for you too. I stay there because I enjoy it. And it pays well. And they know I do a good job. It’s not just one thing.’

‘I’m just saying, if you think you’ve got too much money, maybe you need to do a job with less stress, maybe earn the same as me, so we can fit into our means a bit.’

‘Fit into our means? What’s that when it’s at home?’ I was about to call bullshit on her – it sounded like an excuse, although excusing what, I couldn’t work out.

‘We’ve got a smaller flat in a less fancy area, you’ve apparently got more money than you know what to do with, so why don’t you think smaller?’

I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Was she really so far up in cloud cuckoo land that she thought we’d survive if we were both earning the same as her?

‘You’re having a laugh. You don’t really want me to give up my job, do you? And do what? I’m not qualified to do anything else. And I don’t want to do anything else, previous comments about traffic wardens notwithstanding.’

‘I just don’t feel equal to you, that’s all. You’re always there to pick up the pieces with your credit card, we don’t have the same worries, the same fears as each other.’

‘Do you think things would be better if we both worried about how we were going to pay this month’s rent, or stressed about whether we should get value marge or posh buttery spread?’

‘I’m not saying it would be better, I’m saying it would be more equal. And now you’ve mentioned it, it doesn’t feel right when you do the shopping and you get all this fancy stuff, and when I do it just get the essentials, and then you go to the farm shop and get extra.’

I was bewildered at the size of this sudden gulf that seemed to have opened between us.

‘So, can I just be clear. You want me to get a job that pays much much less, so I can experience what it’s like to not have enough money to pay the rent. If I can’t manage that, you want me to never buy you anything, never pay for anything, never bail you out if you need it. And on top of all that, you want me to live on flour, milk and eggs and very little else, even though I do all the cooking, I love cooking, I know what makes a good ingredient and it isn’t ‘value’ crap.’

‘You make it sound unreasonable.’

I groaned with frustration.

‘C, it bloody well is unreasonable. You can’t ask that of me, ih’s not fair. I don’t know how to say this without rubbing your nose in it, but I earn more money than you, a lot more. I know how important your financial independence is to you, I never want to take that away from you. But I really don’t see how me making do with less is going to help us, I really don’t.’

‘So you won’t even consider any of it?’

I sighed. I wasn’t sure there was any of it I could seriously consider without laughing.

‘Well, there’s no way I’m giving up my job, let’s get that out of the way. I like buying you things, things that make you smile, but if you’re saying it makes you unhappy, maybe I can do it less often. And maybe I can cut back on the fancy food, and promise not to top up when you do the shopping. This is a seriously bizarre conversation to be having in my brother’s conservatory in the middle of the night. That’s the best I can offer.’

‘OK.’

‘Good. Let’s go to sleep.’

I turned on my side, away from Carrie, hurt and confused. I felt like I had made a huge compromise already when we took the flat, and lots more small compromises had added up – the sofa, the paint, not going out for meals so often – make that ever. None of it was important compared to being with Carrie, but it chipped away little by little at my happiness.

It was the first time since PCC 1.2.4 completed that I hadn’t hugged her and kissed her goodnight. I didn’t sleep for a long time, wondering if she was going to put her arm round me, or say something else. All of it was spinning round my mind. I didn’t know what was wrong with her, it felt like there was something, but maybe it was me, maybe I really was being insensitive and controlling. I slept fitfully all night, then, as is often the way, crashed into a deep slumber shortly before dawn.

7. Girl on fire

In which Matty and Carrie get reacquainted and we find out how they get on.

Matt

The next few weeks were sweet torture. Carrie and I saw each other several times a week, continuing our programme of graduated access to each other, me feeling a little like a teenager trying to get to first base.

By the end of the second week we had been to restaurants, the cinema, a play, a wine bar, a lido (where, yes, I’d hoped Carrie would wear the bikini from Devon, but she’d covered up with shorts and a vest top. Still had great legs though), tenpin bowling, Stafford Castle. We held hands everywhere, conveying zingy electric messages through the touch of our fingers, the rub of a thumb over a knuckle, skin on skin at the palms of our hands.

As I got into my car after saying goodbye at the castle (which didn’t feel right, leaving her to make her own way home, but there we had it), I heard her call my name. I got out of the car, and she was standing there, next to me, slightly breathless as if she’d been running.

‘Can we do the next bit? I can’t just say goodbye anymore.’

And she launched herself at me and into my arms, and the next half an hour was lost with her there, gripping me, face against my chest while I held her and smelt her hair and stroked her back and wanted more, so much more. The feel of her held tightly against me was going to have to last until the next time I saw her, so I stopped wanting what I couldn’t have and concentrated on feeling what I could.

Almost a week later, I picked her up from a car park in the town centre and we drove to a pub where a band I liked was playing. It fulfilled all the criteria of being a public place – noisy, lots of people – but the atmosphere was intimate, and people tended to mind their own business in a pub more than they did in some of the other places we’d been to. We got there early enough to claim a table in the corner and order some food, and we held hands and looked at each other as we chatted about nothing much. All the serious conversation was going on in the unsaid of our eyes.

Much as the waiting was driving me crazy, I had to admit that getting to know each other like this had been incredibly intense. We’d spent so much time talking, and exploring different things to do, which we would never have done if we’d spent the same amount of time involved in the sorts of activities I wanted to be involved in.

As Carrie told me more about her time in the refuge, I realised how damaged she’d been by her time with Martin, how much she covered it up with brashness, and how much she still relied on help from the WO to continue sorting herself out. It no longer seemed like an effort to do things her way, although there were times when my will-power was sorely tested, like this evening, when she looked so beautiful and was looking at me with those bright blue eyes, wondering what I was thinking.

‘I want to kiss you.’

‘What?’

‘That’s what I was thinking, C. You were wondering.’

‘Bloody hellfire, Matt, how do you know that?’

‘Could see it on your face, you’re an open book to me.’

‘Go on then.’

‘What?’

‘Kiss me.’

‘What?’

‘Thought you could read me like a book. You seem a little bit unclear about it right now.’

‘But … C, I’m not saying no, but here? I might not be able to stop if I start.’

‘You will. You’re not a machine on auto. You blokes all say that, that you won’t be able to stop, but you just have to … stop, don’t you. Because carrying on isn’t really an option here, is it?’

‘Er …’

I was a bit unsure what question I was supposed to be answering, all of my concentration having been scattered by the thought that I was going to kiss her, kiss my girl, at last.

‘So, anytime you’re ready.’

‘C …’

I leaned towards her and stroked her cheek, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and looked down into her eyes, which were sparkling mischievously up at me.

‘So that’s a yes, I take it.’

‘No, it’s a fuck yes. Stop talking now, you’re going to need your mouth for other things.’

I leaned down and showed her all the different gentle ways I could kiss her on the lips. I brushed lightly over her mouth with mine, barely touching her, and felt her shiver, as I also felt the hairs on my arm stand on end. I gently pressed my lips against hers – once at each corner and then in the middle. I nibbled, I licked, I sucked, I did it all with our mouths chastely closed, with one hand on her shoulder and one hand cupping her cheek. I could hear her little moans and sighs, so quiet that I was the only one close enough to hear them, which told me she wasn’t immune to my techniques, and so, emboldened, I pushed against her lips with my tongue and gave a little moan myself as they opened to let me in. I stayed gentle, exploring her tongue, teeth and lips, pushing her back with my tongue when she tried to be more forceful. I was going to prove, to us both, that I could control myself. Just as Carrie wrapped her arms around my neck to pull me deeper into her, I broke away and grinned at her.

‘You’re right. I can stop.’

‘You bastard.’

‘So it’s been said.’

‘You are the master. The Snogmaster. The Snogfather. That was one of, no, the most amazing kiss I’ve ever had.’

‘Thank you. I have to say, I quite enjoyed it myself. Oh look, here come the band. Pay attention now. The bass player used to be in Inspiral Carpets.’

‘Who?’

‘Oh C, you have a lot yet to learn from the Snogfather.’

I sat, a little smugly, holding Carrie’s hand, through the first set, enjoying the music, the atmosphere and the company of the beautiful woman sitting next to me. I got us drinks just before the band had a break, and at the start of the second set, I felt a tug on my hand. I leaned down so Carrie could yell loud enough in my ear that I could hear her over the music.

‘Do you want to go outside?’

I looked at her, not sure I’d understood.

‘Outside?’

Carrie nodded.

‘What for?’

‘Need another lesson.’

‘What?’

I was being particularly obtuse; maybe the loud music had scrambled my brain cells.

‘Want to kiss you again.’

‘Oh.’

I stood up so fast the table rocked and slopped beer and water across the table top. Ignoring this, I held my hand out to Carrie, grinning like a fool, and she took it. I pulled Carrie through the packed bar to the door, and looked for somewhere discreet, neither of us caring that we had just lost our table.

There was a beer garden, with a love-seat, and it was dark; everyone was inside watching the band. We made for the seat, but didn’t get as far as sitting down; Carrie pulled my arm when we were half way across the garden, and as I turned round, she wrapped her arms round my neck, and pulled my face down to hers, and we were gone, blown away, lost in each other, as our mouths rediscovered each other, lips whispered and kissed, tongues tasted, teeth nibbled.

I held her close, so close she felt like a part of me, and I felt myself swell as I wanted to be closer, as close as it was possible to be, and her body told me she wanted it too, but it wasn’t right, not here, even if no one was looking and no one interrupted us, this couldn’t be a frantic, thoughtless thing, not after all the care and detail we’d put into getting here slowly. So we kissed and kissed, and stroked, touched, caressed, feeling the longing, but letting it linger there between us, unassuaged.

Carrie shivered, and I pulled away from her, holding her a little apart from me.

‘Are you cold?’

‘A bit.’

‘Didn’t you bring a coat?’

‘No, I thought we were going to be inside all night. So did you.’

She was right, I hadn’t brought any extra clothing, knowing it was going to be hot and sweaty in the crowded pub on a late summer’s evening.

‘Do you want to go back in?’

‘No. I want to go home with you.’

My head was still spinning from the kissing, and I had to double check.

‘To my place? But …’

‘Yeah. To your place. To do this, at last.’

‘But …’

‘Yeah, you keep saying but, but I don’t hear a good reason why not.’

‘How about we only just passed the kissing and feeling each other up milestones, both in the same evening, and isn’t anything else somewhat ahead of schedule?’

‘Yeah, well, here’s what I think. This was about control, making sure I had it, and now I think we both get it, what it was all about, and the next step, it shouldn’t be about being controlled, it should be about being wild and happy, and it’s what I want, right now, and it feels right, so for this part of it all, please can we go to your place and please will you … can we be together?’

‘Yes.’

‘What?’

‘Yes.’

‘Bloody hellfire, is the world going to end tomorrow then?’

Now it was my turn to be confused.

‘What?’

‘You answered a direct question with a yes.’

‘I was saving time, but if you want me to prattle on –’

‘No, I want you to get your arse in your car and drive me to your place and shag me senseless, Matt. Got it?’

‘Got it.’

‘OK then. I’ve just got to send a text, so no one calls the police if I’m not back.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Seriously.’

The pub wasn’t far outside of Stafford, but it was across the other side of town from where I lived. I drove like a maniac trying to get back as quickly as possible, coordination and clear thinking further hampered by Carrie’s hand on my thigh for the entire journey. As we pulled up in my street, Carrie looked around at where we were.

‘Is this near that street where the Polish shop and that new juice bar are?’

‘Yeah, as well as several charity shops of distinction.’

Carrie started laughing.

‘What?’

I searched my last utterance, but could find nothing even unintentionally amusing.

‘I live this close.’

She held her thumb and forefinger together.

‘No fucking way.’

‘I go to the shop, all the time, for milk and stuff. We’re always running out.’

‘Me too. Why have I never seen you in there?’

‘You’re probably at work. I usually go in the morning, before my first class.’

‘How far away – oh, sorry, you don’t have to say.’

‘No, no, it’s fine. This is Jeffries Street, isn’t it?’

I nodded.

‘Which is your flat?’

I pointed it out.

‘I knew it would be one of the big posh houses. I’m in the next street. You can probably see the house from yours, let’s go and find out.’

‘Wait – are you saying all this time, we’ve been meeting up here, there and everywhere, you could have just come round and saved me a fortune in diesel?’

‘Well of course I could, but I didn’t know that then, and the rendezvous have been part of the fun, haven’t they?’

Carrie hopped out of the car and waited impatiently for me on the pavement. She ran up the road as soon as I’d locked the car and waited for me by the front door as I walked more slowly up the street, enjoying the sight of her jiggling on the spot in her haste to get inside.

‘Eager to get in my pants, Miss Mitcham?’

‘You bet, Mr Scott, as are you, despite all your playing it cool. But first I want to see if I can see my room from your flat. Come on, open the door. Ground floor? First floor?’

‘Top floor, loft conversion.’

‘Ohh, I know which one is yours then. There’s only one loft conversion on your side of the street. Race you up the stairs.’

Inconsiderate of any other tenants who might have had an early night, we thundered up the stairs, giggling, stopping frequently to kiss, tease, then chase each other again. By the time we reached my door, we were both out of breath, rosy-cheeked and pumped full of adrenaline, endorphins and pheromones – a chemical explosion waiting to happen.

Carrie stood with her back against my front door and looked up at me, chest heaving pleasingly, her gaze burning me. I rested a hand either side of her and bent down to taste her mouth again. She ducked under my arm and grabbed my keys from my pocket before I had time to realise what she was doing, and shook them at me. I grabbed her round the waist and pushed her back against the door, pushing my hands up beneath her shirt and moaning at the feel of her skin, which was so soft and warm. I felt her arms go round my neck as I bent my mouth to her lips, then nuzzled and nibbled my way round to her earlobes, down the side of her neck and downwards to the collar of her shirt, where glimpses of cleavage had been driving me wild all night. Carrie kissed my ear as I found my way inside her shirt with my tongue, and the electrifying tingle that shot to my already hard dick gave me a jolt of pure ecstasy.

‘Let’s go inside first, do this properly.’

Her soft whisper, millimeters away from my ear, sent another jolt down below, and it was all I could do to stay on my feet. Carrie shook the keys again and gave them to me so I could unlock the door.

Once inside, lamps lit, she wanted to explore the place, look out of the window, find her house, but it was dark, and she was never going to be able to see it. And we had other things to be doing.

‘C … are you trying to put me off?’

‘No.’

‘Well come here then. You can have the tour tomorrow, or later. I want you, so much.’

l held my hand out to her. She stood by the window, biting her bottom lip, irresolute.

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t know. I was just thinking, how funny, what if they can see me, then I thought I’m going to have to tell someone, explain all this –’

‘What? You have to report back on us?’

‘No, I don’t have to, but it’s all part of my therapy, the help I’m getting. Maybe I’ve let myself get caught up in things a bit tonight.’

I tried to swallow my disappointment, be there for her. It was difficult with a hard-on the size of the Blackpool Tower, but I tried.

‘OK, then, let’s just have a drink, watch some TV, go to bed. You can have the spare room if you like. I don’t, ever, want to make you do something you don’t want to do. I love you too much for that.’

Shit, bollocks, holy mother of all that was now completely fucked up. Carrie’s eyes went wide at the same time as I pushed my hand over my mouth in a futile attempt to stuff the words back inside.

‘What did you say?’

‘Can we just pretend I didn’t?’

‘How is that going to help?’

‘It will help me feel like less of an idiot.’

‘I can think of a better way to do that.’

And she walked over to me, pulled my face down to hers and kissed me with a passion that even overtook that of the last hour or two, and that was saying something.

‘Feeling less of an idiot?’

‘Er, yeah, but a little more confused. I thought it would be a bad thing to say it, that it would complicate things for you. I think maybe we’ve done enough off-roading around the rules for tonight, my head might explode.’

‘It’s never a bad thing to tell someone you love them, what girl doesn’t want to hear that from a handsome man? You are awesome, Matt. Thank you for understanding me. Did you mean it about your spare room?’

‘Regretfully, I did. Although I would understand if you now want to make the long journey home.’ I gestured out of the window. ‘There might be a gap in the fence you could crawl through or something, to reduce your journey time.’

‘No, I want to stay here. I might tear my tights on the fence. And I want you to cook me breakfast. You keep telling me what a great cook you are, and you’re so going to prove it tomorrow.’

‘I have never said I’m a great cook. I’ve said I enjoy cooking, and talked about meals I may have enjoyed preparing in the past –’

‘So you’re getting your excuses in early, are you?’

‘Oh you evil cow, is that a challenge, then? Stupendous breakfast tomorrow morning chez Scott or I’m a big fat liar?’

‘If you like.’

‘Just wait then, prepare to be stupefied.’

‘It’d had better be good now.’

‘You have no idea.’

Carrie walked over to the sofa and plonked herself down on it, her face showing approval at the softness of the cushions. She patted the seat next to her and I walked over and sat down, unsure now what to do with my arms. I risked putting one round her shoulder, reasoning that she would tell me if she didn’t want it there, in which case I would move it. She sighed and nestled into me, which made it worth the risk, as it presented the top of her head to me and enabled me to drop a kiss on her hair and pull her closer, so she put her arm round my middle and rested her head on my chest.

‘Sorry Matt. I feel like the worst kind of cock-tease.’

‘Well if that’s what you were doing, then you are. But you didn’t do it on purpose, so it’s OK. My cock will understand, in a while, although it may not speak to me for a few days, until I apologise and buy it flowers.’

‘Ha ha, I love the way you never just say ‘that’s OK’, or ‘don’t worry about it’, you always come out with some long string of nonsense that says the same thing but takes about an hour more.’

‘I like that you love something about me.’

‘I’m not saying it back, not yet, not just because you said it.’

‘OK. Sounds … reasonable.’

‘When I say it, and let’s be clear, I will one day, it will be because I want to and I truly feel it.’

I could almost see tiny sparks coming from her eyes, and wasn’t quite sure where all the fire was coming from. I’d been stupid to let her know how I felt, and had no expectations that she would say it back.

‘OK. I’m just a little bit scared of you right now. I wasn’t trying to make you say it back, I was hoping we could just ignore it a little bit, like it’s not such a big deal.’

‘Martin used to make me say it to him.’

‘What? How?’

We hadn’t talked much about Martin, about her life with him. It was one of those things where I wanted to know, but knowing made my blood boil with a need for vengeance, and Carrie seemed uncomfortable talking about it, so we didn’t, really.

‘Sometimes he’d just go on and on, until I said it. All day and night, waking me up in the early hours. Sometimes I tried not to because maybe by the end I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t want to lie, but he’d just keep asking, saying it to me over and over, until he was yelling it in my face. Sometimes he’d tell me I couldn’t possibly love him because otherwise I wouldn’t have, I don’t know, looked at that bloke on the telly like that, or taken the last bit of milk, or something equally stupid, and it would start again, with him telling me I didn’t love him, until I just said I did to stop it. God Matt, I really don’t want to talk about him. I don’t want him here in this room with us.’

I pulled her close and kissed her hair, and realised completely why telling me she loved me, if she ever did, had to be something that she did in her own time, in her own way and under her control. And I resolved never to let those three little words out of my mouth again, until she’d told me first.

We sat not speaking for a while after that. I reached for the remote control on the iPod dock, turned some music on, and the soft tones of my ‘After Dark’ playlist filled the silence. I looked down at Carrie after a few minutes, and her eyes were closed. I stroked her hair back from her face and said her name, but she didn’t stir, and I sat there, happy, while she slept, her arm round me and her head on my chest.

I woke up with my head lolling back against the sofa, my arms empty, the room silent. It was after three in the morning. Had Carrie gone home? I got up, ran my hands through my hair to try to dispel the post-sleep disorientation that usually fogged my brain, and went to the door of the spare room, which was closed. I opened it as quietly as I could and peeked in, feeling a wash of relief as I saw the top of a blonde head on the pillow. I resisted the strong urge to go over and kiss her awake, and took myself off to my own room. I took my clothes off, put on my sleeping shirt and shorts, and lay down, but sleep evaded me. All of the parts of my body that had earlier been flooded with hormones, awaiting some jiggy action, seemed not to have got the message that there would be no jiggying tonight, hence their services were not required. I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling and tried not to think about the woman sleeping next door, and how much I’d wanted to curl up beside her, pull her towards me and – but I was trying not to think about it. Sometime near dawn, I must have fallen asleep.

It was light when I opened my eyes. Very light. The sun was shining through my pale blue curtains, insisting that it was late, and I should be out there enjoying its golden beams, not wasting the morning snoozing. I hated the sun telling me what to do, the interfering bastard, so I tried to close my eyes again, but my attention was taken by a hand on my stomach. A hand that didn’t belong to me. I reviewed the latest information from my sense of touch, which told me that as well as a hand on my stomach, there was a fair amount of someone else’s body touching a fair amount of mine, pretty close behind me, as well as the arm belonging to the hand, draped over my waist.

I smiled, fatuously, and stretched, happily, and put my hand over the one on my stomach, before turning over to find Carrie, looking at me with her bright blue eyes, a crooked smile on her mouth.

‘Hey gorgeous.’

‘Hey. So, if I don’t get my stupendous breakfast in ten minutes, you’re a big fat liar.’

‘Bollocks, I forgot. Why have I only got ten minutes?’

‘Because it’s ten to twelve, and twelve is when morning officially ends.’

‘Can I get an extension? I’d really, really rather explore what you’re doing here in my bed.’

‘There’ll be time for exploring later.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. I need some breakfast. I’ve been up since eight o’clock, which is pretty late for me. I’ve done my stretches and meditation, I’ve tried to read some of your hard sums books, I’ve watched some drivel on the telly, and I’ve finally watched you snore for half an hour –’

‘I do not snore.’

‘– and now I’m hungry and bored, and I need some breakfast in the next nine minutes, or I’m running up and down this street calling you a big fat liar.’

‘Right then.’

I jumped out of bed, possibly more quickly than I ever had before. I put the kettle on in the kitchen, I found eggs, butter and ham in the fridge, and put bread in the toaster. I poured boiling water into a pan and proceeded to kick the arse out of breakfast in six and a half minutes, clad only in my boxer shorts.

Carrie sat at the small table, watching me, but I refused to let her distract me. In a brief respite from stirring and watching, I poured a glass of orange juice, held the carton up to her, but she shook her head, so I held up a bottle of water, which got a nod and took them over to the table with cutlery.

I assembled two plates of stupendous breakfast in just over six and a half minutes, and delivered them to the table as the clock on the DVD turned from 11.59 to 12.00. Carrie looked at me with a gratifyingly impressed, and I would like to think amazed, look on her face. I noticed she was wearing one of my t-shirts, and a pair of my boxers, and she looked a hell of a lot sexier in them than I did.

I sat down opposite Carrie, waiting for her to start eating. She picked up her knife and fork.

‘What is this?’

‘Eggs Benedict.’

‘Won’t Benedict want them back?’

‘He’s willing to sacrifice them for your amazement. Eat up before it gets cold.’

I still hadn’t picked up my knife and fork; I wanted to see what her face said when she tasted it; I was nothing if not a needy cook. Carrie cut a bite of egg, ham and toast smothered in sauce and put it in her mouth. I watched in fascination as her eyes grew round and she looked at me, speaking with her mouth full.

‘Bloohy hehfigh Mah.’ She swallowed. ‘This is out of this world. You’re not a chef, are you?’

‘Nope, IT nerd. But thanks.’

And with that, I picked up my knife and fork and tucked in too. To be brutally honest, it wasn’t my best work, but with the limited time and pressure to perform, I thought I hadn’t done a bad job. Carrie didn’t speak until she’d finished, then pushed her plate away from her and leaned back in her chair.

‘That was totally stupendous. I thought you were just going to pour me a bowl of posh muesli or something, but … wow.’

‘So I’m safe from you running up and down the street calling me a big fat liar, then?’

‘Well, alright, although I was looking forward to that a lot. I’m too full now, though. That’ll have to do me for lunch as well. I don’t usually have much for breakfast, maybe an apple, but I think you might have converted me. Breakfast is my new official favourite meal of the day.’

I finished my eggs too, and picked our plates up, storing everything in the dishwasher and starting to fill the bowl for the pans.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Washing up.’

‘What now?’

‘Well, I hate washing up.’

‘Hm, and this is supposed to make sense in some weird way, is it?’

‘Well, yeah. Most stuff goes in the dishwasher, but anything that needs doing I do right away so I can’t see it looking at me from across the room when I’m watching TV. It’s one of the disadvantages of having a kitchen/lounge/diner.’

‘You’re weird. I hate washing up too, so I just leave it for days until I have no choice.’

‘Really? Days? How can you stand it?’

‘Don’t think about it. Easy. Why are we talking about washing up?’

‘You started it.’

‘I asked why you were doing it. I thought we might have better things to do.’

I looked round at her. She was playing with the hem of her – my – t-shirt and looking back at me through her eyelashes.

‘But last night you said –’

‘I know what I said. But you were so cool about it, and I’ve been thinking, properly thinking all morning, while you were snoring your head off –’

‘I don’t snore.’

‘– and I just want to be with you properly, like I wanted it last night, really, but freaked out a bit. I’m sorry I’m changing my mind every five minutes, it must be really annoying.’

‘As long as you eventually change it to coming to bed with me, right now, I completely forgive you.’

‘What, in your Marigolds?’

‘If that’s your thing.’

‘Not my thing.’

‘Then consider them gone.’

I pulled the rubber gloves off and tossed them over my shoulder, then pulled her up from her chair and tugged her with me to my bedroom.

To say that good sex was had by all would be an understatement. To say that great sex was had by all – ditto. Even to insinuate that only mind-blowingly hot sex and multiple orgasms were achieved several times by all participants would be a gross misrepresentation of the far more universe-shattering truth behind it all, but it would be fair to say that all participants were more than happy with the end results, which were all participants lying, unable to move, panting, big smiles on their faces, looking at each other in wonder and amazement, in the middle of the bed, with bedclothes and undergarments scattered around them.

*

And so it began, PCC 1.2.4. We’d got there, back to where we were in Devon, no more sex rules, no more worrying about how to touch, whether to kiss, wanting this, not allowed that. It was all there, all available, and it was truly worth waiting for.

There were other things that Carrie was still working on with the support of the WO, that she would continue to need their support with for some time. She stayed in the house at the back of mine for the time being; it was something she needed to do, and I had learned that delayed gratification could be better than instant gratification where Carrie and our relationship were concerned.

Carrie’s jobs helped her feel independent, and so did being able to afford where she lived. If she moved in with me, she couldn’t afford half the rent on the flat, although I told her that I was happy paying it all, and it stopped her from making that step, being scared of entering another relationship where she was reliant on someone else for a roof over her head. I could see her point and understand her fears. It wasn’t like she lived miles away, and she stayed over all the time anyway, so it was almost as if she lived there.

I took her to meet my mum, finally, after lots of nagging from both of them. They seemed to like each other, but I didn’t get them both together very often as Carrie seemed reluctant after the first visit. I finally asked Carrie about her own mum, as it was someone she never talked about, although I knew she lived in Stafford somewhere.

‘She’s gone, now.’

‘Gone … you mean, dead?’

‘For all I know, but that’s not what I meant. I meant, when I went into the shelter, one of the things was trying to sort out what the pressure points were in my life. My mum’s a drunk, but she’s never stuck with any treatment, any programme, she’ll do it for a few months, then something clicks and she’s back on the booze. She’d rather buy rotgut vodka than pay her electricity bill, so she was always asking for money, and I did my best, but I didn’t have much, and it frustrated the hell out of me that she wouldn’t stick with the help she got. Then when I met Martin he kind of took over, used to deal with her phone calls, sometimes he’d tell her where to go, sometimes he’d go and pay her bills, I don’t know why he did it, maybe so I’d have to stay with him. But it was a weight off my mind, and I didn’t think about it too much. But anyway, when I started looking at pressure points, my mum was one of them. Without Martin, I didn’t have the money to help her out when she asked for it, and while I was in the shelter I couldn’t check up on her, and she’s a mean bitch and I kind of hate her, even though she’s my mum, so one of the things they helped me do was refer her to a drugs and alcohol team once and for all, tell them I was not in a position to offer her any support for the foreseeable future, and leave it to them and her to deal with.’

‘Holy shit, C.’

‘Does it sound harsh?’

I couldn’t imagine ever leaving my mum to fend for herself, whatever she’d done, but I also couldn’t imagine her doing anything that would make me want to.

‘Yeah, a bit.’

‘Maybe you’ve never had to think about it with your mum, but a part of me was relieved that I wouldn’t have to do it anymore, all the effort for so little reward. She never hugged me, never once told me she loved me, that I can remember, my whole life. Once my Dad sodded off to wherever, she turned to me to meet her needs, but she wouldn’t have noticed me otherwise.’

‘C, I never realised. It sounds grim.’

‘It was grim. I’ve done it now, I’m free of her, I can’t think about it any other way. I’m not going to look her up, or think about her if I can help it. She had her chances, I’ve given her too many, and she blew them all.’

It took me a while to assimilate that, how coldly she’d been able to cut her mother out of her life. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for her, but I still couldn’t see myself doing it.

But both of us were constantly reassessing each other in the light of things we found out about each other, and we changed and grew in each other’s eyes. Our life, separate but together, became normal for us and before I knew it, nearly a year had passed. Bloody hell, I’d been in a relationship for over a year, and still wasn’t showing any signs of expiring by overdosing on commitment.

We’d made some good friends, some of them women Carrie had known from the shelter and their partners, some of them friends of mine who hadn’t been too happy to introduce excellent no-strings lay Matt to their wives and girlfriends, but seemed more at ease with obviously besotted Matt and his lovely girlfriend Carrie. We carved a life for ourselves, in this town, and for the first time since I realised I was going to have to stay to keep an eye on Mum, I was truly happy I had.

*

I was in the kitchen, making tea, waiting for Carrie to come round after one of her evening classes, when I heard the key in the door. Although Carrie didn’t live there, she had her own key, and knew she was always, always welcome. I turned to greet her, the words dying on my lips as I saw her expression, her pale face, eyes big and haunted. I was by her side before she could close the door.

‘What? What’s happened?’

‘They’ve pulled the funding for Women’s Org Stafford.’

‘Who have?’

‘Oh I don’t know, the government, someone. They’re closing the house and the drop-in centre, the safe-houses are going. I’m going to lose my jobs.’

‘Holy shit, that’s beyond terrible.’

I pulled her to me and held her. I felt her trembling, and I wrapped her up in my arms to try and make her feel safe.

‘What am I going to do without them, Matt?’

‘You’ll be OK. You’re so strong now, you’re more help to them than they are to you.’

‘Where am I going to work?’

‘There’ll be other places that need yoga and massage. Don’t worry about it tonight, we’ll have a look tomorrow, have a think, see what we can come up with.’

It was the way I did things – strategise, plan, plan B, plan C. Carrie was different, more chaotic. When people gave her solutions, she tore them apart and said why it would never work; she needed answers before she started; she catastrophised; she panicked.

Carrie disentangled herself from me and walked over to the sofa. I went to the hob to stir a saucepan that was in danger of bubbling over.

‘I can’t wait until tomorrow. I barely held it together at the school tonight, I can’t do another class with this over my head.’

‘Call in sick tomorrow then, if you can’t cope with the classes. I’ll take the day off too, we’ll sort it out.’

‘I can’t do that, it’ll be obvious.’

‘What, that a huge blow like this has affected your ability to do your job, which you might not have much longer? Yeah, that’ll be obvious, but also completely understandable.’

‘I can’t.’

Once she said no, there was no persuading her, so I didn’t bother arguing and changed tack.

‘Is there someone you can call? Talk about it, what your options are?’

‘There are no options. There is no money, that’s it. Gone.’

And here we were, where we often ended up, going round in circles. I tried to think of someone else she could call, someone not connected with the organisation, who might have a chance of talking her down, but couldn’t come up with anyone she would be open with. Then I thought of …

‘Beth. Call Beth.’

I could hardly believe I was suggesting it, I was opening us both up for a world of interfering sister-in-lawing, but Beth had said a long time ago she had a friend for every occasion, or some such shit, and although we hadn’t been down to see them since that week in Devon, I knew she would come through in some way, if she could.

‘No, I’m not calling your brother’s busybody wife, who I haven’t seen for over a year, to tell her I’ve just lost everything.’

‘Beth’s not a busybody.’

Oh she so was a busybody, but admitting that wasn’t helping my cause.

‘She’d love to help you if she can. She’s great at listening.’

‘Yeah, when she’s not talking. Don’t you remember how much she went on when we were there?’

‘Er, I remember her helping you get in touch with WO and by default getting you the help you needed.’

And yeah, I remembered her going on, but that also wasn’t helping my cause.

‘And look where it’s got me. I might as well not have bothered, I’m worse off than before, at least I didn’t know how things could be before.’

‘But C, I know I might be at risk of blowing my own trumpet here, but WO surely isn’t the only important thing in your life? What about me? You’ve got me, you’ll always have me. So they close the house – live here. Don’t pay rent until you can afford it. I’ll ask at work, a couple of people there would be interested in a yoga class, I can –’

‘Don’t you dare try to take over. That’s just what he did.’

She was looking at me as if she’d just found a slug on her lettuce.

‘What?’

‘I won’t live with someone who thinks they can keep hold of me by paying for everything.’

‘What the fuck? You know that’s not what I said. C, sometime you’re just going to have to accept an offer of help from me as what it is, no ulterior motive, just because, fuck it, I’m going to say it, because I love you.’

It had been a year, and I was still waiting to hear her say it, but this felt like time to remind her that I could do things, did do things for her, not just for me. Maybe a small part of me wanted to remind her that she’d once said she would say it to me one day.

‘I know you want to be independent, and you are, you’ve shown everyone you can be, and I’m so proud of you for getting there. But independent doesn’t mean doing absolutely every sodding thing on your own. Everyone needs other people sometimes. Like …’

I searched my memory for something from my life I could compare to this. Not much sprang to mind until I remembered my old flat.

‘… when my door got kicked down in my old place. If I was completely independent, not needing anyone, I would have slept in the corridor, wouldn’t I, or spent a miserable month in the Travelodge, but I went to my mum’s, because I knew it would make me feel better and she’d want to help. I needed her. It’s OK to need people, it’s perfectly OK, everyone needs people sometimes, it makes us feel good too.’

Carrie was quiet, then, curled up on the sofa, TV remote in her hand, flicking through the channels, lost in her own world while I finished making tea. She didn’t speak until we’d nearly finished eating.

‘Don’t you think Beth would be a bit sniffy if I just called her out of the blue and asked for help?’

‘I can’t imagine Beth ever being sniffy. Give her a go.’

She nodded, but didn’t say anything else until I was clearing away the plates.

‘If I moved in with you …’

She had really been doing some thinking while she was flicking through cartoons and infomercials.

‘Yeah?’

‘Would it have to be here?

‘Well, no, I suppose not. Don’t you like it here?’

‘Yeah, I do, but it’s yours. I’d feel better if it was ours. Maybe something a bit cheaper, so I could at least pay as much as I can afford.’

‘OK. Plan.’

‘I don’t know when the house is going, it might not be for a while yet. I’d like to stay there as long as possible.’

‘Of course, it gives us longer to look for somewhere.’

‘Matt …’

‘Mm?’

‘I’m sorry I said, you know, about wanting to keep me here by paying for things. I was in a state. It wasn’t very nice of me.’

‘It’s OK. I understand, you bloody irritating lady.’

‘Dinner was awesome.’

‘Thank you. And for dessert …’

This was my big surprise, I’d been anticipating it all day, but the last hour had, I’d thought, scotched it for now.

‘Oh, no, I couldn’t eat anything else. I might just have a bath and go to bed.’

‘Did I say it was food? Just wait two seconds to have your bath.’

I went to the fridge, took out a plate with a silver coloured cover over it, and deposited it on the table in front of her.

‘I thought it wasn’t food.’

I exaggerated an exasperated sigh and stood with a hand on my hip.

‘Lift the lid.’

She did as she was told, which was a minor miracle, and looked puzzled at the envelope lying on the plate. She picked it up, opened it and her mouth fell open as she saw the plane tickets and hotel reservation.

‘New York? Really? When did you do this?’

Then her face fell.

‘I can’t afford it.’

‘You don’t have to – no, don’t get your knickers in a twist again. Listen. This is a thank you from a client, a big rich client who thinks I did a good enough job for him that I deserve to take my beautiful girlfriend to New York for Christmas –’

‘Christmas?’

‘Yeah, didn’t you see the dates? Seven days, from the twenty first of December.’

‘Oh Matt!’

Her eyes were shining and for a little while all of the bad was chased from her mind.

‘Really, someone gave you this?’

‘Yep, and spending money too.’

That was a little white lie, but I knew she would insist on going halves if I didn’t say it. It didn’t seem particularly evil of me, and it was making her smile, so it must have been a good thing to do.

Every day for the next week, I silently thanked Mr Sato for his generosity; without Christmas to look forward to, I don’t know how Carrie would have got through the next couple of months, as the WO slowly dismantled around her, tearing her carefully built life apart.

I tried to show her that I could be as big a part of her life, could keep her as safe, if in different ways, but I was treading a fine line, I felt, between caring and smothering, and didn’t want to be accused again of being like Martin. It made me realise that there was still some distance between us, some space, a gap, a need, that I couldn’t yet fill. She still held back, still didn’t say she loved me. I accepted it, held her, loved her and helped her plan for our future without WO.